Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Camera Angles

Of late, I have been working my way through the series, Agents of Shield.  I like the actor Clark Gregg, who plays Phil Coulson . . . I have liked him since he used to turn up occasionally on The West Wing, when he played pretty near the same character.  I don't care about that.  I like the character.

I'm not liking the show, however.  It suffers from being on television.  And by that I mean, it has phrases and exposition and characterization that exist only so the really stupid people watching won't change the channel.  Example?  Some scientist on the show spits out a bunch of nonsense technical speak, and the inserted dumb character on the show says, "Um, High School drop out here."  I swear, that's an actual quote.  It's supposed to be funny, but it really just says, "There are a lot of high school drop-outs watching without any I.Q., including the producer, who is the son of a network executive, who has final approval of the show, so could we please dumb this down for a significant portion of our audience?"

Result?  About 10% of the show's dialogue is stated twice.  Once for the smart people, and once for the stupid people.  This is why I don't like television.

Film seems to be divided much more clearly between audiences.  A film is either made by morons, or made exclusively for morons, and thus it can be avoided easily.  Certain directors and actors can be found only in moron-made films, like a big sign that says, "Don't see this if you have a brain."

Alternately, there are films that clearly don't give a crap if dumb people watch.  Sadly, there aren't enough of them, and every now and then a smart director will go right up their own asshole.  So we can never be sure.

This all has something to say about players.  The DM presents the game for the players, and so the DM is in the same position as television and film.  Some of the players are smarter than others.  Some of the players aren't able to communicate as easily.  They find it difficult to focus their attention on a person's words.  What do we do about this?

Television has long taken the attitude that shows must be reduced to the lowest common denominator, there aren't very many smart people anyway, and our biggest sponsors are those who sell to lower class, non-professional, ignorant consumers.  So write off smart people and keep it simple, stupid.

Film has approached it more like a DM would if that DM were to say, "You're too stupid for this campaign, get out."  Or, "You're too serious about this campaign, get out."  Having observed the players, and having decided what the game shall focus on, the players who don't fit the mold are pushed out of the group by a variety of peer pressures.

But this is what we do with our friendships, isn't it.  Jim doesn't like drinking at the bar?  Fuck Jim.  Marie doesn't like rafting?  Fuck Mary.  And so on.

The main problem with this is that Joe pretends to like drinking at the bar, and Marie pretends to like rafting, because if they don't pretend, they're going to spend that day alone.  And no one likes to be alone.  Being alone is worse than rafting or heavy drinking.  And after a lifetime, both Jim and Marie have gotten good at pretending to smile and nod their heads and go through the motions, and making up excuses for why they're not smiling like, "Oh, things have been bad at work lately."  Or, "I'm worried about my . . ." (insert family member, pet or material value here).

Because humans are like this, the usual result is six people on rafts drifting along a slow river and getting sunburns because ONE person really likes rafting, and knows how to manipulate the others.  And each person who doesn't like it thinks they're the only one who doesn't, so that they spend the whole day being miserable and pretending with one another, never realizing that there's a consensus here they'll never identify.

The reader, I hope, sees the problem.

If you are the DM of the group, YOU are the person that really likes rafting.  You love your world.  And you have a lot of players who really want to role-play.  Your world is what they have.  They see others enjoying your world - or appearing to enjoy your world - so they cram down their own displeasure and keep playing.

Some of the people in your world probably like your world.  Some, however, probably don't.  And here's the thing - you won't be able to tell the difference.

Let me pull this back to film again.  I've seen a lot of bad art films, awful, boring, pretentious art films, but there is something that's always true about them.  People LOVE them.  I've never been clear why.  The people themselves never seem very deep.  Many of them are vaguely artistic, but like people with their own table at a Comix Expo, they don't get formal training and they don't seem concerned about technique. Where discussing the film, they speak in vague, generalized terms, like the 'acting' or the 'presentation' or 'camera angles' and the like - things that are wholly subjective.  Why one camera angle is crazily superior to another is often lost on me - not always, but often.  The shot across Anne Bancroft's legs at a tiny Dustin Hoffman makes perfect sense:

Remember, this is the woman who married Mel Brooks,
and gave birth to the author of World War Z

The shot is obviously about lust, impotence, youth and so on.  Ben in the film is a little boy.  During the scene above, Ben has already slept with Mrs. Robinson several times, and he's trying to relate intellectually with her.  He can't, of course, because she's smarter than he is, she's in control, she knows the effect of her sexuality and he's completely hopeless.  That is why this particular shot is famous and easy to find.

Most clever camera angles, however, are really just camera angles.  They barely do a good job of showing what's going on.  But hell, do faux film lovers love them!

Okay, I'm off topic.  I'm going up my own asshole.  I'll get this back in line.

The thing about 'smart' art films, and the lovers of art films, is that they are about pretension.  Not the pretence of liking film, but the pretence of liking film that is too 'smart' for stupid people.  Oh, it was boring? That is because you're stupid.  Oh, it seemed to lack a plot?  You only thought that because you're stupid. And so on.

If you will look around at the Internet, you'll see the same attitude used to defend a lot of worlds.  You think story arcs are railroading?  That's because you're stupid.  You think a DM shouldn't fudge the dice?  That's because you're stupid.  And so on.

The final pitch I am making here is for honesty.  Television and movies that are clearly made for stupid people is at least honest.  Television that wants to be made for smart people, but doesn't want to leave the dumb people behind, is effectively dishonest.  Art films that are deliberately made to be irrational, so that a host of pretentious people can claim the importance of camera angles, are fundamentally dishonest.  And thinking that everyone at your table loves your world, because they appear and play every week  . . . that is your version of camera angles.  You're only seeing what you want to see.

Hm.  That sounded like a much better conclusion when I started out this post than it does now.

I don't want to be dishonest.  That really sucked.  Sometimes, you start off with the best of intentions, but it just goes . . . nowhere.

Okay.  Not enjoying Agents of Shield.  Watching it for the actor.  Working on a section about getting to understand your players and the importance of engaging them in your game.  Getting some of my thoughts onto the blog.  Take it for what it was worth.  I'll have something better tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Down, One Big One to Go

Last night I wrapped up the work for the short book, How to Play & Other Essays on Gaming.  It has gone to the copyreader.  When it comes back, I'll publish the book.  I expect it to be available a week this Saturday, the 10th of May.

I'm sorry I can't give a price yet - I'll have to lay out the book first.  The printing cost will hurt a bit, and I hope to make personally $5 a book.  I trust that won't hurt the reader's sensibilities too much.  The book is about 110 pages, or 24,000 words, and contains roughly about 30% new content . . . and the old content is better written.

I'll be getting back to the grind of the original book today, now working on the 3rd Draft.  I need to keep a steady pace of about 12,000 words a week, or perhaps a shade better than that, and this is starting to overwhelm my copy-reader.  She's a close friend, a D&D player, with an education in psychology and criminal science (I think that's accurate) and she has a sharp eye.  Still, her and I will probably miss something.  That's how it goes.  I don't have the resources to pay five people to comb through the book - and in any case, I mostly find errors in books published by big houses anyway.  I'd like to pay my reader more, but I'm doing what I can.

If someone wants to pick up a couple thousand words here or there, and give my reader some air, let me know.  I can pay you through pay-pal, but it won't be much . . . just half a cent a word.  Feel free to shrug and laugh; I'm writing 90,000 words and even at half a cent that's a lot of money.  Plus what I will owe already for the short book.  Do the math.

Not sure what else I can say.  One of my earlier excerpts from the book was picked up by this thread, where the initiator says he/she was inspired.  I love that.  I want to inspire people.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Little Visions

Give the automatic car a moment of thought.

I went on-line looking for the picture that the interior of the car ought to be, and couldn't find it.  All the photos I could find had the passengers sitting in the car exactly like they do now.

The car is automatic.  It drives itself.  You sit in the car, you lay back, you go to sleep, there's a ding, and you're at your destination.  Believe me, when someone finally engineers the computer that correctly drives this car, it will react faster than you can, and in an accident it will protect you faster and better than anything you can do for yourself.  If an automatic car you're in gets into an accident, you'll want to close your eyes and feel the bubble wrap encase you and keep you alive.  And it will be better able to do that because you will not be facing forward; you will be facing the center of the car.

All four seats will be.  Which means that you'll get into the car with your three friends and chat the way you would in your living room.

Which means when you get together to play D&D, you'll get into your car, you'll organize your game while it picks up the first player.  Then you'll cover some details with him while it picks up your second player, then while it picks up your third player.  Then you'll play while the car drives to a great restaurant three counties over for the next hour and a half.  You'll get out, you'll have a quick, light meal, and then you'll play D&D as the car drives you back home.  And that is going to be how you run your game 25 years from now.

And if you have more than three players, they'll be in another car behind you, connected on a private channel linked between the two cars.  If the party gets divided, you'll all pull over to the side of the road, the non-running party will get into the back car, and chat, and drink - because everyone can get drunk if they want, it's an automatic car - waiting while you deal with the front group.  Then you'll switch cars.  And everything about your world that was a finger touch away on the computer of the first car will be a finger touch away in the second car too, because it's all linked to your phone/personal computer anyway.

None of us will care that we are travelling. Covering distance won't be work, it will be time, and a little cost, and we spend that same time anyway.

Won't it be convenient when we won't have to spend it forcing ourselves to focus on something we've already seen everyday, afraid that if we don't, a moment of distraction will kill us or someone else.

Reflections on an Expo

Yesterday, I attended the Calgary Comix Expo.  No, I did not see Signourney.  I did see R.L. Stine.  I did not say hello, though I could have.  I was early, there was no one at his table and he was chatting with another writer whose name I didn't know.

I have not been to a fa-boy Expo in many years.  There have been some changes.  The cosplay is impressive to those people impressed by cosplay (not me, but that's not important).  There used to be a lot of arrogance at these things, a sort of we-are-the-table-masters sort of vibe, where the important people were those who hosted the tables and the visitors were expected to genuflect before speaking.  That's gone, and I think its gone because the cosplayers are the ones in control now.  And they're friendly.  They want you to get your picture taken with them (no, I have no pictures) and they want to be praised . . . so, overall, the atmosphere is much friendlier than my recollections.

The tables, and the displays, have become a sad cavalcade of mediocrity, productive after-thinking and neediness, powdered with depression and boredom.  It was possible to stand in one spot and see four or five solitary figures behind their tables, faces slack, eyes glassy, lost in their thoughts.  All one needed to do was pause at a table and meet the vendor's eyes to see a sick kind of gratefulness steal over their faces, which washed away the moment one moved on.  It isn't as though I did this intentionally; it was impossible to walk through the displays to see what was there, without occasionally catching the displayer's eye - making it hard to endure that disappointment over and over again as the time progressed.  There was little upon their tables to interest me.

On several occasions my partner Tamara and I stood against the wall where we could survey as much of the room as possible, to see what would appeal from a distance and thus compel us to be interested.  There was very little.  The signs and banners people posted were too small; many of them were pinned to the table skirts, where they were hidden by people's legs or bodies, rather than high up where they could be seen easily.  I was astounded by how little the vendors employed the verticality of their spaces - though it was clear from those few that did that this was an option.  Throughout, many of the vendors created displays two or three feet high that sat on top of the tables - obscuring the vendors themselves, so that they seemed like defenders behind fortresses designed to keep people out.

Perhaps, after I do this myself, setting out to sell my own book, I will hire out an expensive consultant to teach people how to market their wares in a public setting.  Much of what I saw was simply appalling.

The best display is the seller.  The seller's open, pleasing countenance, the sense of wishing to meet others, the encouragement of visitors themselves who want to talk and express themselves.  I could estimate there was easily twenty, thirty million dollars on the floor in the hands of the visitors flowing past the booths, like casting a line into a school of fish.

Once, when I was a boy about nine, I went fishing on a creek near Crimson Lake, west of Caroline Alberta, a river I wouldn't know where to find now.  On the river was a little twenty five foot waterfall, just a splatter of water dropping over a ledge from a watercourse that was ten-feet wide, that had made a deep hole at its base that was about 30 feet wide.  There were four of us who set to fish that hole, my father, my brother and I, and a friend of my father's named Jim Smith. That day, I had one of the best fishing memories I've ever had, as that hole was full of rainbow trout.  It only took three or four casts to hook one, so we caught and released for a couple hours, keeping six that over a pound for breakfast the next day, and about fifty more between the four of us we didn't keep.  Perhaps we caught fish we had caught before.

To me, that's what a convention would be like.

It was clear, however, that many of the vendors - particularly the artists - were painfully short of talent; the lack of any training was evident.  People displayed art on simple foolscap paper.  I talked to one such fellow, who claimed that this was his fifth expo; and it became clear after talking to him and his partner, affable as they were, that the table price was an excuse to be at the expo all weekend, and in order to have a chair to which they could return between sightseeing.  The 'art' was an excuse.  The artist wasn't serious about it at all.

I felt a boost of confidence from this.  I felt comfortable talking with the people, discussing their set-ups and motivations, and took an opportunity to sit with a friend behind one of the tables and pitch a little to the visitors on her behalf.  I have no doubt I will control the space in Toronto.  I have a dominant personality, a very friendly one when I wish to suppress my politics or my beliefs, and I have long known how to perform. Things should be very good come August.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Two in the Back of the Head

I think we worry too much about being entertaining.

If there is ever going to be a concerted effort in furthering the role-playing game's potential, then entertainment, and the need to provide entertainment, will have to sit on the back burner for a while.  Not that being entertaining isn't interesting or helpful in coordinating your players and your world, but that alone is not going to advance your game.

The issue continues to be, however, where do we go?  If this were fishing, and we were going to discuss how we would be better fishermen, then we could quickly realize our path.  We need to be better with the equipment.  We need to improve our technique. If we're not going to scare away all the fish while casting or jigging, then we should be more reserved, we should shout less and not move.  We should be aware that our shadow is falling upon the water, and that the least shift will have an effect.  We need to get better equipment.  We need to get serious.

The voices here tell us that what we absolutely cannot be is serious.  Being serious - I presume, from the rhetoric - will scare the players away.  People will not want to join.  The game will die.  We have to make the game more exciting, more relevant, more accessible, or else the next generation will not be interested, and the only people left will be old grognards . . . and not enough of them in any one city even to get a table together.

My view is that this is the message that has been carried forward by those people in role-playing who are recognized to be 'experts.'  The experts in role-playing have been, almost universally, members of the corporate elite.  The originators published, they became part of the industry, and through the 80s they became subject to the corporatization of the game, by which they were either consumed or cast out.  Both groups, the insiders and the outsiders, developed more or less the same rhetoric.  The game is meant to be fun.  The more people who play, the better.  Everyone deserves to play.

Perhaps the outsiders pitched the rhetoric because they felt dismissed, or because they felt the more players, the better their independent efforts.  We know the insiders pitched the rhetoric because it is the corporate rhetoric - the more players, the more money.  In either case, there seems to have always been a fundamental acceptance that the game was as complicated as it ever should be.  Simplification is the watchword. Balance, so that no player feels left out, is the watchword.  Universality is the watchword.  The game's potential can only be expanded through making it universal, balanced and simplified, so that no one feels unable to play.

Developing the game's potential by making it more complicated is impractical.  It eradicates the possibility of balance.  It promotes elitism.  Therefore, the game cannot be improved by making it more complex.

This is supported by the named experts in role-playing that I have encountered.

I'd like to propose this description of an expert:  Someone who is widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill, whose faculty for deciding rightly, justly or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers, or the public, in a specific, well-distinguished domain.

I'd like to propose three skills that an expert should possess:  The ability to explain complex matters simply.  The ability to read a situation and prevent issues that might arise.  The ability to execute on rules using well-defined processes.

I'd like the reader to keep these things in mind as I speak a moment about complexity.

Mastering complexity is a technique developed through education and familiarity.  It takes time to learn the names for things.  It takes more time to learn their relationships.  And more time still to develop techniques of problem solving in the field.  But these things come to those who are dedicated.  References to technical aspects, notable glitches, workarounds and long-standing issues become commonplace.  The hands, the mind and the body adapt comfortably to physical tasks that produce gaping stares in the uninitiated. Problems that confound ordinary folks are in fact quite simple, once the process is understood. We find ourselves speaking in cants, unconcerned that a year ago the words would have meant nothing.  This is normal.  Life is complex.  To master it, we change ourselves.

No, not everyone can be a plumber.  Not everyone can act.  Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.  Some things are beyond us.  Some things we will never comprehend.  We would like the world to include more doctors, but we also understand that more doctors who are not good at the profession is not a good thing.  That is a limitation.  We accept it.

Where professions and trades are concerned, there are organizations that exist to let us know that these people are certified as competent.  We can't ascertain ourselves if the cabinet maker who is reworking our kitchen is an expert, so we rely upon that certification.  We feel more comfortable if the doctor can explain to us what he's doing without using a lot of jargon we wouldn't understand.  We appreciate it if the doctor can tell us where there are going to be problems, and describe strategies that can be employed.  We want the doctor to follow his profession to the letter.  We don't want a cowboy playing in our guts.

Certification is provided by experts.  Experts who recognize that the profession isn't complex because complexity is a good thing, but that we have no choice about it.  The human body is complicated.  Those are the breaks.  We can't simplify the problem.  We can't make the profession available to everyone.  That doesn't matter, however, because the solution is better training, better techniques, more rigorous quality assurance and better technology, enabling us to overcome the complexity and make it simple.

Here, now, we have a game.  The game was conceived to be about people pretending to operate in a world, where dice would contribute to the random element and the world would contain the possible relationships between players and events.  The game was conceived that a DM would adjudicate the game.  The game was conceived as something that would mostly take place in the player's heads, and not on a board.

These are ambitious ideals.  Human thought is extraordinarily complicated.  Interactions between humans are fraught with misunderstandings, the need for dominance, the need for trust and safety, selfishness, altruism, compassion, empathy, cruelty, pettiness and vengeance.  We don't have a choice about this.  If the game is going to be based upon open discussions between human beings expressing their fantasies, and part of this game is going to be based upon one human being leading the others, then this game is going to be complicated.  Those are the breaks.  We can't simplify that problem.  Not everyone will find themselves interested in being a part of it; not everyone will be able to play.

The experts, however, aren't interested in certifying anyone's ability to overcome the problem. They have decided instead to ignore it.  Role-playing isn't complicated, we are told.  In any case, we have proposed simplifying the techniques that enable the participants to play.  We have done our best to dumb-down the training.  We have ignored, resisted, even vilified the development of technology to master the game.  We don't care that the game includes people who are not good at it.  Fundamentally, we have approached every aspect of improving the game as if the game wasn't important.

Since the creation of role-playing, the 'experts' have done everything they could do to shoot the game in the head.

I think that needs to stop now.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Truth Will Out

This is getting very interesting.

The Gentle Reader will note that I've been harping upon the organization, the Gamerati, for two whole days. This started Tuesday morning, when I stumbled across a link for a gamer, Joanna Gaskell, going on about her game in a way that suggested she was a poser, since she began with, "I am the Gamerati," a phrase I had never heard of before and which I considered pompous and, well, stupid.  I was quickly informed that her apparent pomposity was actually a collection of videos that had been created to promote gaming.

Understanding now that it was a marketing scheme, I found a number of videos on youtube and linked them on this blog, with the intention of disparaging them.  The first of those videos was that of a grognard, Stan Brown, talking about his experience organizing Magic the Gathering and other role-playing in Japan.  I stated that my impression was that he was a bit of a git.

Late last night I wrote a post about how I had jumped the numbers on Joanna Gaskell's youtube page, and that the Gamerati ought to be talking to me.

Not long after, I found myself approached by a girl on my facebook who wanted to know - on her friend's behalf, who was not a facebook friend of mine - why I had written the post disparaging gamer interviews. She happens to know Stan personally and she wanted me to know that he's really a great guy.

Then last night, I got a comment from a fellow, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, who wanted me to know that Stan Brown is a nice guy, and not a git at all.  At this point I became aware that when people who know Stan talk about Stan, they add an exclamation point to the end of Stan's name, like this:  Stan!

The reader can find other uses of this affectation on this youtube video.

I asked Stephen to explain the Gamerati to me (sell it to me, actually) in a kind of a dickish way (I don't mind the impressions I make so much, but then I don't adopt any affectations), and received this.  I want to post it up front, because I don't want it to be lost in one of the comments sections:

"Gamerati is about the fun of games. It is a celebration of that pastime in all its nuances--the fun, the "cool", the interesting, the silly. And as both a discipline and frivolity. They run a fantastic event in Tacoma that I can take my non-gamer girlfriend and her son to and we can all have a blast. They accept gamers of all types. Even freaky game designers with strange names."

Along with this admonition:

"What I do have to disagree with your assessment of Stan! as a person via this one bit of sound bite. Stan! is one of the nicest, warmest, and talented people I know. I'm not here to market. I'm no marketer. Spend some time with Stan! and you will find that he sells himself. But I am a friend of Stan!'s and I can tell you this. Your impression is just that and you are filling that impression with pretense that seems...well, overstated. Maybe because I've seen the animal, and your analysis comes from one mere fossil: a artifact you've found on the internet."

Finally, this morning, I found this on reddit:

"The whole 'I am the Gamerati' is the intro to Ed's videos, there is one of me on there somewhere. Joanna is a VERY passionate gamer, and also does a series of board game reviews for a game store online called Starlit Citadel, and a web series called Standard Action.  Her comments about the game show that she is a bit of a noob to running, but not a 'horror show.' "

I do not know if the reader is sensing a pattern here or not, but I'd like to make a few points.

My 'impression' is based on the video.  The video is a marketing tool.  If my impression was negative, then it was.  Want a different impression from me?  Market yourselves differently.  Don't avail yourselves of my approval by appealing to my needing to understand the actors' motivation.  Strangers whom I do not know who are connected to a marketing collective, telling me that these are nice people, who are sincere, passionate and so on, doesn't change my impression.  My impression is that 'Stan' (affectation not included) is self-important.  In fact, his name isn't even Stan.  That is an affectation too, and from Wikipedia, it looks like an affectation he has been using a long, long time.

If anything, I feel more certain of his being a git than I did last Tuesday, as Tuesday I did not know about the affectation, and I knew even less about the agenda of the Gamerati group.  The group, as near as I can tell, stands for everything this blog has been against since the day I started writing it.  It stands for everything that I myself have despised since the first time I witnessed the corporatism of D&D back in the early 80s, which I have written about many, many, many times.  As it happens, 'Stan' is an ex-employee of the WOTC, and author of quite a lot of - I'm sorry to be quite blunt about it, but honesty is the best policy, isn't it? - crap that been floating around for several decades.  If I'm going to stand by any of the things I have said on this blog since 2008, the one thing I have to stand behind is that the WOTC has done everything possible to fracture and dumb down the game of D&D . . . and here is one of the architects of that policy.

I don't really care that he is a nice guy.

Nor do I care that Joanna Gaskell is nice either, or that she has credentials that refer to nothing I've ever heard of or care about.  In the video, she appears to be promoting a mind set about role-playing that fundamentally opposes everything I believe.  She seems flighty and vapid.  She seems to think a great campaign happens despite her 'mistakes' (all of which would be principles upon which I run my game - player agency, player freedom).  Since she is part of a marketing scheme, the fact that she believes what she is saying, and that it isn't scripted - which I still don't believe, by the way, because this is a marketing scheme - actually doesn't make what she says any better for me.

Incidentally, for people who seem to think I know nothing about television, or marketing, or how it works, the fact that a person was captured gushing for three minutes on camera means very little.  What, I ask, was filmed that I didn't see?  How much was filmed?  Who CHOSE the film that was shown?  Who decided that THIS part of the video would be included?  Who made the decision about what would be said.  Why was this particular subject addressed, and not some other subject?

I love when I see someone say, "I thought it was very sincere," about a video that's part of a marketing scheme.  Right.  That is what you are meant to think.  You're meant to ignore the careful composite of phrases and words actually being said, while duped by the expressions and up-beat context, initiated by a happy fun phrase that loads you up with oxytocin before the commentary begins.  This is how marketing works.  It relies on the viewer being very, very ready to accept whatever is being said, because it is couched in words that appeal to your need to BELONG.

I have been behind the camera too, too many times to fall for it.  I have written this shit.  I know how the game works.

The reason why I am being approached and being told that these are nice people is because they presume that, being nice people, they are entitled to my approval.  Note that the game itself is, in every video, an afterthought.  What's important is that we belong, that we are part of a herd, that we enjoy being part of the herd, that the herd is good for our creativity, that the herd will make us 'cool' and that the herd is our friend. See?  Joanna and Stan are part of the herd, and they're nice people.

Uh, yeah.

Okay.  I don't play D&D in order to belong to a geek club.  I don't play it to relieve my stress (rather increases my stress, actually).  I don't look to game clubs in order to feel appreciated.  I don't give a shit if the game is cool or not, or if cool ravers play it on Sunday afternoons after raves.  And I don't care that people with agendas that I fundamentally disagree with are nice.

I do care that it's one more pile of bullshit being dumped on my doorstep, that people will point to as evidence of what the game is about - ie., that you're not a player if you're not part of this herd.  I do care that here is one more splinter group in the world to further fracture the game's following.  And I do care that many, many people who are silly enough to want to join a herd will happily march into this marketing business plan and be exploited there.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

No News is Bad News

For those of you out there who may feel bad for the Gamerati, because I've been mean to it, or to Ms. Joanna Gaskell, look at this:

This is the stats bar on the youtube page of Ms. Gaskell's 'memories' - I couldn't help noticing yesterday that it had about 1,100 hits, gained since being posted on Apr 2.  The big green spike at the bottom right - that is from being mentioned and discussed on this blog.  It has gotten more page views in the last day than it gained on the day it was launched.

The staff at Gamerati ought to be noticing this, and they ought to be talking to me.  They ought to be asking me to be their next Gamerati spokesperson.

Think I should apologize to them and do it, when they call?

Right Now

I don't have any fond memories of gaming.

That is because fundamentally I am technological.  I am reminded of George Carlin's comparisons between baseball and football:

Quoth the genius:

"Most sports, the team is run by a coach.  In baseball, the team is run by a manager.  And only in baseball does the manager or the coach have to wear the same uniform the players do. Can you picture Bill Parcells in his New York Giants uniform?

"Now baseball and football are different from one another in other kind of interesting ways, I think.  First of all, baseball is a 19th century pastoral game.  Football is a 20th century technological struggle.  Baseball is played on a diamond.  In a park.  The baseball park.  Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes call Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.  Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything is dying.   In football, you wear a helmet.  In baseball, you wear a cap!  Football is concerned with downs.  What down is it?  Baseball is concerned with ups - who's up, are you up?  I'm not up, he's up!  In football, the specialist comes in to kick.  In baseball, the specialist comes in to relieve someone.  In football, you receive a penalty.  In baseball, you make an error.  Whoops!  Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, blocking, piling on, late hitting, unnecessary roughness and personal fouls. Baseball has . . . the sacrifice.  Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, sleet, snow, hail, mud, can't read the numbers on the uniforms, can't read the yard markers, can't read the player's numbers, the struggle will continue.  In baseball, if it rains, we don't come out to play!  'I can't come out to play!  It's raining out!'

"Baseball has a seventh inning stretch.  Football has the two minute warning.  Baseball has no time limit - we don't know when it's going to end. We might have extra innings.  Football is rigidly timed and it will end even if we have to go to sudden death.

"Finally, the objectives of the game are totally different.  In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun.  With short bullet passes and long bombs he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

"In baseball, the object is to go home.  And to be 'safe.'"

Hm.  I hadn't meant to copy all of that, but I love Carlin and this is one of my favorite bits.  Where was I? Oh yes, I was talking about how I'm technological.

I don't get weepy about the game.  I don't have any memories of how I set up some special club somewhere, or how we had the first tournament of a game that today makes people shudder.  I don't laugh and chuckle at what a silly goose I was with my first world, nor do I proudly describe the time me and my buddies got drunk and played D&D, pretending to be little girls or rubber ducks or whatever the hell drunk people role-play as.  I don't include blog posts with the words, "Hey, remember the time we did this, wasn't that a riot?" That is because I am far, far too methodological, occupational, mechanical and technical.  I don't feel 'healed' by gaming, I don't feel a great sense of 'belonging,' I don't get an oxytocin hit from listening to morons prattle on about MMOs and how the gaming community has saved them from their ADHD.  When someone says cheerfully, "I hope someday I can be an engineer," I think, then why aren't you talking seriously about your design?

If all goes well, in four months I'm going to be sitting at a table in Toronto watching the dweebs go by, and the total feeling I have for "Wow, I'm going to be at a game expo!" is zip. Nix. Nothing. I'm not taking any money to buy any games, miniatures, posters, books, t-shirts or any other merchandise.  If Bruce Campbell, Stan Lee or Michael Rooker happen to wander up to my table, I'll express my respect - but Nathan Fillion better just keep walking.  At any rate, I don't care that they're going to be in the building.  I am there to sell my book, in order to change the entire culture around role-playing towards an atmosphere of serious, seratonin-and-dopamine fueled play and artistic expression.  I will smile and shoot the shit and generally enjoy the hell out of talking to the intelligent people I meet . . . but don't expect me to come home and talk for post after post about how 'wonderful' it was to be there.  I'm going to hate that I can't work on my world. I'm going to hate that there will be little or no time to write.  I'm going to hate all the little dweebs who mutter, "What does 'Advanced' mean?" and "Does this tell me how to get better at DDO?"

Therefore, if the reader has come here to get a little 'togetherness' vibe, a bit of the old "gee, we're all one happy people" bullshit, the reader can eat dirt and shit rocks.  I'm in no one's key demographic because I think more like a machine than a person.

Fuck nostalgia.  What are we going to do right now?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Gaming . . . There Be Money There

Stan Brown, Gamerati.  Key demographic: Grognard.  Synopsis: Originated game organization in Japan; after name dropping, makes claim to "the first sanctioned Magic Tournament in Japan, ever" - finishes with cute story about Japanese citizens confusing role-playing games with role-playing sex.  Impression: Kind of a self-important git.

Catherine Blessing, Gamerati.  Key demographic: Children, Cute.  Synopsis:  Describes principles of game she would like to create; occasionally in the background, sounds of an adult chuckling.  Impression: awwww . . .

Brent Newhall, Gamerati.  Key demographic: Man boys, programmer.  Synopsis:  Details war story with typical incomprehensible disconnected phrases gamers use when going on and on about their games when no one cares; includes demographic-focused references to smoking and drunkenness and the innocence of the 15-year-old girl role-player.  Impression: Carefully staged, seemed to have trouble remembering lines.

Rob Hunt, Gamerati.  Key demographic: Cool people.  Synopsis:  Leads with reminisces of dance parties - "raves" - drugs, "weird crazy stuff," getting killed, etc., moving onto how a group of these ravers would, on Sundays, play Dungeons & Dragons.  Impression:  Cool people play D&D.

Gail Simone, Gamerati.  Key demographic: Artist, writer.  Synopsis:  Following self-promotion, describes video games as means to relax when creativity-stressed; includes product placement before returning to self-promotion, followed by more self-promotion, ending with use of gaming strategy as a measurement of her value as a self-promoted product.  Impression:  Wouldn't read her comics.

Beth Martinez, Gamerati.  Key demographic:  Cosplayers, possibly Furries.  Synopsis:  Prefers to watch rather than personally role-play, but plays online MMOs, loves to meet people and make costumes, proud to be accepted for what she does.  Impression:  Mostly harmless.

Pedro Barrenchea, Gamerati.  Key demographic:  Hispanic, game designers.  Synopses:  Starts by showing stamps on nerd card (dyslexic, ADHD, fantasy novels), promotes healing powers of gaming, speaks of professional ambitions before gushing about the gaming universe.  Impression:  Will probably be the most successful ex-Gamerati in ten years.

There's more, but I'm a bit sick to my stomach now.

A lot of people will think that I'm being grossly unfair by scheduling these videos as directed towards a key demographic.  But, you know, this is why marketing works.

The Great Gamerati

Well.  This is a horror show.

I found this through Jeffro, who I've been reading a lot lately.  His take on the video above is somewhat positive.  He's not positive about Joanna Gaskell, but rather finds a way to spin the video to prove that role-playing, embraced, is always epic.

Me, I watch the above video and I shudder.  I shudder from the moment she calls herself the 'Gamerati.' And when she comes to the end, and she says she hasn't talked to any of the people who played that game, I jump to that line from Denis Leary's The Ref.  It isn't just that you haven't seen them, girl.  They're hiding.

She's obviously very pretty and full of herself and upbeat.  She lists a bunch of things that she did with the game that make my skin crawl - "There was a massive story arc that was going to carry my players all the way to level twenty."  She describes all that she did with the game, saying she made a lot of "mistakes." These seem to include - it's not specified - that she 'let' players do things she shouldn't have let them do ("Don't ever do that, ever!"); she let them go wherever they wanted to go ("I had to catch up with them all over the place"); she let a warlock into the party ("You don't let a warlock into a 3.5 party, that's just so overpowered").  This is the 'huge amount' she learned over the campaign.

Am I wrong, or did she design this huge story arc with a map drawn on the back of a brown shopping bag?

Also, did she really say that the big story arc was a paladin losing his powers and then regaining them?  I guess I needed to be there.  Except, I feel like I have been.  In about three dozen different campaigns.

I hope this post drives people to her you tube video.  I hope it contributes to her voice as the "Gamerati."  I hope she can become famous, really famous, so that in a few years, when the two of us meet at some Expo somewhere, I can prove to everyone I know that it will take about 30 seconds for me to piss this girl off by not properly genuflecting to her greatness.

I can see it in the eyes.  I've never quite been obsequious enough for people like this.


Because it may be supposed that somehow respecting women means never criticizing them as people - for surely the only possible criticism that can be made of a woman's beliefs or ideals is directed at her sex, a highly sexualized take on what ought to be seen as the reverse - I offer this video.  I violently support this video.  I hope it encourages dunder-headed louts to understand that when I criticize Gaskell above, I am criticizing her viewpoint, not her gender:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getting High

There are two attitudes towards the game with which I find myself with at odds lately.  I'd like to address them both evenly, with an effort to understand the premise behind either.

These two attitudes would be as follows:  those who become so wrapped up in the reality that is being depicted that they seem to forget that this is a game, and those who become so wrapped up in gamesmanship that they seem to forget that it is meant to be an emotional experience.

Without defending that is that sort of experience, and without needing to defend that it is a game, let's consider instead why or how these attitudes arise, without the usual Alexis-style inclination to superiority.

Gamesmanship seems to be a watchword of late.  Wikipedia calls it ". . . the use of dubious (although not technically illegal) methods to win or gain a serious advantage in a game or sport."  Please do have a look at the whole entry, and give thought to the fact that this is a circumstance that arises in every other game that humans play.  With that in mind, it's important to realize that the 'need to win' is a human condition, that arises from more than just want RPGs call rules lawyering or power play.

Where would that need to win come from?  First principles dictate that we examine the people who practice gamesmanship for an answer.  An obvious theory is that the individual believes that they're unable to 'win' without practicing gamesmanship, but I find that's a simplification.  As humans we are biologically programmed to seek not only success, but success at the least possible cost.  This means, you might be able to kill the mastodon with a spear, but it is a lot easier to make the mastodon walk off a cliff.  The fact that you do the latter does not prove that you cannot do the former, or even that you wouldn't do the former, if you were compelled to.  It does mean that you'd rather be somewhat farther away when the mastodon dies, as the meat tastes the same and your life was never in danger.

Thus, the player might be able to play on an equal level to anyone - it's only that they've found it easier to WIN by 'breaking the flow' of the opponent, messing with their head, etc.  Technically, the 'gamer' (if we can co-opt the term for the basis of this post only, as someone who participates in gamesmanship) has merely evolved a better set of practices in order to win the game.  If winning games defined the survival of the species, gamer clans would out compete non-gamer clans.  Which is actually what prehistorically occurred.

But, this is not survival, this is real life.  So we must assume that somewhere down the line, the gamer skipped over the social compact of playing the game in a polite, pleasant manner (quite a lot of gamers, I'm sure, have been punched out and dumped in the alleys behind pubs because they won't shut up while their opponents throw darts).  Why does the gamer not view the social compact as more important than winning?

Because the gamer does not feel the compact.  Of late I've been parsing out the brilliant content of this video, which goes into the differences between endorphins, dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin.  While the reader should get a look at the video (yes, more homework!), I'll cover this quickly.  Oxytocin is the good feeling you get from being with friends, from hanging with them, from the sense that you're safe and that they are your people.  You feel good.  That oxytocin.

Seratonin is a drug that your body produces that makes you feel good when you've achieved control, or status, or that you've done something to be proud about.  It's the feeling you get as a DM when the players tell you that you're amazing, or when they're all listening closely to your every word.  Feels good, doesn't it? That's seratonin.

When you are at a table playing the game for the sake of the game, and having a really good time because you're with your friends, and the game is great and the chatter is good, and you feel like this is what the game should be, you're looking for that oxytocin high.  But when you're with one player who's trying to play the system and make it work their way, to get the items they want and the things they need, to feel strong and powerful, they're not looking for oxytocin.  They're looking for a seratonin high.  And that's why it feels wrong.  You, me, all of us - we're just bags of chemicals.  And when the chemical you're wanting isn't the same chemical they want, things go bad.

Now, it's no one's fault.  Some people get a better high from seratonin than they do from oxytocin, because they're built that way.  And the reverse is true, too.  When you're telling the seratonin-user to relax and not make such a big deal of the game, you're essentially saying, "Hey, stop using your drug; use mine."  But the seratonin-user has probably tried your drug, and the high they get from oxytocin isn't as HIGH as the one they get from seratonin, so from their perspective you're really saying, "You're not allowed to have as much fun as you can."

And when you, the seratonin-user tells the others, "Hey, you gotta play harder, you gotta go for it," they don't agree, because they're getting a way better hit from oxytocin than they've ever gotten from seratonin. So they don't get you.

And that's how it goes with humans.

So let's look at the other thing, those players - mostly DMs - who are more interested in the reality of the game than they seem to forget that its a game.  What are they getting high on?

Dopamine is a drug your body provides you with when you found what you're looking for, or if you've accomplished something you've set out to accomplish.  Video games are huge dopamine providers. Everything in a video game is designed to trick your body into thinking that it has done something that will contribute to your survival - and whenever you do anything that will contribute to your survival, your brain activates the hormone that produces dopamine, and you get HIGH.

The reason why the coins make a little sound when you grab them in Mario?  Dopamine.  Your eyes, linked with your hearing, reacting to a sound that is similar to the sound of a stone chipping off a bit of flint on an Acheulean hand axe, which our ancestors chopped and made for perhaps a million years or more.

You grab that little coin, you hear that little *ding* and . . . dopamine.

We get our dopamine hits in all kinds of ways.  I make maps, for instance.  And fundamentally, there is an equation between making something realistic in the game and getting a really solid dopamine hit.  The more 'real' it is, or the more 'real' it seems, the bigger the hit, so we feel something really profound when we realize that weapons hitting shields should splinter them, and we make rules for that.  We think weapons should hit different parts of the body, so we make rules for that.  We think healing plants don't all grow at the same rate, so we make rules that say these plants will heal as much as this, and those plants will heal more.  Then we ask the players to lay out multiple pages of notes and accounting in order to compensate for all the rules we've just made.  At some point we've forgotten that we're making a game in favour of making our own personal Acheulean hand axe.  Because we get a WAY bigger high from dopamine than we do from oxytocin.

This is a sort of DM thing.  Oxytocin is nice, but the dopamine high mixed with seratonin is better.  Except that when we have a player that's got a seratonin fix, the DM's leadership is challenged, undermining the DM high, and conflict erupts.

Yes, like I said.  You're a big bag of chemicals.

Some of you might be asking, what's the answer.  Well, there is none.  A seratonin-user isn't going to get as much from oxytocin as someone else might, and that's biology. That's out of our hands.  All these chemicals arise out of the body's autonomic response system, the hormones, which is a form of evolution that predates the spinal cortex, but which we've inherited because we ultimately descended from worms.  We are stuck with these chemicals.  We can't think our way out of them.

We might, conceivably, take a stand that we're willing to relax our personal need to get as high as we are able for the sake of the general interest - but that is going to mean establishing a general interest that embraces everyone at your gaming table, as well as yourself.  For example, that this is a game.  That it is meant to be played as a game, by rules we all agree on.  We need to agree that our individual dopamine, seratonin or oxytocin highs might need to be acknowledged and managed.

But let's admit something.  Oxytocin is the good drug.  It's the community drug.  It's the drug that doesn't depend on serving yourself (like dopamine) or pronouncing your dominance over others (like seratonin). Oxytocin is the drug that makes us feel glad just to be together.

We need to get high on that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Healing Salves

Returning to the subject of D&D, I wanted to record some of a conversation I was having last night with my own smart life partner, about recipes or formulas for making potions and other magic items. In particular, the making of something I use in my campaigns, called healing salve.

This is a very simple sort of magic that I allow to be purchased.  I don't like the purchase of magic items, but there are a few very minor ones that I consider to be common enough that they would exist in abundance, without overbalancing the power structure that I consider delicately reflects that of the real world, circa 1650.

One such item is the healing salve.  This is a simple packet, typically a liquidy powder, that can be eaten or poured directly into a wound, which restores 1d4 damage virtually instantaneously (call it half a round, or about six seconds).  If the wound is bleeding, the salve will close the wound up immediately, even if it only heals 1 point.  It takes a character one round to administer the salve, either on themselves or on others.  Typically, depending on where the party is in my world, a salve can go for as little as 75 to as much as 200 g.p.  It is often not available, or available in small amounts, and parties will snap up all they can find if it turns up on an equipment list.

On the list of things that an alchemist could fabricate, from yesterday's post, is the healing salve, and there's no question that someone will rush to make it as soon as they are able.  So the subject of 'how it is made' is bound to come up.

The first notion that we're likely to have is that it is made from some part of a given creature's anatomy, so that the party has to rush out and kill the creature, probably in a careful manner, to get the blood or ichor or fingernails of the beast, whatever seems most annoying.  This would then send the party on an endless quest to kill trolls (regenerating makes an obvious healing ingredient), flesh golems (reconstituted life), giant slugs or worms (most sponges, annelids and the like heal rather easily) and so on.  Unfortunately, doing so would make the game into Quest for Worms, which the party would probably pursue endlessly.

Another idea that we had last night was more interesting, practical and most importantly game-friendly.  Suppose that the seeds for the medicinal plants needed to create the healing salve were fairly easy to get, and fairly inexpensive (say, a gold coin per seed).  The seeds could only be planted during a 10 day period late in the spring, and had a 63 day growth period before harvesting.  During that time, they would have to be watched very closely by the druid, which would restrict the druid from doing anything else for 2 months.  Each week, the druid would have to make a roll for every plant, to see if the plant died.  The roll would improve as the druid's study points improved.  There'd be a limit on how many plants a druid could conceivably manage, perhaps a hundred, and attempts to manage more would drastically increase the likelihood of plants dying.

At the end of the 9-week period, the remaining plants would be harvested.  To transform these plant into a packet of healing salve per plant would take three weeks, which wouldn't be expensive but would require intensive effort by the druid (nothing could be allowed to interrupt the process).  At the end of the effort, the druid would produce perhaps 60-80 packets, depending on the success of each operation.  Cost, as I say, would be about 1 g.p. per packet.

However, having now created these healing salves, the party could do nothing to make more of them until the following spring!  That means, although they can make a ton, for 12 months, the number is limited, and they have to be reserved.  Each one that is used is used with the recognition that these have to last.

Moreover, as planting time approaches, the party must somehow return to one of those parts of the world where the plant grows, or miss a whole year of crop growing.

I really like this system, as it encourages freedom for a lot of the year for the party, so they are not endlessly hunting some animal, while at the same time still offering a limitation to how much salve they can reasonably make.  It helps stabilize the party's wanderings, and promotes a community association for the months when the party returns 'home' to grow more plants.

This is game play on a very powerful, meaningful level ... and as I was told yesterday by Maxwell Joslyn, it does the heavy lifting for me.

Smart People

This will probably be the strangest post ever found on this blog, because it is a radical departure from every sort of post I've written; in another blog, the post wouldn't seem odd at all, but coming from me some readers will check to see if this is really Tao of D&D.  Rest assured, I'll be writing another brief post in about an hour, so try to overlook this one if it is just too weird.

I watch a lot of British Television.  This is partly because the British are willing to let people talk about sex openly, partly because people are allowed to swear and act like human beings, but it is MOSTLY because being smart, blatantly smart, on television is something that is celebrated and encouraged.  People willfully make fun of stupidity, they denegrate behaviour which Americans and Canadians tolerate, and overall there is an attitude that, on the whole, the people who act badly are not those pointing out that there are people in the world who act badly.

There are a number of shows on you tube that can be watched, which are so different from North American television as to be from another world.  These follow a premise that allows the presenters to speak in a non-scripted, witty manner, and to banter among themselves.  Shows like Q.I., You Have Been Watching, Eight out of Ten Cats, News Wipe, Would I Lie to You, Was it Something I Said, The Bubble, TV Heaven Telly Hell, and the Graham Norton Show, where Americans turn up on a program where alcoholic drinking is allowed on camera and even encouraged.  Watch Bill Murray get drunk on this episode as it progresses - after clearly being drunk at the start.  Be warned, however, that Graham Norton is extraordinarily gay and absolutely no one cares.  And, too, I'd like to throw in some radio programs, such as Heresy and The Unbelievable Truth.

Now, I like smart people.  I am a smart person, and sometimes I feel as though I am the only one that exists.  I also like very witty people, and very sarcastic people.  And this is why, for reasons that escape me, I find myself following closely the careers of two utterly remarkable people, neither of whom could be who they are outside of Britain ... namely, Victoria Coren and David Mitchell.  Who, after appearing on various panel shows after 2007, were married on November 17, 2012.

It would be impossible to explain how deeply vicious both individuals are, or how intelligent.  For me, this goes a long way to summing up Mitchell, but it really is only a bit of gathering how fast the man's mind works, which is evident from watching 10 O'clock Live, which features Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne as well.

Coren has to be understood partly through episodes like this from Heresy (where she speaks with Mitchell before they got married), her hosting of Only Connect, rants like this and her obsession with poker.

I am fascinated by these two people, and I particularly enjoy the occasional comment they'll make about each other as they appear on various panel shows, where everyone in British Television knows everyone else, and will occasionally tease either him or her.

The motivation for this post, which has nothing whatsoever to do with D&D, is from this excerpt of David Mitchell's biography, David Mitchell: Back Story:

No one in the North American media would ever, ever, be this genuine.  Smart people should only marry smart people.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Druids & Alchemy

I can't imagine there's anyone out there reading who hasn't come across this yet, but I had been working on redoing my sage abilities from ages ago.  The Work blog, that hasn't gotten that much attention, has new content, mostly applied to the cleric.  I've just put up a first one for the druid, which doesn't include as much as I'd like . . . but it talks about Alchemy, which I'd like to discuss here.

Here's the reprinted Alchemy section:

Amateur: distill liquid, identify substance, prepare ingestive poisons, smelt natural metals
Authority: fabricate minor acids, ointments & salves, identify uncommon substance, isolate gas, prepare insinuative poisons
Expert: fabricate & identify major ointments, paints & potions, smelt magical metals
Sage: fabricate exceptional elements

Each of the above presumes that the druid is in possession of the necessary space, tools, furnace, materials and ingredients required to create each of the above substances. It should also be clear that, unless the druid possesses other skills that may originate elsewhere, the various metals, earths, liquids and so on that are created cannot be then manufactured into items. For example, while the expert may be able to smelt mithril, it does not follow that the individual would then be able to process that metal into a sword or armor. Such would require an artisan with those skills. Similarly, while the druid might be able to create a potion of fire resistance, it does not then follow that this ability could be installed into a suit of armor or a helmet. The druid can create the potion, not the effect as it would occur in other mediums.

Moreover, note that none of the above is created by spell or magic, but rather by hard, difficult work. Some items, such as the creation of the portable hole (which is a pure elemental substance) would be subject to danger rolls, in keeping with the DMG’s discussion of such things. The creation of these things will take time, effort and coin, along with potential loss of health.

Distilled liquids would include pure water and alcohol, along with a host of other liquids that could be obtained from their source by the druid. Identify common substance gives the name for natural earths and liquids. Ingestive poisons must be drunk to be effective. Natural metals include those which may be obtained from earthly minerals.

Minor ointments and salves include quicksilver, gripcolle, prepared aloe and healing salve. Acids include all naturally occurring destructive liquids. Uncommon substances consist of natural concoctions or preparations. Insinuative poisons can be applied to weapons or otherwise introduced through the skin.

Major ointments include Keoghtom’s ointment. Paints are those with magical effects. Potions include all those listed among magic items. Magical metals include adamantium and mithril.

Exceptional elements include the lodestone or luckstone, the aforementioned portable hole, the smoke contained in the ever-smoking bottle, along with a host of other similar magic items where the substance itself is the magic.

And here the blog continues . . .

I must admit, from the point of view of a DM, the above is terrifying.  The idea that a player could substantially make a portable hole, and indeed more than one (presumably a second one would be easier than the first, as mistakes were skipped), seems like far, far too much power for a player to have.  And yet we presume these magic items must come from somewhere - though perhaps most DMs presume the means to make them is lost, or at least that it takes a god or something to make an item that powerful.  Perhaps it does.

The sage ability only means that the druid know HOW to make the item.  It could be that instruction #122 of portable hole manufacture reads, "Having fully prepared the mithril mesh fabric, stretching it to the tension described in point 43b, have a male demi-god of necessary strength (see Appendix K) insert his index finger into the center of the fabric and give a light stir (precise amount of agitation necessary is unfortunately unknown) in order to initiate the vacuuation process . . ."

. . . and so on.

Knowledge is only part of the battle - it must be noted that while yes, knowing something is marvelous, it is only the beginning of doing.  I'm not giving players the free ride the above would seem to be giving.  Still, as the player's character grows, it probably isn't such a big deal to let them have a reasonable number of minor magic items of their own creation, as the druid spends week after week in the isolation of a well-equipped cave . . .

The Selfish DM

Let me write something more upbeat.

There is an age-old argument against leadership that likes to use the following story.  The French Revolutionary is sitting in his house when he sees a crowd of people appear on his street outside, rushing along.  At this point he says, "There are my people; I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

The story is meant to be an indictment of politicians who spend their time pandering to their constituents, while presumably believing in nothing themselves.  And this sounds like a reasonable criticism.  IF you care what others think, you haven't the courage of your own convictions, and therefore you're a wishy-washy, flip-flopping politician subject to whatever way the wind blows.

I disagree.  I disagree because I believe it takes an amazing sort of ass to believe that the courage of one's convictions is automatically the best possible way to represent a lot of people while simulataneously ignoring what they tell you.  I would rather have a politician that listened to the people, and led in the direction the people willed, than a politician that said, "Yes, I know you have needs and ideas, but I know better."

I think both types turn up as DMs.  I think that there are DMs who do whatever the players want, and I think there are DMs who do what they themselves want, because they know better.

The argument for both politicians and for DMs is that the position suggests intelligence, motivation, education and ability.  No one could be a politician without ability (so it is opined).  The constituents don't have ability.  If they did, they would be politicians.  Comparably, the DM 'knows' more about the game than the players.  If the players knew as much as the DM, they would be running their own games.  Therefore, the players should shut up and let the DM run the game.

There are a lot of false arguments in the above, but going forward we'll just talk about how they apply to DMs.

The value in having a DM is that someone has got to have insight to the back-end of the events that are going on, who can pick the monsters and run the NPCs, while keeping information secret that will yield a good game.  If a computer could do this, we wouldn't need - or want - a DM.  Unfortunately, no one can do it as well as a human, so players tolerate DMs to fulfill that role.

DMs have a tendency to view this toleration only in terms of the gratitude it implies, and very often will go one step further and presume that players are naturally obsequious louts who can be bossed around at will.  And so arises the theoretical nonsense that DMs are really the center of the game, and the players exist to service the DM's world, for worlds need players.

(this is something like Richard Dawkins argument that life is a process by which genetic codes reproduce themselves).

But ask yourself as a player.  What sort of DM would you want to play with:  a DM that views everything about the world as a gracious gift handed down from on high for the players to appreciate appropriately, as is their social position . . . or a DM who views the player's needs first and foremost, who builds the world in recognition that the DM is a representative of the player's wishes?

In the long run, if I were the first kind of DM, who demanded recognition for all my work, what sort of approval would I get from my constituents, er, players?  I may have a great world, but being a pompous ass, exactly how much loyalty will I acquire?  On the other hand, if I am the second kind of DM, where my players know that I'm designing the world to produce the very best response in answer to the input the players are giving, how important is it that my world is necessarily 'good'?

That is, wouldn't much of the goodness of the world be inherent in my treatment of the player's wishes?  And wouldn't the selfish DM's world have to be very, very good to compensate for the fact that it was all about the DM's wishes?

A bunch of players have just turned up at my doorstep.  Pardon me, I have to go find out what they want, so I can DM them.


Last week, Jeffro posted the following about Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, and I took the event to task for its appeal to nobility in the face of the bloody-mindedness that had been the Civil War. Whenever someone points out to me something noble about that war, such as Chamberlain's defense of Little Round Top or pretty much anything to do with Stonewall Jackson, I find myself remembering Andersonville, Fort Pillow or the New York riots.  But then, I am built that way, and knowing it gets me thinking about Slaughterhouse Five.

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is about Billy, who is unstuck in time, and thus simultaneously experiences different periods of his life without those things occurring in continuity.  One of those events is the mass bombing of Dresden, between February 13 & 15, 1945, which in the story Billy survives, written that way by Vonnegut because the writer himself was imprisoned in Dresden after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge - and survived the bombing with others in an underground meat locker that the German guards called Schlachthof Funf, or 'slaughterhouse five.'  Vonnegut's theme throughout the book is that fundamentally we survive as human beings because we remember the good and forget the bad things that happen to us.

I've always had trouble with that formula, but I don't deny it's what most people do, nor do I deny that it works.  It is much, much easier for the South to remember the signing of peace between gentlemen than the 30 thousand something prisoners who died under horrific conditions in Andersonville.  My mind, however, always goes to dark places.

It is the reason why I often do not get along with other historians, because it seems to me that historians more than anyone like to cherry pick the events of the past, particularly upon the subject of atrocities.  George Santayana's words, that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is sadly quoted to much by people who do not know that Santayana also said, "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there."  I think truly the second quote hits closer to the mark.  To it, I will add one of my own.  The history we think we remember is a lie of omission.

Vonnegut's argument is that we do that because we would go crazy as a society if we lived too near the truth.  Perhaps I'm only dark in my outlook because I never have been that close to the truth.  I've never been in a war-zone.  I've never seen people blown apart.  I've never had a pistol pointed at my head.  Every idea that I have about the horrors of anything are second hand, at best.  The omission in my understanding of violent history is that I've never experienced any.

Perhaps that is why my dearest time is spent in one of two unreal dreams.  I am either writing, or I am designing, things that haven't happened to people who don't exist, for the sake of an ersatz emotion for deaths that cannot occur.  Perhaps it is my tendency to escape into a mock recreation of violence - rather than nobility - that drives the game world I fabricate and run.  I feed my dark side while admitting that I would not want to do so by travelling to modern day Liberia, Zaire or Afghanistan.  If I truly had a dark side, if my mind were truly driven towards comprehension and understanding, then surely the logical course of action would be to set aside the game and partake in the reality.

I omit that option, though, and cheat by getting upset over the brutal events of history.  I am no different than those who cheat by swelling with pride over the noble events of history.  It is two sides of a coin.  I am simply remembering the other side.  I only run a dark world, with dark people in it, because that is my particular fetish.

Doesn't make me better.  Only makes me different.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Replacing Work

I find myself at odds.

This last weekend I spent most of my available time re-writing the 10,000 word How to Play a Character post ... realizing, naturally, that the post on the blog is sort of in the ball park but is in fact an awful lot of shit posing as advice.  An awful lot.  But this is how writing is.  In retrospect, all the works of genius that we think we've written turn out to be just so much crap (if it doesn't, then I don't want to ever read anything you've written), so we rework it, rewrite it, clarify the bumpy parts and do a better job.  Good work is sometimes done off the cuff ... but good writing is a lot of good work done over and over again.

The question is, in reworking the How to Play post for the essay book, should I:  a) delete the original post from the blog; b) leave the blog as is; or c) update the blog to reflect the book version.

Sorry, I should explain about the essay book, for those who don't know.  In the interest of raising additional money for printing costs, I'm taking up Tim Brannan's suggestion of putting together some of the good blog posts from the past into an essay book, obviously updating and improving the writing.  This I am doing.

I don't think option (c) above would hurt my sales.  I know that many of you out there plan to buy the book just to support me, while many of the people I would be selling the book to have never heard of the blog.  It has the beauty of hiding my errors and making me look like a better writer.

(b), however, has the beauty of exposing my errors and proving that not only am I not perfect, no one has to be in order to be a better DM, or a better writer.  Plus it offers the opportunity to be genuine.  Which I like. Still, people could read the original and think, "Wow, the essay book must be awful," a fair assessment from how bad I think that original blog post is, now that I've looked closely at it.

(a), deleting it completely, is the really cheap option.  The business model option, to be honest, the option that Monsanto would do because corporations think along the lines of, if you take it away people are more likely to pay for it.  I don't like option (a).  At all.  I include it because someone is going to suggest it, and because I want to express my awareness that the option exists.  I frankly don't think the option is a good one.

The same three options exist, of course, for any other former blog post I'm going to work on.  I've identified six I plan to include; I need two more, which I haven't quite decided upon.  The Steamy Sex post, though very popular, will not be one of them.  I did consider it.

I'll have to decide upon some precedent for all of them.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Building a Market

Because I work in an extraordinarily normal setting, in a building with extraordinarily normal business-people (white males aged 25 to 50, white females aged 20 to 35), I had to make up my mind early about whether or not I was going to mention that I was working on a book ... considering the content of that book. If we want to talk about conservative central regarding whether or not anyone around role-plays, well, they've heard of it.  Some of their kids do.  They don't really get it.  For them, particularly the higher-status types, 'role-play' is that thing you do where a team of people on retreat try to cross a mock stream in the foyer of the company's hotel through cooperation.  It isn't what people would call 'a good time.'

My decision was do more than admit what I was doing, but to deliberately call attention to it.  If I'm asked by someone, "How are you doing" - that absolutely everybody asks - I tell them, straight out.  Full title, all the content, etc., as if they're going to understand what I'm saying.  And I get some interesting responses.

The first group absolutely has no idea what I'm talking about.  They've never heard of role-playing, they don't know what a 'player' is, much less a DM or D&D.  This people are utterly, completely clueless, and it is really quite marvelous that they still exist.  Incidentally, they also tend to be among the better paid lower-level executives in the 20-30 age range.  These are people who went straight from the prom-planning committee and fraternities/sororities into business school and employment with daddy/mommy's brother/friend/ex-college roommate.  There's no table at Las Vegas that gives odds on role-playing, so these people don't know what it is.  Real pity, though, as these people also have a lot of money that is virtually worthless to them.

The second group includes the largest portion - they've heard of role-playing, most often D&D, on television or other media.  About it, they know nothing.  Their eyes show a tiny bit of fear as you talk, as they are completely clueless and anyone knowing something they don't know is a bit upsetting.  Understand, these are sheltered, sheltered people.  They don't go to clubs, they have families, mostly with kids in the infant to ten range, and their lives are mostly taken up with school, events, holidays and social clubs to which they belong. Anything outside that zone of comfort tends to upset them, which explains why things like extra taxes and pet registrations give them the night tremors.  I must admit, I take a sort of pleasure in going on with them a bit over-long as they're taking pains to be polite, but one hopes they might someday meet someone, or have a child someday, that will also play, and they will remember I'm out here and that I am the master.  So goes networking.

The third group is more interesting.  Not only have they heard of gaming, they've actually seen it.  They haven't played, and they know just enough to know that it is something I ought to be ashamed of.  That's even better to see in their eyes than fear.  Once again, they're polite (though a little more abrupt, because they've been haranged before by role-players), and every once in awhile they'll ask something like, "So, do you talk about various games, that kind of thing?"  I have to love that, since then I can launch into the fact that no, no games, but an in-depth evaluation of how to obtain emotional responses from groups of people through dramatic presentation, reading people as you do so, dealing with stress among large groups and how otherwise to handle groups to encourage them to feel motivated and interested, etc.  That usually gets a sort of glazed-eye response, followed by quick excuses and a need to get away from the 'crazy person,' that being me.  It must be remembered, if I were writing an advanced account of the Ghibelline-Guelph conflicts in Florence and Tuscany circa 14th-15th centuries, the response would be about the same.  The same rule applies - these people might meet someone who plays.

Now, the fourth group used to play.  And conversations there go as expected, depending on what game they used to play and how much they remember.  Usually not much.  In six months of talking straight with business people, I've met exactly one fellow like this.  He's in IT.

The fifth group should be people who are playing now, but there are no people I've met who are playing now.  That doesn't mean they don't exist ... I can only speak for the monkey sphere that's closest to me, some 150, perhaps 200 people, who run across my path now and them in some capacity or other.

This is why occasionally on the blog I make some point about people being largely ignorant about role-playing.  I doubt there are more than two or three dozen people in my entire building, of about 4,000, who have ever played DDO or even Warhammer ... these people have money, and they spend their weekends skiing, playing golf, drinking heavily, etc.  They don't videogame.  I know this because when in a media discussion, about the media, or about the state of the media industry comes up, it is very plain that no one has a clue.  It's quite profound to see.  Yes, there are people in the world who do not know that video-games are a big deal.  A rather frightening number of people, actually.  Who have money, and who have control over a LOT of money.

Food for thought.

I intend to go on telling people what I'm doing.  Every kind of person.  I can't build a market by relying only upon the market someone else built.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Misers and Non-Problems

How long it seems since I have written purely about D&D here.  Yet every waking minute it seems I write about nothing else.  The DM, the DM, the DM, those are my waking thoughts, and about the DM I write and write.

A few days ago John Arendt of Dreams in the Lich House talked about The Vast Wealth of Dungeons, and I have from time to time been thinking about it.  The presupposition is, of course, that the DMG gives the 'right' amount of experience necessary to go up a level, or the 'right' amount of experience for monsters that are to be killed, such as saying that if I need 2,000 x.p. as a fighter, and I expect to get that strictly from killing goblins (speaking the Dungeon Master's Guide here, sorry to the later edition readers), that I must kill 137.931034 goblins to reach second level, on average.  If I don't want to kill all those goblins, of course I can supplement the experience with gold I find, an average of something like 123 g.p. per 10 goblins, or something like that, if we're basing the numbers on the treasure table generated by the Dungeon Generator in the index.

But what does any of that matter?  Why even state definitively that the fighter needs 2,000 experience? Several people at the Lich House talked about using silver instead of gold, and giving experience for silver (which I did myself once, in the game I ran through the 80s), but why not simply give experience for very, very rare gold and cut the actual amount of experience down to 200, or 20?  It is only a ratio after all.  The important thing isn't how much experience in round numbers is necessary, but how the experience compares from class to class or level to level.  If the fighter needs 20 x.p. to get to second level, and to get 1 x.p. requires finding a gold piece that's 1/100th as common as it is in ordinary D&D, or 1 x.p. requires killing an opponent of equal or greater strength (or a group of opponents of approximately equal strength), the system works precisely the same.  And it gets rid of all that gold choking up the hallways of dungeons.  Remember, the number "2,000" was just pulled out of the gamemaker's ass.  It wasn't written in stone and given to Father Abraham upon his departing Mesopotamia.

We have a strange habit of seeing problems that aren't really problems, they are merely issues of scale.  If the scale of coin is an unworkable issue for your campaign, than simply change the scale.  Does it really matter how much gold exists in the world?  Is that a creditable issue?  If it is the weight of all that gold that bothers you, remember that gold coins in the Roman era weighed only 7 grams.  That's a quarter of a troy ounce, or 64 coins to the pound.  Of gold.  And a pound of gold doesn't take very much space, you may believe that. The specific gravity of gold is 19.3.  These small coins didn't seem to confuse the Romans at all and weren't, of course, made entirely of gold ... they were somewhat less dense than 19.3 grams to the cubic centimeter.  Still, gold was mixed with other dense metals, silver and copper.  So you see, you could get a lot more into a sack than the rather silly 200 that's named in AD&D.  Having 10,000 gold just doesn't take up as much space as you think.

And what difference does it make if a suit of armor costs 5 gold, 50 gold or 5,000 gold?  Don't you think that a theater-goer of 1945, who used to pay eight cents to see a movie, would think you were silly for spending twenty dollars?  The cost of things is entirely relative.  You don't make something more 'realistic' by supposedly removing the inflationary price of things.  Where do you begin considering where the 'inflation' started?  Silent movies used to be a penny.  It was inconceivable that a movie would ever cost eight cents.

Much of your perception of 'too much gold' or 'dungeons filled with gold' are only prejudices, not actual game problems.  As game problems, they are painfully easy to solve.  The difficulty isn't how much wealth exists or how much coin, it's how much coin does he, an admiral, have compared to her, the madam of a successful brothel?  How much gold do 50 orcs have compared to three minotaurs?  Those are actual problems.  The distribution of coin compared to the relative difficulty in acquiring it.  If we're going to offer a bit of brain sweat, let's apply it there.

Let me just end with a small addendum, about those out there who might think, regarding the post from earlier today, that I'm wrong to put a cute girl on a T-shirt to make an impression. What exactly is this, an image of Ava Gardner from the 1954 film, The Barefoot Contessa ... bad thinking?

It is an awful shock, but people like beautiful people. All the insistence of others that we shouldn't has little weight where it comes to encouraging people to buy something. Moreover, I like Ava Gardner in this movie. I like the movie as well, and strangely feel the need to review what it says about wealth and success and purpose often. But the reality is that I am biologically designed to find Ava Gardner attractive.  Her appearance in this film, which is about the attractiveness of a woman who nevertheless eschews her attractiveness, came about because film-makers at the time recognized that human nature is a better selling tool than guilt or finger-wagging.

Whatever you wish to do with the coin of your world, comprehend that biologically players are also inclined to like gold and to want to pour it over themselves, and feel they have a lot of it, because it makes them happy.  And if you will take a stance that insists that your players be ascetics, you've got to realize that you're going against nature.  In the long run, you're going to lose that fight.

One has to wonder, why would you be such a miser with something that costs you nothing?