Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Christmas Present

UPDATE:  Thank you.  A tremendous outpouring of Christmas spirit makes me feel like I'm in a holiday special.  I have enough money now to get a quad-core, 8-gig ram, 1 terabyte computer, which is within $50 of your donations.  More isn't necessary; if anyone wants to add a little, for reasons, I won't stop them, as a little more and a little more will always get me towards a better and better computer.  But I'm not greedy.  No one needs to contribute going forward, as I have enough to get when I wanted.  A merry, merry Christmas.  You have made my holiday very special!

I hesitate to step forward here, but there are days when I feel I must do something.  This, for the benefit of the Gentle Reader, is the total private space in which my partner Tamara and I live:

Complete with cat.

We have full access to the combined living room and kitchen, but most days this is occupied by two to six persons who are playing video games or watching reality programming on the giant screen TV that dominates the room.  We're all friendly, but it just isn't possible to get any work done.  As I write this now, I can hear the shelling of World of Warships; I have to put in earbuds to escape from it.

Here is a closer picture of the 2007 microsoft vista computer that I do all my design and writing work on:

If you look carefully, you can see a copy of The Princess Bride
hiding behind the screen.  Not intentional.  I recently quoted it on
the blog.

Note the missing keys, and the steadily ground-away chrome on the computer's bottom right hand side. That is not a smudge.  The surfacing has literally been worn away by my right wrist as I write and write and write.

I used this computer more or less continuously from 2007 until 2013, when it was replaced by a Toshiba. Unfortunately, 17 months ago, I dropped a glass of lemonade into the keyboard of the Toshiba and so I have been on this thing, again, since that time.

Here is my point.  If you would like to buy me a Christmas present, please help me replace this piece of shit.  It has no battery and if I remove the power cord to plug it in somewhere else, it takes 20 minutes for the computer to first warm up before it will turn on.  I would like to have a lap top that I can use in a library or a different public place, far away from the constant video game use, where Tamara and I are not cheek-and-jowl, where I can think in silence for hours and hours, where I can concentrate on writing, where I can conceivably finish my book.

It's this that seems to be the problem.  Every time I get close to thinking I have the money together to replace this, something comes up; I need a cavity filled or my daughter's mortgage is in danger of not being paid, or Tamara has to have her eyeglasses upgraded and replaced.  I'd like to get about 350 together, for a decent Chromebook, but it is just a bridge too fucking far.

So, if you can help, please donate.  The donate button for paypal is on the sidebar.  Then maybe I can get enough money together so that I can buy a computer in February or March.  So I can escape from this small room.  It's not the street, it's much appreciated, but it defies a place of comfort for me to work alone.

Please buy me a Christmas present this year.

A Hoodwink

"We need to now establish the type of campaign that we're going to be running.  Now, by type, I literally mean the grand theme, the theme, the main overriding story that's going to allow you to create what feels like a contained narrative within a chaotic space.  Now like the master plot, which gives you your singular direction from which you can deviate and move away from, but always come back to, your type or your theme is going to be exactly the same in terms of the functioning of it.
"So if we look at the different types or the different themes of campaign that you can run, you can run a war campaign, you can run a revenge campaign, you can run a justice campaign, you can run an ascension campaign, you can run a restoration campaign, you can run an apocalyptic campaign, you can run a campaign that deals with the idea of love for example.  So they're fairly broad ideas in which the narrative is going to sit."

To deconstruct this, I will be referring to parts of the video that have not been quoted.

Why This Seems Important

The process of managing a game is a daunting, often intimidating prospect, that can be moreso if the DM has run games before that collapsed or failed due to moments when "thinking on our feet" proved to be a failing strategy.  The habit becomes an emphasis on fighting back the chaos, as this seems the most troublesome aspect of running.

The best way to reduce chaos and create an effective management for a game is to organize and plan.  That is the thinking that virtually everyone rushes to when something complicated falls apart after a failed attempt.  "The next time I do this, I am going to have a plan."  The video here is an example of that thinking: the certainty that, with good planning with a strong story and overriding narrative, I will be able to establish a series of achievable, firm goals that can be met methodically and with my feet firmly on the ground.  This way, the confusion, havoc and uproars of my past sessions will be laid to rest, disruptions to the campaign will be minimized and the game will proceed in a predictable, orderly manner.  Thank gawd!

Furthermore, this collection of goals will create for us a logical framework from which we can design additional adventures, all upon the same theme, so that when we need an idea, we can return to the scope of ideas contained within that theme.  Once we've established that this is a war, then adventures connected with war will spring to mind in abundance, so that we won't be on the hook to come up with something, unlike our previous scattered and stumbling attempts, where we've come up short.  How wonderful that is.  No more wasted efforts, no more rushing to react to something we didn't expect - this campaign is going to be one that gets results!

Why We Believe in this Strategy

Without a doubt, plans work.  They encourage thinking about a problem, which itself is an important step towards being prepared.  Part of the problem with relying on improvisation is that it causes DMs to take a pass on thinking about the next game, reducing the overall amount of creativity that has gone into preparing that game's experience.

As well, planning is a specific process, with a specific structure.  If we sit down to intricately plan a campaign, it is easier to guess what sort of questions we want answered, both for ourselves and for the players.  The very act of planning encourages us to answer these questions for ourselves, so that a DM in the planning process will feel reassured and confident while working alone for days, prior to the event.  Planning has a way of focusing our minds on the task at hand.  It is comforting.  A lack of planning makes us feel incapable and anxious about what's coming.  Planning holds our hand and gives us reason to think that we're on top of the problem.  In fact, there is biological evidence of this; planning is an executive function of the brain, selecting and successfully applying attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility, as I've just explained.

The video argues the value of this very human, very emotionally charged process, basically outlining the traditional steps of planning:

  • Choose a destination.
  • Evaluate possible routes.
  • Decide on a course of action.
We humans have been doing it this way for ten thousand years.  We've built the edifice of civilization and culture by designing, organizing, managing subordinates and directing the combined power of human ingenuity and resourcefulness towards the accomplishment of any intended outcome.  It seems child's play to apply this principle to a simple matter like running a game.

Why It Won't Work

Some are well ahead of me by this point.  Role-playing is an improvisational activity.  It can't be "planned" by both the DM and the players at the same time, since the players technically are necessarily removed from what is about to happen on the other side of the door, deliberately by the Dungeon Master.  As such, much of the "planning" for the balance of the participants goes into managing the unknown ~ and the results of that planning and execution creates an unknown for the DM that can't be planned for, since ingenuity, random rolls and the gestalt of the group's interaction creates a chaotic, enticing maelstrom ... in fact, the very effect for which we play the game, as uncertainty is utterly, wonderfully fascinating.

The more planning the DM attempts to contain and build a frame around that chaos, the more stale and reactionless the campaign becomes.

A good metaphor could be the incidence of lightning. We can understand why it occurs, we can produce a reasonable means of predicting its strike, but we can't be certain if, or when, it will actually strike. Moreover, we can't control the strike, nor the effects of the strike.  None of which reduces the awe-inspiring magnificence of the display, nor the terror-inducing effects of a nearby strike, nor the immeasurable dread we feel if we're caught outside in a place where, it seems certain, that it is going to strike us.

Despite the totality of human achievement, there are some things we do not control, that no amount of planning can manage.  And some things should not be planned for: this is why "spontaneity" is treated with such reverence where our emotional-reward is concerned.

Yet that promise that we receive as we plan continues to delude us into thinking that this lightning can be contained in a bottle and that the experience will not be lessened once we manage it.  That is because this planning is all done alone, prior to the game, where the echo-chamber of one's own thoughts, vs. the apprehension of the next running, hoodwinks us into following the will o'wisp, again, into the hubris of our false confidence.

The video, above, is a hoodwink.  It sounds good.  Until one thinks about it.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Rating Health

My infrastructure/trade/development quandary continues apace, very slowly.  That is because the problem, and the management of the problem in particular, is very deep and information thick.  Still, I did say I would be writing about it on occasion, before eventually releasing some of the content here on the blog, once I have enough to make an impression.

The problem today is defining health.  I mentioned this is a couple of posts just recently, here and here.  I had said I wanted a number basis for comparing regions of appalling health with those where players would want to visit ... and to make those differences matter to the players in a way that they would really care what the environment was like.  I think I have managed to create a general template, which I will outline here in a series of five tables:

Here we have a strictly managed public health policy.  The above should be as good as it gets for a Renaissance culture ~ that's my plan, anyway.  Rationally, there should be ways to slice the pie thinner, if need be, but this is a good start.  As health is a little less well managed, it looks like this:

Not quite as clean or socially respectful, but still maintaining a lot of standards, such as good food, rest, control of disease and services.  Still, this isn't the norm; an average health condition should look like this:

Now it is starting to get a little uncomfortable for the players.  Adjacent gong pits would mean they were out back of most buildings and noticeable.  With five or six players, the chance of someone catching a cold or a minor ailment, though 1 in 80 apiece, is now better than 1 in 14.  Comfortable, safe accommodations are harder to find.  But still, this seems civilized.  In a less seemly part of the world, however, we have this:

This is now quite unpleasant.  This isn't a place to rest.  If the player is only first level, gaining back hit points from rest isn't possible (by my healing rules).  The dead are loaded openly on carts.  Getting a clean bed for the night is out of the question.  The water tastes funny.  The population is rife with disease.  A week's stay will mean someone is bound to come down with something.  But still, it is better than this:

At low level, player characters, not having been bred here, and toughened to the disease and conditions, would actually lose hit points from attempting to rest.  There's nowhere to evacuate one's bowels except in a side lane.  Gong is everywhere, as are flies, vermin and the occasional, ignored dead body.  The population would be easier to kill, with less hit points and levelled characters, but is that really a blessing?

I suppose it could be worse ... but I'm shooting to make this around the bottom of the scale.  I still need a means of generating a number between -4 and +4, but that will take some experimenting with actually describing specific regions of all kinds to get right.  For the moment, this measurement scheme is a place to work from.  If necessary, I can widen the range of numbers later and, as I say, cut the differences finer, making 7 or 9 degrees of health if necessary.

I hope to create similar tables like this for happiness/unhappiness and culture/uncultured.  That's going to take some thought, but that's the goal.  For those building and thinking about their own worlds, the above gives a simple scale that a given setting can be assigned, if going through the process of actually measuring a region's health (as I'm doing) is undesirable.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Convenient Backstory

I went looking for an example of the player using a backstory to manipulate a DM's world, and found a doozy.  This is marvelous.  The Reddit thread is a long diatribe in which a player bemoans a DM of committing the unforgiveable sin of ignoring the player's backstory, outlined at the top of the thread:

"In my recent campaign, there was an army of hobgoblins being a threat to a major city. I wanted to go back my dwarf mountain to get the help of my fathers military who I was a high ranking officer in. I told everyone about it in my backstory in the beginning of the game. Now as I go back to the mountain the dm [sic] disregards my backstory and puts in his own version of my characters home. He makes it so I'm a nobody dwarf and my family name is shared by everyone and nobody knows who I am. Even though i stated earlier about where I am from and who I was before I went into adventuring. How should I talk to the dm [sic] about this. He just makes jokes and says he doesn't care. Mostly because he doesn't want me to do that. What should I do?"

The remainder of the thread consists of others who deeply respect the suffering of the player, who rush to condemn the DM, and who create examples of how they would run the campaign, catering to the player's needs and backstory.  From the point of view of many players, including a lot of my readers, the angst and abuse of the player in the thread is no doubt something they feel themselves, as the bad, bad DM broke the rules ... after all, the DM approved the backstory, so the DM is clearly in the wrong.

I won't contest that.  That back story should never have been approved.

Oh, your father runs his own military.  How wonderful.  And you were a high ranking officer in that army. Marvelous.  It sure is great when, as a player, you can take five minutes and dream up an army on tap for your needs, whenever you want it.  That's what I call earning your way in the game.

It takes half the thread before someone points this out:

I would guess that the probable situation is that neither the player nor the DM are very experienced.  The DM no doubt approved of the story because it sounded pretty good at the time, never thinking what the consequences of that might be.  At the same time, the player was probably just spiffing around with a story idea ... and then after the fact, realized that he could use it to his advantage.  The player is so dissonant about the enormity of the backstory's personal benefit that it's probable the player can't see what's wrong.

That sounds like "new campaign" to me.  Hey, we're all just heroes anyway ~ and heroes in stories always get to go back to their father's and get the help of a big, convenient military for the last showdown with the big bad.  Can't we all think of about thirty movies that end that way?

The remaining commenters appear to have the opinion that, if the DM approved it, then it has to stand, no matter what.  That is complete bullshit.  DMs make mistakes.  They're human.  Even those with a few years experience are capable of missing the consequences of a brief, poorly thought out decision. The only thing that matters here is that Dad's Army (unless it's the British farce) is an UNFAIR advantage and effectively game breaking.

"But he laughed at me!" ... sob, sob, cry, whine ...

If you're a new DM, as I wrote in the previous post for New DMs, stay far, far away from the backstory.  A marginally clever player, with a week to think about it, can engineer a piece of work that will spear you in the ass in ways you never thought possible.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

5 Tips on DMing the First Time

Knowing that DMing for the first time is scary, and feeling their first time viscerally in their bones, most DMs will present a list like this encouragingly.  They will rush to celebrate the new DM's courage, love of the game and generous spirit, hoping to create a wonderful positivity that argues that if you want really, really bad to be a great DM, and you believe you can be a great DM, then anything is possible.

This is not a list like that.

See, unlike other lists that purport to give advice on what to do if its your first time as a DM, actually giving you zero help, this one actually seeks to tell you what you need to know.  And just so long as we understand each other, part of this advice takes the position that maybe you are not cut out to be a DM.  The fact is, maybe you're not the right material for this.  Maybe you shouldn't DM at all.

No, this isn't some clever psyche job.  I'm being dead serious.  Some people are shit at DMing.  I'm not trying to inspire you to get mad, tell me I know nothing, so you can find the confidence you need to be great. I want you to be consciously aware that running a game requires a mindset that you might not possess.  See, unlike those who will spoon feed you and tell you that anyone can DM, I don't agree.  I think most can't.  I think they know this, deep down inside ... so if you're someone who suspects, deep down inside, that you can't run a game, then you're probably right.  And you need to face that.

Good.  Let's get started.

None of this advice is easy.  But if you follow it ~ if you can follow it ~ then you might prove to others that you can do this.

1.  Research

I hope you've played before.  In the very least, you've got to see another DM run a game ~ an actual DM, not someone on a youtube channel, playing it up for an audience, where everyone plays politely because they're being watched by tens of thousands of people.  Or because they work for a game company.

Assuming you've played ~ and if you haven't, stop now, go play for about six months, then come back and read the rest of this ~ it's time to figure out what you believe.  I suggest writing down, for as long as it takes, at least twenty things that you've seen other DMs do that you disagree with.  The way they talk, the way they present, the adventures they run, how they manage people, how they've treated you, how they roll dice, whatever it is that bugs you.  Write it down.  Look at it.  Understand why you think it is bad behaviour ... and then precisely how and why you're not going to do the same thing when you're a DM.

If you can't think of a thing, don't DM.  You either haven't run long enough, or you're incapable of seeing how DMs are screwing with their players.  And seriously ~ if there's one magnificent DM that you know, that the sun rises and sets upon, then drop any hope that you will ever DM.  You're far, far too naive and poorly educated to be in any position where you have to manage people.

Now, maybe you can't think of twenty things.  Fair enough.  Try for ten.  If not ten, then five.  If you can't come up with five, no one can help you.  If you can managed ten or twelve, I can give you a pass ... for now.  But you're going to have a lot of trouble, because you haven't got a voice of your own.  You're not remotely prepared to answer confidently most of the questions you're going to be asked by players, who will certainly dig out and find everything they think is wrong with your game play, and exploit the ever-living shit out of you, their newest punching bag.

You might get better at seeing errors in others if you give yourself more time playing.  Eventually, with enough playing, and enough DMs, you might start to see patterns that indicate bad running techniques.  But truly, if you don't come out of the gate thinking, "Everyone else is doing it wrong!" ~ you're probably not of the right stuff.

2.  Know Your Game

You've probably heard this before.  And maybe, just maybe, you've read through all the rules (once) and now you think you've got this.  Or maybe you think with all your playing experience, you're ready.  Okay.  I understand that feeling.  But no.  You're not ready.

You're not going to be a player, now.  You're going to be a DM.  That is a different game.  You used to play for fun and laughs, but now you're going to play for a sense of satisfaction.  You're going to be too busy to have a good time ... and if you are having a good time, then guess what: you are seriously jacking your players, using them as your little pawns in a game you absolutely should not be playing!

But if you're evil in this way, I probably can't help you.  lf, however, you find yourself sitting at a table with a bunch of social rejects, who can't find a shower on their way to your house, who can't seem to find a garbage for their empty cheezie bags, using their orange, grubby fingers to make their grubby noses orange, then don't blame me.  Evil DMs do find players ... a particular kind of player, the sort that would probably frighten you now ... but one day you will be screaming at someone that these are, "My best friends!"

Know your game.  Know what you want out of this.  Is it to expand your experience, talents and social circle, or is this the beginning of a dangerous drift into obesity and forties-something infantilism?  You decide. The kind of players you will have applaud you will depend on your decision.

And if it happens that "your game" is going to be too high-brow for this bunch of dumb-asses you play with, or "your game" is going to be too much "fun" for these self-righteous college students you don't respect, then probably you shouldn't run a game at this time.  It would be a bad idea.  One that might cripple you for some time.

3.  You're the Referee

If it's necessary, go watch a professional football game, straight through.  Live, even at the high school or college level, is a thousand times better than one televised.  While there, watch the referees.  Take note of a few things.

The Refs decide when the game starts and the Refs decide when the game stops.  When the Ref blows a whistle, everyone acts.  They stop what they're doing and move on.  When someone does something against the rules, the Refs call it.  They stand their ground.  They don't argue with the players; they let the players bitch and moan, but in the end, the Refs are never, ever wrong.

The Refs are never wrong because they know the rules cold, and they see everything.  Players bitch and moan, but the players know the Refs are right, because that's the fact, Jack.  And because, if the players don't accept it, the door is thataway.

But understand.  The Refs are never deliberately jerks.  If another Ref were to see a Ref being a jerk, the jerk would very quickly never be a Ref again, ever.  They all know this.  If you think the Refs are harsh when they call a player, they're freaking psychotic about calling other Refs.

That's you.  Or, at least, that's what you think you want to be.  Someone who knows the rules, someone able to be utterly without personal bias, someone ready to stand their ground against any argument, no matter who is screaming or how loud they're screaming.  Without, if possible, losing your temper.

You, and not the players, are running this game.  They have to believe that.  You have to believe that.  And you have to work very damn hard to get that message across.  Believing won't cut it on it's own.  The players will also believe it when you prove, over and over, that you're one step smarter than they are, because you're the expert.  You're the rules guy.  You're the one who got to the conclusion before they did.

Start figuring out how you're going to do that, because if you can't on your own, you're never going to be a DM.

4.  Don't Write a Story

Everyone who gives advice to new DMs says, "Come up with a good story!"  Don't.  Don't try.  You've never DM'd before and even if you've been a story teller all your life, you don't know how to tell a story in the context of this game.  And I'll bet you're not a story teller.

Look, this game is complicated enough.  Spare yourself some misery.  Forget the damn story idea.  Kill it with a spade, then use the spade to bury it.  It's your first game.  I'll explain what you should do.

Have them fight something.  Something very uncomplicated.  Orcs.  Giant rats.  Slow-moving tree stumps. Anything that swings and hits or swings and misses.  Nothing more complicated than that.  You're not used to running this damn game ... you need time to practice the simple stuff.

Okay.  They've won.  Now think of a reason to give them treasure.  It doesn't have to be a good reason, it just has to be a reason.  Now think of a reason to get them into another fight.  Then a reason to give them more treasure.  Then find a reason to get them to a town, so they can buy stuff.  And then find a reason to get them into another fight.

Do this until your reasons for moving from this thing to the next thing start to impress them.  Do this until the reasons start to impress you.  All this practice at coming up with reasons is going to make you a lot better at coming up with connections for things.

These reasons are called motivations. Getting them from one thing to the next thing is called momentum. There.  That's all you need to know right now.

I know, this doesn't sound exciting.  You're not ready for exciting. You're ready to learn how to run combats and figure out how much treasure to award, and that's it.  That's enough on your plate right now.

And if some jackass in your group says, "This is boring," you just come right back at them with, "Fuck you, I'm learning how to run this fucking game.  You can shut up and like it or you can sit in this fucking chair and run this thing yourself!"

Hey, I ran for five years doing nothing more than schlepping people from combat to market to combat.  No one ever, ever complained.  In fact, they really liked it ... especially as I got better and better with all the confidence I had gained learning how to run combats and award treasure.

5.  Don't Let Anyone Write a Backstory

If you give this a moment's thought, you will realize that when you used to write backstories, you would always use them to manipulate your DM into letting you do stuff, because your character "needed it." Backstories are ways for players to top from the bottom, if we can use that phrase.  You're not experienced enough for that noise.

For your first campaign, give all your players amnesia.  Tell them none of them can remember a single thing about their former lives.  And if they demand to know how they can restore their memories, tell them, "It's impossible."

Make it stick.

Trust me.  No backstories.  You will be real sorry if you don't listen.  And real damn glad if you do.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Crossing Boundaries

"Everyone at your table volunteers their free time and as we all know, free time is valuable.  You try to prep everyone with session zero to get the feel for how you game master.  You walk players through their character backgrounds to get an understanding of how they want to play.  Give them pre-game house rules so that everyone is on the same page on how act and respond to one during game play.  You try your best to anticipate what your players might do.  You try your best to feel the room and gauge how the table feels about different situations you put them through.  Sometimes, you can't anticipate or read the table.  Sometimes you cross boundaries you didn't know where there in the first place."
"One way to attempt to avoid this is to ask your players, privately ahead of time, what items or issues are off the table.  Compile these items into a list with your own off-limits subjects, and tell your players during the pre-game house rules, 'These items are off the table and might trigger someone sitting at the table with you.  As a game master, it's your responsibility to provide a safe space for your players to open their imaginations in play."

I don't know if my readers have the tenacity to sit through the video above.  However, I am going to try to take it as seriously as I can, once again deconstructing the advice above to determine what value there is in it.

Why This Seems to Work

Frankly, a lot of it is good advice.  You should be speaking to your players, before, during and after sessions to obtain feedback about the tone and direction of the campaign.  Communication is key to a game, as is team-building for the party, and so there are many ways in which inconsiderate or confrontational behaviour can ruin a session.  I am the first person to encourage DMs to talk to their players.  I discuss my ideas and my philosophies constantly, right here on the blog.

Role-playing is inherently an activity in which every part of the human experience can be played out and viscerally experienced, including those things which many people will find offensive.  There is no question about that.  During the video above, Dr. Megan Connell discusses using role-playing as a therapy tool for empowering women and managing the difficulties of autistic patients.  This is not surprising; in the 1950s, psychologists began seeing how theatre could be turned around as a tool for exactly this purpose, to allow people to work out problems in their real life by distancing themselves through role-play.  Role-play was publicized through the media, enabling a group of young designers to incorporate it into wargaming to create role-playing games ... and so naturally, it comes around full circle again as the game is used by psychologists to manage stress and enable fun.

With young people who are struggling to manage the game, this idea of closing off questionable content from the game experience has the benefit of making people feel more comfortable.  It is a form of etiquette, where the social acceptability of subjects, attitudes and behaviors are maintained.  When we are polite, we watch our behaviour with others in mind before ourselves, ensuring that a group experience is social and pleasant.

This sounds desirable.

How Evidence Seems to Support This

We need to be clear about Dr. Connell's agenda in the video, and the agenda of Satine Phoenix as well.

Dr. Connell is concerned with making troubled people less troubled.  She is using her game as a tool, not as an end in itself, as made perfectly clear with many of her statements, where she expresses pride in a patient successfully overcoming an emotional obstacle, associated with that patient's personal self-image.  In each case, it is the game's value as a therapy that is being argued ... and because it is a group therapy, the nature of the experience must be that is it inclusive.  Group therapy was developed as a sensitivity-training tool designed to socialize individuals distinctly lacking in social skills.

This goal is eminently laudable and I commend Dr. Connell's willingness to take the game as it exists and apply it to this purpose.  That's great.

But that is not what everyday DMs are doing with their games.  Not being psychologists, or perceiving the treatment of players as part of the Saturday night game agenda, the good doctor's expectations from a good game are a long, long way from our expectations.

As regards Ms. Phoenix.  I want to take care not to disparage her approach to her game.  Her game, however, is an officially presented product of the Wizards of the Coast; therefore, her views, ideas and perspectives are necessarily managed by the existence of a business operating behind her words.  It is absolutely in the interest of that business to view inclusiveness of participants as their primary agenda, since "viewers" equal "customers."

Moreover, because much of her persona includes appearances at public events, where she will sit on a panel and promote the views of the WOTC, it is understandable that her personal agenda will be to please her employers ~ or at the very least, those people responsible for her having a strong voice on the internet.  Part of that promotion will be to communicate, regularly, and occasionally run, complete and total strangers.  Where running strangers, there are many reasons why any person will want to make it clear where boundaries might be crossed and why avoiding triggers would be a priority.  We have all seen that scene where someone rises at a convention table, screams at the DM and storms out ~ and though there is often much laughter, it is the kind of thing that makes management suits very uncomfortable.

I understand Ms. Phoenix's motivations here; however, not being public presenters, or being concerned with what the WOTC thinks of our game performance, and not ~ for the most part ~ playing with strangers, but with friends, it is difficult to connect the advice in the video with actual experience in a non-monitored situation.

Why the Advice Won't Work For You

I've covered this somewhat already, reading between the lines above.  But it is still a good idea to be considerate and empathic with your fellow-players, so fundamentally the above advice would seem to hold water, regardless of the change in situation.

In my past, I have offended players.  I have been unrestrained in my use of language.  I have been excessively graphic where it comes to violence or sex.  I have been impatient with my players.  On occasion, it wouldn't hurt for me to be more patient and, yes, inclusive.

But let's go back to something I wrote above: "Role-playing is inherently an activity in which every part of the human experience can be played out and viscerally experienced ..."  

Unless your goal is that of Dr. Connell, where you see yourself as a doctor administering to patients, or as Ms. Phoenix, who sees herself as a cruise director for players who have "volunteered" to play in your game, chances are you've had some trouble with the advice being given.  Granted, there are DMs who are grateful to the few players who have deigned to play in their games, who cannot count on other players if these few depart ... and I feel much pity for DMs who are thus trapped in this circumstance.  It is terrible to have one's love exist at the whim of others.

If that is not your circumstance, however; if you don't feel dependent on your players; then it is only natural that yes, you will feel the need to judge them from time to time.  That is a natural impulse.  It is part of the day-to-day world, where you are judged on the internet, at work, by your doctor as he tells you that you need to lose weight, by your mother who isn't impressed with your job, by your neighbor who resents how rarely you shovel your sidewalks free of snow and so on.  Being judged, and judging, are constant experiences.

And now I have to quote The Princess Bride:  "Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something."

Judgement is part of that pain.  We can mitigate our judgement; we can cool it down and put it into phrasing that isn't ranting, such as I have tried to do with this post.  But we can't make ourselves agree with something solely for the benefit of other people, without risking ourselves.

If you try to follow the advice given above, you're going to do nothing more than tie yourself into knots.  In addition to that, you will be giving your players complete power to judge you.  When you set out to please them, to cater to them, to tailor the circumstances of your world to serve their whims, you make yourself a slave ... if not to their conscious desire to mess with you, with emotional complaints and hand signals, then to their unconscious inability to deal with anything out of their ken.  You end by putting yourself at the mercy of their trauma and their neuroses.

That's fine if you have training, like Dr. Connell.  Without training, you're not ready for that shit-scape.

Thoughts on Advice

My players are not "volunteers."  Volunteering is an altruistic activity where individuals and groups provide service for no financial gain.  Coming to play in my world is not a service others perform for me.  I find that particular characterization highly misaligned with my experience as a DM.

As an artist, as a designer, the chance through D&D to explore every part of the human experience is my priority.  My priority is not to run an all-inclusive game for every person who might happen to sit at my game table.  I can, at best, run five or six people a week; this out of the half a million participants who might be playing right now.  I feel I can afford to be selective.

If I happen to offend Jeff, then Jeff is perfectly welcome to play another game with another DM.  My feelings towards Jeff at that moment will likely be unkind and yes, judgmental.  If I see a member of the audience rise and leave the theatre just as the main actor gets out of bed, naked, to turn on the television, without the ridiculous Hollywood charade of wrapping a bedsheet around him so as not to offend the audience, who supposedly aren't there, then YES, I'm going to be terrifically judgmental ... and so will many others, because it is plain that the audience member is a prig.

The present day desire to turn priggishness into a mental state that needs empathy and a redesign of social behaviour is ridiculous.  I won't cat-call them as they cringe at my game table; I will do my best to keep my disdain, politely, to myself.  But if can't deal with what's happening, I feel I am in my rights to say, "I'm sorry, maybe this is not the game for you."

Of course, if they argue, the gloves are off.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Dark Souls

Some family and friends of mine have put together a Let's Play of Dark Souls 1. Have a look, be kind, pass it around:

The beginning is a bit dark, a bit predictable, but with great funny moments. They're new, exploring the concept of editing and commentary. They could use a few comments, a few page views, as much encouragement as you can give them.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Places from Which a Story Evolves

This is a follow-up post to one that I wrote earlier today.  I've heard that it's bad form to pile one blog post on top of another ... but if I think of something to write, it is hard not to just keep writing.  Please see the previous post before going at this one, as they are somewhat related.

Herein I want to make a point about player agency, and about building adventures that enable it.  Some of the following might potentially offend some of my American readers; let me make it clear that my desire here is to explain the telling of stories from content that can be universally experienced and appreciated.  No offense is intended.

I'm going to start by proposing four stories intended to depict that universal event, the tragedy of 9/11 in New York.

Plot #1: Passengers on a plane from Boston experience terror as hijackers seize control, without explaining their purpose.  The story revolves around several passengers, each going through their own nightmare, until it becomes evident that there's nothing they can do to stop the inevitable.  The tempo of the story revolves around helplessness, regret, fear and ultimately a joining together of victims when everything is lost in an instant.

Plot #2: Ordinary citizens and New York's finest are caught on the ground beneath the World Trade Center as one plane, then another, crash into the north and south towers.  The story follows the scene on the streets and in the lower levels of the building, as we see the chaos of searching for those who are hurt, frightened or killed.  The tempo of the story revolves around bravery in a crisis, sacrifice, loss and demands to cope with an unrelenting, irrational catastrophe.

Plot #3:  Wishing his sister goodbye as she boards a plane from Boston to New York, a journalist watches in horror as the events of 9/11 unfold on the television.  Driven to find some sort of meaning in his sister's loss, the journalist investigates every aspect and detail of the event, seeking some sort of redemption.  The tempo of the story revolves around truths, lies, cover-ups and the unbearable knowledge that we will never really know the answer why.

Plot #4:  A man watching his wife and child die in a war zone agrees to join a militia, that sends him on a mission to the U.S., where he learns how to fly a plane.  Step by step, he moves towards the decision that has him boarding a plane in Boston, helping seize control of the plane, after which he takes over the controls. The tempo of the story follows his uncertain beliefs at each step, until he finds within him the courage to carry forth his convictions, whatever the cost.

Which movie do you want to see?  Which movie would be the hardest to see, that would push your preconceptions to the limit and result in redefining your experience?  When all is said and done, assuming the same quality of each, which would still have meaning ten or twenty years from now?

Those answers are different for different people.  Certainly, the more comforting films are the first two; the first, because it is a kind of catharsis, that lets us identify with a horror that we often feel.  The second, because we appreciate and acknowledge bravery, which is something we hope to find in ourselves, if we're ever pressed to face something similar.

The third movie is more distant, more intellectual.  It is closer to the experience most of us have, those of us who weren't at ground zero when it happened.  It addresses questions we're still asking.  What was real? What actually happened?  Can we prevent it from happening again?  The third movie is the one that wins the Oscar, as it is carefully paced and filled with long, meaningful dialogues, like the Academy likes.

The fourth movie is completely wrong, completely unacceptable.  It is almost treasonous.  Yet if we were to acknowledge that the men who seized those planes were human beings, with human feelings and human motives, we'd have to further acknowledge that the world is not as clear and simple as we want to believe.

I'm going to argue that the last story has the best plot, however difficult it is to accept the premise.  The first three stories are about victims ... people who have had their experiences forced on them, who rose or failed to rise to the experience, as best they could.  We've made lots of movies about the human experience as it applies to victims; it is easy pickings for a writer.  When the disaster hits, we have a good idea of what people will do, for good or ill.  We have plenty of examples from real life.

The fourth story, however, is about someone in control.  He is not a victim.  He is someone making a decision ... and whatever we think of the decision, it is fascinating to watch stories about people who have the control to decide.  We can easily imagine what we'd do if we were caught in a crisis.  It is nearly impossible to contemplate what sort of mental state it takes to cause that crisis.

This, not surprisingly, comes back to D&D.  I'm not really making an argument that we need to humanize people who commit atrocities (though we've made more than our share of Nazi films, haven't we?).  I'm arguing that when we think of a plot to drive characters in a D&D game, we should stop contemplating circumstances that make the players victims.

It is no fun to be a victim.  It may be tense and full of moments of relief and triumph (at not dying), but it really isn't much fun.  It is far, far more enjoyable to be in the saddle, making up one's mind about what to do next, to have the lives and experiences of others in one's hands.  Now and then, when making an adventure, give a little less thought of things that happen to the players.

Think a little more of set-ups where the end result is less clear, less certain, so the players can rise to the challenge of making the decision themselves.

I know, I know, "How in hell do we do that?"  Well, start by describing the circumstances as something that happens to other people, and not the players.  Make it awful.  Then put the knowledge of how to do something about it in the player's hands.  Then figure out a reward for the players stepping up.  Then see if they do.

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Bad Advice We Don't See

"Think of a corresponding plot hook ... you need a good, strong, easily read plot hook, because this is supposed to be an all-inclusive full arc story in a single session.  You don't want your party wandering for half of it wondering what the hell they're supposed to do.  Now find a way to have the meat of the story grab them early with a strong inciting incident.  For instance, as they are drinking in the tavern ... Boom!  The western wall explodes in a shower of splinters as a massive, insane [garbled] bull begins goring the customers with its horns.  After slaying the creature, they discover a series of strange markings in the normally docile beast.  They appear deliberate, arcane and recent.  Who could have done this?  Any why?
"Or, during a celebration surrounding the maiden voyage of a major trade ship, an assassin attempts to slay a member of the party, as well as two other officials involved in the trade ship's company.  When the chaos dies down, a ring on the assassin's hand holds the crest of a particular noble house."

Let's deconstruct a little.  To get the full impact of this post, I strongly recommend watching the entire video.

Why This Seems to Work

At most game tables, particularly those of a convention, where strangers are expected to play with each other for a one-off adventure, such as described here, the players usually don't have an agenda.  From my experience, most don't know they're allowed to have an agenda.  Thus, a DM can usually be sure that the players are waiting for the DM to tell them what they're expected to do, as the text above indicates.

When the incident begins, it seems very exciting.  The wall has just blown in!  There's a bull!  Or an assassin!  Do something!  Fight!  Run!  The response expected from the players is crystal clear; the players don't have to argue or debate about what to do ~ it is very obvious, so that everyone is immediately in synch.  The party, then, acts together ... and this helps bind a party, particularly a group of strangers at a Con, together.

Would-be writers are often told that they should begin a story with something exciting:
"As Jeremy threw himself to the sidewalk, the house of his birth exploded, scattering the neighborhood with brick, plaster and children's toys ..."

You'd read the next sentence of a book that started like that, right?  And so it seems like a good start for a game adventure.  Grab the players, get them working together, provoke their curiosity.

Why It Works in a Story

In a story, there's no question about the characters being interested and concerned about the event.  As the passive audience watches the film or play, or reads the story, the characters do the next obvious thing: they find the ring and recognize the noble house, just as expected.  Becoming curious, the characters investigate, make inquiries, talk to other characters who have the necessary information to move the story steadily along towards an exciting and interesting climax.

At no time in the story do the characters question the initial motivation.  They were there when the incident occurred, that is enough motivation to carry them through the rest of the story.  We wouldn't expect the characters to grow suddenly disinterested in the story.  Poirot does not realize he's on a train full of murderers and decide to get off, to reveal the truth to a group of police officers.  Luke doesn't listen to his uncle.  Deckard doesn't off Rachael.  Everyone does exactly what we expect of them, in the way we like it ... or else we would be unhappy with the story.

With a story, the writer carefully constructs all the characterizations so that this makes sense.  Deckard is given a specific set of traits and behaviours that make his falling in love with Rachael, whether or not she is a replicant, full believable and desirable to the reader.  Luke is depicted as an awkward, strongly romantic and anxious, so that it's impossible for him not to follow the plot as expected.  Poirot's ego is so immense it needs a train car of its own: and therefore, when he confronts the murderers, we're ready for it.

Additionally, take note that none of these characters has any real interest in doing something else.  Poirot exists to solve crimes.  Luke is bored on the farm.  Deckard is eating when he's interrupted; he doesn't seem to be on his way anywhere.  What else would they be doing?

And thus, each dialogue and interplay follows a carefully constructed format, in the writer's imagination, with characters who live to follow this story.  We accept this because we're not personally involved.  We're listening to the story, interested in what happens next, enjoying the characters we like explore their surroundings.

Why It Won't Work in Your Game

Very well, the players have killed the bull, or the assassin, and discovered the markings, or the ring.  What happens next?  Why, they'll investigate, right?  They'll immediately commit themselves to going from place to place, seeking out the people who will give them the next important clue, so they can find out who the assassin is and why the bull was so marked.

And my, how boring that will be.

See, finding out those details, to explain the puzzle, is a lot of dull exposition that the players, unlike book characters, will have heard before, in a hundred other stories they've already read.  Yada, yada, yeah, the noble's heir wants the throne, the cult is marking bulls all over the country, blah blah, sure, just tell us where the heir is or where the cult is and gawd, let's get past all this mystery shit so we can go kill something else.  Please.

No matter how good it sounds in a story, your character really isn't that interested in having the argument with Luke's father, or all that motivated by finding your parents are roasting skeletons in the desert.  Oh, sure, you might get to raise your fist in the air at your gaming table and shout "NO!" in an affected, dramatic voice, but everyone is going to laugh and make jokes, and let's be serious, it's the affectation of the emotion you care about, not the actual deaths of your fake parents.

You're not really interested in conducting a dozen interviews with strange characters, one by one, parsing for the painfully specific detail that will finally let you point a finger at everyone.  And while you're more than ready to take out a gun and kill replicants, what is the chance that you give the remotest of shits for this scene at Tyrell's office and the 100+ questions you have to ask Rachael before you know she's a replicant.  How much interest do you have in explaining to her in your apartment that she is?

You're not.  Mysteries, as role-playing games, are actually pretty dull.  If you run a lot of mysteries as a DM, chances are you have one player who gets off on this stuff and four players who sit quietly and ask a few questions, while they wait and wait and wait for something to happen.  Or worse, you, the DM, are the only person who actually cares, while the party waits and waits and waits for you to squeeze out the details one by one, until you deign it is time for something to happen.

Worse, It's a Railroad

Once the bull appears at the tavern, the rest of the adventure is set in stone.  The players are expected to kill the bull.  What happens if they don't?  Well, obviously, that's impossible.  If this is a one-off we're running at a convention, we can't just have everyone roll new characters, so that bull has to go down.  Already, we've eliminated any real concern.

Once the bull is dead, the explanation has to follow.  Whether or not the players agree, or investigate, or do anything at all, the explanation will have to be forced on them, as npc's appear to make declarations until the players are fully informed about their next expected action.  There's no way this bull can just bust through a bar without there being a reason.  Someone has orchestrated it, and that someone must be brought to account.

Otherwise, really, who cares?  An assassin has randomly attempted to kill a party member in a game at the beginning of the adventure.  We're already being told there will be other assassins, so we'd better do something, or we'll all die.  The extortion is clear and heavy-handed.  The DM might as well pull out a pistol, point it at the heads of the players and announce, "You will play my game, or else."

Thoughts on Advice

I would think that if we're going to give advice on how to run an adventure, whether it is a one-off or a long campaign, that the advice be less glib and better thought out.  It isn't enough to tell people, "Have a hook."  What's needed is to explain to people, "Decide on a motivation for your players, then fulfill that motivation."

It is true.  We need a good, strong, easily read plot hook.  Let's say the players would like to be richer:
"As they are drinking in the tavern, one of the players happens to know that three days from now, there will be a celebration surrounding the maiden voyage of a major trade ship ... and that the officials who will be overseeing the celebration are extraordinarily hated men, particularly by certain guilds who are being made bankrupt by this company.  Perhaps those guilds are looking for a few assassins, and perhaps they would be willing to pay a lot of money ..."
Or let's say the players would like to have more status.
"As they are drinking in the tavern, one of the players recalls that several bulls have recently gone mad, apparently because of runes that have been carved into their flesh.  Perhaps, if we unearthed the cult responsible for this, we could make ourselves famous in this very grateful, very generous town ..."

In other words, rather that force an event on the players, have the players simply "know" something ... and let them decide if that's something that might interest them.  Then, if it doesn't, the players can hear the pitch and answer, "Nah ..."

Like adults not forced to play someone else's game.

We can even jump past the boring.  The players, agreeing to be assassins, are informed by the DM, "If you're willing, after three days, with talking and whatnot, you've been contracted by the baker's guild to off Henrich and Albert, provided they both suffer painfully before they die.  Is it agreed?"  Then, with only three hours to play, we've dispensed with all the bullshit of negotiation and finding the right people with the baker's guild, which none of us honestly care about, and we can start with the planning of how to kill a few officials on a dock in the midst of celebration, and get away with it.

Or we can say, "The truth is, you know exactly where the cult is.  As you share information for a few minutes, it turns out that the cult must be located near or perhaps underneath the abandoned windmill a mile west of town.  Would you like to see if you can find it?"  Then, if they agree, we can dispense with all the bullshit of querying people and guessing which of the fifty buildings in town might be the right one, and go straight to equipping ourselves to go slaughter some bastard animal torturers.

Why is this not the obvious solution to the "plot hook?"  Why must everything be outlined in this needlessly dramatic story-telling device that is, basically, designed to make you buy a theatre ticket or purchase a book?  We're all here to play, aren't we?  We've already bought the ticket.  Can't we get past the sales gimmicks and get straight to the part where we're in control of the agenda, instead of being the victims waiting around for something to happen?

The problem with bad advice, like the above that started this, is that it often looks like good advice to people who don't know any better.

And it is part of the question I keep asking, when I hear people tell me that Matt Mercer of Critical Role is the best DM they've ever seen.  Does Matt actually know better than he's telling, but he can't find the words for it or he just doesn't think he can convey a more complex idea in under 7 minutes, or has he just never heard good advice?

Does anyone know how to play this game?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Effect of Health

Coincidentally, I wrote something about health and then I got sick.  There was no connection.  Coming up for air, however, I feel like I can write something.  After all, it has been three days.

With my last post, and its discussion of social health and Foucault philosophy, I may have given the impression that I care the relationship between the nature of authoritarianism to restrain population.  That was not my intent.

All I want is to provide a framework for a party, and no other entity, to viscerally identify the difference between one level of health (or happiness and culture) and another, based on a scale that can be effectively applied from region to region, or even hex to hex.

Here we have the party moving through the world, exploring as they please, disembarking from a ship into a town and realizing, hm, this is perhaps not the best place to be.  Happiness is clearly at a low, health is likewise, and there's every reason to feel legitimately concerned about their welfare.  But how exactly are the players to be made aware of it?

We can say, "Okay, the level of health is minus 3, so you better watch yourselves when you drink the water" ... which would frankly be the worst way to DM anything, though we grew up with games where we were told proudly, "The culture has a tech level of 7!"

We should rather say, "When I say that the docks and waterfront alleys are filled with wharf rats, I'm not referring to rodents ..."

We can talk about the relative maintenance of the streets and buildings, the glowering faces of the locals, the multi-colored sludge floating in the water next to the quay, the insects that have to be dug out of the served ale, the dog carcass that been thrown on a heap of other garbage back of the warehouse, the number of teeth in the prostitute's mouth that just propositioned the party and so on, but that doesn't measure the problem, does it?  How do we make the party understand that one fly in one ale might be a place we can tolerate for a few days, while the ale actually tasting slightly of blood could be a reason we should leave town right now ... assuming, of course, that little things like that worry us.

I can figure out quite easily how to establish a health rating from the local development of technologies and social structure ... what I haven't figured out yet is how to match that rating with a detailed description, or game effect.

Which is the only thing about the subject that interests me.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Health and the Public Expectation

The infrastructure, trade and development system continues, but slowly.  Just now I'm contemplating the details of how health and the lack of it will fit into the structure, and finding that it is devilishly hard to find meaningful documentation on the negative factors that arise from an unhealthy culture.  Basically, I'd like to understand what metrics can be used to define an ailing, sick culture ... but no one wants to talk about that.

This is a "positivity" problem that I often encounter on the internet.  Look up "poor health effects on society" and we're met with articles on how economic and political structures sustain poverty, marginalize groups, cause poor conditions and overcrowding ... with a definite slant on "what problems need to be fixed to make this stop happening."  A practical definition of what the poor conditions are, or how they are created, or how specific degrees of overcrowding cause specific results, these things are not discussed.  The agenda is very definitely not to measure the causes ~ the only people who care about the problem are NGOs with the goal of raising money ... and that takes a positive perspective.  We will stop this horrible stuff from happening. Do not look too closely at the horrible stuff.

Now, images and anecdotal evidence can be found in abundance.  We're replete with film of poor people picking over garbage piles to find enough useful material to preserve their lives for one more day; but the metrics are lacking.  We have no numbers.  Numbers do not spawn guilt-inspired donations.

For most game purposes, a scale can be created without having to be expressly concerned with what the scale means.  Civilization simply slows a settlement's production when unhealthiness occurs, speeding it up again when general health is improved by cleaning up the land, collecting specific resources or building a market or hospital.  This makes sense.  A market brings in a wider variety of food, that improves nutrition and the people are more productive.

For my purposes, however, I need to sketch the difference it makes when this town is 1 point less healthy than that town ~ not in a way that affects overall production of the town, which would be useless for a role-playing game, but in a way that will address the players' adventuring.

Most will call out at once that health equals disease ... and that an unhealthy town will be more diseased than a healthy town, meaning that the players should hesitate before drinking the water or eating at the local inn. True enough.  But that thought does little more than imply a die roll to see if the water is bad, which is adjusted depending on the town's health.  Which, admittedly, is as far as most RPG designing goes.

But it is boring.  "Oh, we're not diseased?  Then who gives a fuck?"

We want more than the mere chance the players might get sick.  We want a feel for the environment, something that encourages dismay when it turns out the place is sour and that encourages relief and happiness when the town is described as cheerfully safe.  For that, we need to ask some questions:

Can the players actually tell if a town in unhealthy or not?  How so?  Would it be the presence of infrastructures that prove a town is healthy (granaries, barays, running water, a market) or would it be the appearance of those infrastructures (crumbling stone, fetid water in the well, filthy streets) that tips the player's hand?  How heavy handed should those appearances be?  What is the baseline for "filthy" in a dark age, medieval or early renaissance world?  On some level, wouldn't everything be, by our standards, unclean?

I'm trying to get the measure of this.  Public health is more than just a lack of disease ~ quality of life matters, from a people having to eat rice every day to the amount of solid waste piling up at the end of every alley way.  Indulgent behaviour, from drunkedness to sexual vice, has its own public cost ... as well as dangerous delusions shared by a population, such as fear of spirits and the need to burn teenage women as witches.

Mental health is an important factor ~ and a very difficult one to impose on player characters, who for one thing come from a present day where vice and mental illness are encountered daily, in both our ordinary lives and through the media.  How much harder is it to explain to a player that their character, having grown up in the woods of Norway, isn't really all that comfortable with the wantonness of 17th century dockside London. On the whole, we can't; we're not anxious to tell the players how to think, and it wouldn't work anyway.  They're just not able, with the present mindset, to "get it."

Creating a formula for health that impresses itself upon the player and not the world (which is the hardest lesson that worldbuilders must face, since it is not the world that we actually care about) needs, as ever, some focus that doesn't depend upon the players' ability to conceive or absorb the verbal/visual impression of the town's appearance.  Plans for such rules always end in failure, since they ignore the intensive subjectivity of humans ... gawd knows why that's never taken into account.  No, no, the world has to be specifically constructed, so that options are clearly dictated at a high or low level of health that are not available elsewhere.

And like with culture, where a high level of culture increases the control on the population, I'm faced with a similar distinction where it comes to health, in the form of "biopower."

I'm familiar with Michel Foucault ... rarely has a mid-20th century academician managed to get quite so far up his own ass, even for a French philosopher.  But I find I have to take the life preserver that he throws in this unpleasant sea.  From wikipedia:

"...biopower is a technology of power for managing humans in large groups; the distinctive quality of this political technology is that it allows for the control of entire populations. It refers to the control of human bodies through an anatomo-politics of the human body and biopolitics of the population through societal Disciplinary institutions. ... Modern power, according to Foucault's analysis, becomes encoded into social practices as well as human behavior as the human subject gradually acquiesces to subtle regulations and expectations of the social order. It is an integral feature and essential to the workings of—and makes possible—the emergence of the modern nation state, capitalism, etc.[5] Biopower is literally having power over bodies ..."

Effectively, the condition that is arrives with the health-saving grace of running water is the universal expection that everyone will wash their hands and their bodies.  The condition that arrives with the market is that the quality of goods will be regulated and controlled ... and it is this social policy, and not just the presence of the improvement or technology, that imposes the improved health of the community.  As culture demands a certain attitude from the player, health demands a certain level of grooming and social responsibility ... and where that social responsibility is evidently lacking in the population, at the point where the players can be as filthy as they like without anyone particularly caring, it is time to worry.

I shall, obviously, continue to think about this.  But I find it odd that each step forward seems to employ a consistent motif that when things get better, it is necessarily freedom that suffers.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I'm Broken

The website reads,

"Thanks to the hard work of our 2015 D&D Extra Life team and the generous donations of fans, we’ve made available a detailed, high resolution of the northwest corner of Faerün."

There's a map on the website, but it's not a good resolution, so I found one:

Just in case, here's a link.

I came across this while looking up stuff on the previous post ... and I just have to say.  What the hell?

Oh, it's pretty and all, nice artwork, not the kind I can do.  Then again, I wouldn't have room for art having decided to put information on the map instead!

I wonder if there are more than a thousand words on the whole thing.

But then, the gentle readers are all familiar with the two hundred modules represented by this thing, so that's enough.  And it is basically a poster.

I love maps.  I've spent my whole life studying them, drawing them, researching them, living by them.  I can kill an hour travelling with a road map from a gas station.  But this ... this bores me.

I must be broken.

Wooden-Headed Design

The following is content from the 5th edition adventure, Rise of Tiamat:
"The Order of the Guantlet shares the Harpers' dedication to justice and equality, but their methods and attitude are quite different.  Bearers of the gauntlet are holy warriors on a righteous quest to crush evil and promote justice, and they never hide in the shadows.  Evil must be opposed openly and vanquished in the light of day, so that all can see and be emboldened by its destruction.
"Members of the order are driven by religious fervor and by devotion to the principle of justice for all.  Whether a member places more emphasis on one or the other of those ideals is an individual choice.  Camaraderie and esprit de corps run high within the order, and an individual member will risk anything to save a fellow member or to complete an important mission.
"The Order of the Guantlet is a young organization, and it is eager and restless for action.  It does not take orders from any government or temple, although the opinions of holy figures are greatly esteemed within the order.  When evil threatens, the gauntlet strikes."

 So ... many ... cliches.

Believe me, the whole adventure is written like this, at least as much of it as I could stomach.  I haven't read a splatbook in a long, long time ... but I can see from this example that they have gotten, oh gawd, so much worse.  This is the level of writing they once reserved for 5-cent pulp novels in the 1940s.

Yet let's put aside the rather hilarious over-the-top dramatics of the piece.  And let's put aside the four or five actual discontinuities in the text (they're righteous, but with fervor, that is based on principles, that are open to individual choice, while the opinions of holy figures are only "esteemed" and not necessarily obeyed - oh yeah, bring it on!).

I only want the reader to consider the actual usefulness of the text.  Apart from depicting some clearly confused fanatics who are certain to listen to nothing the party tells them, what flesh has the writer added to the bones of these wooden soldiers?

The actual purpose of the Order is made clear in the next paragraph, which explains to the DM how to use them.  It is written,
"Before the final battle, members of the order make interesting NPCs for roleplaying encounters because of their outgoing ways and strong opinions.  Sharing a roadside inn with twenty paladins from the Order of the Gauntlet, or joining their march for a few days when headed in the same direction, should be a memorable experience."

Oh, I'm sure.

Our purpose, then, is to describe the Order as an entity that cannot be reasoned with, that in turn permits the DM to be a profoundly unreasonable asshole while role-playing.  Fun for the whole family.

I'm sure a lot of content-starved players have enjoyed their happy experience with the Order.  I would find it contrived, flat and two-dimensional.  I would see within a second, perhaps two, that I was being jerked around by the DM and the adventure.  These are real people, with real thoughts and feelings.  They're not dynamic because there's no possibility of change.

Unless, of course, half the details painstakingly given in the text are just ignored.  They're not suffering from religious fervor; they are willing to admit that "crushing evil" and "justice for all" are somewhat inconsistent policies.  Evil might possibly outlast the Order, despite all the Order's efforts.

Because, see, if it is possible the Order won't succeed, and an individual of that Order is kept awake at night thinking about it, that's very interesting.  It is much, much more interesting to have a conversation with a member of the Order who is having a crisis of faith, who doesn't know for certain what the right action is, who could conceivably reason and plan with the party in a meaningful sense, instead of a lot of shouting dull, absolutist fanatic phrasing that, let's admit, we can hear at any Klan rally.

I wouldn't expect the WOTC to get that ~ it is fairly clear that their "Sword Coast" agenda is systematically geared to destroy creativity and replace it with bland, mindless mediocrity.  I was somewhat repulsed to open the Store link on the website where it read, "Greetings Citizens of Eberron."  Not, for example, "Players of D&D."  Um, no.  Last week I called us a cult and, apparently, we are.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Swords & Axes

I occasionally question the relevancy of some of my posts, given that I continue to live in a world affected by Advanced D&D from the late 70s, in a world full of players who know nothing except 4th and 5th edition.  So when I think of something like today's topic, I have to pause and ask myself, does this problem even exist now?

Still, it doesn't hurt to write to the three or four people who live in the past, like me.  So here goes something irrelevant.

One detail that always bothered me about long swords and battle axes might immediately leap to the reader's mind.  Given that both weapons do the same damage (original game), and given that the long sword can be used with a shield, because it is a one handed weapon, while the battle axe cannot, needing two hands, why would anyone ever choose a battle axe as a weapon?

Oh, of course some people will think that it's "cool," that swinging a battle axe in a fight gives a certain joie de vive, something that can't be gained from an every day weapon like a sword (in the opinion of some). Still, it would be preferred if there was a practical reason that made one weapon a better choice than the other.  The long sword clearly favors armor class.  What does the battle axe favor?

I could increase the damage done by a battle axe, say to a d8+1; but though I've often thought of that, it feels like wrong thinking.  The sword was ultimately a better weapon, being developed later and being more widespread.  Arguably, the battle axe ought to do less than a sword ... with the caveat that it seems like a terror weapon in the hands of the Vikings because most of those on the move would have been more hearty than their average victim.  The comparable damage of the battle axe to the long sword could just be a user strength bonus.

Still, let's not change the damage done by either weapon.

For years, I've been using a system of breaks and fumbles, so that a weapon can break at an inopportune moment in a combat, much to a player's distress.  At first, I used a system that weapons would break on a 1 in 6 ... but a few years ago, with my wiki, I adjusted some weapons so that they had a superiority in how likely they were to break.  For example, I adjusted the club so that it would break 1 in 4, reflecting a cheaper weapon with little or no craftsmanship.

I had the long sword/battle axe quandary in my head then, as it has been in my head since I began playing this game ... and because of that, I adjusted the battle axe so that it would break only 1 in 8, compared to the long sword's 1 in 6.  The justification?  There isn't one.  I just wanted an advantage for the battle axe.

Oh, we could pretend that the handle of the battle axe is springier than the sword, or that using two weapons means that it can be controlled better, or that it will land head first, protecting the handle, but this is all nonsense.  I can't give a viable argument at all and I won't pretend.

Something had just occurred to me yesterday, however ... which shows how scattered my thinking is half the time.  I'm writing about coins and working on a development/infrastructure system, yet my head jumps into an annoying problem that has been bugging me for years.

Here's my thought.

The weak point on a battle axe is the point where the handle meets the head.  If the weapon breaks, it ought to be the handle; the heavy blade of the battle axe ought to endure the bounce it takes on stones, or from hitting the opponent's armor, or whatever causes it to break.  Then, because of the way the head attaches to the handle, this is an easy fix.  During a respite, the head can be lashed to another handle in less than fifteen minutes, making the weapon combat effective again.

A sword's weak point is, again, where the blade meets the handle.  However, a sword is made so that it includes a metal protrusion that extends into the handle, which is then bound in wood and leather, making the sword and handle a single piece.  When a sword breaks, the weak point is where the working blade narrows into the part that makes the handle.  It is the metal that breaks.  Then, without that protrusion that enables the blade to be fitted into the handle, there's no easy way to repair the sword, not without a forge and a good deal of time.

I ought to reverse the chance of breaking ... make the sword harder to break than the battle axe.  Remaining would be the logic that when providing weapons to a lot of fighters, it's the battle axe that ought to be considered over the sword.  In the long run, it's cheaper.

Let's say a skirmish between two companies runs about twenty rounds before they break off.  Each company is a hundred men.  Twenty rounds of a two hundred combatants swinging is 4,000 rolls ... but what with people dying off and falling unconscious, lets say the two sides manage to roll half that number (I don't want to calculate an exact average).

That's an average of 100 drops and fumbles.  If 1 in 6 breaks, that's 16 broken weapons (so favors the average).  Likewise, 1 in 8 would be 12 breaks.  Divided evenly between the two companies, of course.

If the combatants are all using swords, and swords cost 20 g.p. apiece, 6 breaks a skirmish will count heavily against the company.  If every skirmish costs 120 g.p. (and worse, from weapons left on the battlefield from the dead), that's going to mount up over a season.

But if the company can recover its battle axe heads, they lose considerable less in capital every time they fight.  Wooden handles are cheap.  Even if the battle axe does break more often, and does need two hands, it has a considerable fiscal advantage over the sword.

Of course, now that I've written something about weapons, I can expect to be vilified for having all my facts wrong, that in fact battle axes and swords break differently than I've just explained and that it actually takes months to fit a new handle onto a battle axe head, or some other happy horseshit, as that is always the case with people who fight flame wars over weapon posts.  It's the risk I take when I blog on this subject.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Tribal Solidarity

I tried an experiment earlier that I'd like to share.  Searching google, using a modifier to search pages posted in the previous hour, for "D&D", I got a total of 46 hits.  Two of those were chance uses of "D&D" that had nothing to do with the game.  The remainder was content mostly produced by individual creators.  Three were associated with the WOTC.

Taking those that were privately created, 41 total, we might extrapolate an average of 984 pages per day. Some of those posts may be repeats, but then none of them were posts in a foreign language, so we might suppose that non-English posts about Dungeons and Dragons could easily take up the slack.  Let's just assume an average of 1,000 postings per day, most likely by single individuals, giving us a reasonable figure for how many people playing the game decided to post content about it.

We used to say in journalism that for any letter written to the paper expressing a particular opinion, there were about 100 people out there who felt just as strongly who did not bother to write.  We might then argue that on any given day, there are up to 100,000 people thinking deeply enough about D&D to have a strong opinion, though most do not write about it.

These would be the Alphas in the game.  People working, striving, thinking and writing down ideas about Dungeons & Dragons.  It doesn't include people thinking about other RPGs, just D&D.  For any Alpha, it is reasonable to suppose there are between 2 and 10 Betas ... it is really up to the reader to decide what a believable figure might be.  From my experience, any time I have been around participants of D&D, I'd say about 1 in 5 is invested enough in the game to have a strong opinion about it.  The other four are ready to play, but that one participant is really into the game, is really ready to talk about it.

This is the first time I feel I can point to a rational measure of how many people out there are playing today. Half a million.  People can argue my statistical framework is weak and all conjecture ... and it is.  I don't deny it.  But it cannot be denied that 41 people sat down and wrote something on the internet about D&D in just the past hour.  And no one can think those were the only 41 people on earth this last hour who were invested in the game.

Incidentally, I used the same method and looked up kayaking.  50 results for the past hour.  Every result was a business trying to sell a location or a piece of equipment for people wanting to kayak.  There wasn't a single post about a kayaker writing about his or her experience.

Think about that.  The only reason we're invisible is because we don't exist as a market.

We do, however, exist as a tribe.

Size of Gold Coins

First, I'll say a word or two about the costs of things associated with my pricing table, particularly armor. Here, for example, is a list of armor I posted on my blog back in 2011:

For some people these prices are high.  Let me explain why they're not.

The first-edition D&D game (and other early games, for all I know), established the weight of a gold coin as 1/10th of a pound (presumed avoirdupois, about 453 grams).  This was convenient for calculating weight, but anyone with experience in numismatics knows that 45 grams would be a ridiculous weight for a coin in circulation.  The South African Krugerrand, comparatively, weighs 33.93 grams.  The gold Brittania weighs 31.103 grams (one troy ounce).  Neither are used in circulation.  They are bullion coins.

The British gold sovereign, on the other hand, weighs 7.98 grams, a little more than one quarter the Brittania. It would take nearly 57 of these to equal a D&D pound.  The sovereign is no longer used as circulating currency now, and probably wasn't much between 1604 and 1816, so we couldn't call it a premier coin in Europe during the Middle Ages or Renaissance.  A more common gold coin was the Venetian ducat - which in the 13th century averaged only 3.5 grams.  That's about 13 ducats per old D&D gold coin, in weight.

I've settled on the gold content of my gold coins at 3.57 grams of gold.  They're mixed with 3.43 grams of silver (the value of the silver being discounted by state law), making a coin in my world 7 grams in weight ~ the purity of which can be checked by magic, so there's no danger of the alloy being modified to cheapen the hard value of the coins.  One benefit of a D&D world.

Comparing the gold in one of my gold coins ( with that of the old D&D system (, means that 1 = 12.69

The splinted mail above, listed at 473 g.p., is actually reasonable, the equivalent of 37.3 on the old Player's Handbook equipment table.  Looking at the Player's Handbook, I see splinted mail listed at 80 g.p. That would be more than a thousand in my system.

Moreover, it means that I technically give more than 12 x.p. per gold D&D coin ... except that I give considerable less gold than the old game did, as I like to keep my players poor.

Anyway, just food for thought.  This post was inspired by a post I read on The Gaming Den, where the first poster noted, "We know that D&D prices for stuff in chunks of gold is nuts ..."

No, not really.  Just the result of poor designers not doing their homework.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Face Underneath a Monarchy

The hardest struggle surrounding the tech/development structure I'm designing is with my imagination; it literally feels like I am squeezing my brain to separate the juice from the pulp, to produce as much detail and content as I'm able.

It's a good thing that I'm well-read, otherwise this task would be insurmountable.  I'll propose a question, one for which the answer was posted on the blog about two years ago.  How is it that the presence of animal husbandry changed the shape and status of house building?

If you're a long-time reader, you'll hit on that immediately.  But three years ago I'd have had no idea myself; I'd have needed someone to explain it to me.  But I read and continue to watch documentaries, which steadily expand my perceptions about things past the usual associations we make.

If you want the answer, and some kind soul doesn't rush to put it in the comments, write me an email at

Let's take another example.  What associations do you make with the development of Monarchy?  Right off, the reader should connect the presence of a monarch with a more united kingdom, the rise of an aristocracy, the presence of a court, the inevitability of joint foreign policy and quite probably the creation of some kind of elite military, "the king's guard."

To put it another way, an organized government, which a less developed region would not possess.  We should be able to think of lots of examples of inward-looking social organizations, without a system of government, where the rules of law came down to what your neighbors believed or what people accepted as tradition.  Homesteaders in 19th century America, well ahead of the government, or large parts of Africa or the steppes of Eurasia, where tribes and clans vied with each other for resources but had little relationship with the outside world.  The whole history of Australia, before the arrival of Europeans. 

The arrival of a monarchy on the scene sets up a conflict with tradition; a government is there to arrest, manage or instigate change, depending on what is needed ~ whereas a traditional framework opposes change categorically.  Once a "state" has begun thinking for itself, those beliefs previously held by the population are now under siege.  The monarch has ideas of his or her own; and those ideas are not "traditional" much of the time.  Largely because the problems a monarch faces are not traditional, but the necessity of event: disaster, increases in population, decreases in food supply, the incursion of foreign powers and so on.

These things, however, are very general ~ and they don't affect a party of player characters much.  The point of the structure is to give effect to the actual campaign, not propose a history lesson on how the development of monarchies changed social structure.

It is easy to become enamored with the big picture and lose sight of that point.  If the players don't feel a difference, there isn't one; it doesn't matter if the region has a monarch or not if there are no visible signs that compel the players to view the environment differently.  So let's back up and ask, how does the monarchy affect ordinary people, here on the streets, who would probably never meet the local king or queen, nor attend court a single time in all their lives?

Well, the presence of the monarch does tend to bind together people: when the king is crowned, everyone parties; when the king dies, everyone mourns.  When the king is unwell, everyone worries; and when the king is married or has a child, again, there is a huge celebration. The various aspects of the monarch take on the aspect that we sometimes identify with celebrity culture; it seems to matter that an acting couple has split up or a famous comedian dies ... this is a small taste of the sort of intensity people once had for the reigning family when there was little else outside of their worlds to seize their imaginations.

A second element to consider is the law.  There are a series of effects now to consider associated with the way the local constabulary deal with crime.  When the law is managed by locals, according to tradition, there is room for patience and mercy that are obliterated when the people in charge owe fealty to a power that is distant and removed.  Now, the constable can't just "let you go," because there would be questions to be answered and responsibility to higher authorities.  This makes the overall visitation of the law upon individuals a colder prospect.  You're not dealing with a "man," you're dealing with the power of the state ~ and that power doesn't care that you're stealing bread to feed your family.  You're stealing.

In many different ways, matters of culture are now cut that fine.  Whereas the elders of the village or the town council might make room for you to pay your taxes when business improves, now there's an official, and outsider, who is there to ensure that everyone is paid up and in full.  Taxes are no longer a matter of give what you can; it's been decided that all persons of a certain rank and capacity will give such-and-such, no matter who they are.  The law has become faceless ... and frightening.

But players are far more familiar with a faceless law than the reverse, so that's not much of an adjustment for them.  It is harder to make a group of players understand a law system that isn't faceless than one that is. That is a part of why films like The Wicker Man hold a fascination ~ because we find it difficult to relate to sweet, kind people apparently being able to live together and peace and harmony, yet able to burn outsiders to death because it's a necessity. We, living in the world we do, automatically identify cruelty with institutions, not individuals.

We need more, then.  How else does the monarchy affect daily life apart from a drunken bash now and then and a tax collector that needs side-stepping?

It only came to me a couple days ago:  the answer is fashion.  The monarchy creates fashion the same way it creates the law.  Whereas in a previous time, people wore what they would, the presence of that celebrity cult, the same way it does for us, induces people to grow interested in new clothes, new ideas, new habits ... and the most evident of those habits, the one that the players would most likely notice, is the presence of etiquette.

We normally associate etiquette with the 19th century (we do if we're westerners), but it goes back much further than that.  Confucius, 2,500 years ago, is all about etiquette: right speaking, right acting, correctness of social relationships, correctness of justice and sincerity and so on.

I've often found myself in a position as a DM where an NPC is conversing with the player and the player is acting like a complete boor.  In my mind, it's clear from the first sentence out of the player's mouth that they have just insulted everything that the NPC ought to hold dear ... and I've let it pass because I don't want to hold the player responsible for a clumsy attempt at role-playing.  After all, the player isn't there; the player can't see the NPC as clearly as I can, and for that matter doesn't identify clearly the whole scene.  If that same player were to find themselves transported to the Palace of Versailles in the 16th century, the player would rightly shut their mouth in terror of saying something wrong, particularly if they understood the consequence might be the experience of being whipped like a dog down a long hall full of mirrors, until falling into the hands of four or five guards, who would then drag the beaten victim into a cold stone cell for a few years of unreasonable punishment.

Players don't understand consequences like that.  Why should they?  They have no experience with the sort of non-egalitarian thinking that would condemn an individual to death for speaking rudely.  Players retain their modern sensibilities with these things ... they just don't get that the local townspeople would demand a polite speaking voice and a careful choice of words because that's what the king does, and we all like the king very much and want to be like him.

As D&Dites, we're still dealing with players who answer resistance on the NPC's part with sword blows in broad daylight, followed by the sort of swaggering pride in their action like we would expect from Mad Dog Biff Tanner:  "Look at me, I'm a bad ass."  A moment like that in D&D needs someone stepping up behind the character and hitting them blind with a shovel.

We might try explaining to the players that living in a monarchy means there are now consequences for failing to speak politely, even to goodwives, even to beggars ... and everyone in the town is ready to step up and quietly see that those consequences are delivered.  Save the rudeness for a democracy.  We do not put up with that shit around here.