Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What Might Improve Game Play?

I'm watching a lot of D&D advice videos, making myself sit through content, parsing it so I can write further posts on how the community thinks.  It has taken me nine years to step back from going bat-shit furious at seeing this stuff ... I think that the effort lately to view it calmly, coldly, from the point of view of the giver first before deconstructing its value, has been helpful.  Anything that cools down my passion until I can be rational is great.

I have seen some stuff, however, that doesn't fit the format ~ not what we could call "advice."  We could call it a belief system about how to play characters, or it could be fallout from many years of finding more and more justification for players to "role-play" characters with little understanding of how personality works, how it is constructed, or how it logically fits into the framework of believable motivation.

Here is a sort of pressure.  We are playing a character in a campaign, without any particular skill or training that make us great character designers.  Excellent writers spend their whole lives struggling to create a meaningful, memorable, positive character, whose place in a story will produce a strong resonance with an audience.  RPG players, however, have no understanding of this.  For them, a "great character" is defacto an "original character" ~ that is, one that is different from every other character that might be conceived.

To boot, we've massively expanded the number of races a player can play, in a wild attempt to superimpose a wider range of "unique" characters based, if on nothing else, the increased number of combinations between race, class and morality.  If that isn't enough, the game makers have been on a quest the last two decades to invent monsters whose only real purpose is that it enables yet one more monster race the player can have.

As a grognard, I find it all somewhat silly.  Whatever we call the character's race, we know that a rose is a rose, and that all character races are just different elements of being human.  The "uniqueness" is just empty gloss.

However, let's look at two examples where someone has painted, or imagined to paint, a character of tremendous richness and diversity, gleaned from two different RPGer videos.  First, this guy again.  He's popular, prolific in his efforts and consistently provocative.

"I had one player, a wonderful role player.  She had a paladin, and the paladin would only engage in combat if she was wearing her fighting leathers.  Such an impression it gave me, that she had fighting leathers, and she couldn't talk to you if she had her fighting leathers on.  So if she wanted to talk, she'd take her fighting leathers off, and put her talking leathers on.  Or her drinking leathers.  Or her sexing leathers.  She had different outfits for each of the incidents that she was about to participate in, and literally combat ground to a halt because this paladin was screaming, 'Wait, I'm not wearing my fighting leathers!  Don't anybody move, I'll come back!'  And she'd run off and change out of the one bodice and into the other piece of plate mail or whatever it was that she was wearing and she'd come in, 'All right, I've got 'em on, we can carry on fighting now!'  And she'd run in and launch into combat."

As a DM, I'd assess how long it took her to get out of sight, and how long it took her to change ... and I would carry on with the combat.  Frankly, I see my game world as a threatening, uncompromising place. Those willing to carry forward a combat, to kill, do so with the hope of taking any advantage they can in order that they will survive.  There might be some who, under special chivalrous circumstances, might be willing to establish rules for when fighting starts and when it stops, but most of the murderous sort of people one will meet on a road or in a wilderness in my world just want you dead.

As a fellow participant, this is the sort of humor that is 'funny-once.'  As it happens, the presenter here does admit that this particular role-playing does happen in a one-off game, over four hours, and not in a longer campaign.  I don't see it being very practical as a "character quirk," as suggested, simply because it would be the sort of annoyance that would hold up games and douse momentum overall.  It has too much "Me me, me me me, me me me me me" in it's construction, even apart from the time sensitiveness of not always being able to get the clothes off so a conversation can be held, or the clothes on so that a sword can be parried.

Finally, as a communicative mechanism, it's a struggle.  What if, in the midst of a battle, the paladin conceives of something the rest of the party ought to know?  Or wants to express a desire to heal someone; or have someone get out of the way.  Perhaps, however, that's not as much a hard rule as partially presented.  After all, right at the end, after she's put on her fighting levels, she's depicted as talking, which we've been told she won't do when her fighting leathers are on.

Seems confusing.

Let's pick up with the other video:

"And my favorite class?  Right now I'm playing a kenku cleric.  I specifically like playing kenkus, right now, 'cause kenkus are so interesting as a player character.  They don't communicate, they only do mimicry, and so communicating with your players, it's kind of for me, it's a new way to think about how to play.  Because instead of being like, 'Hey guys, we should go over there and ambush those goblins, instead I have to find a way to communicate ambushing goblins with sounds and mimicry.  So it could literally be like, you know, 'Aha' flies up to a tree and looks at the band of goblins and starts making small [bird noises] sounds as if flying arrows are going by.  And then, on the players' side of things, that's a whole 'nother level of interpretation that kind of creates camaraderie in a fun and interesting way, because now not only do they have to deal with the challenge, but they have to deal with the communication that comes.  And the ranger who is like my 'buddy-buddy' is like we've kind of got a secret code that allows the communication to be a little more streamlined if we're running into real problems."

Some of this is easy to explain.  Ivan Van Norman is an actor and producer associated with Matthew Mercer (who describes himself as a voice actor first and a dungeon master second) and Satine Phoenix. There are clearly multiple occasions in which these individuals self-identify as artists and film-makers, rather than role-players ... and I think to some degree the above passage from Van Norman is a strong example of an actor getting excited by an acting role.

However, all these people are technically representing the "official" game, so we have to assume that they are encouraging those audience members at home to run their characters with this same level of "interpretation."

Me, I'm confused.  The kenku has been around since the old Fiend Folio (1981), where they are described as having "the head of a hawk."  The repeated use of the word 'mimicry' would suggest that at some point kenku were restyled as parrots.  However, mimicry in parrots is an instinct, not an example of conscious thought.  Conscious mimicry occurs where people deliberately imitate what someone has just said, in order to entertain or ridicule.  I'm guessing, without reading the later edition rule, that the kenku/parrot has to use examples of previously spoken speech to communicate ... but wouldn't that include all speech?

When I write these words, I'm mimicking someone from my past.  Sooooo ... I'm hopelessly confused about this rule.

A brief bit of research doesn't indicate any particular limitations on what sounds a parrot can mimic.

This sounds, then, like a terrific difficulty to impose on others, for the sake of "fun."  I wouldn't find it much fun, not as a fellow player or as a DM.  I think I would tell the player to stop it.

These are both examples of play that seems, to me, a desperate attempt to make more out of a game that can traditionally be had with straight role-playing.  It seems, from watching examples of these people run games, and the interplay going on between voice actors, producers and such, that "role-playing" is a sort of generalized, clumsy, difficult to enhance improvisational experience, receiving much praise but without much demonstration of acumen or impresario.  Having spent hundreds of hours doing this on stage, and hundreds more watching others, I don't find the level of character creation or acting on WOTC videos to be, well, professional.  Certainly not as professional as an everyday improv group performing at a comedy club or a theater in a mid-sized city, such as Calgary is (about a million people).

So I am simply at a loss as to how any of this helps.  I hope that this does not sound like a rant.  I'm really trying to figure out how this approach and philosophy is improving anyone's game play.  I can't see it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Slice of Design, Served Cold

I'm feeling a compulsion to share, so I will.

Earlier this year, I gave an effort at describing a development-6 culture.  I did all right with the development-5, but even one step higher got confusing and hard to express.  That has been my problem all along ... and it is due, in large part, to my wanting to be comprehensive in describing the elements of the development.

That's because, if it just skirts the issue, the system really accomplishes nothing.  It needs enough detail to meet certain goals:
  • The information has to elaborate on possible scenarios that could lead to an adventure.  Whereas some feel that description is confining, I feel just the opposite.  It would be impossible to fully define all the elements, down to the last person, in so many hexes as exist in my world ... so any descriptions are bound to suggest a multiplicity of ideas.
  • The detail has to reduce the ever-present difficulty of the "empty hex."  If people live there, it can't be empty ... it must have some kind of character and feel.  That's what we're trying to give in any system that generates a given result.
  • To some degree, many hexes will have the same characteristics, since these are generated results.  Hopefully, however, the details being generated are surface details ... leaving plenty of room for the specific culture, religion, climate, terrain, vegetation, proximity to other places and so on to create enough unique elements that the surface characteristics can be expanded as necessary.
  • Finally, that areas of one development are distinctly different from another.

For this post, I'm going to compare four different hexes: two within a 5-development space, and two within a 6-development space.  Before I get to that, however, I will need to catch the reader up on some points.

Point 1.

Remember that once I presented some maps in which infrastructure played a role?  Those maps were based on an idea that within a given hex, there were 7 hexes, thusly:

A given hex of this "group" would either be "inhabited" or "wilderness."  If all seven hexes were wilderness, we'd call this a type-8 hex.  If one were inhabited, it would be a type-7 hex.  Two inhabited would mean type-6, and right down until all the hexes being inhabited would make the hex a type-1.

Now, I've played in all sorts of ways with this since proposing the idea in 2011, some I've discarded and others I've built upon.  For the purpose of this post, just assume all four of the hexes I'm going to highlight are type-5 hexes.  This means, each hex will be about 37% inhabited and 63% wilderness.

Moving onto Point 2.

I've also created this development (formerly tech) system.  I'll just remind the reader the difference between a development-5 culture and a development-6 culture:
  • Dev-5 is a region based on gathering, with a focus on hunting, fishing and mysticism.
  • Dev-6 retains characteristics of Dev-5, modified however by the inclusion of agriculture, animal husbandry, archery, mining and the wheel.

That's all I have to go on.

Point 3.

Because some hexes have a designated settlement in the hex, while others don't, I'm making a distinction between these two forms.  A type-5 hex that has a settlement is called a "settlement-5" hex; a like hex without a settlement is called a "rural-5" hex.

Now, at this point, I would imagine that your head is swimming a bit.  Catch your breath and I'll explain the perameters of the four hexes that I'll be demonstrating in this post.  We're going to be looking at the details I've designed for each of the following:
  • A Dev-5, rural-5 hex.  That is, a hex that is 37% inhabited, without settlement, in a development-5 region.
  • A Dev-5, settlement-5 hex.
  • A Dev-6, rural-5 hex.
  • A Dev-6, settlement-5 hex.

The idea is to show how four very similar hexes, all with the same amount of cleared wilderness, from two closely similar development phases (after all, I'm not comparing Dev-5 with D-13), can be given distinct, interesting characteristics.  That's the goal, anyway.

I'm going to present these as excel blocks, because this is how I am keeping track of the information.  And believe me, there is a lot of information.  Just so you know, these blocks all come from a much larger table, as there is a similar block for every kind of hex type, for both rural 1 to 8, and settlement 1-8, as well as details about improvements, buildings, culture, wealth, labor and so on.  There's quite a lot ... but we don't have to go into all that right now.  Anyway, that's why the edges of these blocks are uneven.

Dev-5, Rural-5

This is an unusual hex in a hunter/gatherer society ... most rural places in regions with this level of population density would never result in a randomly produced rural-5 hex, but just in case I've conceived this.  It is "sylvan" in the sense that the natural vegetation, water sources and available forage and animal life is so ideal that it could support a population of a few hundred indefinitely, without their having to move. Well, much.  In unseasonable times, the hunters would probably move south, or perhaps to a lower elevation.

Predation describes the monsters encountered.  I've based this on my recent monster-type encounter design post.

The "improvement" indicates that if there is a trade reference here for a product such as fish, a "fishing ground" results, adding +1 food to the natural food supply.  If there's meat, skins or animal products, then it creates a "hunting camp," which again creates +1 food.  The land itself would probably naturally produce (binary-11) food.  Rural-5 means that it produces (binary-111) food.  And if there was a fishing ground, it would produce (binary-1111) food.  A hunting ground as well would produce (binary-11111) food.  In base-10 numbers, that's enough food to just feed 2,170 people the bare necessary calories to ensure not starving.  A few hundred people in such a hex would be quite fat people.

Dev-5, Settlement-5

This is marginally a greater chance for occurring that it's rural counterpart, but still represents the pinnacle of the this development.  Think of a group of densely made skin-and-wood houses constructed into a natural cliff face, like the Anasazi, but lacking the cultivation elements.  Perhaps the early Anasazi, which later advanced.  Unlike the rural example, this hex adds much more: 2 food instead of one, and an additional labor.

Now, what is labor?  I'm viewing it for the game as the amount of activity (a fifth employed in craftsmanship), as well as the kinetic nature of the hex.  The players, wanting to hire a guide, need to find a place with at least one labor.  If they want to hire a gang, that might require up to two labor.  We can see, as well, what the people are working on, listed under "crafts."

A hex of this status would certainly have a monolith, which isn't as magnificent as one might suppose.  It is just a big thing.  However, 1 in 100 would have something truly impressive: like a Stonehenge, inexplicably present despite the low population and density.  There's very little chance for one: there aren't that many Dev-5, settlement-5 hexes in my whole world.

I think people can appreciate how these two hexes differ quite a lot from each other: but then, we're talking town and country, so that's not surprising.  However, I've tried to hit the highlights, so that a DM describing people entering this little settlement has something to build a description on, with an idea to where people are engaged, who runs the place, how connected it is, how they're willing to exchange with the party and so on.

Okay.  Let's move to a higher development.

Dev-6, Rural-5

Now, we would expect this to be different.  After all, we're agricultural now.  The hex is no longer "sylvan" ~ it is a collection of privately owned settlement farms, with light organization, touching but not cheek-and-jowl.  Much like Kentucky in the early 19th century, or most of Europe in the 11th.  There might be a hamlet, but these would have no more than a dozen domiciles.

The land is similar, but not as ideal.  Rural-5 hexes are more common at this regional density; as well, they are used differently.  There are a lot more different kinds of improvements (still determined by trade references), these things adding happiness (coffee, sugar, wine), health (mistletoe, salt), food (crops or livestock) or labor (working animals like horses, oxen or dogs).  There's an enhancement in the shape of a well, and cart tracks as routes (though not that well maintained, since this is only a rural-5 hex; rural-4 hexes would be better maintained).

This would be a very different place from its Dev-5 counterpart.  But that is the idea.  We've left that other place and come here.

Dev-6, Settlement-5

Small error in the layout, but oh well.

Now this is definitely getting complicated.  Take note, this is only one development stage up.  Even working on Dev-7, as I am now, this just expands and expands.  But ...

The benefits, one will notice, are the same ~ but there is that increased chance of the rural lands around the city adding so many new references.  However, the Dev-6 new techs don't add any notable buildings, not even pottery/granaries, as I envision this development as representive of those 4,000 years between our becoming agricultural and granaries being built.  It isn't that the people here don't know what a granary is ... it's just that there's no crippling need to build one.  The population isn't that high, so famine is unknown.  Granaries do appear at Dev-7.

The enhancements include gardens, which are merely spaces where the natural environment has been tailored, or trees planted, to make a resting place in the evenings, inside the settlement.  Governance has dispensed with the chief; organization requires multiple voices.  Where is says, tribal and clan identities viewed symbolically, it means that we still recognize ourselves as such and such a clan, but we identify ourselves more strongly as members of the community than as individual families.  The rural folk still strongly identify as clans and tribes.


I hope this gets more across about what I'm doing here.  This is still just a small piece, like the health table, but patiently I am pulling a lot of this content together.  I expect to still be working on this for several years, at least ... but I hope to have a guiding set-up as far as Dev-9 within a couple of months.  When I have five development levels generally worked out, from 5 to 9, then I'll start making presentations about what the overall development looks like, on a regional scale.

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.