Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Hubris

Yesterday, I performed a humiliating, public face-plant on Twitter.  There is no other way to describe it, except to add more synonyms for the word humiliating.  And although only a fool draws attention to his shortcomings and failures, I'd like to talk about it, rather than pretend it never happened and hope that no one ever finds out about it.

The fault was mine.  For years, I had been building a false story in my head, which I hadn't properly researched and was based on assumptions I had made, based on misreadings of things that I have seen.  Some of these things want me to make excuses for my behaviour, but ... though I'm going to talk about them, the reality is that I should have done my research before getting myself into a bad, stupid, incalculable moment of ignorance.

To begin.  I have had a hate for Sly Flourish, real name Mike Shea, since reading his book, The Lazy Dungeon Master.  I made myself read the book in preparation for writing my own How to Run book; and oh yeah, how I hated it.  There are a lot of things about this book that I do not like, even before getting into the actual content.  To begin with, the title.  I'm a fanatic where D&D is concerned, so this is a trigger for me.  I view the title in the same way I would view a book named, "A How to for the Lazy Doctor" or "A How to for the Lazy Engineer."  I recognize that a lot of people don't take the game as seriously as I do ... but I also recognize that there are a lot of abused people out there in role-playing games, because many DMs, especially those with official status, don't give a shit about people.

Secondly, the pen name.  Mike Shea and his readers no doubt think this name is very cool, pulled from a phrase in 4th edition, meaning an at-will power available to rogues at 1st level.  Being a person able to look at language outside of its fandom credentials, I veiw the word "sly" as deceitful and duplicitous, and the word "flourish" as waving to attract attention, usually so a different fucker can steal my wallet.

So yeah, I don't think it's a very cool name.

The book itself is full of meaningless drivel.  For example, under "Preparing for Improvisation," Shea writes,

"There's a careful balance between feeling prepare and feeling relaxed. The less you're prepared, the more nervous you might feel. Preparing for improvisation steers you the right way. Fill your toolkit with aids for improvisation instead of tools that force your game down one particular track.  You can find many of these tools in Appendix A."

This is it.  The whole section.  Appendix A gives nothing in the way of improvisation hints.  Appendix A does include one-sentence lists of adventure seeds, movie-inspired quests, adventure locations, fantasy names, NPC character frameworks, PC relationships, combat outs, encounter-wide environmental effects, encounter terrain effects and "20 Things That Never Should Have Been Found."  These are all fairly cliche.

Most of the sections of the book go into the headlined subjects with this much depth.  Many discuss the subject with less depth.  Many parts of the book send you to read other people or listen to someone's podcast.

Anyway, forget the book. The reader can invest themselves if they wish.  I, as I said, hated the experience.

Now, this is the part where I began to dig my own grave.  For various reasons, I came under the impression that Mike Shea, Sly Flourish, was one of the minions of Wizards of the Coast.  He isn't.  Nevertheless, at the end of The Lazy DM, it does say that Mike is "a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast."  Somehow, seeing this, or things like it, got into my brain like a worm that wasn't about to let go.

It didn't help that Shea titles his writings like this:  A Guide to Official D&D 5th Edition Published AdventuresOr that he has a page called the "Neverwinter Wiki" that features a WOTC Dungeons and Dragons logo in the upper left hand corner.  Or that his blog has his tongue so far up into the WOTC's butt its hard to see his shoulders.  This, however, was all just my impression.  Shea is a freelance writer, putting out his own stuff just like I am.  He is not a part of the WOTC.

Sigh.

So ... Monday, when I came across a tweet from Sly Flourish on my twitter about how it was minimally necessary to spend at least $900 in order to publish an acceptably quality adventure for the sale, I saw my opportunity to get involved.  I piped up and said that I had done it for free, and that it wasn't actually necessary to spend any money.  I was thinking of Ternketh Keep, that I wrote in 2016.

At once I was jumped by a number of Flourish's followers, who first mocked me, then insulted my privilege at being a writer, a copywriter, an editor, an artist and a great story teller all at the same time, as in "How Dare You Be Talented" when the rest of us are just normal creators.  I must admit, this got my blood up.  So, too, did Shea's reply, when he said that he couldn't edit like [name drop] or draw like [name drop] or lay out content like [name drop], in a very salesman-like manner.  I did not want this fellow to sell me his contacts, I wanted him to engage.

Took me two days, but I steadily preached the message of self-publishing and training yourself to perform skills, so a creator wouldn't have to rely on Sly Flourish's cronies, who I assumed worked for the WOTC ...

... and the face-plant came when I said so.

Oops.

So I said I was wrong and apologized.  And let them beat me up for awhile, and I repeated that I had been wrong and apologized some more, and still more. And Shea graciously called his dogs off me, and acted like a wonderful fellow, accepting my apology.  I apologized again, grovelling as best I can, accepting that yes, I'm obviously a doof.

And I am.  I wanted so bad to finally have at one of those smug, self-righteous know-it-alls from the WOTC that I walked right into being hoisted on my own petard.

Of course [and I don't deny it], I am a smug, self-righteous know-it-all from the Tao of D&D.  And ten times the asshole any of those guys are who are earning a living re-inventing the same crap from 20 years ago with a paint-job and selling it to kids for $60 a copy.  But I'm an asshole who is at least writing new material.  So yeah, I want to talk to one of these guys and get them to admit they don't really care about the game, they just like the paycheque.

I wanted this too much.  And that's what hubris is about.  Wanting something too much, and getting it right in the neck.

I thought about hiding it.  That was the smart thing to do.  Writing this post is the stupid thing to do.  But it is also the Alexis thing to do, so ... I guess it's that I don't want to pretend that I'm something I'm not.  If I'm going to highlight my successes, its only fair that I also highlight my failures, my stupidities, my prejudices and my insufferable hubris.

The fact that I am launching a public podcast is all the more reason to come clean.


UPDATE,

Mike Shea has read the post and asked me to remove the link to the illegal copy of his book.  I have done so.  Shea also says that the link on Neverwinter nights with the title "Sly Flourish" refers to the ability, but not to HIM.  That's a pity.  I'm not removing the link for that; I did not know one from the other.  That's because I did not do the research ~ but that's what the post is about.  I saw the name he chose associated with a WOTC site and made a wrong assumption.  How many others, I wonder, have also made the same wrong assumption?

Logo Attempt #2

The only real strategy I have for making art is throwing it out there at the audience and seeing if they like it.

Today's version.  Better.  Image needs work.  I don't like the sword.



Monday, January 15, 2018

Podcast Questions Redux

The logo needs work.  I'm content with the spear, the body ... but the text is just awful.  Ah well, I will figure out something.

During a conversation yesterday, I realized something that had been crossing just below my radar.  All the advice that is being given fits the same template: name the problem, then ignore the details of the problem and rush straight towards the solution.

I understand this, given that these are largely single voices speaking to an audience, who have untold variations on the problem being named.  But if we're not examining the problem, how exactly do we expect to come up with the solution?

From this, I think the DMs I interview have to be ready to talk about their problems.  As individual conversations and the greater podcast expands, we can talk about solutions, but I really think there is room to identify specifically what is going on in our heads, in our observations and in the frustrations we're feeling with knowing how to play the game.

So I want to shift my agenda in that direction.  The basic premise hasn't changed; the DMs are still the voices, the plan is still to give the guest a full understanding of the questions ahead of time.  But I just want to make a small adjustment to the original questions:

1.  How did the sequence of events at the beginning of your game help or hinder your understanding of RPGs?  When the game took hold of you, how well did you understand what you were getting into?

2.  How would you describe your issues when you started DMing?  Did you understand the game at the time, or would you say you were just a step ahead of your players.  Has this improved, and if so, how?

3.  Are there any other things you've done in your life that you feel gives you a better insight into role-playing games in general, than other participants you've know.  How so and in what ways?  Are there things you've done that make it actually harder to DM?

4.  In your opinion, are your difficulties or successes different from other DMs?  If you have little or no experience with other DMs, do you still feel that there must be issues that everyone is having? What with the language, the manner in which players respond to rules, your troubles maintaining order and so on?

5.  Are your players benefiting from your style, or your game?  Is it just a slog ... or does it seem to go easy some nights, or most nights, and once in awhile there is a hiccup?  Do you feel this is a fault that rests with you, or is it an attitude or misunderstanding that the players have?

6.  How much trouble have you had structuring your campaign?  Does it take a lot of preparation, more than you expected, more than you're really able to give?  Does this leave you scrambling each week?  Do you think time is part of the problem, or is it not knowing for sure what you need to prepare for?

7.  Do you get much resistance when you push the concept of your game, adding elements to the rules or to the setting?  Are there subjects you fear to venture upon?  Are there subjects you've banned from the table?  If so, what are your reasons?

8.  How often do you think about quitting?  If you quit, what do you think you would be losing from that decision?  In forging on, what do you think you are gaining?

9.  Is it hopeless to try to teach most people the game?  Or do you find that players take to your campaign, or the idea of DMing, rather easily?  Have you spun off a DM from your campaign, one whose world you run in?  If not, do you think this is a rare phenomenon?

10.  If you have quit, why?  Do you miss it?  Do you think about starting it again, or would that be impossible?  If you had the time and the money, do you think there's a possibility you would come back to this game, or is it basically a genie in a memory bottle you'll never recapture?


Slightly stronger questions, I think.  A bit harder.  I'm asking would-be guests if they would be prepared to talk more about the problems than the solutions.

There are a lot of solutions out there; my argument these last couple of months is that most of them sound good, but probably won't produce the effect they promise.  I want to on exploring that, with real people, running authentic games, who don't feel compelled to be "experts" or "phenomenal" in their efforts.  Most who are out there, running, aren't experts and they know it.  They need to hear voices that are the same as they are, saying the things they would say, complaining about players and bad decisions just like they would complain.

We're all in this together.

P.S.,

If anyone wants to give a little help with the logo, jump in!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Call for Podcast

Regarding the subject of interviews, which seems to have caught the readers' attention, I'd like to begin scheduling dates with people in February, if anyone is brave enough.  Specifically, I'd like to limit times to Wednesdays and Thursday evenings, from 7pm to 10pm Eastern Standard Time.  If, as some of those interested are, you are from Europe, I think we can make arrangements for 6pm to 9pm Sunday (10am to Noon my time).

If you feel you might be interested, you can leave a message on the post, contact me through Facebook (I think I am the only Alexis Smolensk in the entire world) or email me at alexiss1@telus.net.

I grant that there will be plenty of reason to hesitate.  Some will want to see a few of these, at least, before they feel comfortable with the idea.  There's lots of reason not to trust me, or perhaps to trust your own message, whatever that may be.  All I can say to the latter is that there are thousands of people who DM with the same doubts, the same uncertainties, the same lack of confidence that you have ... and that you are the person these others most need to hear from.

Having gone through this nest of advice-givers, it is clear that we don't need more "experts" who know only to repeat the same messages over and over, most of them reworked from business-designed orientation mythology and human resources doctrine. Your lack of confidence is a plus.  Your uncertainty about managing games or people is the message that we're not hearing.  We're only being informed that it's there, just before it is totally ignored by people presenting easy fixes and empty rhetoric.

This is what we have a chance to present.  The more I think about it, the less necessary it seems to make this about disagreement.  This is about the struggle everyone in the game is feeling: how does this work and what have I already tried?

If you want to wait, please feel supported in that decision.  If you can help me out by being one of the brave, and trying this without the format being 100% certain (everything is a learning experience), then please do.  At the beginning, we shouldn't try to accomplish too much, or worry too much about who's watching.  After all, we'll hardly get more than a hundred views whatever happens.

I was thinking of calling it "Authentic Role-Playing"



Saturday, January 13, 2018

Player Building Prospects

I'll start by highlighting a comment made on the last post about Wowotu, from Pandred, a player in my online campaign:

"Ha, I think I had a devilish misunderstanding.
The improvements by my reading, only exist in the event that a reference of that improvement's type exists, and only then provide the additive benefit to the specific hex stats.
Or, to paraphrase, there is no fishing ground without fish.
Still, I'm now curious if an area could be developed by the PCs, expanding into a greater DEV level and potentially increasing the value of the references found there.
I want a piece of the adventure in which the PCs take a nobody town and make it something valuable to the region."

I made a comment of my own beneath Pandred's, but I'd like to address it further.

It need not even be a "nobody town."  It could be any place, from the densest city to the most obscure wilderness.  Because the idea is improvement, and because the system makes it clear that not everywhere produces everything, it is simply a matter of introducing something into a location that did not previously exist.

We've grown up with endless descriptions of towns and regions where it is always presumed that every kind of cereal or vegetable is grown, or that every kind of manufacture is taking place, or that every kind of mineral is being dug out of the ground, regardless of the region.  If there is anything missing, it is virtually always one thing, and that one thing invariably has one source, or is in the hands of the goblins in the north mountains, or some other patently obvious adventure-driven reason for missing.  In fact, scarcity is a common phenomenon, even more common in a medieval setting ... and the chances are that something missing from a town or region would simply be done without.  The players wouldn't be "saving" anyone.

That said, suppose the players, for their own reasons, chose to go prospecting.  This has always been a difficulty in role-playing.  We can make a table to determine success or failure, but what do we do when the success has occurred and something is found?  Now we're trapped in the questions, how much, what is it worth and how easy is it to get it out of the ground?

I'm trying to answer those questions.  Suppose the players are hunting around the town of Avalon for gold, knowing that there is already gold in the region.  The first question is where?  The generated map gives us a few more possibilities than a normal map would give us.

First, we know that the Avalon hex, 1106, is the most settled.  It's full of farms and so has probably been stumbled over enough times that we shouldn't expect to find something.  To a lesser degree, the type-6 hexes are likewise.

We also know that the type-7 hexes are mostly empty: just a few scattered farms, virtually no authority so long as we keep away from the few cottages and full of possibility.  And they have at least been picked over for really bad monsters.

The hexes without numbers are type-8.  Those are pure wilderness hexes; no people and big potential for monsters.  But they probably haven't been looked over very carefully.  Why not go look there?

Now, gold is an unusual commodity.  In the last post, I said that a mine raised the labor of the hex by +1.  Gold also increases the wealth of that hex by +1, and the happiness by +1 also.  People like gold.  It makes them happy [the moral anti-vice campaign notwithstanding].

So anywhere that we find gold is going to increase the labor, its going to increase our pocket change and it is going to make people happy to be there.

Suppose as a party we march up into 1008.  We've established it's an arid-vegetation hex, which we can fill with brush or with empty grassland or whatever vegetation fits.  From our original map, we know that it is hill country.  As a DM, I can already feel the encounters we can create.

The party at night is beset upon by a collection of vipers, having settled unknowingly near a snake pit, which approach once they detect the warmth of the fire or the bodies.  The snakes just want to curl up to a nice, warm fleshy cushion for the night, but the players don't know that and they overreact.  Or the players stumble across a giant ant nest and have to fight off five, ten or thirty giant ants, depending on how long it before they get wise and beat a retreat.  So much for the vermin.

After a week (it takes a long time to prospect 30 square miles of country), they settle themselves to run the length of a dry ravine, hoping that there will be some evidence of placer deposits.  Here they come across some tracks, which they follow, only to discover these are footsteps, which lead to an overhang, which conceals a cave ... and the party decides whether or not they want to fight things that have feet that are 10-20% larger than a human's.

After killing all the orcs in the lair, the party is much disappointed to find no gold nuggets or gold ore inside the now-cleared dug out cave system.  This doesn't look promising.  Surely these things, living here, would have found gold if there was gold.  Should we keep prospecting?

The party decides that yes, all right, let's just keep at it here.  Without luster, they work their way along the two-mile ravine, certain it has to be empty, since if there was something the orcs would have surely found it.

Wait ... what is that?  Fool's gold, probably.  But ... it feels pretty heavy.  And not a bad sized piece, almost a half a centimeter.  The players dust it off and wash it with water and detect quartz crystals mixed with a dull yellow gleam.  It is not pyrite!  Wow!  Is the character with prospecting experience sure?  He feels sure. At once the party begins searching every inch of the chasm, surrounding the find.  They don't find another piece.

Okay, okay, let's not panic.  Let's leave three people here with the equipment to clear away the brush, build up a little protection, stake the ground so it can be found again if we all have to leave and resist spending a day and a half digging up rock that may be nothing.  Then Yanzig and I will head off to the village, confirm that this is gold, and ...

Once the find is confirmed, the party debates telling anyone about the find's location. Of course, the assayer knows (and there would be one, there's a gold mine just 10 miles from Avalon already), and the assayer might suggest his cousin's younger brother could trail after the two strangers and see where they go ...

And meanwhile the party goes wild with excitement.  But it will take time to find the vein; the small rock could have been kicked by animals for five thousand years of time, miles from where the actual mine should be.  The job is only begun.

On its own, the hex hasn't any "natural hex production" because it hasn't been developed.  The gold, however, by itself, will add +1 wealth to the hex.  As I wrote in an earlier post, this is 354 g.p. per year.  Not bad.  But not spectacular.  Most of this doesn't even come from the physical quantity of the gold.  Some comes from the willingness of the area to just give the players money, in the hope of finding more gold.

The question is, does this small gold find count as part of the original gold reference that is already in the district, or does it count as a NEW reference?

That's tricky ... and I haven't any rules for that.  But we can invent some rules without much trouble.  Merely finding a small vein of gold would not be sufficient; that's what the usual wealth increase accounts for.  A new reference would be very, very unlikely: say, a 1% chance per year of digging.  And meanwhile, there'd be a 10% chance per year that the existing gold would run out.

That's not encouraging ... but we don't want the party easily stumbling across a motherlode of gold every day, and here's why:

The earlier post I linked describes one reference of gold as equal to 3,894 ounces ~ that's the amount drawn out from the mine every year.  Such a mine would go on long past a lifetime: say, a 1 in 500 chance per year of petering out.  Since one reference makes two locations, we must half the total (though we could always argue rolling two d10s and use these to determine what hex of the two has more and which has less).  Consider, however: half equals 1,947 ounces of pure gold per year.  Or a total of 16,968 g.p.  Every year.  At least, in my game.

That would transform the hex almost overnight.  Within a month, the hex would be officially changed over to a type-7, as labor and others rushed to the hex from all over Wowotu (and even outside).  Even a small gold discovery would produce this effect, though not quite so quickly.  The party wouldn't have much chance to prospect elsewhere in the hex after that ... there'd be prospectors everywhere.  If there was any groundwater under the hex, there'd be gangs looking for it.  Once they found ground water, some farms might appear if the season were right, or fruit trees and vegetables planted, or sheep watered (there are already plenty of sheep in the district).  And all the while the party would be busy organizing their own labor, to sink a shaft, bring in wood to shore up tunnels (because I've described gold ore, it wouldn't be sluice boxes), find labor, keep labor, build defenses, fight off a few more vermin, perhaps encounter the one really big monster in the formerly wild hex and generally lose money in costs before hoping to make money on the gold.

But we are talking years before there's any real chance that this will boom ... and by the end of the first year, the other prospectors may have given up, leaving only a few score people and little else beyond that pleasant, non-life changing 354 g.p per year.

Still, what if the players decide to spend it on sheep?

Ah, there we have a different formula.  We don't prospect for sheep.  We know where they are.  The gateway for sheep is the amount of available water.  Perhaps there is some in the newly transformed 1008, but there is more in 1007 and more still in 1107.  So we start calculating how much water there is and we start buying sheep.

Water makes food, which we can also buy in Port Tethys, so we build up our flocks, buying more labor and pouring more money into the three hexes we've decided to occupy.  There's no real government here, not in a Dev7 region (Dev8 would bring new problems, like a local priest who might contend with our activities), so we're really only limited to our coin, our wherewithal and our luck.  The sheep might contract a disease, or we might lose a bunch of sheep to something out of hex 1108 that is feeding on them.  But in any case, we're pouring all this money into 1007 and 1107, as well as 1008 ... what is that doing?

Sheep do not grant any special wealth bonus to a hex.  Oh, the owners make money, but unlike gold, it doesn't fire up the local economy.  It does, however, potentially increase the importance of the hex.

Again, I have no rules made up for this.  Which, apparently, are a lot harder than I thought.  Okay, rewriting this post, let's try to figure this out.

The "natural hex production" for a type-7 rural hex is the natural vegetation for an arid hex (1 food & 1 labor), with an additional +1 labor from the loose assortment of farms.

Compare this to a type-6, also rural, which adds a bonus of +1 food AND +1 labor:

  • Type-7 arid, rural hex: 1 food, 2 labor
  • Type-6 arid, rural hex: 2 food, 2 labor

1 food [binary 1] is enough to feed 70 persons a diet of 2,200 calories a day. 

2 food [binary 11] is enough to feed 210 persons.  So to change a type-7 hex to a type-6 hex?  Add food.

We can add food by filling the hex with sheep.  Or ploughing new ground.  Or buying fishing boats.  As it happens, this won't raise the labor in the hex, as I originally though when I first wrote this post.  But the extra food will raise the population, which we can arguably charge rent, then continue to use the labor to run our own farm.  We become the middlemen for the produce of the other farmers, trading their product by buying it for slightly less than what town would pay, saving them the wear and tear on their carts, animals and the time spent hauling it.  We shear our own sheep, and charge others to shear their sheep ... and we build a mill, which adds another +1 labor and, happily, +1 wealth.

There.  I hope that clears up the former errors in the post.

The Road to Health

I've heard some responses to the Carl post and I appreciate how some readers are worried that I have perhaps gone off my nut, and that youtube is responsible.  One readers suggested that my issues are probably because I have so few readers, and Matt Mercer has so many views, that perhaps it is just time for me to admit that I've lost the fight and that it is time for me to accept the sweet, sweet goodness that is New D&D.  The WOTC has clearly "won."

Rest assured, I'm fine.  The post incorporated portions of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which is a 25-minute performance piece (though it varies) written in 1955-56.  The poem encapsulates virtually all the vices that underlie the western experience of life, and when embraced or spoken aloud is tremendously cathartic ... at least for those who are not afraid of concepts such as anger, drugs, heterosexual and homosexual themes, hatred of government, hatred of conformity, hatred of money and despondency in the face of impossible odds.  When I feel despair, it is the poem I turn to, just as I turn to Shakespeare's 57th Sonnet when I am washed with love, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner when I am in over my head, Kipling's 'Heathen when I'm kicking myself to get better and anything by Ogden Nash when I need a laugh.

Catharsis is healthy.  For a time we soak ourselves in the misery or helplessness of a film, we scrub ourselves with a true novel of human suffering, we steep ourselves with a charity's personal experience of seeing what it is to be poor and misbegotten and wanting, we coast along the corridors of a hospital and remind ourselves of our mortality, in the face of an experience that can't be denied ... and so we come to grips with unhappiness and in that, find an approval for the life we're leading, for the things we're trying, for the wars we're waging and the hills we're ready to die upon.

So I engaged in a little catharsis.  I'm all right.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Carl Solomon and Me

"Our only respite [from the RPG community] is a self-awareness about our behaviour, our games, our efforts at legitimacy, our belief in a less toxic future and the real experience we have had playing among groups of highly intelligent, decent, remarkable people, having been customarily obtuse about closing our doors against the odious hordes."

I wrote this two days ago as part of an address I was writing against the state of play in RPGs ~ and rather than revisit my criticisms, I'd rather invest in the positivism that I indulged at the end.

This investigation into advice and community belief has been disheartening.  There are many things, I find, about which I have been happily ignorant; I could have gone my whole life without learning about stat arrays, for example, which I only learned about, gawd, Wednesday.  I can still feel the bile in my throat.

When I look at it all, I wonder how the original message got this distorted; and I stagger at the effort needed to get the game "back on track" ~ if indeed that is even possible, given the ongoing, "official" propaganda dispensed about role-playing, backstories, balance and deliberate cheating.  I'm already drifting into an age when saying that I play "Dungeons & Dragons" is an inaccuracy.  Whatever I am playing, writing about or designing, it certainly isn't D&D™.

And that is a pity, since it means I can't go to the local games shop and sit down to play a game, even if I want to.  I wouldn't enjoy the "game" being played.  It means that if I stumble across a fellow at the coffee shop who also plays, we can't have a conversation.  It isn't just that we disagree on relative points of play or method ... we're divided by the lack of a common language, where my game uses a set of descriptions and definitions from a once-upon period, while the fellow is garbling on about stat arrays, session zeros, backstories and an "adventurers league," all of which are common terms that did not exist when I began writing this blog, just nine years ago.  Nine years from now, who knows what shit the company is going to dump on the player, in an effort to retain the relevance of the company.

So yes, my game is about my table; and in a wider sense, the small number of readers I can maintain, here and on the wiki, where new players to the game are polluted with arguments against combat, against random chance, against risk and against even the concept of a homebrewed world.  The noobs are driven into the pens of "the new kind of game," where the die roll of the kid in Florida this Wednesday night is the same pre-planned die roll of the kid in Manchester, the kid in Kuala Lumpur, the kid in Vancouver and the kid in Johannesburg, on the same night or at least the same week ... all of which are similarly modified and fudged by DMs operating with the same permissive cheat-codified playbook.

Gah.

It's hard not to be negative.  It's hard to rise above that reality, to pretend this isn't how the community is being driven, by ignorance, by a lack of proper guidance, by hard information, by pervasively purple splat books and by a waxing desperation for some kind of clarity.  We can only sell the idea of a session zero because communication between DMs and players is atrociously bad; both sides will grasp with despair at anything that might promise a better connection between presenter and responder.  The pervasive acceptance of fudging and DM manipulation can only happen because we must do something in a game that has utterly failed the participants, forcing them to express their dissatisfaction, their feeling of being used, and the DM's concommitant feeling of inadequacy in making the player happy, somehow, even if it means gross cheating is the only option.

How else can we explain such an utter split from ethical behavior, or the cognitive dissonance in players being grateful when they are told, "Instead of rolling dice to determine your character, it will be so much better if you choose from a list of numbers that have been carefully balanced" so that no one is offended?  How else can we explain not only the acceptance of a predetermined success and fail adventure, but the SAME success-and-fail adventure being flogged at every game store, among every would-be player, everywhere?  The participants are lost, flailing around, quite obviously wanting to game, to the point where they are willing to swallow any idea that will help maintain some sort of reasonable expectation of play.

Because the home game has been a failure.  We've failed.  We weren't able to teach the next generation how to DM, as I learned how to DM from the DMs who came before me.  We weren't able to teach players how to play, being that we ourselves stumbled around so blindly, so vaguely, cramming together splatbooks from multiple game editions, stealing from hither and yon and finding ourselves lacking the time and the energy to make it work, make it come together, make the players come back to play again ~ rather, they quit and went back to the ordinary life of all the rest who never played, where they could wistfully hear the name of the game pronounced and say, "Oh, yeah, that.  I played that when I was in college."

We who can DM, who can play, who respect the rules, who respect the code of human ethics that says do not lie, do not cheat, do not fuck with your players ... we are just forbidden isles in an empty sea, untouched by and not touching the continental chaos that reigns.  We can feel good about ourselves; we can be appreciated by our players.  We can influence, perhaps, a dozen others who will try to run the game as we ran it, if they are not turned from that path by the siren song of easy modules and easy solutions to difficult players who can't deal with their character's death and must be cheated of a bad experience that might correct their entitlement.  We're nothing in this chaos.  We're in Rockland.

I’m with you in Rockland
     where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
     where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse
I’m with you in Rockland
     where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void
I’m with you in Rockland
     where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha
From Howl, by Allen Ginsberg


Each time, it seems, that I rise up to write another post about D&D, I feel the weight of living in an insane asylum, where players drag themselves through a static dramatic play, speaking the lines they are told to speak and responding to the chorus in the way they are told to respond, orchestrated not by a single DM, but by a faceless, emotionless machine that doesn't care, so long as there's money.  And this is the game.  This is what's right.  This is what's praised.  This is what we are told to play.

Where I struggle not to rant.  Where I struggle to deconstruct patiently, and not to scream remorselessly at the void.  Where I struggle not to let my despair get the better of me.  Where I pretend I am making a difference and all is not chaos and piss.  Where I lie to myself instead of saying, I should not have fallen in love with this game, this game with knives in it, that staggers to the dais to die in its hubris.

I am all right.  I'll keep writing.  But I am mad, starving, hysterical and naked.  I am dragging myself through the negro streets at dawn looking for a fix.  I am caught in publishing obscene odes from the windows of my skull, broken, crying, trembling in a white gymnasium before the machinery of other skeletons.

I want to save this game that I love, more than success or sanity.  But it is already gone.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Improvements

Before we can sort out the placement of references for Wowotu, I'll need to explain improvements.  I've borrowed the term from the Civ-4 game; I have made my own alterations for convenience.  Improvements are basically the physical manifestation of a reference as it appears in a given hex.

Here is a table for the available improvements available with a Development-7 region.  More developed region would have a larger variety of improvements (as well as "buildings," but we'll get to those later).

I trust this is readable.  You'll have to click the picture; you might
want to save a copy so you can reference it as you read.

We have but six forms of improvement, but these should be sufficient for creating a respectable environment.  I'd like to skip over the "Notes" entry on the top line for the present, and dig into the material below with a short cautionary introduction.

An "improvement" is just that.  Hexes are improved when they have been made better by the inhabitants, beyond the usual, normal production.  Improvements do NOT describe an isolated, singular presence of a given good or resource, but rather an enhancement of that resource.

So, for example, if we have a reference for rice, this would mean we have a "farm" that produces the rice.  The "farm" here is a colloquialism.  Rice would surely be produced in many places, on many different ordinary, everyday farms, in every kind of hex, none of which would be classified as an improvement.  However, if we speak of a "farm improvement," we mean an area where the cultivation of rice is intensive and more highly productive.

It may have been inconvenient to choose to call intensive agriculture a "farm," given that the term also describes the usual presence of farms in virtually every rural hex.  However, I saw no other fit name for it.  If the reader likes, feel free to call it a "meta-farm." In any case, the term is strictly for the use of the DM; I would never have a reason to describe a given hex to the players by describing its structural details.  I would simply tell the players that there were a lot of farms in the hex, and that they were intensely cultivated.

Because of this, if the area has a mining camp for gold, this also does not mean that the only gold in the area comes from said mining camp; only that the majority of the gold does.  This is true for every product's reference.  The improvement system is merely there to provide a focus for various products, to the point where they are produced in a large enough amount that it is noticeable, and so that the food production, wealth, labor, health, happiness and culture can be measured, should the players wish to settle and build within, plunder or tax the region.

Improvement Details

Each type of improvement has four subcategories: description, placement and reference & effect.  The description is for the benefit of the players, giving the DM a general sense of the improvement's visual effects.  The placement indicates into what sort of hex the improvement occurs.  The reference field indicates what sort of reference is needed to enable the improvement.  If there are no crops are market gardening references, there can be no farm improvement in any of the region's hexes.

[This would not mean that there were no farms, no crops or no gardens.  The lack of a reference only means that there is no sufficient commercial value in what crops or gardens exist; what we call subsistence agriculture.  Therefore, there would be no intensive agriculture either, and therefore no improvements.  But there would still be inhabitants who would grow food for themselves]

Lastly the effect.  A farm adds two "food" to the hex.  The reader might recall from this post last month that a type-5 rural hex has a "natural" hex production of 1 food.  Add a farm improvement and this jumps +2.  In terms of raw food production, 1 food [binary numeral 1] is enough to feed 70 people.  3 food [binary numeral 111] is enough to feed 490 people.  That is a significant adjustment.

Likewise, the mining camp and the quarry each add 1 labor.  For this system, I am defining "labor" as an expression of the available labor resource that can be skimmed from the top of the working population.  A quarry improvement, for example, would probably employ virtually everyone in the hex.  The reader will remember from the last post that we had a population figure for the number of people in a given hex before carving the infrastructure into seven hexes.  Alas, I have no easy method for dividing the population as well ... we could come up with a number, but the reality is we don't need one.  We can guess the population by the amount of food available; or we can simply ignore the population and concern ourselves with what the players need.

There are only a few situations in which the players would need to know the exact number of quarry workers present: a) if the players wanted to start a quarry, in which case the number is what the players want to hire; b) if the players want to kill everyone in the quarry as an encounter, in which case most of the workers will run away and we only need to know how many might fight back; and c) if the players want to hire quarry workers and have come to a quarry to buy them.

The last is easiest.  We simply list 1 labor as 14 workers and have done with it.  How many would fight the party if they attacked?  About 14.  The bigger numbers, and their families, don't matter.

More than half of these 14 would be laborers hoping to get a job, or recently injured and laid off.  A few might be disgruntled, poor laborers (remember this post?).  If we want, we could use a general roll, like 4d6 (average 14) to get a changeable number.

All this means that I will have to change my hiring rules at some point, but that's also a problem for another time.

Placing Improvements

Okay, let's say we're going to put the gold reference somewhere on our rough map of the Port Tethys-Avalon district.  Here's the map again:


The improvement table says that a mining camp, where gold is produced, is placed in a rural 7 or 6 hex (type-7 and type-6).  It also says, "Balance random preference for less dense hexes."  Type-7 are less dense than type-6, so we want to roll randomly in a way that will favor the former over the latter.

There are fourteen type-7 hexes and ten type-6 (take note, even the sliver of land occupied by the two type-7 hexes east of Avalon would still have room for a gold mine).  If we give 2pts for every type 7 and 1pt for every type-6, we can roll a random number between 1 and 38 to determine where the gold ends up.

Here we come to the note at the top of the chart.  Basically, it says that rather than assign only 1 hex per reference, if it is possible, we should assign two.  These two references will not end up in the same hex.  I proposed this because it seemed cheap to plunk a single reference into a wide area, such as the district above.  Two references are far, far more interesting; and in the case of gold, each will add the prerequisite labor to the hex where the reference ends up.

If it turns out there is only a single hex of type-7 or type-6 in the region (and some of my regions are very, very small, equalling as little as one 6.67 mile hex on the above map), then only one hex is designated by the reference.  If there were no type-7 or type-6, then the reference would go into the hex most like the appropriate hex.  This means that yes, a gold mine could end up in the middle of a city, if that city comprised the whole region and had a gold reference.

There are different ways we could roll 1d38, but I'm going to use excel.  Counting the hexes from top to bottom, with each column from left to right, the possibles are, in order, 7-7-7-7-6-7-7-7-7-6-7-6-6-6-6-7-6-6-7-6-7-7-7-6.  My rolls are 24 and 26.

This puts the gold references in hex 1007 and in hex 1103 ... a good distance apart.  Avalon has good access to 1007, but 1103 is more than 25 miles away (assuming hex 1104 is rough hill-country and impractical for cart and wagon travel).  It is only 18 miles away from the manor house in 0804, which is only 15 miles from Port Tethys.  The journey, then, to Port Tethys is only 8 miles greater than it is to Avalon.  On the other hand, the coast in hex 1304 is only 12 miles away from 1104.  Perhaps the gold is shipped to a rough dock, with a protective blockhouse built just above the beach.

It is up to us.  We can put that gold mine anywhere in the hex, moving it closer to the water or closer to Port Tethys (within the six miles or so leeway the hex allows).  We can use this information to add character to the district; that blockhouse and dock could be an adventure, as the characters are hired to protect the gold or steal it.  In my open game, that is up to the players.  In any case, where we put the road will have an influence over a lot of things.

AND, we haven't placed our other references.  Where are the limestone and salt quarries?  Where are the four sheep pastures?  Remember, we had two references for sheep. What about the rice?  Rice requires a lot of water ... wherever it goes in this arid country, we'll have to create an extensive sink and probable lake to account for the cultivation of that grain.  How the two placement hexes line up on the map is bound to create a river for us, or two isolated oases.

This is the genius of the system I'm building.  We choose the references, splat down land and towns, easy peasy.  Then the infrastructure system builds a dart board for us; then as the references strike the dart board, the world evolves into focus. Thereafter, we simply juggling the facts to make sense of the semi-random placement (remember, we're controlling the placement to fit a certain hex type), to make the world real and purposeful.

Afterwards, we can calculate how much wealth, labor, and food we've created ... then establish the health and happiness of the region, as well as it's culture.  The more the pieces fit together, the more real it becomes.

Just think: all this, and the rules and adjustments change radically when we try this with a Development-8 region.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Pox Upon Thee

Before I begin, I am deeply conscious that this post might be taken for an argument.  That is not my intention.  Instead, I wish to express the impression I am getting from watching video after video about how to play, run and design for role-playing games, particularly Dungeons and Dragons.  That impression suggests that what is commonly happening at game tables is radically different from my experience at my table.  I only wish to suggest reasons why that may be.

Therefore, because many of the details of 3e, 4e and 5e are unknown to me, I'm going to be general in my descriptions - and when certain details are not known to me, I'm going to say as much.



In light of the previous post, let's take a situation:
The players complete their characters and begin the adventure; they need to climb into the forest above the town, to locate the cabin of a druid, who has information they need in order to locate the Palace of Pickscale Peak.  On the way, the party encounters four giant ticks ... and within two rounds, one of the ticks rolls a 1 in 100 critical attack, killing the party's strongest fighter.

The Reaction I'm Hearing

At this point, the player goes off, ranting about how unfair this is, how wandering monsters or verminous monsters shouldn't have the power to roll critical hits, etcetera, apparently at length and in general disturbing the "good times" being had by the players on the one day this week they are allowed to play.

Here are reasons that I have heard given for why death sucks.  To begin with, the player has spent much time making their character.  I am not sure how long this takes in 5e.  I have heard that in 4e it can take an entire session.  I suspect it was not a short time in 3e either, what with the varying feats and builds that were part of that system.  I have never made a character in any of these systems, so I am only going on the considerable amount of time that people online have given to describing the considerable amount of time it takes to make characters.

3e, and presumedly 4e, had a lot of choices to make, to create the carefully crafted character of the player's intent.  I am guessing this was a cross between pimping out one's ride and buying a car from the worst car dealership in Michigan.  After choosing skills, there is the problem of equipping the character, and according to most descriptions I've heard about present-day games, a lot of time spent writing a backstory.  Now, even a two-page backstory is a steep hill for someone who doesn't write all the time.  If the player really got into the process, the backstory might be longer, or really considered, perhaps even written multiple times between the running when the character was made and the running just before the character died.

Of course, now that the character is dead, the game stops.  This has been described as onerous in the extreme ... though I've heard it said and seen it written constantly that the player is free to leave the table, go to a corner, and roll up their character entirely on their own without any supervision whatsoever.  Which is just ... well, I have no words.

AND it's a big issue of the DM.  After all, the DM has planned everything for Gespacho the Gwistbaker to take the lead in every part of the adventure going forward, and now there is no Gespacho.  What now?  What if the player doesn't come back with another fighter?  What if the new fighter isn't strong enough, or is the wrong race?  What then?

These are all problems that seem to seize the very heart of the gaming community.  I cannot relate.



What Happens in My Game

Because the time needed to roll up the character was about half-an-hour, there's very little investment at this point.  The player hardly cares that the character was killed, unless the character was something really unusual, like having two 18s or three 17s.

Since I generate a background, rather than have the characters invent one, there's not much investment there, either.  Oh, the character might have been terrifically lucky, been of noble birth or with some unusual extra skills, but again, there hasn't been time to play them and at any rate, the background is rich with extra skills.  So there's always an expectation that something like it will turn up again, only better.

The player starts picking out dice to roll up the new character, while the other players make a few jokes about the death or chat amiably about whatever.  There's no sense that the game is "stopped," because ALL the players are anxious to see what the new character is going to be.  They, and I, watch earnestly as the dice are rolled, giving congratulations at each good roll and good-natured humour at each bad roll.  The player may not roll well enough to meet my minimum stats (either at least one 15 and one 16, or a single roll of 17 or 18), which aren't super-high.  No one minds the re-roll.  They want to see how much power is joining the party.

Quickly, the player sorts out which numbers go under which stats, picks a class, picks a race and starts thinking about spells, weapon proficiencies or sage abilities.  These are really easy to choose, especially for anyone who has played in my world a few months, so it is past in 5-10 minutes.  If the player really wants to think before choosing, I'll forego spells until the first combat, or a sage ability until the next running.  I don't care if the player chooses an ability for a specific situation, because the player is then stuck with that ability forever, whereas the situation may not come up again for months.  So it doesn't matter.

15 minutes have passed.  Now comes the biggest timewaster: the player has to pick a name.  Meanwhile, I automatically generate a background, which I post as a file on the net which can be downloaded on the player's phone.  I read off anything that looks interesting, not for the benefit of the player, but for everyone's benefit.  If there is a sailor or an armorer or a physician in the party now, everyone wants to know.

25 minutes gone and the player can now start looking over the equipment table.  The new character is THERE, in the game, buying equipment at the table as they are introduced to the party.  Basically, the character comes stumbling out of the forest, expresses surprise at the party's survival, pity at the dead body, and asks to join.  There is usually no role-playing; everyone has done this dozens of times and they don't care about introductions.  Bang, we're off and the adventure continues unabated.  After a bit, the character says they have finished buying equipment.  Total time before adventuring again: 25-30 minutes.


Concluding Thoughts

I think that the need to tailor characters has resulted in this unhappiness connected to player deaths.  The issue, it seems to me, is that with so much lead effort before actually playing, we are creating a deep attachment to something that hasn't proven itself in the field.

People aren't going to give up this habit.  The later editions have emphasized all these build time and effort, in effect expanding the mini-game of making the character to meet certain expectations of the player (who wants total control over who they will BE).  They're not going to give that up.

I'm glad I never went this route.  By maintaining the class system, the class abilities are standardized across the board - and though these may be boring to many players, actual experience of seeing and doing things seems to be more eloquent in character development than trying to do it all at one go before actually starting.

If a fighter in my world fights, and has little else in their skill list, that means the player has to come up with some other way of defining themselves beyond what they "do."  If the background tells them what their past has been and who their people are, then players can't define themselves by their past.  Instead, they have to define themselves by what they want, what things they wish to acquire, what plans they wish to put in motion ... and then to see if they have the stuff to succeed at that, regardless of what class they happen to be and regardless of where they came from.

I find it curious that as the game moved away from the class system, the need to identify with the job title, or the personality of the character, intensified.  Though there are fifty different ways to be a paladin, or more, the most important fact about a character is still what the character does for a living, rather than the aspirations of the character.  I think that's lacking.

In any case, death is always a hard thing.  If a character that has run in my world for years dies, that's a hard day for the player.  But it isn't a pox on the game.  Not at all.

Something I Hadn't Thought of Before

Here's a breakdown of the argument I keep hearing:
     1.  If I play strictly by the rules and the die roll, it happens too often that players end up losing their characters because of some hapless, unlucky roll connected with an uninteresting or minor combatant, or at the moment when the whole party's survival hinges on one character's roll.  If I don't fudge the dice a little, the players lose characters they like or worse, TPKs keep happening.  I have to do something or the players just hate combat.
     2.  As it becomes increasingly obvious to the players that they are very unlikely to die in combat, it makes combat increasingly boring, to the point that the players will do anything to avoid another drawn-out hack fest.  And combat doesn't really matter anyway, because I've found that what the players really like is role-playing.  Whenever I create an adventure with a lot of role-playing, the players always have the best time.
     3.  Therefore, I think combat is a broken metric.  The game shouldn't be about combat.  It should be about role-playing.  Everyone likes role-playing, so what is wrong with that?


Like the Grinch, I have puzzled and puzzled, and my puzzler is sore.  I don't think there is a solution for this kind of thinking.  I think when a phone or a computer begins to function with this sort of miscalibration, the only thing that can be done is to junk it; I have no idea how a person walks a conclusion like this back from the edge.

But I think I may have an explanation I haven't thought of before.

If you're someone who was born post-1990, and are of a culture able to find this blog post, chances are that you have spent more hours of your life competing against a computer program of some kind than you have a real, living person.  This includes the time you spent playing games in school, or playing sports (unless this is something you excel at), or even time spent participating in debates both formal and informal.  You may have racked up a lot of hours arguing with others over the internet; but whether this is against a "real" person, as far as your animal brain is concerned, is arguable.  But even if we throw that in, if you're the sort to argue on the internet, I'd guess you've still spent more hours playing some sort of video game.

There are three elements about playing video games that make losing easier.

First, it is fairly difficult to argue that a computer game is "cheating" or treating any individual unfairly.  There is a certain inadequacy that arises from knowing others can play this game better than us, but that doesn't change our association with the game system; we know the game's ability to destroy us isn't personal - it tries to destroy everyone, to the same degree [whatever level of difficulty that we select].  And that lack of sentiment reduces our relationship to the game to the same level as we would have with a raging river.  It can kill us, but it won't do so in some special way that enables us to cry foul.  That is a sort of comfort.

Secondly, with a lot of game systems, we can cheat.  Not just in selecting an easier setting, but also in a number of ways, some enabled by the maker and some enabled by some clever person online.  That ability to cheat, even just a knowledge that it is an option, changes the fabric of our perception.  If we really, really want to, we can stick it to the game, but good.  That's comforting.

Of course, there are some games where cheating isn't possible ~ particularly with multiplayer games, where we're playing with thousands or millions of others, who are as faceless and non-personal as the game system itself (through sheer randomization).  And those games, it must be said, attract a particular kind of remorseless, competitive person.  They don't need to cheat ... but there is also a sort of pleasure in knowing that, once they're good enough, there are endless noobs for the easy killing.  After a while, the chance of losing drops precipitously.  Which is also a comfort.

Finally, if we do lose, it's private.  No real person out there in the world knows we've lost.  We may feel a bit of humiliation, that bit of inadequacy I mentioned, but we don't have to subject ourselves to any voice other than our own with respect to the loss.  We don't have to answer for it, or explain ourselves.  It isn't like losing at a game of skill when you're a little child, and your grandparent feels the need to explain, in detail, why you lost.

So,

These comforts have accumulated over the years, even the decades, as video games have proliferated, as the time spent at private gaming has pushed out most like activities ... except that most of my reader here also play role-playing games.

But I think you've probably played more hours of video game in your life, Dear Reader, than you have spent role-playing.  And when that is considered, against the three arguments at the top of this post, I think it helps explain why some people get upset at combats, with actual persons, that they didn't win.

I think it helps explain why a player sees the DM as the ultimate in video game cheats; a cheat that can be negotiated with, that can be browbeat, that can be threatened or made to feel the villain.  I also think it helps explain why the DM, with a similar lifetime spent with cheats, and easier game settings, and a sense of humiliation at a hard loss, can empathize with players who are clearly feeling humiliated because they made a bad choice, or rolled a bad die.  A humiliation that is very much not in private, but shared.

If we play chess, you and I, we have neither of us an "easy" setting that can be toggled.  We have neither of us an expectation that one of us has a little more reason to win, and the other a little more responsibility to make sure the other deserves it.  There's no dialogue on the internet that says two chess players shouldn't have an "me-vs.-him" mentality.

Combat isn't broken.  It is merely as heartless as my bishop will be against your rook.  And as I will be against your pawn formation.

And that's a little too hard at a game-table for a generation raised with faceless enemies.  It's a little hard knowing that the DM can help you out, but won't.  It's a little hard knowing that the DM can have a spellcaster magically appear to raise your 11th level paladin, but won't.

Because obviously the DM is abusive.  And the game is about role-playing.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Disconnect in Message

     Kelly: "One of the great things about experience points is it gives the players something that they get to gain aside from treasure, magic items and things like that, whenever they complete a task, they get experience points that makes them feel like they're gaining power in the game."
     Monty: "Even though they're really not.  It's kind of a psychological effect, and it works ... anytime you've played a video game, or that's an RPG, you feel good about gaining experience points even though you haven't quite gotten to the end goal, but you feel like you've made some progress.
     Kelly:  "Yes, every time that bar fills up a bit more, I feel accomplished, like I'm working towards the goal, I'm gonna accomplish something.
     Monty:  "And I think that's one of the most important tools that dungeon masters have at their disposal when using XP, because you can award XP for almost everything.  And it's a great way to signal to your players, 'Hey, good job.'  It's not really going to affect your game aside from the players levelling up a little bit faster, and it's much easier to control the pace by making the rewards larger or smaller, depending on what the players have accomplished."

If the reader is able, try to watch the whole video, to the end, to get the full sense of the message being presented.


Why Players Like It

And they do.  There is no denying this.

We should wonder why we had a special, functional capacity for survival, some fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand years ago.  We were not the fastest creatures, we were not the strongest.  We were the smartest, true, but we need to ask ourselves, how did that "smart" manifest itself?  Particularly when we consider that there was little in the way of "talking ourselves into doing things," as language, both spoken and in terms of self-awareness, was minimal.  There is an answer.  We had other motivating influences, a cornucopia of self-produced hormones, one of these being dopamine.

Let me explain how works.  Dopamine is a chemical hormone synthesized from L-Dopa, which is a psychotropic drug made in the brain and the kidneys.  Basically, the human animal is a construction, which runs on various chemicals, of which dopamine is one.  Dopamine has a particular function, one that exists because it contributes to the survival of the human animal, you and me.

Say that we find the sign of an animal, that we want to eat.  Without introspection, we intuit that to find that animal we will have to track it for hours and hours, and for miles and miles, which will be very exhausting and sap our present supply of energy.  If the tracks are old, it isn't worth it; we would probably die before finding our meal.  But if the tracks are new ... dopamine.

Dopamine gives us a completely non-intellectual award for finding something in our environment that encourages us to believe that we're going to eat, or find shelter, or be warm, or otherwise feel safe and happy.  Note that I say "award" and not "reward," because we haven't actually done anything yet.  We've just found fresh tracks.  But that doesn't matter, because we need an impetus to get started hunting, and that is what dopamine does.  It gets us going.

Truth is, dopamine feels so good (particularly to the human animal that has no other amazing invention do give it pleasure), it energizes.  If we're tired from tracking the animal, no problem, we've got this tremendous endurance rush from following the tracks, and seeing that they're getting fresher and fresher; and then we see the animal and that's a dopamine rush too; and then we kill the animal and now we know we're going to eat, and that's a rush.  And when we're done eating, we know that our clan group is hungry and they're going to eat, so we're willing to carry the hundreds of pounds of food back home, even if we're tired and worn out doing it.  And with the dopamine there are other hormones that are helping, like endorphins that are masking our pain, or seratonin, which makes us feel pride and status, and that we're amazing and powerful.

So we do it.  And it feels so good, that we get addicted to it.  We get up the next day and rush out to do it again, because "Damn!  That was so much fun, I will totally do that again!"

Understand:  we don't have to accomplish things to experience dopamine.  We only have to feel that whatever it is we experience, we can identify some change that is going to happen because of this discovery.  And seeing numbers rack up on a piece of paper has precisely that sort of meaning for us, because we have socialized ourselves all of our lives to identify certain increased numbers as a promise that things are going to get better, and soon.

It doesn't matter that we didn't earn it.  The human animal did not "earn" the fresh tracks of the animal that were stumbled across.  Dopamine does not care.  Dopamine is not a drug that rewards our accomplishments, it is a drug that encourages us to accomplish something in the future.  Something that will help us.

So yes, of course, players think that getting XP for an activity is a terrific thing, because the human animal's biology does not care about "why."

Dopamine is deeply, deeply addictive.  Some things that release dopamine?  Alcohol.  Nicotine.  Gambling.  Cell phones.  When we hear the beep that says we have a message ... dopamine.  Why?  We haven't done anything.  But we know, something might happen that could be good.  And what do we usually find?  Spam.  That's why we hate spam.  Not because spam is such a drag, we can delete it or ignore it easily.  But because the let down from the dopamine is so sharp.


What's Wrong with this Picture?

Games are invented mechanisms designed to trick the human animal's biology into releasing psychotropes, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, which are what makes a game "fun."

The quality of game design is measured by the power a game has to produce this effect.  Over the centuries, we have augmented the gaming experience for humans, until the present day, when video games are kicking the ass of the formerly most successful games, games that are also sports.  Arguably, sports-games are still in the lead, but those are declining while video games are only just beginning to find their legs.  We have no idea how far VGs can go.

RPGs are also a highly evolved experience, albeit one that appeals to a very specific type of person.  It, too, is only just finding its legs, since it steadfastly refuses, as yet, to embrace the communicative technology of the present.  It has a long, long way to go.

This mired-in-the-past issue is a part of the stumbling inconsistency of RPGs, but so to is the human animal delivery system of the game itself.  Because RPGs are not programmed, they are subject to hormonal catalysts resulting from different human impulses: like uncertainty and fear, a quest for power and prestige, covering for ignorance, the need to win the approval of others and so on.  These very human behaviors cloud the manner in which the game is processed, so that DMs forget that they are providing the structure of a game, and are not actually tasked with the need to gratify, satisfy, indulge or fulfill the desires and fantasies of the participants.

This is a destructive break in the mechanism of RPGs, one that continues to proliferate throughout the game's structure, systematically underscoring every discussion or "clarification" by the participants.  In the interest of self-gratification, the DM seeks to service the Players, who in turn reflect the service with words that gratify the DM, and so continues the stagnating loop which soon infects every aspect of what was once an active, healthy game.

Yes, the players LIKE the DMs providing of XP.  The players would probably like a lot of other things as well, designed to specifically award the players regardless of their actual participation in a structured game.  If, for example, I gave money out of my pocket for good role-playing, I'm very sure that would also increase the amount of role-play that went on at the table, as well as the number of perspective players I might have, ending in my campaign becoming very popular once the word got around.

The fact of this explodes every argument the video makes.  Of course, XP doesn't actually require the DM to sacrifice something, like money would, to be gratified by the process of giving (which is a terrific peptide called oxytocin) in exchange for receiving approval (which would be more drugs).


Concluding Thoughts

Many participants are quite happy with the agenda of the video; this process, too, has the power to trick the human animal's biology into releasing psychotropes, neuropeptides and neurotransmitters.  Some of us, however, are not convinced.

That is because we've come to the conclusion that a very well-constructed, deliberate game gives a far better hit than an easily given push.  We feel the dopamine from being given XP for accomplishing a mission, but there is a nagging concern that the value of the number is cheapened when it does not also come with risk ... and most of the things that "deserve" XP in the video are things in which risk is clearly unavoided.

For example, the most common argument for this policy is that players should receive XP for not killing the monster, if they can circumvent the monster somehow, whether through role-play, innovation or some other means.

This presupposes that experience should be given for achieving the goal, and not for overcoming risk.  There's no risk in circumventing the monster.  The risk is in fighting the monster, and potentially losing.  IF the players fail to role-play past the monster, and therefore they have to fight the monster, there is risk.  But if the players role-play past the monster, it is because the DM decided that a die roll indicated success, or because "reasons" indicated success ... and where is the risk?

There isn't one.

Games are about making choices regarding risk.  Without risk, there is no downside ... and therefore "winning" loses all meaning.  When we provide a benefit that requires no possibility of failure or loss, for some people that cheapens the effect.

Remember when I said that if tracks were old, we weren't going to follow them to find food?  When we look at those tracks, no dopamine.  It doesn't matter than they are still tracks.  The fact that they are tracks isn't enough. 

Remember when I said we look at the phone and see that it's spam?  No dopamine.  It doesn't matter that it is still a message.  It isn't an interesting message.  Being a message isn't enough.

For some people, getting XP for role-playing is enough.  But dopamine is funny.  It is only turns up when something is special.  When something is repeated and repeated, and stops being special ... no dopamine.

This isn't a choice.  This is biology.  Once we have participated in something that produces a certain rate of dopamine, because of the nature of that activity, a lesser activity doesn't cut it.  A lesser activity is boring.  A lesser activity doesn't give us dopamine.  It doesn't matter how many thousands of people argue that doing such-and-such with experience helps in their campaign, we shouldn't expect this to work in ours, because it is we may be playing with different stakes at this level.

It's bad advice, because the dopamine gratification provided by the advice isn't sustainable.  If you try it, you'll find that out.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Expanding Wowotu

To begin, here is an update of Wowotu's full infrastructure, shown on the right.  I have adjusted the color scheme, so that hexes without any infrastructure, regardless of terrain, are now grey in color.  Settlement hexes are rich green, non-settlement plains are a pale greenish-yellow and hills are a slightly greenish-brown.

Because of terrain and distance, Wowotu is broken into five districts, departments, provinces or counties, whatever nomenclature we might choose.  I'd like to add the infrastructure numbers for each district:  Port Tethys-Avalon, 147; Nagoya-Fenris, 57; Cork, 40; Hoth, 12; and Sarai, 8.  This is a total of 264.

This would be a higher number if the settlements were not constrained by terrain, and could spread their influence more easily.  However, whatever the infrastructure, the population total would be static; basically, infrastructure measures communication, not population.

Still, we can now divide the population by the infrastructure: 39,166 by 264 equals 148 people per point of infrastructure.  This is something we want to keep in mind as we build the hexes.

Next, let me admit that I don't intend to expand the whole map into 6.67-mile hexes.  I could do it, obviously, but it would take time away from my actual world and it isn't necessary to make the point I want to make.  So I'm going to show the Port Tethys-Avalon district, partly because it's the largest and partly because it is the most isolated.

This does create a dilemma, regarding the references that I had the readers choose.  Normally, I would make the whole region, then randomly distribute the references among the possible appropriate hexes where said reference could occur.  For example, mining camps, where we would find iron and gold, occur in type-6 and type-7 rural hexes.  So after expanding the whole map, I would add up all the possible type 6 & 7 hexes, roll randomly and place the gold or iron reference.

Here, I'm going to place all twelve references in the Port Tethys-Avalon district.  This is not too many for an area of this size; most of my game's regions of this size have at between 20 to 40 references.

Okay.




Yes, I know, not very exciting.  But nonetheless, the system gives some structure to the hex surrounding Port Tethys.  Remember, there are nearly 12,000 people in this hex alone.  The settlement itself accounts for most of that; type-"2" indicates that Port Tethys is a commercial city, so right off we can put the two market references chosen by the readers in place.  Avalon won't come close to this.  Port Tethys would have a repair shipyard, even if there were no shipping reference; but the readers did designate a ship yard so the city does build ships.

The other type-2 that we generated is a rural hex; and as it happens, consists of a manor house with a small village surrounding it; and knowing it exists, we can give that village a name (I'll just go ahead and call it Rainus.  There's a 1 in 4 chance of it possessing a shrine ... which it does!  We're on our way.

Past that, we should hold off on guessing where the other references will go.  We only need to know for the moment that the type-5 rural hexes are occupied by grouped freeholder farms (no lords on that land), while the type-7 hex is a marginal area with isolated homesteaders.

I'm going to leave off now, and get into all the delicious grittiness after.  It has taken a long time for me to write this post. I'm going to finish by giving the numbers (but not the terrain, I'll add that again with the next post) for the rest of the Port Tethys-Avalon District).  Just for consideration.


The grey would be an arid, near-desert wilderness.