Wednesday, July 26, 2017

One Saturday, Long Ago

It was, I think, a Saturday night. I was 15. I had crossed the street to knock on a friend's front door, to find out if he wanted to do something and he told me, "I can't, I'm playing D&D." I had never heard of it.

A game? Yes. "Can you explain it?" I asked.

"No, I can't," he said. "You have to ...

Confidence Abounds

Every campaign, I've found, possesses players with a degree of doubt that is expressed as "worst-case-scenario" thinking.  To a certain extent, it is overthinking, the tendency to see dangers and demons where none exist; but as I continue my investigation into game design and user behaviour in relation to RPGs, I am thinking more and more that what I've witnessed these many years is a lack of confidence.

Now, this is a tremendously loaded word ~ and a heartily misunderstood one.  I direct the reader to the work of Dr. Richard Petty of the Ohio State University Department of Psychology, who takes note that confidence is something that our culture seems to want very badly:
"If you go into any bookstore ... you can learn how to get the ultimate self-confidence, unstoppable confidence, instant confidence; and if you're a dummy, there's a book for you: Confidence for Dummies."

People regularly confuse confidence with a lot of different things, with self-esteem, with bravery, with the capacity for motivation, as a recipe for guaranteed success, even as something that can take the place of physical prowess: the only thing stopping you from climbing an ice wall, right now, is your lack of confidence. Confidence, we are told, can conquer any obstacle.

This is not what confidence means at all.  Confidence is nothing more or less than the conviction that your opinion about anything is correct or incorrect.  If I ask you your name, you will confidently tell me what your name is, as you have every reason to believe that you know, at least, what you are called.  If I ask you if you can swim the English Channel, you can confidently tell me that no, you're not capable of that.

But what if I ask, are you a good DM?  Where is your confidence there?

Perhaps you imagine that the right answer is to forthrightly answer, "Yes, damn it, I'm a great DM!" as you've been fed on a steady diet of "To name it is to claim it" or "Thoughts make reality" or other such sentiment that sure to be found in books about gaining confidence.  To which I will ask the next question: if you are excessively confident that you are a good DM ~ if we recognize that this might be overconfidence ~ is that a good thing?

I want to make the argument that a lack of confidence is not necessarily a drawback.  In many ways, a lack of confidence is a reasonable defense mechanism.  If I go to the bushes over there, will there be a tiger?  If I'm confident that there won't be, will that help if I go to the bushes and there IS a tiger?  And if I'm equally confident that there is a tiger in the bushes, and there isn't one, how have I created boundaries around my free will that ought not to exist?

Now, this whole tiger in the bushes thing, this is something players do all the time in campaigns.  As they are talking about what to do next, they are bound to make presumptions about the rigidity of the campaign that are perceived to exist (when they don't) or perceived not to exist (when they do).  Here I want to give some examples (with apologies to the players), in order to deconstruct what is being said and how that reflects on the confidence of the player.  All these examples come from my online campaign, but I'm not going to give directions, for the player's sake.

"I'd like to see how deep this pool really is - it would be good to know if we could swim across without real danger of drowning."

Note that what has been described is only a pool of water.  The DM here (me) has not made any mention of the water being any threat ~ yet it is automatically perceived, confidently, that a threat is possible or even probable.  That's reasonable.  This is D&D.  But for lack of a definable threat, the player has created one of their own . . . one that does not, in fact, make sense.  The depth of the pool has no relevance to the ability of the character to swim across it without drowning.  If the character can swim, the character can swim; and the player, given an opportunity to think the sentence above through, can see immediately the error in thinking. In the moment, however, the only critical element is the sense that there IS a threat, that threat is certain to be connected to the depth of the pool (since a deeper pool enables a larger, more dangerous monster), in which case swimming might be necessary and it is far harder to swim and fight than to walk across a shallow pool and fight.

This produces a muddle in the player's agenda, between the confidence to identify the problem and the lack of confidence in expressing a response to that problem.  Yet the DM doesn't create the muddle; the player's own presumption that there must be something under the water, because this is D&D, compels the player to jump past the certainty into the realm of "what can we possibly do in this worst-case-scenario I have just invented in my brain."

"Would we have enough daylight to trek back? That'd come to 12 hours of hiking today. I imagine there'd be some kind of forced march damage for attempting it ..."

Again, the player here is speaking confidently from the point of view of being out in the woods, a good distance from town, with certainty measuring time that hasn't happened yet and presuming, reasonably given the complexity of my game, that forced march damage would result.  However, no actual knowledge was acquired before the statement was made.  Knowledge was asked for, but before waiting for the answer, the player felt it was necessary to give their own opinion on what would be a likely answer, then a likely consequence for the answer the player has given himself.

Once again, the presumed answer is a worst-case scenario possibility: a tiger is definitely hiding in the bushes.  Why not simply wait for an answer, then make a judgement based on that answer?  As it happens, the trek would not be 12 hours back to town (coming out, they were feeling their way ~ going back, they already knew the way) and at any rate, I don't award forced march damage for 12 hour periods.  But the player confidently believed this was a reasonable assessment of the situation, an assessment that a DM might reasonably make in a campaign, and felt it necessary to express the assessment as part of the process of running.

"Now I understand that we want to move along towards the interesting bits, but ... we don't want to dive into a pit trap head first."

Again, this is a very common sentiment for any RPG.  But it is, again, worst-case-scenario thinking.  Why specifically would it be presumed that the DM has something specific to be gained from creating a situation where the player's primary action would then produce a consequence of this proportion.  Note that the player does not express concern in terms of, "If we start, it will surely get dangerous."  No. The confidence here is that a yawning pit trap will gobble up the players once the first step (equated to diving in) is made.

It can be argued, and very reasonably, that this is legitimately nothing more than exaggeration.  Yet why exaggerate?  What purpose does it serve?  Very clearly, it serves the purpose of recognizing that there may be a tiger in the bushes and that going towards the bushes, even carefully, even with preparation, would be a very stupid thing to do.  The confidence is that overcompensation, over preparation, is a necessity in role-play, since what can happen so very often does happen.

Now, we can each make a guess as to the origin of this thinking.  Some can argue that the origin of D&D modules stressed the deadliness of traps and dungeons, leaving us with a legacy of mistrust, since so many DMs wholly embraced the mindset that player characters exist to be killed.  Some can argue that there is a very legitimate reason to behave extremely cautiously, to always prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, since presuming there is no tiger would be very stupid.  And finally, some can argue that if experience teaches us anything, the dice are very fickle things and that characters, in the long run, are too precious to squander on a string of bad luck.

Frankly, I feel that all of these explanations, and the confident predictions themselves, stem from a consistent, extremely rigid structure with virtually no free movement in it.  In the last post, Getting Started, I made the point that the easiest system for the DM to run was one of extraordinary rigidity.  To this I will point out that, whether or not that is the degree of rigidity that we play with right now, it is an almost dead certainty that was the system we played when we initially began playing the game, at a young age, with others who, being young, had a limited understanding of game design and a non-existent understanding of how to promote positive, meaningfully satisfying user experiences.  Such concepts did not manifest in our young minds.

So however we want to guess about the reason, because of the culture, because of necessity, because of pragmatism, the facts are that we were trained to look for the worst-case scenario while taking part in minimalistic, strict, high potential threat campaigns, as throwing monsters at parties indescriminately is the first and foremost tactic of every young, uncertain yet eager-to-make-a-great-game DM.

We can't help ourselves.  We're so confident that this is a reasonable course of thinking to possess that we can't separate ourselves from the illogic of it.  Take any part of either of my online campaigns and read through the players' comments for a few minutes.  Example after example will be found there, following the same pattern: question-assumption-probable consequence, neatly describing the player's confident readiness to fail.

This habit ~ for it is plainly a habit, I don't imagine for a moment that any of my players are consciously aware of the pattern ~ makes it very difficult to run a low rigidity campaign with plenty of free movement in it. Consistently, I have to correct and correct assumptions, walking the player back from the precipice of their imagination, knowing all the time how easy that makes it for me to create stress when I want the players to be uncertain.  It is far, far harder to create bravery, or self-reliance, or confidence for a positive response from the world ~ particularly online, where I cannot use the tone of my voice to encourage the party to believe that this NPC really is a friend, and not an enemy, as he would undoubtedly turn out to be in a more rigid structure.

Moreover, it helps me understand a certain player's attitude towards the tools at their disposal a little better. There are players who, not from a need to empower themselves, but from a certainty that failing to innovate will surely result in death, will obsessively dissect every tool and rule that comes across their path.  Every weapon, every tactic, every spell, every bit of information, is seen in terms of the edge between life and death; without this one extra possible use of this specific tool in a situation that they confidently perceive will eventually make itself known, they feel they are certain to fall short of the mark and die.

That clearly speaks of long-playing in an extraordinarily rigid structure ~ for such players rarely view their actions as the critical factor, or their in-group behaviour, elements of the party's strength that are far more powerful than the tools being used.  Other players can't be controlled; they can't be relied upon; and in any case, they are almost certain to die quickly and early.  Only that which exists in my own pocket will save me; so it is what is in my own pocket that most concerns me.

And that is understandable.  Because it is, again, a trained sort of confidence.  It comes with a conviction that this is the way the game is played.

If the reader is a DM wanting a freer, more potential-driven sandbox campaign, undoubtedly you've been running straight into this behaviour.  Yesterday, I wrote that a low rigidity campaign was easier for players, as the number of consequences and enemies pursuing them was lessened, increasing their likelihood of survival and success.

What I did not say was that players confidently believe this is not possible.  It can't be easier, because whatever the DM might suppose, the players themselves are confidently sure that the world is full of consequences and enemies, ready and willing to kill them.

If we won't describe them, the players will describe them for us.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movin' on Up

Some of my readers will remember my writing a post last year entitled "Acts of Faith," in which I talked about the circumstance of being an artist.  That post has been removed from the blog, as a condition of my posting a rewrite on Vocal Media.  The article can be read here.

It wouldn't hurt me at all if the reader would kindly click the link for the article, as my payment for the article is keyed to how much attention it receives.  Therefore, you could do me a great kindness if you would go there, let the mouse slowly scan past the paragraphs for all of 30 seconds, before passing on to something else you're doing.  Free for you; might mean money for me.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting Started

Before reading this post, be sure and read this.

Let's suppose that everything you've done as a participant in your chosen role-playing game can be shelved. For whatever reason, none of the players you have now or have ever had will ever play in your game again, and yet you have four utterly untried players waiting to play in your campaign when you are ready to run.  I'll stipulate that they are ready to wait a month, a year or a decade, as long as it takes.  For the moment, however, you're completely free of all ties and responsibilities; none of the adventures you've run will have been experienced by the new players (so you can run them again, if you wish) and nothing that exists in your world right now must needfully exist unless you choose to retain that condition.

For good measure, I'll add that you're guaranteed another 20 years of life, with enough money to live it however you please.  Satisfied?

Now, what sort of world will you run?  I think we can take it that the gentle reader has plenty of experience with role-play, else you would not be reading this blog, so you have some notion of what ideas have worked for you in the past and what haven't.  You probably have a pretty good idea what system you want to run, since it is the system with which you're most familiar and comfortable, so this is unlikely to change.  You might decide to augment the system somehow, or spend a year or two (with your comfortable wealth) working on aspects you've never been able to iron out to your satisfaction.  We can take this as given.

An assessment of the internet indicates that you are likely to run one of the following campaigns:

  1. A game that is adventure driven, in which the players participate in a series of disconnected adventures that exist in a "world" that serves as little more than a cabinet in which the adventures are stored.  The primary goal is to set up a single session or short series of sessions that can be run over a few weeks, a few months at most, before giving up the reins of control for a time to make a new adventure or to make way for other DMs, perhaps other game systems, which can then be enjoyed on a revolving basis.
  2. A game that is a sometime distraction, chosen from a list of possible games that might be chosen on a given night, in which the DM is by no means certain (anyone might be up to the task).  It really wouldn't matter if the game were Settlers of Catan, Forged in Steel, Call of Cthulhu or the Masquerade.  D&D is just another game.
  3. A game that is a light-hearted romp, with simplified rules and concepts, largely narrative-driven and full of character-to-character interaction. The goal is to produce a pleasant evening in which companions can experience the pleasure of acting the part of someone in a fantasy setting, exchanging their usual traits for traits of a series of imaginary personas, who can act with minimal consequences and maximum opportunity for success and conquest.
  4. A game that attempts to depict an actual, personal struggle of an individual in a complex, potentially harsh and unforgiving environment, in which the measure of success depends on the careful preservation of a series of potentially depleted resources, usually expressing a limited capacity for survival and purchasing power.  This last concentrates on problem solving and accounting, since every aspect of the character (including the character's personality) is considered to exit in measurable, finite quantity.

If you're reading this blog, still, it is probable you're looking to start option number 4, obviously the least enjoyable of the lot.  I don't want to paint this improperly.  Everything about the last option discourages any sense of "fantasy" within the definition of a fanciful mental image, typically one on which a person dwells at length or repeatedly and which reflects their conscious or unconscious wishes.  When I began playing D&D, it was clearly understood that the "fantasy" aspect of the game was a clear and understandable description of the setting and only the setting, in no way related to mental fantasies about being rich, powerful, loved, important and so on.  This notion that somehow RPGs are there as a fetishistic manner of living out a life that can't be lived out for real came after, when participants began to displace their sense of unfairness of the game's willingness to kill them when the die turned against them or they did something stupid with the unconscious defense that the game was made for "fantasy purposes" and not as a game where adequate play was the measurement for success or failure.  This led to promotion of fancifulness as the primary motivation of the participants and the complete discounting that the original meaning of "fantasy role-play" meant in a setting with magic and other supernatural elements such as monsters and terrain not ordinarily found in the real world.  In no way does Tolkein, Lewis, Howard, Moorcock or Baum suppose a world in which death, sorrow, misery, unimaginable danger or probable failure are inconsiderable, yet here we are, where "fantasy" worlds are more akin to the sort of fan-service promoted by the Smurfs or My Little Pony.

I'm not interested in those worlds, so I'm going to assume that the reader is the sort of fool who sees an RPG like a golf course, a thing to be devoutly embraced and, simultaneously, devoutly resented ~ and for those who have no idea what that means, I recommend more golf or less reading of this blog.

Then how do we go about starting a campaign based on #4?  Like a novel, or any artwork, we should start with our motivation for initiating the process.  What do we expect to get out of it?  Why, for heaven's sake, do we want to be a DM?

I've been thinking about this quite a lot.  It's worthy of a long post, but I've written about a hundred long posts already on the blog so here I will just sum up.  In the same way that the players are faced with a world which they must problem solve in order to thrive in that world, the DM is faced with players who must be convinced that they have the power to influence that world according to the strategies they employ, in a believable manner, within a boundary that possesses near perfect "play" within the fixed system the DM has invented.  Keeping that system fixed, or running smoothly, without kinks or hitches, even when information is necessarily lacking because it must be invented believably on the spot, exactly within the confines of the previously operating system, is spectacularly difficult and a problem-solving feat that puts player problem-solving to shame.  To make a good game, the DM cannot casually move out of the groove that has been previously established, or the whole system quickly goes wonky and flies out of control, with the player's psychological responses being the determiner for how "off" the campaign becomes.  As the DM deviates more and more from the groove, the players' reliance on the system spins further and further out of balance, until the DM can't put the campaign back into working order because the players' memories won't allow this.  The campaign is broken and stays broken ~ and survives from this point forward by replacing players with independent, proactive imaginations with players with needy, resigned forbearance.

This is the game I play.  My attempt to keep the wheel spinning with grace sometimes ends badly, with players who express boredom or distrust of the campaign, bringing about its end (an end that I accept rather than evade).  Sometimes the attempt enables the game to remain in play for years, until circumstance or separation ends the effort.  It is clear to me, however, that the thing I most get out of the contest is the rush to stay ahead of the players, to first enable them and then compensate for that enabling, then to predict them without predicating that prediction on my power to make the world act any way that I wish.  The more I put my hand in the system, the more smudged the lens gets, until neither I nor the players get anything out of what we see going on.

If this is not the reader's motivation for running the #4 campaign, then I dare the reader to put forth an explanation that is as thorough, as researched, as measurable and as definitive as that which I offer.  No feelings, please.  My description of the groove, as I call it, is part and parcel with the whole design of the campaign, from the maps to the rule-system to every judgement call I make from beginning to end, connected to this blog and every point of advice I've tried to give.  It isn't a "feeling" ~ it is a conscious effort to balance the needs of the campaign's difficulty against the needs of the player to believe they can act fairly and freely to counteract that difficulty.  My personal sentiments as to how I "feel" about being a DM do not enter the equation.

I like it.  That's as far as my feelings go.

Very well.  How are we going to set up the mechanism in which play occurs?  Remember Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's definition of play: free movement within a more rigid structure.  What, then, is the free movement and what is the rigid structure?

We want to have a clear concept of how much free play the players ought to have.  In this case, I'm not speaking of the players in relationship to the DM, but rather to the actual world itself.  The world is the rigid structure; but different worlds, and different genres for that matter, offer a wide range of rigid structures that will appeal to different players.  In each case, we can measure the rigidity in terms of the potential for conflict between the players and everything that is not the players: how interested is the setting in the players, how much capacity does the setting possess to observe the players and how likely is it that the setting will take steps to counteract the players' actions.

In giving some examples, I want to express strongly that I am not speaking of any specific game system or any specific game setting.  Setting is something we can leave for later on.
  • Extraordinary rigidity.  This is more likely to exist in games where the scope of the game is somewhat minimalistic, particularly in games where participants are expected to be a part of a clan and where the enemies are part of other clans.  In such situations, players have to both survive attempts by other clans to kill them, will steadfastly adhering, or appearing to adhere, to the strict rules of their own clan.  Another example of extraordinary rigidity occurs in high tech games, where mechanical surveillance is constant and common, where everyone is under suspicion and where a large population encourages draconian methods to keep order.  Another example might be a dystopian environment where the number of potential threats is so high that there's hardly a moment when the players are not at risk; a dungeon might fit this description as well, or a high tech environment with a "raft" of some kind (planetoid, ship) immersed in a highly toxic or otherwise deadly environment. However, though player choice may be limited, the play in the system need only be enough that the players can sort out wrong actions from right actions, encouraging them to move cautiously but nevertheless successfully through that 'scape.
  • High rigidity.  In each case, this will likely be reduced examples of the above, mitigated by short periods in which the players are not under threat or have reason to believe, within certain circumstances, that they are safe.  Spy games, where missions are interspersed with returns to base, or some fantasy campaigns where the participants are able to return to a "safe" town from a dungeon, would fall under this category.  If the town has minimal opportunities apart from resupply, which virtually all space outside a certain "free parking" zone expects the most dangerous of confrontations, then the system likely has little space for players to diddle around doing their own thing.  I don't describe a railroad, exactly, but if we're talking a game rich with superheroes or supernatural, highly aware gods, then the players are going to find themselves consistently interrupted by reprisals that are the result of their previous actions, regardless of the players attempting to settle down or seek compensation in some manner other than adventuring.  We can consider any game where the players are pitted against a host of known adversaries, or where their activities lay the ground work for future, necessary activities for survival, as one of high rigidity.
  • Medium rigidity.  Effectively, the players exist in a relative bubble of indifference from the setting until such time as they begin to impress their actions upon the world.  In a similar way to the above, there are a series of consequences that are stirred up by the players' actions ~ but unlike a high level of rigidity, these consequences may not necessarily lead to conflict.  Whereas it is taken as a given that Batman and the Joker will never make friends (high rigidity), a medium rigidity enables the characterizations of non-players within the campaign a degree of flexibility that will (for example) enable the Joker to get help and to change.  The players may create the circumstances of a war but may then enable the possibility of a truce, rather than the war becoming necessarily ongoing and unresolvable.  The campaign, therefore, enables periods where the players are able to sew up loose ends and, for a time, drop out, reasonably expectant that they will be undisturbed for a period ~ however, this also assumes that when the players again begin to meddle in the affairs of the world, they will once again find themselves in the soup.
  • Low rigidity.  The indifference that the setting was prepared to award the players at the start of the campaign, as described above, is more pronounced and less likely to alter, except in situations where the players make a considerable attempt to make themselves noticed.  Unless the players doggedly make efforts to encourage conflict between themselves and the setting, the setting is largely prepared to let them go their own way.  This doesn't mean that the players won't meet with potential conflicts, but most of these will be disjointed or disconnected, such that the players won't be able to rely upon a concerted effort of the setting to kill them in order to find purpose as gamers.  Put in a world that feels indifferently towards them, the players must be proactive in making changes to their situation ~ no one else in the setting will do it for them.

Any of these structures may be considered "rigid" to a different degree.  To put it in mechanical terms, the controls of a helicopter are extraordinary rigid in their expectations of the pilot.  A small plane would have a high rigidity in expectation.  A car, a medium rigidity.  Finally, a bike would have low rigidity.  A bike can easily be ridden, even turned, without touching the handlebars; it is easy to manage because it extends not very far and perfectly visibly on all sides of the rider.  A car, much less so, though it can be driven without touching the steering wheel.  It cannot be turned, however, without doing so.  A plane is harder still, as it is not wise to take one's hands off the controls for more than a few seconds (a passenger jet is less rigid than a car, with moments of considerable rigidity).  Finally, a helicopter will not allow the operator to let go at all, without the probable result of a crash.

All are perfectly effective vehicles, all are fun to drive, all serve a different purpose and all have free movement in a more rigid structure.  None of them are "better" ~ just different.

The DM needs to have a clear idea, however, of the world's intent towards the players.  It is no good rapidly or randomly switching from one degree of flexibility to another without warning, as this will simply confuse and then frustrate the players, until they are prepared to let go of the campaigns controls in vexation.  Once the degree of fixedness is understood by both the players and the DM, however, and maintained, the game can grow into a pleasing, effective user experience for all involved.

Part of the decision must be the DM's potential for staying in the groove!  Surprisingly, a loose and indifferent campaign is much harder to run than a tight, rigid campaign, in that the amount of variables and grey area expands rapidly once the players are not asked to account the same for every action and counter-action they take.  It can take a lot of time for players to sense the logical difference between "we really pissed everyone off" and "we pissed off a few people" and "why isn't anyone pissed off?", then compare that meaningfully to their own actions.  If the players can count on everyone in the setting trying to kill them, this demands much less exposition and explanation from the DM!  "They're trying to kill you because they are a different clan"; "Everyone in this world is trying to kill everyone"; these are easy.  "They haven't decided if you're worth killing, and in any case they're busy killing someone else" has a nuance that takes a greater degree of effective, purposeful setting descriptive to evoke in a player's comprehension.

What I'm saying is that while an extraordinarily rigid campaign threatens the player like having to fly a helicopter, it runs the most easily for the DM.  And while the low-rigidity campaign is less threatening for the player, like a bicycle, the DM is forced to keep a tight hand on the stick at all times.  The degree of difficulty for DM versus the player is wholly inverted, in terms of the amount of problem solving that must be done.

Think of this question, this degree of rigidity, as the usability of the campaign, both for player and DM. Both parties must be considered in choosing the degree of the campaign ~ will the players enjoy or like a campaign that is either extraordinarily or highly rigid?  Will the DM manage a medium or low rigidity campaign?  Compare the capacity for play, the willingness to play while in constant or semi-constant danger and, overall, the sheer desire to play situations that are either wholly proactive or wholly defensive.  There's a lot to consider in the above.  Do not go lightly into the question.

While the reader is deciding (presuming you're prepared to reconsider your campaign in the light that it can be completely altered from what you're running now), look back into your own past and seek out the setting that will satisfy the needs of useability that you've assigned to your campaign.  It should be a setting you know very well; it should be one you're prepared to reshape and redesign in your imagination, as it needs to be flexible to service the needs of you and your players; and finally, it should be a setting that others will find appealing.  It is no good if the setting is something you're in love with but which is so obverse to user interest that you'll find yourself resenting their lack of requited love for your project.

I do not recommend searching your memory for a movie or a tale of someone else's design.  That design may be universal to all your players, but if it is to be flexible, it will undoubtedly upset others when you change it in a way that seems wrong in their opinion.  If you can create your own vision, one that is easily understood and accessible, that owes no baggage to any other source, that you can present clean and clear to the players, encouraging them to then make it their own (once you birth the baby, you have to let it grow up), you have a greater potential for a group experience than trying to shove an idea down their throats or massively hacking away at a jointly perceived shrine in ways that will infuriate others who have different things about that shrine that they like and you don't.

All right.  That's enough for now.  We can talk more about setting later, if necessary.  As I said already, a good setting comes with experience.  I'll add to it that it comes with a willingness to hack limbs off the setting that aren't working, when they need to be hacked off.  Forestall the surgery if you can, but sometimes surgery is a necessity.  Don't be afraid to get out the saw when the time comes.

Next we will want to talk about player confidence.  I don't know when I will write that, but it's the next logical step.


Let me ask something: does the reader feel overwhelmed?  I've talked about a wide range of subjects regarding gamer experience: the importance of difficulty, the responsibility inherent in taking up the mantle of DM, rule-making, game structure and function, narratology, modelling, despair at venturing into new game design, reverse engineering as we play games, operational logic and the concept of game flow.

Are you lost?  This is all interesting stuff but how in hell does it set an agenda for what you're going with your world or your game?  Have you already forgotten most of it?  Has it fallen right out of your head?

Don't be surprised.  I'm finding it hard to keep it straight.  My only saving grace is that most of it has been floating around in my head for decades, without my knowing that the academic work I've been posting and deconstructing existed.  Clearly, it's hard to find; and I think that most of this content falls on deaf ears, given that it sets out to correct misunderstandings about concepts such as "fun," "reward," "rules" and "worldbuilding."  These are not concepts that common game makers or users want corrected: they have already fixed in their minds what these words mean and any effort to create a measurement thereto will be bound to encounter resistance.

Yesterday, prior to writing my post about setting, I spent a couple of hours looking for a definitive university-level book on developing a dramatic setting or a game setting, to compare with the examples that I had found online and among juvenile how-to articles.  There wasn't one, at least not that I could find.  I found plenty of books with a high complexity describing setting in Greek tragedy or in Shakespeare, or related to the Bible or other general categories of literature and drama.  Yet I could not find an authoritative, meaningful book on "choosing a setting" as more crude sources would approach the subject.  From my own academic experience with creative writing, I have to admit the matter was never approached in that manner.  I don't approach setting myself in that way.  I would never think before starting a book, "I want to create a story that takes place in such and such a setting; I will make the setting first and then decide what sort of story I want to tell there."

[I know, this seems like I'm going to go back into setting again, but I'm just going around the barn; I'll come back, I promise]

Any story I've wanted to tell has always been about something I believe or something I want to believe; substantially, the most certain sorts of thoughts that it is possible for me to have.  For example, Pete's Garage is about how a fellow approaches not being able to work and live as a musician, but only knows a life lived among musicians.  Pete still knows what he knows about music; he's wise in his manner and he's forgiving of the musician's lifestyle and the musician's quest.

I didn't want to write a story about a music agent or a music promoter, and I had minimal experience with those things.  But I knew a place, Connections, when I was 19 and 20 that rented rooms by the hour to musicians who wanted to practice, where they didn't have to worry about how loud they were.  It was a shit little building downtown that has since been ripped down and made into a parking lot (coincidentally, connected to a place where I worked on the 5th floor for five years in video-on-demand, but that's not important).  To reduce the noise between rooms, the management hung nets on the walls full of ripped up foam rubber, like one of those nets you probably fell into when doing the high jump in high school.  The carpet was old and rotten, with the wooden floors showing through, the place stank, the floors weren't level, the management were assholes and the vibe was equivalent to a meth lab.  Yet I spent hundreds of hours there, moving from room to room, talking to musicians, writing stories in the corner while they played, blasting my ears since I was about four feet from the bass and drums, and loving it.

In writing Pete's Garage, I wanted to recreate that: so in a way, it could be argued that I "invented" the setting first and then came up with a story.  But no.  In fact, I invented the story and then remembered a setting that would work with that story.  If I'd never known a place called Connections, I'd have used something else from my memory.  That's how writing works.  We begin with the idea, then we cast around for concepts that will fit that idea and make it believable and interesting.

If the idea is bad to start with, nothing we do in the way of story, characters or setting will save it.  That's important.  Most ideas are bad.  In fact, statistically speaking, all ideas are bad.  Good ideas are a non-statistical anomaly.  That is why most of the time, creators just steal good ideas.  The chances that you, as a creator, will have an honest to gawd original good idea is a statistical impossibility.

Thankfully, I'm wise enough to know that only means it's highly improbable.  People get confused about that, however.

All this comes back around to the problem of how do to set an agenda.  See, no one taught me to do this thing of reaching back into my memory for things that would fit with a recently acquired idea. It came with time.  And with the understanding that the method will serve bad ideas as well as good ones.  That's important too.  There's no real way of knowing if you have a good idea or not; this is largely what has me paralyzed with regards to The Fifth Man right now.  I go through periods where my complete lack of confidence makes me question the logic of spending any time on the book, like Marty McFly asking, "What they say, Get out of here kid. You've got no future. I mean, I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection."

When my struggle is difficult, I'm weak that way.

But you're fine, right, gentle reader?  You don't experience misgivings like that.  You don't have doubts about your campaign or your players, or about what you're doing with your game or your life.  Everything about your world's design is going exactly as you want it to and you're one hundred percent certain that when you bring in a new idea or a new adventure for your players, they will love it.  One hundred percent.

We want good ideas . . . but at best, we're working with what we have.  No one can teach you how to do that; you've got to experiment and play.  On top of that, you've got to be open to the possibility that the idea you have is bad, even if that possibility is uncomfortable and keeps you awake at night.  Even if that possibility paralyzes you for a time.  It is better that you be aware of your potential failures, of your moving down the wrong path, than blindly stumbling along, happy go lucky, until you've destroyed any and every opportunity you may have had to find your way back.

All this game stuff ~ if you're not self-aware and mindful of your game in this manner, none of this will do you any good at all.  If you're not mindful, chances are you'll never be.  Chances are you're not mindful because you're terrified of what you'll find if you look at yourself, your choices and your game too closely.  Looking at it too closely could result in your discovering that it is all shit.

Chances are, you're not ready for that.  And that you'll never be ready for it.

I envy you, a little.  But then I remember, if I were making my world or writing my book with the sort of cheerful confidence that disallowed me any misgivings that either might be shit, they would almost certainly be shit.  With statistical certainty.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Secondary Importance of Setting

Of late, in my process of examining games, I have been seeing a lot of "worldbuilding" content directed at video gamers or story writing.  Here is a fairly typical article; here is a fairly typical video.  The goals of this content are direct: to explain that "worldbuilding" is important, that the way the "world" is conveyed matters, then to give a series of personally adored examples in which the details of said content is fondly discussed.

What this content does not do is explain how any of this is done.

"Worldbuilding" is a big, exciting word that sounds like it is something crucial to the narrative process, so important that videos describing worldbuilding spend a lot of time explaining how good exposition is made or how good characterization is accomplished or choreographical techniques as an attempt to hammer down a term that did not exist in the creator's standard lexicon ten years ago.  This is a recent amateur word that has lately developed as a cultural fad but is extraordinarily lacking in two regards.

First of all, in telling a story, I do not have to create an entire world.  This was demonstrated definitively in the mid-20th century by a series of minimalist masters such as Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, who used universally understood paradigms to discuss human behaviour at its core.  There was no need to build a "world" ~ the world already existed.  The attempt was to express it and explain it.

Secondly, a perfectly good word for the concept already exists, and has for thousands of years.  The word is "setting."

For fan boys, who are astounded at the immensity of setting for various science fiction, fantasy, meta-fiction or anime, this does not seem to be a word with enough scope, enough verve, enough dimension to satisfy the awe and stunned inadequacy they feel when experiencing settings of such creativity: and as such, they have invented their own word, a word that can bear the weight of their empathy and fetish.

Sadly, their own writing falls flat when attempting to explain how this building of worlds occurs.  Take this address:
"To begin your world, simply think of a blank canvas, ready for you to paint your picture upon. I find it useful to first think of one location which interests me. What does the terrain look like? Is it a mountain, riverbank, beach, valley, forest, desert or open plains? What type of people live there? In the mountain perhaps they are a mining town filled with many burly men. Or perhaps in a forest paradise with beautiful, slender people. Now we think of the culture and building style. What type of houses do they have? Wooden? Stone? Are they made with fine craftsmanship or do they look like they have been thrown together by novices?"

 This is it.  Having started, you're on your way to a lot of other questions that do not, in any way, suggest what the answers should be if you've chosen a mountainous forest paradise with slender people living in wooden houses they've only recently constructed.  But then, that isn't much to start on.  The problem with asking a would-be storyteller to answer a lot of random questions about who rules the place, how they communicate or what do they farm, is that we either get a hodgepodge of disconnected, unbelievable traits and cultural points of interest, or we get something very much like what the creator has experienced all their life: a typical farm, a typical city, a typical military structure or a typical dystopian fantasy.  None of which has any real insight, since this is a story that is going to be driven by its setting and not by its plot or its characters.

Consider this similar quote from another source:

"The first step to writing a setting is to brainstorm and make lists of various aspects of a setting.  Take about fifteen minutes and make a list similar to the following (time, place, environment):

  • late at night ... in a haunted house ... dark, damp, creepy and old.
  • in the future ... at Cape Canaveral ... heading for Mars.
  • in 1620, the Colonies ... stepping off the Mayflower ... cold, forested, rocky beach.
  • present day ... waking up high in a tree ... flat plains covered with snow.
  • evening ... deserted street in New York ... foggy, rainy and cool.
  • early morning ... at home, in your bed ... the house is empty.
"After brainstorming your list, choose the ideas you want to develop and write four settings (each one must be set in a different place and time).  After you have written your first four drafts, choose the one that is your favorite, then edit and revise the draft completely. If time remains, have a friend edit the draft and have him or her make suggestions."

Awful.  But more or less the same advice that can be found in a typical youtube video.  And the language of this later example is almost forgiveable, as it comes from a book called, Adventures in Writing, Grades 6-12.  It doesn't pretend that its not giving the most simplistic advice imaginable for impressionable young minds who, for the most part, are too simple to have read real books by the time they're in Junior High School.

(This book would have sickened me in Grade 8, about the time I was reading Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut and If the War Goes On... by Hermann Hesse ~ books in which the choice of writing by writers figures prominently).

Okay, let's have a look at something more relevant to the actual problem.  This is from Interactive Storytelling for Video Games, by Josiah Lebowitz and Chris Klug.  Lebowitz is a professor at the University of Hawaii and Klug might be Gerry Christopher Klug, a game designer and theatrical designer; I'm not certain about that.

"Defining features of open-ended storytelling include expansive worlds that the player is free to explore for most of the game and an extremely large number of optional quests and activities he or she can take part in.  Because of how much time and attention are spent developing the setting and optional content, the main plot is often deemphasized, with most open-ended stories having relatively short and simple main plots featuring generic player-created heroes.  Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, go against this trend, offering deeper plots and well-defined heroes, though doing so sacrifices a considerable amount of the player control and freedom found in other less plot-focused games like Fable II and The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. Which of these approaches is best is a matter that's frequently debated . . . but as a general rule, the more freedom that is given to the player, the less emphasis can be placed on creating a deep, structured, and emotional main plot, and vice versa."

I want to unpack that specifically in terms of the setting, which is clearly not as important as videos and articles would have us believe.  The real concern is player engagement and player agency; and the reader will find a similar point of view if searching for discussions of setting with relation to theater or film.  "Setting" is the backdrop in which the action takes place.  The backdrop must be believable; it must be serviceable; it must not detract from the experience and it should be addressed with care and alacrity.  But it is NOT the most important element of the story telling experience and it is not what makes a work great.

We have drifted into a mindset where, having been fed great graphics through a heightened sense of film mechanics and technology, we're prone to deluding ourselves with giving these things more substance than they actually possess.  We're also prone to convincing ourselves, with special words to describe the setting, into believing that "everything" falls under the purview of the "world" we've created for our characters ... when in fact that world isn't actually very important to the plot or the characters.

Rather than preaching examples of how an immense and awesome setting has made some movies remarkable and worthy (which they are because plot and character were given the attention they deserved), we ought to consider how an immense and awesome setting has absolutely failed to support an appallingly bad plot or character arc.  Jupiter Ascending comes to mind, as does John Carter, the 2011 Conan the Barbarian abortion, Warcraft, Tomorrowland, 47 Ronin and the greatly disappointing and forgettable 9, which created a multi-layered setting of magnificent proportions, only to face-plant spectacularly as the characterization turned out to be wholly uninspiring.

The world you make for your RPG game, your video game or your novel/play should be good, yes; but the time you spend on it will greatly undermine the time you ought to be spending on your characters, their motivation and the goals they are seeking.  A setting won't save you if those things aren't in place . . . which is part of the reason why so many DMs can sustain themselves in long-running campaigns that are built on setting design that is absolutely shit of the first order.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Guge Again


Territories to the south and west were previously made as
part of India. Territories to the east, in pink, have yet to be
designed. Some details showing will be adjusted later.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Cover Updated Officially

Here's a chore that I finally have behind me.

This is the official cover of the book, now.  I could not cut the paperback to a lower price; the publishing service would not let me.

It is available on e-book for $11.95, however.  That I could do.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Adjusting Map Colors

How would a new map-color scheme look?

First, my feeling is that everything for regions that are well documented are fine: the main problem is for hexes for which I have no elevation information. Take the Svalbard map I posted just recently; there are only four hexes there with known elevations; the rest of the hexes are a mix between "glaciers" and "rocky tundra."  This creates a mix of two map forms, between "elevation" and "terrain" that makes for a mess.

So, to begin, I think I need to incorporate an elevation guess that will serve the map's use, even if that elevation is basically inaccurate.  Not that it really matters anyway, I've just said in the last post that I've removed an entire sacred river from the India map, so what the hell?

The elevation of an unknown hex can be guessed according to what we know of the general terrain.  Are the known hexes the valleys?  Or are they the high places, which applies to a lot of desert regions, where the flat bottom land is hot and higher elevations are cooler.  It helps if we know the country, both geographically and geologically.  Svalbard is much like Greenland; mountainous and glaciated.  So we can set the surrounding hexes as all generally higher than the highest elevation hex we know about, 1804 feet.  So let's say the rest of Svalbard is above 2000 feet.  I have an elevation hex color for this: it is a tan brown, but not the same as shown in the map above.  So let's make every hex that isn't known that color.

Okay, but what about glaciers?  We'd like to keep that information, as it adds to our general knowledge of the terrain.  For that, I'm adding another layer to the map, a glacial overlay, so that it makes Svalbard now look like this:

On the whole, a grittier, more detailed experience.  Because we don't have to make the whole hex the color of the glacier, now the glacier covers the inland or bleeds right to the coast, depicting in places a line of coast where the tundra color shows.  The glacier on Nordaustlandet can be a little larger than the hexes, since we can bleed it outwards however we want.

Because I have made these maps myself, and on a publisher program, I can adjust it as I need.  People ask me all the time if I shouldn't just use google earth as my map; but I can't change the features and images on google earth, like I can on my own maps.  The map above only took me about 45 minutes work, most of that taken up with experimenting, as I'd never made any of my maps like this before.

Consider this earlier version of the Jotunheim map, the large sea area of land east of Svalbard, consisting of Franz Josef Land (the Dandemoth Islands) and northern Novaya Zemyla:

Again, I have almost no information for this, so most of the hexes are depicted as white and therefore uninteresting.  Arguably, they're utterly empty and I know they're mostly glaciated and barren tundra, but still it would be nicer if the map looked more like this:

Definitely an improvement, yes?  We get a much better sense of the landscape of the top of Biyetia on the right of the map (depicted as 500 ft.-1000 ft. in elevation) though of course I have no real numbers for that part of the world.  Jotunheim (Novaya Zemlya) really jumps out.  I've taken a little time to give the Dandemoth islands names, though I did this a couple of years ago without telling anyone.  The islands have a "political" name as well, Humutya.  But I'm not explaining that, at least not until there's no chance of running it.

I'm also emboldening the labels, so they're easier to read and making subtle color changes elsewhere, with the borders of the hexes for example and the color of the sea and topographic names.

But what about a part of the world with more land than sea?  Going east along the same latitude, the next map I've made and posted in the past is the lands surrounding the Kara Sea, which I've posted on the blog before.  Here's what it looked like:

Because we're swinging around the arctic pole, the previous map of Jotunheim is turned 60 degrees, so that it swings to the left and up.  The reader can see the top of Biyetia in the middle left.

This map certainly has its appeal, though again it lacks a lot of information.  It has more, however, than the previous two, so I was able to give it more feeling.  I changed the color of the white hexes to darker hexes to create the Byranga Mountains, so that gives the land some shape.

Not much, though.  It is still mostly white, and we don't have any sense at all of the swamp lands that are encompassed by all that empty white hex-space.  As such, I've chosen to tackle the problem of what the elevation of those unknown hexes is based on the existing mountains, the presence of many rivers, what hexes we do have information for and the coast, too.  To this, I've added the same icy overlay that I created for Svalbard, and one thing more: an overlay for muskeg swamp, for areas of undrained flatland, as this is what most of the North Siberian Lowland is (see the bottom right of the map).  All this work (a couple hours) produces this effect:

I was astounded at how well this came out.  The terrain pops right out and grabs the imagination; the overlay truly enhances the effect and giving guessed elevations to hexes certainly increases the potential for what passage through this country would be like.  That's always what I'm going for.

I will have to explore this more to get a better sense for what the color scheme for Tibet will have to be; I can see that lightening the color scheme for the high country is necessary . . . but I'll need to consider what I want to do with that before diving in.

Oh, let me add that the google drive has been updated with the maps above, for those who have paid their $20 on my Patreon account.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Obscure places you've never heard of.  And while some readers may have, I am impressed that I never have, since I been reading geographical content all my life ~ a long life, at that.  But I've never seen this before a day ago:

This is Tsaparang, the ruined capital of the ancient kingdom of Guge (10-17th century AD), 278 km south-southwest of Senggezangbo, or rather Shiquanhe, er, Ger, that is, Gar Dzong, Gar Town or just Gar.  Sigh. Here's a video about the place; seems like a pretty crappy documentary that prattles a lot and looks at stuff, without really knowing anything.  These bore me, so I didn't watch it.

Here is my map of Guge.  Prepare to be underwhelmed:

Confusing, ain't it?  I agree.  A large part is due to the color scheme I planned for 12,000 foot elevations and over.  It was fine when I did India, when only the edge of the Himalayas rose to that level (looked good, in fact); but with all of the map being dark umber and purple, it is hard to read if you're not actually looking at in on Publisher.  Plus the grey regional borders disappear when applied to this map's color scheme.  Not that orange borders wouldn't look horribly garish and unappealing.

Frankly, I've been having different problems with map coloring recently, as I'm working on odd places that don't fall into the usual climate/elevation ranges.  More and more, I've begun to realize I need to spend a lot of time redoing old maps in order to bring them into a level of consistency that is beginning to fall apart as the overall map increases in size.  This is a monumental task; there's little wonder I'm not anxious to apply myself, since it will only end in my having the same maps I already possess, just a little cleaner and somewhat better labeled.

I am right now thinking the very manner I remake the map has to incorporate a few new coloring techniques, that I'm not using at all right now ~ but which I think I learned from making those comics.

I'll make another confession.  My India/Tibetan rivers are, well, wrong.  Have been since the beginning; I based them on the elevation numbers I had and did not try to draw them from real maps.  That's been true from the beginning of my map-making; for India, things went really sideways.  Good luck finding the Sutlej River, where the city above is located.  The valley of the Sutlej wound up being largely redirected east into the Ganges or north into the top of the Indus Valley, before it enters Ladakh.

At least I will know if someone tries to steal my maps, hm?

Structural Bias

In a conversation I've just had with Maxwell, I equated the DM's game designer problem of creating rules ~ concrete, objective and publicly visible ~ to the rules and structure of video game code.  This, I think, is apt.  A great part of the difficulty in RPGs moving forward these past forty years has come from an inability to agree on the code, which in turn disallows for our moving forward on things that really matter, like the process of the game itself.

Recently in an email, I made a point about initiating an adventure and the structure of that initiation which I think is worth repeating in a blog post.  I began by explaining that when I first began to play D&D, I saw that the biggest problem I was having as both a player and as a DM was the notion that the DM was always right.  This idea gained strength pretty quickly.  I did not hear the term 'fiat' until many years later, though that is certainly correct in its description: a 'fiat' is generally considered a very bad thing in the real world.

As such, I saw that my chief axiom as a DM would be to take myself, as much as was possible, "out of the loop," letting the dice decide as many conflicts as possible while pushing myself to create situations that were logically based on what had gone before and not upon a personal, arbitrary desire to see something happen.  However, though I argued the importance of this with many DMs in the early 1980s, I always felt I was the only one who applied this thinking to my world; and today, I still find myself in contention with those who think there are times when it is "okay" to DM fiat a problem.  This is clearly evidence of broken philosophical thinking at the ground level of the participant and user of the game's structure.

Imagine someone asking on a football web forum, "When is it okay for the New England Patriots to cheat?"

[makes me want to go try it, actually]

When I say "take myself out of the loop," I don't mean that every part of the game I'm running has to be structured in advance.  That would be impossible, particularly for the size and complexity of campaign I'm running.  To prepare and script every option a player might pursue would take far too much time for even a single adventure.  While this might mean that I am compelled to run a given room exactly as it was written, thereby removing my immediate judgement from the equation, it also means I have to create very simple, very limited systems for my players to move through.  It means the scripts for anything that anyone says have to be simple as well, or else I'll be writing scripts ten years from now.  Everything that the players might do has to be accounted for, and the players would be barred from doing anything that wasn't already created.

Basically, a video game.

My concept of the loop came in 1980; at that time, narrative video games were astoundingly primitive.  Consider, this was the level of video game when I started playing D&D:

I could see at the time that the "control every variable" option was going to produce a spectacularly bad game.  Even now, with the progression of video games, I'm still bored with games that seek to produce a narrative experience, right up to and including a game like the Witcher, Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed.  I don't want to be someone else dealing with their problems, I want to be me, dealing with my problem ~ and I want total freedom of choice to decide what my problem is.

A better methodology for running an adventure, I believed, could be found in the narrative rules that novel-writing compels, something I was also tinkering with in 1980, as those were my formative years as a writer.  At the time, I could not have described it, but I've studied deconstruction a great deal now and I believe I have a good handle on the basic principles.  In a novel, everything that exists must apply somehow to the development of characters and setting, which in turn serves to drive the plot and create the conflict, which then must be resolved with the instruments, ideas and motivations that have already been instilled in the characters.  When Frodo is imagined to be dead in Lord of the Rings, we cannot simply have aliens land in a ship and then destroy the ring with an extraterrestrial blaster.  In the same vein, what Samwise does next has to make sense.  He cannot behave in a manner that would make the reader think the author had suddenly decided Sam should no longer act like Sam.  We know that is not how humans behave in a situation (or, at least, we think we know that).  Humans behave according to how they have behaved in the past.  We stubbornly cling to that notion.

Doing this in an RPG, this setting up of the adventure, should follow the same principles.  Each object found, each discourse, each motivation of the non-player participants, should match up with the final goal.  However ~ and this is incredibly important ~ RPGs are not novels.  Nothing can be fixed.  There's no certainty that the players will pick up the object or pursue the motivation.  If they don't, the DM must, this being the axiom, resist the desire to push into the loop and compel the players to pursue the unwanted set-up.  The set-up must be abandoned and a new set-up created, one that hopefully the players will pursue.  If they do, then the movement in the set-up's direction will produce a conflict and an end result, so long as the players remain interested.

This means that my world is a series of narrative set-ups, sometimes without result.  If the players don't like an idea, I kill it in my mind, or figure out another potential clue that might make the previous set-up more enticing (which sometimes works but more often does not, discouraging this tactic).  This requires that I place no sympathetic (or sentimental) attachment to a given set-up . . . but why should that be difficult.  Artists abandon ideas all the time!  If the necktie scene works better without the necktie, the playwright dumps the necktie and writes the scene.  Those who fail to recognize that any part of a work can be abandoned for the sake of the whole work will in turn fail to achieve a higher degree of skill and self-awareness.

Okay, but what is a "set-up"?  How does it work?  I'd like to give an example, but I can only hope the gentle reader has read the book [hell, if you haven't, you're damaged in some way and should not be DMing adventures].  I'll try Around the World in 80 Days.

The set-up is simple.  The story is told primarily from the point of view of Passepartout, who has just acquired employment with an extraordinarily precise master, Phileas Fogg.  The set-up is that a bet is made, one that requires Fogg to act in a manner that seems very unlike Fogg; Passepartout is taken along on a journey which, at the beginning, he does not really conceive in scope.  Passepartout does not believe his master's simple statement that they are going around the world; he doesn't know Fogg well; he thinks his master must be joking.  By the time it is clear it is not a joke, Passepartout is already far away from home and well in the midst of the adventure.

Consider: Passepartout could have refused to get on the train out of England.  He could have refused to cross the Channel.  He could have refused to leave France, where he was from.  He could have stopped anywhere along the way ~ but this would have meant unemployment for the manservant and at every step, the prospect of keeping pace with Fogg seems more enticing that being unemployed anywhere along the way.  That is a set-up that works.  The players have free will; but the choice right in front of them has to seem much more interesting than any choice they can make on their own.

That is how I lead players "by the nose."  Not by railroading them, not by controlling them, not by denying them agency, but by creating a set-up that is more interesting, more enticing, than the set-up they imagine themselves creating.  Once they are in the adventure, everything else follows logically.  Like in Verne's book, once Fogg, a wealthy Britisher, appears to be moving quickly through Egypt, the detective Fix assumes Fogg must be a bankrobber that he has been told to be on the look-out for.  Fix follows Fogg and is in turn embroiled in the adventure.  Events in India then create the opportunity to rescue Aouda, Fix's machinations lead to Fogg's being stranded in Hong Kong, the trip through the United States leads to the encounter on the train and so on ~ all of which are perfectly predictable to me as a DM, as I know the players, once on the adventure, will move through India and Hong Kong and Nebraska.  I can set the events of the adventure well up in advance without the party feeling railroaded, as they know they chose to take each step as it was given.  That is precisely why, although they have agency, they can be predicted in their behaviour.

I believe that this connection between setting up a narrative in a book and setting up the premise for an adventure has been utterly and entirely missed by the game-making community.  I feel that calls for necessary solutions to narrative, such as that called for Noah Wardrip-Friun, have already been created and structured for centuries by writers and artists, but that these things are being ignored because most game systems and formats do not have the flexibility to ditch set-ups that are not wanted or desired by gamers.  Not like an RPG can do.

If we don't like a book, we can stop reading it.  If we don't like a video game, we can stop playing it.  But if you don't like an RPG, that RPG can be changed and changed until you do like it ~ unless the person in charge steadfastly and stubbornly refuses to change.  And that there is the problem.  That is the structural bias we have to overcome.

Play, Flow & Blow

Okay, let's move to a subject that readers will comment upon.

Ryan Wright [a different Wright from Will Wright that I wrote about a week ago] is a game narratologist producing talks on youtube, one of which I was directed to see by Ryan Wright.  Braid is a 2008 platform and puzzle videogame, which Wright discusses in detail through the video.  I've never played the game and so I don't venture to have an opinion about it, though the premise seems a very clever one to me and I can certainly how it was a move forward for designer Jonathan Blow.  I'll be looking at Blow's work, so I may come back with something about his ideas later.

Near the beginning of his lecture (6:30), Wright talks about interpretive systems and heuristics.  I talked about heuristics in a post last year, followed by another post and another.  At the time, I concentrated on decision-making and rationalizing the motivation of players as a means to revisioning momentary gut instinct as "story-telling," but the effort did not make much of an impact.

Wright's lecture is to discuss the points of view of two philosophers, Johan Huizinga and Hans-Georg Gadamer as relating to play; I won't recount the bones of the lecture: suffice to say that Gadamer ends up laying the groundwork for the opinions of Bogost that I deconstructed at length earlier.

However, I'll quote from Gadamer just as Wright does in the lecture:
"The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather, it renews itsetl in constant repetition.  The movement backward and forward is obviously so central to the definition of play, that it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.
"Play clearly represents an order in which the to-and-fro motion of play follows of itself. It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose, but also without effort.  It happens, as it were, by itself.
 "... all playing is a being-played.  The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players ... The real subject of the game ... is not the player, but instead the game itself.  What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself ... [as such] play is really limited to presenting itself."

Wright then goes on to make an excellent point about the relationship between the re-presentation of play (representation) is the manner in which art is created ~ but I'll go in a different direction, specifically in reference to RPGs (Wright is, remember, lecturing about a video game).

This condition of being lost in a game is the same as any circumstance in which our own conception of time is suspended because we are entirely focused on what we're doing.  I get this sense every time that I set myself to write, whether it is a book or a blog post; I am focused completely on the task and to a large extent I "tunnel" with regards to my attention; people around me speak to one another or at me, and I fail to respond for long periods because I have to be roused out of this state.

In psychology, this is termed to be "flow", a concept which, according to Wikipedia and Mihaly Csitszentmihalyi, has been widely referenced in a variety of fields ~ so it isn't surprising that it comes up in games and in art, such as playing RPGs and having five hours go up in smoke in what seems like a subjective forty minutes, or my writing this blog post for eighty-five minutes and it feeling like ten.  I want to take a moment and list the seven flow conditions that Owen Schaffer proposed on the subject; things that cause flow: knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, knowing how well you're doing, knowing where to go (if navigation is involved), high-perceived challenges, high-perceived skills and freedom from distraction.

Now, apply those to the game you're playing.  Do you know what you're doing as a DM?  Do you know how to do it?  Are you mindful during the game of how well you're doing?  Are you aware of how high the challenge is that you're overcoming?  Are you aware of what skills you're applying as you run?  Are you free from distraction as your game progresses?

This blog has as its mandate the desire to give you tools so you know what to do as a DM, in the sense that you have a concept of what makes a good game and what the players want ~ in effect, the function of your game.  I struggle to tell you how to do it ~ how to build the game's structure.  I tell you to be conscious of your players and of yourself, to measure yourself, in effect to develop situational awareness, which I spoke at length about in my book How to Run.  I've spoken about controlling the space where the game is played, both to give a sense of place and atmosphere, but also to create a zone that is free from distractions.  I've encouraged DMs to boot players that are distractions because it limits the capacity of the game to be good.

From those points, I hope that the individual reading the blog and the book will come to recognize the high-level of challenge and skill necessary to play this game well ~ and to recognize that one RPG campaign CAN be measured against other campaigns because there does exist such a thing as skill and difficulty involved in the playing process.

Gadamer's position that 'play' is 'flow' is fairly self-evident ~ but it deserves examination, particularly since many of us fail to get that sense of flow often in our games when we play.  We're angry with ourselves and distracted by our sense of mental clumsiness and neuroses about what the players are thinking as we're trying to sound interesting and encouraging of their involvement.  We're not able to express in clear terms what we're doing or how we're doing it.  The game's construct itself seems hopelessly confused and people are reaching for readily applicable solutions like "less rules" or "more role-play" because these things are at least comprehensible.  The actual requirement of making the game ring like a bell, or rather flow, seems impossible at times.  That is, until we experience it.

That is the key measure.  We've all played enough games, particularly of the video nature, that have induced flow, going back to when we were very tiny children.  We know what flow is, which means we know what "right" is . . . all we lack is the skill to put right into words.  We reach for non-descriptives like "fun" or "serious" because we're conveniently forgetting that there are technical, scientific terms for what are brains are doing and why.  Hell, I'm only on this track now because Wright told me to watch this video.

Okay, let's put flow and Gadamer's definition of play on the back-burner for the moment.  There's another point I want to make that comes out of Ryan Wright's lecture.

Starting at (20:00),
"Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, gave a talk titled Truth in Game Design at GDC Europe in 2011, where he discusses his design process and he makes the claim in that talk that much of Braid's design wasn't something he believed he invented, but rather was something he discovered.
" '... it was very clearly the case that more ideas came out of the design process, and ended up in the final game, than I put into it as a designer. The process of designing the gameplay for this game was more like discovering things that already exist than it was like creating something new and arbitrary.  And another way to say that is that there is an extent to which this game designed itself.'
"What we can take from this is that in a Gadamerian sense, the designer that works like this is actually creating the game by playing with its rules in his mind.  Blow approached the game less with rabid inventiveness and more with the mind of a tinkerer.  He played with a set of premises and selected ideas from that set of premises that manifested in its possibility space."

This was a terrific Archimedian moment for me ~ but just in case the gentle reader does not see what I see in the above, let me point out the more obvious first and then go where this took me.

Blow is finding, simply, that the material structure of the video game he's making is similar in function to any RPG (as it was traditionally played, without the role-playing narratology).  I give you a world, the world has a set of premises and you tinker with the world to determine what your possibilities are.  Okay, simple enough, any good RPGer will see that immediately.

But look at Blow's basic problem, not stated by Wright in this video, as he's going to other places.  Once Blow has this tinkerer's mentality, once he sees the possibilities manifesting themselves, he then has to sit down and code for hundreds of hours before anyone else can enjoy that experience.  Now, I grant that there's a lot of flow going on there, that Blow is probably happy with the time needed, though he wonders about his capacity to make his art real, as any creator does.  Yet there is this reality:

The video game code, for all its benefits, is an obstacle that has to be climbed between Blow's comprehension of the universe he's stumbled upon and the manifestation of that universe. Whereas I, playing a game of D&D, can stumble upon the idea and manifest it in the time it takes for me to explain it.

My limitation is my capacity for explaining what I think; can I explain it?  Do I know how?  Am I self-aware enough to recognize my limitations, or the limitations of my listeners?  This is a high-skill problem, a high-challenge problem.  I can think of the concept, but can I make it a part of my player's experience once I have thought of it?

But let's be real.  Blow's process of coding the video game is a diminishing necessity through the steady development of technology. After all, that's all coding is: technology.  It is the method by which we communicate our thoughts into virtual reality right now.  Coding is only important as a skill-set because this happens to be the point in history where it matters; at some future point, having the ability to code will be meaningless.

So Blow's importance as a game designer ~ and my importance, and for the reader YOUR importance ~ is in what you think, not in how you make your thoughts manifest.  Of course, you have a window in time, in which you'll have to use the tools that can be provided for you.  Game designers in the 1920s did not have your present options. You will not have the options that game designers in the 2120s have.  That's a reality you'll have to consider.

Still, there's no point in learning any of these skills if you can't get it clear in your head what your goals are, what makes a good game and how you can achieve it.  I'll keep working at my end of it, here, but you have to keep reading and watching and being mindful of what others are doing . . . else there's no hope for you.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Towns Dropping Through Cracks

Just a brief note about mapping Tibet. The first step is to research cities/habitations and sort out the regions within Tibet, based on geography and historical references.  Here's my list of towns in Tibet:

The reader can see I've carved off one section already, a region that covers the upper valley of the Indus River in far western Tibet.  Guge was conquered by the Kingdom in Ladakh after 1630 (or so, details are sketchy).

I don't have a map yet, I won't for a bit, though these are easier to make because, hey, no coast. For the moment I just want to bitch about starting in China and the problems that brings.

Since naming (and I talked about this before) is a free-for-all, I'm having some trouble.  I have three atlases I'm working from, Google Earth, the site (which gives the lat-long-elevation details) and wikipedia . . . and guess what?  None of them match.

The names are listed as different, or an atlas has the city marked and named but Google Earth shows no place at that location, or there is a place there but under a completely different name and nothing on the web connects the two names together.  As always, there are many listed towns in fallingrain with the same name, often none of them having coordinates anywhere near where the map specifies the place should be.  And so on.

It is worse than I feared.  Apparently, Pinyin has broken down so completely that no one can be sure what the correct Pinyin name is for a place. In several cases I found multiple names, with x's for s's or z's for s's, where both names were listed as Pinyin though they did not agree.

No, I did not keep an example.  Try Shigatse, that was was a fun one, or Ch'ung-te, which can't agree on whether there should be a hyphen or an apostrophe or if the name shouldn't Qamdo or whatever.  I have it listed as Chamdo, above, but that is by no means the "real" name.  I don't think anyone has agreed on it's real name.

Perhaps the whole thing is a scheme by the Chinese military intelligence to hopelessly confuse invasion by ensuring that no two maps made by the outside world can possibly agree.

Anyway, there are several places on the list for which I have no proof whatsoever (Amkyonyang) even exist; the coordinates shown for it are actually for a place called Amjogxung . . . I have no idea if these are the same place, but it is close to where one of my atlases lists the place.  The internet ~ the entire internet ~ has never heard of the atlas spelling I have.

Which is just weird.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Damn, these annoying corners of the world that my OCD won't let me ignore:

I wanted to show it in relation to Bear Island, in the bottom left hand corner, also an annoying rock that needs ten minutes to map [mostly to get it in the right hex], in the Barents Sea.

Here's the same map, without Bear.

Note that I've changed the colour scheme for the glacial areas; I went back and did this for Iceland, too.

The only piece left between Europe and Greenland is Jan Mayen (heard of it?).  It's also owned by Norway, which makes it technically the last piece of Europe I have left to map.  But I just don't feel like dedicating so much as ten minutes to it.  I'm just sick to death of fjords and islands.

Anyway, I've also updated the Google Drive, for those who have donated $20 to my Patreon account.  A2 - East Svalbard will give an indication of Svalbard's relationship to the very top of Norway.