Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bearding the Tiger...er, Lion

Tuesday night, I was fortunate enough to be able to play D&D again...for the first time in years.

Jeez. That's not really what I want to write about, but take a moment for that to sink in. Just looking at the sentence brings up a whole lot of conflicting feelings.

I had actually expected to get some gaming in next month (August) because my kids were going to be in Paraguay with mom for the last three weeks of summer, and I was going to have a bunch of free evenings. Fortunately/unfortunately, the trip fell through due to my wife's work obligations, so...well, shit. But on Tuesday GusL was running a playtest of his Viking rules for the HMS Appolyon through something called "Google Hangouts" and I got an invite to the game, so I decided to join.

And I did...kids jumped on my laptop a bit before I settled 'em down with some television in the other room (an example of my wonderful parenting skills...ordered 'em a pizza for dinner, too). But I got to game for a couple hours, in a very cool campaign setting, with a very thoughtful DM whose creativity I respect immensely. Plus Vikings! Man, I loves me some Vikings. Mix that up with the "Stranger in a Strange Land" trope (our lost-at-sea longship floating up against the insanely massive, steampunk ship-dungeon that is Appolyon), and you've got yourself a very good time indeed.

Anyway...fun, fun. And while my character did get turned into a tiny gold figurine because of a magic trap and a failed saving throw, I got to hit things with an (imaginary) axe and stomp around in big (imaginary) boots, kicking down doors and stuff. Going a-Viking suits my personality quite nicely.

Which leads me to the topic of this post: namely, folks who not liking to put their boot in...for fear some hidden tiger is going to bite their foot off.

Yeah, yeah...I realize I'm eliciting a WTF moment from a bunch of readers. I'm talking about something Alexis was describing in one of his recent posts, Confidence Abounds. The essay describes what "confidence" is (briefly: surety, not courage or ego) and how confidence (or lack thereof) can sometimes manifest in gaming, both as a DM and a player.

And ONE of those ways is a player's conviction...their confidence...that there's a tiger (or similar deathtrap) just lurking there, waiting to do them in. Even in campaigns run with low rigidity (i.e. a more open, sandbox-y type campaign) that would otherwise attempt to encourage player agency and initiative and creativity. Players become stymied in their decision-making, laboring under the fear that the axe is just waiting to drop at their first misstep.

Yes, it's out there. So what?
Now I realize that there are some players for whom this is a preferred style of play...players who like approaching a D&D scenario with all the dutiful care of an archeologist, cautiously brushing the dust away with a small whisk so as not to destroy some fragile piece of ancient pottery; the "fragile piece" in this case being the player's character. For me, this isn't terribly fun...neither as a player, nor as a DM. When playing D&D, I prefer my archaeology a bit more Indiana Jones...some bold swinging into action and a pulpy disregard for one's fictional life and limb. That's the kind of adventure I want from a fantasy adventure game...it's the reason I play D&D (when I get a chance!). In real life, I'm a fairly cautious individual. After all, I've got two little kids depending on me.

But in a game, I can get away with acting fairly brazen...and so I do, as much as I can. I often restrain myself (a bit) for the sake of other players, but I'm sure that some find me a little too "gung ho" at times. Even so, my survival rate is pretty good, helped immensely by thirty+ years of DM'ig experience. I've got a pretty good head for the numbers and playing the odds, and a fairly good nose for sniffing out bullshit.

[that magic trap was something I should have avoided fairly easily, but I was distracted at the moment it came up by a pair of small children clamoring for my attention]

So I'm not terribly worried about tigers lurking in the bushes. Even if there is one (just to take an analogy too far), I'd prefer my character to go down fighting the tiger, then to spend a bunch of my precious gaming time worrying that my paper character is going to die. It took me longer to decide on a suitably Norse-sounding name than it took me to roll up my PC.

And anyway, one of the things I've found in the last decade or so of gaming (since getting back into the D&D hobby) is that DMs have a tendency to be pretty soft on players. It's like they have the opposite problem of these players who fear the hidden tiger. They are sure (i.e. "confident") that playing Old School D&D...with its lack of healing surges and death saves...means that a Total Party Kill is just waiting to happen. And they lack confidence in the party's ability to deal with legitimate threats in a reasonable fashion.

I don't know...maybe I've just been "fortunate" in the draw of DMs I've had (Gus said his last play-test involved a giant demon monster that wiped out everyone in the first encounter, but I wasn't there for that one). What I do know is that, other than Tuesday night, I've only lost TWO characters to death in a D&D game in the last ten or so years...and one of those was a character that chose to die in order to give the rest of the party the time they needed to escape a nest of troglodytes.

[the other character was a 1st level illusionist who ate an orc arrow and only had a couple hit points...no big loss]

I think Alexis is correct in surmising that most of us have been conditioned from our formative years of gaming to expect to be tiger-bitten by the game. That early adventure modules...our examples of what D&D is/was supposed to look like...are particularly unforgiving SOBs, character killers, and deathtraps. And, no, I'm not just talking about The Tomb of Horrors. The Keep on the Borderlands, about which I've written many times, has killed more player characters than any other adventure module I've used over the years...and I've run Tomb at least four or five times. The Isle of Dread is probably (a distant) second. Other adventure modules...like The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth or Tomb of the Lizard King are notable (to me) for having caused TPKs in a single run...and fairly early in the game. And White Plume Mountain? My last large group to go through that one played very cautiously (over multiple sessions) and were still wiped out, almost to a man.

These early experiences are what give us our surety that the tiger is out there (in the case of DMs, this tiger is a TPK and our sad-faced players having "no fun" for the night). And perhaps it IS out there. D&D is ridiculously lethal when played as written; you can sneeze a hole in a 1st level player character. Gygax's own house rules started PCs at 3rd level, and this to me is fairly adequate across the board: three hit dice worth of hit points, three spells for magic-users (two for clerics), and a 10% bump on most thief skills is a perfectly reasonable starting point if you want to cut-down on the random insta-kill.

But even if the tiger is there, do you want to play tentatively? Do you (as a DM) want to stock that first level of the dungeon with 1-2 hit point monsters that can't hit chain-and-shield armor? Don't we want our players (on both sides of the DM screen) to have enough confidence in the PC's survivability that we can approach D&D with the gusto and verve of the pulp fantasy that inspired the game? Or do we prefer to embolden our players by instituting rules that all-but-take death off the table: plentiful healing, death saves, "shields will be splintered," etc.?

I'm certainly not what I'd call an academic when it comes to D&D. I'm an enthusiast. But even if I can't raise my writing to academic standards, it doesn't mean I'm not interested in having a discussion in how to make the game a better experience...a grander experience...for its players. ALL its players (including the DMs). How we can grab the tiger by the tail and ride that sonuvagun. Or something.

[***EDIT: Alexis just posted a follow-up essay that has some suggestions/methodology for evaluating your campaign...assuming you're a Dungeon Master...to somewhat mitigate players' over-indulgence in tiger fear. Another good read...check it out***]

Anyway. I had a lot of fun playing D&D the other night. I hope I get the chance to do it again in the near future.
: )

Friday, July 21, 2017

Jeff's Cool S**t

It really irritates me when I write a comment on someone's blog and the whole thing shows up on my G+ stream. I realize this is probably on ME and my lack of ability with the whole social media thing (i.e. I'm sure there's something I should be turning off to get it to stop)...but that's part of the irritation: it points out my ignorance and incompetence, in addition to sharing my one-line witticisms that were really only meant for the blogger I'm reading.

Such was the case recently when the immeasurably talented Jeff Rients posted his recent series on random advancement for B/X character classes (here's the post with the compiled documents).

His thinking behind these can be found in his first post in the series in which he writes:
A problem in old school D&D that has been intuited by nearly everyone but only occasionally spoken out loud is that sometimes you can go up a level and it's a dud. Reaching 2nd level as a fighter is pretty exciting the first time, because you have the opportunity to double your hit points. But third level is just more of the same. Sure you get better to hits (slowly) and multiple attacks (even more slowly). Meanwhile the spellcasters get more spell slots every level and new spell levels are even more exciting. Even the lowly, crappy thief gets incremental increases in percentage skills (plus things like reading languages and magic, better back stabs).  
Meanwhile, all players and many DMs agree that going up a level should be awesome. That's how we ended up going down the road of WotC D&D with its feats and whatnot...
Welp, I am one of those folks who tried articulating this a while back, though that was in the midst of designing a new FHB. The idea that I had was that, with so much "white space" between levels, you might as well cut-back on the levels in the game and simply play for the "power-ups" limited to about five times per career.

The main problem with that approach is that folks want to advance more than five levels over the course of a campaign.

The other thing Jeff appears to be attempting (which may not be articulated as well) is to make leveling up more interesting. Not just in the actual increases of effectiveness that occur, but in the way those increases are bestowed and how they show up...helping to distinguish "cookie-cutter" B/X classes from one another via random tables loaded with cool stuff.

In the past, I've tried front-loading this kind of monotony-breaking system via something I called exceptional traits (folks who own The Complete B/X Adventurer will see this is one of several systems developed "on-blog" that made it into the book). Other folks have done similar random tables that influence chargen (Alexis uses extensive random charts and a simple Excel formula to quickly generate distinct weirdness from hundreds of possible options).

I think I may have even addressed the idea of PCs getting new "exceptional traits" at higher levels (though I never actually implemented this at the gaming table)...but I never suggested a completely randomized leveling process like Jeff (and Zak) have. Part of this is due to me having a hard time thinking in truly gonzo concepts on a regular basis (much to my chagrin). But another part is simply due to a difference in philosophy: I have no objection whatsoever to random character generation, but I have strong reservations about random character development.

Part of the challenge of playing old school D&D is bucking up and working with what the dice giveth. One of my favorite characters that I never had the chance to play (well, not more than once or twice), was a 2nd level fighter with a constitution of 3. I decided to define him as an elderly warrior, only newly minted as an adventurer, describing him as looking somewhat like that geezer King Haggard in the animated Last Unicorn film. As my children are fond of saying, "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."

[I think Diego learned that in kindergarten. It's applicable to a variety of life's arenas, however]

And considering that your player character in D&D is supposed to be an adult (presumably with some life experiences that has gone into shaping him or her), starting with a randomly created origin is perfectly acceptable...saves time so that one can get to playing. But random development? The whole point of play (well, one of the points of play) is developing your character from a rank beginner into a potent adventurer, and it is the game play that describes this development. And as I have a say in how my character plays (Do I attack the bugbears? Do I loot the gemstone?) so, too, I should have a say in how my character develops.

If I work my ass off to go up in level and then (randomly) learn how to bake cookies instead of acquiring a new spell? Well, that kind of sucks. Likewise, if I spend my time carefully negotiating with NPCs, cultivating a respectable demeanor only to discover that I morph into some sort of tattooed berserker. Or whatever.

Having said that: I still love a lot of the stuff that's found on these random tables. And in a campaign setting where the megadungeon exists as a kind of "mythic underworld" and inexplicable, random strangeness is a regular, expected occurrence, I can totally get behind a system of randomized development like the one Jeff is suggesting. And, yes, it certainly makes advancement a lot more interesting.

Check it out when you have the chance. It's definitely worth the read.
: )

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Another Thursday, Another Cup o Coffee

Plenty of musings the last couple weeks (as well as one near-finished post about *mumble*mumble* paladins sitting on the draft board), leading me to my usual predicament: too much to say and little hope of putting together a coherent blog post.

But as I'm at the Baranof, fairly coffee'd up, and out of blogs and sports news to read (I mean, do I really care the Mariners have picked up a player for their godawful bullpen? They've only been above .500 once this season!), I might as well write something. Writing something is better than writing nothing. In fact, it's a LOT better: I almost always feel better after doing so.

Like I'm getting something accomplished or something.

Watching Ye Old Television the other day (late at night) I was struck again by the thought of how many gaming geeks must have fallen into the business of producing, scripting, and directing business.  Caught a bit of some Transformers sequel (don't ask me which. I watched the first one in the theater when it came out years ago and have since tapped out), and could not help but think THIS is what Siembieda is trying to convey with the whole S.D.C. versus M.D.C. thing. THIS is Rifts (or Robotech or whatever): giant alien un-killable monsters that snap their fingers and inflict huge amounts of property damage. Clearly the creators of this series used to play Palladium around the cafeteria table in high school, same as me and my old buddies.

Watching the new Game of Thrones season kick-off I was again struck by the thought of how much it looks like someone's old school D&D campaign, just bashed together with house rules and shoot-from-the-hip historic analogues thrown in. How does an assassin use their disguise ability? Like this: some magical latex mask that you can whip out of your pocket at the drop of a hat (I went back and reread my old PHB and DMG and could find nothing that would contradict the way a "faceless man's" ability is portrayed in the show). Who needs fake beards and padded clothes? Not these guys.

[there is quite a bit more in the books on the manufacture of poisons, but nothing that would preclude the kinds of mass assassination...with as little explanation...as what we see in GoT]

Same holds true for the undead (someone likes their wights!), or rangers, or...well, you get the point. Game of Thrones the show (I haven't read more than a couple of the novels) feels a lot like an OD&D campaign run by some curmudgeonly Old Schooler who said, "We're going to get rid of humanoids and just cannibal hill people," and "We're really going to dial back on the availability of magic in the game" while still retaining out-and-out gonzo elements.

[actually, reminds me a bit of Gus over at Dungeon of Signs]

You still have your plate-armor wearing dudes in a world without gunpowder. You still have your magic weapons ("Valerian steel"). You still have "raise dead" though on a much smaller (and darker) scale. Heck, you still have dragons...but these are much more of the Chainmail type (and used in the same way) than the latter-day McCaffery-color-based creatures.

Anyway...

What other bits of gaming geekery did I spot on the screen recently? Hmm...something, but it's escaping me at the moment. I know I see all sorts of moments in the superhero genre that seems to have been influenced by gaming...but then, as superhero games have been influenced by the comic book genre, it's possible that I'm just confusing the origin of the tropes.

One show that inspired gaming (rather than the other way around) was the old Robotech TV-series (translated and re-branded from an even older Japanese series. Well, three series, but whatever...). The kids and I finally finished watching the first season of that (the "Macross saga") on Netflix last week. It was still a lot of fun (I haven't seen it in decades), and even Minmei's music, while grating, was bearable. Of course, my children are now singing her songs all the time...

Still lurking in some bargain bins...
Of course, we had to go out and look for a copy of Palladium's old Robotech RPG so that we could play. And fortunately we were able to pick up a used copy for $10. Man, I haven't played or run that game for...well, for decades. I had a trio of gaming buddies in high school (Michael, Mike, and Ben) who LOVED anime and comics and we're huge Robotech players...they were my introduction to the game (as well as Heroes Unlimited), and I had a chance to borrow their books and play it with them on one or two occasions.

Funny enough, now owning my own copy, it's pretty much what I remember: a mess of a game which uses the Palladium system in a manner that makes it really, really difficult to capture the feel or themes of the show. Not even via the combat system (which is Palladium's emphasis). *sigh*

[I'll have to write more about my high school gaming sometime. Those guys introduced me to the extended Palladium catalogue...I'd only ever played TMNT prior...and I introduced them to Stormbringer, BattleTech, and Vampire the Masquerade. This was during the twilight years of TSR and we NEVER played "those games." At least not together...]

Diego REALLY wanted to play Robotech (of course), but just running the chargen is So Damn Boring And Slow (all those useless skills...) that we quickly gave up and decided to write our own, streamlined game. I've got a couple-three pages of notes for the thing so far, and if I can get my kid to draw some robot pictures maybe I'll publish it as an e-book or something. I'm pretty happy with what I've got so far, but I'd still like to work in various Robotech-isms to make the game something other than a map-less war-game. We'll see, we'll see...fortunately, it's a pretty lightweight project so I might be able to bang it out in a week or so (Ha! I've said that before!) if I can find some time between the playdates and summertime chores (yard sale this Saturday...).

Let's see what else have I been up to...? A lot of game-related, post-apocalyptic stuff (infer what you will). But that's a subject for another post (waaaaaay too long). Oh, I met someone who's known and worked with Mike Mearls and we had an interesting conversation about him (nothing bad). Picked up a new RPG that has perhaps the coolest presentation ever...hoping to run that one in August (when my family is out-o-town). What else, what else...

Eh. That's enough for now. I need to finish this coffee and make a run to the post-office. For those who bothered to read my ramblings, thank you! It feels good to get some of this clutter out of my noggin (perhaps my next post will meander less).

Oh, By The Way: print copies of my B/X Companion are about 60-70% sold. If you've been wanting to order a copy, I wouldn't wait too long...not sure when I'll get around to doing another print run.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"But My Character Wouldn't Do That..."

All right...time to revisit alignment and its value to the D&D game.

I know some folks excised alignment from their table games long ago, for a number of reasons. Waaaay back in 2009, I was considering this myself, though I never did. For one thing, I found that (in play) the explanation of alignment was never an issue (i.e. it was a concept easily grasped by players, even new ones), and for another, I found it a useful shorthand descriptive, helpful to both myself and the players.

Of course, I use B/X as my base edition these days, so I only deal with the original three alignments: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. And I do not use "alignment language" (though that's more a product of the subject never coming up in play, rather than a literal proscription). Even so, I've been reading through the anti-alignment posts of the rule's detractors, and I've taken the time to consider it carefully and I have a few thoughts on the concept...my perspective having "matured" a bit from where it was nearly a decade past.

First, I considered where the idea of alignment comes from and, as do many of the original game's ideas, we find the whole "lawful, neutral, chaotic" thing showing up in Chainmail. Chainmail was a set of tabletop wargaming rules for ancient and medieval (and late medieval) warfare. The main game (which attended to conflict resolution among historic armies) did not make use of or mention alignment at all; presumably, players would know or could research what types of forces were available to each side when recreating the Battle of Hastings or similar. However, it is in the later "Fantasy Supplement" section of Chainmail that we find a "general line-up" ordering the various fantasy forces into categories of LAW, NEUTRAL, and CHAOS. Again, as this is a game to be played with rules, I take this as part of the standard rule procedure: the side playing LAW is restricted to forces from that section (including halflings, gnomes, treants, and heroes) while the side playing CHAOS is likewise restricted (to goblins, ogres, dragons, and similar).

Interesting that NEUTRAL forces must "be diced for to determine on which side they will fight, with ties meaning they remain neutral." So you and your opponent would roll D6 to see who gets the pixies (for example), with a tie result meaning the pixies abstaining from the battle completely!

When alignment first appears in Dungeons & Dragons, it is in Book 1 (Men & Magic) of the original books, and includes the following directive:
Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but is is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take -- Law, Neutrality, or Chaos.
What follows are three lists that are near exact copies of the ones found in Chainmail (the difference being the addition of some OD&D monsters that aren't found in Chainmail...minotaurs and manticore, for example). Interesting that the book states also that "character types are limited as follows by this alignment," appearing to indicate that humans may be of any stance, while elves are restricted to law and neutrality, and both dwarves and halflings are restricted to law only.

[though clearly Gygax did not follow these restrictions himself, as we can observe from the chaotic dwarf Obmi found in module G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King]

There are two main things to note on the evolution of the concept from "ordering of fantasy battle forces" to a required "stance" for a PC in a role-playing game:

  1. Nowhere in the text can I find any admonition that a player must suit their character's behavior to alignment, nor even any direction of what might be expected of a character of a particular alignment (though you can probably infer somewhat from the types of creature on each respective list). Neither are there any stated penalties or punishments to be handed out for failing to play one's alignment correctly.
  2. With a single exception, the choice of alignment has real mechanical benefits (and penalties) for each of the original seven character classes in the game. These are aside from "alignment language" (which first appears in OD&D) and they have nothing to do with player character behavior.

Since I'm sure some are curious, here's the effects:

Clerics of 7th level (or greater) are either of Law or Chaos. Lawful clerics (and ONLY lawful clerics), have the ability to turn undead. Chaotic clerics ("anti-clerics") automatically reverse a number of spells on the clerical spell list. Also, while it appears that normal clerics (i.e. NOT "anti-clerics"), do not receive reverse spells, it is explicit in the text that they may use a finger of death (reversed raise dead spell) in "a life-or-death situation" with misuse immediately conferring "anti-cleric" status.

[please note: there are no other mechanical effects of alignment on clerics in the OD&D rules. Even the "help from above" when it comes to building a stronghold, or the legions of "faithful" soldiers that appear are not alignment dependent...hell, there's no text stating the cleric has to be particularly devout. Those benefits are simply a product of being the cleric class. Devotion, I guess, is presumed]

For fighter types (including dwarves, elves, and halflings), alignment has a direct effect on the character's ability to use magical swords. ALL magic swords in OD&D (even unintelligent ones) possess an alignment, and will inflict damage (to varying degree) on users that attempt to wield a blade of non-conforming alignment. As swords are the most commonly discovered magic weapon in the game (and magic weapons are highly sought after, not only for their combat bonuses but their granted ability to damage enchanted monsters), choice of alignment has a great effect on fighting-men (and -women, and -dwarves, etc.) and their ability to progress and develop in-game effectiveness.

[a lawful character that draws a chaotic blade (or vice versa) suffers two dice of damage...the same as being struck by an ogre. That's enough to kill plenty of 2nd level warriors (even at full health!) and really cripple mid-level characters, who might be deep underground and far from healing sources]

There are no other effects of alignment, and no alignment effects at all for magic-users (who do not use magic swords) aside from providing them with a common "alignment" language. Magic-users, being who (and what) they are, can move through all stances with impunity. Even in Chainmail, wizards may be found on any sides of a conflict (they appear in both the Law and Chaos lists).

These then, to me, are an acceptable and desirable reason to include the mechanic of alignment in the D&D game: it has some minor effect (as described) yet carries no penalties for "improper behavior" on the part of the player...the reason most detractors give for cutting the concept from their campaigns. And yet, there is an additional reason I would cite for including alignment in an OD&D game: as a shorthand descriptor to help distinguish one character from another. Most folks have a tendency to create mental images based on word association, and the idea of a "lawful fighter," certainly conjures a different image in my mind from a "neutral fighter," or (especially) a "chaotic fighter." Yes, it's a lazy stereotype, but it helps create distinction in an edition of a game where such distinctions aren't as readily available.

[even a character with a strength of 15 is little different (mechanically) from one with a strength of 8 in OD&D, unless the characters are both fighters and thus subject to XP adjustments. Otherwise, it's just so much description]

The main problem here for me...and one others might identify with...is that I don't play OD&D. I play a later edition of the game (B/X), and in my edition the mechanical aspects of alignment...the rules that go with the rule...have failed to keep up with the updates to the game. And in place of objective rules that are easily and readily enforced by a competent DM, we have an arbitrary directive  to assign "punishment or penalty" when a player "is not keeping to a character's chosen alignment."

As with others, that doesn't sit well with me. As a DM, I don't want to tell players how to behave any more than they do...I have more important things to worry about in the game. BUT (and this is where I part ways with some folks) I don't think that means alignment is wholly useless to the players, even in an edition of D&D where characters are readily distinguished from each other by their combination of race-class, proficiencies, feats, ability modifiers, etc. Hell, it doesn't even need to be rewritten to be mechanically effective (and thus have mechanical relevance), though that would be nice (and not all that hard to do). It's just needing to be removed from this concept of DM-enforced-behavior-policing and allowed to function as a guide for the play of a character.

[here's an example]

Yes, I know. Some very intelligent people don't agree with my rather narrow definition of "role-playing" and are of the opinion that the game provides motivation enough (what with treasure and kill gathering) without the need to take on a different persona. They are also quick to point out that the quickest way for assholes to show up at one's game table is allowing a person to play in character: "Hey, I'm just acting like a chaotic thief, picking the other player's pockets" (for instance). And I know-know-know that I will be (figuratively at least) bludgeoned about the head-and-shoulders for taking the position that it's acceptable or helpful or (Lord knows) desirable to allow this kind of play at one's game table because of all the trouble it leads to...but...

But.

But, I've seen it work in actual play. I guess that's where part of the difference in perspective comes from: I've seen it work to increase the enjoyment for players at the game table. To increase their ability to enjoy the escapist fantasy of play and lose themselves in the virtual world. Some DMs create incredibly rich, detailed worlds for exploration, worlds one can't help but be drawn into through play. I haven't done that, at least not at any great level I'd hold up to other World Builders out there (and, yes, that is certainly a knock on me and my proficiency and commitment as a DM). What I have done is given players the space to explore the fantasy environment in the shoes of someone other than themselves...giving them the means to be a holier-than-thou paladin, or a thousand-year old elf, or a chaotic evil priest of Lloth (yes, I had one of those in an old AD&D campaign...many years ago). The player isn't simply Joe Normal with (imagined) pointy ears and the ability to cast spells and feeling the adrenaline rush that comes from the (game) situation at hand.

I don't want to enforce player behavior based on alignment; I don't enforce player behavior. I want players to enforce their own behavior. I don't want to say, your character wouldn't do that because... I want the player to say, "I wouldn't do that because..."

When that happens, when players abide by the conventions of the game (and alignment...mechanically bereft though it is in later editions...is still a game convention and trope), it's a sign to me that the players are losing themselves in play and (as a result) having a stronger, more profound game experience. When a player acts in a manner based on their interpretation of their character's alignment...well, it can be marvelous.

And if it's NOT, if it's detrimental to the other players at the table, then it's the responsibility of the DM to act as referee.

I suppose therein lies the rub: there are boundaries and limits to what you can do in a fantasy adventure game, even one billed as being "only limited by your imagination!" That's why there're rules. I've never really subscribed to the motto rules were meant to be broken. No. Rules are meant to be enforced, that's why they're rules. Change them if you need to (or change the game), but once they're set, live by them.

I can live with alignment. For me, the benefit outweighs the headache.

[just by the way, I have more to say, specifically with regard to paladins, but (as this post is already long and probably hated) I'll save that for another time]

Monday, June 19, 2017

San Diego...

...feels like a wasteland.

But that's probably just a first impression. And certainly, colored by my personal biases.

Hmmm...I said "first impression" but this is actually the third (or fourth?) time I've been here. I remember the first time, when I was about twelve, and I thought (and said) that San Diego is where I wanted to live one day. It was the first city I ever considered as a permanent replacement for my beloved hometown. And (as far as I can recall) it was the last and only time I emphatically wanted to go, a place I was willing to make (mental) plans for how I would facilitate such a move.

But that was thirty plus years ago and, I suppose, I've changed a lot since I was twelve. And perhaps Seattle has changed, too, offering more of what I want and love. San Diego has nice weather, and some passable Mexican food, but I'm not a fan of the beach and I have ocean views in Seattle, too. With mountains.

Anyway, just some morning musings from my hotel room. Hope folks had a happy Father's Day yesterday.
: )

Thursday, June 15, 2017

I AM The Game

Let me preface this post with the following: there have been a lot of ideas percolating (if not particularly "gelling") of late in my brain, and they are derived from a number of internet babblers. Here's the list (for interested folks):


I think this is posted in the order in which I read them, but I'm not actually going to go back and check the dates. My time is fairly limited today.

As said, all these have been percolating in my head, making me examine...and re-examine...and re-define, my personal concept of myself as a Dungeon Master. How I do it, why I do it...hell, even should I do it. And if I should, then how should I and why should I...

This Spring, I had the opportunity to closely observe my son's Little League coach successfully wrangle (and encourage and teach) a squad of mostly unruly and often disinterested six year olds through a season of "America's pastime" (tee-ball version). The man had the fucking patience of Job, and I felt myself thinking (and often commenting to others) that I couldn't even begin to see myself in such a role...that it would drive me crazy with frustration, or that I would be too competitive and too hard on the kids. And, yet, I was recently petitioned to take the head coach position for next year's (first grade) soccer team...and I accepted. Despite my misgivings and worries that I'll morph into some sort of petty tyrant of the pitch.

[*sigh* we've got to grow, right?]

The role of Dungeon Master is one that is custom-made for the would-be petty tyrant. And while most folks who play D&D could hardly be blamed for hoping for some sort of "benevolent dictatorship," my base feeling is that autocratic, authoritarian rule is imperative to running a solid (i.e. effective) game of Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, the same thing I fear in myself as a teacher and coach for children, is something I find necessary for this Great Game of ours.

"Autocratic?" Yes. And please note I'm speaking specifically of Dungeons & Dragons, not all RPGs in general. The vehicle for gaming that is D&D requires an absolute authority to act as referee and rules arbiter. It is a requirement if one wishes to experience the entertainment of the game as designed.

Let me clarify, though, lest folks misconstrue...this isn't about some Machiavelli "better-to-be-feared-than-loved" power trip. This is about being an umpire. This isn't about "social contract," a phrase many of us (including myself) have carelessly thrown around with regard to what should happen at the game table. Again, let me be clear: social contract is the reason I don't simply piss on your couch, should I find myself needing to urinate while visiting your home. Nothing else (short of physical restraint) prevents me from doing so...the accepted proprieties and shared cultural assumptions of our (supposedly) polite society.

When we sit down at a table to play a GAME, we are agreeing to abide by a set of rules that govern play. And in the case of D&D, the Dungeon Master is the one responsible for presenting the players with the world in which they find themselves. Game exists within social contract...as does all human interaction...but it does not govern the rules by which we play. Rules are not, must not, be subject to negotiation. Interpretation, perhaps, but not negotiation.

Not at the table, anyway. Away from the table...before a game, after a game...that is the time to have a discussion (if required) regarding the way the game will be played, the way the rules will be interpreted. Many DMs feel the need (for whatever reason) to alter or tweak D&D's designed systems in ways that differ from the Rules As Written...and so long as these are presented formally, prior to play, the existence of such changes to the RAW game, good or bad, become a non-issue. Players of American football may bitch (or cheer) rule changes made during the off-season (such as the addition of a two-point conversion, or a new penalty for excessive on-field celebration), but once the season begins, once the games begin, the players (and coaches and fans) are expected to shut the F up and play the game by the new rules.

When I sit down to play Chess, I don't get to fuck around with the rules. When I sit down to play D&D I should be giving the same respect to its rules. If the rules state "a player's character should not act on knowledge the character doesn't possess," dammit, that's a rule! If the rules say dwarves can't play thieves or clerics don't get spells till 2nd level, it doesn't matter whether or not I think the rule is nonsensical or "un-fun." Likewise if I say we have a house rule preventing player versus player combat. Them's the rules, and bugger off if you don't like it.

A dungeon master needs to embody this, needs to run the game table with an iron fist, for good reason: it is only by being an absolute stickler and hard-ass can the players be assured that the game being played is fair and balanced (yeah, I realize this statement might prompt a WTF moment). Here's the skinny: the role of the Dungeon Master is, by design, an adversarial one. The players are not playing against another each other (as in Monopoly), nor against another team (as in football), nor against the game itself (as in a video game or certain board games like DungeonQuest). The players are pitted against the challenges presented to their characters...that's what the game is about, in every edition...and those challenges are crafted and run by the dungeon master.

That's the DM's job. If the DM is shitty about it, then the game will be a shitty one.

And in this case, being shitty means being arbitrary, being "flexible," bending rules and fudging dice rolls, and forgetting various rules and minutia they're too lazy to remember or implement, even in the aid of "pacing" or "storytelling." I'm going to come down hard on the side of Ozymandius here: D&D is not about creating a story. It is not collaborative storytelling. There are other RPGs that do that; some that do it well and make storytelling and "addressing premise" a priority of design. D&D is not one of those; D&D is about challenging players. A story of "what happened to us and what we did (or did not) accomplish" may come out of game play...something resembling fiction...but D&D is, in the end, not about creating fiction. It is a game that challenges players, and challenges them in pretty specific ways.

The DM provides that challenge. The rules (which the DM must enforce with absolute authority) are there to govern play, including both inspiring and constraining the DM: the DM must follow her own rules as well. I acknowledge there is difficulty in being fair and impartial at all times, especially when tension runs high and tempers flare during an especially spirited session, and that is why it is so important that the DM have iron resolve regarding the game, its rules, and the authority and responsibility invested in the position.

So long as the DM embodies her own authority consistently, players can play from an informed perspective...they can explore the boundaries of what's possible within the system, they can face challenges (and then greater challenges, and then even greater challenges). They can master the rules themselves, they can judge risk and reward, they can hedge, they can find ways to cooperate and grow together as an effective team while building camaraderie. And they can do it while losing themselves in escapist fantasy, trusting the DM will not be arbitrary, but both firm and fair...even if it is (at times) dingy, dangerous, and unforgiving.

Kind of like the real world.

I find myself wanting to write some sort of treatise on dungeon mastering, outlining an ordered system as an aid to would-be petty tyrants (i.e. DMs), like myself. I might do so (though probably nothing in the near future, mind you), if only to codify my own thoughts on the matter. Some sort of manual to help me remember my values and ideals when I'm sitting at the table, both alone (writing worlds and scenarios) and with others (running the game).

Some sort of DM's guidebook, I suppose.
; )

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

All Too Human

[and here I was going to blog about the new Wonder Woman film. Ah, well...perhaps tomorrow. Here's the TL;DR version: it's good and you should spend money to see it. More later]

One of the...what? Nice? Interesting? things about Seattle is that it is (or was) the erstwhile home of Wizards of the Coast (now located in Renton, Washington) as well as plenty of geeky RPG enthusiasts and game designers who have actual experience with and insight into the industry. Unlike folks like Yours Truly...people who have theory-bashed and compiled info from research, publications, and the internet...there are folks who have actually been a part of companies like White Wolf and Wizards and Paizo and other, smaller, outfits, who can offer real information on The Biz as it relates to the last couple decades.

[unlike the prior decades...the 70s and the 80s...where you'd have to go to the midwest to meet the right people]

So it was, today, that I spent a good couple hours bending the ear of one such (former) insider about Wizards and the RPG industry of the early WotC years. A dude who has done freelance writing for a number of big name game companies and worked in marketing department for the biggest. The conversation was...well, fascinating, to say the least. If I hadn't had to get my three year old her lunch and a nap (she was in tow at the time) I probably would have hung out a couple hours more.

Fascinating. But sad...and sad in the ways you might expect but hope wouldn't be the case. Tales of how shit isn't ideal. How people are human and (thus) prone to flaws of human frailty. How folks can do good while still being jerks...in various ways.

Just fucking sad.

I write this (quickly) while filling the bathtub for my kids, and after quaffing half a bottle of pinot gris (really need to do something about my drinking). I know Seattle-ites like myself live life in a bubble beauty and light and liberal values that aren't really reflective of our American society as a whole. I know that I often think of fellow gamers in a similar light: that because we tend to be well read and above average intellectually that we are more often on the side of angels. I know that's a false assumption...I know it. I've read about it. I've heard about it from folks with first hand knowledge. But  to hear that the industry people at the highest levels fall prey to the same problems of us "lesser mortals," well...it's just sad.

Power and money tend to corrupt humans. Whether you're talking about high ranking politicians or poor little ol' gamers. And even when it doesn't, nepotism and bitterness and jealousy often fuel and influence business practices...even when smart people should know better. All people have good inside them...but they can get lost along the way, and really end up doing a lot of fucking damage. To themselves and others. Much as I'd like to write it off in a jokey fashion, it's not really a joke. Not when people lose their livelihoods. Not when people wreck their relationships. Not when...

Ah, F it.

It's 2017. As always, hindsight is 20x20 and folks will continue to make the same mistakes and fail to learn from the mistakes of the past. It's the way of our human species, and I know that, too (man, I saw enough of that in Paraguay). I will probably never be in a position to make a ton of money (few of us are ever so lucky), but I hope...I really, really hope...that if such happens, I'll remember not to be stupid. I'll try not to get to big for my britches.

*sigh*

All right, got to go wash the filth off my children. Yak at y'all later.