Monday, October 24, 2016

The Sweet Spot

In case some people missed it, I have been suffering from the plague all week.  I don't know what else to call it; the damn thing won't let me go.

It is perhaps because of this that I am fixated on the pickpocketing problem.  I've received a lot of helpful comments and I will be putting much of what people have said into the thief and assassin characters, when I am again able to think with a clear head.  This is the first time in days that I have felt up to writing anything.

There is a point that has been missed, however.  Several have said that in their campaigns, their thieves most often use the pick pocket skill to get hold of things, like a guard's key or a specific item from an NPC.  I must say I find this strange, since I never have players that do this.  Not that I have any problem with the idea, I think it is sound.  It is perhaps that I don't give keys to guards who can be approached in the open (logically, a guard standing outside a gate would be let through the gate by a guard on the inside, thus you would need the key to steal the key) or because I don't think to put valuable adventure-critical items in NPC pockets.  If we as DMs don't create the situation where the pickpocket can solve the problem with pickpocketing, the players don't use that as the solution.  After all, who needs a key?  Doesn't a thief open locks?

My bigger problem, which I stated on the previous post, but which was passed over, is this:
  1. We can assume that pickpocketing is a way for a player character to make money.
  2. How much money ought a pickpocket of varying level succeed in obtaining from a total stranger, keeping in mind that we want to make the score matter to the player?
  3. How do we make the obtaining of that score difficult enough that the player can't just rob thousands of g.p. at will without risk?

Risk is, after all, the game.  Without risk, I might just as well give the thief the money and have done with it. There HAS to be a risk that threatens actual death, or it won't cause the player to hesitate.

To encourage the player not to hesitate, the score has to be BIG enough that the player can't easily forget the presence of the potential take.  It has to be mouth-watering.  It has to bother the thief.  This is the only thing that will encourage the thief to hazard the risk.

The sweet spot between these two points was the purpose for the pickpocketing table.  The sweet spot is achieved by giving the thief additional skills as the thief increases in level.  That only lowers the risk, which makes the take easier and spoils the game.  The better alternative is to increase the size of the score, arguing that the benefit of the thief's level is NOT that the thief gets better at taking things, but that the thief gets better at finding things to take.

Presumably, a 9th level thief wouldn't walk from one side of a doorway to the other to lift 20 g.p. from a target.  Why bother?  Said thief already has pockets and hoards bulging with thousands of gold.  I should have made the score size based on a die roll ~ like, say, a d10 per level.  Then a 9th level thief might feel it worthwhile balancing a point of 6 against a take of 500 g.p.  He might seriously risk rolling snake eyes again if the score was nearly 10,000 g.p.

It has to be understood that ALL game rules are seeking that sweet spot that produces the player's dilemma.  We want the emotional rush that is produced by the sound of the ball rolling around the roulette wheel coupled with the near certainty that putting a hundred dollars on number 26 is sheer folly.  The near certainty.  There is a world of angst to be found in the word "near."

So we don't want rules that eventually guarantee a player's success.  I understand this is what most DMs adhere to when creating rules for anything, the presupposition that as a player character increases in levels, their success edges towards certainty.  No.  No, no, no.  We've got it all wrong there.  The game is designed to ensure that increase in levels assures a greater variety of monstrous foes, a greater variety of obstacles and difficulties to overcome and a greater variety of ways to die.  The game does not get easier for players who go up levels!  In most ways, it gets harder.  Much, much harder!

3.5e never learned this lesson, 4e never learned this lesson, 5e hasn't learned this lesson.  It is why most games, played the way the rules say, suck ~ but in a very subtle way, in a way that has DMs and players scratching their heads and thinking, "This is all really awesome, except for this thing I can't quite put my finger on."

It takes a very self-aware DM to overcome the tendency to feed the player's hero-fantasies and ensure that the game consistently makes the player ache and flinch at the same time.  Most DMs who can do this, I'm dead certain, don't know that they're doing this.  It goes back to what I've consistently said: we don't know when we're playing the game well.  It is such a hard game to know.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

Picking Pocket Points

Some four years ago I proposed a change to the thieves' skill, pick pockets.  I consider those rules a failure, not because they don't work, but because in four years of game play none of the thieves in my game have ever made use of them.

Now, that may seem strange to some folks, but I blame myself.  Thieves in my game just don't think like thieves in other games usually do, mostly because it is very rare that a party in my world is just farting around a town doing nothing.  They're almost always on their way to somewhere, or they're not interested in pissing off anyone in the town for a very small amount of gold, compared to what they're likely to get come the end of the present adventure.  A pouch with a hundred gold just isn't worth the possible aggravation or the potential of pissing off the locals.

This makes pickpocketing a strange non-element in my world.  It's there, deservedly so, but the rules for it are minimalist for a payoff that doesn't measure up . . . on the whole, as a sub-game inside the game, pickpocketing is a bore.

However, even though my players don't care, and won't use the rules I make for it, I'd like to find a way to make the sub-game less boring.  How to do that?

We can make the payoff bigger.  We can give access for thieves to steal bigger pouches, bigger stones and fabulous jewelry - except that we have to ask ourselves, what in blazes is all this fabulous wealth doing hanging on belts or in easily grabbed places, like fruit hanging on trees?  Too, do we want to risk making the payoff so high that the party will just hang around town rather than go to a dungeon?  There's a fine line to walk here.

As well, look at the basic system for picking pockets.  Roll a % die, win-lose, that's it.  And really, how many raucous fleeing chases do we want to run as a DM, as yet another player is chased by yet another group of NPCs in yet another town?  How often can this happen before we're just going through the motions?

Well, I wish I had an answer.  If I had an answer, I'd be writing the proposition I have on my wiki and not on my blog.  When I write things on my blog these days, it's because I'm not sure.  I'm testing the water.  I'm thinking through the problem.  The problem being, right now, that I'm working on the sage study, pickpocketing.

Let's give this a go.  I've come up with a convoluted game-like pickpocket table that works something like the game of craps.  Here it is:

The "Roll" is 2d6 for those who have never played D&D and
can't figure it out for themselves.

The above represents an attempt by a thief to find a "score" in the space of a day's pickpocketing.  Before rolling on the table, the thief must first designate a number of hours in the day that they're going to try searching.  My argument is that scores of 10 g.p. or more don't come up more than once a day, so the first penalty against the thief is that they have to waste time of their lives (and their parties) actually pickpocketing.  They can do it casually, if they wish, for an hour a day, but then the chance of any result is reduced.

Let's say Digger the Thief decides he's going to spend 8 hours hunting up a score.  He begins by rolling a d12; if he rolls an 8 or less, then it is possible that a score will be "found" ~ that is, Digger is allowed to then roll on the above table.  As well, Digger's roll on the d12 indicates how many hours passed before the possibility came up; if he rolled a "2," then the table above was consulted in the second hour.

We'll say that Digger did roll a 2 and that he does get to roll on the table above.  Now, if Digger rolls from 7 to 11, it turns out that the possibility for a score was a bust; the silvery necklace was actually cheap bone, shining in the sunlight, mostly worthless, or it turns out that the rumor that a rich ponce was going to come out of the Lost Mast's Pub on Warehouse Row was just a rumor.  The roll on the d12 be damned, Digger just spent 8 hours wandering around town, getting next to nothing.

But what if Digger rolled box cars - the "guard" result.  Well, that being the case, Digger will get hassled by local law enforcement for vagrancy, unnecessarily following people around, not having a right proper job or anything else the constabulary cares to name.  Digger won't be arrested, just moved on . . . but his face will be remembered and again, he'll lose 8 hours time since the guards and what friends they have will keep an eye on the miserable malcontent spoiling up their town.

No, to have any chance at a score, Digger has to roll less than a 7.  We'll say he rolls a 5.  His appraisal skill tells him that the item he's chasing is between 90 gold pieces (because we'll let him roll).  He also knows that the fellow carrying the score is likely between 1st and 4th level ~ I don't mind giving this information to Digger, since he's got to figure that someone carrying around a pouch with this much coin in it has to be trained in some capacity.

So now Digger has to decide, is the score worth it?  It is probably the only score he'll get today ~ but to get it, he has to roll a 5 again before he rolls a 7, 11 or 12 (see the 2nd roll column).  See?  As I said, like craps.

Now, he's not putting up any stake, but as he starts to stalk the score ~ that is, he rolls on the "2nd Roll" column ~ there's a rub.  It reads, "if not the same roll as the original score" ~ in this case, not a 5 ~ "add 1 level to the target."  In every sense, not rolling the 5 (or the "point" as it is called in craps) indicates that the target carrying the score is eluding Digger.  And as he keeps missing the number he needs (his chance), we can imagine it is because the target is staying just out of Digger's reach, likely because of good instincts.

We'll say Digger is 5th level.  He isn't afraid of being exposed to a 1st to 4th level target, but now he's missed the number he needs three times and the target is probably 4th to 7th level.  Does Digger want to try again?

If he's exposed, it means that the target discovers what Digger's trying to do as Digger is doing it.  Rather than the cliche, which says the thief grabs the object, is discovered doing so and is chased through town, here we're saying that the object is in the hands of both parties, who are wrestling for it.  If exposed, if Digger wants the score, he'll have to grapple for it; that's going to mean initiative, rolls to hit and potentially his getting attacked by other people (say, guards that recognize him) if Digger gets stunned.  The only way Digger gets away with the score clean is if he makes that number he needs.  Therefore, having more levels than the target matters.

But it's okay . . . because Digger can walk away any time he wants.  He can just grumble and give up the rest of his day and say, "Oh well, tomorrow."  He's lost nothing except the opportunity.

I'm hoping players will want to play this game.  I'm hoping the score is big enough to be worth it.  A really lucky low level thief could conceivably hit a jackpot.  A high level thief might feel that it's worth possibly getting into a fist fight, if that's the worst that can happen.

What the table doesn't do is offer a higher chance to a thief that is higher level to get away clean.  I've been thinking about that.  Perhaps having the option of ignoring a bad roll, one time per 3 levels above 1st? Perhaps optional rolls replacing a d6 with a d4, when the player chooses to do so, with one substitution per level above 1st.

Also, the size of the score could be increased; higher level thieves would see bigger scores, thus we multiply the numbers shown as the thief goes up a level.  A 1st level may have to roll two 3s to get a 250 g.p. bauble but a higher level thief would only need to roll two 6s.  These are things I think are potentially viable.

Like I said, all in the thinking stage.  Perhaps it is simply too convoluted.  Perhaps it is not convoluted enough.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Criminal Class

One of my goals this week has been to create a list of sage abilities for the thief, to add to the wiki.  Not to actually define in detail these abilities, as that would take far more than a week, but to identify what those abilities would be and to leave the details for later.  I've given up trying to introduce the sage abilities in complete form to my parties ~ it's just taking too long.  I've been banging away for several years now and it feels like nothing gets done.  If I make the framework, however, perhaps I can get the players to help and in some cases we can make rules on the spot, the precise limitations to be established by precedent.

This sounds bad but hell, right now, there are no rules of any kind for most of these things.  A proposed structure is at least a start.

So, the thief.  Now, I'm well aware that this class wound up being a public black-eye to the game company and that by the 90s everyone had chosen to adopt the term "rogue" because we are, well, all infant children and such.  For my money, if there was going to be a change in the term, we should have gone the other way and identified the thief as the "criminal class."  For my money, this is what the thief represents: not a playfully mischevious scoundrel, not a scamp, not an acrobat, but a class that embodies those skills that the criminal class DOES possess, however unpleasant they might be to encounter in everyday life: double-dealing at games, forgery, casing a building, holding a group of hostages effectively, acting as a quack or a shyster with no real knowledge of medicine or the law, putting the blade between the fourth and fifth ribs adroitly . . . these are difficult things to do and take time to learn.  I don't care, myself, that the acquisition of these skills suggests someone who ought to be in jail; my players are free to associate with whatever characters they will.  So long as the violence is directed at people outside the party, it is up to the party to decide what makes them comfortable, not me.

Therefore, screw most of the physical tricks and feats usually ascribed to the thief.  These things rightly belong to the BARD, a performer, not to someone who chooses the criminal profession because it is the easiest and least physical way to make a living (something that everyone seems to have forgotten).  I know, I know, the cat burglar is the quintessential thief, but a character doesn't need to do somersaults to climb buildings quietly and doing somersaults doesn't make a person thief-like.  In fact, the two have nothing to do with each other, except for the thin veneer of needing the thief (er, rogue) being able to do something to make the class viable.

I would rather simply admit it.  The thief knows how to smuggle, make a trap, roughly praise a valuable object, fence a stolen good and woo a victim.  If I can think of enough dirty tricks to add to a thieves' sage abilities, I will add them . . . but on the whole, I must admit, it is still fairly thin on the ground.

On one level, it should be.  The thief has the easiest amount of experience to go up a level so it is naturally the weakest, least effective class.  There are certain aspects of a thief that are useful, that can't be gotten around with the social blunderings of a cleric, the physical force of a fighter or the raw power of the wizard.  The thief is finesse.  Ruthless finesse.  This is the structure I'm going for.

No doubt about it: many of the thieves' studies are going to offer little.  I have no interest in the massive modifier bumps that show up with e3.5 and carry through to the later editions.  Basically, don't bother rolling the die, you have a +35 to any roll you care to make, where thieving skills are involved.  I've just been through the 3.5 feat rules and I can say with conviction that there was a LOT of lazy game design there.  +2 if you have this skill and another +4 if you also have this skill and add another +7 if you have THIS skill.  Criminy.

Where my system is concerned, I am on the hook for coming up with at least 8 individual abilities (no leaning on extra bonuses!) for ALL of the following studies: setting and removing traps, casing a building, hiding in cover, picking pockets, opening locks, pawning goods and like chicanery, forgery, cheating at gambling, acting as an accomplice, acting with guile (managing victims), hearing noise, sure-footedness, dirty fighting and, of course, backstabbing.

Not an easy task.  But I'm sure with time I will steadily accumulate those 120 expected abilities and probably more.  That's how the sage ability design has gone so far.

Oh, the assassin is another problem.  I've been thinking of the difference between the two, apart from the difference between backstab and assassination.  I think it comes down to this:  a thief is concerned with being liked; most of the actual criminal activities involve some kind of association, what with finding marks to cheat, victims to terrorize and customers for stolen goods.  All these things are easier if the thief is appreciated and liked.

Killers, however, are just scary.  They're not concerned with being liked.  Dillinger was a thief and had a friendly reputation.  Bonnie and Clyde, likewise.  These criminals killed, yes, but they were better known for robbery.  On the other hand, the less popular gangsters, like Bugsy Siegel or Dutch Shultz, were feared.  No one idolized them while they were alive nor did they mourn their deaths.  This is the difference, I think.  Crooks imagine that someday they'll be admired and respected for their skill and daring.  Assassins, on the other hand, just want the other guy to die.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Missed Opportunities

Yesterday, LTW wrote in reply to my description of my recent campaign,

"I do love reading the adventures you create. I like to see how you apply your methods to your own campaign. I've also read that you don't care for sharing war stories. I hope this does not cause you to shy away from sharing yours because you think they are boring to us."

Fair enough, but I also think it is interesting to consider what might not have happened in the game as well.  To remind the reader, in the post linked above, I mentioned that the party had remembered an association with a djinn that gave them the information they wanted.  But what if the party hadn't thought of the djinn?  What if the party had called someone in to answer the question, "Where are the crown jewels?", only to find themselves with someone who didn't know?  Then what?

It is always assumed that as a DM I have another plan up my sleeve that will be sure to get the party to the adventure, right?  I mean, isn't that more or less the standard practice?  I've done all this "work" with the adventure that would be wasted if the party didn't go, so naturally no matter what the party does, they're going to get to the site of the treasure anyway, so what's the big deal.

My players know better.  I do not DM that way.  Every time I put the players in a situation like this, they know they're up to bat and they know they can lose.  I am under precisely ZERO obligation to put them in the same place as the crown jewels.  I frankly don't care if the party finds them or not.  As of right now, I have done no physical design work of any kind.  Why would I?  The players haven't found the adventure's site yet, they haven't done their full due diligence ~ they don't even know exactly where the site is right now.  The djinn wouldn't tell them; he gave them a general location, south of Gran Canaria, told them that the site was under an illusion so that it couldn't be seen by just sailing past and wished them luck.

Until they actually know where the adventure site is, I won't draw a line.  I don't want to waste time prepping a game the players won't start and that they might get bored of and quit to find something less obscure.  They're loss.  In the meantime, everything that could happen is in my head. Best place for it, given the stage of the adventure.

So the players know I won't give in and tell them.  That treasure (I am conservatively estimating it at somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 g.p., enough to put 20 characters from 7th to 11th up a full level) can sit at the bottom of the ocean south of Gran Canaria until it rots, until some other party fifteen years from now, when I'm running at 67, decides to find it.

Why am I going at this adventure this way?  Or why do I do all my adventures this way?  Because I learned long ago that I fucking hated genre-savvy players who scoffed at dilemmas, saying, "What difference does it make?  He's going to tell us where it is anyway!  Why don't we just skip all this shit and get started?"

It is that "anyway" that's the killer.  The nonchalant apathetic cry of the smarmy toad who thinks he's got it all figured out, he's the dude, he's the shit, he's four steps ahead of the DM and fuck if he isn't ready to slam the "I told you so" button at every opportunity.

I could try to circumvent this guy (it is always a guy - this is why I'm dropping my usual gender-neutral language) by making things super weird or totally unexpected, inventing twists on twists on twists . . . but I think those who have tried that will agree with me that it just makes the campaign indecipherable and ultimately contrived.  As such, instead I guarantee nothing.  I won't even guarantee that the treasure is where I say it is, because nope, sorry, once again I am under zero obligation to tell the truth.  People in the world lie.  Djinns lie.  I won't play the game how everyone else does because my game is not based on player service. I am not a cruise director. I am a player enabler. Success only comes from taking a risk; there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Now, let me be clear.  The Portuguese crown jewels in the game were lost.  That's confirmed by a lot of sources, reliable ones, so it is fact.  The two Spanish ships definitely disappeared in the vicinity of Gran Canaria.  The djinn is a good friend of the party and has no reason to lie - moreover, the paladin in the party did not detect malevolence, which is what a lie of this magnitude would be.  It is very probable that the ships contained the jewels and that they're right there, somewhere, lying on the ocean floor.

Fundamentally, it doesn't matter if the party succeeded in finding the right entity to call for information.  Some being in my world has seen those jewels since they were lost.  There must be a way, somehow, to find that being.  The key point, however, is that I'm not responsible for helping the players find that being.  I'm responsible for knowing where the potential being (or beings) would be, what they would probably say when asked and how helpful they would be.  That's it. The rest is the party's problem.

I have no idea why other DMs don't see it this way.


Because it bears similarity to the context of the last post, I'm just watching (now listening) to John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur.  I've felt compelled to write a post, having just passed this scene:

Now, let's put that in a D&D context.  The player, possessing a +5 holy sword, which makes him king, from a position of certain success in the battle, instead hands the sword over to the enemy, then kneels in the water, with his hands below the surface.  Name the RPG player willing to do this!

I think there will be many who will say, having seen the scene, not actually playing in a campaign with a +5 sword, "Sure, I'd do that."  I doubt, however, that they would.  It is almost impossible to imagine this, in any context . . . but take a moment as a DM and decide what you'd do faced with this.

Play the moment out as the movie does?  Is that fair?  Given that the player may have seen the movie, are we being counted upon to cave and recreate the scene?  "Oh, he won't kill me ~ not after bravery like this!"

At the same time, what sort of moronic, jerk-ass, insufferable bastard of a DM would hack the player to death for daring to risk so much?

There is no right answer.  We use dice for things like this ~ presuming that we can either make a reasonable decision as to what the odds should be or accept the die roll once it hits the table.

I think we have to admit that a moment like this, should it turn up in a campaign, tests the mettle of both the DM and the player.  As well it should.

In any case, we come back around to the expectations of how both monsters and NPCs should react when faced with something unusual from a player.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Breaking the Mold

In the last post, I was asked about the details of the party's adventure and I gave a long answer.  I didn't finish the story, which I said was long, so I thought I would do that now and use it to make a point about monsters.

Let's start with the kelpie I introduced to the party, which I said was different from the Fiend Folio.  The FF describes the kelpie appearing "as a beautiful human woman in order to lure men into deep waters" . . . which of course is done with a charm ability.

Come on.  Did we really need another version of this monster?  Shit, the folio was printed in '81 and this was already such an awful cliche that the writers should have been taken out and bitch-slapped for every version of this they added to the book.  What the hell is it that makes game creators think that DMs need to constantly be charming the party into a near death experience?

When I was 15 and stupid, I did try a few of these scenarios, what with nixies and dryads and whatever the hell else.  They all sucked.  It's the same experience for the party every time: some people make save, some don't, those that make it save those that fail.  Listening to a DM read out random rules from a random splat-book would be more interesting.

Yet these are potentially interesting monsters, if the DM can get the hell away from the obvious dumb-monster response.  Saturday's kelpie in my game was friendly, novel, unexpected and compelling.  No one made a move to kill it (which would have been disastrous for the party) - and for a long time into the future players will talk about the kelpie and remark on its behaviour and someday that will set up another kelpie with a very different agenda.  Rest assured, that agenda isn't going to be charming the party and killing them.  It will be more interesting than that.

Consider.  The solution to the party's dilemma came out of another monster that also behaved differently than its cliched description.

About nine months ago the party was negotiating their way through the Sahara Desert, through a particularly magical part of the landscape.  The party is 7th to 11th level so things have to be more interesting now.  As chance would have it, they came across a creature that wasn't exactly demonic, but had characteristics that suggested such.

So the thief in the party, Nommi, decided to sneak up on it. I have stealth rules that enable thieves to roll 3d6 and then subtract their level from the result.  The number is the distance in five foot hexes that the thief closes to before the target becomes aware.  The target's level is also taken into account if the target has thief-like attributes.  If the thief is within two to three hexes, depending on the amount of armor the thief is wearing, and if the target then rolls against surprise and fails, the thief can backstab.  The rules work the same with an assassin.

In this case, Nommi rolled ridiculously low and ended up with a result of zero.  Thus he slipped right up behind the entity ~ and at that moment, discovered that he was in a position to back-stab a djinn.  I rolled a 1 on a d6 and the djinn was surprised.

The thief decided . . . um, no.  On the whole, it sounded like a really, really bad idea.  So the thief said, "Hello," and the djinn jumped and spun around.  And at that point, the djinn laughed.

The djinn congratulated the thief and remarked on the thief's skills and there was a great exchange as they made friends.  And in gratitude, the djinn granted the party a wish, which the party used, asking to have the McGuffin put into their possession at once.

Unfortunately for the party, this was an icicle of perpetual cold, which created a frozen sphere of about a quarter mile in diameter and affected weather within a thirty-mile radius.  Once the icicle was put in their possession, they were now inside the freeze radius, helplessly frozen inside.  They didn't know this is what the McGuffin did.

The djinn was very sorry and did help the party's back up of henchmen come and spend four months of game time rescuing the party (or rather, trying to rescue the party).  But that is all another story.

The point is that the djinn and Nommi did become friends ~ and Nommi was one of the party aboard the wrecked ship talking to the kelpie.  So, in a flash of inspiration, they called the djinn and got the information they wanted.  They did not have the power to compel the djinn to grant a wish, but the djinn does still know a lot of things and was willing to say so.

Now, I know a lot of DMs would make the djinn very tight-lipped and miserable, and would demand that any information the djinn might give would have to be the result of a wish.  But how straight-jacketed is that?  How much more interesting is it that the party has a djinn as a friend?  A friend, I'll add, who was willing to tell where the djinn's lamp was located ~ which is, again, another story, and another potential adventure someday if the party pursues it.

Things get interesting when DMs get out of the box and begin using these creatures like the intelligent beings they're meant to be - and stop with the most obvious, most annoying angles on their abilities and powers.  Just because a kelpie can charm the party doesn't mean the kelpie wants to.  Maybe the kelpie has other needs or interests. Maybe the kelpie is just friendly.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Old Thinking

So, with my game running last night, I was asked if I would let a new player join.  This was Jim, the same fellow I talked about with this post after that Edmonton Expo.  It was going to be a complicated procedure, as Jim has been playing 3.5 for fifteen years and can be said to be deeply steeped in the game play mechanics and headspace of that edition.  Introducing him to my Frankenstein-structured campaign did not turn out to be easy.

I like Jim a lot, but he turned out to be one of these players who goes "In 3.5 it works this way" and "In 3.5 you can do this" and "There's this skill in 3.5 that says . . ." ~ I'm sure that many DMs know the litany.  It took quite a lot of repeating that we were not playing 3.5 and bringing him back to the point to get his character rolled up ~ not just from me but from everyone playing.  I must point out that I have a bunch of converts to my system and they weren't appreciating the comparison any more than I was.

But then things started to go our way once I introduced Jim to the character background generator.  Jim hasn't read my blog more than a few times so he had absolutely no experience with anything like this and it really caught him by surprise.  The detail that it offered, describing everything from his family background to the color of his hair and eyes, the way his character walked (charisma effect) and much more intrigued him.

Then he was introduced to the equipment table.  I have about 1,500 items on my equipment table, so at first sight it is extraordinarily daunting.  Moreover, it is organized in a very jumbled manner, deliberately.  As I explained last night, we don't find things when we go shopping in alphabetical order and during the time of the Renaissance, there was no such thing as Walmart.  Jim found himself describing the equipment organization used in the 3.5 books but now it wasn't because those books were more thorough or imaginative, but because actually having to think, "What sort of shop would sell torches?" had him scrambling for answers.  My world isn't easy and this was his first introduction to that.

See, if equipment is jumbled, it is more likely for a player to waste money on what is immediately seen while forgetting to look for things that aren't seen.  With such a huge number of possible things to buy, all arranged so that there aren't more than 30 things on the screen at any one time, it is hard to just "know" what to buy.  This, I feel, more closely relates to the way we are as humans.  This is why grocery stores are arranged to make us buy things we don't need, while all the things we need are farther away and harder to find.

Then I explained that it is 12 copper pieces to a silver piece and 16 silver pieces to a gold piece.  That sent him off explaining how in 3.5 everything is in nice round numbers, 10s and 100s, and I pointed out that metric wasn't invented and anyway, it's medieval thinking and I don't intend to suck up to players who must have everything in base-ten.  Forcing players to think through difficulties makes them more likely to make mistakes. I like mistakes.  It gives something for players to learn from.

Well, all this had Jim floundering a bit ~ but he's a smart guy and he was working it out.  Then the turning point came:  he discovered that my campaign doesn't use alignment.

At that point, for Jim, the heavens opened up, the sun shone . . . and throughout the rest of last night's game, everything he said about 3.5 was negative.  Exhaustively negative.

The closing argument, however, came right at the end of the session.  Having played through a part of the adventure that involved minor problem solving, a conversation with a friendly kelpie (very not Fiend Folio) and a nuanced dilemma (nothing I need to talk about here), all of which took about two hours and a minimum of die rolling, with considerable group involvement, a little fear, some laughter and a tremendous sense of accomplishment.  The running was short because of catching up, new rules, introducing the new player and so on.  Anyway . . . we used the last half hour to help some of the players catch up on their sage abilities.

Jim got introduced to the methodology of the sage ability system.  Now, some of my readers may not be familiar with this, but like I explained to Jim, the principle is this: what we know, what we can do, is not a random die roll.  It is a point of knowledge, it can be done repeatedly and as often as we wish.  It is so completely different from the crap that was invented for 3.0 and expanded for 3.5 that it simply smashed Jim's game sense.

This is a fellow who has played 3.5 for fifteen years . . . and he is telling me by the end of one night of playing that 3.5 sucks compared to this system I'm showing him.  A system he hasn't had a chance to play and has barely seen used.  A system he can't wait ~ as a first level character ~ to try.

I feel quite smug about this.

Why is it that when I take five months off, the night I start again I have every player who was there five months ago right in the room, on the spot, ready to play?  Because my game is hard and enduring.  Becuase I don't have idiotic demands of people.  Because alignment fucking sucks.  Everyone knows it.  Seriously, they know it, but for some unholy dumbfuck reason people cling to it year after year, thinking it's going to make the game "better" in some unimaginable way ~ like the logic that rubbing shit on a window will make the sun shine in brighter.

We run games telling players what to think and how to act, then we spoon-feed them when they complain that they have to do grade four math, like multiplying a number by 12 or 16, with fucking calculators, for the love of sweet Christmas.  We give them ridiculous super-powers called 'feats' so that they can swing a giant's weapon or roll endlessly to detect every unseen thing in the universe instantly.  GET RID OF THIS SHIT!  It's moronic, it's insane, it's killing the game with stupid-friendly simple-minded easy-peasy elements that would bore a nine-year-old.

But, people won't.  They'll go on using it, because it is in the rules.  Rules that were obviously made by committee, designed to please the lowest common denominator of moron, to up sales and guarantee the fewest possible complaints that might imaginably keep a corporate executive up at night fearing a buyers' remorse.

Sorry, I am a bit stoked.  I ran my game last night . . . and in retrospect, it went damn better than pretty well. I converted a heathen, I've got the party pumped again and the game is totally on track for the next running.

I'm just saying the game should be hard as nails.  Really, really bleak and grim.  Coldly bitter, unkind, strict, thick-skinned, obdurate and damned exacting.  It shouldn't be silly or facile.  It shouldn't include elements that tell grown adults what to do with themselves.  Grown adults can make up their own damn minds.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Picking Up the Ball

My first running in five months . . . in a strange place . . . trying to remember where the thread of the campaign was and picking up the momentum again, getting the party immersed . . .

Went pretty well, apparently.  I'm in a bigger room than I used to be in and I was able to pace.  Reminded me of the years when I ran at the university in a big lecture theatre where we were able to use the table at the front of the class and the blackboard, so long as we kept it clean and wiped the board afterwards. In those days, I used to walk up the steps and preach my game to the ceiling, enjoying the acoustics.  Frankly, until tonight I had forgotten that memory utterly.  It had just slipped away from me.  We only played in that space three, maybe four times.

I've played in many odd spaces.  I've been able to control my own for years, only just recently lost it because of financial troubles.  Playing in my daughter's space right now; she let me make it mine and it all worked out.  I'm feeling a sigh of relief right now.

Glad to know the old boy still has it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Consequences of Heuristics

Concluding my remarks from this post and this post, the reader may remember that I ended by saying that a DM ought to combine both preparation ahead of time with on-the-spot decision-making, which I have described as using a heuristic.  The word is unfamiliar, so once again I'll quickly say that a heuristic is a decision that is made from the hip, with minimal evaluation of the facts, heavily weighted by the individual's present mind set, biases and experience.

We've talked about how a heuristic can be a negative thing, based on weak or cliched information.  We've also talked about how a heuristic can enable a DM's rapid response to game play that is flagging and requiring momentum.  To that, I'll add that all DMs must be ready to think fast on their feet, given the amount of information that surrounds game play and the potentially pattern-breaking behaviour of innovative players.  A DM can easily feel overwhelmed by all this and unable to make a patient, well-grounded conclusion.  Heuristic decision-making is, therefore, a prerequisite of DMing.

But I stress that it is also a prerequisite of playing an RPG.  Virtually every decision a player makes during the course of the game is made heuristically, without any warning as to what to expect and without the time to piece together a detailed assessment of the problem at hand.  Even in the case where the players have time to plan an assault on a given lair or descend into a dungeon, where they can equip themselves and gear up mentally for the offensive, they still don't know what they're going to encounter before they do.  The DM can take steps to select what can be prepared and what can be left to a heuristic, but the players don't have that luxury.

This gives the DM a tremendous advantage over the players.  It also speaks to the DM's mindset where game-play is concerned.  Arguably, DMs are the sort of people who are made uncomfortable by heuristic decision-making, who prefer the option of planning things out ahead of time.  They are the sort of people who, when making a heuristic decision with unforseen and unpleasant ramifications, want the option of reworking the setting and experience in order to protect themselves.  Players are necessarily subject to the consequences for their actions, being limited in the amount of power they have in a campaign.  On the whole, players are stronger, more ready for the chain reaction of play, having less issue with the potential failure that can result from rapid-fire decision-making.

Yes, I am saying that DMs have the weaker personality.  Or, if the reader prefers, the more defensive personality.  Very rarely does a DM have to accept the mistake they've make and suck up the consequences.  Like an eel, the DM can almost always shift the liability onto the players ~ who, often without complaint (or unaware), accept the burden and keep on going.  I don't say that they accept the burden quietly ~ not remotely! ~ but they do keep moving forward.

So this brings us back to the decision to play D&D, or more specifically the reason why some choose to DM.  The non-specific answer, "the game challenges me," is made more clear in that the game's challenge is in requiring a string of heuristic, off-the-cuff answers that promotes a feeling of stress and risk, resulting in an increased chemical rush of adrenaline and dopamine, particularly when the risk pays off and the character survives.  Fundamentally, we're all just natural drug addicts.

The DM goes one step further in this process by extending the "game play" to quiet afternoons and evenings spent preparing the game in advance, boosting expectation and allowing the DM to "edge" for a longer period of expectation before the game actually occurs, knowing consciously or subconsciously that whatever happens, the system/structure/campaign can be adjusted to ensure the DM's deficiencies are minimized.

Take the time to write down four or five game-changing decisions that have resulted from the reader's involvement in recent games, then take the time to consider the motivation behind each of those decisions.  In most cases, if the reader is honest, there won't be one.  There will be a strong inclination to invent a motivation, to rationalize the moment the decision was made in some context that will offer logic or reason, but more probably the decision was make heuristically, without any plan or solid thought process in place.  Resist the inclination to rationalize.  Accept that hundreds of hours of game play have created an acceptable experience-based patterned response to in-game events that allows the reader, when participating, to simply "go with the flow" in the same detached way that we would watch a movie or participate in a football game.

Embrace this.  Where a snap decision seems to have caused a misstep or resulted in the downfall of a character or the party, trust that the lesson has been learned and that your judgement next time will be improved.  We know that when we have the time to examine something ahead of time, it may still go wrong.  On the whole, we're doing fairly well to stay alive as long as we have in a situation where we're making split-second guesses against a die that may not support our chances for success.

Regarding DMs who may not be aware that they are unconsciously making decisions that re-route the campaign in order to protect themselves, I can only suggest that we should all stop doing this.  It is very easy to do, it is very tempting to do; it is also loathsome and indefensible.  Be aware, however, that we are doing this.  We have the power to do it and corruption has a nature of slipping past undetected.  So often, it is done without a moment's thought, utterly as a heuristic.  It is only by going back and evaluating our performance, night after night, that we can recognize patterns where our behaviour comes short of legitimacy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Further Heuristics

Let's continue the conversation from earlier today.  My purpose in writing these essays is to help participants of RPGs to better understand their thinking processes, to make them more aware of the decisions that they are making while playing, in hopes that it will be possible for them to later assess what decisions they've made and examine them.  When, specifically, did they take the step as DM that sent the game flying off in the wrong direction and how can they avoid doing it again - and when did they take that step in the right direction so they can repeat it.  Of these two, the latter is most importantly the skill we want to obtain.

Just to keep everyone in the loop, I'll explain again that a heuristic is a guideline.  This is at least one thing I will give to Gygax: he understood that, in many cases, the game's open perspective on human behavior and choice would produce circumstances that could not be predicted and for which rules could not be effectively invented.  In the moment, at the time of a player's innovation, the DM would be compelled to think heuristically, to go with a gut instinct and make a ruling that would fit the situation.  (It's hoped that, once this ruling is made, that it sets a precedent for further like circumstances that occur later in the campaign, but that is another post that I've already written).

In many situations, however, the very nature of the DM defies the possibility of creating a rule at all - because, of all things, the game demands flexibility.  It is here in particular that the use of a heuristic is a great benefit to a DM.  I'll give an example.

Usually, when I wake up in the morning, I have a cup of coffee.  This is true in about 19 cases out of 20.  I like coffee and when my world is working properly, I'm able to make coffee happen one way or the other.  However, I am not like these people who say, "I cannot function without a cup of coffee."  Coffee, for me, isn't a "rule."  I can do without it just fine.  Sometimes I don't have time to obtain coffee, sometimes I'm sick with a flu or cold and I would prefer tea, sometimes I get distracted.  Coffee isn't necessary, it is a choice - and the fact that I tend to make it often doesn't eliminate the heuristic decision that I make about it each day.

I will give another example.  When considering how many monsters to throw at a party for a given encounter, I'm not bound by any rule that says I must make the encounter "balanced."  Not all situations that I expect the party to face will be balanced.  Sometimes the party will outnumber their enemy; sometimes the enemy will outnumber the party.  The decision that I make in choosing a number of monsters is heuristic; I'm not bound by any rule in the game that I know of.  I am, however, bound by my experience and judgement to enable the party to assess the encounter in some way that gives them an option to survival.  Thus, I would not create a situation where the monsters appeared immediately next to the party, out of the blue, without any suggestion that the party was in a dangerous place, with the monsters getting first action and then pounding the players into dust.  That would be a BAD decision on my part and I wouldn't make it.

Presuming that someone will think of or suggest a situation where an assassin might do that to a specific party member, I will venture forth to say that this has happened twice in all my campaigns in the thirty-seven years of my experience.  In the first instance, the assassin missed the kill and the player defended himself justly.  In the second case, the assassin was the player's own assassin henchman, abandoned after dying, left unburied, only to rise as a revenant and successfully kill the PC.  It was agreed by all present, including the victim, that the murder was understandable.

So I am saying, in choosing what sort of encounter the party occurs, I make a decision that may inordinately threaten the party but will not betray the party's trust in me, their DM.  I curb any sense of entitlement on my part regarding what sort of encounter is imaginably possible and choose instead an encounter that will make a good game.  When I make this decision in the moment, the decision is heuristic; the making of a heuristic decision saves time and enables me to tailor my game to the specific moment in time that the game is being played.  This is what I mean by "flexibility."

When DMs talk of "winging it," this is what they mean - though of course they don't give it a label, calling it heuristic, unless they also happen to work in the field of psychology or a related subject.  Most who claim to DM this way express how it works without knowing precisely why it works . . . I am hoping with this post to give them a clue as to what sort of reading they might want to do if they'd like an intellectual handle on what they're doing.

There are many other DMs who feel very uncomfortable with heuristic decisions, who want every part of an adventure to be measured out and predetermined, expecting that this will ensure a positive shape to their games ~ and often it will, though there are no guarantees.  This measuring is, for some, the result of a fear that making a heuristic decision during the campaign will result in some terrible mistake that hurts that night's experience for the players or ~ even worse ~ challenges the viability of the whole campaign.

(yes, it is excessively dramatized, but I've heard and read people expressing exactly this fear)

Designing everything in advance is, however, an onerous process that often suspends game play for weeks while the DM gets things ready.  As well, playing with everything prepared lacks the flexibility of a heuristic.  While I can decide in my campaign that the players need a shot in the arm to get them pumped up, creating a brief combat for that purpose, the DM with the prepared, dovetailed adventure may have no such opportunity without compromising the adventure's structure.  As a result, on a given night a prepared campaign can fail to hit emotionally and the party is left slogging in dull misery for hours without respite.

It is then assumed that the fault lies in the ability of the designer and not in the functionality of the design.  As such, DMs rush off to pay a lot of money for a "professional's design," a store-bought module,  that will often unfortunately produce the same sour experience (then causing the DM to assume that it is a personal failing and that nothing whatsoever can be done, therefore it is time to quit).

We must understand that the risk of the prepared structure is that it isn't flexible.  It is like deciding that on June 28, 2018, we will get in the car, come hell or high water, drive to the beach and ~ by sweet cheese and crackers ~ have a good time.  And if the weather is bad, Jack's mother has just died or Mary has broken her leg, tough tookies: we're going.  For reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the adventure or the quality of the DM running the adventure, a prepared adventure can play brilliantly with one group of players on a Tuesday and tank the following Friday.  There are a hundred reasons why this can happen.

Desirably, we should be creating adventures that have the virtue of preparedness AND the virtue of opportunity where it comes to make a heuristic decision.  Neither approach, to be sure, will work optimally by itself, whatever an individual DM might claim.  We need to use all the resources at our disposal if we want out games to be better suited to our players.

Now, I will try to drag this around with my next post to the original points I made about decision-making and introspection.  Wish me luck.

Introduction to Heuristics

Why do we play D&D, or any other fantasy role-playing game?  Ask this question and nine times out of ten the answer that comes will reach for intangibles like "for fun" or "it challenges me."  Most of the remainder will answer the question with some description of how the character creation system provides inspiration or that the combat system is great - which is something akin to explaining that we like chess because the bishop moves diagonally.

Most people can't answer the question in truth because most people are not introspective in that way.  They have not examined their own lives to determine what emptiness that role-playing fills or why specifically their brains are built for this particular kind of "fun."  For some, it's apathy: they like the game, that is enough.  That's really just a cover, however: the fact is, on the whole we wouldn't know how to start being introspective.  We have no experience with it.

Let's take some time and examine that.

As I am on the spot for providing class material for teaching decision-making, I continue to research the subject (I do want to be better prepared than the student, yes?).  This leads me down all sorts of pathways - most recently, it has been heuristics - which some readers, no doubt, have run across in their internet travels.

The short explanation is given rather directly by the Wikipedia link.  Employing a heuristic is to make a decision using one's gut instincts - close to what I called "pattern recognition" in my book How to Run.  On one level, it suggests that having been around for a while, having achieved an age where we know not to put our hands on a hot stove or drive with our eyes closed, our judgement is at more or less sufficient to allow ourselves to make good guesses, at least about ourselves and our motivations.

On another level, however, we need to acknowledge that we've been duped quite a few times in our lives, to the point where we also know to occasionally second-guess our instincts - because, as Nick Hornby's character Rob Fleming says in the book High Fidelity, our guts have shit for brains.

It is somewhere between these two extremes, in getting to know ourselves and trust ourselves, learning how to restrain ourselves and police ourselves, that introspection occurs.  Thankfully, we're not usually on our own, here (though some of us are).  Society has at least tried to set us up with parents, instructors, written material and art in an attempt to show us the right path.  Of course, we're still responsible for walking it.

To explain how this works, I'll co-opt a sports analogy.  I like to use sports to explain games because experiences tend to be universal, widespread and easily understood.  I usually turn to baseball, because a lot of my readers are American, but this time around I'll use hockey.

Hockey is a game of momentum.  For those who play seriously, the age of introduction is usually three or four.  Most small children haven't the ankle strength at that age to skate well, but balance is critical to the game and starting kids early will help them adjust to the difficulties of standing and moving on blades of metal that will sustain them when they learn how to move.

As I remember, somewhere around eight or nine years of age, we began to realize that a pair of skates will transform the body into a fairly efficient projectile, particularly when used against other eight or nine year-old children.  Coaches know this, which is why the most common thing shouted from the sidelines is, "Pick up your feet!"  As most children of this age are still clumsy, particularly in the use of sticks while packed in thirty pounds of padding and armor, most opportunities for scoring happen when all these little projectiles smash together in the vicinity of the goal crease.

The choice to pick up one's feet comes from trusting the coach or having the personal will to enter combat, for whatever reason; but of course there are many who will not pick up their feet and dream only of never having to play this game again.  This was not me; I was an angry rink-hornet who spent many thousands of minutes in penalty boxes, as the gentle reader should expect.

The key word in the above passage is trusting . . . because once we dig in and pick up our feet as we are told to do, making things happen, we acquire experience at how things happen each time until we're ready to say, with conviction, that we know what will happen when we rush the opposition this way or that way.  The lesson is to get moving; the knowledge comes from repeating the lesson often enough make educated guesses that count.

Most of us have not had the benefit of a lesson where it comes to RPGs - because we began with a limited set of mentors or a data set that could be mined effectively in order to produce a reasoned result.  We have what is called an "availability" heuristic or "representative" heuristic - both of which are mental shortcuts that side-step an investigative analysis.

An Availability heuristic is to make a decision based upon the some recent experience that we have only just obtained.  For example, because the fighter that we were running in last night's game failed to overcome the monster in question, then died, we come to the conclusion that our next character is definitely not going to be a fighter.  In a wider sense, upon discovering that Wizards of the Coast is thinking about releasing a 6th edition of D&D, our perception of the value of 5th edition is immediately challenged, making us wonder if the edition we're playing now is really the best possible edition that there can be.  With new available information that comes to light in the short term, our perception and our judgement is put into question, particularly if that judgement has always been based upon whatever most recently available information that was available.

It is as if the player, having responded to the coach, must now again wait for the coach to shout something else before taking action.  The player is not self-motivated and therefore not self-dependent . . . and any information that may happen to make itself available will in turn become a threat to the player's equanimity.

A Representative heuristic seeks to make a decision based upon a template that - supposedly - accurately describes what a given thing in.  For example, having grown up hearing a man's voice shouting advice from the sidelines, it is presumed that all coaches must be men, as all representative coaches from the player's childhood were, in fact, men.  In a wider sense, it is to argue that since the original game of D&D possessed very few rules, whatever the reason for that, all correct and effective game versions of D&D must also be lean on rules because that's the "norm."

It is as if the player, having learned how to skate as a child without learning to crossover, insists that crossovers are either unnecessary or inappropriate to effective skating.  As a child, crossovers feel weird and difficult, but there is simply no way to improve one's skating without adapting to the change.

Online, we see these heuristics employed as arguments all the time.  Both, in their own ways, resist change - and are used as "common sense" arguments, which is to say that they are so obvious that they don't need proof or evidence.

Understanding our personal motivation for playing these games begin by rooting out these heuristics from our lexicon and recognizing that both dissuade us from making sound, rational decisions in our game-playing.  When I pick this up again in the next post, I will try to explain how heuristics can also be positive and effective strategies in role-play.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Startling Wind-based Website

This is pretty sweet.  The link is a current surface wind map showing in real time.  I caught the picture below at 6:30 PM EST, Oct 10, 2016:

This was sent to me by a reader, who suggested that I might find some utility in it.  I wish.  Unfortunately, unless my game is actually taking place on October 10th, the details have limited practicality.  But this is so cool.

Using, which gives information on hurricanes in real time (also; I love this modern age), I was able to identify that the hurricane north of Puerto Rico is Nicole, which will give some rain to the Bahamas but is expected to take a circle out to sea and die in the north Atlantic, as many hurricanes do.  So no worries with this one; the reader can see from the map that Matthew has completely dissipated.  I'm sorry I didn't have this site two days ago.

Compare the map above with any weather systems map you care to find.  The website will show any part of the world the reader cares to see.  The Antarctic is fascinating, a massive land-based high surrounded by violent lows.

There are also options for ocean currents, for chemicals in the atmosphere and for particulates.  The latter shows a tremendous flow of particulate snow falling out of the Sahara:

Also shown in real time.  To see it, click the earth link in the bottom
left hand corner.

I have no idea how I could use this, but it sure is awesome.  Thank you Erich.


I am beginning to suspect that it is NOT real time video.  After many hours there are no appreciable differences.  I feel I have not correctly understood what is being depicted.  It matches up with the weather site I've linked but doesn't seem to be updating from hour to hour.  I'll have to see what it looks like in the morning.