Thursday, March 31, 2016

Magicians and DMs

There is an old adage that says if you want to write a mystery, you need to begin at the end and work your way backwards.  Presumably, so that you can identify the order of things that need to be understood by the character, progressively away from the thing that will ultimately reveal the truth behind the mystery.

This is only half the object, however - because it only describes the structure of the content being written.  Once the structure is understood, it is absolutely necessary as a creator to play dumb - because the other half of writing a novel is to write it forward, from the point of view of a character who has absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about the book's structure.

Some authors can't quite do this - and so their mysteries tend to be filled with stock characters going through the motions, which can be acceptable to mystery enthusiasts but tends to make a rather dull, plodding case for other readers.  This is why mysteries so often fell into the category of 'pulp fiction' - because while they weren't written very well, they yet appealed to a particular audience with a particular taste, who could be satisfied with the mystery structure alone.

Where it comes to role-playing, it has to be noted that the standard practice of writing a mystery is turned on its head.  While in a novel, the writer and the character are the same person - so that the character can be pushed in the right direction to make sure the clues are discovered - in an RPG the DM and the character are NOT.  The character is someone completely ignorant . . . and that pushes the DM to use a heavy hand, occasionally, when the players aren't: a) learning the right clues; or b) interpreting them very different than the way they are meant to be interpreted.

This latter reason is likely why your last attempt at a mystery campaign failed.  Your players are not Hercule Poirot.  They won't 'conveniently' understood the clue that has been carefully 'worked backwards' by the plottist - rather, they will overthink it, massively underrate it or overrate it, and in short order make a ghastly mess of the mystery they're supposed to solve.

At the beginning of my game this last Saturday, the players started by congratulating themselves.  The very last action that had been taken in the previous session was the discovery of a secret door that revealed a nest of scrolls.  As we began, then, the players were saying, "Isn't it great that we discovered a secret door the only time we actually looked for one?"

Now, normally, the players would just assume that I had invented the secret door the moment they sought one - but this was Ternketh Keep, where everything was written ahead of time (which I could prove).  As such, they presumed they had been remarkably clever . . . and I could have left them with that notion, except that I'm an asshole.

I pointed out to them that, just before opening the door to the room where the secret door was located, without it seeming important I fitted the words "secret door" into something I was saying about game play in general.  I was talking about dungeons and their tropes, listing off a number of them.  Ten minutes later, the party - after finding everything in the room that was obvious - quite subconsciously decided to search for a secret door.  When I told the party about  this, I got a round of applause.

Is this fair of me to tell them?  Is it fair to do it at all?  In chapter 4 of my book How to Run, the chapter titled "Drama," I discussed magicians:

"A magician offers a deck of cards to the mark, asking the mark to pick one at random. This looks benign; we assume that when we draw the card, we have done so at our whim. That, however, is not the case. We have been offered the deck very carefully. It has been put artfully forward, so that one card compels the mark’s choice. The shape the deck makes in the magician’s hands, the magician’s voice, the right card directed at the right angle quite literally forces the magician’s card upon the mark. That is the ‘trick’ – that there was never a choice. We only think there was a choice because it is our nature to think everything we encounter is innocent."

If you want the players to follow a course of action, there is a greater distinction inherent in the game than 'railroading' and not 'railroading.'  These things are not black and white because we as humans are not black and white.  We're a mix of all sorts of complex patterns and motivations, each individual, and it takes experience and clarity to be able to guess at what can be said to players - more to the point, specific players, in specific situations, knowing how they'll react - if we want to motivate them in a direction.

Why is this fair?  Because D&D and role-playing is entertainment, and like magicians, all is fair in entertainment as long as the participants don't feel ripped off.  It is the blatant, obvious self-serving swaggering of DMs who stupidly show their hand rather than display a skein of cards that appeals in a particular way to a player's edification.  Magicians have to design their tricks in just such a way that keeps them from getting punched out on the street; a DM must recognize and carefully present a campaign where the players all walk away feeling warm and good about themselves.

There are some players that I could not reveal my secret door trick to, ever.  I don't play with that sort of player . . . anymore.

The trick for magicians and for DMs is to understand what can be gotten away with and what must never be gotten away with.  Magicians have an extensive network with other magicians, which rigidly - through a sort of  apprentice system - encourages the former behaviour while freezing out, coldly, magicians who get a bad reputation.  DMs have the WOTC, which does not give a shit.

When we say that magicians are bad, we mean that they do not perform their tricks well.

When we say that DMs are bad, we mean that they are self-righteous, megalomanic, controlling fucks.

It is an important distinction.

If you want your mystery campaign to work, you're going to need to learn some magician tricks.  You're going to need to understand your players better and you're will need to learn the art of subtlety.  You will also do well to put yourself in the player's position, so that you can better understand how someone will interpret your 'clue' if they don't know anything about what it is supposed to mean.

I am sorry I can't make this easier for you.  Hard things are hard, that's all there is to it.  If you're willing to slave at it, however, the payoff will be worth the work.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Publisher Versions of Maps

Visit Here

I was going to let the above image stand on its own . . . and then I remembered how much I hate it when a blog I like stops posting content and only posts advertising.

I've been trying not to do that from the beginning - to keep putting up content on the blog, advancing new ideas, remaining open for discussion and for questions.  I think this is the only fair.  I am responsible to you, the reader, to give you something to read about - otherwise, I'm not much of a writer.

My head is in the book I'm writing.  It has been a very different sort of process from other novels that I've written; someone asked me the other day if I was finding it difficult because I was used to non-fiction.

Nope.  It's difficult because I am making it that way.  I have heard it said all over, but it is true: an artist begins any work by deliberately sawing off a leg and an arm, with the premise that if the final project can't be managed with those limitations, then it is not worth managing.  There are so many problems I could easily solve by inserting long passages of clumsy, obvious exposition, or by having characters conveniently have knowledge impossible to have, or by simply creating a less intricate plot.  Unfortunately, those things wouldn't solve the only problem that matters to me:  writing a good book.

So I rewrite and redesign and find better ways to get the information across and better ways for people to meet and different ways to use characters that were originally meant to be pushed out of the story, or ways to upgrade the conflict or introduce a different conflict at the moment of a resolution and so it goes, on and on.  I find I am rewriting two words for every new word I write so that each day I go back and rewrite what I wrote yesterday and then make a few hundred words or as much as a thousand words forward - only to rewrite those words tomorrow.

So it goes.  Sorry I can't seem to talk of anything else just now.  I'll try to have something to talk about tomorrow.  The third podcast is being posted this Sunday.  When relaxing, I've been working on the pricing table.  I'll try to put up something for advanced trade table mechanics - but no promises.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Where You Eat Matters

Five years ago I wrote a post about compelling players to observe some kind of nutrition rules for campaigns.  It was a mental exercise and no more: just an example of the sort of thing that can be reviewed and considered but which is impractical for actual gaming and accounting.

That idea has sat on the shelf since I proposed it.

And now, today, I had an idea.  Have a look at this table, that I've only just designed:

Sorry about the size of the text; I recommend opening it in another window.

Undoubtedly, some are not familiar regarding my very basic rules about the consumption of food.  I am now very seriously considering augmenting those rules by implementing the above table where it comes to where the characters eat and how much effort they make towards that goal.

Basically, the characters make up their mind what sort of food they want to eat and how they wish to prepare it.  The next day, after they've slept, they make a saving throw on the top third of the table; for the most part, the saving throw is going to have no effect on most of the characters.  If it does have an effect, it is likely to be on less than 1/3rd of the party, even if the sorest rations are consumed without any cooking.  However, it makes a significant difference if the party wants to take the time to get themselves a proper wagon, or eat from a kitchen in a house they build, or eat at the local tavern when they get the chance.  The above could seriously punish characters who insist on eating food out of their pockets rather than spend a little for the boar at the local tavern.

Note that the actual food eaten does have some influence.  If the characters do not buy leafy vegetables for their campfire or chuckwagon, they don't get the chuckwagon's effect, no matter how nice the cooking is.  The same is true if the characters insist on drinking beer and not wine or coffee - at least, with regards to amateurs.  I see I will have to make a note that the kitchen has to obey the rule of food choices, but the tavern and up the scale from there does not - because with vegetable stock, cooking with wine and so on, the fortified benefit is cooked right into the meal.

The chance of disease eating field rations is 1 in 20; but I see that the chance is only 1 in 400 with campfire food and 1 in 8000 with wagon food.  I think that's fair.  Characters need to know what they're doing in making their food choices.

Incidentally, the cellar food option comes from a game, Patrician III:

This is the sort of meal that the players can only get if they know people (or they've joined a guild or some such in a given area).  The lord's kitchen, obviously, requires knowing someone in nobility or royalty circles.

There is an ultimate solution for the proposed rule: Heroes' Feast.  A cleric can obtain the spell at 11th level.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Trade System - End of Round 1

Once we have obtained prices for undeveloped and manufactured goods, we are ready to use weight and workmanship to create individual prices for goods that would appear on an ordinary equipment list.

This is a very easy process. For example, we have already determined that the cost for a pound of manufactured pottery is 18.685 c.p., or approximately 19 c.p. per lb. We need only determine how heavy a given object made of pottery weighs, multiply that against our ratio and then judge for ourselves how carefully worked the object is.

Let's take something very simple: an earthenware pot, the sort of object that might be used every day and be churned out in large numbers, for ordinary use around the house - such as would be used for flour, cookies, buttons and so on. We already know that the pot is fired, as this was part of the process that increased the cost from mere clay to being pottery. We can add that the capacity of this pot is about a pint.

Let's establish the weight of the pot at ½ a pound. Let's also establish that because the pot is very ordinary, the workmanship is 1.0. This makes the cost of our pot equal to 18.685/2*1 (in excel calculation), or 9.343 copper pieces. For the players, we will round that out to 9 c.p. That's a reasonable price; an ordinary household may have half a dozen of such pots. An orc lair might have a hundred or more.

By why limit ourselves to ordinary workmanship? There is such a thing as 'art pottery,' some of which is spectacular in design and color. We can well imagine establishing a set of perameters for pottery of greater workmanship, based on quality of clay (the best material is reserved for the best pots), additions such as handles and lids, color, sculpting, quality of sculpting and so on, so that workmanship for a given piece can be rated as x 2 (fair), x 4 (ornamental), x 8 (fancy), x 16 (artistic), x 32 (quality), x 64 (excellent) and x 128 (exquisite). Thus, a truly exquisite pot (still the same weight) can now be rated at 1,152 c.p. (or about 6 g.p.).

That's nice - but the party isn't likely to get excited about 6 g.p. (though a household of such objects might make someone take notice). Still, we can always enlarge the pot. Our one-pint pot is about 7 inches tall (23 cm); how much would it be worth if it were, say, 14 inches tall?

In such a case, we need to multiply all the dimensions by 2: height, width and thickness of the material (though the latter may not be necessarily true - it is up to us). This would mean our 14-inch tall pottery vessel would be multiplied by 8 times and be worth 48 g.p.

Now, that's something. But let's not stop there. Let's suppose the party stumbles into a big lair and finds that the chieftain sits between two massive pottery urns, each 49 inches tall (about a meter and a half, for all us moderns who aren't familiar with imperial measurements). And let's say that the workmanship is magnificent (x 256). How much would they be worth? From a usual game standard, we're just guessing - but now we don't have to guess. 49 inches in height is 7 times our original pot's size; we're increasing the size in 3 dimensions, so the urns are 343 times as large, or about 172 lbs. each in weight. The base cost, size multiplied by the value of ordinary pottery, is 3,204 c.p. The workmanship, however, increases that value to 820,346 c.p. In my game, that's 4,273 g.p. Those are pots that are very definitely treasure!

By this method, we can logically determine the precise value of any pottery object in a way that is consistent with all other pottery objects. We can do the same with metal goods, horses, leather work, ale or anything we like. We need only establish the difference in "workmanship" between an ordinary ploughhorse and a heavy warhorse to give us a range of possible prices all based on the same original price we generated for horses.

If this isn't precise enough, we only need to create another set of references for a particular kind of metal, horse, leather or beverage, running through the same system we've already built, to produce another set of numbers we can use to price things.

And always remember, the price for one market in our world always has the potential for different prices, both higher and lower. Where is the best place to sell those big pottery urns?

How heavy is something? We have the whole internet to use as a judge. In fact, we can find specific objects on the internet and say, "such and such a pottery jug, in this picture here, weighs this amount and I'm calling the workmanship this." In reverse, the player can present an object, describe its dimension and ask what the price would be and we can work it out in a few seconds, without worrying about whether or not it would 'break the system.'

For those who would be interested in going on the 'net to find the weights for objects, I have a hint: search for 'shipping weight.' Most sites will be very unclear about how much a depicted object weighs, even on sites that are selling things - but those that ship objects are always interested in specifying weight; often distinguishing the difference between shipping weight and 'actual weight.' This can save a lot of hours wandering about trying to determine how much a telescope, a ship anchor or a pair of boots weighs. For historical objects, such as swords, museum sites are often very helpful.
I have priced more than 1,300 objects in this manner; my blog has many examples of equipment tables, some of which do give the exact weights of objects. As I write this, I am upgrading my prices table, reorganizing it to make it easier to expand and to more deeply adjust for the price of an object. I do plan to make this table - in excel - available for users, but only those prepared to invest $10 per month in my patreon account (see link for details). Sorry about that.

We're not done, however. This more or less describes the skeleton of the whole system. Having described it thus far, I can now begin detailing specific elements of the system, such as how to build structures that will calculate trade distances between multiple cities, organize hundreds of different references at the same time, splitting and handling more specific references, calculating out things like different products, adding wages and performed services (from getting a shave to hiring a berth aboard a ship) and so on.

We have a lot of things yet to expand.

See Trade System

A note about Patreon

After some reading on the site, I've learned about a disappointing practice that only seems human.  Fans pledge an amount for a given creation, only to withdraw that amount when the artist sends the creation before waiting for the pledge to materialize.  Not at all unexpected.

Therefore, I'm willing to give a 'taste' of the content for my pricing table for anyone who donates, particularly since it is in a state of rebuilding (and therefore is lacking a huge amount of information); rest assured, the long-term gains from pledging will far outweigh what can be gotten immediately.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Post #2019

"Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.  Those who do learn from history are destined to watch others repeat it."

There are certain things we don't control.  I do control my will to keep on writing my book today.


I've finished the manufactured goods page on the wiki, for those who are following along.  It has been . . . an interesting progression.  I look forward very much to continuing.

I wish I hadn't written the last post.  Since publishing it, I have thought strongly about taking it down.  When I consider doing so, however, I am faced with an uncomfortable truth: the words were honest.  They came from an honest place.  The urge to take them down originates with a strong feeling of shame - not because I overreacted but because I reacted exactly as much as my heart wanted to.  As it still wants to.

There is nothing that I've accomplished with game design that I am as proud of as these trade tables.  I conceived of them out of the blue.  The intention was never to create an 'economy' or a trade system.  The intention was to have a method for the price of things being different in different parts of the world.  I could have just assigned different prices but my brain does not work that way.  I wanted 'logical' changes in price.

I've never seen any company or role-playing manufacturer even propose something like these tables, much less follow through.

Yet I feel bitter that I exist in a game-playing atmosphere that continues to be, even after forty years of participation, consternatiously juvenile.  Worse, not only is puerility practiced, it is goddamn celebrated, as something for the participants to be proud of.  And I wonder, how the fuck did I ever fall in love with this game?

I can keep a lid on it for the most part.  Every once in a while it gets away from me.  I've gotten better in the past year.  I had my last flame war on this blog a little more than a year ago.  But the wise reader can go back and look over the blowups and violent incidents and see a single thread that runs through all of it.


I'll move past this and go back to writing intelligent posts for intelligent readers who see this thing the way I do.  They've made that very clear with the donations and the support.  It's been incredible, really.  My partner Tamara and I have discussed it a hundred times.  Do we believe this?  Did we think this was possible?  Would you have ever guessed?  Wow.

It makes me feel that I'm doing some good.  But it's all so unreal that - like a dream - I keep expecting to wake up.  And despite the success and the drive that has created things like the podcasts and the module and the wiki, there's this incredible wave of stress that we're both managing, that makes us a bit . . . tetchy.  Ready to go off.  Tamara and I have had more than a few goes at each other - but since last fall, we've found a new level of supporting one another.

Anyway, I'm sorry.  I'm only writing this post out for the same reason as the last one.  A stupid need to be honest, to record that honesty and to write it down.  I'm a writer.  The best thing in the world to write is honesty.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


It stands to reason that if I take the time to put up the trade system, block by block, that some people are going to squawk, "Why, why, why?"

I feel I need to be clear about this.  The fundamental reason why any part of the trade system exists is this: it works.  That's the whole reason.  It isn't a simulation, it isn't accurate, it doesn't reflect the real world trade system of the modern day or of the medieval world, it has virtually nothing whatsoever to do with economics and a great deal of it is created by completely ad hoc decisions.

This is part of the reason why I chose to put myself into the straight jacket of using an encyclopedia to determine what references existed in the world and where, because I didn't want to do what I'm recommending the reader do when using the system:  randomly place goods and services wherever it felt good.  Understand, however, that most readers don't have a choice.  They aren't running a real world so they don't have a source they can go to outside of their own head.  I'm addressing that as best I can by encouraging people to go at it anyway they like.  It doesn't matter, anyway; as long as they embrace the recommendation for scarcity, the system will work.

I banged my head against all sorts of different systems for fifteen years before realizing none of them worked. Then I spent six years in my head doing nothing but thinking about it.  I mean that literally. As I would tell my partner after 2001 (when we met), "I'm just going to go out for awhile and think about the trade system."  Then I would walk around for two hours, thinking.  I would lay in the bath, thinking.  I would lie in bed, thinking.  I would while away an afternoon, thinking.  For six freaking years, from 1999 until I finally got it.

What I 'got' was a logical, adjustable, applicable system that would work with any product, any raw material, any final item of equipment, as far down as one would want to go in complexity, in an effective manner.  That is all that mattered to me.

I am more than happy to explain HOW the system works.  I am not, however, interested in any query that wants to ask WHY I have made this choice or that about a given calculation or method for determining one price over another.  I know that most readers will not accept my decisions on faith.  However, I expect my readers to accept my decisions on faith.

Regarding those for whom this is not good enough, here is what I suggest: shut up.  Shut up and take the system I've built and that I am making available for use and mess around with all the numbers to your heart's content.  Change the calculations, adjust the methodology, do whatever personally fits your need to achieve the results you feel will work for your world.

Know this, however - whatever you think you're going to try, I've already tried it.  I've tried it in seven different ways.  I know this because I have screwed and fucked and messed with this system since 1986.  That's 30 years of spending about a billion hours on this system.  I know that I am not wrong in my guess that the reader asking me to explain "Why?" has spent about five minutes on their question.

When a professional engineer tells you that your head is up your ass about the thing you want to build, don't argue.  Just accept it.  A professional doesn't have time to give you all the education you need to have to understand why your project is dumb.  You want to know, go get your own damn education.

Anyway, I've put up half a tutorial on how to calculate the prices of manufactured goods.


I've cooled off somewhat since writing this.  I guess what really pisses me off about it is the endless fucking meta-game that goes on.

There are people who see a system like the one I'm building and think, "This is cool, I can't wait to plug it into my system and solve this problem."

And there are people who see the system and think, "Wow, I can masturbate with these numbers a hundred different ways as I rebuild this system from scratch again and again!  Yay!"

I don't suppose I am much bothered by the latter people - I'm just saying, leave me the fuck out of it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Undeveloped Goods Prices

The wiki tutorial on setting prices for undeveloped goods took me four and a half hours - gawd.  This is counting the time I was interrupted to grant a brilliant interview for a job opportunity with Shaw Cable.  I must have just been on.

Here's the frontispiece:
Goods in the trade system are divided into two categories: those resources that possess a natural value at the moment they are found or uncovered and those resources that have value only after processing. This page will concern itself with pricing natural and undeveloped goods.
Undeveloped goods include materials that are dug up, caught, harvested from fields, chopped down or picked from trees. In our tutorial, we are counting 'bricks' as a raw material because our use of the term is meant to include stone; however, a more proper and detailed system would have separate references for stone and count bricks as manufactured products made from clay and other materials.
Similarly, while it would seem that animals are 'naturally' born and therefore collected as undeveloped goods, the fact is that before an animal can become valuable it must be fed for periods up to several years - the cost of this feed represents a form of 'processing' that we are not taking account for in this system at this time. Later, I will be describing how to make these sorts of distinctions - but for now, our primary goal is to create a simple system that accounts for most things the players will want to buy. We can add nuance later.
Some readers will be familiar with the post on my blog describing my trade system in 2010. It should be clear that I have made adjustments to the details described on that post in the last year - changing the overall behaviour of my trade prices. While much of what I described 6 years ago still reflects things I do today, my old method should not be confused with the method described here.
Also, the details below will be presented as calculations done in Microsoft Excel. While calculations for the system can be done with pencil and paper, the reader will discover that once ten or more markets have been added to the system that working without a computer calculating tool will quickly make the system impractical. My use of excel will be simple and I shall try to make it as easy to understand as possible for those who have never taken the plunge and used the system.

It rather goes into great depth on the matter, for those looking to actually build a trade system. That is, after all, the point.  Look to the end of the page for a copy of my excel file that I built to write the tutorial.

And then, if it interests you, please remember that I am still looking to support myself with donations either to my Jumpstarter or to Patreon.  I trust no one doubts that I'm working here . . . heh heh heh.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Transport Section Finished

I am steadily moving through the trade system; I've just finished the section on calculating references through transport.  The next goal will be to write about the pricing of raw goods.  I will get to that in good time; I'm going to be working on the book for the rest of today and I feel I'm going to take a break from the blog for that purpose tomorrow.  I'm beginning to feel the pressure.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


I have added the next page to the trade system, regarding the placement of references.

A few days ago I mentioned a large donation to my Jumpstarter and that has been such good news for us.  I am afraid, however, that it won't be enough to sustain the bare minimum of our survival until the end of May, which is the time I need to finish my book the Fifth Man.  The original sum that I described needing was $6,200 . . . that number has now shrunk tremendously, almost by 50%, to $3,622 remaining.

This will help keep us alive for two months, by which time we are praying that the economy will have improved enough (particularly with the coming of summer) that we will be able to keep ourselves together for 2016.

I do understand that many readers will be able to give very little accept their appreciation for the blog - and believe me, that has kept me going these past 8 years and made me feel that my message hasn't been lost in the great void of the internet.  But if you can't bring yourself to raise enough money to make a $10 donation in exchange for Ternketh Keep, the price of three or four coffees, please consider buying me a cup of coffee or a cappuccino once a month on Patreon.

Of course, I'm not going to spend it on coffee.  I'm going to pay for things like eggs, milk and bread, or to pay for a load of laundry in my building's basement, to buy scrub pads so I can clean dishes or fix my partner Tamara's teeth at the dentist the next time one of those comes loose.  For you, however, it will be a coffee, if that makes $2 or $4 easier to relate to.  It makes a huge difference to my lifestyle right now.

Meanwhile, I'll keep working on the book and putting some hours (comparably, it's relaxation time) towards the trade system, the blog, the podcast or whatever project that's within my time budget just now.

Thank you for your patience.

Friday, March 18, 2016


I got back some hours ago from my workshop at the bookstore.  Sadly, the only people who showed up were people I knew . . . there just isn't an easy way to communicate with players in the real world who want to learn more about the game.  It was clear last week from the type I met at the Sentry Box that the more easily found players are clearly the sort who have surrendered their souls and sense of growth to the immediacy of having everything made and done for them.

So, we talked for an hour and recorded a sort of podcast with seven persons, including my daughter and I - and that will get edited and published in good time.  In the hours since, I have been immersing myself in a short project that I've just finished.

The next step for the tutorial I addressed in the last post will require a map.  I was going to use a map from the old game Divine Right (shown on the right), but after starting to do so I found that the amount of black ink and the size of the print in some cases was going to be troublesome - I can't easily add comments to it or adjust it as needed.

Misspelled Bazimar.  Oh well.  Fix it later.

Well, that was a lot of fun.  It is hex for hex the same map, just the graphics are changed (and I adjusted the pass to being an open hex northwest of Marzarbol.  When I have a chance, I can start working on the wiki page addressing the third step in the trade system tutorial, "locating references."

Belatedly Fulfilling a Promise

19 months ago I made a promise I haven't kept.  Believe me, I haven't forgotten; I just haven't known what to do about it.

I tried several times to make videos - I even made a first one that can still be found on my youtube page.  Fact is, however, that I'm not a video maker.  All my experience in film had someone else behind the camera and someone else editing.  I suck at that.

I am a writer.  So with that, I am trying to have another go at this.  It may take a long time, it may get very pedantic (I don't want to move too quickly), but damn it I am going to get this promise fulfilled.  I've gotten just far enough this week to give the reader some homework.

I know that people have tried to build my trade system . . . and that it has proven difficult or beyond them (if I go by what they've written on blogs thereabouts).  I'm trying to break down the idea so that it is simple and can be put in place more simply than I think people will realize.  But . . . making images and maps will take a little time.  I'll update on the blog as I go along - and I will fill in holes or fix the system I'm outlining as I go along, also.  Because it is simplified in places, there are bound to be issues that don't work as my own system does.

But hell, my own system is in a mess right now.  I need about two months of solid work to straighten it out and I keep getting distracted by silly things like writing modules for my players and keeping up with spell creation, along with other things on the wiki.  My players, however, tend to be patient.  For now, any deep work is going to have to wait until the Fifth Man is written.  Wow, does my trade system need some deep, deep work (I need to rebuild all the tables to make them easier to adjust).

Here's some content ripped from the wiki:

Reference Types

With an eye to keeping the system as simple as possible, in order to provide most of the products that players would want to buy or obtain in a gaming campaign, there are a set number of goods and services that we will want to include. Many of these that I have chosen are highly non-specific, bundling a great many varieties under one heading for the purpose of simplification. Please note that at a later time these general categories can be subdivided as desired. Initially, our main concern is to establish a general framework from which we can expand later.

We can start with a set group of products. These would be brewing, bricks, cattle, clay, cloth, fish, grain, grapes, horses, leather goods, meat, metal goods, ores, pottery, salt, sheep, skins, spices, timber, wine and wool.

There would be other things we could add to the list, but this will be a sufficient start. We want to keep a very wide prospectus on what each of these would include. Bricks, for example, would include cement and masonry; timber would include construction with wood; wool would include all fibers, including those grown as well as those obtained from animals.

Each of these things will need to be located on a map of our world, designating the importance of each item according to its importance in a specific town or region. Regions may be political or they may be geographical, such as forests, coast lines, river basins, marshes, hills or plateaus. They may be very precise, such as a small valley where a good is made or scattered, such as ores found in many parts of a general mountain range. This is up to us.

There is one more reference type we want to include. This would be market. In the initial stages of system building, we will want to assume that every town will have a market (as we will be working with a map that only includes major towns and no villages).

Let me humbly add for those readers who did not give me a $1 back in 2014 that I have created a Patreon account.  Just sayin'.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The First Two Pages

After much thought, and because I posted the first pages of my latest book, The Fifth Man, on this blog many months ago, I've decided that I wanted to share the updated version.  Since, the book has undergone several title changes and adjustments to both the characters and the theme, but I've settled these things now and I want to show and tell.  This is what the Jumpstarter is all about.

It should always be remember that writing is rewriting, and that we edit until it hurts; then we edit some more.  This is at last the version that I will give to my editor, because I am ready to abandon it.

Chapter One

It was only reflex. I didn’t know that I’d killed my first man until it was done – and even then, it took time before it came clear to me. I stared at the glistening blood draining down the gutter of my sword. I heard his body collapse onto the dry leaves of the forest. I saw him. He laid face-down, his wet, curly hair trailing over his back. A leather tunic, old and unmended, wrapped his body. He had no money for better clothes. His only weapon was a club, lying on the ground next to his stilled hand. He had nothing now – was nothing now. Coldly, I had used my sword to end his life, with as little effort as lifting my arm or turning my wrist. My father’s training had paid off well. A man who had been willing to hurt me was dead.

I was fourteen.

My father’s hand upon my shoulder interrupted my thoughts, pulling my eyes from the body. I did not look back. My father’s proud, happy face beamed down at me. I heard his words of praise. I grasped him tight as he hugged me. I loved my father. I did not care who died or not, so long as my father loved me.

We fought those brigands two days out of a great city called Augustus, in a little kingdom called Fallow. It is far from where I am as I write this now, in another place.  It was many years ago. The people I hear as I write these words, in the market below the window of my room, have no knowledge of my homeland. They go about, unaffected by all that I have ever done. In my mind, I am more in Fallow than here, where I was only a boy, a boy without any awareness except his country and his family. Yet I carried my weight. I drove my own wagon, managing two horses by myself. My father’s wagon, with four horses, had the lead. I followed. Between the wagons, on foot, were two of the king’s guards, strong men with shields and spears.

The road was no better than two ruts along a grassy cut between the trees. Up and down, up and down went the journey. We would drop down short, steep grades, the wheels skittering as we held back our horses. The climbs were a struggle, the horses’ hooves digging out divots from the soft earth. In the bottoms, our wagons churned through water-filled holes, sometimes up to the hubs. All that day, there were hints of rain though none fell. The sky was overcast and heavy. Around us, the wood yielded an appearance more grey than green. If there had once been shrubs and undergrowth in the distant past, it was gone now. Little sunlight reached that forest floor. A few spare onions and beet plants, with rare humps of brown hay, made little impression above the dead leaves of last season, stretching out like a carpet.

As I think of it, I cannot say why the guards were there, nor even remember their names. I had some dim notion that my father’s reputation carried weight with the king’s court and with various nobles, but I had not quite reached the age where I cared. It did not matter at fourteen who my father knew or why they would come with us. They were his friends or his associates and that was enough for me. It is strange how accepting a boy can be about the world and the people in it.

When we came to the place where the brigands attacked, the man set to take me appeared from behind a tree, so near that he might have struck me before I could move. Some instinct preserved me so that I acted quickly – but as I jumped, my heel caught the wagon’s toe board and I lost my balance. I fell away from him, putting the wagon between us. If the road had been open, he might have climbed aboard and driven off. Instead, he came around to find me.

I had tumbled and gotten wrapped in my cloak. I clawed the folds from my face with one hand, grasping and drawing my sword with the other. I saw the attacker only for a moment, his chest coming at me. Then he was dead.

There were five brigands who attacked us. The rest of the fight ended quickly. One of the guards killed his with a throw of his spear. The other guard’s attacker came much closer and the guard’s spear broke – and yet he still managed to finish off the brigand with the broken end. My father killed his first opponent with the axe on his belt, then chased the other into the trees before he got away. This accounted for four of the brigands, all dead, while we four were all well and unhurt. My father would tell me after that they were foolish, desperate men, who had likely presumed we were merely a teamster, a boy and two footmen. We had proved them wrong.

The only brigand I had seen alive was the one I’d killed. The fifth one that fled was out of sight before my father found me. When I saw the three other bodies, all torn apart, I felt ill. I was glad there was no other to fight. I did not want to kill again.

My father was not satisfied. Though we had frightened off the fifth man, he might be anywhere nearby, waiting for us. My father told us to calm the horses and get underway, saying that we should fear an assassin’s arrow come stealing at us from a nearby, hidden place. That frightened me. My heart pounded as I retrieved the reins to the horses from between their legs, where I’d dropped them, and climbed onto my seat.

We started off, with both guards driving and riding in my father’s wagon. My father stayed behind, waving us on, promising that he would soon find us. He shifted his axe to his other hand, drew his sword and headed into the trees.

We went ten minutes along the road, then stopped and waited for him. My eyes anxiously searched for any movement. The guards were not concerned. They began an argument about a sausage one had brought along and how they might share it; both claimed to be hungry and until my father returned they could not build a fire. It might be hours, it might be after dark, before we could camp. I did not care about the sausage. I wished my father would return quickly, whether we built a camp or not. At last, the soldiers came to an agreement and ate their fare. I was offered some but I could not eat. Our wait seemed very long.

Then my father appeared on the road. Both his weapons were on his belt, showing he had nothing to fear. I stood up and waved with both arms, shouting. He smiled and waved back. Soon he was close enough to tell us that he hadn’t found the man. The guards greeted this news with little comment and soon we were on our way again. When the end of the day threatened, my father called a halt and we began to sort ourselves out for a meal and sleep, like it was any other day. All three adults gave the sense that nothing had happened.

It was only after the fifth or sixth rework that I realized - what with the new title and all - how much this looks like a "my father was killed and I am bent on revenge" opening.  I am glad to say that is not the measure of the plot at all.  Until the last paragraph above, however, I can easily see people thinking that's what's coming.

If you like the writing, I can assure the reader that the quality and level goes on for 50,000 words, so far.  I still have a lot of book to rewrite: but I feel it is strong and confident and possesses a very real feel about adventuring from scene to scene.  I am more than pleased with it.

Please consider a small donation; please consider supporting me on Patreon.  And if not, don't forget to buy the book when I publish.

I am setting a date for the preview ($25 donation): Tuesday, April 26, 40 days away.  I plan for that preview to be the first 35,000 words (thereabouts); more than enough to chew.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Morale and Popularity

On Saturday we had a compromising situation arise that inspired me to an on-the-spot elegant solution.  At present, I have a party that is hacking their way through Ternketh Keep, bloody room by bloody room.  On Saturday they found the harpies and exhibited almost incomprehensible luck.  However, by the end of the night one a character's follower, Jafar, had died, being carved to pieces and left with -13 hit points.

Forgive the links - I just want the reader aware of my rules regarding these things.  Sometimes these blog posts look like a Wikipedia page.

The question arose - should the party use death's door to bring back the character that died?  The party's main cleric has the spell and the spell hasn't been cast; but it must be used quickly and as the party is fairly ragged at this point, they're not anxious to use a return to life spell on a non-leveled man-at-arms (for that's all that Jafar was) when one of their 4th lvl+ characters may die in the next room.

However, how should that effect the morale of those present who, having witnessed the use of the spell in the past, recognize that it probably won't be used for them?

It was at this point that I conceived of a different way to look at morale.

To cover what the link says in just a few sentences, I use a system where most followers and hirelings begin with a fairly poor morale.  I calculate this as the number needed to be achieved on 2d6, sort of like a saving throw.  Thus, the higher the number of a character's morale, the lower the character's actual morale (I'm thinking of reversing the roll so that a high number equals a high morale, but that's tricky and I haven't decided yet).  Basically, a 12 morale is very bad (success 1 in 36) while a 2 morale is very good (success automatic).  Usually the best morale that can be achieved is a 3 (better than that is reserved for henchmen.

At the time of his death, Jafar's morale was 8.  To give the morale of a few other characters, Calim's morale was 7, Fehim's was 9, Mazonn's was 9 and Attaman's was 8.

To determine how the rest of the party felt about Jafar's death, I made a morale check, rolling 2d6.  An eight or more would be a success, a seven or less would be a failure.  I judged the roll as a determination of Jafar's popularity, reasoning that a companion with a good morale (3-5) would be much more popular than someone with a bad morale (10 to 12).  This makes sense to me.  Someone with a good morale would be brave, eager, high-spirited and inspiring; someone with a bad morale would be miserable, cowardly, troublesome and therefore unwanted.

If the roll against Jafar's morale failed, then it could be presumed that the party in general didn't feel too much remorse at his death. Not raising him, therefore, could be seen as something understandable: not that they wished him evil, but that it was simply his time.  On the other hand, if Jafar's morale check succeeded, then Calim, Fehim, Mazonn and Attaman might be quite annoyed that the party chose to do nothing for their companion.

In the latter case, it might be reasoned that the party could still choose to say "No."  These are men who are intended to obey, after all, they're followers and hirelings.  However, one logical response could be that each person rebuffed by the party could have their morale raised by 1 point, across the board.  This would reflect the general discontent of the group without their needing to create a resurrection.  A hard decrease in morale like this would hurt a lot, particularly when we consider it is measured against 2d6 (the difference between a morale of 9 vs 10 is devastating).

I ended in rolling under Jafar's morale so that he failed.  It was his time.  The group was okay with him not being raised.

Of course, it did not occur to me afterwards that a die should have been rolled for each individual person; some would be content with Jafar's demise, others would be bitter.  Morales could be adjusted independently.  In future, this is what I will do.  In any case, I have a precedent that will be applied to other situations in the future.

Pause for Breath

Following an extremely generous donation, I feel confident to say that I will not be forced out of my home at the end of this month.  I have enough to pay my rent.

If anyone wants to know how I'm feeling just now, I'd have to answer with this similar experience:

So for those who are worried about me, we all have another month.  I find now that I want to apologize; it's an hormonal reaction to extraordinary kindness . . . and it is made harder because I still have to ask for small donations in exchange for Ternketh Keep and the preview to my book that is only five and a half weeks away (the full book still looks like late May, barring any unforeseen problems).

Just now I feel shy and overwhelmed.  Thank you again for everyone who has helped me, with donations and with spreading the word on their own blogs and twitter feeds.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Starting at 1st

I'm somewhat hampered.  If I want to make an argument defending my policy of having every new player start a 1st level character, regardless of the present level of the party, it is impossible to do so without incorporating my rule changes.  The way the game is written by the company, it does seem to make sense to start a new character at the same level of the party.  I never did this, however, even when I was playing the original rules - because I think it is blatantly unfair to the standing party.

If I am running in a campaign like mine, and I started at 1st level in early 2014, then I will probably be something like 6th level now.  That is a slow advance for a lot of campaigns but it is typical in mine.  In order to be 6th level, I will have risked a lot, sacrificed a lot and experienced a lot of different trials and gained both friends and influence.  I will have done that through my efforts.  Running against a DM like me means putting in the time and steadily building my characters' value, so that as a 6th level today I feel like an experienced, somewhat grizzled campaign warhorse.

I wouldn't appreciate someone stepping into the campaign and being handed all that for free - particularly if that player hasn't yet proved that they're going to be a good fit for the party and the campaign.  There's good sense in starting off a newbie with less, since humility builds character.

Of course, there are many campaigns where the new player is given the equal level charge because the old players will cheerfully bitch-slap the newbie into obedience otherwise.  Such doesn't happen in my campaigns because I won't allow anyone to be mistreated in that way, as I've recently discussed.  I don't care that the newbie is low level; everyone gets heard and everyone is entitled to approach the campaign with an equal voice.

I don't feel that anyone is entitled to free experience, however.  Everyone at the table earned their experience; I expect the noob to do the same.

And that stands for players that die and have to start again.  If the death of a 8th level ranger means the automatic advancement of the new character to being a 8th level mage, then what does death mean?  Nothing, obviously.  Death has to mean those experience points are gone.  They can't be 'willed' to a new character.

This is harsh - and in my early days I did have one player who did quit the campaign because his 8th level ranger died.  As I remember, every player agreed that he should have started out at 1st level again and felt that the player's loss was a fault on that person and not my policy.  Admittedly, this was before my present henchman rule - which was instituted within a year of the death of that ranger.  The henchmen rule means that the player will probably have a slightly lower level character already worked up from 1st level in my campaign.  This mitigates the pain a little.

There's still the chance that both the main character and any number of henchmen will all get offed in the same combat - it does happen that more than one can die and a little bad luck could mean both are gone.  Still, there is another mitigating aspect of starting off as 1st level among 6th levels that probably doesn't work in a game based off the company's rules - but exists predominantly in my world.

The new 1st level gets a lot of help.

Rather than making an assertion, however, let me build a few statistics to make my point.  I'm afraid that to follow this next, the reader will have to be familiar with my experience rules.

Let's start with a 1st level party: cleric, fighter, mage and thief.  Let's have them all be human and let's give them each a 15 constitution and maximum hit points for their class, plus 3 hit points for their mass (see my rules on hit points and hit points per die).  We can then start with this table:

Since my cleric can only use cure light wounds once per day, I've adjusted it so it does 1d4 +4, rather than 1d8 as it is in the original Players' Handbook.

Looking at the above, we can calculate that the party can take a total of 52 hit points of damage, presuming that no player is reduced to negative hit points.  That potentially adds another 36 total damage more than they could suffer, but chances would be this would leave them all unconscious and eaten by vermin, so let's just play with the number zero as a bottom line.

Experience is gained for both damage done and damage received, so let's suppose that in a given fight (which we'll determine the experience for) that they give as good as they get - so that the thief, for example, causes 10 damage as well as receiving 10 damage.  Then we'll give the extra healing (we'll roll an 8) to the fighter and assume that healing was lost in damage also.  Assuming the players survive the fight and get experience, how much would that be?

base describes the amount of experience received for their personal
achievement (xp for damage caused and taken); this is added
to the bonus to get the subtotal (before adding 10%).

This is a fair reckoning for the most experience a 1st level party is likely to get in a single combat (in my world, obviously), apart from treasure.  It may vary a little if the party gets very lucky and causes a lot of damage, but then they would be have to be facing more enemy than they'd normally plan for to still take the amount of damage I've depicted them taking.  Usually, when a party is lucky, it means taking less damage so that they actually get less experience if they roll great.  Of course, it also means they live to fight another combat right after and they still get that treasure bonus afterwards.  The party above, the unlucky one that has lost all its hit points, won't likely survive the four orcs in the next room, will they?

The key is the bonus.  Let's stage the same combat, only now let's put one 1st level fighter with three characters that are all 4th level (they haven't gotten any henchmen yet, which complicates this unnecessarily for the point of this post).  We can start by updating the first table.  We'll presume the higher-leveled characters have each rolled average for additional hit points.  The 4th level characters gain constitution bonuses for each level and the cleric will probably have added the aid spell (again, my rules).

We can suppose that everyone still takes their full hit points in damage and each still gives as good as they get.  Now here is a point - the fighter is probably going to be the beneficiary of the cleric's aid, since he will probably suffer most from lack of hit points and combat potential, meaning that he's got between 24-34 hit points he can suffer in damage, benefiting from having a 4th level friend in the cleric.  If that's not enough, it might be necessary to dump the cure light wounds on him as well.  Let's presume that's how it happens - and once again, let's say the cleric rolls maximum for benefits, giving the fighter 28 additional hit points, which the fighter then proceeds to lose completely in the upcoming combat.

I don't have to start the fighter as a 4th level to keep up with the higher level characters.  With the help the fighter gets, it won't be long before things even out.  Soon enough, the difference in levels will benefit the fighter less and less until all evens out.

In fact, it was much harder to be that early group of 1st levels than it is for the newcomer starting down there.  The new player gets a break because there's help to be had.  Low-levels benefit from the extra healing, the combat potential of their fellows, the benefit in resources (my players inevitably lend coin to new players to help them get started, rarely asking for this to ever be repaid), additional magical coverage and so on.  If the fighter dies, it is more likely the party will have the means to get the fighter raised (something a party of 1st levels probably wouldn't bother to do).

Incidentally, some will take note as to the mage's poor gain in the above example.  It should be noted that combats rarely drain everyone of hit points like this and that mages often get experience for automatic damage done by spells.  Additionally, my system tends to penalize low-level mages because of the combat vs experience requirement, but higher level mages have shorter waits between levels AND they get more benefits from climbing a level than fighters or thieves get.  I have found it does balance out - even when the fighter gets the lion's share of the X.P. per combat, in the long run this doesn't help them as much.

I recognize that a lot of this will be lost on those players hopelessly mired in traditional 4e or 5e.  Can't be helped.

Please imagine that I'm holding out a hat now.

The Anthem

Yesterday, never mind where, I read some fellow on the internet bemoaning the endless argument about things.  How is it, he asked, that the internet has been around for ten years and we're still having these arguments?

Ten whole years.  Wow.  That is a really long time.  If you're ten.

The question is evidence of a failure to grasp the principles of thought.  Truth is, most of the really good arguments through history took hundreds of years to have out and resolve - and some of those have taken thousands of years without yet achieving a reconciliation.  Religion versus evidence, for example, which continues to hold a prominent place in discourse; or the benefits of self-sufficiency versus mutual-sufficiency (also known as left-right politics).  Select any collection of writings put out today, from anywhere on the planet, and we will find both those arguments still going strong . . . and so it will continue until, eventually, there's no one left who believes one side or the other.

(though, of course, any rational thinker already knows which side must win).

It is only natural that there will always be a portion of the population that argues, "What is the point?"  For them, there's no possible solution, ever, to anything in the world that is right now in contention, specifically because there is no solution.  This seems enough for them.

But of course contention began before humanity, with the first two creatures able to fight over a scrap of food.  Everything since then has been a matter of complexity.  As evolution progressed, leading to thinking beings that would associate culturally, the natural fact of contention demanded compromise.  That's all civilization is; compromise.

We are locked into an interesting experiment just now.  For the first time, all the people on the planet have the potential to insist that all the other people here must compromise.  I advance an idea and I challenge people in Germany, Japan and Kenya to explain why the expectation I have cannot be met.  They, in turn, explain why I have to compromise my expectation in recognition of their expectation and so it goes, around and around.

Why are we arguing?  Because it matters to us.

My discussion of legitimacy yesterday was written because I really believe in it.  I truly feel that every game played would be a better game if participants yielded to these principles and in that spirit I seek to challenge my reader to a) embrace these ideas; b) explain why they're not useful or practical; and c) dare to justify what they do at their tables to me and to everyone who enters this forum.

It isn't a matter of winning.  It is a matter of compromising.  Not the sort of silly notion that we will agree to disagree, but a real compromise: where on the track of running a campaign and managing players can a DM enable trust, act fairly and respect their players?  What is respect?  How much trust are we speaking of here?  What does 'fair treatment' entail, moment by moment, during the game?  How much are you personally willing to give and how much would you ask others to give?  These are the principles at work.

If we care, then it isn't a matter of arguing this until we're tired or bored.  It isn't a matter of the two of us or just those who read this blog coming to an agreement.  If we care, it isn't settled until every person in every game comes around to where we have, as JB says, a Gamer's Oath that everyone (player and DM) is expected to take and live by, else they will be excluded by everyone else from playing.

Imagine a gaming community where, before the game starts, every person empties their hands, stands up at the table and intones, together, said oath.  Don't laugh.  We sing the national anthem at a hockey or baseball game.  Why?  To remind ourselves that we are humans together in this thing and that as humans together, we owe those three things - trust, fairness and respect - to each other.  Those things aren't jokes. They're compromises that were won after centuries of brutality, murder and exploitation, as an effort to end those things.  Do you think your country is a joke?  Your responsibility to your fellow citizens?  Your willingness to defend those citizens?  Do you suppose that the way we manage these things today came from something other than one fuck of a lot of arguments fought by extremely bitter people for a very long time?

The fools who wail that the arguments are boring and have gone on too long only demonstrates how little care they have; how unconcerned they are with anything except their own immediate comfort.  None of this world around us was built by such people.

So we might feel a little silly speaking such an oath.  Certainly, as a child, we all felt a little silly singing God Save the Queen for assemblies (something gone, since the compromises that created that tradition were swept away by greater calls for a self-sufficient Canada).  Many feel pretty silly standing up for the anthem.  When it happens, some people sing; some don't.  But those that don't are shamed just enough to keep their choice quiet.  We know there are always those people who stand because they don't want to be those people who sit; and we also know what we feel when we see those sitters just sitting there.

It wouldn't hurt to have a little of that sentiment attached to table-top role-playing.  It wouldn't hurt to have everyone be reminded before a game starts that we're not sitting here to fuck-over one another.  There are more than a few DMs and players who could stand a little shaming.  How pleasant if we had some specific, well-known words on tap when we needed to stand up against a DM acting like a complete tit.  Words that everyone recognized and could nod their heads to, in unison.

Some will recoil in disgust at this idea.  Others will find their eyes shining a little with pleasure.

Let the argument begin.

I hate to spoil the end of this post, but I'm still in a bind.  While I have had some startling contributions of late, the end of the month yet looms, just 16 days away.  I am much, much closer to salvation and staying here, at least another month; but it takes help.  I'm asking only a little from each reader: $10, $15, maybe $25.  I'm thrilled to be on Patreon but the contribution there manages my future, not my right now.  Please consider helping me however you might care; I am very grateful for every small donation.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Two Sides of the Door

Amid everything else - the podcast, the jumpstart, working on the underwater adventure for my offline party, signing onto Patreon today - a person might be expected to forget this Friday, five days hence, I will be performing a workshop at the Indigo Bookstore at West Hills, Calgary, come 7 pm.

I don't even know if anyone will show up.  I tried to get some attention from one D&D club and that felt like a bust.  I searched out another that used to run about two years ago and apparently that one is bust.  Tomorrow I'm going to go up to the university and see if there's anyone there who plays - if they do, it isn't discussed in a page online.  I won't hurt to hunt up any intellectual club on campus, however, because I know there are people up there who role-play (there must be, there's 25,000 students there).

But the good soul who urged me to take on the workshop did tell me she had a few connections; but I haven't heard from her on those so I'm just hoping.  Of course I can get some of my friends to show up, to make a crowd, but that won't help - my friends have already bought my book.

So I'm concerned, I'm taking time to practice a presentation and I am absolutely hoping for the best. One thing about getting older, however, is how easily we learn to deal with disappointment.  At 17, we get an opportunity to stand up for an hour in front of people and we feel panicked; if it goes badly, we feel devastated.  At 51, however, it's just another hour spent.  Some hours are good.  Some are not.

The workshop is based on the book I was writing in a frenzy two years ago, How to Run.  The book is still selling.  Lately it's been getting a lot of good attention from Reddit (though most everyone is crazy over there) as the RPG followers are just now finding it.  I used to talk a lot more about How to Run, and I do still pitch it; I'll probably pitch it for the rest of my life.  In the cold, clear light of the world apart from the internet, it is my strongest pillar.  The size of it continues to impress people.

I've been thinking on what parts of the book to concentrate on and I believe I've settled on the book's most important theme: legitimacy.  Why do we - any of us - have the right to Dungeon Master and how is it that the way we exercise that right determines the success of the world's we run.

That's sounds fairly academic.  Legitimacy really isn't, so much; we deal with it every day and the lack of it infuriates us.  The subject breaks down to three things: fairness, respect and trust.

People say the world isn't fair but that doesn't fly where it comes to a game.  A DM has to be fair - to everyone.  If we're playing in a world we know we deserve the same amount of attention and consideration as anyone else at that game.

If we're at a table playing, we want to be respected.  We don't want our words dismissed, we don't want to be degraded and we want to believe that our being here in this game matters to the DM.

We want to trust the DM.  We don't feel especially good when the DM changes the rules on the fly or screws us just because he has some agenda that now he has to protect by making us sacrifice.  We want the same rules played every day, for every person, and we want those rules to reflect  what we feel we deserve as human beings.

Every word said and written on the game that gets people angry relates to how one of these three principles is ignored.

Railroading challenges trust and respect.  Godmodding is a fairness issue.  If the DM demands that we change who we are and what we believe before we will be allowed to play in that DM's world, that's disrespectful too.  If the DM starts a world and then drops it because it's boring, or if a DM cancels a running too often, then this goes to a lack of trust.  Fudging is a lack of fairness - how can the DM fudge equally for everyone?  It is a long list - and the game is FULL of people finding new ways to play illegitimately . . . mostly because even the concept of legitimacy being important is discarded.  There are still people running around saying, "The DM is always right."

How is that possible in this century?

To improve our game begins with establishing what legitimacy means to us and then living up to that standard.  This isn't something that I'm going to bring up at the workshop, but I can here: it is impossible for a vast portion of gamers to change.  Many people in the community see the game as an entitlement opportunity that allows them to compensate for the way they feel the world has failed them.  Right across this country, beginning with the day D&D moved past its makers, a particular kind of person has understood very, very clearly that mastering a role-playing game is a printed license for acting as an asshole at the expense of other people.  Moreover, this segment of DMs have served to obfuscate any change or adjustment to the power structure of the game because they know too much scrutiny by the majority will challenge their personal privilege.

This privilege has been allowed to fester and sustain its hold on the RPG community because DMs buy all the products the company sells.  Fundamentally, the self-styled representatives of authority and the self-styled opportunists have been on the same side of the fence all this time, hand-in-glove, gleefully supporting an activity that serves them both well but causes thousands of participants to suffer in bitterness to play the game they love and millions of participants to quit outright.

This game has failed to get off the ground because it is an emotional ponzi scheme.  Asshole DMs support the company that in turn provides them with product used to exploit players who - for reasons of age, geography or social strata - can't find another game to play.

What I can say at the workshop is that we should be good to our players.  Thankfully, if I have an audience, it will be people who actually want to improve as a DM - as opposed to people I met last week who were both caustic and rude to me for trying to speak to them before their game commenced and even before all their players had turned up.  I think of this and simply thank the strange entities of my propagandized childhood that I am a DM and I don't need them.

We should be good to our players.  We should treat them all the same, we should respect them, we should give them reason to trust us.

This isn't enough, however - because we are also duty bound to keep any other player at the table from failing in those principles.  No player can be allowed favor one player over another.  No player can be disrespectful.  No player can act in a manner that engenders distrust.

This deserves to be an unbreakable rule.  There are many DMs that I've read and that I've met now who I feel would absolutely hold themselves to the standard above - but it takes a very special person to step up and force everyone present to toe the line as well.  Until that happens, however, our campaigns will never be good campaigns.

When I say boot a player, this is what I mean.  When I say NO player-vs-player, this is what I mean.  I mean that people who demonstrably target other players for disregard, for disrespect, for opportunities to exploit deserve nothing more than the door.

Draw the door for them, let them know that it's there - and let them know who gets to be on what side of it.  It's only after we sort this out that we can settle down to fixing all the problems with the actual game.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Do go and listen to the podcast just one post down, as it's the second my daughter and I have done and it's new.  But I want to add a note that, having been encouraged by many readers, I have set up a page on Patreon.  So be sure and have a look at that, also.

will you pledge $2-5?

The 2nd Podcast Episode

Introducing the second podcast from myself and my daughter:

We recorded this about two weeks ago, along with the 3rd episode that will be posted April 3rd.  We're planning on doing twelve episodes altogether, releasing one every three weeks - here's hoping that we'll build up a good strong audience!

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Smolensk Mysteries

I was asked by a contributor to my jumpstarter campaign to write a post that somehow addresses how to run an adventure where the Players solve a mystery. It was a pretty large donation, so the reader should get comfortable, settle in and expect me to write for quite a while.

This is interesting since right at the moment I'm writing a mystery - the sort that would normally be considered a thriller.  This is a format in which the main character receives information about the actions of another person or a group of persons, until the situation becomes impossible to ignore.  Sometimes the information is received very slowly, as in the case of Hitchcock's Rear Window, where the characters see many things until certain small things begin to take on considerable relevance.  Sometimes the information is received in a deluge, such as Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where the main character's first notion of the mystery is through being physically kidnapped by the bad guys (before even knowing there are bad guys).

Now, I am very sorry if the reader is unfamiliar with either of these films.  There is simply no excuse.  If we are going to create adventures and have any chance of these adventures having merit for our players, it is essential that we make ourselves aware that there is art in the world and that people have painstakingly designed patterns of content revelation that continue to stand out despite having been around 60-odd years.  I'm not going to go into detail giving the synopses for these films (available on IMDb), nor am I going to hesitate to give spoilers if need be - so just stop reading, take four and a half hours out of your life, steal the films off the internet and educate yourself.

Meanwhile, I'll continue.

Creating a valued mystery is a fine edge between how much information is given against how much information is reserved.  Retaining that balance is, I think, a lot easier in a role-playing game than it is in a novel because I can gauge how much information to give against what sort of reaction I see from the party.  If the party isn't "feeling it" then I can give another piece of information right then and there, and keep doing that until it tips the party from disinterested to "What does it all mean??!!"

This is much harder to do with a book because I have no audience in the time I'm writing.  I have to rely on my instincts to tell me whether or not I'm withholding so much that the reader is bound to get bored of the book before it starts to take off.  A novel has much more trouble with this than a film, since it demands much more time to complete than a film and it is easier to put a book down and not return to it than it is to get up and walk out of a movie theatre.  As I write, therefore, I have to carefully measure how much time I'm spending on subplots that sustain the reader's attention and I have to be very, very aware of all the little dribs and drabs of information that are placed therein that will keep the reader thinking, "Something isn't quite as it seems here."

That is a very key element.  A focused reader will pick up on the smallest clues.  Two people who have never met are introduced in the novel and there is one sentence where it says, "His face suggested that he recognized her."  If I give nothing more to that line, if I move on with the story as though that line wasn't put in the novel, the reader will nevertheless obsess on that line because I didn't explain it.  What's it doing there?  Did he recognize her?  What could that mean?  Is someone lying here?  It's been 90 pages and I still know don't why that sentence is there!

Take note, however, that the time between introducing the mystery and explaining the mystery matters.  I remember there was a web comic I read regularly called "Ctrl Alt Del" - at least until the writing became so bad because the author got famous and rich and older and Flanderized all the characters to the point where they weren't interesting any more.  One of the subplots of the comic was that no one knew what was going on behind the door of the roommate Steve, the Linux guy.  The unexplained door went on for years, being very occasionally mentioned but never opened.  After a long time I just didn't care any more.  I still don't care.  I understand the door was opened and that it was a HUGE disappointment - no wonder.  The author had built it up to the point where it was impossible to live up to the reveal.  The TV show Lost had the same problem (that and the fact that the reveal was never going to tie up all the loose ends).  I never watched Lost, but this is the sort of thing that happens all the time with bad writing.  Lots of ideas, no resolution.  The lack of a solid and meaningful resolution really soured the last two seasons of Mad Men.

Players won't wait forever - so its very important in creating a mystery for the campaign that the reveal for the mystery (or at least for some part of the mystery) comes available within a decent time frame.  Unless the reader is used to creating a long-frame mystery with lots of moving parts and dozens of mini-reveals that will keep the players going and going for years until the truth comes out, then I recommend that the time between introducing the mystery and revealing the mystery should be no more than two or three sessions.  About the length of a small module adventure.  Without experience, biting off any more than that will probably exhaust the players and produce the same feeling that most people have as a television series just drags on and on without changing anything.  They quit watching.

Let me go back, then.  What are these "pieces of information" that a DM has to have ready to reveal in order to keep the mystery going?

In Rear Window, it begins with knowing that the film is about a murder, which every person entering the theater in 1954 already knew from the advertising and the fact that it was an Alfred Hitchcock film.  Hitchcock knows this, so as he introduces all the subplots that are witnessed out the main character's window, he's dropping little clues in that make it seem that any of the windows could end in murder.  The woman with all her lovers, the newlyweds, the struggling artist, the old couple sleeping on the stoop in the hot weather, the desperate spinster . . . and of course the main character and his girlfriend.  There's nothing that says Jimmy Stewart isn't going to kill Grace Kelly (or vice versa) before this movie ends.  So everyone in the theater is on edge, waiting for a clue.  Every line that is said, every word spoken, could be important.

This is how we're doing it, too, in a campaign.  The characters enter a town.  This is D&D.  Something is going to happen.  We already know this.  It isn't necessary to have a fellow with a big drum marching down the square talking about the dragon that needs to be killed.  That's how most DMs do it, with some heavy handed and stupid effort to produce a bartender with a 'rumor' that tells about the dragon with diagrams and pictures and so on like a bad 1930s crime novel where the woman walks into the office and reveals half the exposition for the film in three short speeches.

(Now, this works in the Maltese Falcon, but only because everything the woman says is a lie)

Part of the reason DMs do this is because players often have a "Get on with it" attitude towards the game.  They're not willing to spend the first twenty minutes of a movie getting to know the setting and the characters therein.  Like Riddick, they want blood and mayhem right now, without all the tedious waiting.  All the more reason to begin the characters at the dungeon door instead of in town; if they're going to the dungeon anyway, cut out the town, the bartender and the rumor and just put the characters at the actual beginning.  There is far, far too much build-up to a great many bad books and films (and game modules) and for that reason it's important to begin at the real beginning, where the details matter.

This doesn't say there can't be build-up.  Great Expectations starts with Pip as a young boy and it takes 30,000 words before the plot undergoes a significant shift.  Yet what happens in the first five pages of the book is really, really important and that's why the book starts there.  If starting at the tavern is really, really important to what happens in the dungeon, then by all means we should start at the tavern; but if what happens at the tavern has jack-shit to do with what's going on at the dungeon, then start at the dungeon's front door and save time.

So our first problem is what matters.  For the unknowing players this is potentially everything, such as at the beginning of Rear Window . . . but when we see the strange sight of the salesman repeatedly going out into the rain at three in the morning, what matters begins to tip.  Now we find ourselves trying to remember from all the details we got before what we first saw when the salesman - wasn't he arguing with his wife?  Wasn't he rude to a neighbor?  Can we remember clearly or at all?  This is the point where other people have to point these things out to us because we weren't paying attention before because it didn't seem important.  However, now that we know he may have murdered his wife and hauled her body out of the house in multiple suitcase trips in the deep dark of the morning, we care that he argued with his wife.

It is a considerable talent to be able to introduce bits of information like this that don't seem important at first - but whoa, is it ever a great feeling for the reader or the audience to recall such bits of information when the bigger stuff comes along.  It is a huge dopamine hit to solve riddles like this and a good mystery just loads that dopamine to the maximum.  Most writers, however, fail to realize that the big hit doesn't come from the big scary thing that makes the moment seem really exciting - it is remembering some tiny detail from before and going, "AHA!  Now I get it!"

Agatha Christie (and the platoon of crappy mystery writers who followed her) failed miserably at this, I felt.  Her novels (and most television mystery shows) are a walking parade of facts delivered with all the imagination and immersion of a chat room feed, pretty much like a check-list that the writer goes through to be sure that all the information is there.  And with Christie it never is; because she always withholds the one critical piece of information until the very last scene when Poirot or Marple gives the last important and absolutely critical piece of the puzzle a page before revealing the murderer.  She's famous for this, so famous that it's lampooned in Neil Simon's brilliant Murder by Death - which bitch-slaps a cavalcade of second-rate mystery novelists.  Of course if we had known that the murderer was also the ex-lover of the victim's sister who owed the victim $2,000,000, that might have told us who the murderer was.  This is just the reason that fact isn't revealed until the end.

Most DMs are not going to do as well as Agatha Christie, much less better . . . mostly because for most DMs literature with as many words as Christie uses is a distant planet that bears little similarity to the number of words spoken by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.  It is really hard to keep words in one's head; most DMs simply can't be bothered.

But it has to be understood, like taking the time to see a couple of Alfred Hitchcock movies, that there is absolutely zero chance of a DM creating a viable mystery framework for a campaign if they haven't any idea how even a bad mystery novel works.  But let's continue.

We have to address the problem of what details matter.  Moreover, we need more than a few.  We need lots - and the more we have (that ultimately come together to make sense), the better the mystery can be.  Of course, we have to be careful not to get so much information together that the final result is a bloody mess on the order of the recent Gone Girl, of which I could write a thesis on all the inconsistencies and irrational plot holes inherent in the goo that was finally cobbled together by what must have been a very tired and underpaid editor.  What we want are a lot of details that dovetail together, so that as each is revealed they steadily build a cohesive whole.

Returning to Rear Window.  During the salesman's trips with the suitcase, the rain is important - it tells us he's willing to suffer in order to get done whatever he's doing.  The time of night is important - if he took several trips in the middle of the day, that wouldn't seem strange enough to notice.  The dog poking at the flowers matters - which isn't explained until it is noticed there is something wrong with the flowers.  We watch the salesman clean his case and carefully replace all the jewelry samples - so we know he didn't go out to do a sale.  Why is he rolling up a saw in a newspaper?  Where is his wife?

Why didn't the salesman go to work?  Why has he avoided his wife's bedroom?  His wife is an invalid.  Why is a man who always dressed in a shirt and jacket now going out in his undershirt?  Now he's carrying a rope?  Why, oh why, is he using a rope to tie up a crate - as he checks and checks the ropes to make sure they're tight.  Where is his wife?

Now, there's a lot more going on with the film than that - there's how the protagonist knows this information, how he has the right job that gives him a handy telephoto lens and how his broken leg keeps him up at night and how he himself is arguing with his girlfriend, etcetera.  Signs of a consummately made film, because there isn't just one detail that adds up to the protagonist being ahead of everyone else but detail after detail after detail, hammered into the script with a very tiny hammer that doesn't leave big indents.

Writers are generally much lazier than this, preferring a good sledge to send the message that yes, John Wick knows how to use a gun.  With perfect aim.  Except when the target is covered with magic writer dust.

To get the mystery going it is necessary to pile up these details, one upon the other, until steadily the players are interested and they can easily spend half the session just going over what they've already been told - just as the protagonist obsesses in Rear Window.  Here's something that most DMs simply fail to grasp . . . that it is entirely possible to get the players so worked up with the mystery that it isn't necessary to give them any more information.  In fact, they'd really prefer if they could just sit for an hour or so, just like a character in a film, piecing it all together, making suppositions, proposing theories, knocking down other people's theories and having a great time doing it.  I mean, having a GREAT TIME.  I am tempted to put that into even larger letters . . . 

. . . because the DM often isn't getting anything out of it.  That doesn't describe me - I glory in getting a party going like this.  It's all candy and chocolates for me: I've done my job, I've got the party in the adventure and I can just sit back, drink my coffee and concentrate on not letting my face twitch or smile at some theory the party supposes (unless I want to fake a twitch at the wrong theory, which is wonderful and evil fun).

Like the marshmallow test, DMs can't wait.  The hardest thing about having created a mystery - particularly a really clever mystery - is keeping our mouths shut.  I relate well to this.  The last session, without intending to, I referred to a stairwell behind a door that the characters hadn't opened yet.  I felt bad about that.  I knew perfectly well about the stairs and it just slipped out.  That's how it can go with performance - if we're not on top of our presentation, a few words can reveal everything.

This is something that's particularly difficult with an RPG . . . and moreso with good things that you know are around the corner, because of the number of hours that we're sitting and running in a single session.  We get tired.

If the reader has ever been in a situation where they had to wait until the end of the week to fire someone, in some ways it is made easier because it's bad news that's being given.  Depending on the person being fired, too, it can be easier to wait.  But the players are our friends (I hope) and with something that's good in their future it is very hard to withhold that.  Pile on the understanding that there's going to be compliments and excitement when the mystery is solved - and like the marshmallow, waiting can grow aggravating.

Watching a group of players sitting at a table going around in a circle can, for some, become a sort of torture.  That marshmallow has to be eaten now - or else everyone is going to have to wait another week and the DM will have to keep that secret.  Some people have trouble keeping secrets.  Some people are DMs.

Nevertheless, the party obsessing time makes for a running of profound and memorable momentum - even if nothing actually happens.  As long as the players are talking excitedly and trying to solve it on their own, there's no reason for them to learn another detail.  Details are for when the party's gas begins to run out.

This brings us to the next important sequence in mystery solving in an RPG: travel.

This is why I can't write this post only about Rear Window; it is fine for explaining the clues but it doesn't have the necessary RPG element of exploration that's there in North by Northwest.  This latter is a beautiful RPG construction.  The party is surprised by a bunch of bad guys who inadvertently give out a bunch of important exposition (mystery details) before they're hacked to pieces or, like in the movie, they escape.  Next, they're running off to another venue where they witness a murder close up, only to be mistaken as the murderers, putting them on the run.  While fleeing an angry town, they meet another participant in the mystery who gives them no information but who nevertheless offers help . . . at least until putting the party in danger again in a way that promises to get them hacked to death in a cornfield in Illinois, er, Gondor.  Miraculously the party escapes, yet finds a way to trail the bad people to the Mountain of Many Faces where a thrilling hack and slash fest takes place on the nose of some unknown yet brilliant wizard from the dark past.

Along the way the party meets people who introduce themselves and who pass along more details that reveal more and more about what is going on.  There are a lot of RPG campaigns like this because they are somewhat easy to run.  At many places in North by Northwest the clues are given in exactly the heavy-handed way I described - taking note that up until that time it was very rare to have that kind of exposition at all.  Hitchcock had experimented with it in The Man Who Knew Too Much three years before and Graham Greene had been brilliantly experimenting with it in novels like The Third Man and more recently in 1958's Our Man in Havana.  I'm sure that Hitchcock had an overworked copy of the latter in his pocket while filming 1959's North by Northwest.  'Course, we see this sort of exposition done constantly in films now, usually badly but not always so.

One trap that a writer or DM can fall into is failing to realize that the confrontations in North by Northwest are far more interesting and profound than the fight scenes.  RPGs are all fight scenes.  Rarely does the party find it practical to engage in an argument with a DM's NPC because the dialogue usually goes like this:

Player: Tell us where the diamonds are.
DM: No.
Player: I warn you, tell us where the diamonds are or we'll kill you.

NPC draws weapon, fight starts.

Compare this to North by Northwest, where the villain and protagonist relate to each other like human beings who don't really expect answers from the other side:

Vandamm: Good evening Mr. Kaplan.
Thornhill: Before we start calling each other names, perhaps you better tell me yours.  I haven't had the pleasure.
Vandamm: You disappoint me, Sir.
Thornhill:  I was just going to say that to her (the traitress sitting on Vandamm's right)
Vandamm:  I judged you were a pretty shrewd fellow on the job. What possessed you to come blundering in here like this?  Could it be an overpowering interest in art?
Thornhill: Yes, the art of survival.

Now, the reader may find these words a little flowery, a little too cute, but that isn't the point.  Note how the villain actually cares what the protagonist thinks and about his motives?  DMs don't do that because they already know a player's motives - and they don't think to go there.  Note how Vandamm doesn't just say no, he mocks the good guy; and the good guy, in turn, mocks him back.

This kind of dialogue can go farther and has the benefit of potentially letting the player learn something without having to actually fight.  Moreover, as in the film, the dialogue happens in a public place where either side would have to be stupid to make a scene.  Players often don't understand this because DMs nearly always put the bad guy in some high tower or behind fifty guards so that the meeting can take place in private.  Private is the worst place to build momentum and curiosity.  That's why film directors set discussions at the race track, in the busy street, in the middle of a festival and so on - because all around there are other things that are happening and there is a potential for witnessing something new that will change the stakes.

In a mystery it is less important that the DM use the NPC as a combative obstacle than as an information dispensing machine.  Why shouldn't the NPC say where the diamonds are?  Aren't the diamonds protected, or in someone's care, or in a place where they can't be gotten, or not real or any of a hundred other possibilities that make the scene far more interesting with new information to give than just another combat?  It is nice when both can happen but letting the players get the information they want easily and directly is like throwing a curve ball.

The easier the information is received, the less likely the players will be to believe it.  They've been trained to think good information is HARD to get and lies are easy to get.  All the more reason not to lie.  Heard of Poe's The Purloined Letter?  Better read that one too.

It is important to have some notion of how others will want to communicate information to the party and it is always of the greatest importance to remember that our purpose as a DM is to GIVE, not withhold.  Withholding information strangles the campaign and bores the player as there is nothing new to think about.  We can't think very long about the last combat we had but we can spend a week thinking about what might be in the letter being used by a government official to blackmail a prostitute - because this is the way our brains work.  A mystery is something where we have enough information to imagine a solution even if we don't actually know what the solution is.  It inspires us to be creative - even people who are not ordinarily creative.  It inspires us because we want to know.

This brings us - finally - to the reveal.  How is it handled?

Take our two prime examples.  In North by Northwest, Thornhill learns the truth about the situation because someone else tells him - and then he steps forward to solve the problem even though he has been given a way out. He goes back after he could walk away, because he can't walk away.  This isn't going to work very well for a typical RPG campaign, since the players are always up for it and aren't looking for a way out.  However, it could be reworked that after knowing what's going to happen, the players gird up and get ready to get nasty - and this is very much the standard expectation for games.

In Rear Window, the final solution is a marvelous two-way reveal: not only does the protagonist Jeffries finally establish that the salesman really is a killer, the salesman simultaneously discovers that Jeffries knows and turns the table by coming to kill Jeffries.  This hardly ever happens in an RPG campaign.  The big bad, like in a video game, conveniently waits there for the party to return to town, heal up, then come back for the last push.  I like really intelligent villains because there's always the chance that in the last moment the big bad will abandon the lair and come into the town to lay waste there - coming after the players, forcing them to defend themselves rather than being the attackers.

This turnabout is very common in books and films.  Spats is right behind the 'girls' in Some Like it Hot, Grocer and the agents trap Blank in the house in Gross Pointe Blank, the Rustlers kill Wil Andersen (John Wayne) in The Cowboys, Caesar keeps getting the drop again and again on Violet and Corky in Bound and the Bolivians finally end it all for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (only two characters but it is still a TPK).  Oh, and it's Thornhill and Eve Kendall that are running away when Leonard traps them against the Rushmore Monument in North by Northwest.

Each involves mystery elements that eventually force a confrontation - but in every case, on the antagonists' instigation.  Yes, the protagonists do things that make them viable candidates for getting attacked - but what player party in a game doesn't?

It is better when the reveal doesn't give the players an advantage.  It's all nice for television when Poirot can call the police and name the killer without having to get his hands dirty - but it's a really bad formula for RPGs.  If at all possible, however, the reveal should just be enough information to bring the players up to speed and nothing more.  It makes them viable.  It doesn't - and shouldn't - guarantee them the win.

I trust this has been in some way helpful.  The players shouldn't be put into a situation where they're trying to figure out what the DM is thinking because the DM is pouring knowledge all over the players like syrup over pancakes. The game then becomes, how does all this information fit together?  Nor should the players be in this mess of "Where did we forget to look?"  This, too, is a trope that is intended to withhold information (video game thinking); telling the players where to look does nothing to damage the game's momentum, it increases it . . . for as the players rush to go look in the next place, they have adventures and more fun getting there and piecing together the problem than they would ever have trying to name the brick in the room they didn't search behind.

Another point that I hadn't addressed is the problem of the DM putting the next clue in the next place the player's look, making them feel like they're on a railroad.  The solution to this is to make it clear that there is going to be a 'clue' in every place the players look, yes - but not all of those clues will be important to the mystery.  This is the red herring theory.  Embrace it.

That's going to be it.  If I think of something else or if something needs clarification, I'll manage it in the comments below.

As of today I have 20 days before I have to abandon my home.  As I said, I got a big donation - and more than just one donation, as I have had others step forward as well - and it really is going to help terrifically.  It feels like I might find a way to rustle up my rent by the end of the month.  The clouds broke  and let some sun in.  I want to emphasize that it only takes a very small donation from many people to pull me out of this tailspin.  Please consider making a $25 donation to my Jumpstarter campaign, using the donate button near the top of the sidebar.

Donations to date have been $1,758.