Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Turning Ships

Sometimes, we just have to scratch an itch.  I've had this copy of Wooden Ships & Iron Men sitting on my bookshelf for about ten years, meaning to do something with it . . . and very late last night, while packing a box, I opened it and got started.

This is all on the wiki now.  It's fairly clumsy, full of notes that say "I'm going to make better rules for this later."  I've only worked on it about four hours (including content in the links).  But we have to start somewhere with these things.

UPDATE:  I've been adding continuously to linked data on the wiki since putting up this post this morning: so there is more general material for reading, for those who are interested.

All ships, regardless of size, must make turns in 60-degree angles, as determined by the naval hex map. In Figure 1 below, the master of a gig running with the wind decides to turn right with the beginning of the combat round. The ship's movement at the start of the round is three naval hexes. The arrow shows the intended direction of the turn.

Figure 1

When the turn is made, it is important to remember that while the front of the ship turns to the right, the back of the ship continues to move in the ship's former direction. The stern's momentum is always along the path that the bow has already travelled. In Figure 2 below, the old position of the ship is shown in white, after the ship has changed direction to the right a distance of one naval hex:

Figure 2

Until the stern has occupied the hex where the bow was when the ship began the turn, the ship cannot make another turn. This means that the bow must now continue the turn (in the direction shown by the arrow), until the stern 'catches up.' In Figure 3 below, the ship has completed the turn, with the previous attitude shown in white:

Figure 3

The ship is now free to move straight ahead or again initiate a turn to the left or the right (which would then be completed the following round).

Note that if the ship were to continue turning to the right, it would begin its next turn with an attitude exactly between a close-hauled and a reaching wind. In such cases, always consider the ship's speed to reflect theworst of the two possible options.

A very large ship can take two, even three combat rounds to complete a single turn. This reflects the unwieldy nature of these ships. (Rules that will allow a greater latitude with the movement of ships, that do not require full 60 degree turns, will be given later, along with more precise rules regarding the speed of the ship under various wind directions).

Swinging from Head to Wind

A ship that is pointed directly into the wind has no movement. However, a ship with this attitude can be allowed to swing into or away from the wind. Figure 4 below shows a ship that has swung from having its head to the wind (shown in white) to where the bow has moved one hex to the right (note that the foremast is not considered, only the front of the ship that rests on the water):

Figure 4

Like in the example above, this leaves the ship halfway between head to the wind and close-hauling - and because we are using the worst of the two attitudes, the ship is still treated as though it has its head to the wind. Another round must be spent letting the bow move completely to a 60-degree from the wind attitude:

Figure 5
At this point, the ship is considered to be in a close-hauled attitude, enabling it to move 1 hex the next round (1 knot of speed), most likely ahead or to the right. It can move to the left again (moving forward a hex, not swinging), though this would change its attitude back to what it has in figure 4 - and so it would have to swing again before it could move normally.

Note that when a ship is swinging INTO the wind, it is the stern that swings and not the bow:

Figure 6

See Ship Travel & Movement

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Database of Traits

Hm.  Well, I didn't know it was Memorial Day weekend.  But Trump is still a problem, no matter what war ended 151 years ago.  Still, I apologize for that.

I was thinking about ship captains yesterday and today.  When last I played with my party on the south coast of Morocco, they had discovered some things about the ship's captain they hired to manage the caravel they bought.  At the time, I had thrown together a three prospects, each NPC with a bit of information with the party and a story behind them, that would play out as the party continued with their quest.  The captain they settled on was Genoan; he knew the Canary Islands, where the party wanted to go, and the party learned he had been at sea for most of his life and that he had little desire to go home.

The party has since discovered that he's a wanted man in Genoa - but that's how it goes sometimes.  They're nowhere near Genoa or a Genoese ship, being in Spanish and Portuguese waters now (neither of those with much love for Genoans), so they're satisfied they can control the situation.  These are 10-11th level characters; they can handle themselves.

But as I was working on my trade tables last night, taking a break from trying to work out some troubles in Chapter 17 of the book I'm writing, I found some notes surrounding the ship prices regarding the payment for captains.  I had made these on the fly for the party when they first hired the captain - so I decided to add the price for a captain to my tables.

That got me to thinking.  There are captains and there are captains.  Some will know navigation and others not; some will be excellent pilots and others not.  Some will have naval training; some will have only worked on merchant ships.  Some will be prepared to look the other way when the party does something questionable and some will not - and there will be different degrees of discipline, risk-taking, knowledge of sea lanes, knowledge of odd areas, knowledge of big oceans vs. little seas, better skill in storms, better skill in getting the most out of selling cargo and so on.  Not to mention that some will steal or stab an owner in the back, while others won't.

For most, the thinking only goes so far as these being interesting possibilities for characters that party may have to deal with.  But I think it is more than that.  Unlike other professions, there aren't that many captains able to manage a ship; and the number is small enough that some captains acquire a reputation - and that reputation affects how much they will ask for at the barrel head.  It isn't just a matter of captains saying they'll take 200 g.p. per month: some will ask for more because they can get it - and some will ask for less because they have to.  When some captain has been four months in some backwater, just this side of quitting straight work and becoming a pirate, there's a chance that the hiring price could be less than that of a good crewman.  Which the party may accept, because they're in the same backwater and there's no one else.

I'd like some sort of system for working out prices based on those issues raised above - simplified, of course.  Much of it can be piled together into "reputation."  Much of the rest can be applied to "competence" and the remainder to "experience."  We can't use the word experience, of course, because in game terms its always easier to come up with a new word that refers specifically to that thing - I like "seasoning" because it has the suggestion of weather and the sea in it.  A young captain may be competent and have a good reputation, but without a lot of years on the sea, it's not the same as an old sea dog.

Three qualifiers is enough.  Just now, I'm not sure how to reflect them in the costs - or how much each should balance.  The idea is new and it deserves further consideration.  But I think (and this could be important) that this sort of framework could be important for determining the value of non-player characters as a whole.

What's wanted is not just a standard that applies to ship captains, but to everyone.  Some universal framework that would establish (preferably in a random fashion) the likelihood of a particular individual's "personality" - and from there a set of rules for the likelihood of a given personality to respond in a particular way.

Let's say we start with a simple cubic diagram, with an x, y and z axis.  We could roll 2d6 upon each axis, defining a result of 7 being equal to 0.  Therefore, 12 = +5, 11 = +4, 10 = +3 and so on down to 2 = -5.  All negatives upon our axis would suggest bad personalities and positives good personalities.  Someone with poor seasoning would be either young or sheltered; someone with a high reputation would be stable and perhaps of high status.

With three axes, we would define 1331 different personality types, with 116 of those personalities having no deviations more than 1 from center (in none of their three traits); 394 would have personalities that would not deviate more than 2 from center; and 770 would not deviate more than 3 from center.  The number of total psychotics, where all three traits were at their maximum deviation, would only be 1 in 1331 personalities, or slightly more than 2 per 100,000 population.

I think there's a remarkable potential here: but a huge amount of leg work defining just what those 33 deviations are for each axis (+1 for no deviation at all) - and then further work defining pairs between deviations.  Such as, what does it mean when someone has a -2 reputation and a +1 competency?  A person could go crazy just figuring out all 363 of those pairings.

What a database it would be, though?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Problem

"The Romans, it is true, say that the many virtues of Crassus were obscured by his sole vice of avarice; and it is likely that the one vice which became stronger than all the others in him weakened the rest. The chief proofs of his avarice are found in the way he got his property and in the amount of it . . . when he made a private inventory of his property before his Parthian expedition, he found that it had a value of seventy-one hundred talents. The greatest part of this, if one must tell the scandalous truth, he got together out of fire and war, making the public calamities his greatest source of revenue.
"For when Sulla took the city and sold the property of those whom he had put to death, considering it and calling it spoil of war, and wishing to defile with his crime as many and as influential men as he could, Crassus was never tired of accepting or of buying it.  And besides this, observing how natural and familiar at Rome were such fatalities as the conflagration and collapse of buildings, owing to their being too massive and close together, he proceeded to buy slaves who were architects and builders. Then, when he had over five hundred of these, he would buy houses that were afire, and houses which adjoined those that were afire, and these their owners would let go at a trifling price owing to their fear and uncertainty. In this way the largest part of Rome came into his possession."
from the Life of Crassus, Plutarch 

I've always thought Marcus Licinius Crassus was interesting.  He's largely unknown (except as the chief villain in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus).  His little habit of having a private fire department that would show up at your home when it was on fire, buy it from you at a cheap price, then proceed to put out the fire has been copied in other centuries (until it was made illegal in our era) was a great way to get rich.  Crassus was a wholly greedy son-of-a-bitch.

Crassus had, at various times, risen to the 'presidency' of Rome - the consulship.  At once point he was one of what was called a 'triumvirate' with Gnaeus Pompey and Julius Caesar, a sort of dictators' alliance.  Caesar got Gaul and central Europe, Pompey got Hispania and Mauritania and Crassus got the Eastern Mediteranean and Near East, what the Romans called "Syria," consisting of Egypt, Judea, Armenia (when it was in season) and Cappadocia (among other assorted provinces).  It only proves that a rich, greedy, pompous, self-aggrandizing and self-promoting fathead can rise to the highest place in an empire (though they were still calling it a 'republic' on paper at the time, this being 59 BC).

What matters is what happened to Crassus.  It's a long tale, wherein Crassus makes error after error getting his army into a very bad situation in a combat with the Parthians.  Plutarch patiently describes every detail - how Crassus marches straight in, how the Parthians out-think him, how the men get more and more desperate and weak, feeble and unable to manage the Parthian tactics . . .until Crassus himself is despondent.  At this point a number of his men up and desert the army - and the remainder are fallen upon and hacked to pieces.

Yet Crassus makes his escape from this; he tries to make an agreement with the Parthians but this falls apart and he flees with five hundred horsemen (there's a nice line about the moon moving from Scorpius into Sagittarius, where Crassus says he fears the archer more than the scorpion).  But Crassus and his men are surrounded on a hill by the Parthians.  The Parthians offer them terms and the men eagerly accept the proposal: but Crassus does not.  He has to be harangued by his men to go make an agreement with the Parthians, which he finally consents to do.  However, after some agreements are made, there is some talk, then there is business with a horse (that makes Crassus look like a coward), then a fight breaks out at the conference and Crassus is killed in the scuffle.

I am really skipping over parts here.  The wikipedia entry is not quite right; according to Plutarch, Crassus clearly does not have a horse until he arrives at the peace negotiation: he is offered a horse by Surena, leader of the Parthians.  But no matter.  It is fairly plain from Plutarch's biography that Crassus was, well, a bit of an idiot where his greed and his arrogance could not save him or his men.

Yes, I am drawing the parallel.  Greed and arrogance are great power-getters.  They appeal to a certain kind of disgruntled, unthinking majority and the practice of these arts produces a mysticism where it comes to pundits and theoreticians.  But like I have said already: for those who are reading endless newstories of how such and such might win and how these people are just angry and looking for a voice to lead them, the gentle American readers must ask themselves:  Was the American System designed better than other systems where it comes to protecting the country and the people from despotism?

And if your American answer is "maybe," then clearly it hasn't.  If all the propaganda about greatness and pledges of allegiance haven't served to convince you that you're fine, then you're not.  You're in big, big trouble.

I believe this is the most telling issue of the present Unpleasantness.  Not who is running or who is trusted; not whether racism or plutocracy is the real runner of the game; and certainly not a measure of today's players in the particular drama played out this summer - but the cold, clear, unsettling comprehension that the System itself has played itself out.  That this dumbshow will be followed by another in 2020 and another in 2024, ad nauseum, because the best of 18th century philosophy has met its match in the internet and actual personal and sexual freedom that is at the core of all this discontent.

If there is an iota of doubt about your country's greatness in your soul, O Dear American, then you've had a glimmer of the perspective that all the rest of us have had being on the outside looking in.  We, too, have heard all the propaganda and the pledges; we have suffered from the agenda; we have witnessed the acts in the arena; and we are quite content to use the words, "There goes a broken system."

Your first step begins with acknowledging the problem.  And no, the problem isn't that America isn't as great as it used to be.  It's that 'America' was never great.  It was just lucky.

Like Trump, if some other entity had been founded on the exact same land it would have done as well.  The soil was rich, the resources plentiful, the enemies far away and general access comparatively easy.  Even misogynistic, imperialist, greedy, abusive, slave-owning racist warmongering assholes with a persecution complex would have made that investment pay off.

Oh, right.  They did.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Inheritance

So, from James Flynn here is the prerequisite quote:

"Over the last century, in developed nations like America, moral debate has escalated because we take the hypothetical seriously.  And we also take universals seriously and look for logical connections.  When I came home in 1955 from university, at the time of Martin Luther King, a lot of people came home at that time and started having arguments with their parents and grandparents.  My father was born in 1885 and he was mildly racially biased.  As an Irishman he hated the English so much he didn't have much emotion for anyone else.  But he did have a sense that black people were inferior.  And when we said to our parents and grandparents, 'How would you feel if tomorrow morning you woke up black?'  They said 'That is the dumbest thing you've ever said.'  Who have you ever known who woke up in the morning that turned black?'
"In other words, they were fixed in the concrete mores and attitudes they'd inherited.  They would not take the hypothetical seriously.  And without the hypothetical it's very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.  You have to say, 'Imagine you were in, oh, Iran, and imagine that your relatives all suffered from collateral damage, even though they had done no wrong.  How would you feel about that?'  And if someone in the older generation says, if our government takes care of us, it up to their government to take care of them, they're just not willing to take the hypothetical seriously."

Here is the crux of the self-relevant argument.  What you say doesn't make sense to me; what you say doesn't directly influence my perspective; what you say is relative to other people - therefore what you say is nonsense and I don't need to give it any consideration.

Here, if you will, is the true source of the Trump phenomenon.  It isn't the "anger" of the Republican base, as I've heard upteen times.  It isn't "dissatisfaction" with the Republican agenda.  It is a man standing in front of a crowd and saying only those things that directly adhere to the inherited notions of the crowd that is listening: a crowd that is already racist, already angry at everything that doesn't fit their narrow view of the world, already loaded up with guns and hate, already dissatisfied that the world isn't it was when they watched the Waltons on television and absolutely ready to march under a banner that says that their hate is justified and that other people will be made to pay for it.  There's no mystery here.  The only reason there is a debate on the media is that we have tens of thousands of hours of airtime to fill yet and the one thing we can't say - because of our bottom line - is that America is full of a bunch of self-righteous, self-pitying, self-absorbed hateful racists.  We have to invent other things we can talk about - and because people have inherited a belief that anything with News in the title deserves respect, we're subjected to endless go-arounds of this invented crap.

But . . . let's talk about D&D.

It is very hard for a large part of the readership to understand that if I write something about, oh, say, a trade system, its very possible that I might not be addressing them personally.  These people cannot understand that there are other people beyond themselves and their personal experience who are also reading this same post, who have other personal experiences to which this post speaks.  There is such a large portion of the readership of every site in the internet that shares this experience - that every post, piece of music, bit of culture, film, political comment, opinion and so on must be personally about them - that it is impossible to find any group of comments that don't include the statement, "I hate the content of this thing I am commenting on."

Well of course someone will hate it.  Of course someone will disagree with it.  But what matters is that there will also be someone else in the world that won't.  It is just possible that this post has been written for them.  Imagine, we ask, that you wake up in the morning and someone has made an argument that a trade system will improve a given world?  To which the answer is, "Nonsense.  How can it?  We must pay attention to things that matter!"  And so on.

The perspective that things that matter can only apply when I, personally, think they matter, is the weakness that Flynn is talking about.  So much of the perspective of the D&D community has been gained by people in their youth, during their formulative years, that is it fixed in their minds amid sentimentality associated with the voice of the people who first opened their eyes.  These first people gave to the community an inheritance - one to which these people rigidly adhere as the only 'proper' way to play the game.  Evidence for this is everywhere.  The old modules are worshiped, the old books are worshiped, the old sentiments about adventuring and character building are worshiped, the artwork that appeared in Dragon Magazine in 1981 is worshiped, the company that started the game is worshiped, the writers of the game are worshiped, etcetera, etcetera.   The endless dredging up of material and the old way of doing things floods every nook and cranny of virtually every blog in the RPG universe.  We take images of dungeons and build memes out of them, we recreate the same blue hue of the original maps published by TSR in the 70s (chosen because of the limitations of cheap print publications) and recreate it carefully using our modern computers for our own newly created modules, we defy the use of lap-tops in games or the replacement of old-fashioned pen-and-paper with playing on tablets or keeping our characters on our phone because we fetishize the 'feel' of the way our forefathers played the game.  And if someone - anyone, not just me - provokes the crowd with the phrase, "What if we threw out this rule and stopped playing with it," we're told in no uncertain terms that the game was MEANT to be played this way by people who knew better than we did because they INVENTED the game.

We are playing a game where the concrete experience is the only one that is given merit in the discussion.

LTW's comment yesterday finished with the argument,  "I build systems . . . I can at least offer consistency to my players now."

Recently I have heard it stated that we need to stop building systems and apply ourselves to things that really matter in the game: to making nice adventures and developing interesting NPC's.  It is always presumed that this "system-making" process is a terrible waste of time and that it isn't making the game any better.

"System-making" is the proposition that IF we consider a collection of hypothetical situations and apply to them a universality that enables us to make judgments about the creation of adventures and in-game personalities based not upon our imaginations but upon the logical extrapolation of the system we've created, we can save enormous amounts of time in being spared from the usually frustrating creative process by replacing it with always having something that gives a seed for what we ought to invent.

That's a mouthful so I'll say it again.  If I already know what is there, I can easily add what ought to also be there.  That is what a system does.  It tells us, long before we have to make the adventure, why the town exists, what it does, what the people do and so on.  Knowing these things make it easy to make a new adventure in a few minutes.  Whereas looking at a blank piece of paper, without any system at all, is a mind-numbing, difficult process that is limited by the individual's personal imagination.

People who build systems KNOW this.  They've experienced it.  They see how hundreds of hours of brain sweat is saved in thousands of different ways - and they don't understand how it is that some people still adhere to the idea that a blank piece of paper is the best way to master the problem.

But those who haven't built a system, who are prejudiced against systems, who see only the work and the difficulty of imagining even the prospect of universality (declaring, most often, that it CAN'T exist despite living in a world where it very obviously does), argue from a position of anti-hypothetical perception that says it can't be done.  What they mean, of course, is that they can't do it personally . . . and anything that can't be done by them personally hasn't any merit because it therefore has nothing to do with their personal situation in life.

They cannot hypothesize that trying to do it might bring insight.  They cannot hypothesize insight.  They can only see concrete methods and concrete results.  A system is not concrete.  Drawing lines on a piece of paper with a pencil IS.  Therefore, what is concrete has value; what is not concrete is necessarily - by definition - a waste of time.

See?  It is just like talking to your grandfather about politics.

Sad Puppies

Received an excellent comment yesterday from LTW, yesterday, regarding the importance of building systems in a world to lend credibility to the player's experience.  I'm quite sure this is a common experience for many DMs:

"My realization led me to view that each inconsistent hand-wave was sort of a backhand to my players creativity. I had been beating them behind an electrified fence that became my world. Their creativity learned not to cross certain bounds. The weird part was that they raved about my DMing skills. They always accepted the hand-waving and they were very encouraging. I supposed they were just happy to be playing. I came to see them as sad puppies in a puppy mill."

This, I think, is the most telling paragraph - and one that truly highlights the DM's dilemma in a way that most voices on the internet simply fail to understand.  After describing his players' discontent with hand-waved judgments, after describing the going-through-the-motions world that LTW began to feel he was running, after admitting that he was keeping the players back with a stick (and an electrified fence), they're still happy.  Yet that's just not good enough.  There is a clear understanding that LTW has, that I have, that I think most of my readers have, that the players are just happy because this is all they know . . . and that glorifying in that 'happiness' isn't right.  It sours the game, knowing that it could all be better, even if the players don't know it.

In some ways, this is the critical point between starting off as a DM and learning to go right, not left.  We've built the world, we've got it working, we've learned that we're substantially just another player . . . but as it has gone we have gathered insight that the players haven't, because we're making the decisions.  This is normal.  This is how responsibility goes.  And when we're ready, as LTW says, to burn down that first world and build a better one, we've accumulated the experience we need to see better how not to just go right instead of left, but to take care of our players, and stop pretending that their being sad puppies in a puppy mill is all right with us.

Of course, we know that some DMs like it.  They delight in being the ruler over sad puppies - and then they use that delight online to argue that the existence of sad puppies in their game somehow proves that their way of playing, their game, is right and proper.  They lord it over everyone else:  "I have sad puppies and that is good enough for me!"

That's always going to happen.  As ever, I've been thinking about the fundamental problem that plagues the community - and I think it is this:  a considerable number of people simply cannot see the problems of an average DM from any perspective outside of themselves.  They cannot put themselves in the shoes of another person, they cannot address the subject of "improving a game" from the viewpoint of someone else who wants to improve it.

"What works for me" isn't the end of the argument.  Some think that it is.  Some suppose that, having sorted out their agendas or their priorities, that other people can look after themselves and that's the end of the subject.  It is as if I were to say to you, "Imagine what it might be like if you were black, how would you feel about this?" only to get back the argument, "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard.  I'm not black and I'm never going to be black, so the question has nothing to do with me."

This is a point made by James Flynn in his Ted Talk.  A point I wanted to get into but my daughter has shown up so I'm cutting this post off short.  Watch the video.  I'll talk about it later.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Life Like This

There once was a man who was unhappy.  When he was a boy, he was born in an unhappy house, with an unhappy family who were poor.  When the boy was twelve, his mother, who worked as a simple laborer, was struck down by a cancer and died.  The boy's father had a job that took him far away for days at a time, so that the boy spent the rest of his childhood in an empty house that had very little in it.

Yet the boy, as he became the man, decided he would not live all his life this way.  He worked very hard at labor jobs and he took many labor jobs, so that he was able to finish his schooling.  His schooling did not make him happy, however, so he chose not to go to university but rather to go on working.  He worked all the time and he was unhappy all the time.

He lived in an apartment whose landlord was never there and the man realized that he could sublet the apartment to someone else and earn $100 a month doing that.  So the man did it and searched for another apartment where the landlord was never there.  He found another one and then another one, and soon he was finding two or three a month, signing leases and then subletting these apartments to other people for a little bit of money more.  But though it made him money, it did not make him happy.

In a year he quit his labour jobs and all he did was find apartments to sublet.  Finally one day he had so many apartments that he was able to put a downpayment on a whole block of apartments, which made him even more money.  This was followed by a second block of apartments and a third, until he was making so much money that he was becoming very well known in the city where he lived.  But still, this did not make him happy.

Then he met a very beautiful woman who wanted to marry him.  He married her and although he was working all the time looking after his apartments and buying more apartments to rent, together with his wife he had two children, both boys.  But since he worked all the time, he hardly saw these boys before they became old enough to go to school.  His beautiful wife sent them off to a private boarding school so that he saw his boys only once in awhile.  He would often think of his boys and this would make him unhappy.

When enough years had passed for his boys to make up their minds about their father, the man realized that his sons did not like him very much.  He did not understand how they could form an opinion like this, since they had seen each other only on holidays and sometimes in the summer, it made him very unhappy to learn that his sons did not like him.  And as time went on, he began to realize that his wife did not much like him either, but that she stayed with him only for the money he earned.  This made him more unhappy.

He loved her, though he hardly ever saw her.  He loved his sons, though he hardly ever saw them.  He could not imagine divorcing his wife and yet he could not imagine giving her any more of the money that he had earned.  For years he went around and around in his unhappy thoughts, until he finally decided that he would give up everything and end his life.  He had never known a moment of real happiness and so he felt that suicide would be a blessing and not a loss.

He thought of how to do it and decided that he would do it with a gun.  He chose an evening and he sat in his study, with the gun sitting on his desk in front of him, waiting for him to use it.  "I will have a drink and then I will be able to do it," he thought.  So he poured himself a brandy and drank it down.  Then he poured himself another brandy.  After a third brandy, he felt a little sleepy.  He looked at the gun on the desk and rested his head on the back of the chair.  There he felt drowsy and fell into a deep sleep.

When he opened his eyes, the gun was still on the desk.  But in the dark recess of the room, he sensed that there was someone sitting on a chair there.  He peered into the dark and saw that there was a stranger there.  And the longer he peered, the less dark the room seemed to be . . . until he could see the stranger fairly well.  The stranger wore a dark suit and very pleasant shoes; he was just the sort of person that the man would have made a lot of money from renting a penthouse suite.  The stranger had a kind smile and seemed to know what the man had meant to do.  "I must be drunk," though the man to himself.

"Who are you?" asked the man.

"Someone who has come with an agenda," said the stranger.

"I'm not interested in any investments just now," said the man.  "I'm very busy."

"We are already invested," said the stranger.

"No, no," said the man.  "Listen, you have to leave."  The man reached for the gun, to put it in a drawer, but he found that his fingers passed through it.

"You're all done with that now," said the stranger.

"No, no, no, I never touched the gun," said the man.  "I was going to use it but I didn't."

"But you drank the brandy," said the stranger.

"The brandy?"

"Yes, your wife has poisoned you.  She has done it so that she can have your money and be with her lover."

The man felt pain when he heard these words - for, as soon as he heard them, he realized that it was true.  The stranger's words were impossible to deny.  "She's murdered me," said the man.

"Yes," said the stranger.

"But she'll be caught.  They'll find out that she's done it."

"They won't find out," said the stranger.  "She is using your money to protect herself, so that they will not investigate your death very closely.  The doctor, who is being paid very well, will come in and say that you died of natural causes.  Then she will be very happy."

This made the man terribly unhappy.  "She won't miss me?"

"No," said the stranger.

"But, but . . . my boys will miss me.  This will make them unhappy."

"No," said the stranger.  "Your sons will be very happy when they discover that they have the money you have left them in your will.  They will do all the things they always dreamed of doing, without any feelings for you at all."

The man felt immense unhappiness at this.  "But . . . the people who worked for me - they'll care about me."

"The new management will decide to sell your holdings," said the stranger.  "They will make a great deal of money and they will share this money with thousands of shareholders.  And all your tenants will have their buildings taken over by other people who will be willing to negotiate their rents and make them lower.  All those people will be much happier now that you are gone."

The man was truly unhappy now.  "Then it has all been for nothing."

"Not for nothing," said the stranger.  "You spent your whole life saving up your unhappiness.  You saved and saved, hoarding all the unhappiness you could lay your hands upon - and now you are taking all that unhappiness with you.  So you make the world a happier place by leaving it.  Now come along.  We have an unhappier place to go yet."

And so the man rose up and followed the stranger.  And the dark followed with them.


I am proud to say that I have my first student.  This makes a tremendous difference in my situation; I've been able to make arrangements that will enable me to be here for the month of June.  It is a little frightening how small changes can make such a big different.

I was going to talk about my starting university.  I remember the day well.  I was sitting in this grungy red chair that came with my apartment, of about the quality that one finds in a dumpster, talking with my friend Todd, a younger brother of a fellow I was good friends with in high school and one of my D&D players.  This was 1985, I was just 21 and Todd was 19.  It was November 10, about eleven in the morning.

That apartment.  It was a 'basement' apartment that was costing me $220 a month.  It only occupied two thirds of the floor beneath the stairs (the rest was furnace room) and was, in truth, more of a cellar than a basement.  The house has been built in the late 1940s.  A two-inch subfloor had been built for the apartment space and this made the ceiling in the apartment just 1.9 meters, or about 6 feet 2 inches.  I am 5 foot 10.  The lights in the living room and the bedroom were bare bulbs sticking down from the ceiling - these just barely cleared my head.  Sometimes, moving under them, I could feel my hair move.

Some of my friends who came over were taller than me and had to be careful - so we moved the steel kitchen table (which also came with the apartment) under the bulb so people would split their heads open on game nights.  That table had one broken leg that had to be wedged into a metal bracket under the table to keep it balanced - and it was easy to kick the leg out if we forgot.  We played D&D on that table every week.

The 'kitchen' was the fridge, stove and cupboards arranged along one wall of the living room, about 6 meters square, just like in a Sims house.  The bedroom was about 4 meters square.  Both were covered with bright orange shag carpet with strands as long as my toes that was at least ten years old.  The way to the bathroom (which also gave access to a one meter square storage cupboard) meant climbing up a five-inch step - meaning, I had to bend over just a bit to go into the bathroom.  That bathroom was about 1.5 meters by 2 meters; it was like a space capsule with only a toilet and a bathtub.  The bathtub was a wide, deep, beautiful clawfoot tub that also came from the forties, about half a meter deep, with a sloped back side and beauooootiful.  I'd live there now if I could have access to the bathtub.

So, anyway, Todd and I were laying around talking.  Neither of us were working and we were rambling on about the my game and finding work - and I was talking about this great woman that I had just met in a movie theatre, that I'd started dating and with whom I'd had violent, back-raking sex with a couple of times.  Seriously, the girl liked to claw and I liked to be clawed.  I'm talking about my daughter's mother (it's okay, my daughter knows this story already).

We'd met on October 23 so we were not quite three weeks into the relationship.  I was pretty close to being in love with her already, being that she was brilliant and ambitious and open-minded.  I didn't know, of course, that we'd move in together about six months later and be married after a year, on November 15 (I proposed in July, but it was a done deal by that time).

I was telling Todd about Michelle being at university, taking her masters in education after her music degree and about what I'd learned about student loans.  Student loans were never spoken of in my parent's house - and I had decided after bad experiences in high school that I wasn't interested in education.  I was going to be a writer, come hell or high water.  'Course, by then, I'd seen the real world and, like Dan Aykroyd explaining it to Bill Murray, the real world wanted results and I was far too esoteric in my youth for that.  I was interested in this student loan thing.

According to Michelle, it was possible to get student loans and then keep piling those up until it was time to graduate.  However, as I learned, it was also possible to keep getting student loans as long as a person stayed in university.  That really interested me.  And as I told Todd about it, I found myself getting more interested.

That's when I asked if he'd come up to the campus and help me sign in for classes.  Todd agreed and we started off.  We didn't have a car, we didn't have money for the bus, we'd made no inquiries whatsoever (I was going on what Michelle had told me), so we walked.  I was living about three miles from the university - I remember it was a fairly warm winter day, snow on the ground but it was bright and sunny.

This is a thing about Canada that is hard to explain in the States.  There are no SATs in Canada.  There was no standardized testing at all in 1986.  You had your degree or you didn't, that was mostly all that mattered.  If you hadn't taken English 30 in high school (the standard required course in English - remedial English was called '33,' the numbers being based on three years of high school), you had to take a writing test.  I didn't need to because I had that requirement but I would have breezed through a 500-word writing test.  I was writing novels even then . . . granted, bad ones, but mostly because I was teaching myself plot and character, not because of bad sentence structure.  I needed more time to develop style, too - but that wasn't needed for university.

There was no requirement to "apply" to university, either, unless it was for some highly professional degree like medicine or legal.  Anyone could walk in off the street - and I literally did - and take History, Political Science, Communications, Art, Anthropology and so on.  Drama or Music required an audition; I could have managed Drama, I'm sure.  Instead I took Humanities, which was broken into five parts: religious studies, English, philosophy, languages and classical history.  I filled out the forms and Todd and I wandered the campus.  Four days later, I was told my paper work was fine.

I went down to my bank and filled out paperwork for a student loan.  I had practically no money in the bank and it didn't matter.  I went back to the university and took a course in each of the five humanities subjects, to decide which I would like enough to declare my major.  All were introductory; I picked Russian as a language.  My Russian is очень плохо.  That is, "ochen ploka," or very bad.  Dismal, even.  The reader probably knows more Russian than I do.

I would eventually settle on Classical History: Greeks, Romans, Plutarch, Herodotus, Livy, Suetonius, Thucydides, Xenophon, Tacitus, Polybius . . . all the greats.

It is the defining characteristic of my life to embark upon things in such fashion.  Not because I leap without looking, but because I am willing to look and assess so very quickly and then go.  Most want to mull over these things and mull over them again.  I understand.  I have repeatedly gotten myself into scrapes, like the one I'm in now, because I'm more concerned with leaping that protecting myself.  And when the circumstances change - such as the economic slump that is going on in Alberta right now - I often get caught in it.

That slump is pretty bad.  Most of my friends are unemployed now.  Some are told day to day that they may not be there next week. One fellow I know has been let go twice but then had the decision reversed at the last moment.  We're all just hanging on by our fingernails.  These are bad times.  It has been pretty much my only option to monetize this site, because it is all my partner and I have.

I do apologize for that.  I try not to feel ashamed about that.  I was going to write a very difficult post today about finding a saving grace - but then a saving grace arrived without my needing to do that.  Thank you, good fellow - you know who you are - for thinking me worth it.  I shall endeavor to measure up to that trust.

So, we'll be here another month.  Looks like I'll be packing up and going out of my place the end of June.  That's just how it is going to play.  Step down, catch my breath, hope the economy gets better and take another swing at this life thing later.  Finish the book.  Keep working.  Get back to playing the game again.  Get back to those good times I had.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tao & Tao's Daughter Podcast Episode 5

At last!  A fifth podcast, one week and two days late.  After all the struggles with formatting and editing and trying to process the file we made into something that could be visual and go on youtube, we had to pay Soundcloud six cruddy dollars a month to up our top limitation.  Even at that, it will only be good for this podcast and two more - and then it will have to be $16 a month.  As I am facing right now being out of my place come the end of this month or - if I survive into June - next month practically for sure, that really bites it.

But, here is the podcast:

Warning, some of this is pretty severe.  There's no reason it shouldn't be.  So long as it is interesting, I'm not the least bit sorry.

The Hadron Collider of D&D

I've been poking for a couple of weeks at the content of JB's Economy post, that I've already written about once.  It's such a rich field for gauging the mindset of the ordinary online D&D metagamer.  Take this comment from Roger Burgess, posted yesterday, to a statement I made about mechanical parts of the game mattering (specifically, an economic model):

The name of the game is Dungeons and Dragons, not Markets and Accountants. The effort to verisimilitude ratio of figuring out 'realistic' economic values is nearly nil. Simulating the economy beyond 'You guys have pumped a bunch of gold into an economy based on silver - here's what's happened to the village you started in' is really not that important.  There are far better ways to show that the characters are having an effect on the world than trying to 'simulate' an inevitably inaccurate economy.  Adventuring is the game, and hours and hours of prep that the players aren't going to see much of isn't part of it for people who put any sort of value on their time.

I don't want to disparage Burgess; he's approaching the subject from a reasonable point of view.  "An Economy" is a daunting prospect and it is very hard to reconcile the amount of work with the perceived value of that work, particularly prior to any actual evidence that there's going to be any value.  This is the reason for this title: economics is the Hadron Collider of D&D.

What's interesting is that Burgess automatically supposes that, of course, a proposed economy must be founded on the sound principles of supply and demand.  He has leapt ahead in the conversation to the players who bring back a big pile of gold from an adventure, producing massive inflation in the silver-based system and destroying the economy of that town.

I've heard this particular scenario many times.  I wonder how this store of gold has derived from a silver-based economy?  Where did the party-found gold come from?  If a dungeon, I presume it came from monsters accumulating it from outside; or are the monsters digging out gold and then stamping coins for an underground economy that never, ever steps out the dungeon's front door?  Or are we imagining some ancient culture where gold was common enough to make a sufficient horde for the party to find, but somehow the present-day culture failed utterly to keep that gold currency alive?  Because I must say, during the absolute worst periods of human history, those periods of total decline and dark age, periods where millions perished unknown by the sword because no one took the time to write anything down that we were able to find, gold survived.  Gold always survives.  We have accounts of cultures that regularly sacrificed babies to the gods, but we don't have any accounts - except from Disney - of cultures that sacrificed gold.

If there is no other reason for trying to create an economy for a game world, there's this:  the DM will learn something about economics.

The other half of Burgess' comment is also a quite common point: that with so many better things to concentrate on, so many more worthy things, why concentrate on this?

That brings us right back to the false dilemma again, in which we hear it argued that it is either this or that.  We can create an economy for our world . . . or we can do everything else.

Naturally, "this" or "that" can be applied to anything we care to name.  Why are we spending so much time with hack and slash when there are far better ways to show the characters are having an effect?  Why are we spending so much time with trouble-solving scenarios?  Why are we spending so much time with character creation?  Why are we spending so much time with alignment?  Why are we spending so much time with details like encumbrance, back stories, hit location, religion, character classes, point-system buys and munchkinism?  Why are we spending so much time with something that we don't personally care about?

I agree with Burgess.  Adventuring IS the game.  The problem is we have a surfeit of players who have a complete misread on the subject of "adventure."  For them, it is the traditional, old school campaign, the one where people gird up with swords and armor and recreate the stories of Parsifal, Roland, Hood and Arthur with terrifically focused abandon, rigidly denying that "adventure" could mean anything that happens as a result of chance, fortune, luck, surrounding events deriving from accident, circumstance or things about to happen, that are sought after or reached for, regardless of the context.

To many, "economics" seems like a piss-poor adventure.  Yet it is an adventure that drives only everything in the real world.  It can't in traditional, old school gaming because no one gave any thoughts whatsoever for making rules for that.

Ever play Monopoly with a transport cost rule that says you have to pay $30 before throwing the dice, even on doubles?  Ever play a RISK rule where a single army left on a territory by itself has a 50% chance of rebelling and joining a random enemy, immediately increasing to four times its size as it acquires a 'citizen army'?  Ever play the Game of Life where every time you pass a payday, there's a 1 in 10 chance that someone in the car will die, requiring $5,000 for funeral services?  No?  Pity.

D&D is the sort of game where this extra rule-making really makes sense.  We used to make up those rules for those simple games because we wanted more and more.  We didn't stop playing by all the old rules; we didn't drop rules, we added them.  Point in fact, that's all those university students were doing when they added all that shit to Chain Mail.

This isn't a dilemma.  We're working like dogs on all those "far better ways" that have gone before and then, on top of that, we're adding an economy.  And whatever the hell else we can think of, because the one thing we don't want to tell our players is, "No, you can't do that because I'm not ready for it."

That is a total crap cop-out.  Sorry, for those who feel put upon by the content that's already involved but the game thing is to get in and try.  I'll applaud the DM who says, "I'm not ready for that so it's going to be clunky and probably awful . . . but yeah, sure, let's try it and see how it goes."  A qualified yes is always better than a reproving, unqualified no.

Let's not just do the "better ways" - let's do all the ways.  If the reader wants another example, I'll pose a few:

Why are we wasting all this time learning how to hit grounders and line-drives when it is so much easier to win games with home runs?

Why are we wasting all this time learning how to fight with a knife when we have guns that fire bullets?

Why are we wasting all this time learning how computers work when I just want to play video games?

Why am I taking math in school?  When am I ever going to use this shit?

And so on.

Remarkable, isn't it, how a call to concentrate on just the important things sounds so much like being just too tired to learn.

Monday, May 23, 2016


Just thinking, people should know that if they want to talk to me about any of the things I've got going: Ternketh Keep, Jumpstart Proposal, any of my books, the Wiki, Patreon or the Podcasts, as well as the DMing Tutorials, there's always the option of talking to me direct on twitter, @Tao_of_DnD.

Seems the best way to find out if I can help you is to talk to me.


About twenty months ago I put together a series of posts that began with discovering a wagon on a road that had just been attacked by goblins. Here are the links for the series:

Setting the Scene
Groundwork for Dialogue
In-Party Indecisions
Setting Forth
Feeling the Threat

The six posts are a steady point-by-point breakdown of how to hook a party, how to build upon that hook, how to augment and support the party's reaction to the hook, how to handle the party setting forth, how to manage expectations when the adventure sinks in and finally an understanding of the consequences that come from a game where failure is a real option.

These posts were very popular - and I feel I made some converts to my way of thinking with them, as I really do feel that many believe that the adventure has just two elements: the hook and the process of hacking our way through.  There are a significant number of people who believe that the "adventure" is the personalities of the NPCs or the "feel" of the monsters to be killed or the "fantasy" element of the dungeon's special rooms or the castle's special appearance.

Adventures are mechanical constructs.  What the players see is a facade:

Like a hotel, when you walk into the front you're not given a view of
housekeeping or the kitchen: you're shown what you're meant to see.

The beams, the piping, the actual structure that supports the adventure, that's all covered by a veneer of beauty that doesn't actually help the DM.  That's for the players.  Those who work behind the scenes, we're used to walking through rooms where the customers have shat the bed, or where the toilet was busted or where some poor schlub committed suicide, leaving us to clean up the mess.  This is DMing.  As some point it's necessary to drop the romance and doe-eyed wonder and get down to the mechanical process of making the thing look beautiful to people who don't actually know anything about what's really going on.

There are some that won't do that.  They'll claim that they're entitled to their sense of wonder and their rose-colored glasses, while insisting that they're as enraptured as the players.

Some of these DMs will be lying, like Rock Stars who have just flown in from another city on a plane through five hours of turbulence, only to vomit in the back of the limo because they're actually suffering from the flu, who will nevertheless scream at the auditorium, "I'm so happy to be here!"  Because pretending matters, because we shove our own emotional state aside and we tell our players that the adventure is wondrous because that's part of the wonder.

But there will always be DMs who just can't see it that way.  They don't want to lose something - call it their innocence or their joie de vivre - for the sake of being a DM.  That can't be the way it works because that's just . . . just horrible.

What's interesting is that many people who work in the hotel industry or the performance industry - or any number of other similar industries - get to like the gritty, grimy reality of the back-scene, much more than they like the front house.  They'd rather walk in the back door of the hotel and talk to the cooks than greet the concierge.  They'd rather hear the concert while sitting back stage with the roadies than see the show.  True, they're more jaded.  They talked to Prince personally, they knew the guy on a level that the audience will never see . . . and they know all that the outfits, the strutting on stage and everything else that the audience worships was just an act.  They don't remember Prince "the artist" - they remember that one night when they smoked a few cigarettes together and Prince talked about his parents.  A memory they will never, ever share with anyone.

If you're a DM, that you now.  You can hang out with the players and make jokes, laugh and all that other shit, but you've got something on them because you know what's going on behind closed doors that they will never enter.

You can lament that.  You can preen yourself and promote that.  What you can't do is change that - not if you want to run a good game.  You have to embrace it; you're not like the others at the table. They thing they invest in, their characters, they're hope for a good running, their ambitions and sense of wonder - all that depends on us working hard to make sure they're not disappointed.  To do that, we have to clean the dust out of our eyes, slap ourselves a couple of times in the face and wake the hell up.

They're on holiday.  We're working.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Brain Cloud

I must say, it was our hope that we would get just two students before the end of the month.  Hard as it may be for us, just now this internet monetizing D&D thing is what has enabled us to survive these past four months and it is the only job I have at the moment.  I have been able to get some part-time and temp work these last three weeks, just little short-term gigs where I've cleaned up a friend's resume or typed in data entry for a few days - but it hasn't been quite enough to get us through to the end of May.  We're just three hundred short of covering our rent and now I'm pushed to admitting that while I'm sure that tutoring is a very good idea (positive responses coming from everywhere), we had hoped it would help us out sooner.

Don't know exactly what we're going to do.  I don't want to admit any of this but I'm under pressure and I can't just ignore the avenue provided by this blog, as it has saved us again and again since February.

Just recently saw Joe vs. the Volcano for the first time in many years.  Brilliant, much underrated film.  I wish this was as easy as jumping into a Volcano.

But . . . just to remind the reader.  I still have a Jumpstarter campaign that is active, that still offers a very good module, Ternketh Keep, and still offers a very good preview of the Fifth Man, the book I am writing.  Please, if you haven't, give these elements some consideration.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Enjoying the Unexpected

I was looking at this world plotting post today and thinking how funny it is.  Seeing it three years later, all I can think is, "Wow, that looks like a lot of work."

It wasn't not really, but I know that I'm built for this sort of thing.  For one thing, I'm well-versed in the publisher program and I've already made hex-maps that I can manipulate as I've done there.  I wrote the post to show what could be done - and how a perfectly believable arrangement of details could be generated completely randomly, if the method is right.

But I laugh because I really got a kick of making this:

I didn't know what it was going to look like when I was finished - wasn't even sure it would look like anything.  But it was an interesting experiment because I kept stumbling across new ways to give it life as a potential game setting.  I think I learned a lot, even though of course none of this made its way into my world.

I wonder that people who describe making their world don't get more out of not knowing what it is going to look like.  I suppose that comes out of always scribing out a world without a random element.  There's just something in me that would rather investigate than originate where it comes to D&D.  Thankfully, this doesn't keep me from creating from scratch with writing: doing that right now.  But in devising something like the above, I get a real kick out of throwing dice at a table and seeing what happens.

For example, take this small part of the Sahara map I posted earlier this month:

South Algeria

Most of this map is randomly generated.  Counting just the two areas that are labeled "Tindouf," I had exactly three pieces of data upon which to build this space: the elevation, latitude and longitude of three places, one of those being the town of Tindouf in the upper left corner.  There just isn't any data available on the rest of this big, empty space (about the size of Ohio, England, Bulgaria or South Korea, if anyone is interested)  Because of that, I was left to either make stuff up or generate some result randomly.  Guess where I went with it.

To start with, it always has to be remembered that these are hexes that are largely empty of anything - just like the randomly generated example at the top, there are hexes within hexes, so the 20-mile hex (32 km) of the Tindouf map is largely representational.  The three green areas of Tindouf shown above do not mean that the oases there cover an area 20 miles across.  More likely, the two hexes without a town in them are closer to 1% of that.

However, apart from the oasis, there are two general kinds of desert: the sort where very little grows and the sort where nothing grows.  Compare this:

With this:

I wanted my desert to have character, since it would matter to the players trying to cross it.  We had an adventure in a desert similar to this with one party last year and a different adventure with another party in another desert two years ago.  So creating this detail proved important.

I started with the premise that all the hexes surrounding an "civilization" hex - one I had at least a little information for - would be "desert and scattered scrub," with succulent plants, enough life that herders could take sheep or goats to a specific hex in the desert and let them graze there awhile before before moving onto new grazing lands.  These hexes are rust-red in color because I have a lot of different vegetations to keep track of and this seemed best for part desert.  A hex that was 2 hexes away from civilization would have a 50% chance of being a potential grazing hex.  Three hexes away, 25%; four hexes away, 12.5% and so on.  Anything that was not a desert and scattered scrub was pure desert - either sandy, like the picture above, or rocky, or mountainous (like the darker red hexes in the Tindouf map), depending on what other details I could dredge up from my own atlases and online.

Information continues to be scant where it comes to the deep Sahara desert.  We can see it from space but very little of it has been properly investigated.  Names for regions are so local they don't appear on maps - or if a label appears on maps, the information on line is in a different language, with different spelling.  And all it says online about the desert is that it is a desert east or south or near such-and-such.  Sometimes there's a note that it's rocky.  That's about as good as it gets, even with google translate.

Moreover, a lot of places that my 1952 encyclopedia shows as existing are simply gone now.  The Sahara is growing and drying out and there are wadis I can see on old maps that don't show up on google earth.  They're covered in sand now.  It's a similar phenomenon to the melting of the glaciers - it is only that it's easier to get a camera crew to a glacier in Alberta to bitch about how much it has melted since 1935 than it is to find a wadi in the heart of the Sahara.

I've done this tour; it gets more expensive every year
and there is less to see.
Where was I?  Oh, getting random results.

It was probable that I'd get at least one well placed scrub-land hex between the two upper hexes of Tindouf and the one 220 miles to the southeast.  Those middle scrubland hexes make travel a lot easier because there's only a 40 mile gap of deep desert that a traveller has to cross - which is good for my game because Tindouf is one of those links between the north of the Sahara and the south.  On the whole, though a lot of the exact hexes were determined randomly, there's a nice clean path between south Morocco, Tindouf and Azawad in north Mali, which gives access to the El Mreyye grasslands (virtually a pure desert now but in the 17th century would have been a very dry Sahel climate), this being the road to Timbuktu.

It worked out for south of Adrar, as well.  Adrar is in modern-day central Algeria - but there was a route that led to it from a big trading city called Biskra (I have to link the French Wikipedia because it is much more useful than the English), which was once part of Roman Numidia.  South of Adrar the route led over the cooler Asedjrad Plateau, then down into what is now West Mali, where a big wadi called the Tilemsi made the way to Gao, another very important trade town in the old Songhai and earlier Mali empires.  Until the Portuguese broke the system, an immense amount of Europe's gold poured north from Gao and Timbuktu.

I've seen hundreds of maps of the trade routes that look like this:

I swear that the creators of these maps are just playing connect the dots between known trade towns without the least thought of the big blank spaces between.  Look at at this one detail:

Erg of Chech shown surrounded with a red line.
The 'expert' here has drawn the trade route right through the middle of the Erg of Chech, a vast sand field about the size of Texas.  No doubt, the 'expert' realizes that the camels don't cross through the middle of it but follow around the edge, but that's not really important for the map, is it?  We're just trying to say that Tombouctou and Gao both traded with Sijilmasa, which was a huge trading city that dried up and blew away sometime between 1353 and the early 16th century (it is a bit of a mystery).  It would have been reached through Adrar, which is unique in the Sahara for being one of a long string of oases conveniently strung out in a line.  To get to Sijilmasa from Timbuktu (the mapmaker has chosen to retain the French colonial spelling of the city), a traveller would have had to travel east until just north of Gao, then use the Gao route, or travel on the route to Tindouf and then northeast to get back to Sijilmasa.  Inside Morocco, the Sijilmasa road led to Fez and Casablanca; the Tindouf road led to Marrakech.  Obviously, the mapmaker doesn't care about these subtle details.

I love that I can now define the exact hexes that a traveller would take in my world (though of course, being in part random, the reality would vary by 20-30 miles north or south of the line I'll draw).  I love that I have the Sahara 'tamed' where it comes to what's out there.  I love that my desert isn't just a big empty bleh as it appears on most fantasy maps.  I love that I had no idea what to expect.

This post really has been all over the place.  Guess I just had to let myself off the chain for a bit.

Friday, May 20, 2016


Those people at reddit are crazy.

Yesterday a fellow posted a link to my DM Tutorial page on reddit, unquestionably to help me.  Back in 2014, I tried the same thing myself, believing that it might be a good way to promote myself and my book - only to discover that a great many people who regularly contribute to reddit are . . . well, let's just say exceptional.

I think my favorite comment was the fellow who wrote,

"IMO any DM who thinks campaigns can be derailed is a bad DM."

There must be something inherent in human biology that compels this sort of absolutism.  This, therefore that.  On one level it is an ad hominem attack, which redirects the subject by attacking the character, motive or other attribute of the person (in this case, the DM's ability).

On a completely different level it results from the participant having adopted a false dilemma as the way in which things are measured: there are only two possible ways to view any statement or belief: that the person who believes this is a totally bad person or a totally good person.

Obviously, it's not the sort of message I embrace.  There is an excellent book on this subject, An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

Look!  Someone used the word 'derailed' in a discussion
about role-playing: they must be referring to sandbox
vs. railroading.

The hardest thing to realize about 'arguments' is that most statements that human make - including most of the statements I make - are not remotely arguments at all.  They're opinions, largely based on emotional responses expressed in words . . . and as such, they have as much application to problem solving as "This ice cream tastes good."  While difficult to dispute, it is largely irrelevant to how we are going to make this particular apparatus work.

In response, there are plenty who will 'argue' from their premise that since the ice cream really does taste good, this is essentially "accurate" - and being accurate, it cannot be dismissed but must be taken into account.  Unfortunately, the assertion that something is accurate does not make it accurate.  Arguments are not based upon apparent statements of accuracy, but upon validation.  You say the ice cream tastes good.  I have no way of confirming that it does.  You may be lying.  You may have no reference for what 'good' is.  You may have been conditioned as a young boy to make positive associations with ice cream that now compels you to register ice cream as good even though essentially you're so used to the actual taste that your hormonal response is "meh."  None of which matters, because I cannot taste with your mouth and therefore I have no means of validating it's accuracy.  This explodes the 'argument' by positively defining it as not an argument.

That is largely lost on most people.  Where I make statements on this blog regarding the value of, say, the practicality of sandboxing over railroading, I am for the most part proposing a very poor argument.  I can try to give my statements clarity and scope.  I can point out similarities between my statements and other situations that the reader will probably agree with.  I can pull several examples and attempt to build a syllogism out of them.  Chances are, however, that I will not persuade the reader because I cannot positively validate my argument by any provable means.  This means that, except where I am citing verified evidence (the heart pumps blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, enabling us to function biologically), I'm only speaking opinion.

I realized several centuries ago never to expect to change someone's mind on a dime.  At best, we can make an argument so passionate that the listener will remember the discussion - which is the biggest victory one can hope for.  Then, at some future point, the listener will be living their ordinary life and, without warning, find themselves faced with a personal experience that validates that argument that they still remember.  My whole life, since long before the internet (since before home computers became a 'thing'), has been people coming up to me months later and saying, "You remember that time we talked about such-and-such?  Well, I get it now!"

If you read something on this blog that you agree with as you read it, that's because you already have that validation in your mind.  Chances are, you have already validated that thing, long past, by whatever standard you use to believe things.

Not to disparage the reader, but for a writer seeking to make a change in the room, this is low hanging fruit.  I appreciate that I have people who agree with me and all, but given that there are hundreds of thousands of people reading the internet who are also into D&D, that was inevitable.  I measure my success as a writer by those whose minds I can change - and those that I value most of all are those who are willing and able to change my mind.  I'm not looking for people who can validate what I write to make me feel better.  That is a matter of complete indifference for me.  I'm looking for people who can validate for me where I'm wrong.

For most making arguments on the internet, the low-hanging fruit is all they need to validate themselves and no one else.  This is easiest when everything in their world fits the black-and-white model, and it's best when the dividing line is so close to the middle that the answer will never, ever be resolved (at least, not in their lifetime).  They write something about the Oxford comma and instantly they command half the English speakers of the world as their allies.  They write something about guns, about religion, about republicans vs. democrats and in minutes they feel part of the grand human experiment, exactly as their distant ancestors felt all heaped together for warmth.

It doesn't get better than this.  I'm that one on the left thinking, "Fuck
warmth.  What are those hulking, apparently harmless things?"

If something isn't black-and-white, they'll make it so.  That makes it comprehensible and, in response, tells them instantly which side they're meant to stand on.  "I'm against anti-derailing observations; vote Proposition 907 come November."

These same people have a view of Education that must fit their model.  A teacher tells the student the answer and the student remembers it; when the answer is asked for, the student provides it.  This is education.

There are no 'answers,' not as this philosophy understands them.  What we have is opinion and a seeking for validation.  A student comes to me who expresses difficulty in controlling their group.  I offer some possible explanations, dredged up from my experience.  The student answers that maybe A. might be true, B. definitely isn't, C. has some merit but this part of the explanation doesn't fit and so on.  In response, once again from my experience, I fine-tune the parts of explanation C. that more likely fit this specific case . . . and step by step, we look together for a potential set of circumstances that are contributing to the general problem.

In this conversation, as the teacher I bring insight and a lifetime spent running and designing the game.  Students bring personal evidence and judgment that they've gained in actually meeting the player-participants.  I'm not emotionally involved so I bring dispassion and perspective.  Students are deeply emotionally involved so they bring their instincts that serve to detect or discard the validity of what they hear.  This symbiosis between mentor and disciple has been used for millennia to determine the probable issue that is to be solved and then to work together to compose a strategy for solving that issue.  The validation of the teaching is not the "answer," but the validation of the strategy: Did it improve the situation?

The market value of my teaching is based upon one simple reality:  if a DM seeks out everyday people in their community for insight, experience, dispassion and perspective, do they find it?  If they find it, I have nothing to sell.  If they can't obtain this, they must needs seek someone who has it and willingly meet that price.

But of course there will be a vast number of persons who are utterly, implacably convinced that no problem exists, no problem can exist, those that believe a problem can exist must be deluded and so on.  Because that belief validates them.

There's nothing I can offer to these people because they need for nothing.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Windmill

On Monday, after some weeks of discussion and investigation, I announced my readiness to teach DMing online.  For that I owe an apology.  I must admit, I was so involved in my own concerns about having the wherewithal to teach the subject, to effectively live up to promises I would be making and giving value for value received, I completely failed to consider other people.

Let me be forthcoming.  These past three days, no one has come forward to take a class.  My gentle readers can imagine, I'm sure, the complexion of my thoughts through this time, as I re-examine all the decisions I made, from the price to the choice of content to the possible hubris of presuming that it's a possibility I should have suggested in the first place.  My best thinking - the only condition that wasn't exhaustively considered - is that others would feel as uncomfortable with the prospect of facing me on camera, and all that would imply - as I feel with living up to the expectations of willing and highly challenging students.

I am a bear, I don't deny it.  I did, however, discount it.  I've been thinking all of myself and for that I do apologize.  I should have planned this better.

One question I can answer, as a step towards encouraging people to believe that I'm an ordinary person and that I don't bite, is to explain why I feel I could be a good teacher, offering genuine insight for your campaign.

There are a number of ways I could come at that explanation.  I've acted in many capacities in my life; something of a jack-of-all-trades.  I've worked as a cook, moved furniture, acted on a stage, handled accounts payable, managed databases, sold magazine subscriptions, published research that has appeared in libraries, organized events, sold my own book at trade shows, worked in construction, worked in landscaping, worked as a janitor, been a manager, worked white collar jobs, worked blue collar jobs.  Sometimes for years at a time, sometimes for a few months.  Through this process I have learned to communicate with vastly different types of people and learned to communicate with them according to their perspective.  I have trained people in virtually every occupation I have taken - and more importantly, been trained by wise persons of every stripe in how to get along in the world.  I grant that I'm a tiger in text, but I also know how to put that on a shelf.  I know the difference between what is important and what is really important.

Atop that, I love this game.  I love every part of it: playing the game, drawing people into the game, talking about what the game deserves and the impact of the game on our world, the details of the game and the philosophy that underlies the game.  I don't write this blog as someone who does the game in my spare time or ever considers setting the game aside to do something else.  I don't consider other things "more important" - partly because I've done those things, side-by-side with company vice-presidents and convicted criminals.  Chasing "Importance" is a fool's game.  Importance is what we love.

The sidebar includes a description of me that I garnered from others' comments about me in the early days of this blog.  I still smile at being described as gonzo or grouchy.  There's something bemusing at being described as an old man shouting at kids to get off my lawn - as I have been on many sites.  And nothing is more definitively accurate as the label, 'Quixotic bastard.'

I'm sure it was pejorative.  I've been described as Quixotic in one way or another since before high school . . . it is what people always say when we try to take arms against anything that seems impossible to beat.  We're told how trying is such a waste, we're told that the surest course is the best course - and all too often we listen.  What we forget is that Cervantes' hero was not a 'loser.'  It is only that he defined 'winning' by different standards than those used by others.  Even in the 17th century, 411 years ago, this was the trial that every person faced: do I resign myself to a life of complacency or do I keep fighting?

That is why I am the right person to teach Dungeon Mastering.  I'm not here to teach you or anyone how to understand the game as you're "meant" to understand it.  I'm here to teach how to live and breathe the game as you, and only you, can.  Personally.  Not the right way.  Your right way.

You're not getting there on your own.  We both know that.

I'm just a windmill.  I look big and scary, I creak and groan and move my arms around, but if you look in your hands you'll see that you have a lance.

Come on and tilt with me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


This has been a thought in my head since round about 1979; I've never sat down to write it, though I have remembered it from time to time.  I remembered it yesterday - and though it isn't new, as I just today found the same observation elsewhere on the net, I'm going to go ahead and write this anyway. Call it fan service.  The post below is based loosely on an essay by Isaac Asimov (but the conclusions are mine).

A 'number system' is a means of expressing calculations based upon the number of symbols used, in order to produce natural numbers - numbers used for counting.  We use what's call the 'decimal' number system, or base 10, in which ten symbols are employed: 0, 1, 2, 3 and so on.  The binary number system only uses two symbols, 0 and 1.

So let's take a number, say "54."  We don't normally think of it this way but the structure of the number represents two columns: the "5" is in the first column and the "4" is in the second column. Express in scientific notation, the first column equals 5 x 101 while the second column equals 4 x 10 to the zero power (100).  Anything to the zero power is equal to 1.  Feel free to read further on exponents on Wikipedia if you so desire.

Let's say you want to multiply 18 by 3.  If you weren't doing this though the use of a tool, you would start by multiply 3 by 8.  You would then divide the product by by 10, putting down a "2" in the 101 column and a "4" in the 100 column.  Then you would multiply 3 by 1 - and since the "1" is already in the 101 column you would again divide by 10 and add the product, "3", to that column:

Simple stuff.

The principle is the same with a 2-based number system, only then the columns are based on 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 and so on.  In ten-based numbers this translates to 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and so on.  Written in 2-based numbers, however, this is 1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000 and 100000.  Each column outwards from the right represents an exponent of 2.

If we want to translate "54" into a 2-based system we would begin by dividing 54 by 32 (1 with a remainder of 22), then dividing 22 by 16 (1 with a remainder of 6), then dividing 6 by 4 (1 with a remainder of 2) and finally dividing 2 by 2 (with  no remainder).  We don't need the "8" column (23) and we don't need the "1" column (20).  Let me express the number using the same sort of table as above:

This is old hat for a lot of you - but believe it or not, some people have never stumbled across this before.  Others took this in school but never really got it, you know?  Some people aren't getting it now, but  - well, we do our best.

So 54 expressed in a binary number system equals "110110."

Very well.  Let's try multiplying six times nine in a 13-based number system.  We typically think of 6 x 9 as "54;" but in a 13 based number system, the columns are 131 and 130, or "13" and "1."

Therefore, we start by dividing 54 by 13, not 10; this gives us 4 with a remainder of 2.  The 2 then fits into the 13column, so our product is 42.  9 x 6 = 42.

This was pointed out to Douglas Adams, who answered, "I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13."  Pity.  This is the sort of thing that comes back to bite writers in the ass.  We sit at our desk, stare into the garden and concoct a number - and then it turns out somewhere down the line that the number means something.

Personally, I choose to disregard Adams' explanation.  Obviously, the number did not come into his head at random.  It was placed there by a 13-fingered God who was trying to send a message to the modern world.  The universe may not fundamentally make any sense, as Arthur Dent noted, but it isn't because 9 x 6 doesn't add up to 42.  It is because God has more fingers on one hand than he has on the other.  God is a freak.  God is an outcast among his own people, creating this world in order to assuage his deep-seated need for both affection and total obedience.  He is a shallow, hurting, abused boy stuck in his room, afraid to go out where he will be taunted and ridiculed, so instead he hides and haphazardly mis-fashions a world (his left hand, the Left Hand of God, has the extra finger and winds up fucking up everything the right hand tries to build) while we remain blissfully unaware of this all-too-important defect.

And millions of Adams' fans missed it.  Perhaps the greatest theological proof in the universe and people missed it!

God must be so pissed.