Saturday, October 29, 2016

3/4 of Britain

Woah.  I spent WAY too long working on that British map.  Here's a teaser of what it looks like now (Google Drive has been updated):

As a matter of bad luck, Britain spreads over four different map
plates, each 30-34 hexes wide and 35 hexes high.  This is the south-
west corner of the four maps.  Later, when all of these are done,
I'll put them together; they overlap as needed to form a single
complete map of anywhere.

Counting from the point where I began plotting cities last Wednesday, adding the borders, figuring out the location of the rivers, adjusting elevations, filling in the sea coast and finally coloring the elevation hexes, I count 17 hours of work for just this map.  That doesn't include plotting in the coastlines and lakes, which was work already done before Wednesday.  I have a measure for the amount of work, because I started listening to Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, which is posted in three six-hour parts on youtube.  I finished the above just one hour short of finishing the third part.

Mapmaking takes a long time; yet while I'm doing it, time flies by.  The above map, it should be evident, is a complicated arrangement of tiny states and provinces, a highly indented coastline, hundreds of cities (which also means carefully fitting in all the labeling so that the whole is difficult to read) and rivers that have to be "just so" since this is Britain and people know it very well.  It would be okay with people if I made an error and the Lena River in Siberia jogged the wrong way before reaching the city of Aldan in Yakutsk (face it, most of you have no idea what I'm talking about), but the Thames better damn well pass through Oxford and Reading as realistically as possible.  This meant a lot of fiddling with river bends and turns, the shape of counties and double-checking more than one of the elevations (as I found out in several instances that my original source, fallingrain, had very second-rate data for England).

And yet there is no way to be happy with the map as shown.  Twenty-mile hexes for England are simply too BIG for England.  For instance, there's a big mound of hills between Manchester and Leeds, reaching from Halifax at the top of the map down into Derbyshire county ~ the Peak District ~ that doesn't show up on the map at all because it just 10 to 20 kilometers in diameter.  Because I use the lowest elevation in any hex with a city in it, and because the Peak District is packed on both fringes with cities ~ really big cities in modern times ~ the highland (which rises above 600 meters or 2,000 feet) simply evaporates from the map.  England is such a densely populated place with a complex topography (though the hills are relatively low to mountains in other parts of the world) that a proper hex map ought to be 6-mile hexes at the most to properly convey the look of the land.

I had similar problems with the Low Countries, Switzerland and Denmark.  I suppose at some point I could make a 6-mile hex map of each of these regions but, well, let's be reasonable.  Such a thing is something that would happen only in my dreams.  As it is, I'm not going to finish the 20-mile map of the world.

I do have one small corner of England left to do ~ but it isn't as many hexes as this.  It is probably about 1/5th the work of the above.  And when it is done, I will be glad.  There isn't any other part of the world that's left (with perhaps the exception of New England in the United States) that will require this level of research, this level of second guessing the sources, this level of city-planting or this level of overall diligence in making sure that it's close to right.  Comparatively, the rest of the world is a cinch.  With Europe done (all except for the Faeroes, Spitzbergen and Iceland), I'm looking at working on places where it takes much less effort to map a mere 300,000 square miles.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Just wanted to drop a note to those Patreon supporters who have access to my map pages.  I'm going to follow a policy going forward that if I make any changes to any of my maps on any given day, I'll update the map before I go to bed at night.

I worked on the Britannia map tonight, map D 30, including southern Ireland, Wales and Western England.  Took me 5 hours to plot the 200 cities on the map and identify the shire boundaries.  The Google Drive page is updated, so have a look any time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Underwater Plans

As I climb out of my cloud of recent illness, taking note that I haven't done any real work on my world in about eight days ~ a horribly long time, enough for me to feel parched for completion like a man struggling to get the top of a canteen in the desert ~ I'm looking at things I need to be doing.

Some readers may notice that I have not talked about my book in a long time.  Allow me to reassure the readers: I am still working on it.  Just now it has been difficult, as the job I'm working has been physically trying (I have lost nearly 25 lbs. of weight in just 55 days), leaving me with little strength at the end of the day for digging in and getting good work done.  At least I am earning an income.  Losing weight, however, has meant less stress on my feet, less pain at the end of the day and ~ thankfully ~ an overall better fitness that I am rather enjoying (when I'm not deathly ill).  These last two months have shown how physically fit I am, since I am feeling none of the ill effects of dropping a lot of weight, while actually looking younger for having done so.  This comes from a lifetime of never smoking, never doing drugs, drinking but not to the point of drunkedness and being blessed with having a lot of natural energy.

Steadily, the words per week on the book have been climbing, so good news there.  In time, this thing will be finished and off my back; I have no desire to rush it.  I thought I would have it done four months ago but, well, these things will be done when they are.  I apologize to anyone who feels they are waiting overlong for the results of the Spring 2016 fundraiser.

I expect to spend my less cerebral moments working on the thieves' sage abilities that got interrupted last week when I found myself laying in bed when not dragging my half-dead carcass three times to work before finally giving in and calling in sick.  I wouldn't hesitate to call in sick with a proper office job, but just now I am working among the morlocks and on this level, daring to admit the limitations of humanity is generally seen as weak and therefore disposable.  I started working on the sage abilities because of beginning my world again (cancelled this last Saturday), interrupting the creation of my British Isles map to do so.  I thought I might try a little mapmaking tonight or tomorrow.

And my thoughts are moving towards the adventure I described last week, which is expected to eventually become an underwater adventure.  Here and there for a few days I've been reading boards and blog posts about people running underwater adventures and I must say the prognosis for finding practical rules that I can steal for my campaign are not good.

See, I have never ~ in 37 years of running as a DM ~ run any underwater campaign.  This has been the result of two principle causes.  The first cause has been that there are no systematic or complete rules in existence for running underwater adventures that I have ever been able to find in all the years I've been searching.  Every single system I've encountered is woefully short on practical boundaries on movement or combat, made worse by the fact that water is a 3-D environment.  I have seen some very silly things on the net of late claiming that "water combat is just like aerial combat!" ~ a ridiculous claim, since water doesn't function like air in the least way imaginable.  Weapons in water do not work like weapons in the air, water currents are much stronger than air currents while gravity acts very differently as humanoid bags of meat tend to float, not fall.  Air movement is necessarily performed with animal mounts or magical aids to movement, leaving both hands free, whereas water movement is performed by swimming, which necessarily makes both hands useless for anything else.

It is clear that the game universe wants to pretend that water simply does not function like water does, which mystifies me.  In an underwater adventure, water is THE obstacle.  All other obstacles are made more deadly and difficult because the players are forced to function in a watery environment for which their limbs are not designed.  They can alter themselves in a number of ways, but all of these ways change the nature of their hands, meaning they must think differently where it comes to combat and the basic function of their bodies.  And this is the big point where it comes to DMing this sort of adventure.

I know that most DMs will simply hand out buckets of waterbreathing and polymorph potions, whatever it takes to make the players feel like an underwater adventure is doable and basically like any other adventure.  I abhor this sort of thinking: "Gee, everyone gets to be a shark for this adventure, won't it be fun!"  I'm all for magical solutions, even party-comprehensive solutions, but free access to magical super-powers just because we are all going underwater are strictly off the menu.  Magic isn't there to be handed out free; if there is magic, it must have a price and I'm not talking about coin.  If the party wants the ability to go under the surface without counting rounds before dying, the deal they make is going to have to be with the Devil ~ or some D&D equivalent.  Otherwise, they're going to have to fight the all-consuming water obstacle as best they can without free samples from magic-dump-R-us.

This brings us to the OTHER reason why I've never run an underwater adventure in all this time.  I run games where the players pick their agenda.  As it happens, my players have never said, "Hey, you know what?  We'd like to go underwater and fight sea-going creatures with our land-humanoid limitations!"  I've had parties talk about the possibility of doing that ~ someday.  I've encouraged parties by reminding them that ships with gold sink to the bottom and collect there, in bigger piles than are found at the bottoms of dungeons, receiving answers like "I guess that's true" and "meh."  Apathy has, so far, kept parties from testing such theories.

So why has this party now decided to give it a try?  In truth, one of the members has been wanting to try an underwater campaign since she was a little girl.  She has only just begun to feel that the party is a high enough level to give it a try.  The rest of the party feels that they, too, are ready for this degree of novelty and so, in truth, I'm on the hook for giving it to them.

I have a strong adventure in mind, one that I might be able to produce and sell as a module, like I did with Ternketh.  I'm glad I'm giving this a try now, after this much experience as a DM, rather than 25 years ago.  I see this being a steep, steep learning curve.

Movement in combat, combat weapons, hitting and damage, adjustments to magic, adjustments to house rules such as wounding and binding of wounds, vertical movement, momentum, water currents, breathing, swimming rules ~ all of these are going to have to be considered, along with other things.  On the whole, I think the adventure as I envision it will be awful for the players.  Awful.  They will grow weary of not being able to employ half their spells because those are designed for land-based combat, they will grow weary of the movement structure, they will grow weary of fighting their way through water, they will grow weary of fighting creatures that move faster than they do, they will feel that the whole long adventure is just dragging out forever, no matter how much experience they're getting ~ and trust me, I intend to dump a lot of experience and treasure on the party to make it all worth it to them.

I will work to keep the momentum as high as possible, to keep the party feeling like they're enabled and rewarded, but the sheer change in the environment is going to test them.  It isn't that the game will be worse or slower, but it will be different in ways they don't expect and to which they won't be adapted.  Novelty is wonderful but it is also trying when experienced in abundance.  Anyone who has taken a month-long energetic vacation knows how tired it is possible to become of novelty.

Yet, hopefully, they'll survive, they'll manage the challenges, they'll climb a level or two (the lower level characters/henchmen are going to climb a lot of levels) and they'll kiss the dry ground afterwards with a sense of triumph that they will remember all their lives.  So that's worth the trouble.

I don't think, however, that they'll ever want to go back underwater again.  At least, not for more than a single combat in an otherwise dry dungeon.  So all the work I'll do for underwater action will probably not be used for my world again.  Oh well.  Writing rules is fun!

Heh, heh.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Sweet Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2016

Picking Pocket Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Criminal Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Missed Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Breaking the Mold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Old Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel quite smug about this.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Picking Up the Ball

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

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

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

Glad to know the old boy still has it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Consequences of Heuristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Further Heuristics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction to Heuristics

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

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

Let's take some time and examine that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Startling Wind-based Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, October 7, 2016

Many Cultures to Make

I have finished the Scotland map.  For those who have donated $20 to my Patreon, the publisher and png files have been duly updated on the Google Drive file so you can have a look at them.  I'll be doing this going forward on any map changes that I make, so if I do update something important the maps will show it without anyone having to wait.

The dragon territories seem most upon people's minds, as they ask me how those work in my world order.  That's understandable; it is certainly the weirdest political division that I've included, mostly because it is the only one that is not a humanoid in some fashion.  It reminds me, however, that I have a very large world yet to fill, massive empty areas in Africa, North and South America, Australia and the rest of Oceania and of course Antarctica.  I don't have enough humanoid races for all of those.

I've already used dwarfs, gnomes, halflings, elves, orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, norkers, ogres, bugbears, xvarts, cameltaurs (like centaurs), djang (from Dray Prescott), qullan, frost giants, githzerai, githyanki, firenewts, flinds, trolls and minotaurs.  It is easy to imagine where I might locate quaggoths, lizard men, tabaxi, aarakocra and kenku, but I'm quickly running out of odd humanoid races and I'm not running out of parts of the world to fill.

Incidentally, I have been thinking of cutting off the Dingwall part of the map from Cromwell's Britain and identifying the inhabitants as berserkers.  Technically, the population density is high enough to be rated as human - but then, berserkers are, kind of, sort of, human.  The idea of identifying the wildest part of the Scottish highlands (along with parts where my Scottish grandmother's family originates, name of Ross) as a bunch of rabid multi-attack per round death engines appeals to me greatly - particularly if I adjust the berserking rules so they can be "normal" most of the time and only berserk when sorely pressed in battle.  And heck, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds anyway - so why not a piece of Scotland where the fighters attack twice, hm?

I have to be thinking, though, of making a dozen other dragon cultures, along with other giants, then onward into regions where live any and all of the other intelligent races.  I don't have a single faerie kingdom created (though I have the sylvan forests of America to settle), I haven't considered Rakshasa (maybe we'll assign one of the minor kingdoms of Burma and make it a Rakshasa-controlled human entity), Drow, doppelgangers, surface troglodytes, gargoyles, mind flayers, night hags, yeti, xorn and umberhulks, not to mention the number of sea-dwelling creatures I haven't considered yet as I've been concentrating on the land.  As I move outwards from Europe in all directions, the residents are bound to get weirder and weirder, particularly as I get inventive as I did when I created Paraguay.

Much to do, much to do.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Week's Work

Well, a week's frittering, really.  Maybe 11 or 12 hours.  Time spent resting after work before getting down to things more serious.

Compare this to the map I posted last week.  Worked the coastlines down to central Lancashire, plotted the cities for this corner of Great Britain and filled in the coast lines (so it begins to look right).  I still have the rivers and borders to draw in and then there's the business of making sure that the map is layered properly (the labels on top and all properly showing, the rivers on top of the borders and both not bleeding into the seas, all that).

The land is proving especially daunting, with all the tiny islands and indents, not to mention squeezing so many burgs into such a small space.  I'm glad I didn't start with mapping Britain.  I needed practice to do this one.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Same-Old, Same-Old

Mr. Plinkett has a new review out after quite a long absence ~ and although tasteless in parts, I cannot help feeling captivated by the rational, unrelenting deconstruction that he manages where films are concerned.  The two fellows he's connected with through RedLetterMedia are infantile man-boys of the lowest order (must be 9gag users), so I can't begin to fathom how that association works - but Plinkett, apart from his need to pander to the lowest denominator, is well worth the movie-length perspicacity of his reviews.

This one is about the Force Awakens - which I haven't seen and which I am likely never to see, until three kidnappers break into my house someday, tie me up and force me to watch the film.  Obviously, I know just about every plot-point of the film from beginning to end, even though I've never deliberately sought out a synopsis, because I use the internet.  The reasons for my disinterest came from the fact that I don't like Star Wars.  I find the characters stale and wooden, I find the story of the first three pictures strained and fairly hokey and - I would guess - I saw the films for the first time at a sufficient age that I just don't feel that wave of nostalgia that seems to possess other people.

Plinkett brought up a good points, however.  Some of his arguments about the film (which don't get started until he spends about 55 minutes eviscerating the Star Wars universe and its new corporate masters, Disney) momentarily made me want to change my mind.  For a fleeting five or ten minutes I was thinking, I'll finish watching this and then I'll load up the Force Awakens on Netflix and watch it.  I was that close.

Then Plinkett killed that compulsion.  He outlined a point that resonated with me, that resonates with me regarding a lot of fan-service content.  The film (apart from plot and character) repeats exposition that we already know, because it is "cool" to hear these new characters talk about the force and the dark side and all that jazz all over again, even though every person sitting in the theatre already knows every detail about it and has known it for most of their lives.

This puts me in mind of something that will seem, to some, like a strong departure, even an unfair departure.  Once upon a time, I used to go to church.  I was raised as a Lutheran boy and for many years I sat through services every Sunday morning.  Then I married a woman who had been raised Anglican and - although I had long ceased to feel any faith or belief - I was married in an Anglican ceremony and I continued to attend services because that is what she wanted.  That was a long time ago now.  I haven't attended a ceremony outside a wedding in 25 years.

The Anglican church is all about repetition, Sunday to Sunday, season to season.  The process is this: after dressing through the morning in readiness to look the part, parishioners arrive at the church and enter a foyer where dozens, perhaps a hundred, other people are milling about.  These people see each other every week and it is a quiet, pleasant opportunity to chat and feel a belonging before groups slowly depart to find their places on the pews.  There is a quiet time for reflection while people control their kids and start to find their sense of self and humility.  A ritual entrance of the choir is followed by a pastor moving up the aisle with a small collection of altar boys or an associate clergy.  The choir opens with a hymn and everyone stands up, finds the hymn in their books and begins to sing together.  They've all sung the hymn before, though there are a lot of hymns and there are generally months that pass before a hymn is repeated.  The hymn finishes and the pastor begins to speak.  There are a few announcements and then the service begins with the same words that are heard every week, with moderate changes for certain times of the year like Advent, Christmas or Easter.

It is comforting.  Even if we don't believe, experiencing the pattern, knowing that it will happen in precisely the same manner, week after week, is comforting.  The failure of religion isn't that the mode doesn't work, it is that we found - as a people - other ways to find other repetitions that can be experienced among a smaller group of people and from the comfort of our homes.  Every football commentary begins exactly the same way, with the same muttering phrases and the same attributions to expectations and predictions.  Every morning we turn on youtube or find our personal news feeds or load up the video game we were playing the night before and slowly we immerse ourselves in something familiar and comforting, with the same expectations and patterns that we know from hundreds of previous mornings.  We read to see what the candidate we don't like has just said the day before that will encourage us to believe they're going to lose.  We scan through the humour sites to get ourselves a little laugh that will make us feel ready to face the day.  We discover that a favorite reviewer who hasn't reviewed a movie in three years has finally released new content and we are reborn.

But some people, see, want to live in this place all the time.  Some of us enjoy the familiar for an hour or two in the morning and then we get on with our day, making new things, reading new things, enjoying the change.  But others just want the same-old, same-old from the moment their eyes open until they blissfully fade into unconsciousness again . . . without any real evidence that consciousness was ever achieved.

I play D&D because it is different from session to session.  The way I design my games and motivate my players, the way that their actions have consequences and the way that their participation has to adapt to the consequences that they created, causes my game to move forward in a way that a dull, familiar hack-and-slash campaign never can.  I don't want to run the same game I ran last year.  I'm here now, in this new place, in these new strategies and this new method - I can't get excited about reliving, I'm too busy living.

There are things that I do enjoy again, particularly movies.  I have movies I have watched many times and I often laugh at the same jokes or enjoy the same sequences.  I often see something new in a film or read something new in a book that I didn't notice before.  But these are my weak moments.  These are the moments when I'm tired or run-down or frustrated with a problem I can't solve.  I relate any and all repetition to weakness ~ just as I relate the people who go to church and bet on football and drink every Saturday at the bar as people who use a crutch to survive a life they are plainly not up to living.  I don't like that weakness in myself; I would rather be working, I would rather have something new to point at, that I can say I did.

So when I think a new film or a new book is just going to tell me something that I already know, I'm apt to choose a different film, a different book.  I have yet to hear anything about the Force Awakens that suggests I'm going to see anything new.  It may be pretty, it may be funny, it may have all the nice actors in it that people liked before, but frankly it doesn't look that pretty or that funny or that nice in the trailers.  It looks, I'm sorry to say, same-old, same-old.

I have better things to do.  Watching Plinkett tear it down, for instance, along with a lot of other things.  Or writing this post about it, which is creating something new.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Churchill's Flood

Just before this past weekend I wrote a post called Acts of Faith.  That was intended to be the preliminary to another post, one that has been floating around in my head for more than a week - but then I got wrapped up with the Expo and some making of maps and I never did get around to it.  Worse, the post was meant to answer a question that a reader asked me - that even after a lot of thought, it's a question to which I'm not sure I have an answer.

This is the best time to plow into things, however.  Just as I would sit and talk to someone over coffee, I find it just as easy to write out my thoughts here online.  So let's get to it.

What is the one thing that anyone could do that would really, truly, be the most valuable thing to make our worlds better?

From a strategical standpoint, where should we start?  It isn't that we won't have time to do other things, in the long run, but given that we have a session that is starting in about two or five or ten days, what can I do today that will make that session run better?

My first instinct is to say that it's too late.  Role-playing is a difficult process and getting better requires forethought and consideration.  Real, relevant change happens in the long term and always after ages of apparent failure and disappointment.  Winston Churchill, in describing British armaments manufacture prior to World War II, belaboured the point that with great things, the payoff is necessarily in the future: "The first year yields nothing, the second very little, the third a lot and the fourth a flood."

Yet his argument is also that we start today because without starting, there is no future.  And so it isn't that we're without a strategy that we can't employ this minute . . . it is that we shouldn't expect a result from that strategy the minute after.

But it isn't true that we can't do something that will affect the session that I am running, say, tonight.  There are a number of practical, useful things I can do, all of which can be managed in the eight hours between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

I can think. For this, I can sequester myself from other people, concentrate my mind on the matter at hand and think.  I'll start by deconstructing the player's reactions so far to the various things they've faced, their apparent motivations, things that they seem to have found expressly interesting.  I can diagnose things that haven't worked, both recently and in my long past, and force myself to think about those uncomfortable things that I would rather forget and examine them for reasons why I screwed up or why the players resisted or resented the ideas presented.  I can settle on an evaluation to my diagnosis and make up my mind to do something tonight that will satisfy that which the players have always liked and eschew that which the players have disliked.

For example: my players who had bought a ship and hired a captain were surprised to find that the captain they hired was an enemy of Spain, having once been a Catalan rebel and a Genoese pirate.  The captain, knowing he was about to be arrested when the ship landed in Morocco, fled the ship, abandoning the party to the first mate, upon whom they then relied upon to continue their journey towards the Canary Islands.  The going was difficult because the mate (now new captain) did not know the waters as well - and yet eventually the party's ship made its way to Aguilar in south Morocco, well out of Spanish influence.

The former captain was then speeding the length of Morocco on horseback, sending a message by pigeon ahead to Aguilar for the party to wait for him; that he had information that was of special use to the party.  The former captain knew the party would have to land in Aguilar to supply before searching the islands of the Canaries, as that had always been the plan.  The party heard the message and decided to wait.  The captain arrived, having spent three days in a library in Fez to acquire his story, then told the story to the party to set up the forthcoming adventure.  There's a huge amount of treasure laying at the bottom of the sea off an island that the former captain (now full captain again) knows and isn't telling.  The treasure was sunk there when the last pretender to the Portuguese throne fled the country in 1580 after the Spanish unification with Portugal, following a sea battle in which many of the Portuguese crown jewels were seized by two Spanish ships that fled south from the Madieras, were pursued, caught near this island in the Canaries and sunk (this last being completely made up for the campaign).
How much treasure could two of
these carry?

The party has heard the story and have decided to trust the captain, to search for the sunken ships.

This is where my campaign was left five months ago, as I struggled to find money, work, organize my life, survive, change places of residence and adapt to endless changes.  Thing is, and I admit this quite freely, I have no plans whatsoever in place for the campaign beyond this point.  I know the island, I have a general idea of what the scene should be, but I haven't decided upon what creatures the players may have to fight, I haven't invented enough rules for underwater adventuring or combat, I haven't made up my mind as to how much treasure is there (enough to get them all up a level, for sure, which will be a lot since they're all 9th to 11th at this point) and many other details.

So, what could I do right now?  Well, I could certainly decide some of those things, yes?  I could start sketching out a map of the treasure's location.  I could sit and think about other obstacles I can put between the players and the treasure to buy myself more time.  I could write rules for underwater combat.  There are definite strategies I could employ today.

I have already set up some major contexts for what could happen.  The captain is clearly not to be trusted.  The historical relationships through which I built the adventure have real documents and references that I can turn to for ideas if I need to.  There could be Spanish still hunting the captain and it must be remembered that the Canaries are a Spanish Viceroy.  And, of course, the players have been adventuring for awhile and have made other enemies not connected to this adventure who could pop up nonetheless.

Most of those things, however, take time, a lot of time, more than eight hours; and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by that and throw hands in the air and shout, "No way!  There's just no way!" before deciding it's a good time to get incrementally better at Overwatch.  "Fuck it, I'll muddle through somehow."

Muddling, however, sucks.  I was muddling with the previous running, with the captain catching up with the party and giving his story.  Much of that running went rather stale, with the party travelling by sea around Morocco and not much happening.  If I had thought about it and taken some time, they could have encountered something without the captain, or come across some other information about the area that had nothing to do with the Portuguese jewels, that could nevertheless now exist as another layer on top of what's happening now.  But I didn't do that because I muddled.  I was tired and I was phoning it in and I knew it.  I knew I was taking a break and I was glad of it, glad to be putting aside my game and paying attention to other things.

Coming back to my game, I can't muddle.  I need a proper strategy.  Bringing this post back around to the main point: what can I do in 8 hours to make this happen?

Hah ~ I can't.  Thankfully, I'm not setting up for a game tonight.  I meant that above as a "what if," knowing that many readers are starting their game tonight.  I'm going to come back around to playing in two weeks ~ and my first night is going to be mostly accounting, updating the players on the rules, getting them set up for the adventure and, possibly, letting them get their feet wet [!] with a minor adventure action and nothing more.  I don't expect to be in a thick adventure until four weeks from now.

So, there's a short term answer for those who are looking for something they can do right now: stall. Skip a session if need be; if that's out of the question, create a very short side-quest into a dungeon or just long enough to keep the players busy for a session that you can muddle through without much trouble, that gives them a boost in treasure and power and makes them better able to handle the actual adventure.  Then use the extra time you've created to design something worthy.

In the very short term, during the session, hold off on bringing the players back to the point.  Let them muddle around, let them overthink things, let them stall for you!  They're having fun and it will give you time to think.  This game - dungeon mastering - is all about thinking.  Do it, practice it, apply it.  Our only chance of improving our short term game is through having one epiphany after another, rapidly enough that we can prove we're smarter than they are.

Yet, this all sounds nice but it doesn't actually answer the question.  What makes the epiphanies work, hm Alexis?  How do I know it even is an epiphany, Alexis?  Answer me that one.  And while you're at it, please explain why you're not just full of shit?

Sometimes, it feels like I am.

I admitted that I didn't have a proper answer to the question. All I've said so far are some of the things I use to side-step the "best thing I can do for my world" question.  Like everyone else, I'm wallowing too; I'm struggling, I'm thinking things up on a dime, I'm putting off the work and not doing the things I should be doing (underwater rules) so that I can frivolously map Scotland.

Fact is, I don't have an answer for what the underwater rules should look like; I have nothing good to base them on, since apparently everyone else who has tried to make such rules had no idea either.  And unlike horses, we don't have a lot of real world discussion about swinging swords and firing crossbows underwater.  People in the Middle Ages and Renaissance did not fight battles under the sea ~ it was a good way to drown.  And there was no reason to do it.

There are a lot of things about the game that I just don't have a straight answer for.  I know how to map Scotland.  I don't know precisely how this adventure with the players is going to go.  So I waste time doing the former (because it keeps my hand in the game and continues to build up resources I may use later) while waiting for inspiration to solve the latter.  It's what everyone else is doing, also.

Churchill's flood pays off when it comes to things like knowing the game rules cold (which DMs should do) or spending a lifetime reading about history (so that I can wonder what happened to the Portuguese crown after 1580 and discover that there's an adventure to be built out of it).  It pays off when the maps are already there and I've done the research to find out how the Canaries were settled and what purpose they serve in the Spanish geopolitik.  It pays off when the players decide to do something really weird and I already have house rules for that or I can base a precedent making decision on something else that I have rules for.  Working at random things in my world every day and all the time steadily accumulates until the immediate needs of the campaign have the potential for inspiration from the knowledge base I've acquired or the habits I've adopted from running my world as long as I have.

Can anyone have that by "doing the most important thing" in the short term?  No.  That's the cold answer.  No.  There is no specific, definite thing that anyone can do that will universally fix every campaign.

But individuals running their games can do the next thing.  And that is really the key.  The next thing.  I did this yesterday, today I'm going to get up and work on this for some time.  And tomorrow I think, if I'm not still doing this, I'll do that.  And so on.  Every day.  Patiently.  Waiting for the flood to happen.