Friday, November 17, 2017

The Size of Antwerp's Economy

This post may disagree or discount previous posts written about game infrastructure.  Where disagreement occurs, this post (the latest in my thinking and therefore design on the subject) is right and former content is wrong.

A few weeks ago, Ian Pinder asked me a question about the meaning of "market" as a reference, and how more market references would affect the trade system.  This was a fair question that I mostly ignored, because I did not have a good answer.  To some degree, a larger market provides a more direct route to far flung trade cities, and more market references increases the total number of references in a region, but aside from that, not much effect.

Formerly.

I can answer the question now because of a connection relating the trade system to the infrastructure system. Before I can get into that, however, a bit of a primer on how the infrastructure system helped describe the world.  You might, for instance, remember me posting maps similar to this:



Basically, looking something like a Civ IV map.  Stavanger is a type-1 hex, Randeberg is in a type-4 hex, as is Hole.  The two hexes south of Stavanger are type-7 (the Lake Camp hex) and type-5 (call it the "SE hex").  These five hexes will serve to make a point, then we can move on.

I wanted to emphasize that each individual hex is interpreted as a stand-alone economy (food, hammers/labor and coins/wealth).  The system I've adopted does NOT use the Civilization strategy where one town counts the surrounding squares or hexes).  For calculation purposes, Stavanger only counts what's in the hex that contains Stavanger: 7 food (loaf and two slices), 5 hammers and 6 coins.  Randeberg is therefore 4 food, 2 hammers and 2 coins.  The Lake Camp hex is 1 food and 2 hammers.  It would be an error, then, to lump these together and say that Stavanger included all these food, hammer and coin references.  I just want to make that clear.

Some readers might also remember that while one food symbol in a hex indicates 1 food, while two food symbols in a hex equals 3 food and not two.  To translate the symbols to numbers, consider the symbols to indicate the exponent in the following formula:

2f -1

Three food symbols would equal 7 food, four symbols 15 food and so on.  Stavanger's food supply, therefore, would be 127 food.  Likewise, it's labor supply as shown above is 31 labor and its wealth is 63.

In the new system I'm building now, Stavanger would be a "guild" town (type-1 settlement hex, different from a type-1 rural hex, which has no indicated town in it).  As a guild town, it gathers local goods for transshipment (+1 wealth symbol), it mills local resources into higher-scale products (fish into dried fish, milk into cheese, cattle into leather) (+1 wealth symbol) and the economy is run by guilds who produce high end materials (+2 wealth).  Stavanger also gets +1 wealth symbol from being on the sea.  That's five total, or 31 wealth as I've described.

Stavanger also has 1 market reference in the trade system: so in this new system, that market reference adds another +1 wealth symbol.  This makes it the same as the map above, though as it happens for a different reason.  In any case, this gives us 63 wealth for Stavanger as before.

But what does that mean?  Well ...

If we add up the total number of references (markets and otherwise) in the world (as mapped so far), we get 25,624.  Each of those references is worth as much as 1 reference of gold, on average about 3,894 oz. of gold, or 33,937 g.p.  That's a total of 869,606,567 ... or, divided into a population of 245,385,032, a total of 3.54 g.p. per person.

A "food" represents the amount of food necessary to feed 100 persons.  "Labor" equals the amount of work 100 persons can do.  And "wealth" is based on the per capita income of 100 people, or 354 g.p.  63 wealth, then, is an economy of 22,326 g.p.  Not counting churn, that being money that passes through the hands of many people on a regular basis, enabling one coin to have the purchasing power of multiple coins, depending on the churn.  But let's not worry about that and concentrate on hard numbers.

Individually, Stavanger is one hex in a region of 14 producing hexes called Rogaland, which then counts as a larger economy. Rogaland is part of Denmark, which is obviously a much larger economy, within all of Europe.

Using the system described, if Stavanger had two market references, it's economy would double.  If it had three market references, it's economy would quadruple.  Four and five market references makes for a BIG economy.

The largest market cities I've included in my design so far, based on references, include Constantinople (9), Lubeck (11), London (12), Bremen (14), Hamburg (15) and Antwerp (18).  Some cities, like Paris, haven't many market references, but have many other productions that will help boost the economy, but we'll keep with just market references, because that's easy to calculate without having to actually map out the area.

Consider Antwerp.  It, too, is a guild town, so we give it 4 wealth symbols.  It then is on a river, so that's another symbol.  Then we add 18 more for market references, for a total of 23.  That's a wealth of 8,388,607.  Multiply this by 354 and the total is ... 2,972,775,783.

Yep.  The trade in Antwerp alone is worth more than three times all the wealth produced by all goods in all the world.  And that sounds crazy impossible ... except, I will remind the reader again of the churn, which is the only possible explanation for Antwerp's economy.  The money changes hands so fast there than it creates a 3 billion gold coin economy in a 17th century world.  And that is not out of proportion.  There was a reason that Spain did not want to let the Southern Netherlands go.

Hamburg isn't nearly as big: only a billion.  Bremen is half a billion, London is 125 million and Lubeck is 70 million.  But it is as I said: there are other things that will affect economy other than market references. Remember the rule from Civ IV that banks increase the economy by 50%?

So far, we're just playing with the simplest of numbers in a system I haven't designed fully.  There's a long way to go.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Defining Culture and Other Things

Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts using the game Civilization IV to describe a methodology for creating micro-infrastructure for the game world.  I wrote posts about food, production, workers and various elements hit upon by the Civ IV makers ... and admitted that other elements, like culture and health, were "problems" that I hadn't solved.

Some problems take time.

I have occasionally struggled with connecting my trade system to other systems that I've proposed, such as the infrastructure system or the more recent tech system.  I have made three attempts on this blog since 2015 to express the tech system as clearly as I can, but it turns out I can't even clearly explain it to myself.  It is a headache of the first order, no doubt about it.  In any case, those "never-too-much-economics" posts are part and parcel of the same problem.

In a sense, with far, far less relevance to the universe than anything Einstein did, I'm struggling right now to come up with a "unified world theory" that would pull these disparate parts of my rules together into a cohesive whole.  I'd like to write a little about that, then write a little about what "culture" might mean in a D&D context.

Here is my thinking, regarding the pulling of these systems together.  The trade system designates the existence of produced goods, tied to regions.  The infrastructure system breaks down a region into smaller and smaller bites, so that we can know the amount of buildings, roads, supplies or production a specific hex has, as small as we wish to go (though I limit my production measure to 6-mile hexes, it could go deeper). The infrastructure, then, could be used as a means to determine the exact points of origin for trade goods, from fish to iron mining to the making of clothing.

The infrastructure also includes a measuring system for available food, labor ("hammers") and wealth ("coins"), stolen from Civ IV.  This measuring system might be directly affected by the trade system, so that if a town produced, according to the trade system, "cheese," then the food supply in that specific town, in a given type of infrastructure hex (remember all those "groups" posts, from 2011?), could be increased because we have a trade reference from that town.

Okay, stay with me here.  This gets complicated.

If we add in the proposed tech system, then we know that a specific level of tech produces an availability of building types: granaries, harbors, theatres, forges, etcetera.  These buildings, then, could also be fit into the infrastructure framework, so that a Type-I hex, with a settlement in it, would mean that the specific building was present, IF the tech were sufficient and IF the circumstances (near the water, say) were right. Furthermore, if we want to steal further from Civ IV, then the improvements that arise from that game could be detemined, in part, by the trade system (which indicates that wheat fields or coffee plantations, whatever) are definitely present in the region's hexes, and in part by the tech system itself, which indicates roads, monuments, city walls, waterwheels and so on.

Those improvements and buildings, indicated by the tech and the trade system, then augment the infrastructure still further, telling us how much additional labor a waterwheel adds, or how much additional food a windmill adds, or how much additional wealth a market adds ~ adjusted according to a long-standing system that has already proven itself.

Places with higher tech will have universities, customs houses and banks, while places with lower tech will not.  These things, in their own way, will affect not only the description of the region and city, but actual details regarding how the city is structured and how that affects what the players want to do.

Part of that means coming up with a meaning for culture.  It's too important to skip over, as the creation of culture by a civilization, particularly as it advances, should be there to define everything about the player's experience as they walk down a street in Paris as opposed to a street in Stavanger.  That has to be measured: and the presence of a measure for culture taken from Civ IV is too damn enticing to ignore.  We have all these marvelous figures to tell us how much culture a specific place creates, due to the presence of its buildings, products, tech and so on ... all that is needed is a meaningful description for what this "culture" actually means concretely.

Not an easy fix.  I've been climbing over Wikipedia for several days, following one link to the next, from culture to social norms to meta-ethics, looking for something that defines the difference between how people with high culture think vs. what people with low culture think.

Fundamentally, humans are ruled by a reward system, which itself is buried in the physical mesolimbic pathways in our brains, something we can't do anything about.  As a species, we are driven towards pleasure and away from fear ... so that culturally, as we've advanced, we've done our best to build systems that contain fear while providing as much pleasure as possible.

Where pleasure is provided only to a few, the system eventually collapses under violence perpetrated by the many, whereupon it is either replaced by a similar system that temporarily provides pleasure for the powerful, or a better system that provides pleasure for a larger proportion of the population.  See, the key to the balance isn't to eliminate misery, it is to reduce the number of miserable persons to a level that they can't meaningfully threaten the number of persons who are living with a tolerable level of pleasure plus those that are living with a lot of pleasure.

This is the "bread and circuses" equation, that says that if we provide nominal pleasure to the miserable, in the form of something that distracts them a little while, they will concentrate on their small amount of pleasure long enough that they won't feel the need to rise up and kill all of us who are enjoying massive amounts of pleasure all the time.

Therefore, I think I've hit upon the fundamental definition of "culture" in the measurable sense is that it establishes the amount of social control in the region.  More coliseums, more theatres, more religion, more of anything that is properly defined by the Civ IV structure, less random misery and street-chaos by the population.  We don't need to make the population happy, just complacent, rewarding them with small amounts of pleasure for obeying the law, paying their taxes, fulfilling their duty by fighting for the monarch, turning in anyone conspiring against the state and resisting any desire to change their lot in life.

Thus, the higher the amount of culture, the more viciously and coldly will come down the deadly hand of social control on the hapless player character who stupidly flaunts the law, supposing that everyone here will find it "cool" or "edgy" to speak ill of Queen Juliana the VII.  That may play out in the sticks, where people are miserable, but not here in this Type-I, Tech-13 city where we all LOVE her.  In fact, I don't think we will even give you a chance to apologize.

That doesn't give me an incremental scale, not yet ... but it does provide a framework from which I might evolve an incremental scale, given time.

Anyway, this is what I'm working on right now.  It is bound to spawn all kinds of interesting posts.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Framing the Solution

My reader kimbo is right when he says that a principal decision in climbing a mountain is time and risk ~ with the logical association that rush makes danger, whereas patience should reduce the probability of an accident.  When looking at a mountain, its natural for the players to consider the lay-out and decide whether or not they want to risk the more dangerous routes, or head around "the long way" in order to find safer, albeit more time consuming alternatives.  This is what I meant when I wrote "time and space."

We have a few considerations to apply to this, however: the first being that the whole mountain is not evident to the players, when the decision must be made.  For a full measure of the mountain, the whole mountain would have to be viewed, and from good, clear vantage points, trusting the weather holds.  It can take a couple of days to march around a good-sized mountain ~ assuming it can be marched around, as it might be part of a range, which might make the far side of the mountain very difficult to assess.  Secondly, the mountain needs to be assessed by someone who knows how; an experienced mountain climber can "see" more in the falls and curves of the landscape that most of us can.  It wouldn't do any good to send the flying mage on a tour around the mountain, unless the mountaineer (more likely a ranger) can go along.

Now add to this that parts of the mountain can't be seen at all from the ground, making themselves evident only once the players are actually in the act of climbing.  A good looking route can have a surprise along the way, where a cleft only 12 feet wide ~ virtually invisible from most places on the ground ~ suddenly makes the route impassable.  The same can be said for overhangs and surfaces that turn out to be less than solid.  Ice and snow are additional variables that are largely impossible to predict.

The only real surety about choosing a route comes from having climbed the mountain before ~ either personally or in the form of a guide.  Nearly all the difficult mountains that were climbed in a rush of ardor with the rise of 18th & 19th century Romanticism were attempted before a climb was successful, often many times.  Like a ship exploring a coastline in the new world, mountain climbers would attempt different routes and make copious notes or drawings, seeking the measure of the task before surrendering, returning to the valley.

It became evident that there were summer routes and winter routes; routes that risked fog; routes that were dangerous due to crosswinds that would create sheets of ice or made balance difficult (changeable winds that could be deadly for a flying mage trying to land on a rocky and uncertain ledge); routes of all kinds.

Still, we want a rule set that encapsulates at least some of this.  I don't think any of it can be limited to a set formula of time vs. space.  Rather, I see a series of "wagers" that the players face.  They can, initially, choose the slower path, which might get them closer to the goal before having to take serious risks, but nothing with a dangerous mountain can be certain.

So the first task is to determine how dangerous is this particular mountain?  Right off, I find myself seeking an established system of some kind.  Growing up near the mountains, I'm familiar with a rating system that's used for ski trails: a green circle for easy slopes, a blue square for intermediate slopes, a black diamond for advanced slopes and a double black diamond for expert only slopes.  In Europe, the system is different, with pistes described as green, blue, red and black, with double or triple black diamonds, orange (extremely difficult) or yellow (ungroomed and unpatrolled).

Obviously, much of a mountain can't be skied at all, but I see no reason not to employ the spirit of the system.  Rather than trying to specify a whole mountain as "difficult" or "easy", individual routes along the same mountain can be described as a string: green, green, blue, green, black, blue, green, black, black. We can then produce simplified versions of "piste maps," such as the one shown below:

Click HERE for full size

We don't have to get anywhere near this complicated.  With a little imagination, we can apply a string of "dangers" to, say, Wildstrubel in the upper left hand corner, with those evident cliffs, uncertain snow fields and glaciers.  We can then see how forks in the string would allow a choice to go left or right, because this way looks "blue" rather than "black" ... even though it might end in a triple-black diamond climb another hundred meters above, where we can't see.

This leaves us with a meaningful resolution for the wagers the players would try: I would suggest that, in terms of success, we see the scale as a series of descriptions, that could be employed by the DM to the player, without actually describing the actual roll that would be needed for success (we do want the wager to have an uncertain quality, though the rule must be rigorously adhered to by the DM ~ no fudging!).  Slopes can be "safe," "easy," "chancy," "tense," "tricky," "risky," "hazardous," "improbable" and "impossible."  This gives us two wagers for each of four types (North American system) or eight wagers among eight types (European system).

In each case, we inform the players ahead of time that the way ahead "looks tricky" suggesting that there is a very reasonable probability that they won't succeed ~ perhaps guaranteeing failure unless someone with experience attempts it.  I should think "tricky" would be the most dangerous an amateur should probably attempt - anything above that is bound to mean a serious fall or accident.

Now, this is the sort of thinking that I'm encouraging where it comes to making rules for anything.  Start by describing how the players might solve the problem (assessing the mountain before climbing); then, defining the structure of the problem (dangers mountains possess, nature of mountain routes).  If possible, use established ideas from professionals dealing with those problems in the real world.  Then, figure out a way to map it (pattern string based on danger code) and then to communicate that map to the players in a way that enables them to make multiple decisions over the course of the adventure.

Then, having established this framework, we can go ahead and add other details, events, monsters, problems and obstacles, in keeping with the motivation-adventure path I described last month.

What's missing from the above are the multiple results that might arise out of failure - and success too, which might increase the character's ability to climb and assess other mountains, as well as perhaps an experience adjustment for characters making mistakes and taking damage.  I'm going to forego this, as I'm starting to get involved in another project.  I don't know if I'll come back to this making a rule series ~ right now, I don't see much else to say about it.  I am open to questions, however, and as readers know, questions tend to inspire me to go deeper into subjects (the adventure path link was the result of a reader's question, nyet?).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Out: the Story Generator

While the Gentle Reader considers the mountain problem, I'll take a post to explain why truth is stranger than fiction.  In the process, I shall also explain why a sports event is vastly more popular than a theatre showing.

When creating a story, a writer will have some idea of the narrative's direction and sense.  However, the creation process itself is informative, and occurs over time ... and therefore, while pursuing the original idea, the writer will have moments of inspiration, will recognize problems in the narrative as conceived and will therefore cull and rewrite portions of the story into something else.  The final product is uncertain.

This uncertainty is an encouragement to the creators.  Artists will often speak of wanting to know how a project will come out, recognizing that they can't actually know.  In a sense, writing is like reading very, very slowly, and deeply, with the story taking much longer than a few sittings to resolve itself.

Once the story is presented to the audience, in whatever form, they, too, have no definite certainty of how the narrative will end.  They may guess, based on experience with reading and clues left by the creator, but there remains a pleasant uncertainty that compels the reader to complete the work.

Obviously, some readers won't finish.  The story does not appeal to them, or they are not sufficiently experienced to read the context of the work, so they quit and move onto another activity.  For the purpose of this post, acknowledging this, the fact of it is unnecessary to the point being made.

Once we have read a book, the uncertainty is much reduced.  Some books retain enough uncertainty, after they've been read, to encourage us to read them again, and thus learn things from the narrative that we had missed, or which are now informed by having read the whole story.  We do know, however, that the end result is a finite uncertainty.  No matter how much we might wish for it, further readings will never equal our first experience.

The strongest benefit of a written story is that it is a shared experience.  Not only with others who hear the story with us, but even with the dead, who described the story as they enjoyed it ... and with those yet unborn, who will one day learn of the story and become part of the club.  As I liked stories as a child, I shared them with my child, and will one day share them with my grandchildren ~ and they, in turn, may do the same.

But the story itself doesn't change.  It can't change.  It can be written into a new story, like a zombie version, or it can be added upon, but these are really just desperate attempts to revivify the original.  The original is what it is; it will never be different.  And because of that, at some point, it can no longer change what we are; it can't make us different.

Real life is nothing like a story, because no matter how many times we may view the experience, it is never the same.  We draw samenesses between events because we're human and we need to protect ourselves; if we break a bone that we broke once before, in the same way, we tell ourselves that it's the same; but it isn't.  The bone we've broken isn't fictional; no one wrote that experience; it just happened, in a completely uncertain way that is, the more we think about it, more and more frightening.  By pretending that the world is the same every day, we comfort our fear.

When we leave our house, we can never be certain we will return.  Today, we may not.  Or we may return changed forever, perhaps in ways that we would rather not consider.  Ever.  Today may be very, very, very different.  That is uncertainty.

This is the uncertainty the story-maker experiences when writing the story; through no fault of the writer, the story may change, because events around the writer changes the writer's perception.  Story-making is a game, not a narrative.  It is a game because it hasn't happened yet.  Because it is uncertain.

When we watch a sports event, there are many things about the event that will be similar ~ but no one, not the players, not the referees, not the audience, no one ~ knows what may happen.  Because this is real.  The experience is not limited to what happens on the field, or the scope of the stadium.  This may be the day the game ends with everyone dying in an earthquake.  We can't know.

We are more compelled by what we don't know than what we do.  Uncertainty, however frightening, makes the best experience.  A story may give this to us, to some degree, the first time; but it will never give it to us in the sense that real life can.

This is why a rule set, the kind that enables endless uncertainty, is better than a "story."  Because a rule set is a story generator.

Write a man a story and he will enjoy himself for a day.  Teach a man how to write stories and he will enjoy himself for a lifetime.


Friday, November 10, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Theoretical Frameworks

I went looking for a video that would explain theoretical frameworks with wonderful images and conceptual relationships, like this video explaining changing education paradigms ... unfortunately, theoretical frameworks are not sexy.  In fact, they're mostly explained by very, very dull sociology PhDs trying to encourage graduate students to use them.  I watched three of these torture-scapes.  I would not recommend sitting through the whole of that last link, nor any link associated with it.

Basically, a theoretical framework is what our grade 4 teacher tried to make us understand about writing essays: that the point is not to just give information, but to research in order to determine what part of the content is yet uncertain.  Why, for instance, did the Roman Empire collapse?  The essay is an attempt to answer that question.  Part of the essay should explain why the answer is feasible, or possible, and how precisely that it makes a contribution to existing arguments that have already been made.

No one expects a 4th grader to produce a contribution: but we do expect graduate students to do so, even if it is a very, very small contribution to a very, very negligible part of the discipline.  At least it's a contribution. If we're not making a contribution, there's no point.  It would only prove that we know what others know; and that's what your undergraduate degree was for.  We expect more if you're going to keep studying.

Okay, putting this in the context of games.  You're settling down to make a new rule, or set of rules, for a game or a new game you're designing.  The principles are the same.  We want to know, what problem is this rule meant to solve?  How will it fit into an existing framework, so that it works with other rules?  Why is your approach to the rule feasible, or practical?  And, finally, how does your rule make a contribution to the game itself?

If your rule seems to solve a problem that other rules have already solved, and you can't explain to others why that's not the case, then you've failed.  If your rule wrecks other rules that work to solve their problems, then you've failed.  If the implementation of your rule is difficult and hard to understand, or so time consuming that players won't use it, you've failed.  Your rule has to contribute, not obscure, undermine or confuse.  If you're not clear on how your rule contributes, your thinking process is muddled.

Let's look at the creation of a rule as an example.  For this, I'll choose a rule that I haven't written; and is, in fact, a problem I haven't solved.

The problem:  As part of an adventure, the players are faced with climbing a mountain that will enable them to reach the lair or a creature, or the entrance of a dungeon.  The mountain, perhaps within a range of mountains, is steep and dangerous.  The characters have no specific mountain climbing abilities.

The proposed contribution:  The mountain-climbing experience will be interesting, immersive and ultimately a game in itself, providing the players with the some of the tension we would expect them to have if they had to actually climb the mountain.

The problem has not, to the best of my knowledge, been solved.  I have run into other mountain-climbing rules, but these are generally flat and lifeless and feature details focused on measuring distance, not providing a legitimate immersive experience.  Remember, what we're looking for is Bogost's procedural rhetoric. Furthermore, the rule has to fit into existing rules: so we can't change the character-design by adding extra pieces and logic that doesn't then fit into the rest of the system, nor can we change rules about falling, nor adjust varying rules applying to dexterity benefits and the thief's ability to climb walls (which, it must be noted, are very different from sheer rock surfaces).  To be immersive, the rule also has to fit the player's actual personal experience with rock climbing in the real world, at that experience is also a "rule" that has to be reflected in the rules we write.  Finally, the rules can't be excessively complicated or incompatible with the ideal of "tense, thrilling danger."  Too many rolls, too many calculations, too much problem solving will ruin the proposed contribution.

Ideally, I think it should be possible to resolve the mountain-climbing experience in about 30-45 minutes; if the rule-system is elaborate enough to allow creativity, and the procedure direct and easy-to-understand, something that would take as long to play a hard game of chess would fit our goal.

That's a high bar.  But if you're not willing to compete at this level, take your ball, go home, stop game designing.  You're not suited for this.

What structure is needed?  That's what I spoke about in the last Rule post:

  • How do we incorporate time and space into the system, in order to let the players control the experience without relying upon random rolls that serve as a pass/fail result?  What sort of preparation can the players make regarding the mountain that will change the parameters of their experience? How will their control of time and space eventually lead to the wager they'll have to make on surviving the challenge?
  • How many paths up the mountain can we provide?  Can we do this without having to map the entire mountain, which would only mean having to map the next mountain and the mountain after that.  What designs can we incorporate into the rules that will make the mountain's structure fit into the rule set as a random collection of possible surfaces/routes, so that: a) before the players climb, they can pick a route; and b) during the climb, they can learn about the environment well enough to strategize upon risking a different route?  How many times can this decision be incorporated into the rule system?
  • Can we get along without a single death-save die roll?  Can we minimize the number of rolls, hinging them on the player's decisions, or increase the number of rolls with really ridiculously low chances of failure?  If the players are moving along a ledge, and are forced to make ten rolls to succeed, and each has only a 1 in 500 chance of failure, does that increase or decrease the immersive quality of each roll?  We can either start with a minimal number of rolls, increasing their frequency as the players make bad decisions, or we can start with an excessive number, decreasing rolls as the players make good decisions.
  • How many effects can we include in the results?  There's more to lose than lives; there's equipment, loss of hit points, loss of body parts (if it is very cold, frostbite), the inability to act (forcing someone else to save the victim), a chance of being separated from others, unconsciousness, delusion, hunger, thirst, a loss of spirit to go on and whatever else we can include.
  • What rewards can we provide apart from the success of reaching the obvious goal?  What else can be found or learned on the mountain?  What skills can be acquired from the ordeal?  What status can be gained, if there are others coming along or others who know of the party's intent?
  • And for those who will perceive the problem can be solved with magic, what updrafts, steady winds and dangers might be present for those who believe they can simply fly or levitate their way to the top?  If a teleportation spell is used, are the players then trapped on the mountain top until the spell can be reused, unable to get down, because they don't know the best route?  Being D&D, we want to consider issues like this as well.

Always, the manner in which these questions can be answered best rests in solid, detailed research into actual mountain climbing.  Considerable research.  And a great deal of brainstorming.

Let's leave it here for the time being.  Give it some thought.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

I Won't Be Here Forever

You can see from the monitor that I'm all right.  I am not now in the hospital, though I was this morning ~ I was there to find out what was going on ... and the doctor decided to find out if I'd had a heart attack or a stroke, because I had experienced a steady pain in my high left side starting the evening before.

There seemed no reason for panic.  The doctor was just being sure; but I took advantage of the situation and took a selfie.  What the hell.  Sorry if the nipple offends; I have a secret desire to be as infamous as Janet Jackson.

Judging by the various displays and the doctor's feelings about it, I'm good to last for some time yet.

The problem, as it turned out, is interstitial bruising of the inside of my rib cage wall, probably from the heartburn and sustained stomach acid attack I experienced yesterday, which went on for five very unpleasant hours.

I'd just like to finish that the 2.25 hour hospital visit I had this morning, with an EEG, bloodwork, and the use of an emergency bed, was free.  Paid for by my fellow Canadians and myself.  Thank you all.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Deconstruction

Deconstruction is the thing.  It makes sense to start with a rule that works, deconstruct that rule and see what we can learn from that.

Demonstrably, the most successful rule set in D&D has been the combat system, though many people argue that from the view that it is boring or that it fails to meet an imposed simulationist "standard."  Here I'm going to resist getting into the details of the various systems that have now resulted from multiple rule changes, concentrating on the rule system's fundamental precepts.  And let me just take a moment to add that these precepts do not just apply to D&D, but to most table-top role-playing games that seek to resolve a physical confrontation between combatants, regardless of the tech of weapon.  That is because the principles are universal: to hit something, there has to be a determination of hitting; once a hit has occurred, there has to be a determination of effect; because things are attempting to hit, or attempting to avoid being hit, there is movement, so there must be a determination of location and a comparison between these locations that awards opportunity; and because the world is cluttered, there must be a determination of obstacles, surfaces and physical restraints on movement, and therefore on the opportunity to hit, the chance of hitting and the effect of hitting.

I expect most of my readers already know this, but for those who are younger, who are perhaps less inclined to read, who just have not taken the time to explore the issue, I'll make the point that the combat system came before the role-playing idea.  Gygax, Perrin and others developed a set of rules they called Chainmail, enabling them to play a strategy game involving armor and medieval weapons.  Long before they published, they had hundreds of hours of experience with their own combats, with representing cardboard chits as game units.  Despite this low-level immersive quality, they could not help noticing themselves that when certain chits managed to survive battles with unusual frequency, they began to do something very human: they anthropomophized those chits.  The "survival" was nothing more than the argument I made a couple of weeks ago: that an audience full of standing people flipping coins, sitting down when they roll a tails, will eventually produce a phenomenon where one random audience member will remain standing, flipping head after head with astounding consistency.  This is called a statistical anomaly and happens with terrific frequency when a really large number of variables collects.

The combat system of Chainmail produced enough variables that it seemed unlikely to the participants that one particular combatant could survive so many battles, when random numbers seemed to indicate a more likely death.  The participants began giving these chits names and of course personalities ... and this in turn led to the creation of rules that would enhance the legitimacy of those personalities, a process that culminated in the crude, simple rule systems that produced the first role-playing games.

This is why I say that the rules surrounding the combat rules are demonstrably the best rule concept in the game, as no other rules that have come since then have succeeded in producing a similarly independent, wide-spread game culture out of the RPG phenomenon.  Some might argue "role-playing" itself, except that this is a result of the combat system and remains dependent on the combat system to support the consequences of in-game conflicts.

Why, then does the combat idea work?  It is sometimes argued that combat is based on a negative/positive result: one either wins or loses, based on the die roll, and that is a weak rule idea.  I have argued as much myself, on many occasions.  However, this is a gross simplification of the combat system as it stands.  Success does not rely on "a" negative/positive result, but upon scores of said results, as many as 20 to 50 results per round, depending on the size of the combat and the complexity of the given system.  This multiplicity of negative/positive results produces a statistical normality, in which anomalies occur that themselves produce unlikely and therefore exciting effects.

Let's look at the four points about all combat systems that I touched briefly:

  • Combatants are located in time and space; this location offers opportunities for strategy in the way they are free to shift, approach, collect into groups in order to improve their tactical superiority, back away, and play with how much time they have to prepare before actual combat occurs.  Since preparation of equipment and powers is an important feature in how combat is resolved, more time, won through careful movement strategy, greatly increases survivability.
  • Combatants must obtain an opportunity to attack defenders, whether through closing quickly and enabling the cut off of preparation by opponents, or using weapons that can be employed at a distance, so that defenders or would-be attackers can be eliminated at a safe distance.  Opportunity is mitigated by the ease of movement over the battlescape, or obfuscated by solid features or movable debris, so that the actual problem of obtaining opportunity when it is wanted is a strategic goal.
  • Once opportunity is obtained, combatants are forced to resolve the "wager" of attempting combat by actually rolling dice, a matter that can be modified by preparation and opportunity, but which is ultimately subject to the statistical probability and anomaly of random numbers.  Wagers are paid off by successful hits, while losses are applied to the reduction of further opportunity and the fact of giving the opponent a chance to determine if their wager to hit might pay off.
  • The effects of winning wagers, where a hit occurs, are then widespread and extraordinarily varied, challenging the struck combatant to survive the hit, have the opportunity to return the hit again and make the decision if "breaking off" from the combat isn't the better strategy.  Scattered along a line of a dozen combatants, each particular combatant's response to the effect of being hit has great potential for creating emotional immersion [as does the winning of successful wagers to hit].
To these we can add a fifth effect, those who will take this collection of combat results and choose to react immersively to these results, shouting that "I'm going to kill him!" or "Fuck, one more like that and I'm dead!"

This is the combination of rule-creation that we're vying to achieve ~ but not to worry, no one expects this sort of success, not even the original makers, who more or less stumbled into this because they had access to a number of technological improvements in the late '60s that enabled this breakthrough.  The combat game mechanic from D&D worked because a) it was logical in its use; b) it returned an emotional/visceral effect; and c) it was easy to adjust and expand, as desired.  It still is.

If we want to learn from it, what are the takeaway lessons?
  • Incorporate time and space into the rule structure, in a manner than enables the player to control these factors to some effect, without this being a random roll.  Ensure that the players have an opportunity to prepare in some meaningful way, that will promise an adjustment to the wager they will eventually have to roll in order to see if they succeed in what they're doing.
  • Where possible, produce more than one possible path towards success.  Just as combat includes elements such as missile weapons, spells, the use of animals, the structure in which groups interact together and so on, in addition to stepping forward and swinging, ensure that the rule system you're creating enables the player to create a strategy that doesn't rely on one single obvious course of action.
  • Minimize the effects of die rolls while maximizing the number of rolls, so that life/death or success/failure depends upon a statistical collection of results, rather than a single flat roll.  Obviously, in many cases, there should be a natural limitation to how many rolls are practical (or how many details can be meaningfully be rolled for); the goal is to find just enough rolls, with mitigating wagers, that make the activity interesting.
  • Make the effects of winning and losing wagers interesting.  Just as varying forms of combat has the chance of reducing hit points, ability scores, potential for movement, consciousness and location, seek to remove points from various stockpiles in the player's possession, including wealth, status, health and associates.
  • Produce a reward that encourages the players to return for the promise of that reward again and again.  The rewards of combat are varied and drive the entire game.  Even if your rewards are that phenomenal, try to make them as meaningful as possible for the player's experience.
  • Always direct your rule systems towards immersion.  If the player does not feel like they are actually experiencing the effects of the system as if they were real, to at least some degree, then your rule system needs more work.
To do this, you will need to construct a theoretical framework.  This is where we will begin with the next post.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Introduction

Most games are defined by their rules; we recognize what chess or bridge are by the manner of the pieces or the way in which the cards are played.  Most of the time, if there is a change in the rules, this usually indicates that we are playing a different game.  There are many, many versions of bridge, for example, where a change in the rules indicates that we're playing whist, pinochle, hearts, euchre and so on.

Generally, this is not the case with role-playing games.  In order for the game we are playing to be considered different, there has to be a major shift in the methodology of the game.  Even with genre, we're prepared to accept marked differences: if I were to propose a campaign in which the Masquerade would take place during the 1st century BCE in Rome, we would still call it the Masquerade.

And so, if we play with fairly accepted core rules, we're allowed to continue to call a game D&D [or whatever].  Since there are numerous "core rules" now, some of them quite fairly distinct from the original versions of the game, we have considerable latitude in which rules we play and how we want those rules defined.  This encourages virtually everyone to feel comfortable changing rules, since that is a distinct feature of RPGs.

Unfortunately, there are no dictums for how a rule should be rewritten or how a non-existent rule should be created.  On the whole, the process is a mystery ... with a fair number of would-be designers wallowing around without much success while a number of voices are now being raised to say that they want less rules, not more, and that rules-as-written neatly takes care of all this amateur designing mayhem.

I would be prepared to accept that, except that this is D&D and the "rules-as-written" are massively underwritten, under-presented and, in many cases, just not thought through.  The rules-as-written phenomenon expects players to change their expectations of the game to suit the rule-book, rather than the far more dynamic opportunity of driving the game by advancing the rule-book.  The argument against more rules is a gut reaction to multiple epic fails coming from a lot of different places: bloated rule systems, contrast shocks resulting from four new editions all launched within the space of 14 years (three of which are incompatible), an endless flame war consuming the community on every aspect of game design and a general ennui promoted by a conceptual vision that has seen mediocre development in the whole time of the game's existence.

We're making new rules, yes, but we're not doing so from a design viewpoint that has a theoretical structure: we're going on our gut, arguing that when it works, it's okay, without any real idea of what defines "works." At best, we're relying on people voicing their feelings about a given rule, which makes further development on a particular idea impractical or ineffective.

Am I the person to address this?  I'm not so sure. With my last post, I expressed my attitude that I am relatively alone in the practice of RPGs, being met with arguments that less rules are better because they are "simpler to build upon," which basically means not building at all; or that they are "easier"; or that complexity is an "obstacle" for new players.  I don't remember that campaign from Android where they argued that people who have never used a phone before shouldn't use their platform because the complexity is an obstacle for first-time users.  Too, I'm told that having to fill out "long lists of calculations" [that is, copying numbers onto a page, occasionally having to add or subtract like a 2nd grader] puts off "intelligent, creative folks" and that it is an excessive learning curve, far too excessive for ordinary humans to master.  Given such extraordinary expectations on my part, frankly unreasonable in every possible way, I'm beginning to feel that most role-players are just ~

Hurm.  Well, see, that's how the last post went.  I started off with a reasonable introduction into rules progression and let myself off the chain regarding my deepening lack of respect for participants who make such arguments.  It suggests that millions of words can't actually educate, that what's fundamentally needed is some sort of nanny-program that can be systematically designed to simply by-pass the need to think, thus enabling these intelligent, creative people to play at the level of grade 10 high school students.  As I was, when I first started playing the game, making long lists of calculations while carrying five and ten hour conversations with my peers about what kind of changes we'd like to make to the rules of this game that was only five years old at the time.

Clearly, I am having trouble getting over this particular angry hurdle.  I was going to say that I'm probably not the writer to explain how to make rules, because I am plainly just out there ... but after a few days of research, in which I was hoping to find academic content on the theory of rule design, I might just as well be the one.  Because there is no one else.

Ian Bogost wrote an interesting book, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, which incorporates some compelling content on his theory of procedural rhetoric, but unfortunately it's not the vision I have about how to teach someone how to make rules for, say, players to mountain climb.  Bogost's argument is basically that a game about mountain climbing will produce an immersive experience that will increase one's personal experience with the nature and feeling of mountain climbing, enabling one to more thoroughly interpret the emotional and intuitive response of mountain climbers, having sort-of been one in virtual reality (I suspect Bogost watched David Cronenberg's Videodrome in his youth), but that is only loosely connected to how to actually make rules that enable the procedural effect he postulates.  It suggests a goal for making rules, and an effective one: but not the structure on how to achieve that goal.

Beyond that, it's an empty field.  Just now, we're relying on young, imaginative game designers to immerse themselves in playing games, and thus be altered by the procedural rhetoric of that experience to a degree that they comprehend how to make games ... but it's lightning in a bottle, really.  Not everyone who spends a lifetime playing games will be touched sufficiently by that rhetoric ... promoting the very incorrect notion that game making is a special talent that is only available to the specially blessed and talented.  This is how people used to feel about medical practitioners, people who could write letters and those who could understand math.  As it turns out, once those things were properly deconstructed, it turned out that even an ordinary person can be taught how to perform a tracheotomy, compose an essay or resolve algebra.  The only thing that keeps the ordinary person from designing a video game right now is that the educational theory is way, way behind the technology and there's little motivation to encourage it to catch up.

So, if you want to learn anything about rule making, I'm sorry, you're going to have to rely upon grumpy old me.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

You're Just Not Me

I finally listened to the recording of the WHTSI podcast ~ I find that a hard go, it just never sounds right to me.  I really understand these actors who never watch the films they're in.

There's a part where I talk about rules being enabling and not restrictive; I'd like to tackle that in print, where I sound better and not like I'm embarrassing myself.  Here goes.

I don't want to be pedantic about this, but we will need to understand the term "rule," so here's the definition I'll work inside.  Rule: a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.

Let's take a single instance of governing conduct within D&D.  With my weapon in hand, I roll to hit an opponent.  The principle goes that I have to achieve a certain number on the die in order to succeed, and thus remove hit points from my enemy, in an attempt to remove my enemy as an obstacle.

Now, there are rules defining hit points and defining the die number needed to succeed, but let's just focus specifically on the circumstance of attempting to hit.  Effectively, the understood activity is that my character, or entity, is in combat with another entity, and that I have the explicit right to attempt to remove that entity as a threat.  The rule to hit is designed to address this.

But let's be clear: for the rule to be explicit, it has to be understood that my entity's position is directly in front of the enemy entity's position, and that the enemy is facing me.  What if the entity is not facing me?  Does that change the sphere in which the particular activity is taking place?

If we argue "no," then we are making the decision not to increase the variability of the combat sphere.  If we argue "no," then two entity combatants might as well not have a front or a back, since we have decided not to make a rule governing that situation.  However, to add nuance, to add opportunity to the combat experience, to make it deeper and richer and therefore more interesting, we can argue that the defendant's facing matters!  If it does, we will need to create a rule that will govern the defendant's facing.

And if we want to make a judgement that attacking the enemy from the flank is a different activity that attacking the enemy from the back, then we need a different rule for that as well.  Each time we want to expand the sphere in which we operate, we need to increase the number of rules in order to maintain the expansion.

Yes, naturally, there is a limit to how many rules we can practically maintain within the game space.  Rolemaster's appearance near the beginning of the RPG era coincided with an idea called "hit location," which proposed that any hit should include a random roll to determine which part of the body was struck, with a commensurate effect depending upon the result.  At first, this seemed like a wonderful idea, and most games I was involved with, including my own, ran towards hit location with gusto.  At first, it seemed to work marvelously.

However, while the location rule's complexity was suitable for one-on-one fights, it quickly lost its appeal when the number of combatants increased.  Five opponents against five player characters was manageable.  Though it slowed combat, the effects were interesting and the time could be allowed.  Once the game reached ten opponents against five player characters, however, the increase in necessary rolls verged on annoyance.  At fifteen or twenty opponents against a party, battles that might take half an hour to run were now an hour and a half.  Even with the hit location table open on the table, constantly having to address it again and again, along with the effect, along with keeping track of multiple effects, seriously began to wear on everyone's patience.

Those who stayed with it for a few months were able to memorize the tables and that improved the manageability - but by that time, we could not help noticing the repetition of more common results, which itself increased our annoyance and impatience with the system.  After five or six months of playing in games with hit location, we just did not give a fuck where the blow landed ... and all but a few games I knew dropped the system.  Fundamentally, the rule added to the verisimilitude of the combat experience ... but because it was entirely based on random numbers, hit location did not improve the player's opportunity for play.

If I know that my approach against the opponent's flank or rear will improve my chances of hitting, then what I want from a rule is the right to arrange that situation.  If, however, my character's position in relationship to the opponent is a random chance, then this rule offers nothing with regards to my personal ability to play the game.  It's just bother without a meaningful payoff.  It's a bad rule.

Where people respond to the addition of rules to the game, it is most often a response to bad rules.  3rd Edition was a composite of hundreds upon hundreds of similar bad rules, which despite having a structure that enabled characters to tailor-make their characters, the stitching inside the tailoring reduced the act of game play to a die roll.  For the most part, those involved in that version failed to understand where the fault lay.  As such, the structure was allowed to linger as a game design flaw for more than a decade; it was only after the presentation of 4th Edition that at last people began to see that the game's structure had seriously gone astray ... with the only imaginable alternative being to go back to the basic structure of an easily understood, rules-lite game system, such as B/X.

But this was more of a gut instinct than a clearly understood deconstruction.  Like a cook that empties a shaker of salt into the soup, making the soup so salty that it cannot be eaten, the game makers have decided that the solution is NO salt, none at all, because salt is obviously bad for soup and no sane person would add it.

I expect this problem will right itself.  However, examining my own comments on the matter, I feel that I'm probably not helping.  I have a tendency to embrace new rules, which I design specifically to expand opportunities for the players.  To others, this sounds like a lot of detail that, surely, can only serve to overwhelm the DM during the game.  "For fuck's sake, Alexis, I can barely manage the rules that I have!  And you want me to adopt more?"

Yeah.  I suppose people do look at my version of play like that.  I don't know what to tell them.  The search engine on my computer and on my wiki lets me dredge up obscure rules I wrote four years ago in seconds, although occasionally I do forget the name of that old file.  But it may be that I have an unusual memory, or that I have some unusual skill with search engines and finding things, that others don't possess.  If, during a game, I don't have time to look up a rule, because I'm already looking up something for some other purpose, I will tell my players to look it up.  And they will.  But perhaps that is because I have some special way with people, or I'm profoundly intimidating, that enables me to impel other persons to carry out my will without complaint.  Players seem to be able to look up the rules without any problem, and understand the rules, even turning them against me for their own purposes, using my own words as a weapon.  And I go along with that.  But maybe that's because I have some unusual quirk in my brain that's willing to concede to a player's willingness to argue with me; maybe its because I don't care as much about my preconceived world or my designed adventure as other DMs, or perhaps I'm faster at adapting to an unexpected thwarting of my expectations.  And perhaps the rules are comprehensible because I have an unusual skill as a writer and as a designer that other DMs can't achieve.

Perhaps everything I say about running a game, about working at the process and understanding it, about writing down rules and putting them in an electronic format so that all the players can read them, all the time, can only work for me because I am totally and completely a different person than every other person running RPGs.  Perhaps my advice can only work for me, because a person has to be me before they can appreciate what a good rule set can accomplish.

If so, then I'm wasting my time.  When I say, put the rule book on your lap and type the rules into a computer, until your fingers and your wrists are sore, there's no possible way that advice can be valuable because, well, you're just not me.  You don't think the same way.  You can't learn things like I have learned things, in the 38-odd years that I have painstakingly gone about steadfastly repeating and repeating the work that I've tried to do.  You can't memorize more than you have, no matter how many decades you work at it.  You're fundamentally crippled in some way that I am not crippled.

I suppose that must be it.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Justifiable Homicide

When I was no more than five or six, I remember my parents taking us three kids to a little strip mall in the northwest corner of Calgary, where there was a pet store, a model shop and a Simpson's Sears.  Circa 1970.  I can see the looping letters on the side of the brick building, my first experience with a department store.  But of course, that was just a place for the uncomfortable experience of having my mom fit me for shoes and pants and stuff.  Not a place for fun.

At six, the pet store was the fascination.  Though nature shows existed on television, it was all black and white - whereas fish tanks were rich in vibrant colors, along with scurrying hamsters, snakes, spiders, lizards, puppies and kittens.

Within a few years, however, towards eight or nine, it was the model shop.  Begging my parents for three bucks for a P-38 or a model of the Missouri battleship, wishing for the unimaginable $78 box for a two-foot long model of the U.S.S. Constitution ... oh lord, how I did spend many hours fiddly bits of plastic and the smell of glue.

That little strip mall was eventually enclosed and expanded, becoming "North Hill Mall," repeatedly enlarged over the decades, revamped, reimagined ... I out-grew modelling about the time the model shop closed forever.  Video and computers became my fascination, as they did for everyone.  A first-class video arcade opened in the mall, expanded ... only to slowly diminish, then sit empty, then disappear.  A blockbuster video rental store appeared, expanded ... then diminished, sat empty and disappeared.  Technology enables, then destroys.

The mall itself is an example of that.  In 1970, Calgary had 389,000 people.  As people rolled in, filling new suburbs, indoor walk-through malls proliferated and appeared everywhere.  As the suburbs grew larger and further apart, the inner city malls lost their customers to huge, outer city box store parking lots.

North Hill mall has always been an anathema.  Placed between the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and the University of Calgary, it has always been empty.  Except, perhaps, for a few weeks every Christmas.  There's nothing to buy there.  There's nothing to see.  There's the Sears, still the mall's anchor, but the rest of the mall is a desert of faux-fashion clothing stores, cell phone outlets and assorted crap that appears and disappears with yearly regularity.

And now, Sears Canada has officially died, amidst a flurry of corporate greed, corporate idiocy and a blatant denial that it is no longer 1970.  It has taken a long, long time for Sears to die ... but those of us in Canada who have been here to witness the event knew it was coming 35 years ago.  It only goes to show how deep the pockets were.

Sears here is dead because the owners, despite their wealth, refused to believe that technology enables, then destroys.  And most who have lived on the earth more than a few decades still haven't learned that lesson.  Everything that we know, that exists now, in the form that it exists, is already on its last legs.  In a few decades, it will all be dead, dead as video arcades and video rental shops.  Dead as video tape itself.

But don't worry, it will be replaced by something better.  It always is.

I'm happy that Sears is dead.  All that land, all that empty parking lot space, all that empty mall hallway without people in it, all those shitty shops appealing to three people a day (and I have known counter people working in the mall who would testify to those numbers), can all die forever, to be replaced by a product that arrives at my door in three or four days, and I will feel nothing.  Because that mall was ugly.  That mall served no purpose.  That mall needed to die.

Those people who just can't get this; who can't believe that their cherished nostalgic memories of model shops, pet stores and even black-and-white television; they will chafe and complain and resist the change with the last marrow in their bones ... but they won't go to the malls or buy enough pets or sustain a business still trying to keep video tape alive.  They won't hesitate to buy on the internet and fail to buy at a counter.  They will bitch, but they will carry themselves along with the changes that technology brings because it is better.  It is more interesting.  It is more fun.

The least opinion of value in the world is the one that claims that the way we used to do things was better.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Dexterity of 7

Fell down a flight of stairs today. Was carrying a hotel pan of sizzling hot tomato bisque in two hands, when another cook decided to fly up the stairs, his head down, because he was in a hurry. I stopped him, avoided the collision, then took a step to the right to let him pass. And then, when I took my next step, there was no stair there.

I stumbled down, nailed myself several times on the left hand side with the metal railing as I struggled not to deadfall down the stairs. I kept the pan in my hands, half juggling it, until I was at the bottom, when I finally had to let go of it to grab the railing. The pan hit the floor, losing only one third of its contents - with bisque, you oven cook the tomatoes until they're on the edge of burning, to bring out the flavor - but that meant tomatoes all over the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling.

Cleaned it up, made the remaining five liters of bisque and slowly cooled down while cutting a dozen heads of lettuce.

Life in a kitchen.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Two Camps

Be sure and hear this podcast, to which I was invited.

Meanwhile, let's tackle this, from Silberman on October 22nd:

"Does the DM's pursuit of her narrative liberate the game from the stodgy rules, or do the interactions of multiple die rolls and player moves liberate the game from the predictability of one participant's storytelling (most likely a pastiche of assorted genre fictions and past runnings)?"

Do be sure to follow the link and read the whole comment.

The question above has been more and more prevalent these last ten years ~ I believe because the continued lack of proper design towards aiding the DM in constructing the actual game has been lacking, and because many of the people who began their participation more than 20 years ago have had their input compromised, leaving many new people without proper mentorship in how to DM.  That said, however, I'll address the question.

As Silberman words it (and everyone words it the same way), this is an either/or question.  That is how it is argued on bulletin boards and blog comments throughout the internet.  So they say, "My game is story-based" as opposed to the use of dice to determine outcomes: "Role-playing" vs. "Roll-playing."  These two camps support one option or the other, slinging stones at each other across an invented no-man's land, where no compromise is possible.

Silberman's question is related to a very sarcastic post I wrote about DMs who clearly feel it is in their mandate to regulate what happens in a game, to ensure the best possible experience for the player.  My post responded to a series of loaded questions clearly deriding positions such as following the rules, killing characters with low-level monsters, painstakingly rolling appropriate dice for situations and not fudging those dice.  As such, I took Silberman's reference to the predictability of storytelling as a DM prepared to fudge dice, ensure player survival and cheat the rules in order to sustain their vision rather than the game.

But people do take it farther than that.

On the 15th of last month I proposed a means of charting a game adventure, based on character motivation, with the idea of the DM creating obstacles that would serve as causes, eliciting responses which would drive the characters through the adventure.  While some hailed the clarity of this procedure, declaring that they'd not heard it put so succinctly, the post also drew condemnation as a pursuit of the DM's narrative, bordering on (tolerable) illusionism and, in general, not necessarily the best way to approach the campaign ideal.

Basically, the two camps.  And whereas one camp stands on their right to force the story, the other can be just as dogmatic in enforcing the rules: any deviation from strict randomness is seen as a game sin, a philosophy that creates situations which, as Silberman notes later in his comment,
I have to acknowledge that players get frustrated--as DM, I get frustrated--when bad decisions and bad luck draw out the players' pursuit of a once-clear agenda to the point of stagnation. The fighter went asshole and killed that merchant who hired the party, so nobody knows who their contact is in the next town; the wizard is dying from an infected giant rat bite; it's been frigid and raining for the past week; everyone is out of food and starving. Around the table, every die roll is accompanied by a mumbled, "Whatever."

Every game DM who has tried to follow the rules faithfully, most often in their uncompromising youth, had that experience ~ not just once, but many times.  It is an awful situation to manage: particularly if one is 12 or 13, knowing nothing about the nature of humans and how to motivate even people of one's own age.  Without tools, without perspective, without a mentor to guide them and without wanting to quit playing, many a young or new player makes the decision that, "No, I'm not going through that again."  And how easy it is to fudge the dice and ensure that.  How easy it is create a merchant's brother, who happens to know everything the merchant knew; how easy it is to roll a die and change the rat bite's infection to a mild, passing illness; how easy it is for the party to find food; how easy it is for the DM to make it stop raining.

From there, it is just as easy to change a crit to an ordinary hit, or a hit to a miss.  It is just as easy to remove ten hit points from the enemy's pile.  It is all the more easy if this can be done behind a screen, where no one can see, where there is no check or balance on the DM's behaviour, no quality assurance, no measurable second witness to hold the DM accountable for anything.

So which is it to be?  Either/Or, yes?

Strict adherence to the rules does create a problem, there's no denying it.  The real criminality here is, however, that the first and most obvious solution to the problem, the easy solution, is execrable.  However, it is so damn easy, so damn ready to hand, so pervasively supported by the industry, the presence of computer screens and from of the most prestigious voices among the participants, putting an end to it reflects taking up arms against the sea with a broom.

However, there are hard solutions that will also manage the problem.  For example, understanding how causality works; understanding how to motivate others without adversely challenging their agency; stretching the mind to be more creative in adventure building and problem solving; understanding how reaching for easy expositional devices paints a party ~ and an adventure ~ into a hopeless corner, by making the whole adventure depend on one participant, such as a mage, or on one contact, such as a merchant.  In other words, learning how to manage the damn game.

Research.  Diligence.  Experience.  Open-mindedness.  Work.  And a willingness to see that changing a 17 to a 16 on a d20 matters.  A little thing called honor.

And here, yes, I sound like an old man.  I am an old man; and as such, I can game any of these young punks under the table, without cheating and without forcing a story down anyone's throat.

[Admittedly, I seem to have an online problem with players who distrust me, apparently because the series of events I've envisioned is so rational it must be a scam.  Ah well]

For anyone who wants to take the hard path, I can help.  Want to write better adventures?  Familiarize yourself, first, about what makes a bad story.  Open every folder, one by one, and read every link.  Yes, every link.  And when you read that such and such a link says that a key plot point of one of your favorite movies is a piece of bad writing, change your fucking mind about your favorite movie and recognize that it's true.  Because if you can't change your mind, on evidence, about something you love, you'll never be a good anything, much less a good DM.

Changing your mind about something you love doesn't mean you have to stop loving it.  It just means you have to learn to love it for what it is, not for what you wish it was.  And that is fucking hard.  If that is too hard for you, you're welcome to go back to cheating your friends.

WTHSI

The Point of Insanity today released another podcast in which I am a participant, along with a regular reader of this blog.  Carl and I chat with Scott and Chad on "Want to Hear Something Interesting?"  The podcast just went up this morning.

I enjoyed this more, I think, than the one back in August.  Hope you'll take the time to listen and make a comment or two here.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Programmed Trade System

I've been approached by a programmer who, reading the recent posts, has expressed an interest in making the trade system into a program.  We're just discussing it, right now.  No time lines have been set.  Only the scantiest of details have been discussed.  There is enough for him to try out a few things, to solve some up front problems.

We'll probably be looking at some kind of beta stage, as a problem solving tool.  And, whenever that comes to light, I'll probably have to take down the trade content on the Patreon account, since if the auto-trade system works, people might look at those files and see how to duplicate our work.  That's a very real thing, but it won't happen for a while.  In the meantime, I'm going to continue working on upgrading things, particularly as I have reformatted everything and worked out an interesting availability system.

Just now, I'm tagging items according to the climatic classification that each market city exists in, according to the Koppen system.  I'm hoping this will narrow the distribution of certain agricultural resources in my system.  For example, looking up "olives" would probably tell me that they're grown in a warm, Mediterranean climate, but that wouldn't be very helpful.  On the other hand, by tagging every market in my system where olives originate, I can get an exact distribution for olives and everything else, helping me build an availability system not only based on what climates have access to olives, but which ones don't.  And that applies to every other product as well.

I was also thinking of making a mirrored distance table - the table that calculates the distance of any given trade city from every other - for the winter period, which would involve finding all the calculations for very cold regions (specifically, humic micro-thermal climates, like most of Canada), doubling or perhaps trebling the distance between markets to simulate the decreased likelihood of trade during the winter months.  This would just mean that when I wanted to calculate a city when my game was taking place in December, I'd simply go to the other table and use that.  No doubt, northern products would increase in price and decrease in availability (and thus disappear from my equipment list), while places that made use of northern trade routes, such as the Baltic Sea, would have to ship through more southern cities and ultimately that would increase the price and lower the availability of many things that yet originated in relatively warm climates.

Work, yes, but the results could be fun.

So, still thinking, still developing.  I still have many ideas.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

New Pricing Table

For those supporting me on Patreon (it's only $10, one time, for one month, to see it), I have added the new pricing table to my Google drive.  The title includes "28oct17" ~ but I'll leave up the old pricing table a bit before taking it down, if anyone wants to get a copy and hasn't thought to do that.

Patreon will be taking out donations in just three days, so if you'd like to pledge $5, $10 or $20 towards the continued great content of this blog (going by what people have told me), now would be a good time.  It's early enough that you still have plenty of time to find money for Christmas, yes?

Thanks for reading and for your fine comments.  I've already been thinking of ways to implement some of the additional changes I suggested in today's earlier post ~ but I'm not rushing to do anything just now.

How Much, And If At All

I've gotten through my equipment list and established Sets for each object.  I realized as I went that the Sets are quite crunchy enough to manage every item, as many things are simply excessively rare and happen to be made of things that are bound to be made of a common good: say, a floating castle made of stone, as an example of something not on the list.  That can be solved by simply dividing the reference availability by the workmanship number on the table, but even that has to be arbitrarily tweaked somewhat.  I'm never happy with an arbitrary solution, so no doubt I'll be messing with this system until I am happy ... or until I die, which ever seems more likely.

Still, I'm more pleased with it than I have been with any other availability system, and that's good.  I'm just rebuilding the pretty table for players to use during the game, then I'll post it on my drive for patreon users.

There's a different aspect to availability that needs addressing, and that connects to the quantity of goods that can be bought (a whole other headache).  I'll use elephants as an example.

Let's say that we're in Stavanger: a cool Norwegian climate in the summer and bitterly wet and cold in the winter.  In my system, the total number of references for elephants in Stavanger is 0.0200.  I have 7 world references for elephants just now (there would be more, but Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have not yet been added to the system).  Here's the breakdown of how the sources of elephants affect the Stavanger market:



All of these are in India.  The distance between Stavanger and Mysore, Bombay, Galle, etc. are all over 300.  Myingan, in the region of Pagan, in the Empire of Toungoo, is in Burma (and I'll bet you recognize none of those names), making it the farthest away.

It's no use arguing that these are mastodons in Norway, because the table clearly shows where they're coming from.  And since 0.015625 is the minimum for set one objects, and since and "elephant" is a set one object from elephant references, this puts elephants in Norway.  I can eliminate elephants by arbitrarily listing them as "set 2," but then I would have to remember to personally change that set if the trade numbers were being generated for a market in India.  No good.  The programming has to work for everywhere.

Put that on a shelf for the moment.

My trade system bases the price of an elephant on the number of references vs. the number of elephants.  I have 50,637 head of trained, domesticated elephants in the world, obviously in India and Burma.  This doesn't seem like many, but it compares with established numbers early in the 20th century.  And I don't have many references, because the source comes from the 20th century and even India had been advanced enough that not every town in the country named elephants as a resource.

If we take that number and divide it by 7, we end with slightly less than 7,234 elephants per reference.  If we multiply the number of references in Stavanger by 1 reference of elephants, we get 144.55 elephants in Stavanger.  In Norway.

That's ridiculous.  There are only 2,500 people in the town of Stavanger in my game, so where the hell are they keeping all these elephants?

It helps to think of products appearing on the market tables as things going through the market, rather than as things being kept there.  Most of anything is a wholesale product, piling up in a given town like Stavanger before being distributed throughout a large section of the hinterland.  Stavanger market serves a population ten times its number, and of course merchants in Stavanger import things they expect to then ship forward to other trade cities.

If we think of the number of elephants, or any other product, as the amount going through Stavanger in a year, it reduces the physical appearance of every commodity.  If we divide the year into 52 weeks, however, it still means almost three elephants moving through Stavanger per week, but that's at least a little easier to swallow.

Technically, it could be the same three elephants, or even one elephant, being sold over and over, since that's how economies work.  We could also argue that only the paperwork is moving through Stavanger.  A fellow doing business in Stavanger has a plantation in India and as such, he's managing his elephants overseas; yes, you can buy an elephant in Stavanger, but you have to pick it up in Mysore.

That's a way of handwaving the issue and it has been the thought process I've had for a long time.  Besides, no player character wants to buy an elephant in Stavanger, even if it is only 89 g.p.  Even if the thing is in a stall, as a DM I'm going to be a complete asshole about it and tell the player the elephant is going to die if it doesn't get a sufficient shelter or moved pretty quick to a warmer climate.  That's a way of controlling it too.  That and the fact that an elephant eats 450 lb. of food a month.

None of this actually solves the problem, however ~ as I say, it is handwaving.  Logically, the trick it to establish another variable that states an elephant won't or can't be sold in such-and-such a climate, even if the adjusted references say it exists.

And that is easy to write and to propose but it includes hundreds of other items that must also be arbitrarily limited in market appearance based on a very wide variety of issues.  Saltwater fish and shipbuilding being sold inland (along with defining what is "inland"), furs and heavy cloth items even being available in hot, humid climates (why would you want a fur even as a rug in Burma?  And who would bring it thousands of miles to market it there?), wagons existing in places without roads and so on.  These things are fiddly and highly particular to some areas and we're talking about a lot of work defining the margins of where a product occurs and where it doesn't.

On top of this, add the argument of seasonal availability, something I have always wanted to incorporate but which was just a bridge too far.  I think I see now how this could be done more easily, but again it is a process of going through each item one at a time and arbitrarily deciding whether something can be bought in a given season at all, and then how much of what is sold in what season ~ and even that doesn't yet take into account fruit that is shipped a thousand miles vs. a hundred.

I've hand-waved that by saying an apprentice mage with a freshen cantrip can restore a cubic yard of vegetable material a day, enabling a full wagon to be restored entirely every four-six days, depending on the size of the wagon, long enough for it to be hauled from Andalucia to Warsaw or further.  But a system that argued that Israeli hushhash couldn't be bought in Stavanger at all would be better.

These are long-term plans, and hopefully will be implemented one by one.  The hold-up until now has been a base system that could be used to adjust items; now that I have found one (hopefully, it holds up), I can patiently figure out these other issues one by one, creating features that will discount something if it is such and such a distance from the sea, if it is autumn, if it is in such and such a climate that discounts its presence and so on.  A long, frustrating process towards a deeper, grittier detail, but I think in the long run worth it.

I look back at what I've created thus far; it would be hard to imagine something this big and this complex at the beginning of this project without losing heart at ever accomplishing this much.  Yet I have accomplished it, because I didn't think of the whole scale.  I just thought of one little bit of it at a time, letting the process itself determine the monolith of the project that it became.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wonderful Opportunities for Adventure

This afternoon, I had a discussion with a regular reader who tells me that I should find a programmer and have my trade system made into a format that will let people plug in data and spew out the results.  It's a lovely idea.  Unfortunately, I don't know a programmer, programmers don't listen to instructions, I don't believe there's enough demand for the product to justify paying a programmer the necessary money, or even splitting the money even with someone who, if they did listen, is merely translating my work into a different format.  I love the idea.  It's just that it doesn't make sense.

A Typical World
A part of me says, "Fine, do it for them."  I hear from people who tell me they like the idea, but it is just too much work.  They start into it and they lose the verve and it never gets done.

What most people would want to do with a trade system, with a typical world that I see posted on line, to resounding cries of "I love your art style," would be a cake walk for me.  The map on the right, from socksandpuppets.com, consists of 12 habitations, not counting the "base camp."  It would be easy to build up a distance table, then select a hundred products and build a trade system for this that would serve the world well enough to, as Ian Pinder said, "search for adventure" within that system.

It also came up, "Would I make the world itself?"  A hundred years ago, back in 1984, after making a world that looked somewhat similar to the picture above, I was asked to make an imaginary world for others.  At the time, I charged the outrageous price of $150.  I can't imagine doing something like this now.  Back then, I did hand drawings.  Now, to do it on computer (as I am not hand drawing and shipping anything), I certainly wouldn't be cheap.  And it wouldn't be worth it anyway.  For what most DMs use a D&D world for, stealing a map like the one linked should be enough for them.

At this point, on this subject, I'm merely poking the bear.  I doubt there are more than two or three persons who would find any use for this service, were I to offer it.  I haven't hesitated in the past to monetize this blog, so I don't worry about that.  I only wonder, is this something I want to actually do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Calculating Scarcity in Market Items

A small number of my readers will be happy to learn that I'm replacing parts of my trade pricing table with excel's vlookup feature.  I have found a practical application for it and I'm incorporating the function.

One problem I have had with the trade system is the question of availability.  It is all well and good to have things with prices that vary from place to place, but that still leaves the question, "How many can I buy?"  Or, for that matter, if there is anything on the shelf at all.

I have tried a number of methods for this over the year, one of which is still a part of the system as it is located for patreon supporters right now.  But it is based on random numbers and I must admit, for some things, random numbers just suck.  It was because of random numbers that I conceived by sage abilities system as things you can absolutely do vs. things that you absolutely cannot do.  There are some things that still incorporate random numbers, but the principle of knowledge is not one of them.  I know that the Serbians were massacred and driven out of their homeland during World War I.  There's no random chance that I will forget that.

Of late, I've figured out a way to get the random chance out of the availability of items.  Though it drastically flattens the likelihood of finding a given object, or how many are available, because the number of items is so large and the algorithm is hard to predict, that is only noticeable to the designer.  Eventually, the players will grasp the idea for some items, but I doubt they would for the whole list of goods and services that can be purchased.

It works like this.  Imagine what it's like to buy things in a general store.  You want to buy something very common like a torch and you find there's a big basket of them.  But then you want a flint to light that torch and it turns out there's just one left.  Or the store sold the last one this morning and you're out of luck.

That's what I'm reaching for.  That common items will always be there, or virtually always; and less common items will tend to be missing from the shelf marked "telescope" or "silver holy symbol."  Unless, of course, the player happens to be in a town where telescopes are made.  Then there will be a basket-full.

I'll just trust here that readers are vaguely aware of my trade system.  Every time I want to talk about it there's too much to explain and I have already been down that road.  Still, basically there are a set of references that I express to the fourth significant digit.  The number of references for any given object, from extraordinarily rare gems to general foodstuffs ranges from 0.0025 to 20.0000.

I'm beginning with the premise that if we're at a particular market, say Stavanger in Norway where the online party is, a total references of >1 for that object means that every possible version of that object is available.  If Stavanger's shipbuilding industry is >1 reference, then ships of every size can be purchased or built from scratch at that port.  Of course, the boat might not actually be in the harbor, but an agent in Stavanger can get it for you in a period reasonable with the 17th century, say a month or two.

From there, we create a series of tiers.  >1 reference equals Tier 1.  Dividing that number by four, 0.25 - 0.9999 references equals Tier 2.  Dividing it again by four, 0.0625 - 0.2499 equals Tier 3 and 0.01563 - 0.0624 equals Tier 4.

We then rate every object that is sold on a scale of 1 to 4 "sets."  Set 1 includes anything that is grossly common: ordinary stone, iron bars, a cloak, chickens, torches, a stay at an inn, ordinary wine and beer, whatever.  Things we absolutely expect to always find in any market town.  Set 2 is one up the scale: things that are a little less common but could still be expected to be found in any civilized society: a holy symbol, a metal candelabra, butter and cheese, hard boots as opposed to soft ones, books, a vial of salve for wounds, a stay at a nicer inn, etcetera.  Set 3 would mean low level luxuries; the sort of thing that peasants would never buy but would find its way into a merchant's household: porcelain, stained glass, a rare liqueur, a fur coat, a particularly nasty poison, a carved oaken bureau, a pet war dog and so on.  Finally, Set 4 would include every rare thing that conceivably existed.

For Set 4 things to be found, the number of references would have to equal the Tier 1 level.  At Tier 2, at best we would find Set 3 objects.  At Tier 3, no better than Set 2.  Finally, at Tier 4, only Set 1 objects would exist.  If the number of references isn't high enough for Tier 4, nothing of that particular good or service is available.  If we're so far from the makers of weapons that less than 2% of a reference exists, then no, there's nothing here, not even a dagger.  You'll have to make due with a club you find somewhere.

I know it sounds to some people that the Tier number should equal the Set number, and that's fine for them if that's how they want to do it.  It's just reversing the scale.

I like that this system narrows the import reach for objects that ought to be unusual, while maintaining commonality in areas where the object is actually made.  It may be hard to find a fur coat in Italy, but in Russia everyone is wearing them, even though they are a set 3 object.  You may have the money to buy everything in existence: but if it isn't on the shelf because it is never imported (its just too far away), then there's no point in waiting to see if something will come in next week.  No one ever brings it here because it isn't wanted.

This gives me ideas for how to manage the starting question, how many are there - but I haven't quite solved that one yet.  I'm patiently working on creating a page that gives everything a set number, then compares that with the automatically generated tier system ~ which is where vlookup is coming in handy.  Yes, it was a good suggestion and now that I'm starting to get used to it, I'll be using the function more often.  I'd like to thank those readers who poked me about it and to promise them that yes, even an ornery grognard can change.

I should be able to update the pricing table on the private drive for patreon donations in a week or two: sooner if readers clamor for a beta version that's only partially made.