Thursday, July 20, 2017

Cover Updated Officially

Here's a chore that I finally have behind me.


This is the official cover of the book, now.  I could not cut the paperback to a lower price; the publishing service would not let me.

It is available on e-book for $11.95, however.  That I could do.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Adjusting Map Colors

How would a new map-color scheme look?

First, my feeling is that everything for regions that are well documented are fine: the main problem is for hexes for which I have no elevation information. Take the Svalbard map I posted just recently; there are only four hexes there with known elevations; the rest of the hexes are a mix between "glaciers" and "rocky tundra."  This creates a mix of two map forms, between "elevation" and "terrain" that makes for a mess.

So, to begin, I think I need to incorporate an elevation guess that will serve the map's use, even if that elevation is basically inaccurate.  Not that it really matters anyway, I've just said in the last post that I've removed an entire sacred river from the India map, so what the hell?

The elevation of an unknown hex can be guessed according to what we know of the general terrain.  Are the known hexes the valleys?  Or are they the high places, which applies to a lot of desert regions, where the flat bottom land is hot and higher elevations are cooler.  It helps if we know the country, both geographically and geologically.  Svalbard is much like Greenland; mountainous and glaciated.  So we can set the surrounding hexes as all generally higher than the highest elevation hex we know about, 1804 feet.  So let's say the rest of Svalbard is above 2000 feet.  I have an elevation hex color for this: it is a tan brown, but not the same as shown in the map above.  So let's make every hex that isn't known that color.

Okay, but what about glaciers?  We'd like to keep that information, as it adds to our general knowledge of the terrain.  For that, I'm adding another layer to the map, a glacial overlay, so that it makes Svalbard now look like this:


On the whole, a grittier, more detailed experience.  Because we don't have to make the whole hex the color of the glacier, now the glacier covers the inland or bleeds right to the coast, depicting in places a line of coast where the tundra color shows.  The glacier on Nordaustlandet can be a little larger than the hexes, since we can bleed it outwards however we want.

Because I have made these maps myself, and on a publisher program, I can adjust it as I need.  People ask me all the time if I shouldn't just use google earth as my map; but I can't change the features and images on google earth, like I can on my own maps.  The map above only took me about 45 minutes work, most of that taken up with experimenting, as I'd never made any of my maps like this before.

Consider this earlier version of the Jotunheim map, the large sea area of land east of Svalbard, consisting of Franz Josef Land (the Dandemoth Islands) and northern Novaya Zemyla:


Again, I have almost no information for this, so most of the hexes are depicted as white and therefore uninteresting.  Arguably, they're utterly empty and I know they're mostly glaciated and barren tundra, but still it would be nicer if the map looked more like this:


Definitely an improvement, yes?  We get a much better sense of the landscape of the top of Biyetia on the right of the map (depicted as 500 ft.-1000 ft. in elevation) though of course I have no real numbers for that part of the world.  Jotunheim (Novaya Zemlya) really jumps out.  I've taken a little time to give the Dandemoth islands names, though I did this a couple of years ago without telling anyone.  The islands have a "political" name as well, Humutya.  But I'm not explaining that, at least not until there's no chance of running it.

I'm also emboldening the labels, so they're easier to read and making subtle color changes elsewhere, with the borders of the hexes for example and the color of the sea and topographic names.

But what about a part of the world with more land than sea?  Going east along the same latitude, the next map I've made and posted in the past is the lands surrounding the Kara Sea, which I've posted on the blog before.  Here's what it looked like:


Because we're swinging around the arctic pole, the previous map of Jotunheim is turned 60 degrees, so that it swings to the left and up.  The reader can see the top of Biyetia in the middle left.

This map certainly has its appeal, though again it lacks a lot of information.  It has more, however, than the previous two, so I was able to give it more feeling.  I changed the color of the white hexes to darker hexes to create the Byranga Mountains, so that gives the land some shape.

Not much, though.  It is still mostly white, and we don't have any sense at all of the swamp lands that are encompassed by all that empty white hex-space.  As such, I've chosen to tackle the problem of what the elevation of those unknown hexes is based on the existing mountains, the presence of many rivers, what hexes we do have information for and the coast, too.  To this, I've added the same icy overlay that I created for Svalbard, and one thing more: an overlay for muskeg swamp, for areas of undrained flatland, as this is what most of the North Siberian Lowland is (see the bottom right of the map).  All this work (a couple hours) produces this effect:


I was astounded at how well this came out.  The terrain pops right out and grabs the imagination; the overlay truly enhances the effect and giving guessed elevations to hexes certainly increases the potential for what passage through this country would be like.  That's always what I'm going for.

I will have to explore this more to get a better sense for what the color scheme for Tibet will have to be; I can see that lightening the color scheme for the high country is necessary . . . but I'll need to consider what I want to do with that before diving in.

Oh, let me add that the google drive has been updated with the maps above, for those who have paid their $20 on my Patreon account.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Guge

Obscure places you've never heard of.  And while some readers may have, I am impressed that I never have, since I been reading geographical content all my life ~ a long life, at that.  But I've never seen this before a day ago:


This is Tsaparang, the ruined capital of the ancient kingdom of Guge (10-17th century AD), 278 km south-southwest of Senggezangbo, or rather Shiquanhe, er, Ger, that is, Gar Dzong, Gar Town or just Gar.  Sigh. Here's a video about the place; seems like a pretty crappy documentary that prattles a lot and looks at stuff, without really knowing anything.  These bore me, so I didn't watch it.

Here is my map of Guge.  Prepare to be underwhelmed:


Confusing, ain't it?  I agree.  A large part is due to the color scheme I planned for 12,000 foot elevations and over.  It was fine when I did India, when only the edge of the Himalayas rose to that level (looked good, in fact); but with all of the map being dark umber and purple, it is hard to read if you're not actually looking at in on Publisher.  Plus the grey regional borders disappear when applied to this map's color scheme.  Not that orange borders wouldn't look horribly garish and unappealing.

Frankly, I've been having different problems with map coloring recently, as I'm working on odd places that don't fall into the usual climate/elevation ranges.  More and more, I've begun to realize I need to spend a lot of time redoing old maps in order to bring them into a level of consistency that is beginning to fall apart as the overall map increases in size.  This is a monumental task; there's little wonder I'm not anxious to apply myself, since it will only end in my having the same maps I already possess, just a little cleaner and somewhat better labeled.

I am right now thinking the very manner I remake the map has to incorporate a few new coloring techniques, that I'm not using at all right now ~ but which I think I learned from making those comics.

I'll make another confession.  My India/Tibetan rivers are, well, wrong.  Have been since the beginning; I based them on the elevation numbers I had and did not try to draw them from real maps.  That's been true from the beginning of my map-making; for India, things went really sideways.  Good luck finding the Sutlej River, where the city above is located.  The valley of the Sutlej wound up being largely redirected east into the Ganges or north into the top of the Indus Valley, before it enters Ladakh.

At least I will know if someone tries to steal my maps, hm?


Structural Bias

In a conversation I've just had with Maxwell, I equated the DM's game designer problem of creating rules ~ concrete, objective and publicly visible ~ to the rules and structure of video game code.  This, I think, is apt.  A great part of the difficulty in RPGs moving forward these past forty years has come from an inability to agree on the code, which in turn disallows for our moving forward on things that really matter, like the process of the game itself.

Recently in an email, I made a point about initiating an adventure and the structure of that initiation which I think is worth repeating in a blog post.  I began by explaining that when I first began to play D&D, I saw that the biggest problem I was having as both a player and as a DM was the notion that the DM was always right.  This idea gained strength pretty quickly.  I did not hear the term 'fiat' until many years later, though that is certainly correct in its description: a 'fiat' is generally considered a very bad thing in the real world.

As such, I saw that my chief axiom as a DM would be to take myself, as much as was possible, "out of the loop," letting the dice decide as many conflicts as possible while pushing myself to create situations that were logically based on what had gone before and not upon a personal, arbitrary desire to see something happen.  However, though I argued the importance of this with many DMs in the early 1980s, I always felt I was the only one who applied this thinking to my world; and today, I still find myself in contention with those who think there are times when it is "okay" to DM fiat a problem.  This is clearly evidence of broken philosophical thinking at the ground level of the participant and user of the game's structure.

Imagine someone asking on a football web forum, "When is it okay for the New England Patriots to cheat?"

[makes me want to go try it, actually]

When I say "take myself out of the loop," I don't mean that every part of the game I'm running has to be structured in advance.  That would be impossible, particularly for the size and complexity of campaign I'm running.  To prepare and script every option a player might pursue would take far too much time for even a single adventure.  While this might mean that I am compelled to run a given room exactly as it was written, thereby removing my immediate judgement from the equation, it also means I have to create very simple, very limited systems for my players to move through.  It means the scripts for anything that anyone says have to be simple as well, or else I'll be writing scripts ten years from now.  Everything that the players might do has to be accounted for, and the players would be barred from doing anything that wasn't already created.

Basically, a video game.

My concept of the loop came in 1980; at that time, narrative video games were astoundingly primitive.  Consider, this was the level of video game when I started playing D&D:




I could see at the time that the "control every variable" option was going to produce a spectacularly bad game.  Even now, with the progression of video games, I'm still bored with games that seek to produce a narrative experience, right up to and including a game like the Witcher, Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed.  I don't want to be someone else dealing with their problems, I want to be me, dealing with my problem ~ and I want total freedom of choice to decide what my problem is.

A better methodology for running an adventure, I believed, could be found in the narrative rules that novel-writing compels, something I was also tinkering with in 1980, as those were my formative years as a writer.  At the time, I could not have described it, but I've studied deconstruction a great deal now and I believe I have a good handle on the basic principles.  In a novel, everything that exists must apply somehow to the development of characters and setting, which in turn serves to drive the plot and create the conflict, which then must be resolved with the instruments, ideas and motivations that have already been instilled in the characters.  When Frodo is imagined to be dead in Lord of the Rings, we cannot simply have aliens land in a ship and then destroy the ring with an extraterrestrial blaster.  In the same vein, what Samwise does next has to make sense.  He cannot behave in a manner that would make the reader think the author had suddenly decided Sam should no longer act like Sam.  We know that is not how humans behave in a situation (or, at least, we think we know that).  Humans behave according to how they have behaved in the past.  We stubbornly cling to that notion.

Doing this in an RPG, this setting up of the adventure, should follow the same principles.  Each object found, each discourse, each motivation of the non-player participants, should match up with the final goal.  However ~ and this is incredibly important ~ RPGs are not novels.  Nothing can be fixed.  There's no certainty that the players will pick up the object or pursue the motivation.  If they don't, the DM must, this being the axiom, resist the desire to push into the loop and compel the players to pursue the unwanted set-up.  The set-up must be abandoned and a new set-up created, one that hopefully the players will pursue.  If they do, then the movement in the set-up's direction will produce a conflict and an end result, so long as the players remain interested.

This means that my world is a series of narrative set-ups, sometimes without result.  If the players don't like an idea, I kill it in my mind, or figure out another potential clue that might make the previous set-up more enticing (which sometimes works but more often does not, discouraging this tactic).  This requires that I place no sympathetic (or sentimental) attachment to a given set-up . . . but why should that be difficult.  Artists abandon ideas all the time!  If the necktie scene works better without the necktie, the playwright dumps the necktie and writes the scene.  Those who fail to recognize that any part of a work can be abandoned for the sake of the whole work will in turn fail to achieve a higher degree of skill and self-awareness.

Okay, but what is a "set-up"?  How does it work?  I'd like to give an example, but I can only hope the gentle reader has read the book [hell, if you haven't, you're damaged in some way and should not be DMing adventures].  I'll try Around the World in 80 Days.

The set-up is simple.  The story is told primarily from the point of view of Passepartout, who has just acquired employment with an extraordinarily precise master, Phileas Fogg.  The set-up is that a bet is made, one that requires Fogg to act in a manner that seems very unlike Fogg; Passepartout is taken along on a journey which, at the beginning, he does not really conceive in scope.  Passepartout does not believe his master's simple statement that they are going around the world; he doesn't know Fogg well; he thinks his master must be joking.  By the time it is clear it is not a joke, Passepartout is already far away from home and well in the midst of the adventure.

Consider: Passepartout could have refused to get on the train out of England.  He could have refused to cross the Channel.  He could have refused to leave France, where he was from.  He could have stopped anywhere along the way ~ but this would have meant unemployment for the manservant and at every step, the prospect of keeping pace with Fogg seems more enticing that being unemployed anywhere along the way.  That is a set-up that works.  The players have free will; but the choice right in front of them has to seem much more interesting than any choice they can make on their own.

That is how I lead players "by the nose."  Not by railroading them, not by controlling them, not by denying them agency, but by creating a set-up that is more interesting, more enticing, than the set-up they imagine themselves creating.  Once they are in the adventure, everything else follows logically.  Like in Verne's book, once Fogg, a wealthy Britisher, appears to be moving quickly through Egypt, the detective Fix assumes Fogg must be a bankrobber that he has been told to be on the look-out for.  Fix follows Fogg and is in turn embroiled in the adventure.  Events in India then create the opportunity to rescue Aouda, Fix's machinations lead to Fogg's being stranded in Hong Kong, the trip through the United States leads to the encounter on the train and so on ~ all of which are perfectly predictable to me as a DM, as I know the players, once on the adventure, will move through India and Hong Kong and Nebraska.  I can set the events of the adventure well up in advance without the party feeling railroaded, as they know they chose to take each step as it was given.  That is precisely why, although they have agency, they can be predicted in their behaviour.

I believe that this connection between setting up a narrative in a book and setting up the premise for an adventure has been utterly and entirely missed by the game-making community.  I feel that calls for necessary solutions to narrative, such as that called for Noah Wardrip-Friun, have already been created and structured for centuries by writers and artists, but that these things are being ignored because most game systems and formats do not have the flexibility to ditch set-ups that are not wanted or desired by gamers.  Not like an RPG can do.

If we don't like a book, we can stop reading it.  If we don't like a video game, we can stop playing it.  But if you don't like an RPG, that RPG can be changed and changed until you do like it ~ unless the person in charge steadfastly and stubbornly refuses to change.  And that there is the problem.  That is the structural bias we have to overcome.

Play, Flow & Blow

Okay, let's move to a subject that readers will comment upon.

Ryan Wright [a different Wright from Will Wright that I wrote about a week ago] is a game narratologist producing talks on youtube, one of which I was directed to see by Ryan Wright.  Braid is a 2008 platform and puzzle videogame, which Wright discusses in detail through the video.  I've never played the game and so I don't venture to have an opinion about it, though the premise seems a very clever one to me and I can certainly how it was a move forward for designer Jonathan Blow.  I'll be looking at Blow's work, so I may come back with something about his ideas later.

Near the beginning of his lecture (6:30), Wright talks about interpretive systems and heuristics.  I talked about heuristics in a post last year, followed by another post and another.  At the time, I concentrated on decision-making and rationalizing the motivation of players as a means to revisioning momentary gut instinct as "story-telling," but the effort did not make much of an impact.

Wright's lecture is to discuss the points of view of two philosophers, Johan Huizinga and Hans-Georg Gadamer as relating to play; I won't recount the bones of the lecture: suffice to say that Gadamer ends up laying the groundwork for the opinions of Bogost that I deconstructed at length earlier.

However, I'll quote from Gadamer just as Wright does in the lecture:
"The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather, it renews itsetl in constant repetition.  The movement backward and forward is obviously so central to the definition of play, that it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.
"Play clearly represents an order in which the to-and-fro motion of play follows of itself. It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose, but also without effort.  It happens, as it were, by itself.
 "... all playing is a being-played.  The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players ... The real subject of the game ... is not the player, but instead the game itself.  What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself ... [as such] play is really limited to presenting itself."

Wright then goes on to make an excellent point about the relationship between the re-presentation of play (representation) is the manner in which art is created ~ but I'll go in a different direction, specifically in reference to RPGs (Wright is, remember, lecturing about a video game).

This condition of being lost in a game is the same as any circumstance in which our own conception of time is suspended because we are entirely focused on what we're doing.  I get this sense every time that I set myself to write, whether it is a book or a blog post; I am focused completely on the task and to a large extent I "tunnel" with regards to my attention; people around me speak to one another or at me, and I fail to respond for long periods because I have to be roused out of this state.

In psychology, this is termed to be "flow", a concept which, according to Wikipedia and Mihaly Csitszentmihalyi, has been widely referenced in a variety of fields ~ so it isn't surprising that it comes up in games and in art, such as playing RPGs and having five hours go up in smoke in what seems like a subjective forty minutes, or my writing this blog post for eighty-five minutes and it feeling like ten.  I want to take a moment and list the seven flow conditions that Owen Schaffer proposed on the subject; things that cause flow: knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, knowing how well you're doing, knowing where to go (if navigation is involved), high-perceived challenges, high-perceived skills and freedom from distraction.

Now, apply those to the game you're playing.  Do you know what you're doing as a DM?  Do you know how to do it?  Are you mindful during the game of how well you're doing?  Are you aware of how high the challenge is that you're overcoming?  Are you aware of what skills you're applying as you run?  Are you free from distraction as your game progresses?

This blog has as its mandate the desire to give you tools so you know what to do as a DM, in the sense that you have a concept of what makes a good game and what the players want ~ in effect, the function of your game.  I struggle to tell you how to do it ~ how to build the game's structure.  I tell you to be conscious of your players and of yourself, to measure yourself, in effect to develop situational awareness, which I spoke at length about in my book How to Run.  I've spoken about controlling the space where the game is played, both to give a sense of place and atmosphere, but also to create a zone that is free from distractions.  I've encouraged DMs to boot players that are distractions because it limits the capacity of the game to be good.

From those points, I hope that the individual reading the blog and the book will come to recognize the high-level of challenge and skill necessary to play this game well ~ and to recognize that one RPG campaign CAN be measured against other campaigns because there does exist such a thing as skill and difficulty involved in the playing process.

Gadamer's position that 'play' is 'flow' is fairly self-evident ~ but it deserves examination, particularly since many of us fail to get that sense of flow often in our games when we play.  We're angry with ourselves and distracted by our sense of mental clumsiness and neuroses about what the players are thinking as we're trying to sound interesting and encouraging of their involvement.  We're not able to express in clear terms what we're doing or how we're doing it.  The game's construct itself seems hopelessly confused and people are reaching for readily applicable solutions like "less rules" or "more role-play" because these things are at least comprehensible.  The actual requirement of making the game ring like a bell, or rather flow, seems impossible at times.  That is, until we experience it.

That is the key measure.  We've all played enough games, particularly of the video nature, that have induced flow, going back to when we were very tiny children.  We know what flow is, which means we know what "right" is . . . all we lack is the skill to put right into words.  We reach for non-descriptives like "fun" or "serious" because we're conveniently forgetting that there are technical, scientific terms for what are brains are doing and why.  Hell, I'm only on this track now because Wright told me to watch this video.

Okay, let's put flow and Gadamer's definition of play on the back-burner for the moment.  There's another point I want to make that comes out of Ryan Wright's lecture.

Starting at (20:00),
"Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, gave a talk titled Truth in Game Design at GDC Europe in 2011, where he discusses his design process and he makes the claim in that talk that much of Braid's design wasn't something he believed he invented, but rather was something he discovered.
" '... it was very clearly the case that more ideas came out of the design process, and ended up in the final game, than I put into it as a designer. The process of designing the gameplay for this game was more like discovering things that already exist than it was like creating something new and arbitrary.  And another way to say that is that there is an extent to which this game designed itself.'
"What we can take from this is that in a Gadamerian sense, the designer that works like this is actually creating the game by playing with its rules in his mind.  Blow approached the game less with rabid inventiveness and more with the mind of a tinkerer.  He played with a set of premises and selected ideas from that set of premises that manifested in its possibility space."

This was a terrific Archimedian moment for me ~ but just in case the gentle reader does not see what I see in the above, let me point out the more obvious first and then go where this took me.

Blow is finding, simply, that the material structure of the video game he's making is similar in function to any RPG (as it was traditionally played, without the role-playing narratology).  I give you a world, the world has a set of premises and you tinker with the world to determine what your possibilities are.  Okay, simple enough, any good RPGer will see that immediately.

But look at Blow's basic problem, not stated by Wright in this video, as he's going to other places.  Once Blow has this tinkerer's mentality, once he sees the possibilities manifesting themselves, he then has to sit down and code for hundreds of hours before anyone else can enjoy that experience.  Now, I grant that there's a lot of flow going on there, that Blow is probably happy with the time needed, though he wonders about his capacity to make his art real, as any creator does.  Yet there is this reality:

The video game code, for all its benefits, is an obstacle that has to be climbed between Blow's comprehension of the universe he's stumbled upon and the manifestation of that universe. Whereas I, playing a game of D&D, can stumble upon the idea and manifest it in the time it takes for me to explain it.

My limitation is my capacity for explaining what I think; can I explain it?  Do I know how?  Am I self-aware enough to recognize my limitations, or the limitations of my listeners?  This is a high-skill problem, a high-challenge problem.  I can think of the concept, but can I make it a part of my player's experience once I have thought of it?

But let's be real.  Blow's process of coding the video game is a diminishing necessity through the steady development of technology. After all, that's all coding is: technology.  It is the method by which we communicate our thoughts into virtual reality right now.  Coding is only important as a skill-set because this happens to be the point in history where it matters; at some future point, having the ability to code will be meaningless.

So Blow's importance as a game designer ~ and my importance, and for the reader YOUR importance ~ is in what you think, not in how you make your thoughts manifest.  Of course, you have a window in time, in which you'll have to use the tools that can be provided for you.  Game designers in the 1920s did not have your present options. You will not have the options that game designers in the 2120s have.  That's a reality you'll have to consider.

Still, there's no point in learning any of these skills if you can't get it clear in your head what your goals are, what makes a good game and how you can achieve it.  I'll keep working at my end of it, here, but you have to keep reading and watching and being mindful of what others are doing . . . else there's no hope for you.




Monday, July 17, 2017

Towns Dropping Through Cracks

Just a brief note about mapping Tibet. The first step is to research cities/habitations and sort out the regions within Tibet, based on geography and historical references.  Here's my list of towns in Tibet:


The reader can see I've carved off one section already, a region that covers the upper valley of the Indus River in far western Tibet.  Guge was conquered by the Kingdom in Ladakh after 1630 (or so, details are sketchy).

I don't have a map yet, I won't for a bit, though these are easier to make because, hey, no coast. For the moment I just want to bitch about starting in China and the problems that brings.

Since naming (and I talked about this before) is a free-for-all, I'm having some trouble.  I have three atlases I'm working from, Google Earth, the site fallingrain.com (which gives the lat-long-elevation details) and wikipedia . . . and guess what?  None of them match.

The names are listed as different, or an atlas has the city marked and named but Google Earth shows no place at that location, or there is a place there but under a completely different name and nothing on the web connects the two names together.  As always, there are many listed towns in fallingrain with the same name, often none of them having coordinates anywhere near where the map specifies the place should be.  And so on.

It is worse than I feared.  Apparently, Pinyin has broken down so completely that no one can be sure what the correct Pinyin name is for a place. In several cases I found multiple names, with x's for s's or z's for s's, where both names were listed as Pinyin though they did not agree.

No, I did not keep an example.  Try Shigatse, that was was a fun one, or Ch'ung-te, which can't agree on whether there should be a hyphen or an apostrophe or if the name shouldn't Qamdo or whatever.  I have it listed as Chamdo, above, but that is by no means the "real" name.  I don't think anyone has agreed on it's real name.

Perhaps the whole thing is a scheme by the Chinese military intelligence to hopelessly confuse invasion by ensuring that no two maps made by the outside world can possibly agree.

Anyway, there are several places on the list for which I have no proof whatsoever (Amkyonyang) even exist; the coordinates shown for it are actually for a place called Amjogxung . . . I have no idea if these are the same place, but it is close to where one of my atlases lists the place.  The internet ~ the entire internet ~ has never heard of the atlas spelling I have.

Which is just weird.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Svalbard

Damn, these annoying corners of the world that my OCD won't let me ignore:


I wanted to show it in relation to Bear Island, in the bottom left hand corner, also an annoying rock that needs ten minutes to map [mostly to get it in the right hex], in the Barents Sea.

Here's the same map, without Bear.


Note that I've changed the colour scheme for the glacial areas; I went back and did this for Iceland, too.

The only piece left between Europe and Greenland is Jan Mayen (heard of it?).  It's also owned by Norway, which makes it technically the last piece of Europe I have left to map.  But I just don't feel like dedicating so much as ten minutes to it.  I'm just sick to death of fjords and islands.

Anyway, I've also updated the Google Drive, for those who have donated $20 to my Patreon account.  A2 - East Svalbard will give an indication of Svalbard's relationship to the very top of Norway.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

It's China

The mapping poll closed:


China won by a landslide.  Greenland made a late surge at the end but none of the other options were even close.

I'll be working on Sinkiang, Tibet, Qinghai (or Kokonor, as English people called it in my youth) and Mongolia, about two million square miles worth of land, most of it terribly empty.  Meaningful settlements, the only ones that will appear on the map, will be few and far between; I expect the area to cover many sheets.

And it does bring up the issue of what I'm going to call everything.  I will be using the Wade-Giles system whenever possible, which was standard before 1979.  This means that modern Chongqing will be Chungking, that Beijing will be Peking and so on.  This is terribly, abusively politically incorrect now, as it is seen as an English racist system that was inconsiderate to the Chinese people.  I don't care.

When Chinese maps show "Alberta" written in English letters, I'll use Pinyin.  I know of no language except English that makes concessions to foreign languages when attempting to describe places on the map: and I don't see the difference between writing "King" and "Qing," if we're going to pronounce the Q as a K, nor in writing "Chong" instead of "Chung," if we're going to pronounce the o as a u.  It all seems ridiculously pedantic and I'm not buying into it.  I'm old.  I'm willing to make concessions for things that make sense, but this Pinyin thing is bullshit.  Always has been.

Not that people haven't tried to convince me differently.

But, hm, let me see, how do the Chinese pronounce "Canada?"  How do they spell it?  Oh.  That's right.


Functional Complexity versus Conceptual Complexity

"Many users are concerned with the growing level of systems complexity, and some are calling for reduced complexity as a means to greater usability.  However, many systems are complex because the operational environment and the tasks to be performed within the system are themselves complex; arbitrarily reducing system complexity may therefore make the system even less usable because its performance would be compromised."
"One way of addressing this problem is to separate functional complexity from conceptual complexity.  A good illustration of this distinction is provided by personal computers using the desktop interface; although these systems are far more complex (functionally) than the DOS machines that preceded them, users find them conceptual more simple.  This is because the desktop interface translates the underlying functionality of the system into a conceptual world that the user already understands ... however, the metaphor is not a panacea; in the case of personal computing, the metaphor was imposed on the operating system after the essential functions of the system were already defined."

International Encyclopedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2nd Ed., p. 1099 


That's the holy grail: the be-all and end-all of the rules complexity debate.  Personally, I feel that my wiki is a big step towards the simplified player interface, where the rules are available 24/7 to all the participants, where they can be updated as needed and the only drawback is the time spent in keeping those updates in place and adding rules as they're needed.

But that's the project I tried to launch in 2009 and which I've found is a lot for just one person, particularly if I can't work full time on it.  I don't notice that others are looking to try making wikis of their own, and probably for that reason.

Still, the "windows" interface was no easy concept to put in place; and all that computer design had to exist before it could be effected.  We can't even agree on a design in RPGs, much less consider putting in an interface that makes sense.

I keep preaching, however.

Operational Logic

Picking up again on design with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Associate Professor of Computational Media at the University of California.  Please note that I'm not quoting a bunch of hacks who happen to be speaking on behalf of the job they hold with the WOTC or some other game company, but with people who are studying the subject and who are forced to defend themselves to their peers, regularly.  This means that when I'm quoting a point about games, I'm quoting facts, not opinions. I know most of you get that; but it helps to emphasize the point, since before we can move forward we have to settle things in our minds.  We can't keep debating the same points, else we get nowhere.

"... and part of it [the gamer experience] is also a set of computational processes, so we can have the experience of virtual objects being able to touch when we're playing a platformer. Not just because we have a presentation of the game state, which represents meaning a lot like a movie does, but because we have an underlying computational process that supports it.  And these are 'operational logics' ~ these sort of fundamental units of meaning.  Operational logics combine a communicative goal, like virtual objects can 'touch'; with an abstract process, something like 'when two coordinate spaces overlap, do something'; and that supports an ongoing representation of a fictional or real world, or just a presentation of an abstract game space and an ongoing player experience."

 Be sure and watch the whole video, though I think this is the most important part for what I'm struggling to communicate with these posts.  If we want to talk about function, specifically what the game system/game campaign is being designed to do, we need to look at its operational logic, in the same way that a bat hits a ball in a video game.  The operational logic of a system describes how the system does what it does.  Taking the link and retooling the phrases therein for the D&D campaign, we're looking for how the world, the interface that the players, or users, will interact with, enables the player to learn the world's nature and master the world's logic, or pattern, of that world. The player has to be able to examine the world, decide how the world both enables and obfuscates the player's intentions, sorting out the one from the other, which is then followed by the player building a strategy, or a plan, towards that goal to act towards it, as kimbo described yesterday in his comment.

Understand, however, this does not only apply to the game I advocate but to all games, even games where the interface is so difficult to understand that the users interpretation is next to impossible and where practical goals are dismissed out of hand when the functionality seizes up due to poor DMing, DM fiat, DM cheating or what have you.

The immediate question, of course, is how do we do this well?  Where do we start?  This all sounds great, a lot of big, barely comprehensible words, obviously very important since people with important positions and expertise are spewing them out in a steady stream, but how in the hell do I take all this explanation and apply it to the world I am building for my players?

Ah, yes.  Well, here we have plenty of grist for the mill.

Let's take a common experience in D&D and many other role-playing games: combat.  And let's break it down a bit according to its operational logic, on the level of a game like pong.  The player hits the opponent, the opponent hits the player.  Operationally, something happens.  We can think of combat as each participant having a paddle that sends an "effect" back and forth between them.

We want to define the effect, so let's replace the paddles by a circle holding a stick; then let's replace the ball moving back and forth by the sticks waving out and striking the circles, which represent the combatants.

If the sticks hit every time, that's boring.  If they never hit, that's also boring.  We're not representing this on a computer screen, so we're not using the muscles of our hands or our physical reflexes to move the sticks (like we would in a video game), so we replace the "chance" of the stick hitting with dice.

To make it fun, taking advantage of the gambling aspect of dice, sometimes we hit and sometimes we don't.

If one hit kills, that's boring, so let's calculate that it takes multiple hits to kill an opponent.  We could designate that multiple number as "four hits," but we can add another die to the mix so that we're not certain exactly how many hits it will take to kill someone.

Now, if the circles and sticks are static and can't move, that's boring, so let's figure out a way to make them move.

If all they can use are sticks, that's boring, so let's make choices as to what sort of stick they're using.  This will mean special rules for each type of stick, so that the choosing of a specific form of stick matters in someway depending on the situation.  Some sticks are better at a distance; some are better close up.  Some swing faster and don't kill as effectively; some swing slow and are effective killers.

Having only circles to swing at seems boring.  Let's increase the variety of circles that exist so that there are lots of different targets.  And lets require different amounts of chance for killing each type of target.  And let's make some each stick good for hitting different sorts of targets.

And so on.

Operationally, we always want to start at a point of minimum contact; where we can define exactly what happens when A interacts with B.  Then, in different, imaginative ways, we want to build up a host of differently affecting variables that make the point of contact more interesting, without eliminating the point of contact.

When people talk about eliminating combat from their games, we have to ask ourselves, what have they devised that replaces this extraordinary, complex, multi-leveled sorting concept, where uncertain results are differently affected by a series of uncertain, yet measurable strategies?

By and large, the answer comes back, "We're going to replace it with player-DM interaction, supported by guarantees of reward for perceived cleverness, when detected."

This seems very fuzzy.  Where is the point of contact?  What is the principle manner in which the interface of the game works, when the DM speaks to my player character and I speak to the DM's player character?  Where is it measured?  How do we define the perameters of my strategy?  If my goal is to perform a task in the game, how does failure to perform that task occur?  What stipulates failure?  What exterior criterion applies?  Please define success for me in a manner that does not require opinion.

This is where I get lost.  I hit a button and make Mario jump.  I have to hit the button just so if I want Mario to jump at this point in the game and for the point of contact between Mario and the ledge to process within the game's interface.

How does talking Mario onto the ledge work?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Candor

I've been thinking about players who don't care if the DM is arbitrary or not.  Who don't care if the game challenges them.  Or recognize the connections existing between different elements of the game.  As Lance Duncan explained.  I can't deny it.  I've seen that.

We spoke some about it today and it was proposed that some people are lonely.  Very lonely.  And willing to accept any conditions so long as there is somewhere to go on a Friday night, someone to talk to and something to talk about.  This seems possible.  I don't know.

But the very idea that this is the only reason that any of us can think of to describe the phenomenon is telling.  What group of people would willingly find themselves drawn into a community that supported selfishness, high-handed tactics, deliberate and sanctioned lies, along with preening and crowing about it?

From wikipedia, persons of low self-esteem may show some of the following characteristics (I'll keep to those I think apply, but here's the complete list):

  • heavy self-criticism and dissatisfaction
  • chronic indecision and an exaggerated fear of mistakes.
  • excessive will to please and unwillingness to displease any petitioner [person making a formally drawn request]
  • neurotic guilt, dwelling on or exaggerating the magnitude of past mistakes.
  • sees temporary setbacks as permanent, intolerable conditions.

Add to this a description of "shattered" persons, described just below this list on the wikipedia link:
"The individual does not regard themselves as valuable or lovable.  They may be overwhelmed by defeat, or shame, or see themselves as such, and they name their 'anti-feat.'  For example, if they consider that being over a certain age is an anti-feat, they define themselves with the name of their anti-feat, and say, 'I am old.'  They pity themselves.  They insult themselves.  They feel sorry.  They may become paralyzed in their sadness."

We might suppose this condition is evident; that, not seeing such persons openly display these traits, that we know no one like these people, that they are rare and certainly not, right now, participating in our campaign.

I don't want to say if they're in any campaign that we're running.  How would I know?  Or you? We have, few of us, the training to recognize any such persons.  But they are not rare, they are extremely common, and the probability is that some of the people we know fairly well fall well into this behaviour.

Since role-playing games offer a certain type of bully a platform that gives formality and justification to their bullying, we must presume that insecure, defensive persons find themselves trapped in campaigns to which they quickly fall prey; and I have very little idea what we can do about it.

We don't want to take this stance, where the attempt is to bully the bully [seriously, I can't imagine what sort of a hateful, nasty piece of work this fellow is in real life; he is certainly doing very little to convince me otherwise].

I can't say much for my own attitude, either.  I am sympathetic to persons of low self-esteem, but I have known so many over the course of my life, and tried to help so many without the least bit of success, that I've more or less come to throwing my hands in the air and turning my back.  I could sit and write chapter and verse on a long line of friends who could not stand up for themselves against their parents at 18, who could not stand up to the need to buckle down and work as university students at 22, who could not make their marriage work at 27, who could not think of their children before themselves at 31, who lived in fear of losing their jobs to the point that they would cry in the bathroom rather than stand up at 36, who sat in a steady-state of misery when their partners left them at 43 and so on and so forth . . . but I don't have to do that, because we all have been part of this same cavalcade of misery, particularly those who were willing to stand and fight back and take the hits because the alternative, to knuckle under, seemed much worse.

The hard, bitter truth of growing older is the sheer experience of trying and failing with people, hundreds and hundreds of times.  Of encouraging them, of holding them as they cried, of rushing over to their house to console them when their partners went, of helping them drag their asses to work and helping them get through the shifts and covering their shifts when they didn't show up and telling them, "It's all right, guy; just feel better, okay?"  Of doing it and doing it and doing it, only to watch them spin further and further down the drain until, well, they were gone.  We see them five, ten, twenty years later, meeting them at a food mart or a coffee shop, talk to them for a few minutes and go our way, thinking, "Wow.  So that's John now."  And that is how it goes.  We want them to be better, we want them to be happy, we want them to have found something that set them on the right track . . . but all that happens is time.

So part of that hard, bitter truth is that, habitually, we begin to move away from it when we see it, like that moment when we realize the woman sitting next to us on the bus is holding a copy of the Watchtower or some other equally disturbing handful of tracts.  We don't want them in the campaign because they're trouble.  Not the sort of trouble that causes fights, but the sort of trouble that means John is going to need four times as much patience and attention as everyone else . . . and still John isn't going to get it.  And maybe it would be better if John went and did something else.

How cold is that?  It's cold.  I'll admit I'm somewhat sick about it.  I don't like seeing this in me and wouldn't like seeing it in someone else.  Yet writing is about investigating the truth in things, and there are reasons why old men grow hard and impatient and bitter.

Whatever his real name, and some of them are named John, there are a lot of players out there who are lonely and will do whatever it takes to play this game, or any game where they can hear their name out of someone else's mouth.  They will sell their own souls to have that ~ and as we well know, there are a lot of bullies who are buying.

To be clear, I can't offer any solution.  If you have the wherewithal, and you have a player who seems to be hurting and unable to lift themselves out of their personal funk, I encourage you to give them the most energy you can.  It will really matter to them.  It will make a big difference in their lives.  But unless you can steer them towards a professional, who will have the time and patience and expertise to lift them out of that place, don't expect much in return for your wise encouragements and effort.  It won't seem that way, because those people with low self-esteem will tell you that you're right and that they should try to do as you suggest, to help themselves. They'll agree with you all down the line.  Not because you are right, even if you are; and not because your suggestions are good, even if they might be; but because these people can't help themselves. Because agreeing is what they do.  They don't care what they're agreeing to, so long as you feel they're in your camp, because that's all that matters to them.  They'll blow smoke on your fire as long as you let them.

If you're young and you haven't much experience with this, you'll puff yourself up and make yourself believe that you're making a difference, and for a time, sometimes, it will really seem that way.  You'll feel wonderfully altruistic and helpful.

But it won't matter, though you might consider yourself a good person: because people with low self-esteem make bullies feel wonderful, too.

Harsh.  That's very harsh.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Phony Gray Area

Readers that have spent time bored on the internet will have come across circumstances where a complex, difficult to understand principle has been co-opted in order to substantiate some utterly ridiculous philosophy desperate for validation.  Who hasn't seen Heisenberg's uncertainty principle used as "evidence" for the existence of god or as "proof" of some other soft belief?  We're well familiar with the often-misunderstood worlds of banking and finance used as a structure to endorse a belief in a Jewish conspiracy or the complicated world of politics to enhance some notion that the world is being run by Free Masons, Aliens or whatever other group can be called upon to spread fear and distrust among the ignorant.  This sort of thing has been going on a long time: the ancient Greeks identified practitioners as sophists, who charged money to dupes in order to give them an "education" that was something less than that.

Just now, gamers will have encountered a familiar argument that because role-play is complicated and full of humans speaking and "fostering a story," the actual process of role-playing can only be described as gray "flexibility," far too complicated to be understood and certainly defying a rule-set that can account for all the possible contingencies that will arise.  Therefore, a DM must, must absolutely, so much so that it cannot be disputed, be "occasionally" arbitrary.  That is to say, actually arbitrary, since only the arbitrary dictator can decide when arbitrariness is necessary.

This argument is mere sophistry.  Speech is an invention and humans have been systematically discovering ways to control the manner in which we speak to one another in situations far more complex than a role-playing game can ever hope to be.  Physicians and nurses intensively train six months to a year learning to communicate perfectly during operations.  Military personnel spend just as long learning to communicate in a wide variety of ways, with and without speech, to foster joint participation in extraordinary circumstances, as do police and fire-fighters.  Jazz musicians do not merely take off in a random direction when they jam together: there are rules.  In dozens and dozens of professions, the phrases, descriptives, interactions and methods of communication are measured, refined and codified in order to be exact, while dealing with situations that require levels of intuition and flexibility that far surpasses what a DM does at a game table.  Arguments that "flexibility" requires "arbitrary" decision-making is demonstrably specious, particularly when we consider that every expert dealing with a dangerous situation ~ medical, military and emergency services ~ are all constantly required to explain exactly why the decision they made in given situation was not arbitrary.

We often fail to recognize the importance of communication in role-playing and far-too-often we half-ass a player's contribution (not in my world, as I'm a hard-ass).  If a baseball umpire suddenly stopped calling balls "strikes" and began calling, "Swing and a miss, One!  Didn't bother to swing at all, Two!", the players would understandably stop and ask what the fuck was going on.  But if a player at a role-playing campaign suddenly started referring to "hit points" as "meat status," chances are the other players would laugh, then start using it themselves, then carry on with it every once in a while because "fun."  Because who gives a shit?  Means the same thing.

This is where the sophists jump in.  Because many games are run without the least effort towards creating structure or demanding consistency, and because many of these games are presented as "fun," a word that in no way describes a consistent, universal experience, this is argued as "proof" that the only way to control players is through arbitrary control and flexibility.

In keeping with the videos I've been relaying just recently, what is "flexibility"?  It sounds like an important word, something that a DM has to be, but it is often used as an extremely fluid term that could describe, well, anything.  How can one be both "flexible" and "arbitrary" at the same time? Like in the xkcd comic above, the word is being redefined for the sake of sounding like something positive, while utterly ignoring the word's actual meaning.

To be flexible [definition 1] is to be capable of bending without breaking.  In a game sense, to carry out the rules as written with some understanding that unheard precedents need to be ruled upon according to principles that support the sentiment and virtue of the game, not the individual.  If a ruling is made that breaks trust and causes others to question the legitimacy of the DM, then rules in place up to that ruling have been broken and flexibility has not been the result.

Again, to be flexible [definition 2] is to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances and conditions.  In the game sense, this means to respond to outside circumstances, meaning that the player's actions and choices should be respected, enabling an open-ended, variable and adaptable experience for all concerned.  I've been describing this lately, where I've said the world has to have features that adjust as the players adjust, that respond to manipulation without commanding or stultifying that manipulation.  This does not mean that breaking the rules is suddenly okay ~ the first definition still holds ~ but it does mean that the DM's actions cannot arbitrarily counteract the player's behaviour.  This would be the equivalent of a car's steering wheel suddenly locking up without explanation ~ something that no driver wants, ever.

Finally, to be flexible [definition 3] is to be ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.  This sounds like definition 2, but in this case it applies to the person and not the situation.  It means that a flexible DM doesn't want to be arbitrary, doesn't want to be intractable or intolerant.  A DM needs to want the players to want the game to be plastic in its design.

Every time a DM sets out to be arbitrary, to make a random choice on a personal whim, rather than according to any reason or system, unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority, the DM has specifically not been flexible.  Yet the sophist would have you believe that the "truth" about gaming is found in the "gray space" between flexibility and arbitrary decision-making.

This is like saying that the effectiveness of a car is in the "gray space" between the car working as desired and the car randomly breaking down.  There's nothing gray about it.  We know why cars break, though they may be complicated; and even the least little bit of investigation by a player will ascertain almost immediately why a campaign doesn't work.

Because the DM is a dick.  And thinks that's acceptable.  Because role-playing games are complicated, and arbitrarily is the only way they can be run in order to maintain momentum, story, interest, fun . . . you know.  Reasons.

That Was Easy

1 hex = 20 miles
That didn't take very long.  These are the Faroe Islands on the right, an area of 1,399 sq.km, or about a third the size of Rhode Island.  The islands are little more than bare rock, yet there is a population of nearly 50,000 here.

I haven't calculated the exact population in my game, so I can't say at the moment what the tech level would be.  The same is true of the four regions of Iceland, though for all of these regions I wouldn't expect any part to be higher than 9.  As far as Iceland goes, the area of Vatnajokull won't be included in determining the population density, so that will improve the potential tech level a little in the three outlying areas; Sunnlend, around Reykjarvik, won't be too bad.

Adventuring in these areas would likely be a one-time campaign to get a specific object, communicate with a specific entity or otherwise end an adventure.  Players might want to try living here, but there are going to be long months of little activity due to the weather, which of course can be skipped.  Still, lack of easily obtainable access to the rest of the world would likely discourage settlement.

Spitsbergen next.  It was called Spitsbergen after the archipelago's existence was confirmed in 1596 by the Dutchman Willem Barentsz; but I'll have to find some other name for it, since it won't be occupied by humans at all but by some other race.  I have decided which, but I intend to keep that a secret.  In real history, the islands were used for hunting walruses for their tusks and bears for their skins in the summer months; but that won't be true of my world, either.

Remember to vote on my poll regarding my next region for mapping; beginning to look like West China, which is fine by me.  No coastlines.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Iceland Finished

Okay, so here it is.


For those who have access to my maps on google drive, I've created a publisher file and added the above image too, for examination.

This doesn't quite complete Europe for my world.  My next step is to work on the Faeroes Islands and then Svalbard/Spitsbergen, neither of which need much research and shouldn't be too difficult to map, though they're both loaded with extra coastline for the areas they cover.  Then, it is a question of what I do next.

Before Iceland, I proposed a poll ~ and was not very surprised when Iceland was picked.  I'm going to make another poll, and will not be surprised when this time it comes up Greenland ~ though that will be a huge amount of coastline work without much meaning or gratuity to my overall game setting.  People will pick it, however, because they know my next poll will include a piece of North America ~ and that, eventually, I'll be voted into working on parts of the United States (where most of my readers dwell).

That's not entirely a bad thing.  I will get around to running again, both on and off line, and it would probably be interesting to run an American-based game.  Of late, I have been contemplating more and more the prospect of retaining an Amer-Indian culture for continuity, based on a demi-humanoid culture of my own invention (rest assured, the skin color will not be blue!).  The whole project concept, however, would subvert the real world's framework for new world inhabitation, largely because my whole Northern Asian culture is made up of hobgoblins, goblins, bugbears, ogres and elves . . . there being no logical possibility of human migration through that mess to populate the two new continents.

Some might take a negative political view of that, but c'est la vie.

And seriously, if you voted for Iceland, which I've created, and you seriously want to now vote for Greenland, it isn't asking too much for you to kick in a buck or two to my Patreon account.  Nyet?

Lift Your Head; Look Around

To keep up with this subject, I'm looking into all kinds of game-making materials and lectures. Here's a quote from the 2013 GSummit SF, from Will Wright, the creator of Sim City and the Sims:
"Science is the process of taking a huge amount of data, compressing it down into a very, very simple concise set of rules. In some sense, this is what epic gamers are doing; they're looking at the data as they play the game. And it's what scientists are doing as well.  This is a scientist, Scott Diddums [see image on video] ~ he works at the Institute of Standards and Technology. Here he's actually doing experiments in quantum optical interactions and he's doing this to build a more accurate physics model of the way modern physics works.
 "This is Timmy.  He's a toddler at Carolina Day School; here he's playing with little toy magnets, looking at the way they interact.  He's doing the exact same thing, though; he's using this to build a comprehensive world model in physics.  It's an exact same process these two individuals are going through and its actually something that we're born into.  I think its a more natural mode of interaction for us than story, which is something we learn a little bit later."

 We do learn it later, and not just in life, but in the course of human history.  For a hundred and fifty thousand years, the process that Timmy and Scott are going through is substantially built into our wiring; whereas story-telling is a technology developed much later on, after the invention of speech.  And this is the point.  Speech is an invention, by us.  Investigation is a question of evolution: we developed it through mutation.  Think about that a moment and I'll continue with Wright's lecture:
"You know very, very young kids will sit there, interact with the world, start building models through play.  Games, really, in some sense as a game designer, what we're doing is we're trying to build a very concise set of rules that will create a very large set of possibilities for the player, especially the simulation games [speaking specifically of video games].  Now the player is interacting in this large simulation and in that they're trying to reverse engineer our rule set.  They're actually building a mental-model of what they think is underneath the hood of that game ... Games are really just compilers for mental models that we want to put into the player, and depending on how we design that game we can direct what kind of model they're building."

Now take note: we're not wasting our time debating the importance of rules or what a simulation is, or fundamentally the principle that Wright is explaining.  And because I have boundaries on the blog posts, we don't have to get bogged down with discussions about what "story" means or how important it is.

It is a pleasure to see the mechanics of game design described as a given and not as a subject of circular debate.  Every game we play, video or otherwise, that is advanced by rational people, has strict rules that are imposed on the gamer in order to produce a specific game experience ~ and these games sell for fantastic prices and are played for hundreds upon hundreds of hours by the users.  Every game, that is, except for role-play.  Where arguments about the necessity of "rules" have destroyed any development.  And where arguments about ill-conceived rule-notions, such as alignment, which can't be imposed properly without drastically curtailing the player agency that makes the game enjoyable, go on and on.

If you're still looking at role-playing sites for ideas or for direction on where to take your game, stop.  Just stop.  The content that you need is out there, but you have to ditch this RPG ghetto and go looking for it among people who know what they're talking about.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Somewhat More Than a Challenge

I feel I should make clear the "challenge" the DM faces in attempting the design formulation that I've been proposing: 1) that the game should be hard enough to play that players can lose heart or contentment as the game progresses; 2) that 'fun' is not a design feature; 3) that the game setting be fixed and reasonably predictable; and that 4) the player's actions should result in a change to the setting, which then adjusts and directly addresses what the players have been doing.

Is this hard?  Yes.  Extremely.  Is this beyond the ken of most DMs? Without question.  And let me address that for just a moment.

We cannot expect others or even ourselves to step into an interpretation of a game that is distinctly different from what we have expected it to be for a long time and then do well.  What I've been arguing flies flat out in the face of "role-playing games" as they've been sold and promoted since their inception.  The potential difficulty of the game has never been embraced by the makers of the game nor the company that ultimately acquired the property from those makers.  In every case, in every media release, in every publicized demonstration of the game, the principal goal has been to make the game accessible to a wider buying public, a public that can't be counted on to attempt to play a difficult game that can't be easily explained or mastered.  There's no benefit in attempting to promote this, not by the company continuously re-inventing the game, not by clubs who count their importance by the number of their attendees, not by game stores who care first and foremost about sales and certainly not by virtually every game-master discussing the game on the web, having been steeped in the marketing culture of Cons, modules, splat books, fictionalized role-playing novels, podcasts, blogs and a nostalgic background in junior high school and high school introduction.

D&D, and the other role-playing games that followed, can't be properly compared to other games such as baseball, hockey, golf, Monopoly, RISK, chess or bridge, etcetera, because those games can be easily explained.  The "hard" part inherent in those games depends upon the actual skill of of the participants: but take six-year-olds and teach them hockey and they can enjoy the "difficulty" of the game against each other, even if a group of seven-year-olds would wipe the ice with them.

But D&D isn't like that.  The actual process of the game is more difficult than the play.  Once it has been decided to kill the chimera, further game play is dependent on whether or not one survives.  The player can add information as the fight goes on, but most of the actual process is spent in determining chance of hitting, weapon used, effectiveness of weapon, personal skills, losses, niggling details surrounding every part of the experience and, finally, waiting to see which lives or dies, the player or the chimera.

Video games manage this process by greatly simplifying all the details so that the player need only press a button; the speed at which the battle is resolved is maximized and so twenty seconds or so of pushing a button at a hard target will sort out the result.  D&D isn't like that.  Much of D&D, no matter how simplified we make the game, is accounting.

This means that, for most people playing, the quality of the game is based solely on how much accounting the players and the DM are prepared to do.  Less rules, less accounting.  More DM fiat, less accounting.  More story-driven, character-driven parley and general in-character chatter, less accounting.  And if we get rid of details like experience gained, hit points, levels, 'to hit' rolls and other features of combat, all of which I've seen proposed for throwing into the trash, less accounting still.

Those who describe "a better game" as one in which accounting takes place on a grander, deeper scale (meaning that rules and details are added), are considered pariahs and abuse-mongers among the much larger populace of participants who have determined that "better" describes a game in which the character sheet is drastically reduced in scope and detail.  These are people who don't want to play golf, or hockey, or anything else that requires sweating.  These are people who, when they buy a game, immediately seek out the "cheats" pages on the internet because even the automated process of having a computer calculate out pleasure and rewards for time spent can't wait, but must have their rewards right now.

Because of all this, we can't merely describe the sort of D&D I'm proposing with those four points that started this post as "challenging."  Let's be correct.  D&D as I try to play it is unpleasant, unmanageable, unfair to the DM and the player, unreasonable in its rules' systems and, for the most part, incomprehensible in terms of how it produces "fun."

Which it doesn't.  My game produces strain.  My game produces panic.   My game promotes feelings of inadequacy and frustration and, occasionally when a party can't get its shit together, exhaustive periods of boredom.  When new players come into my game, they're familiar with my online persona and they presume, not always rightly, that I'm waiting in the tall grass with a knife, waiting to gut them.  And even though I will occasionally step out and say, "Relax, I'm not just going to kill you for no reason," they don't believe me.  Largely, because they have no idea what would count as a "reason" and, just in case, it's best to think everything does.

They have no idea because I'm perfectly ready to blindside a party with something they didn't expect, I'm good at that, and people have personally witnessed me doing it.

So why?  I ask you.  Why would anyone want to play in a game like mine?  It's just a lot of accounting and rules-making and reading and memory-work, just to stay on top of what your player can and cannot do, much less trying to figure out what the NPCs might want to do, or how the world itself fits together.

Screw all that!  Please, just give us a lot of description and a king who wants a thorough back and forth with us about our backstory.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Iceland Coast


I'm sorry to say it, all, since some of you are paying the price, but it is nice to have a little time to myself again.  Before digging myself into deadlines and such, I was working on Iceland.  This was just a couple of hours work.  It needs cities, adjustments to elevations and what small hydrofeatures that will exist, but on the whole I'm pleased with the size of the thing.  I felt initially that it would not cover so many hexes.

I have been basically relaxing all week, aside from working in a bakery on 95-degree days, as the city is going through a heat wave.  The house is so hot it is hard to sleep at night.  Still, yes, I am sorry about letting this break spin out overlong, and I do plan to get back to writing.  I hope I can hammer out a few words this evening, if it would just bloody well cool off.

In the meantime, there's a little Iceland: oh, how I wish I were there.

There is one feature on the map that shouldn't be there, as it wasn't "land" until 1963, the year before I was born.  But what the hell.  I've said, it isn't the real world; it's my world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Wheel Turns

Having laid the groundwork with the previous few posts, starting here, I'm in a position to discuss a relationship between blocking and RPG adventure writing, that struck me as I was reading this comment from Tim.

We're told to think in terms of the 'story' of the adventure ~ but as I've explained, this is a lazy use of the word from game makers who did not have the vocabulary or the design-experience necessary to find the right word in their lexicon.  A proposed adventure is a delivery system for communicating a set of ideas to the players which will produce a vaguely understood but ultimately unknown behaviour, the same way that a phone app will be designed for one purpose and then find itself being used very differently once in the hands of the public.

The correct term for this design process is "modelling," which the reader will note is the term used by experts when discussing the principles of design, such as here, here, here and here.  If we take the last, which is about security systems and threat models, the professor ~ after some introduction ~ talks about how the security system is based on achieving a goal when there is an adversary present: and this is more or less the principle behind what we should be thinking when we are designing a dungeon.

The type of dungeon being entered should be based not on the environment or the amount of treasure or how dangerous it is, though these things matter and are ultimately part of the system, but specifically how rigorous is the dungeon in terms of dealing with the players as invaders of that system.  Is the dungeon open or closed?  Prepared or not prepared?  Do the denizens of the dungeon expect a threat or has the likelihood of a threat become minimal to the point where the denizens have become quite lax.  Specifically, how much confrontation should the players expect once they've entered the model?

Most of the original dungeons that were created by the early adventure designers were built like a series of museum exhibits, each with something different and interesting to show but no real continuity from location to location.  There have been varying attempts to move away from this model but it continues to turn up again and again in dungeons made by DMs who just don't know any better and who can find plenty of examples to support the notion that this is good design.  In fact, the dungeon should be organized in a manner that suggests that the denizens within are as free to move from room to room as the players are.  If the rooms are separated by fixed, nearly impassable walls, then the dungeon rooms so divided can exhibit a severe break in continuity; but if the players can just walk through a door or move down a passageway into the next room, then it should be assumed that the monsters can also: and if they can, why are the rooms arranged in the way that they are?

This is where we might imagine that we need 'blocking' to determine the arrangement of the rooms or the denizens within; but blocking is an inflexible structure for the movement of theatrical characters moving according to the rhythm and time-sense of the lines of the play as it is presented, or the inflexible plot points of a piece of literature that is meant to be experienced but which does not allow interaction.  The monsters within the rooms the party is investigating will move according to the players' behaviour, or their lack of behaviour.

Consider: as a DM, you stipulate that the snake in the fountain will be moving slowly through the water at the moment the players enter the room.  We can think of that as blocking, if we want; however, what the party does can change the habits of the snake, even if the party does not know the snake exists.  Suppose than none of the players approaches the fountain?  Suppose that one player decides to remain as a guard in the room, while the rest of the players move on to the next room?  What then?  Does the snake leave the fountain or not?  We know the snake finds food by passing through the cracks in the wall.  At what point does the snake leave the fountain to do so, enabling the player to safely watch the snake cross the floor while remaining unthreatened?

The tendency is to always assume that the snake is a threat: that if the party will not go to the snake, the snake will go to the party.  But we may easily play an entire golf course and never hit a water hazard; does that mean that the water hazard should come to us?  Or that something is wrong with the golf course?  Nonsense.  As a designer, we have to see the design features of the model we're creating as flexible enough that the players can avoid hazards.  And we have to see those hazards as living, breathing things, that won't remain in a static position within the system, just as the players are not in a static position.

Too often, we have tried to account for dungeons as a series of demanded expectations: the thought process has been, when the players do this, this happens.  We should be thinking in terms of "if," and we should be thinking even better in terms of not having a certain response on the part of the monsters being fixed and inflexible.

If the monsters are vigilant, if they are certain that their lair is being invaded and they do feel reason to be threatened, they should fight like a cornered animal, perhaps to the last creature.  But if the party has reached the dungeon through a trackless waste, only to finally find these creatures within, how vigilant should we expect them to be?  Would they not, perhaps, be interested in news from the outside world?  Might they not first seek to parley, then fail to understand for a time why the party is so violent and obsessively murderous?  Could this not send a ripple down through a dungeon, where different groups have created negotiated boundaries between various lairs, which are now communicating as the word is sent down through the sixteen layers that the orcs on level 1 and the bugbears on level 3 have been nearly wiped out, except for a few left over who are now speaking with the ogres on level 6 or the hill giants on level 7?

Dungeons are virtually always seen as collections of targets; as museum exhibits; where the monsters stand frozen in time until activated by the players' entrance.  But the player's decisions, speed of movement, order of investigation, access of magical power within the space and so on should influence what position the monster is in when the players arrive, how much intel the monster has had the opportunity to gather, what other forces already know about the players and what disturbances have occurred.  These things make running a dungeon vastly more complex ~ but ultimately more interesting for the user.

Remember that line from Salen and Zimmerman: play is free movement within a more rigid structure.  More rigid.  Not totally rigid.  Your personal control in driving your car is more or less predictable; but that predictability changes if it rains or snows and changes the surface of the road, and changes again if you wait three hours before getting on the highway to visit the nearby beach or campground where you hope to sleep tonight.  Waiting can produce a better effect and it can produce a worse effect.  You might wait and avoid the rain.  You might wait and find the campground is full.  You might wait and discover that you're so hungry before you reach your destination that you must now make an unscheduled stop.  Your decisions have consequences to the way the complex, multi-varied world operates, both internally to the structure of your biology and externally to the structure of what nature and everything else is doing while you make a decision to act.

Whenever possible, a DM should try to stretch far enough to account for those decisions, giving enough free movement to the player to let them play, while enabling the structure to shift and adjust in response to that play.  The car works in a rigid way; but the wheel still turns.  The world the players participate in has to turn as well.