Monday, June 19, 2017

San Diego...

...feels like a wasteland.

But that's probably just a first impression. And certainly, colored by my personal biases.

Hmmm...I said "first impression" but this is actually the third (or fourth?) time I've been here. I remember the first time, when I was about twelve, and I thought (and said) that San Diego is where I wanted to live one day. It was the first city I ever considered as a permanent replacement for my beloved hometown. And (as far as I can recall) it was the last and only time I emphatically wanted to go, a place I was willing to make (mental) plans for how I would facilitate such a move.

But that was thirty plus years ago and, I suppose, I've changed a lot since I was twelve. And perhaps Seattle has changed, too, offering more of what I want and love. San Diego has nice weather, and some passable Mexican food, but I'm not a fan of the beach and I have ocean views in Seattle, too. With mountains.

Anyway, just some morning musings from my hotel room. Hope folks had a happy Father's Day yesterday.
: )

Thursday, June 15, 2017

I AM The Game

Let me preface this post with the following: there have been a lot of ideas percolating (if not particularly "gelling") of late in my brain, and they are derived from a number of internet babblers. Here's the list (for interested folks):

I think this is posted in the order in which I read them, but I'm not actually going to go back and check the dates. My time is fairly limited today.

As said, all these have been percolating in my head, making me examine...and re-examine...and re-define, my personal concept of myself as a Dungeon Master. How I do it, why I do it...hell, even should I do it. And if I should, then how should I and why should I...

This Spring, I had the opportunity to closely observe my son's Little League coach successfully wrangle (and encourage and teach) a squad of mostly unruly and often disinterested six year olds through a season of "America's pastime" (tee-ball version). The man had the fucking patience of Job, and I felt myself thinking (and often commenting to others) that I couldn't even begin to see myself in such a role...that it would drive me crazy with frustration, or that I would be too competitive and too hard on the kids. And, yet, I was recently petitioned to take the head coach position for next year's (first grade) soccer team...and I accepted. Despite my misgivings and worries that I'll morph into some sort of petty tyrant of the pitch.

[*sigh* we've got to grow, right?]

The role of Dungeon Master is one that is custom-made for the would-be petty tyrant. And while most folks who play D&D could hardly be blamed for hoping for some sort of "benevolent dictatorship," my base feeling is that autocratic, authoritarian rule is imperative to running a solid (i.e. effective) game of Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, the same thing I fear in myself as a teacher and coach for children, is something I find necessary for this Great Game of ours.

"Autocratic?" Yes. And please note I'm speaking specifically of Dungeons & Dragons, not all RPGs in general. The vehicle for gaming that is D&D requires an absolute authority to act as referee and rules arbiter. It is a requirement if one wishes to experience the entertainment of the game as designed.

Let me clarify, though, lest folks misconstrue...this isn't about some Machiavelli "better-to-be-feared-than-loved" power trip. This is about being an umpire. This isn't about "social contract," a phrase many of us (including myself) have carelessly thrown around with regard to what should happen at the game table. Again, let me be clear: social contract is the reason I don't simply piss on your couch, should I find myself needing to urinate while visiting your home. Nothing else (short of physical restraint) prevents me from doing so...the accepted proprieties and shared cultural assumptions of our (supposedly) polite society.

When we sit down at a table to play a GAME, we are agreeing to abide by a set of rules that govern play. And in the case of D&D, the Dungeon Master is the one responsible for presenting the players with the world in which they find themselves. Game exists within social does all human interaction...but it does not govern the rules by which we play. Rules are not, must not, be subject to negotiation. Interpretation, perhaps, but not negotiation.

Not at the table, anyway. Away from the table...before a game, after a game...that is the time to have a discussion (if required) regarding the way the game will be played, the way the rules will be interpreted. Many DMs feel the need (for whatever reason) to alter or tweak D&D's designed systems in ways that differ from the Rules As Written...and so long as these are presented formally, prior to play, the existence of such changes to the RAW game, good or bad, become a non-issue. Players of American football may bitch (or cheer) rule changes made during the off-season (such as the addition of a two-point conversion, or a new penalty for excessive on-field celebration), but once the season begins, once the games begin, the players (and coaches and fans) are expected to shut the F up and play the game by the new rules.

When I sit down to play Chess, I don't get to fuck around with the rules. When I sit down to play D&D I should be giving the same respect to its rules. If the rules state "a player's character should not act on knowledge the character doesn't possess," dammit, that's a rule! If the rules say dwarves can't play thieves or clerics don't get spells till 2nd level, it doesn't matter whether or not I think the rule is nonsensical or "un-fun." Likewise if I say we have a house rule preventing player versus player combat. Them's the rules, and bugger off if you don't like it.

A dungeon master needs to embody this, needs to run the game table with an iron fist, for good reason: it is only by being an absolute stickler and hard-ass can the players be assured that the game being played is fair and balanced (yeah, I realize this statement might prompt a WTF moment). Here's the skinny: the role of the Dungeon Master is, by design, an adversarial one. The players are not playing against another each other (as in Monopoly), nor against another team (as in football), nor against the game itself (as in a video game or certain board games like DungeonQuest). The players are pitted against the challenges presented to their characters...that's what the game is about, in every edition...and those challenges are crafted and run by the dungeon master.

That's the DM's job. If the DM is shitty about it, then the game will be a shitty one.

And in this case, being shitty means being arbitrary, being "flexible," bending rules and fudging dice rolls, and forgetting various rules and minutia they're too lazy to remember or implement, even in the aid of "pacing" or "storytelling." I'm going to come down hard on the side of Ozymandius here: D&D is not about creating a story. It is not collaborative storytelling. There are other RPGs that do that; some that do it well and make storytelling and "addressing premise" a priority of design. D&D is not one of those; D&D is about challenging players. A story of "what happened to us and what we did (or did not) accomplish" may come out of game play...something resembling fiction...but D&D is, in the end, not about creating fiction. It is a game that challenges players, and challenges them in pretty specific ways.

The DM provides that challenge. The rules (which the DM must enforce with absolute authority) are there to govern play, including both inspiring and constraining the DM: the DM must follow her own rules as well. I acknowledge there is difficulty in being fair and impartial at all times, especially when tension runs high and tempers flare during an especially spirited session, and that is why it is so important that the DM have iron resolve regarding the game, its rules, and the authority and responsibility invested in the position.

So long as the DM embodies her own authority consistently, players can play from an informed perspective...they can explore the boundaries of what's possible within the system, they can face challenges (and then greater challenges, and then even greater challenges). They can master the rules themselves, they can judge risk and reward, they can hedge, they can find ways to cooperate and grow together as an effective team while building camaraderie. And they can do it while losing themselves in escapist fantasy, trusting the DM will not be arbitrary, but both firm and fair...even if it is (at times) dingy, dangerous, and unforgiving.

Kind of like the real world.

I find myself wanting to write some sort of treatise on dungeon mastering, outlining an ordered system as an aid to would-be petty tyrants (i.e. DMs), like myself. I might do so (though probably nothing in the near future, mind you), if only to codify my own thoughts on the matter. Some sort of manual to help me remember my values and ideals when I'm sitting at the table, both alone (writing worlds and scenarios) and with others (running the game).

Some sort of DM's guidebook, I suppose.
; )

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

All Too Human

[and here I was going to blog about the new Wonder Woman film. Ah, well...perhaps tomorrow. Here's the TL;DR version: it's good and you should spend money to see it. More later]

One of the...what? Nice? Interesting? things about Seattle is that it is (or was) the erstwhile home of Wizards of the Coast (now located in Renton, Washington) as well as plenty of geeky RPG enthusiasts and game designers who have actual experience with and insight into the industry. Unlike folks like Yours Truly...people who have theory-bashed and compiled info from research, publications, and the internet...there are folks who have actually been a part of companies like White Wolf and Wizards and Paizo and other, smaller, outfits, who can offer real information on The Biz as it relates to the last couple decades.

[unlike the prior decades...the 70s and the 80s...where you'd have to go to the midwest to meet the right people]

So it was, today, that I spent a good couple hours bending the ear of one such (former) insider about Wizards and the RPG industry of the early WotC years. A dude who has done freelance writing for a number of big name game companies and worked in marketing department for the biggest. The conversation was...well, fascinating, to say the least. If I hadn't had to get my three year old her lunch and a nap (she was in tow at the time) I probably would have hung out a couple hours more.

Fascinating. But sad...and sad in the ways you might expect but hope wouldn't be the case. Tales of how shit isn't ideal. How people are human and (thus) prone to flaws of human frailty. How folks can do good while still being various ways.

Just fucking sad.

I write this (quickly) while filling the bathtub for my kids, and after quaffing half a bottle of pinot gris (really need to do something about my drinking). I know Seattle-ites like myself live life in a bubble beauty and light and liberal values that aren't really reflective of our American society as a whole. I know that I often think of fellow gamers in a similar light: that because we tend to be well read and above average intellectually that we are more often on the side of angels. I know that's a false assumption...I know it. I've read about it. I've heard about it from folks with first hand knowledge. But  to hear that the industry people at the highest levels fall prey to the same problems of us "lesser mortals,"'s just sad.

Power and money tend to corrupt humans. Whether you're talking about high ranking politicians or poor little ol' gamers. And even when it doesn't, nepotism and bitterness and jealousy often fuel and influence business practices...even when smart people should know better. All people have good inside them...but they can get lost along the way, and really end up doing a lot of fucking damage. To themselves and others. Much as I'd like to write it off in a jokey fashion, it's not really a joke. Not when people lose their livelihoods. Not when people wreck their relationships. Not when...

Ah, F it.

It's 2017. As always, hindsight is 20x20 and folks will continue to make the same mistakes and fail to learn from the mistakes of the past. It's the way of our human species, and I know that, too (man, I saw enough of that in Paraguay). I will probably never be in a position to make a ton of money (few of us are ever so lucky), but I hope...I really, really hope...that if such happens, I'll remember not to be stupid. I'll try not to get to big for my britches.


All right, got to go wash the filth off my children. Yak at y'all later.


Even though I'm off the caffeine these days, my sleep cycle is somewhat of a mess. I woke up around 4 or 5 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep, instead thinking about the new Wonder Woman film (which I got to see yesterday afternoon), and all the thoughts I wanted to blog about it.

But that's a post for later. Sunday, I ran a game of Dungeons & Dragons for my children after several days of begging and pleading on their part (mainly, the part of my six year old, though his three year old sister apes most everything he does, and thus chimed in).

What was the impetus for their desire? I'm not really sure. Probably it has something to do with all the books (my reprints) lying around and taking up space. Then, of course, there was the barbecue last week (at the home of my son's classmate) in which I spent a good chunk of time talking Dungeons & Dragons and the hobby/industry. The kids were also playing the Dungeon! board game last week (though that's not especially new), and we also played a game of DungeonQuest on Saturday...though that was more to stave off the harping to play D&D that had begun mid-week.

I don't know. I was actually hoping to interest them in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts (hmmm...still need to write-up a post on that particular game), going so far as to show them the first Indiana Jones film (with heavy cut-aways). While that inspired D to write his own game (yet another post I should probably write), he still wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons.

And so we did.

Diego (my son), wrote up the character sheets and helped his sister with the dice rolling. After much internal debate, I decided to run straight B/X with a few extra combat abstractions (that the kids wouldn't know or understand anyway). Both ran elf characters (Elrond the Brave and Scarooca). For a beginning adventure I used the one found in Mentzer's basic set.

The kids sat rapt with attention as I read them the (fairly short) boxed text. They encountered the carrion crawler which, with my house rules, they were able to defeat.

[I've run Mentzer's introductory adventure in the past and the carrion crawler encounter has ALWAYS resulted in a TPK. The problem is its number of attacks (eight!) and the low probability of saving against multiple hits. My (simple) house rule gives creatures with multiple attacks one attack roll per round versus a maximum number of opponents equal to its multiple the crawler (for example) would be able to attack up to eight opponents, but regardless it would make only one attack per character per round. This is something I've been doing for a while now, and I find it works well in practice]

After pulling the body from the hole and doing a bit of digging, they discovered the 200 pounds of treasure (1000 coins each of copper and silver) only to find they hadn't brought enough bags to carry it all. So they filled their backpacks with silver, headed back to town to buy some large sacks, and then recovered the rest of the loot.

And then I put them to bed.

They were very excited by the game. They really enjoyed it. They wanted to keep playing.

And I felt very good running the game. I've missed playing D&D. I really enjoyed myself. It was fun.

I'm not sure we'll be playing again any time soon, but I want to.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Stuck In A Rut

It is a terrible thing (well, subjectively speaking) that putting off blogging for long periods of time actually makes the act of blogging harder, not easier. One might not think this is the case...after all, in the time between my last post and this one I've had half a dozen (or more) ideas for good, solid posts that I wanted to write. But the sad fact is, the more those ideas "pile up" in the head, the harder it is to actually write them down. After all, which one do you start with? Does it make sense without the context of the earlier (non-posted) ideas that led to it? Is it still timely?

So...fuck. That's where I find myself at the moment. And rather than simply put off posting yet again, I've decided to put something down just to take a swing at blogging. Maybe this will help open the flood gates for yours truly.

The surprising success of my B/X Companion re-print (I've sold more than a quarter of the run already) has really made me want to get back to (i.e. finish up) one of the several writing projects that sit on my laptop. Seriously, I've got two or three books that range from 85% to 98% written, and I just can't seem to pull the trigger on them. One (Cry Dark Future) is actually done (except for artwork)...proofed and edited even...and I just want to blow the whole thing up because it's not good enough. I'm pretty sure I've written about that before (oh, yeah: right here), and the sad fact is nothing's changed since the last time I complained about it, eighteen months ago or whatever. Nothing's changed, except that I've started other projects that are near completion but have stalled, and that I've built up my own personal resentment for my own work.


So here I sit in the Baranoff, drinking decaf and going through my laptop docs and wondering just which one I should crank out. Because I WANT to crank something out. Really. Really really really. And I think it's going to be Cry Dark Future, I really do, and I THINK I can get it up and ready to print and I even have a couple-three people who I can task for artwork, BUT...

...I have a problem.

The magic system. It blows chunks.

Cry Dark Future was originally imagined as a B/X version of Shadowrun. Converting the latter system to the former (back when that was my main objective) was surprisingly simple, even with regard to the non-Vancian magic system.  However, upon years of reflection, I find I dislike the non-Vancian magic system. In fact, I'm getting pretty darn sick of magic systems in ALL of these RPGs I'm designing. I need a different paradigm., a week or two ago...I started thinking that MAYBE I should build a game BEGINNING with the magic system. I've actually been reading a lot of different, older RPGs looking at approaches that were taken by others back in Ye Old Formative Days of RPG design: Chivalry & Sorcery, Ars Magica, Fantasy Wargaming, etc. There are things I like, things I don't but there's nothing I can really polish and mold and re-purpose...which is kind of my forte when it comes to game design. I'm good at refining ideas, but I seldom have full blown creative spurts that spring from my noggin like Athena from Zeus.

More's the pity.

That's why this post is titled as it is. Yes, I'm stuck in a rut with regard to my blogging, but with my designing as well. I'm nearly on the verge of adapting a straight Vancian system (spells by level, fire and forget, etc.) system to Cry Dark Future because it's less fiddly than worrying about success rolls and mana burn and whatnot...not to mention I prefer a system that's dissimilar from other systems in the game (combat, for example). That's part of the beauty of original D& has all these mini-systems that work in different ways, but are all uber-simple to grok and remember. Cry Dark Future should be like that...interesting to use while being easy to learn so you can spend your time playing and exploring the setting of the game.



Huh. I just remembered something...a different game I wanted to examine (not an "old school" game) that might give me an idea or two. Oh...wait. No that was for something else.

Aaargh! You see? Too many ideas fighting for space in my brain!

My six year old really, REALLY wants to play Dungeons & Dragons with me, just by the way. I don't really feel up to it this week...but maybe I'll write up a short adventure for him. That might help my brain to clear this fog.

The decaf certainly isn't helping (duh).