Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Proof We're a Cult

Those readers who recently heard my guest appearance on a podcast will recall that I went on a diatribe about the way D&D is treated by the media.  No doubt, some of you strongly disagree with me.  I can only say that my experience with the media's missing the point has a long history.

Still, I try to have an open mind.  Which brings me to the recent article about D&D in last month's The New Yorker magazine.

Let me start by saying that it's nice to see that The New Yorker has become aware that people are still playing Dungeons and Dragons.  I don't mean that sarcastically: the writer makes it fairly clear in the article that there was every reason to believe the game had drifted into an enthusiasm-free obscurity by the time of Gygax's death in 2008.  The context suggests, with a sort of wonder, that people are still playing that game and that it seems to have retained an unexpected popularity ~ though the article makes clear that "the culture was receptive again" only after the amazing release of fifth edition completely revived the game from the brink of death.

Now, that may have exaggerated the writer's presentation.  From this point, I'm going to assume you've stopped reading me and that you've acquainted yourself with the article, so you can make up your own minds.  While the article is fresh in your mind, and you're mulling over the research the writer did into D&D, I'd like to explain that a typical fee for getting an article published with The New Yorker is $5 a word.  As the article is 2,614 words, one might impress on one's mind that the price tag here was about $12,500.  I offer this tidbit for the sake of perspective.  Measure the article however you will, but measure it with the article's value in mind.

On the whole, I think it is a positive article.  This alone makes it unique among those I've read.  Yes, the writer Neima Jahromi is off base on a few points, but as a media outsider writing about an unusual activity enjoyed fervently by a non-media driven agenda, the mistakes made are reasonable.  Thus the title of this post; when you're a cult, you can't expect non-believers to understand the basic dogma.

When I talk about the media's treatment of the activity, Jahromi gives an excellent example, with this description of ~ apparently ~ what I used to be in 1979:
"This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in."

She contextualizes it correctly, where she says, "Roleplayers were SEEN ..."  Yes.  That is how we were seen.  Unfortunately, Jahromi then does nothing to investigate this characterization, or suggest it may not have been the case.  Instead, she let's the media's description stand as is, as I would expect from a reporter who cannot be bothered to dig up a source to ask the question, "Were D&D players actually what the media depicted?"

But then, this would have ended in another 500 words of content, meaning another $2,500 out of The New Yorker's pocket, so perhaps the magazine just couldn't afford it.

So, the depiction stands.  And after some further discussion of how D&D is "everywhere now" ~ with the concurrent argument that it wasn't everywhere ten years ago ~ and that the Big Bang Theory highlighted the existence of the game to millions (or at least to The New Yorker, along with a few game stores in massively player-thick New York city), the article begins to expose its actual agenda.

D&D will save children from video games.

See, it's a wonderful thing that these boardgame clubs are including D&D in their line-up, since the games popularity proves that it's capable of drawing children away from their dark holes and out into the bright sunshine, where they can enjoy the ages-lost feeling of talking to people, before it is too late for them.

This brings me to a paragraph late in the article ... perhaps the most insulting, abusive, blatantly ignorant statement I have ever heard anyone write or utter in connection with RPGs.
"... the terms of hiding have changed. When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person “be-in,” the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place."

That is simply incredible.  As a feat of writing, I must pause and say, yes, well done.  The sentence construction here is excellent.  The theoretical balance between the depiction of the age past and the depiction of the present age is damn near perfect.  The nuance of the verbs and imagery is remarkable.  I am not, repeat not, being sarcastic.  I am a writer.  I recognize good writing when I see it.  Jahromi is a good writer and this paragraph proves it.  She is earning her money.  The New Yorker hires good people.

Unpacking it, I'll also pause to argue that, from the writer's point of view, this undoubtedly sounds logical.  I would guess, however, that she doesn't have the least idea of what the 1970s were like, having somehow connected D&D with factories and board rooms, as if to suggest that no other cultural circles featured in the world of 1970s science fiction, in film and literature, or the explosion of sexual role-play and film porn, or the technological explosion of video games and accessible computer programming.  I have to believe that Jahromi was not a conscious adult experimenting with sex and culture in 1979.

But yes, it's true, the media depiction of friends "retiring to a dimly lit table" does seem fruitless and antisocial. Of course, those of us who were playing in brightly lit rooms with up to 40 people at a time, as every table in a study hall was packed with gamers playing just as socially as they could, have to stare agog at the words of a writer as, however well she writes, goes right up her own ass, a dimly lit place all of its own.

Following that, the balance of the paragraph feeds the "save the children" argument: we must rescue children from instagram and Netflix by letting them see each other in this pixel-less world that is so much more real and nice and decent for everyone.


Given the perspective of the article, that it began with a gamestore in New York, which is getting along a little better because they added an unexpected game to their roster, it only follows that the writer of the article will view the world from the inside of that bottle.  It is painfully clear that the internet was not consulted as part of this article's research.  The word, "internet" only appears twice in the whole article: once in a quote from the television creator of "Community" and then immediately after in the next sentence referring to that quote. Here's the quote:
"The internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone was a nerd."

That is probably true in the mind of a television producer, but in actual fact the internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone is a troll.  Followed immediately by the immediate awareness that salespeople on the internet are the first to try to express a tautology, thinking that's what being brilliant sounds like.

As a nerd, still able to make everyone in a room feel uncomfortable just by looking at them, I have some contention with the argument that D&D is popular "now" because everyone is, in fact, a nerd.  If so, why is it that I'm still spoken of as "strange" and "fucked up," not to mention "autistic," by people who still reach for a label to explain something they don't understand.

Frankly, I think D&D is popular with those people who are likely to turn up at a board game place because those are the same people that were likely to turn up at a board game place 40 years ago.  And yes, we had stores where they played board games back in the days of factory workers and sweaty board rooms.  More to the point, D&D didn't "save" kids from video games in 1979, either, when the games were not nearly as enticing as they are now.  I wouldn't expect a huge bust up of the video game market because the media is willing to admit that, lo and behold, a lot of people play D&D.

Go figure.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Development System

Since conceiving of a technology-based system in 2015, making that idea manifest has been a considerable trial.  At the beginning, I managed to get through the bare bones of the structure, up to tech 18, very lightly touching on many ideas and concepts with the inconsistency of an idea newly formed.  Since, I've tried twice to create a structure that would enable me to explain the system in greater depth ~ once on the wiki, and once on the blog.  On both occasions, I did not get very far.  It turns out that the idea is so damn complicated I can hardly keep it all in my head at the same time, meaning that it quickly spins out of control. I end up being uncertain of what I'm trying to describe and from there the frame collapses.

I can see what it is supposed to do, but not precisely how to design it.  That is not unusual; very often we get ideas before we have a design ideal in place.  The only thing to do it bang our heads against it until the problem is solved.  As such, I'm trying a 3rd time ~ only this time, unlike before, I'm working on the problem privately.  I'm not posting the work in process, as I prefer to do.  I want to try to get some of it in shape before I expose the work.

Not all, no.  If I tried all, I would still be at this a year from now and no feedback.  But I will try to get at least twice as far as I have in the past.  I'm shooting to complete tech-9.

In the meantime, I'm going to tackle the other bugbear.  It kept coming up with the original idea and it came up again when I wrote the "world from scratch" post.  Readers just don't understand what I mean by "tech level" ~ and this is something I'd like to work out before presenting more hard material on these lines.

Perhaps "tech" has been the wrong word from the beginning.  I used the word because of ideas I took from the game Civilization IV, but that was probably a mistake.  As I think of it, my first experience with "technology" as part of an RPG was Traveller.  Technologies were rated from primitive to super-tech ... based, I think, on television science fiction of the '60s and '70s.  When Captain Kirk ended up on the Roman planet, the people there hadn't moved past technology of the 1960s because they hadn't invented it.  So, in traveller, if a tech level described a 20th century world, that intended a world frozen at that point in time.

So people wonder, when I say "tech level," how two regions with vastly different tech levels can possibly co-exist side-by-side, having nothing more than a river or perhaps a high mountain range dividing them.  How can it be possible that Paris is tech-15 but central France, just three days carriage ride away, is tech-11?

I think the word "tech" might be the problem here.  Let me try a different word: development.  Paris is more developed than provinces in central France that are three days away.  Just as a town of 8,000 people doesn't have a philharmonic, doesn't boast a major league baseball team and doesn't have a decent restaurant serving Thai food.  It isn't that that the people of Pleasantville don't know what these things are, or that they don't know how to build a huge football stadium ... it's just that there isn't much point, because there aren't enough people in Pleasantville and the surrounding counties to make that worth while.

Now, Pleasantville might only be twenty-five miles from Omaha; and Omaha might only be 7 hours drive from Chicago, but these are very different kinds of places.  Fifty years ago, before advancements in media and information technology, those differences were even more pronounced.  A hundred and fifty years ago, before cars and good roads, twenty-five miles was a much longer distance than now.  And 350 years ago, when my world takes place, there are many people who would never travel more than 25 miles in their whole life.  And they might never, ever, speak to someone from as far away as Chicago.

Which didn't exist in 1650, but you get my point.

Imagine that you come from a part of the world that is so backward it has no arrangements for making metal axes.  This isn't out of the question.  We could point to places like this as late as 1980, and quite easily. There are some still like this ... and there were certainly a lot more like this in 1850, 1750 and 1650. Forging metal is not a guaranteed community presence any more than a movie theatre ~ which many towns in Canada and America cannot boast.  We should be able to imagine a part of the world where the making of a metal axe is just not a thing.

This doesn't mean the locals don't know about metal axes!  Sure they know about them.  But it's hard to have them, at least for very long, because metal axes don't last.  Oh, sure, we might have one for awhile, but sooner or later the blade will dull, or the 17th century metal will corrode or even fracture after hitting one too many solid trees.  And then what are we going to do?  We can't just go get another one.  We're hundreds of miles from the nearest axe shop.

Yes, we might get together a few hundred nuggets of copper out of yon river, over time, and trade for an axe ... but what are the chances that a trader, with axes, is going to turn up here just as our axe breaks?  Oh, sure, the trader was here a month ago, but the axe was fine then.  Isn't it always the way?  No trader, no axe.  Shit.

The reliable solution is to get along without metal axes.  No worries about how sharp the blade is, no wading in cold river water hoping to find a flake of copper, no problems at all except flaking a good old-fashioned, reliable flint axe when its needed.  It's not like we're working hard on an industrial lifestyle out here: we raise a few pigs, we raise a few crops ... what are we really going to use that metal axe for, anyway?

Okay, a fence or two ... and it helps us cut wands for mud-and-daub structure building, and it's not a bad thing to split open the skull of an orc raider, when that comes up.  But it's not like a good stone axe isn't also practical in such things.

Truth is, where it comes to development, if you don't actually have the means to make the technology, actually having the technology isn't that useful.  Ask yourself: if all the computer stores ceased to make parts, for whatever reason, even if you still had power, how long would your computer or your phone last? Technology is a trap.  It makes the product, sure ~ but it also demands that the product keep being made, or else it ceases to sustain itself ... or the lifestyle everyone at this tech level enjoys.

There's a certain ease that less technology produces, where that heightened technology isn't actually needed. The people in central France in the 17th century are rustic in attitude because, unlike the elite hoi polloi of Paris, they haven't got time to read papers at the coffee shops, arguing about the latest play by Moliere. There are cows to be milked come five a.m. and there's no money for candles to stay up half the night writing plays.  If we're less developed out here in the fields of Bourbon or Berry, its only because that's the practical way to live.  Anyone actually burning a candle after nightfall is probably a local baron ~ who is probably writing a letter to someone in Paris about how glad they are that they're on their way back there in a few days.

So think of it as a development system ... describing how different parts of the world move at a different pace, because it makes sense in those parts to live differently.  My goal is to describe the difference, to measure it, so that while the Duchy of Burgundy is fairly backward at dev-11, at least it isn't the awful backwardness of Stavanger, Norway, at dev-9.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Size of Antwerp's Economy

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

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


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

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

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

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

2f -1

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

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

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

But what does that mean?  Well ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Defining Culture and Other Things

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

Some problems take time.

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

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

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

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

Okay, stay with me here.  This gets complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Framing the Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click HERE for full size

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Out: the Story Generator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Theoretical Frameworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 9, 2017

I Won't Be Here Forever

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Deconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

You're Just Not Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose that must be it.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Justifiable Homicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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