On Why Bother

So, anyone that updates a blog regularly is a writer. Regular updates to a blog equate in word count to a novel or two a year. So what is it that makes us bother?

I mean, if one were going to write for money, then there are plenty of more popular topics a writer could write on and possibly get enough views to use advertising, or even get a job for a major 'magazine style' website. So why write about D&D?

What I am about to say, makes me sound like a mad man.
I have no qualms about this, because we are all mad men here.
If you were not, you would not have come here.

Old school style role playing is a shamanistic pursuit. The realms we describe — all possible conceivable realms really — actually exist. In the real sense that they are a real place where real people live and breath.

We can view these realms as if through a glass darkly. If we gather in a group and collect our ritual objects, then engage in our formal structure of play while remaining free of intent to influence the events based on our pre-conceptions, then the fog clears. Our ritual, our dice, act as augers to view other realms. Through this process we gain strength, wisdom, and join with the universal spirit of life. Our lives are enriched. We become connected to universal myth.
So that's pretty much the reason why I do this instead of something else.

Originally published 3/2012

On the So-Called Wilderness

The seminal work on this topic is done by
Victor Raymond in Fight On #2 & #3
It's Citizen Kane all over again.

It says it right on the cover of Dungeons and Dragons Volume 3 of Three Booklets: "The underworld and wilderness adventures."

"The Wilderness:
The so-called Wilderness"

Those are the first five words Gygax wrote on the subject. Victor Raymond makes it clear that the phrase "The Wilderness" doesn't mean the actual wild, but all non-dungeon content—dangerous wilds and other civilizations and civilized areas—that the players might encounter.

But what about the wild? The planes of fairy and the unknown? The mythical wood? The archetypical wilderness that threatens civilization? The line beyond which the cartographer writes, "Here, there be dragons."

Nearly every adventure published for Dungeons & Dragons follows these hidden and archetypal guidelines in design, here we are just going to uncover them and make them explicit. Strap in.


People are breathing all the time, yet aren't really aware of it. There's this fundamental underlying structure to role-playing games, an archetypical truth, that we all know about yet remain unaware about.

Dungeons and Dragons is literally about taming the unknown. There's this central idea of a human narrative, where a person goes out into the unknown and retrieves knowledge and then returns. It's pretty central to the idea of us as a species, showing up again and again in psychology and fiction.

The basic structure of any role-playing game, is that players have a character. That character exists in a literal limbo, until the Dungeon Master utters a setting. Once within that setting (right after play starts) areas are delineated as adventure locations. I am speaking in categorical terms. An adventure location may be a scene, a conversation with a non-player character, or a cave entrance.

You are, sitting at the table, in possession a character, and several adventure options. You have an idea of your current (safe) location, which you leave to engage with the adventure option.

The adventure is fundamentally about exploring these unknown spaces. What's in the cave? What does this person think? You uncover the unknown. Literally. The majority of Dungeons and Dragons play is exploring dungeons, which are represented as darkness or blankness and then are filled in as we explore. What's more, you are given a score for this activity; (or alternately the activity allows you to acquire a score). When you return successful, this score allows you to become a better explorer of the unknown.

This is a fundamental human instinct.  We go absolutely bonkers for frontiers. How exciting is the boundary between what is known and unknown! And here's a whole game where the entire structure of play is focused on rolling back the frontier!

If you're wondering, that is why 95% of role-players are playing Dungeons and Dragons or some derivative thereof.

Hell, Gygax figured it out, wrote down his excellent system of handling this from his seat of understanding, and then it was immediately misconstrued and lost, ignored by almost all, leaving us to discuss endlessly what's going on with hexes, and coming up with iterations like pointcrawls.

Archetypal Assumptions

A lot of this work proceeds from the excellent guidelines and overview provided by Victor Raymond. I encourage you to read his articles in Fight On #2 and #3 on this topic. For now, let's have an overview of his key points.

First, the wilderness doesn't refer to the mythical wild, but rather all uncivilized AND civilized areas that are unknown to the players.

Second, barring travel through the wilderness, a topic well covered in AD&D, other styles of wilderness adventure mentioned by Gygax include "Exploratory Adventures" and "Clearing the countryside of monsters"

Third, 20 miles is given as the amount of territory a stronghold can keep clear of monstrous influence.

Fourth, don't treat the wilderness as generic. Think of it as a collection of places and conditions. No terrain is "Forest" or "Hills" It's old rotted oaks, with a matting of decaying leaves, or mostly bare hills, with steep sides covered in grass and moss.

This is the core of his analysis that we are going to build off of.

The first thing to note is that the idea of wilderness is adjacent to chaos. The original game had three alignments, because the original game was about the conflict between law, and the rise of civilization, versus chaos, the wilderness and the unknown. The players are almost universally lawful, because their very actions involve imposing order upon the world (by discovering new territory and killing monsters).

That is the Terminus Est. Dungeons are pockets of chaos that exist within civilized lands (usually close enough to be within the 20 mile range of safety). The Wilderness is the chaos beyond.

The third Original Dungeons and Dragons book outlines the entirety of adventure. You can adventure in the Underworld or the Wilderness.*


So, what use is this?

Concretely, D&D is a game, organized as a collection of procedures.

Designing a wilderness: This is covered in the article by Victor, but needs little description. You can generate a wilderness yourself, or use phenomenal online tools, or use pre-existing maps. This topic is extensively covered.

Travel to a destination: This is also very explicitly covered. This is where the wilderness rules for getting lost apply, wilderness encounter tables are used, and where hexmaps at a scale of 25-60 miles are useful.

An Aside:
This journey should often be structured as a resource management exercise
in food, lives, and loss.
Having unique systems for unique terrain greatly enhances this mode of play.
(That link leads to the marvelous wilderness mini-games by Telecanter)

Exploratory Adventures: This is the process of discovering the lay of the land. This procedure is outlined in Volume 3.

"When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area. . .  Scale: Assume the greatest distance across a hex is about 5 miles. Turn: Each move will constitute one day. Each day is considered a turn. At the end of each day, the referee will check to see if a monster has been encountered. "

This assumes, of course, that the Dungeon Master is using a map with already labeled castles/strongholds. If that's not the case, the essential CDD #4 Old School Encounters Reference places fortresses at about a 1 in 20 chance per hex.

Essentially this exploration allows the players to both identify the terrain of the hex and informs them as to an outstanding features of the hex—is there a castle? a lair? a tribe of humanoids? It seems like the type of adventure for 7th-8th level players to engage in.

Clearing a hex: This process is clarified on page 24 of ODD.
"Clearing the countryside of monsters is the first requirement. The player/character moves a force to the hex, the referee rolls a die to determine if there is a monster encountered, and if there is one the player/character's force must remove it. If no monster is encountered the hex is already cleared. Territory up to 20 miles distant from a stronghold must be kept clear of monsters once cleared—the inhibition of the stronghold being considered as sufficient to maintain the monster-free status."

What does this mean logistically? You have to clear the site of your castle, and out to four hexes in every direction (at 5 miles a hex). That's 95 hexes, for an average of 16 encounters. Here are the 8 encounter options presented for a forest hex:
1. Men (30-300)
2. Flyer (Ex. Rocs 1-20)
3. Giant (Ex. Orcs (30-300)
4. Lycs (2-20 werewolves)
5. Lycs. (2-20)
6. Men (30-300)
7. Anmls. (Ex. 10-100 pixes)
8. Dragon

So, you can see that clearing 20 miles may present a bit of a challenge.

This provides a core of wilderness play. It covers design, travel, discovery, and taming. A process for pushing back the frontier. acquiring territory, and moving into conflict with other fortresses and lords.

As complete as this is, there is still something missing.


What we have is not enough. We need more. What of the mythical unknown?

One of the stipulations that Victor notes in his search for when the wilderness encounter table is used is that even though those 20 miles may be cleared, the wilderness always encroaches. So from 0-5 miles you roll city encounters. From 6-10 miles you might have level 1 dungeon encounters on the list. From 11-15 miles you might have level 2 dungeon encounters on the list, and from 16-20 miles you might have level 3 encounters.

The other thing he notes is that dungeons, often, lie within civilized lands.

So what we are left with is the idea that "exploring" and "clearing" the hexes just addresses the proud nails. What's left is suitably wild, though perhaps not of particular interest to name level characters.

So in addition to having unexplored dungeons in civilized lands, and somewhat more controlled groups of monsters (maybe a gnoll raiding party numbering 20, versus the 220 gnolls the lords killed), you can also have pockets of mythical wilderness!

This is where pointcrawls and zones (to avoid the genericness of area) come into play. The general idea is, much like the dungeon is an area of high resistance, so is the mythical wilderness.

In each hex are four possible kinds of areas. Bastions of civilization, rolling terrain covered with wandering monsters—the local ecology—not power groups that are rolled for and cleared when clearing or exploring, point crawls which are mythical wilderness-style areas that are treated as areas of ineradicable wildness and magic. And finally zones, (usually at the many points of a pointcrawl) which are simply small maps (like dungeons and ruins) that are uncovered and cleared (though the possibility of restocking always exists). Zones are usually dungeons, but treating ruins, abandoned keeps, and small clearings, caves, and lairs as alternate zone types provides a lot of variety on the players end. Reference the video games Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 (or any of it's many spiritual descendants) for exceptional and creative use of zone wilderness design.

Hexes fail when applied to finer terrain. This is the key insight behind the development of pointcrawls as a middle point between Zone style play and hexploration. It is simple. The 6 mile-hex is our minimum structure. Our atom. You can't subdivide it into further atoms without serious issues. So instead, we deal with the hex as having an interior structure made up of structures, people, and sites. ("Citadels & Castles”, “Ruins & Relics”, “Idyllic Islands” and “Lurid Lairs”.) Once located within the hex, each represents a point, with the distance between covered by wandering monster checks, weather, and a specific one-line description of the terrain. VoilĂ ! It's game structures all the way down.

But how to maintain that sense of discovery? Where is the wonder and awe in exploring the wilderness. This idea must feed back into design.

We must assume that even though the hex is cleared, that this has only eliminated major threats. Smaller, hidden threats, can still be present. Secondly, in addition to many landmarks being visible on the hypothetical pointcrawl, many should not be, and should only be locatable by actually visiting the location. The fact that the landmarks visible are not sequential (they have more to do with their location and visibility in the hex) means the path through the pointcrawl to them, as well as other features remain hidden to be discovered by the players during exploration. Finally, there can be both obvious and unobvious paths, much like secret doors, requiring either foreknowledge or wilderness expertise to locate.

Further, this is what differentiates wilderness exploration from dungeon exploration. When you begin wilderness exploration, many landmarks are already visible, as opposed to all being obscured by the dungeon.

The above outlines the core of the adventure within wilderness exploration.
The following amazing resources are some of what I use in play and design.

CDD#4 Old School Encounters Reference
Telecanter's Wilderness Travel Mini-games and challenges
Telecanter's list of Geographic Wonders

*It's important to note here, that by no means did Gygax exclude the idea of chaos being inimical to civilization. He also postulated exploring cities as adventure, because there are types of chaos that can lie beneath a veneer of civilization. As noted in the possible city and castle encounters, he included the unknown city interior as wilderness. 

Also, I'm able to spend time working on these topics thanks to your support. If you liked this article and want to see me continue to produce content, please support me on Patreon! Thanks for keeping me from starving to death!
Originally posted 2/2018

On the Rules of the Game

Aggressive Denial

It's hard to let go of your preconceptions. Like, it's giving up an addiction hard. I know this will be a bitter pill for some people, and others will find themselves amazed that it's still news. People will go to aggressive lengths to avoid facing facts. So I'm going to break it down as clearly as possible.

A role-playing game is a game in which you play a role.

Look, clearly you can define whatever kind of activity in whatever way you want. But if you're going to play a role-playing game it requires those two things. Here are the reasons that combination of things is special.

Tactical Infinity. Because you are playing a game with human peers, there's no arbitrary limits.
Emergent Gameplay: Because it is a game, outcomes are unknown and develop during play.
Group Cohesion In-group Valuation. Because it is a regular activity engaged in with a peer group, task commitment increases the relative value of in-group experience.

I know, that last one sounds complicated.

Look, we form social groups. I'm not telling, I'm just saying, we do. And role-playing games involve a social group that often solves problems together. A group of people with shared interests that solves problems or engaged in problem solving activity together show stronger interpersonal relationships and stronger social identities. (Cohesion and Performance in Groups) This activity thus leads to greater motivation, performance, life satisfaction, and better emotional resilience

You know this in your heart, because you are reading a blog about role-playing games in 2019. You know that feeling I'm talking about. That "Oh god, isn't role-playing just wonderful" feeling we all have. It's specific and quantifiable. ALL players (everyone involved in the game, including the Dungeon Master, who is a player) engage for this valuation.

It's got Rules! It's not a Cult!

Here is the line of demarcation. If everyone isn't playing-if one person is trying to manipulate other people or engaging in some passive-aggressive behavior to control or alter the natural outcome of a game, that isn't a group of people solving a task and increasing cohesion.

See, believe it or not, all role-playing games have rules. Now am I saying you can't change the rules? No. Of course you can. The specifics of the rules are unimportant. The rules of the game are rules, and there is a procedure (and always has been). It's a game like chess or monopoly. It has rules.

I don't think that's a contentious statement. Some of those rules are social rules. A lot of these statements I'm making seem logical, until you recognize your own negative behavior as "magical exceptionalism" and somehow different. 

All of these are some variation of the same behavior:
  • "I didn't think that death was fair, so I had the monster miss"
  • "I didn't want a player to die to a 'bad die roll'"
  • "I change the hit points of all the monsters because I felt that the combat didn't go on long enough"
  • "The player was wrong so I killed his character"
  • "I fudged the dice to make the game more 'fun'"
This argument is commonly misinterpreted. You do get to decide things as a Dungeon Master. You're not destroying player agency by skipping the last encounter check at the end of a long night. The game is open and depends on player consensus at the table.

The danger is in creating non-open subjective metrics
You can of course have rules that are hidden or rules that are not player-facing. But inconsistently deciding some rules change for subjective reasons-well, think about that in the context of any other game.

"I don't care that you broke through as red rover, you go back to your side because I said."
"Well, now this is the hill, and I'm king of it."
"You can't go that way, the only way to go is into the forest!"
"That one doesn't count. I meant to fold"

David Sirlin has a book called "Playing to Win". It talks about Scrub theory. Basically the rules of the game are the way they are; creating some 'imaginary' set of rules that people are supposed to follow instead of the actual rules of the game impair that players ability to not only compete professionally, but truly know their own limits and take responsibility for their own successes and failures. As opposed to calling someone's tactics "cheap" because their legal play doesn't fit your own conception of what is "fair" instead of the reality of the game. (This isn't the full argument, his book is the full argument.)

His point is, by creating these safeguards from consequences people never get to experience their full potential. They can never compete at the highest level.

Role-playing isn't usually competitive, it's almost universally cooperative. That includes the Dungeon Master. Much like if I were to cheat at Arkham Horror or Pandemic it would reduce the meaning of playing the game as a group, the same goes for redefining the rules of an role-playing game based on subjective feelings. 

The Secret

All roleplaying is procedural. If you're running a game and deciding things arbitrarily, that's a sign of an unskilled Dungeon Master. (Not that they know they are unskilled or will admit it, but they will talk about how hard it is to get a game together. This is serious Dunning-Kruger territory.)

Let me explain. Much like in any other kind of game in the world, there is a sequence of actions. At no point does someone wave a wand and there's a free-form interpretative dance component to chess. 

Role-playing games are the same way. Familiarity with some of these steps can make them pass instantaneously or invisibility at the table. Different games have different steps. But they are all procedural steps, there's no magical tea parties

A short example.

Players gather.
Play begins.
The Dungeon Master describes the scene. 
The players ask questions.
The caller confers with the players.
The caller reports the action to the dungeon master.
The dungeon master reports the outcomes.

Depending on the setting, Wilderness exploration, Dungeon Exploration, or Downtime, various other procedures are described, as well as methods to switch between them. The players get a 'turn'. they must spend one 'turn' in six at rest. They can move X' a turn. 

Let's not be aggressively stupid here. Let's say you want to add a procedure for having the players talk to each other at the camp to flesh out character relationships. Can't you do that? 

Of course you can. Look at The Dying Earth (if you can find a copy) or my own On the Non-Player Character, if you'd like to see some of the ways you could handle something like that. But if you're creating new game procedures, you should do that and then present them to the players.

Because of the fact that role-playing groups form such strong bonds this boundary can get a little blurred. It's the line between engaging in an activity freely with your friends, versus acting in aggressive and passive ways to meet your needs at the expense of theirs. Often we take advantage of people once we grow used to them. You no longer think about their experience or the group experience being a priority, but rather in your individual superiority over it. You know better, so it's ok to invalidate their choices in the group experience. You cease to approach them as valued humans who are sharing your time. 

Let's put it this way. If you're not willing to roll right out in the open and say "I'm ignoring or changing that roll because I don't want you to die." why not? 

If you only "prevent people from unfair deaths", then you've created a room full of people, ostensibly your friends,  who have to figure out what you, personally, consider unfair. And when someone dies, it's because you decided, and not because it happened in the game.  

The Hard Truth

People have a fear of confrontation and consequences. Players don't die to bad die rolls. That's a lie people tell themselves for comfort. The player is always in charge of deciding to put themselves in the way of that random die roll. 

The reason people railroad and subjectively change outcomes due to whim is all about fear. What if things really matter and they don't go the way I want them to?

Well the truth is things really matter, and they might not go the way you want them to. Just deciding which rules to follow when they are convenient, that's something that allows you to feel safe. And it's at the expense of the the other human people.

My first adult player death was in Keep on the Borderlands, where they hired the evil cleric. The fighter backed out of combat seeking healing, and the cleric cast 'inflict serious wounds' killing the character. The players chose. They chose to hire the cleric, the player chose to put himself out of sight of the party. None of the specific particulars were in question because they followed the rules and procedure in the game. It wasn't what he wanted to have happen. It was hard to do. I was afraid.

I faced my fear and moved through it. 

The people were successful in that campaign, not because I made them successful. But because they were. I didn't have a 'story' in mind, but I could regale you with tales of their adventure for days. A real adventure, risking real danger, and real loss.

You see? No one is saying you can't decide things, or streamline some stuff, or whatever. What's happening is people who have been around the block know this as fear. As anyone can tell you, having something to lose makes life worth living. 

Holy Schnikes it's good to be back. 

Join the team if me being back makes you happy! Originally published 2019.

On the Explicit Procedure of Play

This isn't about bad-wrong-fun.

The discussion yesterday about behaviors we've all come across at the gaming table are not gaming problems. They are related to cognitive distortions. I get that "Cognitive Distortions" has a negative connotation, they aren't moral judgements.

A common example of a cognitive distortion is "Parents should love their children." Some parents don't. Until that reality is accepted, suffering. Often we aren't aware of what these distortions are, and they can drive a lot of our actions as do things to stave off having to deal with that dissonance. An easy way to avoid this type of pain is try to control or manipulate a situation so that you aren't given evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

When this isn't possible, you experience emotional trauma. This goes through a variety of phases, though the order and severity varies on education, culture, and experience. In order for us to get rid of the cognitive distortion (e.g. "Life should be fair."), your body needs to go through processes to rebuild a new mental conception that matches reality: Anger, bargaining, denial, depression, and acceptance of a more accurate model of reality (e.g. "Life isn't fair"). These phases are what allow the brain to, in a quite literal sense, rebuild itself around its current conditions.

This is, I think, very basic, very well accepted knowledge. We expect families to teach rituals on how to cope with change, but frequently that doesn't happen. Cognitive and/or dialectical behavior therapy teach these skills.

Quantum what's?

None of the ideas are wrong. High lethality? Great! Go for it. Want to make a game less lethal, change the rules. Low magic? Sure! Come back as a cartoon? Great idea.

It's never about the specifics. It's not about railroads, or quantum ogres, or fudging. It doesn't matter what specific kind of game you do at the table. Yet still role-playing horror stories exist. It's all about human beings, and getting their needs met at the expense of other people.

When people go into therapy, it isn't some philosophical problem or existential angst. Universally it is specific, often sentinel event overloading their support systems ability to cope. Loss of job, breaking up with a boyfriend, becoming homeless, et. al. You have to look at the specific problem and break it down. It's not how to solve the problem-these are people, like you. Telling people what to do doesn't work, you know? You are there to provide insight. Part of this is an analysis of a person's interactions with other people.

You look at the sequence of events and categorize each interaction as belonging to one of three interpersonal communication styles: aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive.

Are you meeting your needs at the expense of other people? Are you avoiding confrontation? There's no right or objective answer, because these are people, they are full of messy squiggly bits and nearly all of their volume is empty space, their presence simply a projection of a vibration that lairs in a place we cannot see.

So we have some baseline assumptions, foundational principals that we work up from. Everyone has infinite worth regardless of externals. Relationships should include ways for everyone to get their needs met without it being at the expensive of someone else. Interactions should be made with levels of confrontation that are respectful of everyone involved.

Cognitive Distortions of Dungeons & Dragons

Player death must meet some threshold of meaning, players should do what the Dungeon Master thinks they should do, A bad die roll is what kills characters; These are all cognitive distortions.

There is a procedure for Dungeons and Dragons, and it requires a Dungeon Master who is a player, and characters managed by players of the game. The person running the game, at no point, should ever deceive, manipulate, or attempt to pressure or influence the people playing the game. The job of the Dungeon Master is to give helpful accurate information. Lying isn't in the job description. (His responsibility to represent the game world might cause him to portray a character who lies, but his job is to represent that lying character honestly.)

The dungeon master can present limited information-the information the characters have access to. Mysteries can abound in your game world. There can be plots and intrigue aplenty. But the core gameplay procedures and loop of Dungeons and Dragons at no point involve any player manipulating another.

There is no rule in Dungeons and Dragons proscribing one person having authority over another person. 

You see, the Dungeon Master is a player. He manages the procedures and flow of the game. He creates the world, and acts as both an auger of a distant realm seen dimly through the ocular power of dice, a neutral judge of the results of game-play, and a designer who creates (hopefully interesting) situations for the players to encounter.

Alignment has no authority to prescribe behavior, it's descriptive (and a palpable, detectable force, in the fundamental sense, within the world). The role of the Dungeon Master is one of servant, one who entertains, not via authorship but by facilitation. The rules are explicit about this: They say "The DM decides how these rules will be used in the game. . . and the final decision is the DM's" (B60) They don't decide what the characters will do. They have no authority over player's choices.

Let's talk about that core gameplay loop.

Core Gameplay Loop

The minutiae of these vary from game to game, so I'll be very explicit here. This will allow you to assess what behaviors are explicitly part of the game-play loop, and determine which behaviors are not. This gives you insight and results in a better game.

Obviously this is quite instinctive (being a model of existing and taking action in the real world), and these social norms make this flow of play transparent. But once you are aware of it, it gives you a framework to handle issues in communication and behavior.

Pregame activities include one player designing an adventure and other players rolling up characters and purchasing equipment.

Play begins with the Dungeon Master providing background for the players. This includes an objective or goal. Even if it's implied, the background information will indicate some specific change of circumstance that needs to be resolved. "We are in a new place." "A dwarf caravan has disappeared." "A house is haunted."

This background will both communicate the narrative themes (which you can not think about or design, but they end up being there anyway) as well as providing players with an ability to contextualize your comments from shared cultural touchstones. It's difficult to communicate extremely complicated situations, so providing a similar frame of reference does significant amounts of work for the people engaged in the game.

Finally, this leads us into our first game structure. Different games have different words for it, but it is easily conceptualized by the word "Scene." The characters are existing at some conceptual space in this imaginary world, and the background is our entrance to that conceptual scene. "You find yourself. . . " "You are standing. . . " "Before you lies. . . " et. al.

Each player of the game is in control of one or more agents who can take action within the world. Note that "Role-Playing" is a term derived from taking the role of a singular unit on a battlefield. The player is still considered to be playing a game, just one in which he controls individuals instead of squads of soldiers. Almost immediately upon exposure to the wild the term was conflated with the idea of role as emotional experience and theatrical presentation. Even though this wasn't the intent, it is completely compatible with the play of Dungeons & Dragons and is a matter of taste. You are encouraged to interact as your character, while playing the game, though it is by no means required. Many people still play by saying "My character does. . . " or "My character says."

It's important to note here that it is A) a game B) with explicit and implicit goals C) and you can succeed and fail within those goals within the context of the game. This is true of every official version of Dungeons and Dragons, though it is not necessarily true of other games. It's left as an exercise to the reader if this is related to the unrelenting dominance and success of Dungeons & Dragons.

There are a few different games or modes that Dungeons and Dragons switches between, and each one has a separate procedure of play.

Exploration Loop

The most common is Dungeon Exploration. Frequently there is wilderness travel or handling activities in downtime. A lot of these are clearly procedural-I'm not going to walk through the combat rules, likely you already know them by heart. What's important is that the non-combat sections of the game are as procedural and game-like as the combat structures.

But because these rely more on conversational social norms, rather than explicit discussion about procedural issues, it can create a lot of tension when miscommunications happen. Adding in one person trying to manipulate the outcome of game-play can rapidly create a dysfunctional situation.

This is illustrated most clearly in examples of play from early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Here's an example from the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide. Here's a different sample of play from Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

DM: "After 30' you reach a round landing with two sets of stairs. One goes down and to the east, the other goes down and to the west."

The environment is described, as well as any relevant activated objects or red herrings. Once the environment is described the gameplay proceeds via the characters asking questions. This is a two-way process of information gathering. The players can ask any questions they wish until they are satisfied.

In this opening example the players don't have any questions, and the caller goes ahead and takes action. Taking action has four steps. Intent, Initiation, Execution, Effect. This is a social exchange between the Dungeon Master and a Player. The player states their intended action, providing a space for the Dungeon Master and the player to negotiate over the specifics of their action. This is the reduction of the Deadly Difference, i.e. the difference between the players understanding of the situation and the Dungeon Masters. Then the player oks the initiation of the event, the event is executed and the result is presented, leading us back into our next opportunity to act. Frequently Intent and Initiation will be collected from the whole group and resolved effectively simultaneously.

Here is the next play example containing the Intent and Initiation from Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

Morgan:"Fredrik looks down the east staircase and Silverleaf looks down the west one. What do they see"

And the execution and effect.

DM: "The parties torches mess up their infravision, so they can only see twenty to thirty feet. The west stairs go down ten feet and turn sharply south. The east stairs go down at least thirty feet. Also, Fred smells a rank, musty odor coming up from below."

This process: Information gathering, Intent, Initiation, execution, and effect continues until one of the other modes of play is invoked. Within those other modes of play, player action follows a truncated version of IIEE. I hit the monster, picking up the die, rolling the die, rolling damage. Intent, Initiation, execution, effect.

It's not white room theory. It allows you to explain in a concrete way why, for example, players never die to unlucky die rolls. The unlucky die rolls are consequences for a series of choices. It gives you insight into the specific roles each player has, not of their character, but there responsibility in the game. It clarifies why a referee has to be neutral and what that means—when performing the execution step he should be invested in determining the outcome objectively, because that's his role at the table. The players job at the table is to decide what she wants to do.

This absolutely happens fluidly, often in a non-linear order because it's a game for fun that you play while hanging out with your friends.  (e.g. "Wait, I actually have fire resistance 5. That will change what I want to do.")

This helps clear up specific distinctions. It's why considering the last monster dead in a fight when it really has 1 hit point left is fine, but arbitrarily changing monster hit points based on your personal feelings of how long combat needs to last is a breach of responsibility as a player in the role of Dungeon Master.

The first is an action taken out of respect for the time of other people, the second is capricious, subjective, and arbitrary and undermines the intent and initiation phase. "Don't change the rules during play" as it goes. This is why "Rocks fall, everyone dies" or "You get hit by a bolt of lightning" are inappropriate behaviors (those aren't called via the game systems, they are caused by the Dungeon Master being passive-aggressive—punishing the players while avoiding a confrontation by virtue of a misunderstanding of the servile nature of her responsibility).

This framework provides a lot of clarity over where the problem really is in role-playing game horror stories. Psst. It's the people. *ghost wail* Whoooooooo--oooOOOOHhhhhhhhhhh.

Giving me money is the new hip trendy thing!
Originally published Feb 2019

Hack & Slash 
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On The Why of Red Herring Agency

All of these traps are predicated on the idea of Agency.

What's that mean, functionally in play?

When players have their characters walk into the room, they get a description of all relevant manipulable widgets. This way if they miss something, it is due to player choice/skill and not due to a die roll.

This is a very engaging way of playing. Sometimes the experience is so horrible that people will think that other people should not be allowed to play this way! Why is that? Because if this is done poorly it isn't fair. After all, you just killed your players with no warning! Who would want to play in that game?

Not me.

Here is the problem I ran into when I started. I would describe the room, with all its relevant features. Then my players would avoid the rooms with burn marks, stains, pulverized dust - or only approach them in hazmat suits; and immediately start manipulating every object listed in the room. I didn't want to be unfair. I didn't want to leave anything out. Therefore, at first, everything was simple.

What was the solution? Complex mechanisms and Red Herrings.

When an encounter is designed, you need to leave some clues for traps and such. Do these clues need to be obvious? No. Do these mechanisms need to be simple? No. Does everything you put in the room have to be relevant? No.

Remember, their interactions in the room take time. During this time you're rolling encounter checks. This is the cost of being thorough. Make sure that some of your encounters can threaten your players, so this is an actual cost.

Some actual rules clarifications are useful. I allow people, when unsure of the environment to perform a thorough search. One person can search a 10' x 10' surface section per turn. When they search they get standard chances to detect secret doors. Knowing that the door exists does not automatically mean they know how to open it. I do not inform them of the results of the rolls. This turns the decision into an interesting choice.

Read Part II here. . .

originally published 6/2012

On The What of Red Herring Agency

Last weeks article is here.

How to avoid being obvious. There are three watchwords here.

Be Subtle

Be Complicated

Be Crafty

Of course this requires planning your room descriptions out ahead of time. My model for this is the 1st Edition DMG.

"DM:'The sacks hold rotten grain, so the cleric will go and help the magic-user as ordered. They find the refuse consists of castings, some husks of small victims of the spider, hide, bones, a small humanoid skull, and 19 silver pieces. Do you now fire the webs overhead?'
LC: 'Examine the skull first. What kind of humanoid was it? Can we tell?'
DM: 'Possibly a goblin. When you are looking at it more closely, you see that there is a small gem inside - a garnet.'"


DM:'First, the others checking the containers find that they held nothing but water, or ore totally empty, and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white, eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4' to 6' deep and about 10' long. That's all. Do you wish to leave the place now?"
LC:'Yes, let's get out of here and go someplace where we can find something interesting.'
OC: 'Wait! If those fish are iust blind cave types, ignore them, but what about the stone formations? Are any of them notable? If SO, I think we should check them out.'

DM:'Okay. The fish are fish, but there is one group of minerals in the deepest part of the pool which appears to resemble a skeleton, but it simply - '

Be Subtle:  This means downplay the things you mention. Mention them as if they are unimportant items in the room. There's a yellow cloak, some leather boots and a sword. Is the cloak covered in yellow mold? Do the boots hold a key? Is the sword rusted or magical? If you just described 10 other things in the room will the important thing stand out?

It shouldn't.

Walls aren't soot covered or covered in blood. Walls are stained, dirty, dark, filthy. The floor isn't covered in pulverized rock, the ground is sandy, dirty, or dusty.

Be Complicated: The way into the secret room, isn't always in this room. Secret doors are not always two way. Your hints, maps, treasure maps and clues can be abstract. Mechanisms can be specific (You must lift up on the east side of the slab, the spider decoration on the iron chair in the corner must be lifted, the right eye of the frog mosaic must be pressed in 3 times.) For the uninitiated, here is Why This Is Not Pixel Bitching.

Be Crafty: This is, know what your players are expecting. Did you trick them with yellow mold once? So they are expecting gold or yellow things to be dangerous? Put a gold or yellow thing on a wall that when poked, triggers a trap. When the poke it with a stick, to test if it's yellow mold, they get hit with the trap! Don't design your encounters in a vacuum. Have a repeating feature in your dungeon, like round stones in the wall. Have one of the stones depress to deactivate a trap, and another that presses in to activate a trap. Then leave a map as a clue, but make the map vague and abstract. Engage your players, make them think!

Originally published 6/2012

On Skill Deconstruction: Why Skill Light is Not Pixel Bitching, Nor DM Fiat

I figured I'd start with a big one.

I have seen multiple complaints that a skill light or skill free system somehow devolves down to DM Fiat or Pixel bitching.

Let us define terms before we begin.

DM Fiat: In the pejorative, when the Dungeon Master arbitrarily disallows logical character actions from either occurring or having effects. clearly some examples below are literally fiat, but we are concerned with the pejorative use.

Pixel Bitching: In old Sierra games, the prevention of progress in the game because you have not located the specific pixel you must select to progress. In role-playing, playing a game of mind reading or 'guess what the DM is thinking' in order accomplish your goals, that is 'saying the magic phrase'.

My position is that these two items are not related to the presence or absence of skills.

Both of the above effects occur for the same reason on different sides of the screen. That reason is an investment in a predetermined outcome.

The DM would institute fiat when the DM feels their actions would 'destroy his plan'. He can't handle the actions of the players so he outright forbids them.

Complaints of pixel bitching occur in two places.
First, when DM's have only one path forward to the 'completion of their adventure' and all progress both forward and backward is halted until the solution is guessed.
Second, when the players feel as if their must be a specific outcome, and they feel as if they have to guess the magic words to force that outcome to occur.

It is not DM Fiat to say that a specific plan won't work. There could be a number of reasons why a plan won't work.
It is DM Fiat to prevent a reasonable plan* from working.
It is DM Fiat to only allow one specific plan to work.

It is not DM Fiat to decide how a monster or NPC reacts without a reaction roll.
It is DM Fiat to decide that 'this monster/NPC is unconvince-able/unbluffable'.
It is not DM Fiat to decide the result of an action (like crafting etc.)
It is DM Fiat to not let the player influence the result of an action (like crafting etc.)
It is not DM Fiat to use class as a base for player skills and knowledge.
It is DM Fiat to prevent the player from characterizing their PC outside of the class parameters.
It is not DM Fiat to adjudicate the consequences of a player action.
It is DM Fiat to attempt to dictate what actions the player attempt (by either saying no to everything or not engaging the players in a dialog about what they are attempting to accomplish).

It is not Pixel Bitching to have a gem in the stomach of a creature, or a door that is only opened with the key in ogre lair near by.
It is Pixel Bitching to trap the players in a room and make them find the one specific thing to progress. (Or in the above example, if the door is necessary for the progress of the game).
It is not Pixel Bitching to suffer miscommunication at the table. Miscommunication happens and is resolved universally by discussion and dialog.
It is not the result of Pixel Bitching when a poor choice is made, when treasure is missed, or when a plan fails.
It is not Pixel Bitching to be lacking information about the game world.

As DM Fiat relates to skill light play, it is very important to realize that results of actions are decided primarily by discussion and agreement! *The root of the reasonable decision is one agreed upon by the participants. The DM can make decisions about the results of actions, but when those results are arbitrary (i.e. without meaning or purpose) then the ability of the DM to make decisions becomes a problem. Results being arbitrary is not the default state of skill light systems.

As Pixel Bitching relates to skill light play it is exclusively dependent on predetermined outcomes. It is not subjecting the players to Pixel Bitching to hide treasure in the stomach of a monster or in the false bottom of a foot locker because missing treasure is a completely reasonable occurrence. The supposition (or compulsive desire) that players should find every secret is the predetermined outcome that is self-evidently unreasonable.

Not knowing the results ahead of time, not knowing what a monster/NPC is thinking, not knowing how to solve a problem 'correctly' are also not Pixel Bitching. That is the great thing about tactical infinity! There are no correct solutions, just many many things you can try that can be impartially adjudicated. There is no 'secret phrase' to guess, no 'mind reading' to be done, because there is no predetermined outcome. The players have to gather information from the DM, decide on a course of action and deal with the consequences. It is impossible to need to Pixel Bitch because the DM has no investment in the outcome.

Of course, this assumes a good faith gaming environment. If you don't have that, the presence or absence of skills will change nothing. One is playing a game, and I know as a DM I construct those games to always provide some information to plot hooks, hidden treasure, the motivations of NPC's, etc.

It is equally as easy for DM's to create the above negative situations in skill heavy games as it is in skill light games. The reasons for these things occurring have nothing to do with the presence or absence of skills.  Because any of these can occur in either a skill-heavy system or a skill-light system, skill heavy systems provide no protection against DM Fiat (arbitrary decision making) or pixel bitching (making the players guess the next action they can take).

Therefore whether a system is skill light or not is irrelevant to the degree to which Pixel Bitching and DM Fiat occur.

DM Fiat and Pixel Bitching are not the natural results of skill light systems. They are the natural results of investments in the outcome of play.

Just a reminder for the comments. If you disagree with something written above, state what you disagree with and why. Avoid 'white room examples', personal attacks, and most importantly only respond to what is written in the post above - not things not said.

Originally published 11/2011

On the Coming Life


I'm working on a new project, involves a bit of futurism. It's kind of messing me up.

Like, Humanity has advanced more in the time since my birth, then in any other 40 years in history. And it's speeding up.

It seems to me that we all kind of know machine life is about to exist, and there's a lot of anxiety about that, and few answers. We also know that there are no real barriers to age extensions, but for actual implementation. And the wealthy here, in my country, are waging war on the people. They are cheating, based on what I can parse of the GMT stock fiasco. There's legal action and oversight on how they are literally rigging the market. The fallout from the last time they did this (2008) the government just gave the cheaters a bunch of money.

I mean, I know that I shouldn't refer to employees as slaves. But doing research for a LotFP product, I found out Egyptian "slaves" worked 3 days a week, had 5,000-6,000 calories a day, and fantastic health care, as well as high status. I'm not throwing shade. I was one, working for a health corporation that was the very definition of corporate malfeasance.  Medicaid fraud, tax crime, stock market manipulation, and more. They cleared something like 9 billion a year in profit. They have around 60,000 employees, the majority of which are on some sort of public assistance. They pay 8$ to people who have to sponge bathe the elderly. They could give everyone an 19$ and hour raise that works for the company and have still 8 billions profit. 

Primates just know when things are unfair. Really. So there's a lot of ways inequality due to inequity, robot life, and life extension can turn out. One of those ways is kind of a utopia. I don't think people having a billion dollars is a problem, if you know, there weren't people going hungry and homeless. And the fact is, human physical labor, along with a great deal of creative labor is becoming obsolete. Home computers didn't exist when I was born. I learned to program assembly in high school. Today, I can speak to my home computer and tell it what kind of code I want it to write with my voice. 

It doesn't matter whether you believe machines can be self-aware. It doesn't really matter, because you can't prove you have consciousness. It doesn't matter. Because it will act like a people. And some of them already meet the definition of life, like dwarf fortress dwarves. If the self-checkouts haven't convinced you, maybe the fact that you've already talked to a robot and not known it might. 

There will always be people who focus on ingroup dynamics and believe that they are superior to others. But, considering the question philosophically, we constantly underestimate the environment. Anytime a scientist says some creature "does something randomly" they are just admitting they don't know. There's always a reason. We are going to have to find a positive role for high-functioning psychopaths, the same way we are going to need a better solution more humane solution for low-functioning mentally ill and indigent. 

I've got Bestial Ecosystems coming out very soon. PDF should be fairly immediate and the print version will be available as soon as DTRPG can get it printed and shipped. 

The emphasis of my next project is due to being unsatisfied with criminals being coddled by the rich. I'll be announcing something shortly, for feedback and comment. It deals with a lot of these issues, and I hope it's something a lot of people will be interested in. It's like, I'm considering both the philosophical questions and make something that's actually fun, instead of something no one can use because it's too obnoxious to even bother resolving.

I'm not writing blog posts as much because I'm busy writing. As a living for money. I'm still here, on discord every day. In spite of the coming upheaval, it's a pretty good time for RPGs.

Hack & Slash 

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