Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Down To It

All right, I'll amend my previous post a tad: youth sports are slightly less safe for kids than playing D&D. My son was injured during our last volleyball game, necessitating a trip to the ER at Children's Hospital. Fortunately, it's nothing terrible: a sprained MCL but no apparent tears/ruptures; he's in a brace and on crutches for a bit.

[for the curious, he made a spectacular, cross-court diving save to get to a ball, popping it over the net and scoring the point. Unfortunately, he landed all his weight on the side of his right knee where the pads don't protect. While the rest of the crowd and team were cheering the play, he was writhing on the floor in agony...we ended up needing to carry him off the court, as he was unable to walk]

So, a bit of a damper on the end of the season, though it made the loss easier to bear (no one was terribly worried about that, given the concern for my kid's health). It was still a helluva' ride, and the kids had a blast...one of my players asked if we could continue running practices till the end of the year just for fun. I told him, 'maybe.'

The positive to this is that our schedule is suddenly much more open than it was: Diego's out of soccer, (flag) football, and golf for the foreseeable future. In fact, for the the first Tuesday in a long while, the kids and I will be free after 4pm today...that's something like 3+ extra hours of time.

Game on.

The kids have been jonesin' for me to run some D&D, something for which I haven't had the bandwidth the last couple months. It's tough to be dedicated to one's craft when you have familial obligations that take priority. That's not to say I'd trade those obligations for the world...I've seen what the other half looks like, and that's not my bag, baby. But it can be frustrating, even so. Patience has never been my strong suit.

[pretty sure I've written that last sentence a hundred times on this blog, over the years]

Now that the opportunity has presented itself, I aim to take full advantage of the situation. The characters are all ready to go. Now, I just need to come up with a small adventure to introduce the players to the new region of my setting: the Desert of Despair, AKA the Snake River Plain of southern Idaho (AKA "the Idaho Deathlands"). My campaign setting is a couple degrees warmer than real earth and the water table is too low (and the region too dangerous) to allow the type of post-1900 irrigation that has transformed Magic Valley (sorry: no U.S. industrial complex east of the Mississippi in my world; folks are stuck with what's in the Northwest), so the area is mostly arid wilderness. 

It's delightfully deadly.

ANYway...need a low level adventure situation to get the ball rolling. The PCs are probably coming from Boise, which suggests "caravan duty"...that old chestnut. But what I need is a small lair, tomb, or bandit camp...not too far off in the desert that they can't make it to one of the (few) townships...that they can encounter around Rattlesnake Station on the road to Bellevue and/or Albion. Maybe there's some nomads that have been harassing the way station, or some local beef with the tribal families. Something. Because the PCs need some experience under their belts before they tackle the Tomb of the Pharoid or venture into the slow mutant lands or invade the duergar caverns beneath the Craters of the Moon

Welp...better get down to it.  Later, gators!

Friday, April 19, 2024

On Winning

 For one, brief moment...in this moment...I feel like I'm on top of things.

This is not a very common feeling for me; so much of the time I feel like I'm running behind...like I'm constantly trying to do the bare minimum to tread water or stay afloat or get just enough done so that things don't completely fall apart. It's like the pressure (I imagine) of going into the 9th inning of a ball game with a one run lead...you're winning, but it's a struggle to make sure you don't give up the tying (or go ahead!) run, knowing that you'll be batting the bottom of your order against a really good closer if you somehow screw things up.

Or something like that.

At this moment, I'm feeling comfortable. To continue the baseball analogy, this morning feels like we're in the 4th inning and have a five run lead. Yes, there's still ball to be played...several innings worth...but for the moment, we're taking a breather, cruising a little bit. It's not so imperative to press at the moment...it's not so necessary to hold on for dear life. 

I savor these moments: they're few and far between, and they don't last. Tomorrow, for example, is Saturday and we have a soccer game at 9am (Sofia), a playoff volleyball game at 2pm in Bellevue (Diego), and 5pm Mass in Shoreline for the anniversary of my mother's death. On Sunday we'll be hosting Sofia's birthday party (I'll be picking up cupcakes at 10am), Diego's golf at 11ish (unless he skips it for Sofia's party) possibly another playoff volleyball game at 1pm (if we win Saturday), plus a flag football game at 5pm, and (hopefully) dinner reservations in the evening. And sometime between now and tomorrow, I have to pick up supplies and such for the party, and it would probably help to get her a gift of some sort...tricky since the kids get out of school at noon today.

This moment is simply the calm before the storm.

Sometimes, I wonder at how games like Dungeons & Dragons...complex games that take time and effort to master...were ever invented, let alone became popular. Because they WERE popular when I was a kid; popular enough, anyway, that most kids had at least heard of D&D (and, thus, their parents), even if they hadn't played the game. We had sports and school and church and stuff, too, back in the 1980s but we seemed to have far more time for playing D&D then we do now. Hell, we had more time for a LOT of stuff that my kids don't seem to have: bike riding and camping trips and books...man, I read so many books in my youth. So many.

But I know what's different now: we live in the Age of the Screen. The television, the game console, the laptop, the smart phone, the streaming services...all things the eat up the time. 

Yes, of course they offer plenty of convenience and time-saving: my wife only needs to go into an office twice per week, I can write books while parked on my couch, birthday parties can be stocked via Amazon orders and bills can be paid without needing to write checks and place them in the mail. No need to take cooking classes or higher handy-people when How-To videos abound for free on the internet.

And, yet, the screen is mesmerizing, hypnotic, consuming. I can waste hours over the course of the day reading wikipedia entries or streaming useless videos on worthless subject matter. My family can (and does) spend hours of our "free" time watching television shows in the evenings and filling "empty" moments on the weekends. My kids will (when allowed) blow hours of their childhood lives playing nonsensical video games, rather than exercising their own creativity and imagination...and they fail, so often (so, so often) at any sort of self-direction outside of using a game console or screen device for game play. 

At least the weather is getting nicer and I know they will (of their own volition) spend more time in the yard, playing football and baseball and badminton. But indoors, when the sun goes down or the rain comes out? It's back on the screens, more often than not, rather than choosing something NON-screen related. Unless I am there and available for them.

This was not the case in my youth: we had only one screen (the television) and it had less than a half-dozen channels. When my parents were unavailable (which was MOST of the time), my brother and I were forced to entertain ourselves: reading, playing, gaming, or just making shit up. I feel like we even talked more...with each other, with our friends...but perhaps that's a false memory. My kids certainly talk with us (parents) a LOT, if not each other, and there were plenty of times I was absorbed in some book or other rather than engaging with my brother. 

Yeah, that one's probably inaccurate. 


I sat down to write an article "On Winning" and its turned into the usual Old Man Yelling At Clouds post. I am getting to be a geezer, darn it...just in case there wasn't already enough evidence of that. Mm. Let's try to salvage something:

With regard to volleyball, I wrote back in February that youth sports are a wonderfully safe way for kids to learn how to fail, building character calluses that will give them some durability against the future blows life deals out. I also wrote that I expected a lot of failure this season and hoped that it would still be both fun and useful.

Well, it turns out we've had much less failure then I anticipated. The players have been eminently coachable, and the amount of effort and athleticism they've squeezed from their bodies is simply remarkable. We have, for the most part, been under-sized and under-manned in every single game we've played (the sole exception was against a team comprised entirely of 7th graders playing up a year) and still managed to roll out enough victories to be playoff eligible. Every single player on our squad of nine is lacking in one or more key areas: size, speed, skill, confidence, discipline, jumping, serving. And yet they compensate for each others' weak ares and they are scrappy as hell; even the games we've lost (with one exception) have been "tough outs" for our opponents. 

I am immensely proud of them (in case you hadn't guessed). They are playing their best volleyball right now, at the end of the season, and they are excited and eager to play more, to win, in the playoffs. 

And this is the other wonderful thing about youth sports: when it's working, it should be building kids' confidence and sense of self. Team sports, especially, are useful as players find ways to contribute to the team's overall success: yes, some players are stronger than others, but everyone gets their moment to shine. Everyone can celebrate their teammates' individual victories; everyone can be there to support each other in hard moments (and know they have that support). It is so easy to get kids...young, impressionable humans...to gel as a cohesive unit, when you give them an opportunity to play and have an objective for their focus. School pride, for example, or a championship run.

Again, old edition D&D is much like this. Players are a team of disparate individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and yet each necessary and valuable contributors to the team's success. And when they are successful...working with and for each other, picking each other up, doing their own part...that success breeds enthusiasm and energy, eagerness and engagement. All rallied around - and directed towards - a common, shared goal or objective.

Coaching and DMing aren't all that different. In both cases, my work mainly consists of opening my players' eyes so that they SEE what it is they're doing and why. To help them understand the value of both themselves AND their teammates. To FOCUS them so that they can be successful, together, despite their differences.

There is, sadly, not enough of this in our world today (yes, yes, the curmudgeonly opinion of one old geezer). For my own kids, it's important (to me) that I wring out every last drop...for their sake.

Happy Friday, folks.
: )

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Making Things Too Hard

All right. Tax season is over (for me, anyway). And the house got (mostly) cleaned yesterday. And I have time before my next engagement (volleyball practice...our team made the playoffs!). How 'bout if I throw folks a D&Dish blog post? For a change.

SO...over at the CAG discord, recent converts to AD&D are still a bit kerfuffled when it comes to grokking the combat system...which is, you know, kind of an important bit to get straight. D&D is a game that features violence, and the largest section of systems pertains directly to running combat: if you're a new DM, having a grasp of how combat works is IMPERATIVE to running the game smoothly.

My game tends to run fairly smooth, so how about if I offer my take?

[yes, this post is for AD&D newbies. Old grogs who have altered/kit-bashed/deciphered their own mechanics for a smooth game...well, there might not be much for you here]

Let's start with the bare basics:
  • Combat is divided into one minute rounds; each round is composed of ten segments of six seconds. These minutes and seconds are "game time" and can thus be abstracted and (in some cases) safely ignored. Remember that game time is elastic and is there to help bring order to chaos. It is your FRIEND.
  • A combat will occur between two or more sides. In the vast majority of cases there are only TWO sides: the players (working together) and the DM played antagonists (working together). 
  • BEFORE initiative is determined, the players declare their characters' actions. I also (usually) allow the players to declare what their NPC henchfolk are doing, since they are (presumably) receiving shouted orders from the players. The DM decides what the other NPCs (generally, antagonists) are doing, but need not declare their actions to the players; however, I will usually give the players a general idea (the trolls are charging, the wizard is casting a spell, the goblins continue to fire arrows, etc.) AFTER the players have declared their characters' actions.
  • Each side gets to roll 1d6 to determine initiative. It doesn't matter if the player's side has four PCs or 20 the assorted henchfolk. It doesn't matter if the party faces a dozen tasloi backed by yuan-ti commanders or a passel of Drow cavalry on riding spiders with bugbear foot soldiers and a mind flayer commander. One d6 per side determines each side's order in the round. The initiative roll is made after declarations. The roll is made at the beginning of every round and the initiative winner may (and probably will) vary from round to round.
  • Generally speaking the side that won initiative (by rolling a higher number on the d6) performs their declared actions first. After they've finished, any survivors of the side that lost initiative performs their declared actions (if still able to do so). If there are still multiple sides wanting to continue combat at the conclusion of the round then a new combat round is started: declarations are made, initiative dice are rolled, and play proceeds.
Pretty straightforward and simple. At this point the most complicated part for the DM is just remembering what everyone's going to do as you work through the round. Fortunately, the players are usually pretty good about remembering their own actions ("Lisa, roll to attack." "No I said I was drinking my potion, remember?" "Oh yeah, sorry!") and with groups of creatures I usually have them performing the same action (all the goblins charge, while all the bugbears shoot arrows, for example)...group think, you know? However, I also keep a notebook and pencil handy to...um...make notes. Good as a memory jogger.

SO, simple. However, there are three things...all designed to add complexity and depth to the Advanced game) that trip folks up, causing them to throw up their hands and run for a Basic edition in panic. These three categories (which I've named myself) are: circumventing actions, extended actions, and simultaneous initiative. I will explain each of these in order or (what I consider to be) complexity, from least to greatest.


When two sides roll the same number on their initiative dice, there's no re-roll...instead, all actions occur simultaneously! Yes, this means that two combatants might kill each other in the same round! This is fun! Interesting stuff happening in battle makes AD&D combat interesting!

But also: remember that "weapon speed factor" from the PHB? This is where that becomes important. On a tied die result (which, for the record, has a probability of happening one time in six...not too often, but often enough) between combatants in melee using weapons, the weapon with the lower speed factor gets to strike first...and sometimes gets to strike multiple times! This is awesome! It makes one's choice of weapon more meaningful than just its damage dice. It provides a real advantage to fighters who can learn a variety of weapons. If the slower weapon's speed is FIVE points higher than that of the faster...such as a scimitar (4) to a halberd (9)...or FOUR points higher in the case of a dagger versus anything...then you get two attacks before the slow guy gets their first. That's fantastic.

[in the rare instance where you have a speed factor difference of 10+...only occurring with an awl pike against a dagger, jo stick, or short sword...the faster character receives a third, simultaneous, attack]

Note: this only comes up when both combatants are A) in melee, B) using weapons (not claws/bite), and C) tie the initiative roll. But...it adds a little spice.


AD&D is an advanced game and deals with the logistics of both space and time. Extended actions are actions that take a longer time to function simply making an attack roll. These fall into three main categories: movement (over distance), item usage, and spell-casting. Each of these take more time than punching someone in the face (or stabbing them in the belly), and can change when someone's action in the round actually occurs...this is the purpose of those ten, six-second segments

Segments are your FRIENDs: they bring order to chaos.

At the beginning of an encounter, the DM sets the stage explaining where all the combatants are in relation to each other; this is why we use maps with scales. Closing distance for melee combatants requires movement, and movement eats time...or, in this case, segments. Each character has a movement rate based on either A) encumbrance, B) armor worn, or C) their entry in the Monster Manual. The standard AD&D scale is 1" = 10'; since movement is a number given in inches per combat round (9", 12", etc.) and scale is generally 10' per square, it's easy to see how far a character can move in a given combat round. If my fighter is 40' from the goblin he wants to hew, I know (from his 6" movement) that he'll be able to get there in this round (since he moves 60' per round)...the question is: when? Fortunately, his movement is easily divided by 10 (10 segments in the round), so I know he moves 6' per segment and my rudimentary math skills tell me that 40' can be covered in seven segments, roughly...or FASTER (twice that speed in a dungeon) if he charges, which he can do once every ten minutes (rounds). Electing to charge, my fighter would reach that goblin in four segments, or three if the DM is generous (especially given the 4' length of his bastard sword, however some might only require a 30' charge distance anyway, given the note on DMG p.66). 

Likewise, magic items have a usage time (given in segments) and AD&D spells have a casting time (given in segments, rounds, or turns). A potion takes effect 2-5 segments after imbibed, rods/staves/wands take from 1-3 segments (per the item's description), and scrolls take the same length of time as the spell it casts.

But...okay: understanding that some actions take longer than others is simple enough. How does that interact with initiative?

Well, here's the thing: MOST OF THE TIME, it doesn't matter when in the round your action occurs. Your cleric is trying to turn the zombies? Your dwarf wants to cut down the hobgoblin he's standing next to? Just roll the initiative dice and high roll goes first. BUT if you have an extended action, THEN it becomes important when that extended action starts. That is, it becomes important on which segment of the round is your side's "go." ESPECIALLY, if you want to interrupt a spell-caster's casting.

Okay...deep breath: the wining side goes on the segment equal to the loser's initiative die roll; the losing side goes on the segment equal to the winner's die roll.  If the evil wizard rolls a 4 for initiative, and your fighter rolls a 2, then the wizard's one segment magic missile spell fires in segment 2, and your fighter gets his/her "go" in segment 4. I choose to ignore the bit about comparing weapon speed factor to casting time (DMG p.67) because A) it is apples to oranges (we don't compare WSF to claws/bites), and B) it's already easy enough to disrupt spells given casting time (extended action!) delaying a caster's "go."


These are actions that ignore or (rather) circumvent initiative altogether. Remember charging? Well, if a combatant chooses to charge, their attack no longer becomes dependent on the initiative roll. Same in the case of a character that decides to initiate an unarmed (pummeling, grappling, or overbearing) attack. Same in the case of characters with extra attack routines, whether due to magic (a haste spell) or being a higher level (in the case of fighters with multiple attacks). There aren't a whole lot of these, but the complication is that they all have their own, individual spot rules that must be remembered.

Charging for instance: initiative no longer determines first strike; instead, the weapon with the longer length goes first. If you charge a row of spearmen with naught but a dagger, they get to make their attack rolls prior to you REGARDLESS of the initiative die roll. 

Multiple attack routines (such as a fighter with extra attacks or an archer shooting multiple arrows) perform their action both before AND after their opponent's initiative. If both combatants have multiple attack routines, than initiative is diced as normal and the two combatants alternate attacks.

Unarmed combatants (effectively) surrender initiative when attacking an armed attacker, who may make a successful attack roll to drive the character away (fend them off) while still doing damage. 

Psionic attacks occur lightning fast (the speed of thought, etc.) treating segments as rounds, and resolving prior to other actions in the round.

Some creatures always attack first (quicklings, if I remember right) or last (like zombies) due to excessive speed of slowness. Some spells (haste and slow, for instance) have similar impact on combatants initiative order.

Hmm...maybe one or two more incidents of circumventing action that I'm forgetting at the moment.  ANYway...

ALL THESE THINGS INTERACT TOGETHER. The fighters charge the slow-moving zombies, while the second rank archers unleash multiple volleys at the necromancer attempting to conjure a demon, while the cleric is exercising a turn attempt and the wizard uses her wand. To the outside, this makes AD&D combat appear to be incredibly complex and fiddly. However, in practice, it all works rather seamlessly, so long as you remember the basics (declare actions, roll initiative) and then take the individual exceptions piece-by-piece. In practice, with practice, it is as smooth and easy to run as Basic D&D, yet with far more depth and richness.  And because of the way the game scales over time, the combat system is both functional and intense from novice up into the highest levels of game play, with little noticeable "slowdown"...not something that can be said for later (3+) editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

It's really not as hard as people speculate. Don't let it intimidate you or psyche you out. The 1E game was designed to be fast and furious; it was designed to be fun. And it IS those things, all of them. 

All right...back to the grind. Hope this helps some people. Feel free to leave questions in the comments.
; )

Saturday, April 6, 2024


My recent posts about writing "How to GM" help-books touched off a flurry of posts over at The Tao of D&D...which is great for a number of reasons. First off, Alexis is sharp as hell and brings a lot of good insight/knowledge to the discussion (and being a seasoned D&D ref, it's generally practical knowledge). Second off, he's a great writer and his posts are often entertaining to read. 

Third off, he also gives me ideas to riff off. This post is one of those. Alexis writes:
If you ask what "story" does for actual gameplay, you may find yourself in a conversation with someone fervently explaining that story provides "a structured overarching narrative or series of interconnected scenarios and encounters that serves to facilitate gameplay by providing the context and information necessary for players to make informed decisions and take meaningful actions within the game world." Except that it doesn't. The DM, without telling anything like a story, describes a set of circumstances that the players see in the immediate here and now, that they're free to make a decision about. No "overarching narrative" is in anyway necessary to this; in fact, it's detrimental the player's freedom to make immediate choices, as they've been primed in advance to acknowledge and prostrate themselves to a narrative that the DM invented, or the company invented, or some writer invented, but certainly not that the players themselves invented.

Game play works in a specific manner. The DM provides immediate context of what the player characters' senses tell them. The players make a MOVE. This produces a response from the DM, describing what has changed in the immediate context due to the players' move. Then the players move again. This goes on indefinitely.

The reasons why a player moves, or what motivates them, or the fact that the may collaborate first before moving, is irrelevant to the ACTION of the game. The notion that players need a "story" to captivate their interest, or draw them into the game world, because it provides context for their actions, is SALES JARGON. The argument that the story gives the players clear goals, objectives and challenges to pursue, motivating them as a driving force for game play, is SALES JARGON. These phrases sound terrific and encouraging, but since no definition is ever provided that explains how these things motivate or engage the players, it's just so much blubblesput.
Or, as he summarizes more succinctly at the end of the essay:
...the ongoing description provided by the DM serves as the immediate backdrop for gameplay, providing the players with the information they need to make their moves and decisions. This description includes details about the environment, characters and events that are directly relevant to the current situation and the players' interactions.

The essence of gameplay lies in the dynamic exchange between players making moves and the DM responding. Extraneous detail beyond the immediate circumstances is not essential to gameplay itself. 
Gameplay in D&D has nothing to do with "creating stories" (yes, yes...a point ol' JB has attempted to make many times over the last few years)...it is about taking action, and experiencing the fruits (and consequences) of that action. The world built by the DM is the thing that provides opportunities for action...one of the reasons ol' JB is always harping on world building, since (duh) insufficient work by the DM is going to end up curtailing and/or stunting action.

And players want action.

It makes me wonder just how many people out there playing this modern, new-fangled D&D are really, truly satisfied with the game play. I mean, other than the actors on live-streamed shows that are getting paid to perform (that is, I assume and hope they are being paid...actors have to eat, too!). But the normal shmoes (like me), sitting around a table, playing 5E...how many of them are truly satisfied with a game experience that consists of sticking to a plot, or exploring their character's "story arc," or posturing and improvising dialogue, and rolling dice only to determine how effective their posturing and dialogue was on swinging the opinion of the guardsman at the gate or whatever.  How many 5E players are simply going through the motions, jonesing for ANY opportunity to make a die roll, and (perhaps) wish they were brave enough to stand up and say "the emperor has no clothes!" or (in this case) "this game sucks!"

My wife and daughter have been in Mexico this last week, visiting family, while the boy and I have been 'batchin it.' No D&D play, but we played Space Hulk, Axis & Allies (Global), Blood Bowl Team Manager, went golfing, played pickleball, went bowling, shot pool, did a trivia night at a local pub, and (of course) did all the practices...soccer (his) and volleyball (ours). It's been a fine vacation for both of us...an active vacation. Oh, we've sat around and watched some movies, too, but only at night and we both (usually) would fall asleep on the couch, tuckered after a long day.

Action. Play. This is what a kid wants. And buried under all the responsibilities and worries that come with adulthood, that's what our inner kid wants as well...certainly those geezer gamers like myself that enjoy (or want to enjoy) playing D&D. Why are dungeons so easy to run? Because they provide direct, immediate opportunities for action. Players LOVE dungeons. The bitch and moan if there isn't one on the immediate horizon...in general, most players aren't self-motivated enough to execute bold schemes on their own...they'd rather go down a hole with torches and ropes and risk certain death for a bagful of treasure.

And, perhaps, this was the original impetus for giving characters "backstories" and personalities prior to play...to provide some motivation or impetus for action OUTSIDE of jus throwing down a new dungeon. That is, admittedly, how my group used them in the days of our youth...even though we played 1E. When we rolled up our multitudes of characters...generally away from the table...we'd assign them personalities and backgrounds, crafted mainly from a combo of race, class, secondary skill, and social class (that's from the Unearthed Arcana, folks...). I mean, if the character was going to be an NPC anyway, the DMG had random tables for generating personalities, too.  But we used these motivating backgrounds as an impetus to action in a developed setting (our own) that provided little in the way of traditional "dungeons." Our fantasy world, developed over years of play, was a more interesting environment for exploration than another hole in the ground. 

[examples: here's a character whose ex-spouse lives in this town...we want to go the opposite way. Here's a character whose father was a mean, abusive a-hole...but also the general of the army...let's avoid that territory. This guy was trained as an assassin...his guild is in town X, and whether or not we're showing up depends on his standing with the guild, etc.]

But for the most part, even then we didn't make much use of them...that is to say, "exploration of character" was not really on the agenda. The agenda was ACTION...whether in a town, or a lonely road, or in the occasional (few and far between) dungeon sites we were able to discover. Fighting, stealing, wheeling, dealing...and then (more often than not) running from the consequences of our trouble-making. When the DM(s) HAS an established, developed world but LACKS a story arc or plot that they're following, THEN players are free to do what they want in the game world. Assuming CONSEQUENCES EXIST; otherwise their actions are...literally...inconsequential, and the players lose interest (and respect!) for the game being played.

Players want action and...AT FIRST...they will want (and need) directed action. They will want a dungeon to explore, to give their characters...and the world!...a "test-drive." And after their first dungeon adventure, they'll (probably) want another, and a juicy hook or treasure map will lead them out into the (game) world. And then, perhaps, a third dungeon...a bit harder or trickier to find then either of the first two, but also Very Dangerous & Rewarding. And the fourth is even harder to discover than the third...

And the whole time, you (the DM) will be crafting a world around the players (because dungeons are simple enough to run, especially if you simply adapt premade adventures). You'll be establishing local politics and economies and situations for the players to get embroiled in. You'll be sketching out NPCs that become established personalities in your campaign: the patriarch that's always getting tasked with raising characters from the dead, the wizard/sage who can identify their magical items, the tax collector whose always showing up at inopportune times to skim the cut for the local lord, the various inns (and innkeepers) along the road where PCs stay when out on safari, the locals in the town where they buy houses and set up their base of operations, the thief or jewel merchant (or both) who they use as a fence for their loot, the wandering ranger or paladin who they run into time and again who provides them with news of "the realm" and occasional aid (as necessary), the crazy druid who knows the local wilderness like the back of his hand and is a useful font of advice on the region, etc., etc. 

And as you build your world and the (imaginary) people in it, the players will come to care more and more about IT and less and less about being directed in their action. As the actions they take begin to have consequential impact on the world, they will be motivated to make MORE impact, to take their own actions: establishing domains, crafting artifacts, establishing cults and guilds, raising armies, seeking immortality, whatever. Heck, you want to know how romance gets introduced into your campaign? First allow the PCs to obtain some lands and a title, and then suggest that they have no heir(s) to whom they can leave their legacy...just watch them then start seeking out eligible suitors/brides in the region!

[not every player is interested in seeking out lichdom, you know?]

I am not...and never have been...a big proponent of the "tent-pole, mega-dungeon" concept of D&D play. That is certainly ONE way to ensure that the players get plenty of visceral action, but the action presented is fairly narrow in scope and cannot take advantage of ALL that D&D has to offer...at least, not without the cost of verisimilitude (which leads to lack of respect / lack of engagement of the players and, eventually, sabotage of your campaign). But there is no doubt in my mind that dungeons ARE the best ways to introduce players to the concepts of being active and taking action in the game world...something they desperately want and need for the game to be successful. 

Everything else is just color.

Okay, more later. Have a good weekend, folks.
: )

Monday, April 1, 2024

Hard Stuff

Happy (belated) Easter! Got through Triduum with flying colors, though Easter Vigil went long this year and not much sleep. Whatever. Sunday was a glorious, sunny day...quite enjoyable.

Also nice to drink beer again.
; )

The wife and daughter are out of town this week...flew down to Mexico to visit the fam, so Diego and I are "batchin it." Played Space Hulk for the first time Sunday afternoon. Lost horribly. Game is a lot harder than it looks. Hopefully we'll be playing some Axis & Allies and things will go better. Hopefully...we'll see. 

[D&D is probably on the agenda, but Sofia being out of town puts a bit of a crimp in things...she doesn't want us playing without her. Maybe some side adventures]

Watched Secrets of Blackmoor tonight...finally. Fascinating documentary.  Recommended. Wish there was video of Arneson GMing. For that matter, wish there were videos of Gygax. Just for context. You hear great things from their players. Would like to see them in action.

Afterwards, watched an episode and a half of a "celebrity lifestream D&D" series. It was terrible. And depressing. Even more depressing because it featured Deborah Woll (who I've praised before) and Marc Bernadin (who I haven't, but who I respect immensely). Just...terrible. But professional actors need to work and earn...I get it. Just sad they they're playing shit D&D. Sad.

So sad.

Since it's Easter, and I'm joyful, I won't say anymore about it...or 5E. Maybe later. When I'm feeling ornery. Like I was the other day.

Speaking of which: asked my son what HE would like to see in a "How to DM book," i.e. what would he find helpful in such a book. He told me the following (in this order):
  1. Explanation of how morale works in AD&D.
  2. Explanations of encumbrance (specifically, how encumbrance, armor and movement...particularly wilderness movement...interact and work within the game).
  3. How to write an adventure, ESPECIALLY a "low level" adventure. 
All good topics, none of which were discussed in that book I referenced the other day.

[to be clear, I did not provide him with any context other than "I'm thinking about writing a book explaining how to DM; what would you hope/expect to read in its pages?"]

Anyway...it's late and I need to sleep. More later.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

When The Student Is Ready....

This afternoon's blog post prompted DM Escritoire to make the following comment:
I love it when one of the good guys goes off. Alexis was similarly inclined earlier this week.
Which, of course sent me over to the good Mr. Smolensk's blog to catch up on the last few posts I've missed (busy life...same old, same old). Here's what I read:
This is why I haven't written of late. Not because this shit is just recently out here, but because I've reached a point where the thing that I love, the thing that I have a passion for, has become the only thing for which the internet is a complete waste of my time. I don't know, maybe there are home renovators in the world who can no longer watch home renovation videos, or read home renovation books. Maybe there are knitting fanatics who would rather cut their throats before reading one more "Knitworld" magazine or watch one more amateur drop a stitch. Maybe that's how it is for other people. I don't know. I've done an awful lot of cooking. I'm not the greatest cook in the world; I don't think I'm the greatest DM either. Then again, I can watch a cooking video. I can still enjoy watching someone cut a watermelon into odd shapes. 

But I cannot watch another fucking video about D&D. Of any kind. I can't listen to anybody for more than about 20 seconds. I just want to scream.
There is more...much more. But mainly Alexis is simply giving voice to frustration...a frustration that I think (if I grok what he's writing) that I share. It is the same frustration that led me to pick up that stupid book in the game store Wednesday...the book of idiotic essays that set my teeth on edge and made me decide to write my own frigging "How To" book.

It's the frustration of wanting more knowledge about a thing (in this case, Dungeons & Dragons) and searching in vain for anything...any drop...at all. And finding nothing. Just...nothing. 

Because I've reached a point now,  in my life, in my calling (and please let me be clear: it is a Calling, I have accepted this, it is my calling to be a Dungeon Master, for whatever reason) where I know more about this game than all but a handful of people on this planet. A bold statement, an arrogant statement...but I'm pretty fucking convinced it's accurate. 

And I'm not even a great DM! When Alexis wrote:
I'm not the greatest cook in the world; I don't think I'm the greatest DM either.
It nearly echoed my planned introduction for the guide book:
"I do not profess to be a great DM; I simply admit to being a competent DM."
Competent. That's it. That's all I am. Google define's the word as:

"having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully"

That's it. I'm a competent Dungeon Master. I won't even profess expertise in other RPGs. Just D&D.

With regard to competence, I am not alone. There are a LOT of competent DMs out there...though probably not nearly as many as there should be...and I am one of them. And I am proud of that.

But when I say that my knowledge of this game exceeds that of all but a few people on this planet, I'm not talking about mere competence in the doing of something. I am a seeker: a seeker of knowledge, a seeker of more than the simple understanding of "how to be a DM." I want to know as much about this game as I can...I am constantly searching for new information, new understanding, new "stuff" to fill in the gaps and cracks of my comprehension.

And...there's just not that much out there. Not much that I haven't already pursued, purloined, and integrated. 

That's what I'm running up against; that's my frustration that (I think) matches, at least in part, something like what Alexis expresses. There's nothing more (or very, very little). I am a thirsty man unable to slake his parched throat...because my cup is already full.

It is time for me to stop searching for knowledge. I already have enough knowledge.

NOW, all that's left is to teach, to coach, to share what I know. Which I've already been doing...just informally. That's...small change. Small stakes. Not putting myself out there. Not submitting myself to true judgment and ridicule. 

To put it another way:

The apprentice is learning competence.
The journeyman has demonstrated competence.
The master can teach competence.

I have not yet (so far as I'm aware) taught ANYONE how to be a competent Dungeon Master. Not even my own children. I am not...in my own estimation...a "master" DM; only a journeyman. Only a competent one. Which is still pretty groovy...I get to run solid D&D!...but I am Called to do more.

So silly. It's just a game. 

But what a game!

In other news: the Seattle Mariners dropped their opening day game to a TERRIBLE Boston Red Sox team tonight, 6-4, going 8 for 34 and drawing only one walk. Garbage. Per my usual tradition of the last couple years, I will refuse to wear any M's gear until they are above .500...maybe by Easter Sunday? We'll just have to see.

F***ing Idiots

Started a post on Monday that was fairly wistful. Started a post on Wednesday that was more nostalgic. Started a post this morning that was full of irritation and ranting...real piss and vinegar stuff, calling out people, naming names, etc.

I ain't posting any of that. Heck, I ain't even going to give you summaries.

Here what I'll say instead:

Let's for the moment assume that you wanted to read a book explaining the path to being a great Dungeon Master. Because (let's say) you really like Dungeons & Dragons, AND you're the person (for whatever reason) that ends up in the Captain's Chair, more often than not. AND you've decided that, hey, maybe I could use some notes or insight or gosh darn instruction that might help polish my game. A handbook of practical information, untethered from considerations of rules and mechanics (as one finds in the DMG) yet structurally sound, applicable, and good for reading/reference. Something containing a paradigm that makes use of the BEST information found on various blogs BUT CONDENSED, in a way that meandering bloggers just can't seem to get going. Something with a table of contents, perhaps.

Let's say, as a thought exercise, that you wanted that. And let's say there WAS such a book, available in paperback and audio and ebook format...a platinum best-seller on DTRPG with a (near) 5-star rating and a ton of positive reviews and accolades. And let's say you bought it and opened it up to that table of contents...a table of contents that featured multiple authors giving essays on various aspects of running the game. Would you hope and expect to see chapters with these titles (in this order):

"Making Players Shine"
"Creating a Fun and Inclusive Game For All"
"GMing for Kids"
"Giving Initiative: Engaging Shy Players"
"The People At The Table"
"Advice for New GMs"
"Tips for Long-Time Gamemasters"
"Planning Your Campaign in Four Stages"
"Character Love Interests"
"Gamemastering on the Fly"
"One-Shot Adventures"
"Winning Player Investment"
"Knowing the Rules vs. Mastering the Game"
"The Art of Theatrical Gaming"
"Laughter, Cellphones, and Distractions from Serious Gaming"
"Roll With It! What to Do When It Doesn't All Go As Planned"
"Feasts and Famines: Handling Large Groups or Just One Player"
"Ditching the Miniatures: Playing A Smoother RPG"
"Getting Things Going Again"
"Dealing with a TPK: How to Save Your Players, Your Campaign, and Your Reputation"
"Moving the Perspective"

Really? This is going to show me how to be a Dungeon Master? 

With tax, the price of the book runs a bit under $22...a little more than $1 per essay. That wouldn't be an unreasonable price...if any of these essays looked worth reading, I suppose, if I'm bring perfectly honest, I do have some curiosity about one or two of these...what could a four page essay tell me about handling "large groups or just one player," for example, that couldn't be said in four sentences? Hold on, let me give it a try:
While D&D can be played with as few players as one (or even none, should a DM want to use the random dungeon generators, wandering encounters, and treasure tables to play an abridged "solo" game), the game functions best with a number of players, working in cooperation. Challenges will need to be adjusted based on the player number: I've found six to eight player characters to be optimal, and groups with fewer players benefit from a number of NPC companions that can fill the ranks to this number. Over the long term, campaigns can sustain play from a huge number of players, but practically speaking, it is difficult for a DM to manage a table with more than nine players at a time, slowing play substantially and diluting the play experience for all. If you have such large groups, it is best to run multiple sessions of smaller parties, rather than huge groups at once.
That's not bad for a first pass. I mean...it's about all that needs to be said, really (perhaps a footnote regarding large campaigns with multiple DMs).

But...whatever. Curiosity is about the only reason I could see myself spending money on this thing, because none of this looks like solid, practical information. In fact, much of it looks incredibly counter-productive and terrible advice; I could easily see individuals incorporating this nonsense into their DMing producing games that are far worse than what it would have been without these "tips."

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter (I'll remove some of the excess padded word count that adds little-to-nothing):
"...we're there to make the players shine and the world come to life, and the nice thing about doing so is that both activities feed into each other. The more engaging the world is, the more players feel encouraged to get involved and make their characters shine. The more the PCs shine, the more engaging the world becomes.

"GMs can make players shine by giving them as many chances as possible to succeed and look cool while they do it. That's it! ...

"Thinking of GMing as a service job helps make the game as great as possible for all of the players. If your focus as a GM is on your players and their awesomeness, and you are constantly engaged in making "shine moments" happen whenever they can, then you create a positive feedback loop: Players work to do cool things with their characters, you make the world react in a cool way to what they do, the whole table celebrates the cool moment as it's happening, and the loop continues. Players get more invested in the game, the world, and the story, and contributing more great ideas and story grist as a result. Everybody wins!"
Sure. Dance monkey, dance. Feed the narcissism at your table. 

The chapter continues with telling the DM to celebrate good dice rolls when they occur, to use elaborate descriptions of how awesome a player succeeded at their skill check or attack roll, so that the player can feel special and shiny. This is shitty, shitty advice. Just what, do you think, you're communicating? Hey, anyone remember Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey? Here's a comparable quote:

Children need encouragement. 
If a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess.
That way he develops a good, lucky feeling.

Yay. You picked up a 20-sided die and rolled a high number! Let's celebrate! You're really good at rolling dice! Glad to have you on the team!

Now, hold up a sec. Probably there are DMs out there who could benefit from some advice on managing players at the table: understanding the difference between DMing kids and adults, or extroverted individuals and introverted, and the general nuts-and-bolts of acting as a facilitator/referee for group dynamics at the table. Sure. But that's ONE CHAPTER, and (for my money) probably not a terribly large chapter. The fact is, being able to manage group dynamics effectively is DMing 101, and if you need a whole lot of training on that, you're probably NOT cut out to be a DM.  Sorry.

Tuesday, I had lunch with Rob, my oldest friend (we've known each other since preschool). It's been roughly fifteen years since the last time we got together; a lot has changed for the both of us in that time. For one thing, he's playing D&D now and is, in fact, acting as the Dungeon Master for his group. This despite never having much interest in the game in the past (to be clear, we played other RPGs...like Classic Traveller...and hex-n-chit war games. D&D was just never his thing). Amazing, quite frankly...never thought I'd see the day. Gave us PLENTY to talk about, even after catching up on all the fifteen years of history we'd missed.

He is, of course, playing 5E "but only because that's the version my game group wants to play." Never heard that before. He ended up becoming the Dungeon Master after the first session and "the DM decided she really preferred to be a player and not a DM." He says he enjoys the role mainly because it has stopped him from having to answer the question 'what do you want to do?' He'd much rather react (dance monkey!) to the players than have to generate his own proactive action. 

[comes from playing a directionless game with no focused objectives, I suppose]

Rob is VERY new to D&D...he doesn't know anything about 2nd or 3rd or 4th edition D&D, for example, though he has heard of Matt Mercer (*sigh*). He found my perspective on the game...mm..."intriguing," to say the least; especially what the game is, what it does well, and how best to use it. "I might have to invite myself to one of your games," he said. Yeah, probably, should. 

It's too bad he lives in Everett. 

See, Rob is now discovering...at the ripe old age of 49 and a half...some of the joy of Dungeons & Dragons. "Some" being the operative word, because there's also discontent...it's like he can see the potential, but just can't grasp it. Like he sees there's an answer, but he doesn't know the right question. He knows people are having fun with the game, but he's not quite sure he is having fun...or (perhaps) not quite sure he's having the kind of fun that he wants to have. Or feels he could have. Or even knows what it would look like to play enjoyable D&D.

Is "fun" on the chapter list for the aforementioned 'gamemaster guide?' Hmm, let's see:  "Creating a Fun And Inclusive Game For All" would seem to suggest something about "fun," including "fun for the DM" (I mean, I'm just inferring that from the "For All" part of the chapter title). Hmmmm...reading through the chapter, the answer would be "no;" it's just about understanding and recognizing issues of diversity and privilege and being understanding of people's feelings, maybe using an "x-card," setting boundaries, etc.

Um. Okay. I guess that's good advice to being a better human being, but it's not really giving me information specific or pertinent to running Dungeons & Dragons. Again: small chapter on how to run a table: good. Maybe a couple sentences about not being an asshole or allowing people at your table to be assholes to each other. But this is really remedial shit, and if you need a six page tutorial on the subject, you've probably got bigger fish to fry, life-wise.


Anything about running a long-term campaign or the benefits thereof? No. Anything about commitment to world building and the mindset necessary for engagement? No. Anything about studying real world history, politics, sociology, mythology for the betterment of your campaign world? No. How about the absolute importance of knowing and understanding the rule system being used, in order to provide the players with consistency and a referee that they can trust? No, in fact we get gems like this instead:
"Understanding when to strictly apply rules instead of maintaining game fluidity is one of the true marks distinguishing the novice GM from the master GM...the GM has to learn how to balance the impacts of ruling on the fly to ensure that the game continues without making it "too easy" as well as ensuring that the carefully-crafted player character abilities are not swept away and ignored.

"Game play can be improved in both the short term (flow) and long term...by improvised decisions. To master the game, you, the GM need to be agile enough to decide when to just make a decision rather than go with the rules or rulebook...

"...What is important is that you spend game time actually playing, and not consulting rulebooks every 15 minutes. True mastery of tabletop roleplaying means that a GM has control of the table...this, in my humble opinion, is best accomplished by maintaining game flow and progress.

"One of the most definitive differences between modern games (such as Pathfinder and 5th edition) and the old style games (like OSR games) is that in the former, rules and not pure rulings govern play."
What in the actual F is this guy talking about? Are you f**ing kidding me? You know, I happen to play an "old style game;" it's called first edition AD&D. "Pure rulings?" Are you a f**ing idiot?

Yes. The answer is yes. He is a fucking idiot.

Sorry, sorry, sorry. I said at the beginning of this post that I was NOT going to rant. But that was before I started digging into this thing, this boondoggle of an "advice" book. It is full of shit. Just dreck. Reading it will make any novice DM stupider and less competent or (at best) do ALMOST NOTHING to improve their ability to run the Dungeons & Dragons game.

And I am angry. I am angry that there are smart, enthusiastic people out there who want to play this game, who want to RUN this game, who want to be Dungeon Masters, who are not getting the help they need. Who are instead given dreck like this. That and a thank you from WotC for buying their a product and a middle finger for those asking for some solid advice.

Yes, I'm angry. I'm angry at myself. I should have already written a book on how to run this fantastic, amazing game. A helpful, no-nonsense, non-padded book. Something that ANY novice DM...middle aged, like my buddy, or kids like my own...could benefit from. Man, I've wasted a bunch of my time. 

That's the next project. That's the new project. Everything else is getting back-burnered.