Monday 24 March 2014

Hooks and Win Conditions

It is strongly my position that my job as GM is to supply players with context, from which the players make choices, and then I adjudicate the consequences of those choices.  This adjudication, which includes both success and failure, as well as every grey shade between, creates a new context from which additional choices are made.

The players' choices do not come from a menu.  Every ruleset embodies certain default choices within a framework of rules, but that does not mean that players cannot have their characters attempt anything, even if that "anything" requires an adjudication from outside the rules or modifies the rules themselves. The players are not guaranteed to succeed, and I will keep the rules in mind, but if the players come up with a reasonable means to fuel a spell with a major sacrifice, in keeping with the game context, why wouldn't I allow it?  The "reality" of the game milieu trumps the "reality" of the ruleset.

What does this have to do with hooks?  Well, adventure hooks are sample win conditions that the players can latch onto in order to set goals for themselves, allowing them a sense of completion once some goal has been met.  The adventure hooks given for any scenario are not the only possible win conditions for that scenario.  If playing G1, for instance, the players might simply wish to rob the giants.  They may wish to subvert them, turning them from one evil master to their own uses.  They may merely need to get to the Hidden Chapel of Elder Weirdness in order to complete a magic item they wish to create.

Creating and offering hooks is a part of the creation of context for the game milieu.  Selecting from hooks, rejecting hooks, and reforging the information from hooks to meet some new goal are all part of the process of choice, and that lies entirely in the players' court.  When creating portions of the game milieu, the wise GM considers how those creations can be used, and what win conditions the players might accept to bring a session or group of sessions to a satisfying close, but the GM should not impose win conditions.

Yes, the GM is justified in believing that most players will accept win conditions, such as "survive", when placed into a situation where survival is threatened.  However, beyond such very broad goals - and sometimes, even then - players are surprising.  Exactly how long will you strive to reach the Grail in the collapsing temple, Indy?  Even though you will probably die if you wait too long?  What do you value more?

Recently, in the Comments section of this blog, a situation was discussed in which a GM had set up a campaign, wherein he imagined that his players would be attempting to stop the undead causing a plague. Two players had other ideas; they devised their own goals, and their own win conditions. If I was running the game, I would not have ended it for this reason.  I supply context, the players make choices, and then I adjudicate consequences.  Rinse, repeat.

Also in the Comments section, a situation came up where the players and GM discussed the goals of the characters prior to the campaign beginning, and the GM in question was unable to see how this limited the choices of the players.  The players and GM discussed and came up with an initial context, the players made choices as to how they wanted to approach it, and then....well, those initial choices delimited what choices could be made as the game went forward because they sharply differentiated between the context of the players and their characters. A condition of the campaign world was determined to be natural ahead of time by all involved, even though the condition of the campaign milieu was that many people believed it to be supernatural in origin. Characters wouldn't experience certain facets of the implied milieu because, having accepted the de facto hook, they no longer had the full range of options that would naturally exist in that milieu had they not.

In a bit of coincidence, both of these situations involved a plague, and both involved undead. In the first, two players decided to treat the plague as though it were a naturally occurring event (although the GM wanted them to go hunt vampires), and in the second, the players knew it was a natural event which they could profit from.  There was no point in investigating potential supernatural causes or cures, and no real decision making involved in determining whether or not sorcerous types were responsible (and hence no question about the ethics or advisability of using magic, burning purported witches at the stake, and so on).

In both cases, a predetermination of what the players were supposed to do took away what, to my mind, are vital elements of player choice.

Hooks present options.  They are not intended to be straight jackets.  Win conditions are ultimately chosen by the players, not the GM, and a group of players can operate in the same game even with very different win conditions.  Sometimes even opposed win conditions.  The players decide that, not the GM.

Supply players with context, from which the players can make choices, and then adjudicate the consequences of those choices.  It is beautiful in its simplicity.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Is there room in the boat?

I am thinking about creating a megadungeon for Labyrinth Lord (as well as one potentially for DCC), but with excellent products like Barrowmaze, Stonehell, and the Castle of the Mad Archmage available, is there still room in the boat?

What do you think? Is this an idea worth pursuing?

Thursday 20 March 2014

Silent Nightfall.....Epic? Final Session

On Tuesday, my players finished their sojourn to Silent Nightfall. In the end, caution was selected as the better part of valour, and all survived. Normally, I don't answer player questions about the backdrop of the game because, hey, if they want to know what foozling the begummmertz is going to do, they need to figure that out in game. In this case, we did a question period afterwards, and were able to determine that some, but not all, of the PCs could potentially have died.

At 8th level, DCC characters potentially have the resources to make light work out of Silent Nightfall, but the set-up and the unknown prevented the players from taking too much for granted. Between levels 2-4, probably up to 6, is ideal for this location. But you can make even 8th level characters sweat.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Failing Forward

This post comes about in response to some questions asked by YagamiFire, to wit:

What are you feelings regarding the current trend of making failure "attractive" as an option by virtue of "failing forward" in game design? To what extent does this impact the legitimacy of a challenge? If "the game must go on!" eliminates some failure scenarios because the players might find those scenarios undesirable...would you say that that undermines the concept of failure? Should failure from a PC stand-point be undesirable from a player standpoint with undesirable consequences that accompany it?

Good questions, and I will do my best to answer them.

It is my belief that the GM should not "guide" the action to a specific outcome. On the other hand, I do believe that part of good design is seeding a location with enough material to allow unexpected things to occur, for both good and ill. It is my firm belief that the early TSR designers, for instance, did not expect every last bent copper piece to be found, and thus seeded treasure in excess of what would usually be found so that, if a player happened to think to look inside the giant lizard's gullet, there was a chance of actually finding something.

I am well aware that there are some who imagine that every scrap of treasure in a published scenario is intended to be found, even though the only quote available on the subject, in Module B1, says exactly the opposite:  "Although monsters will inevitably make their presence known, treasures are usually not obvious. It is up to players to locate them by telling the DM how their characters will conduct any attempted search, and it is quite conceivable that they could totally miss seeing a treasure which is hidden or concealed. In fact, any good dungeon will have undiscovered treasures in areas that have been explored by the players, simply because it is impossible to expect that they will find every one of them." (p. 24).

There is nothing inherently wrong with offering the chance to "fail forward" in a scenario. Having unexpected good come out of failure can actually offer sweet moments in the game...but the word "unexpected" is key. Like the expectation that finding cool treasures spawned the idea that they would follow you around until you did discover them, the idea that some form of good could come out of failure ceases to become surprising when there is reason to expect that most failures will be anything but that...failures.

What JRRT called "eucatastrophe" - the feeling that, when catastrophe is assured, sudden hope changes everything - is a powerful feeling, but it only works when catastrophe seems inevitable. It doesn't work when failure is expected to be "failing forward".

From the previous series, it should be clear that I think that the maximum good, from a player's standpoint, comes from being able to play the associative game. The sort of metagaming that comes about from deciding what forms of failure are off the table works against this. It also works against the idea that the player's choices have any value - if the choices lead to failure, so be it. I have written in the past that the GM should never include a consequence for failure that he is unwilling to live with, and that is because players must be allowed to fail if they are ever to experience true success.

Monday 17 March 2014

Balance of Power Part V: Function and Dysfunction

One of the oldest problems in philosophy is the question of evil. Why is there evil in the world? Especially if you believe that there is Someone in charge of the universe, what is the purpose of evil?  We are not just talking about wrongdoing here, but also illness, predation, the need to kill other things in order to survive, tragic accidents, and sheer bad luck. Surely an all-knowing and all-powerful Someone could arrange it so that these things simply do not happen.

We have all seen this thrust arise in gaming over the past decade - railing against PC death, save-or-die mechanics, campaign or adventure premises that seem to be one thing but turn out to be another, etc. In some game systems, characters can only die if the player chooses to put that option on the table. The rise of Challenge Rating (CR) type mechanics from 3e D&D onwards has led to an expectation that "challenges" be "balanced", where "balanced" all too often is taken to mean that the PCs should succeed without any undue loss. And, the advice now seems to go, you should consider fudging rolls or statistics to ensure that the expected outcome occurs. There is a sense that some believe that a saving throw doesn't represent a last chance at survival, but is rather something that should be repeated until an encounter is over or the character wins. Medusa doesn't simply turn you to stone - she slows you down to make the fight harder, but ultimately you triumph!

All of this boils down to the same philosophical problem: Why is there evil in the world?  With an all-powerful GM to look out for the PCs, why should the players ever fail?

None of us wants bad things to happen to ourselves, or to those we love, but at the same time most of us gave up watching programs or reading books where nothing bad ever happens long ago. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone making it through grade school without demanding more solid fare. I have found that few even make it past the age of 7 without developing some desire to have real problems occur in the fiction they are exposed to. This is not to say that they want Gollum to devour Bilbo Baggins, or Smaug to catch the hobbit burglar out, but the destruction of Lake Town rings true, as does the death of Thorin, Fili, and Kili seems right.

The GM has several jobs to do - provide a game milieu that makes sense to him, and that he is interested in running. Provide the players with context so that they can make choices, and determining the consequences of those choices. The players have a job to do - make choices within the context available, and role-play their characters.

If railing at the universe worked, then we would all rail at the universe whenever something bad happened. There are players who follow this principle in rpgs, because sometimes "railing at the universe" (through the agency of the GM) does work. A GM who changes rulings due to such railing does harm not only to his own enjoyment of the game, but also to the enjoyment of the other players. Rewarding railing such breaks the fourth wall, and effectively punishes players who accept the universe as it is.

We can imagine a GM who both encourages rules disputes, and then uses those disputes to split the party between "supporters" and "non-supporters" of the GM's position....but why would we do such a thing? First off, encouraging rules disputes perforce limits the associative game by forcing the players to think in terms of rules, rather than in terms of the fictional "reality" of the game milieu. Secondly, rules disputes automatically split the game participants, whether it is the intention of the GM or not. If they did not split the game participants, there would be no dispute.

I am not encouraging the GM to be a dictatorial monster - if you are that GM, your players are right to leave your table. What I am saying is that the GM has a responsibility to be the judge the rules as impartially as he is able to do. Trying to foist off that responsibility onto the players helps no one. Yes, discuss why rulings were made at a suitable remove from game play. No, do not encourage rules disputes during the game.

There is a reason that so many early games emphasized that the GM is always right, and it has nothing to do with stroking the ego of the GM. It is because - in the hands of a competent GM - that is the way traditional rpgs work best. And your goal, if you GM, should never be to be less than competent. A GM who uses "The GM is always right" to feed his own ego, or to make the game suck, isn't made better by encouraging rules disputes. A GM who is doing a good job, to the best of her ability, is at best hampered by rules disputes, and at worst hamstrung.

In order to be functional, any relationship must meet at least two criteria:

(1) Is power in the relationship shared fairly?

(2) Does each person in the relationship have the necessary rights needed to meet his or her responsibilities?

As to (1), either the players or the GM can end the game, but only all the players together have the ability to end a specific campaign, although the GM has the power to do so.  Without the GM's materials, the other players can create a continuation of sorts, by inventing (or buying) their own materials, and without the players, the GM can continue to use the same game milieu with others, if he can attract new players.

The GM has the majority of the say, because the GM does the majority of the work. If you expect someone to do the majority of the work, but have no increased share in power, then you are actually advocating a dysfunctional relationship. The world is full of people who advocate dysfunctional relationships. Usually, they advocate them for other people, while blithely ignoring their own advice, or they advocate them in their own favour.

IME, in most games there is no question about whether the GM or the players are going to walk, as long as condition (2) is met. Really, most people are able to talk out issues and make compromises, and most people are able to respect the work of the other people at the table.

As to (2), I have written - a lot - about what the GM needs. Let us turn for a moment and look at what the player needs. The player's primary responsibility is to play a character and make choices within the game milieu. That means that, unless there is some form of external compulsion involved that makes sense within the context of the game milieu - and even that should be used in very, very, very, extremely very limited amounts - the player gets to choose what the character does. Period. End of the sentence.

The GM does not get to tell the player what his character would do. The GM does not get to demand that the player approach the game with a specific goal or mood in mind. The GM does not get to demand that the players work together. All of these things fall outside the GM's purview. Only in the rare case, where an issue external to the game is being played out inside the campaign milieu, should the GM intervene. Demanding that the players choose a single goal that they work together is the GM version of being a rules lawyer, or demanding that the campaign milieu works in accordance to your expectations.

Now, if you are not interested in letting players play the associated game, or the GM play the dissociated game, you can come up with different forms of functional relationships. And, as a player, if you can find a GM who wants to run what you want, or if, as a GM, you can find even a single player, you should always run the game you want the way that you want.

But, for me, there is always a chance that bad things will happen in the game world because it is necessary for the associated game that it be so. It is also necessary for an interesting game. My job, as GM, is to provide interesting context and consequences that follow rationally from your choices. Your job, as player, is to play your character and decide what your character will do. I will respect your job, and I expect you to respect mine. We share this game. We share the power, based upon what we contribute and what our jobs are. We share the success or failure of each session. I am not out to screw you over, but it is my job to make sure you can make choices that do screw you over, just as it is my job to make sure that you can make choices that result in your coming out on top.

Gary Gygax talks about this in his Insidiae, and I quote here from pages 50-51:

It should be hammered home by now that the role of a game master differs significantly from that of a fiction author. The job of the game master does not involve revealing to the players the private thoughts or motivations of NPCs and monsters, nor will a good GM dictate what the players’ characters feel or how they ought to act – because he doesn’t know that. In general, a player should not be forced to explain his character’s actions, or to justify his actions to another player even if asked, unless the character’s normal demeanor has drastically changed, or the action threatens the entire party’s success or survival. Likewise, the denizens of a campaign world are known by their actions, their natures and private thoughts kept secret by the GM – unless learned by guile in play, ripped from them by magic or torture.
Also, no single antagonist or creature should become more important to the plot than the heroes. In other words, the game master should not make any NPC absolutely central to the unfolding story, because nothing controlled by the GM is more important than the development and advancement of the PCs through their interactive play. It is apparent, then, that the game master is far removed from being a “third person omniscient narrator”. Sure, he might be omniscient in regard to the details of his chosen milieu, but because he cannot know the future actions or thoughts of the PCs, he cannot be called a “story-teller” in the fullest sense.

Finding people who want to play, if you let them play their characters, and you don't punish the rest of the players by rewarding the weeds, has always been easy in my experience. Likewise, finding a GM if you respect the position, and if you don't act like a weed, has never been difficult. If you feel like you are coming to the game "cap in hand", from either side of the table, you might consider trying this yourself.

And that's the end of this series.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Unexpected This Is: Planned vs. Improvised

This post comes in response to a series of comments left by Vanguard, in which he is promoting a viewpoint that I simply do not believe to be accurate.  It is a conversation that we have had before, and the circularity of the argument may give "burning wheel" a whole new meaning.

I am not going to respond to the thrust that follows this amazing game, that both is a traditional role-playing game and yet is so unique that having played dozens of traditional role-playing games for decades doesn't give one any insight into general principles.  Nor am I going to discuss Vanguard's particular campaign milieu using that setting, where lack of prep doesn't cause inconsistencies, and the inconsistencies only deepen the mystery.

There is no point.

What I am going to do is disentangle two threads that Vanguard is trying to weave into one:  namely, planned vs. improvised play on the one hand, and shared world-building on the other.  And then, barring more input that isn't part of the same circular argument, I am done with being derailed for a bit.

Planned vs. Improvised Play

Every GM needs to improvise.  It is impossible to prep a game so completely that all contingencies are accounted for.  Even were you able to do so, the odds are good that your game would lose a spark of vitality by so doing.  Having to come up with answers in the moment is a spur to creativity.

BUT...If you put 100 prospective GMs in a room, and made them all create material on the fly, and also create material using some method of actual prep (brainstorming ideas, refining, and then actually going to the effort of writing them down), at least 95 of those GMs will have done better with prep, and at least 95% of the prepped work will be better than the aggregate of the on-the-fly work.  This assumes only a single scenario - the advantages of prepwork become more dominant as scenario compounds on scenario, and a campaign milieu is more fully realized.

This is because of several factors.

(1) Human brains are lazy. We have default answers. If we don't force them to do more, they will come up with the same or similar material repeatedly.

(2) Human brains are slow. Those easy answers come a lot quicker than harder (and often times, more interesting) answers.  The game is played in real time.  The odds are good that the easy answers will predominate.

(3) Human brains are forgetful.  When you bother to write out your material ahead of time, not only can you see connections that you might otherwise have missed, not only can you ensure that you add appropriate "footprints" to the elements that you add to a scenario, but you have something to refer to which can aid your memory of what has gone before.  You might not remember that the Duke of Duck had a limp; that doesn't mean that your players won't.

Factors (1) and (2) mean that on-the-fly material tends to be less inspired that the material that comes from careful prepwork.  Factor (3) means that logical inconsistencies also tend to arise.  In terms of The Walking Dead, these three factors together explain why the abilities of the walkers seems to change from episode to episode, why the characters seem unable to think of basic ideas that would occur to anyone in the same situation (ex., Rick is waiting for people in an area with many abandoned cars.  After hours of waiting, Rick runs out of gas, not having checked his fuel level earlier, and not having the good sense to siphon some gas from the many vehicles available.  He then decides to abandon the vehicle rather than siphon a small amount of gas from each of the other vehicles so that they can all continue to drive.), and why Rick is apparently unaware that a prison lies within a couple of hours of his house, despite his job as Sheriff.

Making it up as you go along gave us Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, so if you have had only good experiences, or you think you are Douglas Adams, by all means continue doing what you are doing.  Most people, though, benefit from prepwork.

Of course, if the game milieu cannot be effectively prepped because it is going to change whenever the players make decisions, there is no point to doing the work.  Otherwise, it is the "work" in prepwork that causes most people who avoid it to avoid it.

I have been doing this for a long time, in lots of places, and with lots of people. I have run games with good, minimal, and no prep. I have participated in games run by others with good, minimal, and no prep. In well over 30 years of gaming, I have never seen no prep trump minimal prep, or minimal prep trump good prep.

If your mileage varies, go with your experience instead of mine.  If you want me to believe that not prepping is just as good as prepping, well, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I have yet to see any evidence at all.

Assertion is not evidence. It doesn't matter who is making the assertion. I know that I keep harping on not taking my advice if it differs from your experience, and this is why. Your mileage really may vary. Someone saying something - me, Vanguard, anyone - does not make it so.

Shared World-Building

Let us imagine three different GMs are prepping a game, and all three want their players' input on what to include.  I have been all three of these GMs are different points in my gaming career.

(1) The GM is devising a city to be the hub of his DCC campaign. Let us call this city Shanthopal. He asks his players, "What would you like to include in this city?" and takes notes, but does not guarantee anything. By so doing, the GM gains an idea of what his players would like, and the players gain some idea of what may be there, but no concrete idea of what is there.

(2) The GM is preparing a 3rd Edition D&D campaign, in a region he calls the Lakelands. He invites players to devise the details of their characters' backgrounds, including information about where they may have come from, but cautions the players that what they come up will be what their characters believe to be true. It will not necessarily be true.

(3) The GM is preparing a city for a 2nd Edition AD&D campaign. Following the advice in one of the 2e books, the GM invites the players to aid in creating the city, with the understanding that what they decide to be true will be true.

In all three cases, the players began with an initial sense of excitement and ownership.  In the third case, the players ended with a sense of meh as they were forced into positions where their associated game was damaged by the dissociated game they had played earlier.  In short, it is less fun to "discover" vampires in the sewers if you have placed them there and are actively manoeuvring the game into that "discovery" than if there happen to be vampires in the sewers and you discover them the hard way.

It is not difficult to extrapolate to the situation where the players also choose what will and will not be allowed into the game. One of the best series of sessions that I have run was using James Raggi's Death Frost Doom, along with some time travel, and the DCC ruleset. If the hard-hitting contents of these sessions had to be vetted prior to play, the scenario would not have been interesting at all. Sometimes we want material that pushes our comfort zone. For some of us, knowing that we don't get to decide what the world is, only how we respond to it, is the point of the game. The exploration of the game milieu is in turn an exploration of ourselves, of our strengths and limitations, of our ability to deal with the unexpected or the unwanted. It is not that we want to lose, but rather that we want to know that it is always possible to lose. It is not that we want to face extremely hard choices, but to know that those choices are always out there in the wings, and that the game can turn on a dime.

By these criteria, a game of Medieval Walking Dead, where you are never confronted by the decision to either help or ignore a sorcerer being stoned, not knowing whether the walkers are due to his magic (as the mob is screaming) or not is a pale sort of game indeed.  Unexpected and unintended consequences, and the need to make important choices with limited information, are, IMHO, part of a good role-playing game.

Examples (1) and (2) I would advocate. Example (3) I would not.

A Poisonous Meme

Read this quote:

For the purposes of the game, the world consists of what players encounter. Anything they do not is waiting to be discovered.
Finally, players are limited by what they can discover by both their in-game decisions and time (as in, we play once a week for four hours).
In either approach to GMing (planned vs. improvised), the kind of things they discover are necessarily constrained. For the former, it's restricted to whatever the GM put there. For the latter, it will be something within the scope of the shared fiction.
When you're playing the dissociative game, you have every option, sure. Once play begins? No, not if you're sticking to your notes. Likewise, when we sit down to build the situation, we have every option as well. Once we play, however, we are firmly within the prison of our own making. 
This might make why I broke down the players' and the GM's game slightly more clear. From the GM's (dissociative) perspective, the world consists of that which is prepped. From the players' (associative) perspective, the world consists of what they know, what they imagine they know, and what might be. Like a quantum wave-function, it only collapses into a single possibility when it is checked.

This is a primary function of the divide between the associative and the dissociative game, and one of the major things that the GM provides the players that they could not gain by merely making up the game milieu in turns while playing. Until the wave function collapses, the scope of the game from the associative side is wider than that from the dissociative side, and the game is so designed that some wave-functions can only collapse in the case of either (a) an event occurring within the game, or (b) the players partaking in the dissociative side of the game to at least the degree described in example (3), above.

Take our poor sorcerer being stoned as an example. The possibility is there from the associative side of the table until it occurs. That it does not occur does not take it off the table. Even its occurrence immediately opens up a new wave function that it may occur again under different circumstances. The GM need not even have considered this possibility for the wave function to exist; it exists merely because the players consider it. And players tend to put a lot of thought into the parts of the game milieu that they do not yet know, because their doing so increases the chances of their succeeding at their goals.

From this wave function arise additional wave functions. What if the mob turns on one or more PCs? What if the mob is wrong? What if the mob is right? No mob need appear in the GM's notes or in actual play for these wave functions to arise.

The associative game allows the game to be much, much larger than what is played at the table.

When you understand this, you also understand the limitations inherent in shared world-building. The more the players know about the world with certainty, the more wave functions collapse, and the more limited the associative game becomes. The poison in the the meme that "no limitation occurs" is that, if you accept it, you might find yourself trading away something without even being aware that it existed in the first place.

In Conclusion

Vanguard says

I should note, I'm deeply amused by one thing in this conversation. You're arguing here that on-the-fly GMing doesn't lead to a believable consistent world (which is not true), but criticiszing this approach as more akin to fiction writing. Isn't verisimilitude, which is what you're going for, part of that same equation? 

This is not actually true.

I am arguing that shared world-building of the "hard" kind - example (3) rather than examples (1) or (2) - damages the associative game.  I am further arguing that, if the world is being written or re-written in accordance to the players' choices or expectations in situ, then the players are no longer exploring a world; they are exploring the GM's evaluation of their choices.

The outcome/consequence of choices being based upon pre-existing conditions/context is a hallmark of role-playing games. The outcome of choices being based upon the needs of plot is a hallmark of fiction. If the writer does his prepwork, the fiction can be good fiction. Most writers who do not do their prepwork create bad fiction.

"Golly," said Sheriff Rick.  "How did I forget that Federal Penitentiary was here?"

While the GM can (and IMHO should) strive for verisimilitude as part of the creation of the context and consequences of choice, no one at the table is creating a story. The story is what comes after the game, when events are distilled into story form.  What is happening during the game is context-choice-consequence, repeatedly, creating a pattern of expanding and collapsing wave-functions. A story is static; the game is not.  Good prepwork allows for context and consequence that rationally and consistently follow the available choices. Bad or no prepwork leads to situations where everyone thinks sorcerers caused a plague, but no mobs are out looking to lynch sorcerers.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Balance of Power Part IV: Putting the Games Together

Some caveats upfront:

(1) If you have found yourself disagreeing with every post in the "Balance of Power" series so far, you probably won't agree with any of the posts to come.

(2) This series of posts is in reference to traditional role-playing games. In philosophy, there is something called the anthropic principle, which stems from the point that if we are here to observe the universe, the universe must exist in a condition that we can be here to observe it in. IOW, any universe observed by intelligent creatures must be a universe in which intelligent creatures can exist to observe it.

There are all kinds of versions of this principle, but one interpretation suggests that the universe we see is the result of our collective beliefs and expectations. I.e., if enough of us believe in unicorns, unicorns will not only exist, but they will always have existed.

A traditional role-playing game assumes that the players are dealing with a world whose basic properties are in some fashion set. In other words, the players, through the medium of their characters, explore that world, and their growing understanding of the principles by which that world works, including knowledge of peoples, places, etc., lead to increasing success within the game.  Just as we must adapt to the real world, while attempting to use our increased understanding to alter our environment to our benefit, the PCs adapt to the fictional milieu, and attempt to change it to their desires and/or take advantage of its properties.

If you are playing a game in which the PCs' beliefs and desires shape the world around them, or where the world remains formless except in the immediate field of view, where there effectively is no "real world" within the game because flux occurs either due to lack of prep or the inherent nature of a world where the presence or absence of a guard behind a door is based upon a character's convictions, while that game may be incredibly fun to you, it is not a traditional role-playing game.

Outside the context of this discussion, I don't mind if you want to call it a traditional role-playing game. Inside this discussion, I would appreciate the acceptance of terms for the purpose of discussion.  If it makes you feel any better, it would be no different than describing what I am referring to as "traditional role-playing games" as "apples" or "balmaranas"; the term is only used for clarity within the conversation.

(3) There is certainly no obligation to agree with me, and your comments are welcome. Assuming that I have thought through every objection you might have, that I am automatically right, or that I know exactly what all the repercussions of any idea might be will never be a prerequisite to commentary here!

Okay, then.

In the type of game that I am discussing, the players require that there be something to explore and interact with.  Although it is impossible (and, in fact, undesirable) to eliminate the information disparity between the GM and the players, the players seek to reduce the disparity in order to make more effective choices within the context of the milieu.

That information disparity also means that the players require the ability to trust the GM, and the GM requires trust from the players.

While much of the dissociative game is played alone, in the creation of materials, and while the GM may move timelines forward without players being present, the GM requires players to bring the whole to life. Without an associative element, supplied by the players, a traditional role-playing game is nothing more than preparation for the game. NPCs cannot supply this - there is no discovery in "exploring" that which you have already created, and if you have not yet created it, you are probably writing fiction rather than playing a game.

Writing fiction is a fun pastime; it is not a traditional role-playing game.

Likewise, there is a reason why solo play - for example, generating a dungeon using the tables in the DMG while you play through it yourself - falls rather flat. Without both sides at the table, the prospective player-GM is like Gollum, who thinks that great secrets must be hidden beneath the Misty Mountains, but discovers only darkness and a sort of half-existence gnawing old fish bones.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Alone in the Echo Chamber

Wanting an open discourse with other viewpoints is not a "bully's idea"; it is a fundamental part of a rational thought process.  The converse is creating an echo chamber.

In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an "enclosed" system, often drowning out different or competing views.

How it works

Observers of journalism in the mass media describe an echo chamber effect in media discourse. One purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true. A media conglomerate that owns multiple media outlets can produce the same story among "different" outlets, creating an illusion that a media consumer is getting information from different sources.

Spreading false information

Similarly, the term also refers to the media effect whereby an incorrect story (often a "smear" that first appears in a new-media domain) is reported through a biased channel, creating a media controversy that is subsequently reported in more reputable mainstream media outlets. These mainstream reports often use intermediary sources or commentary for reference and emphasize the controversy surrounding the original story rather than its factual merits. The overall effect often is to legitimize false claims in the public eye through sheer volume of reporting and media references, even if the majority of these reports acknowledges the factual inaccuracy of the original story.

How it impacts online communities

Participants in online communities may find their own opinions constantly echoed back to them, which reinforces their individual belief systems. This can create significant barriers to critical discourse within an online medium. The echo chamber effect may also impact a lack of recognition to large demographic changes in language and culture on the Internet if individuals only create, experience and navigate those online spaces that reinforce their world view. Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism. The Internet may also be seen as a complex system (e.g., emergent, dynamic, evolutionary), and as such, will at times eliminate the effects of positive feedback loops (i.e., the echo chamber effect) to that system, where a lack of perturbation to dimensions of the network, prohibits a sense of equilibrium to the system. Complex systems that are characterized by negative feedback loops will create more stability and balance during emergent and dynamic behavior.

See Also

What Does This Mean?

You do not have to agree with someone to make their point of view valuable. Arguments against your point of view can strengthen it, adjust it, or make you change it.  That is part of rational thinking.  Placing yourself intentionally in an echo chamber is not conducive to rational thinking, or to producing sound decisions. A great book that I would recommend discusses this in a succinct and clear manner:

Bullies don't attempt to have a dialogue; they attempt to drown out the voices they don't want to hear.

Monday 10 March 2014

Balance of Power Part III: The Dissociative Game

On the GM's side of the table, we have the dissociative game.  This game includes the creation of background materials - including composition and understanding of the game milieu - as well as running the game, knowing and interpreting the rules, and taking the roles of any NPC (including monsters and deities as well as sentient human[oid] types the PCs might encounter).

Even in cases where the players share in the dissociated game of building the campaign milieu on the large scale, there will always be information disparity between the players and the GM. Those of you following the comments in this post series will be aware that there has been some contention over how much the players' involvement in creating the game milieu limits associated game play, and I will address that very question in part V of this series.

The same commenter notes that he does very little prep, and largely makes up the game milieu as he goes along.  Well, that is obviously one way to deal with milieu creation, and I dare say that no matter how well you prep, there are going to be times when the direction chosen by the players force you to make up material "on the fly" to some degree or another. Some people are very good at this; they need do little or no prep work because they are capable of astounding works of unique genius at the drop of a die.  I certainly cannot work like that, nor have I ever seen it in action.  That doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, just that I can't recommend that as a working model.

When a television series is created, there is often a "series bible" that helps to maintain continuity within the series.  Rather than making up the milieu episode-by-episode, the series creators take the time out to flesh out the story arcs and milieu in which the episodes will take place.  When this is not done, or is not done well, it can be irritating to the viewers.  Surely I am not alone in wondering how Sheriff Rick can stumble on an unexpected prison within a couple of hour's drive from his house in The Walking Dead?  Better care in the creation and presentation of the milieu prevents mistakes like this from occurring.

Earlier I had said that the prospective GM must be able to view any given portion of the game dispassionately. I still hold that to be true. The GM can and should be excited about running the game, but he cannot be so invested in a location, encounter, trap, monster, or NPC that they become more important than the players' ability to alter, eliminate, ignore, or avoid them. Simply put, while the GM must decide what, say, an ogre will do to avenge its slain pet owlbear, or what Captain Midnight will do when the PC superheroes go rogue, or where the Venusian Pirates are to be found, he must not advocate for any of these elements in the same way that the players advocate for their PCs.

One hears horror stories of "DM PCs" where the GM actually does advocate for an NPC in the same way that a player would for a PC, and the GM's information disparity allows these NPCs to be more effective than the PCs in every way possible. Sometimes the term is used for an NPC that has a long standing in the campaign milieu, but again the GM must resist the temptation to play the associative game with these characters.

In a true "GM vs. players" game, the GM cannot lose.  He controls the pieces.  He controls the rules.  He can create new pieces at any time, and can replace die rolls with fiat.  What an utterly boring and contemptible game that would be!

This is not to say that the dissociative game sucks - far from it!  For some of us, this is the game that is most interesting. It offers creativity that even the most amazing associative play cannot rival. It is more challenging. It requires self-discipline. It is a joy to do well.

We Interrupt This Series To Announce.....

......I was at BMV at 471 Bloor Street, Toronto, yesterday (in the Annex).  A number of Appendix N titles were available there which I already owned, and these can be found on the 1st floor behind the stairs unless they have been scooped up already.  I actually managed to score a copy of The Howard Collector for around $4!

Sunday 9 March 2014

Balance of Power Part II: The Associative Game

In a traditional role-playing game, most of the participants will be playing the associative game, so we will take a look at that first. The reason that most participants will be playing the associative game is threefold: (1) any given GM can run a game for a number of players, and in most cases, the game is more fun if there are at least 3 participants in the associated game, allowing the players to react to each other as well as to the game milieu, (2) it is the easier of the two games to play, in that it requires both less prep and a less skill varied to do well, and (3) for many people, it is where the majority of the fun and interest of role-playing games is to be found.

In its purest form, the players of such a game would not need to know or understand any rules at all. Who and what their characters were could be conveyed descriptively, and the players could make choices from that standpoint without knowing the rules that underlay their outcome.  Of course, most players prefer to have some understanding of the basics of the game. The traditional rpg splits rules between those that the players should know, and those that the GM must know. In the early days of the hobby, it was very much discouraged for players to examine the GM rules, not because it removed the authority of the GM, but because it deprived the player of the opportunity to learn how the game milieu works from actual play; i.e., from an associated stance.

How to strengthen the associated stance has been a question that many groups, and many game designers, have tried to answer over the years. In some groups, for instance, the large-scale creation of the game milieu is devised by the players and GM as a unit - in other words, everyone participates in the dissociated game - so that the players will have the basic knowledge of the world that their characters would presumably have. Other games stress a world in which knowledge is scarce and precious. Still other games, like the classic Traveller and Hârn setting, produce materials that are designed to convey background information to players and GM alike.

Although some games have moved far afield in layering dissociated mechanics on the player's side of the table - 4th Edition D&D being an obvious example - much of the fun and interest in playing a traditional rpg comes from discovering the unknown within a game milieu where the player is able to act from his or her PC's point of view. If this is what you are interested in as a player, excessive dissociated mechanics are undesirable. Likewise, excessive input into the game milieu's composition is undesirable. Gamers love to tell stories about those moments in which the game turned 180° from what they expected, when they came to a sudden understanding of the connections that created a rational whole from what had seemed to disparate parts, when they miscalculated, when they came up with a solution to solve what had appeared unsolvable.

It is easy to find a player who will talk animatedly about when he resolved a mystery, or encountered the unexpected. It is very difficult to find a player who will be so enthused about when thing occurred exactly as expected.

This is the primary tension one sees in rpgs - The players want to win.  They want to manage risk so that they increase the odds of their winning.  Ultimately, the players strive to play it safe, BUT "playing it safe" only retains its interest so long as there is no way to play it completely safe. Managing risk is only fun when not all risk is manageable. A flat track does not a roller coaster make.

Friday 7 March 2014

Balance of Power Part I: This Game is Two Games

Wherever you game, and whoever you game with, there is a social contract at the table. In many cases, this social contract is unstated. In some cases, it may be formal. Every gaming group has its own social contract, which meets the needs of its participants. 

In this blog post, I am going to talk a little bit about the social contract that I use. I am also going to talk a little bit about some poisonous ideas floating around some parts of the InterWebs. Please note that I am not demanding that you agree with me, or adopt my ideas. Nor am I demanding that you do not accept the ideas that I am going to describe as poisonous. What I do hope for is a dialogue, and I hope that when you consider the social contract of your own games, that you are empowered to examine it with a slightly wider viewpoint. Most of what I am going to say is probably obvious to most of my readers, so if your eyes start to glaze over, I won't be offended if you stop reading.


In a traditional role-playing game, you have a Dungeon Master, Referee, Judge, Game Master, Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Master, or whatever. I am just going to say GM, and you can fill in the appropriate title for your game of choice. You also have one or more players. Now, some people will tell you that the GM is also a player, but in this case we are using gaming terminology: a player is a person who controls one or more protagonist "Player Characters" (or PCs). The GM does not control PCs. Anyone controlled by the GM is a "Non-Player Character" (or NPC) because the GM is not a player.

So, two senses of the word "player":  (1) someone sitting at the table and engaged in the game, and (2) someone who controls one or more PCs.  Do not conflate them. Henceforward, in all that follows, the world "player" is only used in the second sense, and if I need to I will use "participant" for the first.

This split between players and GM is no accident. In a traditional rpg, the players are granted the opportunity to experience and take action within an imaginary milieu as though they were making decisions for an inhabitant of that milieu. The PC(s) operated by the player allow this access. Some game mechanics support the ability of players to make choices from the point-of-view of his PC (in which case they are called associated mechanics because there is a direct association between the game decision and the PC's decision in the milieu, or the result of the mechanic is mirrored in the changed conditions of the PC and/or milieu). Other mechanics are dissociated, because there is no clear link between the player's choice in utilizing the mechanic and the PC's fictional "choice" of action. 

A dissociated mechanic damages the association between the player and the PC; an associated mechanic strengthens it. There are many fun games that are fully dissociated (chess, for example, or Sorry), and some people will claim that chess is a role-playing game if you whinny when you move the knight. However, I would argue strenuously that it is the associated mechanics in a game which actually allow the game mechanics to encourage and reinforce role-playing. The degree to which any game is a role-playing game is, I would argue, based upon the relative strength of its associated vs. its dissociated mechanics. First edition Gamma World is a role-playing game. Uno is not.

Now, it should be relatively obvious that if the players are going to engage in this fictional milieu through the agency of their PCs, the fictional milieu must exist. Moreover, unless it is an unpopulated featureless plain, someone or something must devise and control all of the objects, creatures, and peoples which may be encountered therein. For the fictional milieu to seem real enough to allow for suspension of disbelief, the person doing all of this must know more than is being presented in the immediate area, and at the immediate time. As a fictional world needs rules to run believably, even off-the-cuff play requires that the person creating material in situ do so within an overarching framework which remains more or less consistent.

This is the job of the GM. The GM will present the roles of various creatures and peoples, but he will nearly always be in a position where his knowledge of the situation exceeds that of the NPCs portrayed. He must dissociate his knowledge from that of the creature being played in order to play it fairly. Similarly, the creation of the campaign milieu is primarily a dissociated process. The GM must be able to view the milieu from the outside, dispassionately, in order to construct or present something worth playing in.

If you stop and consider this fairly, it should be clear that the GM will be engaged in a predominantly dissociative game which enables the players to play an associative game.

There is also a disparity in the amount of work and responsibility that go into being a player or a GM, and they will be touched upon anon, but right now the above is all I really want to get across. The players are playing a game that is predominantly associative; the GM a game that is predominantly dissociative, and much revolves around that single point.

A Response to Matt @ The Tao of D&D


I was born in 1966.  When I started the game, using the Holmes Basic rules, there was no one else I knew who had ever picked up the game.  

Later, I spent four years in the US Army.  I have lived in Missouri, Louisiana, Virginia, California, Wisconsin, and Ontario, both in major cities (Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Toronto) and in rural communities (I spent half my childhood in Pembine, Wisconsin, near the border to Upper Peninsula Michigan, with my nearest neighbour being a 5 mile walk away).  

I have moved a lot.  I have had to seek out new groups a lot as a result.  Usually, I have had to form groups.

So, yes, I understand having to find a group.  I do not equate that with begging around, cap in hand, asking players Oliver Twist style, “Please, Sirs, can I run some more?” 

Players are not a captive audience.  They may choose to play or choose not to play.  I have never had a problem finding players, or getting players to choose to play.  That may be because of simple luck, or it may be because of the way that I approach the game itself, but I have run games for a lot of different people in a lot of different places. 

Toronto is a Pathfinder town.  Running a game in a store, which I have done several times last year as part of the DCC World Tour 2013, is a challenge because you are directly competing with what is the most popular game in town, and in some cases competing with the hype surrounding D&D Next.

When I switched to DCC from the homebrewed game I was working on, RCFG, I lost three good players because they preferred the other game.  They were more interested in games with strong character generation sub-games.  That is completely okay.  Players are not a captive audience.  In my philosophy, every player should seek the game he or she most desires to play in, and every GM should run the game they wish to run.  Now, of course, there is a lot of interplay between these two positions, and the GM hopefully wishes to run the game the players wish to play in, just as the players hopefully wish to play in the game they are presented with.

In your response on Tao, you said

It doesn't even take the entire table to undermine me as a DM. I tried to run a game where plague and disease would play a major part in the campaign. I was trying to build an atmosphere with some gloom and some despair. The characters were going to be fighting vampires and necromancers and cultists and such. Some of my players bought in. Two didn't. They decided they would be at the table, but they weren't playing my game. "Oh, sickness is the problem? Lets start a Laundromat! I'll play an Asian stereotype sorcerer and I'll start a magic dry cleaning business. Want to help?" "Sure! I'll help out your business. Lets go about town washing clothes and fixing disease."

and I have to wonder how that is not playing your game.  It is my core belief that the GM devises setting, including the opportunity to interact with things like vampires, necromancers, and disease, and the players determine how they will approach that setting and those opportunities.  Likewise, it seems obvious to me that some players are going to resist an atmosphere of gloom and despair.  But I do not see this as a failure to buy in; I see this as an acceptable decision within the scope of the milieu.

In other words, there is a difference between “Here is an opportunity to fight necromancers” and “You will be fighting necromancers”.  If the “disease” is the result of necromancy and the undead, how effective is a Laundromat going to be, really?  Discovering that the problem is not so easily solved might well have provided you with a gloomier atmosphere than if they had immediately sought out Count Orlock.

And sure, I could have kicked them out, but they were half my group. They were friends. They were some of the only players I had. Were my other players pissed? Sure. They thought they'd get to play a gloomy dark vampire hunting game, and instead two players were pissing all over it with a joke.

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that any form of player resistance to the opening status quo of a campaign milieu is “pissing all over it” – it is, rather, an attempt to control the direction of the game.  Players should be doing that.  And no matter how much they attempt to make light, the GM should continue to offer context, allow choices, and enforce consequences. 

What would have happened if you had allowed the players to resolve their own internal conflicts?  When two players want to do one thing in a game I run, and two players want to do another, who gets to decide – or even if the group splits up – is a player decision to make.  It is not my job to force a consensus, and it is not my right to tell them that they must decide this or that.

What if you had let them joke, but didn’t change the context in which their choices were being made?  I mean, literally, what if you didn’t let the jokes rattle you, and you continued to play it seriously?  What if, rather than simply allowing that reaction to ruin the game, you used it to highlight the darkness?  Eventually, the number of un-dead would grow, the disease would become worse, and the PCs would be forced to do something, even if “doing something” means flee to another town or continue obliviously until they drowned in a sea of walking corpses. 

See, I don’t see “kick them out” or “trash the game” as the only solutions here.  I see the best solution as “accept their decisions, but that doesn’t change the milieu until they do something to change it.”  I also think that the players should be trying to change the milieu to their benefit.  But the milieu, not their desire, determines how difficult that is.

While your game milieu will include many potential adventure sites, I think it is important to envision a setting in which adventure occurs, rather than specific actions/adventures which will occur.  The PCs should always have the ability to opt out, but putting that option to the test should always include whatever consequences are appropriate to the milieu.  If you choose not to go to White Plume Mountain, nothing happens to you.  If you choose not to pay attention to the growing legion of un-dead where you live, there are likely to be harsher consequences.

That lasted for an hour or two before I quit. I sent everyone home. I trashed the campaign. I forget what we ended up playing after that but I had been running 4th edition D&D during that period of my gaming so it was probably some high powered fantasy loot-explosion bullshit. I hate that kind of game but I ran it because that's what kept my players coming back to the table and quite frankly I needed the creative outlet more than they needed the dice rolling so I ran their game and tried to build a world around it until despite my efforts I lost friends and players anyway.

I got older
You should never run a game that you do not enjoy.  Life is too short for that.  The world is filled with creative outlets.  Some of them even offer remuneration.

But, look at it this way:  If the players have all of the power in the equation, and the bullshit game is what keeps them coming back to the table, it follows that you have to run the bullshit game or have no players. 

But that is not what happened.  Instead, attempting to cater to the tastes of others while ignoring what you wanted caused you to lose friends and players anyway.  And what actually happened?  

You had a milieu in which you had considered what choices the players had, what the context was, and what the potential consequences would be.  Even if two of the players made choices you had not considered, they were engaging with that milieu in so doing.  Had you stayed the course – allowing them to operate their side of the screen (choices) while you operated yours (context and consequence), the natural consequences of ignoring the context of the milieu would have affected player choices over the course of time. 

You might not have gotten exactly what you were expecting – nothing ever is once a human element is added – but you would have gotten much better than what you settled for.  And, honestly, so would your players.  No one is at their best running a game they dislike. 

So I begged the remains of the players to play a game that I would enjoy running and I tried my damnedest to keep it interesting because I was out of options. If I couldn't get them to buy in I had no players.

Listen.  I’m not going to proclaim my insights to be brilliant.  I am not going to claim that I express myself with the EXACT words needed in all cases.  I am not going to claim that my way is the right way, or the only way, or that your experience cannot differ from mine.  I am not even going to claim that if you disagree you must not be listening.  I leave those kinds of claims to others.  I am interested in a dialogue, not a monologue with a chorus.

Perhaps I come from a privileged position, because I have never had to beg players to play in the games that I ran, and I never expected anyone to beg me to play.  Nor have I ever had anyone come to me, cap in hand, begging to run a game.  Why would they?  If the game is worth playing, you don’t have to beg.

You had a game that you believed was worth playing.  And you trashed it because of an hour or two of frustration.  Players always need to find their feet, to learn the rules of a campaign milieu, when they jump into a new game.  Some players will always want to test the GM, to ensure that they are actually able to make unexpected choices in the game milieu.  Some players will always attempt something suicidal with a new GM, just to gauge whether or not the dice will fall where they may.  These things are normal.

And the result of believing that the players should decide what you run was not very happy, was it?  The high powered fantasy loot-explosion was not what you wanted?  Didn’t you have to run what you wanted to be happy?

Again, I’m not Einstein.  I don’t have some pretensions to being an intellectual übermensch, so take this with a grain of salt:  You decided that you didn’t want to play that way, and then offered the players something you wanted to do, and they agreed to do it.  You might have felt like you were begging when you brought it up, but would you have continued running bang-pow-loot if they had said No to your ideas?

If you would have, then, Yup.  They have all the power.  If you would not have, then congratulations! because you both have power in that relationship.  The players can force the GM's game to end, but the GM cannot force the players to play.  Likewise, the GM can force the players' game to end, but the players cannot force the GM to run.  A relationship – any relationship – where one side has all the power is dysfunctional. 

It is my unsolicited advice to you to avoid dysfunctional relationships, and to be very cautious about accepting the conclusion – from anyone, no matter how well-meaning they might be – that the only way to be in any particular type of relationship is to accept that it is going be dysfunctional.  This applies, of course, not only to gaming, but to all of life.

PS:  If you read Alexis' response, you will note that he said that GMs who view players as disposable are not trying to build a team, but trying to gather worshippers.  Or words to that effect.

Imagine that you wanted to play a game of Risk.  You invite some friends.  Some are into it, and some are not, but the invitation is definitely to play Risk.  Are you building worshippers, or are you getting together a group who has an interest in a particular sort of game?  Is your friend who wants to go out with his significant other that night no longer your friend?  Do you stop going out to see movies with your other friend who isn't into boardgames because he won't let you dictate that he plays Risk on Tuesday?  Are you even trying to dictate what he does on Tuesday?  Or are you offering an option?

In other words, is it the people who are replaceable, or their role as players?  Because the first is a problem, and the second, IMHO, is not.  In the second case, you can go fishing with them on Sunday after the game.

Personally, I don't like to demand that people agree with me.  But I do like to take on memes that seem likely to increase dysfunction.  This is one of them.  And I do suggest that you take a look at the research link that Alexis provided.  When you read about how the research describes destructive leadership, do you think that he has nailed it, or do you think that he has extended the definition rather far from what the authors indicated?

All of these questions, by the way, are real questions.  I am curious about what you think.

Cap in Hand

I read The Tao of D&D because I enjoy it.  There have been times when it has produced such excellent posts that I had to point others there, and there have been times when I felt compelled to write about something I read there that I disagreed with.  However, there has never been a time when I stopped reading the blog.  I intend to buy and read Alexis’ book on DMing when it comes out, too, because even where I disagree with him, I respect that he is worth reading.

Yesterday, I read Alexis’ post on “The Sides of Power”, and I disagreed.  As a GM, I have never had to ask permission to run a game.  There have been points where I was willing to run, but there were other things happening, or people wanted to play a different game.  Frankly, if Bob is running his Pathfinder game when I want to run my DCC game, and Bob’s game is the preferred choice, I can change my time slot and play in Bob’s game too.

In my world, there are always more people wanting to play than there are wanting to run the game.  People who want to run the game need encouragement so that they don’t simply give up when faced by the work required to present a game milieu – even a single adventure!  I have known people who have found even the idea of running a published scenario daunting.  The idea that a would-be GM would be forced to go begging for players, cap in hand, does seem ludicrous to me.  I am not saying it doesn’t happen; I am saying that it is so far outside my experience – direct experience or through direct observation of others – that I have to imagine that this is an uncommon thing.  I could be wrong.

In my experience, if you build it they will come.

This morning, I read Alexis’ post on anger being his default position.  In it, he describes one of my comments to his post, intended to convey that even though I don’t always agree with him, I find he has insights I had not considered and that are worth considering.  That is not the way Alexis took it.  I have no control over that, but it makes me sad.

I try to take people as they are.  We all have flaws, but our flaws are not the only thing that defines us.  It is important, in my mind, to be able to call out flaws in an argument, but that is not the same thing as being cruel to the man making the argument.

In the immortal words of Bill & Ted, Be excellent to each other.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Silent Nightfall....Epic? Second Session

I just got home from running the second session of Silent Nightfall using 8th level characters.  Well, three 8th level characters, and a cleric and dwarf of a bit lower level.

Last week, two of my regular players were unavailable due to work commitments, so I ran Well of the Worm as a 0-level funnel instead.  Creepy fun, and as soon as there was 10 XP to be had, the survivors fled, leaving the nearby dales to deal with the menace themselves.

Tonight's session was a lot more cautious creeping around the 2nd and 3rd levels.  The PCs discovered the bedroom, entered it, and dealt with what was there.  They pulled the red lever.  The party's wizard has been hearing whispering and the psychic voice of Silent Nightfall, buzzing and crackling with barely constrained power.  It requested that the party go away (the wizard could read Mortmallion's recovered journals) and return in a day, but they decided to press on instead.  

Mike, who is playing the wizard, remembered that his bonded invisible companion might have some information, and began plying his unseen servant, Alfred, with questions.  This gave me a chance to give the party some idea of the background of the Silent Nightfall complex, as well as some insight into what they were encountering there.  Alfred was able to say for certain that the voice would ask them to push the green button, and, having located it, they are determined to do so....just to see what it does.

In the meanwhile, they are getting ready to fight another battle on the 3rd level....if you own the adventure, you can probably guess which one.

It is really fun for me to watch people running extremely powerful characters acting with such a level of caution in a level 2+ module.  In fact, in the post-game wrap-up, Mike admitted that he had forgotten the level of the module.  Just as well; taken without caution, Silent Nightfall can be deadly.

It also shows the versatility of the Dungeon Crawl Classics game, and just how much difference it makes that monsters are mysterious, and that the rules should not be taken for granted.  In the first session, for instance, the shaft crawler really gave them pause when they eventually realized that their chosen course of action was making the thing stronger instead of killing it.

I am very much looking forward to next week!