Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The End of Thought Eater

These two essays are not by me--they are the final two essays in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Contest.  The winner of this round reigns supreme for all time!

Here's the first one--if you like it best send an email saying only MASS in the subject heading to zakzsmith at hawtmayle dawt calm .

Mass Combat Belongs in the Monster Manual

D&D started as a hack on a war game, which is why OD&D depends  on, but does not provide, mass combat rules. The original game  included kingdom management rules and prices for castles and  armies. The first adventure module, in the Blackmoor  supplement, had rooms that contained hundreds of soldiers. You  were expected to break out TSR's Chainmail war game to use  these things. In fact, as you got higher and higher level,  Gygax expected that more and more of your time playing D&D  would actually be spent playing Chainmail. That's sort of like  if you went to a Scrabble tournament and they said, "Good news!  You guys are such good Scrabble players that now you get to  play Monopoly."

D&D went mainstream because audiences liked the fast,  immersive, co-op game of the imagination, and they didn't latch  onto (or even understand the references to) the slow, rules- bound, head-to-head, miniature-requiring war game. So, in later  editions, the Chainmail references were cut. Essentially, D&D's  intended end game, conquest and rulership, was removed. The  middle of the game, grinding for money, was extended, even  though there were now no castles and armies to spend the money  on. 

And this is a big loss for D&D. In any edition, high level D&D  is not a solid product. High level fights are swingy, monster variety is  sparse.  And, worse, with epic battles and kingdom-building  mostly offscreen, characters can't leave their mark on the game  world, except by saving it from ever more powerful dungeon  monsters. Players and DMs alike generally try to keep away from  war epics, because running big battles isn't something D&D  does. 

To fill the hole left by the removal of Chainmail and epic-fantasy play, TSR and WOTC churned out stand-alone battle  supplements every few years:

-OD&D introduced Swords & Spells, which was an updated  Chainmail with special rules for each of the D&D spells and  monsters. It technically allowed battling lone heroes against  10:1 (10 soldiers to a mini) figures, although it recommended  avoiding cross-scale combat as much as possible.

-Basic D&D included War Machine: a sort of spreadsheet where  you came up with a rating of each army and then rolled a  percentile die to decide the battle.

-1e and 2e both published an edition of Battle System. This was  another entry in the Chainmail/Swords & Spells tradition, but  it came in a box with cut-out-and-assemble peasant houses,  which was cool.

-3e had the Miniatures Handbook. Again, its mass combat rules  were along the lines of Chainmail, featuring typical war game  rules for formations, facing, morale, etc, using d20 mechanics. 

-5e has playtest mass-combat rules, which will presumably see  official publication some day. They're traditional wargame- style rules.

All of these games perpetuate the flaw that kept Chainmail from  catching on in the first place: in order to play them, you have  to stop playing D&D.

D&D is not a war game. All the design decisions that make a  good war game lead to a bad D&D game, and vice versa. 

-Because war games are played competitively, they must be  fair. D&D campaigns can only achieve longevity when they are  unfair in favor of the players. 

-Because war games are fair: war games must have complete rules. You can't make stuff up halfway through without  favoring one of the players. So you can only make a pontoon bridge if there are rules for it. D&D rules are incomplete by  design. There are no rules in any edition for making a pontoon  bridge, but if you can scrounge up some boats and lumber, the  DM will let you do it. 

-Because war games are complete: war games must have  detailed rules. A good war game models the rock-paper- scissors of archery, cavalry, and spearmen, and provides big  bonuses and penalties based on terrain, flanking, morale, fog  of war, high ground, and anything else that might conceivably  come up. D&D, on the other hand, features abstract combat rules  that look nothing like reality. Core D&D combat is a barebones  transaction of combatants trading swipes. More important than  realism is simplicity, because most of D&D is not in the combat engine but in the DM and player improvisation that happens at the same time. 

running an epic battle in D&D

D&D is great at handling small fights - say, five characters  fighting a few trolls. Why can't the same rules handle five  characters, the town guard, and a dragon fighting against a  skeleton army, a lich, and a dozen trolls?

What if the first edition Monster Manual had contained stat  blocks for a skeleton horde, a town watch, and so on? Think of  the stories we could have been telling all these years.

My alternate-history army stat blocks are pretty simplistic, but that's what I like about them. A requirement for war-game standards of rules completeness and detail has been holding back high-level play for years. A  D&D  combat is great because of all the rules that Gary Gygax didn't include. Let me talk about the war game rules I  think D&D can live without. 

Casualties. When half your archers are dead, you can  fire half as many arrows, right? Nah. Just as a D&D hero at 1  hp fights at full strength, A 100-soldier army, even at 1 hp,  is still a 100-soldier army. After the battle, hit point damage  can be translated into some ratio of dead, wounded, and fled,  at the DM's discretion.

Facing, frontage, formation. These rules appear in  nearly every war game. We need that level of detail like we  need the First Edition grapple rules. 

Figure scale. War games are not designed for varying  figure scales: every miniature on the battlefield needs to  represent, for instance, 20 soldiers. A war-game fight between a lone  hero and a 20:1 army unit is usually wonky or impossible. On the other  hand, if every army is treated as an individual D&D monster, a  tenth-level fighter can battle on fairly even terms with a  troop representing 10 first level fighters, which can in turn  battle a troll or a unit of 36 goblins. 

Time scale. Most war games have realistic but D&D- incompatible turns of ten minutes or more. I'm sticking with D&D combat rounds. If a massive war is over within a few six- second rounds, that's fine with me. 

If anything, D&D-style fights can be too fast. To make it more likely that everyone gets a turn, I've added a special  rule in my army stat blocks, capping attack damage so that no  army can score a one-hit KO. This favors the underdog (and the  underdog is usually the PCs). Still, this is a special  exception and I wouldn't be surprised if it were unnecessary.

Leadership bonuses. Many war games assign static bonuses to  troops based on the abilities of their commanders. In a war game, which doesn't allow for referee discretion, this is the best  you can do. But in D&D, if a player delivers a speech and leads a charge, or  comes up with a clever scheme, the DM can assign appropriate  bonuses. The more the players act creatively, the more vivid  the scene will be - just as in a standard D&D fight. 

Spell rules. We do NOT want a Swords and Spells-style gloss on every spell describing its  interaction with armies. Here are my abstractions: 
1) Damage  spells ignore area of effect. An 8d6 fireball does 8d6 damage. 
2) "Condition" spells are all-or-nothing. If a Bless spell can  target all the members of an army, it operates normally.  Otherwise, it fails. 

Morale, flanking, setting ambushes, charging, fighting withdrawal, high ground, and every special case I haven't already mentioned. First and and Second Edition have explicit morale rules. In other editions, morale failure is by DM fiat.  If the local morale rules (or lack thereof) are good enough for  10 goblins at level 1, they're good enough for 100 goblins at  level 10. The same principle, "use existing combat rules", applies for flanking (present in 3e and 4e), charging (present in every edition but 5e) and so on.

Here are the stat-block templates I've used for turning any  creature into an army of any size. I've done first and fifth  editions (my current favorites).

Here's the first one--if you like it best send an email saying only FOOL in the subject heading to zakzsmith at hawtmayle dawt calm 

A Fool in Lovecraft Country

There is no single story as important to roleplaying games as H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and there is no single paragraph as important as the opening paragraph of the tale: 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This statement of theme is at the heart of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (which reprints this story) and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian horror. You see this statement in rules that drive PCs insane for learning about the Mythos and in countless published scenarios and campaigns that make it clear that any victory won over a cult or a monster is but a brief respite. Clearly that passage has captured the imagination not just of readers but of game designers as well with its depiction of toxic knowledge and comforting ignorance, and those inspired designers have created many excellent works of roleplaying horror, and yet, though I love and play many of those games, Lovecraft’s horror is not my horror.

To understand his horror requires understanding a little about him. Lovecraft, although not religious, was, in his words (in a letter to Maurice Woe in 1918), “Very much interested in the relation I bear to the things about me — the time relation, the space relation, and the causative relation.” Lovecraft thought highly of man’s curiosity, of “the acute, persistent, unquenchable craving TO KNOW [capitalization his].” Lovecraft lays out the case for the modernist view that man can, eventually, know everything. Although I think this point of view is naive, I also find it admirable, and like Lovecraft, I too am “interested in the relation I bear to the things about me.”

However, a few years later in 1923, Lovecraft had soured. He had this to say about Einstein’s counter-intuitive advances in physics: “My cynicism and skepticism are increasing, and from an entirely new cause — the Einstein theory […] There are no values in all infinity — the least idea that there are is the supreme mockery of all.” Reason and science, the tools he used to make sense of the world, had destroyed his sense of the universe. Better to retreat to the “safety of a new dark age.”

That betrayal of faith in modernity was felt by many of Lovecraft’s era. In addition to the chaos of science, they could point to the futile brutality of war, to the inability of medicine to combat a pandemic, to the helplessness of the elite who failed to maintain world order, and to the clergy whose explanations sounded more and more hollow.

This disillusionment, this betrayal, as profound as it was for Lovecraft and others, is not something I shared with Lovecraft. I first read him as a middle school gamer in the early 1980s, and what I read was not existential horror, not to me. Of course some situations were frightening and he created a dark, moody, atmosphere with his writing. But I never wanted the “safety of a new dark age.”I had already grappled with faith, belief, and atheism, and I came around to atheism, and I was the happier for it. 

I had considered Pascal’s wager: If believing in God costs nothing, and if belief in God is a prerequisite for a good afterlife and disbelief automatically sends you to Hell, then why not simply believe? What Pascal hadn’t counted on is that there many variants of “belief in God” but there is only one Hell, and so I saw his wager as a con: Someone is sending you to Hell, so I refused his wager, and was content with at least philosophical peace of mind. Unlike Lovecraft, I found comfort in the absurd universe that could kill me at any moment: At least I wouldn’t suffer forever. 

I envy those people who can feel in a Lovecraftian game or story the fear that the author tried to inspire in his readers, but I do not play those games because I feel a delightful frisson of fear when I play. Although I love Call of Cthulhu (and Delta Green), I play those games because the characters are the most heroic characters I know. They are saving the world, opposing an impossible evil, and the players, at least, “know” that it is a fool’s errand: “Well, Nyarlathotep will just get the world next time and your characters will die or go insane, so why bother?” Of course Nyarlathotep or some other dark god will walk the Earth one day, but the Earth will be swallowed by the sun one day too, and, in the meantime, the heroes who saved the world have bought its inhabitants another few years. And if according to the Talmud, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” how can you count the good (imaginary, I know, but also a good to aspire to) done by the heroic investigators in Call of Cthulhu?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Blindheim > Bullywug + Cambion, Heavy

Still redoing the monster manual...


Page 35 of the 5th ed Monster Manual brings us to the bullywug, a boring petting-zoo-people reskinned goblin which should not exist. They should be replaced with the blindheim, from the old Fiend Folio. It's a frog guy and it looks at you and you go blind because they looked so fucked up.

They are a kind of Slaad--the gods of frogs--and come in all sizes and kinds--any sufficiently pious frog or toad (they aren't biologically distinct) can be transformed into a blindheim via acts of consequential service to their kind.

There is one good detail in the 5e bullywug entry. So they hang out with trained frogs, including giant ones--this isn't the good detail, this is a stupid thing that D&D always does but decent fiction writers and films almost never do where they lump together similarly-derived zoomorphic monsters in a way that would appeal to like a toy collector but in practice only ends up diluting the effectiveness of the archetypal images involved--the good part is that they use the giant toads' gullets to carry stuff, including people. I'm gonna have goblins do that.


The Cambion in classic demonology is like a changeling baby but with succubusses (which is more fun to say than succubi). Ever since at least the original Monster Manual 2 it has always grown up to be yet another generic horned devilperson that can do things like charm or poke you with a spear.


Their conception is according to at least one source weird:

1. Succubus fucks guy, gets cum.

2. Succubus gives cum to incubus.

3. Incubus puts cum in human woman.

Between steps 1 and 2 and steps 2 and 3 there are several intriguingly tasteless adventure hooks or hentai plotlines. The only interesting thing I found in research about it after it's born is that it's extremely heavy.


Cambions are not found as adults--as adults they either become full-on demons or grow into tieflings (so you can have PCs whose "parents" are succubusses which is fun). As an encounter, what you get is a gross child between 1 second and 5 years old--generally a punishment for excessive lustfulness.

The Cambion has a fuckton of hit points (82, like it says in the book) and good AC (19, like it says in the book) it bites for like d8+4 damage with its creepy teeth but its main gimmick is heaviness.

It gets heavier the longer it's in one place or in contact with a given creature, and cannot move except of its own volition.

The goes in for the kid-grapple (I would say it charms you into a hug, but I already used that for lava babies)  crawls onto you, begins to bite, and each round grows heavier--the first round it requires a strength save of 18 to stay upright, then 20, then 22 etc. All the while it exerts pressure on the floor equal to an attack with a strength equal to the save--shattering wooden planks, then stone tile, until it begins to be so heavy it will actually pull you into the ground, through all the dungeons of the earth, and down to hell to meet its parents.

Monday, January 2, 2017

5th Edition Skills vs Old School Skills

5th edition D&D's skill list has always struck me as a pretty good list of the kinds of things characters try to do outside of combat, but a lot of old schoolers glaze over at any kind of skill-based system and I'm not sure I blame them. When I switch to AD&D from 5e I barely notice any layer of depth missing.

So: how do 5e skills compare to how the same activities would be handled in an old school game?

Perception--Oh boy--first one's the hardest. This is a case of old school being more micromanaged than the current edition. There's Hear Noise which just covers thieves saying "Hey I'm gonna stop and listen carefully", Find/Remove Traps and several different (usually racial) abilities to notice specific things like dwarves have a chance to notice odd stonework in certain editions, etc and then LotFP's Search which is the Specialist (Thief's) active "Look around" ability. There may also be buried away in the originally Unearthed Arcana or 2e some stuff about druids or rangers or barbarians noticing specific stuff but checking would require getting out of bed, which I refuse to do right now.

Popular semi- and unofficial ways old school would handle other aspects of this are:

-The classic "careful examination" which means the player describes that they look at it or turn it over or whatever (some modules include a time limit like "If examined for at least 3 minutes you notice there's a Potion of Gaseous Form hidden in the carpet").

-Wisdom check as a passive perception check

-Some modules would point out special noticeables by being like "A magic-user will immediately notice an eldritch energy in the air". Which gets into the thorny thing about how basically every knowledge or lore skill could be lowkey considered a perception skill if you think about it. (PS in Call of Cthulhu like half the things on that sheet are kinds of perception skills, and in Night's Black Agents even more.)

So what's better? One explicit reason for Perception being a skill in 5e was so that rogues/thieves could have better chances of noticing stuff than clerics. That makes more sense to me than the straight Wisdom check at least in dungeons (clerics are only wise in a non-niche non-technical environment). The hodge-podge of "notices" is just that: a hodge podge, and are hard to DM in a passive situation because you're like "Uh...who has a bonus to sense sloping corridors? No reason..." which leads to these only being used actively.

In practice, I tend to use a passive perception check a lot because:

-I want to convey the layers of information between "It's a stone room" and "Oh, you look at the chandelier? Well you see..." Often this is useless information on purpose that just is some setting stuff because I want to cram in as much detail as possible ("The architecture appears to the paladin to be Late-Decadent-Albino-Dogman").

-If you're doing like overland travel for hours it isn't practical or nice to be a straw old school hardass and go "Aaaand what are you doing the next minute?" for every minute of a journey, but at the same time you want to be able to ambush-murder players while still giving them a chance of a subtle clue first. Passive perception is good for that.

...so having that as an official thing is good. Getting rid of thief Hear Noise doesn't really lose you much, but I like the race and class-based ones, like dwarves notice stonework, elves hear stuff because pointy ears, etc. it's probably easy to be like "Ok, Plover gets advantage to this one"--which does take some effort on the part of the GM but no more than remembering Halfling's get a 2 in 6 to notice pie or whatever so I'm gonna say 5e gets it right on this one.

Athletics--Strength-based feats of physical prowess. In games like Runequest and 3e this would break down into like Swimming and Jumping but at that point it's a detail fetish--this is mostly just stuff old school would handle as a strength check and I'm good with that.

The only reason it's a skill in 5e is technical: so that strength-centric classes get the proficiency bonus to doing strengthy stuff and so are as good at those things as other classes are at their things--ie so that when the druid is extra-wise when looking at a tree, the barbarian is using the same probability math when trying to arm-wrestle.

In other games being good at sports and being strong might be worth hair-splitting about, but in D&D you can be pretty sure that's basically why they took you along.

This skill is a strange outcome of trying to do everything on the same die and on the same scale--skill checks (modifier plus skill bonus, which goes up as you increase in level) typically involve bigger numbers than ability checks (modifier only, which only goes up when the whole ability score goes up--which is often enough in 5e), so for simplicity's sake it's a way to make ability checks into skill checks. In practice it kinda doesn't matter though--see Persuasion/Deception below for an example of how this plays out.

Handling some stuff with broad ability checks and some stuff with training-oriented skill checks (with better math) is only hard once you got a bajillion skills because then the DM has to remember what all the skills are. This is a problem in like Chill 2e. In D&D there's not so many skills so I don't see why they tried to make all the math the same.

The only exception to the pointlessness of Athletics is climbing: Goats, monkeys and thief-types are supposed to be able to climb stuff without being very strong (this is a major point of skill systems: to have people be good at specific parts of things they aren't broadly good at. Like you need to be able to make an idiot who knows a lot of Dr Who trivia.) Old School handles this as its own (usually thief) skill, which makes sense in the more archetypal world of those games, but it works in 5e if you always handle climbing under...

Acrobatics--Agility-based feats of physical prowess. Old school games would handle this with a dex check and--again--it's basically just here to give Dex-centric classes a proficiency bonus to the kinds of things their class does. Outside that technical reason, the only good reason for Acrobatics is it's a place to put climbing (dodging is handled with saving throws).

Sleight of Hand--Gary thought it mattered a lot that while you had a 3 in 10 chance of Picking Pockets, you only had a 2.5 in 10 chance of Opening Locks and a 2 in 10 chance of Removing Traps but he was the only person in RPGs ever to think that. As a long-time AD&D thief player I can definitively say the father of role-playing games was full of shit wrong because what you really have until like 7th level is a really good chance of dying if you try any of those things and many retroclones agree--Lotfp bundles these skills as Delicate Tasks or whatnot. Old School and 5e are almost identical on this score.

This also points to the other reason for skill systems at least in D&D--creating things that only well-trained people can do, but that also (unlike ability checks) you get better at as you level.

Stealth--The Artist Formerly Known As Move Silently and Hide In Shadows and another fine example of pointless Gygaxian 5% difference hairsplitting and another example where LotFP uses the same skill--this time calling it the same name--Stealth.

Arcana--This is the wizard's equivalent of Athletics--the skill they get to represent their smartness is especially wizardy smartness and just balances out the math so they are as good at their thing as the thief is at theirs. (Obviously skills like this also let you build PCs with off-class skillsets like a scholarly thief, an undeniable perk of newer games if you are into that.) In old school you'd just have this be an Int check only wizard-types could do, which....works fine.

History--Old school doesn't have this and as a guy who has literally hundreds of pages of stuff he wrote about his stupid D&D world I like it. It's a nice way to throw useful info and red herrings at my players. Can't think of a lot of reasons for it not to be something any character with a high Int could do, though.

LotFP has Architecture, which overlaps with this but is less useful if you're looking at a chalice and more useful if you're looking for hidden rooms, but then that pokes in on Search.

Some old modules handle this kind of thing as "PCs from Greendale have a chance to notice that..." which is pretty easy to implement.

Investigate--I hate this skill. 90% of the uses for it overlap with stuff I want to rig so the players can try to figure it out themselves ("The corpse looks like it was killed from behind by a bunch of needles and there's some pinholes in the wall, so..."). I have to work to find ways to not cheat players who got proficiency in this out of their 2 points worth of D&D and probably so does every other old-school-minded GM.

Arguably it is also trying to be for Intelligence what Athletics is for strength--the skill that balances out the math. It can fuck right off.

Nature--What rangers and druids have in common (and some barbarians). This is a good new skill because it covers things those classes should be able to do at a level better than someone else of equivalent Int. In Old School systems which have rangers and druids this is broken down into stuff like Identify Plants and whatnot which so far as I can see confers no important playable benefit. Good job 5e.

Religion--Looks at first like a math-balancing cleric equivalent of Athletics (for fighters) and Arcana (for wizards) but it isn't for two reasons.

First: a lot of the time this applies to other peoples' religions, like Iceblood Orcs of the Fuckwastes. So this is not just about how to be a priest but identifying a broad swath of the culture going on in your gameworld (presumably because it's heretical and needs to be annihilated).

Second: it's Intelligence-based and clerics are supposed to be good at Wisdom, so the idea here is that knowledge of scripture and holy lore (especially other peoples') are secondary skills for a cleric, which makes sense. A D&D cleric is not necessarily so much a scholar as an armed zealot.

Old school would typically handle this with an int check that only clerics could do, which loses a shade of subtlety, but maybe not enough to matter.

Animal handling--Arguably part of druid and ranger (and for horses, paladin) skillsets in AD&D 1e but basically new. This is my favorite 5e skill: it's something that comes up a lot (in and out of combat), it defines a medieval world, it makes sense for a variety of classes to have it (it's one of the fighter options because: horses and guard dogs), and ladies love it.

Insight--Telling if people are lying, mostly--plus other interpersonal details the GM might not want to trust to his or her acting ability. The most proximate ancestor is Call of Cthulhu's Psychology skill but old school you could handle this with a Wisdom check, and Wisdom without this is barely Wisdom.

Medicine--An odd one. Somebody smart pointed out that there are very few uses for this skill, rules-as-written. Old school has no skill here, although various Death and Dismemberment tables allow an Int check to help an injured PC in some cases. I put it on my 5e one to give it some more use.

But in the end, even if you rewrite the rule so magic healing doesn't do all it could do and more--do you need a niche for someone who is better at medicine than they are at general Int-oriented tasks? Might be a pointless skill.

Survival--The other thing rangers and druids (and some barbarians) are supposed to be good at, and which AD&D handles kind of scattershot in the abilities for those classes. It makes sense to bundle hunting, tracking, fishing, etc in one skill and it makes sense that a ranger can be wiser when hunting than they are about offering advice. I also like the idea that a druid who takes this skill is typically better at it than a ranger of the same level (better wisdom) because they just like disappear at camp-setting-up time and come back with a pile of dead warthogs like what?

This plus Nature would be identical to the LotFP specialist's Bushcraft though serving a slightly different purpose since there are no rangers or druids in that game.  Ok.

Performance--Old school would handle this as a dex or charisma check (could also see an argument for sleight of hand). It could be argued that if you do that you lose the ability to differentiate a trained musician from a gymnast holding a mandolin but I can't think of any reason any sane person would care in a D&D game. PS still fuck bards.

Intimidation--Surprisingly useful in that it often does what a reaction check does in old school. It is a little weird though because intimidation capacity seems more a function of charisma plus how big, scary or well-armed you look rather than charisma plus a special skill plus level. It's not a skill in old school, but would be derived on a case-by-case basis from those factors. And if it's a matter of looking more dangerous than you are then that seems like a species of Deception?

But then again there's that issue of Daredevil where DD is missing and the Human Torch (who can set things on fire by looking at them) has to take his place as urban vigilante and sucks at it because none of the lowlifes or hoods believe he'll light them up. So maybe Intimidation needs to be a skill. Convince me?

Persuasion--This is just straight up a skill that exists so charisma checks can use the same math as strength checks boosted by athletics etc. Old school would just use charisma. However...

Deception--Well there's charisma as clerics use it and charisma as thieves use it. Fair enough. Old school does not make this distinction at all, though it is meaningful.

Here's a weird result: if they didn't include Persuasion as a skill and just relied on Charisma, yet Deception was a skill, then that would mean that after a few levels you would always be better off lying to someone than telling the truth. At least in the abstract--realistically the GM would/should simply set the DC of convincing someone by lying higher than by telling the truth.
So altogether we've got:

1. Reorganized thief/rogue/specialist skills (Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth)--these are by most measures just more useful than their old school counterparts and there are less of them, so definitely a vote here for 5e solely on the grounds of simplifying life.

2. Reorganized ranger/druid/maybe barbarian skills (Nature, Survival)--as thief skills, these are a clear improvement because they're simpler than their old versions without losing depth.

3. Skills made necessary by the system math (Athletics, Arcana, Persuasion, Insight) You're not missing much by excluding these from old school play, except the ability to make your PC less archetypal on paper (cleric who is a witch hunter so knows a thing or two about Arcana, for instance)--but you knew that when you decided to roll old school.

4. Borderline, arguably useful depending on the campaign/rulings but could probably be absorbed into parent ability with no big loss (Performance could be assigned to dex or charisma the few times it comes up in a properly bardless campaign, Medicine, History and Religion can be Int).

5. Total abomination (Investigation)

6. Oddball thing I'm not sure should work like other skills do (Intimidation)

7. Genuinely clarifying or adding new level of detail to the game (Animal Handling, Deception, Perception)

My overall verdict is no matter how you slice it, old school games have some weird problems around noticing shit and 5e has players making a few more choices during character creation than they probably need to.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Name Is God (I Hate You)

The real world has no genre. Stuff happens in whatever order for pinball reasons. Not so D&D.

I'm imagining a cleric or philosopher inside the game world who accurately discovers the broad metaphysical rules upon which events in their life (and the lives of their companions) are based. Not at the level of every digit of armor class, but the correct assumptions that would eventually lead those born after this little Leibniz to something like accurate-in-D&D science.

More difficult is figuring out the priority of these rules--which ones take precedence over others. I was myself surprised to find there was a priority and it was rigid.

When all gamed out, the philosopher's laws also function as a description of GMing style, and a guide to nervous players (I have no nervous players, but I can imagine them) about what to expect when they play.

I think it's probably a good idea for DMs to think about what their own world's rules would be from this POV, but I've been doing ok without it until last week so maybe not urgent?

Here they are:

1. Law of Negated Aesthetics--The Creator of All Things has certain images and events of which he does not approve and these can never occur. This is the only Law which overrides the Law of Consistency below--for example, no-one ever wears sandals, despite the fact the law of consistency suggests you might be able to make them, goblins may fill pig-carcasses with lighter-than-air gas and thereby float but there is no way to make a full-sized blimp for the creator does not approve of blimps (nor does he approve of, for another example, gunpowder--though sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter strangely usually do what they would otherwise outside a gunpowder-making context). It also overrides all other Laws. Note this Law is total--things can happen or can't. There is a never a situation (say, trying to jump a chasm and jumping a distance related to your strength) which can happen sometimes but other times is aesthetically negated. This and Law 7 are the most complex laws and detailing them completely would require knowledge of the tastes of the Creator to a level of detail perhaps even he is unaware of.

2. Law of Consistency--The rules by which the universe operates are consistent and do not change. This overrides the Law of Free Will and all other Laws below so, for instance, I cannot travel to a town that has been destroyed by a marauding skyfortress even if I choose to and want to on account of my free will.

3. Law of Free Will--I may do whatever I like within the bounds of my abilities. This overrides the Law of Plural Solutions and all other Laws below so, for instance: if I build a dungeon and lock my foe inside it, I can create a puzzle that can only be escaped with one key.

4. Law of Plural Solutions--Challenges will be solveable in more than one way. Also: the Creator is not omniscient and there may be solutions the Creator has not imagined. This overrides the Law of Challenge and all other Laws below so that if I imagine a solution to a challenge that the Creator has not imagined, the challenge may cease to be difficult.

5. Law of Challenge--Life will be characterized by difficult challenges in need of urgent solution. This Law overrides the Law of Variety and all other Laws below so that, for example, if fighting 5 goblins in a row (lack of variety) would present a challenge not provided by fighting 1, this event can occur.

6. Law of Variety--Situations and things encountered will tend to be various. This overrides the Law of Posited Aesthetics, so if I just saw a wolf running across the snow last week I am less likely to see one this week despite the creator's fondness for said wolves.

7. Law of Posited Aesthetics--The Creator Of All Things has certain images of which he is fond (wolves in snow, ruined towers, beautiful women, decapitation, etc). These things will tend to appear and the world is made entirely of things that resemble them unless it violates a higher law (it logically can and will never conflict with Law 1, however, as the Creator cannot simultaneously like and dislike the same image).

The laws (like most good science) predict answers to questions.

Let's say there's a beautiful desert and the wizard casts what's supposed to be a permanent frost spell on it. Will it stay there or will some agent remove the frost? Well: the only thing that supports the desert's existence is the Law of Posited Aesthetics (the creator likes the beautiful desert), which has less priority than the Law of Consistency, so the spell will work as normal, so long as the creator is cool with frost (ie not violating the Law of Negated Aesthetics)--and the creator is or it wouldn't have been possible to create frost in the first place.

Can I ride a rhino at first level? Well this would be cool (7th Law) but would remove a lot of challenges (3rd Law). Oh well.

The main problem for the philosopher is that Law # 1 covers so much unknown ground and is so powerful it can kibosh any other prediction. Though they can take comfort in knowing it does come into play relatively rarely.
Another thing the DM can do is run through the laws in reverse to write an adventure.

Posit a cool image (Crooked witch house)
Add variety (It's actually 10 variations on a kitchen inside)
Add challenge (The witch prepares contact poisons in the kitchens)
Make sure the challenges have multiple solutions (In addition to avoiding them, there are antidotes and recipes)
Make sure the players have choices they can make (Different kitchens are clearly laid out as containing more valuable recipes but also more dangerous poisons)
Make sure it all makes sense together (Check the area of the map that the witch house is in to make sure it makes sense as being there and either has plausible connections to what's around it or plausible reasons not to have them)
Make sure nothing gauche is implied (Maybe draw the witches so that nobody thinks they're wearing basic burlap or anything).

Monday, December 26, 2016

This Is Some Kind Of Milestone of Something

The mainstreaming of D&D continues: 5th edition is still selling like hotcakes, comedians-playing-D&D shows proliferate, properties like Skyrim and Game of Thrones and the Hobbit movies grab from it openly, and the boardgame explosion is dragging RPG properties behind.

On another front--I know DIY D&D was definitely making things weird and tryhard enough that it was possible to write the words She seems to be able to traverse any kind of theme and terrain and wield them together into an assemblage that dwells in the interstitial state between dreams and our darkest waking places, a kind of laughter derived from shock of the new. For fans of Lars von Trier, Anne Carson, Kobo Abe, and Amy Hempel in one part of an article while mentioning a Dungeons & Dragons book in another part of the same article.

I just didn't know the D&D in question would be ours.

Maze of the Blue Medusa made Vice's top 22 of 2016:

MotBM is a full-color dungeon game book designed to be played as a tabletop RPG. But, to me, it's a kind of encyclopedic novel you could spend forever just flipping open, staring, searching out the impossible combination to its labyrinthine lock.

Read the full piece here. EDIT: Somebody Reddited it here if you do Reddit.

Pretty neat--I always hoped people who knew fuck-all about the game would still be able to see the weird paraliterary part of our RPG books, it's cool to see my guess was right. Merry Christmas to us and hey buy one.


Thursday, December 22, 2016



Raise your hand if you considered these things as a teenager--and raise both if you came to some conclusion about them that you still hold:

-What are the differences between a terrorist and a postcolonial freedom fighter engaged in asymmetric warfare against an occupying power? Are there any? How do we decide which a person is?

-Are (relative) peace and order worth oppression? How much?

-Is it ok to enslave robots that have personalities and what looks to be free will?

-What's up with the Eichmann "banality of evil" thing? Can you be bad for just doing your job?

I bet there's a fuckton of hands up right now, and not even just from the kids who always sharked straight for the Isaac Asimov at book-fair time. These are commonplace moral questions of the kind everyone born in the mental atmosphere since mid last-century has had opportunity to think about--and they feature prominently in many entertainments that teenagers might watch (for example, the third one is in Blade Runner, the last is in fucking Clerks, and they all sound like questions that'd be asked in random Star Treks--especially if it was a Wesley episode.)

In 2016, these questions (and things like "is reality real or am I a brain in a jar?", "is gay stuff ok?", "is there a god?" etc) are teenagery questions. This is not to say these questions aren't important: they need answers and very often adult action or legislation hinges on some of the answers and often adults give the wrong answers--but generally they only become difficult in non-fictional contexts when specific realworld identifiable personal interests are stake (like: "Spreading feminism is good, but invading countries is bad--do these priorities conflict in Afghanistan?""I just dropped a lotttt of acid--how much of reality can I epistemologically verify right now on this roof?").

The bullet-pointed questions, outside specific real-world iterations, are so basic they shouldn't make adults think. An adult thinking about these things would be like a teenager thinking about how to get socks on.


...yet somehow we still see the myth that Thought Provoking And Grown Up media "explore" these kinds of questions (to some undefined degree of exploredness) in their made-up worlds.

A typical example of the abuse of these terms appears, with some Rogue One spoilers, here.

The concepts of "grown-up" vs "adolescent" art--and related dichotomies like "mere entertainment" vs "makes you think" and "shallow" and "deep"--are as leaned-upon as they are vaguely-defined. "Thought-provoking" is usually used by critics to describe a work's attempt to communicate to other people the critic conceives of as less intelligent than the author that they should think about some things the critic already has long ago made their mind up about. The reader of such criticism often gets the feeling the critic wishes the world would catch up to the artwork--but what's noble in that sentiment is buried under the self-deception of pretending the art is doing work that it isn't.

This is why RPGs like Dogs In the Vineyard are alleged (by fans, not always the authors) to be more grown-up or thoughtful than D&D even though questions like "Is being a religious fascist ok?" and "Is cheating on your wife in the wild west ok?" are not actually remotely grown-up moral questions. Are there adults who would play Night Witches who were sexist before and decided not to be after?

Not only does the description of an artwork as "thought-provoking" etc often not actually involve the thing having provoked the speaker to have new useful thoughts, it's an expression of basically the opposite: the work, if anything, entrenches the critic further in their pre-existing beliefs.

Fascination Creates Content

Does that mean creating truly thought-provoking art is impossible? No. Or, at least it's no harder than making good art.

Here's a fact: how much artworks can say is largely an issue of how many questions you ask them.

There are people who read about King Arthur as a child or see a film of Hamlet as a teen and enjoy them, maybe think a little, maybe get a little, then move on. Then there are people who keep asking these artworks things their whole lives--and keep getting useful answers. TH White asks the King Arthur story some childlike questions in Sword And The Stone (People get turned into animals? What would it be like to be turned into a bird?) and some very grown-up ones in later books (What would it be like to actually be the Lancelot described in the poems--a man who combines total nobility, immense capacity for violence and sexual dishonesty? Is that even a real personality?).

I'm going to go ahead and say there's no evidence this interrogatibility isn't true about any stupid thing you like. Because the mere fact that an art object fascinates you when others superficially similar do not tells you that it is hooking into something in your unique psychology. If you like the old Power Puff Girls but not the new Power Puff Girls and you think about Power Puff Girls every day even as a grown up than Power Puff Girls is talking to you, telling you about sensibilities, sensitivities, subliminal appeals that no other tool could articulate to you.

The amount of content a work of art has for any given audience member is always at least as large as the degree to which that audience member is fascinated with it. The fan who claims Ulysses has all the answers to the universe in it is right--but so is the fan who claims Ulysses 31 does. The main reason there are less of the second guy is because Ulysses was trying to do that. But a thing's desire that we should be fascinated is never necessary or sufficient to make it so.

This is because anyone's fascination is an index of mysteries unsolved to their unique human psychology. There is no such thing as empty appeal or "mere entertainment"--this is just a device critics use to hold their enjoyment at arm's length to avoid asking themselves why something in them they can't account for still wants to see lasers and swords move in this way rather than that way.

Calling lasers and swords (and mean girls and make-up and prom) or anything else that is entertaining you, an adult, "adolescent" is cheap--because if, as an adult, you keep asking lasers and swords grown-up questions, you will keep getting grown-up answers. I asked rocket cats questions once.

Everything Can Be Adult

I read TH White's Once & Future King as a kid and didn't really get a lot of the stuff about the adults. I read it--and enjoyed it--as just descriptions of some people. What I didn't have is the recognitions--Oh, that feeling. Oh, that kind of guy, that kind of girl. 

This, rather than any attempt in fiction to focus attention on ethical dilemmas, is probably the most exclusively adult kind of art-moment: seeing things and having them remind you of things and times gone away. This is why, stereotypically, the older people are the more likely they are to cry--everything reminds them of something.

White's book has:

-kid+adolescent+grown-up content (pretending to be a bird, knights fighting)
-adolescent+grown-up content (the jokes and subtle inversions in the dialogue)
-grown-up-only content (the wistful, compromised emotional politics in the court).

I'd hesitate to be so vague as to call that content deep. Like "problematic", it's a word people use when they're afraid being pinned down to specifics would embarrass them. I'd say simply that part of White spoke to experiences I had because I'm an adult, with no value judgment beyond saying certain parts of the Big Lebowski speak to experiences I've had because I'm a nihilist porn actor who lives in Los Angeles.

Some Things Are Only Adult

After Rogue One (which ruled, btw), I saw an unimpeachably grown-up movie about people in the real world where everyone was going to a funeral and an old song started to play and it felt distant and melancholy. I was reminded of things I'd been through and the song kept playing in my head for hours. I definitely was provoked to think--about people and about time.

The film was the kind that tried to build itself largely out of grown-up-only content. You can do that: you can make good things for grown-ups that kids can't get anything out of (and people should, and they are not discussed enough in places like D&D blogs) but you can't do the opposite unless you get down to the level of like Barney and Sesame Street. As soon as you get up to 6 or 7 years old--say Spongebob or Duck Tales--you're back to things some adult somewhere can productively obsess about ("Scrooge McDuck As Avatar of the Imperial-Heroic" etc).

Finding Meaning In Art Is Like Finding Geology In the Ground

I don't think you can be provoked to think by design. I think you can be persuaded to think, but only using the same tools with which you can be persuaded to play at all: by finding something so beautiful and fascinating and fun that you choose, in quiet moments, to think about the thing rather than be separated from it. If you wake up thinking about Overwatch and you go to sleep thinking about Overwatch then eventually, if you're a thinker, you will start thinking about Overwatch.

Finding meaning in any art is like finding geology in any ground--you dig, you'll get it. Fictions don't explore issues--people explore fictions and then find issues there. When you invest hard enough you get an inevitability: the evidence left when complete, complicated humans contrive to find new ways to speak to as-yet-untapped parts of other complete, complicated humans.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Stay In Your Lane

I assume readers know evolution is not a conspiracy. You start out with a small tree shrew and—through nothing other than the pressure to survive in various environments—you end up with a giraffe whose neck gets ever longer and a panda whose color gets ever starker and who becomes increasingly intolerant of anything but bamboo.

Complex environments create specialists, and the longer these environments are stable, the more stereotyped the specialists are pressured to become. That’s why Bertrand Russell was able to write:
The reign of Augustus was a period of happiness for the Roman Empire…Augustus, for the sake of stability, set to work, somewhat insincerely, to restore ancient piety, and was therefore necessarily rather hostile to free inquiry. The Roman world began to become stereotyped, and the process continued under later emperors.

…so when I say “capitalism wants” I am no more talking about a conspiracy than when I use the shorthand “evolution wants”.

All kinds of people are born—always—but the pressure to survive while being that kind of person (plus the lessons their parents impress on them because they themselves had had to survive while being whatever kind of people they were) push people in each field toward personality types that can survive in their environment.

Considering, for instance, the world is going to keep producing artists, what kind of shape does early 21st-century capitalism want them in?

It needs them to go to school, for two reasons:

-the examples of earlier artists are always available (and often in the public domain), so in order to make anything broadly competitive saleable to a public whose main reliable taste is for technical expertise a decent chunk of them must have access to the means of acquiring it

-as we now expect technology will advance continuously, we like our artists to be conversant with it, as marrying the artist to new technology produces novelty—the other thing the public reliably likes—plus enables our artists to be able to talk to our advertisers, with whom they exist in a symbiotic relationship.

Capitalism wants artists’ talents and ideas because they can be used to sell things, capitalism wants artists to have a liberal education so they can steal ideas from all the world's culture. Capitalism would like to meet artists at parties—where the artist can simultaneously entertain the capitalist and can be introduced to patrons in an informal setting outside the recorded and legalized confines of the application process (where there are difficult questions concerning how many people of what kind you're taking applications from)--so it wants artists to throw parties, or at least go to them, and so be at least social enough to handle that. What it doesn’t want is artists who have money (artists are creative, so if you give them money they won’t necessarily invest in things and hire people to make more money, they might just spend it on firecrackers and beanbag chairs) or power (artists are nearly by definition people with unpredictable and radical ideas, and capitalism wants stable or at least controllable governance) or who are taken seriously outside the world of entertainment (unpredictable ideas plus the ability to communicate=trouble).

And, lo-and-behold, what kind of personality types do we get? “Artists are crazy,” “Artists are flakes,” “Guitarists are drug addicts,” “He’s a genius behind the piano but in real life he was a disaster”, etc. etc. Lovable but "unstable". You'd never vote for an artist.

Are these myths promoted to keep them in their place? Or descriptions of the personality-types that the institutions and conditions most favorable to survival produce? If, like lawyers, artists had art firms come around their studios around graduation time and offer them jobs they could keep for life we might well have a very different stereotype of them. Or maybe not. Whether chicken or egg isn’t actually important to my point, the point is however artists got there, capitalism has exactly no incentive to change their position. They have them right where they want them: always unstable, always vulnerable, always available.
The etymology of the word “nerd” goes back to 1950.

This makes perfect sense: a great war had just been decided through the use of weapons that had been unimagined (and in some cases had been unimaginable) during the war just before it. We were buying cars, we were about to have a space race. We did not know what the future would bring, but we knew we needed minders of machines and the mechanized bureaucratic instruments they enable. We put money into manufacturing these people on an industrial scale.

Just as The Art Student (nipple ring, blue hair, Starbucks job, campus-rock music taste, earnest and pointless politics, flake spirituality) is something that capitalism has done to its artists and the Jock (etymology: 1963) is something capitalism has done to its athletes and physically capable people, “nerd” is something that capitalism has done to its intellectuals.

“Intellectual” has two common definitions—the first is the kind of person you hear getting interviewed on NPR about a Big Idea, the second, used by people like Marx, is any kind of economic actor who gets paid to do brainstuff rather than hard labor, like a plumbing engineer. The point of "Nerd" is to keep these two kinds of intellectuals separate, because together they are fucking dangerous. When Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing Black Panther comics and demanding reparations after documenting decades of housing discrimination?--capitalism does not want that shit.

You, reading this, may very well work only with your brain for a living. You're probably too smart to go around calling yourself an intellectual--you know you'd get punched. But you call yourself a nerd? That's fine. That's adorable. Let me buy you a drink.

That's because the word ‘nerd’ and all the ideas around it are epiphenomena of anti-intellectualism. Troll culture is what you get when Nerd is shorn of any trace of intellectualism, and is, like all bullying, ultimately about enforcing existing social roles: If, in the middle of a discussion of a supremely nerdy subject, you bring up a creative imperative, you’re Pretentious, if you out-nerd the nerd you’re Aspie, if you display any awareness of the wider world, you’re reminded you’re just a nerd discussing a nerd thing in a nerd place. Be a middlebrow minder of machines, be quiet and uncharismatic and if you have to dream, dream only unreachably escapist and irrelevant dreams and if you have to fight, fight only with other nerds about those dreams and with no-one by your side. If 'Nerd' is the defanged intellectual, "troll" is the intellectual as collaborator, as kapo. And, like the kapo, they are betraying the only culture that could ever value their real assets.

Back in the day, under a different kind of ruling class than we have now, the kings and emperors knew that if they could just keep the smart people arguing which each other about whether Christ had one soul or three, they wouldn’t have much to worry about. That's why, when a smart person invented monks, they decided to keep them around--and make sure they kept wearing burlap sacks and having shitty haircuts. When the monks started growing pea plants and getting ideas about genetics and fucking nuns it was time to dream up new roles for them. Feudalism needed scholars, but not thinkers.

Capitalism needs smart and well-educated specialists who know how to teach machines to do new tricks. What it doesn’t need is more guys in the office charming or aggressive or relatable enough to compete for their management jobs. It doesn’t need to meet them at parties (they can just apply, it’s more efficient), it doesn’t need them to reproduce (their skills are considered transferrable through formal education rather than culture and parenting), it doesn’t want them rich or brave (a nerd who doesn’t need a new job after the one they’re quitting can do things to your machines that destroy you forever), it doesn’t need them broadly culturally educated (just make the fucking printer work, ok?).

For an example of how this works in practice, Wesley Yang does a good job here of describing what it's like for many high-achieving tiger-parented Asian-americans who feel like all their education has done is polish them into ideal cogs for managerial types to install and ignore: "An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people 'who are good at math' and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.".

Nerds (or, rather: the intellectuals that late-stage-postindustrial capitalism would like to turn into mere “nerds”), like art students, aren’t actually that stupid. Anyone with a brain can do more (probably needs to do more) with it than crunch numbers and make bad jokes. And the nerds created, despite the wider economy’s—at best—apathy and—at worst—hostility to the idea, a culture. Gary Gygax going from adjusting insurance to working with Dave Arneson to invent a game about elves fighting demons is just about as pure an example of that culture as we get. The game drew on a knowledge of a rich literature that had developed completely independently of the mainstream of American literary culture; a culture that had vociferously argued, not coincidentally, the year before about whether to give Gravity’s Rainbow—an undeniably literary literary novel that only a Naval engineer with stacks of pulp novels in his garage could’ve produced—a Nobel prize. Both Gygax and Pynchon (born a year apart) were part of the first generation old enough to be called "nerds" as teenagers, had gotten nerd jobs to survive about as soon as they could and--about 20 years later, managed to make things that built on the would-be disposable culture they loved and the technocratic esoteric they'd been stuffed full of.

D&D, like Gravity’s Rainbow, was an assertion that the nerd had something to teach the art student—and a hint that maybe they both could push past roles that they were being asked to fill and just be smart people.

This is a terrible revelation—because it suggests maybe if you stop accepting You’re just a…(whatever) you might suddenly have responsibilities. You might be capable of things you’ve been neglecting. You might be expected to compete on a wider field than just how fast you can get that Naruto reference in or cite the figure that backs up the opinion everyone you know already has. You might’ve been slacking off all this time.

It is ok to be awkward or afraid or unable to relate to people outside the narrow world of your hobbies and tastes—but it isn’t ok to fail to recognize those things as limitations—and ones that the world outside you has encouraged and will continue to encourage. This was not done to protect you from the world--it was done to protect the world from you.