Wednesday, 8 April 2020

On Kings Versus Chiefs and the Meaning of Words

When I was a university student I read a lot of Richard Hakluyt, a 16th century English writer who chronicled the early English exploration of North America, as well as journeys to many other parts of the globe, often through interviewing eyewitnesses. I don't remember his works in any great detail, because this is now 20 years ago, over half a lifetime, and while his major works are on Project Gutenberg (apart from the one that I spent the most time on, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of All by Our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons), most of them are sadly practically unreadable because the (extensive) footnotes are integrated into the body of the text.

What I do remember was the, to us, charming eccentricity of 16th century English. Nowadays we refer to Native American chiefs as, well, chiefs. But Hakluyt called them 'kings'. This small difference in terminology makes a big difference to how the reader conceptualises things. Think of a 'chief' and you picture the head of a small, fairly disorganised and informal tribal group. Think of a 'king' and there's an organised, formal kingdom with the trappings of sovereignty. I'll leave the critical interpretation of the shift in how the leaders of Native American polities were referred to from 'king' to 'chief' to the historians - the implications are obvious to anybody who thinks about it for five seconds. I'm interested here in the lesson this holds for RPGs.

It's common to refer, for example, to orc, or kobold, or goblin (or whatever) leaders as 'chiefs'. Things change when, instead, you start talking about them as 'kings'. Or, for that matter, as kritarchs or oligarchs or theocrats. Just a simple change to a single word results in a significant change in the way one thinks of the underlying society. A kobold chief is the boss of an unruly gang of disorganised kobolds. A kobold oligarch is something else. And this isn't just true for the terms one uses for rulers. A society that has orc 'shamans' is one thing. One which has orc 'priests' is another. There are societies which make goblin shamans, and there are those which produce goblin wizards. They are not the same.

Of course, you can also come at this issue from the opposite angle. You generally get elf lords, kings, wizards and priests. An elf 'chief' suggests something else entirely. Not to mention a dwarf 'shaman'.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The Implied Appendix N

I expect most of the people reading this blog know what Appendix N is. It has tended in my experience of reading blogs, forums and so on to have been reduced to a kind of canonical list of influences on Gygax when he was creating AD&D 1st edition. Gygax obviously never intended it to be that way, and in his own framing of his list, his love for those authors and works was built on a foundation formed from the stories his father told him as a child, comic books, movies, fairy tales, and books of mythology and bestiaries.

In other words, the Appendix N 'canon' has to be understood as floating on a great sea of fantastically-oriented cultural products with its far shore in the very ancient past, and which probably informs D&D just as much if not more than its purportedly direct influences.

I think of this as the 'implied Appendix N' - the vast ocean of stuff from which the Appendix N books, and hence the many implied settings of D&D, emerge, like clumsy early quadraped things from a Devonian vista. What I mean to say is: Gygax had his direct and explicitly-acknowledged inspirations, but those inspirations were part of a milieu of gargantuan scope and which had great implicit influence on what D&D came to be.

One of the fields of literature which I think undoubtedly influenced Gygax (and Arneson and the rest, of course), probably more than he knew, was that swathe of belle epoque SF and 'boy's own' adventure stories that in my head begins with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and ends somewhere around the publication of The Hobbit (1937). This was a truly astonishing era, responsible for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), Sir H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), HG Wells' The Time Machine (1895), perhaps even Machen's "The White People" (1904), and many, many other bona fide classics with which you will undoubtedly be familiar; what interests me about so many of these books is that, as well as being great things in their own right, they also sort of comprise the building blocks of what D&D is all about.

You have adventuring in search of treasure (Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines); you have dungeon exploration (King Solomon's Mines again, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Pellucidar' books); you have wilderness exploration leading to exotic weirdness (The Lost World, The Land That Time Forgot); evil humanoids living below the earth (The Time Machine); sinister cults and black magic ("The White People", The Great God Pan, The King in Yellow); and most of all you have daring and derring-do performed by atomised individuals, usually 'men without pasts', who, lacking families or relationships or geographic ties, seem to appear just like D&D PCs, from the ether, to pursue their goals.

Many of these novels read like they could be mid-period TSR adventure modules, the only difference being that they tend to be plotted around one protagonist rather than a group of PCs. The classic example of this in my mind is HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau; you could practically run the novel as a mini-campaign of three or so sessions if you didn't mind a bit of railroading. The PCs are shipwrecked on a mysterious island owned by an eccentric wizard who has some odd-looking servants, and go from there. And many of the great novels of that era are of the same ilk.

What TSR-era D&D and the novels of that era also share in common is an innocent sort of optimistic, diet/caffeine-free machismo: TSR D&D PCs, like Wells or Verne or Doyle protagonists, are active and energetic sorts who believe in action and making the best of things - that where there's a will there's a way, and that to a certain extent one makes one's own luck in life. They get on with it. There is something appealing and refreshing (in an era of sensitive and moody anti-heroes) about that willingness to just get up and go off on an adventure which I see write large on the fiction of those days and the 'vibe' of D&D in its formative stages.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Real World is Weird Enough/Getting the Band Back Together - Ryuutama AP, Pt 1

Last night I sat down virtually with Patrick Stuart, Nate and David W to play Ryuutama.

At one time this was a real-life weekly gaming group - we played campaigns of Apocalypse World, Cyberpunk 2020, D&D/Yoon-Suin, and a heck of a lot of one-shots and story games, many of which I can no longer remember (although Microscope and In a Wicked Age were certainly two of them). We continued to play Pendragon and D&D 5e for some years online, but had not really sat down to game a great deal together since, I would say, 2015 or 2016. It was great to get the band back together.

I was indeed going to use that phrase as the title for the campaign, but I also liked what Patrick said when discussing whether to play Ryuutama straight (as whimsical, charmingly bucolic occidental fantasy akin to the setting of Secret of Mana), or "weird". As he put it, the real world is weird enough. Rightly or wrongly - I won't venture into the debate here - the UK is now effectively a police state and the population is under indefinite curfew. These are not normal times.

That said, things got weird fast - within less than 5 minutes, in fact. But whatever. Here's an AP report:

The World

Ryuutama lets the players create the world together. Yes, it's that sort of game. But I generally enjoy that kind of thing. The world we created is called Xoft (some Vance with your Ryuutama, sir?). It is carried on the back of a giant horned frog swimming in the cosmic ocean, and bears the scars of great floods from when the frog last submerged itself beneath the waves. One of the horns - possibly both - houses a vast city whose people regularly make war against those living on the plains on the frog's back. Recently, a pangolin-shaped meteorite flew across the night sky and, afterwards, giant tadpoles wriggled up from below the earth, as though emerging from the frog's back like a Suriname toad. There is also a problem of dessertification and a 'dinotopia' of semi-intelligent dinosaurs with human companions.

Yeah, not exactly what I think of when somebody says "charming occidental bucolic fantasy", but there's already plenty I know I can get my teeth into.

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man
Ogesana Fall is the leader, partly because he is a noble, and partly because he insisted on it.

What Happened

The PCs began in Hebron Hill, the beginning of their voyage of exploration, which all people on Xoft traditionally do at least once in their lives. The nature of the world is such that each town exists somewhat in isolation due to "reasons", which means nobody really knows anything about other settlements elsewhere on the vast expanse of the frog's back. Voyages of exploration take place to find out, but each such voyage is paradoxically also different from all the others.

It was raining when they set off, and this had the effect almost straight away of weakening Jojo and Kestrel from the sapping effects of the cold and damp.

The PCs decided to get out of the rain. They knew that due north were mountains, north-east were forests, north-west were forests mixed with marshes, south-west were grassy prairies, and south-east were more arid plains. Ogesana Fall, in the mistaken belief that the forests and marshes to the north-east were full of delightful nature spirits while those to the north-west were full of man-eating spiders, suggested north-east. They headed off in that direction, and soon discovered it was dark, gloomy, overgrown, and, basically rather like Mirkwood Forest. They made slow progress.

By mid afternoon they realised that they were approaching a lake. And through the trees, they could make out the threatening shape of a griffon, perched on the shore and gazing at something in the water. The griffon apparently realised they were there, but was unwilling to get into the thickness of the forest where it would be unable to fly. The PCs knew that griffons liked to eat horse flesh, but not humans particularly.

Jojo, remembering that the people of Hebron Hill had a folk tale about a griffon called the Voice of the Sky who they placated with offerings, thought that it might be friendly if given an 'offering' of music. He took out his flute and approached playing a seductive melody which seemed at least to reassure the griffon there was no danger. It crept off along the shoreline, still looking at something in the water.

The PCs decided to investigate. The water was pregnant and dark and pattered with raindrops, but something could definitely be seen lurking below the surface. Thinking it was fish, Kestrel approached with an arrow drawn, ready to try to spear it. But then four humanoid zombie-things burst free from the surface, covered in lake-filth, weeds and sediment, making to pull our brave explorers into the depths.

A very one-sided fight ensued. Ogesana Fall buckled his swash, swinging from willow branches and dancing on top of ants' nests and boulders and thrusting his rapier. Jojo led three of the zombies on a merry chase up the shore, while Kestrel peppered them with arrows. And then the griffon swooped in to finish off the last one, dragging it away to devour.

A job well done. But the PCs realised that in all the excitement Ogesana's donkey, Bartholomew, was missing. He had clearly been spooked by the violence, or else the presence of the griffon, and decided to find somewhere safer. A search instantly took place, Kestrel tracking the donkey's path through the bracken; by late afternoon they finally found him, after having been led very far off their way indeed. He was in a clearing on a small hill rising up above the trees, silhouetted against the skyline - and next to him was a large, imposing windmill built of black stone.

Ogesana summoned the donkey, but as soon as this took place the owner of the windmill appeared. This was a woman in her late 50s, with long grey-blonde hair down to her toes, smoking a pipe that was emitting vast plumes of foul-smelling smoke. From the windmill a flock of chattering starlings at that moment took flight, soaring into the air in a swarming cloud before settling back on the roof, hissing and whistling to each other like many gossiping children. The PCs thought there was a reasonable likelihood this was a witch. They hoped, quote, it was "one of the good ones".

Samantha invited them into the windmill. In it, they found a homely kitchen and pantry with a bed to one side, the only unusual object being a large flat bowl full of impossibly clear water, resting on a plinth. Samantha made them an offer. They could stay the night in complete security and safety, and indeed could return to do so whenever they wished. But in return they would have to agree to whatever request was placed on them in the morning, and fulfil it. Ogesana ventured that they should agree, whereupon Samantha took his word as an oath, binding on the whole group. For good or ill, the PCs settled down for the night.


And we paused there. Because it was our first time with the system the fight took ages, and we didn't have much longer than 90 minutes available. I already wonder about Ryuutama. I like the 'feel' of the art and mood. I am not sure that the system can survive the scrutiny of experienced RPGers, particularly of the 'old school' stripe. The combat system, for instance, is highly abstract and based essentially on the Final Fantasy model, with the PCs and monsters being arranged in "ranks" and taking turns to attack each other. This quickly fell apart the instant anybody began to think outside the box with the scenery and environment - which indeed happened almost instantly. The way the system makes travel 'interesting' is also contingent on placing what are effectively random conditions on the PCs through a fairly boring series of dice rolls which you are then supposed to 'role play' to bring to life. It is not big on PC agency as a factor in determining what happens and how bad it is. And I am not sure that what we achieved ultimately would have been any different had we been using BECMI D&D. With that said, I really enjoyed the session - it was great fun and I'm already looking forward to next Thursday.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Random Redcap Lair Generator

A table I am working on for the Meeting of the Waters/"Northumberland Yoon-Suin" project. Also serves as Exhibit A for those who complain about the landscape format of the Yoon-Suin book. This is what all those tables looked like when printed in portrait.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

The End of the World As We Know It

With the world in meltdown about a disease that may kill about 0.5-1% of the people who catch it, to use a commonly cited figure, it is worth reflecting that European diseases killed somewhere in the region of 60-90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be an Andean native during the smallpox epidemic that struck shortly before Pizarro's arrival? Think of the generalised anxiety among the population now about COVID-19, give it a liberal dose of ignorance about the very concept of infectious diseases that can spread through breath or touch, and then multiply it by 50 or so.

And they still managed to have the wherewithal to fight a civil war - what's your excuse for sitting around all day watching Netflix?

This is not the apocalypse, or anything like it, but it does at least put one in mind of the concept. We are familiar with games set in post-apocalyptic settings, and we are familar with both post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic fiction. But I'm not sure I know of many game settings or games proper that take place during the end of the world or an apocalypse event - All Flesh Must Be Eaten, I suppose, but zombies have never really interested me very much. I prefer my apocalypses to be Dionysian in tone. Although I am also intrigued by what you might call the Nyarlathotepian Apocalypse, in which a travelling scientist/philosopher drives everybody insane by inflicting them with nightmares which mean they can never sleep again, with this in turn meaning that society very quickly declines into fatal insomnia. And I also have a deep, abiding love for the Donald Sutherland Invasian of the Body Snatchers - which, by a form of free association between late 70s/early 80s SF/horror flicks, then gives me the idea for the "Apocalypse of The Thing", in which the eponymous Thing somehow gets off Antarctica and is suddenly all over humanity like a cheap suit.

What is your favourite flavour of the apocalypse?

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Hrotha's Town

Everyone knows that Hrotha’s Town exists. They see its people - the women bright-eyed, intelligent, gregarious, quick to laugh; the men laconic and somehow ponderous and bland - coming to their markets to trade, and they are real enough. And everyone knows that the Town lies somewhere to the north of Drummond’s Quarter, up the Sixthstreet. But few could take one to the spot, nor tell one how to get there, and its people will never say, no matter what the inducement.

To get into Hrotha’s Town, one must know that its entrance lies between two trees in a glade not far from the bridge over the Red River, and that, when drizzle falls on a bright day such that one could expect to see a rainbow, if one looks through the rain falling between those two trees where the sunlight strikes it, one will see the faintest outline of a wrought-iron gate. One must then step forward, making as though as to grasp the bars - convincing oneself that, despite the fact that they are as delicately translucent and as pale as gossamer, one can feel the hard cold metal as one presses one’s palms against them - and at that moment one will realise that it is in fact a real gate, and that it is as strong and heavy as iron can be, and that behind it is a track leading to what is clearly a large village with fields and orchards and people laughing in the distance.

Hrotha is a wizard with a thick black beard that bristles almost to his feet, and hair to match it. His violet eyes twinkle from a tanned face creased by laughter lines and his nose and cheeks are red with humour and the flush of wine. He is the image of avuncular affection. But he carries an iron rod, and rules with it both literally and figuratively. None of the populace dares to cross him, and his vengeance when he feels himself slighted is terrible.

It is their terror of his wrath that ensures the people of the Town continue to abide by Hrotha's rules for the most part even after his long and unexplained absence, which has now stretched to three years and thirty-three days with no sign of ending. One morning the people awoke to find he was gone, and his servants - the bands of unruly goat-men who serve as his eyes and ears - would not say where, nor even reveal if they knew that destination. Life has continued as before because the expectation is that one day he will come back, and none of the people of the Town wishes to be found in violation of his rules at that moment - the consequences of that far outweighing whatever benefit might have been gained from breaking them. For their part, the satyrs could not care less whether anybody abides by the rules, and in principle there is nothing stopping anybody flouting them at will if they were of a mind to do so.

The rules themselves are simple. First, it is forbidden to tell any outsider how to get into Hrotha’s Town, unless they are being brought there directly. Second, an outsider must not be brought to Hrotha’s Town without having agreed to Hrotha’s terms of residence. Third, once one has agreed to the terms of residence and come into the town, one may come and go as one chooses on the proviso that one never spends a night elsewhere again. And fourth, one must take part in the bacchanals, held each equinox and solstice. In return, one is guaranteed the safety and comforts which life in the Town provides.

Were a stranger to visit Hrotha’s Town one would be struck by the happiness and fulfilment of its women and the demoralised bitterness of the men. This is for the simple reason that, over time, being exposed to the vigour, virility and joyous abandon of the satyrs, the women of the town usually become dissatisfied with their menfolk, who come to strike them as unimpressive and weak-willed - not least because they have sacrificed all courage and zest for life by seeking craven comfort in this hidden place of safety. They readily take on lovers among the goat-men, and scorn their erstwhile human husbands. The men as a consequence grow almost visibly pale and wilted. The consequence is that Hrotha’s Town is largely barren of children, and the population only sustains itself by bringing in outsiders. A slow trickle of these flows in, perhaps in the order of a dozen people a year all told - a family with young children seeking protection; a runaway; an outlaw - brought by promises of safety and of plenty given in whispered conversation. The women of Hrotha’s Town’s desire to bring in others of their sex is evangelical in nature. For the men, it is more accurately described with the old saw that misery loves company.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

He Achieved Most of What He Wanted Through Charm - the Karajan Effect

From a comment on this post last week comes this interesting observation:

[T]he issue is that you have a lot of people who are very poor at basic speaking-to-audience skills who don't realize that the number one reason the DMs they see on youtube are effective is that they are comfortable speaking *as a general matter*. A good teacher or salesman or improv actor is going to need a completely different type and degree of instruction to become a good DM because they don't have to first figure out how to be engaging in front of a crowd. People who don't have that background have a real challenge ahead of them.

This is true of many, many activities that involve social interaction - teaching, sales, management and public speaking among them. Some people are either naturally good at it, or have become conditioned to be really good at it by circumstance, and this puts them at a huge advantage in comparison to others.

I would like to christen this the Karajan Effect, after the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was one of the greatest classical conductors of the recorded era. He is probably the only classical conductor apart from Leonard Bernstein who you have a fighting chance of having heard of if you're not into classical music, and was by many measures one of the highest-selling recording artists of the 20th century. If you want to hear him in action, listen to this performance of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony and compare it with the one you may remember from the Fantasia of your childhood:

But by all accounts he did very little of what one is "supposed to do" as a conductor. He usually conducted with his eyes closed, which is considered to be precisely the opposite of what you would learn in conducting 101, because there is purportedly no way to properly communicate with the musicians if you don't do it, and he didn't particular care if his players played the wrong notes as long as they kept perfectly in time. One of his musicians said of him that "He achieved most of what he wanted through charm", rather than any sort of technique - he just made people want to play better.

You may see where I'm going with this, which is that when one thinks that somebody is a really good DM, it's often (not always!) simply the Karajan Effect in action - they're good at public speaking, performance, bluster, clarity of expression, and simply being fun to be around. This then rubs off on the players, who feel as though they are having a good time and get on board accordingly. It might superficially seem the right thing to do to copy a DM's technique if the players seem to be enjoying themselves, in other words, but you may not be able to replicate it if you don't have the requisite charm.

Another way of putting this is that figuring out what works well is not really something that you can learn from what a purportedly great DM writes about in his blog, talks about in his YouTube videos, or even demonstrates in actual play streams. Even if it is true that what he is telling you about or showing you apparently "works" for him (which I sometimes have my doubts about, especially with bloggers), that might just be because he happens to be charming - which is highly likely if, for instance, he has a very watchable and popular YouTube channel.

A simpler way of putting it even that this is: practice makes perfect, and not necessarily aping others or learning tricks and techniques.

Monday, 23 March 2020

20 Rumours Overhead in Drummond's Quarter

1/In a glade called Scrabby Wood a parliament of rooks gathers each evening at twilight; if one goes there in the gloaming, one can hear in the rooks’ cries their gossip about what they have seen while going about their business in the course of the day

2/A tiny hamlet called Burradon Mains survives the predations of reivers by its population retreating into a network of tunnels underground, which they say goes all the way down to the centre of the earth

3/In a forested cleugh called Greenlish Wood there are the remains of a large village, now long overgrown, whose people were all eaten by ettins - except for a few children left in hiding who starved; their ghosts haunt the wood still and crave revenge on the giants' descendants

4/A band of robbers called Lanternside’s Boys used to operate from a cave at the top of Turnberry Cleugh; Laternside was always rumoured to have a hidden stash of treasure somewhere, and it has never been found

5/A big raid by the reivers from the hill known as the Swire recently returned from the settled coast, bringing with it several prominent captive ladies

6/A deep pool lies at the top of Dove Crag; in its waters their swims the Lady of Dove Crag, a great witch who was transformed by her sisters into a pike

7/A redcap who calls himself the Master of Fleehope Manor lives in a ramshackle half-ruined castle in a narrow cleft on the side of the hill known as the Curr; he keeps his captives alive and forces them to take part in frenzied bacchanals each full moon, and to practice their entertainments in between

8/An ancient road, called the Quickening Street, runs through the hills between High Bleakhope and the Nag’s Head; it was built in the days of the Emperor and people say that it leads to a great temple hidden beyond the fastness of the hills, where the descendants of an imperial cult still practice the old ways

9/Huge wild hogs roam the woods of Kidland Forest; they were bred by ettins long ago and let loose for hunting, and ever since it has been impossible for local people to access the woods for firewood, timber, mushrooms, and so on

10/Three waterfalls called the Rushy Linns follow in quick succession through Red Cleugh; diving into the pools of each in turn will cure any illness, but the water will turn one's skin red forever thereafter

11/A spring wells up in the woods by the hamlet of Nettlehope to form Drummer’s Pool; bathing in its waters is said to cure infertility, but the people of Nettlehope only allow their own to go near it

12/The reivers of Sneer Hill are said to have been tasked with guarding a place which the elves of the Hardwater hold secret and sacred

13/The ruin of a former imperial fort lies at Kinch Knowe, a remnant of an abandoned attempt to subdue the Hill of Wolves; its Prefect had a powerful magic sword that is hidden somewhere at the site

14/The redcap known as Father Moneylaws lives in a peel tower in the middle of Marl Bog; he is renowned for ‘adopting’ children, who are shortly after drowned in the bog when they inevitably disappoint him

15/The ettins of the Hethpool lair on an island in the middle of a dark, cold lake on Laddie’s Knowe, where they are said to have held captive an elf prince for a hundred years

16/A red dragon called Dreams-Coldly-Sleeping lies dormant under the Shank, a heather-covered hilltop; she is the daughter of Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight and inherited his wealth on his death

17/In the woods a waterfall, called Black Linn, plunges into a deep pool filled with dark green loaches; these are the spirits of 33 bastard children who were drowned as a sacrifice by an imperial cult long ago, and legend has it they will bestow great blessings on anybody able to release them

18/Down in the Hepplewoods there is an old gallows; a troll lives in a hut nearby and hangs anybody he finds out in the woods at night

19/A cave known as Darden Parlour lies hidden in the woods between Drummond’s Quarter and Hrotha’s Town - it goes deep under the earth

20/On the moor known as Ottercops Moss there is a large, single standing stone which is said to mark the burial site of a king of the people who lived in these lands before the days of the Emperor

Friday, 20 March 2020

D&D and Mental Health

Let's try talk in a sensitive and entirely non-judgmental way about something which I feel like is a bit of an elephant in the room: a lot of people involved in OSR blogging and self-publishing have (self-declared) mental health problems - much more so, I would say, than in the general population. I used to notice this a lot even back in the early days, and with a high level of frequency in the G+ era. I see it all over Twitter, too, on the occasions when I look at RPG related tweets.

I have my worries, like anybody, but I thankfully (to my knowledge) don't have any mental health problems particularly. (Although severe psychotic disorders and rare degenerative brain conditions both appear to run in the family, so this may not last forever.) But I am interested in why this apparent correlation between an interest in RPGs and mental health arises, partly because I'm just curious, as a disinterested lay person, in the ways in which the conditions of modern life appear to be producing a crisis of spirituality of a kind, and partly because I like D&D nerds and I want to know what makes them tick.

Maybe you have noticed something similar to what I have described. If so, do you think it is:

-A function of the fact that 'extremely online' people who spend large portions of time each day on the internet discussing anything are more likely to have mental health problems than average, and I'm just noticing the ones who happen to be discussing old school D&D?

-A function of the fact that D&D players, particularly those who are really into it, and so immersed in it indeed that they would discover OSR games, tend to be quite creative people, and creative people have a tendency towards neurosis, anxiety and depression?

-A function of the fact that this is a relatively small corner of the internet that has the feel of a community and which therefore has a comfortable atmosphere that encourages openness about these things?

-A function of D&D having some kind of therapeutic benefit, whether intended or otherwise?

-Something else?

Or do you disagree with the initial premise?

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Useful Advice about Narrating and Describing

The topic of how to narrate and describe things as a DM came up in the comments to a recent post. It put me in mind of a topic that I have written about before - namely, the difference between skills which are primarily learned through explanation (reading and writing, speaking a new language as an adult learner, driving, most sport) and those which are primarily learned through introduction (law, philosophy, teaching, acting, creative writing).

In a nutshell, learning how to drive is a skill which you can for the large part learn from being directly taught a series of techniques such as how to change gears, how to do a three-point turn, how to parallel park, etc., combined with practice. This is what makes it mostly an explained skill.

Learning how to write fiction is a skill which you can only really learn by reading good fiction, combined with practice. You can't become a good writer by learning technical tricks. This is what makes it mostly an introduced skill.

For both types of skill you need a lot of practice to get good, and you need intuition and experience to do whatever it is well. But the former category is the type of thing that is amenable to being taught through a course and/or textbook, while the latter is the type of thing that can only really be taught by consistent informal exposure for a period of years. This is why there are useful textbooks on how to learn Romanian, but there are no useful textbooks on how to write fiction well. Romanian, like any other language, is mostly learned from putting into practice rules and techniques. Writing fiction well cannot be learned through a similar process (which is why 'how to write fiction that sells' type books are full of useless crap like, 'Write what you know' or 'Don't use adverbs', which no great novelist, or even bog-standard novelist, has ever actually followed).

Learning how to DM is in my view quite clearly much more like learning to write novels than it is like learning to drive. Yes, there are rules of thumb, and you will need to learn the rules of whatever game you're running, but what makes a good DM is mostly learned from watching others and from practice rather than from following technical guidelines or lists of 'best practices' or anything of that nature.

I am willing to be proved wrong, but I think in particular that the elements of DMing which concern describing and narrative events can't really be learned other than through watching good DMs and through practice. How to describe a fight scene in an exciting way? How to make wilderness travel interesting? How to make a scene, or a particular NPC, really 'come alive' in the players' minds? You have to do it a lot, reflect on what works and what doesn't, and watch other people who you think are good at DMing and reflect on that, too.