Thursday, 21 March 2019

Product Identity Tournament of Champions

According to the d20 SRD, the things WotC considers to be absolutely sacrosanct in terms of product identity (reading between the lines) is basically the character creation process, the experience point table, and the following monsters:

Beholders, gauth, carrion crawlers, displacer beasts, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayers, slaads, umber hulks, and yuan-ti.

I can understand why. If I was going to draw up a list of monsters which are The Most D&Dish of All Time, I would probably come up with something like that list. (Except for the gauth.) You might want to throw owlbears and bulettes in there too, for old times' sake.

So those are the contenders. But who would win the Product Identity Tournament of Champions? In the olympics of D&D-ness, who would get gold? Which monster is definitively the most D&Dish of them all, and why?

You can vote in the comments, which I will keep hidden until the result is revealed tomorrow(ish) to avoid people influencing the way others vote.

And you're not allowed to say "dragons". Product identity monsters only.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Actually Existing D&D

During the Cold War, it became apparent in the Eastern Bloc that there wasn't exactly a perfect correspondence between the Marxist understanding of the socialist mode of production and what was happening in reality. People coined a phrase, "actually existing socialism", to describe the imperfect real-life version. Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear leftist academics discussing something which they call "actually existing neoliberalism", to distinguish the real-life governing ideology in the modern day UK, US, and so on from the theoretical ideas of the so-called neoliberals (Hayek, Buchanan, Friedman, etc.).

This is because - in case this needs pointing out to anybody - it turns out that ideology doesn't tend to translate very well into real-world politics. What Marxist thinkers like to call "praxis" (you can always spot post-68 Marxist analysis because it generally cloaks its insights in impenetrable jargon so that the working classes can't even be bothered to try to understand them) is actually very messy indeed, to put it mildly.

This is also why when you tend to get ideologues together in an argument, they start saying things like, "Yes, the Soviet Union was a failure, but real communism has never really been tried!" or "Yes, laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th century was a failure, but real free market capitalism has never really been tried!" (I bet there are neo-Nazis on the internet somewhere who will tell you that, yes, Hitler's Germany was a failure, but real Nazism has never really been tried.) The messiness of the real world always gives them an excuse: "Ah, but if only Trotsky had been in charge." (The free marketeer's version of this is, "Ah, if only the State hadn't crowded-out private charity.")

D&D isn't an ideology exactly, but there's a big difference between the game's idealised form - the rules - and "actually existing D&D" as it tends to get played at the table. This is true of every edition. Praxis ain't easy.

I think the best example, the paradigm case, of this is weapon speed factors in AD&D. Those things exist in the rules, all right. But they are not, in my experience or to my knowledge, part of actually existing D&D. A similar one is the damage type versus armour type table (I may be misremembering the title of the table; I don't have a DMG from 1st or 2nd edition to hand), which tells you the AC modifiers to apply for a piercing weapon versus chainmail, a slashing weapon versus studded leather, a bludgeoning weapon versus plate, etc.

It's not that those rules wouldn't be interesting or even beneficial in play. It's just that people don't use them. There's a gap between system and actual games, and weapon speed factors and damage types versus armour types don't make it across.

As with all these things, there is a continuum. On one extreme there are the rules which are not present at all in actually existing D&D, like damage type versus armour type. (Somebody will now pipe up in the comments and insist they use that table, I am sure.) Then there are those which are present in actually existing D&D, but not in most people's games - racial level limits in 2nd edition, for example, or the stat limits for women characters in 1st edition. Then there are those where there is more of a genuine mix: I bet the majority of people who still play B/X or Basic nowadays have probably switched to ascending AC, but it's still possible to find descending AC in actually existing D&D in reasonably large numbers. And on the other extreme there are the rules which are there in the books and which people actually put into effect generally speaking - like hit points, or the six core stats.

Some people would probably conclude that the more the rules contained in the core books differ from actually existing D&D - i.e., the more the main rules are ignored by the players - the worse the game design. I tend to disagree. The messiness of D&D is part of its charm. So what if I can't be bothered using weapon speed factors in practice? I like the fact that they are there, to remind me that things would be pretty dull if theory and reality mapped each other too nicely.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Teaching How to Build a World

Just when I thought I was out...an internet debate pulled me back in.

(This time, I mostly agree with Alexis - with the important caveat that a course on DMing at university is plainly ridiculous even in the context of the horrendously stupid and frivolous shite that people somehow manage to hoodwink their departments into allowing them to teach. If you really want me to explain why, I will do so in the comments.)

I want to use this as an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of this recent post. The central thesis of that post, if you'll forgive me calling it that, was that all human activities need to be "taught" in some sense, but how this is best done depends on the activity. Some activities (martial arts, sport, learning to drive, learning to write) are best taught in an explanatory way - let's say, didactically - and others (philosophy, legal reasoning, creative writing) are best taught through demonstration and osmosis on the part of the student. Almost nothing is absolutely in one camp or the other - it's all on a spectrum, shades of grey, blah blah. (And, of course, solo practice, intuition, innate aptitude, and all sorts of other variables are crucial as well.) 

Let's take Alexis's example of world building. He's absolutely right - most existing advice on "how to build a world" is terrible to put it charitably. Just execrably bad, stupid, pointless and wrong, and generally written by ignoramuses whose sum total of applicable experience is that they know about Faerun and have read some high fantasy novels and thought about them for about five seconds flat. 

But the takeaway message from this is not that there just needs to be better such advice. It's that the entire exercise is fundamentally flawed, being based on a misunderstanding of how to "teach" worldbuilding. The people making these videos and blogposts are making the wrong assumption that worldbuilding is an activity toward the didactic, learning-to-drive end of the spectrum of teaching, when in actual fact it's much much more towards the demonstration/osmosis, legal reasoning and creative writing end of the spectrum.

Let me explain. I say this on the basis of Yoon-Suin, which I hope would persuade anybody reading this blog that, whatever that book's flaws, it at least demonstrates that I know more than the average about how to make an interesting campaign setting that avoids cliche and that people want to run games in. How did I "learn" how to make Yoon-Suin?

Was it watching videos on how to make a world? Was it reading blog posts about "how to make a cool campaign world"? Was it because anybody told me how to do it?

No. I had worldbuilding demonstrated to me. Partly this was from reading fantasy novels of the right kind - The Book of the New Sun, the Viriconium books and stories, Gormenghast, China Mieville's books, and so on. And partly it was from other RPG settings - chiefly Planescape and Darksun. And finally, partly it was from reading other people's examples within the "OSR" scene - Kevin Crawford's stuff and various others. I got it from watching others, not from being told what to do. It was osmosis. Not didactic teaching. 

That's not to say that "How To" posts like Rob Conley's old fantasy sandbox guide can't be useful. But go on over to that entry and take a look at it carefully: what makes it valuable is not the beginner checklist of 34 steps (which is at the "learning to drive" end of the spectrum) taken in the abstract, but the subsequent entries showing how Rob actually did it for his own example (which is the "philosophy" end of the spectrum). It's not, I reiterate, that there is any learned activity which is purely in one camp or the other. Everything is a mix. But almost everything in this DMing lark has a much bigger element of one than the other. 

And finally, I end on the obvious point which is that at the end of the day this is all a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable. Learning how to build a fantasy setting by reading The Book of the New Sun is, believe me, a heck of a lot better in that regard than this sort of thing.

Revisiting Warhammer/40k: Small Armies and the Implied Setting

It's well-known and obvious to even the youngest player of Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 that there's something fishy going on with the sizes of the armies and the way conflict is described in the fluff: you're supposed to be playing a game of epic war on which the fates of civilisations rest, but the battles themselves are fought out between armies usually of at most 100 models on either side.

There's no point blaming GW for this - after all, there are only so many models you can reasonably fit on a table, and while hardcore wargamers are happy playing games like Advanced Squad Leader where the battles can be billed as just minor skirmishes, that's not really a way to win friends and influence people outside of that extremely narrow circle.

So, I get it. It's more fun to imagine you're taking part in epic war than to imagine you're fighting out ultimately not-very-important skirmishes. But I'm interested in the gap between fictional expectation and gaming reality nonetheless.

Imagine if you just had the bare rules for Warhammer or 40k and the models, but none of the fluff. What would you assume about the setting? What would be implied?

In the case of Warhammer, it's clearly an extreme version of the Dark Ages or something like it - a "points of light" sort of a setting in which no single political entity can summon up more than a few hundred armed men to fight in a war at any time. It might be because of the collapse of a mighty empire as in the fall of Rome - a land a bit like the one described in Pendragon, with lots of petty kings squabbling over very small areas of land. Or it might be because of something more fantastical than that; maybe the internecine fighting between all these different races present among the minis has ground down population levels to such an extent that the survivors are living almost in a post-apocalyptic environment on the brink of total extinction. Or maybe it's a fantasy world that has been hit by a meteor, or devastated by a War of the Magi, or riven by disease or a magical curse - a dying earth. You get the point, anyway.

In the case of 40k, we have the strangeness of what is clearly very hi-tech armies fighting from extremely small population bases. What does that imply? It could simply be a matter of resources. Maybe the galaxy is full of lots of habitable worlds, but they lack the resources to support much in the way of population. Most can only bear a population of a few thousand. As a result, wars are only fought between comparatively tiny armies.

Maybe it's distance. Maybe it just takes so long for people to spread across interstellar space that concentrating large forces in one area is logistically impossible. Maybe this makes for a civilisation that is united only by tenuous communications and where the small groups of people are inbred, isolated, and divergent in language, culture and religion - but perhaps able to unite around a few shared artefacts and motifs.

Maybe the galaxy is ending a la Guardian ("dying universe" rather than dying earth) and there is almost nobody left, but those who are left occupy an increasingly small space and that's why they spend so much time trying to kill each other.

Or maybe in the future war has become ritualised and ceremonial, fought on agreed principles and in a deliberately equalised way, so that disputes can be resolved through controlled violence - perhaps under the supervision of gods of war or referees. There's no need for the wastage of total war when conflict itself can be more like a sport - albeit one that still satisfies the spectators with a bit of blood and guts and meltaguns.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The Gate of Ivrel Prologue and Map Test

I have just recently finished reading The Gate of Ivrel, a vaguely obscure (although apparently relatively high-selling) sword-and-planet novel by CJ Cherryh. I very much enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it more because I deliberately - and this is the first time I've ever done this - did not look at the map on the first page or read the lengthy prologue before reading the actual story.

I have no concrete evidence for this, but I suspect often fantasy/SF authors are forced to write prologues by their publishers, who are worried that without Basil Exposition to come along and explain things beforehand, the readers won't be able to follow what's going on. (This is obviously more of a problem with films, where the anxiety that audiences are stupid and won't understand anything reaches fever pitch - think of the incredibly naff and unnecessary introductory segment to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring.)

I have even less evidence for saying this, but I strongly suspect this is the case with Gate of Ivrel. CJ Cherryh is a good writer with good taste, and the story stands on its own merits without its accompanying map or prologue, and you can piece together the background easily enough if you have half a brain. This is also of course much more enjoyable and interesting than having the information dumped on you at the start.

I'm going to take this approach to all fantasy novels I read in future, and I suggest you do too. I will also suggest that we call this The Gate of Ivrel Prologue and Map Test. If a book has a prologue and map and the story itself can be read, enjoyed and understood without that prologue or map, it fails the test - the publisher misjudged the audience and should be ashamed for it. If it has a prologue and map and genuinely needs them because you can't actually understand or enjoy the story without them, it passes.

Whether you would actually want to read a book that passes the test is a question I'll leave to the philosophers.

Not Really for Kids But Really Appealing to Kids

When I was a kid - let's say, probably aged around 7-11 or so - I used to get a huge thrill from certain visual artefacts (album covers, comics, book covers, and so on) that I thought were definitely Not For Kids My Age. Not because of sexual content, because at that age like most boys my view of girls could be accurately summarised as "Urghhhh". But because they managed to combine two things: they were obviously for teenagers or grown-ups, but at the same time they still had great appeal to the imaginative child. For a kid of my age in those days, most of the things that grown-ups seemed to be interested in (like Bullseye, Radio 4, Woody Allen films, Penguin paperbacks, newspapers, art galleries, the 10 o'clock news, Inspector Morse, etc.) were unutterably, unfathomably boring. But there were certain things that somehow weren't: they were definitely for people who were older than I was - maybe not definitely adults but at least teenagers - yet at the same time my childish brain could understand their appeal almost viscerally.

I'm talking about:







Is there a word to describe this quality - of being Not Really For Kids But Really Appealing To Kids? I don't think so. NRFKBRATK doesn't quite have the right ring to it, somehow.

Whatever you call it, this quality is responsible for a lot. I think part of the reason why I still like fantasy and SF so much is that I'm still able to look at that cover of Gate of Ivrel or Kieth Parkinson's Rifts piece and remember the excitement of seeing that kind of thing aged 9 and knowing that I was possibly a bit too young for it but didn't care. It's probably in fact precisely the feeling that caused me to start picking up Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf books in my local library at that age and never being quite the same person since.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The Beginner's Colloquial Orcish

I have been meaning to write various posts to do with structuralism, post-structuralism and language for quite some time, but haven't quite got round to any of them yet. They're brewing. But in that vein, a word about fantasy languages generally.

People in the Anglo-Saxon world tend not to learn other languages, and if they do, it's usually French or Spanish. This gives them a very skewed and narrow perception of the relationship between objective reality, "meaning", language and thought.

Let me give an illustration. In English, we distinguish between different circumstances in which the subject gets the object to do something. "The postman let the dog go for a walk" is different from "The postman made the dog go for a walk", which is different again from "The postman had the dog go for a walk", which is different again from "The postman got the dog to go for a walk". The distinction between "letting" and "making" is obvious. The differences between "having" and "getting" a little less so, but there are nuances of usage - if I "have you" read something, it has the connotation that I'm in charge, whereas if I "get you" to read something, it has more a connotation of persuasion.

In Japanese, there is no difference between any of these things. The sentence "The postman let the dog go for a walk" and "the postman made the dog go for a walk" (or "the postman had the dog go for a walk" or whatever) is exactly the same: 郵便配達員が犬を散歩させた. It's all in how you conjugate the verb, and the conjugation takes the same form for all those different situations set out above, in which English carefully discriminates.

Native English speakers find this odd: how do Japanese people tell the difference between "making" somebody do something and "letting" them do it? One answer would be, they get it from context. (And you can make it clear with judicious use of an adjective here or there.) But that doesn't actually capture the fact that the two languages are doing something fundamentally different. English distinguishes rigorously between the concepts of "letting" and "making"; Japanese doesn't. So, saying that Japanese speakers "get the difference from context" is a very English-speaker way of thinking about things: in Japanese there actually isn't a difference. This is not because Japanese people can't understand the difference between "letting" as in allowing and "making" as in forcing, but because the Japanese concept which is translated into English as "letting" or "making" means neither of those things. It means its own thing which is roughly approximate to both English "letting" and "making".

This is why people who are fluent in more than one language will often tell you that they actually think differently - and even have different personalities - when switching from one language to another. It's because a language is actually a structure which mediates between reality and abstract thought, and there is no direct connection or way for thought to interface with reality other than through it (I snuck a bit of post-structuralism in there after all).

Be that as it may, what would it mean to learn an orcish, elf, or dwarfish language?

An orcish language that exists as "ug" means "me", "bork" means "you", "ufufu" means "tree" has zero interest except perhaps something to pass the time. What's more interesting is reflecting on how playing around with concepts could pave the way to thinking about monsters in new and creative ways.

One simple way of doing this is merging concepts. What if, for example, in orcish, there's no distinction between "causing happiness" and "causing sorrow" - they're the same word, roughly meaning to "cause a strong reaction"? If that were the case, how would a human being communicate to an orc that being tortured causes a different experience to, say, sexual pleasure? To the orc, causing intense pain and pleasure are identical - or, to put it another way, to the orc, neither of those concepts exists as distinct from the other.

What if in dwarfish there's no distinction between avarice and prudence? What if in elven there's no distinction between nature and the self? What if for gnomes there's no distinction between gift-giving and theft?

As is often the case, these things can seem spurious at first glance but get interesting if you take the connotations seriously and extrapolate from the initial premise. What it? What then?

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Nobody Ever Told Me How To Do It

I thought I'd write a follow-up to these two recent posts, as I appear to be getting brickbats from the peanut gallery about them.

In Gerry Cohen's On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy he makes the argument that philosophy is something which cannot really be taught ("Nobody ever told me how to do it"). Philosophy students don't learn how to do philosophy in the university classroom through the teacher explaining to them what philosophy is, or even through explaining what thinking like a philosopher is. No: being in the classroom, reading and discussing philosophical texts, gives them the opportunity to see philosophy in action and thereby to learn how to think like a philosopher by a sort of osmosis. That's how one learns to do philosophy.

That's not to say that the philosophy teacher might as well not do anything at all provided there is a classroom and a reading list. Some (many) philosophical concepts are hard and need explaining. But the act of explaining itself should be understood as a demonstration of philosophy in action - part of the exposure of the student to what philosophy is - rather than an exercise in explaining how to do philosophy per se. Reading a difficult text by Heidegger and having its meaning explained to you is not the same as a teacher sitting down with you and telling you "how to do philosophy".

He is absolutely right about this, but it's not just philosophy: most academic subjects, to a lesser degree, are the same. There are important things that you need to be taught when studying history, literature, law, biology, economics, etc. But you can't really explain to somebody how to think as a historian, a literary theorist, a lawyer, a biologist, an economist. You can only provide them with the opportunity to see what it means to be one of those things, to think like one of those people, and hope that they take it from there.

The academic subject with which I'm most familiar, law, is a great example of this. It's fairly straightforward to memorise legal rules, whether they exist in precedent or statute. Some of them are complicated, but as long as you can read, and have the time and energy to just sit there and memorise things, and have a teacher to explain difficult concepts, you can perform that task readily enough. But legal reasoning - thinking like a lawyer - is a different thing, something that only comes to you (if you get it at all) from seeing it in action - reading cases, watching advocates, doing work experience, and so on - not from the teacher explaining how to do it. In other words, there is a bit of technical knowledge that has to be explained, but the bulk of the learning involves being introduced to a certain method of thinking.

Even the hardest of hard sciences, like maths and physics, are like that I think: it's not so hard to memorise that 2+2 = 4 or that a2+b2=c2 or whatever, and having a teacher is helpful to explain difficult concepts, but mathematical thought is a certain type of thinking that you develop yourself from ongoing exposure to it - you are introduced to it by your teacher, not taught it.

This can be contrasted with other exercises in human learning that are more technical like, say, learning to write, learning a foreign language, or learning to drive. Learning to write is almost entirely technical: it's how to hold the pen, how to physically make the marks on the page, how to make sure they correspond to accepted spelling conventions. You don't learn it primarily from watching other people write. You have to be sat down and have it explained to you over the course of years.

As an adult, learning a foreign language is the same: nobody is going to learn Swahili just from going to Tanzania and listening to people talk. Somebody (or a dictionary or textbook) has to explain to you what this word means, what that word means, how to conjugate this verb, how to make a noun into a verb, and everything else. You actually need to be taught it - shown it.

Learning to drive is similar: you need to be walked through the process of how to indicate, how to use the hand break, how to use the clutch, how to change gears, how to do a three-point turn, and all the rest. Back in the day I remember my driving instructor having little coloured dots around the rear window frames in the car, so when teaching how to reverse into a parking space he could tell you to line the red dot (or whatever) up with the line on the tarmac to make sure your angles were right. You don't learn to drive from watching others do it. You work through the process with somebody - usually an irascible older man - telling you directly what to do.

Now, don't misunderstand me: it's not that the actual practice of writing, speaking a foreign language, or driving don't involve intuition and that you don't get better at them with solo practice. It's just that the actual learning process is primarily one that has to be explained, rather than just demonstrated.

All the above is a rather long-winded way of saying: learned human activities exist on a spectrum. Some are almost entirely explained (learning to write), while some are almost entirely introduced (philosophy). In reality the vast majority of things are in the middle. Certain learned activities - car mechanics, martial arts, sport - are more towards the end of the spectrum where we find learning to write; others - creative writing, policing, teaching, acting, music - are more towards the philosophy end.

My contention is that DMing is much more something one learns to do well through what I've called "introduction" rather than having it explained - it is more towards philosophy than it is towards learning to write or drive; much more so in fact. At its core DMing is more akin to creative writing, teaching, acting or policing than it is mechanics or martial arts, and hence one can't learn a great deal from being told what to do or what not to do, but can probably learn better from examples and actual play reports and things of that nature, properly explicated - which would be the DMing equivalent of a philosophy student reading Being and Time and having it explained by a good teacher.

(tl;dr version: let's have less prescriptive DMing advice and more actual play reports accompanied by commentary on what worked and what didn't.)

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Three Things for The Weekend

Friday to Sunday is the no-man's land of blogging - empty except for mud, shell-holes, and the occasional Very light or stray trench mortar. Let's toss some grenades.

First, I enjoyed Stanley Fish's contributions to this debate on separating the art from the artist, a topic which is obviously very, well, topical for all sorts of reasons. I am a big Fish fan, and he hits the nail on the head here: basically, you have to take it on a case by case basis and the only people you really shouldn't trust are those who think there is a hard and fast rule which applies in all cases.

Second, here's a map I came across on reddit - it's the 25 biggest lakes in the world by area, all together. Make a campaign setting out of that, I dare you.




Third, check out the prices for the Planescape original boxed set on eBay. US$150 was the headline figure just for a bog standard "good condition" version, but there's also just the "Player's Guide to the Planes" going for US$88 (it's about 16 pages!!) and you can get the original set still in its shrink wrapping for US$500. Together with the Planes of Law set you can get a used original box for US$375.

People are free to spend money on whatever they like and long may that continue. But there's nowt so queer as folk.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

On Blogging and Commenting

Generally speaking I operate a very light-touch approach to comments on the blog, on the basis that almost everybody is generally decent and sensible. In the main I have been encouraged that over the 11 years of writing this blog this suspicion - that people can be trusted not to act like idiots when you leave them to their own devices - has been confirmed in 99.999% of cases.

I would like to apologise to that 99.999% of my readership for having to make this post: sorry. It doesn't apply to you.

However, there are some outliers, as I'm sure you are aware if you read this blog with any regularity. These are people who seem to think that because somebody is keeping a public blog, it means that readers are entitled to say whatever they like in the comments and expect a) to be humoured in doing so; and b) to get a reply. 

Let me disabuse those of you in the 0.001%. The only reason this blog exists is because I write it. The forum which it provides, in the form of the comments, to have your own say is only there because of me. If you want to write your own blog, you are free to do so and I rightfully have absolutely no say in the matter; but if you want to comment here, you are able to do that only because I have gone to the trouble of writing an entry and for that reason alone. 

This means that a) you should do it politely; and b) that you shouldn't expect me to humour you if you are being deliberately offensive, annoying, or obtuse, to either me or others. In general I lean towards being tolerant on the basis that I think pity is generally the appropriate emotion in response to trolling - imagine having such a miserable life that you gain solace from trying to make the lives of other people miserable as well - but my tolerance has its limits.

Comments will be moderated for the foreseeable future. In almost all cases I will wave them through but frankly I just cannot be bothered providing a public forum for all and sundry when it causes me to lose the enjoyment of interacting with people reading the blog - which in 99.999% of the time I like doing.