Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Didn't Want to Make This Post, But I Had No Choice

So I'm contacting some artists and actually using the words, "Give me something that will get me arrested for publishing it."

This is what happens when Metal: A Headbangers' Journey is on TV the night before and you get to relive shenanigans like the PMRC and the lawsuit against Judas Priest.

I have a background dealing with things that include very strong visual imagery and I haven't fully used it in terms of my RPG work. That's got to change.

And now there's cross-blog sniping to be done!

this out.

For instance, a spellcaster forgetting a spell after casting makes no sense to me and still breaks my suspension of disbelief.

First of all, while I agree that Vancian magic makes no sense, that's only because all magic makes no sense. It's all fictional and made up. Magic, indeed everything supernatural, is fictional nonsense. It's not like my remarks about light sources and movement rates a few days ago which directly relate to real-world activities and situations.

That said, anyone who throws around the term "Vancian" should, I don't know,
read some Dying Earth. Which this person obviously hasn't done, or else this wouldn't be a problem. "Not what I'd choose for a magic system" may be an opinion one has after reading some Vance, but "makes no sense to me" is not.

I realize it's part of the game's name and that many D&D veterans love them, but big dungeons full of monsters around the party's level and of untouched treasure lead me to, well, call shenanigans.

As well one should. The problem isn't "dungeons," but shitty-ass poorly made dungeons.

For some new players, it's near impossible to connect with a place they've never visited[1]. For instance, I've never been to the desert so I have a hard time placing my character in a world where the sand stings her eyes as she feels the intense heat radiating off the ground. I know those things happen, but I have a harder time feeling them.

My first reaction was "This person has the imagination of a very small rock."

Obviously someone that's done a lot of camping will be able to draw from more real-life experience when an adventure is in the woods, but being taken out of the game because it's in the desert and you've never been in a desert? The issue with the dungeons comes back to good vs bad dungeons, with good dungeons establishing its own reality to the players and bad dungeons assuming that you don't care.

(this isn't a knock against the old funhouse dungeons or megadungeons or other "game element" kinds of things - these things will establish their own reality and internal logic if they're any good just as much as an ecologically correct logical dungeon would)

Being someone you're not and exploring places that you've never been to and most likely never could is in some ways the very point of RPGs, isn't it?

So I wasn't going to actually post this particular blog entry (it was written yesterday), but then this comment showed up.

A 20th level wizard in older D&D editions barely approximates the picture of a wizard from fantasy literature. If someone signed up to play this, they are SOL.

Two decades ago, I drifted away from D&D because I had to fight against the mechanics in order to approximate elements from the fiction I was reading and enjoying at the time...

It's not a good to assume that any particular game will handle simulating any particular story from its genre. Authors within a genre are not interchangeable and the more tightly bound the rules of a genre are, the better it is to explore the outliers in order to get something fresh. I'd personally not use RPGs to recreate anything but the general atmosphere of any particular piece of fiction because RPGs can't copy non-RPG source material. There will be "drift" because the players are not beholden to any plot over a period of time and the accumulation of events and the result of the dice will quickly detour a game away from what was expected.

As often seems to happen in these sorts of conversations, Vance is treated as a non-entity. His literature doesn't count, apparently. Or maybe he's just not popular enough. And, to repeat for the millionth time, because magic is all fiction anyway, using Dying Earth magic (or an adaptation thereof) is just as valid or invalid as using any other.

... but using that particular form of magic does fit in with the traditional fantasy RPG focus on resource management. Torches, money, hit points, arrows, spells. Keep track of how many you have left and achieve your goals before running out. I don't have any idea whether Gygax or Arneson or whoever put this into play did so because it fit with the overall play atmosphere perfectly or because they just thought it was obscure and therefore cool, but it was genius.

More to the point, the only meaningful mechanics in terms of player empowerment granted to the magic-user is to cast a spell once per adventure (more or less). Anything else is outside the strict scope of the mechanics provided. A DM has to stretch beyond the rules on the page in order to provide the magic-user player with opportunities to be important.

... so if there are no combats for a stretch or even a session, fighters don't do anything? If there's a thief in the party, you must provide trapped chests or a surface to climb? If there are no undead in an adventure, are you being unfair to the cleric?

I don't buy that the purpose of mechanics are there to provide opportunities for players to be empowered. Mechanics exist to provide an impartial source to resolve situations that arise in play. Nothing more. Certainly they are not there to suggest what should happen during play.


  1. I'm a little stunned, but not really...

    This person strikes me as not well-read in ANY of the source literature.

    Doesn't just about every fictional book that uses magic have its own underlying magic system? Even those that intend to mimic "real" (aka non-fiction/anthropological) magic create different variations it. Hell, even different real-world cultures have different systems of magic.

    This person is bringing a whole shitload of expectations to the game that I am not sure ANY game can provide a satisfying experience for. Well, unless "real" magic is video game magic for the author. Power up!

    This may also explain why its so hard for the author to imagine things not ever experienced. One often reads or actively watches tv or film to acquire such vicarious knowledge. I am left thinking this might be a twenty-something whose steady diet of video games and Twilight has left little room for engaging with great works of fiction of other media and eras.

  2. This is basically the most common "I Don't Like D&D" argument, and typical for people who had played it but became converted to another system later. The review operates from very heavy assumptions about what fantasy or what a ruleset ought to be like - subjective value judgements believed to be objective markers of quality. It is the same way with the "roleplaying vs. rollplaying" fallacy, which in most of these debates is taken to be a dichotomy - while there is nothing keeping a good game from having both and being satisfying on multiple levels (focused vs. complex fun etc). The third part of the argument, which is somewhat confusingly worded, seems to come down to the concept of "realism". While I am in favour of settings and adventures that are internally consistent on some level (not necessarily on the level the players see or the DM understands completely, but potentially internally consistent), the dominance of mundane realism is often a way to remove the fantastic element from fantasy gaming and disenchant whatever remains of it.

    That said, it must also be recognised that a lot of people have only seen one kind of dungeons: very poorly made ones. Considering how dungeon design degenerated from the early 80s to its rediscovery and re-evaluation in the 00s, and how subconsciously seeing it as a "guilty pleasure" or "immature" form of gaming has impacted the design of dungeons that were actually released - almost always apologetic! - it is not a stretch to suggest a lot of people do not see dungeoneering as good because they have never seen it done right.

  3. I think that the rules suggesting something should happen is a human reaction. In user interface design it is called affordance. Certain objects "afford" certain uses. Their look suggest certain uses. There's a door with a nob. It suggests pulling or turning. Its affordance is a bit ambiguous. There's a mug with a handle. It suggests gripping the handle and lifting it.

    I think the same can be said about rules. If there is a book about a game and it talks a lot about fighting, then people think that fighting is important. You'll spend a lot of time generating a character made for fighting, and you'll expect to do a lot of fighting.

    So while I agree that you can take an RPG that talks a lot about fighting and do imaginary conversations and quests and all the things I like, I don't fault other people for thinking that the game will be about fighting. I blame the usability aspect of the book. It affords thinking about combat, certain ways to run combat ('rules as written'), a certain fairness (even though the challenge ratings were introduced to help DMs judge the difficulty of a certain encounter, not as a rule to protect players from overpowered encounters), a certain wealth per level, and so on.

    It's unfortunate, and I try to push against those expectations gained from the rule books in all of my games. But it's exhausting. Specially if some people actually prefer the kind of game afforded by the rule book. Some people I game with enjoy complex character generation and LSD chess combat. Good luck pushing against those armed with a D&D 3.5 rule book.

  4. There are countries where this could get you arrested, depending on the title you gave it


  5. The word "shenanigans" is used way too many times in this post.

    ... and not even one "tomfoolery" to balance it out.

  6. "For some new players, it's near impossible to connect with a place they've never visited[1]. For instance, I've never been to the desert so I have a hard time placing my character in a world where the sand stings her eyes as she feels the intense heat radiating off the ground. I know those things happen, but I have a harder time feeling them."

    I've chatted with Sarah on Twitter and she's mentioned she has a hard time visualizing scenes in her mind's eye from just hearing or reading description - which is why she prefers gaming with the battlemat and minis.

    I really have no idea how common that sort of thing is, or how many new players that would be representative of. It's pretty different from how I approach RPGs - but then again so are a bunch of other things I see people posting online.

  7. "For instance, I've never been to the desert so I have a hard time placing my character in a world where the sand stings her eyes as she feels the intense heat radiating off the ground."

    Which is an odd comment because that player has just listed two facets of being in a desert that clearly he or she can imagine. I would suspect that player gets very little enjoyment from fiction as well.

  8. Perhaps said cross-sniped blogger has never had a good DM? When you're hung up on mechanics about magic spells and dungeons, you've probably never had a real DM present a real story. Maybe I'm wrong about it, but D&D is all about the basic elements of a good story, not making a wizard feel important or explaining what in the wide wide world of sports a dungeon is doing IRL.

  9. It's a real shame that more fantasy enthusiasts and gamers haven't read Vance. He is one of the best writers out there, bar none. His sheer skill at description and imagery, not to mention his boundless creativity make his books not to be missed, IMNSHO.

  10. @ the_Myth
    Some of us twenty-somethings do read things that aren't about sparkly vampires. Some of us read Virgil and Homer, or if you prefer REH and CAS and HPL.

    I even play OSD&D, and so does my wife and everyone whose signed up to play in my upcoming Skype game. For the record, I'm 22.

    I've had players who need the minis to help them get an idea of where their character is, but I've never had one who could not imagine the surroundings without one. I've also never had a player under 25.

    @ Jim
    This is just about the most insipid polemic against dungeons I've yet read. I am left to wonder how should could imagine elves, or castles, or really anything outside of the modern world.

  11. Vance is also a very game-friendly author - many of his episodic plots are structured like semi-freeform adventure modules.

  12. Regarding Vancian magic, the whole point of "magic" in the Dying Earth stories is that "wizards" are basically idiots and buffoons. The knowledge and culture of earlier times has been lost and science and technology has been reduced to push button effects, since the mathematics that formulates the "spells" is no longer known. It is the height of irony that the image of the wizened elder of Gandalf has been wed to a system which represents intellectual decay.

    Said Guyal in The Dying Earth, "I am dissatisfied with the mindless accomplishments of the magicians, who have all their lore by rote." This was the character who had the "brain damage" of curiosity.

    It is not unreasonable for someone whose fictional picture of a wizard in a (metamedieval) fantasy setting would envision Gandalf, or even Elric, or the villains that Conan faces. Of course one should not try and make assumptions about what one does not know, but that is a different issue from player expectations. There is no fault in trying something, seeing that it doesn't meet expectations, and moving on. Reading romance novels doesn't give me what I want out of fiction, so I don't read many.

    That having been said, I'm certain that the fire-and-forget mechanism was used because it was simple and it fit the context of wargaming, e.g. "instead of attacking this round I fire magic missile". I doubt there was a deeper reason than that.

    This has nothing to do with "simulating any particular story", either. D&D cannot, by nature, unless you're either very lucky or using some agreed upon mechanics (explicitly or implicitly), "simulate" the art of fiction at all. Fiction works to different ends and has a completely different mechanism than role-playing as the mechanics of D&D present it. What D&D borrows from fiction is the lineaments, the swords and the dragons and the wizards, from certain kinds of fiction.

    Also, if you're going to justify the use of fire-and-forget spells based on resource management, what is it that you don't like about 4e? :)

    Finally, the mechanics define what characters do, and they define expectations. The beauty of a tabletop roleplaying game is that one's imagination can be used to step beyond these boundaries. The price of that is that one must have a group with agreed upon assumptions about the extra-mechanical capabilities of the characters. Early versions of D&D handled this by putting the authority of god into the DMs hands. Beyond the rules as stated, the fighter, the magic-user, and the thief are completely equivalent. As soon as you say, "but a fighter wouldn't be able to do that" you've added mechanics.

    To be sure, I didn't say that mechanics are there to provide player empowerment; I used the fact that they are a source of them. You say they are there to "provide an impartial source to resolve situations that arise in play". Is there a reason only certain things need to be impartial? You've implicitly stated that whatever isn't covered by the rules does not need an impartial resolution mechanism. For example, deciding whether certain characters can accomplish certain actions at all.

    Also, apparently some readers can't distinguish between me and Sarah Darkmagic despite the sign posts you gave them.

  13. @The_Myth: I'm pretty sure the author is in her 30s (like me).

    @Evan: Everyone has their own perspective I guess. From my own experiences neither young players, or new players as a group would accurately be described as sharing her concerns.

  14. @Stuart
    I think we agree, but I think this might be the second time in two days that I've been unable to get my point across via teh interwebs.

  15. @Evan: I'm pretty sure we agree. :)

    I was commenting on the linked article. My concern is the suggestion her POV represents "newer players" or "younger players" rather than just "players like Sarah" which would be a fairer statement.

  16. Ok, yeah we're on the same page :D

  17. Oh, man, the Dio parts in Metal make me so bummed now. Sucks.

  18. Oh, and "imagination of a small rock" is right.

    I say simply write this unfortunate one off with a "There but for the grace of Cryonax go I..."

  19. If only I had a dollar for everytime I've heard someone say that D&D's Vancian magic is "unrealistic".

    As opposed to that "real" magic out there, somewhere.

  20. What do you "somewhere?"

    It's at your local bookstore!


    And yes, that's real. You can't make up a title that sweet. Nobody would believe it.

  21. She doesn't say it's not realistic. She says it breaks her suspension of disbelief. While very subjective, this is an important element in allowing players to immerse themselves in the fictional world the game rules are trying to facilitate. If you keep banging up against systems that don't make sense to you, it makes it harder to get into it.

    For me, the most worn-out response to "this magic system doesn't make sense" is "well, magic isn't real so of course it doesn't make sense." That's a really lazy argument.

  22. Πέσ'τα χρυσόστομε...

    I'm glad to see that there at least some people who think straight about matters like these...

  23. "I don't buy that the purpose of mechanics are there to provide opportunities for players to be empowered. Mechanics exist to provide an impartial source to resolve situations that arise in play. Nothing more. Certainly they are not there to suggest what should happen during play."

    Herein lies my issue(s) with 4th edition, and to some extent, 3/3.5. Your character's feats/powers dictate exactly what you can and cannot do in a given situation. With 4th edtion, it has gotten to the point where if you attempt to deviate from what your powers/feats dictate, you will not be successful, and you will probably piss off the rest of the group. This completely stifles roleplaying and originiality during combat and forces you to play your class way more than any of the older editions of D&D.

    However, this is a boon for the DM, as he knows his parties capabilities intimately, and can easily design encounters as he sees fit. I have never DM'd 4th edition (though I have played it for a very unfortunate 2 years), but our DM has said as much. D&D 4th is extremely easy to DM, and often, frightfully boring and protacted as a player. No matter how good the DM, sitting around for half an hour waiting for your turn to enact your completely predictable actions is BORING.