Sunday, October 1, 2023

AD&D Session 1: Violence Breeds Violence

At long last, after years of preparation, I have finally begun my AD&D campaign in earnest. Though there were several failed launches in the past, I have now gathered a group of great players, and look forward to gaming with them for a long while to come!

Rejected titles: We're Architecture Tourists, Come in Peace, Leave in Pieces

The Party

Norbeth Yelfiel, elf mage/thief with a periwinkle wide-brimmed floppy hat, played by Finn
Akiva ben Moshe, beetlefolk fighter with a short ponytail, played by Ali
Occam, goblin fighter with a greathelm, played by Anne
Innus Entus, goblin cleric/fighter with a bishop's mitre, played by Cao Linh
Ingvar Duram, human cleric with an extravagant tricorn hat, played by Jackson
Eileen Longtail, human soldier
Tork Longtail, ratling scoundrel


Auspicious roast turkey
Assorted goblin equipment
Bottle of fine beetlefolk blood-brandy, 25gp

The Game
  • We set our scene in Beegrove, population 80, a benighted town two days off the king's road, where the Scarlet Candle inn and tavern does brisk business for one reason alone: it is within walking distance of Stonehell. A pit of iniquity, built decades ago by a tyrant to imprison dissidents and conduct horrifying experiments upon them. Though the tyrant has long since been overthrown, the liberation of the prison was incomplete: too many prisoners dug too deep, and many refused to return to the surface. 
  • Now Stonehell is a magnet for bandits, goblins, and all sorts of other monsters, whether as a hideout, hunting reserve, or a staging ground for attacks upon nearby human settlements. And there are no shortage of brave souls willing to enter in order to quell the evil within, and to take treasure from its depths. 
21 Plantings 1113
  • So this yet-unnamed group has gathered within the Scarlet Candle inn and tavern to make a toast. Innus Entus makes a toast to survival, while Akiva toasts to 'cash money.'
  • Akiva is joined in his toast by a young woman with a crooked nose, Eileen Longtail, a warrior who wants to join the party in their journey. Norbeth is alarmed that someone was aware of their secret plan... which was a secret to nobody in town whatsoever. 
  • Seeing her enthusiasm, the party was more than happy to let her join. At that moment, a ratling, Tork Longtail, stomps in and begins arguing with Eileen. The innkeeper fills in the party that this is her adoptive brother; she was abandoned in the hills as a child, and was found and raised by a ratling family until she was too old to fit in their burrow. They're rather protective of her, and disapprove of her adventurous ambitions. 
Party: "We have met the main character and must protect her with our lives."
  • The party is steadfast, and Tork announces that he too will join the expedition; he is, after all, the only person in their number that has actually traveled to Stonehell, albeit as a porter and never actually entering the dungeon. 
22 Plantings 1113
  • The party leaves the hamlet early the next morning, just as the townsfolk are preparing for the feast of St. Quiscal the Decapitated, a joyous late spring affair whose festivities, for reasons lost to time, involve draping a large wicker donkey with flowers and vines and marching it into the town square to be immolated. The villagers send the party off with a roast turkey in honor of their auspicious day of departure. 
  • Though there was a heavy rainstorm two days past, the day is brisk, breezy, clear and sunny. They are accompanied partway along the road to Stonehell by Ser Olmar, the young lord of Beegrove, off to try his hand competing at the qualifying tourney a couple days north in Bowerness. 
  • A long dirt road snakes through the hills and past a dank marsh toward mountains of red stone, and finally leads into a narrow box canyon blocked off by a forbidding curtain wall; this wall and gatehouse, however, has long since been sieged and abandoned, and the party has no difficulty moving through. 
  • Thick mist blows from further down the canyon, and though the party sees various odd structures, they do not stop to examine them. They make a beeline for the entrance to Stonehell proper, a great stone archway carved with ominous verses leading to a spiral staircase that descends out of sight. The chamber is marred by a great deal of graffiti, much of it written using the common script but in the language of dragons. Ingvar, something of a polyglot, translates one piece as 'clean up trash, dumb humans' and the party wonders for a while at the ambiguity therein. 
Ali: In five sessions we're going to get blindsided and the DM is going to say 'aha, that graffiti was written at dragon height!'
  • The party descends, and in response to a variety of possible exits in the first room, commit themselves to a pattern of exploration: north first. This plan is immediately challenged by the discovery of a draconic-language sign reading 'Da Dragon's Den' pointing west, but they persevere. 
  • They discover the work of previous expeditions, are watched from the darkness by the glowing red eyes of what they gather are kobold work crews, and discover a strange altar before a colossal stone head with crystal eyes and mist emanating from its maw. Their curiosity is drawn by a draft of cold air, which leads to a chamber filled with the dusty remains of bones and rusted armor and weapons, beyond which is a locked stone door marked carved with the iconography of the danse macabre. They prove unable to open it quietly, and neglect to spend quality time with a crowbar and possibly alert everything on the other side. 
  • As they turn away from the door, they realize that the cold, stale air is once again coming from behind them. As best they can discern, it originates from a spot near the center of the room. Occam decides to pry up a flagstone and as he does so, feels a cold hand upon his shoulder. 
  • The rest of the party sees a ghostly figure manifest behind the fighter. All but the two clerics flee in terror: Occam west towards the locked door, the rest of the party to the south and west. Innus and Ingvar hold fast, and seeing that it is not hostile, attempt to commune with the specter. It wheezes out 'I remember' and 'Look for the vizier' before it disappears. 
  • Once the bulk of the party recovers from their fright, they find themselves in an unexplored area... and spy torchlight coming around the corner. Akiva steps in front of the others, zweihander held out, but the alarm is unnecessary; they encounter another beetlefolk, Meryre, who is part of an expedition examining the unique architecture of Stonehell. They exchange information, and Meryre warns them that there is are numerous goblins to the south, warring among one another, the Festering Wound clan and the Wolf Gang. 
  • Shortly thereafter, the whole party is reunited and touches base: further poking the flagstones near the cold draft does not cause the ghost to return. 
  • They venture south, and in their exploration encounter a group of humans... dirty, bedraggled humans with a wild light in their eyes, hunched over a choking fire roasting sad little pieces of meat. They spy the goblins in front of the marching order and go to their weapons. A sign of peace on the part of Akiva stays them from immediate hostilities, but they still demand food. The goblins took Kolbar, and they will have recompense. The party realizes these mad humans have mistaken the party for the Festering Wound goblins to the south. After some deliberation, they offer a day's rations and book it out, unwilling to get into a fight with no promise of reward, even with a slight advantage in numbers. 
  • Further south, the party is surprised by the Festering Wound goblins... but in a stroke of luck, with goblins leading the party in front they are fooled into thinking the party are reinforcements from elsewhere in the dungeon, accompanied by well-beaten slaves. The goblins, each of whom has a distinctive, never-healing wound on their body, inform the party that there's a crew of beetlefolk nearby, and encourage them to go kill and enslave them as well. 
Party: Are we sure we want to do that? After all, violence breeds violence.
Party: Stop, that's not a good thing!
  • Occam and Innus agree, and the party sets off to meet the beetlefolk, whom Akiva is able to convince that the party means no harm. They find that the beetlefolk have stationed themselves in a chamber with fascinating architecture, not least a secret door through which they have been spying on the goblin outpost the party just passed through. The two groups scheme together, and come up with a plan.
  • The party returns to the outpost, beyond which they know are more goblins who may be alerted by an alarm. So they position themselves near the alarm gong, and are ready when the beetlefolk launch their attack. 
  • Norbeth tears the gong from its post and cushions it to prevent it from sounding while the remaining party and the beetlefolk surround the goblins. In a stroke of luck, the goblins are surprised for two segments, and are quickly cut down. Innus and Norbeth take one captive with a command spell and Tork slays the last with a well-aimed sling bullet to the forehead. 
  • Now, as the party takes a prisoner and loots the bodies, with the goblin allies unaware of anything wrong, they stop to consider: what are the next steps? What will they do with their prisoner? And how much further into the dungeon are they willing to go? We shall soon see, in next week's session of Cascabel!

After anticipating the start of this campaign for so long, actually playing it almost comes as a relief. Though I knew these players well and had confidence in my system knowledge, I was still beset with doubts. What if the jump from L5R/5e to AD&D wasn't to their liking? What if I couldn't run it effectively at the table? What if I had lost my touch?

I'm pleased to say it all went well despite those doubts. Character creation was done with within a couple hours, and largely went smoothly, except for the realization that certain crucial pieces of data were missing from my homemade PHB (namely some equipment weights and prices, and the ranges/lengths of weapons). The spread of ability scores was wider than I had expected: one 18 and one 19 (!), as well as a 4. The players rolled with it admirably. One noted that it was fun rolling ability scores in order, and wound up playing a fighter, not their usual cup of tea. We also got good use out of JB's old Random Headgear tables, just like in Castle Xyntillan. 

The group got into their characters pretty quick, took well to Eileen and Tork (after a couple campaigns with this lot, I think I know what kinds of NPCs they end up liking), and were enthusiastic about getting into the dungeon. It was a little wobbly at first, but after some adjustment they got into the groove of things. Though we only had one short combat at the end of the session, it good good responses, especially the speed. AD&D combat rounds take 1 minute in-game, and their resolution out of game isn't much longer! Stumpian 1d6 initiative also worked out without much need for explanation at the table. 

In terms of tone, this session was generally on the lighthearted side: my sessions have always been at least a little tongue in cheek, and since one of my favorite things at the table is fun NPC interaction, I tend to lean into some of the more ... absurd elements? Not sure if that's the right way to put it. Time spent in play was short, around two hours, but I do feel like plenty got done in that time. 

This is my second time running a megadungeon, and unlike Castle Xyntillan, this one actually does have factions! The party has only scratched the first level, yet they've already encountered two, heard of a third, and had intimations of a fourth. The appearance of Meryre the beetlefolk was a random encounter, but by serendipity it happened in just the right place. The fun of running megadungeons is all coming back!

I feel that the surface region around Stonehell may have overwhelmed the party... or rather, I overwhelmed the party by listing so many save entrances and features all in one go, such that they decided to ignore all that and head directly for the dungeon proper. Or maybe they really did just want to get underground ASAP. I guess I'll figure it out. 

Friday, September 1, 2023

AD&D Spell Revision: Blink

In the course of preparing for my upcoming AD&D campaign, I've done... a lot, frankly. Much of it tedious. The process of digesting the 1e PHB and regurgitating it as a now 170-page document featuring setting and system rules, custom character creation, special notes on playing illusionists, and reformatted... everything... was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. 

Still, a lot of it was tedious. It's around two thirds spell lists by page count, and I had to reformat and spellcheck all of it. On the bright side that's done now, so I can benefit from the work of old me and get on to more interesting things. Or rather, it was done, until I got it into my head today to do a final revision of all the spell descriptions to clarify and cut down the text. That'll take me a while longer. 

For most of these, I'm just removing excess text (the bits written for people who were not assumed to have the now-ubiquitous background knowledge of how D&D works) and rephrasing some of the purple prose. Still, every now and again there's a spell that seems to require a little bit more than that. 

Case in point: Blink, 3rd level MU spell. The original text is lengthy, more than the spell deserves given that it's ultimately pretty simple. That said, simple is not the same as easy, and Blink's design made me do a double take when I really digested its description. 

Maybe I'm missing something. If so, point it out in the comments. But in exchange for a 3rd level spell, as well as a 25% chance that anything other than stabbing will fail and a not-inconsiderable chance of getting stuck in the ethereal plane (don't get too close to any cave walls!) you get to... not get hit by a non-area attack that happens to occur on a random segment? 

I get what this is going for. Moreso than many other spells I could name, Blink has an immediately evocative element for the visual imagination: I can imagine a wizard appearing and disappearing chaotically, becoming unpredictable and difficult to target. It's a concept that's at home both in pulpier sword and sorcery games and more superheroic ones. 

But the execution here doesn't deliver on that vision, nor on the expectations for the power of a third level spell. Fireball has been a meme since 1979, everyone at least wants access to it, anything else in that 3rd level list should, at minimum, have something that makes a prospective wizard say 'I can imagine a situation where I would really want to have this instead of a fireball.' Blink doesn't seem to pull that off. This is supposed to hold my attention next to Dispel Magic, Fly, Invisibility 10', and Tongues? Maybe that's why it got such a drastic redesign in the 2e PHB: arguably a downgrade, as I can't even understand what the hell the 2e version of Blink even does or how it works. 

As I'm writing this, I'm half convinced Anthony Huso is going to swing through the window on a rope and show me the hidden elegance and synergy of the spell... but only half convinced. I'm not quite so wedded to AD&D RAW (as my last post may hint), and wary though I am of tossing out some perfectly good design thanks to my own philistinism, I can't for the life of me figure out why this works the way it does. 

Each round, roll 2d4, that's the blink segment. On that segment, roll 1d8 for direction. Determine if something is going to stop you from teleporting 2' in that direction, figure out if that ends with you getting stuck in the ethereal plane. The spell text references the Monster Manual entry for Blink Dog, whose ability works pretty differently: it's just uncontrollable short range teleportation which is very likely to flank an opponent. Not really much of an improvement. 

It's doing several things which, whether you're playing with my specific combat/initiative rules or no, seem to break the flow of the game. It pencils in a new event on a different segment each round (which really needs to be managed by the DM, to make sure it doesn't get skipped over), and on that segment there has to be another die rolled and the state of the physical space has to be examined in pretty damn fine detail (almost nothing else in AD&D gets measured in individual feet, outside weapon lengths and Burning Hands) in a way that apparently presumes miniature play. And you might get randomly screwed, all in exchange for what really looks like a tiny benefit. 

I'm not buying it. 

So I dug out the old hat I used to wear back when this blog was known for hastily-constructed and totally unplaytested GLOG classes, the one labeled 'ill-considered homebrew' and shaped like Rita Repulsa's hair from the original Power Rangers, and made this. 
Blink (Alteration)
Level: 3    Components: V, S    
Range: 0     Casting Time: 1 segment    
Duration: 1 round/level     Saving Throw: None    
Area of Effect: Personal
    The spellcaster bridges the gap between the material and ethereal planes using their own body, becoming swifter and more elusive while surrendering to the chaotic eddies of the astral wind. 
    Each round after the blink spell is cast, the caster rolls two dice for initiative. The lower result is used for initiative, and is modified as normal. The higher result is added to the caster’s armor class and applicable saving throws for that round. This bonus does not apply to attacks by creatures and effects which can target both the material and ethereal planes, such as a medusa’s gaze.
(Worth noting, I use per-round initiative that determines the first effective segment of action, lower is better.) 

There we are. Short, to the point, fits the fantasy of the spell better. I think it's a good fit for a third level spell and shouldn't be overly potent. The defensive bonus is variable, fitting the chaotic nature of the spell, and even on the high end I don't think it's excessive. It's sort of like a Shield spell, except it doesn't block Magic Missiles but also doesn't take into account direction and improves saves more; for a dextrous or otherwise well protected spellcaster the AC bonus is superior to Shield, but inferior for a clumsy and/or unarmored one, while lasting only a fifth as long (still probably long enough to outlast most combats). The improvement to initiative is nice but doesn't seem like it should cause any problems. 

And all of this is rolled into one extra rolled die, which gives the player of the spellcaster an immediate, tangible feeling of the benefit the spell provides, while requiring no extra bandwidth on the DM's part and not slowing down combat, except possibly clarifying what counts as an 'applicable' saving throw and reminding players which monsters can attack the ethereal simultaneously. 

It'll probably be some months before I even have a chance to playtest this. Ah, the heady and carefree days of youth!

Thursday, August 24, 2023

On Playing Raw: Nasty, Brutish, and Undercooked

This image has made the rounds in some RPG servers in the last few days, where it has been the subject of much clowning and gnashing of teeth.

It is, unfortunately, real, and I did look at the original site. To be sure, there was plenty to laugh at both in the entirety of the above-excerpted piece and in the rest of the site. Much of it was baffling. Other parts I didn't have any particular disagreement with. All in all, it didn't seem to merit any commentary or response. Until I saw this other bit of the home page. 

I'm pretty sure 'JC' means Jeremy Crawford
The alternative sounds impious

The fifth and third points? Good and fine. The fourth point is mixed, and I think it makes a mistake by associating DM fiat with adversarial play. It's the first and second points that draw my ire. 

Are 'the rules' (here referring by default to the rules of the Current Edition™) complex? Sure. But there's a big jump from that to 'DMing is hard.' This is the exact opposite of the message I want to send to beginner players—and especially beginner DMs.

Can DMing be hard? Sure, in the same way that playing chess can be hard when you're playing at a high level against a seasoned opponent or under strict time pressure. This does not mean it must be hard. In particular, putting these two statements together implies that DMing is difficult because the rules are complex... and that just isn't true. 

Gaining rules knowledge can take a while and benefits from focus and experience as a player, but it's far from the toughest thing about being a DM; and it's definitely not the thing which most improves the play experience. If I had to rank all the most important aspects of being a DM, rules knowledge would be well below the mid-point, because unlike many other aspects of the DM's craft it does not benefit from the DM's privileged position. 

The DM can rely on other players to know the rules inside and out and inquire with them when a ruling seems uncertain, but pacing a session cannot be offloaded onto the players, for whom a veil of ignorance must be drawn lest the events to follow lose much of their power, and maintaining order and cordial relations among the group depends on the DM's special role as a group arbitrator. These things are far more crucial to the craft of a DM than mere rules knowledge, not least because they transfer from game to game even as rules knowledge falls by the wayside. These are also, crucially, intuitive and social skills rather than regulations to be memorized and effected. I am sure there are people for whom such things come as easy as breathing but memorizing a rulebook is a horrible imposition; such people will lose little from switching to rules-lite systems. 

The sort of DMing I do is (I'd like to think) quite difficult. In my upcoming AD&D game, for example, I've gone out of my way to make things harder for myself. I've just about rewritten the PHB for my players, made custom programs to generate weather by time and location, and I'm implementing a whole bunch of homebrewed subsystems. I would never recommend that any DM begin running a game this way. A simpler game, starting from the printed rules but loose with them, is an excellent starting place which will serve both DM and player much better than an insistence upon RAW. 

I can't help but think that the prevalence of this attitude contributes, and is perhaps the primary driver, of the 'DM shortage' which is claimed to exist in the 5e space. I don't play that system anymore, yet it still matters to me; fewer DMs means fewer people, especially new players, actually playing the game, and more participating in peripheral activities like watching shows, listening to podcasts, and reading about the game. To be sure, I do all of these things, but they are no substitute for the genuine article, and their prevalence can lead to mismatched expectations about what play is actually like. 

This attitude can seep in early. I can't for the life of me remember exactly when I first heard about tabletop games. I do recall my first year of high school, when I spoke to someone who had played in a campaign the previous year. I was excited by the prospect of the game and expressed a desire to make my own world. I was told flatly that this was a bad idea; much better to learn by running published adventures. Years later, I know this to be false. Never mind that, at the onset of the hobby, one began to DM not by running pre-published scenarios but by constructing one's own town, wilderness, and dungeon. The published modules available today, by and large, vary between mediocrity and crap, both in the case of official corporate modules and those prominently displayed in online marketplaces. These are products which neither teach essential tools (like how to properly run a dungeoncrawl) nor point the DM towards some ideal of play: even if run exquisitely according to the book and rules, what emerges is a railroaded slog. 

I may have lost some readers with the last paragraph, sensible and reasonable readers, whom I might have otherwise persuaded. But... seriously. This cannot be the standard. It's an impoverished shade of what the medium can do. When I imagine playing in a game like this for an extended period of time, I get the feeling of a man drying out in the baking sun. It is the reduction of this wonderful hobby to a mercenary service and of the DM's craft to a mechanical operation perfectly poised to be replaced by a cheaper and more effective mechanism. I don't tolerate it and neither should you. 

I will take a moment to rant about the RAW attitude on display above, though it was not my original intention: the original site states, regarding the choice of a novice DM to modify an encounter in order to challenge a character with an optimized PC,
It is grotesquely unfair to the player(s) involved, who may have invested dozens of hours into building their character under the perfectly reasonable assumption that the expensive rule books that they spent their money on would be the rules that the game follows.
This one sentence is a nesting doll of terrible ideas. How, exactly, is it grotesquely unfair to make a variant guaranteed-hit lightning bolt, in a way that it would not be unfair to include an upcast magic missile, or, for that matter, simply introducing Tiamat? 

Further, these players may have invested dozens of hours into building their characters? In what world? I don't disbelieve that there are players who spend longer making characters than they do actually playing them, but why is that the assumption?

Finally, because players have purchased expensive rule books, the DM is under some obligation to conform to them? This is the assumption that the DM is providing a service for the players who, as customers, possess some rights and protections, as opposed to the assumption that the players have been invited into a group experience in which the DM possesses some special abilities and responsibilities. 

It should be no surprise that this fellow is, in fact, marketing himself as a DM-for-hire, and is moreover a former Adventurers League DM. I consider myself blessed every day that I was not introduced to the hobby through that medium. 

DMing has a very high skill ceiling, but the floor at which an enjoyable game is played is low indeed. I have, myself, run games which were quite poor on a technical level and which were hardly better paced or organized: my players still came back, and they got to see a much better game grow as a result of their trust in me. One of my close friends, who had never interacted with the game until a couple of years ago, sat in on, and then became a player in, my last campaign. They have now for many months been running their own homebrewed campaign in 5e: it's a riotous, ridiculous farce of lobster cult secret police suppressing journalistic ventures to discover the secrets underneath a vast conspiracy, and all the players there are having great fun. My cousin, nine years old, is starting to run his own homebrew campaign based loosely on 1e rules; every time we meet, it's all he wants to talk about! None of these games or DMs started smooth or proficient in the rules—players developed a loyalty to them anyway. 

This is because the act of roleplaying, the burning creativity available when people come together in this magnificent game, really is just that appealing and enjoyable, so much so that it takes serious dysfunction on a personal level to make it actively unenjoyable. But it relies on the openness and freedom that distinguishes the role-playing game from all that came before it, both on the part of the player and DM. It is exactly that freedom that a misguided, absolute appeal to RAW threatens to smother. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

The GM Is Dead, and we, Murderers of All Murderers, Have Killed Him

With apologies to Joyce: only big titles for small posts on account of the sound. 

Some time ago, I stumbled on this thread: it's a very, very detailed review of a Paizo adventure path from the 3.5 days, on a forum called the Gaming Den. I'm not in the habit of reading RPG forums, and I've never played D&D 3.5 or any of its cousins. I can't for the life of me remember how I found this or why I chose to read it, but I did. 

It is fascinating. 

Not the interminable room-by-room summaries of every single dungeon in the book, that stuff makes my eyes glaze over. It's the stuff in between, the opinions in the margins and the arguments that erupt. This thread is, in reality, a type of fantasy fiction. Reading it, I was transported into a strange and different world: a world where monsters are discussed in terms of 'beatsticks' and 'closet trolls', players are assumed to have whatever magic items they want and can afford, and characters go from level 1 to 20 in three months. 

I'm particularly interested in a vitriolic little exchange that starts at the top of the third page of the thread. I'll summarize:

A: By the time the PCs can cast sixth level spells, they can shit gold and gems if they want! They should be spamming planar binding and getting xorns to dig priceless diamonds out of the elemental plane of earth!

B: No, if you go over the Wealth by Level in the DMG the DM is supposed to take the excess money away from you, and if you want henchmen you need a feat. Stop passing our houserules off as actual rules.

A: No, it's a character building guideline, and it's not a houserule to put together the rules for various spells and see the PCs can generate infinite wealth at this level, also there are other ways to get henchmen and hirelings. 

B: Only in that everything in the DMG is a guideline, the DMG says to take OP abilities away from PCs, and since the WBL table goes up to a million at level 20 it can't be infinite at level 9, also planar beings and wishes will screw you over.

I'll stop. 

As best I can tell, the claims are that, by combining a few vanilla spells that allow one to control or transform into beings that can create wealth (like genies) or can work for the PCs (like xorn) it is possible for the PCs to make way, way more money than the game anticipates. 

Now, I don't have a dog in this fight, rules-wise. What interest me are the norms of this discussion. Namely, this is being argued in terms of legitimacy rather than merit (my girlfriend is a constitutional law nerd, and she's insisting that this is an argument between originalist, textualist, and, on my end, judicial activist modes of interpretation). What is asked here is not "how would implementing this set of rules improve or impair the experience of the game" but "is this what the designers intended."

I needn't remind the readers of this blog that, once upon a time, the game was only house rules: the culture of kit-bashing and designing bespoke systems in the OSR sees to that. There is also a culture of interpretation: reading over the 1e DMG and OD&D, crawling through the attics of innocent Wisconsonians for scraps of old notebooks, and holding forth on initiative rules with nigh-Talmudic seriousness. I confess to having done some of these things. But I also maintain that the question there is "How did the original players think, and what can that teach us?" as opposed to "What was the intended method of play, so we can do that."

It matters not a whit whether the authors of the 3e DMG wanted you to take excess wealth away from your players, only what effect this has on the game. Your game, at your table. 

That's the crux of the issue, I think. Partly as an edition thing (with the increased focus on character-building as an aspect of gameplay), partly as a community thing (with the rise of character-optimization communities, especially on online forums), partly as a business thing (make sure everyone is playing with the published rules, in the published settings, using published adventures, so that they buy our books) the experience of the game for many players has shifted away from the experience of playing at a given table, characterized by a particular DM and players with their own faults and foibles and opinions and houserules, and towards the partly-imagined experience of playing a sort of platonic ideal D&D, where the rules always work as intended and the setting is exactly as published and the game is a regular progression of CR-appropriate combats atop masterful battlemaps. Both DMs and players do this (I know I have, especially in times when I didn't have a regular group). I can't help but think that Joseph Manola's writing about RPG books as fiction is relevant here. 

The result is the argument summarized above, appealing to the rulebooks without a thought for how this affects the experience of play or the world of the game. 

My own, possibly controversial opinion: characters in double-digit levels using magic to create vast sums of wealth, far more than they could gain through normal adventuring, is not necessarily bad. 

There are caveats. It is bad if it damages the play experience, or runs counter to the setting. The adventure path assumes a game and setting wherein getting paid thousands of gold pieces to adventure is something desirable and appropriate, in which there are many characters of this level and higher, who do not themselves have infinite planar wealth. Leaving the world-saving mission to go make a ton of money by spamming spells would indeed be destructive to this playstyle and game. 

But let's imagine, starting from this principle, what such a world might look like, where the right combination of magic spells can yield endless, untold riches. What would a PC that has done that look like?

The first thought that comes to mind for me is the sorcerer Maal Dweb, from the short stories of Clark Ashton Smith (The Maze of Maal Dweb and The Flower Women). All-powerful, surrounded by wealth and wonder, and incapable of enjoying any of it. Clearly not a character devoid of drama, or ill-fitted to appearing in an adventure game, whether as a player character or an antagonist. All it requires is recognizing what sort of game, in terms of style and genre, the rules imply we are playing. Justin Alexander made this case in an old post (actually, almost as old as the adventure under discussion in the thread), that people like to stat up their favorite fictional characters as 20th level D&D characters (this specific incarnation is more of a 3e thing, since that's when 20th level got codified as the top of the usual power curve, but Gygax was statting up Conan as a teens-level fighter/thief multiclass since well before then, and it was just as silly then). Luke Skywalker is the bestest jedi ever, so he's 20th level, right? 

Well, no. Not just because 'levels' is a silly thing to apply to fictional characters wholly outside the framework of an RPG, but because the sorts of things a character can do is heavily dependent on the genre and the kind of story being told. Need I remind everyone, Inigo Montoya is second level (yeah, yeah, and Gandalf is 5th). 

Just because you paid for the whole speedometer doesn't mean you should use the whole thing. Just because you have a system that goes up to 20th level doesn't mean you need to put all your GMPCs at that level. A lot of settings would benefit from bringing down the power curve, stats-wise, in order to make some more sense. 

Conversely, extrapolating from the rules in any edition of the game and hypothesizing what a high level character would look like in the fiction of the game gets us high-fantasy pulp stuff, or superheroes, depending on the edition. Lean into that! The old AD&D modules topped out around 14th level, and those had you taking on the avatars of evil gods! 20th level characters should be ruling nations, leading religions, and getting into wars/negotiations with extraplanar beings over blood diamond mines on the lower planes. Recalibrate your expectations! 

After a fashion, I feel sympathetic for these guys on the thread. They've run into the contradictions between the ruleset and the explicit setting, and are flailing around to fix it. They're going about it the wrong way, but clearly they're trying to fix a problem. 

Now, am I suggesting that the approach above leads to a good game? No. But I do think it should be interpreted as an opportunity for drama and conflict instead of a bad rule in need of fixing. To any GM faced with such an issue, I must ask, where do the items conjured by, say, a genie, come from? Maybe in your setting the wish spell simply creates matter from nothing in the desired configuration. If so, you may have some setting implications to think through. But maybe it doesn't. 

In my games, items like the Everfull purse, which creates small amounts of coinage apparently from nothing, actually steal the coins from elsewhere: the coins are randomly teleported into itself, the closer the more likely a given coin is to be teleported. As a result, such items are illegal, and it becomes very difficult to use them to create a stockpile of infinite wealth; you end up stealing from yourself. Some might interpret this as a mean-spirited ruling to nerf the players, but I must heartily disagree: this is keeping up the drama. If a PC uses the above methods and tries to make infinite wealth by turning into a genie, where does that come from, and what does it imply? Does it perhaps come from the coffers of some other genie? After some time, will many such beings discover they are being stolen from, and seek out the miscreant abusing their powers? When an efreet rewards a PC with money, is it perhaps coming from the efreet's own stash on its home plane, or perhaps borrowed from another, to whom it is now in debt?

A related question: if a player shapechanged into a genie can make infinite wealth... why aren't the genies also doing this? Or are they? Or does this run the risk of crashing the magic item or gold market? Are there regulatory bodies, terrestrial or planar, that come after them?

These are all questions which lead to more drama. The problem with 11th level characters using shapechange to make tons of money isn't that it breaks the wealth tables, it's that these reviewers are arguing this entirely on the plane of book rules rather than interpreting it in the context of the game world. It's assuming that the world isn't consistent, isn't interactive, that it doesn't bite back; that it exists only as a vehicle for the published adventure. 

I think that's a very sad way to run games. Let the players get in over their heads, and let there be consequences! Let them push the big red apocalypse button! A campaign that ends up with PCs on the run from genies because they're abusing wishes sounds awesome, and I'd much rather keep the possibility of such crazy scenarios occurring than squash them to ensure that the regularly scheduled adventure path continues as normal. 

As much as I've used published material in the past, and will continue to do so, I'm glad that my upcoming campaign is going to feature a lot more original stuff. When I read the stories from the oldest campaigns (including some that are still ongoing) I can't help but feel a white-hot energy there, a creative joy on the part of GMs that is essentially linked to their freedom in the absence of standards for what the game looked like. There's almost no published material that captures this; it is a delicate thing that emerges from the table, in actual play, and doesn't survive being pinned down and stuck to paper.  

Monday, July 24, 2023

Min-maxing Isn't a Problem, Except When It Is

I just watched this video discussing the topic 'D&D Min-Max-ers Are Valid' featuring Brennan Lee Mulligan and Jasmine Bhullar. There's less discussion of the topic than I hoped, though I disliked their treatment of the topic less than I expected. Still, I think they manage to miss the point in a very juicy topic of discussion, and since I had strong opinions on the matter I have come to inflict them upon you all. 

I must confess: I am a min-maxer. And I have a problem with min-maxing. 

Does that not make sense? Read on.

Hello, Byzantine

Before I played TTRPGs, I played videogames, including a lot of CRPGs and single-player games. I was, and remain, a compulsive save-scummer. When I played Baldur's Gate, or Thief: The Metal Age, or Morrowind, or Hitman: Blood Money, I would be constantly saving, taking an action, failing, and trying again until I could get it exactly right. 

It was not fun, but I did it anyway. 

In our neck of the woods, it's not unusual to complain about the tyranny of fun, the notion that bowing to the dictates of short-term enjoyment makes long-term satisfaction very, very difficult to cultivate in a campaign. This is a related problem, I think. The satisfaction of finally getting past that one guard in the most difficult and obvious way possible after a dozen tries is short-lived, and by committing myself to that I cut myself off from many other, much more enjoyable, approaches. How many cool assassination options did I miss in Hitman, how many side paths and schemes did I miss in Thief, because I wanted to bulldoze through the game in a straight line?

It's worse in RPGs. I recently went back to Baldur's Gate to try out an evil playthrough. The first time I played it (very recently, I assure you) the first dungeon I found was actually the Ulcaster Academy. On this playthrough I decided to make a beeline for it. I was fine until I found the vampire wolf, and realized I didn't exactly have a whole lot of magic weapons that could damage it. So I save-scummed. I tried a couple dozen different times to set the fireball just right, give the rare magic weapons to the right characters and make sure nobody died. It took me a while to remember I had a dragon sorcerer and a storm cleric whose special abilities could take it down. By that point I had failed many, many times. 

That experience was not strictly unenjoyable. I had some fun trying (and failing) to kill it with a fireball trap. But there was more frustration that satisfaction. I would like you to imagine the same thing playing out at a table, the players bulldozing into an encounter with a creature they cannot normally beat, and demanding a do-over each time someone dies until they can get the perfect outcome. If I had players like that I would quit GMing. 

By contrast, I wrote recently here about my first time playing Ultima Underworld this past year. I went in completely blind. Others might find the experience detailed there to be undesirable, but it was a blast for me. I was immersed and engaged. I was afraid and surprised. I died a miserable death, and loved it. 

The bottom line here is that many of the best experiences in gaming (video or analog) happen under conditions of sub-optimal play. Part of this is because sub-optimal play leaves space for learning and optimization, which are often enjoyable, but also because it creates room for improvisation and unexpected situations. 

Back to TTRPGs. 

I think games are at their most boring when they're optimized. This can be related to the creation of a meta (my best friend in high school was a relentless optimizer who tried to get me into TF2, MtG, and Realm of the Mad God by bashing my head with the meta first, no dice, many such cases), but just as often it's smaller bits of optimization like a character creation system that have a few, clear peaks. 

Unlike videogames or card games, TTRPGs seem uniquely situated to prevent the dominance of meta or super-optimized tactics thanks to the GM's freedom to create new challenges and issue rulings. That's why I don't regard D&D monsters like the ear piercer as something bad. These are the footprints of an ever-evolving cat and mouse game between player and GM, but one which neither side is trying to 'win.' The GM could 'win' that fight in an instant using infinite Tiamats, but it would be totally worthless, because the enjoyment is in playing the game and the goal is to keep it going. Without GM freedom, the players could 'win' by finding the local optima and crushing whatever 'level appropriate' encounters got in their way, but that too would be hollow because there would no longer be the sense of risk, surprise, and unpredictability which made it fun. Just endless CR-balanced encounters at regular intervals allowing for rest, stretching into infinity. Perhaps we must imagine Sisyphus happy, but I think players and GMs would concur with the Greeks that this would be a curse. 

But this is perhaps too harsh a treatment of optimization. It is an activity in which many people engage with enjoyment. And it should be clear that optimization and min-maxing are not quite the same behavior. Mulligan and Bhullar offer some pat responses to the issue, but it remains that min-maxing is a behavior which occurs and which many people evidently have a problem. I think they missed the subtler point, which is that min-maxing and roleplay are antagonistic to one another. This does not mean that a single player can't do both, or that a campaign cannot include both (examples to the contrary abound), but rather, that they are different activities. When one is min-maxing, one is not roleplaying. 

They come from a culture of play which takes for granted that D&D (5th, pretty much exclusively) is a storytelling game. This is not an opinion I share, but it remains that many people run story-centered games using it and show no signs of stopping. It should still be clear under these premises that when min-maxing occurs, storytelling does not occur. 

But we should not take this for granted. 

One doesn’t often find discussions of min-maxing in games of Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia. This is in part because there’s not much to optimize in either, and in Paranoia the character creation process invites other players to screw up your character and make them a gormless idiot. But it’s also partly because optimization wouldn’t contribute much to either game. Cthulhu characters are created to die or go insane, that’s the payoff, it’s fun. Being the only gormless idiot in a party would be tiresome, but a whole group of them is hilarious and fits perfectly with the game’s comedy dystopia. 

We might also consider Vampire: The Masquerade. I ran a one-shot of V5 earlier this year for my regular group, mixed results, but spent a while reading through optimizer threads about the earlier editions. Apparently the original Vampire: The Masquerade was broken in terms of character power right out of the box, with Celerity being by far the most potent physical discipline and Dominate, well, dominating pretty much everything. I get the feeling that this wasn't much of a problem during the original game's development, given that it's explicitly aimed at being a story game (before that term got more closely codified). If one is playing a game of undead ennui, I can see the horrendous balancing not coming into play much; the issue arises when people come to the game with the assumptions of tactical play and that the system exists to be optimized. Lesson: don't bolt a complex and badly balanced character creation system onto your story game. 

Early D&D is arguably in the same boat as CoC and Paranoia. Stats are random and hard to change, classes don’t give you much power, spell selection is limited and semi-random, a lot of power comes from magic items whose acquisition is uncertain, etc. 

Discussion of min-maxing really kicks off with AD&D 2nd edition: it’s no surprise that this is the edition which opened up point-based class customization, kits, and player-facing splatbooks, but also the one which enshrined the attitude that D&D is a storytelling game into the rulebooks. Two commercial interests, one to sell to players, especially optimizers and completionists, by expanding options for character creation, and the other to sell modules that could be commissioned and put out with a minimum of play testing (such as the Dragonlance modules, which began earlier under 1e but certainly reached the height of their influence in 2e, explicitly story-centered and horrendously railroaded products indistinguishable from the novels which they were adapted from/into) collided to create a play environment in which mechanics and world/narrative are at odds. 

This is the major complaint. The issue is not, as Mulligan and Bhullar seem to think, that novice GMs have difficulty challenging powerful characters, but that when I am recruiting players I have to deal with people who ask me if I know about the 'coffeelock' (this seriously happened, I blacklisted the guy there and then). Is it not right to respond to such things with wailing and gnashing of teeth?

To be clear, the problem is not that min-maxers seek to optimize, but that they view the game mechanically first and as a world second. My job as a GM is first and foremost to present a world in which my players can act. The rules are an aid to that end. I would rather have players who understand this, and recognize that disjoints and exploits in the rules are the result of mortal error, not the nature of the fantasy world. 

The problem of min-maxing is twofold. First, there are players who engage with the game primarily on the basis of system optimization. Second, the world of the game is one in which this optimization leads to dissonant outcomes. 

For examples of games which both allow optimization and have a world consonant with it, we might consider superhero games. I shall neglect to expand on this point. 

To ground this a bit more in the text, Bhullar makes reference to the 5th edition paladin/warlock multiclass, which is widely understood to be very powerful. It is taken for granted that this is an example of min-maxing, rather than one driven by roleplay. It is not impossible for this to be a roleplay-driven decision: I can easily imagine a paladin who loses their faith and turns to the patronage of some other being. But I would assume that this was not the case. 

Does this matter? Only insomuch as character classes are something other than bundles of mechanics. If paladins are only martial characters who can cast some spells and do big damage against some creatures, and warlocks are only short-rest based casters, nothing objectionable occurs. But hopefully, a GM and their player would want these things to mean more than that. This is a fantasy roleplaying game, and perhaps the paladin class exists to facilitate the fantasy of being an oathbound knight and the warlock exists to facilitate the fantasy of being a magician bound by a pact. Both of these are excellent fantasy archetypes. It would not even be difficult to combine them. Perhaps the paladin's oath and the warlock's pact are guaranteed by the same being, who grants its servant gifts from different 'packages' as needed. Perhaps this is a fallen paladin in a world where paladin powers cannot be revoked who seeks a new benefactor. But this would be unique to a given table, and this runs contrary to the assumptions of this culture of play: because a GM who grounds this choice in flavor might, say, require a quest to obtain the favor of the patron, or may even declare that in their world, this would not make sense and hence is off limits. I can just imagine the fire, fury, and r/rpghorrorstories posts that would result. 

Matt Colville has made a version of this point before, so I will reiterate it only briefly. The game design choice to separate character creation options from the flavor of the game is one which I would characterize as a failure to make mechanics and roleplay consonant. The result is a game in which the two are effectively independent, and thus a game which is not 'about' anything in particular. I have great sympathy for the GMs who complain of min-maxers, though they may not understand the root of their complaint. 

An example: I've run a short Legend of the 5 Rings 4th edition campaign a couple of times now. This is a game which comes with a detailed default setting and character options which are firmly grounded within it. If I were running that game instead, and a player wished to, say, take a dip in another clan's school for a powerful synergy, my response as a GM would be immediate and clear: this does not make sense. I might permit a player to effectively betray their clan and court another to learn their techniques, which would take quite a lot of time and effort and have serious ramifications for the campaign. If they wanted to keep learning their original clan's techniques, they might have to seek out a teacher and bribe or blackmail them, or find one in exile, if one such even exists. I suspect very few players would object to my placing these obstacles in the path of the player's optimized character, since it is clear within the norms of L5R that these mechanical decisions are closely linked both to flavor and to the character's place in the world. It is one in which mechanics and roleplay are consonant.

That is the sort of game I like to run, and I think it's the sort of game many other people would like to run, if they knew it existed. To dismiss complaints of min-maxing without seriously considering their origins does a great disservice.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Thoughts on AD&D Currency

I've been rereading the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It's full of inspiration for the world I'm building, as readers of the blog will know, and it's great for long and lonely trips. So much of the series, especially in the first book, revolves around money: Kvothe's near-constant struggle with poverty winds up making the setting's currencies very memorable and relevant. When a gold mark shows up in the second book, you feel the elation. I started wondering about that series various currency systems, and comparing them to AD&D's coins. The decimal system of the trapezoidal Cealdish currency, the iron drab, copper jot, silver talent and gold mark, the various pennies and half pennies, the partial Vintish coin, all of it adds some neat texture to the setting, with efforts to make currency legible and efforts to deviate from it both filling in the world. 


Then there's the AD&D, which doesn't specify currencies by names, but settles on a gold-based system, described in the 1e Player's Handbook as follows:
The basic unit of exchange is the gold piece (g.p. hereafter). There are coins of lesser and greater value, and these are shown on the table below. It is also common to use gems of various sorts and valuesascoin.
            10 copper pieces (c.p.) = 1 silver piece 
            20 silver pieces (s.p.) = 1 g.p.
            2 electrum pieces (e.p.) = 1 g.p.
            1 platinum piece (p.p.) = 5 g.p.

            200 c.p. = 20 s.p. = 2 e.p. = 1 g.p. = 1/5 p.p.
One gold piece is two electrum pieces, of which each is ten silver pieces, of which is ten copper pieces, and a platinum piece is five gold. I'm not wholly surprised that this got deprecated in favor of an entirely decimal based system later on. I'm not sure when, definitely by 5th edition, probably by third. 

I'd been accustomed to thinking of electrum as the odd one out. After all, the other coins used are single metals, while electrum is a natural alloy of gold and silver. It makes sense that it should lie between those two in worth, and it always sounded to me like something weird and ancient, a remnant of times long gone, a currency out of favor in the contemporary setting which could be more readily found in ancient tombs. 

But now thinking about it, I realized that the weird steps of AD&D's money actually makes perfect sense... if we're not on the gold standard. 


Imagine instead an electrum standard. By excluding gold, we have ten copper to a silver, ten silver to an electrum, and ten electrum to a platinum. Perfectly decimal! Electrum fits perfectly, it's gold that's a strange addition! It seems obvious now, though I haven't seen it pointed out before, even in Anthony Huso's treatment of the subject. Maybe this was just obvious to everyone else? Maybe it was explained in some Greyhawk sourcebook? Looking it up now, apparently the Greyhawk books featured iron drabs, as well as bronze zees and brass bits, very likely Rothfuss' inspiration. Also, I had to do a double take when I found this page, which had five silver to an electrum. For a moment I thought I had been mistaken about the currency, but the PHB bears me out. It looks like D&D's currency must have undergone more than one change since 1e. That said, the page does describe electrum and platinum as coins not in regular circulation, more often found in tombs. That fits the exchange rates given there, which make it look like ep and pp are parts of another currency smashed into the copper/silver/gold trio. 

In any case, this has immediate implications for the implied setting of AD&D 1e. Copper, silver, electrum and platinum all fit together perfectly in a decimal pattern. Gold breaks the symmetry. It feels like an imposition, a foreign coin forced from without. At the same time, the player characters not only use, but think in gold: everything is converted into gold before leveling up. Silver is precious but tarnishes, platinum is hard to tell from silver at a distance. Gold is immediately recognizable, neither rusts nor tarnishes. It's synonymous with wealth. 

Assuming you even use AD&D's currency for your game, what this means for your game is up to you. I'm not exactly sure what it means for mine, but I can sketch some outlines. In this part of the world, silver and copper are the coins of the day for almost everyone. One is hard-pressed to find gold, and when it is found, it is mixed in with silver. Pure gold coinage never takes off, what pure gold exists instead being worked into jewelry and ornamentation. Electrum becomes the 'big coin' used for the storage of large values, high-level commerce and state economics. Someone finds a platinum mine. It's like silver, but it doesn't tarnish and is usually found chemically uncombined. There's not much of it and it doesn't look as nice as gold, so it probably finds a niche as a semi-representational currency in state vaults. 

If anything, the use of platinum as a very valuable coin might be the least realistic part of all this. Maybe there are very good magical uses for platinum, so mages seek it and its value is recognized that way. That could be a reason for platinum being non-representationally more valuable than gold. 


Then something happens. Maybe trade opens up with a faraway empire, where pure gold is more common. Maybe this region is conquered by that empire. The new rulers want to impose their currency, the locals want to keep theirs. Both currencies wind up being used side by side. Conflicting local exchange rates proliferate. Non-representational currency is debated and tried, sometimes successfully. But premodern societies really like having representational currencies. China managed paper money for a few hundred years, but with difficulty, and absent a really strong central government people want to be able to smelt down their silver without it losing value. Proposals for non-representative metal coins reads to the average person as a roundabout form of currency debasement. Nobody is happy. 

At some point, someone gets extremely tired of all of this, mounts a coup, and imposes financial regularity by force. I think in my own setting this happened under the rule of Starlis the Potentate about a century prior. A tyrant, but his financial policy stuck around, and nobody is confident enough to go meddling with that again. The representativity of the various metal coins and their exchange rates varies, but the system is stable enough (and maybe the punishments for melting down currency are strong enough) that people use the coins. Of course, this still has to be normalized to the financial policies of other nations. Gold is the main currency of exchange internationally, and having the local gold worth the same as gold elsewhere is the best way to avoid massive headaches with currency exchanges, so the local gold coin gets pegged to that and everything else is set around it. As a result, everything is a nice decimal system, except for the fucking gold

So in my setting, at least in the core adventuring region, gold is used in the big cosmopolitan port city, the major towns nearby and places up the river that regularly trade with it. The farther you go from these areas, the less people use gold and the more they use silver and electrum. Gold is seen as hoity-toity, electrum is seen as the bumpkin's coin. Little wonder adventurers think in gold and not electrum. 

If the players ever grouse about this, I'll have an obscenely old coot come out of the woodwork to tell the young'uns how good they have it, not having to worry about which of eight types of silver coins they got paid in. 


I'm also tempted, like Anthony Huso has, to move my game onto a silver standard. Silver is a bit more grounded and accessible, still precious and a lot of money (the silver talents in the Name of the Wind go a long way, and historical coinage like the Roman sestertius was silver), while gold becomes an aspirational amount of money, and platinum near-mythical as far as an ordinary person is concerned. Do I just set xp for silver and increase everything twenty-fold? Sounds awkward, but possibly rewarding. I like the flavor of it. But maybe it makes sense that adventurers should be looking for and thinking in terms of gold. 


If you liked this, be sure to comment below, share it, and follow the blog to see when new posts are up. Until the next time, have an excellent week. 

Friday, May 5, 2023

Old-School Advancement: A Lacanian Approach

Noisms over at the Monsters and Manuals blog has an interesting piece relating the Gene Wolfe book the Wizard Knight to high-level old school play. I wrote a comment in response:
As a hybrid approach, what about planar currencies? It won't have the Wizardknighting effect, but it may lend itself instead to a sword-and-sorcery texture. 

The doughty lord sits in his palace surrounded by the wealth of the ages and feels nothing. Gold has lost its lustre. Until one of his far journeying courtiers / wise soothsayers / demonic servants tells him of the blue crystal roses that grow on the sapphire beaches of the Nightly Shore. The fire in his blood is stoked once more, prepared for a deadlier and more glorious adventure than ever before. 

Maybe this sort of approach can be a buffer between gold-for-xp and wizardknighting. Past nth level, gold no longer gives xp, but each blue crystal rose is 1000xp. A few exist in this world, but to find them in quantity you must travel the planes! There may be many such currencies associated with various planes. Once the PCs are already planar travelers, switch to xp-for-planes or henchman xp. 
The idea of planar currencies is an intriguing one which I may develop more later, but this happened to dislodge another idea when I read the post. But first I have to introduce some rather obscure concepts. 

But I warn you, the crystal rose may be plucked only by a cunning stratagem...

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who in a series of very influential lectures until 1980 examined the role of desire within the Freudian tradition. Many of the ideas and terms he created and developed became part of the core not only of psychoanalysis, but also of other fields such as literary criticism. I don't claim to understand any of it in depth or extent, and I will instead recommend this review of Bruce Fink's A Clinical Introduction to Lacan as a jumping off point. There's just one little concept I want to borrow from that tradition. 

The objet petit a (the partial object, or the partial other) is the thing one desires. At the same time, it can never be acquired. To use a videogame analogy, the objet petit a is not the thing in the quest reward box, it is the quest reward box. When you're doing the quest, desiring the reward, it seems shiny and out of reach. Once you get it, there is a moment of satisfaction, but one quickly grows tired of what one already has. By this time, there is a new quest with a new reward. It's not that the objet petit a is really hard to obtain, it is not a thing which can be obtained at all. The objet petit a which can be grasped is not the true objet petit a

There is an exception to this: it can be acquired in a fantasy. 

Within the imaginary space of a fantasy, it is possible to acquire the objet petit a without it losing its appeal. It still appears as something else, but it keeps all the value and shininess it had when you didn't yet have it because... you don't have it. Except in a fantasy. 

That opens up a really weird question about characters in fantasy role-playing games and how their desires interact with those of the players. Can player characters acquire their partial objects?

Insofar as these are parts of a player's fantasy, they should be able to do so. But this is a role-playing fantasy game, the players are taking on the personae of characters in that world. Everyone from the most cantankerous grognard to the most avid storygamer will agree that these characters have desires and goals of their own, not necessarily those of the player. Should these characters, then, not experience the objet petit a? Should they, unlike a pure fantasy, be incapable of entirely satisfying their desires?

This makes some sense to me. When I think of players who have been good roleplayers at my table, and those who have not, it seems like this might be part of the distinction. Keep in mind that 'bad roleplayer' does not necessarily imply a bad player. My little cousin is, at age 8, a bad roleplayer, but still great fun to have at the table. The crucial difference is between players who have processed that their characters have goals and desires of their own, vs players for whom the character is merely a way to play out their fantasies. This behavior is less charming in adults, especially when the player's fantasy is one which runs counter to everyone else's fun. 

This is part of maturing as a player: no longer treating the game (and the player character) as a vehicle for fantasy alone, and instead role-playing a character who themselves has goals, desires, and, subsequently, fantasies. 

I think this may also be a hidden genius to the xp mechanic, which aids this roleplay in a very subtle manner. The character may acquire any number of desired objects in the game world, but they are only ever stepping-stones for the player, means to further advancement. Both player and character desire gold. The player, as in a fantasy, may be satisfied with this, but the character is the world would not be. Thus, the structure of experience points is created to drive the player to act in the same manner as the character. There is always more xp to find, and the player is thus encouraged to consider their character as an entity driven by something other than player fantasy. 

That brings us back around to noisms' idea of changing the xp-granting object at various points in the progression. At some point, gold is no longer enough to fill the slot of objet petit a, and so other desired objects must be found. At first they may still be physical objects, new and fascinating currencies or treasures. But eventually those no longer satisfy, and desire may turn instead to ascension through the plains, or the advancement of hirelings. I'm not especially partial to the idea of character 'arcs' in role-paying games, especially when they're planned ahead, but I am interested in the growth of characters organically. This occurs mechanically by leveling up and acquiring equipment of course, but also by the expansion of character influence, henchmen and hirelings, domain play, the character takes on responsibilities of increasing scope. The ratcatcher looking for gold in a tomb is not the same person once they're leading a small army of loyal followers. Perhaps it makes sense that their desires, mechanically represented by changing sources of xp, should as well. 

It's an interesting concept which could add a lot of texture to a long-term campaign. I'm tempted to build it into my own upcoming campaign now, though I'm not sure how to. Expect more on this subject.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

On a First Experience with Ultima Underworld

Out of nowhere, I decided to try out Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. Commonly cited as the predecessor to the Elder Scrolls games, and as one of the great early 3D fantasy games period, I was already halfway sold on it, and it's cheap too, so why not. I got it bundled with Ultima Underworld II for 6 bucks. 

I buy it, install, have to go fiddling with GOG but... it runs! Credit to whoever is maintaining DOSBox that installation was clean and the game ran... well not smoothly, but as smoothly as I expect it ran on computers of its era. On MacOS at that, plenty of modern games can't claim the same (I long ago tried to play Gothic, no dice). 

I boot it up, ooooh! A pixel art cinematic! Gets us efficiently into the shoes of the Avatar and pushes us to search the Stygian Abyss for the damsel Ariel. I make myself a paladin with charm and swordsmanship (named Jethro Tul, same as my first PC in Baldur's Gate) and we're off to the races!

Okay, I'm trapped in a dank, dark dungeon and- wait no, that's a bit faster than I intended, woah, and that does not move me backwards. This does have keyboard movement as default in addition to the Elder Scrolls: Arena-style mouse movement (haven't played Arena myself, just recognize the system) but it's not quite the same setup as most modern games. Take a few moments to accustom myself to the controls and peek through the manual. I'm already nervous about my first steps into the dungeon. I'm reminded of the opening moments of my first playthrough of Daggerfall, and those are great vibes to have. I can't tell what's part of the track and what might be a sound from around the corner. 

Mess with a sack on the ground, read a note, pick up a skull, get some food. Feeling a lot like Legend of Grimrock. I try to open a locked door, maybe this pull chain opens it? No dice, and I'm not trying to bash it down with this measly dagger. If I don't find the key I might try to do it with an axe later. Ah, and I have a map, which I can annotate!? Lovely! Peek around the dungeon, arm myself, kill a rat. I didn't lose a hit point (er, vitality point) to a rat, no sirree. 

Find an pack with a goodbye note, poor sucker. Peek around some more, find a more expansive area with red walls, sneak around the edges with my torch unlit. Looks secure, going t- DEAR LORD- ahem. It's juts a guy. Just a human. Standing in the middle of the room. Friendly fellow this Bragin guy, tells me to beware the green and gray goblins and to seek out the human stronghold whose banner is the ankh, and whose leader is... Caliburn? Caribu? I missed the guy's name, sorry. 

Take a moment to get my bearings and double back, then move on. I'm getting comfortable with these controls, moving cautiously... and I move a bit too fast and fall into a crack in this ramp. No issue, I can climb back up. 


This is not Daggerfall. I cannot simply climb back up. 

Oh well, I must be able to double back somehow. Trudge through water, kill an overgrown centipede, pick up a shield, throw a switch open a doorway, everything's coming up Jethro. Now just gotta GOOD LORD WHAT THE HELL IS THAT! AH, I'M POISONED, DIEDIEDIE!

Is it dead? I don't hear anything or see it anywhere, but neither do I see a bloodstain. Goddamn mass of blood-red wings and teeth. This apple isn't doing much to help the poison either, and I don't have anything resembling an antidote. No two ways about it, just have to keep moving forward. Let's try swimming through here. A bit slow going, but seems fine, is that a frog-NO THAT IS NOT A FROG GODDAMN SATANIC TEETH AND TENTACLES! I have to... oh no. I can't pull out my weapon on water. Gotta swim away, so slowly, so slowly, ow, ow, ow.

Okay, it's gone. And I have exactly one hit point left. And I wound up fleeing in the opposite direction I knew. At least I can check the map while in water. Wow, I've made it a long way. No turning backwards, I'll be easy prey for that tentacle monster. Gotta keep moving forward. Got to. Keep. moving. forward...

I sink in the freezing waters of an underground river. My vision swims, full of skulls with flaming eyes. 

In case it's not clear, this first <1 hour with Stygian Abyss has absolutely sold me on the game. Highly recommended, pick it up if you want a videogame experience that simulates old-school dungeoneering.