About Me

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


An English Prof once told me - everyone falls in love with a particular critic, when they study literature, and I fell in love with M.M. Bakhtin. Bakhtin is an obscure academic, a contemporary of JRR Tolkien, but from the heart of Mordor. He was one of those eccentrics, who produced weird ideas in total obscurity; his field of knowledge was language and literature, philology, and his strange ideas turned out to have real power in our mundane world. Unlike Tolkien, who studied dead languages, Bakhtin studied the living language, or Speech. Specifically, he believed that there is a constant struggle between the narrative of those in power, and those who struggle against them. The High Speech versus Vulgar Speech, that is marginalized by those in power. His study of literature centered primarily on Satire, which in Europe tends to have bitter political roots. Had he lived in the land of Elves, he may have been totally ignored, but in the Stalinist Russia, powers that be deemed that his work is gibberish, but that he is ideologically not trustworthy, so they gave him a small prison sentence, and the exiled him to the middle of nowhere, where he taught literature for the next thirty or so years, his work not really banned, rather unrecognized in his own country.

It so happened, that his students became influential in their own careers. Some were granted access to the West. Some took Bakhtin's unpublished work, translated it into French, and it was published in France to a wide acclaim. Bakhtin got further recognition in the US in the 1960's, because the Black Panther movement discovered his writing in France, translated them into English, and used it to either train their people or shape their political message. Twenty or so years later I discovered him in English. He founded theory of modern literature. Back then in the 1950's he defined modern literature and fleshed out how it would differ from the classics. On my level, I was learning writing, and I was looking for ways to a more accurate, more realistic storytelling, and Bakhtin was IT.

He laid out a lot of concepts. One of the hardest one is the notion of Chronotope. When you are telling a story, in any narrative, there is a relationship between space and time. The Place and how time flows through it determines the flow of the storytelling itself. Bakhtin postulated that different genres of literature have different Chronotopes. Relying primarily on Ancient Greek literature, Bakhtin, postulated different ways that space and time flow are represented in the narrative. When I first learned of it, it was very hard to wrap my head around it, or find a practical application for it. I wrote a term paper on it, got an A, but looking at it now, I missed the mark. Coming back to it now, I realize that Chronotopes are more obvious in role playing, where they can help the GM better run their games.

If you play D&D, you already know Chronotopes - Dungeon Crawl, Sitting in the Tavern before the adventure, Hex Crawl. For the purposes of the game, AD&D and other role playing games impose a scale on both the space in time. Space is represented in terms of the map scale and time is subdivided into varieties of Turns, Melee Rounds, and Combat segments. At each scale is a unique form of play. A good GM is able to freely switch the focus of the game session and change the mode of the gameplay as players move through an adventure. Problems occur, when a DM is stuck in a particular mode, because they are not familiar enough to be comfortable running other modes of play. Thus, we might have a Mega Dungeon crawl, because the DM does not know how to design a wilderness adventure, or we may have an encounter a day hex-crawl, because the DM does not know how to design a true sandbox campaign setting. I seen a group of D&D players with their DM totally miss the experience of playing Traveler, because they ran it in the D&D style site-based adventure mode, that got nowhere. The DM played the Chronotope that he was most familiar with.

Having said that, let's look at some of the Chronotopes presented in the Gygax's DMG: There is Combat Chronotope, broken into 1 minute Rounds, with a detailed step-by step procedure. Six second Combat Segments are used to determine initiative and who goes when. Then there is a Dungeon Exploration Chronotope, broken down into 10 Minute Turns, where players explore the Dungeons, and look for traps, secret doors, and treasure. Then there is a Wilderness Travel Chromotope, broken into Days, with chances of getting lost and checks for combat encounters between the once and several times per day, based on terreain. Finally, there are sub chronotopes for psychic combat, combat in the air and on the sea. Wilderness Survival Guide adds survival of the outdoors to the aforementioned Wilderness Travel chronotope. Of course, Gygax was writing before the advent of the Node-based and Event-based adventure design, and the D&D game was taken by its desgners in tbe direction of the linear railroad adventure story arcs, with WOTC reducing the game to a version of a pencil and paper Diablo with dice, simplifying down to the Room/Encounter Chronotope, omitting the task of getting there.

On my part, I have evolved several other Midlands Chronotopes of my own: Wilderness Crawl - Time reduced to hours, players navigating a topographic map in tactical mode pursuing an enemy. Boat Journey - players spending about a week of game time sailing down a river, no combat, extensive role play interaction between PC's and NPC's.

The practical implication of the Chronotope for the GM is in preparing for play. Think about what your players will be doing during the game session - Are they traveling? Are they adventuring? Are they between adventures taking care of business? What is the ground that your players will cover - are they traveling within the County? Are they moving between the locations in the town? Will they soend their whole time at a King's reception or at a tournament? Also consider the type of the Encounters that will move your adventure forward. Leave a chance for combat/confrontation, even if none should occur. Figure out how long the events covered by the game session will take, and also figure in the travel times between the common locations, if the players will be shuttling between them talking care of business. Knowing all this will give you and idea of what kind of turns to use dring the game sessions, for by breaking down the time into discrete turns, you are pacing your narrative and regulating the flow of time for a vivid and an interesting game, for instead of saying "you rode for one day, roll for an encounter", players actually RODE for one day and experienced your world.


  1. When I steal players from other systems, this is how I do it. One can discover more about one's self during travel. It sounds stupid, "You're going to have us role-playing walking?" But there are a lot of opportunities to be had out in the wilderness, and it is never just walking. It isn't like I'm not going to control the pace. Pacing, I believe, is essential to the game, we want to slow it down and speed it up depending on how the group feels, but you can also set the mood through pacing.. . well, you can if you are properly prepared.

    I think that you hit on something here! A DM who can't yet control the pace of a game, or doesn't know how can be seen as boring. If the pace is always stuck on one level, or if it is ignored completely, then it registers to us on a sub-conscious level.

    Typically, I always resort to conflict. I remember that we once had a long ship ride out on the open ocean for months, and I didn't want to skip over that much time, so I added a doppelganger encounter. What kind of tropes do you recommend to run when there is seemingly nothing going on for days? I'm also interested in how you use role-playing, do you just let them have at it, or do you add some sort of problem into the mix for them to sort out?


  2. My attitude is that you can tell almost as much of a story through gaming - via the random encounters, the Dungeon Key, and what the players find during the course of combat - as you can through background narration, and NPC's telling stories through players. I run a sandbox set in a fantasy world I created, and my world can shine through everything. Let's say that I have a tribe of Goblins who live among the pine tree covered rocks on the shores of a cold lake, on the territory bordering that of a Bandit King. I create a random loot table of mostly value-less items, but with some coin and magic, and for magical items, how about a needle that never misses the thread? (for clumsy Bugbears and Ogres). The items might be handmade fishing tackle, an oiled and furred bedroll, design on the shield, a tin cup with the Bandit King's emblem, etc. Every item on the loot table tells the players something of the enemy and where he lives. Regarding long journeys where nothing happens. There is always something happening - social interaction with the other NPC's on the ship, bed weather, accidents and mishaps on the ship that might call for the player involvement. When trekking through the wilderness, in addition to Combat and Role Playing encounters, I add the weather and terrain events. In the forest, you may encounter ruins, old camps, trails, difficult and easy terrain, people slip and fall, horses panic and bolt, other accidents. Again, it's your world, and you should have a fairly good idea of why you put the forest there and what makes it special. And of course, never forget the combat encounter. Again, you are telling about forest through encounters and random events. Also, don't forget about the conflicts and issues concerning NPC's. Give an NPC an agenda and issues/attitudes towards each player, and use that to generate a story. Use common sense concerning space/timing. On the ship, there was breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and night, plus time in between. I would roll once per day for major single unusual events affecting the whole ship. Plus I would roll for a single social encounter between one of the players and one of the NPC's. I would ask each player if they were doing anything after breakfast, etc. The random events were simple and atmospheric - zombie sighting on the shore, an arrow shot at the ship by a passing goblin. I had a Muslim Ship's Captain, who gave his own cabin to a player and a female NPC, who was his PC's g/f. They did the dirty at night. Player told me they were loud. Captain heard about it and made a huge scene, because he showed them hospitality, and they dishonored him and defiled his cabin by engaging in sexual intercourse without being married (a big deal in Islam). I had a player, whose PC was the nephew of the Captain, and he was getting a free passage from his beloved uncle, and he had to make peace between the Captain and the player, and his NPC g/f who was acting to aggravate the situation. This was improvised on the spur of the moment.

  3. Regarding the journeys that last for months. You missed a chance for some serious adventuring - starvation and scurvy due to food going bad, storms, getting lost, bad weather delaying the trip and making supplies run short. Combat encounters aside, the primary conflict would be the personality conflicts between the players and NPC's. I would lay down some outline for NPC's being frustrated, and how they would act when aggravated, and situation escalates. I would roll weekly for the critical incidents involving personnel conflicts and arguments. Then, you got story-time - use the time to tell the players anything about your world. Let characters swap stories with the NPC's. People engage in small talk, medium talk, deep talk, and intimate talk. Judge how the players behave, and if the gain the trust of the NPC's over several encounters, let NPCs get in involved deep convo with players, only if they earn their trust. Another opportunity is the Ship and Land sightings. These can be a small chance daily (with lookouts historically posted 24/7) Those sightings were the biggest event in the ship's life. Give it 1-3%, flesh out a desert island or two and half a dozen random ships. Ships will always carry stories and tales from faraway places, trade, pirate ships, diseased ships. Undead ships (not necessarily attacking), starving crew attacking the players’ ship for food and water. Your imagination is the limit, and list your ideas in encounter table.

    Regarding role playing, is the players want to get into character, I don't stop them. If they banter in character, it's okay. If they refuse to role-play and talk about the situation in the third person, that is fine also. If the PC wants to approach an NPC and talk, I describe the scene and the player has a go at it. They can role play in character, speak the lines of dialogue only, of what they are going to say, or give me the idea of what they are saying - My character asks him about the scar on his back. There is one thing I don't want my players doing, and that is falling back on die rolling. Here is an example. I had a shaman interact with the players and give them some Ahuayasca (Latin American mushrooms). Wizard took it, and had a trip. The Shaman grabbed his spirit by the scruff of the neck, and kicked it around the world. Gave him around the world in 90 seconds spiel of the actual fantasy world. Christian Cleric took it, and said - I want to see God. I had him roll on his Prayer Skill. In game determines base chance of success for clerical spells, and for other things, such as this. Relationship with God skill. And the Cleric's player rolled a 00, worst possible failure. I had him roll again, to see the magnitude of the disaster, and he rolled a second 98,99,or 00. This looked bad. I told the player that he did not see anything. Further, I decided, that the player lost all of his Clerical abilities. I wasn't sure why, yet, but there it was. The next time the PC tried casting a healing spell, nothing happened, and I told the player that he felt nothing. Something like he opposite of losing his faith - his faith left him. Player was shocked, players were stomped. Sometime later, another one of my players, who was playing a Shaolin Buddhist Monk, told me, I get together with the Cleric and use my skills to try and help him get his spellcasting back. I asked the Monk - How are you trying to help him? And the player had no idea, did not even have a clue as to what to do. He just wanted to roll the die, but with me, you have to have attempt a course of action, before you can roll the die. It is one of those things, playing what you know versus playing what your character knows. I require players to think. If you choose to play a religious monk, you should have some idea of prayer, meditation, trying to figure out what went wrong, etc. When the player is agog speechless and wants to hide behind a die roll is what I don't like.

  4. You win, you are definitely more old-school than us. We used to do that back in the day, but now that we've got to steal time to play D&D we've got to pick our battles. I'll focus on different elements of the game, but as DM for my table I am expected to keep some sense of direction. I do use travel as adventure, sometimes I'll enable some rule that we don't normally focus on, we'll battle weather and get lost. Finding your way in a land without dependable maps is fun! Dealing with no food and figuring out what to do about it is fun, but not on a regular basis. Normally I don't care unless I want to make an issue of something. To me, it is okay to take stuff for granted, until it isn't there anymore.

    It is fun to see how different tables manage their games.

  5. No win for me, Rip,

    I got the same time constraints as your group. The game is on hiatus right now, because I got to write more material for my world, and to generate that extra material, I need to bring all parts of it in motion, like in the Game of Thrones opening movie. Luckily, I have four players still patiently waiting for me to call them in. It's the creative work on D&D versus holiday overtime sort of deal, where the paycheck needs take priority, unfortunately.

    I broke the old school mold in some ways, though. Treasure does nor really play a part in the game. This last season of the game has turned out to be a military adventure, so the players can get pretty much anything they need from the force backing them, and there is the base camp and advisors, who can get them anything they need, that is out of reach of the regular low level adventurers. They are supposed to hand in all magical items and 10% of the treasure to the Baron, who is backing them, but the whole complex was looted seventy five years ago during the previous battle, and the Baron graciously gave them 90% of the non-magical spoils, knowing that they will find nothing. Overall, I done away with sitting in the tavern to find out about the dungeon kind of setup. I also did away with the level and the vancian magic.

    To cast a spell now is like a skill check in Runequest, and the chance to cast the spell improves with each successful use of the spell, that changes the afventuring situation in players' favor. Let's say the battle was going badly for players, and the spell took out a leader that led directly to players' victory. After the adventure, the magic user's player must roll greater than the spell's chanve of success on percentile dice, and the if he does, the percentile chance to cast the spell goes up 1d6 - 2 points. The -2 gets better if the player is reviewing the experience with a teacher. There is also a formula, which gives a magic user a chance to learn each spell, based on the ratio of the spell complexity (spell level) to the level of the Magic User. There is a learning period of about 10 days to try and learn a 1st level spell by a 1st level wizard with a percentile chance of success, improved by a teacher, if that teacher is competent and has rapport with the student. Same teacher has a chance to teach his 1st level student the Fireball spell, but the learning peiod is a whole season (three months) and the chances are a lot less. If he or she has the proper books, a 1st level Magic User has a chance to learn the Wish Spell on his/her own, but the period of study is 56 years and it is only 1 or 2% chance.

    My rationale is that to cast a spell is like to do a work of performance art. The Wizard must do a performance to summon and channel the spell to its target, whatever the spell is. To do so s/he must have a very proper form and very precise actions. As the wizard gets tired and stressed in the heat of battle and trhroughout the day, their abioity to cast spells decays or decreases. Based on the Wizard's skills, after each successful casting of each spell, the chance to cast a spell decreases by 10-25%. Until the Wizard can cast the spell no more and must rest and practice again. The way it works, is that during the game, the wizard might cast a dud right off the bat, or usually cast the spell once or twice at first level, or cast the spell three times or four!!! We are talking the first level nursing his Sleep spell or a third level working with a repertoire of three spells. Also, based on the %skill, Runequest system gives you Catastrophic failure, Criticalk failure, Fail, Succeed, Crit Success, and Great Success. The spell has greater or lesser success based on degree of success. DM interprets the results. Great Success magic missile might drop dead the target outright, or explode on impact and injure more than one, rip off the plate armor etc.

  6. The game is actually quite laid back. A lot of story telling between the combat. The adventure I did turned out to be a tactical/military adventure, but before it started, there was getting the party together, getting to the frontier region, where the adventure is taking place. Season One ended with a smashing and unexpected victory for the players, they pulled off an unexpected coup of epic proportions, and captured a king, they were not supposed to defeat. Stupid wizard was able to make it close enough to the enemy's rear and cast a sleep spell with that Great Success result. I did not make it easy for them, but they were able to pull their prisoner out and safely to their camp.

    Season Two will start with the Victory Tournament and a round of introductions. An NPC who is their fencing instructor is actually a knight and their main tank, and he will do a quick one on the players by making them his retinue, i.e. liveried servants and he will be given a land grant to establish his school and get his license to teach fencing while training the Barony men at arms for free, and there will be politics during the victory celebrations to forde the group aside, and if they play it right, they will be given a piece of land with an abandoned farm house and a barn, that they must rebuild.

    Season Two will start with the Victory Fair, and the round of social events and introductions, and I am developing the system of non-combat encounters, conflicts, and deciisons for the players to make it both, challenging to the players and have meaningful consequences for the players' decisions, and it needs the varied backstories and then to make an adventure of the construction project. Combat and adventure are an ever present threat, but not the main onjective, and there are several leads for adventuring. This is a sandbox adventure, and the players have free will to break off and strike on their own or to remain the service of their fencing instructor. I've lost the Magic User and the Cleric players. One went back to his seminary, and the Magic User was wooed away by the local (and politically prominent) Wizards Guild. This was ging to be the challenge for the loyalties of the MU's Player, but since he had to go, we assume that the Guild got him.