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Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Okay, I am about to review a book for GM's. I like reading books on adventure design for fantasy games, so I will start reviewing books for DM's on my blog.

My rating system was primarily designed for music, to which I been listening since childhood, but it can also apply to books, movies, and other stuff. The difference between the amount of stars is no merely quantitative, it is also qualitative, and here it is:

THIS SUCKS!!!!!!! (no stars)
This is really bad. I hate it! I will tell you exactly why in the body of the review.

A DM Book example of This Sucks!!! is the Cosmos Builder, Volume 7 of the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds series. The reason that I dislike this book so much is that it covers no new ground beyond the Manual Of The Planes. With the name like Cosmos Builder I expect a modicum of modern theoretical physics and Cosmology, so that you can come up with something original, however, the author of this book is innocent of any Cosmology, and the purpose of his volume is to help you locate your setting within the AD&D Cosmology as described in the Manual Of The Planes.

Don't buy it!
Don't waste your money.
This record flat-lines.
Good music typically shows off talent, originality, technique, and this record is devoid of all three. It's nothing new. Others have done it better. In film this is not a remake, but derivative of a previous film.

In DM books, it offers nothing that I can use in my game. For an Example, consider any of the so-called Retro-Clones. Why bother with Labyrinth Lord, when I have the original D&D Books, Moldway red and blue boxes, etc.?

Don't waste your money.
Buy the hit single instead.
Too often musicians and their producers pursue the riches via a hit single that gets all the production resources and scores high on the charts, the rest of the album comes as an afterthought, songs on it useless filler material.

In DM books, this text has but a single useful idea. It can be as simple as an original encounter table. An example of the ONE STAR DM writing is the original rulebook for the Top Secret TSR game. The only useful thing is a table which lists locations, where to set up encounters. This table lists various locales, which with some modificatiosn can be used in D&D.

Body of Work, too bad it's lifeless.
Spark needed to breathe life into it.
There might be one or two good songs on record, but the work is consistent and the presence of an artist is felt. If the music itself was better, it would rate more stars. If you are a collector or a follower of this particular artist, this record might be worth more stars to you. 

In DM Books, the ideas are scarce, the writing is sparse, lists and tables substitute for prose, leaving you to figure out what to do with it, sort of like the OD&D original three books.

A couple of great driving songs.
This is a good album worth having. There are more good songs on it than the one or two singles you can get separately. The rest of the album has merit, but not as good as the best songs on it.

This is typically amateurish DM writing. It is serviceable, but not academic, lacks depth or profound originality as far as the game mechanics are concerned. An example of the THREE STAR DM Writing are sections of the Gygax DMG and Moldway's BLue Book on Wilderness Design. The problem with that writing is that it fails conceptually to mirror the elegance of the Dungeon Adventure design with the Wilderness Adventure. Wilderness Survival Guide would fall here, because it does not introduce any new ideas for wilderness design. Unearthed Arcana can also fall under the THREE STAR rating.

Your friends will think it's cool!
You can listen to the whole album consistently, and it won't disappoint. Furthermore, if you play it for your friends, there will be no embarrassing songs on it.

In DM Books, this would be Five Stars, except for one thing, that keeps it from perfection. Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and the D&D 2.5 Players Option Combat and Tactics are examples of the FOUR STAR Books. Both books are well written and introduce a wealth of new ideas, however neither transcend the framework of the original AD&D concepts to create something new.

Your friends will think you are cool!
Transcendent spiritual stuff!
Profound personal meaning!
This has talent, originality, substance, meaning and depth. Granted, personal meaning is the height of subjectivity, but this work generally has to have great artistic merit to get through to me.

In DM Books, this is Synergy! This is writing that comes together! It combines good writing with new ideas and game mechanics comprehensibly explained using common everyday language.

The best example of 5 Star DM writing is the How To Design a Dungeon Adventure section in the DM's Section of the Moldway D&D Red Box Basic Set. Another example of a FIVE STAR Book is Gary Gygax's Oriental Adventure.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


RPG Pundit keeps hammering on the storygame movement how it is not the RPG's, because the DM lacks the creative authority, but the Narrativist environment was exactly the place, where D&D was developed. Role Playing was a free form improvisation, that occurred on the spur of the moment in table top miniatures wargaming, when a player wanted to get into the character of one of the miniatures on the table. Two players would play out scenes, in a recorded case one was a Prussian colonel, and the other an anarchist student spying behind the German lines, and they had a duel, which was resolved by the toss of a coin. The concept of a DM evolved later. Many of the wargamers were educated and knowledgeable intellectuals, who brought their knowledge into the spontaneous game design. For instance, what we know today as Encounter Tables, was previously used as Narrative Randomizers in the experimental literature of the American literary scene of the 1950's, where there was a fascination with a random story, which eventually spawned the choose your own adventure genre.

Once Gygax made the game his own, this kind of growth stopped. Had Gygax the wisdom of a higher being, he would have shared spoils of the creative process and brought the other gamers on board, if only for a focus group to keep developing the hobby. Today, the defunct Forge movement and the Storygame movement, over whose alleged demise there is much unhealthy gloating by RPGPundit, were the closest embodiment of the open forum improvisational tradition that brought us D&D.
This game did not evolve conceptually beyond that. Planned obsolescence became a part of the marketing strategy by the WOTC. The simple reason that good always triumphs is that evil can't see past itself, and WOTC stock is worth .025 cents per share today.

How could the D&D been marketed differently? The TSR/WOTC mindset was that you can sell six times as many books, if you market to munchkins as opposed to the DMs. Also, better DMs buy modules than roll their own. This is where the company that sells D&D went bankrupt, both morally and fiscally. You see, almost every player is a closet DM, who wants to build their own world. When you houserule or modify the rules of the game, you are world-building. How can you market creativity, you ask? Remember those guys, Da Vinci, the Cistine Chapel and Michelangelo. Those guys were the successful DMs of their days. You see, the painting was only a byproduct of their drive to KNOW the world and to ACCURATELY recreate it on the canvas. That is why Da Vinci was both an engineer and a naturalist, and also studied anatomy and was a combat veteran. He did this so that his paintings looked REAL. You paint a battle scene, you know how the weapons and armor works, how the wounded sound, you are painting from experience.

DM's are a variety of writers, and they too attempt to recreate the world in a fantasy form that has some essential truths in it. This is an outgrowth of a very essential sensory-neurological process in which all conscious beings engage, called the Environmental Recovery Problem - how a living organism creates a mental picture of the world it lives in so that it can function in it. The depth of this process is the reason why those wargamers in the Lake Geneva club and elsewhere put their most advanced knowledge into developing the mechanics of the new game. The world-building that the DM engages in, is really a form of philosophy, and had the TSR/WOTC become a published to the D&D hobby at THIS level, they would have still been in business as a published more successful than a game company that they are currently. Specifically, any DM is a story teller. How do you become a good story teller? How to model this and this process in the real world. Sociology? Psychology? Mathematics?

Hire experts to write material on these topics, in a language accessible to the layman? This is what COULD have happened, had the D&D stayed a game for the grad school intellectuals. The games that took place at the Lake Geneva club were at THAT level. By stripping out the context and the discourse in which these games were taking place, Gygax dumbed down the game significantly to begin with, and from gitgo, he was marketing D&D out of its context, but had he kept it relevant to the original crowd that developed it, the version of the future I envisioned would have been possible. Also, had Gygax engaged with the clubs to develop his company, the TSR would have been in much better shape than it was historically.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


It was a cold and foggy day, the Yuletide in Midlands. Old Man Winter saw to it that no one was cheated despite the warm weather. It was a bad day for a country ride, and Greyhead mentioned in passing that he will give semi-private lessons to anyone, who bothered to show up at the fencing school. Everyone appeared at the first lesson, as if on cue. There were regular men at arms, who brought their buddies along to marvel at the legendary man. There were acquaintances from the Baron's Court, who dropped coin for a private lesson or two to refine their technique. A few uncouth princelings thronged with little sibs and followers, from Sele Baar and Sele Klawu mostly, actually Grey's favorite student or two among them.

Grey looked at the scene with some astonishment and barely concealed satisfaction, and ordered that the barn doors be thrown wide open, for people to take shelter from the rain. He also ordered his senior students to erect the tent roof nearby, so that everyone can shelter from the rain. Xadas led everyone in warm up exercise and someone brought a wagon load of firewood and started a bonfire to chase away the chill and the fog. Grey conferred with the senior students, and then started instructing each person individually, student or not, so long as they warmed up and wanted to learn. They could wait their turn inside the barn or under the awning, but Grey stayed out in  the fog and the drizzle, partly obscured by the fog from the onlookers. Maquisapa was off on the edge of the property, giving lessons in hunting and stealth technique.

To stay on the feet wearing weighed down training armor and swinging the heavy leaden training blade in the rain was more taxing, than Grey thought, but he managed to stay with it to his own great satisfaction. The day went quicker than he thought until the last student visitor gave him the best wishes and rode off into the evening. Satisfied, Grey walked slowly to his cottage, where the girls have spent the day preparing the holiday feast. His friends were waiting for him with a warm cup of mulled wine and he sat down and sipped it slowly,. before going upstairs to take off his armor and for a dry change of clothes. Xadas supervised the senior students as they took down the awning, and cleaned up after the day, and then joined the others in Grey's cottage.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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.