Sunday, September 26, 2021

Telling a Story in D&D

Another week, another Twitter drama.

The TTRPG Twitter space has become so unhinged that people can express opinions that have been around for decades and it’s taken as something innovative and new. There is a real blindness coming over the discourse and it’s making it increasingly challenging to have real conversations about design issues.

This week it was a variation on the fudging / DM Fiat discourse.

It started when it was revealed by Daniel Kwan that he takes a particular approach to dealing with adversaries in combat, specifically that opponents “go down” when:

  • It makes the player “look cool”

  • It’s narratively important

  • The “table energy” is decreasing

In short, enemies go down when the DM decides that it fits the needs of the narrative, as determined by the referee.

Now, a few things to stress before we start talking about the idea being put forth.

  1. This is not new. The idea of messing with HP, preserving or finishing off enemies, no matter what the dice decide, is as old as the game. Nonetheless I see this being presented as some innovative, daring approach to gaming. The original Tweet I saw about this had someone saying that Kwan ‘blew our minds’ when he said he did this in his game. There is such a “cult of personality” aspect to modern gaming, because Kwan is a hot new game designer, whatever he does is taken to have gravitas. It’s nonsense. Do your homework, these issues have been discussed and debated since the game’s inception.

  1. This is a perfectly legitimate way to play. If you enjoy this mode of play, where the DM decides when things are “narratively important” and ignores or alters dice rolls to achieve dramatic tension, it can be great. If done well the players will not know when it is being done. And I would add that most, if not all, DM’s have, at some point, fudged a dice roll because the result felt wrong. So this is more a matter of degree than kind. I’m sure that Kwan’s games are fun and exciting, and that his players enjoy themselves.

In short, this issue is NOT ABOUT DANIEL KWAN and his game. I can’t stress how important it is to make that distinction. THIS IS A PLAY STYLE CHOICE THAT HAS BEEN MADE, TO SOME DEGREE, BY EVERY DM WHO HAS EVER PLAYED THE GAME. Some have chosen never to do it, some have chosen to do it rarely, some have chosen to do it occasionally, others do it most of the time. But every DM has to decide whether or not to honor the dice, and the question of honoring the dice versus altering results has been fodder for gamer arguments since the game hit the shelves. 

One of the reasons you see many people reacting so strongly to this post is precisely that Kwan is being presented like a trailblazer of some sorts for doing something that has been done at the table for decades. Really, the only difference I see here is that Kwan’s version of “when to fudge” is far stronger, or further down the path of modifying results, than many are comfortable with, but the idea is neither new nor innovative.

So, moving forward, let’s strip this of its relationship to Kwan and his game, it isn’t about how Kwan plays the game, it’s about how a particular play style impacts the game.

Narrative Playstyle and D&D

So let’s call this approach, that adversaries are taken out when:

  • It makes the player “look cool”

  • It’s narratively important

  • The “table energy” is decreasing

“Narrative focused” D&D. This is not commentary about games other than D&D that have narrative mechanics. Narrative focused D&D has some challenges associated with it. Again, TO BE CLEAR, you can play that way if you like, and it can be fun and engaging for the whole table. So the point of this post is NOT to suggest that the playstyle CANNOT BE FUN, but rather to highlight the challenges of the approach to see if it is for you.

Because, TO BE CLEAR, every play style has costs and benefits. Things it does well and things it does badly, aspects of the game that are amplified/enhanced by the play style and aspects that are diminished/reduced. You wouldn’t think that from the discussion I’m seeing as everyone seems lined up to either defend or attack Kwan. IT’S NOT ABOUT KWAN, IT’S ABOUT THE PLAY STYLE.



So here are some concerns associated with the play style in question.

  1. The God Complex - First and foremost, it puts a lot of power in the hands of the DM. “But the DM already has immense power, so why does this matter?” Good question. It matters as dice results are one of the few checks on the power of the DM in the game, this approach takes them away completely. Thus it has the potential for abuse, significant abuse, as the players have no idea what has been done so they can’t object to it. It would be one thing if the DM said, “OK everyone, this fight is dragging, do we want to end it sooner?”, but what I gather from what I have seen is that this is a DM decision made behind the screen that the players are not a part of. 

I find the lack of critical discussion around this point to be baffling. Modern gaming discourse is JAM PACKED with discussions of player safety, triggers and consent. I’ve seen endless posts about the problem of bad DMs playing god and how this has the potential for abuse at the table, but somehow getting to be the one person at the table to decide when something is “cool” or “narratively important” is seen as entirely unproblematic. That’s just bizarre. The only way I can explain this is the cult of personality angle, since this is being presented by a “hot” new designer, it’s seen as cool and unproblematic. 

If an older designer, someone who plays old school D&D, had suggested that they run a game where the DM can change anything as they are “god” at the table, it would be cited as an example of “toxic DMing” or something similar. It’s only getting a free pass because of who is suggesting it. If you can, with a straight face, say you need safety tools to prevent a DM abusing their power then I can’t see how you would be comfortable with this.

For real. If you can’t envisage a situation where this sort of game style could lead to the DM playing favorites, either consciously or unconsciously, then you don’t get to rail on about abusive old school DMs who think they are god. 

  1. The Overworked DM - I can honestly say, as a veteran DM with decades of experience at the table, that this sort of approach is an anathema to me, in part because of the first issue, the potential for DM abuse, but almost more because of another issue, that it puts too much on the DM. Think it through for a moment. If you don’t play this way the dice are rolled and you interpret the result accordingly, the dice make the decision. If you play “narrative focused D&D” then the DM has to decide, for every dice roll, if the result has to be altered to “serve the story”. 

I can’t stress enough how much I dislike the idea of yet another decision being given to the referee. DM’s in D&D are already on the hook for a significant amount of work at the table, adding yet another job is not of any interest to me.

  1. “It’s the DM’s Fault” - One of the most disturbing aspects of this approach for me is that it implies that the DM gets to decide when a monster goes down. Most people interpret this as the DM deciding to end a monster’s life early to help the players. But there is clearly the possibility of the reverse, the DM prolonging the life of opponents to make it harder. But either way, success or failure will always be overshadowed by the possibility that the DM made it happen. Or even worse, every time a PC goes down the players will know it was because the DM decided it was “narratively appropriate” in this case but not in others. In short, the DM kills your PC, or saves them, not the monsters. I DO NOT WANT that kind of responsibility at the table. Because sooner or later a player will ask, “why did my PC die today”, or “why didn’t your PC die today”, because if the DM decides what is narratively important, then it is ALWAYS the DM’s decision when a PC dies. 

And let’s be 100% crystal clear about this, I don’t care how good you are at deceiving the players, how good you are at hiding the results of your fudging, and how creative you are. At some point, particularly in a long form game, your players will start to notice that you are messing with results. Because, and here’s the rub, YOU AREN’T AS CLEVER AS YOU THINK YOU ARE. No matter how creative you are, at some point you will fall into patterns, particularly when you have to improv, and D&D has a metric ton of improv on the regular. You will fall into patterns and your players will notice. They might not tell you that they have noticed, but they will. They will notice that they always seem to pull it out of the fire at the last second, that some players succeed more than others, etc. 

And once that happens, anything bad that happens to the PCs will be, “the DM’s fault”. I don’t want that kind of responsibility.

  1. Player Agency - the flip side of this discussion is player agency. Players make decisions based on their understanding of the rule set, cost/benefit - resource management, etc. The implication of this approach is that most of that decision making is just window dressing, it’s done to keep you busy and make the fight “exciting” by giving you things to do, but the resolution of the conflict is entirely up to the DM. This removes agency from player decisions. One of the bedrock assumptions of a game like D&D is that the players get to decide what to do with their PCs, and the consequences of those actions is borne out by an impartial dice roll. This narrative focused approach breaks the chain of causality and makes the player action less relevant than the DM’s decision. If I were a player in a game like this I would question every victory, and wonder if our decisions played any role in our success. 

  1. Increasing “Table Energy” - Oddly enough this particular point was kind of lost in a lot of the discussion, and this is where I believe that something “new” is being discussed. Not that it hadn’t come up before, the idea that fights can drag and the DM should do something about that is NOT new. But the idea that each session has to be SUPER EXCITING and HIT ALL THE STORY BEATS and LEAD TO A DRAMATIC, NAIL BITING FINISH WHERE THE PC’S ALMOST LOSE BUT PULL IT OUT IN THE END AND EACH PC GETS A CHANCE TO SHINE, that’s new. 

“Low table energy” is an interesting way to frame this, and it leads to what I believe is a pernicious and harmful result - the burden (on the DM, of course!) to have an exciting session every time. Forget for the moment that it narrows the definition of exciting down to one particular approach, the general idea is harmful IMO. 

I see posts on Twitter about DMs being disappointed that their session hasn’t been as good as it could have been, that there wasn’t a “big moment” in the session, or that they had a “less exciting” session. My personal favorite Tweet of this kind is the, “my players said they had a blast and are looking forward to the next session… but I could have done so much better so I’m bummed.” 

Ugh. I despise what this sort of mindset is doing to the game, talk about gatekeeping! I see people post about this sort of thing regularly, they feel they can never manage such a well paced, tightly controlled and “exciting” session (look at Critical Role and all of those polished, professional streams!), so they stop running games or stop playing. The bar here, “exciting session every time, high energy, fun, fun, fun” is 100% a form of gatekeeping. I fear it keeps many potential DM’s from giving it a shot. 

People judge themselves by the fact that they aren’t MAXIMIZING FUN! I think this is a terrible way to think about playing a game. Game sessions can be frustrating, challenging, disappointing, and that’s JUST FINE, as part of the JOY of a session where you are successful is that it is contrasted with the sessions where you are not successful. Knowing you can fail makes success all the sweeter.

  1. Potential Harm - The “ratio” on the original tweet is also something worth thinking about. The OP’s tweet generated a lot of “hell yeah’s”, and general agreement about the playstyle. However, when the OP was quote tweeted and the tweet went beyond their followers to a wider community you see the ratio change significantly. The “storygamers” have formed a closed circle of commentary, so they can’t see the forest for the trees. So when the suggestion is made that this style of play might bother some players, and thus be “harmful”, it will be rejected. To my mind the ratio on this issue should suggest that there might be a problem here.

  1. Safety Tools - I’m super curious to see how the people who advocate for safety tools will approach this issue. In the past, when someone has commented that they don’t use safety tools as they instead have a relationship of trust with the players, and that players who don’t trust the DM shouldn’t play in their games, they have been told that they should “check their privilege” as not everyone can choose another game, or that this is naive, as there is always the potential for DM abuse of trust. Thus the need for safety tools.

This line of response has been remarkably consistent, I have seen DM's accused of having a “god complex” because they play old school D&D where the DM has considerable power, I have been told that DM fiat is a form of toxic masculinity where men need to center themselves above others, that it’s naive to assume that unconscious biases and conscious prejudices won’t shape results, etc, etc, etc.

So if your “defense” of this style of play is that it’s OK to allow DM fiat if you have a relationship of trust with the DM, and that you can always walk away (and I’ve seen both of these responses already), then you have just made an argument as to why safety tools are unnecessary. Because you should either pick a DM you trust (so you don’t need them) or walk away from the game (as the DM has broken trust so safety tools won’t help).

Since I’m assuming the advocates for safety tools won’t stop advocating for them, I eagerly await the critique of Kwan’s position on this.

I won’t hold my breath.

Because this isn’t really about safety tools, or narrative impacts on D&D, or fudging, or any of those issues. It’s instead about WHO is doing what, not what they are doing. I see this on Twitter daily. Something when done by one group is BAD but when done by another group is GOOD. 

I pine for the days when people didn’t tell others how to play their games. 


Monday, September 6, 2021

Building Bhakashal - The Setting

A bit of background to the setting today, a short discussion of the history of the city, the “playable groups” (Bhakashal’s version of “races”) and the gods in the setting. Bhakashal is set billions of years in the future, which gives the setting the freedom to be as different as I want it to be, there is no need for "canonical" fantasy "races" and technologies, or standard takes on the gods.

The City

Many, many centuries ago an avatar of the god Iallus, god of the moon, fertility and plants, descended to Earth to fight a bat demon named Tolinnakara who had learned the secret of stealing people’s dreams. Tolinnakara found out that Iallus was coming and hid in one of the great swamps of the Southern lands, at the bottom of a river that snaked through the swamp. Tolinnakara hoped that the river and its various denizens would provide protection from Iallus’s gaze.

Iallus took on the aspect of the moon and used its luminous essence to find the demon. The demon and the god fought for days, and Tolinnakara was eventually overwhelmed. However, with a last dying breath the demon put Iallus into a deep sleep, and forced the dreams from Iallus’ body. Bereft of dreams, the god was unable to awaken, and slowly over the centuries an island built up over him. As Iallus is also the god of plants, the island was extremely lush and overgrown, bursting with plants of all kinds and overrun with bright flowers of all shades and colours. 

Iallus will sleep until the sun extinguishes itself.

The three aspects of the god (the moon, fertility and plants) impact the city in three unusual ways due to the presence of Iallus:

1. Moon: inhabitants can have prophetic dreams, odds based on intelligence, charisma and wisdom.

2. Fertility: Animals and monsters are prolific and breed in high numbers, life quite literally overflows in the city of prophecy. As a result of this fecundity the city has a massive hunt that culls populations regularly, these culled creatures are used for food, skins and as material components for spells. The immense city walls are in part to deal with the more aggressive swamp creatures.

3. Plants: the city is overgrown with plants, they cover every building, and are omnipresent. There are hundreds of unique varieties of plants in the city, and they are used for spell and magic item creation, and for potions.

Eventually sensitive humanoid creatures in the swamp that came near the island began to have prophetic dreams, in particular certain saan (lizard men) of the swamps experienced these dreams, and using their newfound prestige and power came to dominate the area. For decades they grew in power and number and spread over the swamp, treating the island as a holy site. Their shamans had prophetic dreams, and one told of them building a city on the island, and that outsiders would arrive and help them to complete it. When exploratory parties from the North appeared, not expecting to find the Saan and their society, they were welcomed and told of the prophecy. 

Over the next 100 years this group grew in size and power, certain travelers through the swamp would invariably find themselves drawn to the city where many would inevitably stay. Some of those passing in ships on the ocean were drawn to the city. The saan saw the city itself as a holy site, and with their black dragons they facilitated the slow influx of immigrants and protected the city from bandits and monsters as well as periodic raiding parties that sought to conquer the fledgling city, and adventuring parties that sought to pillage it. 

The inhabitants of the city constructed large barges that floated down the river for miles to get to a quarry where marble and stone were extracted and brought back. A wall was built around the island first, which took a decade. By that time several of the warlocks who had stayed in the city enlisted the aid of earth elementals to excavate a canal system. The city was built within this system, starting from the middle and growing outwards, and over centuries it grew until it reached the walls. The saan and black dragons kept the threats from the swamp at bay, and provided a first layer of defence against any military incursions. Over the years there were several assaults attempted from distant nations, but all were repulsed. The inhabitants of the city grew in number, the rumors of their prophetic dreams drew more and more of the curious, the greedy, and the foolish. 

City government formed around a cadre of warriors, they established a city guard, and created order. 

They rule to this day.

The city of prophecy attracted and kept the artisans, musicians and artists who passed through. The presence of the avatar of Iallus, god of the moon, produced great inspiration in those who were creative or skilled, whether they had prophetic dreams or not, as the moon has always inspired. As a result the city developed a reputation for the production of high quality goods, art, music, theatre, poetry and literature. 

The presence of Iallus beneath the island meant that it was lush with plants of all varieties, not just those local to the swamp, the city developed agricultural areas where they grew a stunning variety of fruits and vegetables and rare spices and other valuable plants. In addition, plant breeding became quite active and the city creates unique plants mined for rare ingredients (for magic and for health) and has crossbred varieties for special uses. The city itself is overgrown with plant life, so much so that salt is spread on the roads daily to keep the plants from overgrowing them, and canopies of multicolored plants hang between many of the hundreds of rooftop gardens, an series of elevated bridges known to many an adventurous thief.

Bhakashal is a cornucopia of delights.

The city of prophecy kept the most skilled, the “artists” amongst the warriors that passed through, and as a result a dueling culture, and a culture of display of weapons and martial skills emerged amongst the city’s ruling warrior class. An order of monks, worshippers of Palashurem known as “spartans”, moved to the city and became part of that martial culture. In an interesting inversion, gladiatorial battles and public dueling, both part of the city’s life, are also the domain of the aristocratic class, so the powerful die for sport in addition to the poor. The artisans of the city developed a reputation as the finest weaponsmiths and a great range of different weapons and experts in those weapons emerged. 

It is said that you can find any weapon, and someone who can train you with it, somewhere in the city.

These high quality goods, skilled trainers and performers, rare plants, skilled warriors and high-quality weapons and armor became the trade base for the city, trade was expanded from the swamp towns and various villages to other distant cities to the South, Northern trade was largely ignored as there was very little immigration from the North. The city exported both talented artists and drew artists of all kinds who sought tutelage from the city’s greatest.

The city is located at the edge of a jungle and 80 miles or so from the coast and ocean, there are no other large cities in the immediate area. The marshes that surround the city cover hundreds of square miles, and are dotted with thousands of small villages connected by water and land. 

Technology is late Renaissance level, telescopes exist alongside swords and bows. Firearms are also present, but their spread and use is tightly controlled by the Warlocks who rule the city Houses, for the most part only Warlocks have guns, and very few of them. There are also surviving examples of higher tech items (like laser pistols), but these are very, very rare. 

Magic is also tightly controlled by the city Houses, each House ruled by a Magus Warlock and a Ur Lord. Magic is not ‘common’ in Bhakashal, though the setting has over 400 new spells and several hundred new magic items, these are the provenance of the warlocks and the Noble Houses. There are no “magic shops”, no “magic garbage disposals” or “magic street lights”, magic is power and repute, and it is guarded greedily by the warlocks who wield it. 

Playable Groups

Bhakashal uses “playable groups” where traditional D&D uses “races”.

It took approximately 50 million years for humans to evolve from primates and create civilizations. In our future human civilization itself fell and humanity was reduced to small disconnected pockets that survived the destruction. After human civilization fell, nature swallowed, dissolved and absorbed all traces of human works, then another species eventually evolved and created their own civilization. 

Bhakashal is set on Earth, more than 5 billion years in the future, several thousand years before the sun has expanded far enough to engulf the Earth, while it burns blood red in the sky. 

For perspective, 5 billion years is 100 “blocks” of 50 million years each, that’s approximately 100 opportunities for new species to evolve and build civilizations. Over the 5 billion years between our present day and the time of Bhakashal, this process produced 13 humanoid groups that have evolved from animals to tool using builders, for a total of 13 civilizations that rose and fell, each time leaving a handful of their kind to survive while others evolved and became dominant. 

The game world of Bhakashal is set at the end of this process, at the end of Earth’s time, it has these 13 playable groups coexisting with no one group “dominant” over the others. The groups are listed here from the most populous to least worldwide, and listed with the animal form from which they evolved: 

  1. Saan - Lizards 

  2. Togmu - Frogs

  3. Malu - Fish 

  4. Garudin - Birds 

  5. Humans - Primates

  6. Rakasta - Cats 

  7. Urdyll - Plants 

  8. Yalan - Snakes 

  9. Chitin - Insects

  10. Jugyi - Turtles 

  11. Vodnik - Castors 

  12. Kutya - Dogs 

  13. Wythir - Lions

All of these playable groups have traditions, practices, styles of dress, etc. specific to them, and although the Saan are by far the most numerous, conflict based upon playable group is infrequent, at this stage in history, customs and drives are not based on playable group divisions. 

The Gods

The gods in this setting are not the divine beings of the past, they are instead advanced AI who evolved and became fully sentient and grew in power until they were as powerful as “gods”. They are independent of worshippers for their power, and they exemplify the subconscious and past memories of the people who originally created them. For years they ruled the Earth, using it as a playground for their intercine conflicts, but then for unknown reasons left the Earth behind. 

After an absence of millions of years, they have returned to the Earth in its twilight, and have been back for several thousand years. These AI “gods” are highly inscrutable, they act in ways that make no sense to mortals, sometimes beneficently, sometimes with apparent malice, sometimes in bizarre and frightening ways. Scholars debate why they returned, the most popular explanation being that they wanted to watch the planet of their birth be consumed by its sun at its death. The gods walk the Earth, living in remote and difficult to access places. Though they sometimes appear in civilized lands, both for religious ceremonies and for other inscrutable reasons, appearing in their full manifestations, or disguised as regular people, monsters or animals.

As a result of the method of their creation they represent a pastiche of past cultures and civilizations, they are unique yet derivative, made up of collected subconscious ideas but in unique combinations. They are also as a result somewhat fluid and changing, unlike the “gods” of old who were exemplars, the gods of Bhakashal are chimerical, embodying the chimerical nature of their origin. The Gods of Bhakashal appear alternately as women and men, depending on their whim, there are no areas of divine interest that are strictly male or female. They appear sometimes with multiple limbs or heads, and sometimes with animal heads or body parts. 

The gods have no alignment, the very concept is too subtle to hold them, they act in ways that are difficult to understand, but all gods have a number of areas of influence, and most people pray to the appropriate god for day to day needs rather than praying to one god for all things. Each Noble House in the city is associated with a god, and has a temple for that god in the House Ward. Each major god in the Bhakashal pantheon is represented by a temple in the temple ward. 

Demons  in the pantheon, which are AI who did not fully evolve and wreak havoc on the living, appear as animals with human heads. 

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