Monday, November 30, 2009

Farewell Power Source Listeners

This is an open letter to all of those who have listened to me over the past two months on The Power Source. As of now, I will no longer be a part of the show. It was a fun ride, if a bit brief, and very rocky at the end.

In brief, the other night, I was informed that I had misunderstood my role on the show and that it would be continuing without me.
It began in late September when I was lurking on the D&D Community forums and saw a post by Jared Glenn seeking a cohost to help start up a new D&D podcast. Podcasting is something I have wanted to try my hand at for a long time, but I have always been something of a 'someday' podcaster. Someday, I'll do it. Well, someday was today.

We met, via Skype, a few days after I responded and instantly hit it off. Jared had clearly been planning this endeavor for a while, had purchased some sound equipment, and had rough outline already. But he was open and receptive, fun, and easy to talk to. I pushed for some things I wanted to hear, some things I wanted to be a part of the show. Some ideas were imitative of other podcasts, others were uniquely our own. We cobbled together ideas for the segments, building on his idea of outlining the show with various power source titles. I helped fill in some of the segments that were blank on his side. We went back and forth, talked about what would work and what wouldn't, what we belong where, and what would make us unique. In the end, together, we created the format that would become the core of the show.

Things came together very smoothly after that, for the most part. There were some creative differences, but nothing that we couldn't work out. We joked on the show once or twice about our bloody preshow meetings. We had a great on-air chemistry and a workable off-air chemistry, fueled by our differences as much as by our similarities. And by every measure, we were fairly successful right out of the gate. I was riding high and so was Jared. We would talk about our download numbers, check our reviews and average ratings obsessively, and refresh our e-mail boxes ten times an hour. I was finally convinced to join Twitter.

Last week, just before Thanksgiving, Jared and I had a bit of an argument. I really have no desire to go into it, but it amounted to a question of ownership of the show and acting as partners instead of as individuals. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had misunderstood the nature of the relationship and that I should not have thought of myself as an equal partner. That is why I had been referred to as "and joining me once more" rather than as a host or even as a cohost. We hashed even this out, proving that reason and compromise could win the day. Because, of course, we both had a stake, our names were side by side on the podcast. We had divided the work as evenly as possible given that I could not really help with the sound editing. We had divided the costs involved, except for the sound mixing equipment Jared had purchased, but we had agreed this would be all right given that he would keep it if the show failed.

On Sunday, November 29th, I was told that I was no longer a part of the show due to my misunderstanding of the terms of my participation; Jared had not been seeking a partner and felt he had been clear on this all along. I was told that the show would continue without my participation or approval. Jared had laid claim to everything I had brought onto the show as his own. And, as he has so bluntly put it, I have no recourse.

Sadly, this is true. There truly is nothing I can do except roll over and accept that something that I helped built had been taken from me over a senseless argument as to whether it was 'our' show or 'Jared's' show. In time, my name and my contributions to the show will be forgotten, though they will continue to be built into the very foundation of the show. I am not going to hash out which segments and ideas are mine because that turns me into Jared. Every idea of how the show was put together was something that evolved through our collaborative effort.

To all of those who have listened to me, I will truly miss you. I loved reading each and every e-mail, reading your tweets, reading your reviews, every bit. And that is why I wish Jared all of the best in continuing this project. Although the mean spirited, spiteful part of me wants revenge, the rest of me knows that the foundation that Jared and I laid down together will make for a great show, whether I am there or not. I would not deny any D&D fan out there the right to enjoy it. Unfortunately, slighted and betrayed as I might feel, knowing full well that I have been robbed of my time and creative energy unfairly; it is still all about the game and the fans.

And so I say: best of luck to all of you, happy gaming, and thank you for listening. Being a part of your lives is the only real loss here for me.

Feel free to drop me a comment here or follow me on twitter at

And happy holidays.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

D&D Patch Day Makes Me Feel Like a Grognard

A couple of weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast released a major rules update for Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (yes, this is one of -those- posts for all of you non-gamers). Instantly, the D&D Community forums lit up with angry protests (from players) and relieved cheers (from DMs). As an occasional, casual MMORPG player, I am no stranger to 'patch day' on the forums. It was just a little odd to see it for D&D. Just like I still find it odd to see people arguing about how a certain rule should be applied based on the choice of one tiny word over another. These debates often quickly turn into people bludgeoning one another with circuitous legalese interpretations of what should be pretty natural language and, of course, accusations of logical fallacies.

During the 2nd Edition years, the internet was just getting its start and I wasn't anywhere near it. Even during 3rd Edition, I was pretty well insulated from the 'gaming community' on the internet. I played with my friends, occasionally hung out in the game store and swapped war stories, and ran my home brew games without any real awareness of the fact that there were other DMs out there.

But now, in 4th Edition, I am suddenly trying to be an active (semi-active) part of the community and this whole thing is really bothering me. Not just the arguments, but the whole patch day idea.

Whenever I have run a game in the past, if there was a contradictory spot in the rules, I made my best guess and kept the game running. Oh sure, occasionally we would argue the point a bit after the game and sometimes things got heated if someone felt they had been cheated, but there was never this sense that there was a RIGHT ANSWER and that we deserved to have it. Interpreting poorly worded or contradictory rules was part of the game. It was the job of the DM.

Now, don't get me wrong, I see the value of DMs and players talking about specific interpretations and things, but on the D&D Community, the arguments always seem to follow this pattern:

Original Post: This came up in my game and the rules weren't clear. I made this ruling. Was I right?
Response 1: Well, I can see why you made that ruling, but I think you should have done this because of this rule here.
Response 2: I disagree with Response 1 because of this wording which seems to suggest they meant it to work differently.
Response 3: I think Response 1 is better, but you handled it okay too.
Original Poster: Yes, but what is RAW?
Response 4: I think RAW means this.
Original Poster: Well, where does it say that. Can you give me a page number?
Response 5: Customer service said that Response 2 is right.
Original Poster: Customer service is never right. What is the RAW?

For those not well versed, RAW means "rules as written," and its similar to demanding to see exactly where the Constitution actually guarantees that you can take out your boobs in public as a form of protest against people keeping lemurs as pets.

This worship for the Rules As Written frankly has me baffled. It frankly means that people have kind of missed the point of having a human being adjudicating the game rather than a computer. The point is that any set of finite rules cannot possibly cover every situation that will come up in the game or every particular combination of peculiar closet-case circumstances. Any rule system that tries will become an overcomplicated nightmare. For example, remember that scene in "The Two Towers" when Legolas hopped onto a shield and surfed it down a set of stairs while rapid-firing his bow into a horde of orcs. Well, there aren't rules for that in D&D, but some player should be able to try it if they want to. The DM is there to figure out how to make it work. That possibility and all of the other infinite possibilities are the things that set tabletop RPGs apart from video games like World of Warcraft. It hardly needs to be said that a video game limits you to only the things that the developers thought of (or were capable of programming).

Now, I agree that the DMs true role is to provide infinite story possibilities so that the players can decide that they want to kill the king and sieze his kingdom instead of rescuing his daughter from the dragon. Again, no matter how freeform the video game, ultimately, the story is limited to what has been programmed.

But isn't rules adjudication a part of this?

Okay, so I understand that there is a question of whether a character should be allowed a saving throw when a forced-movement power slides him into and then out of and then into again the damaging area created by a firewall spell, and maybe the rules could be a little clearer on that point, but they aren't. So you, the DM, are going to have to make a call. And you might make a good call or a bad call, but you aren't going to ruin the game if your interpretation isn't the one the designers had in mind. And other DMs may call it differently (I am pro-save). But exchanges like the one I've paraphrased above signal that some DMs seem to think there is actually a right answer and that they might be doing it wrong if they don't get that answer. This makes me sad.

It makes me sad for the same reason that watching DMs struggle with the format of skill challenges or arguing about whether the DCs are too high or too low makes me sad. They are just guidelines. The format is anything special or magical and it isn't even always the best format. Three failures does not always have to mean the challenge failed. The DCs don't always have to be 5/10/15. You're supposed to fiddle with it. You're supposed to push it to its breaking point. You are not supposed to just fill in the blanks. "Level 1, Complexity 3, Diplomacy (Hard), Insight (Moderate), Intimidate (Moderate), Bluff (Easy)."

Oh sure, you can if you want to. You can just fill in the blanks and you will have something that works okay most of the time. But if you are just going to fill in the blanks and follow the form, you are cheating yourself and your game out of something great. And if you are complaining that filling in the blanks and following the form isn't a shortcut to a great game, you have completely missed the point.

Anyway, this is really nothing more than a rant. Because, in the end, I can promise that my game won't go this way and that's all I really care about. Except that, suddenly, by virtue of hosting a podcast that has become a bit popular, I am an authority figure and people are starting to listen to my opinions and ask for them. I am just starting to get the sense that some of my answers are unsatisfying because the best answer I can give in any situation is: 'I don't know what the developers were thinking, but here's how I would handle it. Of course, your way is good too. Whatever keeps your players happy is good.'

I guess I can't really claim to be part of the old guard, though. I am part of the aging guard, but I was just being born in the late '70s, so I don't remember the original editions. I do remember endlessly discussing in AD&D Second Edition exactly when a thief was entitled to actually backstab someone. The rules helpfully pointed out that if the thief could approach a target unawares, he could cause a very serious injury, but they didn't bother to spell out how to determine when a victim was actually unaware, particularly when a pitched battle was already underway. We made do with what we had and had a lot of fun. And best of all, the players tried a lot of crazy and outlandish stunts and they let me do a lot of wild and crazy things to them in return.

This rant was supposed to have a very different point when I started and go in a completely different direction. It was also supposed to be a witty and fun jab at the idea of patch day and changing attitudes toward the game. Sorry about that. But its too late to write something else.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wikipedia and the Previous Post

I have also made a very interesting discovery about wikipedia. I have always dismissed it as unreliable, no matter how many citations there appear to be. Lately, though, I have had to revise my opinion. There is actually an inverse relationship between how complex a topic is and how inaccurate its wikipedia entry is.

That is, the more mainstream and well-known the topic, the more likely wikipedia is to be inaccurate, apocryphal, or flat-out wrong. Conversely, the more complex the topic, the more likely it is to be completely accurate and fully comprehensive.

The Peter Principle Applied to Reading

When you are reading a book written by an expert in a given field and you are not an expert in that field, you will eventually come across something which the author has taken it for granted that you will understand. Or else, you will find something that the author has not explained sufficiently for you to understand. Even if the book has been written for an inerested layperson like you, it will happen. At that point, it is very helpful to visit the internet and seek out a plain language explanation of the concept that is giving you trouble.

This has always served me well in the past. I am not an advanced scientist, but I enjoy reading about advanced science. And I like to think I have a pretty keen understanding of things precisely because I am willing to research a topic instead of tossing a book away as incomprehensible. However, it appears that I have now come to an impasse.

It seems that, if you keep reading more and more advanced topics, you will eventually find that there are no plain language explanations of any of the concepts you don't understand because, quite frankly, if you need a plain language explanation of, say, the "Ricci Curvature Tensor" without a lot of advanced math and a passing grade in a 300-level prerequisite course, you probably aren't advanced enough to even know that the thing exists. This is a shame because I am lead to believe that it is very important for getting through the rest of the chapter.

What truly bothers me about this whole thing is that I am 353 pages into this book which is now more than 20 years out of date and I am only reading it because (a) several years ago, a philosophy professor accused me of plagiarizing it and (b) I want to read the much more current sequel which looks far more interesting and has a much nicer picture on the cover.