Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Dose of Verisimilitude: Fun to Read, Not Fun to Play

Ahoy, says Spawn:

In reading a great history of Christian missionization in Europe, Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, I came across a passage that briefly lays out the logistical realities of a (presumably name-level) Cleric's retinue in the early medieval period, and then an outline of bookmaking. For our beloved readers I quote at length:

"Riches were necessary for furnishing and maintaining the infrastructure of a bishopric. We tend to think of episcopal accoutrements in terms of the few treasures that have survived, such as Cuthbert's pectoral cross and portable altar or the book at Fulda with which Boniface vainly tried to defend himself. We must not forget the less exotic but absolutely essential underpinning of an episcopal establishment. The large retinues, like those about which Alcuin complained, had to be clothed, fed, mounted and armed. How revealing that when Otto of Bamburg entered his chosen mission field in 1128 with thirty wagons in his train the Pomeranians took this for an enemy army. Retainers were not menials; so we must make allowance for  servants, grooms, cooks, laundrymaids. Already a lot of people, and somehow they must eat and drink and sleep. We may think of the carts as groaning under the weight of canvas and rope, poles and pegs, sheepskins and cooking pots and emergency fuel and candles, flour and bacon and beer. Axles break, tack frays, weapons rust. So there must be craftsmen who can exercise various skills as wheelwrights, saddlers, armourers and smiths; and they will need tools and anvils and horseshoes and nails and grease and leather and packthread. And this is but to consider the absolutely basic equipment of an itinerant episcopal household. If in turn we consider the more exotic activities of a cathedral establishment we can appreciate the need for resources on an ample scale. For example, the production of books was inseparable from the work of Christian evangelization. It was a long and complex series of operations from the slaughter of a calf and the messy and smelly business of turning its skin into vellum that could be written upon, to the final outcome in such masterpieces as the Codex Amiatinus or the Book of Kells. Neither should we forget the associated crafts (ink-making, mixing of pigments, bookbinding), nor the laborious training with quill and brush, nor the false starts, nor the sudden shower that ruined a day's work hung out to dry on the scriptorium's washing line. Amiatinus and Kells were of course luxury productions, among the very finest books which human skill has ever produced. But even everyday texts designed for use rather than ostentation or devotion - such as, say, the Weissenburg catechism alluded to in Chapter 8 - would have required precious resources of materials, training and skills in their making."

Fletcher, pp.459-60.

The passage appears fairly late in the book in Chapter 13 of 15 (Mission to Church) where Fletcher sort of steps back a bit and collects himself and the reader for a moment before heading into the home stretch. His history and analysis are not specifically economically focused before that point, and with this passage and much of the following material, he does treat the economic realities of the European church more directly. In a way, for most of the narrative (and I don't know if the above passage gets this across, but the guy has a great conversational writing style) those sorts of details are hand-waived in the interest of keeping the flow of the story moving.

I.e., basically the same way most of this stuff is treated in D&D except by the most pedantic simulationists. Or I should say precocious, uniquely-genius world-building DMs, for a more positive connotation. I admit, a part of me wants to worry and fret over all these details and play in a game world where all of these matters impinge on what PCs can do or can not.

You want to copy a scroll, Mr. Magic? Okay, well there's no vellum at the local VornMart. You've got to go find someone who will sell you a calf, then someone to slaughter it, then make vellum, mix ink, blah blah blah. Ah. But after Mr. Magic searches for a week, my random calf-birthing table (indexed to random tables of realistic daily weather conditions, history of grazing and pasturage, foddering regime, fodder quality, cattle pedigree, and so on) indicates that there are no surplus calves available in the area, nor have there been any for the last 15 years. This also explains why everyone in the town is extraordinarily poor and unfriendly to outsiders such as your party. You keep asking for veal when everyone is starving, you asshole.

The item that sticks out in the passage for me starts with "Axles break". Back when I used to be able to tolerate the abuse associated with reading the Tao of D&D (let alone posting a comment, for Christ's sake) I saw a post there about exactly this circumstance. Maybe it was a session recap or something, but for some reason an wagon axle broke, and the players wanted to say they replaced it with a tree branch they cut to size, or something like that, just good enough to get them back to town. And of course the impossibilities associated with this task were magnified in the telling (given the author, partly for rhetorical effect: to clearly explain how his players were the stupidest fucking people ever shat out upon the face of the Earth): none of you know how to make an axle; you don't have the tools; you don't have seasoned lumber, of the right part of the right tree; and you're obviously a bunch of total morons with your own feces smeared across your foreheads; etc.

At any rate, this has all been said before about verisimilitude in D&D (though I contend the forehead-feces tack is an original development, a true innovation). Should anything go? No. Maybe the PCs have to abandon the goddamned wagon, it can't be repaired in the field, and the other consequences of that have to play out. But the DM can hand-waive the details that may be important to her conception of how the world works by not mechanicalizing everything, or at least not subjecting the players to the mechanics themselves except as existing conditions and outcomes in the game world. That is, the intricacies of your own byzantine calf-birthing index may give you the most profound boner or luxuriantly swollen labia (or whatever genital configuration you might possess) but the players do not find themselves equally engorged by their encounter with the index, usually.

Here lies a bit of a split in the argument about attention to 'realistic' details bringing the game world to life. Since the mechanics of mustard-farming (or whatever) are basically a game for the DM who develops it and interacts directly with it, and not for the players, these sorts of mechanics, inflicted on players, don't bring the world to life for them. The distinction is subtle: the consequences of the DM playing his/her personal game of mechanics to determine the precise color of the sunset as perceived by each in turn the elf, the dwarf, the human and the dog in the party on day 249 are important. PCs can't agree on the qualities of the sunset, can't fix the wagon, and so on. That sucks, or is an opportunity for role-playing, or whatever. The players typically interact with the outcomes of these sorts of mechanics, not the mechanics themselves. This suggests that a form of hand-waiving resides in keeping the mechanics behind the screen, and thereby foregoing the occasion to share your awesomely detailed Faberge egg of a system with your friends. DMing is a hard, lonely and unheralded career, it would seem.


  1. If I had taken the time to make an awesome Excel chart with formulas to model the differing growth rates of varieties of mustard seeds at elevation in 100' increments cross-indexed with soil quality, I for sure would not keep it to myself. I would have the players roll on the damn thing and make a big production out of it.

    In fact, whenever I have taken the time to develop a random mechanic for a game I am running, I make sure to share it and as often as possible either have the players roll for it or roll for it myself with everyone fully aware of what I need for a success (for me, usually a terrible outcome for the party) or a failure (for me, usually what the party is hoping for).

    Why do it any other way?

  2. There is a decent middle ground, I think. Describing the vast wagon trains that follow a powerful cleric seems like a great idea to me; it makes the world seem alive and real and gives the players an idea of the cleric's power without saying "oh, he's level eight". I think you can keep that without going into all the unnecessary detail that bogs down a game and kills all the fun.

    Or, in other words, a broken cart axle should lead to further adventure; if not, just let the players fix it and move on.

  3. @Kelvin: it's a matter of quantification versus function. I like what I call "functional realism": the game world should feel like a real world, and anything that could potentially happen in the real world should be possible in the game world. Thus, it's possible for a weapon to break in real life, so there ought to be some weapon breakage in the game as well; it makes stuff more interesting.

    What doesn't make stuff more interesting is a complicated weapon breakage system that uses precise densities of various metals and their alloys, factoring in technology levels and the effects of different weapon forging processes to come up with exact probabilities. The exact numbers don't matter, only the function or effect matters.

  4. As for the stuff about spreadsheets and precise models: they remind me of Dave Barry's ancient comment about fantasy baseball being about as sane as claiming to manage herds of pretend caribou.

  5. I found myself thinking about this post again while I was reading some of Alexis' work at Tao of D&D (I love that blog precisely for the reasons Spawn does not read it any longer - to me, watching intelligent unbridled assholism is a vicarious thrill and if the caustic laser is focused on D&D, so much the better - perhaps I am lucky that I do not encounter enough intelligent assholes in my life to make the thrill wear off).

    I think the thing that makes most people react against spending a ton of time to create a mechanic to describe some aspect or another of the game, especially if said aspect is outside of the *usual* purview of day to day D&D gameplay, is that most people intuitively realize that if you have the knowledge required to create such a mechanic, you also posses the ability to just synthesize that information and come up with a snap judgment on the fly that will be pretty damn accurate.

    I bet Alexis (Tao of D&D) can and has improvised many things on the fly in his game, and my hypothesis is these improvised decisions would be very close to the outcomes of his intricate charts and spreadsheets.

    They both come from the same mad genius, after all.

    1. Nice point Carl! It may come down to differing DM'ing styles in the end.

  6. To address the main point of this post eg player engagement with the results of a mechanic vs. a DM's knowledge of the potential outcomes determining the amount of fun had by each party when the mechanic is utilized in game (which is a very perceptive distinction to note):

    The need to keep shit secret from the players is a tricky egg to crack. On the one hand, the players must never know *just how much* of the entire world building balancing act is made up on the spot by the DM, but on the other hand, if the players are not aware of *any or hardly any* of the consequences of their actions on the world around them (and obviously their actions have the most consequence when they shape the world in manners that the DM did not foresee, the true moment of world-building through gameplay...), they miss out on a lot of the fun.

    Does it matter if the DM is getting his rocks off if the players are not?

    One of my favorite tricks as a DM is to make these moments totally transparent by making the possible outcomes known and then assigning them values on a dice throw that I make the player roll. If I think it is 75% likely that the player dropped from the jaws of the dragon face down into the mud but there was that 25% chance she flipped midair and landed face up, I ask the player to roll the dice and tell her why.

    She gets to sweat in the moment, fully aware of the outcome of the rolling dice.

    I think what I am getting at is I am all in favor of any sort of intricate mechanic like axles breaking and being repaired, or the exact composition of the retinue of church officials of varying rank; as long as the mechanics *are transparent and known to the PCs*. If the PCs don't want to engage, that is fine but they are at least aware of what is happening instead of completely missing out on an orgasmic moment on the other side of the screen :)

    1. "One of my favorite tricks as a DM is to make these moments totally transparent by making the possible outcomes known and then assigning them values on a dice throw that I make the player roll."

      Yes, that's something that I've increasingly taken to doing - where secrecy doesn't matter, or doesn't matter as much as the fun and sense of risk that comes when a player rolls dice, I like to make the odds of various events transparent and make a player roll. It also removes any temptation to fudge a roll, as well as ensuring the players know that they're in a game governed by rules that the world (and DM) abides by), rather than DM-story-time.

      If the axle broke without the players knowing that there was a table for 'travel accidents' (I'm not interested in a table simulating the physics of axles, I'd much rather have a fantasy adventure orientated table of 'travel mishaps' or even just plain 'encounters', of which a broken axle is one event), then they might well come to think that the broken axle was a 'scripted' event. I'm trying to purge them from my DMing, as per my aversion to 'DM-story-time'.

  7. Lacking some objective and game-able measure, which is what I submit Tao is striving for vs. simulationism, you have to be a pretty good hand waver for the results to be enjoyed in the same manner by the same audience. What seems like pedantry when taken apart, discussed and defended in Tao's acerbic style actually plays rather smoothly, even via the truncated medium of the blog.

    As a player in Tao's game I can attest that we are only inflicted with whatever intricacies exists when we ask for it. Much seems to be determined via his many charts and systems "behind the screen" and only described to us. The result, though, is as deep and satisfying a game as I've ever had the pleasure to play. Perhaps I'm just another pedant, though.

    On second thought, no. I'm not. I run a much looser game, myself. I do and am satisfied to do way more hand waving and abstraction than Tao.

    1. Very valuable perspective -- I am a big hand-waver myself, and find Tao's blog a bit too acerbic for my taste, but I have always imagined it might be fun to play in his game.

  8. Folks who game with me know I am much more of a hand-waver (-waiver?) about these kind of matters, much more interested in a fast-paced, exciting game than a grainily realistic one. However, after reading this, I can see I'd best get right to work on a "random calf-birthing table" in case the vellum contingency ever emerges.

    But seriously, I am with Talysman: "The exact numbers don't matter, only the function or effect matters."

    1. "Handwaver" was an intentional malapropism, if such a thing exists. :)"

  9. As acerbic as I might be, here you are, two years after the blog posts you quote, talking about me.

    Effect. Yes, effect.