Thursday, October 14, 2021

towards a d&d capitalism simulator, part 1/?

the first section of this is going to be a lot of annoying math. if you prefer to just see the outcome of the math as a little thing you could plug into an od&d campaign (or any d&d, whatever), skip to the header following this one!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

anti-sell manifesto

originally published on twitter, but putting on here for posterity.

i've hidden most everything on my itch page and i'm not going to be selling products on here anymore because i want to contribute to making the hobby a more pleasant space, and because i'm a dirty freudomarxist communist who would rather not commodify my enjoyment.

in the beauty community, there's such a thing as no-buy or low-buy participants who do not buy any new makeup products except to replace what they have or to have just one of something. note that this is not the same thing as a minimalist lifestyle, the caveat of which is that you can always buy what you don't have if you need another one; the goal here is precisely to discourage a view of art entangled with buying things because people tell you to.

one of marx's most important notions is commodity fetishism, that capitalism abstracts relationships between people as being between objects (commodities). the perversion of small capitalists is that relationships between objects appear as relationships between people. you can see that this is not a reversal of commodity fetishism, but an internalization and expansion of it, especially because its goal is not to overcome or bypass the social relationships of capital but to strengthen them by colonizing personal enjoyment and relationships. for the hobby community to transform itself into a marketplace then is more than some people trying to sell their products to an audience that desires them: it is constantly trying to normalize its behavior by representing it as what should be normal relations between hobbyists.

you're not going to out-compete WOTC in the marketplace, full stop. you don't have the resources, the brand image, or the public good will. you think you're going to convert any DND fans by being, very explicitly, salespeople who want to sell to them? if i still were a DND fan (DND as the brand), i'd rather pirate whatever WOTC makes like i'd always done than buy anything from you! and this is me speaking as a stubborn hypothetical DND enjoyer; i don't pirate things because i don't have to in order to play. if you care about trying to weaken WOTC's hold on the hobby without looking like a snake oil salesperson your better chance is to spread the message that they cannot own your play or your experiences, nor can anyone else! this is something we should have worked past ages ago. but this isn't about WOTC for me, because what they do doesn't affect me at all. this is much more directly about small proprietors whose enjoyment is wound up with their aggrandizement, and feel the most compelled to turn the scene into a market for themselves. it's unpleasant.

to make an example of myself and to free my mind of what the hobby community advertises as normal participation, i've hid everything on my itch page (except for sigma bandits). going forward, if i publish anything with a pricetag, it'll be to fund the art. but i'll probably focus more on my blog because that's honestly what i like doing the most, and for things such as my OD&D project or brimstone, i'll publish them with a goal of making the text available and maybe funding just to get more art on the pages. i'm still down to be like hired for stuff or w/e, and i'll continue to support my friends' endeavors because they are often just fun or artistically meaningful works that are necessarily tied up with the capitalist state of things. however, i believe the hobby at large should reevaluate its relationship to capitalism and its self-commodification, and how our individual enjoyment seems so tied together with capital-logic. why is this desirable? why do you desire this? what do you desire?

this is nothing i haven't said before, although i guess this is in much more explicit and targeted language. nevertheless, if this seems like a new opinion to you, please put on your reading comprehension helmet and refer to my blog. thank you!

Friday, October 8, 2021

chainmail's weapon statistics for od&d's alternate combat system

by the end of this, i promise you'll have something useful! first, here is a cleaned up version of the one-on-one combat matrix for chainmail from my upcoming remake of the original 1974 dungeon game, fantastic medieval campaigns!

just wanted to show how that page is going to look. here's what i actually made today, the same data in an excel spreadsheet because i wanted to derive the AC values from od&d's "alternate" combat system by close-reading the one-on-one matrix from chainmail. i'm ignoring the values to hit cavalry because i'm not really worried about those tbh.

according to dmdavid's blog post on the origin of the od&d combat system (link), gygax made the following changes from arneson's original system derived from gygax's own chainmail (the only difference between arneson's system and chainmail was there being hit points):

  1. "hit points became less realistic and more fun" (dmdavid's wording)
  2. to-hit rolls switched from 2d6 to d20 (to sell more dice?)
  3. AC values were flipped from ascending to descending

this post looks at points 2 and 3 from a mathematical perspective. first, we can simply flip the AC values given from chainmail by subtracting each given score from 14 such that 12 becomes 2 and 5 becomes 9. this preserves the likelihood of meeting each score, except that instead of rolling high you roll low.

oh, isn't that interesting? it looks pretty similar to the armor class values from od&d's "alternate" system! the most useful application of this is that you can use these scores from 9 to 2 instead of AC when rolling to-hit in od&d. for example, instead of using the AC descriptions on the table below, cross those out and refer instead to a table like the one above.

thus when a level 5 fighter attempts to hit someone with plate armor while wielding a flail, they refer to a to-hit score of 8. by treating this score of 8 as an AC value using the od&d table, we see that the fighter must roll 9+ on a d20 to successfully land a hit.

this would probably go well with the target 20 rule (link) by delta's d&d hotspot! but really i think the easier solution would just be to use the original 2d6 scores so you're not consulting more than one table. nevertheless, either solution is more interesting to me than the simple alternative system od&d offers (and which has since become 'the' d&d resolution system for combat) because it actually does take into account the types of weapons and armor used.

that being said, if you wanted a simplified version of the chainmail table, i've written about that a couple of weeks ago (link)! nothing wrong with a table, though; it might even be preferable to keeping track of all those weapon-specific attributes. that's why having a referee is nice, they can read the table for you!

now let me similarly convert the fantastic unit chart from the fantasy supplement of chainmail:

since these descending scores range from 12 to 2 (just as the ascending ones ranged from 2 to 12), it seems that this table probably was not the basis of od&d combat in any capacity the way that the regular one-on-one table was.

anyway, here's a table that combines the above chainmail data with the d20 mechanism from od&d, including bonuses for fighters! keep in mind that clerics improve every 4 levels, and magic users every 5 levels, whereas fighters improve every 3 levels:

Sunday, October 3, 2021

critique 2.5: od&d, kittens game, and capitalism

i think that generally speaking, people are interested in od&d because it lacks any consistent interpretation. by reading something into it and saying that it's what gygax et al. did, we are operating in the same realm of discourse as people who appeal to the founding fathers of the USA for political decisions. so i hope that by looking at od&d through a different frame, i will actually introduce new concepts for how to play at the table regardless if they have actually been done before. this exegesis is totally ideological, and i'm just having fun with it. i'd rather not actually appeal to gygax for fun new ways to play d&d.

my girlfriend got back really into kittens game (link), the "dark souls of incremental games" as it calls itself (and which we have a lot of fun telling each other). an incremental game is a computer game where you manage resources with the aim of making more resources. cookie clicker (link) is probably the most famous of these, where at first you start by clicking a big cookie-shaped button to accumulate cookies, and then you invest your cookie-points into increasingly advanced cookie generators. kittens game, being the dark souls of incremental games, has a lot more complexity and depth than cookie clicker. here's what it's like to play kittens game, at least as far as i've made it (my partner has me beat):

  • you begin as a kitten in a catnip forest.
  • you collect catnip.
  • eventually, you can turn catnip into wood.
  • you can accumulate enough wood to build huts.
  • other kittens arrive, and you can assign them to tasks.
  • kittens eat catnip; you must accumulate more catnip.
  • you must research agriculture by assigning kittens as scientists.
  • once you learn agriculture, you can assign kittens as farmers who produce catnip.
  • once you have a catnip surplus, you can invest kittens in other tasks.

i hope you see where the game is going. it doesn't stop there, because eventually your kittens will become literate and you must develop government policies with which to organize your kitten society. at some point, your kittens will even go to space. anyway, the point of kittens game is to constantly expand your productive potential. it's not just about managing resources such that you have enough for whatever reason, but producing surplus resources and then investing this surplus back into the cycle of production. rinse and repeat!

we generally treat the early dungeons & dragons games as dungeon crawls [1] because, duh, that's what we got out of them. since that's the "beginning" of the game, that's what people will necessarily spend the most time doing. the later part of the game is famously inaccessible because no one has enough time to actually progress that far in a campaign! we sort of know what it's like--you build your own castle, you collect taxes, and you fight wars with armies. however, besides no one making it that far, i've also found that people are confused as to what to do at this point. your characters are already well-established in the world, and there's not much reason to keep going back into the dungeon when you can hire people to do that for you (e.g.). isn't this sort of a weird thing to tack onto the end of the dungeons & dragons campaign experience? maybe not if you're familiar with the sort of literature that gygax et al. liked to read, but it still might feel out of place and hard to orient yourself as a player.

what if the point of the original dungeons & dragons was not to explore dungeons per se, but to progress your character? this is basically a truism, especially if you're someone like gygax whose enjoyment is diametrically opposed to people playing just to play. what i mean to say, though, is that the early play experience of exploring dungeons and looting them is only one facet of the od&d journey as received in the text. once you get enough money from dungeons, you build a castle, you collect taxes, you fight wars, you build infrastructure, you get richer. this is emphasized to such an extent that the tax rates for land-owning fighters and clerics are given upfront as class features, along with the costs associated with magic-users producing magic items for sale. of course, the game is called dungeons & dragons for a reason, but dungeons themselves are not explained until the third volume and even then, they take up one section as do outdoor exploration and castle construction and aerial combat and nautical combat… you get the point. the text suggests, to me, a trajectory of character progression beyond the dungeon.

this is, to me, what distinguishes od&d from war games (e.g. compare to the fantasy supplement for chainmail). war games are really nothing more than resource management games where you must diminish the resources of your opponent, while you don't really work towards making more resources. od&d on the other hand is resource management structured like capitalist production from the perspective of the capitalist: the goal is to produce resources, and invest those resources into expanding the production of resources.

i'm going to put a massive caveat here. let me repeat: this is only production as it appears to the capitalist. the cycle of production is a black box into which you put capital and out of which comes out more capital. i say this because i wanted to make the comparison, but i didn't want to appeal to self-identified socialists who think that capitalism is unique because it is geared towards surplus [2]. sure it is, but that's missing the forest for the trees: the cycle of production is an abstraction of living activity, so that the activity can be geared into the larger system of capitalist exchange. surplus drives capitalist society, but it is production's appearance as a black box (i.e. taking surplus for granted) that abstracts production to facilitate the exchange of commodities thereby produced. [3]

anyway, i point this out because it seems like there is a breadth and depth to playing d&d that we collectively miss out on since it's basically impossible to play it to the end (and because we tend to be more interested in the adventurist dungeon-crawling experience). meanwhile the thread of expanding production is what holds od&d together as a cohesive experience, and what distinguishes it from resource management games (i.e. wargames) prior to it. i have written a blog post before that shows how even the dungeon crawl has elements of worker placement games (link), even if in hindsight. now i hope to have shown the extent to which self-expanding resource management is key to od&d at large from beginning to end.

i'm going to shout-out errant (link) by ava islam (twitter) as a game-text which is specifically geared towards this weird capitalist fantasy of d&d that we often repress or downplay by focusing on the dungeon crawl as a thing in itself. errant's rules for claiming territory and developing it (link) really help facilitate this economic aspect of d&d. for a while i was wanting to write about this game because i think it's clever how it presents itself, and because i wanted to practice reviewing texts by people i know, but i think talking specifically about errant is outside the scope of this post. i have also previously written about the fantasy-structure of the d&d campaign in my series critiquing historical trends in the role-playing game hobby (link). i'm procrastinating on the next entry for that because i know people who make PBTA and no-dice-no-masters games, and i still don't know how to approach the topic at large.

happy spooky season!

[1] if you're not familiar with the early dungeon crawls, they were not combative hack-and-slash adventures, but explorations of unfamiliar areas with the aim to seek and extract gold. i figure you'd probably already know that if you're reading this blog, but it helps to align on this.

[2] or worse, that it is unique because it is geared towards accumulation. the point of capitalism is that you reinvest what you have left over, rather than keep it. generally speaking i think it's correct to say that surplus is constitutive of capitalism compared to other systems of production? but usually people who think this think of surplus as someone making more money than someone else, rather than something that constitutes production-for-exchange as such.

[3] production for exchange constitutes capitalism.

Friday, September 10, 2021

chainmail one-on-one combat stats for weapons & armor

how useful is that big table in chainmail that lets you find your kill chance by comparing weapons to armor? you know, this one:

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

a different math for ladder tables

my friend ty (@eldritchmouse) wrote up a great blog post about a new way to introduce memory states into random tables, called ladder tables (link)! i wanted to share my thoughts on how to accomplish the same thing with slightly different math, with no reason other than to fit it to my own tastes, and in case someone else would find it useful.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

critique 4: catching up to speed & the forge


you know how d&d 4 was universally reviled for being a turning point in how d&d was expected to be played, even though it made sense in hindsight of previous developments in the game and the hobby at large?

anyway, i'm going to come out and say it. [1]

the field of 'game design' was basically created by gary gygax to sell more books. it justified the existence of advanced dungeons & dragons as the officially sanctioned version of the dungeon game. by virtue of this, it justified the publishing of other games where dungeons & dragons as a 'system' did not apply. the market for tabletop role-playing games in this way justified itself once the hobby was translated from basements to bookstores. this should not be taken to mean that capitalism was an alien thing forced onto the hobby, since the aesthetics of dungeons & dragons are obviously drawn from the literary culture of mid-century america. it should also not be taken as something unique to role-playing games, since the same thing happened with regular board games (e.g.). what's with all the licensed editions of monopoly, and all the different variations on 'euro' worker placement games?

nevertheless, the commercialization of the hobby was not necessarily a forgone conclusion. for example, the mafia game has not yet exploded into an industry for producing and publishing infinitely more rules on how to play a casual party elimination game, even if by word of mouth there are different variations on the game. the original publication of dungeons & dragons (1974) and the subsequent assertion of advanced dungeons & dragons (1977-9) as its quintessential rulebook generated the current state of the hobby itself, transforming it into an industry proper. the hobby as we know it is therefore indebted to gygax's intertwined vision of systematization and commercialization.

at the same time, we cannot necessarily call gygax a pervert who wanted to force his players (and customers) to play the game how he envisioned it. he might have been a biological determinist who blamed women's brains for their own inability to play dungeons & dragons 'correctly', but he was in this respect a true believer in the invisible hand of the marketplace. there was just no way, he thought, to market dungeons & dragons to women because their interests simply lied elsewhere. gygax's systemization of the dungeon game was simply made with like-minded hobbyists (chauvinists or otherwise) in mind.

it should still be obvious, though, that the prospect of systemization would prove appealing for hobbyists with structures of fantasy distinct from gygax's. i discussed how the traditional game grew out of greg stafford's desire to develop and propagate his made-up fantasy world, and that this tendency was already foreshadowed by m.a.r. barker's empire of the petal throne (1975) published by TSR.

then, besides gygax and stafford, the hickmans' publications for dungeons & dragons in the late seventies represented a desire to determine the desires of players. their modules would offer stories instead of scenarios, and this was thought by adherents of the old school renaissance movement to have been the hobby's fall from grace. i would like to correct a point i made in the previous entry, that OSR hobbyists were necessarily wrong to attribute this shift to the hickmans instead of stafford or barker. the hickmans absolutely represent a different enjoyment than stafford or barker seemed to have possessed (or gygax, for that matter). the pleasure of inventing systems and 'lore' is distinct from the enjoyment of having others act out a story of your creation. when traditional games became the norm thanks to the hickmans, it is more accurate to say that worldbuilders like stafford found a more comfortable medium to construct their little worlds. then, the mere realization that systems could be created led to new avenues of pleasure in the hobby (i suspect for people like stafford and barker). thus gygax's project of systematization, trying to wrangle the wild hobby into a system proper, led to the prospect of creating systems from scratch in general.

i hope this is a decent summary of everything so far. since we seem to have located the origin of broad patterns in the hobby, i don't think it's worth dwelling on movements like the forge. the story of the hobby is the story of dungeons & dragons as a zombified brand, irrespective of who is holding onto it. indie enthusiasts tend to characterize dungeons & dragons as a reactionary force that appropriates genuine progress made by 'the people' so to speak. i claim instead that the indie scene is absolutely dependent on dungeons & dragons as a foil, that all these developments in the hobby were spearheaded by dungeons & dragons, and that no progress made in this context has been 'genuine'.