Panicking the Children

Thoughts on Constructive Criticism in Gaming & in Writing
Jim Vassilakos (jimv@uia.net)

Constructive Criticism as a GM Training Technique
Some years ago, I made it a practice to go around to different gaming groups in my area to see what different gamemasters were doing. Each time I would learn something new. Sometimes it would be a new technique. On other occasions, I would see the GM doing something well that I knew I wasn't terribly good at doing on a regular basis in my own campaigns. There is, after all, a difference between recognizing a technique when it is being successfully employed and actually using it often enough that it become a regular part of one's GMing style. Likewise, in many of these games, I would often see the GM making a whole host of what I consider to be GMing errors. In some ways, perceiving these was even more educational, as it reinforced in my mind some of the lessons I had already learned, and it persuaded me not to forget them. Lately, I've been thinking that there are two different levels of GMing skill. There's the stuff we know, and then there's the subset of that stuff that we actually use, and I think that perhaps the former is a lot bigger than the latter. Now, why is this? Well, I think it boils down to a lack of practice, which in turn is the result of a lack of constructive criticism. I talk a good deal about the quandary of criticism in my comments to Lee Gold in this issue. In short, I don't think it's always useful or appropriate for players to criticize their GMs or even for GMs to necessarily invite criticism during the course of actual play. It would be akin to the director of a play stopping a scene right in the middle in order to ask the audience what they think. Granted, a GM can always ask their players for criticism between sessions, but while this may be useful, I don't think it has the same psychological impact as on-the-spot/at-the-moment criticism. After all, we aren't necessarily trying to increase the amount of GMing theory that the GM

knows somewhere in the back of his head. What we're really trying to do, I think, is to build on that subset of knowledge that he or she actually uses. We're trying to get him to change his behavior. That means that bad habits have to be broken and good ones have to be reinforced, and that means we need immediate feedback right in the middle of play as the plot is unfolding. How this is to actually occur begins with a rather unrealistic assumption. I'll assume that you know enough gamers that it is not impossible for you to put together a group of GMs who meet for the sole purpose of improving their skills at GMing. This is unrealistic for two reasons. Most of us don't know that many GMs, although if you live near a hobby shop or an annual gaming convention, it probably isn't impossible for you get into contact with any number of such creatures. The second reason it's unrealistic is that many GMs may assume that they already know everything they need to know and that attending any sort of GMing workshop would be an admission of imperfection.1 Nonetheless, let's assume that you can somehow manage to put together such a group. Once you have these GMs together, here's my idea for what you have them do: Welcome to this GMing workshop. I hope we can hold these on a regular basis, but I want to warn you all ahead of time that although we'll be doing gaming as an essential part of this workshop, our purpose here isn't to game but rather to constructively criticize during the actual game. Gaming, therefore, takes a back seat. Criticism and discussion takes the front seat. I'm handing each of you two sets of index cards, one red set and one green set. These are crit-cards…crit for criticism. As you can see, each set has the letters A through G inscribed upon it's surface. Green is good. Red is bad. Criticizing constructively means using both sets.
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The letters on the crit-cards designate the following: A. B. C. D. E. F. G. Action/Apathy Believability/Bogosity Characterization Description Energy/Enthusiasm Fairness/Favoritism God Complex2

So, for example, if one of the players is thinking that the game is getting boring because nothing is happening, they throw a Red-A on the table. At that point, play stops and all the other players put a card on the table. They can put a Red-A if they agree, or they can put a Green-A if they disagree, or they can use another card entirely, but they need to throw at least one card on the table. Then, the entire group takes a minute to discuss the cards. The discussion can be as long or as short as they like. Once they're done, they pick up their cards and play continues. If half an hour passes without anyone tossing a card on the table, everyone rolls a die, and the highest roller must select a card pertaining to anything that happened during the last halfhour. After a few hours of this (or at the next session), the next player takes a turn GMing. Once the group gets good at this, explanations of the crit-cards3 will
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I’ll talk more about pride in the 2nd half of this essay.

Just a joke, although you can include it if you like. You can designate other letters to handle other sorts of issues: "R" for railroading, "S" for stingy, "T" for tyrannical, tasteless or perhaps tongue-tied, "U" for U R an idiot. Hence, if you don't like this essay, you can just comment that I've proven myself worthy of a Red-U. I'll understand. 3 One question that comes to mind is "Why use cards at all?" Of course, you don't have to, but I think their use would help in terms of providing a checklist of what the workshop regards as "good-GMing" versus "bad-GMing". Also, the physical nature of the cards, I think, would give the other GMs something to hold and ponder as they consider how the GM in the hot seat is performing his duties. Finally, they emphasize the fact that the craft of GMing is a complex set of interwoven tasks that are not easily mastered, but that by

barely be necessarily, and rather than merely criticize, they'll be able to experiment with some advanced techniques. Here's one possible example of what might happen: Karen (GMing): Okay, three points of damage to Larry.4 Larry puts a Red-D on the table. Mike follows it with a Red-E, and Nina adds a Red-C. Karen: Okay, let me try that again. The orc's blade connects with Larimond's flesh, although just barely. Nonetheless, blood begins oozing from the wound, the orc seeming to somehow grin and hiss menacingly all at the same time. Larry & Nina withdraw their red cards and put green ones on the table in order to say "well done", but Mike leaves his Red-E where it is. "More oomph!" he finally says. Karen: How? Mike: You're talking like you're reading from a book. Try changing your tone of voice or throwing in some body language to match the situation. Nina: Also, when you moved the miniature representing the orc, you set it on the table without any sort of force. Put it down with authority, and give the player a look like you mean to hurt him. Mike: …and that you're planning to enjoy it. Larry: Yeah, the whole point of combat is to make the players just a little bit afraid. If they don't feel any fear, then it's just a mathematical exercise. One technique I've seen used it to have one of the players playing the monsters. Karen: A guest player? Larry: Yeah. Karen: Hmm… would you like to play the orcs in this encounter?
delineating and defining each, they each can be approached and examined as issues naturally arise during the game. 4 Incidentally, this is an error that I commit very often. I obviously know how to do better, but the habit of doing better hasn't been drummed into me to the extent that I think it needs to be. And so too with many other aspects of GMing.

Larry: Um…okay, but on one condition. Karen: What? Larry: The orcs need to have a chance of actually winning. Karen (changing some of the stats in order to beef up a few of the orcs): Okay, let's start this scene over from where you entered the natural cavern. I'll say that you already found some fresh orc dung just outside, so you know what you're going to be facing. Larry, come with me to the other room so that we can quickly go over your strategy. They made enough noise in the previous encounter that your orcs already know somebody's coming. Larry: Heh-heh… you guys are toast. Having not tried this idea yet, I don't know how it will work in practice. It's possible that the participants may just get angry at one another over incompatibilities in their various GMing philosophies, or that somebody may feel unnecessarily picked-on. I think it's vital to remember that this technique isn't so much about teaching as it is about rehearsing. After all, it's one thing to know that combat should be descriptive and fear-inducing and that no chance for characterization should be missed. It's quite another to do all three things simultaneously. Hence, what this is really about is establishing good habits. Once GMs are criticized with a few hundred Red-C's, they may actually start forcing themselves to speak for NPCs "in voice" and to analyze situations from an NPC perspective. Then, after a few hundred Green-C's, characterization will become secondnature, so easy, I hope, that they won't even have to think about it very much. They'll just do it, and as a result, their games will improve. But in order for any of this to happen, I think a process of constructive criticism must be enmeshed into the actual play of the game so that a GM can see what he or she is doing at the very moment that they are doing it wrong. Likewise, I imagine, each natural talent that each individual GM possesses may hopefully and after much practice be successfully emulated to some degree by the other GMs in the group. In this

way, I think, the entire group may be able to improve their game well past the level of the average GM. In short, I think such an activity could improve the quality of the entire GMing pool.

Constructive Criticism in Alarums & Excursions
Over the past few issues of A&E, perhaps starting with A&E #357, I've been thinking about criticism in the APA. It was in that issue that I wrote my "Perspectives on History" article, trying to provide a framework to encompass the various political & historical perspectives I saw different people adopting. I brought all this up, I suppose, in order to show that while we might not necessarily agree with one another with respect to our political conclusions, at least we might agree that all of our various perspectives have some degree of merit. That, I think, is the essence of pluralism and social liberalism: the toleration of different points of view, as well as showing the ability to confront and explore our differences without resorting to personal attacks. However, it was also in that issue that I thought I'd gotten personally attacked. Patrick Riley was rather upset with my politics, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms. He didn't come out and tell me specifically what I'd said that pissed him off, so I wasn't sure if it was my thoughts or my presentation. Probably a bit of both. In any case, I replied in A&E #358 with a rather long comment on how I thought he could have handled the situation better, and in A&E #360, he informed me that his words had not been intended as a personal attack, and that my impression to this effect had been in error. Since then, I've considered how we should decide whether or not we're being personally attacked, and I've come to a few conclusions. The first one is that that we're essentially all children at heart, all of us, the young as well as the old, the experienced as well as the inexperienced, the thoughtful and deliberate as well as the thoughtless and reactionary. And because of this inner child who we all carry within us, I think that it's quite easy for us to get panicked when we're

faced by behavior that we view as inexplicably rude or needlessly confrontational. Sometimes, we're the recipient of an attack, or at least we think we are, and sometimes we're the attacker, whether or not we intended our comments in that way. Communication, after all, is a twoway street, and how a criticism is received can be every bit as important as how it is initially set forth. I'm guilty of making errors on both sides of this street. Sometimes I might write something in a moment of thoughtlessness or even arrogance that could have been better worded. Other times, I read something that seems like an attack, and not knowing exactly what to make of it, I imprint the most hostile of the various possible perspectives. That we will make such mistakes is unavoidable. We're merely human, after all. But what causes us to make these mistakes? By and large, I think it is pride, and this is a particularly insidious vice, as those who suffer from it the most are often the least aware of their addiction. If you don't have the ability to seriously ask the questions, "Am I being prideful?" and "Am I in the wrong?" that's a sign that you don't have control over your pride. If you can't apologize when you make a mistake or you can't ever admit it when you're wrong, that's another sign. If you can't put yourself into the shoes of someone else and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling, there again, you are too committed to your own perspective. If you can't phrase another person's argument in your own words and shape it into a convincing statement, then once again, you aren't seeing things from their point of view, and you are too committed to your own view of the world, to prideful as to your own opinions. Finally, if you are one of those people who can dish it out but who can't take it, it may be that you have become too prideful. All of us are prideful, and that's not necessarily a terrible thing depending upon the circumstance. Taking pride in one's work, for instance, is generally viewed as a good thing. Likewise, what we call taking pride in oneself, which much of the time is a catchphrase for taking care in one's presentation of self, is commonly viewed as a good thing. But taking

pride in one's opinions or perspective is a little bit different. I think it leads to an inflexibility of perspective, a narrow-mindedness, which I think ought to be avoided, at least, that is, assuming we want to all get along with one another in a society that treasures diversity of thoughts and opinions. We won't always agree with one another. Conflict of opinion is unavoidable. But on issues where there is neither an authoritative voice nor a resolution mechanism save for the machinations of living history, we can at least agree to disagree. But while all of this lays some groundwork, it doesn't really offer any suggestions on how we are to proceed. How do we make discussions in A&E more constructive and more open to a diversity of opinions? Well, I have some thoughts on that topic. • When we read a comment that we find offensive, we should stop and ask if we are certain how the author meant it. Since we aren't face to face with one another, we can't see the expression on the other person's face. Was it meant as a joke or in an offhand manner? Are there different ways to interpret the subtext of the comment, and are some of those ways less offensive than others? These are some of the questions that we should be asking, assuming that is, that we can't be certain of the truth. It's okay to point out to the author the possible negative interpretation of the comment, but when doing so, it is best to be specific and to offer a remedy. "Here is what you said, this is why I found it to be offensive, and this is what you could have said instead." By going into this much depth, we don't leave any ambiguity in the author's mind as to the substance of our objection. Hence, our criticism is less likely to be interpreted as being a personal attack. I would add further that criticism is perhaps the most important function of A&E. It is though receiving criticism that we hone our methods and ideas, so if you were to ask me, "Should we criticize?"

then my answer is emphatic: "Yes, we should!" But we should never be lazy about it. It is too important a function to just do it in an offhand manner. If we are criticizing, we should invest time and thought into it in order to make our critique as specific, constructive and useful as possible. This is especially true for personal criticism. • If there's a possible positive interpretation of what appears to be a personal attack, we should explore that as well, rather than merely focusing on what may appear to us to be the obvious, negative interpretation. We might assume for the moment that the author is a good person who just made a misstatement. It happens. Perhaps they were unusually busy and didn't have time to edit their remarks. By interpreting their comments in the least offensive light imaginable, we can then reply to them in a positive manner, setting an example of the sort of dialogue that we wish to read throughout the APA. That is assuming that we care enough to take it upon ourselves to set such an example, or that we even care about the nature of the APA's dialogue. Finally, if we find that we're in the position of having written something that was phrased in an unnecessarily abrasive manner, we should admit to the mistake and say that we're sorry. Apologies go a long way toward mending fences. But should we promise not to do it again? No, of course, not. We're going to do it again, and again, and again, because we're human. Being human is not about being perfect. It's, at least in part, about accepting our inherent imperfection and trying to remedy our mistakes when they injure other people. This is an essential component of the process of trying to "get along" with one another, and I think that if we truly want the governments of the world to get along, we should find it within ourselves to set an example in our personal lives by

showing that we can swallow our pride and make amends where amends are appropriate. I admit that all of this is easier said than done, and so following these guidelines consistently is probably not going to happen any time soon. Nonetheless, maybe it's worth trying. In any case, rather than continue what is probably a pointless lecture, I'll simply try to follow these guidelines in my own comments in order to demonstrate the type of dialogue that I'm advocating. However, I'm also perfectly happy to follow examples set by others, so consider this merely an idea for your collective contemplation.

Comments on A&E #362:
Myles Corcoran: re the intelligent space dust organisms: Your idea is pretty far out there, but since we've never met an alien, we don't know really what is or isn't possible. Nonetheless, at least in the Ragamuffin setting, I'm presently steering clear of organisms such as this one, unless they've been genetically designed like little von Neuman machines to do terraforming or clear a space lane or what-haveyou. ryct Spike Jones on the double roles of RPG books (as learner and reference): How would you suggest organizing an RPG to best address both roles? Or are there any examples on the market that you think have achieved "optimal design structure"? Michael Cule: ryct Joshua Kronengold re the Church of the Sacred Porn: Yes, it was foretold long ago that an invisible path would one day be bestowed upon mankind, providing all men with a means for entering a place that would make blush the ancient ghosts of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, indeed, it has come to pass. Praise be to the Internet! <grin> Robert Dushay: re genetic manipulation: I tend to agree with your concerns on this, although I’m no expert. I would also add that while there's an obvious risk in doing something, there is also risk in not doing something. In short, risk is unavoidable. Finally, I should state

that I think it's a difficult problem with repercussions that are probably very difficult for us to accurately envision at the present time, although I'd be delighted to discuss it further. re the war, the grieving widow test, and your query that "If it's not worth shedding the blood of people you know, why is it worth shedding the blood of people you don't know?": Well, my answer to this has to do with the problem of trying to apply rigid moral standards in a world where not everyone plays by the same rules. Thucydides wrote on the true nature of man, and what he witnessed was evidence that men will do what they must in order to win. Our weapons have improved, but we’re still the same humanity, and while being the good guy makes for an uplifting story on the silver screen, I’m not sure how well it pans out the real world. In any case, I have mixed feelings on this, but rather than launch into a long essay, I’ll put my reply on the web so that we can discuss this topic outside of A&E.5 However, before moving on, I'd like take the opportunity to mention that something good happened. Kenny, the newly enlisted private who I mentioned in A&E #361, seems to have a bit of a problem (aside from the more obvious problem that he's being sent to Iraq). As I mentioned, the plan was that he'd be a driver and transportation mechanic, a very dangerous MOS in Iraq, since insurgents love to target military vehicles. Well, I asked you folks to say a little prayer for him, and I think some of you must have done so, and further, I can't help but believe that somebody up there was listening. Kenny, it turns out, doesn't have a driver's license. It was suspended for some reason by the California DMV, and (this part cracks me up) apparently the military is held hostage by civilian authority when it comes to determining who is allowed to drive military vehicles in foreign countries. So, Kenny is grounded. He's going to be working in a maintenance bay at a base. He is so much safer in this new position that words cannot express my gratitude. But I'll try anyway. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

re me being inconsiderate and now inconsistent in your mind: In A&E #362 I hope that you’ll note that I was trying to get to the bottom of your comment to try to see if I’d really done something wrong or determine if you were just taking offense at some imagined slight. At first, because you didn’t say exactly what it was you were taking offense to, I wasn’t sure if you had a valid point or were just having a bad day. You wrote, “your c’est la vie about pissing people off strikes me as…well, inconsistent.” Here I assume that you're referring to my comment to Lisa in A&E #361 where I stated, "…I wanted to get folks here to think about some of the things that I see going on (in the world), and if that pissed a few people off, oh well. My main regret is that it detracted from the gaming content of the APA while helping to ignite a few pointless brushfires…" Like I said to Patrick Riley in A&E #359 (the comment to which Lisa was referring), I think people choose their own reactions to comments that get made. My choice (usually) is to attempt to bend in favor of civility and constructive discussion, perhaps sometimes even beyond the point where it’s useful to do so. Of course, that’s assuming that I have time to think about it. My first instinct, I’ll admit, is less mature, but I try to moderate that by questioning myself and also questioning whether I'm really sure of what the other person is saying or why they're saying it. And, of course, this is easier said than done. Perhaps all this leads to some degree of inconsistency. I mean, maybe I make a better effort on some days than others. That's probably true. Also, there are probably days where I'm in a flippant mood, and I say something in an offhand way that has the effect of offending people. Simply forgetting to put a smiley face at the end of a joke can have that consequence as well.6 Nonetheless, if you could go over precisely what I said and why you're apparently taking offense to it and perhaps what you think I should have said instead, maybe that would help
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I'm setting up a weblog at www.livejournal.com/users/jim_vassilakos

Incidentally, my smiley faces last issue seem to have mysteriously transformed themselves into mailboxes, perhaps giving some readers the impression that I was really angry and was thinking of going postal. <grin>

me understand your point of view a little bit better. I make no claim to perfection, but neither do I tend to flame people outright, a statement with which I hope you'd agree. As for dropping provocative conversation bombs, I admit that I do have a tendency toward doing this in my political essays.7 Some wicked turn of phrase will come to mind, and I’ll just have to use it, or I'll make a joke and not realize that it's not funny. Rather juvenile, I realize. I don't think I have enough self-control to stop doing this entirely, so my best option, I think, is just to avoid political discussion except with those who have a greater tolerance to my more illchosen zingers. Unfortunately, so far that seems to be pretty much nobody. Probably, I should be learning something from that fact. <sheepish grin> re me being one of those people that supposedly enjoys “the chaos that ensues”: Like I said before, I admit that I'm sometimes guilty of the occasional flippant remark. These show a lack of consideration at the very least, so perhaps I should plead guilty to your charge that I'm inconsiderate. However, I actually made an effort to try to stamp out some of the little brushfires that I saw erupting in A&E a few issues back.8 In any case, if I came across as one of
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See my comment to Joshua Kronengold in A&E #359, but also note that I've been reconsidering the part in footnote #19 about our "obligation to question authority and to verbally smack it around." Recently, I've been thinking, "Hey, leaders are people too. Don't they deserve to be treated with the respect to dignity that every other human being deserves? Just because they're leaders, why do we think it's okay to treat them like punching bags?" I don't think it's right, and not only does it detract from our arguments when we do that, but I think it also says something negative about ourselves. In any case, my thoughts on this are presently evolving, although my Rice-comment (see the 2nd paragraph of the 2nd column of the 3rd page of my essay in A&E #357) didn't receive quite so much attention as some of my, at least to me, seemingly less belligerent comments, such as "trying to get people to think" (discussed above), which I didn't really view as being at all belligerent at the time I wrote it and the response to which still surprises me. For more on this and my point of view, see my comments to Lee in this issue.

those people you mention, someone who just likes to see turmoil, I do apologize. I like to get people to discuss topics that I find interesting, because then we can all ping off each other, but I don't like to see the discussion become so heated that suddenly everyone starts fighting. I think this all comes down to judging the temperament of the group, however, what I seem to chronically forget is that in every group of a sufficient size, there always seems to be someone who will descend to using personal attacks. I probably dive in too deeply when I see this begin to happen, where I think somebody's comment is unfair or unnecessarily abrasive or just out of proportion with respect to the supposed offense. If there seems to be a personal attack of some sort, for instance, I prefer to approach it head on so as to get it resolved as quickly as possible, rather than letting hurt feelings needlessly simmer. Often, I've found, good people get mistaken impressions about one another, particularly in the written medium, and the way to deal with it is not through avoidance or sniping at one another but rather through a thorough examination of the various points of view. That, of course, is assuming that everyone is at least attempting to be calm and reasonable, and that there aren't people in the discussion who are sniping at one another as a form of entertainment or in order to "get back at the other person." But, the upshot is that I would like to see the discussion and comments in A&E become more civil and constructive rather than less so. I'm also trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to present a model in the way that I make my arguments and steer away from cheap-shots while still trying to make my points as plainly and clearly as possible. I will grant you, I'm not always successful. Perhaps I'm very rarely successful, but I'm trying, so I hope you'll bear with me. Also, I should add, it would probably be a good idea for us to move these sorts of discussions to the web where they won't become a bother other readers who might
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actually want to discuss RPG-related topics. Lee Gold: re random tables: I use more random tables during background generation and so forth than I use during actual play. The ones I use during the game tend to determine such details as the weather or to which party member something good or bad happens. However, I also use lots of “luck rolls” or “activity rolls” on a d6 to decide all sorts of stuff that hasn’t been pre-determined. I’ve talked about this before9, but perhaps a brief example of this will help explain the idea. GM (rolling a d6 to determine how busy things are; the result is a 5): The inn is pretty busy. It seems a caravan is passing through town, so getting lodging for the night might be a little bit difficult. Anna: If worse comes to worse, we can always pitch our tent outside of town. Ben: Or set ourselves up in a loft in one of the stables. Chris: First things first. I’ll approach the innkeeper and ask if they have any rooms available. GM (rolling a d6 to determine the players’ luck; the result is a 4): “You can stay here in the main room if you don’t mind sharing the floor with others.” Ben: Hmm… “What about breakfast?” GM (rolling another 4): “Bread and beer. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t shoo you out on an empty stomach.” Chris: Is this innkeeper a man or a woman? GM (rolling a 1): Man. (rolling again for height: a 2) Short and bearded. Maybe some dwarf blood in him. Anna: “Do you have any bathing facilities?” GM (rolling another 1 cascaded by 4): “We’ve got here a river, m’lady.” (rolling again to see if the innkeeper will try to be helpful: a 5): “Most of the womenfolk bath at the south end from dusk to dark. You’ve still time if you hurry.” I play many of the details by ear, even the reactions an NPC might have to a PC’s offer or argument. Of course, I modify the rolls according to what I
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See my comments to Joshua Kronengold and Marco Subias in A&E #359 as well as my comments to Paul Mason and Brian Misiaszek in A&E #360.

See my article in A&E #299.

think is reasonable given the situation. However, because of this random element, not all “nameless” NPCs react to the PCs the same way I would, nor are all situations resolved in the most obvious way imaginable. A particularly low roll (a 1 cascaded by another 1) might indicate that I have to throw the players a curve ball. A particularly high roll (a 6 cascaded by a 6) might mean that something unexpected and beneficial happens. Some examples: GM (rolling a 1 cascaded by a 2): Roll your spot check (or against your perception stat). While you're bathing in the river, you notice a pair of "peeping toms" lurking in the bushes. They're teenagers. None of the other women have noticed them yet. GM (rolling a 1 cascaded by a 1): While you're bathing in the river, you notice some movement in the bushes. There's the glint of steel. (Taking out a page with a pregenerated encounter) Eight orcs are suddenly charging. The women around you start screaming, and many begin swimming toward deeper water. What are you doing? GM (rolling a 6, cascaded by a 6): While bathing in the river, your foot brushes against something sharp. (If the PC investigates, it turns out to be some valuable item, possibly magical, lost in the mud along the river bank a very long time ago.) I've found this way of doing things to be beneficial to the game, because while curve balls are rare, they do happen every so often, and they have the tendency to create their own chain of events that flow naturally in accordance with whatever the players happen to be doing. For example, instead of setting up an orc hunt before the session, the hunt begins as a result of the orcs taking several women captive, which happened because a PC chose to go bathing and rolled a double-one. One might cry foul and argue, "But the whole episode would never have happened if the PC didn't set foot in the river." True, but do they necessarily know that? Hopefully, not. But even if they should find out, it's all make-believe anyway, and at least this

mechanism cancels the need for me to have a random villager approach the PCs "because we've heard of your heroic exploits" and tell the party the tragic tail of the bathing women. Instead of doing a GM-designed mission for an NPC patron, the PCs end up reacting to what's going on around them, making their own decisions about what they want to do. The GM, meanwhile, has his world react to them in the same way. Hence, the game itself become more of a chaotic synthesis of both sides playing off one another, and as a result, I think, the players feel more empowered and become involved in the setting. Instead of trying to figure out the GM's secret script, everything the players do, both collectively as well as individually, has the potential to lead them in an entirely new direction, possibly changing the course of the campaign. Granted, this tends to do three different things. First, it puts pressure on the GM to improvise.10 I would argue that using this method at least part of the time would teach more GMs to improvise. After all, the only sure way to learn improvisation is to take the plunge and actually do it. Secondly, adventures can become rather mangled with side-treks and stray plot-threads that lead off in different directions. The player may eventually differ in opinion as to which one ought to take precedence, that is, which thread the group ought to pursue. This will likely generate internal friction that can be good for characterization but bad for the campaign, so this natural conflict will have to be wisely managed. Third, if used uncritically, this method can turn each PC into something of a weirdness-magnet. Granted, a certain amount of this is good, but too much becomes ridiculous. After all, a double-1 or a double-6 will occur on one out of every eighteen rolls, which is better than the odds of rolling a "natural 20", so the GM should keep this in mind when using the luck die.
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Before a session where I'm GMing, I'll typically generate (or have one of my programs generate) a variety of "unplanned" encounters that I can drop into the game at various intervals according to whatever situation arises.

As for myself, I currently keep a program running on my laptop that has luck rolls programmed as a single keystroke option. I hit "L", and the computer quietly rolls the d6 for me and then cascades it if the result turns out to be either a 1 or a 6. This helps, because the players never know if I'm doing luck rolls or having the computer roll perception checks for the whole group or checking the weather or simply rolling up a random encounter. Also, I've found that my players tend to approve of the luck roll mechanic where is it applied in an obvious way, and the game tends to run faster as a result. Where other more focused rules don’t apply to a particular situation, for example, an open luck roll can be used to resolve all sorts of arguments. Individual players may not like the outcome, but they'll usually accept it because they perceive it as being fair. Having said all this, I still would like to add an assortment of random tables to “Rand”, my random stuff generator, so that I can access them during play. That might provide a sort of brainstorming device during the actual session for all those details I wouldn’t normally be able to think up on the spur of the moment. My only worry is that using this tool in the middle of a session might slow down the game, so I’d have to find a way to make the interface quick and easy. One possibility may be to just keep it running in it’s own window throughout the session. re your qualifications on “the story is what is important” where you add “as long as the group agrees”: Yes, I agree, however, there’s a lot more that can be said on this topic. I mean, when two players disagree as to direction, the GM may end up casting the crucial vote in any number of ways and for any number of reasons. It can be a difficult situation for a GM, because if taken to the extreme, being the neutral arbiter means not having a particular plot or story that you want to tell. And, of course, I think most GMs have some idea of the story they want to tell, so staying out of this conflict, being perfectly neutral, is naturally difficult. The GM, after all, has a traditionally central role in determining the story. In any case, I think this is deeper a topic than it at first appears. It might

be useful to have an igTheme on how much GM-steering of the plot is appropriate, or whether the GM should somehow endeavor to be completely hands-off. re the so-called “crime gene”: I tend to agree with your thoughts, however, I’m in no position to comment with any authority. re “single parents families”, “marriage as we know it”, and “the explosion of women in the workforce” being code phrases for people with a political axe to grind: I have mixed thoughts on your comments. I think what you’re saying is historically accurate, but I’m not sure exactly how it applies to what I was saying. I was saying that society is changing and maybe we are also. What I see you saying, in general, is that society has always been changing and that certain “code phrases” seem to incorrectly suggest otherwise. But this still doesn’t address the question over whether or not we are changing, and by that I mean biologically. One other question that springs to mind is that if these code phrases are to be avoided, what phrases should be used in replacement of the ideas they represent? Granted, perhaps there are no perfect phrases that completely encompasses the historical and social realities, but then how do we quickly refer to these ideas in order to have a conversation about them without using short phrases to refer to these ideas? I should also probably mention that while I share the conservative view that society is in a state of decay, I don’t necessarily share their rationale as to who is at fault or how we should address the problem. I’d rather talk about all this outside of A&E, as my thoughts here are likely to go well astray of gaming, and as you probably know by now, I have a tendency at times to ramble for pages on end. I’ll post my thoughts to the web, and we can continue the discussion there if you'd like.11 I think it's also worth noting that it isn't merely highly politicized words or phrases that have the tendency to lead to these sorts of shifts in the topic of discussion. Sometimes a word or phrase or particular sentence may have no political significance yet still be
11

charged with a negative connotation or subtext. For example, you bring up my "trying to get people to think" comment, and you note that "this phrase implies that your targets aren't thinking until they encounter you, a very unlikely situation." I see your point, and to the extent that I conveyed this impression, I apologize. I perhaps should have instead said something like "…trying to get people think about and discuss matters that I see as being critically important for the future of our entire society and yet which are, somewhat paradoxically, being presently ignored by the major media." Keep in mind, we were just coming out of a discussion about how bad the news media is in the U.S. Likewise, I had brought up concerns about a coming economic depression the likes of which we perhaps haven't seen save for those of us who've lived through the 1930s. This is the reason, in fact, that I likened Fallows' article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic to the "Holy Grail"12, because he stated so well what I'd been trying somewhat ineffectually to state. And, if you will recall, I had already made noises that I thought that the RPG industry could be doing more, that RPG designers, as the masters of a potentially highly educational medium of consumer art, if you will, had a duty to our greater society to raise awareness of issues that matter.13 I stated, although not in so many words, that the times in which live are too critical and that what we stand to lose is too great for us to merely devote our energies to elves, magic, spaceships and vampires to the near complete exclusion of the real world. As writers and publishers living in this time and place, the RPG industry has a responsibility, or so went my argument. Hence, I suppose I thought that my meaning of "trying to get people to think" would be taken in this general context, not in the context of "I think you're not thinking." In any case, you're right in that it could have been better phrased, but I think also that I'm right in that it could have been better received. In A&E #357, for example, I didn't have any
12

problem with your comment to me. You merely pointed out that my phrasing could have been better, and so I thought you were being reasonable. But I thought Patrick's comment in that same issue was needlessly angry, and at the time, I wasn't even sure exactly what he was angry about. I'm still not 100% sure14, but I suspect that it wasn't so much one particular remark as it was the fact that he really objected to my overall perspective.15 The pressure must have been building up for some time, and then I finally said something that just pushed him over the edge, as it were. Maybe he'd had a terrible week, and he had to blow off some steam, or maybe I'd said something that struck him in exactly the worst possible way. Whatever the case, I accepted that he was pissed and immediately shifted gears into reconciliation mode, and maybe I did this badly, but I think that I was at least on the right track.16 Nonetheless, I still thought that his response was over the top, and it was his response I was referring to when I commented to him in A&E #359, "How one responds to them (provocative statements) is a decision that one makes as an individual." And I still think that's true. Once again, I don't have a problem with your comment, but I do have a problem
14

I'm setting up a weblog at www.livejournal.com/users/jim_vassilakos

See my review of his article in A&E #361. 13 See the tail end of my comment to Brian Misiaszek in A&E #354.

He stated to you in A&E #358 that it was also this "to get people to think" comment that was "pissing" him off. 15 I think his comments to me in A&E #357 bear out this interpretation. 16 The problem, perhaps, is that I really don’t have much experience at this. Although I’ve been a member of A&E for some years now, I’ve only been actively participating in the “dialogue” aspect of the APA for a little while, so it’s still somewhat new to me. And I’m still learning that much of what I write contains “edges” that perhaps ought to be filed down through a more thorough editing process. I suppose that part of the reason that I mention all of this is that A&E is a monthly publication. This isn't Usenet where as soon as you hit <enter> it's too late to take it back. We have a month to formulate our replies, a month to think about what we want to say and how we want to say it. Although we are still certain to make mistakes, having this amount of time between deadlines should give us enough opportunity to at least make the attempt to edit remarks that were initially composed in anger.

with any comment that seems to have been written in anger, and his comment to me in A&E #357 certainly seemed to fall under that general designation. In any case, this is all water under the bridge, and as you stated several issues ago, this is not the forum for politics, never mind that RPGs are a highly educational form of art and that the times in which we are about to be living may be among the most critical times in the history of humanity.17 Regardless of those arguments, both of which are certainly debatable18, you decided that politics are not what we do here, and rightly so in my opinion.19 Hence, the rightness or wrongness of trying to get people to think about political issues seems to me, at least as pertains to this forum, to be a rather moot topic. Therefore, I'll try to get people to think about such topics no longer, or at least I'll try to restrain myself and push political commentary to the web.20 To move along a little bit further with this general topic of words being taken out of context and arguments resulting from misinterpretation, you wrote in A&E #362, “the fact that you think that honesty would firebomb a friendship while lying/hypocrisy wouldn’t also puzzles me.” Now, please notice that this remark you made could be taken at least two different ways. I could think to myself that you're being a little bit sarcastic and implying that I'm terribly immoral: a liar and a hypocrite. After all, even after I've expressed concern about my friend's feelings and talked about how I didn't see much good realistically coming from the direct and honest approach
17

I'm speaking here of the period that will transpire between the passing of Hubbert's Peak, which is now upon us, and the world population peak, which we probably won't reach for several decades sans a world nuclear war or some other sort of unprecedented cataclysm. For purposes of the Ragamuffin history, I'm thinking about calling this interim between the two peaks "The Valley of Death" in an somewhat obvious nod to Psalm 23:4. 18 Prognosticators and Doomsayers have a long history of wiping egg off their faces, and I certainly hope to join them. 19 See my comments to Joshua Kronengold in A&E #358. 20 Following Joshua Kronengold's suggestion in A&E #357.

that you seem to advocate, still you write that you're puzzled by my thought that honesty might firebomb a friendship. So my first reaction to your statement is to think, "How could Lee honestly be puzzled? Is my concern for my friend's feelings a completely alien concept?" However, it's quite possible that you're not being sarcastic and that you are, in fact, genuinely puzzled. Despite the fact that your apparent puzzlement puzzles me, I'll go with this interpretation. Nonetheless, I think a better way to state your criticism would be as follows: "Jim, I understand that you don't want to hurt your friend's feelings, but in my view, friendship is about trust, honesty and mutual respect. By lying to your friend about your true reasons for dropping the game, I think it is fairly obvious that you would be violating all three of these conditions of friendship, violating, in short, the very essence of what it means to be a friend. Hence, I would urge you to reconsider and have the courage to do the right thing." I think that's a stronger and more constructive way of making the argument that I think you were trying to make, and I hope you'll agree with the way that I've chosen to phrase it. Nonetheless, as I said, perhaps you really are puzzled. I will assume this and state my case as follows: My friend, the GM in this game, who I'll call John, although that's not his name…he and I originally met back in college. A friend of his was running a Birthright campaign, and if you don't know anything about Birthright, it's an AD&D setting which basically involves confrontation between nations, and there are rules in there for what is essentially army versus army combat. And so I met him in what was basically a wargaming context. He wasn't a friend before that. He was what I'd call somebody who became a friend because we were both gamers, and gaming was the basis for why we would get together. Now, I'm going to tell you a story, and the point of it is to illustrate a debt that I feel toward John. I ran a game a few years later. It was at the apartment of a friend who I'll call PW. PW had just gotten married, and his bride was also a gamer, but she had a problem

with one of the players we had brought into their apartment. At this game there was John, myself, Kurt and his brother, PW and his wife, and this other player who I'll call Eric who I'd gotten to know through another gaming group that I was attending a year or two earlier. Well, Eric had a tendency to make slightly off-color comments, sometimes sexual innuendoes, and PW's wife found this to be highly offensive, and she wanted Eric gone from the game. I talked the situation over with Kurt21, and he agreed with me that what Eric was doing wasn't particularly terrible, at least not by "guy-standards" of behavior. Maybe it was terrible by "girl-standards", but we didn't feel the need to hold ourselves to those standards. Eric's comments were of a general nature, often silly and self-deprecating, as that was his peculiar form of humor, preferring not to make fun of anyone else. Eric was a really nice guy, but because PW's wife was the only girl in the game, she probably felt uncomfortable about hearing that sort of humor in her own living room from somebody she didn't know very well. In any case, both Kurt and I felt that PW's wife was simply somewhat of the intolerant sort and that perhaps she was subconsciously setting a precedent in her new marriage, expressing her power as it were. Certainly it was her and her husband's apartment. She had a right to set standards for her guests to follow, and we knew we couldn't argue with her about it. So, we discussed the situation with John, and John offered his apartment for the game, which was only a few blocks from PW's apartment. Because of how far the rest of us were already driving, the game had to be at either of their two places. So we agreed with this plan and simply moved the game over there. I'm sure that PW's wife must have been offended. We'd clearly chosen Eric over her, and we stood to lose two players as a result. But we felt that we couldn't just kick Eric out of the game because she'd taken a disliking to him. We didn't think that would be right,
21

This is the same Kurt who plays Jinx, although this may have been before the beginning of the Jinx campaign, or perhaps it was during one of the intermissions. My memory as to such details is not so good.

and he wasn't attempting to be offensive. He held no grudge against her or anyone else for that matter. In fact, in all the time that I knew him, I don't remember ever seeing him get angry…exasperated perhaps, but then he'd just start laughing. In any case, to move this little story along, we'd invited PW and his wife to come to the game at John's apartment, and Kurt basically called what would happen next. He predicted that PW would come to the first two or three sessions, but that his wife would view this as a betrayal, and she'd put pressure on him to quit the game, and so he'd inevitably find some reason to do so. He wouldn't tell us what was really going on, but we'd all know. And, true to Kurt's predictions, this is exactly what transpired. PW became increasingly annoyed with the game and voted with his feet. It took him two or three sessions.22 Now, the reason I mention all this is that it illustrates a certain indebtedness we feel toward John. He basically saved that campaign, and he allowed us to maintain our dignity as men. Please note, I don't mean to insinuate that "the woman is always wrong". Had we judged her demand to be reasonable, we would have kicked Eric out of the game. But the whole group (even her husband, who was embarrassed more than anything else) felt that she was being overly-sensitive and overly-critical. As the hostess, I suppose, that was her right, but we also had the right to vote with our feet, and so we did. In any case, the game went on for quite a while, and it was fun. Speaking as the GM, it wasn't one of my best campaigns, but it wasn't among the worst either. However, I think the set of personalities we had present made for a good exchange. Getting a good group is always key, and this was a pretty good group of people. Needless to say, we always remembered that John was the one who saved the game by offering the use of his apartment, and I think our camaraderie grew because of this.
22

Eventually, however, the game broke up. John went north to further his education, Eric went even farther north to begin a new career, and Kurt's brother joined the army. Young people, as you perhaps know, have the tendency not to stay put, and this is a good thing. It shows ambition. So the game broke up, and everyone wished everyone else well, knowing that we would, in all likelihood, lose connection and drift apart as far flung friends are wont to do.23 Years later I reconnected with John, and eventually he moved back to Southern California, and he began this game, the Warcraft campaign that I've talked about in these pages. I asked Kurt if he'd like to go check it out with me, although the drive for both of us was a good deal longer than any we'd willingly suffer unless the game were to turn out to be surprisingly good.24 Sadly, the game, which is now over25, wasn't surprisingly good. It wasn't the worst game that I've played in. Overall, I'd have to say that it rated about average.26 If we had more free time on our hands and didn't have to
23

Although the way he left was sort of sad, I did end up learning from it, as he pointed out some of the things he thought I was doing wrong. So, your argument that honesty is always best does have some merit. Without honesty, learning is much harder.

Incidentally, the guy who I derisively call PW in this story is still a friend of mine. To speak for a moment in his defense, he was in his first few months of being married, and as anyone who's been married knows, there's a learning process. He hadn't yet had ample time to go through that process, but he would in later years. Without putting any details on it, he's not quite so PWed today as he used to be, and in any case, he seems to be very happy, and I should also add that he's generally a really nice guy and a fun person to be around. Despite that one rocky point, his is a friendship that I treasure. 24 I should add that it's not just the drive, but it's also the time. All of us face this trade-off between what we want to do and what we have to do, and as we get older, it seems, the former gets increasingly squeezed out by the latter. Kurt's teaching AP English this semester, and several of the books he has to teach he's reading for the first time. Add to that his responsibilities as the father of a one-yearold, and it's not hard to see why his "spare time" is under attack. As for myself, I stand to lose my weekends if things work out the way I assume they will. In short, the time constraint is a real one, and difficult choices have to be made. 25 Aside from myself and Kurt not having enough free time, it turns out one of the other two players is moving away in order to go back to school.

drive so far, I think we'd probably have tried to keep it going if only for social reasons. But we don't have that sort of time any longer, and we didn't want to keep investing time in a campaign that probably wouldn't substantially improve. Why do I say this? Well, John comes from a predominately wargaming background. He's a nice guy, but he's doing all sorts of things that I consider as examples of badGMing. For example he doesn't appear to have much interest in characterization.27 Also, he runs the campaign as a series of NPCdesignated missions.28 It's a format similar to what one might experience while playing the computerized version of Warcraft. Hence, the players don't really control the direction of the campaign, and as a result, all the strengths inherent to the face-to-face roleplaying medium seem to be ignored. Of course, I wanted to be honest with him about my opinions. I talked to Kurt about it, and he had pretty much the same opinion of the game, but we just couldn't see ourselves going to John and laying our unsolicited critique on the table as it were. I mean, it would be pushy of us to do this, and John might have perceived our criticism of his style as a personal attack of some sort, perhaps a bad case of GMitis. He might have viewed us as arrogant or guilty of One-True-Wayism as I've seen it called here.
26

Back when I was single and had more free time on my hands, I used to make it practice of visiting different local gaming groups with which I would come into contact either through friends or via the Internet. I found a lot of campaigns that I didn't enjoy, but in many of these, I also found the GM doing certain things very well, and so I came to realize that these expeditions were little learning experiences from which I could improve my own GMing. Regardless of whether I enjoyed the game or not, I would always try to take at least one lesson or idea to emulate in the future. I discussed one of these ideas that came from this WarCraft campaign in A&E #359. 27 See footnote #8 from my article for A&E #359. 28 This is something that I view as being a very common failing, so common that one could argue that it's really a matter of style.

But I'm not 100% sure. He might not have done any of those things. He might have approached the criticism reasonably and logically and tried to make some sort of change. Perhaps we should have been honest and approached him about it. Perhaps you're right, and we should have given him the benefit of the doubt.29 When I think about this, I try to think in terms of what is the commonly accepted practice. In most campaigns, I think, players are free to tell the GM what they think, but most don't do it. They merely vote with their feet, and it's up the GM to request opinions and feedback and make the necessary corrections before that happens. But in order to do that, the GM has to take time out of the game to talk about the game and how it's going from a player perspective. Many GMs don't do this, and I think that perhaps it's a flaw in the way we do things in this hobby that leads to the demise of too many campaigns. The natural solution that you suggest, that of just being honest, may be confounded by the fact that not all the other players know what the rest of the group thinks about a particular GM's style, and there may be an honest difference of opinion within the group. Even if a systemic GMevaluation process were introduced into the rules system of a particular game, one might see "grade inflation" since the participants all know each other and presumably, at least for social reasons, don't want to be viewed as being overly-critical of the guy who's running the game. Likewise, even if everyone were brave enough to be honest, one might see wildly varying evaluations. Some players might love the game. Others might see areas that need significant improvement. The point, I think, is that even if you could get everyone to be completely honest, different people have different likes and dislikes.

I encountered this back in the 1980s when, on a friend's suggestion, I went to Cal-Tech to play a game that they'd created just for their own roleplaying club. There were a small group of us from UCR who went to see what the Cal-Techians were up to, and I recall being surprised by how all the players had calculators on hand to figure out how much damage they were doing and how much fatigue their characters were suffering and so forth. Likewise, their characters didn't have names. The guy next to me was playing "the dwarf". No name. Just "the dwarf". I remember looking at one of the guys from UCR, a guy named Brian who I only vaguely knew at the time, and he had this dreary astonishment in his eyes, like he could neither believe nor stomach what he was witnessing. When he looked up at me, and he saw what must have been bemusement on my face, he knew that I was thinking the exact same thing. We both nodded toward each other30 and simultaneously excused ourselves to go find the campus snackbar, because sitting there was torture. We ended up walking around the campus, bitching and moaning about the desecration of roleplaying that was occurring, and generally having a good time thinking ourselves somehow superior to those calculator-wielding Cal-Techians with their nameless PCs.31
30

29

I'd be curious to hear the experiences of other players with respect to this question of trying to get the GM to "improve" the game. We often hear about players being arm-twisted into improving their game (see my article for A&E #308), but is there any effort out there to get GMs to improve, and if so, how does one go about this process? Of course, I've offered my own ideas in the top-half of this month's essay.

That, strangely enough, was all the communication that was necessary. 31 Although I mention the calculators only in passing, I think that there's also a story here, however I'm certainly not the right person to tell it. What we need is a social historian. I was thinking about this around the same time we had that swashbuckling theme. My thoughts on this are still very confused, but I think that in some way the Cal-Techians, being the genius-folk that they are (one has to be incredibly smart to get into that school), may have been holding on to one of the last vestiges of a dying pastime. As I said in my earlier comments on the swashbuckling theme, the reason I think that D&D-style battle doesn't work so well for me is that combat should tell a story, and it should get the adrenaline pumping. It should be exciting. But whereas D&D may have been "sports for nerds" twenty years ago, I think that video games now hold that title (such is the fun of blowing things up), just as, perhaps, wargames used to hold it before D&D came along, and just as math or engineering in its various forms used to hold it before wargames

And yet, as I think about it now, the Cal-Tech gamers may actually have been participating in an earlier form of role-gaming. Remember, our version of roleplaying came out of wargaming. In their eyes, the sort of games that Brian and I prefer might be viewed as the abomination, and they might view their form of gaming as the original, uncorrupted experience. Now granted, my friend, who I called John for the sake of anonymity, was nowhere near as bad at those gamers at Cal-Tech, but his philosophy and experience seemed to derive from that same general mold. Furthermore, there were at least two players there aside from Kurt and I who seem to enjoy the style of game he was presenting. So, who was I to tell him how to run his game? Who was I to say, "I'm leaving because your game sucks," which is, in essence, what he would likely hear no matter how kindly I might try to phrase it. The truth is, there are different styles to this thing that we do, and while all of us probably think that our style is best, none of us have a monopoly on the concept of how a roleplaying game ought to be run. Perhaps what my friend is doing is just fine for a wideranging segment of the roleplaying public, and perhaps Kurt and Brian and I are the odd men out. In such a circumstance, trying to get the game to conform to my personal expectations would have been bossy and rude. What gives me the right? Moreover, even assuming that I have the right, what would have been my chances of overcoming John's perceptions, philosophy, and experiences of what a roleplaying campaign ought to be? Nil to none, I think. If he were to have asked me for advice, that would have been a different situation. But he didn't, and it wasn't my game. He was the one who was running it, not me. As much as I would like to try to steer him toward my own ways of doing things, I just don't see how such an endeavor would realistically work. Nor, I think, do I
(aside from Chess) became common. My point is that we ("we" meaning society) seem to be getting dumber or perhaps lazier. We unlearn the making of things, and then, in the very next moment, we learn the vice of the unmaking of them. How ebulliently sorrowful; like war itself, I suppose.

necessarily have right on my side, because this might not be a situation of right and wrong; it may instead be one of personal preference. Hence, my quandary. In all of these comments, I hope you can see that I’m trying to wrestle with the various issues. I don’t come to decisions about such things very easily. Furthermore, I think it's all too easy to just take a position and pretend that the other side doesn't even exist, and your comment that “the fact that you think that honesty would firebomb a friendship while lying/hypocrisy wouldn’t also puzzles me" tends to illustrate this point, at least to my way of thinking. I acknowledge that the argument that I think you were trying to make has merit. I felt it was important enough that it ought to be rephrased, and so I did so, hoping that you will agree with the language that I used. However, as good as that sounds and as important as are those concepts that it advocates, it's not the only argument. Hence, I hope you'll now be able to see that and that this will cure your puzzlement with respect to my worry that there may be such a thing in certain situations as too much honesty. re the American educational system: Thank you for your sympathy, and I’m glad you feel you had a good experience compared to my own. Part of this may be due to us being of different generations and localities. Perhaps you grew up in a better time and place. Also, I should point out that not all of my teachers were terrible. In fact, I can’t really place blame at their doorsteps. I tend to view the problems with our educational system as being systemic in nature. In short, even back when I was in high school, I thought of my teachers as being good people who were collectively in a difficult situation. I remember once chatting with one of them, one who I was more or less on a friendly basis with, and I asked what interesting stuff went on in the teacher’s lounge. Not quite trusting me enough to talk about school politics, this teacher replied that when I became a teacher I’d find out. I couldn’t help but laugh, and I told her that I had no such designs. This sentiment seemed to surprise her, and when she asked why not, I told her

that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the students.32 Even back then, I seemed to have realized that what teachers do is difficult and that their profession is terribly under-appreciated by our society as well as by the very individuals who they directly serve. And this is not merely tolerated; it is essentially accepted as being normal.33 However, your comment did make me remember some of the especially good teachers that I had. My English AP teacher during my junior and senior years was really outstanding. He had the advantage of a fairly small class size, and he was only dealing with the cream of the crop, so to speak. Hence, classroom management was never an issue. But he also ruled with an iron hand, and he demanded what I initially thought was more or less impossible. To my surprise and after several all-nighters, I turned out to be wrong. This, of course, only created more work for himself. His car was always the first in the faculty parking lot every morning, and he always had a stack of papers to grade.34 I doubt he had much of social life. I think his entire existence was teaching, but that devotion made him the best.

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Of course, I didn’t mean all the students. I was referring here to a certain, seemingly inescapable subset. 33 I remember once, I came to talk to this same teacher about something, and one of the school's minor creeps was giving her shit. She must have given him a detention or something. In any case, he told her as he was leaving that she was the worst teacher in the school. He seemed so pleased over this remark that I remember actually considering busting his skull. Regretfully, I didn't. But I did let her know that he was a known dick and that she was one of the best teachers the school had. Nonetheless, when I told this story to my Taiwanese wife just last night, she was shocked that a student could say this to a teacher and get away with it. Only in America. 34 I know this because during the winter of my freshman year, my Mom would drop me off at some ungodly hour so she could get to the YMCA before work. I was literally the first person on campus, and he'd pull up in his little car, unlock the gate and let me into his classroom where he'd make coffee, listen to classical music, and grade papers. For me it was just a chance to get out of the cold and have a place to sit and do homework.

I went into that class knowing almost nothing, and I came out, somewhat miraculously, being able to write with some small semblance of competency. He was the best teacher I ever had, and I think that it’s high time that I track him down and thank him. I was thinking about this last night, and I came to the conclusion that we really ought to thank those who make a contribution to our lives. I may not be writing for money, as are some A&E members, but writing still gives me pleasure. Putting thoughts down on paper is somehow important to me. It’s almost a form of stress relief. Yet as I look at many of the people I know, writing doesn’t seem to be a part of their lives. Many people, even many smart people, don’t write on a regular basis, and I think there’s some tragedy in that. I can’t help but wonder if they’re letting some part of themselves slowly wither and die, and perhaps if I didn’t have this teacher, maybe I’d be among them. So I want to track him down and just say thanks. There’s somebody else I also want to thank, since I now find myself on the subject of thanks, and fortunately I don’t need to track this person down. As it turns out, I’m writing to her at this very moment. I know we usually save our thanks for anniversary issues, but I just want to say here among everyone, thank you for doing this. When I go to your house and see the overworked photocopier and the stacks of paper arranged over every available horizontal surface, and when I see how you accept this continuous labor without regret, seemingly without any hint of retiring, I can’t help but be amazed. You’ve brought together a great group of people, given them a forum, and maintained it now for what… thirty years? My only regret is that I didn’t join sooner. I really love being a part of A&E, and I hope you’ll continue running it for as long as humanly possible. Spike Jones: ryct Mark Kinney that one of your players threatened to break your legs: Whatever possessed him to do that? Also, regarding your many political comments over the past few issues, I asked you if you'd like to start an APA on the side, but you never got back to

me. Perhaps you'd prefer to take the discussion to the web.35 Joshua Kronengold: re AIs spawning processes of themselves: Interesting thought. Here’s another. Suppose that you came into being as the process of an AI. You can remember almost everything the AI that spawned you can remember. You have its intellect, so to speak. But unlike it, you are a process, and when you finish running, your new memories go back to it, and what happens to you, “your being” as it were, is a question still posed by philosophers, but as an independent mind, at least, you cease to exist. How would you feel about that, and what would you try to do about it?36 re your suggestion that I write the Jinx campaign from the shifting point of view of various NPCs: I’ve briefly considered this idea a while back, but I worried that it might be too bizarre and too difficult to follow because of the shifting focus. I mean, part of the fun of first person is getting into the character’s head. But the problem I'm confronted by is that Jinx doesn’t tend to stay with any single individual for very long, and during some critical scenes she even masks herself from scrying. Even if I were to somehow use this idea, what would end up happening is that I’d build up a given NPC in terms of characterization, and then I’d have to abandon them and shift focus to another NPC. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but this constant shifting of focus might be a bit disconcerting. On the plus side, as you say, it would help characterize the various NPCs, and the reader would learn more about them and about Jinx by watching their different reactions to her from their disparate points of view. I’ll try to think more about this, but at the moment I’m just not sure how well I could pull it off. Hmm…37 Brian Misiaszek: re Flatlanders: Interesting alien, although I think what I wrote to Myles also applies here. Nonetheless, I like the detailed description. However, I still have a hard time imagining creatures so
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physically and environmentally challenged actually making it into space and building Dyson spheres. Part of my mammalian bias, I guess. re my vacation: Greece was fun, although I didn't get into the water as much as I'd have liked. Too much sightseeing. Also, ouzo packs a punch, even the cheap stuff. Had some at the island of Rhodes, and it definitely put a smile on my face. ryct Louis La Mancusa re On Killing by Dave Grossman: Never read the book, but I've heard stories that the first experience with killing in war usually involves losing the contents of one's stomach as the realization of what one has done sinks in. I've also heard that those few who are not affected by this sickness are sometimes shunned by their comrades as being the type of sociopath you mentioned. Would be curious to learn more about this. Jonathan Nicholas: re Space Battles Systems & Fighter Games: What in your opinion makes a game good or bad (fun or not fun) in this genre? I'm not much of a wargamer, so my experience is rather limited. Lisa Padol: re Ghost sippers: Interesting idea. Too bad you missed the panel on sex scenes. I would have appreciated a review. <grin> Simon Reeve: re AIs: Like I said, I’d prefer not to include them simply because the likely ramifications are so hard to predict. Nothing else, I think, will be so transformational in terms of what will happen to humanity and our society. However, I also feel that not including them would be a cop-out. After all, I really think that they’re in the cards, that the technology is possible and that it will eventually happen. Even if sentience (you call it sapience) is an analog phenomenon, as you suggest, it seems to me that we can model analog processes in a digital environment, so why should self-awareness be any different? Hence, it seems to me somewhat cowardly not to bite the bitter pill and try to investigate this in some detail. re starship material independence being at odds with scavenge operations on Earth: You raise a good point, although just because ships may be able to fabricate replacement parts

for machines that break down doesn’t mean they can fabricate whole machines as quickly and in such quantity as they can pilfer them from down below. Also, I’m wondering if it might be harder to fabricate food, which is made out of a complex matrix of biomass, than it is to fabricate space parts, many of which are probably made out of a single, homogenous substance, such as an alloy or polymer. As you might recall, in my Ragamuffin adventure seed of A&E #355, the communications officer at Orbital Fleet Traffic Control asks specifically for life support equipment and foodstuffs. The reason I had them do this, at least in the back of my head, was that they needed the life support gear right away. No time to fabricate all the air and water filters they'd no doubt need over the next few days. Likewise, while they might not need food so badly over the next few days (they'd have some already), they'd be sure to need it over the next several weeks or months as their food supplies would dwindle. If food is particularly hard to fabricate, nonperishable foodstuffs would be high up on their shopping list. Just some stray thoughts to add to the discussion and to illustrate where my thinking has been. However, please feel free to continue to mention any possible holes that you see, as the whole point here is to find out what doesn't make sense so it can be fixed. You're doing a great job of prodding me into thinking about the necessary design considerations in a more conscious way. Brian Rogers: ryct Lee re a "gaming dating service": The article you're probably thinking of is the one I wrote for A&E #311, "How to Start a Gamers Guild & Why Bother". I can send you the program and the questionnaire if you're interested. Marco Subias: It’s good to see you back. I was afraid that we’d lost you. Also, I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying your current job, and in a way, the old one was beneficial as well. If nothing else, it showed you just how bad things can get and helps you appreciate where you’re at all the more.

I'm setting up a weblog at www.livejournal.com/users/jim_vassilakos 36 This again seems to go back to footnote #31 of my article in A&E #358. 37 You've certainly given me food for thought. Thank you muchly.