Articles | Becoming a DM (2017)
It should be of little surprise that, given my history, I would have become involved in attempting to DM my own game in D&D once I was comfortably situated. Truthfully, though, it was because of mAc's encouragement and guidance that I even attempted the process. It wasn't easy, and the road has been bumpy and rife with problems, eventually costing me my relationship with an entire community and many persons involved. Yet, it is what it is - an experience, and one would be a fool to not try to pull something from it.
In this article I shall offer a freeflow stream of consciousness that looks back on the three Reiu/Mac sessions (Feyis, City of Light, Liere), the three HKS sessions (Jhaurioch, Melesei, Serie), the Thalraxal session (Age of Stars) and the two Schwa sessions (Garbes, Elmon). Note that I have released developer commentary for these sessions, whose subjects often overlap with this article; it is highly recommended you watch them if you're interested in the subject.
Upon The Anvil of World Building
Prior to attempting my first session I had been discussing with mAc in private a bunch of game/NPC concepts with the hope that he could make use of them for his own inscrutable ends. Coming off the tail of Apex H, I had little hope of entering the world of game or mod development again. The concepts were rough idea drafts of boss fights and world mechanics from either CPGA (RPGMaker, a project that is still considered active) or Apex's various iterations, roughly adopted to a conceptual pen and paper mechanical system e.g. something based on stats and dice rolls.
I treat D&D in much the same manner I treated my massive Age of Wonders 2 total conversion. Their combat systems are extremely similar in that they are unpredictable and difficult to balance due to being RNG-reliant and having few mechanics to tinker numbers in. They are both heavily reliant on symbolism to project storytelling. Here the similarities begin to diverge.
Storytelling via symbolism is one of the many often times confusing routes that some directors take with their motion picture productions. An anime that I had watched a time prior, Karas, had received a multitude of reviews that amounted to "impossible to understand story, neat graphics". Yet the anime made perfect sense to me. The most notable conclusion I drew from my own review was that the anime in question relied more heavily on symbolism than narrative. In projecting its concepts and world direction more often than simply telling it, Karas had a habit of jumping between scenes superficially without much purpose - especially early on. However, I had no problems following it.
Superficially, Karas is an anime about the co-existence of demons alongside humans and the relatively simple fued between caretakers of the "cities". Much of the symbolism in the first episode establishes these particular aspects entirely through visuals and doesn't take much effort to openly speak about it until later on, e.g. through dialogue. Additionally, several more minor but narratively important concepts, such as cats being an alternative form for one of the spirits associated with the cities, is established very early in as well. Additionally, many of Karas' early scenes make much more sense in the context of information proferred in later ones - a staple of Anime, but one that this production takes a little heftier of a dip in. This in itself is a balancing act of action engagement versus information dumping, one that novels commonly "solve" by taking snippets of later scenes and placing them prior to the introduction.
My writing has traditionally taken to symbolism as a tool for world exposition, a skill I picked up and nurtured during the difficult and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rewrite Throne of Armageddon, a 1300 page novel that was once considered my life's work. Apex, whose writing has existed almost exclusively through dialogue-only scripts for game projects, was intended for interactive media whom would be extremely light in cinematics and narrative. Thus, much of the symbolism of the world - especially what I wanted to preserve outside of telling the player - was pushed into dialogue between characters.
I spoke very little of this through the years because it was something I had always assumed every writer did. As my LP list piled up and my D&D experiences began to amass, however, this was very clearly not the case. I largely focused on actual game mechanics discussion during any time I presented my ideas to others, particularly since many aspects of Apex's world were contextually sensitive - speaking of characters or events out of turn easily lead to spoilers, since there was very little in the way of filler both in terms of gameplay and in terms of plot.
Eventually I took my pen and paper Apex gameplay concepts to the relative publicity of the private forum, but received almost no feedback. As I would discover, though many people were either familiar with the process of DM'ing or had even experimented with subjects similar in the past almost none of them desired to enter conversation on the subjects of world building. Indeed, the very concept of "World Building" was met with a queer hostility in later conversations, even though every person involved actively participated in and enjoyed building worlds. Time would teach me that our different backgrounds lead to extremely different perspectives, and these differences would serve to divide and eventually destroy my efforts.
The Test Sessions
mAc eventually pressed me enough to actually attempt a rough adaptation of my ideas into 5e, which sparked the first test session shortly after he showed me the basics of using roll20. This session was, unfortunately, not recorded. Both mAc and Reiu played in this game, with Reiu using a new character she created specifically for the project with my assistance and mAc adapting an existing character sheet he already had. Reiu, at the time, was a relatively new member of the group but had demonstrated a strong melding with our goals and values in the subject matter.
As Reiu quickly discovered, the world I was throwing them into was not D&D. It used 5th edition mechanics, but only loosely in some cases, and the entire setting was unlike anything they had ever seen. Starsworn, as it was called, was actually Apex with some hypothetical alterations to core elements in its writing. Thalraxal, a player I later would run an introductionary one-shot for, was used a guinea pig for seeing how far I could bend D&D 5e's mechanics. Both of these players melanated well with the writing and took to it easily.
Hastily crafted out of random shitty graphics off the internet and some repurposed Undead meshes from Retribution's dead Sins arc, the session I ran for Thalraxal also featured a space combat engine's first field test. It provided many arms of analysis for me to study in the resulting recordings.
Initially, due to my discomfort with D&D, roll20 and the very concept of real-time writing in general, I had approached the game with an extremely tightly confined game layout. The first session contained two NPC's and a single "boss" whom they obliterated effortlessly, and while the conversations touched on some of the more advanced concepts in Apex it remained very dominantly focused on the isolated core arc of the session itself - a routine checkup on a fringe world by Reiu's character, whom acted as the arm of an official, with mAc's character acting as her character's aid or bodyguard. The NPC they spent the most time with, a very cunningly disguised Kotomine Kirei from the Fate series, was paired with The Shogun - one of the most enigmatic figures of the Apex world. Both players would come to state that this was their favorite session out of the three I had run, and for a very simple reason - the two sessions they participated in afterwards were sessions in which I decided to test my limits in my ability to deliver some of the content from the core arcs of the world as written in Apex F. Core arcs that had once been at the tail end of 50-documented scripts. I felt that, given the success of the first session, I could take on this challenge while simultaneously writing out the actual campaign for this D&D adventure.
I was wrong.
Once word got out that I was running a second test session (Liere), rats crawled out of the woodworks from every corner of the office - even from communities outside of mAc's. Where I once was uncertain if I would even be able to maintain interest of the two existing players, I now had far too many people - even people who weren't typically roleplayers - trying to get into the next sessions. I would come to run three sessions for mAc and Reiu, with Mucky and KT joining for the last two. It is these three sessions I will be focusing much of this article's content on, as they were the most significant towards the development of the campaign.
Design is a Responsibility
My task as designer was to manipulate the presentation of my world's content, whom had thus far been linearly structured in every iteration with a heavy focus on written or visual symbolism, to be non-linear so that it could facilitate the addition of entirely new player-created characters whom would not simply contribute to that world but also help define it. Rather than introduce many of the races and their core elements in bite-sized pieces as a single player character explored them, I faced the challenge to hook players into the core elements of every feesibly playable race at once and introduce them to the core arcs as fast as possible so I could get them into the thick of what I perceived to be the most important writing of the world as fast as possible.
The aggressive stance to tackle the core plots of Apex's world was perhaps in itself a mistake, because the campaign I was writing largely took place after the effects of those arcs. The issue with simply starting from that point was that merely discussing the primary arc of the campaign would spoil it. The arc involved a rebirth or reincarnation of player characters from across virtually any place in the past - I offered players the character creation option to tell me when their character had died and how, but not why, which lead to some confusion with mAc in particular. In attempting to hook players into the plots of Apex F prior to the campaign in itself I hoped to set a grounding with the kind of environment and history their characters would have been most familiar with, since the campaign setting in itself was a tremendous break away from most of the world and much smaller scale. Initially, I hadn't designed the campaign with having the player and player character experiences from these test sessions, they were merely something I got carried away with on the spot and ultimately lead to the unraveling of the campaign.
Indeed, I had set myself with an immense challenge in designing the campaign the way I did. A more responsible designer might haved opted for a more constrained and malleable aspect of the world, if anything, but I was never known to back down from a challenge. Discretion might have been the better half of valor in this equation, because I was dealing with a variety of uncertain variables, including the players themselves, and only had my past conjecture to base my planning on.
Two major challenges were mine to overcome:
1.) Provide enough information about the world that players could make a character, but not so much information they got lost. Apex, being a world that spans four major independent timelines has a lot of characters and backstory. Simply compositing basic information was a process that took days to weeks, even if the results were simple, because I had to think out what was relevant and what wasn't. I had to do this whilst separating myself from my own content and presenting that content non-linearly.
2.) Pick out how many players I was going to run with and then sort out their details by hand. (I would come to conclude I could only handle 4-5 players max.)
The first problem actually wasn't that difficult at all - in itself. I discovered that I could provide more than enough information for each playable race by bulletpointing them as independent entities. For all but two people this was more than sufficient. Both mAc, a person with exceptional history in world building, and KT, who put on an exceptional performance in the second session despite the fact he joined last minute, had extreme difficulty in adopting to the new world. While I was able to work out the details necessary to establish mAc's character in the world, he would later tell me that he actually had no interest in world building whatsoever and only addressed it in his own campaigns on a need-to-know basis. Of course, this set a line between our two projects immediately - his primary campaign, LMOP, uses existing D&D lore and is based off a starter campaign; even if he changed 90% of the campaign's contents, all NPC's, fights, and overall story, he was still using D&D, and the necessary legwork to establish a ground zero for his PC's was very low. Meanwhile, Starsworn was a custom world with largely original roots. This didn't mean that either world was "light" or "heavy" in world building content, though... which served to confuse me in my analysis.
While I had produced a vast amount of information for the players, I was met with the conundrum that mAc wasn't actually reading the information, or at least it wasn't sticking with him - he was constantly asking questions about subjects already covered. While I could simply fault him for being lazy, there was definitely something wrong with the manner in which I was presenting the information. Somehow he was going through content without actually assimilating it, and then I would be forced to return him back to the same place or repeat information I had already posted. mAc, as a player, was capable of jumping right into the game without the information he was asking about - but he wasn't connecting with it when he made the effort to do so, which served only to drive him away after he began.
At least mAc was actually asking questions - the second player who had problems wasn't so vocal. Mucky would later give me some suggestions on how to organize the website data - I decided I would just give up putting all the content on the site and instead moved it to Roll20 itself, dividing it by journals and condensing it. The resulting feedback was universally positive... but the divide between creator and player still remained for these individuals. At the time, this was isolated and relatively low key - I knew there was presentation issues and I resigned to working them out as I moved forward. I couldn't understand quite precisely where the issues were coming from, though, for my attention was divided between assembling content for the campaign and figuring out the mindsets of the players based on what feedback they did provide. The problem was in reality far larger than I had first anticipated, and even approaching the understanding of that problem was further complicated by the information I did have available.
Presenting the information for the playable races proved to be more difficult than anticipated because I was simultaneously asked by mAc for more information while also being told that there was too much information. In hindsight, I could have shortformed my writing much more aggressively than I had, but I always found shortform reading to be a chore as it lacked meaningful engagement. Even though I was in a rush to put out as much as I could as fast as I could I was still trying to abstract that information in a way that flowed smoothly from one subject to the next. This abstraction was probably the root of the problems in perceiving the subject matter to be too large a shaft to swallow. This was further compounded by the comparisons between mAc's flagship campaign and what I was trying to build.
How was LMOP different from SS? I asked myself.
Queerly, mAc's modified LMOP world is far from light on world building. From the characters to the descriptions of spells and items, mAc has poured countless hours into building his world. A meme amongst his offline group regards his "never-ending tale" in light heart, referring to the endless amount of plots and characters he has up his sleeve. The differences between LMOP and SS weren't differences at all - the content was precisely the same. Rather, he wasn't seeing what he was doing innately as world building, even though that's precisely what it was. Anything that contributes to the growth of a setting, be it dialogue or background, constitutes as contributing to the world - thus building it. The differences in perspective originate from our experience in terminology related to the subject, and it would be quite some time before I realized this was the case. I was overthinking the comparison, a trap too easily to slip into.
Indeed, the perception of the content was more meaningful than the content itself in this consideration.
Roll20 is the "software" of choice for digital tabletop, and not because of ease of use or friendliness; rather, it is the only choice. Any feesible alternatives are in non-English. As mAc warned me when I started, roll20 is its own challenge to overcome when preparing and running a game - far more of a challenge than it should be. Such is the evils of dealing with a platform designed to assist scammers in robbing the gullible of their money rather than promoting content. One cannot even use external image hosts for their assets - they have to buy space on roll20 for any more than 100mb or (as I do) make extra accounts and assign them GM power. This brings us right back to Starcraft 2's ingenius Arcade that requires a person to own multiple accounts to release a map containing any more than a few custom meshes. Amazing how technology improves but fundamental features continue to be taken away instead of improving with it.
While mAc later had to depart on a safari in Afghanistan with his French pioneers, I was fairly confident that, given the chance, we could bridge any gaps in his understanding of the world without issue. The second player, though, continued to have problems coming up with even fundamental understanding of the world. Meanwhile, three additional users were introduced to the game world and picked it up in a day. I sensed there were voids somewhere in what material I had presented, voids that specifically troubled certain methods and perspectives of assimilating information, but without communication I was shooting in the dark and had far too much other work to do to spend weeks building a novel's worth of information I just knew no one would actually read. In hindsight, KT probably needed a strong core hook - one that would have existed in the campaign, but the test sessions were too hastily cobbled together to offer him that specific something he seemed to be searching for. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the campaign in itself was designed as a "fresh start" from a plot perspective specifically so that players like KT didn't have an enormous entry barrier. That in itself was an entry barrier for KT, though, because his character creation process seemed like it would have thrived on having a meaty leg to grapple onto.
KT wanted to understand the world and fuse to it, but felt lost and didn't know how to approach that subject with me. The ingredients he needed for character creation were distinctly different from the other individuals, and I'd only begin to understand those differences long after the fact. Unfortunately, because of the way SS's primary arc was designed it didn't actually function as a main hook in itself and wouldn't for quite some time. This easily could have served to lose KT in the event he didn't walk into the character creation process without a character concept to act as his hook, unlike Reiu or mAc. That the latter two had character ideas or existing content to build off of allowed them to effectively sidestep any potential complications even if the subject matter wasn't presented in an ideal manner for them. At the heart of these differences is the necessity for accurate feedback on this presentation so I can work to amend these gaps in my public material and accommodate different players. Furthermore, when there is a contest of directives or goals, feedback helps build the bridge that allows designer and player to meet amicably.
Helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.
I had to keep nagging and nagging to get feedback on the actual sessions. When they finally yielded it, the feedback was good - but it was like pulling teeth to get them to post at all. mAc knew this feeling well. This trend did not exist with players from my community - Schwa and HKS both gave meaningful feedback immediately when prompted, and Thalraxal, though he was only able to participate in the one session, provided ample feedback. It is also worth noting that Thalraxal was commonly the one to post summaries and other sorts of post-game content for other campaigns or one-shots he was a part of. Incidentally, his origins, as far as I am aware, also lay within the modding community. I believe that the reasoning is fairly similar; these individuals are content creators, like mAc, and while they evidently had very different content creation concepts than he did they all universally shared the understanding that feedback and communication was important. As an aside, this is one of the many indicators you can tell that modern day "game developers" aren't actually developers - they are literally incapable of basic levels of communication and research. See: Castlevania: Lords of Game Testing, Starcraft 2, Diablo 3.
I never understood how a person could have difficulty discussing the negative and positive experiences of their time with a piece of content. It's not like you need to be an analyst to express your feelings.
Now that I had finally rung some feedback from the flock, I took stock of the factors that lined up regardless of the persons and personalities who spoke them. Constants that existed in all layers, so to speak. Things that broke subjectivity. The first thing was, of course, a general learning curve to breaking into the world. It wasn't as bad as I expected it to be - for most people. It was very weird who did take well to it, in some cases - Reiu, who later would discuss with me in-depth her disdain for world building and "lore" as she would put it, created the most lore-heavy character and delved deep into the world of Apex by her will. mAc and KT, though, struggled to get their feet planted even after they had completed the third session. Reiu was assisting me in trying to explain the content of the world to KT at points - I felt like she had the strongest understanding of my content out of all of the players who would come to participate in it, and she always seemed eager to learn more. However, specific feedback on what parts didn't meld with her was not something that I had been given. Every player experienced some kind of difficulty at some stage with the second and third test sessions, but specifically what difficulty that was eluded me. Superficially, it would appear that the character creation process had been too difficult and that had thrown them off key for the resulting sessions, but I was left guessing the specifics.
I was met with a conundrum that felt oddly familiar. Black Sun: Retribution garnered very little feedback, but what feedback it did garner was universally the same - the beginning was difficult to understand, but made more sense in the context of the later half. Of course, this is to be expected, and not something that would come across as surprising. For Retribution, my answer to such a resolution is very simple.
I have never, and will never, make derivative work. Nothing is worth doing unless it's your own. I don't make "Star Wars" fan mods, I don't write fanfic, and I have no interest in building a fan project. If I had to choose between making a derivative work or not making a work at all, I will always choose the latter. Anyone who decides they would rather consume fan work than original work can do so; it is an opt-in decision to choose otherwise, and with it comes the expectation that there will be a period where you don't know everything there is to know about a new fiction.
Indeed, Apex, and by extent Starsworn, had an entry barrier, and this I accepted wholly. Nothing worth getting into doesn't take some degree of energy to acquaint oneself with. It wasn't that I wasn't willing to work with these individuals to accommodate them, it was rather that whatever I was saying somehow wasn't making any sense to them. In some areas I missed details they required to establish fundamental understanding of certain things, like civilization tradition or lifestyles, which I moved to clean up when they were pointed out. Despite such efforts, however, I received no return. No more than when I had first established the game concept. There was a line drawn between this work and Retribution - Retribution was a production who, when consumed, was linear and standalone, and in the full breadth of its presentation it offered all the information one required to consume it. A D&D campaign requires a considerable amount of information to absorb before it becomes possible for a player to engage it. In order for me as a designer to know the precise needs of each player - of which quickly became evident were very different from one another - they had to communicate to me those needs.
I was working my presentation angle from a very specific mindset. I had assumed that players would read core concepts and settings, and then conjure an idea, and move to verify details with me. Thus, I could keep the material necessary to read to get started at an absolute minimum. This is how I worked my various characters with mAc - characters who, by all extents, were exotic - even the cowboy Edward Taylor required some communication to sort out details for. I worked in the assumption that players for my game would be similarly vocal about their intents, conjure ideas based on the presentation, and then move to iron out those details. In all cases this worked out well except for KT. He had formulated a fully functional character sheet in less than half a day and played it to what I would consider a perfectly professional level. He felt distant from the world, though, and when I attempted to move in to establish things with him I was met with a nebulous cloud of confusion. When I offered to write out anything he thought he might need, or run sessions for him, I got no response at all. Indeed, I couldn't know what was wrong if no one told me anything was wrong. It was simply that his entire process for creating a character polarized the process I had designed to facilite character creation for this project. While I'm certain I could prepare a system that worked well for him, I didn't even have the faintest idea how to approach the subject at the time - it took months of reading and hindsight to approach the conundrum.
This experience was truly bizarre, and the subject matter indeed had a line drawn between it and Retribution. Retribution was a standalone project, experienced the one time, while Starsworn was a project with extended engagement between its members. Thus, the positive feedback I had garnered from the first sessions should have been paired with continued communication to pursue that positive experience and iron out these issues. Except... it wasn't. One can only draw one conclusion from this:
First impressions are everything.
At this stage it simply didn't matter how much effort I put into sorting out or adding information - my first impressions were not good and communication had died as a result. I considered for a time where I had gone wrong and thought that, perhaps, I had offered too much power and too many options in what a player character could be. I hadn't simply offered D&D-alike races, but also Prime Realm demonkin (Apex F/Seg 5+), and some special races from earlier Eras. Perhaps, when presented as a body, they were too much for individuals only versed in modern literature to absorb. I wasn't going to dial back on options just because some people couldn't read a page or two of extra text, though, when we had already begun the game. Hindsight is 69/42, and with ample idea of the challenges I'd face with this group I'd probably have done so. It was foolish to consider it now, though. Rather, I could only scratch my head as I tried to wrap it around the riddle before me.
The campaign, slated to be begun soon after the test sessions were concluded and everyone was available, was expected to start with no less than an entire session of the player characters getting to know one another and the party actually forming. SS' introduction put them into a familiar Fantasy world, but with the twist that they didn't know how they got there. As they explored the realm they'd encounter Orcs with steampunk weaponry, werewolves, and sandstorms. Discovering the whys and hows would be paced to their intent to dig and pry.
What they were being asked to do once in-game was really going to make the entry process entirely trivial. Thus, I could never understand the aversion to reading material prior to starting a game - complaints about difficulty breaking into the new world paired with complaints about there being too much to read left me bewildered. For me, if I'm genuinely interested in a subject, I'll suck up whatever information I can find. Prior to starting D&D I read the PHB top to bottom and as much external references on homebrewing and mechanics that weren't clear as I could. It was so I could be as prepared as I could manage to be when I started playing. That's simply the responsibility of the player. For these situations, the roles were reversed - mAc was the one offering information and I was the one relentlessly grilling him until he surely became irate and wished death upon me and my country and my goat. I expected to fulfill this exact same sticky, fatherly role. Only for a few did I need to get my belt unbuckled, though - and not the ones who were in dire need of a good breaking in. Only in great time would I learn the problem laid not with the world at all, or the fact it was a new setting, and this is where the string of miscommunication had already strung its noose.
The content itself was not ever the issue. It was the presentation of that content, and it was the presentation during the actual games that was the worst. One couldn't consider my spot writing good, that would just be self-denial. Rather, the pressure of building these sessions put me off-balance and I did not assemble my information in a wholly concise manner for an outsider. Ergo, the test sessions were poorly organized and would have been best ignored in favor of the campaign proper I had planned. It was a repeat conclusion that would be found at the end of every arm of analysis in the fallout to come from these three test sessions with mAc, Reiu, KT and Mucky. These three sessions, as a body, were extremely destructive to everything I had set out to do. Not simply because they were executed poorly but because the entire structure for the presentation of Apex's content had been betrayed.
Yet, this wasn't evident until my own conjecture came into play. Without feedback, I didn't know the presentation to be so big an issue until months after the fact. Months! Only months after the first test sessions did mAc truly open up and reveal precisely what he had problems with in my test sessions - all presentational problems that I could have addressed on the spot, had I been made aware back then. Reiu, however, remained bottled up until the very end. KT simply couldn't meld with the writing - perhaps, even if I had made everything as clear as possible, he may simply not have enjoyed the setting. To each his own. These are conclusions made after the fact, though - during the time these test sessions were being run I was thoroughly bamboozled.
Every single piece of the observations I had made regarding the test sessions were part of an irritatingly complicated presentation analysis that had only been muddied by the lack of honest feedback, feedback I would only discover to be dishonest later on - and it wasn't even entirely dishonest, it was merely provided on conjecture and assumptions regarding perspectives and terminology between either party that was entirely alien to the other. I would come to discover that the feedback I had been given was overly positive and did not accurately reflect on what players actually felt. Instead, players allowed those feelings to fester and poison their perspective of my work while I simultaneously misunderstood the entire subjects they were trying to talk about. They allowed themselves to believe I was working against their interests instead of confronting me on the subject matter and, instead of trying to resolve the issues, chose to remain silent.
How did this get into such a muddy fucking disaster so quickly? It only felt like yesterday I was starting these sessions and suddenly I hadn't heard from one of the most involved players for three months on whether she wanted to play or not! Everyone was interested, right? The feedback was positive, right?
I struggled and struggled to make ends meet in my head, researching the video material I had available, the feedback provided, and related subjects many times over. I knew presentation was the issue, because no one had yet to demonstrate an inability to assimilate information - or "lore" as some people call it. I knew that the fact Starsworn was a custom world truly couldn't be an issue, because all involved parties had deeply invested interest in worlds far outscaling my own. The issue was presentation. But where, and why? Why did some people acclimate perfectly well and others didn't?
The Crux of Presentation
pres·en·ta·tion (prĕz′ən-tā′shən, prē′zən-)
a. The action of presenting something.
b. The style or manner with which something is offered for consideration or display.
Any subject has a degree of information associated with it. Be it a novel, an anime, or a D&D campaign, there is some degree of information being processed. Be it rolls of the dice, the maps, the tokens for units, descriptions for events or history. Everything is information, and the way in which this information is offered to an end user is best referred to as Presentation.
In Starsworn, my responsibility was to present an amount of new, hand-crafted information in a method that was concise but malleable. With Reiu specifically, she sucked up literally everything I threw her way, and easily melded with the world. Yet, she had harbored a deep resentment for my presentation which only came to light in later months. mAc and I had entirely different definitions of terminology he was using to describe things in his feedback, leading to endless confusion for the both of us. Reiu had come to somehow believe that I was intending to overburden players with information, even though my intent had only ever been to reshape existing content so it was more manageable - once I understood precisely what it was I needed to do. We never understood one another even in the discussion of feedback, though, and this painted a poor picture of my ability to run a game.
At the heart of the subject matter involved was that I was presenting information and not doing a terrific job of it. Several periods of the first test sessions were planned ahead but very poorly executed, which lead to botched and over the top references to either technical terms I used internally or names or events that weren't relevant to the immediate content. Presentationally, Starsworn was meant to be an extension of Apex F, in which content was delivered very slowly and comparatively linearly. However, the test sessions bypassed this plan altogether by placing players in specific hotspots based on events from Apex F's later pages. The campaign I had planned was paced like its source material, but the test sessions came as a result of initiative on the spot to improvise with minimal forethought. In itself a presentational nightmare, and one I had been all too eager to jump into, hoping I could hook players by getting them involved in big events early. Even if this could have been the case, my presentation only served to confuse them - and the specifics of why had eluded me for a great deal of time, since no one focused on those specific problems and largely waived my concerns through predominantly positive feedback.
It reminded me of all the people who claimed they would read Throne of Armageddon or Segment 0, because they "read a lot" and have "lots of time". I can count on one hand the number of people who have read any amount of major writing I have released, and even fewer have listened to the mere three hours of Retribution. Not randoms, mind you, but people I had known for years. Had known being the key term here. I realized then that I didn't really know them. People who claim they will do something for you and turn around and intentionally do the opposite were not people you knew or wanted to know, it turns out. Not everyone from the modding community was a content creator, and the few that were often times were of the variety that did not care for actually creating content. It is a peculiar yingyang paradox that circles my observations in that those who grew up culturally with the Americas were usually creatively bankrupt, even if it were not by choice. Unsurprisingly, most of the players I was now designing for had cultural roots and entertainment values from overseas. This is where things got really weird - despite sharing interests and goals, a divide separated a chunk of the players and myself from each other. There were many ways I could analyze the predicament where an extremely small minority of people in my arena struggled with content that the others did not. Before I could look at things like culture and styles, though, I best served myself by dialing back and considering the basics of psychology.
Through capturing or salvaging enemy equipment I planned to introduce trace elements of various parts of the world to the players by describing how they were built and what materials they were built out of. If players opted into investigating such items they would then uncover bits of the world at their own pace. By presenting information through discovery and pacing it to the player's interactions, I could be assured that everyone would be finding what they wanted at the pace they wanted to find it, and thus their interests would shape their view of the world, not my own projections. The first test sessions did not do this.
Failing to comprehend introductionary material for a D&D campaign wasn't necessarily a product of maliciousness, however much it felt that way from my perspective. Rather, the lack of follow-up reminded me of all the psychological observations I had made in the past when dealing with games - indeed, including D&D itself. The lack of initiative. I talk about it to great extent in some of my dota clone videos. The difference between dota clones and D&D is that the individual spotlight is much greater, and those who may be convinced to perform spot initiative in a silly jungle gank in League of Legends are much, much less likely to take initiative in a game of roleplay. I am still not entirely sure why, yet, but I would probably relegate it to a simple concept - Comfort. In much the same manner I discuss in game reviews and my educational series in regards to voice acting, comfort is a big deal when it comes to producing any kind of content - including that of the written variety, and especially when one is in cohorts with other individuals mutually invested in the subject.
Spot Initiative - A gut reflex to take action without much, if any, premeditation.
My campaign, which spearheaded custom content and world building, was quite possibly making some players, who otherwise were unaccustomed or adverse to such material, uncomfortable by forcing them to take in and consider new information that was directly relevant to a process they had otherwise hammered out to an automated, machined routine. It put them offkey, and forced them to reconsider tried and true design patterns. Even those with strong initiative were forced to hesitate so they could assume the new values of the setting they were designing for. This was assuming my presentation was good, too - if it was bad, the process of assimilating that information would be warped and the information would therefore be only as good as what the presentation displayed.
Furthermore, some of these players, mAc included, didn't know me. Truly, only Schwa and HKS can really attest to "knowing" me, having talked and worked alongside with me for well over a decade a piece. At least Thalraxal had no issues with my presentation thus far and knew me well enough from CC to judge my intent. That left mAc and the others, relying on experiences they had from games and individuals well beyond my ken, to jump to their own conclusions of my actions. They had believed that, because my test sessions were heavy on haphazard information dumps, that I valued that information above their own contributions. They had come to believe I was pursuing a "perfect vision" of a custom world rather than create a game for it. This, of course, is preposterous - I already had the world created, I only needed to figure out how to melanate players into it and determine how they would influence it. Clearly I had missed that mark by the perspective of some players, whom had come to believe I was doing so intentionally and not simply because I was an utterly trash DM. Furthermore, communication on the subject was done so through this perspective and not my own - every statement only served to further divide us, unbeknownst to each other, as we entirely misunderstood what each other meant!
These players told me to reduce lore and entry barrier, which, at our current state of the game, lead me to believe they wanted me to remove the custom races and environments I was introducing it to. By comparing the game to mAc's games, they lead me to believe they wanted me to create just a normal D&D world and remove everything about SS that defined it - ergo, destroy the project. In reality, they merely were having issues assimilating the haphazard presentation I had accidentally thrown at them, and believed that presentation had been my intent all along! Had I known this was the case when we were still talking about the project I would have been quick to remedy it. Except, I didn't know, because no one specified which parts specifically gave them trouble, avoided communication on the subject, and kept me in the dark.
I had come to believe that mAc only joined the test sessions out of curiosity and the other player only out of spot initiative. When it came to accounting for actually understanding what they were getting into, mAc played out as best he could and took the opportunity to move on while it presented itself, while the other player proceeded to freeze for over a month. No matter how many times I poked and prodded I simply couldn't quite get to the juicy center of that lolipop and figure out why. It would have been nice to figure out how these sorts of things happen just in case it happens to one of the players who decided to actually stick around. Given the information I had to work with at the time, I could only conclude that no genuine interest actually existed to become a part of the world and roleplay in it. If such interest existed they would have started asking questions. mAc indeed did ask questions during the session as they arose, which was the perfect time to distribute information - except I did a poor job of actually abstracting that information to a third party which, again, was a direct result of not being a good spot writer and not having planned my presentation well. I thought that, given the resulting silence and continued RP, that my answers were sufficient - months later I would learn that they had only worsened the situation. Golly.
I am an extremely lenient person willing to bend over backwards to help people reach their goals, but even I have limits. There is no point in trying to appeal to everyone. That's an American way of thinking and we've seen where that gets you. In much the same sense that American's don't enjoy "difficult" games like DMC or works of art like Gachimuchi, some people just aren't WOKE enough to adhere to your content. Real problems only come up when you think they are melenated when in fact they are not, and every signal you are getting from them polarizes one another. Some considerations were more materialistic and needed to be resolved on the spot. As deceptively complicated and at times delicate as they were, I felt I was able to resolve them.
One such issue appeared when Reiu confronted me with a problem I hadn't expected during character creation for HKS, which was: when did I allow someone to reroll their stats for their characters?
For her latest game, she handled rerolls on a case-by-case basis, and offered an increased Array otherwise. Initially, I hadn't considered what rules I might have in store for this, because every single person except for HKS rolled exceptionally if not extremely well. I gave KT a reroll and HKS a reroll, but the conditions for it were not clearly set beforehand. KT later told me he did not enjoy rolling, and would have preferred rolls not be a thing - especially in the light of our discussion about predictable power budgeting. There, a fierce line was drawn between his viewpoints and Reiu's viewpoints on the subjects of rolls - Reiu would flat out drop out of the game if their rolls were not allowed, while KT seemed to feel like he had to roll to gamble for the chance to be statistically comparable to the other player characters. By allowing rerolls, it was in essence a faux padding in that effort, a way of defeating the RNG nature of rolls to begin with to allow him repeated opportunities to land in a favorable spot compared to the majority of the pack. Reiu's reaction to the discussion was particularly unexpected, and made me think more about the subject than I thought would be necessary.
This is certainly one location I should have thought much more thoroughly through before beginning, and, upon seeing Reiu's handling of her second game, I felt a little retarded I hadn't considered this problem sooner. Her solution was far more elegant, but kept options open nonetheless. I later would offer Schwa the same Array that Reiu had offered her own players.
I found it incredibly queer I was caught amidst this void between several entirely different groups of people on a subject as juvenile as roleplaying. I had always thought of roleplaying as some childish one-off on Battle.net with some preteens and macros, or Europeans with functional swords and armor injuring one another in mock battles, or LARPing, as it's called. I realized, however, that this was the roots of a dismembered limb from what was once the kind of communities that lead to things like the rise of modding and custom content many years ago, before companies like Blizzard did their best to kill off all aspirations of young developers. Thus, one couldn't simply consider the subject as trivial as it superficially appeared. Indeed, just as developing mods and campaigns had strong psychological roots, so did roleplaying. They were both forms of creating new content, even if the majority of roleplaying is done within an existing framework - the characters that one creates, for example, are typically the bulletpoint of originality in the design. It is of no surprise, then, that many players invest colossal amounts of energy into designing their characters. Only when I was a few PC's in did I really start to get comfortable with the subject, and really start to understand why and how these interactions set themselves apart from building worlds and characters within them as I had for all my life. Indeed, the very fundamental process in which many of these players developed content was extremely different from my own process in the very same subject.
It was awfully arrogant of me to think I was capable of DM'ing with such inexperience. This required deeper research than what my own sessions could offer. Not simply so I could better understand why some players didn't take to my presentation, but how I could better tune that presentation to those who did.
I saw the inability to keep mAc and KT hooked to the game as a tremendous personal defeat. Although I replaced them, I shouldn't have needed to. There is most certainly a point where you pass from discomfort to presentation flaws. One player I can understand, but two? It showed I had learned nothing in my years of game design and writing. Regardless of our differences in design values, there's no reason I shouldn't have been able to keep both these players attracted to my content. I resigned to the knowledge that should another player have such difficulties I would be forced to discontinue the entire project, as it would be clear I was wasting my time chasing a pointless rabbit after all. The only thing I could do now was look back at what had happened between my test sessions and extract every drop of information I could from them. I resigned to this still believing that Reiu herself was actually interested in playing, as all indicators showed that she did - including her own words. The truth was, of course, she was not.
Reiu had come to believe that I valued "Lore" above all else, and the confusion of her test sessions would only deepen. The key piece of this puzzle is the knowledge that her, and the typical D&D player, definition of "Lore" is entirely unlike that I grew up with.
While mAc was in Afghanistan taking gringo ears and making a necklace out of them we continued our discourse about the aftermath of the then-recent test sessions. He would tell me that even though he played lore-intensive games, such as Blazblue, he played them by extent of them being character driven. Ironically, this was the way Apex was originally written - the very reason why it couldn't remain that way was because it had become a D&D setting. You can't tell the world through character dialogue in a linear manner when people need to be aware of that setting material in order to make a character for it. Indeed, the three test sessions he participated in were minimal on the lore and information side, bulletpointed into hotspots, but the information that was presented was done so ineleganty, without context and during largely one-sided conversations. I revealed to him that my intent for the actual campaign had been rather dramatically different - I was planning on isolating the players and then revealing the world to them in very slow, methodical pieces as they progressed at their own pace. The test sessions had, unintentionally, overexposed them to a pack of Catholics in choir practice. For most of the players this was something they were equipped to deal with, however, including Reiu, whom I had extended conversation with on the subjects of roleplaying and world building on several instances after the test sessions.
"I hate world building," she echoed mAc's earlier words, perhaps unknowingly, "I prefer emotive and character-driven roleplay and just kind of glaze over the rest." This young player with a history in visual novels, including the translation of visual novels, currently had the most lore-intensive character of the entire group by far and worked extensively with me to fine tune certain elements to better suit her ideas. The statements and related material may seem polarized, but they aren't necessarily. It all comes down to presentation. The key component here is that the lore is building the character directly - it's building the world through her characterization of it, rather than presenting it as a wall of information. Reiu's character represented a crossroads between many worlds in a variety of different ways, not just as what he was, but who he was. A character like Reiu's doesn't exist in Apex normally, it is the byproduct of systems developed exclusively for him. Much of the consequences of those changes and additions may not even show up in the campaign, but they are relevant. The difference between building those systems and then him fitting into them, and instead building him and then designing them for him, comes in how that information is presented to his designer. That it was something involving her character directly is what roped Reiu into the process of world building. The very fact she wasn't even seeing it as world building, but rather character design, even though they are literally one in the same.
This was the entire lynchpin of the way I had laid out information for the world. Reiu took initiative and we worked together to both build the world and her character as one.
Reiu DM'd a game once, whose log she shared with me. I perused it over the course of a few hours, nodding my head as I went along. It was a one-on-one session with another player who, at the time, was somewhat unfamiliar with Roll20, in Pathfinder (as opposed to 5th edition). Between the OOC (Out Of Character) and (In Character) dialogue between the two, extremely little descriptive text was shared - but Reiu wasn't completely minimalistic in world building. Rather, it was her approach to it that stood out the most to me. A needlepoint focus with a heavy emphasis on the dialogue. Not unexpected with my experience and our prior conversations, but to me there was no evident discomfort, especially polarizing her comment about not enjoying DM'ing. Had I not been told, I wouldn't be aware this was a person's first attempt at the subject. It was far more graceful than my own.
Furthermore, while her player clearly wasn't versed in Roll20, he showed little unfamiliarity with the subject of spot writing. Given that Reiu had the day previously shown me what was my very first encounter with the "Visual Novel" that Japan has produced in great excess, I immediately noticed an extremely similar writing style between these first-person narratives and the text crafted by both Reiu and those from the community she hailed from. It was a style mAc also employed when he played... something I only made the connection with then, given that it wasn't something that made sense to do when DM'ing. Curiously, it was almost never seen within the LMOP campaign at all. It made for a very different, and at times enlightening, reading experience. The game session itself, fairly brief, allowed us to touch again on a subject that had come up quite a bit during and after the test sessions I had run with these players earlier.
Universal is the hatred for combat from virtually everyone I have talked to - except for those who come from my own community. When I began to ask why, it was ultimately because so few people had attempted to design non-frustrating encounters. It is certainly one of the reasons why mAc's games are so heavily contested for players hoping to join, even if they don't realize it yet.
"I noticed you just skipped the fight with the guards. Was it because it wasn't important to the story or because you just loathe combat?" "The latter."
Grind is something we can all agree doesn't belong in a game. QTE's, endless trash fights, mobs with too much health, circular quest chains, basically all of Diablo 3. D&D and similar platforms are not exempt from the pitfalls of "grind". A player described to me a game he had taken place in with 8 players total, each in command of a pet, for a total of 16 PC's. They faced off against a boss with two adds that infinitely revived when killed, dealt massive damage and healed. He described a battle in which 4-5 hours had passed without any marginal change in combat. As I read this recount at the tail end of a lengthy discussion about balancing and designing combat, I was in absolute bamboozlement.
This is the shit people are playing these days? No wonder no one enjoys combat.
Only HKS, Schwa, and maybe Thalraxal and Mucky haven't expressed some disdain of combat thus far, and the latter I am not 100% sure on because I can't actually remember. Almost every single person I've talked to thus far has either said they outright hate combat in D&D or they have not been in-character engaged by most, if not all, of the encounters they've been in thus far. Similarly, I've read that most people who do enjoy combat only enjoy the first few levels of the game because it gets "too easy" the more powerful they become, largely due to the utility creep of spells. Personally, I feel the early levels of D&D are generally a total clusterfuck of people getting 1-2shotted by anything that touches them because their hp is trash, and that's hardly a positive experience. That's the thing, though - there only ever seems to be the extremes of number imbalance or a slow but determined slog to victory.
"Well Mesk, duh, it's a system about RNG."
Yes, this is one immediate conclusion you can make looking at it. But it's also the fight designs. Thankfully, as someone who has only played in games run exclusively by mAc thus far, I've yet to run into a fight that feels like a drawl. Other DM's, apparently, are significantly less capable of designing interesting fights. Given how little feedback he gets from his games (that I have been able to read at least) I can't be too sure if I am really the only one sucking up every fight that happens, but sometimes I wonder if that really is the case. Combat is, after all, a huge part of the game. The vast majority of the stats on your character sheet pertain exclusively to combat. Hell, in traditional D&D you only get experience from combat. The fact that mAc gives experience for non-combat activities is entirely off of the book.
The aforementioned recount was given in response to a lengthy post I had made in regards to adopting mechanics and fight designs from Apex's previous iterations, bringing them into D&D, and many concepts and ideas I had surrounding them. Nothing the average viewer of my videos would be wow'd by, but the responses I got from these veteran D&D players were extremely puzzling.
Prior to playing, I had read many recounts of DM's and players about difficult encounters in which players were encouraged to seek out creative solutions. In a world of prose, you can approach challenges in ways you can't in a digital platform. Everything from different tactics in fights, to utilizing the environment, to even diplomatic solutions, and a mix of all the above. In a world where you can literally just ask "Can I...?" and usually get a response akin to, "Yes, but..." you'd think everyone's looking for a way to make the most out of every encounter.
In my post I discussed various things I have covered in my previous educational videos on this site, such as engagement zones, power budgets, and unit classifications such as consistent/burst DPS. Previously, players were very concerned I would be ramping up the health of monsters in an effort to counter the extremely high burst damage this party possessed, in which any one of two of the PC's could produce damage on a single turn that far exceeded the entire party's worth in LMOP or Fists.
When I opened discussion about this very subject, however, and how one of the fights in my test sessions had around 6-7 foreseeable ways to pan out had it come down to an actual battle, both mAc and the other player expressed that not only had they never actually thought of other solutions but that I shouldn't expect players to think of such solutions for themselves.
mAc went on to elaborate that he tries to work the most obvious of reads into his descriptions. My post contained a small observation about reads, and I thought back to overall approach to how I was writing descriptions for the fights and, more recently, Reiu's own game. The other player said he really doesn't think of anything at all during the game. He felt that it would be too easy to overcomplicate fights mechanically, giving the aforementioned example which, obviously to us, was an example of grind and not mechanics. Given that example I quickly understood why there was such an aversion to combat, even though the player himself expressed that he was one of the few people who enjoyed long, tactical battles, so long as they weren't like the example above. People were, as far as I could tell, simply starved of meaningful encounter design. I speculated this was one reason why mAc was literally swimming in people trying to get into his games - he has been actively trying to develop around this problem, while other campaigns, allegedly, don't even bother trying to design and just throw raw numbers. It's precisely the same reason why so many game genres are dead today, such as the RPG and the RTS - the drive to innovate is extremely rare. Furthermore, it's a reinforcement of the mental conditioning that things must always be this way.
Two things were evident in the fallout of my post. The first was that the general impression I got from reading ahead of time about D&D was literally the opposite of reality - almost no one looks for creative solutions in the average game. The second was that I needed to do something entirely out of the book to make the combat engine play to my strengths.
Since the fight didn't actually happen, I wasn't entirely sure how the players would have responded to the encounter. Judging by the very few responses I got, though (weird how the two players with the most difficulty in getting into the writing were the ones to give me responses on the fight discussion), it sounds like they weren't going to try anything special. I decided I would do nothing with this information. I had no plans on reducing the mechanical difficulty of fights, reducing the amount of options I was going to provide, or making combat fast and easy for those who wanted to breeze past half of the world's content because their previous experiences were unpleasant. I accepted, however, that I would have a challenge in bringing interest back into combat in this game, especially in a system driven by RNG of all things. The solution was to make results more reliable and make individual choices more meaningful. The latter is the most absolute difficult thing to do, so I'd have to carefully consider how it can be done. Larger and more meaningful environments are one such solution, a variety of enemies whom synergize with each other directly or indirectly is another. Couple the two together, and many potential designs can spring out of otherwise mundane foes, and tactical arms begin to grow out of potential ways to deal with them, or even confront them at all, should the situation allow for it.
> I made this video in response to the replies in the thread, and it has received no response.
Eventually, nearly two months passed, and I was forced to drop KT. I offered mAc the opportunity to return, but he did not want to. This passed the buck to Schwa who had been waiting to hear about a free spot.
"One of our players actually gets restless if there isn't a fight for a while," Schwa was telling me, in regards to her offline 4th edition group. "I always thought that combat was like half the game."
Pairing someone with predominantly offline 4th edition experience and very little heavy roleplay experience alongside someone with virtually no D&D or roleplay experience at all ended up far more favorable than I had anticipated. The two players fed off of each other and produced reasonably consistent results. A great deal of psychoanalysis could be performed just on these three games, which my dev commentary goes into somewhat. It helped that both players were engaged in roleplaying in a new world and eager to learn more about it. For individuals with a history in content creation my presentation was as good as it could be given my inexperience with D&D and DM'ing.
Two of HKS' sessions featured a Schwa, whom played as an NPC during them with abilities I built based on several existing PC abilities, such as Bardic Dice, with more restricted ranges, to give her several things to think about during combat. Schwa's experience comes from 4th edition, which is combat centric, and catching the ins and outs of 5e's casualified take on D&D was a little troublesome for her. It offered me another unique perspective on the manner in which I was presenting combat. Schwa would tell me that all of the 5e fights I gave her were "much faster than expected", completely polar to the feedback from existing 5e players.
When discussing combat with Reiu, particularly in regards to the second game she was setting up, she explained that she set up NPC's using PC rules. When I talked to mAc about this subject early into my time with D&D, he tried to steer me from that path, and told me that NPC's and PC's use different stats for very important reasons. Truthfully, few NPC's actually have stats, and rarely do those stats make up comparable power budgets to those that PC's possess simply because most stats are never actually relevant for them. NPC's also tend to have special abilities, like multi-attacks with a variety of components to them that PC's don't, like automatic grapples on hit. Also, monsters tend to have significantly more health than PC's.
Reiu explained that she had used statistical averages for her NPC's to help determine what their difficulty would be like. I double-taked at first. The problem with this is, of course, that roll20 and all involved systems use PRNG - statistical averages are, at best, anecdotal material. Statistical averages fell apart immediately into Starsworn - only HKS rolled stats for his character that even resemble the averages of the involved dice. Reiu rolled a NPC with two maximum attributes and one attribute a single digit shy of maximum, with the remaining stats being average or above average, for her game. Every PC I've seen her roll has had above average to godlike stats, though she's had misfortune strike her once or twice in the distant past. The average for her is clearly above average.
The main thing to draw from this exchange is that Reiu and mAc both approach combat extremely differently, and Reiu didn't simply disagree with mAc's way of doing NPC statting, she also didn't like the way he presented encounters to the players. From the foundation she hoped to strike a different kind of balance.
"I don't like unwinnable fights," she explained to me. Despite her high rolls for these NPC's, she planned for them to be defeatable by the players, even if it meant nerfing them. Meanwhile, early in LMOP, the party encountered a CR15 - a creature balanced to fight a party of four level 15 players - at the ripe levels of 2 or 3. What balanced this fight was a clear and evident presence of danger, and the option to not engage. The dungeon it was located in hit them with waves of mental nausea the deeper they progressed, and they even were directly face-to-face with the 100-foot underdark creature talking with it before they attacked it. Somehow no one got instagibbed by it, and they stole treasure by its dwelling and then escaped. It was an opt-in engagement, and one that didn't end in player death despite the odds.
Was it a bad idea for mAc to place this creature here? Is Reiu asking for trouble by relying more on numbers in exchange? I considered these questions carefully, because clearly there are a billion factors at play more than just this.
Neither approach is necessarily wrong, mutually exclusive, or even come at odds with the other. The key part of my own combat observations was that they were focused outside the concepts of numbers. Numbers are just fluff. They don't really mean that much until there's a contest. How that contest is made, and why, are what mattered to me the most.
Were the LMOP group to try to fight the CR15 to the end, their deaths were guaranteed if you weighed it by statistical averages. Yet, time and time again, we've seen that statistical averages are not something you should balance your game on or base expectations by. Reiu, however, ran six sessions with her previous game and did not encounter balancing issues. I believe it was because of the way she designed her encounters rather than the numbers themselves. The final fight for her first game had a boss whose primary "gimmick" was to chew through allied adds before turning his sword on the PC. He dealt exceptional damage, and posed a serious if not outright fatal threat to the PC should they duel. Therefore, the adds served as a timer. In this regard, the boss could deal 20 damage or 200 damage, it didn't matter. The numbers need not exist. What mattered was that the PC was racing against a turn countdown.
Why is PRNG relevant in this discussion and why should we care?
A pseudorandom number generator (PRNG), also known as a deterministic random bit generator (DRBG), is an algorithm for generating a sequence of numbers whose properties approximate the properties of sequences of random numbers. The PRNG-generated sequence is not truly random, because it is completely determined by an initial value, called the PRNG's seed (which may include truly random values).
In general, careful mathematical analysis is required to have any confidence that a PRNG generates numbers that are sufficiently close to random to suit the intended use. John von Neumann cautioned about the misinterpretation of a PRNG as a truly random generator, and joked that "Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin. (Source; Wikipedia)
Virtually every game software system uses PRNG. World of Warcraft's drop seed is tied to the account that forms a party or raid group, whereas Roll20's seems to be based on either account or game ID or on the account that makes the games. Several patterns have been repeatedly observed throughout our games, allowing me to successfully predict the results of certain drops by observing tends. Roll20 has less of a "gallop" tendency than World of Warcraft or similar games who exclusively use rand(), but it is highly prone to forcing slingshots that tend to hold like a bezier curve. This can be observed with Thalraxal's and Mucky's d20 rolls in Fists of Fury in nearly every session.
While a measure of numerical understanding is necessary, focusing heavily on the numbers aspect of fight design is what can lead down the road that results in abominations like Diablo 3. It's hard to believe someone who instrinsically hates combat would step down that road, but it's always a danger one must keep in the back of their head at any point.
mAc, however, clearly has an approach that is somewhat similar to mine. A, "you spank it, you tank it" route was very clear with the CR15, even during my reading of the log. Of course, this is also comparing a campaign to a oneshot.
It might seem simple to dispel Reiu's number focus and leave it at that, but there's a mindset behind her design that transcends merely discussing numbers that is worth pointing out, because it's the cornerstone of her playstyle showing through her design methodology, and to dismiss even a single aspect of either of them would be losing sight of an extremely important piece of a grand puzzle that illustrates her mindset towards roleplay as a body. A mindset that I needed to not simply understand, but be able to deliver content to, while simultaneously reaching the rest of the group. This is less a balancing act and more about shaping a key to fit an extremely complex lock while only having my dick to chisel it out.
Reiu's character faces off with a boss, alone, in Session 3 (Liere). Right before the fight began, she stated that she hoped he wasn't statted for a party fight. He was. Ultimately, because of Schwa's intervention, the boss DPS races Reiu against a Gundam in a similar manner to what her final boss in her game did. The boss did use a special attack on her, which she managed to succeed in evading. Ultimately, she barely defeated it as the Gundam died. She later stated that after the first turns the fight was boring to her, which I concluded was a result of the boss not having unique actions per turn that could influence her. When coupled with her designing her NPC's off of player stats and numbers much becomes clear about how one could have improved this encounter. An improvement I should have been aware from the beginning - though I hadn't expected a single player to be in the fight, and figured the fight would be shorter. I hadn't prepared enough.
I have actually been designing my NPC's much like Reiu has been from the start. I use statistical averages to determine their base values and then work in custom abilities. The difference is that I used the PHB and DMG to determine those values. I read the values determined by existing monsters and PC's and mentally build averages out of those, and then leave it at that. The fights in my test sessions were intended to stress various extremes of my interpretations of those numbers, and everything about them went very much like I had expected them to even with PRNG variance on top of it - because I designed them from the interaction dynamic first, then worried about numbers after. Ultimately, despite some fights taking longer than desired for a variety of reasons, my numbers worked very well, and I didn't need to concern myself over the party rolling high or low. What always caught me off guard was how much damage the party could deal, but it was simply the party expressing their power budget in a way I had yet to see.
Unlike mAc's campaign, though, none of the encounters the party ran into were "blatantly unwinnable" (despite myself hoping the difficulty to be far higher than it really was), which is primarily where Reiu's contention about that particular aforementioned CR15 encounter came from. While she did not elaborate at the time, she went on to answer my inquiry that, even in an extreme aggression circumstance, where the player in her game attacks a nation leader in his own stronghold, he could survive and live to tell about it. Reiu believes strongly in individual player expression as a cornerstone rather than world expression through players, and by building player stats and values into her NPC's she brings them closer to player characters not simply mechanically but also in exposition, as the two are hand-in-hand. There is one final observation to make in regards to this - a very critical discourse we had in regards to her PC's.
She explained that she had plenty of times played, and didn't mind playing, underdog or underpowered characters within forum games. But, in tabletop, she much preferred to have as much power as she could get - thus her strong resentment to being forced to use stat array over rolls. It wasn't a simple power trip mentality - she saw the stats merely as an avenue to conclude combat more quickly. The stats don't determine her strategy in combat, however; she still plays very much like how the character would play. This aligns with the aforementioned difference in mindset in not being in control of the party detaching one from combat, because it makes their own individual decisions have less impact. The desire to have impact and be a focuspoint is often on a player's mind, even if they aren't known for initiative. Everyone enjoys getting their ego stroked by feminine boys. All of these threads align at one critical point, one that brings us right back to the most superficial observations.
Combat is being seen merely as an obstacle to get past, and not a building block for the story.
The only way this can happen is if the act is going through combat is unengaging and therefore becomes a chore. Because decision is distilled by RNG even the most cunning action can be damaged by a number one digit too low. This emphasizes two things - first, RNG is RNG, and second of all, combat in D&D was intended to be a party - e.g. a group roleplaying - experience.
Indeed, party interaction in combat is as important if not more important than out of combat. When one's life is on the line along with whatever else provoked the battle, emotions and personality traits are tested to the extremes. That players do not take advantage of this is merely a sign of weak roleplaying compounded by a lack of compelling setting. Truly, if the game thus far has been compelling, then battle has no reason not to be unless its designer didn't care to make it so. This hasn't been the case with mAc's games, so I can't speak too much about this second point. I have not observed very strong aversion to combat with the founding members of LMOP, though the combat writing in LMOP is far outshined by the non-combat in both scale and subject. Still, Adun and friends manage to keep IC flowing smoothly in combat, and it rarely seems as though they outwardly consider such encounters a chore. With many others, especially in games I spectated, I could definitely see the lack of engagement, especially after the first turn. I believe the critical ingredient is to give players a reason to care about battle beyond simply personal survival - survival of important NPC's, world-changing board pieces, and environmental consequences. In essence, the basic ingredient any non-grind encounter would demand.
This means that the solution to making combat meaningful in itself is not complicated at all. The solution to engaging players who have decided to hate it, however, is two-dimensional - it's a mutual investment. The players have to choose to roleplay the fight, and you have to work to make it encourage such behavior. The first part is giving every individual action impact in some manner, making actions more reliable and less constrained by RNG, and then eventually redesigning many spells and abilities that trivialize certain kinds of encounters at later levels. The final and most important piece is to make the opponents someone worth fighting as a character. To ensure that the players are following their every word and move for reasons just as important out of combat as in combat. Then, they will realize that the entire point of combat is to progress the story and their characters, and they will no longer be drawing an imaginary line between the two.
I used Combat as a means to hook HKS into roleplaying right off the bat - it was a strategy I considered akin to threading a needle.
I used Combat as means to break HKS, who had no prior experience with the subject matter, into roleplaying a bit more smoothly. To me, it was a tool I could use to string an unfamiliar subject alongside a familiar one, and exchange comfort between the two so as to not overwhelm him completely. As a more technically minded individual, I knew HKS would take easily to combat in D&D, just as I knew he was going to struggle with roleplaying.
Knowing he would struggle with his first D&D session, I set up for HKS a double-edged blade. I intentionally crafted his session to challenge his ability to roleplay and make decisions in-character that had no easy way out with the goal of making his life difficult. I did so because I knew he would face a great many challenges in the actual campaign, which I had expected to start at the earliest convenience. My goal was to break him into the subject as heavily-handed as I could, but not without a lifeline.
As to be expected, he had some problems. The problems were not because of lore or D&D, though - he had difficulties simply writing out basic statements. The power of anxiety is that it can completely destroy one's ability to perform basic operations, and it needs no logical reason to do so. Though HKS typically has a much stronger control over the cats in his head than I do, some time was necessary for him to start to warm up and begin. Ever the vulture, I waited patiently to throw the next curve dick at him. Meanwhile, I took advantage of the fact he had been versing himself in rules and spells to introduce a larger amount of individual fights than I had presented in previous test sessions. The objective here was two fold - use something I knew he would be familiar and comfortable with, being combat and numbers management, to guide him along the difficult road to roleplaying, as well as try out fight designs I didn't have the chance to in the previous sessions. Being an individual accustomed to game mechanics manipulation, I aimed to turn his methodical approach to the subject as a means to string him into interactions with various NPC's.
In his second session I roped in a Schwa to play one of the NPC's that formed his party. At the time, Schwa had no prior experience with 5th edition and this would be her crowning moment to start heavy roleplaying herself. The results were far better than I expected - HKS no longer struggled at all, party interaction felt natural, and Schwa, being a familiar person we had played with many times in the past, presented no troubles for him for him to play around.
During the third and final session for HKS, though, both he and Schwa struggled a bit with some dialogue I sent their way - mostly due to the pacing I had chosen to pursue, due to time constraints. We discussed this in detail during their feedback, which shed a great deal of light on the troubles that brewed over the first three sessions - those with Reiu and mAc - far more than the feedback the other players had given me. Until I actually had the full breadth of mAc's feedback, though, I was still only working on my own conjecture and opted to take the "wait and see" approach. I approached the same challenges differently in Schwa's following two personalized sessions, which went swimmingly.
Neither Schwa nor HKS could understand the dislike for combat expressed by Reiu and others. Understanding Reiu's history a little bit more might shed some light on her viewpoints and why she was taking the approaches to it in she was.
In a separate community, a group of players including Christemo (whom played in our Graves of Jerusalem 1shot) and Siriel (whom starred in the Trains of Lightning 1shot) regularly ran oneshots, and Siriel ran a campaign for several years, which was Reiu's primary introduction to D&D. These sessions were run with Pathfinder, an older and more numbers-heavy version of D&D that offers greater customization over one's character. I was able to spectate and cast two games with these players and got to experience a very different kind of playstyle than the one typical of the games mAc ran. The one game was significantly more focused on combat and its structure was rather linear. Both games in question were run by Christemo, but Siriel's campaign was allegedly very similar. The things these two players looked for in their games were more biased towards the mechanics side of D&D.
Siriel's character survives the boss' massive attack with a single, temporary hit point from a level 1 buff towards the end of a nearly 9 hour session.
While it isn't to say that the players did not value roleplay, the roleplay in most cases was more of a route to access the mechanics of the game rather than the other way around. I observed a curious arms race between Christemo and Siriel, as well as one of the other players whom I was not familiar with, which included Siriel tanking down multiple creatures at a time and a pirate instagibbing several creatures, including a boss. The session in question (1shot 3 in the video list) was more of a gauntlet, not terribly unlike the first oneshots I ran, but with less roleplay than that. In that sense, the entry barrier for those games was extremely low, as the goal for the players and DM alike were to test each other's builds and smash the shit out of each other. Curiously enough, Christemo's second game had extremely little combat, and was almost completely dialogue between him and the sole player, being Siriel, showing a side to the two that wasn't commonly brought up in any discussions related to them.
Reiu played in Siriel's campaign for two years, and had managed to create an incredibly broken character.
"The other players were like, wow, this fight was so close, and I was sitting here still with seven instant revives left. We weren't even close to being in danger of dying," she regaled about one of the fights in Siriel's campaign. Her character was merely a "support", but possessed more damage, damage reduction, and utility than most of the rest of the party combined - while also having access to most of the game's spells. Reiu considered that, were it necessary, her PC could easily TPK the rest of the party in a PvP situation. "I could just teleport the dragon to another plane and have it die there, but that would have been kind of anticlimactic. Instead I just debuffed it to the point it had a 1 in 8 chance of actually hitting anything. The GM whispered me to stop nerfbatting his dragon."
Pathfinder is prone to such number and utility bloat, surely one of the reasons why 5th edition stripped so much out of the game in terms of customization and number growth, but it was a system that seemed to suit Siriel, Christemo and Reiu quite handily. They were simply seeking different things out of their time with D&D than just roleplaying. I couldn't help but wonder if this experience was the one that ultimately served to turn Reiu away from the concept of enjoying combat, for much of her reasoning surely made sense and seemed like the natural thought process to take when stepping out of such an environment.
Indeed, Reiu was very much caught off guard by how much time mAc's LMOP campaign spent just talking, and was unprepared for the banter in the Cable Company oneshot. She quickly came to acclimate well to the new environment, though, spinning elaborate tales with visual novel-styled exposition. Much like in Pathfinder, though, she craved power as a means to resolve combat as quickly as possible simply to get it over with.
This is why perspective is extremely important, and why she may have felt that the directions mAc or myself were taking weren't "good". The goal for myself, of course, was to establish a grounds for combat that didn't allow one to bypass content but also didn't encourage the kind of number bloat and grind that Pathfinder often fell victim to. This would be necessary to facilitate the kind of player interactions I wanted with Combat - for it to once more be considered a roleplaying medium instead of an arena for mechanical masturbation. Making these connections may not be entirely possible within Dungeons & Dragons, especially without major homebrew work, but that's the challenge I would have to overcome if my goal is to bring Combat back into the fold.
All of these lengthy conversions were had, mind you, with someone who had already decided they didn't like me or the game I was trying to run - someone who had believed my intent was to undermine their efforts as a player and make a negative experience for them. Bizarre as it is, these conversations were amongst the most powerful elements that helped shape the efforts behind what I was attempting to get them to play. I struggled greatly with anxiety and stress in my efforts to push myself forward in learning and breaking the boundaries of my poor spot writing, and I had felt that these conversations were critical keystones in improving that process.
Indeed, stress and its many forms remained a constant during my time with the test sessions. The process of DM'ing in itself was extraordinarily stressful, with even the short sessions reducing me to a sweaty wreck just from trying to focus through it. So long as the players were enjoying it I did not care, however. However long or short the sessions were, however much work I had to put in to get them leveled out, however many times I needed to rearrange my writing and reconsider my presentation. Much of the challenge in preparing Starsworn for its player laid beyond the lore and the presentation. It's also establishing a level of comfort between the players and myself. With a divide between those who were familiar with me and those who weren't, it was my responsiblity to establish a level of trust between us. I had hoped that demonstrating a continued drive to improve over the sessions would be sufficient to establish that we were all looking for precisely the same thing regardless of any disagreements over semantics.
When players struggled, I moved in to grapple them to their feet. When they became lost, I parted the fog with my butt cheeks. All the pieces were in place, and everyone was ready to start the campaign. Or, so I had hoped. One final, critical piece remained. In the aftermath of mAc and KT dropping out this piece was most critical. Equally critical was that I knew precisely where attempting to push the project forward would take me.
After I concluded Schwa's sessions, it had been three months since I last had any meaningful indicator from Reiu that she actually wanted to play. The inevitable confrontation to come as a result of the months of growing confusion and tension would be utterly disasterous. I went forward knowing full well what would happen. It's just how these kinds of things always work out.
The Death of the Campaign's First Incarnation
As it turns out, the person I believed most heavily invested into Starsworn would be the one to kill it.
Three months pass since the conclusion of the third test session. During this period I ran sessions for HKS, Thal, and Schwa. Two of these players were players with no prior 5th edition experience and one of them had virtually no D&D experience at all. Between training the new players and teaching them roll20 I had kept myself busy, but I had never lost sight of my original goals. I was merely waiting for Reiu to let me know when she wanted to begin. I had also attempted to run a session for Reiu during this time, sensing she may have wanted to play a more personal, dialogue-driven session, and there began the spiral that would eventually kill the campaign as a body.
Work on the campaign had begun prior to the first test sessions, and like most campaigns, it was intended to fit a specific set of players and player characters. Enough time had transpired between the first and third sessions that I had a strong grip for where players such as mAc and KT struggled, and also where development could be offered to Reiu and Mucky. As players began to drop, though, I was facing a growing anxiety about how to deal with the loss of players and player characters that were critical to forming the original group. I had begun to realize I was facing a very similar problem to what killed the forum game Fine Day Blue some time ago; one of the many games that mAc had run in the past. The game effectively died when two major player characters were killed, even though one of the players himself continued to play, but with a new character, after the fact. The truth beneath all the post-game analysis was that major change coupled with loss crippled the party interactions and momentum of familiarity and comfort that had given the game life.
Now, three months after the third session, I struggled to get any response from Reiu related to starting her own session or the campaign except for the odd dodge behind "too busy". Meanwhile, Reiu planned out a large-scale oneshot for three entirely seperate groups of players, went on trips, and had many hours to invest into discussions with other people on Discord, a hipster spinoff of MSN messenger. I was completely baffled how we had so many conversations about subjects relative to D&D yet she refused to actually play or even give a hint that she genuinely wanted to. During the HKS, Thal and Schwa sessions, the lessons I learned from the first set were applied to great success. I had hoped the demonstration of that in itself would quell any remaining concerns about my presentation.
As the months trickled by, I realized I was simply reliving the exact same problem I was having with KT. The circumstances were different and more complex, though, but I felt like the conclusion would ultimately be the same. I pressed for a definitive date for when she wanted to play, offering to manipulate my schedule and sleep order to meet her needs, and never was the bait taken. She would later claim that she was still interested in playing - yet another two weeks would pass without a peep on the matter.
Again, my experience in dealing with players and designers signalled enough red flags to make the Chinese Emperor blush. The killing blow was when she refused to even answer questions related to developing her character - a clear sign that all interest had, in fact, died. Why would she lie, then? Was it self-denial, or maliciousness towards me? Ultimately, the only one wasting time was myself.
A difficult equation was going to be obliterated by losing Reiu. The campaign's foundation had been written for the initial group of players, of which half had already disappeared. I couldn't simply adapt to this loss - it meant that entire arcs were written off from the party being able to access because they were tied to things like mAc's character's Revelation, a unique set of abilities and knowledge I would eventually come to grant every PC. As it turned out, Reiu's character was also in possession of a Revelation. This wasn't the part that would hurt most with the loss of her character, though - it was that the majority of content, by extent of losing the vast majority of other player characters, was now only truly relevant to her own. I had expected to formulate entrypoints for the newer PC's, like Schwa's, over the course of the campaign by following party dynamic that evolved from their entry. Without Reiu, though, only Mucky remained from the original group - and his entire character design revolved around that original subset of players.
"Can't you just transplant the Revelations and other stuff to the new characters?"
That would have defeated the purpose of their originations to begin with. Revelations were something I built from what I deigned to be personal player and player character values, and were based heavily on party interactions. Reiu's Revelation was based on the initial forming of the group and how I imagined its relationship to form - a prediction that had been extremely accurate. While certain elements, such as abilities or features, from these character-specific elements could be transistioned to other characters, the actual core theme of those Revelations were very much character-specific and based on things like Reiu's character's patron or mAc's character's near-death experience in his youth. I had, similarily, built the campaign to the theme of the characters and what I felt they as characters would find value in resolving and interacting with. A character's interests is a reflection of a player's interests, and tells of their values and motives as individuals behind the game. The new players had no reason yet to care for the things I had designed for the first PC's - indeed, their interests were forking in different directions altogether, and to unite them I needed a new party dynamic to form and assess. Given that players were dropping I had to consider that, perhaps, my entire design had been mistaken from the very start. I had to question every single decision I ever made and every individual element of the project.
That KT, mAc, and Reiu gave positive feedback yet all proceeded to drop out was very perplexing in the light of the presumption that their feedback was honest. It doesn't make any sense that players genuinely interested in playing would not communicate their intent or make an effort to actively engage in playing. While I had resolved mAc amicably, the other two left me only to my own conjecture, and my conjecture was one forged of years of dealing with similar situations only in unrelated media - the world of modding.
Typically, interactions are binary - someone is interested, they involve themselves. Someone isn't interested, they don't. It's not always so simple - JademusSreg had an enormous amount of real life trouble which incited him to vanish when I needed him for Apex. Yet remains the centerpiece of mutual investments - communication. I learned of Jademus' problems from a third party only. Were these players not interested in participating in my game for whatever reason, I expected some kind of indicator saying so. It just didn't make sense to not say you weren't enjoying something when you had spent so much time to get involved with it in the first place.
Somewhere along this chain there is dishonesty. Either they were being dishonest in their feedback, being dishonest in their interest in playing, or dishonest in their reasons for playing at all.
I had built Reiu's oneshot very heavily off of the feedback she had given me about her own games and values. I had believed that, given the hours of discussion we had on the subject, she'd be interested to see the fruits of my labor - yet she never was. That she didn't even want to see what had become of our time together is telling of her intent.
If we are to play a blame game, however, the fault is still ultimately my own. The truth of the matter is that I entrusted two people I didn't actually know to remain committed to something I was creating. As history has taught me many times this is plainly a bad idea. Retribution, with TheCoach, and Apex, with JademusSreg, both taught me the harsh lesson of depending on people I don't know 100% to deliver any kind of results. I moved forward with Starsworn knowing that I did not know either player, believing I could engage them. Only after I confronted Reiu directly and everything went straight to shit did mAc reveal his true feelings about the third test session - with a chart he had made after the session but had withheld from his feedback. I had him walk me through what he felt were negative points and why - focusing primarily on spots I knew to be troublesome but not specifically why. Furthermore, it was only then the revelation came to light why such an enormous amount of hostility had built up between the players and myself - they had completely misunderstood what my own intent was, and by extent, I had misunderstood theirs, because their feedback hadn't been honest.
mAc's "new" feedback focused on two specific points - the first was a conversation with an NPC in which I had poorly structured several pieces of only semi-relevant information, and the second was a "cinematic" whom was mostly an experiment. As it turned out, the players had come to believe that conversations dropping unrelated names would be commonplace, when in reality I was simply playing incredibly poorly and not following my plan. I had him break down precisely which points of these spots rubbed him broadwise, and finally, at long last, I had feedback that was constructive in figuring out where his exact problems were - three months after he had dropped out.
Gut reflexes are always honest. You can always trust them to be honest. Aversion or affection, whatever it may be, it comes subconsciously and reflects on one's true intentions. To reshape this reaction into something less blunt, to reword it to be amicable, is to betray oneself and one's responsibility to deliver honest feedback. The players did so believing they may hurt my feelies otherwise - unknowing of my heritage in dealing with harsh feedback and that I was uncaring of personal injury. Rather, their efforts only served to greatly aggravate a new personal injury by eventually revealing that their feedback had been dishonest and therefore lead me to working for months to their benefit based on their feedback when in reality they did not intend to play at all. The end result was far more destructive than if they had simply been upfront about what they felt and why. The truth is that negative feedback isn't intrinsically hurtful, and never needs to be. Associating criticism with personal attack is a road that only leads to dishonesty - and dishonesty is, indeed, hurtful, especially when it is coupled with the relationship of an individual assuming one's continued interest in a mutual project that is in reality dead.
Without the core, guiding light to drive the campaign forward and help melanate the other players into it, I was left with a breadth of content that was by design going to be very difficult for the new players to engage if not largely irrelevant to them because the equation was only half-way completed. Rather than try to forcibly bend a half-baked product to the remaining players I decided instead to cut the entire project. I wanted to discontinue the entire thing, but I felt I had an obligation to the remaining players, and decided I would continue if Mucky desired to despite losing his original group. He did, so I decided I would try again.
And so, with a heavy heart, I labored to rebuild from scratch.
No matter what the reasons were for certain players joining my game or leaving, the fact was that I wasn't able to engage them and that failure is exclusively my own.
Both Apex and Black Sun have a history defined by failure. It is hardly a new thing for me, as most of my Starcraft projects, with the only exception being Armageddon Onslaught, failed to reach a state I considered demonstrably complete. The only project I have ever finished outside of video media is, of course, Retribution's audiobook.
The general consensus amongst pieces I've read is that most roleplay projects, much less D&D campaigns, ever complete. This to me seems an extremely shameful thing, and not something that anyone should be willfully promoting the word of. It shows an exceptional weakness in design and character for individuals to allow a mutual project of such a scale to simply die. Yet, at least in the examples I have thus far witnessed, few deaths are simple.
Starsworn was stillborn, almost destined to die by extent of what gave it life. Such seems to be the case of many projects whom are embroiled in what mAc called "Social Drama". He regalled to me silly tales in dealing with players in his various games, and Reiu also hinted at an extremely complicated network of social pitholes between the other members that comprised the myriad of groups for her second game. Never had I once entertained the thought I would once again get dragged into the juvenile world of miscommunication yet here I am, closing the book on such a venture as I type. Yet, in orchestrating its machinations early into its conceptualization, never did I feel that, should it die, it would die before the campaign had even begun. Of course, the miscommunication therein is a byproduct of what gave it life - the test sessions were the killing blow to the campaign, not the campaign in itself. By bypassing my design and betraying the presentation of my intent I only betrayed my own work and collectively destroyed a year of careful and gradual labor in the related community.
I launched test sessions and my first impression goals were betrayed. It is why you simply cannot release a public beta or alpha. Yet, without the test sessions, would I have been able to adapt on the fly and learn what I had learned through them? I ultimately traded the life of the entire project for what amounts to a large amount of psychological and social manure to sort through. Useful information in the right circumstances, but largely irrelevant to the remainder of my work. I ask, then, was Starsworn worth the energy put into it?
Schwa, HKS, Mucky and Thalraxal seemed to think so.
Yet these kinds of things are not things you can always be prepared for. You always start something like this with the knowledge that it very well might not work out for whatever reason. I personally expected SS to meet its end by the developers of roll20 discovering the multiple account workaround for their stupid size limit. After the test sessions began to accrue turmoil beneath the bed sheets, however, I can't say I am in any way surprised to see it falter in this manner. There is always a degree of reservation when involving oneself with outsiders.
The fallout from this event should be pretty clear. I couldn't trust Reiu to not act against me in other games we played in. Rather than place mAc in an unfair situation of trying to police the situation I opted to leave the games and the community. It was very difficult to do so, but it was the correct decision. No matter who was at fault for this divide, the fact the divide existed at all would have destroyed the enjoyment of the games for other people and most certainly for myself. Even if the GM decides to rule against PvP actions I simply couldn't trust any kind of positive resolution to take place. If I had remained the bad blood between us would have destroyed the games, and I respect those involved far too much to even risk it.
In losing my ties to this community I lose the thing that pulled out of the depression spiral of 2016. Indeed, I am right back in that same spot, the most unpleasant of feelings with anxiety pulling at every muscle and bone, threatening to suffocate one. Although it truly seems juvenile and pathetic, the loss of my ability to participate in the D&D games that truthfully alleviated my depression has only served to mark its return at a strength greater than it ever was. It is a re-affirmation that there is truly no escape from it, that any and all relief is merely fleeting and that even the slightest miscalculations will always cost you heavily. A year of work, months of personal labor, and many valued relationships vanish in the blink of an eye, likely never to return. All because some people couldn't understand what each other were trying to talk about over the internet and got a little too passionate about it.
To be clear, I hold no grudge against mAc, KT or Reiu. I have absolutely no ill will towards any of the individuals involved. I take full responsibility for all miscommunication, all the wasted time, and confronting the players with incorrect information.
I learned a great deal about player psychology, spot writing, and what I wanted out of Apex. I lost about five to six months of physical; work total, although many of the assets and technology that were put together for Starsworn can be used in RPGMaker for CPGA and recycled for the campaign's next iteration. I lost ties to the last community I was a part of, including the D&D games I had thoroughly enjoyed for the last year. I lose the drive and desire to even so much as look at the dozens of remaining unprocessed D&D recordings, and I will likely never escape the self-disgust and depression to follow.
I greatly enjoyed my time playing D&D and for a time I felt like I might enjoy DM'ing. Unfortunately, both come with the risks of potentially associating with people whom which you do not melanate with. This is hardly the first or last time I will hear of such a thing. At the end of the day one reinforces that if enjoyment and completion of a long-term project is their goal it is best undertaken alone. The very thing that gives D&D life also curses it to a certain death without the surest footing. The reason why roleplay rarely sees completion of its ventures is because of the people behind it.