Spherical Goblins: Never Metagame I Didn’t Like

Tanks For The Memories

I saw a thread on a D&D forum recently where someone was talking about making a defensive Fighter build, but said they worry about what they called “the standard tank problem of ‘if I can’t harm it, then why focus on it?'”

A little bit of background here to get everyone on the same page: the concept of a “tank” comes from computer games based (through winding paths) on Dungeons & Dragons. In Dungeons & Dragons, the Fighter’s high AC and Hit Points has always meant that other characters would tend to hide behind the Fighter, especially during lower levels.

In a computer game where there’s no human mind directing all the monsters and minions you fight, this is represented by giving Fighter-type characters abilities that allow them to attract a monster’s hostile attention—“aggro” in the parlance—and hold it better than more vulnerable characters. In simple terms, a tank is a higher priority target for the computer than other characters are. The tank’s two defining abilities are to be attacked more often than their teammates and to survive more attacks than their teammates.

In D&D, a human mind is directly responsible for directing the “aggro” of any NPC enemies the party fights, so all you really need to have in order to tank is the second clause: the ability to survive more attacks. Or that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The “standard tank problem” described by this prospective player is the notion that in the absence of any mechanical incentive for monsters to attack the Fighter, game theory demands that they don’t. The odds of hitting the well-defended Fighter are lower than the odds of hitting another target. It will take more hits to drop the “Fighter than anyone else on the field, a side’s ability to inflict damage does not decrease until a member of that side is taken out of the fight, and it decreases fastest when characters optimized for doing damage rather than taking it are knocked out first.

This is an example of the law of unintended consequences in action: in making it so that your character is the best at taking hits, you become the least attractive target on the battlefield.

This was considered a big enough mechanical flaw in the era of 4th Edition that they did attempt to import some computer-game style “aggro grabbing” mechanics that complicated battle but made it easier for tanky warrior characters to do their job of standing between the oncoming horde and their squishier friends.

Some of those mechanics survive in 5E as an optional rule in the DMG and an equally optional feat in the PHB, but I’m not going to talk about those rules or their effectiveness. Instead I’m going to talk about the mindset that leads to the situation where they seem necessary, and how to avoid it.

What’s A Meta For?

The “metagame” is essentially the game of playing a game. A boxer who notices that their opponent has trouble keeping their left glove up because of an old injury that’s bothering them is metagaming the sport of boxing, as is a boxer’s manager who cherrypicks opponents to build their fighter’s confidence and public profile.

Though you can game a system for many purposes, metagamers typically analyze the rules of a game, the social practices of playing it, and even the context in which it’s played in order to figure out how to achieve their goals within the game.

When people talk about metagaming a roleplaying game, they usually mean taking advantage of their mastery of the system in order to first build the most mathematically optimal character and second to use that character to overcome all challenges they encounter while playing it. My previous column touched on the problem of thinking there’s a single path to “optimizing” a character, alluding to metagaming in the process.

A lot of players will metagame combat in particular, out of some combination of desire to crush their opponents decisively because it’s awesome and fear that if they don’t leverage their characters’ abilities to the hilt, those characters will die and they will lose the fight and fail in their quest. They see metagaming and playing to win as being interchangeable concepts, and don’t understand why anyone would not play to win.

I will argue until I’m blue in the face against the idea that such metagaming is the only way to play the game, but I’m not overly concerned with players who do it. The problem comes when Dungeon Masters match a player’s metagaming with metagaming of their own. This is what creates the supposedly standard problem for tanks. DMs who metgame in the same way that players do and for the same reasons will inevitably deform the game system, breaking down the tacit assumptions on which the combat system is based and robbing it of any hint of realism.

The Conga Line of Death

A textbook example of how two-way metagaming deforms things is a phenomenon of the 3E/d20 system known as the Conga Line of Death. Internet personality Spoony explains the concept in a video.

The basic idea of this: since you get a mechanical advantage to hit enemies when you have an ally on the other side of them (called flanking, in the system), the “correct” strategy is to always flank.

And since you can still form a flank against an enemy that is flanking you, once someone has you flanked you’re halfway to flanking them back; it just takes one ally moving into position opposite you on the other side of a flanking enemy and now the two of you are flanking that enemy.

And now that enemy is halfway towards flanking your ally, so another enemy moves into position, and so on.

If this continues, then before too long the entire battle will consist of people standing in a line, alternating between your side and their side. A battle that is 5 people against 5 people somehow becomes a series of fights that are all two-on-one fights.

The first time I saw someone watching this video, I was fascinated by the fact that Spoony is describing the concept with a bit of frustration, but he treats the Conga Line of Death as an inevitable outgrowth of the rules, because “you always want to flank.” You never don’t want that advantage. There’s a sense of, “This is terrible, but what are you going to do about it?”

Despite Spoony’s air of resignation, the Conga Line of Death is not inevitable. Probably more groups have played 3E-style games without it happening than have played it with it happening. Or maybe it happens once, everyone sees how ridiculous it is, and never again. It’s just that in the circles in which it does happen, it will keep happening. Because the logic that drives it will lead to the same conclusion in every situation where there are enough combatants, because everybody involved wants that mechanical advantage of flanking.

But all it takes to break the deadlock that creates the Conga Line is for one person in particular to abstain: the DM. If the DM controls one entire side of the battle. If the DM isn’t in a dancing mood, the conga line can’t happen. In a very real sense, players can’t create a Conga Line situation. It’s what happens when the DM matches them flank for flank, meta-tactic for meta-tactic.

People who defend this type of metagaming by the DM often make the argument that it would be unrealistic to not metagame, because everybody in the fight knows that it’s likely to the death and the best way to survive is to win, and the best way to win is to use the best tactics. It’s not really metagaming to take advantage of rules like flanking because the characters in the game know how flanking works, too.

But I think it’s obvious to everyone that the Conga Line of Death is not a realistic depiction of how a skirmish among two groups of about half a dozen or so combatants would break out and then break down. People would never line up like that for a fight.

As a DM, you can’t prevent this by telling the players, “That wouldn’t happen.” when they try to grab the first or second flank in a sequence. The rules say they can, so they can. And so can you. But you don’t have to. If you know that it wouldn’t happen, your job is to make sure it doesn’t. As a DM, your number one power for preventing the game from devolving into a ridiculous farce is to not do things that wouldn’t happen.

So I Just Have To Let Them Flank Me?

Yes, you do have to let the players grab mechanical advantages without concern for verisimilitude, the suggestion of reality. It’s not their job to provide that kind of feeling. It’s your job to do so. The rules are there to provide them with knowable, predictable limits of what they can and can’t do. The fact that they’re knowable and predictable means they’re game-able. The fact that they can be gamed means that some people will game them. But you don’t have to game them back.

A lot of times, when someone goes on a D&D forum asking for DM advice about what to do with metagaming players, particularly ones who only seem to be metagaming, not roleplaying or engaging with the game on any level except “How do I win?”, the advice is that you have to match them move for move or they’ll walk all over you.

Unfortunately, this tends to make the game less fun for everybody, and it also reinforces the mistaken notion that this is just how the game is played. It not only reinforces the behavior in the first player, but it teaches everyone at your table that they have to play the metagame to the hilt, even if it comes at expense of playing the actual game.

The truth is that as a DM, you are really not playing the same game as the players are, which means you shouldn’t be playing the same metagame. There are some goals that everybody at the table shares. Having fun is the obvious one. Telling a story is another possible one.

But the players are also trying to complete a quest, and/or advance their characters’ goals, and/or amass riches and power through daring exploits and/or living out their heroic (or villainous) fantasies. You as DM are not trying to do any that. You’re trying to provide an environment where they can do all that while being entertained and challenged. The balance of challenge might vary from group to group, and there’s no right level except the level that provides the most fun for the group (yourself included). But even acknowledging that challenge is one of your goals, you’re still not playing the same game as they are.

Unlike a player who is playing to win, a DM’s metagame doesn’t—or shouldn’t, at least—consist of things like knowing that if you combine this ability with that rule and take advantage of an exception provided by interference from a conflicting interpretation of an optional rule then you can do an extra 37.5 damage per round. A DM’s metagame consists of taking the knowledge that Player A is motivated by the thrill of combat, but Player B likes a good mystery and Player C just wants to goof off and coming up with an encounter that has something for everyone.

A player who builds a “tank” character by making a Hill Dwarf Fighter with the defensive fighting style and maximum Constitution, AC, and HP for level one is using metagame knowledge to create a character who can fulfill a certain role on the battle field: being a living meat shield for the rest of the party to hide behind.

The DM’s metagame should take into account that this player created this character to achieve a particular experience in combat; i.e., the thrill of being in the thick of things, laughing as sword and axe blows slide off their armor with nothing more than a bruise underneath. This knowledge helps the DM “win” by allowing them to run the game in a way the player will enjoy more.

A DM who choose to ignore the Dwarf in order to pile on the weaker party members and obliterate them so they can then dogpile on the defense-optimized Dwarf safely is playing the player’s metagame.

Now, is it realistic for the party’s foes to focus their “aggro” on the one target they’re least likely to meaningfully affect, in favor of immediately changing the course of the battle by taking out the unarmored wizard in a single round?

Of course it is.

In terms of in-game “reality”, none of the little people on the battle grid are actually little or on a battle grid. None of them are watching the battle with a bird’s eye view. None of them are seeing things in terms of polite, orderly turns during which they can assess, over the course of a minute or so, the possible targets and note their odds of a successful attack. They don’t know the D&D rules of combat, only the reality that they are intended to—with some help from the DM—loosely emulate, and the reality is that there’s big armored dwarf right in front of them who is the most obvious, most immediate threat, too dangerous to be ignored.

The weakling in the robe, the skinny person with the knives? The DM knows that they are a Wizard and a Rogue, two of the most dangerous people to ignore on a battlefield. But most people in the world who don’t wear heavy armor or carry big weapons aren’t particularly dangerous in a fight, and the average NPCs won’t know on sight that they’re looking at exceptional individuals who are the protagonists of a heroic adventure story.

The trick is actually to let it go. Let them have their metagame and focus on your own. Once you do that, all the things that seem inevitable—the “standard” problem for tanks, the “unavoidable” Conga Lines—just sort of fall away.

Death of the Ego

The hardest part about adopting a better attitude towards metagaming as a DM is the feeling that when the players are winning, you’re losing. Very few DMs consciously believe this, but when characters under your control are dying and the people across the table are crowing about how easily they dispatched them, it can be hard to let go of the idea that you yourself are suffering a defeat. It doesn’t help if the player is obnoxious about it and talking about “owning” you, of course.

The trick is to remind yourself as well as them that you are not the bad guy. The best way to do this is to celebrate with them. Say “Nice one!” instead of “Ouch!” or “You all are really kick butt.” instead of “I’m getting my butt kicked here.” Involve yourself in what the players are doing.

Ironically, the more you separate yourself from the NPCs in an encounter, the easier it becomes to consider how the battle looks from their actual point of view instead of what the winning move in the metagame would be. This also discourages even more objectively deplorable types of meta-DMing, such as shutting down a player’s illusion or charm spell or clever non-magical trick because “Sorry, I just can’t see this person falling for that. It’s not realistic that they’d be caught off-guard.”; i.e., you feel like a chump when you have to go along with something that you know is a trick.

I’ll likely talk more about that—particularly as it applies to illusion and trickery—in a future column.

Don’t Just Let Them Win…

…but remember it’s not your job to make them lose, either. Give the metagaming players challenges that give them the benefits of being awesome, rather than challenges that take away their awesomeness. If someone made a character who really is the best at killing spherical goblins in a vacuum, throw a lot of things at them that they can kill. If someone is enjoying always having the answer to everything (because they know the books inside and out), make that knowledge relevant some of the time instead of trying to put a mechanical stranglehold on it (“You don’t know that. Your character wouldn’t know that. Make a knowledge check.”) or constantly pulling gotchas and switcheroos like trolls that are healed by fire instead of being vulnerable to it.

Now, you can’t let the game become about celebrating the one player who has mastered the metagame the most to the exclusion of everyone else, of course. As a DM, your metagame is figuring out what every player is looking to get out of the game and, within reason, helping them find it.

Related: sometimes people will lament that you can’t balance combat when one character is heavily optimized for fighting and the others aren’t, because anything that challenges the overpowered character will wipe the floor with everyone else, while anything the others can handle will be wiped out by the overpowered one.

This is actually less of a problem in 5E than many people think, because of the care that went into the system’s design. But even to the extent that it’s true, it’s actually pretty easy to balance encounters for characters of disparate power levels, whether because one’s super optimized, or you rolled for stats and someone got lucky, or because they’re all different actual levels.

The key is to remember your metagame as DM: you’re not playing the combat to win, you’re playing it to provide an experience. And no one said you have to give everybody the same experience.

Spherical goblin-type game theory says that the PCs’ enemies should always focus their fire on the same target, preferably the one at the greatest intersection of “easy to kill” and “does the most damage per round”. But that’s not a realistic model of how the fight would actually go down.

Again, in real life, the most obvious, immediate threats grab the most attention first. And in stories, what usually happens when one person in the group is the best warrior is that someone on the other side recognizes this and chooses to engage them, either for the protection of their friends or because “At last! A challenge worthy of my skills!”

One of your goals is to challenge the players, yes. But it helps to think about designing adventures and encounters the way you would a similar thing in a video game; i.e., remember that the point of the challenge is that the players can overcome it.

Don’t Go Soft, Either

Finally, remember that this not about being a soft touch as a DM. Allowing players to metagame doesn’t mean you have to put up with argumentative rules lawyering or let them tell you how to run the game or dictate the terms of combat.

When it comes to interpreting the rules as written, I can be pretty hard line. I have the exceptions and house rules I allow at my table, but I know they’re exceptions and house rules. When it comes to what you can do and can’t do in combat, I’m very much a stickler.

I mean, if you’ve got a rad stunt that just doesn’t follow any particular rules, I’ll let you try it… if it fits the situation, doesn’t exactly emulate an existing ability that you don’t have, and it’s clear you don’t think you’re inventing a new rule that lets you do this cool thing at will. But don’t try to tell me that Quicken Spell should let you ignore the per-turn limits attached to spells with a casting time of bonus action because you think it stands to reason that it does. I’ll ask you to read what it actually says and then hold you to that.

If that example in particular means nothing to you, I’ll put it like this: allowing players to have their own metagame you don’t need to let players build “game breaking” characters or tactics that rely on questionable rules interpretations. If you don’t think the thing a player is trying to string together should work, you don’t have to give in. Deciding and enforcing the limits of what’s possible is part of your job as DM.

Also, just because you don’t automatically follow the same metagame tactics as the players doesn’t mean the rules that enable those tactics are off-limits to you. You can flank, if your edition includes flanking rules. You can decide that some of the enemies will gang up on a particularly troublesome hero (once the hero has had a chance to prove troublesome).

In particular, it’s worth remembering that you can always increase the ruthlessness of your tactics if a fight is going a lot easier than you expected… but it’s also worth remembering that there should be some easy fights. The fact that the dice are kind to the players isn’t something you have to actively counter. The law of averages will take care of that down the road for you.

But I don’t set limits within the rules on what players can “get away with”, nor do I try to match them meta for meta.

Remember: you’re the DM. If you won the game by killing the player characters, you could win it at any time. If you don’t just want to declare “Rocks fall, everyone dies,” you could have them accidentally wander into the dragon version of a chamber of commerce meeting. There’s no rule that says you can’t, only guidelines that say you shouldn’t.

You don’t do that kind of thing because it’s not fun. (Maybe funny, maybe once, but not fun the way the game is supposed to be.) And while working out the limits of what’s allowed and making use of that knowledge is a metagame for players, working out the limits of what’s fun and making use of that knowledge is the metagame for DMs.

The Question of the Doctor

You know that thing that stage magicians do where they wave a handkerchief or wand around or otherwise make a distracting flourish to point your eyes in one direction so that you aren’t paying attention to where the trick is really happening?

I feel like this is why Steven Moffat, more so than previous showrunners on Doctor Who, has directed so much attention to the idea of “Doctor who?” as an unanswerable question: in a vain attempt to stop us from asking “Doctor, how?” or “Doctor, why?”

Originally I was going to try to fit that sentiment into 140 characters so I could tweet it out into the nethersphere as a little bit of wit, but the more I think about it, the more I think about one of the annoying “Doctorisms” of the current era: the Doctor telling everyone in the room and audience what questions they should be thinking.

It’s a very stage magician-thing to do, and the 12th Doctor is very explicitly referred to as such a magician, though nothing in the series except that people keep referring to him as one really sells it. He does behave like a magician in one way, though: he very deliberately leads people in the direction he wants them to be thinking.

In “Under The Lake,” the question he tells you that you should be asking is what “the temple” means in the interstellar directions “The Dark, The Sword, The Forsaken, The Temple”.

Without the Doctor to tell you this, you might instead be wondering how aliens would know the three lights in Orion’s sword are supposed to be a sword when that’s earth mythology and they don’t even form a line when viewed from other angles, or you might be wondering how aliens are supposed to connect “the forsaken” to a single specific abandoned town or why they need directions to find the planet from which a radio signal is emanating in the first place.

Without the Doctor to tell you that your questions are boring and pointless and indicative of low inteligence unless they are the questions he wants you to ask, you might be wondering why the ghost of a character who died 150 years in the past doesn’t show up to haunt the present until we the audience see her die, even though someone else who died in the same era was the first ghost and even though the ghosts could totally have used her at the moment when every ghost we knew about was trapped.

In fairness to Moffat, Doctor Who is a fantasy series and there has never been an era when its science made sense, when it wasn’t powered by cardboard and whimsy, and when the story logic was tighter than a child’s puppet show. I know it’s not popular to acknowledge this and I’m sure that a lot of people who hate Moffat and were nodding along right up until this point stopped when they read that, because of course it wasn’t like that in whatever they regard as the golden age of Who.

But of course it was. It always has been. God willing, it always will be. We ignore these flaws when the show works for us, but wouldn’t recognize it without them. It’s all part of the charm.

But I said it’s part of the charm, and I mean every word of that phrase. It is only part of the charm. And if the rest of the charm isn’t there… well, you know what it’s like when something breaks and you step on a part of it. Not very charming, is it?

Steven Moffat doesn’t know how to charm us, not consciously, and doesn’t have any confidence in his ability to charm. When he tries to be charming, he comes off like his avatar from Coupling trying to be anything. Ditto when he tries to be clever. So he gives us stories wherein the characters tell us again and again how clever the twists are, what we should be paying attention to, what we should be questioning, what we should be leaving alone, and all this comes at the expense of making the episode fun enough for us to go along with it willingly.

It’s all supposed to be a neat magic trick, but he does it with all the deftness and subtlety of, well, Steve, and it ultimately just grates.

Full disclosure: I have only seen the first two stories of the most recent season. My impression so far is that it’s better than last season (which was possibly the low point for New Who, in a lot of ways). I think the show gains a lot from a multi-episode story format. That’s what’s ultimately worst about these failed flourishes: they’re so unnecessary.

Audiences are no longer invited to consider a viewpoint where the Doctor’s idea-powered magitech makes sense; we are berated and badgered and hectored and upbraided for not already being on board, we’re told we’re a bunch of slow-witted, unevolved ninnies for not already knowing the story’s going to go in the direction the writers have decided it must, and we are promised that if we are clever and wise (and worthy of being a companion like Clara), we will see the Doctor as the world’s greatest magician and regard every conclusion he forms as solid and unassailable, every word that comes out of his mouth as sparkling brilliance.

And why do we put up with this?

Of course, that’s the wrong question. The question we should be asking, the question that matters is “Doctor who?”

No Comment

Today I made the decision to remove comments on my blog. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the spoons to deal with moderation, and the reality is that not moderating is not an option. Even if there weren’t people out there who are still very angry about some of the satirical posts and editorial stances I took in 2015, there’s spam.

I also increasingly find myself agreeing with the critiques of internet culture and (the sub-culture of internet celebrity) such as Tauriq Moosa, that open-ended “engagement” is not worth the price it extracts on the engaged. When I feel up for engagement and invigorated by engagement, I am active on multiple social media platforms. When I don’t, I’m not.

Having open comments on my blog is like leaving the door to my living room open so that anyone can wander in and talk not just to me but anyone I’m entertaining, whereas being on social media is more like me going out into the world to hang out with people.

There’s a meme that goes around in the circles that feel entitled to use my living room or your living room or anyone’s living room as their own personal symposium and lecture hall that this kind of move is anti-free speech, that it’s hypocritical for someone to say they’re interested in starting a conversation or having a dialogue if they do not allow comments. I can blow this out of the water in one easy step.

Actually, I already have.

See how I mentioned Tauriq Moosa’s commentary on internet engagement?

That’s me, responding to Tauriq Moosa’s commentary on internet engagement. No comment section necessary.

And then in the paragraph that starts “There’s a meme…”, I also responded to his critics.

And if any of them—or anyone else—wants to write a response to me, they have their own space to do it in. Oh, I probably won’t see it, but that’s okay. When people debate, they’re not trying to convince each other, but the audience. Formal debates don’t end when one party cedes the point to the other, thoroughly persuaded.

The thing is that even when comments at this blog at their best and I’m at my best, I don’t think having comments turned on here does a lot for me. Back in the glory days of Sad Puppies Review Books, I would make a thing and then spend all day refreshing, watching my site stats and reading the new comments, and responding to them. That’s positive engagement, but it didn’t really bring me anything more positive than a short-lived endorphin buzz. That’s not what I’m here for.

Once you reach a certain level of profile you can’t really have a comment section and not pay attention to it, but I don’t see the gains from paying attention to it as being worth it.  I mean, my goal includes writing things that people like, things that resonate with people, that make people laugh, that people enjoy. But that’s not money in the bank, and at the end of the day, it’s not even real, lasting satisfaction.

I like feedback. At a certain level, I think I need feedback. But the way the web works now, those things can come to me from points further “downstream” (crossposts and the like), where they’re not happening on my turf and it’s easier to keep some emotional distance and perspective.

STATUS: Thursday, January 7th

Apparently I’ve got a lot to say these days, because once again I woke up and started writing a different blog post before I started my status post here. Just like yesterday, I flipped over here to write my status post before I finish posting the blog post.

I’ve been pondering what to do about status posts in 2015. One of the problems is that sometimes they’re formulaic and I need formula, but other times they’re formulaic and I’m saying the same nothing every day because I have committed myself to saying it, and it takes up time and attention that I could be spending saying something I want to say.

So I think what I’m going to do is, on days when I don’t wake up with something else to say, I’ll write a status post. The commitment is to blog every day (or every work day). If I’m not saying something sufficiently personal otherwise, I’ll make a status post to touch base and keep up the habit. If I am, I won’t necessarily force myself to make a status post. If I’ve got a blog post but there’s also status things to discuss, I’ll do both.

TotD: Greeting Rituals of the Terminally Shy (Flash)


By Alexandra Erin



There is a peculiar kind of greeting that awkward, shy people who don’t know one another give to each other. It is not done intentionally, but incidentally, in that moment when we glance across the aisle or at the person sitting next to us to size them up, quickly and discreetly, to assess their threat level and determine what, if anything, is expected of us.

We know that like some strange quantum phenomenon, the act of looking at a stranger might change the situation, but forewarned is forearmed, so we take our chances. We are already rehearsing our lines and planning our exit strategy in our minds, trying to remember what feel in our face means a smile, in case we’re called on to assemble one at a moment’s notice.

Then we see the other person, looking at us in the same way, the same furtive glance, the same bright fear in their eyes, and for a brief moment we are like a single organism sharing one full-body slump of relief, and then we go back to our books or podcasts or just the worlds we keep inside our heads.

Internally, we sound the all clear. The doomsday clock rolls back another hour. We return to Defcon 5. Well, Defcon 4. Maybe 3. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for… what, we’re not sure, exactly.

Someone probably knows, but we’re afraid to ask. We pay it, though. If we don’t, someone might come around asking why we haven’t.

The STOP Syndrome

Writing and posting a chapter of Tales of MU after months of floundering under feelings of across-the-board inadequacy was a bit of a relief and a weight off my shoulders, but weirdly, writing and posting an introductory post about my theories of pretending to be a cavalier that contained nothing I haven’t said on Twitter or D&D forums before was a huge relief and a huge weight off my shoulders.

I went to bed last night feeling supremely confident, light, airy, high on life, and like I could do anything I set my mind to. And also weird, because… WTF? How did such a small, simple thing make me feel so good? I mean, I’m not unfamiliar with the sensation of being pleased with a job well-done, but this was more than that.

In the end, I think it is the fact that it’s a small and simple thing… one that I’ve wanted to do for ages, but didn’t feel capable or worthy of. I had fallen prey to the kind of thinking I’m constantly refuting for others, which we might call the Special Type Of Person syndrome, or STOP syndrome for short.

STOP syndrome is the belief that not just anyone can sit down and do ______ or go out and do ______, that it takes a Special Type Of Person to do that. I can hold forth about D&D because anyone can have opinions, but I can’t sit down and actually write a blog about it in any kind of formal capacity because I am, in some inherent sense, not a D&D blogger. That kind of thing.

The thing is, probably 90% of the people reading this, if they’re reading this in the right frame of mind will look at that, roll their eyes, and go, “Well, that’s ridiculous. It’s not like there’s an accreditation course for writing about pretend dwarves.” And the same 90% of the people reading this, if they’re reading it in another frame of mind, will look at that and go, “Oh, someone has a name for that.”

“I’d like to draw, but I’m not an artist.”

“I’ve always wanted to write fanfic, but I’m not really a writer.”

And so on.

STOP syndrome is not something you necessarily think in so many words, but more often, something you instinctively feel with such depth of feeling that you know it to be true. It’s basically a subset of impostor syndrome, one that, well, stops us from even trying to do a thing in the first place.

The antidote to STOP syndrome may be what I call the Doodle Theory of Doing Art, which is basically that the world is enriched when people doodle, or do whatever the version of “doodling” is for something else. Sing in the shower, whether you’re a singer or not. Doodle on napkins, whether you’re an artist or not. Make up stories, whether you’re an author or not. Nobody is perfect when they start out, and few people are recognizably good, that takes practice… but more than that, a lot of what makes something good is subjective, and even more than that, you don’t have to be good at something for it to be worth doing.

Kids scribble with crayons and sing at the top of their lungs and make up jokes and stories that make no sense because it’s fun to do so, because it’s fun to express themselves and it’s an emotional release and it is rewarding on a distinct and profound level.

It’s a very bad day when I have to convince myself that I am an author, but there are things that I have periodically *known* I’m not (an RPG designer, an anthology editor, etc) at exactly the moments when it was most crushing to feel that. Not just anyone can do those things, it takes a Special Type Of Person to do so…

I think this is another area of life where our focus on “self-esteem” as a society hurts us. “You can do anything you put your mind to because you’re special.” sounds like such a positive message. When we tell a child this, we think we’re telling them two great things: they can do anything they want, and they’re special. But the conjunction there isn’t “and”, it’s “because”. We’re actually telling them something that is contingent, conditional: as long as you’re special, you can do whatever you want. Even if we don’t spell out the “because” and just say, “You can do anything you put your mind to. You’re special.”… the human mind is good at finding connections, even when they’re not meant to be there.

So what we take away from these childhood message is this: there are special people who get to do whatever they want, so you’d better pray you’re one of them.

You can occasionally succeed in making someone feel special, but it is a difficult task to impart someone with the sure and certain knowledge that they are special, in a way that will stand up to the seemingly overwhelming evidence that is their own up-close knowledge of their own shortcomings and the many contrary messages that likely inundate society around them.

This is not even getting into how unevenly society distributes the “you are special, you can do anything” messages. We all get the message that special people can do everything, but some among us get told, in varying degrees and to various ways, that this affirmatively does not include them.

The principles that are varyingly called self-empathy, self-forgiveness, and self-compassion might be the antidote to the deficits of self-esteem, as instead of insisting against all the evidence of our fears and doubts that we are special, they tell us that we don’t have to be. Often, embracing this gives us the space to find the things we like best about ourselves. Recognizing that we are allowed to fail gives us the space to try, which might lead to success.

But ultimately, I think it’s important to know that effort and expression are both worthy endeavors in and of themselves.

The type of person it takes to do a thing is the person who is willing to do it.

That’s all.

STATUS: Wednesday, January 6th

Lo, the prophecy has been fulfilled. I was awake this morning at my target time and sitting here at my desk at 10. Just like the past couple days, I sat down with a burning idea for a blog post, so I started that before flipping open a new tab to write my status post in order to get one up during the actual morning.

I had a dream last weekend… lots of dreams running together, but in one of them, Jack was having a conversation with my mother. I assume I dreamed this because we’re all going to see each other next week. But in this dream, one of the things that happened was my mother told Jack that I’m a better writer than I am a company. And it seemed extremely profound in the dream, as things often do, but more impressively, it still seemed profound to me when I woke up, and an hour later when I was completely awake.

Back in 2014, I made the decision to try to deliberately build my brand. After years of not having a strong “official web presence”, I registered the domain Blue Author Productions and used a service to build a site. I put that name on my Patreon to signify that it wasn’t just sponsorship of one story but everything I might create and produce.

It seemed like the right move. Everyone talks about the importance of Building Your Brand, something I’ve never really bothered with because my brand was myself. But surely I could do better than that. I needed to. Growing One’s Brand is how one expands, right? And it seemed to work well for a while. I had the site. I could put everything I do up there in one central place and refer people to it.

But… it wasn’t a great site for blogging, and I kept trying to blog there and then gave up and re-started my own WordPress blog, and after that, my focus on the Blue Author Productions website slipped away bit by bit. I had actually forgotten it existed until it renewed itself last spring.

I’m going to wait until I get back from Late Family Christmas to actually do anything about it, but I think I’m going to deactivate the site and redirect the URL to here after making a decent info page on this blog.

Because I am a better writer than I am a company. My brand is myself, but it’s a one-way relationship, not an equivalency. My brand is me, but I am not a brand.

Dream wisdom from my mother.

The State of the Me

Doing okay. Slept disjointedly last night, but evidently soundly enough.


Spherical Goblins in a Vacuum

There is a known bug in the human psyche, called the “quantifiability fallacy” or sometimes the “metrical fallacy”: we overestimate the importance of things that can be measured. The easier they are to measure, the more important we assume they are. And because the easily-measured metrics are the easiest things to test for and to brag about, their perceived importance just reinforces itself over time.

This problem crops up in how we handle just about everything: health care, corporate finance, sports, governance, even our military strategies and priorities. Everywhere you go and everything you do, people want to see numbers, numbers, numbers. Hard numbers, big numbers. This kind of thinking pervades pretty much every important aspect of modern life, but perhaps none as important as the fine art of pretending to be an Elf Bard rifling through the pockets of dead kobolds for spare change.

Yes, friends. For today’s Thing of the Day, you get a blog post about the dungeons and the dragons. This will actually be the first installment in a semi-regular feature, an ad hoc column I am calling “Spherical Goblins”, short for “Spherical Goblins in a Vacuum”. Some people who stand at the right nerdy intersection might understand that title immediately, as will people who pay attention to my twitter ramblings.

For everyone else, this post will explain it.

There is a joke—a whole species of them—about physicists solving some problem like doubling a dairy farm’s milk production, but then revealing that their solution only works “for spherical cows in a vacuum”. This references the fact that physicists often simplify the problems they’re dealing with by making assumptions that eliminate complications.

This brings me to the nature of what is often called “theorycrafting” in D&D, as it currently exists, as it applies to min-maxing or character optimization.

The concept of min-maxing is not a new one. You make a character who is only deficient in ways you can ignore and work around or just don’t care about, and strongest where it will have the most impact, or where it’s most important to you.

Min-maxing works best in games that let you gain more power in one area by taking a weakness in another, which are mostly freeform point-based games. It’s a form of metagaming (playing the game of gaming the game system itself, essentially) and it’s not terrible, in moderation and in and of itself.

Even at its worst—especially at its worst—it relies on assumptions like “I can ignore this area and focus on that one because the first area won’t come up.”

If you mess with those assumptions, the whole thing falls apart. A good DM can work with min-maxing to keep its effectiveness to a reasonable level. Of course, a good DM will also let players who just want to be awesome be awesome, also at a reasonable level. You very rarely want to actually match the players meta for meta, though that’s a subject for another column.

So min-maxing, in and of itself, is fine.

The current breed of “theorycrafting” that often surrounds it, though, is another story.

I talked at the top about the metrical fallacy: if we can measure it, it matters. Characters in D&D, particularly in any 21st century edition, can do all kinds of fabulous and fascinating things: talk to animals, change their appearance, create illusions, communicate telepathically, and… of course… they can kill things like goblins.

So, if you have a Gnome Ranger who can talk to small animals, produce minor illusions, and has a variety of survival skills and nature spells, and who can kill goblins with a magic mark and bow attack and a Human Warlock who can communicate telepathically and bring people to their knees with a word and change their appearance at will and who can kill goblins with a curse and a blast of eldritch power, and you have to compare which one is better, how do you do it?

It’s hard to put a value on most of their respective abilities, much less compare them to each other. The one thing they can both do is kill goblins, and as luck would have it, their ability to do so is already reduced to raw numbers! We can figure out their damage output adjusted for hit rate to get their damage per round, and settle the question once and for all of who is better at killing goblins.

At that point, you might feel like we’re one step closer to being able to compare them, or that we know who is better at one thing in one situation… but for those who are invested in creating a character who is objectively the best, that’s the whole comparison. When you know who does the most damage, you have your answer.

I mean, you can get more complicated, and many do. You can drag in how much damage each character can themselves avoid, mitigate, or heal in order to figure out who will stay alive the longest while killing goblins, but that’s still just a facet of how good they are at goblin-killing.

So that’s the goblins. Why are they spherical and in a vacuum?

Our theoretical goblins are spherical in the sense that we assume everything about them is simple. None of them are using unusual tactics or equipment, or exhibiting unusual behavior. Every turn they behave in a straightforward fashion that conforms exactly to whatever our game theorists think they should do.

And they are in a vacuum in the sense that we assume there is nothing interesting about the environment or situation in which they are fought. There is no terrain or ambient condition or external event that has any impact on anything.

The reason we keep to these assumptions is that if we don’t, it becomes harder to make the comparison between characters. If the battlefield is hard to navigate, the Warlock’s ability to teleport might give them an advantage over characters who can’t. If the battle is happening at a long distance, the range of the bow vs. the blast matters. If the goblins are riding mounts and using hit and run tactics, the question might become who is better at controlling them and pinning them down.

Given a certain set of circumstances, we can decide which set of abilities is more valuable in that circumstances. But we can’t compare their overall objective value without knowing not only which one is more valuable in each and every possible circumstance, but how much more valuable, and how likely that scenario is.

It is impossible to do so, which means it is infinitely hard to measure the objective value of anything other than direct killing (or not-being-killed) power.

And, that stubborn, blinkered thinking fallaciously insist that things that are hard to measure don’t matter as much as things that are easy to measure.

So the only thing that really matters is how good a character is at killing spherical goblins in a vacuum.

It doesn’t matter how clever a character is, unless that cleverness comes with damage dice attached. It doesn’t matter how charming they are, or how much many fantastical magical things they can do… except for the ones that do damage. Anything about a character that isn’t the thing that kills the most goblins the fastest in ideal circumstances is just stuff, just fluff… nothing that counts, nothing to concern yourself with, nothing to worry about.

This is the kind of thinking that I abhor, and that I think is toxic and corrosive to the hobby when it’s treated not as fun thought experiments but is handed down to the new and unsure as the way the game is supposed to be played, the way it must be played. In this semi-recurring blog feature, I’m going to be directly countering this kind of thinking with advice to both DMs and players about other ways to approach character creation, the game rules, and running games.

Sometimes I’ll be taking on the fallacious credos and sacred cows that are promulgated by the spherical goblin theorists. Other times I’ll take a more positive approach, offering good advice without any particular point to refute. In either case I’ll be sharing the wisdom of someone who has been playing D&D since the 1980s across multiple editions and through multiple media.


STATUS: Tuesday, January 5th

Still ruminating on how to do these status posts and what to do with them. For now, I’m going to be doing a general ramble and then a personal inventory.

So, I did resume Tales of MU when planned, as planned. My plan to get an eight week buffer built up before resuming did not work out. In fact, I wrote yesterday’s chapter yesterday. It was the first long writing I managed in months, though not for lack of trying. I feel like a log jam has broken up, though. I’m going to end this week with at least next week’s done (important, since I won’t be writing next week) and ideally the week after’s, and keep on keeping on until I’ve got my cushion, at which point the plan goes into effect.

I’m keeping myself on track with a “let’s see how high we can run up the score approach”. We’re in the first week of 2016 and I got an update up. We’ll see how many weeks in a row I can get. Focusing on that instead of getting hung up on how many weeks I miss should mean fewer missed weeks.

My general plan for how to proceed is the same as it was back when I announced January 4th for the resumption date. Trying to find the one even pace that I can keep writing at forever doesn’t work. If I try to write quickly all the time, I burn out. If I try to write slowly, I fizzle out. So the plan is to get up a head of steam, build up a backlog, and then coast along until the backlog falls below a certain safety margin. The coasting time will be time to reflect, recuperate, and plan what’s going to happen next, in addition to freeing me to work on other things.

As a sidenote about other things: one of the big problems I had in 2015 was what you might call “priority paralysis”… I tried to make too many things my top priority. Even when I was explicitly saying, “I need to prioritize. I’ll deal with this, and then that, and then the other thing,” my brain was still on, “But… that! And the other thing!” And so ultimately, a lot of days, I did nothing. Literally nothing of consequence. The longer I did nothing, the more crushing my failure to do the things that were so important became, and the harder it became to do anything.

I did not magically master the skill of juggling priorities and switching tasks when the clock hit 12 on New Year’s, so I’m going a bit slow and deliberate when it comes to picking up the obligations that fell. I’m sorry about that. If I could do everything, I’d… do everything. But I can’t. I’m just one person, just me, and I’ll do what I can, when I can. I wouldn’t ask anyone else to do anything more than that, but I have a hard time allowing myself to believe that it’s okay for me to do no more.

State of the Me

My sleep pattern is edging back to normal (just in time to throw it out the window next week, I suppose). I got up only a bit later than my ideal today, and expect to be back to normal tomorrow. We got our first real cold weather of the season the past couple of days. I started getting achy in my joints last week, when what was at that point “the cold front” started moving in, though it’s now much colder than that. The cold is good for my sleep, at least.