Friday 16 August 2013

GenCon Lichway: Contact

Okay, for any of you GenCon 2013 attendees who are brave, bold, and insomniac I will be running the White Dwarf magazine mini-module from 1978, The Lichway, from 10:30 PM till ???, tonight, Friday, August  16. Then I will post an after-action report and module review! Don't mind the geek frat party atmosphere on our hotel floor, it's all part of the fun. Text me at 9178262530 and I'll tell you where it is.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

GenCon Bound

Well, the final post in my argumentation series will have to wait. I've been vacationing hard and today I'm off to GenCon. I'll be looking to hook up with or create some pickup play there (I'm already running the old White Dwarf adventure The Lichway for my usual party room friends and can run it again if desired) and I think my venue of interaction will be the message board at the OSR booth. If there's anything you're curious about that will be debuting at GenCon let me know in comments and I might be persuaded to be your eyes and ears!

Saturday 10 August 2013

Why People Argue

My last post argued for coming clean and admitting that people's foundational beliefs (rather than using the correct logical arguments or respecting other people's existence and experience) are boundaries for moderation in online discourse. In comments, noisms brought up the idea that we're all just ultimately arguing to show off, attract a mate, and spread our genetic material.

What's going on here?
To which I say - "partial credit." The mating idea can't explain, for example, why mostly-men argue in the mostly-male space of gaming forums. But the social goods available from successful argument go beyond scoring direct and immediate hookups (I hope you knew that).

One idea, from Henrich and Gil-White, argues for the importance of prestige as well as dominance in social ranking, resource distribution and mate selection. According to them, successful argument is a clue to good quality of information resources, and attracts a sycophantic clique of deferential individuals - although to me "sycophantic" is overly cynical, as most people in awe of prestige genuinely feel those likes and +1's. Put into internet arguing terms, your arguments may not necessarily impress a mate in themselves, but the entourage of loyal hangers-on you attract will, and they'll also support your survival to reproduce and the good future of your offspring.

But what, you may say, of sweet reason? Another viewpoint says it's overrated. Although the debate-society rules for argument require us to avoid bias and logical fallacies, Mercier and Sperber say that's putting cart before horse. Instead, the way we actually think and reason is set up to help us convince others to act in our interest. The biased and often incorrect nature of reasoning is well known to social and cognitive psychologists, but the adaptive benefit of arguing powerfully - and you argue most powerfully when you yourself are convinced - may outweigh that of being able to think through problems dispassionately like a computer. The theory is not without critics (see responses after the linked target article) but overall the responses acknowledge that argument is an important, if not the only, reason to reason.

So, this analysis paints an even more pessimistic picture of argument. We are all just arguing to advance our cause, or at the very least the cause of our parochial group. We completely exclude points of view from legitimate consideration, and stack the deck in our arguments' favor, and all this is just to score points and climb the monkey ladder. If the truth ended here I should just stop writing, or keep on writing in bad faith.

It doesn't end here, though. Feeling good when you help someone doesn't mean that your helping isn't good, and likewise, getting acknowledged for good arguments doesn't mean their purpose is entirely selfish. Indeed, Mercier and Sperber stress that reasoning is meant to reach a rational solution through a social, not individual, process. The biases of each arguer cancel out, or at least they collectively sort themselves out and come to represent the arguing group's interest as a whole.

As intentional creatures who are aware of higher levels of social organization than our genes, we can choose to support this function. I'm not just doing this posting for the offspring and the sycophants (PLEASE SIR MAY I BEAR YOUR BLOG BABY) but so that the "higher level of social organization" known as "gamers" can stop wasting time and good will arguing in unproductive ways.

In order for this function to work, though, people have to be convinced occasionally; the needs of lower-level groups have to give way to higher-level concerns at some point, or we never get beyond the house of endless war. In this process, too, I am skeptical that deductive reasoning plays much of a role. The whole point of deduction is that if you accept the premises, it is easy and in fact inevitable to accept the conclusion. The whole point of arguing is to convince people of the premises. And most often, I think, coming to accept a premise turns on something as simple as interpretation. But more on this, next post.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

"Derailing," "Concern Trolling" and the Pessimism of Argument

So Zak S got banned from and this made me think a lot of how people argue on the internet and  what the hell they think they're doing. You can read the full text of the ban here, but I'll focus on this excerpt:
The Numenera thread is by no means the only one, and the post I've chosen as an infraction is just an example: Insisting that this one monster is Definitely Sexist because it doesn't meet an arbitrary definition of sexism you came up with, asserting that anyone who disagrees has to produce scientific studies about elfgames (that work with your definition of sexism) which have been mysteriously absent from your sexism thread derailing posts up to and also beyond this point, waving around your G+ followers as an army of faceless posters who totally have your back on this, and passive-aggressively insinuating that people who disagree think all women are alike, are the real sexists and need to do their research. That is the kind of un-chill posting we are talking about here.
I'm not even going to discuss whether these descriptions are a correct summation of Zak's posts in the discussion. From what I can see, the posted guidelines about derailing at are less narrow than the ones the mods seem to use. But because these standards are coming from moderators, who are supposed to provide ground rules for civil discourse, we might presume that their reasons are valid rules that govern any kind of argument, right?

In fact, the same assumption is not made in the apparent source for this decision, the internet literature on "derailing" and in particular this bit. The "Dummies' Guide to Derailing" critiques specific rhetorical moves by privileged group members. The same rhetorical moves, presumably, are OK when used by non-privileged group members. At least I can't imagine rape statistics that support a feminist point of view being criticized as "intellectualizing," and so on. I wonder if the derailing guide is presented in that sarcastic, "Screwtape Letters" mode because it would just be a little much to come right out and say "The more privilege you have on a demographic basis, the less you are allowed to use these rhetorical moves in discourse."

So back to If we are to take these as universal guidelines for what is acceptable then:
  • Nobody should be able to use an "arbitrary standard of sexism that they came up with", implying that all allowable references to sexism at should be annotated with a reference to a non-arbitrary definition of sexism and which other person is, acceptably, responsible for that. (They aren't.)
  • Nobody should assert that someone who disagrees with them should come up with scientific proof, especially if their own posts have been previously lacking in scientific proof. (This means it is not allowable to challenge, for example, a claim that female cranial sizes make women less intelligent than men, by using the scientific evidence that speaks against it.) At the same time even if Zak had, as requested, produced scientific evidence that was lacking in his previous "thread derailing posts," that would have been disallowable as a form of thread derailing - intellectualizing - under the Dummies' Guide.
  • These games are silly things not worthy of scientific study - "elfgames." (Then why take them and their representations so seriously?)
Oh, I can't go on, but you get the picture.  It's particularly choice to say in effect "We are waiting for the good people who make the points you want to make but in a nice way," as if that's never used to shut feminists up.

I actually think a lot of people are arguing in bad faith because they have a model of how people's minds change, that has been drummed into them by a society and educational system, but that is profoundly out of touch with reality. They will try at all costs to pretend that they are working from this model, when they are working from another, and people's minds actually change yet another way.

The standard model is like a nice high school debate. People state point and counterpoint, present evidence and examples pro and con, sum up their piece, and the most convincing side wins.

But the standard model only works if everyone accepts certain things as true, certain ways of knowing as reliable, certain values as worth pursuing. This is precisely not what happens with gender debates on the Internet. This is why so much rhetoric is devoted to labeling and name-calling. People sense, somehow, that they belong to one of two mutually intolerant tribes, who at the base of it believe very different things about how the world is set up.

And right you are to exclude people who are not on the same planet from your discussion. I'm not being sarcastic. This is a social fact. You can't have a meaningful discussion about what the best role-playing game is, and include everyone who believes roleplaying games are evil or pointless.

The name-calling, argument labeling, "passive-aggressive" and "shaming" and "Tipper" and "white knight" and "mansplaining" are all terms of emotional warfare to push and exclude and claim a safe space. "Concern trolling" is often a term used to claim an even narrower space - to exclude not just people who disagree with your ends, but also the people who agree with your ends but disagree with your preferred means to achieve them (see definition 4 in that link).

We fought that battle, we maintain this armed perimeter, so we can play ball on this field.

It's honest to admit that. It's not honest to pretend that anyone can come play ball, and then require them to play without the same kind of equipment available to the home team.

So this is pessimistic. I think most people who put their heart and soul into arguing on the internet (including, evidently, me) are hoping to actually change minds on fundamental issues. How does that really happen? I have a suspicion, and I might write on that next post.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Lessons from 'Vikings': Parley Crosstalk

I posted a while back, about whether GMs should insist that players only say things that their characters would actually say. Now, in house we have been watching the History Channel's Vikings series, and while it's not a perfect portrayal, it has a lot of things to say about warrior societies. One of those things that bears on the gaming issues happens in episode 3, when our titular Vikings meet armed men of England for the first time.

Around 00:50 in the above clip we see the two sides warily approaching each other to parley. It's a familiar situation to adventure game players - the one person in the party who speaks the others' language steps up and starts talking. Here, it's the raid's leader Ragnar who speaks Old English, while the language gap is underscored by having the Vikings speak among themselves in subtitled Old Norse.

Then, another familiar situation happens. The Vikings start to disagree and argue in front of the opposition. Some distrust them and want to fight instead of talk. The English, not the most confident warriors, get nervous. They yield more to show good will, the leader even giving up the chain around his neck, but that only shows weakness. With one rash act, Floki, the Viking band's force of chaos, rips the cross from another man's neck, and negotiations have decisively failed.

This superb scene shows game runners how to handle such a situation. A party that shows discipline and skill, letting the chosen caller talk, will naturally inspire more confidence than one that interrupts the spokesperson, or pulls out of negotiations to huddle. It's really the same principle, on a collective level, that makes us more trusting of individuals who speak quickly and with confidence. Thus, based on player actions the GM can levy a penalty to the reaction roll, and make clear that the dithering and bickering is having a negative impact on their presentation. It's not about blocking choices, but setting up consequences.

The scene also shows the cost of concessions when dealing with a warlike folk. Bribes and offers must be dealt out from a position of strength. Too eager to please, and the calculation becomes that you are afraid and will be easily defeated - so why not try? In this case it would be reasonable for appeasement to have a negative, not positive, effect on reaction rolls.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Download: Cellars of the Castle Ruins

All right. I've dithered about this before but now have decided to make and distribute a couple of low-effort, not too fancy pdfs with the megadungeon level I wrote three years ago.

To recap, it was written at a time when Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage was available for free download but lacked a level 1. I wrote one for my own use, trying to match the antic humor of the lower levels, and ran many an adventure on this and level 2. Now that the print release of the full Castle is in sight, but not too soon, I figured I would let everyone else know what I did with my replacement for the almost-impossible-to-get level 1 of Gary Gygax's "Castle Zagyg," from which COTMA follows.

I urge everyone to run out and get the full COTMA from BRW Games when it releases next year. In addition to the official completion of the upper works and level 1, Joe is promising us annotations of the sparsely keyed rooms. As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, COTMA as written has many hidden features that only really emerge in actual play. As a result, its area keys read as under-featured, when there's actually a lot of interaction and possibilities. It's great that the annotations will let the casual reader appreciate the subtleties of this design - one of the few complete megadungeons out there, a conscious attempt to recreate Gary's legendary pile while building a lot onto the scraps of information that remain.

In the meantime, not wanting to spend too much time on layout, I've released the Cellars as a level key and separate, large scale map because I couldn't get Acrobat to play nice and shrink the map to a single page. You should be able to print the map as a fairly legible single sheet, though, if you play around with the Adobe pdf settings. This is not ideal - I much prefer a format I'm using in my own slowly developing megadungeon, where each page of text has an inset of its map section and notes on all creatures encountered there. But it allows me to get this out there.

Anyway, enjoy! Download links are to the right under "Rules and Tools".