Saturday 16 February 2019

The Mouth of Spring

In every town, village, and hamlet are women who have seen beyond fear, who are strong enough to push back winter and bring new life to the lands. Their power comes from beneath an old, stone shrine, half-forgotten by the people of today. What secrets are known to those who dare pass through the mouth of spring?

The Mouth of Spring is flooded cavern system underneath a quiet shrine. I really wanted to have fun with changing water levels—the caverns are navigable both while empty or while draining, but the logistics are quite different in each case.

Mouth of Spring PDF
For those keeping track, the Wives of Spring were first mentioned in back in adventure #33 The Mermaids' Knot, where they had infiltrated the village of Magda to keep tabs on the worrisome cult thriving there. It works just as well with secret organizations of your own, of course!

* * *

There are lots of ways to use this adventure in your campaign. One, if your players are already connected to a secret order of some kind and are looking to get involved, you can use the Mouth of Spring as written, as an initiatory journey. This could either be an ordeal that must be endured to prove loyalty and hardiness, or (if your game has clerics or shamans) as an initiation into contact with a divine presence itself.

If you're running a single-player game, this would make a decent in medias res start for a PC selected by the wives as a candidate, a first adventure of many (if they survive).

Of course, you can also use it more traditionally, as a dangerous place to plunder. It could also serve as the source of power for an enemy cult, something to be rooted out and cleansed, rather than journeyed through. (Consider zombie selkis!)

Finally, being tossed into the pool shaft is a decent option for an adventurer found guilty of a serious crime, or otherwise being disposed of by creepy cultists. "Feed them to the Malak!"

The etchings on the gate are a detailed map. For adventurers who copy it or study it carefully, consider actually handing them a copy of the map image. This will give them some foreshadowing about areas of the caverns that aren't yet revealed, and will give them interesting choices. Do they float down with the receding water levels, or do they wait until the hall of the malaks is dry?

* * *

As always, thank you to my patrons for supporting Trilemma Adventures. If you'd like to join them, toss a buck in my subscription tip jar.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Thank You, Mandy

With a single post, Mandy Morbid has done more to improve my optimism about the gaming community than any single act I can remember.

As is overwhelmingly the case when someone abused calls out an abuser with status, influence, and the wherewithal to weaponize them, this will no doubt cause Mandy a great deal of energy, pain, and trouble.

Please do not be even the smallest part of her problems.

* * *

For years, I've been too chicken shit to call out Zak publicly for his awful effects on the online TTRPG community. A jealous, self-obsessed black hole, he pulls people into his orbit and then slowly rips them up. Like a lot of people, apparently, I've been scared of his three-day revenge benders and his heavily footnoted takedowns.

I've been privately grateful when people close to him put words to what I've felt—notably Patrick Stuart's truly spectacular break-up essay, but dozens of others who I deliberately won't call out here.

My fear comes from a personal flaw of my own, unrelated to Zak. Because of it, I've been riding the coattails of others who were braver, quietly yissing at the screen whenever they said what I was thinking, sharing it in small, private circles. "See? See!"

It's not a good look and I'm ashamed of it, but whatever.

* * *

Part of why I'm saying this is that Mandy's gift out of the blue has made me realize what all this fear cost me. There are all sorts of good an interesting people that I haven't collaborated with or gotten to know better for fear that Zak was part of their circle.

As people have lined up to repudiate him, each time it felt like a little weight was lifting. "Oh, you're okay?"

At some point, I had the obvious realization that my silence has probably had the same effect on others. In fact, I know it has. Because I never said anything, people have had to just guess if my tiny corner of the internet was open to abusers and chucklefucks, or if I would have their back if one showed up. For anyone for whom it really mattered, it wouldn't have been safe to even ask, so you just moved on.

Me, who has had absolutely nothing tangible to fear this whole time.

If my silence helped make your world smaller, I'm sorry.

* * *

Tomorrow, Zak will supposedly post one of his legendary diatribes to tell us how it really 'went down'. I don't know what it will say, but I can take a reasonable guess at its aim.

Zak is very clever, and one of the things he is great at is driving a wedge between how you think and how you feel.

There is a part of each of us that is a total sucker for 'toxic rationality'. Legitimate ideas are supposed to look a certain way, and if you feel bad about them, that's because you're an intellectual weakling indulging your emotional side.

If you read Zak's post, I want you to bear in mind that you are a staggeringly sophisticated gigaprocessor that weighs millions of inputs every second, and filters them through a lifetime of experiences.

Your feelings and intuition are a holistic summation of this unimaginably vast work. They are every bit as important as the formal calculations we do (which are so simple in comparison that you could peg them out on a Lite Brite).

If you read Zak's post, squint a little bit, and you might notice it says something like this:

  1. I am smarter than you.
  2. I am so much smarter than you, you should immediately abandon your embarrassingly stupid ideas, and feel bad about having them.
  3. My feelings are your problem (any action I take to protect them is justified)
  4. Your feelings aren't my problem (even bringing them up is intellectually bankrupt tone policing and probably harassment)
  5. If you disagree with me, there is only one responsible way to go about handling it, and it puts me in the position of maximum leverage. If you don't like that, see point #2.
If you don't get caught up in debating his points, my guess is you'll be able to perceive these emotional threads in the pit of your stomach. Please listen.

* * *

Late last year, I served as a juror on a human trafficking case involving a minor. It took forever, and for all of the pain and suffering involved, resulted in a hung jury. This was all kinds of devastating, and I can't legally talk about the details because Canada.

I bring this up because, afterwards, all this talk of "evidence" in online started to look like farcical bullshit. Over and over I see courtroom analogies applied to online conflicts, and as far as I can tell now they're completely misapplied.

In a trial, the evidence the jury reviews is vetted for admissibility, cross-examined, and (importantly) the jury (who is a specific bunch of people) has to review all of it. (Often multiple times.) Lastly, the question(s) they are answering are known ahead of time, and so are the consequences of whatever they decide.

Because the consequences of being found guilty of a serious crime are so destructive, court procedures are strongly biased in favor of a 'no determination' outcome. (On paper, at least.) To come to a finding of fact, twelve people must unanimously agree that the evidence proves the crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Any other scenario at all and it's a "no result" finding.

This is not remotely how people make every other important decision - who to be friends with, whether to have Gary over again, who to sleep with, where to live, to trust this babysitter, whether to take or quit that job, whether to euthanize a beloved pet, to get this or that treatment for a serious health condition. In these situations there's no waiting for a finding of fact, and there's no default option--we just have to act on a holistic assessment of the partial information we have.

* * *

For online conflicts, here's a big lie: the community needs to come to a finding of fact. (Nope!) "We need to probe the dark recesses until we know all the details, and we've sorted out What Really Happened."

Get real, that's not happening.

What plays out in online communities instead is very different: a revolving door of self-appointed jurors do drive-by reviews of fragments of evidence, which is usually a bunch of hearsay and partial screen caps.

This impulse to seek answers is relatable, but so off the mark it's dangerous. It's not what actually helps.

When your child comes in from outside with a bleeding knee, saying Billy pushed them, if your first order of business is to establish What Really Happened, I can't help you.

If you do a web search to figure how to support victims of trauma (do it, it's time well spent), no reputable resource will urge you to figure out what happened by digging up evidence. Someone is evidently hurting, so support them as you're able.

I think we reach for courtroom analogies because of some combination of:
  1. It's a familiar model for deciding whether someone's life should be destroyed by punishment (thanks, TV!)
  2. It gives me an opportunity to indulge my prurient curiosity into the lives of others
  3. It strokes my ego, that I'm now appointed to the role of Judge
That's a heady mix. More charitably, I might learn about danger that I could face myself, or protect others from it. I'll come back to this one.

* * *

When we fall for this disembodied, logical-sounding indulgence, we wind up with community rules that are totally dysfunctional. One well-intentioned but Zak-orbiting community wound up with a reasonable-sounding set of rules that were subtly awful, when I thought about them.

I forget the exact wording (and I can't dig it up, as they were thankfully changed in the process of banning Zak), but they had two curious properties:
  1. The only activity that was governed was accusing people of bad behavior.
  2. The process mandated for dealing with it made sure the accused had as as much information and leverage as possible.
When Zak's diatribe lands, please don't buy an implied conflict resolution structure that does these two things.

* * *

I believe Mandy, not because I've 'seen the evidence', but because her experiences, though dire, are completely ordinary.

Repeat after me (or not, I'm not the boss of you):

"I will never know what really happened between Mandy and Zak, and that's fine."

I don't need to know in order to decide who I want in my online communities. Believing that I need to know the facts of somebody else's life before I can trust my own intuition is learned helplessness.

For me, this isn't about a societal decision about "what to do with Zak because of what he did to Mandy", this is about who I want near me in my online communities, and who I don't. I can decide that based on the feelings I have when they're around. This is completely appropriate, and the way we make our best relationship decisions.

The "conclusive evidence first" approach is a reasonable-sounding bad idea, and it privileges the null hypothesis. This constant, "no finding" result shrinks our lives and only benefits the creeps, sociopaths and abusers.

Here's an idea, don't take community-building advice from people who act like sociopaths.

* * *

Don't be an asshole in the comments.

Tuesday 5 February 2019


A decade ago, the Burning Wheel forums asked people to use their real names rather than aliases. I remember feeling mild disappointment, but it was no big deal, really. (Some folks won't use real names for safety reasons, and that's totally fine.)

Years later (the forum is gone now), the names of the folks I met there are seared in my mind. I think it was a prescient community-building choice.

I'll come back to this point.

As G+ is shutting down, I realize that a lot of what we're losing is not just the concentration of creative people, but the finely curated network of connections. I like this person, but not that person, even though they like each other just fine. It takes time (and pain) to sort these things out.

When we all move to MeWe or reddit or Facebook or Twitter, even if we all arrive safely, the network is still lost. It takes time to connect (or disconnect); all that careful pruning must start over from the beginning. I'll come back to this as well.

I suck at names. I don't know if it's because I'm an introvert or just lazy with my mental filing system, but I seem to be able to track about 100 people. Beyond that, without the benefit of a face-to-face impression, names start to blur together.

I probably rely on the circumstances of meeting too much. For instance, the only person I ever meet at the Workaround's front desk is Renee. If I were to forget her name briefly, she's surrounded by a halo of clues that connect this latest encounter with all the previous ones (e.g. the location, her physical appearance).

Online, I don't have that. In the main feeds of G+, Facebook and Twitter, names (and profile pics) are literally the only continuity from one encounter to the next. I can reasonably trust that if you're in my feed I have no reason to think you're a dick, but other than that, the name is all I've got.

Not long ago, Rob Donoghue changed his icon, and remarked that he couldn't recognize his own posts.

What has become clear as I dig into other social networks is that people call themselves different things in different places. Sometimes different things in the same place.

I'm no better, I suppose I'm variously 'Michael something', 'the Trilemma guy', 'I'll See It When I Believe It", and 'fuseboy'.

Taken with all the other things I've mentioned, the experience is like a weird, hyperlinked dementia.

I visit a Discord server, supposedly a refuge from the G+ shutdown. Apart from two names I recognize, everyone is using aliases. I can't tell if I know literally everyone, or literally nobody. This is a really weird feeling.

Despite conversing with and near him for several years, it was only a couple of weeks ago that I realized that Luka Rejec and wizardthieffighter were the same person. This sounds stupid, but imagine you got over to MeWe and found this guy drawing maps, going by the name Carl Pinkson. How long would it take you to realize that Carl wasn't a Dyson imitator, but actually Dyson Logos? Now ask that question again, but for each of the hundreds of people with less iconic personas, and it becomes a confusing morass.

All in all, the transition is less of an annoyance over having to go to a different place with a slightly more annoying UI, it's a profound and unexpected alienation.

The news that G+ will shut off notifications a month before the service goes down is hilariously apt. Of course. It's the perfect flourish to cap off the experience. Now we'll be able to start conversations and not finish them, leaving earnest questions unanswered, counterpoints sent but never received; conversations forgotten and abandoned in the middle.

* * *

I don't have any pithy final words to close this off with; I think that's the nature of how this is going down. G+ is going away, and it's more of a loss than I realized.

If you see me shuffling along in a bath robe, not sure how I got there, please remind me who I am and point me home. That is, if you know either of those things, and you're not lost yourself.