Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Shaggydog Theory: Why George R. R. Martin Doesn't Want to Finish his Song of Ice and Fire Series

Seven years ago, the last update to the legendary A Song of Ice and Fire series came available, the fifth book A Dance with Dragons.  This book was somewhat disappointing to fans of the series.  The books failed to have any of the juicy details readers actually wanted, being not-so-affectionately labeled "Traveling Places and Administrative Tasks: The Book".  The book was also a major disappointment because it came out over five years after the previous book, A Feast For Crows, released in 2005, despite the promise of Martin that the fifth book would be released speedily since he had already written most of it when he divided the upcoming fourth novel into two separate novels.

And then the fourth book came out five years after the book before it, and was also something of a disappointment.  While the third book had betrayals and kingdom-spanning adventures for the future of the continent, the Feast was much slower-paced and almost seems a tangent compared to the promise of the original three books. Almost none of the plot lines were picked up, meaning it was over a decade, when Dragons was released, that fans got to go back to the characters they last read about in 2000 when A Storm of Swords was released.

In the intervening years, Ol' Georgie has been quite busy.... just not busy with anything to do with the book series that has sold millions of copies and was made into the most-pirated television series in history.  Martin has been instead going on tours and writing all kinds of other stories.  Some are tangentially related to the world of Westeros, others not so much.

In 2018, almost two decades since the end of the third book with all of its promise, with Martin writing stories about gambling dragons in casinos or whatever, I think it is pretty patently obvious to everyone: George Martin does not want to finish writing his series of books.

I repeat: George Martin does not want to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

He told the ending to the HBO series producers and is, apparently, content to let them have the final word on his story.

While it's obvious from his behavior and publication history that Martin doesn't want to finish the series, it's probably baffling to fans why an author who has been catapulted to fame and riches by a book series would just abandon it, especially right before the central plot struggles.

I have a theory as to why.  I call it the Shaggydog Theory.  The theory is most simply stated:

The name of Rickon's wolf is foreshadowing.

Rickon's wolf is named Shaggydog,  For those unaware, a Shaggy Dog Story is a kind of anti-joke, whose humor is in the subversion of the usual comedy format.  In a shaggy dog joke, the teller relates a very long account, assumed by the listener to be a build-up to an eventual punchline.  As the build-up stretches on and on and on, the listener expects a better and better delivery.  Until, at the end, the joke ends in some sort of stupid pun, or worse, a quick and unhumorous resolution.  The listener is left confused, only able to ask "Wait, what?  That's it?"  To those in on the joke, the confused and aggravated response of the mark is the joke.

One popular example of a shaggy dog joke is about a young man who gets insulted by a rodeo clown and made to look like a fool.  To seek revenge, he decides to go to college and studies literature, hoping to learn enough wit to retaliate the next time he's publicly embarrassed.  The story goes on with the young man studying witty retorts in graduate school, earning a PhD in the subject, becoming a world expert on witty retorts, even going on a book tour on late night TV.  Properly told, the build-up can stretch on for almost half-an-hour.  A skilled teller will even insert extra padding, about the expert having martial problems or going on a trip to the pyramids to find papyri or his father contracting cancer -- anything to waste more time and magnify expectations for the supposed payoff.  Then at last, at the end, the expert in witicisms returns to the same circus and gets insulted by the same rodeo clown, and the whole stadium goes deathly silent, waiting to hear how the world's expert will respond.  The real life listeners are also waiting to hear how the various elements of the long buildup are going to connect into some sort of magnificent punchline.  So the man stands up, points at his insulter, and says "F you, clown."

I think A Song of Ice and Fire is a shaggy dog story.

I think Martin knows the ending, and has had it planned since the beginning.  The ending to the series is something intentionally and infuriatingly anticlimactic.  Such as: the Others simply invade and kill everyone, despite all the efforts of the protagonists over seven books.  Something equally as anticlimactic as that.  As originally intended, the ending was supposed to thwart reader expectations about what an epic fantasy was, thinking the epic size would lead to an epic payoff.  Now that the series has become internationally famous, he doesn't want to write the ending he had planned, and he doesn't know how else to end the series.  Martin is intentionally stalling to avoid the backlash the true ending will  get, and he's not going to finish the books. in his lifetie

So that's the theory.  But what's the evidence for it?

Firstly, Martin's own testimony that A Song of Ice and Fire is inspired by and based on the other series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams.  Anyone who has read MST knows this already, but it might surprise fans of the HBO series, or readers less into fantasy, to know that the world of Westeros is almost entirely borrowed from Osten Ard of MST.  The history, the characters, the central conflict of the world, the in-fighting between brothers for the kingdom, the exiled elven-like creatures who live in the northern woods -- all of it is from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

If so much of ASOIAF is borrowed from MST, including the central conflict between humanity to the south and the Others to the north, it stands to reason that the resolution of the conflict is also borrowed.

Now, MST does not have an anticlimactic ending.  But it has an ending that throws a wrench into the usual expectations of epic fantasy.  (I'm being deliberately vague because I won't want to spoil the series -- if you read the books, then you will understand where I'm going)

I think Martin intended an ending similar, but different, to the ending of MST.  An ending that subverts our expectations, but does so by dashing all of our hopes to pieces.  I think ASOIAF has the ending that Williams would have given to his series if he had been more willing to enrage his audience.

But what about textual evidence?  Is there anything in the series that would lead us to suspect that Martin intends to build up our hopes and then dash them to pieces?

I don't even really need to ask that, do I?

But here are a few examples:

1. Ned Stark, who we are led to believe is the main protagonist, dying almost halfway through the first book.

2. Robb Stark, who we are led to believe is the new main protagonist out to avenge his father, dying almost halfway through the third book.

3. Renly Baratheon, out to avenge his own brother, raising an army to usurp the mad boy-king Joffrey, only to be unceremoniously killed in his tent.

4. Bran Stark, who overheard the plot of Cersei and Jaime in the tower, forgetting everything and never remembering any of it, ever.  Not even suddenly recalling the plans just in the nick of time.

5. The Viper, fully channeling Inigo Montoya, suddenly being crushed to death at the very end of his fight against the Mountain, technically losing and thereby condemning Tyrion to death.

6. Arya Stark, losing her dire wolf but hearing hints of it in the countryside, and then never, ever finding it again.

7. The Brotherhood without Banners, the only noble, decent people on the entire continent,  fighting with the spirit of Robin Hood to right the wrongs of the world, becoming just a bunch of thugs who go around killing people for no reason.

I could go on.  So many of the threads in the story are clearly echoing tropes, playing on expectations.  We almost fill-in the stories ourselves before they're over, then suddenly they go nowhere and are all abruptly cut short by reality.

This all is Martin preparing us for the ending.

Do you remember where you were when you read the Red Wedding?

I do.  I was in my old room in my parents' old home.  And I was furious.  I threw the book across the room.  I cursed.  I questioned why I was even reading it.  I almost just gave up on the series.

But it was a small detail that suddenly crept into my memory that made me continue going.  The little hint Danaerys sees in the House of the Undying.  Martin was planning the Red Wedding since at least the second book.  It was set up.  He had primed his audience to expect it, and had left little hints in the text that it was going to happen.

All of these dead-end plot threads and frustrations and dead characters and losing heroes are all training, so that at the end of the story, when we read the anticlimactic ending with Dany and Jon simply dying and the Others overrunning the continent in eternal winter, we will close the book and not be able to say that we weren't warned about it.  "Of course it ended that way," we'll eventually say.  It will still hurt, and we'll still be pissed we wasted 20 years following these stupid books and rereading them every five years when new ones come out, but we won't be able to say we had any right to expect anything other than what we got.  And in a book series filled with epic stories and quests that ultimately fail and lead nowhere, we'll look back and see it, right in front of our faces the whole time, the name of Rickon's wolf: shaggy dog.

Except that the series became extremely popular.  Martin's reimagining of fantasy was his first foray into the genre, and he probably wasn't expecting the reception he got.  His books became an international bestseller, falling into the fantasy canon alongside Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, Harry Potter, Lovecraft, Conan the Barbarian, or Wheel of Time.

Writing the planned ending will, possibly, destroy the esteemed position of his book.

This is why he is willing to let someone else finish his grande opus: because it is not really his grande opus.  It is instead his attempt to readapt a different series to have a  grittier, more subversive ending that will definitely piss off all of his readers.  Best leave it to Hollywood to jam a traditional, boring, happy ending into it.

I think Martin's plan is to compile notes and wait until he dies so that someone else can pick up the story and finish it the way he originally intended, without Martin having to live through the backlash that will come from it.  The readers will be disappointed by this ending.  For most, though, the ending of the TV series will be the only ending to the series, and I expect that ending to be much more upbeat and typical.

So that's my theory.  The books are a shaggy dog story, and Rickon's wolf is there as foreshadowing of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

How to Save Soccer and the World Cup

I'm not really a soccer fan.  Really, I'm not much of a sports fan at all.  But I'm married to a Central American, so every now and then soccer comes up.

Right now the World Cup is going on in Russia.  And from what I understand, there's some problems going on.  I admit I don't know much about it, really, but a friend of mine recently told me his proposal to fix the rules of the game to make things more fair for all the countries involved in this globally important sport.

I think my friend's proposal is pretty brilliant, and thought I'd share it.

Firstly, you break each game into two distinct segments.  I know, the game time is already split in half.  I mean that now, there will be two distinct parts of each game.

In the first half, you play the game commonly known as football or soccer, and try to score as many points as possible by kicking the ball into your opponents' goal.  The only real change during this segment is that there are no penalty kicks.

In the second half, the field is cleared and a stage is dragged out.  Each team picks their three best actors, who will go on the stage and give their most dramatic performance of a person who has been injured in a sports game.  Just really ham up the anguish and imaginary pain on stage for all the world to see.  A panel of 5 judges will score the performances, and the top three performances will be awarded three points to their teams.

Your total score is a combination of how you did at playing the game known as soccer or football, plus how well you can do at pretending to have boo-boos.

I think this will help in some real ways.  Right now, the rules are written to already award points to players for giving their best performance of injuries on the field.  But the rules aren't explicitly written this way.  This hurts teams that think they're supposed to be playing soccer, and don't know that they're supposed to be rolling on the ground screaming because the mean man touched them.

However, certain teams obviously greatly rely on the acting talents of their thespian players.  They have such talent at rolling around, grabbing limbs, and contorting their faces into perfect masks of torment, and it would be a shame to not continue awarding this exceptional ability.

Acknowledging this very important part of soccer with official recognition will go along way to helping both kinds of players.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Giving Clerics Their Due

In the DCC RPG ruleset, many have noted that Wizards are given an extraordinary level of awesome, whereas Clerics sort of get shafted.  A huge amount of space is dedicated to Wizard corruptions, spells, how they find spells, and Wizard patrons.

Clerics have fewer official spells, all the deities get a single line in a table with just their name and alignment, and all Clerics for all deities are given a single Disapproval table that they always roll on.  This contrasted with pages and pages of example patrons with complete flavor text descriptions, invoke patron results, patron taints, and patron spells.

In a recent episode of Spellburn, one of the hosts went so far as to say Clerics are useless, suggesting that they should just be combined with Wizards.

All of this is massively unfair to the Cleric class.

I think it's possible to make Clerics just as cool and flavor-filled as their arcane comrades.  In fact, the rulebook already contains  everything you need to build on, but I never see them built on explicitly.

A deity should be just as complicated, or moreso, than a patron.  A patron is a lone supernatural eccentric with twisted plans and motives who works through mortal tools, but is otherwise largely hidden.  A deity is an established super-supernatural entity made known to mortals in the world and worshipped by some sort of established organized religion.

You need to customize your deities, similar to how you make patrons.

When making write-ups for deities, here are some things to figure out:
  • deity's holy symbol
  • deity's mark of disapproval, given to fallen priests
  • sacred texts of this religion
  • moral requirements and membership requirements
  • particular lists of unholy creatures and allowed weapons
  • a custom Disapproval table based on this deity's religion
  • the spells that this deity grants to a Cleric
  • the particular deity spells that only this deity will grant
  • name of religious order(s) devoted to this deity, and its hierarchy
All of these things are going to have actual impact on the gameplay.

I'm going to flesh these points out with some examples, but TL;DR, the most critical things are moral requirements, custom Disapproval tables, and custom deity spells.  (And much of this isn't limited to DCC, but also applies to D&D and other RPGs)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Roko's Basilisk and why people were afraid of it

I'm really late on this one, but I wanted to explain Roko's Basilisk, for all the people who heard about it a while ago and never really "got" it.

The idea first started going around the internet a few years ago, and apparently was seriously freaking out a number of people in the Less Wrong forums.  I think I first heard about it from this Slate article, maybe, then spent time trying to find somewhere to explain why this idea was considered so horrfying.  The RaionalWiki explanation likewise failed to shed any light about why anyone would actually be scared of the thing.

The concept builds on a number of premises that float around the Less Wrong community that relate to the technological singularity, namely "friendly god" AI, utilitarian ethical calculus, and simulated consciousness.

The Basilisk is a superhuman AI from the future.  The abilities of this AI are essentially infinite, even up to traveling backwards in time.  The idea of the Basilisk is that it wants you to contribute your money to helping it be built, and if you refuse to help it, it will create a simulation of you and torture the simulation forever.

And so I think a normal person quite understandably has trouble understanding why anyone would even think this is a good B-list villain for Star Trek, much less a cause for existential dread.

But it's actually not that silly.  And once you understand the background to it better, it all makes sense.  So let me explain to you what the Basilisk is in clearer terms, so that you too can experience the angst.   (That was your warning)

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Monty Hall Problem, Bayes Theorem, and a fault in Numberphile

I watch a lot of educational videos on YouTube, in particular the awesome channel Numberphile.  I recently saw their video on the Monty Hall Problem, and was kind of disappointed at what seemed to be a rather pointless calculation that didn't really show the result, and instead showed something that was already kind of obvious.

The video can be found here and explains everything, but let me explain it again for completeness.

The Monty Hall Problem is a classic apparent paradox in probability, named after gameshow host Monty Hall from Let's Make a Deal.  In the show, the contestants are shown three doors and told behind one of the doors is a brand new car.  Behind the other two doors are "worthless" prizes; anything works, but traditionally the problem says the other two doors hold goats.  The player gets to pick any of the three doors, and whatever is behind the door is what they win.  If they pick right they get a car, otherwise they get a goat.

To add tension, after the contestant picks, Monty Hall would walk to another door, a door that the player did not pick, and show them what was behind it.  And look!  It's a goat!  The car is still out there!

In the Monty Hall Problem (not necessarily the show), Monty then asks if the contestant would like to change their mind.

The question is, what is the probability of the player guessing correctly if they swap their pick?

The answer is quite obviously $\tfrac{1}{2}$, or 50%.  Except that isn't the correct answer, and the probability of winning if you switch is actually much higher.  It's actually $\tfrac{2}{3}$ probability, or 67%, if you switch.  But why?

Monday, December 25, 2017

Richard Feynman and the Message of Christmas

I often come across as a Grinch during Christmas.  It isn't that I don't like the holiday, it's that I find the actual celebration of the holiday so small compared to the actual ancient reason for celebrating.

The phenomenon of Christmas, as it exists today amongst moderns,  is largely a commercial platform to sell you movies, toys, electronics, and honey baked hams.  We sing about snow and various foodstuffs eaten and herd animals, we share some presents, spoil our children, and eat a lot of food.

To most modern people, this is what it's about.  Its about time with family and the magic of Santa and having fun singing Christmas songs.

I don't think modern people really understand Christmas.  I don't think they get it.

To explain Christmas, then, let me begin with a quote by Richard Feynman (from this video interview):
I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large. They seem to be… too simple to conn- too local, too provincial! The Earth! He came to the Earth! One of the aspects of God came to the Earth mind, you. Look at what’s out there! It isn’t in proportion.
Richard Feynman gets Christmas.  In his own way, as a nonreligious Jew, Feynman understands the celebration of Christ's birth better than most people alive today.

The Christian religion properly centers itself, and distinguishes itself from other theistic religions, by two scandalous errors about God.  Two propositions about the divine that are rightfully offensive to the pious.  Two dogmas that are nothing short of pure blasphemy.  Statements which no human being should ever rightly dare to say about the Most High.

Christmas is the celebration of one of these blasphemies.  (The second is celebrated on Good Friday.)

Richard Feynman properly understands the blasphemy of Christmas.

This holiday commemorates the day when Christians claim that God came to Earth in the form of an infant baby -- what is called the Incarnation.

Those words may have lost their sting to you.  To many Christians it is a bromide that they've heard so many times they forgot what it means.  And many modern nonchristians don't understand what is meant by the word "God."  They confuse the ineffable creator of time and space with dudes in the clouds, or comic book characters, or weird tentacled things that live in space.

But Feynman was a major theoretical physicist, from a Jewish cultural background.  He was in a better position to understand what exactly the word "God" means.  Studying the universe and the mind-boggling complexity of the patterns obeyed at lower and lower levels, Feynman would not be capable of confusing what is signified by the proper noun "God" with something like a man in a cape with a big hammer — that is, with some regular ol' god.

When Christians say "God", they are not talking about a bearded dude in the clouds.  They are talking about the mind that first dictated and ordained the sort of phenomenon that Feynman struggled his entire life just to bring to a first-order approximate description.

Feynman also was not able to think provincially.  Humans have always had trouble understanding the stupefying scale of the Universe at large, but physicists are usually given a better feel of it.  The universe is so large that its size can only really be properly expressed with scientific notation — there are too many 0's otherwise.

When we talk about the Earth and humankind, we don't know anything else, so it is easy to have an inflated view of ourselves.  But in the cosmic sense, we are slightly above nonexistent.  We live on just one planet in our solar system.  Our sun is not particularly interesting, as far as solar properties go.  It's a pretty normal star.  In our same galaxy, there are some 250 billion (billion with a B) other stars, and we now believe most of those probably have their own solar systems like ours.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just one galaxy amongst trillions suspected to exist in the observable universe (trillion, with a T).  Cosmologists often just model entire galaxies as point particles -- as insignificant atoms in a giant cosmic fluid.  And beyond the observable universe, who knows what else exists.  We are a speck in a speck in a speck in a speck compared to the Universe, and the universe itself is just a speck within the mind of God.

We are really nothing important, and Earth is nowhere special.

While this is a scientific truth, it is also a biblical truth.
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
    -- Isaiah 40:15-17
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
    and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
    and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
    or say to him, “What have you done?”
  -- Daniel 4:35
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
         The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
         And the son of man that You care for him?
  -- Psalm 8:3-4
In the Bible, all the nations of the Earth and all the inhabitants therein are accounted as nothing.  They are dust on a scale -- when you go to trade silver for grain, you zero out the trays, check the balance, remove the crumbs left over, but the dust is what you don't even bother brushing off.

Christians teach and celebrate that the infinite being to whom the Earth is but dust, this being who is immaterial, invisible, and who exists without limitations, this being took to himself a human nature and entered into the physical world, born as an infant child inside a tiny little town on this tiny little speck of dust we call a planet.

This is blasphemous, scandalous, offensive, absurd, and violates all notion of scale or proportionality.

And that scandal is precisely what makes the message of Christmas such a beautiful one.  It is why Christians have traditionally celebrated Christmas by great acts of charity.

God has no reason to care about us or to stoop so low to us.  Yet he did.

The infinite, finite.  The immortal, mortal.  The transcendent, physical.  The omnipotent, helpless.  The glorious, an infant child in diapers.  The self-sufficient, crying to be fed.

The Jewish priests of Jesus' time understood this blasphemy.  Jews and Muslims today still understand it.  Richard Feynman understood it.

To truly understand Christmas, you must hold both; that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is blasphemous and preposterous and entirely out of proportion; and that nonetheless, it is a blasphemy authored by God himself.

This Christmas, I hope you and your family will again be shocked and offended by the message of Christmas: that the Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Alternative to the d20 System

Early D&D used to be a mishmash of various different rules. Roll this die for this, that die for that, look on a table for this other thing. Thieves rolled a percentile die (two d10s with one treated as the "tens" place) and compared to a table on thieves skills; fighters rolled a d20 and looked up their result on a table organized by their level and the targets AC; later fighters rolled a d20 and compared THAC0 and AC to the result; some traps you rolled a d6 and found it on a 1, some doors you rolled a d8 and forced it open on a 1, some checks you rolled a d20 and tried to get under your ability score like STR.

It was kind of a crazy, scattered mess.

They started fixing this with the mentioned THAC0 system, which took the look-up tables for striking an enemy and condensed them down to a simple equation based on your roll on a d20. This simplifcation inspired centering the entirety of the rolls on a similar mechanic: roll a d20, add some modifiers, compare to a target number. Rather than tons of crazy rules and tables and different dice for everything, any time you wanted to check if you character succeeds at an event you had one basic mechanic you could turn do:
 d20 + Modifiers >= DC, 
where DC is "difficulty class", a target number meant to encapsulate how hard a task it. This is the d20 mechanic, and is usually listed in quick start and players guides as "the most important rule," or the "core mechanic."

It was such a powerful simplification that most D&D clones use it now. Even RPGs attempting to emulate the original 0E rules of D&D still rely on the d20 system, rather than duplicating the To-Hit tables and Thieves percentile tables.  So systems like DCC or OSRIC or Basic Fantasy all use the d20 core mechanic, despite being "old school" games trying to emulate an older version of the rules.

The d20 mechanic is still a table, though; just a very simple, linear table that can be written as an equation. It is a table where each entry differs from its nearest neighbors by 5%. A +1 sword means a sword that has an additional 5% chance to hit. An additional 2 to your (ascending) AC means the chance to hit you decreased by an amount of 10%. A lock with a DC of 15 and a lock with a DC of 10 differ by a step of 25% in the chance to pick them (that is New Chance = Old Chance + 25%).

The simple equation for your chances of succes is :
 Chance success = (21 - DC + Mods)*5% = (21-DC+Mods)/20
In tabular form, the DC system would look like this:
Mod -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3
DC 9 45% 50% 55% 60% 65% 70% 75%
DC 10 40% 45% 50% 55% 60% 65% 70%
DC 11 35% 40% 45% 50% 55% 60% 65%
DC 12 30% 35% 40% 45% 50% 55% 60%
which is such a boring and simple table that you've probably never seen anyone bother to write it out. It's just down 5% for higher DC, up 5% for higher mod, constant steps of 5%. A DC of 10 is considered "baseline," and an average character has a 55% of success, higher or lower from there. 

The d20 system is a really good, simple system. There are alternatives out there. Understandably, most alternative systems try to use six-sided dice, because those are the only dice most normal people know of. Apocalypse dice is one alternative, which uses 2d6. Tunnels and Trolls runs on d6s. The Hypereon systems use d6s.

 I recently discovered an alternative system that sort of goes in the opposite direction. I saw it first proposed on the Goodman Games forum by the author of the blog PeopleThemWithMonsters (described in the linked post, somewhat expanded here).  It's a bit of a crazier system, though it produces probability tables very similar to those for the d20 system. It has some benefits to the standard d20 system and resolves some problems, and overall gives games a more wild "feel", even while sticking pretty close to the original d20 chances of success.

I'm going to call this the Target Dice Chain system. It is not prefaced on a single die, but on a long list of dice. Several games use this list of dice, calling it the "dice chain." It is as follows:
You may be thinking, "Hold on now, there's no such thing as a d3 or a d48," but you are wrong.  Most of these odd dice can still be simulated using "normal" polyhedra, as I detailed somewhat in a previous post.  You may be thinking "What even is a d0 or a d1?" You aren't likely to find them in your friendly local game shop, but you can simulate them by taking a blank d6 and marking every face with a "0" for d0 or "1" for d1.

 In each check, there are two dice that get rolled: a target die and a check die.

The GM rolls the target die. Increased difficulty corresponds to moving to a die higher up the dice chain, starting at d6.

The player rolls the check die. Modifiers correspond to one step up (or down) the dice chain, starting at d6.

In checks, the smaller die is always rolled first. This helps maintain the tension and makes sure both parties roll.

Your baseline check for an average character corresponds to rolling one d6 for the GM, one for the player, and player wins if his die meets or beats the GM's. This corresponds to a check with a DC 10. 

If the character has a +2 to his check, then roll a d6 for the GM and a d8 for the player (two steps up the chain), and player wins if his die meets of beats the GM's. This corresponds to a  DC of 10 and a +2 bonus.

If the check is actually fairly difficult, and the player has a -2 to this check, then you roll a d12 for the GM and a d4 for the player, and the player wins if his die meets of beats the GM's. This corresponds to a DC of 15 with a -2 bogus.

The underlying mechanic works like this:

The GM picks a target die (TD) according to the difficulty of the task. The player rolls a check die corresponding to his ability, starting at 6 and doing up or down one step in the dice chain for each point of modifier. You then make an opposed roll with the check die against the TD, and tie goes to player.

You can express the die roll symbolically as:
 d6 + (MOD)d >= TD
 where +d is a way of saying "up one step in the dice chain", and +3d means "up 3 steps in the dice chain", and +(MOD)d means "up (MOD) number of steps in the dice chain."

The TD can be chosen sort of arbitrarily, but should correspond to the difficulty. A d6 is the baseline TD (TD 6), and corresponds to a DC 10. A TD 12 (that is, a d12 as target die) is a fairly difficult TD, and corresponds to a DC 15. For even more difficult checks, doubling seems to work, with a TD 24 being close to a DC 20 and a TD 48 being close to a DC 25 (though the correspondence weakens at higher DC). A TD 3 is pretty close to a DC 5. Use dice in between for DCs in between. Maybe a TD 8 for a DC 12, or a TD 20 for a DC 18.

But why would anyone use this system, anyway?

This system is a bit "swingier" than the usual d20 system. In d20, certain DCs are simply impossible unless you have a bonus for that check: so, even with a +3 bonus, a DC of 25 is simply impossible. You will never succeed. In the TD system, there is always a chance for success. Even for a TD 48 check, with a -4d, there is still a chance for success. Contrariwise, in the d20 system, you can reach a point where failure is impossible. If you have +10 to a skill, then you always succeed on a DC 10 check. In the TD system, failure is also always possible. Even the best mess up and fail, even the most difficult task can be bested by a stroke of luck. The whole system sort of spreads probability around, leading to more unpredicted outcomes.

Here is a chart for comparison, showing the probabilities of success for different mods to a check for different DCs and the corresponding DC.

Normal dice chain, d6+(MOD)d to beat target
MOD -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3
DIE d3 d4 d5 d6 d7 d8 d10
DC5 65% 70% 75% 80% 85% 90% 95%
TD3 67% 75% 80% 83% 86% 88% 90%
DC10 40% 45% 50% 55% 60% 65% 70%
TD6 33% 42% 50% 58% 64% 69% 75%
DC15 15% 20% 25% 30% 35% 40% 45%
TD12 17% 21% 25% 29% 33% 38% 46%
DC20 0% 0% 0% 5% 10% 15% 20%
TD24 8% 10% 12% 15% 17% 19% 23%
DC25 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
TD48 4% 5% 6% 7% 8% 9% 11%

As you can see, it actually sticks pretty close to the usual d20 results.

One major issue this resolves is the opposed check mechanic. Sometimes in D&D, you may find yourself grappling with an orc. In the simplest resolution of this, you'd just make an opposed STR check; you roll a d20 and the orc rolls a d20, add the modifiers to the respective rolls, meet or beat the orc's roll. While this maybe has the feel of a battle of strength, it's actually identical to a base DC of 10 (proven mathematically here), plus your mods and minus the orc's mods, in terms of probability. If you are at +2 on your STR and the orc is at +3, then it's just
 d20 + 2 - 3 >= 10. 
It turns all opposed rolls into static DCs. You could replace opposed rolling with a constant DC and get the same statistical results.

In the TD system, roll a die corresponding to where you are in the dice chain. In the example of a player at +2 and orc at +3, you roll a d8 and the orc a d10, meet or beat the orc. Here an opposed roll is central to the mechanic, and you get a more immediate feel for the power mismatch between the player and the orc in terms of the physical dice being rolled. Imagine then a dragon rolling a d30 vs an average human's d6, or an advanced player rolling a d12 against a d4 mook.

Another major advantage is that it tracks so well with the d20 system. In any game using the d20 system, you can just slide the target die system right in the d20 system's place without a lot of difficulty. If you use the TD system and want to have some particular check be a DC check instead, just slide that in there, keeping the same bonus. It converts almost instantly.

But there are a few major drawbacks to the target dice system.

One, you have to get all those dice. And they aren't very cheap. If you use a computer dice roller like Roll20 then this isn't even an issue: typing 1d48 will work just fine. But if you like the feeling of physically rolling, you'll have to buy more weird dice. I don't know if a GM should be opposed to owning more dice (who doesn't like newer, weirder dice?), but the availability is an issue, as is the money. Luckily, you can find the "off" dice in the dice chain (d3, d5, d7, 14, d16, d24, d30) from several sets offered by Koplow or Impact! miniatures intended for games like DCC RPG which use the dice chain already, usually for around $8 or $12 -- which is still expensive compared to the standards, but about the same as an adventure module.

Two, is that there is no way to make something impossible. Even if you had the ridiculous TD 120, with a d1 check die, there's a chance of success 1 in 120 times. I reported this earlier as a benefit, but maybe in some instances it's a drawback. Maybe you want that lock to be impossible to pick. Maybe you want that armor to be impossible to hit. There's also no way to make something guaranteed. Even if your PC rolls the ridiculous d120 against a TD2, you can fail 1 in 120 times. The swinginess of the system can be a cool and exciting way to mix things up, or it could topple tough challenges through sheer stupid luck of the draw.