Monday, November 30, 2009

Blind Thieves

“R” made a comment on my last post that I’d like to address fully:

“I noticed in your other post you use Wisdom for your perception rolls and here you imply that Thieves are the class that uses Wisdom the least ... I don't necessarily have a problem with thieves' least likely ‘decent score’ being Wisdom, but I do consider thieves more naturally perceptive than the other classes.”
Of course, thieves to have a additional aspect to their perception ability, that being their ability to hear noise.  Although I've never done it - though I should start, I suppose - it would make sense to allow a +1 modifier on the die per 5% of hear noise ability.  Thus, a thief with an 11 wisdom and a 20% hear noise would roll a perception check as though their wisdom was 15.

Putting that aside for the moment, I think where R and I differ is in the way we look at thieves ... I would guess that R holds the common perception of thieves inside the movie-making tradition.  That the thief is essentially Thomas Crown, or John Robie, or any number of prestigious cat-burglars with, eventually upon reaching a high level, perfect reflexes and balance.  Certainly, any of these would never fail to notice the slightest detail should it cross their path - and thus, they are deserving of a high perception.

I do not adhere to this model where it comes to thieves.  Yes, I believe the possibility exists for a thief like this in a campaign - if the thief chooses to assign a high wisdom to their character.  On the other hand, there are plenty of thieves in literature that fit perfectly into the model for a thief with low wisdom and perception.  Fagin, for example, who isn't among the more terribly bright pennies in the box - nor the most perceptive.  The same must be said for Pistol, Bardolph or Nym.  Falstaff was drunk most of the time, and hardly as light with his feet or eye as he was with his tongue (you may examine the Merry Wives of Windsor for sources, if you like).

In short, there are thieves and there are thieves.  Just as not every fighter is a duellist with two weapons, and not every assassin is an ugly sprat.  Depending on how the player assigns his scores to his stats, the character is defined.

This is a chief problem I have with skills systems where players gain skills through buying them.  The skills themselves are made according to assumptions made about what a character is and what is important.  There's no room in the lexicon for a Pistol, as every skill is designed expressly to produce a Hudson Hawk.  Every fighter must be a massive Conan; none can be a shrewd Petruchio or a brooding, angst-driven Elric of Melnibone.  The mages must all be Galdalf - there is no room for a weakling Skeeve.

In short, two-dimensionality.  If the skill is good for thieves, ipso facto all thieves must have that skill.  Which I think is a big weakness of some systems.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good Negativity

Update: some of the material contained in this post is no longer accurate to the way that I run my game.  An updated version of the rules proposed below may be found on the wiki, on this page.  The original post is unchanged.

I haven't felt very healthy for quite a few days now, which explains the drop off in posting.  But a house rule of mine came up during the online campaign, which I discussed briefly on the campaign blog ... but it makes sense to discuss it a little more fully here.  And as I feel a bit better tonight, here goes.

The concept of negative hit points did not come from me.  Honestly, I don't know where it came from, something I read in a games store no doubt, a long time ago.  I'm always up for a good idea, however, and so I co-opted it.  I have no idea what the original rules were.  These are my rules.

I liked negative hit points for a couple of reasons.  They gave a kind of safety buffer to low level characters, keeping them alive, while at the same time telling a character of any level that it was time to slow down and get the hell out of the combat.  Strangely, when I used to play without that cushion, a player would go on fighting with two hit points even though he'd die at -1 (zero always meant unconscious).  With the new method, if a player drops below zero, it will get across the message that it's time to go.

It works like this.  A zero-level human, or an ordinary humanoid of any race, still dies at -1 hit points, and still falls unconscious at 0.  However,  a leveled individual of any race does not die until they reach -10 hp.  This means that they can persist until they reach -9.

However, there are certain effects which begin to manifest once the player drops below zero hit points.  For each point below zero, the player's stats are lowered by 10%.  Thus, at -1 hp, the player has 90% of their ability stats, at -2 hp, 80%, and so on.  All stats are affected equally and in the same proportion.  This has some interesting applications where it comes to players.

Intelligence is the critical stat.  As long as the character's intelligence remains above 3, the character may continue to function.  This means that for someone with an intelligence of 10, they are still able to think their way through most things as long as they have -7 or more hit points.  When a character drops below 3 intelligence, they are a vegetable.

Moreover, once a character begins to drop in stats below what they need for minimum class requirements, they lose the benefits that come with their character classes.  Monks cannot open hand, paladins lose their 10' radius of protection, spellcasters lose their spells, fighters drop onto the zero level fighting table and so on.  Usually these things don't become a problem unless the player drops below -3 hp, but in the case of paladins, illusionists or monks, who need 15 to 17 pt. stats, the effect is usually felt at -1 hp.

Even a small drop will be felt.  A fighter with an 18/00 strength at zero hit points will find his or her power affected rather quickly.  As I consider each 20% of strength bonus to be equal to one point of strength (it has always been a problematic system), the fighter's strength is considered for this rule to be equal to '23'.  Each point below zero reduces strength by 2.3, so at -1 hp, the fighter would have a strength of 18/54; at -2 hp, a strength of 18/08; at -3 hp, a strength of 16.1 and so on.  So comparative weakness takes effect very quickly.

A cleric with a 13 wisdom, reduced to -1 hp, would then have a wisdom of 11.7 ... the fraction is dropped and this is treated as an 11.  While the cleric is still a cleric (minimum wisdom must be 9) and can still throw spells, now the cleric has a 10% spell failure chance according to his or her present wisdom.

Similarly, thieves lose dexterity bonus for thieving abilities, while mages lose their chance of knowing spells which are in their spellbooks.  And all characters begin to accrue negative modifiers on their attacks and armor class as their strength and dexterity fall below 7 points.  And yes, as charisma drops, so do charisma modifiers on hirelings and men-at-arms.

There is one more unlikely effect that wouldn't occur often, but would happen with certain characters.  I play with the rules where a player cannot be a certain character if the stat is below six.  Only mages may have a strength below 6, only fighters can have an intelligence below 6, only thieves can have a wisdom below 6 and so on.

If a character has chosen to have a cleric with an strength of 7, they are going to be heartily surprised to find that when their strength drops below 6 (at -2 hp), they are no longer a cleric, even if their wisdom still remains well above 9 ... since with a strength of 5.6, the only thing they can be is a mage - which they are not.

It is an interesting house rule, and has served well to instigate interesting game-playing effects among players once they drop below zero hit points and they must play weaker, stupider, uglier characters.  The fun really begins when virtually every member of the party is below zero to some degree - a staggering, half-zombified mob just trying to get away while yet keeping their senses more or less intact.


For those who have trouble with math:

Friday, November 20, 2009


If you will, picture the player: “Asking the cleric to draw the light as far back from the top as I can, I climb down the rope to the bottom of the chimney; what can I see with my infravision?”

“About forty feet down, there’s a metal plate set across the chimney. About ten feet below that, you can detect a swirling mass of color that you’re guessing is probably water.”
“I try to move the plate. Can I lift it?”

“Roll a d6.”

The situation I’ve descibed is typical. I’d like to point out, however, that I have not told the player specifically what they are rolling the d6 for. It might be to see if they can move the plate, and it might be surprise or initiative, since something could attack them. One way or another, I am very deliberate about keeping the player in the dark until I know what the die roll has told me.  That way, if it is an attack, I can inform the player simultaneously that he is surprised, or not surprised, and that the alligator has leapt up to take off a piece of the character's foot.

I have been to many games where the dialogue between player and DM is all very technical ... where the DM describes the monster according to its type, species and even it's level or character class: "You see an ogre magi cleric master of the fifth rank" ... whereas I'm likely to say that you see an ogre with a sword (or possibly not; why couldn't an ogre magi carry a club?).   I don't think it does any good to tell the players up front that the mage is casting a cause serious wounds spell until the actual spell is applied to the character.  It is enough to know that the ogre has cast a spell, and that now the ogre has entered combat.  I won't even say, "The ogre has cast the spell and now tries to touch you."  That's too much information.

Half the fun of being a DM is keeping the players woefully in the dark.  Sometimes, yes, it's obvious what they're rolling for.  If they are on the edge of a cliff, and they've just been hit by a club, I will tell them to make a "dex" check ... they might as well know at that point that if they fail they're going to fall.  But if they're crossing a courtyard, and I want to see if they notice that the statue in the center has just moved, I don't tell them that they're making a wisdom check (the roll I use for perception) ... I just say, roll a d20.  I don't want them to know why.  Particularly if they've failed.  Then it is just hanging out there - the question, "What was that for?" might never actually get answered.

I think this bothers some DMs.  I think that they are deeply involved in their designs, and truly want every facet understood, and thus appreciated, by their players.  And I think that's fine - after the fact.  During the actual adventure, they should be kept as ignorant as possible.

Which might be one of the principle reasons for the disconnect in my online games.  I do intentionally withhold information.  I do it constantly.  I have elements in my campaigns that I have literally withheld for years.  I shall give an example.

About two years ago, real time, my offline campaigners came across a caravan on the edge of the Ust Urt plateau(NW Turkmenistan), in which three ogres were transporting 17 women, none with a charisma less than 16.  The party killed the ogres, freed the women, and discovered that many of them were from prestigious households throughout northern Persia.  What followed was a lengthy adventure in which the women were returned.

The women, as it turned out, were a sacrifice planned by a high level mage by the name of Patroclus.  Patroclus wasn't happy.  But although he had every intention of frying the party down to the last member, the party returning the Emir of Tabiristan's daughter won them a special gift - a Libram of Proof Against Detection.  As long as any member of the original party holds the Libram, they can't be found with ESP, Clairaudience or any other finding spell.

Now, the party has never seen Patroclus; they have been able to identify him as one of the Wizard Princes of a region called Khorezm (modern Khiva), but that's all.  They have heard neither hide nor hair of him in eighteen months, but they know me and they haven't forgotten.  Patroclus can still find them by that old tried and true method, investigation ... and though they've teleported once as a party since, there are still elements that can be identified.  Sooner or later (and only I know when), Patroclus will find them.

But what happens then, I've never told anyone.

It is the same methodology applied to novel writing ... withhold, withhold, withhold.   No character ever has more information than is absolutely necessary, no one in the novel ever knows everything that is going on except for the one character you don't get a chance to talk with until the very end.  In D&D, the novel never ends.  Whatever might get resolved, there have always been other aspects of the journey that have been created along the way, leading to other adventures and other resolutions, some soon, some much later.

In that way, yes, D&D is storytelling.  Or rather, it is NOT storytelling.  All too often, I think, the whole story gets told right at the beginning, and nothing is really a surprise - need the key, find the key, fight for the key, get the key.

Not telling the story begins, as I began, with not telling the players why you're rolling.  Or why they're rolling.  It's in the DMG and it's good advice.  With some players, it will take time to break them of their "knowing all things" habit ... but your campaign will get better once you do.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Online Campaign Programming

As it happens, I had a long conversation last night with a friend of mine, a computer programmer, who has taken it upon himself to produce the means to game online.  Like most programmers, I presume he is unhappy with what is available out there, and feels he can do it better.  All power to him.

He's watched the online campaign I run, and he's been noodling around with ideas about a blogging campaign.  Last night he asked me what a 'perfect' arrangement for blogging would entail.  The suggestions he made included an in-program die roll which would only be seen after the comment was published.  Express the desire to roll, hit a feature, then post ... result appears.

He also spoke of a character template which would be more easily accessible through the blog - whereupon we talked at length about my dislike of character sheets, and of course he had read the post I made last week.  But that was the point of the conversation.  To pick my brain and arrive at possible solutions.

He asked me to do him a favor, and this is me doing it.  The question he asks is, what programming for an online blog campaign could a player want in a PERFECT world?  What features might it possess?  I think he would probably be happy with any ideas relating to programming D&D, blogged or not blogged.  I said I'd throw the question out there and see if I got responses.

So.  Any responses?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rash Actions

As I wonder if my credibility has faded due to the rant in the last post, I find myself thinking of two occasions when I have, literally, thrown people out of my campaign.  I do not mean telling them on the phone not to come again, or informing them in some other benign way.  I refer to ejecting them in the middle of play.

It is impossible to keep personalities out of these things, and I certainly have one myself.  I'm not easy to get along with.  It amazes me that I don't have a dozen stories like these ... but there are only two.

In the first case, the fellow had once been my best friend.  I met Cal the first night I played D&D, immediately liking him because he laughed at everything.  Well, everything remotely funny.  We got on great, made worlds together, switched playing as DM and player, and hung out for years.

After high school, though, I began to find him distressingly juvenile.  He seemed to resist growing up.  I was all of 19, feeling like an adult, feeling like I wanted to take things more seriously ... and Cal's laugh began to rankle.  We still played D&D and hung out, but as time went on, I found myself getting more condescending towards him.  Cal noticed, naturally.  It was only a matter of time before a blow out happened.

During a combat, Cal hit a string of bad luck with his d20 and couldn't hit anything.  He naturally became more and more frustrated, leading to cursing loudly every time he rolled the die.  Finally he threw the die at the table, it bounced off and shot across the room.  I remember we were in my parent's basement at the time ... I was still living at home.

Peevishly, I told him that he needed to take responsibility for his actions.  He replied, "What, for the dice?  They're random.  How can I take responsibility for something I have no control over!"

"Well," I said, "The dice can't take responsibility, they're inanimate objects.  So I guess that means YOU have to."

Some time after that, but not long after, with tempers high, he threw a die at me.  Whereupon I shouted at him to get out of my house.  He refused.  It's a response that has always baffled me.  I roared a few more times, he refused a few more times, whereupon I jumped him, and wrestled him foot by foot up the stairs and out the back door.  He fought every step of the way.  I threw him out, went back for his stuff, threw that out at him, and slammed the door.  Scratch one friendship.

I've often wondered about that.  I was obviously looking for a way to end the friendship, and took it.  I don't think I'd do it the same way now.  No, what I wonder about is Cal fighting all the way.  Was it only spite, or did he want the friendship to last, and that's what he was fighting for.  Even when a couple of years later we met at university, and talked, and buried the hatchet - which didn't start the friendship again, that was gone, though I could say hi on the street to him if I saw him - I couldn't get an explanation out of him about that.  He did not remember fighting me as I threw him out.  He didn't remember any of the particulars, except that we fought.

I think many of us have stories like this; we don't write about them, because we don't come off looking good.  But I don't look so great right now anyway, so I have nothing to lose.

The other tale is stranger, and less violent.  I would have been about 23.  I was living in a townhouse with my wife, playing D&D every Friday like clockwork, running the same world I'm running now - less sophisticated, but following the same principles.

The number of players had been expanding steadily for months.  Many of you might know how it goes - players have a friend or a girlfriend, or you meet people you haven't seen for awhile who are looking for a campaign ... and another person starts showing up.  At the point whene this story takes place, I was running 14 people in my campaign, pretty much every night.  I remember that included my wife Michelle, three fellows named Mike, the one Mike's brother Craig and another Mike's brother Todd.  Mike with Todd had his girlfriend Carol.  There were the brothers Darcy and Tom, and there was an ex-girlfriend of mine Nicole and her boyfriend Barry and Barry's friend P.J.  And finally there was Donny and his girlfriend, who I think was named either Karen or Kathy.

These were the regulars.  Sessions got pretty rowdy, with people drifting into the kitchen or the back yard when I was running these four people who went down that hallway and then after these five people who broke into this vault.  The logistics were a nightmare, as any DM might guess ... but I handled it, evident in that the people kept coming.

(I'm slipping into it with my present off-line campaign just now ... five people became four people, who are now six people with two more wanting to join)

But, as it happened, people were not quite as accepting as they might have been.  In all that crowd, the continous hang up was Donny and Karen or Kathy.  He had trouble with a lot of the comments, and I have to just say that she was just plain stupid - with regards to D&D, anyway.  She was there because he was there, and everyone at the table knew it.

Out of the campaign, people pressed me to stop letting him play.  I understood their frustration, but I felt bad for the guy.  He did really want to play, and he did try ... he just couldn't quite get it.  I think if he hadn't had his girlfriend in tow, she just sitting and taking up space and clearly anything but conversational, people might have begun to warm up to him.  But they all resented the silent, stony anchor he carried.  I got to resent her, myself.

I was clearly cracking under the strain of running 14 people; things that night had been complicated.  One of those combats that involved a round-the-table die-rolling session every round.  I had most of them trained not to hem and haw when it was their turn, which let things go fairly well ... but sometimes it got so aggravating I could just scream.  Sometimes I did.

That night, I felt the pressure.  I don't remember what exactly was happening the moment I realized I was going to have to ask Donny and his girlfriend to go.  I didn't shout, I didn't insult them - I was too exhausted.  I told them patiently, and probably peevishly from their perspective, that they weren't welcome anymore and that they'd better go.  The room was very quiet.  No one backed me up ... but they knew I could handle it.  They knew I didn't need help.

Donny shouted.  Donny insulted everyone and went out in a fury.  He was entitled.

I never saw him again.  I had never really been his friend, I only saw him for D&D.  We didn't go for drinks or hang out in any way.  I can't remember now how I even met him ... he didn't go to university, he had a blue collar job.  He wasn't extraordinarily bright.  So our association is a mystery to me now.  Michelle used to say I had a talent for bringing home "lost puppies" ... people with nowhere else to go.  That must have been the case.

After the fact, everyone congratulated me for turfing the both of them.  But honestly, I never felt good about it.

So if you're in a situation where you have tossed players, or you're thinking about tossing players, I would recommend doing it out of the campaign.  If you feel like you have to do it right then, stop running.  Explain to everyone it isn't your night, and offer to play poker.  And then, a few days later, end your association.

You will feel better about it.  I am haunted by my two experiences.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

No Fear

This is not intended as a redress against A Paladin in Citadel, who wondered in a comment on my last post if books would give players “some skill, level or ability boost.”

That, right there, is the video game market talking.

It’s all part of ‘Mario D&D’ ... eat a mushroom, crush the monster, move on to find more mushrooms. Paladin only asks the question, how is a book a mushroom?

This is just an excuse, actually, for me to bitch about players. Players have been on my mind most of the weekend, ever since one of the two online campaigns I’m running pretty much imploded for lack of interest/posting. I’ve been asking myself since the middle of last week, is it my fault?

How easy it would be to blame the players, boost my own ego and move the fuck on. Hey, one campaign is working out fine, right? I must be okay.

That is not the way I look at it. I am the sort of person who must patiently deconstruct and pull apart the guts of the thing to try and understand it – to perform an autopsy, if you will. All for the purpose of identifying just what went wrong, and how to avoid it going wrong again.

The fault, I know, is the sandbox campaign. Not so much that players are free to do anything, but that my insistence that there will be no railroading usually winds up with me being in a place where I have to railroad the players just to get some kind of response from them. Which frustrates the living fucking shit right out of me.

In both the campaign I ran last spring and in this one that has crumbled in the last three weeks, I have principally encountered caution (described as ‘sitting hen’ by one player). An unwillingness on the part of players to take action ... usually explained by the players themselves with such phrases as, “ ... he didn't really want to make himself too obvious in his interest and possibly draw unwanted attention ...” This describing the player’s unwillingness to risk a 1st level character with zero X.P.

I’m baffled. What, exactly, does the player have to lose? Maybe someone out there in Mario land can explain why first level characters aren’t expendable. Are DMs giving out electric shocks to players who die at first level?

Granted, the player is a mage. Mages die easily. And as it happens, for the campaign, I’ve had four players join and every player has rolled up a mage (if you only count three players in the posts, it’s because I have one more player waiting to join once the campaign gets sorted out). All told, one pure mage, two mage/thieves and one mage/assassin. This, I think, happened because all four individuals made their characters independently. At a table where we were all playing offline, I think someone would say, “We can’t all be mages! Someone has to play a fighter.” And someone would answer, a bit unhappily, “All right, I will.”

But this is online, and I didn’t tell them to what they could and could not make. No railroading, you see. If they all want to be mages, fine. I will invent a campaign that a party of mages could participate in. No up front fighting, something with an investigative quality, something they can piece together with their brains ... after all, if they have to go toe to toe with someone, they’ll die.

Only trouble is, no one showed any interest in investigating jack shit. I presume they were waiting for me to tell them what they needed to know, failing to recognize that in a sandbox campaign, I’m under absolutely no obligation to tell them ANYTHING. I am a world. I am not a novel. I run people operating in a world. These people can, if they want, do whatever they want. But the world does not revolve around them, there are no preset characters to step out of the bushes in Scene 24 and tell them exactly what they have to do next. They are players ... they are not fucking heroes.

I’m sorry if that hasn’t been made clear by this blog in the previous 281 posts. As a DM, I feel I am under an obligation to provide details, to describe in reasonable detail where the players are, to design obstructions, to create NPCs and monsters, to make them believable, to map out the world, to adjudicate on the practicality of various strategies and possibilities, and to assess damage and provide rewards. But you know what? ... that is it. That’s a lot and that’s enough. If players want more, if they want to have me outline in detail how to move their feet and open their mouths and what drivel to produce with their tongues, lips and teeth, they can go the fuck somewhere else.

Sorry. Lost it there for a moment.

I was saying, no one investigated. Which is fair, which is fine, it’s a sandbox game, no one has to search the body or grill the NPCs with question after question if they don’t want to. That’s what I tell myself. I say it over and over until I begin to realize that no matter how accepting I am, I’m bored.

Bringing me back to the autopsy, trying to gather together some kind of theme regarding this rambling, ranting, shotgun-like post. Bringing me back to the question that has haunted me all day, and which led to this post ultimately inspired by Paladin’s question. I want to thank you, Paladin; you got my brain going, even if it is in every direction. Give me your email, we’ll go get coffee some time.

Why did the three people in the campaign all want to play mages?

My first instinct is to assume that there’s something appealing about the way I’ve talked about mages on my blog. Or that there’s some unknown prejudice against players playing mages in other campaigns. Or that this is some enormous coincidence (remembering always that the fourth person, who’d had a chance to see three mages playing in the campaign, still wants to play another mage with them). And of course, there’s the argument that mages are fairly powerful.

In my offline campaign, the party is engaged in a massive fight against an intelligent foe that is manipulating goblins and dire wolves against them. Although the tools are fairly weak, the unidentified foe clearly has magic use; that and the tactics I’m using has already killed party members (2 first levels) and has come very close to killing others.

The deciding factor on the player’s side has been the influence of two spellcasters, the 8th level mage and the 6th level illusionist. The 9th level druid has just conjured up a treant, so the balance is shifting. Spellcasters are powerful.

They are also, at low level, very weak. The aforementioned mage, Garalzapan by name, spent most of his first three levels throwing daggers at the enemy when his spells ran out by round four. The aforementioned illusionist, Pen by name, was the party joke until he reached fifth level ... the first thing Pen always did was ‘run away’. And the aforementioned druid, Pikel by name, was bailed out so often at low levels by the rest of the party that they still feel Pikel owes them protection money. These are common stories, they pretty much fit into any campaign.

So, are the players so entranced by their dreams of great power someday that they forgot they have to run low-level characters first? Low-level mages who, reasonably, can expect to live by their wits, their cunning and their guts?

Since they don’t have any guts (cautious), they don’t trust their wits (they might offend people), and I’ve seen no signs of cunning, what the hell are any of these people doing running magic users?

Oh, I forgot. They have cool spells.

As DM, I presume, my job is to set up targets for them to knock down with their cool spells - targets who never quite get close enough to, you know, threaten them. Can’t expect them to take enormous risks like asking strangers questions or searching nearby bodies – at least, not until they get that terrific mushroom which allows them to stomp hell out of their enemies.

Now listen ... I’m being pretty nasty here, and I know it. I’m not sure if this post is going to kill the campaign, or get people’s heads in the right place. One way or the other, I can’t let myself be affected by the outcome. I feel from time to time that I have to defend this game, and at this particular time that means being a mean little bugger.

If we ARE going to play a particular race and class, PLEASE, can we have a better reason to do so than that the character throws spells and gets to be powerful by seventh level? Can we think a little farther than, “I like to steal things”? Working at the world that I work at, I’m choked when I find myself faced with kindergarten behavior when it comes to picking the goddamn game pieces. Damn, it’s like fucking monopoly where everyone wants to be the car, ‘cause it goes vroom.

And because I can’t let it go, role-playing games exist to provide a means of obtaining the sort of dangerous, provocative thrill that comes from risking one’s ersatz, avatar existence – while being able to get up for coke between die rolls. People, seriously: NO FEAR.

Nope.  Post didn't work.  I still feel I'm to blame.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


For a long time I had wanted to give books as treasure, but the foremost problem that occurs is the title and subject matter of the book.  There's no material out there to give you a list of books to bestow upon your players, or even how such a list might be constructed.

In my 57-year-old encyclopedia the index provides a bibliography of books used to create the Encyclopedia.  So I decided to count them, and list those counts here, along with the categories as identified (and slightly modified for D&D) by the encyclopedia.  The principle modifications are the removal of materials too modern for the game (my world, remember, takes place in 1650), and the reinterpretation of some subjects as magic.

Note that the number does not necessarily describe the importance of the topic, only the number of books that one might find regarding that subject.  The encyclopedia is Anglocentric and highly Christian, but you and I should be able to ignore those faults.

This will no doubt annoy the hell out of the anti-Simulationist crowd, but I find it fascinating.


I. Philosophy (300)
   A. Collections of Philosophical Writings (6)
   B. Introductions to Philosophy (17)
   C. Systematic Philosophy (114)
      1. Logic (11)
      2. Theory of Knowledge (5)
      3. Metaphysics (11)
      4. Cosmology (5)
      5. Mind & Body (4)
      6. Ethics (53)
         a) Introductions (10)
         b) Problems of Daily Living (10)
         c) Theories and Philosophies of Ethics (15)
         d) State Ethics (6)
         e) Peace and War (12)
      7. Aesthetics (25)
   D. History and Systems (138)
      1. General Histories (10)
      2. Oriental Philosophy (8)
         a) General Works (2)
         b) Confucius (the Analects) (3)
         c) Islam (1)
         d) Mencius and Laotse (1)
         e) Radhakrishnan (1)
      3. Greek Philosophy (39)
         a) General Works (14)
         b) Aristotle (9)
         c) Socrates and Plato (15)
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XII. Communications (127)
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Before getting into the meat of the post, I feel I have to take a moment to clarify the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘alphabet’ as I understand it from the Civ IV tech list. In my post on writing I was clear about it referring to the symbolism that was developed to represent concepts – both physical and abstract. In this post, I persuade the gentle reader to remember that an alphabet is a series symbols meant to represent sounds that are a part of language, and that the combination of these sounds produce words.

The confusion arises with the verb ‘to write’ ... as I will be using that verb throughout this post to describe the use of the alphabet. I don’t wish to confuse the reader and make him believe that I am referring to the technology writing. It is only that it is easier to say that the world being influenced by the development of the alphabet was carried forward by ‘writing,’ rather than my having to say ‘alphabetizing’ ... nyet?

There are a variety of alphabets in existence – systems which represent phonemes (as this alphabet I’m using now does), logos (as Chinese does) and syllables (as those incorporated into Chinese and Japanese). I’m not big linguistical man, and am hopelessly mired in the English language. I am vaguely familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, and less familiar with the traditional Greek system, and I have no knowledge whatsoever of a single logo from China, except that I know the popular symbol used to denote ‘red dragon’ actually means ‘center tile’ in mah jong.

I am usually concerned with alphabets, generally, only so far as I know the one I use very well, as I use it a lot. That, for me, is as far as it goes.

As I understand it, the technological innovation represented by the alphabet derives from the realization that a sound, rather than an object, could be represented by a symbol. The process by which this was realized did not happen overnight – it took, by most accounts, more than two thousand years. Alphabets were proceeded by proto-alphabets, that combined various symbols, syllables and phonemes into increasingly sophisticated language representations, what we call the Sumerian writing system. This would later be improved by the Phoenicians, into an alphabet that represented many of the sounds we would recognize with symbols that most people would not.

According to Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs and Steel, the difficulties in creating a unique alphabet were superseded by the ease with which Sumerian and Phoenician alphabets could be adapted (a process called ‘blueprinting’) to other existing languages. For this reason, every phoneme-using language in the old world corresponds to the same alphabet I’m using now, whatever symbols might be used for ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and so on. The principle exception is Mayan, which could not be influenced by Sumerian at any time prior to the 16th century.

Every would-be creator of a language for D&D, fantasy or science fiction indulges in blueprinting – from Elvish to Klingon. Those created languages still use a fabricated alphabet that still represents consonants and vowels – it merely changes the symbols and compresses certain combinations of sounds together in order to create an ‘alien’ aspect. There are plenty of languages which use our alphabet that do the same thing. The combination of letters commonly used in Polish names, written as ‘szcz’, represents the sound ‘sh-ch’, pronounced after a certain fashion. Accents in French, Norwegian, Swedish and Turkish produce moderate changes to the length and emphasis of vowels or consonents, but the principle of the alphabet remains unchanged. You can add a ‘letter’ to the list, but you will still use the existing list for virtually every sound you intend to make in your conceived ‘orcish’ language.

Whatever sound you think to invent, some human on the planet has already invented it and defined a symbol for it. It might be fun to make languages, but you are covering old ground.

I remember that as a player I never found much playability in foreign languages. I certainly don’t as a DM. If I have something that is not written in common, and I do have from time to time, it is enough for me and my players to simply say, “It’s in a language you don’t recognize.” When one player says, can I read it, it serves the plot well enough to say yes, no, or you can understand such and such a word. Of all the things I conceive working on, reproducing language isn’t one of them.

But to each their own. There’s a certain pleasure in speaking and writing languages which cannot be readily understood by outsiders. It produces a kind of superiority – a social class-structure between those who know Klingon and the noobies at the convention who haven’t committed the time to learn it. We Klingon speakers can thus create jokes and laugh at such pathetic, unworthy wannabes who think they have the right to breathe the same air as ourselves.

Which brings me to the next point.

The written word has long been used for the purpose of defining a greater class from a lesser. The Catholic Church jealously guarded the Latin Bible for centuries, disallowing any but the truly worthy to be instructed in Latin, upon pain of death. That is, if you understood Latin, and you chose to use it to undermine the Churches authority by telling people what was actually in the Bible, we killed you for it.

Clearly, you weren’t worthy.

The Torah has been guarded even more jealously, going so far as to disallow any but truly holy men from even seeing the scrolls upon which the words were written, much less being privileged to read the words. This is a practice which precedes Judaism, reaching back to the time when language was first adapted to matters more important than mere bookkeeping.

Early written language has been shown to be largely representations of transactions between persons. For business, symbols are enough – it is still enough for accounting to identify the object, how many are needed or possessed, and how much is paid for it. The reason to develop an alphabetic system beyond this derives from the need to convey abstract messages important enough that the reader comprehends exactly what the writer intends.

Messages of such importance fall under two categories: management and religion.

By management, obviously, I mean chiefs and kings, who need to convey policy. Policies such as laws, orders, proof of ownership, proof of importance and so on. As the commander of my king’s troops, I need to have some proof of my legitimacy as commander; that the orders I carry out are in fact the king’s orders; and that if I execute someone, the law by which they are executed is clearly understood by everyone before the fact.

The alphabet allows for the creation of such written policies – as specific as they can possibly be. And because language is never as specific as we would wish, the alphabet creates the need for lawyers.

In small societies, such written words are never necessary. But there is a limit to how many people a human being can be expected to recognize and remember details about ... and as it turns out, that number is between about 150 and 400. After that, however good your memory is, as a local leader you’re going to look at someone in your war party and ask, “Who the hell is that?”

As the number of people in a culture increases, you become more and more dependent on someone close to you, whom you trust, answering you, “Don’t worry about him, Big Kahuna. That’s Grunk; he’s good people.”

With the increases in population going on in areas like China, Egypt and Mesopotamia, there came a point where thousands of people began to congregate in cities – testing the limit on how many advisors you could rely on to recognize all the people you were seeing. Human societies found themselves facing a situation they never had before ... that that guy there, that stranger, isn’t known by me or by anyone I know, but he isn’t a threat because he seems to serve some purpose in being here.

When you have more than 150 people keeping track of 150 people each, you have problems.

The alphabet was produced primarily as a management tool – a method by which messages could be conveyed not merely to one other person, but to hundreds of other persons. Who could then respond positively or negatively, allowing kingdoms to operate in spite of the existence of strangers. The alphabet was the response to the demand for bureaucracy, which in turn demanded a more sophisticated alphabet. We are still in the same loop – while we’ve largely fixed the alphabetic method, we have never stopped restructuring the written word as it becomes necessary.

This bureaucracy had two unforeseen, civilization building impacts: the first, that commands and information could be conveyed over an unlimited distance; and second, that they could be conveyed over an unlimited time.

I say ‘unlimited’ because there are no absolute limits on how far a message could be carried (there still aren’t), however long that takes, and because we don’t know for certain how long a message can last. True, most messages have been lost, but we can never be certain we won’t dig up copies in the desert someday, can we?

The alphabet allowed empire building on a grand scale, for the first time. The Phoenicians carried their message to hundreds of locations throughout the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, promoting both their language and their policies, preempting existing cultures which were afterwards modified along the Phoenician model. Mythologies, religious ideals and laws became commonplace in east-west patterns from Spain to China. Where once there might have arisen thousands of unique cultures along the Star Trek Prime Directive pattern, that ideal was blown asunder. As the King in Tyre, I send a few cartloads of messages to my representative in Scythia and that stuff gets done – or else someone I trust writes back to me. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never seen Scythia – I have accounts about the region read to me all the time. What’s more, I may never have met the King of Scythia, but I’m told by people who dwell there that he’s a real sweet guy.

And now I, the King of Tyre’s son, am King ... and how did my father want things done? Why, its written everywhere. And no matter how many tablets I try to destroy, it always seems there is one more, affecting people in my kingdom and how they view me. So I am forever haunted by my dead father. No longer are we limited to memory. History exists, and what happened before matters. What happened before tells us what to do now.

So some thoughts for D&D:

Various religious groups will possess written words which are more than merely ‘lost books’ for the players to find. There ought to exist cults who manifestly obey these lost books, either augmenting or tearing down the existing structure all around. Even seeing the words written there is impossible for all but the truly blessed – if the unblessed look at them, they will melt like Nazi made of wax.

Multiple cultures will interact according to their language relationships more than they will according to their race or their class. The nearly black Afro-Asiatics of the Sahel in Africa related perfectly well to their Turkic brethren because they read the same books and believed in the same religion ... the Sahel-dwelling blacks did not relate to other blacks who were Bantu or West African, who did not read. Moreover, those peoples, along with the Indonesians, were all Islam not because they just liked the religion, but because there were written materials to convey the message. The same is true for the spread of most every religion, allowing for local modifications to the texts. In comparing black Ethiopian Coptics to white English Catholics, the tale of Prester John describes more similarities than differences.

Inordinately stupid races, with low intelligence, cannot possibly have alphabets of their own. There would be a fair argument to suggest that, once suffused with written words pronounced according to foreign principles, languages such as goblin or troglodyte (intelligence 5-7) would lose their uniqueness completely in favor of hobgoblin or orcish. Goblin could not rationally be more than a dialect. Moreover, in order to make themselves understood, orcish would be steadily broken until it became a mere dialect of the language spoken by ogre mages. And so on. Question whether or not most of these independent languages would really differ in more than in local flavor.

Finally, in terms of the social relationships in the world you’re devising, don’t create individual cultures according to their geographic setting, but according to the distance such cultures are from each other in terms of time of travel. Celtic Scotland is vastly different from the heartland of Austria in terms of its geography, but both regions shared a cultural heritage for thousands of years, simply because the sea enabled ease of travel throughout the length of the British Isles and up the rivers of France and Germany into the interior of Europe.

Two seafaring nations a thousand miles apart may share agreeable perspectives, such as Zanzibar on the East Coast of Africa being organized similar to the Rajah states of Cochin India. The problems of Zanzibar are similar to the problems of Cochin India, and they have learned from one another, encouraging the spread of ‘approved’ writings. Physical distance does not guarantee cultural diversity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Technologies, More Posts

It comes that time to post the next segment of Civilization IV technologies, columns 5 through 8 of the whole tech tree from the game.   And it would indicate that the next post is meant to be 'Alphabet' ... which I'll get started on forthwith.

As you can see, these subjects take us up pretty much to the end of the Roman Empire.  I'm still more or less on top of the subject matter, and I have my classical education to thank for that.  I don't expect to be really out of my depth until quite some time yet.

I know that many of my gentle readers have enjoyed these posts, and I thank them for the compliments.  I do usually have to do some research into each topic, usually to 'wake up' parts of my memory about things, to remind me how such and such started or what effects the technologies have had.  But of course there are matters I don't take into account - there are spins and ideas I don't touch on, frankly because I didn't think of them, and sometimes because I chose not to follow that particular perspective.  It is much appreciated that the gentle reader has, from time to time, made the effort to fill in the gaps.

I encourage you to do so more often, as the subject matter is going to get wider and more complex.  Some of the subjects listed below could start three or four posts, quite easily - and I may do that, if the mood strikes me.  After all, there's no rule that I made of one technology, one post.

We'll just see how it goes.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Standardized Sheets? Phooey!

On the left, I include the character sheet front page of one of my players, running a mage/thief.  I only chanced to see this a few days ago, as it is on my player's computer - and she hasn't had access to her computer for a few months.*

The character sheet is of her own design, created on power point.  It has a definitely feminine appearance, but no matter - it suits her personality and it suits what is important to her about her character.

I hate standardized character sheets.  In a world like mine, where there are many house rules, and where many of the rules that have been imposed by the establishment in the last three decades are ignored entirely, bought or downloaded character sheets are a total waste.

To begin with, I do not have any alignments.  Nor skills.  Nor feats, electrum or platinum pieces, nor multiple spoken languages or a number of other features.  But I do have excessive details about the character's past, knowledge fields and specialties and other things which a character must take account for.

The thing is, as a character develops in my world, one sheet is never enough.  I tend to introduce a lot of NPCs that have only a passing acquaintance to characters, plus many details about the world and a considerable amount of highly diverse objects to be found.  By fifth level, most of my players find they are keeping at least five to seven sheets of notes, designs, maps and so on.  They find they have to divide their equipment up between what's stored at their keep, what's on their horse, what's hanging on what belt and what is in what pouch, since I care about things like that.  It gets complicated.

And since most equipment sheets are busy with lines and boxes and extraneous shit, they're not very flexible when it comes to anything except a cold, lifeless list.  Besides, anything kept on paper needs to be rewritten and rewritten, over and over.  Annoyingly.

So again, thank you for computers.

Most of my players like to have a computer generated sheet that they can print off, scratch all over the page making notes, then go home and update.  Virtually every standardized sheet I've seen is full of black ink which can't be comfortably written over and which reduces, considerably, the space for notes.  Note that the character sheet in the example above has tons of white space.

In most ways, a character sheet is like a player's home.  Sometimes messy, sometimes clean, but always very personal.  It defies standardization and it should defy standardization.  I am always arguing that players need to think outside  the box.

Giving them more boxes to fill doesn't help.

* The cantrips are missing from the sheet because somehow in the computer being down that data was lost.  We didn't have time our last running to generate new ones, and the character wasn't in the combat we were running.