Friday, February 26, 2010

Old Days

If there is something that sets me apart from the blogosphere, it must be that I don’t talk about OTHER games I play. I just talk about D&D. I have made allusions to other things (if the gentle reader is paying attention) ... but this is pretty much a one game only blog. It’s even been mentioned that I won’t use the term ‘GM’ to replace ‘DM’. I have thought about it, but since I want to emphasize what game I play, I don’t make the switch.

However, for the record, I have played other games. For a brief period, about six months in the early 80s, I played in a Rolemaster campaign, and I wasted another good six months playing in an Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. In and about that period, a friend of mine got very much into Chivalry & Sorcery, which I hardly ever hear mentioned, and I and a few others played while he ran. But that is about it for fantasy game systems. I just like the one.

But when it came to non-fantasy game systems, I played and ran Traveller very, very often. At first, the original three books, then with the Naval, Mercenary and Scout additions. At around the same time, I also played rather continuously (this would be 85-86) in a Top Secret campaign. I always liked the combat system in that one.

Around ’87 I conceived of a Traveller campaign with Top Secret weapons rules, and I ran that concordantly with my D&D campaign for five years. I called the unification “Star Jumper,” and since we played every week, one out of every three weeks we played it would be the space campaign. It went excellently for a time, and then it dropped off ... and by ’94, I no longer ran it. For about a decade after, until maybe five years ago, I would continue to work on the design ... but it’s dead to me now. I suppose I just got tired of the weak thinking where it came to the rules for an incredibly difficult universe (the later editions were NOT particularly comprehensive), and I did not wish to put in that work myself ... as I was already doing it for D&D. What’s more, no one I knew wanted to play.

We took a crack at Paranoia for awhile, but since you have to smile continuously during a good role-playing session if you don’t want the fire hydrants (and everything else) to shoot you for a traitor, overall it was an unpleasant game.

As long as we’re on the subject, however, I might just as well talk about non-RPGs.

My first experience there was way back in grade 7 ... circa 1977, when my friend Gary Stebbings introduced me to Panzerblitz. I fell in love with it immediately, and although later I was introduced to Squad Leader, I found the latter to be a bit too grinding where it came to rules. Panzerblitz was less ‘realistic’ but it flowed more quickly. In the three years before I was introduced to D&D, I played Panzerblitz, Panzer Leader and Arab/Israeli Wars quite a lot ... and for another four years, as long as opponents still existed. Towards the end, we used the maps and the units interchangeably. I remember very clearly one massive battle which included one Panzerblitz, one Arab/Israeli Wars, and two Panzer Leader games combined, with the Germans/Israelis (they were all blue and gray, so who cared about the logic of that) against the combined Americans, Russians and Arabs. More than 1400 total units on 15 boards, set up on a ping-pong table ... took an afternoon to make two complete moves. Damn, that was fun.

In High School, apart from a lot of D&D, it was all Ogre, all the time. I don’t know who remembers Ogre, but it was a convenient two-person game that could be played before, during, and after a D&D campaign ... most of which we played Fridays after school in the cafeteria, until six or six-thirty. There were usually three or four campaigns going on, and no one pushed us out because the sports teams were typically still practicing (or competing) until way after seven or eight. On sports competition nights, if we didn’t have to go home, we didn’t until sometimes 10 p.m., pretty much living out of the school’s vending machines. Those were days before D&D was banned at my old high school, something I learned from the younger brothers and sisters of the people I played with.

Anyway, Ogre. Yes, hundreds of hours spent at that. And at two other games, less popular but still memorable. The first being Awful Green Things From Outer Space, which I still have a copy of, and The Creature That Ate Sheboygan, which was huge fun. We played a variant where the citizens in the latter game were required to walk at their slowest speed towards the monster until they were quite close (five hexes) ... and then they could run to the edge of the board. At which point they would have to move towards the monster again. Was a hilarious variant, and helped smooth out some of the balance problems of the game (if you are competent with multiple units, you can usually beat a single monster).

I know there are words about these on boardgamegeek, so don’t suggest the site (I’ve been), but these are the ones I remember.

Other wargames included Tactics, Axis and Allies, Risk, more Risk, and Risk again. Jeez, I haven’t played Risk for six years and that is a good thing.

The last one would be a game of my own design, which we called Empires. This consisted of world maps drawn out to 1:5,000,000 scale, divided into ‘zones’ of ten thousand square miles each (America was thus about 360 zones), pasted on drywall roof tiles and nailed to the walls of the basement of the house I lived in for awhile. Nailed to the walls because the game also consisted of more than 2 to 3 thousand push pins (armies) scattered over the globe, with zones colored to indicate how rapidly they produced more push pins. The game could not be played in a day, nor a week of days, so thus it had to exist in a way that could be left for weeks at a time. Players used to make their ‘move’ ... which consisted of pulling and pushing back in about four or five hundred pins ... while we played D&D, or they’d just drop by to make their move when it was practical. Generally, we had four to seven players in the game, and it was necessary to supply your own pins if you wanted to play (100 pins were typically $2). We played several games over the space of a year and a half. The general complaint was that if we played several turns in the space of a day, our thumbs would hurt from the pins. This was all before it was practical to do it on computers (’89 to ’91, if I remember correctly). I’m sure a computer could do it, but I didn’t own that computer, simply because I was mostly broke in those days.

Good times.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Slartibartfast Can Suck My ****

Unlike him, I did not enjoy doing this at all.

But I admit, not bad.

I lied, apparently, for I promised to post the coastline of Turkey before this ... but after working on this coastline for two and a half months, I decided I couldn't wait.  It isn't even actually done - there are no labels for most of the regions.  Like I said.  Couldn't wait.

For what its worth, though.  Perhaps in a week or so I'll label it and repost.  In the meantime, please pardon the small flaws.  They're created by mashing together the four file maps over which Norway spreads.  You see, the largest convenient map to work on is 30 x 35 hexes ... and Norway is so long it doesn't conveniently fit even on two maps.

Sometime I might fix those too.

UPDATE: I've had a number who have asked me, on other map posts, what mapping program I use.  None, in fact.  This is all done on Microsoft Publisher, and it is all done by hand.  The hexes are objects, and everything else is a straight line (albeit, very short straight lines).

The scale is 1:1,267,200, and the hexes are 1.045 inches by 0.91 inches (hexagons which all 60 degree angles are not, I found, square.  The twenty mile diameter of each hexagon is across the flat, so from point to point they are 22.9 miles.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mapping Design

I've talked about this before, in passing ... but for my own records I wanted to write a single post on the subject, that I might refer back to it later.

When deciding to map the world as a hex map (all my previous world maps had been open maps without the hex design), I decided not to do what most every standardized map does - I did not wish to treat the world as though it were a flat plank, such as:

Does this map's dimensional quality bother anyone other than me?  How exactly do the longitudinal lines draw together at the top of the map's center, in order to meet at the north pole?  Answer: they don't.  This map is based on the same principle that graced every schoolroom when the makers of the above map were in grade three - you recognize it, of course.  It's the Mercator Projection:

Generally acknowledged to be among one of the silliest map projections ever designed (making Greenland the size of the United States, and convincing two generations of people that planes from New York fly over the middle of the Atlantic in order to reach Europe), this map was everywhere up until about thirty years ago.  It was originally designed as an aid to sea navigators (to calculate compass directions), it became popular due to geographically illiterate publishers appreciating the manner in which the projection makes it appear that the civilized northern states are physically comparable to their colonial equatorial counterparts.

The problem, of course, is that the verticle lines on the map are anything but ... they converge together towards a North Pole that cannot be reconciled with the map's appearance.  But sea navigators didn't need to navigate the north pole in the 16th century, so it was fine for them.  For a modern world, it is a sad, disposable artifact.

But in the 1960's, as I say, the projection was standard.  So have a look again at the Greyhawk map and tell me - how wide are one of those hexes at the top of the map, compared with those at the bottom?  Since the top of the map is arctic in character, and the bottom is tropical, the assumption is that this represents the pole to the equator ... in which case, every hex on the map must be a different diameter.  This just bugs me.

So when planning my world, I envisioned a globe, not a plank - and ran smack into the limitations of depicting a curved surface on a two-dimensional plane.

It has to be understood, NO map projection can be accurate, for just that reason.  The question couldn't be, what design will be flawless - it would have to be, what sort of flaw would least annoy my sensibilities.  I spent a lot of time contemplating dodecahedrons or the 20-sided die - even the 30-sided - for at least these represented orbs.  The 20-sided is really the only one that can be reconciled with a hex map, but it did require a considerable number of 'bends', at each change between faces.  Of course the 20-sided can be laid out flat:

But I considered the breaks in the above form to be, well, annoying.

So after much thought and brain-bending, I settled on the following system.  I am happy with it, although it does moderately warp the world map ... a necessary evil.

Starting with the following (albeit simple) diagram:

Starting with a 20-mile diameter hex at the North Pole, with the pole at its center, it is then 10 miles to the edge of the first hex, which works out to be at a latitude of approximately 89.86 degrees N.  Each concentric circle moving outward then extends near to 0.28 degrees latitude, the equivalent of 20 miles (if I've done my math correctly - if I haven't, it's a mistake I made five years ago and its too late to fix it now).  The first ring around the polar hex is 'Ring 1', the next is 'Ring 2' and so on.

To simplify the matter for me, the 360 degree circle at that latitude was then divided by the number of hexes in the given ring ... so that for Ring 1, each hex is 60 degrees in longitude in diameter; for Ring 2, 30 degrees in longitude and progressively less and less as one approaches the equator (which would be Ring 311, but is instead called the 'Equatorial Ring' in order to allow me to designate the rings south of Equator 311, 312, 313 and so on.  This made bookkeeping easier for me.

As such, this depiction of the Earth's surface creates two duplicate concentric plates, folded together at the Equator, and remarkably easy to lay out.  The lack of breaks, bends and so on allows for large expanses of the map to be seen at one time.  At 1 inch per hex, either hemisphere would be 51.83 feet across.  For me, it is a small dream that one day both finished maps could be laid out on a large gymnasium floor ... if ever I could finish them.

Travel between two places according to this map can lead persons far to the north, following 'the curve of the earth' ... which is why Marco Polo's route to China seems perplexingly indirect on a typical flat map (there's a high hump in the middle that describes Polo travelling north in order to travel east).  We experience the same situation casually when flying across Greenland to travel from North America to Europe.

It does, however, force the maps I draw to make a 'turn' of 60 degrees at six points along whatever line of latitude.  The distortion is quite obvious in some places, and less so in others, depending on how uniform the land or the sea is at that particular point.  You can see from my diagram that those points are along the following longitudes: 30 E, 90 E, 150 E, 150 W, 90 W and 30 W ... I chose those particular meridians both for their round numbers, and so that most would follow lines that were mostly water.  I didn't want to warp England in the middle, or indeed any part of Europe ... but it did wind up having some trouble with the western shore of Turkey.  Ah well.

That's about it, I guess.  I recommend to others that they consider a globe, when designing their worlds ... it will help draw together a unity that a 'plank map' won't provide.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tie A Rag Over My Eyes

This was originally going to be a comment on the previous post, but it went long and got deep, so I felt it was worthy of its own entry.  You might want to read this about Fridge Logic, and the comments, before continuing here.

I am baffled as to how non-fighter abilities such as assassination, backstabbing (supported by move silently/hide in shadows), open hand damage or spells (sleep, burning hands, magic missile, web, fireball, cloudkill, heat metal, cause light wounds, cause fear, call lightning, produce flame, spiritual hammer, chromatic orb, hypnotism and so on) are somehow not classed at the primary gains where it comes to non-fighter classes. I haven't heard any mages getting excited at 5th level because they can at last use infravision. I don't deny that non-combat abilities do accrue at gaining levels, but lets be serious about this - it is the combat privileges that players slaver for.

It is disingenious to argue that a player's hit points do not increase their likelihood of surviving through a combat, or that players do not take advantage of the best punishment delivering spells when they get the opportunity. Just as it is disingenious to argue that a thief isn't most often using his thieving abilities to arrange things so that the thief and the party can kill something. Note, I say 'most often', not 'always' ... so don't waste time giving me solitary examples where this isn't so. I know it isn't always so. But a thief using thieving abilities isn't worthy of an X.P. bonus ... do you give a monk X.P. bonuses for dodging missile weapons?

Carl, take note - since the very beginning of my online campaign, I have starved the players of ready cash - not by purposefully doing so, but by accepting that they would rather avoid conflict whenever possible. I do use the g.p. rule in my campaigns, but in total, in 4 months of playing, I've awarded almost nothing this way. I'm quite able to be liberal in my treasure, but I keep finding that whenever I set up a circumstance where the players might do a. and b. and thus get a big reward, the players sidestep and miss it entirely.

I don't find it problematic ... I can play the game forever no matter what the party chooses to do, and keep the tension going. I do find it interesting that I don't need to do anything to keep money out of the players hands - given that money clearly isn't their motivation.

At the same time, I won't reward them X.P. for choosing another path. I hear arguments like "gut-feeling of how hard the challenges ..." and I quail ... it's a sandbox game. If a party wants to make it hard for themselves by behaving honestly, denying themselves fast money, or taking paths which provide little combat or treasure rewards, that is their bailiwick. I don't care what my gut tells me about what they deserve, because my gut has no business as the DM of this game. I am often astounded at the party's cleverness. But it isn't my JOB to patronize the party ... it is my job to provide a system of blind justice.

I Was Getting A Beer From The Fridge When ...

Fridge logic hit me.

Many DMs insist that problem-solving and roleplaying should somehow translate into experience points. It makes no sense that a character carefully thinks his way through a problem, solving it without having to fight, only to recieve no tangible reward where it comes to the game. Fighting and treasure, it is argued, shouldn’t drive the game.

Where players hold this tenent dearly, in a sandbox game, they will often avoid fighting whenever possible. Sometimes, players who play this way are punished by more and more monsters, until they have to fight. This can be very frustrating.

Let’s say they’re not forced into fighting ... that fighting occurs, occasionally, but it can be managed and even avoided, in a fair number of cases. And let’s say we have two parties running in this world – one that opts for fighting, one that doesn’t.

According to expectations, the party that fights and fights will rise in level, while the problem-solving party will not. According to argument, the problem-solving party will have more ‘fun’, or at least run in a more interesting and varied campaign, while the fighting party runnings will be repetitious. It is for that reason that many think there’s a flaw in the game, that it rewards mindlessness and punishes creativity. Shouldn’t the creative game be the one that pushes levels?

So experiments are tried ... to cut experience for fighting, to eliminate experience altogether for treasure. And to award experience, on the least ad hoc basis possible, for intelligent planning. In the very least, to make the ‘goal’ the experience, rather than the method. Defeat the enemy, by any means, and go up a level.

Somewhat difficult in a sandbox game. What is the goal? If the game never ends, and several plotlines are running simultaneously, when does the marker come that designates that the party goes up a level? True, there do come ‘natural’ breaks ... but how does one judge – without bias – the value of such a break?

Well, I don’t try. But it is giving a headache to someone.

I’d like to examine the problem-solving method for a moment.

To me, the reward seems a bit more obvious than it might to some. In life, as I solve problem after problem, I gain skill in solving problems. Particularly if I am given to solving problems in a particular field – I will gain greater familiarity with that field, and have a wider cognitive resource upon which to draw, when I wish to solve a problem.

D&D is like that for me. I think of the game a great deal of the time, and have done so for many years ... and when faced with a problem, I tend to leap to a solution fairly quickly. My tactics are not flawless. I make mistakes. But I problem-solve my way out of the mistakes, also, again from experience. And each time I do so, I gain a little wisdom.

Now suppose the field I am experienced with is weapon mechanics – and just for the sake of the game, we’ll define the sort of weapons I know as those that might be made by a blacksmith. Yes, let’s say I’m a blacksmith.

As I work as a blacksmith for year after year, I learn a great deal about problem solving where it comes to weapons. I learn about alloys, and heat, and method – and if I’m very clever, I learn from others, and improve the balance of the weapons I make, and their durability, and their edge. If I set myself goals to achieve, and force myself to solve harder and harder problems, I may one day succeed at becoming a very successful and creative blacksmith.

But if I never pick up one of my weapons and split open someone’s head with it, or use one of my weapons to keep someone from splitting open mine, no matter how much I know about blacksmithing, I’ll never be much of a fighter. Knowing how the weapon is made is not transferable to use.

For those out there who are rewarding experience left and right for avoiding fighting, I’d like you to realize for a moment that the direct effect of going up a level is to make the character a better combat machine. First and foremost, level translates to hit points, weaponry (including spells), a better hit table and a wider range of tactical advantages. Gaining a level does NOT make a player character a better problem solver. It does NOT increase the player’s ability to role-play.

This is not to argue that a player doesn’t get better the more roleplaying he or she does ... I just said, I am a good role-player because I’ve done a lot of it. But I am a good role-player no matter what level I am. I may use my role-playing skill to increase my character’s level, but I simply cannot use my character’s level to increase my role-playing skill.

As such, there’s no logic whatsoever to increasing the player’s level according to how well they played the esoteric game ... since the level has nothing to do with an esoteric reward.

It is a DM’s gut feeling that good play ought to be rewarded, simply because it is felt that the world ought to work that way. It is simply charity ... with the best of intentions, obviously, but by the principles of human nature it is necessarily erratic, inconsistent and – worst of all – selective. If you are a DM who rewards X.P. for good play, you are playing favorites. You’re biologically designed that way.

I can’t stop you, of course. I wouldn’t want to run in your world. I like it when everyone gets to play ... even when I’m the favored bastard.

Going back to, the ‘world ought to work that way.’ We know it doesn’t. Sports teams can play very, very well, and still lose. Goals in sports do not count extra when they are ‘made’ more elegant ... every goal, clumsy goals or sweet goals, even a goal where the team scores on itself, counts the same. Teams that do not score goals do not get special points. The rules of the game makes allowances for strategies to score goals, but not for strategies for having fun.

If a party wants to avoid a fight, I have no trouble with that. Occasionally it won’t be possible, but often it will work as a strategy. I don’t care if the monster is killed or not – I have nothing invested in imaginary creatures.

But I don’t believe a player improves their hit points by avoiding being damaged. I don’t believe a player that won’t fight should somehow go up a level that entitles them to fight better. If they want to fight better, they can fight more often.

It’s okay. Because all the problem solving they’re doing is teaching them to be better problem solvers. I don’t need to award experience for that. Problem solving is its own reward.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Still On Training

Not quite interested in letting a good subject die, I have a few further thoughts on the subject.  The first being that there seems to be a disconnect between the differences between 'training' and 'practice'.  Many of the comments on the other post are far more applicable to the repetition of an already understood ideal, for the purpose of being better at that ideal ... i.e., controlling one's body so as to perform the desired action perfectly.  When the Bride is beating her hand against the wood in Kill Bill, she is NOT training.  She is practicing.

Part of the misconception arises from the selling of martial arts as a product, which recognizes that people are prepared to pay hundreds of dollars to be 'trained.'  As such, it has entered into the western parlance - an invention of the 20th century not recognized by the originators of the art, who regularly 'practice' without the need of any other participant.  But practice sounds like something you shouldn't have to pay for, so the schools use the word training and the stooges line up.  Guess what ... if you do understand a martial art, you're an idiot if you're still paying to practice while being watched.  Which was the point of the previous post.

I have, however, an entirely new perspective for consideration.  Mind you, it does require another metaphor, which is intended to convey the message.  Let's give it a try.

While it was never my prime interest, for some twenty years, I performed on stages as an actor.  I began in high school, and picked up roles now and then when they presented themselves, usually by way of friends who were interested in making films or who notified me of casting calls.  You could say I trained, in that I took a number of courses and learned from some directors who were brilliant.  I would say that more of it was practice, in learning lines, in repeating lines during rehearsals or for auditions ... practice is what it all about.

My last gig was 2002, but the four years leading up to that were good ones.  The summer of 1998 was a turning point for me, and here is why.

I was performing in a very large cast ensemble play intended for one of the larger fringe festivals of the continent, a play that began with a seven-minute monologue delivered by me.  The monologue was coming out very badly, and I couldn't identify the problem.  Neither could the director.  I had beaten it into the ground, repeating it about a dozen times a day at least, but it wouldn't flow.  The director and I had both gone over the words, but there was nothing wrong with them.  The problem, I felt, was definitely in me - I wasn't breathing through the character.

I want to emphasize: practice wasn't helping.  If you have any sense of the theatre, you'll know that there's no special kind of training that will work.

The director was on the edge of cutting the monologue somehow, and I was very down about it and telling a friend in his living room ... a friend I knew from working on the university paper.  Ken was a photographer and graphic artist, and had a video camera.  So I suggested that he film me while I did the monologue, so I could see myself how I was fucking it up (this was before motion photography became uncommonly simple).

He pointed the camera, I did the monologue, and he agreed as we watched the video that I was shit.  But Ken had an idea.  He had known me for many years, and had known what I was like when suddenly inspired to rant - a practice I take up in speech as well as in text.  So we made a plan.  I would stay on the stool where I'd delivered the monologue and he would keep the camera on me.  We'd forget the camera and talk about other things, giving Ken a chance to get me rolling on something.  When I really got going, he'd surreptitiously flip on the camera and catch it.

Took 90 minutes.  And yes, he got me in a five minute monologue about the government or stupid people or something.  Bang.  What an eye-opener.

It took all of ten seconds for us to identify the difference.  When I was ranting, I didn't move.  At all.  It was almost creepy.  It was also overwhelmingly powerful, for my eyes carried the emotion.  Then I tried the monologue without moving a muscle and it worked.

That wraps up the relevant point of this metaphor, but since I've started I've got to finish the story.  The next day I showed up for rehearsal feeling like I had a loaded gun.  I took the advantage before the rehearsal to relate to the director every problem I had with the production, particularly his control-freaking attitude (I called him a Nazi at one point) - and this started a fight that lasted about 45 minutes, outside the theatre with the cast listening through the back door.  When the rehearsal started, the director had decided to fire me - he didn't do it at that moment as he reasoned it was logical to have me play the part to make the rehearsal go, and replace me before the next.  Smart fellow.  But I'd always known that.  The cast, I'd like to add, were ready to see me go.

Then I blew them all away.

I had the character nailed down and the director had no interest in firing me when it was done (he is to this day one of my closest friends, occasionally mocking me by saying 'you called me a Nazi').  The cast forgave me, and I was transformed as an actor.

The realization of how to be that actor happened in the space of about one minute.  The scales fell from my eyes.

The argument goes that 'sudden' transformation of a character from this level to that level is 'unrealistic.'  I dispute that.  I think that we fail to recognize that at profound, singular points in our lives we undergo an epiphany that reorders the way we look at the world - where our actions the next day are NOT the same as they were, and NOT due to either training or practice.  It is a staggering moment - but anyone who has suddenly seen through an insurmountable problem, only to wonder why it was insurmountable, will understand what I am saying.  Archimedes had his Eureka moment in a bathtub.  Galileo as he peered through a telescope, Siddhartha underneath a tree.  Alexander cut through a knot, and then he cut through a continent that couldn't be conquered.  It is the quinessential moment when you realize how you've done it wrong, and how to do it right.  It is gaining a level, clear and simple.

For you and I, mere peasants, it may happen once, maybe twice in a lifetime.  For characters, who are unusual, it can happen a dozen times ... and each time, it is the conception of how to do that spell now when before it was impossible, because thinking and puzzling it out all through the previous level has now, finally, made it come together in the magician's head.  How is it done now when it was not done ten minutes ago?  Thinking, my friend.  Using the old noggin.

Why does this seem so strange?  It seems strange because we are propagandized to believe that it isn't possible to think your way through something, that you need to beat yourself against that wall until you're bloody or else you didn't do it fairly.  It is a protestant effort to equal everyone onto the same work path ... while to the left and right of the hard straight and narrow are those who jumped the queue and became insanely wealthy or powerful by skipping the wall-beating process.  If you can't see how this can apply to characters ranging over a vast world, gathering experience in the face of a dozen dangers, you must have your head down and blood in your eyes.

Try thinking it through.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Now what could a calendar have to do with D&D?

To begin with, it must be pointed out that most worlds are fabricated by DM’s who wish to explore the limits of their imagination without the restriction of anything like earth like reality or conditions. If rivers are desired to flow upwards into the mountains, if seas boil in slow bubbles like hot mud, if the trees are nomadic and march from land to land in the space of decades, then so be it. Magic, if not geography, justifies all.

And I won’t throw water on it. The use of one’s imagination is a holy thing. I defend it first and foremost.

There are some interesting problems, just the same ... beginning with the measurement of time.

Whatever name one posits for the passage of a brief expanse of time, moderately less than or greater than a second, or however long a day lasts or however many ‘hours’ might be in it, it does help to remember that the occasional calculation of time does depend upon a group of circumstances which are all too familiarly associated with earth. If it is wished to calculate the time it takes for a rider recently dismounted from his griffon to strike the earth, it is habitual to use the standardized calculation, 32 feet per second per second ... mucking about with the length of seconds, much less the density of the gravity well and its effect on all physics, has its consequences. But then, there’s always magic. Magic puts all things right.

Since this is a discussion about time – the calendar measures time – having a discussion about seconds, or about years for that matter, seems fortuitous. I don’t want to bore – we know that the second is not a random length. It is a subdivision of the solar day, the length of the earth’s rotation, as broken up into sixty parts of sixty parts, of twenty-four parts, that all seemed very logical at the time. It has to do with the somewhat equatorial culture that devised the early calendar (Babylonian), where night and day are equal for the better part of the year, and both the day and night being divided into 12 parts ... just as the moon divided the year into 12 parts. And as the counting method devised by the Babylonians was a sixty-base system, minutes and seconds became what they are. None of that really matters, except ...

If you change the size of the planet, or its distance from the sun, you change everything. The day lasts longer, the year lasts longer, things fall farther in the space of one second and so on.

The solar calendar was allowed into existence, at least partly, by the ever-clear skies of the desert and the flat horizon. A star rising above that horizon could be calculated to the exact moment, and observed a year later to rise again, on cue, according to a rather complicated set of mathematical calculations (the year not being exactly 365 days long). The ‘magic’ of being able to identify the rise of any particular star created the priesthood, and enabled the preparation of both the Babylonian and Egyptian cultures (the Egyptians getting the hang of it either independently or through ‘borrowing’ the technology) to prepare for floods before the floods came. Rivers operated on specific rules, based upon melting snows which the priests did not need to see in order to predict – to the day.

If you would change the length of the year, how would you judge the rising of stars – if it mattered. It does happen that the prediction of floods, and the creation of the calendar, enabled the existence of widespread agriculture and the feeding of thousands, and later millions of people. The predictability of earth’s environment, from the snows to the stars, profoundly allowed the existence of all civilization ... through the measurement of mere points of light popping up above the horizon.

There are some six thousand stars visible to the naked eye in the firmament. Of these, three thousand are visible, give or take, from any particular point of latitude (the north cannot see stars of the southern sky, and vice versa). While a particular location on earth causes the estimated three-thousand stars to rise above the horizon, through half the day the sun washes out those that might otherwise be see, so that at different times of the year different stars are seen from the side of the earth opposite the blazing sun. In a night, then, some 1,500 stars may be seen (give or take those blotted out by the dusk or dawn). Of these stars, nearly five in six are so dim as to be difficult to detect, particularly near the horizon. Thus, only 250 stars in a given night might be said to be ‘relevant.’

Priests would sit and identify every star, all night long, as it rose, and make calculations. In all, more than a thousand stars were carefully tracked, some of those stars expected to rise in the summer, or in the fall, or in the winter or spring. Each special star had a name, and each star heralded a specific quality or circumstance to be expected at the particular time of its appearance ... in the east.

What stars appear in your world? What do they convey? Who watches them? Do they make the world predictable enough to judge its trajectory through the heavens?  I wonder who out there has carefully mapped out the floor of their world, and then turned their gaze to map out the roof, also.

But what am I saying? It should be acknowledged that a world needs no stars, nor even a sun, except to rise and fall in a perfect earth day, without needing there to be any logic. There is an unwritten acceptance in D&D that no matter how strange the landscape, or how odd the weather or the seasons, none of this has any effect upon the will of its inhabitants to build cities or to plant crops which predictably sprout and give forth wheat without any question of the heat of the sun or the length of time it remains in the sky. If there is a calendar, it is almost certain to have thirty days in every month, and seven days in every week, with or without plan or purpose – because the DM does come from a world where this is so, and the DM would have it so in the world of the DM’s devising.

No matter what.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Oz's Dilemma

So, these days I can’t seem to catch my breath ... but since I have a few minutes, I’ll tackle a small subject and bring things up to date.

First of all, yes, I will be posting the other three tables in the Abilities series, for Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma. I haven’t had a chance to finish them completely, and that’s why they aren’t posted. I expected to have the time, but that evaporated, and things don’t look to get better right away. But I’d like to get them out of the way and therefore off my mind, so hopefully next week.

I have some maps for the ongoing mass combat from my players, which I’ve also meant to post. I may or may not be running my offline campaign tomorrow, which will probably mean additional maps that I’ll publish. I assume some of you out there are wondering.

I still haven’t written a Civ IV article about the Calendar, but I have been thinking about it. I want to tackle that soon, as well.

As far as a short subject goes for right now, I’d like to pose the question, do hormones have a place in D&D?

A principle conflict in literature is ‘man against nature’ ... which I believe is the principle conflict to be found in D&D. Nature is the world that characters must fight through and must, to be successful, defend against. Crushing nature, smashing down its forces and living in spite of the many ways in which the natural world can kill a character is, it seems to me, the whole point.

The DM can pose some Man vs. Man conflicts, but these have their limitations in that the DM is not limited in the sense that the player is limited. Player vs. Player conflicts are still Man vs. Man, but are generally detrimental to the overall pace of the game. As regards Man vs. Himself, the game itself provides little fodder ... except that, of course, every player acts within this conflict continuously, as we are all human.

Where it comes to Man vs. Nature, then, how far does it go? Obviously, it goes as far as monsters, natural disasters, weather, diseases – and in my case birth defects – but what of hormonal ‘urges’? Are players unquestionably immune to a tendency to get angry, aroused, hungry, anxiety-ridden ... are these necessarily off-limits to the DM as regards the game? Should they be off-limits? Should players, in the fashion of wooden characters from bad movies in the 1930s, be utterly unaffected by a bare breast, or the death of a friend – simply because that player chooses not to role play at that particular place and time?

Or should players be required, after a fashion, to behave in a particular manner – when the King of the kingdom dies, for instance, as virtually every person would be affected; or if a pet developed a disease? How would it be ‘forced’ upon a player that they must, at that moment, mourn, rather than simply buckle up and say, “oh well, another dead dog, so what?” Could it be forced? Is the idea simply ridiculous?

I’m always rather moved when a player portrays real sorrow for a loss, or a legitimate response due to an ‘overwhelming feeling’ they possess ... as either suggests the character is not made of wood, or straw. Is there a way to give the tin man a heart? Is it beyond the game?

I put it to you.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On Training

When I was 14, my father took me along hunting with him, which I saw as an unsure opportunity for a city boy. He had grown up in small towns, where guns were common, but I had never had a gun in my hands before. Being the man he was, he gave me some stern advice, some practical education. Recognizing the dangers involved, I listened – and felt very hesitant about actually firing the weapon.

It was a 12 gauge shot-gun, an Ithaca-made pump-action, and I put it to my shoulder and squeezed the trigger as told. And though I tried to have it set into my shoulder, I nevertheless smacked myself in the chin with the action block. And I thought to myself, don’t do that again. Experience.

For my first season, most of the shots I took were, in my father’s words, “fired in anger.” We hunted largely for upland birds, pheasants, grouse, partridge, and it was not until my second season that I successfully hit something. Raising the gun, leading the bird, pulling the trigger at the exact moment – those were intellectual processes. I had to learn how not to react emotionally to the effort, but to ‘think’ the shot through. Experience.

By the time I was 21, I could drop two Hungarian partridge out of a single flock, or covey, using the same pump-action shotgun I grew very familiar with. A Hungarian partridge is about the size of a quail – so, not very big you understand. I would say I had ‘risen a level’ in terms of my skill at hunting.

My training consisted of being able to hunt five days a year, since I couldn’t go out every weekend during the fall. In all, in my life, I’ve hunted perhaps 35 times. My total ‘training’ from my father consisted mostly of doing what he did, and shooting when he shot. The real experience came not from what he told me, but from the mistakes I made.

So yes, I gained experience from killing. And as I improved, I never had to pay any money for anything, except for ammunition and for travel. I did not have to ‘return to train’ with my father, or any other ‘master.’ Although I haven’t hunted in 20 years, if I were to return to it, I wouldn’t have to ‘train’ to improve myself. I’d just have to go out and do it.

Remember – in D&D, there is a distinction made between a fighter ‘training’ and a fighter going out and killing. I can’t figure out where that distinction lies. And if the fighter has gained his experience to get his second level, then he HAS killed, and therefore he HAS trained – what sense does it make for him to go find some stranger and give money? The training isn’t in swinging the weapon at straw dummies, which is only the effort to desensitize the practitioner to violence. Once that desensitization has taken hold, ‘training’ is WORTHLESS.

I don’t see how the logic falls down where it comes to thieves, or magicians, or bards, or any other class.

And here I find myself drawn to making other examples, having nothing to do with me, but a great deal to do with history ... where somehow, a great many people seemed to advance themselves greatly through ‘doing,’ without finding any need to return to any master for any further ‘training.’

Alexander the Great, for instance, who crossed the Bosporus into the Persian Empire at the age of 18, who conquered half the known world and who certainly must have taken enough experience from the effort to have risen a dozen levels ... does not seem to have listened to his tutors. Or Cortez, who by hook or by crook brought about the demise of Mexico – did he then return to Cuba or Spain for training? Did Genghis Khan, or Timur, or Akbar?

Perhaps we do not like the conqueror example. What of Michaelangelo, then ... when he broke himself in the pursuit of his goals, who surely gained experience from his efforts – who do you think he would have gone to for training? To some unknown person who was more creative, more skilled ... but whom we’ve never heard of? What of Ponce de Leon ... did he not go up a single level in all his travels? Where did he go for training? Who would have trained Confucius, or Siddhartha, or Zarathustra? Did Jesus or Socrates, or Erasmus or Abelard, have to break from their teaching to get taught?

The argument is that at second level, you are taught by the student of, say, Abelard ... but at what level do we decide when you must have Abelard himself, and at what level do you become Abelard? And if you do not ‘train’ when you have reached that level, why is it the hit points and spells gained them do not require training, when they always did before? How is the dividing line ever logical, and not invented upon prejudice?

I do not see where the training argument is ‘realistic.’ I know of no profession where success at the profession requires schooling ... once the profession is obtained, school is left behind. It is only in this modern, technology-driven existence that an educational ‘half-life’ is even conceived. It has no place in a medieval setting.

Training. Is. Bullshit.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Norway Flotsam

I'm publishing this for a fellow who's working on a Norway campaign, circa 1150, who posted on Three Hams Inn yesterday.  It's a list of Norway cities and their approximate dates of founding.  I wouldn't trust any of the figures to be accurate - but what the hell, I spent several hours researching this about a year ago and it's as good as I could manage at the time.