Friday, October 29, 2010

A Calm, Cool, Gentle Presentation

Recently, I've been watching through a BBC series, The Nazies and the Final Solution.  It's fairly remarkable in that it adds considerable detail to a subject that I've always thought was treated cursively and repetitively by most documentaries.  I suggest having a look at it.  Overall, the subject tends to get under my skin and raises my anger, making it difficult to watch at times, but I concentrate on the knowledge gained.  I don't wish to close my eyes to it.

With the close of the third episode, which I saw last night, my partner and I had a discussion about certain facets of the Nazi plan.  She pointed out that she was interested in the policy they used of making everything appear very normal, of being polite to everyone who climbed off the trains.  The standard trope of Nazis shouting at prisoners and German shepherds with sharp teeth barking just wasn't so.  In fact, the soldiers were very gracious.  "Please put your belongings here, please stand there, if we could please have the travellers from Warsaw move to the left side of the platform and those from Bialystok to the right ..." and so on.

The greater horror - and horror in terms of roleplay has been up for discussion of late - was that the participants did not see the horror coming, certainly not until they were inside the showers and it was too late to do anything.  It did not take long for the camp guards to recognize that a calm, passive face encouraged everyone to move obediently in the direction wished for.  It's often asked why the Jews were so complacent about walking into the gas chambers to be slaughtered by the millions.

They did it because the Nazis said, "Please."

And this allows me here to make a brief comment upon the loading up of terrifying elements at the beginnings of D&D modules.  And it allows me to comment further upon why a module, even a polite one, wouldn't work on my players.

In a sandbox campaign, where everything is mostly calm and non-threatening as the party moves from town to town, or spends time steadily building up their domains, there's no reason to suspect that I have anything in particular up my sleeve.  I could present a circumstance of peacefulness and comfort for the party, and walk them right into Treblinka without batting an eye ... and they'd never see it coming.

But the instant I pull out a module, that's all blown.  Unless I want to try to memorize the module, so that I can speak it without having to look at notes, the party knows I have something planned, and they won't trust a damn thing I say.

In an ordinary sandbox campaign, the bartender can approach the party, offer a taste of the latest import that's just come in, suggest there are some unusual qualities in the wine that make it very satisfying, and there's a possibility the party will buy a bottle.

But if I have a module open on my table, and the bartender offers a bottle of wine, then the wine is poisoned, the bartender is a spy for an evil duke, the bar is the headquarters for the Hearteaters of the Flatulent Sphinx and so on and so forth.  I have shown my hand and every player has their weapons out and their backs up.

It's no better for all those DMs who are carefully crafting their own adventures, complete with hooks and maps, which are sitting stacked with the books when the DM sits down to the table.  Worse, the originating announcement at the start of the evening is usually, "I've just obtained a copy of ..." or "I've been working all weekend on this fellows, hope you like it."

You cannot hope to obtain the sort of terror that possesses a character in a Lovecraftian novel if the character knows from the outset that they are in a Lovecraftian novel!  See, the reader knows it, he bought the book at the store in the real world, but the characters have no fucking clue ... they're just going about their daily lives, buying bottles of wine and visiting relatives, utterly oblivious that in the next 140 pages something awful is about to come to light.

It was suggested that my failing at Death Frost Doom stemmed from not properly merging the module with my campaign.  It may not have occurred to some - but when reviewing a product, it does little good to make great changes to the product that others wouldn't be able to make if they were to purchase that product.  As a reviewer, it is beholden upon me to present the product exactly as written.  And as written, the party made it clear that, once presented with the dripping horror of the first few interactions, that they wanted nothing to do with the place.  It wasn't Treblinka, you understand.

Railroading the party was the only way to obtain a more thorough review of the material, which is something my party understood.  I had no reason to run the module at all except to obtain perspective through which I'd be able to write the review.  I had no other agenda.  From a personal point of view, no, I wouldn't have run the module at all.  But I could hardly write my review about that.

As it happened, when the players did get inside the module, they found it wasn't very scary at all.  If they had continued on past room 18, they would have found a series of rooms with various low-level undead, all of whom the party had fought before on previous occasions, ending in treasure.  I read these rooms aloud to the party after the insurrection, and their feeling was, "Is that all?"

The trouble is that module-and-planned-adventure thinking has the process entirely backwards.  You don't present the party with a nightmare scenario and then reduce the last few bits of it to poking through boxes and cleaning up critters.  Bilbo does not walk out his door into a horrorscape.  He steps onto a road and starts walking, with rather friendly companions.  The first critical scene in the telling of Frodo's story starts with a Birthday Party.

Suppress every sign that the party is about to encounter anything.  Hide your maps and your descriptions.  Explain that you don't have an adventure planned this week, that we'll just 'wing it.'  Try to present the first few aspects of your campaign from memory, and speak the words with an air of dispassion, that you don't care what the party does.  Give no sign that anything you have to say has the least importance.

You smooth the feathers of the party down, you make it a nice bottle of wine, you demonstrate that they have nothing to fear by having the bartender sit down and tell them a sad story about how his wife is cheating on him ... and from there you build the story, bit by bit.  Please put your things here.  Please move to the side here.  If I could just have everyone over sixty line up here ... yes, Ma'am, we will be serving dinner in the mess hall immediately after your shower.  It's been a very difficult trip for everyone and we'll need to clean up before everyone can enter the camp ..."

Goal Posts

The hit point system in D&D is the worst combat simululation ... except for all the others.

In spite of my last post, I actually quite like the HP system.  My primary argument was that too few hit points were impractical in terms of the potential damage that NPC's, particularly zero levels, ought to be able to withstand.  It isn't that I don't imagine some people would have 1 hp, given medical or physical conditions ... but to argue that all non-combative persons should have less than 5 hp is ridiculous, from a game-challenge point of view.

But this post is not inspired by the very good argument that went on yesterday.  I want to answer a question from Carl, who asked if I equated physical damage to HP.  As he says, the logic of the D&D approach "...breaks down rapidly as characters level up, and I think it starts with HP too low at 0 or 1st level."

I do equate HP to physical damage, as I've made clear in previous posts.  But just to recap my basic premise here, I don't see severe damage occurring until getting down to the last few hit points that a character has.  Up until then it is nicks, cuts and bruises, or at least nothing which disables the combat value of the participant.

This means that I view the original hit points that a character receives to be mostly made up of body mass and physical condition, and later hit points gained to be made up of quickness and experience.  Allow me to demonstrate by metaphor.

Now, I wish I had a better one, but hopefully this will do the trick.  Consider, if you will, the game of hockey.  The net is a rather small target, made smaller by the presence of the goalie, and its easy to miss.  But as you improve your aim and your overall ability to play (and control the bouncing, annoying puck), it gets easier and easier to hit that net.  In fact, if you consider the task in terms of perception, the net posts get wider and wider, the better you play.

If I can apply this to hit points.  The goal posts are, effectively, the first hit point and the last hit point possessed by the character.  While the character's level increases, it is not the physical body that takes more damage, but rather that weapons and attacks upon the player are lessened in comparison.  In other words, the sword might touch the arm of a 1st level fighter and it might touch the arm of a 10th level fighter, but the higher level will have learned how to sweep the sword aside in combat without being cut, while the lower level will get cut every time.

Another way to think about it would be to say that the weapons do less and less damage to higher level characters ... but game-wise, this is impractical.  You can't be asking, what die do I roll for a long sword against an 8th level ranger?  There's too many possibilities, and the dice are not flexible enough.  By increasing the hit points instead, we can pin-point the reduced effects of every weapon (and spell) at one and the same time.

Thus, while Armor Class may not change, and it may be as easy to hit a 10th level fighter in chain as a first level fighter, it is much harder to make a significant blow against the 10th level.  And as hit points go up, the significance of each blow is lessened.

This seems eminently simple to me.  Whereas hit tables and even the time-to-death table I made mention of in my previous post are really impractical where it comes to complicated, extensive combat scenarios.

Once again, I wasn't so much bad-mouthing the use of hit points, but instead insisting that ordinary individuals deserved, on the whole, a greater survival potential than a mere d4.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tougher than d4

People have this rather silly idea that human beings - especially 'normal' human beings - are easy to kill.  For example, this post from JB's blog, B/X Blackrazor, explains that normal human beings are those that are non-heroic, non-adventuring and non-combat-worthy.  These people only have 1 to 4 hit points, says JB, and why?  Because, quote, "They can all be killed, fairly easily, by the single blow of a hand weapon."

I'm a little confused by that.  Particularly when I consider the story of Michel Auger, a journalist who was shot six times in the back during an attack outside his newspaper office in the year 2000, and yet managed to survive.  Three of the bullets that hit him were so deep that doctors were unable to remove them.  Impressive, since Auger was 56 at the time he was shot.  Then again, bullets aren't really very dangerous, are they?

That story was the first thing that occurred to me upon reading JB's post ... and it's hardly unique.  The Biography Channel (I don't own a television, but I found it with 90 seconds of research on the Internet) has a television program based on ordinary people surviving everyday events that we'd expect them to die from.

I myself once went over the handlebars of a bike, down a twenty-foot cliff, landing on the top of my spine right between my shoulders (I tucked my head).  But I'm sure that wasn't more than 1 hit point of damage.

I think that an open forum asking people to tell tales of when they were stabbed or shot or struck would get an impressive array of answers, which would bring into question whether it was 'fairly easy' to kill us.

Fat and lazy we may be, but the human body is a surprisingly resilient machine where it comes to taking damage.  When we consider the most widespread cause of weapon damage, War, we must remember that most of the time it is not the weapon that kills.  Human beings do not have half their arm blown away by a bullet and then fall down dead.  What they do is fall down, bleeding, suffering, and usually for a long, long time.  This is one of the wonders that has made medical practice on the battlefield remarkably possible.  We don't die at once.  We can be shipped, packed with bandages, and even stored while waiting our turn to be surgically operated on.  It's called triage.  It says that yes, you've just lost your leg, but you're strong enough to wait five hours because we've got to work on this guy's chest, and then that guy's belly.  Here's some pills, we'll get right to you.

So realistically, characters and NPC's ought to be designated a 'time variable' to indicate how long it will take them to die from a particular weapon blow.  Because, after all, if the person can be gotten to a cleric with cure critical wounds within that variable time frame, it shouldn't matter what damage they've soaked up.  If a 20th century healer with drugs and tools can sort out your perforated lung, chipped liver and loose arteries with hard work after shuttling you ten miles from the nearest battlefield (never a comfortable trip), a bit of magic ought to manage nicely.

The problem with these rather thoughtless hit point proposals, that a human being can take this damage or that damage because I've sat cleverly in my chair without any medical training and said so, is that the only contribution they make to the game is to further videofy it.  Hey, player, don't worry about farmers and bakers, or that scribe, you can butcher them without much trouble because you're a Great He-Man Hero.  Swing your sword once and snickity-snick, they're done for!  My my, it's like cutting down weeds, say what?

Well, you know what, fuck that.  You just go ahead and try to put that sword into my 62-year-old uncle's gut.  He's done nothing all his life but drive a tractor and milk cows, just like all the other farmers in that part of the world, but somehow I think when he grabs your hero's throat in one hand - the hand that's as big as both of mine put together - you're going to get a big fucking surprise.

Hands that resent adventure, haven't killed anyone and lack heroics

Physically, human beings ... even normal ones ... are capable of all kinds of miracles.  Shove that up your d4 hit points.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Contractor

I am still upgrading my equipment tables along the lines of my next to last post, and in the process I've unexpectedly stumbled upon an interesting concept, having to do with this table:


The purpose of the table is to allow players to pick and choose from the various features, and thus design their homes or castles, increasing the thickness of walls as necessary and so on.  But the purchasing table allows for something I'd never remotely considered before.

Note, if you will, that the Purchasing side indicates what the local town (according the principles I described in the earlier post) is interested in buying.  And note that the products in this case are not things that are easily carried.  For example, the town is looking to buy 4 sections of roadway, 30' long and 10' wide.  The town is willing to pay 155 g.p.

In other words, the town needs a road to be built - or possibly rebuilt - and at present there's no one in town who's able to build it.  See?  The selling side indicates clearly that no road-building can be bought.

Oho!  All that is needed is a capable, willing party - including one that's a mason - to spend some time laying out the necessary road and earn for themselves 620 g.p.  Not only that, but apparently the town is looking for a plasterer, some wallbuilding and even a sculptor to do a little work on a freize (obviously, for 5 g.p., they're not looking for a high-quality artist).

Now, I'm not suggesting that ANY party has the slightest interest in this sort of contract work, but hold on a moment.  Just where exactly is this road that needs building?  Is it critical?  Would it encourage them to see the party as one of their own?  Or is it possible the road wanted it between a local high mucky-muck's house and the county throughfare?

Laughable it may be, but for a low-level party I see this table as an opportunity for connecting a player to the local area and a way to make some coin on the side without having to take someone down in an alley.

For a high level, I see it has the kernal of a longer, larger table, with many more objects added (a bridge, a tunnel, a wharf?), providing the basis for the Lord's followers to earn a steady income.  No, the player might rather adventure, but how about it if the secondaries spent the intervening summer rebuilding part of the city walls, or steadily laying a road to the next town?

Something I never intended, or thought about ... but here's the basis for calculating what it would pay.  And not for just in Masonry either, but for foodstuffs, mining, trapping, animal husbandry ... everything, in fact, because that's what my equipment table is meant to cover.  Everything.

No wonder I fuck around with these things.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Insurrection At Death Frost Doom


Death Frost Doom is a module produced by James Raggi, which was provided for me a little more than a week ago. This is my second review for a work of his. The first was written last week and can be read here.

Unlike that review, some of this writing will include very moderate spoilers, none of which will be genuinely understood by those who have not read or seen the module. However, the gentle reader should be able to obtain a sense for how the module runs, and how I and my party viewed it.

I ran this module, for my party, two days ago on Saturday. The reason I must allow for some spoilers is because my main purpose for writing this review is not only to give my impression of the module, but more specifically the party's impression. From the title of the post, you should be able to guess that the party did not take it well.

I decided to run this module of the other three I had available because a portion of my players characters is at present wandering its way westward through central Europe in late November, so an ice-cold, snowy adventure was in order. In order to 'encourage' my players to actually play the module - it was understood up front that I would be presenting it - I knew that there would have to be a certain degree of railroading the party into playing it. This is definitely not my style. However, it was done lightheartedly, and the players went along with it, with the understanding that this would not be typical.

Without getting at all deep into it, the 'hook' of the module is that there is a crypt/cult temple on top of a mountain that promises treasure. Player involvement is expected to be voluntary ... but for my party I whipped up a great two day blizzard that stranded them at Zeke's cabin, and used elements of the module to compel them to investigate the crypt or else suffer consequences.

The hook is delivered by a hermit Zeke Duncaster, who talks about how evil the crypt is, and how evil the area is around the crypt, and how many people were killed, and how horrific things are up around the cabin up the mountain, and so on. When I read the module, I found all of this terrifically interesting, and my first impressions of the module were very positive. I looked forward to sitting down and playing up the horror, of the various elements that would bring on the creepiness of the adventure. I considered the elements as they were laid out - at least above ground - to be creative, distracting and legitimately profound.

The party, however, did not think so.

When they learned that the hermit had been setting up grave markers for the thousands of dead, and that he'd been doing this for some time, living for decades nearby the site, the party answered, "Well, Zeke seems to have everything under control. Let's get the fuck out of here."

They wanted nothing to do with the site, with its treasure, or with any investigations thereof. It seemed like the stupidest idea in the world to go anywhere near the place, and they only did because I railroaded them. In any ordinary circumstance they would have moved on. But they doggedly turned to invest themselves in the module, without much complaining.

We talked it over at that point and the party's sentiments was that the horror played for the module was thing upon thing upon thing - to the point of stupidity. The party explained that they were not stupid teenagers in a slasher flick, but rather people who actually appreciated their lives and were smart enough to stay the fuck away from a place like that. "Why don't we just go to the next big city, tell a bunch of high level clerics that this thing is here and have them fix it?"

Which is, as I said in my previous review, the equivalent of pulling off the planet and nuking the place from orbit. As I encouraged them to go ahead anyway, they wanted to know, "If it is inside the borders of a powerful empire (and it is), then how is it our problem?"

Thus, the railroading.

Arriving on site with the initial part of the adventure, that which happens above ground, I discovered problem #2 with the module.

Virtually all of it is fiddling-dependent. By that, I mean that the description for virtually everything the players encounter depends upon player-motivated interaction. The module spends pages describing all these things, mostly saying, "If the players ..." do or touch or move or sleep or rest or try or whatever else. Here's the clock, here's the book, here's the tree, here's the well, here's the cabin, here's the painting, and if the players play with the stuff, it does this or that or the other thing.

Problem is, if the players don't do a goddamn thing, because their mammas didn't raise no stupid children, it takes about thirty fucking minutes to go through the entire first part of the adventure. And most of that is me reading descriptions. Describing the clock and describing the tree and describing the well and the cabin and what the hell else, while the players went "That's interesting." and then walked away without doing anything. I could talk about all the things they didn't do, but that would be giving spoilers about the module.  All I can say is that if the players don't fiddle with all the interesting compelling features in the adventure, NOTHING HAPPENS.

Now, maybe I missed something. Maybe I didn't describe the wondrous detail of the objects enough to encourage people to get interested in things ... except that I know from the party that it's more likely that I described things too well. I described the tree in detail, so the party didn't want to go anywhere near the thing. I described the book in detail, so the party treated it like a dangerously fragile explosive device. They didn't rearrange the furniture because they were scared out of their fucking wits ... and they wanted to get the hell away from the place for the same reason. Except they couldn't, because I was forcing them to stay.

Well they knew I was, didn't they? It's not hard to tell when a DM wants you to walk into a pre-written adventure ... suddenly it’s snowing or there's an army parked over the hill or someone gets kidnapped and the party has to go get him or whatever else forces you to stay. That's the whole thing with a DM. You know it's the DM ... and not a random, disconnected chance. So the truth about the module is PDC: the Party Doesn't Care.

And so they wouldn't play with anything and we zipped through this part. We had another discussion about that, i.e., does anyone want to investigate further, and the party explained that no, they saw no real value in doing that, it seemed a stupid thing to do and no way were they going to 'try' things they found. I guess they must love their characters.

So we had a break, and began part two, underground.

Well, here the module lapses into an age-old module formula: put the players to sleep. Have the players stagger around in empty room after empty room, until they are so goddamn tired of walking into rooms and searching around and finding nothing, they get careless and do something stupid, getting themselves killed.

Holy shit did the party complain.

Continuous cries of "What the fuck!" and "Give me a fucking break!" and "Of course it’s another fucking empty room!" went on for quite some time. Between mapping and problem solving and reading descriptions, while trying to give any semblance of mystery and time and place, we spent an hour and a half staggering around rooms, most of them steeped in anciently spilled blood. Once again, the party refused to fiddle with anything. They made quite a few references to video game mechanics - which work off the same basic formula - and taking note of the various stages with the battle cry, "Congratulations, you have solved the puzzle that allows you to enter the Main Puzzle!"

They were bored out of their ever-loving minds - and so was I.

It isn't much fun as a DM to just describe and describe shit, with none of it being interactive. There was no chance for dialogue, no chance for a freaking mouse to attack the party, just nothing. Whatever creepiness and sense of doom that was at least hinted at on the surface died an ugly death in the subterranean. For those who have the module and thus the map, consider that the party repeatedly chose 'left' at every crossroads, that being the principle that they employed towards mapping the place out. And because they went left, left, left, they missed the other big horror in the module that would have made them want to do exactly what they had wanted to do from the very first event: leave. But I won't spoil what that is for those who don't know. Ask your friends.

The final blow was Room 18. I won't go into detail, but the room requires the DM to pull a rather cheap trick on the player characters, with - in the opinion of everyone present - completely stupid results. I wondered how the party was going to respond to it. The overall effect is that it’s supposed to create a moment of panic for everyone, as they try to control one member of the party doing something completely insane. It might have worked, if the motivator for the event hadn't been quite so lame (sorry, no other word for it) ... but after the sheer boredom the party had been tolerating up to that point, an insurrection was staged.

And I mean the party literally rose from the table and refused to play any further. So I called the session closed and bought everyone off with some experience points - in spite of no combat and hardly any dice rolling, none of which  occurred at any point in the session. This mitigated their ill feelings towards the module and towards ME somewhat.

So the rest of the night, about another two hours, included:

  • Me explaining everything they missed (not particularly helpful in making them appreciate the module).
  • Everyone bitching about why modules suck and why they will always suck.
  • And a refusal to play another module again, period.

So I won't be fulfilling the plan I had to run in one of Mr. Raggi's modules, simply because at this point I have no DM in my acquaintance willing to run it. I feel that overall I would have been more patient with the empty rooms than my party was, but that's mostly because I'm more familiar with modules, I would be well aware of the module's intentions and because, well, I'm older and used to coping with boredom. That's what happens when you get older - you spend so much time dealing with unfilled time, you get better at amusing yourself.

It makes me wonder about the positive feelings I had about the first module I reviewed. Does it play as well as it reads? Mr. Raggi claims to play-test his modules and I do not doubt him, but I think I need to add a rejoinder that if your party is used to being in control of their activities, question whether or not this, or any module, is for them.

UPDATE:

For those who still come to view this review, even though it has been four years, I would like to direct you to this point-by-point assessment of the same module.  In it, the author confirms much of what I've written above.  The author also reminds me of many, many idiotic parts of the module that I did not take the time to write upon.  I appreciate greatly that the author has given me some insight as to why people like the module - mostly for reasons that do not reflect well on those people.

Finally, I should like to express my immense satisfaction in there being another person in the world that is able to recognize the module for the garbage that it is.

November 14, 2014

Friday, October 22, 2010

Widening The Equipment Table

Back in July I proposed to limit the availability of goods on my equipment table, which I've worked at casually these last few months.  I believe I've got a system now that works, something that would guarantee that goods produced in or near the market would always be available, while things farther away became increasingly rare.

The simplicity in the system is that I make no attempt whatsoever to describe the 'supply' of the item, nor its local demand.  I argue that such things do not need to be computed, if we reason that scarcity is controlled by the relative cost of the item (players will be unable, or willing to buy items even if they are available) and abundance controlled by the general nature of the system, which can be examined here.  It is not generally understood by tourists of Economics that 'demand' is a product of the industrial revolution, and not a consideration in mercantalist systems ... given that the world was quite used to demand not being met and the starvation of helpless people being a commonplace thing.  Of course people demanded things, but the middle class had yet to be invented and mass-production did not exist.  It did not matter if more people in a town demanded shoes, for instance, since the shoemaker could not increase his output and the number of skilled shoemakers in the world were finite ... to invent new shoemakers out of thin air was not something that could be done as easily as putting up a factory and having machines built that would do the job.

I often encounter an insistence that modern production/economic rules must apply to non-industrial societies ... a thinking box which suffocates many attempts to create a fictional medieval trade economy.  The simulation immediately seems vast, with endless variables - when in fact most of those variables aren't applicable.

But enough about this.

All we want is to be able to say whether or not the product is available, and how many of the item the player can buy or sell.

Towards that end, have a glance at the three images below:




(Wouldn't you know I'd screw up the graphic?  The Purchasing block should read No. / Price / Unit)

The table is divided in two parts, the first being what a player would normally see as an equipment table, the second being the number of things which this luthier would pay to buy, and how much the luthier would pay.  Note that there are changes in the tables, but not excessive ones ... and the bigger change is in what the luthier will buy, rather than what he has to sell.  Note also that some products are always rare, and unavailable, except when you're actually in the region that produces that object.  If you want violins, you'll have to visit Italy.

These are all from the same location (at present the mean location for everywhere, so a place that doesn't exist), and would represent a different moment in time.  The idea is that it presents not the number of items available in the town, but the number of items the players can find in the space of one day ... or week, I haven't quite decided.  Just because there might be four times as many lutes in a particular town doesn't mean the party has found those other lute shops while schlepping themselves around.  And yes, generally the lute shops all tend to be on the same street (although this was not always so, though it was common), it still doesn't mean that the lutist isn't working on an order for someone else, or that someone didn't just come in and buy up all his stock five minutes ago.

The important thing is that the supply is limited ... and that if the party finds a treasure that includes fifty lutes, they may have to search through the town for quite a while to eventually unload them all (particularly if I make the time frame a week).

A side note ... the table is intentionally created so that some objects can be both for sale and for purchase - if it so happens the luthier is short on those things.  Note the price will allow the luthier to make a little coin on the exchange.

Something else about this table and its importance.  I plan to build my treasure tables out of the same figures (I think I can see just how to do that now) ... which means that the most likely treasure will also be items that are plentiful in the local area - and therefore, not something the local merchants will be interested in buying.  Which is only natural.  The local orcs will be most likely to steal barrels of ale if the local industry is a brewery, shipping barrels of ale out along the local roads.  And if the party kills the orcs, and gets back the barrels - whose barrels do you think they are?  You expect the local merchants to buy the barrels back?

I'm liking the system.  I'm still calculating the numbers for the 1,300 goods and services involved, both sales and purchasing, which is mostly at this point a lot of formatting to make it all look pretty and easily edited later when I want to add MORE things.  I can see other ways to fool with it, and additional complications I can add later, if I want to - but that's probably something I'll leave for a couple of years.  This is enough of a change for now.

There are always other projects beckoning.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reviewing James Raggi's Module

I have, fresh in my possession, four modules provided to me by Mr. James Raggi of Finland, who responded to my challenge on September 29 to send me ‘a copy’ if he wanted a fair review from me. I must say his delivery was prompt – I received an envelope Saturday, which makes the total turnaround time 17 days from Finland to Canada. So if you’re concerned about never seeing your copy once you’ve paid, don’t be.

Upon realizing there were four choices, I quickly made a decision about what to do with at least three of them. I would pick one and review it here. I would pick one and run my party through it. And I would have my daughter run one, so that I could experience it as a player. I’m not sure what to do with the fourth copy; perhaps Mr. Raggi would let me give it away as a prize for some future contest the D&D Wiki might run.

Having decided that, I pulled one at random (eyes closed and everything) and promptly hid the others away in my room. I will tell you honestly that I have no idea even what the other three are called, which is how I want it at the moment. As it happened, the one I chose to read through and review without playing is called The Grinding Gear.

Before I get started, let me reassure the gentle reader (and Mr. Raggi) that this review will contain no spoilers whatsoever. I have no intention of revealing the setting, any of the monsters or the principal characters, and certainly not the module’s endgame. I am not the sort of reviewer that spends half the review recounting the movie’s plot. There is only one question I intend to answer, and that is, “Should You Buy This Product?”

First impressions, the module size is fairly small, a little larger than a movie DVD case and compellingly illustrated and thematically oriented towards the horrific. Three fold-out covers in glossy stock are provided as maps and Dungeon Master’s aids, which I think would prove to be durable when used in game-play. It is unfortunate that the booklet holding the written material of the module is fairly low-grade paper, but no doubt it is a question of keeping the cost low. However, it means that after much handling and a couple of runnings around drinks and snack foods, the booklet is liable to feel used.

There’s much text here, so you’re getting your money’s worth where content is concerned. The 16-page booklet is written in 8-point font in two columns, and covers a lot of ground. The module suggests a party should try to play the adventure in one sitting … but we’re talking about a focused party because there is a fair bit to get through. There are lots of opportunities for parties to get bogged down with puzzles or figuring out rooms that may or may not have a point, and it wouldn’t be hard for a tolerant DM to find the party wasting up to an hour at some points.

Rest assured, this is a module. Much of the progress is episodic, particularly at the beginning, with a feeling that the monsters and rooms have little association except that this is the next room. The module does give an explanation for this, and it’s a reasonable explanation, but from a player’s viewpoint the explanation will be completely lost unless the module is finished. By that point, of course, it’s a cold comfort. So if you are looking for a bold step forward in module technology, you’re going to be disappointed, because all the elements of how a module works are certainly here; i.e., sequence A causes sequence B to function, or room C follows fast upon room D and so on, complete with rail tracks in some places.

It is, however, a very good module, where it comes to that. Where Mr. Raggi excels is in the overall descriptions and devious arrangements of the rooms. This, I believe, explains the rallying cry to the work he’s done – and believe me, there is a lot of work, and a lot of thought, put in here. Parts of it are simply cruel (which the author himself states on more than one occasion), the connections and sequences have a strong potential for excitement and for driving a party out of its ever-loving mind.

But I also see much potential for players to ‘lose it’ at the table, given that a lot of the foregoing cruelty serves no precise purpose except to potentially execute players. From my outside perception, I know I’d feel a great deal of frustration as things moved along, with a strong sense of being out of control and it all being quite pointless. In true Aliens style, my tendency would be to pull out and nuke the whole thing from orbit … but that’s just me. I think a lot of players, less concerned with ‘greater purpose’ and more concerned with ‘having fun’ would get a bigger kick than I. You have to decide what kind of game you enjoy.

Regarding the horror aspect, which Mr. Raggi aspires to, the feel here is less the sense of suspense provided by Scorsese and more the feel provided by an episode of the SAW franchise. Mr. Raggi might consider applying some of his talents to low-budget screenplay writing, where I believe he would excel.

Let me add that the edited quality of the booklet, and the three fold-out pieces, is excellent. The ideas are conveyed strongly and are easy to understand. There were no points where I could not picture the rooms in my mind. Nor was I distracted by the inevitable spelling and grammatical errors that always seem to plague independent works. Mr. Raggi, or someone well-known to Mr. Raggi, has provided considerable quality control here. The work is worth every penny that the buyer pays … and if I were speaking to Mr. Raggi as a friend over coffee in his hometown, I’d be saying, “You idiot, charge at least three dollars more.”

And so, I’ll say that if you have paid for modules elsewhere, and you intend to pay for modules again, buy up what Mr. Raggi has to sell before moving on. Or at least The Grinding Gear.

I am quite positive that I’ll never run it as a DM, and that I don’t expect at this point to enjoy running whichever of the other three modules I find myself running in the future. I know for a fact that I’d hate this as a player. That alone might encourage some of you to have a look at this module, particularly if you don’t like my personal take on D&D because it seems dull as dishwater to you.

My expectation is that I will get to running said module either this Saturday, October 23, or two weeks after, on November 6, so look for my second James Raggi review sometime in the next three weeks.

Monday, October 18, 2010

God, I

The tail-end of the comment from runjikol included the following: "...What ever dice rolling method a group uses it must be agreed to ..."

Funny how the smallest throwaway phrase can get right under your skin.  My apologies to runjikol - he's started this post and I doubt he intended that phrase as it sounded.

Nevertheless, I find myself wanting to respond with anger that I can barely contain.  So I will write this slowly.  As a DM, it is my world.  It is my campaign.  I design it, I build it, I run it.  I decide what goes into it and what does not.  I decide how the running is played.  No matter who 'agrees' to whatever, the only opinion regarding the way the dice are rolled, or any other mechanic of the game, is mine.

You sit down at my table, to play my game, and you'll obey the rules of the game as I lay them out, or you can take your ass right on down the road.  I'll listen to reasoned argument.  I will rule in the player's favor if the argument is convincing.  But I won't subject myself to any democratic protest except the one where people decide to get out.

The reason why should be obvious.  This is a complex game, demanding that someone assume the role of judge, an individual who has the power to made a de facto ruling that must be accepted by the participants.  These are individuals who have a great emotional investment in what is going on.  They have much to win or lose.  Every die roll carries with it a potential for happiness or depression.  To give the passionate a say over what goes on is inviting chaos.

Yes, the Judge has authority, but the Judge must also be dispassionate.  It is dispassion is what gives me the right to hold over my players the absolute authority over the rules.  I have nothing invested in the playing of the game, only in the existence of the world.  My investment is in the lines of my maps, the variety and personality of my monsters, or the cleverness of my tables.  As long as those tables function, as long as the map is accurate - and as long as I am not dissuaded from my presentation of those things - I am content.

You live or you die, that is your issue.  My world continues unabated.  My life's work is unaffected by the sufferings of your characters.  That is my privilege.  I have done the work.  I have labored upon each feature prior to my describing it to you, the player. 

To me, my world exists with my love.  But you, the player, are free to spit on my world, to laugh at it's ideosyncracies, to scoff at things I find important and to mock my efforts to challenge your preconceptions.  As a Judge, I am allowed no vindictive response whatsoever, nor may I give compensation for your woes, or sympathize with your disappointment, or cater to your whims, or bend to your pleas.  The world is, and you are in it, and what happens there is up to your efforts.  I won't impede you and I won't deliver you.

But I won't let you run my world.  That's my business and none of yours.  The die - as well as the tables, the features and the 'fluff' - are the function of my world, and what's rolled or how it's rolled is subject to no one's whim but my own.  Your privilege and influence rests with what your characters are able to do. 

The best that you as players may do is advocate ... and on most things, I am implacable.

I hope that's clear.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Die Police

For those of you who came expecting a diatribe against the police, and why they must all be killed, you're going to be disappointed.

Over the years I have developed some definite rules about the die throwing in games, not because I like rules, but because every once in awhile it helps to retain a certain degree of order when six people all want to talk and take action at the same time.  And where it comes to rolling dice, there are certain guidelines that I apply that helps keep control ... namely, over players who are too exuberant, wily or otherwise aberrant.

For this post, I've broken down these rules into who, when, why, how and where dice should be rolled.  I've been playing according to the principles below for so long that it has actually taken me some deep thought to dredge up just what those rules are.  Everyone at my table plays habitually according to them, and most new players seem to adapt quickly.

They all have reasons for being, which I will include in the description.  Incidentally, 'what' isn't included because it seems very clear to me what die players should roll ... at least so far as maintaining order is concerned.

Who should roll?

This isn't always clear.  When a player is in the bathroom, or temporarily involved with something otherwise distracting - and I want the game to continue - I'm prepared to allow a pinch roller in any situation that's non-life threatening.  Thus, if the party is rolling to find out who gets a particular treasure, or if anyone can identify what the animal tracks are that have just been discovered, I have no problem with someone else rolling a die for Jeremy in the bathroom.

But where it comes to combat, or a saving throw, or anything critical, I'd rather everyone waited until said player is able to return to the table.  I don't care how long that takes.  There's something important about a player rolling for their own life ... and it saves on the inevitable argument, and long-term whining, when Christopher fucks up Jeremy's saving throw.  But this should be obvious to anyone.

When do they roll?

When I fucking say so.  Something that bothers me is when John stumbles into a room, sees Mook 1 and says, "I kill it." and starts rolling his d20 ... before I've even spoken.  Um, anyone heard of 'surprise'?  'Initiative'?  Distance from target?  I need John to realize the world does not revolve around his d20, but that D&D is a thinking game.  It's not like it's a matter for groveling ... I'm only asking for John to say first, "Can I hit it?"  So I can say, "Yes, roll."  It takes two seconds, and saves a wide variety of misunderstandings and re-rolls, all of which bollixes up a good running.

Similarly, during combat it annoys the shit out of me when every player at the table rolls out their dice, holding onto it until I call out to see what they've done.  I tend to go around the table, in order, every combat ... or around the combat representation, if that's sometimes easier.  And I have noted, through long experience, that there is a particular kind of clever fellow who surreptitiously rolls the die while I'm paying close attention to Fred's action ... keeping that die if its good or making the decision to roll when I get around to that player's turn.  Even if none of my players think they would do this, if the temptation is there, one will eventually fall for it.

Why allow the temptation.  It is easiest to simply have me point to people and say, "Your turn," have them roll the die and continue.  The time consideration isn't relevant.  And meanwhile, players learn to pay attention to other players, which is polite.  Plus John up above learns self-restraint, not to mention giving other people an opportunity to make suggestions, causing everyone to better enjoy the game, together.

Why roll?

Because I fucking told you to, that's why.  It is not the player's place to question why.  I haven't had anyone bitch about this one in years and years.  But when I say "roll a d10" ... it is for SOME reason, and just now I don't want you to know.  Most times, it's not in my interest (in order to keep up the suspense) to tell a player why they're rolling a die at this moment.  The player's hate it, obviously ... every roll feels like they've just made the worst mistake possible, killed themselves, etc.  A very low roll, and they expect the DM to say, "Oh, that's bad, you've just cut off your own leg.  Roll another d20.  Oops ... apparently you've just stuffed it into your asshole.  Well, these things happen."

It isn't in my interest to explain how these things happen until, well, that information becomes obvious ... and I am a demon for withholding information.  I believe it's the biggest part of the game.  So roll the damn die, and good luck.

How are they rolled?

Legally.  Which means, I want to see those fuckers bounce.  I've played with players who I swear have spent months sitting in rooms working out just how to let the dice roll gently off their fingers, so that if they start with this face up and let the thing skip a bit over the table, they're going to get whatever number they want.  The reason why I know this is true is because when you make these people throw with a cup, they suddenly start missing.  One fellow, in fact, was stupid enough to admit it to two other players, and everyone kicked him out from their games.

A short half skip across the table isn't enough.  And the player's hand better be at least three or four inches off the table.  If the rolls are consistently bad, I'm not going to quibble, but some players will take advantage.

I'm not saying I'm not paranoid.  I have been flat out wrong about these things now and then, and hard feelings have resulted ... but I roll the dice with a good bounce, and I expect the same from others.  It's a die game, and until I have the money to incorporate a craps table into the die rolling experience (which would be cool), I'm going to have to police some people a bit.

Where are they rolled?

Ah, and here's the biggest issue.  Dice rolled on the floor don't count.  Dice that are not absolutely sitting on a flat surface don't count.  I don't care how close it is to one side or the other, and I don't care how important the roll is.  Roll the damn thing so that it lands flat.

I have considered invoking a rule so that the die must come to a rest on the actual table surface, and not on top of keyboards, binders, folders, D&D books and so on ... and the reason for that has much to do with the amount of bounce a die produces.  The harder the surface, the more likely the die has been completely rolled.  But so far, I've never gotten that picky.

The reason why not the floor is simple ... it's to calm the rambunctiousness of players who insist on making all their most important rolls the thirty-yard fling down whatever hallway is most convenient.  It also reduces time wasted as the whole table gets down on hand and knee to find out what the crucial roll was, or that the die has rolled under the stove which must now be lifted to reveal the result.

I know there are those out there who love these moments, but for me it's a waste of time.  Knowing that the roll isn't going to count if it's not on the table actually seems to keep the die ON the damn table ... like it matters or something.

Controlling excited, rebellious D&D players is usually a near-impossibility, particularly with young players such as I have.  Most everyone I play with is under the age of 25.  Keeping them seated for twenty minutes at a time is an effort ... so to my mind, anything that helps control their tendencies to flamboyance is helpful.

I've also considered applying a rule that says if you can't make the die roll legal with three tries, then you miss or fail.  Again, I'm not quite that much of a bastard.

There you have it.  Simple rules, simply adhered too.  And no one complains.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Outcall For An Art Expert

It is becoming clear to me that one of the roles that our proposed on-line wiki will require is an Art Director, an individual who can oversee the artistic design of the database, including both video and illustrations, and any props necessary for the heightened appearance of the pages as they are created.

I would be looking for someone who could work cheerfully on their own according to very light guidelines, whose principal interest was a visual contribution to inspire the imagination of D&D, who could create - or find others who could create - original art, and who would take it upon themselves to illustrate pages without being directed to do so.

The position doesn't pay, so obviously it would have to be for enjoyment's sake ... but the site could prove a source for showcasing good work (if it was appropriate) and - since we intend to be professional in its appearance - meaningful practical experience for someone wishing to gain skills in the field.

Regarding a working relationship, I am more inclined to let quality talent off the chain rather than attempt to micromanage.  Initially, it wouldn't be much work - since the development of pages will be slow - but someone who is interested in developing their own agenda and therefore pages for the wiki, would probably find themselves encouraged rather than bridled.

If this sounds like something you'd like to take a crack at, I'd like to see a representation of your art skills, a few comments about your former experience and lots about what you'd like to do if given the opportunity.  Please ask questions in the comments for this post, and please direct any serious desire to get involved to alexiss1@telus.net.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Swords

As I intimated in yesterday's post, the idea for using the Tarot as a predictive magic in D&D only became necessary to my campaign starting on the weekend - specifically, Saturday.  It is now Wednesday, and I am fruitfully working on the project of giving a practical divination (and response) to every card.  As such, this is a work in progress.

I'm not going to post any more about this, but when the D&D Wiki we have planned launches, I hope to have the complete list done.

For the present, I've changed the color scheme, and I've built both an Upright and a Reversed table for the Suit of Swords.  None of this has been game tested, naturally, but I look forward to getting some of that done during the rest of this year.

Two things occur to me: 1) that its not a bad system for inspiring adventures in a sandbox campaign, even if the players never draw a card themselves; and 2) that for DMs not used to thinking on the spot, a fair practice might be to allow the players to make one divination per running - preferably towards the end of the night, so that the DM has time before the next session to work up the exact events.  There's nothing in my plan that argues against the drawing of multiple cards - indeed, that's how Tarot is supposed to work.  But creating situations that adhere to multiple cards is a daunting task, and time to think isn't a half-bad idea.

Anyway, I'll post the two tables and leave it at that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wild Magic

My running last weekend incorporated what was, for the party, their first direct experience in the application of non-Vancian magic ... magic that did not function according to spells and which did not have any limitations on power or multiplicity of use.  This I kid the gentle reader not - I am speaking of the use of magic in my world that a 1st level magic user can use as effectively as a 20th level magic user.

That seems adverse to the principles of D&D.  But of course it is nothing like the reader might imagine, since we tend to perceive magic as a power we wield.  The Vancian system incorporates the technological function of magic quite well; each spell is like a tool, designed to perform a specific function.  Just as a light bulb produces a flood of light, so too does a light spell.

But not all magic is so cut and dry.  As I have called it in the past, 'wild magic' is something else.  Think of it as magic that, once initiated, has a mind of its own.  There's no telling how it might ultimately manifest ... it could be a positive force affecting the characters, or a negative force.  But once set in motion, it is potentially greater than all the powers of every mage in the world combined.

We're very familiar with wild magic.  We think of it as a joke, as something laughable, treating it and its practitioners as charlatans or fools ... and for good reason.  But D&D does not obey the rules of the real world, and what is a joke in reality can become something else entirely.

A year ago I published a set of guidelines for player sages, and on that post I included the following table, which I shall reprint here for convenience:


This is the sage table for Illusionists.  My player realized that she was entitled to an additional specialty under her  chosen field, which was Power.  The specialty she already possessed was Artifacts.  And running down the list, she noted the four wild magic options and asked what each of them were ... and so began to realize that she had the power to do more than cast spells.  I'll describe the four options as they were during the campaign.

The first question was about dweomercraft.  Dweomercraft is not a magic spell, but an invocation process by which creatures are gated in from other planes of existence, or by which creatures are gated out from this plane (there are varying definitions, but this is the one that I employ).  As a wild magic it suffers most from being rather inexact in what is pulled in, and inexact in to where things are pushed out.  It should be understood that dweomercraft does not include personal travel - there's no certainty, once the process is initiated, where one's clients end up, nor what might come poking through the gate once its opened.  While usually everything goes according to plan, chaos dictates that, now and then, the unexpected happens ...

Then, metaphysics.  I suggested that, without the player having a firm grounding in the principles of metaphysics, it's not a good choice.  But I explained it's application to D&D by using the standard of Douglas Adams' babel fish:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.  The argument runs something like this. "I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "For proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But" says man, "The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it?  It proves you exist and so therefore you don't.  QED."

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

"My, that was easy," says man, and goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys. But this did not stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme for his best selling book, "Well that about wraps it up for God."
Exactly the sort of thing you don't want to mess with as a player if you don't know what you're doing.

The next question was about numerology, or the process of divination through numbers.  I recalled a circumstance during our campaign a few months ago where the monk, in avoiding being hit by a ballista shot while in a precarious position, had to first make save vs. paralyzation (to avoid the bolt, which would have certainly knocked him from the tower) and then make their strength check (to avoid a 30' fall, which would have done no damage to the monk, but would have been inconvenient).  This occurred twice. The first time, the monk rolled an 16 on a d20 against paralyzation, then an 8 on a d20 against his strength, handily avoiding the situation.  Three rounds later, a second ballista firing from another tower forced him to make the same two checks.  And he rolled a 16 against paralyzation and an 8 against his strength.

And everyone went, "Whoa, that's weird!" ... but a numerologist would have been within their rights to turn to me at that moment, roll against their knowledge and demand to know what the numbers meant.  Whereupon I, according to the contractual agreement I've made with myself regarding these wild magic influences in my campaign, would have to:  a) produce a reason that fit the circumstances; b) give the player knowledge that couldn't otherwise be known; and c) magically change the circumstances of the campaign in order to account for those numbers being rolled.  In effect, I could invent at that moment a creature taking part in the events whose aim was to preserve the monk, who could now be identified and seen by the present numerologist (who could decipher the creature's necessary location by geometrical logic), and who I had not previously ever intended to be part of the campaign.

In other words, I, too, would be ruled by the die.  But being wild magic, it wouldn't have to be that particular explanation ... it could be any explanation that worked and fit the facts, though anything I might dream up would without question challenge and change the balance of what was going on.

I wonder if the gentle reader can understand how strange or powerful this is.

Having this knowledge, the player was able to identify how astrology, the last wild magic on the list, would work ... and the reader should be able to as well.  I run the real world, so planetary positions for any year and date can be calculated for any position on my world, just as they are by astrologers working the chumps right now - the only difference being that in D&D, astrology is REAL.  Meaning that if you are destined somehow by Venus being in your third house, I'm forced to consider that reality in my DMing.  Which can get tricky.

At this point, my player postulated that there was a missing option from the list - and having heard of it, I was forced to add it's presence ... that being Tarot.

Now, a Tarot reading works just the same as any other divination, and I willingly accepted that this would be the Illusionist's choice for a specialty - particularly since the player had a set of Tarot cards with her at the time.  So she immediately did a reading upon the party's intentions (which was to search the world for a particular magic item, the horseshoes of the zephyr, for the paladin's warhorse).  And so I allowed the cards to determine the direction the party should choose to go, and the shape of the adventure, using the Tarot deciphering book that the player also happens to keep with her.

And this worked out fairly well - or, at least, will work out well once I nail down the properties of Tarot that I wish to adhere to.

The principal problem was that the book she carried was not particularly suitable for the purpose to which it was being applied.  This book had as its focus - not surprisingly - relationships.  So I've been doing some research for the past few days for something better.

But Tarot, like astrology, is an unctious mess.  Every card has fifty five-hundred interpretations, none of which exactly agree with each other, and all of which ultimately struggle to be as obsequiously vague as possible.  That's so that the charlatans can read tarot and can't be pinned down.  But that's no value to me ... I need each card to be a bit more precise than the charlatan's scam for dummies, if the idea is to work at all.

This has brought me to understand that most everything we know about Tarot and all its decipherings was invented - as all such magic invention - in the late 19th century.  Not the cards, mind you, only the interpretations ... which are, therefore, recent bullshit reckonings, helping to explain the wide variation.  Still, most sources I could find agreed that the occultist Arthur Edward Waite was the principal fixer of both symbolism and interpretation of modern day Tarot.

But still, it is all divination and no substance.  So, if I am going to allow the player to incorporate Tarot into my campaign as a source of wild magic, I still have to build some guidelines about how it will work.

Thus, I've begun building a table which any DM could use, if they chose to follow this particular path.  Remember, it assumes that once the card is pulled, the structure and motivations of the NPCs and elements of the world are altered and changed, just the same way a die roll determines if a creature misses or hits.

I haven't by any means finished, so this is only a taste.  Nevertheless, it includes all 14 of the Minor Arcana Suit of Wands.  Now, it will help to remember that wands are ruled by fire, which is one of the base four elements and a plane of existence in D&D, and which has long possessed the magical power of destruction.  So in each case below, the answer to the question, 'What Should The DM Do,' has been based upon creating events of destruction and conflagration in order to change the world to conform to the decision to draw the card.  Note that a negative element, much like The Monkey's Paw, is inherent in the table's suggestive format:



The reversed interpretations are not given, but they will be included with time.

Lastly, I probably don't need to point out the similar relationship between the above and the Deck of Many Things, which uses the Tarot Deck as its template and which is much more heavy handed in its results.  Most of the cards above only take effect if the player then takes action upon drawing the card ... if no action is taken, nothing special occurs.  For example, the King of Wands talks of increasing enemies or increasing allies ... but a third option might include, "Do nothing, leave town, perceive no effect."

It is dreadfully important that, for wild magic to have the characteristics that it ought to possess, the party cannot be aware of 'A = B' at any time.  Done well and carefully, the death of a particular individual, or news that arrives, or a flood which destroys half a town, might never actually be related by the players to the card they drew ... and that connection should NEVER be made by the DM.

Give me feedback - I have another 64 of these cards to write up, forward and reversed interpretations, and 14 reversed for the wands also.  I will be busy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Problems With Encounter Tables

Encounter tables exist to provide random features or creatures for the purpose of inspiring play. A random dungeon generator creates the physical conditions of the setting, as well as the inhabitants. A random wilderness generator intends to place population centers and notable features into a mapped hex.

An encounter table should not only include monsters. It should include every kind of feature, event or inhabitant that might be discovered or met by the party.

Which means that first and foremoest, encounter tables need to be divided into those conditions that might affect a party that is remaining in one locale, as opposed to one that is actively on the move. The small village would still experience events such as storms, fog, floods, housefires, earthquakes, death of a leader, increased taxes or new laws; and encounters such as thieves, vermin, inquisitive residents, random associates or outside attacks; but obvious physical features, such as a freshwater lake or a mountain in the shape of a head, would not be included.

However, a travelling party might encounter such a mountain, and many other potential features such as lakes, ponds, chasms, creeks, shrines, depots, crossroads, monster lairs, toll booths and so on. So to begin with, a 'Stationary' table would alternate with the use of a 'Moving' table.

Even at that, Moving tables must be subdivided further according to the sort of terrain, climatological condition, or level of civilization that they supposedly represent. A single table could not be used for both mountains and lowland plain. A single 'lowland plain' table could not be used for lowlands for sub-tropical jungle flatlands and for vast arctic-tundra shelves. A single 'jungle lowland plain' table could not be used for both heavily populated, cultivated lands (such as Benin) and sparsely populated hunting lands (such as pre-Columbian Florida). Moreover, floods occur only in certain locations and at certain times of the year. Volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, fog, the accumulation of snow, rime or ice, and other climatological incidents are similarly limited.

The same elements would not be encountered, leading to the familiar pattern of 'rolling on the encounter table until getting the result you want.'

Even within an urbanized setting, where the party might be stationary, encounters would depend upon the size of the urban setting (patrons and lawyers do not dwell in villages), the characteristics of the neighborhood (slum vs. posh), the city's economic base (holy city, port, farming centre, military outpost) or the characteristics of its people (bureaucratic, rigid societies as opposed to freewheeling entrepreneurial piracy). Each different kind of urban center requires the recording of different features, different likely personal encounters (leading to adventures built upon differing elements of success) and different hazards which might occur.

The variety of required encounter tables described above is a finite number, and - with tenacity and patience - could be created for use. A secondary problem arises, however, with the variety of items that might occur upon a particular table. If the party should remain for an extended period of time upon an uninhabited tundra shelf-land, there must be enough possibilities entered in the encounter table to ensure constant novelty. Encounter after encounter with wolves pales quickly, as does the fourth mountain indicated that has the shape of a head. Considerable ingenuity must be employed to create literally hundreds of possibilities for every kind of encounter format - a daunting, near-impossible task, particularly if one considers that any encounter table meant for use in multiple campaigns must not be campaign-specific (or edition-specific) in its random results.

Also, encounter tables must be constructed so that certain features or events are so unlikely as to ever happen again that the result itself should be stricken from the table. For example, a meteor strike (such as the Tunguska hit of 1908) is such an unusual event that, although it might conceivably occur twice within one's lifetime, the actual incidence of it occurring a second time in a D&D campaign would be farcicle, ineffective in rousing the party's attention (been there, done that) and ultimately damaging to the memory of the first event.

At the same time, numerous events of a particular, common type - say, snow - can serve to increase the tension as they happen. As such, not all events should be stricken once they have occurred.

Finally, in my experience encounter tables should not be based upon the likelihood of an encounter or an event to occur. While it makes sense constructively, within the game it only serves to reduce the incidence of interesting, highly playable circumstances in favor of dull, common conditions. Once again, the continued result of 'wolves' as opposed to something more challenging. While there is something to be gained by the repeated incidence of mundane encounters, it should be balanced in some degree with things that will not suffocate a party in banality.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pressure

I was about to write something about writing history, and then I thought, Lord, how dull is that?  But then I reconsidered, remembering that there are people in the world other than me who actually like history.  And there are a lot of them.  Which explains the presence of so many history books in our libraries and book stores.  So I decided, what the hell, I'd write about history after all.

Not actual history, however.  Rather, the kind of histories that people write for their fantasy worlds.  Some of these histories are rather basic ... others are elaborately detailed.  The question arises: how much history does your fantasy world need?

To serve as a baseline, let me quote from an outside source: Dungeon Module BD: The Keep on the Borderlands.  From that book, let me copy here everything that is said there about the history of The Keep.

Mm hm.  Let's see, notes for the dungeon master, time, preparation for the use of the module, ah, here it is ... BACKGROUND.  This should be good.

And there's ... nothing.  Not one word.

That's right, gentle readers, we don't know who built The Keep, we don't know how long it's been around, we have no idea what the lineage is of the lord that runs the place ... heck, we don't even know the name of the 'Realm.'  And we don't care.

That's because, startling as it may seem, what most people view as history adds jack shit to a campaign.  Dates, family records, what so-and-so did four hundred years ago, the fame achieved by what-a-whoozit that half-conquered the world three hundred years ago - worthless.  It's all very fun fetish fuel for those who want to know the real reason Anne Boleyn couldn't keep Henry's little Willy up, but it's influence on the present-day demise of the monarchy in England is negligible (yes, yes, there's a moronic argument to be made to the contrary, but take it on the road, bub).

What is hard to get across is this: the most important thing about the long standing feud between Florin and Guilder is that it is still ongoing.  They hate each other in the present.  Or, alternately, they still hated each other last year, and the treaty is tenuous at best.  It moderately helps to know the hatred has been going on for hundreds of years, but in reality the only hatred that counts is that of the people who are still alive.  That my great-great-great grandfather hated your great-great-great grandfather was a matter settled some time ago.  I only mention it because I use that information to harbour the deep hatred I have for you right now.  History makes good propaganda.

What history doesn't do - this type of history, at least - is make good campaigning.  I'm so glad the DM has spent several weeks drawing up a family chart of who's died in the last seven generations, and who gave birth to whom.  Ah, very nice, I see the present Wilhelm of Zardoz was born of Mildred, who married Peter of Peckerland, who was the son of Ulster of Oosteria and Ganglia of Zardoz, who was the daughter of Omphat the Foul, once King of Zardoz-and-Oosteria in the Twelfth Age of the Little Fly Lords.  Nice work.

Does the bartender want to have a chat about the attractiveness of Ganglia?  No?  Well then who gives a fuck.

Now, please to understand.  I did my degree in history.  I love history.  I have reams of books about history, and what's very interesting is that since my world is based on Earth, all these history books are relevant to my world.  If you could ring my buzzer in the next five minutes, I could let you into my living room, park you in front of my dry erase board and give you a spontaneous 8-hour lecture on anything from the fall of Rome to the failure of France to secure a European hegemony in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  I'm not saying I'm ready to teach 39 courses (unless it is in general, world history, and then I'm certainly game), but I can babble pretty steady on whatever subject you like.

All this boasting and chest pounding (gawd, it's rude, isn't it?) is only to hammer home the principal that I respect history, I think in terms of history and I apply history to my world constantly.  But it isn't the history of Ganglia and her tendency to poison lovers.

The most important thing about history is not where it has been, but where it is going.  History is the study of the movement of peoples in the search for resources or vittles ... and where two peoples butt up against one another in the acquisition of these things, history is the study of pressure.   It is understanding why these people were able to stay, while these people were forced to go.  In other words, it is applying the momentum of peoples from the past, through the present and extending that momentum into the future.  In the real world, this extension into the future is questionable, at best, and we're very often wrong.

In D&D, this extension into the future is profoundly accurate.

Let me give an example.  Returning to the long standing feud between Florin and Guilder.  The tendency is to think that these two kingdoms, after five hundred years of war, are perfectly matched - but we know from history that there are no perfect matches.  In the long run, one of these two states is going to win over the other one.  One will ultimately gain momentum, while the other backslides.  Which is it that will win?

Well, if you aren't aware, the names 'florin' and 'guilder' come from particular currencies, each possessed by a particular financial dynamo, both of which were present in the 17th century.  Speaking of the coin as the kingdom, Florin was by far the elder of the two kingdoms.  It has begun its rise seven hundred years ago, as the crossroads of the world, taking great advantage of the trade that moved through its borders.  Comparatively, Guilder was a late-comer; moreover, for most of the five hundred years it was a rather weak competitor to Florin.  Guilder's defensive strength was that it was comparatively isolated, and far distant, and therefore difficult to squash.  Moreover, while Florin had been built upon the remains of an old empire, and the resources consequently plundered for 2,000 years, Guilder was replete with resources, untapped and extensive.  Every hinterland surrounding Guilder was a veritable gold mine.

Florin Family Photo
Another circumstance was that Florin, despite its access to old world markets, was hindered in its access to the Great Ocean ... while Guilder, by comparison, had ports right upon that world-covering body of water.  When technological strides had been made to make the sea - and its riches - more accessible, Guilder was placed to make a killing.  Meanwhile, Florin was fixed upon a secondary sea with limited access to the Great Ocean.  When it was discovered that Guilder could sweep in a great circle around the globe and access Florin's markets at their source, Florin suffered a blow from which it never recovered.

The population of Guilder rose; that of Florin stagnated and even declined.  Guilder found itself facing new adversaries, the nations of Farthing and Sous, both of which were also set upon the Great Ocean.  In time, Florin's influence on world markets would become negligible.

All this, because Florin happened to be perfectly placed for an early, but doomed start, and Guilder was placed for a late, but destined victory.  Right now, when the world is happening, they are evenly matched.

Florin's longer history has created a greater emphasis towards the importance of the past, upon philosophies of discourse and contemplation and the creation of art.  It's warmer climate has allowed a greater variety of foods, leading to complex cuisine, while the day's heat has increased the importance of leisure.
Guilder Porn

But Guilder's shorter history has produced a vigorous people, more austere and rugged in their daily lives, with their eye to the future and towards suppressing dissenters who would challenge the social order.  The colder climate has created a monotonous diet, spurring ideals of asceticism, while the colder climate demands a stronger, steadier work ethic.

It is the momentum of these cultures that is the guide to their history, not who ruled in what year.  It does not matter who one which battle or how many fought that day ... the demise of Florin is inevitable, to any DM who has the keys to the future in his or her pocket.  No matter how many battles it wins against Guilder, in the end Florin will fail to put an army in the field - and at the same time, Guilder will lose interest in conquering a land that promises them no wealth.

Such is the movement of history.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Curse

Every person who had produced any sort of blog has felt it; and those who have tried to concentrate on producing anything creative while blogging has felt it more keenly than most.  The sentiment runs as follows, regarding the author's willingness to add comments to blog posts (Oct 4, 2010):
"This will never, ever happen. I have no problems with forum discussion ... I do, however, see no point to wasting time doing the equivalent of painting a picture and then allowing others to come in and urinate all over it. You may think I'm a terrible artist, but that doesn't give you the right to destroy my work.
There's a breed of internet commenter that really only cares about saying things they think make them "right." It's some kind of stupid game where the only thing you're supposed to do is win, and where that criteria for winning is likewise determined by said player. There's really no point in playing with these people. They're just idiots."
August J. Pollak

Amen.

I've heard back from the techies working on our proposed D&D wiki and have been given a test model ... and being a test model its a little clunky but wonderfully straight-forward.  I have no idea if the November start date is still accurate, but that doesn't matter anyway.  This is not the same as opening a supermarket.  It's a little more like going around to everyone in the neighborhood and telling them you've just learned you're pregnant, or your partner is; all very glad and all, but the kid won't be going to college for some time.

If we can get enough on the ground in nine months to make a few people go "Awwww ... isn't that  cute," we'll be doing pretty well.

I can see that a problem hurdle in the beginning is going to be the expectation that somehow this project, like virtually every project on the net, will need to have interaction to make it a viable force in the community.  Somehow, when most people think about D&D players sitting down to talk about the hobby, they conceive profound discussions about the unified magical theory and how it will someday apply to End Game mechanics ... forgetting, always, that there are idiots out there.  And forgetting, too, that making real discussions happen through a forum is bafflingly difficult.

In more than 400 posts I've written on this blog, I would guess that there have been perhaps 10 that produced any sort of legitimate back-and-forth discussion on a given topic.  Far more often I get the sort of comment that's very nice and complimentary, but generally non-specific.  Alternately, I get the comment that runs along the lines of, "It's nice you do that.  Allow me to give you five hundred words on what I do."  And, rarely, the kind of comment that goes, "Wow, are you stupid or what."

But Socratean dialogues?  No, not often.

Obviously, I like hearing from people.  The common techno-psychology babble all around the talk shows centers on how we are all lusting after fame and how the internet guarantees a chance at it for all.  It is a tricky sort of fame, however.  I could probably increase the viewership on this blog by running it tandem with a vlog that featured a hooker or the corn-fed Iowa girl next door in her cheerleading togs (I know just the girl, but she'd giggle through the first four episodes ... not necessarily a bad thing).

Less Tables, More Willow
Somehow I think the number of my followers would go up.  But who would pay attention to the D&D?

Where it comes to this game, I don't think popularity was ever, really, a concern.  I've said it before.  I used to play the game in the school cafeteria, late into the evenings on Fridays when there was a basketball game in the gym, since the janitors didn't care if we were there or not.  And since the gym was closer to the cafeteria than my hands are to this keyboard (there was a direct door), we could pretty much listen to the roaring crowds cheering the game on while we were playing.  And as the little packs of cheerleaders walked by, in their pretty outfits, pretending that we did not exist ... since we were sitting around tables with dice and little paper screens.  It was obvious to us that we were not in the popular set.

But people will build popularity out of anything, given a chance.

My point is, while there is and will continue to be a contingent of people I'll hear from encouraging some kind of forum to be added to our D&D homespace, the only argument for actually doing so would be to garner increased popularity.  And I don't really give a crap about popularity.  It's nice to measure it and its nice to notice that you're 27 on the list, but if I had big breasts and a camera I think I could improve on that.  Well, the right kind of 'breasts.'  What I've got you don't want to see on camera.

Frankly, I have a much reduced goal.  I figure there are five people set to work on the project at the moment; if we can get the interest of fifteen people who sincerely want to improve their worlds, we've quadrupled those in the world who think like we do.  And if those people all have one table running somewhere, that's potentially 80 to 120 gamers all moving in the same general direction.  That's a whole lot better than having 120 followers, believe you me.

(I wonder how many will drop off on reading that.  Oh well, can't be helped)

I'm happy to keep the comments section on my blog, but I don't blame August of the above quote for a second; he's writing politically commentary and a substantial portion of the responses he's getting are viable death threats.  I don't know what I could say about D&D that would bring a death threat my way, but you can bet when it happens I'm going to write a whole blog post about it.

In the meantime, please continue to send any suggestions of contribution to the wiki to alexiss1@telus.net.  I may be slow in getting back to you, but that's only because at the moment I don't want to make any promises I can't keep.  Must wait on the techies, you know.