Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Brief Note

Just a word or two ... or more.  I was lightly ill yesterday, but worse today; so there's no time to put together the material I would for the Wiki tomorrow.  This last week has been spent finalizing the interactive mechanic, which I ran last night.  Did not go off without a hitch, but for several terrific moments the room was uproariously amused.  I feel that with some adjustments, I have something here - will have to see how it plays in the long run, however.

I'll write more about it when I'm healthy.  To you and yours, be well.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Us vs. the Goblins, Round 2

The polls being completed, the results are as follows:

Albrecht:  draws handaxe and throws it, drawing back one hex.
Brønn:  casts bless, drawing back one hex.

Cailaith:  casts magic missile, drawing back one hex.
Darien:  runs to the right, along the wall, seeking the darkness.
Englund:  plays pipes to produce martial music.

Depicting both the party's move and that of the goblins, without shadows but retaining the limitation of what the torch reveals, we have the following image:

The details are numbered 1 to 7:

1. Albrecht moves 4; he draws his hand axe (1 move) and throws (2 moves). Albrecht has a -2 to hit due to the distance (8 hexes). If the goblins were not running towards him when he throws, I would make it an additional -2, but we have to assume they are breaking out of the darkness from Albrecht’s perspective. The fighter rolls a 16, or an adjusted 14, hitting AC 6. The goblins are carrying shields only, so they are AC 6 (explain humanoid armor rules). He causes 4 damage; the goblin has 3 and dies, falling back into the darkness. Albrecht earns 30 x.p. (but he does not add it to his character at this time – he has to survive the fight first). Albrecht steps back one hex (one move).

2. Brønn also has a movement of 4. All spells require verbal and somatic components (never material), but Bronn can continue to hold his mace as he casts bless. The spell requires all of Bronn’s movement except one point. He uses it to move one hex, into the hex that Cailaith exits.

3. Cailaith has a movement of 5, but as she is casting a spell (magic missile), her movement is reduced to exactly the same as Bronn’s. She continues to cast as she moves back one hex, into the hex that Darien exits.

4. Darien moves 4, and uses all his movement to reach the destination hex indicated. This is his only action this round.

5. Englund moves 4, but in order to play martial music he must spend one round with no movement at all, preparing himself to play. This is what he does this round.

That covers the party's moves.  The goblins have only two actions.  As they move, the spellcasters are still casting their spells.  This gives the goblins a chance to break their spells, which they would have a go at if I were giving them any missile weapons. I’ve decided these goblins have none – though even a fist-sized stone would do in a pinch. But we’ll assume the goblins have no stones either, and move forward.

As I said previously, the goblins are running, so they are moving at double speed (six hexes).

6. Here’s where it gets tricky. Both Goblin 1 and Goblin 4 see the thief, Darien, break from the others and run along the wall. It takes Goblin 1 a move of four to get to the hex marked with a blue spot. It takes Goblin 4 a move of five to get to the same spot. Goblin 1 has time to swing with a weapon (it has 2 movement points left) but Goblin 4 is too late. However …

Both Goblin 1 and Goblin 4 elect to grapple. They have a better chance to hit, since the only have to hit AC 10, minus the target’s dexterity. Moreover, as long as no action is taken in a round except grappling and movement, the two are considered to be the same action. Both goblins drop their weapons to avoid a -2 penalty “to hit;” Darien’s defending AC is 7 against grappling; the goblins are charging and they get a +2 on the “to hit” die.

Goblin 1 rolls a 19, modified to a 21, which easily hits AC 7. Goblin 4 rolls a modified 12 (10+2), which also hits AC 7. (I don’t use the 1 minus 1 column; my goblins are 1 hit dice creatures with 1d6 hp per HD).

So, Darien is hit twice. Each hit does 1-4 damage. The goblin’s light weight would reduce this to 1-3, but their claws compensate for the reduced weight, so the damage remains 1d4. Together the goblins do 4 points of damage. However …

Because Darien is against a wall, when the goblins hit him, he hits the wall. The wall isn’t considered to have claws, so the damage is only that of the goblin’s weight, or 1d3. Darien hits the wall twice, at the goblins hit him in succession, so he takes 2d3 of damage: a total of 4. Darien has 9 hit points, so he is reduced to 1 … but he is now considered to be stunned. To stun him would require one quarter of his hit points to be exchanged for damage – or anything more than 2 (2 damage would be 22% of his hit points and he would not be stunned). This means that before Darien can take any action at all, the goblins must be given the opportunity to act again. As well, Darien is now considered to be grappled and held, since the grappling attempt resulted in his being stunned. In order to use his weapon, Darien will have to break the grip of both goblins. He would have to do this by grappling in return, and hopefully causing enough damage this way to free himself. For the present, however, Darien misses a turn. (But he does gain 160 x.p., if he lives to collect it).

7.  The rest of the goblins can do nothing except to rush forward.
The new, updated battle map is presented below, with shadows:

Pertinent facts:

Both the cleric and mage have cast spells, but to discharge them requires this round.  Each could hold the spells over and discharge them next round, but I don't think that's worth considering.  I can't imagine anyone doing it who wanted to live.

In discharging the spell, Brønn and Cailaith can only move 5', or one hex.  Brønn, however, is technically already blessed (without needing to discharge the spell), so if he does not want to bless anyone else, he can at this point move normally.  But if he wants to give the benefits of the spell to anyone else, he has to spend a round doing that.

Englund can move at half speed while playing the pipes, but cannot fight at the same time.

Cailaith does not have line of sight to attack the Goblins on Darien, unless she moves.

Only one character sheet requires an update: Darien.

Additional information about the characters and battle can be found here.  A sexier map of the first round can be found here.

I will be putting up the new polls as soon as possible; they should be in place by 11 a.m. Pacific.  Feel free to ask any questions.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fetishizing The Suboptimal

Since it is -37 degrees celsius in the world today (-35 F), this seems like a dandy time to talk about suboptimal characterizations.  Would I have it warmer out there in order to make my life better, or would I rather have it colder to give me more character?

In the comments of the previous post, Tahotai attempts to distinguish players who intentionally adopt suboptimal character traits from those who think doing so is 'dumb.'  It's a little unclear, but the long and the short of it seems to be, suboptimal = character while optimal = fakery (i.e., avatar).  Very well: where did all this suboptimal stuff in D&D begin?

I don't care to be specific here, and I'm sure if I tried it would start a nit-picking session about who started what where, so I'll stick to generalities.  Sometime in the late 70's/early 80's, eons ago when the world was new, people began to bring out games that allowed a feature in character construction whereby you chose flaws for your character in order to increase the overall combat potential.  The logic was that a character who was missing half of their left leg would have somehow compensated for this by having powerfully strong arms that would dispense out damage at a higher rate than someone with two healthy legs ... in the same way, supposedly, that a blind man has highly sensitive hearing on account of losing his sight.

It's a rather ridiculous conception of being handicapped, but games are full of ridiculous conceptions.  This particular manifestation came part-and-parcel with the Rolemaster-popularized skill set buying system, wherein your character was given a certain number of points with which to buy skills, rather than having 'classes.'  Rolemaster wasn't the only system offering this in 1981, but I remember it as being the most popular.  It proved so popular throughout the 80s that eventually aspects of D&D were rewritten to reflect the method ... a detriment to the game, I say, but beloved by those who will connect it forever with the game because it is the first system they played.

But in D&D it inspired the same pattern that it had earlier inspired in Rolemaster.  Players realized fairly early on that not all skills provide the same return for the amount they cost.  The most powerful players - combat-wise - in the game became those who made a certain set of choices ... choices that made every power player a duplicate of every other power player. Those who decided not to make the 'best' choices, but rather the suboptimal ones, found themselves getting pushed around at the table while constantly having to justify their choices to people who became, in effect, combat bullies.  That suboptimal choice was usually made by players who recognized, and didn't want to be part of, the standard power track.  It was usually made by players who were TIRED of optimization.  More to the point, by players intelligent enough to be bored by optimization ... and therefore intelligent enough to see that there was something very wrong with the reward-system D&D had been saddled with ... a reward system that rewarded optimization and punished independence and creativity.

Now, just at the point when I could go on with the philosophical stance offered by this suboptimal group, I'm going to take a huge departure far, far to the right bleachers, and talk about an entirely different social group - a non-RPG group.  I'm going to talk about fiction writers.

Once upon a time I did a foolish thing.  I submitted my writing material to a professor at a university, as one of three hundred candidates.  19 were chosen, including yours truly.  And so began an 8-year journey into the world that is grant-funded authorship.

The gentle reader may be unaware, but there are thousands upon thousands of would-be writers wandering out there in the world who will never be writers.  But they want to be, very badly.  It is a hunger.  And this hunger hurts, as they know deep down in their hearts that they are not good enough.  But because the hunger to be a writer is enormous, the hunger translates into a belief that, somehow, if only someone could tell them how to write, they would be writers.

Now, mix into this emotional soup a select group of individuals who, in high school and university, entered into writing contests as young men and women - and won.  They got a scholarship here, a chance to attend a writer's camp, a part in a writer's festival ... and so on.  In the process they met professors and previous contest winners who had successfully parlayed themselves a grant from the federal government ... and who were now looking for up-and-coming writers upon whom to bestow their approval.  Their approval in the form of a letter to the same government, you understand, so as to confer that self-same grant that they 'earned.'

The government in fact has no earthly idea what good writing is, so they follow through with the giving of grants entirely upon the approval of people who have already received grants.  What's more, if you have received a grant in the past, and you win yourself a little cherub by ensuring that they receive a grant, you can count on that worshipping little cherub to approve your grant application next year.  In this way, a tiny incestuous butt-fucking elite is created.  Are you with me so far?  Good.

Now, we have this marvelous elite, and we have this crowd of would-be writers looking desperately for an elite.  This creates a community.  But mind you, its not a 'rich' community.  Government grants are enough money to keep you from having to work a real job for a year, but they won't buy you a house.  The big grants provide approximately the same amount of income as a lesser clerk would make in a company farm.  The little grants give you as much as you'd get from MacDonald's in about four months.

Still, there's notariety that comes with getting a grant.  You'll develop a name for yourself, certain little government-sponsored bookshops will stock your books and a few people ... ahem, wanna-be writers ... will have heard of you.

These funded writers and their unfunded associates looking for answers will meet together in groups of sixty or eighty in community hall basements, libraries, university lecture halls and such - anywhere that costs little money, or no money at all, to obtain.  It always helps that there's a few students or professors among the grant-gifted in order to get free campus space ... and this is the most likely place to encounter this particular human herd.

I'm sorry that I've had to provide all this background on a D&D blog, but please bear with me.  We come now to the crux of what is talked about all of the time at these meetings between approved writers and writers desperately wanting approval:  what is good writing?

The definition, in case you haven't guessed it yet, circles around one basic principal.  If the writing earns money, it is shit.  If it is struggling to earn money, and it has been published by the right people, the writing is good.  If the writing isn't earning any money at all, and is of the sort that might someday be popular, the writer is a sell-out, and should be shunned.  All writing that is not approved by the elite - money-earning or not - is bad writing.

Now, what is it the elite write about?  Well, in a word: inadequacy.  Ugliness is more interesting, more real, more believable and more accessible than beauty.  Failure is something that everyone has experience with.  Success is a false god, an unfulfilling illusion.  Success is something that ignorant people strive for, as they are unaware that success doesn't solve the real problems of life - those problems being, of course, the difficulties of dealing with inadequacy.  We all have inadequacies, so being the common denominator, that is what writing should address.  Not the optimal circumstances we wish we possessed, but the suboptimal circumstances which we overcome day-by-day.  That is TRUE heroism.  Any imaginary and impossibly-conceived character can be a hero in the comic-book sense of the world ... but that's infantile and make-believe.  A honest-to-god real HERO is someone who is dealt the worst possible circumstances and yet shows the tiniest glimmer of success in spite of those circumstances.

The Oscars are coming up, so there are plenty of examples.  Many of which are, yes, government funded.

There is a strange fetishistic quality to suboptimal lives and lifestyles which appeals to a particular kind of person.  For them, it isn't success unless they have to overcome something ... or more to the point, they ARE overcoming something and they want special points for achieving success in spite of it.  The more flaws they have, the more special points they're owed.  Your fighter or mage may have an 18 strength or intelligence, but my cleric with his 12 wisdom survived the battle right alongside you and isn't that amazing!

There's no recognition at all that the weak cleric survived because the fighter was right there ... just as there's no recognition in the writer's clique that the money for their fetish comes from the same people who'd rather see Transformers 68: Sam Gets A Pension rather than read half a page of any of their crappy books.  The fetish is all about that individual with the fetish, who wants it to be about "Me, Me, Me" and his or her particular suboptimal choices.

There is a general agreement among my players that if Pippin were a player character, Gandalf would have pushed him down the well rather than merely threatening him.  Even as a DM I find it a remarkably annoying thing to have a player wallowing around in their own character jizz in order to produce a "real, honest to god character."  It's a tremendously self-involved mastubatory instinct to feel that the most important thing about the game isn't that people battle together to overcome the odds, but that "The Me" personally battles against the odds of his or her own made-up nature in order to have trials and tribulations that are much more debilitating than anyone else can imagine.


It isn't much different from the real world ... in that the world is full of self-involved people who feel their suboptimal problems are greater than anyone else's.  For them, D&D - or any other pastime - is an opportunity to air out those grievances in a quest to prove to themselves that they're better for it.  The whole thing reminds me of a quote from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut:

"People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn't own doodley-squat, so they couldn't improve their surroundings. so they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead."

You know what?  It's a fantasy world.  Let's have a little fantasy, shall we?  Let's leave the angst on the doorstep.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Group III

It took awhile, but I am finally ready to put up the next group of technologies in the sequence.  The last few I did out of sequence, on account of losing my place, but they're all caught up now and I'm ready to move forward.  Accordingly, the next post in the series would be on Divine Right.

I didn't imagine I'd be writing these 19 months after I started (the first was July 3, 2009, during my nine-month unemployment period following the recession) ... but then, I suppose it didn't really occur to me how long it would take to write nearly forty posts.  I have enjoyed most of them.  Some have needed more research than others.  Some, I think, have been particularly spot on, while others have wallowed.  But that's how it goes.

It does prove, I think, that D&D has its finger in virtually any subject one cares to name ... if the game is given its due.  It will be harder to write posts about D&D when the technology surpasses the level that fantasy roleplay nominally requires.  I've been wondering about that for ages.  Three of the last four subjects in this group include 'rifling,' 'corporation' and 'chemistry.'  So at the present rate of writing, I'll have to provide an answer to that curiousity in oh, about nine months.

Looking forward to it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Image Redux

Ah, this looks much better:

I had to teach myself some things about publisher to make this pic.  It's for the post I put up Saturday, the one that applies to the polls on the right of the blog.  You can't quite see the oncoming goblins now, but I was able to recolor them and I don't mind that they're largely invisible.  Imagine the party can hear them coming out of the inky blackness.

Don't forget to vote!

Squaring Cows

Reading the Alexandrian's take on Spherical Cows, and the various ideas on the author's site cascading from that post regarding the death of the wandering monster and the wizard as 'win button,' I find myself lacking entirely any identification whatsoever with the what must be the "average dungeon master."

Add to this my stumbling across a three-month old post on Hack & Slash about something I posted around the same time, in which the main problem -C's party members seem to have with dispersal is that they don't all get to join in every combat.  Like this is a human right or something.  I know if I were sitting at a table with a player bellyaching about not getting to wade into combat because the wading pants they were wearing (plate armor) slowed them down, my response would be a lot of mocking baby sounds.  -C is considerably more considerate than I am, maybe because he's been in the military.  They teach patience there.  But haven't any of these suckie-baby players heard of a missile weapon?

Anyway, if you don't read the two posts above, you're going to be a little slow on my mindset at the moment.  I'm mostly finding myself somewhat appalled by the whole "player as dictator" ethic that permeates the roleplaying hobby.  It's not that I haven't seen it before, or even written about it before ... it is only that I am occasionally slapped in the face with it, while never, ever encountering it from my gaming party.

Now, let's understand that the rest of this is not strictly in reference to the two links above, but to many things I have seen over the past few weeks.  Covering the salient points, my specific grievances include:

  1. parties thinking they have the right to be redressed when their position at the outset of the encounter doesn't suit their particular likes or dislikes.
  2. parties thinking that when the encounter is over, they have an automatic right to regain spells and power without being disturbed.
  3. parties using the argument that "it's a dangerous world out there" to justify point one, while dismissing that same argument in justifying point two.
  4. Whining that incorporating something 'real' into a campaign is an unacceptable reason for a DM to do something.
  5. Whining that the DM ought to do something because that's how things work in the 'real world.'
  6. Just a whole fucking lot of whining.
The reasons for this are sad but obvious.  There aren't enough players.  And those players out there have recognized this, and gotten it into their heads that somehow the DM is a kind of service person, like the poor bastard working the till at MacDonalds, whose purpose is to sit and roll dice against approved tables.  "Do it," goes the implied threat, "Or we'll go play in someone else's world."

A contributory factor to this attitude is that there IS someone else's world.  When a world beyond the forementioned tables comprises only  a few shreds of paper with NPC stats, one grossly undetailed map, and a dungeon scratched out on a single sheet of graph paper.  "Anyone can DM," continues the threat.  "So do as you're told and shut up."

And DMs do.  The party sulks, squawks, stages a walk-out or boycott, and DMs get intimidated and back off.  The party gets the encounters they want, delivered in the way they want, with the treasure they want and the time they want to recover for the next battle.  The game grows into a silly farce, usually building up the conflict between the DM insidiously planning revenge while the players grow increasingly demanding.

For some parties, this pattern can continue for years and even decades, particularly if the DM is prepared to obsequiously give into most of the player's demands while personally getting a thrill from the occasional 'victory' he achieves over the players (I say 'he' because I've never seen a she-driven game devolve into this kind of bullshit).  The quintessential example for this is the classic Knights of the Dinner Table, where Brian runs the game, B.A. has his petty little moments, the other boys are retarded children and Sara continues to present as the worst cartoon stereotype imaginable.

Fact is, chance dictates that individuals with psychological problems will find groups that allow their neuroses to feed off each other.  This isn't a 'working' campaign.  These are sick people who happen to compliment each other.  Makes for great comedy.  Makes for a hellish Saturday night for someone healthy.

That addresses parties who have been festering for thirty years, but what about everyone else?  How long do you imagine it takes Joe Simple to call off his weekend campaign because he'd rather catch a movie rather than have to deal with his players?  Two runnings?  Three?  Joe would probably rather play D&D ... and he would probably rather play it with John, Chris and Dave - except that almost certainly Richard's going to show up too and Richard is the real problem.  Joe isn't the kind of guy with the nerve to upfront demand that Richard NOT come (Joe was brought up to be polite).  But when Richard is there, he bosses John and Chris around, while pissing off Dave, and in most cases pushing all three plus Joe into having things Richard's way.

What's funny is that there'll be a night when Richard doesn't come, and the other four have a good time.  They'll even talk about what a good time it was without Richard.  But none of them will have the fucking balls it takes to act on that.  Instead, they'll sit around hoping that Richard gets hit by a truck or something.

I guess what I'm trying to say by going the long way around the barn is that it isn't that most players are bad, awful people who push around their DM, its that there are particular players who seem to have no other life except to exist as people prepared to push around everyone.  They are the toxic element that argues and prevaricates and bitches and moans that the game isn't serving their personal needs to the degree they demand.  If they are going to spend THEIR time playing in THIS world, THEIR time better goddamn be treated with all the respect it deserves.

I want the gentle reader to know that I have a fabulous group of players in my world.  They may play for power, they may dislike not having their own way all the time and they might not be the level they'd like to be, but they hold a fierce respect for one another.  I don't have to stop them from drawing weapons and killing each other's characters - these people are all friends and they would never cross their minds to do anything like that.  If anyone like a Richard showed up, it would take about ten minutes for the party to send Richard packing.  And they would wipe their hands together as they slammed the door at his back.

What's more, my party respects me.  They respect the work I've done, they respect the ways I've tried to turn this or that part of my world into an experience that truly draws from them the sense of being in a fantasy environment, one they LIKE and enjoy exploring.  And because they respect me for the work I've done, I respect them for giving me the recognition.  I don't celebrate at their downfall, I don't devise strategies to break them and I don't remotely imagine them becoming anything except the eventual Lords and Ladies of the Earth they deserve to be.  When the time comes.

They don't push me around because ... well, nobody pushes me around.  And I don't push them around because there is absolutely zero interest in it for me.  If I have a rule change, there's a reason.  And if my players have a contention with my rule change, they have a reason too.  A better reason than, "we don't like it."

I mean, what I read about what's going on elsewhere is just unbelievable.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wiki, February 21, 2011

I'm off today, as part of a long weekend working on the interactive system.  I have 87 cards designed, each needing some artist to work on in the next four months (*I hope!), but the mock-up should be ready for printing by Saturday.  This, obviously, has been holding my attention ... but as a kind of rest, I have been working on other things too for the benefit of the Wiki and for interest's sake (such as the game started on the previous post - don't forget to vote).

As promised, I've added four more spells to the list.  All of them are spells possessed by the party of that same post.  In all honestly I should have posted them before the battle post went up - but this is the way of house rules.  You don't learn just what they can do until it is too late.  Some, no doubt, will have voted without realizing that my bless spell or my protection malevolence don't quite work the way they expect.

But this is a condition of playing in someone else's world.  Things are never quite as expected.  Since there never will be a single accepted interpretation of any rule, this is how things go.  One has to roll with the punches.

The spells I've added to the wiki include Bless, Command, Protection from Malevolence and Tasha's Hideous Laughter.  These are the spells the fighting party possesses that are most different from the Player's Handbook (the others are pretty much as written).

With combat on the brain, I have started a rule set for that system that I've been talking about for days.  The two new pages I've created on the Wiki to handle it describe Movement, Scale & Space, and Surprise & Initiative ... the latter, I'm afraid, is only half done.  I'll get to 'initiative' if I get the time this week.

And this is a notable day.  I have the last maps up to date - none in reserve at all.  Obviously, new maps will be created from time to time, and all the old ones around the edges will be updated.  Plus, there will be additional terrain maps added to the individual pages, plus political maps that I will eventually add (showing the nations without other information, to make the boundaries clearer) and the possibility of other maps someday for climate or resources.  But for now, yes, the maps are all up.

These are mostly empty, I'm afraid.  The actual finished portions are the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula ... the rest are all empty Africa.  But someday I'll get to them.  These should show how ambitious I am:  there's Dahomey, the Lower Niger, Bornou, Oubangi, Darfour, the White Nile, the Blue Nile, Ethiopia, the Gulf of Sheba and Socotra.

I am not certain I've explained this before.  I began experimenting with this map system in September of 2004, and did not produce the first portion of my first map until November of that year.  The small section was that of Voronezh province on the map D 05, the Don Basin.  The party started in a small town called Kolyeno, in the upper right quarter of that map.  If the gentle reader looks, they will find the Caves of Chaos shown on the map, just across the thick border from Kolyeno (some 50 miles away).  That thick line is the border between Russia and the orc-mastered Jagatai Empire.

Step by step, a world gets made.  I hope others will find themselves encouraged by this work as it is ongoing, and will recognize that great things can be accomplished through perseverence.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Looking for a way to demonstrate my combat system in a way that would capture people's attention, I hit upon the idea of this post.  Rather that babbling out a description of the system, I'm going to try something a little more 'hands on.'

To begin with, allow me to present a visual situation:

The gentle reader will take note that there seem to be five individuals in the well lit-portion of the map, centering on the bright yellow light that is over the center person's right shoulder (that's her torch).  It will also be noticed that to the left and to the right, there are some nasties designated 'Goblin' 1 through 10.  But let's ignore them.

Below are the five characters, simplified down to the pertinent details needed for combat:

These characters have been created using my own ideosyncracies.  The larger number of hit points for the fighter and the cleric are a result of their mass.  Englund the bard, despite being human, rolled a 1 on his mass roll.  Everyone has the maximum possible hit points from their class.

In the situation above, the party has not been surprised and they have won initiative.  The goblins are running, so they are moving towards the party at a speed of six hexes per round.  Therefore, whatever the party does for the first round of their action, before they are able to move again, the goblins will be six hexes closer.  They are, for all intents and purposes, charging.

Soon after I post this, I will be adding five polls to the right side of the blog, above the followers list.  You may vote on the polls to indicate what each member of the party will do this round.  I'm setting to polls to close on Friday night ... and on the weekend, probably on Sunday, I will sit down and have everyone move.  If there are any ties, I will judge the best action myself.  I will then show the updated map, the updated characters (if needed) and set up new polls for the second round.

A few things.  You might want to check out these pages on the Same Universe wiki, especially the combat actions table.  Additional rules I haven't written out yet include the fact that spells taking one round to cast do not take effect until the beginning of the following round.  Oh, and crossbows can be kept partly taut, so that it takes only one expended round to finish the loading process.

I may have forgotten something, but I'll add it in this space as soon as someone points it out.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


In Civilization IV, music appears much later in the technological tree than it appeared historically. Evidence suggests that music developed during the aesthetic ‘revolution’ experienced by ancient man, some forty to fifty thousand years ago. Artifacts found at this period begin to show features which are less than practical – tools which are inscribed with symbols, or made smooth to a degree that earlier tools were not. Anthropologists are not certain why this occurred – whether it was compulsion brought on by mystical belief, or a biological development in the human forebrain, or one of a hundred other theories.

I find myself accepting the premise of art sociologist Camille Paglia, who advanced the theory that early humans were naturally terrified by their environment, but learned to adopt a mental state that can only be described as denial. We experience this denial through the reinterpretation of nature as something that is ‘beautiful,’ despite its potential to destroy us.

A range of mountains, from a distance, appears beautiful. As our eyes wander over the crags and desolate high places, we do not have in our minds what it would be like to be among those mountains, naked, and therefore exposed to possible death. Similarly, we see fire as a profoundly beautiful thing, despite the danger it potentially offers should it get loose. The autumn leaves turning color are rarely described as a vast panorama of decay and death. There are many examples, and in each we ascribe characteristics of pleasure to events which are highly dangerous to our wellbeing.

Imagine an intelligent animal’s reaction to the leaves changing color, who does see them for what they represent: the coming winter, with its periods of starvation and numbing cold, the toes that members of the tribe might lose on particularly icy days, and long periods of darkness and inactivity. Prior to the discovery of fire these periods would have been horrible – and yet we have good reason to believe that prehistoric humans who did not have fire possessed a brain large enough to comprehend the difficulties brought on by periods of cold, or drought, or heavy rains.

The rise of culture begins with that aesthetic development prior to 50 millennia ago. Could it be that certain tribes developed an attitude of no fear, embracing the horror and turning it emotionally and mentally into something that we could feasibly yearn for, in order to make nature comprehensible ... which of course it isn’t. Seeing it as something beautiful deludes us into thinking that it is comprehensible, however, which in turns gives us the bravery we need to march out into it on a dangerously cold day and find, for the first time perhaps, that food on the hoof is available in the winter as well as the summer.

This delusion that gives us bravery when in fact we ought to be terrified of leaving the cave seems to occur at approximately the same time as nature is represented in artwork, and at the same time that music is thought to have come into existence. Sound and rhythm react positively to the construction of the brain, actually making it seem as though time is passing by more swiftly – a tremendous aid to long nights when there is little else to do. Music seems to put nature into order, and this is a theme that is applied to music repeatedly through the development of the art.

Plato’s perception (as described by Aristotle) was that the universe was constructed of crystal spheres which possessed ‘perfect’ tones, and which fixed the planets in space. Pythagoras recognized a mathematical truth in the development of the diatonic scale, showing that the measurement of strings produced structured sound (diatonic instruments have been found dating from 45,000 years ago). Music as a ‘technology’ – where it appears in the tech tree of Civ IV, reflects the complex Gregorian chants which became all the rage in the 8th century. Step by step, music has been constructed and deconstructed in continued efforts to understand how best to apply it to the human ear, which reacts to music with drug-like results coming from the release of serotonins.

We hear music, we feel a sense of wellbeing, which in turn we relate to order in the universe, which deludes us into thinking that we can do whatever we want and that we have nothing to fear. In this way, the discovery of rhythmic music may be the solid reason why any of us are capable of talking now, and not huddling in a cave as another fifty thousand years pass. Remember, many hundreds of thousands of years passed for human beings before music was discovered, with very little change between millennia. Arguably, music is the touching off point for every other technology.

Of course, prehistoric humans would not have known of any of this ... self-awareness is not part of the delusion. In fact, it must be noted that self-awareness is the method by which we break the illusion. But that’s another post.

I don’t know about the gentle reader, but I personally find that Tolkien’s need to include ‘music’ in his books to be the greatest hindrance to my liking him. I never find anyone who feels that bad poetry placed in italics inside a text can stand in for music in my head as I’m reading. Music is necessarily depicted in its form as music. This is a huge reason why it does not figure very well in D&D. Oh yes, a player will play a bard and say they make music and effects will occur, rolled for and accounted against the enemy’s strength. But music – honest, real music – is eschewed vigorously. And where it is not eschewed, it is ridiculed.

The development of music throughout the 20th century – specifically, the recording of music – has served to convince the majority of the western world that singing and playing is something that is better left to only the talented portions of our society. Thus, if we even think of actually breaking into song, or even sing-song poetry, during a game, we can expect to receive a drubbing from our friends, along with cries to “Stop, please stop!” and many small cheesy missiles thrown. D&D in the 19th century, when everyone sang for pleasure whether they had a voice or not (except the upper classes, who could afford to pay experts), would have been filled with players singing. The start of a journey on the road would have initiated a carol around the table which the players would have joyously taken part ... it would have been, I dare say, one of the best parts of playing D&D.

This would certainly have been the action of actual adventurers striking out on the road for far places. We know that ship crews did it, as did navies, as did voyageurs and missionaries. Throughout the history of adventure, singing and music have always been a weapon employed by the adventurers – for the very reasons I describe above: it promotes bravery; it reconciles human fear with the dangers presented by nature; it passes the long passages of time between ports of call.

But it is not enough for the brave D&Der out for an evening of dragon slaughterage. We are too casual about music, too jaded, too critical to enjoy sharing strains with our colleagues. We’re too self-conscious of our failings, even those of us with a voice that would have shone in a small European village a half millennia ago. If you sing for your friends, your voice better be that of Freddie Mercury or Christina Aguilera – too powerful to elicit anything but respect.

No doubt the gentle reader was certain I’d end this post talking about bards. That was a little obvious. Instead I invited the DMs and players reading this to ask two questions of their players: 1) do they believe that medieval personages took part in music on a daily, regular basis; and 2) would everyone agree to try it, if you provided the music.

I don’t think the answer will much surprise anyone.

But when was the last time that a DM described you entering a drinking establishment with the words, “As you enter, everyone is singing together...”?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Bucket List

Yesterday in the comments section of To The Answering Herd I posted a link to an old post describing the combat system I use.  Upon reading that post last night, I found several errors ... not that they were errors at the time I wrote the post (well, one), but rather they were errors because I've slightly changed things.  What's more, I tried to write that old post without visual aids.  I'm sorry about that.  The upshot is that I've realized I have to write the whole thing out in detail for the wiki - with pictures.  That's a long haul, but I will try to produce some of it every week until the whole system is written.

Bringing back the discussion about X.P., and now recognizing combat needs to be revisited to, I know there must be other things I've written on this blog that probably did not hit their mark.  I'd like to encourage the gentle reader to feel comfortable about bringing up anything that really needs me to have another go at it.  The task ahead of me, to rework portions of this blog into a less casual format for the other venue, has to be managed piecemeal.  I'd like to address those things which people might feel are more important, rather than stumbling around in the dark.  I don't promise an immediate appearance on the wiki ... but I'll write about it here and about issues blocking system improvement or posting.

It is a lot easier to write a blog than a rules set.  Through Greg Christopher's Statecraft I came across a rather juvenile post about why meaningful criticism is a failure on the internet.  Ryan Macklin, the author of the second link, stumbles around in a cloud of disconnected, weakly transitional grammar while making an fairly cliched argument nostagically defending the importance of free thinking.  It isn't that I don't agree ... I wrote something in the same ballpark a few days ago.  It's only that I find it difficult to take something written about the importance of critiques seriously when it barely reaches the status of English.  But I can guess why ... Ryan was obviously angry when he wrote it.  On looking at stuff in my past that I have written when I've been angry, I wince.  People are probably unaware, but there are old posts on this blog that have "gone missing," surreptiously deleted for the betterment of all, I assure you.

Writing a blog is fun, relaxing, emotionally releasing and - for the most part - a writing style in which I can feel far less invested.  A grammatical error here or there is nothing.  Not like writing rules, or any document where comprehension can hinge both ways upon a single word.  Worse, for me, if it's non-fiction, I usually find myself drifting into a state of somnambulance: "A is equal to B except in the circumstance of C, where C is a manifestation of the conditions arising from D and E, where F does not apply, except in cases where G or H are relevant.  If it happens that A is not equal to B, then the rule of I must apply, particularly where it is influenced by J, K or L, especially where M modifies the value of A in applications where N is present."  And so on.

I could never have been a lawyer.

I am much better with writing non-fiction where I am teaching about a particular thing, where I can elucidate through the use of metaphor - my favorite tactic in explaining most of the things I do on this blog.  But when it comes to describing a thing in terms of its non-emotional limitations, I am honestly ready to throw the whole thing out as not worth the bother.

That is why, in more than 20 years of using my combat system, I've never really sat down to write out every detail.  Bits and pieces, yes - such as the Armor Effects on Movement table or the Combat Actions table found on the Wiki.  But not the quibbling details of the whole niggling system.

Still, there's pressure now, through the Wiki, to get it done.  In fact, there was pressure before ... it's been mounting up every since I first started a D&D blog a little less than three years ago.  The recognition that as I pass my mid-forties (17 months past mid-point as of yesterday), I know that one day I'm going to die.

Wow, downer, huh?  Not that we all don't think about that from time to time.  For me, I feel strongly enough about this game that, well ... let me explain it this way:

For most people, if they were to find they had 18 months to live, they would be struggling with what things they'd want to see, and what details they'd want to take care of: their 'bucket list.'  My personal bucket list would mostly include finishing the four books I have yet to finish (three of which have not been started, but are outlined in my head), and dumping as much of my D&D material on the web as would be possible in the time I had left.

So why wait?  I don't have 18 months, but I do have a mere forty or fifty years, which seems like not remotely enough.  It might be, if I didn't have a new damned idea every other week, and always something I want to develop.  What I need is a good priorities list.  The initial interactive system is just about done (I will start gametesting in 11 days).  The guts of the trade system are, for the present, to remain hidden until the day comes that I can figure out how to make money off it (needs a computer programmer).  Anything else, as far as I've thought about it to right now, is potentially public domain.  There's the combat system, a lot more work on the biology tables, the character background programming table, more mapping, more rewriting of spells ... those being the things I can think of off the top of my head.  There's a lot of things I don't even have a system for - like treasure.  I've seen this recent incarnation of a pdf online and - for my purposes at least - it is total shit.

So, any ideas?  Anything I have written on this blog I'm prepared to write about again, if it is clear up the various issues.  All I need is a starting place.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nutritional Nightmares

Given the number of followers with food blogs, I’ve been thinking I need to build up a post for their benefit. For the gentle readers who don’t know, before I found income as a writer, I worked as a chef for 12 years. Food is in my blood. Literally.

Although it is convenient and saves much hassle in the game, I have never been a fan of ‘rations.’ The Player’s Handbook does not specify what is in these rations, but I suppose it’s what was once called the “ploughman’s lunch.” To paraphrase the link, a thick piece of cheese, a pickle, bread and fruit; from other sources I have heard that it would also include a substantial piece of dried meat, beer, turnips and so on. A wider diet for farmers developed in the 18th century with improvements in agriculture (the link only gives the origin of the name, not the combination of foods). Rations would probably be in a larger quantity than would be carried by a farmer going no further than several rods from his home.

In considering the consumption of food by adventurers, there’s no better example than the voyageurs of Canada ... since we have good records for how much they ate, and what sorts of foods.  Again, taking this from the sources, daily food consumption was ten pounds of salmon, or fifteen pounds of whitefish, or three pounds of pemmican ... dried meat pounded together with fat and berries.  Total intake could be higher than the 7,200 calories suggested by the post.  A meal at a fort - where beef or pork was available - could easily measure as much as 6-8 pounds.  The loads the men carried and the difficulty of the terrain they crossed compares nicely with what one imagines for a fully outfitted party climbing into the mountains with packs, weapons, tools  ... and treasure on the return trip.

If you choose to play your campaign as a DM without the use of rations, you will quickly run into a particular problem, that being one of nutrition.  By the height of the voyageurs operations into the interior of Canada and the United States there had been evidence to show that certain kinds of foods were necessary to the survival of expeditions - and companies forced their employees to consume set amounts of citric acid or vegetables to reduce the onset of scurvy and other diseases.

Obviously, you can demand your players eat a certain amount of everything (you can research those amounts) if they want to stay healthy, but this quickly degrades back into a rations format ... with the players allotting 'days' of food available on their character sheets even if you don't care to do so as a DM.  They will do this because it is the easiest method to get the food issue out of the way and get back to adventuring.  Players have no more desire to muck about with nutrition than they have to measure their encumberance rate.

But if you have an interest in driving yourself nuts, I have a suggestion for you.  After much thought about food and D&D, I made the connection last night, inspiring this post.  As such, none of it is written in stone ... I'm just spitballing here, looking perhaps to build some kind of working system over the next few months if I get time.

To begin with, create separate categories for consumables.  To keep it fairly simple, let's make six categories: meats, cereals, milk products, fruits/vegetables, salt and indulgences.  This last category would include confectionary, tobacco, spirits, and so on - tasty things.  More categories could be made, and the ones mentioned broken up into smaller bits, but let's just use these six for the sake of construction.

Now, let's say that the player has to eat a certain amount in each category to stay healthy.  And let's say that unhealthiness in each category produces a different disease.  Still without getting into specifics, let's call the diseases A, BC, D, E and F.  Therefore, if you don't eat enough meat, you may come down with a nasty case of 'A.'

And just to give the player a chance to get enough of each category of food, let's measure it not by the day, but by the week or the month.  In my opinion, by the month is best ... it allows for greater flexibility.  If the player gets into a place where fruit isn't available for a couple of weeks, they can try to catch up.

Now, here's the rub:  you don't tell the player how much of each type they have to eat.

You do set a certain amount of food that must be consumed in a day.  You can measure it by calories, or by weight.  You can say to the player that when they are resting in a town, they must eat at least 3,000 calories/day, and when adventuring, 6,000 calories/day.  Or alternatively, 20 oz. of food and 40 oz. of food.  You provide them a wide selection of foods from the market, and let them buy whatever they want.  Without hints!

It is, after all, a medieval world.  Offer them six types of each thing, or ten types of each thing, whatever you like.

Then, every few days, when its convenient, tell them to scratch off the amount of food they've eaten, and mark down on your chart how much of each category they've consumed.  Assign a percentage chance based on how much they've fallen short of a particular category, roll, and if the dice so indicate, tell the player that they've caught the category-appropriate disease.  If you want, obviously, you can just let them know the symptoms.

You could, if you wanted to micromanage it further, assign an increasing likelihood of the appropriate disease if the player fails to change their diet ... even saying that they will catch the disease not based on the die roll, but when the amount they've eaten falls such-and-such short of what they actually require.

Oh, I should point out that the disease "F" resulting from too few "indulgences" could be a psychological malady, like depression or paranoia, as the result of the player not knowing how to have a good time in the interest of saving their money.

Of course, over indulgence in indulgences could result in subtractions to the other categories.  You could also include a limit to how much of a particular food could be processed by the body in a certain time period - if I was low on fruits and vegetables, and tried to eat my quota - to 'catch up' - much of that would be simply expended and prove to be of no value.  Overeating a particular kind of food other than indulgences, in a short period such as the fruit example, or over a long period, could also have repercussions.

Hopefully, one member of the party would consistently eat well and remain disease free, pulling the other party members onto the right track ... but then this could be goofed with by the system also.

Not everyone eats the same food with the same effects.  You could make rolls that indicated for some people, lemons did not sit well with them ... forcing them to give away the three pounds of lemons they bought before their journey.  Or play it so that for whatever reason, they learn that anything they eat that produces a 'disconcerting' result on the other end produces only half the desired result.  Thus, they find that their characters have to test various foods before finding exactly the diet that fits right for them.  Jarod might learn that he has to have pomegranates to get the best results, where as Tothlane has a bad night whenever he eats pomegranates.  And if pomegranates are for whatever reason not available, Jarod must eat Tothlane's nectarines ... to get some benefit, even though nectarines hate Jarod.  Certain races, naturally, could have certain preferences.

It is really a question of how much notetaking you want to do as DM.  Given that I have a trade system that indicates the availability of a wide variety of foods, the availability/non-availability of items works particularly well for me.  And I think that much of the measurement for eaten food vs. unhealthiness could be handled by an excel spreadsheet rather easily.

Such a system could really generate some interest at the market, and in the food that was discovered among whatever humanoids were slaughtered just lately.  I can hear groaning from players who learn that the seventeen crates contain dried apricots ... while one druid goes, "YES!"  And I can also hear the conversations of players micromanaging their diets as best they can, never being absolutely certain they've eaten enough of everything ...

Monday, February 14, 2011

To The Answering Herd

At the end of last week, amid some very fine dialogue about awarding experience, with arousing arguments and counterarguments, I was led to do some thinking about the reactions I'd received.  I felt that I could organize those replying into three categories:

1)  Those interested in trying the system who want more information about the particulars
2)  Those not interested in trying the system who nevertheless feel curious about the system's methodology in solving experience problems
3)  Those who feel the system is stupid

It would be nice if everyone answering a post would assign a number to the beginning of their comment.  In that case, I could be certain if my answering the individual's question was likely to change their mind, or only inspire a further series of purposeless bear-baiting or self-satisfied condescension.  But then, group 3 has nothing to gain in declaring themselves, and group 1 is very definitely clear in the way they describe their own interests.

So really its only a question of telling group 2 from group 3.

Let's take an example.  The last question (as of writing this) that I received on the experience question was offered by shlominus: "... any [sic] xp for a character that sneaks into a stronghold and grabs some loot, evading any guards/traps on the way?"  The full text can be found here (comment #20).

The question sounds legitimate.  But there's a certain tone to the way it's asked that says to me: "No matter how you answer this question, it is not going to make any difference in the commenter's head."  Now, that tone may be unintended.  Several commenter's in the past have argued that I've misconstrued their intent.  I don't wish to do that to shlominus.  And the grammatical structure of the question does make room for my misunderstanding him.

Still, I think shlominus is going to run his (her?) game however he flippin' pleases, whatever my experience system.  I feel deeply that if he were the sort of person who could change his mind about the one written in the book, or the thirty or forty other systems that are out there, he could pretty much answer his own question to his own satisfaction without my help.  No one else has rushed forward to answer him (as of yet), so I think the others who comment on my blog have already decided that shlominus is a done deal.

And yet ... that damn question is there, taunting me: "Answer me, Alexis.  You know you want to."

Such is the world of blogging.  There are those who don't find themselves in this position because they never publish anything the least bit controversial.  Or, alternately, the controversy that arises is about something that someone else did somewhere else, so none of those inventing the reason for the debate are actually present in the conversation.

I, on the other hand, appear to be struggling to tear down the established fabric of D&D one rule at a time - and there are those who stalwartly defend their sacredly held rules dogma to the last shred of rationale.  So arguments start here ... with the difference that the actual originator of the thought that is challenging everyone's perception IS here - and he's a spitting, nasty, inconsiderate, condescending bastard.  Except - and this is where a lot of people are really going to have trouble - I'm actually not.

Everyone has their best times, and their worst.  If your neighbor got up daily, exited his side door in his skivvies and peed on your door stoop before heading back inside for his breakfast, you'd be pissed too.  You'd be angry, you'd threaten, you'd cease listening to him and you'd misconstrue most of what he said.  There might be some logical reason why he was doing it ... but chances are you wouldn't jump to logic as your first conclusion.

I tackle these questions I should just leave alone because, to me, it is like someone pissing on my stoop.  It will dry, the rain or the hose will wash it clean, and I don't eat food off my stoop anyway.  But it angers me.  I'm not advancing someone else's ideas, which I have less stake in.  I am passionately arguing my own ideas, my personal thoughts.  This makes me much more volatile than a lot of others who really have no ideas to advance.  And I am particularly volatile to those who seem to think having ideas is a bad idea.  That, in fact, is a habit I picked up from before I began to play D&D ... when as a boy I demanded answers from my teachers, and not the word 'because.'

Ah, well.

Shlominus, the answer to your question is this:  it is only a 'risk' before the fact.  If, after the fact, nothing actually happened to you, then no risk occurred.  However, IF you had to roll dice in order to succeed, and if those dice indicated that you did succeed, then the rolling of the dice occurs produces the same circumstances as combat - and therefore, yes, you would get experience.

On the other hand, if you entered the house, and never actually had to roll a single die in order to achieve your purpose, then no, there was never any actual risk at all.  The risk, one might say, was all in your head - and sorry, we don't reward paranoia.

For those who don't feel that rolling dice to achieve success at a thieves' ability is a combat roll, I wonder what you think is the fundamental difference between a saving throw (where a die is rolled to determine achievement) and a thieving ability.  Really, when you get right down to it, "hide in shadows" is really nothing more than a saving throw against someone else's action - that is, seeing.  I realize that seeing is a lot less volatile, most of the time, than breathing fire, but substantially both acts are, well, "acts" ... just as are paralyzing, petrifying, frightening, hitting and so on.  They are all verbs in language.  You may personally feel that some verbs are more important than others, but since seeing a thief invade a house directly threatens the thief's life, it falls under the heading of combat.

I can't help it if you don't feel the same.  As far as I can tell, the philosophical treatises written about this amount to nix naught nothing, the university degrees offered on the subject are in the same abundance and I am quite as trained in the subject as anyone - and therefore I am just in making the call as I see it.

Wiki, February 14, 2011

James C. suggested last week that the end of my maps might not be such a bad thing, as it might lead to my posting things he would find more useful to his campaign.  That's fair enough - obviously, the maps are limited in their immediate-use value, if you don't run the Earth as a setting.

The difficulty is that the good-looking material I have "ready to go" is, mostly, the maps.  And lately I haven't all that much time.  Still, I've dug up a few bits and posted those to the wiki ... things worthy only of a quick glance, but hopefully inspiring.

To begin with, a probability chart for the 4d6 method of rolling dice.  It occurs to me now that I should put a 3d6 chart up next to it - I'll try to get that up by the end of the day.  Also, my personal druidic level advancement table, and a rewrite of some spells I use in my world, which differ from the traditional books.

I still have maps to post, mostly area which are prepared for me to later fill.  Have I mentioned yet that I know the elevation statistics on every hex everywhere in my world?  I do.  They are laid out on more than a dozen excel files ... and this is then transferred to the hex maps as I need them.  I could make hex maps for everywhere, but transferring numbers gets somewhat dull after making a map or two, so I tend to create them only as I need them.

I realize they're not very interesting as they are, but they will be filled up over the next several years (yes, years), step by step.  This last year, without much time to work, I've created Norway, Italy and the Low Countries - but non-European areas are much easier to produce than European.  The latter are very detailed, whereas much of the rest of the world is marked by large, empty spaces - such as the Sahara I posted last week.

This week I have finished maps for the Empty Quarter, the large southeast desert of Arabia; Oman, and the very empty Arabian Sea.  Parts of India, further east (parts I will be filling up in the next six months), include Gujarat, the Deccan Plateau and the Eastern Ghats.  They've been made precisely because I hope to work on India.  Someone very familiar with the geography of these regions would be able to follow the ranges and valleys from the elevation numbers posted on each hex.

A fine thing about the wiki is the number of views per visit ... for over half the viewers, three or more page views per visit is the rule.  For one in 20 readers, seven or more page views - and for some, dozens and dozens of views.  That is very heartening.  It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the numbers say that in three months - we launched three months ago tomorrow - we have had some effect.  There's no telling what another three months, or three years,  of continued posting will accomplish.

I will continue to call for others to step forward and bravely contribute.  The Wiki's purpose is to make a better game for all players ... not just to dramatize or bring attention to your particular world, but as James says, to provide materials that other DMs can use.  Without question there's a lot that can be done to improve this game, more than I can think of.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Skoormit's Answer

This is a long post written for the sole benefit of Skoormit, who is busting my ass with questions on the previous post. Good on him.

I am trying to address your questions, Skoormit, but it feels like I am getting nowhere.

Where you say “there’s only so much damage that can be done,” I don’t see how that’s relevant. In any system, there is only so much experience that can be gained, no matter what the encounter.

Your assumption remains that you believe mages will go up slower than fighters; but I have already stated that the mage who runs in my campaign, and my own mage running in another campaign where the system is also used, are both going up levels in tandem with everyone else. This is the straw-man assumption I say you are making, because you haven’t any actual experience that enables you to say it. I have experience with this system, and I say it doesn’t happen. What does happen is that when the mage hits 50,000 xp., the other characters tend to be within 5,000 of it, and that the difference usually occurs because of the division of treasure, for which I give experience, and NOT in the X.P. combat experience. I’ve been making comment after comment about treasure, and hearing nothing.

Regarding ‘neutralizing’ a combat without doing damage: I have never understood why anyone thinks experience should be awarded for this. Experience contributes directly to combat prowess. The game is very obviously built this way. There are some very stubborn souls (not including you here!) who just won’t let go of this idea that they should be able to talk their way past the randomness of the game.

It reminds me of Monopoly players who win the game by preying on the weakest soul and ripping them off in trade after trade. Many players in Monopoly can’t calculate their chances of winning, and get hopelessly duped. The same can be said for DMs, whose good intentions lay at the mercy of people who enjoy getting around having to roll dice to win. I have said once on this blog that I consider this a kind of cheating.

I think there should be a REWARD for neutralizing a combat, and that reward should be not getting dead or damaged. I don’t see it as a justification for increased experience/combat ability.

Yes, as I’ve said, I’m inventing cards – which are really just handy representations of a complicated rule set that can actually be played entirely without any cards at all ... if you can remember what you’ve done and what you haven’t. The cards are a ‘placeholder.’ They are not the system itself.

In the situation that you propose, Skoormit, being the paladin that bravely advances on the Hill Giant not to fight but to talk, there wouldn’t be any cards ‘rewarded’ for doing so. But the system would indicate whether the Hill Giant became afterwards helpful, whether he became violent, whether the hill giant became a friend or even possibly an admirer of the paladin. Thereafter, the paladin and the Hill giant might have adventures together, or the giant might simply become frightened and go away.

There would be no tangible reward because there was no tangible interaction. My interactive system is designed to handle exactly that: to resolve conflicts between individuals.  There is a feature of the system where the player can fail and start a combat with a wrong word; and there is a feature that lets the player 'grab' the conversation again after this, and try again.  But there is NO feature that magically bestows power, experience or anything other than an emotional response for a good player.  And there shouldn't be.

Look, you can enter business and talk the whole long day, blabbering away about this idea or that, talking your way through meeting after meeting, neutralizing person after person ... but if you never actually SELL anything, or actually raise money, or actually improve the hard business itself ... your bullshit will only get you so far.  Those jerks who reinvented the system during the boom were befuddling assholes, yes, but they made tons and tons of money for their companies.  They made the rain happen.

How, exactly, does talking a hill giant into not killing you 'make the rain happen?'  Good.  You talked him into not killing you.  You're not killed.  You succeeded.  How in blazes is any other reward logical?  If you talk the giant into helping you kill someone else, something bigger than both of you, THAT is a plan.  But bafflegabbing your way into a neutral situation?  Well, bully for you, the sum gain for both of you is now zip.  Feel free to go buy a beer.

Please understand Skoormit, this isn't leveled at you.  This is a huge problem in the whole game system, where people who don't want to play the game as written still want the rewards for the game they think they have the right to play.  I don't really care if they do that on someone else's turf, but my problem is that they come to ME and my blog and start demanding to know where and how and in what manner I bend myself and the game to suit their peculiar fucked up needs.  And I just want this made very, very clear:

I don't.  I don't because I don't care about their needs.  I don't because I play D&D.  I don't know what the fuck game they're playing.  I would like it if they would play their game somewhere else.

The experience system I've developed is designed to award experience for combat.  I give expereince for treasure because it is a means for the players to bestow their own recognition to each other, and because it works to help everyone feel pleasure and happiness in playing.  The interactive system is only being created for issues that arise in the game - such as making friends out of enemies - that the original creators never solved.

Feel free to ask more questions, Skoormit.  I'll do my best to be straight with you.  Obviously, if every other gentle reader out there wants to have a go, please do.  You'll note that I will take a lot of abuse, that I will get prickly but that I will spend a great deal of my personal time in trying to resolve the conflict between us.

Shame life doesn't have cards for it.

Take A Hit For The Team

I received a new comment in reference to this post about awarding experience from almost two years ago, and thought that since no one would see it, I'd post the answer here.  The comment is from Tripper:

"I'd like to hear what progress you've made on it [the experience system], Alexis, since 3 problems immediately reared up in playtesting: 1) XP rewards for successful encounters that didn't devolve into combat 2) How to reward spells like Web and Sleep, and 3) The look on my rogue and wizard's faces when I told them I would not only reward them for stepping in front of the sword, but insist on it. As far as #1, leveling does concern more than just combat ability (primarily combat, perhaps, but not exclusively). For #3, I tack off my usual course and argue for the gamey side - soaking up damage is not part of the mage class and anyone who does is, let's be honest, not playing the mage particularly well."

To begin with, I'd like to say that I am still using this system after twenty-two months and it works excellently.  I am so used to it now - as is the party - that there's zero chance of returning to the old, crummy way of doing things.  Usually I play my games with two monitors, one that faces me and one that faces the party, and as the combat continues I keep track of everything on Excel, which is visible on the party's monitor.  They can see me adding caused or taken damage to their characters as the battle goes on, and so they can catch any errors I make on the fly (or remind me of damage they did or took that I failed to note).  It's actually pretty easy if you keep track of what they're hit points are at the start of a fight.  I prefer to make notes on the fly, since if someone gets healed in the middle of the fight it is easy to get confused about the damage they've taken.  Besides, since I have the excel file set up so that the damage is automatically translated into X.P. that the player can see pile up on the screen as the combat continues, it adds a competitive flair to the game.  Everyone can see who's getting the most, who's ahead, how much damage they've caused and so on ... which inspires them to jump in if they're falling behind.  It is a strange angle to the game that's never been there before, but both I and my players like it.

Addressing Tripper's questions in reverse order, I addressed the wizard but not the thief with my previous post, linked above.  I must point out that wizards - in my world at least - get pretty powerful as they go up and there's a balancing system at work that does tend to slow their progress in the beginning.  I have had a 1st level mage that I've played reach 3rd level by this means (don't get to play him often), and a 1st level mage in my world that has now reached 5th since instituting the system.  It must be remembered that if the mage hangs back and throws spells, and does nothing else, they still get a share in the bonus X.P. at the end.

It occurs to me that the description of that bonus is not that clear.  At the end of the combat, ALL the damage that has been TAKEN (not caused) by the whole party is added together and multiplied by 20.  This is then distributed equally to all the players who have taken part, regardless of their actual contribution.

So, lets say we have four characters, Adam, Benjamin, Caleb and Daniel.  In the fight, Adam takes 7 damage, Benjamin takes 10, Caleb takes 4 and Daniel takes 0.  What's more, Adam, Benjamin and Caleb combined killed the 30 h.p. creature they were facing (we'll say they did 10 damage each), while Daniel threw a dagger and missed.

Here's a copy of how the table would be organized:

As can be seen, although Daniel does practically nothing, just being there earns him a little more than a 3rd of the experience Caleb receives.  This is because, in my opinion, Daniel is risking his life by not helping his friends ... as that increases the chance that his friends will be killed, and Daniel will be pursued afterwards by the creature and have to fight it on his own.  This and the simple fact that witnessing is its own kind of experiential growth.  If the other party members have a problem with Daniel's involvement in combat, that's their problem.  There's no reason why the X.P. system has to solve it for them.

The tendency might be to think this bonus X.P. needs to be mucked with and balanced to those who participate.  I would encourage the gentle reader not to do so.  In fact, it is already balanced - there's no need to over balance.

As Tripper points out, his wizards will do better to step in and as I said in the last post, take a hit for the team.  But Tripper also feels that getting damaged is not part of a mage's class mandate, and that a mage who gets hit is not playing the mage well.

That, in my opinion, is bunk.  The mage increases their fighting table, however slowly.  A mage has combat ability, however weak.  The mage is a humanoid like any other humanoid, and therefore bleeds, feels pain, and should feel guilty and responsible for the safety of other persons.  Mages are not soulless bastards who are automatically exempt from risk because of their class.  If they want to improve at life, they better get into the fucking game.  There's nothing to be learned sitting on the sidelines.

A quick word about thieves - they go up very fast, so the X.P. system I play does, in fact, give a good reason for their needing less X.P.  A smart thief can backstab their way up and still keep out of the main fights ... which my thieves tend to do.  The low experience helps them.  It's only that thieves are so used to coasting their way up to 8th level with little or no effort that its natural for them to bitch at having to risk something.

It sounds to me, Tripper, that your thieves and mages are whiny bastards, encouraged to be that by an X.P. system that refused to respect the risk-takers in the game.  Poor little namby-pambies.  Maybe they need to call their mothers out to dress their widdle wounds.

Second point:  how to reward spells like web and sleep.

There are considerations the DM can try with awarding half the damage done to sleep or web victims to the caster, but I don't tend to play that.  The extra bonus X.P. does help cover the effort of the mage who is taking no personal risk to cast a spell they already know perfectly and are learning nothing from casting.  It has to be understood that nothing new being learned means no experience.  I don't get smarter every time I drink a cup of coffee.  If the mage helps the fighters slaughter the orcs quickly with a web, it reduces the risk and therefore ought to reduce the experience, not increase it.

But if that doesn't seem fair, consider this.  It is SOOOOO easy for a mage to rack up additional X.P. from magic missiles and fireballs that the 9th level mage in my world regularly tops the list (or comes in the top three) after combats, even though the 8th level ranger has caused 80 odd damage and suffered 50.  One solid blasting spell will reset the balance in short order ... so whatever my philosophy about experience, you don't want to hand more and more experience to a player who pretty much coasts once they reach a level where they don't run out of spells in the first three encounters.

When that mage does get into combat - with his 33 odd hit points and bad attack table - what usually happens is the mage takes a hit or two at a critical moment when the fighters are down, then staggers back when the fighters reassert themselves  with healing (in the case of the paladin) or a potion.  Remember that I play a combat system which stuns a player if they suffer a quarter of their present hit points ... so players are dropping back out of combat all the time as things get rough.  Things might work differently for me on that account.

Once again, your mage may whine for awhile, but when it becomes obvious they're actually carrying the lead in the experience, that whining will go away.  If you need support, turn to the fighters and ask them if they care about the mage's woes.

And finally, about X.P. rewards for successful encounters that don't resolve by combat.  Well, I have this system I'm designing ... enough said.

I hope this was helpful.  All I can say is that the players have gotten very used to it, and that worries about "experience being limited by the party's available hit points" hasn't been a problem.  Combats end, and are followed by healing ... which allows for more X.P. at the next encounter.

My last session, the party tackled a 12-headed pyrohydra.  It reduced most of the party into the single-digit or negative hit point range ... and actually killed the 6th level assassin who was brought back with a Death's Door spell.  Total X.P. gained was in the 17,000 range  - before treasure.  More than the books would have given.  Was fun.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Improbable Weapon User

"Mac Gyver Rule:" Other than for the protagonists, your choice of weapons is not limited to the prosaic guns, clubs, or swords. Given appropriate skills, you can cut a bloody swath across the continent using gloves, combs, umbrellas, megaphones, dictionaries, sketching tablets — you name it, you can kill with it. Even better, no matter how surreal your choice of armament, every store you pass will just happen to stock an even better model of it for a very reasonable price. Who else is running around the world killing people with an umbrella?

I had to write this post, if for no other reason than to show this brilliant panel from Girl Genius from many weeks ago.
I must start by being clear about the use of improbable weapons ... I'm all for it.  If no other weapon is available, I'd like to see more players taking advantage of what's immediately available: bar stools, small farm animals, 50' lengths of rope (bundled, of course), backpacks, filled money belts ... whatever.  If one does not happen to have a hand-axe, because its already been thrown in this combat, a full wine bottle will do.  I think its a shame that my characters don't resort to these things more often.
That said, there's a good reason why.  In reality, a thrown wine bottle doesn't aim for shit.  It doesn't turn like, say, a balanced knife.  This is true for every kind of makeshift weapon.  Good for that specific moment, when you need something, and that bassinet is very handy.  Not so good for the long haul.  The 'Shoveler' would be replacing his shovels on such a steady basis that it would make him think twice about that being his weapon of choice.  The same goes for continued use of cricket bats, hockey sticks, golf clubs and so on.  Yes, lovely weapons when used against unarmed people.  A golf club's survival time against a traditional long sword?  About one swing.
A great deal of effort is put into making weapons so that they are easy to handle, so that they balance well and so that they deliver a good, solid blow that the wielder doesn't feel.  Yes, a frying pan will open an enemy's skull, no question.  It's also damn hard to hold onto as a parrying weapon, its reach is a little short for convenience sake and - let's face it - the thing is hard to hang on your belt.
While I might be for immediate use of anything that comes to hand, I would put obstacles in the way of a character who decided to take 'kittens with sharpened claws' as a proficiency.  It would be all very interesting, no doubt.  And very funny.  I'm sure the character's enemies would be suprised ... just long enough to roll it over in their minds as their balanced spears impaled the character's organs.
This is about all I can say about this subject.  I know others bend towards the less prosaic, as the quote says ... but give me a mace any day.  Sort of like melting down the weight of the frying pan into an aerodynamic ball, fixing it to a longer stick and adding points.
Wait, that's more than 'sort of like,' isn't it?