Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Exposure To Detail

As you sit down to produce your adventure, either in your head or at your table, one of the most important and annoying elements you must convey to your party is information.  Whatever the adventure, and whatever the goal, you will have to tell your party what it is, where they can find it, what they have to look out for, why its important and who else is trying to get it ... along with many other details.

In standard D&D practice, as set out by module after module - even those produced today - the adventure includes pages and pages of important material of this kind at the beginning.  And sadly, many DMs deliver this information to their players in a solid block, right at the start of the campaign.  Without question this is the worst sort of storytelling, as I shall attempt to demonstrate.

Now, I hate the movie Star Wars, but since I know all the gentle readers are familiar with it, and since I am familiar with it, I shall use it as a template.  The story opens with an action sequence, and after the death of a few rebels, Vader comes out and says a few words to the other soldiers about making sure they do their jobs.  Then the robots ramble down the corridor, with C3PO speaking continously, running into Leia and her projection.  The robots escape, hit dirtside on Tatooine and get bought by Luke and his uncle.  The robots escape as a plot device to get Luke together with Kenobi and there's a conversation that happens while the robots get a bath.

This pedantic description of something you all know painfully well is here to demonstrate the practice of writing exposition.  Vader's first statements to the soldiers conveys a little bit of information that you, the viewer, need to know.  The robots talking in the corridor give you a little better picture, letting you know the purpose of the ship, that the captain's decisions made no sense and so on, conveying to you that there is a mystery here.  Only part of the holographic works, because that's a better hook than the whole holigraphic working.  Luke and his uncle chatter about things as they buy robots to give you more information about the life of this kid, and a bit later a whole waft of information is given to you by Kenobi explaining as little as possible to Luke.  And of course the full holographic still doesn't tell you everything you need to know.

Unlike your standard D&D module, the information is given to you in dribs and drabs by various characters of the story.  Even when Kenobi tells Luke about his father, he does not tell Luke about his father, does he?  He doesn't say, "Oh, and your father is Darth, and he's probably somewhere abouts looking for us right now, so we'd better get on a starship and make it for Alderaan right now, because I've heard the Empire has a planet busting weapon and they might use it before we get there.  If only we had a hot shot pilot to fly us there quickly.  There's a bunch of those at Mos Eisley, I've heard about a guy with a wookie who's good - oh, wookies are huge hairy sasquatch things.  Then, after we get to Alderaan we can join the rebels at Yavin and take out the Death Star - that's what they call it, don't you know - by hitting it in the exhaust vent.  Well, we better get going.  Don't worry, because I can control men's minds.  And oh, in case I forget, if you ever get caught in the bottom of a garbage vault, there are snakes."

And yet, you will get information of this kind, in abundance, at the beginning of a D&D adventure.

The first rule of exposition is to resist telling the reader - or the party - anything that is not strictly of importance, at the moment of telling it.  It is important to keep it quick, to the point and whenever possible, make it sound like it isn't exposition at all.  Luke and his uncle's exchanges are fast, and depend upon the tired cliches of every kid wishing he or she could do something his or her parental figures say no to.  But while it's a cliche, it's a fast cliche - it doesn't get bogged down in a lot of clever rhetoric describing just what a power converter is.  Really, you don't care.  The same goes with a lot of other words and references, such as 'Anchorhead' and 'the south ridge.'  The only important thing that is actually said is the oblique reference to the "agreement" so that Luke can sullenly walk out and talk to C3PO and get more information from him.

If, as a DM, you scatter the information you give to your players through a dozen NPCs, signs, passages in books and so on - however cliched - the pace and excitement of your campaign is less likely to get bogged down by long readings from prepared pages.  If your adventures are designed to give the information throughout the party's travels, through overheard conversations, casual observations, vague references and the occasional two-minute explanation, your party's interest in the mystery will mount from hour to hour.  What's more, it increases the opportunities to give misinformation, which will reveal itself exactly as the information does, allowing all kinds of red herrings and wrong turnings.  If you really want to get a party going, consider the possibilities of introducing Three's Company misunderstandings, delivered exactly in the same manner (half an overheard conversation that completely gives the party the wrong idea).

It is an error to convey every piece of information the party needs as though it comes from the voice of God, which it will seem to do if you put it in the mouths of Kings, Lords, Wizards or authority figures like Kenobi.  Putting your adventure into the mouths of bawds, thieves, peasants and harlots will greatly change your party's perception of the information, making your adventure more accessible and interesting.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The End of Wars

On this Memorial Day weekend, I'm confident some gentle readers will stir themselves to check the computer.  Here in Canada we had last Monday off.  Since we never had a Civil War, it was necessary to venerate a dead English Monarch in order to give ourselves an excuse to sleep in on a Monday in May.  Dead monarchs, as it happens, produce less patriotic rhetoric in their wake than do the ends of brutal conflicts - but then, they cost much, much less.

All my campaigns begin in the year 1650.  The long-running campaign has just started into January, 1653, but I did just start another separate two weeks ago for some friends who had never had a chance to play D&D.  My reasons for picking that year are varied, and have much to do with there being colonies in the New World, with the restoration of Portugal to independence, the rise of the Dutch and the relative stability of India and China.  India in the last thousand years has never been really stable, but the Moghuls were at the height of their power and the boundaries in the north at least were set.  In China the Manchu Dynasty has been in power for all of 6 years, ending a thirty year war of conquest that deposed the Mings.

In Europe, the Thirty Years War has only just come to an end.  As a comparison for violence, passion, bumbling generals and destruction, it was a civil war that compares well with the American Civil War, the end of which brought about the establishment of today's holiday.  The German war lasted much longer, but only because it was a series of conflicts taking place in different parts of central Europe, all revolving around a similar motif - the justification to plunder those not of one's own chosen religious belief.

Specifically, Catholics plundering Protestants, Protestants plundering Catholics, and everyone plundering the Jews (the last was standard practice up until 60 years ago).

At various points between 1618 and 1648 various adventuring states or independent 'generals' raised armies and marched out to put right the question of whose religion was most just - proving in the process that religion is a wonderful justification for greed, gluttony, lust and wrath.  These invasions are today called 'Interventions.'

Except for brief periods of the warring period, there were no 'fronts' as we understand them in modern warfare.  Certain cities or towns were entered repeatedly by various forces identifying as Protestant or Catholic, either of which were prepared to execute citizens in the interest of accumulating gold or power.  Anything you can imagine your D&D players not being allowed to do was done abundantly.  The destruction amounted to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns in Germany alone.  The treaty ending the war was signed on October 24.  I could not find a holiday associated with it.

My choice in running the years after the war, rather than during it, allows for an understanding of tolerance towards religion in my campaign.  I quite like clerics.  Unlike many who are made uncomfortable by the injection of religion in a campaign, I enjoy the various aspects of social counsel and networking that clerics have available.  And I did not want to force a given religion on my players.  There is some intolerance that remains, but Europe did not fight another war on religion (nationalism became the rage) and the burning of heretics fell off.  So if a player wanted to play some religion that was very unpopular, it was possible in that enlightened age as they remained discrete.

Moreover, the need for reconstruction - in China as well - provides lots of opportunity for players who wish to be upwardly mobile to move into desolated areas such as Brandenburg or Bohemia.

Why it should matter that a particular period in history is suitable for my campaign must seem strange to some people.  After all, it is fantasy, why not simply rework the circumstances to fit exactly what I want?  I think in answer to that I must say that I am not capable of reproducing out of my mind the complexity and value added to my campaign by real historical sources.  By having a set period, and adhering to that period, my campaign is aided by the thousands of letters, details, crises, diplomatic events and circumstances which were naturally produced by that time.  Any given part of the world can be examined for my benefit to see who is fighting whom, what they are fighting over and what is the likely result - enabling me to present these details to the players as though they are current affairs.  And if my players choose to pick up a book or two about the time period and learn themselves, I am flexible enough to change my perspective to suit what they have learned.  I would rather allow a third-party source (even when offered to me by a player) to set the course of events than to rely on my own 20th century habits.

If the gentle reader can understand, I am not varied enough in my experience, nor varied enough in my imagination, to account for all the parts of the world that exist in my world.  But books and accounts that exist ARE.  But I am not enough of an investigator to read all those accounts myself, so I welcome others who are willing to pitch in and help, even if that means changing a long-held belief about how a particular aspect of my world works ... if the written accounts of the period prove me wrong.

Is it not a better system when the basis for that system does not rest in the hands of a single individual?

But I had better address a likely contention, namely this post here, specifically with reference to the words, "I decide."  Of the rules that I lay out, as described on that post, this that I have described on this post is one.  It is a rule that I myself adhere to that relevant material from the time period in question must - within certain D&D established premises - must be accorded respect.  It is my world ... and it is the greater world too, which I do respect, and bend my world towards.  Provide me the document, and I will see what I can do.  It can be frustrating for me ... but it is ultimately rewarding, too, since I learn every time it happens.

I leave the American gentle reader with this postscript: that while it is understandable to celebrate the strength and beauty of one's country, the devastation wrought by war is something that should encourage tolerance, and not intolerance.  The men who established the recognition of this day in 1865 had only just seen the results of partisanship taken to its logical conclusion - the systematic murder of brother against brother and father against son that is war.  The continued identification with any set of beliefs without an open mind can lead to no other event.  Thus, on this day, in remembering that men died for your country, please remember also that they would have much rather have lived for their country, and that living would have been made possible with less certainty about how any one group has the right to rule over any other group.

Friday, May 27, 2011


In a much more mundane adventure, I am taking some of the energy I have and directing it towards a love that is not motivated by D&D.  I am establishing a blog entirely out of this community, in fact, and have taken upon myself to try and contribute to that blog every day, even on weekends.  With difficulty, I will have be struggling to keep many of the posts shorter - though I will probably fail - and I will be carrying forth a different agenda.  Namely, to keep much of my caustic personality out of that blog and concentrate on the fundamentals of writing and literary criticism.

The blog is called The Pegasus Rider.  I trust that some of the gentle readers here will find it interesting.

A Nice Jump

At least one person can't imagine why I'd write a screed like the one I did yesterday.  To be specific, I was told to "Use my head."  Well, consider this:

That rather sharp spike on the right of the chart, that's yesterday's post.  A post that not only drove more than 300 page views to yesterday's "childish" post, but another sixty into my back catalog as well.  And while yes, people get offended and ruffled and they go away, many, many more people come and read and stay.  They tend not to be as vocal, but they laugh at the rhetoric and they don't take me quite so seriously.

Part of the agenda I have with this blog is to stir up shit.  I realize that a segment of my readers would like me to be prim and proper and "close to" genius all the time, but people get numb to near-genius work day after day.  People need to be shaken, to be forced out of their stupor and to be made to question their premises.  After all, if I am as smart as I obviously am, as proven by the back posts that are still worth reading months and years later, then maybe when I screech and howl I might just have a point worth considering.

In fact, I have been told countless times now since starting this blog by players that they have reimagined their worlds based on both my hard, diligent work and my occasional freakish rants.  It is the combination of both that drives the energy and passion of this blog.  I am no doddering university professor, humbly droning out data.  I am a burning, screaming prophet, occasionally covering himself in gasoline and striking the match.

Oh sure, someone is always going to hate it.  Someone is always going to reach out to me and plead for a steady, calm approach to everything.  Someone will ask if I've taken my meds and someone will call me pretentious.  Those are the expected responses.  I don't think I'm pretentious because I don't consider my efforts as a DM to be all pretense.  I actually AM capable and creative.  And I have never taken medication, and I have never done recreational drugs of any kind.  For two accidents in my life I have taken codeine and percocet ... for a few weeks each.  That's as drugged as I've ever been.  I don't even smoke tobacco.

A calm approach to everything strikes me as a dull, tepid sort of life.  And I am not concerned about people hating me.  Poor Jovial who stamped off the blog yesterday has no idea how long - or how deep - my personal convictions run about things he's written or things he's done.  He's only grafting onto me whatever he needs to believe.

For my part, I'll go back to writing D&D posts that impress and dull people.  And in a few weeks, when I feel my hand twitching for a match, I'll light myself on fire again.

It won't hurt my ratings any.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

No, I'm Not Kidding

Hold onto your seats, chillins; we's a gonna delve inta dem ol' Edition War blues and it ain't gonna be the usual complaint.

I am not an OD&D player.  I know there's some that rank me among that number, and I have made it clear that my campaign is based upon AD&D, or 1st Edition as its called.  Occasionally someone makes an oblique reference to OD&D in some incarnation when making a comment on this blog, with the assumption that its something I side with.  I am taken to be one of the number.  I hear this and I ignore it, with the feeling that it doesn't make any difference, it's good enough for the peanut section and there are more important things to talk about.

However, when I hear someone propose a solution to a problem based on 'pure' D&D ... well, lets just say I'm a bit more than miffed.

For future reference, I am writing this post in the hopes that when - in the future - the matter of edition wars comes up, I can link this post and have done with it.  Without question, the edition wars debate is the stupidest, most infantile on-going never-to-be-resolved pissing contest in the RPG community, and as such it cannot be ignored forever.  The reader has got to understand there's too much urine on the floor for it not to get mopped up.

Every one of us knows the story.  We know the 2nd Edition and thereon were perpetrated on the market in a money grab.  We know there will be more money grabs in the future, with another edition following another edition as long as money floats in pockets.  So we all know this bullshit will wax and wane with each new corporate effort, blah blah, so goes the world.

What isn't said, I think, and what the truly crippling grindfest of all this flag waving boils down to is this:  the new editions are only multiple creations of the same Two Rules: characters and combat.

Characters and Combat are the easiest, simplest rules to create.  How do I know this?  Evidence.  There are hundreds of ways that characters can be concocted, and every way produces a logical presumption for the concoction of characters competing against one another.  And virtually every roleplaying game that has been invented in the last 40 years depends upon the Newness and Wowness of a new character, and a new combat system.  Every jackoff kid in his basement with twenty minutes and a thesaurus can produce a new character creation scheme, and every jackoff kid is doing so, right now.

But what these games don't do, because it is hard and difficult to do, is to present a means to play purposefully in a game world.  Oh, they'll describe another game world, with a bunch of fucking hexes, and little circles for cities and half circles for hills and so on and so forth, but these are NOT solutions to how to make a world real.  They are just shapes and lines.  Little Billy Referee has no more idea what these lines represent than he knows how to make love to a woman.  RPGs ... EVERY RPG, mind, presents as much practical knowledge towards running a campaign as Billy being told to rub his middle finger somewhere between the girl's thighs.  Yeah, Billy might get his clumsy hand in generally the right place and he might get lucky, and the girl might fall in love with him ... but chances are he won't be able to give his son any better advice than he got.  So goes the world.

So here is my opinion about so-called 'pure' D&D.  It's telling Billy his hand has to go somewhere between the thighs.

Now, I don't give a shit about 2e, or 3e, or 4e, or any of the shit between them.  And I don't give a shit about the white box or the red book or the Pink Tome of the Juvenile Fuckwits.  Because they are all the same thing, repeated and repeated and repeated again.  Character.  Combat.  Another list of weapons.  Another list of skills.  Another list of equipment.  Again.  And Again.  And Again.  Which all amounts to pushing people with no imagination onto the next freaking girl in the hopes that her thighs are somehow differently designed so that Billy's freaking hand gets lucky this time.

This blog, and the game that inspires it, is not about any edition in the D&D universe.  D&D is not an edition.  It is a task of conceptual design.  And I am interested in solutions.  I don't care what the solutions are, as long as they ARE solutions.  I don't care how complicated the solutions are.  I don't care if the solution needs a calculator, excel, three lap tops or if I have to break into the Pentagon Mainframe every night I play.  If the solution to making the game simultaneously entertaining and challenging requires three clowns to show up during game play and act out Carmen, I'll fucking do that.  I won't be limited by any bullshit conception of purity, or which game system I'm playing or how many freaking angels can dance on the head of a d20.

Now, I know I am being unrealistic here.  But frankly, I'd like the community to take its communal head out of its communal ass and actually look between the girl's fucking legs and learn what the fuck needs to be done to make the girl's heart palpitate and her throat raw with happy screams.  Because I am awfully tired of excuses like its too complicated or its an 'abstraction' or I just don't feel like making an effort.  That's all very nice for you, but from me it guarantees about as much respect as I plan to have for Donald Trump when he again announces he's running for president in 2015.

To reprise, my feeling about every edition is one of distinct immesurable loathing.  As written, they are all shit.  Any of them could be improved to make a better, meaningful game.  I happen to have started with 1e because that's what happened to have been launched when I started.  That is all the significance it has for me.  I have nothing to gain by changing to some other system, because I have already fixed the problems I have with the system I started with.  I see no reason to try some other system that does the same fucking thing as the one I started with just so I can waste years improving it.  But if you're improving 2e or 3e or even 4e, good on you.  I don't care where you start.

But please, please, please stop creating tables like you are a 15-year-old with a 10-year-old education.  This shit you are presenting online on your blogs ... would this last five minutes in a board room where you're expected to produce real work?  Are you so weak and lameass that you can't respect something you 'love' with as much passion as something you do for a paycheque?  Because I will tell you, if you gentle readers out there are designing machines, performing services or otherwise presenting work with the same slackass effort you're incorporating into your blogs, no wonder the fucking country is choking on the fumes of failure.  You're weak and I'm sick of it.

Okay.  I'm sure I haven't made any friends.  But there it is.  My position ought to be clear.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago asking for criticism, and with one exception - from someone I have respected for some time now - I got absolutely nothing.  I was very disappointed.  I was counting on people to help me improve my game and my world.  I continue to hope for that.  I would not like to think I am alone in this quest for excellence.  I am well aware that I am NOT excellent ... but if I cannot receive any criticism that enables me to improve, I must assume that the majority of my readers are teenage children.  The sort that think pissing endlessly for this dumbfuck corporate product over that dumbfuck corporate product is a valuable way to spend their time.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Alchemists First Level Redux

One issue I've generally had with pre-designed dungeons comes from their static relationship with time.  Over the course of a session it is often useful to play scenarios in which a party is forced to backtrack and sweep forward along the same battleground over and over again, as forces ahead of them wax and wane.  This is easy to do in a game that is played on the fly.  The party moves forward through the tunnel, comes across a monster, slaughters it, and is drawn back into the same tunnel by something that has crept up behind them, which is then slaughtered.  The party moves ahead through the tunnel, finds something that wasn't previously found and mills in the middle of the tunnel for a brief period ... and then move forward, where they find something in the room of the first slaughtered monster which must now be slaughtered.  This is the third encounter they've had in the same tunnel, and yet they still haven't left.

An entire adventure can be played out in one single tunnel.  The adventure can be recorded in measures of time, not space.  But dungeons, by the flat thinking of the level-driven two-dimensional design, tend to strictly obey an ad hoc limitation: one room, one encounter.

This logic is perpetrated by the pre-designed formula, which is unjustly narrow in order to address the abilities of every DM who chances to play the dungeon.  In other words, the successful dungeon must be designed for the lowest common denominator: the noobie.  And noobies have enough on their plates without having to juggle various events occurring simultaneously.

You can assign certain events to occur after such and such a period of time has passed since the players enter the dungeon ... but you can't be certain they'll be in the right place at the right time to witness the event and make sense of it.  You have to assign the event to occur when the players pass a certain point, or you risk ruining the value of the event.  If an explosion happens and the players are in the wrong part of the dungeon to hear it and thus react to it, the explosion is wasted.  Trees fall in the forest all the time, but a still, dead tree makes for dull filming.  Being there for the fall is better.

Having this situation in mind for the first level of the dungeon I posted some weeks ago, I find I have to add the same dungeon level over again.  What happens, to remind the gentle reader, is that the party enters the 'dungeon' on some pretext following an invasion by an unknown force.  The force moves ahead of the party, kills whats in the tunnels and the party finds themselves following along and picking up clues.

Now, once the party is deep enough inside the dungeon that they can't easily get out, a new group is introduced.  These are 'shock troops', who have been called by the denizens of the dungeon to come in and clean up the disaster.  The shock troops, and the people who called them, don't know anything about the party's presence ... and naturally the shock troops aren't interested in asking questions.  The underground facility (for that is what it is) has been invaded, and the party is in the middle.

The premise I would use would be to have those survivors right outside the entrance to the facility presume that the party are the shock troops.  This could be done by having the outsiders seriously wounded, groggy and willing to assume anything in armor must be help.  The party, not knowing they are being mistaken for a crack troop of regulars, blindly enter the trap and get caught there.

The image below (which can be found, as ever, in full size on the wiki - below the original first level image) only shows details important to the entrance of the shock troops.  Gaps in logic or circumstances must be filled in by the DM, as it's impossible to account for all the possible activities and distributions of the party.  Suffice to say, when the yellow hex on the map is crossed, the shock troops come through the door, and wherever the party is, that's where the party is.

The First Level once again, with new things happening

If some of the party are in the cloak room when the yellow hex is crossed, I'm sure the DM can figure out that the shock troops enter the picture from a little further up the tunnel, from the front entrance of the cloak room and so on.

I have already received word from one DM who is running his players through this dungeon, and his players are having a great old time - shock troops and all.  So I hope others can get some fun out of this.

Bloody Attrition

Several days of being sick and I still have an ache that proves my head has been removed and replaced with a basketball full of pudding.  Through the blear, however, there are several posts I could think to write.  Most of them are not about D&D.  This one is.

I wish I had the time to work up a decent set of modifiers or perameters that would create an environment vs. players damage system that would make me happy.  These things get like a piece of gristle and I can't let go.  But then, new angles come up and I recognize that not rushing into creating a system is sometimes a good thing.  Here's the new angle for today, and this too comes out of that Kohima book I'm grinding through rather slowly (it isn't light reading).

Let's look at it from a wargamer's perspective.  I played wargames before D&D, and both wargames and RPGs tend to suffer from some of the same assumptions.  Let's consider the map below:

Site of the largest tank battle, ever.
It's a small section of the Central Russian Uplands, a vast area of rolling hills and steppe south of Moscow.  I've chosen this because of the proximity of the road from the south, through Belgorod and Oboya, and the road from the east, through Staryy Oskol and Tim.

In most wargames, roads provide double the movement speed for units moving from hex to hex.  In other words, while it may take one full move to go straight east from Belgorod, it also takes one full move along the road from Belgorod to Oboya.  This also means that it takes 4 moves to go from Belgorod to Staryy Oskol through Kursk (8 hexes) and 4 moves to cut across country from the bend in the road north of Belgorod, following the black arrows, to where you can meet with the road again.

Some games get 'complex' in that they would differentiate between the height of hills in the first hex of the black arrow east of the Belgorod road (the reader will note that the corner of the hex reads 895 feet) and the next hex along the black arrow route (377 feet).  This drop in elevation might mean that the black route was slightly slower, and that therefore the road through Kursk was still faster.

What I have never seen in a wargame, however, are rules that argue that attempting to go overland had a chance of actually bogging down the unit so that it couldn't move at all for several days.  And I have also never seen any rules that suggested the unit coming out of the rough country (the black arrow route) emerged at half its combat strength.  And yet this is what would be proposed by a D&D rule regarding damage from travel.

Consider larger units in the game than just the character party.  The fighter, cleric and mage devise a strategy by which the main body of the player's army, led by the cleric and the party's hired officers, will attempt a cautious assault upon the castle gates with catapults and siege towers, mostly to draw the enemy's attention.  And meanwhile a hundred picked men under the fighter - with the mage along for support - will move through the dark swampy forest and over the mountain spur above the fortification and flank the weaker defenses from the rear.  A simple glance at the castle will show that there are less men posted there, the walls are not nearly as high and there are no ballistae mounted on the towers there.  Obviously, the castle defenders do not expect an attack from there.

Why not?  Are they just dumb?  Surely a child could see that was the direction from which to attack - at the castle's 'Achilles heel.'

Ah, but is it?  Perhaps the builders of the castle were no so dumb after all.  When the flanking group finds their strength wittled down by freezing water and hundreds of nips from normal sized rats and mid-sized centipedes; and when they find themselves tearing up their hands and boots on the naturally sharp rocks during the ascent of that spur; and when they find themselves losing men from slips and falls from the upper slopes that are covered with dew when the picked men try to make the climb at night; perhaps this won't seem like such a good idea.  Don't imagine a group of daring men emerging from the unwatched side and quickly cutting through the 'weak' defenses like butter.  Imagine a group of torn, bleeding remnants who, after crossing the wilderness to reach the castle, have half their hit points or less, with dead and weakened companions scattered over the land where they've just come.

There's another rule I have been considering.  If a party were to move through a given wilderness hex (or any hex without a road), it follows that the second time they moved through that hex circumstances will have slightly changed.  First of all, they would have found better routes by trial and error already ... so they ought to move faster.  And in finding the routes, they ought to take less damage.  In fact, every time they move through a given wilderness hex, their time and their circumstance ought to improve.  Oh, certainly, there's a point where it couldn't get better, and they would still be subject to the weather, but it should still improve.

In our little scenario of the flanking group above, how many lithe bowmen familiar with the terrain would it really take to screw the party, but good?  Defenders would know the rocks, and would know just where to set up ambushes, who knew when an attacking party was bound to get trapped between the deep bog and the soft ground where running towards a group of three or four archers was practically impossible.  It wouldn't take anything to pin them down when the party came to a certain point on the far side of the spur.  The defenders would have names for every feature, and would say to one another, "They'll have to climb their way up over Finn's drop, or climb through Kelly's defile.  If they're fool enough to do the latter, we'll have Ransom and Troy pin them down when they round Leggim's bend, and drive the back end of their group west from Oram's roost.  We won't last long, we'll have to back out after they scramble up the slope that's there, but Davie and Dan can dodge into Galick's cave.  They'll never find it, as we all know."  (Laughs all around)  "We'll get four or five of them for sure.  Then we can back up and when they go over the ridge near Wavel's Grave, we'll set off the traps."

And so on.

A group of defenders who knew the wilderness well would make life hell for a group of interlopers who knew nothing about the country.  Even with a guide leading them, that guide would have to be someone who knew the country well - and the guide would then be known very well to the defenders.  If the guide really knew the country, he'd know enough to tell the party, "Don't do it, you fools, they'll kill half of us before we'd get there."  Or the guide would have enough larceny in his heart to know when to keep his head down at the bad bits, and when to disappear with the party's money.  Otherwise, the guide's chest is going to be the first target aimed for by the defenders ... without much pity, either.

There are a lot of angles on this rule than what I've seen.  It's more than merely travel.  It's attrition, too.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bad Results

Here and there I've been working on an excel file that would automatically generate all the background material I give to my players, to save time.  And with this on my mind, the question today is: how much tolerance would the gentle reader have for a character who was so reduced in capacity that running as an ordinary adventurer would be impossible?

I ask because I’ve been going through the various extremely harsh penalties my background system – like the one posted here - bestows against persons with attributes of 5 or less, wondering how people would play them if so saddled. For myself, I think it would be interesting to play any of these ... for awhile, at least. Thankfully, at 5th level one would usually get a henchman – except, of course, when the penalty is that one can’t.

I will give the example, as it is worded now (I'm rewriting some of these for the excel file).  There’s a 1 in 20 chance of getting the following if your character has a 3 intelligence:

“Character is an 'idiot,' and cannot act to care for self without supervision.  Cannot grasp social constructions (such as money). Has no weapon proficiences or father's skills; cannot have henchman."

That is a hard character to run.  My interpretation would be that you're already dependent on at least one other player in the party to tell you what to do.  With an intelligence of 3 you can only be a fighter, so you are attacking at -3 to hit until you reach 4th level, when you get a weapon proficiency at last.  You can't get experience from treasure, but only from vicarious experiences that you CAN understand - causing damage, receiving damage.  And worst of all, you can never inspire another person to follow you - since you yourself cannot really make decisions about most things.  I suppose if you had a family member you could ally yourself to him, and that family member could ultimately become a henchman ... but it would depend upon whether you even had a family (strength table) or whether anyone in your family liked you (wisdom table).

No doubt, some would not think this was a reasonable result to appear on a character's background table.  But I disagree.  It would be a bitch, but it would still be playable by someone creative.

For instance, there are a whole mess of results from the Constitution table that result in chronic conditions: blindness, deafness, a tendency to severe hemorrahging when wounded, or even having both legs crippled beyond use.  To what degree do you allow these to be cured as a diseases?  Should blindness which has resulted from birth be affected by cure blindness?  Does restoration automatically settle the matter?  Or does the possibility exist that certain persons cannot be cured by any method, and are doomed to remain permanently disabled?

Would you run a blind character?  Particularly if no 'special powers' were bestowed upon you as a compensation?  I might accept some arguments for hear noise, but in an all-out melee, would that really be practical?  And still, if played carefully, wouldn't it be sweet when your completely blind character actually succeeded at reaching seventh level, steadily obtaining items and other things that would balance the scales ... an ego-sword that was able to 'see' for you, a hit table that compensated for your penalties, the increased level that allowed you to detect the location of invisible beings, the old standby of killing the lights and forcing everyone to be blind, etc.

And why not a parapalegic?  Consider the following condition, with a 1 in 20 chance of getting if your constitution is 3:

"Character suffers from ongoing chronic pain, and will not be able to travel or walk under their own power.  They must be transported by other means."

Nasty, that.  Once again, there is dependency upon the remainder of the party.  The character would have to be an illusionist (according to the AD&D handbook), so spells would be the forte, and an occasional tossed weapon.  I see no reason why an illusionist couldn't make this work - and choosing specifically spells which would conceal the true nature of the illusionist's limitations.

Seriously - this is the sort of thing which builds up the best stories.

Part of my background takes into account that your character may have done something stupid when you were young.  The following has a 1 in 10 chance of occurring if your intelligence is 6 or less:

"Character is missing the left or right hand; cannot use a two-handed weapon.  Character can opt for a hook-hand as a proficiency."

Except when they can't.  This result came up one time in my world, with a cleric who had a 6 intelligence, the lowest possible for a cleric.  Obviously, she could not take a hook as a proficiency, being a cleric.  And there were other issues.  There were relatively few weapons she could take, since bludgeoning weapons tend to be two-handed.  Still, overall, a perfectly playable character.

In general, intelligence and constitution offer the worst results.  The worst dexterity effect is this:

"On the first attempt, the character must make a saving throw vs. paralyzation in order to draw a weapon or seize any item.  Failure indicates the character has failed to do so, and has dropped the item.  Subsequent attempts do not require a saving throw."

Again, there's only a 1 in 20 chance of that coming up if your dexterity is 3.  Mostly, it is just an immense pain ... and the character would know not to draw weapons or pull items when dropping them would be bad, very bad.  I would accept the argument that the character says, "I very carefully take two rounds to draw the weapon so I do not drop it" as not needing a saving throw.  On the other hand, when time really, really mattered ...

On the other hand, the worst result from wisdom is something only a thief character could get ... as it would require having a 3 wisdom, with a 1 in 20 chance:

"In a foolish twist of fate, the character inadvertently gave information to the enemy of the realm that enabled that enemy to seize wealth and territory from the realm; a death sentence has been levelled upon the character's head."

There's a start to a campaign.  With the added bonus of having people turn up once in awhile - even when the thief is far from his or her land of birth - and talking about the event, even if they don't recognize the thief.  Fun fun fun.

There are other results, but I only had time for a quick overview.  Reading through these, and working them into the program, I felt a post was justified.  Have a good weekend, all.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Nights That Bump the Thing

Jovial Priest tells me that he wants his players to feel that "they are masters of their own destiny," and I assume he is anxious about it since he made the point more than once.  I, personally, don't believe in destiny ... and if there were a destiny, I certainly don't think anyone would be in control of it.  Either way, I can't think of anything more anathema to the drama of a campaign than in leading the players to think they are the masters of all they survey, just because they ARE players.  At least three quarters of the tension I build up in a single campaign is in emphasizing to my players that the world is a damn scary place, and that it will rip them a new one given half a chance.  Of that remaining quarter, a good 3/16ths comes from dicking my players around making them think the big scary world is going to rip, and right now, only to produce a feeling of relief when it turns out things aren't as bad as they looked.

That leaves 1/16th of the game spent in player comfort.  They have to rest sometime.

My perception that a world - any world - is not something one has authority over probably comes from my being Canadian.  There is a fundamental difference between Canadians and Americans - of which, as it happens, both groups tend not to be aware.  I learned it myself in my second year of university, when my eyes were forced open with Harold Innis and Northrop Frye.  And while it may seem strange for the nationality of the DM to influence the way in which a game is played, the game is based upon the personality of the players, and personality is influenced by environment.  Allow me to explain.

It is an American motif that the wilderness is something that was meant to be conquered.  American history, with which I am very familiar, revolves around wars perpetrated against the previous inhabitants of the land comprising the nation as it exists now, and wars perpetrated against others wanting that same land.  In other words, the land was seized.  There is nothing more American than the ideal of the individual American settler battling against all odds to force the land to produce wealth.  The land, it must be said, has always been treated as something that is controlled.  The perception is deeply held in the American pysche, and for good reason.  The land was controlled.  It was reworked, reshaped, and brought into line with the desires of the American people.

When an American moves off into the tamed wilderness, there is a sense that this is one's domain, the backyard of one's owned property.  There is even a tendency to believe that the wilderness wouldn't dare harm those who deign to walk within it.  Of course, that occasionally proves to be wrong ... but only occasionally.  There was a recent case in the news where a Canadian couple, following a GPS tracker, managed to lose themselves in the back country of Nevada.  The woman was found after 48 days.  As far as I know the man is still missing.

I want to make the point about how strange it is when this happens to Canadians ... and how Canadian's feel when they hear about it.  My American friends are pissed at the GPS tracker, how it shouldn't have led them astray and how the company ought to be sued.  My Canadian friends feel, generally, that the couple deserved what happened to them.  Idiots.

The reason for that is that Canadians do not trust their wilderness.  They don't believe it can be tamed, or controlled, or made to serve its masters.  This is wholly because our wilderness, as opposed to the American wilderness, is a much nastier, colder, more deadly place.  It has driven Canadians into what Northrop Frye called a 'garrison mentality.'  In his words (emphasis added by me),

"Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological ‘frontier,’ separated from one another and from their American and British [Canadian] cultural sources: communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting - such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality....In such a society the terror is not for the common enemy....The real terror comes when the individual feels himself becoming an individual, pulling away from the group, losing the sense of driving power that the group gives him, aware of a conflict within himself far subtler than the struggle of morality against evil."

The greatest fear, then, is being alone, and that community is security.  And within the D&D campaign, not just the community made up by the party, but the community of the town, the village, the protective influence of the manor structure and even that implied by the existence of a road, which suggests maintenance and authority - even if only on a very small scale.

I believe the Medieval mentality is closer to that of Canada than of the United States, particularly in those northern parts of Europe like Scandinavia, or parts more isolated, like Poland or the highlands of southern France.  Canada is a wide, untamed country, even in this day and age, and it is likely to continue to be one for some time.  The land here is not so easy to build roads across as in the States; the weather is not so moderate; and the opportunities for crop growing and land exploitation are not nearly so rich.  The wilderness will simply kill you ... even if you are prepared for it.

We were discussing last week of how persons of low level or hit points could expect to enter the wilderness for a day or two and survive.  I'd like to point out here that, though that might be true, ordinary persons did not travel into the wilderness at all, for any reason.  Most persons never had any reason to leave their small plots of land, the nearby meadow, the well-tended copses where they foraged their pigs or the edges of the local creek.  Most persons were born, lived and died within 7 miles of the place where they were born, never going anywhere.  And when they did go elsewhere, such as with the Crusades, a War, they tended to suffer Death from Famine and Pestilence in large numbers.  Beyond one's little world rode the four horsemen ... and there wasn't any question about it.

I wonder sometimes if most people who play D&D really have any idea of just how menacing the wilderness can be.  At present, I'm reading this marvelous book which has been on my shelf for at least a decade, and which I have never seriously picked up.  It is Arthur Swinson's description of Kohima, the battle fought in 1944 in Assam in the eastern part of India.  I am finding I could write a post about virtually any paragraph ... but i want now to post something that describes the wilderness over which the British fought the Japanese:

“The Naga Hills form the northern sector of the great mountain barrier between Burma and India, which runs down from the Himalayas to the sea.  To the south lie the Lushai hills and below them the Chin Hills.  From end to end the barrier is some six hundred miles long and up to two hundred across; it is a very inhospitable region indeed.  The ridges, and therefore the valleys and rivers between them, run from north to south, making any lateral movement extremely hazardous and difficult, even in fine weather.  But Assam is wet and includes Charapunge, the wettest place on earth where eight hundred inches of rain have been recorded in a single year.  In the monsoon, which lasts from mid-May till early September, the jungle paths sink deep in the mud, and the smallest streams swell quickly into great rivers and cascade towards the south.  There is no comfort for man or beast in ‘those hellish jungle mountains’ as General Slim called them; and the insects are an endless torment.  There are sand flies, ticks, mosquitoes and leeches.  The latter crawl up your legs during the night and suck your blood till they become swollen to [the] bursting point.  The mosquitoes must be the largest and most persistent in the world; some strains, such as those around Mao, bringing up great septic sores, and anyone whose face has been attacked might well be in the terminal stages of smallpox.  Where insects abound there is always disease; and in Assam one is prey to dengue, scrub typhus, malaria, cholera, scabies, yaws, sprue and every known form of dysentery.  There is also the Naga sore, caused by pulling off leeches and leaving their heads beneath the flesh.  After four to five days a small blister appears which grows steadily till it is five or six inches across, and destroys not only skin but flesh, and even muscles.  The stink from this putrefaction is foul in the extreme, and, unless adequate medical care is available, the victim may die.  The correct course (as the troops soon learned) is to let the leech have its fill of blood and drop off, or burn it with a cigarette end.”

That's a long quote.  But it needed to be posted in its entirety.  Every detail richly describes how characters travelling through such a region would be likely to die regardless of enemies.  They would suffer damage, considerable damage, and not in some silly manner that left them one magical hit point at the end of a week.  Human beings did enter that forest in 1944, they did die of all those things described above, and they did it with relatively modern equipment and medicine, and with care and concern for the participants.  Even a powerful cleric or a mage would be hard pressed to eradicate every bug, cure every disease, administer to every ill, and to do so for a party of more than six to eight persons.

The Naga Hills of Burma and India go Canada one better ... but I would imagine a DM from that region would have a strong sense that the dangers of a campaign are not limited to things that go bump in the night.  The NIGHT itself is a legitimate enemy.  It's presence and it's influence over the party are very much in the main stream.

This was very much in my mind when I perked at the sound of Zzarchov's damage for wilderness travel in the first place.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Cry For Abuse

Returning to The Laws I made reference to a few days ago, the one that worries me most is this:

"If your game is narrow, it will fail.  Your game design must be expansive. Even the coolest game mechanic becomes tiresome after a time. You have to supply alternate ways of playing, or alternate ways of experiencing the world. Otherwise, the players will go to another world where they can have new experiences. This means new additions, or better yet, completely different subgames embedded in the actual game."

The inherent problem with game-testing is that it is usually done in far too short a period of time.  The idea looks good, it gets tried out on various groups and through a number of sessions ... and then comes a time when everyone feels a bit exhausted by the process.  "Why bother," goes the refrain, and the system is shelved and forgotten.  A year later you come back to it and think, oh yeah, thisWow, that went nowhere.

Avoiding that without a time machine is pretty near impossible.  Some games are meant to die ... or, in the very least, to be played by a small number of hardcore players whose personal neuroses and psychotic breaks placed there by parents and peers naturally graft them to a system no one in their right minds would touch.  As a designer, you can think your game is expansive.  You can think it won't get tiresome.  You've tried to create new angles and multiple angles and side angles and so on ... but you don't live in other people's heads, and you don't know what they will think, really.

Problem is, you can parade your game out for other people and you will get responses that are positive and encouraging, puffing up your courage and your resolve ... never seeing in reality that it's all been bullshit from the beginning.  People don't say the truth.  Or conversely, people who are astounded and amazed today won't be tomorrow, but they won't tell you because they like you and they know how important this is to you.

So, in reality, you can't trust yourself, and you can't trust anyone else.

Welcome to the world of artistic creation.

What keeps you moving ahead is not the certainty that you're right, but the certainty that you want this thing you've conceived of to be put into existence.  The certainty that you are right will happen when you ARE right, and everyone loves it, in which case you will lie and tell everyone that you knew you were right from the beginning and that you knew everyone would eventually know it too.

Of course, if it happens that you were wrong, you will not mention it again, or you'll protest that others are blind or myopic stupididons living in the protozeric age who wouldn't know forward thinking if their peewee brains blew it backwards through their nasal cavities.  This sort of rhetoric, incidentally, goes very well with fruit loops and milk in getting you started for your new job, 'corporate drone.'

The actual success of anything is not in your hands, and it never will be.  And this is a dreadfully frightening concept, since you're the one doing the work, struggling with the quality control and basically birthing the thing through previously mentioned nasal passage.  Unfortunately, like any mother, chances are you'll see your progeny grow up to be a street thug ripping off other games for tables, or - worse - dying of an axiomatic disease after 18 months.  Still, don't worry about it.  Your job is to birth the thing and do your best.  Your control over the universe's response is negligent, at best.

The gentle reader may have grasped at this point that I am a bitter, frustrated creator who hasn't had a hit yet.  They'd be correct.  I take great comfort that a great many other creators of all ages also haven't had a hit, and that we are all in this wonderful Pink Floyd inspired meat grinder together.  Let's just have fun and move forward.

Something that doesn't come up often on these blogs is any reference at all to lingering boredom with a previously suggested system.  By and large, someone comes up with a table or a procedure, posts about it and everyone beats the drum for its obvious genius.  Most times, that is the last time the blog will ever mention that particular 'genius' idea.  Still, others will pick it up, run with it, talk about the genius idea on their blogs ... and then, predictably, they will never mention it on their blogs again, either.

In the nearly three years of writing this blog (the anniversary is 16 days hence, and I'll probably forget to note it), I have seen hundreds of different ideas for various ideas ... most of which are based on the same tables of the various books, some of which are the precise same "insight" previously seen before.  I have yet to see anything fully formed appear on anyone else's blog that made me think, "Hey, I'll use that!"  I have had some spectacular collaborative sessions with people that led to collaborative or individual changes to my world.  But generally, what I think is, "oh, again?"

This is not to say that others haven't come up with interesting things ... and just because I haven't wanted to use something, doesn't mean someone else didn't get excited and isn't right now thrilled that it's been incorporated into their campaigns.

But I'd be more interested in hearing about things people labeled as "genius" that turned out to be less so once implemented.  I'd like to hear about the dismal failure of my experience system, or my dropped & broken weapons system, or why the trade concept really, in fact, has it's head up its own ass.  Because, you see, I'm working on this damn new Conflict! system,  and I am looking for holes in it.  Holes can be hard to see, harder still when there's no convenient material around the hole to show just where the hell it is.  And maybe - just maybe - if I had the holes in other things I've proposed shown to me, in the practical sense, I'd have a better idea where I tend to make mistakes.

Yes, I know, I'm this stupid bastard who doesn't like criticism (I delete every comment that disagrees with me, everyone knows this), but that's not actually true.  I certainly don't like self-perpetuating crap spewed out like sludge on my blog, true (unless I do it) ... but I'm very much in the market for some honest-to-hardcore criticism that says exactly why: "this piece of shit you offered, Alexis, is a piece of shit."



On my last post, Brady of How to Kill Your Characters was "a little offended" - his words - at my Minecraft statement yesterday.  I had said that Minecraft was a piece of shit.  Note that Brady did not say that he disagreed, or that he felt differently; nor did he offer any evidence or convincing proof that might demonstrate why I might be incorrect about my statement.  Instead, Brady's response was entirely emotional.

No, I'm not going to rake the fellow over the coals.  Brady offers a fairly well written, middle of the road blog - at least as far as the game goes - with much emphasis on top ten lists.  It's not the sort of thing I'm interested in, but Brady's opinions don't offend me and I was not upset by the mild, thrown away backlash about Minecraft.  So I don't have any reason to rant.  Of course, I retain my opinion about Minecraft - having been given no reason to change it - but I'm not invested in that opinion so I really don't care, one way or the other.

This post is about something different, and Brady's response of being offended is merely an excuse to talk about it.  That being, how we respond to things we are invested in.

My first thought upon reading Brady's comment ... quote ... "I'm a little offended by your Minecraft statement, by the way" ... unquote ... was: "Did you create it?"

If, by any chance, Brady is one of the actual designers and programmers responsible for the existence of Minecraft, then yes, I do apologize, it is more than I could create in my basement and I did not mean to specify that its very existence should never have been brought about.  On the other hand, in terms of my interest in EVER playing the game as it exists now, I am unapologetic, since I won't.  At some future point, minecraft might appeal to some part of my interest.  Anything is possible.  But as it stands right now, no.

This second position, I would think, is the sort of position that is implied by virtually everyone when they say things like, "I hate chocolate ice cream," or "the Detroit Red Wings suck," or "Tim Burton fucks a big donut."  Culturally, there's no doubt that certain groups of people are offended by things like this.  Groups that identify with the product, and with the pleasure the product brings.

I should point out that in context, I was making the point that Minecraft was moving towards where the computer game experience ought to move.  In other words, that it was a valuable template for future design.  Sort of like the original phonograph that Edison's paid lackeys invented.  An unreliable piece of shit, basically, that was later improved upon and proved influential in the cultural landscape.  Sort of like I expect Minecraft to be.  The game as it is now?  Shit.  The game as it might be someday?  Gold.

Sort of like I view original D&D, now that I have improved on the game to suit my own tastes.  Yes, the game was fun then, but I was young and impressionable and had no familiarity with roleplaying games.  Still, I began to see pretty quickly where the game sucked big honking road apples, and I was happy - along with my friends - to throw those out and start making the game better.  I still am.

Would I, at present, go back to playing D&D the way it was originally written?  Not a chance in hell.  Not even for an evening, just to "remember what it was like."  I remember what it was like.  Kind of stupid.  Not like the game is for me now.

Last night, fooling around on YouTube - like we all do - I stumbled across some 1980's advertisements for Atari game consoles.  This inspired some head shaking, holy-shit-games-were-pathetic laughter, at the same time remembering all the time spent playing some of those games.  For two seconds one of the advertisements included a screen shot of a game that I recognized like being stabbed in the heart with a knife.  A game I had not played since the 80's.  I couldn't even remember the name of this game.  I could only remember that I had spent an ungodly amount of time playing it, horrific that it was, at least as much time as I now spend playing any game of today.

But a little research into game console game lists and there the fucking thing was:  Impossible Mission.  And not one of the updated versions, mind.  No, the original piece of crap itself.  And I used to play it on my Commodore 64.

Is it okay if I call this a piece of shit?

Games, thankfully, got better.  And I moved forward to waste large parts of my life with games less frustrating and more interesting.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we become too invested with things.  I love D&D, as I said, but the D&D I play ten years from now is going to be a better game, overall, than the one I play now.  And if someone out there wants to say that D&D is a piece of shit (it isn't hard to find people who will say it), then that's fine for them to say.  I don't invite them around for games.

I know, I know, I get testy about things people say and I go off on rants intended to make them feel stupid or to otherwise abuse them.  So obviously I go a lot farther than Brady when it comes to having a visceral, vicious emotional response.  But I do try to incorporate more than emotions into my answers.  I don't just want people to be polite to me and tolerate my likes and dislikes.  I want them to understand why I like this, and not that.  I want them to know that I greatly appreciate the improvement in the games industry so that afternoons when I am bored are not spent avoiding dumb robots and listening to monotonous electronic feedback.  I want them to think about how Minecraft is not really very good compared with how Minecraft is going to be someday.

If we love too much things of the past, the past is going to be all we have.  And everything that IS right now, IS the past.  I'm not ready yet to quit on the future.  It has too many things in it that I really want to have.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ethics and the Sandbox

Despite my having received no real response to the previous post on this subject, for my own sake I am going to talk again about game design.  It is, shall we say, on my mind.

Today, consider Dr. Cat's Stamp Collecting Dilemma:

"Lots of people might like stamp collecting in your virtual world.  But those who do will never play with those who like other features.  Should you have stamp collecting in your world?"

We know that there are a wide range of features that people find enjoyable in online worlds. We also know that some of these features are in conflict with one another.  Given the above, we don't yet know if it is possible to have a successful world that incorporates all the features, or whether the design must choose to exclude some of them in order to keep the players happy.

The pleasant thing about D&D - and all tabletop RPG's, of course - is the deliciously human element in the Dungeon Master's presence.  The simple fact that I am an enormously complex and adaptable interface that is able to respond - spontaneously - to the user's request, whatever that request may be, in a manner so friendly that the user can even aid in the interface's adaptation while the new program is being created.

That is, if I as a DM know nothing about stamp collecting, the player who wants to play with stamp collecting can explain how it works in the middle of the game, a compromise can be reached and I as DM can create some kind of adventure which will satisfy the stamp collector.

Computers are pathetically behind the game in this regard.  And, for the record, so is any table the DM can create ahead of time, since all a table is really only an aid to the DM.  I can't seriously create a new table in the middle of the game should something odd come up - and it always does in a sandbox.  The reality is, as a DM, I have to work the heights without a net and come up with something on the spot, if I don't want my game to descend into the 80's equivalent of computer text games that used to tell you that north was not a direction you could go.

Gentle readers, I know how painfully obvious this is.  But it sets the stage for the next part of this post.

A computer interface does not get bored.  It may be limited in what sort of stamp collecting it offers, but it will play games with stamp collectors as long as the power continues to work without complaint.  DMs, being human, have less tolerance.  If, as DM, you do not particularly like stamp collecting, having to run week after week a sandbox world where the players only want to collect stamps will drive you up the fucking wall.  You may tolerate it a few weeks, or longer, but sooner or later you will find yourself standing on your feet, screaming at your players, "FOR Christ-freaking-fucking-suckmaster's sake, can we just NOT collect stamps for one fucking night?!?"

Yes, you're human.  And those who do not like stamp collecting will eventually grow weary of those who want to do nothing else.  What else can you do?

Well, you can present a position to the players which allows no debate.  You can explain that your world will not be full of hack & slash.  You can explain that you find town adventures so godawful boring that you won't be running them, ever.  You can explain that while yes, you like a sandbox, you'd rather not run players who use the blood of little old ladies to paint wagons they use to drive over small children while distributing magically-created drugs to women they've made pregnant.  It just isn't your game, thank-you, and if the player doesn't understand that there are 'walls' over which they won't be allowed to cross, they can just go elsewhere.

So here is the dilemma, and it is one that covers every aspect of this game.  1) People can do everything, but they won't.  2) Computers would do everything, but they can't.

Eventually, someone will create a computer game that will let me do anything I want with a grandmother's blood.  In the privacy of my own room.  By myself.  Without anyone ever having to know.  I'll even be able to obtain the game without people knowing, because like the DM at the present time, I'll be able to explain to the computer interface what I want, and the computer will adjust to the game play that makes me happy.

I may not live to see this happen.  But it will, eventually, happen.

It makes you wonder what sort of games are being played in basements and kitchens around the world, where stuff goes on that would cause morally-correct community members to turn a shade of astounding gray-green before rushing from the room in a quest for the nearest toilet.  Most of the old grognards have their tales, I'm sure, about how they did this or that back when they were in high school or college ... but of course there are still people playing that way.

On the weekend, I started a campaign with wholly different people than normally make up my offline party, as they had not had the opportunity to play D&D and they were wanting to learn.  It so happened that they'd had experience with a wide variety of MMO's: World of Warcraft and so on, and most lately Dungeons & Dragons Online.  I don't play any of these games - I never have - but I understand the principles and of course I did find myself as DM in the position of having to 'compete' with the player's greater familiarity with those games.  Not that it's much of a competition - as described above, I can do many, many things an MMO can't do.

And yet, I am not so foolish to say that I can do things that an MMO will never be able to do.  I look forward to the day when the programming gets to the point where I'm not putting my rules into a WIki, but into an Interface ... which in turn will study my style and method and turn it right back on me.  Won't that be the day?

I know that scares some readers right down to their socks, but not me.  GIGO dictates that the reverse is equally true: BIBO (brilliance in, brilliance out) will happen.

Solving, thus, Dr. Cat's dilemma.  Because D&D isn't really about the production of a game according to some particular person's vision of what D&D is ... it's really a game where every particular person's vision has room to work.  Minecraft, piece of shit that it is, has the right idea.  The designers will, more and more, stop designing games with walls.  They'll stop designing 'games' altogether.

I'm hammering this point fairly repetitively, but since this is a sermon, everything has to be said three times for the congregation to get it.

If the reader can understand what I'm saying:  the future is not in the creation of another 'game' which will simulate or approximate or ejudicate an evening's pleasure.  All games are essentially mazes which have a beginning and an end.

What is wanted, and what is making the greatest headway, isn't the game, it's the environment ... a much, much harder thing to make, since it isn't a maze at all.  It's an expansive format that enables both stamp collection and every other kind of habit its place.  Simultaneously.  Where the walls are not outward-imposed programmer limitations, but self-imposed player limitations.

The sandbox, very rarely understood, is the closest approximation to that ideal that yet exists, limited as it is by a DM's patience.  My personal feeling is that a DM's patience must be the defining factor.  If the players want to collect stamps day in and day out, the DM should not work to get them to do something else.  The DM should work on providing the most phenomenal stamps possible.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger's Foibles & Author vs. Author

Almost a month ago I read this post from Hill Cantons, and I've been steadily reading through several Conan books so I could produce the following. I was astounded to find I could not find the connection posted anywhere on the internet.

First of all, may I start with the following excerpt from the Life of Pyrrhus, from Plutarch, circa 1st century A.D.:

And Pyrrhus was used to say, that Cineas had taken more towns with his words than he with his arms, and always did him the honor to employ him in his most important occasions. And seeing

Pyrrhus eagerly preparing for Italy, it was Cineas who led him one day when he was at leisure into the following argument: "The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permit us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

"You ask," said Pyrrhus, "a thing evident of itself. The Romans once conquered, there will be neither a Greek nor a barbarian city that will resist us, and so we shall presently be masters of all Italy, the extent and resources and strength of which no one would rather profess to be ignorant of, even yourself."

Cineas, after a little pause, "And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?"

Pyrrhus, not yet seeing the point of these questions, replied, "Sicily. It next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained; for since Agathocles left it, only faction and anarchy, and the licentious violence of the demagogues, prevail."

"You speak," said Cineas, "what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to this war?"

Pyrrhus answered, "God grant us victory and success in that, and we will use these as forerunners of greater things. Who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach, which Agathocles, even when forced to fly from Syracuse, and passing the sea only with a few ships, had all but surprised? These conquests once perfected, will any assert that of the enemies who now pretend to despise us, or anyone else will dare to make further resistance?"

"None," replied Cineas, "for then it is manifest we may with such mighty forces regain Macedon, and make all absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?"

Pyrrhus smiled and said, "We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation."

When Cineas had led Pyrrhus with his argument to this point: "And what stops us from doing that now, sir? If we have a mind to be merry, and entertain one another, since we have at hand everything we need to do this, why should we put ourselves through much blood and great labor?

Why design to arrive where we are by infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves?"

Such reasonings rather troubled Pyrrhus, from the thoughts of happiness he denied himself. But unable to abandon the hopes of what he so much desired, he could not in any way alter his purpose.

And now, The Drums of Tombalku by Robert E. Howard, circa 1935:

Conan struck the rug with his fist. “What in Hell’s the matter with you, Sakumbe? You’re not the man you were in the old days. Then you were ready for any adventure; now, all you care about is your food, wine and women. What’s changed you?”

Sakumbe hiccupped. “In the old days, brother King, I wanted to be a king, with many men to obey my commands and plenty of wine, women and food. Now I have these things. Why should I risk them in unnecessary adventures?”

“But we must extend our boundaries to the Western Ocean, to gain control of the trade routes that come from the coast. You know as well as I that Tombalku’s wealth derives from control of trade routes.”

“And when we have conquered the king of Kush and reached the sea, what then?”

“Why, then we should turn our armies eastward, to bring the Ghanata tribes under our rule and stop their raiding.”

“And then, no doubt, you’ll want to strike north or south, and so on forever. Tell me, man, suppose we conquer every nation within a thousand miles of Tombalku and possessed wealth greater than that of the kings of Stygia. What should we do then?”

Conan yawned and stretched. “Why, enjoy life, I suppose; deck ourselves in gold, hunt and feast all day, and drink and wench all night. In between times, we could tell each other lies about our adventures.”

Sakumbe laughed again. “If that is all you want, why, we are doing just those things now! If you want more gold, or food, or drink, or women, ask me and you shall have it.”

Conan shook his head, grunting something inaudible and frowning in a puzzled way.

That's just awesome.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


"The world is his, who has money to go over it. He arrives at the sea-shore, and a sumptuous ship has floored and carpeted for him the stormy Atlantic, and made it a luxurious hotel, amid the horrors of tempests. The Persians say, "'Tis the same to him who wears a shoe, as if the whole earth were covered with leather."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday on Anthony's site I made the point that he had done good work, and I stand by that.  However, today I want to argue where the work is flawed, because ... well, that's the way things are discussed in the adult world.  Solutions are advanced, and solutions are shot full of holes.  And then better solutions result.

The Emerson quote above it meant to convey certain central issues I have with Anthony's calculation of attrition * topography * climate * season * road * situation * provisions + base damage.  The very purpose of creating a road is so that travellers upon that road need not experience the topographyI put it to the reader that walking upon a road through a set of hills is in no way different than walking upon a road through an open plain.  Particularly if the road in question has been built in such a manner as to reduce the grade of the road, as the Romans did with the various Vias that extended throughout the empire.  Now there are roads and there are roads, but if we are speaking of an engineered project that lays stone in a fashion so to make travel easier, then the various travellers making their way through the malarial swamps of western Italy along those roads are not affected in their comfort in the least.  That was kind of the point!

Moreover, I'd like to point out that roads through mountains and hills tend to follow along the valleys, where the rivers generally provide easier grades.  Yes, the possibility of a mountain pass adding to the difficulty is a possibility, but roads can lead through a hundred miles or more of mountainous terrain without ever going over a pass.  So it's ridiculous to assume a mountain road is automatically in some way made more difficult.  I live right next to a group of craggy mountains - the Rockies - that were very dangerous to traverse when there were no roads.  But since there are roads now, and since the Canada Highway goes right through the Rockies, the Selkirk Range and the Coastal mountains having only to climb and descend three passes over a journey of 800 miles, I can assure you that while riding a bike from Calgary to Vancouver involves a lot of up and down, it isn't a terribly hazardous trip.  In fact, it's pretty damn cozy.  Given good weather, I don't think you could argue taking damage over the journey.

"Road" should definitely negate "Topography."

All right, let's look at the next pairing: climate vs. season.

To begin with, "season" is a misnomer.  Many parts of the globe don't have seasons in the temperate sense, with some parts of the world having only two, and some parts having three.  Moreover, what is the distinction between the 'winter' that I experience up here in Alberta and the 'winter' that others experience in, say, Oklahoma.  Here, we are living in a world where the trees still haven't come into leaf, whereas Oklahoma's trees did months ago.  So am I still living in Spring?  Winter?  In parts of Europe, on May 1st they celebrate the first day of Summer.  That was ten days ago.  Is it Summer here?

No, of course not.  Seasons are completely nominal words which are applied generally in different parts of the world to different phenomena, and do not reflect any sort of measurable condition.  Sometimes, we here in Alberta experience a warm, pleasant spring and the leaves come out on the trees in late March and early April.  And sometimes we have years like this one.  Doesn't mean a thing.  So toss out the 'season' modifier entirely.  It is simply worthless as a measure.

Now, climate.  An absurdly generalized thing which, like spring, hardly describes the day to day experience of living with weather.  Some parts of the world have a 'climate':  the northern coast of South America, for instance, where it is 90 degrees every day, without exception, for six months at a time.  Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname sit on the Carribbean where it meets the Atlantic and the weather is always sultry with humidity.

Alberta, I can say from experience, is not like that.  And while in the winter the December temperature can drop to -35 C with a windchill of -20 C, the December temperature can also climb to +9 C with a warm, marvelous wind that makes you want to walk home from work.  These are both part of the same 'climate' ... and since either can occur at any time throughout the winter here, it is again completely ridiculous to label the country as "cold" and apply a modifier as though the temperature never changes.  Temperature, wind, humidity and precipitation DO CHANGE, and wildly, throughout the temperate region ... and therefore, designations like "cold" or "warm" are absolutely and without exception utterly useless as a general reflection of any particular day of walking in the wilderness.  You can get lucky, and have several nice days in a row, and you can get unlucky, and probably die on a road within 24 hours.  This sort of Darwinism happens here, regularly.  When the authorities here close a road, and they're ignored, it doesn't take long for this country to kill you.

So again, throw out the 'climate' modifier and put one there that makes sense.

Now, a few notes about topography.

Leaving aside for the moment that not all mountains are the same, and that not all swamps are the same, let's instead talk about the differences between the topographies themselves.  For example, let's compare the differences between my walking through the forests of western Alberta, and the mountains of western Alberta.

Oh, look.  It's forest, either way.

If you shoot off across a bit of wild terrain in the forests up north and west of Calgary, you will find yourself walking through a lot of deadfall, peat bog and brush, and crossing narrow, six to eight foot deep cold water streams without any fords.  And if you shoot off across a bit of wild terrain in the mountains straight west of those forests, you will find yourself walking over a lot of deadfall, and crossing three to four foot deep cold water streams with plenty of fords.

Yes, in fact, the mountains are easier to trek in many parts because A) there are fewer streams; B) the streams tend to have rocks that provide a means across; and C) there are no peat bogs and no brush.  Of course, when you actually climb up into the mountains, to the high places, there are cliffs and pressure rapids and rock falls, but isn't it up to the party to say whether they want to travel in the river bottoms or in the high mountains?  Shouldn't there be different modifiers for either?

Incidentally, it isn't that hard to walk through the mountain country around here - though it is considered some of the roughest mountain country in North America - but it is slow going.  That is, if you're stupid and you hurry, yes, you'll hurt yourself.  But if you're patient and methodical, you have nothing to worry about.  The pine trees tend to drop a lot of needles, and the needles - plus the lack of sunlight - destroys all the undergrowth.  So you can walk hundreds of meters just as though you are waltzing through a park.  But then you have to drop down through some deadfalls and a few angular slopes to get back into said 'parkland.'

I'm being specific about this instance to point out that you cannot designate 'forests' as any particular modifier as opposed to 'mountains.'  The Alps are higher and craggier than the Rockies, but the valleys are full of meadows and deciduous forest, and therefore provide a completely different sort of walking experience.  The high mountains of Afghanistan are full of cliffs, but there's no vegetation at all - so it isn't comparable with the Rocky Mountains in the least ... though of course, Afghanistan rises 6,000 feet higher.  You can't call them low mountains.  Moreover, the kind of brush and bracken in the thicker parts of the Smoky Mountains of Virginia and Kentucky make for much harder travel than many parts of the Rockies, even though they're lower.  It isn't the mountains that make that country hard to traverse, its the forests ... so do you designate them as "low mountains" or as "forest."

Rather than using these rather generalized and difficult to apply modifiers, can't something more practical be used that would describe, say, the actual difficulty of traversing the terrain?  Such as, "impassable"; "difficult"; "with obstacles"; "easy-going"?  Assuming, of course, that the topography needs to be represented at all?

My point in my last post was that, if the amount of damage per day is increasing automatically, wouldn't a particular terrain that was hard to move through simply increase the damage by virtue of it taking more time?  If I take 2 damage per day moving at 2 miles per day to cross a hex, then the hex would cause 20 damage.  If I take 2 damage per day, but I can cross the hex in 3 days, then the hex only causes 6 damage.

If this were so, why then oh why would I need to add another modifier to the hex?  Obviously, the difficulty of passage is accounted for in the time it takes to cross the bloody region ... and therefore it does NOT need to be accounted for again.

If there is any adage that applies in creating any sort of table like this, it is Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Throw out modifiers that wouldn't apply.  Throw out duplicate modifiers.  Simplify the modifiers that remain.  Make the system better.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Noodling With Travel

Sorry, but like Brian from The Breakfast Club, I'm going to go ahead and pat myself on the back now.  I've said before that I am always getting new ideas.  Last night, laying in the bathtub (like Archimedes, my electrons fire when wet), I came up with a doozy.  And I think it's slashing brilliant.

A little history, first.  Last week I posted about breaking camp, where Zzarchov produced the astounding idea of travel causing damage.  He did not post his system, but on Sunday Anthony posted a fair effort at stealing it (Anthony's words, not mine).  Once upon a time, that would have been good enough for me, too ... but nowadays I find myself looking at traditional tables and seeing them for the stale systems they are.  This is not to disparage Anthony.  I was thinking, as he posted his format, of drawing up something exactly like it.

Not now, however.  I have something that I am certain goes one step better.  I am hoping even Anthony and Zzarchov will think so.

The two problems I see with the traditional format are these.  1) the very same argument I made about things with one hit point dying in the wilderness; and 2) that very tough, high-level characters are not going to be upset by 1 to 6 hit points damage per day.  Yes, if there are a lot of followers and so on, that could mount up, but the party I run presently can easily heal 60-80 hit points a day.  So as long as they take care to protect the lower levels with vardo and so on, they can mount up for weeks at a time with little trouble.

Now, James said something that got stuck in my head, the finally latched onto my watered skull last night: "Damage could be a % of max hit points with a ceiling instead of an objective value ..."  And suddenly I knew what was needed.

Consider, then, the following table, conjured just a few minutes ago:

Days equals the total number of days the party is travelling.  The Base Damage adds 0.1 damage per day of travel.  The Weather Description can be entered as pleasant, unpleasant, severe or harsh, and each particular description provides a modifier.  The Route can be a road, a carttrack, a trail or none at all.  Again, each sort of route provides a modifier.  Finally, the base damage is multiplied by the Weather Modifier and the Route Modifier, producing a final result.  This result is rounded down, giving the total damage for the journey.

Now, I haven't sat down to calculate out the specifics of what kind of weather applies to what modifier.  Pleasant weather would be fair and clear, 5 degrees (celsius) near body temperature, with a minimum of wind.  A mixed rainy day, or a day colder or warmer, or a stiff wind might be unpleasant.  A steady drizzle or falling rain, a very cold day or a hot day, and a slashing wind, these might be severe.  And a combination of the above, with any of them being pronounced, would be harsh.  Of course, the DM might just use what feels best, or might get definitive.  At the moment, it doesn't matter.

To get a feel for this, let's describe an 8-day journey.  Let's presume a party starts on a road, turns onto a carttrack, then onto a trail, and finally jumps off into the wilderness for a day.  At that point, they turn back and head to town:

Now, here is where things get interesting.  On the first day, its a bit chilly and the party feels stiff and uncomfortable ... but they're on a road, and overall they feel no special effect from the environment.  The second day, the base damage climbs to 0.2 (I'm rounding the figures off, the exact number is actually 0.196), but the weather is pleasant and the carttrack is easygoing.  Again, no appreciable effects.

With the third day, as the party slips off the carttrack and onto the trail, the sky spatters rain and the day is a bit worse.  The trail is slippery and by the end of the day people feel the going has been harder.  But still, there have been no appreciable effects.

So they cut right into the wilderness.  Now here it gets interesting.  It doesn't matter if its a forest, a mountain or brushland.  Some consideration might be made for the plains, treating them as a kind of endless trail.  What's important is that the distance covered per day determines how hard it is to cross a particular hex, not what's in that hex.  A jungle may allow for 2 miles of travel per day.  A mountain highland, 3 miles per day.  A forest, 5 miles per day.  In any case, take note how multiple days can add up.

The fourth day, the weather is pleasant, so even though the route is hard, they don't mount up any appreciable effects.  And let us say they plunder a goblin camp at the end of the day and start back.

The fifth day, things turn sour.  Working their way back through the same trackless environment they fought the day before, the weather turns severe and they begin to feel the effects of five continuous days of journeying.  They all suffer a point of damage, which they deal with fairly quickly.  Things will get better, they think, as soon as we get out of this wilderness.

Unfortunately, the sixth day a major storm grips the land and the weather gets positively icy.  The base damage climbs only a little bit, but the effects of the harsh weather and the trail take their toll.  Everyone takes three damage.

Thankfully, the next day the weather clears and they get onto the carttrack.  But the previous days effects do not magically go away.  The party is exhausted, beaten down from the trip and the weather (it's the seventh day of trekking, after all), so even though now they are getting back into civilization, their bones hurt and its troublesome even to move.  They might even be suffering from mild ailments and sinus symptoms.  They all take another three damage.

Finally, the eighth day, they get back on the road.  The weather is pleasant again, and the road lowers the amount of damage back down to two.  Thank god that night the party will be back in town.

I see a lot of ways this could be mitigated.  Certain characters could be immune to certain weather effects, or the modifiers for them (kept separately, which is easy to do on excel) reduced very slightly.  A particular spell or strategy could reduce the increase in base damage, or the reverse - if the DM really wanted to emphasize how tough the journey was.  By noodling around with the numbers, all sorts of mitigating circumstances could be accounted for.

Most of all - and here is the true genius of the system - the amount of time the party was away from civilization would be critical.  Moreover, since the climb in the system is steady, higher level characters would really feel the effects after three weeks, even if the weather was wonderful.  Mungo Park eventually losing all his men in the African interior, indeed.

And yet, at the same time, any zero level with 1 hit point could safely wander away from home for two or three days, and expect to come back safely.

This is the best idea I've had in ages.