Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I suppose I've gotten used to it, but it strikes me weird that DMs do not naturally gravitate to adventures that are open-ended in their construction and design.  The adventure ideas I've put up lately aren't especially designed to be different from the norm - this is just the way I think when I imagine throwing the party into some situation which they must then manage.

Tim's comment yesterday made the point clear - an 'adventure' is just a hopped-up encounter that has enough threads for the players to follow.  Like any adventure that the reader might expect to fall into organically, it starts with meeting someone or observing something, whereupon everything that follows depends upon what the observer puts into it.

Being that this is D&D, we expected 'adventurers' to go find out the cause behind something strange or odd.  I would not expect the same from the reader.  If the reader were in a hotel in Dominica that was attacked by a group of men wielding pistols with the intent of killing a local businessman, I would not expect that anyone we know would load up with weapons and go to find out why.  But we do expect this of adventurers; in fact, we can almost be sure it will happen - especially if we touch some button by letting the player's meet the businessman's cute, recently orphaned, tear-soaked daughter.

Then again, I am the sort of person who thinks of a vacation in terms of paying for a flight and then 'visiting' whatever city or place I've gone to.  I don't look for someone else to pick my hotel or set up a tour for me.  I don't spend money on a book that tells me all the interesting places there are to see.  I don't schedule my vacations to line up with some festival or world-shattering event.  In fact, the less that's happening, the more normal the place is that I'm going to see, the better I like it.

I hate other people telling me what to look at because, for the most part, other people are very easily enamored with things that bore me shitless.  Simultaneously, I have found that invariably those same people lack the necessary knowledge about whatever it is they're showing me.  Every time I wind up being forced on a tour somewhere - usually through being thrown in the wrong people and going along to be polite - I always end up delivering half the tour myself, as my various interests in art, history, architecture, science and so on won't let me stand there listening to the tour guide give half the information about what we're seeing.  Thankfully, I'm a great presenter - so people are always glad I came along.  Unfortunately, I'm really not.

It's like forever being a DM who can't find a game in which he can play.  I like DMing; I have no strong desire to be a tour guide.  I really, really don't want to be shown what I should see.  I like to poke around, investigate, turn up at some lonely coffee shop and get into a four-hour conversation with the barista, sharing ideas and perspectives as they can only be shared away from home.  I like to stumble across a museum or a church, arrange a personal walk-through with the priest in residence who will chat for twenty minutes about where this particular image of cavalry originated and why the artist was driven to shoot his mother.  I love finding my way into an unexpected, off-the-track restaurant where I'm the only white person in the place, where I am served the best meal from Laos or Tanzania or Cappadocia I ever expect to eat again . . . where I am invariably welcomed by staff and other patrons as one of their own.

I like agency.  I don't understand people who want to give their agency away.  I don't understand how people can talk about an "adventure's end" in a game where the adventure never, ever needs to end, where it can just take a step to the left and follow the next string to the next logical development.

Gawd.  Maybe I was dropped as a baby.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Three Adventures in Astrakhan

These three adventures are suitable for the Pirate Khanate of Astrakhan, as detailed on the wiki.  Presume the details of one adventure has no definite application to the details of any other.

Frozen in Ice

The party arrives in winter (by land or by sea) to find a merchant ship some forty miles from the city of Astrakhan, in the great swampy delta of the Volga river - trapped by the frozen mud of the swamp.  Most of the easy-to-carry contents of the vessel have been moved to another location, but upon investigation (and having to clear out a few pests and vermin that have used the ship as a home for the winter to protect them against the wind) the party will find that the value thousands of gold pieces remains in the hold, in the form of several great bales of wool (500 lbs. apiece), a thousand sacks of rice and a thousand sacks of wheat, barrels, massive pieces of furniture or whatever else amounts to make it enough to get the party interested.  In all, however, it is far too heavy to haul enough of it across the treacherous ice to account for the value of everything.

Additionally, by the time the players clear out the beasties, the day turns warm and the vessel shifts.  Upon investigation, the ice in the channel is not as deep as first supposed; this vessel may be clear of ice within two weeks.  From all appearance, it seems sturdy and seaworthy.

However, it is also apparently an owned vessel . . . and surely its owners are well aware that the ice is melting.  When will the owners return?  How many of them will there be?  Is it possible the party could fight them off and take possession of the ship?  How wrong could that be, since the whole territory is controlled by pirates!

The Swarm

While in Astrakhan in late spring to summer, the party is warned that a swarm of locusts has been sighted fifty miles east of the city.  This swarm is moving westward at a speed of twenty-five to fifty miles a day - and according to reports from druids, the swarm is easily 80 miles in diameter.  There is much talk of the swarm missing Astrakhan as it did three years ago; or possibly hitting Astrakhan directly as it did ten years ago.

Presuming the party doesn't have the means to outrun the swarm, and they realize it, they will be in Astrakhan when the swarm hits 18 hours later.  The locusts are two inches in length but do not have a sufficient mass to have a single hit point; however, as a swarm they will cause 2 damage per round to anyone caught outside.  The party will hear the swarm before it arrives.  The locusts will be magically augmented - so as a group they will eat any flesh, fresh wood, any wood that has been greased, even thatch on roofs.  If the party has horses, they will hear the horses crying out when the stable proves to be less than airtight; the party will have to move the horses into one of the brick/mud buildings to save them.  The upper floor of the inn where they're staying will be eaten away and exposed, forcing the party to somehow seal up the stone stairwell or move to the cellar for the duration.  A number of tropes can be stolen from zombie films to round out the adventure.

If the party tries to flee in any direction before the locusts arrive, without travelling at least 50 miles within 18 hours, presume they will be caught in the swarm.  Put a building they can reach, but place it so that the number of rounds the players must endure the insect swarm attack is 5-20.  Make the building interesting, have the players force their way into a family, force them to spend an hour killing locusts, give a chance for disease, etc.

If the party can easily manage this adventure, don't run it.

Opportunities for Profit

The party hears about a pirate raid on an orcish fleet bringing goods from Gilan (a Safavid province in Persia) on the south coast of the Caspian to trade with orcs from Digoria (another orc land) on the west at the mouth of the Kuma river, which is thinly guarded/inhabited.  18 galleys were caught in shallow water by Astrakhan Pirates and run aground, the galleys sunk in five to eight feet of water.

Unfortunately, though the pirates were successful, there were far too many goods for them to take back to Astrakhan.  Bales of tea and cotton have been taken to the station at Langan and dumped, where they are guarded by only fifty or sixty humans; word is that there are boxes of pistachios, almonds and tobacco strung out along miles of beach south of Langan.  Supposedly, the pirates found a treasure in raw silk cloth and silken goods that they took to Astrakhan, but others say they didn't get all of it.

If the party is in Astrakhan, they may choose to join an exodus of a thousand who rush out of the city as though this were a gold rush (learning that this sort of thing happens once or twice a season).  If the party is in Kalmykstan, west of Langan, they will hear about the booty AND the rush of people from Astrakhan.

They can, if they wish, try to find undefended goods on the beach, where they might have to fight other parties doing the same thing (not to mention orcs along the Kuma seeking to gain what was promised to them).  There might even be Safavids by land or by boat taking part.  If this is the party's plan, make it a great free for all.

Otherwise, the party might try to seize goods from Langan or BUY them (as they could then sell them for a good price elsewhere) at 25% of cost in Astrakhan.  Of course, if the party does this, they will then have to defend the goods if any other large groups come to seize them before the Astrakhan pirates get back to get the rest of what they've left behind.  The DM shouldn't assume they don't.

Friday, June 26, 2015


As near as I can tell, none of the people I played D&D with in the 80s or 90s is playing the game now.

Now and then I chance into someone - at the grocery store, strolling through downtown, sitting across the coffee shop - and we chat.  How are you, how did that job in Dallas work out, oh you got married, any kids?  Same conversation everyone has . . . with a rejoiner, of course, because I'm always asked (because I was the DM), "Are you still playing that game?"

That game.  It is at once a pejorative and a sign of respect, in that clearly it is a guilty memory and at the same time something that doesn't have to be referred to by name.  It is plain what game is meant.  It is equally plain that my old friend hasn't mentioned the game to anyone in a long time.  The merest wisp of a thought about it has likely not come to mind in years.  But meeting me, all those memories of hundreds of hours spent at a gaming table come washing back and for the first time, my friend can exhibit some curiousity.  "Do you still play?"

Of course, I always grin and tell them that I do.  I have no shame about it.  I consider the time I've spent designing and playing to be golden.  Whereupon the answer is just as predictable: "Wow."

See, if it is someone who was in my game for a long time, nine or ten years in the case of some, they remember how my world grew and transformed steadily.  They remember that I was always working, always trying new things, always expanding some element to make the game more interesting and playable.  They measure the time between when they played and now - 22 years - and their heads spin.

Then, every time, I see the geek within emerge from the outer vestment of electrical engineer, investment planner, market consultant or whatever work they're doing now that earns them enough for that $450K house an hour away in the Stix, where all is home maintenance, childcare and gardening.  I see the garment's strangling top button pop open and for a brief while comes the memories, the nostalgia, the curiousity about what I'm doing now and the questions about how and why, for the love of all things believable, am I still playing?

Then the coffee is gone and wearily they fix that button closed again, wish me well and move away.  Oh, sometimes they'll get the courage to say something suggesting that they'd like to play again; I always offer.  They never accept.  It's the reality they've chosen.  They're too busy.

How and why am I still playing?

Because I loved it.  Oh, yes, at the time, we all said we did, but in retrospect much of that love was a love of convenience, of available time measured against a minimum of responsibility.  When something came along that seemed more important or necessary, they made their sacrifices realistically, rationally and as best they could.  And me?  Well, I sacrificed other things.

My daughter was telling me the other day that when she was a little girl, sleeping in the room next to my study, she would fall asleep every night to the sound of my fingers hitting the pads of my computer's keyboard.  I began writing with a manual typewriter in the 70s, progressed to an electric by 1980 and my typing has ever since been hard and resonant.  The keyboard I'm typing on right now was designed to mute the sound.

Because of the noise, however, the surest way to put my daughter to sleep (she says) is to play a recording of anyone typing.  That is because I did it so much it was hard-wired into her head.  After she went to bed, after her day was done and my parenting responsibilities were finished, there was only one thing I ever wanted to do.

I've always been like that.

Quit D&D?  Hah.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


The wiki is down.  Not just my page - all of wikispaces.  That's . . . disturbing.

It's okay.  There was something else I'd hoped to work on today.  In the meantime, in the interest of keeping track of reviews of How to Run, I post this link without comment.

Venger's old school gaming blog

UPDATE.  Oh good, the wiki seems to have been fixed.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Fallow IV

Having some understanding of names, let’s invent some for the arc of our view from Argus Tower stretching from five to eight o’clock. The reader will remember that this encompasses the shoreline of the Widden Main, the ocean, from where it meets the Krankenwander to the furthest extent of the Fallow Peninsula. Peninsulas always end in capes, so let’s give that extent an appropriate name. Since the land of Fallow changes direction from veering west to veering north, let’s call the bit of land at eight o’clock ‘Direction Point.’

At this point I will ask the reader to visualize the shape of the land inside the triangle formed by the edge of the Krankenwander at five o’clock, Direction Point and us, here on the Tower. Furthest away is the ocean. Nearer is the shore, which I’ll define as a narrow band of flat land, four and five miles wide, just above sea level and at the mercy of storms and perpetual bad weather.

Above this coastal plain let’s have a cliff-face running along the whole of southern Fallow – three to five hundred feet high ought to be sufficient. We can imagine places where there are higher cliffs or gaps, places where the cliffs are crumbling and where they are formed of hardened rock. Presumably the Krankenwander meets the Widden Main as a series of cliffs six hundred feet high.

Between the cliffs and the tower, the land is flat, forested, filled with a number of small rivers that arise in low hills spattered through central Fallow, along the line separating the forest land of in front of us from the open plains behind us (remember, we’re more or less facing in the direction of six o’clock). These short rivers make deep cuts in the rock, so that the forested plateau is filled with canyons that have plunging rapids and waterfalls.

All except for one river, that is. We’ll call it the Assuage. It rises on the edge of the Krankenwander at about four o’clock and flows gently along a deep, stony bank until it reaches Blue Lake. This last fills a twenty-mile long cut in the tableland, surrounded by forest and narrow beaches. It is a deep blue in color. We’ll place it at six o’clock. It is about thirty miles from the city of Augustus, which we can imagine is much closer and located about six-thirty.

By putting this lake here we help break up the monotony of forest, forest, forest. The lake is beautiful, pleasant and easy to access from Fallow’s capital. We can easily see a well-worked trade route along the Assuage that leads into Blue Lake; from there, boats ferry across the lake to unload their cargo at a small town on the lake’s west end, nearest to Augustus. Let’s call the town after a person – a hero of Fallow. I’ve always liked the name ‘Wilhelm.’ Let’s call the town that. We can suppose that it moves timber cut along the course of the river, pitch and gum made from tree sap, articles made of wood, tree nuts, fish caught in Blue Lake and whatever else catches our fancy – the people in Wilhelm must do something for a living.

The road between Wilhelm and Augustus, used to ship these things, would not have sprung into existence overnight. The route would have grown organically. Likely, it would have first been a trail, probably before either the town of Wilhelm or the city of Augustus existed. We might even suppose it was a trail used by animals before humans even dwelt in the land, afterwards discovered by humans as the best, most practical passage between the natural forest growth, between outcroppings of rocks and those low hills I mentioned. Humans only need to invent or build things when a demand rises for improvement. The first humans dwelling in Fallow, concerned more with hunting than with building, would have found the trail as convenient as the animals did.

That would only change once a permanent habitation was established. Here we should understand that a settlement at either Augustus or Wilhelm would have been founded principally for those basest of human needs – food, shelter and water. I began by proposing the peoples here began with hunting. We know that both centers are surrounded by woods, providing plenty of lodging. And we know that Wilhelm is adjacent to a source of fresh water; we must assume that Augustus, too, is located on a lake, stream or easily accessible aquifer. With these three things, either place could have come into existence first.

Real growth begins when a luxury turns up near a subsistence-initiated village. Timber cut and made ready for shipment elsewhere is a luxury. Pitch and gum, furs, nuts, fish that is dried out in the sun, all things that could help Wilhelm grow, these are luxuries too. Many of these could be as easily found in Augustus. However, since Augustus is a city while Wilhelm is only a town, there must have been something truly special to be found in the woods around Augustus that was not found in the woods around Wilhelm. What might that be?

As ever, it is up to us – remembering, always, that whatever we choose will help define the sort of city that Augustus is, as well as what its people do throughout the toil of their day. It is one thing to supply a ball and bat; it is another entirely to formulate an activity with both that will intoxicate and addict the participants.

That is what we want, however: to immerse the player’s in a game that will seize them by their imaginations and hold them hostage until doomsday. Of course I can arrange an activity where I throw a ball and someone else attempts to hit it . . . whereupon we both go search for the ball before doing it again. There’s no question that this will fill up our time and perhaps even supply some satisfaction. However, we all know it is the sorry thing we all do when we haven’t enough players or enough resources to organize a real game.

In role-playing, the resources are there in our heads; the organization in how intrinsically unified or elaborate we make the world in which the players run. We can make up two places and call them names, but this offers little in the way of possibility. On the other hand, we can envision something special about two places that make them and their culture distinct due to where they exist physically in a physical world. This lets us build supposition upon supposition endlessly, making more and more room for all the elements of the game that provide great potential for a rich and exciting evening of play.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sixes & Sevens

More often than not, when I use an idiom I have to explain what the idiom means.  On the whole, it makes me want to give up idioms, since they so frequently fail to convey a shorthanded description of the problem at hand - but somehow, I can't.  Thus the title of this post.

A conversation made the rounds yesterday about the fracturing effects of 5e amid gamers, particularly online.  No one spoke at all about the actual nature of 5e as a gaming platform, only the effects of that system going one step further to break up the existing community.  I am not hearing that people are quitting the 'game' (whatever game the reader wishes to insert here), but I am hearing that people are backing off from clubs and social groups because of 'pressure' they're feeling from the owners of said spaces to play 5e.

I give this to the reader second-hand; I have no personal stake in the matter at all.  I cut my ties to off-line communities a decade before the words "off-line" meant anything except being too drunk to drive.  This year, I cut the online ties, too . . . and I'm feeling the effects.  In not hunting down the annoying, idiotic things that people say on other blogs and ranting about them, I hardly have to moderate the blog at all.  I'm actually thinking of taking down the four rules I've posted.

All in all, this has put me in mind of something my medieval history professors would proudly tell us in class - that in those far off days of feudalism, the average peasant would live and die within seven miles of the place of their birth.

I'm not precisely sure how that was measured.  I've heard it argued that seven miles was the distance a peasant could 'safely' travel and return home before nightfall . . . but as a boy scout in my teens we were regularly sent out to walk sixteen or twenty miles in a day, eight to ten miles out and back - and as I remember we would return to camp before dinner.  The adults liked to tire us out in those days; they'd grown up during the depression or during the war and they didn't want us kids getting soft.

I suppose it doesn't matter.  The narrow frame of reference is the important thing.  It gives us insight into the one thing we find impossible to imagine - that in an entire lifetime, virtually nothing was new.

For example, I live in a world so large that a conversation I have can revolve completely around a game version that no one in the room plays while we make suppositions about how this affects people we've never met on a system where everyone participates while remaining remarkably aloof.  Everything, every day, drips with newness . . . and virtually everything I hear said about it describes it as a condition that is almost universally hated.  Certainly, it is nothing that any of us should care about - so we are told, again and again.  If it just happened, it almost certainly sucks . . . and it should suck . . . in all these ways that I'm going to tell you about, ad nauseum, right now.  Between the person above me in the feed and the person below me.

Not complaining.  Happy to take my place in line.

Let me explain something about small worlds - the people who live in them are invested.  Our peasant's medical care fell short and food value overall made life short too, but those small-centered people really, really cared about the context of the universe they possessed.  That's what happens when your world shrinks.  It gets simpler and very boring to outsiders . . . but for the residents, everything that doesn't matter has been deep-sixed and forgotten.  'Small' has the virtue of relevance - the systematic elimination of everything that doesn't practically fit into the space where we have chosen to live.

For example, I have moved into a world so small that when a conversation does begin to arise about what other rules people play or why, I find myself growing magnificently disinterested.  More and more, though I spend virtually every waking minute I can find on the internet, less and less has to do with a lazy user's opinion - a phrase I think accurately describes anyone discussing a field in which they've had no education, experience or in which they've made no substantial contribution.  The reader take note, I use substantial in the sense of having produce an actual real thing requiring actual real time to bring into existence.

Oh, I'm still finding the lazy reader . . . I'm simply not reading it.  It, as in the gender-neutral pronoun that implies entities not specifically related to, well, emotional relevance.

I do wonder if it isn't a bubble, however . . . here in my seven-mile limit.  'Course, I'm reading history like a madman and writing notes for three different books on wildly different subjects, chatting with prospective employers, heading out to the occasional disappointing interview, all while following the disaster that is the present recession and the political developments happening in my province.  I think I can fairly call that a bubble.  It's not a bubble in the sense of listening to people I agree with - since there are no people I agree with - but it is definitely the sort of bubble my whole generation lived in before there was an internet.  Where we, you know, did things.

Hey, believe me when I say my generation has its head up its ass.  They're still trying to live that life without the internet.  Dolts.

Yet when I glance outside this bubble (the one including this blog), I see the tedious chatter that is the 2015 world of D&D, it all looks like sixes and sevens to me.

No, I'm not going to explain that.  Look it up.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Three Adventures in Archangel

These three adventures are suitable for the halfling Colony of Archangel, as detailed on the wiki.  Presume the details of one adventure has no application to the details of any other.

Archangel Plague

The party arrives in the port of Archangel to find the town in a state of fury and despair.  In the harbor are two large galleons that have arrived to take on a load of timber for shipbuilding; each has a compliment of one hundred human crew.  At present, the ships are in the grip of a hemorrhagic fever.  At present, so is a quarter of Archangel's halfling residents.  Factions of healthy residents and crew are in a state of fury, as the Spaniards and the Archangels are accusing each other of deliberately foisting the disease upon the other.

Meanwhile, the party is stuck, due to weather or lack of transport or for lack of supplies.  The market is closed and the halfling militia is refusing all foot traffic to Sudborough.  If the party arrived by land, there are no ships in the harbor except the two galleons; if the party arrived by sea, by the time they realize what's going on, the ship that brought them will refuse to take them back.  The next nearest market is upriver into gnollish Bjarmaland and there are no riverboats leaving town either.  Meanwhile, humans from the ships are slipping into the town and raiding the populace for supplies, as the people on board the ships are starving.  This creates a lot of opportunities for spontaneous, short-lived combats between a few persons.

The party may attempt to settle the disputes between the halflings and humans, if they are able; the actual reason for the outbreak is completely random, it was started by a halfling trapper who, infected by the animals while skinning them, sold several infected pelts to a human crewman and several infected pelts to the market.  The party may attempt to travel overland along the Dvina but they will likely turn back after discovering the marshes are impassable (an attack by a giant wolverine or something bigger would spice up the trip).  Finally, they might be approached by a halfling thief (recovered from the disease) willing to lead them the long way around through the forest to Sudborough, provided they can prove themselves uninfected by the disease before that journey's end (in which case, the halfling will desert them in the woods).  Of course, the party can come up with a plan of their own.

Yalding Exchange

The party is met in Onega, Sudborough or Archangel by a group of three reputable halflings merchants or town elders who recognize them as adventurers clearly loaded with armor, weapons, scars, a spirit of confidence and fearlessness, etcetera.  Essentially, the halflings will be very possessed with proving their reputation and value - they are on the level and they are able to prove it.

They are anxious to shore up a party of merchants and soldiers in Yalding, in the south colony, who have made an arrangement to meet a group of gnolls at the border of Bjarmaland, from Uk'set.  These gnolls are going to sell 1,000 beaver and muskrat pelts, a value of about 18,000 g.p., for half that amount.  This is a lot of gold for the merchants to carry and they are concerned about how many gnolls they will meet at the border.  The halflings will give 10% of the furs they receive to the party and provide an contingent of equal strength to the party when they meet in Yalding.

This can go in several directions.  The gnolls could be on the level and the halflings not; if there are less gnolls than halflings, the halflings might give orders to kill them all and the party can make up their minds to join or not.  If halflings in the world would NEVER do something like that, then it can always go that the gnolls do try to seize the halflings gold and the party is forced to do as they've been paid to do.

Or the entire affair can go as planned, with both sides willingly doing the exchange - and this in turn could lead to making friends and associates in Yalding for other adventures or the party being conversed with by the gnolls (who prove to be friendly) and being given an opportunity to travel south into gnollish Bjarmaland as visitors to obtain more furs at their source (for even less coin) or make friends among the gnollish tribe in Uk'set (with a potential for other adventures).

A Little Jam

Or Underbarrow or Koswick.  As the town comes into sight of the party, they are attacked by a bear (big enough to at least threaten the party initially).  The bear will run if it isn't killed quickly.  Meanwhile, a crowd of five or six halflings will be witness to the fight and will rush forward and congratulate the party, expressing their admiration and excitement.  One will request - nay, beg the party to come to dinner that night, and won't take no for an answer (though the party might not accept the hook).  If necessary, give the invitation-giver status in the village to encourage the party to believe they are making an important friend.

The halfling and his family will be honest, forthright and willing to give any information they have on the surrounding countryside.  Dinner will be excellent and will end with jam on toast - the best jam the party will have ever had.  This jam will affect them like a clerical Aid spell, giving them 5 additional hit points to their total even above their maximum.  Express the pleasure of eating the jam and actually inform the party of the increase.  Obviously, if anyone decides to refuse the jam, then make it clear they're not affected.  If the whole party has refused the jam, you've been far too obvious in introducing it to the dinner.

If the party asks for more, have the host explain that he is sorry, this is the last of his stock but he will try to get more.  The next day, when the party gets up (now without the extra hit points), perhaps planning to leave, have another halfling invite them to another dinner - and if asked if there will be jam, have the new host answer, "definitely!"

This jam, too, will have the same effect; but once again, the host will give the same story if asked for some more:  there is no more available, but the host will try to get some if the party will wait.  Make it clear that its a bit obvious the host is lying.

So long as the party remains in the village, they will be invited to dinners, until some 16 families have asked them.  No one will sell them jam.  Everyone will explain they have just enough for the dinner and couldn't possibly part with it.  If the party does ANYTHING rude or aggressive, they will be asked to leave.  If the party tries to break into a house to steal jam, the whole village will come down on them.  If the party decides to try to take advantage of the increase by insisting on a breakfast, then going out adventuring for the day, roll random encounters but don't provide them with a local dungeon.  Leave room, however, for some truly clever strategy the party might invent in order to get themselves a little jam.

If, finally, the party decides to turn down an invitation and leave politely, someone will catch up to them on the road and GIVE them three jars of the jam as a farewell present, good for 24 applications in total.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

There Will Still Be Infrastructure Maps

Just updating this post because I think Astrakhan looks prettier than Archangel.

Some people asked about infrastructure maps.  I plan to make them look like this:

And here's Archangel that I posted earlier (wiki link):

Changed the display to soft visual numbers and a key for the type of vegetation.  Different from my early practice - much prettier.  Detailed views are best seen by following the links above.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fallow III

Consider the mountains that we’ve put between noon and five on our horizon. We must make these palatable before we can expect the players to digest any description we might give. With every effort of this kind, we must follow the gaze of the player. Picture yourself standing upon the tower and looking east. You may see the mountains first, but then you would automatically measure the distance between yourself and them. Your eye would follow upwards along the fields and the river Sorrow, into the thinly treed foothills. At the foot of those mountains the trees would thicken, turning from prairie trees like ash and aspen to highland trees like cedars and pine. This is how we want to describe the mountains to the party – like a camera panning upwards through the individual elements, the same as we would actually cover that distance on foot.

Then we want to differentiate the mountains – the same way we do with people and things, we want to assign characteristics to split the mountains into parts. Then, each part can be understood separately and given substance. We might say the street was full of houses, but this means more when we tell the viewer there were large houses, gabled houses, box houses or tenement houses. Thus, we divide the mountains into three parts: those on the left, at noon and one o’clock; those on the right, at four and five o’clock; and those in the middle.

Those on the left are the highest; those on the right, the lowest. The highest form a mountain ‘knot’ – a place where mountains collect in a jumble of interwoven ridges rather than as a ‘range.’ These high mountains have valleys choked with snow; their tops are surrounded by mist and crowned with glaciers. There is no human culture in their heights; every way into them is rocky and dangerous and full of hideous creatures.

We want to emphasize that last, for that is an adventure hook that will catch the party’s attention. Whenever possible we want to toss out some small phrase that suggests a possibility for mystery, gain or daring-do.

Let’s give these mountains a name. I’m going to call them the ‘Spitzenbarb’ – because it sounds Alpen and the letter ‘z’ helps suggest the sharpness of the rocks; the word ‘barb’ contributes to sharpness, the threat and the general sense of forbiddance. Though it’s a long word, spoken several times it won’t be mistaken for something else.

Turning to the mountains on the opposite end of the chain, ending at five o’clock, those on the south side of Fallow, the side covered in forest. We might see the forest spreading upwards and through these mountains of less elevation. If so, we want the forests to be ‘deep’ so we can fill the space between the low mountains with chasms and fill those chasms with fog. Then we can add that the foggy chasms ‘lead nowhere’ – another adventure hook. We can add that there are no clear roads, that many have gotten lost in the twisting valleys and died. Finally, we can describe the mountains as gaunt, lifeless towers of stone that thrust like teeth from green gums, made wet by winds from the Widden Main (remembering that this ocean begins at six o’clock and can be supposed to extend behind the mountains).

It’s a bit heavy handed but there’s no question those mountains scream for adventure. We should give them a name that reflects their nature. I find a hard ‘k’ will produce a disrupting sound, making it good for mountain names; here we will mix it with a word for lost and call these wild, lower mountains the Krankenwander. This distinctive name is also easy to remember.

Finally, we have the middle range, between three and four o’clock. This is a single range joining the other two. It is high, but not as high as the Spitzenbarb. The peaks are high enough for snow but as it is a narrow range there are no glaciers present. Viewed from the plain below, the peaks will rise across the sky like the points of an iron rake. With winds that blow either from the northwest across the Fleet Sea or the southwest from the Widden Main, the slopes are heavily forested, with much snow. Still, a single pass breaks through the range, allowing passage into the unseen domain of Tertium.

These are the friendliest mountains of the three, so let’s give them a friendly name. These are still mountains so I want a hard sounding consonant to begin with; a ‘g’ I think. Keeping with a policy of describing things – mountains, at least – with three syllables, I’ll call these the Geschlost.

Now the party sees three different adventures in the same mountains, each with its own characteristics – but rather than continuing to describe those places, let’s instead concentrate on the names we’ve used. Spitzenbarb. Krankenwander. Geschlost. I’ve stolen each from a German word. ‘Spitz’ translates as pointed. ‘Kranken’ is to suffer. Geschlost is a corruption of the German ‘geschlossen,’ meaning closed (in case the reader felt I was merely teasing the word out of ‘get lost’ – though there is an etymological relationship).

I’ve meshed each word with English in order to produce a unique compound word. Many really enjoy this sort of word-play but I only employ it for fictional geography. In this there are plenty of opportunities.

We might, for instance, randomly choose a collection of consonants and vowels to create an entirely personal designation. The highest peak in the Spitzenbarb range might be called ‘Pluken’ or ‘Fforst.’ The deepest canyon in the Krankenwander might be called ‘Sowslun’ or perhaps ‘Owlunder.’ The combination of sounds is produced deep in the throat and therefore suggests depth. Since we are making up words for things, we can take time to consider how the metre or pronunciation of the word reflects the thing described. ‘Sinkling’ sounds more appropriate for a waterfall than to call it ‘Crulkler.’ The latter is difficult to say, at any rate. ‘Puttlespoot’ seems a friendlier and less threatening name for a pond than ‘Gregurt.’ How we name it – even when we use made-up words – will convey a certain emotion.

Each part of the land we’re describing will require an uncounted number of names for all sorts of entities: peoples, groups, tools, articles of clothing, beliefs, holidays, heroes, songs and so on. Each must be as distinctive as possible. These names comprise more than a list of labels by which each thing is addressed. Combined, they form a sort of ‘consciousness’ for the land, a personality, binding together the elements of geography, resources, culture, present events and even the future. To make this land believable, we want the players to approach its residents and the various elements of their lives thoughtfully, within the context of what has been named already. Even the first name we have given to the first thing the party has encountered in Fallow (technically, the name of the domain, since it is on the book cover) includes the context of something unfinished, undeveloped, dormant and virginal. It is a land begging for a plough.

We name things as a means of creating relationships with those things. Initially and most often, this relationship will be at a distance. Very often, through the media or hearsay, we hear the name of a thing long before we actually encounter that thing. In the course of things we hear we develop an emotional perspective first, even a physical perspective, when it is something that frightens us and makes our blood cold. When we actually meet with that thing, in the flesh, we have already helped define its identity independently.

The naming of things thus provides identity. If I climb a ridge for the first time in a place where no one has been, seeing a nameless mountain twenty miles in the distance, it will occur to me to give the mountain a name even if I do not approach any closer. The name is descriptive. As others come to this same place, they will use the same name because this is tradition. Steadily, the land around the mountain will be occupied and the people there will make it their home. In so doing they will transform the name from something identifying to something possessive – from the mountain to our mountain.

As time passes, the identity and possession of the object becomes sacred. We can then consider a second culture moving into the area, climbing the same ridge and seeing the same mountain, without any understanding or appreciation for the residents there. This second culture, in turn, establishes its own name for the mountain – and that name, too, becomes first identifying and later possessive. Even when the cultures meet, both will stubbornly cling to the name they have chosen. As time passes, the name that survives will depend upon the relative dominance of the two cultures as well as their distance from the mountain. So long as members of the old culture remain around the base of the mountain, they will use the original name – but if members of that old culture move away and become part of the new culture, they will come to think of the mountain by both of its names, the old and the new.

Imagine that the new culture conquers the old, takes residence around the mountain and fixes a policy that the mountain shall be called by the new name. Members of the old culture, still living there, will steadfastly cling to the old name, even when they are forced to call it something else. Naturally, their children will develop a relationship with the new name – and slowly, steadily, the old name will vanish. All that will remain will be some old records, some tombs, and an inscription here or there, to remind us that once upon a time this place was called this other name.

We experience this all the time without pause; yet these old names, too, carry with them a feeling of time, place, nostalgia, even adoration. The island of Great Britain is fondly called ‘Albion,’ even though no actual kingdom of Albion may ever have existed. We are not even certain that the name derived from the white cliffs in the south or even from ‘white.’ Yet the name persists throughout British culture.

As we consider how to name the various parts of Fallow, we should keep in mind that a variety of places will have a multitude of names, each name representing an historical or cultural conquest. Names are changed to celebrate moments in time or to esteem great persons. Sometimes names arise from a need to add description or in appreciation for a work of art. New York is also known as The Big Apple. Both are ‘names’ – the fact that one is considered correct does not make the other confusing. I call the largest city in Fallow both Augustus and ‘Grandfather of Gifts.’ I might also call it the ‘Grandfather of Fallow.’ The residents may cheerfully use one name affectionately, another in business – and perhaps another, not included here, in anger or despair. All of these are acceptable. I may even add another name: ‘The Servant of Argus.’ This produces a wholly different perspective, eliminating randomness from the city’s placement in relation to the tower . . . once again, creating an adventure hook. “It is an ancient name, recorded from before the Shattered Hill became shattered.”

And what name did the Shattered Hill have originally? That is up to us.

As Fallow accumulates names it accumulates dimension. Each name gives depth and value to the place described, making it meaningful and giving the player’s mind (and ours too!) the power to manage that location where decision making is needed. Once I firmly connect a name to a place, I am able to use that name more easily in my gaming, transferring the entity’s personality from my mind to the players’. Together, as we discuss the various elements of the Krankenwander mountains (remember, that is the name where there are many places for the players to wander), our minds articulate the lost, forested landscape, mentally filling it with the canyons and fog that were first added in our description. Soon, we need no longer think consciously to remember which mountains we mean; the identity becomes inherent as soon as we hear the name.

We have been naming things for more than ten thousand years, so we have a wide resource for how to name things readily available for us as dungeon masters. We do best when we use this template to create names of our own.

Names may be physically descriptive. ‘Mont Blanc’ simply means white mountain. ‘Springfield’ is a well-watered plain. ‘Bei Jing’ translates as northern capital. Within the culture of their origin, these names seem less exotic – but often the simplest names are the most common. Kentucky, for instance, has the ‘Pine Mountains,’ the ‘Laurel River’ and the town of ‘Magnolia.’ Similar names are found everywhere in the world, differentiated only by language. Endless examples can be proposed to describe a location’s colour, fauna, flora, physical shape, hydrography, geology or even climate.

Names may reflect or describe persons. Often the first founder is honoured, but occasionally the person the name describes is completely forgotten. Names may be duplicates of original places back home. My birth city, ‘Calgary,’ was founded by Scotsmen and named after the fort commander’s Scottish home. Names are also given prefixes that describe the time of naming or its relationship to other places. There are various towns called ‘Neustadt’ in Germany (new city) or the whole region of Australia called ‘New South Wales.’ Names may also describe random objects and things that are done or found in that place (‘Moose Jaw’), manufactured (‘Hammersmith’) or mined there (‘Eisenerz’ in Austria translates as iron ore).

Take out an atlas and look closely at the names there; consider their origin and how that may have changed for the inhabitants, not only in terms of the name itself but for the inhabitants (why do the people of ‘Cairo’ Illinois pronounce it kay-roe?) There are dozens of reasons why a particular place develops a particular name; before setting to the task of making names, take time to consider how others have done it since the beginning of history.

I would be amiss if I did not take the time, now, to identify what there is to be named. Most of us know to name the obvious natural features, but let’s be certain about this. For the role-player, we can divide the natural features into three areas:
  • orographic – the physical topography and shape of the land surface
  • hydrographic – water features
  • phytographic – vegetation

Some names will combine these elements, describing a dry desert, a mountain forest or an underwater ridge. Each contains many more potential features than just the obvious. We do not merely describe rivers but also their bends, their rapids, their sources and their mouths.

Beyond the natural features we are left with the prospect of giving names to every part of the culture, also: to tribes, nations, political divisions, settlements, roads, gardens, buildings, plazas, religions, habits, occupations, ideologies . . . the list is endless. It is far more than we should expect from a single DM. As such, many are averse to taking the matter farther than naming the most obvious features. This is understandable. Even a slim gazetteer of Fallow’s relative place names would include hundreds, even thousands of labels. The line must be drawn somewhere – else we will find ourselves naming individual farms, meadowlands, creeks, mines or isolated cairns. Some of these we may want to name – but there certainly isn’t time or the player’s interest to justify naming everything.

We should apply ourselves to naming things that will be relevant to the campaign, as required. A mountain gap where armies have marched for centuries will have a host of names describing minutia such as battlefields, graveyards, scenic views or depots. A large city will accumulate names for its neighbourhoods, intellectual academies, satellites, defences or nearby royal estates and hunting grounds. Seaports will suggest names for dangerous capes, underwater ‘roads,’ banks, cays, riptides and many other hydrographical oddities that would affect shipping. Greater threats, diversity or population movements produce a greater density of names.

Where you choose to give a place more than one name, make clear what the ‘official’ name is. If the variation is important enough, include the other name in parentheses. Consciously ascribe a reason for the chosen name or be prepared to invent one in the future if that becomes useful. Establish a linguistic consistency for names (such as Fallow being principally Germanic with a hint of Anglo-Saxon). Be aware of inconsistencies that will stand out for the players as ‘strange’ and ‘compelling.’

If your collection of names rises into the realm of four-digits, keeping a record of what names you’ve used can be helpful. Take note, however, that there are many Springfields and Neustadts in the world. Place names are freely repeated by inhabitants of every country in every region, without concern.

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The Duchy of Tatarstan

For those who are interested, there will be another Fallow post.

In the meantime, I am still steadily writing wiki posts upon parts of Moscovy that I posted last Friday.  Today's contribution is Tatarstan:

It's a detailed, time-consuming process, particularly as I notice small errors on maps or tables that then need to be re-saved as images and then updated into the wiki.  The process for updating an image in the wiki is tedious, as the safety features of the wiki require that first I change the name of the old image before uploading the new (it won't overwrite).  Then if I delete the old image, it will sit in the trash bin for 30 days before going away.  This is great for people who delete too quickly, but for me it means a lot of stuff I don't need just sitting there.  Anyway, that is why you will see versions of maps with the word 'junk' in the title; it is a note to myself that I need to go find those files and delete them, as I have changed the name in order to insert a new image.

I'm explaining this because I see from my data that there are some 50 unique visitors who view about 400 pages daily, without being told to look.  That's terrific!  Without urging, there were 78 views yesterday on my Ryazan page (which I created yesterday morning).  I'm glad the readers are enjoying the wiki.

The history is tricky.  I've never tried to be precise before about what race was occupying which land at what time.  With the inclusion of all these other races, who in turn need kingdoms and histories created and then worked logically into human history, I find myself really pressed to keep it logical.  Please, if I goof up somewhere, let me know!  There's a lot to keep straight and I can easily forget that I've written something somewhere else months ago that disagrees with something I've written today.  Obviously, this will mean reinventing the 'facts' I'm inventing - but I see the whole project as a sort of fiction novel.  Changes in continuity truth are part of the process.

We were laughing over the weekend at the prospect of someone who has no idea what the wiki represents stumbling across it and foolishly using it as research for their high school or university paper.  The early execution of Ivan the Terrible as a boy, for instance (which no one mentioned - I hope some of you noticed!), would be quite the omission if someone thought I was talking about actual Russian history of the 16th century.

I fully expect that sooner or later I'm going to get an email from someone demanding to know what the FUCK I'm doing writing all these lies and misinformation.  How irresponsible.

Well, time to stretch, apply for work and turn my mind back to Fallow.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Fallow II

As strange as a landscape for a role-playing game might be, I don’t feel this is best for opening a campaign. Players need to ease into their surroundings. Selecting a theme that is sedate, familiar and traditional helps to promote a comfortable, unthreatening atmosphere that will enable the players to settle, find their bearings and adapt, getting their feet wet before diving in.

The contrary point of view, where the game begins amidst intimidation and menace, can work for a one-off running where the players have no expectation of ever investing in characters they will have to discard at the end of the adventure regardless. This is not our intent here. We expect that Fallow will be a lot more work than what might be required to sketch the layout of a dungeon or series of mounted plot-moments. Fallow might become the established setting for dozens of adventures, intertwined and similarly based upon recognizable, features that the party could come to know as well as their back yards.

Therefore, we want a land the players can relate to yet is nonetheless vital, active and optimistic with regards to the party’s future. Ultimately, it should be by no means ‘safe.’ Risk is a necessity for a good campaign. Our goal is merely to make Fallow comprehensible.

We want to provide the party a set of broad brush strokes about Fallow. This is knowledge we give to the party in order to arm them, to engender ideas and to give them images that will capture their imaginations. We want them to visualize – not to rely upon a map, but to see the setting we provide inwardly. For that, we must imagine that we are describing our neighbourhoods to someone blindfolded (or, in fact, blind), concentrating on distance and direction in ways that the party can instinctively relate.

Remembering that we are atop Argus Tower, what does the party see? Shake off what the party could actually discern or identify with detail. At these distances, it is probably that a real person would barely make out that the sea was blue or the mountains white and grey. We must be their DM; the party must see everything through our eyes. Thus we are free to describe the land as precisely as we wish, presupposing that the party has hearsay they have collected in the time they’ve had to wander about the land before ascending this tower and starting the campaign.

Let us start with what is immediately below, five miles to the south, surrounded by the forest that fills the south side of Fallow. This is the city of Augustus, capital of the domain and sometimes called ‘Grandfather of Gifts.’ Augustus is a highly educated city, with four universities, a gathering of some of the wisest and most able people in the world. It is where the King of Fallow dwells and where the Electors of Fallow meet – but for now we will minimize our description to saying that it is large, walled, strong and to our eyes isolated by the forest. There are fields inside the city walls that we can see, but outside the walls there are only trees. After a time we will come down from the tower and walk the streets of Augustus – but for now we will turn our gaze outwards.

To establish a sense of direction, let us envision a timepiece, laid flat upon the land, with the numbers at the horizon. The tower is the center; twelve noon is straight north. The edge of the southern forest bisects the clock from approximately three-thirty to nine o’clock. This will absolve any need to think of direction in terms of left and right, east or west. When I refer to direction, I will use the clock face.

Fallow is a stumpy peninsula shaped like a fat thumb, extending outwards from mountains that form a circle from noon to five o’clock. The furthest extent of the peninsula is at eight o’clock, reaching into a deep path of water about forty miles wide, crossing the clock from eight to ten-thirty. This is Loaving Strait, earlier mentioned as separating Fallow from another domain, Dawdling, Fallow’s dearly hated enemy.

At eleven o’clock there is a small, deep bay into which empties the two rivers also mentioned earlier. The Sorrow, wide and shallow, useless for navigation, swings furthest to the south, beginning in the mountains at two o’clock and emptying into the south edge of the bay. The Ruth is faster and deeper, commercially useful, rising in the mountains near twelve-thirty and flowing first south, then west. The two rivers are typically one or two day’s walk from each other, but at one point, fifty miles from the sea, they venture to a distance of merely five miles between banks. The land between the rivers and on either side is intensely cultivated in field crops.

Loaving Strait connects the Fleet Sea, between ten-thirty and noon, with the largest and deepest body of water adjacent to Fallow, the Widden Main. Also called the ‘Great Bounding Ocean,’ this body of water stretches outwards from the south shore of Fallow to the furthest horizon. It is as wide and deep as the south Atlantic. There are some notable land masses to the south, but they are more than a month’s journey by ship. The people of Fallow call them the Reeklands, for the coastline that has been explored consists of quagmires and sinks, where fetid air lingers. These are not of much interest to us now, so we will let them fester unelaborated in the midst of their tropical vapour.

We will deal with each of these in depth, both now and in the future. There is really no limit to the amount of detail we can add, so long as we apply our attention to it. Each broad stroke, as I have called it, lends itself to the applications of little strokes of the brush, as needed – so long as we keep the details of each entity, or element, of the general scheme in order. That is the trick; seeing things in the big picture is easy, particularly if we never need to magnify our gaze upon any part. Once we do begin, there, the number of details multiplies quickly, challenging our ability to manage them all.

Yet the devil in the details is the devil that interests the party – so details we will add, however often we will stumble and fall keeping them in line.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Here we stop.  We have reached the top of Argus Tower.  It is a needle pointing at the sky, narrowing as it climbs, built upon an isolated stone summit.  Here we rest, weary and footsore from our morning journey to the base of the mount; from toiling our way to the foot of the Tower; and finally from climbing one thousand marble stairs to reach this place.

Each marble step has been fitted together without mortar, leading around in a spiral outside the tower, never more than three feet wide.  We have climbed slower and slower, further and further from the outer edge where no railing intervenes against the dizzying drop to the rocks a thousand feet below.  Yet here we are, on top, where the Tower's stairs end in a circular platform barely fifteen feet wide.  Here, thankfully, is a two-foot parapet - but here we are exposed to the wind and the sky.

It is late spring.  The sun is high, there isn't the least bit of haze in the sky.  We have a clear, unrestricted view towards every point of the compass.  Here we can see all of Fallow, every part of the country - from the wild ocean in the south to the calm sea in the north; from the mountains in the east to the strait that separates Fallow from distant Dawdling in the west.  Half the land, rising in low hills towards the high escarpment running along the ocean's coast, is covered in forest.  Half the land, following two wide, parallel rivers towards the northern sea, is cultivated and covered with fields.  We are in between everything, in the center of the country.

We have the party in tow and now they rest on this high floor, bags and equipment strewn about their tired forms.  But this is a good place to rest and look.

Why here, of all places?  Why bring the party here to start?  We have because this place has resonance.  Wherever the party goes afterwards, it members will remember this place.  They will turn again and again towards it - for just as we can now see every part of the country, every part of the country can see this tower.  It offers a sense of place in a fantasy world, where everything depends on our imagination.  We must make the best use of that imagination as we can - creating elements that are recognizeable and familiar, that can be found and used as signposts, that can be described easily by parties who lack skill in remembering the names of things.  We tell them it is the Argus Tower, but the party only remembers that it is high and white and scary to climb.

This lets them describe it back to us.

When we add features to the world, by some measures we must get by with mundane, commonly found things - little burgs, hillocks, ordinary streams, roads without direction and so on - but we must see that anything that does not stand out will in every likelihood be forgotten within minutes of its description to the party.  All the description in the world cannot distinguish one field from another adequately to the player's imagination.  There is nothing, however, wrong with forgetting fields; we must use something to fill space between great things impressive and celebrated.

Too, this Tower at the beginning of our campaign offers something more.  It is a fine place to talk.  It is an excellent place from which to gaze about, take notes, debate the wither go and wherewith of the party's initial intentions, whatever they might be.  We might have started them in at the bottom of the tower, but then we could not guarantee their interest in climbing.  We might have started in the wood, when the canopy of trees hid the tower rising above, but they might have gone the other way.  Starting here, at the top, forces the party to face what we wish them to consider.  We will not have this opportunity again, not without railroading the party.  This one time, at the beginning, we should make the best of our single opportunity.

We can always describe the day's journey in retrospect.  We can explain that the party awoke by the roadside, that they walked a mile through the trees along a beaten clay road, the sleep not yet stretched out of their limbs.  The sun had only just risen; though the stars were gone, the full dawn was yet nigh.  A thin light casted the surrounding birch and maple trees in grey.  Their new spring leaves blotted out the sky - below, the undergrowth had withered away with the generations, so there was nothing between the trunks but the carpet of last year's leaves.

Still explaining the party's immediate past, we can tell them how they emerged into the open, seeing a great mount of blasted rock, a mile wide and a quarter mile high.  It was atop this rock that someone built the Argus Tower, an immense edifice carved of white marble.  Counting the hill and the tower together, there were a total of 2,242 stairs exactly.  What meaning we eventually apply to that number - if any - is up to us.

It is upon us to make the party listen to this or any description.  I have chosen these words above because this description is meant to be read.  A description I would speak to a new party would be less erudite, more repetitious.  We must emphasize the Tower's bigness, the fearful drop, the impossibility of its creation and the exposure to the wind and sun, not once but many times.  Parties that hear cannot go over the words like the reader of a book; they cannot consume large, descriptive words or phrases.  They need impact, the brunt reality, the jolt that will register on their imaginations.  They are high.  They are an inch from death.  A sharp wind may spin them into the air if they do not take care.  But the view steals their imagination.  They will never come up here again - and this is an opportunity to understand our setting in it's entirety - so let us not fail them in giving it.

Remember that the land is completely imaginary.  If the party is to gain any comprehension, any wonder at what they see, it is upon us to make it reality for them.  We are establishing a theme for the whole country, a starting feature - this tower - from which every other feature will progress.  Argus Tower is our land's Rabbit Hole; it's Wardrobe; it's Yellow Brick Road.

This is the party's beginning and they want to remember it fondly.  We must provide something that can be remembered fondly.  It need not be a construction.  We can invest their imagination into something common but intimate - a village where they know everyone; a cave mouth in utter isolation; an island where the party revives from a ship wreck.  Anything representive of time, space and possibility.  Whatever we choose, however, we must describe it as skillfully as we are able.  We must invest ourselves into it, else the central theme will fail.  We can do better than to make a world of cheap pasteboard and plaster.  This thing is ours; we want to show it off proudly, to give the players the Grand Tour and to smile happily as they ooh and ahh their way along.

With this in mind I have created Sentinel Mount and covered it with unnatural rock.  The shattered stone suggests that something has happened here.  Atop the mount, a tower, named after the thousand-eyed beast that Hermes slew.  I will say that the tower's location is very nearly in the middle of Fallow and not exactly so, because this offers an odd but acceptable reality, like a photographer's subject depicted off center.  Obviously, serendipity did not place the tower or the mount, I did.  But we do not emphasize this, ever, because to do so would trouble the player's suspension of disbelief.  We never speak of what we have done to create the world, to suggest that the world has come to exist of its own accord.  This lends it credibility.  An imaginary world needs all it can obtain.

I have also made the Tower beautiful.  It could be made of granite or be unpolished - but since marble is cheap for Dungeon Masters, why not marble?  True, it may be pitted by the wind, but it retains the shine and glittering sharpness given to it by a thousand builders.  An attractive object sends a message: the people who built this place, they were no slackers.  They made beautiful things.

At the beginning, we want to send as many messages as possible: the age of the untouched forest, where no axe seems to have dropped a tree in a hundred years; the wearing of the stone steps by hundreds of thousands of feet; small stages set along the tower decorated with shrines, to allow the devout to stop and rest and give thanks to various entities; and finally the very top, where we can suggest evidence in the stained rocks that two combatants have been here, locked in combat, many times.  It is enough to make the heart plunge.

It is not easy starting a campaign.  Putting the party atop Argus Tower, as I have done, implies a contract.  However dangerous this place may be ordinarily, on this singular occasion I will guarantee the party's safety.  This is all part of the show.  When they climb down, the guarantee is rescinded.

Until then, they are allowed to look freely at one small domain in a wide, unseen world: the domain I call Fallow.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Misbegotten Children

Despite the failure of my conflict cards, I still receive requests to send the card images to individuals who are anxious to . . . I have no idea what these people mean to do.  I suppose that someone is entitled to make them useful as a system, if it can be done at all.  Still, it is a pain in my side.

I had put all the images up on the old Same Universe Wiki, long gone now.  To satisfy the curious, I've added the conflict card images to the New Wiki, Tao at Wikispaces.  The card sheets I used to print up the cards before slicing are there, with hash marks so that if anyone wants to take them to a printer, the paper stock can be cut by that printer also.

Cost me, I think, something like $75 when I did it.

For the record, let me know if you find any links on this blog that don't work - particularly links that were supposed to go to the Same Universe wiki.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tim's Five

As with Connor, I have agreed to write advice for Tim's five points.  Here they are, reduced in size.  Read the full versions on his blog.

Tim writes,

1.  Provide better exposition & storytelling to my players . . . ideally, I'd give the players an appropriate amount of exposition and colour whenever necessary.
You already plan to practice storytelling and you already recognize the difficulties of understanding a story that is told non-chronologically.  You seem to understand the errors you've made in the past so I won't waste time covering those details.
Understand, however, that good storytelling comes with immense effort and difficulty. We're talking about an esoteric process, one that shouldn't be confused with the procedures necessary to create something even extraordinarily complex.  Successful storytelling defies methodology, since that only serves to create the same story over and over.  Storytelling defies inventiveness in that too often a story can become so ingenious that is fails to resonate with an audience that is, at heart, only interested in things that are applicable to themselves and their lives.  Storytelling must be cunning yet candid; it must demonstrate skill and command and yet it must appear to be effortless.  To manage that, lies must be sincere, truth must contain an element of suspicion and the effort to understand which is which must matter to the audience.
How is this done?  No one has ever known.
There are others that seem to have known - and so we return to them again and again, taking the elements of their stories apart like automobile engines and electrical components, seeking to grasp their elements and how they fit together.  We go back to writers of centuries past and writers who have explored every means of storytelling and we experiment ourselves and, yes, practice.  But each storyteller, nevertheless, will have a unifying experience where it comes to success - we cannot explain how we ourselves succeeded.  This is where we return to theories of muses, spirits that enter us and make us perform in ways beyond our human capacity to perform.  This is where we find Galatea unable to explain the sudden truth of Pygmalion's human existence - and his equally helpless inability to control that existence once it begins to manifest its own purpose without dependence upon the creator.
Do not chastise yourself for the patterns of your storytelling or for the players' tendencies to run off with the stories you're telling in their own direction.  There is only so much you can control.  You can apply yourself, as best you can, to the message you wish to convey; you can concentrate, in some small part, about the characters you would like introduced to the players; you can trim the trivialities and steady your erraticism - but do not supposed that you will 'simply be firm' in your decisions.  Having created the story, you will do well to ride it to its conclusion, recognizing that the story - like Pygmalion - will go off purposefully in directions you would not prefer, despite all your planning and efforts.
Where you can, manage the details.  As Cesar says to Bart Simpson: "Now watch me. You grab the grape between your thumb and forefinger and gently twist it off and drop it in the bucket.  Now you do it. [Bart plucks one off and drops it]  Very good.  Now do it a million times."
2. Keep players more engaged during play.  In particular, I'd like to hold my players' attention even when it's not their turn in combat or I'm talking to another player.
Here is something I did not write in my book.  Early on in my running, when I was merely 16, I recognized immediately that there was a tremendous dearth of players willing to DM the game.  I had four or five of my friends playing and we all knew perfectly well how gawdamn fucking hard it was to run this game.  Right from the start, without thinking about it, without asking my friends for permission, I would shout at them to shut up without an instant's hesitation.  If they wanted to be there, if they wanted to run, if they wanted me to tell them the stuff they needed to know and answer their rattled out questions over and over, regardless of whether I had answered those questions before, then they were going to sure as shit shut their yaps when I was talking, thinking or running the damn game.  Or they were going to get both barrels in short order.
This did not, as you would think, result in people getting up from the table and quitting my game.  The reason it did not was because it was very plain how much effort I was putting into it and how passionate I was.  I talked fast and confidently and loud and I expected immediate responses when I required them.  I expected my players to be passionate as well.  This is something that continues to be plain in the games I play now.  I'm working hard here.  You're paying attention and your head is in the game or you can get the fuck out.
The result of this firm policy is that I do not have to spend 95% of my time controlling the players.  In fact, I rarely spend any time doing so.  My players do talk to each other while I'm running someone else, but it is respectful and considerate and doesn't disrupt the game.  I don't have to force my players attention because it only takes a simple statement to get them back into line if things are drifting.   You can catch me doing it in this video.
That level of attention that I get arises from a willingness to be intolerant of bullshit.  If you won't shout or raise your voice or even close up your books and explain that you're not fucking here to run them like their bitch, they will walk all over you.
3. Declutter my organization for the game.
The tools exist.  PDF copies suck, they do not lend themselves to word searches, the same for OneNote notebooks.  And yes, move some of that memorization onto your players.  Explain to them that if they can't tell you their character's spells, their characters have forgotten how to use those spells.  Don't take laziness as an excuse.  You've got enough shit to remember at the table; if that mage wants to have spells, that mage can spend the time getting the spells organized and ready when you ask, "What's the range on that puppy?"  This isn't rocket science.
I have a suggestion - but if you're not a touch typist, you'll hate it.  I recommend that you physically sit down and retype all of those PDF documents manually into word.  Not because that's the most efficient method, but because consciously thinking about the words as you script them out by hand will help you memorize both the content and the location where you put that content.  Make notes on what things you want to expand while copying - even expand them yourself while you're at it.  Put everything into word where you can search it by find/replace - and then teach yourself how to index material and write comments in word on that material.  This stuff is way, way easier than you would guess - and steady copying will slowly put everything you use into a format that is convenient for you in times of stress.

4. Be less intense about D&D.
I can't relate to this.  I will say that I can turn D&D off like a spigot; there are many, many people I have known for long periods of time who don't even know that I play the game.  They know nothing about the blog or what I do - I simply tell them that I am writing.  Others know what I do but since they have no interest, I don't talk about D&D.
Beyond that, however, for me, I intend to be as passionate about D&D as I wish to be.  Where players are new to the game, I know this serves to enhance their experience and produce a level of wonder and mystery - as in, "There must be more to this game than I understand, look how much he loves it!"
But yes - if turning the dial down or off is necessary for other parts of your life, I understand.  It's a matter of self-control to do that.

5. Get a chance to be a player.
Absolutely.  Every DM needs at least some player perspective.  If you can't get an opportunity among your group, then you're going to have to seek out an event or a club.  The experience will be horrific, trying, largely unfulfilling and composed of time spent with the sort of losers who cannot get a game together with friends in a space they control, but it will be INSTRUCTIVE.  In a capital way.
It will also give you perspective.  You don't know how good or bad you are until you see how truly many of the campaigns in the real world achieve excrement-level.
If you have the patience to keep at it, you will find quality DMs running in public.  Some people just get into that as a fetish.  Unless your ass has been kissed by the goddess Nike, however, it is going to take time to wade through the dreck until you luck out.  Pay attention to the players that drift in that direction and you'll be led to the promised land.

Hope that was helpful, also.

The Grand Duchy of Moscovy

I had originally expected to have this done by Monday or Tuesday . . . but as I have more time on my hands now, the gentle reader gets it today.  As promised, I was working on Moscovy:

A completely readable version can be found here.
A description of the grand duchy can be found on the wiki.

Moscovy is much larger than any of the previous regions that I've done for the wiki in this style.  For one thing, it sprawls over a thousand hexes and contains 26 separate divisions.  More than that, however, to make this particular entity fit into the D&D world I've created is excessively tricky.  The real Russia in 1650 stretched right across Siberia and had successfully smashed through the lands I've designated to gnomes, orcs, half-orcs, ogres, norkers, bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins and even trolls.  I did not want to throw history completely out the window - but at the same time I had to make some pretty big changes to alter the whole western side of the Urals to make my world 'fit.'

My solution?  Well, if you know Russian history, the description of the 14th century on the wiki is going to make your eyebrows achieve lift off.  I cannot help it - I just don't want to give the tale away.  In effect, I've managed to manufacture an alternative 15th - 17th history for Russia on the order of proposing that the American South won the civil war.

I wonder how many readers will see it immediately.  I also wonder how many will recognize how hard I worked to retain as much actual history as I could manage.

Well, enjoy.  My next task will be to finally write on Tim's five points, followed by answering a question on taxes that Barrow recently asked.  I will attempt to get to both those things this evening.


Two weeks of unrealistic expectations, breakneck training without repetition, daily humiliation and the empathic equivalent of throwing bricks at a stone wall, I am unemployed again.

It has been a trying, vicious, emotionally retarded and altogether unpleasant experience.  I have not quit a job in 15 years; I do not like the feeling of quitting, I do not like the process or the baggage that follows or all the rehashing that goes along with it - should, shouldn't, could have, did try, what did I miss, fuck it.

Feel crippled and exhausted and for that reason the blog hasn't seen much activity.  But until the next job comes along, I have time again.  Time I didn't want to have, but there it is.

Life sucks.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


I'm writing this from my phone and I suck at texting, so this will be short.

Strange as it may seem, I have trouble writing medieval weapons combat - I'm fine with guns, but I haven't had that much experience swinging things. I rely on others for insight.

I have a sequence in a story where a 17-year-old is teaching a woman of 21 how to use weapons. He's proficient, she isn't. I see the conflict being his from within, knowing he has to physically hurt her to teach her. She accepts that, but still every time she is hurt, he reacts by resisting the lessons he has to teach. She then gives him hell, because she wants to learn.

Any insight on this process would be appreciated.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Connor's Five

I had written on Connor's new blog that I would write advice if he wanted and he suggested that I do it here. So here I am, writing on Connor's five points (as opposed to my own).

I'm just going to give shorter versions of what Connor describes; full versions on his blog.

1. The ability to more eloquently deliver descriptions of the terrain or the surroundings the party is in, without detracting from what really matters in the situation . . . to describe things clearly, concisely and accurately. Extra description gets in the way of the message being delivered, it creates noise in the transmission that the receiver has to filter out, generally not as successfully as the transmitter would like. A good example of this is players getting hung up on some unimportant piece of the description that is just there for extra depth. They did not properly filter what you were giving them so they think it is important.
The filter is important, no question - but it is also correcting wrong ideas the moment you hear them.  Your players can't get hung up on something unless you're willing to clap your mouth shut and let them.  Sometimes, this is desirable; giving the players enough rope to hang themselves can increase tension and drama and produce a good effect when they find out what the truth is.  However, it can also be a tremendous time-waster, with the players endlessly talking themselves out of things because their imagination is bigger than the obstacles they're liable to face.
Take a moment and question what kind of story teller you actually are.  I actually have a good exercise for this.  Pick a story from your past that you've told more than one person - can be anything, but it should be something you've gotten a little experience in telling.  Record yourself telling the story.  Wait a week and then watch yourself.  Where are your hands, your eyes, what's your stance, how much are you moving, is the story really interesting or do you waffle on quite a lot.  If you have the nerve, watch it with someone else who doesn't know you that well and explain that it's a monologue you're doing because your girlfriend/wife has talked you into it.  Stress that these are not your words.  You'll get to hear what someone honestly feels about the quality of the stories you tell - and what they dislike - while at the same time being in the position of helping you make it better.
 This is a brutal, brutal exercise.  I did it for a drama teacher I had in high school.  Picking the right person to go over it with you is important, because it's great if they'll listen to you tell the story three or four times.  It will totally ruin that story for you.  Totally.  But you will see things in yourself (I did it on a casette tape, pre-video age) you'd never see otherwise.

2.   The ability to better manage players who take to long in combat due to distractions, not paying attention, or disinterest.  Many of my combats have lasted over 10 rounds in the 15 games I have run in my campaign. These usually take about 3 hours, maybe 4 hours if it starts pushing 14-15 rounds. One of my main problems is not being able to tactfully bring players to act faster. If they are distracted, and need to look over the map before playing every round it slows combat down a fair bit, even if there is only one of them doing it. Also, I am in need of a better way to prompt players to action instead of thinking everything to death before commiting to an action.
Connor, you've mentioned this sacrifice already in another post on your blog.  You will need to find a merciless streak inside yourself.  This is your players walking over you; you've got to walk over them in turn.  Don't put your players on the clock, but urge them to act several times while you're waiting, skip them and move onto the next person (it's humiliating to be put on hold, even if they will get to act) or rule that they've spent their round dithering.
In tough times I will tell players that they're 'on deck' - that is, while I'm running this player, I'm telling what player I'm going to be asking questions of next. This tends to improve time on people making a decision.  It also requires that I think ahead, in effect managing more than one player at a time.  I will also sometimes urge players with a leading question - "You're going to attack?" rather than "What are you going to do?"  I only do this when the answer is 95% obvious, because it shortens their answer to "Yes" rather than "Um, I, well, okay, I could . . . attack?"  Often you'll notice players do describe their actions to you as a question rather than a statement - indecisive players are often looking for confirmation for their decisions.  It can be easy in some situations to give them confirmation as part of the question.  The player can always say, "No, I'm going to . . ." whatever.
 Note also that I don't let anyone roll a die at my table AT ALL (no practice rolls) until I say "roll."  This gets the players thinking with their heads and not their hands.  I notice that you've added in that following post a few points about dice.  I suggest implementing this rule - and adding that if a player takes a full round's worth of time (12 seconds in my world) picking out their die, you can always say it took them that long to draw the weapon they liked.

3.  The ability to make dramatic combats short, without resorting to super powerful monsters.  As stated above many combats go on for a few hours. And this is largely because I choose to use a larger number of lesser creatures such as orcs/goblins/kobolds than to simply use more powerful monsters.
I have had many large, time-taking combats with lots of orcs that lasted a lot longer than, say, three dragons.  The combat my party had with 100+ orcs (in which they actually only engaged about 40% of the total) lasted two sessions.  The combat with three dragons that they finished a week ago Saturday lasted all of 90 minutes, with a break and lots of rolling saving throws for equipment against acid.
 For party morale (bringing them together as a group), I suggest a number of encounters where they are all fighting one BIG monster.  This lets them gang up and experience pleasure at someone else damaging the monster they are also trying to kill.  Another problem with mass combats and many single opponents is that it is easy for a player to feel that they are fucking up and not doing their part; everyone is fighting different people and there's minimal opportunity for cooperation.  This is particularly true if the mass combat is scattered.  Single big monsters pull parties together.
4. The ability to design maps with greater speed.  I need to improve my speed of mapping my world, without sacrificing detail. The maps are the back bone of my campaign, with a key set up so that if there is anything interesting in a hex I know of it before the players get there.
After thinking about this, I believe what you really mean is the ability to draft ideas quickly, such as drawing a room or a thing to give a visual sense of its properties.  No one makes a good map quickly.  Maps are trying, painstaking things and they are best done slowly.  But if you're looking at drawing faster, apply yourself to pictionary or take up the habit of explaining things to people using a black board or a white board.  Hell, just stand there and explain things to yourself, drawing as you go.  Drawing is like anything else.  Takes practice.
5. The ability to recruit more people.
I'll skip the rest of your description as this is a pretty common problem.  I'll tell you honestly - you will never, ever recruit players as easily as your players will recruit people for you.  If you are having trouble right now bringing people into your game, it is because your players are not anxious to share the incredible experience of playing with you.  If you up your game, they will scream it's merits to their friends and you will be awash with people.
This is a take care of the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves problem.  You can take steps if it makes you feel better (I did, posting on bulletin boards in school and later advertising in the university newspaper) but I almost guarantee that the only stranger you will meet that will turn up for your game will be the sort that shouldn't be allowed in ANY game.
Yes, for the love of puppies that scare themselves in mirrors, talk to your friends. Talk to anybody.  Hell, you just don't know who plays, since people who play don't advertise it, right?  Rest assured, however . . . the secret to getting more players is to make the players you already have little machines that cannot . . . stop . . . talking . . . about . . . you.
Hope it helps.