Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Adding On

I feel that my greatest strength as a designer is the ability to put things down when I am tired of them, while being able to pick them up again - sometimes years later - and continue where I left off without needing to change everything and start from scratch.

This is how the huge map gets made.  This is how I steadily form up the trade system or build the wiki.  This is how I am able to pick up the character generator after three years without losing heart that it has been too long since reworking it.  And this is why I don't feel bad that it's been 8 days since I last worked on the brand new tech system without a follow up post.

I do apologize - but I am taking a break from that for a while.  I worked hard on it for about a month and now I want some distance.  That does not mean the tech idea is dead or that it won't find it's place in my general system - it's just on the shelf.  When I'm ready, I'll pull it down from the shelf, dust it off and take it to the next place.

Beyond planning towards a specific goal, we sometimes need to look at long-term elements of our design with a wider perspective.  Does the reader suppose that something as complex as Bag End, on the right, was built in a single piece?  Of course not.  At some point the entrance hall served to keep Bilbo's ancestors out of the rain.  As they cleared out the space for the "Parlour" - that no doubt served for a year as both a kitchen and a bedroom - the one-day spacious and convenient entrance hall was full of timbers, tools, garbage and detritus that were simply lived with until the day it could be used or cleaned out.

Each generation - with long pauses between - would take up the expansion of the home, working their way deeper into the hill, adding a separate kitchen, then a bedroom (which would much, much later become the Smoking Room once the kitchen was expanded with a Dining Room, a Pantry (which would later be turned into the Atrium when a new Pantry was dug, complete with two cellars and a new bedroom and study could be added).  And so on.  The building of Bag End is a long-term problem, with skull-sweat and much reconsideration, errors, the occasional collapse and at least one or two generations who were content to sit and do nothing.

For Bilbo and Frodo, at the tag end of the family line, it's all a wonder - because it seems impossible that something so complicated, so comfortable and rich in design, could have ever been conceived.  That is because, from their view, they can only see the whole thing.  But whole things are made of parts.

If the reader's world seems impossible or at least daunting, consider that it doesn't have to be done in a single piece.  Consider what's necessary to set up the framework with an eye to setting it aside and picking it up later when you're tired of it.  Start from that perspective.  Then, when life gets in your way or something else comes up, the precepts are in place to allow coming back some time later, remembering how it all worked and settling in to continue it exactly as you planned, ages before.

Don't burn it down and start again.  You'll never complete anything that way.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Truly Game-style Modifiers

I wanted to write a note about a result I'm incorporating into my intelligence table - a result that has a chance of being picked up by any character, even one with an intelligence of 3:

"The character possesses a remarkably good horse sense; when following a plan of this character's making, one die roll made by anyone, including the DM, can be adjusted 2 points in the character's favor, one time per day."

Essentially, there's a chance (I'm not sure what the chance is, yet, I'm still adding things) of picking up this 'ability' at the start of the character's creation.  It does require a little more description than what the above includes, in order to clarify what's being said and to narrow down the effect somewhat.

"Horse sense" is an idiom that developed to convey an "unsophisticated, country type of sense."  The link makes the connection that horses are often sort of dim, being associated with words meaning nonsense of stupidity, such as horse feathers or horseshit (a dumber form or shit than most others).  Having been around horses just a little bit, I feel the term derived from a sort of 'sense' that horses have about bad paths, bad footing or just places they don't want to go - places where the rider overrides the horse's will and finds out the horse was dead right about not going into that hidden cactus patch.

In any case, a horse is always dumber than the dumbest human, so any character of any intelligence fits into the category.

"A plan of this character's making" would be any plan that was originally proposed by the player, which is now being followed.  It can only include the player's ideas specifically - not the ideas of others who advanced the original plan by adding features and corrections.

Thus, the player with the ability says, "I think we should dive into the pool and see what happens."  If the character with horse sense or any other character actually dives into the pool, then the +2 bonus can be applied in that situation.  If, on the other hand, a character suggests easing into the pool, paddling around for a bit and then going underwater, that would not be the plan proposed and the bonus could not be applied.

It must be remembered that the bonus is not applied to the character making the plan, but to the plan itself - though the character with horse sense does get to decide where the bonus is applied (saving throw, to hit die, damage done, amount of treasure found, etc.).

If the plan is carried out and the character does not think of using the bonus (or can't use it, as no dice are thrown) until after the situation is resolved, then the character must invent a new plan to regain the unused bonus for a new situation.

"Favour" expresses a positive result that encourages survival and success.  The die roll cannot be used to bring woe or misfortune to another character (player or non-player).

Would I, as DM, accept the modifier at the player's behest?  *smile*  Absolutely!

Monday, December 28, 2015

I Think That We Can Think It Out Again

Is it all right to force an addiction on a player character?  Is it all right if this addiction has been rolled randomly and has been supposedly taken up by the character prior to the campaign?

The player character's childhood is usually overlooked as something inconvenient.  We know the character must be old enough to perform combat and act as an adult - naturally we want the character to be taken seriously by denizens of the world.  Even if the character is only 15 to 17 years old, we suppose that people grew responsible earlier (speaking of fantasy campaigns here) and that it's okay for a 16-year-old to take on a quest directed by a duke or king.  The youth part is dismissed.

But those are a lot of years before play and where some characters are concerned, not a lot of those years were spent with a very high intelligence (I don't want to get into an intelligence vs. wisdom argument here, so let's just assume I'm talking about whichever one makes you, the reader, happy).  However old Bekkard the Bold is right now, at some point he was a 12-year-old training to be a fighter and in those years, he was offered ale, spirits, tobacco or harder things like opium.  Being 12, he hasn't become a 1st level yet and this is way before the player took over the character - we must assume some decision was made at the time and we shouldn't always assume it's the one that works best for the player now.

Or should we?  More than a few argue that all the characters must be heroes, as this is the point of the game.  Addiction is a nefarious thing and the players shouldn't be saddled with such detriments - at least, not unless we're playing some sort of points system and we get to choose what we want to be sub-optimal.

My background generator ignores that - because it doesn't care what the player wants.  It is presumed that the player has organized the various stats into their pigeon holes and that choosing to put a '9' under intelligence is a game-act and therefore has consequences.  One of those may be (but not necessarily) that the character is addicted to opium.

Some will bristle at this - yet they will be quite accepting of a character having lost an eye, a character unable to ride a warhorse or one that is unable to swim.  And naturally no player will complain about random results that increase saving throws, allow for the use of two weapons without penalties or provide a chance for going berserk in special circumstances.  There are just some things that players would rather not have dirtying their hands and addiction is one of those.

Yet addiction makes for strong drama.  Virtually every program series going right now turns again and again to addiction as a means of propelling forward characters and justifying bad behavior that conveniently undermines the story arc and keep the tale going for at least another season.  Characters are addicted to killing (Dexter), power (House of Cards), selling (Mad Men), drinking (Mad Men), helplessly cheating on their wives (Mad Men again), a desperate need to quit their chosen destiny (Buffy), solve crimes (Sherlock) and sometimes just plain drugs (most shows).  And because addiction is the writing gift that just keeps giving, even after the addicted person has kicked their habit, there's all the adjustment plots that are written about cravings and backsliding, followed by self-recrimination and the condemnation of others, all of it making wonderful opportunities for conflict, regret, remorse, self-flagellation and the ever-popular fuck it, let's just go all in.

Assuming that your characters can somehow accept the principle and see it as more than just time spent and cost paid, embracing an addiction as part of your character's behaviour can be every bit as fun as walking with a peg leg or finding ways to overcome your vow of poverty - or chastity, if that is your thing.  It's really just a matter of getting beyond the hero straight-jacket and recognizing that depth and purpose can often evolve from misery, repetition and repentance.

Allow me to show my age (and enjoyment of musicals), so that I can present a profligate's thief's troubled efforts to choose a straight life by reviewing the situation:

Sunday, December 27, 2015


When I last worked on my character generator, I felt I was pushing the limits on my creativity.  In reality, however, that was only the limit on my energy, as putting together idea after idea is draining.  Primarily, I was interested in getting the whole thing together so I could use it for my games . . . so when some particularly difficult idea that would need a lot of programming occurred to me, I would shelve it and keep going.

This time around, however, I can lean on my earlier work as a crutch - giving me time to rethink and add to the tables.  One such add that occurred to me was that I had never included any possibility that the character being generated by the player might be a twin.

The way my character generation works begins with the rolls for the six stats, which the player arranges as desired, to play the character's choice of class (fundamentally AD&D).  The character than chooses their race and gender, both of which are needed for entry into the background generator.  That's really all I need, however.

I had a long chat with my players about this over Christmas regarding how the presence of twins would play out.  These I dutifully included into the new character generator (which we could call version 'CG 3.0,' I suppose).

First, I needed a determination for whether or not the twins would be fraternal and identical.  Demographically, identical twins account for 3 in every 1,000 births; depending on the part of the world measured, fraternal twins account for 6 to 20 in every 1,000 births.  There are other studies that produce slightly different numbers, but these are the ones I went with.  It works out roughly that fraternal twins are 2 to 6 times more likely than identical twins.

The next question becomes, how do the twins manifest?  First, I give a chance that the twin hasn't lived as long as the player character.  The twin most likely dies at birth or at the age of one - and if not then, at some time between age 2 and 14.  My minimum character age is going to be 15 going forward so this is a good, general range.  I feel that if the player does discover they have such a twin, that they should be able to seek out the grave as a small side quest - possibly leading to who knows what where resurrection is possible.  Anything that might be done would be up to the player character - but it is likely that I would run the previously-deceased twin as an NPC.

That is not the case where a living twin is rolled.  Here I got a lot of pressure from my players on the subject.  They feel strongly that if a twin result comes up and the twin is alive, then the player should be able to run that twin also.  I have acquiesced to this.  Therefore, a player would gain both twins as a boon.

An identical twin will, of course, be the same gender as the previously rolled character; a fraternal twin may be either gender.  The question arises, what will the twin's statistics be?

For me, the identical twin must have the exact same stats the player has already chosen, in the exact same order.  This does not mean the identical twin has to be the same class; so long as the stats don't change and the minimums are met, then I'm fine with the twins choosing different classes.  I also think that identical twins ought to start with the same number of hit points (though a fighter would get a slightly better bonus out of a 17 strength than a mage would - that's an AD&D thing).  As they leveled, even in the same class, their hit points would begin to differ.  They also might choose different weapons, wear different levels of armor or distinguish themselves from one another in whatever way the player chose.  I would want to give plenty of leeway there.

Fraternal twin stats would work differently (we talked about this a lot).  We know some fraternal twins in our circle of acquaintances and very often they are quite different from one another.  The suggestion the players and I agreed upon would work thusly.

Let's say that the first generated character has the following stats:  Str 16, Int 10, Wis 11, Con 17, Dex 15, Char 11.  In order, the numbers generated are 17-16-15-11-11-10.

The player then rolls a new set of six numbers, getting (again in order) 18-17-14-13-12-9.  These numbers are then arranged in the same descending placement as the original twin's stats - that is, the 18 must go under constitution, the 17 under strength and the 14 under dexterity.  The 13 can go under either charisma or wisdom (the player's choice) because those were both 11 in the original; the 12 must then go under the other not picked.  The 9 is then place under intelligence.

This allows for a moderate differentiation - one that could result in a twin having really much better stats or much worse, depending on how the player's second group of six rolls land.  As before, the player then assigns a class for the fraternal twin and gets to run both characters in the campaign.

There is one other possibility, which my players insisted had to be there - that's where the twins are separated at birth and that the other is an evil twin, out there somewhere in the world.  As before, the evil twin could be fraternal or identical - and would have stats and characteristics in keeping with the format described above.  The evil twin would know the character's twin was alive and out in the world also - and might be watching or manipulating events in true comic book tradition.  That's rather interesting and funny, to tell the truth.

So, something different for character's to play with.  I figure that the chance of a runable twin in my game is really high - 1 in 20 if the character's strength is 12 or more, not even possible if the character's strength is less than 12.  Why strength?  I use strength as a measure of choosing the character's family and background, based on the idea that a higher strength suggests a family that survives and proliferates, whereas a lower strength would be a family that will more likely have died out or been broken up.

I'll write about other new ideas I come up with from time to time.  CG 3.0 will be a good while in the making, depending on how consistently I'm working at it.  I fooled around with the first of two intelligence tables last night, spending a couple of hours hammering out results for players having fostered a child or being pregnant at the start of the campaign (depending on the chosen gender of the character).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Physical Power Adjustments

I was shown a new trick with excel exactly a week ago and it gave me the motivation to do some work in excel programming this week - namely, going through the Character Generation program I devised some years ago.  There are some strange results that occur with it, which I've largely ignored . . . but I always knew that one day I'd get around to fixing them.

Naturally, if you're going to rework something, might as well add to it: so here is a table showing the new possible results for the physical power side of the strength table:

No doubt, some of that is going to be difficult to read.  I've done the best I could - it's huge.

To remind the reader, the "adjusted d20" roll is a d20 minus the character's strength.  Thus, a roll of 17 against an 11 strength would give a result of +6.  This would be a moderately bad roll, denying the use of a heavy warhorse, reducing weapons range, giving a penalty for using a sword, making the character slumberous after a long walk OR subtracting from the die against low intelligence creatures (out of sympathy is the idea).

The character does not get all those penalties, just one, whichever is predetermined under the five headings of toughness, energy, performance, aggression or forbearance [misspelled on the table - I'll fix that).  With the rework, those are basically random - but I plan to adjust the chance of receiving each category based on constitution (forbearance), dexterity (energy), wisdom (aggression) and so on, depending on the character's highest stats.  That means what you put under dexterity can affect what bonuses/penalties that are received under strength.

As soon as I figure out just how to do that.

Anyway, I know that players like tables full of adjustments.


Surrounded by kith and kin on Christmas Eve, I decided that it was likely possible for me to reach a goal of writing 365 posts in 365 days this year, but that it would be foolish.  As such, I won't be working towards that.  Instead, I'm going to put my energy towards other things and try again next year.

I shouldn't let myself get too wrapped up in OCD things.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas

Today is Christmas Eve.  Because I was raised a Russian, it's this evening that matters where presents are concerned, not tomorrow morning.  When I was a child, when my friends (and every reference in the media) was wrapped up with Christmas morning and Santa, my family were opening our presents the evening before.

Christmas dinner would still come the day after and it was always a big affair in my house - and all through Christmas Day I would play with my toys the same way most children do.  But Christmas Eve was the time.  We would have a light dinner, dress for church (I was raised Lutheran) and fidget through the service waiting for afterwards.  Then we would come home and - keeping our church clothes on, though I was allowed to loosen my little boy's tie - we would wait for my parents to be ready.  That is, until they complained for half an hour about the service or the other church-goers (this was tradition all year round), had a light drink (my parents were social drinkers) and were ready to commit themselves to letting their three children get started (I'm the youngest).

Thus, the anniversary for my getting the AD&D books in 1979 is not tomorrow, but today.  36 years ago.  I was 15.

I had seen the books, I asked for them for Christmas.  That was policy as well in my house; by the time we got into our teens we were encouraged to ask for things and if it turned out they were reasonably priced, we could get them.  The books, I remember, were $20 each.  Perhaps they were $25.  I can't quite be sure.  I had my doubts that my parents would know where to find them or if they would be willing (it was a strange request from their perspective) - but as it turned out they managed fine.  The store owner convinced them to buy some dice and I got nine of them - exactly what a player would expect.  Two d20, a d12, a d8, a d4 and 4d6.  There were no d10s in those days, something that a lot of people either don't remember or don't believe.  The d10 came years later.

Of course I loved those books.  I still have the DMG and the Player's Handbook I got.  The Monster Manual was stolen by a player around the fall of 1982 and the copy I have today was given to me by the girl I was going to marry, whom I never did (brutal, unpleasant story that taught me love does not conquer all).  I got that for Christmas, too, opening it on Christmas Eve, 1982.  Inside the cover it reads,

Xmas '82. 
To Alex, 
Many happy years of "death and destruction."
Love always,

I don't look at that often.  It is bitter sweet.  It is one of the reasons I despise being called 'Alex' and it remains a reminder that things don't work out, that 'always' is one of those mutable things we can't trust.

Death and Destruction for D&D was an inside joke between us.  She did play in my world, for several years, during those years when there was a lot of slaughtering, gratuitous combat.  And despite everything, yes, it has been many happy years of both.

Today I'm having my family around, my daughter and her common-law husband, who three weeks ago finally (after 9 years) stepped forward to give her a big ring and ask the question.  I'll also have three close friends to join them, players in my world and with whom I've shared a great deal of love and warmth.  It does not matter with whom we share blood, but with whom we are willing to give our blood.  Thank you, Dickens.

So have a Merry Christmas.  My tomorrow will not have a big turkey dinner, we're doing that tonight (I don't go to church any more) - so I will probably write a few posts to a big empty internet for something to do.  Christmas online is always very quiet, deservedly so.  We should all take a moment and say a kind word for the trolls, who have no one to pester for these three days, leaving them to suffer in their basements in quiet, unhappy misery, waiting for the chat rooms to fill again and the flame wars to emerge.  Who, I ask, will think of the trolls this holiday?


Let's talk for a moment about the importance of other people in our creative process.

Consider the moment that we have an inspiration: we’re resting, waiting for something, listening to a piece of music or watching a show, and suddenly there is an idea. Sometimes it arrives because we’ve been thinking about a problem and sometimes it appears out of the blue because of something we’ve heard or we’ve learned that let’s us put mental pieces together that were formerly lying separate on the table of our minds.

It feels great, it feels right, there is a sudden rush of comprehension (it is actually dopamine, but never mind about that) and we feel energized. If it has something to do with a project we’re interested in, we rush at the project and begin to focus that new energy upon it, sometimes to the exclusion of things we ought to be doing instead. It is always fun to work at something new rather than a project that is ongoing and has become dull.

This is rarely seen as a danger, but it is. New ideas are beguiling, particularly our own ideas. They make sense to us and that’s often mistaken as proof that these ideas will make sense to other people. We forget that our viewpoint is often skewed, that it is designed for our personal experience based upon those things we struggle with that make us who we are as people. We’re all fucked up in our own peculiar way and this is what makes us different.

That is why we should always be questioning those moments of inspiration, because these are bound to be distorted by our perspective. All things that inspire us do so because they speak to us, personally . . . and that is rarely a universal dialogue. In fact, the more powerful the inspiration feels the more certain it is that the inspiration is cued perfectly to our specific brains – and will probably be completely wasted on other people.

Art – and here I include role-playing and DMing, as I always have – must be accessible. It must speak to others. Not every other person in the world, obviously, but to enough people to make it valuable to them, not just to the maker. Otherwise, however beautiful it may seem to the maker, it really is just crap. In that I mean it is like a bowel movement that makes us feel great for having it in the morning but is of zero importance to the rest of the world.

That’s why at the moment of inspiration the creator should stop and think – is this going to matter to someone other than me. There’s no actual way you or I can ever be sure, however. That’s why it always serves well to have others we can trust that we can ask.

We have to do more than ask, however. We have to accept their judgement. We have to hear what others have to say about our ideas and be willing to compromise ourselves based on their judgement. That is why it has to be people we can trust. Because speaking to ourselves and agreeing that, perhaps, that inspiration wasn’t such a good one after all, is the hardest thing for an artist to do.

In fact, most would-be artists never learn to do it. And remember, once again I’m including DMs here. It is just so damn hard to suspend our own judgement and see the world from outside our own minds – but this is what makes it possible to produce a work that others will care about.

Some artists do get lucky. They happen to have a vision that others happen to share. But this is incredibly rare – and most often, the vision they share is a rather ordinary thing. For example, the vision that exists behind most children’s books or that supports every day morality about how children should be raised, what people in general find repugnant, things we all hope to have someday (like money) and so on.

For a DM designing an adventure, chances are the sort of inspiration being pursued isn’t like this. Simply because this is the interest in question, the viewpoint of the inspiration is probably somewhat skewed. We gamers are all a bit ‘out there,’ after all.

The best thing is to have someone – someone private, obviously, since the players don’t need to know what might be happening – that can be presented the idea. It’s good to have someone who isn’t actually playing in the world but understands the game well enough to give an honest opinion. Just to keep us aware that we’re not always right.

Just an addendum: the absence of this, or the sense that success creates that it is no longer necessary, is what destroys an artist’s potential for continuing to produce more good work. The worst thing an artist can believe is that they already know what’s great – based on the proof they feel they have based upon their former glory.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Cruel, But Most Entertaining for the DM

The title of this post is a quote from Gary Gygax, talking about the famous module pictured on the right.  And while I have the author's words to describe this sort of adventure, let me quote them:

"Another nadir of Dungeon Mastering is the 'killer-dungeon' concept.  These campaigns are a travesty of the role-playing adventure, for there is no development and identification with carefully nurtured player personae.  In such campaigns, the sadistic referee takes unholy delight in slaughtering endless hoards of hapless player characters with unavoidable death traps and horrific monsters set to ambush participants as soon as they set foot outside the door of their safe house.  Only a few of these 'killer dungeons' survive to become infamous, however, as their participants usually tire of the idiocy after a few attempts at enjoyable gaming.  Some lucky ones manage to find another, more reasonable, campaign; but others, not realizing the perversion of the DM's campaign, give up adventure gaming and go back to whatever pursuits they followed in their leisure time before they tried D&D."
Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 92 

Well.  If this were any other individual - a politician, say, or the teacher of children . . . or a television evangelist caught fucking three virgin boys in an Alabama motel room - there'd be no hesitation for the reader to shout epithets about the person's hypocrisy, willingness to prostitute themselves, obvious collapse of moral virtue or value and so on.  But this is a game designer - so of course there are really good reasons for both these opinions to stand side by side without the reader's head exploding.  Gygax was just having fun when he perpetrated the sadistic perversion (his words) on the right; alternately, he was just paying lip service to the establishment when he wrote the stick-up-his-ass sermon on the left.

It depends on what sort of bullshit we want to defend.  For example, that Gygax was something other than a strutting, self-important demagogue who chanced into a good thing he didn't actually invent.  Or we could argue that he wasn't a vindictive bloated narcissist who realized after the release of the DMG that he answered to no one and "Fuck you, I'm writing this."

Sometimes I think a particular kind of success encourages the emergence of a particular kind of "do-it-my-way" braggart, whether or not that braggart deserves any of the notoriety he has.  Would Roddenberry have been anyone without D.C. Fontana and a host of other great writers?   Are we really sure the first Star Wars wasn't saved because there were those around him who had the power to make Lucas stop and listen?  It's clear what happens when those people don't exist.

So we come to the other argument: that Gygax didn't write either the left hand thing or the right hand thing - he just slapped his name on one or the other, explaining away either the sanctimonious prattling or the fucking piece of shit module.

Yes, yes, yes . . . yes, I know you like the module, but even you know you can't love both Gygaxes here.  If someone likes what's on the left, that's pretty much going to make the right-side shit, nyet?  After all, for those of you who love the Tomb of Horrors, the left side is pretty much shit, isn't it?  You have to try to see this thing from more than just your side.

Then there's the possibility that Gygax wrote neither.  In which case, why does anyone give a fuck about him?

Let's try to embrace a little reality.  Either he's a liar, he took credit for other people's work, he invented whatever shit he wanted to fall off his pen or out of his mouth from moment to moment or he was a complete DICK.  There are no other choices that fit the evidence.

Even if you really, really, really, really want there to be.

Perhaps They Were Possessed by Blackwolf

Since I do have a lot of posts to write and I spent time turning my way through the book yesterday, I might as well talk about a few things that the makers felt should be included in the original Dungeon Masters Guide.  For example,

"Demi-human troops are unlikely to serve a human master who is not otherwise supporting a cause of the particular race.  Some small number might serve with a henchman of their own race, but not large bodies except for short periods of time, most probably when danger threatens their area.  You might allow exceptions to this as they become compatible with your campaign.  Similarly, half-elves might enlist bodies of elves, halflings might enlist dwarves or elves, etc."

This is the first paragraph of a section entitled Use of Non-Human Troops.  I've always felt the section (it runs six paragraphs and two tables, on pages 105-106) had a strange vibe to it - it sounds distinctly like the authors of the book are wagging their fingers at me, apparently for 'reasons.'  It isn't as though it bears the mark of canon, since who ever heard of halflings (or anyone) able to "enlist" elves??

I have never heard players express a desire to employ non-humans in an army and not because of this passage.  The game goes way, way over the top to stress that bugbears, gnolls and goblins are EVIL and CHAOTIC and probably insanely dangerous to share a barracks with.  I get comments all the time, expressing wonder and amazement, because I chose in my world to set up gnoll and goblin kingdoms, where these creatures calmly collect peat, grow crops, raise their children, tell stories and presumably worry about family members who haven't come home before dark.  Who would ever think of that?

So having created this systemic, milieu-driven racism, hammering it home with every other description in the books (and module after module), why exactly did we create a little section in the DMG to bring up the subject and then moralize about why it just won't work, it just shouldn't be done and oh, in case you were still thinking about it, these troops will absolutely not get along with each other:

"Compatibility of Non-Human Troops:  The general compatibility of demi-human troop types can be determined by consulting the Player's Handbook, Racial Preferences Table.  Lizard men are hated by all demi-humans and humanoids save kobalds, and even the latter are suspicious of them (just as human troops are).  Of the various races of humanoids, many will bully or attack one another as indicated on the table below:"

After which we get a racial preferences table, just like the Player's Handbook, expressly for bugbears, gnolls, goblins, hill giants, hobgoblins, kobalds, ogres, orcs and trolls.  Presumably, this is why lizard men were expressly mentioned in the paragraph before the table, because they weren't included (the table is only a column wide and had to be crushed to where four of the headings are abbreviated - "Bugbr." "Gob." "Hob." "Kob."

Of course, this doesn't tell us anything about troglodytes, lycanthropes, gargoyles, minotaurs, ettin, other giants or any of the faerie folk (whom I presume are non-human).  Is it okay if I use faerie folk as troops?  Do they all get along or do I need another racial preference table for them?

Obviously this was some sort of problem in Gygax's campaigns, something he didn't like and felt he needed to put the kibosh on before it got out of hand in the campaigns of all the strangers who would one day buy the books.  "First it's convincing two orcs to tag along with the party and then it's a squad and a whole platoon!  What next?  Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together . . . . mass hysteria!"

I will grant there is drama in gathering together a bunch of different humanoid races as an army.  It's nice to imagine them fighting each other - something nicely depicted in the film Wizards, where this problem needs to be overcome by Blackwolf before he can unite his troops . . . but it seems to me this is a player problem to be solves, not an institutional need for a rule-set that demands that kobalds will always hate gnolls or that ogres will always hate goblins.  It's this sort of shit that gets the game defined as racist - with the game using 'alignment' as the all-purpose justification to bestowing the game-makers' commands.

I can't for the life of me guess why this passage was included; they felt compelled to add rules in case the players decided to ignore the writer, but then they also felt the need to include this:

"Non-human troops, bugbears and humanoids, will very difficult to handle.  They will tend to fight amongst each other . . . fight with humans nearby - whether friendly or not (25% if friendly) - run from battle if they see troops on their own side retiring or retreating and fall to looting at the first opportunity."

Have the authors of this ever met a human?  Ever read anything about human troops in war?  These are things that won't happen in human armies?  The paragraph goes on:

"If the master is strong and powerful and gives them cause to fear disobedience, it will be of some help in disciplining such troops.  Likewise, if there are strong leaders within each body of such troops, threatening or driving them on, they will be more likely to obey.  Weakness in leadership, or lack of officering [sic], will certainly cause these troops to become unruly and impossible to control."

Really.  No kidding.  It's a good thing that ordinary troops don't respond like this to poor discipline or weak leaders.

It might be imagined that this pressure is just there to stress that the players have to keep on top of the problem - but then the chance of a strong leader managing an orc unit is only 90%.  That's an incredibly poor morale for a combat troop of any kind!  For a bugbear unit, it never gets any better than 80%.  Jeez.  Why bother?

That's clearly the point.  Why bother, don't do it, here are rules that make it impossible, choke on that you little bastards.  Now let's talk about construction and seige.


For the record, the film Wizards - which I saw when it came out, two years before I'd even heard of D&D - has always been closer to how I imagine a fantasy universe than Lord of the Rings.  The elves experience fear, faeries exist as a unified people, combat is industrial, rape happens, sexuality is part of the conflict/experience and brutality is both normal and undesirable.  In a war, no side wins - the deciding factor isn't how much magic but how willing we are to use every resource available (a luger, if necessary).

The link above gives access to the whole movie.  Someone posted it on youtube two years ago, but it won't be there forever.  Watch it, steal it if you can (good luck finding a copy legitimately).

When It Lacks Visuals

This is not going to be a post about Witcher 3.  Just relax.

It is a post about storytelling in the role-playing world, specifically how the average DM playing a game around the kitchen table wants so bad to tell a story like this one here, from Witcher 3.

In effect, you've been punked.  Games like the above are going to tell a better story, they're going to be more personal for the player, there are going to be weeping and attractive women, buff men, a visceral feeling of pushing peasants out of the way and leaping from high cliffs onto the backs of birds before slaughtering them mercilessly.  The visuals are going to be so dramatic, so overpowering, that where it comes to telling a story for your players (making them use their imaginations, sheesh), there is just no way you can compete.

But that's okay, because your players aren't coming 'round to your campaign for this shit.  Just read through the storyline I've linked, particularly things like this:

"Unfortunately, the Wild Hunt reaches the spy before Geralt, torturing him to death.  Geralt manages to recover the spy's notes, which indicates that Ciri sought refuge in Crow's Perch, the castle of Velen's self-appointed ruler known as the Bloody Baron.  The Baron refuses to help Geralt find Ciri until the witcher locates and returns the Baron's own missing wife and daughter."

Okay, that's enough.  I don't mind that we're guaranteeing the spy will die before Geralt finds him, that's just good drama - I do that sort of thing all the time myself.  It's this ridiculous compendium of quests upon quests: Geralt wants to find Yennefer, who wants him to help Emhyr, to find Ciri, who can't be found without first finding the wife and daughter, but to do that he has to find Keira, who tells him to find the Crones who . . . oh fuck, I just don't care anymore.

One of the horrible things about quest stories - and this applies to episodic television as well - is this never-ending process of being dragged into subplots that have shit to do with the character's motivation.  We're not looking for blah-blah-blah because it will make our lives' better, it's because my wife's sister's employer's cousin's nephew's wife's friend is in trouble.  At some point I find myself watching this shit thinking, "Well, if this person dies, why do I even care?  None of these people are critical to the story, to the character's inner conflict or remotely has my sympathy.  In fact, if the quest-target gets ripped apart by a wyvern right now, we can all get back to shit we care about."

Video games work because the visuals sustain the endless, meaningless episodic relationship of scene to scene - and people keep playing them because the visceral quality of watching people die by a weapon used by the user gives a nice dopamine/endorphin hit from time to time.  They don't work because the story is great, because the story is just an endless meandering mess full of conflicts that are cheap, derivative and ultimately disposable.

This is even worse without the visuals.

When your world is full of side-quests, where the players themselves have no freedom to pursue strictly their own interests, regardless of who might die and who might live, then that's you putting a knife into your own campaign and slowly turning the blade.  If you find your players having trouble keeping the story character's straight, so that they have to ask more than once who such-and-such is, that is a sign that they no longer care.  You'd do better at this point to announce that a flood has killed everyone but the player characters and oh look, there's a nine-foot sludge monster rising out of the flood waters to kill them.

This will not seem less meaningful than the 'story' that's been created and is endlessly going nowhere.

Don't feel bad.  Storytelling of the "We have to think of a quest that justifies this quest" form has been around since serials in the 1930s, when the only thing that mattered was that the hero survived, the heroine was in danger and the bad guy lived to be bad later.  Because all those tropes are now vomitous, it's been replaced with the hero is unhappy, the heroine is unhappy, the bad guy is unhappy and no one, ever, is allowed to find their way out of this trap for more than a few minutes without something completely implausible happening.  Pretty much the plot line of Jessica Jones' first season.

When, as a DM, we try to sustain a story plot over a period of several sessions (or a season, as WOTC has lately tried to do), we wind up creating this same dynamic over and over: the characters have to find someone; the characters have to bring something back; the characters have to go back to the beginning and find something they missed; the characters kill someone but it turns out they're not really dead . . . and so on.

It is boring.  And ten times more boring when there's no imagery.

Stories aren't bad because sandboxes are better.  Stories are just bad.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

T6: People & Abilities

Going on the premise that a lot of page views are more important than comments, I'm ready to try a close-hand investigation of another tech level; this will be a series like tech five, since there's too much to talk about in just one post.  I think I will go back and adjust the titles of the tech-5 series (giving them the prefix 'T5' just as this one is 'T6').  That will help me and the reader find them more easily.

Tech-6 is already getting complicated.  We've gone from purely nomadic societies to dwellings and permanent population centers; there are immediate signs of specialized work done by larger groups and much of what's done is not directly related to keeping clan and family together.  Yet I want to retain the 'clan' ideal, for this tech at least, because it helps organize the drift of population from hex to hex and occupation to occupation.  For much of this series, however, I will be talking about 'tribes' - which we'll arbitrarily define as two or more clans working closely together.  The tribes in tech-5 would meet occasionally at certain times of the year, the clans coming together to share.  Now tribes are a more permanent fixture, creating a tribal leader who is a higher form of chief.  Both clans and tribes have 'chiefs' so it makes the matter difficult.  I'm going to settle the matter by imposing the term tribal "chieftain" as the superior over clan "chief" - please don't impose any importance upon this terminology other than my desire for order and clarity.

Let me point out that, regardless of the notes below, there would still be various groups inside a T6 culture that would be entirely T5 in structure and behaviour.  Try to retain their presence in the hinterland of the T6 culture as we go forward.


Like before, let's start at the clan level.  For T6, clans will be slightly bigger.  Permanent homes increase the number of children (as they don't need to be carried and can be more easily cared for).  I propose that the T6 clan will have 30-65 humanoids (25 +5d8), with 1-4 infants, 2-7 children and 2-7 youths.  Once again, an infant is less than 3 years of age, a child is aged 3 to 7 and a youth is age 8 to 14.  Most children and youths will work long hours even at a very young age, being encouraged to spend their time in varying ways (have a look at farm-life in the 19th century for ideas).

Let's increase the number of women by changing the male:female ratio to 1.4:1.  We can then imagine a typical clan of 47 humanoids: 2 infants, 5 children, 4 youths, 21 men and 14 women (average clan size is 47.5).

This means that a small tribe will measure around a hundred people - this would equal the smallest size of village that exists in my world.  So every small village would be made up of one tribe; larger villages may be one tribe or they may be two.  Towns would be conglomerations of several tribes.  This helps make clear how the cultural rulership of a town works: each tribe has a chieftain and perhaps two or three elders (representing the strongest clans in that tribe).  These would then meet as a council to make decisions.  The head of the council may have a number of titles: hetman, thane, bey, sheik, rajah, king and so on.  Remember that a name like 'king' was used very frequently for very small groups; not every king was leader of a great country.

Technologies & Abilities

T6 gave us five technologies: mining, the wheel, agriculture, animal husbandry and archery.  New abilities - sage abilities - should logically come out of that list.  I don't argue that this is comprehensive; I may have missed something.  Hell, last time I missed 'hunting' (though I went back later and added it in).  We do the best we can.

I'll skip incidental abilities this time around (a person could go crazy trying to nail all those down).  Let's stick to abilities that naturally derive from the technologies named (and this time I'll put the class associated with that ability in brackets).  Remember, unless indicated that fighter class includes rangers and paladins.  Let me emphasize, however, that while those classes would gain these abilities, they wouldn't exist in a T6 culture - not thieves, assassins, druids or bards either, for that matter.  These skills, where possessed, would be used by cross-trained fighters & clerics or by individual workers.

Bowyer (fighter/assassin) - from archery.  If bows are going to be employed by the populace, someone will have to be there to make them.  I agree that many bows will be made by the users themselves (which would fit into individuals having this as a low-level amateur ability).  Where many people congregate, however, it will become obvious that some are better at this skill than others, so that bowyers (though few in number) will become a specialized profession.  I'll add fletcher to this, since making arrows would also be a much wanted thing.  We may presume that a tribe would have one or two persons, performing both skills or each skill individually.

Cartwright (worker) - from the wheel.  If we're going to have wheels, and therefore roads, we'll want carts.  I don't choose to incorporate this skill into any particular class.  Characters can get the skill from my background generator.  At present, however, I don't see it as a 'sage ability'; perhaps I might change my mind about that.  For the present, we can assume that workers in the tribe apply themselves to making carts as necessary.

Cultivation (druid/worker) - from agriculture.  The druid gets this skill from knowledge of grasses and grains, where I call it farming.  For an ordinary worker it is just cultivation without all the farming bells and whistles.  We can add brewing as a skill, since we know fermentation probably preceded the cultivation of grains in human history (in fact, we may have started farming just so we could get drunk more often - makes sense to me).  Most brewing would be done by individuals, and badly; but most of the leading family members among the clans would be skilled at cultivation.

Defense against Predation (fighter) - from animal husbandry.  I'm basing this entirely upon tales and traditions of agricultural folklore where various herders (and often young men) fight off wolves, bears, lions, tigers and so on.  The theme tends to appear in many different parts of the world, with different animals taking the role of huge dangerous predator.  I'm thinking that fighters with animal training would gain a +1 armor class when fighting specific kinds of animal or semi-intelligence predator.

Domestication (fighter) - from animal husbandry.  This would also be part of the animal training for fighters - the ability to 'break' horses, tame dogs, sheep, goats or cattle, or pacify a range of other animals (acknowledging that some unusual variants, such as the leopard or cormorant, would probably not appear at T6) would be a natural gain for both fighters and rangers.  Arguably, the skill could be included in the bard as well, though perhaps not because I feel it might be managed in a completely different way.

Horseback riding (fighter) - from animal husbandry.  I have a rule that warhorses can only be ridden by fighter classes - but at this tech, there probably wouldn't be warhorses.  I also have a rule, however, that only fighter classes can ride a horse into battle - so while most of the classes can manage to get on a horse and ride it, only the fighter gets this particular training.  At any rate, we would see a cultural increase in people not travelling by foot.

Mining (fighter/mage/thief) - from mining.  Why do I include mages and thieves?  Because mining is often an intellectual activity as well as a physical one and thieves are generally motivated to finding short-cuts.  Therefore I'd include the skill in both these classes.  I only include the fighter because mining also applies directly to war.  Most actual labor in mines, remember, would be done by workers, under the direction of a classed individual.  The skill set at T6 would only apply to soft stone, near-surface mining, though creating drifts, shafts, winzes and raises, as well as skill in shoring tunnels, would all be included.  The chance of a tunnel collapsing would be high, so I would imagine that would be the real limit on how deep a tunnel would be dug by a rational society (near enough to the surface that a collapse could be dug out before the miners all died).

Navigation (druid/fighter/thief) - from fishing.  Yes, fishing was a T5 technology, but there are bound to be improvements with T6.  One of those would be a willingness to move farther from land, so that setting a course over land or sea, by the stars, would be acquired by a few rare individuals.  The druid gains the skill from time in the outdoors; same with rangers; other fighters through military interests and thieves because they're willing to be pirates.

Pathfinding II (ranger) - from hunting.  Like navigation above, this is an improvement over pathfinding I, described in the T5 posts.  Here the ranger is able to improve the chance of others to avoid accidents, giving a +4 to ability checks and saves against accidents that might occur while travelling over untracked country (something that sounds like it needs a set of rules, doesn't it?).  I perceive that a ranger could only help 1 person per level, so that the ranger would have to specify who was being helped on each given day.

Ploughwright (worker) - from agriculture.  This is just a placeholder for a wide variety of tools that would need to be made by someone, from winnowing baskets to ploughs to harnesses for oxen.  Characters can get this from the background generator (when I rewrite the damn thing).  I don't feel it needs to be a sage ability, not especially.

Prospecting (druid/thief) - from mining.  The druid has the skill included under geology.  Perhaps I just want to include thieves because of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but I return to the argument that thieves are the sort that look for short cuts.

Stonecarving (bard) - from mining.  The appearance of soft stone and gems, coupled with the appearance of practical tools (trade through navigation and connections with the outside, higher tech world would bring in hardened iron for general use) would encourage a more sophisticated artistic passion.  Many workers would probably choose to express themselves by making small sculptures when not working, in poor seasons - and the appearance of so many such sculptures would likely dilute the importance of fetishism (replacing it with our modern perception of sentimentality).

Teamster (fighter) - from the wheel & animal husbandry.  In a T6 culture the driver would be limited to oxen and donkeys, not horses.  Most likely, most carts would be drawn by one, perhaps two animals.  I'd like to leave four-in-hand or six-in-hand teams to higher tech levels, with the proliferation of the four-wheeled wagon.  I'm limiting my T6 vehicles to carts only - not because it's necessarily reality, but because it is a nice indication for the players when they pass through such areas.

There, that's an overview.  Like before, I'll be getting onto religion, improvements, tools and treasure.

Not Nearly 1,000 Pages

Seems I'm always hearing people describe the rule books of whatever edition they're playing in terms of their page count and size - usually saying something like "a DM has to memorize more than a hundred pages of material . . ."

I'm not sure where that comes from.  Sure, it's helpful to memorize content, as I said in my book, because it saves time and encourages confidence.  But most of the rules content does not have to be precisely memorized because it is there in the book when we need it.

Now, sorry, I don't have a copy of the 5e rule book and I'm never likely to own one.  I do have a 3e copy of the Player's Handbook and DMG around somewhere, given to me by a quitting player, but they're in boxes and I don't care to look.  Besides, it's the original Dungeon Masters Guide from 1e that gets all the criticism, because the organization is supposedly poor and it is so darn much to grok for the poor DM.  So I'm going to discuss the book on my desk.

I don't use this book much for play anymore.  Most of the rules that I use have been moved onto the wiki or duo-tangs full of spell rewrites that haven't made it onto the wiki yet.  I only use the DMG for the occasional magic item description or the hirelings pages - I don't think I actually picked up the book at all last Saturday.  This is therefore going to be sort of nostalgic to me.

The DMG is 240 pages.  That sounds like a lot.  It isn't, because most of it is not needed to run the game - even back in the day when the DMG was my principle go-to volume for every rule and table not found in the Player's Handbook.  I'll try to explain.

Subtract the first 6 pages for the title page and index.  That's followed by 4 pages of introduction that, while reading it is helpful, none of that is actually necessary to play the game.  I mean, once you've read Gygax's preface, it's not like you're going to read it again before building your next dungeon or that you need to memorize what's said in order to answer questions.  It's just fluff, as is the introduction, which only tells you a few philosophical things that apply to the game.  You may suffer a bit for not having read this but it's not like this is a critical part of the rules.

Page 11 is another suggestion page on methods to roll dice to make a character.  Once you make up your mind about this, the page is completely disposable.  Then we have 2 pages that have a few useful tables - secondary skills, age and chance of contracting disease.

There's a bunch of writing on these pages but after the first initial read, none of has much importance.  I went to these pages for two decades, every time I helped a player make a character, and I never felt any need to review the few comments or explanations for the tables.  I knew what the tables meant - and if I memorized them, it was through repeated use.  For example, I remember that a human mage would be 24 +2d8 years of age.  If I needed to look, it took a second to find these two pages because the binding was cracked there.

The next page is disease, which I only needed if a character got one (I didn't roll for disease all the time, so this was very rare) and after that are a bunch of unnecessary comments about death, determination of maximum age, character abilities and character races.  I've never had a character die of old age or even come close - and once I read through the description of abilities and races, I never had to look at that again.

Now we have 2 pages for name-level followers; 3 pages about the paladin's warhorse, assassin's spying, the nuance of thief abilities, setting traps, assassination experience points and the use of poison.  All of it sort of interesting but most of it useless for everyday campaigning.  If I needed those details, the content was there but for the most part I never went to these pages.  Maybe once in a year of running.  Once the rule is sorted about about poison with the player the player will remember every nuance and there just isn't any reason to look up this rule a second time.

Most of the book is like this.  Page 21 is "the monster as a player character" and that certainly doesn't need to be read again.  Then we get a whole page on lycanthropy (which I used once in 20 years of play) and 2 pages on alignment (which I never, ever used).

So here we are, page 24 and so far there are 2 pages I used regularly - and just for the tables there.

The whole book is like this.  I used the gem and jewelry tables from page 25 & 26, quite a lot, but the reputed magical properties of gems was wasted space.  I would have preferred more content on the values of other rare commodities (something that massively affected my desire for deeper trade tables).  Still, these pages got used a lot.  But they're followed by a page on armor (that is fairly useless) before getting to something that mattered: hirelings.

Now, again, pages 28 to 35 were damn useful.  But none of it had to be 'memorized' - it could be looked up during a game while the characters were discussing who to hire.  It was always an issue only when the players were relaxed and in town; it certainly wasn't something that troubled me during a high-tension game moment.  Much of it did greatly affect my campaign - particularly things like obtaining henchmen.  The information, however, was a boon, not a troublesome burden.  Hell, we would have liked more useful stuff like this.

Instead we got a set of piss-poor rules about loyalty of hirelings (1 page), time in the campaign (1 page), notes about character spells (3 pages), a breakdown of too short, unsatisfactory side notes on spellcasting that should have been in the Player's Handbook (11 and a half pages).  I think that Gygax and crew simply screwed up and realized there were details they'd overlooked and felt they could pass off as "important for the DM," justifying placement in the DMG because it was too late to fuck with the page count of the PH.  All together, this is 16+ pages that were never looked at once the information was either discarded or simply standard in the campaign.  In writing out spells for my wiki, I don't even address these pages - because the content is either obvious or completely wrong for my campaign (that is, the way I see spells working).

Page 47 starts a very disappointing 14 pages on half-done rules regarding movement in the outdoors, encounters, waterborne/underwater and air adventures, combat rules for each (where we haven't even reached combat in the book), invisibility, infravision, getting lost, forced movement, evasion, the known planes of existence, detection of evil and listening at doors.  The sheer number of things covered in these 14 pages shows how completely useless these things were for any of the subjects discussed - so that here we have a black hole in the rule book.  All I remember about this section was that if I wanted to run a shipboard adventure, I would go here and be incredibly disappointed at how frikkin' useless the rules here were.

Is the reader getting the idea yet?  Most of the DMG is either useless or profoundly specific, applicable only in 1 session in 100 (in which case it probably wouldn't answer the game question and I'd have to house rule the situation anyway).  There are 15 pages on combat, but again this is mostly very specific stuff that is easy to remember once the superfluous writing is ditched.  We all read the example of melee several times but it's dispensable once the DM has run a few combats.  Not that it isn't useful to read - it's only that where we're talking about the page count in terms of running the game, very little of this is needed.  The combat tables are necessary - but THAC0 quickly eliminated any need for those.  Of all the combat rules here, there are maybe 5 other pages that are actually relevant: surprise, the grenade page, turning undead, pummelling and grappling.  Call it 7 in all.

In 75 pages, I've described 15 pages that I used virtually every session.  From this point on in the book it gets worse.  There's the saving throw pages from 79 to 81, the experience point reward table on 85 and then nothing immediately necessary until page 102 (height and weight).  Now, this isn't to say that I didn't use a lot of that material about campaigns - but if we're talking about rules that needed to be memorized, none of it does.  It's all back story and example, or something highly situational like intoxication or insanity that can be looked up if that ever happens.  The same goes for the next section on mining, construction, siege weapon attacks and conducting the game - 10 pages.  Then it's 3 pages of other games by TSR, followed by 6 totally useless and poorly thought out pages of magic research rules (which translate as "spend way, way more money than the magic item is worth if you want to make one").

This brings us to a spectacular 51 pages of magic items.  This is way past memorizing and frankly I've never (in 36 years of play) read every page.  Hell, why bother?  At first I used to think I didn't want to know what all the magic was in case I came across it while playing but now it's just that reading through all this magic would be horrifically boring.

I do still use this part of the book - mainly because I can't be bothered to copy it all into the wiki.  It's there when I need to look something up.  It certainly isn't critical to the gaming process.

Sigh.  I'm going to stop this.  The reader should be getting the point by now.  I'm up to using 16 pages out of 169, less than 10% of the book to this point.  All that follows are the appendices, a lot of encounter tables I used a lot (but didn't need to memorize), generation tables I used a lot (endlessly disappointed by them), a long list of monsters rehashed from the Monster Manual (20 pages), some sad gambling rules, some interesting things on traps, dungeon dressing and herbs (which I would have loved seen expanded and given precise effects gamewise), a bit of stuff on encumbrance and some NPC magic generation tables I used to use before cutting back on my game's magic availability.

None of this was game-predominant.

238 pages of rules?  Horseshit.  25 pages of pertinent data jammed between 200+ pages of ideas, inspiration, accounting, accessible data and pure, unmitigated crap.

More than enough, however, to make me rethink virtually every aspect of running a game and improving it, filling in all the gaps the rulebook didn't fill with entire libraries of properly done research on medieval culture and trade, adding rules from every other game I had access to and always thinking, thinking, on how the process could be redesigned and invigorated.

Damn, I wish the DMG had been a thousand pages.  It might then have approached the tool I needed.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Weird Mass-Combat Rules Proposal

Had a cute idea a little while ago that should be popular with the sort that like dropping dice from a height on a diagram that produces a random result based on where the die actually lands (regardless of the die's result).  I can't remember what that's called - I'm sure the reader has seen it.

This is a mass combat resolution scheme - so we should all know right off that it's silly and fun and shouldn't be taken too seriously.  It might, however, actually work; I have done zero testing, however.  That should not be any reason not to scratch out the idea in words, nyet?

Fine.  Here is what we will need.  A number of dice equal in number to the total number of battle figures that can fit inside a 45-foot diameter hex, times two.  Well, we can use any hex size we want, but since my combat system is based on 5-foot hexes, a 45-foot diameter makes a nice hex circle that will fit 61 well-spaced combatants - an approximate company-sized unit.  Plus most long-time players can mass around 122 total dice.

Yes, 122 because we will need dice for both sides.  There are some fun little details in which dice we pick, but for the moment let's just assume both sides have piled up a bunch of dice that accommodate the number of combatants.

We will need two buckets and an empty table.  Flat-sided buckets are better than round and if at all possible, the sort used for digging in sand (or for office supplies) is better than something you'd use to clean your kitchen floor.  The best sort of buckets are six inches in diameter - these can be gotten cheap from most box stores.

Fill the buckets with the dice.  Take opposite sides of the table.  Now pour your dice onto the table in the direction of your opponent, at the same time.  That's very important.  I recommend that the square edges of the buckets be rested on the table (after a good shake) and that the bucket edge NOT be lifted from the table as the pouring is done (it can be called a mis-battle, like a mis-trial, if someone breaks the rule or there could be a -1 modifier placed on every die rolled by that opponent).

At this point, obviously, it is a good idea to be able to tell whose dice are whose, based on color!  So you want all green and blue dice versus all white and black dice, if possible - the greater the differentiation, the better.

If my imagination sees this right, the temptation to pour your dice out too quickly will cause them to scatter on the table, spreading out your forces and making them more vulnerable when the combat is resolved (getting to that).  On the other hand, pouring them out too slowly will result in too many of the combatants being rendered "behind the lines" and useless to you.  What's wanted is a nice, even line that gets as many combatants into the resolution as possible without there being too many gaps.

Any dice rolled off the table are considered either a) deserters; b) captured by the enemy; or c) routed and available to the opponent for later rolls.

Okay, we should have two masses of dice on the table, having bounced against one another to varying degrees.

Now, if we have the means, we can pick individual dice to apply to specific types of combatants.  We can d6 for pressed recruits, d8 for combat-trained men-at-arms, d12 for levels and d20 for spellcasters (we can also apply adjustments for certain colors, such as saying all the orange d12s on the board are +2 while all the green d12s are read as is, comparing that to levels).  This gives us a nice balance for facing different kinds of trained troops against one another and for comparing one race to another (all the dice from the dwarves are +1, for instance).

Remove all dice that are more than 1 or 2 inches from opponent dice (I say one or two because I haven't tried this, so perhaps 1 inch leaves too few combatants or perhaps 2 inches leaves too many).  This should hopefully leave a line of combatants that have either 'damaged' or 'killed' the other - it depends on how gritty we want our paper work.  We can either resolve the battle to give damage to a long list of numbers we have that make up the companies or we can simply say the result eliminates combatants permanently.

Start with the highest dice on the table; each high die 'kills' an enemy die that the player chooses to kill (the whole battle must be observed carefully, because a good die might potentially kill two or three enemy of different ranks/power or in slightly different positions!  Picking the wrong die might result in losing one of your own combatants from the high die you've left in the enemy's hands.

If two dice match in size, then either side may declare a 'duel,' taking both high dice out of the competition (whether or not the other side agrees to the duel).  On the other hand, both opponents with the high matching dice may opt to agree to take out an enemy each, if that seems to suit them both better.

Conversely, if we prefer the damage variant (rolling damage as it's indicated by the dice) then duels both do damage and multiple higher rolls could all do damage to an adjacent lower roll (potentially having four recruits beating a leveled character hard-core.

Steadily, as we resolve the 'combats,' both the high dice and their 'hits' (plus any duels) should be removed from the table until there are no remaining matches (none are close enough to 'engage').  In all cases, the number of remaining combatants should be noted in number and rank - since both will represent a part of the larger battle.  Suppose we are trying to resolve this in D&D:

Picture Carpenter, Edith, Sir Conrad and Fletcher, et al,
each leading a party of 40-60 combatants. 

Breaks between combat would represent both sides getting tired after a set amount of time, agreeing to retreat momentarily before charging again.  We might employ morale rules to see if one side has to retreat a whole hex.  And if we have the dice, we can have three- or four-way attacks with dice pouring from every side of the table.  Or we can keep with usual D&D and presume each unit faces each opponent one at a time.  Of course, a beleaguered unit fighting multiple fresh units would roll less and less dice each time - though a set of freaky rolls coupled with a higher percentage of d8s or d10s might prevail against a lot of d6s.

The way in which the rolls were performed physically by the players could make a big difference, too, since a scattered roll would mean most combatants would 'stand alone' against three or four tightly rolled dice while there might be many dice that skip over and into the midst of the enemy or bounce right off the table.

Anyway, this is about 60 minutes of thought put towards the idea.  I think it might be fun and it might actually work.

Mine Exploration

For the sake of some role-playing readers with little or no knowledge of mine exploration – the hobby of entering abandoned mines just to have a look around – I came across a great page on Wikipedia about how dangerous they are. This includes wonderful things about the floor simply crumbling away underfoot when someone approaches the edge of a shaft to look down or getting a good whiff of bad air such as methane, hydrogen sulfide and other wonderful things. I come from an oilpatch background (in Alberta) so I grew up on stories of people who walked into pumping stations where there was a unknown leak, without taking precautions, so that their first breath inside was of pure carbon dioxide. This can knock someone out and bring death pretty efficiently, not because the gas is poisonous but because there is an absolute absence of breathable air.

Sample the gas in the room before entering!

Any gamer with an interest in dungeons – beyond the presence of monsters – might consider the real danger of wandering around in underground areas that have been worked, since degradation of rock and the opening of seams produces a wide range of effects not found in natural caverns. It’s particularly interesting that different kinds of mines (digging for different kinds of materials) produce different dangers and difficulties, so that a hobbyist that’s been in several coal mines (with plenty of experience) can quickly get into trouble wandering through an iron mine. Because the methods of extraction are different, the rules for what’s dangerous ground and what isn’t change.

Any advice that people give about mine exploration always includes the suggestion of getting to know the history of the mine being entered. That, of course, has nothing to do with being a D&D character. The characters regularly dive down into places with which they have no relationship at all – in which case its a good thing this is all fantasy, since it would probably mean all character wanderings into previously worked underground areas would end in a TPK.

It has to be asked, why do people do it? Well, many are simply rockhounds; they’re looking for some interesting mineral pieces, mostly of little or no practical value, simply as collectors. There are all sorts of tailings and resulting rock shapes that derive from various styles of mining practiced at various points in history – sort of like looking for nickels of slightly different shapes and metal content from specific minted time periods. Many amateur geologists can get very excited about a piece of coal simply because the striations on the edge of it show that they were created by a long-since abandoned tool form.

Others wander around underground out of interest for the shape of mines in general or because the environment is alien and therefore intriguing – like going off into space to land upon and explore another planet. A third group will claim that there are places of great beauty underground associated with rock facings in mined ‘rooms’ where gases and oxygen have combined with the rock to produce amazing colours.

Anyway, go have a look, poke about, have a look at some images.  It might give you some great ideas on what to do with some of those dungeon rooms that need a little jazz.

Must . . . look . . . for treasure . . .

Don't Fear the Noobs

I appreciate that there will always be some who feel that the role-playing game/D&D needs to stay accessible for the general audience, particularly in the game books that are sold in stores. Frankly, however, I can’t say I care much about that any more.

Yesterday I wrote a post about taking the time to talk to genre-savvy folk about house rules. I’d like to take a moment and express myself regarding complete noobies who have never played a game before: they’re no problem at all.

Oh, of course not every noob likes the game. It’s a strange culture, it’s odd to compare a Saturday night of gaming with Saturday night at the bar and certainly it becomes a ‘thing’ that the new player can’t talk about what happened with the co-workers on Monday. I have lost players in the past because they found themselves thinking too much about the game (because they really liked it) only to feel isolated by the experience because talking about it to family or acquaintances was just ‘weird.’

Even now I get someone who makes the connection between D&D and Satan-worship. That campaign decades ago was very, very pervasive.

So a noob will come out and play a few games and feel pressure to quit because they’re having a good time. That happens.

On the other hand, if the noob possesses a strong sense of individuality, doesn’t identify too strongly with the opinions of ordinary people and has the imagination (and patience) to apply themselves to the game, I usually discover that they’re infatuation gets a good, solid grip on their psyche. A passionate grip, even.

This is why I can never take seriously those people who claim that table-top RPGs are declining. When I see fifty people in a room (as I did recently, at the local gaming club) playing in a manner I would describe as absolute crap-design (5th edition tournament/pre-generated style play), I don’t worry about a good DM finding players. There are millions of people with the right qualifications (individual, imaginative) who have simply never been given the opportunity to play. That’s a tremendous, untapped resource, one that exists among the common people, that is nearly always overlooked by the community.

It’s really just a matter of reaching out to people we already know and encouraging them to give the game a chance. We don’t, however, because . . . well, some of us feel shame.

I ran into that in Edmonton this year and Toronto last year. There are a surprising number of people who approach this sort of gaming with a great deal of shyness and doubt; they only know what’s been depicted in the media (not good) or by journalists (exceptionally simplified), and this has encouraged many DMs to believe that role-playing is better done with a small group of people we can trust. Reaching out to others would be embarrassing. This is why a lot of games break up when the participants get to university; it just seems too childish to approach people at 19 or 20 about a game we played in high school.

So, no new blood and the old group disintegrates because of life. Leading many to think, might as well quit. Better that than putting it on the line and finding new players – or worse, introducing new people to the game.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Avoiding Crashes

On January 1st, one of the New Year's Resolutions I made - the sort not talked about out loud - was that I would write 365 posts this year.  I was doing fairly well; I started off strong in spring and didn't feel the pinch until early summer.  Things weren't going that well for me and they didn't get better - and come September and October I completely crashed, writing only 26 posts in those two months put together.

So here I am, December 20, and I am 24 posts short.  That's a bit more than two a day - and I think I'm going to make a stab at finishing out the resolution in the time given.  This should explain why I'm writing a bunch of random posts over Christmas.

I set a rule for myself that the posts have to be over five hundred words and they have to be relevant to D&D; that means this post too, which means everything written before the below won't count towards the word count.  Here goes.

The New Guy in my campaign played his second game last night and seems to be getting comfortable with the other players and with me.  It has been some time since I've introduced a genre-savvy player to my campaign.  It is a profoundly different experience from bringing in a noobie to role-playing and the game in general.  It isn't that I haven't done this before - I drew in several very experienced, terrific players with my online campaign when that was running.

In the case of the former, experienced players will tend to approach any house rules from a position of wanting the best possible clarity in the least amount of time.  I understand this well.  The initial concern is not to make any assumptions based upon a host of rules the player has been keeping in their head since the beginning of their experience - something I used to do myself before dropping out of the community completely and dwelling exclusively in my own campaign.

The legacy that has been left behind by endless edition fragmentation over the decades is not a question of "which edition are we playing" but the more difficult, "which version of opportunity attack rules are we playing?"  This is because all games inevitably become house ruled, simply because a group of intelligent beings starting 5e are smart enough to realize that something they liked from 4e (or 3e or 2e) can absolutely be retained and not dumped.  For any player who has spent years wandering from campaign to campaign, just because they like the game, this practical approach simply piles tactical possibility upon possibility . . . to where it is almost necessary to interrogate the DM under hot lights just to get it straight what 'my' character is allowed to do and wants to do once the dice hit the table.

Of course, no new player wants to take this approach.  It's a new campaign, the DM's exact methodology is as yet undetermined and everyone wants to fit in.  Asking twenty questions to nail down some feature of combat seems . . . rude.  Most players, particularly very experienced players, can feel very uncomfortable being put into a situation where they know damn well they don't get every nuance but they don't want to press the point.  Depending on a DM's reticence, or the players reticence, this can create a communication failure that can destroy any possibility of a good relationship.

This is part of the reason why airplanes of certain cultural backgrounds crash: a total failure of pilots to get over their need to be polite and defer to the higher authority in order to communicate vital information that would keep everyone alive.  It's rather terrifying (I strongly recommend listening to the entire lecture).

Often, the DM represents that sort of 'authority' that players hesitate to address - without the threatened loss of life, obviously.  Questions don't get asked because a player, a new player, will hesitate to ask those questions thinking, perhaps, the third running or the fourth running would be a better time.  Or the player dives in and asks their host of questions and the DM gets flummoxed or perhaps a bit defensive because it feels that something in the questions suggests judgmentalism.  Or the DM and the new player are both fine, but the old players can't help noticing the exchange and feel compelled to comment on the number of questions being asked or the apparent lack of faith that the new player shows - and that can be intimidating as well.

The need to ask all these questions is, as I say, created by the edition proliferation - but it is also created by a need by some DMs or players to see the inclusion of the new player in the game as something that shouldn't disrupt the ebb and flow of the game.  "Just pay attention, don't worry about doing the right thing, go along with it and everything will become evident," is some incredibly crappy advice.  On the surface it seems to be reassuring the player but in fact it shuts the player down completely where it comes to questioning anything that is going on.  Rather than offering reassurance, it draws attention to the player being a noob and therefore "Not in a position to comment."

This is all wrong.  If need be, all play should be suspended - for the whole night, if need be - to make sure the new player understands what's going on.  If we want new players, if we want them to feel comforted and reassured, the right thing to do is stop the flow entirely.  As a DM, I can do that.  I have the sort of players who will understand and back off if I express the importance of getting it all straight in the new player's mind.

Last night, this meant about half an hour of chatting about the combat system before starting the new player's first battle.  I was perfectly fine with that.  I would have gone a lot longer if need be, since I believe the combat system really 'makes' a lot of my world a good thing.  As it happens - and the past has shown this - the combat system isn't really that hard to understand.  Careful explanation, patience in answering as many questions as are asked and confidence in knowing the system works tend to sell the game play as soon as the new player is ready to give it a try.

Everything worked out fine.  Zrog adapted quickly to the system, seeing it in play, saw some features that had been long overlooked (fresh eyes on the problem are always wonderful) and came away feeling good about it.  Success.

We can't rush rush our new players and we can't let the old crew do it either.  A new player is a fresh breeze in a campaign and that is much more important than finishing a particular piece of the adventure before the time runs out tonight.  If new players need another hour, it is our responsibility to give it to them.

That helps bring the plane in safely.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Using the Wilderness

In the dim hours of the morning, kimbo left a comment on yesterday's wilderness point-crawl post, one that has me thinking - specifically about this part:

"To find water, shelter, food for survival. Find a place (a path for an army to advance or bandit stronghold) or a thing (resources for exploitation), find someone or hide/escape. To get through it as fast, discreetly, safely as possible. To acclimatize or learn how to live in that environment. To hunt/trap to earn cash. To establish contact/trust with a group for trade, information or alliance."

I found this prescient, as I had just been working on road development for culture connected with tech-6 in which Wikipedia used the phrase, "communications, trade and governance . . ."  This is not so much coincidence as a firm grip on the principal issues involved.

I'd like to try and discuss kimbo's points one by one, as he's helped clarify some of my thinking on this.

Passing Through

As fast, discreetly, safely as possible.  I think this lends credence to that bugbear that's been hanging over me since 2011, what I've called wilderness damage.  This is a concept that I've smacked my head against on several occasions (last month in fact) only to find myself overwhelmed by the various elements of trying to track the proper amount of damage suffered by individual party members due to terrain, weather, habit, personal equipment carried and so on.  It is the last that proves the most difficult, as in truth each character has to be tracked separately based upon their decisions and level of response to the wilderness.  In structure this gets to be more and more like the problem of managing encumbrance, something very logical but which no player wants to deal with because of the bookkeeping involved.

My players told me frankly last session that they'd be happy to include encumbrance as part of the campaign experience IF it meant no bookkeeping.  They don't mind being slowed down or having a limit to how much they can carry - they DO mind having to track it from moment to moment.  But if I want to make an automated system that will track it for them, they're good with it.

Unfortunately for me, I have more than 1500 items that can be purchased and carried by players - and while I could limit the measured items to just a few (so that the odder stuff counts as 'no weight'), I'm a purist and that makes no sense to me.  The same thing is true with wilderness damage.  I keep thinking that if I don't take into account ALL the possibilities, then I can count on my players finding ways to circumvent any system I build.

I know the answer is to sit down with excel for a month or so and painstaking program a system for either wilderness damage or encumbrance (it could be done!), but I feel a sense of ennui every time I think of it.

I don't know how that die got in there;
they're just laying all over the place.
Still, the wilderness is dangerous - and not just when monsters are around.  If I ask the reader to limit equipment to what would be available for a post-Medieval culture and then send them off into a wild part of Oregon or the Black Forest without any expectation of meeting people/finding services at all, expecting that a good distance is covered, then it will take about a day to get injured to the point where something is bleeding, something is bruised or something is sprained or fractured.  There are dozens of ways in which the wilderness lies in wait to get us - and I know this because books about survival in the wilderness are page heavy and dense in content about all the ways we can die.  The book on the right only covers mountaineering.  There are countless other books that will describe our possible deaths from skiing and snowboarding, scuba diving, surfing, caving or ever being stupid enough to set foot on a boat.  Let's face it - the wilderness is dangerous.

Here's the first point, then: the wilderness is like a huge, natural trap.  It helps to think of a day's journey as walking along a dungeon hallway containing a trap: someone is going to get injured and take damage, possibly everyone.  We should accept that - so that when we think of going off road and into the wilderness, we should also be thinking, "How much damage can we afford to take today?"

Meaning that every other activity in the wilderness is obtained by spending hit points.  That's a little different from a dungeon, where a thief has a chance to see the trap coming.  In the wild, while the ranger might see said trap, chances are the mage, the cleric or the bard won't.  And since the wilderness isn't built out of comfortable, defined and stone-built lines, it's really easy for a character to think, "Oh, I'll just go the other way around this tree."


To hunt/trap to earn cash.  This is generally overlooked, as the wilderness is seen or presented as just a big pile of nothing.  But this isn't true - players just don't think of all that wood standing around in the forest as being valuable because cutting it down and dragging it to market doesn't produce experience points.  Yet players will conscientiously skin a ferret-monster if it will yield 60 g.p. while standing amidst a million g.p. of untouched, uncrowned virgin forest beyond the Keep on the Borderlands with nary a thought.

Because players don't think in those terms; having to cut down all those trees and make coin out of it seems less like adventure and more like their day jobs.  It is sort of funny, however, that the resistance many of us feel towards being self-employed (gawd, I have to organize everything?) keeps the players from doing the same in game when all they have to do is speak the words and write down a few notes.

So putting aside traditional pursuits to gain wealth in the wilderness (starting a mine, running herds over rich green meadows, gathering fish in nets, etcetera), suppose we simply deal with the one 'earn cash' method that does appeal to players: finding the dungeon.

It's always assumed that the dungeon, when it is out there, is easy to find.  I'm as guilty as anyone as I too have grown up on concepts like The Caves of Chaos where obviously every resident of the keep knows where the caves are: "Here, let's go up onto the north wall, I'll point them out to you."  We treat the various dungeons of the game like Disneyland; it's surprising the local town doesn't have a brochure or a local shop where curios from the Caves can be bought cheap.  "Ah, this is a nice piece; a paladin brought this back after a fighter in his party had his head cleaved off by an ogre's axe - see, you can see the tear in the leather armor where the axe hit."  And so on.

Having to actually stumble around in the wilderness for days, even weeks, to find something that doesn't have a tour guide telling you about the place before you get there seems grossly unfair.  Find a dungeon on your own?  One the town doesn't know about?  Nonsense!

Yet it seems to me that players ought to accept a bad week of stumbling over tree roots, slipping off ledges and being carried down raging torrents before lucking out and finding a hole about four feet in diameter under a bush that leads them into an underground wonder.  This is just me.


Hide/escape.  I must confess, I've never had anyone in my world propose rushing into the wilderness in order to escape pursuit.  But then, I haven't chased anyone out of town in a very long time.  Either the locals decide someone needs to die - and then in a very un-Hollywood way fail to give warning that it's about to happen by having hundreds of people stand in the street and give speeches - in which case the character is ordering a beer and gets a knife in the back instead; or the player characters are asked politely to leave.  In which case, they use the road.

My players tend to figure out almost immediately that they've done something wrong - just from knowing the difference between right and wrong.  Thus they usually think, "Wow, we just killed that guy without knowing who he is; maybe we should leave now."  Rarely are my players all, "Why, what did we do?" where it comes to having committed some atrocity that is likely to get them vilified by the locals.  I used to have players like that - but this isn't high school any more.

I think it might be fun to have the players escape into a desert or a forest.  Knowing what my players know, however, they'd have to be really desperate.

Finding Things

This is much more likely.

To find water, shelter, food for survival. Find a place (a path for an army to advance or bandit stronghold) or a thing (resources for exploitation), find someone.  This is much more likely.  I've already mentioned finding dungeons - but this is more of a McGuffin idea, where the one guy has to be located so that the next part of the campaign arc can be attempted.  About a year ago my players decided to slaughter a kobald village, just 'cause.  No problem.  They'd stumbled across the village on the way to the dungeon so they knew where it was.

I spent some of last night organizing the Scouting ability set for rangers - leaving some of the work undone because I find I'm spending too much time trying to hammer down every last detail.  I'm beginning to think the sage process needs some streamlining if I'm ever to finish it - meaning that some of the actual rules will need to be devised in game, where I can apply to the players for aid in deciding what the details should be.  Remember, always ask for help.

I'm hoping that sage abilities like scouting can enable players to survive in a very dangerous wilderness or locate water, shelter and food in a logical, in-game/setting driven manner without my needing to be in the loop as a DM.  I always prefer a random die roll based on a logical probability for deciding these things than by simply declaring that yes, there's a water hole or no, there isn't.  Then if the players have to find something or somebody, the actual distance is established by that thing or person being in a place that is obvious enough that the players can look at a map and decide the probabilities for themselves: "Ah, this hex between two highlands would probably be the best route for a clan or tribe in pursuing game, I bet if we venture towards it we'll find a trail that will lead us to a sizeable camp."

I know that most games have zero concept of this sort of thinking.  Most games absolutely need a Zeke to stand at the entrance, greet the players, go through the tourist schtick and wrap it up by reminding the players that keepsakes can be found at the gift shop.  As a DM I'm fairly tired of that method.  I use it occasionally, I always hate it and I always love it when the players circumvent me by getting their own ideas about things - which they will do only if they're encouraged to have ideas.

Yes, this will mean making mistakes and going to the wrong hex and then having to figure out they're in the wrong hex, spending an extra running climbing up the side of a mountain that leads to nothing except perhaps the view of another similarly possible mountain that might also be the mountain they're not looking for.  Yet this is how adventuring actually plays out.

Lewis & Clark never, ever had to back track.  Zeke told
them the way.

Getting Used to It

To acclimatize or learn how to live in that environment.  This is only possible if a party stays in the same place.  Abilities like scouting can help with generally living in a type of environment, of course, but to acclimatize to a particular wild the adventurers have to actually get to know the place through repeated journeying through the countryside until the rocks, creeks, hollows and heights become familiar.  As long as the players insist on adventuring somewhere new, they forsake the potential for calling a particular hinterland 'home.'

This is fine for most campaigns.  Unfortunately for me, though my players do tend to roost eventually (they're rewarded for it), they never think about learning to live in the hinterland.  Once they own their land their characters share the urban-mindset that the players have, since everyone I run has grown up in a big city.  Sure, the country is out there, it is good for camping . . . but even if they learn where the hollows and heights are, what are they going to do with that knowledge?  They just don't know.

Lack of imagination, I suppose.  They could use that back country the way Robin did, running into it and hiding while the Normans take wilderness damage until they have to retreat before finding themselves weakened to where a group of green-dressed peasants can take them.  However, players never seem to want to be Robin Hood in my campaigns, sitting out in the woods and the rain.  They'd rather be the Sheriff of Snotengaham . . . er, Nottingham.