Sunday, October 15, 2017

Charting an Adventure Path

I was asked to help readers chart a path of increasing difficulty for players and to describe a scenario based on party interaction with the environment and the five types of monsters I've recently described.  This post addresses these requests.  The scenario was invented in the last couple of hours and is being fleshed out as I write this post ~ but let me enjoin the reader to realize that any adventure along these lines must be flexible with regards to the players' decisions.

What I usually do is imagine the best possible arrangement of events and then attempt to motivate the players to pursue actions that enable that sequence to play out as I imagine it.  In this, I accept the players have free will; I can't make them take the carrot, but I can make the carrot awfully juicy looking.

Normally, I would describe the adventure here on the blog in the way I would in game, to encourage the reader to feel that mounting tension as the players are meant to experience.  However, as I've done that before, and the message hasn't fully sunk in, this time I'll give the raw details up front and then deconstruct the adventure's intention.

Therefore, let's begin with a cast list:

  • A group of 5-6th level Players as protagonists
  • Three night hags as the eradicators 
  • Three hell hounds as the destructive wanderers
  • A village of hobgoblins as the builders
  • A herd of large deer, with stags, as passive wanderers
  • A bear as a passive wanderer
  • A large scattered collection of giant ticks as the vermin

Then I'll describe the best case scenario in how we would hope for things to unfold, involving all the characters above. The players climb up into a set of close mountains, first encountering a series of giant ticks one at a time, serving as no better than annoyances.  Thereafter they find the herd of deer, which we'd like them to follow for several days at least, getting deeper into the wilderness.  After this, they encounter one hell hound, which does not engage but does make its presence known.  The party moves in the direction of the hell hound's departure until they encounter a roving band of a dozen hobgoblins.  The party discovers the hobgoblin village and judges it too big and dangerous to attack.  They move on to find the one hell hound and stumble across the bear.  They realize the bear isn't an enemy and they keep themselves from losing hit points trying to kill it.  Finally they discover the hell hound and kill it.  This happens to be on the edge of the eradicated part of the forest, overrun by giant ticks, setting up the reveal of the bigger monster.  The players get frightened and retreat.  Then, they are forced to fight two hellhounds and a night hag at the same time, killing them all.  Finally, they fight two night hags and a lot of giant ticks and win.  The adventure ends.

If that end seems very suspicious, it should.  My intent is to emphasize the upwards scale of the encounters' danger.  The ticks, the deer, the brief encounter with the hell hound, the hobgoblins, the bear, the hell hound again, then the hag with hell hounds and then two hags with a whole lot of ticks.

At some point, the players will want to bow out ~ the trick is to keep them moving forward, and to make it possible that those last two encounters include a possibility that the players can win.  How?

An adventure is not just one motivation.  A lot of people think it is, not just in table-top gaming but in making films and books as well.  How often have we seen a film that tries to give the character a single point of purpose, which must then sustain all the character's actions right up to the last scene?  It never works.  At some point, you're stuck watching and thinking, "At this point, I would just stop trying."

Let's run through those motivations.

First, I want the party to head up into the mountains.  I've got to create some reason for that, if the party doesn't just make it convenient by deciding to go up into the mountains for no reason.  That does happen, as parties get bored, but if that doesn't happen I've got to have something.  So let's say the local church has a large quartz rock with seams of gold in it, about the size of a head, sitting on the altar.  "Where did that come from?"  "Those mountains.  There are gold mines up there, but no one's sure where."  "So where did this particular rock come from?"  "It was found on the dead body of a priest about twenty-five years ago."  "Was he killed?"  "No, apparently he starved to death."

There, that ought to be good enough.  The party loads up, heads into the mountains, which we want to be too steep for pack animals, so that they are limited in how much food they can carry.  Why?  Because that is our next motivator.  As the party goes along, they get attacked by one giant tick.  A member of the party has to fight it almost single-handedly but the tick dies and that person has to eat 50% more food that night.  Then the next day, it happens again, two ticks this time, with more food being eaten by the battle-weary players.  The ticks are easy to kill but we're cutting into their food stores.  Another day and another tick, then a respite, then the day after, two ticks.  The forest is loaded with them and the players are starting to wonder about how much food they have.

Then they see the herd of deer.  The deer are gentle, trusting, happy bags of food on legs and the party starts hunting them.  This keeps the game going, as they find themselves drawing the attention of about six stags and backing off.

The party starts searching the valley, going back to the deer herd if they need more food.  They meet a few ticks, find a few holes, but mostly they're not doing well.  They start to talk about going back ... and that's our opportunity to hit them with the hell hound.

We can leave a few clues to find, places where a part of the forest has burned, perhaps the smoking carcass of a burned, mostly-eaten stag.  Then the hell hound itself, big and bold and coming onto the camp at night, blazing in glory and then disappearing into the darkness as the party desperately tries to organize an assault.  This gets them thinking.  That hell hound must be coming from somewhere!  Where?

So they keep looking.  Now come the hobgoblins.  There are a dozen but the party only sees four at first, all unarmed.  The party is given an opportunity to decide what to do.  Kill them?  Grab them?  Now two scenarios can play out.  The players rush the hobgoblins and fail surprise or initiative and the four hobgoblins scatter.  See, they're not soldiers, they're just hobgoblin kids, out for a jaunt, not threatening anyone.  If the party chances to slaughter them all before finding this out, that's bad for them but good for us.

Hopefully, however, the kids will live; before they're all killed, the remaining eight of the dozen I first described will arrive and try to parley with the party.  These hobgoblins are NOT evil; they're not aggressive, they're potential friends to the party.  If the party has killed a teenager or two, the adult hobgoblins will be sad but they will understand the party's error.  Hopefully, this understanding will touch the party and cause them to feel ... unsure.  Do they trust these hobgoblins?

We want the party and the hobgoblins to be friends, for what happens later, because we need the hobgoblins to help kill the hell hounds and the night hags (aha!).  So the hobgoblins invite the party back to the village, which is how the party "discovers" the village, as I said in the scenario above.  They get to see there are about a hundred hobgoblins, so the players definitely decide not to start a fight.  They're met by the leaders, they sit down to dinner and the players ask about the hell hound.

Now we can feed the players a motivation.  We say nothing about the night hags; the hobgoblins are unaware of them!  But they do know that there is a hell hound out there that occasionally harrasses the outskirts of the village.  They have not seen the hell hound for a year, however, so they thought they were safe.  The party's tale upsets them.  They ask if the party is afraid of it.  The party figures, its just one hell hound, no big deal, there are four or five of us, we can handle a hell hound.  So they say, no.  The villagers promise a reward and offer a guide if the players will go kill it.  Hopefully, we can sell this and the players will say yes.

So now they tromp off to kill the hell hound.  The guide says the hound usually dwells far away.  But the ranger in the party, or the guide, can track the beast and eventually there's a week of travel through woods to get to where the hell hound will be killed.  Meanwhile, the guide demonstrates food that can be found all around them, without killing deer ~ and we have the scene with the bear.

Now, that scene has to be played out carefully.  The bear should be heard first, serving as a terrific red herring for a moment like this.  The players are stoked and ready for a fight.  The bear is behind trees.  No, there's no fire or even the smell of fire, but the guide explains that hell hounds have a stealth mode which enables them to be quite sneaky.  The players set up, perhaps rush the bear ... and then find out its a bear.

A fight would probably end in killing the bear, but it will also cost the players hit points; if they're smart, they'll back off, but chances are they'll just go ahead and fight.

Soon after, the hell hound attacks.  The battle should be a good one, with the hound charging through the party in passing strikes that lets just one player take a swing while the hell hound charges.  We want to make the battle as hard as possible.  For me, hell hounds in the original books are pretty weak, just 30 hit points and one attack, so increase the hit points, the number of attacks (have you seen a dog snap its teeth in a fight?), the weight of the animal (about 750 lbs, 50% bigger than a lion) and make it fast.  Have it attack at night where it can melt into the darkness at will, before flaring up red just before striking a lone party member.  The players will be well and freaked when they finally kill the beast.

Space the attacks out so that they come every ten to thirty minutes.  The players fight the beast all night long. That way, by the next morning, you can argue they've moved a long way from their original camp; they're lost.  That helps the reveal of the eradicated, burned out forest and the ticks moving over the landscape.  As well, we should add that the hell hound's corpse is wearing a thick silver collar.  That should get the players thinking.  Meanwhile, torn up, they'll be ready to beat a retreat.

They head back to the village, hopefully, to get their reward.  They rest up, heal a little, eat, show the collar and talk about the burned out area and the hobgoblins go pale.  Now they remember legends of terrible witches that used to control hell hounds.  No one has seen hide nor hair of anything like that for three generations.  The hobgoblins then reveal their gold mine to the players and give them a tour, where they show a natural cave in the mountain depicting witches mounted on blazing horses (nightmares).

If the party were higher level, we could add the nightmares to the mix, but I said 5th and 6th so they're out.  But as the party emerges from the cave, now frightened, the village is attacked by the two hellhounds and the one night hag.  There's no time to explain or anything - but the whole village jumps in and if the players don't run, there will be one hell of a massive fight.  The players should be able to realize that, helped by 100 hobgoblins, they should win the fight; and that nice gold mine is right there, reminding them of what they're fighting for.  That should motivate them sufficiently to join in.

At this point, we want to be sure the night hag and the two hell hounds die.  If at all possible, the night hag should not seem anywhere near as dangerous as she actually is.  Perhaps she makes a bad mistake; maybe we get lucky and the players or hobgoblins luck out and kill her early.  Either way, the harder the night hag is to kill, the less willing the players will be for the next part.

See, we've got to get those players to go to the night hag's lair and kill the other two.  The hobgoblins are there to tell the party that hags always travel in threes, so there are two more and they must be at that burned out area.  More than that, we've got to put some real nice toy on the dead night hag as an encouragement.

As a DM, we've got to play this one part brilliantly.  Right off, don't offer help, don't explain the toy, don't do anything to dissuade the party into thinking they don't have to go fight those other two nighthags by themselves.  This is always a huge mistake made by a DM, to give too much too quickly.  Don't.  Let the party twist in the wind, at least for a few minutes ... and then have the remaining villagers come forward and dump enough reward on the party to boost them all a level.

That will help tremendously.  Then let the party re-evaluate their chances at winning a fight by themselves against two night hags, for a little while, before having someone reveal what the found toy is.  Hm, that's really interesting!

Now, let the party evaluate again.  Do they think they can?  Is it possible?  Let them sweat.  Let them doubt.  Let it HURT.  Let them consider the three silver collars they've found on the dogs, the silver jewelry they've found on the night hags, the possibility that there's a silver mine out there, too.  Let them make up their minds.

This is the best part of D&D.  Deciding if you're brave enough to go for it.  Deciding if you're willing and able to deal with the consequences.  Realizing that it all lies on you, that if you die, it is absolutely going to be your fault.

And if they waver about going, having the villagers come forward and offer to come along.  Oh, not all of them ... but half of those that have survived the village fight.

This is it.  The last evaluation.  The party will stew and stew and stew, probably the rest of the session ... because even if they know they're going, they'll still hesitate.

Now, do you see how we've built the tension?  How we've charted a path of increasing difficulty?  How we haven't had to rely on dice to create apparently "random" encounters?  After all, we're not going to tell the players we planned any of this.  As they play, we'll introduce each thing as though we've just thought of it.  We don't need a map, do we?  We don't need notes that have to be read verbatim to get them moving to the next monster type.  We just need to sell the motivation.  And let the players go straight for each step like a moth to a flame.

This works.  I've been doing it this way for almost 40 years.  I wasn't able to describe it as well most of that time.  I couldn't have deconstructed it like this.  But the pattern is the same.  Each step needs a new hook, a new motivation, a new reason for the players to just keep going forward.

The Encounter Table's Shadow

Last week, a wise friend of mine said he chose to see the players as the encounter, turning the usual perspective on its head.  I must admit this has had considerable effect on my thinking process, leading to this series of posts.

After all, the player characters are the best example of destructive wanderers that we can name.  They slaughter and destroy everything, from dragons and lichs to whole builder monster villages, entirely with malevolence and largely on a random, whimsical basis.  No monster in the wilderness can tell when a group of well-armed, extremely knowledgeable aggressors will show up in astoundingly small numbers and bring an abrupt end to their culture, without showing the least sign of remorse.

When we build encounters, we build them for these players: and that is precisely why encounter tables don't work.  Consider: any encounter table built on the list of monsters we have will be heavy with vermin and passive wanderers ~ and no player party dreams of their opportunity to head out into the wilderness and slaughter giant insects, common predators and assorted hooved animals.  They are certainly not getting themselves equipped to clean out a valley of its giant rat infestation or putting an end to the plague of rot grubs that have been affecting the local herds.  Players want to fight destructive wanderers like chimera or purple worms, or builder monsters like giants and drow elves, or eradicators like mind flayers and undead. Any encounter table we make, however, is bound to produce a very low chance that one of these creatures will pop up.  Instead we will just get vermin and natural animals ~ because there are more of these kind of creatures that exist.

At the same time, builder monsters are mostly all alike.  Oh, giants are big and drow have lots of magic, but the principles from one humanoid group to the next are pretty much unvaried.  There's little majesty in slaughtering the 41st orc, even if the whole party has been cutting their way through a dungeon of three hundred creatures over the previous two sessions.  Builder monsters are fine as an appetizer, but we all know the players want something bigger.

The problem is, destructive wanderers in large numbers just don't make sense, ever.  How chaotic does the world have to be to ensure that the party always happens to be in the neighborhood of some massive horrorshow like a roc or a sphinx, just at the moment they go for a jaunt?  A little convenient, isn't it?  Of course, we can help mitigate the problem by having the party hear of some beast in the upland country a few hundred miles north, enabling them to rush up there in time to wipe out a small cadre force of manticore; but why in hell does it happen when the party shows up that there haven't been nine other groups, closer to the issue, who have already shown up and done the job?  Are the party the only force on the continent capable of dealing with these problems?  And if so, why is it everyone has no idea who they are?

Eradicators seem less socially problematic.  They're out there in the wilderness, quietly turning their 2,000 acre parcel of land into a charcoal-covered bowl of death and decay, without anyone knowing the least thing about it.  These monsters at least can be reasonably stumbled upon without prior knowledge ~ but let's face it.  Lichs, ghosts and beholders do not make the most joyful of prospective encounters.  Give the party a big hydra and they're happy ~ its just a lot of heads and fire-breathing, things we can predict and prepare for ... but even a few medusae will chill a player's blood like a Canadian winter morning.  I find players just aren't that anxious to test themselves against anything with virtually unlimited magic.

Here is the argument, then, for eliminating the random monster determiner: we can toss a few vermin and passive wanderers against a party at the beginning of an adventure, but the party's temperament will only sustain their presence so long before disgust and ennui sets in.  The DM has to be thinking, then, about whether or not this is the time for a destructive wanderer or a group of builder monsters; they can be thrown together but that's a well that gets stale after a few dozen examples.  We're probably best off with some sort of small destructive wanderer, something that wrecks a single dwelling, which can be dispatched quickly on the way to something more interesting.

Over time, we've got to maneuver the party into developing the confidence to tackle a good, deadly eradicator, exactly the sort of thing that makes them sweat.  This is not the time for messing up the tempo of the adventure with some meaningless random encounter pulled off a table.  Adventures can't be set up this way: it would be like supposing we could write a symphony with a set of dice, arguing that the only thing separating us from the success at this is a really good table, a table we just haven't thought of yet.

Any table will only result in producing discordant results.  The game's direction, momentum and feel demands more than chance, it demands a maestro, one who can balance the need of the world to unfold in a sane, believable manner, while showing a path that will enable the strength of resolve the players need to do something they won't believe they can do, even while they are doing it.  "How did we get into this mess?" is a question common to my world ~ and a very good question.  It describes players acting according to their hearts and not their heads ~ before using their heads to get out of their situation.

An encounter table would be unsatisfactory.  I think that's why I've stopped using them.  But it has taken this series of posts for me to see clearly why.  I hope the gentle reader will also see it, and stop feeling guilty for not using a table that has no practical purpose in running a good campaign.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Civilization vs. the Wilderness

In the context of the last post, I am granting no special dispensations for humans or any other form of humanoid; in game terms, anything that can cause a hit point of damage to another creature is a "monster." Therefore, humans are builders just as any other builder monster.

Moreover, I should like to take a moment and point out that a given monster might fit various monster types as described.  Most humans are builders; but humans can easily be malevolent destructive wanderers and a given powerful human might be a very effective eradicator.  The "type" of monster refers to the monster's behaviour and does not necessarily encapsulate every example of a given monster species.

Within the framework, we can describe a "civilization" as any builder monster that has effected a sufficient change to the local environment that the only other monster that can co-exist within the builder's sphere is necessarily verminous in nature.  This does not mean that the vermin are necessarily minor in form.  A vampire might live inside a civilization, in the catacombs under a city or in plain view, as in the Bram Stoker novel.  Howeer, while in the wilderness a vampire might be a very efficient eradicator, in a civilized culture of thousands of builder monsters the vampire must act covertly, or else risk arousing the most powerful of the builder culture leaders to root it out and kill it.  It must be clearly understood that along with reshaping the environment, builder monsters have also shaped their wisdom and capabilities, making builder monsters the most dangerous monsters in every world.

A civilized space may include areas of hinterland, but it should be specified that these areas are deliberately allowed to exist, because they provide forage for domesticated monsters and as hunting reserves, as well as potentially enjoyable places for excursion among the wealthiest and most powerful builder monsters.  True wilderness is not a forest reserve, which has been tailored and picked over by wardens, and thus cleaned of any monsters except for those pesky vermin, which never truly disappear.  True wilderness is back country that no one has as yet been able to clear out, or have not been motivated to clear out, which is the point of the rest of this post.

When gauging which parts of the reader's world are fit for civilization, it should be assumed that builder monsters have already chosen to occupy the best lands, without exception.  If the technology of your world has had the opportunity to produce ocean-crossing vessels, and has existed for thousands of years, then at the very least there is a war going on to remove other monsters from good lands that have only been recently discovered by builder monsters.  That is effectively what is going on in my world in 1650; all this wonderful, prime land has been discovered in the last 150 years and is undergoing a violent transfer of ownership, as builder monsters move en masse to the coastline along the western shore of the world's second largest ocean.  This prime land is being renamed "America," despite the names formerly given to the lands by passive wanderers (or builder monsters with insufficient technology to withstand encroachment).

Wilderness, therefore, describes those places of the world that are largely second-rate in the eyes of builder monsters.  This may include a well-watered plain, but it will be a small one with poor access to the outside world and most likely in a very cold or a very dry and unreliable climate.  Therefore, when wandering through the wilderness, we shouldn't expect to find any large builder cultures ~ at best, we should find only primitive ones.  Any large builder culture will proliferate in population and a desire for outside contact, which will result in the establishment of some kind of trade, followed by the importation of technology and thereafter a rapid civilizing of the wilderness in the manner I've described: that is, the wilderness will be fully rebuilt.

Such a place would be the jumping off point into the wilderness, the last vestige of civilization the players were leaving; it would not be a place the players discovered completely by chance just by wandering fifty or sixty miles after "leaving" civilization.  Everyone in the civilization where the players left would know about the island of civilization the players were "discovering" already.  Such a civilization would already be on the map.

Therefore, builder monsters in the wilderness would be extremely limited by the size of their environment.  They might occupy an oasis, but it won't be a big, massively productive oasis.  They might have settled into a valley, but it won't be a rich, wide, flat valley that might support thousands.  More likely, it will be a somewhat chaotically arranged narrow valley that will support only scores, certainly no more than several hundred.  Such a group of builder monsters, sufficiently separated from actual civilization, could be overlooked by previous explorers and may have only settled in the valley a generation or two before. Perhaps the valley was cleared out a hundred years ago by a group of civilized adventurers and has now been resettled by something else.

Any builder society on the wilderness level, as I've tried to describe, would not have fully gained control over their environment.  They are co-existing with that environment, which means that they are at the mercy of the occasional passive wanderer or substantial group of vermin.  A single destructive wanderer could eliminate the whole society.  They would certainly not have the power to send out soldiers to end the power of an eradicator whose world begins just ten miles to the north.  At best, this little collection of builder monsters are just getting along, perhaps clearing out an acre or two each year, rebuilding a bit of free stone into a dam or a wall, steadily coordinating their power into something more threatening in the future through systemic defenses and steady population growth.  Someday, it might be "civilized" ~ but when the players stumble upon it, we should see the encounter as similar to any other wilderness monster the players might meet. Dangerous, certainly, but not essentially aware of the world outside their little bubble.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Starting a Frame for Monster Encounters

We had a discussion on Facebook lately about encounters and I've been giving the issue some thought.  I'd like to build a framework for encountering monsters in the bush that isn't just based on a table and a random roll.  I'm foreseeing a series of posts.

Fundamentally, I'd like to argue that monsters are fundamentally territorial, but that this does not necessarily mean that all monsters are necessarily locked to a given place.  Some monsters wander; some do not.  Some monsters form structure; most do not.  The framework I propose is meant to devise a monster for a space that will do more than occupy the space, it will define the space, helping to fill the emptiness of wilderness hex crawls.

For this, I'd rather not discuss monsters individually, so I'll propose five general monster "types."  I don't mean this list to be necessarily inclusive ~ there are bound to be monsters that don't fit these types ~ but I think these would include at least 95% of the monsters with which we're familiar.  The six groups are vermin, passive wanderers, destructive wanderers, builders and eradicators.  I'll set about giving a definition for each:

  • Vermin are monsters that can live anywhere without especially affecting their environment.  They can live within urban areas and subterranean complexes, they can occupy lands that are essentially unproductive, they can live in rich lands occupied by other creatures.  They are effectively pests to every other monster, regardless of the monster's intelligence or agenda.  The more obvious forms are various bugs, worms, rodents and other small beasts, mostly acting as scavengers or parasites.  This might include magical creatures that survive as thieves or deliberate annoyances.
  • Passive Wanderers include a great many herding animals and beasts of enormous size, mostly herbivorous or otherwise non-destructive, potentially occupying great areas of land by sheer numbers.  It would also include beasts preying upon the herds. On the whole, passive wanderers would occupy land of minimal commercial value, establishing such regions as "territory" because of the eradication of plant material as the herd moves in and eats everything before departing.  Since permanent occupation of said lands by intelligent creatures would mean contending with these herds, the herds and the lands they occupy are left alone except as a food supply.  Note that some primitive tribesmen could be included in this type.
  • Destructive Wanderers are big monsters with a malevolent agenda.  Exactly the sort of creature that adventurers are often asked to kill, as such creatures move into an area (often civilized) and begin to wipe out everything within reach, moving onto the next space once the previous space has been smashed.  Such monsters are rare, temporary, but the destruction left behind can last a season or even a few years, depending on the monster involved.
  • Builders include creatures who physically seek to constructively redesign the environment once they have entered.  This includes most humanoids plus some odd creatures like beavers or giant termites.  Fundamentally, the land itself is changed so as to provide obvious evidence that the land is occupied by something, producing trails, fields, buildings and altered physical features while also patrolling said area.
  • Eradicators are permanent destructive entities that create a stable area of complete eradication of other life, so much as they are able.  This would include many forms of undead and a few highly intelligent malevolent monsters who want an area of desolation between themselves and their neighbors.  Such creatures are usually left alone, as entering the area of desolation often promises a terrible and early death.
From the above, we can propose covering a wilderness like a patchwork quilt.  Most lands with semi-existent vegetation would be occupied by vermin; low vegetation grasslands or heavily vegetated jungles and forest would be occupied by passive wanderers; while anywhere with a water source and arable land would be occupied by a builder species.

Mixed in would be rare instances of destructive wanderers for player game service and hints of the existence of eradicators in the deep wilderness.

As players move through the wilderness, they can be informed of the probable inhabitants (through a ranger or druid's knowledge) by virtue of the amount of vegetation and livability of the topography.  Trails could indicate passive wanderers or might be a hint of a builder.  As a builder's territory was encroached upon, there would be more indications of environmental reconstruction (signs, hunter blinds, abandoned outposts or shelters, etcetera).  Such signs can then be tailored for the specific monster that actually occupies the space.

Next we should talk about spaces and how to determine the size of a monster's territoriality.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Distances between Markets

So, what have I been doing?

Very boring stuff.  I finished the rebuild for the sources table, the table that describes the origins of all goods and services in my known world; I did it mainly because I was looking down the barrel of adding Great Britain and Ireland into the system and that looked like a tremendous headache.  The rebuild eliminated the need for a 14 meg excel file, drastically reducing the size of the problem ~ so well worth the effort.

Once finished, I was free to add more data.  I finished my Burma map back in October 2015; that had never been added to file.  I finished Senegal and Mauritania back in June 2016; that, along with Cape Verde, had never been added.  I finished Britain in January this year; I've already talked about having to add that.  And I finished Iceland this past July (and the map of that has since been reworked).

Altogether, these places had 169 markets.  In the past year, bit by bit, I've worked out the sea distances, worked out the land distances and added roads to the maps.  The last week I've spent adding the markets to the distance calculation program, which basically means putting in the distance and then linking it to a cell, that is in turn linked to another cell and another and so on, round and round the world.  I've talked about this before.  Just for the hell of it, however, I'll put up a screenshot of a small part of the table:


All the numbers shown indicate the number of "days" of merchanting travel.  Column A shows the markets, labeled by kingdom, province and market city.  Column B is the minimum number of the horizontal list two lines below and stretching out to the right.  For example, the Folkestone number, B377, describes the smallest number among those of C379 through O379 ~ with a +1 added as a cost for importing it into the hex.

Don't bother looking to compare the numbers ~ they won't add up.  That's because the file is in mid-calculation.  For it to work properly, one city must be given a fixed number, which all the other cities then calculate against.  The template table, however, gives the cities no fixed number; so every time they are calculated, the numbers tend to drag one calculation behind all the other circular calculations in the document. This means the minimum number calculation is one step behind the number calculations for the horizontal lines shown.  And if I keep pressing the manual calculation F9, the "minimum" numbers will just increase to infinity.

At the point where I saved this image, the numbers are all very high and incorrect because of this.

The address line shows the distance between Portsmouth and Southampton: =0.8+$B$356.  Portsmouth and Southampton are two hexes apart, and sea travel costs 0.4 "day" per hex.  What does that number mean?  It means that if the goods originating in Portsmouth were divided by 1, those goods in Southampton would be divided by 1.8, for determining their availability.

Adding these boxes is niggling work and none of it can be errored.  One error blows the whole calculation.  It really sucks if I get a value error somewhere ~ that value error will just proliferate, no matter what I do; the only thing to do is to close the document and reopen, losing all the work.

Thus, I add a city and save; add a city and save; add a city and save.  And each city added means four or six or thirteen calculations, or more.  At the end of my work this week, Copenhagen ended with 57 direct connections, more than any other city on the list.

I have a system which says that every market is not directly connected to every other market.  Large cities with high market numbers reach further than small cities; a place like Ramsgate reaches only a few other places.  Too, if the route between market A and market B passes through market C, then I record A-C and B-C but not A-B.  That reduces a lot of the possible combinations ~ and it feels right that market C moderately controls the trade between A and B.  The only real effect is that A and B are considered one extra "day" apart.

Well, I have this finished.  All told, I have 1,235 markets now, all interconnected.  The next thing is to add the goods and services from the new market cities to the rebuilt table I finished in late September.  I still have to adjust that new, rebuilt table layout to the old prices table layout, but that's a few hours work when I have the time for it.  Thankfully, I have this finicky distance-work table updated.  Nice to have it behind me.

I'll add it to Google drive for the Patrons - if you want to play with it, add a 1 to the highlighted B column of any given market and then keep pressing the manual calculation until the numbers stop changing.  The final numbers will give the accurate number of days between the market you chose and all the other markets.

It is easy to build a table like this for your own system.  I started with just 30 markets.  Those were simple days.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dissecting Things

I've been watching some videos dissecting Monopoly, many of them returning to the oft-repeated trope that Monopoly wasn't supposed to be fun and that it was original invented as a lesson to teach that capitalism was bad.  This gets repeated from video to video as though it is original information, I presume because 6-year-olds who have finally been allowed onto the internet by their parents need to be informed.

And naturally we have a need by presenters and commenters to express how boring monopoly is, how long it is, how dreadfully one-sided it is and how it is definitely not fun to play.  Hm.  How interesting.  You-tubers who are younger than 30, who would have been 6-years-old when the internet became widespread, in a time when home video games began to crush arcades, have discovered that a board game invented in the early 20th century doesn't hold their attention.  Shocking.

I played a lot of Monopoly and I commonly use it for metaphors for examples of game play because it is an extremely common and simple-to-understand game.  I don't play Monopoly any more because it is 2017 and the world has changed.  So have I.  In 1973, without cable television, without home computers, with the sort of programming we had then, I promise that Monopoly seemed like a much, much better game.  Go figure.

At times I find I have to take long breaks from the internet, particularly self-invented content, mostly because of the staggering lack of intelligence behind the creator's motivation.  Who hasn't stumbled across yet another screed about the awfulness of super-hero films this week?  People seem awfully disturbed by the size of film budgets they don't have to raise or spend themselves, or the proliferation of this sort of content, or what was chosen as a soundtrack, or the destruction of things that don't actually exist, or the "dramatic" over-emphasis, blah blah blah.

Again, I grew up at a time when it was possible, on most nights, to watch television shows about cowboys from the end of the news in the evening to the beginning of the late-night news, without a break.  In the theatre, one had a pick of five or six westerns showing at any given time.  I can vaguely remember a time with double-features, when a "bad" western film would precede a "good" western film.  While Westerns did not win best picture awards, they were regularly nominated for best picture: High Noon, Shane, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the Alamo, How the West was Won, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

People would shit themselves if there were not one, but 30 super-hero films a year, as was common during the western era.

As far as budgets go, I just don't care.  I don't.  It's a business.  Clearly, the makers feel the budgets are worth the take, so what matter is it that some disgruntled hack in a self-made video wants to bitch that it cost 850 million to make a film?  Ain't my money.  Want to complain about costs, how about a multi-billion dollar stealth fighter that is suffocating its pilots?  There are 20 stealth bombers in America, valued about about 2 billion apiece, most of which aren't flying right now.  For the cost of half of them, we could make 80 big-budget superhero blockbusters without breaking a sweat.  All this talk about the cost of movies is just bullshit.

But then, how about we talk about plots?  Superhero films are just so boring, whine the critics.  Their character developments are just so two-dimensional and cardboard.  It's such terrible writing.

The best films this year, for me, have been superhero films.  Not because I think they are slashingly brilliant, but because of the alternative.  Here's what's opening this week, that I could see if I didn't want to stay at home and watch Spiderman: Homecoming again:

Marshall is about the first African-American Supreme Court Justicce, battling through his career-defining cases.  What a visual spectacle that's going to be, as we watch a film about a care-taker judge whose only actual claim to fame is that he wasn't white.  Yes, yes, I know, it was just great that America ended racism once and for all by nominating a black Supreme Court judge, before having to do it again by electing a black President (thank gawd they never have to do another thing to stop racism in the country), but seriously - when was the last time any of us gave a thought to Thurgood Marshall?

The Foreigner is about a humble businessman who seeks justice after his daughter is killed in an act of terrorism.  It's described as "cat-and-mouse intrigue."  Oh good, a revenge plot featuring a common man against a corrupt system.  That will be new and original.  Certainly won't be anything like as repetitive as a superhero film would be.  But that's okay, because it stars Jackie Chan - who is in no way predictable.

Happy Death Day is about a college student reliving the day of her murder until she discovers her killers' identity.  Which happens to be Friday the 13th.  Oh, right, this is October.  When we get to sit through a lot of shitty repetitious horror films, absolutely not at the end of their derivative use of camera angles, jump scares, piss-poor writing and dialogue expression, in which I'm supposed to piss my money away because I just love being "scared" so much.

78/52 is an unprecedented look at Alfred Hitchcock's shower scene from Psycho, a scene filmed in 1960 and so repeatedly over-examined and overblown in concept that I am, frankly, after 53 years of life, sick to death of fucking hearing about it.  But no worries, because this documentary is going to be so special, so different, so amazingly profound that it is absolutely worth releasing in a theatre at the same price of a superhero film, unlike the 200 previous documentaries about the same goddamn scene.  Seriously.  If I want to masturbate, my room is more comfortable.

Breathe is the "inspiring true love story" about two people I've never heard of, who were apparently living in Africa with some sort of disease, which promises a rich, full evening of angst and watching two people slowly degrade physically on screen while new director Andy Serkis, famous for dressing as computer animated characters, carefully fits in at least one sweaty love scene.  Gah.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a documentary about A.A. Milne, the creator of  the Winnie the Pooh stories.  Yeah.  I'm supposed to get all weepy, remembering being read these by my parents when I was four, but no.  I'm just not interested in the least.

Wasted! The Story of Food Waste is a documentary about the wastage of food in the food industry, lovingly turned on its head by having famous chefs turn food garbage into "incredible" dishes.  From the description, it looks like famous chefs save the world.  Imagining this sort of shit reality show programming being sold as theatre-fare convinces me we ought to burn down all the fucking theatres tomorrow.  How crappy is this?

And then there is one more:

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is ... well, I've got to give this one verbatim, because it is just so fucked up I can't straighten it out.  "The story of psychologist William Moulton Marston, the polyamorous relationship between his wife and mistress, the creation of his beloved comic book character Wonder Woman, and the controversy the comic generated."

That is just going to be bad.  It's presence is a clear indication that people are so desperate for a real movie, in the face of the absolute dreck that is being released week after week, that they'll glom onto anything that at least sounds like its going to vaguely be about a character that people might conceivably like.

Because that is the central point.  We don't make films about likeable people.  We make films about people we're supposed to respect, or empathize with, or feel sorry for, or conceivably identify with, but factually none of these people are the sort we think of as warm, friendly or fun.  A.A. Milne, Alfred Hitchcock and Thurgood Marshall might have been important or talented, but we're not edging for an opportunity to have people like this over for a barbecue.  On the other hand, Wonder Woman would be fucking cool to have over for a barbecue (though not her fucked up creator, obviously).  The same is true for Captain America, Tony Stark, Batman, Natasha Romanov and Thor.  Hell, even Thor's brother Loki would probably tell some good jokes.  Instead, we're told we're not supposed to see movies with these people because they're "bad," while the crap described above is being foisted on us as an enriching experience that would be good for us.

I am really tired of watching films about assholes or the boring creators behind so-so childhood characters.  I am really tired of films about some select group of blue collar workers who have somehow been transformed into "celebrities" by reality television.  Chefs are boring.  Writers, as people, are boring.  We're writing, for fuck's sake ~ that's why we make movies about the characters they create, not the actual people.  It is boring watching me hack and hack at a keyboard.  Seriously.  You'd kill yourself if you had to watch my life-story.

I want to watch films about people I like.  That used to be films about westerns, gangsters, detectives, space rangers and scientists.  Now it happens to be films about superheroes, because right now, those are the only people on the screen that we're still permitted to enjoy.

Monday, October 2, 2017

It Isn't Defined by Winning

From my favorite etymology source:
win (n.):  Old English winn, "labor, toil; strife, conflict; profit, gain," from the source of win (v.). Modern sense of "a victory in a game or contest" is first attested 1862, from the verb.
win (v.): "be victorious," c. 1300 fusion of Old English winnan, "to labor, toil, struggle for, work at, strive, fight," and gewinnan, "to gain or succeed by struggling, conquer, obtain," both from Proto-Germanic *winn(w)an, "to seek to gain" (source also of Old Saxon winnan, Old Norse vinna, Old Frisian winna, Dutch winnen, "to gain, win," Danish vinde, "to win," Old High German winnan, "to strive, struggle, fight," German gewinnen, "to gain, win," Gothic gawinnen, "to suffer, toil"), from root *wen-, "to desire, strive for."

It is not surprising that a writer becomes frustrated at people not being able to understand words.  Consider the oft-touted phrase, "There is no winning at D&D," which I hear all the time from particularly daft people who feel that it's necessary to define every activity by virtue of whether or not it can be won.

Somehow, this lack of winning seems a damning sort of condemnation ... until it is recognized that many enjoyable activities, such as swimming, laying in the sun, engaging in conversation and reading aren't defined by "winning" or "losing" either.  This does not seem to hurt the popularity of these activities.  I can't see how it matters, then, whether there is winning or not; but as I've put up the etymology of the word, we might just as well talk about it.

I love that "winning" is more traditionally associated with striving than with overcoming.  I love, too, that gain and fighting are central to the meaning, more so than our modern take that the winner is the only person (or team) that counts.  All sides struggle; all sides fight; and most of the time, the only real meaning to "win" with most games is to describe who happens to be in front when an arbitrary time limit is reached.  If the last Superbowl had been permitted to go on twice as long, are we absolutely certain the Falcons would not have won?  And if they had not, would that make it certain that they would not win if the game went on three times as long or four times as long?

Of course not.  "Winning" is an arbitrary measure.  When we say someone has "won" at Monopoly, are we describing the person or the dice roll?  We are perhaps closer when we say someone has won at Chess, Checkers or Go; these are elimination games that are questions of pure skill; but does winning a game ensure that the player will win the next game?  Or the next?  If not, what does "winning" really describe?

I am happy that my favorite game ~ the only game I am interested in playing at this point ~ is not about elimination of players but about struggling, fighting and gaining.  D&D is about accumulation, in a milieu where the accumulation can go on and on, without finish.  Of course, a DM can mistakenly rush the accumulation process by pouring too much into the coffers of the players too quickly, which often happens.  All too soon, players without any real skill or knowledge at playing the game are empowered with ridiculous advantages that quickly destroy game-play, mostly brought about by DM's who ignorantly assume that Chess could be a better game if one of the players was allowed to replace both bishops and both rooks with four queens.  Quickly the benefits of too much accumulation destroys any hope of learning the fundamentals of the game, ensuring that thousands of tables never gain a modicum of skill.  There's no need to understand how the knight works if both knights are flanked by queens.

For how else can one describe a proliferation of magic wands, rings, potions, smashing weapons and defensive armor that accumulates for most parties after only a few months of running?  Where is the need to be careful or clever when fifty sorts of healing are available, floated by fifty sorts of bonuses when a hand takes the weapon?  In such circumstances, for so many players, of course D&D isn't a game.  It is hardly a past-time.

It is all too easy to rush and condemn all accumulation in this; to say that we should eliminate magical items altogether, along with levels, special attacks, excessive hit points, whatever might be called into the mix.  But there is nothing wrong with a player climbing a level; if it is not the second time in a three-hour running. There is nothing wrong with a player gaining a magical item, if it is not a magnificent staff being given to a low-level mage.  There is nothing wrong with a potion or two; but ten or twenty is surely overdoing it.  There is nothing wrong with accumulation ... so long as it isn't a dump truck backed up and emptied into the campaign.

What we are asking for is a struggle ~ a grappling, grueling, uncertain contest where the common condition of overcoming an opponent is replaced with periods of lull and extreme terror, waxing and waning with irregular momentum.  The gains from that struggle need only be sufficient enough to encourage further struggle; gains should never challenge the needfulness of the struggle's presence.

Yes, the players won't understand this.  Players often misunderstand what is good for them; like little children left alone with a crockery jar full of brownies, they will glom onto them voraciously and devour them at once, until they grow sick and potentially hateful of ever eating brownies again.  But if we will keep the jar out of the child's hands, and doll out a brownie now and then, the child's appetite for brownies will only increase, as they fantasize about the day they will have full access to the source.

Which we must never let them have.  This is a central condition of being a good DM; the understanding that what players think they want is not what players want.  On the surface, it seems cold, heartless, mean ~ just what we thought of our mothers when they would let us have "only one."

That was love.  Some children never grow up enough to recognize that.  But if we want to be grown up enough to be DMs, we have to learn what love means.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Re-Crunching Done

Phew.

With respect to the redesign of my sources and production calculator spreadsheets, which will mean nothing to those not steeped in my trade system, I'm done.  It's rebuilt, cleaned up, made to look pretty and now available on my Google Drive, for those of you who have paid the access fee.

Truth be told, some of you who have donated to me in the past have bowed out of my Patreon in the last six months.  Your names are still on the system, when they shouldn't be ~ still, I'm relaxed about it.  You were great about supporting me and I thank you.  Still, I'm going to have to downgrade your access within a few days, so don't waste time if you want a last look.

For anyone who wants to see the completed table, you'll have to either pledge $10 to my Patreon account (in which case you'll get access the 1st of November) or donate the money to me directly, in which case I can set you up as soon as I see your email.  I've worked many, many, many days and hours on this; I'd be grateful for a remittance at this time.

For myself, I'm in a position now to comfortably add Burma to the system, which was the straw that broke the back of the old set-up.  Then I can add Great Britain, Iceland, part of Africa ... but all at my leisure.  I may put down numbers for a while and work on something more, ahem, shall we say blog worthy.

Been a rough go, this change.  Obsessive.  Glad it's behind me.