Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's A Choice

Yes, I could be nicer. I could be less unnecessarily vitriolic. I could couch my discourse in softer, kinder, gentler tones, and make a better first impression. There are other choices than to behave rudely or insult people. There are ways that people can “share ideas” in a civil manner.

I’ve discovered through experience that people who counsel such an approach usually do so from a fairly pretentious position: “In this community (where I am respected and unquestioned), we don’t raise our voices except in an appropriate manner.” For appropriate, please read as, “acceptable;” “agreeable,” “acquiescent.”

When taking a contrary position to anything, particularly something as established as the religious fervor that has become some tenets of D&D, the more kindly your rhetoric, the more easily you can be ignored. Or if you will, the more easily your opponents can hedge and “politely” agree with your opinion without, in fact, changing their behavior or their propaganda. This is a marvelous sort of inclusion; as a manipulative technique it works wonders.

In fact, I have no interest in being included. I feel rather sickened by what I’m reading and seeing on various websites about the game, and I believe firmly that I am not alone. Oh, I may be the most vocal, the most vitriolic, the least respectful and so on. I may be the dancing monkey in this particular performance. I may represent the methods of shock value. But I assure you, my gentle reader, that despite my ungentle approach I sincerely believe everything I’m writing.

Now, I don’t propose that there are a great many who would agree with me. I think, honestly, there are very, very few. But that doesn’t matter. This very few and I have similar emotional reactions to what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling with regards to this game. We love the game. We love playing it, we love working on it, we love the design aspects and the free, unrestricted possibilities in what can and cannot be changed.

I suspect I am not the only person to view the interior of a games shop with a pervasive sense of disgust—at the cheap materials, at the obvious attempts to obfuscate the potential aspects of the game, at the contrived, exploitive nature of the products and so on. I don’t believe I’m the only person to have players arriving in my world saying, geez, you wouldn’t believe the shit out there and the way people are playing. I don’t believe I’m alone in finding 4e laughable.

So I rant. I foam at the mouth, I swear a lot, I act inappropriately, I disturb the lovingly built blogs of other RPG players. I don’t bother to discuss, I eschew dignity and I embarrass the crap out of myself. I do it for that small minority who feels uncomfortable doing the same, though they might want to. I do it to help me sleep at night, knowing I’ve pushed the occasional miserable grandmother with her talk of polite and appropriate behavior down the stairs. It brings me a tremendous sense of peace.

Whatever message that’s lost in my methods, that’s fine with me. I’m really only writing to one in a hundred of the readers who pass me by, because I only expect to be understood that often.

Yes, I know, I'm deluded. I've created a little fantasy justification that allows me the freedom to write what I wish without guilt. It's a paper world all of my own.

Or it would be, if you weren't reading this. Or if you weren't going to come back and read me tomorrow and the day after.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Back In The Day

Whenever I read anyone describing the finer points about early RPG history, I am stuck for any personal recollection that would allow me to relate to the nostalgic euphoria that was supposed to exist at that time. Yes, D&D was new. Yes, we liked the game. Yes, it was different, and yes we were interested to explore the game’s possibilities.

We were not, however, orgasming every time we played. Which we would have to have been doing for us to have reached the degree of excitement constantly portrayed by present writers talking about the good old days.

A few things that I remember from 1979, when I began playing, at the age of 15.

The game, while complicated, was not completely out of our experience. Most of us had been playing Avalon Hill games for years (I started at 11) such as Squad Leader, Rail Baron, Arab-Israeli Wars and so on. We had played various other war games, and we had a sophisticated sense of how to adapt a game’s rules to our own uses. What I mean is, we changed rules, all the time, whenever we thought they were stupid. From day one we were throwing out or imposing new rules onto the D&D system without the slightest hesitation. No one thought that was odd. It was a game, not a religion, and it was what we had been doing with every game since learning RISK at age 8. Fuck the rules, we’re going to play it this way.

Neither I, nor any of my first group of associates, had any idea who Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax were. They were names in the book. We didn’t care to discover the background behind those names because we didn’t care. Do you know the names of the people who designed Monopoly? Or RISK? Well, I don’t. What difference would it make? Would I play the game differently? Would I be less inclined to change the “house rules”? Hell no.

Regarding the use of modules for gaming. Well, let me begin by saying that we all knew at the time, even at our age and in those far off days, that modules were simple-minded pieces of second-rate spewed crap, evident by the pathetic quality of writing and design that went into them. We did not buy them, we borrowed them from people whose parents had money and were a soft touch. We did not excitedly masturbate our way through them, we laughed at their pathetic, juvenile text and then modified them as necessary. If I or any of my teenage friends had read any of the actual descriptions out loud, there would have been cries of, “Holy shit, what ten year old wrote this crap?” and “Turn the crap off and just tell us what we see!”

Even at 15 we read actual books, you know: Ellison and Heinlein and Moorcock and LeGuin. We knew what good writing was. And what it wasn’t. Gygax may have been a hotshot game creator, but a writer he wasn’t. The same went for every “trailblazer” who had a hand in making those modules. I remember clearly the finger-down-throat gesture was often used in describing our personal opinions about the given material.

Let me describe a few of the rules that, right off, we knew were absolutely not going to work in our campaigns. Let me emphasize again that this was 1979, just as we here in Canada first discovered AD&D.

Alignment was a complete joke. I only knew one DM who played it dogmatically, and he was so anal as to be insufferable. As I understand it, he eventually became the west coast distributor for Magic cards, so I suppose he was genetically programmed that way. For the rest of us, right off we knew we weren’t going to play any stupid rules telling us what we were allowed to do or not do with our characters. That bit the big one pretty fast.

Remember when there was supposed to be a spokesperson for the party, who would tell the DM what everyone was doing? It’s in the DM’s Guide. Yeah. Some kind of educational-related programming on that one. My guess is that someone connected to the game’s creation considered being a teacher at some point. We totally ignored that dumbfuck rule.

Let’s see. Humans weren’t allowed to be multi-classed? Right out the window. Spell components? Oh please, how much bookkeeping do you need? It’s only there to make life miserable for spellcasters, it’s a pain in the ass and we just ignored it. Never noticed that it notably increased the power of mages in the game…but of course, if you’re one of those who can’t wait to describe, for the fifty-eighth time, the cleric pouring a circle of dust around himself…

Face it. We weren’t a bunch of dumb schmucks who had no idea what to do with a game like this. We dove in, played 24-hour sessions and every weekend, after school, in four and five campaigns a month, and we changed, modified, rewrote, redesigned, shaped, fashioned and fucked around with the rules constantly. AND we learned to adjust our play for each individual DM’s peculiarities regarding what rules would be followed and how.

Whenever I hear someone reporting on their orthodox obedience to the rules back in the day, I just have to wonder what weirdo I’ve stumbled onto.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I Am A Bastard

Thinking about one of my own comments (that I’m a referee and not a cruise director) I found a description of a cruise director: someone who’s job it is to be enthusiastic and to get passengers involved and enthusiastic about shipboard activities, as well as doing general public relations work for the cruise line.


I have some idea from reading blogs on the net and from personal experiences about how some dungeon masters go about following exactly the description above. But I need it to be understood: if you are playing in my world, I presume you’re already involved and enthusiastic. It isn’t my job to make you that. If you can’t be that on your own, you’re welcome to lift your dead ass carcass up and haul it the fuck out of my world. I have no time for you.

As well, in case it isn’t dead obvious, I don’t give a flying fuck about the public relations effect that my world (or my blog) has on the fortunes of those who invented, re-invented or who now presently market dungeons and dragons or any other role playing game to the world. I have about as much chance of caring about that as I would about the fortunes of the NHL during a game of scrub hockey my friends and I play at the local gym. I’m not a spokesperson, I’m not concerned with the general image of the game and I really, really don’t care that some fantasy folk feel “queer” because D&D has a poor social image. Honest. I’m just too white and nerdy, and that’s something I own, not something I’m trying to change the world’s mind about.

Believe me, my players notice. They know I won’t suck up to them, or hand out choice magic items to make them feel special, or compensate for a character they’ve lost or whatever. Oh, sometimes I feel a tug at my heart…like when I introduced tables for characters to make abilities checks on for their former lives, and the cleric wound up losing one of her hands. That was a pity. It particularly sucks since most bludgeoning weapons do, in fact, require two hands.

My world is nasty, dark, unforgiving and unpleasant. Not very different from planet Earth. If you piss off the wrong people, they will kill you. Oh, I don’t mean they’ll politely challenge you to a duel and let you pick weapons, I mean they will hire a sufficiently high level assassin who will pop out at the most inconvenient moment possible and off you…such as once when the assassin followed the party into a dungeon, watched patiently as the party massacred—at great price—a cave full of bugbears, then stepped up at the very end and easily dispatched the one character left standing. That’s how I played twenty years ago and that’s how I still play today.

Yet I have no trouble with player loyalty. Everyone shows up, every running. Partly because we’re all white and nerdy but mostly because the harder it is, the more rewarding the rewards. I may be a bastard, but as I have nothing invested in the success of the monsters or the party, I’m viewed as a fair bastard who can be relied on not to cheat the system one way or the other. Thus, I get very loyal players who get a huge kick out of besting me whenever they can. Sometimes I can be bested. Someone will think of something very clever and I will concede the point, or the treasure, or whatever. That’s what my players like—an opponent, someone to pitch their wills and their minds against. Conflict is the resolution that drives the game.

I understand that most think that the conflict is between the players and the make believe shit the DM invents (or buys from a store), but that’s nonsense. Conflict occurs between actual entities. Ogres don’t run themselves, I run them. I may run them according to set rules, but if you want to live you better try to prove yourself against what’s in my mind—what would Alexis do, that’s the question.

That is the compelling brilliance of the game…IF you have a DM who is a challenge. I’ve played against game referees who were so dull it was possible to convince them a two-handed sword could be used one-handed. Or that a Chant spell could be done silently.

So no, I’m not a cruise director. I’m not interested in showing everyone a good time. People come to play, they come to play hard and if they have a good time, its something they’ve done for themselves.

If you’re going to get involved in this racket and be a DM, you better ask yourself when was the last time you ever wanted to be around anyone who was obsequiously trying to win your favor? Any of your friends particularly worried about you having a good time when you play poker with them? And if you weren’t, would they tear up and cry for you? No. They’d throw shit and tell you to get over yourself.

Well, they would if they were friends worth having.

You will never have a world until you get this whole, “I want to make sure everyone has a good time” thing out of your head. It automatically assumes your players aren’t capable of finding a good time on their own. Which makes you a sort of condescending asshole. Which might be one of the reasons people don’t come back.

Concentrate on refereeing the game. Let the players be responsible for their own level of commitment.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Policy Solution

Given that I got some fine response to my last post, I decided to give more detail. Above is the map I referred to yesterday. You will note that the map is not actually completed (the northern heavily colored areas with blue arrows indicating river direction and coastlines that haven't been done, just blue hexes indicating where the main channel is). Therefore it is at the very "edge" of my world as it exists now...really, the very edge of the world in reality, as it is brutally far north.

Teal hexes are extensive muskeg swamps. Purple hexes are uninhabitable mountain areas, a mix of bare rock and scrub trees, with brutal normal temperatures, expecially in winter.

The large arrow on the map indicates the distance the party has been able to travel in seven sessions (they are at the point of the arrow). Their point of departure is Gora Narodnaya, highest mountain in the Urals (6,214 ft.) and one of the inevitable existing paths into the Abyss. Having survived that little adventure, the party left, staggered out of the glacial mountains, avoided a nearby resident white dragon and made it down onto the taiga flatland, where they managed to piss off some gnolls. It has only been in the last running and a half, mostly the last running, that they were pursued.

Mostly, they survive because the mage wisely took Leomund's Secure Shelter, which protects them 8 hours of every day.

Allow me to explain the map.

Bjarmaland, which they are in, extends a very great distance into the west, a good 25 to 30 hexes before they would reach Russia. Bjarmaland is divided into Gaa'Kaa (shown on the map) and Glu'Bak, which is off the map to the west. The large river flowing up the left side of the map is the Pechora, which eventually debouches into the Bering Sea, far, far to the north. It isn't navigable except by canoe. Bjarmaland, as I've said before, is occupied by Gnolls with numerous human, gnome and elven slaves--so there is the possibility, if the party is willing to get close enough to a sizable habitation (they haven't yet) that they could free a lot of slaves and do a whole Spartacus thing.

The large region to the east, Magloshkagok, is a huge, largely uninhabitable region of swamp and lowland corresponding to the West Siberian Plain. Magloshkagok is divided into three regions, Biyetia, Ostyakia and Yobatia, and is populated by about three hundred thousand goblins. It measures about 840,000 square miles in area, making it about one fourth the total land area of the United States. The large river flowing in from the east and up to the north of the map is the Ob River. The large one from the south which meets it is the Irtysh. Both are huge, 4-8 miles across and thoroughly navigable.

Most of the population dwell so far from any other race that they live very peaceably--except along the region called "The Marsh Borderlands," where the goblinish region of Mendostigarkland sparks against the Kingdom of Hoth (Eykhoth County is shown), occupied by Dwarves. The dwarvish population is higher towards the Ural Mountains and scattered in the lands known as Night Fields and the Planted Fall. The Planted Fall in particular has historically been the site of many interracial battles.

Lastly, the bottom southwest corner is Bulgrastan, comprising of the Akmanates of Zyria and Bolgar. This land is ruled by 2-3 thousand ogre overlords (magi included, of course), an orc/haruchai population and many dwarven, human and orcish slaves.

The party is utterly unaware of Bulgrastan, its location or what it would mean to find it. They might as characters have heard of the land, but they're certainly unaware that they're within 180 miles of it.

I hadn't exactly considered it, but if they're willing to reclimb the Urals (about 4,000 feet at this point) they could work their way through the Valley of the Broken Axe and into northern Eykhoth, and thus back to a friendly land. the time they reached the mountains, it would be mid-November and likely they would be unable to climb through the deep snow. But...if they could, they might find a dwarven hamlet within 200 miles. Where they could then wait out the winter.

Sadly, they have no more idea about Hoth than they have about Bulgrastan. Think I should tell them?

Of course...they find a small gnoll settlement of two or three houses, with one gnome and one human slave--both of whom know that somewhere, just over the mountains, is the dwarven land of Hoth. The party bickers, eventually picks a valley and tries to climb the mountains. A couple lose toes and a point of dexterity and finally, before December 1st, they're near a warm fire.

A solution at last.


I've gone and dug some pics up of the Pechora Valley, where the party is at. I could find no winter shots, which isn't surprising, since in deep winter the Pechora experiences almost no day, so you'll have to imagine these covered in four feet of snow.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Policy Decisions

I am conflicted.

Here is the situation (I'll try to keep it brief). The party, without going into reasons, has itself stuck in northern Russia, on the banks of the Pechora river, during the last week of October. They are about thirty hexes, 20 miles per hex, from what you could call "friendly" civilization. With the heavy snow, the taiga, the tens of thousands of gnolls, ogres and orcs blocking their way, they move at about two hexes a running. The adventure has been interesting, what with their being pursued (last Saturday it was gnolls on mastodon-back), but it has been about seven runnings since this hell started and I'm thinking I need to do some kind of deux-ex-machina to get them the fuck out of their circumstance.


The region they're in basically comprises of a large map, 30x35 hexes, representing what is today the Komi District of Russia, centered on the Timan and Ural Mountains, with parts of the Perm Oblast, the Archangel Oblast and lands east of the Urals. It was interesting to map...but it is hideously empty. In the middle ages, about the 11th century, the Novgorod traders called it "Bjarmaland," which of course is what I call it. It's importance is the furs it exports.

Now, why bother going to all the trouble of making a map, accurate in detail to real Earth, if I'm just going to boost the party out of it because it's too BIG? It's not like the party is ever going to come back here. It's pretty much the one time and that's it.

The purist in me says, make the poor bastards drag their miserable asses across the snow and muskeg and through the brutal weather conditions until they finally reach civilization. It will make them appreciate, for once, being in a town. Maybe they might settle down and let the game circulate a bit more around politics, if they get tired of hacking and slashing and cutting their way free from the endless hordes of bloodthirsty half-neanderthal races that dwell there. Why feel sorry?

On the other hand, it's supposed to be fun.

Oh well. I don't think the party will quit playing. I have plenty of ideas up my sleeve to keep it from just being about combat and occasionally stripping them of supplies (everything is running low). And if they get bored and uncomfortable, perhaps then I'll think about having them encounter some friendly mage or someone who can jump them home. We'll just have to see.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Rut

Thinking on something that Uncle Bear wrote some days ago, yes, D&D is in a rut. He makes the point about fantasy authors, referring to a few from the early-to-mid Twentieth Century—Howard, Moorcock, Vance—as influences on the game. I understand why Vance is included, because its lately come to light that he had something to do with the method for discharging magic, but really, he’s a pretty piss poor author, and no one but no one would have included him on any list twenty years ago. But that to one side.

If there was an author whose name would have come up, at lot, it would have been Tolkein. Of course Tolkein, for without him there would be no races in the game, or at least the races would not be so well defined. Not that I like Tolkein as an author. I was conscious during the whole “Frodo Lives” excitement during the mid 1970s, but the books were horridly dull, full of prepositions (…they headed down the path through the woods to where they could cross over the bridge and past the glade to the inn beside the gate to the back rooms above the main floor…) Two pages and I’m fast asleep (even on the bus to work).

Bear’s argument is that fantasy has fed the game that has now defined the fantasy and both are in a rut. Well, something close to that, anyway. Go read his argument. I’m only here to say that yes, I think that D&D is in an awful rut, but that it doesn’t begin with fiction written in the last fifty years.

If you want to define the culprit for the story trap that grips D&D, you might as well start with Gilgamesh, the oldest extant text in existence. It is the earliest evidence of anyone putting told tales to print, and it is an awful, meandering story about superpowers, destroying monsters, completing a quest and becoming, ultimately, a god. I’m well aware that there are many scholars who love it (I took courses from them in university), but in terms of emotional, on-the-edge of your seat action, it would be like having only one movie being found by a culture five thousand years from now and that movie being Dragonslayer.

Nevertheless, for most of human culture, right up until around 1600 or so, virtually every depicted story about human beings—which are not technically religious— fundamentally circulated around those basic themes. Hero destroys monster, wins princess, gets dead and then deified. Sometimes the dead part is skipped. A lot of the religious stories too, notably the various Hindu texts and parts of the Bible. It is only that the non-religious stories tend to be less preachy and guilt-ridden.

My argument for the very height of this story-telling process would be Spenser’s the Fairy Queen, which is pure D&D and from which a direct line can be drawn to all modern fantasy. Both C.S. Lewis and Tolkein were, as Oxford professors, deeply steeped in the English educational tradition of having read at least the first canto of the very long, long poem in their early schooling, and if you’ve read Spenser you can’t miss the relationship. But if you think the language and internal references of Shakespeare are hopelessly obscure, you’re not quite ready for Spenser…and most aren’t. Which is a shame, because it’s pure D&D.

Others would argue that Cervantes Don Quixote would be the more profound work, and I would agree, but not as a fantasy story. Published in 1605, it is the satire of the fantasy story, in which the attempts by a deluded, ordinary man attempting to live up to the story proves both funny and enlightening.

It is generally considered the earliest modern “novel”—of quality, at least—defined partly by it being in prose but also because it attempts to approach higher subjects than fairy tales. Fairy tales are, in essence, morality tales intended to encourage listeners to dislike cruelty and cling to hope. What is Cinderella, after all, but a story that tens of thousands of abused, poverty-living girls could hear and dream about, thus keeping them passive and accepting because eventually they would be rescued?

But I am swinging a bit off topic.

I’ve said before that D&D ought not to be a game about morality…and that is what the hero image is: it is a moral position, where good triumphs over evil. We all know that vast numbers of DMs insist on paying lip service to this, intervening when players are “too evil” or self-serving, intentionally or unintentionally punishing the more grasping members of a given party while rewarding virtuous, easy-to-DM would-be knights of the round table, who eschew prostitutes and would never, ever act gluttonously. I say easy because for the ordinary DM trapped in the ancient fantasy framework, all that’s wanted are players who will scoop up their predesigned quests and storylines without question. You don’t want these guys to say, “Who the fuck cares? I let the dragon eat the princess…does he give me any treasure for my not doing anything?”

The modern novel is an intellectual development over ancient storytelling, still present in pulp fiction, because it does contemplate higher, more humanly relevant issues…issues which don’t translate well to the fantasy framework of a Saturday evening playing D&D. Mostly because it gets a little creepy before getting awfully uncomfortable. I had a party debating last weekend over the necessary torture of a gnoll cleric…at least half the party (split evenly down the sexual divide) was uncomfortable with the scene, although all it involved were descriptions of slicing off skin and beating the gnoll’s legs with a chain. They would much rather have been turning living things into corpses by the far less intrusive system of ordinary combat.

Every DM has tried this and the results are pretty standard. Have an NPC fall in love with a character. Speak the necessary role-playing lines. Have them get, well, x-rated. Watch everyone get uncomfortable, and jokes get made, and the scene completely fails.

Putting everything like that into old style chivalric statements makes the scene more comfortable. Being the DM and saying, “Please Orric, touch me, touch me everywhere…fuck me hard…I’m so hot for you,” will never play as well around a gaming table as, “Sir Orric, would that I could speak my heart.” It’s corny and it’s where the game is. Players are still generally the same children who used to cry out and throw themselves face down into pillows when the “mushy stuff” came on the movie.

Often DMs will appeal to ideals like honor, duty and loyalty…all concepts taught chapter and verse to the military in order to obtain blind obedience. Which, I suppose, is all most DMs want from their players. Raising the game out of its fairy tale roots involves playing up mental states like guilt, regret, cowardice, impetuousness and hatred. When, in your world, has not HATE been a wonderful motivator in a campaign? When have you attempted to make a player regret his hatred, resisting the urge to make all your villains stock characters without a shred of decency? You want a memorable campaign - then make a player doubt whether or not a villain, once in the hand, should actually be killed? Make it so that thousands of innocents depend on the villain’s survival, even though the villain is as loathsome as they come. What, can’t think of how to do it? You need to read better literature.

Well, I’ll stop there, though I could probably go on. If you want out of the rut, throw out the playbook. Go find yourself another, preferably outside of fantasy fiction. Publishers pick that stuff based on its appeal to narrow-thinking, lowbrow groundlings, knowing they read for simple pleasure, not to expand their horizons. The horizon in a rut is a pretty near one. About four inches in front of one’s face.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How To Play A Joke

Well, it’s been fun thus far. Let’s do another. This one isn’t terribly clever, but it will have long lasting effects that will run perpetually through your campaign. The sort of thing that helps create continuity…the binding effect of an inside joke.

Have the party contacted by an assayer’s office, and feed them this story: while examining the collapsed remnants of a mine near town, a few of the company’s prospectors stumbled into a party of thieves hiding in the caves, in the middle of dividing up treasure. They recognized the thieves as local wanted toughs and took the law into their hands, apprehending them. But before they could successfully grab both the criminals and the loot, one thief threw the most valued treasure of the trove (the Idol of Gazoomba or some other fool name) into the mine’s central chasm, which is reported to be three or four hundred feet deep. The prospectors paled at the thought of going in themselves, so now the company is hiring the work out to freelancers. They company has bought the rights to sell the item if it can be recovered, and if recovered the party need not be worried about fencing the item. The item is not magical, but is made of a rare green stone. It would be nice if the party had a locate object spell, but if they don’t give them the needed scroll.

Great. Have the party practically kill themselves trying to get this object back. Once they’ve found it, point out that while the stone is green, it doesn’t seem that valuable. If detect magic or similar spell is cast, indicate that yes, the object does emanate with magic…but don’t tell them what the magic is. Let them find the secret catch that makes the idol vibrate, however.

On the way home, have the party stumble across a caravan or a roadside inn being attacked by bandits. During the combat, have a twelve-year-old boy (one of the defenders) flee from the battle with his arms wrapped around a blanket. At the end of the battle, have the party find the boy, who is holding the blanket for dear might, and make it clear that there seems to be something wrapped inside the blanket. Investigation will show a duplicate Idol of Gazoomba inside the blanket. Have the boy beg to have it returned. “I always wanted one,” the boy says. “Pleeeeeeeese!”

Upon examination, the party should discover that the two idols are virtually similar in every regard. The carving might differentiate a little, but in no way that seems to matter. Both objects emit the same magic and both objects have the secret vibrate-causing catch.

Let the party puzzle this out as they head back to town. Upon entering, point out that they must walk through the bazaar. They hear a voice, “Toys! Get ya toys here!” As they look at the table showing off the seller’s wares, they should see about 20 duplicate Gazoomba Idols, all for sale, cheap.

(This works also if they’ve chosen to keep the idol and go to another town)

If they return to find the assayer’s office, have it completely cleaned out. At that point, it’s up to you. You can either leave it a mystery forever, or let the party know somehow that it was all an elaborate ruse by old enemies to get them killed by the gelatinous cube colony that infested the bottom of the chasm. Whatever you like.

One way or the other, Gazoomba Idols can then be found occasionally throughout the rest of your campaign, whenever you want to make the party feel stupid. Fun fun fun.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How To Enjoy An Evening

Okay, another running idea, before I get to work on my other crap. This works best in a coastal, fair sized city, which is surrounded by a few marshes. It will probably require a fair bit of pre-work on your part.

Benign entry point: As the party is on their way to buy or sell stuff, or perhaps to the tavern, or to their inn of choice, describe a moderate hubbub going on in front of a large, four story town hall sort of building. There are four lines of rather poor people being interviewed by what are clearly four mages and about twenty private guards. Have the lines extend out into the street so that they block the way of the party, and try to build up the party’s curiosity in what is going on. When they ask, tell them that the “Mage’s Guild” is looking for test subjects.

Point two: Have the bell chime on the impressive 80 foot bell tower which is across the wide avenue from the Mage’s Guild and in front of the party. Have a nearby NPC remark, “Sure is a shame they’re tearin’ that building down. It’s a landmark, it is.” If the party doesn’t ask, have someone else say within earshot, “Why are they tearin’ it down?” -“Well, it’s a danger, ain’t it? They been sayin’ for months the ground’s been seepin’…ain’t stable, and that’s the truth.”

At that point, as if the Gods themselves were listening, have a deep sucking sound occur behind the party. As they turn, describe a part of the street falling into a sinkhole. Have the sinkhole widen rapidly, then describe a sewer-like rush as water down a pipe: the sinkhole heading at the party. The street people will scatter. Give the party a few doorways to leap into, and have the sinkhole pass right up the street and by them, and stop at the bell tower.

Describe some awful, disturbing plopping sounds, as though a titan was disgorging his dinner into the basement of the tower. Show the tower visibly quivering. Make it clear to the party that it looks as if it will fall. If the party say’s they’ll run, point out the sink hole is about thirty feet deep and appears soft at the bottom, and emphasize the question, “Which way do you intend to run?”

Now, while they are making up their mind, describe a booming belch emerging from deep, deep beneath the city. Describe a large bubble of air rising out of the muck at the base of the sinkhole under the tower, which then POPS!, splattering mud everywhere. And then have the tower fall over. Into the mage’s guild.

Begin the fun: Imagine, if you will, every conceivable potion, from the combined inventories of thirty or forty laboratories, suddenly being released into the atmosphere. You would do well to emphasize early on that the “test subjects” would indicate a great deal of research going on in this particular mage’s guild. What you want is to create a table which will ascribe the effects or reverse effects of the various potions you can contrive to add to that table, along with side-effects like insanity, gigantism, undeadism, etherealness, berserking, genetic modifications, mutations and so on.

Have everyone in the party affected, randomly. Have everyone on the street (and adjoining street, and additional quarter of the city, in the direction the wind is blowing) affected. Have the various animals, from large mammals down to minute insects, affected. Roll randomly for persons immediately adjacent to members of the party, including their reactions (which might be interesting if they turn paranoid or megalomaniac).

Sit back and watch fur fly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How To Kill Your Party

I’ve been thinking of what imaginative adventure I could outline for the benefit of the gentle reader; something not usually done, something different. And which could say something about the way the game is played.

Allow your party to reach a fairly large settlement, a few thousand people…but not too many. After their first or second night, have a disturbance wake them at four or five in the morning. They look out their window to see the street is full of people, loading up wagons and horses, mules and each other. Have soldiers rushing here and there, shouting for everyone to stay calm, to take only their necessities. Have town criers moving through shouting that the local nobility has instructed everyone to flee, that the time is four bells, that ten bells remain. Describe people tossing goods out of windows into the street, people tussling over the use of some animal, swords being drawn, soldiers rushing in to stop a fight from occurring.

Now that you have their attention. They will rush about demanding to know what is happening. Have people say, with a great deal of fear, that the “Junipers” are coming. (Pick any completely non-threatening term you like). Encourage the party to “flee for their lives” and say that they must flee to “Graven.” Have people be too busy to talk. Do not explain the meaning of anything—they are much too busy, frantic, freaked and terrified to explain what is going on to noobs. Have the party’s horses stolen, or about to be stolen, so that the party must fight for their horses. Have the innkeeper leave, without locking the door, while the party reclaims their horses. Unless the party says, “WE RUN” right away, indicate that the town is emptying out pretty fast, that there are many doors hanging wide open to jeweler’s shops, smithies, craft guilds and the like. Have at least a dozen obvious other people looting all around—as suddenly the soldiers have all disappeared.

Chances are the party will note the time (9 bells or 8 bells left) and that it can’t be that bad if there are other locals who are looting. Let the party loot. Let them find amazing stuff, enough to let them go up one, maybe two levels. Let them find some truly magnificent treasure, something unbelievable, like a crystal statue weighing a ton, suggesting that it alone could allow every person in the party to go up a level—if they can get it out. Give them a broken-down cart and a frightened donkey in order to drag this thing. Watch the party calm the donkey, fix the cart, debate with each other about taking the item and so on…wasting time, of course.

You should be able to figure out the rest of this adventure yourself. Obviously, the party will refuse to abandon the statue. But once they have wasted even one hour, you must play it out this way, once they discover that the “Juniper” is an advancing horde of ten billion insects, an enormous creeping doom which will grind down four hit points per round while being, effectively, impossible to kill (even with another creeping doom or a plethora of cloud kills): carrying anything, anything at all, will slow them down to the point where they will not reach safety (Graven is a holy place of some kind, which holds the town). They must abandon everything to survive. Do not make this clear at any point. Have them work it out on their own: “Hm…I run faster without the sword…I run faster when I’m not manipulating the Tenser’s Floating Disc,” etc. Before the party can reach Graven, give them twenty four or forty-eight hours of the creatures nipping at their heels the whole way, one damage every eight minutes if they’re in clothes (which have grown ragged and are now constantly grabbing at branches or tripping them up), one damage every nine minutes if they’re naked and still carrying a weapon, and so on.

I’m guessing that you will kill the whole party before they willingly dump the statue, then their loot, then their armor, their goods and equipment, finally their weapons and their clothes. Given the choice between materials and life, players always hesitate. Make them pay for their hesitation.

Oops. Forgot to include a princess. Oh well, they rescue a princess somehow.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Evil, Insane Killer Distance Table

What have I been doing lately? I had my doubts about going into this, as it definitely defines one of my crazier views on what comprises D&D, but what the hell. If you're going to read this blog, you might as well have the whole picture.

Here is the whole picture:

The purpose for this flow chart, which vaguely resembles central Eurasia, is forthcoming. First, I recognize that it is none-too-clear. It has been processed twice, once from Publisher to JPeg, then onto the Blogspot it is naturally a mess. A slightly clearer version can be downloaded here, where at least you can read the names.

If you know nothing about my trade tables, and you care to know, I suggest you search "trade" on this blog and go through some of my earlier posts. In the meantime, I'll give a quick description:

Individual regions produce a given amount of product; this product is collected in "trade cities," which are represented on this chart. The distribution of the products once they are produced and gathered together at their export points (trade cities) is dependent on the distance these cities are from each other. What I have been working on, painfully slowly, these last two weeks is a complete distance table which would identify the distance of every city from every other city. Fun, eh? I'm not close to finished, and I won't be for far longer than I like to think about.

Two immediate problems. First, I have not made any specifications for production trade cities for Western Europe, most of Africa, India, East Asia or the New World. This would seem like a problem. However, since I can't wait until that stage of the process is completed (it has taken me five years to get to where I am now, which isn't bad, considering), I am forced to estimate the distances to those areas and basically ignore any portions I have not done. For example, while I don't know the trade cities for India, China, Indochina or Western Europe, I do know how much product those regions produce. Whereas for most of Africa, the East Indies and the New World, I have nothing. Haven't even started working on those. C'est la vie.

You will note that there are only a few sea distances noted on the chart. Sorry. These just don't work out on the table. I use the maps that I've made (you've seen some of those maps, hopefully) to establish the number of hexes between ports. Since ships can virtually travel in any direction, it isn't worth it to note all the possible existing relationships. Those which are noted are those which are important to Central Europe, where my party is and where I am concentrating on for the distance table.

You may also note there are rivers, which have two numbers associated with them. The first, lower number is the distance downriver, with the current; the second, is the distance upriver. This makes the table more interesting, as the difference can decide which path a particular trade route takes. It also means that I can't simply assume the distance between A and B is the same as between B and A. I have considered simplifying this and averaging the two distances, but...well, I'm nuts. I like the irregularity.

All told there are more than 400 cities indicated on the chart. I have no program or programming ability to enter the individual distances and have a computer find the shortest distance, although I know this is possible. Sadly, I'm deficient in this regard. So if any nerd has an idea how to make this process shorter, so that I don't have to calculate each and every distance by fucking hand...grumble, grumble...I would like it.

Oh, there are some interesting points on the table, for anyone nerdy enough to really have a close look. For example, they might see that the river which flows through Kiyev--the Dneiper River--inexplicably becomes a road between Kremenchuk and Khortytsia. This is because, up until the 20th century, this part of the Dneiper was not navigable, which served to make the Ukraine somewhat backward, and helps explain why historically there was little foreign control over the various hetman tribes which dwelt in the lower Dneiper Valley; also, why the Tatars consistently controlled the Crimea and the Sea of Azov so long. Goods shipped to Kiev tended to go westward, up the Pripet River to where they could be moved to the Bug and the Vistula, and floated down to the Baltic, rather than south to the Black Sea. The main passage between the middle east and central Russia was through the Caspian, to Astrakhan and up the Volga. I should also point out that Smolensk, the point of highest navigation for the Dneiper, was more often in Polish hands than in was less practical for Russia to trade from the Dneiper than it was for the Poles.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Poking Fun

I had a housewarming party this last weekend, which went very well. A good friend of mine brought me what has to have been a gag gift—him being a D&D player himself—a copy of the made-for-TV, 1982 film, Mazes and Monsters.

I detect a shudder among those reading.

I had seen this film precisely one time before: in 1982. I eagerly anticipated the movie and was sure to be sitting at the screen when it came on, as it was the first media acknowledgement of the game that I’d heard of. I think there were a lot of us who, ignorant of the content (there was rarely any previous information distributed on ANY media then), were very angry with the film. I know I was. Angry with the message, angry that they got not one detail accurate, angry that the other side of the story was never going to get its say.

This is not a review. I don’t really care about the film itself; all made-for-TV movies are shit. I would like to say that if it were actually possible for players to “lose their sense of reality” within the game, we would all be playing MORE, not less. Would that the game were that engrossing.

Someone on a blog last week (I won’t say who, but he knows who he is) made an excited post about the movie Hawk the Slayer, asking why had he never heard of this movie before? I would answer that it was because he was lucky enough not to have been born in 1964 and thus not to have been 16 when the movie came out in 1980. It, with other films like Krull (1983), Clash of the Titans (1981) and Dragonslayer (1981) were part of a whole genre of cheesy fantasy films that came out in that period—partly, I suppose, because there was a groundswell of interest in fantasy fiction that was making itself clear to those making movies. But oh my god were these movies bad. Those people I played with at the time would grind their teeth whenever the subject of fantasy film was raised, wondering when in hell someone was going to make a good film. The best we had so far was Conan the Barbarian (1982), which was not well loved due to Schwarzenegger, who thankfully speaks about 8 words, total, through the entire film.

But all these films have become cult favorites—even Mazes and Monsters—because role-players have always “embraced the cheese.” As far back as my memory goes, the type of nerdy loner who enjoyed a good Saturday night with a D&D campaign was the same lad who Sunday night would take in a World’s Worst Film Festival at the vintage theatre downtown. There is something about the mindset that says that a really good film is impossible, so I will find really bad films and laugh at them.

I was born stodgy, I suppose, as I’ve never found anything funny in a bad film. I do not titter at bad dialogue, I wince…and then wonder why its not possible to have writers like this taken out and shot, or how it comes to be that people are willing to raise millions of dollars in order to put their shit screenplays on film, and by that time I’m out of the theatre and on my way home. I would rather watch bowling than a bad film.

The embracement of the cheese does not, however, end with the love of film. Many DMs, not blessed with any more talent than the average writer of fantasy screenplays (Uwe Boll comes to mind), produce campaigns which, if movies, would have all the angst of Ron Howard’s Willow (late for the genre, it came out in 1988). Princesses in need of saving, threatened villages, mindless quests, never ending and irrational dungeons (filled with hundreds of traps intended to guard…what, exactly?)…it is all part of the same stale block of Gouda. Most players love it; attempts at anything deeper are doomed to failure, since your personal dungeon master wasn’t born a C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Hell, not even a J.K. Rowling.

(What is it with the initials?)

So cheese is all they have. The protestors against the evil satanic cult of roleplaying should be aware that there are far more moments in a game where the players are making up bad puns about the last monster they’ve slaughtered, or how many times they can “surprise rape” their fellow party members, then fiendishly inventing ways to sacrifice real live victims in the game. At the heart of it, the gamers are the first to poke fun.

The myth of a “serious” campaign, that elusive thing, is the wheel upon which most DMs are broken, as players with their Mountain Dew and cheesies settle into their roles of Dave, Bob and Brian, ready to make hay of B.A.’s efforts. (More initials. Coincidence?)

It is the genre. Whatever Mazes and Monsters got wrong, it did get one thing right: people spouting fantasy fiction at each other around a kitchen look like morons to an outsider, any outsider. And we laugh at morons. Even at the other morons playing with us. Even at ourselves, being morons, while we play. Every once in awhile I find myself muttering phrases from the mouth of some NPC, and I have to wince.

Which is why no one is ever going to take this game as seriously as many of the bloggers or game pundits would like. It will never be cool. It will never be hip. It’s just such an easy target.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

General Notes

I haven't had many new thoughts lately about D&D; the other parts of my life have intervened. I won't be running until November 15, having only just changed residences and thus not being in possession of enough space to even set up a couple of tables until this weekend. I'm told that I'll be in a position to run seven players, as another is ready to audit a few sessions to see if she likes it. If she does, it would mean that the number of women in my campaign actively outnumbers the number of men. I don't know what this means.

It seems odd to me that, since I am fairly combat heavy in my campaigns, that I usually do well with women interested in playing the game. I don't find that women run particularly different from the men; or that they feel affronted. But that may be because I'm not, as many DMs I've found in the past, a hopeless prude who must build every campaign around the manliness of their players and the need to rescue princesses. Having a loose campaign as regards to the activities of the players, the women are free to explore their own desires to swing weapons and crush opponents. While the men do involve themselves in quite a few pissing contests, it is interesting to watch the women threaten to team together to teach them a lesson if they don't shut up.

I'll have to write more about that some time.

I am actively searching for various tokens to denote food, money, arrows, torches, flasks of oil and so on, and I have several people looking for good deals in this regard. First off, for those who might be considering getting some glass beads, I would recommend looking in pet stores which cater to fish before seeking them out from Walmart or educational sources. So far I have this tip second-hand...but I suspect that pet stores might have more to offer than I had at first considered. If anyone else has any tips, don't hesitate to bring them up.

Anyway, that's all I have time for. I'm working on National Novel Writing Month, 50,000 words in 30 days, which will soak up a lot of hours over the next four weeks. I'm working off a premise suggested by Nicola Tesla, about the transmission of electricity through the air, like radio or television waves. I think I have the science problems wrapped up, I have a beginning and an end, and most of the transitional elements figured out. Wish me luck.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Lately, the task of moving has been eating up much of my time, not to mention the process of packing away books, papers and various other source material. Thus, I have not been posting here.

In my free time, I continue to research my way through India and China, and am sad to say there is less on the internet regarding either than I would wish. However, working my way through Sichuan Province (old Szechwan), I ran across this:

Amazing. This is the Leshan Giant Buddha, which measures 233 feet. According to wikipedia, "Construction was started in AD 713, led by a Chinese monk named Haitong. He hoped that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels travelling down the river."

Note the stairwell next to the Buddha. I'd love to see this as a battleground, which is my nature. But the image is pure inspiration.

Wouldn't it be interesting to have the Buddha rise (a hundred-times stone golem) and quell a flood just before it destroyed the river vessel of the party. Would the party be grateful, I wonder?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cards for Gear

On Saturday, I introduced the element of using cards to represent pieces of equipment into my D&D campaign.

This has involved, so far, having the party write out legibly their equipment, so that I can replace their lists with cards, each marked with encumbrance values. I plan to have these cards ready for the players at the beginning of our next running.

It also involved the first time that treasure obtained was given to the party in the form of cards. I had made them up ahead of time, and once the baddies were all nicely butchered, the cards were made available to the party.

Now, a little background, if you will. Up until this last running, the party has been neatly dividing up treasure, highest roll claiming the choicest pieces and so on. I was not certain how the cards would change this arrangement…but I can describe the result.

Or rather, I can give you a sense of the result.

It was necessary for me to make the rule that if the card was damaged or bent, the item would be considered broken or destroyed.

This immediately calmed the free-for-all.

It is profound how quickly the prospect of a physical card made getting a hold of the +2 hammer a much more immediate thing. People talk of somehow adding emotionalism to the general role-play…you should watch five people dive for a stack of cards once given.

I realize now, of course, that the actual physical distribution of the treasure is going to be an issue. Rather than presuming that bodies are searched, and coins are gathered from sacks or from piles on the floor, then added together and tallied, I really will have to distribute my treasure according to the physical placement of characters in the room.

I admit, I’ve gotten lazy about that. After so long of dealing with people wanting to search bodies and open chests, I’ve lost all interest in detailed descriptions of what is in the small belt pouch as opposed to the backpack…and now I have been duly corrected in that. Because if I don’t carefully manage how the various loot is found, there are going to be fist fights during my campaigns.

What I did like was the after trading that went on once the cards were gracelessly distributed. Although there were more than sixty different items of treasure, the actual distribution was accomplished in very little time. The trades were made quickly and quietly, with everyone keeping silent about what they had actually found in their hands. It was impossible for anyone to tell if they had the better or the worse of the deal…since they couldn’t see what others had.

Since I’ve adopted the rule proposed by Jim of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, that wealth receives no initial X.P., getting it only when it is spent on character-building purposes such as establishing homes or getting drunk, I did not need to distribute experience after the fact that would allow players to compare how well they did. And since my world does not have a “one-item one-price” methodology on account of my trade tables, the items DO NOT include a g.p. value, either.

So if someone has a card that says, “silver snuffbox with six amber carbuncles,” how valuable is that, really? Of course they can’t know unless they hie thee to a jewelers, or they have some legitimate experience themselves. At which point I can give them the local value…secretly.

Thus, this has been a rocking success. The party has discovered how desperately greedy they are, the new concept is quick and workable, and there are unexpected variants to how players will react and inter-play.

What more could a campaign ask for?

Friday, October 17, 2008


I know weather isn’t very interesting. I know that writing about it for two posts won’t win me any awards for viewership. And for that I apologize.

But I can’t run this blog on the subject material I find elsewhere on more “popular” blogs. I couldn’t begin to review the endless parade of sad products dumped out by the various RPG companies, nor pause to give credit their authors; I’m not prepared to enter into long debates on the virtues of one fictional magician book series over another; or propose whole new kinds of RPGs based on the movie I saw last week. These are the things that bore me.

I’m not connected to the whole media side of the game. There is in this city a local fantasy gaming store that has been in existence since 1979. When I was fifteen, I would enter it all agog and frustrated that I didn’t have gobs of money with which to buy the product one shelf at a time. When I was 18 and working, I spent those gobs of money…but I slowly grew jaded as I became more familiar with what was available. Since my friends were spending their gobs too, we all had access to pretty much anything.

By 21, I had made my choices about what my world was going to be and what kinds of games I wanted to play. Having a “new” game to play didn’t make much sense to me…like having someone show up to every baseball game with the suggestion that we try playing it by different rules. I didn’t want any new rules, and neither did my serious players. We wanted to get “good” at the game we had. We wanted to get skillful at it.

By 24, I’d stopped going to the gaming store altogether. It was just the same stuff on the shelves, year after year. Another module, another round of miniatures we didn’t need (we had lots, and we were spending money on other things); more gaming aids, made more cheaply than the ones we had at home. More dice. Always, more dice.

I could never find the sort of thing I really wanted: an intelligent system for siege warfare or mass warfare…not just for a few hundred warriors, but for thousands. Something that would include seagoing vessels, which would give me practical rules on how many hits they could withstand from a ballista in relation to their size (not just for one pre-determined size of ship). A miniature that wasn’t another freaky looking thief, that was just a goddamn human soldier. An ordinary, everyday human fucking soldier. Maybe fifty of them, with a convenient number on the base for telling them apart…


Other things too. But really, I found most of what I needed at the university. Almost everything I’ve ever done with my world came out of a library, not a store.

I could talk for a long time about my world…that’s why I started this in the first place. Not because I really care if anyone reads this. I have to talk, to get it off my chest. In person, it just bores people glassy-eyed.

I had been thinking…why do I care about weather, really? Yes, I do think it makes things real, but why is that important? Clearly, real isn’t a big requirement for a lot of players. The recent go around about heroes was enough to prove that.

I think I care about weather because I want my world to be a world. I want it to be a place where a player can stand on at a crossroads and know two things:

The first is that no matter which way they may choose to go, what happens to them will depend on their decision and not on some predestined schedule dreamed up by the DM. I’ve played in enough worlds where the DM had it all set up in advance: west road, east road or south road, they would all lead to a village, where lizard men would be terrorizing the population and the players would have to throw off that tyranny…

If there are three roads, I want clearly in my mind three possibilities—and I want to be limited as a DM to the adventure the party chooses. Tough luck for me if it isn’t my dream-running.

The second thing I want is that everything is a part of a whole. I’ve also run in too many campaigns where, once the lizards are removed and the village saved, none of that remotely matters in the next campaign. I don’t want my world to be a series of individual stories, loosely tied together with geography. I want a single unified adventure, one that reaches forward into an uncertain future and leaves behind a rich and varied past.

The idea that there isn’t an “end” to an adventure is paramount for my world, I think. I always knew as a player that when we were told to get this jewel or save this princess or whatever, that was what was going to happen…like sitting in a film and knowing in the first five minutes that no matter what happens, Brad Pitt will still be standing when its all over. And bored as I might have been as a player, I can’t imagine running that as a DM. After all, as a DM, I don’t go up levels.

To make any of it happen, I need to run a “world”…not Adventure A followed by Adventure B followed by Adventure C. I’d rather the party discussed going south for the winter and establishing a second defensive depot in the off-season than standing around listening to yet another dull description of how such and such a kingdom was once happy until the blah monster arrived. I’d rather the party coming to blows with each other over what official religion the fiefdom will declare (there are two religions in the party, one among the common people) rather than paying lip-service to NPC gods. I’d rather the party contemplate their own plans for global domination, rather than foil the plans of NPC villains. If someone in the party does good, I want it to be for their own reasons, not mine. If someone does evil, I want no more retribution for that act than a real world would offer…either the individual wisely covers their tracks or they make enemies. I myself am wholly impartial to the event.

For that kind of world, I need weather, and an economy, and social structures large enough to allow for tours. An adventure is too small a thing. I want a campaign.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Measuring Helsinki

All right, as promised, here goes.

I do not apologize for the roughness of these tables; I conceived of this method only about a week and a half ago, and all but one of these tables was created last night. You can consider that it means those tables are probably junk…but no worse than the weather tables I’ve seen in 3e editions. I think that this group works pretty well together, and I’ll try to demonstrate that after completing the explanation.

If you’ve read yesterday’s post, I made the proposal that the appearance of cold fronts could be used as a singular method for determining the weather. I’d like to state again that this is a simplification. That is the point. Obviously the science of meteorology cannot be simplified to the consideration of cold fronts alone. But I don’t hope to explain meteorology…I just want a working system that will enable me to easily incorporate weather into my campaign.

The first requirement would be to determine the likelihood of a front occurring:

This table would be consulted on the day after a cold front occurred, and each day following, until a successful roll indicates the arrival of another front. You will note that the likelihood increases as the days pass; this likelihood could easily be adjusted for specific areas of your world or earth…more often for mountain regions, less often for areas nearer to the equator. That would depend on how turbulent you believed were the conditions on your world. For myself, I wanted a reasonable possibility of a front every 4 to 6 days, with a chance (however unlikely) that two weeks of steady weather might occur.

The modifier to wind strength is there so that fronts that follow immediately on top of one another are unlikely to be violent ballbusters. Again, this modifier could be dropped if you thought appropriate, or rearranged to reflect a specific region.

In any case, this brings us to the wind strength table:

The effects indicated are from the Beaufort Scale, which you can research to your heart’s content; various online descriptions of the scale give slightly different wind speeds—I’m using the numbers from my encyclopedia. The effects are merely there to give an impression of what the conditions might be like during travel or during an encounter. It’s interesting to imagine a battle during a strong gale, with bits and pieces of roof tile bouncing off the combatants causing damage.

Please note the front strength given on the left, as it is needful on the storms table.

First however, the level of humidity of the entering cold front and of the pre-existing warm front must be determined:

I’ve arranged this table to show the most common weather provinces. I admit that the numbers are almost entirely ad hoc—I give them here only to get an idea of what they might be. At some point, when I have a week or so, I might dig up some data on humidity of fronts moving into given regions and do the table more accurately; for the moment, however, this is good enough to show how the table ought to work.

It’s quite simple. Roll a % die to see if the cold front is composed of moist air…a failure indicates that it’s dry. Sorry about the cut off headings. They should read,

“% chance that arriving cold front is moist” and “% chance of moist air mass at point of arrival of front.” The latter refers to the pre-existing warm front.

It is also necessary that I post the following table, describing weather grades. This is based in part on the system first proposed in the Wilderness Survival Guide from AD&D, but the numbers are my own:

This is pretty straightforward and easy to understand also. I constructed it a few years ago as I was struggling with cold and heat effects and how they’re mitigated by clothing; but that’s another story.

Okay, there’s only one table left:

This table is suitable only for the turbulent zone between 30 and 60 degrees latitude…and it quite general in its descriptive effects to allow plenty of latitude on the part of the DM in describing just what the conditions are. This table should be used as a guideline. Again, at some point I may sit down and devise a much more complicated and detailed descriptive table of the specific results, for each season and for each weather province, but that’s not necessary for this demonstration.

The temperature drop refers to the number of grades that the temperature falls below the average temperature for a given locale. Since in the days following the previous cold front the weather has been steadily improving, the actual drop will be greater…unless fronts have followed two days in a row, in which case it is possible that the second, more likely weaker front would actually be warmer than the first front. If you follow me.

Regarding the rainfall modifier given: if we presume sixty cold fronts in the space of a year, which would be five per month. To determine the given rainfall of a specific locale, divide the monthly average by five and then multiply against the modifier given to determine the number of inches of rain.

Yeah, I know. This is all as clear as mud. Let’s work out an example using all the tables.

Let’s say the party is in Helsinki, Finland, or in a region very much like it. It is October the 16th. A cold front arrived last Friday, and since that time—up until yesterday—the weather has been steadily improving. But for today we’ve rolled a 3 on a d20, indicating a cold front.

There is no modifier to the wind strength, so we roll a % die, obtaining a 64, which we compare against the “maritime” column, as Helsinki is within 100 miles of the sea (its right on the Baltic, for those who don’t know). The wind strength table indicates a fresh wind, with small trees swaying and moderate waves on the sea—a “weak” front.

Helsinki is in a humid cool continental zone; in the autumn there is a 15% chance that the cold front is moist, and a 73% chance that the existing warm front is moist. We roll a 35 and a 22, indicating that a dry cold front is moving against a moist warm front.

As it is a dry cold front, the wind would originate in the north to northeast, blowing from the east ice cap/north Russian land mass (a moist front would originate in the Barents Sea, still open at this time of the year). Remember that all cold fronts originate from a easterly direction and are turned counter-clockwise by the motion of the earth.

We compare the relationship of the fronts to the Weak Front Effects table and we find that, in the autumn, it begins to rain. This rain will increase in intensity through the day and overnight, while tomorrow will be cool and the skies relatively clear. By tomorrow afternoon the cold front will have passed entirely, whereupon we can roll to see if the warm front that flows into the air space behind the front is moist or not; we roll a 51 and find that it is. We get no cold front for Friday or Saturday, so the warm front raises the temperature a grade or two, bringing with it the cloudy skies (and gentle rain) associated with the Baltic Sea basin. For each day that a cold front does not occur, there is a 50% chance per day that the temperature will rise one grade, until a maximum of 4 grades above average is reached. At some point, the next cold front will interrupt this increase, and the pattern begins again.

All there is left to determine is the actual temperature and the actual rainfall. For that, we go to the climate table for Helsinki, where we discover the average temperature for October is 5.5 degrees Celsius, or 41.9 degrees Fahrenheit. That makes the average temperature grade “M”; the temperature drop from the front that occurred today is to drop this 1-2 grades; we roll and find the temperature today is “K”.

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but it should be obvious to some that the temperature K would refer to the mean temperature for the day…the daily high would be one grade better, and the daily low would be one grade worse. Thus, during the afternoon, the temperature would be “L”, meaning rain during the day, turning to “K” in the evening (whereupon the rain would turn to sleet), then “J” overnight (meaning snow) and “K” the following morning. At that point there is a 50% chance that the mean daily temperature would rise to “L” with a high of “M” tomorrow.

Greater increases are possible from the onset of warm fronts…you might want to try an initial increase of 1-4 grades in the summer, 1-3 grades in the spring, 1-2 grades in autumn and 1 grade in winter. Play with it, see what results work for you.

We can now discover the average rainfall for Helsinki for the month of October: total, 68.5 mm or 2.7 inches. Divided by 5, and multiplied by a modifier of 1x according to the table, indicates that during the 24-hour period of this cold front, 13.7 mm or 0.54 inches of rain falls.

Now, how simple is this system? Very simple. In no time at all it’s easy to see that Helsinki is nowhere that a party wants to be in October. Time to get on a boat and head south.

Oh, incidentally, the temperature in Helsinki at the moment (I believe it is 5 P.M.) is grade “O” and the wind from the SE…one of those Baltic Sea moist warm fronts that bring occasional rain.


I need to fix the flaw in my reasoning above. IF the warm front that follows a cold front is a moist front, then rainy weather follows sporadically, with cloud cover, until the next occurrence of a cold front. The skies clear following a cold front only if the warm front that follows is a dry front.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Damn Right I'm Going to Talk About Weather

One of the convenient things about using the earth as a template for a world is that a vast resource of climate data is readily available for temperature, precipitation, humidity, winds and so on. This climate data, further, continues to increase in its detail and availability online. It would be impossible to create a world from scratch which would include, as part of its structure, the sort of detail available for earth—the best that one could do would be to estimate regions of an invented world based upon earth models…and therefore it is still useful to have at least a beginner’s understanding of meteorology.

Climate does not, however, completely describe the picture, as weather is turbulent and unpredictable. The easiest way to devise a system for the game would be to pick a date in the modern era (say, 1981), and then have exact weather reports for places on earth for that year, so that on March 23 as a DM you could say the weather in Lisbon was “this.” It rained all day, the temperature was 9 Celsius, the humidity was 64% and so on.

I’ve never liked that idea. I have wanted a system that could be random, something that would surprise the DM as well as the player…because it would be more fun that way.

I’ve already said that the benefits of having weather in a campaign help make the experience real. There are other reasons. How does weather affect a party that chooses to travel in various environments? How does heat or cold affect the equipment a party can carry or wear? What are the effects of wet weather on health and disease?

Admittedly, weather is such a pain. Virtually every system that has ever been advanced is cumbersome or useless. There are so many variables to weather that a detailed, random system is virtually impossible without dozens of die rolls being made for each day in order to provide results which aren’t irrational or worse, blandly repetitive. DMs can’t be bothered to memorize the tables involved because they can’t see the benefits to their campaigns.

Shelter is one of the three basic necessities to the human condition, but D&D by and large ignores it completely. A typical campaign has a party moving along through the environment, even through a driving rain, with all the concern of someone crossing a living room. It is always presumed that the characters are somehow brave, hearty souls who are unaffected by the wind in their face…but I argue that a wise character has the sense to get out of the rain. Weather is, I believe, another obstacle to be overcome, like traps, lairs or monsters. An untapped obstacle for many campaigns.

A simple system would seem impossible—but I want to make the attempt anyway. For me, if not a simple system, then no system at all.

I have been concentrating, to date, on the turbulent zone between 30 and 60 degrees latitude, where on earth the prevailing westerlies of the horse latitudes are turned northwards by the turning of the earth, coming into conflict with the polar easterlies turned southward. The former manifest as warm fronts, the latter as cold fronts…the conflict between the two creates storms. This conflict creates most of the weather of the United States, Europe, China and Japan. It is the weather with which we are most familiar and it is the weather most difficult to define through a system of dice.

Rather than creating a temperature based system that determines if the weather is warmer or colder than the average with a 50% chance of each, I’ve decided to base the system on the arrival of cold fronts. This is because, inevitably, a cold front will arrive at some point…the question is how long between fronts, how quickly the cold front will be moving and how warm and moist has the warm front become when the cold front arrives. It is the latter two conditions that determine the violence of weather conditions, including blizzards, thunderstorms and tornadoes. The exact moment of interaction between a warm and cold front is the most significant weather event in the turbulent zone.

Typically, a continental region experiences between 50 and 70 cold fronts a year. An intermontane region, such as Tibet or the southeastern American desert, can experience up to 180 cold fronts in a year—most of which will “break up” upon crossing over the large mountain systems of the Rockies or the Himalayas. The number therefore can fluctuate greatly depending on the region.

Cold fronts may be weak or strong; slow-moving or fast moving; massive or small. These things are determined by the season, by the topography of a region and by chance. Cold fronts lose their power as they move southward or as the air mass loses its integrity.

Cold fronts may also be moist or dry. Winter cold fronts moving over icy terrain from the frozen Arctic Ocean are typically dry. In winter or summer, cold fronts originating over the north Atlantic or Pacific are typically moist.

When interacting with warm fronts within this system, it is important to know the origin of the warm front to determine its humidity. Most large warm fronts of Earth are moist, as most originate from the Indian, Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. Warm fronts originating in the Sahara are dry, however; and many warm fronts, passing over mountains such as those of Iran or the Rocky Mountains, lose their moisture and are also dry.

Desert areas experience both cold and warm fronts which are consistently dry, either because of the origin of the fronts or because they are surrounded by mountains which leech the moisture from the air. Turkestan, Western China and southeast America are good examples of this.

Rainforests experience both cold and warm fronts that are consistently moist. Many jungles experience only warm fronts, as they are located at the equator. For places like Japan, Britain, Norway or British Columbia, moist cold fronts from the central Pacific and Atlantic consistently provide a great deal of rain with cool—not cold—temperatures.

It is a simplification, but for the sake of sanity, I’m going to argue that warm fronts move in this system only when the cold front has fully moved past a location, leaving a “vacuum.” This means that only cold front movement must be determined.

The following applies to slow-moving cold fronts:

Wherever a moist cold front pushes out a dry warm front, there is cloudy weather and gentle precipitation may result. Whenever a moist cold front pushes out a moist warm front, heavy precipitation results. Whenever a dry cold front pushes out a dry warm front, cold or cool clear skies result—potentially very cold, in winter. Whenever a dry cold front pushes out a moist warm front, a steady rain will result, increasing as the fronts push against one another.

In each of the examples above, a fast-moving cold front increases the intensity of the storm.

A moist cold front rushing at a dry warm front will produce cool, light rain over a long period. A moist cold front rushing at a moist warm front will produce a highly violent series of thunderstorms, known as a squall line, often three or four in one day, with considerable amounts of rain. A dry cold front rushing at a dry warm front will produce very brief thunderstorms (often without rain) associated with windstorms, funnel clouds or tornadoes. A dry cold front rushing at a moist warm front will produce a large, lasting and very violent thunderstorm, associated with hail and tornadoes.

So, the task would be to A) determine the chance that today a cold front is arriving; B) determine the humidity (moist or dry) of both the cold front and the dry front—both having specific likelihoods depending on the season; C) the strength of the front (weak or strong…I don’t want to be more specific than that) and D) the speed with which the front is moving, determining the violence of the results.

I haven’t actually crafted the table that will designate the speed with which a cold front is moving; I believe I’ll sit down tonight and do so. The table would have to include the expected effects associated with the speed—should be interesting. I’ll try to post have it done and post it tomorrow. Should be interesting.

I’ll also want to begin discussing the after effects of the cold front moving through. The day after, its presumed that the resulting weather would reflect the humidity of the front that’s passed, clear skies or cloudy…which would then lead to steadily clearing weather as the cold front moved farther away, replaced by the warm front bringing either clear skies or humid clouds, which would then be hit by the next cold front.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Food For Thought

Some thoughts on encounters, organized a bit. These are by no means all-inclusive (how could anything be?). But its a start. I've applied some of these to my basic maps before (examples of which I've posted).

Four types of encounters:

Fabricated encounters include all engineered features which have been built by intelligent hands: bridges, dams, single houses, population centers, plowed fields and so on. Fabricated encounters generally include a cultural component.

Fixed environmental encounters include all natural features which are permanent in nature: rivers, cliff faces, glaciers, chasms, deserts, quicksand, muskeg, lakes and so on.

Unfixed environmental encounters include all those natural conditions which are constantly changing, such as weather, flooding, astronomical events, seismic events and so on.

Biological encounters include meetings with zoological or botanical species, singly or in groups, where divorced from their fabricated surroundings, including the contraction of diseases.

A great many hexes have a pre-determined fabricated component and all hexes have a pre-determined fixed environmental component. Pre-determined fabricated components include villages, towns, cities, croplands and paved roads. Pre-determined environmental components include elevation, drainage, hydrography and vegetation. Both must be treated selectively according to type, to determine the likelihood and nature of biological encounters or unfixed environmental encounters.

Predetermined Hex Types

Human or Demi-human Population: city, town, village, authority centers, scattered, wilderness.
Infrastructure: road, crossroads, bridge, navigable watercourse, pass.
Topographical Variation: plain, hills, highlands, mountains, valley, depression.
Drainage: creeks, streams, rivers, wadis, deltas, braided channel, marshes.
Hydrography: seashore, lakeshore, seasonal lakeshore
Vegetation: grasslands, deciduous forest, tundra, evergreen forest, rainforest, jungle, arid semi-desert, high mountains, barren rock, snowfields, boglands and swamps

Human Population

Cities, towns and villages (CTV) are marked on the map and include statistics for their population. Hexes adjacent to a CTV have a 64% chance of being occupied by d4 authority centers (AC) (commonly thought of as “hamlets” in medieval European terms). This chance is reduced by half for each further hex…for each change in elevation of 400 feet (round down), consider the hex to be one further distant. Reduce the maximum number of AC by 1 for every two distance. For example, a specific hex is 2 hexes from the town of Newar and at an elevation 850 feet higher (a lower elevation would be judged the same); the total distance from Newar would be judged to be four…thus the chance for 1-2 AC would be 8%.

Each AC includes a permanent structure commensurate with that culture (manor house, long house, cliff dwelling, etc.), usually larger and more defensible the greater its isolation. It is presumed that a successful habitation at a greater distance exists due to its profound religious or fiscal success. An AC typically has a population of 60-180 serfs and 20-50 elite, including servants, guards, professional artisans, clergy and master. Children younger than fifteen will equal an additional 17% of the number rolled.

All otherwise unoccupied hexes adjacent to a CTV or an AC are considered to have scattered populations, consisting of hunters, woodsmen, herdsmen, prospectors, cotters, criminal elements, druids and so on.

All other hexes are considered wilderness. Wilderness hexes may be inhabited by non-human/ demi-human ACs or ungrouped monsters.


The presence of a paved road doubles the likelihood that an AC will be present. A crossroads, where two roads meet in a hex where there is no CTV, triples the likelihood than an AC will be present and gives a further modifier of +1 to the number of ACs rolled (if indicated). It is 50% likely that one AC will be a provisional military outpost (MO), whose business it will be to examine carried goods, assess tariffs and credentials, charge tolls and impound contriband materials.

Bridges include only those structures which cross large watercourses. Treat bridges as crossroads when determining the presence and number of ACs. Bridges will include small docking facilities for riverboats, except where topography makes this impractical.

Navigable watercourses are sorted according to the depth of keel they allow. A 2-point stream will allow various rowboats, barges, skiffs or flat-bottomed sailing boats. A 3-point stream will allow ketches and other keeled vessels not large enough for seagoing travel. A 4-point river will allow snaikas or small galleys (single-tiered). Larger rivers will allow the passage of cogs, full galleys, deep-bottomed Veneti and so on, depending on the exact specifics of the river. (for additional information see “drainage”)

Passes are considered only wherever they are traversed by a paved road; they are defined by the presence of two adjacent hexes on either side of the road having a minimum elevation of 1,000 ft. above the road hex. ACs indicated on a pass are always MOs.

Topographical Variation

In each of the following cases, consider that a hex is 20 miles in diameter. The designated topographies are:

Plain: indicated when a hex is surrounded by three or more adjacent hexes with elevations deviating no more than 400 ft. from that hex’s benchmark. Thus, a hex with an elevation of 750 ft., surrounded by six hexes with elevations of 600, 850, 900, 950, 1200 and 1400 ft. would be considered to be on a plain.
Hills: indicated whenever a hex is surrounded by three or more hexes with elevations deviating 400 ft. either above or below that hex’s benchmark.
Highlands: indicated whenever a hex is surrounded by three or more hexes with elevations deviating 800 ft. below that hex’s benchmark.
Mountains: indicated whenever a hex is surrounded by three or more hexes with elevations deviating 1,200 ft. above or below that hex’s benchmark.
Valley: indicated whenever a hex is surrounded by 4 or 5 hexes having elevations greater than 200 ft. above that hex’s benchmark.
Depression: indicated whenever all a hex is surrounded on all sides by hexes with a greater elevation.
Rolling: a hex is said to have a rolling topography where none of the above are indicated.

Note that some hexes can potentially have more than one designated topography. A hex can be a mountain valley or a mountain highland; or a hill valley; or a plains depression or a mountain depression.


Watercourse sizes are determined by the total area of land which they drain:

Creeks (1 point) are typically from 1-3 yards in width and a maximum depth of 5 feet.
Streams (2 points) range from 4-15 yards in width with depths of 5-9 feet.
Small rivers (3 points) range from 12-30 yards in width with depths of 8-14 feet.
Medium rivers (4-5 points) range from 24-95 yards in width with depths of 10-23 feet.
Large rivers (6-7 points) range from 76-265 yards in width with depths of 15-32 feet.
Great rivers (8+ points) are a minumum of 212 yards in width with minimum depths of 20 feet.

Seasonal watercourses are called wadis, and correspond to the above dimensions when source rainfall occurs.

Wherever a watercourse drops more than 400 feet between hexes, it is unnavigable to all except small boats (less than 20 ft. in length), unless evidence indicates otherwise (remember, I’m using Earth as a reference). Such a course is presumed to include at least one set of rapids; ascending such a course requires “bushwhacking,” the process of pulling the boat along by ropes from the shore. Watercourses which drop more than 600 feet between hexes are assumed to be unnavigable to all watercraft (again, unless there is evidence to the contrary). This holds true regardless of the watercourse’s size.

River deltas are large, flat areas where watercourses break up into multiple channels. Depending on their latitude, they may be choked by ice or vegetation, though the size of the watercourse suggests that it may be navigable. Braided channels are similar in that the watercourse separates into multiple channels within the confines of its valley before reforming.

Marshes are submerged areas which are the result of drainage, and are considered separate from bogs or swamps for the purpose of this system. Marshes most often occur at the mouths of watercourses, but may sometimes occur where the elevation change causes the channel to inundate a wide area.


Seacoasts and lakeshores increase the likelihood that an AC will be present by 50% (a hex adjacent to a CTV and on the shore of a lake has a 96% chance of having 1-4 ACs). They are further defined by the elevation of the seacoast or lakeshore hex:

Hexes less than 12 feet above water level would be heavily subject to tides…for special places, tidal effects could be higher than 12 feet.
Hexes less than 100 feet above water level will have good harbours and water access, and depending upon the specific region in question will have stony, gravel or fine sand beaches.
Hexes that are 100-500 feet above water level will have moderate access to the sea, generally through wide clefts in cliff escarpments or rock pillars. Poor harbours will be the rule, while beaches will be stony.
Hexes of 500+ feet above water level will have very difficult access to the sea, limited to narrow crevasses through high rock cliffs or broken rock terrain (such as parts of the Greek coast). No harbour will be available unless indicated by the presence of a CTV.

Lake elevation is accepted as the lowest elevation lakeshore hex. For lakes occupying only one hex, assume that the lake and the hex are the same elevation.

Seasonal lakes are found in arid regions. They are often alkali in addition to being highly salty in nature. As such areas alternately flood or remain sterile for large periods, divide the likelihood of an AC being present by three. Thus, a hex adjacent to a CTV and containing a seasonal lake would have a 21% chance of including 1-4 ACs (the presence of one AC would indicate that the lake boundaries were stable and, while seasonal, non-alkali and suitable for irrigation).


There are three levels of vegetation: those which are habitable and are largely arable (type 1), those which are habitable and largely non-arable (type 2), and those areas which are inhabitable and entirely lacking in arable land (type 3).

Type 1 lands include grasslands and deciduous forest, such as the Europe Plain, the Russian Steppe, the Ganges Plain, eastern and southern China, the South African Veld, the African Savanna and so on. In many of these areas, the original forest has been cut down to make space for cropland.

Type 2 lands include tundra, evergreen forest (coniferous), rainforest, jungle and arid semi-desert, such as appears in Saharan Africa, Arabia, Turkestan, the Congo, Southern India, the East Indies, the Amazon, Siberia, the Arctic Circle and so on. While some areas of this type, particularly those which have been inhabited for more than 4000 years, have been oversettled, most type 2 lands have not. Because such areas tend to be “metropolitan” and highly urbanized, reduce the chance that surrounding hexes will include ACs by half.

Type 3 lands include high mountains, barren rock, snowfields, desert ergs, boglands and swamps (coastal mangrove growth or mud flats subject to tides). Type 3 lands will not include human or demi-human habitation of any kind.