Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I have wondered if I should bother writing this post, particularly as I know it will be arduous and little understood…and probably not supported. I expect no one to read it and change anything about the way they play…and I hardly care. I have been playing myself this way for so long that I can’t see doing it any other way.

The subject is combat. Before I begin, I need to give some lip service towards the subject of AD&D in general. I don’t play it. I do base much of my world on the books, and I do use many of the tables therein, and generally have its backbone as a structure that I adhere to. But when it comes to the actual, rules-lawyer inspired game, I don’t play it. That is because, as I have said before, the game as written is broken. And I have felt comfortable changing whatever I’ve felt was wrong in order to make a more playable, effective game. I don’t see the changes as “house rules” because I don’t recognize the original text as anything but a guideline. But I know others see it that way…so here are my house rules for combat.

They were suggested to me by a player back in ’88, and after a few months of playing them and tweaking them, it was generally agreed that they represented a faster, more vigorous form of combat. My present players were inducted into the game with the more traditional combat system—none of them complained a whit at my variations. And while I say this often, I will say it again…I’ve never had any complaints, not from anyone I’ve introduced to it. I suppose I’ve had a few people who wouldn’t run in my world—but the combat system was never cited as the reason.

All right then. Preamble over.

I’ve wondered about the best way to describe this system, but I suppose the story teller in me demands the approach below. Any comments I think are special to my system I’ll describe in red. Just for fun, I’ll roll all the dice and describe the events as the dice describe (I won’t cheat).

In a completely different universe, Aggro the Axe (4th level fighter), Abner (5th level mage), Arkayn (4th level cleric) and Arlanni (2nd level thief) are moving down a rock corridor lined with torch sconces (I don’t want to get into light factors for this), disappointed that they’ve found nothing yet. Aggro and Arkayn are at the front.

Approaching them from the other end of the corridor, having just entered from the outside, are Gutboy Barrelhouse (6th level fighter), Balto (1st level monk), Blastum (4th level mage) and Barjin (a 4th/5th level fighter/mage). Gutboy and Barjin are at the front.

As both parties include humans, both are clearly able to see the torch lights indicating the other’s approach. The two parties stop 30’ apart, or six hexes (I don’t use squares). There are five empty hexes between the parties and the hall is two hexes wide.

After a period of unhappy discussion, the parties decide, more or less at the same moment, to attack one another. At this point, initiative is rolled. Party A rolls a 5 and Party B rolls a 4.

As it happens, Balto has a 17 dexterity, giving him a +2 initiative (same benefit as dex missile bonus), thus his initiative is a “6”. Arlanni, however, has a 16 dexterity, so that her initiative is also a “6”. Thus, these two individuals attack simultaneously.

As both are in the rear, both have no choice but to use missile weapons. Arlanni unwisely decides to use her sling, which requires the whole round (Each round is six seconds; three seconds per side; I decided on six second rounds primarily because I wished the rounds to reflect a single swing and because, otherwise, the slow movements proposed by AD&D just don’t make sense) to wind up, so she will actually attack last. Balto has no other weapon than his staff (one proficiency only at first level), so unless he chooses to jump between Gutboy and Barjin, he must wait. So he waits.

As Aggro is in plate mail and shield, with a 15 strength, his movement per round is “2” (to move one hex requires 1 movement point; to attack requires 2 movement points). As such, Aggro cannot rush forward to attack anyone; at best, he can stagger forward two hexes and set himself for attack…he doesn’t however, aware that his companions will need him to defend, he moves a step forward and into the center of the hall, intending to hold that position like Horatius at the bridge.

Arkayn decides to cast the spell command, which—like Arlanni’s sling—will require a round to cast (remember that the rounds are greatly shortened, and thus the enemy has time to foil Arkayn’s spell; I believe this is much more realistic than the Hollywoodized concept of superpowerful wizards, and certainly makes a spellcaster pick their moment). As Arkayn is dressed in scale mail, he is counting on a better than fifty percent chance of getting the spell off.

Meanwhile Abner, unarmored and with a movement of 5, backs away down the corridor. As most of his spells are effective at fairly high ranges, the farther he is from the enemy’s thrown weapons, the better the chance that his spells won’t be ruined once they’re begun.

Party B.

Gutboy, in splinted and with a strength of 17 has a movement of 3. This means he is capable of moving one forward and attacking; however, he is five hexes away from Aggro. Plus the cleric is throwing a spell. Gutboy, however, has five proficiencies, one of them being a dagger. Requiring 1 move to draw the dagger and 2 to throw it, he hurls the dagger at Arkayn…he rolls a 15; he has no dexterity bonus (and I play with no dumbfuck armor class adjustments), but for a sixth level fighter that hits AC 1. Arkayn takes two damage and the spell is ruined.

Barjin, being a multi-classed mage/fighter, has no armor and thus has a movement of 5. As he already has his hand axe in hand (wisely prepared), he hurls it at Aggro (2 movement) as he runs forward (3 movement). This does not quite close the gap, but he knows Aggro likely cannot move forward one hex and still attack (unless Aggro has, for whatever reason, more than one attack per round, in which case the movement cost per attack is one). Barjin rolls a natural 20 (!), which causes double damage (I used to use critical hit tables, but they got annoying); he automatically rolls the d20 again (another natural “19” or “20” indicates triple damage—though 19s are ignored if the defender is wearing a helmet), and produces a 5. Barjin gets no strength bonus for his hand axe, as it was thrown (and he has a 14 strength, at any rate), but he manages to cause 6 damage. Aggro has 29 hit points, so he is not “stunned.” (“What?” you’re thinking…I will explain when someone IS).

Finally, there’s Blastum. He can see Arlanni winding up her sling, so he’s going to back up also. Like Abner, he has a movement of 5…but he only backs up two hexes, for reasons which will become clear.

At this point, Arlanni lets go her sling bullet. Close range is anything within 15 hexes (PHB, p. 38, range indicated x 3 hexes), but her companion Aggro needs support so she fires at Barjin. She rolls a 1, indicating that the sling has come out of her hand. The stone bounces harmlessly off the walls and the sling itself lands (roll 1-3 to indicate) two hexes in front of her. Arlanni swears.

2nd Round.

Balto still has initiative over Party A. He has a movement of 5 (unarmored monk), but being fairly weak it’s just not wise for him to move to where Aggro has a chance to hit him; formerly he was standing behind Barjin…Balto is still six hexes away from where Aggro is positioned. His best chance is to wait until Aggro is stunned (there’s that word again) so he can slip past and attack the spellcasters. In the meantime, he moves forward three hexes where he can use Barjin as a shield.

Party A (except for Arlanni, whose actions now follow Party B)

Aggro has little choice in action. Separated from Barjin by two hexes, he can’t advance and attack this round (this is why plate mail sucks; and why it SHOULD suck…I don’t punish players because they decide to have it, I punish them because the stuff weighs 45 pounds and is put together with screws, for shit’s sake). He could choose to drop his battle axe (no movement; sheathing it would cost him 1) and draw his hammer, enabling him to throw it the following round, but he decides not to. (If he didn’t stubbornly pick a weapon requiring two hands, he could hold both an sword and a hammer…good reasons why if you’re going to wear plate mail you should think better how you choose to defend yourself). What Aggro CAN do is advance one hex and “engage” Barjin in combat, even though Aggro doesn’t have a chance to attack this round. (Once engaged in combat Barjin has to expend 2 movement to withdraw, plus 1 more to move into an adjacent hex).

Arkayn, miserable that his spell failed, decides now to draw his mace and join Aggro. Arkayn in scale and with a 13 strength has a movement of 3. He can’t quite move forward either and attack Barjin (being separated by three hexes), but he can move forward two and additionally engage Barjin in combat (Each additional person increases the withdraw penalty by 1 move).

Abner, confidently 11 hexes from the nearest enemy, is now free to cast. He considers getting that goddurn it web scroll out of his pack because it will be pretty useful just now. Unfortunately, it’s going to take him one round to get off his pack, another to rummage through the bag, a third to uncap the scrollcase and get the blasted thing out. Then it will take another full round to read it. Instead he decides to cast his suggestion spell (the best third level spell his book allowed, having only a 15 intelligence), which will take two rounds to cast (like all third level spells).

Party B (except for Balto)

At this point, Barjin has only one escape hex…and it will cost him four movement points to enter it. Given his movement of five, he could completely retreat to a point two hexes from Aggro—but what would that accomplish? Gutboy can’t handle both Aggro and Arkayn alone, and Balto is no real help…and besides, Blastum is at the back preparing a spell. Basically, the best thing Barjin can do at this point is attack. Arkayn is an easier target. He rolls a 16, hitting AC 2. Using a long sword, he causes 6 damage. Arkayn has 22 total hit points (these useless characters from the book have no stats!) and is stunned.

(Now what, exactly, does that mean? Whenever any creature takes damage in a given round—from however many sources—which equals or exceeds one quarter of the total hit points at the beginning of that round, the creature is stunned for one round, during which time they can take no action whatsoever. The character falls back one hex—or two plus hexes if struck by a large creature, depending on the size of the creature—and there they remain. For story’s sake, they can be said to be dazed or laying on the ground…if stunned next to a vertical drop, they are allowed a dexterity check, failure indicating that they have fallen. That’s fun to run, let me tell you. If it so happens that Barjin is not stunned himself by Aggro’s next attack, he can move forward and attack Arkayn again, this time needing only 4 damage to stun him, as Arkayn’s total hit points the following round were reduced to 16. The liveliness of this comes from being able to literally beat your opponent to death without them ever having a chance to attack, if the dice favor your attack. It’s fun when it works for the players, it is amazingly distressing when it works for the creatures opposing them)

Balto remains where he is…thoroughly outclassed, he’s best held in reserve. Remember that later in the battle, it may not need much for him to keep either Aggro or Arkayn stunned.

Gutboy rushes forward to back up Barjin. He’s four hexes from Aggro, which means he can advance three and engage Aggro in combat.

Lastly, Blastum actually possesses a web spell…five hexes behind Balto, he will begin casting it. Of course, the spell only has a range of 20’ feet at Blastum’s level, so he’ll have to move forward once he’s cast the spell.

This leaves only Arlanni. Being a thief and not suited for direct combat, she has wisely filled two thin ceramic flasks with oil and has previously prepared them both with cloth wicks. These she keeps carefully in padded pouches hanging from the belt over one shoulder. In leather armor she has a movement of 4; it takes one movement to extract one flask, one movement to draw her flint and tinder, one to set the bottle on the ground and one to ready the tinder for use. The next round she will light the flask and prepare to throw it over the melee in the direction of the enemy mage…

Not that I can’t go on with this, but I’m getting a bit tired. It is a helluva a lot easier to actually run this combat than it is to describe it, along with all the rules that my players have comfortably adjusted to. I hope that this will, to some degree, help explain why combats in my game are interesting enough to draw approval. But perhaps not. Who knows? I find them a great deal more diverting than the example on p. 71 of the DMG. You decide.

P.S. I’ll finish the combat if I’m asked to.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Above is an 1860 sketch of the Hemis Monastery, which, although indicated on the site as Tibetan, is also indicated as being under the present jurisdiction of India. The above, I think, is an interesting image in terms of D&D, suggesting a possible adventure in which monks are a) aided; b) slaughtered mercilessly; or c) no longer in residence. Obviously, there might be other possibilities.

Having finally completed the mapping of the Arabian Peninsula, I am at last, after a long period interrupted by my injury, finished with the entire Mideast, from the Libyan border to Pakistan. Some might argue that the latter is part of the Arab world, but not in the 17th century; at that time, the Indus Valley, the "Land of the Five Rivers" was firmly in the sphere of the Indian subcontinent and the Moghul Empire. Last night I began some of the sketch-work for both sides of the Karakoram and Himalaya ranges, which included Kashmir and a fair sized quarter of Tibet...which got me thinking.

An indepth geographical analysis of Tibet helps reveal the success of Buddhism among the mountains and salt deserts of the region. If there is a word to describe Tibet, it would be "isolated"...not merely from the rest of the world, but still more from itself. Tibet is a patchwork of valleys surrounded by glaciers, uninhabitable and non-arable lands, each of which exists in an unchanging, self-sustained fashion. Whatever the nearby lakes or grazing lands provide, that is what sustains the people...to travel the necessary forty or sixty miles to the next inhabited valley requires immense stamina and resolve. Most of the inhabitants, particularly before the colonial age, would never have done it, as there is very little the next distant valley, shrouded behind ranges of more than 20,000 feet, that this valley here does not have.

Most of the valleys in Tibet are between 14,000 and 17,000 feet above sea level. In the southern reaches, within two or three hundred miles of the Himalayan range, small rivers ebb from glaciers into deep lakes, frozen or partly frozen for eight to ten months of the year at those altitudes. The population is very sedentary, grouped into herders or fishermen, with the ruling class made entirely of holy men. In each valley, these holy men are respected and provided for, in a wholly feudal manner; and since the Lamaist Buddhists seek Nirvana and not earthly power, there is never any war between the valleys.

But then again, one could easily argue the lack of demand for goods encourages a social system which eschews war in favor of an eternally pacifistic, eternally unchanging culture.

What humanoid creatures, however, might exist in the D&D equivalent to Tibet? Are yeti potentially Buddhist? Are there stone giants, dwelling beneath the gentle culture, culling the working population like morlocks, even doing so with the blind eye of the lamasaries? That interests me, personally. The thought that a powerful monastery, full of various masters, would calmly disdain to stop the occasional stone giant roaming through a village choosing a tasty morsel for the evening. While the party watches, of course, their help not asked for, the villagers completely apathetic to the whole proceeding (as they accept whatever the monks say is proper). What then does the party do? Seek out the giants, possibly gaining some unexpected response from the monks? What might they be receiving from the giants in return? Or does the party confront the monks, only to discover they don't care the least about the earth-minding peasantry, being concerned only with "higher" affairs?

Interesting dilemna.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Error

How do I explain gently and tenderly that you, my not so gentle reader, are not your character? How do I convey the proposition that when writing, I expect to be read by corporeal entities and not by fictional, abstract manifestations of those coporeal minds? How shall I make it clear that the use of the second person pronoun, i.e., "You," was implied to mean the individual whose corporeal eyes might chance to glance upon the screen and make sense of the words being used?

The above, hoity toity as it sounds, has been a carefully wrought collection of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on, meant to convey an accurate message. The hope would be that through the use of large, specifically assigned words from the English language, they might be less misunderstanding. A vain hope, I'll grant...but being accused of vanity would be the least of recent accusations.

You, the poor, wounded reader who has come to this page and felt much maligned, are the reader of this text. And you, poor reader, are not a hero.

I have presumed that those who play the game are inclined to diligently keep track of their experience points, their gold, their equipment, their hit points and such as scores indicating their success. I presume they do that because, factually, the game involves the keeping of various scores. I was not aware there was a game out there that did not include the keeping of these scores. Whatever activities one's character might be involved in, I felt certain that YOU, the individual who was not the character, felt it was more important to be seventh level than sixth.

Apparently I have been wrong in that. And yet, I wonder...for none of the modules that I have ever seen, with or without their insistence on the behavior of characters as heroes, have lacked treasure or experience.

But I digress.

No, poor reader, I stand by what I've said. You're not a hero. However much you may choose to identify with your characters actions, you are not the great fighter of evil you pretend to be. Let me reemphasize that last: "PRETEND to be." I understand that many of you are proud of your magnificent accomplishments, the villages you've lifted from the clutches of powerful overlords, the damsels you've preserved from fates worse than death, the selfless and sacrificing actions you've taken...but dear, suffering reader, none of these things have actually happened. I know. I hate to be the first to tell you.

The social disease I spoke of referred to the contemptuous manner in which many of the pundits proporting to prop up this game insist that we all, whatever our predilictions, MUST be heroes, even though clearly that is quite impossible, as actual corporeal heroes would likely not be playing this game. I must note that none of those who answered my vicious, hurtful accusations in any manner rose to say, "I have helped actual people in their actual lives." Rather, the cry was replete with those who demanded recognition for their suppositional persona--those whom they pretend to be.

I shall try again, more briefly. I stated most clearly that I do not tell my players what to do. My players often choose not to have their characters act as heroes. My players sometimes DO have their characters act as heroes. Most of all, however, my players are preoccupied with the success of their characters in GAME terms...that is, the accumulation of wealth and power. They may choose to make believe their characters as friendly, and they may choose to make believe their characters as murderous bastards. They are FREE to make that choice, as I am a referee, and not a moral judge.

When their characters have behaved as murderous bastards--and once, yes, they did slaughter every individual within a village in order to be SURE the matter would be closed (it was not)--they have never identified themselves, their corporeal selves, as murderers. I'm quite confident that they do not think of themselves as heroes, either...unlike many of you, persecuted souls that you are.

Then there is the final, throwaway line, in reference to pillaging. I grant, a loaded word. Meant, in this context, to be a "grabber," the sort of thing that leaves the reader in the end with something to reflect upon. To pillage, to take as booty, to loot, especially as an act of war.

Perhaps I HAVE led a sheltered life. But for the life of me, I cannot recall a single instance when I have supplied a location with a large chest in which it was not opened. I cannot recall any instance where the glowing, devastating sword in an enemy's hand was not wrested from the body's cold, dead fingers once the enemy was dead. I have no experience with players, informed that a given mine is replete with gold and "hardly defended", who did not immediately make plans to loot said gold...and in looting, to fully intend to have their characters wage unremitting and absolute war against the rightful possessors of same.

I am sorry that so many have been dearly hurt by what I have said. I am sorry that so many who pretend to be heroes have turned that into pretense, fully judging themselves to be better human beings by virtue of what they have pretended to accomplish. I offer no excuses for my behavior in this regard. I addressed readers and expected comprehension. I am clearly at fault.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I dislike killing player characters.

While I consider the possibility of death an absolute necessity to D&D, and as such I do kill characters when the circumstances are unavoidable, I’ve never grown comfortable with it. More often than not, my players have had to reassure me that yes, their characters did deserve to die given the events prior to and the choices they made. They usually have to tell me to stop trying to explain why I would have avoided killing them if only it wasn’t necessary for me to bend the facts.

“Facts” being unavoidable conditions…such as the dragon has the opportunity to breathe directly at the player and the player blows their saving throw. Facts like the earthquake invoked by the mage in the narrow chasm has resulted in a rock slide that has killed everyone except the thief, who happened to be using her wings of flying at that moment. Facts like the fighter refusing to disengage from the combat though he’s toe-to-toe with a frost giant and he’s down to 4 h.p.

Would that it was always that clear cut.

To make it more clear cut, I abandoned the DM’s screen during combat years ago, enabling the party to see my die rolls and thus know that every critical was honest and ever miss was honest. Once, as a DM, I used to fudge rolls in favor of the party (that critical was a “miss”), which I could do behind the screen; I’m not any more comfortable with that than I am with killing characters. Fact is, it shouldn’t matter what the dice say, or how overmatched the party is…they should be able to figure out a way to handle it and live.

Now, obviously I’m not throwing titans against third level parties and saying, “Go at it…tough luck for you.” Though I still argue the party ought to be able to talk their way out of it—why would a titan bother killing third levels? Wouldn’t he have gotten tired of that millennia ago?

Most of the time characters get killed on account of two specific faults: an unwillingness to run, and pure folly. The former outweighing the latter at about 10:1.

I’m not really clear on why parties find it so difficult to retreat. The facts of life demand that now and then players have to accept the maxim, “Run or Die.” More often than not something gets in the way of believing it’s really necessary. Like gamblers putting everything on one more throw, players tend to believe that this time the die is going to come up with a critical and the party will get on top of these monsters.

There is a moment in a battle when you know you’ve won. When the overwhelming odds, scattering the party and pressing it back against the wall, suddenly expends its momentum. Sometimes, particularly in combats against a great number of humanoids, when there are literally scores of swinging troops all over the battlefield, the exact tipping moment passes without being fully recognized. Sometimes there’s a fabulous round which slaughters seven or eight of the enemy all at once, relieving the pressure and allowing the mage to drop out of combat again (like a quarterback, sometimes the mage must face enemy getting through the line) and resume casting spells. Either way, it’s the moment parties hope for…sometimes when they should have the brains to sacrifice their losses and run.

But they don’t. They seem to hold onto the same belief as real people that somehow, death can’t happen to them. It’s particularly true with a high level character who has diligently worked their way up from 1st level (all my players begin at first level, even if they must do so in the company of those with titles). Somehow the fact that they have lived so long and avoided so many pitfalls gives them a sense of the infinite…no doubt supported by the belief that no matter what, they have the resources to be raised or, if necessary, resurrected.

Making it all the much harder when the ship they’re commanding goes down in a storm and their body irrevocably lost…or they fail the inevitable resurrection shock survival roll (which I shall hold as required until I die and they put it on my tombstone). Everyone dies. No one gets out alive. If I had a screen, that would be a good thing to write on it. Characters might then remember that I don’t decide to kill them, their own actions bring it about.

So, am I saying that you’d better not be a ship commander or a storm will get you? NO. Before the advent of any such storm, I would give plenty of warnings regarding the coming of such a storm; there would be procedures characters could undergo to protect themselves. Having ballast aboard would help. Having room below decks, and not choosing to cram every cubic inch of the ship with sugar in the interest of profit might be a step in the right direction, thus making it unnecessary for the captain to endure the storm while lashed to the mast. I’ve had players make decisions like that, foolish decisions, resulting in the die forcing me to sink ships and smash masts and the like.

Folly, unlike the choice to flee, is a far more insidious means of having your player killed. I have seen players begin campaigns in arctic climates who failed, upon being given starting capital, to buy coats, gloves, caps or even boots…yet be fully stocked with six daggers, three hand axes and a fully equipped horse. They have bought torches with no means to light them; lanterns with no oil; swords with no whetstone to keep them sharp; arrows without quivers; plates and cups without backpacks to put them in. I’ve had players argue they could keep coins and gems in their mouths, which I’ve agreed to, only to laugh when they’ve been knocked into the water and have had to swim and breathe.

I’ve had players deliberately sleep in the rain rather than “waste” money on a tent and the means to haul it. Players who have deliberately tried to cross mountain passes in the dead of winter, without even snowshoes, believing that somehow snow and cold and hard labor don’t result in hypothermia, and that even so it couldn’t affect someone with an 18 constitution. Players who have died drinking from muddy puddles in the desert because they forgot to use the purify water spell they possessed; who have realized only after the fact that they could have avoided the whole encounter with the wraith if only they’d remembered the protection from undead scroll in their backpack; who, after time and time again having the opportunity to identify a potion, find they have to drink it and “hope for the best” because they never did.

It would be nice to think that all players are terribly clever nerds, but anyone can forget something stuffed into a backpack ten months ago, scratched hastily on page 8 of their character sheet, only to be discovered long after the item would have been useful.

And still, I hate to kill characters. I get no pleasure from it, no sense that I’ve “succeeded” in making my world a harsh, difficult place to live. I would rather everyone had a chance to make it through, to rise up to be masters of all they survey…yes, “paper masters” if it must be noted…but it wouldn’t mean anything if everyone automatically reached their destination.

It’s admirable when a party is made of participants who have all lost somebody along the way: sometimes with lament, sometimes with a sour humour (yeah, I really fucked up on that one), rarely without a thought (I did have a henchman rise as a wraith once and drain a couple of levels off the druid because the player failed to bury and say words over his faithful follower—the party buries everyone now, fanatically).

I don’t think it’s a good idea for DMs to intervene in the death of a character. I think, however much I dislike it, there is a fundamental need for me to remain separate from the misery that sometimes accompanies the game. Not unsympathetic, mind, just separate. This hand might pat you on the shoulder, but this other hand continues to hold onto the die that killed you, unremitting.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You're Not a Fucking Hero

I must confess, some of this post was inspired by a post by JM, master of "Call of the Dungeon," which I shall get around to adding to my links when I am not quite as lazy as this.

His post is about NPCs as heroes and the player characters who are compelled to love them, among other pertinent issues. I would like to make a slightly different point.

None of my players is a "hero" in any sense of the word. Being in my campaign, and having really no requirements on their person to DO anything beyond what they have a mind to, most of their personal motivation tends to be towards A) wealth and B) gaining another level...A being somewhat helpful in acquiring B.

As a DM, I am supposed to be A) appalled and B) bored. I'm not, actually. There are so many interesting ways to frustrate a party's interest in either of their goals that I am rarely bored. As for being appalled, I have no idea why. Is not the goal in Monopoly to gain wealth and land and wipe out your competitors? Isn't that the goal in life? I don't see the problem.

I have been running campaigns since 1980, and I have had my basic philosophy about being a DM since pretty much day one...though it took years to hone it to a fine edge. I don't want to tell players what to do. I understood from the beginning that my role as DM was referee. A referee does not play the game. He or she does not tell players how to play the game. That is why there are different words to define the different roles involved.

I have never known a single player to express any desire whatsoever to forsake either wealth or experience in favor of making an NPC's life more rich and full...that is, to risk death to free a village. I have met a few players who were prepared to forsake wealth and experience in order to be an enormous jackass, mocking both the game and the other players, and they have been ejected from my campaigns as necessary. But really, I don't think it fills anyone's heart to know that somewhere, in someone's imagination, there are a bunch of make believe people living happier lives, although I had to sacrifice my sixteenth level paladin to make it so.

What a bunch of fucking HOOEY that mindset is.

There are those who play obstensibly towards such goals. Because they are FORCED to, by DMs who think in terms of story lines and who doggedly drive their players through campaign after campaign with carrots and sticks. And because it is well recognized that a player would be royally pissed off should his paladin die for some bullshit paper village, such DMs are absolutely required to ensure that when a player dies (if ever), it only happens outside the door of some enormous carrot...*cough, cough*...I mean treasure.

Such players in such campaigns are not heroes either. They are pawns, slaves, dupes, addicts (how else do you explain their willingness to continue in such campaigns?) and woefully uninformed. But they're not "heroes." They are not self-sacrificing themselves for anything.

This whole fucking hero perception of the game is a deep, sickening disease, one that has single-handedly created 4e and which distorts hopelessly the majority of the participants not just in D&D, but all RPGs. The rise of the mythology of the hero has kept step with the same social disease which says that none of us are allowed to live for ourselves except in terms of how we pretend to live for the sakes of other people. Oh, we can gather treasure and get powerful, but we have to do it on the sly, we can't just slaughter for pleasure...we must pay lip service to the greater good.

WHAT is this fucking social religion doing in my D&D game? And what is the greater good in a fantasy setting, except the myopically programmed vision of a DM who can't think for himself, but must follow the never ending deluge of shit texts poured out from the mind of corporate games designers?

No heroes, please. Let's all be pillagers, like the game intended.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Noodling with Stats

One afternoon about two years ago I was noodling around with the statistics involved with the various player abilities, and came up with an interesting formula. It involves the manner in which abilities are acquired from birth.

Now, I must take a moment to firmly establish that I play only the AD&D books; I haven’t seen any articles which might apply in this instance, I’m not familiar with anything from 3e or 4e which might apply, and if you’re not familiar with the simple character generation of 3d6 for player abilities then you might not get this. I don’t care, really…I just felt a disclaimer at this time was appropriate.

My suggestion is this. A baby is born with 1 ability point (I’ll explain why later). Each year, as the baby grows older, 1 to 7 ability points are added (2d4 minus 1). These might be distributed randomly or not. In the beginning, you could decide that each ability has to be filled by 1 point before any further randomization could occur.

What I mean is, until strength, intelligence, wisdom, etc. are each at one point, none of them can equal 2. If, as it happens, you roll 1 point to be added in the baby’s first year, it could mean that the baby’s strength and constitution (or any other two attributes) would equal one (don’t forget we started with one) and all other abilities would still equal zero…which would mean the baby was a sickly child, not likely to live past its first disease.

On the other hand, if the baby rolled a 7 in its first year, allocate one point to each ability and the allocate the two extra points randomly (d6). This would be a robust child.

I’m an advocate of the random delegation for each point, as I believe this would make the child more interesting. Particularly as 1-7 points are added for each year, or a total of 10 times for a child of 10. As the average of 1 to 7 on 2-four-sided dice is “4”, the total average for a 10-year-old would be 41. If we add 1 point at the age of 10, this makes it a nice, round 42.

This is coincidentally the same average you would get if you rolled 2d6 for each ability stat.

However, the above system is more random. It could be that a 10-year-old child might have an unlikely 18 strength (each point after adding 1-10% or possibly 1-20%, depending on the DM) or other ability, or be severely lacking in some characteristic. You could establish a maximum of 18 or 19 for every ability (future points would be allocated elsewhere), and a minimum of 2 points in each ability at the age of 10 (or not).

From this pool of 10 year olds, schoolmasters might pick their students for training as fighters, thieves, mages or monks. The best students would be those who wound up with freaky totals, such as being 10 with a 14 wisdom or a 13 dexterity. Those who got all average rolls, with nothing above an 8, would be discarded as bad apples.

You might even make the argument that bad genetics returns constantly bad apples, so that among peasants the return is consistently low rolls amounting to an addition of only 32-41 during the course of a child’s first 10 years, while an increase of 43-53 is more common for a member of the nobility. You could muck around for awhile creating tables along those lines…that’s up to you.

At any rate, a particular child whose average at 10 is in the 43+ range gets selected for training. Some that are trained are dropped for attitude or lack of funds, or otherwise fail, while a small percentage rise to leveled class.

The difference between 2d6 per ability and 3d6 per ability is a total of 21 points. If we presume that the over the age of 11 to 15 the individual continues to gain 1-7 points of ability per year, and we add 1 point for the reaching the age of 15, this conveniently works out to the same number of points gained: 21.

Unlike the first 42 the individual gains, these are ability stats gained through training. No training, no gain in stats.

Now, in terms of the distribution of those 21 points, you may again opt for a completely random system, or you may devise a die roll for particular classes. For example, a thief rolls a d8 for each point gained; 1-5 indicates each of the other abilities besides dexterity, while 6-8 indicates dexterity. A ranger could roll a d12: 1-3 strength, 1-2 intelligence, 1-2 wisdom, 1-3 constitution, 1 dexterity, 1 charisma. It’s up to you.

The result would be, by the age of 15, the individual would have his or her normal average ability stats…a maximum of 108, a minimum of 18. Work it out if you like. Its not very likely that you’ll roll six “3”s or six “18”s on 3d6, but the average, the minimum and the maximums are the same as the system above.

Fascinating, huh?

I personally wouldn’t use this system to roll up characters (takes too long, for one thing), and I use the old method of rolling 4d6 and ignoring the lowest die anyway. However, I would use this system to roll a child, and I would certainly use it year by year if a player of mine had an offspring (alas, when a player of mine did about fifteen years ago, this system never occurred to me).

What I find particularly interesting is the way the system breaks down the various potential classes of society.

Look here. Suppose we consider that peasant class, giving them 2d6 automatically, making them weaker in both body and mind than virtually every educated or healthy person. This would be a good reflection of the actual state of the peasantry during the late Middle Ages—more subsceptible to disease (lower ability means lower ability check), less robust, less likely to have ever read anything or know anything, more likely to have idiots as part of their population, generally less attractive on account of their lifestyle…and so on.

This doesn’t mean that a peasant might not be leveled; all that is required for fighter is a 9 strength. A thief merely needs a 9 dexterity. It would eliminate the chance for a paladin, however, or an illusionist.

Now let’s consider a class above ordinary serf: the laborer. Not an extraordinary example of humankind, but possessing a particular skill above and beyond the typical peasant. Let’s suppose that during their teenage years they received some training…in only one ability. This might mean that a coolee would have 2d6 in five of his ability stats, but 3d6 in strength. A courtesan might have 3d6 in charisma; an actor in intelligence; a juggler, in dexterity.

(I never liked the idea of actors, dancers and such being classes. These are not particularly difficult professions to enter; if you don’t believe me, go join an acting troop and ask yourself how bright these people are).

Now, lets take the next social class, that of artisan. These are individuals who have not just a particular trait, but dual traits enabling them to perform more difficult tasks. A cabinet-maker needs intelligence and dexterity; a blacksmith needs strength and constitution; a con-artist needs charisma and wisdom. Whatever the particular needs, assume that the individual has two ability characteristics of 3d6, and four of 2d6. A truly dedicated artisan, like a stonecutter (strength, dexterity and constitution), might have three abilities of 3d6.

The point being, each social class is partially defined not just by its likely hit points, but also by the range of abilities it possesses. Thus, a full-fledged leveled individual would have 3d6 for his or her abilities in each characteristic.

This is not the end, however. What about characters better than ordinary leveled persons?

We already presume that player characters have a better average than just 3d6. Why not a given ability of 4d6 (with maximums or not, depending on the deity-status of the individual)? Either with the player condition of the top three of the four dice, or just all four dice added together to give an average of 14 and thus a common 17 or 18 ability in their primary stat?

We could easily presume that zealots, adventurers, heroes, commanders, lesser nobility and greater nobility would have, progressively, 1 to 6 of their characteristics equalling 4d6 instead of 3d6. Thus, ordinary leveled persons, guardsmen, sages, unadventurious priests, embezzlers and such would have lower stats, while ship captains, dukes and overlords would be expected to have their abilities overloaded with 17s, 18s and even 19s.

I’ve tried it. Gets good results.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sand, Sand and, oh what the hell, Sand

Oh no, the real world is a boring place for D&D.

I've been steadily working my way around the outside of the Arabian Peninsula, down from the irrigated lands around Mecca and into Yemen, the highlands of Sheba, the scattered lands of Hadramaut and southern Oman, the Portuguese colony of Sur and the somewhat lusher lands along the south shore of the Gulf of Oman. And I have this to say.

I am sick to fucking death of deserts.

Ah, but I don't get to pick. I'm on a quest to map what's there, and being the purist I am I won't just inject a big fertile area in the middle of Arabia to reduce the boredom. There are lots of fertile areas in the world. There need to be vast, featureless, empty deserts also.

The world is a very, very big place. I keep getting reminded of that.

I estimate that I've done about 10% of the world's land area to date. That's about four and a half year's work. So, by the time I'm 90, I'll be done.

'tis to laugh.

Frankly, I don't really care how long it takes me. I enjoy doing it.

Which helps with the fact that I'm right now mapping out an area which my party will probably never visit. They hate deserts (after having spent months in the Kara Kum, Turan and eastern Persia), and aren't likely to wander around the fringes of the Rub' al Khali.

But I'm working on it anyway, partly because I like it, and partly because I need to define the edges of the Peninsula so I can compute shipping distances between India (which I have only a circle on a map) and Egypt, as well as other regions along the Red Sea. Up until now I've been guessing at that distance...and I do like to be precise.

So I'll add a piece of Hadramaut just for the hell of it. I honestly doubt most people would be able to identify this coast on a map.

Yes, I know, there are a number of labels missing, what are the flats, mountains, rivers, so on...at some point I'll muck about doing that, but usually I just refer to an atlas.

If you want more information about what's shown, I suggest reading a book. As opposed to someone's cheap adventure design.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Thinking about something Dark Lady Alice said, and something that Lamentations of the Flame Princess posted some days ago. D&D is not a book.

And this is one of the reasons why despite all the blog posts in the D&D blogosphere about the influence of writers on their various role playing games, I find myself with nothing to say.

I have torn my way through Howard, Norman, Leiber, Moorcock, Asprin, Anthony and god knows how many other fantasy writers, along with classic authors like Wells, Butler, Verne, Swift, Haggard, Melville (Typee, not Moby Dick and quite a few others. Add to that a lot of science fiction, occult fiction and period fiction. I've been reading more or less continuously since six years of age, and writing since the age of twelve. The latter is something that I now do as part of my living. And yet...

D&D is not a book.

I don't approach the game from the perspective of a told story, as I've written before, but I do appreciate the intervention of plots. Here are some of the recent plots that have affected my players in the last year. They are running two sets of characters at the moment: the main party with their primary henchmen; and their secondary henchmen. The former group are 7-9th level, the latter 2-4th.

a) Rescuing a harem of 15 girls being taken by ogres to their master in Khorezm; the girls were captured in western Turan (Turkmenistan), en route from Persia.

b) Returning the girls to their fathers, winning presents, including a tome protecting them from the scrying devices employed by the master in Khorezm.

c) One of the girls, not having a father on this plane of existence, falling in love with a player. Subsequently discovering the girl to be an Amazon, Antiope to be exact (in mortal form without fighting ability), and the complex difficulties in returning her to her father (and surrendering the love affair).

d) Because half my players are women, to make a case about chest pounding male players I had the party cross the path of some Egyptians in the eastern deserts of Iran (while still trying to return Antiope), who offered a chance at a Deck of Many Things. Always good for a laugh. Two players drew the same card, enmity from a devil...

e) Which eventually ended with both being taken alive into a lesser plane of Hell, which led to their rescue, involving a Knight Templar and several allies to get the party into hell and get them out again before getting overwhelmed, rescuing the two hapless players.

f) But before the rescue from Hell, the party deciding to settle down and store their wealth and other goods on a fief in Transylvania, below the Carpathian mountains, a gift from a grateful father.

g) A long meeting between the party and the inevitable hobgoblin lair in the Carpathians (my hobgoblins can level up to 9th and include wizards/clerics).

h) The secondary henchmen, left in charge of the fief, doing some cleaning out of left over hobgoblins, smugglers, highwaymen and one recent encounter with a wererat.

i) and finally, the party having escaped from hell, now lost hopelessly in the Timan Mountains west of the Urals, in October, about 62 degrees N latitude (they were able to reach the entrance of hell by being teleported there, they have no teleportation spell allowing them to return).

It has always been popular in my memory, going back thirty years, for people to take the events surrounding their campaigns, or the campaigns in which they run, to try and "write a story" on it. These have been, since the dawn of time, the most boring, most insidiously annoying stories ever to have been written. They are long, rambling, lacking in character development and hopelessly incomprehensible to the outside reader. And yet, they continue to be written.

What makes most role-playing associated writings shit IS the total lack of character and theme...just as the presence of character and theme in most quality novels gets in the way of their usefulness for D&D. I need plot, not character development. I leave character up to the players.

And frankly, I make better plots than exist in most of the stories. I can't rely on the characters being dumb. Without the presence of alignments, I can't count on the characters rescuing the damsels (although they have, right?), and if they do, they're free to rape and kill them (it was discussed), sell them to the highest bidder (also discussed), force them to work as pack mules (discussed) or decide to do the ogre's work for them and take them to the master in Khorezm (discussed and discarded).

What I mean is, I don't know what the party is going to do. I had the girls beg to be taken to their fathers, whereupon the women in the party argued for that against the men, with a great deal of parleying about it. If they had decided to butcher the girls, I wouldn't have tried to stop it...and it would have created a plot where the one girl's father went after the party.

The random nature of the party's choices (ignore that they're in hell, go find them) sort of destroys the usefulness of using any sort of fictional plot as a guideline for me. So I just make up this shit as I go along, figuring out what the most likely consequence is going to be for any particular action and going with that.

For example: let's take that bastard in Khorezm. His name is Patroclus (known to the party) and he's an 18th level mage (also known to the party). He's stuck trying to track the party by material means (he's a little pissed at losing Antiope, as well as the other girls, who were all daughters of shiekhs and minor emirs in Persia), and the party has managed to teleport TWICE since getting the tome against scrying. Makes it difficult. As a result, the party has heard nothing about him for about eight months, and that's how I want it.

Because the day is going to come that one of them gets a little bit more famous, or meets with someone who might also know Patroclus (who isn't a nobody), and watch the party shit bricks when that comes out.

The less wary the party is before that, the better.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ditch the Purple Prose

I haven't played D&D in more than a month and I've done damn little work on the subject...and damn little writing here. C'est la vie.

I tried a little experiment at the last running I gave, back around the last weekend of July, in which I attempted to provide a little of the purple descriptions that accompany most published material from the fantasy universe: "As you slash your way through the forest, feet growing cold from the snow that lays two feet deep on either side of the broken trail, the stygian darkness on either side of the party seems to close in, to suggest that something evil and unnamed dwells deep within, preparing to strike without warning..."

Whereupon I was pelted with peanuts, potato chips, empty pop-cans, all to the accompaniment of groans and pleadings for me to cease. I tried several times, always with the same response. Seems that my players would rather get down to the business of playing, and fuck all the mood shit.

Now, I know there are some out there who are all about the mood. But I have to agree with my players on this one. I can't be bothered, really, to extensively write out descriptive paragraphs that don't actually move the game along, particularly if they're not likely to be appreciated. And--just for the record--what other game outside of a role-playing game even considers the mood?

I have played poker under every condition imaginable. In train stations and on trains, on school desks, while minding tables set up at open houses, in community centers and in living rooms. I can't remember, EVER, anyone suggesting that we should dress up or change the lighting, just to make it seem MORE like poker. I would have to say the same goes for bridge, chess and baseball. In the last example, we may put on uniforms, but that's so we can tell who is who, NOT to enhance the game.

Some might argue that razzing the batter falls under the category of mood enhancement, but really I've considered everyone who ever did that was a fuckwit of the first order...the last league I played in didn't allow it.

Why, why, why can't D&D stand on its own merits? Why does it need any show?

For me, arguing that the game shouldn't just be about rolling dice is along the same line that poker shouldn't just be about cards. The dice are not just rolling about for no reason--each throw has a significance. I don't think any of my players really give a shit about the mechanics of it...they are too wrapped up in what the die says, than in being exhausted at having to pick it up to throw again.

No, seriously. To hear some talk about it, you would think that we all sit around the table thinking, "Oh damn, I have to roll AGAIN to attack? Can't I do something else?"

I don't know what games you people out there play, but I have players who are on the edge of their seat waiting for their chance to swing, to find out if they kill the rat bastard lycanthrope or if they're going to risk another round of damage and disease. Maybe its the way I play, I don't know...but I don't find I have to spend a lot of time explaining the color of the wererat's fur. It's usually enough for the story when the party discovers the town ratcatcher who has been "overwhelmed" by the rat population turns out to be the cause of it all.

Mood? I'll tell you what mood is. It's having an angry, bloodthirsty party screaming, "KILL HIM! I smash the motherfucker with my MACE!"

All the cheesy descriptive paragraphs in the world won't match that kind of emotion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Map Pieces

I have managed, at last, to translate some jpeg segments of the maps I've been making for several years now in Publisher. Sadly, these were done on an old computer, and there is some bleeding of the text...but they're readable, and we can't have everything.

I've picked examples which I think demonstrates how the earth is somewhat more complex and interesting than most maps made in the imaginations of RPG players. As I've said before, making these maps has been an exploration, an understanding of the geography of places that I never had before, in spite of having been interested in maps all my life.

Here are the Greek Isles of the Southern Aegean:

The multiple isles of Greece make for a profound layout; it would be easy to spend years developing adventures in just this part of the world alone. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of islands not represented (they're just to small to get a good image), and that every island on this map can be located ad nauseum through wikipedia and the net for massive amounts of information dating back through 4000 years of history. What could a DM want?

Here was the biggest headache for me so far, and it's just a small piece (I'm still smoothing out the edges of the overall map. Here is a section of Germany--Thuringia:

This is what most of Germany looks like: tiny little states, most of them only 20 to 40 miles across. On the map, the narrower lines divide minor states that are part of the Holy Roman Empire; the heavier lines divide major states. Each state can be found on Wikipedia, which will give you a load of information along with maps indicating that mine is still too simple...but with each hex being 20 miles across I had to simplify to some degree. If I made the hexes five miles across, there would be more lines with states inside states and scattered in multiple pieces over the map. Be thankful that it is this clear.

Incidentally, the complete east Germany/Poland map took me something like 150 hours to compose, with a great deal of work done and re-done.

Finally, here are the Pripet Marshes:

You may notice that, if you compare this map with one out from an atlas, it appears to be oddly tilted. This is because the 30th Meridian passes straight through the marshes and, as I said in my last post, the map turns 60 degrees in concordance with the hex plan. I selected this map in part because I loved the braided stream in the center and to demonstrate that, close up, moving from hex to hex a party really wouldn't be able to tell. It helps to remember that "north" is in the upper right corner of the map, and not top center.

I apologize, incidentally, for the size of these maps; as you shrink the map you'll probably find that the fonts become difficult to read. The hex size was chosen so that I could write notes if I desired.

The black numbers in the bottom right corner of each hex are elevation figures in feet. The blue numbers following the rivers indicates the size of the river: rather than a representation of width, its more a demonstration of how much relative water the river is carrying. I couldn't put it into cubic meters per second or anything like that, as it does not represent an exact figure, but rather an account of how many hex-sides have drained specifically in that river valley. I hope to explain this at a later date.

Think of a river with 3 points as being something you might cross while only getting your calves wet, without the need of a ford, whereas a river with 30 points would be large enough to carry a fair-sized barge.

What else? I'm sure there's lots, but I'll leave it for now and add later. Hope you like the maps. I could be persuaded to post others, though for the moment I'm still waiting for that updated program.