Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Just Thoughts On Dungeons

I realized last night that I have not run an underground setting in D&D in what would be twenty-one offline runnings.   Running every two weeks as I do, and given the four month break this last summer, I haven't had my party in a dungeon since late 2008.  There hasn't been any reason.

Now, I know many would think, 'there needs to be a reason?' ... but I think the answer to that would be yes.  I don't choose the actions of my party - if they wished to sorely enough, they would have pursued some beast into its underground lair and fought it there.  As it happens, I haven't generated any such beasts randomly, nor has it occurred to me to dream one up.  There have been town encounters and village encounters and a great many wilderness encounters, but nothing underground.  The last chance would have been a white dragon that appeared, harrassed the party and killed one of the party before flying off.  There was much debate.  It was thought better to leave the dragon alone (it was ancient, though the party wasn't certain).

Funny thing - I haven't heard any complaints.

So lately I haven't really been running dungeons and dragons ... not in the strict sense.  I'm sure that eventually the party will again venture underground.  It seems likely.  I'm happy to run one, when it comes up.

But I have to ask - is it really that important?

Dungeons are a rather easy thing for a DM to run.  I've always found it so - the descriptions are much simpler and the limited choices make the subterranean setting a breeze to set up ahead of time.  When I want to rest as a DM, I throw a dungeon.  Not difficult to mock up - although I know that there is a great deal of work that goes into those which are created and then sold as modules.  I can't say that I ever really enjoyed a dungeon as a player.

In my daughter's campaign, where I am running as a player, we have just entered a dungeon.  She is running a composite of several modules, redesigned by her to fit the setting, and that's fine.  Tactically, I remember how to fight in a dungeon with low-level characters; trust nothing, prepare to lose a few hit points to traps, let no one wander off on their own, think through the traps, touch nothing unnecessary ... it's old hat.  As ever, a bit dull, but the pay-off in treasure is always worth it.

Now and then I'll see a competition for the invention of a dungeon which will get me thinking about some odd setting or placement ... but I never do get down to drawing maps and such.  My dungeons are never more than a vague comprehension of a monster lair.  I imagine a few tunnels leading from the surface to storage places, chambers for the production of foods or other necessities (never necessary with dumber creatures), sleeping areas, perhaps a tomb or an oubliette, and finally a collection point for treasure.  Whenever possible I will make an obstacle of some room infested with some creature, or blocked by water, ice, sludge, chasms, foul air and so on ... as a time waster.  I rarely add a trap.  If I do, they are always something simple, rarely able to kill a party member.  Someone is more likely to die from drowning in an underwater shaft than from a trap in any dungeon of mine.

Because of such loose arrangements, I don't feel any more need to pre-draw out a dungeon that I would a field or a swamp.  If my party were on a mountain-top I would describe the view, the passages that led them to the top and the dangers that present themselves in getting down - whatever would be logical, given mountain tops ranging from tors to bald summits.  I find dungeons are just as rationally arranged as any outdoor setting, and so I treat them as such. 

So I don't enter competitions to make dungeons.  Competitions expect dungeons to be loaded up with traps, tricks, dressing, secret doors and passages ... and so on.  Stuff that bores the living crap out of me.  That all seemed very romantic and interesting ages ago, but after hundreds of secret doors and all variety of annoyances, I can do without poetry-and-riddle squawking statues.  My core party members are all seven-and-eight year veterans of the game, having played it very much during those critical teenage years filled with slaughter traps and killer dungeons - so they've been there, seen that just as I have.

Of course, besides me and my players, I don't see any evidence on-line that dungeons have lost their verve.  Alas, however, I am too jaded. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

End of First Round

Two weeks ago I wrote about last night's combat.

Sorry, I don't have a lot of energy to explain this.  We spent most of last night just getting ready and getting set up for this combat.  Organizing equipment, asking for help from nearby Lord, casting spells and so on chewed up most of the session.  We actually got to the end of the second round, but I thought I'd save this at the point where the party (blue and green) first met resistance.  I think they divided themselves overmuch, but its not for me to make their decisions for them.

(Blogspot wouldn't print it clearly ... the file is 3.46 megs.  If anyone wants a clear version, email me at

Thursday, December 17, 2009


One of the earliest makers of compasses in England was a man by the name of Tate, who developed a hand-held version made partly of metal. For several decades, the Tate's compass became something of a standard. That is, until certain characteristics of the mined iron Tate was using created magnetic effects, disrupting the accuracy of the instrument. Tate and his compass disappeared from history - an episode with left us with the maxim, "He who has a Tate's is lost."

The compass in Civ IV is a severe anachronism; it appears at about the same rank as technologies invented prior to the founding of the Roman Empire, and yet the use of magnetic attraction to determine direction was not in widespread use until the 12th century A.D. Civ IV is probably basing its compass on the rather dubious assertion that Olmecs used magnetism in this fashion prior to 1000 BCE ... even if the Olmecs did understand magnetism, we have no way of telling how they might have used such knowledge.

The principal valuable use for the compass was in the directing of ships, who prior to the compass were forced more or less to travel within sight of land at all times. Points of headland were carefully mapped as an aid for transportation, and memorized by pilots. The tactic worked well for the comparatively gentle waters of the Mediterranean, the Red, the Persian Gulf and for certain coastlines from East Africa to the Far East. It was not useful for the Atlantic coast, as the driving wind was towards the land and journeys along the French coast, smashing ships that picked their way along the coast. The blind journey across the turbulent Bay of Biscay, away from land, was hardly safer.

By making such waterways safe and more easily traversed, medieval sea travel boomed with the 13th and 14th centuries. Moreover, where seasonal periods would create storms or heavy fogs, shiptravel by the stars or by the coast was impossible for months of the year. The compass reduced those poor periods - increasing the number of trips a shipmaster might take in a year by as much as 20 or 30 per cent.

Which begs the question - why isn't a compass a common tool to be found in D&D?

Well, to begin with, most compasses prior to 1500 were fairly cumbersome pieces of equipment, eight or ten inches in diameter, involving either a magnetized needle of some kind floating in a basin of water, or a carefully balanced card, demanding a steady surface upon which to rest. Thus, if the setting corresponds with the period of Robin Hood - as many worlds do - a hand compass is reasonably non-existent.

But there's also to the argument to be made that parties having a compass (perhaps developed from supernatural knowledge) would be far less likely to get lost. From what I understand, 'getting lost' is a central feature in common campaigns. It seems to be an important hook in creating scenarios for combat, trials and so on - a compass would ruin all that.

It seems that letting players have the means to strike out directly across a wilderness just lacks that certain romance of staggering hopelessly in the bush, until the moment comes when the party sees a castle, and are 'saved.' A moment that gets played so often in fantasy fiction, one might confuse it with horror films where a couple's car breaks down and the find a convenient house at the end of a nearby lane.

My world takes place in the 17th century, so naturally compasses are common and available ... as a magnifying glasses, reading glasses, telescopes, sextants and a variety of other technological devices. I haven't noticed that these things damage the campaign, but then I'm strange.

I wonder, however, how often DMs give thought to what ordinary, non-magical devices might bring about a change how they play, and how they 'set up' players.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orc Lands - Central Jagatai

I am all out of rants today.

For many, many weeks now, I have been mapping Siberia, trying to get a handle on just how far the silk road extends, and how far the Siberian gold fields are from the rest of civilization.  It is an immense task ... but interesting also, as it's a part of the world which is never well-represented in maps.  I find whenever I do this, I invariably come out feeling like I've travelled into that part of the world.  Often, I will hear references to something I've mapped, and feel a swelling in my chest that I know where that is, and how it's oriented to other parts of the world.

So much for motivation - here is a map I've recently finished.  It does not show Siberia, except in the north corner, a region called the Chuyskaya Steppe.  No, most of this map is central Kazakhstan.  The area represented on the map is 300,000 square miles, a fifth larger than the size of Texas. 

Hexes are, as always, 20 miles in diameter.
Compare this with the map of Denmark I posted last June, which is in the same scale.  Most of this map is empty by comparison, and if the populations of both maps were compared, the Denmark map would probably have a higher population.  That is principally because the southern half of this map is severe desert, shown by the yellow hexes.  The regions of Taldyqorghan and the central yellow wasteland that is part of the 'Pharis of Ilis' consist of powdery white rock, the vast sedimentary basin left by the last Ice Age in this part of the world.

Historically, in the later Medieval Period, this region was dominated by the Jagatai Empire, a leftover from the Mongolian conquest of central Asia.  It persisted until the 1500s, and during that century was steadily destroyed by the gunpowder-equipped Russian expansion.  In my world, the Russian expansion never takes place - gunpowder is never invented, while the Urals are dominated by magic using Ogres and quite a lot of Dwarves.  Also, since I decided to represent the Ugaric-Turkic tribes as orcs, this territory depicted is almost entirely occupied by orcish tribes ... many of whom have never seen a human.  For those who have (the eastern part of the map), the humans they've seen have been Chinese.  Europeans would be extremely rare.

So if a party were to strike out for this part of the world (not an inordinately lucrative landscape, though there are vast quantities of copper produced in the worn, rugged mountains represented by the pale orange and tan parts of the map), what sort of reception should they expect?

The Jagatai Empire, of which this is a part, extends from inside Sinkiang to the Volga Delta, and from Turkestan north to the Siberian taiga - on its edges, there would be blood feuds between the orcs and humans (Russia), dwarves (Ural Mountains), goblins (lower valley of the Ob), hobgoblins (valley of the Yenisey), dwarves again (Altai Mountains), and then a mixture of humans, githzerai, githyanki and haruchai on the east and south.  I haven't quite decided what populates Tibet as yet.

But vast parts of this enormous empire, well over 2 million square miles, will live continuously at peace.  At which point we consider the previous post - how evil can orcs be, if there are no enemies, and there need be no repression?

The obvious answer from many will be that the orcs cannot act jointly together to form a vast empire, that it will be fraught with constant in-fighting, tribe against tribe, villages burnt and various religious factions representing different orcish gods fighting for supremacy.  No doubt, no doubt ... and all that would make for some good roleplay.  But I see no reason why such a society would then turn violently against a group of outsiders, even outsiders comprising of elves, gnomes and dwarves.  The latter two might find some distaste (gnomes lumped together by appearance), but you will note no elves in the enemies list above, and not all humans look alike.  If the party were from China, that might create some squabbling.

More likely, the local orcs would just accept the party at face value - even treat them well if they'd help eradicate the bastards in the next valley.  Except for one thing.

The next valley, in most cases, is a hundred miles away, or more.  How much anger can you build up when the marching distance is two weeks across blasted heath and non-arable rocky hillocks?  Sorry, can't go, I have sheep to shear.

When it comes to exploring, I suppose I have just too much world, with too great a distance between points A and B.  It forces me to reconsider many of the stereotypes associated with the various humanoid races.  Why wouldn't orcs eventually eradicate their enemies in certain areas, settle down and ultimately become passive?  Surely, the occasional honor killing would still take place, and orcs might encourage this sort of thing to a greater extent than even certain peoples in real life ... but overall, the principal challenges would still be food, comfort, long life and pleasure.

What the hey - I don't expect a party to tramp through this part of the world anyway.  I make these maps for my own pleasure, for determining the road distance between places, and to be able to post them on this blog.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I Thought Everyone Knew

I don't play with alignments, but I must not have made this clear, as I was only just asked about it today.  So lets talk about the subject.  Since alignments are, effectively, a philosophical conception, let's treat them as one.

Opening my DMG to page 23, I find the following written:
"Alignment describes the broad ethos of thinking, reasoning creatures - those unintelligent sorts being placed in the neutral area because they are totally uncaring."
I find it interesting that Gygax and his buddies, for reasons that completely escape me, felt that it would be a problem to use the ideologies invented by thinking, reasoning humans through all history - believing instead that it was better to drum up a simplistic sociological diagram to replace all that.  It was the 1970s, however, and I wonder what obscure University of Chicago professor's baby was stolen in order to instigate this atrocity to human thought.

And what is described by 'unintelligent sorts'?  Do we mean animals?  Do we suggest that violent behavior in the quest of food is a neutral aspect?  Was Jean Val Jean neutral?  It sound more that, having no means to explain away the motivations of non-thinking creatures within our invented belief system, we have to put them somewhere, anywhere, that doesn't get in the way.

Let us continue:
"Note that alignment does not necessarily dictate religious persuasion, although many religious beliefs will dictate alignment."
Lovely side-step there.  Not all religious types of a particular religion are lawful, or chaotic, or good, or evil ... what people proport to believe does not dictate their actions.  I believe that is the crux of the above statement.  But since alignments are used to indicate class loyalties, or racial loyalties - as they are, let's face it, every monster is defined by its alignment - aren't we really saying that religion has no place in D&D?  That the paladin isn't serving his or her god, but rather his or her social status ... so who cares what the god thinks?

Of course I'm wrong - every other thing said about alignment and religion clearly ignores the above quote ... further demonstrating that the authors are pulling this out of their ass.  But then, I'm ignoring this little gem:
"As explained under ALIGNMENT LANGUAGES (q.v.) this aspect of alignment is not the major consideration."
This is a whole section written on p.24, where it talks about languages existing between ideologically inclined individuals.  It never does explain why religious practice and religious beliefs have nothing to do with one another, but it does describe one of the stupidest conceptions ever presented as part of the game.  I strongly suggest the gentle reader take a glance - it is a lovely hodgepodge of discontinuous, vague, non-definitive suggestions for how people of similar alignment might communicate with each other.  In terms of clarification, it is like listening to a New Jersey politician defend welfare.  I have no idea what premise suggests that people who are mutually evil are able to communicate with each other ... I presume Hitler and Goebbels looked into each other's eyes and just knew.
"The overall behavior of the character (or creature) is delineated [represented accurately or precisely] by alignment, or, in the case of player characters, behavior determines actual alignment.  Therefore, besides defining the general tendencies of creatures, it also groups creatures into mutually acceptable or at least non-hostile divisions."
I love the English language.  I really prefer when it is used well.

I could not resist inserting the accurate definition of the word 'delineated,' since it is clearly not the word that the Gygaxian crowd really meant.  Each part of this description of alignment becomes increasingly more muddy as the two sentences go on - first character is precisely defined, then generally defined, and then, finally, acceptably general.

In other words, well, yes, the alignments kind of mean something, but don't take them too much to heart, as they are really just guidelines meant to encourage creatures to either join together or mindlessly kill each other.

Moreover, since we don't want to tell characters exactly how to behave, we'll employ the technique of letting them do whatever they want and defining them after the fact.  Which works in every case except, of course, the paladin - the ever-present defining template on which are alignment-based debates hang.  Understand, the only reason why a paladin's alignment had to be good was because it was perceived that the class was so powerful, no other means could be used to bind players who chose to play it.  Nevermind that there is no precedent whatsoever, even in such writings as Le Morte d'Arthur or the Song of Roland, to suggest that knights behave anything like the description of a 'Good' alignment in the DMG.  Once again, they pulled it right out of their ass.

Fact is, the paladin doesn't need the counterbalance to its supposed 'power.'  I've played with non-limited paladins for years and have never noticed one yet that overbalanced a party.

If we are going to define players by what they do, and not restrict them before the fact, why have an alignment system at all?  For simplicity?  For the sheer pleasure of being able to label each other?  My my my, this game was written in the 1970s.

Now watch as we qualify further what we've invented:

"This is not to say that groups of similarly aligned creatures cannot be opposed or even mortal enemies.  Two nations, for example, with rulers of lawful good alignment can be at war.  Bands of orcs can hate each other."
Then what the fuck is this alignment thing good for?  If it can be utterly ignored in terms of creatures' behavior towards one another, WHY DO WE NEED IT?  How is this improving the game?  How does it expand the game's potential in making it either fun or interactive?  We've already said that the players don't behave according to alignments, that alignments are assigned according to their behavior - so please, why are we wasting out time?

"But the former would possibly [???] cease their war to oppose a massive invasion of orcs, just as the latter would make common cause against the lawful good men."
Woah.  Just let me hold onto my head a moment.  What the fuck do you mean, 'possibly'?  You mean they might not stop fighting each other to oppose a massive invasion?  Would they stop fighting if it were only a mild invasion?  Or would they keep fighting each other if the massive invasion weren't by orcs, but was brought on by a group of lawful good elves?  And while we're considering that, would orcs NOT make common cause against a massive invasion brought on by chaotic evil troglodytes?  I'm feeling like Rocco from Boondock Saints: "Fuckin'- What the fuckin'. Fuck. Who the fuck fucked this fucking... How did you two fucking fucks..."

Here's a thought.  Let's just assume that sometimes creatures fight each other, and sometimes that's not convenient.  Sometimes, its convenient to defend ourselves, and join together.  Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with what we believe.

The rest of the paragraph reads:
"Thus, alignment describes the world view of creatures and helps define what their actions, reactions and purposes might be.  It likewise causes a player to choose an ethos which is appropriate to his or her profession, and alignment also aids players in the definition and role approach of their respective game personae.  With the usefulness of alignment determined, definition of the divisions is necessary."
The point was not made.  Maybe Gygax thought the point was made, maybe it fitted some cog in his brain, but the point was decidedly left to die in the proverbial dust.  Nothing is defined here.  No purposes are there to aid anyone in their profession or otherwise.  Usefulness was not determined.

The only successful result was the creation of untold numbers of meaningless, often passionately meaningless debates between D&D players, sometimes ending violently.  The perpetration of an ideological system, which players were told they needed to adhere to, without any proper format or thought, meant that every one of those arguments began with trying to wedge actual ideologies into this mock system.  I cannot begin to understand what has sustained its existence.

No, I don't play with alignments.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I must ask the gentle reader to do something difficult, something which he or she shall find goes against their beliefs - beliefs, that is, that have been taught to them since birth.  I ask the reader to discard any certainty that there exist human rights, or the perceived equality of human beings, or social contracts between the state and its people.  Let us say that none of them exist.  At the time that the monarchical system of government was established, they did not.

In their place, let us understand that a completely different philosophy dominated the political landscape.  Something that today makes libertarian-minded persons bristle with fury:  Might makes Right.

Understand, in the absence of all the political theory which we today take for granted, the argument that power has the privilege to rule is more than a simple acknowledgement of submission - it is the firm and concrete belief that power has the RIGHT to rule.  It should rule.  In fact, knowing that it does rule helps all the poor and huddled masses sleep better in their beds at night.

During my post about the alphabet, I made a point about increased numbers of persons living together created a situation where strangers dwelt together in the same conglomerate for the first time in history.  This would be the massing together of cities, surrounded by an agricultural halo, where tribal organization would break down due to the complexities involved in governing tens of thousands of people. 

In any society prior, the mixing of two tribes was likely to bring about bloodshed and murder, on first sight.  Even when it did not happen, it was in danger of happening, and so tribes did not mix casually even when sitting down together.  Brides were traded according to rigorous customs, like any other traded good, for the betterment of both tribes.  Such events were serious.

But cities, as they came into existence about 10,000 years ago, allowed for thousands of strangers to mix casually every day.  Blood feuds did erupt - people are human, after all - but they were not the order of the day.  They could not be, if the city was to survive - something that was seen as a very good thing, since the city's existence promised the satisfaction of materialistic needs, plentiful food, a strong defense against raiders and personal opportunity.  The very reasons we put up with strangers on the bus or the subway today.

By what means is this ancient city governed?  The people within are a hodgepodge of hundreds of clans and tribes, who share no common heritage as we understand it.  There's no nationalism to define persons from given regions - more often than not, any two persons from a given region would have more reason to despise each other than they would unrelated persons from elsewhere.  There are no binding religious belief systems - like any primitive peoples, religion does not play a significant part in their lives, something that makes it easy for the priesthood to incorporate strangers into whatever 'local' belief system is in play.  Language?  For the common person, there does not exist as yet any literary history, whereas most spoken stories are the same stories, told in different languages.  Language does not herd people together in the ancient period, it drives them apart - lest we forget the story of Babel.

To bind such a diverse mass together, there needs be a single principle.  Strength is something that is universal - a 'King' represents a single entity that be recognized by everyone, thereby lending the familiarity of a father figure to all.  The King possesses a cadre of loyal followers, who as soldiers are able to police the city, putting a stop to conflicts, bringing difficult disputes to the King for settlement, protecting the city against small groups of raiders and providing leadership when the whole city is threatened.

Such a society would defend the King's right to go on doing this very useful service, as the service itself would be more important than any sentiments of 'fairness' or 'liberty' as we understand them.  The King's word would be accurate because he was the King, and not for any other reason that needed to be named.

Later, of course, the King's privileges would be limited by ideas such as feudalism, but initially the King's word would be absolute.  In certain regions, Sumeria to be sure, the King was often a Priest-King, who represented both power on earth and power in heaven.  In appearance, this seems to be a sort of 'divine right' at work, but not so much in practice.  The king was not, at the time, seen to be invested by the gods with power.  Rather, the king simply served a dual purpose - he was in power, so what better person to communicate with the gods when the time came?

Finally, we come to D&D, where the King (when there is one) is a rather distant representative of a government that takes little interest in the party's affairs, even when the party is of high level.  The preferred relationship of Kings to parties is something like what's represented in the film Conan from 1980 - the King's daughter has been stolen, these adventurer's seem tough, he'll pay them to get the daughter back.

Rarely does it happen that the local King sees the tough adventurers as a legitimate danger to his authority, except as a DM's trick to drive the party out of the kingdom.  Most of the time, the party does its thing in a sort of bubble of indifference, wiping out a tribal contingent here, cleaning out a dungeon there ... acting as a sort of guerilla maid service, solving the kingdom's troubles, taking their pay and moving on.

It is easier for a DM to treat the party as operating on the fringes of whatever political monarchy might be present.  In actual fact, as a party continues to operate, its fame should spread and grow - descriptions of the various members should pass from person to person, as stories are told ... until such a time that the party's notariety actually proceeds the party, wherever it desires to go.  This, I see, is something  that should certainly begin to happen by the time the party reaches 8th level.  The smaller the campaign is geographically, however, the lower the level necessary.  Third levels would make a name for themselves in a world that consisted of only a few dozen hexes.

See it as a growing circle of influence that surrounds a party, somewhat in reference to the overall point of this post - that Might makes Right.  As the party gains in notariety, there should also be gained a kind of acceptance that what the party needs ought to be provided.  After all, these adventurers did get rid of that ogre problem in the next county, and they did return the daughter to the Lord of Pynt ... "If they need a horse, why, they can take mine!"

It helps when considering the sort of End Game I was describing in my last post.  The party becomes a political entity in their own right.  Rather than creating conflicts between the local monarchy and the party, to shunt them on to the next kingdom, and rather than inventing harder quests, why not have the monarchy offer the party an arrangement?  (A feudal one to be sure, and we're not talking about feudalism yet, so I'll leave the principles of the arrangement be for the moment).  Eventually, the party becomes masters of their own domains, with their own daughters, whom they have to pay other adventurer's to bring back.

All too often, the shift from Adventurer to Lord is something which happens overnight.  "Oh look, the party stops and now they're lords."  It just couldn't happen that way.  A group of name-level persons would leave too big a wake in their travels.  And they would be just too damn valuable to whomever the local King was - or too big a threat.

Suppose you owned a piece of land in the wilderness, and that the land you owned ended at a particular riverbank.  Suddenly, without warning, a group of tough-looking strangers show up across the river, where they start building fortified houses and loading the place up with weapons.  Would you turn a blind eye because it wasn't actually happening on your property?  That's the scenario dreamed up in the DMG - that because the party chooses to set up their castles in the wilderness, no problem.

Uh uh.  Might makes Right, remember?  First thing the local kingdom is going to do is establish just who is more powerful, and just how is that power structure going to be reordered for the benefit of everyone.  If it turns out the party are a bunch of self-righteous louts, they're going to find an army on their doorstep before they get halfway through building those castles.  And not just to drive them off the land, mind - but to eradicate them, for the good of all.

Isn't that what parties do to villages of goblins?  Ever had a party suggest they should just drive them off and let them go their way?

Once a party has established themselves, they should recognize that the attitude of all those within their environs will be the base expectation that the party will act according to their power - if pushed far enough, a peasant population will rise up, but such uprisings rarely succeeded in changing the power structure.  More often than not the peasantly was brutally murdered afterwards.  In any event, a party that treats its peasantry kindly will likely encourage revolt rather than suppress it.  Kindness is seen as weakness, and weakness has no right to rule.  Keep mindful of that as a DM.

I think that's enough for today.  I could write more, but I will save it for articles I write later on about Feudalism and Divine Right.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ongoing Forever

It seems lately that I've been moving from subject to subject started by other people on other blogs.  The latest would be the D&D 'end game' ... the point where the players stop adventuring, settle down, accumulate titles and find themselves saddled with men-at-arms.

I don't understand the term.  "End"?  As in, stop playing the characters?

There was a policy in OD&D that once the character reached a certain level, that was as strong as they could get.  It was a bad policy.  AD&D fixed it.  In all my experience, I've never had a party resistant to the change.  Rather, I've found that parties cannot get enough of going up levels, getting stronger, mastering the wilderness and so on.  Generally, by 8th level, I've found that parties begin to get interested in things like raising eggs into monsters (dragons, remorhaz, griffons), and thus interested in developing complex fortifications to make such things possible.  The same goes for establishing some kind of continuous income, to provide for the men-at-arms they want, the weapons they want, the materialistic needs they have (everyone always seems to want some kind of massive wardrobe) and so on.

But quit?  Not on your life.

On two occasions prior to my present offline campaign, where the players are just now reaching this stage (two of the principle players are just shy of name-level), I have run supposed 'end-games.'  The first I ran for about a year, but that was quite early in my experience with the game, and the party was mostly about drawing massive buildings and stocking them.  The second end-game I ran lasted for five years.  Doesn't sound like an end-game to me.

By the time it ended, for reasons having nothing to do with D&D and a lot to do with many of my players finding their vocations in other countries around the world (Vietnam and Ireland, as it happened), the party and its henchmen had established themselves on three continents.  To begin with, a fiefdom equivalent to the smallish district of Viano do Castelo in northern Portugal, which they were given as a reward for winning a massive sea-battle of sixty ships vs. greater odds, defending the north coast of Portugal in the process (the mage was given the admiralship for an earlier exploit involving the king himself and a land battle that occurred near Badajoz in western Spain).

Using this fief, the party followed the Portuguese example and colonized a bit of the coast of West Africa, a piece of modern Guinea-Bissau.  They founded a town, established an economy, cleared forests for plantations, built a road into the interior to better communicate with the scattered African states that had once been the Empire of Songhai, cleared pirates out of the Bissagos Islands, fought disease and pestilence wrought by mosquitoes, bought slaves from inland Malinese traders to sell to the New World and shipped valuable luxuries back to Viana do Castelo in order to expand their castle and bullfighting arena back home.

Having established a slave trade, their next escapade involved the island of Barbuda in the Caribbean, which was as yet untouched by Europeans (this being circa 1550).  Instead of selling their slaves in the New World, they established a sugar plantation on Barbuda, so that sugar could then be shipped back to Portugal for income; the party's five ships were then employed hauling tools from Portugal to Guinea-Bissau, slaves from Guinea-Bissau to Barbuda, and then sugar from Barbuda to Portugal.  The party was really starting to establish a solid income base.

Meanwhile, as several years passed in these exploits, characters who had chosen to take wives had also gained children, one of whom at the age of 17 had become a cleric with rather frightening statistics (two 18s, a 17 and two 16s).  This girl I ran as an NPC, and she became the biggest nightmare to her father (the Admiral mentioned above) as she a) turned Roman Catholic (her father was Greek Orthodox), and b) proceeded to journey with a group of her father's soldiers, plus minor members of the party (to keep her safe), through Iberia healing people and performing good deeds.  During a disentery plague, she so remarkably performed as a cleric and religious icon, saving a village and the region surrounding it, that it was declared that her exploits were worthy of being considered a 'miracle.'  From that point on, I would chide the player who's daughter this was that she was destined to be a Saint someday ... I fully intended to carry out that storyline to the end.

Meanwhile, a henchman gained by one of the party turned out to be a dispossed royal heir to the throne of a minor kingdom in central Africa, in what would now be central Niger.  At the time that I stopped playing, the party was in the process of moving men and equipment into Guinea-Bissau, in order to march them more than a thousand miles overland into the heart of the Sudan, to wipe out the usurper and place the henchman on the throne.  After such a journey, I had no doubt the henchman would have been quite a few levels higher - but sadly, we never got to play that campaign.

The complexity of the above meant that different characters would assign henchmen, which they ran themselves according to my policy, to individual campaigns - some to Africa, some to the West Indies, some to Portugal and so on.  I would run every week, four or five runnings with the European campaign, four or five in Africa ... always stopping when preparation would get the best of me.  Thereafter, I would stop running here, to work on whatever, picking up the story line somewhere else.

End game?  Pshaw!  Never heard of it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Encounter Somnambulance

Discussion on Chgowiz's blog, plus this post from Bat in the Attic has encouraged me to write about wilderness hexes, and about filling wilderness hexes.  It is the most somnambulant aspect about outdoor design - it puts me to sleep to work on any system, random or otherwise, for the placement of things in a hex.  I never seem to spend more than a few hours at a time working on it.

To begin, however, with the size of the hex.  Five miles is a popular size, and I note that most DM's prefer hexes no larger than 12 miles.  I use 20.  I assure you, this is through no great love of the 20 mile hex, or because it makes life easier for me.  I am pressed into a larger hex by the task at hand.  Early on, in attempting to map Earth with hexes, I experimented first with five-mile hexes, and later with ten-miles.  The planet is just too big.  Dividing the world into maps which measure 30 inches on a side, I estimate the land area of the Earth will make it necessary for me to produce something like 259 maps, each with 1,050 hexes; actual land area, ignoring hexes covered by seas or lakes, should amount to 162,940 hexes.  At present, I have something like 15% of this completed.  It is a labor of love.

So, most of what is 'inside' a hex on any map of my world is invisible.  I don't try to show every village, hamlet or nomadic camp, even when a camp might number hundreds of people.  Most inhabited hexes in my world have anywhere from 70 to more than 1,000 persons ... including hexes which do not show a 'town.'  It just isn't possible for me to micro-map trails, roads and so on.

I would like to say that Google Maps does the job for me, but sadly, in many cases my mapmaking skills don't match with the detail of Google.  I've left off any number of lakes, rivers, salt pans, alluvial fans and so on for the sake of simplification, and to give me a certain amount of flexibility in describing my world to players.  True, I might occasionally describe a small lake where no such lake exists, but after all, this is my D&D world, and not the actual planet.  The planet is just a guideline for me.

Having said that, let's get down to business.  In having tried to create a random system for filling hexes with junk, I have created lists ... things which fall into four basic categories: occupants, features, topography and events.

Events may occur at any time, repetitiously, and have no influence on the hex at all.  Distilling out events which depend on biological incidents, such as the 17-year cycle of the cicada, a great many examples are inextricably connected to the weather: thunder storms, 'dry lightning' (thunderstorms which produce no precipitation but which produce lightning), heat waves, heat 'storms' (excessive heat waves which last extensive periods), droughts, fog, mist, drizzle, rain, blizzards, ice storms, hail, drifting snow, sleet, ice melt and accumulated rime or black ice.  Other events, some related to the effect of weather, might include forest fires, wild fires, 'bog fires' (spontaneous igniting of escaping gases), firestorms and fire 'whirls' (vertically oriented rotating columns of air, potentially containing draft winds of over 100 mph), pyrocumulus clouds (clouds often associated with volcanic eruptions, causing turbulence and potentially producing lightning), gaseous emissions from active volcations, full volcanic eruptions, mudslides, flash floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, meteor strikes and so on.  Then of course there are magical phenomena which might account for raining frogs, St. Elmo's fire, 'foo fighters' (glowing globes of greenish light often reported by pilots), spontaneous appearances or disappearances, shifts in reality, etcetera, etcetera.

Topography is a little more down to earth, but includes more than merely the lay of the land - flora, drainage and geology are equally as important at the geography of a hex.  What are 'hills/ - are they gently sloping downs, such as southern England or Ohio, or do they display exposed rock, such as the Ozarks?  Are the ponds sink-holes, or are they fed by small streams or natural springs?  Is the forest made of hawthorne trees, with thick briars as undergrowth, or easily marched through aspen woods?  Either might occur at the same latitude.

Features may be man-made, or natural, even impermanent.  An odd-shaped mountain, a pillar of rock, an ancient crater, peculiar gnarled trees, a dungeon entrance, trails, a burned out area, stone statues left over from an ancient race ...

All right, I'm bored.

Even as I sit down to write a post about the features inside hexes, I get exhausted with the process of even listing off these things.  I have tried I don't know how many times to gather a massive collection of these things together ... I have about ten files with general stuff listed, just like the three paragraphs above - not to mention reams on the category I didn't go into: Occupants.  The last, is of course, the largest.

Mostly, however, it has all come to naught.  While the idea of producing a massive encounter table (or discovery table, regarding the features a party might find) seems like a good one, and like one that many DMs would love and appreciate, efforts to produce one just puts me to sleep.  I find myself anxiously wanting to put down such a table and get back to making maps, designing combat systems, rewriting the monster tables ... in short, anything else.

Someday, I might actually overcome my sleepiness and produce an extensive, detailed table for such things.  In the meantime, it is easier to just invent events and encounters as they occur to me.  After so many years of trying, however, I`m not sure I ever will.  It seems better, for the present, to ditch the die and focus on making a great adventure.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Easy Programming

Ah, this is Canada, and the temperature is -26 degrees celsius.  For the gentle reader who is American, that is -15 degrees fahrenheit.

So as I won't be going out anyway, I shall try to elaborate upon my pathetically simple program for rolling combat results.  This will require a basic skill in excel, but if you fill in the cells as I show you, the system can be yours.

Starting with cells A1 through J1, you'll want to copy the following headings: Attacker, No. of Targets, THACO, Target AC, To Hit Roll, Effect, Damage Dice, Modifier, Damage, Target Chosen.  And now I shall explain what each of those means.

Attacker.  This cell identifies the attacker.  Skipping a line, in cell A3, you want to write the formula (and for the purpose of this post, all formulas will be written in red, inside black brackets), (=1+A2).  Since cell A2 is empty, this will produce the number 1.  If the cell is copied and pasted into A4, it will give you the number 2.  It is simply a counter, so you will know which creature did the hitting.  You need to mentally designate the attackers in a group from number 1 to number whatever, which I usually do by counting left to right, or top to bottom, depending on the orientation of the attackers.  Obviously, this needs to be done before addressing the excel chart.

No. of Targets.  In hand-to-hand, this would usually be one target, the one in front of them, unless the attacker has multiple attacks.  The purpose of this system, however, is to manage the low level scum, so for the most part, they will have only one attack.  However, if you want, you can decide to have the die select up to however many targets you wish - if you want to make it more complicated.  Usually, in hand to hand, most creatures will be adjacent to either 2 or 3 opponents ... so you could make the number of targets "2", meaning left or right, or "3", meaning left, right, or center.  If you choose "3" for melee combat, and you get a result of the third man where only two exist, you can simply decide that it counts back to the first man again.

I know that's confusing.  It will be less confusing once you've read the whole post.  I suggest you come back.

If the attacker is firing a missile weapon, the number of targets increases considerably ... potentially the whole field of fire.  The main difficulty created is that different ACs will be attacked at once, but that isn't important to this column.  Again, mentally assign a number to every creature in the line of fire, count them all and then imput the number into the cell.  For the purpose of my demonstration below, I will put (6) into cell B3.

THACO.  Obviously, the number the attacker needs to hit AC zero.  This isn't complicated, the number is available in the DMG.  Remember, this is the attacker's number, not the defender's.  For my demonstration, I'll assume I have men-at-arms attacking, so I'll write (20) into cell C3.

Target AC.  As I said, this could be complicated, if there are multiple armor classes being attacked.  For ease, I suggest that you use the lowest AC of all those being attacked, and then adjust as necessary.  Once again, this is merely a number you need to put in.  I'll assume the least equipped opponent is leather and shield, and write (7) into cell D3.

To Hit Roll.  This is the d20 roll that the individual 'throws.'  It is a simple formula: (=rand()*20+.5), which you input into cell E3.  The numeral 20 defines the random number to be thrown; the computer does not designate whole numbers, but creates any random number (with decimals) between zero and 20 ... thus it is possible to get a result of 0.000356.  Thus, you'll want to reduce the number of decimals to none, showing only the rounded off number.  The 0.5 is added at the end of the formula is so that you won't get a result less than '1' shown.

Effect.  This is simply the formula to tell you if the attacker hit or missed the target.  For those familiar with if statements, it's again a very common formula (=IF(E3>=C3-D3-0.5,"hit","miss")) ... otherwise, that might look weird.  Note that you only want 1 bracket at the end, there, the one shown in red.  This is put into cell F3.  All it does is to remove the target AC from the THACO, to give excel the number you need to hit; this is then compared with the To Hit Roll, and if the To Hit Roll is equal to or higher than the number needed to hit, you hit.  Then it prints either "hit" or "miss" in the cell.

For you geeks, note that the modifier added to the To Hit Roll is compensated for here ... if you've noticed the anomaly, you should be able to figure out why it is there.  It is simply because a "12.7" would appear in the To Hit column as a "13" ... if I were to have the formula subtract 7 from 20, then a 12.7 would show a miss.  Everything above 12.5 should count as a hit.  Get it?

Damage Dice.  So now we know if the target has hit or missed.  In cell G3, you want to record the highest number on the die in question ... thus a six-sided would be a (6).  An eight-sided would be an 8 and so on.  Thankfully, there will be very few situations where more than one die is involved.  I suggest you roll those situations separately, and not use excel.  It would be easier, in many cases, to just roll dice.

Modifier.  This is in case the weapon being used is a mace (2-7), or all the creatures have a strength bonus.  Simply input the number that you want added to the damage die.  Since these are zero-level humans, I will input (0) into cell H1.

Damage.  Simply the damage that is done.  The formula reads thus: (=IF(F3="hit",RAND()*G3+0.5, "")) ... again, only one bracket there at the end.  Input this into cell I3.  This simply says, if there is a hit, the random number is rolled for damage and shown here.  Again, that pesky 0.5 is needed to give a number between 0.5 and 6.5, which is rounded off (display option) to show a number 1 to 6 in the cell.  If the shot was a miss, the cell will appear empty.

Target Chosen.  This indicates who the damage was done to.  The formula reads (=IF(I3="","",RAND()*B3+0.5)) ... still, just one bracket at the end.  Input this into cell J3.  This identifies which target was struck, randomly chosen from the number of targets you designated in column B.  If the attacker missed, no result will appear.

If you've done this correctly, you need only copy each line to the line below to produce another 'attacker'.  You can, in effect, produce hundreds of attackers, at the click of a button.  The problem with excel, however, is that every time you click, the numbers will recalculate and the results will change ... UNLESS you dig around into the formulas page and designate the calculations to occur manually.

I don't care to do that, however ... it takes time and there's an easier way.  If you highlight everything you need, and then open another sheet or page in excel, you can 'paste special' everything you've done as 'values only' ... which will get rid of the formulas on the new page (keeping the old page untouched) and then you can sort out the numbers however you wish.  Two hundred bowmen?  No problem.  Make 200 lines and then sort according to what targets got hit.  Tickety-boo, apply the damage.

Incidentally, I'm thinking about designating one of the party as a record keeper, to help me keep track of damage to the enemy ... should speed up some things.

Using the tables, I produced the following results for 20 bowmen firing at 6 targets, all AC7.  Make of it what you will.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mass Bloody Butchery

Coincidentally, as I'm reading posts about mass combat (Chgowiz, Delta), I'm gearing up in my campaign for a mass combat.  In fact, the numbers are not yet determined, which is part of the fun, as my offline party has to wait two weeks to find out what happens next.

The party amounts to a group of level sevens and eights, who only recently found themselves pressed against the wall by 105 goblins (95 archers, 10 goblins mounted on worgs) and one fifth level ftr/mage drow elf, fighting from a fortified position consisting of two towers and a wall.  The archers and mage did a nice job of tearing holes in the party while they cleaned up the worgs.  Fun was had all around.  Total participants: 19 party members and henchmen vs. 126 opponents (counting the worgs).

Turns out, behind the front fortification, placed between two mountains, is a valley dominated by wooden fortification (treated with pitch, so firing it won't be easy), containing some 200 goblins, 50 hobgoblins and at least five drow (this is the reconnoitoring knowledge the party has).  The party isn't the least concerned with the lower-level fodder (except that there are ballista on the tower), but having the drow decimate them with magic as they wade through the fodder doesn't fill them with glee.  So they've taken steps to gather some fodder of their own.

(Incidentally, I pay no attention to rules involving the drow and sunlight.  Never have)

I want to keep the background down to a minimum.  The party's mage is the nominal head of the fiefdom, but he's been gone for a year on party business, and he has come back to find the population of the fief cut from 1800 to 1400, most of the outer towns decimated or abandoned, and this mass of creatures on the doorstep.  It could have been dealt with before it grew into this problem ... but the party didn't think it was that important.

So ... the mage is beating the drum to raise up a force from within the fief (mostly women and children), and asking the Lord next door for aid - I'll probably throw the Lord himself into the mix, plus 150 men ... which will look like overkill.

In the meantime, the drow will send out for aid also.  I'm thinking trolls, or ogres, plus more hobgoblins or whatever.  My guess is that the party force will number 230-250.  I'm thinking the opposition will top out at 325-375, depending on how many more goblins I add.  Estimated number: 600.

Now, I know this would make many DMs sweat - I can't say I'm looking forward to it.  The combat won't be accomplished in one session, something the party knows and are totally cool with.  The pre-combat, the one they finished last night, took two sessions to run.  I'm told no one was bored.

As I see it, I have three choices:

Option 1.  I can spend the next two weeks throwing together a jury-rigged mass combat system, based on previous incarnations of mass combat that I have attempted.  My experience is that, while this will work to determine who the winners and losers are, it will pretty much solve the problem from my perspective only. 

Mass combat is stale and dull for parties, who don't relate to their character suddenly being associated with a 'unit', or being damaged by average hit point distributions.  I've played out these things, and except for the player who actually likes war games like this, no one else feels invested in the slightest.

Plus, killing a character this way, when the character is part of a mass of men, is anathema to a campaign.  No one feels right about it.

Option 2.  I can ignore the battle, and concentrate on only the player's involvement in it.  In other words, divide the participants into those the party cares about and 'everyone else'.  Sure, the party fights on this side, but over there the Lord and his men do this, or that, or get blasted, or break into the fort conveniently at just the right time ... in short, reduce their involvement to a story line.  To hell with the actual details regarding NPCs.  This is about the party!

Naturally, the party winds up feeling, usually, that the whole thing has been handed to them on a silver platter, or that it has been made unreasonably difficult for them.  And let's admit it ... the DM is almost certainly going to have the Lord half-succeed (most of the enemy killed, the fort breached) while also half-failing (the Lord dies valiantly, thus not getting in the way of the party plundering the treasure).

I've tried this also; it's all right, it works.  The party usually doesn't care as long as they get treasure.  But you're sort of forced to make the party win.  If the party doesn't win, it's the DMs fault - he didn't give enough credence to the NPC force - might as well have never had the NPC force, and just had the party fight less creatures.  Why make it a mass combat at all?

Option 3.  Let me say, this is the one I'm leaning towards, because it is the one I've never tried.  Roll every die.  Yes, that's right.  You heard me.

I can almost hear the moans as I write this.  But hear me out.  This isn't 1982.

Mass combat is based on the impracticality of doing what I suggest - it takes too long to throw 1200+ attack dice and damage dice per round, not to mention saving throws and so on.  We will all be here until Hell hath passed from Winter to Spring - and boredom will reign.  Now and then a longtime DM will try it out for themself - stage a mock combat, populate both sides with a hundred fighters, and go at it.  I doubt most such combats are ever fought to the last man.

But I have been thinking ... I am easily able to roll hundreds of dice at the click of a mouse, IF I program the random numbers, and their results, into a very simple Excel spreadsheet.  With a little programming, I can produce automatically not only the die rolls, but the AC hit, the damage done and even the targets hit.  Depending on how much programming I do.

The trick would be to REDUCE the amount of programming ... to not try to cover every detail.  To make one line which selects the target, rolls a die, determines the AC the die hits (by imputing the creature's THACO), roll damage if it hits, and then cut and paste.

I honestly don't know how many people out there understand Excel - but this is almost painfully simple to do.

What it allows is to divide the party and its henchmen up into the various groups assaulting the castle from all sides, or against flanking attacks, so that every force has a party member or members involved.  I have three characters that fly (mage, shape-changing druid and thief with wings of flying), so it enables them to flit from assault to assault as needed.  The battle will be a grind - nothing can be done about that - but hopefully, a grind where everyone is invested, where characters are literally brave or terrified, depending on how it goes (out of my hands, regarding 'storytelling'), and the party can, ultimately, LOSE.

Am I crazy?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Occasionally, I take it upon myself to launch into a post containing a whole lot of math – or at least, more math that can usually be found on a D&D blog. I’ve gotten both positive and negative responses to those posts; I’m sure I haven’t written the last of them. That’s because, honestly,

“Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.”
Robert A. Heinlein.

This being my honest and complete answer for anyone who tells me there’s too much math involved in doing something.

I'd like to dispute that money is the root of all evil.  I think rather - and I say this to the pleasure of all the student's who have pop quizzes first thing tomorrow, that the root of all evil is math.  Mathematics enabled the establishment of time, the division of property and the application of taxation. It also brought about the invention of interest.

How did it do these things? It brought an end to doing things ‘more or less,’ replacing that concept with exactitude.

Please to understand. Once upon a time, you would milk your cow and bring your share of milk to distribute among the various villagers, in accordance with village law. This was something that every cow owner did in a community that favored community property … and it was assumed that the amount of milk that you brought more or less compared with the amount of milk that other cow-owning members of the village brought.

If it was a little less, because you would casually suck a bit off heavy cream off the top for yourself, who would notice? And if your gourd was a bit larger than your neighbors, entitling you to a bit more milk when it came time to share things out, who would know? Granted, someone might notice if it was very much larger … but a little larger? No big deal.

The invention of mathematics brought in a very interesting concept, however – one that was applied to every aspect of human civilization. That concept was measuring ... which in turn defined, as it had never been defined before, just what your share was.  Exactly.

More importantly, it defined exactly who was contributing more than his or her fellow neighbor.  And those who consistently contributed more gained importance, and were rewarded in turn, while those who consistently contributed less could no longer rely on human perception to carry them along.  Everyone knew you contributed less.  Everyone knew your gourd was larger.  It was measured.

If it was your cow that produced the least milk in the village, guess who's cow got slaughtered when the time came?

Ah yes, time.  Once upon a time, there was no time.  No hours, no minutes, no measure for how much labor you performed except for how much labor you actually performed.  But mix time with labor, and you have invented the wage.  Add writing to the mix, and we have a measure for how many days you have spent at a labor, because everyone now remembers when you've worked and when you have not.  It is measured.  It is written down.

Once, I would have given you a cow and you would have said, "You may farm all of that field between that group of trees and that stream."  But now we know how far, exactly, it is between those two things.  And we know that I own more land than my neighbor does.  And that isn't making my neighbor happy.  So now we are squabbling and stabbing each other over sixty square yards of land, where once we lived in peace.

I could have written a pedantic, point-by-point discussion about the development of mathematics and its influence on social welfare, but I thought this would make the point more clearly.  Because, after all, this is very much what D&D lives and breathes ... an endless, furtive grubbing effort to divide treasure, to make sure that his +1 sword isn't improving his character better than my potion of levitation, that I'm not getting screwed somehow since my experience is 250 points less than the fighter's is.  After all, it was my shocking grasp that dealt the death blow to the ogre, not the fighter's three misses in a row.

Whatever you say or believe, D&D is all about measurement.  It is microcosm of human kind, from pissing contests about whose strength is higher to the number of times each character has rolled a critical hit.  And nothing gets measured against a player's valued to the party than the share of gold that is to be rewarded when the monster is finally dead.

It wasn't money that invented greed - money did not come into existence for more than two thousand years after the widespread application of mathematics.  Interest existed before money did, as did taxation, loans, debt and virtually everything else you can associate with wealth.  And the thing that made it possible to calculate all that in a bartering world was mathematics.  All I am trying to get across is that it wasn't counting that made the world move, it was MEASURING.

Hm.  I can't seem to make that point strongly enough.  That is, when I compare it to other points I've made in this post.

When it comes to creating a world - and this applies to every kind of world, even those in the far-flung future - the social structure of that world depends upon how wealth is distributed throughout the culture.  The wider the difference between the very wealthy and the very poor, the less accessible those people in power become.  A wide difference creates many, many poor, and only a few wealthy - so that the wealthy must defend their wealth.

In a culture, however, where wealth is truly distributed evenly, the people in power become very accessible.  There is no trouble sitting down and communicating with the chief of an egalitarian village; but it is nearly impossible to speak with the Emperor.

The narrower the distribution, the greater the number of measurements the society imposes - that's all laws really are.  Just a series of measurements.  You are entitled to this much money, this much space, this much return for your labor and so on.  Ask for more and it will be denied.  In a highly evolved society, your only choices for increasing your 'share' are to increase your labor (either quantitativally or qualitatively), or seize someone else's share criminally.

The wider the distribution, the less the number of measurements a society needs.  Everyone has the same.  Labor does not increase your share, though refusing to labor may reduce it.  Usually, in such a society, there is nothing to be gained by hoarding or being 'rich.'  You can only eat so much.  You only need a bed so large.  There is nothing you can steal that will increase your condition.

To create an extremely sophisticated society that enjoys at once a wide distribution of wealth and a lack of social imposition is easy, if fantasy is employed.  Our world only operates the way it does because there is dearth ... limited resources, limited space and so on.

But what about a world, set on an alternative plane of existence, that has no such limitation.  What if money isn't a limit?  What if everything that could be wished for or asked for literally grew on trees?  What if your fantasy world included a never ending abundance of trees which, upon being asked, freely produce everything your character could ever want or need?  What if, extending the fantasy, this happened in a universe with no boundaries, no limited space on a planet, just an endless environment that extended infinitely in every direction?  And finally, just to hammer the point home, what if you could travel to any point in this 'world' in the space of an hour, regardless of the actual distance?

There were still be measurements.  You may be able to pick flasks of oil from the trees like bunches of bananas, but you could still only hold so many at one time.  No matter how many +5 swords you could find, you can still only fight with them two at a time ... and the player with the highest dexterity would manage that feat better.  Remove wealth from the equation, and there's still room to covet those with better stats, with more experience, with a greater degree of imagination.

D&D makes it easier to compare those things than real life does, as it provides models by which all of those things are measured.  That is both the genius, and the evil burden, that is part of the game.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Blind Thieves

“R” made a comment on my last post that I’d like to address fully:

“I noticed in your other post you use Wisdom for your perception rolls and here you imply that Thieves are the class that uses Wisdom the least ... I don't necessarily have a problem with thieves' least likely ‘decent score’ being Wisdom, but I do consider thieves more naturally perceptive than the other classes.”
Of course, thieves to have a additional aspect to their perception ability, that being their ability to hear noise.  Although I've never done it - though I should start, I suppose - it would make sense to allow a +1 modifier on the die per 5% of hear noise ability.  Thus, a thief with an 11 wisdom and a 20% hear noise would roll a perception check as though their wisdom was 15.

Putting that aside for the moment, I think where R and I differ is in the way we look at thieves ... I would guess that R holds the common perception of thieves inside the movie-making tradition.  That the thief is essentially Thomas Crown, or John Robie, or any number of prestigious cat-burglars with, eventually upon reaching a high level, perfect reflexes and balance.  Certainly, any of these would never fail to notice the slightest detail should it cross their path - and thus, they are deserving of a high perception.

I do not adhere to this model where it comes to thieves.  Yes, I believe the possibility exists for a thief like this in a campaign - if the thief chooses to assign a high wisdom to their character.  On the other hand, there are plenty of thieves in literature that fit perfectly into the model for a thief with low wisdom and perception.  Fagin, for example, who isn't among the more terribly bright pennies in the box - nor the most perceptive.  The same must be said for Pistol, Bardolph or Nym.  Falstaff was drunk most of the time, and hardly as light with his feet or eye as he was with his tongue (you may examine the Merry Wives of Windsor for sources, if you like).

In short, there are thieves and there are thieves.  Just as not every fighter is a duellist with two weapons, and not every assassin is an ugly sprat.  Depending on how the player assigns his scores to his stats, the character is defined.

This is a chief problem I have with skills systems where players gain skills through buying them.  The skills themselves are made according to assumptions made about what a character is and what is important.  There's no room in the lexicon for a Pistol, as every skill is designed expressly to produce a Hudson Hawk.  Every fighter must be a massive Conan; none can be a shrewd Petruchio or a brooding, angst-driven Elric of Melnibone.  The mages must all be Galdalf - there is no room for a weakling Skeeve.

In short, two-dimensionality.  If the skill is good for thieves, ipso facto all thieves must have that skill.  Which I think is a big weakness of some systems.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good Negativity

Update: some of the material contained in this post is no longer accurate to the way that I run my game.  An updated version of the rules proposed below may be found on the wiki, on this page.  The original post is unchanged.

I haven't felt very healthy for quite a few days now, which explains the drop off in posting.  But a house rule of mine came up during the online campaign, which I discussed briefly on the campaign blog ... but it makes sense to discuss it a little more fully here.  And as I feel a bit better tonight, here goes.

The concept of negative hit points did not come from me.  Honestly, I don't know where it came from, something I read in a games store no doubt, a long time ago.  I'm always up for a good idea, however, and so I co-opted it.  I have no idea what the original rules were.  These are my rules.

I liked negative hit points for a couple of reasons.  They gave a kind of safety buffer to low level characters, keeping them alive, while at the same time telling a character of any level that it was time to slow down and get the hell out of the combat.  Strangely, when I used to play without that cushion, a player would go on fighting with two hit points even though he'd die at -1 (zero always meant unconscious).  With the new method, if a player drops below zero, it will get across the message that it's time to go.

It works like this.  A zero-level human, or an ordinary humanoid of any race, still dies at -1 hit points, and still falls unconscious at 0.  However,  a leveled individual of any race does not die until they reach -10 hp.  This means that they can persist until they reach -9.

However, there are certain effects which begin to manifest once the player drops below zero hit points.  For each point below zero, the player's stats are lowered by 10%.  Thus, at -1 hp, the player has 90% of their ability stats, at -2 hp, 80%, and so on.  All stats are affected equally and in the same proportion.  This has some interesting applications where it comes to players.

Intelligence is the critical stat.  As long as the character's intelligence remains above 3, the character may continue to function.  This means that for someone with an intelligence of 10, they are still able to think their way through most things as long as they have -7 or more hit points.  When a character drops below 3 intelligence, they are a vegetable.

Moreover, once a character begins to drop in stats below what they need for minimum class requirements, they lose the benefits that come with their character classes.  Monks cannot open hand, paladins lose their 10' radius of protection, spellcasters lose their spells, fighters drop onto the zero level fighting table and so on.  Usually these things don't become a problem unless the player drops below -3 hp, but in the case of paladins, illusionists or monks, who need 15 to 17 pt. stats, the effect is usually felt at -1 hp.

Even a small drop will be felt.  A fighter with an 18/00 strength at zero hit points will find his or her power affected rather quickly.  As I consider each 20% of strength bonus to be equal to one point of strength (it has always been a problematic system), the fighter's strength is considered for this rule to be equal to '23'.  Each point below zero reduces strength by 2.3, so at -1 hp, the fighter would have a strength of 18/54; at -2 hp, a strength of 18/08; at -3 hp, a strength of 16.1 and so on.  So comparative weakness takes effect very quickly.

A cleric with a 13 wisdom, reduced to -1 hp, would then have a wisdom of 11.7 ... the fraction is dropped and this is treated as an 11.  While the cleric is still a cleric (minimum wisdom must be 9) and can still throw spells, now the cleric has a 10% spell failure chance according to his or her present wisdom.

Similarly, thieves lose dexterity bonus for thieving abilities, while mages lose their chance of knowing spells which are in their spellbooks.  And all characters begin to accrue negative modifiers on their attacks and armor class as their strength and dexterity fall below 7 points.  And yes, as charisma drops, so do charisma modifiers on hirelings and men-at-arms.

There is one more unlikely effect that wouldn't occur often, but would happen with certain characters.  I play with the rules where a player cannot be a certain character if the stat is below six.  Only mages may have a strength below 6, only fighters can have an intelligence below 6, only thieves can have a wisdom below 6 and so on.

If a character has chosen to have a cleric with an strength of 7, they are going to be heartily surprised to find that when their strength drops below 6 (at -2 hp), they are no longer a cleric, even if their wisdom still remains well above 9 ... since with a strength of 5.6, the only thing they can be is a mage - which they are not.

It is an interesting house rule, and has served well to instigate interesting game-playing effects among players once they drop below zero hit points and they must play weaker, stupider, uglier characters.  The fun really begins when virtually every member of the party is below zero to some degree - a staggering, half-zombified mob just trying to get away while yet keeping their senses more or less intact.


For those who have trouble with math:

Friday, November 20, 2009


If you will, picture the player: “Asking the cleric to draw the light as far back from the top as I can, I climb down the rope to the bottom of the chimney; what can I see with my infravision?”

“About forty feet down, there’s a metal plate set across the chimney. About ten feet below that, you can detect a swirling mass of color that you’re guessing is probably water.”
“I try to move the plate. Can I lift it?”

“Roll a d6.”

The situation I’ve descibed is typical. I’d like to point out, however, that I have not told the player specifically what they are rolling the d6 for. It might be to see if they can move the plate, and it might be surprise or initiative, since something could attack them. One way or another, I am very deliberate about keeping the player in the dark until I know what the die roll has told me.  That way, if it is an attack, I can inform the player simultaneously that he is surprised, or not surprised, and that the alligator has leapt up to take off a piece of the character's foot.

I have been to many games where the dialogue between player and DM is all very technical ... where the DM describes the monster according to its type, species and even it's level or character class: "You see an ogre magi cleric master of the fifth rank" ... whereas I'm likely to say that you see an ogre with a sword (or possibly not; why couldn't an ogre magi carry a club?).   I don't think it does any good to tell the players up front that the mage is casting a cause serious wounds spell until the actual spell is applied to the character.  It is enough to know that the ogre has cast a spell, and that now the ogre has entered combat.  I won't even say, "The ogre has cast the spell and now tries to touch you."  That's too much information.

Half the fun of being a DM is keeping the players woefully in the dark.  Sometimes, yes, it's obvious what they're rolling for.  If they are on the edge of a cliff, and they've just been hit by a club, I will tell them to make a "dex" check ... they might as well know at that point that if they fail they're going to fall.  But if they're crossing a courtyard, and I want to see if they notice that the statue in the center has just moved, I don't tell them that they're making a wisdom check (the roll I use for perception) ... I just say, roll a d20.  I don't want them to know why.  Particularly if they've failed.  Then it is just hanging out there - the question, "What was that for?" might never actually get answered.

I think this bothers some DMs.  I think that they are deeply involved in their designs, and truly want every facet understood, and thus appreciated, by their players.  And I think that's fine - after the fact.  During the actual adventure, they should be kept as ignorant as possible.

Which might be one of the principle reasons for the disconnect in my online games.  I do intentionally withhold information.  I do it constantly.  I have elements in my campaigns that I have literally withheld for years.  I shall give an example.

About two years ago, real time, my offline campaigners came across a caravan on the edge of the Ust Urt plateau(NW Turkmenistan), in which three ogres were transporting 17 women, none with a charisma less than 16.  The party killed the ogres, freed the women, and discovered that many of them were from prestigious households throughout northern Persia.  What followed was a lengthy adventure in which the women were returned.

The women, as it turned out, were a sacrifice planned by a high level mage by the name of Patroclus.  Patroclus wasn't happy.  But although he had every intention of frying the party down to the last member, the party returning the Emir of Tabiristan's daughter won them a special gift - a Libram of Proof Against Detection.  As long as any member of the original party holds the Libram, they can't be found with ESP, Clairaudience or any other finding spell.

Now, the party has never seen Patroclus; they have been able to identify him as one of the Wizard Princes of a region called Khorezm (modern Khiva), but that's all.  They have heard neither hide nor hair of him in eighteen months, but they know me and they haven't forgotten.  Patroclus can still find them by that old tried and true method, investigation ... and though they've teleported once as a party since, there are still elements that can be identified.  Sooner or later (and only I know when), Patroclus will find them.

But what happens then, I've never told anyone.

It is the same methodology applied to novel writing ... withhold, withhold, withhold.   No character ever has more information than is absolutely necessary, no one in the novel ever knows everything that is going on except for the one character you don't get a chance to talk with until the very end.  In D&D, the novel never ends.  Whatever might get resolved, there have always been other aspects of the journey that have been created along the way, leading to other adventures and other resolutions, some soon, some much later.

In that way, yes, D&D is storytelling.  Or rather, it is NOT storytelling.  All too often, I think, the whole story gets told right at the beginning, and nothing is really a surprise - need the key, find the key, fight for the key, get the key.

Not telling the story begins, as I began, with not telling the players why you're rolling.  Or why they're rolling.  It's in the DMG and it's good advice.  With some players, it will take time to break them of their "knowing all things" habit ... but your campaign will get better once you do.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Online Campaign Programming

As it happens, I had a long conversation last night with a friend of mine, a computer programmer, who has taken it upon himself to produce the means to game online.  Like most programmers, I presume he is unhappy with what is available out there, and feels he can do it better.  All power to him.

He's watched the online campaign I run, and he's been noodling around with ideas about a blogging campaign.  Last night he asked me what a 'perfect' arrangement for blogging would entail.  The suggestions he made included an in-program die roll which would only be seen after the comment was published.  Express the desire to roll, hit a feature, then post ... result appears.

He also spoke of a character template which would be more easily accessible through the blog - whereupon we talked at length about my dislike of character sheets, and of course he had read the post I made last week.  But that was the point of the conversation.  To pick my brain and arrive at possible solutions.

He asked me to do him a favor, and this is me doing it.  The question he asks is, what programming for an online blog campaign could a player want in a PERFECT world?  What features might it possess?  I think he would probably be happy with any ideas relating to programming D&D, blogged or not blogged.  I said I'd throw the question out there and see if I got responses.

So.  Any responses?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rash Actions

As I wonder if my credibility has faded due to the rant in the last post, I find myself thinking of two occasions when I have, literally, thrown people out of my campaign.  I do not mean telling them on the phone not to come again, or informing them in some other benign way.  I refer to ejecting them in the middle of play.

It is impossible to keep personalities out of these things, and I certainly have one myself.  I'm not easy to get along with.  It amazes me that I don't have a dozen stories like these ... but there are only two.

In the first case, the fellow had once been my best friend.  I met Cal the first night I played D&D, immediately liking him because he laughed at everything.  Well, everything remotely funny.  We got on great, made worlds together, switched playing as DM and player, and hung out for years.

After high school, though, I began to find him distressingly juvenile.  He seemed to resist growing up.  I was all of 19, feeling like an adult, feeling like I wanted to take things more seriously ... and Cal's laugh began to rankle.  We still played D&D and hung out, but as time went on, I found myself getting more condescending towards him.  Cal noticed, naturally.  It was only a matter of time before a blow out happened.

During a combat, Cal hit a string of bad luck with his d20 and couldn't hit anything.  He naturally became more and more frustrated, leading to cursing loudly every time he rolled the die.  Finally he threw the die at the table, it bounced off and shot across the room.  I remember we were in my parent's basement at the time ... I was still living at home.

Peevishly, I told him that he needed to take responsibility for his actions.  He replied, "What, for the dice?  They're random.  How can I take responsibility for something I have no control over!"

"Well," I said, "The dice can't take responsibility, they're inanimate objects.  So I guess that means YOU have to."

Some time after that, but not long after, with tempers high, he threw a die at me.  Whereupon I shouted at him to get out of my house.  He refused.  It's a response that has always baffled me.  I roared a few more times, he refused a few more times, whereupon I jumped him, and wrestled him foot by foot up the stairs and out the back door.  He fought every step of the way.  I threw him out, went back for his stuff, threw that out at him, and slammed the door.  Scratch one friendship.

I've often wondered about that.  I was obviously looking for a way to end the friendship, and took it.  I don't think I'd do it the same way now.  No, what I wonder about is Cal fighting all the way.  Was it only spite, or did he want the friendship to last, and that's what he was fighting for.  Even when a couple of years later we met at university, and talked, and buried the hatchet - which didn't start the friendship again, that was gone, though I could say hi on the street to him if I saw him - I couldn't get an explanation out of him about that.  He did not remember fighting me as I threw him out.  He didn't remember any of the particulars, except that we fought.

I think many of us have stories like this; we don't write about them, because we don't come off looking good.  But I don't look so great right now anyway, so I have nothing to lose.

The other tale is stranger, and less violent.  I would have been about 23.  I was living in a townhouse with my wife, playing D&D every Friday like clockwork, running the same world I'm running now - less sophisticated, but following the same principles.

The number of players had been expanding steadily for months.  Many of you might know how it goes - players have a friend or a girlfriend, or you meet people you haven't seen for awhile who are looking for a campaign ... and another person starts showing up.  At the point whene this story takes place, I was running 14 people in my campaign, pretty much every night.  I remember that included my wife Michelle, three fellows named Mike, the one Mike's brother Craig and another Mike's brother Todd.  Mike with Todd had his girlfriend Carol.  There were the brothers Darcy and Tom, and there was an ex-girlfriend of mine Nicole and her boyfriend Barry and Barry's friend P.J.  And finally there was Donny and his girlfriend, who I think was named either Karen or Kathy.

These were the regulars.  Sessions got pretty rowdy, with people drifting into the kitchen or the back yard when I was running these four people who went down that hallway and then after these five people who broke into this vault.  The logistics were a nightmare, as any DM might guess ... but I handled it, evident in that the people kept coming.

(I'm slipping into it with my present off-line campaign just now ... five people became four people, who are now six people with two more wanting to join)

But, as it happened, people were not quite as accepting as they might have been.  In all that crowd, the continous hang up was Donny and Karen or Kathy.  He had trouble with a lot of the comments, and I have to just say that she was just plain stupid - with regards to D&D, anyway.  She was there because he was there, and everyone at the table knew it.

Out of the campaign, people pressed me to stop letting him play.  I understood their frustration, but I felt bad for the guy.  He did really want to play, and he did try ... he just couldn't quite get it.  I think if he hadn't had his girlfriend in tow, she just sitting and taking up space and clearly anything but conversational, people might have begun to warm up to him.  But they all resented the silent, stony anchor he carried.  I got to resent her, myself.

I was clearly cracking under the strain of running 14 people; things that night had been complicated.  One of those combats that involved a round-the-table die-rolling session every round.  I had most of them trained not to hem and haw when it was their turn, which let things go fairly well ... but sometimes it got so aggravating I could just scream.  Sometimes I did.

That night, I felt the pressure.  I don't remember what exactly was happening the moment I realized I was going to have to ask Donny and his girlfriend to go.  I didn't shout, I didn't insult them - I was too exhausted.  I told them patiently, and probably peevishly from their perspective, that they weren't welcome anymore and that they'd better go.  The room was very quiet.  No one backed me up ... but they knew I could handle it.  They knew I didn't need help.

Donny shouted.  Donny insulted everyone and went out in a fury.  He was entitled.

I never saw him again.  I had never really been his friend, I only saw him for D&D.  We didn't go for drinks or hang out in any way.  I can't remember now how I even met him ... he didn't go to university, he had a blue collar job.  He wasn't extraordinarily bright.  So our association is a mystery to me now.  Michelle used to say I had a talent for bringing home "lost puppies" ... people with nowhere else to go.  That must have been the case.

After the fact, everyone congratulated me for turfing the both of them.  But honestly, I never felt good about it.

So if you're in a situation where you have tossed players, or you're thinking about tossing players, I would recommend doing it out of the campaign.  If you feel like you have to do it right then, stop running.  Explain to everyone it isn't your night, and offer to play poker.  And then, a few days later, end your association.

You will feel better about it.  I am haunted by my two experiences.