Friday, January 30, 2009

How It's Done Rejoiner

Regarding the maps of the previous post.

The program used is Microsoft Publisher, 2003. I’m familiar with Quark also for the Mac, but I don’t have one of those at home and besides, I find it finicky (though it allows more visual options). To translate the map into a jpeg, I have to transfer the file to my other computer and Publisher 2007, which is part of why the formatting gets screwy.

The hexes are individual shapes strung together to make the hex grid, so each hex can be individually colored or shaded as necessary, as well as the hard borders softened to give it a gentler look.

The elevation data is obtained through the Fallingrain Global Gazatteer, the link for which you can find to the right. Each hex is assigned a set of coordinates (so much latitude and longitude) based on an overall map representing the entire Northern Hemisphere (a second map represents the Southern Hemisphere). This causes some distortion, on account of the hexes, which must be adjusted for. The numbers from Fallingrain are then crunched and applied to each hex, giving me a minimum elevation and a maximum. The minimum is then recorded onto the map.

The cities are then plotted on the map according to their latitude and longitude, being assigned to the appropriate hex and a fairly specific location within that hex. This location is later adjusted for the aforementioned distortion, as occasionally the rows have a tendency to define a city as being northwest of a particular feature when it should be slightly northeast. It is best to remember that true north as depicted on the map is not the top of the map, but always towards the centre hemisphere hex. Does that make sense?

Having plotted the cities, I hand draw the borders out, one line at a time, using the program tool for the purpose. Provincial and national labels are added. Provincial borders are shown by a 4 pt grey line, national borders by an 8 pt grey line. I experimented a lot with different colors and thicknesses, and arrived at this as it is easy to view even when the map is fairly small and both words and rivers can be seen easily—most published maps use orange for this or heavy shadings when regions are colored. I tried both and neither looked good.

I designate the highest hexes (based on their minimum elevations) in descending order and plot the rivers. Three high hexes creates a “source,” which begins a river. These rivers will follow the “trough” created by moving from the source hex to that hex with the lowest elevation, continued until it reaches the sea. Often in populated areas the exact position of the river has to be adjusted to match up with the cities, but in uninhabited areas the topography alone defines the path of the river. This means that occasionally the river is not precisely the same as on Earth, but this isn’t Earth after all—its my world—and I don’t mind a few minor discrepancies.

Now and then a river doesn’t have an exit hex. In that case, the lowest elevation of the most logical hex is adjusted. You will note a couple of green circles on the earlier maps. These are hexes that must be adjusted lower.

The benefit of having my rivers this way is that I can define the “size” of the river, as it accumulates depth and width from adjoining hexes…and joins with other rivers to create larger waterways. Thus on the map, the Rhine which begins in the Canton of Uri meets with the Lesser Rhine at Chur and increases in size (6+3, +1 for the “source hex” which has no river to the southwest of Chur). Rivers are displayed on the map in 1 pt font if smaller than 10, 2 pt if 10-29, 3 pt if 30-59, 4 pt if 60-109, 5 pt if 110-189 and so on. You might recognize the Fibonacci series in this calculation, which is actually a relative computation in this instance, being applied to all sorts of natural conditions.

The lakes and coastlines are drawn by creating a picture frame and importing a picture all of one color. The edges of this picture can then be adjusted by superimposing the picture on an actual map and fitting the plot-points to the lake or sea coast. In the case of the sea, not shown here, the “coastal” picture is extended so that the outer edge is covered with sea hexes. See if you can see what I mean by the map of Hadramaut included here. These lakes and coastlines are then superimposed onto the map.

Hexes without rivers then have their elevations changed to the highest elevation in the hex (to give the sense of topography). Where there is a city in a non-river hex, the city's elevation is used (the lowest city, if there are more than one). The circle notes are removed.

All elevations from Fallingrain are of population centres, not geographical elevations, so any given hex shows the highest level at which a population center exists. Thus, if you take the Canton of Ticino, the hex north of Bellinzona which reads “8,178” indicates the highest village. It isn’t correct, but I consider this to be the measure of what elevation must be reached to cross the hex, which I use predominantly for my trade tables, and the flow chart I posted last month indicating the association the trade cities have with each other (how far apart they are).

Now the rivers are drawn, one line at a time. The arrow notes are removed. This is slightly annoying, as I wish Publisher had a single draw tool like paint and Quark, but you can see that the lines drawn and matched end to end don’t look too bad. It helps to make the lines short. Again, I should point out that the bends and turns do not exactly correspond with Earth, but its good enough for me.

What is interesting is how often the Earth truth and the plotting match up and give me new data. Most times, looking at a map, you might note that Berne is a large city in Switzerland and that’s all. Having the benefit of the topography shown shows why it is so important. The low elevation clearly allows access to Geneva and southern France, the lower Aare and Rhine Basins, and the upper pastures of Interlaken…and ultimately to Italy. Thus, the focus point for three major trade routes.

Finally the map can be colored. The lowest elevations are in green, beginning with the darkest green for below sea level, and becoming lighter with each 500 ft contour. At 2001 ft the color shifts to a light orange, darkening each 500 ft to 5,000 ft, then each 1,000 ft to 7,000 ft. At that elevation, a light grayish-purple is used, darkening each 1,000 ft. to 10,000 ft., whereupon it darkens every 2,000 ft. above that.

At a future point, roads are laid out and small symbols are put in to designate mountains. Those mountains which get noted are those which make the Ultras List.

Is there anything I’ve forgotten?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How It's Done

This is pretty nerdy.

But I can’t help it. So here goes.

Take the above hex map. This is a selected corner of the full map, as it looked Wednesday afternoon before I got started on it. The colored area is the southwest corner of Bavaria, that I finished about 18 months ago. At that point I began mapping towards the southeast, following the Dalmatian Coast to Greece, then Turkey and the Middle East.

But having finished the research for Switzerland, I thought I would add that in, as I already posted. Looking at it in retrospect, knowing that the region has to go in west of Bavaria, it doesn’t look large enough to fit.

The circles and arrows are notes for the direction of rivers or which are the high hexes as opposed to the river bottoms. They tend to change as the map gets designed. The numbers in the corner of each hex refers to the altitude.

Now here is where I was before going to bed Wednesday night. As you can see, Switzerland fit. I always begin with mapping out the location of the cities and add in the borders. As I said, a major headache. I apologize for the last letter on occasion being dropped off, or the last word being gone entirely, as when the program transfers the data to jpeg, it randomly loses some of its integrity. I have to mess around with it for an hour or so to make that perfect, but since the map isn’t actually done (even now), I didn’t bother.

Note that the Principality of Berne extends from the western border of Switzerland through the heart of the country to Lake Constance in the north. Berne in the 17th century had occupied what would later become the cantons of Vaud and Aargau…and was the central power of the Swiss Confederation until Napoleon.

Where it reads “The Three” that should read “The Three Leagues,” which was a wholly independent state, where all decisions were made by meetings among the communes. I probably found that the most interesting thing.

Thursday’s pic of the mountains can be found in the hex south of Lucerne, in the Canton of Lucerne; the direction the pic faces is south.

Well, anyway.

I started today with adding the multiple lakes that decorate Switzerland. This is the part I hate the most. Each lake is carefully traced from the map and then skewed to fit into the hex map, and this takes some time. But I have to admit, when they are completed, they look beautiful…the most hated part and the part that makes the map what it is.

Some of the cities will have shifted marginally to locations which better reflect their relationships with one another. So too with various borders, if you compare the second map with the third.

This is as messy as it gets. At this point I begin removing the various notes with the intention of drawing out the rivers, finalizing the pertinent elevation of each hex, and generally tidying up any rough aspects of the map. As well, occasionally there are still changes; the river on the east near Thusis does not actually flow south, but instead flows into the Rhine near Chur.

Once the altitudes are defined, I can color the hexes and that helps get a topographical sense for the country. Thus:

Here the rivers are drawn and the hexes colored. There is some generalization, due to the size of the hexes--20 miles diameter. With an area like Switzerland, the size of the hexes creates a serious distortion--smaller hexes would better show the mountain ranges, while the large hex doesn’t very precisely. What is important to me, however, is the altitude of each hex in terms of how it affects (or limits) travel.

So, Thun may be surrounded by mountains in reality, but it is easily accessible from Bern. And we must accept some limitations.

This isn’t finished. Sadly, there are mountain peak references to be added (another headache) and, of course, roads. But I won’t be adding those until I finish Germany to the north and at least some of Italy to the south. And probably eastern France. All of which takes awhile, mostly to research it before finishing the map (as you see, I did this in two days)…and I like doing it.

Let me know what you think.

New Work. Eventually

Last night I began mapping Switzerland, which consumed about six hours carefully fitting in the locations of the cities and towns, as well as the borders between cantons, prince-bishopric, the principalities, occupied cities and the region of modern Graubunden, which was once a communal state called the “Three Leagues.” What a nightmare.

Altogether it was about sixty towns inserted into about forty-eight hexes, which involves quite a lot of inconvenient squeezing in of labels, mostly in 8 and 9 point fonts…the worst area was around Lake Constance, where Germany, Austria and Switzerland meet. Except, of course, that in 1650 you would have to say it is where the Barony of Vorarlberg, the Duchy of Wurttemberg and the occupied city of Sankt Gallen meet.

I admit that I love the history. I love the ideas it gives for my world, the complex relationships between the many tiny states, the intricate details associated with this roadstead and those mountain passes and places where, even in the heart of heavily populated Switzerland, wild lands predominate. Granted, not excessively large places…and even in hexes with no prominent towns, there would be dozens and dozens of little hamlets not worth recording on the map.

Still, when it gets complicated I’m ready to pound my head on my desk.

I have lost track of just how many cities or towns I have in my world…I have them all neatly catalogued and ordered, but I don’t have an exact number, as they’re located in a series of files by region/political unit, not as a long, single list. I would estimate, quite conservatively, that there would be about 2,500 population centres I’ve systematically researched and added to my map base in the last four years.

Most worlds, when I see a hand drawn map, barely contain fifty cities. This is because, for reasons that escape me, DMs feel they must map the cities of their world, defining exactly how this Inn is across the street from these bakers or that guardhouse or such-and-such a distance from the main gate.

When I need to, I usually just make this shit up on the spur of the moment.

There are some pretty basic things you can assume: a) the guards are never far away; b) the centre is always divided into the wealthy district and the poor district, even if it contains only a hundred people; c) all market places look the same; and d) your players won’t remember it anyway.

So usually its good enough to say that the party is in some tavern near the docks, or the slums, or towards the higher scale end of town…depending on where they want to be. If trouble starts, give ten or fifteen rounds before someone intervenes, and maybe fifty rounds before the main guard shows up in force. If a thief is running away, assume that at least half the escape routes will be dead ends, and the other half will lead to increasingly narrow lanes that may suddenly give way to another wide avenue and provide new choices. There are always hundreds of ways for a thief to reach the roofs. The river will have poor people living on the banks, tax collectors will harass occasionally, prostitutes are easy to find and…let’s see…every corner has a church.

Well, nearly every corner.

This may seem a bit cavalier to some; a bit lacking in detail, or the emotive sense of place. If it would ever happen that my players would return constantly to a single town, I might feel compelled to draft out a map of some of the key places; but it would make more sense to me to simply reveal the town stage by stage, remarking on a “little alley you haven’t really noticed before,” or “There’s a quaint little shop selling perfumes and what they advertise as potions…seems to be new.”

The one thing I always mean to do, but I never get around to doing, is to make a flow chart—rather than a map—which might serve, in some degree, as a kind of universal interrelationship between all the usual spaces and power centres within a town. But every time I start to do that, I get bored with it rather quickly and quit. I think I’d get more work done on it if someone in the real world were to do exactly that for London, Paris or Copenhagen. Then I could steal. Probably someone has, but I can’t find it.

The one thing I can’t do is to outline in detail every centre in my world. It just isn’t practical. And in many cases, such as London, Paris or Copenhagen, I don’t have to. City maps—and various other interesting diagrams—are made for me:

Well, I’ll be sketching in lakes and rivers for Switzerland tonight (if sex is not on the menu), so I don’t know when I might post again. There hasn’t been much on my mind the last few days, except the above. Which is fine. I have to produce new work, now and then, if I’m going have anything to reveal here.


I only just ran across this: the battle of Sörenberg "was fought in 1380, between the Entlebuch (at the time subject to the house of Habsburg) and Obwalden (a canton of the early Swiss Confederacy). It was the culmination of a conflict over the right to alpine pastures (alps). The immediate cause was a cattle raid at an alp now known as Schlachtalp, at the slope of the Brienzer Rothorn, above the village Sörenberg."

You will note that on the pic provided, the Brienzer Rothorn is in the high centre.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Another Kick At The Cat

This conversation has bled out into other blogs, specifically here and here…and so I guess I’m not done yet.

I just don’t understand you people at all. I know you’re all playing some sort of game that’s vaguely similar to what I’m playing, and that’s great and all, but when it comes to your minds and my mind, there is no meeting there.

This IS a simulation. Chess is a simulation. You may not choose to make your particular world a particularly accurate simulation; you may enjoy the various ways in which you goof with reality or reason; you may revel in the dismissiveness you feel towards logical sense…but if you use the word “sword” and the word “swing” within the context of “combat,” then you ARE simulating a real-world activity by the use of symbology.

Now let’s get this straight. The value of simulating an activity is the emotional gain involved. I want to feel adrenaline. I want to feel the adrenaline associated with the animal sensation of bloodlust. I create a game which simulates this bloodlust, so that I can feel the emotional rush without having to get messy. No, I don’t want to do it in reality. It isn’t wish fulfillment. But if you take away the faux reality of my simulation, what I feel is BOREDOM. What I feel is, “Why would I give a fuck?”

Now, maybe what it takes to make some of you people feel emotional from what you’re doing is very bland. It seems very bland to me, since words like “simplify” and “make easy” seem to be de rigueur. But for me, I find the real world very complicated, and I find that simulating the real world had better BE very complicated or, willy nilly, I’m going to ditch the simulation and just get the fuck on with living in the real world.

You may or may not understand this: I enjoy D&D not because it provides an escape from the world, but because it provides, in a small box, a unique, distilled, experiential interaction with that world. I want it to be as real as it can get without getting icky. This encourages emotional commitment on the part of my players, as it gives them the sense that there is something to lose.

What I’m reading suggests that win or lose, just don’t make me work.

I don’t know what any of you do for a living. Obviously, you’re not designers (bridges require too much math) or in business, or in any of the sciences. For me, personally, a writer, I find this math pathetically Simple Simon.

Now, let me bring up some salient points about the gnoll/mastodon example that has been worked over on this and other blogs. It has been suggested that the party receive 100 X.P. per hit die. To be specific, this would be 1200 for the mastodon, 700 for its rider (2 hit die +5 levels), 1000 for the cleric (whom no one seems to remember), and 5000 for the various other gnolls. Total, 7,900.

Add to this the 8,000 g.p. worth in treasure it was suggested that I add to this, and the party is making a considerable haul.

Let me just point out that I did mention that this was a hunting party, seeking out the characters, and therefore not likely to take along any treasure beyond a few pieces of jewelry. They certainly wouldn’t be hauling along 300 g.p. each (which in you people’s world weighs 30 fucking pounds—that seems pretty stupid).

Secondly, let me just add that when I said the party “slogged” their way through the other gnolls for 20 rounds, you may have misunderstood. Most of this involved dragging their asses through the snow, closing the distance between gnolls they just killed and gnolls still fighting across the field. It was a scattered fight and that definitely extended the combat. The gnolls did their best tactically, but let’s be serious—against magic and superior firepower they never had a chance. Since I mentioned these gnolls caused about 80 damage, it would help to remember that the ranger alone has 80 hit points. The party as a whole has something like 400. Which means that, in comparison, they cut through the gnolls like tissue paper. Only when I rolled four freaking 20s in a row did the gnolls EVER threaten any of the party. It was a cakewalk.

I am NOT going to hand over almost 16,000 X.P. for a cakewalk. You people seem to think that its hard for ten 5-8th level characters to slaughter 26 gnolls and a mastodon. You really have to be kidding me. The running before the party had just got through bashing fifty gnolls, ten of whom were 4th level and above (remembering that I play a 4th-level gnoll as having 6 HD), a battle made more complicated by the fact that they were trying to seize the 9th level cleric in THAT battle without actually killing him. Now that was hard.

I only threw this little party of gnolls/mastodon to pester the party as it fled the area, having failed to keep one of the gnolls from the first encounter from warning the local village of 200 gnolls, who are now scouring the woods looking for them. I just wanted to knock the party down a few hit points, keep them running scared, remind them that they’re mortal and that if the larger revenge party finds them they’re pretty much hooped.

All right. Hopefully that clears up a few things.

The one point that no one brought up—and which I think is the serious flaw in my proposed X.P. scheme, is that it incorporates a FINITE number of experience which the party can gain in any one encounter. The most X.P. any person can gain equals their total hit points minus 1. That means it wouldn’t matter if they slaughtered 10 very lucky gnolls or Asmodeus—they can’t do better than the hit points they have.

If you all want to bitch, bitch about that. Complain that it doesn’t reward the party for being immensely effective as killing machines—if they ever are immensely effective. THIS I admit is a flaw in my concept. I’ve been turning it over in my head looking for a solution, which I’m sure is there, while I in the meantime test the proposal as it stands. Experimentation. Something for which one creates a simulation.

One more point. The proposal also makes it clear that the party does not have to actually kill the monster to get experience. So if I give the mastodon 450 points, and the party fights it and decides it’s a losing proposition, and decide to run, I’m not limited by the D&D rule that the monster has to be dead in order to reward experience. The party was damaged—the party is compensated for that.

I find that very interesting.

Maybe X.P. shouldn’t be looked as a “reward.” That seems to swell the heads of DMs, who simply fail to grasp that the work was done and the risks taken without necessarily getting the DMs approval. Reward seems to invoke a paternal, patronizing instinct on the part of the DM—I think maybe the DM should concentrate on compensating the party, and recognizing that the experience isn’t about making the DMs life easier, or simpler. That X.P. isn’t about patting the characters on the head.

It’s about holding back when the party really hasn’t done anything special, and forking over the goods when the party has fucking earned it.

Let the WORK DONE reflect how much they get. Stop throwing darts at a board.

Friday, January 23, 2009

More X.P. Babblings

I estimate that about 60% of my player’s X.P. comes from treasure.

Totals for treasure would normally be 40% coin, 20% gems and jewelry, 10% various luxury items such as expensive clothing, spirits, spices, rare books and so on, and 5% magic. The remaining 25% would be for armor and weapons, which the party usually receives experience for even though they don’t often carry them off, which is fine with me since the party has had to fight against these items (thus earning the X.P. that way).

A typical encounter such as the one I describe in my last post will give about 850 X.P. per main party member, 425 X.P. per henchman and 200 X.P. per secondary henchman. For example, the 2nd level fighter, Hig, is the shieldman for the paladin, Neema, who is the henchwoman for the mage, Garalzapan.

At 850 X.P. per encounter, the mage will have to fight about forty more battles before becoming 9th level. Though of course eventually the mage will have a battle royale with huge treasure that will make this happen much sooner.

It is now January. I would estimate that the mage, who has about 95,000 X.P. right now, will reach 9th level sometime in June. Possibly sooner, if the party gets decimated.

Party decimations are rare events but excellent for the survivors. The party winds up fighting something worth 20,000 X.P., with a total cumulated treasure of 50,000 X.P. Because of the devastating potential of the monsters involved (say, eight stone giants, fought simultaneously). More than half the party gets killed. Two main characters and one henchman survive. 70,000 X.P. divided by 2.5 = 28,000 for the main characters and 14,000 for the hench. Instant next level.

Course, it does depress those who die.

Generally the rule I’ve followed in the past is that if you die, no X.P., even if they raise you…unless the party is able to raise you immediately, while still on the battlefield, by means of death’s door, raise dead or resurrection. In which case you can get X.P. for the treasure, but NOT combat experience. That still gets divided among those who did not die.

The changes I suggested yesterday would mean that X.P. for damage was lost, but the general X.P. would still be distributed to those who were left.

My sense for yesterday’s comments is that as DMs, you fellows are not terribly interested in bestowing a lot of experience. 100 X.P. per hit die is fine, until you consider that there are a lot of special attacks and defenses, differing levels of damage and so on that make that system unworkable. You’ve got to balance your X.P. by the use of breath weapons and magic resistance—and this has always created a problem for me.

What if the purple worm which swallows on a 20 never actually rolls a 20? And should the 4+4 HD spider with poison really get 4 times as much X.P. for that ability as the 1+1 HD spider? Especially if you play that the character dies in any case? And what about a spider like the brown recluse, which clearly isn’t massive enough for even 1 h.p., but which is capable of killing a human being? How many X.P. does that poison give?

But I digress.

I have absolutely no trouble giving an entire party 7,000 X.P. after an encounter (as I did with the one described yesterday), primarily because I know I’m not making life easy for them. They had to fight hard to win that combat. As I play by the rule that a natural 20 is double damage, and a second natural 20 is triple damage, it was pretty fucking freaky that I rolled FOUR natural 20s in a row at one point for quintuple damage. I’d never done that before and sadly it only amounted to a total of 20. That alone was worth giving the victim the experience the victim got.

The treasure included no magic, and was a bit scant since the gnolls killed were a hunting group tracking down the party, but I gave bonuses for the value of a trained mastodon (added to general X.P.) and threw in a few nice pieces of jewelry on the useless cleric and the mastodon’s rider.

Why, I ask, would you feel you ought to cheat the party of such things?

I know that as a player I’d be pretty pissed if I spent most runnings sitting around having pointless Expositional dialogues with NPCs and that, when forced to fight in order to escape the kingdom with my life, the DM decided that wasn’t worth rewarding experience because they don’t give X.P. for combat.

Which of course puts the DM in the position of giving the Kindergarten Gold Star to compensate for these ad hoc restrictions. What do I mean by that? That as a player I somehow have to win the DM’s approval for my actions, rather than being able to count on the GAME DYNAMIC to reward me. I’ve played in campaigns like this. Invariably the DM always rewards their best friends, and often fails to respect brilliant, imaginative tactics which fuck up the DM’s carefully designed campaign.

Want an example? We had a DM once who provided us with enough diminution potion that would allow us to slip into a castle as tiny people without being seen. We literally had 30 quaffs of the stuff. Instead what we did was to feed the potions to 30 cows…which one of the characters then picked up in a blanket, flew 4,000 feet over the castle using wings of flying, and at the appointed moment cast a dispel magic on the lot, effectively SPOT BOMBING the entire facility. We then casually went in and mopped up.

Was the DM happy? Fuck no. He had spent weeks inventing little mazes inside walls and bug monsters which would attack us, none of which ever happened. So we didn't get a gold star. We got a shrill, whining infant who repeatedly had to be pushed forward with, "Give us ONE reason we can't do this."

Some of you might like our creativity. But generally, there’s always some way to make the DM unhappy, and the X.P. delivery system should NOT be dependent on the DMs prejudices.

If I had a player in a bar who decided he wanted to get X.P. for beating up the bartender, what’s wrong with that? It isn’t going to be much experience, and it will bring down the weight of the town guard, followed by the possibility that the bar’s patrons may not be 1st level dweebs. I don’t run a world where being poor means being low of level (as who knows how that person spent their youth), so you don’t pick fights with strangers because bar fights are like a box of chocolates.

But still, what do I care? I continue to argue that as a DM, it is not my job to tell the players how to spend their time.

Nor is it my job to give them gold stars for playing the kind of personalities that I approve of. It is my job to make a world. Period. You want to come to my world and be a BUM and lay in the gutter asking for change, I’m good with that. I will find a way to throw ordinary obstacles at you that will make the game interesting.

Well. This was a rambling post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Changes in Experience

I’d like to talk about experience.

Take the recent combat that occurred for my party. The party numbered eleven at the beginning of the battle, in main characters and henchmen, and were as follows: a mage and druid (8th level), ranger (7th level), a monk, thief and cleric (6th level), a paladin and illusionist (5th level), two fighters (4th level), one fighter (2nd level) and a paladin’s warhorse. The battle was meant in no way to be destructive, but the party has been harassed for days and every battle in the wilderness is proving to be a bitch since they can’t re-supply.

So against the party I threw a mastodon with 5th level gnoll rider, 4 gnoll archers with great bows and a 21 foot soldiers. The foot soldier gnolls were led by an 8th level cleric.

So here’s the problem.

The first action was the charge of the mastodon. It bore down on the party (random roll to see where in the line it hit), smashed one of the 4th level fighters and did good damage to the cleric. However, prior to it actually hitting, the party was able to hit with two arrows and a crossbow, for a total of 11 damage. Afterward the charge, the mastodon was struck with a sword (9 damage), a magic missile (4 damage). It pounded past the party group (who then entered melee with the gnolls), and took two rounds to turn around to take another charge. By which time the ranger and mage double-teamed it with a fireball and heavy damage and the mastodon with rider went down in three rounds.

Total experience for the mastodon: 1500+14/hp = 2438 X.P. For the 5th level fighter: 300 X.P. Total damage caused by the mastodon before it died: 37.

In all, it took the party nearly twenty rounds to mop up the rest of the gnolls. Those with the great bows did good work damaging the party (causing about 6 hits for 22 damage), and a few criticals managed to kill the injured 4th level fighter along with reducing the monk to negative hit points (I play that you’re alive down to –9, but you’re seriously injured and generally can’t take action). Total damage caused by the gnolls: 80 (estimated). The cleric was almost useless, having failed his save and going down to a stinking cloud cast by the illusionist (chromatic orb) in the first round.

But 25 typical gnolls are worth only 20 X.P. each +2/hp. That’s an average of 38 times 25, or 950 X.P. The gnoll cleric, who did nothing, is technically worth 1,200 X.P. all on his own.

In other words, it took no time at all to dispatch the massive mastodon with its rider for a gain of 2,700 X.P., mostly because it was a big target and easily attacked by multiple players, while the backbreaking work of killing ordinary gnolls provided 1/3 of the reward. This has been a consistent pattern in D&D since the beginning, and frankly I’m sick of it.

Everyone knows it’s easier to kill one or two dinosaurs and get thousands of experience than it is to kill a fifty bugbears and get much, much less. That is partly because the bugbears have armor, weapons and act fairly intelligently, but it is mainly because 50 bugbears attack fifty times a round. One triceratops may do 4-40 damage per horn, but it only attacks twice a round. The dice—by far—favor the bugbears.

When we were first playing as teenagers it was standard practice whenever things had been dry for a couple of sessions to throw a couple of big, dumb brutes at the party, enjoy the slaughter and pump everyone full of X.P. Even a giant or two makes for good X.P. fodder, since again they only attack once and can be attacked in turn by 8 characters at a time. Generally, I find players like those odds, and will joyfully rush in at the risk of getting stomped in order to do 40 damage a round collectively in exchange for the giant getting one swing in for 15 to 23.

And giants are good for X.P.

I have been thinking about this for several months, and have decided on two courses of action.

The first is inspired by the monster Grendal in Beowulf, who obviously could withstand a great deal more than 9 hit dice damage (I’m ranking Grendal as a stone giant). I’ve made this point before, and I don’t intend to labor it: but if you consider a hill giant at 12’ in height, that makes it 8 times more massive than an ordinary human (about 1,400 lbs). If an ordinary mountain dwarf at 150 lbs. has 2 hit dice, then an ordinary hill giant (same basic physical toughness) ought to have 19 HD, not eight. And a mastodon at eight tons ought to have something like 107 HD, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 h.p.

This may seem excessive to you: but my party, at their level, has very little difficulty hitting AC 6 (mastodon), and between strength bonuses and magic swords and such, can deliver six hits a round for a total of 30-40 points very easily.

If I want to have the sort of combat where the mastodon smashes all around itself for round after round while the party desperately tries to pull it down—which I think makes a sensational combat session, full of angst and terror—then the mastodon is going to have to have considerably more staying power.

Why should a hundred hit points be the upper limit?

The second consideration should be this: the total X.P. earned from a monster should be based on how hard that monster fought. And since I believe that we as a species gain our experience from what we suffer, I’m prepared to try a system whereby the experience is rewarded according to how much damage that monster caused. My suggestion is 25 X.P. per point.

For the aforegoing combat, that means the mastodon was worth 925 X.P., and the 25 gnolls were worth 2,000 X.P. And the 8th level cleric was worth nothing.

Yes, yes, I know, people are going to bitch because it means that a successful, brilliant attack which results in no damage isn’t rewarded at all. But I want you to consider the following.

First of all, if you’re destroying your enemy through the use of a spell, that’s not particularly brilliant at all. That’s like rewarding you with experience for being able to find this website on the net. You already know how to get here. Just as you already know how to use the spell. So big deal—what exactly have you learned?

And secondly, you still get experience for the treasure. Which you’ve managed to obtain at no risk to yourself.

On the other hand, if you get your ass handed to you by a bunch of gnolls because you didn’t plan or make preparations or because you broke ranks and ran in like a bunch of morons, then you really ARE going to learn something. “Let’s not do that again,” comes to mind.

I’m also considering dividing that 25 X.P. as follows: 10 X.P. for you personally for each damage YOU suffered; and 15 X.P. for the group as a whole, divided evenly among everyone who took part.

People are always complaining that there’s nothing to favor fighters over mages. Mages are the big guns, they wade in and kill everything and don’t even come close to being killed most of the time. Whereas over and over the fighter has to go out there and get beat up and for what? Any real approval?

This would put the mage in the position of having to occasionally take a risk, or fall steadily back in X.P. Since a mage after 6th level needs less and less X.P. to go up a level, this fits neatly together.

Listen: I’m always pointing out that the mage in the party, who has 25 H.P., could occasionally help the party quite a bit by wandering into the fray after expending all their immediately useful spells and take a couple of hits. After all, ten damage isn’t going to kill the mage and it might spell the difference between a fighter smashing the hell out of that troll or getting bashed into unconsciousness.

But the mage never does do that. Instead he (the player is a “she”, but the mage is a “he”) gets progressively less effective as the combat drags on, until he’s pretty much just waiting a few hundred yards off for the whole thing to be over—made all the more easy by the mage’s ability to fly, blink and turn invisible. An action the party tolerates because, well, that fireball early in every combat IS pretty helpful.

But this change in X.P. would mean the mage should get involved hand-to-hand, or else lose out. I like that and I think that the party will like that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

War Stories

I found it odd to discover one of my gentlest readers, KenHR actually requesting “war stories” about actual play…because I remember when we used to have a rule about such things. That rule (invented during my University days, when there were about a dozen DMs regularly hanging out in one club room) ran as follows: if you can’t tell the story in three sentences, shut the fuck up.

That’s because most war stories used to go on and on, pretty much like listening to someone tell you the dream they had last night:

”…and then we found a sword, and the sword had the ability to control dragons, but not all dragons, just green and white dragons, dragons that were evil but not as powerful as red dragons, oh and black dragons too, the sword controlled black dragons. But we didn’t know that when we first got the sword, first we had to try putting the sword into the right groove in the temple, which wasn’t easy. First the fighter tried it, but his intelligence wasn’t high enough so we had the mage do it, but then we found out that it had to be done by a fighter, so the paladin tried and the sword started to glow and speak and the sword said, ‘I am the Great Sword of Baldish, and I control evil dragons!’ That was great. So then we had to have a mock fight to find out who would use the sword, but then the paladin said he didn’t want it because he had a +2 holy sword already…”

And at this point you’re ready to kill people.

Invariably the guy telling you this story is the same guy who already has 600 pages of his novel written based on the campaign he’s running, based on a system he’s worked out for meshing together Middle Earth and Star Wars. With a little of Champions thrown in.

No, not all players tell stories like this. But if you tell your story, you know dipshit is going to tell his…so let’s just have everyone NOT, okay?

It is for these reasons that I have resisted getting into any play-by-play descriptions of my campaign (yes, I know, I’ve broken that rule a little…and not just in three sentences). I’m a little safer here on the blog because it isn’t quite as difficult to stop reading as it is to stop listening, which usually requires leaving the room, jacking up one’s MP3 player and moving quickly before blood starts coming out of one’s ears. But still, I ask myself, why press the point?

One time I have been driven to attempt a novel based upon something that happened in my D&D world. But the novel I tried to write was intended as a stand-alone story based on the peculiar circumstance, included none of the characters of my world and was not even meant to be a fantasy novel (I made an attempt at something closer to Ivanhoe). It sits, unfinished, unenjoyed, among the papers of my room. For a long time I thought I would dig into it and finish it, but generally I found that people could not relate to a story told in 15th century Ireland that was not fundamentally a Romance. Not wanting to make it a Romance, I gave it up.

The D&D running that inspired it involved a large castle, Killybegs Castle, in Connemara in Ireland. The players had smashed their ship upon the shore after a storm, refused to pay the nobility there the treasure the party brought with them from the West Indies and wound up losing a standup fight, mostly due to a lot of bad, bad luck. Most of the party escaped, but two were thrown into a dungeon of the castle, presumably to be ransomed. The party decided to slip into the castle at night and free their friends.

The castle being very large, and the party numbering about twelve players and henchmen, they decided to break into different parts of the castle simultaneously, in groups of two or three—though the monk and the thief went in singly. What resulted was a comic farce. Of course, the players in the dungeon managed to escape in the following chaos. While the castle guards tipped onto different groups (some of which were able to kill the guards quickly and slip back into the shadows), a series of mishaps resulted in a launched catapult by one party group nearly killing another party group, the thief indirectly setting a part of the castle on fire and the monk’s slipping from the roof of the keep succeeding in killing the master of the guard seconds before executing the mage’s group. The adventure ran over a series of four nights, was anything but pre-planned (I tend to have a general idea of what is in a room or who is present, but I make my character personalities up as I go) and was a complete and total success, both from play and from the position of treasure/experience.

But that’s as much detail as I care to go into. It all happened about 18 years ago and I hardly even remember the castle’s layout, never mind the moment-by-moment order of events. There was a lot of hiding in shadows and backstabbing and thieving and creating diversions and costumes worn to fool guards and so on. There was a lot of laughter.

Should I tell other stories like that?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Holy Grail

It’s something I’ve been hearing about since I plunged into the world of D&D bloggers about a year ago—a sentiment that, somehow, its possible to create a community which embodies the emotional love RPG players everywhere have for the game. It would be a neutral organization, lacking in prejudice and one-true-wayism, and it would be embraced and supported by thousands of players as—I presume—a networking and marketing organization offering sage advice and providing regular campaigns for people who only want to play.

I’m probably not describing this adequately enough. That is because I’m not a believer.

Even if such an organization could be invented, and if this organization could manage to provide for its needs with the contributions of enough happy players and game masters that it didn’t go belly up in six months; and if it wasn’t dismissive of the “new” or the “old” styles of playing; and if it did provide a vast array of purchasable products, including everything from just released materials to long lost treasures gathered together through a gratuitous network…before I get on board with the Quest this magical organization promotes, I’m going to need one question answered. Just exactly how is any of this going to help ME?

Oh sure, you can struggle to make your community, but from my point of view its always going to be a community of other people…and I think the majority of players are stuck seeing it that way. Because, really, it isn’t needed.

Look. I don’t buy anything to do with D&D. I don’t even buy dice. I have enough dice to fill a tin container eight inches high and four inches on a side. And I play with people who have half as many dice each. If I need to roll fifty 20-siders for Odin-knows-what purpose, I can pick and choose, you know what I mean?

I don’t buy modules or books or maps or paper to make maps (everything is done electronically). The “tools” I use are those provided for offices and graphic artists and computer games—all of which already have organizations which provide me a vast array.

I don’t need players. I know that some out there do, but I live in a very large city and if I need another player I know which bulletin boards or websites I need to go to. Or I could just put the word out with my present players. I wouldn’t need another organization as a go-between, mostly because some great national group would be useless—most of the so-called players would be living in other cities or other countries, and at best I might hope for two or three that might live nearby and be compatible. And guess what? They already hang out near the aforementioned bulletin boards. Because they’re nerds.

I don’t need any communication forum on how to play or how other people play or how I might make my world more uniform with other people’s worlds. I don’t play in tournaments, I don’t EVER want to play in a tournament again, and I sure as fuck don’t ever want to RUN in another tournament ever again. I used to play weekly with the cream of the organizers of the local city gaming convention twenty years ago, a convention of more than 2,000 people, and I was often requested to run tournament campaigns because I could be relied upon to be there, to be able to read and to not lose my head. I found it dreadfully boring, something I did as a favor for my friends and NOT out of love for the game.

What I’m saying is, I’m not interested in playing any community’s game, and I’m not interested in what any community has to say about my game. There’d be about as much chance of my being interested in a community that wanted to make suggestions about the novel I’m writing or about how I plan to organize my next summer’s vacation. There are just things that no number of people have any business telling me, and how to run my world is one of those things.

Would it be interesting to talk to other people about the game? Why, yes. And guess what? My BLOG lets me do that. If someone would like to debate upon some point of the game, or make a suggestion to me about the tactical quality of grenade missile weapons, I’m prepared to listen. But I don’t need any organization beyond the internet to make that possible. I sure as hell don’t need the “president” or “chapter chairman” of some organization asking me for donations so they can provide a e-newsletter that will incorporate the same level of writing I see in blogs right now.

I guess that people need to be stroked. They need to have a little card that tells them they’re the member of something, or some kind of doofus award they can put proudly on their site and polish with their egos until it shines bright. Some kind of “order” of some kind of RPG symbol, like a die or something. I guess for some people, they need to buy things from “friends” rather than from faceless corporations, and so it helps them to think that their money is going towards a higher purpose—an online distribution address out of someone’s basement, say. For some people, this brings it all home. This makes them all warm and fuzzy, so they don’t feel quite so persecuted for playing a game or moving little miniatures and throwing little dice.

You know what else is a dice game? Craps. And people play it openly, for a great deal of money. And if you suggested they were pussies for playing a dice game, you could get yourself knifed.

You know what else is a game with little miniatures? Chess. And people will tell you proudly that they play it, without any sense that they’re wasting their time.

If you’re one of those out there who feels that an organization will somehow vindicate you, you’re looking in the wrong place for your Grail.

When someone asks me what I did last weekend, I tell them I played D&D. I don’t pretend that’s something I shouldn’t have done. And I laugh when people get confused. I like to make them feel they’re a little stupid for not knowing what the game is.

But if it isn’t recognition, or stroking, what is it? What is this unshakable fantasy that somehow the game NEEDS the attendant organization? That the books and the available time to play aren’t enough?

I just don’t know. I don’t think Arthur ever really needed the Grail, you know? It was just something to keep the knights busy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Undead Beginnings IV

Finally, I’ll finish this series.

All that’s left of the original undead are the vampire and lich. I realize there are many others, but I don’t care to get into even the Fiend Folio, much less the random, less-thoughtfully generated undead of the 3rd edition. You’re free to make up what you want for those—I’m only setting a sort of template here.

The vampire is a problem. I admit I’ve never actually had one occur in my world, partly because they’re very rare and altogether obvious as a “module” sort of encounter, but also in terms of their muddled biology. I mean, what rules should one apply? Strict rules from the Monster Manual? Anne Rice? Stoker? The Masquerade? Twilight?

Eech to the last one.

Obviously, any use of the vampire is going to require some sort of briefing for the characters while you explain point by point what methods of attack and defense are going to work and which aren’t. It’s interesting to me that while Christianity obviously doesn’t exist in traditional D&D, the vampire is still affected by the “cross.” The cross of what, exactly?

But I’m talking about origins, so all of that is just so much flotsam. Vampires are like others of the undead, in that vampires make more vampires, but what causes the first vampire? The creature is acknowledged to be soulless; but was it born human?

I tend to think not. I prefer the explanation of the changeling, which was a medieval explanation for the appearance of mentally retarded and physically deformed children who had the unpleasant happenstance of being born. The medieval explained these “monsters” as having been left in place of their proper, beautiful children, who were now in the hands of elves and fairies (remember, for elves and fairies, read “spirits”). The replaced children were trolls and such, providing an excuse for them to be exposed (put outside where they would die from the elements), directly murdered or merely abused for every moment they spent on earth. This was not being done to my own child, remember, but to the troll that was left in my child’s place.

Add to this the belief that all the souls that would someday be born as children wait in a great room in Heaven (sorry, Christian myth), and I can present an interesting origin myth. At the moment the child’s soul enters the body (which was said to be at the point of birth), some sort of medical strangeness occurs—the mother dying before the child is brought forth, say. And let’s say, at this precise moment, as the child’s soul hesitates before it can enter into the body, a demon shows up and jumps into the child first. Or the demon shows and the proper soul and the demon contest for control of the body.

Where the demon succeeds, the baby dies along with the mother. Where the souls succeeds, the baby lives.

And lets say, in the case of a very unusual demon, the baby “appears” to live, long enough to escape the dead mother’s body, to disappear in the night—because that is the natural birth of the natural vampire.

Of course, this presumes that vampires age—and I see no reason why they cannot, even at will. It’s only magic.

This makes an interesting adventure for a party. They have a portent that a vampire baby is going to be born; they discover the place and time, and find the mother hours before she will give birth. What will the party do? Attempt to kill the mother? Attempt to keep her alive somehow, only to fail? And when the baby is born alive, do they believe the baby’s soul won, or the vampire’s? Do they dare snatch the baby? Or kill it? What if their magic tells them it is a vampire baby, but no one in the village (all being present at the birth) believes them? What if the vampire baby is the son of the magistrate, or the local lord? Or of the local priest?

Interesting material, there.

This stuff occurs to me all the time. Obviously, my world is not just about combat. But I do really like combat.

So, the lich, divided forever between those who insist is must be pronounced “litch” and those who insist it must be pronounced “like.” Technically, in old English, it must have the second vowel “e” for the “i” to be pronounced long, but rules are meant to be broken. The better alternative is the pronunciation, “licte,” from the German spelling leiche (corpse).

What the hell. When am I going to talk about liches again?

Not a complicated origin here. The spellcaster’s corpse dies, the spellcaster doesn’t want to let go, so the corpse gets animated and the soul continues to inhabit. Classic undead creation. I really don’t have that much to say about it.

I’ve never understood why liches were so feared by players—though they are, as my party recently took a role in encouraging a high level cleric to become a lich and now they are scared down to their shorts. Basically, the actual creature’s power is equivalent to whatever level of spell use they had, mixed in with some undead defenses and the whole brain-in-a-jar principle. It’s this last which is supposed to be so frightening, since if the body is killed, the brain can find another body and start all over again.

Except that, if you’re an 18th level mage, and your brain is in a jar, where are you going to keep it? In the hands of toadies? On another continent? Hell no. You’re going to keep it close by…so you can protect it. Therefore, it’s going to be the FIRST thing the party finds after busting your ass, so wup-de-doo. Unless you want to make an argument that you don’t need a) a dead body to possess once your first body dies; and b) there’s no actual ritual in you assuming control of the new body. Neither of which sounds much like the D&D magic system to me.

Honestly, in some ways I’d rather fight an undead 18th level mage than a live one. The live one is going to be a lot less noticeable (won’t smell as bad) in a crowd, is probably going to have more friends (that undead thing kills even a Facebook tally) and will probably be much less predictable (domicile conditions, status of nearby vegetation and general personality being subject to a wider variety of possibilities). Chances are, I can avoid a lich by simply not entering deep dungeons hundreds of miles from civilization. I could piss off a living 18th level mage by outbidding him at a local auction. Or tripping over him at the races. You wouldn’t know he was 18th level just to look at him, would you?

That about wraps it up. I’ll want to do more of these zoological installments in the next year or so, as I get more and more into the complete overhaul of my Bestiary.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Undead Beginnings III

I don’t think I need to talk long on the subject of mummies. Their origin is quite obvious: various cultures indulge in the preservation of flesh following the death of an individual, and it is due to some abnormal success in this capacity from which springs the mummy. I generally think of the soul as being separate from the preserved body, until such a time as the body is disturbed; then, like an alarm system, the soul returns to the body, bringing with it malevolence and some of the out worldly powers it has attained in the afterlife, in order to take out its vengeance on the invaders to its crypt. While not terribly innovative, it is effective when properly presented in having characters question whether or not the tomb is worth entering.

I grant that the mummy idea from the film goes a long way beyond this, but I’ve never understood why the priests would take the step to create this incredibly powerful and dangerous creature only so that its soul would suffer throughout the centuries. Must be a cultural thing.

Before I go on, I’d like to make a comment about the roleplaying aspect of these origin proposals. For storyteller DMs, the goal is always that somehow the players will be caught up in the mystery…where did this wraith come from, what does it want, what is it trying to tell us, what awful portent does it promise will be fulfilled?

The problem is, unlike the ordinary characters of Lovecraftian novels, most D&D players are not frightened ignorant village folk—they’re familiar with what they’re facing and they’re prepared for it. So there arises a dichotomy between the mystery format and actual D&D roleplaying:

What the DM wants:

Watson: I saw it, Holmes—moving on the master bedroom’s balcony. The apparition was clearly that of the miller’s son, Frank.
Holmes: Yes Watson, I begin to see what’s happening. We must hurry to Goslings-on-the-Marsh and speak at once with Frank’s mother, whose testimony undoubtedly will reveal how we should proceed. It may be that Frank’s brother Peter, who died four years ago, is the key to this circumstance.

What the DM gets:

Sgt. Rock: All right Easy Co—there’s a spectre on the third floor balcony. How many here are armed with +2 swords?
Zack: Just yours and mine, Sarge. Four Eyes is armed with +2 arrows.
Sgt. Rock: Good. We go up the stairs in teams of two. When we break into the room, the cleric sets up a perimeter of protection evil while the thief and the mage bombard the area with holy water and magic missiles. Come on you apes!

Because the books are usually as well understood by the players as by the DM (the “Brian” factor), there is no mystery. The overriding methodology remains: “We know what the problem is and we know how to handle it. Don’t pester us with details.”

That said, I still find the process interesting.

There are three “ghosts” from the Monster Manual: the actual ghost, the spectre and the groaning spirit, or banshee, which some may have noticed is exempt from the clerics turning undead table and is not actually specified as an undead in the original text. The descriptions for all three are fairly lame: they are evil or very evil; the banshee description has the added info that it is an evil female elf.

This has always been a bone of contention for me. In Celtic mythology, both elves and faeries are the souls of the dead—neither are mythical creatures separate from mankind. I don’t mind that there are elves and faeries in D&D…but I do mind that because of a Graeco-Christian bias in western mythology, Celtic forms are not understood at all. When reading the mythology, describing the banshee as an “elf” does not mean an alternative humanoid creature, it means “dead human”…not that I expect a short clarification of the facts to change the prejudices of my gentle reader. Still, you might do a little investigation into pre-Christian mythology, for your own good.

None of the three monsters comes with an origin explanation—spectres only create half-spectres (then what makes a full spectre?) and ghosts are just bad persons. I just don’t think that’s good enough.

From ordinary western culture over the last four centuries it’s generally been believed that ghosts occur as the result of some form of traumatic death: specifically, murder, suicide or heartbreak. I’m happy to use these three forms to explain ghostly origins: the ghost (murder), the spectre (suicide) and the banshee (a heartbroken woman).

One of the benefits allows for a wider range in emotional states for the three creatures. Not all ghosts are “evil”; I grew up on ghost stories about persons who had been murdered who simply asked for their bones to be properly laid to rest—instead the bones laid at the bottom of an ancient woodpile where the murdered body had been buried. A spectre might be considered a subject of pity, allowing for more than the Sgt. Rock episode. The loss of the banshee’s lover makes a pretty good story, and helps explain why a town might be inclined to tolerate the banshee’s existence, rather than seek its doom.

All three then lend themselves to a wider story that violence and destruction. The ghost’s bones found and returned to their place of rest. The soul of the spectre somehow purged of its sin. The ghost of the banshee’s lover somehow reunited with its mournful spirit.

Which is not to say that all three monsters could not have their typical malevolent motivations. Murderers are murdered, also—in prisons or on rural scaffolds. Suicidal souls may do so out of pure hatred for the rest of the world. Women mourning their lovers may have lost those lovers because they were maniacal freaks. I only wish to point out that, by providing a more motivational back-story, the party can be raised out of its automatic assumptions that the thing is EVIL and must be destroyed without exception.

It’s a matter of presentation.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Undead Beginnings II

“In Plato’s story about the origin of knowledge, which contributed to this negative validation, you have to renounce the world of shadows before you can accede to true understanding. The prisoners in Plato’s cave were incapable of gazing directly into the light of knowledge. They had their backs to this bright light and saw only the shadows cast on the cave walls…for the Greeks, the shadow was one of the metaphors for the psyche, the soul. A dead person’s soul was compared to a shadow, and Hades was the land of shadows, the land of death.”

Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow

We may take it from the above that the shadow does indeed have a soul. While the Greeks may have believed that every soul was destined to become a shadow in death, we can reflect that these shadows are also trapped in Hades. What might account for a shadow being on the prime material?

It was seen in medieval times that wherever the light of the lord did not reach, therein lay the shadow. I take it from that that those souls that become shadows on the material plane did so because they were never touched spiritually; that they were “negative” in the sense of never having had a positive experience in their lives. A recluse who died and was never buried at all, who was never loved, who was never affected by any force other than his or her own thoughts. They never “looked at the light,” and were untouched by it. Who lived a whole life as less than a whole being, and whose soul therefore in death would have nowhere to which it could ascend.

For those out there looking for original adventures without so many slayings, why not the task to seek out some individual, the brother of the town’s leading citizen, who years ago fled into the nearby forest and is now known to be living there. To save his soul and to reach him by some means of confrontation or illumination, enabling him to join the human race and escape his eventual fate as undead. The climax comes at that moment when the party ultimately finds him, halfway to death already, either from disease or sickness of heart, when his body is already becoming a shadow, and the party must preserve him somehow by spell or sacrifice.

That’s not half bad. Would make a fair plot for a film, actually.

Which brings us to the low energy drainers, wights and wraiths. I must point out to start that so much has been done with both in the last two decades that it becomes difficult to piece out any traditional meaning for either—except to say that when it comes to wights, Tolkein was literally pulling it right out of his ass.

There’s no suggestion in medieval literature that wights were anything but living creatures (Chaucer used the word in that context). Tolkein was probably enamoured with the word (and its association with ordinary folk) in his use of barrow-wight, and I doubt that Gygax and crew did any research at all before including them in the Monster Manual. Just the same, I don’t have any problem with having the monster in play, except that there’s no background to draw on to determine how it might have come into existence. So let’s leave the wight on the shelf for a moment.

Wraiths do have a history, but it has been greatly corrupted recently—the word “wraith” has been a convenient non-definite entity for whatever a sci-fi or occult writer wants it to be. But I’m a traditional sort of guy. My research tells me that wraiths are associated with spirits bent on revenge or as the reflection/manifestation of the soul at the person at the moment of death. That old tale about seeing your brother at the foot of your bed just at the moment a car takes his life—that’s your brother appearing as a wraith.

Sometime the image of the wraith appears before the death of the person, as a portent…which would mean that this manifestation did not have a soul (as the soul would still be in the body of the living person). If that manifestation was then trapped on earth at the point when the body died and the soul waned away, it might produce an undead.

A third meaning of wraith, from a variety of Anglo-Saxon cultures, is that of a guardian or a servant…which only means that a demi-god or such might command existing wraiths, and is not necessarily part of their creation.

Since wights don’t have a background, and wraiths have at least two, I’m inclined to steal one from wraiths and give it to wights. Let me explain, briefly, how my party got itself so very concerned about the matter of burial.

Following a nasty conflict on an ancient battlefield, the druid’s henchman, Artemas, died. But in the dividing of treasure found in the tomb under the field, the necessary healing and the concern for getting out of the area and ultimately the desert alive, no mention was made—at all—of the fact that this henchman’s body was simply laying there. And because I made no comment (there were a lot of dead lying around), the matter was never settled properly and the body was allowed to simply rot after the party made its way.

About eight runnings later, the druid was climbing the stairs to the second floor of the inn, when the wight of Artemas appeared. Having never been buried, it lashed out at its liege and succeeded in snatching two experience levels (dropping the liege to 4th level) before the druid and the party were able to destroy it. Since, the party has been somewhat concerned with exactly what happens to the body.

This is a perfect kind of rejoiner for me. I love unfinished business suddenly becoming a huge concern, right out of nowhere. It creates continuity in the campaign, forces players to pay attention to the future and to little details and—very effectively—focuses the party on trials and tribulations that must be overcome without my needing to invent “adventures” out of the blue.

So, wights are spirits who have been driven to achieve compensation for treason or abandonment. Leaving wraiths as the manifestation/reflection of a soul at the moment of great duress—a good soul, I think. After all, the story is usually associated with losing someone we love. So the soulless reflection, if it is trapped on earth, is the negative; the Evil Kirk, if you like.

I would play it that the wraith, once created, becomes the downfall of the residents of the dead brother (or other family member). My brother has died; and since nothing seems right. The house seems to be mourning him. Mother hasn’t been well, and may not recover (which everyone would assume is her loss, and not the effect of the wraith). And so on. Nothing short of an exorcism will remove the wraith once its presence has manifested.

I will continue with this. Next: the Mummy.

Update: Very interesting link on wraiths and other creatures here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Undead Beginnings I

Well, let’s skip a rant today and I’ll just record some of my thoughts about Undead.

I’m a fairly traditional DM regarding that—I still use the original turning undead table from the DMs guide, mostly because I’ve not bothered to rewrite/rework it to fit my world or to find a copy of whatever system 3.0 or 4.0 is using. I don’t have a lot of undead in my world, mostly because the energy drain power is so very painful to characters and because, really, the less appearance they make the more flat-out frightening they are when I actually have one occur.

Rather than about turning, I’d like to talk about how an undead gets made. I’m sure that there must be other things about it out there, but I haven’t read them—and I can’t be bothered to buy such information as may exist. I’ve seen very little about the subject. Please take this as an alternate opinion to whatever published material may or may not be out there.

I’ve never played the modern film rule that being struck by zombies makes one a zombie, mostly because it isn’t in the rules and because the zombie-movie phenomenon wasn’t so pervasive when I began playing. Most historical/cultural zombie lore does not actually include this happenstance. Still, I suppose that might be interesting to play it that way, though zombies would have to be worth a hell of a lot more experience and I doubt very much that ANY character would be willing to fight them hand to hand. After all, the chances of one of them fluking out and rolling a 20 is just too freaky possible.

Zombies, as I’ve played them, do not make more zombies. Just as skeletons do not make more skeletons. Both exist because they have been raised, at some point, by the spell intended for the purpose, and are the bodies of human beings without the souls which once inhabited them. Unlike higher undead, where the soul is trapped in the undead prison, I see both the lowest forms of undead as being the animated flesh with some lower entity from hell having taken possession by means of the spell. This entity lacks any real intelligence and acts only on instinct. Thus zombies and skeletons are basically hack-monsters for lower levels to whet their appetites and raise their experience.

Not that they have to be played that way—but by a strict adherence to the Monster Manual text, there isn’t much to either one. Higher forms have been added, skeletal warriors and such, when they’re needed, and having low level undead is useful. My present party, with its sixth level cleric, isn’t even threatened by them anymore; the cleric can deal with scores of them.

Ghouls do create ghouls and ghasts create ghasts…provided the creature they attack is actually killed. The zombie one-hit method isn’t enough. Even so, the paralyzation feature for ghouls always brings out a good emotional response from my players, though being 6-8th level and with bonus saving throws from armor and such they can usually handle 3:1 odds, not so well with ghasts, as the carrion stench is fairly pervasive. We can lump shadows in with these as well, as I’ll accept the reduction of strength to zero will transform a living creature into a shadow.

But I do limit this to intelligent creatures. After all, what’s to stop a shadow from turning hundreds of thousands of flies into “shadow-flies” simply by reducing their strength to zero merely by waving its arm through swarm after swarm? Ordinary flies obviously couldn’t have a comparative strength above one, could they? And if shadow flies land on a character, do they have the power to drain one strength each per round? Enormously terrifying, sure, but not particularly game worthy. So ghouls, ghasts and shadows I must limit to intelligent creatures who previously had a soul.

The question arises, however, what created the first shadow? Or ghoul? Or ghast? I’d rather avoid chicken and egg controversies…and there is no spell with spontaneously produces these low intelligent yet present undead. So I prefer to go with circumstance.

Most undead, according to the principles I play, occur because something went wrong with the burial of said individual, or that the circumstances of their death was so horrific that standard burial procedures were simply not strong enough to put the soul to rest. My parties have learned the folly of failing to bury the dead after any violent affair. While it does not always happen that undead do arise when humanoids are killed, they’ve learned to be better safe than sorry. Which is fine with me; I’ve never liked the habit of D&D players to simply leave bodies out for the vultures because they can’t see any reason to put the work in to bury or cremate them.

If a creature dies defending its home, or as a soldier, or from old age or ordinary disease or from an accident, then I don’t generally think such a creature will rise as undead. In a medieval setting, being killed because raiders show up in the village isn’t especially unlikely, and is—honestly—fairly impersonal. If the dead are peasants, and are left to rot without being properly buried, then probably their souls will happily ascend into its proper afterlife without resistance. After all, the fixed concept here is that the soul remains on the prime material plane after its body is dead because it RESISTS leaving—unfinished business, some unnatural motivation or because of revenge.

For ghouls and ghasts, I like to think the first one will rise because it has been laid to rest in a desecrated graveyard. Properly, graveyards are tended, but occasionally one that was once tended falls into ruin, or the piety of the caretaker is much less than it should be. This fits in with Victorian literature about “a pauper’s grave,” reminiscent of the sort of graveyard which a pious man would avoid on principal. Once a particularly evil soul is laid into desecrated ground, even if the proper words are read, the soul will not rest and will rise again as a ghoul.

If, then, the creature dies and is left on such ground without being buried and with no words read at all, the creature goes one step further and becomes a ghast. This might happen because the graveyard has become overgrown and lost to sight…that a battle happens and its not even recognized that the scene actually is a very old graveyard from hundreds of years ago. Or perhaps a building has been raised on top of a graveyard, and the denizens therein died of some natural cause—denizens who inexplicably have been violent in nature and xenophobic, on account of living above such a location—or because they murdered one another. And now the building is inhabited by ghasts, who have caught passersby and increased their number.

An interesting scenario for a party might be, once this idea is explained, the discovery of several tombstones between the bushes and trees after a battle has occurred. Has the party accounted for all the orcs they killed? Might there be a body in the cemetery/woods somewhere, that crawled away before it died? Which must now be found, before the sun sets? That might be an interesting low-level encounter.

I want to write more about this, but that’s enough for today. I’ll pick up next with the origin of shadows.

Monday, January 5, 2009

It Is NOT "Just" A Game

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”

Tell me you haven’t heard this kind of thing (quoted from Berin Kinsman, Uncle Bear, Jan 4, 2009): “There seems to be a lack of perspective that these are, ultimately, just games. Pleasant pastimes. Things we’re supposed to be doing for fun. Not saving the world. Not curing cancer. Not ending war or poverty. We aren’t debating politics and the best way to run the country. We’re not discussing religion or ethics or moral quandaries. We’re talking about playing games.”

Kind of smug, isn’t it? Certainly it’s dismissive. It’s exactly the sort of thing your parents and your teachers told you, trying to guilt you into a profession where you would be curing cancer. But old Uncle Bear just wants us all to get along and stop insulting one another. He’s disturbed by what he’s reading about this fun, pleasant activity.

Well … okay.

Let’s talk about what’s “important.”

I am in the entertainment profession. I write articles and stories whose purpose is to entertain readers so that they will be distracted long enough from their ordinary lives to look at the advertising on the facing page. It’s not saving the world. It’s not curing cancer. I don’t think there’s a chance that anything I write is going to end war or poverty. I’m not paid to write about politics or to tell anyone how to run the country. I write humour, not religion or ethics. The highest level of moral quandary I write about is ways to save your money.

But I am not playing games, nor are any of the people who pay me. Rather, they are making a rather impressive amount of money from their non-game playing activity, and in return they give me enough to let me fart around with the rest of my time. And some of that farting time is spent playing D&D.

It strikes me that it would be a pretty insipid thing to say that the entertainment industry is a load of dingo’s kidneys simply because it did not have as its mandate the curing of cancer. People spend quite a lot of money, time, effort and so on in order to BE entertained, a process which involves the existence of movie houses and theatres, concert halls, restaurants, casinos and strip clubs, along with the making of beer, spirits, drugs, a wide variety of confectionary, music, video games, tobacco, pornography and toys; if you add in the car that gets you there and the house where most of your entertainment occurs, we’re talking about the largest fundamental activity pursued by human beings. There are more prostitutes in the world than technicians striving to cure cancer.

And yet, with all that in the world, when I decide to play D&D for five hours on a Saturday night, everyone shows up.

That is, they’d rather play D&D than do drugs. And unless I’m mistaken, people are murdering one another over the circumstance of doing drugs.

But then, it’s all about perspective.

From my perspective, I spend approximately 25 hours a week working on material associated with D&D, which is a conservative estimate to be sure. I have been doing this since I was 15 years old, a total of 29 years, or 37,700 hours all told. This is an estimated four years of my life. It is also in addition to the amount of time I’ve spent running D&D, which on and off I would estimate as one fifth of that time. This last two years I have been running bi-weekly, or 52 times, or a total of 252 hours. I have six players who each play about 90% of the various sessions, so in total this is about 1,361 total entertainment hours that I’ve provided by running my little world. In terms of the cost of having dinner and a movie in order to spend a decent Saturday night, it is the equivalent of $9,266. And it is all free for my players. It costs them nothing.

If we’re going to compare the time spent in terms of my time, the time I don’t spend working but which I could spend working, if I felt the need to hunt up other publishers and produce more freelance material than I do—which I don’t because I’m working on D&D—then all told I am losing approximately $26,000 a year in potential revenue.

Do I give a rat’s ass? No, I don’t. Do I think my D&D world is worth any money? No, I don’t. I don’t think so because if I chose to charge my players they would stop coming. BUT they would rather come and play and spend their time and effort and passion destroying imaginary dragons and building imaginary castles. And if there were someone at the table making some fetid point that none of them should get up in arms about it, that someone would be told to kindly fuck himself with the nearest broom handle—and not by me.

Whenever anyone tries to ascribe VALUE on the basis of a thing's social importance, it is invariably a propagandistic attempt to curb opinion in favor of one’s own skewed perspective. The assumption here is that because your life does not depend on D&D, because no one’s life—cancer victims or politicians or what now—depends on D&D, it isn’t very important.

Which is one huge steaming pile of bull's shit. What right does someone have to tell you, or me, or anyone what they should or should not feel passionate about? What right does someone have to tell you that because it is “meant” to be fun, it isn’t ALSO very, very important to you? Important enough to shout about, and condemn those who are perceived to be dismissing it or ruining it? What right does someone have to tell you how passionate you’re allowed to be about something?

Isn’t the most annoying person in the world the one who, when tempers flare and people get excited about something they care about, asks plaintively, “Can’t we all just get along?” Don’t you want to beat that person repeatedly for failing to “get it?”

Life is not about getting along. Life is competition, conflict and the desire to challenge other people’s beliefs and to be challenged on the basis of those beliefs, to smash away at one another, using our minds without fear to choose the right course. Because passion is fearless. It is not simpering, begging cries of “Enough,” it is pounding one’s shield with one’s axe and shouting, “MORE, MORE, MORE, BRING IT ON, COME ON YOU CHICKENSHIT MOTHERFUCKERS!”

Christ I love this game.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Still the proclamation goes out: D&D is not about combat. It is about roleplaying.

Yes, I suppose if that’s how you want it. The game is wide enough to allow it to be played in whatever manner you choose. If you and your players enjoy evenings debating the finer points of characterization and interaction, why would I care? Strikes me as deadly dull, however.

Games are, fundamentally, conflict. Making them more abstract by reducing the level of absolutism in the rules does not rationally raise the degree of the conflict. I hear and read the cerebral arguments for the importance of roleplaying and such, but none of these arguments seem to include any account of how conflict and resolution are attained.

Look. It isn’t enough for me to “pretend” to be another person: knight, vampire, cyberpunk assassin, whatever. It was once, when I was ten. The greater distraction that came after was that associated with challenging, overcoming and destroying an opponent: in chess, in football…and ultimately in D&D. Yes, I get a kind of kick from being a short, overweight dwarven fighter, but that doesn’t compare with being the excitement of being a short, overweight dwarven fighter standing on top of a pile of corpses recently begun on their way to rotting by my magnificent prowess.

But that’s me. I lost a lot of my interest in playing the game years ago when I realized most of it was going to be walking, talking to bartenders and merchants and self-aggrandizing local power-holders who, through the voice of the DM, were there to tell me what I should do that night. I just got bored. I got bored with mazes and quests and figuring out the uses of magic items. I got bored with saving imaginary princesses and with always having my immense piles of treasure being taken away by some trick of the DM so I’d have the motivation to go out and get another pile of treasure. I got bored with abstract combats and with DMs sidestepping logic while demanding that I roll for checks to see if my character had the brain to hold his breath while underwater. Sidestepping logic? The inevitable dialogues about what can and cannot be done, what should and shouldn’t be said, what I ought to believe to fit this alignment or what customs my character should follow because he was born in such and such a place to such and such a class of parents. Roleplaying has always had inherent in its structure a pervasive quality of dictatorialness: the whole clerics-give-their-money-away and dwarves-dislike-elves dictums that argued against my having any original thoughts.

As I remember it, most others around the table LIKED these structures. They all seemed to get off on repeating the same phrases session after session, announcing for the fiftieth time that they pull out their +12 hackmaster sword or what have you. My objections that we were entering yet another dungeon or having yet another conversation about the local lord’s missing daughter or once again getting the local rumors from the local bartender were met, I fairly remember, with firm declarations that THIS was the game, THIS was roleplaying, THIS was what we had all signed up for.

And yet, none of the campaigns seemed to last. I would get fed up, I would stop showing up, and then five or ten weeks later I’d talk to one of the other players—one who had defended the DMs campaign—and find out the campaign wasn’t running because Dave or Sean or Kevin had got a job and was now working on Saturdays.

Or I would doggedly stay with the campaign because I liked the people. But the DM would have less and less prepared, or we’d skip weekend after weekend, or we’d have to roll up completely different characters because the DM wasn’t ready to run the old ones, until eventually we never ran the old ones and one-by-one the players would drop out and join other campaigns.

There were a lot of long nights and long, irrational and abstract combat sessions where no one knew where they were standing or who they were standing near, while the DM had his head dropped into the space behind his screen while he made a poor job of moving our attention spans. We’d roll dice or wait while they rolled dice, scratching out pictures or rewriting our characters or talking about the latest movies and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, the DM rolling dice and rolling dice and so on and so forth. It was fine if we had a combat where four of us would fight some large monster like a giant or a treant, but lord save us if we had to fight forty or eighty hobgoblins, as that was going to be a lot of indiscriminate rolling with little experience or treasure in the end to show for it.

So I can see how that would move some people away from combat in the game. It moved me away from the game entirely. If D&D had only been about playing, I wouldn’t now be playing D&D or writing about it. Thankfully, however, D&D was also about DMing…meaning I could create my own world and carry it towards my own philosophies.

Some of those philosophies being that the local constabulary is NEVER poor, since they’re free to exploit the people’s labor to produce food and wealth. And that there are better adventures to be had than stumbling around in some dungeon finding out if room A is larger than room B and rolling dice to deactivate traps. There must be better logical puzzles than whether we should go left or right at the next T intersection. That combat for combat’s sake IS pathetic, but combat to achieve a goal which the party has decided to achieve (without my giving a crap what it is) goes to the very heart of what makes us human.

Curiosity is all very well and good, but curiosity about what happens to be in the local monastery is a very poor substitute for the curiosity about whether some ambitious goal of mine—invented out of my own head—is going to work or not. Because ambition has always made a better story—a better conflict—than documentation.

You may want all your runnings to be about record keeping (names and dates and histories and lineages and long descriptions about who made this magic item and why) and rehashing the values of record keeping, or about the examination of the DMs record keeping as revealed through the DMs roleplaying abilities, but I’ll keep playing a game where the players say, “We want to do this,” while I answer, “Give it a try.”

And this from someone who is insane about record keeping, as this blog shows. But NONE of that ever appears in the running of my world. The record keeping is for my benefit. I don’t bore my players with it, as it’s not what they need to know (unless they ask, and then I pity them).

But I don’t make up temples or underground dungeons. I don’t waste my time with old ruins or city street maps or underground sewers. Mapmaking happens only in those rare cases when its relevant, not during every session. After all, I haven’t been in the airport in Toronto in 7 years and yet I still remember where the bathrooms are. When my players play they always have somewhere to go and they never have to be cajoled or recommended or pushed. I don’t have guides “just show up”—if the party wants a guide, they’re going to have to go find one.

Maybe that isn’t the way you play. It’s certainly not the way Gygax played, according to the evidence of more than one piece of text. But it’s the way I play.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Gygaxian Example

If you want to know why so often D&D is played as a two-dimensional game, one need only go to the source. Gygax’s own prejudices are written out plain for anyone to see. And while many of those who play are clever enough to see through those prejudices, you cannot blame the thousands who took the words as gospel and who justly played the game as a thoughtless, manipulative hack-and-slash campaign.

The following text comes from page 96 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, beginning at the bottom of the first column, where it reads, “The First Dungeon Adventure.”

Assume that you have assembled a group of players. Each has created a character, determined his or her race and profession, and spent some time carefully equipping these neophyte adventurers with everything that the limited funds available could purchase. Your participants are now eagerly awaiting instructions from you as to how to find the place they are to seek their fortunes in.

Well, this is a fair beginning, if a bit trite. The section is meant to be an example of play, so I have no troubles with this sort of benign Romanticism. I want to point out that, for seasoned campaigns, the above circumstance occurs only once—as every other session picks up where the previous session left off. Thus the usefulness to the general description of the game in describing the first ignorant group of players on the first campaign already assumes that this circumstance will be common.

In essence, the manufacturers of the book prepared for you to be a boob, without being introduced to the game by an experienced DM, or without additional experienced players to interact with. I cannot remember such a circumstance occurring in relation to the game since...well, ever. I have never played a single campaign where someone did not already know what everything meant or what was going on.

Yet this is still the approach that companies take in their introductions to various campaign games. Even though it has been thirty years, the first few pages are STILL dedicated to that rare dolt who chances to pick up this volume without having had any previous experience with the game. This seems moronic to me. But I digress.

You inform them that there is a rumour in the village that something strange and terrible lurks in the abandoned monastery not far from the place.

Yes well, there it is. The cheesy introduction to the adventure. It would be nice if such introductions were a thing of the past, but sadly they’re not. I’m still reading online adventures which begin pretty much this same way.

Why doesn’t the DM simply say, “You’re going to the monastery, and that’s that”? It would certainly save time. Because you and I both know that if you turn as a player to the DM and tell him you don’t feel like poking around all night in a flipping monastery, the DM is going to whine and complain that that’s all he has prepared at the moment and that what the hell, it will be fun! So there you are, playing a character you’ve carefully constructed, and the plot has already been written for you.

In fact, one of the braver villagers will serve as a guide if they wish to explore the ruins!

Yes, well isn’t that convenient? Naturally this well-meaning soul has nothing else to do, no party would ever question his motivations or his purpose or why he would want to go to the terrible nasty ruins with a bunch of total strangers who just blew into town and dumped a few hundred gold pieces on the local merchants. No, this fellow is only the local boy scout.

Exactly how stupid are we? Let’s see, it’s a monastery, it’s two miles from town...if the architects had the slightest of brains they would have built it on some kind of hill. Does that mean the guide needs to do more than take the party to the edge of town and point? Oh well, let’s see what happens.
(This seemingly innocent guide might be nothing more than he seems, or possibly an agent of some good or evil power, or a thief in disguise, or just about anything else. In this case, however, let it be a thief, for reasons you will discover soon.)

Oh, what a surprise. That was certainly a clever twist.
The party readily agrees, and so the adventure begins.

Here again we have the manipulative nature of the DM. The inclusion of the “guide” is only there to tell the party, “You’re going. Period.” So the phrase should really read, “The party acquiesces to the DM’s expectations, and the DM’s agenda begins.”
You inform them after about a two mile trek along a seldom-used road, they come to the edge of a fen. A narrow causeway leads out to a low mound upon which stand the walls and buildings of the deserted monastery.

Oh, so there’s a road. Do we have to pay this guide money? Since this monastery has more than one building, and walls, can we not assume that if the party had walked in the general direction for an hour or two, they would have found it? Or is it that the local area is covered with monasteries, and the guide is there to make sure the party finds the right one?

And why, exactly, is it a “monastery.” That’s a puzzling Judeo-Christian reference, isn’t it? It’s not described like any Tibetan monastery I ever heard of, and even if it was, where is the Buddhist section of the Deities and Demigods volume? Or the Christian section, for that matter.

While I’m at it, can I just ask, for the moment, why this ridiculous fabricated adventure exists at all? Assuming that there is a deserted monastery, and that the town knows about it and avoids it, why isn’t it being dealt with by the local constabulary? Is it because they’re not sufficient level? I assume this group of neophytes is first level. Wouldn't it make sense that the Reeve or the Hayward of the region, or one of the many soldiers of this particular church might be interested in making the territory safe for their daughters who like to ride in the afternoons? Yes, there have been abandoned churches throughout history, but they have been actually ABANDONED...not loaded up with monsters and treasures waiting for total strangers to poke about and get rich on. Hell, if the constabulary is too pussy to take on this Monastery, let’s go beat the crap out of the local constabulary and fuck the DM’s pre-planned adventure. I’ll bet HIS residence isn’t hip-deep in player-killing traps.

Ah, but that is thinking outside of Gygax’s little box.
One of the players inquires if the mound appears to be travelled, and you inform the party that only a very faint path is discernible—as if any traffic is light and infrequent.

This sentence simply baffles me. We have already been told the monastery is “abandoned.” I would assume that meant “lightly trafficked.” I’m even less clear about why the path would be “faint.” Abandoned paths are usually “overgrown” and “hard to find.” At any rate, since the monastery is visible and sitting on a big mound, any route between where the party is standing and the monastery is pretty bloody obvious, not faint.

Finally, the difference between “light” and “infrequent” escapes me. Do we mean that the traffic, when it occurs at all, doesn’t weigh much? Because otherwise light and infrequent mean the same thing.
Somewhat reassured, another player asks if anything else is apparent. You describe the general bleakness of the bog, with little to relieve the view save a few clumps of brush and tamarack sprouting here and there (probably on bits of higher ground) and a fairly dense cluster of the same type of growth apparently half a mile beyond the abandoned place. Thus, the party has only one place to go—along the causeway—if they wish to adventure.

I’m a little unclear as to why the party is reassured when they’re told no one comes around here. Do they think, by some stretch of the imagination, that the monastery is actually abandoned? ... i.e., not inhabited at all? Why the crap did we come out here?

All right, we get a little bit of fluff. Here’s a question, one which my players would definitely ask: “You said earlier that it was a fen. Now you’re telling me it’s a bog. Which is it—a fen or a bog?” At which point you’re forced to tell them it doesn’t matter, which makes the whole description scene pretty dumb and a waste of time since, in fact, it doesn’t matter. After all, is the DM prepared for the party saying, “We’ve decided to leave the Abbey alone and go check out the group of trees half a mile away. Is there another group of trees half a mile beyond that?”

Fluff is fine, but at this point the DM should be describing the MONASTERY, which is relevant, and not the local flora, which is not relevant. How many buildings are there? How tall are they? What are they made of? Has any work been done at all? Will the various buildings burn if lit? These are important things that are ignored here.
The leading member of the group (whether appointed or self-elected, it makes no difference)...

Excuse me? What do you FUCKING mean it makes no difference. Who the hell is this boss man to tell me what the hell I’m doing with my character? Is he the DM’s best friend? Is he a shill for the DM? What the hell is going on here?

Okay, that’s extreme. But it’s moronic to assume that someone just “takes command” of the party, and that the party isn’t going to argue about it FOR HALF AN HOUR. I thought this Gygax fellow had played this game.
... orders that the party should proceed along the raised pathway to the monastery, and the real adventure begins.

Yeah, the real adventure. The DM’s adventure. As a player I soooooo feel part of something special.
The so-called guide, the thief, is a 3rd level non-player character. You placed him in the village and gave the reason for his being there as a desire for a huge fire opal which the abbot of the place is said to have hidden when the monastery was under siege. The fellow died, according to legend, before revealing it to anyone, so somewhere within the ruins lies a fortune.

If the fellow died before revealing the huge fire opal to anyone, how does this thief know? How come the religious order which once held this Monastery DOESN’T know? How come the local Lord hasn’t had the place pulled apart brick by brick looking for it? Why hasn’t anyone used MAGIC to see if anything of value is located there. Hell, Augury is a spell any third level cleric has. You don’t think there’s a third level cleric who hasn’t asked his god, “Any special treasures up at that old Monastery on the mound?”

No, of course not. But this first level party, they’re going to stumble right in and find this wonderful, rare HUGE opal. Uh huh.

Does this smell to you, too?
But this particular thief lacks courage, so he has been living frugally in the village while seeking some means of obtaining the gem without undue risk to himself. Now, he has the party to serve his means. If they invite him along, then he will go—with seeming reluctance, of course. If they do not, he will lurk near the entrance hoping to obtain any loot they will have gleaned from the adventure when they return, doing so either by stealth or by force if the party is sufficiently weakened from the perils they have faced.

Now, I don’t know about you, but by the time my party was alone with this guy, they would have either skewered him, or had him trussed up, sword to his throat and asking, “What’s the deal with this abbey?” My parties aren’t very trusting. At the very least they would probably have spoken to someone else in town ... including the reference that this character offered to be a guide. Now, judging from the above, the thief isn’t a local, so why would anyone say anything but, “I don’t know him, he keeps to himself a lot and things have been going missing since he showed up?”

Oh, and the “reluctance” thing. Weren’t we told at the beginning that one of the “braver” members of the village was ready to guide for us? Details matter.
Before you are three maps: a large-scale map which shows the village and the surrounding territory, including the fen and monastery, the secret entrance/exit from the place, and lairs of any monsters who happen to dwell in the area ...

Well, there’s nothing really wrong with that. It would be nice if there were other lairs around the party could investigate, but we’ve already been told three times, by both the DM and the self-appointed party leader, that we’re going into the Monastery. So maybe the big map will get used next week.
... at hand also is a small-scale (1 square to 10’ might be in order) ...

And thus Gygax establishes D&D as the only combat game in the wargame universe NOT to use the logical, rational and practical hex map for movement and battle. I’ve noticed that 4e seems committed to carrying on the tradition.

These people know that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is longer than either of the two sides, right? Or is it that we as humans are unable to move diagonally?
... map of the ruined monastery which shows building interiors, insets for upper levels, and a numbered key for descriptions and encounters; lastly, you have the small scale map of the storage chambers and crypts beneath the upper works of the place ... likewise keyed by numbers for descriptions and encounters. So no matter what the party decides upon, you have the wherewithal to handle the situation.

There’s no ruin without a dungeon. Remember that. Also remember that the most logical place in D&D to build a crypt is under a Monastery or a church, even though every religious entity since the dawn of history has specifically not done so (another building is always built expressly for housing the dead).

I’m glad the party is at least being given the decision in terms of which maze direction they take first. It appeases the rats to think they have a choice.
When they come to the area shown on the second map, the one depicting the monastery complex, you set aside map one, and begin a more detailed narrative of what they “see,” possibly referring to the number key from time to time as they explore the place.

I’m only going to say this. We’re not completely brain dead. I think we could figure this part out.
Movement within buildings is actually the same as in the underground setting. Each square represents an area of 10’ per side, and movement is very slow as observation and map making and searching takes considerable time.

I’m sure the various elite military and professional brigades would be very interested to know that, when attacking an inhabited installation, it is important to move irrationally slowly and to map out, down to the inch, every single detail.

Strange that videos showing military and police groups storming a residence seem to be moving rather quickly and deftly checking all the corners of a building before moving on. Surprising that this can be done in seconds, so that a building the size of a church can be entered and secured amazingly quickly ... apparently in the time it takes a Gygaxian character to get the quill out of his backpack.

Also, I don’t know about this particular monastery ... but I’ve been in monasteries, and they’re not exactly built in a manner that it’s easy to get lost in them. There’s usually one big room or courtyard in the middle with a few hallways and some little cells for sleeping. Do I really have to map it to find my way out again?

It is a mystery that people at a trade show or moving around a fair ground aren’t constantly seen carefully measuring the distances between booths so they can map them correctly and thus never get lost. Or is it possibly that this whole, “My character with his 17 intelligence is incapable of keeping in his memory four rooms in order for the space of a half-hour.”
Base movement rate translates to 1 square per 1 factor in a turn (10 minute period).

One minute per ten feet, huh? That is an impressive 2 inches per second. Goddamn. A hero sure likes to feel the wind in his face.
In like manner, examination and mapping of a room or chamber will require about a 10 minute period.

Hell, let’s not forget that these are characters have spend literally Years and Hundreds of gold pieces on their training to go up one level (see gaining experience levels, page 86). This kind of return guarantees that these extraordinary heroes are the true fighting elite. It may take ten minutes, but DAMN! That room FEELS examined.
Thorough searching of contents and examination of walls, floor, and possibly the ceiling as well is also a lengthy process.

This is doubly true with “abandoned” areas. I know that as a child, whenever entering an old house, or examining a cave, I would be there eight, ten hours ... it was never the old in-out for me!
How are doors and secret doors opened?

Let me think ... Nope. Tell me how you open a door.
And what about locks and fastenings?

These abandoned places sure have good security.
It is vital that the DM know such details thoroughly, so that the mundane processes of dungeon adventuring can be carried out rapidly, clearly, and in a fashion which will be interesting and exciting.

Because, really, if you’re going to micro-manage your parties through the walking down unused roads, along faint pathways, next to bogs (possibly fens), through rooms and opening doors and unfastening things, you better bloody well know your stuff. You wouldn't want the party just going off and doing ...whatever. That might get boring.

Say if you want that I’m being unfair. That this is meant to be representational. What I answer is that, if this is representational, then there’s no surprise that the game is dull, that the DMs are inflexible and obtuse, that the players are disappointed and unmotivated, that the game demands constant and never-ending re-invention (since the real, actual considerations of time and human ability are hammered into narrow frameworks which bear less examination than a ten-by-ten room) and that nothing ever changes. If Gygax and his cronies are representative of the highest level of play that we can hope to achieve—and they must be, since the good old days are given the degree of praise usually reserved for Klingon operas—we can quit now. Because this is garbage. This manner of play and this methodology NEEDS improvement. It needs a better Representative than what’s out there.