Friday, October 30, 2009

Iron Working

There is more iron in the world than every other kind of metal put together, by almost a factor of ten. Iron ore is wildly common, so common that whole landscapes are red with it. Powdered iron makes beaches and taints deserts, forms wide visible layers in bare rock and collects in layers at the bottom of ponds and lakes. It is a heavy, hard stone, twice as heavy as most gems – polished, it makes fine jewelry, and existed as jewelry thousands of years before it was founded as metal.

Iron is not as easily founded as copper – iron melts at a temperature 900 degrees hotter than copper. I quote from Daniel R. Headrick, Technology, A World History:

“The simple furnaces used at the time – pits dug in a hillside and lined with stones or clay – could not get hot enough to melt iron. What came out was a spongy mixture of iron and slag (or dirt) known as a bloom. To drive out the slag, blacksmiths had to heat and hammer the bloom repeatedly, a tedious process that required a great deal of time and charcoal. The result – wrought iron – was softer than bronze, cracked easily, did not hold an edge as well, and rusted rapidly. Yet iron had one tremendous advantage: its ores are found in large quantities in almost every country, often close to the surface, where they are easy to dig up.

“Gradually, by trial and error, blacksmiths improved their product. To prevent cracking, they learned to cool hot iron by dipping it in cold water. To make it less brittle, they tempered it by reheating the quenched iron several times. By repeatedly placing an iron object in direct contact with burning charcoal, they turned its surface into steel. By the fourth century BCE, blacksmiths were making iron swords with a steel cutting edge that was hard enough to cut through bronze.”

Note that we can posit from the above that although iron was being used extensively at the beginning of the classical age, bronze had not gone out of fashion in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The fifth century Spartan hoplites were still using bronze weapons and shields, as were the Romans and Etruscans during the period of the Roman kings (prior to 509 BCE).

But cheaper, quality iron would eventually replace bronze weapons. Virtually all the weapons in Alexander the Great’s army would be iron, as would the weapons of India when the two armies met in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BCE. Iron had been introduced in India about 1000 BCE; long prior to that, and prior to its discovery by the Hittites, iron had been used by the Chinese. Thus, by the end of the Classical world and the rise of Rome, it was an iron world.

For those DMs out there who are working on Mesopotamian or even Assyrian campaigns, iron should exist either as a cheap alternative to bronze, both inexpensive and inferior. On the other hand, a specific race that has properly learned to forge iron as it was forged in the fourth century might have a decided advantage over others.

Apart from things I talked about yesterday, hard iron weapons might effectively destroy weapons as they strike. The same might be said for mithril vs. iron swords, or even magical weapons against non-magical. Where is the table that demands a saving throw to be made by inferior grade metals against superior alternatives? Shouldn’t there be a chance that my iron sword will split my opponent’s wooden spear?

I’ve never come up with a simple, workable arrangement that allows this ... but it seems like something that should happen – not just once in a blue moon, but with frightening regularity. Suppose that with every to hit roll that results in a ‘19’ (as opposed to a natural 20), the opponent’s weapon must make save. Would it be worth it?

I think it would have to be judged in terms of comparative materials. A quarterstaff against a quarterstaff would not incur a saving throw ... nor would the quarterstaff cause the magic weapon to have to save. This would be a one-way process – and so the saving throw would have to reflect the difference between the two weapons ... it couldn’t simply be a flat save vs. crushing blow.

If my combats weren’t already as complicated as they are, I might consider this. If I had someone who could keep track of these things, I would definitely be working on such a table. But I don’t think it very important just now. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to work on it as you will.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Metal Casting

I have a small issue with this technology, as it is indivisible from ‘bronze working’ and ‘iron working’ – since it was learned early that making moulds in sand was an obvious way to employ the plasticity of the medium. Swords, scythes, armor and so on are all made by first casting, then forging. Civ IV offers players the opportunity to install forges in cities once the technology is attained, but really, there is scant bronze or iron working without a forge.

But I will take the opportunity here to talk about metals in general.

The ancients discovered seven metals: iron, copper, silver, tin, mercury, lead and gold. An eighth metal wasn’t discovered until 1752 ... and it wasn’t identified in the old world at all, but in Colombia, South America. The metal, found associated with gold in mines, was platinum.

Fifteen more would be discovered by 1800 – cobalt, nickel, manganese, molybdenum, tungsten, tellurium, beryllium, chromium, uranium, zirconium, yttrium, antimony, bismuth, zinc and arsenic. For all these except the last four, only laboratory specimens were available. Cobalt through yttrium were not in common use.

Some of these metals had been employed by alchemists, without much understanding of why their mineral sources interacted with other substances. Calamine (zinc ore) had been known for centuries as “Indian tin” ... and was known to react well with copper – but brass was not a common alloy until the 1780s.

Separating a metal from its source is no easy task, except for the seven base metals listed above. One might wonder how mithril or adamantium fit into the periodic table – except that most DMs don’t bother wondering about such things. It’s inconvenient (described as dull) and unromantic. I do use both in my world, according to my own rules – and I don’t concentrate overmuch on how either is smelted or worked. Obviously, it must be comparatively easy compared with difficult substances like cobalt or yttrium, since we all assume adamantium is present in the medieval world. Conveniently and expressly made by cultures who live deep beneath the earth and possess no earthly means to vent fires or dump slag, of course.

It could be dumped into the Astral Plane, I suppose. Which would make the Astral Plane look like Montgomeryshire or Polish Silesia ... not at all Romantic, unless you’re a D.H. Lawrence fan.

I digress.

Six of the original seven metals can be cast into various shapes – mercury is the exception, as it is liquid in a warm room. As such, it was very often used as a medicinal tool, and in some ways is effective in that capacity. It also causes mercury poisoning. Mercury also makes a good means for purifying metals – resulting in the poisoning of streams below mining communities, and thus the poisoning of miners through their water supply. Crippled, dying miners overworked by nasty overlords who are prepared to sacrifice them for the sake of silver and gold has a long precedent in history, and still goes on today. It isn’t a popular D&D plot hook ... but it could be.

Tin mixed with copper makes bronze, which is the only comparison to iron in terms of making hardened tools – as I’ve said before, it is expensive. Tin mixed with lead makes pewter, which makes jewellery comparable with silver and gold, and could be improved in lustre when mixed with some silver. The ancients mixed and experimented with all the metals, finding how to make things beautiful or practical, or both.

The effects of this metal experimentation were far reaching. Metal was a mutable substance, like clay used to make pottery – except that metal was much harder, and could be made to take on a point like bone, or an edge like flint, or the weight of stone. It could be spread wide to make shields, or beaten paper thin and grafted onto the surface of a wall. It was ground and made into paint, drunk as a tonic (with varying effects), spun out as thread and sewn into clothing.

Most of all, it was used widely as a tool. Cultures could for the first time cut down whole forests with little trouble, which expanded homebuilding and shipbuilding, leading to exploration and thereafter to exploitation. Stone could be split easily and quickly, through the use of fewer workers, resulting in mass stone construction projects sponsored not by emperors, but by ordinary wealthy people, making private temples, theatres, walls and roads. Road building would lead to trade and solidly built walls to greater security.

Because it is far easier to found metals at a lower altitude (melting point is lower), the jump on metal manufacture was made by lowland cultures – rather than in the highlands, where much of the ore originated. There are exceptions, such as Anatolia (Hittites) and Persia (Medes) ... however, while both those cultures occupied high plateaus, they were considerable lower than the surrounding, mountainous regions.

This metal founding, affecting in turn the manner in which cultures were structured, enabled the building of empires which in turn would destroy the hill peoples, still limited to wooden or flint tools, who still spent most of their time keeping themselves alive. Ultimately, metal casting is a time-saving technology; allow me to give an example.

A spear can be used to catch fish, obviously. It can be cleverly fashioned with barbs so as to make the implement more effective, and with training a hunter can provide enough to feed his family. It does require that the hunter work fairly hard, standing at the ready until a fish appears, throwing the spear in, withdrawing it, throwing it in again ... and all the while standing in what is often very cold water. In tropical climes, the hunter is exposed to dangerous animals like stonefish, or predators.

Compare this with a fish hook. It requires no cleverness to make. It requires very little talent, particularly when the hook is used as a jig or the fishing line is tied to a float. The fisher needs to use virtually no energy in order to reap the meal. The fisher does not need to set foot into the creek or the lagoon. While nets are still used by experts to produce quantities of fish, everyone can make a small effort and feed themselves that day. Even children.

Metals changed daily behavior in hundreds of ways, just like that. Later, of course, they would change behavior in thousands of ways ... but that is down the road.

I know this wasn’t much of a D&D post. There’s little to say about how some people might better choose their equipment, or make better use of the equipment they have. I always think that’s true, but part of my pleasure as a DM is watching my players work it out for themselves. I don’t want to give them hints here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New Monsters

You may have noticed that I don’t write many posts introducing new species of monster. There are reasons for this – for one, I don’t think it very interesting reading. I gave up on new monsters twenty years ago, with the arrival of the new Monster Manuals, I & II. They had nothing but a tepid reworking of already existing monsters ... and that is mostly all I see today, on websites, on blogs or down at the local gameshop.

This one is a golem shaped as a horse, this one is yet another giant of a different shape and size and having the features of a mage or an assassin; that one is yet one more race with a sadly cliched historical background, and that other one is one more low-level jinxkin designed to steal magic weapons from players.

Using the same old monsters all these years doesn’t seem to bore the parties I run. Yes, they’re goblins, and yes the party knows all there is to know about goblins – their weapons, their armor, the ease with which they are killed.

But what the party doesn’t know, and what is for me the only relevant thing when it comes to how interesting the adventure seems, is what exactly these particular goblins want. Or just what they are doing. What is their motivation?

Different monsters are presumably invented so that campaigns do not become stale and dull. Throw another monster, watch the party figure out the puzzle that monster represents. The puzzle? How do you kill the thing ...

Two criticisms spring to mind. The first, if the only way you can think to change the texture of your campaign is to replace fangs with barbs with various stabby things and ultimately with spells and breath weapons, your campaign is obviously all about the fighting. I get the feeling that it is always the same routine: ‘stand up and fight the new thing.’ This is variety? This is not stale and dull?

Besides, are your players really getting a whole lot out of discovering their hard-earned +2 sword doesn’t work on this monster? Isn’t it just another way to screw them over ... you thought you were tough, but wait until you run up against this monster!

Sounds like a DM with confrontation issues.

On the other hand, if you are coming up with profound new motivations for all these monsters, what do you need new monsters for? The suspense is in the motive and the conflict, not in the material. Cakes don’t get boring because they’re made with the same old flour. There are thousands of ways to make cakes with relatively few ingredients. There are 350 monsters in the original monster manual. You can combine any two to make 122,500 combinations. And you are not limited to two.

But coming up with plots and motivations is much harder work than coming up with a monster that has a breath weapon and sprays acid. Kewl.

I know that many of you just find new monsters ‘kewl’. So for you, for a special treat, I offer a brand new monster I’m sure hasn’t been done before:


Frequency: common or very rare; see below
No. Appearing: 1
Armor Class: -10
Hit Dice: 14
% in Lair: 100%
Treasure Type: J (under cushions)
No. of Attacks: none
Damage/Attack: none
Special Attacks: sleep charm; successful save vs. fear allows 8 hours sleep
Special Defenses: immune to spells & cold; suffers double damage from fire
Magic Resistance: 0%
Intelligence: variable
Size: L

Found extensively in urban environments, and very rarely in nuclear-wasted environments. Can exist through the careful design of architects and house framers, or may result as the mutation of a radiation-infected human spontaneously. When found in non-urban circumstances, will stand out very plainly among the ruined landscape. In urban environments, tends to remain out of sight until encountered. For this reason, encounter distance indoors is rarely greater than ten to fifteen feet.

Outdoor varieties have the ability to speak and comprehend information as their original selves, but lose any spellcasting abilities they may have had. They tend to be quite depressed.

Bed sitting rooms make suitable hirelings, gaining loyalty very quickly, but can have a high upkeep depending on their market value. They do not have offspring, but other creatures are known to make their lairs within the sitting room’s body. These creatures can sometimes attack without warning.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Traditional Maps

Things have been busy today, what with people coming in and out and getting ready for job interviews, so the gentle reader will have to make do with a map.  I prepared this ahead of time, knowing that there'd come a day when posting was difficult, just so there'd be something special about it.

We begin with an ordinary, nothing new map from me, in this case of the eastern Alps and the northern Balkans.  It shares all the characteristics of most of my maps, being based on elevation, with notes for the feet above sea level and for small numbers next to the rivers to give a note as to their size.

But just for fun, let's render the map again, emphasizing the borders of the kingdoms, and getting rid of the many notations I usually add.  This should look pretty much like maps you saw in schools.  I want to emphasize that this is the same map, showing very nearly the same part of the world.  The yellow is Hungary, the green the Ottoman Empire, the purple is the Hapsburg Empire, the little bit of pink at the top is Bohemia and the brown at the bottom is part of Venice.  There is a small dark blue area, the Bishopric of Friesing (it got cut off in the format change), which is under the suzerainty of Bavaria.  The light blue area is obviously the sea - the Adriatic Sea.

That should give something to ponder.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Ran my offline campaign Saturday, first time in five months as a DM (two weeks ago, my daughter ran), and I tried something new.  Nothing excessively complicated, but I added a second monitor to my laptop for the game.  So while the lap top faced me, the monitor faced the players.

It was a huge hit.

While I am reassured by one of the players that I can be selective in what the out-directed monitor shows compared with my lap-top screen, I made no such distinctions last Saturday.  So the party saw everything I was looking at ... since my die rolls have, for more than a year, been thrown without benefit of a screen, it was a more open running than ever.

Strangely, the effect was to calm the party down more than I could have hoped for.  I have made comment in the past that it is a particularly rambunctious party, usually more so when I'm doing the DM thing and looking up stuff.  Only this time, they could SEE what I was looking up, and how it was relevant to the campaign.  Result: much quieter party.

Moreover, the party was there to check me ... which is something I don't mind.  I give my X.P. out according to the damage they deliver and suffer, and I keep a running total on an open page on the computer; on one occasion, the dwarf cleric asked, "Hey, why am I not up there?"  He reminded me his cleric had done damage and I hadn't accounted for it.  Oops.  But he could watch as I fixed it.

The best part of it, from my point of view, was the opportunity to show maps and to do hex-affected combat all on the screen.  No miniatures, no large sheet in the middle of the table taking up room.  I was running six people at once, and they could all see clearly where their characters were, and how they related to each other, and make decisions on what to do ... without having to poke around on a flat table.  40 miniatures tightly packed on a table look cluttered - but a vertical, color-coded computer screen showing a top-down view is crystal clear.

It was a great running.  Two new players started, they rolled up new characters, both of their new characters died and we ended the night rolling up new characters for them both.  They said they had fun.  And just to make it stranger, my female players now outnumber my male players 4:2.

Must be something about my world.

I have read many posts on blogs in the past 18 months about pencil and paper D&D, about Ludditism and about the textual feel of miniatures, to which I answer a resounding PHOOEY!  Romanticising weaker technological delivery methodologies for the depiction of what is an imaginative venture is a condition for stuck-in-the mud DMs.

In my ordinary, daily life, I don't do anything with pencil and paper.  My last job with a magazine, everything was done electronically, from the writing down to designing pages for the printer, who used a computer to control the web machine that churned out the issue.  I never bothered to pick up an issue of our own paper ... it was available online.

I don't deliver resumes on paper, I don't communicate with my friends or anyone by mail, I don't keep notes on paper and I don't use paper books for recipes.  All of my D&D work is done on computer, backed up on other computers and on flash drives.

For years and years I sat and wrote with pen on paper for four or more hours a day, and developed a massive callous on the third finger of my right hand.  You never saw such a callous.  I certainly never did, on anyone else ... in university I used to bet people my callous was bigger (I have a strange sense of fun).

Right now, that callous is almost gone.  It has winnowed away with the last ten years, since I went digital.  It has been replaced by a big lump on my wrist ... where I rest my right hand to use the mouse.

So why would I throw away all my normal daily habits to play D&D like this was 1990?  I don't want less technology, I want MORE.  If you love your players, you'll want more too.  Visual aids are more than just fun and convenient, they can focus a campaign like no one's business.  Don't you want to play as a DM without your players having to ask all night, every night, "Where am I?"

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Player Sages

I created these tables loosely off the rules for Sage in the DMG, on the principle that any mage, cleric, druid or illusionist would naturally acquire knowledge through their calling.  This is an example of the mage's table; the tables for the other three classes are each different, and you'll find them at the bottom of this post.  I wanted to get these ready and published for the benefit of three mages who just started in my offline campaign.

It's quite simple.  Each column represents a 'field' of knowledge: Civitas, Humanities, Power and Science.  Beneath each field is a list of 'specialties' ... those for Humanities include Languages, Law, Logic and Publishing.

The mage begins with 1 field and 1 specialty in that field at 1st level.  He then gains another specialty every four levels thereafter (at 5th, 9th, 13th and so on) and another field at every six levels (at 7th, 13th and 19th).  This means that a 12th level mage would have two fields and three specialties.

The second table indicates the chance of knowing something in that field.  Percentages for general, specific and exacting questions indicate the chance per level of the mage knowing the answer to a particular question.  In addition, there are certain obvious answers - such as if the mage were to have Civitas as a field, and agriculture as a specialty, the question "What do I plant here?" would be automatic knowledge.  However, if the question was, "Can I grow a plant not indiginous to this clime here?", that is a general question and the 1st level mage would have an 8% chance of knowing.  The plant might still actually grow, but the mage would not know for certain until he tried.

You will note, however, that there is also a 'Researched' column.  This is the chance of the mage knowing the answer to a question multiplied by the number of common books the mage possesses regarding the subject divided by 100.

Now this gets tricky.  I divide my books into four categories, based on value: common, unusual, rare and arcane.  One unusual book is worth 4 common books.  A rare book is worth 16 common books and an arcane book is worth 64 common books.  Therefore, the made need not have 100 actual books to gain the 15% bonus; if he has excellent books, he can make due with less reading.

Moreover, the mage need not actually possess the books ... he need only have access to them ... which he will have, to some extent, through the various libraries that exist, at least one of which he will know well as that it the one where he was trained to be a mage.

I suggest if this interests you that you should read further on sages in the DMG.  I've used this table for some years now, and the players do pretty well with questions along the 'do I know the answer to this already' type.

I will give you an example.  My party's paladin has recently decided to find a particular magic item - Horseshoes of the Zephyr.  The first question is not where do we find a sage ... the first question is to ask the party's 9th level magic user, "Any idea where one might be?"  The mage has not taken 'artifacts' as a specialty, but does have 'Power' as a field.  The mage wasn't certain.  Next question: "Any idea where we might go to find the knowledge" ... whereupon the mage thinks about where there might be a lot of books about artifacts.  As it turns out, Poland.  So they will go to the library in Krakow, province of Galicia, and ask for permission to look in a library there.

Frankly, I don't understand the "sages charging money for knowledge" concept at all.  At no time in history has the acquisition or withholding of knowledge ever been a business strategy ... until applied by Google in the last two years, and believe me, people are PISSED.  Sages charging for knowledge is just another gygaxian way for DMs to screw players.  I don't subscribe to it.

Nothing left to do but to include the other tables:



Friday, October 23, 2009


Yesterday, I came just that close to making a character blind. The die tumbled and the character was spared.

When I calculate it, there is a 1 in 50,000 chance that a character will be blind. The character must first roll a 1 in 5 chance on a d20, and then I must roll a 1 in 25 chance on a d100 (97-00), twice. The second % roll, I rolled a 90 and the ten-sided showed a ‘7’ and then rolled over to show the ‘3’. Look at your ten-sided die. They are right next to each other.

So I have been thinking about what a blind character would be like.

First of all, I think that where it came to hand to hand combat, the character’s abilities would be unaffected. If the character is blind and has achieved class status, I think it must be argued that the character has overcome their blindness. That their hearing accomplishes what their eyes might have, and that they are able to hit and do damage normally ... under certain conditions.

Hearing range for normal voice is 60’ (I’ve long used that as a meme) – beyond that you can only hear shouting. That means the blind character can shoot missile weapons a maximum of that distance; 0-20 feet is near range, 21-40 feet is medium range and 41-60 feet is long range.

If the character is a spellcaster, spells which are not dependent upon sight are probably a good idea. Self-spells, touch spells, character affecting spells ... excellent. And if the character can get a familiar, all the better! That would be a major solution to the problem. Not a perfect one, granted ... a familiar can’t sit perpetually on the mage’s shoulder in every instance. But it would go a long way to easing some of the difficulties.

For the record, I also have possible results for deafness, epilepsy and asthma and a host of rarer maladies, which players might, as an extreme long shot, have to manage. There are many, many players out there who might feel that such things are grossly unfair to include on a character background table. But I don’t think life is fair.

I do think life is interesting, however, and it would be interesting to have a blind mage or a deaf fighter playing in a campaign. There would be obvious benefits, in terms of fighting basilisks and groaning spirits. “Just leave this
one to me, fellas,” would be a standard trope, I think.

Any thoughts on other limitations blindness might add to the character?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Campaign Revisited

Well, yesterday's post landed with a sort of dull thud. I hope today's does better.

It is time, I think, for me to begin my online campaign again, which I suspended five months ago. I have lost track of Anshelm and Tiberius, but if you're out there you'll very welcome to continue your characters. Delfig and Kazimir, I'm well aware of where you both are. We can pick up where you left off, whenever you're ready. Just start me off with a 'yes' on this post and we'll get going.

There are going to be a few changes. First off, I won't be running the campaign on this blog. It was too distracting from my other posts, and I know many readers won't care what's going on with the campaign. So I am moving the campaign to a new blog, which can be found at The link will be added to the blogroll of this blog.

Second, I'm not limiting the number of people who play (though the more people, the less updates there will be - sorry), nor am I going to insist that people play in the campaign that is already in progress.

Those who want to play should email me at All rolls that you make will be trusted unless I have reason to think otherwise (you're just too lucky). Until I get too overloaded with players, you can ask to join campaigns already in progress, or you can start your own, anywhere within the regions I've designed. Those regions include Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Arabia, Greece, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Russia west of the Urals and Siberia west of the Yenisey River.

We will roll your character, and then I will add posts to the campaign blog for you to 'run' on. Each campaign will have a unique label, so that by searching for a specific label you can get rid of all the other posts attached to other campaigns. I'm hoping that works.

If you feel you haven't very much time, but you are interested, under these conditions you can play as little or as much as you like ... I will try to keep a campaign going as fast as my time will allow.

This is still an experimental idea, so changes may still have to be applied once campaigns are started, but we all know that's part of the game. So let me know if you're interested.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Great Encounter Table

I had my doubts about printing this table, as it represents only the beginning of the work that I am doing on monsters. But I’ve reached the first milestone ... I’ve completed all the ‘non-intelligent’ monsters I use in my world. I wanted to see how this would play.

First off, this is not meant to be an encounter table. This is meant to be the substance from which I derive the encounter table. But before we get into that, I’ll explain what the above means.

This is the ‘Grouped Hunter’ table – it includes those non-intelligent creatures which act as a group, and which do not ‘nest’ in a lair. These are all wandering hunters. Because of their lack of intelligence, they have pretty much one tactic (or nearly one tactic) where it comes to encounters. For the most part, to feed. The one exception on this table is the giant centipede ... which, in the right season, will also inject its eggs into a victim, so the eggs will have something to eat when they hatch. This obviously works best for the centipede when the dead body falls into a trench of some kind, or is underground.

Where it reads ‘Number & Density’, I designated to each creature a specific pattern of association. A tight group would be creatures which do not move more than a hex from one another. An ordinary group would be 2-5 hexes apart when encountered. A loose group could be much farther apart ... dozens of hexes or more. You’ll notice that many of the loose groups attack ‘progressively’, meaning that they come a runnin’ when the food’s available.

What doesn’t appear here are any ‘scattered’ monsters. A scattered density suggests that there a numerous monsters in the area, but they don’t act in concert. The party will likely encounter a series of them, all day long, or even at random intervals during a week, as long as they remain in the same area – until all the number of appearing have been killed. Thus, if there are 1-6 rhinoceros beetles indicated (a scattered monster not appearing on the above table), the party would kill one Tuesday morning, and might find Wednesday afternoon that they were faced with another. ‘Loosely scattered’ monster appear less frequently.

Under action you can see that the monsters will swarm, attack progressively, have a steady or milling approach, strike from murk or weeds, or be movement sensitive. A steady approach is the one most commonly used in D&D – the straight forward movement towards the party and attack. The swarming attack means that the creatures will swamp the party, with multiple individuals moving into the same hex as the player – a mass of giant centipedes attack like this. The strike attack or the progressive attack should be self-explanatory. A ‘milling approach’ describes a circumstance where the hunter doesn’t really notice the party. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by manta rays ... and if you quietly swim out of the area and don’t disturb them, you might simply get away. On the other hand, if you attack, or make sharp movements, so will they.

The part of this table I’m least happy with is the ‘Range.’ This is the distance the creature is from the party when it is first seen. I would like a clean, consistent system for determining these distances, but I’m afraid many of the numbers are rather ad hoc. I’ll be working on that from time to time over the next few months.

Finally, there is the column about ‘Gestation & Growth.’ Very little exists in D&D about young creatures. My thought is that occasionally the party should run across a creature’s eggsack, or young creatures (probably in greater number than adults, since most insects and molluscs gestate mass numbers when they do reproduce), or the occasional infested carcass. The description of ‘swift growth’ on the table is to indicate that the newborn creature gains a hit die every one to two weeks until it is fully grown. Slow growth would be a hit die per season or per year; very slow growth, like that for humanoids, would be even slower.

I hope to create similar tables to this above for higher intelligence creatures – though of course such tables are already going to be too complex to list as one table. I am thinking of building a database, just as soon as I learn how.

The main complexity comes from the number of possible actions that higher intelligence creatures can take. I am thinking of generally limiting the table so that an animal intelligence will have 2 actions, semi intelligent will have 4, low intelligence 7, average intelligence 12, very intelligent 20, highly intelligent 33, extraordinary 56 and genius 90. I have a long, long task ahead.

When I’m ready to build encounter tables, then, they won’t be based upon the monsters themselves, but upon the vast array of actions which a vast number of monsters might chance to take, plus the effects of their biology on the landscape ... the ‘non-combat encounters’ listed on the table.

Aim big, that’s what I think.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stereotypical Nerds

I had intended to embed this video on the blog, making it the first time for me, but sadly the ability to do it was "disabled by request." So if you can please go visit youtube I can get on with this post.

I actually remember this commercial, vaguely, from the time period – and it was pretty horrific. But it’s all that could be expected from marketing people who didn’t get it, who still don’t get it and who never will get it. It is in fact not what I want to talk about.

You may have to have a look at the video again, but if you’re quick you’ll have seen that the actor in the green shirt is in fact Alan Ruck, and that the girl in the cream shirt is Jami Gertz ... both actors associated directly with ‘nerd culture’ in the 1980s.

Gertz’s career picked up in 1981 and soon after she made waves playing Muffy on the show Square Pegs – where she played the non-nerd in the cast. Ruck had his career bounce forward in 1983, and of course he is known to nerds everywhere as ‘Cameron’ from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

That would date the commercial to sometime around or before 1981.

I think it’s hilarious that Ruck makes a D&D commercial and later fits the nerd image in FB ... and that image is? That nerds can’t get girls.

Things have changed those days when playing D&D meant a monastic existence ... though I can still remember a lot of the players I met being less than human. Wolowitz, by comparison, would have to be considered marvelously charismatic – of course, we can’t smell Wolowitz or any of the Big Bang gang through the television. Sheldon’s probably clean, given his obsessional habits, but he eats a lot of curry and that stuff does sweat through.

But most of the DMs writing blogs online all seem to be married or involved in long-term relationships. I don’t see a lot of posts written about the lack of girls – since there no longer seems to be a lack of girls – nor the social leprosy associated with the game. If the Internet had been available in tandem with RPGs, the blogs would be full of irate wordsmiths bashing out opinions on why girls ought to recognize that the games are worth playing and why we’re not such bad looking fellows.

I do still see the occasional youtube video that makes a joke out of D&D players and girls – the first and second parts of Fear of Girls were very funny, but they bore no resemblance whatsoever to D&D as I've ever played it. There are less clever examples out there, but they always seem to be designed and filmed by people who are themselves come off as part-time players, or as ignorant as the people who designed the commercial that led off this post.

I think a notable point must be that 'girls' and 'boys' who play have become women and men ... and being adult and knowing what they want has, with the years, changed the way the sexes relate tothe game. It is now possible to play with porn stars.

I won't say that women don't play differently - they have their idiosyncracies, and to some extent a male DM has to adjust his play. I'll write about those idiosyncracies if you like - just list off a few and I'll address them.

So commercialized nerds become notable actors and socialized lepers can freely admit in public that they play Dungeons and Dragons. I do, all the time, and I don't get weird looks. Every time.

Excuse me. I'm being asked to get off line and come to the bedroom.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Very Old

On a whim, I thought I'd put this table together, chiefly for Chgowiz's benefit. I had done the research already, I just had to crunch it a little to find those cities that would fit the criteria.

The table below describes a number of cities founded before 1500 B.C., ranked from oldest to newest, which are still occupied today. The list isn't meant to be exhaustive or even particularly accurate - the figures merely correspond to research I've done. When it comes to dates more than 2,000 years old, there are always disagreements.

Nevertheless, if you were looking for a list of very ancient cities which might give you some ideas about the time period pre and post Mesopotamia, you could do worse. Disappointingly, the list doesn't include cities that once existed and are now long gone - which explains why there are few Mesopotamian cities listed. Most of the ones that exist today did not exist then. However, I'm sure Chgowiz already has a list of Mesopotamian cities. This might be a handy appendix to those.


Yesterday, Rod in a comment did indeed get a monkey off my back with this quote (reproduced in part):

”... mechanical artillery, however well developed, never quite acquired the power to bring down entire walls in the manner subsequently made possible by gunpowder and cannon ...”

That is a sentiment I intend to embrace with all my heart and mind. My world has long operated on the principle that the existence of magic has belayed or caused disinterest in the development of gunpowder as a terror weapon – in fact, the employment of a single cantrip (dampen, change, ravel) could be used with alacrity by an ordinary mage’s apprentice spy to cause a cannon to blow itself up. This logic allows me to keep beautiful castles for my Renaissance Era campaign without seriously disturbing the milieu’s credibility ... and here Rod nicely adds an additional argument.

So apart from shooting at people on walls and dropping dung, plague victims and human heads over a castle’s wall, the chief problem becomes what can be done by siege weapons against wooden targets – like other siege weapons and ships.

Well, to begin with, yesterday I pointed out that the density of wood was about half that of a human being. We can add to that the inflexibility of wooden structures compared to human beings, and we thus establish reasonably that the amount of damage which a siege weapon might do against a wooden structure would be equal to 2d6, or 1d12, per newton. (I hope you’re following here, because I’m not going over it all again – note the last four posts).

That’s twice as much as against a human target, which makes it easy and convenient for comparison and for evaluating damage. One of the annoyances in the DMG is that, on p. 110, there is no effort whatsoever to equivocate the ‘defensive point values’ listed to hit points. Of course, it probably never occurred to anyone that it would need to be ... except that I’ve found that constructions often don’t happen to exactly duplicate things that appear in the DMG, and that calculating new fortifications is a huge headache. Wouldn’t it be convenient if there was one single list that incorporated the amount of damage done by a charging knight on horseback to a human being and the amount of damage done by same said knight against a palisade fence? Believe me, in many years of playing, these things have come up.

How many defensive point value points of damage are done by a herd of animal controlled charging rhinos? Oh wait, the inventors of the game never thought to include that on the list of ‘Siege Attack Values’ on p. 109.

All right. Now people can argue as long as they like about the accuracy of this number, but I have listed on my equipment list that a ‘large ballista’ weighs 4,793 lbs. And I have argued previously on this blog that the body mass of an adult male human being (175 lbs.) would be worth 1d8 hit points (in addition to those hit points gained from skill & luck).

From these two numbers we can postulate that the number of hit points possessed by a large ballista is equal to 4,793/175 x 4.5 (average of a d8), which equals 123 hp. Taking the previously establish damage measurement from recent blog posts, I can suggest that the amount of damage done against the ballista by a 1-second shot (within the range of the missile travelling less than one second) would be equal to 20 newtons, or 20d12 (remember, twice the damage as against a living creature) ... the average of which would be 130. Now, isn’t that just bloody sweet?

I didn’t plan it out that way. I’ve been pretty much working out this system as I’ve gone along these last few days, and this is the first time I’ve calculated these figures. Just lucky, I guess.

There will be those out there who will argue that half damage or three quarter damage against the ballista would be enough to render it useless. But I would remind those voices that half damage or three quarter damage against your character does not reduce their chance to hit or do damage in any way. The 123 hp of the ballista is the amount of damage necessary to stop it from being a ballista.

Of course, it could be healed. And by my stunning rules, the ballista, if it suffered up to one quarter of it’s hp per round, it couldn’t fire (it would have to be re-adjusted and even partly reloaded).

Off hand, I’d estimate that any force applied against the ballista that would be less than 1 newton could be disregarded as non-effective, according to the arguments I made on my last post. That would exempt a swing with a dagger, but not necessarily an arrow ... which seems problematic to me. However, the arrow would have to be fired within 23.5 m of the ballista, a circumstance which wouldn’t likely come up that often. But some rule would have to be made regarding the original mass of the instrument being used to do damage.

This brings us to the question of actually hitting the target. I think I would use the DMG here, and say that the stationary target would allow a +3 to hit, and then additional plusses for subsequent shots. Unlike the DMG, however, I think that each individual subsequent shot should add an additional, cumulative bonus – not +4 as suggested, but +3. Therefore, the first shot would be against AC -10 at +3, the second at +6, the third at +9 and so on ... provided the target is not moved between shots. Eventually, you will hit a motionless target. That is because an artillerist knows that machinery ballistics, unlike the process of re-aiming with your arm every time, is a methodical series of adjustments. A skilled artillerist would know his instrument, and would know how to adjust it following each recoil and eventually hit his mark. It’s not chance. That is why artillery units quickly stop firing their weapons once they’ve come under fire, and move them forward, back, or elsewhere.

Okay. The next logical step from here would be to talk about actual buildings – specifically, ships, which is what I was working on offline that got me started on this subject. But I want to tell you, I am dead tired on this subject and I want to stop now. I will pick it up in the future, just as I intend to pick up my Civilization posts where those stopped – metal casting, which I haven’t written yet. The problem with a series of articles is that they tend to dry a writer out. For the present, then, I’ll put this down, do a little side work on ships and come back to it when I have something more to say.

In the meantime, you should be able to do the math yourself. Calculate the weight of the building and that equals its number of hit points. If you want to know a stone structure’s hit points, remember the density of stone (you can find densities for a lot of things on the SI Metric link on this blog), compare it to human flesh (900 kg/cub m, to put it in the idiom of the SI Metric site) and calculate the weight for the volume of stone represented by the fortification.

Have fun.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Human beings cannot quite accurately be described as bags of water ... although that is often used as a joking comment in describing the percentage of water which makes up our composition. The actual percentage varies ... from 55% to 78%, depending on how hydrated you are at any given moment, as well as how old you are, whether you’re male or female, the climate you live in and so on. My point is that there is a difference between hitting you in the chest with a club, as opposed to hitting a free standing column of water appearing to be the same size and shape as you ... but it isn’t what you think.

Let us imagine such a column of water, and let us further imagine that the water is somehow able to keep its shape – magically, if you like. In any event, there is no hard membrane within the water, nor outside it. And finally, let us suppose this water column is YOU.

Swinging the club through water, I will encounter some resistance – depending on the relative thickness of the water. As the thickness is the same as you are, I will probably be able to complete a swing completely through the pure water version of you. The resistance will probably make me grunt, and depending on the thickness of the club I might have to bend my elbows some at the end of my swing.

If, on the other hand, I try to drive the club straight down through your pure water head, chances are the club won’t get as far as your torso. Something as narrow as a baseball bat might.

But let’s say I don’t use a club, I use a sword. Now obviously, the sword is going to cut through you, and quite easily, no matter which direction I swing. There’s a terrific benefit to the sword having a sharp edge.

Obviously, I don’t think any of this is news to the gentle reader – but I want to put you in the right frame of mind.

Let’s go back to you being you again, composed of blood, bone, sinew, gray matter, what have you. Your body is better designed to withstand the beating of clubs and the cutting of swords – whatever pain they might cause – as you are, to some degree, armor plated. If I were to swing a sword against your naked body, I would do damage – I might even kill you. But the sword would not pass willy nilly right through your body, as though you were made of water. Of course, you don’t re-assemble as easily as water, but your complex body provides you with other gifts. Being able to hold a sword, for example.

But there is another aspect to being hit with clubs and swords which I haven’t mentioned. Your body moves.

Let’s say I hit you in the chest with a club, just as I did when you were composed of water. This time, as the club hits you, your ribs flex inward, retaining your integrity, and your whole upper body ripples, redistributing the blow. Every joint down to your fingertips will loosen and separate, as in effect your body momentarily ‘liquefies.’ You also fall down, or at least you fall back ... further distributing the momentum of the blow to your environment.

I’d like to bring up an interesting point – your mass as a flesh and blood creature is actually less that it would be if you were composed of pure water. This is not merely because you have air in your body; the various composite parts that your body is fashioned of – blood, bone, sinew and so on – are as a whole less dense than water. Bone, for example, is only 81% as dense as water. Your overall specific density is about 0.9 grams per cubic centimetre, compared water, which has a density of 1.0.

The human body – any animal’s body, really – would make poor building material. The old saw about a body dropped into a cornerstone of a stone building under construction would soon liquefy and weaken the whole structure. Cracks would form and the building would collapse.

Except for your ability to redistribute force when struck by it, you’re not a very resilient material for making fortifications.

Obviously, stone works much better. If I make an equivalent of you made with stone, suddenly even the sword doesn’t work very well. The club is a dead loss. Both weapons lack mass, and the club lacks density as well ... spruce has a specific density of only 0.45 – half as much as you. Even the hardest woods are only as dense as 0.93.

Granite, on the other hand, has a density of 2.7. That means that a granite statue the size and shape as you weighs three times as much. In terms of resistance against force, that’s considerable.

This has been a long way around the barn, but I want to make a point, and I want us to be on the same page. When we compute the amount of damage done by a sword or an arrow against flesh, there is a point where the amount of force is so negligible that no damage is done. If I gently slap a sword against my palm, the sword does not penetrate my skin and I experience no noticeable injury. If I were to do it a thousand times, I would still fail to cause a single hit point of damage – though my hand might be a little stiff, with an ordinary rush of adrenaline it would probably continue to function normally. The same is true for a club swung against the chest of a stone statue. Though you stand there all day, hammering away with the club, at some point you might succeed in overcoming the club’s resistance (breaking it), but the stone is going to be just fine.

Where computing the damage done against a fortification, it helps to keep this sort of thing in mind. A ballista bolt will have more than a superficial effect on you ... but even at point blank range, it isn’t likely to do much damage to a stone wall. To determine such damage, a threshold of force must be taken into account. If your weapon only applies force that's less than that threshold, no effect.

I feel this is worth noting on a post all of its own because it applies to other aspects of D&D as well – often overlooked. How much damage, really, can a quarterstaff do against a dragon covered with scales? Or a club against an oliphant? Accepted, the weapon might hit, but does it break the skin? Does it imaginably bruise the skin? Would it make a difference if an 18/00 strength was behind it ... given that the club’s mass is still the club’s mass, no matter how hard it is swung. Isn’t it more likely that the 18/00 strength would break the club against the dragon’s hide, before it would break the dragon’s hide?

I’m nowhere close to proposing rules to cover these things. I’m struggling just now with applying some sort of threshold in the amount of damage done to castles and ships ... and I am at a loss. I can’t find much data – that I can comprehend – on the effects of resistance against force, along the lines I’ve just described.

Sometimes, I’m just not smart enough.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I’m learning as I go.

Let’s throw out some of what’s been said up to now and let’s simplify some of the numbers where we can. Still using newtons for force, let’s designate a long bow as equal to 1 newton, a ballista as equal to 20 newtons and a catapult equal to 100 newtons – but don’t worry, I’m about to add a few wrinkles to those numbers.

Before we begin, however, I want to make this perfectly clear: I really do not care if this post meets the requirements of physics – my goal is not to pass a university examination, it is to produce a fairly believable, accessible set of rules for game play. In order to do so, I will have to bend the laws of momentum, with the caveat that in some instances the missile would actually have more momentum than what is assessed and in other cases less. We’ll just say that in the long run, it evens out.

For the calculations that follow, I’m going to simply ignore penetration. I can’t be bothered to take the math course necessary to do the calculations ... but you are welcome to take the general concept described below and complicate it however you desire. The principles should work for whatever cranks your brain fluid.

All right, the ballista. Let’s say that any target that can be hit within the period of 1 second will be hit with the full power of the weapon, that being 20 newtons as I said. And let’s incorporate Chris’ point from two posts ago and note that within 2 seconds, the momentum will be less – one half. If the initial velocity is 65.48 m/s, then at the end of 2 seconds we can describe that velocity as equal to 32.74 m/s. But what about the time between 1 and 2 seconds?

We can’t be accurate in any case unless we calculate for every possible distance, so let’s say for simplicity’s sake that for any period greater than 1 but less than 2, the velocity will be divided by 1.5 seconds. This changes our missile’s velocity at 1.2 seconds and at 1.8 seconds to 43.65 m/s. Accurate? No. But as I say, that’s not my concern.

Reducing the momentum also reduces the force of the ballista’s bolt, to the same degree: 20/1.5 = 14 newtons (it’s 13.33 actually, and a repeating fraction, but let’s not quibble; we want an even number).

Following this forward, and rounding it to the nearest whole number, the bolt’s force between 2 and 3 seconds would be 20/2.5 = 8 newtons, and between 3 and 4 seconds would be 20/3.5 = 6 newtons. These are fairly easy numbers to work with.

Given that 1 newton = 1 long bow, then we can define 1 newton as 1d6 damage (average 3.5). To get a wider average, we can define 2 newtons as 1d12 damage (average 6.5). Therefore, 20 newtons would be 10d12 damage. 14 newtons could be 7d12 damage, 8 newtons 4d12 damage and 6 newtons 3d12 damage. Simple? You bet.

So let’s fire a ballista at an opponent 60 hexes away. I define hexes as 5’ in diameter, so that’s 300 feet.

In the first second, the ballista bolt travels 215 feet. Within 2 seconds, the total is 358 feet (remember, the projectile is slowing). Thus, our target, if hit, suffers 7-84 damage. Isn’t that easy?

It is, so let’s throw in a wrench or two.

(By the way, before I forget, you can’t use the slowing momentum described above to determine the maximum range of the weapon. There are variables, like wind resistance, I’m not taking into account. I told you, I’m not a physicist. Sometimes my creativity fails to recognize my limitations. Aristotle would understand)

I said yesterday that it would be wildly difficult to hit a moving individual with a siege weapon – I would think something equivalent to hitting AC -10. But I think we can do something about that (it is at this point, definitely, that I throw penetration considerations out the window - shoot me).

The bolt fired by a ballista weighs, as I said, 0.325 kg, or slightly less than a pound. This would be a springy shaft about 1.5 times as long and four times as thick as an ordinary arrow. I would like to treat it as something that could potentially bounce, and even splinter. This would enable us to treat the bolt within the rules of a ‘grenade-type’ missile - meaning that it would be okay to miss, as long as you got close.

The rules under grenade-like missiles reads (bottom right hand corner of p. 64, DMG), “If the ‘to hit’ die roll indicates a miss, roll 1d6 and 1d8. The d6 indicates the distance in feet the missile was off target ... the d8 indicates the direction in which the distance in feet of the miss is measured ...”

Given that we’re talking a greater range of fire than a hand-held missile, I think we can stipulate that the d6 is the distance in hexes, not feet. But okay, we have something we can work with here.

Let us presuppose that our artillerist, Jeremy, needs a 23 on a d20 to hit Grunk in the front row of his armed force, and that he fully expects to miss. However, Jeremy isn’t concerned with that. Once he’s missed, he has a 1 in 8 chance of dropping his shot right in front of Grunk ... and that given the momentum of the missile, it’s going to bounce or splinter with a low trajectory, still causing damage.

How much damage? Let’s take make an ad hoc assumption on that, and say that the momentum of the missile is reduced by 75% ... dividing the number of newtons by 4. If Jeremy fires at Grunk at a distance of 60 hexes, the number of newtons would then be reduced from 14 to 4 (remember, we’re rounding to whole numbers). Grunk would still suffer 2d12 damage.

But we can do better than that.

When the missile splinters, it need not continue in a straight path. The largest and most deadly piece might spin off in a modified direction ... in D&D this is usually expressed as within a 60-degree angle. Consider the following picture.

Grunk is depicted here as within the 60 degree shadow of the missile, but not on the central trajectory. Suppose that, for every hex removed from that trajectory, we divide the force again – in this case, Grunk is two places removed, and the number of newtons is again divided by 4. Now Grunk need suffer only 1d6 damage ... but at least the ballista is not wasted. Note that under grenade missiles, if you are within a certain range of the missile, damage is automatic - you do not need ‘to roll’ to hit again

If Grunk had a couple of pals who were also within the shrapnel arc, the DM might randomly determine who gets hit by the missile ... or potentially, if more than one individual is hit. It might be suggested that a ballistae missile can only reasonably hit one person ... but a catapult stone will create additional fragments from the ground where it hits – splitting trees and throwing up gravel, depending on the location. More than one person might be hit therefore.

It occurs to me that Jeremy, our artillerist, would be wise to aim his shot in front of Grunk, rather than at Grunk, and thereby reducing the chance of the missile going long. But not too far in front ... there is a sweet spot, where the likelihood is best for some damage, if not maximum. Plus, there’s always a chance that the missed missile will land right in Grunk’s hex. Smoosh!

Get enough siege weapons firing into a massed crowd using these rules, you could do some serious damage. It would be particularly effect on board ship. It was working out shipboard combats that started me thinking along the lines of siege weapons in the first place. That, and mass combat rules – another bugbear of the game, eternally unsolved, eternally needed.

Well, please feel free to cut my math to pieces. It could do with a good chopping. I’m always learning, after all. I’m sure I made lots of mistakes ... I’ve only read it over once.

In the meantime, I shall turn my mind to the question of damaging fortifications – along with destroying ships, other siege weapons and so on. Until then.

Friday, October 16, 2009


For my last post, I got a terrific response from Chris, who made several salient points regarding penetration, energy transfer and psychological effects. Zzarchov, too, made a good point, which Chris embellished. Before reading any of this, you should read the full comment. I’d like to say that I agree with every point made.

Chris is absolutely right when he says, more than once, that hard numbers on the net are hard to find. What is available comes from data which has been gathered from modern recreations of old siege weapons, as obviously there are no functioning originals anywhere. From an historian’s perspective, this is very much like going to a Renaissance fair – if you think your experience is anything like that of an individual from the 14th century, you have a high self-delusion potential.

In any case, regarding my failure to take into account such things as penetration and how much force from a ballista’s shot is transferred to the body of the victim, I am happily disinterested in producing anything like an ‘accurate’ account of siege weaponry damage. If we were to begin talking about accuracy where it comes to D&D weapons, I think someone could write a long and uninteresting thesis on the irrationality of short swords and clubs causing the same amount of damage to an unarmored opponent.

Once upon a time, my friends and I played with the Armor Class Adjustment table on page 38 of the Player’s Handbook (I don’t now, it’s just annoying). Later we tried we tried using the numbers and applying them to the amount of damage done rather than as a ‘to hit’ adjustment. Flails, halberds and bardiches got very popular. My point is that however you play the system, whatever system you play, inaccuracy is the inevitable ghost in the machine.

Granted, where it comes to my post on physics and siege weapons, the ghost here is a free-floating phantasm thirty feet wide and glowing in a scintillating array of three or four dozen colors. Yet I think we can all agree that the DMG is two pages of shit on this subject. I’m only searching for some measure that works ... and later on, as Chris suggested, if I feel the need to publish, I’ll seek out a professor. For now, we’ll accept our failings and try to move on.

Oh, I must address Zzarchov’s point. He’s also right, by the way. “You can have a weapon put a clean hole straight through someone’s arm and do little tissue damage.”

As I understand the combat system, the roll ‘to hit’ does not strictly specify contact between one’s weapon and the enemy. It is presumed that you are striking your sword against the enemy’s armor, against the enemy’s weapon, or harmlessly against the enemy’s horns, scales, bone plates or what have you, or harmlessly through the slushy or ethereal equivalent of the enemy’s ‘outer barrier’, where it applies to a number of jellied substances and magical beings.

At some point you reach a threshold in your die rolling that indicates that damage is to be done. But whether you hit the opponent by rolling exactly what you need to hit, or seven points over what you need to hit, the damage you do is precisely the same – that indicated by the weapon you are using. At that point, the accuracy of the weapon is no longer relevant. It is the damage die that determines if the weapon glances off the opponent’s helmet, dazing him slightly (minimum damage) or stabs him through the body cavity (maximum damage)

There are certain individuals and creatures in the game who never cause the sort of damage that can be described as ‘glancing off the opponent’s helmet’ where it comes to damage. A player with an 18/00 strength never does less than 7 points of damage against an ordinary opponent – so we must assume the player is habitually hitting the opponent’s torso, and not his baby finger. Obviously an iron golem doing 4-40 damage won’t be nicking your cheek with his weapon. It is inherent in the game that certain instances suppose that the weapon and the wielder are so massive that the damage done must be extravagant. There are no saving throws, no special skills or dexterity bonuses which will reduce this damage, once it has been indicated to have occurred.

I am presupposing that damage from a ballista, a catapult or a trebuchet would be subject to similar rules. My personal belief is that such weapons, due to the difficulty with which they are aimed, would be wildly, ridiculously inaccurate against one foe marching towards them. However, I believe that if it should happen that you are hit with a catapult, according to the premises of the game, then chances are your character is going to be, as Chris says, unrecognizable pulp. A monk may dodge the stone; a sufficiently high-level fighter might get lucky and stand the hit; but virtually everyone else will be quite simply dead. So sorry, thank you for playing.

This would at least justify the enormous cost of siege weapons, the difficulty in setting them up and hauling them to their targets, or building tailored castle hard points on which to mount them. Since they were mounted in reality, largely for the purpose of striking other, immobile siege engines (which would be easier to hit than a moving man), we should presume they presented some value in combat. As it stands now, in D&D, they aren’t worth the effort.

I would like to imagine that if a dozen ballistae were trained on a mass of men (easier to hit than one man), that the effect would be more than three hits and 21 total damage. I’m working towards changing that. Frankly, I don’t know precisely how.

But we will take some of what Chris says under advisement, and we will get to the points I promised to address: hitting fortifications and multiple soft targets. But this is a post already, so I will post it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


No matter how many times I sit down to redesign siege weaponry, I am always unsatisfied. I was trying to run a mock combat based on rules I designed before the creation of this blog, and as always, they are cumbersome and unwieldy. So I’ve been thinking about it the past few days.

To begin with, damage.

Let’s begin with an arrow, which we’ll suppose weighs .04536 kg and leaves a bow at a speed of 23.5 m/s. To calculate the force the arrow represents, we multiply kg times m/s over seconds squared, giving us a force of slightly under 1.07 newtons.

This is a force somewhat equivalent to swinging a 1.26 kg dagger (the blade point can be estimated to travel at 0.844 m/s, at least from what I can find online). Yes, an arrow does more damage than a dagger, but one can argue that the force from the arrow is concentrated on its tip, whereas the dagger’s force is spread over a wider surface.

Here’s where my weak knowledge of physics fails me. Alas, I have no calculation to determine the effects of surface area on the force inflicted by an object when it hits. If anyone out there wants to check and challenge my math, I’ll say up front that I am probably wrong somewhere. But I won’t let that worry me and I’ll just keep going.

From what I can find, a large ballista fires a 0.325 kg bolt at a velocity of 65.48 m/s, giving us a force of 21.28 newtons.

Considerably more force than the arrow. If a successful hit from an arrow results in a ‘glancing blow’ off an opponent, we judge that the arrow has caused 1 hp. The above figures would tend to suggest that a ballista bolt which glances off an opponent ought to cause somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 times as much (21.28/1.07).

Yes, I know that the ballista arrow loses momentum faster than the flight arrow, but again, weak physics. I can't find those calculations. If anyone wants to offer, I'm open to looking over your math.

It suggests that damage from siege weapons is severely under-rated, and I think they are. The damage quoted in the DMG for a ballista is a mere 2-12 (3-18 vs. large creatures, a rule I don’t use). Sounds plenty pathetic to me. Minimum damage ought to be 8-32 ... which averages 20.

Suppose instead that for a ballista missile’s damage, first a ‘siege’ damage (SD) is rolled: 1-6, just like an arrow. From this total, subtract 1. The remainder is multiplied by 20 and then 8d4 are added. Thus, if the ballista hits for ‘4’ points of siege damage, the total caused to a living being would be 60 + 8d4, or 68-92 damage. The benefits of calculating it this way will become evident later one.

All right, let’s take a catapult. The best stats I can find (that I can remotely understand from the gobbledy gook that make up these sites) are for a 10.86 kg object fired at 9.79 m/s, indicating that a catapult (onager, mangonel, what you will) has a considerably lower initial velocity in exchange for a much larger missile. The total equals 106.32 newtons of force, almost one hundred times an arrow.

Following the logic thus far, the minimum damage from a catapult ought to be something like 18d6. As before, we could roll an initial SD of 1-6, adjusting the total damage accordingly. Probably, any hit against an actual human person will result in automatic death. The same can be said for hits by trebuchet.

The real effectiveness of the siege weapons is not how large a rock do they throw, but how fast do they throw them. I for one will have to reduce the size of catapult/trebuchet shots as they appear on my equipment table, downwards.

I’ll leave off this for the present, to see if I get a storm from people smarter than me. Tomorrow, I’ll take up one of two problems I see: 1) how often does a siege missile hit more than one person; and 2) what does it do against fortifications.

Incidentally, I know I’m often full of myself, and I know that many who read this blog show great self-restraint in not pointing it out daily. I’m kind of glad for that, but there is not need, really. I don’t bite.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

First Time In Fifteen Years

This is well after the fact, but last Saturday my daughter ran Dungeons & Dragons while I, as promised, tutored her. As it happened, there was very little need to do so. She has had experience as a DM, though not for some years – she says – and not in my world. But I have to hand it to her ... it was fairly easy for her to get the feel for the players. For the first three hours, as it happened, I mostly just watched, answering mundane questions and finding the tables she needed – not knowing where in the books they might be found.

What is interesting is that the world has a moderately different feel under her hand – it is softened a bit by the NPCs she introduces, and by her descriptions which are less harsh than my own. She betrays some classic characteristics – she grew frustrated and unhappy when her 5th level fighter and 4th level thief, along with their 8-orc party, got pretty much smattered due to her bad rolling. The party in this case is made up of minor henchmen from the main party – which I’ll be running myself this Saturday.

They consist of a 3rd level fighter, a 2nd level druid and a 1st level paladin. The paladin is quite a piece of rolling – he has four 17s – Dex, Str, Con & Chr. His other two scores are above 12. In chain mail, with Dex and paladin’s bonus, he is AC 0.

It is somewhat annoying that this particular player is one of the better in the group and also one of the most self-serving players I’ve ever had in my world. He manages to do this without being exceptionally rude, abusive, unkind or petty. But he will seize treasure with the alacrity of a falcon and he will wheedle, cajole and obfuscate as necessary if that’s what it takes to get the rest of the party to give him a bit more than his share. Sadly, the rest of the party are generous to a fault and allow this to happen.

So the paladin is a dangerous fellow – and it was mostly his ability to avoid being hit (he took 4 damage altogether) that enabled him to do so well. Interestingly, he’s the DM’s common-law husband, which makes him effectively my son-in-law. Thus, the central source of her frustration.

To be fair, he’s also one of the brightest pennies in the box that it’s been my pleasure to have met in the past ten years – a fact which he cleverly keeps hidden. He and my daughter have been together for something like five years now and I have long since found him out.

All of this background leads to a point that I’m going around the castle in order to make. About three hours after starting, I got sharply told to shut up by my daughter as I was giving her additional background information – something she plainly didn’t need. I took that as a sign that she was comfortable doing what she was doing. I promptly shut up and waited for the first break in the action.

Whereupon I said that I was prepared to roll a character. My daughter felt that was fine, so a character I rolled.

Thinking very definitely about the paladin, and about the party in general, I had intended to run a multiclass, with one of the classes being a cleric. Sadly, I managed to roll abysmally – so bad, in fact, that my daughter insisted, with the rest of the party in agreement, that I roll until I got six scores that were remotely decent. This took four complete groups of six rolls. Whereupon I wound up with a 17, a 16, two 11s and two 10s. Too little to be a multi-class. Also too little for a cleric. I won’t sacrifice the combination of strength-constitution-wisdom that is necessary for a decent cleric, so I considered a thief and a mage. Mindful of the paladin’s eventual dominance of the party, I took the latter.

Well, I won’t bore the gentle reader with any further details about the character. The long and the short of it is that I then proceeded to run as a player for the first time in fifteen years. In all, I got to run for about half an hour.

I am happy to say that I’ve forgotten nothing. In short order I was able to manage my resources towards getting the party motivated in hiring a few men-at-arms at some expense ... something which I have always noticed parties failing to do. We saved a prisoner, we revived him and plied him with goods and booze – I had equipped myself with a bottle of lager as a treat, but it was better given to the prisoner – and made a friend of him. We sent him into town with gold, mostly the gold I had started with, to hire us a few men ... and if he absconds with it, no worries. He might not, whereupon I’ve gained a loyal follower. If he runs, I’m out 60 g.p. C’est la vie.

I rarely find players in my world are willing to gamble on NPCs. I admit, one should be hesitant to trust, but making an arrangement with someone that doesn’t threaten my life is a perfectly sound chance to take. Yet players won’t take ANY chance ... to their detriment, I say.

Why not offer a considerable tithe to the church? Yes, you might not be able to buy that plate mail you so desperately want, or the four white stallions, but aren’t friends worth something? Can’t you think of any good reason why you shouldn’t take a thousand gold and offer yourself as a silent partner to some well-established businessman? You don’t think you’ll get your investment back? Silly player ... who would be a better source for rumours, gossip or warnings than a well-situated member of the town – all the better situated on account of your well-invested plunder?

But no, players don’t think like that. And no wonder. As I remember, the DMs used to be largely untrusting themselves. Give a thousand to a merchant and he is sure to blow town the next day, immediately, with your money. As if that makes any sense at all. Give it to a church and somehow you’ll find yourself on trial as a thief – as though churches have scruples about taking money from thieves. Sure as the sun will rise, if I gave 60 g.p. to a stranger I’d rescued from orcs to buy me men and weapons from town, the stranger would be high-tailing it in the other direction.

It isn’t that players aren’t willing to trust, I think ... it is that they’ve learned that never, ever, under no circumstances will a DM reward them for thinking out of the box. DMs are far too avaricious about depleting a player’s resources, as though that were the purpose of the game. Give them the money and take it back. It isn’t just hack, slash and haul away the loot. You can add ‘and watch the DM screw you’ to the old mantra.

As an aside, there will be those reading this who will wonder if I won’t get more than a little lawyerly when it comes to how my world runs and where the bodies are buried. I don’t think so, myself. I think that my daughter has the same viewpoint as myself when it comes to this game – if she isn’t going to railroad me, the principal conflict isn’t with her, it’s with the creatures that populate the world. She’s going to try to play those creatures hard – she’s going to feel let down when they die too easily. But she won’t swamp me with them just to win. And I don’t feel as though playing the trump card as her DM
will be very much fun.

I don’t know who out there can understand that. I am much less interested in ‘winning’ than I am in succeeding ... where the measure of my success comes from inventing a tactic that works brilliantly in a pre-generated situation. All I have needed these past fifteen years has been someone bright enough to create a pre-generated situation who doesn’t need to act like a petulant child when it's smashed to pieces. This I think I have in my daughter.

As it turns out, my daughter is just recently 21. Which means I started working on the solution to my problem six years and nine months prior to my problem existing.

How brilliant am I?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Campaigns With Depth

It wouldn't surprise me that people wouldn't go for the suggestion I made in the previous post. Many, like me, are quite probably sick of the sort of McAdventure quality writing that goes into many modules, or pregenerated adventure outlines that exist as reference materials for RPG settings. Invariably, there isn't enough on which to base a campaign ... the data is thin, or flat and wooden. There cannot be greater depth except that which comes out of one's imagination - and even someone with great imagination can't imagine a whole world.

My argument would be that any meaning to be found in these pregenerated settings is dependent on real world templates. As an example, I've dug up an old copy of the only setting module in my library - a Harndex, from 1983. I own it only because once I was foolish and believed in imaginary worlds. I quote,

"Order of the Lady of Paladins. The fighting-order of the church of Larani, sponsored by the clerical order of the Spear of Shattered Sorrow. Both orders tend to limit their activities to eastern Harn. The fighting-order holds the keeps of Cundras and Fusumo in Melderyn. The knights of the order are currently engaged in the subjugation of Solora and 'crusading' patrols are often found there."

We are so obviously talking about the Knights of Malta and the Knights Hospitallar that one wonders why we don't just call them that? Does it really add anything to use other names to describe things that we can only comprehend from their Earthly examples?

"Lobir, King. The 3rd monarch (323-361) of the Corani Empire. Lobir was the eldest son of Kusem, and came to the throne at age 17 on the unexpected death of his father. A plot to assassinate the young king by Kusem's younger brother, Camrae, was uncovered soon after his coronation. Camrae was arrested and executed for treason. After a slow start, Lobir proved to be an able monarch. He expanded the kingdom with a series of well-planned campaigns until he ran into the Merdi, which persuaded him to halt and consolidate. Lobir was succeeded by his own brother, Raelan."

All very non-interesting. Pretty much a cliche from beginning to end. How, exactly, is this information supposed to help me in a campaign? Apart from some meaningless obscure reference to Lobir as part of a back story describing how a particular item or inscription wound up at a particular place, who gives a shit, really? If I want Lobir to have any personality, I have to draw from Earthly comparisons. What if I want more information on Lobir. Is it available? Do I have a complete family tree? Do I know the circumstances in which he died, or the place he was buried? Do I have any edicts from Lobir, or written accounts about him?

No. Not unless I want to sit down and make it up. Which really means that every campaign setting that's out there is a sort of do-it-yourself starter kit. We will get you just this far down the road and after that, you're on your own.

It might be nice if there were hundreds of thousands of words written on these campaign settings, which did not endlessly repeat themselves, from module to module. There isn't, of course. This little Harndex "encyclopedia" I purchased long ago is 64 pages. I have a copy of "Stormwrack; Mastering the Perils of Wind and Wave" here, from Wizards of the Coast, copyright 2005, which maxes out at 219 pages. It is mostly drivel, talks very little of wind and wave, has a ton of white space and useless artwork and seems to have been printed in what looks like 14-point font. Which is a good thing, as I'm old and my eyes aren't what they used to be. As far as giving me any kind of setting, it woefully suffers the same weaknesses as the Harndex 22 years its senior.

The question is, can I do better?

I think I can, but not because I'm a better writer than these people. Let me produce a lengthy example of the sort of thing I would write (feel free to zip to the bottom to see my final argument):

Your worthy guide has led you from the city of Kronstadt to this small corner of Transylvania. Your back is to the city, and to the croplands that surround it. It has taken most of the day to walk these ten miles, and to climb more than a thousand feet along secondary roadways surrounded by dense pine forest. There is little undergrowth, and little light reaches the needle covered forest floor, except that which slants from the narrow, fifteen foot wide roadway.

Now you’ve reached a low ridge from where you can see the Secuiesc Valley. You face north and see a grand bowl, twenty miles across, surrounded on three sides by mountains and low hills. Somewhere, hidden by the forest that lays like a carpet over the landscape, is the Secuiesc River. It is late September and the land is hot and dry – but you know that soon snow will fall and fill up the roads, making them impassable through the winter.

Your guide gains your attention and points his walking stick at the high, rounded tops of the mountains to the east, a range that begins behind you on your left and extends to the horizon ahead of you.

“Those mountains there,” says the guide; “That’s the Carpathians, the edge of kingdom. Don’t imagine that they make a barrier – there’s a dozen places where bands of men might slip through. And just beyond are the Turks, and their thralled land of Moldavia; there’s plenty there who wouldn’t hesistate to raid into this valley and take what they will. It’s a tenuous neutrality that keeps Transylvania independent of that Ottoman horde – the locals know it's best to let the Turks take what they want. Too much resistance might invite a company of Janissaries, ‘shock troops’ for those who don’t know the Turks ... who would march in to keep order and remain until ‘politely’ asked by the Duke of Transylvania to leave. But by then the damage is done, is it not?

“But look closely at the mountains themselves – there’s more evil in them than what the border lets in. For a thousand years they’ve been home to the decimated tribes that ended Rome and brought darkness to Europe for those Ages: Pechenegs, Cumans, Alans, Avars ... orcs and hobgoblins, hidden in mines and tunnels that go deep beneath the rock. There is tell even of more ancient creatures, deeper yet, destined one day to awaken and swell over this land, if ever they are disturbed.”

The guide swings his stick to the north, and the northeast: “See there, those hills – not as high as the Carpathians, but still menacing. And that bit of purple mountain thirty miles to the north. Those are the Harghitei Mountains, and these here are the foothills that isolate the Secuiesc from those barons in the rich plains of Transylvania. Those hills are still wild, still grown with hawthorne and cedar – and still occupied by the Nori and Alamanni tribes that dwelt here when Trajan came. No lord has ever cleared out the last of their goblin kind.

“It is hoped that the new Baron of this land will do so – he is a strange man, a mage, who came out of the East and was granted this land when a strange mist rose over the eyes of Gyorgy Rakoczi II, the Transylvanian Duke. The Baron is called Garalzapan, an Elf, who is a mage; he has brought others with him, who attend him at his tower – an Egyptian paladin, a dwarven holywoman, a powerful druid that walks through the woods alone ... and others beside. They come and go, ruling this land lightly. Many of the dwellers here are elves as well – and they embrace a religion which few in these parts recognize.”

As the guide relates these odd facts, you recall that religion has brought considerable contention to these parts. Kronstadt, like all cities in Transylvania, is ruled by a German aristocracy, staunch Roman Catholics all ... while the peasantry are mixed orthodox, with many animistic beliefs thrown in besides. Wallachia, to the south of this place, and Moldavia, to the east, are both heavily influenced by the Islam of their Turkish overlords. It is a mix of peoples, beliefs and class struggles within a weakened kingdom caught in a power struggle between the mighty Ottoman Empire on the east and the power of Hungary, Germany and Poland on the north and west. Violence is almost certain to arrive within a few years ...

Now, unlike the previous Harndex or the numerous books put out since, you are absolutely not limited to my interpretation of these facts. I choose to see the Pechenegs as hobgoblins and the Alans as orcs, attacking out of the east during the Barbarian migrations of the 4-7th centuries. YOU can actually go find thousands of words describing these tribes, and designate for yourself what their motivations were. You can also investigate the Carpathian and Harghitei mountain ranges, and the city of Kronstadt, and even Kezdivasarhely the principal town within the hex I’ve just described. You can also look up Prince Gyorgy, as he was a real person; you can check out the whole history of Transylvania, of the Ottoman empire and of the relations between. And you can research pictures on google to your hearts content ... of everywhere. You've never before heard of the Harghitei Mountains? They look like this:

I tell you honestly and right up front. I have no intention of being extraordinarily accurate. I’m not writing a thesis paper – I’m describing a D&D world. I’ve never been to Transylvania. I only know what I’ve read and I only know what pictures I happen to have seen. I am bound to be wrong. I don’t let that bother me. Occasionally I make little alterations to my world when I find I’ve been incorrect about something – and now and then I don’t bother to make the change, because it really doesn’t need to be accurate. After all, it is still a fantasy world.

But if we’re talking starter kits, we’re talking about more than 64 pages and more than 219. We’re talking about more than thousands of pages. And you can stop when you feel you have enough to build a campaign on.

I’m only offering to get you started.

P.S.: The strange Baron and the group of others who attend him? That's the party in my offline campaign. I thought I'd do this area just for that reason.