Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rare Posts

There's no way to describe this except rare.  I am not the sort to post this sort of thing on my blog ... but because the bard in my world reached 6th, it became necessary to design some 3rd level spells.  After all, I use a bard of my own design.

I wanted some spells that would compare in some regards with those other extremely useful 3rd level spells, such as call lightning, dispel magic, fireball and so on.  I think these are not half bad.

Range: self
Duration: 1 round per level; special
Area of Effect: 5’ radius; up to seven creatures including the caster
Casting Time: 2 rounds
Saving Throw: none

By means of this spell the bard is able to ‘slow time’ while continuously playing an instrument. Time within the area of effect will continue on in perfectly normal fashion, but outside the effected area time will slow to one fifth its normal rate. Thus, 5 rounds inside the area of effect will pass while only 1 round outside. Surrounding those inside the ‘pocket of time’ will view normal time as though through a shimmering haze, making it difficult to see.

Thus, individuals inside the area of effect can take actions such as binding their wounds, drinking potions, load weapons, preparing spells and so on. However, because the time variance affects magic detrimentally, while in the time pocket created spells cannot be cast outside the area of effect. Moreover, reaching to attack a creature outside the area will dispel the effect for the individual performing the attack – effectively sucking them into normal time and physically more than 5’ away from the bard. Missiles fired from within the pocket are at -4 due to poor visibility.

Those inside the pocket will be visible to those outside, but five rounds will pass inside before any outside attack can be launched at the time pocket. Magic hurled at the time pocket will fail, and frontal physical attacks will fail to do any damage, as those inside the pocket will be able to avoid even missiles. However, if an attack die modified at -4 does hit, it indicates that the defending individual had to step outside the time pocket to avoid being struck, and has now been pulled into real time.

Attacks from the back or by surprise have a normal chance at success. Also, there is no barrier to the pocket, so enemies can leap inside (potentially passing straight through if charging or hurling themselves at those inside).

Prepared spells and attacks may be launched normally once the bard ceases to play, breaking the spell.

Range: self
Duration: 2 rounds per level; special
Area of Effect: 5’ radius; up to seven creatures including the caster
Casting Time: 2 rounds
Saving Throw: none

By means of this spell the bard is able to ‘speed time’ while continuously playing an instrument. Time within the area of effect will continue on in perfectly normal fashion, but outside the effected area time will speed by to five times its normal rate. Thus, 5 rounds outside the area of effect will pass by while only 1 round passes for those affected by the spell. Surrounding those inside the ‘pocket of time’ will view normal time speeding by with perfect clarity, but will themselves disappear from the perception of others – thus enabling the caster to avoid various threats.

Interacting in any physical manner with the outside world will cause those within to be sucked out of the time pocket and into the normal time – whereupon they will be immediately visible and recognized. Spells will fail if cast through the time variance, while missiles will almost certainly fail – and give outsiders reason to suspect something is up.

Allegro will not conceal those affected from detect magic, detect malevolence or other similar detection spells; as well, the spell can be dispelled normally, if located by those means.

Range: self
Duration: 1 rounds per level
Area of Effect: see below
Casting Time: 2 rounds
Saving Throw: none

Enables the bard to increase double the physical area of effect for any spell or power that employs a musical instrument – thus, martial strains will affect those to a distance of 120’ rather than 60’, allegro or adagio would be increased in spacial volume (though not the numbers of persons affected) to a 10’ radius, serenade could be applied at 120’ and so on.

The only spell in which both the range and the actual spell’s effect are doubled would be forte, in which creatures will be hurled back 20’ to a distance up to 100’ away from the bard, and the damage done to those charging at triple would increase to 2-8, while those charging at double towards the bard would suffer 1-4.

Range: self
Duration: special
Area of Effect: see below
Casting Time: 2 rounds
Saving Throw: none

Allows the casting of any spell that the bard possesses to be cast a second time upon the same day. This need not be the same spell on any given day.

Range: self
Duration: 1 round per level
Area of Effect: 60’ radius
Casting Time: 2 rounds
Saving Throw: none

By means of casting this spell, the bard modulates the effect of his martial strains so that the particular modifiers to hit and damage can be distributed according to the caster’s wishes, either placing the emphasis upon enemies or allies.

Thus, the bard can choose to change the usual +1 for allies and -1 for enemies by increasing the penalty for the enemies to hit and damage to -2, thus reducing the bonus for allies to zero. Alternately, the bonus could be increased to +2 and the enemies’ penalty to zero.

The modulation could also be applied so that the enemies penalty against damage was increased to -2, and the ‘to hit’ chance not affected - or vice versa. Similar modulation could be done with the allies bonus, or left as is at the same time.

While this allows for a number of options, no bonus or modifier may be greater than either plus or minus a total of 2.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Questions, Questions, Questions

We ended an almost three-month break for my D&D campaign this last weekend, something that always seems to happen in the summer, whether I want it or not. This year I did, but it wouldn’t have mattered – there were events and parties to attend, and generally people were busy. So week after week passes and we don’t play.

I tend to forget how exhausting this game is. The session we had was the first since the end of the great battle. Quite a number of the players had characters who went up in level, and most everyone was in a position to obtain another henchman – or, in the case of the 8th level ranger, a plethora of followers. Which in my world means the opportunity to roll up new characters. The ranger has 17 new followers of various types, both humanoids and animals.

And of course there is equipment to buy. And a new interest in building infrastructure for their characters. And maintenance issues that must be attended.

Thus, the session consisted of my answering questions all night long from six players looking to identify the things in the equipment list, wanting longer descriptions of the spells they were set to choose, details on the origins and characteristics of followers, capacity of living quarters, the amount of food (and types of food) necessary for purchase, details about the fiefdom and its aftermath (it was devastated by the goblins, hobgoblins and drow destroyed by the party), more details about items collected from the battle, details about the environment (it’s November now), information about how much structure they’re allowed to build (are they allowed to build castles?), information about what followers the cleric has and how many, maps of the area, names and other details about NPCs that haven’t been named yet, discussions about how certain information about magic or the world could be gained, can I put metal claws on the toes of my sabre-toothed tiger, and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

When this kind of thing goes on for three hours, I begin to feel overwhelmed. I run a complicated world, and the players have complicated plans. They have a great deal of back story and information to draw upon for ideas they have – and concerns also. Is this likely to awaken an old enemy of ours? What should I be doing now to prepare for the day I want a thieves’ guild? Or a monastery? Or a giant library? Or the journey to China that we’ve considered several times? Or less clear aspirations which the party is definitely not telling me because their short-term plans haven’t be settled yet.

I think if there’s something I hate about being a DM, it’s not having an answer to a question when it is asked. Most times, that’s because it is something that’s going to take more than three minutes to calculate or research – because I’ve never considered that the issue would come up. I could work it out, but it’s going to take time, and with six people sitting there, there isn’t time. Which means I tell someone I’m putting it on the back burner, I make a note about it and ... completely forget all about it until the question is asked again, next week.

I’m asking now that players communicate these things by email, because I can deal with it one email at a time and not during the running itself. I would have loved to have had this when I ran into similar problems with my long campaign that ended in ’94. Back then, with no Wikipedia, no internet, no email, no convenient help at all, I eventually got overwhelmed to the point where I was just throwing out ass-generated answers to get the players off my back. Such as, how big is a black bear, when there’s no immediate source at the table to tell you?

So the Net has hugely mitigated a lot of these problems for me. I tell you I have enormous sympathy for other DMs who are struggling to retain a degree of rationality in answering these sort of questions for players, as opposed to deliberately simplifying issues out of laziness.

My brain was pretty tired by night’s end Saturday, however. Give me mass combat any day.


Whining about my own issues, Oddbit has rightly brought up something I should have mentioned. It has been three months, and the players were absolutely pumped.  High, to be precise.  Like on drugs.  And they sure had a right to be.  In no manner did I mean to suggest that their questions did not deserve to be answered, in full, for as long as they care to ask.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Well, settle in. I haven't written one of these Civilization IV Posts for quite a while, principally because I've bucked up against this topic. It's the sort of thing most don't like to read. My plan here is to ramble over a lot of the historical aspects, badmouth religion in general and especially the catholic church, make my point about theology being a technology, and finally posit three strategies on how to incorporate religion and gods into a D&D campaign. I have every intention of indulging myself on the subject, since I don't expect to come here again, so this will be a long post.

Theology is usually described as the study of a particular religious faith - which it has been for the last two centuries, where the primary concern of legitamate scholars has been the study of those persons responsible for the creation of the faith, or the manner in which the faith has come about. But theology is very different when the subject is not the religion itself, but rather the gathering of knowledge which is, in fact, unknowable.

This is to say, given that the existence of gods is in doubt, and that gods and their servants are not available for general discourse, the interpretation of 'what gods have told us' is a highly questionable practice. Nevertheless, it is a practice that has been universally invoked. I say to you that the god of this place has this purpose, or that intent, or wishes for this or that thing, and once you are convinced that I have a knowledge along these lines that you do not have, the knowledge itself gains credibility.

The fundamental leap forward for theology comes when my knowledge and your knowledge and Dave's knowledge (Dave lives in the next town) vary to some degree, and the three of us sit down and hash out just where the differences lie and where we are able to come to a consensus. It is at this point that the human imagination is paramount, as it draws elements from what we have already invented and invents a further postulation - something that is immediately perceived as a brilliant supposition by others, who in turn repeat it to still more others, spreading the idea. For example, humans are here on Earth, they must have come from somewhere - which is a supposition, and not based on evidence. It's a very reasonable sounding supposition, however, and seems so eminently logical that most will blindly stipulate the argument as though it is a 'proof' of some sort. That we may have been here all along, but as mice or reptiles or amoeba or what have you fails to retain the same sort of instinctive certainty that if you are here, at some point you must have been there. We have no experience with having been amoeba, but we have all moved from there to here.

Having established that as 'knowledge,' it then relies upon some gifted soul to postulate that perhaps we cannot remember a 'there' because we were, in fact, created here. For example, a ball of mud was never anyplace except the place where it was scooped from the ground and packed into the shape that it has. It is therefore reasonable that we were packed, somehow, from the materials of the Earth into our shape, thus explaining our presence ... and in turn, giving ample cause to postulate the existence of a mud-packer. All very reasonable, and therefore worth repeating. And in the repeating, the postulation becomes accepted and thereafter, given the dignity of being just as real and truthful as the mud itself and our existence.

But if Dave believes that the Mudpacker who has some intention for creating us (another reasonable assumption) and I believe that the Mudpacker is little different that a young boy wasting away his time making mudballs for no purpose (also quite reasonable), then Dave and I are at an impasse. We can either attempt to murder one another - or my people can attempt to murder all of Dave's people and vice versa - or through much dialogue we can try to hit upon some greater 'knowledge' that will encapsulate both our perceived truths into one Unified Theory. This is the essence of Theology - to produce additional explanation or knowledge that will encapsulate existing truths and yet provide additional evidence in order to encourage either Dave or I to change our minds about what we believe.

Perhaps Dave 'realizes' that the Mudpacker was a small child ... but the Mudpacker's Mother found the ball and, as it was made by her son, has found a place for it upon her mantle, thus giving it purpose.

And so we are off and running.

Leaping into the real world, it is possible to trace through all the major religions how these leaps of knowledge were substantial in bringing the religion into existence. The invention or realization or creation of the additional evidence outlined above is described as 'enlightenment' ... which is just another term for saying that what I didn't know five minutes ago I know now. For anyone who has ever hit upon a really phenomenal idea, there does seem to be a supernatural quality to it. For anyone who has created any work-intensive article (article = art), there is a point after the work's creation where the creator is struck with disbelief that this thing that now exists actually came from his or her own efforts.

If I may speak from my own experience: if I have written something which I perceive to be very good, I often feel an emotional disconnect with myself as creator. I often have a feeling that, if somehow the work was to be lost, that I just wouldn't be able to create it again and have it be half as good, despite my having created it the first time, and dispite the fact that I am probably slightly better as a writer now, since I am always improving.

In other words, I'm obviously wrong to hold that opinion. Yet it is so compelling an opinion that I can easily see how Greeks attributed their most brilliant works not to themselves, but to muses, or how Christians throughout the ages have attributed their most brilliant works to God. It seems to explain the emotion felt when one looks at one's own work with suspicion, saying in effect, "I'm not that smart."

Feeling now that I've established the basis for this knowledge, let's move on to the application of said knowledge. I could do so by highlighting any number of religions, but because I am most familiar with Christianity and its founding, we'll use it as a template.

Upon the death of Christ (assuming that Christ ever really existed, which isn't that unreasonable since we only have Plato or Xenophon's word that Socrates ever really existed), the religion that did not actually exist as a religion as yet was in a muddled state. For a century, untold numbers of authors wrote, largely in obscurity, about the life and death of the religious figure, attributing their work to Peter and other apostles, using pseudonyms to avoid detection, letting their imaginations run wild and what have you. In other words, an era with much belief, and much 'knowledge,' but little consensus.

For most, the perception is that the most important writers of this period were Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul ... those 'authors' acknowledged to be the sacred creators of the New Testament. This too is a marvelous bit of theological knowledge. It does well to put the words in the mouths of 'sources' who themselves defy investigation.

When I was a child, the basement wall of the church where I did my three years of Lutheran bible study included a map of what was described as "The Journeys of Paul." As my fascination with maps began at an early age, I found it fascinating; and, naturally, I had no idea in my youth that this very detailed depiction was a total fabrication, based on the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. It has occurred to me since that the importance of the map, and its creation, is to lend credence to the words in the Bible - as in, "See, we have a map. It must be true."

One begins to wonder just where the line divides the invented authors from actual, living persons. But according to what I've seen and read, the four gospels were designated as THE gospels (from dozens of potential gospels, many of which we have uncovered from archeological sites) by a fellow named Irenaeus, who determined that the number of gospels ought to be Four, just as there were four elements, and four winds, and four 'corners' of the earth. Irenaeus was a prolific theologian (invention artist) who wrote and argued successfully for his insistence that the present-day gospel works were the right ones. His work followed upon the production of other master theologians like Tertullian, Valentinus and especially the much earlier Ignatius.

By the third century, theologians were as thick as thieves, writing all sorts of high-toned stuff. If you get a chance, have a look at fellows like Origen or the later Eusebius. None of it is especially encouraging if you're looking for anything like the divine truth of the scriptures ... in fact, it's not very hard to imagine any of these fellows (once you get past their glowing biographies and get right into the actual shit they wrote) simply changing words and lines whenever the text they had on hand didn't quite measure up to their insights. But at this point the Roman Empire was still carrying out the occasional pogrom against Christians, roasting them or dreaming up more interesting horrors than just lions - all of which would change once the Empire switched sides and embraced the New Thinking.

Which brings us to the subject of theology as technology. Like any form of tech, the purpose is to overcome an obstacle: a boat gets you over water, an axe brings down trees or a backscratcher cures that nagging itch. In this case, a religious policy is invoked in the hopes of binding together an empire.
The emperor Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, in 306 CE, was at the end of a long line of usurpers and masters of empire who had come to the throne on the dead bodies of other Romans. The pile of names he had were adopted to emphasize his legitimacy to the throne - Caesar and Flavius being imperial Roman dynasties, and Valerius and Aurelius being respected Roman Emperors. Augustus is a term meaning, in effect, "Old Man." Thus, the name we recognize for this fellow is that of "Constantine."

When not sending demons back to the place from which they came, Constantine worried considerably about the future of his empire. Even if it happened that he might live to remain emperor until his death by old age (something that had grown increasingly rare), it would only mean that the Empire would once again be at its own throat the moment he passed on. As it had been, repeatedly, for more than a century.

And yet, here are these Christians. We slaughter them and march them into rivers of their own blood to be drowned, and yet there are always more - they multiply like rats, there are ten times more of them than there were fifty years ago and hey, they seem to share a solidarity that is truly frightening in its tenacity. Perhaps, thinks Constantine, we should bring these fellows around for a chat and find out what's what.

So he did. Having decided that the Empire needed to make peace with Christians, and in fact adopt the religion, he brought around an estimated 250 to 318 attendees (no one can agree on the number) in order to hash out the theology good and proper. It has been called the Council of Nicaea, and it took place in 325 CE.

One has to remember that at this time, communication between these various entities had existed under a cloak of deception, since the Empire had been executing them right up until Constantine's edict to stop doing so in the year 313. Thus, Nicaea was a HUGE opportunity for the scattered and clumsy Christian Church to organize itself into a singular, stable entity ... which it did. After a considerable storm of thoughts, proposals, ideals and truly inventive theology (you know, knowledge that doesn't appear in the Bible), statements of belief were codified into existence and adopted by the majority of the attendees. Not all, mind you. That's very important.

Forgive me for making some generalizations about the next hundred years or so; this is a pretty long post, and I think we can just cover the high points and move on. First off, I'd like to point out that Christianity didn't solve Constantine's fundamental problem. He died, the various armies of Empire still turned on themselves and the pattern of usurpation continued. The Christian fathers like to argue that Constantine "saw the light" on a road outside of his founded city Constantinople, and therefore bowed before God to become the first Christian Emperor (and a Saint, at that) ... but of course this is all convenient theology. There was a lot of it going around at the time, if you'll remember.

The Christian Church, meanwhile, had designated itself 'catholic' at Nicaea. You can find it in the Nicene Creed, the formal statement that billions would have to memorize in centuries to come, including yours truly), written, "In one holy catholic and apostolic Church ..." The word itself means 'universal.'

This catholic church (not a proper noun in the 4th century) did unite the various disparate and distant groupings within the Roman Empire, such that the social and local political aspects of the Roman culture survived the anguish of the next five centuries. An anguish that was begun by this new, catholic church.

When people talk about the fall of the Empire, an aspect they habitually fail to address is the civil war that was occupying considerable resources of the Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. I do not speak in this case of emperor vs. emperor - that did go on, as I said. I am, rather, speaking of the other civil war. The one that began between those councillors at Nicaea who accepted the new catholic church and those who did not ... as well as those who, on account of being pagan or Jewish, were not asked to attend.

This is a civil war purposefully covered up these past 16 centuries, principally since the winners went on to establish a thoroughly dominant western religion - with the rights to commit murder and ten thousand other atrocities whenever it pleased them, while at the same time standing under a banner marked "MORALITY" that continues to hold sway today in the highest levels of political and philosophical debate. Having been given sanction by the Roman state to "spread the word" of Christianity for the good of the Empire, the various entities of the church took to the program with a will that makes the Nazis look like little children playing with blocks.

Unfortunately, in the middle of slaughtering the Gnostics, the Arians, the non-Trinitarians, the Cabalists and a whole host of other sects and cults who disagreed with them, the Christians suddenly found the countryside denuded of several million non-believers (so estimates suggest - there are obviously no firm numbers) at just the moment the Huns and Slavs started turning up in the east. The Goths, many of whom had converted to Arianism, were encouraged and in a good position to take advantage of all this religious cleansing.

Now, should you think that I'm making all this up, and that Europe embraced Christianity out of the goodness of its enlightened heart, I understand. Cynicism is a good thing, and we don't have a lot of evidentiary evidence from the period. I could quite reasonably be inventing a bit of my own theology, yes? Of course yes. It is generally conceded that pagan churches were razed to the ground all over Europe and replaced with Catholic Churches; travel through Europe and visit churches, and you will be told the tale a hundred times. It is also recognized that pagan gods throughout the Empire were 'reformed' into Christian saints, particularly in those areas highly resistant to Christian influences, such as most of Eastern Europe (the parts occupied by Goths). There's considerable evidence built up about the persecution of pagan sexual practices, particularly those carried on by women ... and we find within a few centuries that the word 'pagan' - which means, after all, "a rural person" - is replaced with the term 'satanist,' as the various practices from the Roman period and blended together to be rewritten as worshipping the 'devil.'

I can't argue absolute truths and absolute lies. I suggest if you have any real interest that you read deeper into the period. It's marvelously interesting. Oh, and don't ask me for sources. My sources could be all wrong, remember? Spewing out a list of names and publishing houses only proves the books were written, it doesn't make them accurate. I'm not a university. I'm not here to give my stamp of approval on the books I've read. Go read your own. The books are in the library, all on a convenient shelf. Draw what conclusions you will.

Despite everything, despite the devastation of the Empire, despite the invading barbarians, and later the vikings, despite the long destitution of the Dark Ages, the theological foundation of the Catholic Church endured. It did bind Europe together (though not as Constantine had hoped) and it did impose an supreme authority on western culture. It enabled its believers to dispense with fear (promised resurrection) and with hedonism, the latter in particular being the ruination of the Roman empire. The Christian morality that was established encouraged the pursuit of things other than sexual gratification and luxury - such as the creation of responsible authority and the acquisition of non-theological knowledge. The sense that the culture was joined together by God gave the European peoples a unified respect for the future, not only of themselves, but of their children also, who themselves would ultimately be judged by the same higher authority. Christianity became the thread that bound generations together into a single cohesive ideal.

So, are you still with me? I confess, sometimes it feels good to just stretch out the whole brain and go for broke.

Coming down then, how in hell does this massive pile of bleck apply to D&D?

I wanted to get a full grasp on the influence religion has, not only upon its believers, but upon the whole gamut of society. The fundamental beliefs of a religion are more than a collection of rules about when to sacrifice and where to be on a particular morning. The whole culture, for good or bad, will embrace the existing theological belief, no matter how absurd it will sound to the players or even how destructive it is to that culture. The people will BELIEVE it, just the same as they believe the sun will rise and set ... and where it comes to non-believers, they will set aside time to explain their religion, they will have hundreds of arguments to prove the validity of their religion - and when those arguments fail, they will murder for the good of their religion. There is no getting around it. Either the party will pay lip service or the party will be hunted down and murdered, and their deaths will be sanctioned by the state, as the religion of the state and the state itself work together to support each other's right to power.

This is a force in the hands of the DM that is hardly ever applied and very definitely hated by some quarters. I am not a religious person - and my daughter is so non-religious that she swears she'll never run a cleric in this game (so I guess I did a good job there). But I see religion as a cultural force, and much more than just the window dressing that it is usually taken for ... and I love scaring the hell out of parties by having a steady, growing dissatisfaction for their behavior begin to show in the grumblings and rudeness of the common townspeople. You know, once you lose their respect, you're in deep trouble.

Given the presence of Gods that are not false, but real, I perceive there are three fundamental approaches that a DM can take towards incorporating a Grand Scheme to the perception that these Gods have of things that go on. How the people's dogma develops would depend on how you perceive the interest your Gods have in your world.

The Gods don't give a damn what goes on. This is the child Mudpacker theory: "We made the world, we do exist, but there are billions of worlds and we really don't give a crap what happens here. If it's a Sunday afternoon and the family isn't dropping by for tea, we may look over to see what the hell goes on, but beyond that its flat out beneath our contempt."

This leaves the dogma almost entirely up to the population, who will quite likely get everything wrong, given that the only hint at the truth that they get is when some god sticks his fingers at the globe on his way to the bathroom. This is more or less Conan's universe.

What is happening on this planet has huge influence on other things, but not directly; the gods watch or dabble in what's going on, but very carefully, not wanting to mess with the overall balance: "It's an experiment, you see. In ten thousand years the ultimate power will be unleashed by the petty fools that dwell on the planet, but this power must be unleashed in exactly the right way and at exactly the right time; therefore, we will influence, but it is delicate work - too much messing around with the program will fuck it up beyond repair."

The dogma is therefore going to drift along certain lines according to what the gods want people to believe: that certain chosen people have preference because they will be important at some future time. Or others must be repressed because they represent a threat to the desired outcome. But since there are so many gods, and they disagree as to the exact methodology, mixed messages are given to the system all the time, creating local areas of havoc. This is more or less Middle Earth.

The very life of the Gods depends upon the amount of worship the gods receive. Those who are beloved by millions have great power, while those who have fallen into obscurity are weak and vulnerable, very nearly mortal. "You must worship me, and you must kill my enemies; you must bring me MORE worshippers, more and more, and build great churches, until my power grows and spreads and I gain dominion over the world!"

The majority of dogma is basically directed at the destruction of everyone else and the profligation of the religion's worshippers. Tiny gods have the benefit of stealth; Powerful gods are overwhelmed by the number of difficulties and challenges to their authority ... so that in fact the very act of getting stronger results in an over-reach of power, ultimately to the point where it can collapse entirely, leaving a vacuum for another religion to rise and conquer.

This is, more or less, my world. I like the violence.

Well, now you see why it took me a long time to write this post.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gaming Under Duress

There are, right now, 33 Chilean miners trapped in a copper mine in Atacama, the farthest northern province of Chile.  According to sources, the effort to get them out will require three to four months, leaving the miners trapped in a space about the size of a living room, in a "humid, warm and dark habitat."  Apparently there is a means to get the water and food, and I only just heard on a radio program that they can also get power for their hand-held electronic devices ... the interviewee was saying that several persons had gameboy-like toys.  I presume then that they can get light.

Because I can't help but identify with people in these situations, my imagination going right there, I find myself wondering what I would do with my time.

Immediately the answer comes to me.  Along with sending some cell-phone batteries, do you mind sending down my dice?

I feel that I would be capable of running a sustained, complicated campaign in that situation, even if I were trapped with dozens of people who had never heard of the game.  I think - on some twisted level - that it would be an interesting experiment to see if at least some part of the group could have the game explained to them, enough that they could 'roll' characters, memorize their basic stats and actually play through the scenarios as they developed. 

Off the top of my head, huge considerations would have to be made to simplify much of the game.  I wouldn't have any tables or maps, the rules would have to be straightforward and easily agreed upon, and whenever possible the finer points of the game would have to be cut back.

For example, I'd get rid of three of the ability stats, reducing them to Body (Str, Con, Dex), Mind (Int, Wis) and Appearance (Chr).  These could be simplified further, being designated as low, medium and high, so that you'd only have to remember that your three stats were "low-high-high," or "high-low-medium."  Or even, "HLM."  There'd be an awful lot of stuff you'd have to keep in your head, with equipment being the biggest problem, and anything that reduced the pressure on your memory would be excellent.

The equipment could also be reduced.  Rather than using specific types, your character could be designated as "unarmored" vs. "armored," and either possessing a weapon or not.   Armor might not even be relevant, given that combat could be simplified immensely.

Suppose all you had was a coin?  Then it would come down to either hitting or missing your opponent ... and if you didn't want to keep track of how many times most creatures could be hit, a hit would in most cases indicate a kill.

One way that you could get around that would be to keep a little pile of stones for certain things.  Two stones for the number of hits you could stand at 1st level, for example, and 3 stones at 2nd level and so on.  The stones could be set aside when used.

And of course this brings us to experience.  How do you keep track of it?  I would suggest the method used by many DMs - hinge it to the adventure itself.  When the goal is reached, you go up a level.  The emphasis in the game would have to be based on roleplaying anyway.

Hoo boy, will there have to be roleplaying.  The thing that is going to make the time go by will be the investment the players are able to have in a fantasy world ... a world that I'd have to run with far less emphasis on the misery of life and far MORE emphasis on the pleasure.  It would be, without question, the easiest campaign I'd ever run.  Whenever possible, people would have to have the opportunity to live out their fantasies, rather than compelling them to suffer life's slings and arrows.  Traps would be easy to overcome, guards would be easy to fool or sidestep, most of the residents of the world would be profoundly dim-witted and remarkably easygoing.  Not like my world at all.

The reasons why should be obvious.  The last thing anyone needs is a source for stress.  There might be issues to overcome, but the trick would be to make each day a victory, with a thought-provoking element included.  Something to keep the players warm in their minds while waiting ... the situation itself would provide all the stress necessary for the campaign.  If I didn't want people at each other's throats - and mine - things better go very well, most of the time.

Those are just thoughts of mine I've put together since hearing about the disaster this morning.  Short of actually getting myself trapped in a mine, I couldn't say for sure if they'd work.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ewoks with Napalm

The question ran thus:

"My group found a small horde of coins that contained some scrolls and they immediately wanted to sell one of the higher-level scrolls for some much needed adventuring capital.  I'm curious ... When the party does come across temporary magic like scrolls and potions, wands and such, how do you handle the sale of such items ..."

The short answer is that I don't sell, and I don't have vendors buy, magical items.  I could imagine a party giving an item to someone in order to receive goodwill, but selling it?  No, I can't see that.

It is quite possible that I have this position because in my experience, parties are not stupid enough to rid themselves of an item that may be, at some future point, a matter of life and death to them.  It has happened more times than I can describe that some obscure scroll that appeared to have no immediate application turned out to be crucial ... and it is usually something I've forgotten that I gave the party a year ago, and something that the player is triumphant about declaring that they have.

I don't know what the scroll is that they were trying to sell.  From the context, there was more than one scroll located and that may have something to do with the party's decision: too much magic.  I tend not to throw out very many pieces myself, and the party can run four or five sessions without seeing so much as a +1 dagger.  As such, magic is hotly contested for when it appears, and is carefully parsed out among the existing party members.  Where it comes to scrolls or potions, my spellcasters would be awfully pissed that this power wasn't immediately put into their possession, and to hell with the fighters and thieves bent on selling it - spellcasters will take any additional power they can get, especially if it means striking an enemy from a distance.

And when a piece of magic is lost, as sometimes happens, it remains a sore spot in a player's memory for a long time.

As well, even if something turns up that no one can rationally use - a +1 battle axe turned up at the end of the massive battle and no one was proficient - the party will set it aside for the arrival of a new henchman, who will then be granted the weapon.  Thus every random item is carefully sequestered with some individual, who then cherishes it as the only magic item they have, which is commonly the case.  Generally, the distribution of magic to player is about 1 item for every 2 levels.  You don't sell something that rare.

So getting past the issue with even the earliest modules (such as the Keep on the Borderlands) having three magic items in every damn room, what other issues do I have?

Well, there is the question, why would someone in a town buy a magic item?

Listen, I can't speak for the gentle reader's world, but mine is full of charlatans, ready to sell you a magic potion on any given moment that promises to cure the warts on your feet or make you BFF with Zeus.  As such, no one with half a brain believes it when four rough and tumble dust-covered strangers blow into town claim that the bottle in their hands will, without a doubt, grant them the power of clairaudience.

But of course, there's detect magic and identify, so if we can find a legitimate mage in the town, who possesses those spells, then we can at least prove that our claims are valid.  Which is nice and all, but still doesn't explain why I, the apothecary, have any interest in choking up 900 g.p. to pay for this bottle.  Look, I just don't have customers dropping in here every day that make it worthwhile for me to keep something like this in stock ... it's like asking the place to get robbed the first time I demonstrate the item to a buyer.  I don't have any personal use for the item, since I don't adventure and if I did need to do the clairaudience trip on some other fellow, I'd write my contacts who have that spell to drop by for an afternoon and give it a go.  Not only that, but it's not the sort of thing you want lying around when the town guard chooses to roust the joint.  Besides, I have rent to pay, don't I, and practical materials that need buying and I think my coin's better placed in that direction.  So yes, that's a fine potion there, but I think I'll give it a pass.

I think its imagined that the town magic dealer hasn't anything better to do than to keep tens of thousands of gold pieces in stock, just waiting for the next group of adventurers to hit town ... and that somehow this reality has escaped the attentions of the thieves' guild, the assassin's guild and half the underground villians grouped together in god knows what sewer.  I think the imagined idea is that the dealer is 9th level and no one would mess with him - except that my party has killed a 9th level mage (surrounded by about 400 followers) and there just isn't anyone, anywhere, who's that invulnerable.  The turnover rate on a shop's storage just isn't that high that it's worth blowing money on materials and effort to make magic, or coin to buy magic ... not if you want to run a world that runs according to reason.

Of course, most DMs play the magic shop with the sort of rationale that was invented in games like Ultima twenty-five years ago, and everything in the above paragraph sounds like me saying "blah, blah-blah blah blah" for 151 words.  But I'm the sort of fellow watching the movie asking, "Wouldn't it make sense to kill all the ewoks with napalm before starting construction?"

I want things to make sense.

So my advice would be, give more coin and give less magic.  They won't need the coin, so they won't need to sell the magic, and the issue will cease to occur.

Monday, August 23, 2010


This really isn't my thing.  I usually stumble across these things when I'm researching, and if they're at all relevant, I add them into the campaign.  But I'll add a few things here as I stumble across them.

Theotokos of Kazan

A Holy Icon possessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, located in the city of Kazan in the Grand Duchy of Moskovy. It has no Earthly origin or manufacture, and was in fact found on July 8, 1579, in the underground of the city by a young girl, who learned of its location as told by the Virgin Mary in a vision. It is said that the Icon was revealed in order to preserve Mother Russia against all enemies, so that it should never be conquered again as it was by the Tatars.

The Icon enables the invocation of the Virgin Mary, so that the Icon may be used to heal (as the clerical spell), up to 100 persons per day. Mere possession of the Icon provides +2 to hit, damage and morale checks to all within one mile of the artifact. It has been said by some that upon the invocation of the Icon that the Virgin Mary is visible to the purest of heart and the most innocent, particularly children, and that she can be spoken to and will answer with perfect augury. The Icon will cure blindness, deafness, disease and those born lame or suffering from a bodily disorder that has been possessed since birth.

The Ardebil Carpet

Completed during the rule of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I in the mid-16th century, measuring 38’ long by 18’ wide. The inscription upon the carpet, “I have no refuge in the world other than thy threshold; there is no protection for my head other than this door,” reveals it’s use. Created as a means to converse with the prophet Mohammed or to present oneself in the presence of Allah, the carpet will allow transport to any plane of existence or to any place in the Prime Material Plane, for as many as the carpet will allow, merely by kneeling, facing the direction of Mecca and speaking the invocation.  A second invocation will return the user back to the carpet.

The Taurlobolic Altar of Lugdenum (lost)

Built in the French city of Lyon, the Taurobolic Altar was used by the Romans for the practice of sacrificing bulls in order to restore health, remove or place curses, or in some cases grant wishes. When a full-grown bull was sacrificed upon the sacred altar in the name of Cybele, the High Priestess designated the “Great Mother,” who would stand beneath the Altar and be drenched in the ‘blood pit’ ... and thereafter would be granted the powers of Cybele for a period of time that would allow the Mother to declare her singular will.

The altar has been lost, and yet it is certainly located within the boundaries of the city of Lyon, though many have tried to find it to no avail.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


A couple of days ago I produced the coastline for Italy.  I have a confession to make - there's something odd about the map.

Ignoring the fact that it's pink - a color I use because it designates land without being similar to any part of the terrain color scheme - it is also stretched.  The pan format I use always produces distortion, particularly as most maps are oriented to look 'normal' from a north to south perspective, and my mapping system stretches things east and west.

That aside, Italy I can see is going to be very tight.  Can you believe that I'm going to squeeze 430 cities into this space?  Not including the bit of pink in the bottom left corner, that being Africa?

I've already started this morning.  To keep things straight I usually move from the top of the map to the bottom, doing each province as I go; thus, Milan, Piedmont and Veneto will get done first.  Occasionally, I might mention in posts how its going.

P.S.: please ignore the bits around the edges; this was cut from other maps, made on the program publisher, and I thought some of the designers out there might enjoy seeing how the various pieces are laid together.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Well, I suppose I won't be writing anything about roleplaying for awhile ...

I wish I had some hard material to post, but things have been scattered of late.  I'm working on a variety of projects, attacking each as the mood takes me.  And I thought for my own posterity that I'd list off those things.
  • There's the monster list continuing (as it should for a long, long time), with semi-intelligent creatures needing to be designed; haven't done much with this for a couple of months.  It isn't one of my favorite tasks.
  • I need to rewrite several levels of spells for my players who have recently gone up levels: specifically, 5th level mage spells and 3rd level bard spells.
  • I've been starting to put together a gazatteer of all terrain features, with the hopes of adding a lot of descriptive labels to my maps, specifically mountains, plains, forests, that sort of thing.  This involves mostly researching my way through wikipedia and pulling down as many entries as possible. Wikipedia is far more thorough than any source, describing more than just general mountains, such as 'Carpathians'; it also includes a brief description of every sub-feature imaginable.  Commensurate with this project is the collection of data on local fauna, flora and special climatic/geological conditions for those areas (seismic, volcanic, subject to thunderstorms or tornadoes, that sort of thing).  Long project.
  • I'm still in the process of adding Denmark and Norway to my distance tables, which are huge now and growing bigger all the time.  This involves quite a lot of number crunching and correcting.
  • Rewriting what I call my 'sources' table - the listing of all references for my trade system - into a different format, in order to make it more friendly and more flexible.  That is proving complicated - and I'm beginning to realize I'm going to have to revamp my pricing table (that calculates prices from sources) when I'm done.
  • Researching the cities/regions of India, to prepare the creation of India maps.
  • Started the creation of my Italy map (finished the coastline yesterday), which I had been putting off since I remembered what a bitch it was to make Germany.  Italy should be about as bad.
  • Finishing the reformatting of my old maps, which I started July 2009, when I finally gave in and recognized that the non-symmetrical hexes that I had created back in 2006 needed replacement.
  • Researching Spain & Portugal for new references, that being the last part of Europe that needs adding to the total number of references I have.  When I finish that region, I'll move onto Africa.
Mind you, this is in addition to working on my writing.  Starting on April 1 of this year, I committed to writing 1,000 words a day.  It has now been 141 days, and I am 5 days behind ... meaning that I've written 136,000 words since Apr. 1.  That has translated into one complete book, and I am now 57,000 words into my second book.

And somehow I find time to write in two blogs ... not to mention the lovely time I commit to my partner.

Damn, I wish I didn't have to work full-time.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Duty IV: The Flow

I had a tremendous urge to call this post "Call of Duty IV" ... but that seemed disingenious, in spite of the obvious pun that's been set up by me writing three long posts beforehand.  All the same, this is the last post on this subject, and I am good to move onto other things.

One's Moral Expectations for Oneself

Once again it's necessary to return to etymology in order to have a proper sense of 'morals' as it pertains to Cicero's philosophy about character - mostly to wash away the crud and gunk that has been attached to the word since the Victorian era.  Cicero used the word mos,moris ... "one's disposition."  In Cicero's case, this disposition was directed very positively towards the service of the res publica, or "the public thing" in strict translation, what we call the Republic.  A good Roman, as gathered from a great many of Cicero's writings, sacrificed his own comfort for the general welfare ... a sentiment echoed by JFK quite a long time later, and by many American idealists who place the country before themselves.

I personally view Cicero pretty much as a stuffed shirt, albeit a bright one; I'm not an American, but a Canadian, and like any good Canadian I believe the government and the country was created to serve my needs, and not the other way around.  My 'disposition,' as it were, is not a desire to sacrifice, but rather to be left alone.

Where it comes to D&D, the scale does not reach from sacrifice to isolation, but rather from sacrifice to exploitation.  Your character may love his or her family; but is there acquiescence to the needs of the family, or does is there instead a righteous knowledge of what the family needs?  Does he or she address the family respectfully; does he or she demand respect?  This is the disposition that is described here.

Cicero lived in the time of Sulla, Crassus and Julius Caesar, and the fall of the Republic, and had good reason to question the restraint of power, given the manner in which he saw it used.  Without question, most players would rather be Caesar before Cicero - but a balance of both characters is evident most of the time.

A player in the midst of role-play will often show mercy and kindness to NPC's of all classes and circumstances.  Many players fancy themselves to be heroes (which I insist is a delusion), and in acting the hero they are more willing to sacrifice than exploit.  They need nothing but freedom of action (and X.P.) and they are happy.  They are traits that greatly serve the railroaded game, since the DM can count on the party's compliance with whatever the DM has in mind - allowing the DM to exploit the well-meaning party.

I don't seem to have this sort of player in my campaigns.  This is possibly because my own particular method of abusing (and sometimes exploiting) parties is based on a lifetime of cynicism.  My NPC's tend to take advantage of 'reasonable' players, who try to be fair, who try to talk - since in reality, it is remarkably easy to take advantage of people who prefer to talk as opposed to taking action.  Thus my players - those who survive most successfully - tend to do their talking from a good distance, with a hand on the pommel of their sword.  Yes, that's right, my parties are a mistrustful bunch.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that first, the campaign tends to define a character's sense of duty to the moral climate of that particular world.  And that second, it is up to the player to decide whether the character is the sort that goes with the flow, or against it.  This is up to YOU.  I have players who buck the flow in my world, and successfully, by being very careful.  And I have been the sort of player who bucked the flow in a moral, heroic-conceived world just to be a shit.

There are gradations to either.  And most are pre-disposed to either the 'moral' or the 'immoral' ... that morality being a movable feast.  Being a butcherous asshole in my world is 'moral', because the morality of my world is based upon absolute survival at any cost.  Most worlds would frown on that sort of behavior.

However you perceive your character, remember that if you are moving against the flow to pick your battles.  I wouldn't recommend a strategy of universal obstinacy.  I'd throw your ass out the door.  If you're in the world, you ought to have a good reason for being there - and your character's behavior towards that world ought to reflect the DM's comfort level.  Be immoral if you like; beware that it will flow out of your character and into your own behavior.

The dividing line should be clear.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Duty III: Self

As always with these sustained posts, I reach a point where I begin to hate that I ever started them. But then I get them done, and move on, and forget that they were ever written at all - which has become my nature. There are people who write things down so they won't forget; I have discovered that after such a long time, I write things down so that I can forget. In other words, it is a process of getting rid of thoughts, getting them out of my brain and making room for other things.

But this is where I am now, so let's move on:

One's Character

This would seem the obvious thing for any D&D player. The character itself, yes? Not the character and its behavior towards others, or the character and its beliefs, but the character.

Which means what, exactly?

When in doubt, always return to the word's etymology.  The word was first used to define persons in a play or novel in the 17th century, in reference to the qualities that individual had - but the word is much older, older than even Latin.  "Character" first originates from the description of writing and the images that preceed the alphabet, and is an amalgam of two Greek words: kharax, that means 'pointed stick'; and ghera, verb, "to scrape" or to scratch.  So in terms of roleplaying games, an astute word to describe the process by which the imagined entity comes into existence.
If we reduce that process to its barest level, then, we are speaking of the creation of symbolic representations for an abstract ideal: this imaginary being, scratched out, to give it identity.
What facts do we know?  Well, we're given a representation of its abilities; we have a list of its skills and knowledge, along with its limitations.  Some of these things are chosen, and some are inherent (meaning that a die has been used to conjure the vicissitudes of nature).  It is up to us to deconstruct these elements to piece together the entity's defining qualities.
This may be, for some, a methodology that bears similarity to counting the angels on the head of a pin.  But I put it to you, if you seek to create a living character, you must give it more than the existence it has in mid-life - the point where you wish to employ the character - and embrace the entity's whole existence, as it was born, as it grew, and as it came to a realization that it wished to pursue this vocation, or that it was compelled to accept these habits, or that it found its success depended upon those sacrifices, due to whatever conditions existed.
List off some base facts and work from there:  Our character is male, he is strong and constitutional, not that dextrous, and average in intellect, wisdom and charisma; he is a fighter; his preferred weapon is a battle axe; he's massive in build, both weight and height.
Very well, why a battle axe?  Yes, the player chose that, and for reasons that suit the player, but how did it come about that the character swings the battle axe?  When did he learn; was he unable to use other weapons; or is his particular upper body strength suited for the double-bladed weapon?  Did he find himself unsatisfied with the parrying and thrusting of the sword, or was he overmanaged by the morning star's ball swinging wilding from its chain?  Perhaps he loves the cutting sweep of the blade; or perhaps a hero of his used such a weapon, a hero he speaks fondly that he remembers from his childhood.  Perhaps the wood in his hands reminds him of his home, so that the very act of holding the heavy handle in his hands brings him a sense of nostalgia.
He's a massive fellow now, yes, but was he always?  Was he larger than other children of his village, or did he sprout later than most?  Perhaps he was clumsier as a child, huge and not grown fully into his size, causing other children to laugh at his great size so that he's never truly grown comfortable with his physique.  He may be large, but there's a real chance that he continues to relate to the much smaller boy who was taunted mercilessly.  Perhaps he remembers when that small boy tried to attack, only to fall over his own feet, and into the mud, to the sound of laughter ... so that though he's a boy no longer, and able to stand up to the worst of the worst, the sounds of mirth still strike at his core.  Or, rather, he might have been a bully; a stomping, pushing monster of a child, who grew up with his childhood friends perpetually in fear of him - and now that he's an adult, he feels strangely disquieted that these others he travels with don't seem to fear him, whereas they should.
His intelligence is 10, so he is not a stupid man; but it has always been less than easy for him to learn new things right off.  He's had to repeat things over and over to get the correct, because while he can understand when something is explained to him, his memory is poor and that understanding drains off like rain from the leaves.  And perhaps he is more nearly able to understand the intellectual struggles of someone who is less bright than he is, for he has some things in common with the village dunce.  There is the real possibility that this fighter resents much brighter people; it isn't so bad when he's dealing with others who might latch onto an idea faster than him, but when it comes to the uncommonly genius, who are always correct and who never question their knowledge, he retains a deep and abiding hatred.  Conversely, he might be in worship of people brighter than him; so much that he happily will listen to long descriptions of things he can't quite understand, recognizing that the world of knowledge or thought is much greater than he's able to grasp for himself - but it feels good knowing that its out there.
And his charisma is 11.  Is it all because he's not much of a looker?  Or is he a fairly appealing chap, as long as he keeps his mouth shut?  Maybe its not so much that he's abusive, or obnoxious ... he might be a very pleasant fellow, except for the nasal quality of his voice that in no way results from anything he has control over.  Or he might be a witty conversationalist, with fair talents for humor, except that he looks like a wart that's been filled with botox and left in the sun a bit long.  It's not his fault.  Get to know him and he's good company, but years of experience have taught him to stand at the back of the party when entering a tavern or an inn, or to be the soul who will gratefully manage the horses while others step in to have a bit of palaver with the jeweler who's got information.  He's not necessarily angry that he was touched this way - he might even look at others in the world and feel grateful that he's not mixed in with their affairs.  More commonly he'll be scratched out to be bitter and angry, but there's more possiblities than that.
Each bit of the individual can be drawn out and expanded in just that manner.  It takes some practice - but begin with how the aspect would have related to the individual at the youngest possible age.  Incorporate influences from parents, tutors, peers or even strangers passing through town on a particular day.  Conceive of some decision the character has made about his or her self - to feel happiness, or craving, or self-hatred, or hope.  Bring the character forward through puberty and allow for both good things to have happened and bad things - and apply how these imagined events were railed against, or bargained with, or accepted - if, indeed, they have ever been accepted.  Finally you will have a sense of character deeper than you've considered possible.
In many ways, this advice is more useful for the writer of creative fantasy fiction than for the RPG player - I don't imagine most players would go to this depth.  But even a little application of the above will do wonders.


This has nothing to do with D&D, or roleplaying.  It simply falls under the heading, "Engineering is Cool."  I had a chance to take some pictures of the mobile crane that's building the west leg of the city's light rail transit "SkyTrain."  I pass it on my way home from work, and each day it has moved a little further along.

From the right side:

And closer, from the left:

And from underneath:

I was able to walk directly under it, with no restrictions at all; in fact, there's a major thoroughfare moving under it, while the construction goes on.

I'll try to get a better picture of that the next good day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Duty II: Society

As the spam gets thicker on my blog, encouraging me to believe that I have ‘arrived,’ let us continue on the subject of character creation as begun in the last post. In this case, duty as it applies to:

One’s Particular Place in Life

The gentle reader will please remember that this refers to those aspects of an individual's life that are outside his or her own self: the family one has, or the country where one is born, or the religion one was raised in and so on.  There are a great many examples.  I'll try to hit on a few as fuel for character creation, but by no means do I expect to cover them all.

Let me say first, not everyone loves their family.  In general, most of us have one, even if it is an orphanage, or a single aunt or a sibling that raised us.  Humans at the infant stage are dependent upon some nurturing entity - and that, for good or bad, is one's family.  The more appalling one's upbringing, however, the less likely it is that we will look back fondly upon it.
From a player's point of view, the important element here is the choice your character has made about his or her family upon reaching maturity.  What role does the character allow their family to play in their life?

It's no good to say that your character loves his family if the plan is to abandon said family in typical D&D fashion.  Is it your intention to remain in the family's vicinity?  Would you send treasure to your family?  What would they be likely to do with it?  You have to ask yourself how things would work if the remaining party had no interest in their family and was ready to journey to the ends of the world on a moment's notice.  How would that make it difficult for you to be a good, loving child?

I wonder if we should be making steps to ensure that initial, multiple members of a party are related to one another, as immediate family or cousins.  Obviously, racial differences would have to mean separate clans, but what if all the dwarves had to be from the same family, and all the elves and all the humans?  Wouldn't a half-elf have to be related to both the human group and the elven group?  How would that affect the dynamic of the party, it's loyalties and such, and how would that anchor the party to a particular place in the campaign?

If your character is going to make decisions based on their loyalties (to family or anything else), you ought to be asking yourself, why does this character love or despise his or her family?  There are all the awful things the character's family may have done, and all the kind and thoughtful things.  Either is deserving of a list:  "Let me tell you about my uncle, the bastard, and what he did when I told him I intended to seek my fortune in the world."  Or, "My mother worked herself into an early grave so that I would have the training that kept me alive this very day - each time I struck home with my sword, I thanked my dear, sainted mother. May I kill a thousand dragons in her name!"

Whatever floats your boat.

Either way, if you have the imagination to come up with a dozen stories, to tell again and again a particular tale whenever a particular set of events encourages it, you'll be rewarded with your fellow players moaning and groaning.  --"You know, this is just like that time my Uncle Ransom tore down the mill and found it infested with giant beetles, long as your arm they were.  He raised up the whole town to help him. That's what we ought to do!"  --"Stander, if you mention your uncle one more time I'm pulling your arms and legs off."

It all goes to create a three-dimensional realism, rather than the wooden approach Luke takes to his dead Uncle Owen - who never gets mentioned again through the remaining saga.  Or the father whom we can't tell stories about, or explain at all, really, because it would give away the cheesy revelation at the end of part two (I really hate those movies).  But naturally, realism may hold no interest for you.  It remains a method for creating greater depth to your character, as well as motivation.  Obviously you don't have to draw out your entire family tree ... though there is value added by expanding your character's place in the world: a sense of self.

In a very similar way, the player should examine the character's perception of larger elements of the world.  In each, though the player chooses the religion and the DM chooses the physical origin, the character would have no sense of having chosen anything.

Let's suppose the character's religion.  Very often a player will say he or she has none.  "I don't like clerics," as the saying goes.  What's generally forgotten is that this same character will have probably been raised in a religion - and that there's more to the tale.  Does the character actively despise the religion of his or her upbringing?  To what degree?  It's very likely that that particular religion would be hated or its believers treated more harshly than other religions.  The player ought to be informed what religion their athiest character has renounced.

The reverse is also true.  It the player has a cleric, was the character's upbringing in that religion, or did the character become enlightened at a later age?  Has the character (cleric or otherwise) tried other religions?  Are there parts and bits of some religions that the character still follows, despite now being a celebrant of the Celtic mythology?  And what parts of the theological structure of the religion does the character have trouble with?  Surely, not all parts of the religion are embraced equally.

Very well, let's take that last point and apply it to the character's place of origin.  It's generally accepted in the present that every individual loves his or her country.  In a medieval setting, this is replaced with the Royal Family.  There will always be a tiny percentage of a population that hates their country or their King, but that's a rather obvious character trait, and I think we can leave it alone.

Is it enough to say, however, that your character loves his or her country?  What, every single part?  The taxes, too?  What about the King's position on the ongoing war with the West, or the Dowager Queen's meddling with affairs along the seaboard?  There are rumors that the Duke is a monster - does your character take with such rumors, or are they bunk?  What is your character likely to say, or do, when someone else makes a comment about the Duke?

"The Country" is a mixture of hundreds of entities, each vying for power to some degree.  The character's background as a fighter or a mage (or secondary considerations like his or her once having been a rat catcher or a sailor) should provide plenty of fodder for political positions and disgruntlements that the character has.  DMs should take note, and recognize that it's possible to build up a constant, deepened intrigue by playing up those things that the character naturally leans towards.  Not only that the taxes were recently raised, but that there are laws recently passed that target paladins, monks, thieves or mages ... as well as foreigners, guildmembers, elves, short people in general and possibly people who carry bundles of rope, clearly indicating them to be troublemakers.  The party should find allies among the population that are also opposed to such laws on principle, thereby establishing a conflict that could lead to complications upon complications.

How "Duty" fits into all of this is defined by what responsibility the player chooses to have his character possess towards all the elements of the society in which the party travels.  The character's duty towards others who believe the same things, or have the same origins, or similar experiences, helps drive the character's decision-making.  It answers the question, "Why are we saving princesses?"  Because, ipso facto, my personal beliefs are that young girls are innocent and shouldn't be preyed upon by villainous monsters.  But how complex does the problem become when the princess isn't young, or innocent, and the villainous monster has a good reason - which the character can identify with?

Obviously none of these considerations apply to players alone; the DM needs to take these into consideration for the NPCs, as well.  There are limitations.  Not every non-player can be three-dimensional.  But such characters, scattered through a campaign, can have a tremendous influence on the pace and effectiveness of a DM's campaign.

The potential should not be discarded.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Duty I: Intro & Everyone Else

I'm just going to go ahead and steal from Wikipedia.  It is clear enough and simple enough that I don't feel any need to improve upon it.  Cicero's four sources from which an individual gains a sense of 'duty':
  • A result of being human.
  • A result of one's particular place in life (your family, your country, your job)
  • A result of one's character.
  • A result of one's moral expectations for oneself.
But what is duty?  The word derives from the Latin, debere, which is "to owe," and comes to English through the French duete.  It is merely a debt, vis a vis Cicero, a debt to humanity, a debt to one's family, nation and employer, a debt to one's self-respect and a debt to one's hopes, ambitions and well-being.

It is not, therefore, something that necessarily derives from the military, though the military forces of society have co-opted the word to the Nth degree with the expectation that it will encourage souls to allow themselves to be executed for the sake of safe, preserved, wealthy power-brokers.  Duty is that sense of our conscience that harasses us almost constantly - the sense that right now I should be doing my job and not writing this blog.  The sense that I should write a post today and not put it off tomorrow because I have readers.  The sense that the blog and my job should both be put aside for my doing something more important, like paying attention to my writing career.

In short, a terrific source for guilt.

In the development of characters, I have often seen duty applied to a state or a king in the classic military way.  In virtually every case I've seen duty applied to a player's ambition for their character's improvement.  And to some degree I've seen a sense of duty adopted by players towards family, or the betterment of the world, or towards a characterization that has been created.  I have even seen duty carried to the point of a character committing suicide - something which I feel has quite defined the length a player will go to make a character real.

I am not certain that I have heard the word 'duty' used, however, with consciously intended purpose.

A couple of weeks ago Matt Conlon made a comment about motivations for characters deriving from dead parents and a hunger for revenge, and how much that bored him.  I concurred to the point where I wrote a bit of satire about it.  And now I want to make a pitch for the creation of three-dimensional characters, as opposed to the wooden kind.  Thankfully, we can return to Cicero's notes.

(If Cicero had been taking notes for me in University, I'd be a doctor now)

The key is to pick your character's duty (read: motivation) from two different categories.  It's not enough that your character feels a responsibility towards family AND the state ... those together are just one category.  What is the character's duty towards his or herself?  Don't just throw it out there that the character wants the same things the state wants - that's deadly dull.  Where's the conflict?

Ah, says the gentle reader.  Don't ask us to come up with a duty - give us examples.

Very well.  Let's start from the first premise.

Being Human

I want to present the fundamental sides to this question: does an individual owe anything to humanity, or does an individual owe everything to his or herself?  Is humanity truly served by altruism - giving of oneself for the betterment of others - or is humanity truly served through selfishness - promoting the individual?

Let us be clear: I won't quibble about what is right or wrong behavior for a human being at this time.  I'm only presenting options.  I don't play with alignments, but ... D&D would usually demand that any individual who is altruistic is by definition Lawful; and that any individual who is selfish by nature is by definition Chaotic.  If the individual applied his chaotic nature towards the betterment of mankind (through the creation of devices or curatives, say, that brought about the general good not through the individual's direct involvement, but second hand), then we would say the character was Chaotic Good.  If the individual twisted altruism, or lawfulness, to order to destroy the well-being of others and make them dependent and willing slaves, we would say the character was Lawful Evil.

I'm not a big fan of those labels.  Rather than attempting to catalog a character's actions according to a regime, I prefer to bring it down to ordinary behaviors.  Does the character enjoy the company of others?  Is the character generous?  Does the character betray spitefulness?  That sort of thing.

Well, how would a player employ a spiteful character?  It can be much more complicated than merely taking absolute revenge on another party member at first opportunity.  Consider.  Spite is a cowardly enmity towards another individual's good fortune or abilities.  The instigation begins with seeing another player do well - being lauded for killing an enemy, or being the winner in lots for a piece of prime equipment, or even being chosen as a favorite by the lovely princess.  The spiteful character holds this to their bosom, then plots petty methods of compensating for the perceived slight against them - slipping one of the lucky character's torches out of their pack and throwing it on the fire during watch, for instance.  Or pouring a glass of ale sereptitiously into a party member's shoes the morning people are to strike out for the mountains.  Giving things when they're asked for, but in a grumbling, recalcitrant manner, with the self-promise of spitting in that individual's bean curd later that night.  This can be carried out blatantly, or through notes to the DM ... and the level of spitefulness can climb steadily throughout an entire campaign.  It is a question of how imaginative one can be.

Very well, what about generousity?  What about being generous to the point of absurdity, to where you must tell your fellow party members, "No, sorry, can't go kill the dragon today - I've given my mace to the schoolchildren in the last town; can you believe they had no weapons at all?"

All right, let's roll that back a bit.  Say your character's generousity is less random.  You take it upon yourself to systematically improve everyone else's armor, equipment, comfort level - what have you.  I have some experience with this - my mage in my daughter's campaign is doing this.  I have few needs, so I spend my money on liquor that I can dispense to others, or on healing salves when the time comes, or on someone else's expensive plate mail or upon buying the higher level fighter a fine sword that won't break.  I'm consciously playing it this way.  What is my reward?  Well, the fighters are bigger and stronger and harder to hit, making them better meat shields between me and the monsters.  That's important.  Also, someday I might need a favor ...

I have played inordinately virtuous or pious players - who you did not swear in the presence of, I promise you - and harlots who preferred to slit the throats of their clients.  D&D is a pretty open forum for how one chooses to act towards the rest of humanity: they are either sheep to be shorn, sheep to be led, sheep to be butchered for food or sheep to be driven off to get rid of the endless bleating.  When you are met by the lord, will you criticize his clothing rather than toadying to his power?  When the thief robs you, will you run him down and kill him, or will you let him go with a laugh; or will you run him down in order to buy him a drink?  Do you fight for money or for sport?  And if for sport, do you let others win their fights, or do you, rather, shout out with: "AHA!  I kick the halfling away and kill the orc myself!"  Are you moody?  Do you despise clerics, or jugglers - or children?  How much do you despise them, exactly?  I mean, would you bad mouth the juggler, or are you prepared to take him out to the alley for a good drubbing with his clubs?

I'm not trying to give a list.  I'm trying to awake the possibilities, not in terms of your specific behavior, but in terms of how you view others.  Start with positively or negatively ... and then start outlining some descriminations.  Which peoples are you favorable towards; which peoples are bound to have a good time with you?  And once you have sorted that out, resolve for your character the degree of commitment you feel towards the positive treatment of these people, or the negative treatment of those.  Scratch it out: I'm a pretty negative person.  Especially when it comes to mimes.  I'll tell them to bugger off once.  If that's not enough, I'll draw my sword and make it clear.  And if those pansy bastards keep up with the whole wall-between-them-and-I business, well I have a friend who owns an oubliette and it's EMPTY right now, got it?

Good, enough for now.  We can move onto the rest next week.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Heroic Mime

"Crono's Complaint:" The less the main character talks, the more words are put into his mouth, and therefore the more trouble he gets into through no fault of his own.

I had to think for some time before I get a handle on this cliche and how it would apply to D&D; a number of the cliches on the Grand List defy translation into traditional RPG's ... and eventually I know I'm going to have to skip some of them.  Like the one above. 

I should talk about DMs putting words in character's mouths, but I don't do that, and I don't care about other people doing this.  They will get theirs..  I can't think of any examples from my campaign, except where it happens due to communication misunderstandings, and in those cases I rescind my position and we move on. 

Thus, I'm not going to write about this cliche, and I won't include it in the cliche list.  But I will talk about something obliquely related.

Recently my friend Carl posted on his site Three Hams Inn a common, frustrating dilemma - revolving around the age old problem, how strict should a DM be regarding the players explaining exactly what the intend to do.  In this case, if the players do not say, "What is in the bag," despite actually taking things out of the bag, is the DM responsible for giving them a complete inventory.

To give another example.  Let us say that a player steps out of a door and into a garden, where there is a prominent, fantastically beautiful fountain immediately opposite said door.  And let us say the player says, "What do I see?"  Well, the DM would obviously describe the fountain.  But does the question automatically indicate that the player has steadfastly searched with their vision every possible corner or evident detail of the room?  Should I mention, given the above question, that the player perceives immediately that one of the stones in front of the door's threshold is one half inch lower than every other stone in the entire yard?  Is this without question something the player should be told in response to the above question?

That question carries with it a great many intrinsic problems.  Let us say that there is a tiger in the room, and that it is 90% hidden by foliage.  Do the players see the tiger?  What if it is 80% hidden?  Or 60% hidden?  At what point am I duty-bound as a DM towards declaring that there is, in fact, a tiger in the room.  Obviously, if the tiger attacks, the party should roll surprise.  But the very act of telling the party to make a surprise roll gives away more information than the DM might want to give.  Of course, I could make the surprise roll myself - an accepted D&D practice but hardly one which my players would accept.  At any rate, a failure to be surprised on the player's part does not absolutely indicate that the tiger can be seen.  It is possible to be ready and ignorant at the same time.

But what if the party is being very specific: "We look everywhere in the room.  What do we see?"

Define 'everywhere.'  Are we saying that the party is looking under every leaf?  Has the party reached their hands into the fountain to check the fountain's bottom?  Has the party, by making this statement, effectively stated that they have entered the room?  No.  It's assumed they look 'everywhere' as far as they can from still standing in the doorway.  Which means, in effect, they still only see what they're able to see.

I can stand in a doorway and 'look everywhere' and still fail to figure out where the fuck I have put my glasses.  In fact, I have proven that I can stomp around a room for ten bloody minutes without being able to see my goddamn glasses poised on the edge of the bookshelf where I have put them down eleven fucking minutes ago.  'Looking everywhere,' even while in motion, doesn't generally seem to do a lot of good.  It doesn't get the job done.  It doesn't automatically reveal the aforementioned stone.  No matter how much looking is done, the trap can still work.

But I am drifting from my original intent.  My point is this - no matter what information the party requests, it isn't going to be enough.  When it comes right down to it, asking the question isn't relevant at all towards the actual detail to be gained.  No?  Don't agree?

What if the party member has opened the door and has failed to ask a question?  Am I to assume that the character has his or her eyes closed?  That's obviously not a fair assumption if the player hasn't said, specifically, "I close my eyes before opening the door."  It seems far more reasonable to assume that the character is, at present, eyes open.

In that case, as the DM, I'm basically duty-bound to describe what the player sees.  That is, I am accepting that the player-as-mime is still fundamentally the character that has just opened the door.  If it is a fighter with loads of experience, I would have to be some kind of major dork to take the position that the fighter opens the door, and is immediately mesmerized as if by magic by the fountain in the middle of the roomHorseshit.  Here we have a fighter who is capable of detecting by the blink of an eye a sword rushing towards his gullet and deflecting it away, but he's blind to the huge tiger in the room that is standing in the corner to his right - for no other reason than that the fighter failed to say, "I look to my right - what do I see there?"

Perhaps one reason that I have a very loyal group of players is that I don't play ridiculous headgames with practical, useful information.  Listen.  If the tiger attacks, I'll have the player roll 'surprise.'  And if the player rolls and is surprised, well, the player is going to get a bit mauled.  But the player is going to feel as though he or she was treated fairly ... ie., I'm not launching random tigers - or anything else - at the player without first indicating the fair likelihood that a tiger is going to be noticed in a room.  If said tiger is hidden behind foliage, then I better damn well describe the foliage beforehand, and I better goddamn mention that the foliage is thick, with big green leaves covering enough of the garden that it could conceivably hide something as big as a tiger.  It's not enough to say, "Oh, there are a few plants."

Now, regarding the stone - that's a bit trickier, but it is the kind of thing it takes a thief to notice - based on the thieves 'find and remove traps' ability.  Here the DMG and I part ways, majorly.  I think it is the worst kind of cheap cheesy fuckwadness to insist that players have to say the words, "I check for traps" for them to have any chance at all of finding them.  I prefer a much more reasonable assumption, that any time there is a trap, to roll the thieves' ability automatically and then - when successful - to reveal the trap as having been discovered.  In other words, to answer the statement "I check for traps" with, "You already have, and you see nothing out of the ordinary."  But I know the Gygaxian Prigs out there don't roll that way.

This is a long, long way around the barn, but it sets up the second part of my argument - namely, that players deserve to have certain 'default' settings for their characters.  This brings us to the leading suggestion.  One which I don't like giving, but which I feel deserves to be given.  And oh, don't I know how many DMs feel uncompromising on this point.

Namely, the player is about to do something really, really stupid.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the player plans to jump across a gap that's 10' feet in diameter.  With only a few steps of running room.  Over a 90' drop.

There are a number of circumstances that could have led up to doing something this dumb.  The player is trapped.  The player has no rope.  The player has a very high dexterity, leading to overconfidence.  The player may be unaware that, although I used much of the Unearthed Arcana, I don't use the table for thieving jump distances.  Or the player has possibly decided that my world runs on television physics.  Or, my very, very favorite, the player has played 3rd Edition.

So we can see how this is going to play out.  The player asks a very few questions about the distance, the amount of running room available, whether there are any hand holds on the other side, etc.  The player has argued, vehemently, that 10' isn't that far a distance and that any person ought to be able to jump that far.  In retrospect, it really does sound reasonable.  It's only ten feet, right?

The player backs up, and says, "I dig my feet in, I crouch, and then I rush forward and jump as far as I can, reaching out to grab the other side."

Question 1:  Do I mention to the player that they've failed to remove any of their equipment?  Including the 6 lb. long sword on the scabbard over their shoulder?

That seems fair that I should mention it.  It's kind of hard not to notice the sword when crouched down, or the leather armor, the backpack, the additional daggers, blah blah blah.  I have certainly played with DMs (major assholes) who would have said, "You jump, but because you failed to remove any equipment, you die."  Frankly, I don't want to run that kind of world.

Question 2:  If you're standing on the edge of a cliff, looking at another edge of another cliff, what exactly does ten feet look like?  I mean, if this wasn't the sort of thing you did all the time (like rock-climbers I used to know, one of them dead now), would you be really able to judge what 'too far' was?  Ten feet is dungeon master lingo.  In reality, the description ought to be something like, 'far,' 'awfully far,' and 'too fucking far.'  Should I suggest to the player, beforehand, you're just not going to make it?

Tricky.  There are a lot of people out there who would argue just as vehemently as the player that they could jump ten feet, that they have jumped ten feet and that it was no big deal.  None at all.  Which assumes, of course, that they have any idea what ten feet looks like.  It's funny how when you draw ten feet out on the floor and suggest to someone they should give it a shot, how actually hard it is.  But then there follows the arguments that characters aren't players and that they ought to be able to do anything and so on and so forth.  And there's always the argument that the character doesn't have to jump ten feet - that they just have to jump far enough to grab the other side and hang on.

And here we have the television (or movie) physics in question.

There are three different cases of Kirk grabbing onto an edge to prevent himself from falling in Star Trek (2009).  I thought they overused it a little.  The kid was skidding along the ground, so I can almost buy that one ... but not really, since his body dropping over the edge would wreck whatever purchase his arms and fingers could have gotten in the soft dust of the edge, as depicted - the dust would actually help his body along into the drop.

The second occasion, it's the pure Hollywood cliche, Kirk's thrown to the edge in a fight and his hands just perfectly grab onto something.  Chances are, even if there was something there, his hands wouldn't have the strength to arrest his 200-lb. body in mid-movement ... but this is so common everyone just accepts it.

The third occasion, Kirk manages to fall onto a very smooth surface with a sharp edge and still he's able to arrest his fall, this time with amazing-grip arms.  I suppose you'd have to argue that he's getting so much practice in the film that it's nothing for him now to defy physics.

(Of course, you know I love the film)

It's hard to explain to people that mass has certain properties that are inherent - and one of those properties is called the conservation of energy.  This is why, if you leap at a cliff and expect to just grab on with your arms and stop, you're going to be very surprised - because your body is going to bounce off that cliff just like a billiard ball from a pool bumper.  You're going to mash up against the cliff, and then the energy that you expended to get there is going to move partially into the rock, but mostly back into the liquidy, fluidy creature that is you, bouncing you back inot the air - no matter how wonderfully dexterous is your character.

But can you explain this to some people?  No.  No, you really can't, and you will find yourself as DM pedantically trying to explain the simplest bits of reality to some people who will insist a hundred times that you're being a deliberately cruel shithead.  That's why I don't like the whole, "You didn't think of this so you die" methodology.  I really prefer the "I warned you twice and you insisted on doing it anyway like a moron so you die" policy.  It tends to get me in good with the other players, I get to look reasonably compassionate and on the whole the game is better for it.

Where I draw the line, however, is difficult.  I've been doing this for a long time and I have a sort of self-correcting pattern where if I realize I'm being blatantly unfair, I will change my plans mid-stream before implementing them ... ie., I forgot to mention the foliage in the garden, so now there's no tiger, either: we'll put the tiger in a cage under the garden and that will be the trap, good enough ...

Yes, I really do think in the third person pronoun when I do think at all.

It helps to have a sense of fairness, a strong and powerful commitment to the GOLDEN RULE, which largely gets ignored by DMs, and a healthy sense that while puzzle-solving is a big component of the game, we're not talking strict puzzle-mechanics like crosswords or jigsaws - we mean flowing, abstract puzzle problems, the kind to be found in strategy, tactics, deception, persuasiveness and the implementation of duty.

Hm.  Duty.  Good post topic.