Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Breaking Off Combat

I have been working to break a bad habit I have, wherein combats are almost always resolved the same way, until one or the other group is dead.  It is not really the way battles are fought, even between small groups of people, except of course in the movies.

You may take any number of battle scenes: Henry V, Braveheart, Spartacus, Gladiator, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy ... and the onscreen depiction is classic: side A and side B stand facing one another, until one force rushes into the other, or both forces rush together.  What follows is a mash-up of slaughter and butchery, with no one in close order, until virtually all of the enemy is dead or fled.  My D&D combats have tended to follow this motif ... mixed up as much as possible, particularly in how the combat is joined, but still with the central theme being that side A and side B duels to the death.

The fault, I feel, begins with the rule that states the participant that stays is entitled to one free hit on the participant who takes flight.  This tends to reduce a party member's willingness to turn and run, and my willingness to give parties a free hit on NPC's ... the result being that battles, once joined, tend to stay joined.

Recently I have taken note that fighting between participants in actual combat do not tend to stay in close proximity to one another; six to eight feet is quite consistent, with participants moving forward to smash and blow a few times before breaking off again to judge one another.

Now, there's some argument in that for rounds being longer than they are (I've recently expanded a round in my world to 12 seconds from six) but I don't want to talk about that here.  I merely make the point to say that, if two persons were eight feet apart, and one chose to run, the other could hardly have a convenient last moment stab.  Consider the distance between Inigo and Count Rugen, just prior to Count Rugen's turning and running.

I also point out that accounts of battle that we have show that participants are quite able to pull back from the heat of melee as a unit, so that most large scale battles are fought by driving off the enemy, who reforms for another attack, falling back again and reforming again, giving up ground and retreating to a better position, the tide of battle turning back and forth with both sides remaining in close order and not flying apart into disarray.  In fact, disarray is a sure and certain way for your force to get itself wiped out ... it is, in war, the WORST form of fighting.  Two battle sides who were both in disarray would be blown to retreat, in the hopes of reforming into ranks before the other side was able, and therefore crushing the opponent.

In D&D, where the skirmishing is usually small scale, a combat between a very tough band of characters might be broken down more by small attacks by groups of 5-8 goblins, rushing in from different points of the compass, hoping to get the best opportunities from initiative, throwing a few spears, exchanging a few blows and immediately running away.  Meanwhile, bowmen continue to harrass the party.  Given the party tendencies for heavy armor, it would reduce their opportunities to chase down these goblin groups.  Before, the party could have killed three goblins every time they turned to run away ... but no longer.

Most of all, this does not happen in the space of twenty minutes, but in the space of twenty hours ... said goblin harrassers jumping forth just long enough to force the party to keep awake, themselves sleeping and resting in shifts, while the party gets more, and more tired.  Until the party is feeling the characteristics of forced march.

So that a high-level party which could usually handle 60 goblins in a stand-up fight finds themselves wittled down bit by bit, getting more and more freaked out as the damn, bloody goblins won't ... leave ... them ... alone!

Their only hope is to find a defendable place, hopefully with a source of water - or even better, the sight of civilization, before it's too late!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wiki, November 29, 2010

Listing off the things added to the wiki this last week:

A table for Dice Combinations.

The cities files for the Kingdom of the Habsburgs, the Archbishopric of Mainz and the House of Nassau.

A table for the effects of armor on movement.

A description of my Bard character.

A considerable expansion to the first Biology Table.

And maps for the Yenisey basin, the Angara basin, the Upper Lena basin, the English Channel and Germany.  Don't get too excited.  All of these maps fall in the category of not finished ... and in the case of England, maps not even started.  But I decided when I started this that I'd just go ahead and show the partially done work along with the completed ... the Germany map, though only 2/3rds finished, still represents a terrific amount of work of which I am proud.

I hope the above links provide some interest.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Seems Like Old Times

The comments field from the last post included this observation from Zzarchov:

“As I look through my old 1e books I can't help but notice you too, are rewriting the game to be more perfect. With new charts and tables, and new rules (such as the trampling rules I heartily absorbed into my games as they were brilliant). Your game may have D&D as a base, but it has moved quite far from D&D.”

I’ll forego the bile and venom today (as a snake, I need at least a week to build up a good charge) and focus instead on what I do retain from AD&D. Remember, I’m not an OD&D fan…I embraced the DMG and Player’s Handbook as primary works when I was a teenager.

First off, classes. There were eleven classes (including the bard) in the Player’s Handbook, and I play my world with eleven classes. The only significant change has been to the bard, which was presented in the PH as an ‘optional’ class. For most of the time I’ve been playing D&D, I did not include the bard, because the way its written in the book is, well, stupid. But for two years now I’ve been playing my upgraded bard, which the player’s seem to like.

The rules from the remaining classes remain pretty much untouched, although minor additional abilities have been added (such as sage knowledge or cantrips), from either my own ideas or from the Unearthed Arcana. It is the UA that gives tables for character backgrounds … my own character background tables are merely more complicated. The classes, and their material contribution to the game, remains unchanged.

No, I don’t play with alignments. Many people don’t. Not playing with alignments hardly dismisses my game from being called D&D.

Virtually every spell that was written for the Player’s Handbook is used in my world. Two are not – nystul’s magic aura, because it’s silly (yes, I know there are uses for it, but after applying those uses two or three times they’re old hat – there’s no place for the spell in an extended campaign), and read magic ... because I presume every mage knows how to read magic.  Why does it need to be a spell?  It would be like an engineer being asked to comprehend calculus.

Beyond that, they're all there - cleric, druid, mage and illusionist.  Tweaked a bit, but fully recognizable.  I've accepted a lot of spells from the Unearthed Arcana, which needed a lot more tweaking, but a few were just dumb.

Races included - all of them.  Exactly the same that were introduced in the PH.  I have explored other races, but I never found any of them added anything special to the game.

Psionics?  Nope, don't use 'em.  Again, under optional rules.  Used them for years, but again, they just offered lucky individuals special benefits, which upset the game's balance.  Haven't missed them.

That about covers the Player's Handbook.  I extend multi-class to humans, I don't use weapon damage against L-sized creatures, I don't use the weapon modifiers against armor class ... but I do use the same weapons, all of them.  A long sword still does 1-8, a short sword still does 1-6, a morning star still does 2-8.

Which brings us to combat.  Now, I have change the order and the timing for when attacks occur, and the effects of those attacks (which I call stunning), but the weapons are still swung in the same old way.  A d20 is still rolled, still modified by strength and dexterity according to the books, it still hits with the same chance according to the 'to hit' tables in the DMG ... and if magic, it retains the same bonuses.  Grenade-like missiles are handled in the same way, as is surprise, penalties for using more than one weapon at a time, invisibility detection and saving throws.  I've lightly modified the cleric turning table to make it a touch harder for clerics, but it still works the same way.  Experience points are still awarded (though differently), still applied to characters as always, and still causing players to go up levels.  I don't use the training rules, but that doen't preclude my game from being D&D either.

All the magic, every single piece, is still part of my game.  I have never removed a single item from the table.  I have added very, very few items of my own, since really I believe there are enough items there already.  The biggest change has been additional kinds of weapons and armor with bonuses.

The money is still gold, silver and copper.  I don't use platinum because no one in history ever did (there are problems with it), and electrum makes no sense because virtually every coin in history was a mix of metals, particularly silver and gold.  But the coins still get rewarded as treasure, they still get used to buy stuff, and the stuff is still available in the local towns.

The monsters are the same, too.  Again, tweaked here and there, more hit points, sometimes causing more damage, but hobgoblins are still affected by their standards, goblins still ride worgs, treats still crush, demons still gate, dragons still cast spells and so on.  It's fully recognizable as a monster-filled campaign, whatever my peculiar political organizations, or complex social structures.  If you cast people out for being innovative in their worlds, none of us are playing D&D.

So I am a bit confused.  The same characters, the same monsters, the same weapons, the same d20 rolls to hit, the same treasure, the same hack, slash and haul away the loot potential, mixed with the same roleplaying strategies.  I don't deny I have changed lots and lots of rules ... but most of those rules have been to ADD to AD&D (poetry), not change the fundamental policies of the game itself.

Finally, a personal word Zzarchov; I don't know if I'm writing all these rules to make the world more 'perfect' ... it's a word I wouldn't ever use.  Let's use 'organic' instead.  That's better than 'realistic,' too - which people condemn me for being.  Organic implies that modifications are there to make the world a living, breathing thing.

If there's anything that we as children used to think of when we were playing in our sandboxes, it was that all the little trucks and cars and tiny people walking around the mounds and tunnels of our worlds were ALIVE.  That is my intention.  To bring D&D alive.  I don't need perfection.

'Breathing' will do nicely.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Far be it for me to admit that I read Grognardia.  I hate that site, I hate its popularity and I really, truly hate the sort of dribbling, smug bullshit that falls off of the guy's fingers whenever he types about the 'direction' of RPG hobbies or D&D in particular.  But this week I have been hard up for material to write about, I haven't been able to spend time researching anything deep, and I'm honestly in the mood to write a rant.  And since the industry-pandering Grognard is always a good source when I'm in this mood, I did go to his site this morning and, predictably, I did find something to rant about.  Namely, this little gem:

"... These are the guys who like to spend hours poring over their rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of abilities for their characters and who think that nothing less than dozens of nested, cross-referenced encounter charts containing hundreds of entries is sufficient to create a 'realistic' campaign world.  That's definitely not what I want in a RPG..."

There's a pretty sweet shot at yours truly.  I just helped launch a site (really, the IT-genius Carl did the actual work) deliberately to accomplish exactly that, wasting my time slapping together stale, nested tables that clearly have jack shit to do with real D&D ... not that I need the big G to tell me that this is so.  I have dozens of people to do that for me.

Yes, it's true.  I have spent hours, days, even years poring over the rulebooks for D&D, and for quite a few other games, and over books at the library, at films and documentaries ... at anything, in fact, that will help me run this game BETTER.  It is a quest for me, it is art, it is sex.  So fuck G and anybody else who finds this behavior doesn't fit with their perception of what D&D should be for them.

Now, maybe that's my overreaction to his statement.  It's the 'definitely' that really cuts close to the bone, I think.  Fine, not his cup of tea, ho hum, I wonder what's in the paper today?  He's making it clear that it's definitely not his cup of tea ... implying it shouldn't be mine, or anybodys.  And I'd like to know why.

(Oh yes, I know, he's not really implying it, he's using that pandering it-could-go-either-way kind of language that exempts him from responsibility, but fuck that, this is a rant)

At this point I'm going to crumble a bit and provide a link; believe me, it's like shit in my mouth to send any readers his way, but here's the post the quote comes from.  To this point I have read through the text twice, and I will be honest ... I still don't know what he's talking about.  I do get a sort of old D&D is old and out of date and people aren't playing it any more kind of blah, blah, blah rhetoric, calling for some other game(?) to motivate the masses towards some kind of ecology(?) of players who would accomplish ... what, I don't know.  At that point I'm asleep on my desk.

I do know that there won't be any groundswell of culture started by people who feel too much poring over books is definitely not the way to go.  Which might be why the community has managed to remain in its infancy these past forty years ... because the drum is still in the hands of people banging away at the message, "Rewrite the Game, Rewrite the Game," in expectation of the glorious day that shall come when a perfect rule set shall be written for a perfect game that shall unite the masses and bring in the sheep to play.  Yes, dear folks, all we need is some sort of new game that shall inspire All, and end once and forever the in-fighting and bickering.  Then the new players that come shall truly be blessed.  All praise the game.  Let it be proclaimed throughout the land, not tables but faith!

Uh ... yeah.

Strawman argument?  Not hardly.  I'm reading an awful lot into G's post, lots he didn't put there, and I'll admit that heartily.  I'm reading into it a lot of other posts, from a lot of other people, and pulling it together into one song.  It's not that I care what G's position is ... I just want an excuse to bitch about things I'm getting tired of hearing.

Namely, that original D&D was an awful game, that people who play it are obviously morlocks who have yet to see the light, and that those of us who stubbornly cling to old ideals along the lines that hacking and slashing is kind of fun are obviously retarded.  After all, if we were capable of seeing the light, we'd be playing non-dice roleplaying games like the grown ups, right?

And those of us uselessly wasting our time problem-solving the game by painstakingly building up tables and employing them, to settle arguments at the table ... well, we're only misguided fools.  Our insistence that D&D can be more complicated without damaging the flow of gameplay is delusional ... because it can't be done.  People who have not done it, who can not do it, who have no interest in trying to do it, have said so.

Yes, gentle reader, the word is in.  D&D is out of fashion (again) and pretty soon no one will be playing it (like before).  We'll be playing video games, or absolutely something that isn't played with pencil and paper, because those things are dead and gone, don't you know?

Well, maybe I am wasting my time barfing out tables about monsters and cities and trade, but it is my time to waste.  I have players who all play video games like addicted freaks, who come to my table because they'd rather use a pencil, whenever my game is available.  If I ran my world more often, they'd come more often.  And I have this ridiculous blog, in which I talk exclusively about AD&D, stupidly thinking people want to read about that.  I'm such a violent, pathological character that I'm constantly amazed I have more than two followers, but yet I go on with my poring and my table-making just as though it's the right thing to do.  As I have been doing for 31 years, 11 weeks and 2 days.  I feel ashamed that I have wasted my life in this way, and wasted thousands of hours of other people's lives, giving them something to do on Friday and Saturday nights.  How foolish of me to do that.  Particularly in this worthless, dying game ecology, so vaguely described by the most popular pundit in this community.

Maybe I should see the light and quit.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wiki, November 22, 2010

Bit by bit, I do make the effort to add something to the wiki every day.  Here are the most recent additions:

A table indicating Encounter Actions according to intelligence.

Stubs for three tables that will eventually be a sprawling mess of information: a biology table, a table for details about monster presence prior to encounters, and a table for types of encounter behavior.

Three maps: Upper Volga, Central Urals and the Ob-Irtysh river confluence.

More coming throughout the next week.

In other news, my friend Carl is no longer posting at Three Hams Inn ... so I am removing that link from my blog.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Handling Your Failings

"Scrag the brat."
Last night I was telling a story about my Traveller days, when I used to be a player in a long-running game.  It came up as I was talking about the kind of character I tended to play ... a sort of very evil Sargeant Rock, a character I grew up on.

The story ran that we were stuck on a thickly populated planet with a low tech level, corresponding to present-day Earth.  We could see that the Referee was trying to keep us under his thumb for a few runnings ... but I'd learned the way to get around this Ref was to think completely out of the box, especially by doing anything shocking.  It tended to throw him off his even keel, so that he he would think less practically about ways to stop our plans.

We needed money.  So we kidnapped an elementary school.  We secured the doors, rounded up the little brats in the gymnasium and shot a few seven-year-olds to show the others we meant business.  When the army arrived to surround the school and bring us our money, we killed everyone in the gym with some grenades and shot our way out.

There is no way we should have lived.  But since the Ref spent most of that session with his jaw hanging open, not believing we were actually willing to scrag kids, it was easy to manipulate the session to get our money, buy a ship and get off planet.

That's what I remember most about playing that campaign ... getting around the DM.  We were 17, in our last year of high school, and that seemed the most important thing.  The best way to win was to steal more than the DM was offering.  To force him (it was never a 'her', not then) to give more than he wanted, because it was logical.

Logic, of course, defined by the better argument.

There are things 17-year-olds don't think about, such as what the actual approach the army would have taken, or how the planet would have been shut down afterwards ... they haven't had enough experience not to get thrown by the events and to concentrate, instead, on the likely response.

I have played, naturally, with people who have tried to get around me - and once upon a time, they succeeded regularly.  Now, a little less often, but still I make mistakes about giving too much treasure, too much power, or too many concessions, when I should probably kill the players instead.  I think every DM who has played for a length of time can remember, with embarrassment, things they have let players get away with that should never have happened.  A magic item which was far too powerful.  Friends with far too much influence.  A situation escaped far too easily.  It happens.  No matter how dearly you hold the sandbox motif, sooner or later your judgment is going to get skewed in a particular instance and you'll find yourself regretting it.

The typical DM reaction is to find ways to snatch back that item, or that monstrous pile of coins that should never have been given, typically by some trumped up circumstance which invariably leaves the players feeling bitter and cheated.  I don't recommend this.

I have found from experience that there are only two practical, worthy responses:

A) Suck it up.  You fucked up as a DM, they've gotten their haul and now you're just going to have to remain stoic through the next score of sessions.  Don't whine, don't even admit you've made a mistake.  No matter how lame the proceedings, you so best to hold your tongue and act as though this was your intent all along.  Chances are, your players will be happy even if you are not, the money will run out, the item will get lost of its own accord when the player does something legitimately stupid, circumstances will change and so on.  If you work harder to keep things on a tougher course in future, the players will look back fondly on those heady days when coin was plentiful and the whole incident's flaws will be forgotten - even by you, the DM.  You can't fix it, you can only swallow it down and move on.

B) If the error is so HUGE, so obvious, so obtrusively destructive to your campaign, talk to the players not as a DM, but as a person.  "People, I'm deeply sorry, I'm a fuck up, I should never had given all of that treasure, I should have insisted that you fight your way out, and I didn't.  Please, for the sake of the campaign, I need everyone to sacrifice their gold and magic items - we'll mark it up to a dream, and in future I promise to do better."

Believe it or not, this works.  If you present it very reasonably, you have the benefit of the player's knowing that yes, they've gotten something they didn't deserve, and in fact they have a feeling themselves that it is too much.  They may make a joke or two at your expense, and they have a right to do so; you fucked up.  I have endured many a jibe, some of which are still made years later, as in, "If I had that vorpal blade now ..."  When this gets said, I remember point A and I suck it up, I grin, I make some suggestion that there's a vorpal blade somewhere, and the matter is dropped.  All in all, a very reasonable arrangement for a situation I created, that I had to uncreate.

To emphasize, you achieve nothing as a DM if you try to uncreate that situation through divine intervention.  Too much intervention is what created the mess in the first place.  Your players tried to manipulate you with their sad, puppy dog eyes, wanting only to go up a level and feel powerful, and you fell for it.  You bypassed the system for their sakes, or you built a system that was far too generous in the first place.  Confess your failings, right them outside of the game format and start with a clean slate.

It's the only way, if you want players to show your world any loyalty.  Talk straight with them, and they will play straight with you.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Identify Yourselves

Damn, I love statistics.  And since I have some to play with, namely the stats for the new Wiki website ...

Because so few people are looking, I have this very rare oppotunity to ask who out there is viewing the site.

From Canada:

Collingwood, Ontario
Edmonton, Alberta
Vancouver, B.C.
Port Coquitlam, B.C.
London, Ontario

From the U.S.:

Denver, Colorado
Kings Mountain, North Carolina
Sewell, New Jersey
Bellevue, Washington
Dorset, Vermont
Washington, D.C.
Littleton, Colorado
New York, New York
Middletown, Connecticut
Meriden, Connecticut
Newbury Park, California
Cranberry Twp, Pennsylvania
El Paso, Texas
Dallas, Texas
Irving, Texas
Corvallis, Oregon
Midlothian, Virginia
Abilene, Texas
Rossville, Georgia
San Rafael, California
Edmonds, Washington

From Europe:

Lynn, U.K.
Reykjavik, Iceland
Ely, U.K.
Winchester, U.K.
London, U.K.
Riga, Latvia

Anyone care to answer?  I'm just curious.

Update:  near misses (possible remote connections) highlighted in yellow; definite hits highlighted in green.

Wiki, November 18, 2010

Hopefully, there will be updates every day, and eventually I'll settle down and only list them once per week.  But I feel quite boisterous at present.

Here are the updates from the last two days.

James has added some House Rules, Spell Fatigue and Magical Mishaps.

I've added some additional cities lists, for Bavaria, Bohemia and Brandenburg.  And I have added an upgrade to my Mass Effects table.

Looking over my computer files last night, I've determined that a great deal of what I want to post needs serious reworking in order to be comprehensive and valuable to the player.  If nothing else, I feel the wiki is going to be helpful in pressuring me to finally tidy up many tables which, for years, have really only been half useful since they have always been half done.  At the moment, most of what I can post easily here is fairly dry, but technical material I've developed for my trade tables and mapping ... things that needed to be exact in order for them to work.

As well, I'll have to stretch myself to work on projects I've long since given up on or done no work on for years, such as treasure and encounter tables.


Some of you may have noticed that certain maps failed to link properly on the wiki: specifically, that of Lithuania-Poland, the Baltic Sea, and the Lower Yenisey.  Thank you Anthony for pointing this out.  Those links have been fixed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gaming Definitions And The Idiocy Of Scholars

My friend James of A Dungeon Master's Tale has an excellent post about tabletop D&D not being a 'transitional technology.'  I encourage the gentle reader to have a look.

In the post, James quotes the dictum of French sociologist Roger Caillois, in his book Games and Men. For my own convenience, I'll quote the items again of what games "must be":

1. fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character
2. separate: it is circumscribed in time and place
3. uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable
4. non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
5. governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life
6. fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality

I have no problems with 2, 3 and 5.  These are technical considerations of where, for what purpose and how the game is played.  6 is a bit more contentious, since I don't believe every game insists upon the awareness of a different reality - some games, such as releasing humans and hunting them for pleasure, are a bit too real.  But we'll go with the old adage that if someone gets hurt, it's a sport, and in any case we speaking of D&D so I have no real issue with number 6.
But 1 & 4 ... ah, that's another matter.
Now, I am not here to say that D&D is not fun.  It obviously is.  My sessions are accompanied by laughter, boisterous shouting, playfulness and all the elements of a children's schoolyard.
Mind you, that's all the elements ... including fury, vociferous disagreement, sulking and boredom.  So there are very definitely moments that occur in the game that are not 'fun.'  People care very deeply about their characters, they are very involved in the success of their strategies and in staying alive, and sometimes they are very definite about the dice not working out the way they please.  So I am wondering ... when the game isn't 'fun,' is it still a game?
Well, obviously.  And the argument will be made, no doubt, that in some way all that adrenaline is part of the 'fun.'
But I can't find any definition anywhere for fun that includes "occasionally very pissed off and angry due to temporary circumstances resulting from frustration while having a good time."
Now, I'll keep this example as short as I can.  In the battle last week against the petrifying-gaze catoblepas I threw against the party, one of the players had both his main character and his henchman turned to stone.  He missed both saving throws by one point.  Both by one point exactly.  He was not pleased.  He did not yell, he did not sulk, but he was very definitely NOT enjoying it.
Despite his stoic outward appearance, however - and I thought he was handling it quite well, as being in a dungeon it means he won't be part of the 'fun' for an indeterminate time to come - the rest of the party was not satisfied with his calm, stiffened exterior (ba-dum-dum).  They spent a good twenty minutes of the session encouraging him, with his girlfriend in particular telling him not to sulk, when he wasn't actually sulking ... and that led to a nagging argument and a long, difficult period of psychological adjustment for everyone.  I got up, made a cup of coffee, browsed around for something to eat and eventually, we settled down to play out the rest of the combat.
This, as anyone knows who plays regularly, is typical.  People are emotional.  And where danger threatens, even fictitious danger, people get upset.  They don't always have fun.  Sometimes, they're turned to stone.
But when the next session begins, you can bet your ass the player is going to be present, stone characters in hand, ready to play the second someone finds the inevitable stone-to-flesh scroll that logically ought to be found in a lair where a catoblepas is kept as a pet.  I mean, the pet's owner just has to be prepared for this sort of thing.
Maybe for a whole lot of people, the game is just fun fun fun all the time, and nothing really serious ever happens.  But my memories of hopscotch and scrub include - when I think of it - fights over where the little stone landed and where the pitcher was supposed to stand.  I remember fistfights broke out over stuff like that.  Yet we all wanted to play, most of the time.  Maybe not with certain people, like that bastard Brad I knew who tried to whack me with his bat when I said it was his fourth foul and he chose to ignore that house/playground rule we always played by.  Brad took his bat and went home and it took us a week to find another.  Fun times.
I think it has to be said that with games, fun is a desired outcome, but not an attribute.  We can all remember playing some game, somewhere, when we were more concerned with humiliating our opponent than having fun: "I'm gonna practice this goddamn game until I wipe the board with that bastard's ass, and when I do, I'm going to LAUGH right in his fucking face."
Maybe those are not the highest ideals to play by, but it doesn't make the game cease to be a game.  Definition-wise, fun doesn't mean shit.
Now, as regards number 4 ... "A game does not accomplish anything useful."
Really.  I mean, that's actually part of the definition?  Because I am baffled.  In the first place, given the number of people who accumulate income via the playing of games, it seems pretty useful in some cases to having more money in my pocket.  I've done pretty well at poker over the years, and I have occasionally hurt a few sharks at nine-ball.  In the non-fiscal sense, I've seen fame accumulated by others who've done well in competitions, and in one case I know for a fact that led to the rather nerdish fellow getting laid by a very hot chick.  Benefits of the game.
But then, perhaps we really are talking only within the exact framework of the game.  That is, peripheral benefits aside, the actual knocking down of the pins did not accomplish anything specifically useful to the existence of the pins or the ball.
To make that definition work, it means that I have to ignore the physical benefit that bowling gives to my body, or the social enjoyment of watching others bowl and talking about it, the relief of my stress in most cases that likely increases my overall life expectancy and so on.  But then, maybe bowling is a sport, whereas dice rolling is not.
I would argue that the difference is just in the size and exact physical properties of the thing you throw, but okay, let's just stick to throwing dice.  Yet I'm still having to discount the moderate burst of seratonins in my system, making me high upon tossing a d20, in order for this to fit the above's definition of a game.  Sorry, I find that little rush 'useful' to my state of consciousness, as being high on stuff that isn't actually illegal drugs is sort of my purpose for being. 
I can't help it that our sociologist Caillois can't find that in his list of 'useful' things, but tough tookies.  What Caillois really means in his definition of useful is that it doesn't fit into what would be catalogued as part of industrial production.  It's a waste of time, as opposed to my job or the raising of children, those being reactionary judgments about what's useful and what isn't.  The definition is extremely cursory, ridiculously weak in its foundation and utterly dismissive that anything pleasurable can also be useful.  It is typical of academicians that, in order to insist that a game is an escape from the daily grind of paycheque living, it must by definition be useless.
This only gives credence to that facet of the population that looks at the pleasurable activities of its citizens, feeling free to define this activity as productive and therefore exploitable by the ruling class, and that activity as useless and therefore unimportant in the grand scheme of things.  To hell with that.  D&D may not yet be something useful to French sociologists, but it is very much useful to me.
Which means that either D&D isn't a game, or sociologist Roger Caillois has his head up his ass.  You tell me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cleric's Choice And The Paladin's Dilemma

I did eventually settle on a solution for resurrection and raise dead, in answer to the problems presented in this post.   Rather than ban either spell, impose restrictions on their use, impose penalties on the players or any of the other suggestions, I went an entirely different route and lowered the cost of the spells.  This was, after all, my actual problem - that players would be able to make hordes of money by sitting on their butts casting their new raise dead spell at 9th level.  I did not actually have any problem whatsoever with the presence or benefit of the spell.

While lowering the cost does mean that the players do not need to give an arm and a leg to get raised (which was actually one literal suggestion), the overall availability of raise dead means that unless the party happens to be in a fairly heavily populated area, chances are the spell won't be available.  Not because a cleric won't give it, but because there is no cleric of sufficient level around.

Once, when running a party 20 years ago, they found themselves in the Caribbean after numerous adventures, a major character died and there was no civilization at all.  Nor was it likely they were going to be returning to Europe any time soon.  So the party carefully cleaned up the character's skull of meaty bits, mounted it on a staff and had the cleric carry it around for the next eight months of real time (I was running once/week, so about 30 gaming sessions) before it could be resurrected.  They paid heftily, and the player succeeded at his resurrection survival roll.  Good times.

Anyway, for me, the problem is solved.  A lot of the time the party won't find a cleric in raise dead's time frame, and pay more for the higher spell ... and meanwhile, they themselves won't produce a 16th level cleric for some time.

It occurs to me that a 16th level cleric is such a rare thing in my world that the pressure to use the spell upon only worthy people will be very great.  I do impose a rule that you must be of the cleric's religion gain the benefit of certain clerical spells, but not for healing spells: cure light wounds, remove paralysis, remove blindness, dispel magic, cure serious wounds, neutralize poison, raise dead, restoration, heal, resurrection and so on ... any spell, in fact, that does not require the recipient to believe anything.  The reverse of all these spells work on non-believers ... why not the good as well?

Where faith matters happens when the spell requires a belief from the recipient.  Bless, for example, gives a +1 to hit as a matter of believing the bless has effect.  The same goes for chant or prayerAid, which is not a healing spell, but the addition of extra hit points, is also a blessing, as is any spell that empowers a recipient.  Atonement requires a willingness to believe.

Others might interpret the spells differently, but I'm not concerned with that; this is how I do it in my world.

Where it really makes a difference in day-to-day affairs is the party's paladin.  The 10' radius protection, and the lay-on hands, only extends to those who are the same religion as the paladin - i.e., have formally been baptised or otherwise indoctrinated into the religion.  And once your player has been, there is a certain responsibility put on the player - cleric and non-cleric alike - in return for that bonus 2 AC (or any other benefit).

(Yes, I do require the same religion for the paladin to heal ... it is a different kind of healing, and does require faith)

Now, it so happens that I am running a mage in my daughter's world, who is about to become 3rd level.  I am looking forward to 5th, when I will receive a henchmen - she plays the same rules as me.  And it is my plan to roll a cleric.

The party is divided, religiously.  The paladin and the druid in the party are Celtic.  The fighter, thief and illusionist are Roman Catholic.  I am the only undeclared member.

The player who runs the paladin rolled a spectacular character: four 17s.  Strength, Constitution, Dexterity and Charisma ... with high rolls for Intelligence and Wisdom besides.  He is a formidable powerhouse, and is now moving steadily towards fourth level.  If I play the sort of cleric I plan to play, namely an aggressive authoritarian with delusions of divine infallibility, and I pick Roman Catholic, the paladin and my cleric will eventually go toe-to-toe.  Which is fine, the cleric only has to endure for two or three rounds for my mage to rip the paladin a new asshole.  (of course, he's reading this right now and wondering if he should let my mage live to be 3rd).

Alternately, I could choose to be Celtic.  This, I think, could be very interesting, because it provides my character with some immunity regarding the paladin.  Gods do not look with great love upon paladins who destroy clerics of their own religion.  Kill me, and be a fighter forever.

Of course, this all depends on how thoroughly I play the cleric character.  I feel I have a good sense for the dramatic, the screaming of "For Manannan!" as I crush skulls with my mace, the gentle influence of giving alms to hundreds as I enter towns, the patient assassination of hated catholic clerics and the steady anarchy I encourage by converting not the resident humans, but the dispossessed orcs and half-orcs of the nearby hills.  After all, Celtic gods are less preachy about racial purity.  It might be interesting to have the paladin not as an enemy, but as a puppet, dancing on my string of religious agenda, marching ahead of said wretched denizens of the dark to destroy a hated Gothic church.

Mwah hah hah.

And once again, the paladin is reading this, wondering if I should be allowed to live.  But this post is really only written for his benefit.  There are things a paladin must contend with, and annoying, pious clerics are the worst.

Wiki, November 16, 2010

For awhile, I'm going to float on the work I'm adding to the Wiki, updating here daily.  After awhile I hope to be less exhuberant, updating what I've added weekly.  But for the time being, I hope the gentle reader will forgive.

Today's Page and it's Mother.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Code of Laws

Funny thing.  With first year Ancient History courses in University, those that the jocks and the screwheads (engineers) take to get their humanities requirement, the standard issue lesson is that Rome fell by degrees through the 4th and 5th centuries, and was replaced with the Dark Ages.  End of story.  There's more to it than that, but with sixty-eighty people per class, the emphasis is just to teach people that there was a Rome, that it was an important part of our past and that yes, people actually breathed and had thoughts that are still relevant.  That's enough for them.  But for the gentle reader, I'll try and do better.

When I was a teenager, and still reading through my parent's library, I found there a terrific book - written for victims of the English school system - called 1066 And All That.  It makes great hay of what English history an adult will be expected to remember from learning English history, and what they will be expected to remember wrongly.  I was not a product of that system, being Canadian, but I did know the history and I did chuckle my way through the book.  I'm sure I have my copy around somewhere.

A similar book on Roman history could easily be entitled, And Then Came 476, Full Stop.  Because I remember being taught somewhere before seriously becoming a classics scholar that the Roman Empire ended in 476 A.D.  It is the date of Rome's 'destruction' by Odoacer the Goth ... but Rome had been 'destroyed' in 410, just 66 years earlier.  The difference was that Odoacer removed the last Western emperor of Rome, so that the title, not the political entity, came to an end.

There was another emperor of Rome at the time, who resided in Constantinople, who went on living and being replaced with other emperors for nearly 1000 years after 476.  They went on calling themselves the Roman Empire, although we call them the Byzantines.  The name is not what's important, however.  What is important is that individuals within that society continued to live according to Roman Law.  As they did everywhere else in Europe, dead emperor or no.

Note that I do not say, 'Christian Law.'  Christian law is not, and never has been, of any relevance to western society.  Our society does not follow the precepts of Deuteronomy, Leviticus or any of the Old Testament except by coincidence - and damn few coincidences at that (feel free to read and compare).  No, western laws are based upon the same principles of justice established in and around the sixth century BCE, with the fall of the Kings of Rome, that preceded the Republic of Rome, that preceded the Empire.

The genius of Roman Law was that previously unthought-of circumstances, which had never come up before, could be decided by a judge ... and then that decision would itself become law.  Strange circumstances had previously been brought before the king, who made a judgment on the matter ... but the next king in line was not in any way compelled to view the same matter the same way.  Thus, the law changed from monarch to monarch.

But a court of law was not limited to the bloodline of a reigning king.  Once the judgment was made, it set a precedent - and all future judges were bound to accept the precedent as law.  As such, the social limitations on individual behavior improved with time, not according to a individual's whims, but according to a systematic, and far less passionate, interpretation of daily events.

Other democracies were playing with the same structure - the Greeks of course, and certainly the Chinese, whose establishment of a hierarchical bureaucracy bound the state with so many laws that social change was restrained and suppressed.  But I don't want to talk about the Chinese today - perhaps another time.

And about the Greeks - it was Aristotle that said "The law is reason free from passion."  But the Greeks were such hopeless, squabbling children during the entire time of the Rome Republic's steady ascendance, it's hard to argue that the rest of Greek society understood the least thing about being free from passion.  Their democracies did not tend to be widespread or consistent, repeatedly collapsing into oligarchies and worse ... so that while Greek thought had great influence upon Roman Law, the idea itself retained a distinctive Roman flavour.

When the Republic collapsed under the will of dictators (Caesars, then emperors), the law carried on.  In the first century A.D. the law became a tool for ambitious generals to declare themselves emperors ... and increasingly the emperors became less and less bound by it.  People point to Caligula as an evil emperor, but he reigned for only four years and was hardly a patch on others who would come later, such as Domitian, Commodus or Elagabalus.  (Caligula is only hot shit because we have multiple sources for him, whereas scholarship had declined as the emperors got worse).

But whatever the emperors did or did not do within the confines of the law was a matter for that small group within the emperor's reach.  Those vast, backward regions of the empire were hardly affected by how many self-made gods sat upon the throne.  Daily, ordinary disputes like boundary lines, contracts and assault cases were carried along in the same way that they had been during the Republic.  Precedents continued to be steadily added to the system, though with the demise of central authority the listings for these precendents failed to become generalized throughout the empire.  Eventually, law became a matter of isolated pockets doing whatever seemed correct for them.  The technological institution (for I continue to point out these breakthroughs are a techology, as used in Civ IV) remained unchanged.

And when the western emperor ceased to be, and Gaul, Iberia and North Africa fell under the sway of the Franks, the Visigoths and the Vandals, there weren't enough foreign tribesmen to fundamentally change how such matters were decided.  In fact, western Europe swallowed the tribes up, turning them Christian and making them into 'Roman' kings, teaching them how to enact their authority according to the dictates as established by judges who had lived and set precedents centuries before.

The 'Byzantine Empire,' the Eastern Empire of Rome, retained a great deal of central authority over its dispossed regions.  One particular emperor, Justinian I (6th century), saw the difficulties arising from each region having hundreds of precedents shared by no other region, and so demanded that the laws be reunited under a singular code.  Justinian's Code, the Body of Civil Law, would retain vast sections of the law that would be lost to the west ... who had no reason or purpose to retain laws applying to urban planning and urban life, since 'urban' was fast becoming a non-existent thing.  Except for the creation of the Code, the more complex parts of Roman Law, devised under the Republic and during the Empire, would have been lost completely.

It would be seven centuries after Justinian before this code would be widely introduced back into western society.  The growing city states of Italy in the 1200s, stymied for a reasonable methodology to deal with hundreds of matters arising from urbanization, embraced wholesale the written laws deseminating out of the East, using them to re-establish Roman Laws back into their lives.  Changed somewhat, with an additional seven centuries of precedents, the law would continue to change up until the present day.

For yes, we too live under Roman Law, as I alluded to earlier.  Judges, juries, the pomp and ceremony, each participant's role and limitations - all put in place millenia ago.  And every depiction that occurs in every fictional setting, from the Cardassians' guilty-before-innocent supposition to the banal strains of Judging Amy, follows lockstep the institutions of judge, defendant, prosecutor, witness and so on.

When considering your D&D setting, remember that you are the product of thousands of years of thinking, inducing you to believe that any civilized, decent society should possess these processes to determine guilt or innocence.  But how did they come about when your world had no Rome?  This world's only alternative method to Roman Law has been the Chinese - whom I did not talk about, remember - which fell apart in 1840 when the bureaucratic system collapsed to European gunpowder, and disappeared entirely in 1908.  China today is a product of western thinking.

It isn't fair, I'm realizing, that I haven't described the Old Bureaucracy.  However, this post has been going on long enough (what do you expect if you're going to discuss law?) ... and I want to wrap it up with this:

If the gentle reader is not going to have a system of law based on any justice we understand (and let's face it, we've just got the one), the only alternative is instituting law-based-on-a-whim.  And that is a hard system to operate in as a sandbox player.  We're used to being able to predict what is, and what is not, illegal - and a lot of laws being sprung on a player out of the blue can really hurt a campaign.  I've run into problems like that just speaking of laws that were actually in existence in the 17th century, that are gone now due to increased freedom with democracy.

On a lot of levels, it is easier for the party, and easier for the DM, to retain a loose presentation of the law as we understand it now; which is, I've found, what DMs tend to do.  Don't steal, don't kill, don't cast magic at others ... those things are obvious to anyone.  But change the laws - and indeed, invent your own, non-Roman system - and watch the confusion and unhappiness grow.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bloody Marvelous

Only a few days ago I wrote about guilds, and made comment about the staggering change in productivity that led their demise.  Then, last night, I sat down with my copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, intending to bone up for the Economics essay I'll write sometime in the future ... and found this, first page, Book 1.  I'd forgotten it was there:

"To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade, nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations ; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another ; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper ; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day."

A very weak part of modern historiography has begun a vast rewrite of various persons and events without this in mind ... insisting, instead, that human beings have always been the same, and that they have always perceived the world in the same way, regardless of technological or cultural innovation.  In popular culture this manifests itself in ridiculous presentations of historical figures as ludicrously fore-sighted, often liberal or sympathetic creatures, such as Spartacus' speeches from Kubrick's movie of the same name, or the recent insistence that Marie Antoinette was really a nice person and deserved none of the damning rhetoric about her.  That such opinions should hold in films is de rigueur ... the audiences are modern, even if the figures are not.  But when it comes about that serious books are written to defend positions like this, it demonstrates the cognitive dissonance of the historian's profession, that can preach the commonality of rewriting history for the sake of the winners while in the same breath rewriting history to satisfy the social mores of those who donate to university coffers.

I titled my last post Racism in the hopes of prodding a bit of discomfort among my gentle readers - but I saw no evidence, which in fact encourages me to believe that political correctness does not have the pull that the media suggests.  I should have called the post something along the lines of Genetic And Geographical Considerations Regarding Chromatic Distinctions As Applied To D&D Characters.

(forgive me, I'm reading War And Peace and Wealth of Nations; I'm stuck in an era two and three centuries ago)

But since the question hasn't come up, I'll pose it:  Is the game responsible for restraining ideas like racism, sexism, child abuse, rape, cannibalism or other such activities consistent with the course of historical behaviors?  Would you allow any of them, or others, in your game?

If a character decided that his particular interest was picking whores off the streets, fucking them, beating them within an inch of their lives and then paying them on the way out the door, would you make an express effort to A) hoist them out of your campaign; B) ensure very quickly that some game karma was turned around on the player; C) make streetwalkers extraordinarily hard to find; D) calmly look the other way with the recognition that, "Well, that was fairly common"; or E) would you calmly ensure there was a streetwalker visibly available for the character every time he drifted into town?

When you read the title of this post, no doubt the gentle reader assumed I meant the fortuitous discovery of Adam Smith's point ... but now I would imagine that same title seems a bit uncomfortable, now.

I want to say that thirty years ago, playing the game with boys much younger than I am now (and being a boy much younger than I am now), killing women and children, raping, burning things down just to hear the screams of the victims inside ... those were fairly common elements of a ordinary Friday evening session.  There's something about human beings that encourages us to explore the darker sides of our nature.  Anyone who's put a lot of chairs and fireplaces into a home in the Sims knows that.  Incidentally, doesn't seem to work as well in Sims 2 ... but the microwave is a death trap, as always.

If we can do it in video games, why not D&D?  Everything else about VGs gets co-opted for RPG's, so why shouldn't the whole range of human behavior be casually explored?  Only, the horrors we can commit with VGs are limited to what the programmers mistakenly (or intentionally) allow past the radar ... while human imagination is not quite so limited.  So if Genghis Khan (and others) have enjoyed their success through the heaping of tens of thousands of human corpses for the purpose of see what flames be made from human skin and oil, why shouldn't my slightly deranged character?

For the same reasons, I suppose, that we don't join groups in bars that chatter about things like that.  Nerds and geeks are possessed with the same reluctance to embrace sick, psychotic behavior as anyone else, and having a player slavering at the table for descriptions from the DM about how much blood they've managed to squeeze from the whore's (deleted) does tend to make all present wonder about Johnny's other, non-RPG-related proclivities.   So let's not invite Johnny back, hm?  Better yet, let's tell Johnny we've all moved.

I'll be honest, I don't have to police this one.  My own imagination is worse than my players (as some of the above should show), and I am fine with restraining myself.  The players have done some questionable things, like butchering a hundred orc women and children for no reason, when they found a village where all but the very old and the very young had gone off to war.  But such behavior gets cat-calls and abuse from the women members of the group (which the male members are in relationships with), and things get sorted out.  I've always thought a DM ought not to get involved in the squabbles of players.

But I'd run the other if players were willing ... for a time.  It can be, honest, very 'bloody' marvelous, taken in short bits.

At some point, that sort of hedonism tends to wear, as the effort to be more and more demented becomes a very tired point.  I have the Marquis de Sade's writings for excess being done well (I recommend Juliette), and frankly I'd rather run a party interested in construction rather than destruction.  A greater challenge, better conflicts, and overall a sense of accomplishment that cannot be achieved in wallowing.

Which is not to say that if construction cannot be done upon many, many corpses.  Some of which, it must be said, might be less ... virginal ... than they were previously.

See?  I am not out to lunch.  Given this sort of distinction regarding production, you cannot base any economic system applying to pre-Industrial history by post-Industrial standards.  Like every other aspect of D&D, from culture to religion to politics, the game designer must think differently, and not within 20th century frameworks.  The present has come about due to technological innovations which did not exist, and therefore can not be assumed to have had an impact, on earlier human behavior.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Last week I began working on the last of my personal stats tables, charisma, something that I've put off doing for a year or so.  It is intended to be a background generator, my philosophy being that there are certain things an individual doesn't get to determine about themselves - build, health, family, social class and biology ... the latter including, of course, the color of one's eyes, hair and skin.

My first thought was to put together something simple, a table that would be rolled upon at random, but quickly my sense for the real got in the way.  You cannot simple create a universal table for an individual's hair color, since the likelihood of that hair being blonde or black varies considerably with whether that person is, say, Egyptian or Icelandic.

This is not something D&D remotely touches upon - not in any book I've read, though the Dragon Magazine might years ago have had something on it (that I missed).  Human racial characteristics are taboo.  In most 'worlds,' the Polars might be Vikings and the Equatorials might be Bantu, but specific distinctions for populations are not designated.  When you talk about 'race' in D&D, you are talking about elves, dwarves and halflings, NOT Samoyads, Berbers and Polynesians.

But unfortunately for me, I run the Earth and I cannot simply ignore said designations, if I want to retain the world's cultural and political identity.  If you get off the boat in Vietnam, you will not be met by a group of blue-eyed, red-haired villagers.  It would not be Vietnam, and if not, what is the point?

These days, it is practically racist to even use the terms Caucasoid, Mongoloid or Negroid ... the evidence to show that melanin levels are a product of environment has destroyed the 'scientific racism' that was a subject for discussion in schools even in my lifetime.  And I take no issue with that; the less divided we are, the better.  My concerns only reach as far as producing a random table that has any chance of telling a player what his or her color statistics are (eyes, hair, skin) at the moment of birth.

I have a table, based on data gathered for my trade tables, that indicates randomly where a character is born, this table being dependent upon where a character starts in my campaign world.  If the character joins the game when the party is in India, he or she is very likely to be Asian; if the character joins when the party is in Gibraltar, he or she would probably be Spanish or Moroccan.

But unless I want to create a table for every point on earth, I'm stumped.  How easy it would be to assign characteristics according to geography ... but it isn't just a question of saying that people from Switzerland all have this hair color and this eye color.  Most people may not travel more than seven miles from their place of birth, but genetically we're not that homogenous.  After all, people from the exact same parents might have differing hair and eye color, my sister and I for example.

The obvious answer - one that many a gentle reader is thinking right now - would be to ditch the table and let players simply choose their own characteristics.  Same old saw, it's a game, it's fantasy, blah blah blah.  I think I have to call that the most tired argument in the D&D community.  I swear, 'personal fantasy' is a euphemism for players wanting to prop up their own withered egos, bewailing that in real life they are such social lepers that they need this game to be fantasy if only that they can feel like real men or desirable women - something they just can't have otherwise.  As if my world needs to be a fictional therapy for losers who can't bear being Mr. Pink in this scenario.  I'm not your enabler, I'm your DM.

Fact is, I'd like a series of tables that make it clear to the player that when they put the little 8 under their charisma, the ultimate throwaway stat, that they KNOW they have an 8 charisma, complete with mottled, sickly looking skin, buck-teeth, stuttering and body odor.  I don't give a crap that its also a description of the actual player sitting at the table - if you want to be a stud or a babe, sacrifice that 17 dexterity and put it under charisma instead.  You might stumble when you walk, but you'll look super-hot doing it.

So yes, I'm adamant about having the dice pick out your hair color.  And since I don't want to make up a thousand tables, I'm somewhat stuck with some very racist generalizations - racist because now it's racist to say that there are 'races.'  I feel I will probably produce very simple tables, with very few possible results for each region, to compensate for the many regions that I could draw up tables for.  As a guideline for how many, I'll throw up the table below, a German map from the 19th century.  Try not to be offended.

This sort of thing - being told their general appearance - doesn't bother my party at all.  They're used to being from a multiplicity of regions, since they've wandered around from Russia to Iran to Eastern Europe.  Members of the party are Egyptian, Greek, Finnish, Persian and Russian.  The girl who used to play a Chinese cleric moved away about a year ago.

Naturally there's the matter of non-human races.  Because the origins for elves, dwarves and halflings are fairly homogenous, for those races I could create one single table.  But I'll probably think of reasons to goof that, too.


I should have included that this is the table I'm upgrading.

I've made up this map for the general distribution of humanoids in my world.  It only includes those areas that I have designed:

Monday, November 8, 2010


A guild is not, as many people are apt to say, a kind of 'trade union.' Trade unions were founded as a means of representing a laboring working class against an ownership-management class, to force the latter to make concessions in wages and working conditions.

Guilds are made up of small owner-operators who join together in organizations in order to monopolize a certain product to impose price-fixing upon the consumer. More than a trade union, a guild is much closer to a lobby - in that the larger the number of members, the more influence it has upon the government, encouraging public spending which benefits the guild.

Future members of the guild begin as apprentices, who are educated to practice shoemaking, baking or tanning according to traditional, accepted guidelines already adhered to by the members of the guild. Innovation is not rewarded. Guilds have no interest in competition, personal achievement or the transfer of knowledge. Recipes and methodologies are kept in the strictest of confidence, and are never, ever shared with anyone.  Those inside the guild are already perfectly aware, so mention even between members is discouraged, since a casual conversation might be heard by anyone.

Given this sort of conspiratorial attitude among guild members, even those creating the most mundane of material objects, what was the benefit to society?  Obviously, the guild benefits, since it controls the trade in that particular guild - but why was the monopoly not challenged?  Why did independent breadmakers not simply undersell the competition?

Guilds offered something which competition could not:  certified quality of goods.  The guild was not founded upon profit, but upon control of trade ... and it relied heavily upon popular support for its products.  A failed shoe or an unworthy bread did not encourage people to seek their shoes and bread elsewhere, but to descend upon the shopkeepers with club and spade.  It was not a forgiving society.  But a guarantee of quality also guaranteed popular support for those guilds operating in a town.  Thus was the guild's control and power guaranteed.

And while technological innovation was suppressed, it did occur ... very, very slowly.  To the tune of centuries.  And since the innovation did tend to result directly from the activities of those within the guild, the innovations were also closely guarded.  An independent shoemaker would be likely to produce shoes which could not hope to compete in quality with the guilds ... and since the guilds also tended to control things like raw material goods, a shoemaker that did not own his own cows, and perform his own tanning, was not likely to find those things provided.  Thus the self-made leather was a poorer quality, the craftsmanship was a poorer quality and the population had already learned to rely on the street of the cobbler's for their goods.  The best an independent shoemaker could hope to do would be to reside in some small backwater where the Cobbler's Guild had no interest.

Thus was born a hundred fairy tales.

The demise of the guild came about when the quality of a product could be reasonably duplicated (not perfectly, mind, but humans are not perfect) by machines, who could produce goods in such quantities that guilds could not compete.  Guilds operate under conditions where only so many teapots can be produced by a given silversmith in a day - the limited number of teapots existing in the world then justifies the fixed price for a teapot, and a guaranteed wage for the guild member so long as they continue to sit at their bench and tap away.  Moreover, a silversmith can only take on so many apprentices at a time, or is willing to take on an apprentice (if the local market wants one), as it takes considerable time to teach an apprentice to perform the skills of a silversmith to an adequate degree.  It can take years for a guild to effectively increase the availability of a product, should the population suddenly swell - which can bring in foreign ex-guild members of other cities, challenging the monopoly.  Violence did ensue.  And meanwhile, a population was want to do without while the matter was settled.

However, the creation of a factory to make teapots was something that could be done in a matter of months ... and its creation did not require any special education for most of the laborers involved in the factory's creation.  One silversmith is consulted in the making of the machine that churns out teapots, and then that machine can be duplicated again and again, by other machines that required the consultation of only one tool-maker.

Quality declined (and artistry, too), of course, and continues to decline, from the level of profound craftsmanship that had been managed by the guilds circa 1700 ... but that doesn't change that in the present day we would rather have an immediate availability for less cost, however quality is compromised, and however little artistry goes into our daily material purchases.

This, I hope, goes to show in some small part why present-day assumptions about economics simply don't apply to the Medieval template.  But let's move onto the guild's application in D&D.

In large cities, guilds tended to conglomerate in certain squares or along certain streets.  A village of less than 500 people might have only one baker, but a huge city like Venice or Genoa would have scores ... and the baking houses would establish themselves near those places where rurals appeared with their sacks full of milled flour.  The mills tended to be in the hills where they could count on running water or wind for power.  Moreover, a substantial clean water source would be needed by the bakers as well, plus coal or wood for their ovens ... so the placement of the baker's guild within the city wouldn't be something random.

Because the guild would have money, and their own interests, it was common for them to hire a private police force - what D&D calls the town watch.  But the watch would not be worried about the 'town,' but specifically about the homes and businesses of the guild who had hired them.  And their duties would be more than to stop thieves.  They would actively take part in opposing anyone who could threaten the bakers business, pushing off the unwanted and having disputes with other watches hired by other guilds, whose presence there might also depend upon the farmer's market and abundant fuel. 

If the guild was strong enough in local politics, the watch might have unchallenged authority on that street, to break the legs of thieves or even surreptitiously kill strangers in a secluded basement ... with the city's guard looking the other way, refusing to answer complaints or otherwise being impotent to take action.

A strong city might have a hundred little political entities, each one operating on each street, waging private wars, carrying forth vendettas, having territorial aspirations or struggling against being pushed out of the best streets and into the seedier parts of town.  A particular guild might be rousting out the poorer inhabitants in the surrounding streets and be engaged in a project of housebuilding for wealthier clients ... or interested in taking advantage of many refugees in a vox populi putsch to put someone of their own guild into political power - if this should happen to be a republican city like Florence or Amsterdam.  There are possibilities for adventure, for or against an evil guild, whether they be brewers or puddlers or glassblowers.

It's a shame that in most D&D campaigns the only existing guilds that rise above the radar are the thieves guild and the assassin's guild ... neither of which ever existed in history.  Even the Court of Miracles from Victor Hugo's the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the street of Madame DeFarge from Dickens' Tale of Two Cities were made up of unwanted persons from a variety of different professions and guilds.  In truth, the thieves 'guild' is a sort of joke, the way that the oldest 'profession' used to be (though the application of that word is being taken seriously now).  Not really a guild at all, but a group of outcasts who have nothing but each other, and enough desperate will to make themselves dangerous.

Fagin's boys (Dickens again, Oliver Twist), of course, were not old enough to have any profession, except that of pickpockets ... but if you can take from that book that pickpocketing was a long-term career path, you might want to read it again.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fodder For My Detractors

I was asked if I could give an example of my playing style, and so I recorded this, last night, with my regular party.  There was no rehearsal, but a mic has a way of making people talk less ... so I wouldn't say my party acted quite within normal perameters.  I did ask for people to be a bit more focused than usual.

We picked up with the party exploring a tunnel that they'd come across by breaking through a stone wall associated with an underground home on a river bank.  The recording describes them exploring the hole and finding something unexpected.  The two files on YouTube run over 15 minutes, and do not come to a resolution.  I let the mic run until one character was making hand signals to another that Ivan should use a rope, and then you can hear me at the end goodnaturedly prodding the party about it.

This fifteen minutes passed quickly for us.  No one believed it had really been that long.

What happens next is that the party interrogates the assassin, finds out he's working for his ‘master’ as a sentry. They force the sentry to lead them to the master’s lair, whereupon they find the master's pet: a catoblepas.

I ran the catoblepas so that it petrifies with its gaze rather than causing death, but the party did kill it. The way that was done was nice - the 2nd level mage/thief wound up being close enough to it to cast a blink cantrip, which for one round suspended the catoblepas' gaze attack, while the illusionist cast a chromatic orb of blindness. The catoblepas failed its save vs. the blink cantrip (rolled a 1) and against the chromatic orb (rolled a 4). After that, it was just a matter of killing a large, blind monster.

Of course, with my mass rules the catoblepas weighed 2,500 lbs., had 85 hp (I rolled low, average was more like 117), and caused 3d8 damage per attack. Unfortunately for me, it only got one attack, causing 19 damage to the mage/thief immediately after he cast the blind cantrip. Dropped him to -7 hp, but he lived. I say it was 'unfortunate' because I like slamming the party as hard as I can.

But it was loads of fun. In spite of the party's success, they now have four petrified party members, who were all transformed in the first two rounds of fighting. But now they're in the position of worrying about what the master might do once he learns his pet is dead.

It was a short session, as we quit halfway through the night to run the other campaign, the one run by my daughter. She wasn't quite ready for us at the beginning of the night, so I ran at the beginning to give her some prep time. Besides, I wanted to make the above recording.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The DM Is Not A Player

This article is seven years old.  For those interested, I upgraded my opinion about this question a few months ago, as I am always evolving as a DM.

Here was a stunning assertion from runjikol, in reference to the statement that NPCs are props for the game, made in the comments section of the previous post:

"PCs are just props for the game, too. They're the props of the players. NPCs the props of the GM. My point is that the internal rules of the game, when it comes to mechanics and what can be achieved with them, I want to be consistent between NPC and PC. So if a PC can sway an NPC with a Charisma check then an NPC should be able to sway a PC with a Charisma check, too."

Blink, blink.

Let me make something clear.  'Non-players' are NOT players.  NPCs are not characters through which the DM 'plays' in the campaign.  The DM who uses NPCs in a way so as to feel a part of the game is seriously deluded about the DM's role.

I hate the term referee where it is applied to the Dungeon Master, mostly because I like that the game has independent terms, applicable only to its own milieu.  But 'referee' is a helpful term in this circumstance.  Referees are not players, and are subject within the game to rules that apply only to them.  Referees are never allowed to touch the ball.  Referees are not allowed to change, influence, or otherwise stymie the course of play.  They are not privileged to exercise their emotional judgment in a given circumstance.  They are highly discouraged from interacting with the players of the game, even in regards to friendly banter.  The referee does not answer when casually addressed.  The referee does not offer casual chatter or advice.  The referee calls the game, and that is all.

So when I hear the NPC promoted to the level of the PC, so that the referee can play along with everyone else, the spines along my back rise, my breath shortens and small animals nearby ... mildly take notice.

I realize that DMing can seem lonely.  I generally feel a bit down after a campaign, worried about whether it went well, if everyone had a good time, or if the ideas I presented just sucked.  Sometimes, I know that they did.  And those times paint the good times with a sort of "I'm not sure if they're being polite to me, or if they had a good time" kind of vibe.  Only now and then do you have a session where everyone is so ramped up that there can't be any question about the night being kick-ass.

In fact, the after 'drop' of DMing a game is similar to performing on stage.  Prior to the performance you arrive at the theatre, you chat with others, the stage manager makes a few announcements about ongoing technical issues (the director has long since departed for better shores), and the level of energy is still quite low.  But as people move around getting their costumes together, as you have your make-up applied, as the props that will be wrecked during that night's performance are brought forward from the rear shop, and as things are flipped on and tested, the energy level climbs.  The doors are opened, the audience starts to mill around the lobby, the voices in the back are hushed and ultimately suppressed completely ... and at the point when you are frozen in place, ready to go on stage, making the least movement possible so as not to give yourself away, your skin is flowing with electricity.  Most of the cast feels their nerves take hold.  But then the play begins, and you walk the boards, speak your lines, insult the designated villain, pontificate about the verisimilitude of life to earn whatever applause you're due that night, and the energy tapers off.  The play is over.  You bow, you walk off stage, you scrape the make-up away, throw off the clothes - some to the laundry, but most not - and you're done.  There's no cast party in a run, but someone is always ready to get drunk ... because, you see, with the performance over you feel like absolute shit.

The energy has gone through you and you are now a dead battery, dry until you're powered up for the next performance.  The experience is different for you.  You were not a member of the audience, sitting out front enjoying the play.  The play for you is work.

You might catch a snippet of pleasure watching someone you like perform their bits, but probably not - you've got your own character to get into, a character over which you have NO CONTROL.  It does what the writer and the director have agreed upon.  Not you.  Your performance is to behave in a manner that makes the other actors more comfortable from night to night.  The last thing you want to do is act like an idiot, forcing the play in the direction you want it to go, since that will only destroy the creator's vision.  You are not the creator, you are the facilitator.   And however well you've facilitated, when it's over, you're left feeling like shit.

There are DMs out there who delude themselves into thinking they write the play, or that they direct the vision - but they're wrong.  The dice write the play.  The dice determine the winner and the loser.  The game has designed the sets and built the stage, and brought in the audience.  All the DM can do is perform the vision as well as he or she can, take a bow, and - with luck - not have to get tight alone afterwards.

Now I realize I've put two metaphors forth - DM as referee and DM as actor.  I've been careful not to mix them, but to present them in order.  As the gentle reader reads, please try not to mix them up.  A thing can have more than one metaphor applied to it.  A thing often has better than only two.  A complex thing might need seven or eight dozen.  Try to read each metaphor as though I gave it independently - which, in fact, I did.

And when you DM, and you're fucking up trying to be both the audience and the performer, or trying to be both the player and the referee, try to note the dull, unhappy faces of your players and recognize that they're blaming this particular presentation on you.

You may only be the facilitator, but unfortunately for you, you're the responsible facilitator.  You wanted the part.  But that doesn't make you more important than you are.  The players came to PLAY.  You're only there to perform.