Monday, January 31, 2011

The Safe Option

Something that was mentioned with the post on players as walking tanks has come up before: in reference to the dangers that players face, Zzarkov's made the comment, "...Any soldier in a warzone always has their weapon in arm's reach."  And that's true - in a warzone.

My own experience is that many DMs do run their worlds with a warzone in mind - and that Z's comment is fair.  I don't blame him - he's reacting to a ridiculous standard for gaming.  I take umbrage with the idea that different settings only provide different opportunities for violence.  A cheese shop represents more than a chance to battle around large vats of curdled cream.  Horse-drawn wagons do not only exist so that fights can be had on the run.  Players stripping to the buff is not an opportunity for a unique combat experience.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of residents in my world hardly ever touch a weapon.  The citizens of towns live their lives eating as best they can, seeking to make a living, napping in the afternoon, entertaining themselves with small pleasures, falling in love, falling out of love and so on.  They would prefer that swordfights did not break out in their cheeseshops.  They would prefer that the wagon just gets to its destination with its cargo intact.  People strip fearlessly to a state of nudeness with alarming frequency, and yet have nothing to worry about.

It is almost certain in most worlds that if you send two zero level followers off on a 500-mile journey with a wagon and goods amounting to 500 g.p., they'll never arrive.  Surely something will attack them, bandits will grab the wagon and the party will be forced to kill every bandit to get their stuff back.  But in reality, the roads are filled with ordinary people driving valuable loads pretty much everywhere, for the most part reaching their destinations in good time with very little terror to show for it.  True, it is not particularly dramatic.  It is not a video game.  It's no Hollywood.  But if the trade system as written is expected to function rationally, than it must be so.

A player choosing to wander about the city for a day's shopping, taking in a show at the local ribald theatre, or a few drinks at the nearby street's watering hole shouldn't have to worry about being armored up or having their weapon close at hand.  There wouldn't be much point in having towns or spending money on walls to keep them safe if anarchy was the rule.  If fighting in latrines was so common that one had to take a weapon along, weak, fearful people would be dropping dead in the streets from constipation.  My god ... what parent would allow their 7-year-old child to make their dangerous way to the privy at 3 in the morning on their on?  This is a world of outdoor plumbing we're talking about here.  Surely the eating of recently relieved little boys and girls (you have to get them after they go, the meat is sweeter) by ravenous monsters would depopulate whole areas.

If you're going to allow peoples in your world to live lives that produce children and families and goods, who can grow crops in the open or cut wood from the woods while separated from all others, you have to allow players to fearlessly walk about without their equipment continuously slapping their thighs.  If you want a higher intelligence of play, you have to concede that the vast majority of opportunities for a surprise fight have to go unused.  If you push for your players to relax in town, you have to give them a just reason to relax.  You have to pledge to yourself that IF there is some combat that might occur against players does happen in town, it should be telegraphed to the point that they have plenty of time to grab their weapons before the fight occurs.

In that other post that's linked above, I made a suggestion of attacking a player in the middle of marketing, to see what they would say about being armored and having their weapons.  I did not mean that you should actually make an attack.  I haven't done so in 30 years of play.  For me, buying stuff unhindered is an important part of the game.  The players have the right to feel safe at some point in their adventuring.  While I recognize that some DMs will argue for a thief to cut a player's purse during this period, I'd argue against the value of such a practice.  How many times, really, can it be done before it gets unbelievably tiresome for the player?  How much does it actually add to the game?  A few minutes of DM's folly, that's what I say.  Harassment, nothing more ... and in the scheme of things, not worth it.

There's more roleplaying to be gotten from a player interacting with the townspeople as a daily event than in five minutes of a thief's cliched theft.  There are greater plays to be made.


It is frustrating to be working on a project which I can't talk about online.  For my own sanity, however, I want to occasionally write out some of my thoughts and feelings, along with challenges I'm facing and puzzles I am sorting out - even if I can't talk about specifics.  I am talking about the interaction mechanic referred to and discussed on this blog up until ten days ago.  Contrary to one assessment at least, I have not burned out on the idea.  In fact, I have conceived of at least ten new elements affecting the epiphany I had, all of which seem to slide neatly and conveniently into the IMech's process.

These days, I tend to see the system as more of a conflict resolution than as an interactive mechanic.  This is not to say that the goal of the system is to be combative - only that various persons tend to move at cross-purposes to one another, and the system is intended to resolve that.  For example, John is in love with Mary, who may or may not be in love with John.  The resolution of that uncertainty can be an annoying thorn in the side of a DM.  The system I've conceived of solves it.

At this point, I have explained the idea to several very trusted people.  I have taken steps to have the idea copywritten, having printed out a description and mailed it to myself.  I've received the unopened mail and it will remain unopened.  From time to time I will be sending additional material to myself, as I have additional ideas.  Those people I have told have given me some good ideas, and have pointed out some challenging issues.  To date, no one has found a hole in the system.  I haven't found a hole myself.  It's tight and it ought to be dramatic.  My explaining it has shown people the drama.  It allows for party strategy and it creates situations where everything can hinge on one person - even the dumbest fighter in the party.  Conflicts can be resolved in three way situations, or any situation with any number of speakers.  I could conceivably have a dialogue between two armies that - eventually - resolved the conflict without anyone ever pulling a weapon.  Though that would be unlikely.  People tend to get angry when they're talked to.

The system is very flexible.  It allows parties who wish to roleplay to go on roleplaying, as I have created a series of cards which suggests the nature of the interaction without being a straight jacket.  For example, an individual could choose to Reason with his opponent; while the card indicates that the type of activity is one of using one's intellect, the exact words spoken are entirely left up to the player.  But the result allows a resolution to be determined, one way or the other.  Without getting too far into the meat of it, the idea I've had is a combination between cards and dice - which provides a much needed random element, which in turn serves to heighten the drama.

I began to realize during the formative stage that what was needed was a system that would have the same learning curve as, say, being taught how to wash dishes.  Yes, there are things to remember, about how to wipe the glasses, and what to wash first and what to wash last, and the difference between clean and dirty, and how hot the water should be and so on.  But after awhile, there really isn't anything new to learn about dishes.  After awhile, you don't get better at washing the dishes.  After awhile, the dishes just get clean.

This is not to say that the system I'm offering is as dull as cleaning dishes.  Only that, after a certain point, anyone can play.  Unlike a lot of systems, the process does not get dominated by the smartest, most innovative player at the table.  Combat in D&D is that way.  You don't get smarter at rolling the d20 to hit.  After a certain point, you're subject to the result of the die no matter how smart you are.

That said, I wanted to finish up by describing what sorts of interactions between peoples I wanted to solve.  Through most of my previous discussions, I used things like bribing a guard.  I want it said that there are many more possibilities.

One that was suggested last night to me was the possibility of resolving a court-room drama.  Between the judge, the prosecution and the defense, how is the jury influenced exactly if the game comes down to the DM and the players roleplaying the scene?  Chances are, as things stand now, the DM would have to invoke a lot of relatively meaningless die rolls that would give unsatisfying results, particularly from a dramatic perspective.  The fellow who brought this up to me last night was astounded to realize my system solved that problem.

If a player decides that they want a princess to be in love with that player, how does he or she go about making it happen?  Usually, this would be resolved as die roll, one time only.  But suppose there was a system that allowed for the player's actions and efforts to eventually win over his or her intended?  I believe I have that.

What of a situation where a group of players decides to rouse a town against a rising disaster, natural or otherwise?  How do you determine how many people of the town believe the players, and which people resist?  Usually, the DM decides.  Instead, now, the system would decide, and the DM would have tools provided by that system that would possibly counteract the party, while the party would have tools to counteract the DM.  And in a manner that was not subjective.

Suppose there's a situation where a player is faced with a lynch mob, and the player has a rope around his or her neck, and is allowed a last word.  What would be the chance of the player talking his or her way out of it at that point - without it being a deus ex machina?  Suppose that the exact way the player could succeed was set out in a rational, reasonable manner that every individual at the table could agree was fair?

I do realize I'm holding back this idea, and how much of a teaser this is.  At the present, the biggest issue facing me is the difficulty in finding quality artists in order to help fabricate the cards that are necessary for the creation of the game.  Writing out the rules and designing the cards is no picnic - but those are things I can do myself.  Art is another matter.  In any case, I hope to have something that I can deliver within six months: the end of July.  I ask the gentle reader to be patient for now.  If the development can continue apace, I can reveal the general principles of the system prior to its release, as knowing how the system works will certainly encourage card sales, and not the reverse.

Thank you for your patience.

Wiki, January 31, 2011

I have very little material to offer this week, since I have been working day and night on another project.  I knew that times like this were bound to come: there's only so much work that can be done in 7 days, and for some weeks the subject of the work is bound to be too long range for regular posting.

As always, I have three maps.  The list of maps on the map index page looks awfully impressive to me, even if a lot of them are only half done or less.  What I'm offering this week is the Indus Basin, the Himalayas and Nepal.  At present, these are the maps I'm working on right now.  When I have the time, I am half way through the researching of over 600 Indian cities, some of which I have plotted.  If you look at the bottom of the Nepal map, you can see where I've placed symbols to indicate which hexes would be part of various regions inside the modern day province of Uttar Pradesh.  During the time of the Moghuls, obviously, this province didn't exist ... it was divided into Rohilkhand, Bundelkhand, Awara and other entities.  Thankfully, my world takes place prior to the British arriving and really splitting up the country in their efforts to pit India against itself.  There were many fewer regions in 1650.

Has the gentle reader ever considered that people often want to set campaigns in China and Japan, but never in India?  Do they play D&D in India?  I've never heard tell of it.  Be interesting to know what sort of take they would have on the game.

That is it for the wiki.  I hope to have more next week, but we will have to see how things go.  And please still consider posting your own material.  Contact me at if you wish to do so.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Unusually Uninteresting Sight

Wow.  I haven't written one of these since last July.

"Just Nod Your Head And Smile:" No matter how big that big-ass sword is, you won't stand out in a crowd. Nobody ever crosses the street to avoid you or seems to be especially shocked or alarmed when a heavily armed gang bursts into their house during dinner, rummages through their possessions, and demands to know if they've seen a black-caped man.  People can get used to anything, apparently.

The above cliche certainly applies to hundreds of videogames produced in the last ten years, and mostly occurs because game designers feel that 'people' make nice scenary, but they're too much trouble to program.  I would argue that the cliche occurs to a greatly lessened degree in non-video RPGs ... but it still does occur.  Most parties, I think most any DM could argue, sincerely fail to recognize what they must look like to NPCs.

What player doesn't argue that their character is in full armor, along with every weapon in their personal arsenal, when they drop down to the local tavern for a drink or two?  Yes, that's right, every individual sitting at the bar is in plate mail, shield on their arm, bristling with three or four weapons - including a four-foot long heavy crossbow on their back - just in case a fight breaks out.  And the bartender, obviously, doesn't mind at all.

Don't believe me?  Instigate a fight of some sort, involving a player character, when they're in the middle of shopping.  The moment you hear the fighter say, "I buy two weeks' rations," have a cow or something break loose in the market and make a rush.  Ask the fighter for AC, and I promise you he or she will include their shield.  Because, you know, it is permanently strapped to their arm, all the time.

It is a power player's headspace.  They don't want to get caught with their pants down, ever, and they don't like their armor class being even slightly below full power.  Attack them in their sleep, attack them while they're taking a crap behind a tree, attack them while they're bathing ... that armor will be no more than an arm's reach away.  Along with everything else they possess.  You just never know when you're going to need that scroll of protection against lycanthropes; it brings a special comfort to drum your fingers on the scroll case, day and night.

I can't blame the characters.  There's nothing worse than being attacked by six wereboars and having the DM point out that the scroll and case (along with your other scrolls) might either be in your saddle bag, hanging on a hook somewhere in the stable downstairs (we don't store it on the horse!), or possibly in one of the sacks in that pile of articles you stacked in the corner several hours ago ... and not exactly on hand at the moment.  Just about every player I've ever met would argue that no, they'd never  leave a magic item in some random location, even though they've had the item for two years of game time and they've never needed it.

Therefore, if the player is to be believed, they travel everywhere as a group of profoundly encumbered persons, and this phenomenal encumberance never bothers anyone.  Not the enormous mace hanging from the player's side, nor the sharpened khopesh, nor the odor of the many flasks of oil the player carries in their pack, nor anything else.

Sound, of course, is a biggie.  The world is phenomenally deaf.  Enemies stand at readiness while the DM waits for the party to decide what to do, as they call each other names and argue and make suggestions.  I have taken it for granted that my offline party never surprises anyone - they haven't in an age - because they never stop talking, they never consider what they're wearing as they lope down corridors or streets, through forests and glades and up and down hills.  I love that my players are excited and involved with the game, that they are loaded up with energy and thrilled to be out and adventuring ... but stealth is not in their playbook.

In reality, my players - and probably yours too, if the gaming club I attended a few weeks ago is any evidence - should be a kind of monster-pulling gravity well, so that as they move over the landscape the monsters find themselves helplessly drawn in to find out what in hell is making so much noise.  But reality is overrated.  It is troublesome, inconvenient, and makes poor drama.  I mean, I like a strong dose of real and all, but the facts are its easier not to have to roleplay every stranger standing around a 5,000 population town.  Yes, I could describe the townspeople staring at the party, or have people ask the players to please put their shields down.  It is never a good thing when I have to explain that there's no armor allowed inside the town walls, or that weapons can't be carried.  I do actually do this.  But it never goes over well.  To the players, it seems to feel like cheating, somehow, that I am merely looking for an excuse to take away their weapons, so that I will be able to kill them more easily.  I don't know why they don't trust me.

I can't give out advice on this - I'm as guilty as anyone.  I think every DM just has to accept how far this goes to the extent that makes them comfortable in their worlds ... and beyond that, not worry about it very much.

I have to get up now and take a walk.  If I sit too long with these greaves on, it just kills my legs.  I'm not as young as I used to be.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Squeeze That Unit In A Box

Lacking anything of my own to write about, I'll steal something that Hackmastery wrote about yesterday, a long time bugbear:  a mass-combat resolver ... as opposed to a mass combat 'generator.'  I have no trouble generating mass combats, but resolving them ... ah, that's another matter.

I confess, I wish there was time to play out the combats one roll at a time, as I did last year; but alas, I wouldn't put my players through that again.  I do need some sort of assistance on the large scale front ... particularly as the next pitched battle my party will be involved in will no doubt be three times as big.

Virtually everyone who sets out to create some sort of system begins by 1) compiling together the hit points of a group of men; 2) averaging out their AC; 3) averaging out their chance to hit; and 4) averaging out their damage.

The problem, of course, is that unlike a singular entity which, when it runs out of hit points, it dies, the 'grouped' unit is able to suffer damage and go on attacking.  More importantly, some of the individuals inside the unit die, which should mean that the unit's attack and damage potential should be reduced (AC averages could change also, but that's less important).  Most designers skip this part, and perceive that this unit continues to fight as though they remain a full compliment, right up to where the whole unit dies.

And then, when they play this methodology out at the table, somehow the intrinsic quality of the battle is lost.  The game is reduced to all the flavour of chess ... something to be enjoyed by a particular wargaming Zot-headed type, but dull as dishwater for a RPGer.

However, when the more forthright designer tries to handle the change in combat ability in a unit that has taken damage, the calculation tends to become unwieldy, losing the simplified grail that is the desired purpose of a mass-combat system.  Players and DM alike grind through the annoying trial that was concocted, hating it, then tossing it aside gratefully so they can go back to one-on-one encounters.

Now, if the gentle reader would forgive me.  I am at that point again in the post where I am listening to the voices of my critics before they have a chance to speak, expecting then to advance systems I haven't heard of in order to be helpful.  I will take this moment to express an appreciation for their efforts, but to point out some serious defects in their suggestions, which have nothing to do with the quality of those other systems. 

They're not D&D.  More to the point, they are not my D&D.  They won't take into account my changed hit point rules or my modified combat/stun/lose turn rules.  I'm only guessing here, but they won't be flexible enough for me to tailor them to my own personal needs.  Even if designed expressly for AD&D as opposed to 3.5 or 4 or even OD&D, they will still make assumptions about the use of magic in my world.  If the reader could please understand, they just won't be any good to me.  They wouldn't be any good to any DM who has, for years, modified their personal game to satisfy their own personal needs.

The biggest problem in finding anything designed for your world is that in almost every case it won't work for your world.  It works for someone else's world, a world so annoying that you wouldn't run in it on a bet.

This is not to say that a mass-combat system couldn't be designed.  It only says that it would have to be designed in such a way that it did not make assumptions about combat rules.  It should be a system defined by mathematics alone ... something for which I can plug in the numbers I want, and get out the numbers I need.  And nothing else.  The rest I'll incorporate myself.

To draw this out, and emphasize the problem, let's say I have a unit of 10 men.  Two of them are leveled fighters, 1st & 3rd level, with 12 and 28 hit points respectively.  The rest of the men, 8 of them, have 4-7 hit points, or an average of 5.5, or a total of 44.  The unit has ten attacks, right?

Already we run into troubles.  Because the unit actually has 12 attacks if it fights against zero levels, since the 3rd level would get three.  And then again, if they fight against a mixed unit of levels and zeros, like themselves, how many attacks does the 3rd level get?  An average of 2?  Do we just assume that the levels will fight each other, and only each other?  By what logic are we able to argue that in the middle of combat, they will automatically find each other as if they were polar opposites?

But okay, let's put that aside.  Most would argue that we can forget the bonus attacks, and say the 3rd level fighter just holds back or something.

We'll add that everyone is in leather & shield, and with an armor class of 7 (arguing flatly that there's no chance anyone in this group has a dexterity of greater than 14).  We have to make the same assumption about strengths less than 16 when we give them all long swords for an average damage of 4.5 x 10.  But these problems are quibbling.

Let's put our unit in the field (we'll call it the defending unit), and let's say that in one round they experience the following (having miraculously not suffered any previous damage):
  • A group of four archers fire into their number.
  • One of the archers is an elf.
  • They find themselves in melee with a similar sized 'attacking' unit.
  • An 1st level illusionist at the back of the attacking unit casts a phantasmal force, causing the attackers to seem twice as large, and some of the defending unit fails save.
  • A 3rd level cleric standing next to the illusionist casts hold person and freezes three of the defenders.
  • One of the attacking group has a +1 long sword.
  • Two of the attackers are elves and have a +1 to hit with long swords.
  • One of the defenders has been given an aid spell by a cleric.
And this is without taking into account strengths and dexterities that might be possessed by either side.  Feel free to determine the resolution after one round of combat, to express both the attack and the defense in one die roll.  And please demonstrate the power of the defending unit following that resolution, and have that unit then return the attack ... again, one die roll only.

All right, feel free to roll a lot of dice.  But please, if you could, resolve the combat in short order.  Please make it feel at least some of the tension enjoyed by having the ten defenders fight the twelve attackers fight the traditional way.

I'll sit here and wait.  No hurry.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I haven't written a Civilization IV post for quite awhile, but I haven't given up on them.  Given all that's happened in the last week, I think I need to get back to basics, as it were, and write a substance heavy post.

Feudalism was first incorporated by the Chinese, probably during the time that Rome was still a kingdom - so, at least 2500 years ago.  It arose as a means of controlling wide-ranging territories; a Warlord had hardly any local power, and by investing nobles with local power the Warlord had the benefit of having his borders defended, and having the privilege of drawing up an army from among the nobles in times of trial.  However, it became evident that these "Governors" possessed a great deal of power, enough to impose their will upon any central authority.

Following the unification of China in the 4th century B.C., the first emperor of the so-called Qin (or Ch'in) Dynasty, Shi Huang, attempted to break the power of the nobles by abandoning feudalism in favor of a strong central bureaucracy.  While eventually this idea would have merit in later centuries, Huang's success with it was questionable.  Throughout his reign, would-be governors continued to chafe in favor of being granted fiefs, while assassination attempts to rid China of Huang in favor of a more 'feudal-friendly' emperor were made.  Part of Huang's response was to attempt a destruction of all previous Chinese history - he ordered the burning of many books, and the burial of many scholars, often while they were alive.

In the end the Governors won.  With the death of Huang, China reverted to a feudal society.  For much of its history afterwards, emperors were at the mercy of their governors.  The central authority was eventually established to a greater degree during the Tang Dynasty (in the late 7th/early 8th century), which brought some stability to the ruling family ... the edges of empire were always at the mercy of independent warlords, however, who often sided with enemies against the center, and often fought one another for greater territory.

The rise of feudalism in Europe is better known to the western reader, and is usually described as a series of agreements between King and Nobility, or between the noble lords and the workers of the noble's land.  Labor was the primary substitute of exchange; a peasant was allowed such-and-such an amount of time to work land which was granted for their use (not their ownership) in exchange for working upon the Lord's manor - tilling fields, herding animals, cutting wood, providing fish, mending the Lord's buildings and so on.  Certain members of the Lord's household became permanent workers in the manor, producing the needed amount of candles, prepared foods, clothing, luxuries and so on, in exchange for a more comfortable lodging than the peasant could count upon and better eating than the peasant could expect.  Other persons within the Manor were specialty workers, such as the miller who maintained and ran the mill that ground wheat into flour, or the mason or the carpenter, along with the steward of the Lord's house, the reeve who managed the Lord's stock and herds, or the hayward who managed the work of the men in the Lord's fields.

The population of a manor could range anywhere from a few dozen to as many as eight hundred; and the work was shared and delegated without the use of any unit of exchange beyond food.  For the most part, in the Dark Age of the 6th and 7th century, this work was done to produce a self-sufficient economy ... food was not shipped to town to be sold, because there were no 'towns' as we understand them in most parts of Europe, and there was no money.

The disappearance of money from Europe occurred due to a number of factors; the Romans had, for century after century following the rise of Empire, devalued the currency in order to continue to provide money for their unsustainable infrastructure.  By the fourth century the Empire was heavy with inflation, stagnant economies and soldiers that were constantly finding themselves without pay - and therefore turning on the state itself in a series of usurpations that only served to further weaken the empire.  The scourge of barbarians that tore through central Europe - Huns, Vandals, Goths, Saxons, Franks, Avars, Slavs and so on served to collect the plunder that could be found into very few piles (so that money fell out of circulation), aided by the desperate attempts of local governments to pay these groups tribute in order to these same groups to keep themselves from getting killed.  By the end of the 7th century, with much of the existing wealth being funneled into the coffers of Byzantium or the successful Arab conquests in North Africa, coin became rare indeed.  Many of the existing, known mines of central Europe had been heavily worked by the Romans up until their demise, so that the production of new metals dropped off.  Foreign metals, that might have come from China or India, were diverted into the growing economies of East Africa or Southeast Asia, and away from Europe.

The arrangement of social hierarchy within the feudal manor provided a stability which could not be achieved with a more traditional economy.  However, with the unification of Central Europe under Charlemagne, and that state suddenly rich with metals obtained through arrangements with "foreign" markets in Western Spain and along the Adriatic, town-building became the rage in the Elbe and Rhine valleys throughout the 9th century.  Even as these were plundered repeatedly by Vikings through the next few centuries, who struck as far away as Sicily or the heart of the new Russia - Volhynia, Kiev and Vladimir - the development of trading towns continued.  As early as the 11th century, nobles were losing their grip on the peasantry, who were fleeing to towns in exchange for wages and relative personal freedom.

Europeans had similar experiences with Feudalism as the Chinese - groups of nobles were able to unite against this throne or that, establishing more and more independent states who were given greater and greater autonomy inside the 'Empire.'  Both Italy and Germany became hopelessly fragmented; Spain as well, though to a lesser degree, following the wars against the resident Berber's there.  The twin kingdoms of Lithuania and Poland both swelled into huge states comprised mostly of independent nobles with a very weak central authority - as was made very evident with the arrival of the Mongols in the 1230s.  For two centuries thereafter, while the Russians, Poles and Kievans had nominal authority in their kingdoms, heavy tributes were paid regularly to their Mongol overlords.  But at this point I am digressing.

The return of capital to Europe made the feudal system impractical.  Lords began substituting taxes for the previously expected labor, and peasants began to shuttle their goods into towns to obtain the money to pay these taxes.  Central authority shifted from the manors - where military power had previously reigned - to the towns, who could afford to pay richly for mercenaries in times of trouble.  The dominance over the manors continued apace through the next two centuries - stymied somewhat by the Black Plague, which hit the towns heavily - until the development of the cannon made castles useless in times of war.  By this time - late 1300s - Europe had slid firmly into a mercantilist economy, with towns being the political centers of life.

Without wishing to beat the point home, it was this reason why Russia proved so much stronger than its neighbors Kiev, Poland and Novgorod; from the beginning Russia was built from strong urban centers, promoting a central authority, while Russia's immediate enemies continued to be sprawled in predominantly rural societies.  Poland's condition as this was notorious - over the ensuing centuries, its neighbors would gobble Poland up, bit by bit.

Turning then to D&D, it must be noted that the dependence on coin in the game clearly indicates that D&D is not - as it is often described - based upon a feudal/Medieval society.  The changeover from manor to town that I describe above happened much earlier in certain parts of northern Europe - the Low Countries or Bohemia - and in Italy long before the 14th century.  Wherever money was common enough to be turned over in amounts equally hundreds of coins, nobles of every kind had removed themselves from their estates into the local towns.  D&D, as it is described in the books, fits more nearly the sense of early Renaissance than it does a Medieval culture.

If, however, one were to run a true Medieval environment, the characters would have to be considered outside the standard social structure, if they were to have any freedom of action at all.  They could hardly drift from manor to manor as easily as they could from town to town ... the arrival of strangers was considered a bad omen, the expectation that they would bring disease, disruption or discontent, along with the dangers that there were there to steal food.  Thus, the moment a group of characters arrived in a manor village - with the exception of the one in which they were born - there is a real danger the inhabitants would immediately take steps to kill them.

Food would be the largest difficulty, since it could not be purchased in a town (there were no markets), and needed to be grown.  A party would have to choose an area of relative wilderness in order to establish their own food production, and would afterwards have to defend that area against other starving persons - particularly criminal or religious outcasts who were not accepted in society.  Everything they wanted to have would have to be constructed with their own hands - if they did not have the knowledge of making swords, they would have to make do with wooden weapons, clubs, spears and so on that virtually anyone can make to some degree.  Time would have to be dedicated to herding their own animals, if they wanted a healthy diet, along with picking fruit, cutting wood for the winter and for cooking, mending their homes following storms, exterminating vermin and so on.  It would be a hard, unforgiving life ... and the worst of it would be, if they truly built something noteworthy, they'd have no right to stop a noble from taking it, since the party could not 'own' the land they were building upon.  Ownership was something that was accorded only through an agreement with the local authorities, and the party would never have been offered that agreement prior to building.  Even if the party went to war, and served well, they might still be discounted as being important in the greater scheme of things, since that was the culture of the time.  Robin Hood, if the gentle reader will remember, was a Lord before he became an outlaw.  He was reinstated to his lands ... his outlaw friends were not given lands of their own.

I think it could be done, but it would require a very different thinking process for players to find any fun in it.  For myself, I like culture - which is why I run a late Renaissance campaign.  But to each themselves.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wiki, January 24, 2011

I am running out of maps.

What I've had has sustained the wiki for the past two and a half months ... and while maps were not the only thing I've added to the Wiki, it's felt good to know that if I produced a dribble during the week, the maps would pad out my contributions.

But, that time is nearly over.  I have perhaps three more weeks after this to post what I have, mostly the southern edge of what's mapped, and then nothing.  Oh, yes, I will occasionally print updates, like the addition of the Low Countries I finished last week.  But the big complete maps, those will all be up.

Sigh.  Oh well, here's what's been added for this week: Babylonia, the Persian Gulf and Gedrosia.  There's a lot of desert in these three.  People might be interested in the first one, since it includes southern Iraq, Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia.  Sorry parts of the southern kingdoms, around Burayda (should be Buraydah) are unnamed.  If someone complains, I'll label it a bit more and post an update.

The Persian Gulf is mostly southern Iran, or Persia, at the time of my world ruled by the Safavids.  Gedrosia is a huge empty chunk of southeastern Iran, western Afghanistan and western Pakistan.  The large river on the right side of the map is the Helmand, which serves as a very important breadbasket for modern day Afghanistan.  The familiar city of Qandahar is just off the map to the right (east of Qal'eh-ye Bost), at the point where the various feeder streams for the Helmand descend out of the Hazarat Mountains.  It will be included in a map next week.

Maps aside, the really big work that I finished last week is the Tarot, which I've been working on for months.  After a long hiatus, I plunged into finishing it for two weeks, which proved to be a daunting task.  The hard portion was, in fact, the research.  Not content to just make up 156 different story arcs which would serve to apply to the cards (both in the upright and reversed positions), I did my very best to identify the core meaning of the card and to build the interpretation from that.  Since most interpretations of the Tarot are written so as to be intentionally vague, to facilitate bullshitting people for money, this was not easy.  It required delving exhaustively into symbolic references, and puzzling out how that could be applied to a D&D campaign.

As an aside, the research I've done into the Tarot has done nothing to interest me in the use of cards has they have come to be used.  Most of the cards are given the exact same meanings, over and over again, with the least bit of distinction, and at least half the cards enable the card reader to counsel the querant (the so-called mark) to "look within" or to "change your outlook" ... which really means jack shit.  Of course people should be introspective or open to change.  How exactly are the cards useful in telling me the obvious?

To reassure the gentle reader, my interpretations are not like that.  I would ask that the cards are given a good read before being dismissed; even if the Tarot has no interest, I assure you there are a great many story arcs which could be incorporated into your sandbox campaign, which perhaps you've never run before.  The list is intended, if nothing else, to be a resource in creating adventure ideas.

Part of me wants to take certain cards and write posts about just those interpretations, since they proved to be interesting and with definite potential that might be missed in the short description space on the table allowed.  I may do that at asome point.  For now, I'm happy to be finished.

The actual application to my campaign, and how it works according to my principles of wild magic, haven't been tested.  But many of these story arcs are fairly common.  I'm not worried about incorporating them in, only in how often the tarot cards can be read and still have an effect.  After all, you can't have a reading, then sit down and request another reading.  Only the first card pulled on a particular day has any relevance ... and I am unsure as to how long that relevance should last.  I'm going with one card being potentially pulled every three sessions; I'll have to see if that is too often, or not often enough.

I'll finish by making another pitch for people to contribute to the wiki.  I promise not to bite.  The process works no different than any publication would.  Send me, the Wiki's editor, material you think would make a positive addition.  If it looks good our IT Guy, Carl, will give you a password and you can create a page.  If you have lots of material, I'll only ask after that you give me a sign when you've posted something.  I'm afraid that there is a certain level of quality that is requested, primarily that the information is clear, concise and detailed.  By 'detailed' I mean that a fair amount of thought has gone into the content, that it isn't something that's been slapped together in an afternoon.

If you can meet these standards, I'm not concerned if your material would be something I would agree with or wish to use in my world.  I am not here to judge the nature of the content, only its quality.  There is plenty of room in the Universe for differing ideas, for every kind of world and for every kind of play system ... so long as an honest labour has been applied to its creation.

Please do not feel intimidated by my usual rhetoric on this blog, or worry that you will be publically hounded by me.  There are no comments permitted on the Wiki, precisely so that materials posted there will stand on their own, and not suffer the reflections cast by abusive Internet persons like myself.  I will give you three answers if you make an offer: "No," "Work on it some more," and "When can you post?"  I will restrain myself from personal observations.

My email is  Submissions should be sent there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gawd I'm So Sorry

Yesterday, the moment of clarity came in the shower.  Today, it came as I walked home from work.  After the posting this afternoon, after my last comment on the previous post, and prior to meeting She Who Must Be Obeyed for dinner at a restaurant we favor.  Carl, occasional commenter on this blog, has been to that restaurant, with me.  In the 25 minutes from work to the restaurant, my world changed.

For the last two hours I have been explaining how to She-Who... how my life has been changed.

I've solved it.  I have solved it completely.  It even fits exactly to sigilac's last comment, without my having to read that comment.  It doesn't include any silly loyalty score, or any other rule that would liken it to 3e or 4e.  It stands alone, based on the cards that are in my head.  Exciting?  Hell, I got excited at the made up situation I fabricated at the restaurant to explain how the situation would work.

But gentle readers ... I am so sorry.  I am so sorry.  I can't tell you.  There's money in this and I can't tell you.  There's potentially a lot of money in this.  You see, what I have conceived meshes so smoothly into the game, so seamlessly ... I just can't throw it away.  Maybe when there were two dimensions to it, when I was struggling with it last night and today, I could have shared it around.  But I had some big, massive, mother-fucking scales fall off my eyes and the perspective has changed.

I've solved it.  I've solved it.

Holy good bloody goddamn.

So, I conceive of a boxed set.  Rules, cards, prepped to go.  $25-45 retail, depending on the artist I'll need, the quality of the printed stock and how much blood the printer will want to cut the damn cards for me.  I'll keep you posted.

If it doesn't sell, then I'll post it here.

If anyone wants to talk to me, I'll be on Yahoo Messenger, as "tao_alexis", until 10 pm Pacific Time.

There Ain't No Saving Throw For The Sword

I had a moment of clarity in the shower last night, brought on by thinking about IMech problems all day, which causes me to rethink - again - the principles of 'getting past' the guards as opposed to 'befriending' the guards.  I think there's room for both in the same system now, and for the first time I really believe I have a mechanic.

I'm sorry, but I'm not going to discuss it yet.  I have not, as I myself propounded, tested it.

I am going to talk about something I'm prepared to swallow as a final result to my machinations, which I believe firmly the remainder of the D&D world will not:  that your stats are going to limit you from doing things which your mind, as a player, wants to do.  Things which have been so absorbed as being part of playing D&D, that an alternative, even a moderate one, will be firmly denied.

Here is the problem that occurs to me, the one that I am working on mechanically.  Suppose that a three character party moves forward to confront four guards, with the intention of talking their way through.  Let's say the characters are first level and that this is their first encounter.  Here are a few things I would like to have happen:
  • I would like the characters to have an opportunity to roleplay; existing cards would be implemented at appropriate moments, but with the playing of the cards I would like the players to be able to make a moderate stab at actually doing in roleplay what the card says.
  • I would like more than one character to be able to play a card, and for the cards to enhance one another, so that Player 1 could play a card which would support Player 2's action.
  • I would like it if the guards did not behave as a unit; I would not even like it if the lead guard was counted on as a crutch to handle the multiple effects of the interation.  I would want all guards to have the possibility of being convinced independently.
  • I would like it if this 7-person conflict could be sorted out in under five minutes.
  • I would like it if the guards had a chance to convince the players not to continue trying to talk their way through.
And here, finally, is the kicker.  The last point.  Let us conjecture that the character's wisdoms decide the fortitude they possess in carrying on the conversation with the guards.  And let us say that the third person in the party, Player 3, has a wisdom of 9.  Now, in my mind, Player 3 is listening to Player 1 persuades (he's the smooth one), while Player 2 befuddles (he's the smart one).  Player 3 is also looking at the livery the guard is wearing, and listening to the assured, confident voice the guard is using ... the first aspect being the guard's status, and the second being the guard's training.  And Player 3 is wondering, what the fuck are we doing trying to talk about way past these guards?

In any ordinary D&D scenario, Player 3's question might be in the minds of one of the players, usually the least confident player, or the one with the least experience.  It is never a question that will arise in the mind of a willful player, who counts on his rhetoric to carry him through, particularly if the player is very familiar with the DM's playing style.

But just suppose the confident player is the one that has the 9 wisdom.  To my mind, any REAL mechanic with REAL influence on the player's game play ought to FORCE the confident, experienced player who knows the DM well to adopt Player 3's point of view.  In other words, he should be actively discouraged by the guard's identification and demeanor, and be compelled to say, "Uh, guys, I don't see how we're doing any good here.  Let's go."  Even if the player doesn't want to.

Moreover - and here is where I am really going to depart from the herd - this reaction from the player should in no way result from an action the player has made, but should INSTEAD result from an action the guard has made.  This is a central argument I have been making since the beginning.  For the IMech to work, and work meaningfully, it can't break down to a wisdom check made by the player.  The player does not roll the guard's die in a hand-to-hand combat ... therefore the character cannot be free to 'roll the guard's die' in an interactive 'melee.'

No, no, no, the guard must have the power to stamp his feet, slap his scabbard, invoke the symbol on his chest and say, "MOVE ON!", so that the player actually has no choice but to do so.  Seriously.  No choice.

Now before you think to yourself how terribly, terribly wrong that is for D&D, think for a moment how, if the guard does 18 damage to the player with 4 hit points, the player actually has no choice to do anything except die.  As the title says: tough shit for you.

This is something thoroughly accepted in D&D.  Not pleasant.  Certainly not wanted by the player.  But nevertheless something the player has to choke down with their Cheetos.  Believe me when I say that until players have to choke down the IMech too, in circumstances where the players don't have so much as a die roll, it won't have any teeth at all.

At present, I already know how to make this happen.  I have a pretty good idea on how to conduct the interaction so that all the points above are covered.  It's only a beginning, however.  And it only really addresses this one situation (though I can see how others might be resolved).  This is the reason I'm keeping it to myself.

The falling down point remains, however, how different this would be for D&D, as described above.  Which doesn't bother me in the least.  I'm not nostalgic.  I just want a good game.  I have as much invested in the 'traditional' game of D&D as I have in New Wave from the early '80s, when I was young, in high school and humping girls on the dance floor.  Sure, I listen to Blondie and the Cars now and then.  Those were good times.  But new music has been recorded since then.

Change is life.  I'm proposing the possibility of saying to the player, "No, you can't decide to attack the guard now - you're intimidated and you don't have the nerve to pull your sword."  If that makes you queasy, then we don't have anything left to talk about.  On the other hand, if that lifts the scales off your eyes, then we're going someplace.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Things I Should Not Write About Openly

Having Arduin do a lot of my thinking out loud is very helpful.  But I think we're beginning to deviate enough that it's worth throwing in my own thought processes ... though I admit this topic, that of an interaction mechanic, is beginning to resemble the further scourging of a mortified equus.

I do not have any playable mechanics to suggest.  And without criticizing those mechanics suggested by Arduin and James, I have to say that I've long abandoned any hope that an existing deck of any kind can be grafted onto a D&D template.  There are just too many limitations; the suits or the arcana of either the standard deck or the tarot deck are straightjackets and are not convenient for what I've had in mind.

And what is that?  I've alluded to the answer, but I haven't made it clear.  The deck would have to be of a very particular nature, one that doesn't exist (in my opinion).  In all honesty, the creation could be a significant money making proposition ... so I suppose by writing it here, on this blog, this January 20th, I'm setting myself up for a long and failed court-visit sometime in the future.  If this is as practical as I think it could be.

The primary issue must not be that a problem is gotten past, but that the player gains an ally ... some individual who is sympathetic to the player's needs.  Some allies would be dependent on money - the bribed guard, for instance.  Some allies on friendship.  Some on fear.  The player would be using their influence, step by step in the game, to work these allies towards their own purposes: a savings when buying at this merchant's shop; news about the goings on at the guild; physical aid in times of danger; supplies; reliable messengers; and so on.  Each interactive process would play to create a given morale on the part of the ally, which would be fixed by the IMech as best as the player could ... but without the guaranteed yes/no of a skill roll.  It's the result that makes the dynamic playability of the IMech, not the process.  The result that says, today, the bribe will work, but tomorrow, the guard might have second thoughts.

Towards this idea I see a very wide range of different types of cards.  Yes, there would be a card - one card - each for charisma, wisdom and intelligence.  I think the idea of having the player roll against their attribute when the card is played, to see if it 'works' ... I am assured by my source in the Magic card game that various cards do work like that.  I also think there would be a card for certain charisma-rich or intelligence-rich classes - mage, paladin, druid, bard, cleric and so on.  Being a religious figure carries with it a certain dignity and prestige that ought to be noted in the system.

But the lion's share of cards would not be based on the character's stats at all, but upon what the player has actually accomplished up to a given point.  For example, there would be a card that would be gained the first time the player had gotten into a battle in which he or she had gotten wounded: a sort of 'purple heart' card.

I see a range of cards all based on first time experiences.  The first near death moment; the first time the player had been at sea (out of sight of land); the first dragon the player had seen; the first dungeon; commanding men in battle; the first time the player had ever rescued a stranger from the grip of death; and so on.  These things have their lasting impression on an individual, and provide stories for a person to tell, at the Inn or elsewhere, giving them insight into what frightens a person or what taps into a person's imagination or ambitions.

There would be cards for things that had been obtained, such has possessing land, a ship above a certain size, docks, a house, a workshop, an inn, a gatehouse or a keep ... since these things would produce an element of recognition in the community where they were to be found.  There would be cards for a variety of statuses that had been given: investiture in the church hierarchy, guild membership, a title, affectionate nicknames given by the local poor or the bourgeois, along with other reputations - a reputation as a scoundrel, as a liar, as a thief, as a wastrel, as a drunkard, as a coward, as a generous soul, as a rescuer of children, as a healer ... each dependent upon what the character did when roleplaying their character.

There could be cards gained through ostentation: the clothes a character is wearing, donations given to the church and poor, parties or jousting tournaments that were sponsored by the player, ships or military units paid for privately but provided for the local town's defense, civil works, etc.

Every time that a player does something significant, the card would be gained; and the card could then be played in order to master the environment.  I see the whole process as a kind of "scout's badge" motif.  People talk of 'carrots' to encourage certain kinds of roleplaying and character development ... this is exactly that.

The cards would have to be particular to the design of the character.  A character wishing to get into the good graces of the underworld would hardly do it by providing a military unit to the town.  An assassin, on the other hand, might want the drunkard card, as it would help them pass openly in the worst places as someone not to be concerned about.

Unfortunately, the cards would have a limited scope.  Known as a drunkard in one town would not necessarily correspond to everywhere.  Which brings up a point that I know someone will propose - that cards aren't needed.  That the character can just write all this on their character sheet.

Of course they can.  But the cards represent things the character sheet cannot provide:

1) The presence of the cards put front and center things that tend to get ignored on character sheets.  Being able to rift through the cards - in fact, having to do so - brings the different cards to the character's perception in the way a character sheet does not.  A scout troop could just keep a book that says what scout has earned what badge - but the ostentatious portrayal of the badge display provides a reminder.

2) A list of things on several character sheets does not have any particular emotional impact; but to use the scout badge metaphor again, the collection of cards provides a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, and a demonstration of prestige.  It is the fetishistic quality of having the cards in one's hand.  Let's face it, a painted lead miniature has held that place in the game since the beginning.

3) Once an interactive mechanic has been worked out for how players can 'battle out' their roleplaying prowess, the cards exist as a convenient tool.

Now, as a last point, and this is the kicker.  These cards would have to be manufactured.  They would have to be attractive to look at.  And they have the added bonus of constant expansion, as people dream of new things to give cards for, new badges to be won, stacked and played with.

Plagiarism of a business model, anyone?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rulings Against A Yard

As if I need to rush out and find new reasons for people to doubt the value of my world, or of me as DM; but I know that other DMs struggle with the particular ruling I had to make last Saturday, so I write this in the hopes that it will be of use to them.

Here is the situation.  I don't accept many of the spell descriptions in AD&D as written; many of them, I think, are too weak, many are too strong, and some are simply inadequate for their purpose.  For quite a long time now I have been ruling the spell armor from the Unearthed Arcana towards what I believe is the purpose of the spell: to provide mages with some much needed protection, particularly in the lower levels.  The spell, for those who are not familiar with it, provides a temporary 8 hp plus 1 hp per level, which depletes upon the mage being hit before the mage's own hit points are affected.  The spell also provides an 8 AC, to make hitting the mage more difficult.

I've used the spell for going on twenty years, and have always judged that the 8 AC is really a +2 AC bonus, so that a mage with a 17 dexterity would have an AC of 5.  I judge this because it genuinely helps the mage live, and it is in my interest as a DM for players to live.

I've also taken as a long standing rule that there is no specific time limit on the armor spell.  This is not the rule according to the book, I'm fairly sure.  It probably has a very short time limit.  But my mages have appreciated being able to count on the spell through a couple of encounters - when they occur in a string, such as in a dungeon - and so I have more or less handwaved the expiry period.

Or, at least, that's how I've played it until this last weekend.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that someone would take advantage of the generousity, so as to wake up first thing in the morning, memorize the spell forthwith and immediately cast it upon themselves, so that it would last the whole day.  It hasn't been a problem in the past because most mages I've played with recognize that the adaptability of the spell, that it can be cast on anyone, suggested that withholding the spell as a possible protection for someone very low on hit points ranked above always and without fail casting it upon themselves.  But then, one of the players of my group is very highly selfish in every regard, with personal survival being a high priority.  And since that player is also the sort to find the angle in every ruling without fail, the matter did come up the instant that player began to run a mage for the first time in the campaign.

So when the attack occurred Saturday, I was informed by the player that the armor spell had already been cast, that it had been cast that very morning, and that he automatically cast it every morning without fail.  It was the first time I had heard about it.

Now, there are a number of ways to rule that.  The first and most obvious is to say that, since I hadn't heard about him doing that prior, it couldn't start as a practice until the next morning.  I suggested that, and naturally the player stated that it was stated in the past and that I'd made no comment about it.

Every DM knows that half the stuff the players say is usually missed while looking up something in the rules or when answering someone else's question.  I have tried to explain to my players that if I make no relevant statement about anything they say - particularly anything that a person would have to know is questionable - then I haven't heard it.  If my answer was "yeah yeah, okay, sure," said while not looking directly at the player, that is NOT my absolute final word on the subject.  Players have notoriously excellent memories about this sort of DM reply ... but I don't let that dissuade me.

In any case, I am not so generous a DM as to allow a player to automatically gain 8 plus hit points from the spell all day long, every day.  I should point out that two others at the table, running older mages in other parts of my campaign, weren't very sanguine about it either.

I argued that whatever the standing policy had been, it wasn't there to be used in that way, and that I would more than happily return to the rule of the book.  This brought much anger from the other two mage-playing players, and of course further protesting from the new mage-playing player that "this is how things were always done, I'm just playing the rule better."

Predictable.  And I know how this sort of thing affects DMs.  The default position is to always argue that the player is being clever, that he or she ought to be awarded for their cleverness and that the rule should not, absolutely should not, be changed.  I promise you, no matter how this post ends, there will be someone who posts to reiterate this point as though I never considered it, going on at length about how important it is to reward players for squeezing the last juice out of every prior ruling.  There's a good chance the commentor will write this comment pedantically.

But the Law is not an absolute, static truth.  The greater point here, the one that the commentor will have failed to consider, even after reading this paragraph, is that the GAME requires more consideration than the player.  I have been generous with the armor spell because the players have been discrete about their use of the spell.  My neighbor may be in his rights to play music at 119 decibels when the law indicates that anything under 120 is legal, but if he plays it at 119 decibels from 8:01 in the morning non-stop until 9:59 at night, every day without fail, I may have a court-case against him.  If he plays the same song over and over again in those hours, I will definitely have a court-case against him.  Such is the law.  The spirit is more important than the letter.  The letter of the law does not provide carte blanche to those who operate inside it.  Sometimes, new laws, or new interpretations of the law, are required.  We call the judgement a precedent.  And considering precedents, their previous implementation and the need for a new implementation, is the substance and core of decision making.  Just because the player is clever doesn't mean I am ipso facto required to accept that cleverness.  Sorry, tough shit, the player was clever but I don't give a shit.  That player, that solitary player, is not the only one playing.  Other mages have their say about it, as does the fighter who relies on hit points as a right, as does any other player and the table.  And I have my say about it, because I know from experience what fucks up, and does not fuck up, the running of my world.

So the judgment I decided to bring to the spell is that, if the spell is cast and does not get tried in battle within 1 hour of casting, it disperses.  But if it gets tried, that is to say that someone attempts to hit the benefactor of the spell, with a real chance of causing damage, than the spell can remain in force until one hour of time in which no occurring threat passes.

If you have to make a decision in the middle of the game, do it.  Ignore the fallen, disgruntled look on the player as it goes against him or her.  They're just trying to get more than they deserve, and they've only just found out they didn't get it.  You're entitled to stop them if you feel the spirit of the world is being challenged.

I will always reward genuine ingenuity.  That does not include taking a yard on my generousity when I give an inch.


Arduin made a comment on the last post, the wiki post, that the bar for content for the Wiki has been set intimidatingly high.  Is this true?

If so, what is it people need me to do, in order to generate more interest in putting more stuff on the wiki?  I believe that there is personally created RPG material of sufficient quality on the net, if people would step forward.  So should I remove material, if that will reduce any intimidation?

Please tell me.  What is needed to inspire others?

Wiki, January 17, 2011

It takes a long time to design anything.

At this point in the wiki, two months in, I begin to realize how much of my world I actually keep inside my own head, or which exists as easily looked up material on the Internet.  My party, as of Saturday, is rushing across the middle of central Europe pell mell, trying to catch a boat in Hamburg ... and to help me run that journey what I have is my maps, Wikipedia and a lifetime of geographical and historical studies.

Seems to be going pretty well.

I suppose I have spent a lot of my time working on maps because they serve as memory aids to me; when I see a particular city or mountain range, my head engages and I can see the trees, the mountains, the castles, the battles fought over the ground by everyone from the Romans up to the present day, the political intrigues to retain that land, the ethnic peoples, the artwork and even the literature.  I've tried to write out lengthy descriptions of areas ... but the fact is, Wikipedia does it better.

 I completed the map (except for some labelling, which I never quite get around to).  Below are two maps showing the difference between last week's appearance and this:

For anyone who plays war games, the First and Second World Wars, this should look pretty interesting.

I continue to hope that some gentle reader will come forth and have the wherewithal to publish some of their own material on the Wiki.  It does not need to be maps ... there is always a demand for monsters, magic, floorplans, tables of all variety and much more I can't begin to guess at.  Creativity knows no limitation.  If you have something you'd like to post - remembering that no one is free to comment on the Wiki, so you can't be vilified there - email me at

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Goooood Roleplaying

A director friend that I'd known when we were both young and learning the business used to have long arguments with me into the night about what was the difference between good acting and bad acting.  It is a favorite subject for those in the dramatic arts, made the more favorite because there is, and there never will be, an answer for it.  We certainly never arrived at an agreement.

When I worked with my director friend almost a decade later, on his first feature-length film back in 2000, the subject happened to come up.  I remember that he sighed, looked exhausted and answered, "An actor that shows up."

A great reality of the business is that actors who reliably do the work, who are easy to get along with and who have lives without a lot of drama, get parts if they can say the words in the right order.  Kevin Smith is always happy to work with Ben Affleck and Tim Burton will always work with Johnny Depp.  Sydney Pollack wanted Meryl Streep, John Carpenter wanted Kurt Russell, Billy Wilder wanted Jack Lemmon and John Ford wanted John Wayne.  People can argue about whether those people were great actors, but the directors knew the people they wanted to work with, to make the projects they wanted to make.

There's nothing worse than an actor that will throw fits, demand excessive treatment, fail to arrive for work with a clear head, refuse to work affably with the cast or preen themselves with a belief of infallibility.  You want to know why Keanu Reeves gets parts when everyone thinks he's a bad actor?  He works.  He'll get dirty.  He doesn't drive up the length of the shoot and he doesn't make the shoot run overbudget.  He looks happy when he's supposed to look happy and he looks angry when he's supposed to look angry.  For most any director in the world, that's more than enough.

Want to know why Tim Roth's career didn't take off?  One guess.

As a player or as a DM, when I sit down at a table to play, there's only one thing I truly ask for: to play with people who want to play the game.  Not people who want to play the look-at-me gambit, not the people for whom everything is a pissing contest, not the chatterers, not the mopers, not the wanderers from the table, not the chewers, not the ones who can't remember the rules, not those that come cause they're attached to their partners, not the doodlers, nor the lawyers, nor the peevish infants who screech their indignation, not the ones who can't bear to die, not the ones who can't bother to try, not the ones who must be poked to roll dice, who have to be told their gained experience three times, or those who want to pitch their own world, or those who pitch a different game's rules at the table, or those who play this game because they can't find someone to play the other game.

No, the player I want to play with isn't the brilliant one that solves puzzles, nor the clever one that talks in thirty accents, nor the player whose character sheet is a ninety-page tome, nor even the lover of fun.

The player I want to play with is the one that, whatever I tell them, answers back as a person immersed in the game.  They're too busy thinking about how to deal with the enormous bear that's just burst through the innkeeper's front door to be concerned with things like characterization, the bear's probable hit points, it's memorized armor class or whether a bear's strength is sufficient to break down a reinforced door.  No, what they are is scared.  It's a big, scary bear, it's a threat to their life and they are thinking, OH MY GOD, IT'S A HUGE BEAR!  WHAT'LL WE DO?!

That is, they are there.  Present.  Brains functioning in relationship to what's going on.  Focused on getting all they can out of it.  Emotionally invested.  Pick your description.  The long and the short of it is that a player like this - whether you are the player's compatriot or the DM - is such a thorough pleasure to play with that you don't give a rat's dinner what sort of brilliant thespian he is at the table.  It matters not a mook's wit whether they're behaving in accordance with their past or in accordance with the bar code on their cherished twinkies.  Jeb may not have an education, he may be an out-of-work roofer, he might be a wife-killing banker ... but when he's at my table, screaming that "We've got to get out of this place or we're all goners!" he is the most brilliant, slashing bloody bastard that ever girded on a d20.

He's always welcome at my table.

Freedom Of Action

Ben, in a comment on the Conan post a few days ago, gave the following definition: "Good roleplaying includes considering motivations for the character that align with the character's capabilities, history, and environment."  I would ask the gentle reader to please read the quote in context, as I don't wish to repost it all again here.

With Ben's perspective, I find myself faced with an ethic to which I'm steadfastly opposed - that a player must, upon being given a history, feel duty bound to continue the "story line" of that history simply because I had given it.  That to do otherwise would be, in that player's philosophy, "bad roleplaying."  With regards to the posts I have written about player backgrounds, this was never my intention.  I presumed that a point would be reached in the character's life where, training to be a mage or fighter or whatever done, they would be free to choose their own future however they saw fit.  My players know that I have never steadfastly required that any player would be expected to take this or that action because they were an orphan, or had been frivilous with their money in the past, or had learned how to juggle.

Perhaps I've been casually dismissive about the whole topic.  I wouldn't play in a world where a DM had such expectations.  And in any event, I feel confident that I could take any group of details offered me and create at least six differently motivated people, one after another, from a serial rapist to a pious town benefactor.  But since people don't tend to characterize as much as I do (in a way, its my profession), and since people DO seem to think that the past is a set of manacles on the present - and the future - I realize that Ben has explained why I received the lack of interest I got when first proposing those background tables.  Why would anyone be interested in wearing a set of shackles?

It's a crying shame that players feel bound by the kind of motivations that are designed for a two-hour movie.  I mean, I like Conan and all, but the characterization on film doesn't compare with the sort of character development that might be found in something like Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, or Les Miserables ... a sprawling, reworked perspective gained by a character as he or she undergoes a series of embattled relationships, events and tragedies.  Exactly the sort of thing that can't be recorded in a film.  Consider, the page of a book typically translates into ninety seconds of action on film; this would mean that even a relatively short novel, such as Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, meticulously transferred onto film, would run about four hours and forty minutes ... minimum.  Because Verne tends to skirt widely over some events without providing much written detail (that was his style), I would guess in reality the length of the proper detailed film would be twice that.

As such, directors and screenplay writers are forced to cut and slash huge bits of the book to compress it into the mere three hours playing time the audience can stand.  There isn't room for all that personality change.  So that even if R.E. Howard had written some deep background to Conan (Howard never wrote anything deep about anything), the film certainly wouldn't have had time to show it.

Therefore, film needs to create motivations in ten minutes or less - and so the motivations must be less rounded, less complex ... and easily gotten by even the dumbest audience member, if the film is to make any money.

Why, oh why, would D&D be limited even remotely in the same way?

One session runs five, six hours; there's plenty of time for players to invent the most profound, complex backgrounds for their characters far beyond those transmitted in a mere movie.  All it takes is imagination.  If I postulate that the Conan becomes a character at the moment his master frees him, then all that came before that point is the background that I provide, and all that comes after is the resolution the character chooses to play.  "Your character's parents were killed by brigands, you were raised as a slave, you were trained as a gladiator, instructed by an eastern martial artist and taught to read philosophy and poetry.  And now your master has now set you free.  What do you do?"

There is no law in the world that says, from that above, that your character's ONLY option is to answer, "I look for the murderers of my parents."  It deeply troubles me that anyone would argue vehemently that to give any other answer is "bad roleplaying."  This speaks fluently of a perceived tradition in roleplaying games that demands blood-for-blood, the saving of face and the demonstration of prowess.

Surely, there must be some room for a player to answer, "My experience with philosophy has taught me that, although my life has been troubled to date, all life is truly pain; to be happy, I recognize that desire is a path that leads only to disappointment.  I shall renounce my past, and seek to teach others that wisdom can offer a freedom from wants that can never be obtained."

Is this bad roleplaying?  Could a player not also answer, "Really, free?  I'm at a loss ... I've been a slave so long.  The murderous bastards who killed my parents are probably long dead by now.  I don't know what I should do ... perhaps I could reach a town, find friends and use my talents as a fighter to improve my life.  There are so many things I haven't tried, so many places I haven't seen.  I want to go see them."

Bad roleplaying?  Why couldn't a player answer, "Those bastards who kept me slave these past thirty years are going to die.  I'm going to the nearest town, get weapons, and kill every last one of them!  I can't wait to hear their women lament."

What about, "I decide that slavery is wrong.  I will equip myself, find others who believe as I do and end slavery on this earth!"

Or, "Damn, I'm free at last to raise an army to conquer the world."

Or, "Parents?  Never really knew them.  I have dim memories of my mother being killed.  I have killed many more, myself.  Killing is a good thing - it's made me famous, it's frightened my master so as to force him to let me go.  Think I'll get myself a weapon and do more, and see where that gets me in the world."

Or, "My character behaves like a murderous, wild animal.  I don't think at all, I destroy all that I meet, until the day someone kills me."

Six choices.  Any of which could be - and ought to be - modified with the first set of encounters my character experiences, as I, the player, change my mind about world conquest, blood lust, casual fighting or revenge.  There's nothing at all about a particular background that requires any person - even those gentle readers finishing his post now - to behave tomorrow in the manner their past has dictated.  Any one of us has the power to rise up, quit our jobs, escape to another part of the world, end our marriages, cease acting like an asshole, work more productively, expand our horizons or take steps to rise above our station.  The fact that we don't is hardly proof that we can't.

More to the point, fantasy is about doing everything we don't normally do.  We must not allow our own narrow perceptions about right or wrong, possible or impossible, to cloud our judgement about what our character would do.

Fantasy demands freedom of action.  Let's not lose sight of that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An Apology And An Attempt

People have made the point that if you don't advance the idea first, you can't playtest it.  So to Zak, Symeon, C'nor, Griffin, Arduin and especially James (and anyone else I may have missed), I'll rescind my point somewhat.  I offer an apology.  I am in agreement - things have to be worked on and tried.  And blogs are useful for shooting out ideas blindly.

My mind remains unchanged, however, on the prospect of venturing forth material with less than 24-hours consideration.  Just putting that there for the record.

If there is anything I am working on that hasn't been thoroughly playtested, its the tables I proposed for the Tarot, and how they would work in the realm of wild magic.  Below, a piece of the reversed pentacles table:

It isn't getting finished in any short order, primarily because the right-hand column requires considerable thinking on how to make the drawing of the card an adventure, while not using it to excessively railroad the player.  It is somewhat like drawing from a deck of many things; the player does not need to draw ... and if the draw occurs, the player is given a warning on what not to do.  The warnings must be somewhat vague, or else the problem is too simple.  The consequence, in turn, requires considerable fast-thinking and imagination on the part of the DM, to subtly work the effects of the card into the overall campaign.

One can see how the player is approached with the Five of Pentacles.  A mage at an Inn hears that the party is on its way to deliver some person to another town far away, feels a moment of sympathy and forces a gold piece upon the player for trying to do the deed.

Now, how easy is it for the player to take that coin and throw it casually into his sack, and thereafter forget about it?  Quite easily, I would imagine, even after having read the card the session before.  (I've decided that for the best results, tarot cards can only be drawn at the end of the running, so that the effects don't result until the next session).

The act of heaping the stranger's coin on their own is a sad commentary on the human condition.  Like holding a door open for someone who doesn't bother to thank you, or does so gruffly.  The truly appreciative player would put the coin somewhere else, and identify exactly what the coin was spent on ... remembering the gift as a gift.

Now, it should be understood that doing otherwise would, in most cases, not matter.  It is only with the drawing of the card, which puts in motion the potentially condemning power of wild magic, that would thereafter punish the player.  The same is true for the Six of Pentacles ... where the result could be an unexpected boon.

Of course, the DM could play it that all the cards are in play, all the time, but this strikes me as unpleasantly intrusive.  I prefer to let my world be cruel and heartless, until its given a reason to be otherwise ... by drawing out the Tarot, for instance.

Getting back to the untested quality of the cards.  I have been able to test out a few that the party has chosen, but by no means all of them.  With 78 cards, 48 of which I have completed descriptions for, and each card having both forward and backward meanings (96 permeatations written so far), it would take a long, long time to play test them all.

In my defense, I believe I have the stuff to recognize what I could, and could not do, as a DM.  And I have been rattling my brain on these things for months.  I've rewritten the lists up to date twice already, being unsatisfied with the sentiments.

And because I want to post them when I am finished, I find I must concur with the majority.  I relax my stance, forthwith, on untested material, and repeat my apology.

But please, give it a week's cogitation, okay?

To Create A Table For Use In Blogger

1) create the table in Excel.

2) copy the part of the spreadsheet you wish to post and paste that part into Paint.  By putting white space around the spreadsheet portion you wish to keep, it makes the table neater.

3) clean up the edges of the new image in Paint to your satisfaction.

4) save as a jpeg.

5) import jpeg image in Blogger.


Monday, January 10, 2011

John Milius' Little Film

When I saw the Conan movie with Schwarzeneggar in the theatre back in '82, I had no prior experience whatsoever with the actor.  I knew the director, John Milius, from The Wind and the Lion, which I thought had a very funny portrayal of Roosevelt, and which I thought was a good movie.  I had aspirations about being an actor back then; I was fresh out of high school and I was paying attention to things like movie directors and scriptwriters.  The name Oliver Stone, who co-wrote Conan, was unknown to me.  I'm not sure I incorporated that knowledge until years later.

My point is that I came to Conan 'clean.'  Having no prior bias about Schwarzeneggar, I only wondered how the movie compared to the R.E. Howard's stories, which of course I'd read over and over throughout my youth.  And I remember coming out of the theatre after the film with the thought, "not bad."

Certainly not as hideous as later films, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonya, both hideous films in the extreme.  Conan itself was a much better characterization, in part made better by a reduced dependence on dialogue but also because the film is a beautifully visual poem.  I own the film, and each time I watch it I find myself pleasantly enjoying each scene, and of course the music which underlays the film's tempo.

I watched it Saturday, contemplating as usual its comparisons with D&D play.  I thought about how the revenge story provides far better cohesian than the "let's protect the innocent macguffin" or "let's go get the macguffin to protect the innocents" ... the former of which appears to be the story line of Season of the Witch, that I turned down the opportunity to see the same day.  I haven't seen that film.  I probably will, since I consider Ron Perlman is the best, most underrated character actor in Hollywood history; but I don't relish the story line as it appears in the synopsis.

What's nice about Conan is that there is no 'push' in the plot that makes him go after Thulsa Doom.  No one directly connected to Conan is set to die, no one has been kidnapped, there's no threat of world destruction, no clock is ticking, no kingdom needs to be saved and Conan himself isn't 'the chosen one.'  Conan wants to kill Thulsa Doom because he wants to.  That's it.

True, King Osric wants his daughter, but Conan isn't the driving force to get the girl; he doesn't actually appear to care.  Neither do his companions, for that matter, beyond the fact that she's worth something.  As a macguffin, however, she's entirely dismissable.  One knows from the story that if she dies, she dies.  No world-changing disaster will ensue.  In the storyline, this is made the more true when there comes no silly reuniting scene between her and her father ... Milius knows no one cares about that.  We want to see Conan kill the bad guy, and we get that in spades.

What is Thulsa Doom, however, except a D&D character?  He butchers the village in his youth, when he's perhaps third or fourth level, only a bit of hack and slash before hauling away the loot.  One can conjecture how he grew tired of such things, how he turned his plundered income towards constructing a snake cult; playing the end game, as they call it.  James Earl Jones plays the character brilliantly - and its a far better character than Luke's dumb father.  Thulsa Doom lives several shades of evil, living creatively enough in his own mind to believe that he really has a chance at converting Conan into his son at the end.  The final look in his eyes at his death isn't frustration, it is honest, complete surprise ... as if anyone could possibly not see the logic in Thulsa Doom's potential adoption.

Watching the film again has set my mind in motion about sandbox movies ... for Conan's character (and Thulsa Doom, off screen) are motivated by no other force other than their own wants and desires.  With his enemy dead, Conan sits upon the empty steps of the temple and considers Thulsa Doom's last words.  What is he, now that the focus of his life is dead?  The film doesn't provide an answer.  No wise man comes up at the last moment to explain that Conan must follow this course of action or that.  No pressing issue arrives to push him forward.  King Osric can wait.  Conan has the world at his feet and he can do whatever he wants.

Give me a DM who can resist throwing in a hook at a moment like this.  A DM who can let the issue lay for a bit; who can let Conan return to Osric in his own time, get the reward, choose what to buy with it ... and NOT start filling up the campaign with new characters and demands on the player's time.

Isn't it true that DM's who must hurry forward with the next macguffin and the next quest fail to recognize that this is the player's time?  A chance for the player to catch a breath and decide what to do next, on their own?

People do not give Conan its due.  They'd rather worship films where every goddamned character is led around by the fucking nose.