Monday, October 30, 2017

A Programmed Trade System

I've been approached by a programmer who, reading the recent posts, has expressed an interest in making the trade system into a program.  We're just discussing it, right now.  No time lines have been set.  Only the scantiest of details have been discussed.  There is enough for him to try out a few things, to solve some up front problems.

We'll probably be looking at some kind of beta stage, as a problem solving tool.  And, whenever that comes to light, I'll probably have to take down the trade content on the Patreon account, since if the auto-trade system works, people might look at those files and see how to duplicate our work.  That's a very real thing, but it won't happen for a while.  In the meantime, I'm going to continue working on upgrading things, particularly as I have reformatted everything and worked out an interesting availability system.

Just now, I'm tagging items according to the climatic classification that each market city exists in, according to the Koppen system.  I'm hoping this will narrow the distribution of certain agricultural resources in my system.  For example, looking up "olives" would probably tell me that they're grown in a warm, Mediterranean climate, but that wouldn't be very helpful.  On the other hand, by tagging every market in my system where olives originate, I can get an exact distribution for olives and everything else, helping me build an availability system not only based on what climates have access to olives, but which ones don't.  And that applies to every other product as well.

I was also thinking of making a mirrored distance table - the table that calculates the distance of any given trade city from every other - for the winter period, which would involve finding all the calculations for very cold regions (specifically, humic micro-thermal climates, like most of Canada), doubling or perhaps trebling the distance between markets to simulate the decreased likelihood of trade during the winter months.  This would just mean that when I wanted to calculate a city when my game was taking place in December, I'd simply go to the other table and use that.  No doubt, northern products would increase in price and decrease in availability (and thus disappear from my equipment list), while places that made use of northern trade routes, such as the Baltic Sea, would have to ship through more southern cities and ultimately that would increase the price and lower the availability of many things that yet originated in relatively warm climates.

Work, yes, but the results could be fun.

So, still thinking, still developing.  I still have many ideas.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

New Pricing Table

For those supporting me on Patreon (it's only $10, one time, for one month, to see it), I have added the new pricing table to my Google drive.  The title includes "28oct17" ~ but I'll leave up the old pricing table a bit before taking it down, if anyone wants to get a copy and hasn't thought to do that.

Patreon will be taking out donations in just three days, so if you'd like to pledge $5, $10 or $20 towards the continued great content of this blog (going by what people have told me), now would be a good time.  It's early enough that you still have plenty of time to find money for Christmas, yes?

Thanks for reading and for your fine comments.  I've already been thinking of ways to implement some of the additional changes I suggested in today's earlier post ~ but I'm not rushing to do anything just now.

How Much, And If At All

I've gotten through my equipment list and established Sets for each object.  I realized as I went that the Sets are quite crunchy enough to manage every item, as many things are simply excessively rare and happen to be made of things that are bound to be made of a common good: say, a floating castle made of stone, as an example of something not on the list.  That can be solved by simply dividing the reference availability by the workmanship number on the table, but even that has to be arbitrarily tweaked somewhat.  I'm never happy with an arbitrary solution, so no doubt I'll be messing with this system until I am happy ... or until I die, which ever seems more likely.

Still, I'm more pleased with it than I have been with any other availability system, and that's good.  I'm just rebuilding the pretty table for players to use during the game, then I'll post it on my drive for patreon users.

There's a different aspect to availability that needs addressing, and that connects to the quantity of goods that can be bought (a whole other headache).  I'll use elephants as an example.

Let's say that we're in Stavanger: a cool Norwegian climate in the summer and bitterly wet and cold in the winter.  In my system, the total number of references for elephants in Stavanger is 0.0200.  I have 7 world references for elephants just now (there would be more, but Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have not yet been added to the system).  Here's the breakdown of how the sources of elephants affect the Stavanger market:

All of these are in India.  The distance between Stavanger and Mysore, Bombay, Galle, etc. are all over 300.  Myingan, in the region of Pagan, in the Empire of Toungoo, is in Burma (and I'll bet you recognize none of those names), making it the farthest away.

It's no use arguing that these are mastodons in Norway, because the table clearly shows where they're coming from.  And since 0.015625 is the minimum for set one objects, and since and "elephant" is a set one object from elephant references, this puts elephants in Norway.  I can eliminate elephants by arbitrarily listing them as "set 2," but then I would have to remember to personally change that set if the trade numbers were being generated for a market in India.  No good.  The programming has to work for everywhere.

Put that on a shelf for the moment.

My trade system bases the price of an elephant on the number of references vs. the number of elephants.  I have 50,637 head of trained, domesticated elephants in the world, obviously in India and Burma.  This doesn't seem like many, but it compares with established numbers early in the 20th century.  And I don't have many references, because the source comes from the 20th century and even India had been advanced enough that not every town in the country named elephants as a resource.

If we take that number and divide it by 7, we end with slightly less than 7,234 elephants per reference.  If we multiply the number of references in Stavanger by 1 reference of elephants, we get 144.55 elephants in Stavanger.  In Norway.

That's ridiculous.  There are only 2,500 people in the town of Stavanger in my game, so where the hell are they keeping all these elephants?

It helps to think of products appearing on the market tables as things going through the market, rather than as things being kept there.  Most of anything is a wholesale product, piling up in a given town like Stavanger before being distributed throughout a large section of the hinterland.  Stavanger market serves a population ten times its number, and of course merchants in Stavanger import things they expect to then ship forward to other trade cities.

If we think of the number of elephants, or any other product, as the amount going through Stavanger in a year, it reduces the physical appearance of every commodity.  If we divide the year into 52 weeks, however, it still means almost three elephants moving through Stavanger per week, but that's at least a little easier to swallow.

Technically, it could be the same three elephants, or even one elephant, being sold over and over, since that's how economies work.  We could also argue that only the paperwork is moving through Stavanger.  A fellow doing business in Stavanger has a plantation in India and as such, he's managing his elephants overseas; yes, you can buy an elephant in Stavanger, but you have to pick it up in Mysore.

That's a way of handwaving the issue and it has been the thought process I've had for a long time.  Besides, no player character wants to buy an elephant in Stavanger, even if it is only 89 g.p.  Even if the thing is in a stall, as a DM I'm going to be a complete asshole about it and tell the player the elephant is going to die if it doesn't get a sufficient shelter or moved pretty quick to a warmer climate.  That's a way of controlling it too.  That and the fact that an elephant eats 450 lb. of food a month.

None of this actually solves the problem, however ~ as I say, it is handwaving.  Logically, the trick it to establish another variable that states an elephant won't or can't be sold in such-and-such a climate, even if the adjusted references say it exists.

And that is easy to write and to propose but it includes hundreds of other items that must also be arbitrarily limited in market appearance based on a very wide variety of issues.  Saltwater fish and shipbuilding being sold inland (along with defining what is "inland"), furs and heavy cloth items even being available in hot, humid climates (why would you want a fur even as a rug in Burma?  And who would bring it thousands of miles to market it there?), wagons existing in places without roads and so on.  These things are fiddly and highly particular to some areas and we're talking about a lot of work defining the margins of where a product occurs and where it doesn't.

On top of this, add the argument of seasonal availability, something I have always wanted to incorporate but which was just a bridge too far.  I think I see now how this could be done more easily, but again it is a process of going through each item one at a time and arbitrarily deciding whether something can be bought in a given season at all, and then how much of what is sold in what season ~ and even that doesn't yet take into account fruit that is shipped a thousand miles vs. a hundred.

I've hand-waved that by saying an apprentice mage with a freshen cantrip can restore a cubic yard of vegetable material a day, enabling a full wagon to be restored entirely every four-six days, depending on the size of the wagon, long enough for it to be hauled from Andalucia to Warsaw or further.  But a system that argued that Israeli hushhash couldn't be bought in Stavanger at all would be better.

These are long-term plans, and hopefully will be implemented one by one.  The hold-up until now has been a base system that could be used to adjust items; now that I have found one (hopefully, it holds up), I can patiently figure out these other issues one by one, creating features that will discount something if it is such and such a distance from the sea, if it is autumn, if it is in such and such a climate that discounts its presence and so on.  A long, frustrating process towards a deeper, grittier detail, but I think in the long run worth it.

I look back at what I've created thus far; it would be hard to imagine something this big and this complex at the beginning of this project without losing heart at ever accomplishing this much.  Yet I have accomplished it, because I didn't think of the whole scale.  I just thought of one little bit of it at a time, letting the process itself determine the monolith of the project that it became.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wonderful Opportunities for Adventure

This afternoon, I had a discussion with a regular reader who tells me that I should find a programmer and have my trade system made into a format that will let people plug in data and spew out the results.  It's a lovely idea.  Unfortunately, I don't know a programmer, programmers don't listen to instructions, I don't believe there's enough demand for the product to justify paying a programmer the necessary money, or even splitting the money even with someone who, if they did listen, is merely translating my work into a different format.  I love the idea.  It's just that it doesn't make sense.

A Typical World
A part of me says, "Fine, do it for them."  I hear from people who tell me they like the idea, but it is just too much work.  They start into it and they lose the verve and it never gets done.

What most people would want to do with a trade system, with a typical world that I see posted on line, to resounding cries of "I love your art style," would be a cake walk for me.  The map on the right, from, consists of 12 habitations, not counting the "base camp."  It would be easy to build up a distance table, then select a hundred products and build a trade system for this that would serve the world well enough to, as Ian Pinder said, "search for adventure" within that system.

It also came up, "Would I make the world itself?"  A hundred years ago, back in 1984, after making a world that looked somewhat similar to the picture above, I was asked to make an imaginary world for others.  At the time, I charged the outrageous price of $150.  I can't imagine doing something like this now.  Back then, I did hand drawings.  Now, to do it on computer (as I am not hand drawing and shipping anything), I certainly wouldn't be cheap.  And it wouldn't be worth it anyway.  For what most DMs use a D&D world for, stealing a map like the one linked should be enough for them.

At this point, on this subject, I'm merely poking the bear.  I doubt there are more than two or three persons who would find any use for this service, were I to offer it.  I haven't hesitated in the past to monetize this blog, so I don't worry about that.  I only wonder, is this something I want to actually do.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Calculating Scarcity in Market Items

A small number of my readers will be happy to learn that I'm replacing parts of my trade pricing table with excel's vlookup feature.  I have found a practical application for it and I'm incorporating the function.

One problem I have had with the trade system is the question of availability.  It is all well and good to have things with prices that vary from place to place, but that still leaves the question, "How many can I buy?"  Or, for that matter, if there is anything on the shelf at all.

I have tried a number of methods for this over the year, one of which is still a part of the system as it is located for patreon supporters right now.  But it is based on random numbers and I must admit, for some things, random numbers just suck.  It was because of random numbers that I conceived by sage abilities system as things you can absolutely do vs. things that you absolutely cannot do.  There are some things that still incorporate random numbers, but the principle of knowledge is not one of them.  I know that the Serbians were massacred and driven out of their homeland during World War I.  There's no random chance that I will forget that.

Of late, I've figured out a way to get the random chance out of the availability of items.  Though it drastically flattens the likelihood of finding a given object, or how many are available, because the number of items is so large and the algorithm is hard to predict, that is only noticeable to the designer.  Eventually, the players will grasp the idea for some items, but I doubt they would for the whole list of goods and services that can be purchased.

It works like this.  Imagine what it's like to buy things in a general store.  You want to buy something very common like a torch and you find there's a big basket of them.  But then you want a flint to light that torch and it turns out there's just one left.  Or the store sold the last one this morning and you're out of luck.

That's what I'm reaching for.  That common items will always be there, or virtually always; and less common items will tend to be missing from the shelf marked "telescope" or "silver holy symbol."  Unless, of course, the player happens to be in a town where telescopes are made.  Then there will be a basket-full.

I'll just trust here that readers are vaguely aware of my trade system.  Every time I want to talk about it there's too much to explain and I have already been down that road.  Still, basically there are a set of references that I express to the fourth significant digit.  The number of references for any given object, from extraordinarily rare gems to general foodstuffs ranges from 0.0025 to 20.0000.

I'm beginning with the premise that if we're at a particular market, say Stavanger in Norway where the online party is, a total references of >1 for that object means that every possible version of that object is available.  If Stavanger's shipbuilding industry is >1 reference, then ships of every size can be purchased or built from scratch at that port.  Of course, the boat might not actually be in the harbor, but an agent in Stavanger can get it for you in a period reasonable with the 17th century, say a month or two.

From there, we create a series of tiers.  >1 reference equals Tier 1.  Dividing that number by four, 0.25 - 0.9999 references equals Tier 2.  Dividing it again by four, 0.0625 - 0.2499 equals Tier 3 and 0.01563 - 0.0624 equals Tier 4.

We then rate every object that is sold on a scale of 1 to 4 "sets."  Set 1 includes anything that is grossly common: ordinary stone, iron bars, a cloak, chickens, torches, a stay at an inn, ordinary wine and beer, whatever.  Things we absolutely expect to always find in any market town.  Set 2 is one up the scale: things that are a little less common but could still be expected to be found in any civilized society: a holy symbol, a metal candelabra, butter and cheese, hard boots as opposed to soft ones, books, a vial of salve for wounds, a stay at a nicer inn, etcetera.  Set 3 would mean low level luxuries; the sort of thing that peasants would never buy but would find its way into a merchant's household: porcelain, stained glass, a rare liqueur, a fur coat, a particularly nasty poison, a carved oaken bureau, a pet war dog and so on.  Finally, Set 4 would include every rare thing that conceivably existed.

For Set 4 things to be found, the number of references would have to equal the Tier 1 level.  At Tier 2, at best we would find Set 3 objects.  At Tier 3, no better than Set 2.  Finally, at Tier 4, only Set 1 objects would exist.  If the number of references isn't high enough for Tier 4, nothing of that particular good or service is available.  If we're so far from the makers of weapons that less than 2% of a reference exists, then no, there's nothing here, not even a dagger.  You'll have to make due with a club you find somewhere.

I know it sounds to some people that the Tier number should equal the Set number, and that's fine for them if that's how they want to do it.  It's just reversing the scale.

I like that this system narrows the import reach for objects that ought to be unusual, while maintaining commonality in areas where the object is actually made.  It may be hard to find a fur coat in Italy, but in Russia everyone is wearing them, even though they are a set 3 object.  You may have the money to buy everything in existence: but if it isn't on the shelf because it is never imported (its just too far away), then there's no point in waiting to see if something will come in next week.  No one ever brings it here because it isn't wanted.

This gives me ideas for how to manage the starting question, how many are there - but I haven't quite solved that one yet.  I'm patiently working on creating a page that gives everything a set number, then compares that with the automatically generated tier system ~ which is where vlookup is coming in handy.  Yes, it was a good suggestion and now that I'm starting to get used to it, I'll be using the function more often.  I'd like to thank those readers who poked me about it and to promise them that yes, even an ornery grognard can change.

I should be able to update the pricing table on the private drive for patreon donations in a week or two: sooner if readers clamor for a beta version that's only partially made.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lords of the Budgies

I'm not surprised that I didn't get more feedback for my post about Frank Mentzer.  People who read this blog know that once I've begun to rant, it's not safe to approach too close, else I shall viciously rend the poor soul limb from limb.

That aside, I've given some thought to why I dislike, so vehemently, these creators of the game I love [deconstructing my own thoughts], the only game I play.  There are so many others who see these fellows as great men, to whom they owe so much, because without them this game wouldn't exist ~ at least, not in the form it does now.

Though of course it doesn't exist in the form they created, except for a few; that form has been mashed and hashed and cut to pieces, only to be reassembled into various Frankenstein's monsters that roam everywhere.  As such, I'm not sure what we're celebrating in what these men did, as clearly what they did was not enough to sustain the actual format they created for very long.  Within six years of D&D cresting the wave, growing popular enough that it's presence made itself known to the media and the general public (about 1979), Gygax was gone from TSR.  Four years after that, 2nd Edition was launched.  One could argue that almost from the beginning of the appearance of real money, the game was a corpse for buzzards come to feed.

But this is not why I dislike this gang of creators.  They were clearly out of their depth; none of them had any business acumen.  None demonstrated a cold, practical sense about how games worked or the technical acumen necessary to sustain themselves in the industry.  They were just guys doing something neat and different; mostly, they let themselves get caught up in the radical thrill of having a "job" that enabled them to play games.  And they pursued their jobs with the zest of any worker who finds themselves in a similar situation ~ they rode the train, knowing that one day it had to hit something and crash, but why worry?

It's not the guys themselves that I despise.  It is what they supposedly stood for.  These were not bright guys.  They did not have any special ability to turn a phrase or express themselves well; their thought processes are similar to those found in any university newspaper: the vague, stumbling expression of half-considered beliefs, defending social justice or the right of students to drink beer openly on the common (since it's private property).  They meant well, of course, but in fact they had a tiger by the tail and not one of them had a real notion of the game's potential.  They saw it as a simple game, no better and no worse than the Avalon Hill games they played already, just another way to while away the time on a random evening.

I think the evidence for that is that none of them moved on.  Readers won't understand what I mean by that, thinking that most of them moved on from designing games to writing fiction novels or going to cons, or creating other games, etcetera.  That's not what I mean at all.  These were university educated men; supposedly creative, imaginative, celebrity-worthy fellows, due great respect and the outpouring of love upon their deaths.  But aside from chancing into being a component in the chance-creation of something much bigger than themselves, what did they do?

Please don't misunderstand me.  Most of us will never "do" anything of great purpose, unless it is to fight in a war or participate in the production of some composite piece of art, like a film or a festival ~ but again, these are things much bigger than ourselves.  Celebrity is owed to people who do something of their own accord; while the status of immortality is owed to people who do it more than once.  Or, who arguably sustain something against all real opposition for a long time.

That is why no one outside the role-playing community knows who Mentzer, Holmes, Moldvay or Arneson are.  Even inside the community, these guys were only sustained because we, the players, were so damn obsessed with the game we perpetrated a sustainable community that could usefully beckon these fellows to come forward and serve as icons ~ well, pets, really.  Beyond being alive, none of them had the acumen to hold the game together by sheer force of will or capability.  None were able to defend their ideals indefatigably against their critics.  None kept making new and profound changes that took the game forward to great heights.

When times got tough in the 1980s, they all crawled away like dogs, tails between their legs, gratuitously begging to write awful pulpy fiction books to sustain a businessman's notion of what young, dumb game purchasers would buy.  They traded on their names, not their abilities, not their abilities to innovate, not their collective superior inventive faculties, to produce the same dreck material they had been paid to create in the late 70s and early 80s, right through the 90s and 00s until meeting their actuarial ends.  Same, same, same ... only a little worse each time, as we well know, for they are celebrated not for that great module they wrote in 1997 but for that thing they wrote in 1979.

Mentzer just happens to be one of these that is still alive: but looking at his recent failed attempt at a kickstarter, it is clear it was just going to be more of the same, more derivative re-tellings of two-dimensional settings and stories, plastered with the same artwork available everywhere on Google.  In a computer age, when bookstores are dying and the tablet rules, it was Mentzer's idea to build his new Empyrea kickstarter and really well made 200-page tomes fashioned of good, high quality paper.

These were not bright guys.  They were lucky guys.  And in a way, they were very unlucky guys, depending on one's perspective and what they might have done if they had not sold their souls to stay in the game, whatever the cost.  These are not guys who went to the cons thinking of how they were building their careers towards a greater future.  These were guys going to the cons because they had nothing else.  The adulation they got from the budgies (fans with bobbling, piercing, darting eyes) was the only thing that made these guys feel alive.

Some, like Mentzer, let it convince them that they were somehow important to the industry; that their word could make or break the careers of other people ~ and they made that threat to hundreds of people, in the hubris of feeling self-righteous.  It was the budgies that made them feel that way; who tricked them, with their adoration, into feeling that they deserved that adoration ... but in fact, most of these guys are just lazy, dull, repulsive old men, sitting on cheap chairs and pretending they are thrones.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Give Some Insight Here

Someone tagged me on a reddit post, where they are insufferably arguing story vs. rules, in the same old way, with the same old arguments.  I noticed because it brought a flood of attention to a post I wrote seven years ago, pushing it to the top of my stats today.  But I addressed my opinions on that specific subject just lately, so I won't go there now.

Instead, I'd like to address some questions that one of the reddit commenters put forward, because I think they serve as an example to the mindset of many players in D&D.  I quote from Team_Braniel:
  • What do you find fun in blindly following the rules?
  • Do you always stick to monster stat blocks?  Or do you fudge them to make the monsters fit the encounter better?
  • Do you allow a trash monster permakill a caster on an unlucky crit?
  • When a player gets bored and goes all asshole and tries to kill the npc quest giver, do you let him or do you pull a deus ex machina to stop him or save the quest giver?
  • Do you roll all travel encounters while players are trecking [sic] a 2 week long journey to the quest destination?
  • Where is the line that the rules become tedious and you start to blur them for the sake of continuing the game?

Naturally, the internet habit is to answer the questions directly, saying yes to this and no to that, with perhaps a little explanation.  But I frankly find that a little boring and, anyway, I've already answered all these questions in tens of thousands of words.

Recently, I have been far more interested in deconstructing this sort of thing than in giving my perspective. The questions themselves are revealing, in their intent, but more importantly in their design.  These questions are loaded ~ not purposefully, I'm sure, but rather due to long experience with the role-playing community and the assumption that "speaking with bias" is the same as "speaking with those in the know."

This, I think, is a common issue.  We ~ me included! ~ tend to hand-wave explanation for our points of view on the grounds that everyone already knows a lot about the frame in which we're speaking, and therefore it isn't necessary to specifically outline our context.  However, I also feel that is it easy to drift into a bubble where that context becomes fraught with assumption.

Take the most glaring example, the first question.  It ought to be, "Do you follow the rules?" Straightforward, clear, designed to produce a personal, non-confrontational response.  Instead, the first question has been loaded with the clause, "What do you find fun ..." ~ and thereafter, the word follow has been qualified with the adverb, blindly.

Or consider the phrasing of the second question: "Do you always stick to monster stat blocks?"  That word stick ... most interesting.  Different from "keep to" or "respect" monster stat blocks.  Stick is a word we associate with something that resists movement, such as trying to pry open something that sticks or a person who is content to remain in an abject, unchanging state of mind.  Similarly, "stuck up" is a phrase we associate with "offensively conceited, assuming an unjustified air of superiority."  So it is implied ~ most likely without the questioner thinking about it ~ that following the monster stat blocks is indicative of stubbornness or evidence of smug authority.

Question, then, the actual meaning of "monster stat blocks."  Whose?  We're all in the process of designing our own monsters and there's nothing that argues that any of the stat blocks can't be redesigned by the DM. The monster stat blocks in every edition have been subjected to shifting, adjustment and straight-up change through endless modules, personal views and self-directed bias, so there's plenty of justification to argue that all stat blocks, whether officially printed in a particular book or publication, suffers from definition drift.

Clearly, then, the questioner has in mind a specific "official" stat block in mind, like people who refuse to play backyard football because no one happens to have an official NFL football handy.  Yes, such people exist.  Unfortunately, the questioner doesn't take the time to define which official stat block he's describing, so it is actually certain that no, I don't, because I literally haven't seen any official stat block printed since 1984. 

I am curious about part B to the second question: "Or do you fudge them to make the monsters fit the encounter better?"  Plainly, the qualifying phrase at the end of the question implies that not fudging the official stat blocks makes it impossible to better fit the monsters to the encounter.  I am wholly at a loss for why this is.  There are hundreds of monsters of every size and form, and more if I want to invent them on my own ... as such, it seems to me that "fitting the monsters" to the encounter should be easy.

Still, not sure how changing a given monster from 3 HD to 4 HD can be defined as "fudging."  I'm perfectly in my rights to throw a 4 HD monster at a party; how is it that throwing a giant eagle with 4 HD against a party isn't cheating, but throwing a hippogriff (normally 3 HD) with 4 HD against a party is cheating?  I'll have to think about that.

Moving on.

I looked for a definition for "trash monster" without much success.  "Trashmonster"  is a word coined by a group of guys stationed together at Peterson Air Force Base who apparently love to party for no particular reason.  It would seem that describes virtually every human being.  "Trash monster" also turns up a lot of examples of monsters made of trash, including the otyugh, includes people who live in caves that will eat anything, and according to one page is the ultimate in Nordic LARP.  In this context, I think I know what it means: what I have lately been described as vermin.  But without a solid definition, I don't see how we can be specific as to whether or not there's a dividing line on what monsters have the right to kill casters with crits and those that don't.

Two things:  why "casters" in particular?  The specificity of the question seems to imply the casters are more valuable than other players, who ~ because they were left out of the question ~ can be freely killed by crits without any hesitation whatsoever because we are only concerned with casters being killed.  The question, "Do you allow ...?" seems to imply that it is specifically unfair to kill casters with status-challenged monsters living on the streets with little or no income, unless I do so without actually rolling a crit (since we're being specific about that too).  I'm a little confused as to why we don't just make a house rule that crits don't count against casters when produced by monsters of low social scale, so that I can at least count them as normal hits and still do a little damage.

As well, are there such things as "lucky crits"?  I mean, there are, those rolled by the players, but I presume I'm allowed to kill a caster with a lucky crit, if only I knew specifically what one of those might be.  It is puzzling.

We can move on now to the phrase, "When a player gets bored and goes all asshole ..."  Great phrase. Great.  Goes right to the core of the thing; we've seen it, we know exactly what the questioner is talking about.  Still, there's something about the opening adverb, "when."  Clearly, since we're not saying "if," we're presupposing this is absolutely going to happen.  Apparently, it is something we can do absolutely nothing about.  Players are going to get bored.  When they do get bored, going asshole is definitely a possibility. Apparently.

Clearly, when the player does, as a DM I have just two options: I can let the player go asshole or I can go asshole myself, using my magnificent powers as a game moderator to alter time and space so that the player is helpless to perpetrate a murder.  There is nothing else I can do.  I see that.  It certainly makes it a perplexing question.  Honestly, this one is just too hard for me to make up my mind, given my minimal experience with players getting bored and going all asshole.  I'm just going to have to wait and see what I do when it happens, then report back on that when I have a verified answer.

Now.  Do I roll all travel encounters while players are trekking a 2 week long journey to a quest destination. Okay, good, I can deal with this.  There's no need to quibble about the constraints of the question: I'm sure it is also fairly asking if I roll all travel encounters if the journey is three weeks or five weeks or one week or even just one day.  I am sure that the actual length of the journey has been in no way used in this question to stress the illegitimacy of rolling a die multiple times to see if an encounter occurs.

Still, I have to ask, what if the players are not on a journey to a quest destination?  Surely, that was a very important part of the question that can't be overlooked.  If the players are just travelling along, without any specific purpose, surely that changes what I do as a DM regarding the manner in which encounters must be rolled, diligently or otherwise.

Mish mash, I'm just not sure.  Let me break this down a bit. Do I roll all travel encounters.  Well, plainly, given recent posts, no I do not.  Sometimes, I give encounters to players that are travelling without rolling first.  I feel, perhaps wrongly, that the process of creating a quest includes the opportunity for some of the events of that quest to occur while the players are, in fact, travelling.  So if I already intended to have the players meet something on the way to the quest, before even inventing the quest, then it would be pretty silly for me to roll to see if that encounter occurred, right?

Oh, oh, wait.  I think I may have misunderstood.  It's possible the questioner is asking if I bother to roll "all" the travel encounters, or if I just skip some, because the journey is long and it is very arduous to have to roll 14 dice.  Ah, well, yes, that's a different way of looking at it.

I have recently been reading about the difficulty of having to roll the chance for a series of possible encounters from other sources lately and this seems to be a big problem.  I presume these people have been met by a rule structure that argues a very strict adherence to the encounter rolling necessity: thou shalt not fail to roll to see if an encounter occurs, no matter how many hours or days or weeks shall pass affecting the movement of the party while questing, or something to that effect.

I suppose, if rolling a lot of dice does seem like an uphill struggle, the quest destination could be moved closer to the party's present location.  And given that the actual distance of the quest is determined by will of the DM, it seems equally reasonable that the exact number of encounter rolls that might occur in the space of an arbitrary time period is pretty arbitrary, however any given rule might be written.  I'm not sure if this particular question is very clear about whether or not I follow "rules."

Given that I live in a complex society that adjusts laws according to a wide range of circumstances, which in turn become precedents which, in fact, become the law, I'm not sure how adjusting the rule to fit a change is circumstances is, in fact, not still playing by the "rules."  I'm probably missing something.

But then, I'm kicked right in the face by that last question: "Where is the line that the rules become tedious and you start to blur them for the sake of continuing the game?"

My dictionary defines "blur" as an English rock band that was formed in London in 1988.  It also defines "blur" as to make or become unclear or less distinct, or a thing that cannot be seen or heard clearly.

Now, thinking about that, I would be hard pressed to consider the sounds produced by Blur as music, as it seems largely to be about playing musical instruments with a very clumsy, note-challenged incompetence, specifically to appeal to a particular kind of angst-driven teenager who, with little effort, can themselves produce very similar results with just a few months effort using drums or a guitar of some kind, while scrubbing baffling lyrics from vocal chords to emphasize one's personal privilege to be a successful band-member without any evidence of training.  As such, I consider Blur, the band, to be the very height of accurate labelling.

Rules, as I understand them, are pretty distinct.  That, I've come to understand, is pretty much quintessential in the reasoning behind having rules ... and where it comes to living with rules, in the real world, I am almost absolutely definite that having them be fuzzy and indistinct is exactly what people do not want where it comes to rules doing anything for the sake of anything.

Sometimes, it help to ask the question using a different collection of nouns, just to see if the sentence works grammatically.  Let's try that.  "Where is the line that the manner in which I am paid by my employer becomes tedious, and I start to blur the manner of my being paid for the sake of continuing to work for my employer?"

Nope, that didn't help.

Fundamentally, I'm fully unclear ~ blurred, we might say ~ on how the game is continued in some superior way once a rather vague line is crossed, one that I'm being asked to define at the start of the question.  See, the whole point in the law setting precedents about things is that it stops arguments, like neighbors killing each other with stone clubs, allowing them to live within a few feet of each other and pass politely on the street without malevolence or fear.  It seems to me that those places in the world where the rules become blurred are largely places I don't want to visit, much less live there.

I know the question is trying to get at some point, but I just don't know what.

Friday, October 20, 2017


I'm not much interested in general gossip connected to the public gaming community, but I do enjoy tap-dancing on the metaphorical grave of any self-righteous soul connected to the so-called glory of TSR, which I continue to feel took role-playing and D&D in the wrong direction right from the beginning.  I believe that the grassroots community that plays this game weekly, not as a publicity stunt but because they love the game, has been fighting to regain all the ground that has been lost by four decades of modules, edition wars and endless copycat game systems punched out by every fanboy who dreams of someday being Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson.  We just want to play.  Yet there is a whole community out there that sees this as nothing more than a way to pump their egos, flitting from game con to game con to enjoy the adulation of largely ignorant innocent young people who have been mesmerized by their "authorship" on some half-baked 64-page system printed on pulp stock before the fans were born.

Have you heard what's going on with Frank Mentzer?  He's one of these classic RPG celebrities, co-writer of the red box set and various modules and mostly stuff viewed with dull nostalgia but not much cold, clear evaluation.

He's been running around to pitch a kickstarter for his world Empyrea, which was intended to create a game setting that would mesh with any system.  This, Mentzer has said, is positively unique, because no one, no one ever, has thought to create a game world that could be adapted to D&D, Pathfinder, Rolemaster, whatever.

Well, except for Harn, which actually did get off the ground.  And about ten thousand grassroots publishers who have been doing this small scale since the '80s.  And anyone who is able to realize that any setting can be applied to any game, without anyone having to specifically design a setting for that purpose.  However, Mentzer is a celebrity, so when he does it, it's the FIRST time, because despite haunting cons for 35 years and getting kicked out of a few for being a prick, he's managed to believe the game world has in no way evolved since he was made famous.

Just 40 hours ago, Frank Mentzer announced the kickstarter's cancellation.  The reasons for the cancellation are pretty vague; but the reader can figure them out from the link.  Coincidentally, according to EnWorld, the cancellation followed the posting of a twitter feed from Jessica Price, featuring a considerable lack of empathy on Mentzer's part surrounding a woman who was groped on a Seattle bus.  Things apparently spun out of control, Mentzer got blocked and decided to take his grievance on his mistreatment public while believing that he had the power to ensure that Price never worked in the gaming industry again.

Around the same time, also according to EnWorld, Mike Myler, who was described by Mentzer as his "crowdfunding engineer" for the kickstarter, released a statement that he was only loosely connected to the project and that the description was inaccurate.  So apparently Mentzer has been name-dropping to raise funds for his kickstarter without actually giving a shit.

All this has started the usual row online, with people rushing forward to defend Mentzer, who obviously can do no wrong because he was famous for making a crappy children's version of D&D once upon a time, played by children who are now adults who can't get past the horrible truth that they've got to grow up someday, and those who just can't figure out why Mentzer shouldn't be thrown under a bus.  This amid rising stories that Mentzer was tossed from Paizo Con, that he doesn't pay people who work for him and other wonderful things that can be found by searching google.

Me, myself, I didn't like Mentzer on principle when I didn't know anything about him.  I don't understand any of this Red Box glorification.  When my peers came across the Red Box set, they were already playing "adult" D&D and we thought the set was a joke, obviously meant for children who needed everything dumbed down for them, like games that read "for ages 5 to 8" on the box.  No one, absolutely no one, would have predicted that the set would become the Holy Relic that it is considered to be today.

Anyway, good riddance to bad rubbish.  Like the quote from an old movie goes, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, "You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it's got to be.  And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs."

Thursday, October 19, 2017


There is an old censure about D&D campaigns that goes like this: the DM gives the party a choice of three doors, while silently deciding that no matter which door the party chooses, they will find a dozen orcs waiting for them.  The offer of a "choice" is, therefore, an illusion, and the DM is being disingenuous about the party's freedom of choice.

Fundamentally, I agree.  If the party is faced with three doors, the DM should have enough content prepared to ensure that each different choice will yield a different result.

For the sake of perspective, however, I will point out that virtually every video game in existence ignores this moral philosophy.  Without hesitation, players pay considerable game costs in order to be herded through a game's agenda, knowing all the time that it doesn't matter which door is opened, the orcs will have to be confronted eventually.  That is how the game is designed.  And I know of no one among video gamers who has a problem with that.

So where does this philosophy come from with respect to role-playing?  I admit, I have the philosophy myself, I'm just as guilty as anyone in thinking that the three doors = one result equation is just plain wrong. Except that I suspect that's just a feeling and not a logical conclusion.  Why does it make a difference that the DM is in the room and not some remote faceless entity having created the video game you casually allow to herd you from scene to scene?  And if you're in the DM's dungeon, won't you have to fight the orcs? Eventually?

Don't tell me that you resent a DM lying; that doesn't wash.  I lie to players all the time; it is part of the process, since it is assumed in game that the players don't ~ can't ~ know everything about the world, and that they will constantly be faced with things that are deliberately kept secret, obfuscated or otherwise made to be misleading.  No one accuses me of being deceptive when I say, "There are no secret doors in the room," even if there is one and the party has failed to make the necessary roll.  DMing is lying.  It has to be.

No, it is this particular lie that is reserved for special treatment.  Why?

Consider the adventure described in the previous post.  Right at the beginning, I am throwing giant ticks one at a time at the party in an effort to waste the party's hit points and to waste the party's food.  D&D is a game of multiple stockpiles: food and hit points happen to be two that the party needs to survive.  As they diminish, the party begins to feel the burn ... and that's something we want the party to feel, because we want them to hurt before they can meaningfully advance the value and strength of their characters.

Hurt?  Well, of course.  I can't actually make the players feel the exhaustion of tramping through the woods below mountain heights, as they have to heft their heavy packs high on their backs to jump small streams, as they cut their hands and shins climbing over deadfall, as they feel the heat of the day pressing down on them or the bitter cold and damp as they wake up in the morning covered with dew.  I can describe those things, sure, but I can't make the players feel them.  On the other hand, I can make them acutely aware of their danger by chopping out some supplies and hit points.  To the player, those things are much more real than the description of the forest trek.

Here, however, I have to introduce the genre-savvy player.  Let's give him a name: we'll call him Gene. Gene has been role-playing for 14 years and he knows exactly what I'm doing.  I am not fooling Gene. Every time a tick attacks, Gene is thinking, "Right, that's pretty convenient, those ticks slowly sapping our strength so we're not as tough when we meet the real encounters.  Pretty fucking convenient."

Then, when the food begins to run out, and the party stumbles across the deer, Gene is thinking, "Oh, that's pretty convenient.  Now we're expected to hunt the deer.  Oh, I feel like I'm running my character!  I'm being the DM's puppet, that's what I'm being."  Whereupon Gene begins to explain to the other members of the party that I'm ganking them six ways from Sunday and that if they had any sense, they wouldn't let me manipulate them through this campaign another step.  "Fuck these deer," says Gene.  "I want to fight real monsters."

For comparison's sake, let's introduce another player, an experienced player.  We'll call him Jake.  Jake has also been role-playing for 14 years and he knows everything that Gene knows ~ he just doesn't care.  When Jake sees that the party is encountering a bunch of giant ticks, Jake is thinking how to better reserve the stockpiles they have and how to better prepare for the ticks; he knows the party isn't going to hold together well over these deadfall, but he suggests that people start throwing stones or rocks at any part of the forest that might hide a tick, to try to get them to emerge without a chance of surprise.

When the food begins to run out and the party stumbles across some deer, Jake knows the DM put them there, but Jake is thinking, "Hm, what's the best way we could preserve the meat, so that it will carry us further up into these mountains?"  Jake realizes the "game" isn't that the party is going to kill deer, its how to use the deer in the best possible way, to produce the best possible results.  He doesn't worry that the deer aren't "real" monsters.  The deer are the problem at the moment ~ and how he handles the deer will matter when the harder monsters appear.

Gene has played a lot of games and as a result, he wants to skip over anything that he sees as inconvenient.  He doesn't see the landscape as a means to better or strengthen his character's chances; he sees the landscape as a lot of nothing that separates him from his goal.  To Gene, the goal is as static as possible.  Make a character, kill monsters, get treasure.  And any "motivation" that slows that equation cuts into Gene's agenda.

Jake has played a lot of games and just doesn't care about the agenda.  It's a forest.  Something is going to attack the party.  The way will be arduous.  The food will run out anyway.  He doesn't see anything to be gained in rushing this; he wants to feel the experience of adventuring into a forest, missing none of the experience along the way.

Gene comes to three doors in the dungeon and thinks, "One of these is the shortcut!"

Jake comes to three doors in the dungeon and thinks, "Who cares?  We take the middle one."

For a choice to matter it has to involve more thinking than choosing one blank slate over another. Truth is, the three doors were never an option, not really.  Fundamentally, it doesn't matter what's behind any of the doors.  What matters in our agenda is realizing why we are here.

Why does a party decide to climb into the mountains?  Obviously, to find conflict and to be rewarded for overcoming it.  The scale of that experience for the player is a line graph with "great adventure" on one end of the line and "the DM hands out free stuff for expressing the intention" on the other.  If the whole point of the adventure is so the players can say they went into the mountains, stick out their hand and demand, "Where is my monster and where is my treasure?" ... of course any deviation from that formula will piss off genre-savvy players like Gene.

Hopefully, the players want a good experience, something rich and purposeful enough to let events unfold.  Okay, something is going to attack: it's a forest, there's nothing unusual about there being giant ticks in a fantasy forest, that's good for a start.  Oh, good, there's some deer, we were short of food.  Those stags sure are threatening, would rather not get speared by one and have to go back to town just as we're getting started.  Holy shit, that's a hell hound!

That isn't what I want as a DM, that's what the players want.  Well, my players.  I get pretty tired of genre-savvy Genes bitching and moaning that they're not writing the adventure according to their formulas ... or their need to go back to town just to "prove" they're not my puppet, because hunting deer and warding off stags isn't their idea of an adventure.

Nor do I truly understand the argument that the player feels some right to storm off into a different forest, to fight different things, without in fact knowing whether or not the things being fought are different.  Suppose the players do start off up another valley and suppose I do create a completely different adventure than the one I outlined about the night hags and hell hounds ~ how would the players know it was a "different" adventure?

Because I said so?

I think the moral high ground begins to collapse when the players have so little information that they can't actually tell the difference between me practicing Illusionism and me playing absolutely straight with the player's agenda.  I think part of that problem might also be the begging of the question, "How can you be sure that either adventure, that you chose by having the right to march into two completely different valleys, is the good one?"  If you don't ultimately enter both valleys and experience both adventures, how would you know?

And given that, it follows that if you're going to fight both adventures in the long run, what difference does it make if I gank you into this one first, and that one second?

Maybe, just maybe ... we're getting ourselves knotted up about things that don't really matter.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Charting an Adventure Path

I was asked to help readers chart a path of increasing difficulty for players and to describe a scenario based on party interaction with the environment and the five types of monsters I've recently described.  This post addresses these requests.  The scenario was invented in the last couple of hours and is being fleshed out as I write this post ~ but let me enjoin the reader to realize that any adventure along these lines must be flexible with regards to the players' decisions.

What I usually do is imagine the best possible arrangement of events and then attempt to motivate the players to pursue actions that enable that sequence to play out as I imagine it.  In this, I accept the players have free will; I can't make them take the carrot, but I can make the carrot awfully juicy looking.

Normally, I would describe the adventure here on the blog in the way I would in game, to encourage the reader to feel that mounting tension as the players are meant to experience.  However, as I've done that before, and the message hasn't fully sunk in, this time I'll give the raw details up front and then deconstruct the adventure's intention.

Therefore, let's begin with a cast list:

  • A group of 5-6th level Players as protagonists
  • Three night hags as the eradicators 
  • Three hell hounds as the destructive wanderers
  • A village of hobgoblins as the builders
  • A herd of large deer, with stags, as passive wanderers
  • A bear as a passive wanderer
  • A large scattered collection of giant ticks as the vermin

Then I'll describe the best case scenario in how we would hope for things to unfold, involving all the characters above. The players climb up into a set of close mountains, first encountering a series of giant ticks one at a time, serving as no better than annoyances.  Thereafter they find the herd of deer, which we'd like them to follow for several days at least, getting deeper into the wilderness.  After this, they encounter one hell hound, which does not engage but does make its presence known.  The party moves in the direction of the hell hound's departure until they encounter a roving band of a dozen hobgoblins.  The party discovers the hobgoblin village and judges it too big and dangerous to attack.  They move on to find the one hell hound and stumble across the bear.  They realize the bear isn't an enemy and they keep themselves from losing hit points trying to kill it.  Finally they discover the hell hound and kill it.  This happens to be on the edge of the eradicated part of the forest, overrun by giant ticks, setting up the reveal of the bigger monster.  The players get frightened and retreat.  Then, they are forced to fight two hellhounds and a night hag at the same time, killing them all.  Finally, they fight two night hags and a lot of giant ticks and win.  The adventure ends.

If that end seems very suspicious, it should.  My intent is to emphasize the upwards scale of the encounters' danger.  The ticks, the deer, the brief encounter with the hell hound, the hobgoblins, the bear, the hell hound again, then the hag with hell hounds and then two hags with a whole lot of ticks.

At some point, the players will want to bow out ~ the trick is to keep them moving forward, and to make it possible that those last two encounters include a possibility that the players can win.  How?

An adventure is not just one motivation.  A lot of people think it is, not just in table-top gaming but in making films and books as well.  How often have we seen a film that tries to give the character a single point of purpose, which must then sustain all the character's actions right up to the last scene?  It never works.  At some point, you're stuck watching and thinking, "At this point, I would just stop trying."

Let's run through those motivations.

First, I want the party to head up into the mountains.  I've got to create some reason for that, if the party doesn't just make it convenient by deciding to go up into the mountains for no reason.  That does happen, as parties get bored, but if that doesn't happen I've got to have something.  So let's say the local church has a large quartz rock with seams of gold in it, about the size of a head, sitting on the altar.  "Where did that come from?"  "Those mountains.  There are gold mines up there, but no one's sure where."  "So where did this particular rock come from?"  "It was found on the dead body of a priest about twenty-five years ago."  "Was he killed?"  "No, apparently he starved to death."

There, that ought to be good enough.  The party loads up, heads into the mountains, which we want to be too steep for pack animals, so that they are limited in how much food they can carry.  Why?  Because that is our next motivator.  As the party goes along, they get attacked by one giant tick.  A member of the party has to fight it almost single-handedly but the tick dies and that person has to eat 50% more food that night.  Then the next day, it happens again, two ticks this time, with more food being eaten by the battle-weary players.  The ticks are easy to kill but we're cutting into their food stores.  Another day and another tick, then a respite, then the day after, two ticks.  The forest is loaded with them and the players are starting to wonder about how much food they have.

Then they see the herd of deer.  The deer are gentle, trusting, happy bags of food on legs and the party starts hunting them.  This keeps the game going, as they find themselves drawing the attention of about six stags and backing off.

The party starts searching the valley, going back to the deer herd if they need more food.  They meet a few ticks, find a few holes, but mostly they're not doing well.  They start to talk about going back ... and that's our opportunity to hit them with the hell hound.

We can leave a few clues to find, places where a part of the forest has burned, perhaps the smoking carcass of a burned, mostly-eaten stag.  Then the hell hound itself, big and bold and coming onto the camp at night, blazing in glory and then disappearing into the darkness as the party desperately tries to organize an assault.  This gets them thinking.  That hell hound must be coming from somewhere!  Where?

So they keep looking.  Now come the hobgoblins.  There are a dozen but the party only sees four at first, all unarmed.  The party is given an opportunity to decide what to do.  Kill them?  Grab them?  Now two scenarios can play out.  The players rush the hobgoblins and fail surprise or initiative and the four hobgoblins scatter.  See, they're not soldiers, they're just hobgoblin kids, out for a jaunt, not threatening anyone.  If the party chances to slaughter them all before finding this out, that's bad for them but good for us.

Hopefully, however, the kids will live; before they're all killed, the remaining eight of the dozen I first described will arrive and try to parley with the party.  These hobgoblins are NOT evil; they're not aggressive, they're potential friends to the party.  If the party has killed a teenager or two, the adult hobgoblins will be sad but they will understand the party's error.  Hopefully, this understanding will touch the party and cause them to feel ... unsure.  Do they trust these hobgoblins?

We want the party and the hobgoblins to be friends, for what happens later, because we need the hobgoblins to help kill the hell hounds and the night hags (aha!).  So the hobgoblins invite the party back to the village, which is how the party "discovers" the village, as I said in the scenario above.  They get to see there are about a hundred hobgoblins, so the players definitely decide not to start a fight.  They're met by the leaders, they sit down to dinner and the players ask about the hell hound.

Now we can feed the players a motivation.  We say nothing about the night hags; the hobgoblins are unaware of them!  But they do know that there is a hell hound out there that occasionally harrasses the outskirts of the village.  They have not seen the hell hound for a year, however, so they thought they were safe.  The party's tale upsets them.  They ask if the party is afraid of it.  The party figures, its just one hell hound, no big deal, there are four or five of us, we can handle a hell hound.  So they say, no.  The villagers promise a reward and offer a guide if the players will go kill it.  Hopefully, we can sell this and the players will say yes.

So now they tromp off to kill the hell hound.  The guide says the hound usually dwells far away.  But the ranger in the party, or the guide, can track the beast and eventually there's a week of travel through woods to get to where the hell hound will be killed.  Meanwhile, the guide demonstrates food that can be found all around them, without killing deer ~ and we have the scene with the bear.

Now, that scene has to be played out carefully.  The bear should be heard first, serving as a terrific red herring for a moment like this.  The players are stoked and ready for a fight.  The bear is behind trees.  No, there's no fire or even the smell of fire, but the guide explains that hell hounds have a stealth mode which enables them to be quite sneaky.  The players set up, perhaps rush the bear ... and then find out its a bear.

A fight would probably end in killing the bear, but it will also cost the players hit points; if they're smart, they'll back off, but chances are they'll just go ahead and fight.

Soon after, the hell hound attacks.  The battle should be a good one, with the hound charging through the party in passing strikes that lets just one player take a swing while the hell hound charges.  We want to make the battle as hard as possible.  For me, hell hounds in the original books are pretty weak, just 30 hit points and one attack, so increase the hit points, the number of attacks (have you seen a dog snap its teeth in a fight?), the weight of the animal (about 750 lbs, 50% bigger than a lion) and make it fast.  Have it attack at night where it can melt into the darkness at will, before flaring up red just before striking a lone party member.  The players will be well and freaked when they finally kill the beast.

Space the attacks out so that they come every ten to thirty minutes.  The players fight the beast all night long. That way, by the next morning, you can argue they've moved a long way from their original camp; they're lost.  That helps the reveal of the eradicated, burned out forest and the ticks moving over the landscape.  As well, we should add that the hell hound's corpse is wearing a thick silver collar.  That should get the players thinking.  Meanwhile, torn up, they'll be ready to beat a retreat.

They head back to the village, hopefully, to get their reward.  They rest up, heal a little, eat, show the collar and talk about the burned out area and the hobgoblins go pale.  Now they remember legends of terrible witches that used to control hell hounds.  No one has seen hide nor hair of anything like that for three generations.  The hobgoblins then reveal their gold mine to the players and give them a tour, where they show a natural cave in the mountain depicting witches mounted on blazing horses (nightmares).

If the party were higher level, we could add the nightmares to the mix, but I said 5th and 6th so they're out.  But as the party emerges from the cave, now frightened, the village is attacked by the two hellhounds and the one night hag.  There's no time to explain or anything - but the whole village jumps in and if the players don't run, there will be one hell of a massive fight.  The players should be able to realize that, helped by 100 hobgoblins, they should win the fight; and that nice gold mine is right there, reminding them of what they're fighting for.  That should motivate them sufficiently to join in.

At this point, we want to be sure the night hag and the two hell hounds die.  If at all possible, the night hag should not seem anywhere near as dangerous as she actually is.  Perhaps she makes a bad mistake; maybe we get lucky and the players or hobgoblins luck out and kill her early.  Either way, the harder the night hag is to kill, the less willing the players will be for the next part.

See, we've got to get those players to go to the night hag's lair and kill the other two.  The hobgoblins are there to tell the party that hags always travel in threes, so there are two more and they must be at that burned out area.  More than that, we've got to put some real nice toy on the dead night hag as an encouragement.

As a DM, we've got to play this one part brilliantly.  Right off, don't offer help, don't explain the toy, don't do anything to dissuade the party into thinking they don't have to go fight those other two nighthags by themselves.  This is always a huge mistake made by a DM, to give too much too quickly.  Don't.  Let the party twist in the wind, at least for a few minutes ... and then have the remaining villagers come forward and dump enough reward on the party to boost them all a level.

That will help tremendously.  Then let the party re-evaluate their chances at winning a fight by themselves against two night hags, for a little while, before having someone reveal what the found toy is.  Hm, that's really interesting!

Now, let the party evaluate again.  Do they think they can?  Is it possible?  Let them sweat.  Let them doubt.  Let it HURT.  Let them consider the three silver collars they've found on the dogs, the silver jewelry they've found on the night hags, the possibility that there's a silver mine out there, too.  Let them make up their minds.

This is the best part of D&D.  Deciding if you're brave enough to go for it.  Deciding if you're willing and able to deal with the consequences.  Realizing that it all lies on you, that if you die, it is absolutely going to be your fault.

And if they waver about going, having the villagers come forward and offer to come along.  Oh, not all of them ... but half of those that have survived the village fight.

This is it.  The last evaluation.  The party will stew and stew and stew, probably the rest of the session ... because even if they know they're going, they'll still hesitate.

Now, do you see how we've built the tension?  How we've charted a path of increasing difficulty?  How we haven't had to rely on dice to create apparently "random" encounters?  After all, we're not going to tell the players we planned any of this.  As they play, we'll introduce each thing as though we've just thought of it.  We don't need a map, do we?  We don't need notes that have to be read verbatim to get them moving to the next monster type.  We just need to sell the motivation.  And let the players go straight for each step like a moth to a flame.

This works.  I've been doing it this way for almost 40 years.  I wasn't able to describe it as well most of that time.  I couldn't have deconstructed it like this.  But the pattern is the same.  Each step needs a new hook, a new motivation, a new reason for the players to just keep going forward.

The Encounter Table's Shadow

Last week, a wise friend of mine said he chose to see the players as the encounter, turning the usual perspective on its head.  I must admit this has had considerable effect on my thinking process, leading to this series of posts.

After all, the player characters are the best example of destructive wanderers that we can name.  They slaughter and destroy everything, from dragons and lichs to whole builder monster villages, entirely with malevolence and largely on a random, whimsical basis.  No monster in the wilderness can tell when a group of well-armed, extremely knowledgeable aggressors will show up in astoundingly small numbers and bring an abrupt end to their culture, without showing the least sign of remorse.

When we build encounters, we build them for these players: and that is precisely why encounter tables don't work.  Consider: any encounter table built on the list of monsters we have will be heavy with vermin and passive wanderers ~ and no player party dreams of their opportunity to head out into the wilderness and slaughter giant insects, common predators and assorted hooved animals.  They are certainly not getting themselves equipped to clean out a valley of its giant rat infestation or putting an end to the plague of rot grubs that have been affecting the local herds.  Players want to fight destructive wanderers like chimera or purple worms, or builder monsters like giants and drow elves, or eradicators like mind flayers and undead. Any encounter table we make, however, is bound to produce a very low chance that one of these creatures will pop up.  Instead we will just get vermin and natural animals ~ because there are more of these kind of creatures that exist.

At the same time, builder monsters are mostly all alike.  Oh, giants are big and drow have lots of magic, but the principles from one humanoid group to the next are pretty much unvaried.  There's little majesty in slaughtering the 41st orc, even if the whole party has been cutting their way through a dungeon of three hundred creatures over the previous two sessions.  Builder monsters are fine as an appetizer, but we all know the players want something bigger.

The problem is, destructive wanderers in large numbers just don't make sense, ever.  How chaotic does the world have to be to ensure that the party always happens to be in the neighborhood of some massive horrorshow like a roc or a sphinx, just at the moment they go for a jaunt?  A little convenient, isn't it?  Of course, we can help mitigate the problem by having the party hear of some beast in the upland country a few hundred miles north, enabling them to rush up there in time to wipe out a small cadre force of manticore; but why in hell does it happen when the party shows up that there haven't been nine other groups, closer to the issue, who have already shown up and done the job?  Are the party the only force on the continent capable of dealing with these problems?  And if so, why is it everyone has no idea who they are?

Eradicators seem less socially problematic.  They're out there in the wilderness, quietly turning their 2,000 acre parcel of land into a charcoal-covered bowl of death and decay, without anyone knowing the least thing about it.  These monsters at least can be reasonably stumbled upon without prior knowledge ~ but let's face it.  Lichs, ghosts and beholders do not make the most joyful of prospective encounters.  Give the party a big hydra and they're happy ~ its just a lot of heads and fire-breathing, things we can predict and prepare for ... but even a few medusae will chill a player's blood like a Canadian winter morning.  I find players just aren't that anxious to test themselves against anything with virtually unlimited magic.

Here is the argument, then, for eliminating the random monster determiner: we can toss a few vermin and passive wanderers against a party at the beginning of an adventure, but the party's temperament will only sustain their presence so long before disgust and ennui sets in.  The DM has to be thinking, then, about whether or not this is the time for a destructive wanderer or a group of builder monsters; they can be thrown together but that's a well that gets stale after a few dozen examples.  We're probably best off with some sort of small destructive wanderer, something that wrecks a single dwelling, which can be dispatched quickly on the way to something more interesting.

Over time, we've got to maneuver the party into developing the confidence to tackle a good, deadly eradicator, exactly the sort of thing that makes them sweat.  This is not the time for messing up the tempo of the adventure with some meaningless random encounter pulled off a table.  Adventures can't be set up this way: it would be like supposing we could write a symphony with a set of dice, arguing that the only thing separating us from the success at this is a really good table, a table we just haven't thought of yet.

Any table will only result in producing discordant results.  The game's direction, momentum and feel demands more than chance, it demands a maestro, one who can balance the need of the world to unfold in a sane, believable manner, while showing a path that will enable the strength of resolve the players need to do something they won't believe they can do, even while they are doing it.  "How did we get into this mess?" is a question common to my world ~ and a very good question.  It describes players acting according to their hearts and not their heads ~ before using their heads to get out of their situation.

An encounter table would be unsatisfactory.  I think that's why I've stopped using them.  But it has taken this series of posts for me to see clearly why.  I hope the gentle reader will also see it, and stop feeling guilty for not using a table that has no practical purpose in running a good campaign.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Civilization vs. the Wilderness

In the context of the last post, I am granting no special dispensations for humans or any other form of humanoid; in game terms, anything that can cause a hit point of damage to another creature is a "monster." Therefore, humans are builders just as any other builder monster.

Moreover, I should like to take a moment and point out that a given monster might fit various monster types as described.  Most humans are builders; but humans can easily be malevolent destructive wanderers and a given powerful human might be a very effective eradicator.  The "type" of monster refers to the monster's behaviour and does not necessarily encapsulate every example of a given monster species.

Within the framework, we can describe a "civilization" as any builder monster that has effected a sufficient change to the local environment that the only other monster that can co-exist within the builder's sphere is necessarily verminous in nature.  This does not mean that the vermin are necessarily minor in form.  A vampire might live inside a civilization, in the catacombs under a city or in plain view, as in the Bram Stoker novel.  Howeer, while in the wilderness a vampire might be a very efficient eradicator, in a civilized culture of thousands of builder monsters the vampire must act covertly, or else risk arousing the most powerful of the builder culture leaders to root it out and kill it.  It must be clearly understood that along with reshaping the environment, builder monsters have also shaped their wisdom and capabilities, making builder monsters the most dangerous monsters in every world.

A civilized space may include areas of hinterland, but it should be specified that these areas are deliberately allowed to exist, because they provide forage for domesticated monsters and as hunting reserves, as well as potentially enjoyable places for excursion among the wealthiest and most powerful builder monsters.  True wilderness is not a forest reserve, which has been tailored and picked over by wardens, and thus cleaned of any monsters except for those pesky vermin, which never truly disappear.  True wilderness is back country that no one has as yet been able to clear out, or have not been motivated to clear out, which is the point of the rest of this post.

When gauging which parts of the reader's world are fit for civilization, it should be assumed that builder monsters have already chosen to occupy the best lands, without exception.  If the technology of your world has had the opportunity to produce ocean-crossing vessels, and has existed for thousands of years, then at the very least there is a war going on to remove other monsters from good lands that have only been recently discovered by builder monsters.  That is effectively what is going on in my world in 1650; all this wonderful, prime land has been discovered in the last 150 years and is undergoing a violent transfer of ownership, as builder monsters move en masse to the coastline along the western shore of the world's second largest ocean.  This prime land is being renamed "America," despite the names formerly given to the lands by passive wanderers (or builder monsters with insufficient technology to withstand encroachment).

Wilderness, therefore, describes those places of the world that are largely second-rate in the eyes of builder monsters.  This may include a well-watered plain, but it will be a small one with poor access to the outside world and most likely in a very cold or a very dry and unreliable climate.  Therefore, when wandering through the wilderness, we shouldn't expect to find any large builder cultures ~ at best, we should find only primitive ones.  Any large builder culture will proliferate in population and a desire for outside contact, which will result in the establishment of some kind of trade, followed by the importation of technology and thereafter a rapid civilizing of the wilderness in the manner I've described: that is, the wilderness will be fully rebuilt.

Such a place would be the jumping off point into the wilderness, the last vestige of civilization the players were leaving; it would not be a place the players discovered completely by chance just by wandering fifty or sixty miles after "leaving" civilization.  Everyone in the civilization where the players left would know about the island of civilization the players were "discovering" already.  Such a civilization would already be on the map.

Therefore, builder monsters in the wilderness would be extremely limited by the size of their environment.  They might occupy an oasis, but it won't be a big, massively productive oasis.  They might have settled into a valley, but it won't be a rich, wide, flat valley that might support thousands.  More likely, it will be a somewhat chaotically arranged narrow valley that will support only scores, certainly no more than several hundred.  Such a group of builder monsters, sufficiently separated from actual civilization, could be overlooked by previous explorers and may have only settled in the valley a generation or two before. Perhaps the valley was cleared out a hundred years ago by a group of civilized adventurers and has now been resettled by something else.

Any builder society on the wilderness level, as I've tried to describe, would not have fully gained control over their environment.  They are co-existing with that environment, which means that they are at the mercy of the occasional passive wanderer or substantial group of vermin.  A single destructive wanderer could eliminate the whole society.  They would certainly not have the power to send out soldiers to end the power of an eradicator whose world begins just ten miles to the north.  At best, this little collection of builder monsters are just getting along, perhaps clearing out an acre or two each year, rebuilding a bit of free stone into a dam or a wall, steadily coordinating their power into something more threatening in the future through systemic defenses and steady population growth.  Someday, it might be "civilized" ~ but when the players stumble upon it, we should see the encounter as similar to any other wilderness monster the players might meet. Dangerous, certainly, but not essentially aware of the world outside their little bubble.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Starting a Frame for Monster Encounters

We had a discussion on Facebook lately about encounters and I've been giving the issue some thought.  I'd like to build a framework for encountering monsters in the bush that isn't just based on a table and a random roll.  I'm foreseeing a series of posts.

Fundamentally, I'd like to argue that monsters are territorial, but that this does not necessarily mean that all monsters are necessarily locked to a given place.  Some monsters wander; some do not.  Some monsters form structure; most do not.  The framework I propose is meant to devise a monster for a space that will do more than occupy the space, it will define the space, helping to fill the emptiness of wilderness hex crawls.

For this, I'd rather not discuss monsters individually, so I'll propose five general monster "types."  I don't mean this list to be necessarily inclusive ~ there are bound to be monsters that don't fit these types ~ but I think these would include at least 95% of the monsters with which we're familiar.  The six groups are vermin, passive wanderers, destructive wanderers, builders and eradicators.  I'll set about giving a definition for each:

  • Vermin are monsters that can live anywhere without especially affecting their environment.  They can live within urban areas and subterranean complexes, they can occupy lands that are essentially unproductive, they can live in rich lands occupied by other creatures.  They are effectively pests to every other monster, regardless of the monster's intelligence or agenda.  The more obvious forms are various bugs, worms, rodents and other small beasts, mostly acting as scavengers or parasites.  This might include magical creatures that survive as thieves or deliberate annoyances.
  • Passive Wanderers include a great many herding animals and beasts of enormous size, mostly herbivorous or otherwise non-destructive, potentially occupying great areas of land by sheer numbers.  It would also include beasts preying upon the herds. On the whole, passive wanderers would occupy land of minimal commercial value, establishing such regions as "territory" because of the eradication of plant material as the herd moves in and eats everything before departing.  Since permanent occupation of said lands by intelligent creatures would mean contending with these herds, the herds and the lands they occupy are left alone except as a food supply.  Note that some primitive tribesmen could be included in this type.
  • Destructive Wanderers are big monsters with a malevolent agenda.  Exactly the sort of creature that adventurers are often asked to kill, as such creatures move into an area (often civilized) and begin to wipe out everything within reach, moving onto the next space once the previous space has been smashed.  Such monsters are rare, temporary, but the destruction left behind can last a season or even a few years, depending on the monster involved.
  • Builders include creatures who physically seek to constructively redesign the environment once they have entered.  This includes most humanoids plus some odd creatures like beavers or giant termites.  Fundamentally, the land itself is changed so as to provide obvious evidence that the land is occupied by something, producing trails, fields, buildings and altered physical features while also patrolling said area.
  • Eradicators are permanent destructive entities that create a stable area of complete eradication of other life, so much as they are able.  This would include many forms of undead and a few highly intelligent malevolent monsters who want an area of desolation between themselves and their neighbors.  Such creatures are usually left alone, as entering the area of desolation often promises a terrible and early death.
From the above, we can propose covering a wilderness like a patchwork quilt.  Most lands with semi-existent vegetation would be occupied by vermin; low vegetation grasslands or heavily vegetated jungles and forest would be occupied by passive wanderers; while anywhere with a water source and arable land would be occupied by a builder species.

Mixed in would be rare instances of destructive wanderers for player game service and hints of the existence of eradicators in the deep wilderness.

As players move through the wilderness, they can be informed of the probable inhabitants (through a ranger or druid's knowledge) by virtue of the amount of vegetation and livability of the topography.  Trails could indicate passive wanderers or might be a hint of a builder.  As a builder's territory was encroached upon, there would be more indications of environmental reconstruction (signs, hunter blinds, abandoned outposts or shelters, etcetera).  Such signs can then be tailored for the specific monster that actually occupies the space.

Next we should talk about spaces and how to determine the size of a monster's territoriality.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Distances between Markets

So, what have I been doing?

Very boring stuff.  I finished the rebuild for the sources table, the table that describes the origins of all goods and services in my known world; I did it mainly because I was looking down the barrel of adding Great Britain and Ireland into the system and that looked like a tremendous headache.  The rebuild eliminated the need for a 14 meg excel file, drastically reducing the size of the problem ~ so well worth the effort.

Once finished, I was free to add more data.  I finished my Burma map back in October 2015; that had never been added to file.  I finished Senegal and Mauritania back in June 2016; that, along with Cape Verde, had never been added.  I finished Britain in January this year; I've already talked about having to add that.  And I finished Iceland this past July (and the map of that has since been reworked).

Altogether, these places had 169 markets.  In the past year, bit by bit, I've worked out the sea distances, worked out the land distances and added roads to the maps.  The last week I've spent adding the markets to the distance calculation program, which basically means putting in the distance and then linking it to a cell, that is in turn linked to another cell and another and so on, round and round the world.  I've talked about this before.  Just for the hell of it, however, I'll put up a screenshot of a small part of the table:

All the numbers shown indicate the number of "days" of merchanting travel.  Column A shows the markets, labeled by kingdom, province and market city.  Column B is the minimum number of the horizontal list two lines below and stretching out to the right.  For example, the Folkestone number, B377, describes the smallest number among those of C379 through O379 ~ with a +1 added as a cost for importing it into the hex.

Don't bother looking to compare the numbers ~ they won't add up.  That's because the file is in mid-calculation.  For it to work properly, one city must be given a fixed number, which all the other cities then calculate against.  The template table, however, gives the cities no fixed number; so every time they are calculated, the numbers tend to drag one calculation behind all the other circular calculations in the document. This means the minimum number calculation is one step behind the number calculations for the horizontal lines shown.  And if I keep pressing the manual calculation F9, the "minimum" numbers will just increase to infinity.

At the point where I saved this image, the numbers are all very high and incorrect because of this.

The address line shows the distance between Portsmouth and Southampton: =0.8+$B$356.  Portsmouth and Southampton are two hexes apart, and sea travel costs 0.4 "day" per hex.  What does that number mean?  It means that if the goods originating in Portsmouth were divided by 1, those goods in Southampton would be divided by 1.8, for determining their availability.

Adding these boxes is niggling work and none of it can be errored.  One error blows the whole calculation.  It really sucks if I get a value error somewhere ~ that value error will just proliferate, no matter what I do; the only thing to do is to close the document and reopen, losing all the work.

Thus, I add a city and save; add a city and save; add a city and save.  And each city added means four or six or thirteen calculations, or more.  At the end of my work this week, Copenhagen ended with 57 direct connections, more than any other city on the list.

I have a system which says that every market is not directly connected to every other market.  Large cities with high market numbers reach further than small cities; a place like Ramsgate reaches only a few other places.  Too, if the route between market A and market B passes through market C, then I record A-C and B-C but not A-B.  That reduces a lot of the possible combinations ~ and it feels right that market C moderately controls the trade between A and B.  The only real effect is that A and B are considered one extra "day" apart.

Well, I have this finished.  All told, I have 1,235 markets now, all interconnected.  The next thing is to add the goods and services from the new market cities to the rebuilt table I finished in late September.  I still have to adjust that new, rebuilt table layout to the old prices table layout, but that's a few hours work when I have the time for it.  Thankfully, I have this finicky distance-work table updated.  Nice to have it behind me.

I'll add it to Google drive for the Patrons - if you want to play with it, add a 1 to the highlighted B column of any given market and then keep pressing the manual calculation until the numbers stop changing.  The final numbers will give the accurate number of days between the market you chose and all the other markets.

It is easy to build a table like this for your own system.  I started with just 30 markets.  Those were simple days.