Sunday, December 29, 2019

Learning & Practice

While I struggle with the disparate notions and ideas suggested by travel, there's a distantly related subject I'd like to discuss. Back in October, Carl Olson was writing about four-hour blocks of time, discussing what we might do with that time or how it might be managed in game terms. And I found myself this last week thinking about players ambling along, "discovering" things, with the notion that they might also be giving themselves more time to occupy themselves with things that mattered. The most obvious being, a bard sitting to write a song or scratch out poetry.

But of course, not every character is a bard, so what do the other characters do with their free time when the bard is creating? Well, we're told the fighter is sharpening weapons and practicing with them, the cleric is praying, the monk is meditating, the druid is passively walking in the woods and feeding squirrels and presumedly, the thief is sleeping and dreaming of money.

None of these things, however, advance the actual character's experience in the game. Fighters don't have to practice with their weapons, do they? I mean, we assume they do, and that this somehow equates to the process of going up a level, with experience numbers passing a certain goal post being seen as a "tipping point" for where all that practice and weapon sharpening raises the fighter from 3rd to 4th level. But then again, suppose a fighter doesn't practice? Suppose a cleric doesn't pray and suppose a druid doesn't care about squirrels?
Some will jump ahead of me here and imagine that I'm proposing a fighter has to say, "I practice" on a regular basis or else they'll drop a level in experience, or fail to level, but NO, that's not of any interest to me. I don't like rules that penalize the players for not role-playing, or that take away skills the players already have ... at least, not for arbitrary nonsense like having to declare their actions. I'd rather go on assuming that fighters practice and druids walk with squirrels. Instead, however, I'd like to bring the Gentle Reader's attention around to a proposal that might be seen as positive.

Why can't the fighter pray, or the cleric feed squirrels, or the druid practice with weapons? Are there benefits from such actions? And can those benefits be rendered in game terms?

Continued on the blog, the Higher Path, available through my Patreon. Please support me with a $3 donation and gain the complete series of estate posts related to the post above, as these have all been written.

Thursday, December 26, 2019


With regards to travel in the world, one difficulty I've given myself is something I'm calling, "discovery."  This is the uncovering of knowledge and opportunity in a given hex that the party has entered, which might include anything.  For example, the party might discover an abandoned wagon that could be fixed and made serviceable, or that the local lord had a peasant girl recently executed on pretext, to cover up an affair.  It might mean that a recent disaster has left the area with very little food for the winter, or that a local artist has begun to produce unexpectedly good works.  It might be anything that would interest the party, or make them laugh, or cause them to take an action, or encourage them to hurry on their way before becoming involved.  And the number of things it might include could be, well, infinite.

The idea is rational and would provide texture to the campaign.  The process of rule-making, however, that is another matter.  I have only poor ideas of how one might bring the thing about ... and I must say that thinking on it hasn't been encouraging.

I don't think it is a new idea.  We see people creating tables that give "adventure ideas" all the time.  I think such tables are a stale form of game design.  They almost always include incidents that won't work very well, and of course there's no point in building it into a table, since most of the results shouldn't be repeated in a campaign.  Once the players have saved a town from bandits, it's not an adventure we want to run again.

At the same time, I haven't any specific method except some kind of list, that could be dredged up and then shuffled, with each line being rubbed out once it's employed in the campaign.  Some things could be reused ~ such as learning that the village has an oversupply of something, that the players could pick up for cheap.  Likewise, there might be an opportunity for players to unload something they have for a decent price.  Too, meeting a sage of some kind, with unusual knowledge about a specific sage study, would be repeatable.  The objects would change, the knowledge would vary, but the situation has legs and could be of service again and again.

I can see two conditions that would organize what could be discovered.  The first would be the form of route the players were taking through the hex.  A highly civilized environment would introduce one set of discoveries, while a stark wilderness area would offer another.  Between the two could be a blend of both, shading from urban to rural in shape and design.

Secondly, I think the speed with which the party moved through an area would change what was found.  I see a table that would ask parties if they wished to move along the road at a normal pace, or in a hurry, to get where they were going ... or if they wished to amble along, to see what there was to see.  The latter would increase the chance of finding or seeing unexpected things, while those moving along as quickly as possible would simply miss what there was to find.  The party could then choose which speed of travel best suited them.  The onus of producing discoveries to be found would be placed on the DM, if the party wished to slow down and enjoy the journey.

Obviously, a few dozen ideas scratched out on paper couldn't be sufficient.  Discoveries would have to fit the locale, they would have to fit a set of principles, they would have to be meaningful to the party and they would have to emerge in a random but pleasant manner, one that the players could control in a sense and which they would want to appear.  The former technique of the DM rolling an encounter die, only to produce groans from a party, should die an ugly death [heh heh].

This is my thinking so far on the subject, more or less.  I have notions in my head as to what could be discovered, and why the players would enjoy the discovery ... but a formal structure for the creation and ordering of discoveries is as yet beyond me.  It is a thinking problem.  And so I will need to think.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Distance and Time

Over the past years, going back decades, I have tried to produce various versions of the table shown, here provided by dungeonbot.  And while the effort here is at least somewhat gritty, I must admit that numbers alone are simply not adequate.  Somehow, the structure proposed, exactly the sort I've made myself over and over again, fails to capture any meaningful nuance of what happens when players move from one part of the world to another.  And this is a problem, as any quick search of "make D&D travel more interesting" on youtube will show.  There are no satisfying answers to this question that I've found.  All the pundits that I've found advise the DM to do things that will probably work only once, without addressing the fundamental problem of a game world: it is too big to effectively fill if the party is going to travel distances requiring more than a week.

I have always tried to solve the problem of space with descriptive paragraphs intended to capture a mood.  For example, with the Juvenis campaign, I described the party's approach to their first adventure thusly:
It is not a long walk around the south edge of the lake, and now that it looks like the brewing storm has melted away and given to clear ~ if somewhat crisp ~ skies, you make fair time. Those who have been playing with the clothing insulation calculator will notice they have to take off some of their clothing to avoid taking damage today, as it is hot climbing over deadfall and not tripping over roots.
There is a lot of snow on the ground around the lake, in trenches and low places, but these are easily avoided. The lake, however, is completely clear of ice. The party rounds a hill on the west side of the lake and begins across a flat boggy meadow plain that slowly tilts upwards as they go northwest, into the wind. Occasionally you have to cover your noses with a hand to warm the skin, but it is not cold enough to cause much distress.

In light of such efforts, it may seem incongruous to insert some number to determine how far the party actually gets, but of course that information (whether we state it or not) is relevant to the matter of investigating into a wilderness.  As any one who has done some serious back country hiking will tell you, hours matter.  You can't spend too many of them on the way out, or you will find yourself in trouble before you can get back.  And every pound you hoist on your back will slow you down and bring fatigue ... whereas not enough equipment can mean a very unpleasant night, even if the weather doesn't turn bad.  Time is a critical factor in any travel ... and however poetical the passage above sounds, I'm deliberately glossing over how much time the trip takes because, factually, I don't actually have an answer.

Oh, sure, I can pull up a number for distance/time like shown on the table above ~ but is that number really accurate?  Or is it just a flat number that is automatically applied to every wilderness, as though wildernesses are all alike?  Obviously, they're not ... and such numbers never take into sincere account matters like the party's knowledge of the area, the knowledge of wilderness spaces, how much is carried and how believable it is that a mage can keep up with a ranger over such country.  I have hiked with people who were not up to it; not everyone is and such resolve does not exist in everyone.

So, in fact, the number is pretty nigh useless, if we really want to grasp the matter of travelling.  And if we want to make players feel the travelling that they ask their characters to do.

This is my headspace at the moment, where I am thinking the problem of travel through from end to end.  It is the reason why I find myself reaching to make the combat round shorter, because that is the one change I can make that doesn't call for a drastic restructure of the entire combat system.  The adjustment to a shorter time span for the round may seem rushed ~ but it aligns with actual walking speed, which is the more important matter here.  And while I don't want to get absurdly gritty with the travel system I'm considering, I must admit, ANY system I design must align with what other systems I've previously built.  At this time, I may be unready to incorporate how well your dinner is settling on your stomach with how far you can walk or ride today, the rational approach at this time is to make room for that becoming a thing at some point.  There is NO point in my building a deepened travel system that doesn't account for all the directions that travel system might eventually go.  Otherwise, I'm only creating headaches for myself further down the road.  Who knows what I might wish to add in 10 years?

[incidentally, my daughter has been playtesting the nutrition rules with her campaign for a couple of months now, and says her party loves them; most reassuring]

I haven't put something on the wiki yet because, even scratching the surface, I'm waist-deep in a river that just looks to get deeper.  Starting out with the question of how far can a person walk given the number of action points (AP) they have, I realized that the difference between the road and the wilderness isn't enough.  One road is very not like another, so that I found myself settling in to make categories for every sort of route the party is likely to travel, short of untracked wilderness.  It made sense to tag the route-type to a 20-mile hex's infrastructure, which then brought up the subject of crossing rivers, whether by ford, ferry or transshipment, depending on the width and depth of the obstruction.  Obviously, the existence of these would be tagged by the infrastructure also ... and having resolved upon that, I found myself thinking about tolls and costs for such things, leading to the table below.

table may be subject to change before appearing
on the wiki.
The various sorts of routes, eight in all, would be progressively more difficult to walk, include less drainage, have more bends and deviations around topography, more tight places, a greater likelihood of being washed out or flooded, etcetera ... reducing the straight-line distance between two points and the time it would take to get there.  But though I had originally intended to include the road's effect on foot travel based on the encumbrance of the traveller, I realized I only have encumbrance numbers for walking ... because until now, I've not applied encumbrance to how loaded down an animal is, considering both that which is carried by the animal and that which can be pulled by the animal.

And this is a problem also, because while a horse, say, can carry a rider a greater distance in a shorter amount of time, a horse becomes tired after six hours of being ridden.  This means that some of the distance the animal travels will be while it is led ... and that speed will depend on how much the rider chooses to carry while leading the animal.  Which, in turn, makes it very difficult to produce a simple table.

And, of course, the categorization of various route surfaces is child's play to the possible types of wilderness to be crossed in absence of a road.  And I would also like to take into account such things as weather, orientation, pathfinding, supplies, the discovery of resources such as fresh water, matters relating to camping and how much free time a day a character can find while all these other things are going on.  After all, not every minute is spent in travelling.

All of that is pretty gritty ~ and for some, definitely not the way they'd want to go with their world.  But I think most of that resistance results from the fear of whatever work might be involved in calculating out the specific details.  Which is why, as I'm doing the work, I will have an eye for how to save it where it comes to calculations.

However, I think in the long term, the greater win will be in having a more definite idea of the space being crossed, and explored, if the method of exploration isn't limited to merely distance versus time.  There needs to be a clear understanding of what that distance is, and just exactly why this amount of time passes when crossing it, all of this being wrapped up in a deeper understanding of what it means when the party decides to leave the trail and see where that takes them.


I had meant to post this on my closed blog ... but as long as I've posted it here, it can stand.  Further content about travel, an encumbrance table for animals drawing or carrying loads, and more as I create it, can be had by donating $3 to my Patreon account.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Enough Classes

On my closed blog, The Higher Path [available through Patreon], I addressed how the general discussion of D&D on the internet fails to intrinsically address the game's design flaws.  More often than not, the rush to give opinions about subject material such as rangers and alignment is apt to produce a lot of tribal flag-waving, without effort to draw conclusions.  We either use, or do not use, alignment, and we're ready as a community to argue endlessly about it ... but useful, concrete evidence of alignment's use or non-use remains absent from the discussion.  This is true of virtually every discussion related to D&D, and roleplaying in general.

Consider alignment as a convenient example, as the lines are already drawn in that conflict.  My personal take is that alignment is not necessary.  It is irrelevant to me what it adds to the game; but it was plainly clear, from those early days when I tried alignment, what it detracted from the game.  On the whole, we spent far more time discussing and debating the specifics of the rule than we spent using it.  Players automatically moved to circumvent the rule, universally.  Game time was lost in discord and argument.  Preparation time was wasted attempting to define alignment ~ and no matter what definition was offered, players would view the results with resentment.  Consensus was not possible.

And so, no matter what alignment added, the price was too high.  So I ditched it.  Players, I said, could do what they wanted, within the game's limits.  Immediately, consensus.  Resentment evaporated.  Game time progressed towards more fruitful discussions.  There were no longer any restrictions on attitude and character that required circumventions.  Debates on character evil/good evaporated.  New players entering the game, expecting to find alignment, adapted almost immediately the absence of the rule.

Those who argue for the value of alignment, or any other rule, never seem to address the behaviour of the players to that rule.  Never mind if there ought to be some penalty for some behaviour ... if the penalty compromises the pleasure and momentum of the game, we are penalizing the wrong thing.  We ought to have learned that lesson from social experiments like Prohibition and the War on Drugs, both of which have been exhaustive, non-productive, disastrous failures of policy and intention, based on the premise that there "ought to be some penalty" for this sort of behaviour, as imposed by people who do not partake.

As another example, consider the ever-present motivation that has existed, since very early in the game's history, to expand the number of classes that players can play.  In every case that I've seen, there are two arguments that are always made to justify the existence of the new class:
1) that, logically, persons of this profession are defined differently in an historical or literary sense, such as sorcerors, warlocks and witches.
2) the presence of the profession is commensurate with the underlying culture and motif of D&D, particularly in literature that is filled with such things as chevaliers and barbarians.

This is followed by some elaboration of how the character class would be interesting to play, and how it offers a new experience for the player.  However, what is not included is any discussion of how this might usefully change the game milieu, or generally advance the players' participation beyond the limitations of the new class's most obvious application.  A "fighter" covers a vast multiplicity of individual behaviours, essentially every form of possible application of combat and military training used to solve problems ~ whereas a barbarian is essentially a stereotype of one sort of combatant, with limited knowledge and cultural expectations built in.  "Magic user" defines any person that uses magic, obviously; subdivisions don't add to the game's structure or player behaviour, except to flagrantly subdivide the magical schematic in order to specialize the field to where, hopefully, emasculated forms of the original will have less power complimented by further stereotypical applications to character behaviour.

Is this really the point of the game?  To transform general freedoms of action in order to stipulate what sort of player actions "appropriately" fit a descriminate, prejudiced perception of what's expected of a player ... all the while selling the notion that more choice is more freedom.  There is no freedom in choice once the choice is made.

That only encourages boredom with narrower character concepts, promoting increased flipping of player from character class to character class, sabotaging the game's appeal towards masterfully building something unique and personal over the length of the campaign.  Instead, we give you something unique at the Start, and then tell YOU that your job is to live up to IT.  Character classes as shackles.  Gawd.  What a concept.

This conclusion will have been lost on some, so let's be clear.  When I want to run a character in your game, am I defined by what I do, or am I defined by what I want?  Is my personality based on the assigned conditions of my character class, or is it based on my ongoing, session-to-session actions?  The way the game has gone for more classes, it sounds to me like I'm supposed to believe the former.  That I am a sorceror because my character sheet says I am one.  But I think I am a mage, who uses magic to solve problems in ways that I invent, not in the way that my character class invents.  And I think that the way I act, and what I do, ought to be up to ME, and not what the class description says, or what the DM says.  And I feel that the game's design ought to stop putting me in cultural boxes and just get the hell out of my way.

I don't get excited by my character's class.  I like that it offers me certain tools, that I can work with ... but what I choose to "be" will be my choice, and not the game's.  So thank you, just let me pick some spells or a weapon, because that's what I need.  I don't need stereotypes.  I need points to jump off from.

The essentials of this game are that the DM is going to describe what I see, and then I'm going to cope with that.  There are shackles enough, thank you.  I can only run so fast and hit so often.  I am only as exceptional as the dice and my experience allows.  I am only as clever as my brain lets me be.  I don't need rules on my behaviour, my beliefs, my morality, my literary responsibilities or additional boundaries on what my character class "stands for."  The genius of the original fighter was that it didn't stand for anything.  It's a shame that this lesson was not extended to all the other classes.  If it had been, we'd have enjoyed less stupid fights at the game table for ridding the game of all that, too.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Mazes and Monsters: a Breakdown

Mazes and Monsters is a 1982 made-for-TV morality play that warns viewers against the dangers of participating in role-playing games, suggesting that the game form appeals to those with deep neurotic impulses. Directed by Steven Hilliard Stern, a group of college students indulge in the game called Mazes and Monsters, until one of their number, Robbie Wheeling, becomes unable to separate fantasy and reality, filling his head with voices and sending him off on a confusing quest related to the unsolved disappearance of his brother, years ago.

Heavy-handedly, the film attempts to identify the playing of role-playing games as a partial cause of Robbie's mental illness, though it is clearly established that his behaviour is part of a pre-existing pattern prior to the film. Additionally, it is equally established that Robbie's parents are self-motivated and unwilling to properly manage these earlier patterns, ending in Robbie being thrust irresponsibly into the same circumstances and stress-related environment that previously caused his earlier, unexplained break-down.

Continued on the blog, the Higher Path, available through my Patreon. Please support me with a $3 donation and gain the complete series of estate posts related to the post above, as these have all been written.