Sunday, February 28, 2021

Aids to Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

This is a sharp deviation from the original material (p.11), as I'm not using this section to sell something.

Comprehending history, studying maps and floor plans and obtaining some artistic ability or skill will be most helpful in establishing and maintaining an interesting and exciting campaign.  There are so many good books and stories that have been written, adapting both fantasy and non-fantasy themes, that is it not possible to give a complete list here — but in truth, it does not matter what is read, it matters that the language and characters depicted have depth, nuance and details necessary to render an excellent climax and resolution.  There is so much free content in the world, that will not cost a dime, but some guidance can be given here.

First and foremost, begin with simple and straightforward world histories that have been written for a juvenile audience.  These works are disinterested in providing detailed information, but are there to give you what you need at the outset: a clear, plain overview of human history, so that you can understand what got us from the distant past to here.  This is only the beginning, obviously — but it will enable you to separate the times and events of human history so that when reading stronger material, you're not left confused about where the Romans, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Catholic Church, the rise of monarchies or the happenstance of wars fit into the milieu.  This doesn't mean you need base your game world specifically upon the Earth, but understand why the Romans fell will help provide the background for a stagnating or deteriorating culture.  History will explain how a new idea can sweep the world and radically change everything, or how a new technology can allow a backward people to slaughter and conquer more sophisticated cultures.  Through studying history, we can learn how vast organizations are built, and how political systems create their own problems, or why wars happen and how they are won or lost.  All these things can help a DM see how grand events moving beyond the party's reach can create eddies of excitement and interest, forming episodes that can sweep the players into action and adventure.

With a modicrum of history under our belts, we can plunge into numerous books describing what everyday life was like during the middle ages, the Roman period, in ancient China, or any place in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.  Many of these details will seem trivial or mundane, but reading about ordinary places and ordinary lives will help in describing the scenery behind the adventure.  If we can imagine the busy streets in our minds, the washer women hanging sheets out of windows, the teamsters fighting with one another as they try to get around, the hawkers with their wares, the beggars, the wealthy and their retinues, the smells and the sounds, as well as water splashing from the rooftops and running like rivers down the streets when it rains, or avoiding the baking sun under awnings in the height of summer, we can help the players feel like they are really there.  How the people interact, what's important to them, who respects whom, who fears whom, how food is grown, what sacrifices have to be made in the winter or how grateful people are for the spring, we can feel more viscerally what it must be like to be an independent adventurer walking about in such a place.  The less we make these people like a modern shop owner, and more like a medieval shop owner, the greater the feeling of being out of place, out of time and out of water.

Finding simple books on sociology or anthropology can help as well, particularly when deciding how intelligent peoples would act and function outside the normal social system.  It will help us understant what a hundred orcs spend their time doing in the wilderness, when there is no one to raid and no player characters to kill.  By understanding the societies of human beings, we can extrapolate how the societies of other groups might function, what they might treasure, how they might practice religion or reward important persons inside their ranks.  Through understanding interpersonal heirarchies, group behaviour, habits and traditions, we can make things in the hinterland come alive for the players, so they are not merely fighting stick figures, but beings with motivations, desires, fears, troubles and ambitions.  Coupled with what we know of history, we can find empathy for their conflicts, their lack of resources or their willingness to cooperate and show kindness.  Implementing these ideas into our game world produces shading and refinement, so that not every encounter and parley says the same things and ends in the same fights.

Biology, too, digs into the weirdness of life, of things that exist as parasites or huge non-thinking colonies, so that we can understand monsters without intelligence.  Understanding how creatures like mollusks, insects and other animals obey the rhythms and vicissitudes of survival, eating, migrating and giving birth can give fresh life to how any monster is motivated.  Tapping into this resource of knowledge is another means of expanding our understanding behind what's actually happening when a party is attacked by a "wandering monster."

With this much under our belts, we can begin to investigate into more specific subjects, like siege, shipbuilding, administration, religious ritual, craftsmanship, armour & weapons, falconry, estate economics, alchemy, medicine ... anything, really, for once we have a grounding in liberal education, we can apply ourselves to any subject that appeals to our fancy.  And with every investigation into these things, we will breed new ideas, new possibilities for invented adventures, new designs and endless reasons for the people in our game world to BE.  It is very important to keep abreast of the tsunami of human knowledge, for in that knowledge are the tools to make anything we want made for the game, ourselves, freeing ourselves from the dependency of other people's prejudices about what makes a good campaign.

Further research beyond this will only be more empowering.  Developing artistic skill will allow the DM to create their own maps, images and atmosphere; a truly dedicated aspirant may set out to make their own miniatures, their own model sets, their own published books and personalized designs.  It is all a matter of beginning with simple overview materials, and simple easy-to-read literature, until more and more complex materials becomes a daily reading habit.  Imagination is a monster than needs to be fed everyday, or else it withers.  It cannot thrive on cold beans and water.  It needs the very best fare we can contrive to support it.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Use of Miniature Figures with the Game

Although D&D is a game of imagination, occasionally it is necessary for clarification reasons to clearly define the player characters' positions with relation to each other and the physical scope of the game world.  Therefore, a diagram of some kind or a reusable map grid, in either squares or hexes, can be used to demonstrate the distances between characters and other combatants: their location, facing and line-of-sight, depending on represented obstructions and other details.  For some, this may make certain parts of the game, particularly combat, a little too much like a war-game ... but without a visual aid, players will become hopelessly confused about who is on which side of whom or the distance between themselves or the enemy or even simple things such as who is nearest the trouble at hand.

By having the players establish concretely where they are when something happens, such as opening a door, walking along the edge of a pit, inside or outside a building and so on, we resolve game-challenging arguments about which player characters can see, reach for or take a desired action with respect to the game's physical space.  Once the player points to a precise location, identifying that as the place where their character stands, there can be no further argument that the player wanted to be further away or was misunderstood when all havoc breaks loose.

The use of a physical "map" made up of squares, approximately 5 feet in diameter, laid out on a table between the players, can be accompanied by the use of inch-high miniatures, to give flavour and personality to the positions of the players.  Of course, any object or cardboard chit can serve, if all we want to know is location, but miniatures have a certain personal flair for players.  They can be lavishly, lovingly painted and personalized, to help the player feel a sense of immersion in the game's setting.

However, beware that some players will become overly attached to a miniature of their creation, such that they will resist the game reality that sometimes characters die — whether or not a miniature exists that represents that character.  Players too much in love with a miniature can sometimes find the wrenching shock of a character dying is deepened ... such players need to be reminded at the appropriate moment that this gives them the opportunity to seek out a NEW miniature, which can be freshly designed for the new character (presuming there's time to paint the miniature before the new character also dies).

An option to physical maps and miniatures is to implement a visual computerized representation of player characters (plus NPCs and Monsters) as well.  D&D need not be limited to physical apparati — a clever designer can invent a personalized top-down figure (or even one that is three-dimensional) that can be moved about on an intuitive interface.  This can do more than depict the character - it can change the objects in the character's hands, the colour of clothes worn, the presence of wounds and injuries, etcetera, depending on how elaborate the artistic player chooses to become.  Combats can then be rendered on easy to see large monitors, which sit conveniently on one or two nearby walls, or be viewed on the personal devices of every player.  We don't live in 1979 any more, so we are free to update the idea of miniatures whenever we're inspired to do so.

Friday, February 26, 2021


Skipping over excessive detail about how dice work ...

In D&D, dice exist to resolve any circumstance that might turn out in any number of ways.  For example, reaching out in a split-second to catch a falling object might result in our catching it or missing it.  More importantly, even though we might have caught an object like it in the past, doesn't mean we'll catch this object in this circumstance.  To settle these "maybe" situations, we use dice.

The example I've just given describes a "pass/fail" result; the game is full of them.  However, dice can also be used as a selection device, such as determining randomly which kind of animal appears in our line-of-sight, what sort of weapon a combatant is using or how much of something we find.  In each case, a single dice gives a plain, linear result, with each number on the die having an equal chance of occurring as any other number.

If we use more than one die, we produce what is called a bell curve.  Most people are familiar with rolling 2d6, and recognize that the result of "12" will occur less often than the result of "7."  That's because many combinations of two dice thrown will result in a 7, whereas only one possible combination can result in a 12.  By rolling various combinations of dice, we can produce all sorts of bell curves, which we can assign to either pass/fail or selection results.  Understanding how bell curves work is a deep, profound and interested science, and one that's necessary if attempting to create your own dice charts.

Dice work best when applied to objective circumstances, such as the examples we've given, where no personal biases, emotions or beliefs are part of the determination.  Succeeding or failing at catching a cup is a physical determination, as is the physical animal that has stepped out of the trees, or the physical weapon in an enemy's hand or how many physical objects exist in a treasure chest.  So long as the subject being described is a question of physical success or tactile presence, the use of dice to determine happenstances during the game works quite well.

The failure of dice as a game tool begins when dice are applied to subjective results — such as how the enemy feels about the player characters, or what individuals, specifically non-player characters, value with regards to their choices, goals, interpretations or motivations.  On the surface, it would seem to make sense to determine if a met individual "likes" or "dislikes" the player characters, and roll a die to determine which is so.  However, this grossly simplifies the reality of either of those terms, which drastically reducing everything of nuance in the game to a black-or-white context.  This is bad, since nuance — with its concommitant opportunities for doubt, confusion, trustworthiness, lying and in general the uncertain impressions the players have of things that leads to hope, charity, tension and triumph — is reduced unspectacularly to a coin-flip.  This removes the "guts" of the campaign and ends up sorting important characterisations into toothpicks of varying colour, a quite dull result.

Worse, because subjective rolls are random, they aren't reflective of earlier roles.  In a real conversation, my listener's viewpoint of me is a growing complexity, where each thing heard builds in some complex way upon what was heard before.  If a die roll is used, however, the toothpicks can like, then dislike, then like, then dislike randomly whatever I might happen to say, without any structure.  Someone who was "trustworthy" can, completely randomly, suddenly cease to be trustworthy for no reason except the pips on the dice.  This is worse than making every NPC a sociopath; it makes the world utterly unpredictable, ensuring that the players never trust anyone for any reason — or anything else that's subjective, thus radically limiting the possibilities the game world can deliver.

The dungeon master cannot rely upon dice to determine the predilictions of imagined people, nor of reason, truth or any other thing that does not occur randomly!  Hammers will always fall, unless there is a reason they do not.  It cannot be a die roll!  Dice are a wonderful tool; but they are not a wonderful tool for everything.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Game

[page 9]

In approaching the game of D&D, the subjects of "realism" and "simulation" are sure to arise again and again. Whereas some believe these two camps are clearly defined, this has never been the case — though certain individuals have advanced published works attempting to make capital out of settling the argument once and for all.  It is barely understood, in this author's opinion, by most persons that real people sit at the gaming table, in the real world, with experiences and familiarity with many things directly associated with that world.  Because of this standard (i.e., people know what's "real"), that any level of simulation will succeed to some extent, while necessarily failing once that extent is passed.

Take in case an old Spike Milligan sketch, in which a secret plan was hatched during the 2nd World War to make a life-size to scale model of Britain out of cardboard, mooring it off the coast of Scilly, so that the Germans would bomb the model and not the real country ... and to believe the scheme was working as the Germans flew over the false island — until it was learned the Germans dropped cardboard bombs.

The goal of D&D is not to simulate reality, but to make fantasy believable enough that we can forget it's not real.  This is not so hard as we might think; humans want to pretend.  They learned to do so as children, turning cardboard boxes into spaceships, logs into horses, sticks into swords and towels into capes.  Growing up, we still love to do this; we only need an excuse that enables us to not feel too silly.  The trappings of dice, paper and pencils lets us take D&D just as seriously as we took make-believe when we were young.

Without question, the game's goal is to have fun and be entertained.  This sounds cut-and-dried, and is often presented that way, as though all the world seeks the same sort of fun in the same sort of ways, for the same reasons.  For some people, "fun" means to take nothing seriously, to mock and joke, and to deride those who show a "long face."  For some, banging the books out of a fellow student's hands,  painting huge self-aggrandizing logos on public property, waiting to the last moment to dodge a train or pushing around a scared, frightened boy or girl between them represents "fun."  For these people, D&D will work as a game.  It offers lots of opportunities to be silly, to ridicule and sneer, to use the DM pulpit as a means to humiliate and shame others, or feel a sense of power.  Many, many people will have fun in just this way, and argue that the game's point is to act out without restraint.

Others find fun in more sober activities.  Two silent, serious, immobile persons staring hours at a wargame, painstakingly moving scores of hundreds of little pieces and chits are having fun, though who would know it to look at them?  Some rush from their jobs to their basement work benches to stare all evening through a magnifying glass, using tiny paintbrushes to highlight tiny details on tiny figures, which they will store like precious jewels on dozens of shelves.  Some want to argue in excess whether an electrical-based spell being cast by a magician waist deep in water ought to electrocute the source, and whether it matters that the target is also standing in waist deep water.  For some people, these things are outrageously "fun."  Fun comes in all sorts of forms.

The realm of invention needs to have room for all sorts, so that everyone recognizes that the sort of fun that goes on at one game table need not reflect what goes on elsewhere.  We also need to recognize, however, that some kinds of fun are sustainable in the long term, whereas some are not.  Triviality can be loads of fun in the short term, but runs out awfully fast, so that individuals who crave giddy, rash, hairbrained runnings will soon tire of this fare and seek their fun elsewhere ... while grim, stony-faced analysts will dig deeply into an activity they like for a lifetime.

Given this reality, when settling in to decide "Who is the game for?", we should ask ourselves, who will be here to appreciate the game today, versus who will be here to appreciate the game ten years from now?  Which of these groups promises a better field in which to plant our crops?

It is not for us to say how others should play the game described in this book.  But it is for us to say how we should go about providing more game for them to play.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


Tackling this again.

Gygax's introduction on page 9 of the original DMG is an interesting document.  It is different in character and intent from the introductions in later editions, as it does not try to cheerlead for the notion of fantasy:  "Isn't fantasy cool?  It's really cool!"  Sorry, JB, if they don't say "cool" any more.

I'm not going to deconstruct the piece, however, except as a guideline to write my own.  I won't go where Gygax goes, but I'd like to capture the flavour of his intent meshed with my own.


The format of this book is, unfortunately, anything but straight-forward.  An attempt has been made to create sections dealing with players, combat, the campaign and magic items, with useful appendices, but the reality is that there are so many subjects relating to D&D, of such widely varied scope and usefulness, that "organization" is somewhat less than ideal. In truth, this book is no better organized than an encyclopedia — but pragmatically, this is to the book's credit.  Without our deliberately making it so, elements of the game being mixed together suggest relationships and parallels that we have not imagined ourselves, so that a reader flipping randomly through the book is sure to find themselves engrossed in one diverse subject after another ... which is necessarily the experience of every DM during the game's running.

The tables and lists contained herein should be considered "incomplete," in that there will always be the possibility of adding more possible results, more items, more monsters, more strategies in combat, more forms of political structure, more types of gems and treasure, more dungeon room ideas and so on than we could hope to imagine.  Such things are easily added in side notes, using the templates we've created here.  It is the structure of the table that is more important then the actual results; for the parsimonius DM, elements can be removed and cut out of the game altogether, leaving what remains relatively unaffected.  The evaporation of a single monster or feature will have no effect at all upon the substance of the game, which is to empower the players to act, while calculating the results of those actions.

This is the entire substance of the combat rules, which are necessarily simplified in order to allow quick and easy game play.  We could have created detailed, complex rules intended to simulate real combat; the various contributors to the volume in your hands have all had extensive experience in wargames and systems of every kind.  Instead, however, we felt that what really mattered was player agency, and the thrill of jumping into a fray and attacking wildly, hoping things will come out for the best.  The exact details of how a sword is swung or what it hits didn't seem important.  We concerned ourselves with the bare minimum, offering a die roll for the sword being swung and another for the "damage" it did ... and did not take the time to detail the specifications of either.  Like any game, the substance is in how the game is played, not in what the game's actions metaphysical "mean."  We did our best to respect that.

So, if a part of the game does not meet your expectations, throw it away.  If it is sometimes useful, and sometimes not, then discriminate as you please.  And if you believe there is some part of the game that isn't there, and ought to be there, then do rush forward and invent that thing.  We cannot possibly account for everything in human experience, certainly not in the time we've had to pull this book together.  You, the DM of your campaign, will find in here a corresponding example of any game rule you may ever hope to invent, with suggestions on how to lay it out as a table, describe it as a detail or measure it with dice.  Once you understand how the game system works as written here, you should have the tools you need to extend that game system to the end of the universe, if you have the required dedication and, dare I say, nerve ... since everything you design, along with everything you cut out of the game, will have to be explained to your players.  Take note, they will always be your jurors, no matter what choices you make.  Therefore, always make choices that you can defend, if you wish to win them over.

Remember, it is never easy to be a dungeon master.  You are neither the enemy of the players nor their friend.  Your rewards from the game will never be their rewards; while their trials and terrors will never be something you will experience.  Yes, you will work the late hour to get your game ready, but you will never be the player laying away in the late hour, wondering what you have laying in store for them.  Every participant has a cross to bear, and yours is different from theirs.  Remember that you accepted this responsibility; that you enjoy the gifts that is gives in the moments of enormous power and respect that you momentarily achieve, before returning to your ordinary life.  You have no reason to complain.  Remember, too, that your responsibility is to be a fair, decent and supportive entity where your players are concerned: a parental figure, if you will, even if some of them are older than you.

Until the day comes when you really do know best, always keep this book nearby — and remember that the more you adhere to the content of this book, the more legitimacy it can provide you, when you drive back the crying hordes by lifting this book over their heads and proclaiming, "It's in the rules!"  This book is your best friend once the running starts; be true to this book and it will be defend you when you need it.


If you haven't read Gary Gygax's Preface for the original DMG, you can read it here.  I'm not going to comment on it, except to say that it's ... inflated.

Using the same general theme, I'll take my own swing at it:

The content in this book is for everyone, DMs and players alike.  The game's rules should always be transparent to all, with an understanding that any rules that work only when held in secret must be flawed in their design.  It should not matter that the players know what the tables contain or what special details are attributed to magic items, monsters or any other game element — players have a right to exploit the rules of D&D to their own ends, just as they can in any other game.  In any case, we should expect that ambitious players will simply buy their own copies of this book, so we might just as well give our permission.

The rules and substance of this book is a work in progress.  They say that a written novel is never finished, only abandoned.  What you have here is the design content we've been able to compose and bring together prior to this book's publication — given another year or two, rest assured this book would be much larger.  However, what's presented here can be looked at as a starting point for any diligent dungeon master ready to either use material as is or build upon it to add more grit or nuance to their campaign.

One caveat, however: be careful.  No game world needs to adhere to the standards of any other; D&D should be as personalized a creation for the DM as any work of art.  But the dungeon master should nevertheless be cautious in changing rules that would grant the players more power for their characters, while minimizing the character's risk.  It is in the DM's power to do anything, literally granting wishes like a genie, since there are no systemic limitations on the DM in the rules.  However, things that are gotten too easy are also unappreciated; and players who become used to getting something for nothing will only want more, once they know they must only wheedle the DM.

Therefore, the DM must always be a gatekeeper.  Play must be challenging, if we hope the players will be innovative and imaginative in their strategies and ambitions.  At the same time, play must be rewarding, or else the players will find something else to do.  This is a fine and difficult line, for too much of one or the other will cripple or end the DM's aspirations to present a good game.  Yet, without a great deal of experience, what might be said at this time, in this preface, to educate the reader sufficiently to prepare his or her self, would hardly be of much use.  Instead, we will simply say that a great deal of thought and effort has gone into the creation of this book, by people who have spent much time playing the game and trying new ideas.  It is better, then, to try the rules as written first; and then, once those rules are understood fully, to take the next step into experimentation, adjustment and bold new designs, expanding the possibilities of the game just as we have tried to expand them.

As a teacher, it is my goal to bring you to the same level of education and understanding that I have, so that we can work together in advancing the game's design.  Until you're ready, however, I ask only that you understand what you're changing, before you set out to change it.  It will be up to you to decide when you're "ready," of course.  You will learn from your own mistakes, in any case.  That is how learning works.

The content herein has been aimed at producing a "game-world," or setting that the players can run around in.  The complexity and depth of this game-world is limited only by your imagination, and readiness to work at its design.  A truly complicated design, with millions of details, may take years to realize.  In that time, don't be afraid to present your world as a work in progress, just as I've described this book.  As artists, we are never really finished anything!  Even if the boundaries of your game world are fuzzy and indistinct as a blank sheet of paper, because you haven't designed those parts yet, your players will understand!  They will learn to play inside the boundaries of what you have created; and will eagerly wait for the day when the boundaries expand, and new realms and places come into existence, as the Artist's finger moves before them.

Do what you can, with what you have, and rest assured that with time you will learn to be a better dungeon master than you can possibly imagine today.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021


It should be no secret that I consider Dungeon Mastering to be an art.  The underlying creative process described on this late post fits perfectly into writing, composition or design, occupations that are unquestionably "artistic."  Yet even in 1979, the editor of the original DMG, Mike Carr, resisted the notion, writing,

"If you consider the aspect of experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches, then Dungeon Mastering is perhaps more like a science  not always exacting in a literal sense, but exacting in terms of what is required to do the job well."

This is a familiar, criminal misinterpretation of "science," one we see everyday in the media and online.  Science is a systemic exercise that gathers and organizes knowledge from existing conditions.  Science studies things that already exist; please name the pre-existing phenomenon that role-playing "studies."  There isn't one.  With the statement above, Carr does nothing more than emphasize that he is an uneducated, ignorant hack, purporting to create a controversy where none exists.  D&D is not preparing for an experiment — it is creating something out of thin air so it can be presented in the game.  We're not searching for a new game approach that already exists in the physical world, or questioning the fundamental nature of knowledge or reality; we are creating game rules and narratives.  And please don't get me started on the semantic disaster perpetrated by Carr's need to cram "exacting" into the argument, manufacturing a dualism between "science" and "D&D."

A better foreword could read,

Dungeon Mastering challenges the individual to take what they know of human activity and literature, coupled with their ability to conceptualize a fantastical, fictional space, and convey that an imaginary yet tangible setting, so that others are able to see and imagine themselves functioning practically within that setting.  The dungeon master's presentational skill at conveying this setting is of highest importance.  The DM must be able to inspire others, through description, gesture and passion, to envision the same game world the DM imagines.  Given the awareness this requires — insight into how something needs to be described, resourcefulness in creating further details spontaneously, discernment between what is important and what's not, ingenuity, wisdom of one's fellow human beings and good horse sense about what will and will not motivate players — it is impossible not to view dungeon mastering as an Art.

DMing is a labour, not only of love, but in the tenacity needed to assimilate tens of thousands of details and principles well enough that they can be disgorged and argued when the moment demands.  This book alone contains 239 pages of description, tables, tools and details that would swamp a 3rd year humanities student if the final exam demanded a thorough knowledge of all that has been included.  The good DM needs to know this material cold; this means long afternoons of reading, and long nights of burning the midnight oil in order to assemble the ingredients that will make the next day's running memorable. 

Yet whatever the effort, the reward is worth ten times the cost.  This is an opportunity that few persons will ever obtain — the chance to earn tremendous respect from one's peers; to become the source of both enjoyment and opportunity; and to bestow experiences that both friends and strangers may remember all of their lives.  We will find ourselves in a position of judgment; but through fairness, reason and empathy, it is ours not only to settle disputes and bring tolerance, but to show others how to do this both in the game and in their everyday lives.  As we teach ourselves to manage our players, we teach ourselves how to be better people, with forbearance, kindness and self-sacrifice.

It is not easy to be more creative; or commit ourselves to an effort that may cause us to fall flat on our face.  It is no mean feat to run a game world every weekend, so that every Friday evening and every Saturday afternoon is spent pouring over pencil scratchings and books rather than partying or lounging in the sun.  We may question time and again why we do it; we may feel from time to time that the task is thankless; but when the players appear like clockwork, week in and week out, talking animatedly, spreading out their papers and dice, waiting for the moment when we will give our word that the running is about to start, we will know why we dungeon master.

Because it rocks our worlds.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Shipbuilder

Such fun.

Working on this list for the poster yesterday.  All the prices were generated from my trading tables, based on so much cedarwood, pinewood, oakwood and chestnut wood for exterior hull, planking, spars & ribs, and wooden fixtures, plus metal pieces and pitch to build the size of ship in question.  Final totals were calculated according to the volume of ship based on keel, beam and height; the cargo capacity was then determined afterwards.  Everything from the rowboat to the Indiaman was calculated using the same ratios.

Accurate to history?  Probably not.  What matters to me is that the players can design their own ship, identify the size and the type of ship (carrack, ketch, yawl, whatever), and I can give a price and details to match.  I like that the list gives dimensions & construction time; and I like that after you buy the ship, you have to outfit it with sheets and extra spars.

If some of the numbers seem off, I rush to remind the reader that these are based on 17th century designs, not the more familiar Napoleanic-period designs that impress themselves on our consciousness, about how a ship is rigged and how many sails it carries.  The development of jib sails from every mast took time, and was hardly there in the 1600s.  But, as always, I'm not trying to be accurate.  I'm trying to run a game, with just enough grittiness but not too much.  For example, before Sterling corrects me (and he'll be dead right, he always is), I'm not saying that a mainmast accurately needs two mainsails, a top sail and a luff.  Chances are, it's called a "jib" and not a luff, or some other thing, and they're all different sizes, as is the topsail or mainsails for different masts, and so on.  BUT, there's only so much grittiness I need to put into this and what I've got above is enough.  I'm happy to simplify by saying a mainmast needs 4 sails, while a foremast and a mizzen-mast each need two, of different types.  I'm happy to average out how much rigging the ship needs, regardless of the actual type of sail.  What I want for the game is stuff on a ship that can break, tear or blow away, so it will need replacing; I don't need this to be historically or even practically accurate for game purposes.  Given how these things are usually glossed over in game terms, I'm doing very well.

I also like that while the Indiaman is very expensive (my offline party could put up that much), the caravel is completely in range for a party of 3rd-5th level, in my game at least.  Missing, of course, is the cost for the crew; I'm was in the middle of cracking that problem when the poster idea emerged, so that's been shelved.  I'm not ready to include wages on the poster; I don't think there will be room for them anyway.

I love ships in the game, though somehow I seem to be the only one that does.  People worry way too much about drowning.

This is not the complete shipbuilder list, by the way; not yet.  I haven't added any metalworking into the poster.  I'm working on wooden goods just now; then it is chemicals (paint, lamp oil, dyestuffs, perfume, etc.), then ceramics and clay, and THEN metals.  Got a long way to go, and the poster is filling up.  Have to see what I have space for in the end.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Asking & Answering

I feel a bit lately that I'm not "earning" the respect I'm gaining from readers, as I'm indulging in the online game (today's battle shown) and I'm committed to the ever-trying poster.  Four weeks into the latter and I feel I'm ... mm ... shall we say 40% done?  I gave myself a three month deadline; I'm still on track for that.

Twas a very good week with the campaign.  We've picked up an enthusiastic player and the group has been lucky with the time they've had to commit.  The dungeon themes are thickening and the party's beginning to pick up some relevant treasure.  Vafrandir went up a level today, to 3rd, and that's always pleasant.  I have no idea why DMs decide that levels are a bad thing that need to be expunged.  I've never seen a player that didn't burst with pride every time they've passed that milestone ... but it could be that I make my players sweat painfully for a long time before it's met.  The harder something is to gain, the more treasured it's bound to be.

The mental synthesis of D&D is found through translating a thoroughly irrational situation (animated zombies) into graspable applications.  I'm fighting something that operates against the laws of physics, but I'm doing it with a sword that operates normally within those laws.  The glamour of the game is found in the dualism between these two principles; just as science fiction and horror films resolve it.  Anything profoundly strange becomes reasonable once we discover what rules apply.  Rules make such things comprehensible; and while some might think this dilutes the enchantment of the game, the functional player continues to think, "Wow, I'm doing it!  I'm actually fighting animated skeletons and winning!"

Of course, this does require a certain amount of theatre in the presentation.  If the skeletons are simply walked on stage without building up a level of threat and thus tension, fighting skeletons will be as silly as fighting poles hammered in the ground.  A clown in a horror movie is just a clown; to make it seriously terrifying we've got to play with lighting, sound, cinematography, pacing, deception and obfuscation.  DMs will shrug and say, "What can I do with skeletons?  They're so boring!"  Such DMs don't know what they're doing.  Let me post the picture that proceeded the one above, when the players opened the door and found what they were faced with:

The players certainly don't seem bored.  However, look at what's happening here beyond the event itself.  Pandred's response, even online, is clearly emotional.  Both immediately move past the "oh shit, that's a lot of zombies" — understandable, since the party consists of two 1st levels, a 3rd level and a 4th level, with the two higher levels at less than half their hit points.  At once, they set out to solve the problem ... which is precisely what we'd want to be doing if this was really happening.  We don't want players who are overly emotional; we want players who are emotional enough to decide to coldly run or coldly dig in — like professionals.

As it happens, I never did answer Lexent's question here.  The doors were described as made of heavy plant-material, similar to thatch; they were never closely examined and I previously did say they didn't "close."  But these are the sort of things that get missed, as they seem mundane ... until security suddenly rears its head.  In any case, all the players were thinking in game terms.  This is what I want.  I don't want players to invent nonsensical solutions ("we try to climb onto the ceiling"); I want them to think in military terms, since this is a fight and they're in it now.  How do we defend this place, how do we build a line, etcetera.

The synthesis emerges as players move from frivolity to gritting their teeth.  Frivolity is a symptom of not caring what happens; or feeling so secure in one's own situation that no threat is perceived.  Frivolity describes those idiots in the Capitol filming themselves with glee, ensuring they would spend the rest of their lives on no-fly lists, being denied credit, hounded endlessly by one stupid day on which they had fun and enjoying their status as ex-cons.  They filmed themselves because they perceived themselves as untouchable; an unfortunately legitimized belief of many players who know the DM won't kill them, or who know they're so powerful that of course nine skeletons could never be a threat.

After my last post, Griffin wrote,

"I would be very interested in having a module or two from you that was less a 'here is an adventure' and more 'how to run an adventure'. Where you, in the product, go through the steps of building an adventure location and highlight certain parts how you might run them. Not a standard module that someone picks up and runs (though there should be enough information to do that) but that someone can use as an example and/or blueprint to reverse engineer to make their own."

Griffin, like most, hasn't understood yet that the game adventure isn't about building locations or blueprints ... gaming corresponds to a mindfulness about how human intelligence, time and space work.  Every location has relevance, if we choose to give it relevance.  Relevance derives from what we are able to make the players see, when we put them in that place.  Take any place — a bus stop, a lunch counter, a back yard, a grassy bank on a river.  See it.  Why is it there?  How can it be used?  What events in the human experience can be put there in your imagination?  Pick any experience, it doesn't matter ... the relevance of the experience only exists because we give it relevance.  We decide that what happens there has repercussions for other things that happen elsewhere, in other places, between other people at other moments in time.

There's no "blueprint."  There are infinite possibilities, any of which are suitable.  I choose to have a husband reading a book to his wife, who happens to be pregnant, this popping into my head because I recently saw the film Notting Hill and that's the last scene.  He's reading to her at a bus stop; he's reading to her in a lunch counter; he's reading to her in their back yard; he's reading to her on a grassy bank.  His reading to her gives the commonplace meaning.  What is he reading?  He's reading an instruction manual for motherhood.  He's reading an instruction manual for cleaning an AK47.  He's reading aloud the book that she's written.  He's reading a book about property law.  It doesn't matter what he's reading ... the book establishes a much wider context!  It's their first child; they are embroiled in questionable activities; he's comprehending her better; they're engaged in some wider legal matter that has them concerned.  The circle of events around them widen.  Are they concerned about themselves as parents, or are they laughing at the book's contents.  Are they just gun nuts, or do they work for the government?  Is it her first book, or is this a ritual they always do?  What is the legal trouble and who else is involved?  Why are they in a bus stop, with neither of them driving?  How are the other people at the lunch counter responding?  What is their back yard like?  Where exactly is this river?  Each answer breeds new questions, with new answers ... meaning that as the creator of the situation, it is your responsibility to ASK the questions and to ANSWER the questions.

If you cannot think of questions to ask, this is a failing on your part and you will never understand DMing.  Every game the player will pepper you with questions.  There are zombies in the room, you say.  Boom, questions.  You've got to move ahead of the players here; you've got to ask their questions before they do, or you'll find yourself facing Lexent, asking a question you've failed to answer.  And if you can't answer, you've failed again.  If you can't answer the questions the player's ask with style, then you're really a lost duck.

So you've got to think.  You're sitting at a bus stop, waiting for a bus, or you're at a lunch counter.  Don't be bored.  Who else might have been waiting at this same bus stop a hour ago?  How was this lunch counter started as a business?  Don't ask others!  Invent a reason.  Invent any reason, so long as you can work yourself through the intricate details of the bus rider's clothing, job, destination, belief system, whatever will make that person interesting.  Figure out how the diner started without help; imagine where the owner came from, how the money was obtained, what the motivation was and so on.  Build the frame in your mind so tight that if someone else were to ask a question about this diner, you'd shoot back an answer so fast that they'd believe you really knew.

THIS is DMing.  I'm building a world that exists, sort of, except it doesn't really exist, right?  There's no dungeon like this in Norway.  There are no rooms, no skeletons, no piles of furniture or dessicated inedible food.  There's no logic to the lair's design except the logic I invent; and that logic has to be sound enough that when a player asks a question about it, I have an answer that makes the player pause, think, nod, and move onto the next question.  Maybe I'm caught by a really odd question; that happens.  In which case, I have to go through the particulars of the dungeon, puzzle out what would be a GOOD reason, build a few sentences in my head and then trot the reason out for my players.  Remember, I've had a long, long time to think about this dungeon, and I know everything that's here.  The players are just tourists.  They don't even know there are skeletons behind the next door.  Answering their questions ought to be child's play for me — so long as I've given the problem the thought it deserves.

Consider.  I've been running this game world for 35 years.  It's not just a dungeon, it's the village of Treborg nearby, and the fjord that's next to Treborg, and the city of Stavanger on the other side of the Fjord, and the kingdom of Norway, and a bunch of other kingdoms nearby, plus the North Sea and the British Isles and Denmark, with Germany and France and Spain ... hey, it is a really, really big world, see?  There's no blueprint.  It is me, in my game world, thinking about different places, and what I would do if the players went to Picardy, or Sterlingshire, or Pomerania, or Palestine and Gujarat and Mongkawng.  It's me playing my fingers over the game map and the people, the customs, the ideals, the political struggles, the panorama of history, the habits of human beings, the cruelty, the mistrust between strangers, the literature I've read since childhood, and a million other details I won't list here.  It's my being in LOVE with my game world, and wanting to play with it in my head, all the time ... not according to some reverse engineered game plan that makes complicated modules, but looking at a piece of the earth, say, the desert south of Biskra in modern Algeria, and deciding, if there was an adventure to be found in this place, this climate, between these people, with their culture, etcetera, what would it be?  I'm not inventing something — or buying something — and then plunking it down in Biskra, like virtually every DM in the world does.  No.  I'm reading books about Biskra, and the desert, and the people, and asking questions ... and then answering them, because no one else will.  I'm answering questions that I know the players are going to ask, when they go there and things start happening.

Stop.  Looking.  For.  Shortcuts.

There aren't any.  Your world won't get better if you invent better stories, add more magic, remove classes, fix the combat system, write better modules or do any of the other hundreds of things you've been thinking you ought to do.  Your world will get better when you KNOW your world better than you imagine right now that you could; and much, much better than the players will know it; because you've learned to constantly ask questions about what your world is all about and you've learned how to answer those questions with really, really good answers.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Things to Pay Attention to in Dungeon Presentation

At last, something new to say.  Let's settle in and have a long discussion.

I'm going to tread on the line of disclosing an email discussion, albeit a business one, through email.  The ethics here are dubious, since when we're approached by strangers on an email, how much responsibility do we have to keep that interchange private?  Frankly, by law, I'm free to say what I wish, but as a matter of decency, I don't think that's appropriate.  Additionally, I'm certain the party under discussion will read this post; it was clear they were familiar with my blog and I don't wish to disparage them for reaching out.

Instead, I'll give them a little free advertising.

I was approached last week by a group calling themselves "Adventure Bundles," asking if I'd review a game module they were making for 5th edition.  Naturally, I assumed this was spam.  I've received spam like this before, since being a D&D blog sometimes means I'll end on someone's list, somewhere.  Hell, I could build a 200-blog database just by going around and copying the blog rolls of as many popular game blogs as I needed.

It wasn't, however; the request was sincere and was targeted at me.  Which I admit is odd, since a) I dislike modules very much; b) I dislike 5e very much; and c) I haven't made a secret of it.  It takes nerve to approach someone like me and ask him to be open minded about something distinctly against his principles.  Well done.

After some back-and-forth, I explained that I didn't wish to help them.  I don't have any expectation that yet another module-producing company is going to make something new and profound that I haven't seen before, but it's more than that.  The bottom line is that by reviewing their product, I get nothing.  I don't want free content or have use for it.  If I hate the module, I've wasted my time and worse than that, I'll be accused of hating it on principle — even if I spend two thousand words explaining in detail WHY it's garbage.  If I'm taken at my word in that regard, my complaints would likely be the same as what my readers have heard before, so it wouldn't be new content for them — and obviously MY readers are more important to me than Adventure Bundles's readers.  If I like the module, I look like a shill.  I recently admitted that I've acquired a volunteer business manager, Mark; probably, I'd look like I was doing this because Mark told me to, which isn't our relationship but that's what would be assumed.

Finally, while Adventure Bundles probably needs a little credibility (otherwise, why look for anyone outside to write a review?), they're not going to get it here, since the people who come here are those who don't want to read yet one more Maliszewski fluff-piece about something published 37 years ago.  Those aren't my readers.

Point in fact, looking for a webpresence for Adventure Bundles, the only thing I can find is this:  I really hope this isn't who I was talking to.  Shudder.

This content so far wouldn't be worth writing about, except I was thinking — especially today, after a very steady running on the juvenis campaign — about what would a module need to be in order to meet my "standard"... which we can define as, "would be equal to my own game play."  And yes, sorry, I'm an egotistical jackass that's full of myself, but then again I'm faced with DMs out there who think that a game module meets their standards.  Those standards being obviously lower than mine.

I've induced my players to invest themselves in a traditional dungeon, which we started in earnest today.  The point-by-point details can be read here.  I'm building the dungeon from my mind palace, which I don't really consider how I'm doing it but fans of Sherlock Holmes can get all geeky now about it.  I first ran across the idea in a James Burke episode of Connections back around 1982, when I was all of 18, so I hardly had to wait for 2010's S.H. to introduce it to me.  Essentially, I think of it as "remembering things."  I have a lot of practice at remembering a lot of things; with artworks, I accomplish this by laying down for hours at a time, often in a bathtub, and "thinking."

As such, as play begins, I'm juggling a bunch of things in my head ... and that includes much more than what is going on behind this door.  I'm going to try to organize what kind of things from here forward.  If you've put up with my inflated ego, self-conceit and strutting pomposity (three things that mean the same), this is the payoff:  Things to pay attention to in dungeon presentation.

1. Minimize

Every time your players enter a room, or open a door, they will want every bit of information that's there given to them immediately and in toto.  Don't do it.  Deliberately skip details, even details which they think should be plainly obvious, such as a smell, or a brick out of place, or the ring on a skeleton's finger (nope, isn't one, but I could put one there still).  Plan to give those details, and before the players ask for them, but understand that we're under no obligation to describe everything in a room down to the last atom ... because the five senses don't work that way.

Enter any space and you won't see everything that's there the first time, or even the second or third time, though your eyes function perfectly.  We just don't "see" that way.  We glean immediate dangers first; and then our observation is compromised progressively by what we expect to see and what we hope to see.  You might visit your friend's apartment a dozen times before you realize their beige toilet is actually green.  You think you'd see that instantly, but this is not so; there have been dozens of times in the last few years that you've asked, "how long has that lamp been there?" — only to be told it's been three years.  Visually, and even more so audially and aromatically, we miss stuff all the time.  This is a reality that players have to get used to, and a privilege the DM enjoys in setting up tension.

For example, at one point in the linked game, Lexent the gnome says he goes around to each of the 11 other doors in the hall, trying to detect something special about each.  He doesn't.  But later I say that Marcule gets a whiff of something from one of the doors that Lexent checked.  Is this an example of me "cheating"?  Was I responsible as a DM to ensure that Lexent was "properly" told about the smell?  Nope, sorry.  That would have been the 7th door he checked, which means engaging in repetitive failure six times before the 7th; and the character has no special skill in sensing anything, being a cleric and not a person with heightened senses (an ability in my game).  Marcule doesn't actually possess heightened senses either, but he is an assassin, and he wasn't actually looking for the scent when he smelled it.  He just chanced to smell it.

The way our senses work, including sight, are inconsistent.  So when a player is in a space, give them some information about what they see (certainly, the important stuff, like moving creatures or treasure), but withold the minor, subtle, tiny details.  Not forever, obviously.  Withhold them until they say, "I search the skeleton," whereupon you reveal the ring.  Or they say, "I make everyone stand absolutely still and listen."  Which no one in today's game did.  The players have to act to get those tidbits ... otherwise, I'll just give them a little later on, when it suits me and my presentation.

2. Tempo

Once you understand that you can withhold subtle details, you can begin viewing the game experience in terms of tempo.  Tempo is the speed and pace with which the game proceeds, just as it describes a piece of music.  The dissemination of information to the players can be like a director playing visual tricks with a film, such as jump scares where a shadow moves across the screen behind an actor in a horror film.  As the DM, we decide when its best for the players to know something.

For example, the player enters a room, gets in a fight ... and then in the 3rd round of the fight, hears something else, some unknown thing, banging on a nearby door.  It is much, much more panicky to hear this during some other ongoing problem than to save it for when the players are standing around.  So as a DM, we wait.  We have that bit of information socked away, that we're going to give at some point, but we want to introduce it at the worst possible time for the players, or when it will distract them from their thoughts.

Again for example: the players have been struggling with some collection of details, trying to figure out how they go together ... and they've just started to make a breakthrough somewhere.  That's the moment to introduce some totally disconnected thing, something that has nothing to do with the player's thoughts, such as the moment when the assassin smells something sour coming from one of the doors.  This sort of derailment can happen as often as we wish: introducing an uncertain roar, or the sound of something falling and crashing; or a wave of cold air suddenly flowing through the room.  It's D&D's version of building Dr. Marvin Monroe's special isolation chamber, that delivers food, warmth, electric shocks and showers of icy cold water in order to raise maladjusted children.  Basically, the players are twisted lab rats struggling against their circumstances.

You would think they'd hate this; and many readers here will right now, be saying, "Damn straight, I'd hate this," but you'd be wrong.  This is what horror movies do blatantly, and what other movies and novels do delicately (and the more delicate the better).  As humans, we need our emotions manipulated because otherwise we can't invest ourselves; we've gotten so used to be manipulated hormonally, it's the default characteristic of everyday life.  Without the thrill of being unexpectedly turned this way or that, we don't feel alive ... and when the information is given too readily or too easily, we adopt an blithe attitude and lose interest.  Tempo, the introduction of new information over a period of time, enables us to keep surprising the players, giving them new and interesting things to think about, shifting their attention to what's next before they become bored with what was.  When everything is a patiently obvious set piece, the players feel like they're moving through one of those old-time historical panoramas, where none of the dummies move while we have all day to inspect the scene.  D&D is not like that.  Things happen.  Things move.  New things come into being.  New things are noticed.  If there's always something there to grab the players attention, they're stoked to ride the wave until they either crash or make it to shore.

3. Relevance

This is a case of Chekhov's gun ... and for the two people who haven't heard this phrase before, and have no idea how google works, I'll explain quickly.  Chekhov was a playright who argued that,

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

If it's not essential, it shouldn't be there.  Welcome to why virtually every movie and book made or written is junk and won't matter 40 years from now.

Of course, "essential" is a movable feast.  The walls must be there or else the roof falls down.  Some kind of sustenance must be there because the monsters must eat.  The presence of food is not, therefore, an intrinsic clue to the solution of THE mystery ... but it does solve one minor question in the setting: how many creatures were here and how much food did they eat?  Moreover, why was the food stored here and not there is also relevant.  The same must always be asked about the treasure we find constantly on traditional D&D humanoid bodies.  Why have these goblins, dwelling in this dungeon, acting as guards, while literally days from a market place where they couldn't buy anything if they went there, chosen to individually store randomly different amounts of coinage directly in pouches carried on their own bodies, all the time, given that these coins are of no practical value to them or to anyone else in this lair who might steal them?  Hm.  Could be, it's the DM's way of giving video game points to players, and has nothing to do with how goblins think or anything else relevant to the way they live.

If a player asks the question "Why?" regarding anything in the dungeon, the DM should (a) know exactly why; (b) be able to show it, not tell it, when the time comes; and (c) should recognize that if (a) or (b) cannot be explained or shown, then that thing in the dungeon SHOULDN'T BE THERE.  Finally, (d) the DM should have plans to deliberately ensure that the players eventually get an answer to every question, if they hang in there long enough and do the work.  There is nothing more annoying in a dungeon than useless window-dressing, the sort that Gygax indulged in endlessly, when it is possible to build mysteries and complex reveals out of broken swords and piles of manure that have a reason for being there.

Don't paint a room.  Design it.  Figure out where everything came from and why it's still here, perhaps years later.  If you can't do that, then get rid of it.  It's doing nothing for your game.

Now, some of my readers will argue, "Red herrings, red herrings!"  A red herring is a clue that leads the mystery-solver in the wrong direction.  Bad writers LOVE red herrings, because filling a book with them will ensure the protagonist will need many more pages to get to the end of what would otherwise be a very shitty, very simple pathetic story line, such as anything written by Agatha Christie.  Take away all the useless time-wasting that goes on in a typical mystery story and you're left with a detective who finds two right clues and solves the thing.  Usually, these two right clues are found in the last 20 pages, thereby oblivating the previous 280 pages the book has wasted of your time.  Often, the clues are not found at all, but are in fact introduced for the very first time by the detective in the last five pages, apparently out of thin air.

The very best mysteries are where every single detail is relevant and the puzzle takes the entire book to put together, with definite forward movements every step of the way.  There are no red herrings at all.  We will note there are no red herrings in Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Hemingway, Woolf or David Mamet for that matter, because red herrings are crap.  This will not stop bad writers from using them, which will not end the exhaustion of readers of having to read past them to get to "the good stuff."  Foolishly, I think most of D&D should be good stuff, rather than time-wasting crap; I know, I know.  Indecent of me.

And so ...

It would be very, very difficult for a game module to explain just when I should introduce information, since most of the time this depends on what the players are doing.  Tempo demands that I wait for the players to get invested in (1) before introducing (1b) and possibly (1c).  At the same time, what's happening in (2) shouldn't be limited to what the players are doing, since all events are happening simultaneously.  The creatures over there in that part of the dungeon are not frozen in time while the players are doing such and such over here.  The longer the players take to move through the various halls and rooms should matter.  Things need to be time sensitive; so the DM has to reason out what creatures where will get interested in barging into the area the players are, based on what the players have been doing, not upon pre-determined suppositions made by designers who are not now at the gaming table and can't properly TIME these events.  Which details are seen by the players and which aren't depends on how the players search, and what words they use when they search, and how careful they are, and how much time they waste doing it and turning up nothing.

If the players search everything down to the nap, that has consequences.  The dungeon that might have been a cakewalk if the players had moved briskly forward, has time to learn about their presence, organize, arrange themselves and bring to bear MAXIMUM force, because the players have been dithering.  At the same time, if the players move too briskly, they will miss things, which is how it ought to be; realistically, whatever the operation, you won't find every coin and every enemy if blitzkrieg is the goal ... yet blitzkrieg has its benefits; you won't easily get trapped either, and you will plunder something in the process.

The players who think they can dawdle along and collect every scrap, without repercussions, have been taught by DMs that there are no consequences: because all the monsters will wait in their rooms just as they've been told to do.  They're not really monsters, you see, or anything alive.  They're stuffed exhibits made of wax, there to be seen and to make a half-hearted attempt to provide players with amusement, but not fear.  Never fear.

I do not play D&D that way.

Friday, February 12, 2021

On Reflection

I've decided that the best thing to do right now is delete the last post.  Sometimes, there's no way to free oneself of stress.

Hm.  Maybe this.  Took me only a few minutes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Player Vacancy

A brief note, as I've just learned one of my online players has withdrawn from my campaign.  That means a vacancy.  Game is done through my Juvenis wiki, using my game rules, from 10am - 2pm MST, monday through friday.  Days off available; sometimes I take a week or more off at a time.  If you're truly committed, leave me a comment.

Things Players Don't Buy

18 days and here's where I am.  Not to worry about reading it; the copy on my patreon is fully expandable.  I'm updating it at the end of each day.


And here's the block of content that gives explanation to the post's title.

Forgive me wanting to talk about this; it's on my mind and there's little else.  I haven't felt like a hard-core public project in a couple of years and I'm stoked to get this into production.  The examples shown only comprise what I'm willing to add to the actual poster.  Some may think that none of it belongs, since players usually don't concern themselves with women's clothing—but I have it on good authority that this is what makes my equipment list different from that of others.  It contains real things, real objects, everyday objects, not just stuff that helps to fight monsters.  This is a much stronger road towards building a game character than backstories.  What does your character like, what do they wear, how do they identify themselves, what material items do they love?  How much are they willing to spend on a thing that has no immediate practical applications?  I've learned, an awful lot, since they have the money; and on top of that, they're willing to build the house and the functional day-to-day circumstances that will ensure that after they've bought the 2,112 g.p. dress, they have a closet to hang it in and people to take it out and keep it maintained.  This sort of thing helps a campaign hang together far better than people realise.

So, I muck about adding things to the list such as doormats and hall carpets; a banner and embroidery that will let you put your chosen heraldic symbol on the thing; giving you the choice to eat pumpernickel, rye or wheat bread; letting you buy bonbons or pay to have your room cleaned when you're at an inn.  These are not just things to bleed you of money, as Gygax saw the reequipping side of the game.  They exist to make a character feel pampered, and to make the player feel a part of that pampering.

There is something very human in sacrificing something we have for someone else.  One aspect of D&D allows the player to consider the fantasy coins as "my money" and yet at the same time think of the character as a person apart from ourselves.  Thus, we pay our money to help our characters feel better, and get a strangely derived seratonin boost from knowing the character owns a flannel blanket for nights spent at the inn or enjoys a cigar now and then, even if it doesn't give any in-game bonus of any kind.  Moreover, it is a much stronger relationship when we can SEE the things we're buying and know what they are, complete with even a modicrum of description, rather than simply saying, "I spend a hundred g.p. on my character worth of frivolous things."  The money has no meaning.  A new pipe, a prime cut of beef or a fine new silk cape are completely different.

It's a bit sad, however, when a fighter character looks at a list of items at the Apothecary, useful things like skin oil to block the sun, disease antidotes or insect repellent (yes, it exists), and says, "I'm not a mage or a cleric, so why should I care?"  There's something broken in a system when characters view an equipment list with a mindset that all they need are swords and boards, because the game affords little or no attention towards anything else.  Everything I've said thus far includes the DM caring enough about clothes and food to mention them during the game; to tell the players they've just eaten a very good meal and now they're sitting around the fire joking and digesting.  It needs a DM who will have an NPC react to a player's new 50 g.p. doublet, or the shield they've polished with linseed oil.  If the DM is myopic to such things, the players will be as well ... and all that's left is cut-and-paste gaming, with little reason not to quit after 33 months of play.

I meet far more people who "used to play" D&D than do.  The complaint is almost always the same: "I tried it, but it was ... well, not for me."  I know perfectly what that means.  It means the DM did not capture the player's imagination.  They were willing to try and the DM failed them.  For all the trashing I give to the game, we have to always acknowledge that the game can be addressed, fixed and expanded only if the DM cares.

Sunday, February 7, 2021


To make tea, start by purchasing a ceramic pot with a semi-finished interior, then get comfortable with the notion that the interior should never be cleaned with soap or even a rag.  Desirably, the teapot's interior should build up a residue of earlier pots that have been brewed, and these should not be rubbed off or washed away.  At most, rinse the pot out with water.  A professor of mine who would always offer tea to his students, even though sometimes that meant making it, insisting the cups shouldn't be cleaned either; but that's a risk I'm not willing to take, at least not with cups that are shared with other students.  If a cup is to be kept strictly for tea-drinking, then it, too, should have a semi-finished interior.

If there is tea left in the pot before a new pot is brewed, pour it into a cup, put the lid on the pot and pour the old tea slowly over the pot, letting the tea sit on the exterior.  Boil water, and use the water to fill the teapot, leaving it to sit with the lid on.  Then, boil water again, leaving the first boiling to heat the teapot, while causing any tea residue on the outside to stain the pot.  Pour out the old boiled water, add the tea of choice, then consider adding spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves or licorice, depending on the sort of tea.  Add a thick woven cozy.  The heated pot should brew the tea more intensely, as the pot itself is not stealing heat from the second boiling of water that's been added.

The ritual takes time.  Many do not participate in the ritual because they don't know about it, cannot see why it makes a difference or simply can't be bothered.  It does make a difference.  It's not the only ritual to make tea; I am describing the English tradition, but there are many others.  The Japanese and Chinese are most commonly rendered onto film—I can't say for sure, because how would I know, but I'll bet the movies always get it wrong.

Rituals matter because at some point, someone has learned how to do something better.  Quite often, when we discard a ritual, because it seems troublesome or because it is a cheaper way to make something we're trying to sell, it almost always makes something worse.  We live in an age when almost everything that was once brilliant has been denuded of its brilliance, from the making of beer to clothing.  We don't notice, because we never experienced the thing when it was brilliant.  This is often a problem of very old people, because they have.

However loathsome time travel plots and renderings are, I feel the notion of travelling back in time is an important thought experiment in comprehending history.  Watching a film like 2016's The Founder enables us to see a bit through the eyes of people in another era; the film is about the popularity of destroying the traditions of food for the sake of merchandising ... both in the personality of Ray Kroc who acts the anti-hero in the story, but even in the personae of the two bambi-like innovators who are screwed over by Kroc's manipulations.  Everyone in the film is bent on the destruction of good food—a notion that hardly arises in the viewer's mind because we're far more engaged by the industrialization of food than we are in what it once was.  Some of us are old enough now to remember when the McDonald's french fry tasted better ... but we're dying off and in the end, it doesn't matter.  Other people are inventing new french fry traditions.

All this goes to set up a question that I often see asked:  If I could send you back in time to, say, the year 1513, how would you use your present knowledge of technology to either empower or enrich yourself?  Of course, I've just influenced you to my way of thinking by the paragraphs above the question: though you might have thought "guns" or "medicine" if I'd asked the question at the top of the post, suddenly you're thinking of food ... which probably would never have occurred if I hadn't Heisenberged you.  Nevertheless, think of the things you could invent in food services.

Indulge me first if you could, while I discuss for a moment the common "doctoring" answer to the question.  Yes, you probably do know much more about treatment than anyone from that time-period; you understand diseases, how bones fit in the body, what's really going on with the "humours" and so on.  Unquestionably, you could use your knowledge to improve the lives of a lot of people, by setting bones, practicing CPR, investigating possible drugs and so on.  However, if you got a reputation for healing people, no doubt your fame would grow; and people would start bringing patients in for you to treat.  If that happened, you're sure to find yourself treating some very powerful people, local lords and religious leaders, and later more powerful folks up the chain.  Now, assuming you don't get yourself executed as a heretic, consider for a moment what modern medicine would look like to a total ignorant outsider.  Medicine is a very uncertain practice; even if you ARE a doctor, you're going to have people die on you; and right now, when people die, we're educated enough as people that we understand that you've done all you could and it's not your fault.  But if you start saving some people, and not the important son of a Marquis or a Earl, you will find yourself facing some very unreasonable expectations from someone who will very definitely blame you for your failure.  You don't want that, believe me.

Now, what do we say when someone invents something really terrific?  We say, "That's the best thing since sliced bread."  Guess what they don't have in 1513.  They do have sausages for making hot dogs, and ground beef for making hamburger, and all the ingredients you'll need to make mayonnaise and ketchup.  They have salt and oil and potatoes.  They have fire for getting the oil very, very hot, and all the means you'll need to infuse the potatoes with salt before adding them to the oil.  You'll even be able to explain how to make a fryer basket.

My gawd, dear soul, do you realize how easy it would be to take all that we've learned about mixing salt, oil and sugar together (it'll have to be beet sugar, but still), to make a ritualistic something that will be incredibly addictive ... so addictive that you can be sure that you won't be executed for getting something wrong?  Or blow yourself up trying to make a 16th century rifle?

Sugar is your biggest stumbling block.  The West Indies have been discovered but it's a century or more before cane sugar makes its way to civilisation.  You need beets, and lots of them, and enough understanding of genetics to replant a selective new crop each season.  Until then, you can get along on the sugar you do have and honey as well, while using an oven to invent pizza, something that's been invented but certainly not the way you'll make it.  There persists a rumour among historians that Europeans thought the tomato was poisonous, but quite frankly I've always thought this is bunk.  8,000 years ago the almond absolutely WAS poisonous, but without knowing anything about genetics the locals selected the treenut until it produced almonds that weren't.  I've yet to see any fictional material from any historical period where the character decided to die by tomato.  If audiences thought it true, a writer would have used it as a plot trope.

Anyway, just throwing out a few thoughts, inspired by my making tea so I could work late into the night on rebuilding the textile pricing designs in my pricing table.  I finished foods a few days ago.  As such, these things prey on my mind.  Until next post.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Gems & Jewellery Headaches

I was just discussing an impromptu survey of D&D players through twitter and social media, answering the question, "What would you like to see on an equipment table that isn't usually there?"  The reply came back overwhelmingly, jewellery.

Okay, so this is an enormous headache.  There are several resources in the original DMG that have plagued me since I began running the game ... and since I'm deep into equipment, now's a good time to talk about them.  Let me reproduce the relevant sections of pp.25-26 first, then a piece of p.219:

Wow, did I waste a lot of time with these tables!

While we can handwave ourselves through gaming by randomly rolling a goblet, arbitrarily determining that it's made of gold, with gems, and that it's worth 5,000 g.p., there are considerable issues with this system.  Given that the average roll for jewellery is 2,910 g.p., that's awfully high for any party less than 6th level; it doesn't tell us what gems the goblet has, so these have to be assigned.  The table doesn't tell us how much of the value is gold and how much is gems, or what gems there are or how many.  Yes, we can arbitrarily assign these things, but if we're left having to arbitrarily assign most of the details, how are we aided by having the dice assign one detail and an outrageous total g.p.?  Why is it more than six times as likely to find jewellery worth more than 1,000 g.p. than pieces of that amount and less?

Yet in my infancy I used this table for more than a decade, willfully rolling the amounts and then arbitrarily adjusting them as needed, until finally I grew up and recognized that it was easier to assign every detail and screw the die rolling.  Which I hated.  But then I built a trading system and pricing table that would allow me to exactly define the cost of the gold by weight, the cost of the 18 amber gems set into it, using specific gravity to define the weight vs. the size of the gems and the cup, etcetera.

Not that this helped me one damn bit.

Start with the variety of gems shown.  Gygax includes 54 varieties of gemstone.  My pricing system has 65, counting all the varieties I've stumbled across that are worth including.  Each has a unique value, as they come from places scattered across the globe, which for my system defines the price of the gem based on its relative type (ornamental, fancy, semi-precious, lesser precious and greater precious).  On top of this, because my system isn't random, gems come in 8 general sizes:  pea, marble, cherry, almond, walnut, plum, peach and apple, each size corresponding to the number of cubic inches associated with an object the size of a pea, marble, cherry and so on.  If you're interested:
  • pea-sized: 0.016
  • marble-sized: 0.061
  • cherry-sized: 0.251
  • almond-sized: 0.655
  • walnut-sized: 1.031
  • plum-sized: 2.015
  • peach-sized: 3.936
  • apple-sized: 8.646

The comparative objects were picked to offer familiarity of proportion, and the cubic inches determined by researching the number of cubic inches in a pea, standard marble, cherry and so on.  It's difficult to picture a diamond weighing 56 carats; quick, tell me what that is on the list above.  That's an awfully big diamond.  The Hope Diamond is 45.52 carats.  A diamond is 3,510 carats per cubic inch.  A diamond that's 56 carats would be the size of a pea.  That's all.  An almond-sized diamond, the sort that's often depicted in the movies, such as the one in Titanic, would be 2,317 carats, 2/3rds as large as the biggest UNCUT diamond that's ever been found, the Cullinan diamond.  Cut diamonds are never that big.

But forget the digression.  For a fantasy game, we can easily propose a diamond as large as a walnut.  Poof, one exists.  The bigger issue is that the varying sizes of gemstone means that not only are we picking the type and the number to go on our goblet, we're picking the size too.  Not to mention that we're also free to decide if the gold is 14K, 18K or 24K, each deciding the amount of actual gold in the metal—though if we want to use the cup, 24K is too soft.

Very well, if we want four types of gems in our cup, for colour you understand, and large and small sizes, and 14 carat gold, we'll still need a volume of gold for the goblet itself.  A 6 inch tall glass goblet weighs half a pound, or 0.23 kg.  However, glass has a specific gravity of 2.8 grams/; 14K gold is much denser than that, so our goblet weighs 2.48 lbs.  Of course, that's arbitrary too: what about a goblet 7 inches high, or 8 inches?  What about a wider goblet, or one where the gold is thicker?  Are we going to built tables for that?

Finally, all this is entirely academic.  This one goblet of this one size and material, with this one collection of gems, is just ONE POSSIBLE object of an infinite combination of various things a jeweller, lapidary or metalsmith might make.  Any list of jewellery created for an equipment list (which is where we started), couldn't possibly account for all the jewellery possibilities a character may wish to advantage.  Suppose, for arguments sake, we want to take each object on the jewellery and items list described: 35 items.  We make each object in copper, pewter, silver, gold and white gold.  We're up to 170 items.  Let's say we make versions with gems and without gems: 340 now.  And let's say we make versions with gems of the five orders: ornamental, fancy and so on.  That's 1,700 jewellery items ... and in toto, only six of those are "earrings."  That's it.  You want a ring, you have six choices.

In fact, we could easily fill a splatbook (well, it wouldn't be "easy," it would be brain-crushing repetitive work, but ignore that) with all the types of jewellery a player might buy, with 3 columns of 30-50 items (some would need more than one line) over 200 pages, with 24,000 items, and players still wouldn't feel they had enough choice.  What, there's no silver tiara here encrusted with black coral?  THIS BOOK IS SHIT!

As such, jewellery lists don't exist because it's a hole that produces no value.

Ideally, I'd like to build a list the players could use to make their own jewellery.  A sort of plug-and-play arrangement.  And still it is sort of arbitrary to do this in a universal equipment list, such as the poster, we might as well say the jewellery is a gold tiara "with gems" worth 1800 g.p. and have done with it.  Realistically, for most game worlds, jewellery will always be known by its price tag and not its substance, which is sad, don't you think?  I prefer a system that defines the object completely, and leave the players to wonder how valuable it really is, like a sort of D&D road show.  Knowing the price tag ruins that experience.