Thursday, April 29, 2021

End of April News

Some news, what's happening, ordinary day to day things.

Met my new doctor today; my former doctor retired at the end of March.  This was just a follow-up to my procedure last week and an opportunity to introduce ourselves.  He asked what I did and I explained that I was a writer, that among other things I produced material for Dungeons & Dragons.  The doctor didn't know what that was, so I answered a few questions and he went to look it up on the computer during our brief visit.  This was a very interesting opportunity for me, as I'll explain.

If you don't know, google tailors everybody's searches based on what they've searched for in the past.  If I look myself up on google, I come up first, because I search my own pages all the time and I'm always here.  The doctor, however, had never searched for D&D, ever.  It was a completely virgin search.  He wasn't sure what he was searching for so I had him type "D&D" ... just that.  The official page for the company came up.  I asked him to add "Alexis" to the search and there I was, the 5th result on the page.  Granted, there aren't that many people in the English world with my name, but I still find this very reassuring.

I mentioned on my Juvenis campaign yesterday that I'm planning to relocate to another residence come June 1st.  This is possible in large part from my patreon subscribers and other sources.  There's also been some movement on my book sales and patreon due to the efforts of Mark, who is in part freelancing as a business manager for me.  I met Mark about a year ago online, and since then twice in person; he's here in Calgary.  My book sales are up with Amazon and so in my patreon.  He's even arranged a little funding through a third party to help pay for my running a table at a game con, once those start going again.  I'm looking into Vancouver, Seattle and Portland; no telling if I'll be able to go farther afield or not.  I've started paying Mark a nominal fee for this work; I hope I can give him a little more in the future.

Because of these things, and in part because Tamara became legal in Canada just before covid started, we've gotten ourselves, at last, out of the troubles that began in 2015.  These have been five hard years and, thank you patrons, thank you buyers of my books, we're seeing the light of day at last.  Unquestionably, the support you've given us these last years has made the difference.  Slowly, I'm learning to breathe easy.

I'm hoping that once we move, I can buy some equipment that will let me do some decent recording.  I'm not convinced my future is in podcasting, but there's at least one experiment I'm game to try.  More on that later.

The poster has suffered this last month from other things; it is not dead!  Frustratingly, it's not on time either, but that's how it is with commitments and working.  I hope to have something exciting to show in 2-3 weeks, that my daughter and I expect to blow your socks off.  It's certainly made a stir with those people with whom we've discussed it.

So, with that ... oh, I wanted to say that the Travel page on my Authentic Wiki now makes it the longest page on the whole wiki that isn't about history: it's third longest overall.  6,000 words.

As a side note, this may be the first April in a decade that's passed without my encountering the stupid D&D april challenge.  I hope the concept is finally dead.

Be well.

Assisted Travel Overland

Further content on the Authentic Wiki.

Mounted Travel

Travelling by mount allow many possibilities, including travel by horse, camel, donkey, mule, flying mount, elephant and underwater mount. Further details on these choices can be found through the links given; speed of movement in all cases is calculated in AP. With flying and underwater mounts, because of the surface being ridden upon, base movement rates must be specially calculated.

Riding any animal requires knowledge; those who do not know how must either be assisted or be allowed to ride behind those with ability. There may not be enough people in a party to enable everyone to ride; however, as players increase in level, more sage abilities are accumulated, as well as additional party members. Riding is also a skill that can be taught by characters with instruction, players and non-players alike. Taking the right steps, a group of player characters can eventually get everyone mounted, enabling greater distances covered in a day, while carrying more gear and enjoying greater comfort.

Most animals cannot be ridden continuously for ten hours, however. Excepting camels, most must be watered two or three times a day; depending on the mount, between 1 and 4 hours of the day must be spent leading the animal, resting it's back and slowing travel to a walk. Details can be found by researching the mount used. Horses are the most common mount; they need to be walked four hours out of every ten.

Many unusual animals that can be ridden, such as kailla, giant striders, axe beak or the titanothere pictured, require skills that cannot be found in the usual collection of player character sage abilities. To learn how to ride these creatures, the players must seek out cultural humanoids for whom those sage abilities are native. Druids as they achieve greater knowledge in animals do learn how to ride unusual beasts, including lions, bears, tigers, zebras and more — but this ability involves a symbiotic relationship between the druid class and the animal; such animals cannot be ridden by those of other character classes.

Vehicle Travel

Like with travel on foot and mount, vehicles are also limited by encumbrance to determine their total action points, but their movement is likewise taken into account with the movement table above. Carts need at minimum a cart path or better form of route — though in some landscapes, such as steppe, savanna, veldt and tundra, carts can be navigated through the wild. Wagons need a dirt road or better; sometimes, to enable the passage of these vehicles into hinterland mines and camps, corduroy roads are built as an alternative; these are parallel logs laid side-by-side to make a passable trackway. Carriages can ride on dirt roads but will not stand up to the punishment of corduroy roads.

The best roads are easy on a vehicle's wheels. Break rolls are checks that must be made each day to see whether the vehicle's progress has caused an event such as an axle break, cracked hub or failed wheel brake. These are made once per day. High roads are so easy on wagons that when travelling on them for any part of the day, for game purposes no break roll needs to be made. The break roll on a low road is 1 in 100; on a cobbled road, 1 in 80; on a dirt road, 1 in 60; and on a cart track, 1 in 36 (snake eyes). Cart paths are very hard on carts, with a break roll of 1 in 16 per day (two 1s on 2d4).

Passengers aboard vehicles contribute to their encumbrance, so in some cases speed can be improved by having some of the travelling party walk, or ride animals if they're able, to reduce the load carried.

Fords, Bridges & Ferries

Fords, bridges and ferries represent places where a route crosses over a river, although occasionally a ferry will cross a narrow part of a lake. The appearance of each depends on the type of road being travelled and the size of the river being crossed. River dimensions are expressed as a number of points, with streams having 1-6 points and rivers having seven or more. Very large rivers may have thousands of point. Each point represents a discharge of 1 cubic yard per second; this may represent a stream-bed that 3 yards wide and 1 foot deep, or 1½ yards wide and 2 feet deep. Discharge is used as the measure because streams and rivers will have differently formed beds in different regions.


Fords are shallow places with good footing where a river or stream may be crossed by wading, in water potentially as shallow as several inches. They may be impassable during high water. Fords tend to be found in low-infrastructure areas, because where infrastructure is high, the one-time ford was used as the best place to build a bridge. Places with the suffix -ford, -furt, -voorde or -brod, as well as other examples, are usually named after a ford that existed there at one time, or still exists. Tolls are not charged on fords.

Some high, low or cobbled roads will be laid below the water level of a stream (up to 6 pts), making these easy places for wagons to cross. Called a Watersplash, they may be exposed or nearly so during the dry season, and are deeper than 18 inches perhaps once a century. Some tidal crossings are also called by this name. Watersplashes are found only in England, Italy and Finland.


Bridges are wooden or stone structures built to span a physical obstacle, most commonly a river or gorge. They provide passage for roads where it is otherwise difficult or impossible to cross. Wooden bridges outside of towns are usually private; inside towns, wooden bridges are preferred because of the number needed. Bridges across rivers with 7 or more points on travel routes are built of stone 19 times out of 20, because they need to be reliable in times of war and once built allow for long periods between maintenance. Bridges over streams (1-6 pts.) will be wooden 19 times out of 20.

Where infrastructure is high there will be many free bridges where no toll is charged; these are maintained by the kingdom or republic and are free access because it promotes the movement of trade. Bridges over larger river courses are more expensive and therefore charge tolls. Tolls are also charged on in less infrastructured areas because less resources leave only this option to provide coin for maintenance. A bridge toll is calculated as 1 copper piece (c.p.) per point of river or stream crossed, per person or animal.

Though occasionally bridges are obstructed by traffic, or closed for damage, or experience a broken vehicle which causes delays that may last hours, these things are rare enough they don't need checking. Perhaps 1 in 100 if the DM feels compelled.


These are typically barges able to support weights up to ten tons, including wagons, carriages, animals and so forth. They operate by a line that's stretched across the river or stream, which may be a heavy cable as thick as three inches; this rests at water level, enabling river traffic to cross over it. On small streams, where the rope is light, the ferry can be pulled across the river by hand, usually by the ferryman taking hold of the rope at one end and walking the length of the boat. Heavier cables on larger rivers must be pulled by a capstan, which lifts the rope onto the ferry drawing it through a groove in the deck and laying it back into the river. The ferry will usually have a fin rudder that's set to edge the front of the boat towards the current, but usually ferries are set at river locations where the surface current is slow-moving. It is not uncommon to have two ferry barges operating at the same time to speed movement. Typically, a party will wait 2 minutes per river or stream pt. when crossing by this method.

The cost for a ferry is set at 1½ c.p. per stream point per person or animal, regardless of how much is carried (fractions are rounded up).

Boat Docks for Transshipment

When a river is too wide to be crossed any other way, on the most important roads there will be docks where boats or barges can be loaded. The method is inconvenient and costs time, particularly when hauling goods or driving animals. Because use of the watercraft is at a premium, they are competed for — and usually merchants who are part of a guild, and have crossed the river many times before, receive attention before strangers crossing for the first time. Riverboats will work from first light until dusk.

Presume that it takes 1-3 hours to hire a boat, usually because all the boats this side of the river are engaged, and the party must wait for a boat to arrive. It will require 2 man-hours per ton of goods and animals to load a boat; some boats will have harnesses and netting that will allow animals to swim alongside a boat while supported so they do not drown. Players may engage as many boats as they wish, and up to 6 persons may be engaged in loading a boat (so that six persons can load a ton of goods in about 20 minutes). It is not only a matter of getting the goods onto the boat; these must be arranged, balanced and secured carefully for the journey. For game purposes, it also requires 2 man-hours per ton to unload a boat and ready all goods to be road-ready for leaving the river.

Crossings without Services

Some roads leading down to large rivers will offer no services whatsoever for crossing. Merchants who know the journey will plan for this by bringing along materials for building rafts, or carrying actual boats with them to cross this obstacle. A party must make whatever provisions they can, or travel up river until they can find a suitable place to cross.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

On the Road

To get out of a town or city, the party can rely on signs attached to houses or posts that will point the right way, so they may find themselves on the right road. The type of road that's found depends on the local population density and infrastructure, with intrinsic details on these matters being covered on the links given. Routes will be made of paving stone, cobbles, pounded dirt-clay or no better than grass and natural surfaces. Progressively less accessible roads will be recognized by ruts for cartwheels, heavy vegetation and the narrowness of passage.

Any intersection that includes at least one dirt road or better will have a road sign pointing the way to distant villages, towns and cities. There is little chance that these signs will go missing or lay broken at the side of the road, as there are locals who will check on their presence once per day. Every five or ten miles along cobbled and stone roads, depending on the region, there will typically be a marker telling the distance to the next down or from the last, posted on the left hand-side of the road.

Movement Pace

Understanding that player characters have a choice about how fast they can walk, or stride, we expect players to notice more if they're ambling more slowly towards their destination. There is a difference between "passing through" a wilderness and actively searching it for a lair or a dungeon. In any case, a full day's movement is considered to be 10 hours. Travelling longer than this in a day is considered a forced march, which can have detrimental effects to the character's health. In all cases, a single hour's movement can be calculated easily by dividing the full day's movement by 10.

Player characters may opt for short bursts of faster or slower movement for an hour at a time. Lesser periods are difficult to track, and so should be discouraged; all long-term movement should be calculated in hours and not minutes.


Ambling describes a stride-2 movement, or 10 feet per action point (AP) per round. In travel terms, with necessary rests and reliefs, calculates to 2.6 miles per hour on high roads. The ambling pace allows many stops, opportunities to speak with other travellers and locals, while giving a good sense of the region. Characters who choose to amble will remember the location of roadhouses and water sources; the names of villages; places of interest and even the names of residents. Returning to areas ambled through gives a +2 bonus to wisdom checks in locating these places and a +2 to charisma checks when speaking with residents.

When searching wide areas for unknown sites, such as a dungeon, an ambling pace is mandatory. Each individual or group can effectively search up to 42.7 acres per AP, per day; a single unencumbered person can search 213 acres in a day, while three separate parties can search a square mile of land per day. A 2-mile hex could be searched completely in a little more than 4 days.


Walking is a stride-3 movement, or 15 feet per AP per round. This is a normal travelling pace, enabling efficient progress without exhaustion. Most ordinary travellers walk at this point. It still allows friendly banter with others moving in the same direction and at the same pace, though it assumes the characters prioritize travel over gazing at the surroundings. The speed is 3.9 miles per hour on high roads. Three rests of 15-20 minutes are taken into account for the distances given. A party moving at this pace will feel moderately footsore at the day's end. Features seen along the way can be found again if the character returns to an area passed through, but without a +2 bonus to wisdom; no bonus to charisma is gained because the character didn't stop to speak to locals.


Hurrying is a stride-4 movement, or 20 feet per AP per round. When hurrying, the players are walking very fast or slowly jogging; they are too focused on the road surface to see much that's going on around them. Others on the road are dodged or passed. Characters moving at this speed, 5.2 miles per hour on a high road, will sweat and feel their equipment rubbing their shoulders and hips raw. A ten minute stop is needed every hour, during which time the characters will be panting and concerned with rehydrating their bodies. Stops will usually occur whenever open water is sighted. Nothing about the country passed through will be remembered if the character passes through this way again. At the end of ten hours, the character will have to sit for half an hour before they can begin to make camp.


Rushing is a stride-5 movement, describing the character pushing his or her self to their limits. Distance is 25 feet per AP per round. While the character can run faster, up to stride-8, this is the best speed that can be maintained for hours at a time. Every hour will require 15-20 minutes of rest, or slow movement, to resist becoming stiff. Water must be drunk in copious amounts. Nothing will be remembered from the journey. Because the forward movement it offers is only slightly better than hurrying, this is a stride usually employed in times of desperation, when every minute counts to stave off disaster. At the end of ten hours, the character will be too tired to make camp until an hour of laying prone. If the character fails a constitution check, they will fall asleep for 2-3 hours, so that it may be dark before the character awakes.

Moving as a Group

Though players may wish to travel tightly together, to be ready should an encounter happen, this isn't realistic where individuals are concerned. Different persons travel at different speeds, while stopping to take a rock out of their shoe, visit the bushes, fix their gear, take a drink, follow up a thought by looking at some odd object or a book, and a hundred other distractions. Arguments that arise will also break up a party for a mile or so. We may reasonably expect a party to be in sight of one another, or at least within earshot ... and at the same time be strung out over a distance of 15 to 90 yards. If an exact calculation is needed, roll 3d6 and multiply the result by 5: this will give the present distance between the frontrunner of the party and the last in line. If the DM wishes, a modifier of -1 can be applied to the roll for the first hour in the day.

Each character can then roll a d20, with the highest numbers at the front and the lowest at the rear. Comparing the numbers against the total distance will show how relatively close each player character is to the next. For example, Liam, Garner and Rena are stretched over a distance of 50 yards. On a d20, Liam rolls a 2, Garner rolls a 15 and Rena rolls a 7. Rena is closer to Liam, at the rear, than she is to Garner at the front. Exact distances can be determined by dividing 50 by the largest roll minus the smallest: 50/(15-2) = 3.85. Therefore, Rena is 19 yards ahead of Liam and 31 yards behind Garner.

These distances are not as great as imagined. An encumbered character with 3 AP, running full out at stride-8, can cover 40 yards in a single round. Therefore, even in the worst case scenario, it would take Garner only two rounds to reach Liam or vice-versa, while Rena can reach either in less than a round. Of course, much depends on if the party is surprised, and perhaps isolated from one another by a sizable party of bandits. A possible solution to this danger is to ride on mounts, enabling greater flexibility of movement, or travel in a single vehicle where the party will always be together.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021


For a bit, while I'm working on the Travel page of my wiki, I'm going to copy some of the material here. To try it out, as it were. This page is meant to describe the rough bones of details related to game travel, in as great a depth as seems practical. I'm going to post parts of the page when I write them, but more can be found by following the link. I will return to the DMG series, when I fail to be distracted by this.  Feel free to suggest details if they occur to you.

Before a day's journey can start, the party will have to prepare themselves, their gear and their means of transportation. This might mean starting from a camp; or from an inn or other public house; or even from their own home. Certain tasks will apply to all three, while the conditions for the party at daybreak will also have peculiar characteristics worthy of detail.

Making & Breaking Camp

All preparation for awaking and getting started in the outdoors begins with making camp the night before. The first concern is cooking. This must be done over a fire, which takes time to build. Wood needs to be gathered before it can be burnt. Failing to build a fire or eat hot food could mean illness from cold weather as well as parasites that are found in uncooked food.

Water needs to be gathered and animals tended. The characters will be busy with airing out their sweaty clothes, banging the dents out of their armour, sharpening their weapons, attending to repairs in equipment that wear and tear demands. Someone will need to take a walk around the camp to ensure the safety of the site, to check that the party hasn't settled near some large beastie's nest. Spellcasters will need time to study. Additionally, since my sage abilities are presumed to increase when a level is gained due to practice and meditation, this is also a part of settling down for the night.

Additionally, the characters will be tired. They are not machines. They will want to rest and enjoy themselves, tell stories, discuss events of the day and make plans for the morrow.

Come the next morning, these things have to be reversed. Gear must be gathered up, the fire kicked out, the tent taken down, the animals readied for travel and hitched to any vehicles the party may be using. The players must wash themselves, put on their dirty clothes, arrange their packs and insundries and stretch themselves for the journey ahead. There's a lot to do before starting off towards the next place.

Waking in a Public House

Most inns or roadhouses will offer some food in the morning, usually porridge, stewed greens and hot tea or coffee. This has a charge of course. The characters will be awakened by a knock on the door that will come half-an-hour after daybreak; this is automatic and it does not matter if the characters are leaving that day or staying over. Characters who don't want breakfast may roll over and return to sleep, but they won't be allowed to make their own hot food on the premises, so if they miss this first meal they will need to seek food somewhere outside the lodging (food won't be served again until evening).

After eating, the characters will return to their room to pack up. One or more persons must visit the stable to collect the party's animals, at a maximum of two animals per person. These animals will be watered, fed and brushed when collected. The stablemaster will sometimes point out any maladies in the animals that might have been noticed. If the party has a wagon, they will have stayed overnight in a roadhouse. Inns have no place to park a wagon.

The characters must settle up any costs with the premises, paying for any damage they've done; then they must drag their things out to the open street and load their animals there. Roadhouses that sit outside city or town walls have a yard, where the animals can be hitched up and things loaded. Inns have a stable but they do not have a yard, so this must be done publicly.

Once loaded, the players must spend a little time reaching the road for travel. This can be a few yards for a roadhouse, but can require a half-hour of tortured streets when getting out of a large city.

Leaving Home

This simplifies some things; the players can sleep in, make their own breakfast and there's plenty of room for hitching the animals. However, it will be necessary to build a fire to make coffee and breakfast, and the animals will have to be watered and readied for the day's travel.

A solution, whatever the situation, is to engage servants to do some of the work. At home, a servant can have the animals ready to go before the player characters awake; their breakfast can be made ready for them, their clothes brushed and laid out, most of the necessary goods already loaded, the axle wheels greased and so on. Some of this work can be done around a camp, with servants to collect wood and water, tend the animals and get the fire started in the morning. At an inn or lodge, personal servants are less useful, as they won't be given access to the inn's kitchen, but they can still fetch the animals and harness them.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Monster as a Player Character: Part 2

Taking up this matter further.

A person might ask, "Why does it even matter?  Why not just let the baby have his bottle?"

I'm going to tell you a secret about managing people.  People, even hard working people, don't get along very well.  Whenever you give them something they want, you have to look the reward over very carefully, asking yourself, "Is this something that's going to help them work together, or is this something that's going to bend them apart?"  The more you give to a group that bends them apart, the flakier things get.  As Yeats said,

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre / the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned;

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity."

Yeats is speaking of England imbecilically sending troops to Ireland in 1919, but the metaphor holds.  Don't fuck with things just because they can be fucked with.  It just makes a mess.

There are many tangible, creative ways to prove one's individuality in D&D, through problem-solving, self-sacrifice, risk-taking and group dynamics.  Beware players who opt for reskinning their character superficially as a means of "expressing themselves."  Especially avoid players who use specifically those words as an argument.  As hard as it may be to imagine, if you want to keep a good solid group together, you must clamp down on the wrong kinds of individualism.  Make everyone play by the same rules and make them understand there's a reason why the default settings on character creation deliberately minimize options.  Originality comes from within — and not from which race you play.

Let's pick up Gygax's essay again, from page 21 of the original DMG:

"From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too! Consider also that each and every Dungeon Master worthy of that title is continually at work expanding his or her campaign milieu. The game is not merely a meaningless dungeon and an urban base around which is plopped the dreaded wilderness. Each of you must design a world, piece by piece, as if a jigsaw puzzle were being hand crafted, and each new section must fit perfectly the pattern of the other pieces. Faced with such a task all of us need all of the aid and assistance we can get. Without such help the sheer magnitude of the task would force most of us to throw up our hands in despair."

Oh, how I wish that what's said here was respected by the author himself, his company or anyone associated with him!  Is it not bewildering to hear these words spoken about plunking a dungeon next to a village from the man who built his career on such an approach?  Of course, I did not know in 1979, the book fresh in my hands, that these words were written by a fraud and a hypocrite.  Let's not quibble.  I ACCEPTED THESE WORDS AS DOGMA.  Without question, without hesitation, without a week going by between my having this book in my hands and my starting on the task, I set out to build a campaign milieu of the kind described.  Granted, that was in part because my first DM was committed to that ideal, as was every other DM I knew at the time, living as I did in an urban hotbed where I'd spoken to no less than 10 DMs before getting my hands on this hardcover book.  And, without a question, that first effort was an unmitigated disaster (about which we shall not speak).  Yet I do not concede the point; if I asked for a justification, for guidance, for emotional support for the creation of a personally built campaign setting, THERE are the words, good enough to be carved in stone on Gygax's mausoleum ... if the man hadn't been a faker and a cheat.

"By having a basis to work from, and a well-developed body of work to draw upon, at least part of this task is handled for us. When history, folklore, myth, fable and fiction can be incorporated or used as reference for the campaign, the magnitude of the effort required is reduced by several degrees. Even actual sciences can be used - geography, chemistry, physics, and so forth."


Gygax is speaking of human essentials and foundations, human behaviour, human habits, culture and mores.  He's saying, so much of the work has already been done for you!  Read, find what works for your setting and steal, baby, steal.  The genius is that these things have already proved their worth with millions of storybook readers and fireside tale-tellers.  Not just in this past few decades but for centuries.  These are things that every writer and inventor steals from!  Again and again we go back to the earliest works, the fundamental themes, the science of human endeavour, learning it, sorting it, shaping it in new ways and expressing it to a willing and anxious audience.  These melodies have proven themselves.  We don't have to sweat and cringe and hope the listeners will approve!  If we play the notes and chords well, if we practice our fingering, if we study and stretch ourselves, the spectators will pound the tables and stamp their feet with joy and approval.

But if we hold ourselves above such things ... if we're "too good" for the mass of human knowledge ... well Gygax has an answer for that too.

"Alien viewpoints can be found, of course, but not in quantity (and often not in much quality either). Those works which do not feature mankind in a central role are uncommon. Those which do not deal with men at all are scarce indeed. To attempt to utilize any such bases as the central, let alone sole, theme for a campaign milieu is destined to be shallow, incomplete, and totally unsatisfying for all parties concerned unless the creator is a Renaissance Man and all-around universal genius with a decade or two to prepare the game and milieu. Even then, how can such an effort rival one which borrows from the talents of genius and imaginative thinking which come to us from literature?"

It is in these words that I find my utter distaste for a game like Call of Cthulhu.  My feeling has long been that basing a role-playing games on a small set of books by a single third-rate author, whatever his peculiar appeal, makes for the dreariest game sessions.  Having read a half-dozen of the man's books, I find them formulaic and clumsy, not to mention hackneyed in plot development.  His plot contrivances, used in the same way in every novel, are painful once recognized.  Everything that is written down is always lost in some convenient way.  Every proof is confounded.  Every would-be witness goes mad, or is never found again.  As a juvenile experiment, Lovecraft has his value.  Every 13-year-old should read him, when they're young enough to be taken in by the mystery and bafflegab.  But an adult who strives to spend every Saturday playing out the same themes again and again?  Please mark such places on a map so I can well avoid them.

A "Renaissance Man" (or WOMAN!) would only become such if they were thoroughly steeped in "the talents of genius and imaginative thinking" that has gone before.  Such a person wouldn't think to throw away human resources any more than did Spencer, Shakespeare or Milton (sorry, I know, three people never heard of, and certainly not influential on fantasy literature).  Yet how often do we hear of yet one more DM on a blog or a podcast chatting on about the "new campaign" they're going to make based upon some profoundly esoteric original theme? — only to never hear of these things actually being crafted or envied after.

Willy nilly, I am not a Jedi or a superhero; I am not a vampire or anything else that sounds like a thing I'd get tired of in a weekend.  I'm a human being.  I like human beings.  I'm interested in playing games where human beings take part, where they pursue human achievements and they don't depend on themes that barely extend over the 357 pages of a book.  My players can burn through a book length's store of material in two or three sessions.  I need MORE.  I need everything.  Less is asking me to compromise in my imagination and I'm not going to do that.

I'll let Gygax finish his end of this argument:

"Having established the why of the humanocentric basis of the game, you will certainly see the impossibility of any lasting success for a monster player character. The environment for adventuring will be built around humans and demi-humans for the most part. Similarly, the majority of participants in the campaign will be human. So unless the player desires a character which will lurk alone somewhere and be hunted by adventurers, there are only a few options open to him or her. A gold dragon can assume human shape, so that is a common choice for monster characters. If alignment is stressed, this might discourage the would-be gold dragon. If it is also pointed out that he or she must begin at the lowest possible value, and only time and the accumulation and retention of great masses of wealth will allow any increase in level (age), the idea should be properly squelched. If even that fails, point out that the natural bent of dragons is certainly for their own kind — if not absolute solitude — so what part could a solitary dragon play in a group participation game made up of non-dragons? Dragon non-player characters, yes! As player characters, not likely at all. 

"As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign. The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign — and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them off.

"So you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters. You have advice as to why they are not featured, why no details of monster character classes are given herein. The rest is up to you, for when all is said and done, it is your world, and your players must live in it with their characters. Be good to yourself as well as them, and everyone concerned will benefit from a well-conceived, well-ordered, fairly-judged campaign built upon the best of imaginative and creative thinking."

There are many things about Gygax I don't like.  One of them is the squirmy way he has of avoiding responsibility.  Like the side-step I addressed with regards to poison, he equivocates.  One moment, he says "squelch" the idea, and the next he throws out an ambiguous, "by restriction and not by refusal."  What's that now?  Oh, and hey, while this is a rule book that I've taken a year of my life writing, that's meant to codify the greatest game milestone in a century, by all means, "you do you."  Bleh.

You are NOT on your own with regards to monsters as player characters.  You're at the mercy of your players, whoever they may be, and if you allow yourself to get jerked around by their sob-stories and pretended curiosity, you deserve the jacking you're going to get.  Remember, while you're letting the player have his bottle, as DM you're the one that has to make this slouching beast fit into your campaign.  You're on the hook for writing the details of monster character classes that Gygax didn't add.  It's your time, your imagination, your patience, your game structure that gets fucked with, while you muddle your way through so your player can strut his fucking hour on your stage.  Remember that. And remember that while you're pandering to this monster-runner, there's a shit ton of things you should be doing that you're not.  So no, friend.  You're not on your own.  You're not that lucky.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Monster as a Player Character: Part 1

Reading over this section, I see immediately why I embraced it so hard and why Gygax's argument against using monsters as player characters failed to convince.  Amid the criticism that I've launched against the DMG, what's wrong with it and what needed improvement, this passage — and others like it — expresses an element to the game that would later get swept under a rug and forgotten.  Gygax correctly interprets the problem; he correctly predicts the damage this practice will cause to the game; and he expresses most clearly what the game is for and the responsibility of the dungeon master.  Ideals that affected me deeply, that sank in and stayed with me ... and ultimately formed me as a DM.

Were I to try and paraphrase it, much of the integrity and meaning would be lost: I couldn't put this passage better than the author does ... which makes me want to believe that Gygax didn't write it, since it is unnaturally clear and free from his usual dichotomy.  Gygax and I have similar styles; in writing sentences, we swing for the fences, we throw in vicious little asides and we write passages that anticipate the reader.  Yet there's very little of that here.  Gygax's usual adverbs have melted away and it speaks much more in the 2nd person than usual.  That doesn't mean this isn't Gygax.  It probably is.  I mention it only to point out that Gygax clearly worked on this passage.  A lot.  His concern is evident; he wants the reader to comprehend what he's saying and take the advice to heart.

I see no way to handle the material except one section at a time.  Let me say, first, that I don't do this to bury the passage, but to praise it.  Gygax writes,

"On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures.  This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign."

Direct and to the point.  The motive here is undeniably a selfish power-grab.  Players will invent all sorts of reasons — that they're bored of playing with "ordinary" characters, that they want to have something different, that the game is about imagination and "what's the difference" between playing one kind of race or another.  The argument presages the host of racial classes that would emerge decades hence, including the named dragon type — and the personal problems that arose.  Make no mistake, however, even if the player legitimately believes the excuses made: this is an end run around the DM's campaign.  Since the rules are lacking for running strange and different monsters, even those that are less powerful than the ones Gygax lists, the wiggle-room for the player increases.

"A moment of reflection will bring them to the unalterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind.  ADVANCED D&D is unquestionably 'humanocentric,' with demi-humans, semi-humans and humanoids in various orbits around the sun of humanity."

Gygax is speaking ex cathedra here, where in fact more reason was needed.  He's correct.  He's taken stock of the humanity sitting around the table and from that he's perceived that it will be impossible for human players to be anything except human.  Elves, dwarves and halflings may not be definitively "human," but in game they have human motives, human concepts of emotion and human frailties.  Things that many monsters simply wouldn't have.

Unfortunately for Gygax writing in 1979, he hasn't perceived the nightmare that's ready to be unleashed on culture in the name of "identity politics."  In his era, the 60s and 70s, the common feeling was a sentiment that we're all human and that "getting along" was what mattered ... but marketing and political forces in the 80s and 90s would pressure culture to shift to the importance of individuality at any price, the social fall-out of which we're experiencing now.  Players would refuse to identify as human because it's not enough.  We're going through a crisis of, "More individuality! More individuality!" ... so that the average reader would today see the passage above as a form of conformist fascism.  "I have a right to play a lizard man," shouts the present-day player, because denying the player that right is stepping on his or her identity.

Essentially, however, the lizard man still gets played as a human; with human expectations and human grievances.  The perceived special-case "lizard man" motives invented by the player are necessarily contrived human motives because the player IS human.  And what results are scenes of a lizard man, or whatever character it is, walking into a bar like any other patron, while everyone appropriately ignores any difference between the lizard man, the dragonborne, the tiefling, the minotaur or the lamia, because this is the political culture's present-day guidelines.

Gygax will come back to this point and so will I.

"Men are the worst monsters, particularly high level characters such as clerics, fighters, and magic-users — whether singly, in small groups, or in large companies. The ultra-powerful beings of other planes are more fearsome — the 3 D's of demi-gods, demons and devils are enough to strike fear into most characters, let alone when the very gods themselves are brought into consideration. Yet, there is a point where the well-equipped, high-level party of adventurers can challenge a demon prince, an arch-devil or a demi-god. While there might well be some near or part humans with the group so doing, it is certain that the leaders will be human. In co-operation men bring ruin upon monsterdom, for they have no upper limits as to level or acquired power from spells or items."

Marvellous point that.  Most DMs play the game world with humanity as the underdogs: they're so weak and spongy, so easily speared or torn apart with vicious teeth.   The perspective helps excuse the atrocities committed upon dungeons by player characters.  But if the monsters are the lords of the earth, then why is it the humans live out in the open, in scattered farmhouses and in easy to find settlements, while the monsters live in secret, cowering underground behind trapped defenses?

Gygax is making the argument, why would you want to be a monster?  Sure, they look powerful, but we kick their ass, every time!  Being a human character is cool.  Isn't that obvious?

"The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for a11 players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with."

Again, Gygax fails here to intrinsically make the point — because he sees the point as painfully obvious.  Oddly, for me to make his point clearer, I have to give credence to the argument that Gygax is writing from the cultural perspective of an entitled white male whose essentially racist.

Where he speaks of the "milieu," he refers to the traditional game setting: cities with human residents, trading with other like cities, surrounded by a settled rural and hinterland production complex that provides raw materials to the manufacturing base.  Because this structure is "logical" and forms a "solid groundwork" for the expectations the players will have of how the world fits together — being that it's the world they know — it stands to reason that threats to that world from the outside, i.e. monsters, don't have a place in this humankind-oriented place.  Therefore, if you're a player character and you want to visit the town, or roam safely past the farmer's fields, or wave hello in the morning to passersby on the road, then it's probably a good idea if you don't look like a demon or a dragon.  Gygax is arguing that the world would rightfully deny you access to the marketplace and the tavern; that no, you wouldn't be welcome at the festival, and that the king's guards would kill you if you showed your face on the city streets.

In short, you'll be deliberately persecuted as a monster if you don't fit the acceptable standard for appearance and race, because we don't want your kind around here.

Get it?  This kind of sentiment is awfully squicky in the present 2021 culture.  Players don't see why it should be this way.  This is a fantasy game.  "If I can fantasize playing a weird-looking monster type character, why can't I also fantasize about a cultural game world that totally accepts that character as 'acceptable' and 'respectable.'  Why all this racism?  I don't identify as a human.  I identify as a gargoyle.  What's wrong with that?"

This is hard to answer.  To begin with, personally I'm not a gargoyle or any other fantasy creature, I'm a human being.  I traditionally (which means, "old white man") view those who seek escape in cherished falsehoods — who then insist that I play lip service to their cherished falsehoods — as part of the abusive small-'e' evil in this world.  From my fool-on-the-hill vantage, I question whether this four-decade experiment with individuality has contributed to our liberty or happiness.  I see the plethora of viewpoints gathering themselves in groups to use the same tactics of accusation, propaganda and ostracization that have permeated world history ... I'll be damned if I see more than a grey sludge of hatred and demands for constant attention, regardless of the individuality in full bellow.

I think it does players good to get a slap in the face when they're told, "Nope, you get to pick from these seven races.  No, I don't give a good gawddamn for your feelings.  No, I'm perfectly fine if you don't want to play.  My emotional pity is not your human right."

Yes, that's right.  Humans are the real monsters.

Let's continue this on another post.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Assassins' Use of Poison

Poison is about my least favourite part of the game: not because I see it as game-breaking for a player to use it as a short cut to kill an enemy, but because rules for it are hard to handle.

To begin with, poison is cheap and plentiful.  Five minutes in any wood will quickly put you in reach of a wide variety of poisonous berries and mushrooms, any of which can be crushed and brewed into a drink that will kill an enemy effectively.  We don't even need to know which mushrooms or berries —  pick anything you're unfamiliar with by sight and it's almost certain to be poisonous ... and what medieval character will not have gone on berry-picking expeditions as a youngster, as part of a general community escapade?  This means you don't need ANY skill, so that's not a restriction either.

This blows Gygax's perception in the original DMG (p.20) that poisons would cost 5, 30, 200 or 1500 g.p. apiece ... or that they should be rated according to their ability to kill you.  I know of some white berries growing in the alley behind my apartment that will kill you flat, that won't cost a dime.

Gygax ignores all this.  He states plainly, in a passage intended to speak directly to the assassin's use of poison,

"It is not the place of this work to actually serve as a monual for poisons and poisoning. Not only is such a subject distosteful, but it would not properly mesh with the standard poison system used herein."

Rarely should we expect to find such a miserable side-step.  Let me see if I can compress the "poison system" he denotes.

To use a poison, the assassin must wait until 9th level to "study poisons" for four courses of 5-8 weeks  each (this has to be pieced from the context, it isn't stated explicitly), which can't be interrupted.  This enables the assassin to study a group of "poison skills" that are uselessly generalized in description.  Each week costs the assassin 2000-8000 g.p.  Not kidding.  The 9th level must find an NPC "mentor" of at least 12th level to teach how to study this skill.  That is also a charge, though the number isn't specified.  Why not?  Who knows.  Because it took too much space to add another ludicrous number per week.  As Gygax states, "he or she can also set the fee as he or she sees fit."

The assassin has to gather a "wide variety" of animal, vegetable and mineral poisons for this training ... though this vague description is useless to the player and DM.  After all the study is done, the assassin will have "complete knowledge" — well, 90% — of all poisons known.  At this point, the assassin can start to use poisons to assassinate, selecting one of NINE poison effects included in the games rules.  Yes, that's right: you've just paid an average of 14,444 g.p. per poison choice, only three of which cause death when a save isn't made.

Oh, but wait!  Before you can use the poison, you've got to compound it.  What was I thinking!  It's suggested the compounding should take a week of game time, not to mention an additional 200-1200 g.p. (it's not stated whether this is per dose or not; one might assume it's per batch, but there's no number of doses per batch described anywhere in the passage) for "materials, bribes, etc."  It isn't clear how this number compares with a later number which states "cost/dose" ... the book's user is supposed to "figure it out" I guess, as best their RPG-unfamiliar 1979 fifteen-year old brain can.

Having shelled out this spectacular amount of money, the assassin now has a set of poisons, 6 in 9 of which have a 40% or better chance of being detected by smell.  For many tens of thousands of g.p. spent, the assassin has exactly one poison that can't be detected by smell, that takes 10-40 minutes to kill an enemy.  Compare this with a 9th level mage's ability to cast fireball automatically everyday without ever having to spend a dime, or the same character's ability to dispatch an enemy with assassination or backstabbing.  Hm.  Whaddaya say, Jack?  Wanna study some poisons?

The thrust of this causes a great many non-imaginative DMs and players to think, "Wow, making rules for things is stupid; why do we even have rules for things?"  Because, after all, if the Great Gygax failed, it must mean the task is impossible!

On some level, I understand the desire to throw one's hands in the air.  Dip a toe into the subject matter associated with poison and you'll find yourself in the deep end of the ocean in no time.  Gygax's earlier sidestep was meant to conceal that there are 30,000+ "common" forms of poison, related to plants, fungi, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish and more.  Trying to make sense of it is difficult, since most of the content found wants to tell you a great deal more about what the poison comes from than what it does biologically, mostly because the world wants to keep that information out of your hands!  The best solution I've found is to presuppose an effect you want a poison to have, and then invent a source for that poison and say "screw the real world" when justifying that source.  After all, what difference does it make?  I'm under no obligation to make black mamba poison function in my game world exactly as it does in the real world, now am I?

I want to, though, and that is one source of my frustration.

Point in fact, everything we know about poison (or any other subject) wasn't obtained by a bunch of lazy non-imaginative scientists throwing their hands in the air and crying, "Wow, it's really hard to learn and know things!  Knowing things is stupid!  Why do we even need to know things?"

The purpose for making rules in a rational D&D game isn't based on what's easy, what's fun or what appears, on the surface, to be doable.  It's based on giving the players a grounding in what's possible, so they can make practical decisions regarding their characters.  We make rules for poison so players can know precisely what a black mamba's poison DOES, so that when the subject comes up, the DM isn't just pulling shit from the dark place to make the game work.  It is impossible for a group of players to make a judgement call on what to do when a character is poisoned based on whatever brown matter spatters across the table out of the DM's unconsidered and now desperate-to-invent something grabassery!  Forced to play in a context like this hamstrings the quality of the campaign ... but hell.

It's not like I haven't said THAT before.

This is a difficult sentiment, but let me make this pitch for why players ought not to use poison in the game, except when absolutely necessary.  It isn't because poison is costly.  Or hard to find.  Or easy to use.  Or kills 10th level characters too easily and makes the game unfun.  There is no reason not to use poison when only the construct of the game universe is considered.

In the real world, when anyone uses poison as a method, including Vlad, the impression this makes on the remainder of human beings is not a good one.  Kill a person with a sword and you might get some sympathy.  Waste someone with a fireball in the heat of battle and chances are you might reasonably expect a pass from higher ups who respect or revere magic.  But fall into the hands of an authority that learns that you used poison to overcome an enemy ...

And you will never, NEVER, catch a break.  Even if you are innocent, the forces that exist to judge you will see you BURN, on principle.

Count on it.

Assassination Experience Points

This has nothing to do with the subject matter, but ... I had my procedure today for cancer and I'm okay.  Two tiny polyps, removed, everything else looks good and I was sent home.  I'm still waiting on a final test but the expectation is that I won't need to repeat the procedure for five years.  Once home, I crashed.  I woke up about two hours ago, watched a very good movie about an assassin, Nobody, which I highly recommend, and now I'm settling in at 11 pm to write a post.  Got my cup of coffee and everything.

When I came to D&D as a young kid, I took most of the rules at face value.  I tried to remain true to Gygax's descriptions of the character classes and the DMG in general, getting frustrated like most people but believing in the words and the ideas with the dim-witted trust of a 15 y.o. in love with this game.  Sometimes I feel I have to stress that I've been playing this game and reading these rules for a loooooong time.  If I'm cynical these days, if I betray a hard-bitten grudge for Gygax, if I grind my teeth over various phrases and notions presented in the books, I must stress that I come by my resentment honestly.  No one hates an ex-religion like an ex-fanatic.

I haven't had reason to comment on many of these passages in the DMG, as I've had lately, with digging through the books section by section.  Gygax's vision for the assassin, in particular, baffles me.  I mentioned earlier that he seems to have wanted the class to be some kind of weird 13th century James Bond.  This is emphasized a bit more by this inclusion of special rules for the assassin gaining experience points specifically from committing assassinations.

For myself, experience is awarded on a flat system.  I don't care who causes damage or under what circumstance, as long as the damage is caused by the character.  This includes pushing a victim off a building and letting the ground do the hard work.  It does not, however, include pushing a victim into a shark pool and letting the sharks do the work.  I know, I know; but sharks need x.p. too, and there's only so much that goes around.

Gygax's logic goes like this, and I quote from p.20:

"An assassin receives 100 x.p./level of the character assassinated minus or plus 50 x.p. for every level the assassin is greater or lesser than his or her victim. This is modified by multipliers for the degree of difficulty of the mission - simple (x ½), difficult (x 1). or extraordinary (x 1½) ...

"Therefore, if an 8th level assassin snuck up on and surprised a 10th level magic-user in the dungeon and successfully assassinated him, the assassin would receive 1,ooO x.p. plus another 100 x.p. since the magic-user was 2 levels higher than he. However, since it was a simple mission, the total 1100 x.p. would be multiplied by %, giving 550 points ..."


Let's not waste time discussing how silly this is, or how meaningless 550, or even 1100 x.p. is for an 8th level character.  Let's consider instead the purpose of this rule and ask why does it exist?

Was Gygax trying to encourage assassinations and felt that a special bonus mechanic was needed to make them happen?  Did he think that either players weren't killing enough other players and non-players at his table, or that they wouldn't want to?  It's interesting that the basis of this above experience is a straight percentage roll, success/fail, which can be found in the combat section, on page 75.  There it tells us that the chances of an 8th level assassin killing a 10th level victim is ... 30%.  Ugh.  7:3 odds against the assassin, for a lousy 550 x.p.  There's some weird thinking going on here.

It's not a wonder players in my game never pursued this.  The odds always needed to be better, which challenged a thinking process that continues to pervade adventure-design.  It's something I keep doing, that I trip on and have to remind myself is a bad habit.  It goes like this:

A first-level character should not be able to easily kill a 10th level character.

Taking the example above, a 1st level assassin is sitting in the study of a 10th level thief.  They've known each other for ages, so the thief trusts the assassin; the thief notices a picture on the wall is crooked, so he gets up, crosses the room and straightens the picture, turning his back on the assassin.  Little does he know the assassin has been extorted and also paid to kill him, so the moment the thief is fixing the picture, or perhaps cleaning it, the assassin leaps up and stabs the thief in the back, taking him by surprise.  The chance of the assassin succeeding in this assassination according to the rules?  1%.

Why so low?  Why not 50/50?  Or better, since the thief trusts the assassin.  The reason is apparently simple.  Because the thief is 10th LEVEL, that's why.  And this is supposed to be some sort of mystical, super-protective fairy-dust plot armour.  We can't have 1st level characters just willy-nilly killing HIGH level characters!  It would be chaos!  The rivers would boil!  Fire would rain from the sky!

In Gygax's system, if the assassin rolled the magic 1%, the reward would be 550 x.p.  If we forewent the special assassin experience rule and used the X.P. table on page 85, and supposing the thief averaged 5 h.p. per level, for a total of 50 hit points, the reward would be 1600.  Yes, that's right.  Gygax's special experience for assassins is markedly less that real experience.  But stick a pin in that.  I want first to say that if the x.p. were being awarded by my system, the experience would be 500 x.p., for the thief's hit points, no matter how the thief was killed.

My experience points and Gygax's special experience wouldn't get the thief halfway to 2nd level.  So what, exactly, is the big deal?  What horrible thing happens if a player gets lucky, even if I give him a high chance, like 60%?  He gets 500 x.p.  A 10th level dies.  It's not like the world can't go on without that 10th level.  It's not like there aren't other high level characters around to take up the slack.  It's not like a 10th level isn't a thing I can "invent out of thin air" at my will.  Therefore, SO WHAT if a 10th level dies?  So what if the player slips in and knocks off the wizard by using stealth, guile and cleverness to get set up for the kill!  Why are these chances to kill by assassination so low?

Possibly Gygax didn't realize it, but he actively invented rules to stop assassins from being assassins.  An 8th level assassin has a better chance of killing a 10th level character by bringing along a party and doing the fighting hand to hand, and gets better experience in the bargain, even by the AD&D system.  There's no logical reason for an assassin of less than 5th level to kill anyone by assassination, as decent odds only exist for people who are easily killed in straight melee.  Even if you do kill someone, unless it's someone of 7th level or less, the assassination bonus system works against the method.  Why would someone build a system this way?

I think there are two possible explanations.  1) and this is dead certain: Gygax took credit for writing the book, but did not write large sections of the book and did not even vet them.  2) someone, either Gygax or one of the other writers, really liked the assassin, while someone else really hated the class.  Apparently, they worked hard to goof on each other ... and then they sold this book to an unsuspecting public, me, who eventually had to pull this thing apart and burn parts of it to the ground.

This in-fighting was not adequately settled by the editor, Mike Carr; meaning this is absolutely Carr's fault, not the petty squabbles of the staff writers.  But perhaps Carr was just a figure-head, some dupe who was there to correct spelling and set type.  More's the pity, because nuttery like this is one of the reasons why any original faith in the texts faltered after a few years, leading to poorer efforts like the Unearthed Arcana and Wilderness Adventures ... which descended into the miasma that ultimately became an edition multiplicity syndrome.

Perhaps that's too much to hang on one little passage, just two bewildering paragraphs stuffed into a large book full of enigmatic game design choices.  Like the next one I'll discuss, soon.


The example of assassination I've given really happened.  Feel free to shout it out in the comments if you know.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Thieves and Assassins Setting Traps

At last, a subject I've been too lazy to address.  Here, Tardigrade's comment earlier today was prescient:

"... By pointless I mean, situations where that skill is needed will hardly, if ever, come up. For example, in a funhouse style dungeon, traps are everywhere. In a magical 15th century setting, who in the world is building crossbow traps or putting needle traps in chests? Find and remove traps becomes a solution looking for a problem."

I can count the number of times I've had a player ask to set up a trap in a game on one hand.  If I add the times I've done it in someone else's game, double that number sounds about right.  Unquestionably, there ought to be players out there who would set traps up with every session, two or three times a session, if they had a mind for it.  Yet somehow, most people have an inherent sense that traps are a cruel and improper form of warfare; or they have a sneaking suspicion the trap's going to go off in their face and they'd rather not deal with it.

So, although I do mean to get around to substantively creating exhaustive rules on how to make traps, and exactly what sort of traps can be made with how much knowledge, I haven't had any call for it.  Players with the opportunity to pursue the ability don't.  When they have the ability they don't use it.  As such, Tardigrade's comment doesn't only apply to removing traps but setting them as well.

Which I find odd.  Since my beginning to play, there has been a love affair between players and traps that can be definitely be found in fetish land.  They're hardly covered in the original books, at least mechanically, but they're scattered everywhere in every dungeon environment like poplar fluff in late May.  The common examples like arrow traps, spear traps, falling blocks and doors, sliding walls, oil that pours out from the ceiling so that the trap can light it with a match, even illusionary walls, had to wait for pamphlets full of tricks and traps to explain how they worked, precisely ... and always in a way that would barely work with 20th century skills (remembering these ideas all come from the last century), much less the late 13th century, when most D&D takes place (that being the approximate era where Gygax's vision of combat, politics and social development coincide).

I've discussed this before, but briefly: traps are a problem.  It's nice if a trap pares a few hit points off a player, though in modern versions this is repaired with a fingersnap.  If a trap actually kills someone its a DM-Player relation problem.  It's not like a random encounter with a motivated tick ("enthusias-tick"), where the creature would probably have been dispatched early if the party hadn't been sloppy or unlucky.  Killer traps are designed to kill player characters, forcing us to ask, why does this trap even exist?  What game purpose does it serve?  Certainly not experience; and while traps might add a little tension, they're also a motivational wet blanket.  Take the trap out of the dungeon and players DON'T miss them; I've never had a party reach the end of a dungeon and tell me how disappointed they were it didn't have "more traps."

Which is why I feel the balance of traps ought to be in the player's hands; and like other skilled abilities, knowledgeable players ought to set up the same trap over and over with fail-safe capability.  A simple penalty can be imposed regarding how long it takes to set up a complex trap, how long to take it down and how the pieces have to be transported, as well as how much knowledge you have to have and how much the pieces cost.  This is only sensible.

And irrational traps that employ illusionary technology that doesn't exist in the books; or machinery that doesn't rust or seize up from dust; or heavy pieces under tension that just don't give even though the trap was set 8 years ago; well, either these things have to be explained "in game" by some form of magic, material or profoundly secret knowledge just not available to the common person.

Additionally, any one with trap setting skill ought to be able to "smell" a trap, within reason.  This constant "checking for traps" jargon is timewasting, dull and unneeded.  If skilled characters walk within 10 feet of a trap, whether or not they're looking, say, "Something is wrong."

"What?" asks the player.

"There are scratches around the door that no one else could see, but suggest to you that there's been some 'special work' done here.  You suspect a trap."

"Hm.  I look around the door."

I know.  DM's don't do this because, as ever, they think "the unknown" has this magic fairy dust that turns every straw campaign into gold.  But letting the players know up front that there's a trap draws their attention, gains their interest, makes them feel in control of their environment, which stuffs their chests full of pride and doesn't change a damn thing about still having to get past the trap without fucking up.  As I said with my last post, hiding information from a player is a bug, not a feature.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Thief Abilities

Please forgive me if this post covers old ground that I've written about before - as long as I'm here (p. 19 of the DMG), I feel it's best to be comprehensive.

Before getting into the individual abilities, let me address an overarching issue related to rolling dice for thieves' skills.  For those who don't know, the original rules relied on a pass/fail mechanic: you wished to "hide in shadows," you rolled a die.  If you succeeded, you disappeared; and if you failed, you didn't.  I'll talk more about hiding in shadows later.

Let's start with this quote from Gygax:

"Roll of the dice for any thief function must be kept absolutely secret, so the thief (or similar character) does not know the results."

This remarkable, firmly made statement is never properly explained in the original books.  Presumedly, thieves "can't know" if they've succeeded in hiding in shadows or moving silently, since they can't see themselves.  This doesn't quite work, however, since pickpockets will obviously know whether they've picked a pocket, while a wall climber will know if the wall was climbed.  However, it does say "ANY" thief function, which means it applies to opening locks, hearing noise, reading languages and — here's the kicker — finding & removing traps.

Now, this last is a thinking problem.  Let's say that I'm holding the roll secret as your DM.  You check for traps and I say you don't see any.  Aha!  You know that might mean there are no traps, or that you didn't find them.  For you, there's no way of knowing which.  Of course, you know that if you're a much higher level thief, there are probably no traps ... but since there's always some possibility of the die roll failing, you can never really know, not even if you're 17th level (where the thief table stops).

Okay, let's say there is a trap and you detected it.  You try to remove it and I roll the dice.  You ask, "Did I remove the trap?" and I answer, "You don't know."  See, the die roll must be kept secret.  You're not meant to know if you succeeded.  You're just supposed to trust to your luck.  Period.

On the surface, this sounds like a great mechanic.  It's really not bad ... the first time you encounter it.  The tenth time, or the hundredth time, the mechanic gets pretty frustrating.  Since it applies to every thieving ability, very soon it becomes the core reason that players don't want to play thieves — because if you play a thief according to the original rules, this mechanic is all you have.

Supposedly, the low amount of experience you need to go up a level compensates for this frustration.  Except it doesn't.  Eventually, you learn to hate the thieving skills, ceasing to rely on them except when absolutely necessary.  Eventually, you'll settle into the hear noise and open locks skills, which you'll overuse, because are the options in your skillset that won't bite you in the ass if they fail.

Pass/fail mechanics suck.  The exception is any rule that lets you try to pass repeatedly until you do, such as attempting to hit with a weapon, where you can make the attempt every round.  When you get one chance at something, however ... well, the pass/fail option better really, really matter, because when it is applied to stupid bullshit stuff like can you pick a pocket, and do it without being noticed and sparking the 95th chase of a thief through the streets of a town by the guard that's taken place in your world (in my early days, seemed like this was happening every session), then the mechanic just sucks.

It is not made better by keeping the mechanic a secret.  Imagine fighting a whole combat where every hit you make is a secret, but every hit the enemy makes is fully revealed.  Sound like fun?  Yes, yes, I know that some of you right now are pausing and saying, hey!  That really sounds ... accurate or realistic or cool.  You might even try it ... and I'd lay money that the first time, it would feel workable.

The tenth time, not so much.

Too many times game designers come up with mechanics they think really work ... because they don't have to spend hundreds of hours at the fucking forge, watching a green bar so you can strike the blade properly, until your eyes bleed.

A pickpocket in the real world gets to know precisely whose pockets can be picked and how hard it is to get something they've seen once out of a pocket they've identified.  It isn't a die roll.  It isn't even a 99 in 100 roll.  It is so close to certain that it's possible to do it for months at a time without being caught.  The balance is not "can the pocket be picked" but is that particular pocket worth the effort?  Since most pockets aren't with certainty, the pickpocket floats around areas of tourists, because tourists have lots of money and they usually carry it on themselves.  Pickpockets also frequent areas where people use cash to pay for gambling and hookers, so there's no record of where they've spent or lost their money, or how much they're earning.  Anyone who looks comfortable and at ease in such places are left alone; pickpockets target the uncertain, the uncomfortable, the ones that are nervous and sweating ... because they have money and they're not part of the local criminalized community.  There's a lot that goes into the practice.  Additionally, when a pickpocket gets caught, it isn't by failing to pick a pocket.  There's always a strategy for that, when it so very rarely occurs, such as making the pull near a place where the dupe can be pushed into an alley or either clubbing or stabbing the dupe before they can cry out for help.  No, a pickpocket gets pinched because someone else who knows how pickpockets work is watching.  They see the pull.  The dupe never does.

These realities surrounding the practice obliterate the pass/fail structure.  It doesn't make sense.  Similar arguments can be made about hiding in shadows and moving silently.  If I'm far enough away from you, I'm always "moving silently" in relation to you.  It always matters how near to you I want to be; and details like what surface I'm walking over or what I'm wearing, how much light exists and most importantly, who's listening and what are they doing?  We train people to pick their moment, pick their equipment and pick their target ... so it isn't a chance thing.  With enough experience and enough time to prepare, slipping up to a person silently is automatic ... unless the target has their own training and has made their own preparations.  Any flat method for calculating this that doesn't recognize these conditional issues is a dumb, ill-considered mechanic.  A single die roll that applies to ALL situations is idiocy in the extreme.

Sneaking up on a person or past them is a combination of many factors — the use of silence and shadows being only two of them.  There's no practical game rule for treating silence and hiding as different skills; you never do one without attempting to do the other, and by insisting that a roll is made for both in all circumstances only assures that full likely success is a very tiny number.  The chance of a 1st level thief in AD&D, without dexterity or racial bonuses, succeeding at BOTH hiding in shadows and moving silently is 10% of 15% ... or 1.5%.  The best you can do at 1st level is to be a halfling thief with an 18 dexterity: this gives you a 35% chance of 35% to succeed in both: 12.25%.  You literally have a 1 in 8 chance of slipping up on a guard at 1st level, if you're the best thief possible.  And, of course, if you fail at either roll, you'll be seen or you'll be heard.  You're set up to fail.

And remember: you're not supposed to know if you succeeded at either.  That information is kept secret from you, until it's too late.

Similar arguments to these apply to other abilities.  Opening locks is not a matter of "can you succeed?" but "how long does it take?"  If you understand locks, and you have the proper tools, a success roll is meaningless.  Also, just for funsies, locks don't exist in a pre-17th century world.  And those in the 17th century were laughably easy to break.  The locks were large, so they made noise while they were opened.  Not because they were notoriously hard to break.

Gygax included his thief ability comments in the DMG because, as he said, they would "prevent abuse of these activities."  He clearly believed that the thief being able to automatically perform thieving abilities would overreach the game: as though climbing a wall or reading a language compared with casting a spell.  What is the issue with a thief being able to read a magic scroll, exactly?  Aren't there other players who can do that automatically?  How does this sort of thing break the game?

I haven't yet discussed "hear noise."  Until I puzzled it through, this used to be the bane of my existence as a DM.  Players were constantly pausing to hear noise, calling it out like 5e players call out perception checks.  Naturally, players always want more information; they want more warning of things that are coming ... and a particular kind of DM doesn't want to give that warning.  They're convinced that the best possible sort of tension is built out of the players no knowing what's coming next.

I circumvent the problem by telling players that if they can hear something with hear noise (I call it "heightened senses") then I'll say so without my having to be asked.  Moreover, I like the players to know what's ahead.  Knowing is much more worrisome than not knowing ... a truth that Hitchcock taught the world 80 years ago.  Watching the gasoline creep across the street in The Birds, and then the fellow with the match, and then the fire, is far more interesting than having no idea that there's anything to worry about.  If the players know there's a powerful demon behind a door, waiting for them, whenever the players are ready to push on through and engage it, that is MUCH more interesting in game terms than opening an apparently harmless door and finding a demon behind it.

The sad truth is that a great many DMs don't have very much idea of what tension is, or how its built, and so they think information is a bad thing.  They don't watch enough good movies, or they watch too many of a certain kind of movie, and they don't investigate and study storytelling as a subject.  For these reasons, they subvert possibilities in their gaming by adopting mechanics deliberately designed to keep players in the dark, when in fact knowing that there IS a trap, and that it's not deactivated is much more compelling than knowing nothing.

The thieves' abilities, understood right, played right, are a means of pouring exposition into the players' hands, by ensuring that the thief sees things, learns things and hears things, in a hundred different circumstances, enabling us to fuel the game's momentum.  Why would we want to keep the thief from going places and getting details about the scenery we want the players to have?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021


Dan Olsen of Folding Ideas posted a video essay about Pink Floyd's The Wall today.  It's a pity that the movie itself is not the subject of Olsen's dissection, but Nostalgic Critic's 14-y.o. take on the film, released in 2007.  At one point in the essay, Olsen says of the N.C.'s version:

"Okay, so ... what is this?  Why does this exist?  I'm going to have to say a bunch of unkind things, and there's really no way around that."

Olsen's take, and Dan Olsen himself, sits in the upper echelon of youtube content — though some can agree and that's fine, though it's probable that such persons are either not very educated or have received the wrong kind of education.  In the last couple of years Olsen has been embraced by that crowd that includes people like Lindsay Ellis, Abigail Thorn and HBomberguy, whose collective works are ... um ... less.

The reason N.C.'s garbage about Pink Floyd exists relates to mainstreaming: the practice of making a marginalized group less marginalized through the use of Language and Visibility.  Nostalgic Critic is tremendously more marginalized than Pink Floyd, but had/has an audience on youtube that can be teased into watching something horrifically bad, and therefore memorable — which is the goal.  It is more important, where it comes to being visible, to be memorable than "able" or "good" ... and the more explicit and offensive the language being used, the more memorable it is.  I quote someone else with more visibility than Nostalgic Critic, Lily Allen:

I wanna be rich, and I want lots of money
I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they're trying to find them
And I'll take my clothes off, and it will be shameless
'Cause everyone knows that's how you get famous ...

Okay, so, what is Dan Olsen's video?  What is it?  Why does it exist?  Why does Dan Olsen do a video about Nostalgia Critic and Not the original Pink Floyd movie?  Well, because Olsen's credit is built on being clever and a little bit funny, so it doesn't work as well for him to mainstream upon Pink Floyd's artwork as it does to trash N.C., since the latter is a better conflict and remains inside Olsen's cred.  Dan Olsen is much more marginalized than N.C., so it follows that he increases his presence by vocalizing a level of repulsion and "saying unkind things" as his particular form of mainstreaming.

Good.  Now, I am much more marginalized that Dan Olsen.  Olsen easily picks up 80,000 views on the first day of his posting a video (or so far today), whereas I get no better than about 600.  I used to do much better, when I trashed everything and everyone associated with D&D, as many as 1,500, but since I decided to stop going after that whale, my page views have plummetted.  Many days, I don't do better than 400.

If beating a drum for views was my goal, this post would trash Dan Olsen and defend Nostalgia Critic, since that would be the more egregious conflict-maker, and would allow me to mainstream off both while providing little or no insight to the issue.  I'm not going to do that — but don't take that as evidence of my virtue, oh no!  I will get additional page views merely because I have used the names of both, and the names of Pink Floyd and Lily Allen besides.  The mere typing of famous-person names on a website is how a nobody becomes a somebody on the internet.  Philip DeFranco (I might as well mainstream him as well, as I did that trio of dreck Ellis, Thorn and Guy) invented his name out of using as many names of famous people in videos as often as he could, thereby building a following for himself.  Mainstreaming works.

As a writer, for me, it comes down to making choices.  For example, I dislike using the acronym "WOTC" on this blog, though I do occasionally for the sake of clarity.  I prefer to call them "the company" when writing in context, just as I often refer to D&D as "the game" rather than using the official term.  Fundamentally, I dislike giving credit to either, as I don't respect the company and "D&D" as it is understood by most people is spectacularly obverse to the game I play.

Likewise, some readers may have noticed that I prefer the spelling "gawd" instead of "god," or the capitalized version "God."  This reflects my deep and abiding loathing of christianity — opinions that are expressed well by Seth Andrews (see, I snuck in another name, not to mention that now I'm mainstreaming God), though his take is not new and has been around well before I was old enough to seriously question my upbringing.  I also like to use phrases like "For the love of pink bunnies" or "So help me Elvis" as a reflection of this perspective, rather than the more traditional of these oaths.

The difficulty of mainstreaming on the internet is not that it doesn't work.  It works fine.  So well, in fact, that original content is nearly impossible to find.  It is even more frustrating when someone who has, in the past, proved their ability to create original content, such as Dan Olsen, decides to churn out his first video in three months on a subject designed to reduce his marginalization, rather than actually make something new, that I might conceivably watch more than once.  It gets worse when familiar, liked voices on the internet, who gained my attention because they created original content in the beginning of their careers, now produce nothing but mainstreaming content because, apparently, they've run out of gas.  Examples would be, inflating my visibility by an additional name or two, Ian Danskin from Innuendo Studios and CGP Grey, who's been flogging a bag of shit in the shape of a horse for several years.

This happens in part because it is metaphorically easier to be Ahab and chase the Great White Whale than it is to be a whaler and gather that oil people need.  The end result is predictable and hasn't changed.  Steadily, the channel and the "producer" grow more and more wearisome, as the page views become increasingly subjective and of questionable origin, while the increased visibility of the mainstreamer is pulled down into the churning marginalized waters of millions.  "Big whorls have little whorls, which feed on their velocity; and little whorls have lesser whorls, and so on to obscurity ... er, viscosity."

The recursiveness will kill you.

I could leave it there on that pithy statement, but I feel that first I must point out that my deconstruction of the DMG has more than a flavour of mainstreaming attached.  Unquestionably.  I'm attempting to mitigate that compulsion by spending more time talking about how I carry forward a particular rule set (writing "content") than I do trashing the DMG.  It would be easy to write post after post about what's wrong with the DMG, or any D&D book, and I have.  I have because it's easy.  Because a content-producer can't help noticing its been a week since something was written.  And because every content-producer knows that, well, no matter what's written, so long as it's conflict-ridden, it will make the readers happy.  Everyone likes to read about conflict!  And hey, I don't have anything else going, just now.  Content is hard.  It's way easier to write a post mainstreaming something I've seen on the net, or even writing something about mainstreaming, since it keeps the words pouring out and the eyeballs in the desired direction.

I hope that what I've done here is provide insight about the subject, both about this post's topic and the DMG.  Insight has merit ... but trust me, I don't fool myself that insight is "content."  It's not.  Insight is pointing to a bunch of ducks on the water and saying, "Hey, look, there's some ducks," when another viewer might have missed them.  Then, together, we can spend a minute or two appreciating the ducks, which is nice.

But that ain't fucking content.