Thursday, December 30, 2021

Worldbuilding 2a: People

This post is part of a series on worldbuilding; links for the whole series can be found on this page.

It must seem funny that with three long posts, I haven't asked the designer to produce any content at all.  The subject has been theoretical worldbuilding and no more.  The assumption is usually that the designer sits down and starts doing ... something.  Like the writer in Hollywood films who gets out their computer, opens a word document of some kind and starts typing.

In reality, before a writer writes, he or she takes a walk.  Then another.  Then stands at a window and stares.  Does the grocery shopping.  Sleeps.  Stares vacantly at half a tomato while making dinner.  And after a month of this goes by, then begins to write.

This post isn't going to ask the reader to do anything, either.  Don't let the change from (1) to (2) fool you.  We still have decisions to make and topography to consider.  Yet, since we're creating the world for some sort of people to inhabit (not necessarily humans), there are certain design issues to consider before we move forward.


We have three templates for human habitation of a continent on Earth.  I'll start with the least practical for a D&D world, Australia.  Australia was settled some 40,000 years ago (though these numbers change all the time, so we could just as easily say 50,000 to 35,000 years ago).  At the time of its settlement, humans hadn't developed farming or any sustenance technology beyond hunting and gathering.  Australia had some large animals when it was first settled, but these were quickly killed off until none were left; during that time, and afterwards, the aboriginals never developed a sufficient food source to enable the key ingredient advancing civilisation: specialisation.  A surplus of food frees a segment of the population from having to produce food, which enables them to specialise in creating new technologies.  The first peoples of Australia never got there.  Thus, while able to survive in Australia with great expertise, they were easy prey for the monsters, er, Europeans, who arrived and dominated the continent.

However, since those horrid events took place on a tiny scale only beginning in 1629, and on a larger scale after 1788, the two historical Australias are nothing like what's wanted for D&D.  Primitive Australia has no characteristic that meets the expected technology and time period of D&D, and colonial Australia occurs far too late, in the early industrial revolution.  There's not much here.

Second template.  The natives of the New World came over the land bridge from Asia into the Americas sometime between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago ... after the emergence of farming in Eurasia-Africa.  If the land bridge had collapsed a few thousand years later, there's every probability that migrating peoples might have brought rice and wheat seeds with them, which would have radically changed the culture of peoples settling in the New World.  However, the peoples who came over were, again, hunters and gatherers.

YET, the Americas offered a great deal more than Australia.  Corn, beans, peppers and a host of other plants provided a much greater opportunity for the New World to push into their own farming revolution and, ultimately, the creation of specialist classes, particularly priests and soldiers.  Disappointingly, however, the New World had no cereal grains comparable with the Old World.  While maize will produce an abundance of food, cool temperate climates limit yields and prolong the length it takes to grow corn ... meaning less corn can be produced in a cool climate like the continental United States.  Thus advanced cultures like that along the Ohio, the Anastazi and the Algonquin tribal confederation had to rely on other foods like sweet potatoes and beans ... both of which require considerable more time and effort for less food than barley and wheat produces.

Thus, while the New World culture progressed technologically, it did so much more slowly than the technological rapid Old World.  When the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese began to arrive in the 16th century — the far edge of the "fantasy" time period — they had weapons and scientific knowledge that made them vastly superior to the Old World natives.

Still, we have two possible D&D milieus from this.  We have a primitive yet practical Aztec, Olmec, Mayan or Inca culture, with limited classes but a potential priest magic that could allow most of the basic character classes from the original AD&D game.  And we have a transplanted European civilisation that occupies a small part of a more primitive continent, with food technology, among other things, that they've brought with them.

Let's pause a moment and ask, what's all this about?  What does this have to do with our worldbuilding?

We have to ask the question, of any continent we design, "Did the people evolve from a primitive state into a civilisation, or were they transplanted?  We can ask this question of the whole game world.  Are these humans, elves, dwarves, goblins and what have you, travellers that arrived with their magic and gear in the last few hundred, or thousand years, and take over a place that was either occupied or unoccupied?  Or are these beings who, like on planet earth, began as another species and became people after millions upon millions of years?

It matters because the organisation of political and ethnic boundaries is very, very different if different civilisations began in different parts of the world, at different speeds, as opposed to multiple cultures that arrived at different times ... and finally as opposed to one culture that arrived all at once, so that everywhere has the same degree of technology.  Which is it?

Moreover, the question must be asked in relation to topography.  Let me explain.

Following the development of petty farming in Mesopotamia 12,000 years ago, that began to replace hunting and gathering two or three thousand years thereafter ... that was followed by a similar adaptation by Egypt, China and the South Asia, each in their turn.  Why specifically these places?  Flooding.  Early farming, developed from wild grains, depended upon layer after layer of silt deposited by floods, to sustain the nutritiousness of the soil.  Mesopotamia received instable floods from the highlands of Anatolia, but had the benefit of two rivers that could bring water.  The Nile flood was far more reliable.  The Indus, the Ganges and the Huang Ho and Yangtze in China all recieved water from snow melt surrounding the high plateau of the Himalayas and Tibet.

IF we want one or more cultures that developed from a steady evolution over millions of years, then our choices in topography for our game continent must have (1) a large flooding river valley, flat-bottomed, suitable for wide-scale irrigation; (2) a logical continuous watersource to supply the flooding; and (3) some sort of high-yield practical staple grain that will produce vast amounts of food, enabling specialisation and thence the sort of technology that makes a fantasy world possible.

We might argue that if the New World native peoples had no competition, they would have eventually progressed into a fantasy time-period.  This is recognising that the New World had no horses or large domestic animals to farm, which greatly reduced the amount of work they could do with primarily human-based labour.  There were large mammals all over the New World 11,000 years ago.  Most of these were hunted into extinction by 3,000 years ago, just as the large mammals in Australia were.

We can argue that a native American-like fantasy culture could be given horses, without the need of Europeans (where something America-like is the only human, or people-based, culture) ... but if we're going to give them horses, why not the right cereal grains as well?  Consider: in the Americas, the largest food-producing bread-baskets are located around the Mississippi-Missouri Basin, the Orinoco and the Parana-Paraguay.  And these river valleys flood.  But no significant American culture ever existed in these places ... because the kind of food production these places could support were those located in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  The Aztecs and Inca located in parts of America where maize grew best: high, semi-arid regions surrounding a water supply that the natives learned to control brilliantly.  Without the cereal staples of the Old World, whatever culture eventually might have formed in the New World would have to be very different in scope from what we perceive as a "medieval fantasy world."

That doesn't mean the game world we design can't go this route!  It only means that IF we go this route, there's research to be done and consequences to consider, that would greatly change what's normally seen as a fantasy environment.  Maize, beans and tuber production requires a much more cooperative food-producing society, just as the production of eastern rice does.  Castle building, manor houses, personal wealth, private control of land and so on makes little or no sense in such a culture.  If this is the choice we make on how to settle our people, we're not pursuing the same old, same old D&D world.

If we do want a transplanted culture, then something like Greyhawk (with a more logical topography) is possible.  But then how did this culture get transplanted?  Did they transplant themselves from another continent?  And if so, what does the old continent look like, and why wouldn't these people continue to be part of that continent's culture, as the Europeans were in all the parts of the world they transplanted themselves into.  It takes an immense amount of effort to transplant a culture overseas.  It took the Europeans two centuries to obtain more than a foothold in most of the world ... with tropical, non-European like places being far more dependent on Europe than a fellow temperate climate like the English and French colonies.  Everything in Mexico and South America was literally owned by Europe ... so none of those cultures were independently settled, like we might imagine a completely isolated Greyhawk-like world would be.

Greyhawk is an entity onto itself.  Therefore, IF it's a transplanted culture, it seems much more likely it's been transplanted from a different world entirely.  And if that's the case, it's less likely to have transplanted itself.  That calls for some other entity to have done the transplanting, which begs the question, "Why?"  Why go to this effort?  What's the end goal?  Are we speaking of gods who wish to bring pets to the new world, to have them serve as worshippers and amusement?  If so, then what rules do these gods impose?  If the goal is amusement, then surely we should define what amuses the gods most ... and assume that if the gods aren't getting a lot of that this week, that they'd want to "stir up the pot" in their favour a little.  How does that feel from the point of view of the player characters?

Yes, of course, we're free to suppose some pretext like, the humans were planted here five thousand years ago, and the Others who planted them won't bother to look in for another five or ten thousand years.  That makes everything neatly hands off.

I'm not saying there's a right or a wrong answer to any of these things.  But if we're going to make a topographic arrangement for the humans to live in, we ought to decide if its one they grew out of naturally, like a plant working its way up between a crack in the sidewalk, or if the game world is essentially a zoo of some kind that the people were plopped into.  If it's a zoo, then certainly the geographic logic can be HUGELY inconsistent and illogical, since beings with the power to transplant zoo animals can surely make the shape of the zoo whatever they wish it to be.  Arguably, a zoo doesn't even need a sphere to "act" like a sphere; it doesn't need a sun, just something that "looks" like a sun.  The same can be used to explain away all the matters that were brought up in Part 1 of this series.

It's entirely up to us.  We are the gods here.  We're entitled to produce the game world that suits our needs, and not the needs of the denizens that occupy the game world.  My only ask is that we comprehend what we're doing, and why, when we settle in to design what's going on.  What are our intentions?  What do WE wish to accomplish?  What set of possibilities best describes our motives?

Once that's settled in our minds, we can embrace those motives and move forward.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Worldbuilding 1c: Climate

This post is part of a series on worldbuilding; links for the whole series can be found on this page.

Some readers have adroitly grasped that I've tried to slip the reader a fast one.  Yes, I'm saying your game world should be a sphere exactly the size of Earth.  I'll go one better and recommend that it has a yellow sun, that it's 93 million miles from it — and even that it should have a single large moon, and just one.  Why this inflexibility?  Why am I dead-set against the reader making a really imaginative, unique world instead of just another version of this tiresome old orb?

Because we have exactly one template on which to base a world.  We don't even know if life as we know it can exist on a planet without a yellow star; or without any of the other characteristics this world has.  We have no evidence that it can.  But more importantly, what difference would it make?  No one argues that some other bizarre unique differently sized, tilted world with green rainfall and so on won't have human beings living on it, which coincidentally are the same size we are, with the same biology, the same brains, the same motives and the same social characteristics.  So why should it matter how big the planet is?  The players won't care.  No player anywhere will learn that your globe happens to be 7,926 miles in diameter and shout, "WHAT!  Why, that's the same size as the Earth!  I'm quitting this run of the mill, uninventive campaign!  The very idea!  Shame, you DM you, shame!"

When I advise not to waste time caring about things that don't matter, THIS sort of thing is what I mean.  Create a smattering of continents and islands on the blank template of the earth's surface, be glad you have it as a template to work from, and move forward.  There's a lot to do.

Why does "climate" come next?  To begin with, we're not speaking of "weather."  People tend to treat them interchangably, getting them mixed up.  By "climate," I'm describing the system of physical air, or gas, that surrounds the globe to a sufficient depth to provide life and protect it from the central star's radiation.  None of this, of course, need ever be mentioned to the players; and none of it needs to be described and written down for your game world!  But we must have climate in your mind in order to lay out the coastlines and the topography, if the lands and the civilisations living on them are to make any sense.  Bear with me, and I'll explain why.

The game world — and most likely every solid body in the universe large enough to support life — has four liquid systems that flow with continuous, unrelenting motion.  Some of this motion is incomprehensibly slow, at a speed of less than an inch a year.  Some is terrifyingly fast, fast enough to blast mountains apart, or scour the land at speeds above 150 miles per hour.  Scientifically, these four systems are called the athenosphere (magma), the lithosphere (crust), the hydrosphere (water) and the atmosphere (air).  Of these, the one with the greatest volatility, the greatest constant presence, and the most immediate relationship with us, is the last — and thus, "climate."

Imagine that we could pour the air into a series of bowls on a table, each bowl of different size.  We'd have tiny little bowls an inch in diameter, and great big bowls that are a full two feet wide.  We fill them with air, then we move the bowls around until every space on the table is nearly full.

Now imagine that some bowls are taller than others, and that as the air of one bowl overflows its brim, it pours into an adjacent bowl.  The largest bowls are the lowest; the smallest bowls are the highest.  As we pour air into the smallest bowls, we watch it wind its way from bowl to bowl, drifting downwards just as though we were filling the bowls with water and watching it flow.  Remember, air is still just a liquid, though with much more kinetic energy than water.  Imaginatively, we can scoop air out of the biggest bowls and pour it into the others, forming different currents as the air flows around, until it reaches the bottom.

Suppose we take a hot plate and put it under the large bowls in the middle of the table.  Then we freeze the bowls at the top and the bottom of the table.  Now we can watch the air in the warmer bowls expand and flow upwards.  We can watch the air in the ice cold bowls contract and thicken.  We can freeze the smaller, highest bowls too, and watch the cooler air flowing down to it meets the hot air flowing up.  Got all this in your mind?  Jumping ahead because you see where I'm going?

Topographically, the largest "bowls" are oceans and seas; the smallest are glaciers and very deep lakes.  The warmest are also oceans and seas at the equator, while the coldest are ice-capped continents and frozen seas at the poles.  The "rims" of our bowls represent boundaries between vast plains, plateaus and valleys, or the coastlines between water and land.  The lines we draw that divides each part of the topography also creates a "bowl" of air, which interacts with other bowls around it in unique and interesting ways, as air from one part of our game world flows this way and that into other parts.

This is made more complex by the changing of day into night, and the changing of winter into summer.  As continents heat up during summer months, the pools of air above those continents becomes warmer than the air over the oceans and seas, reversing the dynamics of flow on a grand scale — with small scale reversals changing with night and day as the same continent cools at night and heats up during the day.  In the winter, those continents freeze, turning colder than the oceans, drawing air in and becoming less dynamic as energy (with the cold) drains from each molecule of air.


So why care?

Am I asking you to systematically design a climatic scheme for your game world?  No.  No, I'm not.  I'm saying that, like I've said already, being aware of these things makes it possible for us to decide later on, ten or twenty years down the road, that if we want to add notes about climate or, gawd forbid, weather, we don't have to say then, "Oh jeez, why was I so stupid about the way I placed my continents, mountain ranges and deserts?"  Such as any person must be when faced with Greyhawk's ridiculous assemblage of irrational topography and vegetation.

Look.  Climate is important.  Climate dictates what we can grow and eat, what we wear, what shelters we live in, what people do for a living, the state of health, the presence of water and what bugs are in it — and therefore the practicality of possessing property, which fundamentally is defined by water use.  All that defines the bottom two levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs right there.  And though we may not want to think of it after we make the world and place the continents and bodies of water, we should give it a two-second think before scratching out where the coastlines are and how high the mountains are.  That's all I'm saying.  Address the matter with some rhyme and reason, and then forget it as long as you want, knowing that when the day comes that you might actually care, the foundation is set in place logically.

The same can be argued about the hydrosphere.  Really big oceans get really warm at the equator ... which infuses the atmosphere with LOTS of energy, that has to go somewhere.  In the Indian Ocean, cyclones spawn in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, pushed northwest by the southern trade winds, ramming into the northern trade winds and being deflected in all sorts of ways into India and Burma.  Here, I'll provide a map of winds produced by the world's coriolus effect:

In the Atlantic, hurricanes form on the equator between Africa and South America, drift north into the northern trades and then either smash into the Caribbean or the American East Coast, or spin round in the circle of the North Atlantic.  Pacific hurricanes form all along the equator from South America to the Philippines, drifting north into Central America or getting pushed west by the northern trades.

IF your game world is a sphere, and IF it has an atmosphere, and there are oceans enough to allow sufficient plant growth on the land, hurricanes WILL form in similar areas of your game world and move in the exact same patterns ... because the trades and westerlies occur because of the planet's spin.  They are physical manifestations occurring in a system driven by fluids and heat — both of which must exist in our game world, or else nothing lives in our game world.  We need heat also; we need to breathe; we eat plants that have adapted to this system of air movement and heat, which arises from the formation of the planet and the existence of a star to revolve around.  These things are not optional in your game world.

Your only two choices are to be ignorant of them, pretending they don't exist, and then what does that say about you as an intelligent being ... or to make good use of them, because they provide substance, depth, a familiar immersive experience for the player and a guideline for placing everything else that your game world includes.  Ignoring them sounds "easier" ... and it is.  It is easy to hammer two bits of wood together and call it a "gun" ... but it's not a gun.  It's harder to make a gun.  But a made gun actually functions as one.

I'm going to continue with this lecture; but as I don't want to write a book (you can read hundreds of them), what I'll say from here forward is deliberately simplified ... so please don't bother to quibble with me.  You'll only be telling me things I already know.

The map above helps give a sense of "macro-climates."  Take a moment and look at South America, with which likely the reader has only a passing understanding.  I'll expand the map, as some people can't find South America on a map.

We have three macroclimates in place.  At the top, the yellow northern trades come across the Atlantic Ocean and strike at the coast of Venezuela and the three states of "Guiana," as that coast was once called.  The brown southern trades flow into Brazil, on the right side, the east side, of the continent.  And the blue westerlies roll over Chile into Argentina at the bottom.

The Andes Mountains, not shown, run down the left side, the west side, of the continent, from top to bottom.  That blue arrow that's shown turning away from South America?  That's the westerly hitting the Andes and being diverted north.  The Andes are really, really high, and in some places wide and vast.  My goal here is to explain how the Andes interact with these three macroclimates.

The yellow trades hit Venezuela obliquely, at their southern edge.  Between the yellow and brown trades there's a region called the "doldrums," the Intertropical Convergence Zone.  Our game world has one.  It's an area of monotonous windless weather ... perfect for warm water to sit still under a hot sun and be turned into a hurricane.  The trades hitting Venezuela are just barely above this; when these same winds flow over the Netherlands Antilles, just north of Venezuela, they produce heavy strong winds that blow like crazy, especially in June, producing trees that look like this:

Which is why we don't want to go to Aruba or Curacao in the off season.  Just to the south, this same trade wind deflects along the coast, or up into the Orinoco valley (which has a microclimate, a much smaller "bowl"), until it skirts the continent or strikes the eastern slope of the Andes in Colombia ... where the water collected by the trades from the Atlantic is dumped, producing a humid subtropical climate.

The other side of Colombia sits in the doldrums, where the tropical heat on its coast produces convective rain that falls year round ... and during hurricane season, some higher elevations experience monsoons.  It's also a microclimate.

Look at the map again.  The brown southern trade winds roll over Brazil, bringing lots of warm wet rain that it pours all over the vast plain of the country, forming the immense Amazon rain forest.  The northern forest has some characteristics like western Colombia, as part of it also falls within the doldrums ... but the southern Amazon, where the continent is larger, just gets hot under the continuous, year round sun.  Remember what I said about land heating up and becoming warmer than the ocean?  The central Amazon creates its own humid climate, benefiting froma great deal of ground and surface water, a forest that stabilizes that water and the three trade winds that feed the steady high (warm, thickly piled, energetic air) that sits over the jungle.

However, the southern trades do get all the way across South America, again striking the Andes, dropping the very last of their humidity ... creating a desert coastal strip on the west side of South America that runs down Peru and into Chile.  The Atacama Desert in north Chile is one of the driest in the world, but it's very small.  There's very little land between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, but it's very dry.  This is why the Incas lived in the mountains, and not on the coast.

Contrariwise, however, just to the south, the wet westerlies pour across the Pacific and meet the Andes in Chile.  That one divergent wind is deflected (so the Atacama gets none of these wet westerly winds), but the remainder dump huge amounts of cold, wet water onto Chile ... similar to how the westerlies in North America rain similarly on Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Therefore, on the east side of the Andes, in Argentina, the land is quite dry.  Not dry in the way of the Atacama Desert, which is further north and therefore gets more hot sun, but dry in the way of Alberta, Colorado and Texas.  It's perfect land for raising cattle, which the Spanish began to do enthusiastically in the 16th century ... thus creating traditions of the Pampas and the Gaucho.

From this patient description, the reader should get some idea of how the movement of different winds, at different latitudes, produce unique pools and parcels of air, that produce conditions of unique measure under which humans must endeavour to live.  Even the smallest amount of consideration granted to these characteristics of prevailing winds, topography and latitude — defining the amount of sun, or heat, which in turn defines the volatility of the "bowl" of atmosphere — gives us some basic understanding of how climate might according to a completely fictional continent, with shapes, topography and position different from the South American example.  Understanding, likewise, how these winds effect North America, Eurasia or Australia helps the worldbuilder design a characteristic, believable climate for his or her game world.

It goes one better.  It lets us decide where that mountain range on that fictional continent can be placed, to create the macro and micro climates that suit us.  Each mountain spur, each ridge, each massive lake dropped into the continent, creates unique characteristics that we can play off, while giving our game world both of continuity AND personality.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Worldbuilding 1b: Systems

This post is part of a series on worldbuilding; links for the whole series can be found on this page.

Very well. As with any world, we'll need to start with a map. Here are two possibilities. Option 1 can be an island surrounded by an ocean, or an inner sea surrounded by land. Option 2 can have land on the left and sea on the right; or sea on the left and land on the right.

Not showing are Option 3 and Option 4, all sea and all land.  All sea is doable, but not suggested for a first time out.  In any case, it's needful that we choose one.

There, now that we have the map sorted, for now — remember, we're storyboarding — we can forget mapmaking and move onto more important things.

All right, yes, I know, it's instinctive to set about making a deeply complicated map of one kind or another, and virtually every worldbuilding video and tool interface manager pitches HARD that you've got to start with the map ... but that's because computer generated maps are easy to program, they look pretty and slick and the goal is to win your clicks and take your money, NOT to actually help you create a game world.  There is zero reason to make a map until we know what it is we're mapping ... which puts it firmly in the category of filming our movie without story, actors or a shooting schedule.  Let's not put the cart before the horse.

If it happens that you've already started a map, or have one completed, well, you've got a choice to make.  Maybe, what you have is salvagable.  Maybe not.  That's not up to me.  I'm here to ask questions you should have asked before you made a map.

Let's begin with the basics.  Is your game world a sphere, or like Earth, "sphere-like?"  I ask because if it is, we've got to address the physical laws inherent in large spherical bodies with atmospheres, located — presumedly — from one or more central suns in your world's solar system.  Now, I understand that may seem completely irrelevant.  Yet we have to start from one or two perspectives: (a) either the game world makes sense, in every respective way that human beings on a planet understand, from the ONLY example they have of how a world works; (b) or the world doesn't make sense, which discards millions of useful ideas, facts and documents we might have relied upon for providing our world structure and function, for the sake of one choice.

Let's say we decide to create a world that's a flat surface on an enormous plate resting on a giant turtle's back; and that the turtle is standing on a larger turtle, which is on a larger turtle, so that it's turtles all the way down.  Fine.  We can do that.  It's a fantasy world.

How does night and day work?  How do the tides work?  How is the atmosphere affected by the sun?  How does this affect ballistics?  How far can you see from the mast of a ship, or standing on the world's surface?  What keeps the atmosphere from circulating off the world's edge, or in a circle around the world's edge? 

If a section of the edge runs along a deep ocean, where the water flows off in trillions of cubic miles yearly, then how is all that water restored to the surface quickly enough to ensure the world doesn't turn into a desert?  Rain, as we understand it, wouldn't restore that much water, even if it rained all day and all night, in volumes a hundred times what we think of as "rain."  If magic restores it, incrementally throughout the entire system, then why doesn't the magic simply disallow the ocean from falling off the edge?

In any case, to describe this world, we can't avail ourself of any knowledge we have to explain how this fantasy world works, since all our knowledge is designed for a sphere.  This means lots and lots more work to fix, with the added bonus of lots of hours explaining the unfamiliar principles to the players ... for what sort of gain, exactly?  Because it's "cool"?  Or "different"?  How does this improve our regular game play?

Be wary of adopting ideas that create work rather than ease of use.  It may seem "easy" to handwave the physical issues I've highlighted, but there are thousands of physical issues I haven't mentioned.  And the more handwaving we do, the less depth the world has.  Handwaving isn't a substitute for function-offering design.  On the other hand, simply saying the world is spherical requires no special explanation; it simply is.  The world is round and there's one sun.  There, we're done.  We can move on.

Let me insert a warning.  Every step beyond this point requires knowledge.  Where worlds are concerned, all the knowledge in the universe.  We're limited as human beings by the knowledge we possess and can manage, but the more knowledge we have, and the more we can apply to the game world, the better a world we're going to make.  As we move forward, I'll try to keep the knowledge we need at any given point as bare bones as possible; I'll fill in the gaps by giving as many examples as I can give, so the reader gains a feeling for what's needed without exhaustive detail given about the discipline or field being discussed.  Okay?  I'll do what I can.

Pick one of the maps above.  Let's say Option 1 and say it's an island in the middle.  Draw an imaginary horizontal line through the middle of the map and imagine it's a latitude.  Latitudes are convenient lines that designate a distance from the Equator.  If the equator is latitude zero and the pole is latitude 90, we can get an idea of what sort of climate we'll get, if we call our imaginary line through our imaginary game world, for each ten points of latitude.

Lat.10 is the south edge of the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Ghana in Africa, Ceylon, Philippines.  Hot, wet, jungle, tropical ocean.

Lat.20 is Mexico City, Yucatan, Haiti, Saharan Africa and Arabia, central India, Burma, Hawaii.  Still hot and wet, but with dry seasons and in some places, very very dry.

Lat.30 is Texas, Florida, Morocco, the Middle East, the Punjab and the Himalayas, Shanghai.  Hot summers, warm winters, large dry areas and lowland swamps, very cold if the mountains are high enough; very populated but few needs for group survival.

Lat.40 is Colorado, Illinois, New York, Spain, Constantinople, the Caucasus, Sinkaing, Beijing, Korea, Japan.  Warm to hot summers, cold winters, traditional seasons, intensely heavy population, more socially conscious.

Lat.50 is Canada, Holland, North Germany, Central Russia, Siberia.  Very cold winters, cool summers, high urban population and scattered rural; high need for social cooperation.

Lat.60 is Northern Canada, Norway, St. Petersburg, Yakutsk.  Non-agrarian, cold, highly cooperative, scant population.

Just gets colder and largely unhabitable from there.

Ten degrees of latitude equals about 690 miles.  If we decide what the central latitude on our map is, and then what we'd like both the most northern and the most southern parts to feel like, we can get a scale on our map.

For example, suppose the central line on the map has a latitude like Ohio or Portugal.  And that we'd like the southern edge of the island to feel like Louisiana and the northern edge to feel like northern Minnesota.  Or in Europe, Normandy on the north and Cairo on the south.   Or in Asia, Okinawa on the South and the southern tip of Kamchatka on the north.  This makes our map about 1400 miles from bottom to top ... and no matter where we stick a pin, we can measure in degrees from the bottom to the top, look up a place on earth that corresponds to that latitude and get a reasonably good idea of the climate, the kind of food grown, the length of seasons and growing time, the warmth of the sea water and of lakes, the kind of flora growing there, the kind of fauna living there, what sort of buildings the people need, how different seasons are managed, when festivals related to the season ought to occur, the practicality of wearing armour, etcetera, etcetera.

By understanding this simple number, we can invent a completely different map and — even if we don't want to make any part of it exactly like Earth — we can cherry pick from the Earth's surface in a rational, plausible sense and apply it as we will to the game world.

This is the fundamental value of using systems instead of handwaving or merely drawing a map that has no underlying substance or worldly implication.  Now, we know how to achieve what we want.  We can designate a random place in the game world as "like Myrtle Beach" or "Jeju" without that designation having anything to do with politics, people, tradition or anything except what it's like geographically.  The other things we can figure out later, as it suits our needs.

The world exists before the people do.  Therefore, we build the physical world before we build the civilisation that lives on it.  Everything in its order.  And we've just saved ourselves a lot of time, while providing ourselves with a LOT of information we can easily apply to play, when we need it.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Worldbuilding 1a: Design

This post is part of a series on worldbuilding; links for the whole series can be found on this page.

The temperature is -26 C and my guests have cancelled, so there won't be a feast of St. Stephen this year ... so conveniently the window I spoke of last night has opened.  I've worked on the wiki a bit, I've worked out and rested and had a shower; so let's get started.

I'd like this series to be as practical and thorough as possible — an attempt, if the reader will, to outline my entire viewpoint on the matter to date.  Then perhaps I can tidy it up and release it as a book, or perhaps as a replacement for my worldbuilding section in How to Run, should I wish to publish an upgraded version of the latter.

First and foremost, I'd like to express my stand on "overreaching" as it applies to worldbuilding.  I've encountered several cases where this argument is made, counselling would-be designers to refrain from attempting to make too much world.  I don't doubt that many designers DO find themselves pouring hundreds of hours into a project, only to find that most of that effort has been wasted on disinterested players or on a game world that fails to "succeed."  Understand, however, that the diagnosis of "overreach" misunderstands what has actually failed.  It's not that DMs make too much ... it's that designers concentrate on the wrong things; or information that isn't crucial; or on work done according to what seems immediately important in the present.

Worldbuilding is a complex, intricate tangle of needed details that must be made ready with the right amount of attention, in the right order and with a clear, fundamental understanding of what will need to be done in the future.  If we give too much attention to things that don't need it; or we skip around with the order in which things need to be done; or we blissfully pay no attention to how what we're doing today will crucially affect how we'll do things in the future, then YES, we will end up with a ghastly mess.

The key issue is that no agreed-upon order appears to exist.  And that is partly due to a community-wide failure to acknowledge that worldbuilding is a GIGANTIC endeavour ... one for which hundreds of hours is a drop in the bucket.

I mentioned some months ago that I was cleaning duplicate and degenerate files from my computer.  These had been built up over 25 years.  I thought I was being careful.  However, I recently learned that I inadvertantly deleted all the files relating to my mapping of western China last year.  It's all gone.  Including the excel spreadsheets that I used to plot the various cities on the map.  This effort alone consisted of about 150 to 200 hours of work spread over two months.  And now if I want a map of China, I have to do it again.  From this lesson, we should recognize that wasting 100 hours will happen.  Mistakes will be made.  Files will be accidentally deleted; or computers will crash; or we'll make the wrong decisions and have to scratch our efforts and do it again.  There's nothing for it.  This is design.  And until that's understood about the process, a world will never get built.

Let's therefore address the subject of "Order."  As an example, suppose that we are filmmakers arranging to produce the film Shawshank Redemption for the first time.  Yes, we're excited about showing the film before a live audience; yes, we're excited about the awards we'll get.  We're excited to start shooting the picture.  But we can't do any of that on the first day.  On the first day, somebody, somewhere, has to obtain the rights to the Stephen King Novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, so that the script can be written.  As I've explained, the script will take hundreds of hours, and even after it's written, it won't be "done."  It'll be rewritten for the producer, and again during the storyboarding process, and again during filming.  A dozen people or more will change words, lines, plot points and details, shifting and adjusting and adapting the script for the needs of each department involved in making the film.

Once we have a "working script," however, we can prepare today for the things we'll need to do in the future.  We know that, in the future, we'll need a poster of Rita Hayworth.  We'll need a piece of obsidian, and a rock wall to put it under, and a hayfield for the rock wall to be in, so Red can find it.  We'll need a boat that Andy can be working on when Red reaches Zihuatanejo.  We'll need an old 1950s style bus for Red to ride on.  We'll need little rock figurines to go in Andy's window, and a Bible that's cut out for the rock hammer to go into.  We'll need an "Andy" and a "Red" and a "Brooks."  But understand ... while we know we'll need these things, we don't rush around getting them right now, because if we change the script in some way, then we may not actually need a bus.  Or a boat.  Or a Brooks.  We don't know yet.  So we don't work on those things!  We need to work on the things we need to work on first.

Once we have the script, we need the money.  Money pays for the time spent.  Money buys the artists that will make the storyboard that will help nail down everything that someday we're going to need.  When the storyboard is made, it is a SIMPLE representation of what the story will be.  It's an attempt to nail down every shot that's going to happen when the product is being filmed.  That will enable us to make a shot schedule, that will save money by ensuring that we film every bit and piece that goes on in Andy's cell in a few days — and we won't have to go back and redress the set, and ensure continuity, because we forgot to shoot something.

Does that mean the storyboard is "done" when it's done?  I hope you're learning.  Nothing is "done" until it's in the can and it's too late to change it — usually, because it costs too much money to change it.  Those annoying little continuity errors that get people upset?  Yes, people making the film saw them first.  And decided, it was too fucking expensive to fix it.  Sure they could have gone back and reshot the scene.  But someday, the director and crew and actors hope to make some other film ... and spending more money on this one won't meaningfully increase its take at the box office.


We want to make a world.  What have we learned?  Our first ideas must adapt and adjust to our limitations and choices.  Our first steps are to avoid detail!

However disappointed we might be in the rendering, the important details are there.  As a director, we see the final scene in our mind for months, even years, before the cameras as set up.  We convey our vision to the camera operator, who works to make that vision happen; we examine the dailies that night to see if we got what we wanted.  We take the shot in five or six different ways so the editor can use the version that works best with the final product, after a lot of changes have been made.  When the storyboard is made, we might be fairly sure that Morgan Freeman's involved — thus it's a black man by the wall, rather than the Mainelander who's Red in King's original novel (which, yes, I've read, first time in 1980, last time about three years ago).  

The D&D game world has to be addressed in the same manner.  It isn't a matter of starting with a small area and expanding, or a large area and zooming in; it's a matter of needing a bare minimum of detail that permits you to run the event when it comes.  Like the director making stuff up at the last moment, or the actor producing something really unexpected that gets caught on film, as a DM you've got to take the bare bones of whatever you've made in advance and give it flesh and infuse it with life.  Not because you're grabassing your game or doing things "on the fly," but because you wrote down a few key details that you'll remember later how to fill them out when the time comes.

As such, you don't write 500 words describing the tavern; you have a tavern in your head, that corresponds to a memory in your head.  And you write down, "Tavern; like that place in Wisconsin."  There you are.  Prep done.  Move onto the next thing.

We have too much to do.  We cannot blow time meticulously writing down details that can be added later.  Hell, by then, we may think of different details.  Better details.  New details.  We have to grasp that there will be a future, we have to prep for that future ... but we also have to let the future handle some of the load.  Our job is to ensure than when the future comes, that what we've worked on now doesn't compromise what we'll need to work on then.

Consider.  Halfway through making Shawshank Redemption, some executive producer decides Andy needs a love interest.  It doesn't make any sense, but this producer has a lot of money and clout and we won't get a distribution deal if he doesn't get his way.  What'll we do?

The solution is we don't take money from people like this in the first place, no matter how desperate we are or how much money it is.  And we don't become people like this, grabbing at things that sound "nifty" out of the blue, that are bound to wreck everything we've done in the past.  We establish guidelines for what we're ready to do with our game world, and we LIVE by those guidelines.  We have a clear vision of what our world is, how it works, what we want it to do and where to draw the line on ourself.

If we can't do that, then sometime in the future we will wreck everything good about our game world, we'll watch the players desert it, and then we'll write an article for some D&D online magazine about why "overreaching" is what killed our world.

It's not an overreach to take a line drawing of a man at a brick wall and transform it into an emotionally charged shot filled with beauty, intensity and hope.  It's patience.  It's perseverance.  It's seeing a future and moving relentlessly towards it.  As I have done with my own world.  As you can do with yours, provided you're ready to envision more than what you're putting down on paper, so you don't have to put everything down on paper today

Put a little of it down and then say to yourself, "Someday, I'll get around to that."  And when you find someday has arrived, you'll marvel at how easy it is to pick that up and fill in the next part.  In future, you'll find yourself understandably confident that when you put something down today, you will pick it up someday.  It won't be wasted, or forgotten.  It will wait there, until its time comes.

Okay.  Go back, read all this again.  We'll get started with getting started with the next post.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Essaying a Worthy Subject

There are few things surrounding writings about D&D than those who create "tips" for worldbuilding that are fuzzy, utterly lacking in practicality or even describe actual "worldbuilding."  Let me offer three examples.  First, one from Lou Anders & Travis Vengroff, from

I won't deconstruct these.  The schoolchild level of inventiveness is painfully obvious.  Here's one from

It's plain from the text that the problem isn't overreaching but "incompetency."  Know what you're doing, and why you're making each part, and you're not "overreaching," you're building a masterpiece.  Here's one from

With an expenditure of brain sweat of this level on the subject at hand, it's a miracle if you DON'T create an amazing game world.  At least the picture has nothing whatsoever to do with the point being made.

I've been stumbling across articles like these for years.  "Let me explain in 1,100 words, of which the first two hundred will be an introduction about why the other 900 words are of great importance, how to make a game world."  I've glanced through them, noted how useless they are, felt a twinge of fury at how an enormous, largely misunderstood subject is treated with less effort than teaching someone how to make a strawberry tart, and moved on.

Then, perhaps having something to do with my recent Saturnalian celebration post, it's occurred to me that I could address it.  I received a recent private letter from M., who knows who he is, about the game world he's starting to build ... and while he didn't ask me for advice, I thought about what I could offer.

What is the point of being furious if we're not going to do something about it.

Well, it's Christmas Day here; the day is ending and everyone's in their beds but me.  So I think this is a poor time to dig in.  I am a little the worse for rusty nails in liquid form.  But ... I'd like to begin a series of posts discussing how to start worldbuilding, with a little more to say than "start small and work up" or "start big and zoom in."

This seems like a worthy effort.  I'll get started when my holiday season offers me another window.  Merry Christmas, all.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Celebrations of Predecessors

The day before Christmas Eve and I've time to squeeze one more post in.  I thought a description of how celebrations would appear in a D&D world — perhaps in a Celtic-like longhouse, some centuries before my own world takes place.

Gathered are near a hundred souls, many having hiked a week from other villages to attend the festival as given by the most senior members of a very large family.  All around are stave-built tubs with bronze bindings, sitting over slow fires, steaming with fish-and-vegetable soups, puddings and flanks of beef stewing in brown gravy.  The hearth has a score of spits stabbed through fowls, rabbits and slabs of deer meat.  Great oaken cauldrons are filled with ale, while nearby are enormous jugs full of mead.

For days, meat has been cut on the snow-covered grounds outside; cut wood has been stacked up for the fires.  Men and women have teased one another, sometimes wrestling in the snow, while children hid beneath the longhouse between the pillars, watching their parents and playing with cousins not seen in a year.  Now, as the night of the 23 closes, the food is ready for the next day, the children are abed, many of the dwellers are drunk and asleep ... and still tomorrow more will arrive, until the longhouse is crammed to the rafters.

With the morning daylight that comes tomorrow, folks will awake with hearty breakfasts and tankards full of wine plundered from southern vinyards.  Porridge will be scooped into wooden bowls and eaten in the fresh air.  Towards the evening, as each family arrives and are greeted, the workload climbs until early afternoon and falls off.

Now there are contests and challenges.  There is gambling and agreements made about the coming year.  As evening comes, the tribe falls to eating — but there's three or four days of festival yet to come, so there's plenty to eat.  No one goes hungry.  Throughout dinner the loudest and most confident begin to boast about their exploits through the year, telling the story and swaggering in self-satisfaction about their achievements.  They show off their possessions, and then give them away to others, exchanging hard won prizes along with presents made of beads, arm-rings, coins, engraved leathers and the occasional drinking vessel.

Here and there, a spellcaster not wishing to frighten the children makes play with fire or the surrounding lights, creating water in empty jugs or producing sounds without sources.  Children clap their hands and laugh and parents smile at their little ones.  The air is thick and greasy and hot, as everyone feels sleepy and cheerfully stewed.

Midnight of the official holy day approaches and the elders call for silence through the hall.  A shaman arises and begins by saying that the omens taken all through the week promise a good year ahead.  Next, the hall listens to the one story that every one knows already, that the shaman tells with great emotion and meaning.  Tears well in the eyes of strong men; lovers grip their hands together.  The tale moves smoothly into the importance of the celebration, and from thence it's place in the tribe's history.  The shaman's head lowers, and on cue three singers sitting together begin to intone soft and low.

Others take up the chant, and soon the whole longhouse is singing.  The first song is followed by another, then another.  Wolves, a mile away, stop in the snow and listen to the resonant sound of more than a hundred singers.  For a time the singing is strong, but it ebbs as families curl together, nestling themselves near the embers contained in large iron bowls.  Snoring is all that's heard as the first day of celebration comes to an end ... and there are only a few souls who lay awake, comforted by their family, staring at the ill-lit rafters high above their heads.

It is a wonderful time.  Well may we contemplate it, for this is the Christmas our ancestors knew, of which we can feel only a small part.  Let us be contented and lay in our beds, and remember the singing and the rumblings of our kin, as we gaze at our own rafters.

Monday, December 20, 2021

JB Weighs In

JB of B/X has written an excellent review of the Jousting Piglet menu, drawing out ideas and descriptions I wouldn't have thought to write myself.  I especially enjoyed the description of his children's reaction.  I hadn't considered how the menu might be the sort of icon that would produce a flurry of imagination from children, but it's very exciting to learn that's the case.

I have nothing else to add.

Except to say the menu is available for $50, +$15 shipping and handling, through the donate button on the sidebar.  Be sure I get your address.  My email is

Sunday, December 19, 2021


Forgive me for talking about this ... but it's on my mind and until I write it out, I won't think of something more important.

Recently, cleaning the bathroom, one of the discs in my lower back slipped out of place.  It happens from time to time and I do exercises to keep my lower back strong, but I'm 57 and this happens.  So, I've been in varying amounts of pain, particularly sitting up and working, for several days.  About four o'clock this afternoon I felt the disc slip back into place; and since, I've regained full mobility but there's bruising down there that will last a few more days.

The hardest part for me isn't the steady ache, or the applications of muscle heat and salve, or the stretching or laying on my back on my hard kitchen floor, relaxing.  The hardest part for me is that I can't work.  I want to work; I want to sit up and write, if not my own stuff than at least the various contracts that have to be finished before the deadline threatens.  But if I can't sit up, and I can't concentrate because sitting in a forward, fingers on the key position, then I can't purposefully write anything.  I hate this.  I hate it because I lay on my back, relaxed, with my mind ticking over and over, thinking of things I would write ... which I can't write.  This is frustrating for me.  It reaches its worst when I'm repeating the same twelve lines in my head over and over, because I don't want to forget what I want to say by the time I get able to say them.

Early today, before the disc found its way home, I gritted my teeth, sat in my chair and worked on the authentic wiki, because fuck it.  Even if it means having to get angry to get past the pain with enough endorphins to get my mind thinking straight — because endorphins will relax anything — it's better than not working.  Anything is better than not working.

The kind of work I do, designing, has a side effect.  It's always new.   It's different from other work, which is same-old, same-old, because the act of designing is to alter something that already exists into something that doesn't, or figuring out what doesn't exist and making that from scratch.  It's not really the "work" that excites me, but the product of the work.  What happens when the fingers fly over the keys and the mind follows what's being written and decides the next thing to say ... a thing that hasn't been said yet because it's new.  It's what I love about writing.  It's what I love about creating content for the wiki.  Or any of the private projects I work on.  Or the opportunity I have now to write for a living.

I don't encounter this craving among a lot of people.  It's what pushed me into the school library as a boy, to read through shelf after shelf of books, usually alone in one chair surrounded by empty chairs.  It's what kept me at the university library in the 80s and 90s until 11 at night, when the library closed, even though the huge office building-sized floor was empty except for me and maybe one other student.  I had ideas in my head that needed explanations, that I hoped the books would have, so I went searching ... a long search that took years and years.  That search continues on the internet.  It will never end.

I am supposedly "a smart fellow."  I've never been quite sure what that means, but it's something I've been told since I was a little boy.  It's never made me feel good about myself.  I've heard people say, "You're a smart guy, Alexis," oh, many many times, but I've never heard it and felt thankful for the compliment.  Okay, let's say I'm smart.  Let's take it as a given that I heard it from every teacher and professor right up through my education, and from more than a few bosses.  Don't take it as a given than I am smart, just accept that I've been told I am very often.  So what.  If I am smart, it only means the person telling me so has realized a fact about me; that's not a compliment.  That's like being told I have feet, or that I breathe air.  Yeah, I have feet.  What's your point.

It's far worse to hear someone say, "I'm not as smart as you, Alexis."  Fuck I hate that.  Where does that come from?  Sure you are.  You've got to be at least as smart in your head as I am in mine; hell, it's not like we've got competition in here.  It's just us.  And the stuff that comes out of my mouth, that's not me being smart.  That's just me repeating words other people have written.  If I make something clever, that's just me remaking things other people have made.

Take the menu.  I showed it to my dentist last week.  He'd asked how work was going and I told him about the menu instead of my job, which I'm not supposed to talk about.  He played D&D 20 years ago and he wanted to see it, so I brought the menu in and showed him.  Not a D&D player, not any more.  He played "a few times" in Junior High School, 25 years ago.  Probably hasn't thought about D&D since.  But he was stunned.  He couldn't figure out how I "did it."  From scratch.  Like, poof!  Right out of thin air.  I explained I worked as a cook, I've seen and made whole menus of food, I've been writing since high school and it's just putting stuff together that I know how to do.

This is a dentist.  He's doing amazing things with my teeth.  With a little employment coverage I was able to afford two badly needed molar crowns and jeebus, do feel good in my mouth over the jagged mortared nightmares my tongue has been sliding over these past 15 years.   Does that make the dentist "smart"?  I guess, since he can perform miracles way over what I can perform.  But if you could have seen his eyes as he gazed over the menu ... that was some warped shit there.  I put something new in from of him, the same way I'd been putting it in front of myself by conceiving and pursuing the damn thing in the first place, about six months ago.

There is no "smart."  That's just bullshit.  There's working and there's not working.  You don't work, you don't learn anything, you don't do anything, you haven't anything to show.  You've just got you, in your head, sitting there, with nothing new going on.  You might as well be watching sports, or drinking, or waiting to sleep or waiting to die.  It hasn't a damn things to do with "brains."  It has everything to do with either you not wanting something new in your life, or not knowing how to get it.

When you've got something to show, something you did, something others haven't seen ... that makes you "look" smart.  People get all impressed.  They don't know how to vocalize that, so they invent this myth that because you did something they wouldn't know how to do, or believe they can't do, that makes you "smart."  It's a meaningless word.  It measures nothing.  It only defines how they feel about themselves and how they feel about you.

The worst shit happens when you believe them.

I don't do all this interesting, imaginative stuff because I'm smart.  I do it because not working is awful.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021


A recent exchange on JB's Blackrazor blog:

sevenbastard: I should have been more clear. I think running a mafia style campaign is great fun. But the rules and adventures presented in AD&D are for dungeon crawling and some high level domain management.

Alexis: They're for whatever we want, seven.

sevenbastard: For sure the rules are for whatever I want, but the rules on treasure as xp are there to get people in the dungeon. The players are not greedy for money, they are greedy for xp. Because money could be earned a lot safer outside the dungeon.

The AD&D DMG and PHB section on gold for xp explicitly states that if thier [sic] was minimal risk the gold doesn't equal xp but some portion of it.

If you are going to use AD&D to run a campaign that's about con men, shady merchant's, and protection rackets you are going to need to modify how xp is granted.

Sure you could go with 1 gp equals 1 xp no matter how it is gained but the you get "How did Bob hit third level in the first session? he placed all his starting gold on red 5."

So many things to deconstruct.

Let's concede that seven's writing this off the top of his (or her) head, most likely in a passion.  I don't believe that a dualistic perspective — D&D is either about dungeons or its about confidence games and gambling — was intended.

I don't believe that treasure as x.p. are there specifically to get players to the dungeon.  Remove treasure for x.p. and players will still run for the dungeon, so it's not the if-then causality that seven argues for.  But again, let's shrug that off.

Yes, Gygax does write in the DMG that the DM should ad hoc, by fiat, decide how much experience per treasure the players should get, according to what the DM feels is appropriate.  This is one of the shittier things Gygax argues for in the DMG; the fellows I played in my early days, both my friends and the adults I hooked up with, would have screamed bloody murder at a DM who made that argument and stormed out ... just as you would today if you were charged more money for a cone of ice cream because you're fat, or if your food costs were higher because you were retired and "didn't work as hard" for the money.  It's descrimination, it's bullshit, it's not how games are played and whether it's in the book or not, its a stupidly bad argument.  But let's hang that scarecrow on the noose and move past it.

Should character's get experience for gold if they gamble for it, as opposed to fight for it?  The question comes up.  Was there a risk?  Arguably, yes.  It's a die roll made to win money ... which is fundamentally NOT different from a die roll in a combat which wins money.  Emotionally, we can pretend it's different, because the player character's life is at stake, rather than the loss of a road stake ... but so long as the odds for one are the same as odds for the other, a game is being played, a character stands to win or lose, and the die roll might come up either way.  If someone wants to make an argument that characters gain treasure, and thus x.p., through some factor involving RISK other than rolling odds on dice, I'll listen.  Please don't waste my time with arguments that the player has to convince the monster to give over the treasure, which might or might not work out, as this involves suckering the DM ... which implies the DM can be suckered.  I can't be, not that way, so no: I don't consider "role-playing" an argument to be a "risky" venture.

I feel I need to point out that for "Bob" to succeed in becoming 3rd level on his first session by placing his starting gold on red 5 (if he's playing the number, the colour doesn't matter; and in any case, the "5" is an odd number and is therefore black; research, people!) he'd need 72 g.p. starting coin if he's a thief, 143 g.p. starting coin if he's a mage and 158 g.p. starting coin if he's a paladin.  In my game, before he could get into a casino (and with my game world taking place in 1650, there's only one in the whole world, The Ridotto casino that was opened in Venice in 1638, the very first casino that ever existed), he'd have to (a) have some kind of status before he could get in the door; and (b) would probably have to had to purchased at least 5,000 g.p. in clothes and jewelry before entering.  In fact, it would cost him at least 200 g.p. just to tip the concierge and other casino staff just to get seated in a chair anywhere near the roulette wheel ... which doesn't matter anyway, as the roulette wheel we're familiar with wasn't invented in 18th century France.

But, yeah, except for these few minor considerations and impracticalities, effected by some form of Biribi perhaps (though that game was so crooked that it was outlawed in Italy, and a tall tale involving Casanova is associated with it because the famous lover would tell people he'd actually won at it), maybe in a very badly-constructed game world, Bob could become 3rd level by slapping down somewhere between 72 and 158 gold.

All this is to highlight the truly ridiculous argument that seven makes ... that might have popped out front for the reader anyway, though it was fun for me getting here around this large barn.  There is no "safer" way to earn a lot of money than to adventure in a dungeon.

The odds of your character living are a damn-sight better than 1 in 35, assuming we're not talking about some abattoir-based dungeon concept as were popular once upon a time.  Maybe it's just me.  I've run scores of dungeons over the years, and so long as the party act together, watch each others' backs, refrain from pvp and other stupid choices, they're quite able to slip in, kill some monsters, locate a small up front treasure worthy of kicking them up to 2nd — and at worst lose one or two characters on the way.  With a good chance these dead characters can be hoisted out and raised.

A DM would have to be some kind of H.H. Holmesian nightmare of a game master to slaughter whole parties with such spectacular regularity that the chances of winning a 1 in 37 roll on a roulette table (the actual odds) were consistently better than entering and surviving a dungeon.  Whoa.  Hold me back.  I want to play in that fucking game.

Seeing such comments made from the larger perspective, I think passionate people slapping out an argument on the internet fail to recognize how poorly thought out our statements can be.  And let me be clear: I really do mean "OUR."  I've caught myself spouting some truly bonehead shit this last 15 years ... most of it by rushing to spew out some passionate rebuttal as fast as I can make my fingers fly over the keys.  It's an extraordinarily bad habit — and one that's extraordinarily hard to break.  I personally would do remarkably better in the world if I wrote every comment separately on a word file, waited a week, and then decided if it ought to be posted or not.  I'm quite sure that if I did this, I'd realize there's never a good comment that can be made on any site, ever.

Just look at the one I added to this exchange: "They're for whatever we want."  Man.  Captain Obvious to the rescue.  Why in fuck did I even write that?  I just gotta let stupid people be stupid.  There just isn't a reason to weigh in, ever, on anything that anyone ever says ... unless, perhaps, it's a private conversation between the creator and me.

Explaining, once and for all, why my getting comments is an insipid thing to worry about.


Tuesday, December 14, 2021



Thus demonstrating why I'm not hounding readers to buy the menu.

I bought Europa Universalis today.  Didn't plunge in and buy all the bits and pieces, but enough to address the very difficult learning curve it offers.  I have only a little time to spend on it each day, but I haven't bought a new game since last Christmas and it's clear this is going to soak up many hours in my future.  Time spent not posting here and not working on the authentic wiki.  But ... time recharging, problem solving and stepping away from reality here and there.

I'm thinking on the comment by Dennis Laffey for my last post, about "older editions" being all kill kill kill.  From personal experience I can attest that no matter how much source material, alternate game play or game nuance that I add as a DM, my players will always decide that, "This seems very complicated and just now I'd feel better if I could just kill something."  I bring this up because getting into E.U., where there's a terrific amount of nuance involved, far more than other logistics-wargame-formats I've played, it felt good to step away from the game.  I could comfortably sink into a much simpler wargame right now, something that was all kill kill kill, just to give my brain a rest.

We have to give credence to those people who resist elements of incorporated skull-sweat in their D&D game.  Not everyone enjoys thinking hard, juggling intrigue and guessing at what's the best choice among two or three indecipherable options ... even in half-hour installments.  In fact, it feels good to "prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around."  Swing the sword, collect our dopamine, slough off the cortisol and watch the solid, indisputable effect of our actions.  The problem with straight role-playing is that, although it's fun sometimes, a lot of the time we just don't know what we're doing or what's going to result from all this talking.  We hope we're accomplishing something, but much of the time the way a DM organizes the role-playing (judging from the videos published on youtube) is that the players do a lot of listening and not much acting.  Role-playing, most of the time, is a passive game function.  The players behave like an audience in response.

This is why we get Matthew Mantel's bitter sentiment, "If you're intent on avoiding the violence of D&D you are playing the wrong game."  We turn to the violence because it's satisfying, but then we find ourselves having to defend the violence simply because the game is complex enough to insist we deconstruct that violence as it takes place.  No one challenges the "violence" in checkers or chess; though of course there's killing in those games.  No, it's not the actual killing, it's the deconstruction of the killing ... the methodical eradication of hit points, the use of specific tactics designed to attack one or more persons at a time, the movement around the battlefield, the detail inherent in what a spear does versus a bow, a pole-arm or a battle axe — and what each weapon requires in terms of the number of hands and how many attacks we get.

The deeper and more intensively we expand the tactical information involved on a battlefield, the more likely we're going to be accused of fetishising the violence ... though in fact we're fetishising the tactics.  This viewpoint helps explain why so many tables struggle for heavy simplification of the battle structure: every weapon does d6 damage, there are no levels, every combatant has the same number of hit points, there are no rules at all for movement, etcetera.  The minimisation of battle tactics helps D&D more closely approach chess and checkers, thus removing the "stank" of all the violence without stripping the game of it's other desired elements.

The reactionary knee-jerk resistance to imaginary violence remains ludicrously out of place in a world of school shootings, politicians who incorporate the use of guns into their campaign ads (who then get elected) and a constant state of unrestrained warfare taking place in multiple parts of the world.  The terror-scenario that little Billy will become a maniacal killer someday because at the age of three he picked up a crooked stick and pretended it was a gun — encouraging someone to slap the stick out of Billy's hand — stands at the core of farcical social engineers who feel the world's made a better place when something imaginary is banned, while that very same thing that's real and insanely dangerous is granted dogmatic approval.  The only answer for the moron online or in real life expressing his or her "hatred" of D&D violence is evidence that they feel brave enough to condemn something where no one can turn and shoot them ... as opposed to condemning people who can award death in response.

Willy nilly, I don't care.  My point with the last post wasn't that "D&D is about violence," but that it's about a specific kind of violence ... where, very unlike a video game, the players cannot rely on their "playing skill" to guarantee a win every time.  Given sufficient hours spent, I'll get good enough at E.U. that I can clean the computer's clock every time.  But my 5th level fighter won't win every fight with an ogre, no matter how many years I've spent playing this game.  THAT was the larger, more relevant point.

People resist the violence of D&D for reasons having nothing to do with a dislike of violence.  No, no, it's the kind of violence involved.  A violence that dictates you won't always win ... unless I'm willing to fudge the dice for you, or ensure you never have to fight monsters stronger than you are, or play monsters like congenital idiots who don't understand how to use their own powers.

Some people LIKE this.  They like that the battle might go horrifically sour.  The possibility speeds the blood, dries the throat and wets the palms.  The tremulous, uncomfortable sense that a complex, paced battle, where the tide turns back and forth — because the combat system's design doesn't work like Monopoly — is going straight into the shit pile excites some kinds of players while deeply unnerving others.  The right answer to Mantel's answer above is to say, "If you're intent on avoiding the heat of dying stupidly in my kitchen, then don't play my campaign."

There is a big difference between "Fun, we killed a bunch of orcs!" and "Holy shit, we barely lived through that shit!  Let's not do that again."  Both are violent.  One is cartoonish.  The other is traumatizing.  The kind of violence you want to play defines what sort of D&D participant you are.  Some of you who like violence don't belong anywhere near my game system.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Play Violence

"Audiences are much more willing to accept violence in a movie when it's justified.  Audiences actually accept that violence on a different level ... than they do violence that is seen as sadistic, perverse, for the sake of suffering, rather than an 'act of justice.'

"One thing that [keeping the violence off-screen] does, is that it builds up the initial victims as being more worthy.  They're deaths are so significant that we don't get to witness their deaths, because in a way, to show us the violence would cheapen the experience."

— Dr. Lisa Coulthard, Professor of Film Studies, U of BC

"The violence in your mind is far more powerful than violence that's actually on screen."

— Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Director

Both quotes come from the second episode of Voir, a film documentary on Netflix.  Watch it, it's worth the effort, though it suffers from the usual difficulties of even experts inventing lies about things in order to make them palatable.  For example.  No.  Most people cannot remotely imagine violence on any level, including many who have personally experienced it — because having experienced it, they can't make their minds invent it.  But this is fine; because to do the opposite, to put real violence actually on the screen, is unthinkable.

The same CGI that has revisioned the limitations on things film can depict, we're quite capable of producing real violence in a movie on levels that would turn Saving Private Ryan into a children's film.  We don't do it.  Not for the reasons given above, but for what real violence does to mental equilibrium, sanity and security.  We keep the deaths off the screen because we're pushing the boundaries of what an audience can stomach.  But that does not make the violence of our minds more "powerful" — what an amazing piece of horseshit is that pronouncement.

Spoiler alert: human beings don't like violence.  Perhaps as a species we liked it more when finding a large mammal, killing it and then spending a day hacking apart it's flesh using stone tools, because it meant food and we were trained to handle the experience at a young age ... but we're civilised now and except for a minority personally experiencing the slaughter of animals, most of us just can't.  And in fact, evidence shows that most who work in the filthiest of industries come from cultures that breed a stronger stomach than North America.

And so, here's the post kicker:  D&D is a game of violence.  The argument continues that it isn't any more, and even that it never was, and in any case it doesn't have to be played that way, and certainly decent people don't play it that way.  Which is mostly a pack of lies.  True, no party has to participate in violence.  True, steps have been taken to remove the game from it's roots.  True, many, many D&D players, and players of all RPGs, deeply resent the inherent violence that combat represents and strive with all their might to reskin the game so that it represents something higher.  Something redeeming.  Something that a well-intentioned human being can look upon with pride, and without shame.

That is, "heroism."

Heroes aren't fiendish butchers, invaders, pillagers and various other villainous titles that would accurately describe what the party's expected to be in most early D&D adventures.   NO, a hero pursues a just violence.  A violence on a different level.  A violence that's an act of justice.  A violence for the sake of victims whose suffering and pain makes exceptionally brutal violence more worthy.  The sort of victims that ensure that the use of spells and special powers that incinerates an enemy doesn't cheapen the experience.

My etymological dictionary defines "hero" as a 14th century word meaning, "a man" of superhuman strength or physical courage; from the Latin meaning a demi-god and illustrious man.  Note, no women, thank you; and nothing about morality or empathy.

By 1660, "hero" did mean a "man who exhibits great bravery."  Bravery, for those who are unclear on the meaning of that term, means fearlessness and daring.  Not goodness, not virtue.

"Hero-worship" becomes a term in the early 1700s, but still, rather, it's kind of a toxic masculinity thing.

It's a case of "You keep using that word; I don't think it means what you think it means."

But ... it's the word we're saddled with, so let's use it in the 21st century D&D sense: "a murder-hobo with a virtue distinguished by the DM's manipulation of circumstances."

Very different from other murder hobos.

Earlier, I was watching my daughter's Let's Play of the video game Hades (2018), thinking how different D&D combat (DDC) is from video game combat (VGC).  It kind of reminds me of the old Carlin bit about baseball vs. football.  VGC is flamboyant, fun, full of running around and firepower.  DDC is methodical, tactical, conceptual.  VGC demands high concentration and there's no time to think while it's happening.  DDC gives plenty of time to think.  In VGC, the enemy blips out of existence, goes up in smoke or becomes a pile of dehumanized but occasionally artistically rendered pixels.  DDC allows the DM time to describe in marvelous detail the dead bodies laying about, with descriptions of blood and a coppery smell.

Not all DMs do this, of course; a lot of DMs whisk the miniature from the table with nary a word, like a video game monster disappearing.  But somehow, with the time to throw dice, and missing, and monsters being very lucky before they die, they all develop a personality somehow that VGC doesn't offer.  VGC is hit hit hit hit until enough hits kill.  Especially after playing the game for a few months; we just stop missing.  But DDC is full of misses, even after forty years of play.  There just isn't any way that a truly experienced player can make a 1st level fighter hit any better than that fighter hit in 1982.  There's just something ... tactile and frustratingly real about that.  Like, it doesn't obey the fantasy law of cool that VGC satisfies so majestically.

DDC is unforgiving.  It requires swing after swing, too many of these fruitless.  Anyone can potentially kill anyone.  It isn't like VGC, where we run into a room with 6 or 9 monsters and run around in circles easily avoiding hits until every monster dies.  In DDC, the player has to stand there, and let the monster have its turn.  There's no way around it.  We have to ... stand there.  Motionless.  Like leaning forward onto an executioner's block.  While the DM picks up a die and holds it, waiting, before letting go and having everyone watch the die bounce on the table, the final number cold and immutable.  It's as if the die doesn't care who is and who isn't a hero.

The Netflix Voir episode leaves out one pertinent but obvious matter, because it's about film.  In a revenge story, we expect the revenge to happen.  Sooner or later, whatever twists and turns take place, the "good" guy will get the "bad" guy.  The good guy might die while getting the bad guy, but the bad guy gets gotten.

While D&D just doesn't give a shit.  It doesn't.  Which is what makes it so wrong for some people.  Because if you're not guaranteed as the good guy to get the bad guy, then you're just an asshole hacking away at other assholes.  There's no "higher justice."  There's no special worthiness.  You are just like what it would be like to be you, a real person, deciding to ignore the police and kill someone on your own.  Which you wouldn't do, because unlike a movie, you're pretty sure that if you took on the mob, you'd get killed.

Whereas D&D non-heroes have nothing like your problems.  They don't fight big strong professional organisations.  They pack up their swords and go hunting for weaker creatures with treasure.  They don't care about being heroes.  They care about not dying.

For you to be a hero, and for it to work like it does in the movies, your D&D "game" has to work like the movies.  It has to have a script.  And a director that makes sure you're where you need to be in scene 35, with the weapon you need to have, and the camera angle that's necessary to make you look cool when the sword goes into the bad guy's throat.

None of which works if this is a game.  Sensible, really, since a movie isn't a game.  Which means, all in all, you have no idea what the fuck you're really playing at, do you?

Saturday, December 11, 2021


If every blog post I'd ever written were somehow wiped from the internet ...

I'd just start writing them all over again.

Friday, December 10, 2021


One of the more fascinating sage abilities, with an unusual and player-friendly benefit:

The overall structure is game-building because it doesn't rely upon the player to possess the sage ability, for the players to enjoy it (as the page explains).  It provides another reason to enter a city or town beyond the need to buy equipment and restore hit points ... and it makes the Bard Class more valuable to the party as a whole, with something concrete the bard can employ on a regular basis.

I need to add that the ability described above is an extremely minimal skill.  Later on, something that would be gained at 4th-6th level, is Master Instrument, which gives the benefits of the above except that it increases the number of times the skill can be employed to once a week, instead of once a month, and adds an addition +5% experience to the benefits described on the Play Instrument page.  So this is really just a stepping stone.  The larger motive is then for the players to visit even larger cities, where even better musicians can be seen giving performances.  This increases the motivation to travel, by giving real benefits to travelling.

I have other ideas up my sleeve for the bard as well.

I've touched on this before, but I'd like to return to the subject because sometimes it haunts me.  If I could, I would invent metrics for fulfillment, happiness and health and incorporate them into D&D.  These would be influenced by a combination of player behaviours and choices, random events such as weather, the after-effects of combat and the game environments visited.

Let's take health.  Now, personally I wouldn't transform this into an "ability stat" or even concoct the player's health from ability stats.  "Health" wouldn't be fundamentally based on a comparison of one character's health with another's ... but rather, as a metric describing the character's present health vs. the character's potential health.

As an example, let's say that Claire has a constitution of 3, meaning that she's generally in poor health at best.  There are already dozens of circumstances by which Claire's 3 constitution is bound to be tested.  Therefore, if Claire's health were, say, equal to 20 out of a possible 20, it means that she's at peak health for Claire.  She may not be at peak health for someone else, but she can't feel what it's like to be Jerome or Tesha, so who gives a damn what their healths are.

From this, we can argue that health is a characteristic fundamentally applicable to itself, which affects other metrics, but isn't a composite of other metrics.  It means we can use it as a self-defining thing, used to measure functions of the game world that aren't reflected by the player's hit points, ability stats, experience level, knowledge and so on.  Stuff like, say, Claire's tolerance of some perfectly healthy foods over others.  Eating the wrong foods in a state of poor health can kill youBut we don't have saving throws for "food choices" or "food quality."  And the rules surrounding disease don't sufficiently deal with this problem.   Nor do we expect Claire to make an ability check every time she eats something.

Suppose we define peak health at 20 points, as stipulated.  When the character takes care of his or her self, peak health is maintained.  But taking more than 8 damage reduces health by 1 point.  Vomiting from bad food reduces health by 1 point.  Two days exposure to rain, even in tent, reduces health by 1; and without a tent, by 2.  Entering a big city reduces it by 1.  Climbing down into the sewers; or into a dungeon; or failing a save vs. poison; or catching a cold; or not having a bath; or living on shipboard for a day; and anything else that seems applicable ... each of these things cuts the character's health by 1 point.

Which is fine.  We can set a leeway of 10 points, so that as long as the character's health is between 11 and 20, it's no big deal.  They can wander through a dungeon, get themselves beat up, crawl around in an offal pit, visit a prostitute, whatever ... usually, they're fine.  But as that metric drops towards 10, the character begins to think, "Hm.  Better not push that.  Might be a good idea if I do something healthy for a bit.  Eat a little better.  Have a bath.  Visit a doctor.  Buy a tonic from the apothecary.  Get that number up a bit."

Then, and only then, if the character gets into some very unusual situation, the character's health never becomes a serious problem.  It's just a minor detail that needs to be monitored without stressing over.

At 10 health, however, the character's constitution drops by 1 point.  And it continues to drop by 1 point for every point of health below 10.  At 9 health, the character automatically rolls a 10% chance for disease.  And each point of health below 9 requires a similar roll.  At 8 health, the character's strength drops by 2 points.  And each point of health below eight costs another 2.  At 7 health it's charisma, and at 6 health it's dexterity ... and by then the character is a real mess and seriously needs some kind of serious R&R somewhere.

So it really matters that the character is careful about how many truly stupid unhealthy things he or she does.

With a character like Claire and her 3 constitution, going outdoors costs a point of health.  Eating food that isn't severely boiled costs a point of health.  Alcohol is a point of health.  Even sex, or a lack of sleep, or too much time travelling, are reasons to be concerned about her health.  And for her, once her health drops to 9 overall, she has exactly 1 constitution point.  It can be argued that her constitution can't drop below 1 ... but it follows that for every subtraction after 1, she has to make a save vs. bodily-derived poisons or she absolutely dies.

One could run a character with a 3 constitution ... but under this system, it would be a serious challenge, with serious issues to address.  It wouldn't just mean often missing a constitution check.

I don't implement ideas like this because I recognize the expected push-back from a community that thinks encumbrance is the equivalent of driving the Allied armies to Arnhem.  Therefore, most readers will assume this post is a thought experiment and no more.  "Hey, what about this?  Obviously, I'd never do it."

I'm not sure where this "we must never change the original structure of D&D" came from.  Human beings change the original structure of everything.  Microwave ovens came into being about the time of D&D, and the one I use today is a far sight different and better than the one my parents purchased in 1979.  The video games I play today are spectacularly better, more complicated and more prohibitive — the word being used to describe games with a very high cost and a very high learning curve.  I'm considering finally getting into Europa Universalis, and that's how it's been described to me: prohibitive.  In other words, really consider whether or not we're up to playing this particular game.  And yet, the game is insanely popular, in a way that D&D encumbrance isn't, even though I'm familiar enough with EU to know it's much more brain-crushing that figuring out encumbrance.  I don't know anyone running around saying that we don't need these complicated war games when perfectly good, simple games like Global War were invented in 1979.

It's a little bit like the goal in D&D is to hack off our foot, scream at anyone approaching with a prosthetic, then go online and scream about why everyone should hack off their foot.

Why shouldn't expansive rules for things like health and happiness be implemented into the game?  We've created about a million character classes, two million character races and three million stupid character religions and philosophies, not to mention four million unneeded weapon types and five million ways not to roll dice in a game designed for rolling dice.  Why exactly should a Waterdhavian Noble be a thing, when simple rules surrounding every character's health are a bridge too far?

Answer me that one, and I'll put down ideas of a metric for a character achieving moral, mental or cultural fulfillment.