Monday, January 31, 2022


In a total disconnect with previous topics, recently a friend in the U.S. sent me this video about a young fellow who sets up cameras to catch a local thief.  Essentially, this takes place in rural America; the thief is a local farmer who fails to catch a third camera set up by the video maker ... so we get film of the thief painting over the other two cameras, the thief's car and the stolen goods in the back of the thief's car.  Then the video maker tracks the thief to his home, calls the local sheriff, who goes in and confronts the thief, and what ensues.

This is supposed to be a terrific example of justice being done; but the video infuriated the hell out of me.  The maker is clever and all, and he gets compensation ... but the utterly grab-ass approach to justice strikes me as one of the stupidest things about America.

Why is the video maker responsible for catching the fellow?  Why does the video maker think it's his responsibility to chase down the thief?  And why is the video maker even present when the confrontation goes down?  Why would the sheriff even enter the thief's residence without first examining the evidence in TOTO, getting a warrant, and THEN go in and search the place.  They shouldn't need to confront the accused thief.  The agenda should be to get evidence and charge the thief, period.  Perhaps for a dozen crimes the thief has committed, and not just towards the video maker.  Oh, sure, the video maker got his compensation, but what about everyone else?  How the fuck is this a law-abiding country?

In CANADA, I go to the RCMP.  I tell them someone in the neighbourhood is repeatedly robbing me.  THEY set up cameras.  THEY look at the evidence.  Then they enter the thief's residence and, if there's stolen goods there, THEY charge the thief.  "The Crown" does.  I'm not asked to bring charges, or even given the opportunity not to bring charges, because the LAW has been broken.  When the law is broken, people get arrested.  A common citizen's opinion about the law is not asked for.

Seeing Americans crow about how they achieve "justice" ... sickens me.  Daily, I read a blog called  Day after day, I read a systematic accounting of people deliberately breaking laws in America, specifically through incompetence, graft, malfeisance, misappropriation of funds and just plain stupidity.  This parade of shit has been going on six years now.  It is only broken ONE DAY a year.  July 4th.  That's the day when everyone talks about What a Great Country America Is.

Friday, an old bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed, the Fern Hollow Bridge.  It was identified as ready to collapse 10 years ago.  No one will be held accountable, even though obviously every authority in the United States, including every municipal leader, state senate and congress person, governor and national political figure for the last TWENTY years is plainly responsible.  But no "law" has been broken.  So, no consequences will befall anyone.  Not for this collapsed bridge or the hundreds of other infrastructure buildings in America.  And the thousands who will be injured and killed in the future.

No civilised country acts this way, or defends this sort of thing.  One would think that what Americans might try next July 4th is to hang their fucking heads in shame.

Bravery, Adventure, Method

Many eons ago I wrote two posts about how to tackle a dungeon, which I meant to be a series but which I never completed.  I got into some back-and-forth with Mujadaddy which I didn't handle well and I lost interest.

In part, this comes from having had a DM's perspective for so long.  I haven't run in any campaign consistently since the mid-1980s.  Experiences with 4th edition and 5th weren't especially pleasant and I found myself facing the same old tiresome tropes that had been there three decades before.  When I look at a dungeon today, I necessarily see it from the DM's perspective; my concern for the players is that they find it interesting, that there's a base level of uncertainty and tension, and that there's exactly enough treasure to whet their appetites but not so much that they progress levels too quickly.

Two sojourns into a dungeon should be sufficient to push a low-level character, less than 5th, up a level.  That assumes they dig in, get into a fight, hold their ground long enough to take and give damage, then beat a healthy retreat.  For me, it's about bravery, not chutzpah.  

I've never taken the position that "reason" — a methodical approach to playing D&D — kills adventure.  I grew up digesting tales of Robert Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic, Mungo Park and Livingston in Africa, Marco Polo and so on ... and found tales of these real people managing extreme difficulty and danger in a practical manner to be endlessly fascinating.  Jules Verne invented fantasy tales filled with mechanical and well ordered approaches to adventure themes that excited me as a child.  I read and re-red Robinson Crusoe and other tales of lost persons in the wild for the ways they solved problems and extricated themselves from death.

On the other hand, I found Gulliver's Travels and Baron Munchausen to be plodding and dull — and as I grew into adulthood, I recognized that these things were written as political allegories, and NOT as "adventures."  Somehow, they never captured my imagination.  Being very tiny in a very large world was handled much better in Asimov's The Fantastic Voyage, for my money, because it was about concrete science and not fairy tale.

Coming at D&D in 1979, there was no game community to argue most of the points that Mujadaddy made in that back-and-forth.  Ideas like "supernatural malevolence" dominating a landscape, "red shirts" as a metaphor, "tomb robbers," the players are "special," or that "games exist for the players" had no infringement on my DMing or on those who DM'd me.  Hard as it might be to believe, these things came along after D&D players began to form clubs and impose their philosophy on a growing community.

Ernest Shackleton went into the bowels of the worst place on earth and got stranded there with perfectly ordinary seamen, whose only chance to survive was the equipment they bought, their ability to sail and their sheer tenacity.  Generations of those same soldiers undertook battles where they would load and fire and sail amidst volleys of cannonballs fired point blank into the ships they manned.  Yet I'm to believe that men like this won't enter a forest because there might be an owlbear in it.  I'm to believe they won't defend their country because of unseen malignant spirits.  Or that person who are essentially underground thieves are definitively "braver" because meta-game D&D concepts remove honour, duty and resolve from anybody with less than 25 hit points.

I grant that player characters are "unusual."  In my game, they have more training, more equipment, more abilities ... and yes, they have more hit points.  But I also believe that, just as it was with the "British Grenadiers," ordinary folk also have little to lose, a love of money and a willingness to trade the former for the latter.  Otherwise, how is it that so many perfectly ordinary folk were willing to cross one or more continents for the sake of a gold strike?  Was that a lack of bravery?  Was that because they had so many hit points?

Anyway, this post tries to tackle too many themes.  I should come back another day and manage them better.

Sessions & Adventures

Over at B/X Blackrazor you'll find JB putting together a highly competent dissection of the term "adventure" with regards to role-playing.

I have, over the years, tended to view "adventures" within the campaign in a similar manner that a military strategist views an "operation."  Operations are coordinated military actions in response to a developing situation.  For example, the Battle of Kursk involved a plan by the Germans to cut off a salient of the Russian Army with a pincer movement, called "Operation Citadel."  The Russians made their own plans; there were many separate engagements, each of which took its part in the greater whole.  The Russians won the overall battle, the Germans lost badly, and the campaign afterwards continued as the Germans withdrew and the Russians pursued.

In the same sense, the players decide upon an "operation" of entering a dungeon, clearing it out and obtaining the wealth therein, while increasing their control over the territory the dungeon occupies.  The players can view this operation as merely an opportunity to plunder, or they can build upon the dungeon's eradication, in the manner of a campaign, by moving in, occupying the dungeon, or the surface above the dungeon, and fortifying the space.

The actual assault on the dungeon is the "adventure."  But the adventure is just one part of the overall campaign.  During the life of the players, they will embark on many adventures ... but so long as they are running the same character party, they are participating in only one campaign.

JB makes a solid argument that in the text supplied by AD&D, and supported by Tom Moldvay, that "adventure" is merely a colloquialism for "game session."  This maybe; from the evidence, it looks that that was intended.  But here we are, 40 years later, and I don't need another word for "game session."  When I want to refer to a "session," I use that word.  A "session" is a single period of time in which the game functions, whether or not every time we sit down we are experiencing fantasy "adventure."

Occasionally, as complexities and details build up, a "session" may be a long period of players asking questions, so they're able to consider what things they'd like to do in the future.  That is, what sort of operations they may want to run.  The next session I'll run, after about nine months since our last session, will involve bringing players up to date with changes I've made to the wiki about character classes, sage abilities and spells, since I've written a lot of new rules about those things.

I recognise that some people, hearing this, are shaking their heads.  "Gawd, a whole session of accounting?  Uck."  That may be, but the players call for these, not me, as they want answers to questions they've been thinking about a long time.  And face to face with me, and the other players, is the best time to ask such questions, when everyone can participate in the discussion.

Thus, for Gygax's day, a "session" and an "adventure" might be the same thing.  But they're not for me.  It's a fine point, maybe.  But today is the day for fine points.

A Purposeless Essay to Pad the Hatred of My Detractors

Earlier today I got a comment from Calstaff, a new reader I believe.  And I jumped down his throat, because he reiterated the same old tiresome trope from Gygax that I've heard too many times.  Calstaff, of course, has no idea that I've written fifty or sixty posts blasting the argument being made.

This isn't going to be one of those.

Impatience is a natural part of me.  I've struggled with it in various ways, and occasionally it's made things difficult for me with former employers and sometimes friends.  My partner Tamara tolerates it, my daughter tolerates it ... and so do most of my friends.  A lot of my readers here have come to expect it from me, and no longer worry about it.  They write it off as passion, which it is.  Some probably also write it off as the typical tempestuous fury that creative types tend to have.  And some of my most reliable readers, no doubt, act exactly like me.

For a long time with this blog, I worried about burning potential new readers like Calstaff.  I'm worrying about that less and less these days.  Perhaps because I'm getting old.  Perhaps because I've never felt this overall creative.  Pretty much, from when I first get up in the morning, I'm working on the creation of something new ... usually for five or more hours a day.  Because of that, I'm feeling a tremendous indifference towards rehashing old ideas, and especially hearing someone post them as if those ideas are new and profound.

Poor Calstaff.  The post's argument was that immersion begins with staying alive.  And from Calstaff I got the answer that what matters is "acting out your character."  Approaching the game this way plainly has the player put his or her character BETWEEN his or her self and the DM.  But I'm not running the character.  I'm running the player.  The character is incidental.

This should be obvious.  Somehow, it isn't.  I don't know why it isn't.  And that is the source of my impatience.  Like a mad professor trying to give a class, to educate those students who will go on with the material and do important things, I'm infuriated by the dolts in the class with their impertinent, idiotic questions — who are, after all, just there for the credit.  And, like a mad professor, I shout at them to shut up and learn, or get the hell out.

After all, it's plain from Calstaff's bio that, having played D&D since the 70s, and still believing the DMG is one of his favourite books, that he hasn't a chance in hell of getting better than a "D" in this course.  I really haven't got the time to waste on him.

Agder Redone

Once again I find myself messing around with colour schemes for my 6-mile hex maps.  Most maps on this wiki have 20-mile hexes, but I also build maps that "zoom in."  Recently on my wiki, I posted such a map of Agder, a county in southern Norway.   I wasn't especially pleased with how it looked on the wiki, so I spent some time making adjustments to the icons and the general appearance.  The result is this:

The above includes Agder and a larger area surrounding it; opening the image in its own window should provide a clear detailed picture, as I saved this in 300 dpi.

I'm still not sure.  The mountain repetition looks a bit processed, but then there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.  I do like the colour scheme for the larger, more important cities; they're in shades of brown.  But overall, I'm posting this to make the point — outside the series I'm writing — often demands a new look at old work.  It's not a straight line.  This is, I think, my fourth version of a 6-mile hex map, and still I'm looking at it and wanting to change the border colour.

At least, it doesn't look heavy-handed.  With maps, I find, muted variations often look better than primary colours.

Anyway, no, there's no key to the above as yet.  White country is pure mountain rock with little vegetation, the bluish-purple is shield country, interspersed with stunted and very thin pine trees, while the various greens indicate semi-arable and arable lands.  Darker colours are more populated and possess more activity (hammers), wealth (coins) and farming (bread).

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Recognisable D&D

Rule #1 of achieving immersion is not wanting to die.

Give that a moment to sink in.  I haven't said "in the game" yet.  That's because immersing oneself in life requires the same desire to NOT DIE.  That is, not behaving like this:

Long ago, I recognised that some players treated D&D exactly like the above.  Is what I'm doing cool?  Check.  Is it unexpected and provocative?  Check.  Will it put me one roll from death, with a half-way decent chance of survival, if I make the roll?  Check.  Gawd yes, let me do it.

Because game death only matters when the player cares, then there's no reason not to do the above.  Maybe my present character will die, and maybe the next one will ... but when the one after that makes the roll for whatever dumbfuck crazy-ass shit I've done, then I will be a GOD.  Worth it.

More than once, when a player's character died through the player's decision to perform such a stunt, I denied them the privilege of rolling up another character.  "Basically, that's it.  You've had your character.  You're dead.  And there's the door."

All things considered, drawing a hard line on a self-centered player is definitely a better feeling than lucking out at a whack die roll.  The reader can take my word on that.  But then, a lot of readers have stopped reading about sixteen words again, because what I just said is unacceptable.  Players, so it goes, should not be held to account for the way they play their characters, because they are in their perfect rights to play their character any way they want.

"Recognisable D&D" is an extremely fuzzy, subjective ideal.  Using the example of The Keep on the Borderlands, players are expected to tromp out to the Caves of Chaos, kill as many creatures as they can, grab treasure, retreat when hit points get low, heal up ... and go out again.  Each time, the characters who don't die are meant to climb up levels so they can steadily manage the whole thing — thus being entertained by all the clever little bits as they go along.

Suppose we don't do it this way.  Suppose, instead, we go once, grab a handful of gold, then leave the keep and head back to civilised parts.  There, we show a bunch of mercenaries all the gold we found, telling them we "Got it in a single day!"  If they come along with us, we'll give this gold we have now and help them get more.

Whereupon, in recognisable D&D, the DM already feels we're not getting with the "spirit of the thing" — that is, playing how we're supposed to play — and arbitrarily blocks us from raising a small army with the hundreds of gold we have.  So there's an argument, and we say we only want thirty persons, and it goes round and round ... but the DM eventually relents and we get our men and march back to the Keep.

Now, the DM assumes we're going to take our mass directly into the Caves ... and, if "recognisable D&D" means anything, the DM's starting to multiply the number of orcs, goblins and kobalds we'll encounter.  But we tell the DM, "No, we're not going to the Caves yet.  Instead, we build a fort about 1000 yards from the Cave entrance."

"Wait, wait, wait," says the DM, who doesn't know what we're doing, but it's definitely NOT recognisable D&D, so it absolutely cannot be allowed.  Remember that thing above, with someone saying that the way players choose to play their characters, yada yada, sacred blah blah blah?  That only applies if YOU DON'T USE YOUR BRAIN.  If you use your gawd-given human brain to circumvent the DM's expectations, or the expectations of the module maker, then you've broken the covenant and now you're fair game.  You're not allowed to build your own fort; you're not allowed to lure orcs and goblins out of their caves so that you can slaughter them with your own traps and fortifications.

If you try to build your own fort, the denizens of the cave will definitely come and attack you before you're finished, even though they have zero reason to suspect anything's happening, and they never choose to do so against the keep.  If you get your fortification built, the denizens will definitely NOT leave their caves, even though there's no logical reason why they would let interlopers casually start bonfires in their cave entrances, which are right there, ready to be seen.  Frankly, the FIRST thing anyone should do when seeing the caves is to burn everything on the surface forthwith ... as this will reveal every cave entrance and potentially suffocate the denizens with the upstairs fire sucks out all their oxygen.

But again ... this isn't recognisable D&D.

We often hear it said that D&D isn't about "winning" and "losing."  And in a traditional sense, the sense that's usually meant, no, it's not.  But so long as my character is alive and getting stronger, for my money, I'm happy; and when my character dies, whatever the reason, I'm unhappy.  I can usually see that the reason I died was because I failed to prepare enough.  If only I'd thought to bring along another three archers; or another half-dozen bottles of oil.  If only I'd approached more patiently, giving the flankers more time to get into place.  If only I hadn't used the fireball so early in the fight.  Because I think surviving D&D is about planning.  It's not about following the DM's lead.  Or acting as the DM expects.

Anytime I can move contrary to the DM's expectation, I greatly increase my chance of survival.  I had plenty of chances to experiment with this in the 80s ... and I got awfully tired of DMs, caught off guard, suddenly imposing fiat-driven rules to explain why no, I couldn't actually set the hillsides surround the Caves on fire.  There'd been too much rain lately — even if the DM hadn't mentioned rain a single time while we'd been travelling to the Keep or spending time there.  It wasn't the right kind of wood.  We didn't have enough flasks of oil to start a big fire.  Yes, there are trees large enough for kobalds to jump down from, or hide big entrances, but no, there really isn't enough vegetation here.  It was always something.  And after awhile, I didn't want to play anymore.  Not with other DMs, who resisted our using the WHOLE game world and setting to make our designs on how to overcome an enemy, survive and get rich.

That's why I stopped playing.  Because, faced with recognisable D&D, I wasn't allowed to "not die" as well as I was able.

Jump the clock forward more than thirty years, and I often find myself explaining something about how to build a game world, or how to set up an adventure — or how to encourage the players to seek goals that are larger than schlepping out to the Caves of Chaos for their sixth trip — and I am bound to be called to task by someone making an argument that says, "Oh but hey, what about recognisable D&D?"

Yeah.  Well, what about it?

My players sit down at my game world and make the characters that limit what they can constructively do in game terms.  Then, I tell them where they are, and what they see, and they make up their minds about what they want to do.  They decide, and I run it.  I don't care how many monsters they kill.  I don't care how they do it.  I don't care if they kill monsters at all.  Those things aren't up to me.  I don't agree that the game is necessarily about overcoming perilous challenges.  It usually ends up being that, and I'm happy to create peril, but it always happens because those are the choices the players make.

I believe the game is about deciding what to overcome, and then overcoming it.  Making a goal, then achieving that goal.  The best players are those that create the best goals.

The worst fucking players are those that create the worst goals.  Like, for example, deciding that doing something cool in this moment is way more important than not dying.  Or, thinking that making jokes is the reason they play; not paying attention and therefore not playing; throwing the die with intent to cheat; acting in a manner that preserves self and puts other players in greater danger.  And so on.

What is the best goals?  At bare minimum, something that increases the character's capabilities, endurance (hit points) and wealth.  Better still, something that increases the party's options on what to do next.  With great power comes great opportunities.  This is what I mean by seeing parts of the setting as "game pieces."  If we control this town, or we have the ear of the local nobility, or we know the way through the mountains, how do we use that power or knowledge to do bigger and better things.  How do we impose OUR WILL upon the game world.  Once we do "A," that let's us do "B" and "C" ... and maybe then we'll figure out how "C" and "D" will let us do "E," and so on.

I'm talking bigger things than the Caves of Chaos.

Now, I know that most players, propagandised and brainwashed into believing that they're only allowed to do what the DM wants, can't think on the level I'm asking.  In all the campaigns I've run online, it's been a tug-of-war just to convince the players that I'm really going to let them do things I haven't told them to do.  And that I'm not going to "just kill them" for trying stuff.  And that honest to fuck, I don't care what they want to do, I will not arbitrarily stop them from trying.  Repeatedly, I've had to repeat this until I'm blue in the face ... and I never do really see evidence that they believe me.

But off-line ... most of my players have never played "recognisable" anything.  They come to my world from video games, where you try everything in case it works.  Where there is no arbitrary DM's hand.  There's rules, there's what you can do, and there's what you can try.  Coming into my world, they have no preconception that I'm going to jack them.  They just assume that if it doesn't work, it's because they tried to bite off too much; or they didn't plan well enough.  They don't overthink.  They don't look for the meta-trap that savvy players know has to be there, because, "There's just no way the DM's gonna let me do this."

Honest.  Fuck recognisable D&D.  Rule #1 is survive.  Rule #1 of immersion is to consider surviving more important than everything else.  And Rule #1 of worldbuilding is making a game world where surviving is ALWAYS possible, and NEVER certain.

But there is no rule at all that says a game has to include such-and-such familiar elements, or such-and-such situations for the players, or a specific kind of organisation that enables traditional or recognisable anything.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Worldbuilding 4c: Hothior

While no doubt it's useful to have me interpret micro-geographical features into adventure possibilities, this isn't the only goal at hand.  The subtext underlying every adventure must be more than, "Keen, we fought off river pirates and visited the Well of Lered."  Tourism is nice and fun, but of greater import is to give the players a sense of mastery over their environment ... the notion that upon entering a large, impressive city, the character thinks, "One day, I'm going to own this pile of rocks," rather than "Ooh, aah ... big!"

Not that I haven't made the point before, but ... requiring players to start with first level characters, even when everyone else is 9th level, accords a tangible sense of accumulated mastery obtained through effort given.  Players who start as a bunch of drifters hoping to accumulate enough coin to get themselves good armour are building memories for the day when they buy two hundred suits for their honour guard before marching their armies into a neighbouring kingdom.  There was a time, they'll always remember, when an ogre was scary ... and when the day comes to fight the beholder, they'll cheer themselves forward by saying something like, "Remember when we couldn't handle an ogre?  Come on, guys ... we've got this."

I bring this up because the kingdom of Hothior isn't anything like Mivior.  Here.  Have a look:

If Mivior is an enclosed fortress facing the sea, Hothior is a natural cultural and economic powerhouse.  Observe it's location within the greater continent.  It straddles the outflow of three significant rivers: The Deep, the Flood Water and The Ebbing ... each of which grants Hothior access to the interior far beyond the lesser benefits accorded to Addat in the last post, which is near the mouth of The River Sullen.  Ignoring the needs of the game Divine Right, the origin of the map, a D&D version of Hothior would be the world's marketplace, similar to the geographical benefits of the Netherlands of Earth.

Presumably, there's another group of lands across The Sea of Drowning Men, from which arrives great ships docking at the mighty ports of Lork and Lapspell.  The river basins would have rich soils, particularly the Flood Water, while raw materials from Immer, foodstuffs from Muetar and riches from Pon would find their way down river to be sold in Hothior markets to the rest of the world.

For traditional players and DMs, looking for "recognisable" D&D, this is a setting fraught with confusion and difficulties.  Like those DMs who eschew any adventures in towns — unless its a jaunt around the local dungeon-like sewers — Hothior's law & order, heavily taxed and organized setting offers very little.  It's too big to plunder; there are too many eyes on the players actions; one little mistake and it's guards chasing us through the streets and prison to follow.  Players just want to get out, get back to the wilderness, where an adventurer can slaughter a goblin village with no one being the wiser.

Without a sense for the devious or an understanding of how factions operate, it's very difficult for a DM to run "Civilisation."  The players cannot just take out their weapons and start casting spells in town, because "town" is populated by three or four thousand citizens at least ... a few more than an ordinary dungeon with 60 monsters carefully catalogued into bite-sized pieces.  If the town comes rushing into the street, the players are perceived to be, well, fucked.

Yet we blithely watch film after film of good guys and bad guys fighting running battles through streets, where the police are competent only at piling their cars upon one another while masterful artists like Jason Bourne and James Bond zip, leap, dive and dodge their way out of trouble with ease.  Is it just that there are skills that ought to be in place?  Or is it that DMs can't visualise the layout of a town sufficiently to let the players conveniently slip out of sight quickly enough to let a passel of guards run by?

And if the danger in town is that much greater, shouldn't the rewards be that much greater as well?  After all, as I explained above, where Hothior is concerned, the money is here.  As with Antwerp, Cologne and Amsterdam, half the money in the world is either flowing into Hothior or out of it.  Surely the players ought to find a way to dip their hand in the pouring river of money and dredge out a worthy bucket or two.

But no.  That's not the players' experience.  So they anxiously buy a few things they can only get here and vamoose out of town as if chased by their bootstraps.  And DMs sigh relief as they do, so we can get back to good ol' traditional D&D, the way it was meant to be run — at least, according to a bunch of dead guys whose familiarity with the modern world has already shrunk to nothing in the rear view window.

We're not here for this, though; we're here for me to deconstruct the region and explain how topography and other features contribute to game play.  I'll get on with that.

Like other kingdoms, Hothior has its own troubles.  Mivior on the west is an occasional interloper into the Bad Axe forest, as shipbuilding there has a neverending demand for wood — wood that Hothior would prefer to keep for itself, to support boat and shipbuilding in Port Lork.  Despite the mountains in the northwest, trolls have more than once circumvented the mountains and laid siege to Tadafat, cutting off trade along the Ebbing and burning surrounding fields.  Much of Hothior's northern boundary is unsecured, in part because too much public spending to defend against the barbarians there is money not spent to protect against the large, dangerous kingdom of Muetar to the east.  Camel raids from Shucassam wade across the Deep during the late summer season and create other headaches for the lands east of Lapspell.  And, of course, there are The Banished Lands.

First, a word about these.  There are no Earthly examples of an inlet or estuary bay with this sort of climate on this bank and that sort of climate on that bank.  The St. Lawrence River is the largest estuary in the world ... and yet both climate and topography are indistiguishable.  The same can be said for the Rio de la Plata in South America, the Gulf of Ob in Siberia and Meghna estuary below the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers.  So, nonsensical.  But I know readers will only shrug their shoulders and argue that something huge and magical happened here, that blasted the land's soil and made it impractical for Hothior to simply occupy both sides of the river and extend its boundaries logically to Shucassam.  As the map says, however, those downs are waterless.

So, instead, let's talk about the "Huts of the Scum."  It's a deliciously suggestive name for groups of weak mercenaries available in Divine Right's game play.  They're worth talking about here because they represent a non-structured populated entity outside the rule of law and kingdom.  Traditionally, DMs would make the place into a "black market" bazaar, where players can buy "anything" — as reflected in the endless cliched existence of Mos Eisley, Bartertown or any other fictional out of the way place.  Naturally, merchants love hauling their stuff 20 or 30 miles away from a river into the middle of a desert, to sell in an atmosphere of arbitrary law and zero meaningful justice, because obviously the tyrannical "might is right" leader of the Scum would never randomly seize all our goods and then bury us in the desert, right?

This is definitely a lot better than selling these same goods in a town right on the water just over there, where there are thousands of customers, a guild to protect our goods and profits, and the ability to pass along taxes to the suckers, er, the good people of Hothior.  Yeah.  That's how things work.

Turning the huts into a desert bazaar is weaksauce.  What about scores of scattered villages of refugees, eeking out an existence of desperation and humiliation ... which actually occurs in places like Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq and Palestine.  And how do the able youth free themselves from those places?  They willingly join as fanatics for the cause of some would-be dictator, ready to sacrifice them as ill-bred cannon-fodder.

Players, however, might recognize a better, higher purpose.  They might investigate water sources, cutting their way into a few underdark places, recognising that if the "Scum" can be set free, and if the Banished Lands can be made healthy, this is a ready starting place for a client-kingdom of either Hothior or Shucassam.  A buffer state, even, if it's able to hold its own through the plucky ability of a group of 14th level player characters.

This comes back to an earlier point: how can the players make themselves useful?  The Huts of the Scum needn't be just another kiosk for players to buy shit.  It can be a piece of ground the players acquire and place under their jurisdiction; a place from which to build; or at least a place where they can return to again and again, as a friendly place that remembers what the players have done and is always ready to help.

In the same manner, traditional D&D would demand that the Bad Axe forest is full of dark evilness, and most likely some forboding, evil-based fortification the players can journey to as a single-shot adventure ... whereupon, the Bad Axe forest is totally forgotten, having nothing else to offer.

In truth, as I've said, Hothior greatly depends on the forest for its industry; it's control over the forest is vital to its military and naval interests.  Timber is a valuable commercial product — yet looking at a game's setting this way is treated as "anti-fantasy" and therefore anti-player.  I disagree.

Each hex of the Bad Axe carries its own personality.  H27, adjacent to Port Lork, is the primary source of timber.  H34, accessible from the sea, makes another convenient source.  Even better, H34 is split in two by an inlet ... and we may assume a small stream, not shown on the map, wending its way up through H26, H18 and H09, to the Hothior controlled mountainous hexes H01 and H02.  The east bank of this wild course is safely Hothiorian ... but the west side is full of Miviorian timber poachers, criminals escaping both Miviorian and Hothorian justice, plus the occasional wandering troop from Trollwood or the Shaker Mts.  The west side of H34 and all of H26, most easily accessed from Mivior, are the most likely places to meet bandits and poachers.

H18 and H10 are occasionally logged, especially for the largest trees, since most of those are missing from the forest closer to Port Lork.  No doubt, the army of Hothior occasionally plunges into H17 and H09 to resecure these parts ... but perhaps no more often than every five years or so.  In that time, a kobald village may have been founded, or a nest of vermin has accumulated; or even some hideous beast and torn apart a section and created an immense lair for itself.  And of course there may be a dungeon of some kind on the lower slopes of the Shaker Mts., anywhere in Hothior's far west.  What's important to remember is that the woods are not just a single adventure ... but potentially more.  There's nothing to stop the players from clearing out some of the back country, bringing bandits to justice, searching to uncover the pass that trolls are using to creep through the mountains, or to eradicate a small keep the trolls have built inside Hothior land.  Numerous opportunities exist.

Looking at Hothior's norther border, we're brought to The Invisible School of Thaumaturgy.  I don't want to create a post specifically for this small kingdom, so we can discuss it here.  In my mind, spellcasting is a guild; one that seeks to protect its secrets, and yet similarly grants those secrets to new members.  A mage must learn how to cast somewhere.  The school has embassies in every major city, where entry is exclusive — thus only characters with sufficient intelligence and dexterity may obtain an education there.

Politically, the School is a free-lance entity.  Positioned between Elfland, Immer, Muetar and Hothior, it can play these off against each other or alternately maintain the peace.  It can keep Trollwood strong and a constant threat towards Hothior, Mivior and Elfland, to ensure that the barbarian lands surrounding the School's fiefdom are kept wild.  The High Marches form a line of hills that reach down into Hothior, while the Forest of Lurking — truly a more entangled forest than the Bad Axe — keeps Muetar at a distance.  The Lowlands of south Immer serve as another frontier.  But we will talk more of Immer later.

The Well of Lered is a 50-mile wide lake formed by springs; floods roll down the Flood Water river when ice and snow melt from the High Marches and the unnamed mountains south of the School itself.  The Ebbing to the west also forms from these mountains and the hills, and probably further springs throughout.

Hothior would dearly like to seize hold of the upper streams, clear out the barbarians, diminish the power of the School, plunder the forests for timber that could be floated down the Flood Water ... except that the magical power of the School is simply too powerful.  Remember, in Port Lork, Lapspell and Tadafat, there are guildhouses dedicated to teaching young Hothiorians to be wizards — and to maintain the School's political status quo.  There are like schools in Muetar and Immer.  To break the power of the guild, multiple states would have to form an alliance ... and there will always be one state that will fear the alliance once its formed.  Mivior can be induced to attack Hothior, the trolls can keep Elfland busy, Pon and Shucassam can be induced to raid into Muetar ... and Zorn, kingdom of the goblins, is an endless headache for Immer.

Thus, Hothior accepts it's northern border, plundering into the forests when it dares, maintaining a watch against the trolls and other barbarians (orcs and such) ... and waits for an opportunity.  Perhaps something the players are able to do, as they operate outside the expectations of the game world.

Incidentally, I don't think the School is really "invisible."  It's merely hard to reach, and represents an ever-present invisible hand influencing Minarian politics.

Who are the Farnot Seafolk?  Nominally, I take them to be an independent guild of sailors and experienced navigators, available as mercenaries and loyal especially to Hothior — who no doubt presses an agreed upon part of their number each year.  The Seafolk know the waters of The Sea of Drowning Men and beyond better than anyone in Minaria; they have skills that enable their semi-independence and their protection.  Farnot is, itself, unfortified.  Their people are scattered far and wide, however, and if another kingdom undertook to destroy the Seafolk, it could be the latter could offer little consequence.  Therefore, it's wise not to play favourites.  Still, it's possible that through the Seafolk, a tribute is paid by some large distant empire across the sea, who would take unkindly to anything foul.  And it would be difficult to track down every last member of the seafolk, to keep news from leaking out.

One benefit of partaking in this exercise of explaining and describing a game world I'll never run is that — while many of these themes are reflected in my game — I'm free to give away details that I carefully keep locked up about my own setting.  For example, I have "Schools of Thaumaturgy" in my world ... but how those operate, and even where they are, remains behind closed curtains.  The troubles of my own kingdoms are similar, but distinct in their own right, as places like Milan, Gilan, Asmara or Mrauk Oo (a real place) have conundrums far more complicated and levelled than anything I've described here ... because my world is bigger, denser, further elaborated upon and more tangible.  Yet Minaria nevertheless serves as a small-scale framework from which the reader can further divise greater complexity.

How would YOU solve the troubles of Hothior's northern border?  How would you make better use of the Bad Axe?  What arrangements would you try to make with the Farnot Seafolk.  How would you approach the Banished Lands.  Are you traditional, and unable to see a world beyond the next dungeon door ... or can you see what I mean when I say, controlling this place or that is like acquiring a larger game piece than what your character represents?

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Worldbuilding 4b: Mivior

"When a fighter attains 9th level (Lord), he or she may opt to establish a freehold.  This is done by building some type of castle and clearing the area in a radius of 20 to 50 miles around the stronghold, making it free from all sorts of hostile creatures.  Whenever such a freehold is established and cleared, the fighter will: (1) automatically attract a body of men-at-arms ...; (2) collect a monthly revenue of 7 silver pieces for each and every inhabitant ..."

— page 22, original DMG

This is the "End Game," a term I didn't hear until the internet.  Frankly, the idea made zero sense to me and to my early players.  If a zero-level character buys a piece of hinterland, and does nothing with it, including not "clearing it," and chooses to rent it to another character, does that mean the renter doesn't have to pay rent?  Obviously, it doesn't.  If an ordinary non-experienced tough in town can gather together a gang of ruffians; or a bandit can get a bunch of other bandits together — and neither has to do so much as nail two pieces of wood together, they why does a 9th level LORD or LADY have to build an entire castle before getting men-at-arms willing to follow his or her commands?  Aren't they following the individual, and NOT the land or the fortress?  And what does any of this have to do with the actual kingdom, which surely would have a say about who gets to build and who gets to demand rent from people residing on land the fighter doesn't own.  What if the character does some service for the state and the state decides to invest him or her with a title, and isn't "9th level"?  Does the king say, "Oh, I'd like to make you a minor baron, but oops, sorry, you're not experienced enough.  Come back later."

It's a kind of meta-game idiocy; one that I've always ignored.  ANY player, of ANY class, can become a lord, since it's not assigned by how much experience and what level you've maintained, but by BIRTH and MERIT ... the latter happening because of what the player does, not what the player is.  If a character has never shown any interest in politics, or a particular kingdom, or made any inroads with the local nobility, or has never done anything for the local authorities, then why should anyone suddenly decide out of the blue, "Oh, you're a 9th level lord!  Here, please take some of my land and make it yours, because you're just so delish!"

I've heard many people express the belief that the "end game" is so-called because it's where all the fun is taken out of adventuring and the character is ready for retirement.  Jeebus.

The end game is the beginning game.  It's the headspace the players should have from the start.  This doesn't preclude adventuring and going into dungeons, and all the things JB calls "recognisable" D&D ... but it DOES assume that these things are done with an end goal in mind: the acquisition of power, wealth, status, support followers and places on the map that are secure for the players.  I recognise that traditional D&D players are fascinated with two-dimensional hollow, toneless escapades into futile and aimless dungeons ... but it's that exact ideal that built the community wide response for MORE STORIES, BETTER STORIES, GREATER CHARACTERS, blah blah blah.

Characters don't need a "backstory."  The setting does.  Adventures don't need a "story."  The setting needs continuity, necessities, grounds for action, principles, a TRAJECTORY, a pretext telling the players what actions are called for and why they should do it.

But no one seems to know how to build a setting; hell, they don't even think a setting is for this.  They think a setting is a "game board," as Original Carl called it.  A thing to be used to tally how many days it takes to move from this dungeon to that dungeon.  So the reach has been for "stories" because it's something low-brow people (including those at the company) can grasp.

To try to explain an alternative, I'll be writing a series within this series, outlining a game world that isn't mine.  Thus explaining a series of possible wholistic campaigns providing a greater depth of play coupled with recognisable D&D.

First, we'll start with a region called "Mivior."   I'll be treating the map exclusively from a D&D perspective, to highlight themes of running a campaign game — and as such, any elements of the game Divine Right, where the map comes from, should be utterly ignored.  For example, for our purposes, we need to view mountains as impassable for an army of any kind, unless there's clear evidence on the map indicating a pass.  A small party could pass through a mountain hex, but with regards to invasion, mountains form a practical defensive barrier.

Please forgive my need to put numbers on everything, and for the difficulty in reading the numbers.  If you open the image in another window, you'll find it's large enough to zoom in, making reading easier; and I'll be putting blow-up shots of individual parts of the map throughout this post.

Let's start with an overview.  Mivior is a mountainous kingdom overlooking the ocean.  The Shaker Mountains form a backbone along the southern third, while Serpent Bay splits the northern third from the rest.  There are four cities: Colist, Boliske, Addat and Boran.  These are rated as to their defense and importance.  Colist is in a white hex, is the King's residence and is rated "4."  Boliske is rated 3, Addat 2 and Boran 1.

Mivior's "troubles," for all kingdoms have troubles, are defined by its "environs."  For this, finding Mivior within the bigger picture by looking here would be beneficial.  Mivior's boundaries include the Sea of Drowning Men; the border with Hothior to the east, defined by the Bad Axe forest and the Shaker Mts.; Trollwood, occupying the land route between the north of Mivior and the south; the deadly huge ancient dragon Urmoff, that rules over Serpent Bay and acts as a hazard to shipping; the Wetlands, in the middle course of The River Sullen, and The Breaking, a cluster of hills north of Addat.  Beyond The Breaking and the Wetland is the heavily forested kingdom of Elfland.  Each of these are an enormous headache for the monarchy, driving internal and external policy, demanding monies and resources, concerns the player characters would need to keep in mind wherever they may happen to be.  We want to dive into those "concerns" with this post — as these provide a playbook describing what the PCs can do to be useful to one side of each conflict or the other, to make themselves wealthy, to increase their number of experience, to make friends and enemies, to get rich and to set up those safe spaces mentioned earlier.

Let's examine the NORTH.

Suppose we define each hex as 40 miles wide.  This puts the edge of The Breaking a mere 25 miles north of Addat; the bottom green edge of Elfland is a little more than 100 miles away; the mouth of the Sullen is 45 miles to the east and the furthest land along the Sullen is 145 miles away (and above that are the Wetlands).  Trollwood is 100 miles away and Urmoff the Serpent is, well, close enough to sink any ship that puts to sea.

As designers, positing the existence of Urmoff, we need to half-way solve this problem for Mivior.  Eventually, the players could get to be high enough level to slaughter Urmoff and become national heroes, but starting at 1st level, that's a long-term goal to say the least.  Clearly, no one in the kingdom is strong enough to do so; for that to make sense, Urmoff has to be extremely powerful, effectively a double- or triple-dragon, 250 hit points, 150 ft. long, etc.  However, like any kingdom with an enemy it can't defeat, Mivior can pay a tribute ... and so, it's agreed that so long as Mivior agrees to provide a sufficient amount of what Urmoff wants — victims, magical essence, agreements to stay out of Serpent Bay, whatever — then Urmoff agrees to leave Mivior's shipping alone.  That still lets Urmoff destroy Hothior shipping, Shucassam shipping or Rombune shipping ... which creates international problems of its own, as these other kingdoms pressure Mivior to do something about Urmoff.  But it does alleviate one of Mivior's problems.  It's vessels can sail securely, and because they can, Mivior can yield much more from the sea than it's competitors.  Mivior, then, is the world's source for fish, shipbuilding, ambergris, crushed seashell and so on.

Addat's principle problem, then, is The Breaking.  As our maps shows this coloured brown, Mivior either can't control it or the land is so poor it's not worth the effort.  Thus the area is occupied by "barbarians," a general term we'll use for anyone not part of a kingdom.  These could be humans, orcs, orcs led by ogres and even ogre magi, whatever we wish.  But, looking at the whole map of Minaria, I suggest The Breaking isn't that significant a hinterland, and that anything truly threatening would also bother the elves of Elfland; so let's say it's a composite of disassociated orcish tribes, raising sheep and scrubby cattle, and forced to raid into Mivior lands whenever their food supply dwindles or they need weapons.  This creates an easy set of adventures for low-level players who set out to clear some of the nearer hills, defend hamlets and thorpes north of Addat ... or venture into the hills to make alliances, gather one or two tribes together and, Conan-like, lead the tribes to raiding Mivior's territory.  There's no expectation the players have to be on Mivior's side.

The trolls of Trollwood offer a deeper problem.  Their violations of Mivior territory are far more dangerous and severe; Addat can probably manage the west bank of the Sullen — which we can postulate is a deep, swollen river with undertows, and probably an estuary at the mouth in M05.  Mivior can build forts on the west bank along M02, M05 and M06 ... but protecting the east bank wouldn't be so easy.  No doubt, settlers eager for land are constantly trying to make a go of it on the east bank of the Sullen ... and are occasionally killed, eaten, the farms and animals destroyed.  Yet the trolls have no real desire to settle in the flatlands outside their forest.  Undoubtably, the lowlands of the Sullen are rich lands, and perhaps there's a monster fortress in  M07 or M09 that can provide shelter for refugees when the trolls decide to invade.  There might even be alarm arrangements to warn peasants that troll groups are on the move.

This creates an interesting back and forth for these lands.  The players can try to set themselves up as local "troll-hunters," providing reassurance to a group of farmers they're paid to protect.  At the same time, fighting trolls and gathering money is a great way to accumulate levels 4 to 7.  The players might even venture into Trollwood itself, in quest for some "troll-protecting amulet" that the trolls have hidden, or to release some underdark enemy from the mountains south of The Stone Face, the seat of troll power — svirfneblin, say; someone the trolls can manage but will take a year or two.  Keep in mind, Addat and Mivior would love to make those lands east of the Sullen productive, as it would increase their exports and provide more food for their people, increasing their overall population and thus helping create a bigger army and other fortifications to fight off the trolls or use in their disputes with Hothior or abroad (Mivior occasionally takes part in foreign wars, after all).  A group of players might be exactly what's needed to "get the ball rolling" in Mivior's favour, by helping Mivior get a better foothold on its own territory.

North of Trollwood, there are barbarians in the Wetlands too.  These are too far to practically raid into Mivior proper, but The River Sullen is an economic route between Ider-Bolis of Elfland and Addat.  The eighty mile stretch of slow water surrounded by bogs and fens (a northern marsh rather than something like a bayou) makes barges vulnerable to masses of tribal groups in skiffs with spears.  These wetlands are divided by the hills ("the High Marches") surrounding The Invisible School of Thaumaturgy ... but perhaps the tribal raiders trade whatever they find with the mages there.  An agreement to pole a barge upstream and fight off raiders could lead the players from Addat into the mysterious lands of the School; this being a group of active and well-meaning scholars ... but we can discuss them another day.

Elves drift down the river and into Addat, so there's plenty of opportunity for these to give information to the players, to explain the troubles going on above and give the players an opportunity to be forewarned and forearmed.  It's up to the players to look over the geopolitical landscape and try to solve the problems themselves ... assuming, of course, that they're not hopelessly traditional and vacuous with regards to their gaming motives.  It's up to us to lead them a bit by the nose, having others suggest how the players can play their part in the grand schemes of other persons ... and hope the players decide they can "do better" with these problems than NPCs.

Moving onto CENTRAL Mivior.

Our goal is to create interesting, unique parts of the world that offer novelty for the players.  "Boran on the Moor" gives us a great inspiration: M13 and M15, shown as clear hexes on the map, are not rich farmlands or pastures, they're unproductive moors, like those in western Ireland or in Brittany.  The Shaker mountains force Boran's attention on the sea, and we can imagine the moors are located above high, rocky cliffs, blasted by severe storms that strike the west side of Mivior from Serpent Bay south.

But remember, the Sea of Drowning Men is Mivior's best friend.  Tribute transforms Urmoff into a kind of ally, while providing Mivior with riches.  I choose to see "The Shining Isle" of Boliske as a facetious play on words; the isle itself is likely rocky and as pleasant as Scotland's Hebrides.  But Boliske itself might be virtually impregnable, an excellent refuge for Mivior privateers, private vessels paid to attack non-Mivior shipping and bring it home.  The "shining" is therefore the piles of glistening booty stolen from ships and brought to Boliske, the most hated fortress outside of Mivior.

Meanwhile, the capes in M10 and M15 might drive truly daunting storms into the gullet of Boran, challenging the survivability of the town and limiting its residents.  Here's a scene from 1970s Ryan's Daughter to give a taste of what the storms might be like.  Parts of the world like this would get rich with "wrecker gangs," plundering ships that would founder on the rocks, detailed in novels like Jamaica Inn or in Stan Rogers' delightful The Wreck of the Athens Queen (sorry about the last, it requires a Canadian or a Mainer to understand the lyrics).

Therefore, though Boran or Boliske offer something of a claustrophobic campaign, with short journeys into the wild Shaker Mts. (where a few trolls may be found from Trollwood), there's opportunities for the players to be granted a smashed ship to plunder, a survivor to provide some tale to be told, a chance to become a privateer for Mivior ... even a chance to explore the small woodland north of Boran, fight some wolves or a Banshee, and get a sight of Serpent Bay — and perhaps of Urmoff himself, a terrifying prospect.

The "Shaker" mountains may indeed shake.  There may be a convergent boundary between lithospheric plates, creating very deep water along Mivior's coast and earthquakes up and down the mountains, like those occasionally experienced by British Columbia and especially Alaska.  We could roll 3d6 each game day, with three sixes offering an earthquake of 6 or more on the richter scale within 1 to 100 miles of the party.  That would certainly shake up a campaign.

And the SOUTH.

The westerlies hit the west shore of Mivior so hard that Colist has to be on the eastern side of the Mivior peninsula.  I choose to see M26, M30, M32 and M33 as mountains, though it doesn't show on the map, because it would have been difficult for the artist to insert them.  The forests of M22 and M26 therefore are have dense, massive trees, like the old growth of the Olympia Peninsula, in Washington state.  Colist, comparatively, is a sheltered rock shelf, highly defended, ridiculously wealthy and protected by a massive fleet.  Anything can be bought in Colist, though it's hard to access from the rest of Mivior.

East of the Shaker Mts. are five blank hexes, hemmed in by the border of Hothior and the Bad Axe forest.  This plain depends on the sea for its access, as the Shaker Mountains limit the practicality of a road between the plain and Colist ... and that makes it vulnerable to Hothior, who'd like to take the plain from Colist.  However, Hothior's own imperialist intentions are marred by the tangled Bad Axe forest; with a name like "Bad Axe," we can assume it's not army-friendly.  It's not the "Easy Walk" forest.  So, with both entities hamstrung in their control, we should assume the land has been fought over dozens of times ... and that the people are ethnically a mixture of Miviorians and Hothiorians.  No doubt, internally, the people have little love for one another.

An area like this makes difficult campaigning for players who like clear-cut goals and easy wins.  Both kingdoms claim the land; both are equally balanced in the claim and neither are certain to hold the land, even if they do succeed in winning a victory this time around.  The plain itself has no rivers that appear on the map; but we know from our frontier post that scores of little rivulets must pour down from the Shaker Mts. into the sea.  That's important.  Rivers, even small streams, carry down placer deposits, make good farm and pastureland — and create strong, stable ethnic groups.  A war might break out between Mivior and Hothior only every 20 to 50 years ... and meanwhile, this plain gives excellent access to both kingdoms, the sea and much of the wider game world.  In some ways, it's a better place to settle than anywhere around Addat or Boran.  Despite the threat of Hothior, it's generally safer.

I hope that from this the reader can see how the LAND drives adventure, through the way that different parts create troubles and impossible solutions for the inhabitants.  The players are asked not to wait for 9th level!  To roll up their sleeves and get involved, to attack the problems as they see fit, within the restrictions provided by their level, the local agendas and the limitations on local imaginations.  The DM is responsible for outlining these troubles, but not providing solutions.

... and still, that doesn't keep us from having the locals do the stupidest thing possible, to help convince the party that they can do better.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Worldbuilding 4a - Setting

At last we've come to a place in our design where we can build something the players can actually run in.  If we've done our part right, there should be five or six interesting places in our opening continent that offer unique experiences for the player.  The time has come to pick one and settle into sketching out further details.

But ... I can't assume we've done our part right; so I've got to go into depth on what "our part" is.  That is, essaying to supply some idea of what a region might look like when we've finished.

I thought about creating template-like examples — when I realized they already exist, from a source as ancient as the old "Dungeon" game.  I've referred to it earlier on the blog and have used it as an example for other things; in this case, it's excellent because the different regions were deliberately created to be both unlike one another AND cliched.  So, perfect.  It's called Minaria.

So.  A couple of things.  First, regarding climate, this is not much better than Greyhawk.  Still, like I said, each kingdom has characteristics utterly unlike each other kingdom on the map.  The troll and dwarf "kingdoms" are scattered in an interesting way and there are two "wizard" kingdoms ... giving us some interesting points of discussion.  Moreover, unlike Greyhawk, I actually ran this map; in the late 80s, wanting time to fix my trade system, I had the players "phase" into Minaria, beginning an 18-month quest they had to complete in order to get back to Earth.  Worked fine as a campaign-changer; only problem was, I actually didn't fix my trade system.  That didn't get fixed until 2004.

Now I'd like to dig into the map above, and I intend to ... but ... we have an elephant in the room to talk about first.  Anything I'm going to say about building an interesting setting and making it grander and less shallow has to start with a caveat about traditional players and traditional game settings.  A subject I haven't addressed — and which beckons us before we move on from here.

Most table-top games, as we all know, hardly need a setting.  Players care about getting to the dungeon, getting back, buying equipment, healing, getting back to the dungeon ... and repeat.  Ad nauseam.  Which, for those who don't speak Latin, means until we're so disgusted that we throw up.  Which describes my level of patience with "traditional" TTGs.

If your players are traditional, and you haven't got the salt to run an a-typical game, then I'm afraid all I've said so far in these foregoing posts has been a waste of time.  We need some understanding of how rivers, towns, kingdoms and resources work; we need a comprehensive understanding how these things influence and connect people together, in sociological and economical ways.  If the reader hasn't got this, because he or she hasn't read enough books, or can't apply the knowledge of books to things, or just doesn't care, then a setting — any setting — is a total waste of time.

Traditional D&D doesn't need a setting.  It only needs a basic map with basic points — and to be dead honest, doesn't even need the map.  All of this can be done in the DM's head.

For this, I'm deliberately using someone else's version of a village, because it's closer to what "traditional" is than anything I'd make.  Starting at the bottom.

1. The road back to where the players came from: some small village, some tiny collection of houses.  A place the players are never going to again.

2. The gate where they get charged heavily at the start at the campaign, run by boorish, miserable guards who push them around and then are probably never seen again, no matter how long the players hang around.

3. The only place that really matters: the market.  Various shop fronts, stalls that appear and disappear whenever it's convenient for the game session.  Everything needed to enter a dungeon is available, though none of those things have any use for anyone living in this town.  What the hell are these people going to do with 50 ft. coils of rope?  As many as the party needs to buy, of course.  All dungeon-friendly items are inexhaustible.

4. The inn, complete with tavern, stable, yard, outdoor toilets, with access from all sides in case a thief needs to break into the players room or the players need to jump out of a window to chase down someone on the street.  The players stay here every time they're in town, but they never learn anyone's name, because it isn't necessary.

5. Up and to the left of (4).  The rich person's mansion, where the players visit to be told of the FIRST dungeon, and be given clues about it.  This person sends for the players when they arrive at the Inn; presumably, because the inn rooms can be watched with a spyglass from the upper floors of the mansion.

6. The guardhouse the players go through to leave the town to go somewhere bigger and more populated (7).  Usually, as far as the players get before the guards seize them and take them to (5), or explain that no one's allowed on the road to the big city for "reasons" ... or who simply stand around ignore the players as they leave.  When the players return, these guards will harass the players as if having never seen them before ... even though clearly there's only enough houses in this village for about 150 people (and that's being generous).

7. The road to the big city.  Not important.  If the players go there, it's just to get something so they'll come back here.

8. The entrance the players will use when coming back from the dungeon.  Chances are, the DM will forget to harass them, being so eager to get the players back to see (5) again.

9. The side road that takes the players to the FIRST dungeon.  The other road, not numbered, might take the players to a SECOND dungeon, or might not lead to anywhere.

10. Lesser rich person with a stable of horses who's here to tell the players about the SECOND dungeon.

11. The Apothecary's shack.  The apothecary is here to sell potions, raise the dead (note, there is no church in the village), interpret symbols carefully copied down from the dungeon, or books found there, etcetera.  Basically, an expositional shoppe.

12. A place behind the Inn where the players can meet other people from outside the village, specifically mercenaries who can be hired.

13. Back door of the inn, leading into the open area.  Players are assassinated or backstabbed here, or as they pass they hear someone say "Psssst ..." so that a thief can tell them that either (5) or (10) is up to no good, shouldn't be trusted, etcetera.

14. This is an upper courtyard above the market where the players get lured and then beaten up by toughs, rakes, guards, whatever.  Area also functions as a "town hall" if the players need official permission to do something, or if they're brought here by guards so they can be warned officially to "get out of town."

15. This is where the daughter of (5) secretly arranges to meet with a member of the party so she can tell them about the THIRD dungeon (somewhere up river from 16), or why her father in (5) is up to no good, or generally explain the politics of the town, because obviously she's the only innocent person who lives here.

16. The place where two streams meet.  At some convenient moment, the party will find a body floating here.

17. This is where the party sees two persons meeting "in secret" beneath the trees, from a vantage point in (10)'s corral.  The two might be anyone from the town who have no reason whatsoever to meet in private — say, one of the toughs and (5), or the thief from (13) and the apothecary, or any other combination that makes the players go, "Hm."

18. A boat launch where the players are told to meet someone in the town who's ready to give them "very important information."

19. The cliff the players will need to climb when they finally decide to break into (5)'s house.

And so on.  This combination of clues and dungeons can easily keep a party busy for a year of Saturdays, so long as the DM can keep bouncing the people of the town against each other.  Mind you, none of this needs something as gauche as the deep secret under Hommlet.  Television shows like Lost, The Walking Dead and Pretty Little Liars prove that all you need is endless, meaningless doubt and accusation to go on, and on, and on.  And when that gets a little tiresome, insert a "guest star," who arrives in the village to talk to someone, or be mysteriously killed in the market place, or leave behind some dangerous talisman that reveals there's a FOURTH dungeon underneath the apothecary's.

Point is, traditional players won't care.  They won't.  So long as we tease them with a little mystery in the village that doesn't keep them from returning to yet another dungeon, they'll be totally happy.

For about two-to-three years.  Whereupon, they'll tire of the go around, and either quit D&D altogether or stumble into some other new-but-not-nearly-as-good version of the above.  20 years later, they'll talk endlessly on their blogs about "Wow, when we were kids, there was this guy who ran this amazing village ..."

Sorry.  Just threw up in my mouth.

To climb out of this ... I don't what you call it, a "ghetto?"  It takes an education.  It takes the ability to build a setting that isn't made of cliches.  It needs an ability to recognize that villages are not surrounded by grasslands and trees, but by farms and people working all day and night.  Medieval villages of 150 people are not laid out this tightly, unless its a fortification ... in which case, everyone's a soldier and there's no market, no inn, no nothing for outsiders.

And no village is going to build three gates!  Jeebus.  Travellers will go around the village and not buy anything here.  Three quarters of this town are repurposed to manning the gates!  A village is almost all houses, usually scattered, with each house having direct access to the river as a watersource.  A stream this narrow isn't provided with bridges.  Streams that flood have levees.  There are no levees here, so clearly this stream doesn't.  Green spaces are for animals to graze on; do any of these look like grazing places?

My point is not that the map is wrong; it's that the lack of understanding how the world would have to be, to support people, severely limits our thinking.  The village and it's layout isn't important at all.  We don't need it, because the game world isn't a "stage play" for an audience that wants plot points and stories.

In a richer game, the village is a game piece.  It provides access to information and goods for the players, yes, but ownership of the village, defense of the village, utilisation of the village are larger games to be played.  The villagers themselves are a resource against enemies; they are pawns to be exploited; they are territory to be obtained or lost, depending on the player's larger choices, when they want to stop playing Agatha Christie and start playing Tom Clancy.  Who gives a damn if there's a body floating in (16) or not.  This is a medieval game world.  A random dead body is far less upsetting than the local landlord raising the taxes, or a severe winter threatening everyone, or 75 dead bodies because there's a plague.

"Traditional" D&D loves to play at chicken little politics, because that's the measure of plot uneducated, inexperienced children raised on television and netflix shows can handle.  But there are bigger stakes to play for ... and that's why designing a solid, complex world offers a great deal more.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Worldbuilding 3c: Control

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

By now, the reader has enough to create the world's big picture: lay out the coastlines, define the river basins and put mountains, hills or plateaus between the rivers.  Seed your main cities in place where the rivers meet the coasts, or where great rivers meet each other.  Define the latitude of your first continent with respect to the world's sphere and sketch out the prevailing winds, east and west, that hit the continent on each side.  By now you should know what kind of large-scale world you want, as we've discussed.  We'll talk about all these things again in upcoming posts — so for the moment, just make broad, sweeping strokes as you draw in these details.

For example, don't worry what the mountains are like, exactly ... a single line that stretches around the edges of a large river basin will do.  Remember, the larger the mountain range is, the more river basins it feeds; and remember that mountains feed river basins in every direction, not just on one of its sides.  But ... we'll leave that for another day.

Once all this is approximately laid out, the time has come to establish political boundaries.  There's a lot to consider here, so don't rush.  We've spoken about how river basins produce "frontiers," in the sense of sparsely populated areas the provide natural divisions between cultures ... in the way that the southern highlands of Scotland served to keep out the Romans, causing the Picts to become Scots while the southern Celts became English.  A "boundary-line" is meticulous; it defines the exact measure of land down to separating this field from that; this hill from that ridge; this side of the river from that side.  In the sense I'm using it, a "frontier" is a topographical division; a "boundary" is a civil decision, established over time through negotiation and threat.

This last is what we want to focus upon.  Boundaries define wealth — fresh water, mineral deposits, access to transport — things that monarchies and peoples fight and die to possess, when they believe they're stronger than their weaker neighbours.  Boundaries, therefore, change.  Clever, capable rulers reorganize and empower their military and financial positions to take advantage of complacent, fumbling rulers ... rolling into enemy territory, seizing towns, resources and equipment; enslaving citizens; executing enemies; dictating what gods the peasants must worship; and other everyday atrocities.

In 21st century terms, this seems, um, impolite.  And so, worldbuilders seek to create nice, neat lines where everyone lives happily in a medieval EU without a need for Brussels and talk.  After all, it sucks having to redraw our map if the Prussians sieze the port of Danzig.  Isn't it better if the Prussians and Poles just get along?

Okay; I appreciate that for some, including aspects in the game world inconsistent with modern perspectives — like, as JB postulated, having "fantasy European conquistadors murdering their way through the Americas — seems "squicky."  But I don't get that myself.  If I include a group of racist, slaughtering religious fanatics into my game world, it makes a very good foil for my players to fucking hate ... just as having murderous Nazis in an Indiana Jones film makes for satisfying, justified triumphs.  As a DM, I didn't invent Mongols.  Or rampaging cossacks.  Or the religious stoning of women.  But, in my game world, those things are there.  Not because I'm running a "simulation."  But because the potential satisfaction a player can achieve through ENDING these things is a game motivation I'm not prepared to surrender.

Sociologists tell us that we're capable, as humans, of maintaining a familiar relationship with about 150 people.  This is called "Dunbar's number" ... and yes, the reader can see from the link that the actual number is disputed and debated at length.  What matters is there is a number.  And that number is much smaller than "nation-sized."  It's easy for people on this side of the river to hate, dispise and wish the death of people on that side of the river, because we don't know them.  We don't care about them.  And we want their stuff.

No one says you have to design your game world this way.  We're perfectly free to pretend that in a fantasy game world, all the humans get along and the only things that keep peace from happening are those pesky orcs, goblins and mind flayers ... but personally I think this is a childish point of view.  And I think it makes for a banal, gutless world, bereft of nuance, meaningful purpose and the angst needed to stir characters to action.

But let me shelve this digression.  I encourage designers to create political entities along the following lines, installing a steady-state battery-like tension that underlies the game world's dynamic.

I.  Set up four to six MAJOR states.  Combined, these should control about 60% of the continent.  The "virility" of these states can be defined in three ways:  ascending, in which the state is presently threatening its neighbours; declining, in which the state is falling apart; and stable, in which the state is holding its own against its neighbours but not growing.

In places, these major states should border upon at least one other of the same rank, with each boundary creating a place of political friction.  The English-Scottish border, the French-Walloon border, the Byzantine-Turkish border; the Swedish-Russian border; or the Polish-Russian border.  Limit the number of borders with states of the same rank to no more than TWO.

II.  Where a border might occur between major powers, insert as secondary power as a BUFFER state.  Buffer states are cheaper to influence and win over than they are to conquer.  Buffer states pay tribute, sometimes to more than one side.  Buffer states ease tension between enemies, who agree not to invade a buffer state.  Create 4 to 6 buffer states and wedge them between the major states.

III.  Create one to two dozen TERTIARY states.  Yes, I said dozen.  Assign each of these to a dominant major state; this need not be a state upon which they border.  In fact, with ascending states, they often control scattered tertiary states on the other side of their enemies — for example, Habsburg Spain's control of Milan, Hesse-Kassel, Tyrol, Tunis and so on.  France was virtually surrounded ... yet it still triumphed in that contest, though for a long time it only held its own before, 150 years after Charles V, it became an ascendant state.

Each tertiary state occupies a small niche in the game world's topography.  The top of a valley, an island, a valuable coastline with a defendable hinterland, a set of oases in the desert and so on.  Some tertiary states are isolated enough to be free from outside influence; others are so perfectly defensible, like Switzerland, that they exist untouched inside a violent dynamic.  Some secondary powers have one ace in the hole that gives them relative security, like Denmark's control over the waterway between the North and Baltic seas.  Geography creates a lot of variation, subtlety and refinement in the way a country is managed and how dependent it is on protection — or how enslaved it is by a greater power.

Remember, it's always easier to have a staunch ally rule his or her country, providing arms and men, and money, that invading and ruling that country yourself.  IF Hungary can be relied upon, then it's better for Austria to make friends than to attempt domination.  It's better for Poland and Lithuania to  make friends; or for Denmark and Norway to do so.  Leon, Navarre, Castile, Aragon and Granada were eventually melded into one entity through self-preservation, mutual ambition and one agreeable marriage.  Conquest is not always the solution. 

Plunk these little enclaves into the spaces between major states and buffer states, like chinks in a rock wall.

IV.  Last — and a subject that needs redressing later — give a reason why these are major states.  England is perfect country for farming and divided from Europe by a big moat.  Constantinople is at the crossroads of the world, north-to-south, east-to-west.  China occupies a huge homogenic topographical plain, as did northern India.  Persia is a conglomeration of highly defensible and strategically productive hills and valleys, with access to everywhere.  Egypt is overflowing with food and is unapproachable from every side.  Kampuchea rebuilt the jungle into a paradise.  Make the reason for the kingdom's glory MAKE SENSE.  It should be something that can't be taken away; that will still be there, no matter whose running the place.

Good.  That's lots of food.  Let's stop there.