Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Pricing Esoteric Wages

Most readers here know that with my streetvendor's book, I'm including hiring costs for select professions, enough I hope that they can serve as a guideline for others in their worlds, when needing to fix a price for someone I've left out.  Of late, in detailing hostels, a sort of "alms-house" for travellers, I bumped into the following and was hard put to define the job's income:

Charitable nurse ... 9¼ c.p. per day.
Procures an attendant able to care for sick and wounded persons, increasing the amount of healing that can be gotten in a day. As varying game rules treat recovery in far too many ways to cover here, the exact benefit is left to the dungeon master. Note that the fee is nominal; the actual income the nurse receives is covered in large part by the organisation that supports the hostel, as a "good work."

Depending on demand, such nurses may not be available every day, as they must sometimes share out their gifts among the whole. Characters should be able to count on personal attendance nearly all the time, however, and certainly never less than one day in two.

The skill-set described, though the book won't say so, matches the sage ability in my game world, "aid rest."  But because different systems and D&D editions deal with healing in vastly different ways, I've chosen in situations like this not to provide any specific rule in the text.  If someone wants to know how I do it, my name, my wiki and the book's name will be easily found online.

Regarding the "nominal fee" ... in fact, 70% of the nurse's income is covered by the group that has built, and manages the hostel, such as was done by the Knights Hospitaller, the Swiss Confederation, independent rajahs in India, the bureaucracy in China and many more.  Which would mean the nurse's actual income is 2½ s.p. per day, not the number given.  But don't worry.  I intend to provide the real number later in the book.

In any case, this post is about the number itself and where it came from.  Usually, I can pin the cost of hiring on goods collected or produced, such as with fruit picking, catching fish or baking.  In this case, however, there's no intrinsic monetary value in healing the sick ... which may be why humans resisted the practice on a national level for so long (with some nations still resisting it).  Yet I needed a number, and I must admit that for some time I was stumped.

To possess the sage ability linked above requires, by my game rules, 10 knowledge points.  In my game, these don't materialise out of thin air — levelled persons collect knowledge as they advance up levels, but at 1st level they start with a randomly generated amount of knowledge (see the link) that they've accumulated before becoming levelled, as part of their training as fighters, mages, clerics, monks, etcetera.  Therefore, they were technically able to learn things without needing either a level nor a single experience point, which means that any person, regardless of their status or experience must be able to do the same.  Thus rules exist for this too.

Thus the nurse above might be a non-levelled person who has simply accumulated 10 points of knowledge as a healer, merely by taking the time necessary to learn and make the necessary abilities checks.  He or she is allowed to make those checks every two weeks.  Because "nursing" is a scientific skill (in my opinion), she would need to roll against her intelligence and wisdom.

If the nurse's int & wis were ordinary, success and a point gained would come every 8 weeks ... but if those were much better, say 14 in each stat, then success would come every 4 weeks (a success out of every 2.04082 tries).  And surely we'd expect that a would-be nurse, accepted for training by a group such as the Knights Hospitaller, would be most likely to have a minimum of 13 in either stat, and probably better.  

In fact, we may easily suppose that a group of would-be nurses were expected to succeed in a given time frame ... and that this would include those with higher stats, who more succeed in their rolls, and a few with lower stats that are unexpectedly lucky.  Everyone else would be dismissed, just as happens in any school where expectations aren't met.  We may therefore assume that every trained nurse succeeds in reaching his or her competency within a year ... or not at all.

From this, we can assign a space of 1 year per 10 points of knowledge.  As it happens, in my game, a 1st level cleric begins with an average of 35 knowledge points ... that might have taken anywhere from 3 and a half to 7 years to accumulate.  Which would mean that if he or she started training as a human cleric at the age of 14 to 18, then 1st level would be attained somewhere between the ages of 21 and 25.

[ah, but admittedly, I'm just playing around with numbers]

While training, our nurse essentially lives with instructors and governors day in and day out.  For an up-front fee, or as a charity in some cases, if someone with promise is found, the school pays for lodging, food, maintenance and wages, to ensure continued education.  All this costs money — and there, aha!  A value is established upon which the nurse's income can be defined.  In this case, the equivalent of a year's poor food for the nursing student to eat, waving the other costs as in some way paying for themselves (as most are themselves involved in teaching as a "good work"), the total cost of education for 10 pts. of knowledge is 11,385.03 c.p.  This number can also be established (though some would argue) as the nurse's yearly income ... which calculates out to 31.19 c.p. per day, or about 2½ s.p.

Crazy, I know, to take this much time to peg such a partry amount of money, though 5 g.p. per month, as it works out, isn't bad for an NPC.  But there's bigger fish to fry.

Since everything that anyone can do is ultimately rolled into my sage ability table, it means that I can define anybody's income, based merely on how much knowledge they have.  There's an argument to be made that mages don't educate students as "good work," and thus room as well as board may need to be fitted into the calculation ... along with other adaptations.  But the main point is there IS a calculation!  How much does it cost to hire a 1st level cleric?  35 knowledge points.  Um, sorry, that's 17¼ g.p. per month.  Minimum cost, obviously.  Took me about 20 seconds to calculate that.

I'm having so much fun, I could almost die.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Would-be Travels

So, on the subject of other things ...

On May 2nd this year, my partner Tamara had a fall and broke her occipital femur, just shy of the lesser trochanter, for those who care to know.  This was eight weeks ago.  We had planned to take a vacation out north and west on the 12th, for some ten days, but this was abandoned following the accident.  For some weeks, Tamara was fairly helpless and in pain, as she's 64 and this is a hard injury for someone her age.

While I was to step away from work, I did not, and have continued along as best I could these two months.  This has reduced the number of posts on this blog and has seriously undermined efforts to continue on my book, The Streetvendor's Guide to Worldbuilding.  Still, work has been done, though I chose to focus during these weeks on editing and research, rather than ongoing writing.  The vacation was meant to be a rest from the work.  Goodness knows I need one.

This last week I've been moving back into progress mode again, though tentatively.  After cancelling the insurance on the car, to save a little money, Tamara reinstated the insurance today and took her first drive in eight weeks minus a day; not being able to drive has been her greatest woe, especially as most of the break's pain has siphoned off.  She's thrilled.  And as a result, we're making plans again.  My sympathetic workplace, from whom I'm contracted to get four weeks of vacation a year, has suggested I take two weeks together, as the year is half gone.  Tamara and I have discussed it, and agree that my vacations in the winter are somewhat less than exciting, and that perhaps I should take three weeks together.  What luxury.

This has widened our appetites for perhaps heading east, rather than our original plan.  We'd planned to roam up into northern Alberta, as we've never been north of Edmonton, and from there westward into northern B.C., where again we've never been.  As it happened, come the first week of May, all of the area we were going to visit caught fire, so that if we'd left on schedule we'd never have been able to see those places intended.  In addition, we meant to reach Vancouver and perhaps drive down into Seattle ... which meant my getting a passport.  After applying, and arranging for me to go pick it up, the government employees went on strike.  Had we left on May 12th, I'd have had to do it without my passport.

Three bad omens — Tamara breaking her arm, the world on fire, the U.S. border closed — are more than enough to convince us the trip was never meant to be.

And so, with Tamara finishing up her physio therapy, my work being amenable, and having much more time, we're now thinking of going east.  For a long time, we've considered a journey across the country, from here to St. John's in Newfoundland ... though there are concerns.  We're not young pups, though according to all our doctors we're as healthy as we could hope to be.  Tamara's able to eat only the barest minimum of either sugar or salt, which means if we go then restaurant dining is wholly impractical.  We had bought a Coleman stove for the B.C. trip and tested it out — works great!  Making our own food ensures her diet, which I also live upon since cutting sugar and salt from my body is a good thing.  But we're unfamiliar with what trial it's going to be to find a safe picnic table every day, as well as sufficient freshwater, though research tells us neither will be a problem.  Others have also assured us that we'll be fine.  We're not "campers," however.  We are dyed-in-the-wool city folk.  I haven't been camping in 35 years and never without some much smarter fellow, like my father, to tell me what to do.  So we're a bit uneasy.

Even though we'll be staying in a motel/hotel every night.

After testing, I have learned that I'm good to give Tamara a kidney, which she'll need at some point ... though her doctor has given her until November before she needs to be checked again.  But there's always the unexpected, isn't there?  For these reasons, if we go east we're going to go slowly, being ready to turn ourselves around and head home if need be.  Knowing the map as I do, Kenora in Ontario is a point we shouldn't cross without feeling confident ... as there's nothing of great interest between Kenora and Sault Ste. Marie, two places than are a goodly distance apart.

Should we take that step, we have considered plans to slip down into the States at the Sault (I have my passport), and journey through the Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin, though just as far as Oshkosh and Fond du Lac.  Tamara has a yen for fresh Wisconsinite cheese.  If we did that side path, we'd head back through Sault St. Marie, so as to get on the road to Ottawa.  I haven't been there since I was six and Tamara has never been.  We've both been to Toronto a few times, so it holds little interest.  We may go down to Niagara Falls, for despite Tamara having lived much of her life in Michigan, she's never been.

From Ottawa, we're clear about passing south of Montreal (where we were last October, by plane) and then down into Vermont, where Tamara dearly wants to go.  I've suggested cutting down through I-91 to St. Johnsbury, across New Hampshire at Berlin, through Main down to Brunswick and Bath (where the post Bumper Cars took place), then up to New Brunswick on I-1.  We might pop down to the sea here and there.

Then it's P.E.I., Nova Scotia, across the ferry to Newfoundland and out to St. John's.  Before I leave New Brunswick, I'd like to laze on the ridge at Miramichi, as the ancient song went.  We've talked about this journey, the scope of it, I've tried to explain the vast distances to Tamara and she just doesn't give a damn.  Her shoulder has to hold up, obviously.  Even if it does, and we do make it out that far, we're going to be awfully tired when we get back.  But this might be our last chance to take such a trip.

We'll have to see if the gods let us.  With one thing or another, the earliest date we can go is July 24th; the hottest time of the year, on the prairies.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

A Pool

Let's consider our party.  For those who may be new, this series of posts have been thought experiments on what we can do as DM, given a theoretical action of the party.  As discussed in the linked post, our faux 1st/2nd level party has been attacked by a huge spider, has discovered a warm thermal side passage, and learned it contains at least one additional huge spider.

Let's say the party chooses against this path.  Instead, having come this far in the colder cavern, they decide the alternative is a pointless side quest, meant to draw them away from their primary goal.  That was to find the "demon" within the dungeon (not knowing precisely what it is) and clues to the disappearance of the local noble's father.  For those who have been following along, you can see how the campaign has become this enormously confusing, dense, yet suggestive series of clues and facets ... while you've been here all along as each has been introduced to the party.  As a DM, I know my players will call out things along the way, wanting to know how each thread fits into the whole.  Because I've been running games this way for decades, I'm able to answer in some manner, or explain how because they never did confront a certain threat, or go into a certain part of the dungeon, that mystery remains unsolved.

But I digress.  Obviously, I need to write another post that links all the threads on this series to date.

You may remember that one of the dangers of the dungeon that I mentioned in a post two weeks ago were miniature ochre jellies.  Having eschewed the thermal vent, the party is nonetheless moving adjacent to it and therefore the caves here are slightly warmer to those where the lake witch resides.  I trust you're all following along.  Questions in the comments, please.

I've set up this post to explain an encounter where the party has no warning of what's coming, which is quite different from the fight with the witch's minions.  Imagine a cavern-passage that slopes downwards at about ten degrees.  In shape, it varies between 20 and 30 feet wide, but only five of six feet high ... the floor is crumpled, but made smooth by the dampness.

As it levels out, the ceiling rises a few feet, but then the passage submerges itself into a pool.  This fills the passage from side to side; the water's far edge can't be seen properly with a torch, but a bullseye-lantern hints that the far edge might be 70 feet away.  A good light spell, if the party has one and casts it to illuminate the whole tunnel, confirms the far edge is 75 feet away.  From there, the passage slopes upwards and out of sight.

The water is perfectly still.  It's black in colour.  The players test it with a staff and find that it's but a few inches deep, as far as a staff can reach.  A longer pole shows that it gently deepens to a foot or so.  Actually entering the water reveals that it has a solid rock bottom and never gets more than four feet deep, before climbing out to the other side.  This last, of course, isn't told to the party unless they can somehow learn it by experimentation or with a spell of some kind — the sort of spell a 1st or 2nd level caster wouldn't have.

Throwing stones into the water turns up no visible monsters.  Nothing appears to be swimming around.  The surface reveals no fins nor movement of any kind, other than what the party makes.  But then, a jelly wouldn't, would they?  They don't "swim."  They don't move fast.  Their bodies are so watery, with the upper part soft and flat, that the top of one wouldn't break the surface tension.  As the water is disturbed, they merely float, their bodies matching the ripples.  As they don't produce their own light, they're as black as the water.  But again, we don't explain any of this, not until the party comes into contact, or detects them in some other than disturbing the water.

Is it fair?  The party can't see the monster.  And naturally, they don't trust the water.  Ten thousand cavers a season wade through pools like this without a care, but they don't do it in a D&D world.  It might just be a pool.  But naturally, the players are cautious.

Gygax was extremely fond of the surprise and slash encounter.  Player walks under a part of the ceiling, spider conveniently drops, surprise! and attacks.  This same motif appears everywhere in serial fiction beginning with the 19th century and going right up through Tarzan movies of the 30s and 40s, and into monster films of the 50s and 60s ... just the sort of fare that Gygax watched on creature feature afternoons when he was a little boy.

But constant encounters like this become tiresome, especially from the party's perspective.  All too often, some player is bound to say upon coming to the water, wearily, "I ready my bow for the moment the monster leaps out of the water by surprise."  Cinematically a jump scare might work; but in an imagination-based game structure, it lacks the shock factor.  I can rise slowly in my chair, glare momentously at a member of the party, holding the pose for ten or twelve seconds as the party waits for me to speak — and then SNAP! my hand out and grab a nearby player who I'm not staring at, with a shout, or suddenly slap my hands on the table.  Done right, it's effective.  It's an old carnival trick.

Sadly, this shit only works once with the same audience.

Myself, I like a slow build.  The players are at odds with themselves here.  On the one hand, the party could just refuse to enter or explore it, but it's a bit humiliating to be turned back by what might be an empty pool of water.  This I've also done.  It can be satisfying for the DM, with parties who do turn back, to remark, "Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about, and gallantly he chickened out ..."  Even if it doesn't convince the party to try the pool after all, things like that get in their heads and primes them for the next time they run away from "danger" that hasn't been proved to exist.

So, what's it to be?  These are little bitty ochre jellies, one-sixth the size of the traditional monster (p.75), so they're not going to "jump out" — and let's clear it up further by saying these things don't swim fast.  So the danger is ...?

There's a goodly number, though they're not all in the same spot, they're scattered all over.  If a character moves slowly and cautiously, the jellies will slowly congregate until he or she is surrounded by eight of the devils.  I would run it thusly:  for the first 3 rounds, the slow moving player encounters nothing.  Then, one attacks and if it hits, the player feels a sting for 1-2 damage.  No idea what caused it.  If the creature misses, the player merely feels something brush a leg or an arm.  The 2nd round, there are two jellies; the 3rd round, three; the 4th round there are five and in the 5th round, eight.  No surprise is rolled, nor initiative, because until he or she is touched, the player can't see to win initiative.  The jellies get it automatically.

This is what happens if the character, say the thief, moves slowly.  If he then rushes pell-mell back to the party, or through to the other side, the churning of the water protects him, and there are no more attacks.  But if he tries to hit back, slapping his sword at the water, the attacks increase as described above.

There isn't enough damage here to call the encounter "unfair."  It's really more of a puzzle than a monster.  But players get very stupid about monsters, and don't think of them as "puzzles."  To a player, the weapon is a hammer and every monster looks like a nail.  Even if one player does figure out that the secret is to rush through the water, it doesn't mean others in the party will agree.

There's a good chance someone will try to burn the top of the water with oil.  If so, they'll waste their oil but it won't kill the jellies.  It might be effective against a large ochre jelly in a dry hallway, but these will be insulated against the fire and will merely descend deeper into the water, rising again when the fire subsides.  Burning oil in water is only dangerous to creatures that are partly above the water, where the oil can cling to their bodies and oxygen can feed the flames.

As explained above, situations like these can be made very complicated by a party, who is bound to overthink everything, especially an apparently empty pool of water occurring in an underground cavern where water nearly always pools atop hard stone.  We could make the pool completely empty and the party would still waste a half-hour of game time on it ... and never be completely sure it really was empty.  Because this is what parties are like.

I hope it comes across that our goal is to give it the best description we can, and then let the party waste all the time they want on it.  It's a good time for the DM to get up for a bowl of ice cream.



Sorry to lean into this map a second time, but I want to make the point that nearly all of it was drawn IN GAME, mostly while the players were deliberating about what to do next.  I had a clear concept of how things would be arranged as I began the combat, and used the publisher design program to sketch out the walls as we went.  The stairs came from other maps drawn in the past, as did the doors.  The stone motif is a texture that I installed in the program, like adding a font.  All the characters were pre-made.  The imperfection of passage dimensions, narrow or wide, are a feature.

During the combat, many of the partial hexes are large enough to fight from; I tend to call these according to the size of the character.  Goblins weigh 50 lbs. and therefore can fit into much less than a full hex.  A large 240 lb. human, not so much.  All the character symbols are much bigger than their actual size, because it's more important for the players to easily see their characters than it is for these to be correctly scaled.  I've been meaning to provide a picture of the screen set-up I'm using for combats, but I keep forgetting.  Next running, I'll try to remember.

I want to stress that skill-sets like being able to draw quickly, adapt a program to the game, manage a complex set of rules, or keep players in line so that each person has their moment in the sun, take time to build up.  But they're worth it.  Decades ago I should have put more effort into being an artist.  I should have used opportunities to take art classes, or learned to sketch, as those skills would serve me excellently in the present.  As it is, I'm glad for all the time I've taken to use graphic programs, lay out pages for publication, use excel, gain the ability to write that I have and dozens of other lesser skills that I've acquired over my life.  Each has let me do strange and marvelous things, which of course look impossible to those who haven't spent the time.

But what has to be understood is that it isn't so much time as you might think.  Don't let "not being able to do something" get in your way.  Learn to do it.  Sure, it'll be a bitch at first, but in the long run, you'll find so many ways to apply that annoyingly obtained skill as to astound you.  And you'll appreciate that something you can do very easily seems to impress people a lot.  Remember that many of these skills have real-life applications in real jobs, not just for role-playing and fun.

Don't wait.  Pick something today that you don't know how to do, that you'd like to know, and get started.  You're just like any character in the game.  It's starting at 1st level.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Bolstering the Party

As dungeon masters, there's reason to appear unbiased.  We're pressed not to consider the party's advantage in things, and to appear as an unprejudiced judge when making game rulings.  However, it's easy for this visage to drift into an apparent lack of concern for the players' well-being ... even a couldn't-care-less attitude.  There's a danger here.  Detachment can encourage a party to fear what comes next, should they take an action ... but it can also persuade the party that the DM is "out to get them," and not in a good way.  While it's fun as a DM to chuckle while checking what's behind the door, as players reach for the handle, this sort of posturing has a down side.

When running games online, there was a considerable lack of trust on the players part for my DMing; and this despite all the things I'd written encouraging legitimacy and the responsibility a DM has towards producing a fair, proper game.  Where the rubber met the road, however, without my actual body language to indicate otherwise, with nothing but the words I wrote to convey feeling, the players couldn't rightly judge my intentions.  And since, as well, I happen to be a volatile snapping turtle besides, this produced a constant friction.  This was my fault.  Truth be told, I didn't compliment players often enough.  I still don't.  I have a tendency to be so fixed on the game, and making it run smoothly, while concentrating on the numerous details that must remain consistent, that once a moment is resolved, I'm rapidly moving to the next.

Allow an example; I'm told I don't tell enough war stories on this blog, so here goes.

Sorry about the quality of the image. Left click to isolate the image, then right-click to open the isolated image in a new window, then expand it by touching the plus-sign that appears.

This is the underground fortification my players have been fighting for two runnings.  The box on the upper left is the order of movement the players use, based on their dexterity (with ties broken by wisdom).  The dark tan indicates unexplored areas, assumed generally to be solid rock, except the space behind the double door on the upper right.  The detritus symbols on the tan areas are symbols I use during combats, to indicate whether a weapon is loaded (3 green circles for a heavy crossbow), if someone's stunned (red circle) or wounded (red star).  The goblin on the middle left is just there in case I needed another goblin ... as the map was revealed step by step, so goblin images were repurposed over and over throughout the battle.

The party entered through the chamber on the bottom right, were attacked by goblin bowmen at points A. (15 ft. above the chamber), then they had to go downslope through the middle, where minor goblins at points B. threw one-pound stones at them.  At point C., the goblins also threw molotov cocktails.  C. is located between two 10 ft. deep pits, which the mage (in blue, next to point C) created a tenser's floating disk (purple-yellow circle) to ship the players across the pits after the far side of each was secured.  Points D. are dead ends with spear traps, which one player took damage from.  The party then had to climb the stairs up from points D., fighting goblins as they went, clearing out the stone throwers.  Approaching point E., upon climbing the stair up (where all the players are jammed together) and opening the door, they were soaked with boiling oil.  E. was then used as a murder hole, so that while the party tried to climb the fixed ladder, they were shot full of holes and forced to retreat back to the stairs.  One player did reach the top of the ladder and nearly gained the ground before losing initiative and being knocked off.  That's where we ended it Friday night, with the two sides in a stalemate, while the party has chosen to regroup.

Much of this was made possible by a druid effectively using an obscurement spell, which followed her along as they worked their way down, then up.  Every player employed some clever technique or took a serious risk to survive the 35 goblins in their way.  Yet when the session ended, it didn't occur to me until after they were gone that I should have praised their work with more than the experience given (which was considerable and much appreciated, though no treasure has yet be secured).

And this brings me to the last post and this comment from Lance:

"I'm interested in your scary tunnel post. My players keep leaving dungeons/lairs half explored because of scary tunnels I didn't even try to make scary ha!"

I'm not saying this is the answer to Lance's troubles, but it's a beginning overall towards building a party's confidence and courage.  Not because we'll assure them that they'll succeed in every battle, but because we have to give them reason to try.  In essence, praise them.

We must choose our moment.  We know what's coming along as the session progresses and the players do not, plus we have time to make statements when the players arrive and are finding their places at the table.  We put it as lightheartedly as we can:  "Say, you guys have been doing pretty well lately.  That goblin lair was a tough nut to crack."

Of course, this praise must be sincere.  They must actually have been doing well.  Otherwise, it's hollow, and we risk being viewed as pandering and inauthentic.  It's not so much that we need to invent praise to give to the party, it's that we need to evaluate their play from time to time and recognise when individuals have excelled ... and then give them the praise they've earned.

We can also, respectfully, embolden them in situations where something appears much worse than it is.  Let's take the party moving through our dungeon.  They've fought off the mooks and moved into those areas affected by the thermal biome ... and here, they're attacked by a huge spider, which surprises them, takes a bit of meat out of the cleric's leg (3 damage), only to be effectively stomped by, of all people, the mage (who was the nearest person, rolled a critical with her quarterstaff and did 12 pts. of damage).  Unfortunately, the cleric fails the poison save—

—which in my game, causes 8 h.p. of damage per hit die of the venomous creature, at a rate of 1 h.p. per round, per hit die.  In other words, the cleric starts taking 2 damage each round, as the poison courses through his body.  As he's in pain, he can't concentrate on a spell; but the players have acquired four healing salves through their past efforts and rapidly apply them to counteract the poison.  As a result, the cleric is hurt, the players lose some capacity to heal, plus maybe the cleric's cure light wounds spell, but everyone is alive. 

Investigating, they find the spider has come through a small hole, from which warmth is exuding, about ten degrees more than the corridor.  Sending the thief through the hole, he discovers a winding vertical tunnel that's easily climbable, with surfaces covered with damp moss, about 4 to 6 ft in diameter.  The air within has tiny insects, and drifting pollen; and as the thief twists to work back to the party, he sees another huge spider squatting about twenty feet below, using its pincers to clean its forelegs.  The thief reports this.

We can't tell the party that the shaft is critical if they want to catch the lake hag below by surprise.  First of all, they don't even know there is a lake hag; and they're not blessed with knowledge of the future. They only know what they can see.  From their perspective, the strange shaft looks like a good way to be killed by spiders ... and that's the only thing it appears to be good for.  Now, the cleric in my game received 60 experience from the spider bite, and 320 experience from the poison damage ... and every player recieved 76 x.p. (before 10% bonus, if it applies) for just being there.  I treat "experience" as "practical contact with, and observation of, facts and events."  You know, like the actual definition of the word.  And it's awfully practical to know what it's like to almost die from poison, or to watch someone else nearly do so.

Oh, and the mage got another 110 x.p. for killing the thing.

Not every spider is worth 870 x.p.  If the spider hadn't hit the cleric at all, and the mage had then killed it, the total would only have been 110.  If the cleric had made his saving throw, it would only have been 230.  It's only high because the cleric would have been seriously depleted.  As a 2nd level, assuming no constitution bonus (and let's say that), suppose he had 15 hit points to start.  Minus 3, then minus 16, puts him at -4.  That'll kill him in a lot of people's games (and thus, less experience gained), but not mine, as I use negative hit points.  Still, those rules force the cleric to make a check to see if he's made unconscious at -4 h.p.; and if he is, that's quite the encumbrance burden if the party doesn't spend even more healing to make him conscious again.  This is how I justify one spider being worth a whole lot, and another spider being worth very little.

So, with lots of healing lost, does the party really want to tangle with another spider?

Okay, let me back up.  Remember when I said we could embolden the party, and I said we could take advantage of the session's initiation, since we know what's going to happen.  We're the DM.  We know all about the spider that's going to jump out ... and we're capable of guessing that someone's going to get bit (we rolled randomly to choose the cleric), and that they might blow their save (though the cleric has the best advantage there).  We know about the shaft and we can be pretty sure the players will wonder where the spider came from, and that someone will scout ahead.  We know they'll see the second spider.  None of this is a mystery to us.

We use this information to prime the party in their favour, and ours.  How?  They just fought a bunch of unknown minions and they all survived.  "Good job on those soggy humanoids," we say, as it's now the next running and they've all had time to get over that unexpected event.  We add, "I'd hoped it might cause you to think maybe you're in over your heads, here.  But you're good to go on, right?  Nobody here is afraid, right?"

If we can urge them, gently, to take a stance on how brave they are, then for a few hours you can fairly count on that declaration affecting their subconscious choices.  As the linked wikipedia suggests, the effect is rarely noticed by the players; they've consciously forgotten that they stated their bravery in the midst of the game ... but when the time comes to make a brave decision or not, most times they'll edge towards what they felt when they thought they were safe.

Priming works both ways.  If, as DMs, we're overcritical, or we demonstrate too much doubt in the players' abilities, that can also prime the players to lose confidence, doubting themselves and feeling a strong resistance against taking risks.  While priming is a powerful tool, it can also subvert the game if we're not careful what we choose to say, when making the game ready and spouting off.

As DM, our opinions carry enormous weight at the table ... much more weight than those opinions would carry if we were at a bar and talking over drinks.  This is because the players habitually strive to ascertain some clue about their success in every word we speak, and in the nuance of our voice tone and body language.  Our voice — strange as it may seem — has the potential to be both a positive and a negative influence on the player's willingness to take risks.

Myself, I think this factor had much less effect when we were playing as teenagers back in the day ... but only because we were less socially skilled at parsing out the words of other people, and ascribing to those words clues that would tell us whether or not we were succeeding within the relationship or with tasks in the work place.  As we grow older, and virtually nothing is said straightforwardly, we adapt to a social climate where everything a person says might contain a hidden meaning.  This is definitely true as a DM.  I notice the effect I have when I make an off-handed comment, or when I deliberately prime the players behaviour.  By merely mentioning something obscure about D&D at the beginning of a session — say, secret doors, which occur so rarely in my game that players don't search for them — I've caused a player to do something exactly at the time when I need them to do it, hours later.  It's a bit spooky sometimes.  And if I ask later, they'll claim they don't remember my ever mentioning secret doors.  They just "felt" like this was the time to search for one.  Even though they practically never do.

My answer to Lance, and anyone feeling their party is hesitant, is to suggest going over our own behaviour as DM.  What are we saying, or what are we not saying, that's adjusting their bravery in the face of a scary-looking tunnel.  Surely, we're not whetting their appetite enough with prospective experience or treasure; or we're giving them cause to feel they haven't the stuff to handle this tunnel; or we're making it too easy, socially, to turn hide and flee.

I don't know what that might be; I'm at my own table, and not that of others.  But I feel that if I sat in and listened, I might guess pretty quickly what's happening, based on the table's set-up, the distance between the DM and the players, the voice the DM uses, where focus is being placed, and how the dialogue is being handled.  Small things make big differences.

We must be careful about how remote we are ... because we're not on the hook, as the party is.  And if they sense that we're taunting them, or dismissing them, or feeling above them, they'll respond with distrust.  And that is something we cannot have when we run.  We need the players to believe that we're every bit as fair and honest as we appear ... else they'll think, consciously or unconsciously, that it's all an act.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Fortuna Eruditis Favet

I ended the last post by suggesting the DM put the game's steering wheel into the players hands, and see what they can do with it.  That is to say, despite the random elements within D&D, good play has every opportunity to slant possibilities of success in the party's favour — and this must be considered in every decision the DM makes regarding the set up of conflicts, traps, NPC defections/treason and the manner in which exposition is given to the party.  It can be that bad luck brings about a player's death; but bad luck shouldn't be sufficient to kill every member of the party.  Conceivably, it might be ... but its more likely that in the face of a lot of bad rolls, or plans that went awry, it's the party's stubbornness that's to blame.

So, let's talk about bad play, good play, and luck.

It's not desirable that the outcome of a battle, or a round inside that battle, should be known for certain; this also applies to numerous other parts of the game: like risks related to the players attempt to physically overcome obstacles; or knowing precisely where the enemy are, or what they're going to do, or how strong they are; and of course the uncertainty attached to surviving some forms of attack, like charm, breath weapons, etc.  It's expected that these uncertainties are equal between players and non-players ... thus it's the DM's responsibility to play the enemy correctly when it's faced with the party's abilities — of which the DM has full knowledge, but the enemy does not.

This can be tricky.  I assume that in a world of magical spells, any being with an intelligence of 8 or better (average or better by the old monster manual measure) knows when a spell is being cast by a spellcaster.  For my game, I have chosen to interpret "one round" to create a spell as taking a complete round to produce the magic desiredHere I use the 14th century etymological interpretation of "cast" as "to calculate astrologically."  No part of the round spent "casting" can be used "discharging" the spell.  That must take place the following round, though the discharge takes place at the will of the spellcaster at that time.  This means that a spellcaster, in combat, must spend an entire round formulating a spell — which is then subject to thwarting before the caster is able to discharge it.  If the caster does this in front of creatures with 7 or less intelligence, then the creature has no knowledge of what the caster is doing (or isn't conscious of it happening) — and therefore would have no special reason for targeting the caster.  IF, on the other hand, a creature with 8 or more intelligence were present, it would know what the caster was doing and would have reason to target the caster specifically, given the chance, shouting, "A spell!  He's casting a spell!"  And thereafter, everyone would know that person was a caster in the fight.

If the non-player had personal knowledge of certain spells, say a fireball, then in my game this presumes said NPC would know that specific spell was being cast — my argument for this is that you go to school to learn how to cast the spell, and practice it until you have the wherewithal to produce that magic.  This doesn't personalise the spell to you, any more than you can choose to remove a patient's kidney "your way."  Magic is a science; as a caster, you produce magic scientifically.  And thus any other scientist in the room that also knows that magic, knows what you plan to do when you start weaving the spell.

[Hm.  Maybe I should change my spell-rules from "cast & discharge" to "weave & cast"; would take time]

The way I have my spell rules, it's always a risk to throw a spell; the player doesn't know who's present, or what they know, and no one wants to have a spell snuffed out before it's gotten off.  The effect greatly changes the dynamic of spellcasters in my game, increasing the importance of fighters and choosing other actions, overall making for a better, less paint-by-numbers combat system.  But I digress.

Luck occurs when a die is rolled in the player's favour or not.  Patton said, "Luck favours those in motion," meaning that by seeking out new ideas, acting quickly and unpredictably, the enemy is put on its back heels, forced to play catch-up against the players' strategy.  The phrase is ad hominem to the ancient Latin phrase, "Fortune favours the bold," reflects the incorporation of bravery when taking quick action.  Don't dither, don't weigh your options endlessly: pick one and strike!

The Latins also liked the phrase, "Fortune favours the prepared mind," which takes into account observation, problem-solving and imagination.  The last is particularly helpful in a party that is ready for anything, no matter what comes through the door or erupts from the pavement.  Surprise is a game rule that affects the speed of the player character's response, and that's a matter of luck; doubt, despair, certainty of losing, the shock a player experiences because he or she can't adjust mentally to the situation, that's a lack of imagination and the sign of an unprepared mind.

I see it all the time.

Good play is therefore good strategy.  As we hear the mooks coming, we order ourselves, choosing places; we prep spells (once cast, the spell can be held until discharged); we lighten our loads; we check the exits; we expect anything; and we acknowledge that there may be a need for us to run.  "I've got the first one on the left," says the fighter; "I'll take the furthest one to the right," says the ranger.  "I'll shoot whatever's between them," says the thief.  The cleric unfurls a scroll, but is ready to put it away again if these creatures seem less than frightening.  No point in wasting a scroll on mooks, if that's what they are.

Bad play is therefore predictable.  No one communicates.  Each person acts entirely alone.  One or two run out ahead of the party, because they're anxious to attack as soon as possible.  The mage loads the most powerful spell in his or her arsenal and lets it loose without hesitation, wasting the blast on mooks.  When the mooks arrive, they swarm through the ranks of the party, putting everyone at risk.  After three bad rounds of not hitting, the party blithely assumes that there luck will change ... they can't miss forever, right?  The mooks grapple the fighter to the ground — none of the party gave a moment's thought to the possibility of grappling.  Two lucky hits and the ranger staggers.  The mage and the thief miss again.

Even if the players turn the battle around, they've lost hit points, they're down their most valuable items and spells, their healing is gone and the dungeon is only started.  More than half the time, the battles that parties win are Pyrrhic.  The goal is to win the battle in a fashion that lets the party push forward.  Most parties are so wrapped up in the one that's happening, or about to happen, they don't even consider the next battle.  The prepared mind knows there will be one; knowing what's coming, act quickly and decisively, together; and note it is braver to stand fast, hold the ground you've picked, and face the onslaught as it comes.  And then, when the battle's won, move quickly, fall upon the enemy before it can prepare a counterattack.

But ... the assumption is that so long as we fight, and we're such-and-such a level, and the DM plays "fairly" and "balances" the encounters, a little good luck will see us through.  And it often does.  Producing that Pyrrhic victory.

I do balance my encounters as a DM.  But I balance them for smart parties, not dumb ones.  There are a dozen ways in which five wise, prepared, imaginative players should make mincemeat of a bunch of sloshy mooks that haven't had a real fight in years.

This wasn't the post I originally intended to write.  I was going to write about how scary-looking bits of tunnels freeze parties.  I guess I've kicked that topic down the road to the next post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The DM Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Finishing the trio of posts including this one and this, we've represented the factions of the party and their enemy, and we've lightly addressed the dungeon setting, also notably with this post.  This leaves us the other thingies wandering around, that the party is liable to meet.

But first, unfortunately, we have to address the dungeon, and D&D as a whole, as a game.

Whatever patterns exist within the setting, intended to immerse the players in a fantasy world to give the experience of being there and making decisions, it cannot be forgotten that as a game, success for the players is defined by a set of arbitrary, practical "economic" goals.  Take this from Game Mechanics, Advanced Game Design by Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans, quoting Jesper Juul:

"A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable."

Comprehension of how to dungeon master D&D relies upon (a) understanding what the outcome is; (b) how and why it's assigned the value it has; and (c) the steps we have to take as a DM to make certain the players are able to influence the game's outcome, without losing that attachment or the game's negotiable quality.  This is all the harder because D&D has multiple, independent outcomes, each of which can be strived for by the players.

For example, in our scenario, are the players here for the experience, and therefore levels?  To obtain an understanding of this dungeon's nature, and why it's resisted discovery for 25 years?  Is it the treasure?  Is it the sheer emotional process of gaming?

Yes.  To all the above.  But that doesn't mean the above are equal in the party's mind, and especially between players.  As a player, at 1st to 3rd level, I'd be primarily concerned with experience, to a degree of about 90%.  I'm not going to get much from the emotional process, because I've been gaming for so long that I'm jaded.  The mystery carries little weight, as I assume all will become clear once the proper steps are taken, and I can wait for that marshmallow rather easily.  And treasure is a means towards experience.

Later on, when I have sufficient power to carry out my own program, I'll steadily grow less interested in experience and more in the achievement of other outcomes.  I like that D&D is especially flexible in this way.  It's not a one-trick pony, where grinding is the only way to advance the character.  I like that I can choose which outcome, in this moment, matters most to me, while making room to enable other players in the game the opportunity to achieve their desired outcomes, all at the same time.

It's the primary reason why player-vs.-player is game-toxic; it makes it impossible for multiple players to achieve multiple positive outcomes simultaneously.  In essence, it subverts D&D's most powerful achievement as a game.  Want to compete?  Play a competition based game, not D&D.

As a DM, it's part of my responsibility to be aware of, and facilitate to a degree, the player's desired outcomes.  This, however, it a tremendously fluid and indistinct mandate.  I don't want to give the players what they want; but at the same time, I don't want to purposefully withhold it from them, either.  My choices, and my actions, decides how difficult it is for the players to achieve their goals ... and as it happens, making the wrong choice, on either end of the spectrum of "too easy" and "too hard" decides absolutely whether or not the game I'm running is playable.

I've covered "playability" at length, but as it's been some years, let's briefly review, from the words of Ian Bogost:

"And there's something deeply abhorrent about games, something kind of revolting ~ but then out of that revulsion comes sublimity. Occasionally. And it's not just true for games. When you operate a mechanism, like a steering wheel, we sometimes talk about the 'play' that's built into that system, and has a space through which the steering wheel can be turned before the shaft couples with and turns the pinion at its end, or you can find this elsewhere, too. The play of light, the play of the waves, a play on words — and the game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have adopted this sense of play in their formal definition of the concept, which is one that I like a lot; free movement within a more rigid structure."

Interestingly, the Game Mechanics book above also quotes Salen and Zimmerman.

It's key here to understand that the right point between "too easy" and "too hard" isn't a single place on the spectrum.  The game wavers from one extreme to the other, so that at some point it has to be easier for the players to achieve their desired outcome, while at others it has to be near impossible.  Comprehending this, and when to make a given situation go this way or that, is absolutely essential to one's skill as a dungeon master.

Though it must be said that nearly everyone associated with D&D and other role-playing games, outside a few game designers and book writers, are woefully ignorant to this.  Magical-thinking idealism tends to reign out there in the wide world: notions like "the DM is always right" ... or "the players are always right" ... or "that the rules have to be played as written" ... are really more dogma than strategies for providing good game play.  No one is "always" right, not even the rules.  The game is far too complicated — and wants to be complicated — for any single fixed policy to meaningfully address all the problems that will arise in a single session, much less an ongoing campaign.  Not only are we forced to gloss over game issues for which no rule has been written, the motives and beliefs of any one human being is a movable feast of the first order.

Yet the endless parade of content makers on youtube, reddit and various podcast platforms continue to espouse arguments based on premises like, "if you do this, everything will be fine."  Um, no.  Nothing will ever be fine.  I've been running games for 44 years (and this blog is just past 15 years old now), and very often emotions get so high that counselling inter-party disputes is as much of a game skill as describing a setting, memorising the rules or rapidly adjudicating combat.

As such, when I see someone arguing that "moving the goalposts" in gameplay is a no-no, it's easy to see a lack of understanding in how D&D calculates outcomes and the player's exertations.  D&D is not football.  One such "goal post" is the monster that has to be killed to achieve the outcome ... but the monster gathers intel during the contest, and the monster moves, and the monster's motives can also change, while the players' mistakes adjust continously how far that particular goal post is from their current location/success.

The pre-made dungeon counters all this, by having the monster located in room 46b, or at the most roaming between rooms 42 and 46.  Whereas I'm describing a game in which the monster's present location in 46b is entirely changeable at any given moment depending on how the players respond post-room 1.  Thus, the program of how the dungeon setting runs is wholly different from that of the games I see being played online, or anywhere, except apparently at my game table.

Suppose, for example, with the last post (linked above), the players do something wholly unlike a typical D&D party when encountering the 15 mooks.  Suppose they run immediately, suspecting the encounter isn't what it appears to be.  Suppose they fight for a round or two, determine the mooks are fairly weak, and then run at that point?  How does that influence the manner in which the Witch below (who is unknown to the players) carries out her campaign?  Does she decide the party isn't a threat, but chooses to keep tabs on them?  Does she realise that these are not dopes, but dangerous people who won't rush in, and can wait for their marshmallows?

In short, the party has meaningful choices they're not smart enough to know exist.  Ask yourself, dear reader: did the possibility of not fighting the mooks even occur?  Or did you, like every other D&D player, just assume that of course you'd fight them.

What the players do in the setting I've described moves the goal posts.  Because logically, they ought to.  Goalposts are desired outcomes, and in D&D those outcomes are not posts in the ground we have to kick a ball past.

While I want to enable the players in their desired goals, I also want to make those goals difficult to achieve.  And, ultimately, that involves creating opportunities to give the players something they need, in order to fight something they're not strong enough to fight now.  Sometimes, yes, that involves having a old soul appear and give the players a sword with which to kill the Jabberwock ... but with this particular dungeon, there are no old souls available and in any case, we can be more subtle.  Thus, finally, (b), encountering things unintelligent living in the caves, that are unable to comprehend beyond their need for food.

Consider: like everyone who dwells in a home, there are always critters we'd like to be rid of, but which are enormously difficult to fully eradicate.  You know, moths and ochre jellyfish and the like.  As much as the Witch, over the last 25 years, might like to root out every miserable creature that flies or crawls in the vast compartments of her lair, there always seem to be a few that escape the hunt, which then birth the next generation of pests.

Ah well, what's a Witch to do?  Anyway, they're something else to feed on the kobalds if they're stupid enough to ever open that blocked door, or upon the party if they wander off the path towards the Witch's personal lake.  So a live-and-let-live policy is forced on her, just as its forced on all of us with regards to cockroaches, spiders, bats in the ceiling and whatnot.

These allow us two game benefits.  First, it's something to harass the players, bleeding their hit points and blocking their desired free movement about the dungeon ... and second, the eradication of these things gives the players experience, working marvelously as an ongoing Nietzschian bargain as the players wander around and purposefully avoid directly following the mook's path back to their lair.

Of course, the players could do that; they might do it.  And thus they'd find themselves at 1st level facing a 7th level monster with dangerously advanced powers, not to mention her undead warrior servant.  Up front, not the way to go.  My best strategy would be to block their way with mooks, which they'd have to fight anyway, in the hopes the players might realise that someone that controls 60 or so nasty squirgeling things is probably too strong to fight right off.  Players can be rather stupidly rigid, sometimes, so there's no assurance they'd get the hint.

On the other hand, a few nasty encounters with relatively less dangerous and unorganised giant cockroaches, spiders and bats can add to the party's experience and self-awareness.  That might lead to a greater desire to understand the setting rather than supposing the setting's been personally designed to supply their wants and desires.  That might, in turn, reveal the back-end passage that would let the players surprise the Witch, who herself has never discovered, because it means a difficult passage through a very warm part of the hydrothermal branches of the tunnel aforementioned — and she hates temperatures above 3 C.

'Course, the backdoor has no value if the Witch is wandering through the dungeon, trying to learn what happened to that group that earlier killed her mooks.

The game's "play" depends greatly on how the players choose to turn that steering wheel.  I can help by leaving coins and mushrooms for the party to gather in their Mario-like wanderings, but they've got to push past the scary-looking bits of those tunnels they're moving through.  This is a place to stop, as that makes a good post to write next.

Monday, June 12, 2023


This post talks about (b), the first wave of minions sent by the higher intelligence below, which is loosely based upon the monster shown.  Very loosely.  Any magical creature ought to have a higher intelligence, to start; a mage's intelligence.

And while I accept the three hit dice, I'd prefer to make the "lake hag" a 7th level mage besides, with commensurate spells and an additional 7-28 h.p.  I'll keep the fright and the glance, they add nuance.

I never have any troubles with remaking monsters in this manner.  Players aren't entitled to "familiar monsters" or the knowledge of their stats in any degree — they're entitled to exactly as much information as Frodo had about Shelob, or as Ahab had about the white whale, or for that matter as much as Luke had about Darth Vader.  Basically, it's a creature and by the rules of the game it's more or less killable ... but what it can do or how many blows it takes to kill it, NO, the players don't get to know that ahead of time.  Doesn't matter what the monster is.

In our scenario of the players venturing down through the dungeon, stumbling across warm pools of water and inexplicable clouds of moths, they've already announced their presence to the lake hag, or Witch ... and she, in turn, has dispatched her minions, as I've explained.

As the DM, consider how this is best played.  The minions are most likely stupid: they exist in a lifeless, soulless place, under the thrall of a creature so hideous that to look at her produces crippling fear.  Their origin is uncertain.  But they are certainly obedient ... and while stupid, the Witch knows what they are, and their limitations.  It's our part as DM to play out the forward going scenario as though we were her.  It is, in effect, like a military campaign.

One might argue that the former princess, as the Witch once was, was not a military commander; but this is also not her first rodeo, and she's had 25 years to consider what she'd do if her lair was ever invaded.  Plus, she possesses the mind and soul of the former nobleman who once ruled the area — and what was able to learn from him, or how she does it, is entirely up to us.  I've already stipulated that the Witch is intelligent.  She has mooks that she can use like soldiers, even if they are merely strange amphibious and jelly-like humanoid creatures.  She may possess clairvoyance, as a 7th level mage, enabling her to witness how the "first wave" of attacks goes.

The first wave is never her whole strength.  It's always a means to collect "intel," in the sense of how long does it take these strangers to waste 15 mooks?  What powers do they have?  Who takes the lead in the fight?  Who hangs back?  Does a crowd of mooks put them off, or whet their appetites?  This sort of thing.

Now, as DM, we already know all this.  We've watched the party fight a number of times now, and we know which character is which class.  So we're not actually learning anything about the party.  However, as DM, its important that much of the time we "play dumb" when running enemies against the party, since the enemies aren't supposed to know what we know.  So with the first fight, that's how we run it.  The mooks arrive in the party's company at some point during their descent, with the players hearing them coming, and there's a battle.  They rush in rather stupidly, without planning, because they're meant to die.  Presumably, the Witch can produce more.  Or at least, these are expendable.  They would probably be among her weakest forces.

The party knows none of this.  They wade through her minions with varying success, depending on the party and whether they're tactically capable.  Since the only thing they've fought in this campaign are a bunch of kobalds, it's probable the fighters and spellcasters are still 1st level.  Perhaps the cleric is 2nd, and probably the thief if there is one.  Still, it's reasonable to expect the players should win ... and they might gain enough experience from the fight for one or two of them to ascend a level.

[I don't use the dumbfuckery of studying for extra levels, because it adds nothing to the game ... it's a bogus arbitrary penalty for success of play, without meaningful opportunity for roleplay or player improvement — how exactly do you improve your "skill" at navigating the game mechanic of paying an NPC to push you up a level?  It has as much relevance to PLAY as being told that because you lost a piece in chess, you have to get out of your chair and kowtow once to your opponent to express your reverence for his or her skill]

So, the minions are dead, the Witch knows more about the party and the party ... well, what does the party know?

A., that creatures came out of the dark and attacked them without provocation.  This happens so often in D&D that it's doubtful the party will give it a moment's reflection.  I'd be very surprised if someone in the party remarked, "Why do you suppose they attacked us?"  The almost certain reply, not from the DM, would be, "They're probably evil."  Which conveniently solves all motivations, though in fact it's exactly the sort of in-game meta-thinking that gets parties killed.  More on this in a moment.

B., that it's probably safe to keep going.  The party doesn't know these are minions; they don't know anything!  As far as the party knows, or cares, these 15 repulsive creatures have been wandering mindlessly around the dungeon for 25 years, while just happening to remain together all this time and clearly lacking any connection whatsoever to anything.  I've been running fairly smart parties for more than 40 years and I have yet to have a party that gives any serious thought to the simple question, "What do these creatures do here when we're not around?"

Mostly, the only party concern is how much damage did they take and whether they can fight another battle — just like this one — with success.  It never seems to occur that the next fight may have 10 times as many creatures, because that's how armies work.  First, you stumble across a picket, then you're swamped by 150 soldiers.

But 40 years of mawkish D&D has trained any of those thoughts completely out of the players' heads.  Monsters exist for players to kill.  These 15 were right here because that's how the adventure's designed.  "It's not like the DM's just gonna kill us."

As a DM, however, we're bound to none of these assumptions, not by any rule.  As it happens, I'm not going to slaughter the party with 150 mooks in the next five minutes ... since, obviously, 150 make a lot more noise than 15.  But I could, and I'd be legitimately in my rights to play it that way.  I could easily say to the party, "You hear the sound of another group coming ... only this one is much, much louder" ... and see if they'd scatter or stupidly wait for the army to arrive.

MY responsibility in the "game," which isn't real life, is to ensure that the players have a reasonable chance of deciding ahead of time if this is a good time to fight or not.  A "reasonable chance" means providing them just enough intel to give them reason to question what would be the best action right now.  Such as,

DM: You hear a bunch of something shambling and squirgeling towards you from around the bend ahead.

Player: Squirgeling?

DM: Sounds like wet, fleshy masses slapping on stone.

Player: Oh.  How many masses are we talking about?

DM: You can't tell.  More than ten.  Probably not more than twenty.

There.  I've done my diligence.  It does not matter if the dungeon has been scripted out three months ago; it does not matter that the players haven't chosen a passage or a doorway.  The mooks are squirgeling towards the players because a higher intelligence has sent them, and they know every inch of these caverns.  Perhaps this is the third time the mooks have tried to find the players and attack them, only it just hasn't happened.  What matters is the players hear them coming.  This gives a chance for the players to run ... or ready themselves to fight.

This is moment at which the meaningful game choice is made.  Commit to what's coming or run.

'Course, players hate, hate, hate running from things they haven't seen.  And that is the sort of posturing pretense to heroism that gets parties killed.  Though of course, that's not our problem as DM.

We warned them.  We sent a simple reconnaissance mook-troop to test the party's strength.  And having revealed their strength to the Witch (without the slightest notion in their heads that she watched the whole thing), when we send the next group against the party, we don't have to "play dumb" about what player character does what in a fight.  The Witch can send a smarter, stronger, better prepared contingent, enriched with intel, to snuff out the party properly.

Which we'll come to.  First we have to discuss point (a) from the previous post, in which the players stumble across unintelligent creatures that just happen to live here.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Intriguing Things

Going from the last post in the ersatz game, as the DM we have three general scenarios to offer: (a) to have them encounter something unintelligent that's been living in the caves, that's unable to comprehend anything beyond it's searching for food; (b) for the party to encounter the first wave of minions approaching from below; and (c) for the party to find something intriguing yet benign, that lends a clue to their situation. None of these are the "right" option; nor are they the only options — they're merely a set of tried and true situations for the party. I've never gone wrong with these; and because they're so varied in type and presentation, our imagination is the only limitation. As such, in three posts, beginning with this one, I'll talk about each, starting with (c).

This is no different than inserting something interesting that happens along the road back and forth from town, or the establishment of clues that draws the players deeper into the adventure.  A vast amount of running D&D is the use of exposition to continuously insert information within the narrative about the setting.  Exposition is best given in drips and drabs ... in as small amount as possible at a time.  The worst kind of exposition is the "infodump," in which the DM or writer gives all the information about something up front, in as thorough a manner as possible.

I assume most people understand what's wrong with this, but if I might provide an example of bad exposition and good, we can get on with the rest of this post.

Let's suppose that for some reason, as the DM we've invented an NPC who happens to know everything about the cavern the players are entering.  We've done this specifically because we knew eventually the players would get to this point, and we've thought to ourselves, "You know what would be great?  If there was someone who could conveniently explain everything to the players at the right time, in full!  Wow, what a terrific idea."

This is bad.  Not only is it boring as hell to shove this NPC's lecture (that is, our lecture) into the player's ears, it also kills the player's sense of mystery and yen to discover.  If the players stumbling across a helmet, they don't puzzle out it's existence, or discuss it, no!  They turn to the NPC, who conveniently provides all the information the players need.  Ugh.  Don't do this.  Just assume that any method that gives exposition "conveniently" sucks the dog.

As the DM, we need to know, but withholding most of this information, for as long as possible, is critical.  As an example, imagine that above the dungeon, within the mountain the dungeon is under, there are a collection of hot springs.  These dribble down through the mountain's interior along channels and chutes, where they provide hydrothermic heat for molds, bioluminescent plants and all sorts of small beasties ... but as it happens, this alternate biome is 99.5% hidden from the bare rock caverns the players can see.  The existing biome perhaps created these caverns a million years ago, but they've been cut off from the original source of water ... except in a few places where the hidden biome bleeds through.

We mustn't say any of this to the players.  On a macro-scale, we want to use this information to divide the dungeon into two parts that are "warm" and "cold."  The lake hag below despises the warmer areas, with her and her mooks preferring the deeper, lifeless areas ... and this acts as a clue to how she can be found.  On a micro-scale, we can use the hidden biome to add spice to the player's experience, without them initially being able to discern the source for what they find.

For example, not long after entering, they encounter a small cloud of fifty large moths, an inch across, turning and swirling around the party, whether or not they're carrying light.  We know these have emerged from some small vent, perhaps an inch wide, too cool to show up with infravision.  Yet the moths themselves carry their own heat, and remain with the party (unless the party can think of a way to obliterate every one).  Then, if the party moves, by chance, towards the hag, the moths turn back and disappear.  But if they move in another direction, they encounter some new strange side effect of the biome.  Say, a trickle of warm water falling from the top of the cavern into a bowl on the floor, where it disappears through cracks.

These things seem incidental, and would be if they were disconnected ideas.  But they're not here.  Deeper down in the warm parts, the players may find themselves blocked by warm pools occupied by miniature, luminescent ochre jelly, just a few hit points each ... but clustered dangerously like clouds of jelly fish.  They may find a small mushroom glade, occupied by a few violet fungi.  They may discover a part of the biome that they can climb down through, only to vacate when they find the bottom is filled with bloodsucking plants.

And later, after more exploration, they may find that getting past those plants is a back door into the lake hag's lair.

Slowly, as we introduce various elements of the biome's influence on the dungeon's "warm side," they may start to put things together.  They may not ... especially if we carefully interweave the warm and cold parts together.

We have to remember throughout, however, that we're describing, not explaining.  Explaining is an easy, bad habit to fall into.  Let the party do the explaining, as they collect evidence.  That's not our job.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Music Library

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with D&D.  It's about popular music, and how my relationship to music has evolved over the last thirty some years.  And it's about how music fits into my creative process, which may be of value to someone.

Coming of age in the 1970s, my first conscious memory of a popular song came in the summer of 1973.  I connect the song with standing in the sun on the flooring of cabin my father built himself, from scratch; the previous summer, the raised deck had been built and in 1973, the walls were going up.  The radio played all day when he worked, and a funny song that played twice a day was very popular here in Canada, though it only reached #9 in America.  The memorable lyric went, "... long haired hippy type pinko fags ..." which is an odd lyric for a 9-y.o., as I was; but of course, living in the television and brick-phone era, I had no idea what the last word meant.

It would be years and years before I would identify what the song was, or who sang it.  No one ever seemed to remember it; and no radio station ever played it, perhaps because the lyrics grew increasingly obtuse in a post 1975 world.

Thoughout my teens and 20s, as I worked on D&D, university or anything, really, radio music was always an important part of my ethic.  Until reaching my mid-40s, I found it difficult to work in a silent room, though I do not when I'm writing something new, such as this blog post.  But when I'm working on the wiki, or maps, or researching, or copyreading, or crunching numbers, music plays pretty much constantly.  The most valuable aspect of music, for me, is that it's ongoing.  As each song picks up from the last, it evokes a steady sound that appeals to my sense of creative flow.  When I'm deeply engaged, I don't hear the music at all; and when I'm more relaxed, I hear something I like and begin to sing along.  Most of all, because there are no interruptions in the sound, I don't have to interrupt my thoughts to find something new.

I started collecting music around 1977.  Obviously, there were albums, and my parents had many from the 1950s and 60s, but I had only a few.  Mostly, I worked with 8-track tapes.  We had a player, and 8-tracks let me copy music without ambient noise ... though of course the quality wasn't great and it degraded over time.  Still, at 88 minutes a tape, I slowly accumulated some 20 tapes of individual songs, about 1760 minutes.

With the 1980s, I moved onto VHS recordings of music videos and cassette tapes, which would play in my, yes you guessed it, walk-man.  I bought albums on casette and accumulated about 4,000 minutes of individual songs, much of it downloaded from public library resources.  The height of my cassette library came around 1999, when I would play mixed tapes (illegally) for the coffee shop I ran, astounding a lot of my older-than-40 patrons with music they hadn't heard in decades.  See, my tastes in music are very eclectic.

In 1999, I was given the volume shown by a friend at the time, who knew about my pursuit of music.  I couldn't find a copy of this specific edition online (though there are other editions), so its my own photo.  The book is very beat up; the spine is broken, and yes that is duct tape along the binding.  I've been carrying the book around for more than 20 years now, using it as a source for finding music, learning more about music and ... well, I'll explain.

The book includes every song that ever made Billboard's Top 40 between January 1st, 1955 and December 24th, 1988 ... even if the song made it for just one week.  The number of pages runs 444, organised by performer.

Coincidentally, the book arrived in my possession somewhere around August of '99, when in October of that year I took a room in a house occupied by three others; one of those was a hard-core computer techie, who built his own computers for fun ... and that is how I came to be introduced to Napster.

I'm sure everyone knows, but Napster was the first media sharing platform that would allow individuals to download music without playing for it.  You know, piracy.  When I started using the program, songs being uploaded consisted of a dozen individual files, which had to be stored in separate folders; thankfully, that was soon overcome.  

As I was working as a cook in the evening, and most everyone else worked during the day, I had the run of my roommate's computer and napster for about 4 hours a day.  And during those four hours, I conceived of a gargantuan task.  Let me show you by posting the pages 112-113 from the Billboard volume above:

This gives a sense of the book's layout.  As I say, there are 444 pages of the kind of content shown above.  Intentionally, these pages include the song that I mentioned at the post's start: it's Uneasy Rider, by the Charlie Daniel's Band.

The rubbed out marks are a legacy from those Napster days, when I decided that I'd listen to every song from the book, and decide afterwards if it was a song I wanted to keep.  As might be expected, the task itself took longer than Napster survived as a platform, so the work continued steadily throughout the 2000s, right into the time when this blog was started.  Slowly, I accumulated a total of 1,200 songs, which mixed in with another 700 from the time since 1988.  That's about 6,500 minutes.  It takes about a month to run through my library, if I'm working full time and I'm able to listen to music while working.  Which is mostly anywhere I've worked.

I haven't listened to a radio for any meaningful period since 2006.  And since 2017, my general interest in reviewing music online that's just come out has faded.  But the last decade of listening to my own music, and to my partner's music as well, has awakened me in ways I never expected.

First, I could tell that what I had wasn't enough.  It was lots, and I wasn't getting tired of it, but the eclecticism offered didn't satisfy.

Secondly, the overall list failed to reproduce what radio used to offer.  Most of what I'd here in the era of radio was stuff that wasn't particularly special to me ... and though I didn't realise it at the time, that lack of specialness tended to highlight the content that was special.  The good stuff stood out better because it wasn't all good stuff.

And so, during Covid, I began an experiment.  I decided to obtain every song that had reached a top ten position, regardless of my personal feelings about the group or their music.  I'd ignore my "taste."  I'd treat it as though taste didn't matter.  I began the process in February 2021, doing as much as I felt like doing, at the speed I felt like working at.  At the same time, I'd obtain anything else that looked moderately interesting, as I went along.

I noticed the effect right away, as the first few hundred songs were mixed into my rotation.  And as that number grew and grew, I found myself feeling better about how the background music was influencing my attention.  At first, there were songs that definitely sounded like nails on a blackboard (and you'll notice that I've been deliberate about not explaining my general taste in music) ... but I forced myself to ignore that, and let the familiarity of those songs sink into my consciousness.

I may be very different from the rest of the world, but I'm increasingly learning that the difference between a "good" song and a "bad" song is how familiar I am with it.  There are numerous songs in my list now that I'd have considered "bad" in 2021; but which now, two years later, I'm quite indifferent to.  Some I've completely changed about.  It's somewhat interesting.

I'm writing this post because the book is very nearly complete.  I'm just 12 pages from the end (at the band "War"), which I should have wrapped up some time after the weekend.  My list is now 4,700 songs (more than 15,000 minutes), and I have my work cut out for me going forward.

Billboard magazine has finally seen the light and has chosen to admit the internet exists ... and so in the last two years, they've made their week-by-week top 100 song lists available.  I'm starting to create documents that organise these lists so that when I'm ready to move on, through 1989 and into the '90s, I can go on collecting anything that's reached the top 10.  I don't see any reason not to continue that pursuit up to the present day, though I do tend to think modern music is a somewhat, shall we say, derivative.  But what does that matter?  I don't have to like it.

Nor is that the end.  I've been considering that the "top 10" may be a bit limiting.  Why not the top 20?  That's good for at least another hundred songs per year.  I'm quite curious about what a music library of 20,000 songs would be like ...

To work to, that is.  A list so large that it never bores me, no matter how long I leave it on.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Out of the Box

I suppose I just don't have the confidence to walk that road, as I'm afraid it will lead me to a style of play akin to "illusionism" or "story gaming," neither of which I'm interested in.

JB knows perfectly well that I'm not interested in "story gaming" either.

This is the third post in a series that have all been written today, starting here and continuing here.  You're not required to read them in order.  But it won't matter, because they all end up at the same place.

"Story gaming" is a narrative in which the players are required to follow a pre-specified scenario within a narrowly defined setting.  For example, a one-dimensional dungeon that begins with the slaughtering of a kobald lair, followed by getting past a locked door, then heading down into a series of caverns, fighting mooks, winning over the mooks and eventually facing a terrible "big bad" at the bottom, followed by the acquisition of a lot of treasure.

Kind of like the scenario I've been describing for a couple of months now.  Anybody reading this feeling like I'm railroading players into a "narrowly defined" setting?  No?  That's probably because I've repeatedly pointed out that at each stage of the journey, the players have had to will themselves forward to the next step.  A "story game" holds the players hostage because they can't back out.  The DM has nothing else prepared.

This is especially true with the diamond-standard of official role-play, the "tournament game," which wholly depends on the narrow setting.  This, take note, is THE most societally visible part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Correct me if I'm wrong, dear JB.  Have you not indulged?  Within, say, the last couple of years?  Please reassure me that this is the reason for your lack of interest in this style of play.

My experience has been that once the players have the bit between their teeth, it's not hard to keep them moving forward.  It's where they want to go.  This is part of why story gaming has thrived for such a long time; I'll remind the readers that I participated in such events in the early 1980s.  And if the players are keen on it, then what am I to do as a DM?  Tell them the dungeon's closed?

"Oh no, sorry fellas, I don't want to get the reputation of running a one-dimensional narrowly defined setting game.  Whatta ya say you forget this dungeon adventure thing and find a nice bunch of river pirates to kill?"

If the players choose to be bloody minded about finishing something, the best thing to do is ride that pony to its end.  Nothing wrong with that.  It's hardly something to be feared.  What matters is that the players aren't forced into that setting.  They're not required to go there because as a DM, I've got nothing else to offer.  We are duty bound to make it perfectly clear that if they decide they're not going to rush the dungeon, it just seems like a bad idea, then something else is going to be made available within the hour.

And not because the players are given a nonsense choice, like which of the Cabin in the Wood's object you choose, but because we're fluid enough in our creativity that when they pick out a direction to follow, we have something interesting for them to find along the way.

Like, say, an ogre.  Standing on the road.  Not because this road is more special than the other road, but because it can be interesting.  Especially if the ogre's first act is not to behave like a stupid, dumb traditional ogre.

I just cannot seem to get this across to DMs, but I keep trying.  It does not matter that the party takes the high road or the low road.  No matter how you paint them, these are not "meaningful" game choices ... unless we take it for granted that the high road will get you to Aberdeen and the low road to Sterling.  No, no, no.  What matters is that when the players meet the ogre, it lifts its right hand in the air, showing that it's somehow gotten its thumb stuck in an iron cauldron.  "Can you help me get this off?" asks the ogre.

What we meet behind doors on along roads or in what damned narrow setting isn't what matters.  What matters is what the thing we meet wants.