Tuesday, October 31, 2023

I'm Not in it for the Friendship

I did not serve in the military.  I have a friend with whom I speak once or twice a week, usually on the phone for an hour or more, and once in a while I have him over for dinner or we hang in "our" coffee shop downtown.  He's ex-military; served as a master corporal, which in the Canadian army would be that fellow shouting into the face of Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket.  He and I speak about army life all the time, and geopolitics, and gun use, and military spending and any number of things with which he was once deeply acquainted and about which I'm extremely well-read and educated.

In general, I get along very well with ex-service people, both men and women.  I often find I have to finish their sentences for them, as there's a hesitation they quite properly feel as they drift into subjects that civilians are dead stupid about.  I know what they want to say, and what they're hesitating to say, because it's something they know a civilian's going to feel squicky about.  So I go ahead and say it for them, sending the message that sure, I'm a civilian, but an informed one, and I understand how the military and the real world works.  This puts them at ease and though I still have to do it once in a while, I enjoy that they begin to feel comfortable enough to speak with me as though I'm in "insider."

He and I regularly talk about the Ukraine situation — which I won't talk about here — as he knows various people connected to the inside of events there.  I have a better knowledge of geography than my friend does, so as he describes what's happening and where, I paint a picture of what the landscape looks like which fills in holes for him.  Of late, we regularly talk about the Israeli-Hamas situation too  — which I won't talk about here — from various standpoints, historical, geographical, military, etcetera, as we've both been steeped in that subject for more than 40 years; and we both have personally known friends from both sides.  When something happens, like the Maine shooting — which I won't talk about here — we turn it this way and that and talk about the ramifications and such.  He's someone with a firmly practical, pragmatic point of view that makes these conversations useful and bereft of emotional baggage ... which is another reason why I enjoy speaking with members of the military.

This relates to D&D, which this post is properly about.  I've been turning over in my mind the question of why dungeon masters find it hard to obtain and then maintain players in their campaigns.  I've not written about that much here, because I've not had that problem over the years.  I've spent periods not running as a DM, but during that time I didn't actively want to run, or indeed play at all.  But when I've wanted to run, getting players hasn't been a problem for me.

This said, I hear quite a bit for others about their problem on this front, both in personal letters written to me and general writings that can be found on the net if they're searched for.  From these, I get hints and wisps of what might be going on, other than the obvious, "I live in Podunkville Nebraska, Cherry County, and the nearest city is Scottsbluff with 14,000 people ... and that's 80 miles from me."

[I called "The Bard's Den Books and Beyond" in Scottsbluff just now, 1-308-632-4661, 2400 Ave Suite A, Ave 1, and no one answered; the name on the phone was the "Book Nook" so it may not be in the D&D business anymore]

This dearth is understandable in such places, but I hear these complaints from people living in Kansas City, Toronto, Calgary, all over.  It would be easy to just say, "It must be you," but that's not helpful and in a lot of cases, wrong.  Something is going on, and it would be nice to know what, so that useful advice could be given on what needs to change, or what actually causes players to bow out after their second session.  The problem is constant and exists everywhere, and as such deserves a lot more attention on this blog than I've given it ... but truth be told, I haven't had an answer.  I'm not sure I do now, though I'm going to take a swing at it.

From my perspective, the place is start has always been, "Why haven't I had this problem?"  Generally, I've taken the position that it must be something I'm doing that other people aren't doing, and much of what I've written on that subject has to do with giving players agency, building a deeper and richer campaign setting, taking no guff from players who complain about their lot or the game itself, viewing the rules as something that applies to the DM as much as other people and so on.  And I think it must be all those things, but undoubtedly, those things aren't enough.

Recently I heard from a DM whose game is falling apart for reasons that seem surface-oriented: the players want to do other things, D&D doesn't seem exciting enough, they were enjoying the game per se, but regular play seemed, um, not to their taste.  One thing that stood out for me in this was that the players weren't interested in playing on a Friday or Saturday night; the sessions had to be on a weeknight, Tuesday or Wednesday.

For me, this is a flat-out deal breaker.  If we can't play on a night where we can keep going until midnight, or beyond that, forget it.  Not worth my time.  In my mind, players who won't surrender their weekends — or can't make arrangements with their workplaces to get every other Friday off — raise a some red flags for me.  In the first case, D&D in the players' mind is clearly second to something: drinking at the bar, maybe, or skiing, or weekend fishing, or time at the gun range or whatever.  Hell, I don't care, it might be the player's family they want to spend time with; the point is that I'm be competing with something so important to that person that I'm sure to hear regularly from them that they can't make the game.  Obviously, fine.  But a would-be player who can't commit to 5 hours on a given night every two weeks, no matter what the reason, won't be a person I bank on being in my game world.  I won't be surprised if they don't show up.  In fact, I won't ask them to show up, because what's the point?

As for not being able to get a wanted night off due to work ... uh, yeah, red flag.  I used to work as a cook and I preferred nights.  In that time, I preferred the starting rush which lapsed off, following by closing down the kitchen, to the process of getting everything started from a dead start in time for the lunch rush.  Just the way I'm built.  Some people hate shutting down a kitchen.  I liked it.

Thing is, I was good enough at my job that once I'd worked in a place for a few weeks, my handlers — um, bosses — were anxious to keep me happy and content.  If it happened that I was ready to work Thursdays and Saturdays and holidays, so long as I could get some Fridays off, a deal could always be struck and I could run my D&D game as I wanted.  If, on the other hand, I hadn't been much of a worker, or I'd been willing to work for kitchens that were run by monsters who didn't give a crap about their staff, then no, I wouldn't have gotten those Fridays off.

As such, if a would-be player says to me, "I work Fridays and I can't get out of it," this tells me one of two things:  they're either incapable of impressing anyone with their commitment, and thus can't ask for anything at work, or they haven't the confidence to stand up for themselves, and are thus willing to be treated like a slave for money.  Either way, such a person's going to make a bad D&D player, and I don't want them.

I know there are people who would say, "You expect D&D players to have no other life."  Yes, I guess, if you expect people to commit a third of one day out of every 14, that's clearly a sign that they can't do anything else with the other 13 2/3rds days.

Now, to this point, the post feels, um, schizophrenic.  What does all that stuff about the military have to do with this stuff about losing D&D players?  Straightforwardly, everything I've just said about D&D players has been in my mind for a good many days ... but I've been stuck at the end of the previous paragraph. 

Okay, I'm inflexible as a DM.  I expect players to show up.  I expect to choose the night when they will.  If they have other lives, fine, I'd rather run other people.  Does this argument go anywhere?  No, not really.  I'm an asshole.  An asshole with players.

But why am I an asshole?  That's the key to this post and the reason the opening was about the military.  My friend and I were discussing the sort of jobs to which ex-military attach themselves.  In the navy and the airforce, or the artillery as my friend was, that experience with heavy equipment translates into work with the railroad, water or road transport, bus driving, repairs, jobs where the individual looks after a lot of very expensive, massive-scale equipment, such as an office tower or a dam.

My friend then made the point about foot soldiers not having that be as available as it is for those in the technical army.  They've been carrying a rifle for however many years; and my friend added that once there was work delivering mail for the post office, since walking wasn't a problem, but that job is disappearing.

True enough, I argued, but one of the strengths those ex-military have is their ability to endure jobs where they're entirely alone.  They're used to standing on parade grounds or at post for hours and hours, forbidden from talking to others, in their own heads, and being completely comfortable with that.  At present, my friend is working as a bus driver; he's retiring from 15 years of doing that, after 20 years of working on the railroad, following his stint in the artillery.  He's been working "alone" since forever, as those jobs require people who able to work diligently by themselves without going nuts.  Not that this last point works out for every ex-military.

I too, have spent most of my life alone and am comfortable with it.  From very early on I chose to be a writer and therefore chose to spend thousands of hours deliberately separating myself from other people in order to "work" — or play, however one chooses to see it.  I rolled into DMing, which is the role we assume that presents the game for others, while not really playing with them.  I have such a volatile personality that I don't get along with people who want me to care about what they care about, or support them for the sake of supporting them, or accepting their right to be insipid or ignorant, etcetera.  I've been married twice, both times to "loners" whose impatience with others made our union pleasant, supportive and long-term committed.  My first wife passed away and Tamara and I have been together for 20 years.

Being alone carries weight where it comes to managing and handling others.  It's easy to take a stand and demand a commitment because it's just as easy to say, "If you can't play this Friday, goodbye, I don't need you."  It's easy to say, "If your family's more important to you than this one night of D&D, fine, great, I hope you're happy, but please I don't need you at my D&D game."

It's easier, though it's never "easy," to kill a player by the rules and then argue, sorry, them's the rules.  It's a streak of the military that runs through me, where I've spent enough time holding myself to a certain standard, alone, and knowing how that standard has served me well and properly through the years.  It provides a gravitas when dealing with D&D players, who are tacitly aware that it does no good to equivocate, plead or take a stand with me.  I know how to be alone.  I'm always going to be fair, I'm always going to offer a decent compromise, because the time I've spent alone, committed to things that mattered my whole life to me, has argued that there is no life without commitment or standards of belief.  But I'm not going to bend.  I'm won't understand that you want to go camping this weekend.  Half the weekend's throughout the year, I won't be playing D&D.  Pick one of those other 26 if you want to go camping.

This is why my friend and I get along, though he's ex-military and I'm not.  It's why I get along with most in the military.  Because on my own, I taught myself to think as they do.

And, by extension, it's why I don't get along with virtually every other person in this game.  I'm not in it for the friendship.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Wherefore and Whyfore of Sage Abilities

I had a chance today to crunch some numbers on my authentic wiki.  There are something like 1426 pages, of which 325 are spells, 88 are cantrips, 44 are sage fields, 171 are sage studies and 211 are sage abilities.  The remaining balance are largely monsters, details surrounding the player character and rules related to combat.

Checking the "wanted links" — pages that have been proposed but presently exist as dead links on the wiki — I can determine how many of these briefly discuss sage abilities that haven't been written yet.  The total number is 803.  Nor is that all.  There are numerous sage studies for which I haven't yet even proposed sage abilities, so probably the real number is closer to 12 or 13 hundred.

So ...

A couple of questions arise.  What the hell am I doing, obviously.  Does this even have any actual value, as another example.  I've spoken about how I got started on this, but since I haven't addressed that in years, and I've been digging into the wiki all month, now might be a good time.  For those who have never heard of a "sage ability," or those who have never quite understood what this is about, allow me a short recap.

In the mid-00s, I began to feel that characters whose class background involved a great deal of reading and study — spellcasters — ought to have a certain complimentary knowledge of the game world beyond the use of their spells and how to wear a nifty cloak and cap.  The inspiration came from pp. 31-32 of the original DMG, where a list of 69 subjects were listed, from art & music to politics, history, mathematics, mammals, mosses & ferns and medicine.  The rules proposed that if the player characters went to the right "sage," that sage would have a percentage chance of answering questions the players had, based on the sage's "fields."  The heading for this rule metric was "Sage Ability."

The role of sage was only ever intended for non-player characters, as Gygax and crew never imagined that player characters might want to actually KNOW things, or pursue knowledge ... thus there are no rules there for that.  But I always feel that players ought to be able to do, well, anything.  So I created a flimsy, poorly thought out rule system that would let players ask questions of themselves, roll a percentage die, and if the answer was indicated, great.

I was surprised to find that my players really, really liked this.  The metric, garbage that it was, got used all the time, so there was reason to flesh it out and try to make the numbers work better.  Unfortunately, the fundamental element of the metric — that a die roll was needed to learn what you know — always felt detrimental to the whole idea.  After all, it's not like my knowledge of the Punic Wars is random.  I know what I know, and I know what I don't know.

At some point around 2013, I wrote a post or two about this, and the online party I was running at the time wanted to know why only spellcasters got the benefit of this knowledge.  Shouldn't fighters, thieves and rangers know things also?  I fed this argument to my offline players and they, too, were adamant that the sage system, as it was called then, had to be expanded to include all the classes.

Long about then I made the jump from a random percentage across the whole field to a specific knowledge that a player would have about "a thing," whatever that thing might be.  In keeping with the DMG, I decided this knowledge would be called a "sage ability," and that it ought to follow a few basic premises.

First and foremost, this was a thing the character knew — playing and non-player characters alike.  If the character was familiar with "beasts," then it didn't matter what the player knew, and there was no need to roll a die.  The character ought to be able to point at that great big mass of flesh and say, "Oh, I know what that is ... it's a manticore.   Careful of the tail."

Next, because it was an "ability," and not a spell, then the character had to be free to use it as often as they could within a given time frame.  I can talk about geography all day long.  It's not like I'm only allowed to answer 4 geography questions in a 24-hr. period.  Sage abilities had to work the same way.

Finally, if there was a limitation on the ability, it had to do with how much the character could conceivably know at a given level of experience.  Some system had to be created that said, at 1st level the character might know a few things about architecture, but by 10th they would surely know everything about it ... especially when we consider that there was less architecture to know in the 15th century.

It wasn't long after, mid-2014 I think, that I realised it wasn't just what a character could know, it also applied to what a character could do.  It was this that cracked the problem of fighters, bards, monks and thieves.  Because these were more "practical" classes, their knowledge had to be of the practical sort.  What does a fighter know, beyond fighting?  Well, soldiers know how to fire artillery, they know how to dig tunnels, they know how to find food, they know how to lead, they know how to train other fighters and so on.

Problem was, I'd tapped into a host of subject material over which I had very little control.  I mean, once you decide that a character can do something because of their class, or their upbringing, where do you draw the line?  Are we going to argue that a character can fire a ballista, but they can't fix one?  Or that they can fix one, but they can't build one from scratch?  Or, if they can build one from scratch, that they can't build a better one after years of experience?  And so this becomes the issue.  To my mind, if it can be conceived that a character would want to do a thing, than this was an opportunity to build a metric, not based on random chance, for what a player could ultimately do.

Very quickly, I could see how this smashed through dozens of bad rule metrics throughout every edition of D&D.  Spell research?  No problem, its a sage ability, you get it at a certain level, after which it's not about throwing money at the problem and rolling a die, it's about doing a set amount of laboratory time with a guaranteed success.  Why guaranteed?  Well, because the player had earned the right to know how, through gaining levels and sage knowledge points, just as the player earns the right to cast a 5th level spell or attack twice every round.

This concept of earning ability is all-important.  The premise of nearly every role-playing game is to hamstring the player endlessly to keep the game "competitive" in some nonsense fashion based on the DM not being able to invent a more dangerous opponent.  Therefore, every little thing a player might try to do when wanting to improve their position in the world — like invent a new spell, or their own magic item — has to be opposed by a hundred frivolous bullshit hoops that amount to, "play the game as you're told and don't try for more."

Joke's on them, however, as the players weren't satisfied with that in the long run and now DMs have to give them everything they want, earned or not.  Which obviously breaks games ... but that's another post I've written somewhere else.

Another spell, when it's gained according to predictable premises, isn't going to break a game that's built for that expectation one day.  If I know the player's eventually going to get that benefit, then I'll be ready with game narratives where the player's going to need that spell, and enjoy using it, and feel that he or she really is in control of their game world, while my game is just as robust and able to manage the players' excitement and nerves the same as ever.  I'm a step ahead, because I'm expecting it.

And because, as a metric, every other high-level combatant can also do the same thing.

It was in this vein of thinking, between 2015 and 2016, that I realised every ability belonging to every class had to ultimately be folded into the sage ability structure.  Every thief could backstab, but the better backstabbers had the ability.  Every cleric can still turn undead, but those wanting to turn the higher level undead would need the ability.  There are exceptions — the paladin's lay-on hands and natural protection being two of them, plus spell use across the board — but many, many parts of a character's structure is now based on what field and study they chose to commit to.  Not everyone can ride a horse; not everyone knows how to cook; not every mage knows a pipette from a beaker.  Some druids know about animals, some know about plants.  Some thieves can burgle a house, some can't.  Some rangers are really good in a forest; others are really good in a desert.  It depends what matters to you, the player.

This, in fact, became a profound element of the system as it came into being.  As much as telling players what they were for certain able to do, it also established plainly what a character couldn't do.  No training in grooming a horse?  Then you can't do it.  Don't have the sage ability read & write?  Then you can't.  No knowledge points in swimming?  Fall in and you'll drown.  You can't "muddle through."  You can't roll a die and hope for a nat 20.  There are no dice.  Either you can swim, or you can't.  There's nuance, of course.  Even a few swimming points help immensely.  But you can't just put your head down and roll a die.  The system doesn't work that way.

When players know their limitations absolutely, it helps enormously in game play.  Of course players ask questions like, "Does my knowledge in construction tell me what culture built this tower?"  No, it doesn't.  It might tell you how to duplicate the feat, but it won't tell you who built it.  I'm used to these questions as a DM, however, and since I'm building this system, and have done the research for it, I understand the parameters around each bit of it.

But ...

Covering all the possible fields and studies of human knowledge is a gargantuan proposal.  Incomprehensible, really.  Especially when considering that most of its there but won't ever be used, because what player am I going to have that's hyper-interested in pottery glazes (a potential bard study) or the art of forgery (a potential thief study).  Much of the content I'm creating has no definite application for any player, much of the time because the actual study isn't based on combating monsters, inventing magic, identifying treasures or detecting where the bad people are.

Yet, the sage structure isn't just for player characters.  It also defines thousands of potential non-player characters.  The world is, after all, full of glassblowers, assayers, rat catchers, butchers, apothecaries and hundreds of other potential professions, all defined by those 803 sage abilities I haven't written yet, and the other 400 or so I haven't even conceived of yet.  The process, I have to say, is simply amazing.

The abilities themselves are classified in a manner that limits the most powerful examples to the most powerful people.  The way the system is made, 1st levels are able to be an "amateur" in something.  On average, a character becomes an "authority" somewhere between 3rd and 6th level.  "Expert" status comes in the neighbourhood of 7th to 10th, just as the amount of experience a character needs to go up a level really slows down ( based on the old game, which my world is based on).

"Sage," the highest status of knowledge, is most likely to emerge somewhere between 13th and 17th level.  If you want to create your own artifacts, or hyper-powerful magic items, or visit the outer planes with little difficulty, or even time travel, you need to be a sage.

Quickly, here's a base premise on how these stages work:

Amateur.  A dedicated newcomer to the craft, whatever it is; a base structure of knowledge exists, a certain amount of practical experience is given, but for the most part this is a "thinking" level of sage ability.  "That's a manticore," kind of thing, or knowing that yes, this is definitely a piece of gold ore in my hand.

Authority.  Well-rated professional, steadily becoming even better at it.  Has a complete familiarity of the base rational structure of the given study, can point to the right books, knows how the subject works and can speak with "authority" about it.

Expert.  As this is D&D, the boundaries of the subject material are getting pushed at this point, even to where the hint of supernatural gains the merest foothold.  This wine I've learned to brew can heal hit points, or I can make a +1 weapon, or gain a relationship with the animal I'm training that goes somewhat beyond the so-called "possible."  This supernatural, however, isn't powerful, is usually cosmetic in some fashion and is often beneficial to multiple people rather than solely the character.

Sage.  The bridle is off.  Go nuts.  Time travel?  Sure, it's just you need an enormous amount of knowledge to understand how it works.   Turn spontaneously invisible at will?  It's a trick a lot of 16th level thieves learn.  Build a working airship?  Of course.  Gravity is no problem.

Well, that's about it.  Make a sage ability for all human knowledge and capability.  Follow the baseline metrics.  Be sure to provide limits that are built into the game's limitations and not a die roll.

Never, ever finish the project.



If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide. 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Saturday Q&A (oct 28)

It's a slow week.  I haven't written so much as I should, except time I've spent on my wiki.

Maxwell writes,
offering rules for characters managing their equipment inventories:

While these rules are written with respect to PCs, they apply to all characters.

Item Locations
When a character obtains a new possession, his player adds it to the inventory section of the character sheet. In addition to recording the name, unit weight, and number carried for the item, the player must also choose the location on the body where the item is being carried.

Because the system is new, there is no definite list of item locations at this time, but they usually either correspond to specific parts of the body, such as "right hand" for a glove, or "head" for a cap. In addition, some items create additional locations, which is how this system models the carrying capacity of container-like items such as belts and backpacks.

For instance, if a character chooses to wear an equipment belt at his waist, he would mark its location as "at waist." If the character attached a scabbard and a pouch to that belt, each would have the location "waist belt." In turn, a sword carried in the scabbard would have the location "waist scabbard."

Similarly, a scabbard must be attached to a belt, and given the location "waist belt" or "shoulder belt." A sword must be carried in the right kind of scabbard, and noted as "in scabbard." A ring might be "on left index finger" or "on gold chain" (which is in turn "around neck.") And so on.

Loose Items
If a player neglects to choose a specific location in which to carry an item, or if the character does not have the specific slot required for a particular kind of item, the character can still carry the desired items by choosing not to give them a specific location on the body. Items carried in no specific location are given the location "?", and are called loose items.

Downsides of Loose Items

Losing Items

The most important downside of carrying loose items is that they may be lost while adventuring. The DM rolls a loss check at the end of every game day the characters spend traveling; like an initiative roll, one loss check applies to all characters in the party. A character is considered to be traveling on any day where none of the following are true:
  • the character both began and ended the day within a settlement (not necessarily the same place both times)
  • the character spent the day resting
  • the character spent the day tending to personal affairs in one place, e.g. cleaning house, farming, or conducting training exercises

Dice: If traveling primarily in a type 8 hex, the loss check for that day is on a d6. In type 7 and 6 hexes, it's a d10. Above that, it's a d20.

Penalty: The longer a character spends traveling, the higher his chances of misplacing something. A loss check has a +X penalty, where X is either the number of days beyond 1 that the character has spent traveling, or the number of days since the last failed loss check, whichever is smaller. Therefore, the penalty resets to 0 every time a loss check fails.

A loss check fails if the result is equal or greater to the size of the die rolled.

For example, on the third day of traveling, if no loss checks have failed yet since beginning to travel, the penalty is +2. If the players spend the majority of that day in a type 8 hex, the die for the roll is d6. Thus, if a roll of d6+2 is 6 or greater, the loss check has failed.

On a failed loss check, each character currently traveling with the party, including NPCs and even pack animals, rolls a d20 for each loose item he is carrying. If the d20 comes up a 1, the associated item is lost. It may have been lost at any point in the last 24 hours, and unless the party uses magic or sage abilities to try locating it, it is lost for good.

As a sop to the players, if GP or other coinage is the item for which a 1 is rolled, only (d3+1)x10% of the total coinage will be lost.

No Protection from Saving Throws
The usual rules for item saving throws is that an item in a container only has to make an item save if the container fails its own save first. This provides clear mechanical justifications for putting spell books in protective containers, using scroll cases, and stowing loose goods in a backpack or pouch.

Though we may assume that loose items are crammed into bits of extra space on the character's person, because loose items aren't explicitly contained by or carried within something else, they are never considered sufficiently protected to avoid item saving throws in the above manner.

(Bonuses or penalties to item saves are unchanged for loose items. For instance, if one character's progenitor was a leatherworker, which grants the party's leather goods +2 on item saves, the party's loose items would get the bonus like anything else.)

Slow Retrieval
Loose items are harder to retrieve in combat.  No matter how light they are, or how close at hand they ought to be, they always take 2 AP to retrieve if less than 5 pounds, or 3 AP otherwise. This rule overrides certain other rules governing speed of item retrieval, including character background results (e.g. "character requires no AP to draw a weapon 3 pounds or less") and attack bonuses (e.g. normally, a character with a class attack bonus of +1 or greater, who expends 1 or more AP on movement, can simultaneously draw a one-handed weapon for 0 AP.)

Other interactions between rules affecting item retrieval and the slow retrieval rule will be decided as they arise through play.


Thank you Maxwell.

If anyone wishes to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit  to my email, alexiss1@telus.net.  If you could, please give the region where you're located (state, province, department, county, whatever) as it humanises your comment.

Feel free to address material on the authentic wiki, my books or any subject related to dungeons & dragons.  I encourage you to initiate subject material of your own, and to address your comment to others writing in this space. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Sage Studies

It's a horrible process, and no doubt many a reader has their doubts about mine, or anybody's ability to actually flesh out the impossible scale of the sage studies that I've taken on, but the truth is that sometimes it's a very gratifying process.  Yesterday and Friday I faced up to two difficult pages, based on practically no information at all.

The first was the study of "cuisine," which as the history page shows, looked like this on Friday morning:

One sentence, which I transformed into this:

Have a look at the 12 proposed sage abilities through the link.  I find them very interesting, especially "culinary familiar" and "temporal feast."  It's all just an overview, of course, but should I get a character who wants to take up the study, I've at least created the street signs to be followed.

The study of "animal performance," which is distinct from the usual animal training as it originates with circus-performance, was as barren of content as the cuisine page until yesterday.  Now it looks like this:

Again, there are 12 proposed sage abilities.  I'm a bit less satisfied with the base material, perhaps because I have so little familiarity with the subject.  Still, there'd be plenty of time to sort it out should I have a character that went in this direction.  It does at last explain how characters can obtain bears, yaks and tigers as mounts, should they want them.

Each time I rework one of these pages, I find it drastically enhances and expands the possibilities of D&D and even fantasy fiction.  I sense there's a novel about a young, talented cook who begins a series of adventures as a camp servant for a gang of adventurers, helps defend the camp from a humanoid attack and is given a gift of 20 g.p. for his trouble.

He promptly runs off to town and buys his way into a guild, whom he quickly impresses with his natural talents.  Meanwhile, he gets involved in some other intrigue in the city, overhearing something in the kitchen where he works.  His knife gets more handy as he improves his skills and through pluck and risk-taking he saves some high member of the council from a poisoning while winning over the heart of the council-member's daughter with his strawberry-pecan pie.

Next, this same cook uses the council-member's influence and some wealth to set up a very nice kitchen and public house, where upon the adventurers at the start reappear.  They become regulars at the tavern, surviving their dungeon adventures on the cook's remarkable crabcakes.  This sets off a third adventure in the book, while each of the sage abilities I've described get their play in the book, startling both the host of allies and enemies of the chef and the book's reader.

Anyway, I haven't the time for such things, but again it says to me that D&D is a game whose scope has been hardly examined.  Shame that the masses cannot play anything more than the same scenes over and over again.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Saturday Q&A (oct 21)

Hutchins in Florida writes:

I am interested in your take on the new generation of players.  I have seen several people on your site, and others, comment on how a lot of younger players want to start the game with a powerful hero, with access to lots of cool spells and/or equipment.  I have seen the same thing myself.  They don't find it fun to start with a weak character.

I think my generation (x generation) got started on AD&D rules back in the 80's, and so we are used to starting with relatively weak characters. In fact, I remember as a teen making characters based upon our real life scores as best as we could calculate (i.e. str 9, dex 10, etc) and having a go with that.  It was great fun. The joy of developing a simple peasant into a great fighter/wizard/etc., is so rewarding.  That concept doesn't seem to appeal to a lot of the younger generation.

Do you think there is something intrinsically different about the youngest generation that makes them yearn to start with highly developed, indestructible, super hero characters?  Or do you think I am misremembering my youth?  Or do you have other thoughts or observations about this?

Answer: I don't think there's anything odd or intrinsic about people who are taught to play a very different activity from that which existed in the '80s. We only know what we're taught.

You well know that the ground work for present-day players wanting good spells and items was first laid in those early books and magazine articles written in the 1980s.  I've made the argument for ages  that if you're in business, and you want that business to succeed, you don't say "no" to your customers. D&D never properly freed itself from the manufacturer.  When players back then weren't getting what they wanted, they sought other games or they carped and moaned in letters to editors that finally pushed the manufacturer into making "more stuff" an official policy.  And now here we are.  Why shouldn't the present generation want highly developed, indestructible, super hero characters?  The "rules" they read say this is how the game is played.

I'll remind you also that early D&D was a game that appealed to a very small number of players. My high school had 2100 students; there were less than 20 regular D&D players that came round to the cafeteria every Friday after school, when we'd get out of our last class at 2:20 pm and could use the gigantic cafeteria until 10 p.m., because there was always some sports event in the adjacent gymnasium. Usually, though, our games broke up at 6 because we were in our mid-teens and were expected home for dinner.

My point is that it was a select group. Our interest in RPGs grew from fascinations we had in wargames, fantasy and science fiction books, slashing and hacking and stealing treasure, and what not.  RPGs didn't appeal to more people because they were work to run and work to play, work to design and work to prepare.  D&D wasn't "popular" on any level.  It's what nerds played ... because we could do math and we read history and books about fighting and equipment, because that's what interested us.

Those things still interest young people. The internet is full of that. The core group that today writes their own video games, draws their own maps, designs their own adventures and enjoys head-to-head games where characters get slaughtered are still here, still with us, still playing every weekend and very like in the exact same way we did in the 1980s.

The difference is, when we played in that cafeteria in 1980 and '81, there wasn't some other hundred people playing a shouty dinky kids game with everyone talking in funny voices while pretending to be superheroes.  If there had been such people, we'd have despised them.  We'd have called them "tourists." We'd have discussed what these people were like in class and what grades they were getting, and we'd know they weren't ready to play a game in which death, math, problem solving and intuition were dire necessities.  We'd have tolerated them, sure ... but there'd be no question that they weren't playing OUR game.

These young people today that you speak of, that can't understand the simple pleasure of turning something humble into something great, were around then, and they're around now. Back then, as I remember, they were obsessed with school sports, bad television, concerts, talking on the phone, driving, dodging trains and whatever else they could do to fight back the incessant pounding BOREDOM that was the world before the internet happened. They were easy to avoid, especially as I remember they weren't ahead of me in line buying Magic The Gathering Cards and some garbage splatbook at the dark, dismal, badly stocked game stores I would visit sometimes, when I still believed someone would write something in a book that would make me want to buy it.

But now the game stores are huge and well-lit and full of absolute idiots, while the players like us, Hutchins, avoid them like the plague.  And a plague they are, gabbing about their silly version of the game on Reddit and social media, where they create groups to talk about the most pandering garbage imaginable.

The D&D players that are young and just like us, Hutchins, won't be found on Reddit. They don't watch Youtube videos about D&D. They don't buy company books. They don't go to company-sponsored game events.  Instead, they sit at home, on their computers, working on their worlds, running their quiet games every weekend, their back firmly turned to the "game culture" internet, which offers only vapid things.  But the young players in those games love them, just as we loved ours, and for the same reasons. And just like us in the 1980s, they have no one with which they can talk about it.

Chris C. writes:

I was wondering if you had a list of hexes and their contents in a table. That could be used as a "data model" for checking inconsistencies.  From your other posts, I know you've done DBA stuff. It's probably crossed your mind.  How would you reconcile them?  Or maybe they could overlap as boundaries of a sort.

Answer:  Having tried many times to build hex content into a simple table, I decided that a more thorough, complex formula was needed.  Mostly, this came about from a desire to fold the hex contents into the map-making itself, and progressively into the infrastructure-generation process I've developed.  The short answer is that you can find "hex contents" on three pages on the wiki:

These pages are incomplete regarding the descriptions of the contents named, but the existing presence of such things are there.  It's a forever-task I've undertaken to finish any complete rendering of the material.  Nonetheless, any reader can do their own work to expand on what's named there.


Thank you for your contributions.

If anyone wishes to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit  to my email, alexiss1@telus.net.  If you could, please give the region where you're located (state, province, department, county, whatever) as it humanises your comment.

Feel free to address material on the authentic wiki, my books or any subject related to dungeons & dragons.  I encourage you to initiate subject material of your own, and to address your comment to others writing in this space. 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Limpin' Along

Been sick now for 11 days and at last I'm on the threshold of the doorway to health.  Was gonna write two posts about situations revolving around my D&D game two weeks ago, but the plague disrupted that.  Through September, I was going to work on my Streetvendor's Guide, but work got in the way of that.

As such, I spent the first week of October stretching my D&D muscles, working on the authentic wiki.  These last days, to keep myself from becoming deathly bored, I've worked a bit more on that project ... and right now, that's all I've got to show.  All I want is to be healthy, to feel like myself, to have some actual free time and to produce again.

But ...

I have been reworking page after page now for three weeks, filling out bits and pieces, producing material from scratch on monsters, sage studies and a few sage abilities, clarifying language and adding heaps of new content surrounding old subjects.

A complete list of updated materials can be found here.  I've created a category called "reviewed" and everything that's been upgraded or reformatted on the wiki is here.  Dozens of pages have been entirely overhauled.  I suggest looking at the following pages in particular: acting, apothecary, Bhurshut, devil, divination, dryad, fist, mahout, mushroom hunt, research, ritual slaughter, shrine, taiga, theatrical costuming and water elemental.  Lots of new stuff.

I intend to continue adding to this list, which has 147 pages.  Just 1,281 current pages on the wiki to go.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Let's Play

Sigh.  My illness continues.  Over the weekend, the cold decided to buy some real estate in my chest, and put money down, but apparently the constant wheezing, kvetching and coughing caused it to reconsider, so thankfully it won't be moving into that neighbourhood.  The cold still has the welcome mat out in my head, however.

My daughter has been building a youtube channel around various let's play vg's; about a month ago I recorded this one with her about Two Point Hospital, which Steam says I've played for a mere 273 hours.  Listening is hard for me, as I dislike the sound of my crumbled, geeky voice and my "odd" laughter.  Still, if you're interested in how much energy I have in running D&D in real time, or how black I allow my humour to get, it's not a bad hour and a bit.  Please push the views, like the video, be a subscriber and whatever, as she'd like her channel to climb a bit in the youtube rat race.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Saturday Q&A (oct 14)

Chris C. writes:

I helped my son roll up a character last night: Str 14, Dex 10, Con 14, Int 4, Wis 14, Cha 6.  With such low Int, I think the only class is fighter. I think human for race. (He may swap it elsewhere.)

The key thing is he wants fighting claws. So that gives me a chance to look at how it could be made, who are the masters of such an exotic weapon, and so on.

Answer:  Forgive me, as this is your son and I understand the desire to make the experience something that he'll find interesting and enjoy.  Nonetheless, I urge you not to give him what he wants in this instance.

It's easy for the uninitiated to fall into the trap of thinking D&D is about living out escapist fantasies, where it's about getting "cool" but utterly impractical fanciful things like fighting claws.  It's essential that early on children first understand what the game's actually about ... the core mechanics, the group dynamics, learning how to be successful with tools and abilities according to a set framework, in the sense of mastering a game.  Let him first fall in love with the game's essence.  And yes, that means having to say, "No, you can't have fighting claws," and watching the hurt look on his face, and risking his walking away from the table saying that he doesn't want to play your "stupid game."

But he will, just the same.  When he's ready to play the game rather than fantasise.

Maxwell in California writes:

I have an unfamiliar situation on my hands: a player asked me to retcon (part of) a session.

They [the party] have warmed up to the logistical aspects of the game and seemed to be enjoying the problem-solving.  Darcy's thief had a nasty fall while climbing down and bled to -9 before a follower arrived with bandages; all three conducted themselves exceedingly well during this.

False-wall secret door on a pivot — exploring lava tube cave — mummified bodies (it was used by the Guanche as a burial chamber.)  Some treasure.  Spirits seem high.  They fight and win against a dog sized centipede.  They descend further, hear sucking noises, gird themselves for a fight and win initiative.

... Black pudding.

They have blunt weapons and a torch, they deal some OK damage to it … but after three rounds the pudding finally connects and knocks the thief unconscious.  As Mark drags her away, Theo tries to hold it off, and pudding rolls a critical and dumps 24 damage into the fighter.  From full health to -13.
That was where we had to end for the night.  Theo took it HARD.  I tried to explain that death is part of the game — that other characters have come perilously close to death, including the thief that very session.  Didn’t work.  When I went to pat him on the shoulder as they were leaving, he dodged my hand.

Then he texted me a couple hours later, roughly:  “I like your game and I want to keep playing. But I’m bummed about dying and it seems like that was a lot tougher than it was supposed to be. Like a suicide mission. It’s not that I don’t want anything to go wrong in the game ever, but I feel like we were set up to fail. The three of us talked it over: are you willing to rewind the session?”

Mulling it over the past few hours, I definitely fucked something up. These three players understand that the game is detail-oriented, and are dutifully managing their encumbrance and their food — but they hadn’t had their chance to learn about combat. Just because they “pressed on” doesn’t mean they really understand what they were doing!! And the training wheels fight with the centipedes probably made them overconfident: no damage taken; low AC, low HP enemies swiftly dispatched.

At absolute minimum, if I wanted to have a pudding near a party of three greenhorns, it should have telegraphed the FUCK out of it — had it overwhelm and consume an animal or other creature some ways away, to impress upon them its danger and teach them the value of observation. Instead I practically dropped the thing in their laps.

Answer:  I'll grant that the black pudding was a bad idea.  For the record, there are simpler, cinematic ways for expressing how nasty the things are to new players:  having it smell really, really bad, or having it visibly eat something into nothingness in a single round.  Filmmakers are very good at visually sending these kind of messages and it's generally a shorthand that a party can understand.

That said, the responsibility still falls on the party.  If it knocks a character unconscious with one blow, that's a clear indication that it's dangerous.  There's no real reason for Theo to "hold it off"  — that's plainly showboating.  Puddings don't move that fast and all three could have gotten away easily without the need to play hero.  This is just the sort of lesson that early game play exists to teach.

The deeper issue is the player trying to circumvent the game by playing you as a person.  It's a game.  Sometimes you lose.  Asking for a do-over is a child's approach to disappointment.  And if, as a child, it's granted too often, the adult the child grows into never quite accepts that you can't always get what you want.

As adults, you ought to admit your mistakes as you see them, and your player ought to admit his mistakes.  He plainly doesn't feel he's made any.  Otherwise, he'd accept the loss of a 2nd session character, roll a new one and move on.  He's not losing that much.  Consider how much push-back he's going to give when he really loses something valuable.

And consider, too, your own tendency to go down the path of criticising your own play.  Beware of that habit.  DMing is a skill that has to be practiced with a sort of restrained arrogance, respecting that you're going to make mistakes, but not letting those mistakes mess with your thinking like a dog's tail wagging a dog.


Thank you for your contributions.

If anyone wishes to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit  to my email, alexiss1@telus.net.  If you could, please give the region where you're located (state, province, department, county, whatever) as it humanises your comment.

Feel free to address material on the authentic wiki, my books or any subject related to dungeons & dragons.  I encourage you to initiate subject material of your own, and to address your comment to others writing in this space. 




Friday, October 13, 2023


Oooooooh ... I've been sick.  So sick.  Not covid, just a cold, and in any case I'm shot full for that anyway.  Meant to write some posts this week and I've crashed and audiobooked my week instead.  Felt up to working today on the wiki some.  Time to write here.

Monday I wrote about my party's fight with a drow elf and some gargoyles.  As the title says, our subject today is disappointments, exactly the sort that come of throwing dice in the open and the continuous possibility of loss, which I steadfastly build into my rules.

I said that last week I felt like my old DM self.  That included being on my feet for much of the game, moving around the table, hovering over player shoulders, watching people's die rolls, which I know is an unusual behaviour for a DM.  Some might call it, um, oppressive.  Am I going to look at your character sheets?  No, probably not, but if you're going to make a roll that might drastically alter the consequences of this combat, then yes, I'm going to come over and watch that die roll.

There are two stories in this post, and the first hinges on Ivan, the 10th level thief.  Ivan is my son-in-law's character, and the henchfolk of the 12th level druid Pikel, whom I occasionally mention on this blog.  When Pikel was a young low-level druid, he was a spongy thing that the party constantly had to rescue to keep alive.  His spells weren't that much, his starting hit point rolls weak, his strength and constitution stats near non-existent ... yet the player is a smart fellow and Pikel managed to limp along until finally getting his first henchfolk at 5th level, Ivan.

Now, one might expect tottering-in-a-light breeze Pikel to want a fighter to stand in front of him, but upon reaching 5th Pikel was just starting to come into his own.  The third level druid spells make a big difference, at least in my game.  Ivan, however, was a strange choice.  The player certainly has the dark turn of mind that's needed to play a traditional thief (no weeny-ass rogues, please), but in truth my son in law relies pretty hard on game metrics.  Give him a metric and he'll bend it twenty ways until it looks like a balloon animal ... but for most of my game world's existence the thieving abilities have always been mostly shit.  AD&D's rules are mendacious to say the least and I think very, very little of what 2nd and 3rd editions tried.  My own efforts up to 2014 were repeatedly frustrating, largely for reasons discussed in this post.

As such, to BE a thief in my game, one has had to be metric fluid.  Steadily, since 2014, I've been creating a set of sage abilities for the thief, most of which remain unbuilt at this time — yet the structure is proving rational and as each new part is added, Ivan's player has been finding the thief an easier character to play.  With the last session, he patiently worked his way through the sage ability I call stealth (discussed on the blog here) and acting upon them, using the huge floorspace available, was able to work his way around for a chance at backstabbing the 7th level drow.

Now, a few points about that.  First of all, I don't really consider the attack as literally "backstabbing."  That's just a convenient term to use.  In actual fact, if you want to run your weapon through an enemy in order to kill them, there are multiple points on a body that are completely effective, both back and front.  The real key to the attack is surprise.  If you're a thief and you surprise your opponent, then yes, you get a pretty good chance to pick the target point of your weapon and get a lot of damage in.  The drow had 56 hit points, so he needed just 14 to stun.  Some here are familiar with my stun lock rules.  I cleaned mine up on Tuesday, just as my cold was taking hold.

The reader should take note that the stealth rules have nothing to do with surprise.  They have to do with getting close to the enemy, so that if the enemy is surprised, you're right there.  Ivan dropped his pack, his wings, every weapon but his short sword to lighten himself sufficiently to get a better bonus.  Though that wouldn't have served him well if he hadn't succeeded in surprising the drow.

But, identifying the roll, and identifying that his chance to surprise was 2 in 6, I rolled the die in front of the whole table and yes, a 2 came up.  Big cheers all around.

Ivan hasn't backstabbed anyone in a long time.  Like I said, doesn't really think like a thief.  Honestly, the player thinks more like a really dangerously smart spellcaster.  Keeps the party alive a lot of the time.  In this case, Ivan was quite surprised to learn that as a 10th level thief (and here I still use the old AD&D rule) that his damage was quadruple, not the double he expected.  He owns a Players Handbook but with so many rule changes in my game, most of my players don't read it.

Ivan rolled and hit.  He moderately lamented not rolling a natural 20, making the damage 8 times, but as he adds +3 damage to the d6 for his short sword, he felt pretty good.  By then I was lurking behind his chair, watching him roll.  Usually, he rolls very well.  Scarily well, I have to say.  But, in this case, he rolled a 1.  Four damage, times four, equals 16.  Stunned the drow, but now Ivan faced a combatant with 40 hit points left, 100 feet from the rest of the party who were fighting the three gargoyles, without much hope of support.

Yet he could have really ended the fight right there.

There'd been good luck leading up to that point.  The surprise roll, the dice he rolled for stealth, the successful to hit roll ... and 16 is not bad damage.  And in the end, Ivan walked away from the fight, albeit with a lot fewer hit points.  When the drow unleashed with the prismatic blade he had, lots of people took a lot of damage.

The player took it well.  No shouting, no lamenting, no repeated references to the 1 (except that the next time he was able to do damage, he rolled a 1 again).  Hurt though ... to get quadruple damage and not achieve total wreckage.

The other half of this story weaves around the character Hof.  Hof is a burly 6th level fighter with an 18/51 strength (I have no idea how to explain that to 5e people, except to provide a link) that gives him +2 to hit on his attack roll and +3 damage, in a game where 12 points is quite a bit of damage.  Hof also uses a +2 trident of warning (link is to the original DM's Guide) that he's been carrying around for awhile.  Hof also has an 18 constitution so that at 6th level he has 60 hit points.

In the combat he absolutely slaughtered the first gargoyle single-handed, and was moving onto the second one.  With weapon and strength together, he pile-drives every hit with 2d4+5 damage, which is an average of 10.  And the player running Hof also tends to roll well.

Hof at this point has lost a suit of +1 armour to the prismatic blade, the first attack the drow made before recharging his weapon while Ivan crept up.  The armour failed saving throw and cracked in two.  It's not stopping him from clubbing the second gargoyle to pieces however, which is good because half the party lacks the weapons to hurt one at all.

Hof also gets 5 attacks every 4 rounds.  In my game, this means he has to go 3 rounds at 1 attack per round ... and then in 4th round, he gets two attacks.  At this point, Hof hasn't missed; he had his three attacks and I cannot tell you the thrill of excitement he got as he reached for two 20-sided, declaring happily that it was his two-attack round.

He rolled a 1 and a 2.

I linked the critical hits and fumbles page already, but here it is again.  The picture shown here is also on that page.

If that was all, we wouldn't be talking about it.  But the player running Hof had to make another d20 roll and, in front of all and sundry, rolled another 1.  His fierce +2 trident was downgraded to a +1.

Oh, that hurt.  That really did hurt.  He'd acquired the trident at 4th level because he'd been the only character able to use one and so it had more than power-value ... it was a legacy of Hof's beginning to be a heavy hitter in the party.

When you join a party of higher levels and you have to start at 1st, as I require, there's a transition point to which you get nearer and nearer, where you stop acting on the fringes of a fight, and you stop needing others to carry the weight for you.  Pikel started to reach that threshold at 5th; Hof, at 4th, had it handed to him in the form of a +2 trident.  Not that he hadn't been carrying his weight thematically and practically prior to that, as the player behind Hof is an insightful, keeps-up-with-me just fine problem solver .  But the trident added some clout to the character ... and though he needs it less now, the player feels that particular loss keenly.

I have trouble explaining to some people why my players find such a deep satisfaction with combat in my game.  There's a tremendous nuance built into the rules set, so that it's never just two people standing face to face blandly exchanging blows of 30 hit points until one runs out.  I've given my all to enhancing and redesigning the combat rules so that every player has an opportunity to think out of the box (though it takes the wherewithal to do so) and nothing is ever wholly predictable.  It's predictable enough to let players gamble upon risks, but the die rolls can go so badly all of a sudden that when those thuds happen, everyone has to reassess how deep in they've gotten themselves.

To remind the reader, in this battle, Makar died.  If Ivan hadn't gotten the surprise roll, he might have died too.  This drow and three monsters did more than 200 total damage, in AD&D numbers (approximately 525 damage in 5e), to a party between 4th and 10th level.  It could have been more.

I have two more posts about this fight, that I'll get to when I can.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Skipped Over

Sometimes when I'm in my bed half-asleep, I see blocks of text before my eyes, and errors in the sentences of those texts.  And I automatically set forward to fix the errors, and have to remind myself, "no editing in bed."  Then I realise I can't edit the errors anyway, because I'm not in front of my computer.  And it doesn't matter, because the text isn't real.

It's important to remember that the brain isn't a perfectly functioning apparatus.  In fact, it deduces lots of ridiculous things, it plays hell with memory, it gets regularly flooded with chemicals from the hormonal system that goofs up the machinery.  Often, we hold our brains in too high an esteem.  It isn't reliable.  It lies.  It experiences system fails.  We put up with them, and often ignore the fails, because that's how our brain works.  It covers up its own mistakes.

At the same time, as I say often, the brain is a muscle.  If we add more weight to the metaphorical mental barbell the brain is lifting, the organ rises to the challenge.  It can be taught to handle more and more information, if we go at it patiently and don't throw so much weight on that we get stressed and cognitively injured.  The brain isn't strengthened in a day or a year.  It takes a long, long time.

On the other hand, if we lighten the load ... if we remove all the weights ... if we exchange the iron bar for a light pine rod, our brain will increasingly grow slack.  It doesn't mind not working; and if given the opportunity, it's capacity to push will diminish until it fails to get the body out of the way of a bus.  Obvously it helps if we further drown the brain in chemicals and such, but this really isn't the point here.

All this goes to discussing a lot of things we might do in our lives.  Being an engineer, a surgeon, a lawyer or an electrician, a researcher, an accountant or an architect, requires a great deal of focus in order to perform at our best.  Meticulous attention is needed, which if not given may result in the deaths or injury of people, or in the decimation of their hopes and dreams.

The same rule applies to D&D, though as a DM I haven't killed a real person since the 90s (and it was just that one time), and I rarely cause people to surrender their will to go on living.  Still, there's a lot of focus involved, especially as I run a rather more complex system than the usual.  I hold myself to a high standard.  I expect more from myself and from my players.

However ... mistakes get made.  I forget rules.  However hard I might try, my brain let's me down occasionally.  So it was with Friday's game night.

The session went very, very well.  For myself, I felt like my old DM self  plenty of energy, easily handling the group of people, experiencing the flow that makes three hours go by in a finger snap  and when it was done, I was pleased to have found that I could still run a game like that.  It's been quite a while.

The players continued to search the huge wrought cavern they'd discovered.  Hearing a sound in the distance, the fighter/mage Frederick sent his weasel off across the floor to find a wingless gargoyle wandering the floor hundreds of feet away, who then moved away from the party.  The weasel followed, and the party itself moved cautiously after the weasel.  It was at that point they discovered the purpose of the forges and the strange apparati lying around, in the form of an unreal magical glowing broadsword, not made of mithril or adamantium, but apparently of gemstone.  This proved too cold to pick up, even using a leather gauntlet.

There'd also been some kind of a blast that had killed two dozen drow elves, who were laying about in a state of half-decay, yet bound within envelopes of magic.  The party deduced in a meta-game fashion that the oxygen and other chemicals in their bodies were able to bring about some decomposition, but when that had been used up, the degradation had stopped.  They were puzzling over this, still concerned about the gargoyle that was out there somewhere (but they'd decided to keep the weasel close), when they found the second gemstone weapon.

This was in the hands of a 7th level drow elf fighter, who had gathered together three gargoyles.  And that began a fight that finished the rest of the night, which the players very nearly lost.

The weapon turned out to be a prismatic blade, the light of which destroyed the mithril armour of two characters, in the case of Hof, +1 banded armour.  The gargoyles came forward to fight; the 10th level thief Ivan made a dead run into the darkness ... and more than half the party did not have the magic weapons needed to fight the gargoyles.

My gargoyles are quite a lot nastier than those of the original Monster Manual.  They have nearly twice as many hit points as the old D&D standard, and cause an average of 30 damage if they hit with all four attacks, compared to the MM's 10.  When the battle was over, the gargoyles and drow elf had dealt out more than 200 points of damage to the 8 player characters and 3 henchfolk.  In return, they dealt 159.  One character, the cleric Makar, died.

Through it all, I forgot to account for the gargoyle's incidental damage.  Gargoyles are incredibly heavy weighing up to 4800 lbs., and cause 1-4 or 1-5 damage to adjacent character from the sheer amount of mass that's bootling around.  These didn't cause that.  If I had remembered the rule, I probably would have killed more than one character.

And with Makar, I goofed to.  Makar is a 5th level fighter/cleric, and the party also has Widda, a 7th level cleric.  Both have the spell death's door, and often use the presence of the spell as a balm to ease the possibility of a party member dying.  However, Makar took a lightning blast from the prismatic blade for 29 damage, then unfortunately got caught in the mage Lovi's fireball, for another 21, which reduced the cleric to -8 hit points, another rule I run.  Finally, one last blast as the drow self-immolated himself (he had 2 hit points left out of 56) caused 30 damage in a wide area, which also included Makar ... who died.

And the party used Widda's death's door to revive her and I thought nothing of it.

Except that the minimum damage that Makar could have taken was 15, which would have put her at -23 ... out of the reach of death's door to restore.  I failed to notice.  Not because I realised it and put it aside, but because my brain was tired, it was midnight, and I just overlooked the rule.

Because the brain is not a perfect machine.

As a DM, it's important to be practical in the standard to which we hold ourselves.  We can't remember everything, we can't succeed at everything we try, we can't make every situation work out for the players, whether or not we go at things hard.  Sometimes, the details slip away.

This is not our fault.  We're human.  We're dealing with a lot of stuff here.  And when it happens, don't try to fix it.  Retconning is never a good idea.  Talk about it with the players, make sure they understand which rules were forgotten, so they're not shocked when the rule is imposed properly the next time.  Make sure they understand that they were "lucky" and that the gods, however fickle they are, shone upon the party this one time by making the DM stupid.

Then get on with running the game as well as it can be.  It's just a game, after all.  Sometimes it goes against the party, and sometimes the party catches a break.

I'm going to write other posts about my last running, because there are other things worth talking about.  It's going to fill up a lot of my week.  Each is going to cover a different aspect of DMing, as I found myself thinking in game time about how I needed to write a post about that thing, when I was able.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Water Elemental

It's frustrating when a game book won't give proper rules regarding a monster's attack, which is the case with AD&D and every edition since.  Telling me that a monster can "create whirlpools" is useless if I don't know what the whirlpool does.  And saying that it can capsize boats up to one ton is great, but what if it weighs more than one ton?  Does that mean the creature is helpless?

So, here's a rewrite of the water elemental built today.  Enjoy using it.


If you wish to comment, please write questions, ideas or opinions to alexiss1@telus.net and they will be posted on Saturdays.  Feel free to introduce new subjects or present your own work. 

If you wish to make a donation to Patreon, it will be greatly appreciated and help with costs for illustrating the Streetvendor's Guide.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Saturday Q&A (oct 7)

Shelby M. writes:

Mechanical Design: The vehicle industry is a great analogy, and I think is made stronger by the observation that the modern game is much more like vehicle consumers and vehicle *salesmen* than it is consumers and developers. I've worked a bit in that industry and I can confirm that an engine "developer" is at least at some level concerned with creating a good product that will be better (by any number of metrics) for the end consumer. These metrics are well-defined, measurable, and can be manipulated by applying well-understood engineering principles. The salesman just wants to sell more vehicles (and as we're all aware, sales has its own metrics and processes). Even the somewhat subjective idea of the consumer "enjoying" the vehicle is combed over with surveys, feedback, and market research. As you point out, even this process has been ignored, so there is no actual mechanism to make the game "better," besides promising that the next edition will fix all the nebulous problems - thus generating sales by addicts chasing the dragon.

James H. of New York writes:

I have been thinking for awhile about your post regarding Consent and D&D from mid-September, mostly because one of the analogies you chose (do I need consent before giving monsters a surprise round) hit home as that very same week, I killed my wife's character she had played for ten years in my campaign during a surprise round.

I agree it ultimately comes down to trust. If the players don't trust the DM, it causes the obvious issues you are now seeing, where there are discussions of whether DMs can do anything to player characters without consent. But I wonder if this shitty environment was actually created by DMs initially not trusting players to provide interesting games without fudging. We often talk about what players want ("fun" being the easiest and most useless answer), and you have touched upon in previous posts about the query of "what do DMs want," but it often becomes reliant upon the players (I want the players to have fun, etc.). I would argue DMs want to provide an experience, which, in theory, requires interesting things to happen.

I think this desire to provide interesting experiences is what led to DMs hiding their dice rolls (I roll openly, so my wife saw that I rolled a 15, 16 and 20 on the three attacks that killed her character), so they could maintain the power to fudge dice rolls to ensure an interesting experience was provided. Because DMs didn't trust players to create interesting experiences on their own.

Answer: I think that's dead on, James. Hiding things from people, like a bad die roll, makes it progressively difficult for a DM to be open and honest about other things. Consider what it means when we know the party won the combat because we cheated with a die, but the party thinks, and says so repeatedly, that they won the fight on their own (because they believe they have). We can't tell them the truth, so each time that battle comes up, we have to continue our LIE. And here we are caught. We can't express the lie without there being consequences leading to future distrust; and we can't keep our lie because of what it says about us, a liar. Steadily, this erodes the genuine emotional connection between us and the players in dozens of little ways. It encourages us as DMs to lie again, to support the original lie; and when the players are again on the edge of death, we must lie again, or else the first lie was all for nothing, because eventually they are want to die in spite of it.

This process separates the DM from the players in a progressive, unsustainable manner. Despite every DM that shrugs and says, "well what of it?", there's a steady drip-drip-drip of doubt, as it's realised that the players would certainly feel frustrated and resentful that they discover that things have been hidden from them. We know this, and knowing this affects our DMing, and how we view the players, and how we view ourselves ... and that slowly contributes to no longer wanting to run, or not getting as much out of it, or our actively feeling resentful of running.

To promote trust, open communication and genuine, mutual respect is absolutely necessary. Instead of trying to control or hide things from a person, "for their own good," it's better to have honest and supportive conversation about the player's concerns, expectations and desires. It's better to see the player accept the loss, deal with it, grow strength from having dealt with it, so that they may be a better player. This leads to healthier, more fulfilling connections, where more can be done, more can be risked, the DM can share honestly in the player's successes and both party and DM can enjoy themselves and grow together.

The fact that people don't do this, and that authorities attached to the game don't shout this from the rooftops, coming straight out and condemning fudging and other such actions, even going so far as to PROMOTE fudging, demonstrates the underlying toxicity of the entire game's culture that pervades thousands of tables because people, especially children, who have very little experience with building trust. For the sake of business, the company, and hundreds of misled pundits, continue to promote bad behaviour that cannot help but erode the potentially positive, creative, active, demonstrably brilliant aspects of D&D that made it the social force that it is.

JB of Washington state writes:

I find it amusing that I fall into the same category of "high school reader" as yourself. So many classics...To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, etc...sit on my shelf, never read. Mocking me a bit (someday I'll get around to them. The Catcher & The Rye, too!). But I managed to make it through high school without reading much of any of the assigned reading. Read an awful lot...just not the assignments. 'Course I just always figured it was because I'm a lazy, underachieving slacker.

This idea of finding these "nuggets" in D&D play is an interesting one. I think you're right (that they occur) though I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say they are THE reason why we play...I'll have to mull on that for a while. However, I think they only occur with a LOT of play: regular, dedicated play (perhaps with the same people, perhaps not). I'm not sure they occur if all one does is the occasional or infrequent session, the one-off, the con/shop game, etc. Harder to see patterns when there's no strong paradigm one is working within. Maybe. Or maybe I'm just not very observant (or maybe I haven't been looking for the nuggets).

Answer:  Unquestionably, these are not the reason we sit down to play in the sense of, "Gosh, I can't wait to play D&D to experience one of those chance cool things that happen every once in a while without warning." But they are, I think the underlying subconscious influence on our looking forward to the next session. We don't usually put a label on it; I didn't have a label I could put on it until writing the post. Yet I think it's an "umami" within D&D that's often overlooked, as we tend to focus consciously on the more tactile parts of the experience.

"Lazy and underachieving" is what the literary priests want you to believe about yourself, because you haven't the interest to read a book that's largely the depiction of something that guest speaker Captain Obvious would sign at a game con. Given what I know about Catcher in the Rye, I'm sure that you, at your age, would find it completely dreadful, as its largely a story about a brooding young man without the motivation to do something about his brooding broodiness. Kind of like the Hermann Hesse novel Steppenwolf, that was such a fad in the 1970s and today describes any 8chan-user to a tee. Holden Caulfield of the novel is the 1950s version of that, which is why gun-toting nutjobs tend to have it on their book shelves, with the most brooding passages dogeared and smudged with ... well, we'll leave it there.

I have a close friend who's read it; his favourite comment on the book is that there's a REASON Salinger never had another successful book. I could go down the line with a description of all the books above. Animal Farm is worth a read, but careful as it's the sledgehammerist sledgehammer that ever hammered a sledge. Still, at least it's ACCURATE hammering, and often applicable.

Sterling of Maine writes:

I've also been applying a great deal of effort toward starting my new campaign. If you're interested to follow along, I'm posting a "campaign newsletter" here https://erin1478.blogspot.com/, but not a session log, for reasons I elaborate upon in the first post there.

Maxwell in California writes:

How exactly do you arrive at the cash values of non-magical treasure, for XP purposes?

The first step for you, and me, and anyone else who runs with a trade table system, is to implement the piece of treasure on the trade table so its price can be calculated. But that raises the question of which market to use when evaluating said price.

Suppose the nearest market is the commercial center of a grape growing and winemaking region, and has many wine refs. It would make sense for a nearby party to find barrels of pilfered wine in a humanoid lair, as treasure. But if we use the local market to find the GP cost --> XP value of the wine, it will be worth less than if it had been found somewhere with fewer wine references.

It seems odd to have something be worth differing amounts of XP just based on where it's looted. Furthermore, if local value in GP is directly translated to XP, then when I give XP rewards, the players know exactly what something is worth, and that destroys some of the mystique of treasure, especially if it's an unusual item, like jewelry. That may not be a problem to you (and if so, I would like to know why not.) But it seems like a problem to me. Not only because , but also because Pause suddenly learn roughly the sale value of each item when I give them the XP values. Pause That removes some of the mystery around knowing how best to--

The approach I intend to follow soon is to calculate a market table for a hypothetical "average" market having exactly R/N references, for each reference type R, where N = number of markets in the world, and then set the XP award price of any item to its GP cost at that hypothetical market. Example to be perfectly clear: if there are 50 markets in the world, and there are 100 wine references and 350 cattle refs, the hypothetical average market would have 100/50 = 2 wine refs and 350/50 = 7 wine refs.

The XP reward for a given item might not remain consistent over time, since of course I'll be adding to my market system and other aspects of my D&D world, as anyone would. But relative to the state of my world at some point in time, there would in each case be one consistent XP reward for a particular treasure item which is calculable at a moment's notice. And this wouldn't change the fact that things which are globally rare, such as diamonds, would have a high treasure value for XP.

Answer: Treasure ought to be something that's common in the region, right? There's no reason to assume there's any right of the players to obtain a treasure of a set amount or a set value. So yes, a barrel of wine in a plundered storehouse in Norway is worth more than the same barrel in a storehouse in Sicily. BUT ... it's also more likely for a barrel of wine to be found in Sicily than in Norway. For awarding experience, I use the local price. Like many things in economics, XP does not have an intrinsic market value. If you want the best XP for a barrel of wine, then go get one where barrels of wine are rare. There's no logic for punishing players who find wine in Norway by giving them less than what it's worth, or rewarding them for giving XP for more than than wine is worth. It's not like the players are plundering wine in Sicily one day and then Norway the next, so that the two barrels logically should have the same value.

When something is worth less, either because it's a less valuable thing or because it's located in a place where it's less value, it makes no sense to assign an arbitrary number to it because there's an amorphous "average" that has nothing whatsoever to do with the character's immediate here-and-now game experience.

Chris C. writes:

How do I keep designing? I know you've mentioned to keep practicing. Map a wizard tower, or roll some NPCs; maybe even a family tree of orcs, or document a burial rite.

I've only been a DM a few times, and a player in a couple sessions. I haven't run a game in over a decade, maybe two. This was when 3e and 3.5e were popular, and mountains of splatbooks were published. I skipped 4e and 5e, and now I'm a dad with responsibilities. A torrent of every Third Edition, Pathfinder, and so on probably exists with every book in existence--but they are all player options. I've learned more from any dozen posts on your blog than a cursory glance inside those.

Answer: truth is, the will to create must be something one actually wants to do.  There are many hurdles to overcome, particularly our naturally comparing ourselves to what's out there, the things we need to know, how honest that we are with ourselves, what voices surround us to give strength when ours is lacking and the force of will needed to put what we've created out there, for all and sundry to tear down and mock.

I've never had any trouble with a desire to design.  My trouble is the reverse; I want to redesign everything.  My tendencies tend towards the Renaissance so hard that I'm guilty of the jack-of-all-trades master-of-none trope.  But this isn't about me, this is about your problem.

My best advice would be to try something you haven't tried.  And keep it hidden from prying eyes for a long time.  Don't show it to your friends and family; don't even say what you're doing.  This will preserve you for some time against the feeling that you're under an obligation to perform well.  Remember that back in the day, when most of us were starting out in D&D, it was something we furtively did in our rooms.  We didn't share it, and we didn't care what other people thought of it.  Sometimes, we made or played with things that even our players were kept out of.  This helps center why it is we love something ... when the doing of it, and for no other reason, is enough.

Keep it at that level until your level of practice causes you to feel that you're ready to share.  Until then, enjoy the process of experimentation and see what that yields. 


Thank you all for your contributions.

If anyone wishes to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit  to my email, alexiss1@telus.net.  If you could, please give the region where you're located (state, province, department, county, whatever) as it humanises your comment.

Feel free to address material on the authentic wiki, my books or any subject related to dungeons & dragons.  I encourage you to initiate subject material of your own, and to address your comment to others writing in this space.