Friday, April 19, 2024

Real Ways

We've talked about subterranean environments and about towns ... let's talk about the thing that players interact with while moving from one to the other.

During the medieval and Renaissance periods, roads were funded through a combination of methods. Royal or noble patronage played a significant role, with monarchs and nobles funding the construction and maintenance of roads as part of large-scale endeavors aimed at developing and improving the physical structures and systems necessary for the functioning of a society or region, in ways to enhance transportation, trade, communication and defense. Roads needed bridges and designated resting places along major travel routes, which doubled as depots where messengers could exchange horses or pass letters onto the next messenger. To protect these routes, fortifications needed to be built. Altogether, the assembly of these infrastructures contributed to control of the lands, and therefore the realm, while slowly, over centuries, providing a greater social cohesion.

Roads were, therefore, important to the realm's solidarity ... and represented, in many cases, the largest practical engineering projects of the Medieval period. Few regions could pay for such out of pocket, so tolls were commonly imposed on travelers to finance road maintenance. Commonly, the responsibility for collecting these tolls fell upon local authorities or landowners — who possessed the opportunity to abuse their position by arbitrarily raising tolls to increase their own profits. Without strong oversight or regulation, toll collectors could exploit travelers by charging higher fees than necessary for road usage. This practice could be especially prevalent in areas where toll collection was controlled by local authorities or individual landowners rather than by centralized governments.

By a standard, however, tolls were subject to agreements or regulations set by local authorities or landowners. Excessive toll increases could provoke backlash from travelers and merchants, potentially leading to disputes or even legal action. Additionally, in regions where toll collection was closely tied to trade and commerce, imposing excessively high tolls could hinder economic activity and trade flow, which might not be in the best interest of toll collectors in the long term.

Yet, most nobles and local authorities had to assume a considerable debt to build these roads, and therefore relied on toll revenue to repay debts or recoup their investments. This could necessitate setting tolls at a level sufficient to generate the needed revenue within a reasonable time frame. High tolls might have been justified as a means of ensuring the financial viability of road projects and meeting repayment obligations. A delicate balance had to be struck. Excessively high tolls could discourage travel and trade, potentially undermining the economic benefits that well-maintained roads were intended to facilitate. As such, toll rates likely fluctuated based on factors such as the level of debt, the volume of road usage, and the economic conditions of the region.

So, therefore, the tolls levied against player characters, who honestly should have the money to pay such tolls, may be quite dear to the player's pocket. Bridges, especially, incurred costs that were substantial due to several factors. Materials required for building durable bridges, such as stone or timber, were expensive to acquire and transport. Stone bridges, in particular, demanded extensive quarrying, shaping and transporting of large stones, contributing significantly to the overall expense. Additionally, skilled labour was indispensable for bridge construction, including stonemasons, carpenters and labourers, whose wages further inflated project costs. Furthermore, the engineering challenges associated with spanning rivers or valleys necessitated innovative design and construction techniques, which often required additional investment in expertise and resources. Thus, while bridges were essential for facilitating transportation and communication, their construction demanded considerable financial investment from those responsible for their development.

Any bridge over a substantial river ought to carry a penalty to cross that would cause a merchant to pause. This being the reason for covering the possibility of merchants choosing to go around, and thus cause a reduction in tolls. The goal of those charging said tolls, then, would be to charge enough to make the merchant pause, but pay it rather than go around. Tolls should definitely hurt.

Let's go back to the construction of roads. Another method of funding road construction and maintenance was through corvée labour, which originated in France but became widely practiced throughout Europe. This was a form of unpaid labour imposed on peasants by their lords or the state as a form of taxation or feudal obligation. Under the corvée system, peasants were required to perform various tasks, often related to public works projects such as road construction, bridge repair or agricultural infrastructure maintenance, without receiving wages in return. The obligation to provide corvée labor was typically tied to land tenure, with peasants required to devote a certain number of days each year to working on projects designated by their overlords or governing authorities. Corvée labor was widespread in feudal societies and persisted in various forms across different regions and time periods, serving as a means for rulers to mobilize labour and maintain control over their territories.

This is essentially slave labour, given that the participants could be worked like animals and had no choice but to comply. To travelers passing by, a corvée gang would be seen wearing clothing that reflected their practical needs rather than fashion, simple garments such as tunics or shirts made of coarse fabric, often patched and worn from frequent use. Trousers or breeches, similarly worn and practical, were common attire, paired with sturdy boots or shoes suitable for outdoor labour. The work itself was physically demanding and often conducted in challenging conditions. Labourers could be seen sweating under the sun as they dug into the earth or hauled heavy loads of stones or timber. Dust and dirt clung to their clothing and skin, marking the toll of their exertions. Alongside the physical discomfort, there was often an air of resignation or frustration among the labourers, reflecting the involuntary nature of their labour and the burdensome obligations imposed upon them.

The campsite adjacent to the work area offered little respite from the harshness of the labour. Simple shelters, perhaps consisting of makeshift tents or lean-tos constructed from branches and oilcloth, providing minimal protection from the elements. The workers gather during breaks, seeking shade from the sun or relief from the fatigue of their labour. Some labourers might seize the opportunity to engage with passersby, perhaps out of curiosity or in the hope of receiving assistance or charity. They might approach travelers with requests for food, water or other provisions, especially if resources at the campsite were scarce. However, this would likely be done cautiously, as the labourers would be mindful of their obligations and the presence of overseers.

Returning to the roads themselves, these were typically unpaved and varied in quality, ranging from simple dirt tracks to more robust stone-paved or gravel-covered surfaces. The construction and maintenance of roads were largely influenced by local geography, available resources and the level of investment from governing authorities or private entities.

In urban areas and major trade routes, roads were often more developed and better maintained. They might feature stone paving or gravel surfacing to improve durability and ease of travel, especially in areas with heavy traffic or frequent use by carts and wagons. However, in rural or less populated areas, roads were often rudimentary and subject to the effects of weather and seasonal changes. They could become muddy and impassable during periods of heavy rain or snow, posing challenges for travelers and merchants alike. In such areas, travelers relied on landmarks, waymarkers and local knowledge to navigate their way along the often rough and uneven paths.

A waymarker, also known as a waymark or waystone, refers to a physical marker or sign along a road or trail used to indicate direction, distance or points of interest. These markers could take various forms, such as stone pillars, carved stones, wooden posts or even natural features like distinctive trees or rock formations. Waymarkers played a crucial role in guiding travelers along their journey, especially in areas where roads were less developed or signage was limited. They provided valuable navigational aids, helping travelers to stay on course and reach their destinations more efficiently.

By "local knowledge" above, I mean the familiarity and understanding that residents of a particular area have regarding its geography, landmarks and routes. This knowledge encompasses a range of information, including the location of roads, paths and shortcuts, as well as insights into local terrain, weather patterns and potential hazards. Local knowledge is often passed down through generations within communities and is relied upon by travelers to navigate unfamiliar areas safely and efficiently. It includes knowing where to find water sources and safe camping places. The locals knew best about any potential dangers along the route. In an era without formal maps or signage, local knowledge becomes invaluable for travelers seeking to navigate the landscape effectively.

This creates numerous instances for players to have to interact with the environment on the road to get anywhere. They can't rely on the road itself to tell them where they are; the practice of seeking out a house, which is probably used to having their day interrupted by travellers, allows opportunities to deliver exposition naturally to the players about doings going on around the region. Taking the word of a fellow traveller, who might not actually be a local, could send the party along the wrong road, which itself might be a literal "side quest," which might lead to a lot more, perhaps even a chance insight into the original intended quest.

Note that I've said nothing about bandits or brigands through all this. I think it ought to be reserved for a post of its own, as well as what might be said about pilgrims.

Maintenance and repair of roads were crucial considerations, as roads required ongoing upkeep to address issues such as erosion, potholes, and damage from weather or heavy traffic. If we think of the occasional road closure in the present day, consider what it must have been like centuries ago, when there were no ploughs or diggers to clear a road in even a few days. Certain roads, suffering a landslide or an earthquake, might be impassable for months, or even until the next summer, if winter is coming on. Apart from this there's the more mundane matter of clearing minor debris, as tumbling rocks or fallen trees delay a wagon, or a long line of them, where the party finds themselves the last in line. There are ruts to fill, and places where gravel or fresh clay is piled for resurfacing an old road. In such cases, the priority is to keep the major trade routes, the pilgrimage paths and the strategic military roads in good health; other roads, though immediately vital for the party, might not be in the sort of shape desired.

Moreover, road construction did advance over the centuries. In the 12th century, the typical trade road would start with a foundation layer composed of compacted earth or gravel. This base layer provided stability and served as a solid foundation for the road surface. Over this foundation, the road builders would lay a middle layer consisting of larger stones or cobblestones. These stones would be carefully arranged to create a relatively flat and even surface for travel. The use of stones in the middle layer added strength and durability to the road, helping to withstand the wear and tear of heavy traffic over time. Finally, the top layer of the road would be made up of smaller stones, gravel or sand, carefully smoothed and compacted to create a relatively smooth surface for travel. This surface layer served to improve traction and reduce erosion, enhancing the overall usability of the road for travelers and merchants.

By the 16th century, advancements in technology, increased trade and evolving societal needs have influenced this construction. A greater access to materials such as bricks, tiles and refined stone would have been utilized to enhance the durability and longevity of the road surface. These materials would have contributed to a smoother and more stable traveling experience for merchants and travelers. Additionally, there would be more sophisticated drainage systems to prevent waterlogging and erosion. This would include culverts, ditches or other drainage features to ensure the road remained passable during inclement weather. Roads would be more plentiful, easier to build, more resilient overall ... especially as 16th century trade itself would have been vastly greater in persons involved and materials moved than four centuries earlier.

While much of this information may seem unimportant for dungeons and dragons purposes, incorporating realistic details about roads and infrastructure can add depth to the game world. Whether the party is traveling along a well-maintained trade route or navigating through rugged terrain, realistic descriptions of the road conditions can help players visualize the environment and make informed decisions about their journey. By delaying the players, confusing them as to the direction they're travelling, while giving them re-usable knowledge about roads they've already traversed in the past, opportunities can arise to hook the players into new adventures and give them a solid basis for the way the overall game world is constructed.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Location Hunting

Before my music career gets started, I agreed to write a post illustrating my suggestions of breaking a town environment into individual "scenes," or for the purpose of this post, let's call them locations.  I felt that perhaps this could be made clearer by using an actual film, and for this I considered a number of possibilities.  There's the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which has some of the elements I'm looking for (but not many), and has the benefit of being easily available for those who haven't seen the film ... but in fact, I don't think that film's a good example of what I want to convey.  The problem with using any film, of course, is that if the reader hasn't seen it, there isn't much benefit.

Two good examples I might turn to are 1993's Falling Down, a film that many people don't like, and which is now more than 30 years old and therefore not a familiar quality for many people, and 1953's Roman Holiday, which is thoroughly exquisite and which everyone really ought to see, but it's seventy years old now and quite out of the zeitgeist.

So I thought, instead of using a film, we could discuss film-making instead, seeing if that wouldn't be a more effective approach ... though to be frank, if the reader has very little understanding of the history of film, or hasn't seen many films, then this post isn't going to be of much use one way or the other.  Perhaps, however, something might be gained by my providing context.

Though there have always been movies made in the outdoors, right through the silent era, there were limitations on the sharpness that film stock could provide, especially in certain kinds of light and in certain locations.  As such, most dramatic films took place in a series of indoor locations; a typical film in the 1930s and 40s would feature the characters moving from an office to a private home, to a hotel lobby and then to some other public place, like a police station or a restaurant.  Momentary outdoor shots would then be fitted between these scenes for general effect.  For example, in the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade and Miles Archer are met by Miss Wonderly in their office; there's a brief scene after where we see Miles getting shot; and then the police arrive at Sam Spade's rather cheap residence.  The shooting scene lasts about six seconds.

Long-term outdoor shooting was expensive, and usually required that the camera be mounted in a fixed location, so that it would capture all the movement in a given frame.  Buster Keaton uses this limitation to terrific effect in many silent films, as do other directors.  By the 1940s, lighting problems are overcome by producing stark contrasts between bright light and pure darkness, starting off the film noir genre, which used the contrast to film longer shots in the outdoors.  But by the 1950s, advancements in camera technology allowed filming in outdoor settings, during the day, much easier, in that cameras became more portable and versatile.  Thus, a Roman fountain could be filmed from all around the fountain, not just from one fixed point.  This started off a wave of American films that took place in Europe, which could be filmed luxuriantly enough to appease American audiences, and this in turn set off a craze for European tours.

Roman Holiday is an early example of this sort of travelogue piece.  While creating a satisfying and exhilirating story, the premise also allowed for specific parts of Rome in 1953 to be filmed in spectacular, clear black and white, while actually driving through the city, which would have been far more expensive and even impossible a few years earlier.  It matter to us, however, because to set up these shots, the film-makers need to scout locations in Rome, to decide where they'd be filmed from, and which places could be reasonably filmed and at which times of the day, given the crowds and the film's needs.

Location hunters, script in hand, were assigned to hunt for specific alleyways, streets, building faces ... a practice that still continues, especially for period pieces which must have not be anachronistic, or which can be sufficiently adjusted in CGI after being filmed.  The goal is to create the illusion of a continuous, unbroken cityscape while, in fact, being limited by the practical challenges of filming in real-world settings.  In many ways, dialogue often served to inform the audience about the characters' movements between locations, helping to maintain the coherence as they explain in advance, "We'll meet you at the Hotel des Arts," just before we cut to the hotel just mentioned.  This happens so often and gently in films that for the most part, the non-filmmaker simply fails to see it.

So, here is a leap. If we're building a narrative in a role-playing game, where we're outlining a town for a group of players, without wanting to build the whole town, one way to do it would be to present a series of locations that we invent, which we can then link together for the players, creating a verisimilitude and transitional environment without ever needing a map or list of streets for the characters to walk upon.

Though the actual game might hop about from location to location, so long as we provide a good, solid description for a given location, as a movie camera might, though using words, we can make the players feel that they're in that actual place.  And rather than needing to explain how they get from there to the next location, we can impose simple techniques like directing the players to the next spot (by saying, "the old man directs you to the Plaza Rufio, and you have no trouble finding it), or having the NPC walk along with the players while leading them from one location to the next.  Meanwhile, if we need a battle to take place, or have the characters witness a scene that fits into the narrative, giving them additional information about the adventure, we can have it happen here at the Plaza, or hear about it happening at the nearby dockside, which the players can then rush to, setting up the next location.

Thinking about this cinematically will aid considerably for imposing a structure on separate events occurring in separate places.

In building these locations, think about it as a location hunter would.  To make a fine scene for a film, we want there to be some sort of representation and notable landmark, such as a tall bell tower, a cathedral, castle, keep, monument or town square.  These serve as anchors in a sea of unfamiliarity, guiding the players and giving them things they can refer to which are easily remembered by everyone.  "The killing that took place under the clocktower," for example.

Other forms of landmark may not be unique, but may yet have memorable qualities that can be adapted to specific events that the characters witness.  An abandoned mansion, for example; a distinct looking graveyard; an orchard that grows a specific fruit, thus the "apple orchard," which the players find by "the west wall," and such.  Each little tag we add to the location provides something else by which it will be known to the players, and remembered.  "No, not that orchard, the other one that was all apples, the one near the west wall."  These simple labels make it easy for the players to structure the place in their minds, even though they only exist in the player's imaginations.

We don't want too many details, because then it becomes hard to remember.  We don't need to know which sort of apples, or how spaced the trees are, or how near they are to the wall, or what the wall is made of.  Experience will show that if we just give a few basic points about something, it's enough for the players to fix the location in their heads and concentrate on what happens there, rather than the exhaustive detail about something that in fact doesn't matter.

There are functional locations as well, such as a forge, a tavern, a town hall, a particular sort of workshop or mill.  There might be an outcropping of rock on the side of hill that the town bends around, and below the outcropping, a small garden next to a green-grey house.  There, the scene is set, we can describe what happens there.

We can add sounds, smells and textures if we want ... but remember, none of these things exist cinematically, as a picture, and the player cannot actually smell or hear any of the sounds we describe.  Therefore, don't overdo it.  If everything has a smell and everything has a strange sound, soon enough the players won't be able to link which smell or sound came from which place, and merely become confused.  Adding a smell won't hurt; "The graveyard stinks of dry rot," but focus on the players remembering that it's a graveyard, and not what it smells like.

There's an old writer's trope that the reader will give the main character the hair colour that they want, regardless of what the story might say.  Many readers are surprised, when they read a book a second time, that the character they thought had black hair and a handsome face, in face has sandy brown hair and isn't that good looking.  It's there in the text, but it was overlooked on the first reading and often readers still can't get rid of their first impression, even after they find that impression was wrong.  It's one reason why a lot of writers don't see the point in exhaustively describing the character of a story, which is a habit of many early 20th century writers, though it was far less common in the 19th century, and is somewhat less common now.  The reader won't remember, anyway.

Anyway, fix a location in mind.  See it from street level, as a camera does, not looking down as though at a map.  In the mind's eye, turn and see what the scene looks as our gaze sweeps left, then right.  Once its there, describe it to the players.  The scene can be "scouted out" in our notes long before the game starts, or when it's needed.  Give the scene a purpose for being part of the players' experience, just as it needs to have some purpose in a film, if that.s what we were choosing it for.

This is where the players see the first brigand during a general attack.  Over there, in that side alley, there are two more brigands.  In that window up there, a woman is leaning over to toss a bucket of water into the street; she stops, sees the first bandit ... but doesn't see the two from the alley entering her building.  There.  The players have been given their first experience in the developing campaign.  Do they separate to handle the first bandit, and the other two?  Do they let the scene play out to see what happens?  They have the benefit of the camera seeing more than the NPC woman does.  This gives the players power ... and by habit, by watching endless scenes in dramas and films, they'll comprehend that power without having to think about it.

Now, when we watch a film, we can practice our DMing by watching how the camera is revealing information about the scene to us, the audience, which the characters in the film don't have.  We want to set the players up as the audience ... but at the same time, they're also in the scene.  When a director sets the scene, it's the protagonists in the film who receive the most information, and logically, the players are the protagonists.  So, especially with a good film, there will be moments when it becomes apparent how the director is showing the protagonists what they have a choice to do.

In a film, of course, the director is also directing the protagonist ... but for us, the protagonists direct themselves.  We can only create the scene.  But what we tell the players, and how we reveal that — well, that was the point of the Show, Don't Tell post.  It's nice to bring this concept around, full circle.

Find a few free action films and test out this process for yourselves.  Good luck.

Saturday, April 13, 2024


A little more than three weeks ago, I wrote about a piano I once had on another of my blogs.  And here it is:

I wrote the earlier post on the day I learned that it might be coming to me, but I didn't want to say so as there wasn't any certainty.  Last week, however, upon acquiring the piano from her grandmother, my daughter assured me that she'd be storing it in my house, so once again this old familiar piano is back in my possession.  It's been 27 years.

Took five professional movers to get this beast moved out from its former residence into this one, which tells me how strong my friends and I were.  I suggested to the movers that I could disassemble it to some degree and they agreed ... but after such a long time, looking at the underside, I've forgotten how it comes apart.  And I don't have Michelle any more to tell me how.  Cost me a pretty penny to have it placed; I had to raise the picture in the upper right about 10 inches; the mirror on the left was fine.

The piano's width is 62 inches across the top; it's 51 inches high.  So glad that my in-laws could seize it back then, since they took such rotten care of it; in fact, it's been sitting ignored in a basement for more than 15 years, without one ounce of care.  There are chunks and bits taken out of it, there are knobs missing, though its only moderately dusty inside.  I'm surprised that it isn't more out of tune.  Going to cost me more money to have it tuned and I suppose that beyond what care I can give it myself, getting it restored is another step along the way.

I'm told it has no resale value.  Present-day musicians aren't interested in it, according to those musicians I know, while having a piano in the home hasn't the verve it did once.  The piano movers were astounded; they'd never moved a piano this heavy, nor this old, in all their experience.  As I'd said, it's more than 160 years old and it's made of real rosewood — which no piano is, nowadays, and as such they're cheap replicas that weigh much less.  The movers felt they'd earned their pay today.

But, I'm told, I'd be lucky to get a $1,000 for it if I sold it.  Which I find remarkable.  My daughter has been talking to a piano restoration company this last week and they assure her that yet, they can bring it back to its original colour ... and that's going to cost more than supposedly the piano will sell for.  If this is true, then how does the restoration company stay in business?  I think — and my daughter agrees with me — that in general, where it comes identifying the value of things, people don't know jack.

Anyway, there's no plan to sell it.  And here is the bad news.  I'm quitting D&D.  I'm going to learn how to play piano so I can become the world's oldest concert pianist.  This D&D has been a nice run, but it's all done now.  Wish me luck.

Saturday Q&A (apr 13)

Bob writes,

The HS where I teach has a gaming group that meets after school one day a week. The some middle schoolers (7th and 8th graders) have inquired about someone running D&D for them! Eventually word got 'round to moi and I'm contemplating it. The question is - how would YOU start. Assume players knew nothing of the game except what they've stumbled across in mass media. I'll have 1-2 hours per session.

Answer: After introducing them to a collection of the odd shaped dice, letting them play with them for a bit, as they are quite strange, I'd briefly explain that each person was going to invent an avatar or persona, preferring to use the modern term for a representation of themselves. This avatar, I tell them, is a "character." The character is rolled, I explained, with some things chosen. Then, without explaining why, I'd go through the process of having them roll each of their characters, in tandem. Going around the table, everyone would roll their stats, according to the system I outline in my wiki. I would not invoke the wiki; I've memorised everything there, and I look more like an authority if I appear to be comfortable in the knowledge I have.

So, as each person rolls their stats, I don't give them a choice about class. That can be offered later, once they know what the classes are; these characters are temporary training wheels. Thus, based on the stats, and what I can learn about the people from their communication and general appearance, Holmesian fashion, you're a thief, you're a fighter, you're a cleric, you're a mage and so on. I tell them not to worry about what these names mean, but to write the words at the top of the character sheet. We use blank sheets for the characters, NOT some pregenerated sheets that only serve to overwhelm the newbies, which we don't want to do.

We let everyone choose their gender and their race. We go through a quick run down of the races; depending on the crew, we may just limit the races to three options, dwarf, elf and human. If they seem sharper at this point, we can allow halfling and gnome, but probably not half-orc or half-elf. Being a young crowd, and having a preconceived notion of "half-breed" instilled in them by a "well-meaning" educational system, I wouldn't suggest going there until they show an affinity for the game's structure.

We get them to pick a name. We explain hit points. Then we assign 15 basic pieces of equipment for them. We don't pregenerate these lists and hand them out - this looks conformist and fails to teach an important lesson: that D&D is very much about acquiring and storing knowledge. They must learn to make notes. It's absolutely best if we can just rattle off things a fighter, thief, mage or cleric ought to have, apparently off the top of our head. Money doesn't matter, so we give the fighter half-decent armour, not great armour, and leather to the others who can wear it. I can easily rattle off as much equipment off the top of my head, and being able to do this, waiting while the individuals write these things out physically, makes me look like in control and deserving of the authority I have to establish.

Good. Now we put them in a very basic location. I would probably put them at the front door of a cave. Do you go in? I would ask. If they did, I'd have the party fight an exactly equal number of goblins, with a minimal set up: "The smaller human-like creatures rush out of the dark with swords that look like long knives; they're ugly with long ears and knobs all over their faces, and they're green. They are clearly trying to kill you."

If they didn't go in, the goblins would come out and attack them. The goblins would attack 1:1. Then I would patiently explain initiative, which I use only once a combat, to tell who goes first. I'd explain that one person has to roll the initiative for all, which is how I do it. That person, I say, is picked by me. Then I'd make them wait a few seconds, to show they cared to know who I was going to pick, and then I'd pick someone basically at random. We'd both roll a d6 and then we'd play out the combat.

I'd run everything from memory, so no books. At each point, I'd explain hitting and missing, and damage, and so on. I would use my stun system, unless I'd been expressly asked not to do so. I'm not interested in teaching anyone a lesser game. But another person should just introduce the game they think these kids would want to play, according to how that other person wishes.

My reasons for poisoning the minds of new players comes from many experiences in my childhood where I was introduced to games and many other things "in the wrong way" ... only to realise after the fact, when discovering the "right way," that they were trying to teach me more than just rote. D&D is one of those things that I was "taught wrong" from the first time I played the game.

After the combat (which the players are almost certain to win, with the extra hit points I give them and the use of negative hit points), I'd instigate a table discussion about it. I'd get people to ask if there was more to the game. Then I'd award treasure and explain experience. Then I'd ask if they want another combat, and tell them that if they do, they need to go further into the dungeon. If they didn't want another combat, I'd ask if they wanted to buy something with their new loot. That would probably be a "yes" if the combat answer was no. They'd all be gamers. They'd know that after taking treasure, you spend it to get stronger.

So, that takes us to town, which has to be explained. And they have to be shown equipment tables, which they can peruse and buy from. Coin has to be explained, and now we can introduce them to encumberance and food ... and that is probably enough to manage a three-hour session. They've learned a lot and all of it has been done without books.

Chris writes,

The caving post was great! And the one before that, about Conan. Show, don't tell and all. But a movie is a one thing — night after night, delivering a complex, comprehensive experience somehow coherent, with its own up-and-down moods in distilled improv, without the sudden increase in artificial power level to amp things up, takes cunning, experience (when to hold back, when to stir up a speech), and no shortage of reread labor.

The actor is without their script; there is only the darkness vast, some glimmer of audiential eyes by the stage lights; this threadbare costume on a madeup budget itches; the cardboard tube of a sword could unravel at any moment—

But they lift their eyes and raise their arms, and cast the bardic spell into the still silence; they carouse among the words imprinted by heart; they bring forward some synthesis of a lived life and anguish and silent readings, they briefly sojourn in the unreality of belief, and we are caught up in that instant, swept unto a verbal tide.

It all comes down to practice, I guess. Needing to get better. Wanting to. You've touched on that often, in tough ways.

There is a scene in "I, Robot" TV where the evil guy looks in the mirror and smiles, greeting someone. He slaps his face. Not good enough. And he tries again. Again.

Or even that movie with the drummer, looking for tutelage under the unforgiving professor. Blood, sweat, and tears replaced with the rote rhythm of empty robotics. Yet human, elevating somehow from skin and bones to a brain performant.

But yeah. Reading the caving post made me feel you could write forever, the ink just the trailing breath of a living pen, a conscious engine driving--driven--from the digest of book-mulch and winter, ideas fetched in quantum time and emerging from the mix of a life, a life, a life.

The writer, having lived in the skin of other lives, for each moment prized by observation, to feed it forward as artists do.

Answer:  Thank you.


Thank you for your contributions.  If readers would like to reply to the above, or wish to ask a question or submit observations like those above, please submit  to my email,  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, April 12, 2024

Real Medieval Towns

With this post, I want to generally speak of the layout and appearance of towns in Medieval-Renaissance Europe, perhaps doing the same again for other parts of the world. The goal would be to convey how to describe a town to the players and give the space meaning in the players' imaginations. Many DMs don't like to run towns, or won't run them at all, I'm guessing because they're hard to describe or because it's difficult to set an adventure there. Whatever the reason, the more we know, the better equipped we'll be to explore this aspect of the game world.

Medieval towns often grew around a central point for several reasons, primarily because important structures such as a castle or church were the centre of communal activities. The need for communication was greatest for these places, while residents wanted to easily access key amenities like markets, courts and counting houses. The feasibility of foot travel produced a considerable impediment to urban spread. Carts and animals couldn't be stored while attending to daily business, even by the rich, since it wasn't safe to leave even a guarded animal in the streets. The limited range of foot travel constrained the reach of merchants, artisans and farmers, impacting trade and economic growth. Transporting goods by hand was inefficient and physically taxing, making it difficult for merchants to transport merchandise to market and for residents to procure essentials like firewood and food supplies. Additionally, foot traffic alone could lead to wear and tear on streets and pathways, often made of poor materials, especially in inclement weather. This posed hazards to pedestrians as well. And without modern waste management systems, the disposal of waste in medieval towns was a challenge, though tropes about streets serving as open drains or dumping grounds are almost certainly false, the invention of 18th and 19th century scholars.

Consider this from the party's viewpoint: traffic in the town isn't comprised of leisurely shoppers or individuals with ample time on their hands. Instead, much of the populace spends considerable time shuttling back and forth, laboriously carrying heavy loads or waiting impatiently at various locales to fulfill their daily needs. For instance, at daybreak, crowds gather at the creamery to collect milk, only to disperse gradually over the span of half an hour as they are served. Similar scenes unfold at neighborhood wells or locations recently replenished with recently arrived essentials such as lamp oil, soap or remedies, particularly during times of outbreaks or heightened need.

The appearance of beer in October attracts considerable attention. As the autumn season sets in, anticipation builds among the townsfolk for the annual delivery of this beloved beverage. When the first barrels of freshly brewed beer arrive, it signals the beginning of festive celebrations and jovial gatherings. Crowds eagerly gather at the brewery or designated distribution points, eager to partake in the communal enjoyment of this cherished libation. The aroma of hops and malt fills the air, mingling with the laughter and chatter of the townspeople as they raise their tankards in toast to another year of camaraderie and merriment. Like events occur with the pressing of wine. In both cases, such beverages could not be kept from year to year, and so there were always times of the year when no beer or no wine could be had, and what there was tasted terrible.

Visualise this against the way a town was laid out. Medieval towns accumulated step by step, with individually built houses emerging gradually over time, around the forementioned centre. As the population increased and the need for housing grew, individuals would start to build their homes on the outskirts of this central area, typically following the natural contours of the land. There was no plan, no logic; no potential existed for flattening land or imposing strict grid patterns like modern city planners do. Instead, individuals worked with the natural landscape, adapting their construction to fit the terrain. This meant that streets often meandered around hills, followed the curves of rivers, or skirted around rocky outcrops. Moreover, there wasn't a unified architectural style or predetermined layout for the entire town. This resulted in a more organic development where buildings were placed according to the available space and the preferences of their owners.

As such, streets would end in narrow stairways that went up a hill, where they might join with another throughway or into a court of houses in a haphazard circle. Roofs might be joined with bridges, used by the local residents to avoid setting foot on the street to visit their neighbours, but which are unavailable to the public. Because buildings would be positioned to advantage natural sunlight and airflow, access from the street may lead into the front of the house or the back. Places where buildings can't be easily established, for any number of reasons, are made into green spaces and sometimes set aside for grazing goats, pigs or fowl.

Initially, new houses might be modest structures consisting of a single room with a thatched roof and earthen floor. Over time, as families prospered and their needs changed, houses would be expanded or renovated to accommodate growing households or new functions. Additional rooms, upper stories and outbuildings might be added, gradually transforming the original dwelling into a more complex and substantial structure. These new constructions are wedged between the buildings that already exist, sometimes closing off lanes if the homeowner is sufficiently privileged. As more houses were built in this haphazard and irregular fashion, the town becomes a warren of unrevealed corridors, stairwells, squeeze points between buildings and precipitous drops as houses are built right against a cliff or a watercourse. It becomes easy to get lost, especially as there are few streets with actual names, while at night the streets and lanes are truly inky dark. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to get directions from those in the immediate neighbourhood to find any minor workshop or personal residence.

Each house is a unique expression of its owner's identity and social status, reflected in its architectural features, decoration, and size. Wealthier residents might construct larger and more elaborate homes with features such as ornate facades, decorative carvings or private gardens, while poorer inhabitants would make do with simpler, more utilitarian dwellings. These latter tend to be found further and further from market and guild locations, so that where the poor live, not only can they not afford services, those that exist are a long way to walk.

As one moves through the town, multi-story structures loom overhead, dominating the views and creating a sense of enclosure and intimacy in the urban environment. Characters would experience the vertical stratification of society firsthand, with the upper floors of buildings often reserved for wealthier residents and commercial activities, while the lower levels house artisans, laborers, and service providers. Thus, the vertical effect shapes not only the physical landscape of medieval towns but also the lived experiences and interactions of those who traverse them. Without elevators, it might seem strange that wealthy persons would want to climb four or five floors up from the street; but as they were wealthy, servants did most of the climbing. Persons could lower baskets from windows to hawkers on the street, who would take coins out of the basket and provide bread, fish, fruit, whatever, which could then be hauled up again. Far above the street, the air was clearer; there were no footsteps on the floor overhead; one could see a distance out of a window. A flood of water from the rain might drown a poor inhabitant living downstairs, but the highest floor need not worry about the waterspouts.

For those residing in a town, especially within their own neighborhood, each building and corner holds immediate familiarity, much like the places we remember from childhood. Restricted to walking and with ample time for exploration, we develop a keen awareness of the small world around us—the nearby yards, the occupants of neighboring houses, the convenient shortcuts, the low fences that could be most easily jumped, even the best gardens to steal carrots from or find ripe apples. We instantly

We instantly recognized anyone who didn't belong in our neighborhood, much like the inhabitants of medieval towns would have done. Unlike a dungeon, where solitude reigns, towns are teeming with onlookers, ever vigilant of our actions—whether at street level, peeking through cracked doorways, or observing from above through alcoves and window shutters. The likelihood of initiating a confrontation in the open without a dozen witnesses present is slim, as bystanders stand ready to identify the instigators, or more likely, the outsiders. For reasons like this, and because so many passageways exist through a town, it's not really possible to just run a town like a dungeon; there's no logic for the citizens to stand around waiting to be killed, while a group of murder-hobos are bound to attract more and more guards, until they're overwhelmed.

It's better to view the town as a series of interconnected, specific locations that are linked together through the urban landscape, each with a specific purpose for the character's adventure. When I'm done here, I'll pick a film to better illustrate this concept, but let's view it through the lens of D&D first.

Each area within the town—whether it's a bustling marketplace, a quiet residential street, or a secluded alleyway—offers its own distinct atmosphere and opportunities as a scene or campaign interlude, without losing the overall tapestry of the town's environment. By organising the town in our minds into these discrete elements, we can flesh out and develop what the players might encounter at a scale they can more easily comprehend. This allows us to move the players vertically through the town, up hills, along streams, through overgrown abandoned lots or into the town square without actually needing a physical map to show precisely how these link together.

This allows us to concentrate on those specific places the players will encounter at this session, filling the space between with a description like, "Leaving the street, you head across town to the largish avenue, where you were told there was a wealthy apothecary who could help you. Just like that, we "transition," like in a film, to the next place. We describe the outside of the apothecary's shop as though viewed across the street, the players decide to go in and the next scene takes place. There's no need to rigidly force the players to explain which streets they travel, or what turns they make, to get from the last place to the next.

Which brings me to a point not addressed yet: what are these passageways, and how does knowing what they are help us? Loosely, I propose dividing the throughfares of a city according to a simple measurement: how friendly is it to wagons, which are used to move so much in a town or city. If the thoroughfare allows four wagons to pass side by side, it's an avenue. If two, it's a street. If the space is but one wagon wide, it's a lane; and if it's not wide enough for a wagon, it's an alley.

Picture the avenue as the grand thoroughfare of the medieval town, a wide expanse of cobbled road stretching from one end of the bustling urban center to the other. Stone buildings with decorative facades give an air of prestige. Rows of townhouses merchant halls tower above the paving, their arched windows and balconies offering glimpses of the wealth and prosperity there. A steady stream of activity pulses ceaselessly. Traders peddle their wares from push-carts while wide shop doors stand open with queues standing under the eaves out front. The shops sell expensive wares, exotic spices, fine silks, jewellery, armour, weapons, porcelain, glassware and so on. Horses and carriages clip-clop along the cobblestones, their drivers navigating the crowded thoroughfare with practiced ease. Here and there, clusters of townsfolk gather to gossip and barter, their voices mingling with the sounds of bustling commerce and conversation.

Despite the frenetic energy, a palpable sense of security pervades the air. Uniformed guards patrol the thoroughfare at regular intervals, their watchful eyes scanning the crowds for any signs of trouble. Watchtowers flank the road at strategic intervals, adorned with banners bearing the town's crest. From these vantage points, sentinels keep a watchful eye on the people, ready to sound the alarm at the first sign of danger. For the wealthy who feel safe on the avenue, security is a paramount concern. Young loiterers are chased and caught for nothing worse than wearing clothes that suggest they might be thieves, to assure the rich citizen may move about without worrying over their pouches.

Here and there, in gaps between the townhouses, are iron fences or stone walls protecting manicured gardens and private courtyards, the rich greenery of their trees stretching out twenty or thirty feet above the street, offering places of shade, where sellers provide chilled teas and confectionary. This offers a small respite from the bustle of the city, a tranquil oasis amidst the urban chaos.

As the sun sets on the avenue, lanterns flicker to life along its length, casting a warm glow. The air is alive with the sounds of laughter and music as revelers spill out from taverns and alehouses, their voices mingling with the rhythmic clatter of hooves and the distant strains of minstrels' songs. Long after this, the avenue quiets in as darkest night settles, until only the tapping of a watch-guard's cane warns those who shouldn't be here to move along, lest they be caught.

Smaller than the avenue, the street serves as an artery between avenues, connecting them together. There's still much activity, with the streets worn smooth by the constant passage of carts and pedestrians. In some ways, the street is busier than the avenue; it is the home of artisans and craftsmen who ply their trades in workshops tucked behind unassuming storefronts. Lining the street are rows of modest buildings, their facades adorned with signs and awnings advertising the various trades and crafts practiced within.

Here, the clatter of hammers and the spinning of wheels fills the air as textiles, metalwork and pottery are spun and pounded and molded. The scent of wood shavings, leather and freshly baked bread wafts from open doorways, inviting passersby to peer inside.

Instead of crowds of onlookers and shoppers, the street is populated primarily by those engaged in business; artisans at work, teamsters shouting at one another to get out of the way, or coming to blows over who overturned whose wagon. Apprentices run errands and make deliveries. Merchants tend to their stores rather than stand in doorways to encourage buyers to enter; there are still queues, but they're either much shorter or they go on for a block or more.

For the residents and workers who call the street home, it is a vibrant place during the day; but in the evening, the taverns are less raucous and filled with dour, tired souls who have worked all day, who drink to ease the soreness of their muscles, not to play. Except the occasional lit public house, come the end of day the streets are deserted almost at once; darkness descends quickly. Now and then one lone watchman might walk the streets silently, or in some places there may be a lamplighter, but usually those on guard travel in groups of two or three.

Lanes meander through the town like a narrow ribbons, leading off from the main streets. These are quiet, intimate spaces, lined with rows of modest worker's residences. These simple dwellings, built from local materials such as timber and wattle-and-daub, are clustered together in a seemingly random manner, their quaint facades weathered by time and neglect. Life in the lane revolves around the daily rhythms of work and family. Many of the town's artisans and laborers abandon the lane for their work in the streets, leaving behind wives and grandparents to look after the daily business of keeping a home. Children play between the houses, their laughter ringing against the narrow walls as they chase one another through the maze of buildings.

As evening falls, the pace of life in the lane improves somewhat. Workers stream home while residents emerge to gather in small groups to share news, gossip and stories from the day. Beneath the soft glow of lantern light, they linger in the narrow streets, exchanging pleasantries and catching up on the latest happenings. Amidst the comforting familiarity of their neighbors and friends, the worries of the day seem to melt away, replaced by a sense of camaraderie and community. Where there are courts, the end of the lanes become small circles with trees that have been planted in ancient boxes. The residents sit on rough-hewn benches, enjoying the cool evening breeze and the company of their fellow townsfolk. One by one they retreat to their homes to sleep, to ready themselves for the new day.

As the night comes on, furtive persons emerge from alleyways into the lanes, with business to do, though wisely they leave the residents alone. There are no members of the town watch to see them gather and plan, readying themselves to venture into the streets to acquire what they don't possess.

Alleys connect with streets and lanes, and serve numerous purposes. Picture them as shadowy passages flanked by high walls and looming buildings. They are secluded and intimate spaces, reaching into the bowels of the city, especially those buildings which have grown too old or derelict to be lived in by anyone but the poor, desperate or criminal element. Hemmed in on all sides, sunlight filters weakly through the narrow gap overhead, casting dappled shadows on the worn earthen surface of the alley, from which a few old cobblestones, not pried up to be used as materials, yet lie. The air is cool and musty, filled with the faint scent of damp earth and decaying wood.

Throughout the day, the alleyway is quiet; knowing residents who have little to fear pass along, knock on an unsigned door, and enter. A few pass through on their way to someplace else. As night falls, however, few dare to venture down its darkened length after dark, preferring to stick to the better-lit streets and lanes nearby.

These are the points of movement between those important locations discussed earlier. Each in themselves can become such a location, as the players are directed to go here or there, to find the right door for the right person they need to speak with. An alley becomes a good place for a one-on-one fight. An isolated garden at night for a larger encounter. Attached to the town, even inside the town walls, are fields and orchards in case of siege, where players may go to rest and picnic during the day (no, seriously), or venture out to meet with the worst souls at night. There are many such possible places to set a scene in a town, to connect the players with various individuals, factions or officials, each with their own tale to tell, their own motivation, and their own reason to encourage the party to do this or that. The party need only pick a side for the adventure to begin.


If you enjoyed this very long and difficult to write research post, which no doubt will give details you're able to incorporate into your game and impress your players, consider giving a regular donation to my Patreon:

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Real Caving

The purpose of this blog post is not to describe a D&D dungeon, but to give a sense of what real caves would have been like for the time period, and then to translate that knowledge into a form that could be useful for a dungeon master in describing the underworld. This is not to say the D&D dungeons aren't meant to exist; they are! Yet the goal is for us to rethink the concept by going to the source materials first, rather than to the limited research that was available through libraries in the 1970s, when the dungeon trope was established. We know vastly more about caving now, and we have many, many more resources to poke through, than were available in all the books that would have existed in Chicago between 1972 and 1975.

To start, exploring caves during the Medieval and Renaissance periods would have been vastly different from modern caving experiences. The combination of adventure, danger and mystery did exist for those of the time periods, but for many reasons, caving was a very different experience for them than it is for us.

Most obviously, cavers would have ventured into the depths of caves with limited equipment compared to today's standards. Instead of the advanced gear modern cavers rely on, such as sturdy helmets, harnesses and high-powered headlamps, they would have made do with simpler tools. Torches or lanterns fueled by oil or tallow provided their only source of light, casting flickering shadows against the cavern walls. This would have made seeing things clearly a considerable challenge. The shifting patterns of light and darkness would have played tricks on their eyes, distorting their perception of distance and shape as adventurers navigated through the labyrinthine passages of caves. Consider this application for adventuring, as we tell parties that they see something, only to have nothing be there, while assuring them that it's the flickering light to blame; no party is going to believe that, no matter how clearly we demonstrate that torchlight is unreliable. Which is for the best, really. But then, a light spell eliminates the flickering, so lets move on.

Basic ropes and rudimentary climbing tools would have been essential for navigating the uneven terrain and scaling rocky obstacles. The limitations of these were significant, yet they were essential for traversing a challenging cave environment. These tools lacked the sophistication and durability of modern climbing equipment, presenting cavers with additional obstacles and risks as they explored underground passages. The ropes used were made of natural fibers such as hemp or sisal, lacking the strength and reliability of modern synthetic materials. They might have been prone to fraying or breaking under strain, adding an extra element of danger to climbs and descents. Relating these characteristics to the party, telling them that there's plainly evidence of a rope fraying, is sure to cause them to reconsider going further into the subterranean without resupplying.

As for the rudimentary climbing tools, they likely consisted of simple implements such as wooden or metal spikes, hooks or makeshift footholds carved from nearby rocks, which take time to put in place. Making noise, as well. The tools are essential for gaining purchase on the uneven surfaces of cave walls and navigating vertical or steep terrain, because most subterranean environments aren't neat tunnels made by orcs and goblins. In fact, these creatures are far more likely to make due with the natural environment as is, since digging through rock is unbelievably labour-intensive, given that steel doesn't exist, as is the transporting of removed rock to a place where it isn't in the way.

Cave floors littered with loose rocks and uneven surfaces make progress slow and precarious, with every step posing a potential hazard. Sharp protrusions and jagged edges threaten to trip or injure unwary explorers, while narrow passages and tight squeezes test their flexibility and endurance. Climbing sections of the cave often involves navigating treacherous inclines or vertical shafts, where a single misstep could lead to a disastrous fall. There are many strange features that stand out. Sumps, submerged passages where water collects, pose a significant threat, especially in the dim light of torches. Without proper diving equipment, crossing these sumps is exceedingly dangerous, risking drowning or hypothermia. Chimneys, vertical shafts that must be ascended or descended, test the limits of cavers' climbing abilities, with the ever-present danger of falling from great heights. Tight squeezes and constrictions force cavers to contort their bodies through narrow openings, risking getting stuck or injured in the process. Each twist and turn of the cave's labyrinthine passages holds the potential for disaster.

Sudden drops and pits, concealed by darkness, pose a constant threat to unsuspecting adventurers. Without proper illumination, navigating these pitfalls becomes a precarious endeavor, with each step potentially leading to a dangerous fall. Collapsing ceilings and unstable cave walls add to the dangers, with the constant risk of being buried alive under tons of rock. Labyrinths of twisting tunnels and chambers offer no respite, with the constant threat of becoming disoriented and lost in the darkness. Deep chasms and abysses yawn beneath precarious ledges, tempting fate with their sheer drops into the abyss below. Add to this creatures who are very familiar with all these features, who can find their way around with their eyes closed, who know how to set these features up to be even more hazardous to intruders. It's a very unlikely thing that a party might emerge safely, unless with tip the balance in their favour.

So why did those at the time do it? Practically, caves served as shelters for early humans, offering protection from the elements and potential predators. In the medieval period, caves might still have been used for shelter, especially in remote or rugged regions where other forms of habitation were scarce. Explorers might have ventured into caves to search for resources such as water and minerals. Even for people of that time, there really were myths of hidden treasures that were rumoured to lie within their depths.

Spiritual and religious motivations also played a significant role in cave exploration. Caves were often regarded as liminal, or transitional spaces, where the boundaries between the earthly realm and the divine could be crossed. Rather than having to pass through an actual gate, it was understood that if you found the right cave and just kept going down, eventually you would just walk right into the front yard of Hades, or find the sea that needed to be crossed to reach the mountain of Purgatory. As such, mad hermits and passionate ascetics sought solitude and spiritual enlightenment in the isolation of caves, engaging in contemplation, prayer and meditation. Some caves were revered as sacred sites, encouraging pilgrims to undertake arduous journeys to visit these holy places.

We can therefore imagine a cave that's known to pilgrims, where camps full of pilgrims wait at the entrance, yet entering is still a difficult, dangerous effort. There are always places below, the party is told, where no one has ever been, or where the devout are "tested" in combat or otherwise, to decide if they are true believers or not.

Intellectual curiosity and the thirst for knowledge also drove some individuals to explore caves. Understanding of geology, hydrology, and other cave-related sciences was rudimentary or nonexistent. Explorers wouldn't have comprehended the processes that formed caves or the ecosystems within them ... yet natural philosophers, early scientists and scholars were fascinated by the geological formations found within caves, seeing them as windows into the Earth's history and processes. They conducted studies and collected specimens to better understand the natural world, laying the groundwork for modern geological and biological research. The party could be encouraged to go down to find a strange plant or a rare mineral, for which they'd be paid a bundle, provided they brought back good, well-cared for samples. It's a motivation for the party to enter, with all the monsters that are there, with no certain way of knowing just which passage they have to follow. It separates their efforts from the need to make the point of every dungeon the eventual destruction of the BIG BAD. They may find baddies and kill them, but if they don't find the sample they're looking for, its all for naught.

Additionally, caves held cultural and historical significance, serving as meeting places or hiding spots for clandestine activities. Secret societies, religious groups or rebels might use caves as hideouts, making a good set up for a low-level party, who has to enter the dungeon to clear out a human group of bandits, rather than the traditional sort of monster. An evil sect deep in the earth, perhaps living upon some strange plant that gives insight or special powers, might also be a possibility, giving reason for humans or demi-humans to function as the enemy.

These ideas come from real sources, so they can be elaborated upon by specifically searching for examples of each. This increases the likelihood of the DM coming up with a good idea, since the limited imagination of the RPG community can be bypassed by looking into the vast wealth of human history and activity.

Here's another point. Mapping and documentation during medieval and Renaissance caving expeditions were rudimentary compared to modern standards. Without the advanced surveying tools and techniques available today, early explorers relied on basic methods to record their findings within caves.

Cartography in this era was in its infancy, and maps of caves were often crude sketches or diagrams, lacking the precision and detail necessary for accurate navigation. Explorers would manually measure distances using simple tools like ropes or pacing, estimating the dimensions of passages and chambers as best they could. These early maps were often incomplete and prone to errors, as explorers struggled to capture the complex and irregular shapes of cave systems.

Documentation of cave features and discoveries was similarly basic. Explorers would make notes and sketches of notable formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites and underground rivers, but without the benefit of photography or detailed drawings that could be done with good light, these records were limited in their accuracy and detail. Descriptions of cave environments, including the quality of air, water sources and animal life, were recorded in written accounts but lacked the scientific rigor and systematic approach of modern cave surveys.

Yet despite these limitations, mapping and documentation efforts during caving expeditions laid the groundwork for later exploration and scientific study. The mere effort to properly document a cave could, in itself, be the point of the adventure, if the party were intellectual enough to appreciate having to kill monsters so they could get the location of a room properly established in a three-dimensional sense.

This leads us into the denizens of the deep. What were those in the Medieval-Renaissance period? Well, superstitions and fear surrounding caves were pervasive, shaped by the limited understanding of the natural world and the prevalence of folklore and religious beliefs. Existing as mysterious and foreboding places, shrouded in darkness and echoing with eerie sounds, caves were always believed to be inhabited by malevolent spirits or mythical creatures. Stories of dragons, trolls and other monsters lurking within caves fueled people's fears and contributed to a sense of trepidation surrounding these subterranean environments.

In many cultures, caves were considered sacred spaces, associated with rituals, ceremonies and spiritual practices. It may not even be possible to enter a given cave without undergoing some form of "immunisation" from certain spirits, which might involved magical protection spells, amulets, permanent tattoos and such, administered by an overarching priest class who would agree only if the party won them over through other deeds or demonstrating the right attitude. Without these protections, the party would be sure to die of the air itself ... whereas once protected, there might be many places where they could walk through, unseen, even though they might be physically visible to whatever lives downstairs.

Fear was a very big part of the cave experience. The unknown played a very large role in shaping perceptions of caves. The darkness and isolation of cave environments evoked primal fears of being lost or trapped, cut off from the outside world with no hope of escape. Accidents and fatalities within caves were not uncommon, further reinforcing the perception of caves as dangerous and unpredictable places.

Let's take a moment and consider actual wildlife. For these, Bats, in particular, are ubiquitous inhabitants of caves, their eerie nocturnal flights and screeches contributing to the atmosphere of mystery and apprehension. Other cave-dwelling creatures such as spiders, insects and small mammals serve as a reminder of the rich and often delicate ecosystems hidden beneath the earth's surface. While most encounters with cave wildlife are harmless, some species can pose a threat to humans, either through direct aggression or by carrying diseases such as rabies or histoplasmosis.

Supernatural encounters, on the other hand, tap into deeper fears and beliefs, blurring the line between reality and myth, if we can instill a sufficient degree of real fear into the party, despite their savviness. By not having the monster make itself immediately visible, by stressing the truly dangerous magical potential of the monsters, we can paint a sufficient picture by adding supernatural phenomena such as ghostly apparitions, mysterious lights or inexplicable sounds. In those far off days, stories of haunted caves and cursed treasures abound, passed down through generations and woven into the fabric of local folklore. Getting the party to personally experience strange sensations or unexplained occurrences during their journeys underground may fuel speculation between them, as the "facts" of a particular expected encounter fails to match with what the party is seeing or not seeing.

In the game era, encounters with supernatural beings or phenomena were attributed to divine or demonic forces, reflecting the religious beliefs of the time. We can make these forces real, investigating belief and transforming it into fact. Thus the party searching for treasure can obtain revelations they didn't expect, or have encounters with beings that provide more context than an excuse to fight. Both the angelic and the demonic exist. How we play those NPCs in the party's company may create circumstances that can sustain a dozen adventures.

Overall, drawing inspiration from the real-world experiences of medieval and Renaissance cavers adds depth and authenticity to a D&D campaign, immersing players in actual historical frameworks that we turn and twist into the D&D formula. Following such research, and maintaining continuity throughout, we should never run out of underground adventures to set players upon.

Doing Research

The next step in addressing practical advice for DMing would be to tell the reader, "Do you due diligence; read, research, study the material of the game world's time period.  Understand weapons and siege engines, underground environments, town planning, rural and urban social life, the organisation of authority, the church ... anything that helps install context and therefore ideas of how to describe things the players see.

Making a world requires understanding how the bits and pieces of the game world fit together, so that we can establish a fine, complex structure that may withstand the effort of some players to kick it to pieces.  Players are going to study, too, and they're going to use what they've learned to insinuate that they're allowed to do this, or that, which we're not ready for.  Knowledge is power.  If the players have it, and we don't, we're not running the table.  It's running us.

There are a couple of caveats here.  First, yes, studying isn't always a good time.  The written works about history and the things described above can be dry, and at the point where we start to get a handle on this stuff, much of it can be incomprehensible.  If you can, do it as a group.  When I first stumbled across D&D, the crowd of people I ran with got very much into books about feudalism and weapons, such that we went to libraries as a crowd to dig into those shelves.  We passed the books around as we read, making notes and discussing passages.  Nowadays, this can more easily be done by finding videos on the net and sending them to your players, while encouraging your players to send material to you.  Factual videos about factual content are far more valuable to a DM than all the videos about "D&D" put together.  A group approach can reduce the overall dryness of the effort, as can finding presenters online that are better a relaying information both usefully and with interest.

Secondly, try to remember that D&D is not an academic pursuit.  While the source material is largely factual, D&D doesn't have to be.  We can break the rules of what's physically practical in real life, by supposing whatever we want ... though there are fall-downs to this that may or may not be giving too much power to the players.

Let me give an example.  The movie Ladyhawke came out in 1984, not long after I began playing D&D.  The effort and research that went into the movie was simply marvelous; Richard Donner, the director, created a tour de force as regards a fantasy film ... though of course no one respect it now.  But put that aside.  Let's take this scene:

That's a two-shot crossbow, the picture clipped from 0:24 of the clip.  It's used in the scene to unrealistic effect; one shot kills, of course.  See?  I'm trashing the film already.

Practically, it's a completely bogus weapon, primarily because there's no rational way to load the device, evident once one knows either of the two ways a crossbow might be loaded.  But this is D&D ... and if a DM wants to include a two-shot crossbow, and overlook the limitations on it's being loaded, that's completely fair.  It's fun, players will love them ... in fact, every player will insist on having one to love, once it's included.  Very quickly, the players will want to fight every combat from a distance, the weapon is just that good.  This is the reason I don't include one in my campaign, because it overpowers the combat system if everyone has one.

'Course, now, I could say you needed a set amount of knowledge in my sage system to use one, or load one, but that's not important here.  In the reader's campaign, it's up to the reader to decide if it exists.  Point in fact, that decision doesn't have to acknowledge the crossbow's factual legitimacy.  We can break that boundary.

The clip provides a reasonable depiction of an outdoor drinking garden; the film takes place in Italy, east of Rome and south of Ancona, from the place names, the terrain and the architecture (the film never states it explicitly), so the minimalist shelter is quite believable.  As are the vines.  The armour isn't; but, as Hollywood armour goes, it's not bad.  Making armour for extras and stunt people is expensive, especially as it gets damaged when done on tick, so dumbing down the armour is just good fiscal sense in movie making.  Real armour is brutally hard to act in, or stand around in on a hot day for hours while the camera gets positions and other various arrangements made.

The weapons aren't bad, if a little shiny and too obviously not forged.  The combat choreography was done by the same fellow, William Hobbs, who did the Duellists, the Three Musketeers (1973-74), The Meaning of Life ("The Crimson Permanent Assurance"), Willow, Dangerous Liaisons, Cyrano De Bergerac, Robin Hood (1991), Rob Roy, Man in the Iron Mask and many, many more.  So the fighting is good.  Note the punching, using found objects as weapons, cowardly soldiers, etcetera.  The costume design throughout the film is astoundingly believable for the 14th-15th century.

Details matter, so if we're going to describe them to the players, we have to know the climate, the materials available to make clothes, the limits on construction and so on ... which is why I started the Streetvendor's Guide.  It's good if we understand these things, and that's a lot of practical research and work, along with the capacity to apply that research in game, at a moment's notice, because we have the kind of mind that can recall a thing from a page/book we read or a vid/film we watched.  Being able to snap that information up on the fly and patch it into the game helps with both establishing the tenor and atmosphere of the scene and with answering the dozens of questions that players generally ask.

But ...

I can't expect the reader to actually do this research.  I've asked for it before, and that's all well and good, but I need do more than give a reason.  It's a fair expectation that I should cover details of things myself and show how they can be applied to a campaign.  I was going to do so with this post, but my introduction went on longer than I expected, so we'll kick that effort down the road to the next post.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Show, Don't Tell

"The DM, without telling anything like a story, describes a set of circumstances that the players see in the immediate here and now, that they're free to make a decision about ... The DM provides immediate context of what the player characters' senses tell them. The players make a MOVE. This produces a response from the DM, describing what has changed in the immediate context due to the players' move. Then the players move again...the ongoing description provided by the DM serves as the immediate backdrop for gameplay, providing the players with the information they need to make their moves and decisions. This description includes details about the environment, characters and events that are directly relevant to the current situation and the players' interactions."

  Jargon, this blog

And so, what is this "description" that's provided?  That gets down to the bare bones of it, nyet?  As a DM, the above stipulates that we must be ready to provide a lot of description, on specifications and cue, in response to anything the players might say, to maintain the game's action.  If we can't do this, continously and fluidly, then no matter how much preparation we do, we're going to falter where it comes to the game's progress.

This is one of those things that as a DM, we tend to overlook.  We talk all around it, with phrases like, "I run on the fly" and "improvisation is an important tool for a dungeon master" ... but it comes down to communicating sufficient description for the party to be able to make sense of what they "see" and be able to make decisions about what they want to do.

Wikipedia defines description as any type of communication that aims to make vivid a place, object, person, group, or other physical entity.  And that's the crux of it also.  "Sufficient" description is not just to say what's what, but to describe in a spirited, animated, lively, full of life mannner, painting a clear and detailed picture in the reader's minds that appeals to their senses and emotions.  It aims to bring a scene, character or event to life through words, making it feel real and immersive.

Fail at this, and we fail as a dungeon master.

There are many, many practical approaches one can take to rhetoric, which has been a critical academic discipline that reaches well into pre-history.  Fundamentally, it isn't enough to be extroverted; we should want to talk, to tell stories, to explain things, to reach out and grab the imaginations of other people by speaking fluidly and persuasively to them.  Don't like to tell stories?  Don't like to explain things?  Then don't even try to be a DM.

Yet if we'd like to tell stories and we'd like to explain things, we're just not good at it, then studying rhetoric and practicing speaking day and night will help.  Like learning to play piano, however, it will take time before we can train our instrument of a voice to play the tunes that a DM needs.  It doesn't happen overnight.

I grew up in a house where talking was a constant thing.  My father loved to talk, and explain; my mother liked to talk and emote, and was a big fan of movies.  I grew up talking.  It was standard for the family to see a movie together, then talk about the movie afterwards.  When we went to church, my mother and father would talk about the ceremony just as if we'd left a movie. When we travelled, the journey was discussed in all its nuances  and during the journey, naturally, everything we saw was discussed and pulled apart, with everyone expressing their own opinion about it.

But this isn't a post about my childhood, this is a post about description.  What I said in the last post about leading players by the nose without revealing the big picture explains what to do, but it doesn't explain how.  We need to discuss providing the descriptions themselves, in a cold, practical manner, so that the technique can be duplicated by the reader.  Otherwise, we're just riffing here and wasting our time.

In cinema, a common rule that's given to convey information to the viewer is "show, don't tell."  This is a technique of filmmaking that uses visual and auditory cues such as imagery, actions, facial expressions and sound to engage and provide information to an audience instead of dialogue or narration.  It works because seeing a story unfold is more in tune with our daily experience of the world as humans, witnessing the events around us.  There is no narration in our heads, and even if we hear others speaking, usually what's overheard is so disjointed that, without asking, it's not usually clear.  This is how we're biologically pre-determined to interpret our world: to see, to gather details, to be puzzled by them and then investigate to comprehend what's going on.  In the film context, the "investigation" is provided to us by the film-maker, who first puzzles us and then clarifies our puzzlement over the space of a given time, according to a pace the filmmaker chooses.  When it's done this way, well, the film is enormously immersive.  When a narration is stacked over the events, telling us everything without our feeling any sense of puzzlement, we're rapidly bored because we already know everything.

A similar principle exists in D&D, though obviously a DM can't "show" the dungeon room that's being entered or the street scene going on around the players.  This information has to be "told," which is a huge obstacle for the DM who doesn't know how to tell it.  Yet the fundamental principle of show, don't tell has to be maintained because, like I said, we're biologically attuned to view the world this way.  We comprehend things through our senses.  Language has only been around for a tiny percentage of our biological footprint, and the sort of language that's necessary for D&D has only been around for a few hundred years.  We're constrained to respect how human beings interpret information, no matter what we might think or believe is the easiest way to convey information.

For example, it's common for a new DM to introduce a dungeon to the players with a simple phrase like, "You enter a dark cave."  While factual, it's not vivid.

Unfortunately, the usual solution we'll hear is that we should "paint a picture" of the environment, describing the cold, damp walls covered in glistening moss, the echo of water dripping from stalactites and the faint scent of earth and decay that permeates the air.  This, we're told, evokes sensory details, allowing the players to visualise the scene and feel more present in the game world.  I have given this advice myself, because I used to be stupider than I am now.

This doesn't work.  I've tried it, I've discussed it with people, and the truth is that the more words we throw at a description, the less sticks.  We don't "evoke" the senses, we convey to the listener that we're going to over-describe a bunch of details that are totally unnecessary to the campaign, and therefore doesn't need to be heard.  Players "turn off" when they hear this sort of thing.  The pundits may like it, because the "advice" sounds credible and fills up their youtube content length, but in fact its empty-headed nonsense.

See, it's still telling the players, not showing.  We have to do more than just replace the simple word "dark" with a lot of other words that still just means "dark."  As an approach, "You enter a dark cave" is better, because at least it's clear and takes only four seconds to say, meaning that it's too short a time for the players to get bored.

The solution originates from a completely different place, having nothing to do with language.  All language is telling, and we want to do more than tell.

When puzzled, biologically, this creates a feeling of concern.  The setting in which we developed as humans tended to remain much the same from hour to hour, with nearly everything around us being fairly predictable.  We knew when the trees would fruit and when the stream would bear fish, what these clouds or that wind meant for the weather and we told time by how low the sun was getting in the sky.  Things that puzzled were nearly always things that didn't fit into this framework, which in turn nearly always meant that we were probably in some kind of danger.  An odd smell or sound, for instance, was usually a hint that there were predators nearby, or that some other tribe like us had made their way into our backyard.  This argues the sentiment, anything different is bad.

This is no longer true, obviously, but in terms of our hormonal and sensory responses to things, the messages are still the old messages ... and thus we're naturally hesitant to address anything that can't be explained instantly upon seeing it.  If there's a big black spot in the bottom of the tub, for instance, even if we can't tell what it is, we ready ourselves for it being a spider ... and our blood comes up a little.  It's our nature.

So when we describe something, we want to do what film does; we want to "show" it, but we don't want to "clarify" it.  The drawback of it being a dark cave isn't the nature of the cave, but that it's only a cave.  The cave isn't going to rise up and bite us.  It's not scary in itself, no matter how gooey the walls of it are.  The cave is potentially scary because of what might be down there ... like the maybe-spider in the tub.  What we want, when we describe the cave, is a maybe-spider there.

The art of suspense asks for more information, not less.  Alfred Hitchcock, the director, argued that it was indispensible that his audience be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved for suspense to get its grip into us.  Note that the word "perfectly" in this context is key.  We might also say "explicitly."  If we're shown a bomb a bomb being put into the car, we don't have a furtive individual put something into the trunk and hope the audience guesses what that is.  We show the bomb, explicitly, taking up the entire screen with it; then we show the bomb in someone's hand, then we see that someone cross to the car, and we see them put the BOMB in the car.  There's no question whatsoever about what we're seeing.  This is, as Hitchcock points out, absolutely necessary.

Therefore, with our maybe-spider, we need to go the next step.  Consider; we're getting ready to have a bath; we take off our glasses; we pull the shower curtain aside; there's the black spot; it's as big as our thumbnail.  It's not moving.  We turn around, put on our glasses ... and that is the moment that counts for everything.  We hope its not a spider.  We feel a bit of a hitch in our throat, but we're pretty sure it's not a spider because we haven't got our glasses on and anyway, spiders are never that big.  So just having a "maybe"-spider does concern us, but it doesn't concern us enough.

If we put our glasses on, and it IS a spider, then the little hitch we felt before is nothing.  We have a problem, even if we're not especially frightened of spiders.  Although, to be honest, if we live in the tropics, a spider the size of our thumb is nothing.  My first fiancee, whom I never did marry, lived on the 22nd floor of an apartment in Singapore for five years; she knocked spiders as big as my palm out of her shoes every morning.  One day she woke and found a 25 ft. python in her living room.  Concern finds a whole new gear in such parts of the world.

This is D&D, so there are no maybes about it.  We want the spider.  But ... "You walk towards the dark cave and there's a spider" is still pretty much just telling.  We're not there yet.

Our goal is to reveal as many facts and details as we can, laying the groundwork for suspenseful moments to unfold, while reserving enough clarity for those details that the party feels concerned.  We want to do more than hint that there's a spider.  "There's an unusual web that half-covers the cave with strands that are rope-like in thickness," is definitely better, but still we're not there yet.  That suggests only one spider and I don't know any party who thinks they can't handle one spider.

See, before the party can be concerned, they have to feel an impending threat.  If they're here, safe, looking at the cave entrance before entering, concern is something they'll only feel if they decide to go ahead.  They're still safe if they're right here.  Our building a comprehensive outline of the stakes, or obstacles, along with the fearful outcomes of a situation, has to start way before the party gets anywhere near the cave.  We have to start from the premise of deciding where, in the game world, the party is entitled to be safe, and work outward from there.

I believe in a safe space.  It's called "home."  Home isn't always safe, but for the most part it should be.  In the last post I wrote, about the film Conan, home was "safe" for the first ten or so years of Conan's life ... and then it wasn't.  For our game party, if home is a bar they return to at the end of every adventure, then they're entitled to count on that home being safe for several years before we bring the encounter to them.  It's only fair.

But once the party leaves home, and long before they arrive at the cave, we need to have done our due diligence to set up this cave entrance.  Not by "telling" the party what the cave is, but by letting the party witness others describing the cave, and learning that the spiders there are pretty dangerous.  The party needs to stumble across the carcasses of dogs, bulls and maybe an owlbear sucked dry by the spiders before they come to the cave.  They need to see these things, in the manner of a proof-given of what the spiders have done.  We may have told the party that there's the carcass of an owlbear lying there, but the players see the dead owlbear in their minds and then see themselves being put into the owlbear's position.

We set up these things to give the players more and more information about what they're coming up against.  It's bad technique to assume that if it's a mystery, this is more effective at stoking a player's imagination.  Players don't have imaginations.  If they did, they'd be dungeon masters.  They're players, because they don't like to tell stories, and they don't like to explain things, and they have to have things explained for them.  And when we set out to explain things, we want to make it perfectly clear that they're not safe, they're not just entering a dark cave, that the rope-like webbing does nothing more than tell them that they've got the right cave ... and that standing here, between the cave and the owlbear corpse that they passed earlier, makes is perfectly clear than this is not a safe place to stand.

Do not tell the party that there's a mysterious castle in the wilderness and no one returns from there.  That's bad pulp fiction writing from the 19th century.  Reveal that there's a vampire there, that many people have seen the vampire, that dogs and people have been found with their throats cut out ... and then show the party the town with all the doors locked and braced tight, just as the sun is starting to set.  Make the sun go down very, very slowly.  Take out your watch and make them hammer on the braced inn door for three or four minutes of real time as you count down how long it will be before the sun sets.  Show them what it feels like to be on a street, as it gets darker, when there's a vampire who might show up in 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

36 seconds ... 35 seconds ...