Thursday, 29 September 2011

"Initiating" a debate. Yes, I said it.

Okay, this will be the last post on initiative, I promise. Blame Ark, who just did an analysis of the combat sequence in all 'old school D&D' editions and discovered something interesting: my understanding of how initiative "should" work comes from BECMI, AD&D 2nd edition, and Labyrinth Lord - the only variants of D&D I DMed in any great depth. For AD&D 1st edition and, now, Swords & Wizardry, the approach is rather that spell declaration happens before initiative, but perhaps not the rest (it's ambiguous). An interesting discrepancy that I hadn't noticed - just going to show, well, something. Perhaps the AD&D 1st edition approach is a sort of compromise we can all agree on, because surely everyone can understand that at least having spell-casters declare casting before the initiative roll is critically important in balancing the game and making combat more interesting.

I also need to say something about how combat works when you're declaring actions before the initiative roll, because it seems there was some confusion on this point. Here's an example how it works in my games (grossly simplified, but you'll get the picture):

There are four players, a fighter, a magic-user, an elf, and a dwarf. They encounter 5 orcs and a troll. One of the orcs is dressed up in fancy gear and hanging towards the back, and the players know this means it's a shaman. It all kicks off.

DM: Okay, it's combat, what are you going to do?

Fighter: I'm going to charge the orcs and attack them.
Magic-User: I'm going to cast an acid arrow at the troll.
Elf: I'm going to fire arrows at the shaman. (Knowing that it's a shaman and will likely be casting a spell.)
Dwarf: I'm going to try to get in front of the Magic-User and protect him from attack. (Knowing the magic-user is likely to be preparing a spell and wanting to make sure it goes off.)

Meanwhile, I decide that the orc shaman will start casting magic missile at the magic-user, and everybody else will attack the elf, wanting to kill their hated race enemy first. Everybody rolls initiative.

The order comes out as follows, fastest first: fighter, elf, orcs, dwarf, troll, magic-user, orc shaman.
The fighter charges forward into the mass of orcs. The elf's view to the shaman is slightly blocked so the player asks the DM if he can move a little to get a better angle. Because we're grown-ups and we can negotiate and the rules explicitly state that the decision about what happens is down to the people at the table, I agree. The elf moves a little and shoots the orc shaman, ruining his concentration. The orcs pile onto the fighter. The orc shaman would have cast his magic missile at the magic-user at this point, but can't because his spell has fizzled thanks to the elf. The dwarf player asks if he can change his action to attacking the orcs instead - I rule that he can't, because it's too different to his initially-stated action (in real terms, he's already started moving to block off the route of attack to the magic-user, and would be too flat-footed to suddenly change his momentum). The troll charges past the melee towards the elf. Finally, the magic-user casts his acid arrow at the troll.

From this, you can see, hopefully, two things: the idea that you can stop spells before they are cast adds a whole new tactical dimension to combat; and just because you're declaring actions before initiative it doesn't necessarily mean things are appreciably slower, more difficult to resolve, or less flexible. (There may be cases where it is so, but not enough to detract from the benefits gained.)

I Blame The Children; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Declaring Actions Before Rolling Initiative

Yesterday's post aroused considerable comment that I think merits a full reply. (The good thing about having a blog that generates lots of comments is that you rarely have to sit around thinking about what to write today - you have a self-referential fall-back at any time.) For some reason I don't think I got my point across, as is evidenced by the number of people who seem to think I was worried about the fact that I or others was "playing it wrong".

It's far from the case. I couldn't give a monkey's how you, the gentle reader, play the game, and I certainly don't think that the game designer's word is Holy Writ. My position is much more reasonable than that, and is as follows: the designers of D&D are not stupid people. In fact, they are intelligent, thoughtful and creative people. This is true whether the year is 1974 or 2011. The things contained in the game manuals are there for a reason and deserve exploring.

Two such things are the declaration of action before the initiative roll, and forcing spell-casters to have a full night's rest in order to have a clear enough mind to memorise spells. These serve as useful examples, because they are rules that are commonly ignored (or Piledrivered) and they illustrate my wider point, which will become clear at the end of this post (yes, the suspense is killing you). Let's explore each in turn:

1. Declaring actions before rolling for initiative


In AD&D of either edition, the combat round has three steps. (We'll ignore the DM and focus on the players.) Step 1, all the players declare their actions. Step 2, all the players roll initiative. Step 3, their actions are carried out. What are the implications of this and why is it so?


  • Most importantly, it's intuitively "true". Fights in the real world occur in real time. You don't take things in turns in real life, and although turn-taking is inevitable in a game there's an argument to be made that this should be reduced as much as possible.
  • Second most important, it's fair. Everybody states their actions and then the person with the highest initiative roll is rewarded by being the person who can act first, in knowledge of what everybody else will do, rather than being punished by being the person who declares their action and then acts first, and thus cannot respond to what the rest of the combatants do. Perhaps this requires unpacking: the "Piledriver" way of resolving combat is for everybody to roll initiative and then go from top to bottom, with everybody stating and performing actions in turn, so that Step 1 above becomes folded into Step 2. So initiative is rolled first, then everybody states actions and carries them out in initiative order. What are the consequences of this? Arguably, in many situations it makes losing initiative advantageous, because what are the disadvantages to coming last in the round and being able to see exactly how the melee has panned out, where everybody's position is, what their weak points are, and what they are doing, before you decide how to act? But similarly, in some circumstances it also makes life even harder for the slow than it should be: picture the following scene. Bob the wizard has terrible DEX and rolls poorly for initiative. Everybody knows he will move last. So, the enemy concentrate their attacks on him, knowing that they have a good chance of killing him before his player can even state what he is going to do. In what sense is this better than having everybody declare their actions first, thus forcing people to act with caution rather than direction mass pre-emptive strikes at the slower characters, since they don't know what initiative order will be?
  • Third, it allows for a more subtle approach to spell-casting. In every edition of D&D, the complaint has always been that spell-casters are too powerful and at mid- higher- levels come to dominate even combat, making it pointless to be a fighter (your niche isn't even your niche any more). But if you use the correct procedure for combat, this is much less of a problem: spell-casters have to declare their action first ("I'll cast fireball") and then wait their turn; if their concentration is ruined in the meantime (rather likely in a chaotic melee) their spell fizzles. Suddenly fighters are important again - they protect their allied magic-users' concentration and also try to disrupt opposition spell-casters before they can cast. Their role is vital even at the highest levels. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid.
2. The Full-Night's-Rest Rule

In AD&D, it is not assumed that spell-casters get to memorise spells automatically each morning before the day's "play" begins. The rules stipulate that "Memorization is not a thing that happens immediately. The wizard must have a clear head gained from a restful night's sleep and then has to spend time studying his spell books." Again, what are the implications of this often-forgotten rule?

  • Instead of just camping wherever, players have to think a little more tactically about where they set up camp and how their sleeping arrangements are. Suddenly, something which players take for granted has to be carefully thought out. Do we want to risk sleeping in the wilderness, or push on to see if we can reach a settlement and possibly not find anything and get no sleep at all? The players' choice about where to camp becomes meaningful, and we know that giving players meaningful choices is  always interesting and one of the key characteristics of good play.
  • The magic-users, who are important, have to sleep. They can't be disturbed by, say, wandering monsters. What does this mean? Players have to get damn good about picking places to rest if they plan on staying longer than a day in the dungeon. Goodbye 10-minute-adventuring-day, where players explore a bit of the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, explore the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, etc. Wasn't this cited as being one of the huge problems of D&D that the 4e designers were going to solve? Had they actually read their AD&D texts properly?
  • Coming back to the old "magic-users are too powerful" discourse, the full-night's-rest rule obviously makes magic-users less all-powerful at higher levels and reliant on the rest of their party for protection and aid. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid

So how do we account for the Piledriving of these rules? In the comments to yesterday's entry, Zak writes that 
[I]t is strange how a bunch of mostly non-communicating non-overlapping groups all over the world all changed the same rules.

I agree with this, but what is really interesting is the question why. The simplest response would seem to be: it's because those rules were stupid or poorly explained. I'd like to suggest something different: the vast majority of people start playing D&D when they're, like, 12 years old and frankly not able to take in a big book of rules originally written by grown-ups for grown-ups. Because they're 12, they're not able to think very deeply about things, they find it difficult to speculate in a calm and orderly fashion about the underlying reasons for the way things are, they have very little patience for reading rulebooks carefully and looking things up in charts, they have short attention spans, and they act impulsively. They also, crucially, find it difficult to order each others' behaviour; managing the 3 steps of a combat round I outlined above is kind of hard when you're a 12-year-old DM and your 12-year-old players want to keep things moving. In fact, it's a rare 12-year-old DM who would think about things deeply enough to want to use the proper 3 step sequence anyway.

These things have a momentum of their own and once the Piledriving has started it's difficult to stop. This is why these misunderstandings persist until adulthood - that, and because even with bastardised rules D&D is still fun. Many of my readers will have been thinking, reading this, something along the lines of, "Who cares? We roll for initiative and then everybody states actions and performs them in turn, and it works." Yes, it does work, and this is why it doesn't get corrected. The question whether the standard rules may work better is never explored because the habit is too ingrained.

I'm not the first person to argue this. Faustusnotes, who often disagrees with me, seems on exactly the same page. And here we have Malcolm Sheppard saying something very similar:

I’ve really grown to love AD&D1e as a game of its own, however, and understand it now much better than I did when I was a child, playing Dragonlance or running my own game world hacked together out of Dragon Magazine articles, canned modules and seat-of-the-pants improvisation. AD&D1e is a grownup game, believe it or not: an RPG that requires a slow, deliberate exploration of your options, plenty of discussion and a willingness to look up fiddly bits.

I like this very much and think it an appropriate point on which to close.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Piledriving D&D

I'm not a huge reader of blogs which cover mainstream D&D 4th edition, Pathfinder, that sort of thing. Not necessarily out of choice, but more because I'm not sure what the interesting and good ones are. (I'm even less knowledgeable about blogs covering WoD stuff - there must be hundreds but I don't read a single one.) But Critical Hits occasionally has interesting content. This post, for instance, strikes a definite chord with me. For those too lazy to read the original entry, the author describes what he calls the "Piledriver" - which is "the term we use for every time an unintentional rules mistake is made during play and not corrected". I'm sure you've encountered this, because every role player surely has. The following example is given:

Embarrassingly enough, I am guilty of one the most pervasive and (in hindsight and for others) frustrating Piledrivers in our game group’s history.  During our Warhammer 40k play era, my favored tactic was to load highly specialized Eldar forces into Wave Serpent troop transports, deck them out with holo fields that made damaging them more difficult, fly across the battlefield at breakneck and dump off each set of specialists in the place they were needed most.  It worked wonders!  Heavy weapons fire rolled off my fast and tough transports and sheltered my lightly armored specialists.  There was one problem: the defensive cornerstone of my tactic, the holo field, could not be equipped on Wave Serpents.    This mistake over nearly a dozen games certainly taints the resulting victories and rightfully frustrates the vanquished victims. 

What's interesting for me about the Piledriver is how frequently such instances occur in D&D, and how they have warped the game for probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. The reason it happens so frequently in D&D is obvious - it's a disorganised mess, whatever edition - but this raises an even more interesting point: the most popular RPG ever, by far, is also probably the least correctly played RPG ever made, too. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I'm not sure, but it certainly feeds in to the whole "D&D is a toolkit" discourse that you sometimes encounter on the blogosphere.

What are some Piledrivers in pre-WotC era D&D? Some examples from my own checkered playing history are:

  • Not realising that Hold Person in 2nd edition AD&D lasts 2 rounds per level - we thought it was 2 turns per level.
  • Totally misunderstanding casting times. If the casting time for a spell is 1 round, it takes place at the end of the round in which the caster begins casting.
  • Always forgetting to use speed factors for weapons.
  • Memorising spells takes 10 minutes per spell level and the caster has to have had a restful night's sleep. Often treated as "you get to memorize however many spells at the start of the day" in my experience, no matter what happened during the night.
  • You determine initiative after announcing what your character is doing, not before. Important for disrupting spells: if you announce your magic-user is going to cast a spell and then it turns out you're last in initiative, tought shit - there's a good chance the spell will fizzle. This aspect of our game was missing for years.
  • There are modifiers to initiative depending on the surroundings and situation, and also optional ones depending on the type of attack and various other factors.
  • If you have more than one attack, your second attack occurs after the first initiative cycle has gone through for everybody in the combat.
  • For years I used to roll a d20 on random encounter tables rather than d8+d12.
Some of these are more egregious and game-changing than others. Forgetting speed factors, the thing about memorising spells, initiative rolls taking place after statement of action, and d20 on random encounter tables definitely gave things less depth tactically and made for a blander experience, I would say. It just goes to show that when you're 12, reading a rulebook like the AD&D 2nd edition PHB and taking it all in is really a rather daunting task. Something makes me think that people working at WotC haven't really learned that lesson, judging by the length of the 3rd and 4th edition books.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Yes I Just Collated Loads Of Stuff From Other Blog Entries

My post yesterday spawned some excellent responses, and also some great comments. Rather than go through them all in detail I thought I'd summarise the best ideas and add my comments. Lots of them are Zak's, but that's because he's the type of person who has 50 ideas a day and 51 of them are good. 

1. Never make monsters "scalable" unless they're basically humanoids with levels like the PCs and so the PCs can tell them apart as characters.

This is spot on. Nothing makes a dragon - no, scratch that, any monster - less interesting than being able to fight it at 1st level and win. It is for this and many other reasons that 4th edition D&D wins the noisms prize for All Time Most Banalifying Game System Ever.

2. Finding an NPC cleric willing to heal you is fucking hard and generally involves some creepy religious thing happening. Because miracles are rare.

Yes. I indulged in some of it on this very blog, but while this sort of thing is fun to think and write about, nothing will kill a sense of mystery faster than making spells and miraculous healing something that can be bought for loose change. If you want somebody to cure your disease, let alone raise one of your comrades from the dead, there needs to be a price that isn't about money. There needs to be Zak's creepy religious thing happening or there needs to be a sacrifice of considerable time and effort and personal safety: think geas, not "it costs 200 gps".


3. Make [the players] cross a threshold (a clear in game threshold "Are you sure you wish to travel down the secluded mountain pass") before having them fight the fantastical. 

I like this idea and it reminds me of the Wizard Knight, which, along with Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Lyonesse stories, and M. John Harrison's Viriconium cycle, is probably the key "fantastical fantasy" text. In Wolfe's cosmology there is Mythgarthr, the middle world, where humans live; Skai, Kleos, and Elysion (the realm of the Most High God) above it; and Aelfrice, Muspel and Niflheim (the realm of the Most Low God) beneath. Much of what is "magical" and "fantastical" comes from things of the other realms seeping through into Mythgarthr or people accidentally or purposefully moving from Mythgarthr into them. There is plenty of scope for a fantastical D&D campaign here, where adventurers deliberately delve into the dungeon which is really a gateway to lower realms, which follow different rules and whose inhabitants are mysterious and dangerous.

4. Recreate monsters - especially the humanoids. Keep them physically and statistically the same, but recreate their culture.

A simple one, this, and obvious, but it bears repeating. Why don't most DMs do this? Because they're lazy and unimaginative. I'd go further than -C, though, and say that recreating monsters doesn't have to mean keeping them physically the same, either. Hence stuff like this.

5. No "chain of humanoid enemies". Goblins are weird fairy tale monsters with their own empire, gnolls are slavering barbarians, jackalmen wear robes and know magic, crowmen are semidemonic and rare, white leopardmen serve a Frazettastyle ice witch and bugbears and hobgoblins and what-all are bizarre unique things you haven't met yet.   

I've written about this recently anyway, but the whole goblin-hobgoblin-bugbear-troll thing is just the blandest, lamest, weakest thing ever unless you can find a way to really make it interesting.

6. The technique...of providing no standardized monsters or magic items points the way to a game system where the rules of the mundane are known to the players, but the fantastic elements are an idiosyncratic revelation from game to game. Yes, creating the fantastic is hard individual work for the DM. But the alternative, especially with experienced games, is a group of players who ready the oil when they see a troll, who can find out exactly how much every gland in every dead monster corpse is worth, and for whom the only surprise is tactical, not strategic.

This is a post in its own right, but stuff like the Forge helps with this. Yes, the names it comes up with are a bit formulaic and sometimes never work, but they provide food for thought: the beauty of it is you just keep pressing the 'space' bar, and even if you don't use the names they give you ideas.

Finally, there's something I'd like to try myself, which is to use tarot cards as a randomizing device. I'm imagining something like this: get a deck of tarot cards and assign certain abilities to each card (Death is a save versus death attack; The Lovers is a charm person attack; etc.). Then, when you have just come up with a monster, draw a card at random. Bingo: it has that ability, whatever it is. You then just have to come up with the physical expression of it.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Non-Banal D&D

I'm becoming more and more interested in this notion of more genuinely mythical and fantastical fantasy gaming, which doesn't seek to catalogue everything and make it knowable and explainable, but attempts to retain as much mystery as possible. I'd like to call this romanticist D&D, but that might lead the dull and ignorant to think I'm talking about something like Blue Rose; likewise, if I call it non-classicist D&D such people will imagine I'm talking about 4th edition. So perhaps I'll settle for the slightly less problematic fantastical D&D, or maybe the more-arrogant sounding non-banal D&D. Whatever; I'm rambling.

What are the core characteristics of what I'm talking about, for those among you who haven't read every single post I've ever written since April 2008? I'm tempted to use for my manifesto something M. John Harrison once wrote, which I think is probably the most perceptive essay ever written about the fantasy genre (even if I think it almost totally misunderstands Tolkien). He wrote it specifically about his aims in writing his Viriconium books, but much of the piece speaks to fantasy in general. It is worth quoting at length:

The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes. They were sermons. They were metaphors. They were rhetoric. They were books, which means that the one thing they actually weren’t was countries with people in them. 
The commercial fantasy that has replaced them is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them. 
Literalisation is important to both writers and readers of commercial fantasy. The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”
Given this, another trajectory (reflecting, of course, another invitation to consume) immediately presents itself: the relationship between fantasy and games—medieval re-enactment societies, role-play, and computer games. Games are centred on control. “Re-enactment” is essentially revision, which is essentially reassertion of control, or domestication. (The “defusing sequels” produced by Hollywood have the same effect: as in Aliens, in which the original insuperable threat is diminished, the paranoid inscape colonised. Life with the alien is difficult, but—thanks to our nukes and our angry motherhood no longer so impossible as it seemed.)
“What would it be really like to live in the world of…?” is an inappropriate question, a category error. You understand this immediately you ask it of the inscape of, say, Samuel Beckett or Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t want it asked (and I certainly didn’t want it answered) of Viriconium, so I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because—like Middle-Earth—it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological. “Viriconium” is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).

Now, you might argue that, as roleplayers, "What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" is quite frankly one of the most appropriate questions you could possibly ask. Isn't that a large part of what gives a game a sense of reality and (that awful word) verisimilitude?

I would argue that, yes, if you want to be a classicist then this is a very important question. And I also want to say as I have elsewhere that this is fine - good, even. Sometimes I want to be a classicist too, and the games I run at the moment are, broadly, classicist ones. (I say at the moment because the point of this post is that I'm thinking about something else.) But I would also argue that if you want something truly romanticist or fantastical, you have to get away from asking that sort of question. Rather than asking "What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" your question(s) should instead be (and here I refer back to Harrison): "What about the world of ... gives it the appearance of being a whole world and thus makes it deep, exhilarating and anxiety-creating?"

You can do romanticist fantasy very easily with games like In A Wicked Age (one which I have heard lots about but only recently purchased). In fact, In A Wicked Age is tailor-made for it, primarily because of the way it handles conflict - i.e. in a way which doesn't really use statistics or numbers to decide consequences but on something more 'mysterious' (what is negotiated and agreed to) - and the way it handles set-up - i.e. through cooperative interpretation of randomly generated and nebulous 'oracles'.

But much as I love In A Wicked Age, there is part of me that does not want to sacrifice the kind of strategic thinking that makes D&D (proper D&D) what it is. In A Wicked Age has strategy, but it is story-based strategy: you don't really manoeuvre for mechanical benefits for your character, but for your own benefit in creating a narrative you enjoy. Your character doesn't gain experience, money and items through adventure and clever thinking the way he does in D&D.

There must be a way, then, of making D&D somehow more fantastical, mysterious and romanticist while retaining the elements which make it a game. How? This is the question that is occupying my thoughts at the moment.

Friday, 23 September 2011

On Orcs


I noticed zzarchov posted something in response to my post the other day about orcs, from which this sentence interested me:

Now,  while I like the options there for making weird orcs,  at that point I figure they aren't Orcs.  They are goatmen or monkey demons or what have you.

I leave the question of when a mutant orc becomes a goatman or a monkey demon to the philosophers, but I feel like something has to be said about what orcs are and how I think of them.

The first point to be made is one which I'm sure you will agree with if you have been playing D&D for any length of time: orcs in mainstream D&D are fucking dull. They don't have any of the class or charisma of Warhammer orcs (who in my experience they often get conflated with anyway) and actually they probably shouldn't really exist at all: orc is just a different word for goblin in the key text, The Lord of the Rings. Worst of all, their role as the Bad Guy of Choice for the first 4 or so character levels in your typical stereotyped D&D campaign makes cliched and boring; familiarity with the orc has bred contempt.

Orcs also, for good or ill, seem to have taken on a lot of cultural baggage over the years. (I mean, just take a look at this thread.) Their role as iconic adversary leads to them being co-opted for all kinds of political arguments surrounding D&D: why are orcs 'evil'?, isn't killing them just for being orcs genocide?, etc. etc. This is problematic if, like me, you're not particularly interested in such matters but your fellow players are.

Finally, orcs in their mainstream form just don't fit with the kind of campaign settings I like. Orcs feel somehow European in a sense I don't find particularly interesting; and even if I ever run a campaign with a faux-European flavour I'd be more likely to fill it with fae creatures anyway. I don't mind reskinning goblins for a faux-Asian sort of setting, but there's only so much of that you can do before it gets old.

So, to the nub of the matter: these days, I don't use orcs. Or, at least, there is not a race of beings called 'orcs' in my games.

But this doesn't mean the word is unknown - I prefer it to mean something a little more abstract: 'orc' in noismsworld is an umbrella term for a wide variety of different races (in Yoon-Suin, goblins, yak folk, su-monsters, grasshopper men, and more besides) which could basically be defined as "things which are evil, not human, and hostile to humans".

'Orc', in this context, means something a little like the original meaning of 'Satan' - they are, simply, the enemy. They are the unknowable, unknown, despised and hateful other. What they are is up to me and whatever the game I'm running. Are they a race of humanoid crocodiles? Goatmen? Monkey demons? Humanoid crayfish with crows' heads? They could be anything and everything, but if they are Our Enemy then they are orcs, and that is that.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

ConstantCon Google+ Recruitment

I am going to run a BECMI D&D campaign based in Yoon-Suin on a weekly basis from next Wednesday, using Google+ and Zak's ConstantCon. The game will run from 7.30pm GMT (so, sorry to everyone in North America!), once a week. Consider this a recruitment ad: I'm looking for 4 players who are into sandbox games in a living world, and who are willing to take the initiative and drive things along (with liberal help from the DM). If you've been reading my blog for any amount of time you probably know what kind of DM I am likely to be, and the rough flavour of the game world. Though I've attached some pictures below to give you a feel of the flavour.

If you've never played BECMI, it's like B/X or Labyrinth Lord with a few tweaks.

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, please email me at jean DOT delumeau AT gmail DAWT commm, and if you're a regular reader/commenter on the blog, tell me who you are, as it's likely you'll recieve preferential treatment in the recruitment process.

Characters will start at 1st level and work their way up from there - I want to develop a continuous, regular old school campaign just like the Old Timers did in Ages Past.

Looking forward to hearing from you!








Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Pimp My Orc

Bored of green-skinned, vaguely man-like orcs? Reskin your orcs using the following tables:

The Orcs' faces are:

1. Crocodilian
2. Porcine
3. Lupine
4. Bovine
5. Feline
6. Simian.
7. Cervine
8. Insectoid
9. All-too-human
10. Beaked

Their skin is:

1. Feathered
2. Furry
3-5. Scaly
6-10. Smooth

They have (roll d3 times):

1. Long tails
2. Single horns like unicorns
3. Twin horns like rams
4. Useless flapping wings
5. Extra eyes
6. Cloven hoofs for feet
7. Male and female sex organs
8. Abnormally large heads
9. Very long necks
10. Tusks like wild boar
11. Very long noses
12. An especially foul stench
13. No spoken language
14. Legs which bend the 'wrong' way
15. Purple skin
16. No eyes but can somehow see anyway
17. Grasping feet like a monkey
18. Tattoos covering their bodies
19. Tongues which are too long and permamently hang out of their mouths
20. Horrible warts, boils and other growths all over their skin

Their favourite weapons are:

1. Axes
2. Swords
3. Spears
4. Polearms
5. Nets and tridents
6. Morning stars and maces

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Sometimes you find some great ideas by just traipsing through forums. Like this post by Pseudoephedrine:

Instead of numbering hexes with a four digit set, use X:Y where both X:Y are ranges from 1 to the maximum value of some die type (a d10 for a hundred hex map, a d20 for a 400 hex map, etc.). You draw up a list of generic events that represent an external force somehow influencing whatever normally resides in that hex.

Then, instead of predetermining the hex locales where these events will happen, you roll 2dwhatever with one determining the vertical coordinate and the other the horizontal coordinate whenever you feel like, with the event happening in that hex.

So, for example:

Event: A black dragon (HD7) swoops down to burn anything it finds - people, monsters, buildings and PCs.

You roll 2d10 and get 7 and 9, so in hex 7:9, a black dragon comes swooping down and attacks the village of Bumburg (having already determined prior to play that Bumburg is in that hex). If the PCs are in that hex, well, great. If not, well, they can always stumble across the effects later. Perhaps a month later in game, you roll again to see where the dragon swoops down this time. And so on.

I think this a very efficient and simple way of making a game world feel organic and evolutionary rather than static. Ideally, you would want your table of events to be a bit more detailed and linked to the geography of the hexmap, of course - so, to continue with the above example, you would have something like:

Event: A black dragon (HD7) swoops down to burn anything it finds - people, monsters, buildings and PCs. It's lair is d6 hexes to the [compass direction corresponding to second d6 roll where 1 = North]; roll again if the result makes no sense (e.g. it's in the sea).

And, of course, you (or at least, I) would want something more rigorous than just rolling such events whenever you feel like it. I'd probably draw up a table of 100 events for the campaign area, and assume a 10% chance per day of one of them happening. Instant organic random campaign happenings!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Players' Job is to Screw Up Your Plans

Following on from my previous post, which generated far more discussion than I anticipated, I played in my regular d20-modern based sci-fi campaign yesterday afternoon. I like the group and the game, but our GM is a palette-shifter, fudger and illusionist of the most inveterate kind. His campaigns have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you can be pretty sure that whatever you do you will always kind of, sort of, end up where he wants you to end up. This doesn't mean his games aren't fun; he's very good at creating puzzles and challenges and making play interesting that way. It just means they're a lot less fun than I think they could be, and I sometimes contemplate near-suicidal actions during the game just to see what kind of genuflections will be carried out to keep my character alive.

Anyway, yesterday's session only confirmed in my mind what I like in RPGs and what I suspect most of the readers of my blog like too: player creativity. Not GM creativity. Player creativity.

This may sound strange coming from me, the arch-setting creator, but for me a great deal of the enjoyment in our hobby comes when the players get set loose on the game world that the GM has created and start, for want of a better term, fucking it all up. They go where they're not supposed to. They start fights with people they shouldn't. They do stupid and dangerous things. They decide on courses of action you never could have dreamed of. They squabble with each other. And 99% of the time this leads to a good time had by all.

It can even happen, as it did yesterday, in the most rail-roaded game. Four of us, with the help of an insider, infiltrated a base run by a rogue corporation who were using time machines to plunder from the past. We were masquerading as new recruits, and the insider insisted we lie low and do absolutely nothing to cause any trouble for at least a few days while we oriented ourselves. So what happened? Within 5 minutes we'd found a locked door, tried to find a key, created a disturbance to distract a security guard while one of us tried to steal the key, whereupon three of us got arrested while the other got trapped hiding in the air ventilation system for the facility. The sole free member of the party ended up on a long, quixotic voyage through the base, trying to pass herself off as a member of the corporation, while the three of us in prison plotted our escape. This set off a chain of events which resulted in an invasion by laser-toting time-police who levelled the entire base, and the party being split into two units at entirely different points in time with apparently no hope of reunification. The GM was utterly aghast.

My point? None of us, as players, were being dicks and deliberately trying to ruin the game. All of us were behaving in character and doing what we probably would have done in our characters' positions. The GM, to his credit, went along with us entirely and followed through on what the consequences of those actions would have been - he never once told anybody 'no'. But simply by exercising our agency we created bedlam with the 'plot' of the game and probably had 10 times more fun with it than we would have done if we'd stuck to what he would have preferred we'd do.

(He may have been palette-shifting, of course. But I doubt it. I know him and I know his games, and I have a good palette-shifting detector when it comes to him.)

The lesson of all this takes us back here. The OSR way of playing the game works by giving the players agency and consequences in a sandbox. Narrativist story-games work by giving the players agency and consequences within the 'plot' - because they create it. Somewhere in the middle you have the rail-roading illusionist GM, shifting palettes and playing around with quantum ogres, and this poor fellow is missing out, caught between two stools, trying to make the game fun and interesting for the players while failing to realise that you achieve this in spades simply by putting the power in their hands.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Faking It; or, you'd better be Al Pacino; or, stop rolling the fucking dice

There's been a lot of talk recently about player agency, quantum ogres, the GM as illusionist, palette shifting, and so forth: see herehereherehere and here. I won't regurgitate it all; suffice to say, I agree with -C.

This rebuttal interests me, though, because it raises an orthogonal issue that rarely gets mentioned in these sorts of discussions, here (none of it will make sense unless you read some of the linked posts):
[Robbing the players of agency is bad] only if the players are aware of the palette shifting. 
So long as nobody ever knows that the ogre so easily could have overcome the party could your predetermination in ignoring the agency of the dice be called into question. Remove the foreknowledge of the possible outcomes and you’ve removed all knowledge of the palette shift… and with removal of that knowledge, the palette shift itself is actually removed because the knowledge is a requirement of the shift by definition. 
What robs the game of fun is when the palette shift is known and is in direct opposition to the meaningful choice expectation of the player. Failing that, there is no measure against which to determine how the choice strayed from meaningful to false. 
And that is the true fallacy of the Quantum Ogre argument, that it is relativistic and requires player foreknowledge to categorize it as a false choice offering. Eliminate that foreknowledge and there is no Quantum Ogre.

The issue this raises is as follows: unless the DM is really good at acting and has a great poker face, players will often know when he is palette shifting/robbing them of agency/fudging dice/whatever. An RPG is not a Schrodinger's Box, and nor is the GM's head, because the players can observe what is going on indirectly. They are human beings and so is the GM, and human beings can often read each other's thoughts and feelings through body language. This makes the rebuttal of -C's arguments a kind of classic example of a Geek Social Fallacy.

I've been in a lot of sessions of games where I've suspected that the GM is either fudging dice rolls, palette shifting, or otherwise resorting to fiat to "make the game fun", and believe me, on every occasion that I suspected this, it made the game many orders of magnitude less fun than it was before. Suddenly, I didn't feel like a player in a game - I felt like a participant in an interactive story: I felt like the whole thing was a bait-and-switch. I no longer felt like I was master of my own destiny, and instead had become a participant in somebody else's prescribed idea of what my own fun should be.

This is the strongest argument I know of against fudging dice rolls, palette shifting, quantum ogres, and anything of that ilk: if you're going to do it, you'd better either:
a) be of Al Pacino-like stature in terms of your acting, because otherwise the players (if they have a brain in their skull and a rudimentary understanding of human nature) will be onto you and they probably won't like it; 
b) have a group of players who don't mind you robbing them of agency - in which case, you may as well just tell them what you're doing and forget rolling dice and giving them choices entirely (at least in the scenarios where you've already decided what's going to happen).

Here endeth today's rant.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

On DMing

I tend not to write much about my approach to the nuts-and-bolts of PnP gaming on Monsters and Manuals, because, to be brutally honest, those sorts of posts (actual plays, DMing advice, thoughts on managing the game) are the ones I least enjoy reading on other blogs. But a couple of posts (namely this one and this one, the latter of which in particular is simply excellent) got me thinking about the subject today, so here I am, inflicting some of my 'thoughts' on you.

The first thing I want to say is this: DMing is a lot like teaching, and it's been my misfortune to have done a lot of teaching in my life - thankfully only to adults (both proper adults and undergraduates). When I say it's a lot like teaching, I don't mean for a second it's like lecturing in the sense of standing in front of a group of people and haranguing them, thus imparting knowledge. Rather, I mean that the skillset that a DM needs is quite a bit like the skillset of somebody leading a seminar or tutorial in an academic setting; you have to facilitate discussion/adventure, make sure that everybody in the class/group is getting a fair share of the limelight, arbitrate over disagreements or debates, and, finally, be the voice of authority when required. Usually, this requires taking a back seat, controlling the flow: your job is to a) pose problems, b) clarify, c) provide expert knowledge (you are the ultimate expert on your game) and d) demand answers and decisions.

This last bit - demanding decisions - is crucial to DMing, I think, and is all about timing and intuition.

Let's talk about group decisions first. A group of five people will rarely reach an agreement on a correct course of action, especially if they all have large opinions, so you as the DM have to judge when a group decision-making process has reached enough of a conclusion that everyone has had their say, so that nobody feels short-changed, while also preventing decision-making from going on forever and momentum being lost. When it comes to individual decisions, you have to make sure everybody is getting a roughly equal share of attention and having their questions answered without hogging the limelight, that everybody is getting an adequate amount of time to think things through without being an indecisive wet blanket, and that everybody is on the same hymn-sheet with respect to what exactly is happening and what they plan to do.

This is all requires intution, and is quite a fine art. Sometimes players have to be chivvied along: "Come on guys, I need an answer, what are you doing?" Sometimes shy players have to have the limelight thrust upon them: "Greg, you look like you want to say something." Sometimes you have to make sure the players remember certain facts that they appear to have forgotten (because they're not robots and they're just playing a game): "Don't forget that you left all your rope at the cave entrance." Sometimes, you have to be firm, "No, you can't do all that in one turn." All of this requires a good sense of timing, an understanding of the rhythm and flow of human conversation and interaction, and a neutral but benevolent attitude. None of this can be learned from blog posts. To a large extent you either have it or you don't, but you also get better at it the more you practice.

The second thing I want to say is: as the DM you are the alpha male - even if you are a woman. Again, I need to clarifiy here that I don't mean this requires you to be dominant, to boss people round, or to act like a dick. But what it does mean is that everything flows from you: you set the tone. If you're feeling down, or bored, or a bit under the weather, then this is a very good indicator that the entire session is going to feel down, boring, or a bit under the weather. Likewise, if you're in the zone and you're feeling good about yourself and gaming in general, you can be sure this will generate a buzz among the players and get them having fun and being energised. What this means is that from the moment you walk into the room where you're DMing, you have to force yourself to feel good and energetic, even if you don't. (Again, this is what a teacher, or at least a good teacher, has to do, too.) You have to exude confidence and enjoyment about the game, because if you don't it will fall flat. I say again - you set the tone. I also say again - you can't learn how to do this from blog posts, but you can get better at it over time.

The upshot of all of this is that being a good DM, and thus facilitating good gaming, is in my opinion almost entirely a matter of feeling. Of course, prep is important, being able to think on the fly is important, and knowing the rules is important. But really, lacking one or even all of those things is forgivable if you manage to set the tone well and facilitate/control/arbitrate effectively. And conversely, if you don't manage to achieve that, there's a good chance the game will fall flat - no matter how well you've prepped, no matter how good you are at improvising, and no matter how many random generators you've got.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

20 Scorpions



20 types of scorpion found in Yoon-Suin, for your amusement and edification. All scorpions are 1 hp monsters, with 1 attack; sting effects are listed as "failed save/successful save".

Scorpions are small, unobtrusive, and good at hiding. They always surprise their opponents unless forewarned that scorpions are in the area and characters are actively searching (1/4 movement rate); there is a 25% chance a randomly determined character will step on the scorpion and incur an attack which hits automatically. Thick boots protect against this.

Usually scorpions are solitary unless otherwise specified.

1. White tiger. White, most active in autumn, said to serve the White Tiger of the West. Sting results in freezing pain, paralysis for d3 days/d3 hours.
2. Vermillion bird. Red, most active in summer, said to serve the Vermillion Bird of the South. Sting results in burning pain, spasms, death/half total hp loss.
3. Black tortoise. Black, most active in winter, said to serve the Black Tortoise of the North. Sting causes debilitating weakness, -2 STR permanently/d3 weeks.
4. Azure dragon. Blue, most active in spring, said to serve the Azure Dragon of the East. Sting causes flesh-decaying necrosis, -2 CON and CHR permanently/d3 weeks.
5. Fool's gold. Small, golden, often found underground. Sting causes intense irritation in the throat, hacking cough, -2 STR and CON for d3 days/no mechanical effect.
5. Amethyst tail. Black and nodescript with magenta-coloured tail. Toxin causes back to spasm into an arch, until it breaks or the spasm subsides. Death after d3 hours/paralysis for d3 days, hp total permanently halved.
6. Greater amethyst tail. As above, but larger, with slightly less powerful venom. +2 bonus to saving roll.
7. Judge. Maroon coloured, with black pincers, as with the traditional garb of the black-gloved judges of Caricot. Nausea and vomiting, -2 hp and incapacitation for 1 day/d3 hours.
8. Legislator. Blue, with a white "face", like the makeup of the legislators of Caricot. Temporary blindness for d3 days/d3 hours.
9. Green fisher. Lives underwater in shallow streams and ponds. Disorientation and dizziness; half movement rate and -4 to hit for d3 days/d3 hours.
10. Goblin face. Pale orange with blue around the "face", like a forest goblin from the bamboo forests. Excruciatingly painful sting, -6 hp/-4 hp.
11. Monkey scorpion. Dark brown. Climbs trees - instead of a character stepping on the scorpion, interpret an attack result as the scorpion dropping down onto a face or hair. Sting causes strange hallucinations for d3 days, no save.
12. Patient meditator. Greenish grey, lurks in grassy areas or under rocks for days at a time waiting for prey. Muscle paralysis and spasms in the legs, quarter movement rate/half movement rate for d3 days.
13. Ten leg. Ten legged scorpion, yellow coloured, hunts by speed. Relatively harmless, causes shortage of breath, half movement rate for d3 hours/no mechanical effect.
14. Walung monk. Purplish brown colour said to resemble that of the robes of the Walung order. Sting causes loss of bowel control, dehydration and weakness; -2 STR, half movement rate, -2 to hit, -2 damage for 1 week/d3 days.
15. Brown toad. Dirty brown colour, nondescript. Sting induces madness and hallucinations permanently (becomes NPC until cured)/for d3 days.
16. Gift giver. Small, blue. Sting injects eggs into the bloodstream which hatch after d6 days; d6 damage results from three dozen baby scorpions burrowing out through skin, no save.
17. Patriarch. Big, bulky, black. Sting causes petrification: body turns to stone from the site of the wound (half movement rate and DEX for 3 days; quarter movement rate and DEX for 3 days; death - successful save doubles length of time required).
18. Purple sage. Purple, as the name suggests. Lurks underground. Sting causes memory loss for the last 2d20 hours - includes memorized spells, no save.
19. Blue boatsman. Skims across surface of lakes and ponds. Sting causes tongue to swell, throat to constrict, suffocation after d6 hours/no effect.
20. Yak milk. Pink like the colour of yak's milk. Sting causes blood to seep from pores, tear ducts, nostrils, ears; -4hp/-2hp.

It Begins

A boring Monday evening in, a glass of red wine, and a new megadungeon begins to take shape...

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Nature of Evil, or "Maybe it's how you impress goblin chicks"

In the comments section on yesterday's postZak writes:

these are three different approaches to the "moral universe" of the dungeon.

my failure to recognize that is no doubt due to my innate degeneracy and lack of moral compass, but probably also down to the fact that I tend to build worlds as wicked below as above. It's just that the above is safer for people.

that is: the dungeon is more dangerous for the same reason the night is more dangerous: less light.

To which I replied:

I see it more as being about different varieties of evil. You get evil on the overground but it's three-dimensional real evil like you get in our world: the people who perpetrate evil aren't doing it because they think it's evil, they're doing it because they misguidedly think it's the right thing to do. Even goblins. Maybe they're peeling the skin off you while you're still alive, but they're not doing it because they want to be evil, they're doing it because they enjoy it and, I dunno, maybe it's how you impress goblin chicks.

But in the depths of the underworld there is stuff that is just intrinsically evil for its own sake, or at least has motives so different to ours that we can't understand them and our only available analogue is what we call "evil". It's a mindset much more alien than the goblin skinning you alive, because at least the goblin has something in common with you: it knows what enjoyment is.

I wasn't quite sure what I meant by this at the time - the words seemed to spring forth from the aether that is my reptile brain - but I've been mulling it over and I think it can be boiled down to this.

The way I look at a D&D world, there are two kinds of evil. For the sake of reference, let's call them Evil 1 and Evil 2.

Evil 1 is what you might call "mundane evil". Everything that is mundanely evil is wicked, but basically has motives that can be understood and empathised with inasmuch as we can understand that people do absolutely awful things to one another but they still have reasons. Even the worst, most depraved serial killer has a reason for doing the things they do which  is comprehensible on some level, no matter how sickening, and even if it just boils down to "I enjoy doing horrible things". We don't enjoy doing horrible things (or at least, I hope you don't), but we still know what it is to enjoy doing something. While this isn't much to have in common with the mindset of a serial killer, there is at least some shared frame of reference no matter how vague.

Thus, whether we're talking about an evil human sorcerer who lusts for power, an evil goblin who gets pleasure from causing pain, an evil banshee who hates the living, or an evil vampire who kills to sustain himself, we are still talking about things that are in some vague way comprehensible. We don't want to kill people by wailing at them like a banshee does, but we can sort of grasp at the reasons she has for doing so. (I should stress at this point that by "comprehensible", I do not for one second mean "excusable".)

The key here, is that in the Evil 1 category there are truly wicked and horrible creatures, but nobody does anything from a standpoint of BEING EVIL. Neither the sorcerer sacrificing a virgin to gain power, the goblin torturing you, the banshee wailing people to death, or the vampire drinking blood, are doing anything for the sake of being wicked. They are doing evil things for some other reason external to the wickedness (lust for power, sadism, hatred, hunger).

But in the depths of the underworld, and perhaps stalking the land above, there are things that do not even have the same frames of reference as us topsiders - these are things that commit acts of evil purely for the sake of being evil. This is what I call Evil 2: the entities whose motives are utterly incomprehensible and cannot therefore be explained beyond the rather inadequate formulation I have just given them. There is no point in trying to understand such beings, and no point in speculating about their thought processes; simply, they embody evil and wickedness - they are satan, in the ancient sense of being "the enemy". Any struggle with them will be a struggle to extinction, though they might not ever make their true nature known. I like a campaign setting which incorporates a notion of there being such entities, even in a sub-Lovecraftian sense, and they exist in Yoon-Suin, though in many different and unknown forms.

Three Dungeon Types

Richard asked in the comments to this post asks: "So now I want some background on what the nature of your underworld is". I thought this deserved elaboration in a blog post.

It seems to me that there are three basic philosophical approaches to dungeoneering and the underworld in D&D. (They are specific to D&D and its mythos, such as it is.) They are:


  • The Philotomical Approach, better encapsulated in the phrase "dungeon as mythic underworld". Here, the dungeon is a kind of antithetical reality to the surface world, ruled by demons or other powerful and supernatural entities, akin in a way to hell or Hades. Far from being just a set of tunnels underground, it is rather a kind of grotesque mirror to our own reality - the yin to our yang, the place from which true evil comes. This is the most supernatural or fantastical perspective.
  • The Salvatorean Approach, which is (probably) the one which Gary Gygax took, best encapsulated in one single phrase: the Underdark. Here, the dungeon is a vast underworld, just like in the Philotomical Approach, and not just a set of tunnels underground, but here, it is still natural (in the sense of being naturalistic). It is knowable and works along comprehensible lines: there may be mind flayers, kuo-toa and drow down there, but at least those things are understandable as actual real physical entities. It isn't a well of infinite evil; rather, just a very bad place for surface dwellers while still being a living and breathing world in its own right.
  • The Piecemeal Approach, in which there is no underworld as such - only separate dungeons. Over here is an ancient volcano riddled with caves and tunnels; over there is an abandoned castle; yonder is a ruined temple: all of them are dungeons, but none of them are anything more than that. They have bottoms. They are finite. This is probably the most 'realistic' approach.
I have always tended towards the former in my gaming, although it usually appears as if it is the latter. Just by entering the first few levels of this or that dungeon, the players would be unaware of the supernatural nature of the underworld; they would not even suspect that an underworld exists. But it does - if they delve down far enough they will usually discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophies. It just lurks very, very deep, although its tendrils stretch up and up if you know where to look for them.

What this means is that I can, on the one hand, indulge in my banalifying instincts by talking about how trade can go on between dungeon denizens and surface dwellers, while on the other hand imagining that beneath it all there are devils, demons, and an entire mythical underworld representing hell itself.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals


I've been thinking some more about this idea of trade between dungeon dwellers and "topsiders". It's an element of the whole dungeon ecology subgenre that I find fascinating; it's also great shorthand for showing the players, look, this is a living, breathing environment that doesn't really care about you and would be going on very nicely indeed even if your characters had never existed.

What do dungeon dwellers have to trade? The answer to that is easy: precious metals and gemstones, which they have in relative abundance. They have more mundane and useful materials like iron too, but this is a society without the technology to transport large amounts of iron out of the depths of a dungeon and all the way back to civilization, and iron can be mined relatively easily anyway. No, outsiders are going to want to get their hands on stuff that is relatively light and unbulky and gives a lot of bang for buck in terms of weight. Gold, silver, rubies, diamonds.

But what do the dungeon dwellers want? What do they lack? This is a more interesting question and also more relevant, for two reasons: a) our focus is adventuring parties, who are going from top to bottom, so it were; and b) most dungeon-dwelling races have difficulties operating on the surface, so it strikes me that trade would most be one way, with peddlers venturing downwards from the surface rather than the other way round.

The obvious answer to this question is plant life and plant products. There are fungi in dungeons, this we know, but without sunlight there is no photosynthesis: most derro have probably never even seen a tree. So what deep dwellers will want are the kind of things that you can get growing on the surface but nowhere else. When you stop to think, the list of such goods is pretty extensive:
  • Items made from wood, it seems, would be prized as luxuries. Particularly carved statuettes and other decorative objects. But weapons with wooden shafts would be valued highly too: wood is light, flexible and strong like no other material is. Spears, bows (and arrows) and the like would fetch considerably higher prices below than above.
  • Dungeon dwellers with sweet-tooths would relish the opportunity to get their hands on fresh fruit, although this obviously has a very limited shelf life. Better is dried fruit, but honey would be best of all. I could imagine duergar chieftains handing over considerable amounts of gemstones for a pot of honey, just as the wealthy in our world will pay through the nose for rare cheeses, truffles, or caviar. Just to get a taste of something truly sweet for once in their lives.
  • In our own world's history, trade in spices was of huge importance in linking the East with the West. All that fungus which dungeon dwelling races eat is pretty tasteless without a bit of pepper, ginger or turmeric, and we all know that you when it comes to mushrooms you can't beat a bit of tarragon, ideally with roasted garlic...
  • By the same token, while you don't imagine dungeon dwellers being particularly interested in dyes, they'll certainly like a bit of incense. People in Europe would brave death, disease and dismemberment for the chance to ship incense from the shores of the Red Sea in ancient times, and I see no reason to believe the same wouldn't be true of dungeons.
Of course, one trade we haven't mentioned is one of the most lucrative of all: narcotics. This would work in both directions, with special fungal hallucinagenics akin to mescaline or peyote being trafficked from the depths of the earth to exchange for opiates grown from poppies on the surface - or heck, even tobacco. Once you get a derro hooked on opium you have a money train for life. If you can get all his gold back to the surface before you get waylaid by ogrillons.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Dungeon Town


Roguelike games, like Angband, Nethack and the like, are dungeon crawls that are heavily influenced by D&D; actually, they are rather like what I imagine early wargame-esque D&D to have been: a primarily tactical exercise in which the player-character tries to explore a dungeon, survive, kill things, and take their stuff. The player is quite divorced from their own character and sees him/her more as a "piece" moving around the game world than as an actual person with hopes and fears and relationships. When the character dies, the player shrugs and starts over with a new one. "This time, I'll be a wizard."

One of the innovations that roguelikes have introduced is the Dungeon Town. In -band games (-bands, like Angband, Zangband, and ToME, are a subdivision of roguelikes stemming away from the (inferior, in my view) -hacks, like Nethack), dungeons are infinitely regenerating. Each time you enter level 1, it's a different level 1, created randomly. But every so often you come across a permanent fixture - a dungeon town. These are always generated randomly for their initial spawning, but after that they remain in place.

Dungeon towns are, as the name suggests, safe havens within the megadungeon where the player can rest, recuperate, and buy supplies. Often, they have rare shops selling specialist items at a high markup. They are always a boon to the player, as they allow him to get hold of essential emergency goods such as food and scrolls of word of recall if he has lost his supply.   

I like the idea of dungeon towns. Anything that suggests that the dungeon has a meaningful ecology, economy and political sphere is intrinsically interesting to me, and the dungeon town points to all of those things: there are intelligent things living in dungeons, and intelligent things both cooperate with each other and also show a natural predisposition towards trade. It stands to reason that there would be a considerable amount of the latter going on between dungeon towns, especially, but also with the outside world. In such an environment, the PCs, as outsiders, would be traders as well as adventurers - taking out what the dungeon has in great abundance but also bringing in items from the outside that are of great value to the dungeon dwellers. (Who knows what a dungeon dweller would pay for dried fruit, a donkey, spices?)

When we say "dungeon town", of course, we shouldn't be thinking of a load of houses and shops incongruously nestled between the Pit of Fire Drakes and the Lair of the Grell Queen. A dungeon town might be a set of tunnels a group of Duergar have made their fortress; a deep-gnome warren; an encampment of mongrelmen in a vast cavern; whatever - somewhere where trade can be carried out and (brief) respite found.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Old School Planebox and The Abyss as Megadungeon


When Planescape first came out, dungeon crawling was probably at its absolute nadir of popularity: this was the mid 90s, when the World of Darkness was in vogue and everything had to be edgy, story-driven (i.e., largely railroaded) and infused with angst, drama and meaning. So the idea that you could use it for old school dungeoneering was never made explicit in the published materials; I think the designers wanted the players to do more "mature" things with the setting, whatever that meant.

But dungeoneering is certainly implied in the Planescape if you look for it. Planes like Pandemonium and Baator basically are big dungeons, and Sigil is the start location for an old school-type D&D campaign par excellence - a place where you can buy and sell anything, go anywhere (if you know the right people and can find the right portal keys) and get involved in politicking and advancement. The pattern, I suppose, for this sort of campaign would be:
  • Start in Sigil. Use it as a base for dungeoneering exploits throughout the multiverse.
  • Make lots of money, gain levels.
  • Get involved in politics and advancement, reach higher echelons of a faction if that's your thing, start branching out into the belief-oriented specifics of the setting.
  • Create your own realm somewhere, except you can do it anywhere in the multiverse if that's what you fancy.
Which is really exactly the same pattern that a typical fantasy sandbox campaign takes, with a few bells and whistles. Call it Planebox, because, let's face it, it's fun to say.

The ultimate Planebox megadungeon is, of course, The Abyss. The Abyss is the Chaotic Evil plane, ruled by the Tanar'ri (okay, okay... "demons"), but absolutely infinite in scope: there are countless layers of The Abyss, each of which is infinite in its own way. There is literally no constraint on the imagination of the DM in coming up with whatever the hell he wants within this plane; it can be as fantastical or mundane as he desires, and there is no requirement whatsoever for any of it to make sense - listen, this place is infinite. Do you want an entire dungeon that is really a forest, but the branches of the trees are all actually snakes? Do you want a dungeon that is actually the digestive tract of a gargantuan whale swimming in an infinitely large ocean? Do you want a dungeon that is made out of mirrors and populated by glass golems? It's all there and more. Best of all, for the adventurer, anything that you could possible desire is in there somewhere: the only problem being that you have to negotiate an infinite amount of Chaotic Evil entities and an infinite amount of hostile environments to get it.

Wherein I Drink Kool-Aid

I just came back from a session of Apocalypse World, Vincent Baker's new game. For those who don't know, Vincent Baker is the guy who came up with the games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, Poison'd, and Kill Puppies for Satan, all of which have variously caused some level of controversy or other on the interclick, particularly at thepuritansite.com, and all of which are probably best put into the "aren't we hip?" story game category. I haven't played anything of Baker's before, except for Dogs...which I enjoyed but felt was rather power-trippy; his other games seemed specifically designed to court controversy, which I always find irksome, and that put me off.

But blimey if Apocalypse World isn't a fun game. I think this was the first session of a "story game" I've ever played in which it all fell into place for me and I actually realised that, yes, that thing where people at The Forge say stuff like "the mechanics support play" does sometimes make sense. There were only two players, and I think that hindered us in some respects (because interpersonal conflict/cooperation seems to be one of the keys to making the system really hum), but nevertheless the two of us were able to riff on our characters and their relationship in a genuinely intriguing and fun way, building something up that you don't normally get in a traditional game without some serious effort and time spent. And for once I felt that, as a player, having narrative control really added something: my decisions not only had the immediate effects that you might have in traditional gaming (I get more gold, I don't die, I kill the orc), they had world-building and narrative effects that seemed genuinely far-reaching. (Not that you can't do those things with old school D&D, or really any game, but it takes longer and requires a lot more effort.)

Once again I'm forced into the proposition that the "OSR" and "hip story games that cool kids play", both of which are faddish and somewhat exclusionary currents within the hobby, are attempts to achieve almost exactly the same things: basically, it boils down to giving players agency. In "old school" D&D, this comes from having a sandbox and letting the players loose in it and having them live with their decisions and their own tactical nous. In story games, it comes from creating mechanics in which the players can actually force the narrative in a certain direction through dice rolls. Both of these things are really very similar. The players generate whatever "plot" there is in an emergent fashion, from the ground up, with the GM as neutral arbiter. This puts them in direct opposition to the RPG mainstream (games such as D&D 4e, WoD, etc.) where plot comes from the top down, imposed by a GM who is at best a court jester and at worst an autocrat dick.

Ancient stick-in-the-mud fatbeards and horrible skinny kids in skinny jeans who listen to Arcade Fire should be friends, not foes. We dream the same dream, we want the same thing, people.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Campus Maps are Solid Gold



One of the great unsung treasures of the internet is that university campus maps are readily available and free to use for all of your gaming needs. Check out the one above and click to enlarge: is it a temple complex (the purple buildings) with a village for the mad monks nearby (the blue buildings to the west)? A palace with living quarters for slaves? Ancient ruins? And it is already numbered and coded: all you need to do is replace the text for what each number/letter combination refers to and you're good to go. K4 becomes the temple to the Mad God Jubilex. N6 becomes the dormitory of the household cavalry. E5 becomes the dungeons where virgins are imprisoned prior to sacrifice. D6 becomes the monkey house.

It is ready made mapping heaven.

The City as Dungeon

When I first came up with the idea for the Yellow City, one of the two centerpieces of my Yoon-Suin setting, I wanted to come up with a nearby "dungeon" setting in which starting players could adventure and get their hands on loot. I decided early on that this should not take the form of an underground sewer system or out-of-town cave network or any of the other stalwarts. I wanted something that I hadn't done before.

So, the Yellow City's "megadungeon" is a part of the city itself: The Old Town. This is an area on the outskirts of the city which once, in ages past, was apparently its seat of government. It is a once-magnificent district of palaces, plazas, temples, towers and monuments, separated from the rest of the city by a moat; but it has long been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, and the jungle has begun to take over. (Indeed, if one moves right the way across to the other side, one finds that the Old Town effectively merges with the forest - all that remains of its huge buildings are mounds covered in vines and creepers and surrounded by mighty trees.) The locals believe it is haunted and there are innumerable stories and rumours about what lies within it and why people stopped living there. It is a lair of jungle creatures, ghosts, and outcasts from the Yellow City too strange, wicked or insane to be tolerated by the rest of society. But there may be ancient treasures hidden in its depths.

There are certain eccentricities of a city dungeon, mainly to do with mapping. The essential idea behind the Old Town is that it is set up into "zones" rather than levels, each being more dangerous than the first in rough correspondence to its distance from the rest of the city. Within each zone are a large number of buildings, which of course are also comprised of individual levels (basements and first, second, third stories, etc.), but these are not necessarily any more dangerous than the rest of the zone. Within this space, streets and alleyways become 'corridors' of a kind, with the occasional wandering hostile roaming through it.

I haven't run any games in the Old Town yet (I intend to run a Yoon-Suin campaign based in the Yellow City on ConstantCon at some point soon, though) but I expect there to be some issues involved with the city dungeon that I'm not anticipating. The ace-in-the-hole, or thorn-in-the-side, or red herring, or whatever, is the 3D element that being open-air brings. Characters will be able to climb trees and also buildings, to get a better look around and escape foes. They'll also be able to enter buildings through windows at upper levels if they want to try to climb. This will, I expect, create some difficulties in making sure everybody knows where they are and what is going on, and might also involve lots of map shuffling on the part of the DM.

What is interesting about a dungeon is that it is a world cut-off from the outside with its own ecology and, to an extent, politics. But what is compelling about a dungeon is that it is fundamentally quite a scary notion: an unknown and unmapped place full of hostile entities, which has no natural light and is very cramped. The aura of claustrophobia is something that I hope to emulate through allusion to some things that are equally scary in their own way: large open spaces apparently empty though not necessarily so, and the eerie feeling of being in a city that is ostensibly devoid of what makes a city a city (people, noise, warmth, food, shelter).

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Magic Items Belong to Somebody

I was continuing with my plotting out of a grand Yoon-Suin hexmap this morning; slow going, but enjoyable. As I was randomly generating a treasure hoard the thought occurred to me: somebody would miss this Banded Mail +4 if they lost it. A magical banded mail, particularly one so powerfully enchanted, would not be something that you would leave lying around. It would likely be an important family heirloom, once owned by the family of a king or noble, passed down from generation to generation. Once discovered by an adventurer, there would be a reasonable chance that somebody who was in the know would recognise it and word would get back to the original owner, or their descendants, presuming they are still around. These original owners might offer to buy it back. They might decide to seek bloody vengeance on the "thief" who now owned it.

This is a thought that has never occurred to me in all my history playing D&D, but I like it. So, a rule:

"That's the old duke's banded mail!" rule
Whenever a magical weapon or armour is discovered, there is a 10% chance per bonus that it is a "known" item and the original owners, or (more likely) their descendants, are still in existence. The DM should pick a suitable candidate in the region for ownership. Whenever the PCs visit any settlement within 50 miles of the location of this original owner(s), there is a 1 in 3 chance per day that somebody in that settlement will recognise the magic item and report it to the owner, unless it is kept covered. 
On discovery, the DM should roll a d6 to determine the owner's reaction:
1 - Jealousy. The owner will attempt to regain the item however he can.
2 - Anger. The owner will attempt to regain the item and, preferably, punish the PC.
3-4 - Vengeance. The owner will attempt to kill the PC and, preferably, regain the item.
5 - Appeal to authority. The owner will attempt to bring the PC to justice in front of the local ruler as a "thief".
6 - Plea. The owner will attempt to contact the PC to buy the item.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Rent-Seeking in the Dungeon

Rent-seeking is one of the most interesting and useful insights of modern economics. I got to thinking about it in relation to DnD mainly thanks to the comments on posts arising here, here, and here. While it is an appalling exercise in banalifying systematization in many respects, I also find it quite fun and illuminating.

My thesis for you today is that DnD adventurers are, in fact, engaged in a grand campaign of glorified rent-seeking.

Rent-seeking, according to the wikipedia definition, is "the expenditure of resources attempting to enrich oneself by increasing one's share of a fixed amount of wealth rather than trying to create wealth. Since resources are expended but no new wealth is created, the net effect of rent-seeking is to reduce the sum of social wealth".

The classic example of rent-seeking in the modern age is corporations expending vast amounts of resources lobbying the government for special regulations that will hamper their competitors. While resources are consumed in this process, and ultimately the corporation itself will benefit if the special regulation it seeks becomes law, the net result for society is negative: no new wealth has been created for society and only one firm benefits.

For me, a more interesting and controversial example is so-called "fair trade coffee". Here, third world coffee farmers expend resources competing against each other for a limited number of contracts with fair trade coffee companies, with ultimately negative results for third world societies: no new wealth is created by all the competitive rent-seeking behaviour, and only a small number of farmers benefit.

The simplest way of explaining rent-seeking is to imagine that you, I, and Person X are offered the opportunity to get £100 (the rent). In competing against each other and lobbying for the £100, I spend £90 worth of resources, you spend £95 worth, and Person X spends £99 worth. Person X gets the £100 and has profited by £1, but no new wealth has been created through the expenditure of £284 worth of resources. Effectively, we as a 'society' are worse off by £184. We would have been better off each investing our respective amounts in profit-seeking behaviour, for instance in research and development of new role playing games.

So you probably see where I'm going with this. Imagine a dungeon containing approximately 10,000 gps. This is a fixed, finite amount of wealth. Adventurers come from miles around to try to get bit of it. They spend money, time and other resources equipping themselves, researching spells, gathering information, competing with each other, and all the other things that adventurers do, in order to get their hands on some of this wealth; every resource they use must therefore be deducted from the 10,000 gps once it is (eventually) entirely removed from the dungeon and redistributed elsewhere, in terms of its social benefit. This includes the time these adventurers spend, and their own lives. A productive farmer may, over the course of his lifetime, generate 1000 gps' worth of resources if engaged in profit-seeking behaviour. The same man, engaged not in farming but in adventuring, is therefore a net loss to society of 1000 gps' worth of resources if he ends up getting killed by kobolds in a dungeon at 1st level. It therefore only takes 11 such fellows to die in pursuit of a 10,000 gp treasure horde for it to represent a pure loss to the economy - simply on those terms.

Therefore, the net gain to society of stealing 10,000 gps from a dungeon is not 10,000 gps; rather, it is 10,000 gps minus all the resources spent competing in order to acquire it, which might ultimately be negative. So, while it is rational for individual adventurers to attempt to earn money in this way, it can end up as a pure waste of resources for the economy in general.

Adventurers are rent-seekers, and bad for society. This doesn't matter, though, because as we should all know by now adventurers should generally be rogues who don't give much of a hoot about society. This is one of the strongest arguments I know of for playing a character of chaotic alignment.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Mass Samurai Battles in BECMI

What do you say we lighten things up and talk about the mass slaughter of the flower of youth?

The Rules Cyclopedia is (I think) the only iteration of DnD which makes a stab at a flavourful, quick and comprehensive mass battle system in its core rules. This has always been relevant to my interests, because I was always as much into Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000 as much as I was a role player, and I am to this day something of a wargame geek (incidentally, if any of the readers of this blog play Steel Panthers: World at War, I'm always available for a PBEM game).

The War Machine, as it is known, is a noble attempt, and ultimately a success - because, although the rules are simplistic, efficiency is art, and it clearly strikes the right balance between simplicity and flexibility. Let's run ourselves through a battle and find out why. Because almost nobody commented on it and it sank into the murky waters of the blogosphere with nary a trace, I'll randomly generate two samurai armies from my random feudal Japanese army generator to duke it out.

To be fair, we'll keep both armies roughly the same size [Force Size C on my generator, for those following along], but keep composition different. And, through the wonderful mystery of dice rolling, here's what we come up with:

Lord Bakayaro's Army (490 men)

49 light cavalry (0-level keikihei; unit contains 2 1st level warriors)
49 medium cavalry (1-level chukihei; unit contains 2 2nd level warriors)
122 heavy infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 4 2nd level warriors)
74 archers (0-level medium archers; unit contains 2 1st level warriors)
196 light infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 4 2nd level warriors)

Lord Bakayaro is level 5. He is a paladin.

The BFR for this force is 63, assuming 20 weeks of training with their general, and including bonus for having an average AC of 5 or better. This means their Troop Class is 'fair'. Their BR is 77 (63, +7 for having 20% mounted troops, +7 for speed).

Lord Do-Aho-s Army (390 men)

39 light cavalry (1-level keikihei; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)
39 heavy cavalry (1-level mounted samurai; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)
39 heavy infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)
195 light infantry (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 5 2nd level warriors)
39 archers (0-level light archers; unit contains 1 1st level warrior)
39 no-dachi samurai (1-level foot samurai; unit contains 1 2nd level warrior)

Lord Do-Aho is level 9. He is a magic-user.

The BFR for this force is also, interestingly, 63, applying the same bonuses as above - giving a BR of 70 (+7 for speed).

Let's also assume that no other bonuses apply - the troops are meeting on an open field in neutral territory on a bright autumnal evening.

Now, combat results: both armies advance forwards, fanning out across the plain - a standard meeting engagement. Both players roll a d100 and add their BR: Lord Bakayaro gets 68 + 77, resulting in 145. Lord Do-Aho gets 37 + 70, resulting in 107. Lord Bakayaro's force drives Lord Do-Aho's backwards, winning by 38; examining the results table to find out what this means, we discover there is great slaughter on both sides - 20% of Bakayaro's men are casualties, compared to 40% of Do-Aho's, and after the day is done both forces are understandably fatigued (Bakayaro's moderately, Do-Aho's seriously) and retreat from the field.

Casualties are spread equally across all units, with a 50/50 split between dead and wounded, leaving Bakayaro with 402 men able to fight the next day if necessary, and Do-Aho with a mere 234. Bakayaro has 49 wounded men on his hands; Do-Aho, 78 - both sides were able to retreat in good order and save their injured.

I was able to complete the above battle in about half an hour while I was making dinner, including generating both sides. It would be a bit more complicated in other scenarios - if I was taking into account terrain, who was defending and who was attacking, that sort of thing - and magical or special monstrous troops through additional factors into the mix. But still, most battles can be worked out in 45 minutes or less. This makes it a robust and sexy little system for generating battle results.

There are two key complaints I suppose could be made:

  • Figures for dead and wounded. In most medieval battles, indeed in the entire history of human conflict, the wounded always far, far outweigh the dead. However, by the same token, the injured in pre-20th century battles would frequently die afterwards from their wounds and often from disease, and arguably therefore the 50/50 split makes sense (the "50% killed" figure could refer to the total number of dead during the fighting and after).
  • Bonuses are applied to the entire force - either the whole army is defending or attacking, the whole army is on higher ground, the entire army is in the woods, etc. This is a fairer criticism, although it is difficult to imagine how it can be resolved without recourse to counters and maps; and the beauty of the system is that you don't need either of those things.
A great innovation is the optional rule for tactics. Both players choose a tactic for their turn (attack strongly, attack, envelop, trap, hold, withdraw) and conceal a dice, face up with the corresponding number (1 for attack strongly, 2 for attack, 3 for envelop, etc.). Then they reveal their dice at the start of the turn and see what happens (if both sides attack strongly there are lots of casualties; if one side attacks strongly and the other holds, the attacking side suffers more casualties; if one attacks and the other withdraws, the withdrawing side suffers more casualties, etc.). Kind of a glorified version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, but also fun and easy to use.

The great tragedy, of course, is that you don't often get the chance to see the rules in action because high-level play is so rare. Playing once a month is not a recipe for success in this regard. NOISMS NEEDS A WEEKLY GAME.