Tuesday 31 December 2013

On Clearing Books Out of the Loft and Ramblings on Appendix N

This holiday I've spent clearing out my parents' old house. Part of this process has involved me appraising my old books (of which there are hundreds and hundreds) and trying to decide which can be thrown out and which can go to the local library or charity shop or whatever. I came across Leiber's Ill Met at Lankhmar, a collection from the early 2000s which brings together, I think, "Swords and Deviltry" and "Swords Against Death".

Re-reading these old stories, it occurs to me that you may as well not read any high fantasy series published in the last 30 years or so if you've read Leiber. I use the words "high fantasy" advisedly, because although the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories are more sword & sorcery than high fantasy, almost all high fantasy stuff that was published in the 80s, 90s and 00s was a footnote on what Leiber was writing in the 70s - from the back-story to both men (every main character in every epic fantasy series has a tragic origin story like Grey Mouser) to the sassy, just-as-good-as-you female leads who are just dim reflections of Vlana, to the innocent-girl-turned-unlikely-heroine female leads who are just dim reflections of Ivrian, to the strong themes of revenge, to the very un-Tolkienesque prevalence of magic (divided, as so often the case, into 'good magic' and 'bad magic')... It makes the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories seem like old hat, until you remember that no, it's just that most modern fantasy series were old hat before they were even conceived.

A while ago, because I felt like being controversial, I made the statement on some forum or other that I though that the Dragonlance books are probably just as good as most of the things in Appendix N. Although I said that with mischievous intentions, I also think it's true. The Dragonlance books are not great, but for a 13 year old boy they are good entertainment, and that is really the most you can say for most of the Michael Moorcock books, most of Lovecraft's fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Phillip Jose Farmer, etc. People in the D&D blogosphere might not like to admit it, but the best you can say about a lot of the writings of a lot of those writers is that they pass the time and have some interesting ideas in. Admittedly there are a number books/authors on Appendix N that I've never read, but even if those works were all hidden masterpieces it would still place Weis & Hickman somewhere in the middle-to-lower rung. In a weird sort of a way, they probably deserve more credit; I know this doesn't apply universally, but I generally think of great books as being those which have moved me emotionally - and I have to confess that I was very moved emotionally as an adolescent reading about the death of Sturm or Caramon's efforts to stop his mad brother destroying the universe. Much more so, indeed, than I ever was reading about Elric's exploits, fun though they are.

Which fantasy books are really worth reading? Given that you have a finite amount of time in your life and there are so many other books out there? There's a novel by Jonathan Franzen called Strong Motion, which like all of Franzen's books is beautifully and sensitively written, if somewhat appalling at the same time; in it there is fairly extended section which describes the evolution of the music collection of one of the characters, Dr. Reneé Seitchek. She starts off with a large collection of punk music on old cassettes, but as time goes by and she gets older and older and more jaded her collection starts to dwindle and she starts just compiling mix tapes with some of her favourite tracks on...but as time goes by and she gets older still she starts to grow tired even of them, and she ends up just taking segments of single tracks that she likes and running them together, so that she finishes off compressing all of the music in the world that she likes into a single cassette or two. I sometimes feel like that about fantasy fiction. Give me a single 1000 page volume containing the distilled essence of Vance, Wolfe, and Tolkien and that may very well do me for the rest of my days.

Monday 23 December 2013

What the Lazy Bastard Has Been Working On; Or, Yoon-Suin is On the Road to Completion, Honest

It's been a ridiculous November and December but I have managed to work a little bit on Yoon-Suin here and there. The content is entirely complete and I'm currently undergoing the laborious process of transferring everything from OneNote to Word (having given up on fancy schmancy layout programs after what seemed like aeons of aimless fiddling). This is about 5-10% finished.

Here are some mysterious screen grabs. No art as yet. That's the final hurdle.

Creative Constraint and Beekeeping

An intermittent theme on my blog down the years (see e.g. here) has been creative constraint: how providing strict boundaries in terms of what the DM and players can create (particularly during the setting up of a new campaign) can actually allow imaginations and inspiration to flourish.

Take beekeeping. The latest Econtalk podcast is all about the economics of beekeeping. While it is wide-ranging and covers everything from how to transport bees to CCD (which means Colony Collapse Disorder - don't you know anything?) to externalities to the almond-growing industry of California, the most interesting section by far in my mind is where the conversation moves onto the idea of migratory beekeepers. This may not be the case in other countries, but apparently in the US many beekeepers spend their working lives travelling around: based in the South, say, and moving to California for the early almond pollination season, then travelling up the West coast through Oregon and Washington for apples, berries, cherries and so on, and then pitching up in the Dakotas to allow the bees to spend summer gorging on sunflowers. Then it's back down South for winter. Similar migratory patterns go up and down the East coast from Florida to Maine and so on.

Saying that you are going to run a beekeeping campaign and you would be characterised as some sort of dangerous eccentric in most RPG circles; not because of the subject matter but because it seems so very limiting. The PCs really have to start off as beekeepers and nothing else? And all they're going to do is travel round with, and manage, bees?

But once the limits are set, the mind starts to whir with possibilities. How about, rather than just having honey bees, the world is full of many different kinds of bee, all with different characteristics, tastes, and vulnerabilities? And how about a d100 table of random bee pests and diseases that might strike at a given moment? What about all the possibilities for hexcrawling: where do you stop for the night with your hives? Where do you migrate to - do you follow the spring as it heads Northwards, or strike off on a different, less travelled path where there are fewer competitors? What kind of monsters and bandits lie in ambush on the well-journeyed routes? What kind of monsters does honey attract in general? There would need to be a set of tables for generating competitor beekeepers, their hives, and helpers, of course. Each would have their own agenda, their own rivalries and alliances, their hidden ancestral knowledge. The same goes for the farmers. There would need to be a system for determining costs based on the presence of competition, weather, crop type...and rudimentary rules for trade in general.

And of course, there would need to be complicated procedures for what happens when bees make honey from the nectar of poisonous plants, or whatever kind of weird fantasy flora you happen to come up with.

I'm not suggesting that the beekeeping campaign is the one we should all be running, you understand. The point is simply this: once constraints are set in place, creativity starts to flourish. Envisage human creativity like water: without barriers it floods endlessly in a very thin and ever-spreading sheen. With constraint it bursts upwards like a fountain. And I give you metaphors like that free of charge.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Three Other Realms from the Rules Cyclopedia

From the Rules Cyclopedia, page 176:

Elementals live in towns and cities on their own worlds. Both the worlds and the building materials are made entirely of pure elemental material, in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. In the universe of its own plane, each elemental race occupies thousands of worlds. The elemental races are far older than humankind, and more civilized in many ways. They have art forms for six senses. 

Entire universes comprised of one element. A never-ending mass of earth stretching in all directions - not just to all compass points, but up and down. A riddle of burrows created by denizens of the plane - a kind of infinite cave network inhabited by races of elemental being which those of us on the prime material plane do not even suspect to exist. Entire kingdoms carved from solid rock.

From page 177:

The faerie inhabit the air and clouds. Faeries are close relatives of the demihumans, with features of each race: They appear as halfling-sized humanoids with gossamer wings, dwarvish noses and beards, and elvish ears and eyes. Faeries' bodies are light and they fly with little effort. They build their homes of "clouds," and enjoy basking in the sun while storms rage below. They have their own great empire of the wind far above the earth, commonly known only to themselves and a few air creatures.

Like Gene Wolfe's 'Skai', the realm above Mythgarthr, inhabited by overcyns to which mankind owes fealty. A world that exists in the sky and yet also somehow above it, impossible to get to except for blessed individuals or those selected for some special mission - and those who try to reach it are doomed to fall, Icarus-like, into the sea while a boat sails calmly on.

From page 184:

Headsmen (also called "executioners") are NPC humans commonly employed by dominion rulers. They are trained in the business of killing criminals who have received the death penalty. Most headsmen are skilled in the proper use of bladed weapons, ropes, and poisons and are able to execute criminals quickly and neatly.  
All professional headsmen belong to their own guild, which is associated with the Thieves' Guild. Headsmen keep their true identities completely secret, wearing hoods or disguises when engaged in professional activities. Many own ordinary shops, and can seem to be perfectly ordinary townsfolk. Headsmen of 6 HD or more are 90% undetectable in their disguises, and study languages of all sorts to improve their masquerades. Headsmen of 10 HD or more can even use the secret languages of other alignments.  
Thugs: A secret organization exists within the Guild of Headsmen. These evil headsmen enjoy their work too much, and offer their services for open hire. Others call them Assassins or Thugs; they call themselves Pragmati ("the practical people").  
Unlike the Thieves' Guild, the Pragmati are not supported by adventurers or rulers. They are sometimes hired by other NPCs, especially evil ones. However, PCs do not normally contact these headsmen for any reason; their organization is dangerous as either an enemy or an ally. Thugs are treacherous and self-serving, known to extort money from their previous "clients" with threats of exposure, kidnapping, or even murder.

An entire secret realm existing behind and within human society: the Practical People. With its own rulers, its own codes of behaviour, its own rituals, religions and mores. Like the unseelie court - the dark conscience of the natural order of things. A conspiracy of hate and alienation which commits criminal acts at random, leaving those in 'real' society mystified. Yet sometimes, when a cart has just crushed the leg of an unfortunate child, or a hitherto placid horse has bitten the face of its groom, or a building has burned with everyone in it, somebody nearby recognises somebody they know - and yet doesn't Ned have green eyes, rather than blue?

Tuesday 5 November 2013

People are Complex

If you had asked me 12 months ago what I knew about Orson Scott Card, I would probably have answered, "Isn't he that guy who wrote Ender's Game?" That was about the extent of my knowledge. It turns out that he's a devout Mormon and has, as some devout Mormons do, views about homosexuality that the mainstream might not share. This has apparently led to boycotts of the release of the new Ender's Game film in the States.

I don't intend to get into a rant about that issue in particular. Suffice to say that I don't agree with Orson Scott Card, but I disagree equally strongly with associating the political views of a writer or artist with their work - the work should stand on its own merits, and in Ender's Game it more than does. It is one of the most humane and brave novels for teenagers (who are nowadays called "Young Adults" for some reason) ever written. HP Lovecraft was a daft-as-a-brush racist, Wagner was a despicable anti-semite, L. Frank Baum thought that the native Americans ought to be wiped off the face of the earth...none of that should matter if their work is good and those views aren't in the work. I tend to think that boycotting the new Ender's Game film is rather dangerous, in that it subsumes art into a discussion about social values, and thus diminishes it.

Rather, what interests me about this issue is that, wherever you read discussion of the film on the internet, everybody feels bound to dismiss Orson Scott Card as nutty, insane, hateful, bigoted, appalling, and so forth. Even the sensible reviewers, who look at the film as a film, feel the need to preface their comments by saying "Of course, Orson Scott Card is a blithering idiot and a horrendous bigot to boot, but...." or words to that effect.

I think that's too easy. Of course I should preface these comments by saying that I don't agree with Orson Scott Card about homosexuality or gay marriage. Nonetheless, the only real encounter I have ever had with the man is this interview, in which he comes across as an overly-chatty but very nice, extremely warm-spirited and generous man with many interesting things to say about writing, about fantasy and SF, and about creativity. Which is to say, setting his views on homosexuality aside - if this interview was all you had to go on - he would appear as, generally speaking, a good egg.

People are complex, but we seem unduly keen to reduce them to what we hate about them. It's very easy, and tempting, to follow the equation that Card = homophobic = bad person. I think that's inherently dehumanising. For me, the far more interesting issue is: How can somebody who is broadly 'good' have views that are most certainly 'bad'? How can somebody write a book as empathetic as Ender's Game while apparently not having much empathy when it comes gay people who want to get married? Mr Card may be able to explain that, in fact.

It's something that you will inevitably encounter if you look into the political or social views, or the 'off screen' persona, of any creative person you admire. I think China Mieville is a brilliant writer and a really interesting and charming bloke in person too, but his political views in the abstract would probably make my hair stand on end. (Not that I'm comparing his views with those of Card - you understand my point.) Richard Dawkins is an astonishingly good science writer whose books communicate a love of knowledge and expression of wonder at the majesty of life, yet he's capable of sounding like a po-faced and mean-spirited bigot when the mood takes him, which is often. John Lennon wrote some beautiful songs, showing incredible insight into human emotions and how to express them, but he was capable of treating people in his personal life with appalling cruelty. You will be able to think of your own examples.

Part of being a person alive in the world is that you have to recognise that people often can't be pigeon-holed. Sometimes people hold views that you disagree with very strongly, and that doesn't necessarily make them a bad person. Sometimes people do 'bad' things while expressing beauty and empathy through their art. Trying to arrange the world in such a way that it's easy to divide the people you agree with and disagree with into separate camps labelled "hateful bigots" and "on the side of the angels" is extremely tempting, but foolish and mistaken. It's about expressing control over something - other people - that can't be controlled.

Friday 1 November 2013

In Defence of the Mimic

On Autumnwatch earlier they did a 'bit' on a creature called the Long-Nosed Beetle, which eats snails. It does this by grabbing the snail and carrying it off, before jabbing its mandibles into the fleshy bit at the opening to the shell and secreting a special enzyme which dissolves the snail's body and turns it into mush. The snail responds by trying to squirt it with mucus, which it blows into bubbles in an attempt to spook the beetle and persuade it to leave it be. Two species of animal which have obviously been engaged in an evolutionary arms race for millions of years. 

It reminded me of another wildlife documentary I saw a year or so ago which was about limpets and starfish. Starfish love to eat limpets - but limpets are able to defend themselves by raising their shells up and down slightly to squeeze the starfish's skin against the rock they are attached to, almost like a somebody stamping on your foot repeatedly as you try to approach them. Often, this is enough to annoy the starfish enough that it goes elsewhere and leaves the limpet in peace.

It would never occur to me that limpets, which seem like such simple animals, would have developed this defence method for dealing with starfish, but of course they have - they've been evolving in parallel with starfish as their chief predators for millions of years. 

As humans we tend not to get predated on by other animals, but imagine if there were human-hunting beasties out there, as there must be in a typical D&D world; wouldn't it be the case that such predators would have developed highly specialised ways of killing humans, and wouldn't we have developed highly specialised responses?

Perhaps it is a species blind-spot, but it is quite hard to imagine what such a predator would be like. If it had been engaged with us in an evolutionary arms race for millions of years, it would probably be extremely resilient against weapons, extremely good at hiding (because we are good at organising ourselves into large groups), and also possibly very good at playing on our weaknesses - it might be able to perfectly mimic the sound of a child in distress, say. Maybe it would hunt us by tempting us away where we might be alone, and then hitting us with overwhelming force because of our pathetic physical weakness in comparison to most animals.

Or maybe it would be very like a mimic. Animals grow to resemble all kinds of things - leaves and sticks, most notably (although there are mantids and spiders which can perfectly disguise themselves as flowers to trick bees and other nectar-gatherers) - in order to escape detection. Why shouldn't mimics do the same to fool us? 

I suppose the standard argument against the evolution of mimics would be: humans are rational, so unless a mimic was near-perfect in its ability to mimic it wouldn't really fool us. And so it couldn't really evolve - how would nondescript monster x incrementally evolve into something that could disguise itself as a door or chest or chair, if all of the intermediate stages wouldn't fool anybody?

The response might be that the mimic could evolve in exactly the same way the mammal eye evolved. Having a tiny bit of an eye that does nothing but tell you the direction in which light is coming is better than no eye at all. If there is one blobby ancestral species without even a rudimentary eye, and then one day a mutation provides a member of that species with a little nub of an eye that allows it to detect light, then its genes will proliferate because that will give it a big advantage over the others. So imagine a miscellaneous blobby human-hunting creature without any special ability to mimic anything humans would recognise: if one day one of these blobby things was born with a mutation which meant that, in a very dim light, at a certain angle, at a certain time of day, it looked sort of like a chest to a very short-sighted human, then that would be an advantage over the rest of the blobby things. That singular mutant blobby thing would have a slight edge on the others of its species and be more likely to breed. Its genes would gradually proliferate. And natural selection would take the mutation and run with it. Within a hundred generations, you might have a whole species of blob things who are really pretty decent at looking like chests.

This is the most rambling entry I think I've ever written: I'm tired and I've been drinking hoegaarden all night. I don't have the will to make it coherent. But you get my drift. 

Thursday 31 October 2013

Rules and the Problem of Social Cost

There is discussion in the ether about, yet again, the importance and value of having lots of rules versus having fewer.

Let's ask ourselves: What Would Ronald Coase Do?

In "The Problem of Social Cost", to simplify grossly, Coase observed that if the world was perfectly free of transaction costs, people would be able to negotiate more-or-less perfectly efficient outcomes with each other in most situations. In any sort of dispute people can just arrange with each other a mutually acceptable outcome that will be at least as good as any solution an independent arbitrator could come up with. (The solution might not be perfect, but it would be at least as good as a decision that a judge or tribunal would provide.)

However, we don't live in a world perfectly free of transaction costs, so in practice this is not always what happens. In actual fact, there are often costs to negotiation. Chief among them is time - negotiation is costly in that regard - but there may also be costs to do with discovering information, enforcement, and so forth. (It may not even be immediately clear what the real nature of the dispute is, or who it is with.)

Sometimes the transaction costs are nugatory or small, and not enough to outweigh the efficiency and desirability of the result. But on some occasions the transaction costs are so high that they outweigh the efficiency of the result. It is in these situations that a court, in Coase's view, should and does become involved in coming up with a solution.

He used the example of a real-life case about a sweet-maker and a doctor. The sweet-maker causes lots of noise which disturbs the doctor. They could negotiate a solution between themselves: whether they decide after negotiation that the doctor will move, or the sweet-maker will reduce his noise, or the doctor will just put up with the noise, or the sweet-maker will pay some form of compensation to the doctor, the solution they negotiate will be at least as good as what a court would decide.

But the transaction costs to negotiation may be high. What if the doctor holds out for excessive compensation and negotiation takes a long time? What if it is not just the doctor who has a problem with the noise, but other neighbours? What if some of those neighbours have genuine complaints but others make frivolous, vexatious or speculative claims? It will take a long time for the sweet-maker to negotiate with all those neighbours and sort out which ones have genuine complaints.

This is when a court needs to become involved, in Coase's view - when transaction costs become so high that a negotiated solution is unsatisfactory or nigh-impossible. And his opinion was that, when a court comes up with a solution, it needs to do so in the most efficient way possible - meaning, the solution it comes up with must be as close as possible to what the parties would have negotiated between themselves if there were no transaction costs. That should be the guiding principle of a court in any private law dispute - it should pursue the outcome which would have arisen if the parties had been able to freely negotiate an outcome without cost.

So let's postulate a theory - not exactly to transpose or extend Coase's theorem about social costs, but rather to come up with something that is inspired by it only.

Imagine that a "court" in the RPG context is "the game's rules". The general presumption should be that a game should only have a rule to cover situations in which transaction costs for DM fiat will be prohibitively high in comparison to the outcome achieved.

A very good example is combat rules. Deciding who is the winner and loser of a combat without reference to rules comes with an extremely high set of transaction costs - it would take ages to argue it out to a satisfactory conclusion ("Ah, but this character is wearing chain mail!" "Ah, but this character would have ducked!" "Ah, but the floor is wet - this character may have slipped!"), and it may have the more important additional cost of heated debate - PC lives are at stake and the players may disagree vociferously with the decision arrived at. Better to have a court, in the form of rules and dice, generate an outcome - and this may well have the effect of generating an outcome which the parties would have freely negotiated (i.e. being partially random but based on mutually agreed principles worked out in advance).

Similarly the surprise roll: deciding who is actually surprised without rules would take forever; the transaction costs are too high, so we just resort to pre-ordained surprise rules which tell us what to do to get an outcome.

In other words, there are scenarios where we can say that DM fiat or complicated rules would create the same or similar outcome (the PC kills the orc or vice versa), but where the transaction costs associated with DM fiat are prohibitively high - so rules are better.

On the other hand, many social situations can be very quickly resolved by DM fiat to generate a result that is at least as good as a set of complicated social rules - i.e., there are no or very small transaction costs to DM fiat, which do not outweigh its value. Does a PC succeed in persuading the guard to let him pass? Regardless of whether the DM or the rules do the job, the outcome will be either that the PC does succeed or he doesn't. DM fiat (or DM-mandated dice roll), in other words, produces an outcome that is at least as good as social rules. But the DM can do it quickly and easily and the consequences are not life-and-death - there are very low transaction costs. Better for the DM to do it, then.

Similarly, to use a well-worn example, an elf is sneaking up on the party while they sleep. However, the PCs have put little piles of coins around their encampment as a primitive alarm system. There are two outcomes: the elf knocks over a pile of coins or he doesn't. DM fiat (or DM-mandated dice roll) is going to produce an outcome that is at least as good as rules about coins around encampments. But the DM can do it quickly and easily and the consequences are not life-and-death. Better for the DM to do it, then.

In other words, there are scenarios where we can say that DM fiat or complicated rules would create the same outcome, and where since the transaction costs associated with DM fiat are low, DM fiat is better.

Of course, nobody would sensibly argue that this metric should be consciously thought through whenever a decision is required. That would be absurd. Rather, it should be used as a guiding principle: there should be a rebuttable presumption that DM fiat (whether outright or in the form of "roll a d6" or whatever) is to be preferred, and the presumption can be rebutted if transaction costs associated with DM fiat would be prohibitive.

Monday 28 October 2013

Since Everybody Else is Doing It

I'm currently running: Nothing. I'm extremely busy lately, and in my free 'hobby' time I'm finishing off a supplement I hope to release. My final excuse is that equipment failure means I can't play in games online, and I'm too lazy to sort that out.

I would especially like to play or run: I always like to play or run traditional D&D, Pendragon and Cyberpunk 2020. Above that, I would especially like to run a game of Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies. I have two setting ideas for this. In one, the players are the idle rich in the 19th century in the North East of England investigating the occult. In the other, the players are 19th century colonialists in an imagined Solomon Islands-type Melanesian province, er, investigating the occult. I'd also like to run a game of Bushido.

...but I would also try: I really play essentially anything. I'm not very keen on anime, nor games set in high school. I don't find it fun to pretend to be in Buffy.

I live in: Newcastle, in England.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: the Planescape boxed sets. The 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual. The Great Pendragon Campaign. 

2 or 3 novels I like: The Once and Future King by TH White, the Complete Lyonesse by Jack Vance, the Complete Viriconium by M. John Harrison. I don't care that that totals about 15 books.

2 or 3 movies I like: Zodiac, Glengarry Glen Ross, Rushmore.

Best place to find me online: Here or on G+.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: Stood the test of time. If it was released more than 10 years ago and people still rave about it, it must be worth reading. Otherwise I'll wait. I use that heuristic for most cultural products. 

I really do not want to hear about: How you were offended by a game being misogynistic.

I think dead orc babies are (circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....): potentially part of the game, but I don't want to game with people who think dead orc babies is funny.

Games I'm in are like (link to something): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6o0Co4kbRZo&noredirect=1

Free content I made for D&D is available: On this blog. Quite a lot, down the years.

If you know anything about art it would help me with a project I'm working on. I could do with lots and lots and lots of little sketches and doodles that I can insert here and there wherever there is a sizeable blank space in the Yoon-Suin.

I talk about about RPGs everywhere as "noisms". If you google "noisms" it turns out there is somebody else - an ex-soldier who occasionally posts on CiF on The Grauniad website. That's not me. 

Wednesday 23 October 2013

On the Improvisation of Content

On a G+ post, the question was raised:
You're in the middle of a game and your players have just wandered into a part of the map that you didn't finish prepping for/didn't expect them to get to. What do you do? 
This can obviously be extended into a broader question: when players do something unexpected that you as the DM have not prepared for, what do you do?

This happens a lot if you aspire to run any game where players have agency. Since that basically applies to all games I run, I encounter that situation a lot. My answer is simply that I improvise. It's something I think I am quite good at; I'm used to winging things, and what I "wing" usually works out well. I put this down largely to a combination of two things - practice/experience at the table, and also my job; I teach at a university, so, not to put too fine a point on it, I'm used to being put on the spot by awkward questions and scenarios and coming up with answers off the cuff. Of course, if it's a question about contract law my answer won't be pulled completely from my nether regions, but nonetheless, I'm having to think on my feet, in front of people, on a daily basis. This is a transferable skill.

This also means I barely ever use random tables to generate content on the fly. My brain does a decent job on its own.

However, that's not a particularly useful observation: I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but it isn't very easy to explain the process (I've written about this before). As is often the case, it's just a combination of practice and, probably natural flair. But so what? As advice goes "practice harder and hope you have natural flair" is as banal as it gets.

That said, I do think there is one important thing that any GM can do if they want to be able to come up with things on the fly: a strong sense of theme combined with a strongly developed sense of setting.

First, theme. By this, I don't, it goes without saying, mean 'plot'. Rather, I mean here that you as the GM should have a strong idea of what kind of game you are running and also what kind of game has emerged over time through the combination of your ideas and those of the players. If you are clear about this, whatever you come up with on the fly will be informed by it and fit in with it more-or-less seamlessly. If, thematically, the game is very concerned with social interaction and complex networks of interpersonal relationships, as a GM you should be consciously and explicitly aware of that fact, so that what you improvise on the fly fits with it and does not jar either you or the players. That should be obvious, and undoubtedly most GMs do this implicitly.

Secondly, setting. When, as a GM, you set up and prepare your game - the NPCs, the maps, the socio-cultural background, the random encounter tables, everything of that nature - if all of those things have a coherence and reflect a certain level of vision on your part, then your off-the-cuff creations will, again, be informed by it. How to come up with this 'vision'? There is no harm at all in using the 25 words or less approach. When I first started to come up with Yoon-Suin, I jotted down these 25 words to describe what the setting was all about:
Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.
Everything has been based on, broadly, that ever since. Looking at it now, I might replace one or two of the words, but it still informs everything I create during prep/writing, and likewise informs the stuff I make up on the fly when I need to. This means that even when making things up as I go along when surprised by the actions of the players, I have a strong feel for the way the setting should be and that is like a thread holding everything together.

Monday 21 October 2013

Steampunk 1820

It's well-known by all sensible people in the world that the suffix '-punk' has become overused and ridiculous. (My own favourite stupid use of '-punk' is "mythpunk", but there is an unintentionally funny list on wikipedia. I hope Bruce Sterling had his tongue in his cheek when he coined 'nowpunk'.) It's a lazy shorthand that has become effectively meaningless - just an attempt to create a veneer of edginess.

That said, cyberpunk did have a meaning at one time. It was punk in the sense that it was about counter-culturalism in the broad sense - you had an advanced society where technology was almost changing what it meant to be human, but unlike in Ralph 124C 41+ the cyberpunk authors were writing about the people who were going against the grain, whether by subverting the technology from the belly up (like Case in Neuromancer or the characters in "Burning Chrome") or dropping out (like the eponymous "Johnny Mnemonic", or the main character in "Dogfight"). So 'cyberpunk' is a little bit of a silly term (I prefer "near future noir"), but there is sense in it.

In the same way, there is sense in the word 'steampunk' too. During the industrial revolution, especially its early years, technological advances were overturning established ways of life - it was called a 'revolution' for a reason - and people were left behind by those advances (look at the London of "Gin Lane" or the victims Jack the Ripper), dropped out (Dickens' Oliver Twist - and just about anything else he wrote), rebelled (the Luddites, the Peterloo Massacre) or subverted them (white European adventurers going completely crazy in the Congo, Southeast Asia and just about anywhere else where they could carve out a small fortune - Heart of Darkness was maybe a little too late, but that was at the end of a century of similar incidents).

Steampunk does make sense as a genre too, then. It's not really about fancy zeppelins, goggles, steam-powered jet packs and triplanes. It's about the dark side of the industrial revolution: it's about what Sterling called the "victims of the new", except it's not our 'new'; it's an old one.

Saturday 12 October 2013

"Whatever Works for You and Your Group"

One of my pet hates in online discussions about RPGs is the anodyne advice to "do whatever works for you and your group". Just do whatever's fun for you and your players. Stop worrying about whether one play style is better than other - lighten up! Just do whatever works! Well, duh.

It annoys me primarily because it's meaningless, of course: if anybody in the world needs to be told to "do whatever works for you and your group" they're probably not intelligent enough to operate a computer.

But it is also incredibly low-reaching and unambitious. It is most frequently used to kill any sort of debate over play styles or techniques: "Stop being mean, you horrid bully; everybody should just do whatever works for them and their group". Don't try to discuss matters, improve your GMing, or even think about games in the abstract. Just do whatever works. Keep on keeping on. It ought to go without saying that this is not a mindset that any adult human being should have.

It also simply fails on its face: how do you know what works without thinking about alternatives? Unless you are aware that there are different ways of doing things, and have analysed them in some sense, how can you possibly know what works or what doesn't?

And finally, it implies that once you have a gaming group you stay in it for your entire life - it is "your group". Again, it ought to go without saying that groups are composed of different people, and figuring out what works for one group will require a level of thought about "what works" in general. In fact, gaming with different groups will by necessity require individual GMs to come up with abstract, universal notions about things that tend to work and things that don't, irrespective of the players involved. But no: we all live in our parents' basements and game with our school friends until death.

Friday 11 October 2013

The Fungal Curse of Tribhuvan

I have a Netflix subscription but 99% of the time I only use it for watching old BBC wildlife documentaries. Tonight, I was watching The Private Life of Plants, where it was said that if every spore released by a puffball fungus germinated and survived it would create enough adult puffballs to fill the volume of the earth twice over. 

So, in honour of the miracle of the puffball:

The Fungal Curse of Tribhuvan  
Level 8 Magic-User Spell 

The archmage Tribhuvan was of a particularly vengeful and malevolent nature. So when, after falling in love with Asha, the beautiful daughter of the headman of the village of Gyamotang, he was refused her hand in marriage, he spent 33 cycles of the moon creating a spell which would bring him the satisfaction of revenge.  
The Fungal Curse, when cast, affects a single mushroom, toadstool, or similar, and ensures that all of its spores reach adulthood. Whether this is through making the spores invulnerable, or simply manipulating their destiny so that, miraculously, none are eaten or destroyed, is unknown. The effect is that a vast area quickly becomes overwhelmed with fungus.  
After casting the spell, within 1 week the hex in which the spell was cast and d4 hexes around it are covered entirely in fungus. This kills all plant life and makes the area uninhabitable - likely permanently. 
Tribuhuvan himself never used his spell. After threatening to devastate Gyamotang and the area around it, Asha agreed to marry him. The unfortunate story of her children is, of course, well known.  

Wednesday 9 October 2013

On PC-Player Information Parity

Choosing when to have parity of information between PCs and their players is a difficult balancing act.

Let's imagine you are playing a game with opposed skill checks. There is an awareness/notice skill, and there is a stealth skill. The players are moving through a forest. You, the GM, know a group of murderous elves are setting up an ambush a little way ahead. You need an opposed skill check - you will roll stealth for the elves, the players will roll awareness. Do you tell the players what they are rolling for (whether "roll an awareness check" or "roll awareness because murderous elves are setting an ambush"), or do you just say, "Roll the dice"? If the former, they will know that something is afoot even if they fail, yet, strictly speaking, their characters will not. Does this matter? Does there need to be information parity between the players and the PCs? 

Let's look at the surprise roll. You, as DM, have to roll a d6, as do the players. Do you tell them that they are making a surprise check, or do you just tell them to roll a d6? Do you keep your result secret? Or do you openly roll a d6, telling the players exactly what you are rolling for? ("There is a group of goblins you're just about to encounter and I'm seeing if they are surprised.") Does it matter?

My own approach is usually to be as open as possible. I often, though not always, tell the players the reason I am rolling the dice. I don't care about information disparity between players and PCs in this respect. For one thing, I know that the social contract of gaming, and also just plain honesty and common sense, will ensure that the players do not make use of their information disparity to game the system or, more bluntly, to cheat. This, indeed, is probably one of the most important characteristics of a 'good' role player. This is somebody who you can tell, explicitly, "I am rolling the dice now to check if murderous elves who are setting up an ambush manage to stay silent," and who will not let it affect the decisions or actions of their PC. 

And more importantly, there is a significant benefit that you get from telling players exactly why they, or you, are rolling the dice: it keeps everyone honest. Everybody knows there is no fudging. This is one of the absolute, most crucial elements for me in what makes a game 'good'. No fudging. That is the starting point from which all else follows. 

But there is a limit to how much information disparity you should tolerate. Because information parity between player and PC can be both important and part of the enjoyment.

Let's use an extreme illustration: you don't want information disparity to extend so far that you give the players a copy of your dungeon map, keyed in full. Nobody, not even the best role player, can act as though they don't know the content of the map when making decisions on the part of their PC when it is right there in front of them. It will inevitably affect the decisions they make within the game - and even where it doesn't, the suspicion will remain. ("You're only turning left because you know there is a Sword +1 in that room down the corridor.") 

Moreover, it is enjoyable, in its own right, to discover things. I don't think any player would like a complete map of a dungeon they are exploring, nor a complete hex map of the setting. Finding out what is out there, and being surprised by it, is half the fun. 

These two competing needs - to have openness and transparency, set against the desire for surprised and mystery - pull in opposite directions. To a certain degree they are irreconcilable. One of the most interesting questions in RPGs for me would be: Which is more important - that the players know that the DM is rolling to see if the murderous elves manage to stay quiet (which preserves accountability) or that the players should be genuinely surprised when a gang of murderous elves ambush them (which is fun)? 

Thursday 3 October 2013

Cyberpunk 20...20?

Have a listen to the latest episode of Econtalk, where Tyler Cowen discusses his latest book, Average is Over. And consider - the setting for Cyberpunk 2020 is implausible, and its details are already antiquated, but in broad strokes it is not nearly as implausible as it may have seemed 10 years ago. I don't believe in Cowen's future, but it is a credible vision of the direction the world will be heading in 2020 AD, and there is an alternate universe where William Gibson wrote about it and it will come true.

In the foreword/prelude to Burning Chrome Bruce Sterling talked about "the victims of the new". What he meant by this was that William Gibson's stories were powerful because they were about the people who technological and social change had left behind. They weren't about Ralph 124C 41+; they were about the people who had been chewed up and spat out by the Future and had only two choices - to go down, or to go out. In other words, his stories are about the potential D&D adventurers of a possibly imaginable future: rogues, brigands and no-hopers who will never get a real job and whose only prospects are having nothing to lose. The kind of people who will end up at that deep dark dungeon - or oil rig archipelago - with a plan to get rich or die trying. 

Tie these two notions together and what do you have? A compelling reason for Mike Pondsmith to make Cyberpunk 2020

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Barriers to Entry

I spent part of yesterday trying to watch an NFL game. Apparently once a year they hold an NFL game in London; I thought this had been a one-off a few years back, because I remember it being hyped in, I think, 2010ish, but it seems it's an annual event. Despite the Sky and Channel 4 trying to make a huge thing of stealth popularity of American football over here across the pond, I rather suspect Wembley was full of 80,000 American tourists and expats living in London rather than genuine local English fans, although I could be wrong.

In any case, out of curiosity, I watched.

Now, I'm really into sport. I love football, cricket, rugby, tennis, boxing, you name it. Generally speaking I can get into anything if it's on TV. It doesn't matter the sport or the teams. US sports have tended to pass me by, although I watched a lot of baseball in Japan. (Mainly for the atmosphere - I genuinely think baseball as a sport is actually objectively boring.)

Nonetheless, I found it really difficult to understand the point of American Football. It seemed way too stop-start and I couldn't work out why the action was stopping; every so often one of the multitude of referees would pause to explain why what was happening was happening over the PA, but he would do so in gibberish - the words seemed to be English, but arranged in a random order. Players would simply come and go on and off the pitch, apparently when they fancied a break. Each team seemed obliged to field a couple of big fat guys with beer-bellies, maybe as an anti-discrimination measure, or something. And just when things seemed to be getting interesting there would be a tea break and the action would cut to the studio where Colin Murray was being as annoying as he used to be on MOTD2 except with two Americans on the couch rather than Alan Shearer and Pat Nevin.

Anyway, I am of course prepared to accept that American football is a great sport. Enough people in the USA seem to love it and that many people can't be wrong. But without somebody there to explain what is going on, it's basically impenetrable to an outsider like me. I gave up after about 10 minutes.

The same must be true of cricket, I often think. Unless you're brought up with the sport, it must be pretty hard to understand the nuances. Many cricket fans don't even actually really understand all the ins-and-outs of what exactly is LBW, and what the difference between a leg slip and fine leg is, or what it means when the commentator says Pietersen is vulnerable to left-arm orthodox spin.

Of course, this is less true of some sports. Football is very easy to understand. As a first-time viewer you might not get what the offside rule is, but the concept is simple and the action is easy to follow. The same is true of basketball. The first time you watch it, you get the core concepts.

So some pastimes have bigger barriers to entry than others. To an extent, this seems to coincide with equipment. American football, and to a much greater extent cricket, require something of an outlay on complicated tools. Football and basketball do not.

I sometimes find myself wondering what the barriers to entry for RPGs are, and how significant. If you were to simply give a roomful of four strangers an 'average' RPG (let's say, for the sake of argument, Call of Cthulhu), what would they make of it?

To some degree, the core concept itself is problematic. While some RPG books go to considerable effort to explain what an RPG is, you can imagine that there would be a level of difficulty getting to grips with what is supposed to happen.

Then, there are the rules. People are used to games having rules, but Call of Cthulhu has a lot of rules, even though it is only, really, averagely 'crunchy'. A further barrier to entry.

Then, there is the genre. Most ordinary people have not read HP Lovecraft's fiction. Simply working out what is supposed to happen in the game, especially at the level of individual threats and problems, is not an immediately solvable task.

Some gamers fret about this, and wish for introductory games to the hobby. They worry that nowadays a kid couldn't just wander into a shop and grab a game off the shelf and play it. In part, I used to agree - I certainly think it is obscene that nobody is making a game like Red Box D&D any more - but on the other hand, I'm not so sure that this is something to worry about. The NFL is really popular. Cricket is really popular. Those pastimes thrive not because casual viewers like me turn on the TV and immediately work out what the heck those crazy Americans wearing helmets are up to. They thrive because newcomers (kids mostly, but I assume adults too) are introduced by people they know to the game, to the culture surrounding it, to the nuances, to what makes it fun and enthralling to watch. And that's okay. (The same is also true, when you think of it, of many more cerebral pastimes, like chess or poker or backgammon.) Why would you expect RPGs to be different?

Friday 20 September 2013

The d4

Let's change the subject.

Like a lot of gamers, I dislike d4s probably most of all. There are three reasons for this:

1) Rolling them just isn't exciting. They plop on the table, rattle for a millisecond, and you have the result. This is problematic for dice, because the thing that makes rolling dice fun - the thing that makes it special - is the moment of suspense: the dice have left your hand and you are watching the graceful parabola of their movement and listening to the familiar clatter of their impact with the table, and your eyes flick to that spot at which you surmise they are about to stop, and you get this strange feeling of subconscious satisfaction at the way you can predict their motions although you are never quite sure exactly when and where they are going to come to a standstill...and there is a moment's pause as you wait for them to stop in which your brain considers a wealth of possibilities passing before it (win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die) and then the orgasmic climax of the number revealing itself. Although I usually only actually orgasm on a natural 20.

The d4 is the dice type that creates the least suspense because the time between release and result is too short. It's a quick, unskilled and disappointing lay. It blows its load too early and leaves you frustrated and a little bit displeased with yourself and what your life has come to.

2) They are not tactile. They are angular and feel not so much as discrete dice in their own right, but broken shards of bigger, better dice. All other dice types have a friendly, solid, almost avuncular feel. They are smiley, trusty comrades. d4s are harsh, cruel, nasty to the touch.

3) Even setting aside these considerations, the spread of results, and the maximum possible result, are both boring and anticlimactic. The difference between 1 and 4 almost makes you feel as if you may as well not have bothered rolling. And '4' is not an exciting number when other dice types give you 6, 8, 10, 12 or 20. That's a shallow way of looking at the d4, but an important one: even a good result is not very good.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Player Creativity Within the D6 for Damage Framework

Yes, there is still MORE TO BE SAID on this topic.

On yesterday's post various people raised the point that having different damage dice for different weapons is intrinsically good because it gives players the chance to make choices and trade-offs. 

Picador posts this excellent retort, which I can't really add much to:

I'm a big fan of two-handed weapons giving +1 to attack. That makes them more effective vs. heavy armor (verisimilitude) and mirrors the shield's -1 to AC (balance), making the "shield vs. two-handed weapon" choice one of straightforward defence vs. offence. In a game where bonuses to attack are few and far between (e.g. no Strength bonus, few magical weapons), that +1 is a big deal.

As soon as we start talking about mapping HP damage to weapon size, we're back into the weird incoherence of the "one successful attack roll = one connecting blow / hit points = physical wound capacity" system we grew up with. Much better to give a bonus to attack, representing the various combat advantages bestowed by using a large weapon with two hands (e.g. superior reach, control, and armor piercing ability).

I don't disagree in the slightest, but I also can't help but feel that there is a disadvantage of making trade-offs between weapons too obvious. That is, the difference between a sword which does d8 damage and a dagger which does d4 damage is as plain as the nose on your face. It's a no-brainer. There may be other considerations, but the primary consideration is which does more damage in a fight. I don't find that a particularly interesting choice at all in the context of OD&D, where there are no other real mechanical considerations regarding weapons (the case is different if we are playing Rolemaster or Runequest), but more to the point, I think there is a sense in which removing obvious choices like that encourages thoughtful engagement with the game.

That is, if there is no real mechanical difference between weapons, players have to consider other ways to distinguish between them. Suddenly, the primary distinction between the sword and the dagger ceases to be damage, but the trade-off between the prestige and swagger of wielding a sword versus the usefulness of the concealable dagger. That is not only a more interesting choice but one that draws the player into the game world and his character. He's not thinking about mathematics, but about what his character is actually going to be doing during play. 

So, you might say that there is a virtue in forcing players into making non-mechanical choices about the game. The more you restrict differentiation in the maths, the more you encourage creative, engaged thinking with what is "happening". Players are more likely to think about what their weapon actually does as a physical object rather than a simple number. I think that notion is at least worth consideration. 

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Swords and Arrows, and Dragonslaying

I'll shut up about universal d6 damage eventually, but there is MORE THAT MUST BE SAID.

In the comments to Sunday's post, two interesting issues are raised, by Ynas Midgard and Picador respectively. In respect of bows, Ynas Midgard makes the excellent point that bows are "harmonically bound" by slings in a d6-for-damage system (no, I hadn't heard of that phrase either); what this means is that, since bows and slings are effectively equal (they both do d6 damage), but slings have side benefits (infinite reloads, probably also concealability and other fringe advantages) you should always choose a sling over a bow in that system. 

The same is true of more or less any melee weapon vis-a-vis swords. Spears can be used for poking and measuring, and for attacking from a rear rank. Axes can smash down doors. Daggers are concealable. Clubs are free and ready-made. Swords are "harmonically bound" by everything else.

I'm not sure, but it seems Ynas Midgard sees this as a downside to the system. I'm partially inclined to disagree, for two reasons.

1) I like the idea of professional dungeoneers making hard-nosed choices about equipment. I view adventurers as being more like bandeirantes than anything else - tough, bloody-minded types whose decision-making is all about substance over style: the efficiency of a weapon which is also a tool would appeal to such folk. But that also means that the selection of a sword or bow as your weapon of choice is a statement. It may be sub-optimal, but it says to the world, specifically, "My character cares about style over substance". Maybe he has delusions of grandeur and wants to be a knight, or a hero. Maybe he envisions himself as a woodsman or Robin Hood-type with a yew hunting bow. Maybe he wants to impress people by gadding about with a poncey rapier. Whatever - it makes a sword or bow a luxury and an extension of the character, rather than just a default.

2) Wherever swords are found in a culture, they are a sign of privilege, because they are difficulty and costly to make in comparison to other weapons. A large part of the reason why swords are so prominent in the mythology of late-middle-ages Europe and Edo period Japan is that only the rich could afford them: they are about power, wealth, and, for want of a better word, bling. Making them a somewhat rare and sub-optimal choice for PCs enhances their status as a statement rather than a mere weapon or tool. 

Picador, on the other hand, writes some excellent comments going back to the early days of D&D:

I know there's been a lot of discussion recently about hit points and the duration of combat between characters of various levels, but it seems to me that if you were interested in preserving the combat dynamics of Chainmail in the context of D&D's more granular HD/HP system, you'd want to have a corollary to the Fighter's ability to engage multiple 1HD targets. It might look something like this:

"When a Fighter is engaged in melee or missile combat with a single other creature, a successful attack by the Fighter deals a number of dice of damage equal to his or her level."

This solves two problems: first, the one-minute combat round can now use more realistic movement rates without diminishing the efficacy of missile weapons; and second, it's now possible to simulate those Conan moments where he impales the giant serpent on a spear or cuts off his opponent's head in the first exchange, rather than thrashing around with the dude for fifteen minutes.

If you wanted to be generous to the non-Fighters (and, true to Chainmail, allow Wizards the ability to beat up on legendary creatures alongside Heroes and Superheroes), you could phrase it thusly instead:

"When a combatant is engaged in melee or missile combat with a single other creature, a successful attack deals damage equal to the combatant's Fighting Capability (e.g. a 6th-level Magic-User deals three dice plus one point of damage to the creature's hit points)."

I like this a lot. It turns Fighters into genuine combat monsters at higher levels, able, as Picador puts it, to impale a giant serpent on a spear - or, perhaps more to the point, slay a dragon with a single mighty and well-placed blow, a la Turin and Glaurung, or Bard and Smaug. 

Two possible tweaks to consider:

1) Allowing Fighters to 'spread' damage and attacks across opponents. So, picture a Level 6 Fighting Man engaging 3 orcs. He has potentially 6d6 of damage to deal out. He decides (when declaring actions for the round) to try to make three attacks, one on each orc, using 2d6 for damage on each one. He rolls 'to attrit' separately for each orc.

2) Whats good for the goose is good for the gander, and allowing monsters to do d6 damage per HD only seems fair. No more endless back-and-forth, trading blows with that ancient red dragon. It's you or him, and it won't be long before one or the other is dead.

Monday 16 September 2013

Abstracted Weapon Benefits

Brendan has in the past talked a bit about weapon properties for OD&D. This came up again on various G+ threads, and it got me thinking about the virtues of having different weapons in an abstract combat system where every weapon ostensibly does d6 damage over a 1 minute round.

The approach of Brendan, and the commenters on G+, is to create small mechanical benefits of various kinds for the different weapons. I don't belittle that at all, and I love some of the ideas, but on the other hand the purity of all weapons doing apparently the same amount of damage is appealing to me. 

I find myself increasingly wondering whether there needs to be any explicit mechanical differentiation between weapons given that different weapon types provide in-game benefits outside of combat for an enterprising DM and players. Viz:

  • Daggers are concealable. This is a particularly useful attribute if the DM is being sensible about social rules and not just handwaving the fact that players are wandering around the local nobleman's palace or merrie olde inn armed to the teeth with awl-pikes, tridents and spiked chains. 
  • Polearms, spears and their ilk are useful for probing and measuring. They are an invaluable dungeoneering tool. This is why all 1st level fighters should have a spear or similar as their primary weapon. 
  • Axes can be used to hack down doors and other obstacles. 
  • Slings are essentially infinitely re-loadable provided there are rocks in the vicinity. They can also be used to hurl flasks of oil.

This makes me think that every kind of weapon can provide a benefit of some kind without violating the d6 for damage standard or even introducing any mechanical difference. Even two-handed weapons could be seen as intimidating and factored into the DM's calculations for how potential foes react to the PCs.

I'm coming around more and more to the view that good gaming is about the DM paying careful attention to the details of his world to the extent that the players are aware that every choice they make has consequences. This seems to feed into that philosophy.  

Saturday 14 September 2013

Basic Trade and Cargo

I think of Yoon-Suin as largely an expressionistic setting, in the sense that it's not really supposed to make sense behind the scenes, but rather be evocative thematically. However, it has a veneer of realism for the players to get engaged in.

Since trade is such a big theme within the setting, I decided to come up with a simple way of making trade accessible and gameable. I tried to resist the urge to go down the route of re-jigging the Traveller speculative trade rules, because that has been done well enough already and it doesn't feel quite right in terms of what I want trade to represent. Instead, I went for something a little more complex and Yoon-Suin specific.

In Yoon-Suin, the trade goes in a big back-and-forth from region to region. The Hundred Kingdoms are fecund and fertile but resource-poor, so they produce lots of slaves and lots of animal produce. This gets sent to the Yellow City because it is the only geographical outlet, where it is shipped up the God River to the Mountains of the Moon and Sughd. Back down the river to the Yellow City from Sughd comes tea and opium, and from the Mountains of the Moon, minerals. Eventually this makes its way to the Hundred Kingdoms, which desperately need minerals in particular. The Yellow City is so important and wealthy because it is the hub of all of the trade.

So there are large regional differences to take into account as well as place-specific differences. So the system goes like this:

Goods are divided into units, each weighing 1000cn (100lb). Each type of good has a value per unit, and you obviously just tot up the value of a given cargo based on the number of units (i.e. the weight) of each cargo type. For instance, if dye is 50 gp per unit, and a merchant is carrying 2 tonnes of dye, he is carrying 40 units, and thus 2,000 gp worth of dye. (I use imperial tonnes and round them down to 2000 pounds.)

Goods have a value at source (meaning the price you pay at the place they are produced), a value where desired (meaning the price paid where the goods are not produced but not in great demand), and a value where needed (meaning the price paid where the goods are particularly in demand). The value where desired is 1.5 times the value at source, and the value where needed is 3 times the value at source. These are referred to as "Sourced", "Desired", and "Needed".

Of course, the DM can change these values for special cases. If he feels like some backwater somewhere would pay 20 times the value at Source for some special variety of tea, that's not a problem.

Slaves are always Sourced in The Hundred Kingdoms, and each polity there will also have 3 natural products which are Sourced. Other natural products in that given city will be Desired. Mineral products are Needed.

In the Yellow City, essentially everything is Desired. The city produces nothing, but it has access to all other goods in sufficient amounts that nothing is ever in huge demand. The exceptions are tea and opium, which are Needed, because of the debauchery of the city's inhabitants.

In the Oligarchies in the Mountains of the Moon, slaves and natural products are always Needed, and each oligarchy will have 3 mineral resources which are Sourced - other mineral products are Desired, as are tea and opium.

In Sughd, tea and opium are Sourced, mineral products and natural products are Desired, and slaves are Needed.

So if our merchant with his 400 units of dye, which he has bought in the Hundred Kingdoms, takes it to the Yellow City, which Desires it, he can get 1.5 times its value at source, or 3,000 gp. If he takes it to the Oligarchies, he can sell it for 6,000 gp. Once there he can buy 6,000 gp worth of, say, lapis lazuli, and sell it in the Hundred Kingdoms for 18,000 gp. Not bad work if you can get it, although you have to bear in mind that the journey is about 350 miles through dangerous and pestilent jungle, he will have to hire lots of men to keep him secure on the way, and he will likely have to pay taxes at both ends.

The rationale behind the system is that there is no need for PCs to get involved in trade, and thus no reason for the DM to bother with it either, but if it becomes relevant for whatever reason or the players want to do it, there is a rudimentary system available and ready for use. It also means that you can have goods appearing in treasure hoards and quickly work out a value based on the weight.

This system also allows for random cargo generation. When players come across a trader in a random encounter, the DM can roll a number of units and a number of cargo types and assign as necessary. Yes, if you get your shits and giggle robbing merchants and selling their cargoes elsewhere, your shits and giggles are facilitated by the Yoon-Suin rules.

Friday 13 September 2013

A Little Ancient Mesopotamian Campaign Setting With Your D&D, Sir?

Inspired by this approach to hex mapping and setting design, and at a bit of a loose end (you know how sometimes when you have a million other things to do, you just can't help doing something else?), I today drew up this beginning campaign setting map:

The regional hexes are 5 miles; the subhexes are 1 mile. My approach was basically similar to that of The Welsh Piper, but slightly looser and more simplistic, and can be summarised as follows:
  • Choose three terrain types: primary, secondary, and tertiary. In this case, scrub hills, evergreen hills, and grassland. The climate is semi-tropical and somewhat arid; for the evergreen hills think cypress trees in the Levant rather than Norwegian firs. 
  • Make the centre subhex the primary terrain type. Then assign 9 primary, 6 secondary and 3 tertiary terrain types to the 18 whole subhexes, and distribute to taste for the 12 half subhexes. 
  • Roll to determine the primary terrain type for neighbouring regional hexes, based on the terrain types for this regional hex (roll a d12 to determine: 1-6 is primary, 7-9 is secondary, 10-11 is tertiary, 12 is a wildcard.
  • Draw rivers, lakes etc. as desired.
  • Place a settlement, a dungeon, a resource for the settlement, and three 'known' miscellaneous potential adventure locations. This are all the places the PCs are aware of at the start of play. 
  • Fill in information for all the other hexes; but that information is secret.
  • Profit. 
And you don't do anything more than that except for broad strokes. So here are the broad strokes:
  • It's an ancient Mesopotamian, early bronze-age type society. It is not remotely accurate to the real world geographically, culturally, or historically. It's to ancient Mesopotamia what D&D is to medieval Europe. 
  • The players start in the small walled town of Eshnunna, an independent state of a few thousand souls with a wall around it. The inhabitants mine tin from the hills a mile or so to the North, and graze sheep and goats on the shrubland hills nearby. The grassland to the East is part of the range of a nomadic tribe of herders who are there sometimes depending on the year and the climate. They have a frictive relationship with the people of Eshnunna.
  • The hills surrounding Eshnunna are home to monoliths and monuments of an older civilization which they refer to as 'Sumer' and which left the area a few generations ago. This older civilization practised magic. Mastering the language of Sumer and deciphering clay tablets containing their spells makes you a magician.  
  • However, there is a more ancient and half-buried ruin, called Jemdet Nasr, which is home to something altogether more frightening which the locals largely shun. It was inhabited by a people who are referred to as the 'Ubaid', who disappeared thousands of years ago, and who worshipped what are called the "Other Gods" or "Satan" ('the Adversaries') by the men of Eshnunna. These Other Gods are said to lie sleeping beyond space and time and are more powerful and terrible than the Gods of Earth who the men of Eshnunna worship.
  • Jemdet Nasr is a Mythic Underworld.
And as a bonus, two alternative rules for bronze weapons:

Lazy variant: On a natural 20 the attack is 'critical' as normal but the weapon breaks.
Complicated resource-management variant: Each bronze weapon has a twenty-round 'life'. Every round of actual physical combat the weapon is used in, chalk up another notch. When the tally reaches 20, the weapon has become blunted and useless. 

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Knowledge Economy

One of the principles that I think runs through my games quite a bit is that knowledge is power. I'm at pains to imply within the setting that it's often who you know and what you know rather than who you are which is important, and I like rewarding players for finding things out, meeting NPCs and establishing connections, and generally interacting with the game world in an interested and engaged way.

It seems to me that there are two approaches to reflecting the importance of knowledge within a game. I'll label them "meta rewards" and "in-game rewards", and deal with them in reverse order.

In-Game Rewards

In-game rewards are what players get when they use knowledge to unlock more useful knowledge, or to otherwise gain an advantage within the game. Example 1: players in a CP2020 game meeting an important NPC at a party, getting to know him, offering to do something for him. They now have increased their pool of knowledge (they know another NPC) and this might be used to further their aims later on (the NPC is important, has connections, can do things for them or get them connected to more knowledge through contacts, etc.). Example 2: players come across a band of goblins in a D&D game, talk to them, hear a rumour from them of a dangerous sorcerer in the local area. They have increased their pool of knowledge and now have access either to an important helpful NPC or somebody they might want to rob. Example 3: players break into an archive, discover a treasure map. They have now found a way to get both money and/or XP. 

The aim of the in-game reward is to, basically, positively reinforce active and intelligent player involvement in the game setting. The reward itself is slightly tenuously linked to the activity (it is not immediate, and may come in the form of gold or XP months of game-time later), but the idea is that knowledge about the setting has tangible in-game benefits. 

Meta Rewards

A meta reward would be giving actual XP or equivalent for discovering new information. Example 1: players in a D&D game are explorers. As they uncover more hexes or geographical/cultural information, they get XP rewards. Example 2: players in a Call of Cthulhu-type investigative game are given XP rewards or equivalent for finding new, hidden knowledge about the Other Gods they discover in an ancient tomb. Example 3: players in an Unknown Armies-type urban fantasy game are given XP rewards or equivalent for discovering that Tom Cruise actually is a thousand-year old Prolonger.

The aim of the meta reward is, obviously, to reward the seeking of knowledge for its own sake, as an intrinsic element of the game: the game is about finding things out.


I basically only ever use in-game rewards, because that's the style of game I generally run, but I certainly think that XP for exploration is something that I would like to consider for a D&D game, and that XP for revealing information about Horrible Ancient Stuff would be a great mechanism for a D&D/Call of Cthulhu mashup. 

There is, of course, a point at which in-game rewards and meta rewards tie together, in that an in-game rewards (find out about an NPC and carrying out a mission for him, in return for which he gives you a map, which eventually leads you to treasure) morphs into a meta reward (you get XP for the treasure, which means levels). This is one of the many ways in which the creators of D&D sort of awkwardly stumbled across pure game design genius: D&D rewards active player involvement with all elements of the setting both within the game (knowledge = opportunities to get more treasure/power), in the meta game (opportunities to get more treasure/power = XP/levels) and back again (more XP/levels = more power and advancement within the game setting). It's a virtuous circle which few if any games can match when done right. 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Exploring the Infinite

I've always been far too lazy and self-critical to actually try to write fiction longer than, say, 5 sentences, and I'm at peace with that - I'm not much of a frustrated novelist DM. Nonetheless I do get ideas for novels from time to time. (Don't worry: this isn't a jump-the-shark post where I start posting my fiction - none of these ideas ever comes remotely close to fruition.)

When I was a teenager I had this idea for a story in which a group of explorers were travelling up a river of infinite length. I never thought about it in much more depth than that. I just liked the quixotic, "because fuck you, that's why" nature of exploring something which by definition could never be fully explored.

It makes me want to resurrect the idea, especially since I think wilderness exploration is sort of in the blogging zeitgeist at the moment (at least in the circles I frequent), and the tools for random wilderness creation are growing in sophistication and usefulness. (See e.g. Welsh Piper's stuff from a few years back, and Talysman's last minute hexcrawl.)

A randomly generated, forever-flowing river which never reaches the sea. With new sections added as and when the players explore beyond the border of the current set of hexes. Banks lined with strange civilizations and outlandish monsters. Horrible rumours about what lies downstream. Careful management of resources - gifts/bribes for the natives, food, messenger pigeons to send back home. And the prospect of ultimately giving up on the quest when Eden is found?

Wednesday 4 September 2013

On Charm; Or, the Perfection of Imperfection

A short while ago I wrote a rather complicated entry about the preference I have for different systems. I think I over complicated matters considerably; I actually think the main reason why I tend to like the games I like is to do just with a very simple but ill-defined quality: charm.

This thought occurred to me as I was planning a game I'd like to run eventually, as a kind of palate-cleanser once a particularly busy period of my life is over. It's a campaign set in a sort of fantasy, faeries-are-real medieval Northumberland focusing on the Border Reivers, incorporating some of the ideas I had regarding localismhex contentshex travel, and also Talysman's subhex crawl series.

The set-up seems perfect for Reign Enchiridion, a game I recently bought and have wanted to try. The idea is that the PCs are, of course, autonomous actors, but also part of the same extended border family, getting involved in managing resources, fighting competitors, raiding, currying favour with the nobility, expanding their territory and wealth, as well as adventuring. Reign, with its elegant company rules which merge seamlessly with those for individual PCs, its gritty feel, and its generic, customisable nature, seems perfect.

So why is it that the thought of actually running it using Reign just doesn't inspire me, but using Pendragon or a kind of customised form of BECMI D&D does - even though the latter would involve much more work?

I think it's because, ultimately, Reign doesn't charm me. Pendragon and Basic D&D, on the other hand, do. Why is this?

Partly, it's about passion. I have no doubt that all RPG designers are passionate about their system and also playing games, but this is communicated more effectively in some games than others. Greg Stafford, the designer of Pendragon, loves what he is trying to achieve. It seeps through the page. This is a man who really gets T. H. White, and Malory, and Gawain and the Green Knight, and all of that jazz, and he wants to make sure you get it too. And you do.

But this is only part of it: I also think we, as humans, tend to like things that are imperfect, and even to be slightly suspicious of things that are perfect. I'm sure that is not true for everybody, but it's not an unremarked-upon phenomena that a lot of the (supposedly) great masterpieces of Western art which everybody is familiar with - Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, whatever - are somewhat flawed. And I certainly think it is true when I consider the cultural products I really love: The Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek: TNG, and Bill Bryson's travel books, and Carlito's Way, and the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, and Raymond Carver's poetry, and War and Peace, and "The Rite of Spring", and Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the book Wonder Boys - these are a few of my favourite things, and yet none of them are really technically perfect. They are often messy and there are things in them that don't make sense or strike the wrong note or that I wonder why they are in there in the first place. There are parts of War and Peace where you just think to yourself, Leo, what are you on about? This book could have been half as long. Where was your editor? But when you're really into it you just feel glad to be alive and in the world and able to read it.

D&D and Pedragon are the same way. There is so much in both of them that makes you think, eh? That if you consider too deeply you realise make no sense whatsoever. That make you think, come on Mr Stafford, you really think it's okay to just say, "Magic is the GM saying that whatever happens, happens"? Or, come on Mr Gygax, you have this incredibly abstract combat system with 1-minute long rounds and yet you're telling me it's important to have different stats for awl pikes versus voulges versus guisarmes versus voulge-guisarmes?

And yet at the same times there is something indefinable there, some sort of spark, that makes you understand that for all their flaws - probably because of their flaws - these games feel as though they were written by people who understand what is really important in life. They feel as though they were written by people you'd want to have a pint with. They feel like they were written by people who know that it's more important that the game feels like being in a TH White novel than it be scrupulously fair, realistic and cohesive - or people who know that accidentally generating a pack of Wights on a wandering monster table on Dungeon Level 1 and seeing the players panic and flee for their lives is the thing that people are going to remember and enjoy about that session. Or that the fact you have to roll a different kind of dice for every piddling little subsystem is good because rolling different kinds of dice is fun. Or that having inexplicable result X come up is good because it means the GM has to come up with interesting explanation Y. And that is why I like them. These are games that feel as though they were carved by somebody out of wood. Not grown in a lab.

Monday 2 September 2013

How I Started Playing RPGs

I won't do the whole 30 Day Challenge, but reading about it did give me the urge to tell My Story, such as it is, for your edification and amusement, or perhaps boredom and disinterest.

When I was a young lad, probably around 9-10 years old, I got into Fighting Fantasy books. I don't quite remember why except that I'd read and loved The Lord of the Rings already by that point and so knew that I liked fantasy books, and I had seen a school friend reading The Forest of Doom and somehow got the impression that it was in some way edgier or more adult than Tolkien's work. Since the local library had a large collection, I started going through them at a rate of 3 or 4 a week. (A vagrant memory that just comes to me: reading The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in a dentist's waiting room as I was waiting for a check-up.)

Fighting Fantasy had a more 'advanced' introduction to genuine role playing games, called Fighting Fantasy - the Original Role-playing Game, and eventually (probably after I'd finished all of the game books) I got around to buying this. Around this time a friend and I had started trying to write fantasy novels after school (mercifully these are lost to history); we merrily plundered the Fighting Fantasy books for material, and one afternoon we turned to this 'advanced' tome to find out what on earth this RPG business was all about. We couldn't quite get the hang of it, but this early experiment led to us getting the Advanced Fighting Fantasy books out from the library and trying to figure out those.

A few months later, and coincidentally, another friend started running Basic "red box" D&D at school at lunch times. I have a very distinct memory of my first session: I was told to roll up a character and generated a halfling who had a DEX of 16 - I can't remember who the other PCs were, though. The adventure involved going into a dungeon and killing a carrion crawler, and then being confronted with a red dragon who we tried to negotiate our way past before he killed us unceremoniously with his breath weapon. It was a dick DM move of the highest order, although clearly something about it already had me hooked - though I think that was probably more to do with the Advanced Fighting Fantasy games that I started running for friends in the neighbourhood in after school games.

It's hard sometimes as an adult to remember just how much free time you had as a kid. From 4pm every school night and all day at weekends I had no responsibilities whatsoever. The amount of time I spent playing Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, D&D or other RPGs, reading, writing silly stories, as well as all the other kid things like playing cricket and football, going on bike rides, playing computer games, watching TV...it amounts to oceans of hours. Yet I can hardly believe that I found time to fit it all in, looking back. I must have had a seriously packed schedule. What the hell do I do now that gets in the way, apart from work? What is it about being an adult that makes us kid ourselves that we are actually busy? We should try being children and see what the meaning of being busy really is.

Friday 30 August 2013

D&D Combat is More Abstract Than You Think

Conversations on G+ led me to think some more about this recent post about the abstraction of D&D combat in general.

Older editions may have changed the game, but it's important to remember that the D&D combat rules evolved in a context of a 1 minute combat round: in OD&D and AD&D 1st edition, the combat round is a minute in length. This is quite deliberate - and I am sure that most readers of this blog will be aware of the famous idea of Gary Gygax's that a D&D fight should resemble the sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne in the Errol Flynn iteration. (For further information on that, see this en world post.)

Once you accept this notion - that the combat round is long and what goes on in it is necessarily rather abstract - D&D's combat system does make a sort of sense. Not perfect sense, but a sort of sense. The 'to hit' roll is a misnomer: you're not rolling to hit. You're rolling to see if, over the course of 1 minute, you manage to wear down your opponent's defences, either through actual physical damage or moral 'damage' or exhaustion or whatever. The opponent's armour impacts on your ability to do this, which is why AC is essentially a penalty applied to the 'to hit' roll, rather than a damage reduction effect. Your hit points represent you capacity to stay in the fight, which slowly gets reduced over time (the higher your level, the longer this takes). And your movement rate, which seems absurdly slow, represents the fact that you are scooting around and manoeuvring for position while avoiding blows, missile attacks, what have you.

The only thing that seems strange in this paradigm is missile attacks - why only one or two shots over the course of a minute? Even this, however, has a kind of logic to it if you think about it: it is surely very difficult to hit a moving target, who knows that you are shooting at him, with a bow. Especially at range, where he can watch the path of the arrow and just step away or check his movement. The fact that only one or two shots are permitted in a 1 minute round indicates that the archer is waiting to pick his moment to fire.

Once you've accepted that there is a certain logic to all of this, and that D&D combat is not really tied to anything particularly concrete, I would question why there really needs to be even an arbitrary length to a combat round of 1 minute. What is the purpose of a combat round? It gives a chance for everybody to decide what they want to do and then act. On that basis I would prefer the following definition: a combat round is how long the time it takes before somebody next makes a decision to do something different to what they are currently doing. This could be 10 seconds. It could be a minute. It could be 5 seconds. It could be 40. It doesn't matter: there is no credibility to stretch because we are not dealing with a system which has to make sense in the way that a less abstract one does. We are not rolling dice 'to hit', despite the name: we are rolling to see how far we attrit (that is a word: I looked it up) the opponent. "Rolling to attrit" has less of a ring to it, but that is the core of the D&D system.

Another good reason for preferring abstract combat is just that realism may be something of a fool's errand. I think that there is a kind of Western Martial Arts mafia that is slowly taking over these sorts of discussions online. I really like the idea of Western Martial Arts but I'm not persuaded that they are entirely realistic; until people start actually fighting to the death using these techniques, and agreeing that if they are injured they will only use medical techniques that were in use in the 14th century, I think that "what happens in a real sword fight" is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so. That doesn't mean I don't like messing around with that sort of thing, as I did here and here. It just means that I don't think we lack justification for saying that a D&D combat round is an indefinite length of time, and that doesn't matter because nobody really knows what would go on in a combat round anyway.