Friday, March 27, 2015

What Players Will Accept

Some years ago, a discussion about something called 'wilderness damage' made the rounds of several blogs.  I never implemented it into my campaign (for all it's slashing brilliance), largely because it was bound to be unpopular with my players.  Like many new ideas, it would increase the player's record keeping requirements while at the same time actually making the campaign more strenuous and therefore less pleasant.  Therefore, after several private attempts to play with the idea, I shelved it.

Once digging into the matter, I expected that the most difficult thing to manage would be the weather or the choice of route - those things that appear on the original table I proposed back in 2011.  Instead, the real trouble arises as we consider what individual conditions for each player serve to exascerbate those effects.  Listed below are some of those conditions:


  • wearing armor; types of armor vs. clothing
  • clothing itself; wool vs. cotton vs. linen vs. silk in various climates
  • footwear; hard boots vs. soft boots or sandles
  • shelter; tents vs. 'sleeping under the stars' or choosing to pay money for an inn.
  • constitution; who fares best where it comes to poor weather?
  • dexterity; who is most likely to fall in rough places, the thief or the clumsy cleric?
  • intelligence & wisdom (see above)
  • characters who keep watch vs. those who sleep all night
  • cleaniness vs. filth
  • food that is eaten
  • riding vs. walking
  • rangers & druids vs. other characters
  • elves, gnomes & halflings vs. other characters

It is these individual differences that make it hard for some characters to comfortably make their way through the outback as opposed to others.  Take any expedition where survival became a critical factor:  the Greeley Expedition, the Shackleton Voyage, the Donner Party, Edmund Kennedy's third expedition in Australia, violence that occurs among Canadian surveyors described in Pierre Berton's National Dream, even the 1996 Everest disaster, and the reader cannot help but understand that there are differences in each person's ability to endure.  What is always weird in these cases is that some live, not because they're special or able or strong, but simply because they have a greater will to survive than others.

No system that sets forth to describe the wilderness in terms of damage can be applied equally to all persons.  Some will live.  Some will die.  It is useless to pretend that a system like this can be universal.

The players understand this.  That is why, if said system were put in place, a DM could absolutely count on players producing arguments like, "If I keep my shoes in repair, will I suffer less damage?  What if I carry a lighter weapon?  What if I take a swim in the pond in the middle of a hot day?  Do I take the same amount of damage if I drink more water?"  And so on.

Here is the problem.  Now the solution.

Embrace the chaos.  Why?  Because it is worth all the chaos, all the individual arguments, all the trouble of having to assign point values to every tiny change or infringement on the character's welfare, however long it takes to finally assign (and possibly to program) each aspect into a calculation system that keeps this character going and makes this one take a day of rest.  It is worth it because finally, finally, it would be nice if a journey taken by players actually felt like a journey.  It is worth it if players would only view a distance of 700 miles with doubt and indecision, knowing that its very possible someone will die along the way.  It is worth it if travel isn't just a math problem of dividing the distance between the number of kilometers travelled in a day, producing the number of wandering monster rolls that must be made before the party gets where they're going.

As yet, I have not introduced the rules I conceived with these two posts on climate, here and here.  However, my players' embrace of the ideas has confirmed for me that the 'feel' of my campaigns are changing.  They are steadily moving towards maturity, towards a desire for the kind of problem solving that challenges the norms, that demands a higher approach to overcoming hazards.  I feel that, more than ever, my players are beginning to program themselves towards agreeing that yes, wilderness travel should not be a walk in the park.  It should feel like travel.  The world should be more than fighting in 19th century mobile theatre devices (presented on computer, in my case).

So I am returning to this idea . . . but I have a new twist on it.  Something that I think will massively change the way that parties - particularly young, low-level parties - approach adventure.

Experience for damage taken.  Somehow, in 2011, I was somewhat leery of this idea.  Just now, I can't think of why.  It seems reasonable to me that players, faced with taking damage along a journey from exhaustion or from minor incidents while hunting up wood for a fire, tripping over stones, losing their balance under a heavy pack and so on, would grow stronger and more durable through the simple process of covering the distance between here and yonder.  How many monsters did Lewis and Clark fight?  If you were going to assign 'bonus xp' to their journeys, how much would you give?  Now give me a total for Nikolai Przhevalsky.  For Alexander Gordon Laing.  For Jacob Le Maire.  For Martin Frobisher.  Distance in miles just isn't going to cut it.  Some of these went through deserts, some of these went by ship, some of these hacked their way through jungles.  What measurement are we going to use?

Because surely all these explorers went up levels.  Surely they grew more handy with their knives and weapons, their hands grew calloused, their wits sharper, their minds more ready for the unknown and unexpected.  Don't tell me that because they never had to fight monsters, they're not worthy of being in the upper levels!

Players will do the record keeping if it gets them closer to another level.  We all know that is true.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nice

Moving deck chairs because that is what we know how to do:

Playing with themselves.


Stories for Players

The lost city of Thepsis was found in the year 3742 B.C., on a fertile, grassy plain that can be found some sixty miles east by southeast of Luxor on the Nile River.  By the time of Julius Caesar, this plain had already been reduced to a desert for a thousand years, called the Eastern Desert, a desolate plateau of sand.  Until the time of the Middle Kingdom, however, during the Nile's time of inundation, when Egypt was flooded, a channel of the river would overflow the Nile's modern banks and flow to the east, drowning the plain of Thepsis and making the land fertile and green.

Dedicated to the lion goddess Sekhmet, the city grew wealthy through trade with the Red Sea coast and Nubia.  It was said that the spirit of the city was defended by the brethren of Phix, the first Sphinx, who dwelt upon the plains of the Sahel for thousands of years before the founding of the Old Kingdom.  The lifespan of a sphinx is believed to be near to 4,000 years, although this has never been confirmed.

Thepsis includes the great tomb of Sekhimib-Perenmaat, an immense catacomb that was built in a progressive series of galleries, said to include fourteen great chambers.  This tomb was designed by Horajefa, a polymath who served Sekhimib and is said to be buried in the second gallery of the tomb. The first gallery is said to contain "a phenomenon such as has never been seen in the world since that day" - but nothing beyond those words, found in a tomb near Asyut, is known.

According to legend, in the 8th century the lost city was located by Arabian astronomers, who determined that the city could be found if the plain were observed during a full eclipse from Abozaed, an isolated mount located in the Eastern Desert.

View of the Thepsis plain as seen from Abozaed.
The legend says that after the city was revealed, the discoverers kept the secret to themselves while carefully making plans to transfer the treasures within to Babylon, where they would be given as a gift to the Caliph - but while en route to Luxor, the whole party was caught exposed to a sandstorm and buried forever in the desert, the secret lost.

Another eclipse is set to take place on April 12th, 1651 - but this is known only to a small adventuring party that is now making their way from Gazira, through the Holy Land and into Egypt.  The date for them is January 30th, 1651.  Will they reach the right vantage point in time?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

More Figures

A bit more work regarding top-down images for use in computer-generated combat mapping:


These seem to look better when they're smaller, which is probably a good thing.  The fellow on the right end, Penn, is meant to be an illusionist with a quarterstaff.  I think the robe worked out rather well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Immersion

I was thinking on something Preston Selby wrote today, regarding the ideal for presenting a campaign:  "I'm here to have a deeply immersive fantasy experience."

Well, it works in context.  Selby goes on to talk about the difficulties of obtaining 'catharsis.'  Amen.

For those who don't recognize the word, or perhaps don't have a handle on it, a catharsis is a "purification and purgation [sic] of emotions - especially pity and fear - through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration."

Try to identify a moment when stress pushed you to the edge of a breakdown - and then over that edge, so that you actually went to pieces.  Did you feel better afterwards?  That's catharsis.

Recall the last time you were at total peace, where the experience you were having was so complete and relaxing that you lacked the will even to remark upon the thoroughness of the experience.  That's catharsis too.

For many people, catharsis is something they reach only through the use of recreational drugs.  Pot, hash, ecstasy, heroin, Demerol, Vicodin, Percocet . . . these are very effective at producing catharsis because they discombobulate your brain, separating you from your own thought processes.  Stress gone.  Worries gone.  Cognitive processes - distracted.  You're at peace.  And when you rise from that peace, you get an extra little comfort from the small vacation you've taken - the same 'feel better' that came from going to pieces on your own.

Now, I've never 'done' these drugs.  I'm merely providing information based upon reliable sources.  I took Percocet when I snapped my quadriceps tendon back in '08; while it did put me to sleep, it gave me these bizarre hallucinations about things floating over the bed - so I didn't finish the proscription.  I wouldn't say I was feeling much catharsis from it.  I've had a number of very intense cathartic experiences and none of them were associated with the kind of pain the Percocet was only half-managing.  But I digress.

Most morality-based groups would prefer you got your cathartic experiences in a way that did not involve the use of drugs.  Of course, many of those would also rather you did not get your catharsis through table-top role-playing, so there we are.  I would guess it is really up to the reader.  Of course, 12% of the American prison population is not made up of people who screamed, "DIE purple jam thing!" before throwing a 20-sided die.

Woah.  That would be a world.

Screaming during a game - any sort of excessive emotion, actually - is a means of obtaining a catharsis.  It will get on the nerves of other players, however, so we do encourage players to scream in their own heads and to do their best to concentrate on their die-fetish instead.  Thus bringing us, at last, to the point of this post:

You can make catharsis happen.

Yes, yes, I know you're bored with the DM's dungeon.  I know that you're horribly jaded and savvy.  I know you haven't got the spirit to even pick up the die any more, much less give a shit what it rolls.  But try, O Brethren, to remember what was working for you when you first played.

It was new, yes?  Of course it was.  Back then, you could count on the natural chemicals in your body, the hormonal juice that always gets rolling when you're forced to deal with something unknown.  You don't know what the die will roll.  You don't know what it will mean.  Wow, wasn't it all kewl.

Those days are past now.  You'll have to deal with that.  The game isn't going to be fresh and new again, not like those first days, no matter how many new games you try or how many ways you try to make the armor and weapons rules work.  You're chasing a dead dream.  Yes, you're addicted to that old juice, but that old juice ain't gonna make you high any more.

You need some new juice, friend.

Let's try an experiment.  This is going to sound crazy, so chase everyone out of the room, close the door, put a chair under the knob, take a deep breath and then just let go of your natural doubts.  No, this isn't the experiment.  Not yet.

Find your favorite 20-sided die.  Yes, you have one.  If you have to take the chair away from the door because it's in another room, I'll understand.  I'll wait.  Good.  Have you got it?  Is the chair back in place?  Then we can begin.

Roll the die.  Go ahead, don't think about it, just roll it.  Now take your eyes away and give the number as little thought as possible.  There.  That's how you normally roll that die.

Now, bring it up to your eye and stare at the die.  Don't roll it.  Just turn it over and over in your hand, very slowly, and concentrate all your attention on the object.  ALL your attention.  Push everything else out of your mind.  Bring all the thoughts you have to bear on making the die the only object existing in the universe.  Think about how it is going to look when you let it roll off your fingers onto the table.  No, don't roll it, not yet.  Just grok that one simple vision.  The die rolling.  You holding the die, you releasing the die, your eye following the die, the die coming to a rest.

Why does it matter?  You are making it matter.

You are using your will to rid yourself of the clutter of emotions, of details, of random thoughts, of the stress that underlies your present moment in time - all that, so you can meditate on this die and give it power.

If you can muster any self-control at all, you will feel something.  It won't be new or unique or something you haven't felt before.  In fact, it will be a familiar feeling, a feeling you have whenever you become exceptionally conscious of what's going on around you.  This is a feeling that you sometimes enjoy, that you sometimes dislike - but one that you associate with moments you remember.

Right now, this is a die in your hand.  The die itself doesn't matter.  The only thing that matters is how you choose to look at the die - right now, in your hand.

When you're ready - when you're completely ready - throw the die.

Now, sit down to start working on your world.  Draw yourself together the same way you did with the die, only now, apply it to your world.  Visualize the moment that you will run the place or the events you are creating right now.  Push out everything else.  Take your time.  Don't rush.  Live this moment.  Be in this moment.  Make it matter.

To have a deeply rewarding game experience doesn't require some special rule-system or game genre; it doesn't require a super-special DM or miniatures; it doesn't require a perfect space or great rolls for your character.  You don't have to be 'in character' or possessed of detailed gear or magic character sheets.  These things help but they're not required.

All that is required is you.  Aware.  Invested.  Concentrating.  Alive and in the moment.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Saga of Demifee, Part II

It's always a bad thing when we're lowered to telling war stories.

Almost two months ago I wrote a post called 'Breaking Death.'  I thought, selfishly, that some readers might be interested in what is happening with that party . . . and along the way I can talk about a sandbox, about making conflict and just generally anything else that seems interesting.

Now, to refresh, the party's mage, Demifee, died.  With details that can be read on the link above, the mage was raised (not in the usual way) with the stipulation that the mage had one game year (from Dec 29, 1650) to return four holy symbols back to their proper place.  If this was not done, the player's character would irrevocably die and be cast quite definitely into the fiery pit.

So, a quest.  Do or die.  What is my responsibility as DM?  Upon what circumstances does that responsibility rest?

It is important to recognize that I did not compel the quest.  I let it be known that the player's 'permanent' death happened in unusual circumstances, and that therefore something could be done if the player's wished.  The players considered their options, considered whether they wished to take the steps necessary to bring back the mage.  Which they then decided to do.  Free action, decided upon freely.  Consequences to follow.

Every time the players follow through with the decision (the mage now being alive and fully able to act) to return the items, they are effectively restating their resolve.  It may look like I'm holding a gun to the mage's head, but the mage was in fact already dead.  If I kill the mage because the party fails, they are precisely at the point where they started.

However rough the process is, then, the players have already committed.  They are still free to pull out at any time, accept the consequences and move on.  Are there good reasons for doing that?  Yes.

I run a world where the players typically have more than one character once they have been playing about six months.  The player operating the mage also has a 4th level druid.  If this druid progresses to 5th level, this druid will also gain a hench - thus the mage can be made to stand down, accept fate, pass over everything the mage possesses and the player will still possess two characters.

Because the player does not depend upon their mage for everything (and won't be slapped down to first level if the mage dies or stands down), I am free to play with the mage's survival in ways that I might not otherwise.  By this I mean that I can put the player (and by extension, the party) into situations where they should feel considerable ambiguity about their actions.

For example, they have just recently returned the first holy symbol.  This was a six-pointed star, the apparent Hebrew symbol.  Only, it wasn't.  Sometimes, I really enjoy fitting real-world groups or ideas into my world - this was a terrific opportunity for that.

In the 1st century, there was a group called the Ebionites.  To simplify wikipedia, these were 'Christians' who were determined to continue following the mosaic law of their preceeding Jewish roots.  In effect, they wished to straddle the two religions - but what they managed to do was to get themselves so hated by both Christians and Jews that their marginalization became inevitable.  By the 5th century, they were basically gone.  (wikipedia gives examples to show otherwise, but for my world I chose to dismiss those as rogue Ebionite cults who ceased to be the 'true' believers).

So, armed with this little detail about history, I envisioned a singular tomb in the mountain wilds overlooking south Gazira (Jazira), where the party found the "last of the Ebionites."  The party, remember, is in the year 1650.  The last Ebionite dies sometime (I'm arguing) around 525.  So how does the party return the holy symbol (the Star of Michael, I called it) to its rightful religion?

Well, I made the last Ebionite a mummy.  Embalmed by a gnostic in 525, following Egyptian practices, so that one day the Star of Michael could be found and ultimately returned - whereupon the mummy's power would be vastly increased by the possession of said item.

The party descended into the tomb and found a dozen somewhat focused slaves praying to the mummy, "sustained" by the process of praying so that centuries could pass without them aging, sleeping or needing to eat.  I love D&D.  This allowed the party to get all the information they needed before actually handing over the item . . . making it perfectly clear that if the mage were going to be preserved, the mummy would be given all kinds of wonderful power.

The dilemma was thoroughly effective.  A debate raged over whether or not anyone could think of a third option, but I kept the details simple and pretty tight.  No one liked handing over the item.  Imhotep from Sommer's Mummy franchise came up a good deal.  The party got pretty excited over something that didn't actually require a combat.

So they asked the minions to raise the mummy, which they did.  Then the party made save and the 6th level fighter ran, Demifee ran and the 5th level cleric ran.  This left the 7th level thief and a 2nd level fighter (henchman) to fight the mummy - if the plan of  "Give the mummy the item and then kill it" has occurred to the readers.  It occurred to the players - who, given that the party was running out of the tomb felt they ought to ditch that plan.  And yes, I know, they're supposed to be paralyzed, but this simply fit the situation better; it was a Christian mummy.  Perhaps they're different.

The thief very quietly handed over the star and left.  One down, four to go.  And if the mummy terrorizes the middle east, well . . . the party decided they saw that as more of a YP than a MP.

After all, the party is bound for Egypt to get rid of an ankh.

A clarification.  This is a different campaign than the one that featured the combat pic and the video from this post.  The combat features the younger party, including my daughter, which I ran on the 21st.  They will run again on April 4th.  The party described above ran last on the 14th; they will run again this Saturday, the 28th.

Hidden Hiddins

If you're not familiar with the Bush Tucker Man series of the late 1980s, then you really should be.  Les Hiddins (stay away from the other fellow) was a military officer with the Australian army, whose mission it was to identify and evaluate food sources in the Australian outback for operations that would take place in that country.  As such, he has a straight-forward, honest, somewhat jovial attitude towards what he's doing - a breath of fresh air.

Here's the first episode of the first series, from 1988:



It's worth the look for the visuals, the information and for ideas that will undoubtedly 'thicken' your fantasy campaign.

Hard look should help you find most of the three seasons this fellow and his team provided.


Follow up on DFD

I haven't heard from anyone who has received or started reading the book, The Dungeon's Front Door & Other Tales of the Deep Dark.  It's available for 20% off from Amazon.

Hey, give me a poke.  Let me know how the book looks!


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Neema

As the reader knows, I play my games on the computer; the party sees the combat map and gives their instructions.

As things have gone along, trying to make better and better images of the characters has been a long struggle for me, as I'm not much of an artist.  BUT . . . I think this is my best effort yet.  This is meant to replace the Neema symbol that can be found on the previous post's general combat image:


I think at last I am getting close to the fetishistic quality of the physical miniature.  The character owner told me that her paladin Neema had arm bands - so there they are.

And here is Neema's half-orc henchman, to go along:


Running

A picture taken of the combat ongoing in my campaign tonight, taken by one of the players.  Just got it in an email, so I didn't even know the picture was being taken.  The party names are plainly visible - image taken straight off the monitor.



The bright splash of colour around the orcs (without names) is faerie fire, added to the image once the spell was cast).

And here's a view of me DMing last night.  It includes the party's decision to let themselves into the combat above.  Apologies for the aspect ratio.



Note the point where I just stop talking, letting the party work it out for themselves.  Note also how I try not to even move or have any expression while this is happening, except when it's necessary to make a distinction or keep the party on track.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Effort

We last had the party looking down into the water off the island, and there's a wreck down below.  We may presume they're in a long boat, considering the difficulties of breathing underwater, the dangers of going below with nothing more than a javelin, a dagger and their bare skin.  Hopefully, they're also reassured that the ship holds promise, as well.

At this point, the party can very easily spoil all our plans by simply saying, 'Nah.'  And that is the important thing about sandboxes - that this won't be the last dangerous opportunity and this won't be the end all and be all of the treasure that's in the world.  There's no amulet, no magic helmet, no critical carving waiting in the ship that must be recovered or the world will come to an end.

I can only recommend that DMs stay away from that kind of scenario.  End of the world set-ups, where the balance of fate depends on the party's actions, are great things for films that last two hours, but they are tiresome annoyances when strung out over a period of three or four runnings.  Parties will ask - and not kindly - why it is always up to them to do everyone's dirty work?

Worse, it's painfully obvious where this dirty work is coming from.  Here's an idea.  Give the party a break.  Let some NPC be the world's last hope and let the party dig around for some treasure.

Let's consider this ship.  How much work am I going to do before the party goes down there?

Well, the only reason why I need an actual map of the ship would be if I planned for a fight to happen.  If a fight took place on the deck of the ship, then I would need the metrics for where everyone would be standing when swinging or being swung at.  But here's the thing: this is an underwater adventure.  I can easily move the combat twenty feet to the right or left of the ship, above the soft sand of the shelf where the ship is sitting.  As well, none of the party will be standing on a surface.  They'll be floating above it - so the surface doesn't matter.  All I really need for a combat map is a blank hex map, painted blue.  I can make this in about two minutes during the actual run, so no point in making it ahead of time.  If the party changes their mind and doesn't dive down, I've lost nothing.

I know that most DMs would view the situation - extended underwater movement - as a sign that something ought to be found on the island to make it easier for the party.  The captain has a set of convenient bracers of underwater action or a cache of water breathing potions were found by the party just two sessions ago (with the expectation that they would come to this island and see this ship).  I loathe, hate and despise this sort of shit.  I know the DM is very proud of their ability to think ahead; "Aha, I am so clever, I will give these scrolls of water breathing, then they will go to the island and . . ."

Except that parties are not dumb.  Here are four happenstance suppositories of water breathing, oh so ready for use! You can physically feel the cars being attached to the engine for the next part of the journey.  Isn't that nice.  The party knows the DM has planned this ship and probably has a 3-D diagram ready - can we feel the guilt yet?  How about the responsibility for not disappointing the DM here.  Don't tell me it's not there.  Parties may drag their feet, but they get on the DM's train and go anyway.  "Well, shit . . . he's done all this stuff of us.  I guess we can go on his adventure, since he's made it already."

It is this preparation mind-set.  Granted, it's nice that the DM works on their campaign and has a neat ship graphed out for the party's enjoyment once they descend - but this insistence that the party must have the most obvious and difficult obstacle removed from the start is crippling to the game.  The underwater adventure is interesting because it is underwater.  If everyone has the means to make this submerged nightmare like a walk in the park, where's the challenge?

If you've played for years, you've run into it time and time again.  Going to fight a lot of undead?  Well, I've got special holy symbols for everyone.  The castle is at the top of an impossible cliff?  Here, you'll need these remarkable boots of floating and wafting.  Oh, you have to adventure in the Forest of Always Night?  Just a minute, I've got four sets of goggles in this trunk here.  No matter what the environment, helpful NPCs are soon tripping over themselves to get you whatever special gear you'll need to handle it.  No reason why you should just trust to innovation, determination and luck!

If we put the ship 18 feet underwater, that's deep enough.  The party doesn't need water breathing.  They just need to strip down, dive 18 feet, do what they can for three rounds and then return to the surface again.  Yes, it's hard.  Yes, it's worse if someone gets trapped down there.  But watch what a party does or tries to do to get around this without straight on magic.  Watch them pull out their spells and cantrips and try to figure out shortcuts, temporary alternatives and plans.  Watch their faces when you tell them, "Yeah, sure, that could give you another couple of rounds."

Yes!  The player smiles proudly, looks around at the other party members, gets a few compliments and the party thinks, "Fuck, we're rocking this!"  And what is it that makes them think they're rocking it?  They've figured out a way they can stay down for five rounds rather than three.

Let's not deny the party their small victories.  Let's not ruin their adventures by making their lives easy for them.  Let's try them at having a combat where they can only engage while wallowing about on the surface - it only means that every hit will be ten times as meaningful.

I can't understand why DMs do not see that.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

There are Deserts, Then There are Deserts

Have to get back on the horse sometime.

I'm still map-making.  Below is my world's map of central, modern-day Algeria, called "Gaetulia" in Roman and post-Roman times.  Damned if I can find out what it was called in the 17th century - certainly not Algeria.

Specifically, I refer to the Sahara desert south of the Atlas Mountains:

A few details.  Zanatan is a tribal association of Cameltaurs (camel-
centaurs).  Mozab is a kingdom of Goat-men, similar to bare-skinned
gnolls.  Tuwat is an empire ruled by the Djang, large and human-looking
with four arms (anyone remember Dray Prescott?).  Tamanrasset
is a monastical republic consisting of qullan from the old Fiend Folio.
The rest are human.

As ever, green and brown hexes are arable lands (or oases), the brown higher in elevation.  Pale yellow hexes are mixed grassland & desert.  Pale red hexes indicates thin brushland & desert.  Grey hexes are pure desert.  Hexes are 20 miles in diameter.  The above depicted is about the size of Texas & Oklahoma, +10%.  Dotted borders are non-patrolled.  "Arable" is defined by there being proof of human habitation at a latitude or longitude located within the 20-mile hex.  The numbers on the side of the map will tell you how many hexes this is from the North Pole.

While yes, this is the Sahara, it's important to see it as a mix of differentiated expanses and areas - none of which have a great deal of detail to be learned on the 'net.  Still, I thought I might piece together some of these, adding pictures as I go.  What the hell.

The Mountains of Ksour, the Rached Mountains and the Mountains of Zab are all part of the 'Sahara Atlas' - and these aren't even the names we'll find if we look.  Most of my sources are in French, because Algeria was controlled by France for most of its modern period - thank you Google translate. 

Monts des Ksour.  I'm going to use French links through most of this post because they have more information than their English counterparts.  The Ksour chain has a rugged topography made of long ranges running southwest to northeast.  Rainfall is 300 mm a year.  There are rock stations, known for prehistoric art.  On the map above, the grey area marked as mountains is really the southern side; the grass & desert hexes would be the north slope.  I hunted around looking for a south-side pic; I'm only guessing that this is it due to comparing the vegetation with places I recognize on the north side:

Near Fuguig in Morocco.

Djebel Amour.  'Rachad,' shown on the map, is the older name for these mountains.  The Sahara Atlas changes here, becoming tabular, lower and filled with deep valleys.  Rainfall is slightly higher, 300-500 mm a year.  The mountains spawn wadis both to the north and south.

Near Beni Awf


Monts du Zab.  A mountain knot to the east of an important passage through the Atlas, a group of oases called the Zibans (the mountains seem to be called that too).  I could find almost no hard information about them, beyond the fact that they exist.   For example, I found a gazatteer that said the following: "Entre Ain Rich et Biskra."  I have to love it when a writer is forthcoming like that.  I expect they are a few dry, waterless lumps of stone.

This site confirms Wikipedia; this is the Monts du Zab.

Le Grand Erg Oriental, that I'm calling the Great East Erg, is a massive expanse of dunes and sand following a network of underground river beds (where sometimes water can be found).  It's generally believed that this was once a fertile plain.  Today it is the great sand heap that you usually see in movies, as it's northern edge is near Tunisia (Tataouine, the literal name of the town in Tunisia where the Star Wars movie was filmed).  There are lots and lots of pictures for this area.  I've picked just one below:



An area of the erg in southern Tunisia.

Le Grand Erg Occidental, that I'm calling the Great West Erg, is even more insurmountable with sand dunes than is the east.  The wikipedia link calls it (trans.) "oases scattered in the sand waves," which is lovely.  Here it writes that the (trans.) "The vastness, the unknown, is strange and magical."  A glance at collected pictures gives is a slightly different character than the Oriental Erg.  For one thing, the dunes in the west seem huge, more yellow and less dusty brown.

Near Saoura

Plateau of Tademait.  Things get more obscure as we move south past the Grand Ergs.  (I've mistakenly called this 'Tademalt' on the map; course, it's my world, I can call it what I want).  For this, the English wikipedia is better: it calls it a "rocky plateau made of cretaceous terrain."  It adds that this is one of the places where the heat of the Sahara is most extreme.  It is virtually rainless.

I had to include this pic of Tademait's ground surface.

This is Tony waking at dawn
at the edge of the Tademait Plateau

Touat, Tuat or Tuwat (even Twat, if you're aching to go); a hot desert on the edge of the Tademait plateau, marked by a string of oases on its western edge, making the area practical for travel.  These oases have been used - probably - since the time of the ancient Egyptians, going back to the when the pyramids were built.  Summer temperatures in the Tuwat are consistently 46 C, making it one of the hottest areas in the Sahara.  The actual area of desert is quite small, before it becomes a differently featured area:

Dunes near Adrar, the most important oasis

Tidikelt is a comparatively green area (the name means 'palm') that is below sea level in elevation - thus it is at the 'bottom' of the Algerian water table.  Temperatures compare with the Tuwat.  On the map, it shows 'Tidikelt Depression' only in the lower corner, but in fact the region extends into the various arable green hexes shown.  Sala (in the non-D&D world, Ain Salah) is a major by-way between north and south of the Sahara.

Called 'The Lion of Tidikelt,' near Ain Salah. 

Asedjrad Plateau.  There was very little information about this.  On my map it is just a small name describing a fairly small area.  Most total detail I could find was "it's a plateau."  That's when you know the place is a long way from everywhere.  For example, this page tells me it's 9 hours drive from the nearest decent city.  The landscape is barren, hyper-arid and 44 C in July (so, slightly higher, slightly cooler than the Tidikelt.  The south edge is marked by the Tinkadiouene, a mesa rising 300 meters above the desert.  Best shot I could get:

Tinkadiouene

Ahenet (no link), including the area of Adrar Ahnet, is an area of stone desert marked with wonderful bluffs, mountainous features and stone blocks.  See here for a 17-minute film of some interesting places where the terrain gets interesting.  Much of what is featured is the eastern edge, near the region of Adrar (not to be confused with the oasis in Tuwat Desert, mentioned above, 500 miles away).  The film gives a good sense of the uninteresting desert also - rocky, unpleasant, flat.

But not without camels.

Ifetese & Agerar (no links).  This is a mystery.  My map clearly lists the Ifetese hills, marks them at +1500 meters, 500 meters or more above the plain - and the Agerar as being a desert between the Ifetese and the huge Ahaggar (Hoggar) mountain range.

However, the internet turns up NO results.  At all.  My Key-Porter Atlas is 1997, but things change.  I can find a reference for a nearby city, Arak, to the Arak Gorges; and Adrar, described above, is directly south of Ifetese.  So what I think is that the "Adrar" has come to include Ifetese and that the Agerar on my map is in fact the "Arak Gorges."  That's how I'm reading it, anyway.  I only mention all this so that the reader can see me showing my work.

Here's an image from the Arak Gorges:

An area described as having wood, water and grazing

Tassili n-Ajjer, or 'The Plateau of the Rivers,' a name I could not resist using on the map.  A massif and high arid plateau of sandstone, where rocks are turned to sand by frost wedging.  I am certain that this range and the Ahaggar are responsible for the presence of water in the gorges above (what I'm calling the Agerar 'rift.'

One picture isn't going to be enough for this place.

Fantastic

See more for Tassili n-Ajjer here.

Ahaggar, or Hoggar, mountains.  A giagantic mountain knot about the size of Portugal (the wikipedia entry seems to be missing a zero), with quiet volcanoes, cliffs of basalt and porphyry, comparatively cool weather and terrain to challenge the pictures above.  It is a favorite destination for mountain climbers.  In height, it hits 2,918 meters - so slightly higher (and craggier) than the Davis Mountains in West Texas and not quite as high as the Pyrenees in Spain.  The Ahaggar look NOTHING like either, however:

A very, very different sort of place.
I'm nearly done.  The Erg of Reh and the Inharharene Plateau are sandy extensions of the Great East Erg (without as many dunes).  I couldn't find entries for them, either.  Al Hamra and the Awbari Desert on the east edge of the map are both large areas extending into the Libyan Fezzan.  The Tiniri Sand Plain, at the very bottom of the map (on the right) is a sand flat that covers half the country of Niger, an area bigger than California.

I think by now, however, I've made my point.  I've been searching for pics and explanations now for four hours.  It is time to post this beast.  I'm sure I made my French readers happy by linking a lot of French language pages.