Friday, June 27, 2008

Random Good

At this point, any rational person has stopped reading, but I’m going to continue anyway. It was never my intention that a simple trade system would become central to my world’s design, but once I got going I began to see how it functionally defined a great deal.

All of what I’m describing here is invisible in my world. My players see an equipment list—that’s it. They get pieces of treasure, they ask me what they can sell them for, I give them an answer. They see no tired figures, no ground out complicated tables, nothing along those lines. It takes up no more time in the campaign than a regular equipment table would.

Except — when recently one of my players acquired title to a few hundred square miles of Transylvania, it took me about twenty minutes to figure out down to the last copper how much income the land earned…and how much of what raw materials were present.

But I don’t think others will buy the concept; we don’t see the game through the same eyes. I don’t design adventures, I don’t write up scripts for NPCs to read to parties (I make them up in my head on the spur of the moment), I don’t waste hours drawing dungeon maps (easier to simply produce one on the spot) and I don’t try to produce a story climax with a guaranteed big payoff. My players wander like will o’wisps, going off on larks or digging in and piling their cash into fortifications as they wish. Each player has three different characters they run (henchmen of the main character), so that they can play episodes surrounding their lands or go off plundering as they desire. I’m ready to run whatever particular campaign they want, on the spur of the moment, because the deeper groundwork is laid.

I know what a hobgoblin lair or a dragon lair will look like, in my head, so why draw them out? I put traps in as necessary, though they’re fairly rare, which makes it easier to catch a party by surprise. I only have to have the trap in mind fifteen minutes ahead of the party, and I’m creative enough I can usually think of something that takes advantage of the local color without being the same tired old thing.

See, I just don’t see the problem with random that the books all seem to rail against. Random encounters are boring, I’m told. I don’t get it. While the fundamental design of my world is rational to intense levels, on the surface it is played out to be as irrational as possible. Reality is not about every facet of an environment conveniently focused on one goal. It’s so much more fun to throw in additional conditions which have nothing whatsoever to do with the goal. That’s what random is all about. Fucking with parties.

I’m told that this bothers parties, annoys them, frustrates them. Uh huh. Yeah. What exactly is wrong with that? If they’re trying to enter the city which is under siege, and avoiding the orc armies planted around the city walls, with their foraging groups combing the back country for food, what is wrong with throwing in a completely neutral roper who is annoyed with all the ongoing activity, who beats the party down a few hit points just before a squadron of haruchai fly overhead on hippogriffs, whom the party is able to slaughter in time to get undercover and avoid the thunderstorm which is rolling through by ducking into a cave, where they find a party of fifty gypsies hiding out, who are not too keen on letting the party leave because they’re worried about being found, so that the party must reassure them or bribe them or slaughter them, in the last case finding a blessed sword whose paladin owner from Kursk has been seeking obsessively and has been unable to find because the gypsies had a continuous spell going to hide it, which the party couldn’t possibly know about and who is about to jump up in his bed four hundred miles away when his henchmen rushes in to say the sword is found—none of which has anything to do with the reasons for the party actually wanting to enter into the city, but will come up later at the most inopportune moment when the party is trying to get some minor minister to allow their ship out of the harbor in another adventure ten runnings hence.

Random equals boring? In whose world?

I love throwing this shit together on a regular basis, rewarding the party when it manages to deal with a mess intelligently or bravely, bringing as much brunt to bear when they screw up. I don’t see it in terms of “hooks” or “payoffs”…but in terms of one great miasma of interlocking motivations held by dozens of local factions striving for their personal piece of the pie. There is no villain, there is no good guy…there are only hundreds of squalling, scrambling contestants elbowing each other out of the way for the glory or the loot.

Sure, there are moments when a party manages to do something significant: reuniting a daughter with her supernatural father or getting one of their own out of a small corner of hell…but these things are fixed moments that occur because the party decided to pursue that purpose as opposed to some other. It must be this way if the party is to have any decision of their own destiny.

Random, in fact, equals freedom. Because established, formulated adventure design demands that the party plays the actors in the DMs production. I hate that sort of D&D. I hate that it has become the only sort out there.

So if I do seem a little mundane, talking about 19,000 references in an encyclopedia compared to production totals out of an industrial yearbook, don’t confuse that thinking with the way things happen during my sessions. Things do not always fit together in linear fashion.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wide, Wide World

When I decided to create an economy for my world, I did not sit down with a real hot cup of coffee and scratch out some notes about which places would produce what: “Let’s see, France and Italy will have a lot of wine, Russia has some trees, India has indigo…” However long I could have gone at the system that way, it would never have been what I needed. I wanted a comprehensive system, something that would include virtually every product in use and its availability. More than that, it had to give a price for those products…a different price for each location where that object would be purchased.

This last, of course, was the major bitch in the project. If we establish a geographical location for the production of materials, it stands to reason that the distance from that geographical location is going to have something to do with the material cost.

Before I could get into that, I needed a source: a comprehensive tome that would list off the locations where objects were produced, so that an estimate could begin. Of course, there was no need for me to be arbitrary about it—the planet earth is filled with books about what is produced and where (part of the benefits of running a system on this planet)…but a consistent one, ah, there’s the rub.

I grew up with an encyclopedia that was purchased the year my parents were married, in 1958. It’s interesting that encyclopedias produced at that time were focused primarily on history and geography, unlike encyclopedias today that are focused on science and social science. I was lucky enough to happen upon a duplicate of that set, the Colliers Encyclopedia, printed in 1952. There are some fascinating idiosyncrasies about a set of facts volumes printed during the Korean War—when space travel was not conceived of, when Libya had no oil production, when Vietnam is still a part of the French colony of Indochina.

Most important to me, the encyclopedia has articles on literally thousands of geographical locations: cities, provinces, plateaus, vales, rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, seas, forests…and each article includes, as was standard at the time, a list of what that particular location produces economically.

Or, at least what it did in 1952.

The age of the book is its best feature—the closer to Renaissance period Europe, the better (my world operates in circa 1650). Of course, there are numerous listings for the production of automobiles, turbines, electrical cable, steel, uranium, radium and so on. For these things I read wagons, windmills, rope, pig iron, mithril and adamantium (the last two are a bit cute, but at least I’m not deciding where they’re found). I make other substitutions as needed.

Very often, the encyclopedias make more than one reference to a particular place in terms of its production of a particular item. For example, I have 7 references to the Island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany for its production of iron ore. As I make my way through the encyclopedia, I make note of each of these references; statistically, it is fair to argue that seven references would mean that a location produces seven times as much as another location, say Val d’Aosta, which has one reference.

Not always true, I know. But I dare anyone to find as complete a listing.

My “trade tables” as they are now, do not include most of Africa, any of the New World, or Western Europe. This has taken some time to accumulate the data. Altogether I have 19,400 references for areas stretching from the eastern half of Germany and Italy to Japan. More than 400 of those references are “iron ore”…so Elba’s seven have a relevance to the local area of Italy, but they would have very little effect on prices in Turkestan or China.

Because the encyclopedia is an independent source, the substance of those things produced vary widely. Some of the more obscure and profound references I have found, many of which I’ve been forced to look up, have included ozokerite, vogla (for which I could not find an English site), catechu, artyk (for which I could find no representative site at all, though it is a building stone used in Azerbaijan and Armenia), kumis, kenaf, asafoetida, perilla seed, brocade, teff, bear paws and sea slugs. These are things I would not have come up with on my own—even the spellchecker doesn’t recognize most of them. Altogether, there are more than 600 different products, which I group together into 279 commodities and services.

Why 279? Because these are what I have been able to find additional statistics for: specifically, production statistics. I began years ago with two books, the United Nations Industrial Statistics Yearbook (1988, earliest one I could find) and the Food and Agricultural Organization Yearbook (same year, for consistency). These two books provided me with a considerable volume of statistics…not as complete as I would have liked, but it was a considerable start.

The numbers, of course, did NOT correspond to 1650. Obviously we produce considerably more pig iron per population than was ever produced in 1650…and there are NO statistics for that period.

And this is the point when an assumption must be made? No, this is when more research is required.

I tore into every book on the Industrial Revolution and the economic development of Europe and the world that I could find, including quite a few very boring published theses. I have yet to find any clear figures…and for some time the numbers floated around as I compared data between what I was reading. I settled on a rough division of 500 between the late 1980s and the mid-17th century. That is, world production of anything would be approximately 1/500th of the present…adjusted individually for various products as evidence allowed. It has not been perfect—but as I pointed out yesterday, neither is the census. Doesn’t mean it lacks practicality.

It has made it possible for me to get a sense for the value of a product with my having as little arbitrary influence on that number as possible. I can, if questioned, “show” my work and challenge others to improve it.

Please…improve my work. I’m trying to do it myself, all the time.

That’s enough for now. I’m enjoying this, so I may post later today, and probably tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What Price?

I have had issues with the Equipment List since the very beginning, issues which annoyed me twice as much as a DM. The first would be that the prices are too low. In order for my party to have a chance at turning 5th level, I have to give them, on average, about 8 to 10 thousand gold pieces each (half the experience they need to accumulate). Some of this can be in the form of gold, some in gems and jewelry, some of it as magic…but however you cut it, if I have five party members, the total accumulated cash that the party will acquire during that time is going to be around 45,000 g.p.

What’s more, about one game year will probably pass while they are acquiring these four levels (they start with one), which is a total of 252 weeks. The game tells me to charge 5 g.p. a week for food (hard rations), which is 760 g.p. Even if everyone in the party buys chain mail four times (my parties don’t wear plate unless they want to be Joe-the-Slow, last to see combat), each, that’s 1,800 g.p. Charge them another 1,800 for weapons and 2,000 for horses (two each). And just for shits and giggles, let’s charge them the farcical 100 g.p. per month per level (an average of 250 g.p. each per month). Total: 21,360. By the time they’re fifth, they still have more than 23,000 g.p., or 4,728 each.

It takes about the same amount of time to go from fifth level to sixth as it takes to go from fourth to fifth, because the X.P. and the treasures gets bigger (even though twice the X.P. is needed). So sixth level comes just three months game time later and now their coin has doubled. And doubled again at 7th level.

Yes, that’s right, at 7th they’re hauling around 20,000 g.p. each and they’re still not allowed to buy a castle, because they’re not “name” level. Even though the five of them could easily go in together and buy a fortress.

The only time I’ve ever had a party short on cash happened when I’ve been able to catch them doing something stupid, letting me seize a few thousand g.p. from each. But one moderate first level dungeon treasure is enough for everyone to get weaponed up, buy leather or scale, and horses, and flee town.

Things should cost, and it should be HARD for the party to pay for them. That’s one issue.

The next is that there is just nothing to buy. Beyond weapons and armor and horses and jewelry, just where exactly does one spend their money? I’ve had to step in and stop parties from buying 150 vials of holy water…which they can afford and which they can carry in the 600 pound pack capacity of their pet donkey, towed behind their horse. My only argument has been that there aren’t 150 vials available at the local church—but the real problem is that there is nothing else for them to spend their money on.

Perhaps this is something you have experience with? Knights of the Dinner table did an excellent bit with Bob and Dave buying hundreds of untrained pit bulls. If a war dog is 20 g.p., why can’t the party buy fifty or sixty that are trained?

It comes to the point that the party just ditches the gold because it’s a) inconvenient; b) useless; and c) easily replaced. Once it has given them their experience, who cares?

As an aside—recent systems have tried to provide parties with something to buy by selling magic items. This baffles the shit out of me. I’ve had many players ask, when first beginning to play, if they can “buy” a +1 sword; my answer has been a perfunctory NO. Who the hell would go through the trouble of making one only to sell it at the local market? (I did go through a period where I sold really adamant players “magic” swords for immense amounts of money, only to have them turn out to be just an ordinary weapon—I’m nicer now). What mage making swords wouldn’t have a guardsman to give it to? Or a relative? Or a KING? Sell it to some piker who just blew into town? Are you kidding me?

These are the people who accuse me of being unromantic. I can see it now. “Arthur…Arthur…I am the Lady of the Lake. I bring you Excalibur.”

“No thanks. I picked up this little beauty here for 79.95 at Morgana’s hardware shop.”

Among video games, my particular favorites over the years have been those which involved “gathering” as part of the program, particular war games: VGA planets, Age of Empires, Civilization. You must first gather your shit, build an army, and then fight. In all of those games, at the beginning it costs a substantial amount of food and materials to make a single unit. One is always scrambling for more, or even just enough to sustain what one already has.

D&D is the one game where sustenance is a joke. And it should not be that way.

Finally, costs do not logically relate to one another. This, in particular, is the fundamental issue that can be and should be addressed.

Let’s consider something simple: the cost of a horse.

Let’s take the stabling of an animal for one day, typically placed in the 1 s.p. range. A newborn horse requires three years to mature to the point where it can be saddled and ridden for long periods. 3 years = 1,095 days. If we assume the stabling fee is a suggestion for how much money it costs to support a horse for a 24 hour period, and 20 s.p. = 1 g.p., it will have cost our owners more than 50 g.p. to raise the horse. Which sells for 25 g.p., according to the Player’s Handbook.

But, but, but, say the critics. The horse could have been wild. And it costs less to keep a horse in the open country than it does in a stable in town!

Well, first of all, until the North American experiment with a group of escaped Spanish horses breeding in predator-less country perfectly designed for them, it had been 4,000 years since wild horses had been available in Europe or the Middle East. Also, it was expensive for ranches to pay men to watch free range horses…it cost wages that enabled those men to eat up to six pounds of beef a day and up to 11 pounds of food. If this is what I can get for less than a silver piece, why does it cost me 60 silver pieces to buy a week’s food for sedentary activity (non-iron rations)?

But let’s go at this from the other end. What should the price for stabling be? Get ready for a flurry of statistics…here it comes.

A carthorse eats 19 lbs. of feed per day. A heavy Percheron or Belgian eats much, much more. A bushel of oats is 27.52 pounds, or enough feed for a day and a half. The oats are grown on a farm which—in the Medieval world—is typically 20 to 30 acres in area. The yield of that farm was 36 bushels of oats per acre, a total of 1,080 bushels. However 5 bushels per acre are needed to replant the following year, so the actual net yield is 1,030.

If you want the farmer to do any planting next year, along with his wife and average 3 children, you’re going to have to feed them some of the oats they’ve grown. 1,500 calories a day on average works out to 4.32 lbs. of oats for the whole family, or 1 bushel every 6.37 days. Each year, the family eats a little more than 57 bushels.

Well, that still leaves 973 bushels. And the good news is that it’s only taken the farmers 3 days a week to work their own land, and they’ve worked the lord’s land for the other three days. So the farmers have succeeded in adding 2,003 bushels to the lord’s land. Of which the lord only needs 252 bushels to feed his horse.

There’s the argument that the horse could pick its meal from the field, but if the lord’s horse is a warhorse, that’s not going to be enough. It’s going to be fed oats, every day.

Lets say the lord has a manse which includes a little hamlet of about 150 people. Averaging 5 persons per family, and assuming all 150 are farmers (let’s say the miller, carpenter, mason, bakers, chandlers, chaplain, reeve, hayward and vintners, not to mention the men-at-arms, with their families, are dwelling in the manor house), and each has a farm averaging 30 acres, AND the lord has land of the same breadth and size (which would be unusual, but it’s a round number, lets go with it), the total surplus after farmers and before other household members would be 60,090 bushels—in a good year.

Now, the lord has to determine what would be the best way to use those bushels. Every 250 bushels he sends to town means one less horse he can support; not to mention the ducks, geese, pigs, sheep or goats he might have to vary his meals a bit. If he IS going to send a cart load of oats to town, he’s going to have to pay a teamster, cover the cost of maintenance for the cart and risk the goods themselves…but chances are he’s going to have surplus and he’s going to send it to town.

The oats will go into the hands of a wholesaler, who will certainly double the price for the oats—already nominally placed at the cost of 1 horse = 250 bushels (horse, 25 g.p., equals 10 bushels per g.p.). The wholesaler makes it 5 bushels per g.p.; he will sell the oats to the innkeeper, who will again raise the price (lets say a typical sixty per cent), so that now its 2 bushels per g.p. Which the horse will eat 3/4 of in one day. So for food alone (not the bother of having deal with the horse) we are in the ballpark of 15 s.p. stabling per day.

Ah…but the 25 g.p. total cost of the horse may not be fairly juxtaposed with the cost to feed that horse each year. A horse can live for 40 years…should the total value of the horse be divided into the total number of years it lives?

No. It has to eat every one of those years and the total value of the horse is dependent on what it needs to eat before it dies. Moreover, the first two years the horse produces NOTHING for the trouble of keeping it alive and its third year it is able to do only so much marginal work. If it is a trained warhorse, most of its productive life it stands at its ease and produces no value at all, except in the eyes of its lord.

The problem with trying to make any predictions on the cost of the horse or its oats or its stabling, based on the figures in the books, is that you just wind up running around and around in circles. Now the horse requires 15 s.p. per day to keep it fed, meaning that overall it costs 750 g.p. over the first three years of its life (well, less, the horse was a pony first…lets say 500 g.p.)…which means that the oats ought to be worth more, making the stabling cost more, making the horse cost more and so on and so on. How does one make a rational guess at the cost of anything?

The general D&D community’s answer: who gives a shit?

I do. There’s no basis for any of these prices…which means that it is impossible to do the gathering necessary to run the sort of campaign that one could run with rational prices. How am I supposed to figure out how much material it will take to conquer Poland if I can’t get a straight price on the cost of a horse?

Oh, and by the way. How many manor farms does your world have? Exact number, please. I’d like to know how big an army I’m going to need.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There Has to Be More

I am, and have always been, crazy. It is this craziness that I brought to D&D, the sort of obsessive preoccupation that one normally associates with people who have to turn the lights on and off five times before bed or replace their keyboards once a week to combat sweat congealment.

As a child I received, as a gift, my first almanac at the age of 7. My parents were well aware of my fascination with atlases and statistics gleaned from the household encyclopedia…and perceived very correctly that I would find the material within an almanac of interest. Thereafter, for the next sixteen years, I received an updated almanac every Christmas. Throughout my school years, that almanac sat in the upper left corner of my desk…a ready source by which every teacher I had was measured. They had better get their national and state capitals right (along with every other statement about geography, history, industry or economics)…because I knew every fact by heart, to date, and I had the book to back me up.

No, I was not well-liked. I was well on the way to my present career of being an arrogant know-it-all with little regard for disinformation.

Yet it may surprise you to know that I was not a “rules lawyer” when I played D&D. I accepted quite readily that the rules in a DM's game were set by the DM and not by the book.

That is because sometimes almanacs are wrong.

My fascination from the beginning was never with the numbers or with the power of the books, but with what they represented. My fascination has been with the planet, the big picture, the manner in which it all fits together and how it relates to itself. No book, not an almanac or a Dungeon Master’s Guide, can completely or effectively relate the whole picture…it takes millions of books and billions of people to do that. For me, the almanac was convenient; it had a great deal of information crammed into a relatively small space—but the thing wasn’t holy in itself.

I suppose that my almanac was replaced by the DMG to some degree when I started playing, but it is has never been the whole game to me. All of the various books together have not been the whole game…if that were all there were, I would have gotten bored sick of the game long ago. What appealed to me about the game most of all was that it left room for me to apply all the other knowledge that I had gathered together through what I had read and studied.

I bluffed my way into a job with Statistics Canada in the 1980s, with no formal schooling and no working experience. I worked through the lead up to the census, which was fascinating for me as I’d spent so much time reading census statistics. It was mind-opening to see how they were gathered and to have a clear representation of how “wrong” they were. However, the application of those statistics, however flawed the data, enables the prediction of a great deal…worlds turn on the political and economic understanding of statistics.

When I left Stats Can in ’86, I entered university after a long period of destitution and zero income. I spent most of that time reworking my world and aligning it with the real world. University gave me plenty of time to go on doing that…even though by ’88 I was married and had a daughter on the way. It was about that time that I conceived of something that would redirect the entire format upon which my world would be based. A format that I have developed and continue to develop until today.

It’s not an easy subject to get into…for one thing, it sounds crazy. And it is. It is the central reason for me wanting to produce this blog, and it is going to take a long time to outline completely; all I want to do today is to outline my thinking process at the outset.

The DMG makes a point under the notes on “The Campaign” that a structure should be created by the DM which gives a reasonable, practical distribution of people, wealth and power…something that will enable the party to get a handle on what is going on. Too much random irrationality will discourage a party’s interest. It is the least read part of the DMG, and in the last 30 years I have seen nothing published which either promotes the argument, or remotely educates a DM on just how this is done.

What is a world, in D&D? It is a collection of described factions and hollowed places in the earth holding treasure and guarded by monsters, a network of roads which connect adventures and a sort of vague “fog” called civilization which settles over everything and impinges on the campaign only in terms of its crop of NPC’s. We’re led to believe that these are the “practical” limits of the game. DMs are forced to find ad hoc answers to player’s questions for lack of any structure to base those answers on.

Let me give an example:

I am a fighter, who has recently established himself as the lord over a 20-mile-diameter hex. Here are some questions I will want answered: I’d like to feed my 200 man army and I’d like it to not cost me any money while I’m not adventuring—how much food can I grow? How much of my land is arable? How much is suitable for the raising of cattle as opposed to sheep? How much meat can I get from a cow? How often will my cows breed? How much milk will they give? How much hay will I need to feed them in the wintertime? Are sheep more practical, considering that the land is similar to Scotland? Do you have other answers prepared if the land is closer to Arabia?

Most DMs will say, the land produces enough that you don’t have to provide for your men.

Does it produce more? How much can I sell? How much will the wool of 75 sheep provide for my coffers? Can I take some of that wool and make clothing, perhaps establishing a weaving mill? Will that make me more money? How much will I need to pay a weaver? How many herders does it take to look after 100 sheep? What does a herder cost?

Most DMs will give numbers, off the top of their head. The weaver costs a g.p. a month. The herder much less. The sheep will give such-and-such lbs. of wool per sheep.

Whereupon I’ll produce charts and evidence to show that now the DM has provided figures so out of whack that I’m able to turn my whole 300 square miles of arable land into sheep country, have it watched by 500 herders for 1 c.p. each and make a total of 7,500 g.p. every month. Why adventure?

Most DMs will recant, pull different figures out of their ass, and argue that I can only make 200 g.p. a month from my sheep. And we’re back to punishing players for thinking outside of the box. Again.

And if I point out that I have 40,000 sheep on my land and that I’m only making 1 c.p. per head because of upkeep, what if I ask to get into the business of feeding sheep, because that’s obviously more lucrative?

The game just doesn’t cover this crap. Because, it is argued, no one wants it to.

I disagree. I believe that the emphasis for the last thirty years by the gaming companies on “character” and “weaponry” has been because they CAN’T solve the problem. They have to push the player out of the real world and into the box because the box has clear, concise defining borders which they actually can address. I doubt that anyone working at Wizards of the Coast has any experience whatsoever with politics, economics, geography or demographics. They obviously think that none of those things, in terms of their existence in the world, are very complicated or at all inspiring in giving humans a motive.

D&D is often judged a children’s activity because all-too-often it resembles one of those games where you roll a die to move along a two-dimensional strip, marked with things like “lose a turn” or “jump forward two spaces.” The words have just been replaced with “lose a character” or “gain a +2 sword.”

I’ve never been satisfied with that. The campaign problem can be solved, and the questions I asked above can be answered without anyone’s butt being involved. I believe I have the way, which corresponds to the title of this blog.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Strength & Dexterity

Strength & Dexterity

These two tables are going to come as a disappointment to some, particularly those who feel that fighters just don’t bring enough force into their campaigns. Remember, however, that my motivation for these tables did not include giving my party a lot of new powers—but to compensate for the disinterest in what I’ve been calling dump stats. Convincing players to pimp up their strength or dexterity requires no help from any table.

Strength in particular is the big disappointment. It compares very favorably with wisdom and with the father’s profession table, however. And it adds a piece of information that every player needs. This is the first time I’ve ever used a table like this without having to constantly make re-rolls. I’m quite happy with it.

I typically roll a d4 to determine which grandparents are indicated, and a d2 to determine sex of the player's siblings; I usually get asked how many older or younger siblings the player possesses, which is easily determined by rolling a die for the number of children indicated.

I haven't had much interest in rolling great-grandparents, but they could be wedged into the system if anyone wanted.

Dexterity has a bit more oomph. There may be some contentious results on it, but by and large my party has accepted them. I have a thief with a 17 Dex who rolled the “can’t fight with two weapons” result…and he gripes about it…but it’s understood that this is a peculiar circumstance that just has to occur. You may be very quick, but you don’t happen to have the balance that enables both hands to operate in tandem; one hand is far more dominant than the other.

Some might argue it belongs on the intelligence table…and I have a quick, sly answer to that. The medieval mind perceived that such abilities did not transcend from the mind, but from the body. It would not have occurred to anyone that the brain had anything with what the hand was able to do.

Perhaps that’s not fair. But Adler won’t be born for another three centuries, so I don’t worry about it.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Thinking of a comment made yesterday, about balance. There IS an overemphasis on balance within the game, and that emphasis comes from games being made back to the Babylonians…where what makes the game competitive is the individual’s talent brought to bear on the rules as written.

We play chess. The game itself is unchanged by us; we both understand the movement and limitation of the pieces. The winner is determined by ourselves, our weaknesses, our strengths, our experience.

Yes, that’s right: the winner.

The conceptualization of the winner is, to borrow a word, the hamartia of D&D. It is the fundamental error that has kept most from viewing the game through the right lens. Because D&D does not commit player against player, or player against DM. It is not “man versus himself,” either, although that clever rhetoric would appeal to some. The truth of it is that D&D is man against nature…the character against an abstract.

D&D is not an outward expression of the DM, not if the dice are trusted and invoked and allowed to veto the DM’s desires. The game is world-as-gestalt; the fabrication of multiple persons as a something that can be competed against but which can never be defeated. Your character is going to die. Eventually. There is nothing you can do about that.

Well, obviously, you can stop playing. Le petite morte, that.

And because the conflict in D&D is a mirror of the conflict in the real world, the argument for “balance” is fallacious. I am not competing with my friend the paladin; I’ve got his back and he’s got mine. If I want to see it as a pissing contest, well, that’s my failing…that’s not an inherent part of the game. The enemy is out there, and so long as we stand together, the ogre mages and remorhaz of the world can go hang.

So if my friend the paladin doesn’t suffer from the brittle bone structure that I was born with as a child, good. I hope he doesn’t, no one should have to. I get along with it myself because I’m used to it.

Do you see? The mindsets that occur in THIS game occur nowhere else. Your bishop hasn’t had a bad run of luck lately with turning undead pawns. Your king isn’t having trouble with the queen’s infidelity. It isn’t the power or the cool shit you can do that makes this game, it’s the shit-sucking misery that plagues your character’s every effort. When something goes right, it goes right OUTSIDE of you. Just like the real world, when you've knocked a hole-in-one on the par 4. Yes, you strut and tell all your friends that you are da shit, but in reality, you are thinking really deep down inside, man, that was fucking luck.

The effort people take to find ways to reward “good playing” just don’t get it. We are all spectators in our character’s successes and foibles…and it is fucking awesome to see that die tumble into a critical just when the party really, REALLY needs it. We take the credit, we get the experience, and we don’t care that it was random. We swung the club and got the ace and that’s what matters.

This is the game that is the real world. It works by the same rules.

Okay, that said, let’s get down to business.

There’s less need, I feel, to pump up the combat abilities with a lot of power. Still, constitution can pretty much be applied only one way: how much can the character take. The side over the ability I’ve seen in terms of a character’s sickly genetics—a very simple progression from completely healthy to a collection of multiple medical problems.

(that should read, "poison, paralyzation and petrification")

The side under the ability, on the other hand, was more difficult. I eventually hit on a collection of minor, somewhat supportive attributes. Keep in mind, as I’ve said before, most every party member has a 15 or more constitution. I wasn’t interested in giving some result like “immunity from all disease” for a roll of 10 under (that would make 1/3 of the party immune). I do want to be able to kill a party member occasionally with a disease; that keeps them from stumbling out into the wilderness without clothing, tents, tinderboxes, boots (I’ve had players forget to buy them) and so on.

The rules about the first 3 damage being exempt: I’ve known men who worked in hot, blistering environments with skin like leather. This is meant to address that. The same goes for the fellow who’s already been bit...four times—by his pet tarantula, and it doesn’t bother him as much now.

You may notice this is the second reference I’ve made to “weather grades.” I divide my weather into 26 grades, similar to the system originally suggested in the Wilderness Guide—but better. You’ll also note a link to worldwide weather data on my blog. That is because I use this data when I play. It is precise, incontrovertible and does not represent numbers pulled out of my ass—like almost every number I find in the published books…but we’re not talking about the equipment table right now.

A character’s endurance against these weather grades depends on where the character grew up. I have characters running who have come from as wide a range as Egypt (30 degrees latitude) and Karelia (60 degrees latitude). At present they are above the Arctic Circle…it is the second week of October. Which ones do you think are going to handle the weather better?

This is why I don’t say, “the character is unaffected by weather above –10”…because if the character is from Mozambique, that number should be different than if the character is from the Orkneys.

Incidentally, ever seen a world map invented by a Dungeon Master that had clear, recognizable latitudes? Or a rational weather system? That is because weather is the most complex and annoying geographical consideration—and must be explained away by most DMs as “affected by magic” because working out a completely unique weather pattern on an imaginary world is just plain psycho.

Which brings us to the Disorders Table:

Not much to say about this, it is pretty clear. I’m not going to pabulum feed the readers by going all out to write specific effects for each of the disorders, though of course I could. Insensitivity to touch? Player can’t wear armor, player must wear specific fabrics, player reacts violently (and manically) to being touched and so on. Brittle bones? Player suffers +10%, +20%, +40%, double from falls, crushing damage, etc…however much of Unbreakable you want to coordinate into your campaign. Weak stomach? Food allergies, poison save reduced, whatever you like.

I disdain giving a specific list because you, as DM, ought to be able to work that out to suit your campaign. Anything I suggest is going to be either too harsh or too mild. I’ll stay here by the trunk, thank you. It is your path to walk onto that limb.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Wisdom is the last dumping ground for stats, for being like charisma and intelligence it has no direct influence on combat. I considered long and hard on how to have this affect the players, and settled on the idea that the character would have made friends or enemies during their early life; the wisdom table is meant to reflect that.

Now, most times, a character couldn’t give a rat’s ass what their family thought of them growing up. Family members do not generally have any place in D&D (nerds must dislike them, hm?), and I haven’t seen a player make much use of the positive results of this table. Most of the time, a player is too busy globetrotting to care much what mum and dad are doing back on the farm. Still, I feel the table has relevance and I don’t feel any need to change the subject matter.

The biggest dispute might be the result where a proficiency or a number of cantrips are lost. I agree, this is nasty. So is losing a limb, or being covered with burn scars. If you accept the negative results of the first two tables, you must accept that occasionally a character is going to have fucked up their studies in their youth. You might want to create some means by which they can take “night courses” and get back that proficiency or cantrip. Or simply eliminate the result from your campaign.

One thing that can be considered is the juxtaposition of this table with the father's profession table I posted days ago. If your father is no one special, then it doesn't much matter how the character is viewed. But if your father was merchant guildmaster (and loaded), and your fighter is HATED by his family...well, that just sucks, doesn't it?

Thursday, June 19, 2008


When it comes to a player choosing the nature of his or her character, here is what I allow: they can arrange their abilities, pick their race, their class, what weapons they choose to buy, and everything they do from the point where they enter the campaign (barring being put into slavery, of course). Up until that point, however, I determine what happens to them. And by that, I mean the die does.

To me, a great deal of the game IS randomness; just as a great deal of the world is. I’m a believer in chaos theory. But a player can mitigate the circumstances of his own background by how he chooses to place his ability scores at the outset.

Intelligence, like charisma, is another dumping ground for unwanted stats. Most players assume, very reasonably, that they’re going to play their characters pretty much the same way no matter what their stats are. They may condescend to play it a little dumb if their intelligence is 8; but they probably can’t play an intelligence above what they actually have…which I don’t mind. How does a 120 I.Q. person play 170 I.Q? Dice roll.

What I want is for players to understand what they’re doing when they’re sorting out those first six numbers into their abilities. I want them to pause really, really hard before they write that little “9” next to the “I”…I want them to consider the consequences of their actions.

Let’s face it: when we are talking about personality development, in real people and in fictional characters, it is not that important what we’re able to do or how others treat us. What defines us…really DEFINES us…is the fucked up things we do to ourselves.

Allowing players too much latitude in choosing what makes up their characters loses a lot of the potential flavor normally accorded to characters in fiction. No D&D player is going to say at the outset, “My character was really stupid and gambled all his money away, so now he’s destitute and can’t afford weapons or armor at first level.” Or, “My character was kicked by a mule at age 5 after taunting the mule incessantly…they couldn’t save the leg below the knee so my character has a peg leg.” Or even, “My character had to go to prison to satisfy his father’s debts…so please increase my age by eleven years to compensate for that.”

Yet this shit happens. No one wants it to happen, but it does, and any background system should include the possibility…even if the players HATE it.

Which they don’t, in my experience. In fact, they love it. They love being able to make fun of someone else’s misfortune, or even their own—once they have to accept that the misfortune is unchangeable. Just like real people do when they think back on THEIR past mistakes. Make fun of it and move on.

Here is the Intelligence table. It works like yesterday’s charisma table, and includes positive as well as negative things. But the negative is, I admit, worse than the positive. Which is as it should be…life sucks and blows, it doesn’t usually steam like a dream.

Gah. I sicken myself sometimes.

"Proficiency" means another weapon. I admit I've been somewhat casual in the creation of these tables. I know what the words mean; I will expand in answer to any questions.

The DM must be prepared to give ready explanations for some of these things: how did the person lose a leg, why was the person put in jail, what cleverness ended in the writ of passage…its not that hard. Take the player’s suggestion, if you like, but realize that all players try to hedge the odds in their favor. I wouldn’t trust any of them, if I were you…you might find yourself approving some story that will come back later to bite you in the ass. Nope, you really ought to shoot your own dog when it comes to this. Make the player figure out a way to make it a good thing. Mistakes build character, remember.

The worst result I’ve yet had in my world is the female cleric (now sixth level) is missing a hand. It is a bitch. She can get herself a hook, but being a cleric she can’t use it as a weapon. Most heavy going clerical weapons require two hands (morning star, military pick, quarterstaff, flail)…so that even though she has weapon proficiencies, she can’t fill them.

Total actual complaints that I’ve received from the player, encouraging me to give her hand back? None. And that’s taking into account that the character had been playing and had advanced to fourth level before I brought this system in. Which means reality blinked and hey, she was missing a hand.

I don’t let things like that worry me. I’m bringing in rule changes all the time, sometimes they test poorly and we drop them. But I’m not going to let a little thing like the player already having used a morning star to gain 9,000 X.P. stand in the way of my campaign.

Besides…it encouraged me to invent a mechanical hand (7-9 thousand g.p.), along with “faerie oil” (400 g.p. cost per month)…if she wants a second hand that bad. She hasn’t decided yet if she wants to outlay the expense. After a couple more levels, I don’t think expense will be a problem. An annoyance, maybe…

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I have long played the system whereby 4 dice are rolled, one discarded, six times to create the abilities statistics; then letting the player decide which stat goes to which ability. I will usually let a player toss the six rolls and start from scratch if there isn’t at least one 15 and one 16; and I let players have one veto…the choice of tossing all rolls and getting new six ones, with the provision that they have to live with what they get.

One of the things I like about the secondary skills table I posted is that it creates a meaningful reason for players to contribute a better stat towards their charisma. Players have a tendency to consider charisma a sort of dumping ground for the stat that didn’t get used; I’ve seen that backfire hideously.

A ranger playing in my world decided he didn’t care if his charisma was 8; and it didn’t matter much, when he was level 1 to 3. Later on, as the party got caught up in a war in Spain, acquired a little farmland and started intimidating the local village, our ranger found suddenly that he was on the outside, as no one would make arrangements with him on account of his stifling personality, disconcerting body odor and general all-around unpleasantness.

Now 8th level, he complained and complained about what he could do about it. I was playing with rules then that said if a player spent 5 years concentrating on nothing else, they could raise their charisma 1 point. He agreed to that, but he didn’t want to retire his character for an eon while the party ran…so I offered him this:

For a ridiculous amount of money, he could travel to the astral plane, where time operated differently. There he could study for 15 years, raise his charisma 3 points, and come back older and more tolerable. He had to go alone, of course…no one else in the party was willing to spend thousands of gold pieces to go hang out with him.

Crossing the astral plane by himself, I told him he’d have one encounter from the astral plane encounter table (near the back of the DMG). Because I didn’t want a lot of screaming, I let one of the other players roll the d100 to see what it was. What came up was a “38.”

“38” reads Chromatic Dragon. Our ranger had enough time to say, “Hey babe…”

Sorry about the D&D tale. I hate them too. But I wanted to make the point that players rarely understand that at higher levels they’re going to want that charisma they don’t give a crap about now.

By and large players don’t really care much about intelligence, wisdom and charisma. They’re not as important to the combat system, and so even mages and clerics will often put their best stat under strength or constitution. At present, all the front characters in my campaign have a constitution of 15 or more.

About six months ago I stumbled across an idea that really made a change in that attitude. It’s another series of tables, which I’ll post one at a time, again for each ability score. Each new character rolls on them, which surprisingly takes very little time.

Starting with charisma, which is the most interesting table. It works this way.

The character rolls a d20 against charisma. Details about the character’s appearance or personality depend on whether the result is over, equal to, or below the charisma score. The more it is over, the worse it gets; the more it is under, the better it gets.

Thus, if the character has a high charisma, even a failure won’t result in a particularly nasty description. If the character has a low charisma, even the best roll won’t win the character a too decent result.

But…and this is a big but…if the character has a low charisma, using it as a dumping ground, and then rolls a high number…the result can be quite hideous. Something no one in the party will forget.

You'll have to click it to read the table; blogs suck.

I think my particular favorites are the character still being a virgin at the outset of the campaign (and the developing series of mishaps which might occur if the character tries to lose their virginity); the character appearing ten years younger than their actual age (funny with a 16 year old fighter); or the character's body reeking regardless of their level of cleanliness. I recently had a character's half-orc fighter (named "Hig") get the 13 or above roll, with more than 50% of the character's body covered in burn scars. It isn't hard to figure out what Hig's nickname is.

There's no reason their couldn't be more results...along with multiple results for the same amount above or below, given sub-rolls. At some point I plan to brainstorm it and add to the table. So far, I haven't had too many duplicates.


Have you thought about the way children play? There is a conception among adults—an irrational conception—that “play” is somehow frivolous, that children are blissfully leaping about the flowered landscape waving bubble makers, without a care in the world.

This could not be farther from the truth.

Children, when they play, are deadly serious about what they’re doing. They don’t see it as frivolous at all, but as vitally important. You don’t think so? Watch a group of children discuss the rules of a game, and count the number of seconds before fists start flying.

This “childish” behavior is more or less dismissed by adults as evidence of an undeveloped emotional maturity. What it actually shows is the extent to which children care about what they’re doing. They have not yet developed the cultured apathy so prevalent in adults, you see.

Consider a typical situation. John and Mark have spent about four hours carefully building two cities out of Lego, at opposite ends of a basement. The crowning effort has been to “post” one hundred army men on each city, with the stipulation that the army men MUST be placed on top of buildings, and not on the “ground” (children would never refer to it as a floor…the distinction is relevant and steadfastly adhered to). Children make up such rules without being told to invent them—the reason for the rule being there is as follows.

John and Mark intend to throw wooden blocks at each other’s city, as a war to destroy the other person’s army. Thus, the men must be on top of a building. A man not on top of a building will be considered “dead” unless they fall and somehow remain standing.

Remember, it is has taken four hours to arrange this combat. The combat itself will require about ten minutes. At no time, all afternoon, will the two boys remotely consider the effort-to-payoff ratio as anything but worthwhile.

Now, introduce Jeremy, who has shown up just before the battle is ready. Jeremy, who won’t have his own city, might just decide he’s going to muck about with the army men or maybe with some of the Lego…quite probably out of boredom.

Watch John and Mark’s response to Jeremy touching anything. Watch the two boys run towards him, screaming, fists out—you will not see any evidence of “fun” in the boy’s behavior. Their faces will be twisted, menacing, furious…their play has been spoiled by Jeremy’s failure to understand the IMPORTANCE of what is happening.

This is not restricted to boys. Girls have rules like this too. At the tea party, the stuffed animal named “Bonita” ALWAYS serves, and “Clarisse” ALWAYS gets the first cup. This blouse belongs to Malibu Barbie and is NOT worn by Staci. EVER. Friendships will end over things like this.

Which brings us at last to D&D. I know there are many Jeremys in the world who see the game as cheesy, who feel the need to mock and laugh because they don’t understand the importance of the rules as they’re played by others. I don’t quite want to make the argument that the game can’t be played by adults because of their tendency to filter everything through their cynicism, but to a certain degree, that IS the problem.

Children do become adults, and they are made to feel silly as they get older for playing games that many adults feel they should not be playing. The game I describe above between John and Mark really was something I used to play at 8 years of age…and at ten, and at fourteen.

As we got older, the rules got more extreme. From the Lego we built “ships” which had specific designs intended to bear the brunt of a hit; each ship demanded a certain minimum of pieces, and the design was up to the player…but there were designs that were tougher than others.

We ascended from throwing wooden blocks to golf balls in the back yard. And from that to darts, which produced very interesting patterns as we fired them at ships placed in the grass (and there were rules about how you could not dig them in). From darts we expanded to lawn darts, played on a school field on the weekend – hurling the darts thirty, forty feet at Lego ships we could barely see, and still hitting with accuracy.

But as we got to be fourteen and fifteen, and interested in girls and gadgets and so on…we began to feel pretty dumb building things of Lego and blowing them to pieces. For some reason we became conscious of the houses around us, and the people in those houses, watching grown boys with Lego. Somehow we began to feel shame about what we were doing.

Shame is the great destroyer of childhood. It is shame that encourages us, as we get older, not to get too interested or excited about anything. We are all supposed to remain detached, remote from feelings of passion, so that we no longer feel the need to beat up Jeremy for being such a fuckwit and not understanding. This is how we descend towards tolerance, where the rules are less important than appearing “cool” or self-assured.

By our twenties we're expected to limit our concern for games with rules to acceptable sports. This is why the thirty-year-old who spends his weekends playing Halo doesn’t talk about it much. This is why, if you’re a rock star, you don’t mention too often that you enjoy a good session of D&D when you can get one. Because the Jeremys of the world will descend on you and do their best to make you feel as much shame as they can muster.

Building a serious campaign, and making people take it seriously, requires one inward philosophy and one outward philosophy. Inwardly, the DM must find again the attitude he or she had as a child—that the rules are important and that they are not cheesy…except to those who don’t get it.

Outwardly, the DM must quash any and all frivolous behavior in a campaign, immediately and without qualm. It doesn’t matter if this means being rude or inconsiderate—if you want players who can take a campaign seriously, they must be made to understand that they WILL take it seriously or they can take their fuckwit selves to another venue. It may take time, but a DM prepared to have standards like these will eventually draw people who LOVE these standards…who will enjoy being able to play the game without shame, at least within the confines of the campaign on weekend evenings.

They may not be able to talk about it with outsiders; but the other insiders who are with them will back them 100%…and the campaign will develop and do what its supposed to do.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Secondary Skills

I have never been happy with the “Secondary Skills” table in the DMG, nor with any system designed to let characters pick out useful skills from a given list. There were several problems inherent in the idea of a minor skills list: no rules were included as to how exactly the player was meant to implement these skills; the list of options were limited to say the least, and did not include the possibility of the character coming from a wealthy or titled background; and the selection process was too random (a mage had as much chance of getting “fisherman” as an answer as a fighter).

The problem I had with players choosing skills was that, really, who chooses what skills they learn as a child? That is really a matter of the father’s social status (patriarchal world, you see), and the father’s abilities. That it be a random selection was the point—it represented the life the character would have had, if the character had never become a thief, a fighter or what have you. In that sense, it has the potential to build a personality. A character who threw away the family practice of farming has to see it differently from the character who’s father was a banker.

Obviously, to create a random list, the last thing anyone wants is a high probability that the character will be nobility. The characters, of course, want it—so the possibility has to be there. But it has to be a low possibility. Preferably, very low.

I hit on the idea of using the player’s own six abilities as a reference guide and found it worked nicely. I built a random chance based on the following: take the individual ability scores and –10 from each. Sum the remainder and use it to determine the likelihood that the player’s father had an occupation which fell into that particular specialty.

Example: a fighter has a strength of 18, an intelligence of 9, wisdom 12, constitution 16, dexterity 14 and a charisma of 10. Subtracting 10 from each, and tossing out those abilities that are now zero, the total is (8+2+6+4) 20: 8 parts strength, 2 parts wisdom, 6 parts constitution, 4 parts dexterity. A roll has to be made to randomly determine from those four which ability table is consulted. (It won't always work out to be a 20-sided, obviously; you know how to roll a 26 sided dice, right?)

The fighter has no chance whatsoever that his father came from the intelligence or charisma fields.

All that remained was to divide up the various potential father-held professions into their various ability types:

Strength: farmer, fisherman, sailor, teamster, mercenary, master-at-arms, bounty hunter, gladiator

Intelligence: trapper, scribe, carpenter, mason, gameskeeper, boatman, alchemist, tomb robber, magician (while some of these might seem as though they belong under strength or dexterity, I’d argue they require “sense” to do well).

Wisdom: prospector, husbandman, physician, herbalist, curate, village witch, priest, tutor, witchhunter (occupations that require patience or spiritual sense; a “village witch” is anyone operating outside the local religion but still sought after for advice).

Constitution: rat catcher, gypsy, alchemist’s assistant, blacksmith, prostitution, armorer, weaponsmith, miner, explorer (resistance to disease is a central theme)

Dexterity: artisan of foodstuffs (baker, vintner, butcher); artisan of textiles (fuller, weaver, tailor); artisan of woodcraft (turner, wagonwright); artisan of mineralstuffs (stonecutter, potter, glassmaker); artisan of metalworks (puddler, forger, coppersmith); toll keeper; monk or nun (the last is arguable—but the monk character is based on dexterity)

Charisma: artist, singer, landlord, buccaneer, innkeeper, usurer, fence, killer, banker, squire, knight, guildmaster, dispossessed noble, crusader, marshal, lesser noble, middle noble, guildmaster thief, guildmaster assassin, greater noble, uncrowned royalty or crowned royalty.

Now the last takes a bit of explanation. I had to use a d1000 for the random likelihood, just so the chance that the player being crowned would be 1 in 1000. There are other limitations, as well; not every nation is vast…and obviously the player would not be crowned royalty in Russia. The only justification for the character starting at 1st level as the crowned king or queen of a country would be if a) the country was very small; and b) the individual was, at the moment, an escapee from would-be usurpers. Which is how I’d run it if I ever got that result. So far, I haven’t. I may not in my lifetime.

You may notice there are a number of references which may make no sense to you (“martial spirit” in reference to the singer, for example). These are references to additions and fixes I’ve made myself and play tested for years. I’ll explain any that anyone cares to ask about.

Regarding the "wealth" numbers; I typically judge this to be 1d6 x10 g.p. per wealth "point" as starting capital. A different system (or different numbers, for that matter) could be used.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Enough Junk

I’ve made a terrible, terrible error, and I’ve made it straight out of the gate. In spite of writing at the outset that I wasn’t going to care what other people thought about what I was writing, I began to care about what other people thought. It is an easy trap to fall into.

One of the ways to develop interest in your blog is to go out and leave messages and comments on other people’s blogs; so I put a little effort into doing that. I dug up a number of D&D blogs and I commented. And took a little time to find out what they were talking about - that being fourth edition - and that’s where my problems began.

On some level I’ve been living in a dream world. I’ve felt that, despite being out of the community for twenty years, that there was still some 'connection' I had with others playing D&D. I knew about the changes in the game, but I simply put that down to the rules … I failed to realize how thought processes had transformed.

I won’t say “evolved” because things have, instead, devolved.

I’ve now found that I’m a sort of player who’s become incomprehensible. Which is a mystery to me, as I’ve continued to talk D&D and incorporate new players … it's only that I’ve vastly underestimated what they’ve said about my world being different.

What are the changes? That’s a bit hard to distill into a few hundred words.

First and foremost, it seems to be commitment. The dialogue seems centered around a) not being able to find a campaign; b) not being able to find a committed campaign; c) not being able to find a committed campaign where the players are serious; and d) endless dialogues about what’s wrong with the game.

Apparently my world is different. I’ve been running the same campaign for two years without a break and without resorting to other games. What I should have done by now is come to my players with something like, “Hey people, I was too bored to work on what we’ve been doing. But I wrote up this really neat 12th level dungeon last weekend; since your characters aren’t strong enough for that, let’s roll up some 12th level characters and play this instead.”

Or, “Guys, I’m sick of D&D. But I just bought a complete box set of Hackmaster Space. Let’s start a new campaign!”

Baffling. Like showing up for a baseball game and saying, “I’m sick of baseball… (fill in the rest).”

This is, however, what everyone is doing, according to what I’m reading. And everyone is sick of it, at least in terms of its lack of meaning or purpose. And the just released edition 4 is fully built to make “casual” campaigns easier to start and run.


So I’m out here making arguments about classes vs. non-classes when this is totally yesterday’s news. Classes? What the fuck are classes?

We haven't got a system we can play anymore. What we have is a fucking joke. Is it so impossible to hope for ONE game we could play on a Saturday nights.  Every Saturday night?  Hah!  Are you kidding?

Yeah, I guess so.

Between the people who wish they had that, and those who think it would be boring beyond words, there is no D&D as I understood it. There is no room for the sort of rule changes I’ve made … not for them.

Still, rule changes are all I want to talk about. Not some company’s changes, not another cheap character or town generator … but actual rules. The sort of rules that define the world and how players interact with it. And I will.

But I have to surrender any belief that other people will come on-line, see what I’ve written and incorporate it into their campaigns. They don’t have campaigns. I’m not very clear on what the fuck they do have … weekly random somethings. They tend to post about making their own modules: another fuckwit castle full of whatever the latest monster is. One more Den of Desolation on the Last Outpost of the frigging Desert of Despair. Where a rag-tag party of Indiana Jones’ wannabes can duel it out with traps and Final Fantasy entities to seize the Great Jewel of Arnhem.

Yes, bored they are.

Looking back over this rant, I see it's not that clear. I’m going to let it stand anyway. I’ve been thinking about this since Thursday, and sometimes emotion is not about grammar.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Give Abilities Their Due

I had a look at the much vaunted 4e D&D books that were released this month, and I’ll just make a quick review. First and foremost, I’ll start with two words: white space.

Lots of it. The books appear to be printed in 12-point font, with an inch-wide border around the outside…so while they are pretty hefty tomes, big and bold with more than 200 pages each, they aren’t very dense.

Another word? Try “pabulum.” As in, not for the serious player. The first 35 pages of the DMs Guide is apparently an effort to explain a game that I haven’t needed to be explained to me in three decades. Which—I believe—everyone who would vaguely consider buying the books probably don’t need either. Glancing through the Players Handbook and the DMG, mostly what I find is simple-Simon text for the addle-pated. But there are many, many pages…it will take time to squeeze out of them anything actually useful.

I’ve no doubt given the impression that my interest in 1st Edition has left me blind to later books. Not true. While I don’t pay full price for them (I’ve found most of my copies at junk sales), I do read them and try to use whatever I can find to augment the game I play.

The rules I follow defining the D&D characters my players play are recognizable as 1st edition, but hardly limited to it. I’ve tried new rules, sometimes keeping them or tossing them, depending on their satisfactory addition to the overall concept. I’m open to new ideas. I would like it if they were good ideas.

The d20 concept was, obviously, a very BAD idea. The adoption of any method that would seriously randomize the likely results was certain to reward weak-thinking players and punish smart-thinking players—and it would bring everyone into the middle ground (which was, no doubt, the idea the developers had…especially since 4e appears bent on going that further).

The game has NEVER been about the die roll. It is about the possible vs. the impossible. The DM judges, reasonably, what is possible as opposed to what is not; that judgment should NOT be made by a dice roll.

Okay, there are occasions when the dice applies: for instance, a thief climbing a wall. But if that thief should decide to jump the five foot gap between the wall and the building, there should not be any need to calculate the likelihood. Shit, at eight I could make a five-foot leap. Reducing every part of a character’s action to its % chance was sheer lunacy.

Another example? A fourth level bard enters a village of 500 people and begins to play. D20 rules tell me that I’m supposed to calculate some number which says the bard will impress the town…and then have the bard roll a 20-sided die to see if he achieves that level by the modified number shown.

A little demographic analysis, please. I estimate that, on average, about 2-3% of the population of my world has leveled status; this is higher than others have given (1% is pretty standard), but let’s use my number.

Out of every hundred leveled persons, I estimate about 1-2% are bards, depending on the cultural level of the region. France, obviously, would have more bards per leveled humanoids than sub-Saharan Africa.

Furthermore, let’s admit that it’s harder to be 4th level than it is to be 1st. Let’s be generous and call the ratio 4:1…though obviously 8:1 is more likely.

That means that there is a 4th level bard for every 10,667 residents of the kingdom. Um, impress a village of five hundred people? Are you fucking kidding me?

Understanding the characters people play begins with understanding that the skills the classes employ are not chance representations of ability. Plumbers do not “statistically” succeed in fixing toilets. Architects do not “statistically” construct ordinary houses. When I was 15, I successfully shot a set of rapids in a canoe, after three days of canoe experience—I was never in any physical danger, it was just very exciting. No doubt my inexperienced half-elven cleric would have had to “roll a die.”

The earlier example of a thief climbing a wall should involve a die roll only if there is some mitigating factor which would make that wall difficult to climb—being 300 feet high, for example; or being sheer with few handholds; or someone firing arrows at the thief while he or she climbs. I would not have the thief roll to climb an ordinary two-story building—that would be idiocy.

And yet there are DMs out there who insist everything is a die roll. Which baffles me, at best.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dead Thinking

By the time Unearthed Arcana was released in 1985, my friends and I had been playing the game for almost six years. I’m sure that for some players somewhere it was a shot in the arm, but for us it was largely a piece of junk, full of typos and badly worded design flaws. While some of the ideas had merit (notably cantrips), most of these ideas had already been put forth by Dragon Magazine and had been incorporated into campaigns by the players themselves.

I bring up the U.A. because it indicates the thinking process of the company that continued to sell products for the game, resulting in three flaws: A) they were perpetually behind in their thinking process, rushing to solve problems that savvy DMs had already solved on their own; B) they continued to perpetuate the original flaws of the game; and C) they were interested most of all in selling the same game over and over again, reworded or “reworked,” as exemplified by the 2nd and 3rd editions and the books released to support them.

I need not discuss the lag in thinking, as this is to be expected with a corporate mentality. Eventually, the game players split into two factions—one of which is clearly visible everywhere on line, which discusses the latest releases with the avid interest of pop fans everywhere. As this group does little thinking for itself, and is dependent on the corporation to feed it, there’s no need for the corporation to be particularly forward thinking. This plays to point (c), in which we see that all you need is a shiny new cover on the same old shit in order to sell product. Car manufacturers have been playing this technique since their inception.

The other group doesn’t buy product. This group doesn’t need prefabricated plastic-dungeon sets, as they know they can make their own with a few power tools and effort. This group doesn’t need another book with sixty pages of character creation, forty pages of weapons, eighty pages of magic items and sixty pages of spell descriptions (with two pages of equipment and one page describing “outdoor adventures’). Thus, this second group has NO IMPORTANCE WHATSOEVER as to the commercial development of the game, which has become the only public face that anyone can see.

Having dismissed points (a) and (c) therefore as mostly uninteresting, let’s discuss point (b)…flaws and failures in the original system.

First and foremost is clearly “alignment,” the brain child of Gygax probably, who felt that players couldn’t have a personality without grafting some standardized graph onto it. I never knew anyone in the first half of the eighties that used it, with the exception of Paladins, forcing them to be “good” in order to limit the character at high level. Later on, I met a string of rather queer DMs who felt that it really fueled character development—though none of them could explain how, and I learned to stay far away from such people as they tended to pocket silverware and such. The public relations problem the corporation was having with the fact that the word “evil” was being used at all in association with a “children’s” game practically guaranteed that alignment would continue to have relevance in the commercial game—along with the clear understanding that parties should be encouraged towards the “good” path.

I have made an unending stream of players happy by merely using the words, “I allow evil paladins.” In fact, I don’t give a rat shit how a paladin behaves…having read Le Morte de Arthur and thus knowing that knights behave in all sorts of ways. Moreover, it’s just common sense. Death and decay are part and parcel with nature; the GODS, having some greater knowledge of the natural world, would have less invested in the notion of mortality than mortals…and thus what care they that paladins rip goodwives asunder and butcher little children? All the more meat to occupy the outer planes and from which to pick an army.

Paladins aside, the problem was made worse with the advent of the Unearthed Arcana, which tried steadfastly to establish character codes, such as those of the Barbarian and the Samurai…characters which, if we were to believe what we were reading, would be run more by the DM than by the players, forced to kowtow to pre-set character traits loaded with punishments for “incorrect behavior.”

Why should I, as DM, suddenly have to behave as the character police every time a puffed-up fighter wants to take a shit in the woods? Or, in the case of the barbarian, wants to behave rationally in the face of extreme danger? It was clear from the first readings that these characters were woefully over-supported with powers and abilities in exchange for the political correctness of their class structures. I saw no way in which this would support the game as designed, so I disregarded the new classes. I took some of their features and sprinkled them among the original classes (without restrictions on their use).

For about six months I heard protests from people wanting to try the new characters. After six months most of these people had had their opportunity to do so, in someone else’s campaign. Interest quickly died.

Free action, I found, was a better sell than character abilities.

Let me take a moment, here, to reflect on another failing in the character system as it stands now—and as it is loved by the commercial advocates of the game: the use of skill points to buy skills to create characters not restricted by class.

I admit, I’m not fully clear on how this manifests itself in the present 3rd edition game. I’ve looked over the tables and read the rules, and I feel confident that the system came directly out of RuneQuest, dressed up of course. I played that system as part of another hybrid, Middle Earth, and hated the system immediately. Here’s why.

It takes very little time to discover the most efficient way in which to use skill points, to create the strongest most efficient players. While there may be other skills available, one has to be an idiot to take them rather than the more practical skills. Our deviating idiot will find his or herself constantly demoted to the second rank in every encounter—because they don’t get +7 when they attack and they don’t cast magics enabling them to fly or what have you. Whatever the system, pretty soon you have twelve characters running in your world who are all exactly the same in their abilities. And don’t say it’s not true, because I’ve seen it happen again and again. If you’re the sort of person who is willing to pay points for useless skills, come on over; I have a used car for sale that you’re gonna love.

So what about character classes? Ah, that gets us down to the nitty-gritty at last. Let’s discuss characters next.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

So What If They Win?

There was a disconnect with a comment about the subject of “good players” that I ought to address. When yesterday I said that a player ought to be able to take opportunities when they came, I was not actually making a qualification about good vs. bad players. I was saying a world ought to give opportunities…and if those opportunities exist, players take them. Not just the good players. All the players.

If I have a player who sees the world in terms of taverns and pick pocketing and quests, I recognize at once that it is learned behavior. It’s not the player’s fault for being bad at the game…the player’s experience has taught them to believe this is how the game should be played.

All of my present participants were like that; it took time, but they have all slowly developed into self-propelling beings, working jointly towards their own goals. It took a fair bit of coddling; I actually had one player leave my world because he felt I was coddling too much (occasionally warning them so they wouldn’t kill themselves). I wanted the game to be fun for my players—why wouldn’t it take a little time for them to see how?

So no, I’m not saying be a better player (and let’s put that subject on the shelf). I’m saying, be a better DM and let the players be better players.

To do that, a DM has got to let go of their world. They can’t love it TOO much…or else that love is going to get in the way.

For example: Arkayn, Abner and Aggro stumble across a group of three hill giants and about two dozen gnolls who are serving as underlings. Fortunately, our trio are seventh level; unfortunately, they’ve just had a bad run in with the nearby river rapids and they’ve just emerged wet, shivering and a little worse for wear from some of the rocks they bounced against. So, the DM thinks, this ought to be a combat to really challenge them. Possibly, one of the three might die.

What’s more, the DM has planned this as the last obstacle to keep them from finding Princess Heliose and successfully marrying into the Duke’s family (the Princess is in love with Abner—go figure).

In desperation, Arkayn whips out a wand. A wand that he was given 18 months ago, actual time. That he earned, I might add…its just he’s never used it and he hasn’t a clue what it does. In fact, the DM has no clue either; he wrote a note about it in his diary files and now he has to actually go look that up when Arkayn gives the wand a try.

And what do you know, it’s a wand of paralyzation. With 26 charges.

Well, the hill giants blow their saving throws and it takes no time at all to mop up the gnolls; altogether, the party suffers something like 30 hp damage total. It’s a cake walk.

At this point, MOST of the DMs I’ve known will cry foul: Arkayn doesn’t know the wand’s special secret word (oh please); the wand was wet and doesn’t work properly; there’s a chance that the wand will accidentally paralyze Arkayn; and so on. Anything, in fact, except the recognition that the player reserved that wand until the time came for it to save their ass.

I’ve never been a special word/invoke magic item type of DM. I found long ago it added nothing to the game except for a bit of glee on the part of DMs who really don’t want to give out magic…oh, and it fills up game time with pestering regularity. Fuck it; Arkayn’s a seventh level mage with a genius I.Q. and he’s had the wand in his possession all this time. I think he’s figured out how to make it work when he wants to.

As for other arguments—obviously the DM just doesn’t want his giants and gnolls adventure to fizzle. The party does! They’re glad they don’t have to fight the damn things and probably die. Too bad for the DM who didn’t remember the wand in advance…not every final encounter has to fit the mold. Sometimes its nice to bypass type.

Indiana Jones, big scimitars, etc. But most of the DMs I’ve known would argue that somehow the guy with big scimitar successfully blocked the bullets.

As a DM, you can’t grip your adventure and your plans so tightly that the real point is lost—that the players are, basically, intended to win. “Losing” would have been fighting the giants without the wand, dying and then thinking, “oh shit I should have used that wand.”

Losing shouldn’t be, “The wand doesn’t work cause it’s wet, so you have to fight them.”

That just brings us back to the rat in the maze thing.

To dungeon master this way, I find that what I have to do is get myself out of the picture as much as possible. I make every effort to have no stake at all in what is going on. I’m the referee. I’m not here to decide which side wins.

Let’s face it; I can make the monster side win any time I want. Can’t I?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Seizing the Day

When I have someone run in my world for the first time, in the usual way I would describe what they see: it might, for instance, go like this:

“You’re standing in Paris, at the head of the Rue de Pontoise, where you can gaze along the Quai de Montebello, towards Notre Dame; it has been raining heavily and the streets are flooded an inch deep in water; but movement has taken hold of the city again and artists are setting their canvases up along the Seine. A few teamsters nearby are struggling with a mule. You have been in the city for only a few hours, and here is where you’ve wound up. What do you wish to do?”

Now, from someone unfamiliar with my world, and quite familiar with D&D, I will get some very definite replies. If they are a thief, they will ask, “Do I see anyone with a fat pouch hanging from their belt?”

What is it with this nonsensical Lieberesque perception that rich people carry all their money where it can be clearly seen by thieves? That it wouldn’t occur to them, perhaps, to keep their money a little closer to their persons? Is it Dickens, perhaps, that makes player thieves think that every rich passerby is so much of a fool as to be unaware that there are thieves? And that it is clearly the easiest thing to do to steal money pouches as they pass by, like peaches in an orchard?

No, I will answer. No pouches. “All you see is poor people. You will have to go elsewhere to see them; and you would be hassled by guardsmen to be dressed as you are (the thief is a country lout, far too provincial, and dirty from the road).”

But, the more common reply to the description of origin, regardless of where I start a character off, will be, “I go to a tavern.”

“All right, it takes you a bit to find one, but you ask directions. And here you are at the Sour Bottle.”

So the player will buy a drink, and ask, “where can someone find a little adventure around here?”

And I will have the wine steward (this is France, after all) raise an eyebrow and walk away.

It’s a dumb question, after all.

Usually, what comes next is the player will wait for something to happen. That is, he or she will wait until I give them something to do. Which I won’t. It’s not my responsibility to make sure they have an adventure.

Yes, I know, people think it is. But I talked about that already, remember? I make the world. Running in it is the character’s problem.

I’m not going to have a fight erupt just so the player can jump in; or have someone start randomly giving information about the local thieves’ guild (who would?); or have someone come in and ask if there are any tough adventurers who would like to make a few sous. Seriously, fuck that.

Look, GOD doesn’t run my life, does he? I run my life…and I like it that way. When the arguments start about how to play D&D, the advice is always directed at the DM. Who needs to invent better adventures, create better magic items, devise more complicated intrigue. Does anyone ever suggest that maybe what we need are better players?

No, they don’t. And that is because the players have no power.

Well, in my world, they do.

Oh, I don’t mean they can walk up to just anybody and start a fight. That will probably end up with them facing odds of five to one (guardsmen have a tendency to multiply with rabbit-like efficiency). Any idiot can start a fight at random and idiots like that will end up in a dungeon and summarily executed. I won’t hesitate to do that as a DM.

But if the character—let’s call him Jack—is clever enough to ask around to find out what the city of Paris taxes heavily, he might discover that the local shop-owners (and the citizens) pay quite dearly for mustard. And he might discover that there’s much mustard that comes in along the east roads from the direction of Dijon. With a little diligence, he might have a lookout for one of these shipments…and after a few crates have been unloaded at a local shop, Jack might approach the poor lackey responsible for the loading and ask how often the deliveries are made—and who makes them.

Whereupon Jack could learn the name of the shipper…probably a very minor merchant who makes little coin for his trouble, with no one but his son for help. Perhaps Jack traces them to their origin (a warehouse outside the city walls, and outside the city’s tax gatherers), has his friends lie in wait along a cramped place in the road in ambush and…

There you go. Jack is now in possession of twenty or thirty kegs of mustard.

Now, he could just take them. Or he could surprise the merchant by buying the mustard…on account, of course. If the merchant is willing to keep silent, until Jack has his money for him in a few days. Oh, and of course the merchant’s son can stay with Jack until then.

So having sent the merchant home to keep quiet, Jack can now re-enter Paris, where he can meet with every one on the mustard merchant’s route. “Of course there will still be deliveries…at a slightly lower cost even…the first will be tomorrow, a day late, and on time thereafter.”

Why wouldn’t all the shopkeepers agree to go on purchasing at Jack’s lower prices? With that settled, there’s just two things left to do. Jack’s pals have to steal themselves a rowboat; Jack, in turn, needs to hire, beg, borrow or steal a horse and cart (the one outside the city gates won’t do). Then its just a matter of slipping down the Seine at night in the boat, with the mustard on board…using the illusionist’s fog spell for cover, or whatever other means—perhaps cutting their way through the underwater cable pulled across the river; and meeting Jack at the appointed time and place.

Oh, Jack might have to backstab a guardsman if he comes along at the right moment—but there are always risks. If everything goes off well, the next day Jack carries his mustard around the shops for a clear profit…well over what he’d get if he tried to carry them through the city gates.

So what, you say? Mustard? What kind of adventure is that?

One that first levels could manage, I think. And which would have all the necessary angst in overcoming the obstacles. Moreover, once Jack was able to bribe the necessary guardsmen along the river (with the profit from his first caper), return the merchant’s son and keep him intimidated (and paid off), there are places the set up could go. Creating a union of merchants outside the walls who could provide the mustard; faster and quicker ways to get the mustard into the city; more shopkeepers ready to climb on board to get a chance at Jack’s prices; competitors ruined and bargain basement acquisitions made; contests with other smugglers trying the same game; further undermining of city officials; expanding into other operations; improving one’s reputation through a combination of income, extortion and reward.

As a DM, the only part I take in all of this is to make a judgment call on whether the scheme should work or not. NOT—as some DMs would—to make it impossible. Sure, it should be difficult…but it’s in my interest to see Jack’s plan succeed. The adventure drives itself, and I just have to keep a hand on the rudder. Until Jack fucks up something along the way, and things can break apart logically and force him to take desperate action or flee.

You see, I really don’t CARE what the party does. As long as it does what IT wants…whatever that is. It’s a big wide wonderful world out there, with plenty of opportunities. Which players should be able to take for themselves.

Running a world like this, as a DM, requires tremendous flexibility and a quick mind. Most of all, it requires a certain philosophy—that being the strong understanding that the DM does not “compete” against the players. If the players behave foolishly, the world—being the nasty place that it is—should respond with deadly force. But if the player’s circumvent the DM’s thinking…the DM should pause, and then admit, “I didn’t think of that—good on you!”—and finally, letting the cherished NPC die before moving on.

The sacred status of the adventure as planned is the bane of the game. I’ll take a stab at that next.