Thursday, July 30, 2009


I made mention of the bow briefly during the discussion of hunting, which technically by my own rules I should not have done. However, I only gave it a few lines, so certainly there will be no trouble expanding here.

In the game Civilization IV, the archer is the first practical military unit your civilization develops. Early in the game, enemy archers, while defending, prove to be a significant pain. To feel secure, it is necessary to build them quickly and have them distributed about your kingdom.

There were bows in early history, coinciding with the rise of the town and proving their considerable worth with the rise of large social entities such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. While the early bow was developed some 18,000 years ago (consisting of arrows with blackened, charcoal tips rather than imagined stone arrowheads).

The plain bow was a single piece of flexible wood, seasoned and shaped so that the tensioned string would cause it to bend in a regular curve. The shaft was as straight as it could be made; sometimes the point was barbed, to retain the arrow in the wound, and sometimes blunted, for shooting birds. Much later (and not applicable to the early bow), shafts were given fluted, waxed section points for the penetration of armor.

The strength of a bow is usually given in the pounds of force necessary to pull the string. Modern target or hunting bows usually pull at 40 to 80 lbs, or sometimes 100 lb. Military bows in the middle ages could exceed that considerably, up to 150 lbs. or more. The range of a short bow was probably about 220 yards.

To increase the amount of possible pull, composite bows were developed, consisting of several pieces of wood glued together and mounted with horn at the points where the string was attached. Animal sinew was incorporated for strength – initially, these were ‘short bows’, from 3 to 5 feet in length. The Japanese would develop this one further stage, so that the center of the pull would be higher than the actual center of the bow – which gave the power of a long bow without the necessary dimensions.

Prior to the Norman Conquest (and before the age of Robin Hood), the bow was seen as an auxiliary weapon, not intended for open-field battles, but for skirmishes and attacks from ambush. Siege operations, too, allowed for short range application of the bow from movable towers, to create an effective barrage on a wall – or its equally effective defence.

Because the addition of the long bow in Civ IV occurs along with Feudalism (which I will be concentrating on at that time), I’ll go ahead and talk about the long bow as well, just to get the whole subject out of the way.

It is likely that the best archers in Europe in the 11th century were the Norse and the Normans, who had a long history of the bow’s use, and who developed advanced tactics in its use. The policy developed into the English longbow, the most powerful weapon of the 13th to 15th centuries – in which case it was used as a shock device prior to melee.

I would like to make a point about the distances at which bows can be fired. While the long bow can be fired to distances exceeding 700 yards, I have to emphasize that players who imagine they can hit targets accurately at this distance are woefully misinformed. Most well-trained men can fire a short bow to a distance of 250 to 300 yards, a long bow to a distance of 500 to 700 yards – but this was done without targeting an opponent, but by launching volleys at the enemy with the expectation that a great many of the fired missiles would miss.

Practical target shooting is another thing altogether. Clout shooting, a historical practice, consists of a target some 48 feet across laid flat upon the ground, and fired at from a distance of 180 yards. Typically, the contest allows competitors to shoot 36 arrows. Wand shooting, derived from Robin Hood’s feat of splitting a willow wand at 100 paces, is done with 36 arrows at a distance of 100 yards. Shooting at the ‘butt’, a mark placed on an earthen backstop, was typically done at 50 yards.

The more traditional target shooting (such as that done in the York Rounds), allows 72 arrows fired by competitors at a 48 inch target from 100 yards.

In D&D terms, that is considerably less than 210 yards granted by the Player’s Handbook, p. 38. By the same table, short range with a long bow (in the outdoors, though I’ve never understood why players are weaker indoors) is 70 yards ... suggesting that first level fighters have a 55% chance of hitting an unarmed person (a mere 20 inches in diameter) at that distance. This would make every fighter in the game an Olympian, when compared with the measurable success present day athletes have at target shooting.

Typically, the range that some players might be familiar with, a distance of 800 yards or more, was accomplished by use of the ‘flight arrow’ ... useless for battle, but effective for producing greater range. Such arrows were developed for contest purposes. Typical D&D arrows would be ‘hunting arrows’.

The best bows are made from Osage orange, yew, lemonwood and Tennessee red cedar. In the United States, other woods used included sassafras, black locust and hickory.

The best arrows are made from varying cedars, Norway pine, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce. Native Americans used birch almost exclusively, but it is not a superior wood (it was, however, plentiful in the eastern continent).

One last point, with regards to firing speed. The Pope-Young Hunting Round is a contest in which the speed of the shot is placed above target shooting. Contestants are given 36 arrows which are then shot at six targets at six different distances, with a 45 second time limit for each six arrows. That is effectively 6 shots in 7 D&D rounds ... most notably while the contestant is not taking part in a melee.

Once every other round is perfectly fair.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mounted Combat

Having given it some thought, I spent time last night and time today slamming together the following post. It is not meant to be flawless. It is meant to be nothing more than a blog post. More than that, it is meant to be nothing more than a framework – you are the DM, you are expected to do some of the work.

As it happens, there are no distinct rules in the DMG for mounted combat. There may be rules in other systems – I cannot say. It seems practical at this point to address the problem myself, and attempt to invent rules for my system which, being my own, will reflect both my experience and the idiosyncrasies of my system.

I will, however, try to remain faithful to the overall AD&D format.

For the purpose of these rules, mounted individuals will be referred to as ‘Riders’, as this is a simple, direct term applying not only to horses, but to camels, mules and other animals alike. At present, these rules are meant to describe only those riders upon mounts which are earthbound – at some later point additional rules for aerial riders may be developed.

The principal advantage of the Rider is increased fighting value, the ability to outflank and avoid combat, to overwhelm opponents, and to retreat and escape as needed. The Rider has the benefit of height, speed and inertial mass over an opponent on foot. These rules are intended to reflect these qualities.

First and foremost, may I say that part of the weakness of the D&D combat system is a failure to incorporate in any practical manner the question of morale – the scant rules given on p. 67 are hopelessly inexact and pathetically unbalanced. I know of no one who has ever used the system provided. In any case, morale is not simply a question of fighting or not fighting, but rather should be the incorporation of the ability to fight according to the circumstances of a particular battle. In a perfect world, it would be easier to reflect the fighting power of horses in terms of their effect upon enemy morale – except that no perfect world, nor perfect morale system exists. Thus, the rules I intend to provide are meant to compensate for the lack of morale, meaning that in many cases Riders will be given advantages which may seem upon examination, to be illogical.

For example, if I make the suggestion that Riders have no flank, and therefore cannot be attacked from the rear nor can opponents gain bonuses by doing so, this is clearly incorrect in terms of physical reality. However, if it is considered that Riders have a greater flexibility in movement and a psychological advantage over ground troops, and that morale is taken into account, the overall effect is that footmen are weakened in their attacks against Riders in specifically that manner.

Secondly, I’d like to make the point that the movement rates throughout the monster manual are a joke. Given that a light horse’s movement outdoors is listed as 240 yards per minute, this works out to a speed of just over 8 m.p.h. I don’t plan to fix these rules here. I only bring them up to remind the reader that horses move much faster than this, and thus the impact which they are able to bring upon a group of footmen is nothing short of devastating.

Keeping those things in mind:


We cannot in any reasonable sense accept the rule on p. 49 that encounters outdoors should occur at a distance of 60 to 240 yards, certainly not in any environment where the horizon is three miles distant. We may, however, presume that actual melee might begin at something like this range, being the point at which Riders might begin to charge. In fact, against cannon cavalry charges were often begun at distances in excess of 1000 yards – but that does apply to a later century compared to the ordinary D&D campaign, and as such can be discounted here. In either case, 60 to 240 yards is a more reasonable distance than that given on p. 62, where it is suggested that 50 to 100 yards be used.

In the open, in any location where cover might be impossible, including the presence of ditches or gulleys, it may be assumed that a Rider cannot possibly ‘surprise’ an opponent. At any case, it may also be assumed that a Rider, if encountered while moving, will make sound which again will preclude the chance of surprise. It is reasonable that if the Rider is motionless at the point of encounter, surprise might be determined normally – but I do not accept arguments that the movement of the mount in some way stuns opponents so that they behave as though surprised, simply because the mount is moving more quickly than a creature on foot. This is a thoroughly ridiculous argument, though I’ve heard it made – it might conceivably be true in a world where no horse or camel was known to exist, but otherwise let us accept that the mount’s condition belies its practicable stealth.

This is not to suggest that Riders themselves cannot be surprised. Obviously, the ability of the mount to suspect danger must be incorporated, as a Rider will recognize any change in the mount at once. I would recommend that both mount and Rider each be allowed a surprise roll, accepting the better of the two results.

It must be noted that even if the Rider is inactive during those combat opportunities inherent in surprise, the mount will not be. It would not remain motionless as though stuffed, but instead will move away from its attacker instinctively. I do not myself use the “three rounds of attack by virtue of surprise” rule ... having reduced the length of my rounds to 6 seconds in length and having always considered the rule rather stupid.

Moreover, simply because a Rider is surprised does not give a thief the automatic opportunity to backstab. Unless the thief is able to leap onto the back of the horse behind the rider as a circus stunt (in which case, someone will need to explain to me how he makes the leap with weapon in hand having only the victim to grab onto, managing the murder while simultaneously slamming full speed into the victim) or attacks from above, I feel the Rider is entitled to some protection by the rear of the mount itself. I must argue that if the backstab were to be allowed, it could not be managed at +4 to hit – surely it must be noted that the situation is a little harder than moving behind an unmounted opponent.


While initiative may be resolved normally, there are relevant facts which must be considered. The first would be the relative ease with which a Rider may strike at the breast of a footman, compared with the relative difficulty a footman has at striking the breast of a Rider. Furthermore, the length of the Rider’s weapon becomes more circumstantial, given that the Rider is able through training to place the body of the mount between himself and the footman.

In other words, while a footman may run forward and inside the killing range of another footman defending with a pole arm, the tactic is harder to accomplish with a horse in the way. The length of the weapon must be applied to the initiative roll. My simple solution would be to add the length of the weapon in feet to the die roll.

For example, a Rider with scimitar rolls a 4 for initiative; the scimitar adds 4, for a total of 8. The footman using a 5’ spear rolls a 2, for a total of 7. Thus the rider was able to successfully avoid the footman’s set spear and attack first.
To this I would add that if a spear set vs. charge does not win the initiative in during the initial impact of mount and defender, the spear does not gain the benefit of causing double damage should it hit that round.

In many cases, the initiative modifier would favour not the rider but the footman, since most hand-held weapons which can be used from horseback are shorter. The circumstance of using horsemen’s flails and maces is due to the fact that these ordinary sized weapons would have resulted in the user crushing the horse’s head. The standard European sword, for example, could not be used from horseback for the same reason. This is why the scimitar, or curved sword, came into existence – the curve enabled the power of a sword while sparing the horse.

An increased bonus of +1 damage should apply in any case where a Rider is moving past an opponent at half-speed or better, including another Rider. I would argue that both Riders, when rushing directly at each other, should receive a +2 damage bonus if both are moving at half-speed or better.

Missile Discharge

Missiles fired by Riders experience no negative modifiers when fired from a mount that is not moving. While it is possible to drive a mount forward by use of the thighs and feet, I argue that this is a distraction to the attacker and therefore demands a -1 modifier to hit. If the mount is moving at less than half speed, the modifier remains at -1; if, however, the mount is moving at half speed or better, the modifier to hit should be at -2.

Missiles fired at Riders must be designated as to whether fired at the Rider or at the mount. The Rider’s body will provide 5% protection for the mount; the mount’s body will provide 10% protection for the rider. For example, a horse has an armor class of 7. A first-level fighter attacking the horse would normally have to roll a 13 to hit – however, the rider on the horse increases the horse’s AC to 6, meaning that the fighter must roll a 14. However, if the fighter rolls a 13, the horse is untouched ... but the Rider, regardless of armor class is considered to have been hit.

Before arguing the AC of the Rider, consider that in this case the chance of hitting the Rider is 1 in 20 ... the same chance needed if the Rider were targeted and had a -5 AC. One could argue that if the rider’s AC were better than -5, the Rider would suffer no damage. Otherwise, it may be assumed the Rider is willing to take the hit for the sake of the horse.

It might also be argued, generally, that the saddle and saddle bags provide protection to the mount equivalent to that of a shield. I would be in agreement with that assessment regarding attacks against the horse if it were saddled and at the moment of attack was riderless.

Do I need to include the alternative example, where a Rider with an AC of 4 is given a +2 AC bonus in lieu of the horse taking damage?

Last point: the modifier to hit a Rider from the ground should be +/-0 if the Rider is moving at less than half speed, and -1 if moving at half speed or better.


I follow a rule which states that if a spellcaster is in anyway disturbed during the casting of a spell, the spell is ruined. I do not impose the use of excessive verbal, somatic or material components on the part of my spellcasters – the necessary time spent concentrating followed by a pointing of a finger is sufficient for me. Obviously, if you wish to incorporate the complicated arrangements of the Player’s Handbook into your campaign, most spells could not be thrown while mounted.

Regarding concentration, I do not allow war mounts for characters who are not fighters, paladins or rangers – so I would not accept any argument from a spellcaster that their mount was ‘trained’ to stand still. Therefore, I would expect a saving throw to be made every time a spell was thrown from a mount – possibly a dexterity check by the spell caster – to determine if the animal moved and therefore ruined the spell.

An easy way to get past this circumstance would be to take speak with animals as a spell, and thus reason with the mount that when master does such and such, be still and we’ll both be better off. This would provide a very intelligent application of the spell, making it more useful.

Turning undead, as it is not a spell, would not be subject to any saving throw to determine its effectiveness.


Here is where the DMG fails grandly to incorporate the reality of any sort of charge, particularly that performed by an ordered cavalry.

The principle effect of the charge is the shock of its impact. The theory is that the mount is driven to full speed, to plough thus through the line of defenders, trampling the much smaller bodies of the footmen and enabling the rider to cut down any standing being the mount may have missed. What unfortunately sometimes occurs is that the mounted animal, just prior to impact, ‘loses its nerve.’ Since the animal is simultaneously charging forward and attempting with all of its might to rear in terror, it often slams into the line of footmen in a state of disarray. This can be made worse when a second line of mounts in turn slams into the front line, resulting in a mass pile-up that can easily be torn asunder by those on the ground.

On the other hand, the charge is especially effective when it is the line of soldiers that lose their nerve just before impact. As the lines break, the horses are freer than ever to drive through, trampling not just those at the front, but several hapless victims, one after another. An excellent example of this is shown in the film, Return of the King, where the orcs break just prior to the charge of Rohan. Historically, in such cases, great slaughter occurred with little loss to the attacking force.

The success of the charge and the success of the defence are a question of Mass and Density. Cavalry charges were often made with the force four or eight abreast, in a line ten or twenty horses deep, so that the charge hit a very small part of the enemy line, smashing right through and then making its escape by running behind the enemy force. Defensive lines, in contrast, attempted to form ‘squares’, six to eight men deep, which would foul the charge, break up the compact arrangement of the attacking cavalry and make it possible to fight them one-on-one.

Provided that the mounted Riders were able to maintain their density by moving in ‘order’, or squares were able to maintain their density, both tactics proved successful. However, once order was broken (‘disorder’), units could be destroyed more effectively.

The crucial moment occurs just prior to impact. Both sides must roll their ability to maintain order if they expect to survive the impact. The one that fails will be cut to pieces. If both fail, the result was typically a disorderly retreat on both sides with brief moments of melee. If both succeed, the result was typically full melee until one side or the other lost morale and routed.

Now, in D&D, parties (NPCs and Players) rarely move in anything but disorder. This should mean that a mounted rider, moving into combat, should gain two attacks on side by side opponents– one being the attack of the Rider on opponent A, the other being 2d6 damage caused by the horse as it tramples opponent B. I would continue to roll dice to determine the willingness of the horse to charge. Success, plus a won initiative, should allow the mount a +5 modifier to hit (all modifiers given on p. 66 are a joke), a +10 if the attacked footman fails his morale check to resist charge (this would assume he had turned to run, and was thus overrun from behind). The rider would gain no bonus to hit, since attacking from a moving horse while holding the reins does not make the effort at all easier. Go on and try it.

With training, it is entirely possible. At about the same rate with which one hits normally.

Failing initiative as a Rider would mean losing the horse’s attack bonus against the second opponent (not the attack itself).

If the footman succeeds in resisting the charge, and wins initiative, he should be given the option of either avoiding the horse’s attack or gaining the same +5 bonus to hit. Avoiding the attack should allow the footman no attack that round; if he does not want to be trampled, he would need to kill the horse ... entirely possible if using a pole arm or spear set vs. charge (thus causing double damage).

Please note: the above makes the paladin’s warhorse an especially dangerous mount, as it is presumed it would virtually always succeed at charging any and all opponents, when directed by the paladin to do so.

Ordinary Melee

I have very little to say on the subject. A Rider should maintain a simple +1 bonus to hit when attacking from horseback and moving at less than half-speed. All opponents attacking Riders should suffer a -1 penalty to hit, regardless of the speed of the Rider.

Also, as stated before, defenders do not gain bonuses for attacking Riders from the flank or rear. Obviously, there is nothing to stop opponents from targeting the mount, which would have a flank or rear to gain bonuses from. This was not normally done only because the mount itself was of great value, and therefore not to be squandered. Is it worth destroying the treasure just to kill the Rider?

Breaking from Combat and Evasion

No penalty of movement should be incurred by Riders wishing to break from melee (since it is the horse and not the Rider that takes the action). My system demands that if a player has a movement of 5 hexes per round, two movement must be used in breaking from melee. If mounted, no such penalty exists. Thus a Rider may enter and retreat from combat repeatedly, with relative ease. Each attempt to close to combat must be accompanied by an initiative roll.

Well, that was a lot. Anything I forgot?

Hah hah ... a great deal, I’m sure. I’m avoiding intentionally adding any specific rules about movement, only because I know many players do not play with miniatures as part of the combat method. I do, and I might if asked do some testing and come up with some movement rules for charging, retreating, wheeling and the like. This is enough for now.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Animal Husbandry

This is the post I didn’t want to write. There are too many relevant directions to which the subject can be taken, and too many ways in which I can get bogged down talking about actual history and actual social development – subjects which I think I have a tendency to spend too much time on already.

The domestication of animals enabled, as with fishing and agriculture, an improvement on the food supply in relationship to hunting. With the discovery of brick and pottery, it becomes practical for substantial villages to develop. However, where agriculture is strictly dependent upon the seasonal production of food, animal husbandry is less reliant on the yearly cycle. Animals can be kept until those times of the year when food grows scarce ... plus the production of milk and blood (yes, blood, which is drained from the living animal for sustenance) can be spread through those lean months when yields have yet to materialize.

Certain animals are also able to do work. Oxen, horse, water buffalo, donkeys and yaks could be employed in ploughing, pulling and carrying ... vastly increasing the amount of work which mere humanoids are capable of doing. You may think it logical for a group of kobalds to dig out vast underground tunnels by hand, but you might consider that without some sort of kobald donkey able to haul the hard rock to the surface, you might as well suppose that the corridors are coincidentally melted away by convenient clerics or druids with nothing better to do than turn rock into mud. In which case, the tunnels better lead up rather than down, if you’re not running a sort of opaque underwater (undermud?) adventure.

Of course, there might be a huge cavern sea for all that mud to drain into. Easier, I think, to invent a donkey.

But I am the kind of DM who doesn’t want a lot of willy nilly conceptual explanations for why such-and-such might occur in my world. It makes choosing any kind of purpose in said world a veritable nightmare, which probably accounts for the number of those worlds that I’ve seen pass by the wayside.

Having a logic to your world is part and parcel with the purpose of these posts. When encountering a group of 200 nomads, you should not describe their appearance with, “You see the wagons of 200 nomads camped upon the flat where the river loops below the ridge;” what you should describe is, “You see 3000 cattle. You might guess that there are nomads camped somewhere nearby.” I say that because it is virtually for certain that you will discover the herd (and smell the herd) long before you stumble across any of the actual people.

This goes for nearing a town, also. Where are the groups of herdsmen with their sheep on the hills, surrounding the Keep on the Borderlands? Such a place may not be conducive to agriculture, but surely there would be livestock everywhere, needed to support the outpost. When was the last time a party in your world approached a town from the direction of the stockyards? When was the last time a party was awakened at 5 a.m. by the innkeeper feeding his pigs?

Before the discovery that animals spread diseases, humanoids did not carefully separate their livestock from themselves as does the modern farm. Goats and pigs lived immediately underfoot, as did chickens and ducks; goats and pigs ate garbage and offal, making them mighty convenient, while fowl grazed for food in every place possible. I once inquired of a Slovenian farmer (grandmother of a player I had once) how much grain was required to feed the chickens, and she laughed at me. There is no need to feed the chickens. The concept of feeding chickens was invented in the 20th century, when chickens became an industry. People who dwelt on a farm who ate the chickens themselves did not bother. The chickens were fat enough.

Naturally, living cheek and jowl with animals resulted in plagues – a notable addition to society at the time of villages and animal husbandry. Close proximity to others, plus animal-carried diseases (domestic-potential animals have generally lived in close proximity with one another), resulted in killing outbreaks of disease, something hunter-gathering societies have almost no experience with. This would be the first time that an increase in food supply actually resulted in contributing to a weaker population.

There’s also the condition to be considered that abundant food reduced the amount of physical activity of the populace. People actually began to become fat. Among certain classes of the populace – kings and priests who were to come into existence in order to manage the creation of all this food – there arose the condition of obesity. Among the common people, however, this wasn’t possible. Caloric intake was still too low (and would be until the 20th century).

So down in the valleys the villagers are becoming well fed, fat and disease-ridden. What of the hill people, then?

Nomads, as I said – or more correctly, nomadic herders – would begin to gather large flocks or herds of specific animals, those for whom transhumance is practical. Transhumance is the practice of moving animals steadily between seasonal pastures (highland pastures in the summer, valley floors in the winter, or migration with the seasons), or continuously, in order to provide a food supply. Those hunters who once hunted wild rams or cattle discovered they could be driven methodically to rich pasturelands, then preyed upon just as methodically for food. Animals such as the horse and cow could be combined with the wheel to create the cart (two-wheeled) or wagon (four wheeled) mechanism, allowing wide ranging travel and the accumulation of material wealth. Later on, of course, the horse would be combined with a very light cart to create a terror weapon, the chariot – which I will discuss in good time.

The constant movement of the herds meant an equally constant movement among the herders themselves ... the result, in combination with the high protein diet, was a very strong, very well fed and organized society – organized because the logistics of moving herds about demands coordinated activity. From the development of herding societies about 7500 years ago, to 4000 years ago, nomadic herdsmen increased in numbers and in method until population pressure pushed them out of the hills (and off the steppe, in some cases) and into the valleys.

It is at this time, approximately 2500 to 2000 BCE that the established agricultural societies along the four major rivers – the Nile, the Euphrates-Tigris, the Indus and the Huang Ho – are beset upon by great numbers of bloodthirsty migratory tribes. The Hyksos in Egypt and the Martu in Sumeria provide the most archaeological evidence – but of course Aryans descending from Central Asia into India and China are no less notable.

We have a description of the Martu: roughly in English, as quoted from Larry Gonick (I love his cartoon histories, mostly because they agree with the sources I read studying ancient history at university): “The Martu, who knows no grain, the Martu who knows no house nor town, the slob of the mountains ... the Martu who digs up truffles ... who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after his death ...”

It was not the Egyptians who invented the chariot (as implied by Civ IV), but the Hyksos, who arose in the Caucasus and who invaded Anatolia and down the Mediterranean coast into Egypt. Chariots have not been overly popular in D&D. This is probably due to the criminal lack of practical rules in managing combat with horses in general – an omission for which the original producers of the game ought to have been rightly flogged. Nine pages on ‘artifacts’ and next to nothing on charging with horses? Now I ask you.

While the players themselves might avoid the acquisition of a few chariots, there’s no reason why you as DM should ignore the possibility. Why not identify a particular humanoid race still limited by this technology? Perhaps one of those races with a low to average intelligence. The chariot has both the possibility of overrunning opponents (add the horse’s weight to the mix and you have quite the ‘overbear’ capacity) as well as distance archery. It would probably drive your party half nuts to be thrown into combat on a plateau facing forty orcs on foot supported by 10 pairs of orcs in chariots – each with one driver and one hurler armed with a score of javelins (bows too, of course, but I haven’t talked about archery yet). Woe betide the thief who sneaks off on his own, only to get run down by a 3-ton chariot (counting four horses and riders). Assume, please, the drivers are competent and not likely to drive near anyone on foot.

Well, I could go on ... and I might, if something else occurs to me. This has been a rambling post, and if I don’t shoot it in its tracks right now it might get loose and do real damage.

Monday, July 20, 2009


If you care to read an extensive post about the RPG publishing industry, I suggest this James Mishler post. And if you want to read a rabid, feral response to said post, I suggest this by RPG Pundit.

Regarding Mr. Mishler’s dissection of costs and marketing, I find myself utterly baffled. I try to put myself in the place of a company that does this – that publishes RPG gaming material – and I wonder what anyone is thinking.

First off, I would expect to have no more than four persons working directly for the company. Myself, a business manager, a graphic artist and a co-designer. If I were a national company with an annual distribution of ten thousand, I don’t see why I would need more people.

Writing/design/development: zero cost. I would be doing this. I would not hire freelancers, I would not ever pay anyone any amount of money to write one word. Why would I? If I am in this business, my first thought is that I obviously have a flair for it and therefore am more qualified to design and write the material than anyone I would hire. If, on the other hand, I know nothing about the business, there is zero exploitation potential in hiring someone else to write material for which there is no real demand. There just aren’t that many people out there buying publications to justify my sitting on my fat ass hoping to earn money running a company. Like a start-up video game designer, like a caterer, like a fucking plumber, my job IS my business.

Why am I developing games, anyway? Does it make any sense that I would design more than ONE game, period, in this industry? That once the initial structure was put in place, that I would be wasting time and shooting myself in the foot by continuously redeveloping the same concept over and over again? What do I gain by producing another system? I would only dilute my potential market, reduce my commitment to a product which – I assume – I have faith in, increase the drain on my time and double or treble the overall development effort in order to produce multiple games. This is a model that makes sense for selling Monopoly, Stock Ticker and Life, since these games take an hour or so to play and do not inspire daily interest.

My RPG would be, however, intricate and not immediately comprehended in one hour of play. Therefore I would want ALL my resources directed at its singular acceptance among the gaming community. Ten years down the road I might introduce another system, regarding a completely different milieu ... but ONLY if my present system was so universally recognized that it needed little effort to stand on its own two feet.

The steady stream of meaningless, nameless and forgettable names hitting the market suggest that getting into the development for the long haul is not a priority. That alone might explain why costs to develop and develop again, only to redevelop after, are crippling the crap out of the industry.

Editing: zero cost. Once again, why am I paying a fifth person to do my editing work for me? All four of the people in my company should have publishing experience as part of their resumes – I know I do. Between us, we should be able to competently edit our own material. Suggesting an outside editor is in any way necessary is similar to suggesting that a professional architect ought to hire another architect to look over every design submitted – just in case an error was made.

If you can’t fix your own errors, get into another business where you are competent.

Art/graphic design: employee wage. I mentioned that one of my four would be an artist/graphic designer. Producing art on specification, in addition to laying out the product, plus producing work for advertising and sales would be all done by one capable individual. There would be no freelance artists. Any graphic artist on my staff would be capable also of producing humour – that would have to be on the resume. As regards “top-name artists” ... how do you think someone becomes a top name artist? My artist on staff produces good work, the product sells and the geeks and nerds begin to recognize the artist’s name. I don’t need to hire someone famous, I just need someone good.

Advertising/marketing/sales: flexible cost. I pay out what I can afford to spend. Initially, zip to any established advertising venue. My total advertising budget would be calling individual owners of shops across the country and talking to them as much as possible; travelling, personally, from convention to convention. Paying for my trade space and personally pitching my product, alone or with my co-designer. Selling, selling, selling, on the phone and in person, 18 hours plus per day.

I must take great umbrage with Mr. Mishler’s paragraph on this subject. Mr. Mishler says that most publishers lump together advertising, marketing and sales. I have never met one of these publishers ... and trust me, I’ve met plenty. Mr. Mishler says that publishers ‘consider’ having a website. You do not exist at present in ANY business without a website.

Mr. Mishler suggests an entry in Game Trade Monthly. This is a common rube’s mistake – thinking that inclusion in a trade magazine in any way improves your business or somehow provides credibility. Having produced audits for huge publishing audit companies like BPA Worldwide, effectively the trade magazine corporate for all magazines & newspapers, and having worked for a trade magazine, I can tell you the only group your inclusion in such a product helps is the trade magazine. There are thousands of dupes who have shelled out the money to these organizations in every industry who have received nothing for their effort. Keep your money for a booth at a trade show.

Mr. Mishler says that a full and proper budget would include money for ads in game magazines. Again, bullshit. Your ad in a game magazine helps the game magazine. What you want is to sell your product successfully to where the game magazine knocks on your door looking for a story. Very often, you will find game magazines willing to do a story on your product IF you buy advertising in their magazine. This is sleazy, and is a practice spat upon by editors universally and embraced religiously by sales departments – universally. Take the deal if the magazine has a PROVEN distribution of more than 10,000 (you can check this through BPA or in Canada, through CCAB). Otherwise, you’re wasting your money.

Mr. Mishler mentions ads in game convention registration books and consumer questionnaires and circulars. These are more traps. Avoid them.

Yes, as Mr. Mishler says, talk to distributors and retailers. Cold-call the living shit out of them. If any of them agree to put your product on their shelf, follow up and follow up and if you can, appear in person, intending to spend the afternoon listening to their fuck-ass stories about the gaming community they run Saturday nights. JOIN some of these games, and act like the kindest, most generous and accepting good fella you can. Bring drinks for the other players, back them, support them, make sure everyone knows your name and make sure you answer every stupid boring shit-faced email these pimply snot-bags send you.

Virtually everyone other than the direct buyer of your product is laying to take your money, under the auspices that they will send business your way. The fact that there are so many of these vipers in the industry, at conventions and sprinkled around those gaming communities that might be large and central, shows that the one pariah of the game developer is not that games can’t be developed or sold, but that generally developers know zip to nothing about business.

Printing: costs less than you would expect. Any company incapable of contacting printers from North America to India in order to get estimates deserves to think that it is cheaper to produce their product at Kinko’s. My last quote for my novel, 250 pages for 100 copies, was based upon the total time it would run on the web printer – with glossy front cover and binding, the total was less than $6 a unit. Call around. Don’t take Mr. Mishler’s dictate that you’re fucked if you don’t print at least 1,500 copies. Most printers I talk to will give breaks for additional product, but most are more concerned with how much of their time your actual product will cost.

There are companies out there who will agree with Mr. Mishler. This is based largely on their present business and their feeling that you’re not likely to be a regular customer – therefore, they don’t care about your budget. However, the number of printers in the world are vast.

I have known companies who produced their quarterly reports (usually 100 pages plus) in India because time was not a factor. North American printers can usually charge more because publications are based upon a date of the week or month. A bi-weekly newsmagazine cannot be printed in India because shipping time spoils the shelf life of the articles within. Quarterly reports, however, are usually allowed two to three months grace time after the figures are compiled. It is therefore practical to transfer digital files of the layout to India and have the product shipped back in good order.

Mr. Mishler is talking old school. He needs to move with the times.

Shipping & Distribution: variable. Given that a) most of your initial sales are going to be direct to the customer through trade shows in which you participate directly, or b) the number of stores nationally likely to carry your product are few, you shouldn’t conceivably need a third-party distributor. EVER. Distributors are for companies who have a less-than-personal relationship with their clientele because of the product they produce or the number of their products they need to distribute. Any company on these lines I would run would have a direct relationship with the seller and a data base to manage mail-outs. The business manager would keep a running inventory on sent out products updated by regular quarterly conversations with sellers and through returns and sales.

Just why the fuck would I pay another company to mail twenty copies of my product to a shop in Albany? I know where the post office is.

Retail mark-up and the manufacturer suggested retail price: negotiable. Mr. Mishler says little about this, and that is for the best. Yes, a 50% division between seller and manufacturer is fairly common. It is also entirely negotiable, based upon the product and the corporate nature of the business. Since I’ve never been in an actual chain-store selling RPG products (other than Indigo Books and Borders), I would suspect that many of your sellers would be pretty friendly about.

Over all, it doesn’t matter. I would produce my RPG product for $6 to $10, sell it for $24 to $40 and ensure my success not through the cheap rate of my product but through the product’s value.

Here I must agree with virtually everything that RPG Pundit says with regards to the quality of product out there. It is ALL shit. It is hashed and rehashed unmitigated bird poop, refashioned and rehammered into bland, formless, 32-page crap, usually in 14-point type and with half the content dedicated to introducing the other half of the content. I haven’t bought any product like those described by Mr. Mishler in 20 years, because how often can you fucking spend $20 on zip-shit nothing?

The QUALITY is bad. If game producers are failing to make the income they dream of, maybe they should wake up to the simple fact that they are producing an unusable product. I don’t know any industry (except astrology and other new age fascinations) where a continued uselessness in the material has any chance of creating the remotest DEMAND.

If WotC and the rest of them can’t make any money, it isn’t because of the costs, it is because of the shit they produce. They’re going under?


Friday, July 17, 2009


At certain points in history, a technology occurs that recreates its society. Pottery was like that – though we know it only from its effect. We have no historical sources for the change, for there was no writing – but we can see, from archeological evidence, the change that occurred in the centuries that followed.

For a great period of time, for thousands and thousands of years, very little changed in human culture. Small shifts in existing technology improved upon techniques or existing tools. Pottery differed from these it that it was the transformation of a material, not merely the reshaping of it. We conjecture that peoples living in deltas where no trees or stones could provide shelter hit upon the idea of using dried clay – and that it was recognized that this clay, baked in the sun, could become as hard as stone. Better than stone, it could be shaped into a variety of shapes from which could be built more complicated structures. Dolls and totems had been made for thousands of years, but bricks were fairly new.

The inclusion of the potter’s wheel, along with a kiln made from bricks, fired the development of pottery pots, jars, oil lamps and hundreds of other implements. Development of the potter’s wheel would lead to the invention of the cog. The kiln would prove the gateway towards smelting metals. Bricks and grain storage in pottery vessels would allow the rise of villages and eventually cities. Closed pots would enable the fermentation of spirits. Since clay was soft, and could be marked upon and then later fired for permanency, marks were made on the soft clay that would become writing. Vessels for carrying goods over long distances would expand trade, particularly overseas, where far off cultures could taste foods that formerly would have soured or rotted. This created a taste of luxuries, which encouraged adventurism and – naturally – a desire to conquer lands beyond one’s immediate sphere.

Rarely is pottery considered in any D&D campaign. It is cheap and hardly considered a treasure. However, bottles for oil and for holy water would always be fashioned from pottery rather than glass – it is more durable for long journeys. Gourds are an alternative – but hardly distributed world-wide and hardly having the same benefit of breaking when desired. Hurled flasks of oil are de rigueur in any campaign.

Is there no other application to the game to be considered? Well first off, if you’re looking at the city map you’ve just finished and which you considered on a parallel with Lankhmar, have a look to see if you’ve included a street of potters – which ought to be there. If your culture is based upon the mid-east, the mediterranean or anywhere subtropical, pottery will be the central possession in most homes,far more common than wood – for plates, cups, pots and so on.

All of that is just window dressing, however. In wider terms, what pottery might elves or dwarves create? What of truly advanced races, such as faerie folk or naga? What properties might their pottery possess? Might it be unbreakable? Might it stretch?

Consider the subterranean culture I made reference to a few posts ago. If you are wondering what central purpose a clan of orcs might serve by existing at the forefront of a cave complex which continues for miles underground, consider that they are operating a kiln. Having access to clay at the bottom of various chambers, and wood gathered from the surface, plus proximity to the surface for venting, our orc clan busily makes pots and other containers for the deeper dwelling ogres and ogre magi, or even the drow or mind flayers living ten or twelve layers below. Imagine the strange looks on your party as they discover the orcs have been making a single piece of art pottery (faience), eight feet in diameter, which is meant to serve as a chamber pot for the titan that resides deep in the mountain. The titan who will not appreciate it if his commissioned piece is in any way damaged.

Could the orcs, after having been decimated, be able to explain that the party really must undertake to finish the task, or else suffer the consequences?

I digress.

Two other points I wished to make. For anyone who has seen it, the making of pottery, particularly that with walls so thin as to become translucent upon being fired, is a quasi-realistic thing. In a D&D world, the understanding that the world could be altered by hand and mind would be the beginning of technological magic – not the clumsy god-calling that would become clericalism, or druidism, but refashioning the elements themselves. A significant portion of the mage spells in the Player’s Handbook are identified as “alterations” ... these spells would all begin to be researched in and around 5,000 years ago, in prehistory. There is, therefore, a reasonable expectation that many primitive tribes dwelling deep in the heart of dungeons, jungles or deserts may have developed magic along those lines.

Too, the manufacture of totemic pottery items would have been the incorporation of magic – the first magic items, by definition. Where the gentle reader may see the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, I see a relic of untold power, created at a time when the world was new and by hands that knew no rules about what was possible. What might this magic artifact allow – what might it accomplish? Can the tremulous hands of a modern-born character master it?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I realize the earlier pic I gave of the Civilization IV technologies is impossible to read – that is a problem with blogspot, that won’t let a decently large picture get posted in high definition. I include the following pic, a portion of the table, to give an overview.

Moving on ...

The first cultures to devise boats were those whose primary purpose was getting at the fish or waterfowl dwelling on or in rivers. Such craft were small, were propelled by poles or paddles, and were not especially seaworthy. Craft of this sort would reach its peak with the canoe of North America or the outrigger of the Pacific Islands – but until 3000 years ago, such boats were intended for hunting and not for travel.

The larger sailing craft has its beginnings in deltas – specifically the Nile and lower Mesopotamia. It is logical, is it not? A watery environment requires shipping as part of the transportation/haulage of an agricultural community – hunting communities have less reason to haul goods. Add to that the yearly flooding of deltas, where travel by water is the only means possible. The flooding current demands that larger cargo vessels be somehow outfitted with superior motive power in order to keep from being washed out to sea.

The river provides a natural trade route – as does immediate access to the sea. The rule has often been that the combination focuses culture. Larger, seaworthy ships are developed, enabling them to stand up against storms – though generally the ships were built with shallow keels, allowing them to be beached when weather threatened. The galley is the high point of development for a thousand years ... up until the 3rd century CE.

Ships in D&D are usually depicted being at sea for days at a time, whereas in ancient Greece ships were almost always pulled up on the beach at the end of each day. Oarsmen were never slaves, not even in the Roman era. This was a Hollywood fiction. Oarsmen eat, and are stronger when fed well – in combat, slaves chained to oars are rather useless when the ship is boarded – whereas free, paid oarsmen fight very well. Why would you spend money to support men who could not defend the ship – nor have a reason to – when the ship is attacked?

In most galleys the oarsmen sat open to the sky – the sort of galley typically portrayed in the 1950s in Hercules epics. Hollywood movies of a later date (beginning with Ben Hur) will usually show the ‘cataphract’ variety, where a deck has been built above the rowers. Such ships were phenomenally expensive, could not be easily beached, and were thus strictly the province of the military, to be used only in battle and only with the expectation that the weather be damned. They were not used for trade or ordinary sea travel, since in a storm they were virtually certain to sink.

I have always had a soft spot for seagoing campaigns. By and large my players over the years have been less than interested. The ships are too expensive, the battles too long and clumsy. If ever there was an argument that plunder was not the soul of the game, its the lack of interest I’ve had in the art of pirating. Part of that, it has been explained to me, is the near certainty of death once the ship goes down. That tends to turn players off.

This also explains why no useful rules have ever been written regarding waterborne combat, travel or ship design. If I had a party bent on it, I would take a few months expanding the basic rules from Trireme and Wooden Ships and Iron Men, build into it some kind of damage system based on the principles of Starfleet Battles.

For this post, I’ll simply point out that every highly developed technological culture had sailing as its most powerful military arm. The Phoenicians, the Athenians, the Byzantines, the Venetians and Genoans, the Dutch, the British and finally the Americans.

Any culture on your world that does not have a strong navy will inevitably be inward looking, in its art, in its politics and in its suspicion of strangers. Waterfronts have the habit of being very open to foreigners – inland, not so much. You can measure the hatred for wandering adventures in direct proportion to how far they wander from sea and river ports.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

First Cultures

I threw the above map together in about twenty minutes, just to give a sense of how one might begin to design an ordinary world based upon these early technologies. Deltas and lower systems begin to develop agriculture, while fishing succeeds along islands and peninsulas. Hunting suits the high country or any well-watered plateau. Obviously subterranean cultures begin to develop in high mountain ranges. Minor subterranean cultures might also develop in isolated hills or in deserts, though that isn’t marked on the map.

Meanwhile, some cultures will be isolated by deserts (the yellow area on the map), mountains or hills. Such cultures will develop slowly, as land routes have not been established.

Consider the fishing – hunting – agriculture group at the top of the map. Hunting tribes along the top of the river would find travel across the desert difficult, while mountains along the coast separate the fishing villages from the hunting grounds. We might imagine that the west side of the mountains experiences the rainfall, while the lee of the mountains on the east is dry. Only the snow covering the mountains at the center supports the river that feeds the delta at the upper right. Thus, the flat lands west of those hills containing game are thick forests – again isolating those fishing communities.

Now consider the group at the bottom. Fishing, agriculture and hunting are all unified by the single river basin containing a large lake at its center. The lake too, of course, would likely have fishing villages. Hunting tribes trade skins for agricultural goods, which in turn make their way to the coast. The reverse is equally true, as fishbone and oil are brought up along the river to the hunting tribes. The agricultural culture in the center accomplishes most of this trading, increasing their success and access to any technological innovations that may follow.

The south will clearly grow quickly, and eventually dominate the lower half of the continent. The agricultural delta at the top may eventually become successful in its own right, particularly since they should develop sailing earliest – but that is the next subject, so I will begin that with the next post.

Monday, July 13, 2009


In considering prehistoric mining, one must remember that without the development of metal tools, mining is limited almost entirely to what can be found, as opposed to what can be broken from existing rock. Early mining examples are few in number – mostly for placer deposits such as gold and silver, or for hard stones found in soft material (flint found in chalk, such as at Grimes Graves in England. Gems found at Mogok in Burma or in Ceylon, hematite at Zimbabwe, outcroppings of lapis found in Badakhshan, or diamonds found in kimberlitic deposits (in many places) are other examples.

While Egyptians did extract malachite and turquoise in the ancient world, in terms of time scales this is considerably late for any discussion about the development of early mining as a technology. Grand scale mining arose as the result of bronze and iron tools – while we are not yet considering those advancements.

If this were an anthropology essay, this overview would be virtually done – I might go into a few specific examples, discuss some archaeological digs. Instead, since this is about D&D, I must tackle a different course, discussing instead the rise of mining culture among those who would have sought to advance it some 20,000 years ago ... had they existed. I am speaking of the non-humanoid races.

Long prior to the development of technology, there must have been an adaptation to living beneath the earth’s surface. Forgive me if I advance a evolutionary theory based upon my world – I mean this only as a suggestion. Still, since my world is based on Earth, this allows any examples I might present to be more easily fit into an understandable framework – which the gentle reader might later adapt for their own world with little trouble.

Some 2 million years ago, as part of the diaspora of homo erectus from Africa into the wider old world, there must have been sub-species who developed alongside humans. Some of these developed characteristics which enabled them to subsist entirely upon creatures that existed below ground. Without discussing in depth the entire fossil history of every monster found in D&D, let’s simply accept that both flora and fauna had already developed – along with geological structures - creating vast underground regions capable of supporting humanoid life. For thousands of generations, proto-orcs, proto-dwarves and other related creatures each developed along independent, sometimes parallel evolutionary tracks.

Certain underground cultures would have developed along the same lines already discussed: subterranean fishing cultures, where pools or underground rivers provided a steady source of protein; agricultural societies, founded upon either evolved mushrooms or soil crops supported by non-solar light sources; hunting cultures founded upon extensive herds of underground creatures supplying meat; even cultures based upon non-food sources, somehow sustained by the power of the earth itself, in a manner suggested by the context of my last post.

Life below ground would have been harsher – population pressure might have forced some clans back onto the surface, but most deep clans would have been compelled, given finite space, towards cannibalism or other methods of systematically killing their own kind: ageism, culling, specism.

The technology of mining would have been a godsend. Any increase in cubic would have allowed greater area for farming in particular, where this was developed. Some creatures might have developed claws hard enough for digging in soft stone, and probably an ear for detecting hollow spaces in the rock. Mining, as it might have developed some 20,000 years ago, by means of harder rocks pounding against softer rocks, would have made tremendous impact on these cultures.

Usually the manner in which subterranean lairs are laid out presumes living arrangements which might have been established within the last year. Any long term settlement is rarely supposed, particularly a settlement that might extend back for generations – complete with processing chambers, livestock chambers, holy chambers and sub-chambers, places where members of the culture might seek solace or privacy, recreational areas (slides, swimming pools – complete with diving platforms), burial chambers and so on.

As further technologies are added, I will try from time to time to discuss how each of these things might affect a subterranean culture, as well as how they did affect those above ground.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


UPDATE:  This post has been expanded under the title 'Wild Magic' and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

”In the beginning was nature.”
- Camille Paglia

Last night I went head to head with a chicken bone. It damn near killed me. Got stuck in my throat, about an inch below my tonsils, and hung there for about three hours. Tried to push it down with food, tried to vomit it up. No good. In the end, probably because enough acid washed over it, the thing made its way down.

Try to comprehend this when you have no references: no understanding of human biology, no comprehension of how the throat is construction, nor any conception of why a chicken bone would attack you. Particularly since you have eaten chicken many times and this has never happened before. And what about your family? Ugh and Chu and Pag and Gurt ate the same chicken as you and it didn’t attack any of them.

Primitive humans, as they begin to grasp with their developing minds the world around them, would soon discover many things which their senses could not explain. The world is a huge, dangerous place, ready to destroy without reason or warning every living thing that dwells in it.

Camille Paglia at the fore of her book, Sexual Personae, argues thus: early male hominids lived in a constant state of terror for the world around them. In order to rationalize that world, it became necessary to adapt, emotionally and intellectually ... and thus homo erectus developed a delusion which remains with us to this day. The delusion is that the world is not violent or destructive, that it is beautiful.

Consider: I bring you to a place overlooking a spectacular vista, a wild place, where the craggy mountains rise above the valley floor and the forests clothe the lower slopes of the mountain. A crystal blue lake rests in the bottom land, and a small river snakes from the lake, through a meadow marked with shining white boulders – left behind from some ancient glacier, now long gone. “Is it not beautiful?” I ask. I feel almost compelled to ask the question. No doubt you would have to admit the sight was impressive and – if you were not emo – that it was, in fact, beautiful.

But if I were to ask you to spend a week, naked, in that place, you would certainly decline. You would certainly not see it as beautiful if you were stranded there – even less so if the place were so far from civilization that there was no chance you would be found.

Soon the lake and river would reveal themselves as icy dangers. The forests would be filled with deadfall, predators and insects. There would be no place warm. There would be little food. What you think of as beautiful is, in reality, an awful, dangerous place. You would likely not survive it.

So why is it beautiful? Why is it when the leaves are dying, we do not see dying leaves, we see beautiful fall colors? Why do we not huddle in terror at the thought of leaving our safe cities, even though hundreds die every year from avalanche, exposure or accident? Why do we build houses on fault lines or near volcanoes, when we know what it will mean, eventually?

We do it because we live in denial. We must live in denial. To be too conscious of the dangerous world around us is to become impotent.

The shift from animal to human, in recreating the world in our own conception (not a horror, but an opportunity), occurred, it is supposed, about 40,000 years ago. It is about that time that humans began to aesthetically redesign their tools, smoothing off edges or polishing their appearance – even though this made no difference to the usefulness of the tool. The argument Paglia makes is that this was done with the same sense of mind in which humans retooled their perception of the world – as a place of beauty. This made one significant difference. By not being afraid, we were able to take risks, to experiment, and thus further adapt to our environment.

I have come all this way around the barn because most persons now do not have a firm conception of mysticism, as they might hunting or fishing. Early man, at some point during an attack from a chicken bone, or from being alone amidst the great wide wilderness, began to conceive that there was a greater influence on the universe than what he could detect from the use of his senses. Something that determined where the game would be found, or who would die, or what events would come together to make rain. He could only perceive this force as something which must be nurturing, for otherwise he could do nothing as a species but give up and die. Later on this nurturing quality of the Earth would be personified – but that is a further interpretation. Mysticism alone, unadorned as yet by the later developments of meditation or polytheism, remains only a sense that there is power, and that this power permeates all that exists, in a manner which cannot be seen nor even understood.

At last we can come to D&D. Once we accept that it is a world with magic that is being described, mysticism is not merely an interpretation, but a comprehension of a magic that is beyond the mind’s reach. Think of it as an old magic, abiding within the fabric of the existential plane itself, greater than any god or being that might seek to manipulate it. It is the magic which is not explained in the Vancian methods of the mage, in any mere item or in the conjuring of demons or gods. It is the very power that makes gods – it is the influence whereby mortals become immortal. It is the great power by which the stars move, by which things come into being.

It is the power of birth itself, never explained and certainly not understood by humans throughout their history – arguably, not even now. It is the soul that resides, the ghost in the machine, the atman, the means by which breathing powers the body. It is the magic that makes crops grow and seas rise, that topples mountains and cracks open the earth.

In comparison to this power, an ordinary mage is a charlatan with a bottle of water, wetting a spot in the sand – while mystic forces prepare to flood the desert and wash it into the sea. To tap into this power, even for a heartbeat, is to hold the universe hostage.

It may be the oldest magic, but it is also the least understood. In countless generations, this power has never been fully harnessed. The early druids who were the first mystics tried to harness it. They gained enough knowledge to manipulate to some degree the world around them ... but every druid would know that there was great magic, old magic, which was yet to be found in rock and rill, in every cloud and in the ways of animals. So they watch, and follow, and struggle to comprehend one more clue that will reveal the dragon, as it was called. Explain to your druids that they have not yet begun to plumb the depths of nature, then give them something to find.

As a DM, you are free to define this magic however you like –for the record, it should terrify. How often do we hear that nature is sweet and light, that we think of druids as tree huggers? Nature is a cold blooded murderer, as were the druids themselves.

That the world nurtures its humanoids is only the defence mechanism ... it is not the reality. A meteor strikes the earth and cares nought for what is killed or what might survive. In the world of D&D, meteors are not random – they do not occur because the wheels and turns of the universe produce likelihoods. This sort of thing can only happen because you, the DM, wills it to happen. Admittedly, you’re more likely to do the opposite, and have nothing happen:

If you have ever felt restrained by the rules of magic, by what you think the gods can manage or what spells exist, you have not opened your mind to the source of every kind of power. There are no rules to that source except those which derive from the limitations on you, a living creature living in this world, subject to the mysticism that rules you now as you read this.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Silly Monster Redeemed

I’ve just had such a good idea about gas spores that I feel I must post it.

I’ve always hated this creature, primarily because once a party knows that it isn’t dangerous if you don’t hit it, it is a useless balloon floating around dungeons. And what player doesn’t already get the joke – yes, we know its not a beholder.

I’ve always felt, however, that a gas spore could be some kind of monster in its own right.

Consider the cattail. Once the flower is ready to germinate, the hard brown shell splits, allowing the downy material within to fluff out; the wind then catches the fluff, which supports the seed, scattering the plant throughout the marsh.

Now, suppose the gas spore is made of the same hard fibrous material on the outside (let’s give it more hit points, as well). The entire creature doesn’t split at once – only compartmentalized pockets, which have matured. Effectively, there is always some part of the creature which is in gestation mode.

Allow the gas spore to emit the down it produces; this down supports a seed just like a cactus, but the seed retains its parent’s floating capacity ... so that the seed and its downy surrounding, no wider than a few centimeters across, can float its way along. Stone and dead wood it ignores, but once it attaches to living tissue, the seed at once begins to affect the skin as a disease – which must be saved against or cured.

Nasty, but quite practical.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Had a great conversation today with KenHR on Yahoo; developed a yahoo nick for the purpose, so I thought I'd include it here in case anyone wanted to find me there. Your best chance is before 11AM EST. The nick is tao_alexis

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


This is a huge subject where it relates to D&D, since so much of the game relates to tactics, exploration or killing. Do not bad mouth the game for this – historically, the elimination of vermin and the acquisition of food was more a part of human existence than any other set of skills. Hunting is the first technology, the impetus for the creation of tools in order to kill meat and cut meat; the embracing of fire to cook meat; and finally the exploration of mysticism in order to express or explain the existence of meat and its intrinsicality to us, the eater.

There is a recently proposed argument (last forty years) that the larger portion of mankind’s food supply consisted of foraging and gathering; a small portion of anthropologists accept the theory that this foraging was done by women, while men time wasted ... thus supporting a feminist argument that women were once the breadwinner. Whatever that may be, the argument is founded on the premise – near as I can tell – that game meat is hard to find and hard to kill. This is the sort of developed argument that can only come out of a culture which has no experience with an abundant natural food supply – I doubt an anthropologist from the 19th century would accept this argument.

Early hunting cultures consisted of few people and an unfathomable access to game. The steppes of Africa and those of Central Asia once teemed with life, when humans were few and had not yet made their presence known. Your D&D world should reflect herds consisting of tens of thousands of animals, such as the buffalo of America, the wildebeest of Africa, the wild pigs of China and the wild sheep of the Persian-Anatolian highlands. Caribou, another hunted species supporting another hunting culture – the Inuit – still exist in these numbers. The largest herd of any sizable mammal in the world is in Canada’s Northwest Territories, consisting of two hundred thousand animals or more. It is only the largest because it is the most remote – it does not compare with what the herd was 500 years ago.

Also, consider that many huge animals in America and in Australia were hunted to existence only in the last 10-15 thousand years. It is estimated that the last mammoth in North America was killed just 3,900 years ago, in Michigan. In other words, such animals did not die out due to climate or lack of forage – but because they were systematically massacred.

Weapons developed by hunting cultures include the spear, naturally, as well as the axe and javelin – most throwing weapons, in fact. The bow was developed about 18,000 years ago, and therefore should be sophisticated for the most primitive of peoples in your world. There ought to be less emphasis on hand held weapons, since the practice of killing is something which is intended at long range. Thus, any group of hunters in your world should not close with the party in melee. The effort should be to attack by guerrilla tactics, approach to within 8 to 12 hexes, hurl axes and spears, then retreat to a cache of weapons kept nearby. Bowman should harass the party, blending into their environment. Even if this only annoys a strong party and does little damage, the hunters would be more likely to give up the attack than to ever close for hand-to-hand combat.

If they can drive the party in a direction, pits, snares and so on would be used whenever possible. Snares can be fashioned within a few minutes with a sufficient number of men. Pits need not be large; a pit small enough for a foot, fitted with spikes, proved very effective in Vietnam – easy to conceal and just as able to immobilize the victim.

Dogs and other domesticated animals (birds of prey, ferrets, various D&D creatures) were also an intrinsic part of hunting – being in the wild, it was possible to feed these animals scraps that could not be preserved, winning their friendship and willingness to aid in the hunt. Most hunting groups will have at least one type of animal in support, as is described for several humanoids in the Monster Manual.

The cultures themselves would be small, and would be very mobile. Tents or methods to build mud or snow housing on sight are mandatory. Thus, the ‘lair’ will always be present. These simple societies will have few valuables, if any the party can respect.

Virtually every member of the culture will have skill at hunting or weapons, including women and children (even as young as six). Newborn children will be quite rare – a woman would normally give birth in a hunting culture no oftener than once in 4 years. Moreover, death in infancy was common and infant mortality rates can be as high as 25%. In a group of 30 adult hunters, therefore, half being women and only two thirds of those being of childbearing years, there might only be 7-12 children younger than thirteen (taking into account pregnancy deaths and additional high death rates for each year of life). At thirteen, most children would be considered full adults in a hunting society.

I could probably continue, but I must confess I don’t find the topic terribly exciting. It is fairly straightforward for anyone willing to do research into the practice, how hunting can relate to natives in a given setting.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Agriculture is without question the fundamental technology in the creation of civilization. Like fishing, it greatly increases the food supply, the success of which is lent aid by the storage of food, the management of food and the expansion of food producing areas. Grains lead to the consolidation of population, technological discovery and empire building.

Thankfully, I don’t have to talk about all of that now. Much of what is above falls under later technologies, created as the result of agriculture, and thus can wait for another post. All I need talk about presently is the recognition that the biosphere can be manipulated.

To quote Jared Diamond from Guns, Germs and Steel, p.88,

”Most species are useless to us as food, for one or more of the following reasons: they are indigestible (like bark), poisonous (monarch butterflies and death-cap mushrooms), low in nutritional value (jellyfish), tedious to prepare (very small nuts), difficult to gather (larvae of most insects) or dangerous to hunt (rhinoceroses). Most biomass (living biological matter) on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest.

“By selecting and growing those few species of plants and animals that we can eat, so that they constitute 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of the biomass on an acre of land, we obtain far more calories per acre. As a result, one acre can feed many more herders and farmers ... than hunter gatherers.”

Agriculture also increases the strength and health of a population, but to a greater degree than an abundant fish supply – primarily because of the variety of food produced and the benefits of a non-meat diet, but also because the effort required to harvest grain is much less than that needed to harvest fish. What physical prowess that is lost in the cultivation of non-resistant plants (fish requiring more effort), is more than made up for with free time to think or train towards other goals. Yes, it is true, harvesting grain is a tremendous effort – but it is an effort that is accomplished over a much shorter time, to give a year’s supply of food or more. Fishing requires constant year round effort, as fish cannot be preserved (the preservation of fish with salt is a later technology than what we’ve discussed here).

One last bit of background: the earliest agricultural development would be the recognition that grains produced their own seed, and that this seed was spread naturally, producing more plants. Once this was observed for what it was, cultures could affect a more widespread distribution of the seed through personal intervention – thus increasing the natural food supply. That is the understanding that resulted in what we call ‘agriculture.’ The earliest development did not include irrigation or straight plowing.

Very well, what does all this mean for D&D? First of all, agricultural societies should greatly outnumber non-agricultural societies. In cases where we are talking about food production without food storage (covered by Civ IV under ‘pottery’), a three-fold or four-fold increase is reasonable. Ten fold increases should be for reserved for more advanced societies. There are numerous reasons for this – more food, increased birthrate among a population which can afford to remain in one place year round and so on.

Thus, if you perceive a primitive tribe made up of norkers (Fiend Folio, a creature I’ve always seen as a sort of caveman-goblin), the number stumbled upon in the river valleys and deltas should be four times the number encountered in the hills. Thus, instead of 3-30 appearing (hunter/gatherers), the number should be closer to 12-120 – existing as a loosely held together culture in scattered but grouped huts, living off the domesticated plants in the area.

Whereas a group of hunters would lack social cohesion, the loose settlement would have a designated ‘leader’, who would have to power to coordinate attack. Time spent training to defend the home would allow diverse combat groups: a group throwing spears or stones, another group trained to rush in with clubs, a third group sent to circle around the enemy and attack from behind. Free time would mean the development of tactics, which as DM you should apply.

(Acknowledged that hunter/gatherers would devise different but equally effective tactics in hunting prey – but those would be offensive, while the tactics for an agricultural community would be defensive).

Also, as populations expand, they overwhelm the capacity of the immediate environment – as a result, ‘colonies’ are created of a set portion of the core population, which go out to find other, similar places in which to settle. Thus, our group of norkers would only be partially isolated. Ten or twenty miles downriver would be another similar-sized grouping, many of whom would be known to the locals encountered by the party. There might be dozens of communities strung throughout the region, which might in turn gather at certain times of year to exchange information and genetic partners (marrying outside the tribe was common). These norkers may know a great deal more about the surrounding hundred miles than may be counted upon. Thus they may be a source for information, or potentially a greater danger to a passing player character led army than might be dreamed of.

These articles are meant to be an overview, so I think I’ll leave it at that. What more there is to be said depends on the development of later technologies, so I will save it for then. But I do want to take this opportunity to talk about food.

There is very little suggestion as to what foods non-human races consume ... particularly in terms of dungeons. I suppose that dungeon edibles consist of the creatures themselves, the upper levels being prey for the lower levels, until all is eventually consumed by vast, awful creatures picking the lowest levels for every scrap imaginable.

But still, plant life is essential to a successful food chain, and I’d like the gentle reader to consider Diamond’s words. Orcs, fire newts, goblins or kobalds are not limited to human-acceptable foods. A mass migration of monarch butterflies may be a marvellous, rich time for a colony of kenku (birdmen), while a yearly infestation of death’s head mushrooms may be the singular reason the area is full to the gills with troglodytes. Ettin may grow trees in order to harvest bushels of leaves and small branches for direct consumption – who says they don’t have bellies designed to digest such matter? Very small nuts may prove as good as grain for trolls, who need not remove the shells and who might therefore have something to combine with their meat diets.

That biomass which humans and demi-humans cannot consume may sustain various other races – who in turn might intentionally destroy all the biomass consumable by humans in order to ensure a good crop of tent caterpillars (cultivated on an entire landscape of nothing but small hemlock trees) or who knows what else. Plus, those same races may despise humans for destroying hemlocks and caterpillars in order to plant inedible grain and fruit orchards. Plum trees may be poisonous to ettin.

There are many possibilities.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Wheel

The wheel may be second on the list, but it certainly does not precede agriculture, hunting or mysticism. Though developed in southwest Asia sometime before 5000 bce, its widespread use developed as a result of transporting agricultural goods between cultures.

Not every culture developed the wheel. Inca and Olmec cultures did not, nor is there coherent evidence that the Zimbabwe culture of South Africa did. Therefore, in determining the development of a nation peoples in your world, consider that Incas were highly developed and civilized, with no wheel. Note also that the absence of the wheel would limit the development of pottery, mathematics and so on ... but would not necessarily deny the presence of these things. Natural gourds and other storage methods might replace pottery in those cultures – something to be considered.

The presence of the wheel in your devised culture is cut into two stages: the first being the solid wheel, limited in strength and in shock resistance. This wheel was the first developed, but was later replaced by the spoked wheel – coming into existence around 2000 bce and having the benefit of distributing the weight more easily upon the rim and axle (the solid wheel, made of slatted wood, did not). The use of the wheel in war, for the chariot, required that it be spoked.

If your culture has developed the solid wheel, there should exist a seasonal, bartering trade with other nearby cultures; where wide plains exist, and roads easily fashioned, such cultures may be more widespread, such as in the Middle East or in parts of Europe. The distribution of cultures (some being of different type) may allow for a wider range of weapons and treasure. It is up to you to decide, given that you will determine what the nearby trading partners might be.

Therefore, a plains culture with some agriculture may trade with a coastal culture, obtaining spears, coral and pearls, and even crushed shell as a fertilizer. A singular cult of the plains culture might include training in the trident, for purely military purpose.

Given that I mean to describe the wheel as the only advancement of the culture, extensive roads would not exist. Cart tracks, tailored to some degree with local stones, would be the height of the roads the party could expect – in overgrown areas or areas of hard packed earth and grass, the roads may disappear entirely, to be found two or three miles beyond. Locals would expect this – a travelling party might easily become lost.

The introduction of the spoked wheel, following the domestication of horses (animal husbandry), allows for the presence of the chariot. I want to make a small point here about the absence of practical, useful rules in D&D to manage combat by horseback. Clearly the creators expected players to ride up and dismount before fighting. However, the chariot was the true terror weapon of the 2nd millennia bce precisely because the riders did not dismount. At some point I mean to take all the various thoughts I’ve had on horses and chariots and produce a group of written rules – at present my offline party and I work according to agreed upon principles which remain fluid.

Since the wheel is so intrinsic to other technologies there is little to say about it beyond roads and chariots. However, note that the inclined plane, the wedge, the pulley and the lever are also basic weapons which come into existence along with the wheel, and which themselves highly influence a culture’s construction (monolithic construction in particular). The presence of these five basic tools in your culture means that the defences surrounding a tooled habitat should be stronger and more elaborate than a mere wall of boulders. A raised platform upon which cultural centers are built, split logs as well as finely cut and shaped stone, collapsing or lever-designed traps should all be present. It may not be as easy to seize a primitive village as the players think.

Next: agriculture.

Friday, July 3, 2009


Beginning with the premise that a completely uncivilized race or culture would have minimal possibilities for levelled members, only clubs for weapons, no armor and perhaps no clothing at all beyond skins (many might not find skins necessary), how do the technologies from Civ IV expand the possibilities for defence, attack or ‘lair’? Specifically, how does fishing in particular modify Palaeolithic culture?

To begin with, fish provides a steady source of food, more reliable than vegetable gathering or random foraging or hunting (‘hunting’, further down the list, refers to systematic practices, which I’ll deal with in time). Early civilizations were at the mercy of the environment – a consistent, plentiful supply of food meant stronger, healthier societies. In D&D terms, this means a higher average hit points per die (increased constitution bonuses) and greater strength. Furthermore, the use of tools in order to fish increases dexterity for the whole population, as generation after generation learns from infancy the practice of hurling a barbed spear to obtain food. The barbed spear itself is an improvement over the club, as it is a superior short range missile weapon.

There are several methods of fishing; early societies would develop the above mentioned spearing, or the gathering of seafood by hand – clams, crab, oysters and so on. Hand gathering of abalone or lobsters would imply diving beneath the water, as well as the gathering of pearls for wealth. Hunting for oysters can include the practice of diving to depths up to 30 meters. The members of the culture would thus be very comfortable in water, and would possibly seek to combat land-conscious enemies in that environment.

While hunter/gatherers must move to seek food, fishing cultures may establish permanent settlements. The tendency is to build habitats near or onto the water, making food gathering more efficient and increasing defence. Homes might include rock dwellings on small islands offshore, dwellings built upon pilings above open water (lakes) or tidal flats (seacoasts).

A moderately greater increase in technology would mean the creation of traps, permanent or semi-permanent structures placed within a river or on a tidal area to gather fish moving past. Elaborate traps may catch unusual species, such as stone fish or eels, increasing the variety of food and possibly the toleration of the inhabitants to poison, say a +1 save against. Fish traps would also teach the method of creating elaborate traps to catch or kill humans, making such cultures more dangerous to approach.

Netting would allow for the use of nets as combat tools and a greatly increased supply of food (and thus a greater number of members in the community). The first villages, incidentally, were not dependent on pottery as suggested by Civ IV, but in fact occurred around freshwater or tidal sources where food was plentiful and good gathering technologies available.

The development of a boat by a culture allows for greater range of movement, a wider knowledge of the region and more contact with other groups, who may be themselves fishing cultures or may only have access to the water, or potentially obscure cultures living under the sea. This greater knowledge would increase the willingness of the fishing culture to accept visitors, be less fearful of strangers and be more able to identify local places the party may be seeking.

Pure fishing cultures began as early as 40,000 years ago. Unusual features include the occurrence of shell middens (piles of discarded seafood shells, particularly clam/oyster) and fishbone piles.

Greater comprehension of fish migration patterns would encourage exploration. Fish oil aids in food preservation and in the creation of a light source at night. Cultures around reefs would include corals as wealth.

That is a brief overview. I hope it gets the ball rolling.


Having finished the fourth draft of my novel today (I wrote more than 100 pages this last two weeks, all re-writing), I’m in the mood to stretch myself out a bit. Recently I’ve had an idea for an ambitious series of articles on culture and D&D, using as a template a marvellous and familiar source: the Civilization IV tech tree.

My idea would be to consider how technological advances affect cultures and how this might be addressed within the rules and format of D&D, including suggestions for adventure, world design, potential obstacles to players and naturally arising conflicts. Obviously I would begin with the most primitive of cultures, starting from the assumption that low level players would be put up against simplistic societies with only one or a few technologies. As technologies were then considered, additional combinations could be applied to create radically different species characteristics.

Naturally, having the tech tree in front of you should itself suggest ideas, particularly when you consider that civilization builds into its tech structure buildings and units that can be introduced. I hope to add to whatever ideas that you, o gentle reader, might have, always encouraging of course comments expanding out my ideas and adding your own.

I won’t quibble about where to start: I will begin with the top of the first column, work my way to the bottom and then move on one column at a time. I don’t think I’ll worry much about the order in which Civilization IV allows technologies to be acquired. I would rather consider the whole as a list and nothing more.

I’ll begin tomorrow, I think. The first topic would be ‘fishing.’