Oct 7, 2021


I have a lot of posts on a variety topics in various stages of completion, but for the past several weeks I've been in the grip of a dilemma. I'm not sure I like this hobby any more.

This is a hard realization for me to come to. RPGs have been a hobby of mine, off and on, since 1981. 40 years of wasted time and effort, if this feeling is true for me. That is a lot of wasted time and effort - so much so that I don't even know how to count the cost. I'm in my early fifties - I don't think that I would have another 40 years to spend on anything, which makes the prospect of so much time and effort spent such an existential problem.

The root of my dissatisfaction comes from what I feel are the implicit acceptance of concepts that I abhor. It seems kind of silly, but I think that like many prevailing attitudes that are harmful to the development of our societies are so ingrained as to be invisible without a lot of introspection, games also have these harmful prevailing concepts or assumptions. Libertarianism, racial and gender-based stereotyping, cultural appropriation or stereotyping, the propensity of might-makes-right as the go-to or sometimes only solution to conflicts, and the list goes on and on. This hobby carries a lot of baggage, and while I've done my best (not always successfully) to try to keep that shit out of my games, I'm tired of it.

My partner, who is much smarter than I am, thought I should try to put what I want into words, and see if there are others who might feel the same way about some or all of what I'm thinking. It's a great idea, but the more I think on the subject, the less I feel that a) I can really put my dissatisfaction into words that would make sense to anyone else, and b) that there are likely many people who feel the same way as I do.

I suppose, to give my partner's idea a chance, I'd welcome the opportunity to discuss this with anyone else who also finds these sorts of things problematic.

Jun 9, 2021

Worldbuilding in My Own Way

 This post will be a rambling thing, like my thinking. If you're happy with how you develop the history of the world in which your games are run, feel free to skip.

When I think of worldbuilding, I don't think of it in the way it is generally used now, with multi-page design documents that detail the history or even pre-history of a world, the great wars between spiritual planes, the rise of individual peoples, and so forth. What I think of the term is somewhat different, and of course to make my definition sensible, I have to provide some rambling, seemingly off-top thoughts.

Most game worlds now for virtually any tabletop engine are a libertarian's wet dream, in my opinion. Roads, food, money, items, rest and recuperation, etc. are all just present for whomever can afford them. They have sprung from nothing, whole-cloth, to be taken or used by whomever is best equipped to do so. No one made a magic item that is discovered - it has no secret or old purpose. It is just a magic item to fill out a loot table.

But these sorts of goods and services don't just exist. Someone had to make them, and there was a reason they came to be. Thinking of why these goods and services came to be, and the consequence of their existence, is what I mean about worldbuilding.

I don't want to even get started on the topic of money (for this post at least). 

Let's talk roads instead. Even in a civilization with modern heavy equipment, roads require an amazing expenditure of resources in many forms to bring into existence, and in pre-modern times the investment in labor would be even larger. 

For the idea of a road to come to mind, there has to be a need that will be addressed by the road's construction that isn't satisfied currently. A person or group with sufficient influence determines the need, and then sets in motion the process of procuring the resources and deploying them to build the road. 

There have to be resources available (foremost labor) to make the road, and of course there are resources associated with labor that also need to be addressed.

The road, in turn, makes civilization of the the areas near the road more likely, even if resources aren't optimal, as it makes travel over it just that much easier, thus making resources used for exploration or travel go a little further.

So, for an example of my thought processes, I will provide this hypothetical example of a multi-hex road network in an area of moderate population, with at least one ruin.

I'll use Caius Trismegistus (C3, as they refer to themselves), a historical magic-user of no modern note, as the prime mover. They are a three-souled revenant ruler of a frontier hex they've subjugated. A complex of ancient ruins was the main feature of the hex, and after C3 and their hirelings dealt with the inhabitants in the ruin and beat down the local wildlife, C3 has decided to use the location as the starting point of their own demesne.

C3 would like to:

  • a) convert the ruin they're currently using as their fortress into a stronghold proper, to serve as their residence and base of operations, 
  • b) establish a population to convert the resources of the area they control into goods or materials that other people might want, so they can 
  • c) accumulate goods, material, and people to protect the borders of their conquered territory and to purchase the necessary rare elements they need to continue their all-consuming magical research. Attracting a population will make it easier to gain more resources, and will also facilitate running the whole operation without needing to micro-manage the day-to-day affairs of their territory.
In order to facilitate the construction of their stronghold as well as bring in residents to convert the untapped resources of the hex they've conquered into usable goods and services, C3 knows they need to make travel and transport as reliable, safe, and expeditious as possible. To that end, a network of roads would seem to be the first order of business:
    • a road to the nearest trade port (Port Mud) two hexes away, where goods and people can be gathered or recruited to be brought along to the stronghold,
    • a road or roads to the nearest convenient (within 1 hex) locations for construction materials and resources to be used for payment or trade, and
    • a road to one or more areas (also within 1 hex) where food production in some form can be undertaken for the (hopefully) swelling population of the territory, and
    • other roads to other resources, as they are identified and as capital and labor permit.
C3 knows that any workers they recruit will want to be compensated for their labor. They have sufficient gems, precious metals, and other items from their decades of adventuring to bootstrap the project, but they know magical research requires the expenditure of tremendous resources and so acquisition of trade materials should actually be a high priority on the list. Otherwise, they'll have to spend decades more adventuring, thus delaying their magical research or perhaps even dying, thus setting the research back even longer.
C3 expends some resources to hire labor from Port Mud to hack a rudimentary road from Port Mud to the ruin, along with guards to keep the laborers safe, and provisions for both groups. Meanwhile, C3 also hires a prospector, who identifies an area that would be a great local source of limestone, and identifies a location for an opal mine. As the labor to establish a road goes on, month after month, C3 have been taking great care to be sure the remains of those killed in the process (as the area between their pacified hex and the port is still wild and dangerous) are "treated with the greatest respect", compensation is offered to the families, and proper local religious services observed. In fact, C3 have been collecting the remains to use as an additional labor team of restless dead (the creation of which is a spell they have mastered), though not within sight of any of their living hired hands. They use these tireless laborers to establish, if not roads, at least tracks to the quarry and the mine to ease the construction of more improved roads at a later time.

Years pass. The road network has been established, the Main Road (as it becomes known) to Port Mud has been improved with rest stops and watch stations, the stronghold constructed, and additional mines for gems and a massive petrified forest are established. The roads see use not just by C3 and their forces, but by explorers and traders in their own right, along with others who have brokered agreements with C3's agents for exploiting the mines and quarry themselves. A local population center never really takes off as locally-sourced food supplies never truly thrive, but C3 accumulates enough remains to create and maintain a massive restless dead labor force. Discrete inquiries find suitable individuals willing to oversee and control the local 'population' in the quarry and mines, and C3 can finally get down to the real work of research.

We don't know what became of C3's research - the passage of many generations has worn away the historical details as it has some of the constructions and improvements. All that is remembered in the port (now a city) of Mud is that the ruins further inland have been shunned for generations as a region where unholy (in the terms of the ascendant local religion) practices took place. Some limestone is still pulled from the quarry, and there are tales of opals and other treasure to be pulled from the ground. Still, the region is, while not a frontier, not heavily settled, and it can be dangerous. Trade roads to settlements beyond the immediate region still use some of the bones of C3's original road network; the old Main Road in particular has held up well over its long history.

Information on the past doings of C3 might be found as ledger entries for labor or sale of opals or petrified wood in a buried cache of fired tablets used for recordkeeping in C3's time, or the surveyor's report may survive forgotten in the ancestral shrine of one of his descendants, or in the records of the religion predominant at the time in the form of sacrifices made for the dead. And of course, there are still the ruins of a road network buried among roads leading to their settlements, leading to quarries, mines, and the ruin of a stronghold built among even older ruins of which literally nothing is known. In this more modern age where a hypothetical game would take place, perhaps there are even penny-dreadful stories about the Necromancer of the Badlands, inspired by bits and pieces of Caius Trismegistus' history that have survived as folklore.

I just wrote all of this as I went along, in a sort of stream of consciousness as I was thinking about this hypothetical location. One could write it up in more detail about the origins of the city of Mud or which civilization built the original ruins, what happened to those inhabitants, and so on, but I don't know that those details really add anything to the above. I feel there should be some things in a game that are just not discoverable. 

I think some local rumors of the sort dungeon-delving folks and gossips would be interested in, why there might be legions of restless dead milling around an old opal or petrified forest mine, why the region is shunned now, etc. are enough to get started. Details on the local geological strata, the population of the entire geographic region, or the history of the currently ruling Hegemon can wait for when those things become pertinent.

Another person might want to think of the research of Caius Trismegistus and the products (so many failed products, and some successful ones), or maybe another group has stumbled on the ruins (from another polity that came about as a result of a successful network of roads), and is even now making use of some of those products. 

I wouldn't want to add too much detail, though - information systems through history have been unreliable (as generous a term as I could apply) up until very recently. Specific, factual knowledge was not the priority of historians of the pre-modern eras - their work was aimed to either rehabilitate or slander historic personages, or to put forth concepts that were either in fashion, or that the writer wanted to be in fashion. Facts seem to be limited to financial transactions or religious observances, and were generally ignored outside of those spheres. While we're not playing a recreation of the Ancient Near East (I'm not but I would be interested - ping me), we're also not playing a recreation of modern society, and easy access to truthful information is as anachronistic as cars, electronic computation, or a fully developed global economy would be.

At the end of all of this, does it really make a difference how I came at it? I don't know, truth be told. I do find I am more satisfied with my own work if it is internally consistent and logical (for a value of logic that is applicable to a game with magic spells and creatures from other realities), and for me that means I start small and in the past, and work my way up and out. I try to think on how interpretations distort based on the political and religious climates in between, and how rare it is for true information to survive intact. I try to keep anachronisms out of my games where they don't fit, and this sort of process helps me with that. 

Sep 13, 2019

OD&D session

I had the opportunity to run an original D&D game for some folks a month or so back. I ran the game as vanilla as I could - we used CHAINMAIL for initiative and round structure and I used the weapon vs armor type rules from the Greyhawk supplement for the alternate combat system, but otherwise I ran the system straight from the original Men & Magic.

It was fun - the players were a mix of those familiar with the older rules and those who'd only played 5th edition. I like my house rules like anyone else, but for a one-shot (it ended up being a two-shot but was designed as a single session) I thought it would be more fun to keep it as close to what was written in that little booklet as I could.

For ability generation, I had everyone (I had six players) roll 3d6, and we recorded the results. I then rolled 3d6 and replaced the lowest result with what I had rolled. Everyone could then use this array in whatever order they wanted for their characters.

Virtually everyone took the 15, the highest roll at the table, and put it in Constitution, though I did have a player choose Charisma instead. The fact that the prime requisites don't do anything other than adjust the rate of experience gained made it easier for characters to look at using their highest rolls for abilities that give them mechanical benefits such as an extra hit per hit dice, a +1 to ranged attacks, or even a better reaction roll, than for simply making a fighter with a high strength, a wizard with a high intelligence, and so forth. At first level, where everyone had to roll their first hit die, min/maxing consisted of picking Constitution as the best ability.

For equipment, I used the OD&D equipment lists from (now) Necropraxis, which helped speed the character creation process up. I still had a couple of players who wanted to generate their starting gold in the traditional manner and purchase it, but the lists were appreciated by most.

One potential 'house-rule' that I used was in the interpretation of the 'withstands adversity' entry for Constitution. Rather than having a player die when reduced to 0, I allowed anyone to roll a d20 for a 'death save' instead. One of the characters was dropped to 0 as he tried to run past a line of crossbow-armed highwaymen. As a 15 Constitution has the 'withstands adversity' entry, I told the player he only had a 5% chance to actually be dead, and let him choose the number that would represent a failure. Unfortunately for him, he chose 20 and rolled a 20, so his poor magic-user ended up dead. For other another character who had been reduced to 0, they were able to limp along and continue adventuring, with the understanding that they would be killed if they were hit again for damage.
For anyone interested, here is a summary of the rules and interpretations I used:

  • The table rolled the stats using 3D6, and were allowed to arrange that array as desired
  • The encumbrance and movement rules from Men & Magic were used
  • Elves were allowed to start the session as either Magic-User or Fighter (player's choice)
  • The Alternate Combat System (the d20 method) was used, with adjustments made for weapon vs armor type (from the Greyhawk supplement)
  • No player character or hireling has darkvision, regardless of race. The players were told to presume that every monster, regardless of type, could be presumed to see in the dark
  • Players rolled their character's first hit die
  • Any character reduced to 0 rolled a 'death save', a % score based on their Constitution
  • Turn structure and initiative were used from CHAINMAIL
  • Elves were allowed to split move and fire, per CHAINMAIL

Oct 22, 2018

Changes to the d20 mechanic to fit the Moldvay Basic style

This is Part 1 of an ongoing series - the introduction and table of contents can be found here.

In order to bend the D&D Third Edition rules into the tiny box that holds my re-imagined Moldvay Basic, the biggest change is probably going to be to the core d20 mechanic. There will be other changes, but this one will affect the way attacks, skill checks, and saving throws are handled so it's probably the most important.

For the solution, I propose this set of AC/DC (for Armor Class/Difficulty Class) tables. Will they work? I have no idea. The idea is to provide one table for characters and their associated NPCs, and another for "monsters" (which is the game definition of any NPC not under the control of the players).

Here's the table for the Characters to use:
CharacterAC / DC
Normal Man11121314151617181920202020
4th +08091011121314151617181920

Any time a character or one of their NPCs makes an attack, needs to make a save, or to do something that you deem requires a roll, you consult this table and look up the appropriate number along the top to find the result. One could adjust the table to cover AC 10-20, or expand it higher if you want high level DCs -- I based this table straight off the Moldvay Character Attacks table on page B27. It's not groundbreaking, but remember that all characters use this table, regardless of class. Later on I will talk about using feats or class abilities to modify this, but this is the core combat/save/skill check engine.

Now, for monsters, it's going to be more involved. Even though we're limiting characters to only two stages of advancement (or three if you count their NPCs) Monsters can have 17 hit dice or more. Of course, if you want a really gritty game with lots of rolling you can use the Character AC/DC table, but let's look at how the Monster AC/DC table looks:
Monster'sAC \ DC
Hit Dice11121314151617181920212223
Up to 110111213141516171819202020
1+ to 209101112131415161718192020
2+ to 308091011121314151617181920
3+ to 407080910111213141516171819
4+ to 506070809101112131415161718
5+ to 605060708091011121314151617
6+ to 704050607080910111213141516
7+ to 903040506070809101112131415
9+ to 1102030405060708091011121314
11+ to 1302020304050607080910111213
13+ to 1502020203040506070809101112
15+ to 1702020202030405060708091011
17+ or more02020202020304050607080910

No surprises here, though I never noticed the 2-HD bump beginning with monsters who had 7+ HD. I suppose if you wanted to have an "overpowered" Basic-style game you could use this table for characters, but I rather like the fact that a 10th level Fighter is going to be significantly outmatched in terms of to-hit capability when compared to a 10 HD monster.

Now, I am assuming with this system that we will use the standard 3E trio of saves - Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, along with the character bonuses to those saves based on level and a target DC. Maybe you prefer the increased granularity of the old save system, and/or you prefer to not have your character's saves increase, beyond a +2 bump at 4th level, and you don't want to use DCs? Let's see how an adapted Saving Throw table might look:
DC for Type of Attack
CharacterDeath RayMagicParalysis orDragonRods,
Classor PoisonWandsTurn to StoneBreathStaves, or Spells
Normal Man1415161717
The asterisks next to the Dwarf/Halfling and Elf entries are if you are aiming for a race-as-class style game.

This table should be pretty straightforward - the number is the DC that the character will need to meet or exceed in order to save against the particular hazard. Just be sure to use the correct level (1-3, or 4+) if you use this. It doesn't exactly line up with the old table (you would just use the number above as the target rather than the DC if you wanted that) found on B26, but it still reflects the variety of saves for each class and improves with the jump at 4th level. If you just use the old table as-is, characters of level 4+ gain a +2 bonus to their saving throw rolls.

I will talk more about classes in a later installment, but clearly most of the 13 classes in the Third Edition player's handbook aren't directly represented above. One question about using the five-fold saves above is whether it would be better to consolidate the classes, a'la Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (i.e., Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers all use the Fighter entry), or to expand them. For me, I'll just use the 3E-style saves but I thought it would be interesting to look at the old system and think how to adapt a newer system to use the old saves.

That's it for this installment - In my next installment I'll look at characters - races, classes, abilities, and so forth.

Oct 21, 2018

Basic 3E - Merging the 1981 Red Book and 2000 Third Edition

This all started because I had a strange idea that resulted from a conversation with someone - what would it be like to play a game using only Moldvay Basic -  not by capping the character levels at 3, but instead capping the spells, saves, and attack progressions to what's printed in the 1981 version of the Basic rules. Moldvay Basic has information on Cleric and Magic-User/Elf spell slots and Hit Dice to 6th level (though listed as for NPCs), as well as the attack matrix and save adjustments for characters level 4+.
The articles in this series won't be so much about clear-cut rules, but mainly my musing on how to go about bringing this idea of a Basic-style game and merging it with the parts of the Third Edition rules that I like. Hopefully this will mean that someone who likes the basic conceit but uses a different edition (revised 3E, Pathfinder, or whatever) can use these as a springboard to develop their own.
The way I envision the outline of this series is as follows (I will update this post with the link and title when the appropriate article has been posted):

My hope is by the end of the series I'll have a working system that I can coalesce into a document no larger than the size of the 1981 Basic book - 64 US Letter or A4 sized pages. Fingers crossed!