Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Alexis Smolensk Challenge, World 2 of 3

The Kingdom of Ebrauc

Ebrauc and surrounding kingdoms, shown within what is now the North Riding of Yorkshire

This small but cosmopolitan domain is nestled between the North Pennines and the Anglic Kingdom of Deira, with the Bryton kingdoms of Bryneich and Rheged to the north and Elmet to the south. During the Roman occupation Ebrauc, and particularly the fortress settlement of Eboracum (also called Cair Ebrauc) served as the northern capital of Roman rule in Albion. Since then it has been occupied by various surrounding tribes while maintaining a blend of Roman culture; the population is now largely Bryton and Angle, with a significant Roman minority. The common language remains Aenglisc, though Cumbric and Common Brittanic speakers abound, and there is sigificant use of Latin among Romans and Christian clergy of all tribes. 

Most of the people are Pagan, but particularly in Ebrauc there is a mingling of different faiths, including that of the Druids, most of whom are connected to the Picts in the northern regions. Assigning a specific year to the campaign is not necessary, as dates would have been in reference to local events. At any rate, this is several centuries before the emperor Constantine would help popularise the belief that Jesus the Christ had been an actual historical figure and back-counted the years since he must have lived; at this point, he is still seen as a symbol and metaphor, so there is no concept of BC and AD. (Christian holidays are few, and the Pagan traditions later appropriated by the church are extant in something closer to their original forms.)

At the start of the game, border skirmishes with Deira are common, and negotiations have changed the eastern several times in recent history. Ostensibly, the lords of both realms wish to maintain an amicable trading relationship, and have thus far sought to avoid all-out war. Indeed, trading arrangements are of much mutual benefit, as Ebrauc manufactures weapons and jewelry of famous quality, and Deira produces excellent ships as well as salt and other commodities. 

For the initial impetus, the aging cyning of Ebrauc had one of his thegns collect a party of stout-hearted young men to look for a group of tally-keepers that had failed to return from their rounds through the realm. The six young men (I had each player take on two characters each, because most of our players failed to show up that day) walked from Eboracum to Isurium to Beodlamh to Deruentoine, where they were told the tally-keepers should have gone back to Eboracum. The party were waylayed by some locals in trouble, and when we finished the session, the party had just discovered some muddy horse tracks leading into the river, which they were about to cross into the foggy Wolds of Deira in pursuit of the attackers. 

As the weather spreadsheet shows, fog is going to reduce visibility and interfere with combat a goodly portion of the time. This was the first serious fog of the four days of game time that made up this session, but the party spent a lot of the rest of the time getting rained on, trudging through mud, fording rivers in cowhide shoes, and generally having lots of opportunities for foot fungus, to which even a paladin isn't immune. Aside from that, the landscape presented less of an obstacle than in the previous setting, and as the party had a charismatic lyre-playing son of a thegn with them, they were able to secure free lodging and a meal in different villages. (The rest of the characters were either of the ceorl, or propertied 'middle' class, or geburs, owning no land at all.) Perhaps this made things unduly easy for the party, but then, as only their second experience in a world without alchemy, mood-altering substances, armour, crossbows or even longbows, I thought I should mitigate the bleak abject misery just a tad. I explained to everyone at the beginning that the intrinsic violence in the society was such that they should consider every man they meet as a first-level fighter by default; somehow, they judiciously avoided confrontation throughout the session. 

From my perspective as DM, I felt this session was much less successful than the one we played in the ancient Greek world. The general consensus from the players afterwards was that they preferred the other world slightly, but didn't dislike this one. I thought at first I was just depressed by the poor turnout, but I realised that I really hadn't put as much work into this one. I hadn't even decided the locations of most of the settlements, let alone their industries, geographical features, and other things of potential interest; all of which I had done in detail for Minoa. The map above shows just the first pass through. Some of these are represented by settlements still remaining in some form today, which provides some hints as to what they might have been like; the rest have to be improvised out of incomplete accounts, folklore, and my own demented imagination. 

This just shows that I still have a boatload of work to do.

All in all, I was dispirited at my own lack of intimate knowledge of the setting, and it looks like I'll have to put the medieval world on hold and just take another two weeks to completely prepare the Ebrauc environment.


The History Files: Ebrauc

Historical fiction author Richard Dennings

Good ol' Wikipedia: Archaeological sites in North Yorkshire

David Nash Ford's Early British Kingdoms

Yorkshire topography map

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Toward an Adequate Set of Combat Rules

My sincere hope is that if I keep honing this, I'll manage to get it right one day. By getting it right I mean making it understandable to everyone playing, reflecting what we know about the laws of physics, and simple enough that I know the rules cold, don't need to look at any charts, and can do all the calculations in my head right off.

It's generally accepted that needs to be fast-paced. During combat, the DM is visualising what's happening in detail and considering a number of possible consequences to each action. He is sometimes rattling off answers to questions at the rate of several a minute to players who don't want to--and shouldn't have to--wait for him to look up the answer. He is often planning for what might happen after combat. He will frequently be drunk. Modifiers are lovely in that they help explain variables and contingencies of the sort that happen when people are trying to kill each other, but they should be kept to a minimum at least until the DM knows the system like the back of his proverbial hand. 

Amour Class (AC) = Defence

I know it's been explained and house ruled into meaningful things by much better DMs than I, some of whom have blogs that are much more worth reading, but the idea that wearing armour makes you more difficult to hit is patently absurd. I've tried to compensate by saying things like like 'The sword blow glances off your gauntlet' in order to convey what would be likely to happen on an unsuccessful attack roll, but to paraphrase Russell Glasser, in order to count as an explanation, it has to make things more understandable. And our players are sometimes drunk. What I propose, then, is that AC simply represent defence and that it improve in tandem with THAC0. A fifth-level fighter, for example, would have an AC of 5, making him quite hard to hit regardless of what armour he's wearing. This should be quite hard to attain, as no character in our campaign has yet survived past fifth level. We might reason that there are rather few of such level in the world. 

Hit Points = 1/2 CON

At the suggestion of our resident Simulacres player, HP are taken directly from a character's Constitution score, rounded up to the nearest full hit point. (We toyed with the prospect of making HP equivalent to CON, but that seemed too high in consideration of the amount of damage most weapons do.) Characters begin to suffer significantly at -1 HP, losing 10% of their ability scores at each lost point, are dead at -10. (It shouldn't be hard to figure out from whom I pilfered this rule.)

HP are determined at character creation, and they don't change. This reflects the reality that people are harder to hit as they gain more combat experience, but if they are hit, they suffer the same damage as everyone else.

Somebody suggested that this makes things difficult for mages, who have to wait three levels before their defence improves. In fact, the average rate of HP improvement by third level under the standard rules is 7.5 for the mage (1d4 average of 2.5, multiplied by 3) versus the fighter's 15 (1d10 average of 5, multiplied by 3), so our system clearly gives him the better deal. 

Bleeding to Death

If a character is reduced to -5 HP or more, he will lose an additional 1 HP every five minutes until his wound is bound to stop the haemorrhaging. When he's no longer losing blood, the DM rolls a d20 to determine the severity of infection, unless the wound is treated with an herbal poultice or the like (infections start at rolls of 2 below CON and become progressively worse, with a natural 20 being fairly severe gangrene). 

Armour Defence

In our most recent trial setting, the only real defences that exist are hide armour, chain mail, and shields. Hide armour absorbs 1 HP of damage and is then torn. Either chain mail or a shield will deflect 50% damage on its own, rounded up; both used together will deflect 75% damage, rounded down. (A hard enough blow against one's shield will still hurt, and the shock could even break a bone.)

Chain mail quality is divided into three broad categories at this point. On every successful hit, mail of standard construction is torn on a 1 in 1d6; of fine construction in 1d12; and mastercrafted in 1d20.

The standard metal helmet absorbs 50% damage only if the hit location die reads 'Head'. At any rate, full damage is taken on a hit to any unprotected location. 

Modified Attack Rolls

Also per our resident Simulacres player, character may expend extra effort trying to hit exposed body parts. Obviously, this only works with armour that has significant gaps, but the only real armour we're working with presently is a chain mail shirt, which leaves the lower legs, head, and neck. At a 2 point THAC0 penalty, combatants may aim for any of these he chooses. At a 5 point THAC0 penalty, a combatant may attempt to behead his enemy; on a successful roll, hit location and armour are both ignored, and full damage is automatically sustained. 

When we ended our last session due to time constraints, the party was hot on the trail of a perceived enemy; if they find what they were looking for this next time, it will offer an excellent opportunity to test the system.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Ubiquitous Hit Point Question

Truth be told, I don’t much like combat. I think Machiavelli was entirely correct in his assertion that war cannot be avoided, but only postponed to one’s own disadvantage; and there are situations in which violence seems inevitable; but I don’t relish these the way I do explorations of food, landscapes, architecture, personalities, or just about anything else. I’m persuaded that it’s generally healthier for everyone if the eventualities of combat are minimised rather than actively sought and prolonged. Thus it should be no surprise that in seeking to revise the unmitigated disaster that passes for combat rules in AD&D, I tend to envision systems in which players are motivated to evade injury rather than those in which they gaily dance before those who want to hack them into little pieces. 

We have been using a system in which characters are rewarded with XP for damage given, more for damage taken, and still more for the value of wealth gained through combat. In the particular case of one character, to whom the Player’s Handbook granted ominous bonuses to attack rolls and hit dice for his ridiculously high STR and CON scores, it soon became obvious to the player that the surest route to success was to sustain as much damage as he possibly could, which was a lot more than any of the other characters could do. He climbed levels faster than everyone else, and his HP became exponentially greater. Until he went berserk and got himself slain, but this is another tale.

For the Minoa session we tried a system akin to that of Spells and Steel: HP are static, measuring how much a living body can stand before destruction, not changing as the character advances in level. Rather, AC would be lowered in tandem with THAC0, according to character class. The function of armour would be to absorb the first few HP of damage from an attack rather than these going directly to a character’s body. Choices for armour in this setting are limited, with the best types shown in the sketches below. 

Cisseus, the myrmidon, sports the best armour of the period, a bell cuirass and a pair of metal greaves. Demetrius wears a makeshift set of gladiator’s armour composed partly of metal and partly of leather. Armour was assigned a number of HP it absorbs, based on construction and material. For trial, we said the myrmidon’s armour absorbs three points of damage and the gladiator’s two points, but these could be amended further by applying a greater number of damage absorption to the armoured parts and none at all the the exposed parts. When an attack roll is successful, we roll a hit location die (12-sided, listing parts of the body) along with the die for HP damage. For Cisseus, the exposed body vulnerable to hit location dice would be the neck, arms, and thighs; these should sustain full attack damage if hit, with the exception of ‘Legs’ which might or might not refer to a  protected portion. (There’s no ‘Groin’ on the hit location die, but I think there should be.) For Demetrius, ‘Chest’ would be the obvious target. His right arm, covered in metal, would be protected more than the left, with only leather. Perhaps on a hit to the right arm the first five HP of damage could be ignored, and perhaps only the first three if the left. Armour would have to be repaired later, at some expense. 

(Shields didn't come up because no one used them, but similar calculations would have to be made for them.)

Assent to this system was not unanimous at the table. My goal, however, is reducing confusion; HP as we had been playing them had almost no connection to the reality of combat. Players were often unsure of whether or not they had actually taken a blow each time they lost HP, and often seemed to find it impossible to visualise what was happening during the fight. 

Briefly, we tried a system based on the French game Simulacres, but the modifiers to the attack roles required that the only person at the table who understood the rules consult a chart and perform calculations while everyone else just zoned out while waiting for him and having no choice but to trust his interpretation. Combat dragged. 

It was also a bone of contention for anal me that we were limited to three six-sided dice, which don’t allow fine enough gradations of percentage—and I can see the same argument being made against fighters jumping an AC every level and mages one every three, which are much coarser gradations than the numbers generated by different hit dice. It just seems it would be far easier to understand and visualise. I’d like some help from the players in nailing down a system that doesn’t make everyone’s eyes glaze over every time we roll the dice. 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Alexis Smolensk Challenge, World 1 of 3

The Kingdom of Minoa

How to Run details principles and elements of design which I have endeavoured to implement in constructing each game setting to test over the following few sessions. I will have to read the book again, and anyone considering DMing should certainly read it. Smolensk advises spending one month each on construction of a few different worlds, at the end of which everything should be put aside, with all attention then given to the next world for design. He warns that this is a task at which few will succeed. As it turns out, my first effort, detailed below, became an obsession and was indeed difficult to shelve. My second attempt failed miserably: One of my players had expressed a fondness for the Hyperborean Age of the Conan stories, and I spent two gruelling weeks researching it and growing increasingly frustrated; the political divisions as Robert E. Howard determined them were absurd, and the stories, poorly written as they were, inspired me rather to return to designing worlds based on actual history. This I did for the remaining two on which I actually spent a full month each: one in sub-Roman Britain, and another during the reign of Richard II. Details of these will come after they’ve been tested, so players won’t know immediately for how much of their adventure I was prepared, and how much I was frantically improvising. 

At any rate, How to Run emphasises detail in the starting domain and general outlines for surrounding ones, and offers guidelines such as:

The first domain will be under a single authority. The culture is in a state of ascendancy. The people are well-fed, content, industrious, friendly and governed well. Ownership is free to all, while both the agricultural and manufacturing industries are fairly uniform—the same crops, the same handicrafts, the same industries. Most persons in the urban areas pursue similar interests. (305-06)

For the size of the initial domain, Smolensk suggests ‘an area that would take a minimum of a week to cross’. I decided to go rather far back in time for the first world, and settled on Minoan Crete primarily based on the area recommendation. 


Area: 3190 square miles (160 miles long, 35 miles across widest point)
Population: 330,400
Major Settlements: Knossos (pop. 18,012), Phaistos (pop. 12,024), Malia (pop. approx. 8000), Kato Zakros (pop. approx. 6000), Kydonia (pop. approx. 6000); many smaller settlements throughout; a remaining 5508 persons are itinerant, including traveling bards, hermits, and philosophers. 

This island kingdom is located at a convenient crossroads for trade with the world beyond the seas. Boasting a mild climate, ample natural resources, and many able seamen, it enjoys amicable business and diplomatic relations with the surrounding domains. The western part of the island is covered in cypress forests, which provide a rich supply of wood for export; production of grapes and wine increases steadily eastward; and much wheat is cultivated on plains and in river valleys throughout. Additional exports include honey, precious stones from a number of mines on the island, and a purple dye made from mollusks. 

The island is governed by a federal bureaucracy and divided into five administrative regions, each owing nominal fealty to the Council (the high priestess and her magistrates) at Knossos in the north. The south is dominated by Phaistos, the central eastern region by Malia, the eastern tip by Kato Zakros, and the west by Kydonia. In practice, towns and villages are highly autonomous. 

Currency (drachma and obol) is minted at Knossos, where the supply of precious metals is centrally accounted. Gold is for minting and jewellery is imported from overseas to the east and south, as are certain other essential products such as textiles and papyrus, as well as slaves for working in the mines. The island is largely self-sufficient for its basic needs, with vegetables, herbs, and livestock, wool and linen for clothing produced inland, fish caught on the coast, and limestone, clay, and sandstone for building and pottery quarried locally; none of these are produced in great enough quantities for export.

The area is tectonically unstable, with frequent earthquakes. The ruins of several demolished settlements can be seen on the island, the most famous landmark being the partially submerged ruins of Prassa just west of the river mouth leading to Knossos. 

Most of this is based on bits and pieces of conjecture available on the Internet, and it's far, far from complete. I’ve never been to Crete, and most of the locations and names of settlements and rivers are probably wrong—certainly, centuries before Christianity was invented, there wouldn’t have been places called ‘Agia Triada’ and ‘Agios Antonios’—but nonetheless I can rest assured that my players don’t care about historical precision as long as they have a walloping time and enough to drink. Besides, I didn’t want to buy books if I wasn’t sure they would like this world. The layers of the .pdf are easy enough to cut and edit.

The Trial Adventure

The only session we’ve played so far in this world covered approximately the wee area covered by the brown line and vaguely south of the ruins of Zominthos. The adventure took about six days of game-world time. There are few overland roads—all of them appear as red lines—because the mountainous and boulder-strewn terrain makes land travel excruciating; navigable rivers are generally preferred. In this case at least one character with a good sense of land and direction is essential. 

Per Smolensk’s suggestion, there were ample player characters from which to choose, and one of the players was adamant that there should be some pretext for the lot of them to have come together initially, rather than just being dropped into the world and left to grope and fondle for adventures. I capitulated, and had them begin in Vathypetro, a settlement of approximately 3,080 people producing the finest wine in the kingdom. Play opened at the beginning of the Great Dionysia, an eight-day festival of parades, dramatic plays, and feasting. The scion of one of the prominent wine families hired the party to take four empty pots and eight drachma each to fill them with a herbal concoction brewed by the hermit Asasthenes in the ruins of Zominthos. They would each be paid another ten drachma for bringing each pot back full. 

The landscape was the primary difficulty, until they came to the ruins and were told that the amount of brew requested required more dittany than Asasthenes had, which sent the party southward into the forest to pick it. On attempting to do, a satyr’s piping put half the party to sleep, but the rest of them succeeded their saving throws and remained awake enough to be told not to pick from that particular area but to go further into the mountains. They decided not to argue with the satyr, and ascended the hills, where they were fired on by outlaws who mistook them for agents of the law. The misunderstanding was settled after a few rounds of combat, and the party, deciding to neither slay nor report the outlaws, eventually brought the hermit enough dittany to complete his job, and went home. 

Obviously, all of this could have gone in an infinite number of directions, but the party chose a rather safe and non-confrontational approach, preferring just to complete the task they’d been given at get back to Vathypetro. It seemed to have crossed their minds to try to sell the herbal concoction on the black market, but the idea was abandoned. I was ambivalent about introducing something as untoward as a satyr so early in the game, but this is the way it panned out. So to speak. 


Creating a spreadsheet for weather is easy enough by researching meteorological data and inputting minimum and maximum values with the =RANDBETWEEN function. Temperatures appear in celsius, and precipitation (in this case, just rain) varies in probability according to month as well. Ancient Greek lunar months are used, which would have to be adjusted year by year if the campaign were to continue in this setting. As it turns out, the range of temperatures I input made for a somewhat unlikely variation in temperature between day and night, but not significant to make the characters suffer; some of them forewent tents and simply put their bedrolls on the ground. Minoa enjoys a splendid absence of dangerous animals and insects. 


The concept of ‘rations’ was always a thorn in my side. Although it was something of a convenience to players in the world we were using before, they adapted immediately to its absence here. They stocked their bundles (baskets borne on the back) with wheat cakes, fish, olives, and figs, and managed to bring down some small game at intervals during travel. I was able to leave it entirely to their common sense to determine how much of these the party would consume each day, and they kept excellent records. I reminded them they would need double normal calories for the day following combat, and they did fine. The only shouts of regret came when they were dressing their wounds after combat: ‘We didn’t bring any wine!’

Other Feedback

For one of the players, this session was the first with us, although he had played AD&D before and was well aware of the need for tweaking the rules. For another, it was only his second time ever playing, and he finds it difficult to assess the relative merits of one or another world. The entire crew was not present for this session, so I didn’t get copious feedback. The world of next session’s world will be quite different, and I hope this helps to provide more perspective. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Dragged by Fate

Fate leads him who follows it, and drags him who resists. 

Detail of kings playing a board game, from a 14th century Napoli manuscript, courtesy of the British Library

The electronic trail to follow will consist in a hodgepodge of inspiration and lucubration connected to a small role-playing campaign active in the backwoods of western Japan. The start of the New Year pressured me to embark on some sort of record concurrent with our decision to discard, or at least shelve indefinitely, the setting we have been running since the inception of the campaign; and I hope likewise that this record will serve in some wise to expose the flaws in the approach we have taken until now, while exploring other possibilities that might work better.

Approximately two years ago, when a good friend suggested we resurrect the game of Dungeons and Dragons in memory of our enjoyment as young teenagers, we merely thought it would be a goofy thing for a bunch of middle-aged married men to sit around and do while drinking abusively--certainly something far too silly to write about even in private, much less for broadcast into cyberspace--but since  running this game connects so intrinsically to my interests in history, geography, writing, and storytelling, it seems to now justify a modicum of sporadic scribbling. I became the Dungeon Master by default and, though two of the others have condescended to take the reins at different points, they seem generally to return to my hands, and so I feel compelled to expend some fraction of my spare time in developing my skill in this capacity.

I teach at a university, and one of the recent class projects required students to perform English songs. It being the holiday season, many opted for Christmas songs, though some were pop, and most sets of lyrics given me were two or more pages long. The exception was one sheet produced by a young man who has been in my class almost every semester since I started working there, not having managed to attain a passing mark thus far. His group's lyric sheet, in its entirety, read:

Kiyoshi konoyoru

The Qing dynasty, this night
A star is light.
A child of help
In mother's chest.
The chest which would like to sleep is inexpensive.

At a cursory glance, the utter incomprehensibility of this word salad escaped my attention, and I merely commented in passing that it was rather short. The student asked me if it was too short, and I said I wasn't sure before I gave a closer look at the words.

As Dr. Seuss famously asked, 'What the fuck is this shit?'

It wasn't until the end of class that the young man apologetically produced a full set of English lyrics, with the explanation that earlier he had 'translated the lyrics directly' from Japanese.

The song was 'Silent Night'.

Just as we have, apparently, some teachers on hand who believe that Google Translate is a perfectly legitimate tool, I gather from several conversations--I cannot vouch for trends on the Great Web, because I don't read many blogs--that the most popular approach to running an AD&D campaign is to purchase the rule books and some modules, create characters by dice rolls following the prescribed methods, and then smush them through a sort of Play-Doh Fun Factory of role-playing. Answers to any questions that arise in the course of the game, any loose ends to be tied, and an awful lot of the creativity, are all sought in someone else's mass-produced design.

When we started playing, not knowing any better, I chose a prefab 'world', embellished it with a bit of what I knew of the actual Middle Ages, and followed the rules, scouring the Web for adventure hooks. The more I played this way, the more blatant became the inconsistencies, contradictions, and outright stupidities. The degree of effort I had put forth was comparable to that of feeding a text through a translation software rather than taking the time to produce an accurate, or even comprehensible, piece of my own design; and the results betrayed this.

Although the flaws seemed to grate less on my players' nerves than on my own--especially since those player characters that survived almost since the beginning had acquired significant power and property--during our last session of 2014 the group acquiesced to my suggestion that we test a series of different campaign settings and choose one in which to continue.

The inspiration for the creation of multiple campaign worlds comes from the DMing handbook How to Run by Alexis D.Smolensk, who offered a challenge to prospective DMs to work for a month each on a series of worlds. I accepted this challenge with mixed results, owing mainly to a varying degree of inspiration and perseverance on my part.

At time of writing, the most enjoyable part of the game remains researching relevant aspects of the real world. Some of my players voiced the objection that too much reality would reduce the possibilities in the game, but I'm convinced that using reality as a starting point leads to a greater wealth of ideas than beginning with a blank slate, for until now that approach has proved overwhelmingly to lead more to a reliance on tropes and stereotypes than to compelling or original fantasy.

Although scholarship has underscored the weaknesses of what I perceive to be the popular approach to this game, some of the six men who gather at my house every couple of weeks were understandably reluctant to 'reboot'; but maugre the challenges inherent in starting over, if any of you are reading this, I hope you will appreciate my efforts to provide a better experience.

For the rest of 2015, I will attempt to update this at least weekly with details of the mistakes I made and efforts I continue to make to not repeat similar ones in future.