Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Setting or Characters?

For the moment we are continuing in the Ancient Greek setting. The party lost a man in the last running, which was unexpected. (He was poisoned, and although I secretly rolled his saving throw vs. poison and found it unsuccessful, the rest of the party went to such great lengths to save him that I allowed him another saving throw in plain view of everyone. It failed--but not before one of the other characters lopped off the afflicted appendage in desperation.)
Favour of the Greek setting was quite vocal by the players present. Although I was given what I think is a very good reason by one absent player--the weather--I'm afraid that the party's current preference may be based somewhat on the relative superiority of the characters.
I concede that English weather isn't any fun, and that having to worry about chillblain and dying horses can be distracting from other aspects of the adventure. Mr Smolensk recently made the case that characters should receive XP for travel, and I'm very much of the opinion that suffering through adverse conditions should confer some kind of benefit toward advancement. If hostile environmental conditions exist as just one more nuisance that can be avoided by choosing a world with fewer of them, and that world is just as rewarding to run in, then doing so would be the only rational choice.
But I created the pre-rolled characters by different methods. For the Kingdom of Minoa, I rolled the dice just as the players would if they were creating their own characters: six ability scores each determined by 4d6 minus the lowest die roll, and arranged as suitable for a variety of character classes. This gave us a bard, some rangers, and specialist mages in addition to the standard archetypes, and all were quite strong.
For Shropesyre, I chose six numbers from 14 to 8 and arranged them as I saw fit to create two each of the standard archetypal classes. Thence I added their proficiencies, chose their weapons, and rolled dice for character traits. This may be why it was commented that the fighters in this setting were 'not so good'. They were merely slightly superior to the average freeman of the town. No paladins, no bards, no rangers. This is more in keeping with Smolenk's suggestion that pre-rolled trial characters shouldn't be too special.
I'm afraid that the characters chosen in Minoa were chosen based on how powerful they were, rather than on their class or traits. Now that we've had trial sessions in three settings and have at least eliminated one, it might not be a bad idea to run a session in each of the remaining two worlds with players rolling their own characters and adapting them to the respective setting.
The character sheets as we've been using them have two sides: the front (shown above) shows who they are and what they can do, and the back lists what they own. I've prepared these sheets to be optimum for our campaign, but there's no reason they can't be amended. Indeed, I hope and expect that they will be as characters advance in level. There has been a tradition of players leaving all their records at my house and going home empty-handed, but I'd like to discourage it if possible. When players create their own characters, I should email them the sheets as Word files and let them do with them as they like. Naturally, I can foresee some initial resistance, and in some cases it will probably be several months before some players feel their sheets have become unreadable enough to merit re-printing, but as DM I should really be putting all my effort into the world and its attributes, and let players take care of themselves.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Nature of Random

I know it looks like I’m talking to myself, but the players in my campaign do actually give me live feedback even if they don’t comment here. The feedback I got after the last post is worthy of further comment.

I was told that perhaps the party doesn’t follow hints, or suggestions by NPCs, because the last time they accepted an invitation by an NPC it resulted in the deaths of half the party. That’s certainly an understandable concern. In retrospect, what was at the bottom of the dungeon under the thieves’ guild--and I won’t reveal what it was--probably would have killed them. The fact that players are thinking about this is very encouraging to me. It measn that they have enough invested that they want to preserve the lives of their characters even at the risk of missing opportunities. This is a good start, but I still have a long way to go as a DM.

Something I want players to realise is that it doesn’t matter to me which course of action is pursued. As I said, every time we don’t use something, it goes onto the shelf where it might provide inspiration for something else in future. There is simply no way the party is going to enter or even find every dungeon I design, and no one should expect them to. If I were to allow my attachment to a particular locale or character to force the party to interact with it, this would be tantamount to railroading. In the game as in life, there will be missed opportunities--either for riches or destruction, or both.

I was asked how the party are supposed to know if a particular character or event is important. The answer is that they can’t. Even I don’t know.

One thing I understand but am slow to implement is that there might sometimes be a facile victory. You might even find a cache of treasure in the woods and be able to pick it up with no physical or legal consequences. It is possible, but it’s as improbable in the game world as it is in the real world, which is why it hasn’t happened yet...at least as far as I remember. But it might.

The dice fall where they will, the world is vast, and when you take up the job of adventurer you must cast aside all illusions of safety. Dig deeper and you find more. What’s there is there; the DM does not balance encounters. The world may be your urinal, but it is not concerned for your security. And yet it possesses untold glory for those brave enough to seek it and cunning or lucky enough to survive.

Think about it.

Sunday, 15 March 2015


Having tried the three worlds, we’re now in limbo. One of the players at yesterday's session hasn’t yet tried the Ancient Greek world, so we’re going to give that another shot this coming weekend, and possibly reach some sort of consensus after that. I hope that the players who missed most or all of the trial worlds can form some sort of opinion based on what they read here.

Yesterday’s session did not meet its potential. I’m not sure the players are aware of how much freedom they have. I created enough of the domain that they were able to go anywhere in it, and I showered them with adventure hooks over the course of several hours, but they pursued almost none of them. Of the few they did pursue, they gave up almost immediately when nothing blatantly screamed ‘Adventure here!’ Their style of play was conservative. There's certainly nothing wrong with that if that’s the kind of game they want, but I get the feeling they weren't entirely satisfied. I get that feeling when I’m told things like, ‘I noticed you don’t like magic items’. This particular comment came after the party came very close to magic items on various occasions but just didn’t go far enough to obtain them.

Rewards abound, but effort is needed. In the case of magic items as with so many other things, it’s just not going to be obvious. The greater the reward, the more difficult it is going to be to obtain. Such is nature. I’m certainly not going to say anything like, ‘You find a healing potion.’ You might find, if anything, a bottle with a mysterious liquid in it. If it has a label, the writing on it might mean something only to the person who wrote it. For all you know it might be poisonous or even explosive. You might taste it and see, or have an NPC you don’t particularly like taste it. Or you might take it to an alchemist for analysis if you want to go to the trouble of finding one. Even talking to said alchemist could lead to an adventure hook if you ask the right questions. Talking to any number of people could likewise. Following any detail could lead to an adventure. But keeping your head down, ignoring people and clues in the landscape, will guarantee that opportunities pass you by.

The initial quests are free. Those are just to get you started. Beyond that, you’re on your own. Depending on the outcome, the benefactor of your first quest might send you on another, or he might not. The benefactor in yesterday’s session, Sir Robert Corbet, suggested the party follow a certain underground passage, but they got hacked up in the process. Fine, one might say, they made off with some coin and just a few battle wounds, so all is good. They simply had no strategy. From Sir Robert’s perspective as a seasoned veteran of the battlefield, though, they had ample time to prepare and take precautions but instead spent the day attending Mass, drinking ale, and watching wrestling matches and cock-baiting. They botched the operation, and he’s probably glad to be done with them.

‘Never trade luck for skill’ is a military axiom, but complete lack of skill is never highly recommended. (Follow that link; there is much that applies to a D&D campaign.)

Any number of interesting characters might come your way. Yesterday, for example, the party encountered a bard named Japhet on the road, and he told them where he’d be for the next few days before we was on the road again. At a big event in another town weeks later, one of the players asked, ‘Is Japhet there?’ but the window of opportunity was gone. Even if he were in town, the party wouldn’t find him unless they looked hard, and as he already told them he travels throughout the country and beyond, they’re just not likely to ever meet him again. That’s the way it goes. The same goes for any number of NPCs and hints toward bigger things. I can--and do--shower the party with hooks, but if they don’t pursue them, then onto the shelf they go. I might use them in some form at a later date, and I might not.

When the party does choose a world to keep for the long run, I hope it is based on the environment, culture, danger level, type of magic, creatures and so on, and not simply on the luck of particular situations they just happened to stumble upon.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Shropesyre Geographic Data

Full details of the domain are not nearly complete, but we now have enough to go on. I can now say with confidence that during this weekend’s session, the groundwork is laid for the PCs to travel anywhere in the shire. This is certainly not to say that they must visit any particular locale over the course of the game, but anywhere they do will contain at the very least the breath of life. The following is an overview of the shire including information on population, economics, government, and culture.


The population of the shire is considered to be 48,502 using the estimate by Broadberry, Campbell and Leeuwen (2010). I find it far easier to go with a number like this and distribute it in a logical manner than to attempt to extrapolate population based on how much land is required to support people. There ends up being too many variables in standards of living, population fluctuations following famine and disease, and so on. Using what is known by professionals whose job it is to study this sort of thing goes a long way toward establishing the population centres described in the next section.

Tradition divides the populace into three classes: those who fight, those who pray, and those who work; but three pandemics of the Great Plague, among other factors, renders this stratification increasingly complicated by the time of our game, and there are many who fall outside of it. Nonetheless, the following chart, in lieu of a pyramid, gives a basic idea of representative wealth of various social classes to give players an idea of the buying power of their pound sterling.

Secular Social Structure

Annual Income
Usually more than £1000
Usually up to  £1000
Esquires and Knights

More than £40
Yeomen and Franklins
More than £5
More than £1
Less than £1

This chart obviously shows some overlap between the estates of ‘those who fight’ at the top and ‘those who work’ beneath them. Many townspeople, such as merchants, entertainers, mariners, and of course adventurers, fall outside this structure. The clergy also have a different but parallel structure, which is meanwhile more complicated because it includes both the regular clergy, who isolate themselves from the world in their monasteries or hermitages, and the secular clergy, who live in society and administer to the people there. Approximately two percent of the adult male population are clergymen, and this figure includes those priests who are adventurers.

Adventurers are rare, with perhaps a handful being found in every thousand persons. As the risk of death is great and the work often takes them far from other people, PCs will rarely encounter NPC adventurers at random, and the benefits to the survivors will be significant.


The map identifies populated settlements in black text as one city (in 30-point font), several towns (24-point), villages (18-point), hamlets, farmsteads or manors (14-point), individual buildings of note (12-point); and deserted or abandoned settlements in brown text. Religious establishments, when not otherwise connected to a settlement, are in blue. A total of 358 places are labelled.

The definition of a city is nebulous, but for our purposes will be a town of several thousand inhabitants that is a significant cultural, commerce and administrative hub. (Actually, one defining characteristic, arguably the most important, is the presence of a cathedral, and this definition would apply to only seventeen municipalities in the whole of England at this time, none of them in our shire.) What we will tentatively deem a ‘city’ is Shropesberie, near the centre of the map with approximately 3,500 permanent inhabitants. This number is frequently swollen to double or more with people coming and going from the countryside for purposes of commerce. During fairs and other festivities it will be even greater.

Towns tend to be somewhat less populous, but will be filled to double the permanent number during market days, which are normally once per week. The definition of a town is complicated, but will be simplified here as possessing a town charter from the king or the right to hold a market. For now, considering every town on the map as a place where the party can buy supplies will be sufficient; if they do not have a market they will still have a variety of shops and craftsmen to provide basic goods.

The status of village indicates the presence of a church. These areas tend to be based in agriculture, and their inhabitants go to the nearest town to buy things. They tend to have several hundred inhabitants.

A hamlet is a municipality, different from a manor or independent farmstead, that is nonetheless a community of several families but does not have a church. Its inhabitants go to the nearest village for church services and to the nearest town for shopping. These may be a few hundred persons or as few as several tens.

A manor is generally as small as or smaller than a hamlet, so is labelled in the same 14-point font. It consists only of a noble household and its peasants bound to the land, and is set apart from any municipality.

Likewise an independent farmstead is set apart but is labelled. Many of these are isolated and inhabited by only one family.

There are many former settlements on the map that have been abandoned during the Great Plague or because the source of the settlement’s economy declined until it could no longer support a population. (Some buildings therein might have become the abode of wild animals, goblins or kobolds, but are most likely to contain nothing but mildew and vermin.) Even settlements that appear in black text are likely to have decaying buildings on the outskirts. In some cases a former village may have become a hamlet when its income could no longer support a priest, and its church torn down for lumber and other resources. In other cases the size of a church was altered to fit the shrunken population. In still others ancient buildings remain, such as stone churches from the Norman period and abandoned castles inside or outside of a settlement.


Presiding over the shire and parts of other surrounding shires is the Earl of March, who divides his time between castles at Ludeforde, Shropesberie, and his family seat at Ardintone as well as some outside the shire.

Direct administration of Shropesyre is carried out by the High Sheriff (or shire-reeve), the king’s chief officer of the shire. His headquarters is at Shropesberie, where he maintains the shire gaol and shire court every six weeks. Twice per year, at Easter and Michealmas, the Sheriff’s court, or tourn, visits each hundred to hear all untried cases, convict criminals, and levy fines against communities that failed to report crimes. The current High Sheriff is Sir John Burley.

Directly under the High Sheriff is a small number of magistrates, local men of good standing selected by the king who to act as judges in disputes and interpret the law at shire courts.

The shire is divided into several hundreds, a hundred being an area of land traditionally deemed able to support one hundred warriors. A particular hundred may be under the king’s lordship or under the lordship of a baron, but in any case is administered by a bailiff of the hundred. The bailiff answers either to his lord in the case of a private hundred or to the High Sheriff in the case of a royal hundred.

Hundreds are further divided into townships, the chief officer of each being a constable. The constable does not govern per se, but reports crimes within the township to the bailiff. At this level government is administered either directly by the lord of a manor, through his steward, or, in the case of most towns, by a mayor elected by and from within a council of aldermen. Smaller towns and villages might be headed only by a single alderman (or steward if the village is privately owned). Most hamlets have no official leader but only a chief tithing man, who is responsible for law enforcement at the level of the tithing, which is normally ten households in close proximity to one another.

Local law enforcers include the coroner, who must ostensibly be present when justice is carried out, and members of the local guard or watch in the case of towns. If any crime is witnessed, it is incumbent on local people to raise the hue and cry, to which everyone within hearing distance is legally obligated to respond. If a perpetrator or suspect is sighted, he is likely to be arrested by the locals and brought to a tithing man, local guard, or whoever is available to detain the prisoner and convey him to gaol or the stocks until justice can be done. (Some ordinances permit summary execution when a criminal is caught ‘red-handed’. Technically, the coroner should be present, but this is not always the case.)

Finally, it should be added that very serious offenses may be conveyed to royal judges. Twice per year these visit each shire to hear serious cases from the tourn. Every seven years, or as the king decrees, they hear all unresolved cases and empty the gaols, a process known as ‘gaol delivery’: each prisoner is tried and hung or, depending on his reputation, cleared of charges and set free. (As evidence is generally difficult to obtain, it is often the testimony of a convicted man’s associates that saves him from the gallows.)

Routes of Travel

Overland travel is common for merchants, pilgrims, aristocrats and adventurers. The ‘roads’ indicated on the map are obviously well-trod paths. Not all roads need to be shown at this time because the PCs would not be familiar with them yet. 5-pixel brown lines indicate very clear main routes of travel that lead with certainty to market towns and travel within the vicinity of other communities. They are of necessity wide because in times of bad weather they may be subject to flooding, potholes or other hindrances, and traffic moves the ‘road’ to either side as fits the circumstances. 3-pixel lines are less frequently-travelled routes that still bear visible marks of foot and hoof traffic. In places that are not marked with any lines, traffic passes so infrequently that the landscape does not display permanent evidence. If travelers are lucky, there be a stone cross standing alone in a field to indicate the general direction of the nearest settlement.

If the party should become lost, the most rational course of action would be to follow a river downstream. It’s likely to lead to a market town eventually. I haven’t yet added all the minor rivers and brooks to the map; some are too small to be visible, but by far the majority of settlements are located along or nearby some flowing water source. It should also be noted that many rivers of significant size will have wooden bridges in various states of repair. Some of these are so rickety that one would be safer simply wading through the water. Once in about every 40,000 acres, though, there might be a stone bridge, built and maintained as an act of charity by someone wealthy enough to do so. Most of these have chapels built on them.

Some statutes require manorial lords to keep the roadsides in their vicinity clear of brush in order to make it difficult for robbers to hide, but enforcement of these statutes is irregular, and highwaymen do still rob people. The best strategy for protection is appearing both poor and dangerous. Most travelers meet at inns and embark together if their destinations are in the same general area.


For the sake of brevity, I will generally assume that the PCs act in accordance with typical standards of behaviour unless the players specifically indicate otherwise. This includes leaving any weapons with one’s host on entering an inn, a private residence, o a religious establishment. In certain towns it is against local statutes to carry arms or wear armour within town limits (knights and members of the watch exempted).

Observing the zeitgeist also means going to church regularly and following the dietary customs of the realm. People normally eat two meals per day: dinner, the largest meal, in late morning, and a more modest supper in late afternoon. Few people outside the wealthiest classes eat breakfast, but they might have some bread and cheese on rising if they plan to travel a long distance. What they may eat is dictated by seasonal availability as well as by the Church. No meat may be consumed on Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays, or during Lent or Advent. Furthermore, during Lent they may eat only one meal per day, and no eggs except on feast days. If PCs are seen breaking these rules, they may find themselves dragged to a church court and fined or forced to do penitence.

Seasonal availability is part of the explanation for the origin of the above customs. Fresh things become scarce as the season grows further from the harvest. Many animals are slaughtered at Martinmas because of the expense of keeping them alive through the winter. Fruit and vegetables are most abundant in autumn. Fresh fish are most available in summer, when the waves are not so rough for fishing; in other seasons they are likely to be salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved. Thus I have four different lists of what is available for purchase, and varying prices, for each season. (Fortunately, the prices of bread and ale remain stable throughout the year, thanks the Assize of Bread and Ale.)

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Calendar for Shropesyre

Ideally, this should have been completed prior to last session’s running. I had a moment of panic when I thought I had made the PCs sin unwittingly by having them consume full meals during Lent, but upon recalculation of the differences between our Gregorian Calendar and the Julian Calendar which they would have been using, the time of year in which the session took place would have come a bit ahead of the date I originally thought. I can now say with confidence and significant relief that the current date is the early morning of 18 February, and Lent will just commence. The day of the week is Wednesday.

Bold capitals indicate crucial holidays, in which missing church service would be unthinkable. For holidays in bold type, it's strongly recommended unless one has a very good excuse. In other case

This table enabled the calculation of Movable Feasts for the 49th Year of the Reign of Edward III.  

  • 1 Feast of the Circumcision of the Christ
  • 2 Feast of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus
  • 5 Plough Monday, when work resumes and Plough Guild asks contributions
  • 13 Feast of St Hilary of Poiters and Commemoration of St Mungo
  • 17 Feast of St Antony of Egypt (patron of basket and brush makers)
  • 19 Feast of St Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester
  • 21 First Feast of St Agnes of Rome (patron of betrothed couples, virgins, rape victims)
  • 24 Feast of St Timothy
  • 25 Feast of the Conversation of Paul the Apostle (weather on this day is harbinger for the coming year)
  • 26 Feast of St Polycarp
  • 28 Second Feast of St Agnes of Rome
  • 1 Feast of St Ignatius of Antioch
  • 2 FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION OF THE LORD (Candlemas) (end of epiphany season; blessing of votive candles in the church)
  • 4 Feast of St Gilbert of Sepringham
  • 14 Feast of St Valentine
  • 17 Shrove Tuesday
  • 18 Ash Wednesday, commences Lent Current Game Day
  • 25 Feast of Matthias the Apostle
  • 1 Feast of St David, Patron of Wales
  • 2 Feast of St Chad of Mercia
  • 7 Feast of St Thomas Aquinas and commemoration of Saints Perpetua and Felicity
  • 12 Commemoration of St Gregory the Great
  • 19 Feast of St Joseph
  • 21 Commemoration of St Benedict of Nursia/Spring Equinox
  • 25 FEAST OF THE ANNUNCIATION (Lady Day); official New Year
  • 26 Maundy Thursday (washing beggars’ feet and giving them clothing)
  • 27 GOOD FRIDAY & Paschal Full Moon
  • 29 EASTER SUNDAY; Mystery Play on the Great Flood
  • 30 Hock Monday
  • 31 Hock Tuesday
  • 1 All Fools’ Day; parades of tricksters
  • 21 Feast of St Anselm
  • 23 Feast of St George, Patron of England
  • 24 Commemoration of St Mellitus & Translation of Relics of St Wilfrid
  • 25 Feast of Mark the Evangelist
  • 1 May Day/Feast of the Apostles Philip and James
  • 2 Feast of St Athanasius
  • 3-6 Rogation Days: prayer and fasting; litanies of saints; ‘beating the bounds’
  • 16 Pentecost Eve; day of fasting
  • 17 PENTECOST (First Novena)
  • 19 Feast of St Dunstan (patron of gold and silver smiths, locksmiths, musicians)
  • 20 Feast of St Alcuin
  • 24 TRINITY SUNDAY, Feast of the Holy Trinity
  • 26 Feast of St Augustine
  • 28 (Thursday) Festival of Corpus Christi with mystery plays
  • 1 Feast of Justin Martyr 
  • 11 Feast of Barnabas the Apostle
  • 22 Feast of St Alban, first martyr of Britain
  • 23 St John’s Eve; evening bonfires for Midsummer Day
  • 24 Nativity of the Forerunner
  • 29 Feast of the Apostle Peter
  • 30 Feast of the Apostle Paul
  • 2 Feast of the Vissitation (Friars Minor)
  • 7 Translation of St Thomas Becket
  • 15 Feast of St Swithun (patron of weather)
  • 22 Feast of St Mary Magdalene (patron of apothecaries, tanners, reformed women)
  • 25 Feast of the Apostle James
  • 26 Feast of Saint Anne
  • 1 Lammas; consecration of first loaves from ripe grain
  • 2 Feast of St Dominic (Friars Preacher)
  • 6 The Transfiguration of Our Lord
  • 12 Feast of St Clare (Poor Clares)
  • 15 Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady
  • 24 Feast of the Apostle Bartholomew; blessing of mead
  • 28 Feast of St Augustine
  • 29 The Beheading of John the Baptist (fast day)
  • 8 Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady; official beginning of harvests and related celebrations
  • 14 The Exaltation of the Holy Cross (beginning of monastic winter)
  • 19 Commemoration of Theodore of Canterbury
  • 21 Feast of the Apostle Matthew
  • 29 Michaelmas/Beginning of Autumn; first wheat and rye harvest
  • 30 St Jerome’s Memorial
  • 4 (Sunday) Dedication Festivals & Feast of St Francis
  • 10 Feast of St Paulinus of York
  • 11 Commemoration of James the Deacon & St Æthelburh of Barking
  • 12 Feast of St Wilfrid of Ripon
  • 13 Feast of St Edward the Confessor
  • 18 Feast of Luke the Evangelist (patron of artists, physicians, surgeons)
  • 25 Festival of the Martyrs Crispin and Crispinian (patrons of leather workers, weavers)
  • 26 Feast of King Alfred the Great
  • 28 Feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude
  • 31 All Hallow’s Eve; vigil of All Saints’ Day (bonfires, chestnut roasting, apples)
November (‘Blood Month’, time of salting and curing meat for winter)
  • 2 Commemoration of All Faithful Departed
  • 11 Martinmas; commence fasting for Quadragesima Sancti Martini until Christmas
  • 16 Commemoration of St Edmund of Abingdon
  • 17 Commemoration of St Hugh (patron of sick people, swans)
  • 19 Commemoration of St Hilda
  • 20 Feast of Edumnd the Martyr
  • 22 Music Festival of St Cecillia
  • 23 Commemoration of the First Apostolic Father
  • 25 Feast of St Catherine of Alexandria (patron of craftsmen who work with a wheel)
  • 29 (Sunday) ADVENT; for penitence before Christmas
  • 30 Feast of the Apostle Andrew (patron of fishermen, fish mongers and rope makers)
  • 6 Feast of St Nicholas; nuns leave donations at doorsteps of needy in evening
  • 8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  • 21 Feast of Thomas the Apostle (Winter Solstice; festival of light)
  • 22 (Sunday) Celebration of Christ the King
  • 25 CHRISTMAS DAY; all grain harvests finished by this day
  • 26 Commemoration of the Protomartyr Stephen; bleeding of livestock
  • 27 Feast of the Apostle John
  • 28 Feast of the Holy Innocents/Children’s Mass
  • 29 Feast of St Thomas Becket