Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Getting Organised

The result thus far of renovating and revamping

There are scores of excellent books I’m still waiting to get my hands on. When our new abode is made livable at the end of this year, I plan to begin slowly stocking the library, which will be the main feature of the house, with books I’ve put off buying for years because of lack of space. My wife has generously allowed that I might purchase a few volumes at a time, though, and store them in boxes until they’re ready to go on the shelves. Of course, the first several will be of a medieval nature and intrinsically useful in D&D.

I’ll be the first to concede that my fascination with the Middle Ages approaches fetishism. Toward the end of the Minoa campaign, the Ancient Greek setting nearly exhausted my inspiration for ideas. Part of the difficulty is that Ancient Greeks wouldn’t be after the same sort of rewards D&D usually encourages—the New Argonauts makes this clear—but would be in the game for feasts, favours of the gods, and the glory of their city-state. Pillaging for profit was simply out of place. In that campaign, we ended on a cliffhanger, and since one of the players leaving that campaign to return to his native Canada has expressed a desire to play again when he returns during vacation, all of the details will be waiting on the shelf so that we can resume that adventure where we left off. The Minoa campaign can be continued with the core players, then, but on a very sporadic basis.

The reconstructed regular campaign will start in fourteenth-century Shropshire, for which the creative well is currently overflowing. It will also allow the party to translate certain characters they’ve already created for a medieval setting but didn’t really get to use. I know my players well enough by now to know what might capture their interest, and I’ve devised a binder full of adventure hooks that, if used, will take them not only through several levels but across the European continent as well.

At the start of the Minoa campaign, I read the ‘Opening Module’ from How to Play a Character, which made it clear that the party could do whatever it wanted, that they were in control, not the DM or any forces of nature or supernature, and had absolute freedom and the consequences thereof. I think it essential, though, that it also be impressed on the party that Ciropesyre is safe, relatively speaking: It is their home, and that if they burn their bridges they will have no haven or homeland to which to return, and that this would be a great loss to their characters, which translates into a gigantic pain in the arse for the players. When they gain sufficient power and prowess by adventuring throughout the shire, I expect they would first travel around England and then venture beyond the islands, where they would find a plethora of things they hadn’t in the homeland, not to mention engaging in increasingly ‘epic’ adventures.

Map of Europe from the Altas Catalan, drawn in 1375

The Holy Roman Empire would have things like blast furnaces for the manufacture of plate armour, with the main industry in Milan; exotic drinks made with hops or distilled; forests with halflings, dwarves, and elves; and new and more powerful weapons. In the Kingdom of France, the party might see gunpowder in action, particularly at the coast as the country wars with their own; exotic perfumes and wine aplenty; and conveniences like oil lanterns, highly unpopular in England because the cold weather would cause the oil to congeal too much to be useful. The Kingdom of Castile would be home to powerful magics and arcane arts synthesized from Arabic and African influences. In Hungary and eastward would dwell orcs and gnolls; in the lands beyond to the east and south would be all manner of bizarre creatures our lads from Ludeforde could scarcely imagine.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had more ideas than ever, and can taste the delight in holding back and starting out small, since too much weirdness too early wouldn’t make sense, and can imagine a number of paths the party might take. Everything that could unfold, of course, will remain unknown for the time being, and the remainder of this post will focus on things that the players and I discussed at length at the beginning of the final Minoa session.

Suggested Changes

I’ve been convinced that closing the shades and shutting out distractions from the outside world would improve the game. Now, the player who suggested this used to play in a basement, which, alas, isn’t an option in Japan. In my new house, of course, I can do whatever I want, and that includes setting up a salon for which my wife is already sewing some heavy brocaded curtains. Eventually the walls of that room will be reinforced and plastered with slabs of uneven stone, with a pair of crossed swords above the fireplace, and general d├ęcor that minimises the 21st century as much as possible without detracting from the game (in other words, we’ll still be using computers); but all this is a bit far off for now. As soon as we move in, though, we’ll at least have a table, which will allow much more space for players to spread their material in a way that facilitates focus on the game more than sitting on the floor of my music studio.

I’ve also been persuaded to reduce the use of music. I’ve often allowed period music to play during the game, not to attempt to orient players’ mood, but rather to instill a sense of setting. It’s been made clear to me that sound effects—which I’ve linked extensively in YouTube—would accomplish this much more effectively, and that music should be limited to occasions when characters are likely to hear it. This, in an adventuring lifestyle, would be very seldom, and would be mixed with town or tavern noises. Using sound effects would also eliminate the need to constantly remind players of things like their characters being soaked by a thunderstorm.

Level and Ability Advancement

We still like the idea that gaining a level means only that THAC0 and AC are improved, but the idea of level being tied to proficiencies was argued against. The proposed method is the gaining of proficiencies by finding a teacher or opportunity to learn hands-on, which entails considerable expense of time and money. It won’t be easy, but at least one player insisted on it because it’s more realistic. I like it because it forces the characters to slow down in their campaigning, spending several months learning new skills between adventures.

The way I conceive it, each proficiency would have a basic predetermined chunk of time it takes to learn—generally six months, I think—after which time the player will roll the character’s relevant ability score as a proficiency check to see if he has learnt the skill. If not, he must spend half that time again, paying and staying, before rolling the check again. If he still hasn’t learnt it, the next check will be made after one month, and every month thereafter until the proficiency check succeeds, meaning the character can be considered proficient.

Since cost of education and time required would have some variation depending on the skill, there is leeway for negotiation that can be role-played.

Another point of contention the resolution of which I’m told would increase player interest in the game and investment in their characters is the opportunity to raise any of the six basic ability scores. Previously, our house rules had stated:

Dexterity and strength can be increased through physical conditioning, unlike the other abilities, which are more or less innate and unchangeable. On this logic proficiency slots may be used to boost DEX or STR scores. When a PC reaches a level at which he gains an additional weapon proficiency slot, eh is allowed to use it to gain one point of either STR or DEX if he chooses, instead of an additional weapon proficiency.

An alternative system proposed is that certain experiences can have an effect on any ability score. One way to implement this is for the player to optionally record on his sheet, next to each stat, a small number of cumulative points each time he has a type of significant experience. When those points reach 100, the stat in question is raised by one. The increments are purposely small so that it is difficult to raise any stat, just as in life. A chart for relevant experiences might look like this:

Very lucky feat of strength

Farming, per month

Manual labour, per month
Solving a problem crucial to adventure

Comprehending a difficult work of literature
Solving a moral dilemma

Spiritual insight

One month without skipping a meal

Running feat

Sexual intercourse (max. gained per week)

Successful resistance to infectious disease
Successful persuasion, per success

Befriending a local lord

Befriending a regional lord

Befriending a noble, such as the king
Half hour daily stretching, per month

Winning combat initiative that leads to critical hit

The obvious problem with this system is that it requires an amount of bookkeeping that strikes me as downright ridiculous, and some of these things are so vague as to lead inevitably to distracting plea-bargaining. While I like the incentive for a player to attach significance to his character’s birthday, for instance, I’m not convinced this is the best way to go about that.

I’m sympathetic to players who don’t want to go through the hassle of keeping track of all these numbers when they could be devoting that mental space to strategy and success at the adventure at hand. Why not just take a cue from the Aedenne House Rules and have players roll 2d10 for their Prime Requisite each time they gain a level and accumulate those points there until they reach 100? After all, it makes sense that a fighter is going to spend his down time training to improve STR, a mage studying to improve INT, a bard doing whatever it is that increases CHA, and so on. This seems to me an infinitely more manageable and logical system, but I’m still open to debate.

Hit Location

The last thing I’d like to suggest for today is improvements to hit location. I’ve talked about this before and suggested that melee weapons can sometimes strike the groin; it is exceedingly difficult to hit someone in the foot during melee combat. I think the current hit location die is fine for projectiles, but a different die should be used for melee combat. Since no pre-made die exists that I know of, I would use a d20 assigned with a body part for each number like so:

Hit Location
1.     Scalp
2.     Face
3.     Neck
4.     Right shoulder
5.     Left shoulder
6.     Right upper arm
7.     Left upper arm
8.     Right forearm
9.     Left forearm
10-12. Chest
13.15. Gut
16. Right hand
17. Left hand
18. Right leg
19. Left leg
20. Groin

Consequences could be grisly. The chart would have to be pinned in a place where everyone can see it easily, just as the critical hits tables should always be open during combat; we shouldn’t have to flip through the House Rules every time.

All this is also a reminder that I really need to perfect my understanding of all the game mechanics related to combat, which has always been a weakness in my DMing. I’ll get right on that as soon as I’m done having a ball with all this historical stuff.  

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Excel to Help Your Game

As promised, I’m taking July and August off from running a campaign, and putting to use the time I would otherwise spend on preparing adventures, to tweak, revamp, and streamline some things that will improve the game when we start playing again. The first of these is a better way to keep track of the weather and date compared to what I had before, which wasn’t much. 

I had some simple weather tables in Excel running really simple code, but what I really needed was a comprehensive spreadsheet that would have all the information I needed right in front of me: Not only the current date and basic overall temperature and whether or no there would be precipitation on a particular day, but that would allow for temperature fluctuations throughout the day, tell me precisely when it would start raining, how strong the wind was and from what direction, what the sky overhead looked like, whether there was fog, how humid it was, and—perhaps best of all, because the party is bound to attempt sooner or later to do something by moonlight, and because there might eventually be werewolves afoot—what phase the moon was in. 

Finally, having just this morning finished coding a spreadsheet that does all of these things, I can see with 20/20 hindsight what an absolute fucking mess it has been running without it. 

Shropesyre Campaign Weather and Time.xls

The screen capture above shows a not atypical day in the West Midlands of England—this particular one 24 March 1377. The 24-hour period is divided into seven sections, beginning around sundown, because medieval custom recognised this as the beginning of the following day. It’s cold and cloudy but dry from evening onward, the gathering clouds providing a light rain around daybreak, with the skies remaining threatening and bringing a thunderstorm at the warmest part of the day, which quickly passes and leaves a clear blue sky for the remainder of the day, bringing the humidity down sharply by evening. 

Incidentally, one of the obvious bad habits players bring to the game, living as they do in the 21st century, is asking what ‘time’ it is. If I have anything to say about running adventures in 14th-century England, players  should be able to get used to thinking of a day in terms of prime, terce, nonce, sext, and vespers, and night as that nebulous period of darkness when they’re supposed to be asleep. (That last bit alone is enough of a challenge; I don’t believe most of us can really imagine what it’s like to live with no electricity at all.) Considering the relative number of daylight hours this time of year, we can predict that an adventuring party might typically spend the time from prime to terce breaking camp and getting ready to get back on the road—less time if they’re traveling light and don’t have any horses to equip—they would understand late morning as the period between terce and nonce, with midday being from nonce to sext, and that they would have until vespers at the latest to find lodging in a town, especially if they wanted to make the evening church service and enjoy a meal before the town gate closed at curfew. They would have little use for knowing ‘time’ beyond these designations, and even if they happened to be carrying an astrolabe few NPCs would ask them what o’clock it is. 

Now then. You can find a brilliantly detailed Climate Generator at Tao-of-DnD Wikispaces, but I’m finding that, both in my immediate acquaintance and in descriptions floating about the cyberworld of the efforts of DMs and players, there’s an awful lot of people who are either too intimidated by Excel to do anything interesting with it, or who just don’t grasp how much it can improve their running. (Ideally, every player would bring his own laptop and constantly update XP, damage, equipment including encumbrance calculated automatically and so on, but as it is my campaign still mostly uses paper. I normally have two computers running: a desktop on which is displayed images relevant to the players, and a laptop on which I privately view area maps and other information to which the players do not have access.) I’m going to devote this post, then, to the utility of this resource, and break down some of the code and explain what it does, for the benefit of DMs who think they might like to build their own spreadsheets for their own worlds but don’t know exactly how. 

First, the absolute easiest and most reliable starting point for a game setting is the real world, because there’s plenty of information online that tells us what climate any given area has and why; and since we have one moon on a predictable cycle, this is a snap to program in. Of course, any fantasy world can be programmed as well, but the DM will have to be a bit more creative in coming up with astronomical features for the planet and its satellites, climate for different areas, and so on. (Or he could just say screw it and decide all weather events, lunar cycles, and the like by fiat, which sucks.) 

In my case, I picked up information for modern Shropshire on high and low extremes of temperature for each month of the year, typical wind directions by season, amount of precipitation by month, variations in humidity, and chance of fog. With all that information in the top half of the screen, the rest is a matter of getting things to change in a reasonable manner over the course of a given day within a given month. 

The moon is a separate matter, and it’s as good a place as any to show how Excel can give you the phase for a particular calendar day. I’m going to try to explain this in simple English rather than Computerese, because the amount of questions I get at work from people completely befuddled by far more elementary operations tells me that most people go through life without using this software very much at all. So. We need a date for the last full moon, and I want to put that off to the side in cell K26. (There are plenty of web sites offering conjectures or formulas for discerning this sort of information for any date in history; I don’t need to link to any particular one. Suffice it to say 24 March is the current full moon. I need cell C15 to show the current moon phase, C17 to show the date, and B17 to show the day of the week. 

In order to get the day of the week to display correctly, we need a year close enough to a modern year that Excel won’t completely screw it up. My sources tell me that, coincidentally, the weekdays of 2015 match those of 1377, so I don’t have to do much other than format the cells to show the date without the year. Then we want cell B17 to show the day of the week based on the date in C17, so we enter the command:


…with the first word required because by default the day of the week would be displayed only as a number. Now, to display predictions for the next full moon in cell I15, we need to link to the date in K26 and add 29.53 days, the number of days the moon takes to complete a cycle. So we use the following code:


I also want the date of the next new moon displayed for convenience’s sake, so for the formula cell C15 I divide the lunar cycle in half and use:


To get the moon phase in cell C15, I need to compare the date of the next full moon in I15 with the current date in C17. The code is a bit longer here, and requires multiple conditions. I want eight different moon phases, but Excel is limited to seven nested ‘IF’ functions, so I make the ‘Quarter’ phase the default since it occurs twice. Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ve made the moon full either three days before or twenty-eight days before the next full moon. Afterwards I set each phase to occur within a specified range of days. I’m fond of writing code, like my blog, in whatever text editor I happen to have open so that I can catch mistakes, so in MemoPad it looks like this: 

Moon phases Excel code

Most other formulas on the page operate similarly. Most of the cells are linked. For example, cloud level at each part of the day is partially contingent on whether it’s going to rain in the next part, so that the party gets at least some warning before they get soaked. Temperature is set to generally be highest at midday and lowest at midnight. Since the high and low temperature columns in the upper half of the sheet are already randomly generated, cell D22 takes the high temperature number from C4, D19 the low temperature number from D4, and the temperature cells for the other parts of the day are set to fall within a range that rises after the wee hours and falls after sext—usually. I did throw in a trick that can sometimes change this pattern, but I’m not going to reveal it here because I want players to be genuinely surprised when a warm or cold front comes out of nowhere. 

Humidity varies within a range by month, with the exception that when it’s raining humidity is always 100%. Wind is coded to follow the patterns listed in column E, ‘Typical Wind Origin’. This means that when there is reasonably strong wind, it tends to blow from the directions listed. Gentle breezes may be more random in direction, and ‘Calm’ conditions always default to no direction. 

Lastly, the ‘Chance of Fog’ percentages in column I are taken to mean the percent change that fog can occur at some point on a given day within the month listed. These percentages are used to link random d100 rolls at the right end of row 15, where, for example, rolls of 20 or lower result in fog for a day in March, with lower numbers indicating thicker fog. For simplicity’s sake, fog is assumed to last all day, but if this should require more gradations when we actually start playing, I can fine-tune this aspect later. 

There’s plenty more happening randomly at the right side of the sheet, but to explain everything would be superfluous. Before closing, though, I would like to call attention to the sections for notes, particularly at the bottom of the page, where I hope all the important information will be at hand for the following session—including the upcoming feast and fast days listed in the Shropesyre calendar, and which markets and festivals are happening in nearby municipalities—because it’s been in different files up to this point and things inevitably ended up getting lost or overlooked. I’m hoping that this will be enough to get the party off to a smooth(er) start at the beginning of each session. At any rate, this will free me up to just think about…well, everything else that hasn’t got a spreadsheet yet. 

If anyone wants more detail about code, I’m happy to answer any questions. If anyone already making good use of spreadsheets wants to tell me some ways to make mine better, I’m happy to hear that, too. 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

A Ray of Hope

After the last unhappy post and in light of how well yesterday's session went down, I have to take a moment to give my party the props--or rather, the three members of the party who showed up and made DMing worthwhile.
After a skirmish with a sorcerer and his guards that left some of them dead and the party badly wounded, they made plans to restock and return to the sorcerer's lair to finish things. When they returned, the enemy had already vacated the premises, taking their valuables with them and most of the rest in the front yard. The party found some pythoi of wine, grain, and olive oil, a few empty wooden crates, and a few scrolls containing random bits of information. They also found a grate in the tower floor, below which a carrior crawler waited to paralyze and subsequently mangle to death the character whose player flaked on the session, and which character was sent by the others to peer into the darkness and find out what was there.
(If I ever make an FAQ for our campaign, one of the top items would be a warning to new members to be consistent in their attendance, because when someone doesn't show up when they're supposed to, the players who do show will play that person's character, and they will [I]not[/I] be as careful as they are with their own.)
Now, the party could have done anything, and I hadn't even bothered to consider what they might do. Normally I would make some notes of what certain objects might possibly mean, but all I did this time was consider what a fleeing enemy party might leave behind. My party, bless their hearts, put their heads together and found a way to destroy the carrior crawler. With a noose around the curved mouth of the pythos of oil, they had two men lower it down the ladder with the third underneath to guide it, until they got it to the bottom floor, where they dumped it onto the beast. Then they fashioned a torch of scrolls and rope tied to a broken piece of wooden crate swiped in remainder olive oil, and tossed it lit onto the carrion crawler.
They rolled a natural 20 on their attack with the torch, and the monster burst into flames.
After the fire died down, they yanked at the grate in unison, and their roll with combined BB/LG percentage was sufficent to tear the iron bars out of the floor. One of them went down into the basement and cut open the monster's gizzard to search for treasure. In actuality, the DM had made no provisions for anything like this happening, and had to think quickly as to what sort of valuables the creature might have swallowed along with whoever the sorcerer had fed to it.
It's a little thing, but it's the sort of strategy that warms a DMs heart, or at least it does this one's. It also inspires me to go back to putting as much thought into details like this as I did before, for all the hidden valuables, clues, and adventure hooks that the party ended up passing by without notice in the past.
We also spent the first hour or so of the session discussing ways to improve the game, and a few new house rules will be introduced in the next update.
For the moment, I'm at least interested in the game again.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Disbanding the Campaign

As of today I am officially 40, and I am more confident, competent, positive in outlook and solid overall than I have ever been before. My body fat is just around 10%, and I live each day in a focused and disciplined manner from the moment I rise, attempting to make the most of every moment. 

I am also less willing than ever to indulge those who waste my time. 

As is my wont, I'm going to lead up to a discussion of D&D with a work-related analogy. For the past several years, I have been a card-carrying member of JALT, the Japan Association of Language Teachers. I joined when I was asked to treasure a certain forming special interest group, a role I faithfully continue to fill to the present moment. I paid my dues dutifully, receiving two things in return in addition to the opportunity to get really good at bookkeeping. One is the monthly publication, chock full of mop-up remedies, mealy-mouthed justifications and paradigmatic overdevelopment expounding ever-more technical approaches to the Sisyphean task of force-feeding English education to unwilling subjects, none of the articles ever addressing the core issue which by the nature of their business they cannot touch: Namely, that the majority of students will continue not to make the effort required on their part, and if students are willing, teacher technique is almost irrelevant. 

The other benefit to my membership has been reduced admittance fees to the national and regional conferences, in which half-baked research is showcased by people wanting to pad their resumes.

JALT is raising its membership dues this year, a measure against which a number of members in my acquaintance have loudly protested. I perfectly well understand that this measure is necessary to keep the organisation afloat, and that JALT serves what for many is a noble and essential purpose. It’s simply that for me, personally, there has never been any tangible merit, and in looking into the future I can see that there never will be. So it is not that the small increase in dues that is unbearable, it is simply a reminder to me that it is time to quietly bow out.

This semester at the university, I've been teaching special section in business English for a handful of supposedly dedicated third-year students. I've already lectured them at length about making the same mistakes that should have been remedied in junior high school, and for a while they got a bit more serious. But several weeks have passed since then, and as this Friday they’ll have to make their final presentations, worth 25% of their total grade, I put aside time in last week's class for them to show me their PowerPoint and whatever else they had finished so far, so that I could give them some last-minute advice and assistance.

No one student in the class had done a damned thing. Nothing. With one week to go, even the most stellar students, relatively speaking, hadn't so much as begun a rough draft of a crude outline for the most important project of the semester.

Now, it may well just be that I’m feeling my age in such frustration and impatience with people unwilling to help themselves. The way I see it, though, every day is a precious gift which is solely in our hands to use, abuse, or piss away.

For scores of months I have put into this D&D campaign what amounts to untold hours unpaid work. The world-building aspect of it, of course, was a labour of love, but the actual runnings have generally been torture, and the returns for my effort have fallen far short of justifying it. In the height of my passion I offered the players a choice of worlds, and they chose Ancient Greece which, while it wasn’t my favourite, I could certainly have fanned the flames of ardour under the right circumstances. What I got, though, was irrelevant banter derailing the sessions, players coming late and leaving early—with their character sheets and notes carelessly tossed in a pile and left for me to put away—with the added disruption that when one person suddenly decides he has to leave soon, the rest of the party then decides it’s time to pack up, too, regardless of where the game is.

I ranted about my doldrums at length in my last post, only to read this the next day and force myself to admit that it can’t continue. It’s not easy to admit. But then, my hero is ten years older than I, and has many more years of experience as a DM. I’ve known that our sessions are quite enjoyable for the players, to be sure, but for at least some of them it was for very different reasons from those that make the game worthwhile for me. Nonetheless, I did my best to provide them all with a meaningful and engrossing experience. I’m tempted to think there might be people who pay to see a film but then talk through it, take breaks at the best parts, and decide to leave half an hour before the climax; but really, this is unlikely to happen when people pay money for something. If they know they can enter a cinema and watch as they like any time they like, for free, they might do. I suppose I have been providing the equivalent of unlimited free cinema access. In the long run, though, nothing is free. In this case, as it turns out, the price of admission is a modicum of focus and dedication.

I will provide the party with one last session, this coming weekend, because I had promised to do, afterwards I will go no further with the present campaign. At some point in future, after a hiatus for a sprinkling of world-building mixed in with my myriad other interests in life, I might invite the most serious members of the group to start a new campaign. At any rate, the ones who aren’t invited back are unlikely to have ever read anything on this blog in the first place.