Thursday, August 22, 2019

Endgame

Rain, meet parade.

So I was at DragonCon 40 this past weekend, the first gaming convention I've been to in SIX YEARS (I didn't even realize how long it'd been until I went back through my archived blog posts this morning...wow). My approach...and my experience...was very different from my prior two ventures into con territory. For one thing, I arrived Friday and stayed overnight at the hotel (sans family...they gave me the weekend off). For another, I went there with absolutely zero intention of running a game or hawking some product. For a third thing, I staked out most of my events ahead of time, and unlike prior years I spent almost no time with the "indie gamers" and invested all my attention in D&D...old school D&D. I was able to get into four games...three B/X, one Holmes basic...for a grand total of sixteen hours of gaming over two days (I didn't attend Sunday). Which is about thirteen hours more than I've played for at least a couple years.

And as I sat in my hotel room Friday night, I found myself thinking: Maybe I am too old for this. Maybe it is time to stop playing this damn game. Maybe I have outgrown it after all. 

Such was the ennui that had gripped me by the end of the day.

But the feeling didn't last. I was fine by Saturday and had a very enjoyable day. And despite some negative thoughts that continue to percolate (aren't there always negative thoughts 'round these parts?), I'm not quite ready to chuck the hobby out the door.  Not quite.

Still, it may be useful to consider what exactly led me to that particular mental space. The DMs were all competent in their running of the game. I may have had quibbles with their particular style or procedures (based on my own expectations of game play), but they weren't terrible...not even bad, really; "serviceable" is, I think, the best term I could use to describe them. The folks sitting around the table (many of whom appeared, with me, in multiple games) were all nice, experienced, and engaged participants. The adventures were fine...some were better than others, being more to MY particular tastes, but there was fun to be had. I had fun.

I had fun. I did...

I don't know what it is. Even now, at this moment, I feel the ennui lurking around the edges of my consciousness, like something just out of sight of my peripheral vision. It's not a palpable feeling, the  way it was Friday night...that was something that just hit me like...I don't know what. Like some heavy blanket of "I-just-don't-give-a-blank-anymore" dropping over my whole world view. That pressing feeling has receded way, way back into the background now, perhaps drowned out by other pressures and concerns occupying my attention.

But it worries me. I mean, what the hell was that?

This is what I do. This is what I want. D&D gaming is what I write about, what I read about, what I research shit in aid of. Playing the game is something I've been sorely lacking in the last few years, and here I finally had the chance to play, not just once but multiple times...and suddenly I felt ready to shit-can it? What the heck is wrong with me?

A couple days ago, I started reading the most recent post over at the Tao, and my head started swimming half a dozen paragraphs in. I had to break away from it because it was giving me something akin to a panic attack. Later, calmer, I went back and re-read the whole thing...I've since read it three or four times. I'm not sure these paragraphs completely describes me, but they sure hit awfully close to the mark:
How many of us, as we get into our 30s and 40s, are beginning to wish we'd never encountered the game? ...look around. You can find hundreds of D&D bloggers coughing up their last post, expressing their helpless lack of interest, the cold reality that they're just getting too old to play the game any more. And a horde of others who still "want to play" but can't quite bring themselves - after an absence of years - to get back into it. 
This isn't the reaction that an endlessly fun activity produces. I won't find fanatical skiers talking about not skiing or foodies deciding to purge themselves of cookbooks; car fanatics don't quit going to car shows "because the crowds are different now." The crowds aren't different. We're different. It's not the same game for us anymore...because we aren't 17 anymore... 
Once upon a time I was fairly "fanatical" about fencing. I even entertained some delusions about competing at a high level. But certain life events got in the way, and I ended up not putting in the necessary work or making the necessary adjustments I needed to make. And at some point I said, jeez, this is frustrating as hell, and I'm just not that young anymore, and my knees are shot-to-shit, and so I quit. That was probably close to fifteen years ago and I still miss it...so much so that just in the last few months I've found myself looking for a fencing salle that I can join, trying to figure out a way that I could "make it work" with my schedule/finances. Not because I have any more delusions about what I might accomplish...just because I want to do it.

Sometimes...much more rarely...I feel that way about other things that I've given up on: acting or singing, for example. Being a middle aged guy, I've tried out and discarded many things over the years, had many hobbies and interests, most of which have fallen by the wayside. Just part of getting older, right? But being a gaming fanatic has been my identity for so long...so long!...that I honestly can't believe I'd ever entertain the possibility of chucking it. Of getting rid of the books I've held onto for decades, across multiple moves, across different countries and different continents.

Hell, I brought my original copies of B/X to DragonCon this year...the same ones I've owned since 1982. The same ones I had with me in Paraguay for years. At this point, they're like some sort of relic or talisman; they'll disintegrate long before I ever give them up.

And yet, I think something has changed for me. Maybe it's the same thing I was blogging about back in May, that desire I have to elevate or evolve my game to something more mature, more "advanced." Maybe I'm still hungry for gaming, but straight B/X gaming does little to satisfy that hunger any more.

Or maybe I'm just not satisfied in the role of player...maybe I just miss being the Dungeon Master. Maybe.

Anyway, that's about the only angst I experienced at this year's DragonCon (thank goodness!). I'd like to write more specifics on the games themselves, but that'll have to wait for another post; tomorrow, perhaps. I just had to get this one out of my brain first.

Later, gators.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Forget the Supers

At least, for right now.

Never did get to the play-test I wrote about in the last blog post. See, the plan was to run a modified-for-my-game version of Mall of Terror (Heroes Unlimited Revised), and then a real life maniac gunned down several dozen people in a Walmart. Yeah. Less than 24 hours before a shooter in Dayton, Ohio killed nine and wounded 14 in less than 30 seconds...about three melee rounds in B/X terms.

Hard to model that type of destruction in game terms. Hard to balance that with "super powers." Even if I wanted to. Which I don't have the stomach for, not at the moment.

But even if I did, such events merely serve to remind how insipid the whole superhero genre is, as far as "fantasy adventure" in a contemporary setting. You can tell structured stories (in media, for example) or you can use giant invasions of creatures (aliens, zombies, whatever) that are immune to conventional armaments as a source of constant conflict...but for a game the latter gets old pretty fast, and the former isn't suitable for the style/type of game I want to run.

Hero Worship
On a related note, as a means of burning off the ennui that was brought on by this chain of events/thoughts, I took the time to stream the entirety of the rather brilliant series The Boys last week (on Amazon Prime). Yes, I realize it's adapted from a comic series. Yes, I realize there are some substantial changes from the original medium. It's still brilliant, and I like the changes that were made for the new medium. It's probably the best series of "godlike" (Avengers/JLA) supers ever written...clever, touching, funny, and (at times) even surprising, which isn't a word I'd usually when talking about the genre.

It's also incredibly cynical (though, as I understand it, not nearly as much as the original comics were created by a guy rumored to absolutely hate superheroes as a genre). Which is fine. I dig on cynical super movies: I've owned The Watchmen since before it was produced as a film, and I enjoyed both Super and The Mystery Men to watch them multiple times. But The Boys take things to an all new level. It's basically the world of White Wolf's Aberrant RPG, except that instead of having M-R nodes activated by a fallen space satellite, the world's superhumans have been created through an old Nazi chemical compound injected (clandestinely) into babies all over the country. If I wasn't so enamored with non-mutant heroes (like Iron Man or Green Arrow), it would make a great basis for ANY super-themed world setting. But then, you already have that in Aberrant (replace Project Utopia with Vought and Team Tomorrow with The Seven).
Caestus Pax...the Team Tomorrow
version of Homelander.

Yeah, the more I think about it, The Boys is really just a Hunters Hunted version of Aberrant.

Anyway. I'm going to be taking a break from the supers thing for a while. I like where the game is at (even thought up some new mechanics this morning that I need to implement), but I just don't feel like playing it right now. Instead, I need some real escape from reality. I'll be at the Dragonflight Convention next weekend, and I've already penciled out a schedule including ALL the B/X games at the con. I'm not going to run anything, just lose myself in fantasy bloodshed and mayhem.

Or maybe I'll cut out the bloodshed. Maybe I'll try playing some non-fightery types for a change...wizards sporting all utility spells, cowardly thieves, or pacifist clerics. Something with a different approach to treasure gathering. Maybe.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the break.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Crap...Crap...Crap...

That's the title of the post I started to write back around mid-July, as I went through all the various super powers found in Palladium's Heroes Unlimited products over the years.

Yes, Kevin Siembieda has nothing on me: I've purchased pretty much every HU product ever-penned by the man over the years...sometimes more than once!...all those "Powers Unlimited" books, GM and Galaxy Guides, etc. I've got a whole shelf filled with Palladium product and a good chunk is Heroes Unlimited related (the bulk, of course, is the prolific Rifts line...). And doing a "deep dive" of the evolution of the game...and the every-expanding list of powers down the years...simply leads me to the conclusion that nearly all of it after the original, unrevised first edition is crap. Just...crap. By which I mean "useless drivel," unnecessary filler and fiddly wanking that's just...so...not...needed.

In my opinion (of course). Your mileage may vary (of course).

So for those wondering what I've been up to the last couple weeks (other than winding down Ye Old Summer Fun Stuff, etc.), it's this: I'm back on the design train, designing my own superhero game. Again (*sigh*). No, I haven't been writing, other than writing notes. No, it hasn't been play-tested yet (though it's ready to start...going to be doing that with the kids this week, God willing). But, at the moment...it seems like I have a pretty solid start to a nice little system. A gritty little system that has absolutely no "point buy" and is EXTREMELY "non-abstract."

In other words, the kind of supers game I want to play.

If it ends up developing into anything, well, I will of course blog more about it (as I find the time to do so). However, just want folks to know I'm working on something game-related and not just blowing the blog-o-sphere off for no good reason.

Carry on, good people. My advice to folks suffering under excessive hotness (ah, yes...climate change) is to stay in a shady indoor area and play table-top RPGs as much as possible. With gusto.
: )

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Diving Into The Inelegance

For those who come here for the D&D posts: apologies. Until the last couple days, I’ve had a bunch of Palladium rulebooks, several sets of dice, and piles of paper and pencils covering my kitchen counter (now everything's been moved to the coffee table in the living room). Even if I hadn’t originally planned on doing a deep dive exploration of Kevin Siembieda’s work...well, it’s kind of ended up happening.

It started off...hmm, let’s see...last Friday. After taking the kids to mini-golf in Edmonds, they decided we should go to our favorite game store (“since we’re in the neighborhood”), Around the Table Games. While poking around a bit, I was somewhat amazed to find no more than TWO Palladium books gracing the shelves (not two product lines...two single rule books): a used copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised and an equally used copy of Ninjas & Superspies. While I do own both of these and have in fact had HU sitting on my bedside table the last couple weeks, my son appeared to have been oblivious to this fact, asking if we could get one or both to play.

So we've been playing Heroes Unlimited.

*ahem* Kind of. Let's back up a few hours earlier in the day when I had a chance to futz around on my computer with everyone else still asleep in bed (kind of like this morning). Having just written a post about HU a couple days prior, I decided to actually go through the chargen as written in the ORIGINAL game, and create a handful of characters. One thing I've continuously had to learn and re-learn over the years: there are reasons a game is designed the way it is, and it's best to try it out before trying to "improve it."

And of course, with a laptop it's a lot easier to generate random characters than it was back in my youth. Armed with an Excel spreadsheet and the "randbetween" function, I was able to quickly generate four PCs using original HU's near-100% random system. And guess what? It worked pretty darn good! Each character came out with enough pieces that I could form an adequate picture of the character and their backstory with relative ease. I had the bullied Australian scholar from the poor background who'd ended up working for a private company and stealing their robotic exoskeleton; the silver-spoon Frankforter who'd joined the German military at a young age and built himself into a brick outhouse; the shy professor who wears hats to hide her small horns, and prefers to use her own academic prowess over her mutant psionic abilities; and the Canadian farm boy who volunteered for experimentation and was only (grudgingly) allowed to leave only after the installation realized they had no real way to hold a person with the ability to teleport.

That's some cool stuff right there.

Of course, it all falls down when it comes to the first non-random part of chargen: skill selection. I only took the time to go through the whole process for the Physical Training character...partly because skills are the WHOLE of his "power suite;" partly because, as a guy with an enlisted military background (rolled randomly) he had a lot fewer skills to bother worrying about than the guy with the Masters degree or the lady with a Doctorate. And even knowing that I was just going to take as many physical skills as possible, it took a loooong time. As such I didn't bother finishing up the other characters, let alone spend the time buying their equipment (Palladium, unlike most supers RPGs, doesn't have an "abstract" system for modeling the economy...instead you're counting individual dollars and buying every piece of equipment (even your costume, in the original rules!) from the budget that is your character's life savings).

Anyway, it wasn't just "inelegant;" it was ugly. So I set aside the HU figuring I'd come back to it in another six months/years...and then my kid encountered the books later that same day and wanted to play.

SO...we ended up going through the entire character generation process for him (by hand). After some discussion we decided to play HU (first edition) instead of N&SS. He also ended up with a German; a mutant with the power of shrinking (no change in mass). We did all the skill selection (I provided him with no hints or nudges except to explain that didn't need more than one hand-to-hand skill), just walking him through the process. He spent his fairly ample life savings buying guns and ammo out of the equipment section. It took probably close to two hours to complete the process of making "Dave Dangerfield" AKA "DD." And while that time probably could have been cut down quite a bit with system familiarity, keep in mind that a mutant is probably the simplest of the character types to create, and that we were using the un-Revised HU rules (only one superpower, everything random, choices limited).

[my original idea was to create a character at the same time, a fellow adventurer who would act as an NPC companion; however, I gave up the idea when I rolled Hardware character with a $500K budget to spend. Even without the super-vehicle design of later editions, that's just too much work for the quickie game I wanted to run]

It really emphasized Kevin Siembieda's philosophy with regard to the game's design: HU is supposed to be a "thinking man's game." It is not supposed to be all four-color action and superhero cliches (though what's more cliche than super-powered individual's saving conflicts with their fists?). The time spent in such an elaborate chargen system represents an INVESTMENT in the character; yes, it's also a part of play, too, but in spending so much time building, your identification process (with the character) starts early in the game.

I also think that Siembieda has made very interesting (and astute) choices with what parts are random and what parts are not. A person's education CAN be effected by a host of random elements: opportunities provided by accident of birth, changes in a family's fortune, a person's approach to academic life and standardized testing and how that balances with other aspects of the character's life (social, familial, economic). Codifying that into a random table to determine one's final opportunity at skill selection is appropriate...just as allowing the player to select skill packages based on that (random) opportunity is appropriate. There are things within your control and things outside your control. It really takes the "meta" out of character generation.

[yes, I realize long-time Palladium players will say there's still "meta" involved in selecting physical skills that will optimize a character for combat. Siembieda looks at it differently, writing (in 1E) that players should OF COURSE be optimizing themselves as part of their "training" for a career in hero work. That's not "meta;" it's putting yourself in the mind of your character, deciding whether you should be learning gymnastics or how to speak Russian or how to fly a helicopter]

Yes, I am really starting to become a Palladium system apologist (if I wasn't one already), at least with regard to the HU line of games. The problem is, that such an elaborate, granular system REALLY requires some simplification in order to run the game effectively. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, for all the "fiddly" it adds to player characters, still maintains a simpler way of codifying bugbears and goblins. A DM might care about every coin of encumbrance and the location of every belt pouch for a particular PC wizard or fighter, but NOT for individual monsters. And yet HU wants me to figure out skill packages and equipment lists for every NPC the heroes might encounter? Ugh! No way!

There are other good concepts in the game that fail in execution. Combat is still kind of a mess, as well as over-emphasized in this "thinking man's game." Some of what appears to have been "corrections" to (what was originally) a D&D chassis are over-thought, convoluted, or impractical in practice. Why bother splitting Charisma into "mental affinity" and "physical beauty?" Why bother having both "hit points" and "structural damage capacity?" And the firearms combat rules are just so...aaaaaRRRGH. I understand why they were revised (and why they were later re-revised), but going more abstract just doesn't jibe great with a combat system that was already over-specific, what with counting individual strikes and parries. The whole thing needs an over-haul.

Anyway...

Adventure setting.
The boy and I did get through the whole process of creating a character and had a chance to play an adventure; I used the "One Dam Thing" introductory adventure from Revised HU. While we didn't bother worrying how his German, rifle-toting mutant had ended up in Nevada, the nice thing about having the internet these days is that it's fairly easy to pull up specs for something like Hoover Dam (where the scenario takes place). I figured I'd saw the Revised NPCs down to 1E size (limiting Golden Eagle to just "gliding," for example).

But we never got that far. Danger Dave decided to set-up a hunting blind in one of the powerhouse outlets to the Colorado River a couple days before the projected sabotage was to take place. Failing a prowl roll and encountering a security guard, the PRINCIPLED character's first reaction was to blow him away with his .44 auto-mag, and did so with a natural 20 (critical) roll. After dumping the body in the river, he set up shop to ambush the other security guards (investigating the gunshots) with his H&K sniper rifle. Eventually this led to a bunch of State Troopers from both sides of the Arizona-Nevada border being called to the dam, where a melee ensued along the top of the structure. DD managed to dispatch maybe half a dozen troopers before being thrown off the top and plunging 762' to the concrete powerhouse below (while he succeeded at his "roll with fall" attempt, he still ended up taking 110 points of damage and splattering like a bag of blood and gristle).

A fitting end to our "hero."
Which just goes to show: Palladim games end up looking much the same whether you're eight, eighteen, or twenty-eight years old (at least, mine always have).

My boy immediately wanted to play again by the way, and has since created a new character: this time a Dedicated Martial Artist (ninja) using the Ninjas & Super-Spies set. More later, perhaps.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Inelegant Design

A bit of a divergence from more recent topics, but...

My kids are always asking me to play with them. This is, of course, a great blessing...I'm sure there are many parents out there who'd give their eyeteeth for children who preferred their attention to that of their friends or (worse) screens/devices.

It is, also (again, of course), annoying at times: not only are there other things that I want (or need) to do, but it bugs me that they sometimes seem to lack the capacity for amusing themselves. Growing up, my brother and I invented many games and pastimes to amuse ourselves without the need for parental supervision or inspiration...even before we'd discovered role-playing games. Imaginative play came easy (naturally?), whereas my children want direction in how to play. Lacking direction (and/or parental participation) they most often default to wanting some sort of screen entertainment: a video game or television to simultaneously stimulate and soften their brains.

(*sigh*)

All of which is simply a precursor to this: my son is interested in my game design "work," and has asked me on multiple occasions to create a "superhero game." I haven't had the heart (or patience) to explain to him just how many supers games I already own and are available, all of which are lacking in some capacity. But I keep telling him I will (eventually) get around to it. One of these days.

So it is that I've been looking at Heroes Unlimited (again) for the last 30 hours or so. This would be the original, un-Revised version that I've blogged about previously. Again, I've been struck by the real design sensibilities on display here: there is reason behind all of Simebieda's madness that simply isn't explained in later editions. Again, I'm frustrated by the gross editing errors, typos, and information left out...not to mention the sheer clunkiness of a system evolved organically in play. And reading the Revised and 2nd Edition books this morning, I again am struck by how much the game has changed ("evolved" as Siembieda writes) through its various updates. And not for the good.

And yet, and yet: the sheer monstrosity of HU, of its inelegance...I finally start to see something of the appeal and of why the game has had such staying power over the decades. As I struggle to search the various entries for even basic information (like how much SDC a particular power type starts with, or exactly how many hand-to-hand attacks a character should receive), I am forced to parse out various systems and discrepancies and make decisions ("rulings") about various aspects of the game...I am, in struggling to understand and grasp the game's concepts, in the process of learning and developing a degree of expertise with the system.

RPGs are difficult beasts to grapple with anyway...at the table that is. Running an RPG, managing the players, the rules, the pacing and narration...it's a tough juggling act. And yet, streamlined "rules light" design (no doubt intended to excise complexity in aid of playability) ends up making games feel, well, less game-like and more like regulated story-telling...and the more simplified, the more this is the case.

Which, for me, isn't what I want out of a fantasy adventure game. It just isn't.

However, the other thing I do not want is a game where the system IS the game: where the real "play" is in crunching the numbers of the various in-game currencies in order to actually get to play itself. This includes any game that has point-buy/build systems (GURPS, Champions, MektonZ) or anything that has excessive character building through "option selection" (any D20 game or any version of D&D post-1988). I want to get to play without the extra prep of "building" and once play starts I want players to be "in the moment," un-worried about how their character might develop over ten plus levels.

So here's this monstrosity of a game called Heroes Unlimited, full of these clunky, unbalanced character classes, non-unified systems, often ugly aesthetics, and inelegant design. And yet I can randomly generate something like 50 different character types right out of the box, not counting differences in ability scores or power selection. Assuming I have some a decent grasp of the comic book genre (even with a limited, non-nuanced perspective), I can run a game right out of the box. And even without adjusting the rules I can tailor the game play to many sub-genres of supers play, incorporating nuance (the issues of vigilanteism or incorporating modern day politics, for example) as opposed to simple, four-colored action. Its asymmetry, unburdened by toolbox aspects of later games, makes it ripe with the potential of "Advanced" play.

In that way, it really does earn the moniker "Unlimited."

Jut something I'm musing on this morning: the features of inelegant design. Cheers.
: )

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Appropriation

Welp, I've been back from my short "vaca" for a day or so, and it's time to get back to "work" (such as my work is). Had a lot of thoughts come into the old "think box" during the course of the trip...thinks that might apply to my proposed "South American" campaign setting. However, as I've found that writing 20,000 word, meandering posts tend to be less-than-effective at communicating (or organizing) my ideas, I'm going to try to break these up into bite-sized chunks.

SO, as a bit of a "precursor" allow me to say that on our way back from Montana we stopped off in Leavenworth, Washington for a couple nights. This was my first trip to "the Ultimate Holiday Town USA" and it was pretty trippy.

See, Leavenworth was established in 1906 (as the souvenir t-shirts proudly recount), but the small logging town went into a long economic decline after Great Northern Railway relocated its headquarters to nearby Wenatchee in the '20s. Located on Highway 2 (the road that cuts through Stevens Pass in the Cascades) the town would probably have appeared to be a nice little vacation getaway for folks seeking outdoor recreation...say fishing the Skykomish or hiking. But the building of Stevens Pass Ski Resort in the 1930s, the presence of Lake Chelan for boating and water sports, and the sheer number of similar small towns in rural Washington probably contributed to Leavenworth being nothing more than a wide spot in the road for road-trippers heading out of the more populous King County. I'm guessing.

So it was that in the 1960s, a pair of "Seattle business men" who had bought a roadside cafe and was looking at a way to increase the tourist traffic to the area, hit on the idea of developing Leavenworth as a "theme town," a recreation of a Bavarian village with buildings featuring architecture out of 1800s Germany, shops selling lederhosen and Alpine hats, and menus filled with schnitzel, beer, and brats. The wikipedia entry says they were inspired by Solvang, California who sport a Danish-themed town, whose town has been a tourist draw since the late 1940s, pulling a million visitors per year. As Leavenworth draws twice that number annually, I think it's fair to say they've succeeded in becoming the tourist attraction they want to be.


For me, I have mixed feeling about it. Yes, it's cute (and I am, of course, a fan of beer and brats), but it feels excessive. Worse, much of it feels, not just artificial, but a touch insincere. My kids' first reaction was "it looks like Disneyland" (they've never yet been to Disneyland), and why not? Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle is the model for Disneyland's iconic palace, and it's located in the heart of the region (and time era) that Leavenworth seeks to model.

And that's the thing: I've been to Bavaria. I've been to Neuschwanstein and Munich and Rothenburg. And while, yes, there's a lot of beer and schnitzel and sausage to be had, there's much more than that. There are plenty of buildings that don't have the cutesy architecture and faux gothic signage going on.  I mean, even the local hospital looks like some sort of Alpine chateaux!

The thing about Solvang is that it was a Danish community that originally settled it. And it was Danish immigrants and their descendants that, after WWII, tried to recreate some of the architecture and sculpture they'd seen in the fatherland while fighting in Europe. When the Danish Prince Frederick visited Solvang as part of his US tour in 1939 it was to see the Danish people living there...the "theme town" hadn't yet become a "thing," though I'm sure there were Danish traditions being kept alive in Solvang just as the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle keeps alive parts of the community's Norwegian and Swedish heritage (you can buy lutefisk at the right time of year, they have a seafood festival to commemorate Norwegian Constitution Day, for example).

Leavenworth, on the other hand, has no particular German heritage, and certainly no connection to Bavaria. They could have chosen to style themselves after an English village or a province of China or some town in Mexico or whatever. It's cultural appropriation, I guess...though since the culture being appropriated doesn't belong to a minority or historically oppressed people, I suppose there's no real stink to be raised about it. Probably there's some enterprising business folks in Berlin considering how to transform some small community into a theme town based on the "American West" with cowboys and Indians and saloons and whatnot.

[oh, wait...there already is (thank you, internet): Pullman City Harz is an American "wild west" town in Northern Germany. Awesome...especially as it appears to be named after Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!). If I ever get back to Germany, maybe I'll give it a visit]

Anyway, despite my queasiness over the blatant commercialism...and a certain amount of bloatedness that comes from two days of sauerkraut and maibok....the place IS cute and a very nice place to visit. Yeah, it's goofy/weird but at least I can get a German-ish meal at a restaurant that will serve my kids, too (such is not the case with the best German-style pubs in Seattle), AND a big ol' stein of HBH. Most of the locals are engaged in the tourist industry, and most of the working folks I saw were younger than me, or not much older. I'd guess they've never known their town as anything other than what it is, and while they share a similar strained-weariness all tourist-industry folks have towards their clientele, they still approach their theme with a certain amount of gusto. When I spoke of "insincerity," I wasn't talking about the people, more the choices made in executing the "theme" (I can forgive a hotel called The Edelweiss but "Mozart's Steakhouse" is a bit tougher for my Austrian heritage to swallow).

*ahem* The POINT being, that Leavenworth is a fun place, and one I wouldn't mind returning to...maybe not for Oktoberfest, but definitely for a long weekend in summer or around the winter holiday season. And while I doubt I'll ever pick up a pair of lederhosen, I'd probably buy a beer stein if I found one that suited my taste (or lack thereof)...and I wouldn't feel too bad about it.

All of which, I realize, appears to have ZERO to do with gaming. But as I consider using real-world geography, history, and peoples to build a campaign setting, these issue of cultural appropriation looms in my mind. I'm not so much worried that I'd be giving offense to someone, so much as I worry I'd be perpetrating bad, false, or tasteless stereotypes in the name of "fun." How much is "appropriate appropriation" and how much is excessive? What amount of authenticity is acceptable and what constitutes "too little?" What amount is respectful to the cultures in question? Maybe these are silly, academic considerations (especially considering I'm not even running a game at the moment), but they are things I think about.

More on this later, along with some ideas I've had on possible approaches to my "problematic" campaign setting.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Nothing Helps Clear The Head...


...like adding a different type of Big Ball O Stress to the plate.

Heading out to Montana today. In fact, I have umpteen number of things to do, that I absolutely need to do, that I should be doing instead of blogging. Been out that way several times with the kids, but always via plane. Haven't made the road trip since long before the kids were born.

But we're doing it today. Finally got my wife to agree to the idea. When I was a kid, we traveled by car to see the relatives twice a year, starting when I was an infant (and being held on my mom's lap in a 1973 Datsun pick-up with no shocks). I can't see how my kids are made of any less sterner stuff than my brother and I were. They can tough it out for a few hours...jeez, we're going to be spending the night in Spokane anyway.

Still. Lots to do to prepare. That's the stress. I'm looking forward to the driving bit.

ANYway...I'll be (mostly) out of contact for the next few days, depending on internet connections and whatnot. Doesn't mean I'm ignoring you folks or anything.
: )

I am taking my sketch book to work on illustrations. More on that later.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Oh My.


I suppose I should know better than to post rants penned in the wee hours of the morning following copious consumption of red wine, but sometimes the urge to hit that little orange "publish" button is so darn hard to ignore. Ah, well.

However, I do know better than to expect any sort of agreement from such a contradictory stance...I mean, it's pretty silly in the light of day to pretend that the game hasn't been doing its damnedest to define the six ability scores as something other than class-assigned mechanics ever since the first set of rule books was published. In fact, it's as ridiculous for me to state otherwise as is the publishers' various attempts to do so.

So why bother doing so? Why get mad about something that already has buy-in from so many D&D players of all stripes and generations? Just because I want to poke the bear? Generate a bunch of comments on my blog.

No, no. It was just the wine, really...loosening my already lax self-restraint. I've been having these particular thoughts lately, see? About the ascendance of importance of ability scores. And it's really started to bug me...like some hard-to-reach itch or a nagging irritation or kink in the neck that you just can't quite work out. Because it IS silly...the mechanical importance that has been attached, over time, to certain descriptive qualities that offered minor adjustments to specific individual game systems. What was once a bit of generosity has instead become all-encompassing definitions of one's fictional persona, leading to all sorts of unwelcome practices: perception rolls, social rolls, etc.

Once upon a time someone asked: "Why must my character be as stupid as me when HE has an intelligence of 18? Why must I, the shy and not-so-smooth gamer geek have to 'role-play' some interaction with an NPC, when my character has this humongous charisma stat? It's not like Bob doesn't get to "bend bars" with his 18/00 strength score...and Bob can't even do a chin-up in real life!"

AND WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN SAID (by the DM) IS:

"The characters are our avatars in the imaginary world. Ability scores provide numbers that describe certain measurable aspects that of the character that directly impact specific systems. Strength measures ability in melee combat and certain physical feats. Intelligence measures mental capacity for working magic and learning languages. Charisma measures the character's ability to make a first impression and engender loyalty in followers. Wisdom measures insight into the "clerical mysteries" and innate resistance to magical attacks. But that's ALL the numbers represent...they are a measure of certain measurable aspects. But just because you have the intelligence to master magic doesn't make you 'smart;' it means you've got a good handle on a particular career path when choosing your character's class."

That's what could have been said. It wasn't. Instead attempts have been made to fit agility, speed, reflexes, hand-eye coordination, depth perception, balance, etc. all under the single heading of "dexterity." Instead pages and pages of internet ink and silly arguments have been made trying to clearly delineate the distinctions between "intelligence" and "wisdom."

And designers from various (MOST) editions of D&D have attempted to use the ability scores as the basis for some type of skill system. And I hate skill systems...especially ones that try to use a universal mechanic to model all skills when clearly nothing could be LESS universal than "skills."

Is carpentry a skill? Is medicine a skill? I have little training in either of these, but I can learn to make a passable birdhouse or picnic table far easier than I could perform surgery. And not because it's easier to saw wood than cut flesh with a knife! But I made a working catapult when I was an eight-year old Cub Scout; I made a (poorly) working crossbow when I was but a year or two older...not that I could, for the life of me, remember now HOW exactly I did these things.

Once upon a time I was a single guy who would get dates with girls. Was this a skill? Maybe...it was a matter of learning particular social cues and finding the courage to talk to women (and the brains to listen to their own subjects of interest and not bore them overly with my own). I'd say it took me a long time to "learn" it...it wasn't until I was 19 or 20 that I really got the knack for it after perhaps a decade of trying. And even afterward it was always a difficult task...always hard to control yourself when you're with a person who's making your emotional self fire off in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

Skill systems also fail to take into account atrophy. I was once a pretty good (stage) actor...though I always had difficulty with the memorization of lines. But it's been a quarter century since the last time I was on stage; I sincerely doubt I could turn in the same kind of performance I could at my "peak," when I was reeling off reams of blank verse and captivating audiences. And it's not because my body has degenerated (the way my knees have...I definitely couldn't fence the way I did when I was in my twenties!)...I just haven't practiced my craft in decades and I've allowed my skills to lapse. This happens...I got pretty expert at laying paving stones a couple summers back when I spent eight weeks doing nothing but landscaping my back yard. Today, I can barely remember the first thing about it.

Still, I'm digressing. Here's the deal: I don't disagree that a strong character shouldn't get some (slight) bonus to a task of physical labor for which she is untrained...nor that a weak character should suffer some penalty to the same. But for the game I play (and, sure, I understand not everyone plays as I do), I feel that a character's class IS the bulk of the character's training...that's where the emphasis should be and ability scores a minor consideration as far as representing a character's "skill."

Apologies for the inflammatory scribbles.

For the Love of God...

...please, PLEASE stop using "ability checks."

Ability checks are nothing but sheer f'ing laziness, whether we're talking "roll under" or "roll versus target with ability bonuses." Just stop it. StoooooOOOOP IT, please!

Stop mistaking characters for something other than the player who's playing the character. Just stop. Stop now. If I am playing a character with a high Intelligence score that doesn't make him a frigging genius...and if he has a low Intelligence score it doesn't make him an imbecile. Nor does a specific Charisma or Wisdom score represent aspects of my personality (i.e. the player's personality) that I am obligated to play. It doesn't! It is unfortunate that the name carries connotations that expand the mechanic beyond the scope of what it's intended for but...well let's just talk sense for a moment.

Let's start with "Intelligence." Forget the name for the moment. Just forget it. Call it something else...anything! Call it "Wizard's Prime Requisite" (which it is...originally anyway). Call it "ability X" for all I care. Just divorce the mechanic from the connotation that comes with naming it "intelligence." Let's just call it "X" for now...or, better yet, call it "INT."

INT is a random attribute that determines how skilled a magic-user character is at learning his or her craft. That was the thing's original definition. Later, this wasn't simply designated mechanically with the acquisition of experience points (bonuses and penalties to XP) , but also included how well the magic-user learned spells (chances to learn, minimum/maximum numbers per level). Parenthetically it also provided a number of extra languages the character might know, presumably because it represented some sort of scholarly pursuits, even if the character was not trained specifically in the skills of a magic-user.

That's it. It doesn't mean a character is more perceptive: lots of well-read or knowledgable individuals are hopelessly obtuse about all sorts of things. A high intelligence doesn't equate with the ability to solve riddles or craft wooden furniture. Having an INT of 18 doesn't make someone "MacGuyver." It doesn't even mean the character is a particularly good student...except insofar as we're talking about being a student of magic. But you can be a stupid, stupid person and still great at your job. Happens all the time. D&D is not about "renaissance men (and women)" skilled in a variety of tasks and careers.

Wisdom isn't a stat that measures how "wise" or "intuitive" or "insightful" is your character. It's a measure of your character's ability to advance as a cleric. Again, forget the the word "wisdom;" it's a short-hand term, and a confusing one. Just call it WIS. Later editions provided that it made clerics even better (by giving them additional spells). For the non-clerics it acted as an adjustment to saving throws versus magic (though why exactly was never really made clear...certainly this was a late development in a game that mechanically went nearly unchanged between the mid-70's and 1999). You can be an extremely devoted zealot, well-versed in the tenets of your religion...or a doubter and closet agnostic who nevertheless has a firm grip on the ways of "universal (divine) law." Despite the name given to the ability, an 18 WIS doesn't make you wise; there's nothing "wise" about being an adventurer. There's nothing "wise" about joining a band of cutthroats and delving into ancient mines and tombs full of horrible ways to die. It is a MECHANIC with an unfortunate name, nothing more.

Charisma? It's not a measure of your personality. It's a measure of your abstract "it" factor, how much people naturally trust you and your immediate likability. It gives a bonus or penalty to reaction, something only checked in an initial encounter...your ability to make a first impression, probably based as much on your carriage, manner of speech, and straightness of teeth as much as anything else. Why do some people attract sycophants and fantastical followers while others have a tougher time making friends? Why do some people get elected president despite being eminently unqualified for the position? Why are some people blessed with popularity even when their words and actions are sheer nonsense? Eventually, all but the unfortunate few will see through the facade to a person's true worth based on his or her actual actions...and the length of time that takes to become disillusioned can be slowed or speeded depending on the depth to which that initial first impression got made. But it happens eventually...and probably sooner if the person shows herself to be a monster right from the get-go.

The same holds true of all the ability scores. Strength is a measure of fighting ability, not athletic ability. Originally, dexterity measure only marksmanship; later it was used to measure thieving ability (both as a thief's prime requisite and in bonuses/penalties to thief skills). Constitution adjusts a character's ability to withstand damage, not her ability to resist disease or hold her breath or sustain a sprint over distance.

I'm sorry, but I'm irritated. Hell, I'm angry. I'm mad at 5th edition and 4th edition and 3rd edition and 2nd edition (with its non-weapon proficiencies) and BECMI's "General Skills" (from the Gazetteers and, later, the Rules Cyclopedia). Hell, I'm mad at Tom Moldvay's admonition on page B60 of the B/X (Basic) Rules that:

"The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores...to perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20."

Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!

Characters are trained in the skills of their class. They're not "renaissance men (and women)." They are not taking night courses at community college. They're not hitting the gym or practicing aerial aerobics. They're not shelling out money at the hot yoga studio to increase their flexibility and focus. They're not researching the internet for the best diets to and exercises to maintain health and fitness, nor to see how to build a rowboat from scratch or live off the land or fletch their own arrows. WE can do that...even in the days before the internet we had libraries and city colleges and trade schools and a military industrial complex capable of churning out trained soldiers from hopelessly soft civilians in a matter of months based on carefully crafted science of physical and mental conditioning. But that's us...21st century people.

Stop using ability scores to define the character holistically. It's a terrible simplification. Gygax would have done well to have NEVER suggested the inclusion of "secondary skills" in AD&D, but even he provided a near-20% chance of a character having NO SKILL OF MEASURABLE WORTH. A fighter is trained to kill people, not forge and repair armor, not execute standing broad jumps or pole vault or climb like a spider. Thieves are trained to steal (in various ways); they are not tumblers and acrobats, no matter what their DEX score is. Acrobats are trained to do these kinds of things, and I encourage anyone to add such a class to their game if they find those skills desirable (I even wrote up an "acrobat" for The Complete B/X Adventurer). But don't look at a 16 dexterity as an 80% chance to perform such feats. Knowing one set of skills doesn't translate to another set (see professional soccer players versus professional baseball players versus professional ballet dancers).

Stop with the ability checks. Your wizard's 18 intelligence means she's an impressively knowledgable wizard for her level of experience. It doesn't make her an impressively intelligent person. It doesn't make her better at finding secret doors or sussing out ambush's or identifying things she's had no experience with. Your cleric's 18 wisdom makes her an impressively accomplished cleric for her level of experience...it doesn't mean she's wise. She's only as wise as YOU, the player, make her. If you decide to open the chest without searching for traps or decide it's a good idea to make a deal with a greater demon, there's ZERO RESPONSIBILITY on the DM to have you reconsider these un-wise actions. The stat is called "wisdom" but that's just a word; stop thinking of it as more than a term.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry to irritate people. I'm sorry to once again yell about things that are indelibly ingrained into some (most) D&D players' psyches, wasting everyone's blessed time, especially my own. But I was once again reading some blog on which someone was (once again) complaining about some aspect of 5E ability checks they didn't like...as if some checks were "good" and others were bad...and just, no. No. Stop the madness. There are no "good" ability checks. There are no good "skill systems" for D&D. Your character class tells you what you can do. Your ability scores might adjust some aspects of effectiveness. But YOU, player: YOU are the one responsible for working with what you've got. I don't care what your character's Intelligence or Charisma is. Your Strength and Dexterity scores mean jack-all to me outside the adjustments the game rules explicitly provide. If you can't figure stuff out, tough shit.

You need a boat? Buy one or pay someone to build it for you. You're not boatbuilder. This isn't MacGuyver; it's D&D. Boatbuilder isn't an available character class.

Stop with the ability checks already.
[vented at 2am]

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Let the Madness Commence

While I have no doubt there are some who just love to hear all about my personal stresses, I will forbear regaling you with tales of woe, save that I have been up since 5am in order to babysit a friend of my child (who lacked daycare this morning) and have only just now got my children down to sleep (it's a bit after 11:30pm). True, I did get a 90 minute siesta in around 3pm, but I've otherwise been "on the clock" the entire day...a day that started with something slightly less than a tremendous hangover (trivia night with the family at the local pub last night and I had one-too-many IPAs).

Even so, I still managed to finish the entire text of the new book, including the table of contents. Yes, I still have the headers to do (always a pain in the ass for these game books), and it has no illustrations (save for a few placeholders), but it's complete and done and I dig it. It's a nice bit of campaign setting for B/X, the first I'll actually be publishing, though I've got work on maybe four or six in Ye Old Hard Drive. I'll write more about the thing in the (hopefully) near future, but as of this evening I'm filled with at least a small sense of satisfaction.

Also a slight sense of trepidation. I've more-or-less decided to take a stab at doing my own illustrating for this thing though, frankly, the idea is pretty batshit insane. Still, I'll try doing a couple sketches and see how they turn out (need to set up the scanner my wife brought back from Paraguay in December)...if it's too shitty I'll start soliciting from artists I've got on my contact list. I toyed with the idea of some kind of "black album," but illustrating is a nice challenge. Besides my children like to color too, and it is summer vacation...had them both painting Blood Bowl miniatures last week (yes, the five year old as well); maybe I'll put them to work.

Or maybe not. I do have some money left in the kitty after all...enough for a small art budget anyway. We'll see, we'll see...this type of thing requires a very specific type of artwork and (if it's coming from professionals), I'm going to want to be a little choosey.

But first things first: got to finish those damn headers. And I've got to get up early tomorrow to get the car to the shop by 9am (we've got a road trip to Montana next week). And I've got to get some type of sleep, even a few hours. Man, I am beat.

Till later.

Monday, June 17, 2019

New Baby

Sorry for the absence of the last few days. I've been busy: last week of school for the kids, soccer jamborees all weekend, figuring out summer plans. Family asked me what I wanted for Father's Day, and I got them to sign off on letting me go to DragonFlight 40 this year (in August)...not that I don't love my fam, but even con gaming is better than no gaming. And I need a break from real life.

"But JB...what about your early morning writing sessions?" Truth be told, I have been writing most mornings...but I'm trying to put the finishing touches on a book that I started four years ago in Paraguay and that I really need to get out the door. No, no...it's not Cry Dark Future (but that's coming to...yes, really). Part of my maturing process is not letting this stuff that's "almost done" linger around anymore. I'm a couple-three pages from completing the text on the thing, and then another final edit or two. It's not terribly original or "smart," but I think it's kind of cool...and it is for the B/X game so I might be able to make some scratch off it. Hoping to, anyway, but mainly I just need to get it done.

And I'm taking (for the nonce) a break from the South American campaign. This is a hard one to cop to, but...well, it was really starting to get me depressed. I just needed a break and a breather, but I will get back to it (I have more to say but I'm saving that for some subject-specific posts).

Anyway...that's the quick news. Still considering the whole "new blog" thang I posted about the other day. The difficult thing is moving all my "stuff" over...links to products and such. The set-up. Moving is my least favorite thing to do (seriously...I'd pretty much prefer to do anything besides move) and moving blogs, while not on the same scale, is the same basic flavor of "ugh." It would help if I actually had my web site up and operating so that I could just link the blogs there...but then, I'd need to know something about editing and operating a web site. (*sigh*)

More later. Want to get back to the book. More on that later.

Hope all the dads had a happy Father's Day over the weekend! Good luck in the year going forward!
: )

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Food and Faith

The importance of food to humans can't be understated. True, man does not live by bread alone, in fact there are two things vastly more important: air and water. But assuming we have those two things, food comes in at #3, depending on whether or not one views sleep/rest as a "consumable."

And yet we tend to undervalue it in the Dungeon & Dragons game. "Mark off a day's rations," is about the extent of our interaction with food, unless we're talking about some sort of magical trick/trap found in the dungeon. It's just not as interesting to our game as, say, which spells the wizard has available, or the damage output-to-hit point ratio of our front-line fighters. There aren't even rules relating to starvation or malnutrition through the first half dozen iterations of the game; the closest B/X gets is this note in the Cook/Marsh expert set (page X51):

Characters who run out of food may face a variety of circumstances that must be handled by the DM. Possible effects of hunger might include the need for more rest, slower movement rates, minuses "to hit," and gradual loss of hit points.

[Aaron Allston's 1991 Rules Cyclopedia is the first place I find any hard rules on starvation, and it simply incorporates these four suggestions (need for rest, slow move, attack penalty, HP loss) into a single system...and a ridiculous one at that (a first level character who goes a single day without food and water will probably die, suffering 1d10 damage). But at least Allston was trying!]

Food and issues around food scarcity were driving factors in the European conquest of Latin America; truth be told, it is still the driving issue of these slave nations (you can't really call them developing nations when no real "development" is being done and when they are purposefully kept in a state that allows for exploitation of people and resources). You can't eat gold, after all.

Everyone reading this probably understands that the regions I'm talking about had large concentrations of people...many, many times the number of people living in the regions now known as Canada and the United States. These Central and South American (and Caribbean) lands could sustain this multitude of people precisely because it was so abundant with food supply, and the civilizations that existed had developed societies designed to make the best use of that food supply. True, there was some cannibalism among certain indigenous groups, but this appears to have been more of a ritual nature than a source of sustenance: the land already supplied the nutrition needed to grow people.

Our history books tell the story of how the indigenous Americans were mainly wiped out by diseases to which they had no immunity, germ warfare spread by plague-ridden "Old Worlders" either by accident or purposefully (the anecdotal "disease-ridden blanket" is actually from North American sources). But the human body is remarkably resilient, when in good health. Our immune systems work exceptionally well to fight off infectious diseases when we keep ourselves rested, fit, and fed with nutritious foods. Many of the issues Europe had with its own "black plague" incidents came from the poor living conditions of the people at the time.

Nearly all the European action during the first fifteen years following Columbus's discovery of a "New World" took place in the Caribbean; the first real city founded on the continent wasn't established till 1510 (a fort was built in 1509, but was abandoned after eight months). By that time, there were nearly a dozen settlements in the Caribbean, the vast majority of them being in Hispaniola.  The first recorded small pox epidemic hit Hispaniola in 1518-1519 and killed 90% of the the indigenous people remaining. However, by 1508 (ten years prior) they'd already been reduced in number from a pre-Columbian estimate of 600,000 down to 60,000.

[Bartolome de las Casas writing at the time after living in Hispaniola for decades, puts the pre-Columbian population even higher, stating more than 3,000,000 of the native Taino people were killed between 1494 and 1508. Modern scholars feels his figures are an exaggeration, however, despite the fact that more than 20 million people combined currently inhabit the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two nations that comprise the island once known as "Hispaniola"]

What changed with Columbus's arrival that caused such a steep decline? Half a million bullets? No, the Spanish weren't interested in killing the native population, whom they had enslaved to work the gold mines of Hispaniola (Pueblo Viejo is still the largest gold mine in the Americas and the 2nd largest gold mine in the world); the first African slaves began to arrive in 1503 precisely because of the declining population and high infant mortality rates among the indigenous people led to a smaller workforce for the mines. No, it was starvation and lack of nutrition (exacerbated by overwork in harsh conditions).

The food that sustained the peoples of the Americas...the beans, corn, squash, and small game...were not the foods to which the Spaniards were accustomed: bread, olives (and olive oil), meat (domesticated), and wine. Not only did they want the familiar foods of their homeland, they had an aversion to eating the native produce. Part of this was due to a philosophy of "right food" based on class and status; not only was it a mark of prestige in Spain to eat better (i.e. expensive) food, especially meats, but eating the food of the indigenous risked becoming like the indigenous: ignorant, heathen savages. When Columbus returned in 1494, he brought Spanish livestock with him...cows, pigs, goats, and sheep...which, devoid of natural predators, multiplied and devoured the native habitat, Planting of Spanish crops (including cash crops like sugar) helped displace the native flora as well.

But for the Spaniards, having their own food was more than a matter of comfort; it was a matter of faith. What is Catholicism without the Body (bread) and Blood (wine) of Christ? The acceptable and preferred foods of the Spanish had been ingrained through both their faith and the propaganda of times: the end of the 800 year Reconquista in 1491, the Alhambra Decree (issued in 1492, four months before Columbus's first voyage) required the expulsion or conversion of all Jews from Spain, and the Spanish Inquisition (formed in 1478 and largely used to suss out Moores and Jews) all contributed to the mindset of a "unified Catholic nation." And Catholics, unlike Moores and Jews, eat pork. Pork and pork products (like lard, used as a replacement for olive oil in the Americas) was a strong symbol of the conqueror's faith, a sign that they belonged in this new land which the Church had insisted be converted to Catholicism.

[mmm...originally was going to devote a big section to the Reconquista and why it wasn't really all that much about religion at all...but I'm already running long; will need to change the title of the post]

So yummy to nosh!
The religious conversion of the Americas went, more or less, according to plan...lip service to a spiritual philosophy and showing up to ritual services once a week isn't a big deal when the alternative is death at the hands of a gun-toting conquistador. Food conversion is a much bigger deal: people have to eat to survive. And hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people need a lot of calories to maintain health and fitness, especially under extreme working conditions (like as a slave laborer in a Spanish gold mine). The decimation of their native food supply, their restriction from eating the food supply of the upper class "lords," the enforced harsh working conditions, all combined to turn a "physically tall, well-proportioned people of kind and noble bearing" into downtrodden, malnourished people easily extinguished by the introduction of foreign viruses.

*sigh*

Alexis has done a lot of work on food in a D&D campaign: the gist is that characters require two or four pounds of food per day depending on whether or not a person is "resting" or "laboring" (characters that actually engage in fights require a lot more) with penalties (and eventual starvation) resulting from failure to eat the required amount. This is very reminiscent of the rules for food in the post-apocalyptic game Twilight 2000, in which a character must consume three kilograms of food per day, modified by the type of food being consumed ("civilized food" counts for 1.5x its weight, MREs count for double). Alexis's rules are a bit more generous, but his penalties (including checks for contracting maladies) hit rather hard. I'm not sure about his starvation rules; I'm not taking the time to run the math on his system. T2000 simply has individuals starve to death "after about a month of no food or several months of half-rations." Very abstract, with accumulating fatigue levels reducing ability scores prior to actual death.

AD&D, like B/X and OD&D, has two entries for "rations" on its equipment list: iron and standard, both of which provide seven days worth of food to a single individual. Unlike those latter editions, AD&D defines the weight of these two different foodstuffs as being 7.5 pounds (iron) or 20 pounds (standard). Doing the math (and assuming no increase to weight for "bulk") this works out to about a pound of food (iron) or close to three pounds of food (standard) per human per day. I'll also note that 3rd edition only provides weight for trail rations (defined as "jerky, dried fruits, hard tack, and nuts") at a rate of one pound per person per day (less for "small" characters, despite hobbits' notorious appetites); this appears to be the 3E equivalent of iron rations.

But just what are "iron rations?" Hard to say as I can't find an origin for the term. Australians in WWI used an "iron ration" (field ration) designed to be eaten in case of emergency (i.e. because supply lines were unavailable) and consisted of a bit more than two pounds of food including both dried meat (jerky) and hard tack. WWII Germany issued three types of ration: the march ration, iron ration, and iron-half ration, of which the "iron" is more of a "half ration" (and weighs 1.5 pounds without packaging). The United States military's "C-ration" (a term in use from 1958-1980 and a plausible source of inspiration for an RPG designed by war-gamers of the period) had a packaged weight of 2.6 pounds. None of these were designed to be consumed for long periods of time, and all were supposed to be supplemented by fresh food or prepared food whenever possible.

I suppose in a magical world (i.e. your typical D&D setting), one can simply say the magic-infused foodstuffs provide double or triple the caloric value of our real world...but is such "cheating" necessary in a world where a 5th level cleric can conjure nourishing, life-sustaining sustenance out of thin air? It does seem that the figures provided in all published editions of Dungeons & Dragons are grossly under-representative of the actual amounts of food necessary to sustain (human) life...but without a system in place to track the very real problems of over-exertion and malnutrition, why should it bother your average Dungeon Master? It's why purify food and water is so under-utilized in your average campaign.

Yet another batch of thoughts, facts and figures I need to take into account as I build this thing.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Putting Some Of It Together

As the recent discussion over at The Tao illustrates, there's more than one approach to "advanced play;" playing Dungeons & Dragons in an advanced fashion isn't simply a matter of opening up your old copy of the DMG and throwing a military pick +1 into your B/X game or saying "magic-user spells go up to 9th level." Some of the rules and systems penned by Gygax are pretty gnarly and their overall level of usefulness (let alone "fun factor") is highly questionable. And yet some of the AD&D stuff IS useful and worthy of purloining.

I think that, for any would-be redesigned and world builder, it's important to understand the evolution of the game. Okay, "important" is probably the wrong word...how about just "a good thing." AD&D didn't just arise out of a vacuum...in fact, NONE of the various editions of D&D did. All of them were built upon the foundations of earlier works. In addition to nefarious business reasons, the MAIN reason Gygax wrote his original volumes was to help tie together the copious, scattered rules haphazardly printed in a number of publications, and organize and implement them in a coherent, consistent fashion...PLUS add additional "necessaries" (not to mention his own ideas and philosophies of game play) to fill in specific blanks and thereby provide a (fairly) complete game system in a polished, professional package.

People can argue Gygax's success in this endeavor, but personally I think the results speak for themselves. First edition AD&D had the longest tenure of any edition, including its years of greatest (relative) success and popularity, and probably could have continued longer if not for specific (and debatable) business decisions.  It's still the foundational version of many players' home games, which might be fairly amazing...except, of course, that Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing game.

But back to the "purloin-able:" while things like ability adjustment inflation isn't really "inflation" (simply a codifying of the rules found in the supplements with the addition of "something for wisdom"), other changes...like HP inflation and adjusted combat matrices...aren't immediately clear. After some scrutiny, I find myself coming to the conclusion that they're mainly adjustments made to increase PC survivability:

  • Extra hit points apply mainly to fighting types in standard "order of battle" (fighters, clerics, thieves). Meanwhile variable damage of monsters remains unchanged for the most part.
  • Fighters increased chance of attack (+1 per level gained) means they'll hit more often, thus shortening battles, and reducing wear-n-tear. Note: nearly all "standard" low-level monster types (goblins, orcs, gnolls, ogres, hobgoblins, bugbears) remain unchanged in both Hit Dice and HPs from earlier editions...and the introduction of extra damage versus size L creatures also helps shorten fights with dangerous (i.e. high damage dealing) monsters.
  • "Special" creatures, especially mid- to high- level undead seem to have received an INCREASED boost (most have an extra HD), probably to retain the same level threat to mid-high level characters (off-setting the additional attack/damage capability of fighter-types). However, clerics have access to more spells, and are much better fighters (equivalent to the standard fighter of earlier editions in terms of both HPs and hit probability). Thieves, while receiving extra hit points, retain the same combat progression as before albeit with a slight (-1) penalty, easily offset by the bonus received when back stabbing.

Again, I think all these adjustments are made in terms of increased survivability (i.e. increased playability for players) rather than any attempt at A) balancing the classes, or B) modeling "reality." Personally, I've long felt that B/X (aka "streamlined OD&D") does an excellent job of modeling the real world in the abstract...which is probably why it tends to be so deadly and prone to PC fatalities. The real world is less forgiving than most heroic fantasy.

All that being said, I like the idea of increasing (PC) viability, for multiple reasons: it's conducive to long-term play, it cuts down on player frustration, it (theoretically) increases player "boldness" thus contributing to the pace of play. And taking Gygax's professed tactic from his later years (using OD&D but starting PCs at 3rd level) is not to my taste at this time; I really, really want players to start from zero. But how to reconcile this inflated combat ability with abstract modeling?

Here's the thing: it's actually helped by my proposed South American setting. Hit points are an abstract concept when it comes to PCs anyway (representing a variety of factors, not just "meat" to be carved). D&D generally assumes PCs will be meeting humans of like-technology (warlords fighting warlords), not steel versus cloth & bronze. The Europeans steel armor, long swords, and firearms gave them a slight edge versus the indigenous Americans, small enough to model using the B/X variable weapon damage versus the increased HPs found in AD&D. For example:

Incan Weapons: short bow (d6), sling (d4), javelin (d4), spear (d6), hand axe (d6), battle axe (d8), club (d4), porra (2-handed club) (d6), bola (d2+entangle)

European Weapons: long sword (d8), dagger (d4), crossbow (d6), arquebus (d8), pike/lance (d6), halberd (d10)

A typical butcher.
As can be seen, most weapons in the Incan arsenal are in the d4 or d6 range (as would the weapons of most indigenous American peoples) while the Europeans' average is much closer to d8. Given that I would provide fighters from both sides with d10 hit dice, this still works out to be a small advantage for the conquistadors, easily overcome (as in history) by the numeric advantage enjoyed by the native peoples.

I'm slightly less keen on the combat tables themselves. I like the granularity of the fighter matrix, but the range of armor classes is too broad as is (I think) the range of progression. There's just only so much skill at fighting a person can acquire, and the extra numbers mean little unless you have armor classes in that -4 (or lower) range. And just what is that supposed to represent anyway? A creature moving impossibly fast? How would strength increase your ability to hit that? A creature with super impenetrable skin or wearing titanium power armor? Why not simply say "magic weapons required" to hit the thing?

Ideally, I'd use some sort of table that compares weapon type to armor type and adjust the target number based on class & level (as Oakes Spaulding did in his Seven Voyages of Zylarthen). However, I don't want to have to redo the tables every time a new type of armor or weapon gets introduced, and the system is much less effective against monsters with natural attacks, so rather than open that can of worms I'll stick with "playability" and stick with the B/X tables, perhaps with minor adjustment. I do want to take into account the historical armor of the time on both sides of the battlefield, and that's going to take a little adjustment from the usual leather-chain-plate paradigm.

[it may come as a surprise to some folks that the Incans wore body armor: a form of quilted fabric that was extremely effective (like ancient kevlar) at stopping attacks from spears and arrows. It proved slightly less effective against the long swords and firearms of the Spaniards, but even many conquistadors later adopted it as armor, being far more comfortable for the climate, and a perfectly effective at defense against native missile weapons. Alexander the Great is said to have worn something similar called linothorax. The Incans had a good command of metallurgy, using bronze for their spears, axes, and arrowheads; they just didn't turn it into breastplates]

Anyway, that's some of the stuff I'm doing. I'm also continuing work on the geography of the setting. Jesus, South America is a big continent. That makes for a lot of room to play with, but a ton of area to map (downloaded this hex program and it took me a day just to get a basic overview...at 60ish miles per hex!). Right now, I'm feeling like the official start date of the campaign should be around the beginning of 1511, around the anniversary of Juan de la Dosa's death. Darien has already been founded on the mainland by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, but most of the European "civilization" is still happening on the islands in the Caribbean. Pedro Arias won't arrive for about three years, the Mayans won't be found for six (except by a shipwrecked Jeronimo de Aguilar who is still residing in Darien), Cortez won't land in Veracruz for eight, and Francisco Pizarro won't reach Incan territory for 15 years.  At this point in history, there's still plenty of forays being made into the mainland wilderness but the knowledge of what's "actually out there" as fall as indigenous civilizations, is far from known, and the possibilities are still pretty wide open.

Though I'm not sure how I feel about creating alternate history (that's a subject for another post).

I'm seriously considering adapting Len Lakofka's "Lendore Isles" adventures (L1 and L2) to the Caribbean by the way. I mean, they were written for "Advanced" D&D, right? I'll talk more about that (maybe) in a future post. Also, thinking about starting a new series here at Ye Old Blog: "Get to Know a Conquistador," profiling the various slavers and treasure-hunters who pillaged their way across the Americas (usually dying in the attempt). Don't know if that sounds like "fun" to you folks, but it would certainly allow me to record some of the "fun facts" I've been digging up recently.

Later, Gators.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Making Things Easy

Blogger tells me this will be my 2000th published post to Ye Old Blog...and that tomorrow (in about 30 minutes) will be my 10th anniversary since starting this damn thing.

Ye gods. That's a lot of ...

I suppose it would be appropriate to say a few words about my blog journey thus far. Looking back the main thing that strikes me is how darn ignorant I was when I started this a decade ago. They say, teenagers think they know everything and 20-somethings aren't much better, but at age 35 (when I first started B/X Blackrazor), man, I thought I had it together.

Shit. I didn't even know that much about Dungeons & Dragons back then.

Since then, I've written a couple-few books, learned a little about publishing, learned a lot about the history of our hobby and about the industry that sprouted up around it. And, oh yeah, I lived in a different country for three years and pumped out a couple kids...still trying to get a handle on the whole "father thang" (eight years in and counting).

I've learned, and I'm continuing to learn. If you'd asked me where Paraguay was back in 2009 I probably could have told you "South America." Probably, though I wouldn't have been able to locate it on a map. Now...well, there are probably a few caucasian Americans in town that know more about Paraguay than me, but they probably teach or study the subject at university. And I probably know a bit more than them about current events.

And the last week or so I've been spending my spare minutes (few that I have) reading up on the rest of South America. It's a shitty, depressing subject. Ten years ago I'd already read Confessions of an Economic Hitman and was well aware of how collusions between multi-national corporations and certain first world nations have helped bring about economic ruin and instability to the region. What I've only learned in the last few days is how the groundwork for that kind of rape and corruption was laid centuries ago...how the bullshit economy of Paraguay is symptomatic of the whole damn continent and the business that's been done there since the 16th century. And how even Spain and Portugal, the conquerors/colonizers of Latin America benefitted precious little from the wealth that flowed out of the region. The kings received their quinto and did bupkis with it, and they allowed their own countries to languish and lag far behind the other powers of Europe, the industrial powers: England, Netherlands, Germany, etc. Not only were they corrupt, evil, and inhumane, but short-sighted...and the Iberian peninsula, while not devastated in the same fashion as their former colonies, isn't on any great, stable ground.

Good food, though. I do love Spain. 10 years ago I'd never yet visited it. I've been there three times now and thoroughly enjoyed every minute I was there (except driving in Grenada. Please God never again).

Anyway...ignorance. Ten years has gone a long way to pointing out the depths of my ignorance on a variety of subjects: gaming and game design, fatherhood, world history and politics. I've gotten to the point where I'll (probably? hopefully?) never claim to be a subject matter expert again...there's simply  too much to learn and I've had the shallow depths of my knowledge exposed too many times.

Also, looking back, I see that I've written a lot of dumb posts over the years. This was more common in the early years, back when I was more prolific ("frequent") in my blogging, and I had the time to spew every last dumb thought I had on the internet...and the lack of restraint to prevent myself from doing so. Not that I don't still write dumb things (I do) but I post them to the blog a lot less frequently. I have another 97 "draft posts" sitting on this blog that will probably never see the light of day, and I'm fairly certain that's for the best. Why make things hard on myself, when I could make them easy instead?

Which is one of the reasons I'm strongly considering retiring this blog.

Not that I'd stop blogging entirely...I'm thinking of starting a new blog, one with a sharper focus. Something to futz around with for the next ten years or so, instead of this rambling string of silly rants and lunatic ravings.

Maybe.

All right, that's about all the retrospection I can stand for one night. I will like to say THANK YOU to all folks who've bothered to stop by and read the blog over the last decade. Your readership, comments, feedback, and emails are much appreciated, and a big part of why I continue to write this thing ("crazy" is the other big part). To all of my readers...wow. It's hard to believe you folks can still stand me after all this time. Really. God bless you all as you have blessed me.

Thanks. Truly.

Monday, June 3, 2019

El Dorado

The nice thing about working with real world geography is that the maps already exist. That's nice. Of course, translating those to hexes is kind of a pain in the ass (especially for a mapmaker as lazy and incompetent as myself)...but it's doable.

Setting up the trade thang though is a little tougher.

Working with the fantasy setting of Karameikos, I came to the realization that not only is this a pain in the ass (having no real world numbers to use), but it's pretty much a waste of time seeing as how I don't plan on anyone adventuring in the Grand Duchy. And rather than waste my time, I've decided to simply move into my fantasy version of South America. If I never get an "advanced" campaign going (as is my hope) I can always default to something brainless and simple like Karameikos...and no hard adjustments for a "living economy" need be made.

Alexis will probably *shudder* to read this, but I'm screwing around with his methodology a bit. I don't have ready access to the same world almanacs that he does, and while I do plan on getting some books from the library, there are a few difficulties working with 15th century South America as opposed to 17th century Europe, not the least of which is that the best references are in languages other than English. Anyway, there are a few assumptions that I need to use in order to make things work and while I recognize this won't result in anything super accurate in a "real world" sense, what I'm striving for is consistency. Something that makes sense.

ANYway: for me, the first place to start is gold because, boy oh boy, there sure was a lot of it in the new world. The internet records I found said that somewhere between 10-12 tons were being pulled out of West Africa and South America by the 17th century. As 5 to 8 tons of that was from the African continent, I'm inclined to use 4.5 tons as the amount of annual gold production in the South American region...which I'm sorry to say is also going to include Mexico and the Dominican Republic (home of the second largest gold mine in the world, Pueblo Viejo, established 1505 by the Spanish).

["sorry to say" because my adventurers probably won't be getting to Mexico OR the D.R....that's just outside the scope of what I want for my campaign setting. Plus, Mexico is just enormous...throwing it into the campaign setting is like throwing China into your pseudo-European game. I'll keep the Incans as the main empire front-and-present, thanks]

Considering a single ton of gold production per year from Europe (a bit generous at this point in history) and ignoring the rest of the world (because we're only concerned with conquistadors and the indigenous population) I end up with an average of 12 tons of gold, or 384,000 ounces, of which 144,000 are coming out of the Americas. Or rather will be coming out of the Americas...it took a while for the Europeans to start mining the hell out of their colonies. However, the gold IS there...the indigenous people of the Americas were making good use of it even before the Europeans...so I'm inclined to use the same figures.

As I said, my methodology is going to end up different from that of Alexis. I don't have books from which to draw references, so I'm making my own artificial ones. In this case, I've decided that each of my "gold references" will be 1600 ounces...a nice round number that works out to 100 pounds of gold per reference...of which there should be 90 in Latin America. To figure out the exact number of references per region, I used the current world production figures to establish percentages by country, figuring gold production has probably remained proportional over time. Probably...but even if not, it's good enough for my purpose.

90 references, of which 17 belong to Mexico and 5 to the Dominican Republic. That leaves 68 references in South America proper, about a third of which (23) are found in the mountains of Peru. The Incans were an extremely wealthy civilization in terms of mineral wealth. Even though the present day political boundaries haven't been drawn upon the maps of 15th century America, I can still use those regions to place my gold references, based on the communities I can find.

Figuring out coinage is a tad tricky because the Spanish used so many different types and denominations of coins during the time period in question and the Incans, for all their wealth, apparently had no money or economy at all. Sticking with the Spanish, we see that the Iberians had a currency reformation right at the end of the 15th century, replacing the Moorish maravedies with the silver real, in an attempt to unify both the country and the currency. By the 1530s they were also minting large quantities of gold coins (both the escudo and the doubloon or pistole) in multiple denominations, and the values of these, along with that of the real and the silver peso ("piece of eight") fluctuated in relation to the older maravedie, still in circulation.

Here's a bit where fantasy is probably going to need to come into play: I'm not writing historical fiction, I'm manufacturing a setting for play, and ease of play is going to require some compromise. What didn't change all that much in the 15th through 18th centuries was the relationship of the gold to silver as far as coins went: one gold doubloon (a quarter ounce of gold) had the same value as four silver pesos (four ounces of silver). One ounce of gold was thus equivalent to the value of 16 ounces of silver...which the Spanish had access to a LOT of, thanks to their American holdings (silver was the colonies' main export besides sugar).

Copper coins were also present, but they were much less valuable...two copper blancas were valued at one maravedi (at their best...they were later devalued), and 24 blancas had an ounce of copper in their manufacture which, if you do the math, means one ounce of silver was valued the same as (approximately) 22.6 ounces of copper...and you can multiply that by four to get copper's value in relation to gold.

I like the doubloon...the double escudo...as it appeals to my pirate fetish. So does the "piece of eight," AKA the peso or "Spanish Dollar." But I think both the escudo and real are more important, and had more historic importance in the economy of the 15th century. An eight of an ounce of gold (one escudo) I think will be the best measure of the D&D "gold piece" and the silver real (of the same weight) being the pest model of a "silver piece."

All right, that's enough money talk for now.

The gold escudo