Friday, May 31, 2019

The Tao of Trade

Pictured here is an image capture from my phone...sorry, I'm not a great photographer. The dogs are my "running beagles," not quite as spry as they were ten years ago (but then, neither am I). The colorful hex map on my coffee table is the pull-out map from my copy of GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, purchased some 30 odd years ago, and the subject of my A-Z blog posts in the month of April.

The scale of the map is 8 miles to the hex. The Grand Duchy isn't all that big: I estimate the dimensions of its land mass to be roughly equal to Washington State, which itself is only slightly larger than Uruguay, the second smallest country by area in South America.

[note to future self: if using South America as a campaign setting, probably going to want to use a larger scale than 8 miles to the hex; how about 48 just for sanity's sake??]

And that's the reason I'm looking at the map: it's small. And I'm working on trying to learn the basics of Alexis Smolensk's trade system.

Alexis is a mad genius; most folks looking at his stuff will come to the conclusion that there's no need to go into the depths of world modeling (i.e. "modeling game rules based on real world subjects") that he does. a degree...those folks are right. You can play D&D for years...nay, decades!...without ever worrying about the price of grain, or whether or not it's the rainy season, or how good your camp cook happens to be. I know it's possible to play without that level of detail, because I've done it myself. And just because you play a simpler game doesn't make it a "bad" game...heck, I wouldn't even call it a worse game. It's just...simpler.

And I'm looking to play something a bit more advanced.

So a coherent economy, not even a "real economy" (as Alexis will tell you, he doesn't really model "reality," he's just trying for consistency, and only so long as it improves his game), seems like a good way to start deepening and enriching my campaign...just as picking some real world geography and history as a setting can also create depth and richness. But, of course, I can't just implement something that I don't understand...that would indeed be batshit crazy. So I need to practice with something small.

And Karameikos is pretty darn small.

The nice thing about GAZ1 (What?! Actual praise for the GAZ?!) is that it does a good job documenting the demographics of its territory. It doesn't matter to me if it's based on realistic figures or could always go back and justify weird population spikes and decreases based on plagues, monsters, refugees, or the presence of "magical healing waters" or whatever. What matters for my purpose is that the information has already been written down for me (thank you Aaron Allston!) and it's not a huge chunk of info.

There's only 13 detailed communities in the Grand Duchy, ranging in size from 650 to 500,000 (each community has its population given). Yes, there are also the scattered Callarii elves...about 7,500 in communities of 100-200, but I figure they'll have a single "market place" somewhere in their forest north of Specularum. Thus a total of 14 markets.

The Vyalia elves, keeping their distance from the other communities of Karameikos, won't count for purposes of "trade," and thus it doesn't matter that I have no population figures for them. Perhaps they live some sort of weird communist lifestyle, or perhaps they exist solely on what they can raid and won't really matter unless the PCs somehow end up in their woods and want to buy shit from them.

Likewise the estimated 6,000 people scattered in random communities of 2 to 200 don't matter much; if they want to trade, they'll probably be going to the nearest market so, you know, ignore them.

[hmmmm...actually, just noticed that Rifllian IS the "trading town" for the Callarii, so there's no need to add an extra market. Well, that just made my job easier...]

It is unfortunate that the GAZ is a little light on information about what is produced and traded in each community...I mean, there is information there, it's just sparse and I'll have to fill in a lot of the blanks myself. And that's fine; as I said, it'll still serve my purpose. I'm sure the authors weren't intending for a person to try to create a living economy out of the information when they were writing it; I'd guess they simply wanted a more detailed setting in order to make for a deeper game experience. And if I can get a handle on this trade thing it will definitely do that (though perhaps not in THIS particular fantasy setting).

Anyway, that's what I'm working on at the moment. I am going to assume that I probably will end up "dumbing down" Alexis's original system; I sincerely doubt I'll end up with 1500+ references (probably more like a couple dozen). But I'm very interested to see if I can get it to work even a little bit...I can't see the exercise being anything but helpful for when I start building my own campaign setting.
: )

Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Problematic Concept

In considering possibilities for an "advanced" Dungeons & Dragons campaign, I hit upon (or rather, returned to) some ideas that have been rolling around in the old noggin for years, specifically using the real world setting of South America as a place for exploration and adventure. The particular spin that came to me this time (around 2:30am, awakening me from my sleep) went something like this:

  • A campaign set at the beginning of the Spanish conquest (circa 1492).
  • Most (or perhaps all beginning) adventurers are of European descent (though later characters can be from any's negotiable). They are newly arrived in "the New World."
  • While the campaign will be based on historical precedents (and real world geography), there will still be fantastical D&D elements: Vancian magic, demihumans, dragons, etc.
  • The campaign will span about 130 hundred years in length with a continuous timeline; that is, I would keep track of the passage of time for all players up until about 1630, with the arrival of the French and the ubiquity of flintlock weapons.

It's really a pretty great idea. You have an area that has plenty of wilderness for exploration, a justification for treasure-hunting adventurers, not much in the way of "safe havens" (besides the towns being constructed), though plenty of areas for characters to carve out dominions for themselves. Plus, the technology level is about right and there's plenty of reason for a clerical class (more on this later...perhaps). Plus, the Portuguese make great villains (I tend to use Portuguese in my pulp games like other people use Nazis...the Portuguese were pretty damn awful for a couple-few centuries).

But the more I think about it in the light of day, the more problematic the concept seems. The conquest of what (is now) called Latin America was pretty f'ing terrible. Forget Mexico for a moment...for all the bloody-handedness of Hernan Cortes, Mexico got off pretty easy: they retained most of their culture, much of their language, and the population genetically is still majority, they got out from under the heel of the Aztecs who, you know, liked to execute people in pretty grisly fashion, both for religious purposes and as a terror tactic.

But South America was a different that saw many of the indigenous peoples wiped out in planned, systematic genocides. Outside of the Andean cultures (of which the Incan Empire lasted the longest and is the best known), not much is known because the people were dealt with so brutally by the Spanish. Officially, Argentina today has an indigenous population of less than 1.5%; Uruguay has NO indigenous people officially (and until recent years, celebrated that fact and the fact of the genocide committed). The fashion in which the Spanish dealt with the Incans (when they finally reached them in the early 1500s) is truly despicable. The history of the region for the first two hundred years after European discovery makes for really, really rough reading.

And I don't want to gloss over it with a bunch of fantasy wash...the indigenous Cambeba people living along the Amazon Basin in Brazil weren't a bunch of naked, blowgun-toting savages out of an Indiana Jones movie. They were a sedentary, agricultural society, wearing clothes of cotton living in wooden houses in hundreds of villages along the river tributaries (by 1630, they'd been reduced to less than 40 villages). These aren't orcs or goblins to be slain and looted, and I don't want to re-skin them as such.

But South America was a real land of riches and adventure: huge amounts of gold, silver, and treasure was pulled out of it by the Europeans, and there were plenty of ruins from fallen empires lurking in the wilderness to be discovered...multiple civilizations rose and fell centuries before the rise of the Inca or the arrival of the conquistadors. There were indeed hostile swamps and jungles mountain ranges to explore, a Chaotic wilderness home to strange, life-threatening beasts...and yes, some warlike cannibal tribes, too. Legends of giants in the Pampas of Argentina can be found, with their regions pencilled on old 16th century maps, similar to the labels one finds in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. South America was about as close to a real world "fantasy adventure setting" as you are going to find...and the Europeans explorers of the time had all the trappings of your classic D&D party: swords and crossbows and plate armor and cross-carrying priests. Even sorcery is part of the (historic) lore of the region: both indigenous magic, and spell craft practiced by the imported African slaves. And did I mention the gold and silver coin currency? The continent is positively ripe for exploitation of D&D-variety.

Exploitation. That's the word that bugs me.

Perhaps surprisingly (given my fairly left-leaning politics and socialist tendencies) I'm not a huge believer in making restitutions for centuries-past injustices. Most of us have ancestors that were trampled upon at some point in history...the people of the Iberian peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal) were, in fact, conquered themselves multiple times in the centuries prior to their own bloody conquest of the Americas. But in the main, there's plenty of human suffering going on RIGHT NOW with real, living people hurting in need of help and justice (and, no, I'm not talking about Americans) to worry too much about the suffering of people dead centuries...except insofar as the suffering of today is directly linked to issues of past exploitation that could and should be addressed, right now, in the present.

Even so, the idea of setting a "fun" D&D campaign in a region and time of human history when such terrible brutalities, oppression, and abuses occurred makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Columbus and Cortes and Pizarro and all the rest were "adventurers;" they were looking to get rich. And they were willing to make their wealth using their swords, just like any other D&D party...but they weren't taking it off the corpses of goblins and dragons.

I don't want to encourage that. I don't want to paint that in a positive light. And I don't want to simply erase the real peoples of the region out of existence and repopulate their continent with lizard men and mind flayers and whatnot. That's hardly doing their memory justice.

It's a quandary I'm wrestling with...part of looking for and finding a good setting for my "advanced" D&D campaign is being more mature and thoughtful about this type of thing.

I'd welcome any ideas folks have on the subject. Thanks!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons

I started a post a couple days ago titled "Growing Up" that quickly devolved into a maudlin ramble about my children and Little League baseball which...well, it was a train wreck. Let's see if I can be a little more pointed:

I've been thinking a lot about AD&D lately...the system I played through most of my youth and which I eventually gave up completely in favor of B/X. The reasons for kicking it were many, and I won't bother to enumerate them here...this whole blog can be considered a record of the "why's" when you look at the essays I've written extolling the virtues of the B/X system and compare how those virtues contrast with more fiddly AD&D.

[oh, yeah...should probably point out I'm speaking of the original AD&D here, i.e. first edition, not 2E or anything that came afterward]

But the ideas found in AD&D keep breaking into my consciousness. They nag at me. I've come to the conclusion, for example, that of all the various systems, I prefer B/X's scaling of spell acquisition for magic-users to be THE BEST of the bunch (and I've compared every edition extensively) with a single caveat: I'd give a bonus spell or two for high Intelligence scores.

[sorry...this is something I've been meaning to post about, and explain my reasons for, but I just haven't had the time to get to it]

And yet, B/X as written doesn't deal with higher forms of magic, some of which I dig on immensely (spells like cacodemon and gate, for example). And it misses out on some of the more flavorful spells found in AD&D, like burning hands, rope trick, and Leomund's secret chest. Yes, you can import this kind of content into your B/X game, but it destroys some of the symmetry found in the B/X system as written.

Thing is, I LIKE...I really like...asymmetry in Dungeons & Dragons. I've written about this before, too: I enjoy the ways in which D&D fails to balance against itself. I like that thieves use a completely different system mechanic from clerics, who have a completely different system mechanic from wizards, who are completely unbalanced and different from fighters...and how player characters abilities and stat blocks are different from the NPCs and monsters that make up the game. I like this, it makes the game interesting, it makes the systems challenging and working with those systems a puzzle for both the DM and the players. If I wanted to play a perfectly balanced game of design currency, I'd be using something like GURPS or HERO system. All the later edition's attempts to balance character types against each other (giving wizards "at will" spells, giving fighters spell-like "feats," etc.) have just gone towards eliminating that asymmetry...and creating a less interesting game.

B/X as written leaves a LOT of wide open potential for one's game, but it also destroys some of the D&D game's original asymmetry. The pegging of 9th level as "name level" for all classes, the increase in demihuman level limits (to 12, 10, and 8), the reduction of magic-user spells...these things go a long way towards balancing the least in a game that only goes to level 14 (all "Companion" books aside). And that's FINE for a little fantasy adventure game. Heck it's beautiful and elegant and downright manageable, which is something I'd have a hard time saying about most any other edition of D&D.

But real life isn't that nice and neat. Real life is full of messy inconsistencies. Real life is hardly manageable...I have a hard time managing it, and I'm a fairly smart guy blessed with so many real life advantages that I should have zero cause for complaint or grumpiness. Damn it, I drive a car that has satellite radio and voice activated systems, and I STILL find reasons to bitch-and-moan! How frigging ridiculous is that?!

It's hard to manage real life (even though it should be easy for some of us); it's challenging because it's messy and complicated and full of messy, complicated humans. And while we play D&D, in part, to escape that messy, complex reality, if we leave it simple and elegant and streamlined we are perhaps cheating ourselves of an even deeper form of fantasy play. We are still playing on "easy mode" when we could be playing something that challenges us more strongly, giving us a stronger experience, a more intense fantasy escape.

I say "we," but I mean "me."

Things that I once felt (perhaps) "needlessly" complicate the D&D game...things like time and aging, encumbrance, disease & illness, training requirements, weather (and its effects), or a "living" economy...these things have the potential to make for a richer gaming experience. They also make the game more difficult to play, and much harder to manage. They are not Dungeons & Dragons in its Little League form...they are ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons.

It's been a long, long time since I played "advanced" D&D.

I don't even think that 3rd edition, for all its extra rule minutia, really counts as an "advanced" version of the game. Most of its extra rules...most of its rules period...pertain directly and solely to combat. 3E simplified most of the game itself down to D20 rolls against target numbers using modifiers...often clunky and unwieldy to use in practice (especially at high level play), but simple enough to grasp. 4E and 5E have dumbed-down the game even further. I've written at length at how 5E DMG is mostly padding, providing pages and pages of tables to generate random "ideas" for a (presumed novice) DM, but very little info on how to manage a messy, asymmetrical challenge of a game. Wizards of the Coast was right to file the "Advanced" term from the title of the game...I see very little in the post-TSR era that I would consider to be an "advanced" concept.

I feel that I want to get back to playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Not AD&D "by the book;" I've done that before...did it for years, using speed factors and casting times and helmet rules and all the various minutia. Much of that part of the AD&D books does little in aid of making for a better game. But other parts...the parts that expand on the concepts found in B/X, the parts that elaborate the  scope and depth of the fantasy campaign...those are parts that I want to incorporate into my game. I think I've grown beyond the game I was first introduced to as a kid.

I want to get messy again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Grumpy Old Man

Jeez, I have been a grump lately. Posted a couple feisty comments on other people's blogs...something I generally try *not* to do (especially with gaming blogs...everyone should have a kind space in which to express their geeky ideas). But my "tolerance dial" for certain types of bullshit is close to zero at the moment, and I guess I've got an itchy trigger finger.

And I'm not sure what exactly is making me a grump. Stress? Lack of sleep? Financial pressures? The state of the world in general? I don't know. Bunches of stuff combining, probably (duh). So, as a way of hitting reset on Ye Old Dial, this post will give me a chance to vent my spleen on a few things. Feel free to come back on a later post if you're not interested...

Been listening to several podcasts lately, of various types. Let's just say I've had a lot of stuff I've been doing that doesn't require much cognitive thought (I can't read, write, or research with headphones on). Some of it has been NPR-type stuff...stuff on health or parenting or whatever. But much of it has been game related...not just reviews and analysis (which I dig, both for info and for different perspectives/ideas), but also actual play stuff (when I can get it) or folks' recaps, thoughts, and observations on actual play.

Two of my favorites (which I haven't mentioned in previous posts) are GGNORE and Unlikely Adventurers. They are very different from each other but are similar in several ways that interest me:

- both I find to be VERY amusing (though Unlikely Adventurers is NSFW material)
- both are podcasts by "young" gamers: Unlikely Adventurers are in their early 20s, GGNORE are (I think) around age 30 or so.
- both podcasts are by folks who LOVES the "D&D"
- both podcasts are very knowledgable (they know their subject matter)
- both feature active gamers that use the 5E rule sets, though they all started with earlier editions of the game

GGNORE has been running longer (since 2015). I haven't had a chance to go though their entire catalogue (they have some multi-hour AP episodes), but I've hit a dozen or so since I found them a couple months back. They appear to be young professionals (with families) who live in the south (southeast) United States. They are very funny but their humor is mostly "clean" while still plenty irreverent. Despite using 5E as their preferred rule set, DM Daniel has some very "old school" sensibilities. They make use of pre-published adventures (everything from T1: Village of Hommlet to the more recent Tomb of Annihilation) but set it in their own campaign world of "Alabamia." While they still make use of "rests" and "death saves" they've taken any kind of raise dead/resurrection magic out of their world...dead is dead in Alabamia. In addition to AP recordings, they provide recaps and analysis, and I find them to be both thoughtful and insightful on things from adventure design to convention play. If you're a damn Yankee like myself, whose only exposure to southerners has been the American southwest or movie stereotypes, GGNORE is well worth a listen. I haven't caught the most recent podcasts (last one I heard they were running Dogs in the Vineyard using 5E tropes and DitV rules/themes...crazy bastards), but...well, that's only because of these other folks...

[EDIT: I did go back and listen to the most recent couple podcasts. Roll Tide]

Unlikely Adventurers features two young ladies (Becca and Macy) shooting the shit about D&D and ridiculous character ideas they have. They are extremely funny and foul-mouthed, self-deprecating and irreverent in the extreme. They are also exceptionally knowledgable about D&D...both play in regular campaigns and DM their own campaigns. I've heard they have an AP episode or two, but I haven't found it yet (while they've only been 'casting since 2018, they have more than 50 episodes and I've only hit about seven). Especially interesting was their recent discussion with fellow DM/guest host Travis, in which he discusses his ideas on running a campaign (and his comparisons between D&D and other "long-form" storytelling mediums, specifically anime and pro wrestling). All of the people on this show are under 25, and they're from this area (the Pacific Northwest, if not Seattle proper).

[EDIT NUMERO DOS: Found some actual play podcasts where Becca runs a one-off for the ladies from Unnatural Twenties, a podcast group I hadn't heard of before. Again, very entertaining, and an interesting window into the way one might run a 5E game. Shades of White Wolf with the cinematic "cut scenes," but vid gamers (I'm sure) are versed in this kind of thing and (perhaps) have come to expect it]

[I should probably note that I've met Becca Morgan before...briefly, and years ago. I do not know her personally, but she is the daughter of an acquaintance]

What I find fascinating in comparing these podcasts is that while "role-playing" (both playing a character and playing in character) is an important aspect of the gaming experience for both, the importance of "storytelling" is very different between the two. The GGNORE "boiz" aren't particularly interested in playing out story arcs...they're reviews of WotC's Adventure Paths are pretty telling. They're also sincere and explicit with what what they find to be interesting and enjoyable in their gaming, what works for them and what doesn't, and while they dutifully jump through 5E's hoops of character creation (creating backgrounds, bonds, choosing factions, etc.) it's clear that any kind of backstory is near useless to the immersive experience they're seeking in the game.

Contrast this with the UA ladies (and buddy Travis), whose war stories imply a deep interest in exploring situation as it impacts the characters they create. They talk about story arcs and recurring (NPC) characters and how the backgrounds/personalities of their various characters interacts with the game in-play. Yes, it's still D&D...they also discuss combats and broken rules and normal adventure-type stuff, too.

[also their simultaneous loathing/fascination with bards, which I'm starting to believe is a universal thing across all editions and generations of players]

...but their approach to the game feels (to me) far more "meta" and far less "immersion." These appear to be folks really bent on creating a story out of their game, rather than an experience...or, rather, the story IS the experience they're looking for, regardless of whether or not it's absurd or serious as hell. I may be misinterpreting, but it reminds me very much of the type of gaming I was doing back in the 90s...just, you know, 25 years later.

Anyhoo, they're both fun, both educational (in terms of "educating grumpy archair grognardia like myself about the varying states of D&D"), and both worth a listen. Neither one has convinced me to give 5th edition a whirl...quite the opposite, in fact. But they're helping to crystalize my ideas on what's important to my game, while still providing entertainment as I run around doing stuff. Check 'em out.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

From the Ground Up

This post is meant to be a "placeholder" of sorts.

I've been reading, streaming, and thinking a lot these last several days. A lot.

[and here my words just trail off again...jeez, sometimes starting these posts are so hard!]

And just WHAT I've been thinking about, is about the campaign world I want to build. That's the brief of it.

Not just the setting, mind you, though that's part of its elements. I'm talking about the rules, their form and function, as much as anything so worrisome as naming kingdoms and the placing of orc tribes. I'm talking about the purpose of systems, both in what they model and what they represent at the table. I'm talking about deconstructing the game and building it from the ground up...about doing a tear-down of the game engine and seeing how its component parts fit together and why.

And really, the why is more important than the how. It's easy to see how something works, but I'm tired of being altogether lazy about stuff. I want to understand the principles underlying the thing. I want to know why the wheel is round so that I don't have to keep going back to the drawing board and asking, "is there a better shape for this wheel thing?" I've grown somewhat fatigued by that particular exercise.

Over the next few/dozen posts I intend to post my ideas on various design elements here, as this blog has long been a repository for my evolving thought on game design, specifically with regard to Dungeons & Dragons. Probably some of this will be treading old, well-trod ground. Some bits will, no doubt, be counter to things I've written in the past...over time, many of my opinions have changed.  I suspect the end result will still, largely, resemble the B/X game...but maybe not.

Maybe not.

Not trying to be cryptic here, and certainly don't want to sound like I'm embarking on some lofty intellectual journey. Like I said at the top, this is a placeholder...just an introduction to something I'm going to be pursuing, in posts, over the next (who knows how long). Just want folks to know that that's what I'm going to be about for a little while: not about ranting, not about reviewing, not about waxing on about my past or personal stuff. When you see this "Building" label, it's going to be (I hope) something purposeful that may be (some day) incorporated into a larger document.

That's my plan anyway. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


You know what I love? Dan ("Delta") Collins's Original Edition Delta rules. You know why? Because he provides a massive number of design notes explaining exactly why he has decided on these particular rulings for his personal D&D game. Sometimes he references later D&D texts (his foundational system is OD&D); sometimes he references his own blog; sometimes he references specific historical treatise or reenactments.

This is awesome. This is what I want to do. I want to "footnote the hell out of" my rulebooks so that every time I get some random idea or notion I can check my notes and see EXACTLY WHY I made a decision to go the way I already did...and put the matter to rest.

It doesn't mean you can't change your rules later on! Listening to Dan's and Paul's webcasts, Dan is often heard taking to heart tweaks and modifications Paul has found useful/helpful in actual play, and added or updated his rules because of it (Paul is also using OED for some of his games, but with personal modifications). To me this is perfectly acceptable; even when a new rule or system appears to work well in play, over time it may shape your campaign in ways you don't necessarily want.

[a quick example...and one NOT incorporated by Dan...comes from this recent podcast: Paul's critical hit table, based in part on WHFRP's system, resulted in every PC in his campaign having some number of amputated limbs by 5th level. Amusing though that might be, not every DM wants a motley group of peg-legs and hook-hands populating their game (I did that back when I used to run ElfQuest...gets old after a while). It actually shaped the tone of Paul's campaign, and he has since reduced the chance of maiming]

Just having a "bible" of sorts that explains your rules is an idea I find incredibly useful. Yes, it can be time consuming (check out Tao's Wiki if you want to look at a more massive example)...but just having the reference available must be invaluable in the amount of time you save: seeing that note by the text means you have examined the rule, tested the rule, reasoned why you want the rule the way it is (either to model something specific or to better facilitate play)...and then you can just leave it alone. And if questioned by your table you have the explanation right there to point to...though I'd suggest holding all questions for after the session concludes.

I really need to take the time to do this. I balk at making the effort because I realize it will be time consuming. But it will save me so much time later...once I get back to running a regular game. Best to get as much ruling out of the way now, so that I can focus on playing when the time comes.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Addendum to "Certifying Dungeon Masters"

This is a follow-up to this post over here.

I feel like I touched off a bit of madness with my last post, and that I need to add some clarifying remarks.

Here's the short and sweet:

  1. I've been reading a lot of old (ancient, really) Dragon magazine articles.
  2. I found an interesting one about awarding "experience points" and "levels" to both players and Dungeon Masters based on particular actions they've taken. I thought it was kind of fun.
  3. It got me thinking/remembering an idea I had about certifying Dungeon Masters. This comes back to...oh, a bunch of jumbled theories/ideas in my head. Stuff like: the confusion amongst new DMs about how to run a game/campaign, the lack of information, training and teaching, the lack of coaching, and the problem that some folks who might otherwise be interested in playing the game get utterly turned-off based on bad experiences with poorly run games.
  4. I then muddled #2 and #3 because I lack the patience to do systematic posts and was in a rush to puke all my ideas onto the internet as quickly as possible.

That's what that post was all about. Here's what I could have/should have/would have said if I'd been a bit more thoughtful and measured:

I believe it would be a good thing to have a hobby full (or mostly full) of competent Dungeon Masters. Good Dungeon Masters would be preferred, great Dungeon Masters would be awesome...but I'm willing to settle for competent.

[normally, I'd insert an essay-and-a-half attempting to define "competence," but I'm trying to be measured and systematic, so I'll leave that for a future post]

So when I talk about "certifying" individuals as Dungeon Masters, what I'm getting at is finding a way to qualify a person as "objectively competent" to run a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Because anyone can call themselves a "Dungeon Master," even a person who's never cracked the book to read the rules. I know there are folks who, in fact, have done this very thing.

[my buddy, Steve, told me about his introduction to D&D in elementary school: a neighbor kid "ran" a game using nothing but a Monster Manual. All the players had to pick a monster out of the book to be their character. How they accomplished anything is beyond me...Steve didn't remember, but he still referred to the kid running the game as his "Dungeon Master" and said he (the DM) would tell the players what they needed to roll; I get the impression the PCs of this game mainly fought each other for their treasure]

Even owning the necessary rulebooks is no guarantee of an individual knowing the rules; I've owned rulebooks that I've never bothered to finish reading and fully integrate into my game (The Dungeoneers Survival Guide comes to mind). And even reading the rulebook might not make some individuals competent to run the game...they might not even be adequate, depending on the level of expectation from the players at the table.

Now, before I go any further, please allow me to say that I'm NOT trying to excise DMs from the table based on inadequacy. My goal is to bring every would-be Dungeon Master "up to snuff;" my whole idea of having a certification process is in aid of that goal. It's not about's about elevating the level of play, in order to provide a more enjoyable experience AND help sustain and grow the hobby., HOW does one go about achieving certification? I don't know. That's the part where my romantic pipe-dream always falls down. I don't have an idea, and I'm not proposing one. This is the bit that got confused in my prior post. The idea that popped into my head (upon reading Jon Mattson's article) is that, hey, maybe there are some objective ways to measure a person's ability to act as Dungeon Master...and objective measurements are the first step towards certification.

[I've never been a doctor, but I assume that there is some sort of testing of knowledge and skill necessary before an individual can be licensed to perform's not simply a matter of paying a fee like you're picking up a permit to fish during the season]

Subjective how many players show up to your table and whether or not they have "fun" (as written on some sort of feedback/evaluation form)...are not good means of certifying anything. And I wouldn't leave such a thing in the hands of the industry that publishes the game (for profit)...that's like putting the FDA in the hands of private pharmaceutical companies. But actually coming up with objective measurables...and finding ways of assigning weight and ranking to those a tough chore. What I found interesting and exciting about the Mattson article was that someone had taken the time to put together SOMETHING that wasn't just based on subjectivity (see DeAnn Iwan's article "How Do You Rate As A DM" in Dragon #43 as an example of a subjective...and poor...means of evaluating skill). I found it interesting and exciting...but I did not see it as an answer to the question "how can we certify DMs." I just see it as opening the crack of potential for the possibility.

Does that make sense? While the level titles make me chuckle, and it's fun (for me) to tabulate my "XP" with regard to Dungeon Mastering, I'm not saying one needs to achieve 12th level (or whatever) in order to receive some sort of diploma or certificate. Levels are fun because I think there ARE tiers of experience when it comes to some professions/skills...and Dungeon Mastering is one. But certifying competence is something on a much different scale from what Mattson's proposed "leveling" system. My apologies for confusing the two things.

Over the next few days I'm going to be very busy with a bunch of things and...for my own mental health...I'm going to be limiting my posting. However, I do plan on thinking about this more; maybe I'll come up with some of my own "objective measures" that I think would apply towards basic DM competence.

Later, Gators.

How about some sort of
"official cap" instead of a certificate?

A to Z Challenge "Reflection Post"

Just a bit of palette cleanser, folks. We'll get back to the usual stuff shortly.

Here are my answers to the 10 reflection questions on this year's 10th anniversary A-to-Z Blog Challenge:

1. What did you love about the challenge this year?

I liked my theme a lot. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos has had a lot of material published for it over the years, and using it as the subject of my month-long blog challenge had me deep-diving into a lot of old adventures and books in order to research it. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an "expert" on the subject of Karameikos, but I sure know a lot more about the material than when I started.

2. What would you change about it?

Maybe move it to a different month? April was pretty tough for me, what with Easter, Spring Break, a kid's birthday, another kid's soccer try-outs, Little League baseball practices, plus spring cleaning and spring colds (hay fever). I suppose every month has its challenges, though...but this year the logistics of finding time to blog were rough.

3. What was the best moment for you during this year's challenge?

Probably finishing and posting the last entry before midnight on the 30th. I really wanted to get through the challenge, and I think I managed to put out some good stuff even though I was (at times) a bit rushed for time.

4. What is the best comment your blog got during the challenge, and who left the comment?

Hmm...I wouldn't say there was any single "best" comment: nearly all of the comments I received were positive and helped spur me on. It was nice to see a comment from DMWieg, and I was really happy I "awakened" some ideas in Janich, and was pretty glad to see my thoughts on certain modules bubbling over to other folks' blogs and podcasts (like Lance, whose "Ducanites" series I dig). Probably my favorite comment was from A Tarkabarka Holgy (aka Zalka Csenge Virág), who simply wrote:

I kinda like the idea of a thief duchess, and I like your update on it. But even better, the polymorphed dragon, omg :D 
Love your theme! :)

I take any double smiley-face comment as a good sign.

5. Will you do the challenge again?


6. Was it well organized? Were the hosts helpful?

Um...yeah? I don't know. I just blog, man...I don't follow the A-to-Z stuff, and I didn't ask for any help. They were quick to update my typos on their "master list," so there is that.

Yes, I filled out their survey.

7.  How did you and your blog grow, change, or improve as a result of this challenge? Did you find new blogs out there to enjoy?

I found a couple new blogs just backtracking comments, but unfortunately most of the A-to-Z participants aren't doing anything I'm interested in. Did my blog grow or change? No, not really...but I felt a certain boost of confidence from being able to complete the challenge. And more B/X content is always good to have in Ye Old Archives so, sure, there was some improvement in these here parts.

8. Were you on the Master List?

Yes. Three times, originally (because I am technically challenged). This was corrected by the list moderators, thankfully.

9. Any suggestions for our future?

Isn't this kind of the same question as #2?  I don't know...I would have liked to see more variety in the types of blogs that participated, but I'm not sure how you folks could change that. Maybe offer some sort of prizes based on category in order to encourage other types of blog to join in? I understand it takes a certain type of masochist to want to do this type of activity but...well, I've said my piece.

10. Any notes to the co-host team?

Just would say congrats on doing this for a decade. Doing ANYthing with consistency on the internet for ten years should be a mark of pride. Good work!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Certifying Dungeon Masters

Man, my brain has really been addled by all things D&D lately ("The Sleeper has awakened!")...if I wasn't so busy with a gazillion other things, I could/would be posting multiple blog entries on a daily basis (and probably still find the time/energy for drafting some campaign notes/house rules). *sigh* Such is life...when I have LOTS of time on my hands, my inertia always seems to be the other direction.

ANYway, I was combing through a bunch of old Dragon magazines the other day (specifically the first 50 or so), looking for a particular article, and kept coming across little buried "gems," pertinent to my own thoughts and musings. As I've often found over the last ten years of blogging/researching there really isn't all that much new under the sun...people have been obsessing and coming up with ideas and putting 2 and 2 together for a long, long time. The execution wasn't always quite right, but the early days of the hobby were still "early days;" lots of stuff hadn't been worked out yet. And yet some of our adaptations of these ideas (or decisions to go 180 degrees directions, in certain instances) are/were even more flawed than the original stab at the kernel of a concept.

[I'll give you one quick example: I've recently come to the conclusion that Alexis Smolensk's system of awarding experience points based on damage inflicted and received (in addition to XP for treasure found), is really the only sensible way of handling combat/encounter XP, and have decided that I'll probably adapt it wholesale in my next campaign. Welp, Dragon #36 (April 1980) already proposed this variant system ("Experience Points to Ponder: A New System" by William Fawcett). Alexis has the advantage of a bit more thoughtful design and about a decade of play testing...but someone had a similar idea (and for the same reasons) almost thirty years prior]

But I don't want to get sidetracked...the reason I decided to open up Ye Old Laptop and post something (instead of doing what I should be doing) is because I just have to mention this idea from Dragon #28 (August 1979). In an article entitled "Level Progression for Players and Dungeon Masters," writer Jon Mattson proposes a method of awarding experience points to players and DMs (not characters) based on their actual gaming experience, in order to provide an objective measure of ability.

This is something I've been thinking about for years, and only more so since considering the discussions I've had (both on the internet and in-person with other designers) about the possibility of training or certification for game masters. My opinion is that some sort of training for individuals who want to run games is not only desirable but necessary, and that the lack of good, codified training is detrimental to the hobby (some of my blog posts have mentioned this in passing). But I've often wondered how one would go about certifying a person as a credible, proficient GM.

Because here's the thing: it really doesn't matter all that much to me how experienced a player is at a table (neither as a DM or a fellow player), but it matters a LOT to me how competent a Dungeon Master is running the game. Because my enjoyment of a game session hinges on whether or not the DM can do his or her job at the table. And it is, frankly, very difficult for me to come back to the table of a DM whose game I neither appreciate nor respect (I don't think I've ever walked away mid-game from such a DM...I'm a little too polite for that...but I have come away from game sessions feeling frustrated, angry, and vowing to never waste another chunk of my time with that same dungeon master)...even if the person running the game is a friend that I like and respect.

Mattson's article provides the following experience point awards for DMs (he also provides some awards for playing/running other games that might have a certain "carryover" effect, but I'm just going to stick to the ones that are Dungeons & Dragons specific):

Per campaign* of basic D&D you play:  60
Per campaign* of basic D&D you DM:  900**
Per campaign* of Original D&D you play:  80
Per campaign* of Original D&D you DM:  1200**
Per campaign* of Advanced D&D you play:  100
Per campaign* of Advanced D&D you DM:  1500**

* Mattson considers a campaign to be "one full adventure, i.e. if a group of characters set out to explore a five level dungeon, the whole five levels (and only those five levels) would count as one campaign." While I take this to mean that XP is not awarded every session for a multi-session, site-based adventure, the article does not indicate what counts as finishing a "campaign;" should a DM be awarded full XP if a party abandons an adventure site, or if the delve ends in a Total Party Kill? I'm inclined to say "Yes" since that's the outcome of the "campaign," but I'm not sure that's the author's intent.
** Per Mattson, only two-thirds of this amount is awarded if the DM did not design the adventure (for example, if a published module was used). This seems reasonable to me, awarding one-third XP each for writing/designing, game prep, and actual running. 

Being written in 1979, the only "basic D&D" the author could be referring to is the Holmes-written basic set. B/X (published in 1981) is much more similar in complexity and rule scope to OD&D and I'm inclined to put both it and the later BECMI in that category. 2nd edition AD&D would go into AD&D, and you could probably put all "later editions" (3rd, 4th, 5th) there as well...but then some might argue that the objectives of play are so different for later systems (especially 4E) that they really need to be put into the "other games" category for simple "carryover" XP.

[maybe you'd need to have "multi-class DMs" these days with XP split between Old and New school. Ha!]

The advancement table for Dungeon Masters in the article looks like this:

Level 1: Initiate     0-1499 experience points
2: Apprentice     1500-2999
3: Expert     3000-4499
4: Overseer     4500-5999
5: Supervisor     6000-8999
6: Moderator     9000-11,999
7: Mediator     12,000-17,999
8: Arbitrator     18,000-24,999
9: Referee     25,000-34,999
10: Referee, 1st Class     35,000-49,999
11: Judge     50,000-74,999
12: Dungeonmaster     75,000-99,999
13: Dungeonmaster, 13th level     100,000-124,999
14: Dungeonmaster, 14th level, etc.     125,0000 plus 25,000 per level after 14th

[ha! There's also a note that Dungeonmasters of 18th level or higher may also be called "Overlord." I dig on that!]

I'm sure that some folks reading this are going to just shake their heads and call it all ridiculous. After all, the mark of a good DM should include something about how they're evaluated by their players, right? How they interact, how they arbitrate, how they smooth over difficulties and deal with troublesome issues? Not to mention how they improvise and adapt, how they role-play monsters and how much fun is had by all? Certainly, if a DM is giving the impression to everyone who joins the game that he/she is an asshole, it shouldn't matter whether they've run five adventures or five hundred, right?

Maybe. But maybe we need to have some concrete "measurables" to measure. Maybe there is something about a person who writes, preps, and runs a game getting better at writing, prepping, and running games. And maybe that's kind of important when you're emphasizing the game aspect of the hobby and not the "oh, it's just another way to socialize and interact with buddies in a casual, geeky fashion." Sure, yes, that's a thing...but some folks want a higher standard of gaming. I know I do.

Mattson's article isn't a bad starting place for such a discussion. Going over my own DMing history (as best I can remember it), and sticking with only these XP awards (and counting B/X play as "basic" rather than OD&D, and not counting any post-2E experience), I'll say I conservatively calculate my own experience as 65,420, giving me a rank of "Judge," but being about 10,000 shy of "name level." If I upped the awards for B/X campaigns and included awards for other games I've run (there have been many...including 3E D&D), it's possible I might crack 12th or even 13th level, but I'm inclined to leave it as is...a good indication of my "rank" in terms of Old School D&D. about all I care about these days.

And which ALSO means, I've got room to grow. I'd certainly like to be worthy of the "Dungeon Master" title ("Overlord" seems like a pipe dream any time in this lifetime). But, being honest here, I've still got plenty to learn and discover. "Judge" actually sounds about right (I'm pretty judgmental). "Mastery" is something I'm working on.

Anyhoo, I welcome thoughts and ideas on the subject, and ways one might use this (or a similar) objective system to analyze quality, skill, and competence...or any differing opinions from folks who feel this line of thought is unnecessary or impossible. Also, I invite anyone who feels so inclined to post how they level themselves (using this system) in terms of "old school DM experience." To be perfectly honest, I'd like to see how I rank in comparison to the other DMs out there.

Just please: no taking XP for 5E games. I don't care if they're run in an "old school" way or not.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Not the Problem that Needs Solving

Has anyone else been watching Game of Thrones lately?

I was watching the most recent episode ("The Long Night") a couple evenings ago which features the climactic battle/showdown between the majority of the (still living) cast of characters and the Army of the Dead (a hundreds of thousands strong horde of zombies supported by wight-like officers and a some undead monsters). And as I was watching, I was thinking to myself, which characters would these be in Dungeons & Dragons? And I broke it down something like this:

Beric Dondarrion - fighter (with a flaming sword), Sandor Clegane ("the Hound") - fighter (with high strength), Dolorous Edd - fighter, Tormund Giantsbane - fighter (with high strength), Samwell - fighter (with low strength), Brienne of Tarth - fighter (with high strength), Podrick - fighter, Jaime Lannister - fighter, Lyanna Mormont - fighter, Melisandre (the Red Woman) - magic-user, Gendry - fighter, Ser Jorah Mormont - fighter, Grey Worm - fighter (with high dexterity and strength), Arya - assassin, Theon Greyjoy - fighter (with high dexterity), Jon Snow - fighter, Bran Stark - fighter (or psionic, depending on system).
Just a fighter

Daenerys, Tyrion Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Ser Davos Seaworthy don't really fit any of the standard adventuring classes. In 3rd edition terms, the first three are nobles and Davos is an expert, but I really dislike this kind of "classing everyone" thing. I'd rather code Tyrion as the NPC monster class "Noble" (of the 2-3 HD variety) and everyone else as "Normal Humans," though I could see Daenerys as a re-skinned 1+1 HD Elf/Targaryan (only spell known: fire resistance, which still has to be prepped and cast, and only once per day).

Just a fighter
Jon Snow is NOT a ranger...while rangers appear to be a part of the GoT setting, it should be remembered that neither Jon, nor Sam, nor Dolorous Edd were made members of that order; all three, in fact were made "Stewards" of various sorts. This is kind of like telling a player, "sorry, you don't meet the minimum ability scores" (in Jon's case, it's a lack of Intelligence; for Sam, it's a low Constitution). One could use a halfling re-skin to model Tormund's "wildling" class (in fact, I might post an example of what this would look like sometime), but it's not super-necessary...heck, he could simply be an NPC berserker (like the monster of the same name) if you don't see him as a player character.

Another fighter
Anyway, how many different character classes is that? Three? Four? Certainly there's not much that distinguishes most of these characters from each other in terms of "class" or skills or abilities or even backgrounds (most of them come from nobility). And yet all of these individuals are very distinct from each other: not only in terms of appearance, but in behavior, motivation, and action. Some have evolved and changed (sometimes drastically) over the course of the series; others (like Tormund) are more or less the same as they've ever been, though perhaps with a different allegiance and/or "alignment."

When I see the type of rich tapestry that can be created from such basic and non-unique archetypes, it's really difficult to convince me there's much (if any) need for an elaborate character creation system in my fantasy RPG. Something as simple as B/X (or even OD&D) works just fine...maybe AD&D if you want to add some "realism" (like different weapon proficiencies) and extra "crunch" (combat adjustments based on proficiency, weapon vs. armor, and speed factor). But anything more detailed, more micro-manage-y, more video game-like, is SOOO unnecessary...and, in fact can detract from the immersive experience of the game being played.

Him, too...though might
roll D10s for hit dice.
'Course, I already knew just got emphasized watching that GoT episode.

I am SORELY tempted to do some sort of write-up of these various characters in terms of some type of OSR system (OD&D or B/X). But for the most part, it's so easy to do so (for anyone), the phrase "why bother?" pops immediately into my mind. Maybe instead I'll do a quick write-up instead of house rules for a GoT specific campaign (similar to what I did with Krull)...then I won't have to argue things like who's stronger between Tormund, Brienne, and the Hound (hint: they're all in the 16-17 range).

However, please don't expect a lot of hot and heavy posting the next week or two...after (barely) getting through the April A to Z challenge, I kind of want to take a breather from the regular blogging.  Just a little.

Later, gators.