Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Nothing Helps Clear The Head... 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 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!"


"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? 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" 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 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 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 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,'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.


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 about just "a good thing." AD&D didn't just arise out of a 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 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 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 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.


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 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 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 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 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

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Problematic Content I Like

My experiments with Alexis's trade system is, unfortunately, going to go on hold for the moment (family stuff takes precedence on the weekends, and the boy had a baseball double-header Saturday).

However, I still have some time have a bit of time now, in the wee hours of the morning (while everyone else is asleep) to blog a bit more on the South American campaign setting. The more I consider it and research it, the more I like the whole concept. As long as I treat the indigenous humans like, you know, humans and not some sort of cardboard fantasy antagonists, I think the setting can still provide plenty of ground for adventure while not becoming some sort of sick colonialist fantasy. I think the main thing to keep in mind is that humans are a diverse bunch of people: no group is inherently "good" or "evil," though self-interest can look like the latter when it's at the expense of others. Regardless, the game will probably have a bit more "moral ambiguity" than your average D&D campaign, especially those latter day editions that presume players to be some sort of heroic do-gooder types.

And that's fine. If a PC is murdering a fictional human in a game, does it it matter that the NPC is an Incan or a Spaniard? Is it really any different from murdering a (fictional) Traladaran or Thyatian? I think it only becomes offensive when the game states (explicitly or not) that a particular group of people is "orc equivalent" in the setting, i.e. a species of less-than-humans existing only to be slaughtered, and that there's no moral quandary for doing so, as the culture is all "evil" anyway.

I suppose we'll have to see how it works in practice which...considering my lack of gaming at the moment...might take a while. Still, I'll try to keep it in consideration as I do my prep work and world building. For now, let's just figure it's all "doable" and move on to the next offensive thing I've got planned: religion.

Specifically the re-skinning of alignment as "religion" for the campaign setting.

The whole Law-Neutral-Chaos axis doesn't really work in a setting of moral ambiguities: if you don't have a Dark Lord Sauron on one side and some sort of Council of Good Peoples on the other, the idea of alignment becomes either a means of measuring temperament (do I like to steal and cheat?) or one that measures some type of "cosmic force" interaction. The latter works great for settings that pit players against extra-natural entities (Cthulhu and the like) or define the conflict as one of order/civilization versus chaos/wilderness. But those don't really work for my setting: there isn't any cosmic evil force the PCs are striving against, and the "wilderness" of South America already had plenty of order/civilization in the form of the native peoples of the continent. The conquistadors were really the ones introducing chaos (to the eyes of the indigenous population) even as their perception was one of bringing "the light of reason and faith" to the region.

[oh...and if you just want alignment to be temperament, then why bother with it at all? Humans change their minds and behaviors all the time. No one is inherently Lawful or Neutral or Chaotic]

However, I do have reasons for wanting "sides" in the setting (and a shorthand description for characters), and instead of traditional alignment, I've decided that the term religion will do just fine. In this case, I break it into three categories:

True Christian

Part of this is tied directly to the history of the setting. When the Church allowed the Spanish and Portuguese to divide up the non-Christian world between them, part of the justification for this was the conversion of the non-Christian populations. As such, only Christians were allowed to emigrate to the Americas, individuals in fact needing to be able to prove that they were Christians (of two Christian parents) in order to participate in the colonization. For the Spanish and Portuguese, going to the New World wasn't a search for "religious freedom;" it was about expanding the Church's dominion. As such, all European explorers in South America were exclusively (if nominally) "Christian" during this time period.

Now Christianity, like most world religions, is generally pretty nice when people follow its laws and tenets. Thing is, though, you actually have to practice what the priest is preaching...just because you've been baptized and take Communion regularly doesn't mean you're not an asshole. Walking in the steps of walking the path of any holy person...can be frigging hard especially the more attachments you have to the worldly. Not just money and power mind you, but your family, personal honor, and self-identity (status, place in society). It's tough dissolving one's ego and "trusting in the Lord," and most of us get too caught up in the immediate stuff in front of our noses to see (or care) about the larger picture.

Those that DO see that picture, or who can at least glimpse it and care enough to try to live it, are the folks that fall into the "True Christian" category. Baptized Christians (i.e. European explorers) who habitually forget or ignore either the letter or the spirit of Church teachings fall into the "Practical" category; they still believe in heaven, and are respectful of priests and the Eucharist (superstitiously so) but they're not really trying to live Christ's example. "Non-Christians" are people who actively disbelieve or despise the Church; it includes both atheists and apostates, and any pagan peoples (like all the indigenous folk at the start of the campaign).

In addition to helping define where one falls in the conflict between New World and Old World, these alignments serve a practical purpose of helping to distinguish and categorize the character classes in the campaign; at the moment, I see them breaking down like this:

Cleric: True Christian or Practical only
- Druid: Non-Christian only
Fighter: Any
- Paladin: True Christian only
- Ranger: Any
Magic-User: Practical or Non-Christian only
- Illusionist: Practical or Non-Christian only
Thief: Any*
- Assassin: Practical or Non-Christian only
- Bard: Any
Monk: Non-Christian only, if used

I haven't decided whether or not I actually want to include the monk character class...if I do, it will probably be some sort of fantasy order/cult found among the indigenous. I toyed with limiting thieves' alignment, but I figure there might be some "reformed" types who retain their skills refraining from their sinful (stealing) ways. Mage-types and assassins are limited because, regardless of any particular devotion they might have, they continue to practice crafts (sorcery and murder) that are distinctly counter to Church law.

Being a True Christian matters mostly to the cleric and paladin classes. It is possible to be a priest or knightly warrior without being a devoted Christian, but the supernatural powers of these classes are tied to their faith. As such, I've defined seven Saintly Virtues (based on the Cardinal and Theological Virtues) that True Christians must observe to retain their status:

Charity, Chastity, Faith, Fortitude, Mercy, Modesty, and Temperance

I have notes about how each might be broken, but the effects of breaking them differ between classes.

Because "to err is human," a player may choose a single virtue that their character may safely disregard while still retaining their status as a True Christian; it is assumed this is a personal flaw/vice that they are struggling with and so long as they show proper remorse (and seek confession) there is no alignment penalty (changing alignments carries the usual penalty of losing an experience level, but it's pretty damn difficult to switch between Practical and Non-Christian without actual religious conversion!).

Paladins who fall from True Christian to Practical alignment lose all class benefits, becoming a normal fighter (though one with a tougher XP table...oh, that guilty conscience!). The nice thing about this system is that I have actual "sins" (well, vices really) with practical limits that regulate if the character is being true to her alignment or not, rather than some arbitrary (i.e. DM defined) "act of evil." Players who want to play a more typical (and historical) "robber knight" can play a fighter of Practical alignment instead.

For clerics, the seven Saintly Virtues are tied directly to their spell-casting ability: the cleric may not cast spells of a greater level than the maximum number of virtues they obediently observe. This applies even to clerics of Practical alignment: each character has seven boxes that will be checked off by the DM if and win a character falls to the Vice that corresponds to a particular Virtue. For example, "lust" is the sin associated with Chastity, which here is defined as "sex outside the sanctity of Holy Matrimony." Since priests and nuns are prohibited from being married by Church law, this Virtue would be broken with ANY sexual relationship. This might not cause a change in alignment (especially if the cleric was already of the Practical bent) but would prohibit the character's ability to cast spells higher than 6th least without proper atonement and penance.

[I am still deciding whether or not undead turning is linked to which it would only be available to True Christians...or to class (in which case alignment matters little). Probably will depend on what I decide is the reason the ability works and how]

Aside from these things, I intend to have certain magical effects that function differently (or not at all) depending on the alignment/religion of a character: these include some spells (especially clerical and druidic magic) and some magic items as well: a pagan may burn (and take damage) from touching a holy Christian relic, and some Christians will face similar (and worse) penalties from particular pagan artifacts...though, of course, the effects will be less pronounced for "Practical" Christians.

It should be noted that while alignment might affect some societal structures, it need have no effect on which characters will adventure together. A True Christian will happily join a party that includes a pagan or an assassin with the hope that her shining example will inspire such characters to religious conversion (or, at least, to "mend their evil ways"). There is, thus, no proscription against paladins adventuring with a band of faithless miscreants.
: )