Monday, February 28, 2022

Learning the New

In case anyone's been wondering: yes, I'm still alive. I've been traveling; taking a family vacation. I won't belabor folks with tales about how wonderful it is...not when so many people around the globe lack the opportunities with which I've been blessed. But it's been fun and relaxing and a much needed break from daily stress. Especially for my poor wife, who's been asking for this for some three years now.

Now, some gaming news (while the rest of the family sleeps and while I sip coffee on a sunny lanai): I'm currently "learning" 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I have reasons, which I will now explain.

Some time back...last year if I recall son started a "D&D club" at his school. Interested children were many, and he began teaching them B/X and (later, this year) AD&D. He ran games for them, he did some stuff on-line. He would have the occasional boy or girl pal over to our home and have me run games for them. Many kids under the age of 12 have been introduced to the concept of Dungeons & Dragons through my family.

Unfortunately, we are living through the Plague Years, and running real campaigns with folks outside the family, with groups around a table, is a pretty tough proposition and what with "Zoom fatigue" has made such (mostly) a no-go. As playground recess is really too short to run sessions, my son has been stymied in his efforts to really get his game off the ground.

And yet kids (of course) want to play. And so they turn to their own parents. And their parents get them 5th edition. Because most parents aren't my son's parents. 

Diego's buddy, Kieran, is one such kid. Over last summer his parents acquired the 5E books for him, and Kieran has been learning the game...has, in fact, been playing in a 5E game outside of school, from what I understand. And he now wants to try his hand at running his own game at school with a group of younger (4th grade) students who are outside the 5th grade D&D club, but who (again, so I've been told) own the 5E books and play 5E. 

My son was, to say the least, annoyed. 

I, however, told him to look at this as an opportunity. What, I asked him, do you enjoy more: playing D&D or running D&D? "Playing." So here is your chance to PLAY D&D...with your own friends/peers...and none of the stresses or responsibilities of having to be the DM. Here is your chance to play MORE D&D...and at this age, ANY D&D can be better than NO D&D. Stretch your imagination. See what a different DM has to offer. Learn things you might like, and things you don't, and file it away for the next time you run your own game.

"But it's 5E!"

Sure it is. And you've never played it. Maybe you'll enjoy it if you try...maybe you'll find you like it even better than 1E. Maybe you'll discover it's just a different way of role-playing: there are LOTS of RPGs all with their own systems. I've played (and enjoyed) many different RPGs over the years, and while I've come to my own conclusions about what is best in such games, my conclusions have been informed by my experiences. Till now, you haven't had the chance to build such experiences...why not jump at this one?

And so, after some reasoned conversations, Diego decided to put aside his pride and ask Kieran if he might play in his 5E game (and, of course, the answer was 'sure!'). So my kid bought his very own 5E PHB (with his very own money) and has been diligently reading the thing...back-to-front...while we've been on our vacation. A couple/three choice quotes from the kid:
  • "There's, like, 107 pages of NOTHING here!" (referring to the excessive padding describing each race).
  • "Tieflings seem like they were meant for people who just want to play 'bad guys.'"
  • "I feel like this book is designed to make people lazier." (referring to how the text tells you what average hit points per level for each class is)
  • "Even my equipment is supposed to have a background!"
That last refers to the 4th paragraph on page 143 which I will quote here as just an astounding block of useless padded text:
You decide how your character came by this starting equipment. It might have been an inheritance, or goods that the character purchased during his or her upbringing. You might have been part of military service. You might even have stolen your gear. A weapon could be a family heirloom, passed down from generation to generation until you character finally took up the mantle and followed in an ancestor adventurer's footsteps.
[or maybe I just bought the stuff in a shop?]

We've had a few loud guffaws at the inanities of the book, and I've done what I could to assuage his frustrations. He's only just finished the section on building a character and is FINALLY getting to the PLAYING THE GAME section of the book (Part 2, beginning on page 171), and he's excited to finally read some instruction on how the mechanics interact. I have a copy of the D&D Essentials rulebook with me (remember back when I purchased that?) but he doesn't want to read the abridged version of the rules...he wants the full monty. I'll be interested to his reaction.

Having read through the PHB5 a bit myself over the last few days, I will say this about it: it makes me excited to create a character. Which I'm sure is the point of the thing, but (to me) is a huge red flag. Because a D&D text should make you excited to play D&D, not just make characters.

Do folks understand that? I mean, the objective is to play D&D right? Shouldn't reading the books make me fired up to play? To go on (and experience) epic adventures? Or something?

The 5E PHB doesn't get me juiced up to play the game...hell, it doesn't even start explaining how to play the game until the second half of the book! But it does get me juiced to build a character: I see all sorts of potential with various fighter and rogue builds (battle masters? assassins? Right on!). Even a barbarian modeled on Frazetta's Death Dealer character would be pretty sweet. Yeah, I could happily tool around for hours making a whole host of various fantasy character types...that would be quite entertaining. I did a lot of that back in my 3E days as well. Hours of time wasting that had ZERO to do with actually playing the D&D game.

In addition to Essentials, the other D&D book I brought along on our vacation is my dog-eared copy of S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. I had this idea that I might convert the thing to 5E and try running it as a one-off, just to see how it works, and to help Diego learn the systems. But it' A bit difficult. 

S4 is a GREAT AD&D adventure...very well designed, especially for (or in spite of) being a module that started life as a tournament scenario. The treasure haul is spot on for the recommended (tournament) party: more than 296,000 g.p. worth of monetary treasure in the Caverns proper, plus another 90K in magic item XP (769K in monetary value of "sold" magic items). That gives a potential range for a band of six PCs to get from 64K to nearly 177K (assuming survival), ensuring at least a level or two raise for characters of levels 6th through 10th. That's very cool...and very appropriate considering the level of danger in S4.

But 5E doesn't run on treasure. I'm not even sure what it runs on really. My reading would seem to indicate that the game is designed to engage players by A) helping them create a cool character, and B) presenting them with the opportunity to perform heroic actions (i.e. allow their cool character to do cool stuff). 

So you get to play a starring role in some epic fantasy movie-ish game? Is that really it?

I suppose that', in it's own way. It's different from the way I play (or enjoy playing) this game called Dungeons & Dragons. It's a little off-beat even from 2nd edition's heavy railroads and 3rd edition's attention to mechanical proficiency. It really is a NEW iteration of the D&D game.

And a little weird. I was telling Diego the other day how one of the most boring things a person can be subjected to in ANY edition of D&D (since the beginning of the game's history) are stories of "how cool my character is." Nothing is more tedious, more nerdy, than being regaled with how "MY guy is UPTEENTH level and has a PLUS WHATEVER thing and was able to slay Orcus/Tiamat/Llolth/Etc. in such-and-such adventure(s)." No one wants to hear that. Mmm...slight correction: no one who's PLAYED the game extensively wants to hear that. We all have war stories, and it's fun rehashing events that happened in past game sessions...but the focus of such banter is (generally) about what happened or what was accomplished or how someone met their end or how someone else triumphed. NOT "how cool my guy is."

5E seems geared to giving you a really cool guy.

That wasn't the focus of the prior four(ish) editions of the game. Originally the focus was on adventuring. The second edition drifted into a game about playing out (the plot of) epic storylines. The third edition had a focus on system mastery, such that you could work the various game mechanics to your advantage; in this way, it shared similarities with the Magic card game of its new publishing company. 4th edition focused on combat mechanics to the exclusion of all else. 

This ain't ANY of that. Which is weird. BUT...I won't call it uninteresting.

Okay, I'm out of time for writing (people are waking up). That's the update. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and I am 99% sure that I'm going to be giving up all things "blog-related" for 40 days. Yeah, that's pretty wild...a blog fast. I will still be answering emails and whatnot. Hopefully, I'll get up one more post before I turn out the light.

Later people.

Friday, February 18, 2022


From the AD&D Players Handbook (page 67):
Push (Conjuration/Summoning)

Level: 1
Range: 1" + 1/4"/level
Duration: Instantaneous
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 segment
Saving Throw: Neg.

Explanation/Description: Upon pronouncing the syllables of this spell, the magic-user causes an invisible force to strike against whatever object he or she is pointing at. The force of the push is not great, being 1 foot pound per level of the magic-user casting the spell, but it can move small objects up to 1' in a direction away from the caster, topple an object under the proper conditions, or cause a creature to lose its balance when it is attacking, for if the creature fails its saving throw, it will not be able to attack that round. Of course, the mass of the creature attacking cannot exceed the force of the push by more than a factor of 50, i.e. a 1st level magic-user cannot effectively push a creature weighing more than 50 pounds. A push spell used against an object held by a creature will cause it to subtract the force of the spell in foot pounds (1, 2, 3, etc.) from its chance to hit or add to opponent's saving throws as applicable if the character fails to make its saving throw against magic when the spell is cast. The material component of this spell is a small pinch of powdered brass which must be blown from the palm prior to pointing at the object of the spell.
So much wrong (as I've written before).

Gygax is sometimes praised and sometimes derided for his prose. "Evocative" and "convoluted" are both words that come to mind when I consider his writing. But his spell work (i.e. his compilation of spells in the AD&D books) is some of the worst. I mean...hoo boy howdy. In actual play, I generally do my best to NOT read (or make use of) the textual descriptions.

Back when I was a kid playing AD&D, we didn't see all that many spell-casters. In fact, we probably saw more psionic use than spell-casting. Certainly, psionics seemed easy enough to use. But we only had one kid who routinely played magic-users (or, on one occasion, an illusionist), and the kid who had cleric duty spent most of his spells on healing (natch) which are about as "no brainer" as AD&D spell-casting gets. Most of our characters were fighters, thieves, bards (who used their fighting and thief abilities, not their druidic powers), or some subclass of these: rangers, acrobats, assassins, fighter/thieves, etc.

To be honest, I think MOST of the spell-casters encountered in our old campaigns were opponents...and as such their spells were confined to the needs of the scenario (i.e. mostly attack-oriented spells). As such a lot of the dross in the PHB (spells like erase and push) saw zero use. We didn't realize just how messed up some of these reworked spells were (polymorph other, for example) because we made assumptions that the descriptions would, more-or-less, match what we already knew from the B/X books. All we REALLY cared about were those notes at the top: range, components, casting time, and saving throw. Those were the important factors in running the AD&D game, not whether or not Gygax is calculating his newtons of force  thing correctly (spoiler: he's not).

One of these days, I'll get around to curating the entire list of PHB spells for my home campaign (much as other folks have done), but at the moment I have more pressing campaign needs (just finished redoing the age tables, and am considering how to do height/weight based on species and ability scores...the current randomness on page 100 of the DMG yields "unsatisfactory" results). The push spell is, however, on my mind because it's one of the possible starter spells on the offensive list and I like the idea of a first level spell that shoves someone with telekinetic force. It's a logical "first step" on the road to more subtler manipulations. 

Reviewing the other 1st level spells, I see that Tenser's floating disk allows a 1st level magic-user to carry 100# of weight for forty minutes, whereas unseen servant allows manipulation of only small amounts (10 or 20 pounds) but with more direction (opening and closing, stepping and fetching, etc.) for an hour and ten. That's very useful: wondering who's going to carry the lantern and allow hands-free adventuring? Get an unseen servant!

Ignoring all the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, what exactly is the push spell trying to accomplish. What is the intention of the thing? THAT, is where I want to direct my focus:
  • The spell is quick to cast (1 segment), instantaneous of effect, and short range.
  • The telekinetic shove is enough to move the target a minimal distance (1') unbalancing it (causing it to lose its attacks for the round) or take a penalty to attack rolls (??) or saves (??) though ONLY upon failing a saving throw
  • The spell affects larger creatures/objects depending on caster level.
Compared to other 1st level attack spells (magic missile, sleep, charm person...even light!) this is pretty weak sauce. Burning hands and shocking grasp at least scale up damage based on 11th level wizard can't even exert as much force as an unseen servant (11 foot pounds of force?!)! Probably not enough to knock a goblin off a cliff (let alone an ogre) unless he's already balanced on one foot.

What we really want is something that slams the target (or pushes a large object) for a split second. Let's see, let's see. How about this (changes in bold):
Push (Evocation)

Level: 1
Range: 1" + 1"/level
Duration: Instantaneous
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 segment
Saving Throw: Special

Explanation/Description: Upon pronouncing the syllables of this spell, the magic-user causes an invisible force to strike against whatever object he or she is pointing at, pushing it 10' directly away from the caster. Creatures must save versus magic or be knocked sprawling, taking 1 to 6 points of damage and losing their action for the round; a successful save allows the creature to stay on its feet, but it still loses its action for the round. The push will not affect creatures whose hit dice exceed the caster's level of experience; inanimate objects may not exceed 50 pounds per level of the magic-user.
There...was that so hard?

Later, gators. Happy Friday!
: )

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Why D&D

[blogger tells me I started this draft on October 30th, 2021. In light of comments on my recent "Why World Build" post, I think it's high time I got back to finishing it best I can]

Last week Grognardia posted an excerpt from a 1979 issue of White Dwarf that included part of an interview with Gary Gygax. My attempts to find a PDF of the mag/article have been wholly unsuccessful, so I will transcribe the text from the image:
D&D/AD&D allows players to have adventures. In a world where these aren't likely - at least without risk of life and limb - this is a real boon. The game form also allows each group to tailor the campaign to their own likes. The game form additionally allows participants to freely use imagination to the fullest. Participants can create and develop personal heroic fantasies. Mistakes are rectifiable - or at worst a new start can be made. Wealth abounds. Good and evil are easily distinguishable. Roles are clear, and soul-searching basically unnecessary. Each and every play is competitive and self-sufficient. DMs, in turn, are the creators and orderers of universes (in short, gods). Instead of a limited and restricted actuality, D&D/AD&D offers boundless realms where real success is quite attainable. Finally, the game form offers various challenges, group co-operation, and is open-ended, so that one player isn't clearly a winner, the rest losers.
[White Dwarf #14, in answer to the question 'Why do you think D&D has become so popular?']

I'm curious to know how much of this was thoughtful or calculated response, and how much of this was off-the-cuff musing (one of the reasons I went looking for the whole article).

[never mind: just found the thing via a comment on the original Grognardia post; it's worth a read]

Please note, I'm not the one emphasizing the word "adventures" in the quote: that's how it's written in the original White Dwarf article, causing me to infer that the word was emphasized by Gygax himself.

Just what is an adventure? I'm not talking about in "game terms" (Gygax isn't speaking in game terms when he's answering the question of D&D's popularity)...when I say: D&D allows players to have adventures, just what is this adventure thing that is deemed to be so desirable?

My old American Heritage Dictionary offers four definitions of the word adventure:
  1. An undertaking of a hazardous nature.
  2. An unusual experience or course of events marked by excitement and suspense.
  3. Participation in hazardous or exciting experiences.
  4. A financial speculation or business venture.
[my Webster's dictionary offers the same four definitions, but with slightly pithier wording]

Reading over these, it should be clear that old edition D&D...the kind that I play, the kind available to Gary & Co. in 1979...checks every single one of these boxes, including #4. After all, it doesn't get much more "speculation" than risking your (character's) life in pursuit of monetary gain, does it?

There are many humans...not all certainly, but many...who long for "adventures." We read about people undergoing adventures, we see films about folks having adventures, we listen eagerly to people recount tales of their own adventures. But few of us have the fortitude, opportunity, or finances necessary to live a constant life of "real" adventure. 

D&D offers adventure to its players: the chance at mentally/emotionally experiencing hazardous, exciting, and suspenseful undertakings without the physical toll that real adventures demand. Regardless of your physical capabilities and for a minimal financial cost, the opportunity for adventure is present every time you sit down at the table.

Why do people long for adventures? Now, that's a tougher question with a plethora of possible answers (I can think of a few). Why are some "called" to the sea? Or outer space? Or war? Or L.A. with a chance of being in the movies (or New York with a chance of being on Broadway)? There is, of course, an adrenaline rush associated with risk...that thing that causes folks to sky-dive or base jump or throw their life savings on one spin of the roulette wheel. But there are other reasons besides adrenaline...curiosity, for example, not just for other places and strange experiences, but curiosity about how we, ourselves, will handle the pressure and impact of an "adventure."

But, as I said: not everyone who wants adventure has "what it takes." I may want to travel to space or Antarctica, but I don't have the money to get there. I may want to be a undersea diver or submarine pilot, but I don't have the training/education. I may want to see the Middle East or Okinawa, but I don't want to join the army (and I'm too old these days to do so, anyway). Heck, even if I wanted to experience a firefight (speaking of military action) I don't really relish the idea of getting hit by a bullet myself.

And even though it's fun to watch television shows about "treasure hunters" on the Discovery channel (or whatever), the whole thing looks like a miserable affair. I mean, the show is edited...I'm sure there are long periods of misery and boredom that never even make it to the screen. All for little/no financial gain (the real money is in selling your TV rights to the network). 

D&D is a far easier path to adventure: you don't have to be young and fit or trained and educated or know the right people or have money to burn in order to adventure. You can experience the adrenaline rush, assuage the curiosity, gain the prestige, feel the sense of accomplishment, earn (imaginary) wealth beyond dreams of avarice, become a bonafide "hero" in the (game) world...all by dint of playing the game. 

That's a powerful, heady draw.

My handful of Spanish readers will undoubtably be familiar with Don Quixote, Cervantes' masterwork. Quixote could be the patron saint of role-players...a man looking for adventure and all-too-willing to escape into his own imagination in order to find it. All long-time D&D players have some measure of The Don in flowing through their veins. If they didn't, they'd be doing something else. If they didn't have a longing for adventure...or if they had the means of pursuing real adventures...they wouldn't be bothering to sit down at the table, over and over again. They certainly wouldn't find the experience very enjoyable.

It is, perhaps, interesting to see what type of folks do NOT enjoy D&D. My wife, for example, is plenty smart enough to understand the game. But she finds little/no joy in it. She loves to travel, to see new places, have new experiences. But she is extremely risk adverse. Hates gambling/speculation in any form (her company 401K is set as conservatively as possible), enjoys exercise so long as it's non-contact/competitive (bruises like a peach), has no love of violence or horror or fantasy. In many ways, thinking about it, she is perhaps too imaginative...too empathetic/sensitive (she has stated on more than one occasion that she doesn't like how RPGs make her "feel"). D&D scares her...and she's not a fan of being scared. She'd rather relax, chuckling, with an episode of Friends that she's already watched a dozen times.

Other folks (like myself) don't have quite that degree of empathy. We want the adventure with the minimal loss risked entailed in playing a game. 

Of course, that's just with regard to playing D&D. Being a Dungeon Master is a different story: the DM doesn't get to experience adventures, after all; the DM makes the adventures. The DM is the shepherd, and the players are the flock, being led to green pastures where they may sup on adventure to their hearts content.

Why be a DM? Because you get to be God. Which ain't an opportunity you get every day, either.

There's probably a whole 'nother post on that subject.
; )

Friday, February 11, 2022

Here's Why You World Build

Dennis's blog post today referenced my recent world building post and offered the following observation:
The question Adam raised was, why world-build when character backstories aren't encouraged? And JB, instead of answering directly, started off by musing on why bother playing D&D at all...

SO...what is probably unclear, O My Gentle Readers, is that what I was addressing in my post (with my first two questions) was some of the underlying reasons why world building is necessary, and that my third question ("why world build?") was more of a "why spend copious amounts of time and energy crafting the imaginary setting for your D&D campaign?"

In other words: Why is it desirable to do more work than sketching out Town X, Dungeon Y, and the distance between the two points?

What I did NOT address (re-reading my post) is the absolute NEED to build a world. In D&D.

I have very little time this morning, but I'm going to try to address it. Succinctly, if possible.

D&D "out of the box" doesn't come with a world. It has some assumptions about the setting that can be inferred from the rules (magic works a certain way, certain species and monsters abound) but there's really little more than instructions on how to play the game. In the Original and Basic versions, the DM was directed to create a dungeon, and then advised that after a while, players would want to move OUT of the dungeon and explore the larger world and that the DM should prepare a "wilderness" (though one with towns and cities and castles) for this purpose.

Anyone who has played D&D for a long enough time will probably tell you this isn't sufficient. Playing the game like this is little more than a board game without a (player facing) board.

For a deeper engagement, one needs a world. 

These days, of course, there are plenty of "worlds" available for purchase: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Krynn, etc. Much easier to BUY a built world than to construct your own. I'll talk about that in a later post. However, there is a reason why there is a market for such products: a world is necessary for serious (i.e. non-superficial) game play. People buying the these products are LOOKING for a world (or ideas for their own creation) because they have played long enough to understand the need for a world.

The newbie player doesn't get this. They're just trying to figure out how the mechanics of the game work. Players need to figure out not just how to roll D20s to attack, what "AC" means and how to pick the right spells, but how to judge risk-reward when it comes to perilous danger of the D&D world. So that their character doesn't die and...instead...succeeds in the game.

The newbie DM has even MORE they have to learn when first picking up the game: not only the lingo and mechanics and extra rules for monsters, but how to craft scenarios that aren't too deadly, too easy, too rewarding, etc AND how to manage a table of unruly ruffian players. That ain't easy. The DM has "absolute power" in the D&D game...but abuse that player and the players walk and there is no game. Give away that power to the players (let the players push the DM around) and they'll still walk once they get tired of manipulating their punching-bag DM (and assuming the DM doesn't quit in frustration and self-disgust first).

It takes time and effort to learn how to be players and DMs (and the latter requiring substantially MORE time and effort than the former). But once you've got it down, once you have all that tuned, you'll find there's still a piece missing from the game: the world. Only the most superficially engaged players are satisfied with just step-and-fetch quests or killing trolls for gold, once they're done learning the ropes. If that's ALL they want, they might as well be playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft. You still get camaraderie, you still get laughs, you still get to team up for challenges, you still kill shit for money and incremental achievement. And all it costs you is the initial outlay of funds and a couple bucks a month for the subscription. That's a need that the market's filled...there are lots of MMORPGs one can choose from (and probably more on the way as VR tech advances).

To get beyond that requires a deeper engagement with the game which can ONLY happen if there is a world to explore. And the better built the world, the more there is to explore...not just in terms of geography but in managing history, politics, culture, metaphysics, etc...the deeper the engagement that can be achieved.

I'll draw a quick parallel with real life: most of us are pretty attached to living. Regardless of the state of your being, and your beliefs about the afterlife, few people are truly ready to "shuffle off this mortal coil" at the drop of a hat. Why? Are you a bazillionaire with a harem of love slaves and the respect and adoration of millions? Do you live in some tropical paradise where the weather's always perfect, surrounded by loving friends and family with not a care in the world?

Regardless of how shitty our lives may get, we're pretty attached to them. We're invested in them. We want to keep living them...for as long as we can. I mean, there's always the potential for things to get better, right? Always the hope of fun, happiness, love, whatever...yeah?

Ideally, one's game world should be built well enough that the players become invested in a similar way.

[and don't worry about the DM. The DM gets invested just by dint of the time and effort being put into world construction]

A lot of RPGs don't require any substantial amount of world building...the world is already built for them. The World of Darkness games (Vampire, etc.), most Palladium games (Rifts, etc.), Shadowrun, BattleTech, Star Wars, MERPCadillacs & Dinosaurs, Over The Edge, etc. All have a world (or worlds) built in. All have histories (and conflicts based on those histories) baked in. Very, very few RPGs require the same kind of world building in order to offer engagement...for the GM, all that's needed is to create some NPCs and write some scenarios based on the existing world of the game.

For PLAYERS of these games, the main thing needed (besides learning the mechanics) is some sort of "buy-in" to the world being presented. Character backstories can facilitate insertion into the game's setting, but I think it's debatable the benefit that is achieved in/by doing so.

For D&D, where no backstory is required (or, in my opinion, desired) the blank slate of the character allows the game to focus squarely on the players in the present moment: the action is NOW and what the character is doing, not on what the character was or has done in the past.

Because here's the thing: we build emotional investment through our experiences. I get cut from the soccer team in high school...that affects me. I have sex for the first time...that affects me. I travel to a foreign country (where I don't speak the language)...that affects me.  And all of it impacts my life and how I act and react going forward.

But a fictional background or backstory created by a player (or DM) has NOT been experienced. The only thing experienced in the game is the actual experiences that occur IN PLAY, AT THE TABLE. My half-elf's mother was killed by orcs and my father hates me for being half-human and exiled me from the Woodland Realm? None of that matters to ME (the player) because I didn't actually experience them. My father abandoned my family, out-of-the-blue, when I was 17...sneaking away like a thief in the night...and that DOES affect me...because I experienced it myself!

The only thing that you can experience in an RPG...the only thing that will change and transform your character and your personality and your approach/action/reaction to the ongoing game IS THE STUFF THAT HAPPENS IN THE GAME. Conflicts with the game world. Conflicts with your fellow players. Events that occur that are humorous, exciting, tragic, whatever. These things can and will affect players and deepen that investment in the game.

The world building is necessary to facilitate this. Otherwise, players simply see D&D as a challenging game of kill or be killed. There can still be emotional investment (we enjoy becoming great killers) but it won't have the deep attachments it might otherwise have.

Okay...that's all I have time for right now. Happy Friday folks!
: )

[edited to correct the link to Dennis's blog]

Thursday, February 10, 2022

From Twisp to Port Townsend

Yesterday, one of Diego's classmates (Maceo) spent the afternoon with us and joined our AD&D campaign. Using a half-elf assassin ("I love assassins!") we introduced him to our version of Hommlet: the village of Twisp

"Twisp? That's a crazy name!" It's actually a real place in the Methow Valley, just a few miles south of Winthrop. "Oh! I've been to Winthrop!" So have was our first vacation spot after the pandemic started. Small population, lots of hiking, beautiful surroundings. Of course, in my campaign Winthrop takes the place of Nulb; the "Temple of Elemental Evil" (such as it is) would be located just beyond, to the north.

The Village of Twisp

[all apologies to the good folks of Winthrop. Sure, there were a lot of pro-Trump signs and banners the last time we were in the town, but I'd hardly call them "mean," "slovenly," or "evil." Fact is, I found the folks of Winthrop to be very friendly, and a place we wouldn't mind vacationing again. Very relaxing for JB the Tourist...and I don't even fish]

Using the real world..

[oh, want to know how did the adventure go? Pretty good. They hit up the moathouse again and managed to slay the giant snake with only Diego's new dwarf character getting downed (and he survived). Oh, what happened to Diego's elven thief? He was slain in our last outing by a wandering ogre. These things happen. Sofia's cleric is halfway to 2nd level]

Using the real world as a campaign setting is a great boon. It makes the world building so immensely easy, especially in this Internet Age of ours...the touch of the Google machine can bring up all sorts of historic, demographic, geographic information instantly (well, near enough). Images and pictures of landscapes and rivers and mountains and forests...with no hemming or hawing or arguing over whether its plausible or makes sense or if "magic" is required to explain it all.

I haven't written much about elves in my campaign...mainly because it hasn't been all that important. My concept of the elven race isn't far removed from where it was in August 2020, when I was still using the OD&D rules and using South America as my "world map." They're still based largely on Moorcock's Melniboneans in temperament, outlook, and culture, but now they're coastal cities are more located in the Olympic Peninsula region, with their main location being (of course) Port Townsend, nicknamed The City of Dreams.

[yeah, see what I did there? I'm such a hack]

However, there's a LOT about the elves that I need to nail down. In my OD&D game, for example, they had the same life expectancy as humans...but when I re-booted the game with AD&D I just rolled with the Rules As Written meaning their lifespan is measured in centuries. This is something that has to be corrected, I just haven't gotten around to it yet. 

[having 1,500 year old elves screws around with my world in ways that I don't like. It's okay to give them a slightly extended lifespan along with resistance/immunity to aging magic, but for the species to function in my world, it has to have a life expectancy on par with humans]

Besides, it's not like the PC elves that have shown up in-game have lasted more than a few weeks/months, let alone years. SO...low priority. It'll happen eventually.

What IS a higher priority is figuring out the population figures and resources of the region. Found a great, early 20th century mineral report explaining there's plenty of iron to be mined in Washington, but production was halted to "market unfeasibility" (translation: Big Iron couldn't make enough money for the industry to be economically viable compared to other resource harvesting). This is great news for an Iron Age setting that needs lots of swords and armor. Today, I've been trying to track the historic population spikes in Washington State, and was tremendously confused with 1910 boom (it couldn't just be due to the successful Suffrage movement!) until...duh...I was reminded of the Klondike Gold Rush that occurred at the turn of the (20th) century.

But MY world didn't have a gold rush to the that boom wouldn't have happened. Neither did it have an "industrial revolution" or the building of railroads. The region is still much the same, but withOUT all that Manifest Destiny hullabaloo and U.S. expansion...heck, the indigenous peoples of the region aren't even humans (and some of them live underground). It's alternate history that I'm creating with my fantasy world, one that features a lot of strangeness and wilderness...but with a background canvass that features a lot of detail I don't have to worry about creating.

How tremendously freeing that is! Instead of worrying about where to put rivers and towns and mountains and cities and political boundaries and forests...or even worrying about figuring out "fantasy names" for these things...I can simply use and re-purpose what is already present. I can build my "Red Empire" over the (so-called) Inland Empire. I can have Renton dominated by the "Wizards of the Coast" (a magical conclave or a batch of charlatans...who can say?). I don't need a range of "Misty Mountains" or "Dragon's Teeth" when I already have the Cascades and the Olympics (not to mention the Picket Range, Enchantment Peaks, Icicle Ridge, Black Hills, etc.). I don't need a Mirkwood when I have the Olympic Rainforest and Colville National Forest. 

I have a rough timeline of the region's settlement going back more than 10,000 years and that's plenty of time to figure out when and where the dragons landed.

And all this, of course, is just "surface" material. Plenty of room underground if I want to put giant subterranean civilizations...though the access points for those will probably be further north in British Columbia (i.e. "the land of snow and giants"). Should I, someday, need to expand my world, I can always dig deeper (literally), or else develop Oregon and California and Idaho...all three being, currently, different forms of apocalyptic wasteland holding little interest for the NPC population of my world (except maybe northern Oregon, but it's full of Yuan-Ti and such...scary). 

As I said...the real world is a great boon. It is recognizable (to me and my players). No one can argue that its geography isn't "sensible" (since it's real). It does the heavy lifting of map making for the most part...all I have to do is write my own little travelogues and "tart it up" with D&Disms.

It's a helluva lot of fun.
; )

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Why World Build

A couple posts back, Adam commented:
You do use Level Limits for Race but don't use Alignment? Backstories are bad but there's tons of World Building?

Why? What is the purpose of fictional world history, cultures, and politics if the PCs aren't part of said elements? This isn't a criticism. I'm honestly curious how it all works.
There are short, terse (probably insulting) answers to these questions, but I think that the underlying thing here is a disconnect between how I am (currently) playing D&D and the misconceptions about the game that are all over the internet these days. I know I've been trying to communicate my own position for...oh, months now, I suppose. But I've been somewhat less than "clear" and "succinct."

So let's break it down.

#1 Why play D&D at all?

D&D allows us to experience a world of fantasy adventure. That's the best summation I can come up with. There are nuances and elaborations I can make...additions that expand and justify the choice of a tabletop RPG over, say, a networked game like World of Warcraft. But the bottom line is what I wrote. If you aren't interested in experiencing a world of fantasy adventure, then D&D probably isn't the game for you.

Of course, to "experience a world of fantasy adventure" requires a world, right?

#2 Of what importance are rules?

This is the million dollar question, of course. And there are lots of potential answers. However, for this effort, I'm going to go down a particular, specific route, building on my answer to question #1.

Rules are recognizable limitations. We live in a world governed by rules; rules are familiar to us. And I'm not just talking about paying the tax man on April 15th or wearing a mask inside the grocery store during a pandemic (still a thing in my town). We have rules like physics. Like gravity: you drop a crystal wine glass on a tile floor and it explodes all over the place, regardless of whether or not that would make "a good story." We live in a world regulated by uncountable rules of nature, rules of law, rules of etiquette, rules of economy. To better experience a world of fantasy adventure, we need rules.

Why use racial level limits and not alignment? Because one provides a particular rule regulation I desire, and the other does not. I do not want 15th level dwarf fighters. But I do want players to be able to adventure together despite "alignment restrictions" for particular classes. 

I do not measure comeliness (a new ability score, found in the 1E Unearthed Arcana). Neither do I have attributes like "sense of humor," "will power," or "thrifty-ness." The ability scores present...and the given rules...are designed to apply to experiencing adventure. Some rules are better at promoting this than others. I mentioned in an earlier post that I allow magic-users a couple extra spells to start, but I do not allow them to have a giant "recipe book" to pick and choose spells from. These adjustments are waaaay out-of-bounds for AD&D ("bad grognard! bad! shame!") but I've found they promote the adventure experience I wish to foster at my table.

Disregarding rules, ignoring dice rolls, cutting systems...these actions are generally taken in aid of helping create some sort of "story," or is taken as removing "clutter" that gets in the way of "meaningfulness" (yes! that's a word!). But that's not the reason I play D&'s not about telling a story or finding meaning. Instead, it's about experiencing adventure. Rules aid that experience.

[and I've found "clutter" generally only occurs in games that lack attention, focus, and preparation]

#3 Why build a world?

There is a particular school of thought that runs along these lines: the game world isn't important. All one needs to enjoy [insert RPG] is:

A) a great adventure (hopefully run by a competent GM), and
B) players that have an emotional investment in the adventure.

The wizard-duke of Arth has been oppressing his people for generations from his Mountain of Power. Rikki the Rogue saw his parents tortured to death by the ducal guard for daring to start a revolution. Ferdinand the Fighter's one true love was kidnapped to be one of the tyrants concubines. However, Sal the Cleric has has discovered a secret entrance into the castle through the sewers...can they brave the dangers of the wizard's cellars and bring justice to the evil overlord?

The appeal of playing out such a scenario is understandable...hey, we're heroes just like in Star Wars (or whatever)...but it brings a variety of problems with it...and not just the problem of "the tired trope."

However, I'm not going to dwell on (or berate) that "stuff." Instead, I'm going to fall back (again) on my answer to question #1...just why the hell are we playing this game instead of watching a movie, reading (or writing) a book, or just going for a walk in the sunshine? We are playing to experience a fantasy world of adventure

Not "to experience a scenario." A world. And a world is a big place with lots of possibilities, not just a single mad wizard in his fortress. 

We humans live in a world. Worlds, like rules, are...or should be...recognizable. Not in the "hey, this NPCs is my high school gym teacher" way, but in the "hey, sometimes it rains a lot and there's the possibility of flooding" kind of way. Because when the world is recognizable, we can use our real world experience to determine our actions (and reactions) to what is going on in the fantasy world.

Which makes for a deeper, richer, experience. An immersive one. 

The more world-building you which I mean "putting thought and care into the creation of the imaginary game environment"...the more engaged the players can be with that environment. If they know that "Jimmy the Town Orc" has a family/clan/tribe living nearby, perhaps the PCs will deal differently with the small band of orcs they encounter in the woods outside of town. 

Or perhaps not...and maybe their eagerness to whet their blades will lead to serious and/or tragic repercussions.

In reviewing Adam's questions...especially his final one...I'd say world building is necessary precisely because it is vitally important for PCs to become a part of the "history, cultures, and politics" of the game world. Because becoming a part of that will result in a deeper level of emotional engagement in the players. Which will make them care more about the game...perhaps as much as the Creator DM who is building this imaginary playground for them.

BUT...they don't start with attachments. They start with a character in the world. It's not about writing a's about experiencing. And they can only experience through play. Which is the whole reason why we're playing this D&D game: to experience a world of fantasy adventure.

Hopefully that all makes sense.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Orcs: Neither Noble, Nor Savage

Back at the Village of Hommlet...actually, the village of Twisp in the Grand County of Okanogan, Bork the "half-orc" met his end rather quickly, never setting foot in a dungeon proper. He was stabbed in the back by an invisible Fernok of Ferd (4th level thief) while attempting to burgle rooms on the upper floor of the Inn of the Welcome Wench. So ends his tale.

However, Diego was fairly shaken by the the verge that he claimed he hated the game and wanted to quit. He really liked Bork, you see; he had already formed an attachment to the character even before the character had done anything in the game, even though I'd had him roll up multiple characters before the start (in the eventuality that one or more might die). 

Such is the price of investing in a backstory for one's player character. It's but a small step for a DM to allow a "do over," a "take back" to allow the player to retain a cherished character...a character that was only just created and should contain ZERO emotional attachment. And from there it's the slippery slope of fudging dice rolls and changing encounters and turning the game from a game into a farce. THIS is how it starts.

Nope. Not doing that. "Do you really want to quit playing?" No. "All right, then grab another character so you can show up at the Inn." Diego's new character (Langston the elven thief) is doing much better.

We want players to be invested in the game, not their characters...though I readily agree that investment in character is both inevitable AND desirable over the long term. This is why parties will spend copious amounts of treasure to raise a fellow PC (or cherished NPC) that has died in the course of play...especially one with a few levels under his/her belt. But a newly minted 1st level character? No. Roll up a new fighter/assassin, call him Cork the Orc, and away you go.


Since my last post I've been thinking hard about my "indigenous orcs." A lot of great comments on that last post (appreciate the feedback) leading me directly to define how and what the species is in my world. And I started by reading the "orc" entry in the Monster Manual and comparing it with the half-orc player race as described in the PHB and DMG.

The first thing one notices upon reading the MM with a clinical eye is just how slanted the description of the orcs are, pitting the reader against the creature. Gygax sounds like a propagandist in writing, painting a picture of "disgusting" and "unattractive" people; "bullies" who need "strong leaders" to "control the orcs" as they are otherwise likely (75%) to fight each other. They are "cruel," and "hate living things in general." They also "hate the light" despite noting that a quarter of orc villages are found above ground (though these are noted as being "rude" and primitive affairs).

To me, it reads like the biased account intended to drum up hatred for a society as a pretext for aggression, conquest, and subjugation. We've seen similar accounts written up over the years in our Real World, and not just with regard to indigenous peoples...part of going to war with countries post-Enlightenment has often (always?) included similar essays dehumanizing our opponents. Makes it easier for a soldier to see themselves as a "hero," and makes it far easier to put a bullet into a fellow human being.

So, let's chalk this up to someone working for the (human) nobility and not an actual sociologist studying this strange people. Hell, we can even write off the illustrations as exaggerated cartoons...still inhuman, but not quite so much "pig-man." Time for a closer look at this orc species!

Let's start with the basics. Physically, they are roughly human size. Orcs are stated as being 6' + tall, but again, this seems to be an exaggeration as the "half-orc" (per the DMG) is generally smaller and lighter than a human (5'6" and 150# being male average; 5'2" and 120# being female average)...which makes sense considering their maximum strength is LOWER than that of a human. Even if I was using half-orcs as a HYBRID species (I'm not) it makes little sense for the pairing of a large human and a larger orc to result in a smaller, weaker species...that's not how biology works. Instead, you should have something IN BETWEEN (at least) indicating such offspring should be larger and stronger than their human parents.

I am inclined to see the 6'+ description as more propaganda. "They're giants!" No.

Orcs do tend to have more hit points and better fighting ability than your average (non-classed) human: 1 hit die (1-8 hit points) compared to 0-level and 1-6 hit points. However, we know they are a robust species (+1 CON, maximum 19) and since the likely opposition PCs will face are the warriors of the village (rather than non-combatants), this makes sense. The 1-8 points of damage an unarmed orc inflicts is, perhaps, a reflection of their greater average strength (+1 STR, though humans have a greater range). This should not be considered an unarmed attack, but damage done from picking up whatever's at hand: furniture, tools/implements, etc. 

[furthermore, if one considers an orc's "penalty" for fighting in daylight, they are little different from a 0-level human with a high CON. Better to think of them as a species with an ADVANTAGE in darkness, than a truly nocturnal race]

Orcs mature quickly (reaching full adulthood by the age of 16), and can reach an age of 80 or more. Skin color ranges from brown to green with a "bluish sheen" changing to pink at the ears and snout. Hair color ranges from dark brown to black, perhaps fading with age (accounts of some with "tan patches"); warriors cut their hair short (described as "bristly"). 

Their intelligence is listed as "average (low)." Intelligence in D&D is a measure of two things: ability to learn languages and ability to learn sorcery. We know from the MM that the majority of orcs speak at least three languages (goblin and hobgoblin being different dialects of the same tongue), that they are "accomplished tunnelers and miners," and that they engage in construction, build fortifications, manufacture their own armor, and use a variety of weapons and siege equipment. From the DMG, we know that they have their own spell-casters: shamans (clerics) of up to 5th level ability, and the derisively called "witch-doctors" (cleric/magic-users) of up to 4th level ability. The range of 3 to 17 for intelligence given in the PHB seems fine and appropriate.

All the orc images on the internet are crap. Here's a
typical coastal native village from the 19th century
(this is a S'Klallam tribal village near Port Gamble).

Socially, they are little different from humans. I choose to see alignment as proclivity, and being lawful orcs engage in the building of communities, have laws and traditions, hierarchies ("chiefs," "sub-chiefs," etc.) and engage in trade with other humanoid communities (as described in the MM by their caravans, and as evidenced by their speaking the tongue of subterranean goblins). The 1-to-1 ratio of male orc to child orc and 2-to-1 ratio of male orc to female orc suggests a high rate of maternal mortality in childbirth, though this is perhaps due to the present conditions (competing with humans for living space). 

"Evil" alignment can be read as "hostile to humans (and their allies)." They have religion, their own form of worship. They obviously value strength (as do many humans); no wonder they are "fiercely competitive" as this is a way of showing strength and thus proving their worth/value to their community. The practice of slavery enforces this value (again: a show of strength in subjugating their foes). However, slavery generally comes about when there is a need for individuals to provide "work," and a lack of willing individuals to do the work.

[an abundance of land and scarce labor supply...once the indigenous locals had died off...contributed to the first slaves being imported into the Americas. Enslaved child soldiers fill the need of "armies" that don't have enough willing combatants; sexual slavery serves a demand that cannot be met under the values and norms of our polite society. And one can see the decline of serfdom and slavery in Europe and Asia as populations grew and cheap, unsupervised labor became abundant]

The D&D world is an immensely perilous one. Able-bodied orcs are needed to protect communities from large monsters and competitive humanoids (like the rival elves and...later...humans). Someone is still needed to grow food for the community, farming and raising animals. Slaves help fill that role for the orcs, especially given the need to preserve females for childbearing. It should probably go without saying that not all Orc communities engage in the practice of slavery.

The disproportion of adult female to male orcs does not necessarily suggest a matriarchal organization, nor even polyandrous relationships. Instead, the value of strength is again exhibited as males unwilling or unable to "prove" themselves are left without mates. Females, especially those proven to be good mothers, will have higher value/status in the tribe, but "environmental considerations" (the hostile D&D setting) contribute to an emphasis on war leaders and battle captains. 

"Cruelty" is in the eye of the beholder. Slavery is cruel to the enslaved (and to those who find slavery abhorrent). "Bullying" is practiced in all walks of human life. Deities & Demigods states the orcs' worship of Gruumsh (in my mind, the orcish word for "God") requires monthly sacrifices of blood...but that doesn't necessarily mean human sacrifice (nor the sacrifice of slaves or fellow orcs!). A goat, ram, or other ritually raised animal works fine and would be little different from historical human practices.

[another DDG note: "raiment" from Gruumsh includes a war helm and black plate mail; this is clearly a bit better than the usual orc armor described in the MM, and more evidence that the orcs' manufacturing ability is on par with humans, at least when it comes to personal armaments]

While the MM's author objects to the specific colors orcs enjoy, the fact remains that the orcs use colors (dyes and whatnot) and have their own sense of style and fashion. They are not primitive cavefolk eking out a subsistence existence. They also use standards and livery, and exhibit a great sense of martial pride (see their bonus when it comes to defending their battle standard). The DMG (page 16) describes:
Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. 
To me, this says they are straightforward and plain-talking, unconcerned with subtleties of speech and the niceties of (human) etiquette. They speak their mind. They are practical and pragmatic. That doesn't mean they aren't polite or honorable (in their own way), but asserting oneself loudly is (again) a means of showing strength...something they value. Because the weak have a hard time surviving the wilds and the depredations of elves. 

Ah, the elves. Long before the humans arrived, the orcs have been warring with elves. And why? Because they want the same things: Land. Resources. Access to timber, water ways, food supply. The elves (who I will discuss in a later post) have gotten the upper hand over the years (most likely by dint of superior magic), resulting in the orcs seeking shelter and homes in subterranean lairs (the majority of orc villages). Regrettably, this has pushed them into conflict with the subterranean dwarves and gnomes in recent years (the PHB p.18 notes a hatred for dwarves and gnomes, rather than simple antipathy with elves...the more recent conflict burns hotter). 

The newly arrived humans have been more curse than blessing for the beleaguered orcs. The humans have much in common with the orcs, and lack the history of ancestral feuding, but they also have the need for the same land. The physical features of the orc race make humans less amenable to them than to other demihumans, and the orcs have little to offer compared to the other species on the planet (elves: magic, dwarves: crafting, gnomes: gemstones, etc.). Orcs are a competitive species with the humans, a rival with little to offer in trade. Their practices of slavery and blood sacrifice make them seem "primitive" in the eyes of humans; their inhuman features and working relationship with goblinoids and ogres make them feared and "dangerous" in comparison to the more human-appearing species. 

[it also doesn't help that humans making friends with the fairer-appearing elves and dwarves has automatically put orcs in the "enemy-of-my-ally" category]

And, yet, some humans and orcs have found the ability to inter-relate with each other. Some humans have taken it upon themselves to "pound the orc out" of (usually) orc children, teaching them the ways of "sophistication;" other less-scrupulous humans see the orcs as easily manipulated muscle for their own agendas...expendable mercenaries, easily bought with promises of land and revenge on hated elves, dwarves, etc. For their part, some orcs have decided it's better to live among the humans, learning their ways, then continue to fight a losing war of cultural competition. 


While orcs have their own forms of worship and magic, shamans and "witch-doctors" are not available as player character classes. Only the classes listed in the PHB (as for half-orc) are available, along with the multi-class and level restrictions listed. Single-class orcs may add +2 to the maximum level in any particular class, subject to normal restrictions (for example, no assassin may progress beyond 15th level).

Orcish player characters have lived and trained extensively with humans. As such, they receive neither the bonuses, nor penalties of other orcs (with regard to fighting in daylight or near an orcish battle standard, etc.). Player character clerics have been initiated into the humans religious practices and advance as a standard cleric, not a shaman, including normal wisdom adjustments; no such character may achieve a level in cleric beyond 4th (6th level if single-classed). All orc player characters speak the common tongue of humans as well as the language of their orc tribe; additional languages can be learned subject to their intelligence.

Player character orcs have both a charisma score and an adjusted charisma score. The adjusted score is two less than the original roll, and never higher than 12, unless magically increased. The adjusted charisma is ONLY used when interacting with humans, elves (and half-elves), dwarves, and gnomes. The adjusted charisma score does not preclude the orc character from entering non-assassin professions.

An orc may be raised from the dead as any other PC race.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Hey...Another Review!

I sent Prince of Nothing a copy of Comes Chaos, and he has deigned to grant me the boon of a review. Quite a comprehensive one, in fact.

The fact that Prince knows (and is a longtime fan) of Warhammer and a longtime DM of the Basic D&D game (I believe he uses the Allston Rules Cyclopedia, though I may be mistaken) gives him a solid handle for analyzing the work, and...well, he's been writing pretty good reviews for a while now. For those still wondering about whether or not this is a purchase they want to make, I'd suggest taking a look; you should way or the other...after reading his post:

Later, Gators. Have some (A)D&D to play this morning.
; )

Friday, February 4, 2022

A Different "Half-Orc"

SO...last night (Thursday) my players were creating new PCs for the campaign (because their others are all dead...natch) and my son rolled up a half-orc fighter/assassin; his FIRST half-orc character as far as I can recall.

[we don't use alignment in our games and this is far from the first assassin we'e seen, but it is (perhaps) interesting that it's taken this long to get a multi-classed one]

Right on, I said. A half-orc, huh? To which he replied something along the lines of: "Yeah, I'm thinking he was kidnapped from his orc-mother's village by humans when he was a child and forced into a reeducation program similar to what was done to Native Americans. How's that for a backstory?" Well, we really don't do backstories (he laughs), but that's not a bad one. How does he feel about orcs? "Well, he sees orcs as his people, really, and hates humans for what they did to him and other village children."

I pointed out to him that his sister's character is a human (and a cleric to boot...a lot of those Indian Residential Schools were run by Catholics or Christian missionaries). At which point he started bending over backwards to create more backstory justifying their relationship and reasons for adventuring and...'No, never mind. Not important.' Because, of course, THAT's not. The game is not about exploring complicated social dynamics based on race and trauma, the bonds of camaraderie and friendship, and the acrimony of historic abuse and cultural genocide.

Thank goodness. That wouldn't be nearly as fun.

However, as I sat in church today (my kids attend Catholic school and since the pandemic, they alternate which classes get to attend Mass on was my daughter's class)...I reflected on this. On this sordid piece of my religious/cultural history. It is/was a really f'ing sad piece of work all that the Catholic Church has yet to apologize for (the Pope is scheduled to meet with delegates from some 30 indigenous American tribes this March...we'll see what happens).

Because...all awfulness kid's idea for using "half-orcs" is kind of brilliant.

I've done a lot of things with orcs in my games over the years. First, of course, they were just another evil minion monster looking to follow a strong evil leader (the classic trope). Later, they were "beastmen," the common sword & sorcery trope, some sort of not-quite-evolved, more bestial human (see the Moldvay description). At times, I've wanted to use them in the Tolkien evil "fey" (fairy) race, either evil by nature or corrupted by some dark power (Tolkiens' orcs are "broken" elves)...however, this always steps on the toes of the various goblinoids.

More recently, I've postulated orcs as either some sort of "created" servitor race (most likely by the sorcerous elves, for whom they hold enmity) that have thrown off their shackles and established their own brutal civilization OR ELSE "orcishness" is a type of magical mutation that occurs in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, while "half-orcs" are simply first generation mutants; the PA spin on the S&S beastman trope.

What I haven't, at using the orcs as analogous to any real world people. I don't see them as Mongols or Huns or "noble savages" of ANY sort. I haven't had the desire to replace real world cultures, I definitely don't see humans in D&D as "white Europeans only" and I always wanted solid reasons for PCs to have adversarial relationships with these subterranean, cannibalistic, tool-using sentients. They ain't all.

And yet, in AD&D we have half-orcs. And, heck, they're one of only three races that can (as a matter or the PHB rules) be clerics. Wha-wha-what?

One of the things I liked about the B/X rules were their complete lack of semi-humans (half-orcs and half-elves). Leaving aside the old school racism of the "half-breed" trope (ugh!) can we say these are different species and NOT reproductively compatible with each other? Just what kind of fantasy are we playing here? If this is Greek myth...well, okay, anyone can breed with anything (that's how you get minotaurs, for example). But given the kitchen sink nature of the setting, you go too far down that road and you end up with something resembling Piers Anthony's Xanth novels. And that's NOT really the kind of game I want to run...not even close.

Now, if orcs (and elves) are just variant neanderthals and cro-magnons and whatnot...with genetic compatibility...well, okay, sure. But then orcs should be able to breed with elves...and the rules are pretty explicit in THAT prohibition (one assumes this is, again, because of Tolkien...but Tolkien himself had the orcs as corrupted elves. And drawing on northern European myth, why not have marriages between light and dark fairies? Um...pretty sure that was a thing, once upon a time).

Do I want orc-elves? No. I do not.

So, I'm considering riffing off my kid's backstory in my world's concept of "half-orcs." In my campaign humans are a transplanted species...they've only been on the planet for two or three centuries (long enough that their history...where they came from, how they got mostly mysterious and lost knowledge). They are the "new kids on the block;" the other sentients were there long before with long established relationships and histories. 

Despite that...and despite the hostility they face from MANY of the sentient species on the planet...humanity is an ascendant species and have quickly adapted and, in many parts, taken over the local. There is still hostile "wilderness" to be explored (and conquered) but humanity has already managed to carve out multiple kingdoms in the region...kingdoms connected by tenuous strands of humanity.

The elves...and their relationship with humans (both socially and genetically) something I won't get into today, but it's fairly mapped out. The orcs, on the other hand, aren't something I considered before, other than: A) they're one of the indigenous species (unlike humans), B) they're antagonistic to the humans, and C) their capabilities (game-wise) are more-or-less as described in the PHB.

Now, however, I am thinking of half-orcs as something much more similar to the indigenous peoples of North America, and their relationship with the "new" humans being something very much like that of the indigenous people to the white (and black) settlers that came to the (Pacific Northwest) region in the 1800s.

[my game world is set in the game map is Washington State and the surrounding area]

Unlike the actual indigenous people, orcs are not humans. However, they are close enough that the humans have attempted to assimilate them into their culture...much the way as Canadian and US governments attempted to reprogram native peoples with their own values, customs, languages, etc. And using similarly brutal and inhumane methods.

A "half-orc" then is NOT a hybrid species of human and orc. Instead, it is an orc that has been taken and culturally re-educated by the humans (good-intentioned or not). They've been taught the language, taught the skills, learned the values and etiquette, all in an attempt to make the creature "less orc." The classes available to the half-orc (fighters, clerics, thieves, and assassins) are the only ones humans would deign to teach an orc (and clerics only to 4th level), or that orcs could pick up on their own. Sorcery? Absolutely not...though within their OWN culture, they teach their own versions of sorcery and clerical magic (using the tribal spellcaster rules on page 40 of the DMG). Such individuals...derisively referred to as "witch doctors" by the humans...are not available as player characters, as their powers are only used for the good of their peoples, rather than "adventure."

Non-indoctrinated orcs, then, have far different cultural priorities than the average adventure-seeking humans. It's not that orcs who retain their own upbringing and social structure don't (sometimes) get the urge to go out and plunder an ancient ruin...but the game is not about those individuals. It's about the humans (and human-accepted) who cooperate, hang out in (human) towns/cities, and look to increase their wealth, prestige, and standing (amongst human-types). 

Nothing halfway
about this guy....
The orc peoples...of which there are many tribes and traditions...are just a little too hostile to the encroaching humans to mix easily into an adventuring party. Those that do can ALL be considered "half-orc," or rather "half-human," based on their different perspective and outlet. Not all of them will hate and resent humans, though most will have mixed feelings about them. 

Not sure why this particular approach to humanoids feels better than human-on-human violence that was so off-putting when I considered setting my game in historic South America. It's not because the actions of American settlers in the west was any less egregious than what happened in (what is now called) Latin America...just research a bit about the Yakima War for a taste of that action. But for some reason, it doesn't feel so problematic to me. Perhaps, I just have more of a handle on the local history and politics, that I feel I can steer the narrative better. Perhaps using "fantasy races" I feel like there's the opportunity to resolve things in a different (maybe better) way. Perhaps I've just grown and matured the last couple years and feel capable of dealing with the harsh reality of colonialism and racial relations.

Or maybe it's just that my children (who are my players) have some understanding of real world history and won't just be going "Cowboys and Indians" on the poor old orcs.

I don't know, but I'm digging on the whole concept. It opens some other issues, of course (like, what exactly is up with Lavinia and her half-orc sons in UK2: The Sentinel...are they adopted? Is she some sort of horrible ex-teacher from an Orc Boarding School?). But the more I reflect on it, the more I find the subject matter something I want to engage with. I hope Diego's new PC can stay alive for a while...I'll be interested to see where his adventures take him.

Hey...A Review!

Tim Brannan over at The Other Side blog wrote up a chapter-by-chapter review of my latest book COMES CHAOS. Interested folks who've been wanting to read someone's opinion of it (besides mine...*ahem*) should check it out. It's a decent overview of the thing.

I spent half the day writing my first post on "world building;" it sucked and was pretty more so than my usual I'm taking a moment to step back and think about exactly what I want to communicate. Definitely more than empty platitudes (which is kind of what it was turning into).

And speaking of weird ramblings: despite feeling "done" with the Star Wars franchise I have been watching the Book of Boba Fett, and man is that thing all over the map! But the most interesting part of watching the most recent episode is finally realizing what it reminds me of: an old 80s SciFi series like Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers (especially the latter). Not only is there a heavy rubber-mask alien vibe throughout the thing...much less than in the Mando series where most of the cast was either human or helmeted...but droids feature more heavily and everyone is just nonchalant about the weirdness of it all.

[which, by the way, is very different from the Star Trek M.O. Everything in Star Trek always seemed allegorical...used to tell some sort of morality lesson...and all the main (human) characters constantly alternated between smugness or bending-over-backward-to-understand-our-culutral-differences. Gah. BoBF doesn't care about any of that...things are just weird in the galaxy. Period. Who cares what a weequay or jawa thinks about life? It's rubber mask escapism

Of course, the most interesting / fascinating show I'm watching these days is The Morning Show with Jen Anniston and Reese Witherspoon. Good stuff that. 

Okay...enough, I don't want to get into a TV discussion at the moment. Life's too short.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

How Money Spends

As I type this, I am waiting for a dude to show up to my house to fix my artificial fireplace. The bill for this repair will probably be in excess of $500, but having suffered through the entire month of January with cold tile floors, I'm ready to spend...after all, what good is a fireplace that doesn't work? Decoration?

Some time in the next ten days I will need to make a deposit of about $600 for tuition for the kids' school next year. Next month, my family is planning a ten-ish day vacation that will include hotel fees of hundreds per night (we won't discuss airfare). In March will come due the bill for the premier (year round) soccer team my son is on...don't know when my daughter's comes due (different team) though hers is substantially less. Then, of course there are her piano lessons ($30 a week), softball fees, flag-football for the boy next month (he wants to give it a try and has a cannon arm so...okay)...that last one is going to be $135, perhaps because it has Russell Wilson's name on it.

I need a haircut. I need a dentist appointment. Just had the car in the shop for two days but (fortunately) everything was under warranty, so no cost there...although the car won't be paid off for another year or so of monthly payments. And gas is more than $50 a tank right now, which sucks unimaginably. Phone, internet, streaming services, cable bill, insurance, mortgage, utilities, all adds up. Buying the stuff I needed for doing laundry cost me $25, but should last a couple weeks.

Gross sales for books in January (print and pdf)) was a bit more than $300. Good thing the fam doesn't rely on me for income. I just do the grocery shopping.

Over a hastily swallowed breakfast this morning, I explained to the kids how credit cards work. That's a good conversation to have (had to disabuse the 7 year old of some strange notions) and one I expect to have multiple times over the next couple years. Conversations about borrowing and debt and interest and predatory lending practices are not really the kind of thing my parents talked about with me as a child...which is too bad, as I ended up finding out about some of it the hard way. But educating 'em, hopefully, will insulate them from at least some bad decisions in their future. After all, in real life you don't get to roll up a new character just because you screwed up with choices you made.

The burden of living in a world of money concerns is a great reason/excuse/justification for escaping into the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons (or ANY role-playing game), where players are directed to magic holes in the ground over-flowing with treasure, ripe for the taking (and armed with the skills and equipment needed to take that treasure). Given the needs of LIVING (even fantasy living) is there really an obligation to include an alignment axis in the game? Characters have to EAT, after all...given that little factoid, does it matter whether my character is good or evil and that a monstrous being holds to any particular faction?

I know, I know...I said I wanted to start a series of posts about "world building" and here I am talking about money/treasure (again!). But the thing is this concept of money is of critical importance to D&D...I daresay that along with 100% commitment/investment, it's a foundational concept that has to be nailed down in your head/heart for any world building to be successful. 

Otherwise, you end up with faulty thinking along the line of this recent post from Noisms

And lest anyone think I'm throwing Noisms under a bus here, I wrote a very similar post waaaay back in 2010; it did not offer his "solutions," but the "problem" raised was (more-or-less) the same: too much treasure enters the game as a necessity of character advancement. And, after reading through the comments, I can see I was still thinking along these lines as late as 2017 and had not for sure changed my opinion till 2020 or thereabouts. That's a long time to be laboring under a misconception.

The issue is not one of too much money in a campaign. The issue is one of not enough things to SPEND that money on. And that, my friends, is a world building issue.

As I mentioned (briefly) in this old post, the AD&D reward system is tied tightly to the game's fantasy economy, especially with training costs and living expenses, two things not present in the the various editions of "basic" D&D. OD&D has living expenses (p. 24 of Book 3) equivalent to 1% of a character's XP for players who've yet to establish a stronghold/barony, but no training costs...I suspect that "training" was implemented by Gygax as a direct method of curbing PC wealth because the costs involved are exorbitant; so much so that the training section may be the most house-ruled part of any AD&D campaign I've seen, being discarded or heavily modified in every group I've witnessed.

Regardless, in a well-run campaign, excessive treasure accumulation shouldn't be an issue because PCs should be spending cash almost as quickly as they earn it. Almost...a constant state of being flat-broke is generally disheartening to a group of players, discouraging them from playing at all. The balancing act that all DMs must walk is allowing them to accumulate while still keeping the players hungry.  And THAT is not a matter of being stingy with's about giving them things to spend that treasure on.

You want examples? Okay.

First: consider the kinds of things YOU spend money on...things like food, shelter, travel, vehicles, etc. Now consider what you might purchase if you HAD more money: better food, better shelter, better vehicles, nicer tools, etc. Now consider the fantasy world you live in and what the fantasy equivalents of these things are: do you want to sleep in a ditch, a hovel, a roadside inn, a manor house, a castle? Do you want to eat gruel or something a little fancier? Do you want to have bargain bin adventuring equipment or stuff that's going to function better and more reliably and is sturdier / less prone to breakage? 

Do you want to be a lone traveler on roads rife with orcs and bandits, or an armed caravan that discourages interlopers on your way from town to town. Do you have enough animals that you can ensure your mounts stay fresh? Do you have a wagon for carrying goods, including provisions for the entire outfit (animals included! working horses need grain, not just grazing!)? You definitely don't want to be slowing down for forage. How about spare parts for those wagons/ good are the roads? Are there roads where you're going? If not, you'll probably need a mule train (with drivers) to pack all your gear. 

Do the characters dress like peasants? Do they hang out in tiny farm villages, trading jewels for food and homespun? Or do they make for the larger towns and cities looking to bedeck themselves in silks and furs and filigreed armor? Ermine capes and jeweled pedants and giant, fancy hats that display their ostentation should be the goal of successful adventurers.

Let's talk about "fencing goods" for a moment...the practice of turning loot in easily spent coin. Coins, as I pointed out in this recent post (and others) are simply a medium of exchange, for goods and services. You change the ancient crown of Rodrick the Fifth for 50,000 g.p. because you don't want to wear it and it's easier to split the take among party members. But once you receive your share...say, 10,000 gold pieces...what do you plan on doing with your half-ton of coins? Put it in sacks and pull it in a cart? No: you exchange it for portable valuables, like jewelry your character WILL wear: bracelets, broaches, necklaces, rings (finger and other), etc. Or you buy expensive gifts for local nobles, trusted retainers, guild masters, and such. Not only does one's possessions (and generosity) signify the character's growing status/prestige, but it should be worth bonuses to reaction rolls, morale and loyalty of retainers, etc. as detailed in the rule books!

Are your characters high enough level to cast raise the dead? Cure disease? Remove curse? Turn stone back to flesh? Everyone bitches and moans about level drain...did you know there's a restoration spell in AD&D? The sample price (on page 104 of the DMG) suggests a cost of 10,000 g.p. "plus a like amount per level of the recipient." That's pretty steep, but since the party probably doesn't have a 16th level cleric, it may be the price they have to pay after an extremely brutal encounter with wights or wraiths. The local patriarch is probably okay casting the spell on credit (which the party will need to pay back after several ventures)...and so long as they have similar alignment, the church may be willing to forgo interest on the the balance.

And speaking of those cash-gaining adventures...just how exactly do your players discover the next lucrative dungeon to plumb? Are they hearing rumors of long forgotten shrines and lost cities? how are they finding them? Are they paying sages (2,000 g.p. per month in B/X and OD&D) to research locations and maps? Are they paying "finders fees" to unsavory and untrustworthy types for "authentic" maps to these places? Assuming they are out-of-the-way adventure sites (that haven't already been looted) do they need to hire ships to take them (and their retainers and their provisions and their gear) to far off islands, inaccessible coastlines, etc. Ships cost money, does their crew, captain, navigator, provisions, etc. But with the heady prospect of making MORE money...well, it's an investment in hopes of a return.

When it comes to the coinage of D&D, I take a page from the book of Anthony Huso (whose blog I find quite enlightening) and try to keep in mind that one silver piece can be considered to have the spending power of $1 (US). Viewed in this way, a gold piece is nothing more than a twenty dollar bill. 30-180 gold pieces to outfit a 1st level character in B/X means the neophyte adventurer has a maximum of $3600 to his or her name, and a average of $2000.

That's not a lot of money! How fast can YOU burn through $2000? The federal poverty line in the United States for a family of four is $26,500 per year...the fantasy equivalent of 1,325 gold pieces (about 110 per month). When the Rules Cyclopedia talks about "dominion income" of 10 g.p. per month per family, this is ruler income in services rendered by the peasants, not the actual amount of income (or "service equivalent") being generated/earned. Or, to put it another way: peasants don't work solely for the benefit of the ruler. That's what slaves do. MOST of the peasant family's work is going back into its own household (feeding, clothing, and sheltering itself) with part of the surplus being paid out as a form of "tribute" to the lord (and taxes are separate altogether). And when I say "most" I mean probably 90% or more.

SO... 100 gold per family per month...1,200 gold per year...still gives us "impoverished peasant" (or rural agrarian society) but with PLENTY of coin...or, rather, coin equivalent (keep saying to yourself medium of exchange). Just remember: it's not that the peasants (and bakers and butchers and candlemakers) have coffers overflowing with golden coins. They earn (or create) "stuff" and then they exchange that "stuff" for other "stuff" in a constant flow of distribution and redistribution, setting aside a portion to pay taxes and church tithes and/or (perhaps) aid their fellow humans.

And just as in real life, the dudes at the top skim a portion off the top of everything to stack in their vaults.

An adventurer coming to town with a boatload of cash doesn't suddenly change the economy. Economy's don't change over night.  And communities able to subsume large amounts of wealth (townships and cities) are even LESS amenable to change...all that treasure is just getting dispersed and distributed.

Look: how much experience does a magic-user need to earn to reach 7th level? 60,001 in AD&D (my edition of choice). Assuming 85% of that experience comes from treasure (not an unreasonable assumption) and perhaps 80% of that treasure is monetary (rather than magical), you're looking at a character that's accumulated somewhere around 40,000 gold pieces over the course of her career, the fantasy equivalent of some $800,000. Quite a chunk of change, right?

But this the equivalent of gross income...income not counting expenses (what the PC spends on outfitting ventures, fees, taxes, costs, retainers, etc.). You know what the average gross revenue for a bar in the United States is? $330,000. That's average. There are a lot of folks who'd call a 7th level adventurer pretty successful (among my current players, we've yet to see someone achieve 6th level). Just how much game time does it take for said magic-user to reach 7th level? I'd think that might be a more accurate measure of "success."

[and, hey, while some folks might say "just surviving is success," remember that this is a game where dead adventurers can be raised fairly easily]

In that previously cited post, one commenter stated it had taken two years for a character in his campaign to achieve 7th level. $400K per year? That's hardly more than one would earn running a average pub. Not even a high end one which might earn HUGE revenues in the right environment with the right clientele. Yet, even then, it doesn't mean the owner of the bar is FILTHY RICH, as most of those revenues go into the cost of running the bar...not just inventory, but staff salaries, cleaning costs, upkeep, lease, taxes, licenses, new equipment, repairs, insurance, etc. Of course, the owners have to pay themselves, too, right?

JB, JB...what the hell is all this? I don't care about this accounting BS! I just want to hunt trolls and fight owl bears, and explore the the halls of giants and the (treasure) vaults of the Drow! Why are you just going on and on and on! If I wanted to start a small business, I wouldn't be playing D&D!!

All right, man, I get it. You're looking at the game a certain way: as a chance to escape the "drudgery" of the real world and play the hero or the dastardly villain just like some movie you saw or book you read. Right? All this thinking of "adventuring" as an a venture detracting from the fun of the thing. Too fiddly.

Here's the thing: as I talked about in my last post, the ONLY thing that will satisfy me (with regard to D&D gaming) is to have full investment...which, to me, is a combo of engagement and commitment...from the folks at the table (myself included). And what once led to that investment has CHANGED for me over the years. Because I have changed.

I am not a kid anymore. I'm not as ignorant as I once was (that is a post all to itself). And while I don't (yet) mind the people in my world playing from an ignorant point of view, I'm not going to coddle them any more and...chances are...if they play ignorant, they will probably suffer. 

And if they suffer enough...well, they probably won't want to play in my world any more. And that's, you know, okay. I am going to try to make it as "fun" and "interesting" as possible. The work, the brow sweat being put into this is almost entirely my own, anyway. They (the players) just have to show up and play well. You real people. Real adventurers.

Because I want a game that is immersive. I want a game that drags them in. I want a game that consumes it once consumed me, long ago.

When I was a kid, I was less demanding. Now I am more demanding. I have to be. Because I have too much shit on my plate to run a D&D game as a "lark." Dude, I'd rather play Camel Up. Or Axis & Allies. Lot less brain power, and still quite a bit of excitement/laughs. 

All right, I'm digressing from the original point. Time to cut out. Hopefully world building will be next.