Monday, December 23, 2019

Reviewish: Arbiter of Worlds

Autarch recently put out a book of DMing advice, titled Arbiter of Worlds.  I picked it up because someone in the ACKS discord mentioned that it had a section on competitive player-group dynamics, which I have enjoyed in the past, and read it on the plane during holiday travel recently.  It has been a long time since I last read a DMing advice book (the last being How to Run, by Alexis, which I should probably finish and review at some point).


I agree with much of what he says about the functions of the DM / judge, their relative importance, and the importance of agency, and I think it's a pretty good statement of the position.  Reasonably concise (but longer than a blog post would bear) and well-argued.

His framing of the sandbox region as a story-web was interesting.  Much of the actionable advice on stocking a sandbox and linking things together was either repeated from ACKS or similar to the existing wilderness exploration literature (Western Marches on danger pockets and Treasure Tells a Story, for example), but the ACKS region-construction guidelines were elaborated on in the context of agency, and thinking of it as a planned web for potential emergent stories was interesting and different from how I usually do things (links emerging as a result of random treasure maps rolled during play).  One thing that I'd've liked to see was extrapolation of this structure into the dungeon, since I think it does generalize - a large, jayquayed, exploration-oriented dungeon could certainly have a structure of hooks/pointers within it, which point players into different parts of the dungeon.

I liked that he talked about his personal worldbuilding process and the player's guide and gazetteer outputs of that process.  Would be fine material for the Secrets chapter of ACKS 2e, if that ever happens.  Also waaay more work up front than I will ever do.

I was surprised that he uses triggers in his living worlds.  "When the players enter town X for the first time, they find signs for a tournament in three days", as opposed to "The tournament occurs annually on the 15th of Juntober, and signs are posted two weeks prior."  Less hard-simulationist than I expected (there was more to the living worlds section that that, but triggers were the biggest surprise to me).

I was a little disappointed to find that the social dynamic I enjoyed watching during the 2012 campaign wasn't quite covered by his categorization of group social norms into collective, competitive-collective, and individualist.  I think we fell somewhere between competitive-collective and individualist.  Maybe I should go back and really figure out what the norms we were playing by were, and get them down in writing.  It might've been an unstable equilibrium; it did break down eventually.

The discussion of limiting the powers of villains explains a lot of the changes to high-level spells in ACKS.

Canons of interpretation is a very lawyer way to look at the process of making rulings during play.  I think my process of rulings is somewhat more consequentialist - what is the function of this ambiguous rule, why is it here, what are the consequences for the system of each possible interpretation or change?  It's the "legacy software maintainer" perspective on rules changes (at work the other day I was dealing with a codebase that had comments that affected the function of the code.  Load-bearing comments.  Terrifying).  The canons seem to be mostly about dealing with the semantics of natural language.  Maybe they were developed in acknowledgement of the impossibility of understanding all the consequences of a ruling in a complex system.  Food for thought.

I found the focus on describing blows in combat in graphic detail surprising, but it explains the mortal wounds table pretty well.
Given that everyone comes into RPGs wanting to use their imagination, the reasons why combat devolves to simple mechanics are somewhat mysterious to me.  I think it may be because nothing is at stake.  It's hard to conjure up the energy for vivid imagery when it doesn't really matter.
Personally, I run very mechanical, low-description combat.  Playing 3.x, maybe it was because the stakes were low.  Playing ACKS, it might be habit carry-over, but it might also be because of the rules.  I don't want to describe a player's killing blow as decapitating a foe by fiat, because the correct procedure within the rules is to wait for the party to check him for mortal wounds if they decide they want a prisoner to interrogate or take hostage.  Maybe they'll want to RL&L him later, in which case a decapitation would close that course of action to them.  Detailed, fiat kill descriptions have implications for agency.

As a player, I also don't much like DMs who waste time on combat descriptions - I'd rather they kept combat moving quickly.  I've definitely had the "oh boy, here goes this R.A. Salvatore wannabe again, narrating every attack" feeling at the table before.  The clock's ticking towards end of session, we got places to be and stuff to steal, and it's only a six-to-ten-second combat round anyway.  I think there's value in keeping the combat loop tight, and descriptions are a very easy thing to cut.  I recognize that it's a wargamer perspective.

Anyway, I expect that rather then the 300-style descriptions being advocated for, I'll stick with at most saga-style descriptions:
But when Egil sees this, he runs at Gunnar and makes a cut at him; Gunnar thrusts at him with the bill and struck him in the middle, and Gunnar hoists him up on the bill and hurls him out into Rangriver.
While I was happy to re-learn the term abduction, and I appreciate its importance in play when using random tables heavily, and I'm a Musashi enthusiast, I still thought that the repeated Musashi references in that chapter were kind of...  eh.  It's an acknowledgement of metis, but a somewhat opaque and unhelpful acknowledgement.

The mashups chapter was very different from how I hack up systems; an interesting perspective, but not what I expected.  I was a little disappointed, I think, because an earlier chapter referred to the mashups chapter for suggestions on system modification, and then it only covered a very specific method of modification.  It does dispel any doubt about parts of ACKS being Traveller-derived, though.


Overall, I thought the kindle version was worth the $5 and three to four hours to read.  I think for ACKS DMs and players, it's a good look into why some things are the way they are, and how they were intended to be used.

I think the most interesting section to a broader slice of the OSR who are into "Rulings, not Rules" is the Canons of Interpretation.  This is probably the most unique part of the book; you can find other people talking about agency, or how to link pieces in a sandbox, or how to not wargame (or only sometimes wargame) your opposition, but nobody's talking about jurisprudence.  I think it would've been really interesting to see an alternate ordering of the chapters of this book, talking about the four roles of the DM and discussing those roles in order of priority, with the section on judging and rulings coming first, then worldbuilding, then playing the opposition, and finally concerns of storytelling.  I get why it's laid out the way it is, though; it's in opposition to the position that Guarantor of Fun and Storytelling are the central functions, and it has to deal with those before shifting into assertion.

I think the book is squarely aimed at the "new DM running 5e", and I think the ordering is pretty reasonable for that case.  I don't know how effective it would be at persuading DMs of that demographic to pursue agency, since I am not in that situation.  I speculate that it might be effective if they've had some negative experiences with low-agency play previously, but I dunno if it'll work otherwise; I think usually you already have to have a little doubt in your own position in order to be persuaded effectively.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 4: Miscellany

Continued from part 3

This is just a big pile of quotes that I thought were interesting, but didn't feel like needed too much elaboration.

"[Lucian] shows that...  the myth is what the author makes it; it is a theme, a suggestion, from which new fancies may arise."

"Over that lake thai se lygge / A wonder longe narowe brygge / two mile of lengthe hit was semande / And scaisely the brede of ane hande."
An Irish description of the Bridge of Dread, two miles long and the breadth of a hand, from the Vision of Adamnan.

"There is a pretty scene with an elf or dwarf, true of word, as these wights always are."

"In the Middle Ages, Germany is ahead of France in a kind which is reckoned peculiarly French; the earliest fabliaux are in German Latin, with Swabians for comic heroes - the story of the Snow-Child, and How the Swabian Made the King Say 'That's a Story!'."
I feel like dark ages German comedic poetry might be the most obscure topic I've ever read about.

"The appearance of Sigrun the Valkyrie in the air, riding with her company of armed maidens to take Helgi for her champion, is one of the magical adventures that make these romances of the North so different from the Anglo-Saxon stories.  There is no elf-queen in Beowulf."
To which Tolkien surely replied, "Hold my tea."

"Not to wine do I wake you, nor to women's spell, but I wake you to the stern play of the war-goddess."
From the Bjarkamal, which is a great name.

"The Icelandic poets had studied in their own manner the poem that is meant for direct assault, like the Provencal sirventes, not to speak of Archillocus or Catullus.  One of them was called Serpent-Tongue (Worm-tongue, Ormstunga) and the name was deserved by many more."
So you see, Wormtongue was actually a bard.

"[Cynewulf] is a tale like that of Finnesburh, or Roland, or Percy Reed, a good defence against enemies, an old motive repeated often enough in real conflicts without a poet to record the tragedy, and never so often repeated in prose or rhyme as to lose its interest or its dignity."

"All history in Iceland shaped itself as biography, or as drama, and there was no large crowd at the back of the stage."
A stylistic consideration - do your games have faceless multitudes?

"A green knoll, at the face of the sun and the back of the wind, where they were near to their friends and far from their foes."
An example of antithesis in Irish poetry.

"The stories, whether of cattle spoils or abductions, voyages, wooing, or violent death, according to the Irish Catalogue of favorite topics, are full of wonders; and even simple business, like ordinary fighting, is described with an air of surprise."
There're plenty of Norse sourcebooks, and a few for post-Roman Britain, but man, I feel like a game set in fantasy Ireland with adventure seeds drawn from the Catalogue could be pretty great.  Like Pendragon but with more cattle rustling.

"The French poem of the pilgrimage of Charlemagne is not affected by the crusade, and must have been composed before it.  The interest in it is largely comic; the enormous boasting of the paladins and their miraculous successes are more like the humour of Morgante and other Italian stories than the heroism of Roland."
Here's to another thousand years of paladin jokes.

"The song of Roland, though earlier than the First Crusade, is a crusading epic - the poem of Christendom against the infidel.  It is also the epic of France, "sweet France"; the honor of the kingdom is constantly remembered, and not merely out of duty, but because it is the spirit and life of the poem, as much as Rome is in the Aeneid.  Naturally, the grandeur and solemnity of these ruling thoughts makes the epic of Roncesvalles very different from most of the Teutonic poems, where characters have seldom any impersonal cause to fight for, and the heroic moral is restricted to the bond of loyalty between a lord and his companions...   The heroes lose as dramatis personae what they gain as representing grand ideals...  The epic of Roland may be taken, in a way, as closing the Dark Ages."
Another stylistic consideration - are your characters tied to abstract loyalties, or personal loyalties?

Monday, December 9, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 3: Homeric Combat

Continued from part 2.

Moving past the Latin, through old English and Saxon, and then to the Norse Eddas, there was a quote that I found interesting:
The [Norse] poets cannot spend time in story-telling.  The persons, their wills and thoughts, are more interesting than their exploits.  The best of the narrative poems, such as the Lay of Thor's Hammer, are comparatively light and simple; where there is a weighty historical matter, such as the fall of the Nibelungs, hardly any space at all is given to the fighting.  The Northern poetry knows not the Homeric method, which is not wanting to the Anglo-Saxons, French, and Germans, to the poets of the Waltharius, Byrhtnoth, Roland, and the Nibelunglied.  It is not for want of interest: it was because the available poetical forms were not adapted for description or history...  The heroic spirit of Gudrun and her brothers is within the comprehension of the poets, and they have the right means to bring it out in their verse; but... they do not choose to to employ the regular formulas for epic battles.  The slaughter "grim and great" at the close of the Nibelunglied is told by the Austrian poet in the same way as the killing of suitors by Odysseus; but in the Elder Edda it... is taken as something understood. 
One result of this economy of narrative in the Northern poems was that narrative had to find another channel.  The Icelandic Sagas are the complement of the poetry; they have the breadth and freedom that the poems have not.

Here's an example of what he means, from the Helgakvitha:

9. Mighty he grew | in the midst of his friends,
 The fair-born elm, | in fortune's glow; 
 To his comrades gold | he gladly gave, 
 The hero spared not | the blood-flecked hoard.

10. Short time for war | the chieftain waited,
 When fifteen winters | old he was;
 Hunding he slew, | the hardy wight 
 Who long had ruled | o'er lands and men.

11. Of Sigmund's son | then next they sought
 Hoard and rings, | the sons of Hunding;
 They bade the prince | requital pay
 For booty stolen | and father slain.

12. The prince let not | their prayers avail,
 Nor gold for their dead | did the kinsmen get;
 Waiting, he said, | was a mighty storm 
 Of lances gray | and Othin's grimness.

13. The warriors forth | to the battle went, 
 The field they chose | at Logafjoll;
 Frothi's peace | midst foes they broke,
 Through the isle went hungrily | Vithrir's hounds.

14. The king then sat, | when he had slain 
 Eyjolf and Alf, | 'neath the eagle-stone;
 Hjorvarth and Hovarth, | Hunding's sons, 
 The kin of the spear-wielder, | all had he killed.

The main devices here are alliteration, allusion, and kenning; elm meaning man, storm meaning war, Vithrir's hounds being wolves, Frothi's peace alluding to another historical figure.  You can call a thing by another name, but it's hard to call an action by another name.  By comparison, Homeric verse is full of simile, which is much more able to describe action.
Many of [Ermoldus' similes] are taken from the birds, and are of a genuine Homeric kind: like thrushes settling on the vintage in autumn, and refusing to be scared by the cymbal of the vexed husbandman; as birds shrieking after the hawk which has carried one of their party away; as ducks hiding from an eagle in the water-weeds and the mud.
I thought it was sort of funny that the old poets ran into the same difficulty with detailed combat and trading off time describing it that we do in RPGs.  I don't think I have ever used a simile to describe an action in combat in D&D, and certainly not a one with multiple clauses like "after the eagle who has carried one of their party away".  But it's also pretty rare to elide a combat to the same degree that the Helgakvitha does.

I also found the degree to which available poetic devices influenced this interesting; they limited the search space, the set of tradeoffs you could make, in the same way that if you are playing Runequest or Dark Heresy your combat descriptions have to include hit locations, while there probably exists an RPG without fully-developed combat mechanics where you almost have to gloss over combat.  We sort of had this problem with mass combat in ACKS before Domains at War came out; the situation arose and we didn't have the mechanics to resolve or describe it in detail.

So something to reflect on - where do you want to put the detail in your games?  Is your system helping you or hindering you in doing that?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 2: Gerhard and Bucephalus Go to Chartres

Continued from Part 1

After the discussion of common literary forms, The Dark Ages moves on to Latin, and here there was a clear gap between Ker's expectations of his reader and what modern education provided.  I did not spend too much time trying to decipher the Latin poetry.  More interesting were the relayed stories of monastic life, which were recorded in Latin.  There was one particularly interesting passage, where Gerhard the Benedictine talks about his journey from the monastery at Rheims to that at Chartres (about 150 miles) in 991 AD:
[A messenger from Chartres] produced a letter urging me to read the Aphorisms of Hippocrates.  This gave me great pleasure, and I determined to set out for Chartres along with my envoy and a boy to attend me.  From the abbot I received no more than one palfrey.  Without money or letters of credit I reached Orbais [about 30 miles], a place renowned for charity, and there was much refreshed in conversation with the abbot, and munificently entertained.  I left on the morrow for Meaux [another 40 miles].  But the perplexities of a forest which I and my companions entered were not without their evil fortune; we went wrong at cross-roads, and wandered six leagues [20 miles] out of our way.  Just past the castle of Theodoric, the palfrey, which before had appeared a Bucephalus, now began to drag like a sluggish ass.  Now the sun had passed the South, and, all the air dissolving into rain, was hastening to his setting in the West, when that strong Bucephalus was overcome by the strain, failed, and sank beneath the boy who was riding him, and as if struck by lightning expired at the sixth milestone from the city...  
I left the boy there with the baggage, told him what to answer to passers-by, bade him beware of falling asleep, and along with the Chartres messenger, got to Meaux.  I pass on to the bridge, with scarcely light to see by.  Then looking more narrowly I was assailed by new mischances.  There were so many large gaps in the bridge that the visitors of the townsfolk can only have got over that day with hazard.  The man of Chartres, full of quickness and of good sense likewise for the difficulties of the journey, after looking all about for a ferry and finding none, came back to the perils of the bridge: Heaven granted him to get the horses safe over.  For in the gaping places he sometimes put his shield under the horses' feet, sometimes laid loose planks over, stooping and rising and coming and going till he had brought the horses, and me with them, safe across. 
I don't really want to keep block-quoting this story, but for those who hate loose ends, Gerhard went to the Abbey of St. Faron in Meaux and slept, the messenger went back out to get the boy and they slept at the foot of the bridge and crossed in the morning.  They left the boy at St. Faron's and proceeded on to Chartres, where Gerhard read the book he was looking for.

I felt this bit highlighted some interesting features of dark age wilderness adventures.  They did a bit better than 24 miles a day, but this was a relatively well-settled part of France, near Paris, and there were apparently roads of some sort (hence the crossroads).  I'm not sure where they got the extra horses (maybe the abbot of Orbais).  I thought it was really interesting that there was a chain of monasteries, about one every other 24-mile hex, and elsewhere Ker mentions another chain of monasteries including St. Gall in Switzerland, which linked the monasteries of Italy with those of southern Germany.  I was sort of impressed that they managed to go 20 miles out of their way, since their party included a messenger who had just done this route in the opposite direction.  The state of disrepair of the bridge at Meaux was somewhat surprising, given that it was a settled region with literal milestones.  The whole thing, traveling 150 miles to read a book and having a wilderness adventure where there were no enemies but still tension, just struck me as rather remarkable.

Hexes right around 24-25 miles I think

Continued in part 3

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Book Review: Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 1: On the Epic

W.P. Ker was a contemporary of Tolkien's, a fellow Catholic professor of literature in late 19th to early 20th century Britain.  Tolkien quoted a powerful passage from Ker in Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics:
[The Twilight of the Gods] is the assertion of the individual freedom against all terrors and temptations of the world.  It is absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.  The Northern gods have an extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins.  The winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation.
And that was a pretty grand quote, so I figured I'd go read the source from which it originated, Ker's The Dark Ages, especially since it was only a dollar on kindle (though I will say, atrocious scan quality, lots of gibberish where unicode didn't get rendered properly, and page footers are spliced into the middle of text.  On the other hand, lots of funny typos as a result of bad scan, like "La Chanson de Boland" and "The Park Ages").

I don't think I've ever read a book quite like this before.  It is, I imagine, like reading lecture notes from a college literature course, of which I took none.  Works are discussed, linked to other works and to overarching themes in literature during the period (400-1100 AD roughly) and sometimes summarized.  It almost feels like an index, like I could use it to pick out interesting things to read and see where they fit into a bigger picture.  It's organized by language, and within each language or language-family, roughly chronologically (but sometimes by style - the Eddas vs the Sagas in the Norse section).  He never tells quite the whole story; he assumes history sometimes which is unfamiliar these days, and often alludes to things.  I ended up looking a lot of stuff up, and this led me to read interesting things, so I appreciated this tendency; it reminded me of The Book of Tea's axiom about leaving gaps which draw the observer in.  It might serve well in sandbox gaming if executed properly.

There's a very interesting section near the beginning on characteristics of the epic poems, the Song of Roland and Beowulf, which I think bears heavily on D&D:
Epic requires a particular kind of warfare, not too highly organized, and the manner of the Homeric battle is found again in Germany, Ireland, and old France.  The fighters are bound by loyalty to their chieftains; their lords are their patrons and entertainers who have given them gifts.  When the time comes they may have to be reminded of their obligations, and one of the constantly recurring passages in epic is the appeal to memory of benefits received.  The captain reminds his host, or one of the elder men reminds his associates, of the bygone feasting in the hall when the horn went round and the professions of bravery along with it...  
So Wiglaf in Beowulf speaks to his companions when they refuse to follow their king on his last enterprise: "I remember how we promised our lord at the feast in hall when he gave us rings, that we would make him requital for the armor he gave us, rings and good swords, if need should befall.  And now it has fallen."...
The reproach of Agamemnon to Menestheus and Odysseus - "You were the first at the call to my feast" - is repeated in the king's address to his men in the Northern poem of Hlod and Angantyr: "We were many at the mead and now we are few; I see no man in my company, for all my bidding or the rings I have given him, that will ride to meet the Huns."
Which is to say that if running a game in the style of the epic poems, henchmen are important, and their checking of morale is important.  The contrast between the morale rolls of NPCs and the heroic agency of PCs, I guess.

Another interesting passage follows:
Neither Popes nor Emperors nor educational reformers nor improvements in the art of war were able to obscure the heroic view of life.  For the purposes of poetry there was retained a kind of archaic simplicity in politics which did not allow the heroes to become too much involved in affairs, which let them stand out, self-reliant and distinct, as heroes of epic should.  Similarly the fashions of war, which in the actual world were not purely Homeric, were by common consent, in poetry and story-telling, allowed to keep their old rules: room is left to see how the several champions demean themselves.  Also, as if by a kind of indistinct perception that large warfare was too difficult or too complex and abstract for poetry, the epic turns by preference to adventures where the hero is isolated or left with a small company, where he is surprised and assailed in a house by night, as at Finnesburh, or where he meets his enemies in a journey and has to put his back to a rock, like Walter of Aquitaine.
It's a remarkable description also of the heroic conventions of most fantasy RPGs.  Surely some of this is inheritance from their literary sources, but the RPG group is under cognitive-load pressures similar to those of the poets to focus on heroes and to keep them largely unentangled from the minutia of (say) rulership and logistics.  And this is one source of player-friction in ACKS, the conflict between expectations about the structure of heroic narratives and the realities of gameplay.

There is a divergence from RPG player behavior in matters of ethics, though.  Ker argues that the heroic poetry was written for a noble audience, and that its heroes were, by and large, rather moral, such as their morality was.  As an example:
The respect for the slain enemy [in the Waltharius] is not a new thing, nor purely Christian.  As Grimm points out, Arrow Odd after the fight at Samsey buries Angantyr and his brothers [after killing them].  Other Icelandic references might be easily multiplied, and compared with the chivalrous romances where the true knight gives housel [the Eucharist] to his enemy after mortally wounding him.
This is something that I think the ACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook got rather right, with the Warrior Code rules.  It's still not perfect - my players did still lie and steal and mistreat the dead.  But they stopped and thought about it first, which is progress.

There's also a good section on riddles near the discussion of epics.

"Who are the brides that walk over the reefs, and drive along the firths?
The white-hooded ladies have a hard bed; in calm weather they make no stir."

To be continued in part 2.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

ACKS Morrowind: Silt Striders

Why walk when you can ride?

Silt striders are the first means of fast travel most Morrowind players encounter, and also the one that is the most iconic.  They're giant bugs whose shells are partly hollowed out, their nerves poked to make them move on command, and used as buses.

Elf on the dock for scale

Silt striders pose a couple of interesting questions.  What do their young look like?  Do they lay eggs?  How big an egg?  Where do they fit ecologically?  What do they eat?  Some folks advance theories that they're primarily aquatic, but since there are silt striders in Ald'ruhn and Maar Gan, both unreachable by water, and plenty of silt strider husks in the Ashlands, I don't like this theory.  One proposal is that they're like salmon, with adults migrating in from the sea to lay eggs in the Ashlands, where they then die.  Their mouths are so high that they probably need to bring food up, but their pointy front legs aren't clawed.  Maybe they're filter feeders who sift the dust?  But the head and mouth don't look built for that.  Likewise, any herbivorous explanation doesn't make sense with the height; there aren't any trees that tall in the Ashlands, or even in most of the West Gash.  Maybe they eat that persistent pest, the cliff racer.  Maybe when Saint Jiub hunted the cliff racer to extinction, he also doomed the silt striders to extinction.  If they eat cliff racers in the wild, what do they eat in captivity?  How much meat does a house-sized carnivorous insect need per day?

The common cliff racer.  Somewhat larger than man-sized.  Note the keeled breastbone and lack of feet.
Cliff racers are sort of like wyverns, but smaller, faster, without the venom, and much more numerous.

This seems like a fine time to break out the Lairs and Encounters rules for building monsters.

Silt striders are fantastic vermin, saving as a fighter of HD/2 and with probably 0 special abilities.  Their body form is...  maybe Beetle is the closest?  With a body mass exponent of 1.63 and a carrying capacity factor of 0.43.  Silt striders are...  big.  Even excluding the height from the spindly legs, the main body is about 10 feet tall and as broad.  Measuring some pixels on screenshots, I think they're around 25-30 feet long, or towards the upper end of ACKS' Gigantic size category.  Call it 26,000 pounds (about two elephants by mass).  Some math gives us...  53 HD.  That's a lot.  Two elephants is only 18 HD.  Leeet's go with 36 HD.

As for carrying capacity, doing some jiggery-pokery with the cube-square law, I get around 2750 stone.  I think, if I'm reading this right.  2750 pounds seems too low (since a man-sized Giant Tiger Beetle can carry almost that much), but 2750 stone is more than the silt strider itself weighs.  That is more than the cargo capacity of a 60' longship.  An elephant can carry 180 stone.  So it weighs twice as much as an elephant, and can carry almost 15 times as much.

Beetles, man.

I think we're going to need broader, flatter feet to distribute all that load and not sink into the ground, especially in silt.  Also howdah-like cargo platforms, because they've only got a horizontal profile of about 250 square feet.

I guess ridiculous carrying capacity is a really good reason to bother "domesticating" these huge dangerous bugs and using them to transport cargo though.

Speaking of dangerous:

% in lair: 40%
Dungeon enc: N/A
Wilderness enc: Solitary (1) / Solitary (1)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 150' (50')
Armor class: 6
Hit dice: 36 (THAC0 -4+)
Attacks: 3 (claw, claw, bite) or 1 (trample at +4)
Damage: 4d10/4d10/8d6 or 16d8
Save: F18
ML: 0
Treasure: P+M
XP: 6750

Trainable at a -2 modifier with a training period of 5 months.  Natural lifespan of 55 years, reach adulthood at 5 and a half.  The value of a "trained" silt strider is around 224,000 GP by the formula in Lairs and Encounters.  Which, I suppose, does explain why there are only 9 of them on the whole island.  This same formula also puts a medium horse at almost 600gp, where a medium warhorse is less than half of that, and a medium riding horse is only 40gp.  So I imagine it might be appropriate to apply a substantial discount for "this is the beast of burden of our people".

Taking that price at face value though, an untrained silt strider is worth 2/3 (~150kgp), a young one 50% (112kgp), and a baby or egg 25% (~56kgp).  So that would be a pretty funny mid-level ashlands adventure, to secure a 5' diameter silt strider egg and roll it back to civilization.

For Domains at War, five silt striders make up a company-scale unit.  With their ridiculous carrying capacity, it makes a lot of sense to put artillery on top of them.  Lamellar barding (3600gp, +4 AC, 48st), gigantic war howdah (240gp, 18st), 6 dudes in lamellar with bows and short swords (96st, AC5), a light catapult (100gp, 120st), and 20 rounds (6st) uses like...  15% of the carrying capacity.  Sadly there are no numbers for the weight of siege towers.

Siege Striders
MV 2/5/8 FM?.  Tall spindly legs allow them to walk over obstacles 10' tall or less.
AC 9
HD 40+2
UHP 14
Melee: Only the striders can attack, the riders are too high up.  10 melee at -4+.  On charge, 10 trample at -8+.  As gigantic creatures, their melee attacks deal 50 SHP to wood and 5 SHP to stone structures.
Ranged: 2 shortbow 13+.
Siege: 1 light catapult 13+, range 5-10, reload 5.  Deals 50 SHP to wood and 5 SHP to stone structures.
ML: +1

I dunno.  Maybe this is too big and too expensive.  Maybe I should work up reasonable beasts of burden for a horseless continent.  Horse-sized beetles pulling wagons, pack guars, riding wasps, etc.

Rollie the Pack-Guar and his elf

Thursday, November 14, 2019

ACKS Morrowind: Market Classes, Trade Routes

Working out populations and market classes for all the towns of note:

Ald Velothi: One smith, no inns, ~1.5k population, Large Village, class V.  Age 1000-2000 years (it is Old Velothi after all), sea coast, scrub, hills.
Ald'ruhn: Previous post, population 4500, Small City, class IV.  Age 100-1000 years, desert, hills.
Balmora: Previous post, population 8000, Small City, class IV.  Age 1000-2000 years canonically but I dunno if that actually makes sense, riverbank, scrub, hills.
Caldera: One smith, one inn, ~2k population, Large Village, class V.  Age <20 years, scrub, hills.
Dagon Fel: No smiths, one inn, ~2k population, Large Village, class V.  Age <20 years, sea coast, scrub, hills?
Ebonheart: One very good smith but he's part of the garrison rather than serving civilian markets, one inn, big fortress, long-range boat service...  population 2k, Large Village, class V.  It's a military and administrative center, with supporting civilian population, but not much beyond that.  Would probably also have been the sensible place to put the Census and Excise office, and to have the prison ship arrive at.  Age <20 years (Armistice era), sea coast, grasslands, plains.
Ghostgate: inn and smith, but...  it's really just a fortress-monastery.  Class VI market at the fortress.  Age 100-1000 years (Tribunal era), desert, mountains.
Gnaar Mok: no inns, smiths, or taverns, population <400 (call it 350), Small Village, class VI.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, rainforest?, plains.
Gnisis: two non-garrison smiths, no inns, 3k population, Small Town, class V.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast and river, scrub, hills.
Hla Oad: one smith but not open to the public, no inn but yes really lousy tavern, 400 population, Small Village, class VI.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, rainforest, plains.
Khuul: no smiths, no inn, one really lousy tavern, 400 population, Small Village, class VI.  Age 21-100 years, sea coast, scrub, hills.
Maar Gan: one smith, one inn, 2k population, Large Village, class V.  Age 100-1000 years, desert, mountains.
Molag Mar: two smiths, no inns, 3k population, Large Village, class V.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, desert, hills.
Pelagiad: one non-garrison smith, one inn, 2k population, Large Village, class V.  Age <20 years, Lake, Grasslands, Hills.
Sadrith Mora: Three smiths, two inns, population 4500, Small City, class IV.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, scrub, hills.
Seyda Neen: No smiths, one pretty decent tavern, population 500, Village, class VI.  Age <20 years years, sea coast, rainforest, plains.
Suran: One smith, no inns (but two "taverns"), 1500 population, Large Village, class V.  Age 1000-2000 years (canonically built concurrently with Balmora), river, lake, grasslands, hills.
Tel Aruhn: One smith, no inns, 1500 population, Large Village, class V.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, scrub, plains.
Tel Branora: One smith, one inn, 2000 population, Large Village, class V.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, scrub, plains.
Tel Mora: One smith, one inn, 2000 population, Large Village, class V.  Age 100-1000 years, sea coast, scrub, hills.
Vivec: Previous post, population 13000, City, class III.  Age 100-1000 years (right around 1000 in the mid-3rd Era), sea coast, lake, grasslands, plains.
Vos: No smiths, one inn, 2000 population, Large Village, class V.  Age 1000-2000 years (Velothi era), sea coast, savanna, plains.

One interesting thing that picking out ages highlights is that there were a number of cities built canonically in the Velothi / pre-Tribunal era.  It would make sense to have some ruined cities from that era too, probably around the propylon fortresses, since those are from that era too.  Gnisis is particularly intriguing in this light; it's right on a river mouth (a sensible place for an initial settlement), there's a propylon fortress right across the river, and Arvs-Drelen is a Velothi-era dome.

Adding trade routes (blue for water, brown for road) with ranges based on these market classes, here's what we get:

So we have one big component with Vivec, Balmora, Ald'ruhn, and the villages on the south and southwestern coasts, another component with most of the Telvanni towns on the northeast plus Dagon Fel, a small Redoran component in the northeast, and then a few isolated villages (Maar Gan and Gnaar Mok). 

My scale concerns strike again, but this time in the other direction - some of the settlements which have fast travel services (boats and silt striders) that you can hire to take you to other settlements in Morrowind are now out of each others' trade ranges.  I think the biggest offenders here are Tel Branora to Sadrith Mora, and the Gnisis component.  Not sure what, if anything, to do about this.  Probably just let players charter ships and silt striders anyway; I don't think the ACKS rules for chartering a vessel require it to be along a trade route.

I think this view frames the locations the Houses were trying to take in an interesting way.  Redoran's capital is cut off from his villages by distance, and probably relies on importing food from Hlaalu.  Taking Bal Isra would help link up Maar Gan, and then Shishi north of that pushes towards the sea to link up to Khuul.  For my money I'd've settled on the other side of the mountains though, building a chain of villages up the West Gash from Ald'ruhn to Khuul, plus taking the old fortresses of Andasreth and Berandas.  Maybe the northern approach through Bal Isra and Shishi was hatched after their failure to take Andasreth.

Hlaalu's stronghold of Odai Plateau solidifies his control of the river.  Telvanni's attempt to take Odirniran is the beginnings of a bridge between Tel Branora and the rest of his settlements; Uvirith's Grave is just one of six or so places Telvanni has taken in Molag Amur and the Ashlands (but this is the first mushroom tower there, rather than taking a Velothi dome).

I feel that Hlaalu's position is strong, with a big swath of productive, contiguous territory interrupted only by their Imperial allies, but there's not much more that they can take uncontested; Redoran's already mad about Caldera, and will probably block further expansion up the West Gash if they can.  The right play for Hlaalu might be to clear out Ald Sotha properly and expand their plantations into that part of the Ascadian Isles.  Redoran's position is a little precarious; they're committed into the Ashlands in support of the Temple.  Telvanni is expanding like crazy into the Grazelands, Sheogorad, Ashlands, and Molag Amur, but these expansions are mostly just some mid-level wizard taking a tower with his 3-5 henchmen, and they don't coordinate well, plus the land is pretty marginal.  Telvanni probably benefits from buying time for their wizards to level and their many tiny bases to mature in secret; buying this time probably looks a lot like playing Temple+Redoran against Imperial+Hlaalu and avoiding picking direct fights with either.  Or it would, if Telvanni were coordinated instead of infighting.

Monday, November 11, 2019

ACKS Morrowind: Maps

Been working on mapping.  Here's the poster map with a 24-mile grid over it.

I'm not in love with this particular gridding; a number of towns are very un-centered in their hexes (particularly annoying for Ghostgate), and Vos and Tel Mora are in the same hex.  But I'm not sure a regular grid that centers every town on the right scale is doable.

I also worry that this scale is somewhat too small.  It's only one or two 24-mile hexes from Ghostgate to Dagoth Ur.  From one end of the map to another, Vivec to Dagon Fel by boat, it's only five or six days under sail in a swift ship (not allowing sailing at night, as the coast is rocky and treacherous).  Under two weeks to circumnavigate the whole island, even in a slower sailing vessel and without sailing at night.

Here's another with overlays for population density.  Yellow hex overlay indicates taxable borderlands (~100 families per 6-mile hex; excludes the untaxed and illegible Ashlanders), green overlay indicates civilized population density (~250 families per 6-mile hex), and blue overlay indicates double-civilized population density (~500 families per 6-mile hex).

I think the total population comes up a few thousand families short of what I intended as of the first post; I think I could probably fit them into the blue hexes by raising population density there a little further.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Taking the ACKS to Morrowind: Intro, Population, and Area

I have a deep, and perhaps silly, nostalgia for Morrowind.  It was the second cRPG I played.  The first was Neverwinter Nights, and the difference was profound.  Morrowind was beautiful and first-person, even if I only got a few frames per second and maybe it's not so beautiful anymore.  It was also mysterious.  I knew third edition D&D, and so I knew Neverwinter Nights; even if I hadn't, it came with a thick spiral-bound manual that talked about all the classes and feats available in the game, if I recall correctly.  Morrowind came with a thin manual and a big poster map covered in towns, camps, ruins labeled in a foreign script, and black Xs marking who-knows-what.  It was an incomplete map, once which whets the appetite rather than satiating it.  I think it was the first sandbox I ever saw.

There were a lot of things about the setting that would make it very well-suited to domain play.  At the time of the game, the big volcanic island (Vvardenfell) on which it takes place is largely unsettled; for a long time it was sacred ground, then a wave of colonization occurred after the Armistice, and then a quarantine was put in place to prevent the spread of the Blight off of the island.  So you've got three great houses with relatively new settlements but plenty of grudges, the old temple administration with two military orders and a waning god-king, and occupying imperial garrisons as a condition of the armistice, all mostly cut off from the mainland by policy.  Plus the unfriendly ashlander natives, blight zombies, and an angry volcano god who speaks in dreams.

The player arrives into this mess on a prison ship, and the quarantine sets the limits of the sandbox.  It's a clever setup.

So I sort of wonder if there's room for a Vvardenfell-alike, in the way that the Wilderlands of High Fantasy have spawned a number of derivatives.  Obviously one can't just take the setting wholesale, because the wiki exists and would provide all the answers, and also because it would be unpublishable for money due to Zenimax's license.  But the Elder Scrolls has a tradition of fan content, and I imagine one could give it away for free.

Outside of those difficulties, there are definitely enough verisimilitude problems to make straight-porting to ACKS tricky.  Mostly the issue I think is that things were omitted and scaled down; cities have only the handful of interesting people as NPCs and few of the peasants, a smattering of farms stand in for a developed agricultural breadbasket region, and it's unclear if the distance you can travel in an in-game day is really reasonable.

So the first question for such a port would be "just how big is this sandbox anyway"?  Without trusting spatial metrics, the best way to get something reasonable might be to take the vendors available in cities and use that to determine their populations, and then work from there to areas of land required to support those populations.  Balmora, for example, has four smiths, four inns, and one bookseller, which would be consistent with a population in the 6500-8000 range, which in ACKS would be a large town or a small city, class IV market.  This seems roughly consistent with the feeling of the place, though it's billed as the seat of a great house.  Vivec has six smiths, which would put it around 9000 people, but two booksellers, suggesting a population of closer to 13000, just sneaking into City status with a class III market.  If I count alchemists and enchanters as "magic shops", then I get much bigger numbers; Vivec has 8 alchemists and four enchanters, suggesting a population north of 33000 and Large City / class II market status, while Balmora has 2 enchanters and 3 alchemists, for 14000 and City / class III market.  Not counting apothecaries (which I assume are mostly healers rather than selling ingredients to wizards), Sadrith Mora (another house seat) has 4 alchemists and 2 enchanters, for 16800 population and class III.  Ald'ruhn, the final house seat, has three enchanters, three alchemists, three smiths, and one inn, so population ranges from 4500 to 16800, against class III or IV.

Taking either of these configurations, class II Vivec and class III house seats or class III Vivec and class IV house seats, we end up on one of two rows of the Urban Population table, where Vvardenfell has somewhere between 625,000 and 2.5 million inhabitants.  This is incongruous with the fact that Duke Dren is only a duke, as those are prince-to-king numbers.  Taking this map, which has Vvardenfell looking like about a third of the area of the province of Morrowind, and knowing that the province of Morrowind as a whole is a kingdom, principality-tier population seems reasonable.  So let's go with the lower, principality end of those population figures.  The duke is sort of a puppet anyway.  This also means we're basically writing off the extraordinarily high wizard-merchants-per-capita and going with the population numbers from smiths, inns, and booksellers.  Maybe we can bring the wizards back when we get to per-class demographics; certainly Telvanni settlements seem to have more wizards than clerics or thieves.

Getting back to distance, we need to first traverse population density.  Large parts of the island are wilderness or borderlands.  Given that the island is newly settled, and that they were defeated in war by a Rome-analog power, something in the lower end of the population density range is probably reasonable as an average.  There are dense agrarian regions with large enslaved lizardman and catman populations, but then there are also low-density pastoral regions.  Taking a population of 625,000 (or 125,000 families) and 250 families per settled hex on average, we get 500 settled 6-mile hexes, or 31 settled 24-mile hexes.  Taking the unsettled interior as about one and a half times as large as the settled coasts, we need another 45 24-mile hexes in there, for a total of around 80 24-mile hexes, or about 9x9 grid (call it 11x11 with some water).  As a nice bonus, this is right around the recommended size for a detailed region in ACKS, and it should give me enough six-mile hexes of wilderness to actually make rooms out of.

"Beyond the Ghostfence, there are no safe places, no allies. Stockpile resources. Plan for retreat and replenishment."

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Thief Abilities for the Wilderness Levels: Black Market

Parties in the wilderness levels in ACKS often run into difficulty with buying and selling goods in small markets.  The intended, long-term solution to this is to found a domain and build a market.  A shorter-term fix is the Venturer, which boosts market class.  The Venturer's ability, though, is very front-loaded and has no gameplay to it.  Commissioning goods is another workaround, but one which takes lots of time.

Enter that master of quick and easy short-term solutions with long-term side effects: the thief.

Black Market
Thieves are adept at locating merchants who might be overlooked by more scrupulous characters, the sort of merchants who deal in dubious goods with an exclusive clientele.  A thief in search of a buyer or seller of a particular sort of item may make one Hear Noises throw per day spent in seedy taverns.  On a failure by 10 or more, or on a natural 1, there are simply no goods of that kind for sale on the black market this month.  On a success, the thief locates a merchant who allows him buy or sell the good as if the market class was one class better (like Commissioning).  There might be a catch, though.

On 1d6 for buying, or 1d4+2 for selling:
1: The goods are hot.  If purchased, enqueue trouble with an XP value about four times the value of the goods.  A successful Finding Traps roll lets the thief read the situation and choose to bail on the deal, or demand a discount of 1d6*10%.
2: The goods are defective.  A Finding Traps roll lets the thief sense that something is up and choose to bail, or demand a discount of 1d6*10%.  Defective magic items are cursed.  Defective arms and armor get a roll on the Scavenging Treasure tables on page 209.  Defective animals roll HP twice and take the worse.  Etc.
3: "I'm gonna need a favor."  Merchant needs a quest done, of magnitude proportional to the value of the goods, before he is willing to sell.  A reaction throw of 9+ can make him accept a 1d4*10% markup (or discount if the player is selling) instead.
4: "But you owe me one."  Merchant wants a promise of a favor that he can call in later before selling.  A reaction throw of 9+ can make him accept a 1d4*10% markup (or discount if the player is selling) instead.  If owing a favor is accepted, throw it on the trouble queue.
5: "I'm feeling lucky."  Merchant would rather play a game of chance, with the goods as one party's stake and something of equivalent value as the other party's stake.  Reaction roll of 9+ to convince them to just transact, or make opposed d20 rolls (+4 for Gambling proficiency, +4 for a successful Picking Pockets throw for sleight of hand; natural 1 or by 10 or more on the Picking Pockets reveals you were trying to cheat and triggers a forfeit), winner takes all.
6: No problems, a pleasure doing business with you.

If PCs attempt to pass off hot or defective goods, the merchant likewise makes a Finding Traps roll and may demand a discount or refuse to transact if successful.

I guess you could let any class do this, with the standard 18+ Hear Noises and Find Traps throws...

Bonus, 1d8 black market merchants.

  1. Choo-oock the Bugbear Alchemist.  Lives in a wagon drawn by a giant beetle, wears a crumpled and stinking wizard's hat.  Potions smell like feet and vodka, guaranteed "to put hair on you face.  Money-back guarantee?  What?  No, just regular guarantee."  Deals in poisons too, which smell suspiciously similar.  Skips town frequently.
  2. Guillaum de Crochefontaine, dissolute noble scion.  Enjoys a wide variety of questionable substances, gambling, and sleeping with married women, gets away with it on account of family connections and being a pretty decent duelist (Fighter 3).  Magic sword enthusiast.
  3. Lazy-Eye Lud, watchman on the take.  Pudgy, mid-thirties, five kids to feed, doesn't actually have a lazy eye.  Sells confiscated goods, sometimes steals from the armory.  Might shake you down if you get caught and jailed though.
  4. Owen One-Foot, retired whaler.  Skin like leather, heavy wool clothes, vicious grin, missing a foot (crushed between boats, then amputated).  The ship he worked on, the Bloody Mary, occasionally does a spot of piracy when the whaling isn't so good, might be able to hook you up with some bulk cargo, slaves, or a prize ship.  Or fifty stone of stinking whalemeat, if you need dragon bait.
  5. Mistress Ludhevna, proprietress of the Slap and Tickle.  "Our clients occasionally depart in haste, when their wives arrive, and neglect their personal effects.  Could I interest you in some chainmail?  Perhaps this fine dirk?  Yes, yes, I'm sure you already have a fine dirk, save it for the girls, dear."
  6. Herr Gunther Grosse, gourmand and purveyor of exotic meats and livestock.  Fat, bald, moustachio'd minor nobleman, has a warehouse by the docks and a villa outside of town.  Has fingers in many pies and friends in high places.  Throws crazy parties, seems to have repeated bad luck with young wives dying during childbirth.  Rumored to be a cannibal.
  7. Three hundred rats in a filthy robe, formerly known as Geirmund the Magnificent.  Used to be a wizard, but flubbed a magic experimentation roll, can't do the somatic components anymore. Can, however, explore warehouses and steal keys.  Knows a thing or two about magic items and curses.  Communicates in a cacophony of high-pitched, squeaky voices.  Hates cats.  Shits everywhere.
  8. Big Hilda, taverness and pit fight organizer.  In her 40s, thick-set and ill-tempered.  Yells a lot, handy with a cleaver.  Runs the Rusty Nail, a bad tavern in a bad part of town, with a fighting pit in the cellar.  Has a bunch of kids who cook, serve, clean the pit, keep book, etc.  Husband died under mysterious circumstances.  Deals in arms and armor of dubious quality, slaves, animals, meat, mercenaries, and stimulants.
Man I'm gonna name everything thief-related after cocktails now, that was a good idea.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Hike Notes: Wallace Falls

Went hiking a week or two ago with team from work at Wallace Falls, up to the Skyhomish Valley Overlook.  Two or three interesting observations.  Not much in the way of wildlife, just people and their dogs.  Clear day, cold in the morning but it warmed up, as one might expect.

First, even though we had looked at the posted maps and had plenty of cell coverage, we ended up taking a little detour out to about the DNR road I think?  The social dynamic, in particular, was that management thought they knew where we were going and junior engineers were correctly skeptical but didn't speak up loudly enough.  So this poses a pretty funny potential explanation for getting lost with increased party size, and a reason that navigation shouldn't necessarily just scale with the number of characters with Navigation proficiency - it's a "never bring two clocks to sea" sort of situation, if one navigator gets it right and the other gets it wrong.

So this is why I'm not really sure how far we went, or how much total elevation change we did.  Our highest point was about 500 feet above our starting point.  It took us around three hours, which would make sense for about four miles each way plus elevation.  But...  even looking at a map now I'm not sure how that could've happened.  Backtracking off a wrong turn is doubly expensive I guess.

In any case, getting lost is definitely a topic which I should think more about, for developing a gameplay loop for wilderness adventures.

Second, I pulled something in my knee (IT band I think) about a quarter of the way in, and boy howdy the rest of the hike was fun.  Didn't do anything particularly stupid, just walking and gradually ow.  The wilderness damage is real.

Finally, splendid visibility, leading to some observations for the "describing the wilderness" problem.  More than I expected!  Although I suppose 500' is a fair bit of climbing to do just for a view; might be some interesting choices and tradeoffs during wilderness adventuring, spending time climbing stuff to see more hexes away.

To the south, a dirt road on the hills on the other side of the river, about 10 miles away and I reckon 12-15 feet wide, was clearly visible to the naked eye as a result of contrast, yellow dirt among green trees.  I hadn't considered the visibility of preindustrial roadways in adjacent hexes before.  A sandy island in the river, a quarter mile wide, was easily visible at a similar distance, again by contrast.

Turning further west, the Olympic mountains, about 70 miles away over the Sound, were likewise visible.  The gap between the last line of near hills and the mountains is very hazy, almost a white line; I'm not sure if this is due to humidity off the water, or something with the horizon.  If it is a water humidity effect, it might be useful for signaling to players an intervening, distant large body of water.  If it's a horizon effect, then it might be useful for signaling that the mountains they're seeing are further than the calculated horizon (about 45 miles, at the elevation we were at).  The edge of the Sound was about 45 miles away, so hard to call either way.

And then to the east and north, the view was pretty well blocked by the mountain we were on.

This whole post-hike process that I do, where I go correlate stuff I saw to things on google maps and try to figure out where it was and how to get there, seems like a much looser version of the exploration loop that you'd get in the wilderness with a paper (er, vellum?) map in hand.

Finally finally, for all that "door or cave hidden behind a waterfall" is a bit of a trope at this point, it seems like that would actually be rather dangerous, given that the pool into which the water falls tends to get deep and be churned up.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A/X: Wilderness Level

Koewn's mention in last post's comments of OSR spell-point systems that give more recharge in the wilderness, because it's a more fantastical place than civilization, got me thinking.  I agree with the general premise, that wilderness ought to be fantastical, and civilization ought not to be very fantastical (if nothing else, this helps keep the economics grounded).  But giving more recharge in the wilderness than in civilization would throw the wilderness resource game very far from the B/X roots, which I think are mostly solid but need some elaboration.

Concurrently, thinking about wilderness as dungeon - we have dungeon levels, as a measure of both distance from the surface and of danger, but the danger of wilderness regions is not handled so clearly.  In ACKS we have both the wilderness/borderlands/civilized distinction, and then terrain type also heavily influences number of lairs and encounter chance, and some terrain types are arguably more dangerous in practice due to differences in their random encounter tables.

So I'm thinking maybe we impose Wilderness Level, as a measure of danger, supernatural power, and expected treasure, in regions.  Reorganize the wilderness encounter tables so that more dangerous creatures appear at higher numbers, and then switch from d12 to d6 + wilderness level.  Maybe apply it as a modifier to encounter chance and number of lairs too (instead of having that be by terrain).  So untamed plains are about as dangerous as untamed mountains, in terms of their inhabitants.  And then you can have Tamed Mountains that are reasonably safe without having to recall the implicit rule in ACKS that causes encounter roll frequency to vary with civilizedness.  Just make it explicit and simple by analogy with dungeon level.

Then, to link it to civilization, spellcasting resource management, and base construction, building and maintaining temples, wizard's towers, etc reduces wilderness level in the surrounding area (possibly at wilderness "room" or biome scale?  Or temple per room plus shrine per hex?).  These work by siphoning magic from the wilderness, which is inherently chaotic and dangerous, and laundering it through deities, rituals, etc, into a form which is not fundamentally inimical to human life, which can be safely used and controlled by spellcasters.  Imposing a schema (mathematical or extraplanar for arcane or personified deity for divine) on the raw, schema-less magic of the wilderness limits what you can do with the magic, but it also limits what the magic can do to you.  Human magic is legible; wild magic isn't.  So regions of civilization are safe, sane, and stable because existing temples and guilds spend a lot of time and cash operating "heat sinks", and the total throughput of these heat sinks limits the total number / power of wizards and clerics available to civilization.

A couple of interesting things fall out of this:

This helps explain why barbarian/beastman hordes pillage temples; this returns the land to wilderness, by eliminating their protective influence.  Also justifies centrality and necessity of religion in daily life.

Likewise, a temple which "appeases" a volcano operates by drawing off the wild magic which might cause eruption, spontaneous generation of fire elementals, etc.

If you're out in the wilderness and you're tapped out but you need one more fireball, go ahead, tap into the raw wilderness magic.  What could possibly go wrong?  Lycanthropy?  Animal body parts?  Extra head?

Elves - native to wilderness level 1 rather than wilderness level 0 like humans and hobbits (I dunno about dwarves yet).  Better at wild magic use?  Spellsinging from Heroic Fantasy is very much on theme; if wizard magic is like baroque and cleric magic is like gregorian chant, the elf is improvising jazz.

It's normally weird that lower HD beastmen have better witchdoctors and shamans (eg goblins get d6/d8 level spellcasters, but ogres only get like d4 level spellcasters).  But if ogres are the product of a wilder and less schematic environment, then it makes sense that they don't really do spells (and instead rely on ambient raw magic to maintain 4HD) whereas weaker beastmen, more common right on the edge of human civilization, are exposed to more schematism and might have deities but less embodied magic to draw on.

I could see something like Vinge's zones of thought as a useful analogy- at low wilderness levels, your horse is animal sentience.  With prolonged exposure to high wilderness levels, your horse becomes a fairy tale horse and might start talking.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A/X: Halls: Refuges in Civilization

I already needed rules for building up refuges in the wilderness, and I was thinking about facilities for increasing spell point recovery rate in civilization, and now I'm thinking about base building where-ever.

Reasons to encourage and codify "base-building in civilization" in the mid-levels:

  • My players generally buy a townhouse anyway and then complain about lack of base-building, so I think if there were reasons to build more stuff they would happily do so.
  • Generalize to cover wilderness basebuilding / refuge-upgrading with the same rules, at a distance-and-danger cost multiplier.
  • Base facilities could help ease the pain of small markets.
  • Maintenance cost for your base would be a nice way to streamline / centralize cost of living expenses.
  • A collective party possession encourages unity and the party as the unit of continuity.
  • Provide absolute clarity on what it means to get the treasure "home" for XP purposes, especially in points-of-light settings where there isn't a big "civilization" zone just off the hex-map.

So here's how I see this going down in practice.

Find a town you like.  Go meet with the local lord and petition for the right of hearth and charter.  He's going to ask you to do him a favor.  It's going to be a messy, adventurous favor.  If you have powerful enemies in town (from, say, a night of drunken mayhem fighting temple eunuchs - purely hypothetically, of course), he's going to ask you for an additional favor per powerful enemy.  If you have a powerful ally in town, maybe he asks you for one less favor.

So you deal with his ankheg problem and come back, and swear a little oath to help defend the town from threats monstrous and domestic, and he authorizes your charter as a Legitimate Fraternal Order (like the Elks or the Masons - make sure to choose a name), granting you the right to build or purchase a hall within his domain.  You go find some crappy land on the outskirts of town and hire some laborers to clear it and build a longhouse.  Congratulations, you are no longer murderhobos (just murder-...citizens).  Everyone now knows where to find you - traveling merchants, barbarians for hire, messengers bearing quests, peasants looking for help with their wyvern problems, your wizard's roommate from college, your wizard's ex from college, knights errant looking for someone to fight, beggars, preachers, used magic item salesmen, performing acrobats seeking a venue, the thieves' guild seeking to acquire something while disguised as acrobats, the thieves' guild looking to move some hot goods, the watch looking for some hot goods, the tax collector, the assassin's guild, meddling archmages, elder dragons...  I think I feel a random table coming on.

It comes with enough space, kitchen, and larder enough to feed and sleep n people.  This is the maximum number of PCs, henchmen, hirelings, and retainers you can support in "clean, sanitary conditions" suitable for healing and the avoidance of loyalty penalties.  Upgrade for more capacity.  If you have excess capacity, townsfolk come drink and gamble with you and some of them might be recruitable as henchmen.  Some of them might also be spies for the other Rival Adventurous Orders with halls in town.
Also comes with some capacity for horses and dogs; again, if you want more (or cavalry retinue), kennel and stable upgrades.

Other stuff to put in or around your hall (eventually compound):

  • Library and laboratory for magic research.  Capture a spellbook from an NPC with new spells in it?  Goes in the party library, becomes guild secrets.
  • Chapel, sanctum, meditorium, summoning chamber, etc for spell point recovery.
  • Treasury / vault / reliquary.  Stop paying those bankers negative interest to store your gold, and store it yourself.
  • Monster heads on the walls / trophy room.  Bonus to reaction rolls on your own turf.
    • Maybe a more general "prestige / grandeur" mechanic?  Helps negate the hiring penalty for slander?
  • Armory.  Keep your magic swords organized, and stockpile plate mail when it's available in your lousy market.
  • Cemetery / catacombs.  Inter your dead henchmen properly to prevent them from rising as the undead for vengeance, and to keep high-level wizards from using their skulls as crafting components (keep the skulls for yourself).  Spend money on elaborate funerals for your PCs for more efficient reserve XP generation (per Heroic Fantasy Handbook).  Ghosts give you quests.
  • Shrine to your dead fighter, Bob.  Subsequently play a cleric of Bob.  Bob becomes the Party Deity.  Praise be unto Bob.
  • Smoke-filled back rooms in which to plan hijinks and dungeon-crawls, away from the prying ears of Rival Adventurous Orders and The Law.
  • Pit where potential henchmen can fight each other so you can learn their stats.  Or for gambling.  Or both.
  • Warehouse space to store your trade goods, both stolen and legitimate.
  • Wagon yard for assembling your caravan(s), might be visited by traveling merchants or halflings if space available
  • Garden
    • Medicinal
    • Poison
    • Psychoactive - regain spell points in the field, but save vs datura
    • Ornamental, +prestige
    • Go on, plant that magic seed you found
  • Infirmary with physician hirelings to cure your lycanthropy and succubus-herpes without it becoming public knowledge.  And more natural healing, I guess.
  • Forge with smith hirelings to make more plate for your henchmans.  Or masterwork weapons, if those rules are in use.
  • Still for Dwarven Brewing.
  • Gem-cuttery for lapidary hirelings to improve found uncut gems (hat tip to Courtney's Downtime and Demesnes, the draft of which I should probably finish reading before attempting to roll my own thing here)
  • Parade / training yard to upgrade your mercs.
  • Siege workshop / testing range...  I feel like this might be pushing the edge of the Charter, though, and start generating Concern from your local lord.
  • Dock / shipyard, if coastal or riverine.
  • Menagerie of exotic beasts
    • (Prestige again, but a small chance of escape...)
  • Barn and pasture of not-so-exotic beasts for use in trapfinding, hecatombs, and rations-on-the-hoof
  • Dungeon / prison for beastman prisoners and hostages
  • Walls, towers, etc...  but again, local lord will push back on too much of this.

All of this has been done before, in for example the 3.x Stronghold Builder's Guide.  All this is aso easy enough to work out under ACKS' rules as they exist.  It's just in a very low-abstraction state at the moment, much like Domains at War.  You're hiring individual mercenaries and buying individual windows for your hall.  This is an easy enough problem to solve.

Bonus: use the same facilities rules for NPC organizations like wizards' cabals, temples, and thieves' guilds.  Membership in a guild at low levels provides access to libraries, laboratories, and restoration facilities in exchange for dues and labor during downtimes.  These organizations are chartered differently and don't compete with adventuring organizations, but have monopoly on sale of eg magic in town (nudging players towards adventuring rather than sitting in town selling spells).

Saturday, September 7, 2019

A/X: Fibonacci Spell Points

I've been thinking about spell points for A/X.  Originally I was thinking of rolling the resource model for spells all the way back to "spells are per adventure", but 1) this is a somewhat dissociated resource model which would require in-world explanation and induces weird edge cases around "well what's an adventure", and 2) I'm thinking that if HP and mercenaries can be recovered (slowly) in the wilderness in refuges, perhaps it makes sense for magic to also be recoverable in the wilderness (slowly).  But spell slots of particular levels are very quantized; doing slow recovery without breaking them up sounds like it would end up being complicated.

At 1d3 HP per day of bed rest in reasonably sanitary conditions, an average first-level fighter can recover full HP in about two days.  So putting magic at parity, it would make sense for the average first-level mage to be able to recover a first level spell about every two days.  This means first level spells need to cost more than one spell point - two seems workable.

This got me thinking also - most spell point systems make 2nd level spells cost 3, 3rd level spells cost 5, 4th 7, 5th 9.  This is pretty close to reasonable except at the very low end.  Is web really worth three castings of sleep?  Is fireball worth five castings of sleep?  I tend to think not really, with OSR sleep - a fireball wins a wilderness encounter with a band of beastmen by cooking their chieftain, two or three sleeps win an encounter with beastmen by knocking our the chieftain and a couple of gangs.  The main thing these higher-level spells have going for them is action economy.  So thinking about these factors, 1st level spells costing 2 points and the relationship in power between spells of various levels, I ended up at the Fibonacci sequence.

Spell level: spell points
1: 2
2: 3
3: 5
4: 8
5: 13
6: 21

A fireball once every five days is also pretty close to the recovery time for a badly-injured retinue unit (or for the beastmen you fireballed last week to recover from their burns), which suggests that it's about right for recovery of wilderness-level abilities.

Further considerations:

If NPCs follow the same rules, what does this do to the economics of hired spellcasters?

What does this do to the availability of Restore Life and Limb?

Can you recover spell points faster while resting in civilization, where you have all your incense and pentagrams in order beforehand?  Can you apply these same sort of things (building sanctuaries, consecrating altars) to improve refuges and boost spell point recovery there?

What of the Contemplation proficiency?

Mercenaries only recover partway (the dead don't rise, but the injured heal) - should there be some analog to that?

Maintaining indefinite-duration spells like continual light and wizard lock - reduce your max spell points?

Places of Power seem like a much more natural fit for spell point systems than for vancian casting - reservoirs of spell points that can be drained but recover slowly.

Are there known pitfalls to spell-point systems that I should be wary of?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Hike Notes: Mount Fuji, Part 2: Gaming Reflections

Last post, I talked about climbing Mount Fuji.  Today, applying that experience to OSR D&D.

Time and distance: In nine hours, we covered a total of six miles of trail (plus ~8600 feet of total elevation delta).  We were barely encumbered, pessimistically two stone.  ACKS' rules would put us at 120' exploration movement speed, or 24 miles per day, times 1/2 for mountains.  So the rules would overestimate our speed by a factor of two, about.  It's possible that we're just that out of shape (though I suspect we're in as good a shape as your average L0 henchman; by 3rd Edition's strength standards, my mediocre deadlifts put me at about Str 9).  Certainly naive application of Naismith's rule would argue that we should've taken closer to six hours (but there are a bunch of proposed corrections to Naismith's rule for a reason; notably, we were on roughly 15 degree slopes, which some of the corrections penalize further).  It's also possible that the rules are for overland travel, rather than summiting a mountain, and that if we were just trying to cross a mountain hex to get to the other side, we'd've done a lot less climbing, and consequently our speed would've been a lot higher.  This introduces some weird questions about moving around within hexes versus entering and leaving hexes.  If I'm already thinking about hexes as being like 10' squares, and groups of hexes as being like rooms, that probably isn't something I want to worry about (and instead I might just increase the penalty on mountain movement).  But if you're like the typical hard-simulationist ACKS hexcrawl DM, maybe that is something you do want to think about, especially if interesting things tend to be located at the summits of mountains (and of course they do).

One thought I had, reflecting on our covering four miles of distance in a full day, was having irregularly-sized hexes instead of changing multipliers, making the hex a unit of time rather than a unit of distance.  So a mountain hex is actually smaller than a plains hex in space, but both take a day to cross.  The problem is tessellation; maybe irregular, Voronoi-style maps would support this better (I guess there might also be problems in economics, if you care about population density per hex for taxation purposes).  Or maybe, like Arneson, who also did "one day, one hex", you just don't worry about it.

Encounter Distance: I think the 2d6x10 yards encounter distance for Badlands would've been more appropriate than the 4d6x10 yards typical for mountains, given the mists and the steepness and general difficulty of seeing even building-sized objects at 200-300 meters.  Having weather be a bigger determiner of encounter distance than terrain would be interesting, especially if you have typical / unusual weather for certain hexes or "rooms".

Foraging: There wasn't anything even plausibly worth eating above 2500m of altitude, except for one bird.  Foraging penalty in high mountain hexes seems appropriate.  The yamabushi allegedly developed systems of diet and cuisine for high mountains, as did the Taoists in China, but...  I'm betting they foraged a little further down.

Hypoxia: -1 to surprise (loss of color vision, difficulty paying attention), initiative, attack and damage throws, proficiency rolls...  morale?  spell failure?  Some people get incoherent and start repeating themselves, that could be bad if you say Hastur one extra time...  And sure, you can get acclimated, but it takes a week or two.  That would actually be kind of a neat mechanic, if I'm treating the day as the unit of wilderness time, that you can get acclimated within the timespan of a single adventure (and then get de-acclimated when you go back down to civilization for a month).  And then if you have a mechanical reason to linger partway up the mountain for a week, you're really going to want to find or build a refuge there...

Combat: Seems like it would be really difficult for anyone coming up to fight someone higher up, especially with premodern weapons.  At the very least there's an ample supply of rocks to drop or roll down on people, and the height advantage in melee on a 1:4 slope also means that if you're five feet away, you're at a foot and a quarter of elevation difference, which might mean that you can hit them in the head really easily but also means that you're going to have to defend your legs differently or have them cut from under you.  Melee generally would be made difficult by the bad footing (gravel, irregularly-shaped rocks).  Charging uphill seems impossible, and charging downhill seems foolhardy.  Single-file-width trails limit the number of fighters who could be concurrently engaged without risking slipping and rolling down the mountain.  Firing arrows up, you end up converting some of that kinetic energy into potential energy, much like firing up at the defenders on walls during sieges; the -4 "volley overhead" penalty seems like too much, but -2 might be right (this is also interesting more generally for firing ranged weapons at flying opponents with an altitude advantage).  I could also see fireball and other big magic setting off rockslides.

Mounts: I'm not sure how viable riding a horse up would be.  I didn't see any evidence of horses being used on Fujinomiya (though apparently they are used on the shallower-and-less-rocky Yoshida trail), and for the Himalayas local human porters seem to be preferred.  If horses are supposed to be one of those pieces of kit that really changes the wilderness exploration game by increasing the speed of small, elite adventurer groups relative to mobs of infantry like most beastmen, I'm not sure what the implications of this are.

Wilderness Damage: This is something Tao of D&D was kicking around a few years back, and I think that it's a solid model of the realities.  If hit points are an abstraction for your luck and vigor and ability to turn dangerous situations into no serious bodily harm, that's exactly what gets ground down by exposure and hunger and being altitude drunk, and then when you hit zero from these 1-2 points of chip damage you roll a (probably) not-very-serious wound from the Death and Dismemberment table, like falling over and knocking your teeth out on a rock in the trail or losing a couple fingers to frostbite.  Doing something like this opens up some interesting design space.  Weather obviously plays a part in determining how fatigued you get.  You could even make the wilderness damage roll determine the weather - if you're in mountains in winter, the daily wilderness damage roll is 1d4 or something.  4 means it's a blizzard today, 1 means it's just cold.  In the summer, it's 1d4-2 instead, maybe, so most days just being in the mountains is OK but sometimes you get rained on and you get cold.  Forced march and night march (I recall from von Schnell's book an aside about making a night march and it being very lucky that they didn't lose anyone) give you a choice not just about rest, but about damage.  Abilities like Endurance and Survival might reduce the amount of wilderness damage that you take by 1 per die, as might equipment, and being in a sanctuary reduces it a lot (say 3 points, in our mountain blizzard example - it's still going to be cold, you're still going to want a fur cloak, but you can get by if you stay inside).  There are a couple of annoyances here, of course - building coherent systems is hard, hit points in OSR games are very low-resolution, I don't want to track HP for a bunch of mercenaries, and handling a die roll for damage every day (er, wilderness turn) sounds like a hassle (especially when you start considering crossing multiple hexes per day and changing terrain types and whether marching inflicts damage, which it seems like it should, you're less likely to twist an ankle if you're sitting around all day).

Equipment Loss: My father almost broke his glasses.  I destroyed the heel of my boot.  A couple of times we got our poles stuck in rocks and could've broken them if we were clumsier.  Obviously these are recoverable once you get back to civilization, but out there these could be quite bad.  I feel like destruction of mundane equipment is a totally reasonable effect for a wilderness trap or mishap, and one which (particularly if aimed at rations or water) might really be felt.  Some items of equipment, like optics, might be fragile by nature and "first to fall" to such mishaps.  This might also be true of horses, which are notoriously fragile among work-beasts and easy to lame.

The Weight of Wealth: A 100-yen coin is five grams, about an inch across with a little hole in the center, and made of something probably less dense than gold (copper, the primary component, is about half as dense as gold, it turns out).  But 1000 5g coins is 5kg, which is a bit shy of the British definition of stone but pretty close.  So if you're running ACKS and coins are 1000 to the stone, gold pieces are probably about half an inch in diameter, maybe 3/4 of an inch with a hole in the middle.

Pilgrimage: An obvious use for mountains, and one used by both Morrowind (pilgrimage up Mount Kand) and Skyrim (to High Hrothgar).  Turns out Fuji used to have quite a widespread cult in Japan, with over 1300 shrines built out of rocks from the mountain.  Next time you want to make religion in your campaign less boring, consider the Good News of Volcano-Gods.

Volcanic Craters: They're big!  And totally hidden from view until you reach the summit (unless, like St. Helens, the whole side of the crater blew out during an eruption).  I think Fuji's was about a quarter mile across.  You could hide a lot of stuff in there - goatman village, volcano cult temple, tarrasque...

Torii Gates: They mark the boundary of sacred ground.  You're supposed to take off your hat and bow when you pass through them.  It would be interesting to use a similar mechanism to provide information to players, of symbolic gates to mark the boundaries of civilization and peace (separating the temple at the summit of the volcano from the mountain wilderness, say) or to invert them and have them mark the boundaries of the otherworld, the supernatural wilderness, where spirits and demons are active.