Saturday, January 21, 2017


Someone asked a question about sandboxing on /r/rpg recently, and now I have the wilderness on the brain again.  I have some complaints about existing mapping doctrine.  In the standard ACKS doctrine, civilization is basically required to be mapped (for the domain game if nothing else), which is an awful lot of work for very little payoff because you're not adventuring there.  Really all you need is populations/market classes and travel times between points of interest in civilization, because the travel itself is minimally dangerous; random encounters are likely to be civilized folks, and there are roads and signs and farmers that you can ask for directions.  There aren't really any strategic choices to be made in civilized travel that benefit from the degree of detail that hexes bring.  Consequently, hexmapping civilization is a tremendous waste of time for the mid-levels, and frankly you could run a reasonable (simplified, population- rather than land-focused) domain game without it too.

In the West Marches approach, by contrast, civilization is left unmapped (which is great), but there is an onus to have functionally-infinite wilderness.  This likewise is neither efficient nor realistic.  It isn't efficient because anything that you build that the players never reach in the course of a campaign is probably wasted (sure, you can reuse it later maybe, but how many of us actually do that consistently?).  It also isn't realistic because civilization expands to fill the area that can support it.  The wilderness may be big, but there's always some civilization on the other side if you're willing to travel far enough (or lower your standards for civilization a little).

Ultimately I think the "non-state spaces" notion present in James C. Scott's writing (Seeing Like a State, The Art of Not Being Governed) presents a promising opportunity.  Non-state space enclaves within a state are (relatively) tiny, self-contained wilderness sandboxes that are easily reached from civilization.  I've talked about Mount Rainier before, and it's a good example - one could easily take a couple of hundred square miles around a large mountain, map it in detail, fill it with hill tribes and yetis and a dragon or two, and have a small, self-contained sandbox.  There's civilization on both sides of the Cascade Range (well, if you count Eastern Washington...  I kid), but there's still wilderness in the mountains.  In the historical D&D context, Dearthwood from the City-State of the Invincible Overlord springs to mind.  It's a forest practically up against the City-State's gates, and it's full of orcs.  This is a classic non-state space, and would make a perfect tiny wilderness sandbox conveniently close to a large market.  That was probably the whole point of Dearthwood, from the very beginning (with the trolls of the Mermist Marshes, a little further away, comprising a higher-level microsandbox).  The Isle of Dread is another good example; it's big enough to play for a couple of sessions, like a good-sized dungeon, but it's bounded and therefore manageable.

Obviously the non-state enclave isn't the only type of wilderness.  Borderlands between civilized areas can be bigger, and then there are places like the Russian steppe and the American Old West that are just huge.  But these are unmanageably big, both to DMs who would use them and to players who would traverse them.  If I have learned two things from running the Megadungeon Full of Rats, it is that tightly theming can stimulate DM creativity but bore players, and that tightly-scoping is really important.  My initial intent with the Dungeon Dimensions was not a full-page dungeon of rats; it was many small dungeons, each tightly-themed and linked.  In retrospect, that might have gone better, but I got carried away with the first level.  I think loosely-themed, tightly-scoped, small-scale wildernesses offer a lot of opportunity in this regard.  Having two or three such microsandboxes available offers choices and ability to alleviate boredom with a particular theme by handwaved safe travel through civilization.

So what are some decent ideas for wilderness microsandboxes?  Big enough to take some time to explore, small enough to be manageable to DM and to be easily reached from civilization, and evocative?
  • The Lonely Mountain
  • Mirkwood
  • Swamp of the frogmen
  • Tropical island chain with walled port-city and cannibal natives in the uplands
  • Wasteland
Such wee sandboxes are also relatively easy to drop into an existing campaign.

Of course, there is the distinct possibility that this is what the actual practice of sandbox wilderness play has been all along, everyone knows it but doesn't talk about it much (because talking about the West Marches is much sexier), and I'm a little slow on the uptake where grand ambitions and practical limits are concerned.  Much as I learned in a recent Autarch thread on having players draw their own maps (or not, as it turns out...).  In which case, this is a perfectly useful post for the "OSR Lessons Learned" file [1][2][3].  In the same way that the typical, practical OSR dungeon is not Dwimmermount or Stonehell, the typical, practical OSR wilderness is not the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THAC0 11+: Pretty Reasonable Actually

A complaint I have heard before from new players, particularly martial artists, fencers, and SCA types, is that it's too damn hard to hit in D&D (especially at low levels).  You only get one attack every six seconds, and you have a 50% chance to hit an unarmored person?  What the hell?  Watch this! *bap bap bap bap bap bap bap*  The crowd that plays D&D to emulate myth and media runs much the same objection - heroes in their source material are deadly-accurate.

But I think it's actually pretty reasonable.  Like the Original Megadungeon, I think military culture and fighting experience informed the design decision to have most combatants in D&D be quite incompetent.

Consider the Marshall Study.  SLA Marshall in World War II documented that 75% of US servicemen were unwilling or unable to fire to kill on the enemy in combat.  While Marshall's work is controversial, it led to changes in training for American infantry that boosted their "attacking percentage" up closer to 90% in Vietnam.  This is, coincidentally, the correct timeframe for the Ur-Gamers to have heard about Marshall's research, and to have modeled the poor THAC0 progression off of it.

Another source which supports Marshall's claims is Collins' Violence: A Microsociological Theory.  This is a very long and exceedingly bleak book, and I have not gotten very far into it, but Collins' method is the analysis of footage of fights, played in very slow motion, so that fighting can be observed in detail as it truly is, rather than as it is recounted.  It turns out that people lie about fighting bravely, and Collins' analyses of combat footage largely agree with Marshall - there is a particularly damning still, where a group of armed men is under fire, and seven seek cover behind each other while only one returns fire.  Most people shy away from inflicting effective violence when they can see the face of their target, unless they have a bunch of other people backing them up and cheering them on, and this is true across a number of observed cultures (not just modern westerners).  Most effective violence is inflicted with four-against-one or greater disparities of force, or against fleeing foes.  This is, incidentally, why the pursuit of a routed army was where most combat casualties occurred in Classical campaigns.

So yeah - your average 1st level henchmen would be lucky to make a credible attack every six seconds.  He's going to spend a lot of time hemming and hawing and evading, and his opponents are doing likewise, because neither wants to kill or to die, and neither has had the sort of conditioning employed by modern militaries to make it easier.  Psychologically, fighting hand-to-hand with real weapons for life-or-death stakes against a hostile opponent is incomparable with fencing in a controlled environment, and it introduces a whole new layer of stress and adrenaline and clumsiness (another of Collins' findings - people fall over, hit the wrong targets, and generally fumble and flail an awful lot in real fights.  It has me reconsidering my stance on fumbles on natural 1s on attack throws).  That is the nature of the beast called man.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

ACKS and the Art of Not Being Governed

I have been reading The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia recently.  I'm pretty sure Noisms mentioned it at one point, but I can't find it if he did.  In any case, it's a bit rambling, but there are some excellent quotes which suggest new, exciting(?), and adequately-cynical ways to run the ACKS domain game.

Unfortunately I've done a poor job of logging interesting quotes as I read, so I'm going to go with bullet-point paraphrases and subsummaries.
  • Intensive wet-rice agriculture, dense populations, and population centers pre-date monarchial states, which were introduced by "political entrepreneurs" who captured rice production areas. 
  • Intensive agriculture is important to the formation of powerful states, both because it can support very high population densities (important for warfare, large-scale irrigation projects, and monument construction) and because it is relatively easy to tax (record, track, and steal) synchronized monocrop grain harvests.
  • Southeast Asia is (historically) not very densely populated, with lots of empty land to which peasants can escape from tyrannical kings.  While policies were often enacted to lure population to the early states, net migration was often negative, with peasants escaping out in to the wilderness.
  • The administrative reach of the court center was bounded logistically, by the ability to supply the army.  As an ox eats its own load in a matter of days, campaigns could be conducted only near navigable waterways, or in areas where provisions were readily appropriable (which is to say, where intensive grain agriculture was already under way).  Kingdoms often nominally extended about a hundred and fifty mile radius from the population-dense capital region, but in practice exerted direct rule over closer to a seventy-five mile radius.  Forests, hills, and swamps all imposed logistical barriers to military campaigns, and as a result became de facto state-free areas.  Their inhabitants might pay tribute to the state, but were rarely directly under its thumb politically. 
  • Early states also suffered from untrustworthy administrators and inaccurate population counts; one example is given of district administrators understating the population of their district by 40%, in order to keep the difference in taxes for themselves.
  • The monsoon season effectively limited the reach of the state to zero while it lasted, and often entailed expeditions to "show the flag" when the dry season began.
  • Because kings needed peasants and peasants did not much like being ruled and taxed, there was an ongoing war of sedentarization and slave-raiding against the hill populations, when possible.  Some Thai and Burman kings went so far as to forcibly relocate and tattoo their subjects.  States competed to amass subjects, both by force and by diplomacy (with eg hill tribes, offering special dispensations and status if they settled within the kingdom).
  • The primary focus of warfare between agricultural states was not taking and holding land, but capturing prisoners.  An example is given of a state taking 6000 prisoners and resettling them in the fields around the capital.  Prisoner-taking was not restricted to peasants, but also included military specialists and court poets.  A case is mentioned where a Burmese kingdom captured the entire court of a Thai kingdom (or the other way around, I forget) and brought them back to its own court, ushering in a temporary renaissance of Thai-Burmese fusion culture.
  • Meanwhile, in the hills, tribal / kinship organizations prevailed.  Agriculture was practiced, but it was nomadic slash-and-burn agriculture, supporting a maximum population density of 20-30 per square kilometer.  Hill tribes self-divided into predators and prey as far as the slave trade was concerned.  They also raided grain states when the situation permitted, occasionally knocking over a failing dynasty and setting up their own.
  • Hill tribes and grain-states traded extensively.  In addition to slaves, hill tribes sold a wide variety of raw materials to the agricultural states, including elephants, ivory, precious metals, medicinal plants, honey, opium, lumber, feathers, gems, fruit, livestock, and spices.  From the states they bought sea-products (salt, dried fish) and manufactured goods, including metal tools and weapons, pottery, cloth, and ritual/status items, like bronze gongs, crowns, and capes, which provide legitimacy to a chieftain.
  • Hill tribes often had their pick of trade partners, because it was relatively easy to relocate to a different watershed, which drained into the territory of a different grain-state (compared to moving a state and its attendant population and fortifications overland to a different river system).
  • In addition to hill tribes and grain-states, a few other types of states appeared.
    • Maritime states were confederations of port-cities, and gathered wealth by taxing or monopolizing trade between the up-river and the down-river / ocean.  Maritime states tended to lose wars against grain states, because they lacked manpower.
    • A similar sort of "trade state" was occasionally found in the hills, sitting at a major crossroads or mountain pass and gathering wealth by taxing trade.  These tended to be unstable, as trade shifts.
    • In the hills, there were often small pockets of land which were irrigable and hence usable for intensive rice production.  Small towns grew in these pockets, and sometimes formed defensive alliances with nearby hill tribes and other hill-towns against the slave-raiding predations of lowcountry grain states.  Terrain and logistics typically prevented unification of these hill confederacies into centralized states.
  • Religion is tightly-tied to mode of production / agriculture.  Highland tribes tended to be animist, while lowland states in the region were typically Buddhist or Hindu (and the maritime states were mostly Islamic).  There was an interesting note that when a particular group of highlanders tried to start growing lowland rice, they found that its successful cultivation required the execution of lowlander religious rituals, and the adoption of the lowlanders' calendar (hence cosmology).
This leads to a number of thoughts for ACKS.
  • The mentioned population support limits of slash-and-burn agriculture (20-30 people per sq km) translate to 310-466 families per six-mile hex, well within the "civilized" band for population density, despite the nomadic hill-people very much operating as borderlanders politically.
    • Might a tropical thing, though
  • Decreased focus on territory suggests an alterate approach to Simple Domains - only track population, not territory.
    • Clear an initial area for a settlement, then replace further hex-clearing operations with "domain random encounters" that occur over time rather than over space.
    • Assume sufficient irrigable land that the limits of supportable population density will never be reached in PCs' lifetime.
    • Also make population change somewhat interesting / actionable
      • Rebellion and exodus
      • Famine
      • Plague
      • Wars of capture
      • Hired slaving expeditions (insert cash, roll on "slave raiding outcomes" table...)
      • Diplomacy to get hill tribes to settle on your land
    • This approach might be viable in other low-population-density areas, like the Baltic
  • Frankly I could see doing away with Civilized / Borderland / Wilderness classification by population density, and replacing it with a domain type mechanism.
    • Nomadic / Tribal - Can't really be taxed / yields low profit to its nominal ruler outside of warfare, experiences natural population growth, provides troops, can relocate domain.
    • Settled Agricultural - Most like a standard ACKS domain.  Taxable (oh so taxable), requires a stronghold, experiences natural population decline.
    • Settled Maritime - Not very taxable agriculture, increased trade range?  Really needs some domain-level trade mechanics to work.
      • Provide some domain income based on number, types, and sizes of trade partners?
      • States of trade between domains connected by water:
        • No trade - sanctions or at war
        • Natural trade - some trade, but no particular protection under the law for traders from the other domain
        • Favored trade - traders from other domain are protected under the law, may be granted monopolies, possibly in exchange for exclusive trade (ie, a grain state offers a hill tribe favored trade status in exchange for that hill tribe cutting off trade with another nearby grain state).
      • This is probably too complicated already
  • Converting between domain types is roughly as bad for morale as New Religion Introduced, since that's basically what happens.
Whether any of this will ever see play is another question, of course.