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."