Wednesday, January 19, 2022


Arrow!  Black arrow!  I have saved you to the last.  You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.  I had you from my father and he from of old.  If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!

Bard's request to the his arrow in The Hobbit brought to mind an idea, perhaps just by close proximity between "asking your weapons nicely for things" and the word "bard".  If magic weapons have spirit, feelings, morale, can be delighted by deeds and moved by fair speech, then maybe enhancing/inspiring weapons is a reasonable ability for a bard of all classes.  Or something much like a bard, anyway.

There's sort of precedent in the Loddfafnismol, too, where Odin tells a young man about the magic songs he knows.

An eleventh [song] I know, | if needs I must lead
To the fight my long-loved friends;
I sing in the shields, | and in strength they go
Whole to the field of fight,
Whole from the field of fight,
And whole they come thence home.

(It's easy to forget that Odin was a rather bardy god; one of the early acts of his feud with the giants was seducing Gunnloth, the daughter of the frost giant Suttung, and with her help stealing the mead of poetry from Suttung.  While fleeing the giants he spilled some of the mead, and men got poetry by his mistake)

This all comes back 'round to Dwarfhack.  I had wrestled with painting runes on equipment as an appropriately-dwarven way to get potent effects that win combats decisively in the absence of sleep, filling the function of the MU without the classic MU spell list.  But the annoying little details around time to paint runes and smudging when used and so forth seemed significant.  And the dwarves in The Hobbit don't do much with runes - while the treasure map is written in runic script, and the moon-writing on it too, the only runed arms they find are of elvish make.  They do sing a lot though...

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Week as Wilderness Turn

Last post, I noted that the distances and times involved in wilderness travel in The Hobbit were so great that a game in that style might want to use 24-mile hexes as its smallest unit, and a week as its "turn" of wilderness travel.  What does it look like if you take B/X's or ACKS' rules for wilderness travel and rescale them this way?  What would you probably have to change and what could you leave alone?

If you're taking a week as your base unit of time, then you no longer have to worry about taking a rest day per week, and can just bake it in.  So you're scaling up your movement or actions per "turn" by a factor of 6, since you get six working days.  Using 24 mile hexes vs 6 mile, you're scaling up your unit of distance by a factor of 4.  So movement will be ~1.5x more hexes per turn.

Exploration movement speed : 24 mile hexes / week

  • 30' : 1.5
  • 60' : 3
  • 90' : 4.5
  • 120' : 6
  • 180' : 9
  • 240' : 12

So that's rather inconvenient, having to reckon in half-hexes.  I suppose we could do something like this, taking woods or hills as the default and multiplying everything by 2/3, so we get 1 24-mile hex per week per 30' of speed.  Which would be pretty clean, until you're on plains or road.

Nautical and aerial distances covered get quite large when you look at them on per-week timescales.  The lowly rowed canoe makes 4 hexes per week, while sailing ships with good winds might make nearly 8 hexes per day, or north of 50 hexes per week (assuming no weekly day of rest under sail).  Aerial travel gets pretty nuts when you multiply it all by 1.5 as well.  These modes of transport are fast enough that you probably don't want to track them hex-by-hex on a map on weekly timescales. You use sailing ships to move between maps.  You fly Eagle Airways for a couple of hours, not for a solid week (and still might get to move a hex or two).  Getting a personal, permanent flying mount is a phase-change event where you have outgrown thinking much about wilderness travel.

Since forced march is only one day of extra speed, followed by a day of rest and no speed, if we're dealing purely in weeks you might be able to just remove the option.  On the other hand, I like leaving this sort of option available to players; trading off now vs later is always interesting.  Maybe the right way to handle forced march on this scale is through something like strategic initiative in mass combat, where when you have a wilderness encounter, you can choose to forced-march to maybe gain a terrain advantage, bonus to escape roll, or surprise bonus at the expense of fatigue if brought to battle.

The right way to handle getting lost / failed navigation rolls is probably that they reduce your movement for the turn.  Maybe halve it; you spend a couple days wandering around within hexes that you were traversing, but going 24 miles out of your way is hard.  Could do hunting the same way; spend the whole week hunting, don't move at all, and get two rolls, or spend half the week hunting, get one roll, and half movement (and then if you also get lost that week, you end up still in the hex you started in).

Rations might actually get simpler, at a stone per man per "turn".  And fresh ration decay could be simplified too; you could just have all uneaten fresh rations go bad every turn.  Then hunting and foraging can work entirely within a single week; if you find a week's worth of fresh rations, that's a stone of iron rations that you can skip eating and carry over into next week.  So then you only need to track one number: the stone of iron rations you're carrying, which might also be thought of as your buffer against foraging failures.

As far as combat resources go...  for a Hobbity feel, you really want some refuges in the wilderness where you can recover hit points.  I still think recovering spells there too (not every night in the wilderness) makes sense, provided some reworking of mid- and high-level spells.  But I could see going the other way with it too, where you're pretty much always going to have full spells for any encounter.  This lends itself to very large encounters where you need lots of spellpower to bail the party out.

Wilderness encounter frequency definitely gets weird.  You probably don't want to have to roll a pile of d6s every "turn", and having multiple encounters per unit time is awkward.  I could see having one encounter per week, with the difference between terrain types being "roll n encounters and pick the scariest / biggest one".  Or just a quantity multiplier like dungeon level, where if you're in mountains you get 3x as many goblins as if you were in plains.  But this also doesn't quite square with the frequency of wilderness encounters in The Hobbit, where they can go a couple weeks without an encounter.  I could see having some <100% chance per week of an encounter, but when there's an encounter, it's always a lair - a kingdom of elves, a whole cave system of goblins, a big honkin' pack of wargs, a gang of trolls with accompanying cave full of magic swords of elven make.  On the time-and-space scales you're dealing with here, you might encounter a warband from a lair initially, but within a week they'll report back (or be noticed missing) and you'll be dealing with the whole village shortly.  Maybe winning surprise lets you only deal with one warband initially.

Domains get...  maybe a little messy.  Clearing a 24-mile hex is a lot of work.  You could do something like wilderness lords, where every wilderness hex already has a "lord" of a sort, and if you can knock him and all his monsters over that's good enough, the rest migrate or fall into line.  This is particularly plausible in a setting where everything talks, but might feel a bit strained after the third or fourth time, and maintaining relationships between all the "lords" of neighboring hexes is a lot of work.  Another approach might be clearing to capacity; if you want to build a village, you have to displace a number of HD of monsters comparable to a village of goblins.  This is what you might expect in a wilderness that is at capacity, saturated.  But this isn't the wilderness we see in The Hobbit, which is as post-apocalyptically empty of monsters as it is of men.

Maybe that's an answer - "clearing" a wilderness hex just means dealing with any already-known lairs in it, and then the real game is dealing with wilderness random encounters, which could have wandered in from nearby hexes, or could be from unknown lairs in the hex.  Taking land is easy; holding it is the hard part.  This creates a sort of "the dungeon is too big to be cleared" feeling, and is also consistent with the incomplete clearing of eg Mirkwood by the elves.  It pushes domain rulers into the same sort of reactive posture of incomplete control in game that they held in the fiction.

Switching to 24-mile hexes changes visibility somewhat, in that the edge of the hex is over the horizon.  You could spend a week exploring within a single hex, easily, and unless the next hex over is elevated, you might not know what terrain type it is until you enter it.  Finding a dungeon within a hex might take a while, but that's consistent with the fiction too, where they can't find the back door into the mountain.  They have trouble finding Rivendell too.

This mode of play doesn't seem terribly well-suited to 1:1 timescales, if most weeks you don't have an encounter.  I could see doing two turns per week of real time though, to make sure there's time to resolve wilderness encounters without too many more piling up.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Hobbit

I realized I hadn't read much in the last year, and that I had been dancing around Tolkien, reading his Catholic British contemporaries (Ker, Chesterton, and Lewis' Screwtape Letters), and decided I ought to just go revisit the man himself.  I'm pretty sure my mother read The Hobbit to me and my brother when we were small but I don't think I'd read it myself (certainly not since coming across OSR D&D).  I have not seen the film(s?) and do not plan to.

It may be worth noting here that I am taking the text of The Hobbit alone, ignoring the whole rest of the canon from elsewhere as best I can.  I think I like it better this way.  I will probably read The Lord of the Rings next, but for now I want to consider only what is written in The Hobbit.  And I want to get it written down, so that after the trilogy I can look back in on it.  This may not be the "correct" way to read the The Hobbit, but it may turn out to be a worthwhile way nonetheless.

I found it delightful.  I wish more D&D were in the model of The Hobbit than in that of The Lord of the Rings.

They're not out to save the world.  They're very explicitly not heroes.  The motives of most of the characters most of the time are Thucydidean - "fear, honor, and self-interest".

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.

That [attempting to slay Smaug] would be no good, not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero.  I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found...  That is why I settled on burglary.

Of the dwarves, only Thorin gives a consistently decent account of himself in battle (hitting a troll in the face with a stick,  holding the goblins with Orcrist, and shooting the white hart).  They get stuffed in sacks, chained up by goblins, webbed by spiders, and imprisoned by elves without offering any effectual resistance.  They sing better than they fight.  Their courage fails at the foot of the mountain and only Bilbo prods them on.  They worked as blacksmiths and coal miners before this; Fili and Kili are young and inexperienced, Balin at least is old, and Bombur is very fat.  These are not Dain's elite heavy infantry, "strong even for dwarves".  These are dwarven vagabonds with a map, a key, desperate scheme, a hobbit, sometimes a wizard, and a good deal of luck.  They are, in short, exactly what we might expect of low-level dwarven PCs in OSR games.

The mere fleeting glimpses of treasure which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire in their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce.

He did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.

And like my players of old, how loathe they are to give up what is theirs!  Though it be a great burden and a danger in itself!

The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!

How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don't know.

And like a third-level character come suddenly into a great deal of treasure and a fortress, Thorin handles it ineptly and it is his doom - in contrast with Dain, who "dealt his treasure well". 

And like combat in the OSR, defeat is miserable and victory is pyrrhic.

I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious.  It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing.  I wish I was well out of it.

"Victory after all, I suppose!"  he said, feeling his aching head.  "Well, it seems a very gloomy business."

And then the setting (or at least the parts much described) is the sort of howling emptiness implied by OSR systems.  But working from just this text, there isn't much of an apocalypse.  The Wild was not ruined by any central force, no great, shattering event, no unveiling.  Most of it was ruined by just...  neglect.  Decay.  Entropy.  Nobody is putting in the maintenance.  Certainly there are evil forces at work, but for the most part they're opportunists filling a vacuum, not part of some grand plan.

The marshes and bogs had spread wider and wider on either side.  Paths had vanished, and many a rider and wanderer too, if they had tried to find the lost ways across.  The elf-road through the wood which the dwarves had followed on the advice of Beorn now came to a doubtful and little used end at the eastern edge of the forest; only the river offered any longer a safe way from the skirts of Mirkwood in the North to the mountain-shadowed plains beyond, and the river was guarded by the Wood-elves' king.

There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them.  But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers.

The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded.  They have seldom even heard of the king round here, and the less inquisitive you are as you go along, the less trouble you are likely to find. 

An argument could be made, of course, that Smaug is the relevant apocalypse.  But that hardly explains the lawlessness of the Lone-lands between Hobbiton and the Misty Mountains, unless the reach of Dale was once very great indeed.  The giants have the power to shut up the exits of the goblins, but they don't (unless Gandalf is able to "find a more or less decent giant").  The wood elves waylay travelers, hunt the white hart, and get drunk on Dorwinion wine, and the spiders multiply.  The eagles seldom take notice of the goblins.  Beorn keeps his territory clear but only goes so far.  What has Elrond done lately?  The Lake-men have surplus enough to outfit and feed the dwarves but don't seem to be pushing out either, as the Master is content to maintain his little bubble of peace.  Dain waging war on the goblins of Moria seems to be very much the exception in that he is active (with Gandalf being the other active player for good, setting the trip in motion and working on the problem of the Necromancer while they're in Mirkwood).

No, the real cause of the ruin of the Wild seems to me to be apathy.  Not so grand as a Dark Lord, but much more true to life.

I love the passage of the seasons; it is something that I always want to evoke in my open-world games and something that I never seem to get quite right.  The distances are so great!  To run a campaign in this style, one might be well-served by 24-mile hexes as the smallest unit, and wilderness turns of a week.  I love that the place-names are plain English - Misty Mountains, Lonely Mountain, Iron Hills, Blasted Heath, Rivendell / Riven Dale, Mirkwood / Murk Wood, Long Lake, Wood River, River Rushing, Dale, and Lake-town.  Moria, Gondolin, and Dorwinion are proper names but only referenced, never seen; only at the end does Tolkien sneak in "Esgaroth" as a proper name for a place seen (Lake-town) in the style of the names of places in the trilogy.  

I love the talking of all the animals; everything bigger than a bat seems to have a voice and a language.  How often have I bemoaned that animal encounters on the wilderness encounter table are a waste of time for a mid-level party of reasonable size?  How much less of a waste would they be if they could talk?  If they could be bargained with, asked for information, deceived, taunted?

"O Thorin son of Thrain, and Balin son of Fundin," he [a raven] croaked (and Bilbo could understand what he said, for he used ordinary language and not bird-speech).  "I am Roac son of Carc."

In the middle of the circle was a great grey wolf.  He spoke to them in the dreadful language of the Wargs.  Gandalf understood it.  Bilbo did not, but it sounded terrible to him, and as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was.

In the silence and stillness of the wood he realized that these loathsome creatures [spiders] were speaking to one another.  Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said.  They were talking about the dwarves!

 Weapons, too, have a touch of soul to them:

It burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave.

Arrow!  Black arrow!  I have saved you to the last.  You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.  I had you from my father and he from of old.  If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!

When was the last time a magic weapon in your game was delighted?  Sure, sentient swords are in the tables, but how often do you even bother rolling for them, so seldom rolled and then so inconvenient to sort out and keep track of when you do?

It's just...  grounded, I suppose.  There is no cosmic struggle here.  Magic when it appears is mostly small wonders, in talking birds and delighted swords and water that makes you sleep.  Dwarves can be wicked, eagles can be cruel, Beorn and the Elf-king are very suspicious of visitors, and Thorin and the master of Lake-town are overcome by avarice not because there is any agent of a dark power whispering in their ears but just...  because of a moral failing.

I have dodged entirely talking about the hobbit himself and whether his desire the whole time to be home in comfort is of a kind with the apathy that is the ruin of the Wild, or wisdom, or both.

The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure;
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?

Maybe Bilbo's peculiar virtue is that he can be moved to adventure in the first place, and that once begun, he remains to see it through to the end in spite of his want of comfort and normalcy (which I suspect is quietly shared by almost every other "good" character but the dwarves).  And that like Rary as played by Blume, he knows when the job is done, rather than having his appetite for treasure become insatiable once whetted.

In any case, I am glad to have read it, and apologize for the rambling post (initially I had planned a series of more tightly-focused posts, but oh well).