Archive for December 21st, 2010


How awesome is your fighting man?

The image of the super-hero cutting a swath of destruction and mayhem through a troop of goblins is a key D&D trope. But how to simulate an overpowering attack in the confines of abstract combat rounds? The increasing “to hit” ability of the fighting-man (paired with better saves) captures the hero’s increasing prowess. But simulating combat vs. multiple enemies requires an additional mechanic – hopefully one that lets players be awesome(1). Otherwise a 10th level fighter takes eight rounds to slay eight goblins every time, and that is not awesome.

AD&D addresses this in two ways. Fighters get multiple attacks as the gain levels, and versus enemies of less than one hit dice they get an additional attack each round per level. This allows a lord to indeed put down eight goblins in a round or two.

Another more random possibility: a variation on Zak’s kung-fu points, where hitting your number could mean, for instance, that damage you do in that round applies to all enemies within melee range.

A third approach is seen in Empire of the Petal Throne. Once a hit has been determined in EPT, the damage (number of dice rolled to determine damage) in part depends upon the relative level of the combatants, so:

Why, yes, I am level "Vee Eye Eye Eye"

The example included in the rules extends the possibilities: damage can be applied across multiple enemies. The example is worth quoting, since it is open to multiple interpretations:

This becomes important in melees in which an advanced level character fights more than one low-level opponent. Fighting three Kurgha (one die creatures), a 9th level warrior rolls four dice. If he scores a total of 18 or better, he kills them all, since thier maximum total hit dice cannot exceed 18 points. A 4th level fighter does 2 dice damage to these same creatures, and the referree then rolls to determine the hit dice the three kurgha can take: let us say a 6, a 4, and a 2, totalling 12. If the fighter scored a total of 10 on his two dice, he would kill the weakest two Kurgha and leave the strongest one with only 2 points remaining!

How this works in mixed-level opponent situations is left as an exercise for the reader. One fallout of this system – any 10 hit die creature could in theory slay a group of 1st level players in one round with the swipe of a claw…

Do you have an alternate or favorite way to allow fighting-men characters to be awesome? Feel it is unnecessary? Please add in comments!

(1) ”Awesome” here is a shortcut for “engaging play” – awesome could be spearing two orcs at once, an epic fumble, or whatever fun and unexpected thing the dice and situation dictate, as long as it captures the attention and imagination of the players at the table.


Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 5

This is the fifth installment in my series of posts on making a sandbox-style region map using automatic drawing methods and vintage Judges Guild random tables. We have gone through these steps so far:

  1. Create a nebulous outline of a continent map with scribbles and loose pencil drawing.
  2. Use a cheap watercolor kit to randomly splatter our map with terrain colors and then paint in all remaining white paper with chosen color areas.
  3. Make a high resolution scan of our loose painting and zoom in on a region to map.
  4. Use free graphics software to place a hex grid on our chosen map region.
  5. Use old Judges Guild random tables and maybe a computer script to roll our encounters for each hex and determine if they are a Village, Castle, Ravaged Ruin, or Lurid Lair.
  6. Draw in loose roads to connect villages and castles with compatible alignments.
  7. Start to think of the narrative reasons for differences in alignment and race between populated areas.

What we have so far is a map like this:

We have come to a loose understanding of an adventuring region of about the size of New York State or just shy of the surface of Oregon. We know where the major attractions and mysteries lay. We know which ones are bad/chaotic and which ones are good/lawful. We don’t have their names or their specific details, but these can be rolled up on the fly as the PCs travel  through the land. What we really need is a solid chunk of tight territory with more information that can serve as a home-base region for a new campaign.

I am in some old red-box style campaigns that have stretched for multiple years of play and I don’t think we ever got the itch to strike out overland, long distance, all at one go. It is always a gradual expansion of known territory. Maybe the big sweeping exploration is for level seven and higher, where you can fend off the frightening probability of OD&D wandering dragons,  but I know that a “Keep on the Borderlands” or “Nentir Vale” size area is a good starting point for a beginning campaign.

The time has come for us to draw in some hard features on a hex by hex basis. We need to name our places, determine our inhabitants, and find their relationships to drive the interests of our players that stalk the six-sided wilderness.

For this next step, we need to use our digital wizardry to zoom in even more. I picked a likely spot, as shown by the red outline above, and cropped down. Like my first printed region map that I used to mark encounters on before, I made a letter-sized inkjet print of my image. The numbered hexes are still in place from when I overlaid the main region map. I clipped a piece of clear acetate over the print-out and used a technical pen to doodle in my features. You can draw directly on the printout if you desire, I just drew on the transparencies so I could scan the doodles in again and layer it cleanly over my map in my graphics program. At this point you could even remake the entire map using your own digital cartography brushes in GIMP or other mapping programs of your choice. But, as you can probably tell, I like the touch of the hand so I went at it and came up with this:

The first thing that I did was to consult my main region map and find out where my encounters were. I made up a consistent little map symbol for Castles with a little tower , Lairs with a little cave, Ruins with some crumbling structure, and Village hexes had some square dots that seem to indicate a building plan. I admit that the villages look a little unclear but I was trying to ape the B&W cartography of the Wilderlands Of High Fantasy Maps and failed. I like my little towered city better in the center.

After the main encounter symbols went down, I connected villages and some castles with road systems represented by dashed lines. I tried to imagine the paths of least resistance while traveling through the splotchy terrain and then also started to put rivers, mountains, and forests in where I thought the color of the paper demanded it. Notice how I put a high pointy mountain symbol on all the dark gray watercolor spots and then the smaller hill features around the other rough spots. In the process, I saw a yellow patch of  earth on the south-east corner of the map and decided that some hills would form a rain-shadow over an arid section of the region. I guess I have some rudimentary weather patterns now.

The rivers should be placed so they are always flowing downhill in some manner, so I usually started them in mountains or hills and had them flow through or by villages on their way to the ocean. Creating the roads first reminds you to draw in a bridge or a ford in the waterways when you need to. It is better to put the information on the map so you won’t forget about it later. I made a shadowy outline of the forest and decided it would represent a real thick wood. There would be trees and sparse copses in many hexes but I wanted the big green spots to be unbroken forests. All the blank hexes would be either plains, or scrub, or grasslands, or gentle hills. I guess I could also come up with symbols for those hex types but I liked the effect of the color popping through the map.

So there, I had my complete home-base region all mapped out. All I needed to do now was make a dungeon or three, name some villages and inhabitants, figure out who occupied the ruins, castles, and lairs and then create some relationship maps to goad the PCs into investigation or activity. (Village A is bothered by lair B, castle C is guarding ruin D, etc.)

The drawing and symbols are not all consistent or neat, but I was doodling directly without practicing much so I think it came out alright considering. The information that the map contains is what is important. You shouldn’t have to worry about how your map looks unless your players are going to see it, like a handout map.

So tune in for the sixth and final part of my sandbox mapping posts… the Player Handout Map.


Casino Dice & Regional Variations in Old-Schoolers

casino dice picture

In a gambling casino, the dice are extra large red celluloid cubes… Dice – said to have been invented by Palamedes who taught the game to his countrymen during the siege of Troy – are the oldest known objects men have used for the purpose of gambling. They have been excavated from cities dating back to 1000 B.C.: made of ivory, knucklebones of sheep, carved from stone or metal. Pagan priests used them when they wished to ask the advice of their gods. The answer to any burning question of the hour lay in the way the numbers came up. There are men today who put that same trust in the extra large red celluloid cubes.

-No House Limit, Steve Fisher (Hard Case Crime)

I’ve recently been grooving on the Hard Case Crime series. Their reprints of pulp noir novels are exactly where my reading tastes are at right now, and (gaming relevance approaching) Lester Dent’s Honey In His Mouth is so good that I think it may be worth seeking out his Doc Savage books, for those of you who like your D&D cast in the mold of two-fisted pulp action rather than a heist caper. The cover of No House Limit, plus the above passage on dice, reminded me that I wanted to talk about some observations I made at So Cal Mini Con III.

WordPress informs me that this initial reminder was back on August 25th, 2010; I drafted the above then, and let it languish until Cyclopeatron’s post Understanding Crappy Dice Apologists reminded me again today.

The observation I was going to make was that the old-school gamers I met in Anaheim had a striking number of big celluloid dice, as well as nifty cases to carry their gaming stuff in. You can see both of these in the picture of Cyclopeatron GMing Gamma World below, and I was so impressed with the stuff Telecanter could carry in his Traveling GM Kit that I asked him to pose with it after Javi and I played in his game.

I like to think Cyclopeatron is saying "Behold the power of my casino dice and lacquer boxes" in this picture but it probably ain't so.


Telecanter & his amazing Travelling DM Kit

As the title of this post suggests, I was originally thinking of this as an example of regional variation, with an appropriately regional explanation. People in Southern California live close to Las Vegas, so they have greater exposure/access to casino dice. And they drive to their games, so that the important consideration is not how much you can carry on the subway but rather keeping it well-organized so that getting into and out of the car isn’t a nightmare of packing and re-packing.

On first reading Cyclopeatron’s post, I was like “oh it’s not a local cultural thing after all, it’s just that those guys were hip to the demonstrable bias of other dice, which I wrongly perceived as the quaint folkways of Southern California.” And in fact looking at those pictures of the Anaheim con didn’t provide much empirical support for my conclusion; on the one hand most of the d6s on view there were not casino dice, while on the other hand I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Greengoat here in NYC sporting a set of celluloids and he definitely has a sweet case for carrying minis in. So there is some support for the argument that I lack true scientific realism.

But the great thing about what Cyclopeatron has to say about dice is that he doesn’t prioritize one over the other. He demonstrates that we can talk rationally about objective qualities of dice, but he’s also glad to celebrate the weird customs and magical beliefs about dice that are a unique part of roleplaying culture. And since culture is what transmits knowledge, these two perspectives are inextricable. Intellectually I value the precision of my Zocchi dice; emotionally I treasure them as a reminder of being converted by the man himself during his last year as a Gamescience exhibitor. Likewise, when I get my casino dice, the pride I take in their engineering qualities will be matched by my pleasure in being part of a network of blogging and actual play that connects me to people who tell me cool things I want to know. (On that tip, Bruce Lee plays ping-pong with nunchuks, and a friend’s personal rock reviews and related tales).

The final thing that I want to talk about related to Cyclopeatron’s post is this, from the comments:

Heh, this whole elitist rant reeks of the same carrion spewed forth by those that swear there is only ‘one true game’, think that the basement calender reads 1973 and use playground phrases like TETSNBN. I have not time for such things and am dropping my subscription to this blog. When/if you fall off your elitist high-horse I’ll return.

Which gives me an opportunity to repost this, originally from a thread at the OD&D boards about why gamers are so negative about one another’s differences in gaming preference:

I think that a big source of negativity is the human superiority/inferiority thing, which we get from primate dominance behavior. As kids, lots of us were told that people who played sports were better than we were because we played with books and dice and miniature mans. This kind of message is so pervasive in our cultures that it’s hard to say “no that’s crazy, you like one thing, I like another, we both like to play so let’s either find something in common or agree to disagree.”

Instead, we tend to buy into the basic assumption and react to being made to feel inferior by trying to make what we like into an assertion of superiority: “no actually I’m better than you because books are mind-expanding and dice are oracular and nerds make more money than sports stars.” It’s great to celebrate what’s unique and awesome about RPGs, but when it becomes a superiority thing:

– focusing on the us vs. them aspect erodes common ground; I want games that I can play with people who also like sports. I suspect that a reason many of us as kids abandoned “basic” for “Advanced” D&D and now are in a market dominated by games that are 576+ pages long is we want to feel superior to those who aren’t bookish enough to master all this complexity; having been excluded from sports etc. we now want revenge by making our games exclude all but an initiated elite.

– when we’re amongst ourselves, the behaviors we learned from this history – of being made to feel bad about the games we play, and responding to that by asserting that our games actually make us superior – continues even outside the context in which it sorta made sense. We’re all gamers, so it’s crazy to still do this us vs. them thing amongst ourselves! I think Ron Edward’s name pushes buttons because people think he’s saying his way of playing is better than theirs, so now they’re not interested in engaging with his ideas, they’re defending and counter-attacking. (Note that it is often the case that people are in fact saying they’re better than you; I’m not denying this at all, just saying that the non-crazy reaction is “yeah whatever, let’s talk about this cool thing instead” and maybe deciding to hang out someplace where the discussion isn’t dominated by assertions of superiority, such as here!)

So sure, some people in our little world really are elitists. But often this accusation is aimed at people who are making reasonably objective statements – these dice are inaccurate – and expressing personal opinions on the matter – such dice are crappy. When you take this as someone looking down on you, get up in arms, and wait for them to fall off their high horse, isn’t it more about your own delusions that some people are above others & your reaction to feeling that your rightful place on this hierarchy is threatened?

Just as Cyclopeatron is fascinated by the psychology of dice, I’m intrigued by the ways that fantasy roleplaying both encourages and challenges hierarchical thinking – a higher-level character more or less is a better person than a lower-level one, but D&D is a social game that can be easily derailed by dominance struggles around the table. (Compare online multiplayer games, where the impersonal nature of the medium much better facilitates PvP and comparing who pwns who). When I argue that some kinds of RPG facilitate hierarchy more than others, this is somewhere between a fact an opinion; it’s not to say that you or I are better or worse than one another because we like those games, or don’t. I want to be your equal, so that we can get together and have a good time as peers on a level playing field where our precision-engineered dice will dispense justice to one and all alike.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2010

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