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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Narrativism Revisited

Narrativism can be broadly defined, and so is role-playing. Lucky for me, I evolved my ideas of what D&D should be in near isolation, and took at face value that DM tells a story of what is going on, and the players tell him what their characters do in that story, and the rules are used to make realistic outcomes.

From the beginning I realized that the D&D rules as presented, were not realistic, too abstract, too based on luck and too linear, so I broke away from it. Over years I realized the moral implications that D&D suggested, an old cop, when  I explained D&D to him, laughed and said, "your D&D adventure is basically an armed robbery - break down the door, kill the owner, take his property". Later still,   I realized that miniatures is not the most accurate way to portray combat or make the characters visualize or experience it. I became  a fan of phenomenology. And so, I became a fan of my very own historically accurate and tactically realistic, thoroughly fantasy sand-box.
Railroad adventures give narrativism a bad name. Most sand-boxes and hex crawls fizzle, because they lack the conflict and urgency of a story. Some DM's call Sign-posting, the practice of telling the players exactly where the DM wants the players to adventure in his sandbox. I reject sign-posting, and boss monsters, and power-players, and make my rules the bane of any power player who tries to figure out the optimal approach, by basing it on what is known in the real world based on research, and nothing is more complex or overwhelming than the real world.

And so, almost all the players I had have been uncomfortable about getting into character and role-playing, and I don't have a problem about players talking in the third person: "Zorg does this... Zorg does that... Zorg". One guy was stammering and was clearly uncomfortable with dying people screaming, crying and begging for mercy, or having to role-play his character comforting crying children who just lost their parents. In his case, the limits of his emotional depth interfered with him interacting with the game world. He stayed. Another quit. My best player never role-played, and when my players got into character and actually role-played, the players' agency (initiative and ability to get things done in the game world), went through the roof. So, I am not forcing the players to role-play, and can get along without any, but I sure am glad, when it happens.

I consider myself a narrativist DM, in that D&D is a storytelling game, mind, not a choose your own adventure, not a scenic train taking people from scene to scene, however, the sandbox will lose all meaning if the campaign doesn't have the beginning, middle and the end game; if the conflict and the march of events does not touch the players, and if it doesn't have some value/reward system beyond the level advancement and the loot. In my campaign, the players are egg-shells floating in the ocean near the shore, and the campaign is a breaking tidal wave that will throw the players on the shore and smash them against it. Where and how the players will end up, is up to the players.

Monday, August 26, 2013

On E. Gary Gygax and why I prefer AD&D

I left AD&D and then went back to AD&D rules when I decided to resume playing D&D as an adult. Why did I do it? Because I liked Gary Gygax's writing. It was sophisticated. He had a vision. He had gathered a lot, lots of detail to create random dungeons and dungeon dressing. The game mechanics were abstract enough to allow building upon them, and  there was enough spells, monsters and equipment to make the game vivid.

I didn't care about Gygax. It was unfathomable and sad, how quickly he lost control over his artistic creation. I didn't know all the bad things Gygax did to make D&D HIS game, and how incompetent's TSR's other BUSINESS members of the board of directors were. The profligacy of Gygax himself was amazing also. Especially, if you consider that he had a multi-million dollar company. As you read the articles, you will notice that he gave $500,000.00 USD to some author to develop the D&D movie screen-play. In a second article, dealing with Lorraine Williams, Bruce Heard expresses skepticism that TSR could have bought their own printer. The issue was that TSR paid premium prices for outside printers to print their hard-cover books. Well, I know someone in NYC, who spent 15 years working as a printer in an offset printing/binding shop, before raising $135,000.00 USD and starting his own offset lithographic print shop. This was I post 9/11 and in 1980's they couldn't have done it with half a million. Another glaring error I noticed was that TSR had a single distribution agreement with Random House and borrowed from, them against future sales. The Blume brothers packed the TSR's board of directors with three more people, two businessmen and a lawyer. I do not think that anybody took the TSR seriously and only used it as a cash cow to enrich themselves. Another interesting detail is that that Gygax hired Lorraine Williams (how can anybody with any brains trust that pit bull?) on the strength of her experience sitting on the board of directors of some hospitals and other non-profit. Wasn't he aware that rich people typically spend their time on the boards of directors of museums and hospitals? That was her qualification? Nobody thought to hire business strategy consultants? I read a 1980 or so interview with one of the Blume brothers, who were opening a company store for employees inside the TSR, and were talking about a "visionary" model, where TSR would have its own daycare and health care etc. I am not sure what he was doing - building socialism for TSR employees or building a company town, where the relatives of the board of directors members can recover some of the money paid to its employees.

What follows is the description of Gygax's time un Hollywood, and the two links to the probably thue best articles about the TSR and Gygax:

Gygax’s own position at TSR had become weak by 1982. In order to finance the publication of D&D in 1974, he and his partner Don Kaye had brought in a friend named Brian Blume, whose father, Melvin, was willing to invest money in the company. Kaye died in 1976, and Brian got his brother Kevin named to TSR’s board. Gygax was the president of TSR, but the Blumes effectively controlled the company; to keep Gygax further in check they brought in three outside directors, a lawyer and two businessmen who knew nothing about gaming but always voted with the Blumes. So Gygax moved to Los Angeles, and became president of Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment, which produced a successful D&D cartoon, and set out to produce a D&D movie. This was, to put it mildly, a strategic retreat. Gygax rented King Vidor’s mansion, high up in Beverly Hills, with a bar, a pool table, and a hot tub with a view of everything from Hollywood to Catalina. He had a Cadillac and a driver; he had lunch with Orson Welles, though he mentions with Gygaxian modesty that “I find no greatness through association.”[36] Here a whiff of scandal enters the story. Gygax had separated from his first wife, the mother of five of his six children; he had not yet married his second wife, Gail.[37] In the interim, well, it was Hollywood, and Gygax was in possession of a desirable hot tub. Gygax refers to the girlfriends who used to drive him around—he doesn’t drive; never has—and to a certain party attended by the contestants of the Miss Beverly Hills International Beauty Pageant. But he also mentions that he had a sand table set up in the barn, where he and the screenwriters for the D&D cartoon used to play Chainmail miniatures. This is perhaps why Gygax, unlike other men who leave their wives and run off to L.A., is not odious: his love of winning is tempered by an even greater love of playing, and of getting others to play along. He ends the story about the beauty pageant girls with the observation that Luke, who was living with him at the time, was in heaven, seated between Miss Germany and Miss Finland.

Gygax spent a lot of money in Hollywood. According to Brian Blume, he paid the screenwriter James Goldman, best known for A Lion in Winter, $500,000 for the script of the would-be D&D movie, but a movie deal remained elusive. Meanwhile, TSR had other problems: believing that it would continue to grow indefinitely, the Blumes had overstaffed the company; they invested in expensive computer equipment, office furniture, a fleet of company cars. But TSR’s growth spurt was over. By 1984, the company was $1.5 million in debt, and the bank was ready to perfect its liens on TSR’s trademarks: in effect, to repossess Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax got word that the Blumes were trying to sell TSR, and he returned to Lake Geneva, where he persuaded the board of directors to fire Kevin Blume and published a new D&D rulebook to raise cash.[38] At the same time, Gygax looked for people to invest in the company. While he was living in Los Angeles, he’d become friends with a writer named Flint Dille, with whom he collaborated on a series of choose-your-own-adventure-type novels. Flint arranged for Gygax to meet his sister, Lorraine Dille Williams, who, in addition to the Buck Rogers fortune, had experience in hospital and not-for-profit administration. Gygax asked Williams to invest in TSR; Williams demurred, but agreed to advise Gygax on how to get the company back on its feet.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Silva's Tale

Below is the background I wrote for one of my player characters. The reason for the massive write up is that it is part of the campaign setting that can later be used as a source material for the future adventuring.

Silva’s tale as a Monk started when he was five or seven years of age. He remembers walking with his mom and dad along a deserted stretch of the road towards some large stone houses in the distance, must have been the town or city square. Strange birds in the shape of men approached Silva and his parents from the side of the road. They looked human, but their heads and faces were dark and bird-like, with black beady eyes and narrow long beaks. They had leering faces and they started talking to Silva’s mom and dad, smiling and sucking up to them and saying nice things to them. Silva’s parents forgot all about him and started walking away towards the city in the company of two birds, while two others took Silva under his arms and started walking in the opposite direction. Silva started crying and screaming for his mom and dad, but they did not hear him and just walked away, absorbed in their pleasant conversation. As Silva screamed hysterically, one of the birds in human for grabbed Silva and flew into the air. Silva was terrified beyond belief and stared in horror as the ground started falling away from him and then sailed under him. They flew for many days until they flew over a large, large forest, and they flew for several days more, and then they landed in the Monastery. Men in strange clothing walked out of the buildings and walked towards Silva and the birds in human shape. They exchanged respectful greetings and bows, each mocking the other, the birds and the men. The birds flew away and the sound of the dinner gong rang across the monastery. Silva was terrified of the strange buildings, the strange vibrating noise of the low-pitched gong, terrifying statues of fierce beasts and screamed in earnest terror. That night Silva cried himself to sleep, but as he dreamed, he was approached by the strange looking birds and fierce unfamiliar statues of the beasts and the demonic looking men, who were speaking to him. And when he woke up, the strange looking men,  the Monks, talked to him about his dreams and offered him advice on what to say and do to the demons in his dream time.

Silva did not so much snap out of the tears as he grew numb. There were paintings of demons who looked like they were really men and there were men, who had the demonic glow in their eyes. The Monastery was not so much cloisters as it was a secluded village in the middle of nowhere surrounded by trackless thickets and bogs. The forest was white birch and bright green leaves and clear blue sky. There were stone buildings with dark red wooden roofs and grass growing on top. There were clusters of these stone buildings and between them were the monks’ huts, the incense temples and shrines, statues and vegetable patches and small gardens. There were animals everywhere, except that they weren’t really animals. Some spoke in different voices, some stared demoniacally and had no fear of you. Some grinned at you and others made fun and taunted you. It was this unreality that numbed Silva more than anything else – humans that weren’t quite human and animals that were typically, more than animals. There were other children in the monastery, and the other monks treated them with cruelty and good humor. There were uncomfortable sleeping quarters and hot tea in the winter and cold water in the spring. There was breakfast gong and midday meal gong and dinner gong. There were regular audiences with the abbot and other senior monks. The regimen was strict, the work was hard and discipline severe and the monks treated it all as it was a joke. New children arrived regularly and they were typically in stages of crying, hysteria, rage and catatonic withdrawal. Monks only cared if the chores weren’t done or if any of the rules were broken. Discipline was typically harsh and given light-heartedly.

One day several older boys, around 13, came to the abbot and told him that they were leaving. The abbot shrugged okay and pointed at the surrounding forest – they can go. Anyone is free to go. The boys left and three days later they came back – the forest was too thick, the damn sneering animals were everywhere, they wandered around in circles until the gave up and decided not to leave the monastery for yet another circle. Throughout his lifetime as a monk, Silva had seen this happen more than once, except that not all of the children returned alive. Silva lost himself in his work. At first he was put to cleaning the animal pens, the pig sties and the chicken coops. He was later put on to work ploughing the field and working in the vegetable gardens. While other children cringed, Silva learned to escape into his work. The plants and the livestock were a certain kind of a constant. You took care of the plants and they grew and produced food.  For all the mean and teasing intelligent animals in the forest, the monks’ livestock still consisted of the dumb farm animals, which mooed and brayed and ate and shat, but if didn’t hit them and if you weren’t mean to them, they came to you, and if you loved them, they would trust you in return.  One day Silva was done milking the cow and was enjoying spreading fresh fragrant hay around the cow’s resting place. Unbeknownst to Silva, a older monk in charge of the dairy was observing him. When he noticed that Silva  had seen him, the monk laughed and said: “Who is more free – a man who finds freedom in his cage or a man who escapes from a cage into a bigger cage?”. Another time a bunch of twisted humanoid little creatures were encamped near the monastery and one of them tried to trip Silva, but slipped and fell himself. “Ouch! Ouch!” The little creature shrieked in pain as it grabbed its broken toe, “You stepped on my foot!”.

“I am sorry!” Silva stuttered and was jumped by a dozen of these little creatures, who broke his nose and pounded him mercilessly. Adult monks watched without interfering as the little humanoid creatures beat Silva into unconsciousness. When Silva came to, it was dark, all of the monks have left, except the abbot. 

“Don’t complain, don’t explain, and never, ever fucking apologize!!!” The abbot spat, shouted at Silva and went to sleep, leaving Silva alone with the bloody snot running from his nose. Later on, when Silva was a novice monk proper, another child used to idolize one of the elder teaching masters. Every time the elder master would score a teaching point or win an argument, he would raise his index finger up in the air as if was a king’s sword. One day in the back of the kitchen the boy was arguing with other children and he raised his finger in imitation of his favorite teacher. The teacher saw it,  dragged the boy into the kitchen, and grabbed a kitchen cleaver and cut the boy’s finger of, the one he raised in the air like his teacher. The children were left to care for the boy’s injury. The next day the boy came to religious recitation pale from pain. As he recovered from his injury, he became noticeably cooler and people said that he had given up his finger and got a life.

As Silva grew bigger, he was pulled from cleaning out livestock pens and working in the gardens and was put to hard labor first, to clearing farmland and later to carpentry, to cutting down trees, to working with a carpenter’s axe and adze to clear logs of the bark and branches and to trimming logs down to beams and to cutting planks form the smaller logs. Silva built roofs and bridges and got away to work in the gardens and to tend livestock only when he had a chance, where he was now put I charge of supervising younger boys and  to delivering calves and other baby animals.

His religious studies concerned the fate of the eternal human souls free to wander among the six hells in the great wheel of being until they choose Enlightenment and stop the great cycle of rebirth and suffering. Silva was told of the Hell of Suffering where humans were in the state of absolute pain; the realm of Hungry Ghosts, where everyone starved and the slightest bit of nourishment brought pain and suffering; of the world of animals, where animals were stupid and everyone took advantage of them, used them and hunted them; and of the world of Man, where the man had a choice of going into another one of the hellish worlds or choose Enlightenment.  And there were worlds of Demons, with never ending strife and warfare, the world in ruins, and the world of Gods, where they had everything except Love. One day Silva asked the Elder monk about his parents and why the birds in the shape of men brought him here.

“Your parents didn’t want you.” Elder Monk said, and even though Silva didn’t believe him, somehow the Elder Monk’s words sank in and Silva started forgetting his parents and where he came from. Silva was taught that it was okay for people to make their living in any way possible except by killing, by selling weapons, by sex or by selling of sex, by selling alcohol and other intoxicants, by killing animals (as a butcher might) and by selling of slaves. Anything that kept people chained and kept them from reaching Enlightenment was forbidden and was to be stopped.

Silva also heard that not all the souls in Midlands were free to wander between rebirths and seek Enlightenment, but it was a discussion beyond his abilities. One day Silva was sitting underneath a steep river bank feeding some fish in a stream, when he heard the abbot and some Elders in a heated discussion. At first, none of it made sense. The Monastery was here in the White Forest, because Midlands are on the edge of the abyss. All kinds if beings, light and dark beyond dark, fly from the abyss and they get trapped here. For some reason this edge of the abyss attracts the Enlightened beings from all over the world. Something flew from the abyss and was trapped, like most things from the abyss, except this thing will eventually destroy this world as we know it and perhaps other worlds as well. “He who breaks out finds wings, he who breaks in finds an inescapable prison.” The abbot muttered.

Silva sat perfectly still and waited for the Elder Monks to go away, and eventually they did, as the darkness and the night chill came. The next morning the Elder Monks gave Silva peculiar stares and a little after breakfast he was summoned to the Abbot’s office. “It’s time for you to venture out into the world.” The Abbot told him. “We are here to help all souls reach Enlightenment, though they may have no idea of what Enlightenment is. Others proselytize and teach, but you are here to see that even the lowliest peasants do not starve to death when their masters can not provide for them. There is a town just south of our forest several days journey from here. Strife and suffering and coming there. You are to help the common people to survive. Observe everything, and come back after the autumnal harvest.”

Silva spent a day getting his things, and left the monastery the next morning. It took him a little over a week to come out the White Forest along the banks of the Satilla River. A few miles south was a large village or a bustling small town with a Castle near the river and with prosperous orchards on the bluffs overlooking the river.

 Silva soon found the dwellings of the field hands, poor tenant farmers and poorer peasants crowding across the road from the castle beneath the orchards. Summer sowing was coming and the itinerant field hands gathered in the town from all over. All of the rooming houses were crowded, and Silva preferred to sleep in the field on the edge of town, especially since the weather was warm. Finally, he found a common room at a barn that was rented to the wandering field hands. For several days Silva was in shock, wandering around town, pretending to be looking around, making sense of it all. The squalor and the misery on the poor people’s faces, the ignorance on the faces of the men at arms and helplessness of the wealthy farmers surprised and scared him. The men at arms had the red and black livery, with a upside down Eagle’s Claw as their symbol, but they were not mean or cruel, merely content and complacent. Silva was sleeping in the barn alongside many other men when he was awakened by unfamiliar foot steps. Silva snuck out of the barn just as armed men snuck in started ordering the sleeping men to their feet at spear point. On the street he saw people being dragged from their homes and put in chains with the clanking hammers. Some people were stabbed to death, some thatched roof houses were set ablaze. People rushed out in the street and panicked as the pint-sized raiders barked at them to stand still. A Church bell started ringing at the town square. Silva left his disassembled bow as well as all his valuables in the woods outside town, for safety, now he had no weapons. These raiders were only the size of the child, but there were many of them and they had spears. There was safety in numbers. The church was a stone building and it was a sanctuary. Silva ran through the back yards and gardens and made it to the church just as the large doors were being swung shut to keep out the armed raiders. Inside were only few men, mostly women, children and old people.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

MORE REALISTIC D&D COMBAT: Timing, Surprise, and Initiative

The greatest and undefeated Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi has once written in 1643, that TIMING  IS  EVERYTHING in HIS 10 Commandments to a swordsman who would be undefeated. Rules for timing in traditional AD&D 1st Edition combat rules is yet another overlooked element that can make the combat more realistic.

Combat is a team sport in AD&D, contrary to it being portrayed as an individual endeavor in the swords and sorcery literature. Its conceptualization is quite modern, concealed behind the medieval occult-like appearance of the game. In the immortal words of a 50 something LOTR movie fan and a novice to D&D, who exclaimed: "Hey, six man team is a special forces squad!", when I told him that D&D is set up for an optimal party size of six adventurers. Both, Gygax and Novice must have been drinking from the same pool of the Vietnam Era Green Beret radiance or something!

Gygax offers a very sophisticated and workable model for timing and initiative in D&D combat. I believe that it is based on the modeling of naval combat, from which he borrowed the concept of the Armor Class (AC). Two parties of combatants (i.e. adventurers vs monsters) encounter each other at a randomly determined distance. Surprise roll is then made for each team. For humans, surprise occurs by rolling 1-2 on 1d6. Cunning monsters, such as ghouls, surprise on 1-4.  The tactical time in Gygaxian AD&D is expressed in 10 minute Turns, 1 minute Rounds and 6 second Segments. The key, and most often overlooked component of being surprise is the team inaction under fire. Two teams roll 1d6, one or both may be surprised. Surprise may be impossible if the team conducted a successful reconnaissance etc. It will take precious time before the surprised team will react at all, expressed as the number of segments equal to the difference between the two die rolls. Loser rolled a 1 and the winner rolled a 4. The winner can act with impunity for 3 segments or 18 seconds before the enemy team starts reacting. The winner can close the distance and start attacking, cast and release spells, shoot the arrows. How much damage in real world? Historically, prepared British yeomen had to fire an arrow every five seconds, 7/12 had to hit the target at the 150 yard range. That is way too fast and furious for the AD&D, where 2 arrows can be fired per Round. How fast can the distance be closed? Self-defense Gospel is that a man with a knife ready, can cover 20 feet and stab another man, before he can draw a pistol from the holster and shoot the assailant. Again, a little beyond the pale of most role-players and re-enactors.

But let's get back to AD&D: This system of being caught with the pants down and open to attack is likely influence by the naval battle simulation as well, though, Lord knows there were enough infantry platoons, 20 men plus, going back to the WWI, which were surprised by a hidden machine gun and were cut down in less than six seconds or a single D&D Segment, and as to naval battle, archeological evidence shows that in one of the battles for the Nile, the French fleet readied one side of the battle ships of the line to fire on the British, and Lord Nelson surprised them and attacked the French Navy from the OTHER side, from which they weren't able to shoot. That carried the battle for him.

There is one tactical element, which makes Gygaxian model of surprise so much more sophisticated: and that is individual initiative. While surprise is done for the group, and my philosophy is, if the group is acting in concert as a team, then do group surprise, it is individual initiative that breaks the stunned stupor of the surprised group. One of the bonuses that comes with the high Dexterity is the Reaction Adjustment/Atack modifier. The attack is the bonus to the To Hit roll with missile weapon shooting/throwing. The reaction adjustment is subtracted from the number of segments that the character spends in the state of inaction as a result of being surprised. Let's look at our example of the team that is surprised and inactive for three segments. Among those, there is a fighter with the dexterity 16. He will be stunned for 2 segments, not three, and will be the first to react. Of course, there is also a Thief with DEX 18, with his +3 bonus,. he will not be surprised at all and will re-act immediately.

Starting with the quick Thief, the surprised team starts to react, and rolls for initiative, and in the next post we will examine the initiative and weapon speed.

Friday, August 2, 2013


In the words of one Army ROTC professor many years ago, "...It all comes down TO  A  SOLDIER  HOLDING A PIECE OF GROUND , as it has, since the beginning of time ..."

How can we implement this into an existing AD&D framework? Well, in the AD&D weapons table, each weapon has it's length. For simplicity's sake, we can break the melee weapon reach bands as follows:

For realism's sake, I suggest that you use the AD&D 1st Edition Weapon vs Armor table. Use it only against the opponents actually wearing armor. The attacker gets the full melee bonus when he strikes at the reach appropriate to his weapon so as to develop the optimal kinetic energy for the blow. When the attacker is running up to and striking the opponent outside the strike range, he loses the to hit bonus and the penalty is multiplied by 1.5.  If the attacker is forced to step back, he takes a -1 To Hit penalty. If the attacker is forced to fight at one reach band closer than the weapon range, the To Hit Penalty drops to -3. At 2 reach bands closer, if the weapon can be used at all, the penalty increases to -5 To Hit. A pole arm might not be useful at all at spear range if there is not room to push back the excess weapon shaft. A spear becomes a cudgel held with two hands and doing 1d4 damage at the fencing reach. A Two handed sword can be used with both hands (if the attacker wears gauntlets), also as an improvised cudgel.
Let's examine a situation, where a swordsman is advancing on a spearman. Then melee starts at the Pike range, with the attacker just out of range. Each of them rolls to hit. If the spear hits, the attacker does damage AND keeps the advancing swordsman at the distance. If the swordsman scores a hit, he gets to close the distance to the spear reach. If the swordsman misses, he does not close the distance. At the spear range, the swordsman advances only if he scores a hit and the spearman misses. If both score the hit, the spearman hits, swordsman mitigates the damage if he hit better than the spearman. If the spearman made his to hit roll by 2 and the swordsman made his to hit roll by 5, he subtracts 3 from the spear damage. Also, the swordsman advances at the spear reach if he hits twice in a row, regardless of whether the spearman scores a hit that second time. Finally, at the great sword range, the spearman can retreat if he chooses, or fight at a penalty, the swordsman has a choice of whether attacking the spearman (finally) or parrying the spear. The swordsman will fight at optimal strength (no penalties) so far as he is parrying the spear. Once the swordsman closes to his optimal strike range, swordsman's bonuses kick in, while the spearman is either retreating or fighting at a severe disadvantage.
Keep in mind that if you use the weapon speed factors in the AD&D weapon tables, the swordsman can actually strike twice, if the spearman is slow or unlucky, and the soldier using the short sword or a dagger at the close or grappling range can strike the spearman three or four times, potentially doing massive amounts of damage to the unfortunate spearman.
In the next installment we will find out about the timing, weapon speed, and initiative and how these translate into multiple strikes for the attacker.