Friday, 31 December 2021

2021 Year End: Not Much Blogging For Me

Nope, not too much blogging this year. Running a weekly roll20 campaign, with all the statblocks and maps and nice looking tokens, takes time. But that has truly been epic, with an all-star international cast of players, deep dives into the history of the world Mittellus, intrigues of secret societies and sinister cults, a micro-sized delve into a beehive, coalition politics under the shadow of the notorious Razisiz, blue dragon of the wastes. I'm a little inhibited in posting all the tell-me-about-your campaign details, but we are having a great time.

AI depiction of Nura the Sandwalker, campaign PC

Did I forget to mention that a lot of my writing on games has been scholarly long-form? Witness my  contribution to the Fiend Folio special issue of Analog Game Studies, giving a definitive rundown of monster origins and arguing that if the FF is weird and science-fictional, so is the Monster Manual, we've just forgotten it.

Another long essay should come out next year in the Knock! zine. It's an ultimate user's guide to Jennell Jaquays' classic adventure The Caverns of Thracia, which in the guise of the ancient ruins of Nathrak has been entertaining my players over some ten sessions. Fortuitous timing, as I'm told the Kickstarted reprint of Thracia and several other Jaquays adventures will also release soon. In a Bronze Age campaign, the antiquities of Nathrak are Copper Age (Aztec x Barsoom).

Mike McKone, Dejah Thoris #1 cover

Finally, I submitted a wasp's nest + petrified tree adventure to the One Page Contest, ran it at Dragonmeet London in early December, and am about halfway through to writing it up, as I've done with the aforementioned beehive. Will I mess around with an ant temple and create an insect colony trilogy? Wait and see! 

These days, I run 5th edition D&D but still dream in old-school, with its quick combats, harder play mode, and most importantly its awareness of material existence in everything from economics to the need for supplies. 

Anyway, I wish everyone a good celebration of the New Year and the space and safety to do more in-person gaming in 2022!

Sunday, 8 August 2021

One Page Dungeon 2021: The Paper Nest of Gabbro Grove

Last week was the OPD deadline again, and Paolo convinced me to do some kind of riff on the "giant beehive" adventure I am currently running my fifth editioneers through. Next door to bees are wasps, so paper nest -> paper treasures -> paper wizard suggested itself, with the giant petrified tree as gratuitous weirdness.

I really do suggest that adventure runners and writers do some research on any real animals, plants, or minerals they are using or adapting via monsters. In the current campaign this has led to such gems as the armadillo-folk being able to swim, but only after spending some time gulping air to increase their buoyancy, creating, um, gassy problems down the road. For this adventure I drew on traits of a number of species for such things as the wasp brewery, fig connection, and help from mites.

Freely licensed fonts used: Wood Stamp (titles), Bahnschrift (main text), Merienda (scroll text).

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Empirical Data on Spell Levels?

You know these researchers who published a paper in PLOS ONE are massive nerds. Because the paper determines how hard people think it should be to produce various magical effects. Spell levels by democracy!

D&D spell levels have remained amazingly constant over the different editions of the game -- even when they shouldn't -- so we can see that level in the game is equal parts arbitrary choices and game effect considerations, rather than how much counterfactual power it takes to actually engineer the change.
Most of these effects are available in the more developed form of AD&D and its followers. To wit:

Conjure: 3 (Monster Summoning I; arguably, conjuring a normal frog is more of a cantrip power)

Cease: 6 (Disintegrate)

Transform: 4 (Polymorph Other)

Split: 8 (Clone)

Stone: 6 (Stone to Flesh)

Invisible: 2 (Invisibility)

Big: 1 (Enlarge)

Teleport: 5 (Teleportation)

Levitate: 2 (Levitate)

Color: 0 (Color cantrip, Unearthed Arcana)

The correlation between these numbers and the intuitive numbers?  A not very impressive r = .43, which means that if you know one of two spells has a higher D&D level, it is only 65% likely it will also have a higher intuitive rank.
This brings us to why spells in D&D from earliest editions to 5th have the level they do, if it's not through some magical model of energy. Yes, it's play balance. Making a frog-sized chunk of most creatures disappear from their anatomy would be more lethal then calling a frog-sized creature into being, even a poisonous one. The same magical physics go into turning a friend and a foe invisible. Merely doubling the mass of a person doesn't have the same delightful possibilities as creating a second, exact duplicate of them. 
AD&D spells, as I've noted before, were not always well designed in the level assigned them. There has been a curious conservatism where spells tend to keep their levels and are more likely to be redesigned to fit their level in power, than to be reassigned level, although some exceptions (like Tasha's Laughter in 5th ed.) can be found. I'm sure this can be backed up by reading Delta's individual "Spells through the Ages" posts, although that scholarly compendium is maddeningly lacking in post tags or a search tool. As an example, Shatter was re-balanced as a damage spell rather than item destruction, which although situational, was quite powerful at the right time. Sleep in fifth edition also had its power curve smoothed out -- not so encounter-ending at early levels, not so useless at late. And Meteor Swarm earns its 9th-level slot by doing five times as much damage as the 3rd-level fireball, as opposed to the AD&D spell whose average damage was not very impressive compared to the average 63 points an 18th-level caster could deal out with a fireball. 
Still, fifth edition has its shares of third-level wizard spells that are nowhere near as useful as the old standards Dispel Magic, Haste, Fireball, and Lightning Bolt, joined by the new wonder-kid on the block, Counterspell (thanks, Wizards). The best that can be said for a Sending, Leomund's Hut, or Phantom Steed is that the wizard memorization economy allows some room for them, and they can be prepared for a special need regardless. Their utility goes up the more the campaign shifts away from toe-to-toe combat and into travel and politics. In that sense, they seem vestigial only as much as difficult travel, communication with allies, and other logistical considerations are brushed over in campaign development.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Obscure Adventure Review: Desert Plots

Amazon Mutual #2, Desert Plots
Mary Ezzell (The Dragon Tree, 1983)

The Dragon Tree was part of the flourishing horde of low-budget D&D-compatible publishers in the early 1980's. You might have read my review of the first book in their Amazon Mutual adventure series, a collection of four quests of wildly varying style and quality, influenced by the gonzo style of the Arduin rules and sporting the company trade dress of a monochrome Day-Glo cover.

There was only a second Amazon Mutual book, this one in eye-scorching fluorescent red instead of orange. It stands out as one of the few adventures from that era authored by a woman, Mary Ezzell. Her design and writing showcase a playful creativity that was soon to be lost, as TSR's detail-oriented fantasy realism, heroic plotlines, and oh yes, army of lawyers crowded more amateurish third-party publishers out of the game.

The title of the book, Desert Plots, links it to Dragon Tree's "Book of Plots" product, a collection of loose adventure storylines to be run in more detail by the DM. This link augurs in one of the fumbles of the book: the overarching plotline lacks a grand synopsis and is incredibly hard to follow. Two complete dungeons with about 20 rooms each are followed by five sketches of adventure material without maps that can be retroactively read to connect the two sites' goings-on. Along the way, we see four sections titled "What Really Happened"--two of which, unhelpfully, contradict the other two.

As this narrative goes on, the DM is repeatedly instructed to wing the details, and to adjust them not just for the characters' level, but for their play style as "hackers" or "thinkers." Amazon Mutual 1 also took play style into account, true. But the writing in Ezzell's adventures gets vaguer, with more self-serve instructions just when the grand design of the plot requires a stricter accounting, as if the manuscript is running out of pages.

And yet what a plot it is! The action is built around a series of increasingly preposterous magical gimmicks. Starting with a scroll that helps you find other specific written material with the help of a glowing green line, and a manual of very unusual golem recipes, we next see efreet working to exploit complex dungeon tricks, and rooms that go from one plane of existence to another. Much of the wackier stuff can be explained by the heirlooms of a religious order that used unusual magic effects to help people find harmony. The leaps of logic all hang together--barely.

Outlandish page art by Mary Ezzell

Ezzell uses the implications and side-effects of each gimmick to advance the character-driven plot, which sets up parallel love triangles each hinging on a forceful and creative female character. We have very much just been through the 1970's in this module, what with the flared hand-drawn psychedelic art and chapter titles. There are references to the Doors of Perception, student revolutionary movements, drugs-as-treasure, and heavy quoting of Buddhist philosophy. The meta-idea that the characters are working for the Amazon Mutual adventuring insurance company, which featured so prominently in book 1, is little more than a framing device in book 2.

Ezzell refreshingly refuses to lean on the Near-Orient cliches that are a staple of desert adventures. There are no harems, eunuchs, yelping desert raiders, or wheedling merchants. The orcs, efreeti, and bandits are "all D&D" here. Their uniqueness comes not from any surface detail but from their role in the convoluted and bizarre magical plot. While there is conflict and cruelty, everyone has reasons to do what they do, even if they are the wrong ones. Unusually for 1983, and probably thanks to the woman writer's perspective, a magic effect that could have led to nonconsensual player-character sex is specifically given a loophole.

Would it work at the table? Well, you would need to lay down the clues to the grand mystery a lot more firmly than the book's have-it-your-way approach. You would have to slalom past the 23 uses of "DMO" (DM Option) as a substitute for details, and jot down specifics that work for your group. The system might not matter much, because many of the encounters are designed for the "thinking" party to overcome through negotiation or puzzle solving. And yes, some of the dated references are a little cringey, like Heinlein's TANSTAAFL as a magic word, or a student movement called the "Orcan Liberation Front". All the same, the creativity on display in Mary Ezzell's Desert Plots might just be worth sharing with a set of old-school or even 5th Edition players who can appreciate its whimsy.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Alignment II: Complications and Excuses

Revisiting my musings on the D&D concept of alignment ten years ago, I stand by the observation that conceptually, it's a mess. Is alignment:

* A force that guides great destinies, setting mortals and monsters at opposite ends of the cosmic chess board?

* A political ethos that rules the morals of states and societies, and those who follow them?

* A style that shines through in the tactics and personality of individuals?

I made these observations about the Law vs. Chaos dimension, originally. But on reflection, they also apply to Good vs. Evil. I missed that originally because people in Western culture, raised on Western stories, will believe that good and evil nature goes through and through. Good people live in good realms and follow good faiths of good gods. Evil people likewise stick to their zone.

Good and Evil Wallpaper (66+ images)But storybook morality falls apart in the real world. Cruel and power-seeking worldly systems can and do serve noble ideological goals. A society supposedly dedicated to tearing down the universe can sweeten its appeal to the outcast by giving them kindness and understanding. Kind and power-hungry individuals can each find their place within those systems.

Yes, the three levels on the average reinforce each other. But the really interesting cases are those where the morality of ultimate ends, worldly means, and individual character fall out of ... alignment.

Think of a repurposing of the I Ching hexagrams, not a system to define characters, but a way to generate possibilities. The first three are the three levels of GOOD --- and EVIL - - : cosmic ends, worldly means, and personal character. The second three do this for LAW --- and CHAOS - -.

Using a site such as this one we first get:


Here's someone who, like most in their society, upholds a cosmic order where the strong rule and everyone knows their place. Although the gods of this order are cruel, the church and state who serve them are set up to cushion the blows as much as possible, seeing the diabolic as the only effective bulwark against forces that would utterly wreck the world. Despite their strictness in rule, the powers that be find it expedient to hire less constrained agents. Such a one is our hero, who believes in rules -- for other people -- but is otherwise good-willed and magnanimous.


Here is a harsh contradiction -- a lawful evil social order served by a chaotic good person while the order itself serves a chaotic good metaphysical cause. Can anyone believe in all three layers simultaneously? Does this example break down and force us back into the seamless view of alignment?

No, not necessarily. Consider, through the dark arts of social psychology, the many ways in which people deftly reduce the cognitive dissonance from incompatible elements of their belief system. The ease with which people go from hugging their dog to dining on pork, or the ways belief systems put qualifications around "respct for human life", prove that excuses and rationalizations are everywhere.

We can put all of them to use in our example.

  • Means-end separation. The dictator is only taking charge to preserve the dream of freedom and benevolence! When its enemies vanish then the true end state will be possible! (But the enemies never vanish, do they...)
  • Denial of responsibility. The system is too big to change, I can try to make it better from within, if I didn't do this someone worse would.
  • Advantageous comparison. Say what you will about our kingdom, over there they have it much worse!
  • Euphemistic labeling. Come with me to the Cells of Liberation where the truth will be extracted from you in the Palace of Joy.
  • Selective moral concern. Oh yes, it may seem that we are mean and oppressive, but only to subhumans / criminals / malcontents who deserve it. To our loyal people we are liberal and fair!
  • Straightforward fingers-in-ears denial. What? Nonsense! We don't torture people. I don't know what you're talking about. Those are all lies spread by our enemies.

None of these excuses are ironclad, and each of them can be toppled over time. Then you have personal evolution or a social revolution. But the fall of a tower of mutually reinforcing rationalizations should never be taken for granted. Its tensions and dynamics contain the seeds of situations much more intriguing than the storybook goodie/baddie distinctions that alignment by-the-book encourages. 

Next and finally: Everyday morality and alignment.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Alignment I: It's A Relationship

A decade ago I dedicated a number of posts to thrashing through alignment in the D&D family of games. A few complicated half-baked systems emerged in these pages. But in the actual play of games I've run since then, I've never had players write down their alignment. Let me show you how it works instead, from my online game this year.

The atmospheric "burning bridge" from Dragon Age -- looks well burnt!

The adventurers, seeking a prophecy at a Dervish shrine, had to cross a magic bridge. The span gave protection from fire through black ashes that floated up from the chasm below and stuck to the person on the bridge. The amount of ashes was in proportion to the virtue of the person. This was relevant to the next magic bridge, which roasted its passengers with flames.

Judging this strange place was uncontroversial. Everyone remembered the characteristics that had emerged over by then six months of weekly play. Some characters had shown benevolence and moral prudence, attracting a full coating. Others had shown the deficient magnetism of their moral compass by constantly urging mayhem, torture, and murder. Sparse were their ashes indeed! 

And this discrepancy set up one of the more touching moments of the campaign. A virtuous lizardman sun-priest embraced a questionable armadillo-folk* entertainer, and this act of compassion transferred half of his protection to the sinner, allowing both to pass scorched but alive.

Indirectly, my example illustrates the first and most useful point about alignment. It is not a rule, but a relationship.  I treated the rewards of virtue as judgement from an implied spirit of the bridge. The spirit had total access to past deeds, and its own concept of sin and virtue. Would a different spirit have decided differently? Possibly!

Do you, the GM or designer, sometimes need to make benefits or malisons depend upon player behavior? You can avoid the many pitfalls of a universal rule by stepping into the role of a supernatural judge with its own agenda. For example, if you feel the powers of a paladin need a limitation on behavior, you can make level advancement conditional on a "performance review" with an angelic tutor. Play it out as you would for any other non-player character in a mentor role.

Alignment in the environment is another story. You can have spells that detect, defend, and attack the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. But only by becoming a lich or a saint can a player-character register in this world of essences.

This brings me to two ideas from my earlier musings on alignment. They have endured in my game-running, not as rules, but as principles, lurking in the background. I'll cover them in the next two posts.

Alignment is inconsistent - but so is morality

Neutrality is everyday morality

Saturday, 27 June 2020

One Page Dungeon Contest 2020: Stela Obliterata

In these pandemic times, I have summoned seven redoubtable players from my previous one-shot games and campaigns to join in a weekly online game, following the path of least resistance to Roll20 and the well-supported, and still world's most popular, 5th edition D&D. For this year's One Page contest I thought I'd work-up an area based on the campaign.

Here I must ask my current players to look no further!

The campaign is set in a region of Mittellus, far away from where eight years ago the Game of Iron campaign began. It is a desert-ringed land, culturally combining ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruling empire a torpid and death-obsessed metropolis amid concentric canals that divert its life-giving river. There is more promise in the vassal kingdoms. The campaign began at the edge of one of these, Wahattu, which had recently seen its neighbor Dulsharna fall to incursions of gnolls.

My principal goal was to make this campaign last longer in game time than previous ones, which had compressed three or more years of real-time play into less than a game-year. To this end, characters would spend months between levels training up. I also wanted to give the players more of a stake in the land by having them sponsor and economically improve the last bordering village, Alakran.

After about 12 sessions they have had some outdoor and social adventures, and run through two adapted scenarios I placed in the map (Jason Morningstar's Khas Fara from Fight on! #2, their introduction to Alarkan; and following a newly dry streambed to relieve a family of flying camels from drought, they found it had been diverted to feed the fell doings of the Sinister Shroom, whose Pod Caverns lay below).

I might have more to say about this low-level economic game, and about 5th edition in general. later on. But right now, here's the entry ... wherein the players have only ventured to, and been soundly thrashed in, the bronze cedar tomb.