Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Units for the D&D Endgame, Part II: Time

Especially at higher levels, player characters sometimes undertake plans of action that take large amounts of time to come to fruition. The basic units of time larger than the days tracked in wilderness exploration are the week, fortnight, month, quarter, and year, none of which is entirely satisfactory, although months seem to be the most salient.

Again, the first place to look is the medieval record. One nice unit of time that pops out is the Knight's Service, usually given as 40 days, but sometimes as 45, which is also the figure usually given for the military service obligation of Anglo-Saxon freemen, and, by extension, probably a reasonable estimate for many other Viking-influenced cultures. The later figure amounts to about a month-and-a-half, six-and-a-half weeks, just over three fortnights, and, most interestingly to me, one-half of a standard season or quarter.

What I find neat about the half-season is that it lines up with the neopagan wheel of the year, which amalgamates several seasonal festivals of paleo-pagan Indo-European cultures, ones that all happen at natural "focusing points" of the year. So, we could break up the year into these half-seasons, each marked by a small festival marking the beginning or middle of a season (the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days) that would very easily fit into most medieval-inspired settings very naturally. Conveniently, a single half-season "turn" would also be the amount of time that a character could draw on resources like the military service of vassals and a reasonable chunk of time to retain mercenaries or specialists. It's probably also a reasonable estimate for a how much corvee-labor a liege can get from their serfs each year.

Unlike turns and days (but something like the watches in my city-exploration draft rules), each particular half-season would have its own character and social rhythm, imposing some limitations on what characters may effectively accomplish in that time. I've listed the half-seasons along with the modern months they would correspond, example festivals, and some notes about the seasonal character:
  1. Early Spring: (February to mid-March) beginning  with the Feast of Lights, the first day of the year and the day on which everyone adds another winter to their age, a time of planting for spring fields and gardens.
  2. Late Spring: (mid-March through April) starting with the Vernal Equinox, when planting is finished and armies begin to gather and march.
  3. Early Summer: (May to mid-June) starting with Bonfire Night, a time favored for courtship and marriage as well as battle.
  4. Late Summer: (mid-June through July) starting at Midsummer on the Estival Solstice, often the hungriest months of the year, prior to the first harvest.
  5. Early Autumn: (August to mid-September) starting with the Feast of Bread to celebrate the first fruits of last year’s winter crops: wheat or rye used to bake bread.
  6. Late Autumn: (mid-September through October) starting with the Harvest Festival on the Autumnal Equinox, celebrating the second harvest of spring crops and the fruits of vine and tree.
  7. Early Winter: (November to mid-December) starting with the Night of the Dead, heralding the death of the year and remembrance of ancestors amid preparations for the dark days of winter, along side the planting of winter wheat and rye.
  8. Late Winter: (mid-December through January) starting with Midwinter or Yule on the Hibernal Solstice, the cold of the year where those that are able take shelter in their homes and see to their care.
In particular, it is difficult to make war during winter or early spring as hands are needed for planting and harvest or armies are mired in snow and muck, and the trading in grain may be difficult as stocks run low in summer. The campaigning season would correspond variously to summer, likely favored by the knightly class, or autumn, for armies that moved by pillage taking advantage of well-stocked granaries and fields full of fruit.

What I like about this scale is that it's a good amount of time to accomplish things like domain management activities such as construction or development, realistic periods of convalescence, whole exploratory or military campaigns, enchantment or spell research, and the like, with a full period of "rest" fitting nicely into the winter phase. It also allows parties to do things like meet "the day after midsummer" and give the players and referee a good idea of what can be accomplished in the downtime allowed, along with what resources are available to domain-owners each year.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Units for the D&D Endgame, Part I: Domains

I've been thinking about sketching out some rules for running a campaign that has reach the natural end-game of D&D. Taking a point from Delta's "Realism in Game Design" and Cariadoc of the Bow's adage that the medievals usually knew what they were doing better than we do, my thoughts naturally turned to researching the the units actually cited in the historical record.

Arable and in England was traditionally divided into units known as hides, each notionally capable of supporting one peasant household. The actual physical size of each hide varied depending on the quality of the land, but it is generally assumed to be about 120 medieval acres, or 30-40 modern ones, pretty close to the American “forty” or ⅟₁₆ section (usually  ⅟₁₆ square mile, depending on whether in was next to a township boundary where the convergence of lines of latitude made a difference). After the conquest, these were generally grouped into knight’s fees, the fief required to support a single knight with his household, horses, and equipment. The amount has been cited variously as between 2 and 27 hides and most typically at 5. We may assume that in practice an “average” manor, like that shown in Shepherd’s Historical Atlas, had about 10 such households, equivalent to an Anglo-Saxon tithing, plus a varying amount of additional forest, wooded parkland, wasteland, water, etc. A “typical” small barony might have the duty of supplying a group of ten knights, known as a constabularia, to the baron’s liege lord, roughly corresponding in size to an Anglo-Saxon hundred (literally, 100 households, grouped for administrative purposes), and thus consist of ten manors averaging out to this size. Baronies around the time of the conquest ranged in duty, from being required to supply about half of a constabularia to several such units. With even a small two-league hex being about 31 square miles, many such baronies could fit within a single hex on most campaign maps.

The knight’s service, the basic unit on which this is founded, involves supplying one man equipped with lance, mail, shield, helm, and warhorse to fight for up to 40 days each year  when called to war (close to the previously mentioned half-season). Usually, this was done by granting a manor (known as a knight’s fee) to a knight in return for such service, along with additional duties guarding his lords castle, etc., but it could also be done by hiring a mercenary free lance (hence, freelancer) on the occasion of service, running about ₤20 in 1200 CE, or more commonly expressed as 30 marks (nota bene: for convenience, the mark used in Heathen's Heartbreaker, for now, is a variant mark of 120d rather than 160d). Later, as the use of mercenaries and the cash economy became more common this money would be paid directly to the king, a tax know as scutage. Beyond such formal vassalage, each freeman (perhaps 10% of the population, more in towns and cities) was required to keep at least a spear, gambeson, and iron cap, and so a manor might expect to bring as many or more footmen to war as it did knights, and each knight was likely to bring a substantial retinue of their own.

Most manors were run on the open field system, in which the manor’s land was divided between planted and fallow land, and the land to be planted was divided into narrow strips, with peasant households assigned to strips scattered about the manor, about ⅔ their own, with the rest going to the manor’s lord (known as his demense, which would also include various parks or waste) and the local church (the glebe). 

The height of agricultural technology of the time was three-field crop rotation system, in which ⅓ of fields were used to grow winter wheat or winter rye, planted in early winter (September to December) and harvested in early autumn (August, hence Bread Feast or Lammas), another ⅓ used for crops planted in early spring and harvested in late autumn, such as oats, barley, peas, legumes, or fiber crops such as flax or hemp, and the last ⅓ was left fallow and often used for pasture (which further restored the land by providing manure). Earlier than the high medieval period a two-field system was in place, but it would likely be less than the naive estimate of two-thirds less productive than the three-field system of crop rotation, by virtue of the more advanced technique growing a more diverse set of crops, some of which had a further positive influence on the condition of the soil. Similarly, the later four-field system, cycling winter-grain, spring-grain, turnips, and clover over four years, is likely more than one-third more productive than the three-field system, as the crop diversity further increases and the fallow period is replaced by one of fodder production, which indirectly increases the production of human food. It would not be unreasonable to estimate a doubling of productivity with each technological advancement (if not more).

Manors of this sort might be thought of as fairly typical, but in practice they varied in almost every possible detail. Other arrangements of similar scale could also fit well into a similar structure, given a varying economy of scale implied by the agricultural technology available.. For instance, an Anglo-Saxon hundred-reeve would have similar judicial and tax duties over the same area and people as such a Baron (in fact, these institutions often existed side-by-side in England), but prior to the conquest would have ruled over free men that owned their lands and was obligated to a lead a larger number of less well-equipped foot soldiers to to fight in the fyrd instead of providing knights. On the other hand, a Roman latifunda might cultivate a similar area, but with the workers being slaves owned outright by a master rather than nominally free serfs, with military service performed by member’s of the owner’s immediate family. A later period knight, whose title was in name only and implied no actual military role, might rule over a larger number of peasants that work the land more productively and simply pay a tax to the king for the support of his armies and clerks.

This leaves lots of significant questions to answer. How much income should a baseline barony provide, in terms of crops, corvee labor, and ready coin? What could a barony's worth of corvee labor be expected to build each year, and how much would it cost to hire more? What could a lord to expect to make from a resource such as a forest of bee-trees, a flock of sheep, a small lead mine, or a toll bridge? One of the most important relates to the length of time to make a "turn" for such high level play; I've got some thoughts on that for another post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thoughts on Clerics in D&D: Polytheism, Monotheism, and other False Dichotomies

One of the core tensions people seem to find in the D&D oeuvre is that between Clerics as crusader-types straight out of the monotheistic religions of the middle ages and the notion that the world assumes a vague polytheistic mish-mash of beliefs, courtesy of Appendix N. Further, people often express doubt about the likely hood of priests going off on adventures of conquest, pillage, and exploration.

I think these tensions are in fact illusory.

1. Polytheism vs. Monotheism, 
or, A Guide to Recognizing Gods & Saints
Much hay can be made of the cultural and material differences between monotheistic and polytheistic religions/societies (see this post by Alexis on Polytheism), but the reality is that human beings  are too messy to be easily and cleanly fit into such pigeonholes. Or, at least, into what most people seem to think those pigeonholes entail.

This may seem like so much nonsense; after all, clearly a person can’t both believe in only one god and in multiple gods. “A or not-A has to hold, right? Well, of course it does. But that’s not the point on which the argument turns, rather, the essential pivot is: “just what do you mean by god, anyway?”.

There are two ways to think about this (well, actually, there are a lot more ways than that, but I’m gerrymandering for the sake of argument):
  1. A god is any entity with really big medicine.
  2. God is the unique entity that possesses god-making qualities (omnipotence, etc.)
Now, clearly, it’s possible to believe in both a god¹ and a God² at the same time. My contention is that most of the time when people say “polytheism” the theo root they’re using means god¹ and when they say “monotheism” the theo root means God². Given that, it should be possible to be both monotheistic and polytheistic in the specific sense that I’m using the words. And, in historical fact, many if not most people believed in both without much problem.

The upshot is that the transition between, say, traditional Roman polytheism and monotheistic Roman Christianity isn’t as big a deal in certain areas of practical effect as one might suppose. After all, there is still today a Pontifex Maximus on the Palatine Hill (or near enough) making regular offerings of praise and blood (or near enough) to the Best and Greatest (Optimus Maximus), just as there has been for the last 2500 years or so since we can establish some historical record of religion in the Roman republic. And, at the same time, most people living under that official religious order believed in lots of other things besides the Best and Greatest that had enough medicine to make a difference in their lives if properly approached, whether they be called Saints or Olympians. The transition in names from Jupiter Optimus Maximus to just God or from Diana to St. Anne isn’t that big a deal across a few generations of believers.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t a great deal of important theological differences that believers live and die for, but that you shouldn’t sweat it so much in dreaming up a D&D campaign world. In real life people have had wildly heterogeneous beliefs, and not just in the modern era, but amongst the ancients and medievals as well. Names and doctrines change while beliefs and institutions adapt and endure.

So, don’t worry too much about the weird place D&D Clerics are in. The real-world English priests at the Church of St. Anne and the Church of St. Brigid might, as a matter of official propaganda, be priests of the One True God, but they’re arguably also just priests at the temples of the goddesses Diana and Brighid, whereas the Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis might officially be the head priests of Mars and Quirinal, but they’re arguably also just priests of particular temples in a single religion that says Jupiter is the Best and Greatest. Further, through medieval history you often had pagan and monotheist kingdoms side-by-side and in practice saying their prayers to gods and saints with the same names. So, throwing what seem to be vaguely monotheistic-style Clerics into the roles of priests of diverse polytheistic gods whose cults have strangely similar hierarchies and oddly cooperative attitudes with one another may look weird to modern eyes, but it actually has a fair verisimilitude to the history that inspired it.

2. Priests as Adventurers, 
or, a Flamen, a Goði, and a Bishop Walk into a Dungeon
So, these Cleric guys might not be so out of place in the setting after all, but, allowing that, why are they out delving into dungeons, exploring the wilderness, and setting up strongholds in conquered lands instead of staying in their temples and doing their sacred duty? Well, two reasons:
  1. It’s more fun that way.
  2. Lots of the real priests we know about did the same kinds of things.
Augustus Caesar fought a half-dozen wars, winding up in an impressive ship-wreck a time or two, formed a military junta that ruled Rome, put down a long series of rivals and rebellions, founded and expanded the Roman Empire, rebuilt half the city, tooled around with redesigning the coinage and calendar, and still found time to be Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Jupiter and the head of all Roman religion. I mean, he may not have been quite as regular at services as some of his predecessors, but who was going to complain about it to the most powerful man in the world so long as the gods seemed satisfied?.

Ingólfr Arnarson sailed to Iceland around 874, becoming the first vikingr (which, more or less, translates to “adventurer”) to settle there permanently, founding and naming what is now the city of Reykjavík. According to the sagas, he left home to get out of a blood feud, set out for an island that he heard had been found recently by some guys sailing around the North Atlantic, settled where the gods carried the wooden pillars that represented his chieftainship (having thrown them overboard), and later  sailed out to the western islands to hunt down the slaves that murdered his best friend.Along the way, he became the prototype of the Allsherjargoði, the prima inter pares sacral chieftain (goði) that blessed the meetings of the Althing, and thus laid the foundations of a Comonwealth based on a polycentric legal order that would endure longer than the United States has been around.

Odo of Bayeux was one of the chief lieutenants of the Conqueror, even his right-hand man, and certainly one of the most powerful men in the newly established kingdom, at least until he got up to something that lead to him being tried and imprisoned as a traitor until William’s death. In between, he also became Earl of Kent and likely commissioned the medieval world’s greatest comic book, the Bayeux Tapestry, gained renown in battle, accumulated great wealth through robbery, plunder, and extortion, built a cathedral, and founded a school for young men. Incidentally, he was also named Bishop of Bayeux by his first cousin Duke William (the later King of England) while still a teenager, and carried his crozier with him on the conquest. It’s probably also worth noting that the bishop and king were only fourth or fifth generation Christians, William’s namesake and great-great-grandfather William Longsword having converted a about 150 years earlier, on or about the occasion of his marriage to a local noblewoman in order that he might cement his conquest of what would become Normandy.

So, don’t worry to much about what irresponsible shenanigans player-character Clerics get up to. They’re in good company. Sure, these examples are extraordinary men that did extraordinary things and so get a pass, but that’s the point: adventuring just is doing extraordinary things.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Exploring Civilization

Sooner or later, most parties end up spending a fair amount of time in cities, and not just shopping and carousing. The thing is, the level of danger and the scale of time assumed in dungeons and the wilderness are not really appropriate for most city encounters. Sometimes they work, of course, as in the case of slow-crawling a dangerous series of alleys using a slight adaptation of the rules for dungeon exploration. Sometimes, however, there are cases where the referee wants the character's to more carefully manage time or otherwise face them with the problem of managing their resources in city life. While most campaigns will have no or only rare use for such rules, there are any number of cases where they might be appropriate:
  • The party has decided to split up and meet in a few days time, and the referee wishes to impose some order on the process of resolving the actions of each character in the limited time available.
  • The player characters are living on the streets and have to scrabble to secure food and shelter each day.
  • The party is on the lamb and only strays out of rookeries and safe-houses at considerable risk.
  • The characters are metics in an unfriendly city, such as surface dwellers visiting a an underground city of dark elves, and may only venture out of their domicile in the foreign quarter in numbers and at some risk, or only at certain times of the day.
  • The players are assisting (or are members of) the city watch, or are actively involved in its defense and must spend much of their day patrolling or manning defenses. Similarly, the characters may be hunting criminals or looking to settle a personal vendetta with someone hiding in civilized lands.
  • The characters are planning a major heist and have limited time available to prepare before the only window of opportunity to do the job.
  • The party is exploring a large ruined city, perhaps one that is only partially deserted, that is larger in scale and safer than a dungeon, but not so large or uninhabited to be treated as wilderness.
In any case, here's my first draft of rules for characters working in settled lands:

Exploring Civilization
While most of the time that the characters spend in towns and cities can easily be handled in a free-form manner, when the characters are in a city that is unfriendly to them, that suffers a calamity such a war, fire, or plague, that is largely deserted ruins, or in situations where they are attempting to defend a city or secure a conquered one, the referee may call for a more structured approach.
Time & Activities
When exploring relatively safe areas in cities and ruins time is counted in watches, each about 3 hours long, and the city is broken up into wards, a largely abstract area resolving to one identifiable district or neighborhood. Over the course of a watch, a character can:
Travel: moving around a city under ideal conditions takes negligible time, but under adverse circumstances such as travelling across rooftops, moving through crowds or ruined streets, or dealing with checkpoints and gates, it requires one watch to travel to a given ward of the city. Alternatively, a character can travel up to 1/3 their movement in miles to a nearby location in the settled area around the city.
Explore or Patrol a Ward: characters can thoroughly walk through the streets of one ward. If exploring, the characters can construct a map noting streets, alleys, businesses, buildings, and landmarks. If patrolling, the characters can become aware of any unusual activity or developing dangerous situations and deal with several minor incidents.
Search: characters can search a single large building or a small block of lesser buildings amounting to about 20 rooms while looking for loot, contraband, secret rooms, fugitives, etc. Characters have a base 2-in-6 chance of discovering something.
(nota bene: this is slightly faster than the 15 20x20 rooms the characters would be able to explore in a dungeon during the same amount of time, as the rules for cities assume more favorable conditions.)Gather Information: a character can hang about a gathering place such as a public garden, well, square, market, or tavern trying to overhear news and rumors and automatically learn the local gossip, or can chat up locals for information with a base 1-in-6 chance of learning something about a particular subject, modified by the character's Charisma bonus. A character can generally only gather information at a given location once per day without drawing suspicion.
Conduct Business: a characters can browse the wares available in one market or street, interview hirelings such as specialists or mercenaries, fence loot and treasure, or negotiate the price and settlement of a significant business deal such as fitted armor or provisions for a large expedition.
Rest: characters must rest at least two watches per day or else become fatigued and suffer -1 to most checks.
Miscellaneous Actions: the characters can generally cast spells, converse, or do anything else that they would do during dungeon exploration with a negligible impact on their use of time, but they should take care to avoid drawing untoward attention to themselves.

Lodgings and Upkeep
While the player characters will not have to do the fine accounting of lights and rations needed in other exploration scenarios, city life nonetheless drains resources. The characters will have to secure food and lodgings, usually at an inn. Even basic accommodations are likely to run the characters a (silver groat or gold piece; depending on the campaign's monetary base) a day each, and costs easily run up from there, especially in times of war, famine, or disaster. If the party is large or accompanied by a significant number of retainers they may wish to secure a town house or an entire inn for their stay.

Chance Encounters
While the characters are moving about town the referee will check for a wandering encounter every 1-3 watches, usually with a 1-in-6 chance of something significant, but substantially greater if the characters draw attention to themselves or attract the notice of the local authorities.

Any editorial thoughts would be appreciated.

Saving Throw Categories

I've never really like the old-school saving throw categories. While they are somewhat evocative, they end up being fairly undifferentiated -- there isn't that much different in practice between using something like the tables in the Rules Cyclopedia and Swords & Wizardry's single saving throw, especially with something like the severity modifier that Delta included in his OED. As a younger man, I sometimes dreamed of adapting the prodigious item saving throw categories, with the extensive breakdown of various sources of harm, into use for characters, but that way lies madness. For one thing, there's no real way to achieve completeness (there's always something new that wouldn't quite fit into the existing categories when they're that narrow), but more importantly there are far to many categories to reasonable track.

Anyway, the single-saving-throw is actually very elegant and makes for a very simple implementation: put a column on the class tables, and just make up the categories you want bonuses to apply to, which is pretty much what most of the older rule sets ended up doing anyway. Nonetheless, it's broadly considered to be vaguely unsatisfying, a sentiment which I share.

My best attempt to work with this is to instead reduce saving throw to a matter of HD and ability score, plus ad-hoc miscellaneous modifiers. For characters, saves then break down into the following broad categories:

  • Struggle: the character relies on muscle power and training to resist overbearing or crushing, adding their Strength bonus.
  • Discern: the character uses powers of observation and deduction to notice harm before it strikes or identify tricks and illusions, adding their Intelligence bonus.
  • Brave: the character trusts to faith and courage to carry on in the face of fear, horror and despair,  adding their Wisdom bonus.
  • Endure: the character relies on their health, fitness, and determination to resist poison, fatigue, or the taint of death, adding their Constitution bonus.
  • Dodge: the character trusts their wits and reflexes to avoid dangerous rays, traps, or blasts of magic or dragon fire, adding their Dexterity bonus.
  • Presence: the character uses their leadership to carry the day or relies on their sense of self to resist enchantment, adding their Charisma bonus.
So, the mechanic is simply to roll 1d20 plus HD and ability score bonus, trying get 20 or more for success. Monsters just get their HD unless the referee judges that they have exceptional ability in one particular area; i.e., hobgoblins get a +2 jigger to struggle and fey get a similar bonus to presence.

One aesthetic decision I made was to make all of the saves into active verbs (e.g., the character struggles against something) rather that nouns representing categories of threat (e.g., the character saves versus poison or death), to place the emphasis on what the character does to mitigate the harm instead of on the threat itself, with the side effect that I'm considering some leeway creatively interpret the categories to put saving throws against certain threats into unexpected categories from time to time, such as by having a character make a discern check to notice the poison in their cup before they swallow instead of the usually expected endure check.

Another option I've considered is giving classes a bonus to saving throws outside of their traditional prime requisites, which they would already be expected to be good at. Perhaps the discipline of a Fighting-Man's training gives even the most naturally cowardly a degree of bravery and a Cleric's ordination gives them more presence.

My final rule of thumb for employing saving throws is that, failing some more specific ruling, characters get a saving throw against any threat that doesn't otherwise involve of rolling with a chance of failure, with the more broad categories hopefully making this fairly easy to adjudicate.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Anglo-Saxon Ability Scores

I wanted to give my take on The World's Most Popular Role Playing Game a Northern flair, and so considered recasting the classic six ability scores into the following molds:
  • Might: strength of arm and back, and the power to apply them.
  • Kenning: wit, memory, and the power to discern the truth of what is seen.
  • Faith: courage and the strength of belief in self, fate, and the gods.
  • Nimbleness: swiftness and surety of hand and foot.
  • Health: fitness and strength of heart and guts.
  • Wyrd: the brightness of one's thread in the tapestry of fate, the power to lead others to greatness.
Notably, all of these words were established in the English language (in one form or another) well prior to the Norman invasion. For now, at least, I've tried to capture the feel of these definitions while leaving the names intact; sometimes inertia is hard to fight.

On Heathens and Heartbreakers

Heathen (n):
1: a person that does not believe in the dominant religion; a person who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim;  a pagan.
2. an irreligious, uncultured, or uncivilized person.

Heartbreaker (n):
1. a fantasy game written by hobbyists, so called because of their extraordinary failure rate.