Monday, 21 May 2018

Surprised and Confused

In Conclusion

This turned into a long look at how surprise has worked through the early editions in order to try to fix the mess that later AD&D surprise became, so I decided to put the conclusion first so it’s easy to refer back to.

So what’s the fix? Quite simply, to go back to the original idea of the surprise die indicating both surprise and range, with “complete surprise” being the case where melee can start without any closing of range. Literally “in your face” in the case of the catoblepas and some other monsters.

I don’t want to simply go back to OD&D, however. Many players feel that multiple surprise segments is a core feature of AD&D and so I want to retain that. But I do want to get away from the idea that anything can cause an adventuring PC to be unable to react for half a minute or more.

The proposal is:

  1. Each party rolls for surprise (usually on 1d6).
    1. If surprise exists, individuals modify this rolled “surprise number”:
      1. Unencumbered figures may apply any reaction bonus.
      2. All figures apply any reaction penalties.
      3. Figures with heavy gear get +1 to their surprise number.
      4. Figures who are encumbered get +2 to their surprise number.
    2. A modified score of 0 or less is un-surprised.
    3. A modified score of 1 is surprise.
    4. A modified score of 2 or more is complete surprise.
    5. If no one is surprised after these modifications, then it is a standard encounter at normal ranges.
  2. Surprised creatures are “frozen” for one segment.
  3. Completely surprised creatures are “frozen” for two segments. If one is holding a crossbow of speed, it fires in the second segment.
  4. The less surprised (un- Vs surprised or completely; surprised Vs completely) figures have automatic initiative on the first immediately following combat round. If both sides are equally surprised then there is no initiative advantage.
  5. If all the members of a party have the same score then that modified score is used to determine the party level of surprise and encounter range. Otherwise, range is determined based on the party die roll (and maximum available space, of course):

    Party A Party B Effect Range
    Unsurprised Unsurprised None, proceed to 1st round. Normal
    Unsurprised Surprised B immobile for 1seg; A gains initiative 3”
    Unsurprised Completely B immobile for 2seg A gains initiative 1-3”, at A’s choice
    Surprised Surprised 1seg wasted 2”
    Surprised Completely A: 1seg wasted; B: 2segs 1”
    Completely Completely 2seg wasted 1”

If any opposing figures are not surprised then any “frozen” segments are part of any combat round which is engaged in by those unsurprised figures.

Notice that this already allows for the possibility that a surprised party will receive three sets of attacks before being able to answer back, so I don’t think there’s any need for a “3 segment cap”.

Note roundup

These notes are in priority order where there is a clash - so #3 can not override #1, for example.

  1. Monks above second level can never be completely surprised by anything.
  2. Piercers only ever surprise, they never completely surprise no matter what penalties the target has. This is more to do with their need for a ranged attack than the level of shock they create.
  3. Aerial Servants which are not detected always gain complete surprise without a roll; otherwise normal rolling is done based on a chance of 1-4 on d6.
  4. Quiet things grant +1 to the chance of surprising others. Quiet things include undead, bugbears, hobbits or elves in non-metalic armour, rangers, golems, cats of any kind. Some of these are already noted in the books, some are not.
    • A party only gains these bonuses if all the members qualify. There’s no use a ranger and a hobbit sneaking about if they have a donkey tapdancing on the stone floor.
  5. Modifiers to the chance to surprise others are cumulative only insofar that they reflect different advantages. Being silent is one advantage; being hidden is another. Hiding in shadows while invisible is a single advantage. As a specific example, an elven thief hiding in the shadows of a forest surprises on 1-4, not 1-5. In effect the hiding in shadows is assumed as part of the elven ability to blend into woods. Monsters appear to have slightly different rules, but PCs generally can only get +2 to their chance to surprise.
  6. A party with any members with a reduction in chance to be surprised gains the best such reduction.
  7. Surprise reduced from 1 in 6 goes to 1 in 8, then 1 in 10, 1 in 12, 1 in 20. In the opposite direction, 5 in 6 goes to 7 in 8, to 9 in 10 etc.
  8. When encountering settlements, and fortresses use the standard rules on DMG p182-183.
  9. Wilderness encounters with surprise are as per general encounters (1-3”).
  10. Wilderness encounters without surprise are as per DMG p49.
  11. Ruins are spotted at 1d10 half miles if no surprise; and 1-3” if the party is surprised. This score is shared by any monsters within.

The Problem

On the surface of it, surprise is a very straight-forward mechanism in AD&D: when any encounter happens each side rolls a d6; on a 1 or 2 they (not the opponent) are surprised and spend that many segments in a state of basic helplessness as they fumble or drop weapons or what have you.

Characters with low dexterity are not surprised more often, but instead take longer to recover if they are; high dexterity is the same, not reducing the incidence but improving recovery time. There is a slight asymmetry in that high dexterity can eliminate recovery time, so in a practical sense the high dex character is actually surprised less often.

This basic system is then absolutely screwed up even at this early stage by the sort of over-explanation that melee weapons Vs spells suffers from. Because, the above is all you really need to know and it is a simple and obvious consequence of these rules that if a PC walks around a corner and meets an orc and both roll 2 for surprise then the net effect is that both are helpless for 12 seconds but unable to exploit their opponent’s state, while being surprised for 1 segment against an opponent spending 2 segments fumbling gives you one segment to act.

Sadly, it was decided to spell this out in gruesome detail which (aside from a misprint in early printings, which didn’t help) gave the impression that the DM was supposed to subtract actual time spans from each other, leaving a muddle about what happens when two parties are surprised but one or more extreme-dexterity individuals do not share the result of their companions.

So: the first rule of surprise club is that surprise is measured in segments and you never, ever subtract one side or individual’s surprise from another. If I wait for ten minutes and you wait for 15, that doesn’t somehow mean that you only have to wait for five minutes.

But, sadly, things did not rest even there. That 1-2 on d6 has some exceptions even in the days of MM/PHB/DMG AD&D. For one, elves surprise on 1-4 on d6 when in natural surroundings. For another, rangers are only surprised on a 1 on d6.

Now, the elves are a problem. Because each segment of surprise allows an unsurprised opponent a full rounds’ worth of attacks. And four rounds of attacks is deadly. Those elves could be 7th level fighters, so they get 6 attacks in that time. Given that this is all down to basically pure luck, that’s a very big advantage, and if you have a dexterity penalty then leaving the house is basically suicide.

You're surprised for...4 days!

It gets worse. Later monsters introduced different dice, and eventually we have the example of the greenhag from MMII who can attack from invisibility, gaining surprise on 1-19 on d20. Strictly speaking, that’s a potential 19 rounds’ worth of attacks from a 9HD monster with 2 attacks per round - against AC -5 she’ll do an average of 71¼ damage!

Additional complications include what to do about a ranger’s implied -1 to surprise when faced by such a monster. Do we say that the greenhag surprises a ranger on 1-18? Big deal! Note that the DMG specifically rules out the alternative suggestion made by some that we treat the ranger’s bonus as a 50% modifier, which would reduce the greenhag to surprising on 1-10 (and only doing an average of 136hp damage to an unarmoured opponent).

There are various monsters which surprise on x on d8 and d10 floating around too.

What a mess.

How it was in the old days

So, how did we get here? That’s a multi-stage process.


The very first published version of D&D included surprise. In book three (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) surprise is introduced as a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 and it states that the existence of surprise indicates that encounter distance is between 10 and 30 feet.

The primary effect of surprise is to grant “a free move segment, whether to flee, cast a spell, or engage in combat” (my bold).

In addition, the surprise roll is referred to as the “surprise distance deterioration” with a roll of 2 indicating a distance of 10 feet.

At this point I’m going to get controversial. The normal belief is that melee range in D&D is 3”, because that’s what it was in Chainmail. However, Book III of D&D contradicts this once in plain language and once more by implication, in both cases when dealing with surprise. The first is when describing surprise distance in the wilderness: the statement is made that a range of 10 yards (1”) will enable a monster to attack. Under the 3” rule, this would be a redundant statement since the surprise range is between 10 and 30 feet - all of which would be in Chainmail’s melee range. The second case is in the primary discussion of surprise in the underworld where surprise is described as being an opportunity to close distance and also the encounter example which continues from determining a range of 10’ (1”) to the wyvern attacking as if there were a connection. I believe that these passages were written with a 1” melee range, the same as AD&D, in mind. This becomes more important later.

In addition to granting one “free move” having surprise also grants initiative on the first round of combat (a rule that is referenced in DMG without any real explanation).

There are no rules given for both sides being surprised but it’s not hard to imagine that the expectation was that the DM would count this as a cancelling out. Since there was only one segment of action possible, there was no real need to go into any detail.


Greyhawk introduced nothing new except for the bugbear, who surprises parties 16⅔% more often (in one sense, in another 50% more often). In other words, they surprise on a 1-3.

Notice that this has no real problematic aspects in the rules as stated so far. There’s still only two questions being answered by the surprise roll:

  1. Does either side get a surprise bonus move?
  2. If so, are they in melee range to attack?

As before, if both sides are surprised then there’s just a general fumbling about and then combat proceeds as usual. Some surprise is still all surprise and we can probably assume that a roll of 3 from the bugbear means that it’s in melee range, just as a 2 did for the wyvern. The binary nature of both surprise and melee range means there are no questions about being very surprised compared to only slightly surprised.

Although thieves are introduced in Greyhawk, the only mechanical application of their ability to move silently is to allow them to make a backstab attack.

The guy at the bottom is still not
completely surprised


Blackmoor does very little about surprise except for one paragraph in the introductory material dealing with monks, which are a new class based on the Destroyer books of Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir.

  • Third-level monks, it says, are surprised only on a 1 on d6.
  • Fifth-level monks are surprised on a 1 in 8.
  • Seventh and higher level monks are surprised on a 1 in 10.

It seems from this that a 3rd or higher level monk can not find themselves in a surprise situation where their opponent is in melee range unless they have the advantage (i.e., that is indicated by the opponent’s die). This situation is still not a complication, however because both parties are still surprised equally, in terms of time.

The paragraph (still dealing specifically with monks) goes on to note that “extremely silent creatures will double surprise possibilities, i.e., halflings, thieves, bugbears, and undead”.

In the context of a monk who has a 1 in x chance of being surprised, doubling the chance is the same as saying that the monster increases the chance by +1 - so 1-2 on d6 or 1-2 on d8 etc. Which fits what we were told in Greyhawk about bugbears but is innovative here, as far as I can see, in extending this to thieves and so forth.

Nothing in the text implies that this +1 to surprise is extended to situations not involving monks, but I think that’s logical in the same way that I assume that the thieves in question must have rolled a successful move silently check.

Eldritch Wizardry

EW took a look at the whole question of initiative which had been studiously ignored in D&D up to this point, with DMs assumed to have cobbled together something based on Chainmail’s Man-to-Man Combat section. As well as being incredibly opaque it introduced many key concepts such as segments and (implied) spell casting time and the surprise die as a number of rounds of free attacks. It may also hold the seed of a mistake.

EW tried to create a individual clockwork initiative system whereby the round was divided into segments and each combatant would be assigned an attack rhythm within that round which would essentially repeat from one round the next, at least as long as they fought the same opponent with the same means.

On the initial round of combat, surprise was used to modify this system and the notes on the tables involved included the statement that “complete surprise is basically a die of 2 when checking” (EW p6).

So you're saying...what exactly?

To throw another spanner into the works there is also a note that says that “surprise is basically a die 1 when checking, or a die 2 in those cases where the creature in question is difficult to surprise and has only a 1 in 6 chance of being surprised” (my ephasis).

The implication of this last statement is that in the EW system the chance of being surprised is 2 in 6 for everyone and the effect of being hard to surprise is just that you don’t suffer the penalties for complete surprise. It’s pretty weird if it’s not a typo.

Anyway, we are also told that “If surprised lose the 1st segment on a die roll of 1 and the 1st and 2nd on a die roll of 2”. This seems to mean that you lose your first one or two attacks, in the context. And another way of looking at that is that the opponent gets one or two rounds of attacks free of reply. Sound familiar?

And note the phrasing: the text does not say that a character that rolled 2 missed 2 attacks because he was completely surprised. This creates a dangerous link between the number on the die and the length of time a character is unable to fight back. EW never considers the possibility that a surprise die might be 3 or more - much more.

My suspicion is that Tim Kask (who wrote the EW initiative system) was simply carrying on the previous tradition of surprise starting either outside of melee or within melee, and that was the distinction between plain surprise and complete surprise with no further consideration given to higher values.

But by not saying “If surprised lose the 1st segment and the 1st and 2nd if completely surprised” he unwittingly left the door open to 19 attacks from greenhags etc.


  • The Monster Manual

    No further tweaks were made in official supplements to normal combat before the Monster Manual came out. So, what initiative system was assumed to be in play for MM?

    It’s very hard to tell. I believe that Gygax never even considered using the EW system - he simply wasn’t that mad - and that it died a quick death just like the hit location system of Blackmoor (which, to be fair to Kask, was actually worse).

    Orcus is listed as having a tail which strikes as if 18 Dex, but this could either look back to the “adjusted dexterity” system in EW, or it could look ahead to the AD&D system where high dexterity grants bonuses to both surprise and ranged attacks (which the long tail might be seen as).

    There are several references to “complete surprise” in the MM and also in PHB and DMG. That’s an interesting clue as it suggests that even when Gygax had definitively abandoned EW’s system (which he had by PHB where he had gone back to a foundation in Chainmail with its weapon factors and first strike rules, even though he had not yet formulated the final system), he had decided to retain that division.

    In the Monster Manual and PHB we encounter monsters and characters gaining surprise on 1-4 on d6.

    Piercers have a 95% chance of surprise.

  • DMG

    With DMG we finally got the official word that surprise was the number on the die, even if it was a 4, and no explanation of what “complete surprise” actually was, despite the fact that whatever it was it gave you a bonus in various situations (or a penalty, if on the receiving end).

    As far as I can see, Gygax’s next step was to forget all about this and go back to pre-EW days, at least as far as initiative and surprise was concerned.

    There was never a single official explanation or expansion of the initiative and surprise rules in Gygax-period Dragon magazine. Nothing. The world of AD&D DMs and players was baffled by the presentation of the rules yet this was never addressed in over 100 issues of the in-house organ.

    The simple reason was that Gary was as ignorant of the DMG initiative rules as he was of the falling damage rules. He continued to play to the rules in his head, leaving the formal rules for people who wanted to play in tournaments. It’s entirely possible that Gary didn’t even write the DMG rules, just as “Gygax & Blume” had not written the system in EW. No one else has admitted responsibility, however.

    The DMG combat rules were certainly not well proof-read in any case, with dead-end cross-references and a table explaining surprise which had a hideous error in it (to say nothing of the screeds of combat examples in PHB and DMG which simply didn’t match up to the rules given).

    As Gary went on creating monsters, he retained the distinction between surprise and complete surprise in his head but nothing much else. So, even in the MMII we find several new monsters still referring to complete surprise alongside monsters that cause crazy numbers.

    Like Kask before him, Gary simply didn’t think about the consequences of making that link between the number on the die and the number of segments of free attacks and largely acted as if it didn’t exist. Because, I suggest, that link did not exist for him.

    So, what to do about all this? Go back to the top of this document to see.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Spell: Dream Quest

Philippe Druillet

Dream Quest (Alteration)

level: 7 (I), 9 (MU) Components: V, S, M
Range: Personal Casting Time: 6 turns
Duration: Special Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: Personal  

Explanation/Description: The illusionist prepares for this spell by burning incense (costing 100gp) and meditating before going to sleep. During the course of the casting, any familiar within 12“ will also fall into a deep sleep. The spell may only be cast on a plane which touches the Ethereal Plane - the various material planes, the elemental planes, and any demi-plane created within the ethereal plane.

Once asleep (at the end of the casting time), the caster will find themselves lying on their bed (or whatever) on the ethereal plane and will be able to rise and move about on that plane. The only possessions they will have will be the equivalent of what they were wearing when the spell was cast. The spell can not be cast while wearing or holding enough to encumber the caster at all.

If a familiar was within range, it too will be active on the plane so long as it remains within 12“ at all times thereafter.

Magical items taken to the ether in this way are unlikely to work unless they originate from one of the Inner Planes. For each item not so sourced, the caster must make a saving throw against spells modified by their wisdom Magical Attack adjustment. Artefacts and relics will always work, although their characteristics may alter (perhaps radically) at the DM’s discretion.

Magical weapons and armour will normally operate at one plus less than normal unless cursed. Again, items from the Inner Planes will not lose their enchantment and may even gain.

The spellcaster must choose a destination as part of the casting process and the spell will take them there using the normal procedure for ethereal travel (i.e., check three times for encounters at start, middle, and end portions of the journey). However, the chance of actually arriving in the correct location depends, like teleport on the familiarity of that location:

Familiarity Illusionist Magic User
Very Familiar 5 5
Studied Carefully 6 6
Seen Casually 7 8
Viewed Once 8 10
Never Seen 12 16

The number indicated or higher must be rolled (by the DM) on 1d20, modified by magical attack adjustment. If a lower score is produced, then the traveller arrives in some other location. It is not possible to give exact details since the intended destination could be anywhere on any world or plane which touches the Ethereal Plane but in general the longer the journey from the caster’s location and the larger the margin of failing the roll, then the greater the error. Thus, if the spell was cast in an inn near a castle the user was intending to spy on, and which they had studied carefully on a previous occasion, a score of 3 might indicate only that they arrived in a forest near the castle. If the castle had been in an alternative reality, then s/he may have arrived on a different parallel world where it might not be initially obvious that anything had gone awry. Similarly, if the destination had never been seen by the caster, such a roll could indicate arrival almost anywhere.

Additionally, travel on the ethereal plane is akin to travelling quickly through a fog; it is not teleportation. Barriers may be erected on the plane itself to prevent “normal” ethereal travel. This may create additional, non-random, encounters, particularly at pylons or similar structures around domains if the caster's destination is within an area dominated by some powerful entity.

The caster’s perception of any plane, including their own, from the Ethereal will be of psychic impressions only - living things will appear like ghosts, with higher intellects being more life-like and animals as little more than shades of colours with little form. Spells like wizard eye or clairvoyance can be cast from the dream form to allow perception of an adjacent plane. Notice that most normal types of shielding against such spells (metal sheeting, for example) will not prevent entry of the ethereal caster.

Contact other plane may be cast from the ether, in which case any appeal to the elemental planes has half the normal chance of insanity (after Int modifiers).

By and large, however, the sights of the ethereal plane for the dreamer will be those native to it, with the addition that other dreams will be visible when near creatures engaged in sleeping and dreaming. These dream-forms may be interacted with but they will generally exhibit dream-logic and only the most intelligent such dreamer will be able to act sensibly and with planning. Even these, however, will seem insubstantial and ghostly. The only exceptions to this will be other users of the spell, certain psionic individuals, and the insane.

The dreams of the insane will always manifest in a substantial form on the ethereal. This does not apply to mild forms of insanity (see DMG p83).

Once the character has reached his or her intended destination, s/he may choose to awaken at any point or continue on to a new destination on the ethereal realm. In any other case, return from the dream state may be difficult or impossible. Any attack on the dream-self which causes damage or results in a failed saving throw (such failure may not be deliberate) will allow the character to make a roll of 3d6 to attempt to awaken - if the result is less than their intelligence score, then they succeed.

The only other way to wake up is to “die” in the dream state, but this is dangerous to the character’s mind. Being reduced to exactly zero hit points will awaken the dreamer with only a mild shock requiring bed rest for a day. Being reduced below zero causes shock akin to a psionic blast. The character must save as if the blast was at short range (with the usual modifiers, and +3 for illusionists), and if that fails they must roll for the effect as normal. However, both save and effect are made as if the character’s wisdom and intelligence total was reduced by the amount by which they went below zero hit points.

In any case, being taken below zero hit points increases the amount of bed rest needed by days equal to the excess damage, i.e., a character struck by a fireball and reduced to -6 will require a full week before being able to do anything more strenuous than walking to the privy and back (initially they will need help even with that).

No dream-damage will otherwise be reflected on the character’s real body.

Marvan the Miraculous (Int 17, Wis 13) has entered the dreamlands and there encountered a rakshasa. In the resulting fracas he is reduced to -5 hit points. His saving throw is made as if his combined score was 25, although he gets +3 to the die due to being an illusionist. On rolling a 6, he must roll on the effects table. A score of 98 causes him to awaken in a panic state for 2d4 rounds, at the end of which he collapses in a state of exhaustion and will require 6 days rest.

Any normal attempt to awaken the sleeper on their home plane will be futile, although any damage done there will be reflected in the dream-state and that may have the desired effect.

However, time on the Ethereal Plane passes differently - roll d100 each time the spell is used to find the ratio between the planes. Thus, a roll of 34 means that every 34 minutes, hours, days or whatever in the ether will represent only one such unit on the original material plane of the sleeping body.

Finally, each full (real-world) day spent in the dream state will reduce the character’s level by one (until rested) and at level zero there is a 10% chance per day, cumulative, that the physical body will die, and the dreamer with it.

The Dream Lands

The ethereal plane is inhabited by many strange beings, demons, devils, druids, forgotten or shunned gods, and travellers from unknown worlds and alternative realities. Although it is influenced by the material planes where they are close by, the nature of reality in the ether means that it may contain many strange things unbound by any material physics. Although many who pass through it view it only as a means of transport, it truely is the realm of dreams and, of course, nightmares.

Some inhabitants are entirely disinterested in the material realms, as most denizens of they are of it, and some such as the nighthags use it as a fishing hole for prey. Dream empires exist which defy comprehension, while a few insane or gifted poets have woven new hells and paradises to explore.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018


Here's some pictures I took at the British Museum one lunch time in 2015. They're all reconstructions of ancient Athenian statues of their patron deity, the great Athena. The golden statue is based on the work of Phidias for the Parthenon and is called Athena Lemnia, which is now lost but known from copies of varying ages and certainty. The purpose of this (and the other statue below) was to give some idea of how these works would have looked when new. Marble was painted and bronze gilded or polished to a high shine, with glass for the eyes. In fact, the eyes were the most striking aspect of the first statue and the second photo only hints at the life-like quality of the statue's gaze.

Both statues show the goddess wearing her aegis, a sort of shawl with snake heads attached (and the head of Medusa embedded on it too, on the first statue. In the second example it's on her shield). The Phidias version has the snakes almost as broaches around the edge and they're easy to miss, especially when distracted by what is certainly a great evocation of what I suppose is the supernal origin of the goddess. If it wasn't so golden it would be a superbly realistic creation in bronze and it's easy to see why later generations would assume that the Greek masters "cheated" and used casting of living people.

Naturally enough, the Christians despised it in much the same way that they hated anything bright or positive and it was destroyed, probably in the orgy of book-burning and murder which led us into the Dark Ages in the name of the Prince of Peace.

But I digress. The second statue is based on a marble original and is a good deal less sophisticated, suggesting that the arrival 40 years later of Phidias must have been something of a revolution on the Acropolis. However, the very primitiveness of the pose makes the aegis much more prominent and its purpose as something to be thrust into the face of attackers, human or giant, more obvious. And of course the colour is striking. The museum notice said that the white areas were thought to be unpainted but it's hard to believe that there wasn't some skin tone applied. Phidias is mentioned by Himerios as having applied blush to Athena's cheek and the stark contrast between the coloured aegis and the white skin really cries out for it, IMO.

The so-called "Golden Age" of Athens was no such thing, in basic human terms. Inequality was worse than anything Donald Trump could wish for, with slavery a routine part of life while the elites of the city had no need to physically exert themselves except for that other stain on their world: constant and never-ending war and it's peaceful equivalent of politics. Alternative facts were the coin of the political classes and Athen's democracy was repeatedly undermined and subverted by lies and plain old misconceptions - to accuse was all to often to condemn, and Phidias - possibly the greatest artist we know of before the renaissance - was ultimately accused of a highly unlikely crime and exiled. During his exile, towards the end of his 60 years he created his masterpiece and one of the Wonders of the World: the statue of Zeus at Olympia. This the Christians destroyed too but for once art defeated pig-ignorance and Phidias's evocation of the ultimate deity was too strong to resist and the face of the master-sculptor's Zeus became the model for the equally mythical Jesus, and his flowing locks, beard and moustache can be seen in billions of images around the world to this day. So, that's some consolation, I guess.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Random Monster Tables and The Mega-Dungeon

The mega-dungeon is a staple of early D&D. Not only were there tales of the semi-mythical dungeons under Castle Greyhawk, only a few partial levels of which have ever seen the light of day even now, but there were explicit instructions given for starting DMs that basically outlined the construction of such playing spaces.

The mega-dungeon is not a random artefact of early play; it is a mechanism with a specific function and that function is carried through to the DMG’s appendices A and C. Not understanding this can have unfortunate consequences for anyone trying to build non-mega-dungeons along the lines given for Dave’s Dungeons, or any other method that uses the DMG tables as-is.

The Function of the Dungeon

The obvious function of a dungeon is as a play area for the game, not much different from the board in Dungeon! So at that level its function is simply “fun”. The physical structure of a classic dungeon: rooms, corridors, heavy doors which are hard to open, darkness and so forth are all conducive to a game that centres on exploration of a hostile environment but that’s just the type of fun.

But one physical aspect of a dungeon is interesting at a more meta-level: it’s underground and self-contained. Whereas the wilderness outside (or the city, in many early cases) has the potential to allow the characters to roam at will, the dungeon is much more curtailed, giving the potential to the DM to channel the player characters. This channelling is not only in the sense of forcing parties to go down one corridor or another, but simply in entering the dungeon and returning to it.

For the mega-dungeon is a campaign setting in and of itself. PCs can enter the dungeons of Greyhawk as spotty teenagers, and continue their career there until they are ready to found a barony. The city is simply “basecamp” where gold can be converted into xp, and which exists perhaps entirely in the DM’s head.

In this context, the stairs in a mega-dungeon are vitally important for carrying out this campaign function. Look again at how Arneson stocked dungeon rooms:

Lv CR Av (Max)
1 7 (12)
2 14 (24)
3 21 (36)
4 28 (48)
5 35 (60)

Now challenge ratings for PCs are very hard to calculate because of the effects of magical equipment, but at 1st level I’d say that a PC is probably a CR of 2, averaged across the classes. So a party of 6 should be able to take on any room on the first level of such a dungeon, with only the toughest rooms posing a substantial risk.

However, the same party only one level down faces an average challenge greater than their combined strength. So, that 1st level party does not want to go down those stairs just yet. They need xp and/or magic to boost them up to a collective CR of 24 in order to be able to treat the second level the same way they did level 1. And similarly for the deeper levels.

But, if the dungeon itself (and only itself) is to be the setting, then the dungeon itself must provide that xp and/or magic. It takes the average PHB character 2026xp and 1500gp to achieve second level. For a party of 6, that’s about 12,000xp and 9,000gp in a world where a Type VI demon is worth 4128xp (officially, I make it more like 7828).

That means large levels with many rooms and opponents, not to mention treasure, which collectively adds up to the needed xp. In other words, each level has at least one specific function: to prepare the party for the next level or kill them trying. That’s sort of two functions but they’re closely related.

We can work back form this and see what it tells us about dungeon design. For one thing, if you want the dungeon to be the source of every experience level, then it has to be a mega-dungeon. By the reverse of that coin, small dungeon levels can not be tackled by parties who are not already able to handle the worst it can throw at them.

That is, small dungeon levels which increase in difficulty as outlined above, must either be entered by parties able to cope with whatever is on the deepest level, or must be left and returned to after some other adventuring has granted the needed capabilities.

Gary’s view

But the DMG wasn’t written by Dave, it was written by Gary and he didn’t provide us with the above system. The system he does give us departs from Dave’s version in several ways:

  1. The level of the dungeon has a different effect on the number of monsters appearing,
  2. The basic number appearing is set per monster.
  3. The challenge rating of each type of monster, even on it’s “own” level, varies wildly.
  4. Monsters are rated by “level” based on XP, rather than direct CR

As an example of these items, let’s look at the master table from page 174:

1 up to 16 19 20              
2-3 12 16 18 19 20          
4 5 10 16 18 19 20        
5 3 6 12 16 18 19 20      
6 2 4 6 12 16 18 19 20    
7 1 3 5 10 14 16 18 19 20  
8 1 2 4 7 10 14 16 18 19 20
9 1 2 3 5 8 12 15 17 19 20
10-11 1 2 3 4 6 9 12 16 19 20
12-13 1 2 3 4 5 7 9 12 18 20
14-15 1 2 3 4 5 6 8 11 17 20
16+ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 10 16 20

What does a level I monster encounter look like? Well, the easiest probably-hostile item on that table is probably the 1-4 badgers or 1-4 giant fire beetles. I rate both these as a challenge of 1½ to 6, depending on the number actually rolled.

The top end is almost certainly the 5-20 giant rats which come in at a CR of 6¼ to 25. The orcs are pretty tough too; each orc is a CR of one so the orc encounter averages 10½ (the giant rats average 15⅝).

Calculating CRs is not an exact science by any means, and the simple formula on DMG p84 is a bit too simple - I count exceptional abilities as 2 HD - but in any case weaknesses are not accounted for at all. So, very low intelligence, or fear of simple things like fire do not reduce the rating. Meanwhile, clever or dumb play (on either side of the screen) will affect the difficulty of an individual encounter, or a whole campaign.

To get back to the point, lets look at what the book tells us to do on level 2 of the dungeon if a level I monster is rolled. It tells us to double the number appearing, just like Dave’s system.

What happens if a level II monster is encountered on level 3? That’s not so clear. The text seems to suggest that the number is doubled again, but an argument could be made that the increase is 3/2, or 50% and that the doubling of 1st to 2nd level is simply 2/1. This implies that a level II monster encountered on level 5 would only be increased in numbers by 5/2, or 2½ times, rather than 8x (x2 for each level, three times).

I would suggest that this second interpretation is the correct one. Not only does it mean that one doesn’t encounter 112-192 orcs roaming the 5th level of a dungeon (merely 35-60!) but it means that, when going down, the DMG works the same way as Dave’s system. The ratio of level 3 to level 2 CR points in Dave’s system is 21/14, or 1½. The ratio of level 5 to level 2 is 35/14, or 2½.

Gary finesses things slightly by stating that level IX monsters are not augmented by duplicates but by attendant monsters of a different sort, and a similar purpose is served by my suggestion of limiting numbers to the maximum value listed in the MM.

A second difference is what happens when you roll a level III monster on level 1. In the system I outlined in “Dave’s Dungeons” you simply roll the 2d6 and “buy” the appropriate number, so the ratios are reversed from the “level I monster encounter on level 3”: 1/3 instead of 3/1.

Gary simply reduces the number appearing from the DMG table by one for each level of dungeon closer to the surface than the monster’s own level rating (I-X), so the ratio of difficulty is really based on the number appearing at the “natural” level of dungeon. This is further reduced by the fact that the DMG tables generates very few encounters with large numbers of monsters. It’s all well and good to say that you reduce the number of vampires encountered on level 1 compared to level 8, but the table only generates a single vampire, so you will encounter 1 at any level from 1 to 8; the rule has no effect.

The take-away is that both Dave and Gary’s systems are geared to producing quite similar levels of difficulty per encounter. The match isn’t perfect and Gary’s seems harsher at low levels and easier at high levels, but not by much.

This means that both systems are geared towards the mega-dungeon. The step-up in difficulty from one level to the next is enough to suggest that the party is expected to have themselves increased in level since tackling the previous one. This, in fact, is pretty well a one-sentence definition of a mega-dungeon, at least from the PoV of the players.

We can get all dry and analytical with this idea and, in combination with a rule of thumb that 25% of xp comes from monsters and the rest from treasure, plus a guess that an average group will find only 80% of treasure to get this “how to build a mega-dungeon level” chart for a four-member party:

Level Needed Monsters Treasure Total
1 8104 2026 7598 9624
2 8200 2050 7688 9738
3 17100 4275 16031 20306
4 35600 8900 33375 42275
5 65000 16250 60938 77188
6 128200 32050 120188 152238
7 207800 51950 194812 246762
8 362000 90500 339375 429875
9 580000 145000 543750 688750
10 782000 195500 733125 928625
11 986000 246500 924375 1170875
12 1156000 289000 1083750 1372750
13 1386000 346500 1299375 1645875
14 1286890 321722 1206459 1528181
15 2206667 551667 2068750 2620417

“Needed” is the average amount of xp that the level needs to grant the four members of a party enough to be ready to tackle the next dungeon level. The other columns are self-explanatory and include the 25% mark up for only finding 80% of the treasure (I assume that 100% of monsters are defeated one way or another). Naturally, a 6-member party would need 50% more.

It’s interesting to note that a single +1 sword, if sold, garners 2000gp/xp, or over 20% of the needed amount to move a party of 4 up one level.

Given Gary’s xp categories, this table implies more than 100 1st level monsters, although in fact the DMG suggests 80% 1st level, 15% 2nd, and 5% 3rd so we actually get a mix of something like 90 1st, 17 2nd, and 5 or 6 3rd level monsters.

That’s a lot of monsters.

The Sandbox

Let’s say that, like me, you don’t actually like the idea of a mega-dungeon. Even then, there is still plenty to learn from all of this. The first one is that the above chart doesn’t actually have to apply to a single dungeon. If a party needs 782,000 xp to get from 10th level to 11th level, then that’s what it needs and it doesn’t matter whether it was all gained in the 10 level of The Infinite Pit™ or in a dozen adventures on the high-seas.

When setting up a sandbox campaign that doesn’t centre on a mega-dungeon, this means that the DM has to think about both how the dungeons (and I’m including things like the Hill Giant Steading here) are structured and how many there are.

It’s an easy trap to fall into to just do a single “introductory” dungeon that is a challenge for 1st level characters, only to find that the party survives it…and is still 1st level and unable to enter the nice 2nd-3rd level module you intended to play at the next game session.

In effect, the mega-dungeon has to be cut up and distributed around the initial setting and one approach is to use the given tables to construct “inverted pyramids” which are essentially mega-levels divided into areas and stacked. To take the 1st level example from above, the 90 1st level monsters, 17 2nd, and 6 3rd level monsters could be divided into:

  • A pair of 3-level dungeons each with 2 3rd level monsters, 5 2nd level monsters, and 30 1st-level monsters; in each case the monsters are found on the “appropriate” level.
  • A lair of 30 orcs with three orc-leaders and an ogre.
  • A one-eyed bugbear bandit raiding border villages.
  • Four angry mongrel men who have taken a village priest hostage.

These would all be close to, or within, the borders of the PC’s nation and no major expedition would be needed to physically reach them. Clearing those would bring in enough xp and gold to level up and try their luck in the deeper wilderness using the 2-3rd level row of the DMG encounter table.

Notice how little difference there is between 1st and 2nd level. There is a major step up, in terms of xp needed, when trying to move from 3rd level to 4th.

I would probably change the encounter table for this approach, and eliminate all the 5% chances from the left hand side at deeper levels, so we get:

1 ≤16 19 20              
2-3 ≤12 16 18 19 20          
4 ≤5 10 16 18 19 20        
5 ≤3 6 12 16 18 19 20      
6 ≤2 4 6 12 16 18 19 20    
7   ≤3 5 10 14 16 18 19 20  
8     ≤4 7 10 14 16 18 19 20
9       ≤5 8 12 15 17 19 20
10-11         ≤6 9 12 16 19 20
12-13           ≤7 9 12 18 20
14-15             ≤8 11 17 20
16+               ≤10 16 20

This would mean that a 11th level dungeon or set of dungeons, which need to provide 246,500xp in monster xp (for a four-member party), would be “stocked” with:

Monster Lv xp Approx #
V 73,950 196
VI 49,300 66
VII 36,975 19
VIII 49,300 11
IX 36,975 4
X 12,325 1

And, again, these could be divided into any number of individual adventure locations. The above result could be used as the basis for a single 7-10 level dungeon where levels 1-5 are almost all 5th level monsters with some “inspectors” from lower levels sprinkled around, with the whole lot centred on some deep chamber where something lurks.

It’s tempting to view these sorts of pyramids as video-game affairs with “boss” monsters at the end of a long trail of minions to kill, but such things are too linear for my taste, so I’d probably make the thing quite hostile to everyone else, including most of the other monsters. But I’d be more likely to split the whole thing up into different areas.

And it’s worth remembering that these numbers are all pretty loose - for example, level X monsters by definition grant 10,000 or more xp for defeating them, so with a budget of 12,325 you can only buy one and you’ll have to do something with the other 2,325xp in terms of lower level monsters. Or, you can use two and claw back the 7,675 somewhere else.

Regardless, however, of what method you use to create the dungeons - hand-placed, Dave’s point system, or Gary’s random charts, or (more common) a combination of methods, the mechanics of the books’ experience charts, rewards, and item values means that these are the sorts of numbers you will have to deal with in order to maintain character progress.

Campaign Scenarios

So, you want to plan out a campaign scenario which takes the party from 1st level up to 10th or even 15th?

Here’s the grand totals needed for that:

Level Needed Monsters Treasure %
1 8104 2026 6078  
2 16304 4076 12228 201
3 33404 8351 25053 205
4 69004 17251 51753 207
5 134004 33501 100503 194
6 262204 65551 196653 196
7 470004 117501 352503 179
8 832004 208001 624003 177
9 1412004 353001 1059003 170
10 2194004 548501 1645503 155
11 3180004 795001 2385003 145
12 4336004 1084001 3252003 136
13 5722004 1430501 4291503 132
14 7008893 1752223 5256670 122

In other words, your party of four will need about 1,412,004xp to get to level 10 (the amount needed to move up from level 9). In the process they will collect in the region of just over 1 million gp’s worth of treasure (I’ve left wastage off this table) and defeat 353,001xp worth of monsters (about 2½ solars’ worth). All of which is 170% of what they needed to do to get to 9th level.

So, if you’re new to DMing, maybe start smaller :)

This, in fact is where I came in on this post. I’ve been plotting such a scenario for levels 1-9 for a while and struggling with the individual parts. Once I sat down and started thinking about the numbers it became clear that I was underestimating the amount of material needed for such a task both in terms of depth (total encounters) and breadth (number of encounter areas).

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Old School Reformation and Issac Asimov

One reason for revisiting things that have been apparently done to death (such as D&D or AD&D) is that the perception born from living through literally years of publications and development is often wrong. It may seem that TSR-era publications and magazines dug out all the gold, but the reality is usually closer to a single exhausted shaft rather than the whole mine.

In the UK there’s a fairly strong sense of this for people my age who remember when White Dwarf was not a steaming pile of shit designed to bilk gullible children out of their pocket money with homeopathic paint and planned-obsolescence applied to miniature figures (which technically makes Games Workshop illegal in France, but I digress).

Although the mainstream of D&D development was very much an American trajectory with all the hypocrisy and paranoia about sex and real youth culture that implied, Brits remember the punk sensibility that had itself become fairly mainstream by the time that D&D arrived here.

But rewind to the core three books, whether they are Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, or The Monster Manual, The Players Handbook, and The Dungeon Masters Guide. Neither set has much in the way of setting.

The DMG, in its encounter tables, has perhaps a little bit more of a clear divergence from a “real world” mythical Europe and towards what would become a type of fantasy that was really unique to D&D, but it is still mostly a construction kit, just as the original release was. The final few pages of the PHB and, especially, Deities and Demigods’ detailing of The Outer Planes were certainly the clearest steps away from a generic rule-set and towards something with its own assumptions and axioms.

It was these little nubs and bumps of uniqueness which were at the same time not radical upon which all that followed was built. After the game became a name there were some attempts to try something different but they were all “high concept” approaches: Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Planisphere, and similar. Instead of trying to go back to punk-rock, the designers went for prog-rock and concept albums. To push the analogy a bit further, Forgotten Realms was just a cover version of Greyhawk.

But we had mostly all had enough of big, detailed settings. The problem had become the style, and although Dark Sun and its ilk had their supporters they were not enough to keep the game alive and it finally died a sad and lonely death.

Meanwhile, in Gotham Science Fiction Land, a similar path was trod. By the time one had all the supplements, all the adventures, and all the expansion books, it was hard to remember what Traveller was like when we first saw it. Even now, for the majority of people even in the so-called OSR, “Traveller” means “The Third Imperium” and, in particular, “The Spinward Marches”.

Traveller too collapsed under the weight of its own development and tried a couple of re-boots but it has struggled despite at least still being owned by the actual creator. Whereas the label “D&D” can, and probably will be at some point, stamped on the side of a frozen chicken, Marc Millar has control of Traveller and his vision still guides it.

Like D&D, part of the reason that Traveller failed was that it simply became too expensive and even too heavy. If a newbie GM wanted to set up a Traveller campaign, it was likely that they would believe that they needed not just the core three books (in fact, by then the books were replaced by the large hardback “The Traveller Book”), The Spinward Marches, Library Data books, books of advanced ship design, and some key scenarios like Research Station Gamma. And there’s an obvious reason why the publisher’s marketing would be suggesting that this was in fact what was needed.

In the days before owning a car the accumulated books for running a Traveller game were expensive and a pain to transport to friends’ houses for the action game, although not so much as the AD&D hardbacks which threatened to create an event horizon when packed into a single bag.

The investment was too much and both games imploded.

Apropos of this, I have just re-read Asimov’s Robots and Empire and, as I have been many times, I was struck by the degree of tonal similarity with Traveller. Not the Traveller of that shelf-full of books, but the Traveller of the three Little Black Books where it all started.

In those halcyon days when the world and clich├ęs were still young, the expectation was that the Traveller GM would run a game inspired by their favourite SF stories. The fit would never be perfect out-of-the-box, and so the jump drive might not work exactly as it does in Vance or Asimov’s works but it wasn’t such a big deal, any more than the working of communication devices really were. And if it was a big deal to you, then you just changed the rules. Or added new ones to support things you wanted to have in the setting.

The Foundation Trilogy, of which R&E is an extension, a prequel, is particularly similar to Traveller for one obvious reason: neither had robots as any noticeable or significant presence. For a writer famous for his robot stories, this was the bridge that Asimov was building between the two series with R&E and explains the title of the book. But when Traveller came out that book had not been written and there was an obvious harmony there which was amplified by the generally primitive feel of computers in both contexts - in Asimov’s case it was because many of his best-known stories had been written when slide-rules were still cool. The reason for Traveller’s room-filling computers was not quite so obvious.

Games Designers’ Workshop, the publishers of Traveller, had a choice then just as TSR did with AD&D and they both picked more or less the same option: develop a consistent background and sell both scenarios set in it and sourcebooks about it. The stream of material produced swept away almost all memory of any other option that could have been taken.

Some of those options were, of course, simply developing a different setting. Or paying an author for the rights to use one of theirs (probably a cheaper option in those days than it is now with multi-million dollar deals being made to license content for computer games), but these are all “long-form” options, the equivalent of the multi-volume novel series. What about short-form?

Both AD&D and Traveller are well suited to the short-form. AD&D is inherently and almost inescapably episodic. The training rules make it very difficult to run a campaign in any way that does not require time to pass quite rapidly between adventures.

The same is true of Traveller, where the fact that a jump through hyperspace takes a week (no matter what the distance involved is) means that unless the GM has some specifically ship- or spaceport-based scenario to hand, there will usually be, like D&D, no more than one adventure per calendar month, once ship re-fuelling and general resting-up time is taken into consideration.

Traveller’s jump-drive makes each planet into an island, effectively, and islands are excellent places for adventures, as is anywhere the PCs can not simply phone for help, as it were.

The fact that the “islands” are whole worlds also means that they can be quite individual. While it might seem that the nature of adventure modules for D&D and Traveller is similar, in fact there was a major difference which, to my mind, was most clearly seen in the scenarios printed in the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, probably my all-time favourite gaming magazine.

Traveller scenarios in general, and particularly the JTAS ones, were able to evoke a sense of uniqueness even within the increasingly confining “campaign setting” of the Third Imperium background. Want to set a scenario in The Caves of Steel? No problem! Just set up a world with a population index of 10 or 11 and make it so. How about a world like Solaria where humans are outnumbered by robots 10,000 to 1? Again, no problem, and you can explain why this world is the only one with robots by saying that something about hyperspace scrambles their positronic brains, so they are only really useful to humans to are xenophobic enough to want to ignore the great galactic empire that may or may not be out there and are determined not to travel.

(Incidentally, the huge Traveller computers can be explained similarly - the same problem means that computing in space has to be done with out-sized and specially shielded components which make it impossible to fit them into humanoid forms and also require large amounts of space to be devoted to them.)

Each world can be as bizarre or strange as the GM likes while at the same time being safely isolated from any other simply by distance. If the GM wants a culture to not spread and become typical of the setting generally, then there is a simple mechanism to aid the hand-waving involved: expensive, time-consuming, space travel based on relatively small ships.

But D&D does not have quite such a mechanism, at least at lower levels. Even a campaign world which literally was made of islands would not easily justify the sort of short-story quirkiness that can be routine in Traveller. Players know that in a civilised world, travel just isn’t that hard and it would be unlikely that very strange cultures would not be common knowledge unless those cultures were dangerous or clearly sub-optimal. This makes islands that are special only in a tonal or background way hard to justify without making every race and people xenophobic.

Once the PCs are high level they can often zip around by magic anyway, but there is then also the possibility of the Outer Planes and the Alternative Prime Material Planes, either of which (but primarily the latter) can take the place of Traveller’s isolated worlds.

A great deal of the alien can be salvaged in D&D by simply not having a civilised world. The greatest failing of Greyhawk as a published setting, IMO, was it’s inability to evoke the implied state of low civilisation.

Despite being an almost completely uninhabited world with isolated kingdoms and duchies with mile after mile of wilderness between, and “borders” drawn based on distance from capitals rather than any ability to project control, Greyhawk feels very much like a civilised continent in the published modules.

There is nothing aside from terrain, for example, to distinguish the land of the fire giants in G3 from the village of Hommlet. If you’ve adventured in the latter, there is no feeling of anything alien in the former.

Part of this is the encounter tables in the DMG - monsters are split by terrain, but not by region. Since there was no assumed setting it would not have made much sense to try, really.

Traveller avoided this by being a right pain in the arse when it came to encounter tables, mainly because there were no “monsters”. With a potential galaxy of worlds, there was no hope of producing even the generic encounter tables of AD&D.

The solution was to replace monsters with “Animal encounters” which were a combination of animal size, damage, weapons (horns, claws etc.), and in a bit of a genius move, tactics.

Thus, an encounter could be with a huge, armoured, pouncing carnivore which attacks its prey for 12d6 damage by physically shaking them to death. The GM would have to decide on how to narrate that beforehand (and the system really was an object lesson in the value of pre-rolling encounters and preparing for them rather than floundering around at the table trying to explain some of the combinations that might come up).

And again, it was pretty easy to explain why some particular monstrosity was not encountered anywhere else: only nutters would transport them off-world. And that, in turn, was a good excuse to re-use a particularly good one somewhere else.

But, starting with the publication of The Spinward Marches, GDW set off down the path that TSR was blazing: the “house campaign” and ever-increasing uniformity within the official scenarios. JTAS was affected by this but the scenarios there always, or nearly always, managed to maintain a self-contained feel that the main line of publication gave up on very quickly.

A Chance to Begin Again in a Golden Land of Opportunity and Adventure

So, let’s imagine none of that happened. Where could you have gone with Traveller? Since I’ve dragged Issac’s name into the title of the post, let’s look at his Robots/Galactic Empire/Foundation setting.

As that set of slashes implies, there’s various options along the timeline. The robot stories start on pre-jump-tech Earth, then there’s a period of colonisation which gradually peters out, followed by a growing rivalry between the colonies and Earth as their cultures and technologies diverge. The colonisation period has lots of potential, and the period of “Earth Vs the Spacers” is rich in options for the sort of political scenarios that were fairly common in Traveller play, IME.

As Earth starts a second, robo-phobic, wave of colonisation there is a crisis as the Old World overtakes the New Worlds, spurred on by the Traders who see a galactic empire as a golden age waiting to be brought into being. Trading is naturally going to be a high-profit profession as new worlds need equipment and people, and substances rare on one world need exchanged for those common on others. Again, rich pickings for Traveller play.

The Galactic Empire period itself is probably the least different from what we actually got from GDW’s official line of products and something which I think is an underplayed influence on Traveller from Asimov is the relative unimportance, at least initially, of intelligent aliens. Asimov was constrained by his main editor, John W. Campbell, who reportedly would not accept the possibility of intelligent aliens. Whether he felt it was too unlikely a coincidence to have multiple intelligences in the same galaxy at the same time, or he just refused to accept that Scotland could have any rivals in the galactic conquering stakes, I’m not sure. In any case, the stories that started Asimov’s empire off were published under Campbell’s aegis and thus could have no intelligent life not derived from Earth, and that axiom had to be inherited by anything that tried to fit into the continuity regardless of who was the editor or publisher later.

In early Traveller the real “aliens” are the Zhodani, a human culture which split from the dominant imperial culture over the use of psionics (an idea that appeared a couple of years earlier in D&D’s third supplement, Eldritch Wizardry) and which itself is reminiscent of Asimov’s series, which included a few psychic robots and humans, although Asimov’s characters were much less capable than many of the PC options in Traveller or D&D.

Traveller did eventually have aliens in the normal sense, but the only interesting thing about them was that they were completely uninteresting.

The Imperial Bureaucracy in Traveller also seems to me to be inspired by the material that we see in the Asimov stories, but both may simply be taking their leads from the real-world examples of empires.

The decline and fall of the Empire leads us into the Foundation sequence and it would seem that there’s rich pickings for the GM there, which brings us to the next problem with published settings.

Traveller did in fact go down the route of the collapsing empire in later supplements, but by then it was too late. Anyone who didn’t like the Imperium setting had left and those that remained generally speaking didn’t want the empire to fall.

This is another pitfall for the long-form game world, or maybe just another example of the broader problem of ossification as things get filled in or people wait for things to be filled in, rather than rolling their own.

If TSR had specifically committed to only producing, say, scenarios set within 100 miles of Greyhawk city and left everything else as just the Darlene map, I think it would have been a much better compromise. It would have had almost no effect on any published TSR module, at least up to the final collapse of the company and the release of “2e”. At the same time it would not have polluted any DM’s mind with the idea that there was a “Greyhawk style” other than around that city. With the other nations just names on a map with large areas of wilderness between them, the effect would have been much more like the island-effect of Traveller and DMs would have felt, I think, much freer to construct wild and strange areas and races of their own.

Going back to the original materials and thinking about what you can do now, knowing both what the official route taken was, and also that the official route is now a frozen museum piece is at the heart of the OSR for me, and why I choose to use “reformation” as the “R” rather than “renaissance”.

For Traveller, the options range from Blade Runner to Valerian via Forbidden Planet.

For D&D, they cover science-fantasy, weird fiction, punk sensibilities, and essentially anything that can be imagined.

But in both cases, the strength lies in short-story formats of isolated scenarios which give the players variety rather than some sort of “consistency” which builds up into a stultifying set of continuity problems for the GM. Players like reading background material, but they sit at the table to have an adventure.

As ever, REH’s Conan is an exemplar. Conan has many city adventures, but they’re never in the same city. He encounters many strange things on islands, but they’re different islands, and so are the crews he sails with. The background really exists only as a tone and a style with the details experienced only as, yes, islands in a shadowy sea. Howard might have been stitching it together as he went along into something bigger, but he never forgot that he was being paid for the adventure of the moment, not the future Encyclopedia Hyboraca.

Sunday, 31 December 2017


Following on again on the CSIO trade theme, I got fed up with adding "if we assume that there's nothing off the west of the map" to any conclusions. So it was time to add the City State of the World Emperor - AKA Map 6.

The guidebook for map 6 isn't quite up to scratch in some aspects. Firstly, it has no "civ" rating for the settlements. Secondly, and rather more dramatically, it has no entry for the City State of the World Emperor (CSWE) itself! No population, no overall alignment, or civ rating. Nothing.

After a brief discussion on Dragonsfoot, I went with an "able bodied" population of 30,000, giving a total population of 120,000, and a civilisation rating of 10 - the max. For other settlements I rolled or picked a civ rating. I set the CSWE alignment as LE.

As an example of picking, I put the military settlements such as Moon Tower and Midwall at 0 on the grounds that they are not in fact producing anything at all and since civ is defined in the CSIO guide as being primarily a rating of manufacturing ability that seemed reasonable.

One thing that jumped out at me was how much lower the population levels on Map 6 are. Aside from the huge CSWE, only Targnol Port breaks the 1,000 level. There's nothing to rival the City State in the way that Warwick or Ossary do for the Invincible Overlord.

A consequence of this is that although the CSWE does end up with more trade that CSIO, it is not as big a gap as the guidebook seems to imply - just over 20% more. Since the CSWE has an estimated 50% more people in it, this means that on average they are poorer than their eastern counterparts, at least in terms of traded GDP. The specific values for the combined maps are 26 to 33.

Here's the base map (light blue is withing 5 miles of land):

Are we there yet?

One big question was whether the main trade route from CSIO to CSWE would be by sea or land. Although the land route is shorter, the northern route past Warwick and into Quiff looked like it might work. As it turned out, it works for Warwick but it's too far for CSIO ships to compete with a mostly overland route.

That route runs west through Darkfield then across country, over the Battleplain Gwalion to cross the River Bucknol at the lower Quoth Crossing from whence another day and a half's march brings it to Caelam and the start of the Emperor's road network. Two days pounding pavement brings the route to the port of Augge where it embarks for the big city.

See sketch (click to enlarge):

The significance of this route to actual play, of course, is that it is the route that the annual tribute from the Overlord to the Emperor will follow - an event that is sure to be accompanied by much activity both in the wilderness and back in the city where many of the troops and higher level NPCs will be absent, assigned to protecting the caravan.

The trade from Warwick goes via Smitten, making it the 5th most important transshipment port on the combined maps (Augge is #1).

In terms of transshipment, Targnol is 15th and the city generally fails to live up to its billing as a major port, although it does come 4th in terms of trade volume. Augge is a much more important port. Adding the sparsely populated maps to the south won't change this, especially since those areas will sail directly to the port in CSWE itself.

Is This Making Sense?

As an almost final note on this subject, I would say that this examination of the trade routes and populations has confirmed what I had always felt about the setting: as demographics, it simply doesn't work. CSWE almost works in the sense that the are labelled "Emperor's Farmlands" is just big enough to support even a population of 120,000. Sadly, the city is not big enough, I think. Even with 5-story buildings of the sort the ancient Romans resorted to for packing the population of Rome into its footprint is probably not enough. The situation in CSIO is even worse. There's no way to fit 20,000 into CSIO, let alone the 80,000 total that the books suggest is the whole population including women, children, and the old.

Likewise, the lack of roads in the east means that getting food to CSIO from outlying settlements is pretty tough if the production is not hard by a river or the sea. With no equivalent to the Emperor's Farmlands, it's hard to see where the city's food is coming from. On the scale of the maps I've used, there is a need for 16,000 pixels of farmland (using JG's rules, which are not far off reality for the tech level). All the land west of the city between the hills, the Mermist, and the Troll Fens adds up to just under 6,000 pixels (60,000 acres). And that's not even open plain, it's "light woods". The city has no visible means of support.

The settlements of these two maps are very isolated from each other. There's very few towns that have more than one neighbouring settlement within a day's travel, at least for bulk trade purposes. As such, there's unlikely to be much shared culture and the "common tongue" will be very limited outside of trade subjects such as counting, quality, and dates. Discussions of ancient civilizations (and where to find them) is not going to be easy.

The length of trade routes means that caravans will be the norm, as overnight stops will be routine, and defensive measures absolutely vital. Likewise, the large towns will have to patrol wide areas to help keep much needed trade safe from gnolls, orcs, and dragons.

Ultimately, the Wilderlands is not about demographics, it's about adventure. This analysis is aimed at end-game factors for domain clearance. Where is the Overlord or Emperor likely to grant lands? What long-standing monster lairs would they want removed as part of such a deal? Where would the PC be able to offer colonists some economic future? And so forth.

The problems identified with the setting are really not too obtrusive and can even be handwaved away - the City States' listed high populations are perhaps just the total troops they can draw on across their whole domains; the cities themselves might be very much smaller. Perhaps magical food production allows the Overlord to feed his city.

Anyway, that's enough demographics for now. More religion next time.

Oh, one last thing. I did some maps to the south to test whether Ossary would take that route (it did not). I've only really done the coasts so far but in case anyone wants it, here's the larger map: