26 December 2015

Forest Excursion - Night-time

I walked some of the same path as the previous post in the dark. Conditions were clear, starlight for illumination. The moon was half full and not yet up. Obviously, there are no photos, as they would not have looked like anything (or, if I used a long exposure, just more or less like an overcast day - this is occasionally surprising to people, as our perception of night is so different, but really it's exactly the same but darker).

First, some general thoughts. While I'm far from an experienced woodsman, this is land I grew up on, that I've walked countless times. I fumbled and lost my way occasionally, even on the path. Even on familiar ground, in a world with no monsters, it was a little unnerving traveling through the woods in the dark. I was glad to have a stout stick with me, silly as that sounds. I'm sure that unreasoned fear would fade if I often traveled by night, but I have grown city-soft from living in Toronto.

The quiet was overwhelming, especially for someone who's lived in the city for ten years. I could hear a leaf fall out to perhaps thirty yards. I could hear hunting dogs barking and howling that could not have been closer than a mile (for that's the nearest neighbour in that direction), and that were probably more like 3 or 4 miles away. I could hear branches break for hundreds of yards.

Once my eyes were adjusted, I could follow the path fairly easily, although I soon learned to keep my arm up to ward off the odd branch that hadn't been pruned back, and to use my walking stick to feel for obstacles. I was able to make a fairly normal pace, only straying from the path and getting caught in thickets a few times.

The denser pine forest, difficult terrain during the day, was impassable at night. During the day, it is noticeably dim under the pines. At night, it was completely dark. No starlight filtered through. Anything hiding in there would have been able to remain completely undetected without the slightest difficulty. I could have passed within ten feet of any number of unspeakable horrors, completely ignorant of their presence.

At one point, something dense and heavy fell from a tree near me with a dull thud. I have no idea what it was, it sounded like it weighed perhaps four pounds and was made of something the consistency of suet. Perhaps a small creature breathed its last breath and fell dead from a tree...

After the end of the path, in the more open deciduous forest, there was enough light to make my way fairly easily, although I don't think I could have sustained a normal pace without a fairly high probability of wrecking my ankle. If I was navigating, the stars were visible, as would be the moon (if it was up), but that was only the case because it was autumn and half the leaves were down.  In the summer, the cover is about 70%, and getting a good view of the stars would be pretty much impossible. The silence was worth noting again - I could easily hear a twig snap, or a small creature moving a hundred yards away or more. I could see dimly about forty yards, it felt like, although movement would probably have been visible a little further away.

And silent movement was completely impossible. Anything within several hundred yards or more that was listening would have been well aware of my progress. The ground cover was dead leaves that rustled with the slightest movement, and it was impossible to take more than a couple steps without crunching a twig or branch. Lest you think "oh, just don't step on them", firstly, you cannot see them, and secondly, sometimes they are beneath the leaves and cannot be seen even in daylight. Branches and small bushes, invisible until it was too late, were constantly getting in my way and rustling or snapping.

An ambush would have been trivial. Concealment wouldn't even be necessary, merely crouching at the base of a tree and remaining very still would hide you until I got within probably ten yards or less - you would just blend in with the tree.

When I turned around to head back for the path, I immediately lost my way. I hadn't gone very far from the end of the path - perhaps a hundred yards - but I couldn't find my may back. I stumbled around, getting caught in thickets, and making an ungodly ruckus for maybe ten minutes before finding the path back into the denser woods.

Back on the path, as an experiment, I used my cell phone screen to approximate a torch for a bit. The light was definitely comforting, although also a little unnerving. In addition to making noise announcing my presence, I was now also waving a huge sign saying "HERE I AM". It didn't really improve the distance I could see, although it made it much easier going - I could step without fear of hurting my ankle. Obviously, it also made me nightblind and totally dependent on it. When I put it out, I could see nothing, where before I could see dim shapes.

All in all, I covered almost exactly a mile in about half an hour, mostly using a path, over familiar terrain, under starlight, stopping occasionally to listen around me. I achieved about 60% of normal walking speed under fairly ideal conditions (it wasn't overcast, it wasn't muddy or raining, no wind, comfortable shoes, well rested and well fed, confident that there are no monsters). The only possible improvement would have been to have a strong moon.

If I had been on unfamiliar ground, without a path, I would have made far, far worse time. I can't imagine I could have managed a half kilometre in a straight line in those 30 minutes I was out. In all likelihood, I would simply have ended up lost and bumbling from thicket to thicket.






23 December 2015

Forest Excursion - Daytime

 A year ago I took a hike over the family lands and took some pictures and recorded some notes in the interest of writing some D&D-related stuff from it. I went with my sister's dog, who tended to wander off on its own and back periodically, which was interesting from the perspective of "would there be an encounter if we weren't together" - i.e. at what point do I become aware of it.

Some of the photos are pretty hideous, but they're supposed to be illustrative and not artistic, and I'm sure the reader will understand. I also struggled with taking photos that really capture the nature and difficulties of the terrain; I experimented with panos, multi-tile fisheyes, and normal photos. I'm not sure which are most successful, if anyone has thoughts, I'd be interested to hear them. Keep in mind that in a 360° panorama, the right and left edge are pointing the same way. Things half an image width apart are 180° from each other.

Weather

Rained slightly night before, 12° C (54F), occasional faint breeze, overcast.

Speed

Moving carefully, investigating things, stopping for photos, etc., I averaged about 3kph along my route and about 2kph as the crow flies.

On my way back, I just went straight home, and averaged a little over 5kph, which is pretty close to my normal walking speed, but that only ended up being about 4kph as the crow flies.

Thoughts

The dog - about a 40lb ball of energy - was not nearly audible as much as I would have thought. It didn't seem windy at ground level, but the wind in the trees masks a lot of noise. With the dog at full gallop, I couldn't hear her past about 40-50 yards.

The narrow stream (not the larger one in the wetland photos) was audible at about 20 yards (we're talking about a foot across and maybe six inches deep).

Without carrying any gear, and without armour or pack, I quickly overheated and needed to shed my jacket, then my sweater, then my toque.

When the dog was around, she made it hard to listen. She was always moving and shifting about, rustling the leaves, and wasn't well-behaved enough to stop and be quiet. Horses don't make nearly as much noise in my experience.
  

Terrain

Some on a good path, mostly moving across open forest. A bit of pushing through what I'd call "closed" forest, where movement and vision is seriously impeded by undergrowth and dense conifers or hawthorn/apple/other short/dense deciduous trees. A bit in the long grass around a large stream/seasonal wetland.

If this was a 1-mile hex, it would contain a farmhouse/barn, two notable wetlands (one of which I went to), a variety of open and closed forest, a large hill (didn't go to). If it was a six-mile hex, it would contain additionally several other scattered houses, another large hill, fields, more wetlands, and the nearby village.

Open forest

Description: Middle-aged deciduous, limited/no undergrowth, 100% dead leaf coverage (noisy), large spacing between trees (~10-20 ft). Movement easy in any direction typically, occasional thicket where some conifers were eking out an existence that could hide ambushes/spies. Occasional hidden muddy patches that look like normal ground but could easily ruin your day by sucking off a boot or wetting your socks. Also, would make a good ambush site - since you sink in with every step, running is almost impossible (moreso with a pack and armour).

Encounter Distance: 10-200 yards, ranging from when you're passing by a thicket, ridge or fold, to when you're on a hill or in a valley with good sightlines.

Gameable features: thicket (reduced visibility, ambush site, impedes movement), ridge (good view from top, more visible, blocks view), small stream (clean water), soft ground (movement impeded, running impossible, ambush site, wet feet)

Open Forest, 360° Pano (click for fullres). The open space in the centre of the photo is soft and wet - easy to lose a boot if they're loose. Hard to tell without stepping in it if you're not using a stick to check your way (I was).


Open Forest, 360° Pano. Ridge in centre, with a more closed conifer stand on it. Firm ground, easy travel. Can walk at same speed as on path.
A stream. If you're not familiar with the outdoors, or the area, it would be very easy for a thirsty traveler to never notice this stream. You can't hear it from more than 20-30 yards away, and it doesn't really look like much.


Closed Forest

Description: Dense conifers, low-lying hemlocks, balsams, etc. Visibility limited (sometimes only a few yards in any direction) and movement extremely slow. Impossible to move quietly, but very easy to hide if you're still. Easy to get scratched up if you're wearing short sleeves or light clothes.

I can't imagine crossing this kind of terrain with a horse/mule/donkey. I'm sure it's possible, but it certainly wouldn't be on its back.

Exists as thickets inside open forest.

Encounter distance: 5-150 yards. Encounters beyond 20 yards would be hearing something moving, but not being able to see it.

Gameable features: clearing (improved visibility within, possible campsite), chance of lost/damaged gear, attrition (hit points/flesh wounds for crossing), stream, large puddle (drinkable)
Have fun getting through there in your armour with a pack, weapons, bedroll, etc., and forget horses.


Closed forest thicket in surrounding open forest, crop of a fisheye. Jacket for scale. Perfect ambush site - if people come to fill their canteens in the stream at the bottom of the photo, they are vulnerable to missile fire from the top of the hill, while the assailants are protected to either side by dense growth, and straight on by the fallen tree and the treacherous, rocky ground. Charging up the hill against a few people with crossbows would be suicide.


Seasonal Wetland

Description: Grasses 3-4ft tall, could have hidden any number of enemies. Easy to stumble into a hole and get a soaker.

Stream forms core of wetland. Occasionally a serious obstacle if you want to stay dry (1-2 ft deep, 6ft across) when only twenty yards up or down stream it was easy to cross (either by fallen tree, or because it had broken up into numerous smaller streams). At times, broadens into a swamp-y/pond-y thing 100 yards across or more.

Boundary between forest/wetland characterized by bad footing, slippery rocks, difficult-to-see holes about a foot across full of water waiting to twist your ankle in. Can't see anything past the boundary from the wetland, can see out a little from the forest.

Encounter distance: 1-200 yards. Close encounters with things hidden in the long grass. Far encounters with things on the far boundary, or standing/walking in the grass.

Gameable features: dry crossing point (fallen tree, or simply where the stream narrows/splits), islands.

360° pano of wetland, stream portion. The stream isn't very deep, but that's not immediately obvious. It's about 100 yards to the far side (the stand of conifers about 1/4 in from the right). The wetland meanders for about a mile in both directions. The stream is easily crossable anywhere if you don't mind a soaker, and if you spend ten or fifteen minutes looking around, you can cross it safely without getting wet.





From about the same point as the previous pano, about ten or twenty yards from the edge. Can you spot my jacket hanging in a tree? It's just inside the forest, no more than fifty feet away, and yet it's almost invisible. The break in the grass in the bottom right is a little offshoot of the main stream.
360° pano. Pond/swamp portion of wetland. This is only a couple hundred yards east of the previous pano. Crossing at this point would require wading - probably up to your chest, but I've never tried. If you spend half an hour looking around, though, you'll discover it narrows to what you saw in the other photo just a little ways down. It gets less passable in the other direction (quite wide and deep, maybe 200 yards across, and probably at least six feet deep, if not more).




21 December 2015

Alignments that Aren't Stupid

While alignments as proposed by Gygax are thoroughly stupid, the concept of alignment could perhaps be a useful one, albeit in a manner fairly unrelated to the most common six-axis view of the system.

If you asked me, in real life, what my alignment is, I'd probably tell you my political affiliations. I'm a socialist, and am aligned with Canada's socialist party, the NDP. Someone else might be strongly influenced by their faith - they're aligned with the Catholic Church, say, or Sunni Islam.

This means that, on a broad range of issues, our ideas line up - they align. And this is useful and gameable information. If you're running an NPC in modern Canada, and you know they're NDP-aligned, that tells you a lot about them. Any issue that you're not sure how the NPC feels about, you can fall back on their alignment, and say that there's their opinion.

This needn't be as grandiose as supporting warring dynasties like being aligned with the House of Lancaster or York. Peasants in a village could be aligned with the Reeve or the Lord of the Manor, or perhaps the outlaws in the woods. Villagers could be aligned with a Guild, or the Mayor, or the Bishop.

Like in real life, people could be aligned with more than one faction. Someone could be aligned with the Catholic Church, the local Reeve, and the King, in that order. So, if you don't know how they feel about something, you can default to one of those positions as a shortcut.

So, an alignment line on an NPC sheet could look like:

Alignment: Pope>Reeve>King

Denoting that the NPC is Catholic and strongly aligned with the Pope and his beliefs. On matters that don't include the Pope's opinion (say, whether the village should plant more beans next year), the NPC will generally side with the Reeve. And on matters that involve neither (France is an enemy), they'll side with the King.

19 October 2014

Alignments are still stupid

Just in case anyone had forgotten, alignments are still stupid and valueless.

We get along in daily life just fine without alignments. We know that ISIS are a pretty bad lot, and we don't need a know alignment spell for that. Thing is, nothing is as simple as an alignment makes it out to be. They don't think they're evil. They think they're good, and we're evil. They're not, like a demon, out to cause suffering - they're out to *right wrongs* and *fight evildoers* and *do god's work*. They're the *good guys* - to them.

Contrast that with something unambiguous, like a demon. It lives to cause suffering, sow confusion, turn brother against brother. It feeds on discord and disharmony. It has one goal: harm. It is *evil*. But that's not an alignment, that's its *nature*.

Was Donald Rumsfeld chaotic evil? He certainly seems like it, but a more probable explanation than the apparent one (he just wants to cause mayhem and suffering) is that he's on a deeply misguided quest to help himself and his friends and maybe his country. So, is he lawful good? Chaotic good?

He's not evil or good or lawful or chaotic - he's just a person, like anyone else.

Sure, you could assign an alignment to him, argue your case, and I could assign another one, and argue my case, and at the end of the day - how has that helped us understand him? How does that help us in any way?
 
Assigning an alignment to Rumsfeld doesn't help us at all.

Another example: was Gaddafi chaotic evil? He did some twisted shit, to be sure, but he also eradicated homelessness in Libya, fought for the rights of women and blacks (elements of society traditionally crushed underfoot in North African/Arab/Muslim society), worked to reduce income inequality, sought pan-Arab and then pan-African solidarity - creating the African Union. He worked within the law when it suited him, and outside the law when it suited him. Sometimes he did good, sometimes he did evil.

Was he Chaotic Good? Was he Lawful Evil? You could make a convincing case for both. You could make a strong case for Chaotic Neutral.

The point is, the alignment system doesn't actually work. Everybody is all of the alignments some of the time. We're people, we're complex. We can't be reduced to a two-axis chart.

I should hope your PCs and NPCs are the same.

10 October 2014

More about Poleaxes

I am happy to see that my old post about my favourite medieval weapon, the poleaxe, has been generating some discussion lately. It is a weapon sadly neglected in RPGs, which is odd given its ubiquity on the high medieval battlefield.


T. Woolley wrote a lengthy post on the poleaxe with some cool ideas for modular magic weapons down towards the bottom. T. Woolley is also noteworthy as someone with some experience with medieval weapons; something of a rarity in RPG circles!

And JB wrote this great post, to which the rest of this post addressed. I was going to post this as a comment, but it got rather long. He provides some interesting historical perspective on poleaxes in RPGs, and the absence of the polearm from Gygax's radar - I didn't realize that they were omitted from AD&D 1e (I only have the DMG)! I figured since Gygax was obsessed with polearms, they would be front and centre, so I was interested to learn he was completely ignorant of them!


My response to JB:

Glad to see the poleaxe getting some love!

While interesting for historical reasons, I would take basically everything Gygax said or wrote about weapons and armour and throw it in the trash. It's unfortunate (for a medieval weapons buff such as myself) that he's been so influential in defining the discourse on these matters since the game's beginnings, as he really didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about.

I also wouldn't put much stock in stuff written before WWII, especially Victorian and Edwardian stuff (i.e. the sources Gygax used). Useful for descriptions of artifacts, mostly. Their interpretation is largely bunk. It is from them that we get such execrable ideas as "banded mail", whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

He's not *entirely* to blame for his ignorance, as AFAIK there were very few historical fighting manuals available in English in the seventies. I think Fiore's work was first translated in the eighties, for instance. George Silver's work would have been available to him, as it is in English (well, the kind of English Shakespeare wrote, so not the clearest to a modern audience, but totally intelligible). There were also some important historical works out, perhaps most notably European Armour, by Claude Blaire. So there's really not any good reason why he relied so heavily on that old stuff.

I would also point out that the defining feature of the poleaxe is not the axe head or the hammer head or the beak, but the langets and the fashion of attaching the implements to the head. Whereas a halberd is superficially similar, a halberd head is forged out of a single piece, with a cone that fits over the shaft to attach it.

A poleaxe, on the other hand, has each piece forged separately, and held down by langets - metal plates - that also serve to strengthen the end. This makes the poleaxe much tougher and heavier duty, and better suited to attacking armour. The tip generally lacks an edge, and is typically square in cross-section, which again, makes it much tougher than a spearhead or halberd tip.

Bec de corbin, lucern hammer, etc. are all really just poleaxes - poleaxe is definitely not reserved only for weapons with an axe head. In fact, the reference for the Bec de Corbin and Lucern Hammer wiki pages is the MyArmoury page on poleaxes!

Fiore, in his 15th century manual, uses the term "adza" azza or aça (I typoed before and wrote adza, and neglected to mention the alternate spelling), or axe to describe what we would call the poleaxe, and it is depicted with a hammer and a beak - no axe head. So the use of "axe" to refer to poleaxes without axe heads is not a neologism, but dates back to at least the late 14th century (in Italian, anyway).

5 October 2014

Things I'm Thinking About

Mostly just posting for my own benefit. These are the things I'm thinking about these days. Mostly things that have come up during play.

Alternative casting rules

I'm finding that using a d6 dice pool is resulting in spells either being more or less automatic (for easy spells) or more or less impossible (for hard spells). I had thought there would be a tension in rolling each round to cast spells, but it turns out that currently most spellcasting is outside of combat.

And spamming of low-level spells (especially detect magic type things) annoys me. It makes magic very mundane.

So, a new system is required for that.

New Spells

I'm finding that magicians, especially, are not enjoying combat as much as perhaps they could, as they currently don't really have any combat-applicable spells.

So, I'm thinking about what spells I can add that keep the flavour I want for magicians, but that can be used in combat. Illusions are something I'm leaning towards.

Descriptive damage rules for large creatures

The descriptive damage system I outlined a while back (in this post) is working swimmingly for humans and humanoids.

It does not currently have anything to say about large creatures. The couple times I've had to run large creatures since implementing descriptive damage, I simply used a basic hit point system. And that worked ok, but I'd like to be able to include the grit and interest of the descriptive damage system into fights with giant creatures.


Making Burglars more interesting

Both in combat and out. The main thought I'm having at the moment regarding this is making them a little better at combat than they currently are, and including some social abilities, persuasion-type stuff. We shall see how that plays out.

XP and Advancement

For want of a better system, we're currently just using a negotiated level up system. When the party has done a remarkable feat (or a few), we chat about it, and decide if they're deserving of a level up. This is working fine, and is essentially what most systems boil down to in any case, but perhaps a little more guidance would be good for a published game.

Something sort of similar to Paolo's system in Adventure Fantasy Game sounds plausible, but instead of treasure being the driving force, using great deeds (which he also supports, actually). His advancement system is worth checking out, as is his game.

While I've been a defender of XP for Gold, and while that is a perfectly workable system, I'm not sure it's right for Spells and Steel. For one thing, cash is scarce in my world, and I don't have the kind of economic system in place yet that Alexis does, so I'd have to be coming up with cash equivalents for all the treasure...

So what I'm thinking at the moment is guidelines for the kinds of feats and challenges are appropriate to trigger a level up. More thought is required.

Things that are working well

Descriptive damage is great. I've also got some rules on hand for infections and disease, which I'll get around to putting up when I feel like it.

Combat in general, and the Fighter class are working very well. Which makes sense, since that's where a lot of my effort has gone to date.

Classes are strongly differentiated, which is something I wanted, but I'm starting to wonder if that's such a good thing.

I've been avoiding "+X" magic weapons, and am loving it (something I talked about before, as have others). The players actually have yet to identify any of their magic items, but they are using them and benefiting nonetheless.

21 August 2014

Easy Cover

Hard cover against missile fire is incredibly easy to adjudicate. (For the few who don't know - hard cover will stop the projectile, soft cover merely conceals you. A stone wall is hard cover against pretty much anything, plywood is hard cover against arrows but not bullets, a hedge is soft cover).

Estimate the amount of cover - 1/4, 2/4, 3/4.

Then, when rolling your attack, also roll a d4. If you don't roll higher than the cover amount, you miss, no matter what the d20 says.

Simple, predictable results. Fast to play. Easy to understand. Realistic. Everything you need in a rule.

This is unlikely to be an original idea, but apparently 5e uses an AC modifier, which is a very stupid way to handle cover, and this was my alternative.

EDIT: Caveat - this only makes sense when the marksman's original chance to hit is 100% or less, so that any reduction in target size causes a commensurate reduction in chance to hit. That's not necessarily always going to hold true - I'm sure that I could put 20/20 arrows into an 8ft2 target at 6ft, and 20/20 arrows into a 4ft2 target at 6 feet, but I don't ever see >100% CTH in my games, so I'm unconcerned about that oddity.