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.

2 March 2014

Castle Cost Calculator Error Fixed

There was an error in the Castle Cost Calculator spreadsheet in the sidebar - the amount of land required was mistakenly based on the time to completion, instead of the workforce size. This has been rectified.

21 February 2014

Simple Fatigue Rule

I've been struggling with fatigue rules that aren't just some lousy modifier to keep track of, and this is what I've come up with. I'm trying it currently in my game, and it seems to be working - it's simple to understand, and fairly severe in its implications.

When exhausted, lose all levels, and move as if fully encumbered. If already fully encumbered, you movement is at a shuffle (essentially 0 for overland travel).

Thus class skills are no longer accessible - Burglars can't free-run or climb, Magicians can't cast spells, Fighters get no attack/defense bonuses.

You're just a slow, normal human when exhausted.

19 February 2014


Here is my take on summoning spirits, demons, fey, etc., and a few other bonus spells.
  • Ex Aethere, Servus (Out of the Ether, a Servant) (Mathias Penshawe)
    • PL: 20 + X
    • Duration: Until task is performed
    • Mechanism: 
    • Summary: Summons an arbitrary fey or daemon to perform one task. Requires an envoy, a path, a gift, and a timer. 
    • The envoy seeks out the summoned being, the path brings them to the caster, the gift binds them to serve, and the timer forces them to appear at a specific time.
    • Onerous service, complicated tasks, or tasks "beneath" fey can offend. They will comply, but may seek retribution.
    • X can be added to the PL to summon a more powerful fey:
      • 0: minor sprite, brownie, etc. - can do minor physical tasks (fetch this, mend that)
        • Gift: food
      • +5: lower fairie: some minor magic, can enchant people to misdirect them
        • Jewelry, etc. worth ~1£
      • +10: lower demon: will directly harm foes as a 5HD monster
        • animal sacrifice, goat or pig
      • +15: fairie: magic: can create masterful illusions
        • Jewelry, etc. worth ~10£
        • Must know specific name of fairie to be summoned, requires research
      • +20: daemon: very dangerous to summon, will directly harm foes as a 10HD monster
        • multiple animal sacrifices or human sacrifice
        • Must know specific name of demon
      • +25: fairie noble: exceedingly dangerous to summon - will almost certainly resent being forced to serve, but can perform any magic (this is, for instance, the only way to resurrect the dead)
        • Unique magic item, human slave
        • Must know specific name

17 February 2014

More Spells

A few more spells.
  • A Spell for Heating Hearths (Miles Tilghman)
    • PL: 12
    • Duration: Instantaneous
    • Mechanism: Sight
    • Summary: Cause an allied or neutral mass of flammable material (up to a few pounds) to ignite.
  • I Need Not Hear You (Dorothy Ackworth)
    • PL: 10 + X
    • Duration: 10 minutes + X minutes
    • Mechanism: Affinity
    • Summary: Subject cannot speak or make a sound.
    • A fey or other magically attuned individual will be able to see a rose flower covering the mouth of the subject.
  • My Secrets Are Mine Own (Dorothy Ackworth)
    • PL: 15
    • Duration: Permanent until dispelled
    • Mechanism: Affinity
    • Summary: Subject cannot discuss a certain fact / event / person. Any attempt to do so leads to them  burbling nonsense.
    • A fey or other magically attuned individual will be able to see a rose flower covering the mouth of the subject.

15 February 2014

An Example of Bad Pricing in D&D

LS over at Papers and Pencils has written an interesting piece about a trouble many people seem to have - what should their players do with all their money?

I don't tend to have that problem, as I use historically researched prices and plausible starting money, which ends up resulting in what a lot of people would probably think of as a pretty meagre starting-out package.

To illustrate why I think the traditional D&D prices and starting money are broken beyond belief, here's an example.

Consider that in England about 1450, a suit of mass-produced Milanese plate armour cost about 8 pounds sterling - about 2000 silver pennies.

A skilled labourer would make about 4 silver pennies a day.

Now consider that in D&D starting gold is 3d6x10gp, and a suit of plate mail costs 60gp.

That means that an average starting character in D&D has saved up the equivalent of 750 days pay for an average day labour BEFORE THE GAME STARTS, based on this example.

Where I am, the minimum wage (what a day labourer would make) is about $11/hr, skilled labour maybe $15. 750 day's wages at that rate is about $90,000 - three years salary. Consider that for a moment - if you use Basic Edition prices, you're starting your players each with enough money to pay cash for Porsche 911, or live comfortably for about three years without working.

Think about what you would do with $90,000 in cash. What material wants would you have unsatisfied if that was dropped in your lap today?

If you're having trouble finding things for the players to buy in town, consider that things are too cheap and starting gold too high.

30 January 2014

Real-world Weapons: The Empty Hand

This is the last "melee weapon" in my Real-world Weapons series. There will be upcoming episodes on missile weapons and armour.

I lied before when I said that the stick was the oldest weapon - that honour clearly goes to the empty hand.

The man advantage of the empty hand as a weapon is that it's always available. It's also surprisingly potent.


You ask how I force others to the ground under my feet with such prowess,
I tell you that because I grapple each man and throw him down;
The victory palm is appropriately held in my right hand
. - Master Fiore Dei Liberi
I can remember a time before I studied martial arts when I wondered why throws were so prevalent - I'd fallen down before, and it wasn't too bad.

Then I learned a bit, and one of my instructors laid it out so clearly - a throw doesn't make someone fall down, a throw is throwing someone onto their head. The goal is to bounce the persons head off the ground, stunning them, knocking them out, or killing them. In any case, once they're on the ground, they're (relatively) easy pickings for a neck stomp, sword thrust, or dagger attack.

Throws are some of the most difficult maneuvers to execute (hence the Master depicting throws in Fiore's book is the most ornately dressed), but a proper throw can be devastating.

An example throw, from Fiore:

Here the Scholar (with the gold band on his leg) is depicted in the middle of throwing the student to the ground. The upper arm has disrupted the student's balance by shooting through his centre, and as the student begins to lose his balance, the Scholar "helps" the process along, directing the head down with his upper arm and propelling the student to the ground by grabbing and lifting the leg.


Because I triumph over those who fight with me,
I carry torn-off broken arms as a decoration.
[And I do not lie when I tell you that I have broken and dislocated many arms in my life.]
- Master Fiore Dei Liberi
Locking the arms of all opponents
In such a way that none can safely extend their right hand,
To show my success I carry a pair of keys in my hand.
- Master Fiore Dei Liberi
The body is organized in a certain way. Limbs bend in this direction, but not that. If you bend them forcibly in that direction, they are remarkably fragile. It's possible to cause immense pain and massive damage forcing limbs the wrong way.

There are a couple basic kinds of locks - keys and bars. For an example of a key, extend your arm straight out to the side, then - bending only at the elbow - point straight up. Now, try to rotate your arm at the shoulder to point backwards - you almost immediately hit the end of your range of motion.

If someone were to force your arm back like that, it would be immensely painful. They could apply a great deal of force, likely damaging your arm and almost certainly driving you forcefully to the ground.

The classic bar is the arm bar - this is basically forcing the elbow joint backwards by grasping the hand of an outstretched arm and applying force just above the elbow. Very little force is required to do massive damage to the elbow joint.

The Scholar executing an arm bar. Here, the hand of the outstretched arm is held in place by the Scholar's head (every part of the body is dangerous!) and the Scholar's arm is applying force behind the elbow. From here, the elbow can be stressed to breaking, or (more likely), the Student will bend to relieve the stress, and the Scholar could propel the Student's head into the ground.
The point with locks is applying force in a way that the victim cannot resist, either because (like an armbar) it's a 2-on-1 situation (two arms vs. one) or because the body has few muscles that can operate in that axis (like the key I described). Or both.

Various empty-hand defenses against weapons result in locks, for instance a two-handed defense against a vertical dagger strike can transition into the key I described, or an off-hand defense against a dagger attack from the high left side can be blocked and transitioned into an armbar.


In my right hand I hold your dagger, and I gained it through my skill, which is so good that if you draw a dagger on me, I will take it from your hand. -Master Fiore Dei Liberi
While a popular TV/Movie trope is the "trick" sword move that disarms the enemy, this is highly unlikely. In order to take a weapon away, you have to get your hands involved.

This can arise from an empty-hand defense against an attack, or as a natural result of weapon play.

For instance, if an attack ends with the opponent's pommel in reach, it may be possible to grasp the pommel and twist it against the opponent's thumb, forcing the sword out of their hand while your sword ensures that they cannot land a hit while you're doing that.

An ideal empty-hand dagger defense ends with a disarm - one example would be stopping a blow coming from high on your left side and redirecting their energy past you and twisting their arm down and to your right. Executed properly, your forearm will press against the flat of their dagger and force it out of their hand.


I can't find the exact passage at the moment, but Fiore reminds us that we should never forget striking with the empty hand - i.e. punches, kicks, knees, headbutts.

The ideal targets are the soft spots - the solar plexus, the neck, the nose, the groin, or places where great damage can be done - the knee, for example, can be devastated by a kick.

"Dirty" Techniques

Fiore was writing a book of war for people who would be engaged in lethal combat. As such, no effective technique is omitted or disallowed.

Someone choking you? Gouge their eyes.

Someone grappling close? Knee them in the groin (by all accounts, this is very effective regardless of their sex, despite what some may think).

Fish-hooks (digging a finger in between the teeth and the cheek) can be very effective at moving the opponent around, using the principle "where the head goes, the body follows".

Against a bear-hug from behind, grab a finger and twist it backwards until it breaks.

Someone's hand near your face? Bite their finger off.

Someone's face near your face? Bite their nose or ear off.

In a fight where you expect death is on the line, no technique can be rejected as "dirty" or "unsportsmanlike".

Integration with Weapons

I alluded to this in the section on disarms, and several times before, but the empty hand is always available, even when you're holding a weapon. It's totally possible for a winning move in a fight to be dropping your sword and attacking a vulnerable arm with a lock, or dropping your pinned poleaxe and moving in aggressively for a throw.

Summing Up

The human body is a very potent weapon with the right skill and training. I definitely know people that in a hypothetical fight to the death, I would not bet on me even if I had a sword and they did not, such is their skill at unarmed combat.

I also can't overstate how disorienting, painful, devastating some of these techniques are even in a friendly environment.

The empty hand - the first and last weapon of humanity. Don't underestimate it.

17 January 2014

Would Magic Change the World?

Following on from an interesting (if frustrating) discussion with Alexis at Tao of D&D, I'm going to talk about whether magic would change the world.

There are four scenarios worth considering, representing the ends of two "dials" on magic - how recent it is, and how prevalent/practical it is:
  1. Magic has always been around, but it's incredible rare/difficult.
  2. Magic has always been around, and it's very common/easy.
  3. Magic has only recently been discovered, and it's incredibly rare/difficult.
  4. Magic has only recently been discovered, and it's very common/easy.
Scenario 1 and 3 would result in a world much the same as our own. For whatever reason, there is some intrinsic barrier to widespread dissemination of magic. Perhaps (like Harry Potter) some people are Wizards and can do magic, and some people are not and can not and that's that. Perhaps magic requires certain ancient or otherworldly artifacts that cannot be duplicated, or materials of incredible scarcity. Perhaps magic has such catastrophic side effects that it is outlawed, or simply not practiced out of prudence.

There are any number of possible explanations, but the point remains - a small amount of magic, even if around for a great deal of time, would not have any significant effect.

Scenario 2 would be wildy, radically different from our world. As different as the world of a modern Briton is from an agrarian Brit living under the Norman yoke in 1088. Positing a world where anyone can do useful magic with the equivalent of, say, a six-week nightschool course would result in a world where everyone who's anyone retains one or more potent magic-users. Magic is used in industry, warfare, trade, diplomacy... Much as computers have transformed every facet of our current world, plentiful cheap magic would transform the ancient world, and therefore transform every subsequent age beyond recognition.

Instantaneous communication, teleportation, magical lie detection, purification of elements, transubstantiation of elements, battlefield artillery, mass production of wondrous objects... The possibilities are limitless, and it is difficult to make any kind of prediction about what such a world would be like. It would depend greatly on the exact types of magic that are feasible.

But to argue that plentiful, cheap magic, available over the long term, would not cause at least the degree of transformation that computers and industrialization did is insupportable.

Scenario 4 would be a world like our own transitioning into a different kind of world, like England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Forward-thinking businessmen and princes would be making the most of the new-found magic in industry, commerce, and war. Most people would still be living pre-revolution lives.

Perhaps centuries of alchemical and astrological work were converging on a single solution to the problem of practical magic, and near-simultaneous discoveries were made in several places. Perhaps some planetary convergence opened rifts to another world. Perhaps powerful beings have returned to this realm, bringing magical potential with them.

None of this is Earth-shattering. I wouldn't think this is particularly controversial even (although I might be surprised). I don't think Alexis and I disagreed so much in our conclusions as our premises - if I understand correctly, he's thinking of a Scenario 1 world, and I'm looking at all the possibilities.

That said, we play a game. If you want to play a game where powerful, plentiful magic has always existed, but the borders of Europe are the same in 1088, the feudal system is in place in Norman England, and in every way the world mimics our own (but there's powerful, cheap magic everywhere), all power to you. It's a game. Do what works for your game!

But don't try and tell me that's a plausible historical scenario. It's not.