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.


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


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.


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.


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.