Writing up Eero's Primordial D&D

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  • What's your solution? :)
  • edited April 2014
    I swing the opposite direction from what you call the Finnish school, but unlike you I also reject Gygaxian Naturalism and the “Caves of Chaos”-style unproblematic depictions of the monstrous. But my solution is to exclusively use fairy-tale goblins. My goblins do not have society, they only have games and transparently monstrous imitation. My goblins are spontaneously generated from the earth to repel intruders in the fiction as well as in the mechanics (in wandering monster checks).

    If I want a tribe of humans I use a tribe of humans (and I feel strongly that this tbh the most ethical choice here but I don't want to ruin the conversation, that's my politics, informed by my own relationship with indigenous people and the political theory that they have produced).

    I am super-interested in the colonialist assumptions of D&D (in the wild landscape, the general store, etc) and to me the OSR, the act of peeling back this published material that has built up where D&D references mostly other derivatives of D&D, is a really powerful tool for examining some power structures in the culture that produced it. The spaces between our viewpoints are indicative of that, too—I think all three of them engage that material quite directly.

    PS: it is possible that either of you may feel that I am not describing or do not understand your positions properly, I don't want to pretend to be representing them fully in this comparison

    PPS: I also allow my players a lot of authorship of the setting through character creation, so that we get a lot of creative problem-solving happening when they re-introduced received D&Disms, scottish dwarfs or tall wise elves rather than my Midsummer Nights' Dream/Medieval Green Men versions, but I like that a lot

    PPPS: I keep thinking of things! I had a good discussion on Monday where some newish players kept asking me how the goblins ship worked given that I had described it as being full of holes and completely falling to bits but yet it was actually a little bit faster than a similarly-designed human ship. I started with "you know, goblins are like that" and continued with "there's a bathtub on the side of it, a bit of siding from a house" and a little more of "goblins are like that" and I think we got somewhere in the end. Goblin ships don't work, that's the whole idea! But they'll get you!
  • Personally, I'd put us in the same camp. :) Gygaxian naturalism, insofar as it's expressed in the Moldvay texts, is terribly incomplete. No monster, for example, needs a light source to see in the dungeon. Even human bandits. And dungeon doors always open for them despite being locked/jammed for the players. The implication is that, textually, things really do spring supernaturally out of the dungeon to assault the players. I totally express this in the same terms you do, Adam. Or, at least, I think I do.

    What is a monster?

    "Any creature that is not a player character is called a monster. Monsters may be friendly or unfriendly, wild or tame, normal beast or fantastic." - B/X B29.

    Depending on which Goblin you meet, the encounter might be an incredibly friendly one - this idea that being a monster is a bad thing to be in its own right is questionable when you can have a warm, Tolkieny interaction with just about everything.

    Monster, in my game-head, isn't a purgative title, it's a category of... existence? Yes, yes, I realise this definition also includes innocent human NPCs. And, yes, it's problematic, but I have to roll with the deconstruction: is there a subtext here about human nature/heroic privilege, or just a misstatement that's not that useful? The idea that killing normal humans grants as much XP as a goblin speaks loudly about how Gygax is trying to model the world and direct our conduct in it... or not direct, rather - we are free moral agents, or free at least to be Chaotic, Neutral or Lawful. ;)

    I keep on about textuality. I'd like to say that it's not guiding me strictly in the actual running of the Greysands campaign, there it's all about communication and finding the path through with the rest of the table - which is totally my jam.
  • edited April 2014
    You may be somewhat relieved to know that the same blurry dilemma exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. In "Monsters! Monsters!" the GM awards extra XP for acts of wanton cruelty, and the lamest monster you can play is "Human Scum".

    BTW, wanna talk about a bias... Monsters in MM get XP for taking human captives, but NO POINTS FOR UGLY PEOPLE!
  • I think it's notable here how people's needs regarding goblins are influenced by what you're actually doing with the game. I mean, I'm totally on board fairy tale goblins, as I think my answer to Christopher's question indicated; it's just that this commitment does nothing for me, or you, if there are actual traditional D&D dungeon adventure modules at the table!

    How so? Why, have you guys ever read or played these things? (That's a partially serious question - many people play extensive D&D without using a lot in the way of adventure modules, relying on their own material instead.) There are like 60 goblins in this dungeon, some in the random encounter tables, some scattered in specific rooms. One room has 8 warrior goblins (with spears or even swords), in another one there is a goblin kitchen pit. In one there are all the children, women and oldies, behind a locked door to be safe from adventurers. In one room is the shaman with some guards and the tribal treasure, in another a tribal king on his throne. That's what a traditional D&D goblin's usage looks like in actual adventure modules, the majority of the time. (Thinking of "Dyson's Delve" and "Tomb of the Iron God" here specifically, but this is a strong trend since the TSR days.) That's the "Gygaxian goblin", in my experience - and I've spent much, much more time with adventure modules than I've done reading monster manuals.

    When you're using something like that, a strict fairy tale interpretation of what that little word "goblin" means is not gonna cut it. Those are a primitive people of some sort, just looking at what they're doing in the adventure module and what they have, no way around it. The question is just whether I'm going to make them a non-human intelligent species of creatures fundamentally tainted by evil, or a slightly exotic human ethnicity, or what - I can't just make that civilization disappear and replace it with like rhyming behaviours, stealing babies, having highly magical fae nobility, and doing everything backwards in amusing, magical ways without extensively rewriting that adventure module.

    (D&D incidentally has plenty of monsters that are of somewhat later derivation than the classic "goblin" and other pseudohuman monsters, and that are intended to bring that folklore swing into the game. If you'll look at the monster manual, the various redcaps, gnomes and other fairy fellers and little people are pretty clearly intended to be used when you want to have a mysterious encounter with a singular weird forest fae who'll steal your hat and your cow and bites you in the ankles when you try to run after it. The common goblin is incredibly prosaic in comparison.)

    In other contexts, when I've used adventures that make goblins more mysterious and magical, or when I've straight invented the material myself, I've obviously had plenty of room for fairy tale goblins, or perhaps "hiisi", the Finnish equivalent. It's just that when you use a ready-made adventure scenario, goblins are much more commonly used as tribal humanoids than the lowest rung of the fae order, so that's necessitated figuring out how I want to do that. For me it just has happened to be the case that I've found it very useful to swap tribal humans in there instead of keeping Gygaxian humanoids around. Mike seems to find it useful to do the opposite - fine by me, it's his lookout.

    As others, I find the political and literary themes of D&D quite interesting (which is not contradictory with the creative agenda of challengeful gaming, in case you were wondering), which plays a major part in my choice to essentially remove the classical goblins and other humanoid monsters, and replace them with either more magical beings ("orcs" my campaign interpreted as soulless underworld demon-beings that were let into the world through "orc rifts" created by necromancers or such) or humans. I just didn't want to deal with the setting flavour of extreme racism (or perhaps "racialism" would be clearer in an English context) that results from positing whole non-human civilizations that sit on top of all the gold that adventurers want to own.

    Interestingly enough Jim Raggi ended up with the same exact solution around the same time-frame last decade that I did. (You can read about what he does with goblins in the GM book of LotFP - basically recommends doing the same thing I do when you encounter goblins and such in adventure modules.) In general it is a little bit amusing how it's not entirely misplaced to talk about a "Finnish" approach to D&D styling, thanks to certain broad creative harmony in mine an Jim's recent play. We've both influenced a few other people in direct lineage (and more by writing about our playstyle), which means that although we started independently, at this point there's a bunch of people here who've been influenced by similar ideas. Of course not everybody is running historical fantasy, and it's not like I'm planning to stick with these particular aesthetic choices for ever and ever, but right now the effect is strange. Just yesterday after the game one of my friends here remarked about how strangely this historical fantasy thing seems to have taken over in his local circles over the last couple of years, as if everybody's doing it instead of what we seemed to be doing 10 years back :D

    For an example of a prominent OSR author who's working the opposite approach, consider Zak Smith's Vornheim setting. He's got these amazingly colorful heavy metal folklore underground magic goblins. They've got like entire cities of goblins where the ruling elite walks on the ceilings, and stuff like that - very fae beings, which fit well in the setting as whole, the way it rocks surreal fantasy. It's like watching a Ralph Bakshi fantasy movie, reading about Zak's game.
  • In fact, here's a short table of my "humanoid monster solutions", I think you'll find this interesting (not as "rules" or such, merely as an example of what one might do). This is how our campaign ended up intepreting the critters, one at a time as they came up during actual play:
    Goblins - human "hill-people", reclusive known hunter-gatherer peoples living in the wild spaces where civilization had not enroached yet. Sort of likes Lapps in Finnish history, or Finns for Scandinavians and Russians. Where they have subhuman HD (remember the sources often differ slightly), that's because of malnutrition and general hardship in life.
    Hobgoblins - warrior elites of the goblin tribes. When encountered alone without goblins at hand, often a warrior cult consisting of the best from multiple goblin tribes, engaging in short or long term pilgrimage, training camp, guarding holy goblin site, etc.
    Orcs - non-human, soulless demon-warriors made of non-earthly matter. No language, but swarm instinct and integral capabilities in the ways of war. There is a Control Orcs 2nd level M-U spell, of course, known to demonologists. When orcs are treated anything like a tribal civilization in an adventure module, I just swap them 1:1 with goblins and hobgoblins.
    Ogres - a religio-social malady/curse affecting the "whitey" civilization (that's not me being cute about American racial slang so much as me being cute about translating an old Finnish racial epithet used to distinguish between the Christian, agricultural majority population and peoples such as gypsies and Lapps); on occasion people living reclusively away from regular church-going folks get these cannibalistic urges (several possible reasons, but essentially it's just the way of the world) that, when you give in, turn the person over time into a predatorial, hulking mass of hungry flesh. Some (perhaps depending on their human inclinations or whatever) turn into "ogre mages", cunning beings capable of disguising their ogre nature and walking among humans to prey on them. Ogres tend to be solitary, but on occasion they form communities controlled by an ogre mage, joined together by their inhuman appetites.
    Bugbears - (this was the "furry giant goblinoid", I think) a sort of a goblin ethic/cultural counterpart of the ogre; the animist goblin tribes do not seem to suffer from ogricism, but they have a similar encepalopathy particularly associated with tribal shamanism that causes gigantism, excessive fur growth and irrational behaviour patterns to some few tribesmen. Bugbears are generally driven out of their tribes, and the phenomenon is considered a sad plight against which goblin mothers sacrifice to venerated spirits, although occasionally they are exploited by unscrupulous goblin shamans and such.
    Ghouls - considering the intimate relationship of ogres and human cannibalism, one is forced to ask whether ghouls have something to do with it as well. Interestingly enough the answer seems to be negative, despite "ghoul" in my historical fantasy campaign having been sort of a disease-like affliction as well; they're just two separate phenomena that have something to do with cannibalism, it seems. The ghoul in our campaign was a sort of a biological/memetic disease (one of the absolutely weirdest adventures we had concerned a company of 400 foot soldiers being quarantined on an island near Venice while a rash of ghoulism raged among their ranks and the PC command cadre attempted to cleanse the company) that would not let go in far-progressed cases even in death, so that a ghoul colony would generally include about 50% "technically living" ghouls and 50% "proper undead" ghouls. I know, it's weird to have two unrelated cannibalism myths going here, but that's how it came out when the historical fantasy aesthetic was smashed together with a random series of adventure modules featuring both critters.
    Kobolds - mythical earth fae, encountered in deep mines and such. This was a given, considering how the campaign tramped over German landscapes. Rare, magical creatures, essentially same as Finnish (or English) gnomes. Where an adventure would require otherwise (a rare situation - the OSR adventure stock I've mostly used has kobolds pretty rare, for some reason), I just put in particularly malnourished, almost comically wretched goblins instead.
    Lizard-men - as an interesting exception to the tendency of getting rid of the humanoid monsters on aesthetic grounds, I actually actively preserved the lizardpeople, and even used them myself in original scenarios a little bit :D The idea was that lizardmen are an extremely reclusive, degenerate, exclusively underground species descended from the mythical, nefarious snakepeoples of antediluvian Earth. Pulp fantasy inspiration here, basically - by having them be an unknown horrible secret of the inner earth I'd avoid having them like steal sheep from local farmers. The shock factor is nice for players who are used to dealing with goblin tribes that you can sort of deal with - unlike my primitive tribesmen goblins, you can't live among the lizardmen and sing their songs, not without utmost degeneracy of your own humanity. Where lizard-men are used on the surface by an adventure, I substitute a degenerate human snake cult.
  • I like to think that as I use more adventure modules and TSR stuff generally then my view and interpretation of the monsterous in D&D will become more nuanced. That's not necessarily to make Goblins into a "race" of aboriginal humans as opposed to an adversarial species of supernatural origin though. I'm interested, Eero, in why your playgroup has given this treatment to Goblins (to make them essentially capital-p People, right?) but hasn't awarded the same position to Orcs or Lizardmen (who of all the adversarial beings in your campaign most sound like they should be given an equal status to humanity, being it's genetically estranged mirror-image after all). Why are Orcs demonic summonses that can be controlled like chess pieces by lv.2 Magic Users whereas Goblins are the noble savage? I appreciate a lot of it comes down to the aesthetic (or even moral?) tastes of the group and the justifications of the positioning that come through play, but it strikes me as slightly discordant - could you walk me through the thinking here? :)
  • I think maybe my use of "gygaxian naturalism" is too AD&D for this conversation, yeah. I am talking about that fundamentalist interpretation of the text, which is very powerful for setting up a game and expectations.

    But here is another go at describing the difference: I considered it very important to write some of my own materials, especially a little booklet for character creation, because I want that rock-solid reasoning that comes from saying "this is how goblins behave in the rulebook" that you use, mike, but with only some of the ideas there. Although I walk new players through character creation orally almost always, the text I give them still offers a lot of hints about this stuff if they ever actually bother reading it: that elves are probably changeling children in human places rather than what they have learned from video games, that if halflings reach their level limit and you don't retire them they are basically going to turn into monsters or faeries or leprechauns or something.

    I don't play modules, very intentionally, although I'm interested in doing more to reference or interrogate them. But I do find it very interesting that Raggis game, which seems to follow a lot of that same motivation, falls back on that support, which as you say Eero, makes most sense as a way of interpreting past texts.
  • Those specific interpretations I have there are entirely organic in nature: the adventures we played, in the specific order we played them, ended up with those interpretations being the ones that worked for me as the GM.

    Specifically, orcs ended up the way they did in part because the only orcs that came up for like 60 sessions were some individual ones dropped nigh-randomly into an adventure with a necromancer. Meanwhile, goblins are anywhere and everywhere in D&D land, you can't swing a stick without hitting an adventure with some.

    Ultimately, though, these sorts of reimaginings of the symbols in adventure texts can only make sense in the local context. I could easily see that if we had played something else instead of "Tomb of the Iron God", "Tower of the Stargazer", "Three Brides" and "Temple of the Ghoul" as the first adventures of the campaign, then surely those monster interpretations would also have evolved differently.
  • Eero, did you ever encounter a situation in some adventure that caused a notable dissonance or raised difficult to integrate issues? (I don't have anything in mind that would even qualify, but it seems like if there was something like that, it would be instructive.)
  • Have the players killed Goblin babies?
    This kind of thing? Or are you thinking of different issues?
  • Actually I meant it more like this: he establishes the origin of Goblins in this one way because of this adventure and then this other thing gets tacked on because of this adventure. That's cool, we're all learning together how to make sense of this stuff. But then this third adventure comes along and it's tough to reconcile with the reality we constructed and established as canon so we have to do this, that and the other to make it work.

    Goblin babies aren't a problem -- I advocate that they exist and the players and kill them or not.
  • Not that's it's never been done before, but there's a very provocative arc if you go from a starting point where the players are permitted to enter the game with all their standard O/AD&D baggage of unspoken racism, with its cartoonishly stereotypical representations of humanoid "monsters" etc, and then learn from face-to-face experience (perhaps to their amazement) that it's not like that at all - that these creatures are people with their own ways, customs, dreams, babies, etc.

    This thematicizes the psychological challenge of developing into post-racist consciousness from a colonialist/imperialist/capitalist upbringing.

    if you want to go there.
  • Eero, did you ever encounter a situation in some adventure that caused a notable dissonance or raised difficult to integrate issues? (I don't have anything in mind that would even qualify, but it seems like if there was something like that, it would be instructive.)
    I wouldn't say that this would have come up as a problem. It is easy for the GM (seems easy to me, I mean) to spin things creatively, or make the necessary changes in an adventure to make it all make sense. Note that "make sense" is not here the dry prune legalism concept that players occasionally use to argue their cases - there is no need or requirement for things to go the way a player with no imagination expects them to be, and a mere player claim that things have to be the way he wants them to be or they "won't make sense" is not true without further substance. The fiction can take a surprising amount of variation and surprise before you even need to consider changing anything.

    For example, it would be a small mind that would claim that all goblins all over the campaign world have to worship that same goblin god, wear the same goblin dresses and speak the same goblin language that the first tribe we encountered did. That has not been true of a single tribal culture in the real world, as far as we know. The word "goblin" is just a word, if it becomes important we can discard even the subtle suggestion that all of the goblin tribes that show up in play are ethnically related to each other - maybe slightly different parts of the campaign world have entirely different stocks of primitive forest people that have nothing to do with each other. Note that the term "goblin" may or may not be swung around in actual play - in our historical campaign any and all terminology is local and ethnographic anyway, the PCs don't have like a pokedex where they check out the official name of something they encounter. "Goblin" is usually a local whitey ethnic term/slur (little difference in a pre-liberal world), often mired in weird superstitions (so the local human NPCs really believe that goblins spoil milk and kidnap babies, it just so happens that these "goblins" are actually real people who live in the wilds).

    Regarding practical themes, for us the colonialistic theme with D&D adventurers and goblins has worked quite naturally: the players are quick enough on their feet that even somebody who doesn't know about goblins being a "primitive hunter-gathered ethnicity of humans" generally speaking has their footing back after five minutes of actual play. (I don't think I've ever met anybody outside the Internet who would just plain choke on the idea that they have to deal with human NPCs in a dungeon crawl.) After that point it's just a matter of depicting encounters between civilizations with massive discrepancy in material culture and significant differences in spiritualism - not to speak of language issues and such. Many players go all Pocahontas on the situation, some play hardline conquistadors (that is, standard D&D adventurers - there is no practical difference), some basically empathetic yet practical opportunists who'll sell some wildmen down the river if there's real reward for them in it. It's all quite reasonable as a social roleplaying challenge, where sometimes the adventurers end up like trading with and learning from the local goblins, and sometimes they end up in bitter genocidal wars with them (gratifyingly often to their own detriment, although not always). Easy enough for even a single hardliner to blow up any peace conferences or such, after all, and the goblins generally aren't stupid enough to let you betray them twice.
  • Eero,

    I can see how you've reskinned a lot of D&D tropes regarding monsters and races (which, in my mind, made sense in the context of Tolkien's own mythology, but took on a whole different sense when mixed up in the D&D-verse), in part by circumstance (I can see how the campaign ideas develop organically, depending on which adventures are being pursued) and in part by following your own aesthetic principles and demands.

    Did you go through a similar process when dealing with the assumptions of D&D adventure? After all, the vast majority of D&D adventures include a number of supernatural events, items, or locations, some extreme danger (in the form of monsters and traps), and a very significant quantity of treasure, wealth, and goods.

    You've already explained that seeing the supernatural elements in these D&D tropes doesn't bother you, essentially by saying that these are local phenomena, and we won't deal with how they impact the world until the PCs have encountered them. (And then, as you say, if the resulting events bring the existence of snakemen or elves to the awareness of the Pope, something in the setting may change!)

    But what about the incredible danger/threat present in typical D&D adventures (e.g. a group of wandering monsters, ambitious necromancers, pits which bring forth endless cannibalistic monstrosities, massive deathtraps, etc)? Do you spare any effort to make it believable that there might be three such sources of danger within a few miles of a small village, and no one has relocated or fled?

    Similarly, what about the vast treasures which tend to appear in D&D adventures? Do you justify them somehow, or does it just so happen that every little indigenous tribe happens to hoard riches beyond the pale? If there are treasures in a nearby cave, why haven't they been plundered?

    Do you spend any time on these concerns as the campaign develops, or is it hand-waved away, since it is, after all, almost necessary for play? (I'm thinking in particular of a situation where an adventure module might be attempted by a group of characters, and then abandoned - perhaps due to a TPK. Now this thing has been established as entering existence nearby some rather normal European settlement... what happens next? Does it just fade away into obscurity until the next PC encounters it, or does it have an impact on the outside world?)
  • I do agree that it's surprising from an external viewpoint that the credibility of the setting can withstand having a necromancer's lair near an ordinary European town. I would not have expected this to work myself, had I been presented with the aesthetic notion in advance of trying it out. However, it is apparently the case that normality can stand quite a bit of stress and still contribute entirely meaningfully to the game's setting and strategic landscape.

    We do certainly pay attention to the things you mention, but it is apparently not the case that these concerns would become showstoppers. A healthy amount of constructive priority (meaning, we assume the facts on the ground and then deduce their reasons, instead of assuming our own baseless assumptions from some medieval movie and then deducing why the facts on the ground can't be true, like a destructive player thinks) helps, as does a varied knowledge base and a general maturity in understanding the natural and social sciences - it simply is not the case that we would get stuck in idiotic arguments about like whether katanas were known in Europe in the 16th century, if you're imagining the setting discovery process to be like that. The world is a complex place and everything has justifiable exceptions as long as you're willing to keep an open mind.

    Some specific notes:

    The "vast treasures" in D&D adventures are not actually so vast for the most part. A big part of that impression is that people often don't have a very good grasp on economy, and a part is that they're treating these treasures at a personal scale - so it's sort of a myth that D&D dungeon treasures are unrealistically insane in scope. (Many of those treasures are exceptional and unrealistic in social terms, yes - but that doesn't matter as long as your hoard is owned by like elves or something; who's to say that those don't just sit on top of big gold piles because they smell nice?) Ultimately, after a couple hundred sessions of "historical fantasy D&D", I have to say that PCs have never been even a blip on the radars of true merchant princes and other money men of the late medieval. An ordinary high nobleman (hochadel, I mean) brings in like 50 000 accounting units a year as profits from their estates (on top of political influence and such, and of course this is a number that varies massively case to case), while adventurers find "huge" treasure hoards in the thousands of units. Springs them from rural poor to urban middle class, sure, but getting further is behind some real serious work and luck. We've played ordinary published adventures (mostly OSR, mostly low-level), and we've never seen a dungeon that would have come even close to triggering a genuine gold rush or cause any such large scale economic disruption. Dungeon adventure operations are simply too small in scale and too quick in time-span to cause economic realignment, except in the personal finances of the adventurers.

    (Remember that I have stripped the game of all artificial level-ups, and generally 90% of adventures seeded in the setting are "low level", so the campaign's power-level profile is different from what you might be used to; from my reading it seems that many, even most groups that play D&D use various cheats to get to "mid-levels" quickly, and then stay there for the rest of the campaign. The TSR level 4-8 monty haul adventures you're thinking of are very, very rare, and treated as epic exceptions instead of any kind of routine. Practically no hoard has more than 10 000 units of treasure in one place in this sort of low-level sandbox; we had exactly two exceptions in 100 sessions, I think, and one of those was clearly broken design while the other wasn't a "hoard", but rather the on-hand warchest of the Northern League of Italian merchant city-states condottieri army.)

    As for magical monstrosities and such, remember that the medieval rural landscape is full of such superstitions anyway. When the player characters unearthed Jason Morningstar's viking tomb full of undead crewsmen, and then abandoned the place for a couple months, that became a wild folklore story for the local villages; the undead vikings renovated their burial boat, brought it to the river and sailed it out to seas unknown. Admittedly that specific example could have turned into a paradigm shift if the undead vikings had, I don't know, proved contagious or something. Didn't happen at that time, although later we did indeed get that massive paradigm shift when the PCs had that zombie incident in Italy. Most such events, though, may have local witnesses and then they just become wild stories.
  • Point is, the historical landscape does not get shaken by a few elves in the woods or revenants rising from their graves - that's what people entertained at least half-seriously in their worldview anyway in historical Europe. A necromancer? Say rather, a witch or demon-worshipper, unless you're particularly latinate. Sure, of course over a long term we would see serious skew from our reality in a world where this superstitious folklore actually has a basis in fact, but let's just take that as a genre conceit of historical fantasy, shall we? We'll just pretend that somehow the world has gotten so far with the supernatural being somewhat obscure - well known as the religions and superstitions of the people attest, but fundamentally exotic and unknown to the people anyway. Perhaps it is in the divine plan for the fantastic to wilt and pass away beyond the dominion of Christ? It's the same setting Ars Magica uses, so perhaps reading those books might give a more detailed view of what's what.

    It should be noted that my wilderness random encounter processes are much, much less drastic than the standard D&D practices indicate. Gygax wants a savage wilderness where non-leveled human population lifespans are measured in diurnal cycles as horrible monsters (much worse than any real predatory animal) attack every day. I do not, obviously, see the point in that (this is of course because we prioritize different things: Gygax wanted short-term logistical friction for mid-level parties moving through wilderness while low-level parties wouldn't dare to do it, while I seem to have much more concern for setting realism), so it is simply not the case that fantastic monsters would lurk in every nook and cranny; the vast majority of the setting is essentially historical, and when something fantastic is encountered in the wilds it's like an adventure hook: there is some reason for this thing, ankhegs or owlbears don't just happen in this setting with no explanation to them.

    There is a constant low-level fabulation happening when you play the game like this. For example, it is the case in this setting that the dominant branch of "arcane" magic in medieval Europe has been inherited from religio-cosmological ideas of neo-Platonic philosophy of late antiquity; wizards are essentially "natural" philosophers following a different (strictly speaking heretical) cosmology. This interesting little detail comes up on occasion, and it is used to colour in the details of what magic looks like, but there's no big setting sourcebook that the most anal-retentive players would study obsessively so they could then apply this by itself huge setting fact to rip apart setting consistency. (Speaking as the GM, I totally would give a fucking hardcore resistance to any Sunday historian who wanted to puncture holes in my fantasy history, but ultimately they would obviously succeed - I could not logically defend the consistency of the conceit that neo-Platonism has magical powers and accidentally happens to die out anyway without significant impact on Christian cosmology against an intentional, concerted assault forever.)

    I would say that the ideas of hidden treasures, horrifying monsters and magical mysteries secreted within obscure cults and uncovered by the occasional holy men in their hermitages aren't really all that difficult to work with. This might sound funny, but ultimately the specific conceits of Gygaxian dungeon construction can be much more bothersome: why are these monks building pit traps in their cellars? Whoever has the time to dig these long and labyrinthine dungeon corridors? How come all these dungeon giant insects are always poisonous? How does this massive stonework arch stay intact without support pillars? I rely on explanations such as gothic insanity (many of the builders of places that later on become adventure location ruins weren't right in the head in the first place), goblinoid cultural pathologies (their religion encourages digging pit traps, say), dungeon giganticism (the pseudo-scientific observation that these pesky little critters sure seem to grow fucking huge whenever they get to live underground for a few generations) and above all seeping dungeon otherworld in the Philotomy vein: when you get deep enough underground, your petty European assumptions about the nature of the world get thrown out of the window: maybe there is a vast Agharta down there somewhere, a vast sinuous empire of degenerate lizard-people and all manner of Gygaxian lunacy viewed through the feverish nightmare eyeglasses of a human explorer of these alien reaches. We are non-committal on that until we know exactly how far down the rabbit hole leads.

    Of course much of this creative process is necessarily ironical in nature - we know perfectly well that we are making a Gygax/history mashup instead of starting from pure historical precepts (like Ars Magica does - the only difference between our setting and Ars is that the latter lacks the D&D fantasy elements) and sticking to them. If we wanted to do the latter, we would not use a wide variety of published adventure modules, now would we? Because of the specific manner in which the campaign has grown, it is a necessity to have a bit of good humour and an ability to accept that some things in the setting are just pretty weird, thanks to the D&D fantasy well we are sampling from. I don't mind this personally, as the combination has proven vivacious, exciting, surprisingly realistic in historical fantasy terms, and much more colorful and phantasmagoric than we'd get if we decided to play more restrained on the historical front. Things like say dobbelgangers are fucking terrifying in a setting like this, with deep cultural implications, rather than just being dungeon ecology curiousities like in Greyhawk.

    In fact, an observation: you don't need to have that perfect nerdy faith in the perfectness of your setting that e.g. Harn or Glorantha fans seem to evince at times. For challengeful adventure gaming you merely need the setting to be consistent enough for a robust local shared imagined space to occur and be applied in strategic problem-solving. That's a localized process, has nothing to do with large scale setting concerns. So anybody who reads my preference and excitement for a more historical D&D setting as some dusty desire for perfect realistic fidelity should revise their ideas - there's a long, long distance on the spectrum of gamer geek pathologies from where this campaign sits to actual historical nerdery :D
  • maybe there is a vast Agharta down there somewhere, a vast sinuous empire of degenerate lizard-people and all manner of Gygaxian lunacy viewed through the feverish nightmare eyeglasses of a human explorer of these alien reaches.
    It is not for the first time I wished I could speak Finnish. I want in!

    It's gratifying to read your thoughts expanded: It's interesting to see how the your process of justification is similar to mine in method but takes a few different turns. I suppose it's all down to taste and a little prior inclination.
    One considerable difference in my conception of the D&D world compared to yours is in regards to Wilderness encounters - I was working on the assumption that this table wasn't intended to model the real passage of everyday people over a wilderness, but is the sole reserve of the adventurous party breaking new ground and discovering things unseen by human eyes: the wilderness is a Hex dungeon in a sense. To phrase it differently, the common highway and ploughed fields don't cause travellers to roll vs. wilderness: such civilised places obviously don't house supernatural monsters with any frequency, otherwise they wouldn't be civilised.

    I'd like to defend the merits of monsters as humanity's antagonists and the colonial mindset in D&D at some point, but I feel it's a tricky one and involving a bunch of motivations and potential pitfalls.
  • The D&D attitude of "let's have the antagonists be monster-men so we don't feel bad about killing them all" seems like it has pretty transparent motivations. If anything, in this hedonistic age one may well ask why somebody would feel the need to mess up their wish-fulfillment fantasy with inconvenient criticism. For me personally it's largely because I'm more interested in real challenges, and fighting a war of underground xenocide against "goblinoids" is a pretty pale and bloodless scenario insofar as wargames go - troop morale, war goals, fifth cohort action, social hacking, strategic alliances and a multitude of other wargaming elements are twisted unrecognizable by the Gygaxian "humans vs. monsters" scenario. It's artistically more interesting to play in a sandbox less distanced from the real world, one where such basic questions as "do we even need to wage war here at all" are initially up in the air.

    Also, I have to admit that I'm not very good at framing my pastimes in hedonistic terms; the idea that I would simply color-code the bad guys for harmless convenience in slaughter sits ill with me, I guess because I presume that I'm trying to do something better than just slake my hidden fantasies of racist violence in a socially acceptable manner. I would start questioning the entire thing if I myself thought that the point of the game is to have things be easy and fun, and that "wish-fulfillment" for us means slaughter and rapine without consequence or moral depth. How would that be different from being entertained by murder porn?

    (To clarify my mind-set, what first comes to mind to me as "inconsequential wish-fulfillment" would be something like I don't know, My Little Pony. It just doesn't strike me personally as entertaining to play D&D with the attitude that a goblin needs to be monstrous so that we would have more fun killing it.)

    Questions all, of course, and I definitely will not be the one to launch this spring's moralistic shit-storm by starting to sling judgements about other people's fun. The above's just trying to explore why the great convenience of the Gygaxian fantasy world sits a little bit ill with me aesthetically. One part distaste for how it simplifies the strategic picture, one part distaste for the videogamey convenience of the entire scheme of for-profit monster-killing.

    As I indicated earlier, I could see myself running Greyhawk as well - the original Gygaxian fantasy setting. I would probably make a point of not romanticizing or ignoring the nature of the setting, though; it is a savage horror of social Darwinism, with little hope for the world unless the Good peoples succeed in wholesale xenocide, extinguishing the Evil broods from the face of Oerth. It is a setting in which the worst fantasies of white power ideology are explored, as strategic rape taints humanity with orcish blood and entire races of human-like beings are pawns of a dualistic struggle between the light and the darkness for no other reason than their heritage of blood. A majestic, feverish fantasy world where it is fully justified to raise your blade for the greater glory of Good :D

    (That is of course just what strikes me as interesting and unique in the Gygaxian fantasy world. Please forgive me a certain degree of rhetorical emphasis in characterizing the Greyhawk setting - I don't mean to indicate that the setting would have been originally imagined for the racialist themes, it just happens to be what you get when you want to have the bad guys conveniently color-coded for easy killing. It is the case, though, that this exactly is my point: if you're not going to depict evil humanoids in that light, then what's the point of having them in the first place? Little enough, and that's why my less racial holy war setting doesn't feature them, striving instead for the historical ambivalence of our own world - ethnicities exist and they matter, but they're not split into convenient cosmological camps by natural law itself.)

    Also, in case somebody's reading along and wondering how come I see any difference between killing goblins for their loots and killing indians for their loots, the difference is in that first objection, basically: once our strategic question is no longer "how do we kill these monster-people", but rather "how do I grasp at fortune in this cruel world", the game doesn't feel queasy for me any more, despite occasionally swerving towards grim topics. Sure, on occasion the free-booter adventurers will choose to accomplish their quest for fortune by wholesale xenocide of a convenient out-group, but at least it's no longer obviously color-coded into the bones of the game; rather, the rapine becomes a sort of a simulation of the colonial challenges and issues, a little window into what makes a conquistador tick. A small aesthetic difference, but I feel that where Gygax largely celebrates conquistadorialism (intentionally or not), our play explores it. Over a longer time-frame the difference is seen concretely, as PCs find constructive ways to relate to the savage peoples that come their way in their looting, and we start seeing more and more things such as goblin PCs. It is actually rather exciting to realize that in a world where "goblin" does not automatically mean "meat to be wasted" there is some slim room for play that attempts to align all human peoples together against the unknown. After all, why couldn't you join forces with the goblins you find squatting on the 1st level of the dungeon, and dig up the forgotten big treasures of the ancients from their cursed tombs with their aid? No structural reason in the game at all why not, once you drop the specific Greyhawk (or D&D, these being interchangeable) cosmology with its Evil-by-birth thinking.
  • edited April 2014
    I'm dead-set on challenging the idea that my interests in monster antagonism is hedonistic or serving any purpose other that to make entertaining play. I'm really baffled by the idea that I'm engaging in murder porn of zero creative worth simply because I'm engaging with a game whose main interests revolve around battling in-human beings and taking their (?) property. Confusing Goblins with the figure of colonial Native strikes me as problematizing where the intent of the text is a much more innocent in this regard and is clear that the central conceit of the fantasy setting is that the white European native is no longer steward of the Earth and must face well-equipped and often hostile co-inhabitors of the landscape - Dwarves, Halflings, Elves, Goblins, Fairies, Ogres, etc. This is demonstrable in the "post-apocalyptic" or medieval-millenniumist mood: the D&D setting often assumes a once-great civilisation that has since fallen leaving only ruins and secrets (the historical reality being the High Days of Rome moving into the "Dark" Ages) that the PCs now explore. I see this as a historical period where the European human hubris has led to a new dark age and communities coming under threat by "barbarian" forces (monsters, magic - orcs and goblins typically) is a new and terrifying prospect. What I'm saying is that I'd circumvent the colonialist interpretation by not choosing to interpret the conflict between men and monsters as one of colonial contact and control by the white man but a model of equal rivials engaged in protracted feudal competition to a shared homeland. The idea of the Shire, Rivendell and Gondor as separate but equal communities drawn along "racial" lines (by species? The language is confusing here) that might be allies or enemies against one another is a good example of this. Obviously these conflicts aren't without consequence (any notion of having a continuous setting implies actions have consequences) but they simply aren't drawn up in a colonialist debate. In effect, the Goblins I meet in the dungeon aren't the native inhabitants who have a moral right to defend their home - they're combatants from an enemy nation participating with consent in a territorial dispute over this dungeon corridor. Of course even modern warfare is varied in tone and exchange, so the conversation could well be civilised and negotiations made if the monsters aren't in the mood for combat - but it's called diplomacy or parley for a reason. Usually I conduct my PCs in-line with the Geneva Convention (the good treatment of prisoners, avoiding cruel or inhuman weapons) and I feel some moral requirement has been met, like playing the Allies in a WW2 setting. Conflict and murder are essentially immoral but I feel I can stomach it if I'm playing at consenting soldier-mercenary (not conquistador) and the point of play is negotiating fictional conflicts. Genocide is a loaded word and I am loath to use it when talking about D&D.

    I do, however, love the motivation behind play being "how do I grasp fortune in this cruel world?" Even in my war-game conception of early D&D that strikes me as a good way to direct the game to a potentially less problematic place. Good work! :D Though the real moral debate isn't one surrounding colonialism but one about mercenary activity and proto-capitalist/feudalist greed.
  • I've liked the approach of treating goblins and such in modules as aboriginal tribes since I discovered it via Eero. I am thinking of using it in my new campaign.

    One concern I've had is how to introduce it to players who may have more Gygaxian expectations of D&D.

    On the one hand I don't want to have villagers worried about "goblins" in the hills, and the PCs then go and slaughter them without realizing that goblins in this context means something different than they are used to. Only later on they realize, "my god... we're monsters!". Well, no - the GM just set you up for guilt.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to have this whole OOC setup thing where I say, "Look this is how this world is," because it destroys some of the way in which the characters would think about the goblins coming from the cultural background of the main civilization. I kind of want to have the PCs having some racial bias that we can then explore.

    Basically, if we were starting from somewhere other than D&D, I'd just say, "The villagers tell of you of the nasty gremlin folk who live in the woods and swap their children for changelings" and I'd expect the players to not necessarily trust this info and go in at least expecting the possibility of more nuance.

    Whereas with the starting point of D&D, I'm worried the players will just assume that of course the expectation is genocide, and won't bother to explore their other choices as they'll assume that would be counter to the system's expectations.

    How did you handle this Eero? Other people?
  • I don't really want to ascribe any motivations to you, Mike. I couldn't possibly tell, I'm just musing up there based on prior discussions about these sorts of topics. It's something of a trend for the D&D setup to be justified by it merely being a game, and by the fact that the players want to kill things for loots, so you got to provide.

    Your specific take on avoiding the colonialist overtones is interesting as well. In many adventures it is somewhat possible to interpret it like the humanoid monsters are not defending their homes in the dungeon, that is true. I would still say that the majority situation is one where that interpretation is not really credible: goblins clearly don't have a complex civilization where they'd project force over great distances, and they often seem set up to stay, with hearths and families. Other humanoids (like hobgoblins, often represented as organized and civilized beings, sort of fantasy nazis) are more credible as organized polities competing for dungeon resources in a cold war situation, of course.

    I guess that in a setting like that monstrous humanoids don't necessarily need to be dealt with as victims. If you don't have the "inherently evil" aspect, then it's not like Greyhawk, either. Given those two points (monstrous humanoids are non-victimized, and are not inherently evil), then you do indeed have sort of a Great Game situation, with brave PC officers of his majesty's navy facing down the dastardly frogs over natural resources under contention. Of course that Greyhawk question does persist: why have them be non-human if you're just going to deal with them like human ethnicities. I suppose there are subtle aesthetic reasons, similar to why Star Trek has so many forehead alien types when they could just have an "ancient human diaspora".

    Regarding the intent of the D&D text itself, though, I think it's pretty clear that there is a stark dividing line between good races and evil ones in by the book D&D. You can live with elves and dwarves, and their mutual distrust is a great tragedy, while the best you can hope for with a goblin is a cease-fire while they plot how to stab you in the back. Surely this is not controversial, as regards the actual D&D mainstream.
  • How did you handle this Eero? Other people?
    By making it clear from the start that we do not have a game text here to rely on as an authoritative source. There simply isn't any book you can look in to cross-correlate it when a NPC uses the word "goblin". You have to ask the GM whether your character's supposed to know something about these goblins, or ask the NPCs, and that's just an ordinary process of discovery - if you end up killing everything and later regretting it, perhaps you should've done your groundwork a bit better. It's no different from my viewpoint than the PCs killing a "witch" before they found out that they're really a good witch.

    When I have players with a firm grounding in D&D I tend to open the first session with any such by simply telling them that this isn't your grand-daddy's D&D, and that it's no good to assume that anything works they way you're used to. This isn't generally a problem, as people for whom officialness is important have generally self-selected out of the player pool long before they end up at the table. "Contains excessive house ruling" is the normal warning label that you put on a campaign like this, seems to have been the standard when D&D was still being played in houseruled manner :D
  • edited April 2014
    I definitely do not recognize my game in your description of monsters-qua-monsters play, Eero.

    D&D creates a model of the medieval in which problems are solved by combat. Insults are solved with to-the-death combat, because that is what they do in heroic romances and the sagas and the fiction that is based on those things. You make deals with people and if they don't work you fight them. Sometimes this is in a tunnel in the ground and sometimes it is a ritual duel above the ground.

    This is not because of war, it is because that is how society works. You get to be a lord by getting enough treasure to be 9th level. It's a mistake to try to live in this fictional medieval by liberal ethics.

    I don't think my players could be described as making war on goblins any more than they make war on men, although they have certainly fought many of each.

    Yes of course post-greyhawk published worlds have a certain dynamic. But we are not beholden to Gygax's politics, which in my mind at least lines up pretty well with your description of a social-darwinist world, Eero. He was an American exceptionalist who ultimately demonstrated that he was actually a shitty businessman despite viewing collaborators as instrumental and discarding them to preserve his own power, and his play culture was also informed tremendously by American military culture.

    Why not just throw out the bits you don't like directly?

    ---

    To me, changing the nature of goblins doesn't solve Gygax's racism. What is described as "interesting" play involving colonial guilt etc. sounds overplayed to me, and perhaps just an attempt to feel smugly superior to the module authors without actually changing the problematic parts of their play-style. In the mean time, it also blocks the things that I am much more attracted to, and that I think D&D is well suited to: addressing the landscape as composed of beings which can be bargained with, tricked, or fought, but don't obey the rules of humanity because they are fundamentally different in nature.

    I get so sad when, outside of this game talk, I read people speculating that folkloric beings are based on, say, extinct Neanderthal people or early European tribes or something like that, this incredible yet profoundly unimaginative stretch that ignores the easily observable way that we like to assign personality to the forces of the world around us, and refuses to consider that people have lived with different ethics than we have now. We have been using an animist landscape to structure our lives and actually solve problems for much longer than we've had post-tolkein, post WWII, orcs on our minds.

    Part of what led me back to this game was reading a lot of theory and games criticism coming out of speculative realist philosophy / object-oriented ontology, that recognized games in general, but especially those coming out of D&D's tradition as being powerful in this way, and it connected pretty well with things I was thinking about real people's worldviews, especially some thinking about constructing Neopaganisms that I have a lot of exposure to. It's what I play the game for. Monsters cannot be human for me to address these ideas.
  • This is a great discussion. I'm really enjoying reading all the (slightly) different takes on this topic, and find myself nodding along with all of you: there are different subtle ways to look at issues of race and violence, and I think there's room for variation here.
    [...] addressing the landscape as composed of beings which can be bargained with, tricked, or fought, but don't obey the rules of humanity because they are fundamentally different in nature.
    This resonates with me, and I see that feature in Eero's playstyle, as well. (Kind of makes me wish we could encounter some "goblins" in the IRC game, just to see how Eero presents them in "real time"!)
    I'd just say, "The villagers tell of you of the nasty gremlin folk who live in the woods and swap their children for changelings" and I'd expect the players to not necessarily trust this info and go in at least expecting the possibility of more nuance.
    This would be sufficient for me as a player (along with a frank discussion that this isn't some kind of generic vanilla "by the book" D&D). More than sufficient: it tells me everything I need to know and, combined with intelligent GM-description when actually encountering said goblins, leads me naturally to play where I'm questioning what I'm seeing and reacting to it without assumptions. (I've found that minor aesthetic changes are enough here; for instance, if the "goblins" in your game are presented as having light orange fur covering their lower body, that's enough to let me know that these aren't "generic D&D goblins" but rather unique creatures I need to assess and deal with without a priori assumptions.)

    I can't speak for everyone, of course, but to me that's plenty clear.


    Eero,

    Your approach to handling the weirdness of D&D-tropes for adventure in a semi-realistic setting makes sense now; there's a certain level of ironic enjoyment, I think, in throwing together the "real" and the bizarre D&D-stuff and seeing what comes out, and that's quite appealing.

    But what about the necessity of providing enough adventure hooks for the game to remain interesting? How close together do you place your "adventures"? Do you try to space them out "believably", or do we just assume that the characters happen to be in a weird place in the world where, by some chance, there are two haunted castles and three underground tombs infested with monsters all within 25 miles of each other? Do you spend any effort rationalizing this kind of thing, and how it has come to be?

    I also like Mike's approach of handling "danger" (e.g. encounter tables) as a feature of the unexplored: I think it's pretty key, at least for me, to present dangerous and potentially rewarding territory as being a place no one's really delved into before. I'd find it pretty unbelievable, for example, to find the entrance to a massive dungeon full of monsters and treasure next to a major city, without some explanation for why there aren't armed guards standing at the doors and why it hasn't been pillaged, buried, and turned into a prison already. I suppose something along the lines of these places only appearing recently ("a doorway to another world...") could be sufficient, with the characters forming the vanguard of human exploration.

    Do you have conceits such as these if and when "adventure potential" crops up in civilized areas? After all, a plague outbreak of zombies could take place in Renaissance Italy, but after the initial event it's not terribly believable to have a group of four middle class nobody heroes dealing with it instead of a regiment of the local military.

  • But what about the necessity of providing enough adventure hooks for the game to remain interesting? How close together do you place your "adventures"? Do you try to space them out "believably", or do we just assume that the characters happen to be in a weird place in the world where, by some chance, there are two haunted castles and three underground tombs infested with monsters all within 25 miles of each other? Do you spend any effort rationalizing this kind of thing, and how it has come to be?
    You ask many of the same questions that I would have asked before trying to this out. As with some of the earlier aspects we've covered, this is also a thing that works surprisingly effortlessly in actual play. I'll try to explain why this seems to be the case, although in practice I just tried it out and found it less problematic than we would assume from an armchair perspective.

    Obviously we're applying a healthy amount of PC exceptionalism in that they have the wonderful ability to stumble upon the most interesting things going on in each environment by the virtue of them being our actual playing pieces, and it wouldn't be much of a game if the PCs never found anything interesting. It's not an absolute and automatic guarantee of adventure, but practically the threshold for finding stuff is very low. No different from how Sherlock Holmes regularly gets interesting cases to work on, because otherwise there'd be nothing to tell.

    In practice we find that the world is a big place, and it is almost impossible to include so much weirdness that you'd smother the ordinary setting in it. For example, consider the traditional sandbox campaign starter set: a local market town (like thousand denizens total), and three adventure locations in reasonable distance. Reasonable for 1st level characters is basically like under 2 days of travel to one direction. This means that you need to set your three starter adventures within a circle with a diameter of under say a 100 miles, if we assume that the local terrain is basically fit for travel. That's 8,000 square miles. For comparison's sake, that's half the area of the country of the Netherlands; it includes an arbitrary number of small villages, a dozen of such market towns, and multiple large cities, when speaking of a highly urbanized country like that. Alternatively, we can be in a more sparsely populated area, in which case there's more room for the unknown in those dark recesses of the woods where nobody ever goes.

    Specifically, a student of folklore might tell you that typical folk legends, what might be termed "local supernatural stories", have a range of like 30 miles or so in most rural environments. Get any farther than that, and the tales might still basically be the same, but they'll be attached to different local landmarks, simply because the people don't just move that far in their ordinary lives. When we replace all this folk legendarium with the presumption that some of these stories are actually true, we get a sense for how much weirdness it is appropriate to have in an area. I would like to claim, based on experience, that credibility is hardly stretched if a colorful village that the players like, with a few recurring NPCs, also has say 1d6 weird local legends, of which about half are shared with other local villages, and of which about half are "true" in the sense that there is an adventure hook associated with them. So this calculation tells us that we can easily have at least one strange adventure per village - and pre-modern farming villages are spaced out with like 10-20 miles between them at most. And that's just the ordinary "white noise" of adventurers traipsing around the countryside, it doesn't take into account the fact that you want to have local curiousities that break the patterns. So in addition to that spooky story the locals tell about a headless horseman that robs people and hides their gold in a bog, that same area might well have adventures the local farmers know nothing about.

    Alternatively, you can throw usual patterns to the winds and accept that in your campaign PCs actually travel more should I say pulp adventure distances in between adventures. Forget having three adventure locations within a 100 mile circle; rather, give the players a map of say the entire country of France, and make them Richelieu's secret witch hunters. At that point you'll have to literally throw hundreds and thousands of adventure hooks at them before the number starts to look screwy. Sure, they might have to travel a few weeks from place to place, as one week they're in Rouen looking after some werewolf rumours, and the next they're in Paris after the ghouls (which we all know live under the city). That's obviously just an arbitrary example of a historical adventure campaign pattern where it doesn't matter that adventures are hundreds of miles apart - just don't mess with unrealistic travel complications, and perhaps let the players abstract "strategic travel" to speed things up, and there's no reason why things can't be spaced out more than you'd usually see in a D&D sandbox.

    In practice I found that I could have like 20 different adventures in a geographical area about the size of the Netherlands, and that didn't start feeling like the weirdness would have broken up the normalcy. Of course the players developed a healthy respect for the wild places, but as there was no clear pattern to the excursions from normalcy, it never became a reason for the PCs to outright discard their worldview or anything like that. It would definitely be different if all 20 of those adventures were about say an Andromedan invasion of the country, then that amount of aberration would definitely have to cause societal reactions. However, as the adventures were mostly about forgotten old ruins, crazy wizards, dangerous animals/monsters, degenerate cults, domestic terrorism... all those are already things that history has in plenty, the fact that the PCs actually believe in werewolves existing (because they're the people who actually go out and encounter them) makes no difference whatsoever to the average burgher.

    Also, of course not all adventures are about supernatural weirdness. When the adventure is about some robbers having broken into a family tomb, that shouldn't go on any player's "let's bust the GM for unrealism" list - that's the sort of thing that you'd expect to happen in a non-fantastic world as well.

    I can imagine the situation where you have too much weirdness all in one place. Being brazen will basically let that pass - remember, we're deducing things about the nature of the setting on the basis of established facts, rather than trying to find reasons for why the established facts can't be true. Also, you can always find actual connections between strange adventures, which will explain the weirdness peak in a local area - basically the Hellmouth explanation :D

    In our campaign one such joint explanation phenomenon was the ancient civilization of Duvan'Ku: the local environs of fantasy-Holland included several adventures involving ancient ruins and crazy wizards. It was natural enough to find subtle connections between these - like, find out that the necromancer is a Duvan'Ku cultist relying on the same magical tools that you found earlier in that old ruin. This kind of strategic development doesn't only deepen the sandbox and make room for higher level adventures (such as one where the PCs travel back in time to confront the evil empire in its own time), but it also helps with the credence issue: five supernatural adventures near the same town, all in a world that is supposedly relatively normal, might look strange otherwise, but when we find out that all five are actually connected, it's no longer that strange - it's really just one anomaly at that point, and the rest of the superficially separate events are causally explained by the root cause.
  • Good stuff, Eero. I think a large part of this whole process, as I'm looking at it, has to do with actually playing the thing and letting it evolve. As the game develops one step at a time, new creative input can set a larger context for what has come up so far. For instance, I would imagine that, in a game like ours, it could happen that by pure chance a small area would generate an unusual number of rather significant random encounters (like our "black beast" in the woods). If so, I would be tempted to reduce the number of other adventure hooks, and develop adventures based on those random encounters instead. Perhaps the "black beast" would become its own adventure, or I'd find a way to hook it into another adventure (the monster happens to live in the Tower of Love, say).

    To change tack entirely, I want to ask you again about hit points. I know that in your vision of D&D, hit points represent a Hollywood-esque plot protection to dramatically significant characters. You've mentioned that you allow certain exceptional attack rolls to "bypass" hit points. How does this work? Does the target automatically die (barring a Death save, I believe, at least for PCs)?

    What other circumstances allow damage to "bypass" hit points?
  • Yes, a character who is hit and does not have hitpoint protection dies, barring ordinary or extraordinary processes otherwise. It's handled in the same exact manner whether the hitpoints are bypassed or exhausted: if we're doing death saves or whatever for characters at zero HP, then that's what you get when the HPs are bypassed, as well.

    (A minor feature of this kind of thinking is that I much prefer having characters at zero HP to still be fighting-fit; in other words, the sudden deathstrike occurs when you can't pay in hitpoints, not when your hitpoint store is exhausted. This is a minuscule difference math-wise - although nearly significant at 1st level - but it just makes more sense to me. For example, it allows me to just say that non-leveled commoners have no hitpoints at all. Were I writing 4th edition with its ample 1 HP mook enemies, this would have been my semantic choice there as well.)

    Situations where an attack bypasses hitpoints range from the traditional (poison being probably the most common) to the innovative. In our home game it is the case that a 5th degree success on an attack roll (20 points over opponent defense value) bypasses hitpoints, striking home as if the opponent's HP were exhausted. It's sort of a critical hit, really, ensuring that all combat carries risks that are unmanageable to a degree.

    My general philosophy, though, is that hitpoints should provide generally effective tactical safety to characters - I do not desire to go so far with "bypass" effects as to cause hitpoints to seriously depreciate in value as the ultimate dramatic defense. In practice this means that if anything, I'm more prone to moving bypass effects into hitpoint-affecting effects than to invent new ways to bypass HP. For example, I'm quite fond of the 4th edition conceit that spells like say Hold Person only work on targets under a certain hitpoint limit, or they just cause HP damage that might or might not be enough to take you out of a fight. It is indisputable that the maths of the game work out better when certain types of attacks don't arbitrarily bypass hitpoints, but rather that you always have a good, intentional reason for when it happens. I haven't so far instituted these sorts of limitations on the various save or die spells, but that's mostly just because our play is so low-level that this hasn't been much of an issue.

    (It would be very easy to copy the mechanism of the Power Word spells and institute a HP limit instead of or in addition to the saving throw in all spells and special attacks and so on that ordinarily bypass hitpoints. For example, Hold Person could say that it works if the opponent fails a save and they are currently at under 5*[caster level} HP. That'll still work on practically anything, but you might have to exhaust some targets a bit before they're properly softened up for magical bondage. Sounds preferable when the alternate option is to have a 10th level fighter be essentially powerless against a 1st level magic-user - and yes, I am aware of all the calculations, I know it comes down to initiative. Still.)

    Aside from having critical hits bypass hitpoints (which I think is a good idea, combat should have some uncontrollable risk), two other conditions that have at least some arguments in favour are called shots and surprise attacks. As with the magical special attacks issue discussed above, it is always a good question to ask how far the plot protection provided by hitpoints carries you. Clearly it suffices almost always to help you get out of the way of a lethal sword-swing in a duel, but does your hitpoint "plot armour" make it so that you awaken at the last second to an assassin's knife in the deep of the night, and thus only take HP damage instead of dying, despite having been surprised in your sleep? Perhaps this is necessary, even if it means that a PC never gets to be the cool sniper who takes out the evil warlord from the rooftop with a crossbow. (Assuming the warlord isn't a non-leveled character, anyway.) Either way it goes, I think that it's fruitful to consider this in terms of desirability of plot protection in different situations, rather than as a question of physical robustness or whatever it is that the traditional D&D rabbit hole leads you to.

    For what it's worth, my take has generally been that the hitpoint "protection" generally presumes being generally aware of your environment and capable of free movement, and thus I have generally allowed attacks to bypass hitpoints in extremely clear fictional conditions where this has not been the case. If I were really pressed on the matter as a matter of firm systematic ruling, I suspect that I'd end up like fractionalizing hitpoints or something - you lose half your hitpoints (or take double damage, maybe) if you can't move out of the way of a danger, stuff like that. Not elegant to my mind, especially as I already perform similar armor class calculations. Certainly a difficult question when you look at it from up close - in what conditions should hitpoints be ignored as a defense.
  • Thanks, Eero! You're quite correct that it's not an obvious question, but a fun one to grapple with. As you can see for yourself from my various hacks, I also like the idea that 0 HP does not say anything about a character's physical health, but rather just a... lack of hit points.

    As a point of curiosity, does that mean that you've removed Constitution bonuses from hit points, as well? (It's hard to argue that Constitution has anything to do with plot immunity, after all, unless we posit that a character's "constitution" is, retroactively, a measure of their increased plot immunity, such that someone appears more sturdy because that's precisely what our story requires.)

    My own solution when I played D&D was similar to yours in terms of critical hits:

    I remember that back in my AD&D2E days (the only kind of D&D I really played for any significant length of time), there were some really intense and colourful "critical hit tables", with lots of unpleasant outcomes like broken legs and memory loss and whatever.

    The idea I came up with was that when attacks seemed to have a chance to bypass cool badass hero stuff counted as critical hits and warranted one or more rolls on those tables. The hypothetical knife stab in the middle of the night wouldn't kill you, it would just do the usual amount of hit point damage. However, it would have other effects, maybe leaving you bleeding heavily or unable to hear out of one ear or something (kind of like your "death crosses", in retrospect).

    Hit points, then, represent not so much your ability to dodge injury but your ability to avoid death even in unlikely circumstances. (Falling from a great height similarly caused multiple rolls on the critical hit tables, if it was from high enough.)
  • (Also, does this mean that non-lethal damage which bypasses hit points is handled purely in-fiction/by fiat? For instance, cutting off someone's finger or performing surgery on them.)
  • Yeah, I don't have Con bonuses to hit points - I don't even have a Constitution score. It's one of those too passive armchair general things that I guess sort of makes sense in a theoretical way, but does not actually account for tactical success or failure in the source material, and is therefore unnecessary. For the things where Constitution matters I find that a more general Stamina score, encompassing both Strength and Constitution, serves just as well. Or if not that, then a Feat that gives you a hefty bonus for general health. You might be surprised how few players actually care about having "I'm a healthy specimen" as part of their character concept when they actually have to pick it instead of just getting it randomly with a high Con score :D

    Surgery would typically be cause for a saving throw rather than hitpoint damage - it bypasses hitpoints, not being an action movie hazard. I try to be logical about hitpoints not being a measure of physical robustness. The whole point of differentiating at all between action hazard survivability and general survivability is to maintain the sense that the characters are still strictly speaking human, with human limitations, and it's not a superpower that's keeping them standing where lesser men fall - not a superpower, but rather a combination of luck, fate and such immeasurables. Characters themselves don't know that they have hitpoints, and they can't test for their existence by knifing themselves and seeing if they bleed - they do.

    It would certainly be entirely modern to have hitpoints be an absolute measure of survival - a formalistic rule that says you can't be out of the game as long as you have hitpoints, no matter what. Like, you fall off a ship in a storm, the GM assigns 1d6 hp attrition per hex to closest shore and if you can pay that, you have subjective guarantee of washing up on land later on. (This would be entirely in line with the case of falling out of the window of a tower, well established as something that is primarily resolved by hitpoint damage.) This would be a very "Forgite" way of thinking about hitpoints, just throw out all the vagueness about when a high-level character is vulnerable and when they aren't. You got the points, you have a subjective right to survival.

    Would have to mess with the hp recovery rules somewhat with such a change, of course. My current rules in that regard are predicated on hitpoints being primarily an issue of "action scene" arcs, where characters regain most of their hp in between individual crisis situations. This makes less sense in a mechanical environment where you might e.g. try to reduce somebody's hitpoints to zero by debating them or something, so that they could be removed from the game, TSoY-like.
  • My feeling is that the specific Attributes are probably the first thing you could ditch when evaluating the rules and still be safely in D&D territory. In fact, I'm struggling to remember the last time I used attributes outside of determining roll adjustments in character generation in OSR play. "Save Vs..." is much more important to me as a DM and I'd probably have to eye to expand on those. "Save Vs Getting Lost" or something...
  • Yes, removing all attributes would be entirely feasible - in the oldest forms of the game they're pretty clearly a sort of a stop-gap overlay measure on top of the central mechanics such as combat, exploration turn actions and saving throws. Sort of a sop thrown to players to appease their desire for characterization. Historically they developed into a central importance, but one could go in different directions as well for a quite interesting set-up; we often discuss the relative benefits of having attributes be more or less important.

    Personally I favour either using a different attribute set (the classic D&D set gets a bit long in the tooth for me, is the simple way to express it) and building an universal resolution mechanic on top of it like Tunnels & Trolls, or removing attributes altogether. I find the classic formula of having attributes but only using the kinda-sorta now and then to be pretty inefficient; players use them for roleplaying characterization, they pay a lot of attention to them, and it's all basically deceptive, as in reality the attributes don't amount to that much. It's sort of like giving the players a plush toy to hug while you send them into dark woods; might make them feel better, but does nothing for their understanding of the actual game mechanics.

    As we've seen in the IRC play, I have a strong instinctive tendency for utilizing attribute-related mechanics heavily even in Basic D&D. Attribute checks, and adding the attribute modifier to all sorts of other situations. Illustrates how I work instinctually right now when thrust into driving the Moldvay vehicle, but perhaps not that indicative of what I get up to when I cook up mechanical solutions from the ground up.

    Three interesting philosophical approaches to the role of the base attribute array in D&D that I've considered:

    1) Universal resolution with degrees of success built on top of a flexible attribute array, made into the central pivot upon which lesser character elements (e.g. class and level) turn. Modern approach, excepting the lack of a skill overlay. This is what our big campaign utilized. Note that the attribute array does not have to be static, nor does it have to prevent exact character spec where desired; for example, I had rules procedure for deriving or subsuming individual attributes should we decide to get rid of Will (the attribute that I mostly considered dropping) or reinstitute Agility (which was also considered in my one-physical-attribute scheme). The attribute scheme also technically speaking recognized "specialized modifiers" - some few characters had scores like "Stamina 14, +2 Strength" to indicate their capabilities more clearly.

    2) Remove the attributes entirely, and replace them with personal qualities. Two 1st level Fighters would be mechanically identical by definition, with the only exception being if one or the other would happen to have some personal qualities that would distinguish them. Feat-like things, such as "Waste-born: +2 to survival checks". I've been considering running something like this for a few years, could be interesting; I would likely have the players roll up personal qualities for their characters in a sort of Traveller-esque life tree chargen process.

    (Note that even in the most attribute-excising version of the rules that I consider seriously I don't actually remove all personal differentiation between characters; I find both the random element and the personalized element very important to D&D character development dynamics, it simply wouldn't be the same if two 1st level Fighters were genuinely exactly identical all the time.)

    3) Keep attributes, but rework the procedures so that they're genuinely never used in resolution procedures, and therefore attribute modifiers are also never needed; instead, attributes act as funnels and abstractions of downtime activities, and as characterization aids in roleplaying. Appropriate uses in this strategy would be as limitations upon class entry (to be a Fighter you got to have minimum 12 Strength, for example), as cause for bonus experience points, as feat requirements, and limitations upon logistical maneuvers (Cha limit on how many retainers you may maintain, for example). For actual tactical play, though, attributes would be set aside and you'd play strictly upon the mechanical landscape that may or may not include some stuff derived from the attributes earlier. Want your great Strength to matter in combat, get a weapon or combat technique or something that leverages it in concrete terms, rather than just adding your Str modifier to attack automatically. In this strategy attributes determine who you are in general and vague terms, yet do not directly affect moment-to-moment resolution procedures at all; a subtle difference, and one that might well inspire some quite powerful mechanical innovations if strictly implemented.

    To clarify, the point of listing the above alternative models is that I personally find them interesting, elegant or beautiful as mechanical design directions - not saying that there's anything wrong with the sort of mixed-qualities system that by the book D&D uses, except that I find it somewhat confusing and unruly in play; a system that flows more logically from first principles is easier for me to use and appreciate, as there's less arbitrary choice between entirely different yet overlapping game mechanics to consider.
  • edited April 2014
    OED has this on the etymology.
    Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Middle French monstre, moustre, French monstre (mid 12th cent. in Old French as mostre in sense ‘prodigy, marvel’, first half of the 13th cent. in senses ‘disfigured person’ and ‘misshapen being’, c1223 in extended sense applied to a pagan, first half of the 18th cent. by antiphrasis denoting an extraordinarily attractive thing) < classical Latin mōnstrum portent, prodigy, monstrous creature, wicked person, monstrous act, atrocity < the base of monēre to warn (see moneo n.; for the formation compare perhaps lūstrum lustrum n.). Compare Italian mostro, †monstro (1282), Spanish †mostro (c1250; compare Spanish monstruo ( < a post-classical Latin variant of classical Latin mōnstrum)), Portuguese monstro (1525 as mõstro).
    And the definition.
    a. Originally: a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening.
  • edited April 2014
    I think our application of Monster has a certain technical quality in this conversation that sits outside of strict OED definitions. Although I might be wrong. Crunch, how do OED and OD&D converse here?
  • Eero,

    My own thinking about D&D and attributes is along the same lines; I think it's worth embracing them full-scale (rather than entities which may or may not modify other important rules) or discarding them as important agents in gameplay.

    Oddly enough, the OD&D text (I was just reading about it yesterday) matches your #3 almost exactly.
  • Hit Point questions under this philosophy (for Paul, Eero et al). I really like the principle but the more I think about it the more things come up.

    What does Healing mean in this context?

    Also, I get what it feels like to have HP whittled down in a single fight causing impending tension - I haven't been stabbed yet but it's clear that this enemy is closing in for a killing blow. But what about when you lose a few HP in one battle, a few in another, and you're on one or zero hit points, but it's been ages since you were under threat, and now a goblin turns up? Mechanically we know that death is on the table, but fictionally, how do we make that tally? Or is this a case of dramatic irony at work, where we know that the character, somehow is marked for death, but they might not?

    - similarly, how about traps? Would you tend to use a saving throw? Or do projectiles always miss you unless they kill you?

    Apologies if you've already gone over some of this!
  • Ah, you're taken (3) have you, Paul? I'll take (2) then!


    2) Remove the attributes entirely, and replace them with personal qualities. Two 1st level Fighters would be mechanically identical by definition, with the only exception being if one or the other would happen to have some personal qualities that would distinguish them. Feat-like things, such as "Waste-born: +2 to survival checks". I've been considering running something like this for a few years, could be interesting; I would likely have the players roll up personal qualities for their characters in a sort of Traveller-esque life tree chargen process.
    I was weaned on WFRP and have been in love with its engaging character generation from the get go. Having gotten to know D&D a little more intimately it strikes me that 1st Level characters (and 1st Level play) would benefit with the understanding that these characters aren't much separated from normal folk. You just simply aren't that heroic at 1st Level (even if you are called Magic User!) and maybe more prosaic concerns like occupation and immediate possessions should be more of a concern? Would you consider writing up your own tables for this, or would you use WFRP's or DCC's?

    If not (2) then (3). I reeeeally like the sound of three.

  • I think our application of Monster has a certain technical quality in this conversation that sits outside of strict OED definitions. Although I might be wrong. Crunch, how do OED and OD&D converse here?
    I was posting it in response to asif here.
    "what does monster mean?"
    Literally: An entity which is considered unnatural by humans, by virtue of its being: (a) wicked or cruel (to humans), (b) ugly, grotesque or deviant in appearance from the norm (as judged by humans), (c) of unusually great size, or some combination thereof.

    The dictionary definitions of this word are not only humanocentric (obviously), but some are psycho-social as well (as evidenced by the fact that a human psychopath can rightly be called a "monster"). So we really must say "by normal humans" (whatever "normal" means). Certainly this leaves in a species-ist element, whereby any species considered "ugly" or "wicked" (by normal humans) could rightfully be called a "monster" (by those normal humans).

    (Despite this, it seems that literally speaking, a giant could be called a monster even if it was handsome and friendly.)

    Etymology: from the Middle English monstre < Latin mōnstrum -- portent, unnatural event, monster, equivalent to mon ( ēre ) [to warn] + -strum [noun suffix]

    The etymology suggests that a monster is simply "something warned about".
    I think the OED definition is interesting for a couple of reasons actually. While I understand that OSD&D has it's own language, there is a lot of connotation that it draws in use from the broader language. The OED definition is limited in interesting ways that I think inform the way we use the term in practice.

    If it's unuseful I apologize.
  • edited April 2014
    What does Healing mean in this context?
    Depends on the healing. We generally tend to speak of "healing" spells, but it's understood to be strictly a technical term, and what actually occurs when hitpoints are recovered is ordinary post-combat recovery: you get your stamina back, you deal with the psychological issues, you get your courage back, the audience gets used to you having survived, whatever. This is in a context where the majority of hitpoint recovery happens through a "short rest" that takes a Turn and gets you most of your hitpoints back, most of the time.

    This is separate from actual fictional healing, which can be natural, medical or magical in nature. That type generally speaking doesn't have direct hitpoint meaning, but you'd generally get much of your hitpoints back as a side effect when hit by a magic that restores your broken bones or whatever.
    Also, I get what it feels like to have HP whittled down in a single fight causing impending tension - I haven't been stabbed yet but it's clear that this enemy is closing in for a killing blow. But what about when you lose a few HP in one battle, a few in another, and you're on one or zero hit points, but it's been ages since you were under threat, and now a goblin turns up? Mechanically we know that death is on the table, but fictionally, how do we make that tally? Or is this a case of dramatic irony at work, where we know that the character, somehow is marked for death, but they might not?
    I personally deal with it by the fact that your hitpoint total sort of aligns with how tired you are; you can always get much of your hitpoints back by a short rest if you just have a couple of minutes to catch your breath. This slowly stops working through the day (you get less and less back with each short rest), but generally speaking we rarely face a situation where a character is extremely low in hitpoints unless it is also a situation where the character is exhausted, either because they just came out of a fight (with no chance to rest in between), or because they've been fighting (and taking short rests) for the entire day, and therefore simply can't get up to their normal hitpoints anymore today.

    All this means that for our particular mechanization your scenario is unproblematic: it makes perfect sense that a dead-tired character forced into a swordfight will soon be dead as well as tired.

    Other specific mechanizations have their own problems with hitpoints, but I find that for me personally aligning hitpoints fictionally with concepts like tiredness and stamina works quite well. Of course you'll make that lethal mistake when you're at your most tired. And of course you can recover most of your strength between combats if you'll only get to catch your breath. I would hazard that most people would find this concept of "hitpoints are stamina" to be a blindingly natural thing in comparison to the standard, if they tried it out a bit. It is always a small mystery as to what the traditional hitpoint is even supposed to be measuring, considering that it doesn't impact your combat effectiveness until you run out, but it also apparently only comes back after days and days of complete rest. I know that the traditional explanation is "bruises and scratches", but those of course don't accumulate into a killing blow the way hitpoint loss does - not without the fatigue element. My closest guess is PTSD, really - I could see myself modeling that with mechanics sort of close to how the traditional hitpoint works, in that you pile on stress until you become non-functional, and it can only be managed by extended and regular breaks away from combat :D

    (Ultimately hitpoints are of course an abstract pacing mechanic. I'm just engaging into fictional explanations because the question was how we end up explaining these things in play. The important procedural point for me is that this fabulation is something we do because we feel like it in play - there's no dogmatic reason to have a single truth available about hitpoints. Some mechanizations just make explaining things easier and more natural, while with others you just have to ignore how it works for the most part.)

    Ultimately dramatic irony is, of course, not a problem. It is inherently present if you play D&D combat mechanics "realistically", so that the characters themselves don't know that they have hitpoints. Two men go over the trench wall, but we the players know that only one of them is in danger of dying of the 1d6 damage immediately inflicted by enemy machine gun fire; one is an ordinary soldier, while the other is a 3rd level fighter, you see. This is why D&D is a heroic game at higher levels, once you drag yourself up to that level: after having experienced the deadliness of it in your guts, you get to enjoy having plot armor. Our local group up north used to call this psychological experience "coasting" - it is quite relaxing to be the fighter with like 15 hitpoints in a world where everybody else has about 5; you can get into the middle of melee and even come back when hit, all without being in serious danger of dying by accident.
    - similarly, how about traps? Would you tend to use a saving throw? Or do projectiles always miss you unless they kill you?
    Depends on the nature of the trap. As I discussed above, I have a theoretical leaning towards bringing more things into hitpoints, but in practice I follow the module text when running modules. After having done a few weeks of gameplay in whatever mechanical context I'll also use those conceits when GMing myself.

    Having a fall into a pit cause hitpoint damage does not seem any more problematic to me whether I interpret hitpoints as drama protection, or as physical well-being. In both cases I have to basically just check whether hitpoints ran out, and if they didn't, then apparently that fall wasn't so bad after all. Of course the fall marked this guy for death later, sort of - now he'll fall to the next swordblow, where before that fall he would've survived one. Here the drama shield explanation actually fares better than the physical welfare explanation: there's no earthly reason why a fall that at most scratched a knee would make you markedly more likely to die in the following swordfight, while the dramatic conceit that you deserve to die now for dodging death earlier makes just as much sense as the whole concept of dramatic protection does in the first place.

    Incidentally, the theory of dramatic protection fits well this idea that regularly comes up, where players know their HD, but not their HP. If it wasn't a pain in the ass to apply, I'd probably use it myself. Quite sensible for the players to have some vague sense of how much their character can get away with, but no exact knowledge. Of course the randomized damage already gets us about half of the effect, without having to centralize and blind the book-keeping.
  • I'm with Eero on this one.

    The whole concept of "healing" for hit points has never made sense to begin with - it doesn't represent anything we can point to sensibly as representative of some aspect of fiction, with the possible exception of pure mass (which sometimes appears to be the case with monsters, but not generally with chararacters). If hit points are actual, physical damage, then high-level characters should have healing scaled to their hit point total. If hit point are stamina and luck that kind of thing, then we don't know why having dodged a blow from a poisoned bastard sword would take longer to "heal" from than dodging a thrown javelin, and so on.

    Eero's concept of PTSD is perhaps the only reasonably sensible one I've seen which holds up under most scrutiny, and explains how, for example, a "Cure Light Wounds" spell (which obviously does nothing of the sort*) consistently heals 1d8 hit points no matter who it's applied to.

    Ultimately, I've come to the conclusion that dealing with hit points as anything other than some kind of meta-measurement of something well outside the scope of the fiction (such as "plot immunity") is a losing proposition.


    *: After all, this spell does little good to a high-level character who's just narrowly avoided death for the tenth time, but easily brings back to full health someone inexperienced, even if they had their guts torn out and were on the verge of death.
  • With that kind of approach, Eero, do more minor wounds get much of a chance to be involved in the fictional positioning? I can see that serious wounds that would leave you out of the action are modelled well by your critical hits system.

    But what about more minor ones? They seem like a flavourful and interesting challenge element - wounds to the foot making you limp, partially blinded by blood running past your eye, sprained wrist meaning you have to fight with your off-hand. These are in contrast to the HP, "You're fine until you're out of the action" setup. Are these just not an area of focus in the games you've played in so far, and so you haven't encumbered yourself with additional rules and book-keeping to deal with them? Do you have any thoughts about how you might incorporate them and do you think it would significantly alter D&D to do so?
  • Wounds that have tactical effect like that are generally speaking lumped in with actually life-threatening injuries. That is, characters are generally not expected to suffer any as long as they have their hitpoints. This is, after all, D&D, with its basic presumption that we do not generally desire to track deterioration of combat condition. When D&D talks of "minor" wounds, it generally speaking means cinematic injuries that look like you've been in a fight but do not actually affect your capabilities mechanically.

    The way our home system deals with tactical damage (that is, injuries that have mechanical effect but do not outright take you out of the fight) is basically like so: when you're out of hitpoints or suffer a critical hit for some other reason, you make a save to see if the hit is actually critical, or merely significant. Failure indicates that you're out of the fight, while success indicates that you're still capable of combat, although with a possible minor issue such as the ones you mention. This basically means that most characters are out of a fight after the first real hit (as befits realism), but some particularly vigorous or desperate individuals might refuse to go down, and they might thus take a few more hits before their accumulated injuries force them to fail organically.

    Another way for such tactical damage to occur in the home system is via the stunts system - when an attack roll is exceptionally good (measured by passing the opponent AC by a multiple of five points), the player may "stunt" to expend these "extra successes" for various effects. One typical thing, provided that the nature of combat and armament allows, is for a player to describe a minor injury that causes some penalty to the opponent. Blinding them with dirt or their own blood is a typical example - 1 degree for momentary blindness (one round, basically), 2 degrees for a thorough mess (taking an entire round to clear, or preferably a break in the action).

    So I'd say that our home system does account for minor tactical injuries of the like you mention, it's just that they're not mixed in with the hitpoints issue at all - they're either imposed by the opponent (not necessarily intentionally; stunting doesn't need to imply that the attacker tried to cause that exact thing to occur) or happen as a less serious alternative from critical hits.

    It is technically speaking possible to "bypass the HP" as we say in this system by accumulating fictional positioning that leaves the opponent practically incapable of fighting, despite still having plenty of hitpoints. As I've discussed above, I'm of a mixed mind about this; it makes sense, and is allowed by the logic of the combat system, but it also breaks the currency system of the game. Basically the problem is that if you allow a character with massive amounts of hitpoints to be brought down by blinding, spraining, wrestling, tying, followed by a coup de grace on a helpless opponent, then that becomes the favoured method of dealing with any opponent with an amount of hitpoints clearly dominant over your own capability to deal hitpoint damage. This is ultimately the same question as the one dealt with earlier: what do you do when a character is attacked unawares, in a non-combat situation, perhaps when they've been tied down? Save vs. death, automatic death, or merely reduce hitpoints and see what happens next? Should hitpoints imply subjective survival rights, such that you can't slay an opponent who surrenders before they run out of hitpoints?
  • The nuance of what happened if you passed a save vs critical hit roll was what I was missing from my picture of your system. So even if you pass there may still be minor injuries - nice! That's a good way of avoiding unnecessary complexity. The stunting is also interesting. Thanks for the answer.
  • I don't recall if that has been talked about yet: what is the reason for having 1:1 characters to players in play at a time? Or, am I merely intuiting that that's a thing due to Greysands procedures when really it isn't?
  • Because it's a logistical nightmare over IRC. Constraints of the medium and all that.
  • Main reason for each player having one character is that it's a reasonable, flavourful basis for starting scenario development. By "flavourful" I mean that the conceit of playing the role of a single protagonist is aesthetically amusing; by "reasonable" I mean that we can't have all variables be in the air all of the time. Specifically, we would never get into actually playable scenarios if we were constantly questioning every possible basic thing about the negotiables: how powerful characters, how many of them, what kind of setting, why are we acting, and so on. Most of the time we rely on cornerstones: cruel and merciless world, this same setting we had last time, how are we going to make our fortune, one foot-loose adventurer per player, start at 1st level, intriguing and mysterious adventure hooks.

    Technically speaking any of those basic assumptions can be questioned, but again, the aesthetically pleasing way to do that is the conceit of negotiation-via-play: instead of you the player arguing with me the GM about whether you should take three or four characters into the adventure, we can have your character go to the Mercenary Market to see if he can hire some colorful characters to help him. This is the same thing regardless of that in-character color - we're negotiating how many adventurers I'm willing to have try my adventure - but we're dressing it up in fiction to get arbitrary constraint ("Oh, seems like your Cha check failed, so I have the advantage in this negotiation.") and to develop the narrative that legitimizes the triumph or loss that comes later. It is more fun to say that your character tried and failed to attract talent into his risky exploit than to say that you threw the coin with Bob the GM and then he refused to let you have more than two characters for your army.

    As for why I generally prefer one PC + a bunch of retainers over e.g. 3 PCs, it's simply because the former provides sharper tactical narratives that are more true to life: one player playing three PCs uses their characters as pawns and does not have a firm character viewpoint to the action, while the same player with one PC will have to suffer the limits of individual, mortal viewpoint: their character doesn't know everything that's going on all at once, the retainers might disagree with him or even mutiny, his commands might be misunderstood in the heat of battle, and so on. The difference is subtle and to a degree semantic, but it has real impact on the style of play.

    And of course, the reason for why we don't change the ratio of characters to players in the middle of a scenario is to prevent gaming the scenario: you can't bring more tactical resources into play by rolling up more characters in the middle of the expedition. This conceit is only relaxed for the even more important principle that "everybody gets to play": you don't have a character, you get to roll a new one and we'll introduce him into the scenario.

    All of the above matters more than the IRC medium to me; the reason why I clearly prefer one character to a player when I'm running the game is that I want the players to each have a clear and limited character viewpoint (as opposed to a deity-like bird's eye view with an arbitrary number of character resources at his disposal), not because I couldn't handle players each having more characters. I always tell the players that they can hire a staff if they think they can't tackle an adventure without; if they're too poor to hire a staff, then they can hire onto the entourage of some NPC, like the characters did in the IRC game on Sunday by joining captain Harker's ship.
  • Cool; great answers!
  • Yep. Characters are a resource (an exceptionally valuable one) and the impact of essentially favouring the players in this way must be balanced against the scenario at hand. Dungeon Crawls are simply less fun if you're swarming down the corridors with 400 dudes - I might as well roll for treasure and magic items found and a % of casualties and we can get back to the Domain Game we're now playing.

    I like DCC's Level 0 Character Funnel (a party of 16 is a common sight in this format). There's nothing wrong with this style of D&D - only that the multi-character option isn't a pre-game player decision, it's a scenario it its own right and must me be sensibly considered by the DM.
  • Yep. Characters are a resource (an exceptionally valuable one) and the impact of essentially favouring the players in this way must be balanced against the scenario at hand. Dungeon Crawls are simply less fun if you're swarming down the corridors with 400 dudes - I might as well roll for treasure and magic items found and a % of casualties and we can get back to the Domain Game we're now playing.
    This is pretty much the routine I use. Entirely by the book as far as I'm concerned. The GM has the responsibility to call any combat that's already been practically resolved - no need to roll dice in the usual grind.

    The procedure I use is that the GM offers a "deal" to the players, and once they accept, we can end the combat. The GM of course tries the get the players to accept some attrition in exchange for winning the fight, while the players might ask for easier terms if they feel that the fight favours their side. If no agreement is reached, the combat continues until it resolves in the ordinary way.
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