Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Infinite Caravan

This is an idea for a weird setting I had a few days ago. It's still rough around the edges, but I believe it's the perfect dump, for every dungeon, map or adventure idea one might find without having an immediate use for. Just place it in a destroyed world put it along the way ...

Basically it's a travelling mega-dungeon.

The Infinite Caravan travels the shards of the shattered universe. They say it's beginning is the end of all things and it's end is the Great Nothing at the edge of time itself. People cling like parasites on this endless procession of single-minded giant creatures, building houses with gardens on their backs and tunnels in their thick hide. No one knows where those strange beasts of burden came from or where they are headed, but some say they feast on the misery of dying worlds and all agree that it's the last journey of existence.

Scavengers of the Infinite Caravan

The stories how passengers of the caravan came to be on it are as manifold as the diversity among those travellers. All imaginable kinds of creatures, in a variety of cultures, languages, magic systems and high tech, all jammed together, building gangs and loose alliances, cults and armies, families and tribes, fighting every day for that square meter more. And yet they are united by one single motivation: the struggle for survival stands and falls with the very existence of the caravan. So as they venture forth under an ever-changing sky and scavenge the scourged lands of those worlds the caravan passes through and defend what few possessions they've left against hostile neighbourhoods, scared gods and entities that threaten to destroy the entire caravan, they fight for everyone stranded with them on the backs of those giant beasts.

They might scavenge for days and the caravan moves on, but will never end ...

Stay tuned for more stories about The Infinite Caravan!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

There are Square Meters on my Chart! (Sanctuaries and Believers Edition)

Did you know that a hexagon with a 10 km flat-to-flat distance covers a surface area of round about 866 square km? Yeah, it's an odd number. But on the other hand, if you were to take a number easier to the eye, you'd end up with strange numbers for the distances on the maps we use, right? But do we need distances on our D&D maps? Is there a, well, let's say pseudo-realistic approach worth using other then the plain old idea of using hex maps with a fixed distance of ... yeah, of what of exactly, to be honest? Flat-to-flat distance? Corner-to-corner distance? And what does that mean again? Where is it helpful? Where is the altitude? And how does it affect the distances on a map, for that matter?

What I'm trying to say is that I understand the appeal, but never understood the value of "old-school" maps. Frankly, in my opinion it's utter bullshit crap a relic.

Maps are lies!

Every cartographer will tell you this, maps never reflect reality. They might help you navigating an area, but often enough they'll just betray and mislead you. Nothing to do about that but to accept it, I guess. But what does it mean for the game? For our understanding of how it's to be played and presented? My answer to that would be that if a DM were to fully understand the system, if he is to make it his own, he'll (A) either ignore the discrepancies (which is a time-honoured tradition) or (B) he'll try to get to the bottom of this and develop his own system from scratch (which is a crazy huge amount of work ...).

Let's not ignore this and go for (B)?

Any solution to this problem would be, as anything in this game, an individual one. And it'd go far back into the early mechanics of the game: the war gaming roots. As so many other rules that just got copied and pasted from edition to edition of the game, the idea of moving pieces over a map (and all the baggage it brings forth, like movement rates and flat 2d dungeons or 5-foot-steps, you name it) is, in my opinion, one of the great annoyances of D&D that just can't die out, but instead spawns ever so many new ideas, expanding that nonsense.

To counter this one would have to go back even further and think about what a role playing game is and what it tries to accomplish. This is, of course, where it gets tricky. Arguably, what back in the day inspired the idea to have single characters instead of army units, was the desire to experience individual story lines. The game emerging from there on used as tools what ever was available, that's where the wargaming heritage gained some mileage.

I think one of the reasons why those rules still exist and keep on trucking is the false assumption that the illusion of accuracy - as far as measurements go - an essential part of a fair game is. Anyway, far more expedient would be to see what happens if those parts of the rules are dismissed that have their origin in the idea of anything related to rules regarding distances in D&D.

What the DM needs to know ...

Any role playing game lives from the information available to the players. Not the truth of that information or it's accuracy, but it's usability is what makes it spin a narrative at the table. Let's say the players want to travel north through a wilderness and ask for the way. A local ranger tells them the easiest way to go by using local landmarks and how much time they'd need in his experience to get there. As easy as that. The players won't need more information than that. If anything, more would only cloud their judgement.

The DM, on the other hand, should make sure that his data of a gaming world is as much as possible derived from actual game mechanics, not from arbitrary assumptions and decisions. He'll need some house rules for that ...

So why are there square meters in yesterdays post?!

Cutting a long story short, to be true to my assumptions and produce yesterdays chart (which, I now realize, needs to be updated, because I didn't get the numbers right ...) I'd have to make some rather unorthodox decisions. Or better yet, connect some old ideas I had since I started writing this here blog.

As far as those square meters are concerned, my main inspiration was a post I wrote about monster territory back in  May 2013. Mainly this chart:

So for the area of influence I'd go as per the above formulated rules and add all the radii in correspondence with all the levels associated with a specific shrine (the smallest shrine is level 1 (2 meter radius) and has a level 6 cleric caring for it (plus 60 meter radius), resulting in  the (now correct) 12.076 square meters (pi times (62 x 62)) or approximately the area of a Manhattan City Block according to The Measurement of Things or, taking a tenth of that before going for the area, 120 rooms in a dungeon environment.  Sounds about right. Right?

True believers

The next hurdle was to find a ratio for how many true believers should be expected for a cult. Main source of ideas for the result was a post I wrote about settlements back in July 2013. I decided to go for the sum of all the levels of clergy and shrine a cult had to offer as the number of D6* (D8) rolled (level 1 holy site (shrine) and a level 6 cleric means 7d6 true believers).


What is needed to get a temple build is a level 9 cleric and lots of gold (like in that other post about careers I wrote back in July 2013. And you'd have to start somewhere to build it, say, with a shrine. A shrine could become an altar, an altar might become a temple, which could become a cathedral with time and, given the gold to achieve this is paid, could end up becoming an extremely popular holy site (like Mecca). Some of those ideas started a few months back and I wrote about it here

All those ideas and assumptions together result in the following table (it also gives an impression where I aim to go with the 2d6 part of that idea ...):
Sanctuaries and Believers

Level         XP     Status     # of d6* believers with 2 to 9 HD (or level)**
                                  2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9 ...
  1            0     Shrine       0
  2        2.000     Shrine       0
  3        4.000     Shrine       1
  4        8.000     Altar        2
  5       16.000     Altar        2   1
  6       30.000     Altar        2   2
  7       60.000     Altar        2   2   1
  8      120.000     Altar        3   2   2
  9      240.000     Temple       3   3   2   1
 10      360.000     Temple       3   3   3   2
 11      480.000     Temple       3   3   3   2   1
 12      600.000     Temple       4   4   3   2   1
 13      720.000     Temple       4   4   3   2   2
 14      840.000     Temple       4   4   4   3   2
 15      960.000     Temple       4   4   4   3   2   1
 16    1.080.000     Temple       5   5   4   3   2   2
 17    1.200.000     Temple       5   5   4   4   3   2
 18    1.320.000     Temple       5   5   4   4   3   2   1
 19    1.440.000     Temple       5   5   5   4   3   2   2
 20    1.560.000     Cathedral    5   5   5   4   4   3   2
 21    1.680.000     Cathedral    5   5   5   4   4   3   2   1 ...
 22    1.800.000     Cathedral    6   5   5   5   4   3   2   2 ...
 23    1.920.000     Cathedral    6   6   6   5   4   3   3   2 ...
 24    2.040.000     Cathedral    7   6   6   5   5   4   3   2 ...
 25    2.160.000     Cathedral    7   6   6   5   5   4   4   3 ...
 26    2.280.000     Cathedral    7   7   6   6   5   5   4   3 ...
 27    2.400.000     Cathedral    7   7   6   6   5   5   5   4 ...
 28    2.520.000     Cathedral    8   7   6   6   6   6   5   4 ...
 29    2.640.000     Cathedral    8   7   7   7   6   6   5   5 ...
 30    2.760.000     Holy Site    8   8   7   7   7   6   6   5 ...
 31    2.880.000                  8   8   7   7   7   7   6   6 ...
 32    3.000.000                  8   8   8   8   7   7   7   6 ...
 33    3.120.000                  9   9   8   8   8   7   7   7 ...
 34    3.240.000                  9   9   9   8   8   8   8   7 ...
 35    3.360.000                  9   9   9   9   9   8   8   8 ...
 36    3.480.000                 10   9   9   9   9   9   9   9 ...

*D6 for shrines, D8 for altars, d10 for temples, D12 for cathedrals and D20 for Holy Sites.
**Sum of all levels of a Church's active clergy plus the sites level as the number of dice, use a die according to the status of the site (as described above). Part of the result might be NPC with more HD than 1. The listing above shows how many of those higher level NPC are part of a faith and how they are distributed among that number (inspiration for this was the number of spells available per level for magic users ...).

This should be enough for now.

So all the above needed to be done to produce yesterdays post. And then some. I'm still struggling with some of those ideas and I'm far from finished. But I hope I managed to gave those interested enough to read all this up to here a somewhat comprehensive and understandable impression of what I'm trying to do here and how I came to the decisions I made so far to get there.

I'll expand on those ideas as soon as I have the time to do so :)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Instant Church Hierarchies Part 2 (1d6 variant for cults)

[So I had to edit it, because I got the numbers all wrong, darnit. Now all is in order, sorry for that, folks ...]

So I crunched the numbers and tried to summarize all this in a table to make it more accessible. It's part of the larger idea, but works fine on its own.

Roll 1D6 and interpret result ...

Here is a link to part 1.

Further explanations will follow tomorrow.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Culture vs. the Sandbox (or how vanilla do you like your fantasy)

Although I'm not that much in the writing game right now, I'm still grinding some of the topics I started writing about some time ago. How to create a totally random and analogue system (a world engine, if you like) that results in a Sandbox for my fantasy game is one of those topics. The more time I get to reflect about things, the more I realize my basic problem with said beloved Sandbox (or how I understand the term, anyway) is a lack of potential story. So as a thesis I'd state: A lack of story in a game is always derived from a lack of culture represented in a sandbox/setting/gaming world ... Let's talk about this.

I've tried, you know.

All those random shenanigans I've tried, the tables I used to create content with in the last few games, the random maps and names, all this left me feeling, well, unprepared at the table. A strange feeling for a DM indeed and most unwelcome, to say the least. Although I had everything I needed (as far as content goes), I struggled with an apparent defect of connection between what was generated randomly and the interpretation of that content during the game. In other words: as soon as I had rolled what the players were encountering next (a specific creature or event with a motivation and reaction to the characters, etc. ... you all know what is possible), I started to feel the urge to make a story out of it, the result being not random at all but, in the contrary, totally my design, so to say. Exactly what I had tried to avoid in the first place and not even with the luxury to have a developed story arc at hand, but with the need to pull it all out of my arse as I needed it.

Usually I have no problem with generating connections, interpretations and new content as I need it on the table, but this felt different. This tyranny of randomness forced me to think about the people present in a tavern and there motivations at any possible given moment the characters might be entering the locale. It asked for weather and day-to-day routines of peoples, current politics and their effect and all those little nooks and crannies that are really really needed (and in a huge amount, no less) to produce the necessary amount of information that could result in a satisfying variety of adventure hooks needed in a "true" sandbox to make it work.

Because, if you just use a shortcut and make a table with all the funny things you think possible in a specific sandbox, you might as well admit that all this is not random at all, but a random assortment of exactly all the things that could possibly happen. There is a difference.

Take for example rumours of a bear attacking wood cutters near a settlement. A good enough adventure hook, I think. But where is that bear coming from, why did he leave? A bigger predator claiming his territory, maybe? Why is he attacking people? Is it for a lack of other prey? What's with all that, then?

So you see, every event has a chain of relevant causalities (of connected events, if you will) leading to it. The results of these events (if you dare going as far as producing that much information, that is) might be random, but you have to start somewhere. And that place is so totally unimportant and insignificant for what happens at the table, with so much small and moving pieces in between, that it doesn't seem worth to even try to figure out where to start.

But if you were looking for where to start with those chains of events, cultures would be the way to go. It might seem counter-intuitive, especially with the example of the bear above, but stay with me. I'll get there.

Causality goes both ways ...

It's a good thing that causality can go both ways from an established point, if that point is well chosen. Constants and varieties are the base criteria for such an endeavor and that's exactly what the term culture enfolds. Following that link to wikipedia will only help in realizing how big a topic culture can be, this is the variety. On the other hand it shows very well how all those cultural variety is labeled, so there are your constants. That all cultures are a product of their specific surroundings is where causality comes into play. If you have a social group of sentient apes living on a shore, you'll have some fishing and legends and rituals connected to the sea, stuff like that.

So this might be a point from where an interpretation of causality easily goes both ways. The characters encounter a settlement at a shore and a DM just knows there will be forms of cultural representation regarding that fact. Going the other way would mean, if the surroundings change for the settlement (say, they were forced to leave, for instance), they will take some of their cultural achievements with them (maybe some legends and stories and names remain in their songs, stuff like that) so that at a later point it can be recognized and traced back again, etc..

As far as creating content for a role playing game is concerned, this means basically:
Every point of entry in a campaign is legit. It's either created up to the point of entry, from that point onwards or somewhere in between.
Perception of a world, the players view (an intermission).

This occurred to me some time ago and maybe it's worth a post of it's own, but for this argument I deem it important to have it at least mentioned as food for thought: the flow of information in a fantasy setting (or in every setting, if you think about it) prevents a complete and true understanding of the world surrounding a player character. All characters can know is interpretations and stories, distance being one main factor regarding the accuracy of the information gathered, culture being another one.

So even if you start a campaign with nothing but an idea for a starting area and tell the players tall stories about what the world around them is filled with, nothing of this needs to be true and might be challenged entirely in the next village. Even if a DM did do all the work to create a complete world, the only chance for the characters to know it with some kind of certainty should be by exploring it, because it's not about what's a world comprised of, but about how a culture interprets and communicates it.

So the "true" sandbox is not the world/map itself (the board, if you will) but the amount of interpretations (or stories!) of said world. And that is the amount of cultures in a setting.

It's evolution, baby (Creating a Sandbox 101)!

Let's get back to that bear again. What we like to perceive as culture is more often than not a direct result of our natural heritage. Opposing thumbs, courtship display, all that stuff. This is, again, about capabilities resulting in behaviour in accordance to its surroundings. To phrase it another way, it's easier to create a possible pattern of what a bear might do than it is to do the same for a human being, but ultimately it's the same basics. Evolution allowed for the development of cultures with the intelligent apes, for the bear not so much, which leaves him with what evolution is capable of.

This is where the relevant data is, this is where stories are developed. You'll need the lay of the land, that is true (and easy enough achieved with a degree of difficulty open to the top), but it'll mainly produce constants with almost no variety. So if that's done, you'll just have a board for all the parties involved to leave a mark on.

Layers and layers and layers of true randomness!

Next is where the DM decides how vanilla it gets. It is basically the decision how much culture a DM is willing to invent or how many memes and tropes he is willing to use.  It is a very broad spectrum, ranging from, say, the elves, dwarfs and hobbits how Tolkien described them to a complete new set of races, invented from scratch. Or a world having no moon, one moon or 5. But whatever is decided, I believe it is important for a DM to make the decision where to start consciously and up to a point where the number of former decisions, random or not, produce a pattern complex enough to carry a narrative.

This means layers and layers of decisions if he wants to have a sandbox-setting or a world-engine with a totally random, but traceable history. A huge task.

Culture, memes and the story ...

Alright, let's connect some dots and get back to the thesis at hand. I think it's conclusive that it's almost irrelevant were to start with the randomness or what kind of map is used, as long as there's enough to work with (a few encounter and reaction tables and a map worth exploring, maybe). The available cultures, on the other hand, might be what really matters when a DM creates/prepares a setting, because it is what the players get confronted with as soon as they start creating characters and in the game it's their tool to interact with the world. And it is how stories emanate.

Memes can come in handy in this in as far as if, for example, a player has a more or less clear picture of  what a dwarf is, he can easily enough play one. Some familiarity with a setting can go a long way in helping the players getting some immersion. Another argument for using memes is that to recognize variety you need to know the source. So it helps when describing a set of random cultures if the source is still recognizable.

In the end, if you want to know what the people do and why they react the way they react, you need a fair idea of the cultural context surrounding the encounter to make a story about it. If the players live in a matriarchy, for example, all the roles they know might be reversed and if those roles are inspired by a medieval society, you'll have women knights courting men in fancy dresses and so on. So everything a DM establishes for a culture helps him telling the stories the characters encounter. The more work he puts in that, the better will be the stories he's going to tell.

What next?

Those are the basics so far. Maybe it's able to start a discussion, exploring those ideas a bit further or even challenge them. Maybe not. Anyway, in future posts I'll further examine how a DM could utilize the idea of culture as a tool to carry the narrative of the game and I should give some examples, maybe a system how to randomly generate a culture. Right now I think it might be useful to have an index for a culture how obscure their idea of the world surrounding them is. Something like, the lower the index, the closer are those interpretations to reality ...