Friday, April 27, 2012

What Rough Men Tell Us About AD&D's Implied World

One thing I am digging about writing the AD&D Domain Game series (now collected here under this label), is how fun and liberating playing the “D&D is Always Right” game can be. For those unfamiliar with the term that is instead of getting bent out of shape about how broken the seemingly wonky bits of classic D&D are that you embrace the notion that there may really be something there there.

Half the fun is in exploring the backward implications of those premises, so you'll forgive me as I digress a bit from the series focus.

Yesterday, we steered into some highly pregnant territory for that kind of exploration talking about the “monster” write-ups for normal humans in the Monster Manual. A number of readers riffed on what was up with all the bandit bands captained by name-level characters. 

(Before we go too far down this rabbit hole I will point that this extrapolation game can often stretch analogies too far, often simpler explanations exist for the real design motivators like “we should keep historical feudalism out of this so people can imaginatively own their campaigns more”.)

UWS kicked off that round stating that “you can look at bandits and brigands as mercenary armies without a liege lord, or between services.” Bomasticus follows it up by hypothesizing about why mercenaries are so scarce: “Strikes me now that most of the armed men out there are already "working" as the various Monster Manual vagrant tribes. Maybe the mercenaries who show up are survivors of tribal or civilized armies that have lost their name level leader.”

John Bell followed that up with some astute historical comparisons: “Early D&D has an implicit near post-apocalyptic setting. I always think of the two closest historical representations of the milieu it's trying to create as post-Roman, pre-Carolingian Europe (late 7th, early 8th century) and Northwestern Europe shortly after 1348.”

This exchange resonated strongly with my read of the domain-play pieces and what it says about the somewhat-anarchic, implied world of the AD&D hardbacks. Many others have explored the notion that most iterations—even the newer ones (“points of light” anyone?)--of D&D have some implied cataclysmic breakdown, but what interests me is the specific bit John ends on because that period marks the series of cataclysms that brought down the established routines of medieval feudalism.
The Funerary Monument of John Hawkwood
Taking one of the best and most accessible accounts of the upheaval of the 14th century, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, you start to see a world with some eerie parallels. You could spend hours talking through chapters of that book, but let's focus back on the mercenary/bandit question.

Take this section from mid-book, note how it all feels so easily translatable back into the AD&D domain game context:
“Outside Paris the breakdown of authority was reaching catastrophe. Its catalyst was the brigandage of military companies spawned by the warfare of the last fifteen years. There were the Free Companies who write “sorrow on the bosom of the earth” and were to become the torment of the age. Composed of English, Welsh, and Gascons released after [the Battle of] Poitiers, as soldiers customarily were to avoid further payment...
Along with German mercenaries and Hainault adventurers, they gathered in groups of 20-50 around a captain...In the year after the truce they swelled, merged, organized, spread, and operated with ever more license. Seizing a castle, they would use it as a stronghold from which to exact tribute from every traveler and raid the countryside.
They imposed ransoms on prosperous villages and burned the poor ones, robbed abbeys and monasteries of their stores and valuables, pillaged peasants' barns...As the addiction took hold, they wantonly burned harvests and farm equipment and cut down trees and vines, destroying what they lived by, in actions which seem inexplicable except as a fever of the time or an exaggeration of the chroniclers.”
Throughout the rest of the book you find descriptions of Free Company leaders who almost to a man sound like the rootless name-level fighters rooting around the fringe of power we were discussing yesterday. Take the archetype, the marvelously named John Hawkwood, Captain of the infamous White Company, who rose from second son of a tanner to the man rich enough to immortalize himself in the art above.

Or Fra Monreale, a renegade Knight of St. John who “maintained a council, secretaries, accountants, camp judges and gallows” in his rough mercenary camp and who—undoubtedly emboldened by his massive accumulation of hit points—cockily waltzed into Rome alone only to be seized and tried. According to Tuchman, “he went to the block magnificently dressed in brown velvet embroidered in gold and had his own surgeon direct the ax of the executioner. Unrepentant he declared himself justified 'in carving his way with a sword through a false and miserable world.'”

Again it's highly doubtful that Gygax sat down and said “how can I subtly code in these great historical themes of the 14th century into the game?” But those themes, tropes and parallels did have their own distant mirrors in the pulp fantasy and historical wargaming influences that inspired the game.

Personally I like it because then it starts to weave it all into post (or pre) apocalyptic themes that can be stretched into any number of customizable campaign elements.

I had originally sat down to write this post with the tongue-in-cheek title “WTF Berserkers?” mostly because my MM reread had me scratching my head again about why the hell you had strange bands of anti-social Norse stand-ins tooling around the wilderness and first level of dungeons with such relative frequency. It still takes some creative spinning but in the above context you start to see it more. Maybe these are some of the former warriors who have succumbed into that pure blood frenzy, that terrible addiction of Tuchman's that truly have become “monsters”? See, wasn't that fun?

Now back to finishing that series, while I let you take a turn at the game.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

AD&D's Domain Game: Pity the Poor Name-Levels and Their Private Warbands

Enabled by some of you dear readers I continue exploring the domain game scattered through AD&D today. (Parts 1-3 can be found here, here, and here.)

No Easy Entry to the Ruling Class. AD&D's Domain Game reads to me as a rougher and less assured ascent to power than in many other iterations of D&D's domain game. You get the impression that busting into the existing nobility is difficult to impossible task and that the PCs can only manage to tentatively push their way onto the lower rungs by carving out a small hold far from the civilized centers of power.

My read on this became reinforced when I started rereading the long sections in the Monster Manual on Men. It's startling to me how frequently high level NPCs show up not as lords and the captains of great realms but in relatively low-status commands. Indeed the wandering bands of humanity (what is driving all this restlessness? Political collapse?) seem sloppy with formidable characters. The MM makes a special point of emphasizing this fact: “Note that there will always [my emphasis] be higher level characters with any group of men encountered.”

Take your garden variety band of bandits that roam (only a 20% chance they are in “lair”) the wilderness in packs of 20-200. From the entry:
“Bandits will always be led by an 8th, 9th, or 10th level fighter...To determine the level of the bandit leader use the following guide: if under 100 bandits are encountered the leader will be 8th level, if 100 to 150 the leader will be 9th level, and if 150 or more the leader will be 10th level...For every 50 bandits there is a 25% chance that there will be a magic-user of 7th, 8th, 9th, or 10th level (roll a 4-sided die for level if one is with the group).”

These name-level “lords” rule over the most rudimentary of “strongholds”: “Bandit lairs will be informal camps 80% of the time, but 10% will be cave complexes with a secret entrance, and 10% will be regular castles with 1-4 light catapults for defense.”

Some of these high-level characters are even further down the status ladder. Merchants for example have a caravan guard leader that's a 6th-11th fighter. 11th level and all you can add up to be is the leader of some pot-bellied traders' guard detail? Slacker.

Looking back at how rigorous the steps to creating your hold are by the book—you must find a plot of land without a flag planted on, rigorously explore and fight for it, pour a very large stash of money into construction, and continue to fight and patrol your turf while fending off the newly jealous--no wonder you have so many powerful humans just grabbing the small amounts of power they can.

(Personally I have always found this supercharging of NPCs not to my taste and as a rule of thumb cut all the levels in half, but I think the point stands.)

Build it and They Will Come. Circling back to that second to last paragraph above, building a stronghold is no easy task. Presumably the sheer difficulty and audacity of the rare name-level character who succeed is what creates that automatic pull for bands of followers. Indeed by the book, their new private armies start at the moment you have completed that task.

The DMG states bluntly that “fighters and clerics will be the principal territorial developers” (remember that only the three old OD&D core classes are even allowed to rule politically). The type of followers those two classes attract reflects that.
Clerics get a pretty sweet deal when it comes to followers—and early too. As an 8th level Patriarch or Matriarch after building a “place of worship” they get two bites of the apple: 20-200 (presumably civilian laity) followers and “men-at-arms”. The DMG gives a healthy mix of seven different troop types as followers: 10-50 light, medium, and heavy cavalry and from 25-140 light and heavy infantry.

What's more the cleric's army of zealots “are fanatically loyal and serve without pay so long as the cleric does not change deities and/or alignment.” Nice.

Fighters get a tough-cookie lieutenant (5-7th level fighter) and a slightly-smaller unit. Fifty percent of the time a company of 20 light cavalry supported by a 100 heavy infantry. There is a 40 percent chance of getting one of two smaller, but better armed companies of heavy infantry and a further 10 percent chance of getting a shock group of 60 medium-heavy cavalry

The common thread for both the fighter and the cleric in follower type is that they are the only classes receiving what is essentially an army (albeit a small one scaled to a petty warlord). Interestingly in composition and numbers they run pretty close to the groups of men description in the MM.

All other classes generally receive much smaller bands of similarly-classed individuals, here the ranger gets 2d6 creatures, there the assassin 7d4 lower-leveled assassins. More of a henchman/apprentice set-up writ slightly larger.

Why is this significant at all?

Mostly because it seems pretty dang hard to find and hire up large bodies of armed men in AD&D. Skip over to the DMG's description of mercenary soldiers on page 30. While it leaves it up to the DM to determine the likehood of encountering mercenaries, it does suggest in detail how many of such and such type you do meet. Significantly the numbers are pretty small by the standards of raising an army: 70 percent of the time you will only find a range of 1-12. A further 20 percent of the time you're only getting 2-30 and only 10 percent of the time are you reaching numbers getting into the low-range ballpark of those groups of starter followers.

Shewww so much still to cover, we have peasants revolts, construction costs/time (and it's larger implications to building settlements), hirelings more broadly, etc. Tomorrow perhaps and then on to tackle B/X, Mentzer, and OD&D.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

AD&D's Domain Game: Growing a Demense from the Beautiful Chaos of Encounter Tables

Today we get to the third part of our little tour of what the AD&D books say about domain-level play (parts one and two here and here). There's still more to analyize about followers, peasant revolits, hirelings, morale rules, wilderness and other relevant sections, but I'm wary of losing my audience here.

Not Just Wilderness Clearing. Reading over my post I think I may have gone a little too far with yesterday's stick-bending about wilderness clearing being the entirety of the domain-play adventure in AD&D. While it's undoubtedly central stage, Gygax does specifically mention political machinations as a way to shake things up when things start looking dull:

“Because this is a fantasy adventure game, it is not desirable to have any player character's territory become tame and staid. There must always be a chance for some monster to enter the area and threaten the well-being of its inhabitants. What is the answer if the territory is located in the heart of some powerful state? Intrigue and petty wars, of course! If the territory of a player character is part of a nation, then there will be jealous neighbors, assassins, and the like to threaten him or her.”

Encounter Tables as Central Mechanic. Yesterday I also made several mentions of how the many, longish encounter tables crunched in the back of the DMG were to be used to stock out the hexcrawl contents and periodic checks for wandering bands. Suddenly the gigantic “number appearing” and “% in lair” lines become much more relevant.

Interestingly this is extended even further to be the central mechanic to handle the all-important way that your little hold in the wilds grows:

“[Potential settlers] will begin to appear after the player character's stronghold is finished and patrols have generally cleared the area. The populace will match the area and the alignment of the character. When a random monster check reveals some form of creature who properly matches the potential inhabitant type for the territory, then have them move in and settle down, making proper subservience calls upon the master of the territory, naturally. Hamlets, thorps, and various other settlement farms will eventually be established here and there in the area, starting near the castle and working towards the fringe of the territory.”

It's an interesting contrast to how the other D&D domain games which almost to a system work out some automatic (and bone dry) formula for population growth (such and such percentage of “peasant families” move in per such and such time).

At first glance it seems silly and unworkable—what I'm going to grow a colony of wandering ankhegs, satyrs and stag beetles here--but when you look harder at the frequencies of certain encounters it becomes more obvious: the most common encounter across clime and theme is with groups of “normal humans”.

Even on the pure wilderness charts the chance of a given encounter being a roll on the “men” sub-table is as high as 10-25 percent of the time. In inhabited/patrolled areas (presumably what you are rolling on in the post-clearing example above) that number jumps up to 40-65 percent. You can potentially throw in a 1-10 percent chance of meeting demihumans and a 3-15 percent chance of humanoids as possible settlers (depending obviously on alignment and reaction).

What's more on the Men sub-table the “monster” listings—bandits, beserkers, brigands—only occur 10-20 percent of the time, leaving merchants, dervishes, nomads, pilgrims, and tribesmen as groups that have some likelihood of settling down. (Hell my players would just as likely be recruiting the former group of ruffians).

There are also interesting domain-play possibilites for some of the less obvious monster encounters. Herds of mastodons and wild horses? How about a potentially lucrative resource on the hoof? Tribe of hill giants? Do we risk trying to sign those giganto-bumpkins up or mount up?

Personally I love this. It's not great “simulation”, but it is great fantasy gaming. 

But then again the idea of being a self-proclaimed petty warlord just barely ruling over a motley deep-wilderness, monster-haunted domain of religious zealots, blink dogs, forest tribesmen, pixies, and ballsy caravan owners has a way more evocative pull to me then being a feudal-like count with an auto-expanding number of faceless serfs.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

AD&D's Domain Game: the DMG

Taking where we left off from yesterday, I look at what the Dungeon Master's Guide (the one with the ugly red dude and chainmail bikini gal on the cover) says about AD&D's implied domain-level play.

The longest and most direct section that handles this is the Territory Development by Player Characters section (page 93). There are a number of obvious observations here and some interesting subtle ones both in it and in the accompanying sections around it that I never caught until rereading these passages through this lens. Let's check through them.

Feudalism is Not the Default. One of the consistent themes you see in other treatments of D&D's domain game is that the political structure is almost always based on an idealized version of European feudalism (maybe with a few token nods to the title ranks of other cultures). You have a graduated hierarchy going from barons, counts, dukes, kings each owing fealty to the other. You have peasant families tied to the land. And you have the PCs inserting themselves into that existing structure.

I have written before how Gygax explicitly breakswith faux European medievalism as the one and only implied backdrop of AD&D in the Social Class and Rank section (which precedes and is clearly tied to the Territory section). Indeed he repeats this more succinctly in the first paragraph here saying “the exact culture and society of the area is up to you.”

Interestingly if you flip back to the section right behind it (Peasants, Serfs, and Slaves) Gygax states that, “any character who forces peasantry, serfdom, or slavery upon any inhabitants of an area he or she controls will have to be very careful to guard against uprisings.” There is a strong backwards implication here that slavery, serfdom and even a freeholding (perhaps tenant?) peasantry is not the default state of most of those settling into a cleared hold. Given the fact those rural laboring classes made up 80-90 percent historically of most west European medieval societies that's quite an assumption.

Wilderness Clearing is the Central Adventure. The real meat of the Territory section is the example of how to handle the mechanics of wilderness clearing. (It's important to note that Gygax sets it up as an example, as in here's how a DM could handle it if organically developed in the campaign, there is no set one way on how to adjudicate it.)

Example or not it's a pretty fascinating glimpse of play that clearly focuses more on the adventure of carving out a section of the howling wilderness than the routines of established power. It's not about courtly intrigue or political machinations with other civilized powers and it's definitely not like retirement it's about barely holding on in the wilderness through continuous exploration, adventure, and combat.

Let's parse it out point by point:
Domain Carving Starts Way Out in the Wilds. “Assume that the player in question decides that he will set up a stronghold about 100 miles from a border town.” Not on the border of civilization but so deep in the wilds to be half a week or more travel to the edge of civilization.

You Need Detailed Zoomable Hex Maps. The player chooses (or co-creates a site as in the example where the player says he wants a site with a high bluff overlooking a river) a site and the DM presents him with a rough map showing the campaign hex and the six surrounding hexes. (It's unclear here if these are the whopping 20-40 long hexes described in the outdoor section.) You also need some very small-scale detailed maps 200 yards to a hex with an imposed larger hex at a one mile scale (nine smaller hexes wide).

The Clearing is an Intensive Hexcrawl Adventure. Now Gygax starts talking about the clearing much as he is describing the dangers of exploring hexes in the wilderness but in a through search grid like operation—and it's clearly meant to be an adventure to be done by the PCs themselves over several sessions almost a mini-campaign if you think about the scale involved:
“The player character and his henchmen and various retainers must now go to the construction site, explore and map it...Use actual time to keep track of game time spent exploring and mapping (somewhat tedious but necessary). Check but once for random monsters in each [200-yard?] hex, but any monster encountered and not driven off or slain will be there from then on, excepting, of course, those encountered flying over or passing through. After mapping the central hex and the six which surround it, workers can be brought in to commence construction of the castle.”

Danger Continues Well Into Construction. Interestingly this exploration and fighting doesn't end after the first bout but continues throughout the long period of building the hold:
“As [construction] will require a lengthy period of game time, the player character will have to retain a garrison on the site in order to assure the safety of the crew and the progress of the work (each day there will be a 1 in 20 chance that a monster will wander into one of the seven hexes explored by the character, unless active patrolling in the territory beyond the area is carried on).

While the construction is underway, the character should be exploring and mapping the terrain beyond the core area. Here the larger scale of about one mile per hex should be used, so that in all the character can explore and map an entire campaign hex. There are MANY one mile hexes in a 30 mile across campaign hex, so conduct movement and random monster checks as is normal for outdoor adventuring.”

Constant Adventuring is Required. Even with all the intensity of the above two phases the stronghold is never assured of a dull safety it remains on the edge only barely mitigated by the counter-moves of the PCs: “1) Once per day a check must be made to see if a monster has wandered into one of the border hexes which are adjacent to unexplored/ uncleared lands.

2) Once per week a check must be made to see if a monster has wandered into the central part of the cleared territory.”

The nature of the set-up demands that the PCs and followers be constantly exploring, expanding and holding the territory:
“Monsters which are indicated will generally remain until driven out or slain.

Modifiers to this are:
Posting and placement of skulls, carcasses, etc. to discourage intelligent creatures and monsters of the type able to recognize that the remains are indicative of the fate of creatures in the area.

Regular strong patrols who leave evidence of their passing and aggressively destroy intruders.

Organized communities whose presence and militia will discourage all but organized groups who prey on them or certain monsters who do likewise.”

And even when they are settled in and “patrolling the territory regularly--about once per week on a sweep basis, or daily forays to various parts of the area, the character will need only check once each week for incursions of wandering monsters...on the Uninhabited/ Wilderness table.”

That's a lot of vigilance and if handled imaginatively a heap of fun trouble to rain down on player's head. In otherwords little to nothing of political tedium or record keeping and the like, just more emphasis on a larger stage version of core D&D play areas: exploration, combat, and their related resource management.

Today's analysis is growing overlong. I will pick up later about how the copious encounter tables play a central role in providing a simple, workable (and fun) system for handling the mechanics of domain growth and ongoing adventures. I will also look at other sections on hirelings and followers to see what they say about AD&D's domain game.

Monday, April 23, 2012

AD&D's Domain Game

The secret we should never let gamemasters interested in domain play know is that they don't need any rules.

Yes, that's a clumsy paraphrase of a likely apocryphal Gygax quote and, yes, it's hyperbole—role-playing games need some kind of rules structure to keep them from just slumping into amateur theater hour. (And yes there is much to use in later supplements and games digging into this realm-ruling realm—including my own Hill Cantons: Borderlands when it's tarrying rear sees the light of published day.)

But it's an exaggeration that amplifies a simple truth, you may already have more in your head and hands about how to run this then you realize. For one you the ultimate baseline: your own capacity to imagine a robust imaginary world and adjudicate on a situational basis. Though a victim of scatter-shot organization there is also the fact that a fairly substantive rules framework for domain-play in D&D was already in place as early as 1979--in two books that you likely already own.

Let's do some textual analysis of the explicit and implicit domain game lying in those lovable old hardbacks (coming again for an encore this summer). Here's part one mostly from what we can gather from the Players' Handbook (part two of this post deals with the smorgsborg scattered throughout the DMG).

Different Classes, Different Domain Games
When you put together the various scattered paragraphs on higher level play you get a sense of a few overall themes (I will present a few more when we get to the DMG) that what class and race you are highly colors what you can as a charcter when you get to name level, enough that it feels like you have not just one domain game but several.

Only the three original core classes are able to “rule”. Only clerics, fighters, and magic-users are able to exert political authority enough to be able to squeeze income out of a local population. Furthermore they collect this revenue in varying amounts implying that the classes have different spheres of activity in the realm that can control.

There is an implied subtext I see in the terseness that the only beancounting that is important to AD&D domain ruling is knowing what the population of the land you control is and how much swag you can pull out of them.

Cleric (income from “trade, taxation, and tithes”): 9 sp per inhabitant per month
Fighter (income from “trade, tariffs, and taxes”): 7 sp per inhabitant per month
Magic-User (unclear but they “rule much as a noble”): 5 sp per inhabitant per month

Domain play does map neatly to name-level. Clerics begin in a limited way—they can build a temple and attract followers but not tax--right before name level at 8th level. On the other hand you have Magic Users who cannot build a stronghold and rule until 12th level, one after name level.

Ruling is for humans. Level-caps make it a humanocentric part of play for PCs. Only Dwarves with 18 STR and Half-Orcs can become name-level fighters. No PC demi-human can achieve a qualifying Cleric or Magic User level. So ruling is really left as far as PCs go to humans.

Class determines type of “stronghold.”
Clerics: At 8th level must build “a place of worship, a building of not less than 2,000 square feet in floor area with an altar, shrine, chapel, etc” to attract followers. At 9th level to rule they have the: “option of constructing a religious stronghold. This fortified place must contain a large temple, cathedral, or church of not less than 2500 square feet on the ground floor. It can be a castle, a monastery, an abbey or the like. It must be dedicated to the cleric's deity (or deities). The cost of construction will be only one-half the usual for such a place because of religious help.”

Fighters: Have freeholds which are “some type of castle” based in a cleared radius of 20-50 miles.

Magic-Users: Have strongholds based in a cleared radius of 10-20 miles.

Thieves: Cannot build strongholds (i.e. a building that serves as a seat of power) but can “build a tower or fortified building of the small castle type for their own safety; but this construction must be within, or not more than a mile distant from, a town or city.”

Assassins: Like thieves cannot build strongholds but can build guild headquarters when they reach 13th level and defeat the sitting guildmaster “the always within a large town or big city...It is typically a warehouse or other nondescript structure, with safeguards and traps added.”

However evocatively at 15th level, “the headquarters of the Grandfather of Assassins can be virtually anywhere and of any form--cavern, castle, monastery, palace, temple, you name it. However, if it is a large and obvious place, the headquarters must be located well away from all communities - such as in the midst of a murky woods, a dismal marsh or fen, a lonely moor, a deserted island, A remote coast, or far into forsaken hills or atop a mountain.”

Druids: vaguely “When attaining levels above the 11th, characters will generally inhabit building complexes set in woodlands and similar natural surroundings.”

Paladins: Beyond personnel costs they can only keep enough treasure “to construct or maintain a small castle.”

Monks: Can either steal or build one: “The monastery or monastery-like headquarters of the monk can be that of the character he or she defeated to attain 8th or higher level, or it can be a building specially constructed by the monk player character after attaining 8th or higher level. In the latter case, the monk may retain up to 250,000 gold pieces value in treasure in order to finance construction of the place.”

No Easy, Guaranteed “Endgame”
There is an implied style of play that often seems to crop up in OSR circles that domain-level play is either: (a) part of an automatic and assured process (you get the required level and poof); or (b) consitutes some kind of partial or full retirement. The AD&D domain game seems in its sparse detail to be about fighting your way up and fighting to maintain your position.

Indeed three classes—assassins, druids, and monks--have to literally do both. As they reach name level they must fight and defeat increasingly smaller circles of high-level characters (and presumably must be fielding the same from NPCs and other PCs) culminating in a single character of the highest level. No gentle coasting to oblivion there.

And even ruling for the three main classes implies a small-scale and intense experience. Only wilderness clearing—and constant vigilant patrolling--of a relatively small scale is mentioned at all. There is zero mention anywhere in the books of coasting into the higher and safer higher ranks of the nobility surrounded by a cast of tens of thousands of soldiers, retainers etc. There is a strong implication that you are right there at the edge of the howling wilds and you don't get out of that until you actually handover your character sheet to the DM.

More perhaps tomorrow on followers, wilderness clearing, political forms, and military matters from the book with the screaming, butt-ugly red fiend.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Fistful of Groin Shots

Nearly 30 long years I ran my first and to date only Boot Hill campaign. For about 2-3 months our then-daily games left off the relentless AD&D and Traveller drumbeat and amped up the six-gun sound of the Hole in the Head gang.

I believe it was the one and only campaign that was more like a wargame campaign in that it had a defined, winnable objective—albeit a crude one, steal $100,000 and hightail it to down Mexico way. The last session featured the PCs stealing a Gatling gun from the local cavalry fort, setting it up in the main street of Promise City and for an hour of real-time play straight gunning down scores of NPCs as they looted the bank. Three of four the PC bandits fell to the guns of the infuriated posse leaving my brother, the lone bandito, the ultimate “winner” of the game.

In terms of pure cathartic psycho-tunes fun it rated up there in the pantheon. So recently when I got that need to shake off the D&D routine feeling, Boot Hill was among one of the top candidates for the one-shot. (No need to re-dish the scenario set-up you can see it here.)

I had set up the scenario to reward a Peckinpah götterdämmerung by providing for a scoring system based on “marauding points” (see below). The actual session not only delivered that heaping big pile of palate-cleansing nihilism, it did so in spades.

Marauding Points
Each “combatant” killed: 50
Each scalp of a combatant taken: 50
Each non-combatant killed: -50
Each $1 of loot taken: 1
Structural damage to a building: 50
Total destruction of a building: 150
Poor horse, mule, or donkey stolen: 25
Fair horse stolen: 50
Good horse stolen: 100
Excellent horse stolen: 200
Cattle per head rustled: 30

It probably helped that I picked out the amoral ruffians of our regular Google Plus group, the Nefarious Nine, as the play group. And just to add an extra twist, decided to parallel one of the stranger play group vs. play group violence moments by inviting in Brad from the home group to take the role as the mysterious (and back-stabbing) Drifter.

The Party”
Johnny Walker Texas Ranger, Mikah M.
“Crazy Elmo” Stuckey, Michael M.
“Pious Jack”, Peter R.
Buck “That Bastard” Parker, Robert P.
The Drifter, Brad E.

An obvious blotto Will Bill Hickok (second from left)
poses with members of the Nefarious Nine.
I deliver you these snapshots of the evening.

6:20 am-10:00 am
The Nine lay low on a ridge just east of town. The expected escalation of strange, unwieldly, and unworkable plans that will be undone in the friction of actual implementation supplemented by Texas drawling and yarn-spinning consumes half the session.

During the bull session, Crazy Elmo sneaks forward to roll the buckskin-jacketed, clay jug-toting drunk near a tipped wagon on the trade road only to find that he is eyeball to eyeball with no less than Wild Bill Hickok. He decides to get in with the erstwhile lawman, gambler and showman and takes up a drinking with him.

Meanwhile the Nine settle on a marauding plan that seems to entail pouring kerosene all over the cantina, draining a cabrito of its blood into a bucket, fetching the half-starved grizzly in the bear-baiting pit and leading him to the church (it's Sunday morning).

What could go wrong?
Click to embiggen crappy player's map.
Thanks to Migellito for prettifying.
10:05 am
Buck rambles down main street with his bucket of goat blood, kick opens the door of the church, and splatters the towns women and children (the men-folk of Cantones are not god-farin' people).

Since Boot Hill (second ed.) is a game nearly all combat rules and a sprinkling of random campaign subsystems, I begin a series of arbitrary rolls and rulings for various anomalies—which I of course love—with a “Bear Concentration” check to see if the bear will follow the trail and not the man providing. Unfortunately for Buck the bear blows it and instead concentrates on mauling him.

Meanwhile in the outhouse behind the canteen Crazy Elmo starts a-whoopin' on the former boxer now cattle foremen to the big bad in town. Boot Hill has a surprisingly fun and quick system for mixing it up with your fists that entails a simple 2d10 roll. Crazy Elmo starts to trade a couple rounds of

Meanwhile the Ranger who is supposed to cover Elmo from the ridge with his rifle decides to start shooting. Bullet one goes clean over the foreman and straight through the backdoor of the cantina instantly killing the barkeep--and sending a steady stream of now-irate cattle hands out in pursuit.

Buck is wrestling with the bear, Elmo with the foreman who still has his pants around his ankles. The rest of the gang comes running around to deal with the cow hands and their boss, the bolo-tied Captain. Pious Jack runs up, two guns a-blazing at point-blank range and miracolously misses all six shoots (you can typically get off 3 shots with a revolver in a round). Johnny Walker is still plugging away with the rifle and hitting Elmo as much as the other side.

Skip ahead a couple of rounds. Elmo is barely hang on to life having been shot or pummeled from just about every direction. He does manage to squeeze off a surprising number of groin shots, all serious taking down a few of the enemy. The Capatin goes down in a pink mist of head wounds. The Ranger comes running up and torches cantina those ensuring that she ends the evening having killed the maximum number of combatants who are bottlenecked inside.

Finally Buck manages his “Escape Bear Mauling” check and climbs up the cantina—just in time to have it go up in flames. He dives off next round. The Drifter meanwhile is calmly walking up the main street gunning down the gambler Earl Dandy and a few cowpokes as the bear contently mauls another.
With nearly all visible combatants down it looks like the gang (minus Crazy Elmo who took his fifth and fatal wound) now can start the serious ravaging of the town.


The Drifter decides this is his foreordained hour to turn on the rest of the gang. With a few choice throw-down words he calls out both the Ranger and Pious Jack. Despite having the best first shot speed he even let's the Ranger fire first. Hilariously she hits three times coming within 1 strength point of killing the turncoat. The Drifter also scores majorly lucky scoring mortal head wounds against both his opponents.

A barely alive Drifter misses seeing the notorious desperado Sam Bass step out from behind the church who promptly fills him up with three lead slugs. Stone cold killer he is Bass cooly saunters up to the lifeless anti-hero and crushes his skull with a boot.

Meanwhile Buck jumps down from the cantina after winning some gunplay with the dynamite loving town midget. Finding the TnT stash he manages to blow up the southeast corner of town before hightailing it back to their camp.

He sits down to drink corn liquor with Wild Bill over a few hands of cards and we fade to black. Seriously it was all over in six rounds, a minute of game time (two real hours).

Thoroughly satisfied, I believe we are now on for an on-again, off-again mini-campaign to be played on Google Plus. If you are hankering for some old school Western spaghetti western action come track us down there.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Factoids of the Hill Cantons: Horse Flesh

Twice a year, the southern cantonal trade town Marlankh comes alive with the sights and sounds of the Great Ebon Horse Fair. Who alive cannot thrill to the brandy and lotus-addled roar of the crowd as convicted felons race silver-bridled stallions in long laps around the squat, black Tomb of the City Gods? Who doesn't stand in fevered anticipation to trooping of the ward totem banners? Or the ritual hanging of the losers?

But let's not neglect the more practical side of that long week, the wheelings and dealings of the great horse-trading caravans that roll in from the Southlands and feed the financial life of this great, last outpost of the Overkingdom. In celebration of that barking lucrative scrum of avarice, Radegast, old god of hosts and magister ludis reveals to readers the day-to-day “mechanics” of buying a mount in the Hill Cantons.

While all involved in the low trade of commerce in the borderlands are inclined to “maximize their self-interest” (i.e. attempt to fleece you), horse traders are renowned for being more equal than others in that area. Because of their exceptional, tough-minded greed, horsetraders receive a free save vs. poison check when a Mountebank attempts to use their powers on them.

On buying a horse the GM will secretly determine the actual value of the mount based either on a ruling from roleplaying or from the following chart.

Roll d20, add whichever is best INT, WIS, or CHA bonus minus that the INT or CHA modifier of the trader.
Ripped Off (re-roll quality, if you thought you were buying an average mount roll d8, if you thought you were buying an above average horse roll 2d6)
Get What You Paid For.
A Steal (re-roll quality, if you were buying a below average horse roll d20 +2. For an average horse d20+4. If you were buying an above-average horse pay for an average.)

Horned Donkey
Base Cost: 15 suns
HD: 1-1
Movement: 120'
Small, braying asses with two tiny, goat-like horns. Favored by Rada (cantonal council) members and those with a tendency to self-promotion.

Base Cost: 30 suns
HD: 2
Movement: 120'
Your basic infertile and pissed horse-donkey mixed-breed. On a roll of 1 on a d6 they have a single, vestigial horn.

Steppe Pony
Base Cost: 35 suns
HD: 1+1
Movement: 180'
Shaggy, sturdy ponies hailing from the Sea of Grass. Favored by bowlegged, swarthy-looking men with fur hats.

Princess Pony
Base Cost: 100 suns
HD: 1+1
Movement: 180'
A small, uniformly white pony favored by midgets, the clergy, and little girls.

Work Horse
Base Cost: 35 suns
HD: 3
Movement: 90'
A sturdy, slow plow, draft, or pack horse.

Riding Mare
Base Cost: 70 suns
HD: 2
Movement: 240'
Female riding horse. If threatened will fight with hooves.

Riding Gelding
Base Cost: 75 suns
HD: 2+1
Movement: 240'
Castrated male riding horse. If threatened will fight with hooves.

Base Cost: 150 suns
HD: 3
Movement: 120'
A relatively light-weighted stallion trained for war. Will fight with hooves on command.

Base Cost: 225 suns
HD: 3+1
Movement: 120'
A medium-sized war-trained stallion. Will fight with hooves on command.

Base Cost: 350 suns
HD: 3+3
Movement: 120'
A large, war-trained stallion. Will fight with hooves and teeth on command.

Base Cost: 600 suns
HD: 4
Movement: 120'
Massive, big-boned and mean-as-a-cuss war-stallion. They are typically stolen extra-dimensionally from the dreams of paladin's. Will fight with hooves, teeth, and a serious chip on his shoulder.

Mount Quality
Roll d20
Sickly, half cost, reduce 3 hit points, reduce 10' movement, and reduce riding time 20 percent
Swaybacked, 75 percent of base cost, reduce 3 hit points and decrease riding time 20 percent
Slow, 75 percent of base cost, reduce 20' movement.
Swift, double base cost, add 20' movement.
Strong, double base cost, add 3 hit points and increase riding time 20 percent.
Heroic, triple base cost, add 3 hit points, add 10' movement, and increase riding time 20 percent

Horse Color (Optional)
Roll d100
Blood Bay, bright red with a slight brown coat, dark mane. Traditionally bred in the Southland sultanates, but now relatively common in the southern cantons. Add 1-4 suns base price.
Dark Bay, dark red or brown coat, dark mane
Liver Chestnut, dark brown coat, light mane
Sorrel/Orbish Chestnut, red to reddish tan coat (color of a bronze orb coin).
Blond Chestnut, light brown with pale mane.
Steel Gray. Evenly mixed hairs of white and dark
Dapple Gray. Dark-colored horse with light dapples (rings).
Borscht Gray. Grey-coated with pinkish tinge.
Faded Black, black coat that fades to brownish hues in sun-exposed areas. Uncommon add 1-10 suns to price.
Deodand Black, non-fading black coat. Uncommon and sought after by people who want to project their surliness, add 50 percent to base price.
Brindle Striped, brown or red with yellow zebra-like stripes. Favored by noveau riche in the cantons (though others think them to look garish and vulgar), add 50 percent to base price.
Cremello. Brownish chestnut base color coat that wash out to a pale cream. Add 50 percent to base price, favored by well-to-do ladies of the night.
Dun. Tan or yellow coat often with darker markings. Add 1-6 suns to price.
Borean Dun. Black base coat with dun over marking. Add 100 percent to base price, auspicious horse for gate-opening sacrifices in the Weird.
Piebald. Black and white spots. Add 25 percent to price, favored by the color blind and poets.
Skewbald. White coat with non-black spots. Add 25 percent to price, favored by tokenizers.
Extradimensional Oddity. Horse is from beyond the Weird and has a strange coloring and/or spotting (player decides). 30 percent chance that it has a dark secret power, weakness, or history (GM picks). Subtract 25 percent from base price due to it being ill-favored.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the Cantones de los Montes

When it comes to roleplaying I am definitely a “D&D guy”.  I've yet to run a Hill Cantons session where I have felt even the slightest bored (it helps having some of the most creative and unruly players I have ever encountered). And I have rare to never felt that old urge to abruptly change gears and dump the campaign.

But that pining for bright and shiny new things still rides into my head over and over again. I have found it's best just to give in every once in a while. So here I am dusting off my copy of second edition Boot Hill and preparing for a one-shot to be held virtually on Google Plus hangouts next Tuesday night at 8:30 CST. (Back to finishing up those reportbacks from the Border War.)

The place: Cantones de los Montes, a tiny shithole town nestled in the foothills of the Guadaloop Mountains (conveniently near the Territory border). A dusty, seedy white adobe and timber collection of buildings housing some of the meanest sons-a-bitches this side of the border.

The time: late spring 1876 (or 42,952 in other, forgotten ways of measuring the passing of years.)

The set-up: A nameless drifter floats into this mean little corner of the world. The surly locals don't take a shine to the new feller and beat him within an inch of his life. Turns out they messed with the wrong hombre as said drifter is blood-brothers with the Nefarious Nine, some of the coldest killers, goat-rustlers and wife-stealers around. The Nine—who strangely only number five—saddle up and ride for town a shootin' and a hollerin'.

NPCs of note in the Cantones
Captain” Claude Evo, burly, hirsute local cattle baron and kingmaker. The Captain never lacks for a bolo tie.

Frank Stripes, former doctor run out of his Mississippi practice for unwholesome phrenological studies with the craniums of dead convicts and vagabonds. Every once in a while--deep into his jug of corn liquor--he will slip up and introduce himself as “Phillip”.

Two-Fisted Patch” Drogo, former riverboat bare-knuckles boxer now foreman for the Captain.

Cherokee Carl” Berry. The leanest, toughest midget in the Territory. Has a fondness for dynamite.

Earl Dandy. Impeccably-dressed gambler noted for his outlandishly tall stovepipe hats.

And many more to be announced when the repitilian part of my brain can conjure up more bad puns and in-jokes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Three in the AM Thoughts

Insomnia is a rough muse.

One of my most vivid memories of my grandmother growing up was hearing--like clockwork--the heavy tread of her feet up and down the tiny, cramped hallway way past the witching hour. Muttering curse words in Czech, she'd bang the heavy cast-iron pans and pots around baking and baking until she exorcized whatever demon was keeping her up.

I remember it well because also like clockwork I was wide awake too. In fact, it was liberating for me to shed off the excrutiating clock watching and be able to get up out of bed and sit down in the cozy kitchen at the little round, ornately-flourished wooden kitchen table that my great-grandfather built.

When I was a younger child I would half-listen to her repetitious, often painful stories about life “before the War”, but mostly just sit there contently drawing pictures of planes, tanks, and super galactic dreadnaughts or watching the late night movie specials.

As I got older—and the mad plans of D&D took my brain—that was the time I did all my creative heavy-lifting as a DM. Sheets of graph paper and pencil-smeared notebooks would fill up until my brain pooped out finally and I drifted back to my narrow little trundle bed.

Today those “3 am thoughts” still dominate my creative process. Sometimes that period is pure gold, nearly all of my best adventure sites in the campaign were first conceived in that long, graveyard haul where my mind is only really half “on”. It's in those times that visions of biomechanical golden domed barges and beet demons take shape, where the early renaissance rationality of the HC setting twists and turns.

Other times, well those sleep-deprived ideas are quite terrible or at best malformed. And then there is just the endless parade of strange project ideas, a recent example:
FLAILSNAILS by Southwest. A face-to-face convention to be held immediately after the much ballyhooed SXSW in my lovely hometown of Austin, Texas. Would only work if we could get all the cat herd rockstars running Constantcon games on Google Plus to show up live and with pants. Imagine Vornheim at one table, Wessex at the other etc. etc.

Perhaps you are a sound sleeper and don't understand that quiet twilight time when the well ordered brain mixes with the near dreams. But perhaps you are also treading up your own hallways, graph paper in hand and dreaming of your own vast lands of the mind. Do this ideas get filed in the little round file or do you run with those hobgoblins?

[Editor's Note: written after a long, long night with the Nefarious Nine and a cheap bottle of Portugese vinho verde.]

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Ghost (Minotaur) in the Machine

You may have noticed that I have been throttling back on the blogging regimen as of late (if you haven't kudos for having a life). Beyond spring fever, the ongoing migration of my online energy to Google Plus gaming and yakking, and a general case of eye-glazing when it comes to the OSR blogospace, my old workhorse computer was down for the count for roughly a week.

Thanks to some kindly folks I narrowed down some of the problem to the video card. Turns out some of the mischief was due to an inch-tall version of the dreaded ghost minotaur that haunts the Mountain Hall of the Hyperboreans in the HC. Those little pewter swords are murder on the little whirly fans apparently. Thanks a lot you little f*cker.

Problem solved, you can expect a slew of things this week:
1. Reportbacks on week one of the Border War.
2. Campaign news including the utterly strange cargo cult arrival of medieval Catholicism to the HC and yet another arquebus wedding due to a carousing mishap.
3. The publication of the Rough Guide to the Hill Cantons, my first attempt to really write up the campaign as a gazetteer (or at least my quirky rendition of that kind of setting booklet).
4. And whatever random-ass thing my demented and sad muse orders me to do.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Abstract Mass Combat Rules, Take Two

A little over a week ago, I announced that I had a playtest version of a set of abstract mass combat rules for the classic flavor of our favorite fantasy rpg and of course all its related clones and coat-tail riders. Thanks to some great feedback and playtesting (now waist deep in a full-blown FLAILSNAILS tie-in war), I have nailed down version 0.2 and I am feeling damn good about it.

I think the rules deliver a quick way to resolve battles at all scales without tearing yourself away from the central play group experience of the traditional rpg while allowing you some meaningful tactical choices to make it more interesting and challenging than crunching math and roll a single die.

Some of the chrome added to this version:
1. Stratagems. Each commanding officer of a force can attempt once a week to employ a pre-battle tactical “trick” based on the particular mix of arms in their host. Currently this version supports stratagems for ambushes, flank marches, deceptive deployments, night/day surprise attacks, field fortifications, and treachery. I expect to add several more after the current round is completed.

2. Tactical postures at the battle. Tightened up the section on battle resolution proper with a matrix that compares the choice of postures or tactics (again dependent on the particular mix of your forces). Again I feel good about this as it's fairly simple and straightforward, but gives you a choice that can make or break a battle.

3. Player character battle results. I've finished a draft version of a mini-game that ties in dangers and rewards for PCs dependent on what stance they take into the battle (foolhardy, normal, or craven) matched to the results of the battle (a bloodbath on your side for instance corresponding to a more dangerous end result). PCs face a range of playable dangers from combat with the other sides champions (or rank and file) to unusual dilemmas (like what do you do when the unit you are embeded in routes off the field).

There's more, but I wanted to give readers a taste of how the collective brain trust is lighting a fire under my proverbial rear to make this a fun and useful (and likely free) “product”.

If you are interested in getting a playtest copy—and promise to actually give feedback and/or playtest this sucka—drop me a line at kutalik at the gmail dot com. (Those of you in the campaign will be getting updates in the field dispatches.)