Monday, September 24, 2012

News and Ephemera from Kezmarok

A round-up of things particular to the Hill Cantons campaign proper.

And now the news...
A bizarre riot of pugilism near the Gate of 900 Eyes last Sagday night has municipal issues in a state of almost concern. A bo stick-armed delegation from The Ring-Tailed Circle of Kezmarokies for Prosperity and Weal, a rumored front for Wellsprings of the Crowd, marched on the Municipal Palace yesterday demanding immediate suppression of the “fight cult.” The High-Marshal has stated that a round-up of the “usual suspects is already underway.”

Dromons and cogs pulling in from the waters of the Cantons are spreading word of a slow and massive accumulation of storm clouds in the seas of the northwest. The stormheads have been eerily piling up for weeks now, occasionally looking like they will burst though into a gigantic squall—only to dry up inexplicably. Some say that the supernatural storm-to-be is the Celestial Lady beating the Sun Lord with her silver chains again, others around the chaotic cult of Storm Child whisper of the birth of a “One Other”.

Steelpike the Younger, purveyor of secrets and climber of social ladders, has made a great show of wanting to sell a second map of “great and valuable material worth.” Interested parties should inquire at the great hostel of Finestra.

Another round of cryptic wall posters have been appearing throughout Kezmarok (penned in a different hand from last week's fight cult ones). The posters all bear the same lines:

The World Turtle Upended
If buttercups buzz'd after the wozzle bee
If cogs were on land, sun-domes on sea
If steppe-ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows
And pelegranes should be chased into holes by the mouse
If the mamas sold their babies
To the Silent God for an aparicity crown
If summer were spring
And the other way 'round
Then the world-turtle would be upside down!
The World of the Hill Cantons. Crappy Players' Map

The travails of academic life in Kezmarok. The Great Seminar of the HCLK bubbles over into vigorous dispute over the nature of Gematria (the proper assignment of numerological significance) in Therosh's 18th Examination of the Pericyclical Evolution of the Dome of the Heavens.

Kezmarok and the Southlands.
The Weird is marked in purple.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Historical Fiction for Fantasy Readers

I have a small laundry list of failings of the fantasy genre that drive me absolutely bonkers. Sitting right near the top of that list—right after the big-tickets like cardboard, Tolkein-rip-off—is that way too-common one of characters whose world view drip with the mundane and modern. Motivations and dialogue that are so jarringly familiar and pedestrian—minus great compensation in other areas—that they invariably yank me right out of that feeling of being somewhere else entirely (one of the great points of fantasy)

What I find it so deeply disappointing about that drek is that fair-to-good novels in another genre routinely succeed in shifting that feeling of being in a different world despite it's painstakingly real-world orientation: historical fiction.

It has passed into cliché, but it's worth repeating the old L.P. Hartley quote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And that's what I love, the same ability--like the best fantasy--to walk around in the shoes of characters that have values, perspectives and motivations mostly different from my own.

Skipping to the chase, here's a list of historical fiction that spans the pre-industrial era that I found particularly inspiring for me as a GM:

Knight in Anarchy by George Shipway
Brutal and vivid this short novel centers on the life of Humphrey Visdelou, a Anglo-Norman small fiefholder in the Anarchy (the 12th-century period of civil war that serves as the backdrop for Jeff Rients's famous Wessex campaign). 

It hovers close to the ground (though Humphrey becomes involved with many of the big-ticket events of the day) and is painstakingly researched with a character and period detail that surpasses the “alien test” for me.

Sadly out-of-print and difficult/expensive to find in the U.S. outside of libraries. (I lucked out and fished one of out the dollar bin of a used bookstore).

The Warlord and Saxon Chronicles, Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell
The novels of the insanely-prolific Cornwell, best known for his Napoleonic-era Sharpe books, are somewhat predictable in their choice of protagonist--invariably a rough, but honorable military man who bucks authority and religion (almost to the point of being an “Eternal Champion” of sorts). Nevertheless he writes some great adventure novels.

Worth checking out in particular are the Warlord books set in historical Arthurian Britain (with some agnostic, believable whiffs of druidic magic), the Saxon chronicles of 9th century England and the stand-alone, recent Agincourt novel.

The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault
Renault's attempt to reconcile a more historical Theseus with the assumptions of the Golden Bough. The first book goes through his sojourn in the Labyrinth palace of Minoan Crete, the second with the argonauts attempts to capture the “golden fleece.”

It's also worth picking up her other novels oriented around the Hellenic world.

Q  by Luther Blisset
Opening up with a bang in the heat and turmoil of the Peasant Wars and Reformation in the Holy Roman Empire, this sprawling “thinking persons' thriller” follows an obsessional Inquistor and his quarry, a radical Anabaptist, through several decades and cities in western 16th-century Europe. Interestingly Luther Blisset is a coded pseudonym for a (talented) collective of anonymous Italian writers. 

Gentleman of the Road by Michael Chabon
Pultizer-winner Chabon's excellent 10th century-adventurer tale of two Jewish swordsmen/scalawags traveling to the distant Central Asian land of the Khazars. Explicitly dedicated to Leiber's Lankhmar duo.

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali
Ultimately depressing but captivating, this novel tells the story of an Andalusian Muslim noble family immediately after the fall of Granada. Good balance to the heavy Christian-center of most medieval historical fiction. 

His novel about Saladin is also good if a bit drier.

The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour
Yep you read that right Louis “the hoary old western novelist” L'Amour. He just so happened to also write a good, if not great early medieval adventure tale that takes a slave and pirate from the coast of the Frankish empire to the splendors of Caliphate Cordoba and points east.

Name of the Rose and Baudlino by Umberto Eco
You've likely heard of the first (or seen the movie with Sean Connery), Eco does a stand up job of bringing to life the details of real life and the social/intellectual trends of medieval Europe. 

Baudlino is nowhere as accessible and gripping as Name of the Rose, but worth picking up if you have an interest in Constantinople around the time of its capture in the Fourth Crusade.

Also worth checking out:
The Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett 

With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe by Henryk Sienkiewicz

I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Whale Road by Robert Low

So how about you? Any lovely old favorite historical novels of interest to us fellow fantasy gamer

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Post-Apocalyptic D&D: Greyhawk vs. Wilderlands

...the Alliance constructed a fortress north of the base constructed to accommodate the large bodied elder scientists (later to be called the City State of the Invincible Overlord when nomadic barbarians settled amongst the ruins thousands of years later)...Completing the dismantling and demolishing of all tools and machines not worth transporting, the Alliance star cruiser filled up with the colonists going off-planet and the Markrabs began the Uttermost War by destroying the cruiser, all satellite probes, and the Alliance space station. The planet itself was spared devastation as neither side wished to disrupt or destroy the unique ecological cauldron of immense scientific interest.”
- Bob Bledsaw on the origins of the Wilderlands

Because I have lots of life activity with things better to do, I doggedly continue to plug away on matters that are silly, obsessional and fantastical. Still trying to wrap my brain about how demographics subtly shape the feel and tone of a campaign world I started to shift into comparative mode.

The easiest target was Judges Guild's old warhorse of a setting, the Wilderlands. Easy because unlike many other old published D&D settings, the Guild folks thought and published a good deal more (and more rigorously) about the in-game implications of all this. 

Sandwiched between the terse descriptions of hexes and settlements are these solid gold guidelines and sub-systems covering everything from population density to prospecting to semi-realistic cave systems. Helpfully a lot of that work has continued to recently (see here and here).

(Really the compilation of such little nuggets found in the Ready Ref sheets are one of the best—if worst presented—examples ever produced in classic D&D of how you can pull all the game elements together into an interesting “domain game”--but that's a matter for another post).

So let's do some number crunching. Again I'm going to focus on one area for my analysis, in this case I'm picking on Map 1, the area that covers the much-famed City State (and the most-densely inhabited place in that great stretch of wilderness.)

Trying to figure out what the square mileage of that map is a bit of a headache—with the smaller 5-mile hexes and poster-size you get a whopping 1768 hexes. I toss out all the full ocean hexes (244) and count partial water and small islands as half. That gives 1519 land hexes at 32,866.35 square miles (which incidentally makes it the size of Austria or Maine). Now because I am lazy I use a much more liberal count and count the total land areas (remember I only counted clear hexes in Veluna, a count that included the smallish wilderness areas inside its borders would decrease the population density even further by roughly 10 percent.)

Skipping to the chase (so as not to induce eye glazing):
City State area: 8.56 people/square mile, 281,667 total population.
Veluna (Folio): 4.89 people/square mile, 267,000 total population.
Veluna (3.5 ed): 12.24 people/square mile, 668,000 total population.
British Isles (circa 1300): 40 people/square mile.
France (circa 1300): 100 people/square mile.

Punchline is that the City State area is twice as densely settled as the old Veluna and not even that far off from the tripling revision of 3.5 edition (which I more and more think is likely closer to the original authorial intent).

Wilderlands though in my twisted, little mind owns up to the implications of being such a howlingly wild, post-apocalyptic place in a more explicit manner. The fallout from the Uttermost War and following calamities that happened to the former space colony of Ghenrek IV feel so much deeper and more cataclysmic when you eyeball those many maps and see the little pockets of civilizations. 

The explicit variation of technology levels from the neolithic up to late Renaissance-seeming technologies reinforces this feeling. And with the smaller scale (six times smaller than the Darlene maps remember) how fragile civilization feels all the more obvious as you see how much bigger and closer in those large swaths of forest are.

In the Wilderlands there are no overarching large-scale polities with boundaries pushed up against each other. It's a place where an overgrown city-state (nay THE city-state) lead by a Lord Humungus-sounding “overlord” is one of the most organized bastions of civilization existent.

So what does that do to our view of the World of Greyhawk?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Postscript on Greyhawk's “Howling Emptiness”

Yesterday's post set off a rather longish discussion and thought train—oh we are a nerdy crew. A few more points before I let go of this.

Greyhawk's nations are big suckas. In comparison to other lands in this part of Oerik, Veluna is a small-to-mid-sized land with its 44,544 square miles (and that's only counting the presumably-cultivated clear hexes). Compared to small-to-midsized European nations though it's pretty large even with that reduced count. Ireland is almost half that size at 27,135 square miles for instance.

There's very little actual farmland. Here's an interesting backward calculation. My conservative estimate (based on disputable medieval crop yields) for the amount of land you'd need under cultivation to support populations is about 1 sq mile per 180.

So just to support the population existing for Veluna you'd only need 1,488.33 square miles of that 54000+ square miles. That would be only a little over two out of those 70 clear hexes (assuming it was all clumped together) for sustainability and maybe twice that if it was growing a lot of surplus.

The 1983 boxed set gazetteer (I was only using the folio as a source yesterday) says that's the majority of the population is clustered around the capital city and the large urban areas and around the middle of the country, so again I'm conjuring up mental pictures of a pretty desolate countryside with rare palisaded villages and fortified manors surrounded by light woods and wasteland for the most part when you get outside those denser belts.

The rural to urban populations are pretty close to actual historical precedents. Having picked up one of my books from a Penguin series on English medieval history I was about to write the opposite. That book had a long list of towns over 2,000 in population (Greyhawk's maps only cover towns over 1,500). A whopping 42 in fact which made Veluna with its measly three seem incredibly rural in comparison.

But then I looked at Britain's population at that time and it stood around 5 million—which is neatly 20 times the population of Veluna (again wow that's how tiny and far-flung these countries are). Allowing for that twenty-fold difference the number of towns seem totally on.

There is a huge population jump from first edition's Greyhawk to 3.5's. I'm not the first to point this out but later editions increased the Flanaess nations populations from 200-800 percent. I would have never known if I hadn't seen the numbers on Wiki (tangentially it's funny that Wiki has the 3.5 stats down as “facts”) but Veluna is given in 668,000 as compared to the folio's 250,000.

The big shift—and I would be curious to hear more about the reasoning behind it—points out how such a seemingly uninteresting thing like demographics can subtly influence the tone and feeling of a setting. Later Veluna is a place more akin to the relatively more stable and prosperous medieval Britain than the razor's edge I was presenting yesterday.

I suppose that's my point with all this. Honestly I could care less about what's canonical or not, that's a pointless and silly thing to get worked up about. But I am interested in what the implications of fantasy world building, what changes when you alter this “fact” or that “dynamic” and how it all stacks up to the only thing we really have for empirical comparison: the history (however spotty and inaccurate) of our own world.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Howling Emptiness of the World of Greyhawk

Humankind is fragmented into isolationist realms, indifferent nations, evil lands, and states striving for good...Nomads, bandits, and barbarians raid southwards every spring and summer. Humanoid enclaves are strongly established and scattered throughout the continent, and wicked insanity rules in the Great Kingdom.”
- World of Greyhawk (folio)

It's often been said that the Grande Dame of D&D published settings, the World of Greyhawk, was a world of “howling emptiness.”

The much-repeated statement refers to the scale of the hex map, at 30 miles a hex containing a whopping 779.42 square miles that's a zoomed-out perspective that doesn't show much there there. But if you are one of those eminently nerdy and obsessive types that give a hoot about the demographics of an imaginary land, that howling emptiness may be more than just a map abstraction.

If you actually sit down take all the distances and stated populations at face value and start crunching numbers, your immediate impression will be that the lands of Flanaess aren't just stable, if embattled faux medieval nations, but far more like the edge-of-oblivion points of light societies of a post-apocalyptic world.

(Oh how, I have been holding off publishing this post in a futile attempt to hold the lie of maintaining some level of the hipness of my twenties and thirties)

Let's take a closer look. I picked out of the one of the more well-known lands as a test case, the Archclericy of Veluna. Looking at the folio-edition gazetteer it is said to have a total population of 250,000 humans, 10,000 elves, and 7,000 gnomes for a total of 267,000.

Figuring out exactly what constitutes the land area of the domain is a bit tricky, there are no printed boundaries. I make a few assumptions like only counting “clear” hexes as farmland and pretty much stick to the rivers as boundary markers. I count out 70 hexes or 54,544 square miles. Comparing that to the total population I come out with 4.89 humans and demihumans per square mile.


That's one amazingly sparsely-inhabited land. How sparse? Well let's take some historical comparisons from 13th century Europe: France had 100 people per square mile, Germany and Italy had 90 people per square mile, and one of the most howling empty places of that time the British Isles weighs in with 40 people per square mile. (I believe that Russia of that time which was a land of great stretches of wild forest and wetlands punctuated with islands of urban concentration was around 20 but I am too lazy to hunt for it right now).

In other words, even the wildest places of Europe at the time are orders of magnitude more settled and prosperous than Veluna. Those wide light green clearings on the Darlene map turn out not to be dull vast tracts of farmland peopled by plump, happy yeoman, but barely held little bastions.

It's hard not to conjure up images of isolated little hamlets clustered around a grim watchtower or small castle with miles of wasteland and bramble-grown lost settlements filling the miles between. Even inside these “settled” lands armed-to-the-teeth patrols are making the rounds and a monster or two is not an uncommon daily nuisance.

Again I understand this exercise is a bit silly. I highly doubt that Gygax and others sat down and figured out how the population numbers lined up density wise with the map. But when the introduction paints such a vivid picture of an exceedingly tough and contested place there must have been a rough sense that they wanted to portray a world on the razor's edge demographically.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Whither the West Marches?

Running a West Marches-like campaign was something of a mini-trend in old school D&D circles at the tail end of the last decade. I should know because the eponymous campaign this spawned this blog was itself explicitly modeled around the concept in the early spring of 2008. At that time there was a beautiful array of much-blogged about campaigns running based on most if not all of the principles of the WM.

For those unfamiliar with the West Marches it was an “experimental” wilderness-oriented sandbox campaign run by Ben Robbins (the scare quotes denoting the fact that it was something very close to the kinds of campaigns of yore). The major features according to Robbins were:
1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.
2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.
3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

Other major defining features were a ban on “town” adventures; hexless, vector-based wilderness trekking (West Marches has often erroneously assumed to have been a “hex-crawl”); an encouragement of player-driven goal/self-organization; and a high degree of developed micro-detail when it came to wilderness and dungeon sites (each small region had a highly-tailored encounter table, landmarks and other often glossed over features had more emphasis, etc).

That it became a fad of old schoolers isn't a great mystery, Robbins' clear, articulate, widely-read dissection of what made his campaign work happened to coincide with a number of key assertions of the old school play style. That he ran it with 3.5 didn't matter, it was about the the literal meaning of “radicalism”--the paring back to get at roots--that held such great appeal. Such a precision focus on site-based, player-driven exploration was a winning concept.

But looking around today at all those related experiments I am struck by the fact that 3-5 years later all of the ones I am familiar with are gone. While the Hill Cantons campaign is still in fighting form, thriving even thanks to Google Plus, it has certainly evolved way beyond many of the defining boundaries of the WM. Over-aching plots, great mysteries, and urban adventuring—hell, the last two months of the campaign have been inside the confines of a single city—have become more and more the order of the day.

So where did all the West Marches go? Victims to the demands of adult life? Did the format feel too constraining? Or did they just simply evolve (as it did here) as the sands of the box lapped into other spheres?

Curious, thoughts? 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hard Questions about the RPG Kickstarter Revolution

I think it's time we really had more thoughtful discussion on the crowdfunding model so rapidly multiplying like love-sick rabbits in our hobby. (Bully for David over at Dungeons Down Under raising his own concerns today in a reasonably even-handed post and getting me thinking about this again.)

While I'm personally fine with the six projects I have backed in the last year or so (I am in no rush to get product and generally like the idea of “paying it forward” to blogging comrades who have been shelling out free content for years), a growing trend in the model is starting to worry me. As a journalist who spent a good chunk of the last decade covering workplace issues--and the strange, byzantine world of finance that colors it--the red flags are just a flapping a wee bit too much for me to be entirely comfortable.

Increasingly, it's hard not to get the feeling that the original microloan-to-support-artists orientation of Kickstarter and Indiegogo is being supplanted by the proliferation of a new model of large-scale projects—many now generating millions of dollars--where essentially backers' donations are viewed either as pre-purchasing products or floating no-equity investments in larger commercial products. Kickstarter has been crowing recently about how it's raised over a quarter of a billion dollars ($275 million) since 2009--that's how big a pot we are talking about.

(By the way, the JOBS bill here in the U.S. will allow crowdfunders to start dabbling in equity next year, though Kickstarter has already stated it will not do so. This will certainly change the field, though whether is better or worse is still to be seen.)

That a number of the more enthusiastic in our hobby are taking a “buyer beware”, “your investment is risky and can disappear” tack of argument just compounds those concerns—it was the same rhetoric you would hear investment analysts using before the sub-prime market went supernova.

To date there have not been any trainwrecks of that magnitude in our hobby (others may take exception to that) but I see a number of problematic things in that expectation shift:
No Refunds. While currently Kickstarter has a stated policy that backers must show “due diligence” in producing the products/services promised, it has no refund policy itself. Remember that it takes a 5 percent cut off of each drive—and it's partner Amazon takes a further cut of 3-5 percent to process the transaction. Further it admits it has no real enforcement mechanism to ensure that projects match their backing.

Accountability/Transparency. Though woefully uneven, investment activity in this country is forced to jump through the hoops of the SEC. Not only are you not getting a piece of the financial ownership with your “investment” you are not getting reports and oversight privileges that accompany investing in most financial instruments. Again outside of the goodwill of the particular project there is no real requirement to let you the backer know exactly what the pace of development is.

Product Timeliness and Quality. When backers morph into consumers their expectations become different. Though clearly some backers have some sour bad faith or sulky expectations, it's not an irrational bar-raising given the clear shift in expectations from the projects themselves. In a traditional pre-purchase often at the least traded the floating of what is essentially a zero-interest loan and the chance to “vote with their feet” after poor reviews for a discount. Strangely many projects still give backers the products at the same—or even higher—price point of someone who buys it when it goes live.

I know well that we in the DIY rpg hobby have a wide diversity of views about commercialization and crowdfunding, so I'm curious if others are seeing it this way too. I'm not interested in taking potshots—or tearing down someone's success--but in exploring the ways that we can salvage the good pieces of the original model and figuring out at least a rough consensus of what constitutes “ethical crowdfunding” (or whether that's even possible).

How do we realign expectations? How do we protect “consumers” and most of all how do we keep the gold rush atmosphere for swamping out the vital aspect of imaging the shit out of our fantasy games?

I will likely continue to back projects coming out of our milieu, but you better believe that the larger the boom goes without a larger community rethinking the more I will be doing so extremely selectively. How about you?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Beast of the Week: The Wobbly Giant

Happy Labor Day. Tomorrow I am back and (finally) resuming regular posting.

Wobbly Giant
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic (Good)
Movement: 150’ (50’)
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 14+1
Attacks: 1 (Giant Hammer)
Damage: 6d6
Save: F15
Morale: 11

Summoned by the mighty collective sorcerous will of the Illustrious Workers of Woad (Ostrovo Canton grand lodge), the Wobbly Giant wanders the four corners of the Weird in a massive wooden box car. 

Red-skinned and broad of shoulder the giant seeks to rebuild a new world in the ashes of the old by wrecking mighty havoc among cities that gain too great of a reputation for avarice.

All possessing more than 10,000 gp must save versus magic or flee on first sighting. In his presence not a single wheel will turn. He carries no treasure with him other than the clothes on his back and the cudgel in his hand.