28 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt IV

The Appetizer Round

In my last installment, I promised that in this one I'd get to the New Campaign's first adventure.  Alright, that turned out to be a modest fib.  Before I do that, I want to talk about how to play NPCs.

What I am is a method actor; I put myself into the shoes of damn near every NPC.  Part of this is acting like real people do, and not like faceless red shirt existing only to provide unyielding opposition towards the PCs, or speaking like a pompous 50-year-old college professor.  If the words in your mouth sound stilted and wrong, it's probably because they're coming off stilted and wrong.  Beyond that ... 

1)  Real people don’t fight to the death en masse; it’s an enduring military truism that a force sustaining 25% casualties will probably break, and a unit sustaining 50% casualties will almost certainly break.  Many systems have morale rules ... use them!  If they don't, fake it.  Let's say a low roll means an individual will surrender or bug out, a high roll means he's holding the line.  Add simple modifiers where appropriate -- if the other side's got a Conan-type who's covered in the blood of the NPC's comrades, if the NPC's side has a strong leader rallying the troops, if there's a hereditary enemy involved.  It's easy to figure out.

2)  Real people don’t stolidly respond “I dunno” to a PC’s questions; most everyone knows something, or think they do, or at the very least will shoot their mouths off to appear that they do.  Not even a dumb mook wants you to believe he’s a dumb mook.

3) Give every mook, and I mean every mook, one or two personality traits.  “Old Jon” is a stereotypical sailor in a red striped shirt, always with a concertina or a dirty bottle of rum, and is always willing to help newbies learn the ropes.  Larghos has an odd cowrie shell charm he claims came from his “mermaid wife” and protects him from drowning.  Natyzha abandoned her home and family for the sea due to crushing debt and means never to return.  There are user-submitted sites full of lists of folks like that, and automatic NPC generators on the Web that can do that much too.  It really helps, it doesn’t take much work, and you can easily recycle the lists.  The first time you see a mook go down in a battle, and another screams and runs and flings himself on her body sobbing, well ... the PCs might finish them off anyway, but many of them will pause and reflect.

4) As far as the mechanics go, acting is like any other skill ... you get better by practice.  I do a lot of different voices, and it’s to the point where I can voice several different NPCs sequentially and folks can distinguish them easily, but I’ve had a lot of years of practice at it.  It’s pitch, intonation, cadence and the use of idiom.  Heck, it doesn’t take more to establish a very formal, snooty, upper crust NPC than to use a measured, even tone and decline to use contractions or slang!

5) On the female front ... I speak with a somewhat modulated, quieter voice and employ some body language, but of course my female characters come out as contraltos; I’m not descending to Betty Boopesque caricature.  That being said, the problem of most male GMs nervous about portraying women might be not so much that they come off as creepy or whimsical, but that they're convinced they are out of self-consciousness.  My advice is not to worry about it.

6)  Stick in a viewpoint NPC.  I've editorialized about it in this blog post, which pretty much covers it.

And with that out of the way, I seriously will put the dinner on the table next time out.  Promise.

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

21 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt III

Setting the Table

I can’t quite call myself a “zero to hero” partisan.  To a large extent, being a GURPS GM mitigates against that.  In stark contrast to many a game system, beginning GURPS characters can be competent in a number of skills, or very good in one or two.  It takes a pretty high level of tactical idiocy for a beginning party in GURPS to get rolled by a handful of mook spearmen.

But that doesn’t mean a GURPS fantasy campaign can’t start low-key.  A game setting I admire is Columbia’s Harnworld, which is the closest I think the hobby’s ever going to get to an honest, accurate, gritty representation of medieval life.  Harn keeps beginning equipment sparse, coinage scarce, social mobility low and introductory adventures very low key indeed ... a scenario where the payoff is the price of a single new sword is considered pretty decent for newbies in Harn.

And that’s the way to go, I believe.  Start a party dripping with gear, start them off rescuing the Kingdom from certain destruction against the Hordes of Evil, where do you go from there?

So ... in my campaign, I start players off with 500 silver sinvers.  That’ll get you a broadsword, a suit of cuirbolli armor, the equivalent of a riding mule, some camping basics, and that’s about it.

But you could get even more restrictive.  Remember that small town I suggested as a starting point in the first SFS post?  Use that, and that’ll help solve a classic problem with new campaigns: why are all these people adventuring together, and how do they get together in the first place?  The quandary leads to sorry-ass cliches of the You-All-Happen-To-Be-In-A-Tavern type.  They were lame in 1975, and they’re full of dry rot today.

Instead, make the party members townies who’ve known each other all their lives; this cuts short the usual angst over how these disparate people get together and why they’re supposed to trust one another.  The party members reflect the demographic: teenagers eager for Adventure.  You’ll have the children of hunters, skilled in the wild and used to privation; the herbalist’s apprentice, who knows a good bit about healing; the son of the village’s wacky eccentric scholar, who turns out to be a mage; the granddaughter of a retired long-term soldier, who taught her little girl something about battle; the altar boy or girl who serves the village priest, and whose simple and deep belief has caused him or her to be touched with the fingerbrush of divinity ... Enforce the paradigm.  This is the type of character they’re permitted to take, period.  They likely know a great deal about one another, and the gestalt works a lot better if they do.

Indeed, it’s an excuse to cut back on initial equipment further. It’s not a rich village, and the players aren’t going to be outfitted with much: hunting bows, slings, boar spears, leather jerkins and caps for armor (maybe), belt knives, camping gear.  One or two might have Grandmother’s sword off of the mantlepiece.  Horses represent significant material wealth, and it’s far likelier that they’d get away with an ornery pack-donkey at best.  Magic?  Alchemicals?  Hah.  Lily’s been made to help compound in her mother’s shop since she was old enough to work a pestle, so she’s got a few packets of useful herbs.  Clots wounds, reduces fevers, put a pinch of that in a fellow’s mug and he’ll be out cold in a half hour, that sort of thing.  (Never mind that pack of spices ... the trail cooking will actually be tasty for a few weeks!)

It also gives you an excuse to keep skill levels down.  However naturally talented, someone whose healing skills come from holding towels for the village midwife just is not going to be an expert surgeon.  However physically gifted, a teenager whose combat skills come from the retired one-armed soldier putting her through her paces a couple times a week after the farm chores are done is not going to be outdueling warlords any time soon.

And that’s how the table is set for the group’s first adventure.  I’ll get to that next installment.

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

14 December 2013

Starting from scratch, pt II

In my previous "Starting from scratch" post I talked about some basics of setting design.  The second installment concerns an element that probably has the highest ratio of importance for a setting to settings in which it's done badly: religion.

Faith Manages

If you have religion, make it matter.  If the PCs aren't devout followers of the god Upuaut, his priests will have nothing to do with them, and their healing magics will not work on them.  If locals of the farming district all attend temple, and the outlanders conspicuously don't participate, they'll be viewed with suspicion at best.  Shut the whole town down for the saint's parade, and man, don't they have a lot of those in the spring months?

A generic "Oh, Naseer is the God of Goatscrewing, and his priests all wear green and silver and have a goat brand on the right wrist, and their symbol is a green X, and they're Chaotic Evil, and their temples are always made of basalt" is about as far as many settings go, and is the sort of thing anyone can roll up on a Random Deity Generator.  (I recommend Chaotic Shiny's, if you like random generators.)

We’re working from two basic principles that color the creation of your setting: that you should keep things simple, and that you’re starting with a region away from it all.   Want some tips?  Funny you asked:

* Honoring the first principle, just have a handful of faiths: the white light good-guy religion, the pastoral/agricultural deity, the fire/forging/war deity, the death/magic/power deity.  It’s less work, and more for your players to remember.

* Please, please do me and yourselves a favor and don’t do what 90% of gamers do: mimic the medieval Roman Catholic church, in all its intricate, baroque hierarchy.  (I've been alerted to a delicious TV Tropes term for the syndrome -- Crystal Dragon Jesus.  Too funny.)  I’ve always found this slightly bizarre – if fantasy faiths have so many interventionist deities as all of that, why do they require massive, convoluted hierarchies and rigid, top-imposed doctrines?  Wouldn’t the deity him or herself instruct the priesthood?  Might there be a heavily decentralized situation (e.g. Presbyterianism)?

* Consider some questions that direct how a faith works: why are we here?  Why do we suffer?  How are we supposed to conduct ourselves in our daily lives? Where do we go when we die?  What happens to apostates or unbelievers?  How do we believers interact with the authorities?  With those of other faiths?  Is divine revelation complete, or are there more prophets (or a messiah) to come?

* Consider having splinter sects, deep divisions in the faith’s ranks, or outright heresies.  A recent historical event in my own gameworld was the (seemingly permanent) appearance of two new moons in the sky.  This has caused a detonation in the faith of the Moon God, and the factionalism and infighting are strong and ongoing.

* Pen some simple prayers.  Alright, I might be a writer and a poet, but I don’t expect you to be.  One of my faiths has “Lead us on the path” as a quick prayer by the devout; it’s the shortened version of the chorus of a multi-verse chant.  “Holy Fire, hold my oath” is another one, referring to the sacred flame devout worshipers of my fire god keep in their homes, and over which they cook all their evening meals.

* Put together a few holidays.  Don’t worry so much about the genuine religious significance of them – holidays seem overwhelmingly to be about the folk customs.   Think about the Catholic example: for every twenty of you -- even those who aren't Catholic -- who recognize that waving palm fronds and painting hardboiled eggs are well-known elements of that time of year, there might be one of you who knows off the top what religious meaning those elements have.

There are all manner of folklore books that include examples of holiday folk customs: certain foods that are ceremonially prepared, fairs held around the key dates, rents and hiring done on traditional dates, ritual observances.  There’s nothing like a party coming through a small village just as a fair is in session, or seeing the youngsters out dancing on the cliffside in feathered costumes to celebrate a special day.

Now here’s your secret weapon in all of this: Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is, in my entirely biased opinion, heaven’s gift to GMs seeking exotic setting detail.  Want to have a regional cuisine (say) that isn’t bastardized Ren Faire fodder?  Terrific.  Type in “Indonesian cuisine” – for example – and you’ll get all manner of exotic stuff.  (The custom of a “rice table” – a banquet featuring many dishes, all with rice as a base – being one.)

And you can do the same thing here.  Go to the Shinto article -- for example -- and you’ll see all manner of fodder.  Ritual purifications?  The offerings to make?  How you properly enter a shrine?  Sacred dances?  Protective amulets?  Just file off the serial numbers and put them right in.

It’s a bit of work, yes.  But it’s also one of the foundations of your setting, and a gold mine of rich roleplaying opportunities.  Why not get it right from Day One?

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

07 December 2013

Starting from scratch (pt I)

A turn of phrase that runs through gaming forums is “lazy GMing.” This isn’t meant as a pejorative by its advocates.  They seek an approach that imposes as little work as practical on a GM, and that approach has many facets.

I’m not particularly in their camp.  I’ve done, over the years, a massive amount of work on my sandbox setting, and have details available in insane amounts.  It’s not merely that I have blurbs on over a thousand businesses in the great capital out of which my campaign operates ... it’s that I’ve also got a dozen or two blurbs for every significant village within two days’ ride of that capital, and as many as a hundred for every significant city in the kingdom.  I know who rules every province, something about that person’s family, and the same about every subordinate fiefholder.  I know the order, rough power level and location of every wizard of journeyman level and above in the kingdom.  I know all these things about many of the other major realms around too.

But I’ve also had over three decades now to work on this.  People ask me, at times, how to start a long-term campaign from scratch, and not out of some game company’s shrinkwrap either.  I can’t hand them my own approach – that’d be silly and counterproductive.  If you’re running a campaign (say) set in colonial Massachusetts, why waste time on statting out Philadelphia just on the off-chance the party might go there someday?  They’re in Plymouth now.

I’ll give my answer over a few columns.

Opening Gambit

Design a small town and about thirty miles in every direction, with as much detail as possible, because the players are going to pester you with questions if they’re anything other than hack-n-slashers.  Put the town on the outskirts of a frontier province, well away from the run of national politics and wealth. 

It’s also best to make the country isolated, behind natural barriers, and unlikely to be hip deep in worldspanning politics.  Sorry, I don't need a detailed timeline for the history of the land going back a thousand years, something a lot of even professional game designers waste time and ink putting together. With very few exceptions, no one cares that Empress Lynessia III was the last monarch of Vallia to personally lead troops in war, winning the decisive battle of Fourth Council Rock against the Avanari 174 years ago. It's enough to say that the empires of Vallia and Avanar are traditional enemies and have a turbulent, heavily militarized border, the last full-scale war being seventeen years ago.

I've seen a few too many gazetteers filled with little beyond what any GM with a Random Kingdom Creation Table could crank out. A name-population-principal product-name of leader deal, that’s not of a lot of interest to players, who usually want to know if it’s a large town or a small town, but don’t give a damn that the population is 2517 as opposed to 2403 or whether there are 20 fishing boats or 40. 

Give me, instead, two or three pressing problems or notable conflicts about a town or district. Give me a folk custom or two prevalent in the area; the wearing of the color blue by men is considered bad luck, or that every business takes a fiesta between noon and 1 PM.  Give me things beyond mere demographic nuts-and-bolts.  I like to know, for instance, whether your frontier town has a reputation as a cultural trendsetter, and locally-trained musicians have a cachet for hundreds of miles around, or that it has historical significance far beyond its political or economic weight (a Plymouth, MA, say).

Businesses?  Well, you’ve got my previous article on town building.  Write a paragraph or two on each.  Here’s an example from a small village in my campaign:

  • Sign of the Red and Blue Pot:  With the death of the previous owner, her last surviving relative by marriage, a foreigner, Kesem kin Swallowflame, has taken over this well-stocked general store, which has a good array of housewares, tools, bulk grain and provisions, and textiles.  While he is a decent enough merchant (-13, various scholarly subjects-14/15), he has been trained to a scholarly life and educated at a great university, and somewhat resents having to take a menial job in the countryside.   Postings for foreign philosophers are not plentiful, but Kesem still pours his meager profits – he’s wont to let customers run up a tab – into books brought in from the capital, trying to keep up with new teachings and still hopeful of scholarly preference.

And there you have it.  What, no stat block?  No weapons skills?  No magical items?  Of course not.  The PCs aren’t going to fight this guy, and we don’t care what his Health or Move are, whether he has Climbing skill, or how much damage he can do if he clouts you over the head with that grain flail leaning up against the corner.  What they’re going to want from him is to fill up their packs with smoked sausage and biscuit for their adventure into the forest, and if they find out he’s a wannabe scholar, whether he can read that weird text they found.  What you’re going to need from him is an insight into his personality so that you can play him effectively as a vivid NPC, and we can all see the image that arises: a fellow starting to show grey hairs, somewhat fussy, somewhat distracted, somewhat irritable, possibly dressed grander (if shabbier) than the village standard, always with his nose in a book, and excited only when travelers come through town with books to sell.

And heck ... if he does need to fight, a GM ought to be able to determine, very quickly, the combat stats for an average villager.  Using GURPS, average stats are 10, so if Kesem trains once a month with the village militia, he may well have ST 10, DX 10, HT 10, a Speed of 5.5, a Spear skill of 12, with (say) a leather jerkin for armor (DR 1), a Parry of 9, and does 1d-1 HT of damage with a successful thrust.  Those details, including the time it took me to type them, took me 35 seconds to work out.  So why not establish that as the standard if you need to work up the mook villagers for that large-scale bandit raid?  A strong villager?  ST 12, and that damage is 1d HT instead of 1d-1.  A nimble villager?  DX 12, and that Spear skill becomes -14, her Speed becomes 6, her Parry becomes 10, and suddenly she’s a legitimate threat in a fight.  There.  That’s all you need.

So do twenty of these: the general merchant, the blacksmith, the horse rancher, the local priest, the local squire up at the Big House, the cunning man who gathers Useful Herbs in the woods, the trapper, the sergeant of the village militia, the farmwife Everyone Goes To When Someone Is Sick, the tavern, the schoolteacher, the hedge wizard, a handful of others.

Want to spice the village up a little further?  I've two blog posts (this one and that one) setting forth a couple tables for more local color.  They're intended for cities, and a number of the entries aren't really suitable for a village, but a number are.  It may be interesting to decide that the villagers will haggle fiercely over everything but beer or spirits, or that Gossip Is King and locals scoff at the notion that anyone's business is private.   The "Small Town Horror" blogpost also has a list of local-color items (if creepy), many readily applicable to a small fantasy village.

More to come!

The Starting From Scratch series:
Opening Gambit: Your town and its NPCs
Faith Manages: Designing religions 
Setting The Table: Party composition and equipment
The Appetizer Round: Tips on portraying NPCs
The Main Course: Your First Adventure
The Dessert Round: Random tips and suggestions 

30 November 2013

The Black Elf Follies ...

My apologies for being quiet the last couple of weeks, but I’ve been plowed under with rehearsal and concert schedules for both the ensemble I’ve been in and my college chorus’ alumni reunion concert, celebrating the conductor’s 40th year at the helm.  (NUCS forever!)  But since you’re not here to hear about my singing ...

One of the hoary old standbys of gaming discussions is the player who bucks the campaign’s premise.  I've editorialized on what many call “special snowflakes,” a term often applied to the resulting PC, but more along the lines of my distaste for the term being used as a code slur for “Anything I don’t like.”

But that doesn’t touch the original syndrome.  Allow me to quote from a post in one of these debates, which illustrates one side of things.

Whether this is a problem and who’s  problem it is all depends on who's being the asshole. If the players wants to interject something cool or unusual into his character because he has a fun idea and it's going to get him into the game more and the GM pulls some sort of "No, in my world elves aren't black!" or "there are no female dwarves!" bullshit? That's the GM being a dick. That stuff is just another way for GMs to take the often reasonable "this is mostly my world and ideas" and throttle the players with it. This is also where a lot of GM horror stories come from, especially if people push their own pet peeves, control issues, or even racism and sexism through this crap.

No, screw that noise.

In joining my game, you're joining a campaign.  It has a defined game system, a defined setting and a defined milieu.  Someone agreeing to play in my campaign agrees to all of these elements. It is not "mostly" my world; it is entirely my world. Characters are created within that setting, as natives to that setting, and exist within that setting. If you don't like that setting, if you don't want to engage with it, then what are you doing at my table in the first place, instead of seeking out a campaign better suited to your needs and preferences? 

For my part, I miss where insistence on rejecting the setting helps someone "get into the game more" -- it sounds like, by so doing, the player would be getting into the game LESS -- and I definitely miss the part where (say) Being A Black Elf is the sort of make-or-break character creation decision which makes the difference between a Fun PC or an Unfun PC.  (As to that, I also miss the part where a GM is a dick for refusing to permit a character that doesn't fit with his setting, but a player isn't a dick for refusing to play a character which does.  Come again?)

Are black elves part of my gameworld?  No.  Would I prevent you from playing a black-skinned elf? No. But, by definition, you'd be playing someone wildly abnormal.  Most people would presume your PC to be accursed in some fashion ... and very likely they'd be right.  Cityfolk would more often than otherwise recoil from you, villagers would grab the torches and pitchforks, and any ghastly crime committed within a week of your arrival OR departure would be presumed to be your doing.

That's the point where most Special Snowflake players throw a tantrum. See, they're usually fine with playing their bizarre I Must Be Different Than You Peons characters ... but they're not nearly as sanguine, in my experience, with facing the fallout of their choices, and often throw out accusations that they’re being unfairly targeted or “punished” in some way.

I reject, contemptuously, this concept.  If you decide that you're going to play an assassin, you run the risk of the law and heroic types hunting you down.  If you decide that you're going to play an orc, you run the risk of prejudice and fear in areas where orcs aren't well loved.  If you decide to run a priest, you'll run into people opposed to your faith.  These are all your choices to make: I am not going to force you to play an orc, an assassin or a practitioner of an unpopular faith.  If you want to play a character that twigs as few knee-jerk prejudices as possible, you can.

There are prejudices in my campaign.  Some make sense; many don't.  People are down on one another for the many reasons this happens in real life: racial, economic, class, profession, nationality, ethnic group, hair color, speaking voice, what have you.  I quite understand people who don't want to encounter prejudice in their gaming, the same way there are people out there who don't want to encounter violence, who don't want to encounter fantasy ... what have you.  You've every right to seek a campaign that meets your requirements, and I wish people the best of luck in finding one.

Let me reiterate: the players don't get to decide what is or is not true in my game setting.  I do.  The details aren't up for voting.  If I wanted a Generic Fantasy World where anything goes, I'd play one, and no doubt that campaign would attract those who prefer such settings.  I don't want one, and I don't play one, and my campaign has attracted a couple hundred players who prefer those settings.  I am no more about to change fixed details for every newbie who can't stand coloring inside the lines than I'm going to stop running GURPS because that newbie prefers to play D&D, or that I'm going to stop running sandboxes because that newbie really prefers a nice, straight railroad track.

Here’s another quote from one of those debates: "Is the consistency of the world really that important compared to all you having fun at the table and being friendly?"

Why is it that some presume that "consistency" and "fun" are mutually exclusive values? My players like the consistency just fine, and they not only have fun, but they've been having fun for many years. Three of my current players have been gaming with me for over twenty years; a fourth has been doing so eleven years.

But hang on, let's turn the question around. Let's say you've just joined my main group. There you are, with the aforementioned four players. You're the newbie at the table. Why is being inconsistent really that important to you, compared to everyone having fun at the table and being friendly?  Don't you think it's UNfriendly to decide that the setting doesn't apply to you, and that you don't want to follow the guidelines that every other player's not only followed, but have done so for many years?  Wouldn't, in fact, YOU be the disruptive one here?  Why should the fun of other people be spoiled for your benefit?

23 November 2013

Medieval Demographics Done RIGHT (Pt II)

1)    Location

Any urban area, whether village, town or city, arises out of the need for trade.  While a small town can coalesce in a prosperous farming district or gather around a castle (indeed, skilled labor is necessary for a castle to be built), larger towns or cities only locate on navigable rivers or natural harbors.  Just as an example, how many cities in the United States before the railroad era were NOT founded on a navigable waterway?  (Answer: Indianapolis, and the founders thought that the White River was navigable.)

Consider also access to building materials, wood for fuel, fresh water, and nearby arable land.  The more negative factors there are that deter growth – the site's on an invasion route, a lack of forests, mountainous or swampy terrain – there must be counterbalancing benefits that want to make people live there (there’s a large gold mine, the location is unusually defensible, the kingdom’s northern border army needs a base).

You’re also not going to get a town of any size far in the outback, away from trade routes or transportation infrastructure, no matter what the benefits.  When all is said and done, the main reason people live in towns -- dirty, smelly, crowded, verminous, dangerous places at medieval tech -- is to find work.  If work isn't to be had, they're not going to stick around.  If there are no resources and no trade, a ruler would have to be mad (and filthy rich) in order to subsidize a city out in the middle of nowhere, for no good reason whatsoever.  It's expensive enough, and hard enough on the soldiers, to subsidize a strictly military outpost in the middle of nowhere: ask the Romans, the French, the British, or the mid- to late-19th century Americans, for that matter.

If your realm tries anyway to maintain a sizable town or city away from natural resources (see below), that means you need an equally-sizable logistics train to support it.  This is easily disruptible by the realm's enemies.  (This, of course, can form the basis for plots.)

2)     Resources

In basic terms, a town of a thousand people will consume twenty-five bushels of grain, around 800 gallons of wine, tea or beer, about three cattle, and about a hundred smaller livestock ... daily.  Throw in vegetables, fruit, cooking oil, herbs ... Coming back to water.  A human needs about two quarts of fresh water a day (or liquid equivalent) in order to survive.  The various industries of a large town or city, at the medieval level, uses roughly ten times that much per capita – for tanners, laundries, fullers, foundries, smiths, numerous others.

You’ll have to have market squares (and probably more than one) to hawk that food.  That means wagonloads of food and drink (the twenty-five bushels of grain alone takes up not quite two wagons), each and every day, and if your roads are impassible in winter, you need many more wagons coming through before then.  Storage?  Well ... if you keep your civic food stores dry, protected from vermin, and secure, they’ll keep two to four years without magic.  Maybe.  Say, does your gamesystem have a food preservation enchantment?

Also consider the stability of the countryside.  If you have continual plagues, invasions, bandit hordes and wars trucking through your lands, you’re not going to have prosperous cities, because there won’t be enough peasants left to grow enough food to feed them, nor enough traders surviving the gauntlet to provide raw materials and needful goods at economically feasible prices.  (That thousand-person town will need a minimum of five square miles of dedicated farmland, exclusive of the aforementioned peasant farmers needed to grow that food ... presuming the soil is good and the land is well watered and flat, there are no droughts, famines or civil disruptions, that the farmers employ sound agricultural practices, and that the harvest isn't whisked away to support a far-off royal capital or the realm's own marauding army.  For anyone who knows anything about medieval life -- or, indeed, low-tech agricultural travails generally -- that is a very tall order, and most medieval towns were food-importers.) You’ll also need a surplus enough to support non-productive elements, such as religious centers, universities or the bureaucracy of a capitol city.

3)    Trades

A large part depends on the size of your town.  The absolute basic tradesmen without which a village doesn’t exist are a blacksmith and a miller.  Next in importance comes potters, carpenters, weavers, leatherworkers, masons, a general merchant and at least one tavern. 

A small town will have multiples of the more important trades, and in such a case specialization will start to occur: blacksmiths turn into farriers, silversmiths and armorers; weavers into tailors, dyers and fullers; leatherworkers into saddlers and cobblers; carpenters into coopers, cartwrights, cabinet and furniture makers.  Specialized businesses will appear: scribe/notaries, brokers, herbalists, shipwrights, healers, various food occupations such as brewers, bakers and butchers.  As a town gets larger, more specialization will be the rule.  Some towns will concentrate on particular trades – the center of a wool-producing district will have a preponderance of cloth manufacturing trades (as much as two-thirds of all merchants), as well as wool merchants and factors for outside trade.  A grape-producing district will not only produce vintners and distillers, but coopers and glassblowers as well.  Two-thirds nautical trades is pretty standard for any port city – chandlers, shipfitters, boatwrights, brokers, longshoremen, and the several elements of a fishing industry.  And so on.

Below is a rough outline of what businesses will be found in your population:

Village up to 500 people:

1 church (with 1-2 clergy, and appropriate acolytes)
1 healer/herbalist/physician (in some cultures, this would be one of the priests)
1 scribe/notary
1 inn/tavern

1 mill
1 smith
1 general merchant
2-3 miscellaneous businesses, depending on the nature of the town.  A seaport village might have a boatwright (and the general merchant doubles as a chandler), a farming village might have a tanner, a mountain village might have a mining concern, anyone might have a cartwright – especially if the village is on a highroad.

The village wouldn’t have much in the way of bureaucracy:  the mayor/reeve/headman, who’d be a respected farmer or businessman, and perhaps a single representative from the local overlord or central government, a tax/toll collector if the village is on a major trade route, perhaps a small barracks of a sergeant and a dozen soldiers. 

In addition, most other residents will do various jobs – carpentry, pottery, basketweaving, brewing, weaving, masonry – on a part time basis.  There wouldn't be storefronts or colorful shop signs – why, when everyone knows what everyone does? – but be more along the lines of "Eh, ma'am, if'n ye want some good jars, Goodwife Adrienne's a dab hand with the pottery.  That there's her cottage, the one wi'the gate missin' a hinge.  The smith promised he'd get t'that next week."

They also take on minor posts on a part-time basis – a village will have a constable (if there aren't soldiers doing the duty), a handful of aldermen and selectmen, and other more minor posts.  The village may have a one-room schoolhouse, depending on the culture, and classes might be taught by the scribe, a priest, or an educated villager.

Town up to 1500 people:

1 bank
6-10 scribes/notaries/lawyers (some working for the others)
2 churches (with 5-6 clergy between them and appropriate acolytes)
3 healer/herbalists/apothecaries
2 butchers
1 baker
1-2 fishers or trappers (depending on location)
1 full scale inn, 3 taverns, 1 brothel
3 blacksmiths (one a specialist, such as a farrier), 1 silver/tinsmith
3 cloth shops, one which is likely to be a rug or tapestry maker; 1 tailor
4-5 general merchants, one which is likely to be a specialist (outfitters, say)
2-3 mills
1 large-scale pottery
1-2 masons
1-2 carpenters, 1 cart/wheelwright
1-2 leatherworkers
7-8 miscellaneous businesses

Now we have a prosperous town, and the center of its district.  When the local farmers say "I'm walkin' t' town, be back tomorra," this is where they're headed.

This is the point where a small bureaucracy would arise.  The town would have a mayor, a captain for the local militia and who’d also be responsible for maintenance of any city defenses, a tax collector and a dedicated scribe.  The mayor might double as the magistrate.  If a regional center of any sort, the town would attract central government staff – a district governor or noble and his staff, an army company and officers – and there'd be an appropriate building housing the same: a manor house, a small keep.

For towns of over 1500 people, use the following percentages:

* Bakery: 1 per 750.
* Brewers: 1 per 1500, at a ratio of 3:1 between brewers and distilleries/wineries; obviously variable depending on what booze-producing crops you have.  Inns and taverns often brewed their own tipple.
* Butcher: 1 per 800.
* Carpenters: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 2:1 between carpenters and specialty crafts such as wheel/cartwrights, cabinetmakers, coopers and carvers.
* Churches: 1 per 750.
* Clergy: 1 per 200, obviously hugely variable depending on how religious your town is.
* Dyers: 1 per 3000.  This is a large, industrial-style operation, as opposed to smaller household- or job-lot sized businesses.
* Financial: 1 per 1200, at a ratio of 1:2 between banks and moneychangers/lenders.
* Fishmongers: 1 per 1000.
* Foundries: 1 per 5000.
* General Merchants: 1 per 350, at a ratio of 3:1:1 between “country stores,” salters/spice merchants and brokers/factors/large-scale shippers.
* Inn/Tavern: 1 per 200, at a ratio of 1:5 between inns and taverns.  These neighborhood taverns are not your stereotype Giant Common Room places; a period neighborhood tavern seated about 30 with a bar about the size of a kitchen counter, and the clientele was exclusively from that block.
* Leatherworkers: 1 per 800, at a ratio of 2:1 between generic leatherworkers and cobblers/saddlers/etc.
* Masons: 1 per 750, at a ratio of 1:2:4 between sculptors, masons and stonecutters.
* Mills: 1 per 600, at a rough ratio of 3:1 between grist mills and sawmills, fulling mills and the like.
* Potteries: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 1:4 between glaziers/glassblowers and potteries.
* Scribes: 1 per 150, at a ratio of 1:2:5 between lawyers, notaries and scribes.
* Smith: 1 per 500, at a ratio of 3-4:1 between blacksmiths and silver/tin/goldsmiths/armorers.
* Tanners: 1 per 3500.  This is a large, industrial-style operation, as opposed to smaller household- or job-lot sized businesses.
* Teachers: 1 per 200, of which 1 in 3-5 are non-teaching scholars and scientists, who might nonetheless do part-time teaching and tutoring to raise some coin.  Small neighborhood schools and academies were far more common in medieval and Renaissance times than many folks imagine, and literacy rates in urban communities were 50% or better above the blue-collar classes.
* Textile trades: 1 per 100, at a ratio of 3:1:1 between weavers/spinners/carders, tailors/carpet/tapestry makers and furriers.  A town of this size probably has at least one large-scale cloth manufactory.
* Universities: These come around one to a city.  Starting at about 10,000 people, you’ll get at least an advanced institute of learning of some sort.  Capitals of any size, as well as major regional cities, will have a full-blown university.

Miscellaneous Shops: 1 per 200.  Possibilities for these:

* Common: stables, brothels, ropemakers, herbalist/apothecaries, barbers, lampmakers, painters, bathhouses, sharpeners, thatchers.

* Less common: bowyers/fletchers, ship’s chandlers, candlemakers, horse trainers, jewelers, outfitters, pawnshops, soapmakers, undertakers, messengers/heralds.

* Rare: gaming houses, perfumers, papermakers, seers, engravers, clockmakers, animal trainers, architects, cartographers, engineers, instrument makers. 

Keep in mind regional trades – for instance, a seaport would have sailmakers, at least one ropewalk, fishdryers, nautical carvers, chandlers, warehouses, specialty ship’s carpenters and smiths, navigators, steersmen, boatmakers, tattoo artists, shipwrights, and if large enough marine underwriters and freight shippers.  A mountain mining town would have specialty manufacturing shops producing mining tools and equipment, sawmills, assayers, alchemists (to produce certain chemicals necessary for mining and assaying certain ores), trappers and the like.

This is the population level where guilds will start to exist; around 4-5 similar businesses is the minimum number to form a sustainable guild.  Those aren’t the only support groups, of course; churches will have at least one sodality (and usually more than that) each.

Towns this size will have a market square, at which the local farmers sell vegetables and itinerant traders peddle just about everything else.  These are often heavily regulated and taxed, and crackdowns from town guilds are frequent.  Entertainers also exist, largely performing in the market, in front of any civic building or church, or available to play in an inn.

Towns and cities of this level have sizable bureaucracies, operating out of a civic hall.  Areas such as tax collection, records, justice and civic defense spawn whole departments.  A seaport would have a harbormaster, his staff, and naval units; any trading town would have an official in charge of weights and measures.  Formal military companies almost certainly exist. 

4)    Design

Cities aren’t particularly logical – the odds of having a nice grid layout, if you’re mapping it, are poor.  Consider that your city started out as a village.  It’ll have a relatively primitive tangle of streets in the center, haphazardly radiating out of the original village, which will center around the river/harbor/major road running through the middle, or perhaps around a religious center, castle or other fortification.

Planned towns did exist, but it took certain situations: a government seeking to settle an unpeopled area, a feudal lord wanting the profits and trade a town could provide.  Even so, most of them quickly spread organically from its original planned center ... those that survived.  (Many planned towns quickly failed.)  Plans were sometimes imposed upon extant towns and cities by new rulers or by the growing unsuitability of the original town; numerous cities in Europe had "oldtowns" and "newtowns" pressed together.  Another factor would be in the aftermath of a major fire (that being the chief danger to a medieval town), where entire city blocks and neighborhoods might be redesigned after being razed.

Obviously, waterborne businesses (mills, shipwrights) will cluster around said river.  It was common for a river town to expand to the other bank, which necessitated at least one bridge.  Oftentimes the rich and poor parts of town were differentiated by which bank of the river they were on.

Low-class and odoriferous trades (tanneries, dyers, soapmakers, slaughterhouses) will cluster downwind in the “poor” part of town.  Beyond that, certain trades required a lot of space -- metalworkers, cartwrights, potters -- and gravitated to the peripheries where land was more available and cheaper.

As towns grow larger, civic areas and buildings emerge: courts, wells and aqueducts, town halls, theaters, market squares, caravanserais, jails, belltowers, stadia.

Buildings would also grow taller.  As the town got increasingly cramped, the only way to grow was up.  Townhouses gained a second story, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.  Seldom designed to take the load and with oft-mediocre building materials, structural collapses were all too frequent.
5)    Defense

If the town is walled -- and unless your town is in a strong, powerful realm with secure borders and no internal threats (not a hallmark of RPG settings), it absolutely will be -- it may have been so quite some time before.  If so, chances are the town’s grown beyond the perimeter.  Medieval towns were almost invariably horribly overcrowded, disease-ridden places, and while it took extreme population pressure to abandon the protection of the walls, sooner or later it happened.

Some medieval cities had several separate walls, built somewhat haphazardly over centuries, all attempts to maintain some manner of defensible perimeter.  Consider also that such construction is expensive – building a castle in just a few years took so much money few nobles managed it.  It's also expensive to maintain, and it's entirely possible that broad sections of the walls are in disrepair.  Indeed, the reason why so many Roman-era buildings were in ruins or disappeared entirely is that they were often cannibalized for the stone necessary to build or repair walls, in addition to other buildings.

6) Personalities

A theme that keeps repeating throughout medieval annals is that towns and cities are firmly in the grasp of an oligarchy.  A small handful of families and personalities dominate local politics, commerce and social life.  They own the guilds that matter, public posts are filled by their patronage, civic amusements are graced by their money and presence.  The laws and rules are rigged in their favor, and the culture is nowhere close to being a meritocracy.

This ethos doesn't sit well with the average gamer, raised in a Western democracy relatively free of corruption and bearing at least the appearance of a meritocracy, and bringing to the gaming table the paradigm that the PCs are the swaggering masters of the earth before whom lesser mortals (read, "NPCs") all kowtow.  And it's okay if that's one of the aspects of medieval life -- along pervasive filth, disease, slavery, racism, fanaticism and sexual abuse -- you don't want to play.  YMMV ("your mileage may vary," code on many a gaming forum for "Whatever works for you is okay, it doesn't bother me if you have different preferences") is one of the more useful aphorisms to keep in mind when doing tabletop RPG setting creation. 

7) Giant Cities

Yes, I know.  A lot of gamers love giant, million-man cities.  A lot of gamewriters love them, too.  They just don't work.  A city of half a million people or more on medieval tech -- a Rome, a Constantinople, a Baghdad, a Chang'an -- requires a continent-spanning empire and awesome transportation infrastructure to survive.  Once the empire falls, once the plug is pulled, those cities collapse overnight.  In the course of a hundred years, the population of Rome fell twentyfold, and it didn't get back over a million until the 1930s.  And why bother?  A city of 10,000 will have several hundred businesses, more than all but the craziest gamers are ever going to create.  

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POSTSCRIPT:  A kind reader commented on MDDR Pt I, and made a remark that provoked this postscript: that he'd read Ross' numbers, as many gamers have, but that the numbers didn't work for him.

This is important.  Let's take those 52 scabbardmakers, shall we?  That seems ludicrous, but presuming the number is accurate, there are a few possible explanations.  One is simply that there were a honking lot of swords and daggers in 13th century Paris.  (Not the rapiers and main-gauches most people think of when they think of Parisian swordsmen – those weren't invented for over 200 more years.  We don't actually know what kinds of sword for certain; the earliest known combat manual, the so-called "Tower manuscript," dates from no earlier than 1300.)

So, okay: now what happens if you envision Paris with severe weapon restrictions?

Answer: you probably don't have many scabbardmakers.

And that's the notion you ought to have in mind when assigning business numbers.  If you have an illiterate populace, there'll be far fewer booksellers, papermakers and the like.  (The number of scribes and teachers might not change – business still needs to be transacted, and those teachers might be working on rote memorization!)  If there's no native clay, and far fewer potteries, there'll be more basketmakers, more turners and more leatherworkers churning out substitutes, and buildings will be made of wood, not brick.  If the Word of the Gods is that anyone who sails out of sight of land is accursed and damned, a "port" town might have a few coast-hugging vessels for bulk transport and a modest fishing fleet, and that's it.  And so on.

One last factor that you might want to keep in mind, not just for demographics but for anyone trying to tell you How Things Were In Medieval Times: we're talking about a few hundred years.  The notion that "medieval" was some monolithic state of being where everything was exactly the same for 400 years, everywhere, is nonsense.  Poor, chilly, backwards, thinly populated Scotland was a far different place than the rich, densely populated, glittering city-states of Northern Italy (and, as to that, both were far different places than China or India, lands our Eurocentric myopia usually leave out of "medieval" equations).  The 11th century was a far different time than the 14th.

Heck, think of our own era, and how quickly things change.  What kind of businesses exist in our cities, and in what numbers?  In 1954, computers were giant installations that cost millions of dollars and filled large rooms; you could no more obtain them retail than you could walk into a store and buy an armored regiment.  In 1984, indy computer stores were popping up all over the place: I bought my first one from a dedicated Atari ST store in Boston.  In 2014, those computer stores are now mostly gone – computers are ubiquitous consumer appliances you can get in your average department store.  I doubt it'll take until 2034 for "personal computers" to be museum pieces, and everyone's using smartphones and tablets ... or their successors.

So – YMMV.

16 November 2013

Medieval Demographics Done RIGHT: Stuff You Can Use

Medieval demographics and economics have long been an interest of mine.  I minored in the subject in college (seriously), largely because I wanted to become as expert as possible in the field for gaming purposes.  Between a divorce and what’s available on the Internet, I’ve trimmed down my library on the subject to a few dozen books, but I certainly have my opinions.

My opinion is that what you’ve been taught from gaming sources about low-tech cities is almost certainly wrong.

The most influential RPGer on the topic is S. John Ross, whose Medieval Demographics Made Easy article is widely cited and quoted as to what businesses existed in medieval cities and in what numbers.  Now S. John is a smart guy.  We were once on the same GURPS APA together, and we’ve corresponded; I respect the fellow.  But his article has some critical flaws, and I’d like to present this rebuttal both as a rant and for Wednesday’s Stuff.

* For instance, let's take his number on universities: "There will be one University for every 27.3 million people. This should be computed by continent, not by town!" Heck, by 1500 Italy alone had twenty universities which survive to the present day, let alone ephemeral ones in existence back in the medieval era. France, Spain and Germany each had over a dozen in medieval times ... even tiny Scotland (est. population in the Middle Ages, between 500,000 and a million) had three.  I've no idea from where he got that number.

* His break point on the population of town vs city is 8,000, but the true figure is around 5,000; most cities were chartered in England at between 4,500-5,000 population.  In Europe generally, the numbers and definitions were wildly skewed: in much of Germany and eastern Europe, for instance, the great majority of so-called "Free Cities" had a population of 1,000 or less.

* He asserts that a square mile of land will feed 180 people on medieval tech.  This is, in fact a hugely variable number.  Under ideal conditions, after the invention of the horse collar and crop rotation, on table-flat completely cleared land, in two-growing season areas like the Nile Delta and northern Italy, presuming the land's at peace, you can manage over twice that.  The presence of forests, orchards or pasture land?  A tidal wave of smallholders tilling just a few acres and not hugely efficiently?  Oxen instead of horses?  Poor soil, swampland or inadequate water?  Cold climes like Scotland or Scandinavia?  Hill country?  (And, oh, let's not discount politics, war, droughts, locust plagues, untimely frosts ...)  If you can manage a third of that number for much of Europe, most of the time, you're doing pretty well.

* The real killer are the totals for businesses, which are way, way, way out of kilter.

See, what Ross -- and many a gamer who doesn’t know any better -- uses for a guide is a single source: the so-called “1292 Parisian tax roll” cited in the end notes of Joseph and Frances Gies’ seminal work, Life In A Medieval City, which purports to give a comprehensive list of the 51 types of business in Paris in that time, and produces some oddities like there being 58 scabbardmakers in Paris in that year.

Yeah, but.

For openers, Paris was a very atypical place.  For most of the medieval period through to the 18th century, it was the most populous city in Europe, the national capital of Europe’s greatest kingdom.  Your average good-sized fantasy city would be a tenth the size, much less likely to have baroque luxury trades, and much more likely to be near or on the seacoast and have the nautical trades Paris lacked.

For a second thing, the Gieses heavily truncated that list.  The real list didn’t have 51 entries; it had several hundred.  (As to that, the Gieses made some errors.  The list didn't cite 58 “scabbardmakers,” there were 52.) 

For a third thing, what they were working with was itself an edited list: one a mid-19th century historian named Hercule Géraud edited from the original manuscript.

For a fourth thing, the accuracy of the list is in dispute.  Géraud lists 116 goldsmiths, more than the combined number of inn- and tavernkeepers, half again as many as there were coopers ... indeed more than any other profession except for barbers, cobblers and leatherworkers.  In the words of medievalist Norman Pound, "it is difficult to explain [their] presence, unless we can assume that their market covered much of France."  It's far from the only inexplicable result: only two lawyers?  Two lacemakers?  ONE roofer?  ONE fletcher?  Huh?

Most importantly, it wasn’t what the Gieses thought it was.  Géraud wasn’t attempting to present a comprehensive occupational list.  He was presenting a list of occupations with matching surnames – the French equivalent of “Joe Smith the blacksmith,” “Karen Cooper the cooper,” and suchlike.  If you went by (say) “Bob Traynor the notary,” then Géraud didn’t include you.  If you were a Jew that went by a patronymic rather than an occupational surname – a large percentage of them – then Géraud didn’t include you.  If you went by a placename ("Bob of Quincy") or a byname ("Ravenswing"), then Géraud didn’t include you.

(If that sounds like the 19th-century equivalent of a Wikipedia-style "List of African-American jazz players from Texas," I don't blame you.  The guy researched what he wanted to research, and I'm sure there must have been some reason which made sense to Géraud as to why he put it together that way.  One wonders whether late 13th century Parisian goldsmiths just weren't in the habit of going by patronymics or placenames, and contemporary lawyers, lacemakers and fletchers were.)

You can see why I wouldn’t trust that list even if I hadn’t stared at it and immediately gawked at the notion that there are twice as many scabbardmakers as blacksmiths (the fundamental business of the medieval world, and which was underestimated on Ross’ list by a factor of six).  Certain businesses are omitted entirely; potters, for instance, and most of the nautical trades.  (These do appear on Géraud's original, but in startlingly low numbers.  12 sailors?  Seriously?)

Relying on a single source – never mind a single source far out of context – is poor scholarship. For example, I own a 1945 telephone directory for the city of my birth, Boston's immediate southern suburb.  It has listings for only five barbers; by contrast, it has four pages of listings for beauty salons.  Now I'm sure there are those who'd swallow that factoid whole and infer that in a city of 75,000 men wore their hair to their ankles ... or – in an era of close cropped haircuts – it might have been that neighborhood barbers had plenty of walk-up business, didn't do appointments and didn't feel the need for the expense of telephone service.  (Or, for that matter, that a telephone directory wasn't any more intended to be a complete record of every business in the city of Quincy, than Géraud's list of occupational surnames was intended to be a complete record of every business in Paris.  Go figure.)

My own take on the numbers comes from a basket of sources: Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt, Medieval Trade In The Mediterranean World by Lopez and Raymond, the renowned 14th century The Practice of Commerce by Francesco Pegolotti (Evans' translation), Streider's translation of the 14th century Palaelogus by Georgios Pachymeres, the Milanese and Genoese 12th century reductions published some years ago in the Journal of Economic and Business History,  the 13th century Florentine business list I copied from a lovely text in the BPL, The Merchants of Cahors by Denholm-Young, The Medieval City by Norman Pounds (part of the superb Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World edited by Dr. Jane Chance and published by Greenwood Press, which I strongly recommend) and the magnificent corpus of work of Fernand Braudel.  And since this is rambling on a bit, I’ll save the actual chart for the next post.

09 November 2013

Magic-as-technology, take II.

Knobgobbler, my first kind commenter, gave me the notion to elaborate on the theme, something I would've done sooner or later anyway.

Caveat: we're talking realism here.  If you insist on million-person cities, Spelljammer-level ubiquity of powerful magics and all the trappings of High Fantasy, terrific ... just handwave what you want and have done with it.  YMMV.

Let's say you have a respectable sized city of 10,000 people.  (This really is a respectable sized city; it'd make the top five in England at most points in the medieval era.)  If wizards are as common as blacksmiths, you've got about 20.  Terrific, right?  Plenty of enchanting muscle!

Well, now, hold on.  Are all those folks practicing enchanters?  Of course not.  There are two major factors.  For one thing, most fantasy game systems require wizards to be of a certain power level to be a successful enchanter, excluding some -- or many -- wizards from ever doing it at all.

For another, why would every wizard be a professional enchanter?  Take Master Elaina, the water wizard -- sure, she’s the city’s most powerful mage, but she’s a full-time adventurer; she’s not enchanting for a living.  Mistress Syrielle is a legend, but she’s mostly retired now, and spends her time puttering in her garden from her wheelchair.  Master Ravenswing works for the Duke, mostly in divination; he’s not enchanting for a living.  “Whisper” is the hired mage of the richest fellow in town, and they say her telepathy and anti-thief magics are why he’s so rich; she’s not enchanting for a living.  Master Nightflame is the professor of thaumatology at the local academy; he’s not enchanting for a living, and neither is his sister Arathena, who got stuck with the Guildmaster job of the local wizards’ chantry after Syrielle retired.  No one trusts Master Hamal any more since he fell into the bottle; he’s sure as hell not enchanting for a living.  Whether anyone trusts Master Pando after the magical accident (he's yet to be able to cope with enclosed spaces, precious metals and the color red), he doesn't seem to be enchanting these days.  And Master Detheril is the new Knight Marshal of the city, and on the short list for a coronet the next barony that opens up; he’s not enchanting for a living.

So you might have ten enchanters; you might have half as many.  Just remember, though, if everyone else is an enchanter, you don’t have spare wizards for anything else.  Need someone to cast a divination spell for you?  No one available.  Want a wizard to teach your party’s wizard a spell?  Sure, spend three months in Nightflame’s next class (it’s about necromancy, by the way), and you can; otherwise, not.  Need that magical scroll written?  You’re SOL.

Well, alright, half of what’s left.  Six enchanters, then.  How liberal is your game’s enchanting rules?  I use GURPS, myself (and let’s ignore that published material suggesting that only one wizard in ten be of a power level high enough to enchant at all, shall we?).  Purify Water sounds like a good, basic spell; an item that is self-powering takes 550 mage-days to enchant.  Which means that all six of those wizards, working together, can reasonably bang out an item in three months; it can purify nearly 3000 gallons of fresh water per day.  In a year’s work, they can enchant enough to handle all the fresh water needs of the city for drinking.  (Unfortunately, the cooking, bathing and industrial needs for fresh water are about TEN TIMES as much.)

But sure, they stick with it.  Now the city has plenty of fresh water, magically created!

Fair enough.  But it doesn’t have magical streetlights.  It doesn’t have magical weapons.  It doesn’t have magically created food. It doesn’t have anything else enchanted.  And even that much rests on a few very flimsy premises:

* Every enchanter is a skilled water enchanter.  Why would they be?  Is every wizard you run?  Mightn’t they just as likely be earth enchanters, or fire enchanters, or temporalists, or communications specialists?

* None of them have any better gigs going on than creating fresh water for the city.  What happens when agents for Countess Silvermist come and ask a couple of the enchanters exactly how long they plan on playing Third String Waterboy for the Duke, when they could come work for the Countess for double the pay and their own private towers?

* As I mentioned in the pertinent GGF post, nothing ever goes wrong.  The Purification items don’t get stolen and sold on the black market, the city’s enemies never decide to ruin them, the wizards never strike for more money, the city always pays on time and in full, none of the wizards ever gets sick, the Duke never concludes that the city has plenty of water already and the money’s better spent refitting his cavalry troop after they got pasted in the last battle, the fire that torched a fifth of the city miraculously missed the Water Works, or the Duke’s never an egotistical snot pissed off that Countess Silvermist’s water purification items are made of gold, so his ought to be too, ditch the old ivory ones?

So sure; there are some ways wizards can have a material impact on life in a city.  If your system has a Predict Weather spell, one forecasting mage can save the lives of a lot of fishermen.  One wizard with long distance telepathy ... well, we know what instant communications can do.  A battery of wizards, as a long term civic project, well funded, might be able to implement ONE change - pure water, magical street lights - as long as that change is simple, and nothing goes wrong.

So do the math for your own systems.  How many people get to be journeyman wizards?  How many wizards are capable of enchanting?  How many wizards do you want to task to do other things: battlemages, teachers, researchers, detectives, adventurers, court wizards, mages-for-hire and fussy old coots who just want to putter in their gardens and not be bothered.  Does your magic system encourage/require specialization?  How long does enchanting take?  Can just anyone use an enchanted item?  Can an item work without supervision?  How fragile are magical items?

This is why you don’t have “magical” economies.

02 November 2013

NPC of the Day: Kardo

I've been at this, as I've mentioned, for a long time.  I can't readily count how many significant NPCs I've created: hundreds, I expect.  I'm minded to present a new one from time to time.  They'll be posted under the GURPS system, but the numbers ought not be too tough to parse out for those of you unfamiliar with the system.

Something in which I believe is what I call the "viewpoint NPC."  Being a player, IMHO, isn't always easy.  You're not really standing in Swordpoint Ravine, looking up at the ruined tower occupied by orcs, ankle deep in the late spring mountain snow.  You're in my living room, balancing dice and your laptop with a plate of pizza and a can of DC.  You're not going to recall, instinctively, that you've got a loop of rope over your shoulder and you're carrying a heavy packload.  You're not going to perceive, instinctively, that it's getting pretty damn cold, you're above treeline and you've only got two hours of light left.  You may have forgotten that your pal over there, in the fall that happened an hour ago game time -- but, in real life, happened at the last gaming session two weeks ago -- has a wrenched shoulder.

I like, therefore, to have a viewpoint NPC.  He or she's almost always a grunt fighter, without unusual or arcane skills, and has a background consonant with the party's theme.  The VNPC's generally self-effacing, and doesn't take a lead role in much; they're not brains or problem solvers, and don't aspire to be.  I'm pleased if the VNPC is a bodyguard or sidekick to one of the PCs.  What the VNPC is for, more than anything else, is to contribute editorial comment of things that I believe would be painfully obvious to adventurers on the ground, and less so to gamers lounging on my living room couch ... and so I don't need to go into third-person omniscient, which I prefer to avoid.  "Sorry, boss, but I don't like it.  Arkis can't put his full weight on his shoulder, it'll be full dark before we'll be more than halfway up that wall, and the wind's picking up something fierce.  Want me to start pitching camp?"

Kardo -- the disreputable fellow lounging above -- is the longest-running VNPC I've ever had: he's been around a full decade now, the Ally of my original Quincy group's wizard, and following her around from just-out-of-the-academy to being the greatest PC mage of my campaign's history.  He's undergone a lot of changes over the years, but this is more or less what he looked like in 2003:

ST: 12     DX: 13     IQ: 11     HT: 12     Per: 11     Speed: 6.25     Move:  6  

Advantages: Combat Reflexes, High Pain Threshold, Night Vision+4, Rapid Healing+1, Reputation (+2, as badass pirate, among other pirates, wharf rats and lowlifes)

Perks:  Improvised Weapons, Naval Training, Weapon Bond / favorite cutlass

Disadvantages:  Code of Honor (Pirate); MMA/Rheumatism; One Hand; Sense of Duty: the "crew"; Social Stigma: Second-class citizen; Struggling; Stubbornness, Trademark

Languages:  Avanari (is illiterate) 

Skills: Area Knowledge (Warwik City)-12; Area Knowledge (Eastern Avanari coast)-12; Artist (scrimshaw)-10; Boating-13; Brawling-14; Cooper-10; First Aid-11; Gambling-10; Thrown Weapon: Knife-14; Leadership-11; Scrounging-12; Seamanship-14; Shield-14; Shortsword-15; Smuggling-12; Streetwise-12; Weather Sense-12; Singing-12 

Quirks:  "I am a tattoo artist," "Old Salt," Scrimshaw connoisseur

Raised a cooper's son in the stereotypical Small Outlying Village On The Coast, he ran off to sea at an early age.  Many years of vicissitudes aren't pertinent, but he eventually became a pirate, and a successful one.  Unfortunately, he lost his (off-)hand in a foray, and feeling he couldn't keep up any more, retired to the waterfront of the capital city, where he befriended the family of an inn catering to pirates and rogues.  Their elder daughter became a wizard, and he promised her (now-deceased) parents he'd look after her.  He's done that ever since.

Kardo's a stereotypical, sardonic Old Salt Pirate, and social graces aren't his mug of grog.  (He prefers tea to grog, as it happens.)  Even deep into middle age, he's still respected by other pirates and those who know who he is, and he can still bring it in a fight.  He's a sword-and-board fighter, preferring his favorite cutlass above all.  (It does take him a long time to get his shield settled and on, at least a couple minutes unassisted; any sudden fight, and he won't bother.)  If you're in his "crew," so to speak, he's very loyal to you.  If you're not, well ... He's not well off, and doesn't own more than he can carry.  He has some underworld contacts, which he uses when the wizard reminds him of them.

About his oddest quirk is that he fancies himself a tattoo artist, and carries a comprehensive tattoo kit, complete with several colors of inks.  (His tattoo skill, in GURPS terms, is 7 by default, which is quite poor.)  If he has the time or opportunity, he'll tattoo prisoners with insults taken from prepared stencils, which are about as legible as you'd expect.

There you have it.

For those of you unfamiliar with GURPS, a few explanations: that Night Vision level is "pretty decent night vision," as opposed to "sees like a cat."  High Pain Threshold means that he doesn't suffer particularly from shock, and wounds don't slow him down unless he's unconscious.  Rapid Healing gives him big bonuses to health for day-to-day natural recovery.  Weapon Bond gives him +1 for *that* particular cutlass, and no others.  Naval Training gives him surefootedness on a swaying, bloody deck where others would take heavy DX penalties.  Struggling means he's a bit on the impoverished side; in Kardo's particular case, at this stage in his career, he doesn't own more than he can put in his sea bag.  The rheumatism?  Give him a HT daily, bonuses on hot dry days, penalties on cold wet ones.  If he blows it, he's -2 to everything.  Ow.

For further explanation of system stats, check out this link. 

26 October 2013

"The Golden Age is over ..."

One frequent riff you see on RPG forums is that the "Golden Age" of roleplaying games is over.  The writers' favorite local gaming store has closed, there doesn't seem to be as many gaming groups as they remember, their favorite publisher has folded, the faces around the table are middle-aged now, there hasn't been any new releases for their favorite game in a couple months, and Those Damn Kids are playing weird card games or focused on World of Warcraft.

Much wailing and chestbeating ensues, along with helpful suggestions as to how to turn it all around.  If only everyone spent a certain amount of money a month at the local gaming store!  If only our favorite games became much simpler!  If only we found a media license to rally behind!  If only, if only, if only ...

"The Golden Age is over" is a riff pushed in every hobby, by every culture, every fashion, every sport, probably since Ug the Caveman was grousing to his mate Ugina about how the damn cavelets had no respect for tradition.

What it means to each one of us is that for a year or two when we first started a new hobby, everything was fun, snazzy and wonderful, we were full of zest and vigor ... and then things changed, and we got to be jaded oldbies.  Beyond that, the alleged "Golden Age of Gaming" people think existed never really did.  It wasn't that America played RPGs.  It's that, for a few years in the 1980s, a honking lot of people played AD&D.  It was never a "golden age."  It was a fad, ephemeral as fads always are.  Seriously, does anyone you know still plant Chia Pets or collect Beanie Babies?  How many young folks in your neighborhood are kung fu fighting or wearing Hogwarts robes for Halloween?  Do businessmen uniformly wear pearl grey jackets with either yellow or pink black-polka dotted ties?  How are things hopping at the local jazz nightclub ... wait, discotheque ... wait ... ?

But the RPG era being "over?"  Hah.  Hardly.  We have more choice than ever before:

* Adjusted for inflation and the size of the product, gaming books are hugely cheaper -- and the production values light-years better -- than they were a generation ago.

* There are far more alternate systems and alternative ways of doing things now, and with the leavening of LARPs, online freeform and MMORPGs to crack us out of the immobility of Doing Things The Way They've Always Been Done.

* There are dozens of systems on the market.

* While small-press publishing has (contrary to the recentist tunnel vision of many) always been a part of this hobby, the Internet and online retailing has made it far more possible for its products to be widely known and succeed.  The indie game of a generation ago -- crude mimeos at the local Copy Cop, illustrated by the writer's SO -- would be counted lucky if it merely gained traction among FOAFs and the apazine cognoscenti.  Now they're available for purchase worldwide and sell in the thousands.  Production values are the best ever, and even small-press publishers enjoy slick print runs, quality art and full color interiors.  Advances in computing turned the scrawled crude maps and laboriously typewritten rules of the 70s into DIY works just as good as professional publishers churn out.

* Online retailing has eliminated the necessity for nearby FLGSs -- and put gaming into the hands of people in areas that scarcely saw it -- as well as greatly reduced the price of product, as well as providing a selection no FLGS ever could match.  As to that, RPGs can be found in the big box retailers.

* The Internet: forums with instant dialog, company websites with instant rules clarification and errata, game finder sites that stretch beyond tattered sheets of notebook paper tacked to dusty FLGS corkboards, thousands of fan sites with variant material there for the download, research resources at a fingers' touch.  Videoconferencing and software support even free us from the need of having fellow players on the same continent, let alone in the same building. 

* PDFs: dozens of gaming books fitting into a space measuring 15" x 12" x 1.5", as well as bringing long out-of-print golden oldies back to life.

There are more ideas, more styles, more milieus, more choice than ever before. 

Now yes, gamers, your groups have aged ... because so have you.  Honestly, did you expect that your players would perpetually be 20 years old?  Or, perhaps, are the 20 year olds hanging around their peers instead of the geezers (just like you did back in the day, come to that)?

Now yes, gamers: your local gaming store may have folded.  Mine hasn't. (In point of fact, the three gaming stores I patronized in the Boston area in 1978 are still in business.)  There's another one twenty minutes south of me, run by a friend of mine.  But in any event, these never formed more than a small minority of the gaming spaces available to hobbyists, and many gamers never relied on them for more than product.  No local store?  You can get your goods over the Net at a large discount, and in mere days.

Now, yes, gamers: we're a niche hobby.  We're going to stay that way.  Which is alright.  People have been playing chess for centuries.  Model train clubs have existed for generations.  Classic car clubs have existed for generations.  Folks still gather around for board games, to listen to 50s folk music, to hike the Appalachian Trail, to do a lot things that are niche hobbies.  Honestly, my fun isn't validated by gamers in Wichita and Wiesbaden and Warsaw and West Cupcake, Saskatchewan.  I'm good as long as I can find players right here in my hometown.

Swear to God, if all this had been available to me thirty years ago ...

I have, right in front of me, one of the surviving copies of my 1970s homebrew.  It runs 91 pages, laboriously typed up over some months on the cheap Smith-Corona manual I'd picked up for college.  The magic list isn't included; that's a handwritten manuscript half again the size that I quailed at typing up.  Some of the ideas that went into it evolved over three years of back and forth in A&E, and it's a messy hodgepodge with much less by way of cohesive vision than "Ooo, that rule looks neat!" Revising anything meant retyping an entire page, if not an entire section.

It wouldn't take me months to type that now.  It'd take me about three days.  It wouldn't take half a year to vette ideas off of my transcontinental buddies; now I'd just put them up online and have people tear them apart in hours.  It isn't that I'd have to spend much of what little disposable income I had on other systems just to see how they did things; now people online can tell me.  It isn't that I'd have to wait for the latest issue of Different Worlds, Alarums & Excursions or The Space Gamer for interesting new variants and ideas; I can Google to get in touch with more websites than I can count, and I've bookmarked dozens of them.  It isn't that I'd have to spend days in a library to fact-check my basic assumptions; Wikipedia's right there.

What there is is less media buzz about tabletop gaming, but I'm down with that - a lot more of that was negative and disparaging than otherwise. What there are are fewer dilettantes, the boys who drift into a group in school and drift right out the moment they come to think the activity isn't cool and won't help them get them laid, and I won't lose much sleep over that either. Tabletop isn't the happenin' new fad any more, but no hobby gets to be, perpetually.

I've been around for almost the entire length of the RPG hobby, and honestly, I think the Golden Age of RPGs is right now.

19 October 2013

Top 12 GMing rules

1)  The LARP I was in for many years had a ritualistic Reading Of The Rules at the start of every event.  The very first of these rules was a wise one: we should all be in this to have fun.

If people aren’t, something’s wrong.  Change it.  If I’m not having fun, something’s wrong; change that. If I need to take a break, then I should; it beats burnout. 

2) Be true to (and aware of) yourself. 

I run the game that I run, not the game someone else wants me to run.  I’m ten times better off seeking players who enjoy my style than to compromise my style to please specific players.  Beyond that, I should know what I can handle: how many players I can comfortably run, how frequently I have time to play, how long sessions should go, how much digression and socializing I want.  Not knowing your own limitations ends in trouble.  By the way?  Articulate this to your players.  I've been hugely wrongfooted twice; once, when I brought a serious, gritty assassin into a Top Secret game that turned out to be patterned after Get Smart!, and a Howard character into a game billed as based on Heinlein's Future History that turned out to be Monty Python meets Number of the Beast.  In both cases I scarcely lasted out the first session.  Like most players, there are styles I do and those I don't do, and you're a lot better off alerting me in advance.

3) Be prepared. 

I not only run a sandbox, the PCs can choose to travel to any other city in the kingdom and there’s a book detailing the top ten people in local politics, how many temporal wizards there are, a paragraph or three of a hundred or more shops, what the major temples are, what the minor temples are ... It’s an appalling amount of work, but I can save my brain power to invent details my volumes of notes don’t cover, as well as not get caught short in contradictions ... hey, wasn’t the elderly priestess at St. Viria’s named Fidessa when we came through Seasteadholm in the spring?  I thought you said the Sufontis Market was in the Zhantil District?  And so on.  However ...

4) ... don't overprepare.

The detail I want, as a player, is the detail I'm not only likely to encounter on my own, but detail which I reasonably think might pertain to the job at hand.  I don't need to have an hour of session taken up by the GM droning on, a paragraph apiece, about every crew member on the merchant ship, from the head cleaners on up.  How about spending that time working out the possible responses to what we do in reaction to your plot?  I assure you I'd rather you had a handle on that than the hometowns, marital statuses and off-duty fashion details of all three bosun's mates.

5) Don’t ever, ever railroad.

It is not my job to tell the players what they’re doing.  It’s their job to tell me what they’re doing.  If they’re not interested in my plot, they’re not.  If they make all the right guesses, then they have a walkover and I need to give them something else to do.  Hey, how about a shopping expedition and a night on the town while I resign myself to more prep work for next time?  In the meantime, what is my job is to have as many of the bases covered as is feasible.  A clever party should be able to come up with a dozen ways to get past any problem.  A clever GM should be able to foresee that they will and have a notion as to how to handle each choice.

6) Know your party. 

I've heard from too many GMs who had the rug ripped out from under them by players reminding them that they had certain abilities the GM forgot to take into consideration.  A prepared GM doesn’t forget these things.  I keep copies of all character sheets, and I have a cheat sheet on a clipboard detailing Advantages, Disadvantages, stats, weapons of choice, defense rolls, reaction mods, Perception and Will checks and the like, for each character.

7) Don’t get bogged down. 

If I can’t calculate the modifiers in the haggling session between Lady Sula and the goldsmith (the smith doesn’t give a damn for the aristocracy, Sula’s a babe, they’re finding each other’s accents a bit tough to follow) in an instant, then I should fudge it without hesitation, and if I can’t do that, I’m in the wrong business; there’s nothing more boring than watching the GM flipping through a stack of rulebooks ten times an hour.  That aside, scenes should only take so long.  NPC soliloquies should only take so long. Players should only get so long to meander or do their solo stuff.  Adventurers and plot arcs should only take so long.  Even an epic tale has its sell-by date.  Brevity is the soul of wit.  Keep the pace moving at all costs. (In combat, too. Combat rounds in the game I play are three seconds long. If the player -- who’s been cooling his heels for a couple of minutes anyway -- can’t decide what to do within ten seconds after I call on him, I skip him.  You should too.)

8) Be a good actor and storyteller. 

You play everyone else in the world.  You set all the scenes.  You handle much of the dialogue.  If you can’t act and refuse to learn, you should be refereeing miniatures wargaming instead.  Practice this.  Use body language, posture, different voices and accents.  If you don’t know how, learn.

9) This is a cooperative exercise. 

Something you need to hammer into the players, if need be; however illogical, this is a consensus-driven game which needs to be handled consensually.  A player who designs a character wildly at odds with the others, a player who wants to freelance all the time, a player who doesn’t want to get on board with the milieu or the setting, these are people who need to be told No.  There are RPGs out there for rugged individualists who don’t want to act in lockstep with others; they call them MMORPGs and LARPs.  There's also a role for GMs who can't bring themselves to say "No:" it's called "player."

10) Use no complexity in the game system you can’t readily handle, and avoid anything you don’t really need.

There are few things, short of drunk and disorderly players vomiting on the battlemat, more disruptive to the flow of a game than a lengthy rules debate.  A lot of RPGs out there have “light” versions or a spate of optional rules that honest to God are “optional.”  Don’t let this happy truth slip past you.

11) Know Your Stuff, or Don't Run Campaigns That Require You Do.

I'm an elitist ... more detail on this in another post.  I think it's incumbent on GMs to learn as much as they can about their milieus, and play them as accurately and realistically as practical.  I really don't want to see howling anachronisms, except in genres where it doesn't matter (30s pulp, for instance), or where the GM has an explanation in hand.  (Yes, I recognize you might not give a damn about verisimilitude, but I warned you in the very first post about my philosophy.)

12) Believe in the Rule of Cool. 

If a player does something outrageously cool in combat, let her pull it off. If a player comes up with a really cool idea, reward him. This will almost never go wrong.