30 May 2014

The Evil Prison

For my own part, I hate the "Everything Evil Has To Be Dressed In Black, Sporting Spikes, Dripping Ichor and have Grimdark Names" cliche.  I've liked to have Evil High Priests be genial old duffers, who beyond the necessity of sacrificing your souls to their dark gods see no reason to be cruel, discourteous, or stingy with their tea and cucumber sandwiches.  After we're done torturing you to death, sir, are there next of kin to whom you'd like your remains sent?

Your Evil Prison, therefore, shouldn't be a Gothic hellhole situated on a windswept crag in the ocean.

I'd name it something like Hollybrook.  The grounds are verdant and lovely, filled with stately trees and floral arbors.  The walls are of a pleasant cream-yellow stone quarried nearby, and the attendants – tall and handsome to a one, with open, broad smiles – are clad in robes of matching hue.  It is true that smoke billows from the chimneys no matter the season, but it is always the pleasing scent of wood smoke ... however much no lumber deliveries ever seem to be made.

Indeed, no deliveries of any kind – of provisions, of supplies – are made to Hollybrook. Only the prisoners ever come – in the bright cream-and-crimson lacquered carriages that are the familiar symbol of the prison throughout the Kingdom.  Sometimes they're even seen again, their gaze hollowed out with enduring horror, as they haltingly stumble through the riven shards of their lives.  But of what goes on behind the sun-washed walls of Hollybrook, no one has ever said.

23 May 2014

The Gaming Store is DOOOMED!!!

I think I've lost count of the "OMG the FLGS ‡ is DOOOOOOMED!!" forum threads I've seen over the years. I saw them in amateur press compilations in the late-80s. Most of the rants stem from the writers’ favorite local outlet closing shop, and the rest base theirs on their FLGS undergoing one or more of the following trends which – in their sole and exclusive opinion – disqualifies the FLGS from being a "G":

* Those Damned Kids And Their Card Games;

* The clientele is full of people younger (or older) than the poster likes ... too many (or not enough) piercings, tats or black clothing? Lowlifes or fuddy-duddys, the lot of them;

* It doesn't stock a high enough percentage of the Right Games: too many of those stupid small-press games that waste space (if the poster doesn't play those), too much of that "corporate" swill (= any game that gamers outside of Internet forums have heard of, if the poster doesn't play those). None of that Warhammer crap (if the poster doesn't like the 40K crowd) ... etc etc. Nothing too old (if the poster only wants the Latest Edition of Everything) ... or with lots of bins of dusty – and heavily discounted – antiques (if the poster is a treasure hunter);

* It doesn’t have a large gaming space, for which the owner will never harass the players to buy things or put themselves out in any way, such as explaining to curious customers what we're doing or which game we're playing. The priority, of course, should be for the Right Games; or

* The counter help doesn’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the pros and cons of every item in the store / the owner doesn’t seem to be all that interested in RPGs, as opposed to Those Damned Card Games.

Toss in a healthy dollop of “OMG the Internet/Amazon is eating everything,” and there you go.

I'll throw an anecdote out there: of the five FLGSes I knew of in Metro Boston in 1978, each and every one is still in business. Have they changed over the years? Well, for one thing, they weren't 100% tabletop RPG outlets in 1978 either any more than they are today. The Games People Play in Cambridge was principally a traditional "game" store, then as now: fancy chess sets, cribbage, backgammon, card games, puzzles. Strategy and Fantasy World in Boston (the current Compleat Strategist) was heavily into board wargames: SPI and Avalon Hill games, that sort of thing. Hobby Bunker in Malden was (then as now) heavily invested in miniature wargaming. And so on.

Come to that, I've never seen a store that was a tabletop RPG outlet and nothing but. They've always had some other serious focus: SF/fantasy books, hobby modeling, wargames, comics books, miniatures, Eurogames, board games, computer games, CCGs, something.

And gaming stores went out of business in the 70s, and in the 80s, and in the 90s as well. The RPGs/bookstore I first bought Fantasy Trip?  Spike McPhee's iconic Science Fantasy Bookstore, and it was priced out of the Harvard Square market by 1988. The FLGS in the town I went to college in 1982? Out of business two years later. Its replacement? Gone by 1989. The two FLGSs I first patronized when I moved to Springfield MA in the late 80s?  The Tin Soldier in Court Square was out of business by 1990, Dragon's Lair in East Longmeadow was out of business by '95.  The big box bookstores like Borders and Media Play that had large RPG sections?  Well, we know what happened to the big box bookstores.  This has always been a volatile business.

The first two trends?  I’m bemused, remembering some history.  If you’re younger than fifty you wouldn't remember, but turn the clock back, and all the FLGSs we've known and loved were Friendly Local WARGaming Shops. The cutting edge companies filling their shelves were SPI and Avalon Hill, the games people talked about were Diplomacy, Kingmaker, Napoleon At Waterloo and Tactics II, the bookracks held dozens of illustration books so as to accurately paint your military minis in proper period fashion, and the featured magazines were Moves, Strategy & Tactics and The General.

And man, were those wargamers pissed at us. Their cozy little world, and their FLWSs, were invaded by a horde of geeky kids blathering on about elves and alignments and orcs and dungeons and lawful good clerics with +3 holy maces of defenestration.  Those Damned Kids weren't the least bit interested in the oldbies' encyclopedic knowledge of the Peninsular Campaign or the order of battle at Gettysburg, they couldn't care less who Charles Roberts or Jim Dunnigan were, and within a short period of time, the wargamers were driven away. The owners of the shops saw there were heaps of money to be made off the backs of the RPGers and converted to suit.

That's the bottom line: these brick-and-mortar stores are no more our permanent, exclusive clubhouses than they were of the wargamers we supplanted.

Now, sure: there are plenty of reasons not to patronize a FLGS.  I actually happen to agree with most of them.  I can get a far larger selection, significantly cheaper, purchasing online.  I game out of my comfortable, quiet apartment, set up the way I like, playing the hours I want, rather than at rickety game store tables, subject to the store noise and wanderers interrupting us, dependent on the store hours and the goodwill of the owner, and with (understandable) pressure to Buy Stuff.  I can find players, on the rare occasions I solicit them, from online bulletin boards and game finders, without the dogeared notices on FLGS corkboards that never actually have worked.

But that’s just me.

‡ - "Friendly Local Gaming Store," a widely-used acronym standard to such discussions, for those of you scoring at home.

16 May 2014

History Nuggets of the City: Stuff You Can Use

Something I just dredged up the other night was this list, part and parcel of one of those large forum collaborative lists.  This one was offbeat history nuggets that you could toss in to your City De Jour to provide local color, and these were my contributions to the list.  Enjoy!

1.  Summers in the City can be very hot, and there are roofed-over viaducts, sunk halfway below ground level, linking many streets; these are walled with baked white clay from the river bank, and kept very clean as a rule.

2.  The City is home to the cult of a popular darkness goddess, and many businesses have hours deep into the night, because devout worshipers avoid stirring in daytime hours.  These businesses are marked with a silver medallion etched with a flaming candle.

3.  An old law, repealed nearly a century ago, required that all bricks bear the craft mark of the mason; the City’s buildings over a three century stretch can be reliably dated from the marks.

4.  The City is very old, and layer has been built on top of layer, raising the City at this point sixty feet above the surrounding plain.  Excavations for basements routinely break into ruins of earlier eras.

5.  A fundamental law is that no one can venture abroad after full dark without a torch- or lamp-bearer from the Linkmen’s Sodality, as well as having at least one person present with a bared blade.

6.  The City’s clock tower flies a green and gold streamer if the ruler is physically present in the City (not often; the nearest palace is ten miles away), and a plain purple streamer if a member of the ruling family is.

7.   All roads leading into the City’s main market square, as well as the first couple hundred yards of every road leading from the City’s gates, are especially wide.  The story is that during the Northwestern Rebellion two centuries ago, the rebels in the City held out for six weeks due to their ability to barricade the streets, and the ruler who rebuilt it swore she’d never let them do that again.

8.  The City has two principal market squares, North Market and Diamond Market.  They are in fierce competition, and partisan loyalties have arisen depending (in many cases) where your parents and grandparents shopped.  It’s not uncommon for family and friends of stall owners from one market to engage in petty spoilage and vandalism in the other.

9.  For the three years of the exile of the ruling family last century, the City’s mint produced silver pennies (thriftily enough) with dies of the previous ruler’s face, but defaced with a crude bar slashed across the dies.  Possession of coins of that period is just this side of illegal; flashing one is a well-known sign of anti-monarchical sentiment, and sending one anonymously to an aristocrat or government official a well-known warning to Beware.

10.  Many larger homes from last century have bricked-up windows, a relic of an unpopular “window tax” which assessed a surcharge for every dwelling with more than ten windows.  Some buildings from this era have extra-large windows, at a cost to the stability of the structure.

11.  Surviving wallpaper from five decades ago is flat white and hand-stenciled, a relic of an extortionate tax upon printed or painted wallpaper.

12.  From the point of an infamous massacre during the sack of the City four centuries ago, it has been considered very bad luck to bring dead bodies along any of the four main arteries entering into the market square.  Funerary processions go to tortuous lengths to avoid the route.

13.  Surviving wooden constructions from the City’s “colonial” period are uniformly a faded brick red, a dull blue-grey, a washed out golden-brown or a faint dove grey - relics, it is said, of the somber and austere religious beliefs of the day.  (In point of fact, the house painters of the day loved bright hues ... but over three hundred years, paint does fade.)

14.  Buyers and sellers in the market squares are champion hagglers ... but for some unknown reason, no one will haggle over barreled bulk beers, wines or spirits.

15.  Windowboxes for growing flowers is very popular in the City, and a complex “flower code” has arisen.  Connotations for certain combinations of flowers are well-known down to giving praise to the Gods for prosperity (rose, violet and marigold), prayers that a family member in military service will be safe (amaryllis, mayflower) or hope that a child will be conceived (morning glory, impatiens, poppy).

16.  The City stands at the confluence of three rivers, and has many bridges across them.  The bridges all are heavily overbuilt with water wheels for motive power, and craft shops taking advantage of the power fill every bridge.  In consequence, navigation both of the bridges and the rivers beneath them isn’t easy, and backups on both roads and rivers are endemic.

17.  Though the more squeamish and religious people disapprove, a custom predating the City’s incorporation allows shopkeepers to kill burglars on the spot, without recourse to the law, and display their severed heads outside of their shops as a warning to others.  There is no time limit to how long the heads can be on display, and some shops have century-old skulls outside.

18.  The City’s populace is hungry for gossip and news, and an informal cadre of town criers known as “Moontalkers” has arisen.  A Moontalker wears a distinctive green tabard appliqued with crossed trumpets in yellow, and calls out the news at any place where streets intersect.  People gather to listen, often blocking traffic, but while the Moontalker is speaking and wearing the tabard, his or her person is sacrosanct no matter what he or she says, a practice enforced by the mob.

19.  Although the City is the major port for the region’s thriving indigo trade, it is considered unlucky to wear the color blue; few natives dare to do it.

20.  All the City’s temples and churches, from simple shrines on up, have their main entrances face to the northeast, and in mimicry, many private buildings do too.  There are conflicting stories as to why this is, but the most prevalent one is that departing souls find that the most congenial direction to the Holy Mountain, far to the northeast.

21.  There are a welter of deities worshipped in the City, and they all have devout followings.  Between them all, festival days celebrated by one cult or another are prolific, involving parades, holidays, peculiar customs and observances, and as a result, not a lot of business gets transacted, and any business which can’t be concluded in a day can drag on a looong time.

22.  Mercantilism is strong in the City, and everyone belongs to a sodality, confraternity or craft guild.  The guilds run, and are in control of, all cultural, political and social matters, and all inns and taverns are affiliated with a particular sponsoring guild.  A citizen’s status is strongly bound to the prominence of his or her guild.  Foreigners who belong to no guilds confuse the locals, who are unsure how they fit within their tight notions of status and propriety.

23.  Graffiti is common in the City, and the walls of alleys and small byways are liberally festooned with poems, raucous exhortations to eat at this place or that, that Soandso is a bastard born or that Suchandsuch cheats at cards, and the like.

24.  There are no street signs in the City, but there are a dozen roughly defined districts, each associated with a particular animal.   A pictorial representation of the animal is etched, engraved or stenciled into buildings at every street corner.

25.  The City’s New Year is celebrated on the birthday of the eldest child of the ruler.  When the ruler dies, the date of the New Year changes, creating much confusion among outsiders in terms of fiscal and historical records.  This has been made worse on the three occasions in the last few centuries of a newly crowned ruler being childless; in such cases, the City enters an intercalary period, not part of any year, until the day when the ruler declares his or her heir.

26.  Although silting of the river delta has caused the City to retreat fifteen miles from the sea in the centuries since its founding, and the riverside wharves can no longer accommodate deep sea vessels, the City is legally still a “Port,” with a full raft of harbormasters, wherrymen, “harbor” pilots, nautical guildsmen and other officials.  Most of these posts are sinecures for the politically well-connected.

27.  The City also maintains a Swan Warden, who is entitled to four assistants and four guardsmen paid for at the City’s expense, dating back to the days when swans were game birds reserved for the ruler’s hunting.  Since the Swan Warden is formally an official of the Crown, the appointment continues to this day.

28.  While the laws require that anyone casting a spell be a duly paid-up member of the College of Mages, that law was promulgated when the City was bounded by its original walls.  Despite the fury of the College officials, they have not yet succeeded in getting the law extended beyond the Old City to the new neighborhoods sprawling past the old perimeter.

29.  The City’s fishing boats are almost all brightly painted in all hues of the rainbow.  This dates from a celebrated boatwright of fifty years ago, who discounted by 10% all boats she made that the buyers agreed to paint in such schemes.  Her fishing boats were of unusual quality, and between satisfied buyers and those who wanted to claim that their boats were of her crafting, the custom spread and stuck.

30.  The City has a law restricting people who aren’t liveried guard or in the Kingdom’s military from carrying double-edged weapons over eight inches in blade length.  Dodges to get by this include swords with blunted blades, rapiers, foils, non-edged weapons, and single edged swords such as falchions and scimitars.

09 May 2014

Medieval "Facts" Most Players Believe

Yeah, we know – or have a dim awareness, in any event – that gamers are misinformed, if not badly wrong, about many aspects of low-tech life.  And that's understandable.  People grab dice and come up to the table to play a fun game, not to become experts in medieval European culture.

Still, for those of you who appreciate verisimilitude – and if you've come this far in my blog without rolling your eyes and stalking off, you're likely among them – here are a few examples of what gamers get wrong.

Taverns: The standard fantasy RPG tavern is a large, large place.  It’s full of travelers, the common room seats a hundred or so, and there are several floors of guest accommodations above: it really marries our 21st century expectations of a large modern restaurant with the Marriott or Hilton. 

This just isn’t often the case in the medieval period.  Taverns seldom had much in the way of short-term accommodations – separate “hostelries” did that, which were basically glorified boarding houses.  Deep into the 19th century, most were relatively small, neighborhood places that might seat a couple dozen people and had very limited wares: you ate a chunk of bread and whatever was in the stew pot, and you drank the house beer or ale, or an overpriced bottle of wine, and that was where you and your neighbors often went for dinner.  With a deep unwillingness to waste food that couldn't readily be preserved in any event, the tavernkeeper would have the grub on hand she expected to use, and a large group of travelers would have her either frantically dicing potatoes from the root cellar into the cauldron or scrambling to the neighbors for extras ... which would come to the travelers at a large markup.

In early modern England, due to unforeseen consequences of a law, any homeowner could open a "beerhouse" out of his or her home, upon paying two guineas for a license.  The law was repealed twenty years ago, but the remaining license holders were grandfathered, and there are still a couple spots left where the neighborhood "tavern" is no larger than a sitting room, with a couple kegs of booze around.  I read an article on one that was even done on the honor system, more out of tradition than anything else -- the elderly lady whose family ran it for a couple centuries died ten years ago, and her non-resident granddaughter and heir still lets the community keep it up.  This sort of informal arrangement was common in medieval times, and there were shopowners who'd set up a barrel of brew in the evening, put out a few stools, and played barkeep for a couple hours.

Literacy: Gamers badly underestimate medieval literacy rates.  In the countryside, sure – people in medieval Europe were 90% illiterate and up.  In the towns, however, 50% literacy wasn’t at all uncommon, and the totals went up with the artisan classes and higher.  The two key elements were Gutenberg and the Reformation, during and after which the ability to read the Bible was considered crucial.  (Writing, however, was another matter, and many a Renaissance peasant could read but not write.)  In other areas, especially in China, literacy was also prized and relatively common.

The whole fighting-men-don't-need-to-read-that's-for-clerks riff is an inaccurate, modern-day revisionist view of the western European Middle Ages much beloved of Hollywood and fiction.  What, the western Europe that included cosmopolitan Italy and Spain?  The one where noble-born trouveres were filling France with tales, poems and song?  The one where young nobles were raised to have numerous "accomplishments" – to know how to dance, write poetry, play a musical instrument?  Not really a bunch of unwashed barbarians, folks.

Off-the-rack: This didn’t really exist; if you wanted clothes, weapons and the like, they were made to order, and took about that much time.  Artisans would have sample displays of their wares – say, for instance, a silversmith with a row of spoons, each with a different decorative pattern – for buyers to choose between.  They also often had waiting lists, so that new custom-fitted suit of armor?  Yeah, you might be cooling your heels in town a couple months there.  The armourer needs to finish the three jazerans for the men-at-arms of the countess – the one whose patronage he's had for five years now, and hopes to have for many years after the pushy adventurers he's never seen before are long gone.

Food and drink: “Iron rations” and “waterskins” are staples of character sheets, and it’s presumed that PCs do well on them for long adventures.

First off is salted meats. That's great for shipboard and military life, where you have dedicated cooking teams with cauldrons and the ability to boil out the meat for an half hour or more, which is about what salted meat takes to become edible. Most adventurers don't carry cauldrons around and often have limited supplies of fresh water needful for boiling or soaking.  (Smoked or jerked meats are more of a pain in the neck to produce, considerably more of a pain in the neck to produce in bulk, and don’t keep nearly as long.)  I once took a bite out of a piece of salt cod, to see if it was really inedible without boiling.  Trust me -- * gag cough gag * -- it is.

Second is hardtack. This is really ironhard, and requires soaking or pounding to make it at all edible; pull it out of your backpack and take a bite, and you’ll chip teeth. It keeps forever – there was a bit in the paper last year about a researcher eating some preserved hardtack made for the US Army during the Civil War – but it really doesn't save all that much in the way of space over buying a loaf from a farmwife every day of march, and the older it gets, the more it gets infested with weevils.  This’ll do adventurers no harm, but the players might be a bit creeped out.

Third is water itself.  Beer, ale and wine were as common in medieval Europe (as was tea in the East) as they were because drinking the untreated water was a sure road to cholera and other nasty diseases.  Unless you were filling your waterskins from a mountain stream, you were taking a big chance.  And even there ... my favorite camping guidebook has an anecdote from one of the authors of drinking from a cold, refreshing mountain stream in the Arizona desert, and happening to glance upstream to see some buzzards.  Investigating, he found a dead horse, smack in the middle of the stream, a couple hundred yards up from where he drank.

Fourthly – and something gamers usually slough off – food was routinely adulterated.  Hardtack needed to be baked at least twice, and often wasn't, which sharply reduced its shelf life and durability.  Bakers were often brought to trial, not so much for cutting their flour with sawdust, pipe clay or fuller's earth, but by doing it in such amounts as to be impossible to turn a blind eye.  Meats ... well, let's just say you'd need a strong stomach to read about all the things that were done to them.  The party relying on "iron" rations might well find, two weeks from civilization, that their rations are no good.

Finally, the diet just sucks.  No green stuff, no vitamins – a party eating nothing but that junk for a month is going to be less than 100% when it comes to fighting.

Travel times:  Thirty miles a day is a number used frequently in gaming books ... that being the short-term forced march capacity of a military unit in top condition, with a supply train, in good weather, over good modern roads or flat terrain, and not paying a whole lot of attention to flank security.  For adventurers, it's not true.  Horses don't, contrary to most beliefs, make long-distance overland travel go particularly faster – it's that riding on horses tires the travelers out a great deal less.

For another thing, medieval roads almost uniformly sucked.  Full of mud, filled with ruts and holes, indifferently maintained when they were maintained at all.  (Look, if your countryside is constantly plagued by orc bandits, do you think that the road crews are magically safe?)  Rivers didn't come with convenient bridges, spaced a few miles apart: they came with the occasional ferry, for which you might have to wait a good hour for the bargemen to finish their lunch on the other side and pole back, presuming you don't have to march ten miles out of your way upriver to the next one.  (And presuming you know where the next one is.)  Strong, large bridges are creations of large kingdoms with complete control over their lands, silver to burn, and the peace and stability to use it.  (The aforementioned orc bandits not existing, y'see.)

10-15 miles a day's considerably more realistic.

Guilds:  I touched on this in an earlier post, but your average gamer, raised in a largely meritocratic Western democracy, has a mental image of a medieval guild that more or less squares away with modern-day trade unions.  (It's okay.  The origins of the trade union movement, coming about in societies deeply hostile to unwashed craftsmen exerting economic power, sought legitimacy by claiming descent from those guilds.  They weren't historians either.)  This was not close to being the case.  Medieval guilds were part of the civic power structure, they were there to ensure that the guys already on top of the food chain stayed there, and they were notably hostile to threats to their power.  Membership was very restrictive, they got many laws passed to squish outsiders, and they had quite a few anti-competition/innovation rules to prevent journeymen from getting a leg up on the others; enforced hours of operation, hiring limits, a ban on new techniques.