Thursday, September 23, 2021

Why the Sun is Dark and the Realms are Forgotten

From the Sorcerer's Skull's recent posts about Dark Sun have gotten me musing about the relationship between the world of Dark Sun and other fantasy worlds within the WOTC orrery.

Magic in Dark Sun is scarce, and comes at a high price, especially compared to places like the Forgotten Realms, where magic is plentiful and virtually free. 

Suppose that the relationship between these planes isn't just one of coincidence or natural variation, though. What if it's not just that Athas has less magic and Faerun has more? Suppose that the relationship is one of cause-and-effect. What if the Realms are rich because Dark Sun is poor? What if Dark Sun is poor because the Realms are rich?

The basic idea here is that mana is a finite resource. Every time you use it to cast a spell, you're also using it up. (Or perhaps it replenishes itself, but slowly. Over geological time, not human time scales.) 

Faerun is a lush, tropical land supersaturated with mana. With mana so abundant, people use magic with abandon. Magicians are everywhere, and every other adventurer carries a magic sword, sings magic songs, punches with a magic-infused fist. People summon fire elementals to cook their breakfast, cast illusions to amuse their kids, rely on healing spells in lieu of any other form of medicine, brew potions so they can drink magic, make trinkets so they can wear it.

Athas is a desert. It's desiccated. There's very little mana left. Accessing it is is hard, few people have the ability to access it, and they only spend it on spells that are important. Even the most callous and depraved Sorcerer King or Templar Defiler isn't going to harvest the souls of a thousand worshipers or kill all the crops in a hundred mile radius just to iron their shirts, or light their cigarettes, or play a little light jazz to set the mood for a date. Even if they're going to waste their magic, they're going to waste it ostentatiously and dramatically as a show of strength, to impress an ally or overawe a foe. To waste magic in private really would be too much of a waste.
Dark Sun Creature Catalog cover by Wayne Reynolds
There are a couple possible relationships.

Perhaps Faerun is the past and Athas is the future. 

In ye olde days of yore, the Realms could use magic for anything, so they used it for everything, including the pettiest, stupidest shit you could possibly imagine. Goodberries on your cereal in the morning. Disposable Tenser's floating discs to carry home your groceries. Bardic inspiration before you take a test. Scrying when you don't feel like walking to the library. Leomund's tiny hut to keep out of the rain. Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion for a weekend getaway. Glamours on everything. Continual lights on everything. Sleep spells to knock you out when all auras and dweomer's you've been staring at all day start to mess with your circadian rhythm.

Eventually the supply of mana just can't keep up with all the demand. Peak Mana arrives when wizards have to start going farther and farther afield, work harder and harder, longer and longer, to bring back a diminishing supply of mana. Sadly there's no such thing as renewable energy in this world. Some genius invents solar power and starts extracting elemental fire straight from the heart of the sun. Some other geniuses come up with wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy, letting them convert the air to smoke, the seas to salt, the ground to dust. The inexhaustible bounty of the Realms is exhausted, and there simply isn't enough mana from any source to maintain civilization in the style to which it had become accustomed. 

Then comes the Collapse. Then there is no Faerun anymore. Then there is only Athas.

Or perhaps Faerun and Athas are separate. Perhaps Faerun is a resource extractor, and perhaps Athas is a resource.

If Dark Sun and the Forgotten Realms are different planes, then when Faerun starts to run low on domestic mana, they'll begin plundering their neighbors for supply. Perhaps they start by whaling - capturing dragons, demons, angels, and gods to press them like olives, crush them like grapes, until hot, wet, living mana pours out to fill the pipes and keep the faucets running. 

But as the herds then and the fisheries grow sparse, Faerun's prospectors will turn to other worlds. Some planes are easy to reach, and have deep wells of easily tapped mana. Some planes are like shale oil and tar sands. They're hard to get to, their climate is hostile, and it takes so much more work and effort to extract their mana, like wringing it from a damp dishrag. Athas is the tar sands. Athas is wrung out.

Magicians in Dark Sun divide themselves into Preservers and Defilers. The locals do their best to monitor their Mana Footprint, to cut back on their Mana Emissions. They name and shame. They reduce, reuse, and recycle. But it doesn't matter, because theirs is a problem that can't be solved by individual conservation or local action. Every mage in Faerun is a Defiler ... of Athas.

This is why the Realms aren't forgotten exactly, but they are a closely guarded secret. When the Mana Barons and their pirate crews set sail, they fly no flags, they carry no papers. They dare not bring with them anything that could identify the name or location of their homeworld. 
Dark Sun Campaign Setting cover by Wayne Reynolds
The really exciting part of either idea comes when the people of Faerun and Athas finally get to meet.

When people from Faerun come to Dark Sun, they arrive as imperialists. They've landed with their cargo holds empty, and won't be leaving until they fill them up with mana. They're not particularly concerned about how big a mess they make, or how many people they hurt, while doing it. Indeed, there are surely some among their number who are mostly there for the chance to commit violence and atrocities in a context where their home government will not only tolerate their depredations, but reward them for it. 

Others may be motivated by patriotism. Still others find meaning in their work knowing that they're helping to maintain the high standard of civilization, imagining that the Faerun too would be a desert ruin without their efforts. And some are just there for a paycheck, doing the only job they could find at the time they needed work, their only consolation the knowledge (or at least hope) that the money they're sending home is enough to support the people they're sending it to.

When citizens of Athas arrive in the Forgotten Realms, they want revenge. If they're there, it's because they've finally realized who destroyed their world, and they're going to make those fuckers pay, and stop them from plundering anyone else.

The only real question, when the hotwired Spelljammer crashes through Elminster's tower like the Old Mage built it out of Jenga blocks and plows through the center of Waterdeep like a plow through that verdant, mana-rich soil, when a mob of gladiators and psychics and giant mantises tumble out of the wreck wearing leather bondage outfits and carrying weapons made of the bones of the last people they killed, the only real question is whether they have a plan to bring the fight directly to the Big Mana companies who've been financing all the drill sites on Athas, or if they're just going to start breaking things and killing people in an indiscriminate frenzy of vengeance.

Either direction of visitation sounds like a pretty good game session to me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Blogs on Tape 4 - Resources 4 All

Nick LS Whelan has started the fourth season of his Blogs on Tape podcast, and I'm honored to have one of my posts included as the first episode of the new season!

Another round of big thanks to Nick for the entire Blogs on Tape project, and for including my work in it!

Friday, June 18, 2021

Bones of Contention

I recently joined the Skeleton Crew of a new blogging enterprise - Bones of Contention.

The overall goal of the blog is to serve as a repository of reviews written by a group of people who have at least somewhat similar taste in RPG adventures.

Individual motives for participating probably vary from person to person. My motivation is to take a closer look at the kind of adventures that interest me most, to understand how they work, and to think about how they could be improved.

My initial plans are to focus on adventures that use procedural generation, and to look at some of the new "heartwarming" rulesets that are being released. I may expand my list as I go. These are things I've been meaning to look at more closely anyway. So for me, joining Bones of Contention was originally mostly  an excuse and a motivation to actually go forward with that intention.

That said, I think there's something valuable about creating a miniature community of reviewers, and I'm curious to see how our tastes will evolve over the course of the project. Will they converge? Will they grow apart? Will any of our reviews produce valuable aesthetic or game-design insights? I'm excited to find out.

You can read the introduction, and meet the other Skeleton Crew members, here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gygax 75

There's a worldbuilding challenge called Gygax 75 that's been making the rounds on the blogosphere. I decided to try to look its origins and follow the people who undertook it, as is my way.

The earliest origin of the Gygax 75 challenge is an article written by Gary Gygax in the April 1975 issue of the Europa fanzine. Gary lays out a 5 step process for building a new fantasy campaign. I think it's fair to say that this 45 year old piece of ephemera isn't the immediate source of most blogger's participation in the challenge, though.
Initial credit goes to Charles Akins from Dragons Never Forget. Charles is the one who found the long-forgotten Gygax article on the Internet Archive and shared the link with the blogosphere. Charles is also the one who called this worldbuilding method "Gygax 75" and threw down the gauntlet to make it into a blogging challenge.

The Gygax 75 challenge is a 5 step process that's supposed to take place over 5 weeks. Dragons Never Forget describes these in much better detail than me, laying out the parameters of the challenge, but permit me to at least briefly outline them.

Week 1 - decide on the thematic basis of your campaign and pick out some inspirational materials that you can refer to whenever you need help populating your campaign with details

Week 2 - draw a region map of the wilderness adventuring sites that will surround the dungeon that will form the heart of your campaign.

Week 3 - draw your dungeon! in one week! Gary recommends starting with some overview planning to pick themes, monsters, and architectural oddities for each dungeon level, and then setting out to draw and key the first few levels. in a week! I would argue this should be an 8 week challenge, with week 3 devoted to planning and perhaps mapping, and weeks 4-6 given to keying levels 1, 2, and 3.

Week 4 - design a "home base" for your players, replete with factions, NPCs, and rumors so your players can engage in social intrigue in between trips to the dungeon.

Week 5 - design the larger world around the starting region. you don't need a detailed map of the whole world, but you should know the other regions that can be reached from the current one (either by overland or magical travel) so that you can start writing rumors to entice your players to travel to them.

The Gygax 75 Challenge Introduction - Charles links us to the original Europa article and provides links to his other posts in this series.

1 The Setting of the Campaign - summarizes Gygax's worldbuilding advice and lays out his own campaign inspirations, setting the stage for post-apocalyptic science-fantasy.

2 The Map Around the Dungeon - Charles creates his starting region, the Valley of the Three Forks.

3 How to Build the Gygax 75 Dungeon - summarizes Gygax's dungeon-creation advice. pick your themes, place your setpiece treasures and encounters, then write or borrow random tables and procedurally generate the rest.

3 Dungeon Level 1 - the top dungeon level is a ruined, abandoned temple

3 Dungeon Level 2 - the next level features a hall of statues and a giant chamber full of pools

3 Dungeon Level 3 - a prison level, with an exit leading down to allow for further expansion

4 The Local Town and All the Trouble - Charles goes over Gygax's town-building advice and comes up with a list of neighborhoods and the most important shopkeepers in each one.

5 The World Plan - describes three important factions that will be encountered outside the Valley

0 Conclusion and Links to Other Challengers - Charles once again encourages us to take up the Gygax 75 challenge, and points us to Viridian Scroll and Beyond the Gates of Cygnus.
As is often the case in these kinds of situations, the person who created the challenge and the one who popularized it are not the same person. Credit for successfully spreading the word goes to Ray Otus of Viridian Scroll. If you've seen another blogger taking on the Gygax 75 challenge, they've likely been directly inspired by Ray. If you've seen a single-link version of the challenge, it's probably been to Ray's free pdf version on Ray fully credits Charles, but Charles inspired a couple bloggers, while Ray inspired at least a dozen. I should note that Ray's pdf contains both more detailed instructions and a workbook to follow along in, so the work he put into the presentation might explain his greater success in popularizing the challenge.

As we'll see in a minute, Ray and JJ from Beyond the Gates of Cygnus did the challenge at the same time and recorded several episodes of the Plundergrounds podcast about their experiences.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Ray describes the premise of the challenge and links back to Dragons Never Forget and Europa.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - gathering together inspiration, Ray envisions a world where Iron Age humans in city-states reside uneasily alongside communities of monstrous humanoids.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - Ray sketches and then finalizes a vibrantly-colored map of a desert region, Timuria, the Land between Two Rivers.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - more iterative sketching results in a single dungeon level based loosely on a Hindu temple. 

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - released more retrospectively than the others, this one covers setting up the town of Addak, which matches the vaguely Babylonian naming scheme of the other cities.
Over at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus, Cinderella Man JJ used the Gygax 75 challenge to create a setting for a Delving Deeper campaign.

0 Creating a Delving Deeper Campaign in 5 Easy Steps - JJ announces the start of the challenge, which he's completing simultaneously with Ray Otus from Viridian Scroll.

1 The Overall Setting - in addition to using the Delving Deeper rules, this setting will be inspired by the band Rush.

2 The Starting Area - a town called Willow Dale, a Necromancer's tower in the heart of dead forest, and the River Dell leading to the Down Mountains.

3 The Dungeon - JJ creates the most important details for the Necromancer's tower dungeon.

4 The Home Base - the basic features of the town of Willow Dale.

5 The World - more Rush albums are brought in to help define nearby regions of the gameworld.
The Plundergrounds podcast is a collaboration between Ray Otus and JJ. In addition to taking the challenge at the same time, Ray and JJ met once a week to compare notes and talk about their worldbuilding progress.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - introducing the challenge and comparing sources of inspiration.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - drawing the starting area maps.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - starting dungeons that will continue being updated over the next couple weeks.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - working on the starting villages.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 5 - thinking about the wider worlds, and looking back on the challenge.
Not everyone who starts the Gygax 75 challenge decides to finish it. Most people, in fact, seem to stop after a couple weeks. The next person I found who started the challenge was Italian blogger Omnia Incommoda Certitudo Nulla. They were apparently inspired by a post by Shane Ward on a message board called OSR Pit

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week One - the starting pitch here is for a campaign world inspired by The Hobbit, but also by Dracula and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week Two - a starting map, largely without features, and a wandering encounter table emphasizing human antagonists like duelists, cultists, and bounty hunters.
Shane Ward from 3 Toadstools Publishing was the first person I saw who took up the challenge because of finding Ray Otus's He got scooped from being the first person to start it without a personal connection to Ray because he managed to inspire OICN to try the challenge before starting it up himself.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Shane announces the challenge and starts brainstorming, drawing on ideas from Piers Anthony and fantasy botany.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - a more developed start to the setting, inspired by Xanth, Shanara, and Disney's Robin Hood.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2? Sorta - Shane begins drawing a region map, listing possible encounters, and thinking about character classes
Verbum Ex Nihilo also briefly attempted the challenge.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - about the potential benefits of structure and deadlines in worldbuilding, with the challenge as one way to impose them.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - about the process of selecting a notebook, creating a mood board, and attempting to conquer writer's block by looking for structures to build one idea off another.
Dave from Blood of Prokopius was the next to complete the challenge. Dave comes in with his own ideas and methods for creating sandboxes, keying dungeons, etc, so an interesting part of his commentary is about trying to set his own approach aside to try it Gary's way (as interpreted by Charles and Ray).

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge - introduces Dave's inspirations, science fantasy pitting the forces of Heat & Light against the forces of Cold & Dark.

1 Laser Guns and Plasma Swords - defends adding scifi weapons to this particular fantasy setting.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 2 - Dave draws a fantasy map loosely inspired by Kyrgyzstan, starts stocking his sandbox, and creates a very Lost World random encounter table full of dinosaurs and cavemen.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 3 - a general plan for a dungeon of caves atop a glacier atop a crashed alien spaceship.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 4 - keying the dungeon with monsters and treasures, and writing a wandering monster table.  

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 5 - Dave names his starting city Darkport.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 6 - Dave creates a random name generator to name two shops, and observes some differences in the equipment lists of Basic and B/X.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 7 - human and elven factions for Darkport.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 8 - Dave builds out his world by adding three more factions and developing a key NPC for each.
King Brackish actually attempted the challenge twice, first starting it on Tomb of the Wandering Millennial (apparently inspired by Verbum Ex Nihilo), and then restarting and finishing it on Brinehouse.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Brackish proposes a setting inspired by Berserk and Dorohedoro, among others.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the city-state of Evangelos, surrounded by the Blackmange Forest and the Sancana Steppe, and a random encounter table full of megafauna, necromancers, and skeletons.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 1 - Brackish restarts the challenge with a similar, though not identical list of inspirations.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 2 - a new region map with the port city of Dis on the coast of an ocean, surrounded by three distinct forests. the new random encounter table emphasizes boars, wolves, dragons.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 3 - Brackish outlines the three-level Temple of the Swine God.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 4 - the village of Mun, along with 10 shops and 5 NPCs.

5 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 5 - more worldbuilding, including a sun god, rumors of dragons and falling stars, and religious-themed magic treasures.
Andrew Sawyer from Seven Deadly Dungeons is the last person on my list to finish the challenge. 

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Andrew's plan involves creating a fantasy postapocalyptic Meso America.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the region contains an active volcano, a ruined city, and several places where ghosts are on the haunt.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - Andrew has a pretty cool dungeon concept here. the whole complex is a superweapon meant to kill angels. the top level is filled with ghosts, the middle is a star chart that functions as the weapon's targeting system, and the bottom level is a site for the blood sacrifices needed to power the weapon.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - NPCs from the character's home base, all of whom have terrible injuries, which is presumably meant to communicate something about the danger of this place.

5 Gygax 74 Challenge Week 5 - encounter tables for three terrain types.
I've noticed religious themes, and especially postapocalyptic settings have come up in several of these challenges. Justin Hamilton from Aboleth Overlords picks a decidedly Biblical apocalypse to set his game in the aftermath of.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - human civilization has returned to a late bronze age in the aftermath of a Deluge that drowned the world.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the setting gets a name, Umbroea, along with a list of villages, geographic features, possible dungeons, and encounters. 
I'll admit that Liche's Libram's Tlon setting is the one that excites me the most out of all of these. It's one that they were working on before, and seemed to use the Gygax 75 challenge as a way to continue building out their setting. Tlon reminds me of Dying Earth fiction, but transplanted from Earth to a Dying Mars.

1 Tlon Week 1 Gygax 75 Challenge - an overview of the setting's themes. everything is old, civilization is crumbling, water is the most important treasure.

2 Tlon Week 2 Surrounding Area - a visually compelling map, accompanied by descriptions of two cities, a couple geographic features, and a necropolis.
Rob Magus from Penny Ventures decided to make a setting in the aftermath of a cyberpunk apocalypse. I like the image he conjures of whole forests of solar-panel trees.

1 Technoccult Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - the opening setting pitch. images of demon-haunted computers and ghost towns of still-functional neon lights.

2 2d6 Electric Devil Skeletons Gygax 75 Challege Week 2 - locations for the Technoccult setting and a random encounter table with a number of undead cybernetic monsters.
Like Liche's Libram, The Eternal Slog was already working on their Zorn setting when they discovered the Gygax 75 challenge, and started it as a way to do a bit more worldbuilding on an ongoing project.

1 G75 Challenge Week 1 Zorn - the setting here is a previously undiscovered island that rises out of the ocean in 1936 on the even of WWII. various countries send explorers to the island to plunder its ancient occult treasures to use in their war effort. a pretty solid pitch!
Jim from d66 Classless Kobolds is an interesting case to me. He published his Weird North game in August 2020, then started the challenge in October to start making a campaign setting for the game.

1 The Conceptual Beasts of the Weird North - human Vikings on an alien planet that resembles Earth's arctic north, full of ancient tech and extradimensional visitors.

2 The Dank Morass A Swampcrawl for the Weird North - a rather nice-looking pointcrawl map and a random encounter table full of dinosaurs and robots.
Mihau from Fractal Meadows of Reality started the challenge to work on a far-future alien world setting. One interesting thing about going through these challenges is getting a chance to see where the current campaign setting zeitgeist is at. Science fantasy, post apocalypses, aliens instead of demihumans, and magitech meets stone-age all seem to be en vogue right now.

1 Attempting the Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - inspiration from videogames and an online art book that looks very cool to me. humans and aliens on a distant world ruled by satellite gods.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 Plains of Eyes and Hands - the Ascendancy of Teal arcology sits aside the Plains of Salt, and an encounter table full of megafauna and cavemen.
Phoe of Magic Trash is the most recent person I've spotted to start the challenge. His proposed setting is inspired by extremophile biology and vernacular architecture - a winning combination as far as I'm concerned!

1 Gygax 75 Week 1 - no humans, no humanoids, only talking animals and extremophile aliens, each building unique cities.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 The Legend of Gygax's Gold - a few points of light in the wilderness, with attention given to the architectural style of each place.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

My Earliest Comic Issues

On Discord, From the Sorcerer's Skull posed a question about people's earliest memories of owning comic books. I believe his questions were about the first comic you ever read, the first comic that was ever bought for you, and the first comic you ever bought with your own money.

I'm not following his prompt exactly, but I decided to poke around on the Great Comic Database and try to find the earliest comics issues I ever owned. Today, most of my media consumption is pretty purposeful. I rarely watch or read anything that hasn't been recommended to me by a friend, or that I haven't read about first by browsing reviews. But as a kid, I was far more beholden to what was available at the time. As a result, many of my first issues are the final part of a multi-part storyline.

I only ever had the one issue of Amethyst, and maybe a couple of Transformers. I collected perhaps a half-dozen Alf issues over the next few years, and the same with What If? I got maybe a dozen or so issues of Spider-Man before moving on to other things. I somehow never bought another Superman or Flash or Captain America, although that's how I learned about Daredevil, and Guardians of the Galaxy and Daredevil became the main two comics I collected after that, along with Generation X when it showed up. I never had anything like complete runs of any comic though. There were always gaps where we didn't make it to the bookstore that month, or for whatever reason there was no new issue available.

Looking back on them now, I notice how beautiful the art in Amethyst was, and what a terrifying body-horror villain Skyhook made in Superman. I wonder about Circuit Breaker's war against the machines in Transformers, and what it was that made the world go mad in The Flash.
Amethyst #4, Feb 88
What about you? What were the earliest comics you remember reading or owning or buying?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG

The Class Alphabet for DCC
In spring 2016, David Coppoletti reached out to me and a couple dozen other DCC fans on Google+. He had an ambitious idea - a sourcebook of 26 character classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics. Sometime in fall or winter 2020, David's idea appeared as a finished book, The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG. You can read Raven Crowking's review here.

I was convinced by David's G+ pitch, and wrote the Knave. Later, due to the logistical challenges of managing the contributions of so many collaborators, I ended up a second class, the Cyber-Zombie.

The Knave receives, I think, the single longest class write-up in the book. My goal was to combine the various Jacks of fairy tale and nursery rhyme, characters like Liane the Wayfarer and Cugel the Clever from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, the Fool from Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, the imagery of playing cards, and the tarot. I was also experimenting with the limits of the "you're no hero" writing style; I described Knaves as being nasty in a way that almost makes me uncomfortable to reread. The Knave class is so long because there are four fully described sub-classes based on the suits of playing cards, each subclass has its three Mighty Deed of Arms equivalents they can learn, there are 22 spell-like effects based on the major arcana of tarot, and also, yes, because of long-windedness on my part.

The Cyber-Zombie was my attempt to create a class that you can only start playing after your previous character has died. I was definitely inspired by Terra Frank's three undead classes from the first Gongfarmer's Almanac. As a Cyber-Zombie, you start out at whatever level your old character was, and you retain a remnant of your old class powers, although reduced from before. Cyber-Zombies also get upgrades. I based the possible upgrades on Super Metroid and Mega Man X, and on the Centurions cartoon series. 

The other authors in the collection are a veritable Who's Who of DCC fans and publishers - including Reid San Filippo of the Crawling Under a Broken Moon zine and the subsequent Umerica sourcebook and adventure series, Diogo Nogueira of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells and plenty of other projects, and plenty of other names that you might recognize from their contributions to The Gongfarmer's Almanac, their participation in various DCC podcasts, their DCC blogs, or other gaming publications.

It's a pleasant surprise for me to see The Class Alphabet finally out. This was one of the first times I was invited to contribute to a collaborative writing project. Quite a lot has happened in my life, and in the world, since David first approached me. I'm very happy to see that he was able to realize his goal.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds

How much damage does a hit point represent?

For some time now, the official standard in D&D and Pathfinder has been that starting characters get the maximum hit points at 1st level, based on class. So typically 6, 8, or 10 - maybe 12 for certain fighting types or 4 for certain magicians, depending on the ruleset - plus a bonus for a high Constitution, which is pretty common.

You gain about half that amount, rounded up, plus the Con bonus again, each level. So it would be fairly normal to see an adventuring party with hp totals of 7, 10, 13 at 1st level; 12, 17, 22 at 2nd; and 17, 24, 31 at third. 

I would also say it's standard that these hit points are treated as representing real, physical damage. In most games I've run, played in, or observed at an FLGS, the Game Master says something like "you hit!" and "you miss!" to describe combat results. They describe damage as being "just a scratch" or "a really bad wound". Characters recover lost hit points with the help of healing potions or healing spells, because those lost hit points represent bodily injuries that need to heal before the hit points can be restored.

(Let me digress for a moment to acknowledge that there are people who'll talk until they're blue in the face and you're blue in your soul about how well actually Gary never intended hit points to indicate anything so concrete as bodily health, etc, they have always and everywhere represented an abstracted reserve of luck, martial skill, fighting spirit, elan vitae, and character morale that gets depleted during combat, etc etc, anyone who says differently is playing the game wrong and ruining the hobby with their scurrilous misinterpretation of the founders' intentions, etc etc etc. I'm actually sympathetic to the argument that we could describe combat differently, but I think I'm on solid footing about how the game is usually played, and I don't find it useful to pretend that one's own preferred playstyle has some deep rooting in custom and tradition just to facilitate a rhetorical appeal to faux-historical authority.)

Most weapons use d6, d8, and d10 dice to deal damage, plus of course a likely bonus for high Strength. That means that depending on the match-up of character and monster and weapon, most starting characters can sustain maybe 2-3 hits before they run out of hit points, and can probably endure another 1-2 hits each time they level up.

So returning to my original question, how much damage does one hit point represent?

The Alexandrian argues that the answer is on a sliding scale. Suppose getting hit with a short sword deals 4 damage - how much bodily injury that 4 damage represents depends on whose body it is. For a 1st level thief with 7 hp, that 4 damage is over half their total. That's a pretty grievous injury. Another hit like that and they'll either be dying or just plain dead. For a 3rd level fighter with 31 hp, it's not so bad really. They could get hit 6-7 more times like that before it would kill them. The severity of the injury isn't determined so much by the number of hit points as it is by the proportion of the total.

DM David suggests that the abstraction of hit points - the fact that they don't easily map to any particular amount of bodily injury - is the reason for their enduring appeal. He observes that virtually every game that sets out to "fix" D&D's combat settles on some kind of rule to make hit points and weapons damage more "realistic", and that despite these many "fixes", D&D's decidedly un-realistic combat remains more popular. He argues that this is because it's more fun. Players like the positive feedback of actually hitting their opponents, and they like not dying instantly the first time an attack hits them. It's more fun to narrate combat as a trading of blows than as a series of dodges, blocks, whiffs, and misses.

When I first learned about D&D, before I started playing, I thought that 100 hit points per character sounded about right. I suppose I must have been thinking of hp as percents. If you'd asked me how long a fight should last back then, I probably would have wanted something like the duration of combat you get in a round of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. For "boss fights" anyway, although I don't know if the rhythm of lesser battles against weaker monsters leading up to the climactic crescendo of a "final boss" would have occurred to me then. 

But some people want something different. They want combat to be short, decisive, and deadly. Or they want combat to be a "fail state", a mistake that you instantly regret making. Or they want it to be more "realistic". Or they want it to be more concrete and less abstract. At the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, reinventing the square wheel as it were, I have a proposal for how to do that.

You're dying, John.

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds
  • One hit point represents one bullet wound.
  • The number of hit point a character possesses represents the number of times they can get shot before dying.
  • The amount of damage an attack deals represents the number of bullets that hit the target.

Saito's not going to make it, is he?
  • Attack rolls truly are "to-hit" rolls. If you roll a miss, that means the bullet misses its target.
  • Your "armor class" represents your ability to dodge or evade. It's affected by your agility and by ducking behind cover, which causes the bullets to miss you.
  • Body armor allows bullets to hit you, and so doesn't affect your "armor class" at all. Instead it provides something like a saving throw after combat to see if it successfully prevent the bullets from damaging you as much as they normally would.

  • Hit point totals are low and will remain low. A non-combat character can survive being shot maybe 1-4 times, a combat-oriented character can survive maybe 1-6. Hit point totals probably don't increase as you gain levels, or only very slightly.

  • If a character with 1 hit point gets shot, they start dying. If a character with 0 hit points gets shot, they're instantly dead. Most civilian NPCs have 1 hp. Having 0 hit points represents an state of illness or frailty.
  • Dying will turn into dead unless you go to a hospital or other surgeon. Any character who gets shot will die from their injuries unless they take the time needed to apply competent first aid to their wounds. 
  • Any bullet wound that isn't treated in a hospital or equivalent will result in the permanent loss of 1 hp. Any bullet wound that is treated still requires something like a saving throw after treatment to recover, otherwise it's lost permanently anyway.
  • Recovery times are long. Expect to spend something like 1 hour per bullet wound on first aid and something like 2 weeks per wound recovering afterward. And those might still be "unrealistically" abbreviated. Translate into your game's relevant "turn" and "downtime" categories as necessary.

  • Most unarmed combat deals 0 damage. You can wrestle someone to restrain them, get in a fistfight in lieu of negotiation, maybe even knock someone unconscious, but your bare hands aren't likely to kill anyone, except under extraordinary circumstances. A critical hit might kill, even by accident, and so might beating a helpless person.
  • Knives deal maybe 1 damage. You get something like a saving throw. If you succeed, you still need first aid, and will suffer the consequences without it, but otherwise you take 0 damage. If you fail your save, you need a hospital, and take 1 damage. Knives can kill, but not as easily as a gun.
  • Most bullets deal 1 damage, but special guns might have special characteristics. A very weak gun, perhaps one that's very quiet or easy to conceal, deals maybe 1 damage, like a knife. A very powerful gun, or one that's firing very dangerous ammo, will definitely deal 1 point of damage and will maybe deal 2. Again, you need something like a saving throw. Armor piercing bullets don't allow you to make a save to prevent their damage, but let's say they only deal 1 damage if you're wearing a vest. Special guns and special bullets are very expensive.