Tuesday, May 14, 2019

CRAWL-thulhu

My friends John Potts and Todd McGowan have just published the second issue of their DCC zine - CRAWL-thulhu!

Zine by John Potts, Art by Todd McGowan

I was a playtester and a volunteer proofreader for issue 1, and I wrote a couple sections of issue 2. John and Todd worked as partners with John doing almost all the writing, editing, and layout, and Todd providing all the art. Because John has decided to retire following the release of issue 2, I'm going to be the lead author of all future issues.

CRAWL-thulhu issue 1 introduces advice for running a Lovecraftian campaign using Dungeon Crawl Classics. It replaces the Luck score with a Sanity score, has rules for Sanity loss due to encountering elements of the Lovecraft Mythos, has a list of 1920s occupations for zero-level characters, and has a complete adventure "A Horrible Day at the Dunwich Fair", which I've played through twice.

CRAWL-thulhu issue 2 introduces a skill system for mystery investigations in DCC, has six 1920s character classes, rules for spellcasting and magic, some death & dismemberment style tables I wrote for recovering from insanity and near-death, and offers more advice for running Lovecraftian campaigns using DCC.  

(And I should note, the tables here are different from the death & dismemberment table I wrote for DCC earlier. They're tailored to the horror genre and the modern setting in the same way that my original table is tailored to DCC's regular setting.)

Zine by John Potts, Art by Todd McGowan
 
So if you like DCC or Cthulhu or both, you might like to take a look at what my friends made!

My agreement to take over writing in the future was very recent, so at the moment, I don't have any answers about what will happen to the Discerning Dhole Productions imprint, or what will be in the contents of future issues. I'm sure I will shamelessly advertise here when issue 3 is ready to be released. In the mean time, CRAWL-thulhu issue 1 and issue 2 are available for you to enjoy!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Quotes from Empire in Black and Gold - part 2

I wanted to share some quotes from Empire in Black and Gold, both to show a little what Adrian Tchaikovsky's writing looks like, and to illustrate a few ideas from the text. This is a follow-up to my earlier post about the book.
 
 
Factions of the Lowlands

The first quote comes from chapter 5, and shows the opening ceremony for an annual Olympic-style game. I like it because it's the first really good introduction we get to all the species/factions of the Lowlands, and it's also the first time we see the Wasps.

"There was a crowd the length of the Pathian Way. The wealthy and more prosperous artisans rubbed shoulders unselfconsciously, sitting on the great tiered stone steps that lined the route. The ritual of the Games and the procession of the athletes were older than the College itself. These steps had been thronged like this when the city had been still called Pathis and the Beetle-kinden were second-class citizens and slaves, back in the Bad Old Days."

"Before those comfortable steps thronged the poor, but they made up for it with noise and cheer. Being poor in Collegium was only a relative thing, for the poor of Collegium enjoyed ample work, and sewers and clean wells with pumps, and there was food to be had from the civic stores when times were lean. Governance by academics, philanthropists and the wealthy was hit or miss, but it had always been fashionable to be seen doing charitable work for the lower orders. Even the greediest magnate wanted to be seen to be generous, and even false generosity could fill bellies."

"There was a roar among the crowd. People began craning forward, even pushing out into the Pathian Way, though there was a scattered line of the city guard to keep them in check, mostly middle-aged men in ill-fitting chain mail. Their presence was enough, though, and every tenth man was a Sentinel wearing the massively bulky plate armor that only Beetle-kinden possessed the sheer stamina to wear. The cheering grew louder and louder, for Collegium's own athletic best were the first band of heroes to enter the city by the Pathian Way."

"Helleron's team came close behind. The Helleron team were fed a little less approval than the city's home-grown heroes, but they received cheers nonetheless. They were mostly Beetle-kinden, and they and Collegium took the honour of that race with them to the field."

"Traditionally, the Ant cities came next in the procession. The first platoon of neatly marching Ants hailed from Sarn, which in the last few decades of political reform had become Collegium's nearest ally. They were a uniform breed, tan of skin, regular of feature. The Kes team followed next, looking much like their predecessors save for the coppery tone of their skins, and then the pale Ants of Tark following on their heels."

"A showing from Seldis and Everis came next, a score of Spider-kinden, both men and women, and each of them as beautiful as heredity and cosmetics could conjure up for them. Behind them was the combined Egel-Merro team of Fly-kinden, a jostling pack of little people casting looks at the crowd that were full of bravado and sly humour."

"And last, of course, straggled whatever of the other two kinden of the Lowlands had managed to put together for a team this year. There were just eleven of them, far short of any of their competition, and nine of them were Mantids. They looked down their noses at the patronizing crowd, stalked with a killer's grace between the great packed masses of Collegium like hostage princes entering into captivity."

"Amidst the Mantids were a couple of others, grey-skinned and grey-robed, shorn of any ornament, staring fixedly at the ground. These two were not official delegates from Mount Hain in the north. They were radicals, renegades. Like the few Moth teachers employed at the College, they were the exceptions to their race who had come to see the world beyond their insular home. The Beetle spectators looked on them with amusement nowadays. There was no ire left, among the people of Collegium, for a race whose reach had once shadowed all of the Lowlands."

"There was now a murmur running through the crowd. For there was, this year, another team. They brought up the rear, consigned there because the organizers had not known what to do with them. Their banner, their colours, repeated in their clothes, their armor, even the hilts of their weapons. Black and gold. All of it black and gold. They were men, every one of them. Some were pale and some were darker, and most were fair-haired, and handsome when they smiled. Some of them wore banded armour and some simply cut clothes, and all of them had short swords in their belts. They were not the rigid lattice of the Ants, but their step was close in time. Seeing them, all of them together, the people of Collegium understood that a new race, a new power, had fully entered into the Lowlands."
 
 
Apt-ness and Crossbows

The next quote from chapter 7 is one of the first times Tchaikovsky really lays out how the different relationships-to-technology work within the setting. We learn what it means to be "Apt" and see just how unable to use machines the in-Apt species are.

"Tynisa shook her head. 'Sorry, Totho. All machinery is bibble-babble to me.' "

" 'But you were brought up here in Collegium!' he protested."

" 'Sorry. You ever see a Spider-kinden crossbow-woman? Being Apt to machines isn't something you can just pick up. You're born to it or you're not.' "

"Che had seen Tynisa with a crossbow, once. It had been when they were both around twelve, and Tynisa had been determined to become good with it, as she had been with everything else she put her hand to. That day lingered in the memory because it was the first time Che had found something she herself could do, that her foster sister could not."

"But it's not hard, she remembered saying patiently. You just point it at the target and pull the lever. And the staggering weight of her understanding that Tynisa just could not grasp the notion, could not understand that the action led to the result. She almost shot Stenwold when she finally clutched the weapon so hard she mistakenly triggered it, and she could not even begin to reload or recock it. It was not just that she had never been trained, or taught. It had all been there for her, if only she could adapt her mind to take it in."

"Persistent myth related that the crossbow was the first tool of the revolution. Almost certainly there had been something else, something less warlike and more practical. The crossbow was what won the battles, though. Any fool could pick up a crossbow and kill a man with it, any Beetle-kinden, or Ant, or anyone Apt. Bows were an art form, crossbows but a moment in the learning, in the making. The world had been turned upside down within a generation by men and women armed with the crossbow and the pulley, the hand pump and the watermill. All the old masters of the Lowlands had been unthroned, their slaves prising mastery of the world from their impotent hands. The old races of the superstitious night were waning. Only the Spider-kinden held on to their power, and that was because they could play the younger races like a musical instrument. The world belonged to the Apt: Beetles, Ants, and most Fly-kinden these days, the races of the bright sun that drove out the shadows."

"And also the Wasps: an entire Empire of the Apt."


Locks are Technology Too

So this quote, from chapter 8, kind of repeats some of the ideas from the previous post, but I like it also lays out what the Spider worldview is like. We know that they can't really use technology already, but it's nice to get a glimpse of what they CAN DO instead.

"Tynisa discovered that the cabin door was her only way out, and the door was locked."

"Now if she had been a Beetle, that would have been different. She was quite sure that if she had been a Beetle-maid then a few quick jabs with a piece of wire would see her out the door and away as fast as her stubby legs would carry her. She even began to try that, kneeling before the lock and peering into the narrow keyhole, trying to imagine the pieces of metal inside that, in some way beyond her imagining, controlled whether the door would open or not."

"She simply could not do it: there was no place in her mind to conceive of the lock, the link between the turn of the key, the immobility of the door. Of all the old Inapt races, the Spider-kinden still prospered as before, but that was only because they found other people to make and operate machines for them. Spider doorways were hung with curtains, and they had guards, not locks, to keep out strangers."


The Motley Mafia

We don't see very much of the demimonde or criminal underworld, but we do get a glimpse. In chapter 12, we're introduced to one of several colorful gangs within Helleron. There are quite a lot of "half-breed" characters in the Lowlands (including the apprentice Totho), and we see very early on that there's quite a bit of prejudice against them ... so it makes a certain kind of sense that many of them who are denied other opportunities might end up as criminals. I actually find Tchaikovsky's portrayal of this gang to be reasonably sympathetic, especially compared to "Mister Motley" from Perdido Street Station. Honestly this crew would be pretty at home in Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque's city of Umberwell.

"There was a Fly-run eatery where Sinon Halfway, leader of the Halfway House cartel, held court. Some half-dozen Fly-kinden staff were serving three dozen men and women, and it was evident to Tynisa at first glance that there was a right end and a wrong end of the table to be kneeling at. The right end was closest to the enthroned figure of Sinon Halfway himself."

"He was a lean man just turning to fat around the middle, due to the few years now when he had not personally taken up the sword to defend his empire. He was dressed like a man about to flee the city with all his wealth upon him, but she saw that all of them were, more or less, the gangsters sported chains and rings, amulets and jeweled gorgets, even in one case a mail shirt made from coins, good silver Standards of Helleron mint. Sinon would have been worth, in gold and gems alone, a much as half the table, and she understood that it was a status thing. A wealthy man who hid his light under a bushel would gain no respect for that here."

"The name told true. Sinon was a half-breed, and she guessed that he was Moth-kinden interbred with the pale-skinned Ants of Tark. What should have been an unpleasant mottling had instead left him with milky skin traced with veins and twists of grey, like marble. It was an exotic, oddly attractive sight. His hair was dark, worn long over his shoulders in a Spider style. His eyes were just dark pupils circled in white, without irises. The melange of his ancestry had conspired to make a man at once unnerving and compelling."

"The gangstesr were a motley lot: Beetles, Ants, Flies, Spiders, plenty of half-breeds, and a few she could not name. They had scars, most of them, amidst the jewelry, so it had been a fight for them to get where they were."


The Origins of the Empire

We've been kind of following Tynisa, but here in chapter 19, we pick up with her sister Cheerwell learning about the origins of the Wasp Empire. It sounds vaguely similar to the origin of the Mongol Empire, and reminds me of Coins and Scrolls' vision of foreign invaders as a source of threat in the medieval world of his game.

" 'You must have a very skewed picture of the Wasp-kinden,' he told her. 'If you think of us at all, you must think we're savages.' "

" 'Not so far from the truth,' he admitted, and she raised surprised eyebrows. 'The Empire is young. Three generations, three Emperors.' "

" 'No, we don't live for hundreds of years. Nothing like that. Our Most Revered Majesty Alvdan the Second is not thirty years of age. His grandfather was one tribal chieftain in a steppeland full of feuding tribes, but he had, as the story goes, a dream. He took war to the other tribes, and he subjugated them. He brought all the Wasp-kinden together under his banner. It took a lifetime of bitter fighting and worse diplomacy. His son, Alvdan the First, built the Empire: city after city brought into the fold, the borders pushed ever outward. Each people we made our own, we learned the lessons they taught us. We honed the tool of war until it was keen as a razor."

"Our Emperor now, Alvdan Two, was sixteen when he came to the throne, and since then has not rested in furthering the dream of his father and grandfather. We have fought more peoples than the Lowlands even knows exist. We have defended ourselves against enemies who were stronger than us, or wiser than us, or steeped in lore we could not guess at. We have conquered internal strife and we have done what no other has ever done before us. The Empire is physically near the size of the entire Lowlands, but all under one flag and marching all to one beat. The Empire represents progress, Miss Maker. The Empire is the future. Look at my people. They have a foot in the barbaric still. They must be forced into discipline, into control, into civilization! But we have come so very far in such a short time. I am proud of my people, Miss Maker. I am proud of what they have brought about.' "
 
 
Maps of the World

In chapter 20, Cheerwell and her friend Salma discuss their peoples' visions of the larger world. Salma tells the fable that I relate below, and Cheerwell follows up by explaining that the only famous Beetle explorer ended up having all his accounts sold as children's fiction, because Beetle-kinded society could neither believe what he found nor take it seriously. You get the sense though that this world might contain nearly every possible type of insect-kinden if you travel far enough to find them. Here we see Locusts, Slugs, Woodlice, a pretty good description of how "foreigners" become "barbarians", and an outsider's perspective on the Lowlands.

" 'Where is there, out here?' Che wondered. The Lowlander cartographers had never been much for going beyond the borders of the lands they knew. It was part of the inward-looking mindset that was now giving the Wasps such free reign."

" 'Commonweal maps don't go into much detail here. Just "wildlands," that kind of thing,' said Salma. 'Mind you, they're mostly about a hundred years out of date at the least. It's been a while since the Monarch's Nine Exploratory Heroes were sent to the four corners of the world looking for the secrets of eternal life.' "

" 'The who sent for what?' she asked incredulously. He grinned at her."

" 'Three centuries ago the Monarch was very old, and he sent the nine greatest heroes of the Commonweal out into the unexplored parts of the world, because his advisors and wizards had told him that the secret of life eternal was out there to be found. Some went north across the great steppe, through the Locust tribes and the distant countries of fire and ice, and the ancient, deserted mountain kingdoms of the Slugs. Some went east where the barbarians life, and where the broken land is studded with cities like jewels, or to where the great forests of the Woodlouse-kinden grow and rot all at the same time. Some went west, and sailed across the sea to distant lands where wonders were commonplace and the most usual things were decried as horrors not to be tolerated. And some,' and here his smile grew mocking, 'went south across the Barrier Ridge, and found a land where no two people can agree on anything, and the civilized comforts of a properly measured life were almost completely unknown. And five of the Exploratory Heroes returned, with empty hands, but with tales enough to keep the Regent's wise men debating for centuries.' "

"She was agog, just for a moment, waiting. 'And? What about the others? Did they find it?' "

"He laughed at her. 'No one knows. They never came back. Some people still say, though, that the last of the Heroes still wanders distant lands, living eternally, eternally young, trying only to get his prize back to a Monarch who died just two years after the Heroes set out.' "


The REALLY FAR Far Away Lands

Finally, from chapter 40, another glimpse of the much larger world, in which certain peoples are so distant that, like in Charles Saunders' Imaro stories, they are believed to mythical. In this case it's the Centipede-kinden and Mosquito-kinden who are thought just be legends. I somewhat wonder if either species ever shows up in Tchaikovsky's series, and if they do, whether his Mosquitoes are at all like the Anophelii from China Mieville's The Scar.

" 'There is no hand from which I would not take help at this point. I would write to the underground halls of the Centipede kingdom or the Mosquito Lords if they were anything more than a myth. Perhaps, if matters grow much worse, I will do so anyway.' "

Monday, May 6, 2019

Empire in Black and Gold - part 1

If Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold isn't the GLOGosphere's favorite novel, it probably should be. In the first place, all the characters are technically human, but they're also all "insect-kinden", members of fantasy races and societies who liken themselves to different insect species, bear some physical resemblance to their namesakes and bear some supernatural powers that resemble them too. In the second place, the setting is an industrial, pre-apocalyptic world where the various societies of the Lowlands are on the cusp of a catastrophic invasion by an unstoppable army from just outside their borders.
 
 
All the different insect-kinden have access to what are essentially psychic powers called "The Art." A person can learn to access their Art by meditation, and it manifests in different ways in the different human races, and apparently there's some variation among individuals of the same race. (Only some Beetle-kinden can fly, for example, and those who can are much slower and clumsier than any other flying race.) When someone summons their "Art-wings", they appear like they're made of light, and the same is true for some other physical manifestations, like the Wasp-kindens' "Art sting." Art also lets Ant-kinden communicate telepathically and Spider-kinden manipulate people's emotions, but it ALSO also lets the Mantis-kinden grow bone-blades from their forearms, and it supposedly accounts for the Beetle-kinden's superior durability.

Tchaikovsky refers to the human races using capital letters, and actual insects using lowercase. So "Beetle-kinden" and "Beetle" refer interchangeably to humans, while "beetle" refers to the insects. There's not much animal life of any kind in the novel, but aside from humans, I think that horses are the only mammals we see. Meanwhile insects are sometimes as large as horses or elephants, and fulfill similar domesticated roles.

The Lowlands are a relatively self-contained region, protected from their neighbors by ocean on two sides, desert on a third, and a "The Great Barrier Ridge", a very Grand-seeming canyon that led me to spend a little time pondering if Tchaikovsky had set his novel in the far future of the real world. I think actually the geography here is supposed to kind of resemble Central and South Asia, but also maybe Southern and Eastern Europe, and the invading Wasp Empire seems like both the Mongol Horde in some ways, and like the Roman Empire in others.

The most industrious people are the Beetle-kinden, who control the liberal, cosmopolitan college city of Collegium and the sprawling, industrial-capitalist city of Helleron. Beetles are shorter than the other races and fatter. They're also the most mechanically adept - or "Apt" - and are the most similar to any readers who hail from liberal democracies in the contemporary West. Three of our viewpoint characters, Stenwold, Che, and Totho, are all Beetle-kinden.

Stenwold Maker reminds me a little of Isaac dan der Grimnebulin from China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. He's a middle-aged man of science, confronted with problems whose origins lay outside his worldview. I think the two are cut from the same cloth, and Isaac's life might be a bit like what Stenwold's life would have been like, if he hadn't adopted an infant daughter and raised her, hadn't adopted his niece as a ward to give his daughter a sister, if he had the opportunity to devote himself to his machines, instead of being forced by circumstance to become a spymaster and a statesman, so that he could learn about the Wasp Empire's activities, and try to influence Collegium's policy against them. (I guess he's also a little like Benjamin Franklin, now that I write this out.)

Cheerwell Maker, "Che", is Stenwold's niece and ward. When I think of her I usually just see Glimmer from the new She-Ra series. Totho is Stenwold's apprentice. The other two viewpoint characters are Tynisa, a Spider-kinden woman who Stenwold raised as his daughter, and Salma, a visiting prince from the Dragonfly Commonweal who understands the importance of opposing the Wasps. Spiders are incredibly adept at emotional manipulation, and Dragonflies just seem to be generally very graceful. We also see a Mantis Weaponmaster, Tisamon, in action, and he's the sort of fighter who can mow through an unlimited number of enemy combatants like an out-of-control grain threshing machine, the kind of fighter who basically can't be defeated in normal combat, because there simply isn't room to surround them with enough opponents to actually defeat them. (If Dragonflies remind me a bit of D&D's monks, Mantis-kinden are like barbarians with unlimited rage. If you used this as a setting for a game, you might want race-as-class character classes, or you might want to give each race 2-3 classes that are tied to it.)

The other place the Lowlands reminds me of is the fantasy East Africa of the Charles Saunders' Imaro stories. Saunders' Nyumbani is filled with a variety of societies and ethnicities, but his heroes are from beyond the boundaries of the lands any of the other characters are familiar with. They have "powers" that are common among their peoples, and those peoples are themselves repeatedly described as "semi-mythical" when Saunders explains how they seem to the majority of Nyumbanians. Imaro himself is a raging warrior whose upbringing resembles a fictionalized version of the Maasai peoples' traditional lifestyle. Pomphis is a pygmy sage who seems to have read and to know everything (a bit like the "lore" ability of D&D's original bards, hmm...), and Tanisha comes from a society that I think is supposed to seem a little like the Nubians after the end of their rule of Ancient Egypt. The point is, in both Saunders' world and Tchaikovsky's we have several heroes from distant lands, whose appearances and abilities seem almost supernatural to local observers.

As I mentioned, the Lowlands are in the midst of an ongoing, Beetle-led industrial revolution. The other "Apt" peoples are the Ant-kinden, whose skin-color derives from their city, and whose cities war endlessly with each other, and the Fly-kinden. (Incidentally, Ants from the city of Tark, and later, desert-dwelling Scorpion-kinden, are the only peoples described as having "pale" or "white" skin, although the Wasps are all blonde, I believe. Everyone else has a skin-tone that would make them a person of color in contemporary America, except the moths who are grey, and the people of Mynes, who have blueish skin.) Spiders have their own kingdom to the south of the Lowlands, and Dragonflies live further north. The Lowlands used to be dominated by the Moths, who enslaved most of the other races, but by the time the book opens, Moths mostly live in caves beyond the outskirts of their old cities.

The Wasps are also Apt, and they're organized as a conquering army. Literally every Wasp male is a soldier, and all their other work is performed by slaves taken from their conquered peoples. From the beginning of the novel, their Empire is large, unified, organized, and preparing to pour into the Lowlands and conquer everyone. The Beetles have been selling them weapons for decades, every Ant city expects that the Wasps will conquer the other Ants and leave them alone, so Stenwold Maker is nearly alone as a voice of reason. Slavery is a common enough practice in the Lowlands (and some characters even observe that Helleron's factories practice a kind of wage-slavery) but if Lowlands' slavery is like the kind practiced throughout the Ancient World, then the Wasps' slavery is more like the chattel slavery that Europe and America perfected between the Age of Exploration and the Civil War. That is to say, all slavery is bad, but some kinds are indeed worse than others, more dangerous, more dehumanizing, less escapable - and the Wasps plan to convert all the peoples of the Lowlands into property.

We get introduced to the Beetles and their scientific world-view first, and only later learn that the "in-Apt" races - the Old races who ruled during the Age of Lore before the Beetles' and Ants' revolution overthrew them - that they believe in magic. "Magic" is separate from Art, which is part of why I think of Art as being more akin to psionic power, and for most of the book, it's not clear whether the Beetles' or Moths' worldview is more accurate. Certainly within the industrial society the Beetles, Ants, and even Wasps live in, there is no room for or appearance of magic. It's only what happens outside those societies that makes magic's existence seem possible.

I should mention, the in-Apt peoples literally can't use technology. They can't pick locks or even fire crossbows. Individually, their citizens fly better, fight better, and are just generally more cultured and skilled than the masses of the Apt, but Beetles can make machines, and use them, and overwhelm the others with their sheer numbers. Beetle equality is the key here, because of course the "citizens" of Spider or Dragonfly society doesn't really include their lower classes, who are unlikely to receive such extensive education or training to develop their abilities. And there just aren't enough aristocrats to defeat entire armies of the middle class. (If you were modeling this in a game, you might assign Technology Levels to different species, and use those to restrict their ability to use various equipment. In a kind of balance, the Old races get more innate powers, while the Apt races get better tools.)

And then the Wasps, like something from Max Weber's nightmares, represent a kind of rationality run amok, able to outnumber and out-compete literally every society they encounter. While the Beetles' universal citizenship and compulsory education give them their military and economic edge over traditional societies like the Moths, it also makes them vulnerable to the authoritarianism and universal conscription of the Wasps.

(After writing this, I checked to see if there was a sequel, and learned that Empire is the first in a series of 10 books. I'm not especially interested in watching the kind of thumb-twiddling you have to do to keep mostly the same set of characters in the same unresolved narrative arc over the course of like 3-4 thousand pages, but if you enjoy reading fantasy series, I suspect you could do worse.)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Your Life is Forfeit

In my recent post about types of resources, I had an especial bone to pick with light sources and darkness. Even more recently, Rise Up Comus followed up on my complaint.

The two main points of my complaint were that (a) I don't know how to run a game session where the characters are truly trapped in the dark, and that as a consequence (b) it seems like if you run out of torches, you should just die.

Here's what I actually said:

"Darkness, like death, is narratively interesting as a looming threat, as something the judge can get all poetic while describing, as something that players take pains to avoid. As a thing that actually happens, it's boring, and I'll say it, darkness is worse than death, because if you get trapped in darkness, you still have to keep playing a game that can no longer possibly be fun for anyone involved, whereas at least when you die you get to start over."

"If torches are supposed to be a resource where if you run out of them, the game's over, well we already have hit points for that. Do we really need a second terminal resource? Do we really want a second terminal resource, especially one where you can buy and carry an unlimited number, unless your asshole GM and their asshole encumbrance rules force you to carry too few just so they can laugh at you when you get stuck in the dark?"

Yeah, take that, vision, first of the five senses! In your eye! I'll have more to say about my various feuds and grudges against the concepts of light and darkness in another post, but what I actually want to talk about today are terminal resources.

I defined terminal resources when I was talking about hit points. I said a terminal resource is one "where, if your character runs out of them, you stop having that character anymore."

If I may though, I think I might like to define that a bit differently now. I think I might like to say that a terminal resource is one where, if you run out of it, your life is forfeit. You might not die, but you have given up your right to remain alive.

I also think there are 3 terminal resources that we encounter routinely. Hit points, of course, are one. Player time is a second. And I think there might be some movement toward making torches, and light sources more generally, the third.

If you run out of hit points, or run out of time to play the game while your character is still in the dungeon, or you run out of light, your life is forfeit, and you have given up your right to remain alive.

Thinking about it this way points to a possible solution to the darkness problem. It's a solution that's already pretty popular for hit points, and that at least one blogger pretty famously applied to player time. It's a solution I considered, but didn't write, at the time of my earlier post, and that a couple of others have now proposed in response to my complaint.

I don't mean to sound mysterious, or to sacrifice clarity for the sake of suspense. I'm talking about death & dismemberment style tables, but reimagined to apply to running out of time, or running out of light.
 
Time's up, Mario! Your life is forfeit!
Also, it's true, everything really
does sound scarier in German.
 
So I was talking on Discord with the author of All Dead Generations, and he helped me feel a bit vindicated on point (a) that I made at the very beginning, that I don't know how to run a game where the characters really can't see anything because they're in total darkness. He said: "One of the interesting things that I noted is that while I assumed OD&D and AD&D 1E had fairly serious rules for light sources and their lack/exhaustion ... they don't. Even by AD&D and 1981 B/X infravision, glowing magic weapons and continual light is assumed to be on hand for every party, and both simplify equipment encumbrance. Strangely even as no mechanics for being lost in the dark without a light exist, light sources are touted as central to play - a necessity to the party.  5E has fairly extensive rules for various types of darkvision and the combat effects of light conditions - but like most of its rules they're tailored to encounter design, not exploration.  Still I don't actually think 'classic' games had much of a way of handling a loss of light sources either. The rules are sort of there - but from OD&D - 5E the rules for blindness are used. In B/X this means 'a blinded creature cannot attack' and in AD&D etc it's a -4 to all rolls. Not great rules really."

Rise Up Comus recently said something similar on his blog: "In the games that I run, light sources are really important. In the last few sessions, the players decided to haul back to the surface because they were running low on light. But if they had actually run out of torches in the Underworld, I wouldn't have known how to handle it. It would be tedious ad nauseum to narrate an experience without light."

Like I said, I find it vindicating to see others echoing my experiences. (Nothing fights Impostor Syndrome like people you respect agreeing with you.) So there's a consensus, kind of, among people who want darkness to be an important factor in their games, on two points. First, that in darkness, the traditional rules of D&D fail us, and second, that traditional narrative techniques fail us too. I've noted before that many of the original versions D&D rules only work if you have the patience of a saint and the inexhaustible pedantry of a wargamer living in the pre-digital age, back when no one could ever ask "why have we written rules that force us to play an inferior version of a dungeoncrawler video game?" 

But even if the rules were on our side, language itself is not. Because of the prominence of vision in our sensorial experience of the world, we simply have a much better vocabulary for describing how things look, rather than how they feel. It's one thing to read The Pit and the Pendulum, it's quite another to try to ad-lib it in real time. No one wants to play "Ouch I Stepped On A Lego Brick In The Living Room Because Its Dark At Night: The Game." (OISOALBITLRBIDAN:TG is not affiliated with WOTC or any of its subsidiaries.)

If the rules fail you, then you need a new rule. But if language itself fails you, then either you need a new language, or you need a way out of the situation without having to describe it. And it's that latter solution that a new consensus is emerging around: write a new rule that lets you end the scene and skip ahead to something new. If you can't describe it, then don't. Just stop, use some method other than narrative description to decide what happens next, and then start again after "what's next" happens.

And as I said earlier, that new rule that lets us skip ahead is death & dismemberment, repurposed. This is where the consensus is at right now. It's not necessarily the only way or even the right way to handle the situation, but it is a way, and I can't think an other way, let alone a better way. I actually like this solution, it's what I think I would like to use myself. But if you don't like it, you're going to have to think of the alternative yourself, because I don't see many others kicking around. (Of course, the ultimate alternative is always available to you - just ignore it. Stipulate that there's always enough light available that the characters are never blinded by the darkness, and get on with your game using existing rules and existing language that will continue to work just fine.)
 
This image will make sense in a minute, I promise.
 
So what happens when your character runs out of terminal resources? What happens when they run out of the resources that prevent bad things from happening to them? The answer is obvious. Bad things happen.

So as their name implies, death & dismemberment tables are lists of bad things that might happen. They're also the au currant way of dealing with terminal resources. Despite their name though, they're not really about killing your character; they're about allowing your character to live.

No More Hit Points

The original death & dismemberment tables were a way to let your character survive falling to 0 hit points. The earliest, easiest mechanic for reaching 0 hp is to just die immediately. So the point of death & dismemberment is, maybe you don't die, even though your life is forfeit. Maybe bad things happen, maybe it gets worse, but you stay alive. And that's the point of these tables, to maybe stay alive.

In that regard, they're actually pretty forgiving. Consider 5e's "death saves" or DCC's "rolling over the body" mechanic for seeing if a character who falls to 0 hit points lives or dies. Unless you have access to clerical healing or some other kind of aid, 5e gives you a 50% chance to survive. It's a coin toss in slow motion. DCC uses a "Luck check" where you try to roll under your current Luck score. Considering that your starting Luck is determined by a 3d6 roll that averages 10-11, that you can earn more Luck by doing cool things, but that you also routinely spend Luck to improve other rolls ... I'm inclined to say that your chances of survival in DCC are probably usually less than half.

In contrast, look at the original d&d table. Look at Trollsmyth's really famous one. Hell, look at the one I wrote. There are lots and lots of these - they're a very popular houserule for handling what happens at 0 hp, they've even been baked directly into the rules of several retroclones. What they all have in common is that they put your chances of survival much higher than the base 50% of a death save. Every one of those tables gives you a 80-95% survival rate as a starting point. Of cooourse ... at the same time that you're trying to roll high, you're also supposed to subtract the damage from the killing blow from your roll, which worsens the odds somewhat. It's hard to say what "typical" lethal damage is going to be, but my guess is that most of the time, these hardcore, hardass, tear-your-arm-off-and-beat-you-with-it death & dismemberment tables are actually going to be slightly more forgiving than 5e or DCC.

No More Time

In a certain kind of game, running out of player time isn't really a problem per say. If the same, or mostly the same, group of players is meeting on a routine schedule, then when you run out of time, you can just ... stop playing. Wherever your characters are, whatever they're doing, you can just hit the pause button and pick up exactly where you left off next session.

But there's another kind of campaign. Call it "open table," call it West Marches style, if you like. In this style of campaign, there's no set group of players, they vary from game to game. There might not even be a set schedule, although that part's not, in my opinion, definitive of the style. If the players change from game to game, then each game session has to be self-contained, episodic. And that means that running out of time at the end of the episode IS a problem in an open-table game. Leaving off mid-adventure isn't really an option, or at least, not a good one, because you WON'T be able to pick up where you left off. So in a game like this, player time becomes a terminal resource, not just because the session ends when you run out of time, but because when you run out of time, you run out of your right to keep your character alive. You either end the session at a good stopping point, or bad things happen. Your life is forfeit.

It was Jeff of Jeff's Gameblog who had the really brilliant idea to apply the death & dismemberment table as a model to solve the running out of time in the dungeon problem. He came up with a relatively simple table called The Triple Secret Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom. The idea here is that you actually start by making a kind of death save, with a flat 50% chance to make it out alive and unscathed. If your character level is higher than the dungeon level, you get a bonus; if you went in too deep, you take a penalty. If you fail that death save, your life is forfeit, and you roll on the Fate Chart, to find out which of 20 possible bad things happen to you. Mostly you just die, but there are a few options where your treasure and equipment can be recovered, and a few options where you're captured and could be rescued.

Like I said out running out of light above, running out of player time is a situation where narrative description fails as a resolution mechanic. In this case, it fails because you run out of time to say the words, rather than because you run out knowledge about how to speak correctly about the situation, but the solution is the same one I proposed above. If you can't narrate, then don't. Use a different resolution mechanic - rolling dice on a special table - and then later, start narrating again at a point where you're able to do so.

The uncharitable interpretation of this is that your characters are like Sims. Without the benevolent hand of a loving player to guide them, their default behavior is to walk around in circles, drenched in their own urine, until they starve to death - unless they have the misfortune to encounter a swimming pool or water fountain, which, they're SO stupid, they'll probably manage to set on fire, like in that picture I promised would make sense soon. I believe that Sim stepped on a pumpkin, which then caught on fire, and set her on fire. Left on NPC autopilot, your characters are idiots, and will probably die.

The charitable interpretation is that when you run out of player time, your characters run out of the will to adventure and just go into survival mode. All they want to do is get out of the dungeon, as quickly as possible, whatever may happen to them along the way. But the dungeon is dangerous, and so bad things happen.

D&D doesn't have any formal rules for PC morale. Monsters can roll morale and lose their will to fight, NPCs can roll morale and tear off in a blind panic, but aside from a few magical / supernatural fear effects, the players generally get to decide when to fight and when to run away. I've seen hit points described as being analogous to player morale - your character's hit point total is a measure of how willing you, the player, are going to be to continue putting them in harm's way. In the same way, player time might represent character morale. Your character only has the will to adventure when you're there to guide them. The rest of the time on the surface, they're content to live whatever hardscrabble lifestyle your downtime rules have in store for them. When you're not there in the dungeon, all they want to do is get back to the surface.

The alternatives to a table like this - in a West Marches style game, anyway - are either to just assume all the characters make it back to the surface safely, or assume that their lives are forfeit, and they all die in the dungeon automatically. The purpose of the table is to avoid making either of those assumptions, just as the purpose of the classic death & dismemberment tables is to avoid making the assumption of automatic death at 0 hp. Which brings us, finally, to the topic I started with, what to do about darkness.

No More Light

To be clear, when I say "no more light," I'm talking about total darkness, the kind you really do get inside caves, and that really is possible inside large buildings that don't have electricity. If you can still kind of see, then there's not really a problem. If you're in total darkness though, if you can't see at all, then I contend that is a problem for a game that consists, in large part, of the GM telling the players what they see. If the naive or default alternative is to switch over to telling the players what they feel, I also contend that won't really work.

GM: You feel rough cobblestones under your feet.
PC: I extend my hands and inch forward. What do I feel?
GM: Nothing.
PC: I inch forward again.
GM: Nothing.
PC: I inch forward again.
GM: Still nothing.
...
12 INCHES LATER
...
PC: I inch forward again.
GM: Nothi- no, wait! How long are your arms?
PC: I dunno, I'm like 6 feet tall, so maybe 2 ½ feet long?
GM: No, still nothing.


In a video game, this isn't a problem, because in a video game, you can move your character even if you don't know where they are, and the computer running the game knows when you bump into something. But in a tabletop game, I think it is a problem. It's not just that the GM has few good ways to communicate what the PCs experience to the players, it's also that there are few or no good ways for the players to communicate their characters' locations to the GM. Usually it doesn't matter exactly where you are within the fictional space of the game. If you're in a room for example, you can see the whole room no matter where you are within it. Further, if the GM asks you where you are, you can tell them your location by referencing other objects in the room that you can see. Perhaps you can tell where this is going ...

If you switch the game over to operating by feel, then suddenly it does really matter where you are, because you can only feel what you can touch, and you can only touch what's immediately next to you. Since you don't know what's next to you unless the GM tells you, and the GM only knows where you are by you telling them what you're next to ... the whole system breaks down. As I said, we don't really have the language for it. It's not just the judges who need a special language to talk about darkness, it's the players too. And even if the referee feels competent to extemporaneously describe the feel and texture of every space in the dungeon, the players still have no good way to communicate their movements within the fictional space.

So I don't really know what people do with darkness. You can ignore the possibility by making all dungeons at least dimly lit. You can ensure that the characters always have at least one magical or mundane light source, or that every party has a character with some kind of darkvision. You can try playing "Oops I Tripped Over The Ottoman And Landed Face First In The Dog's Water Dish Because I Can't See Where I'm Going: The Game", but I bet you'd only be willing to play it once. (OIOTOALF2ITDWDBICSWIG:TG is not affiliated with WOTC or any of its subsidiaries.) 

The options at your disposal are some kind of restriction on the information available to the players, or some kind of restriction or penalty to the abilities of the characters, or a death & dismemberment style table, or some combination of the above. I think I personally favor the table option, because as I think I've made it pretty clear, this is a situation I want a way out of as quickly as possible.

In our personal communication, All Dead Generations offered up his solution to exploring in total darkness: "My own current take is that when PCs are without light resources (and I limit continual light) they can continue exploring mapless. Movement takes twice as long (e.g. two turns to move through a keyed location) and if the exploration die comes up with torch exhaustion they become lost. Once lost the party members individually roll a D10 on a 2 - 20 table with a +1 for every room distant from the entrance. Things get worse the higher up the table you go. At 10 + there's death involved."

This approach actually combines all three methods. The players aren't allowed to map, so there's some restriction on the information available to them. The characters' movement rate is cut in half, so there's a penalty to their abilities. And then, once some other conditions are met, there's a d&d-style table. At a minimum, this table offers a 10% chance of death, but depending on how far you are from the entrance, it could be much higher, even automatic if you're more than 10 rooms deep.

Rise Up Comus proposes a d&d-style table gives a a 50% chance of death or forced retirement, a 25% chance of escape to the surface, and a 25% chance of capture, allowing for the possibility that a future character can recover the captured one.

And like I said, I agree that this is the right approach. If you want light and darkness to be important, make them important. Make running out of light as deadly as running out of hit points. Treat torches as a terminal resource, and after letting the players sweat while watching their last few matches burn out and go black, tell them their lives are forfeit, end the scene, roll on a table to find out which bad things happen to them, and resume the game with the survivors already back on the surface.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mechanics for Resource Management - part 3, Types of Resources

The purpose of this post is to try to enumerate all the different resources people try to manage in D&D (or at least the most common ones). One reason for doing this is to take stock of exactly what we - collectively - are trying to accomplish when it comes to resource management. Another is to begin thinking about what goal managing each particular resource is supposed to achieve, how well that goal is currently being met, and if there's any untapped potential for making the resource do more than it currently is.

I'm not going to talk a much about other people's solutions to these problems here. I want to give each major solution its own post (lists, hazard dice, and usage dice are the first three solutions I plan to visit). I'm also not going to finish thinking about any resource here. This is an ongoing thought experiment; I already have some thoughts about encumbrance in particular that deserve their own post, but looking at the classic approaches (and how often they're used, or not) seems like a good starting point to build my own ideas off of. Even if I plan to reinvent the wheel, I should at least take a look at what I'm copying!

I've ordered the resources below so that the top of the list is made of the resources that more or less define what "resource management play" looks like, and the bottom of the list contains resources that are almost always managed, even in "non-RM play". The list also kind of goes from resources that are likely to be partially used up in play, to resources that are relatively static, and then to resources that generally accumulate over time. Aside from my knowledge of the rules of various editions of D&D and other OSR games, I'm basing my sense of what other people do on my reading of play reports and session reports on people's blogs. People tend to mention if they tracked how long torches burned, rolled for wandering monsters, etc, so my ideas about the practice of the game, the game as it is played, is based on what other judges and players say they do.


Encumbrance - One of the most fundamental resources - how many other resources you can carry.

Encumbrance is inherently a trade-off: every item you carry potentially means not carrying something else. Deciding just how much characters can carry, then, is ultimately a decision about how often players will have to make those choices. If the limit is very low, every new item they find becomes a painful choice about whether to pick it up, and if so, what to leave behind. If the limit is very high, then in practice, the limit doesn't exist, because players will never be forced to decide to give anything up, or the choice will be trivially easy ("Do I want to keep this bag of gold or this bag of all-purpose flour? Hm...")

Making resource management important then probably requires making encumbrance limits relatively low. Make them too low, though, and players will feel like their characters are being forced to leave themselves vulnerable, by not being allowed to carry the supplies they need to protect themselves, or worse, they'll feel like there's no point in exploring, because they won't be able to take back anything they find anyway. Players probably shouldn't feel like they have to choose between carrying a sword and carrying some treasure unless they find Scrooge McDuck's money vault, about which I'll say more below.

In most versions of the D&D rules, encumbrance is also in a constant trade-off with movement rates. Players can choose to carry more weight and move slower, or choose to carry less and move faster. This is only a meaningful trade-off if the judge is tracking movement rates. If the penalty for carrying additional weight isn't enforced, then in practice, there is no penalty. Even for judges who track movement rates, keeping track of multiple weight thresholds and slight reductions in character speed seems like something that's difficult to implement, and thus something that is rarely or never done in practice.

A great deal of the creativity the OSR has put into making resource management work has gone into fixing encumbrance. Since it is a kind of ur-resource, this makes sense, and I'm going to address the solutions other people have come up with, and some of my own thoughts, in later posts in this series. The most common OSR solution that I've seen enforced is the idea that characters can carry one "significant" item for each point of Strength or Constitution (so an average character can carry 10-11 items).

One thing that's badly needed is some system for leaving things behind without losing them completely. Right now, it feels like the standard is, you're either carrying it on your person, or you throw it away (or sell it for half-price in the marketplace). But if we really want players to limit what their characters carry with them in their inventories on their character sheets, then we need something for them to do with all the stuff they're not carrying besides chucking it in the garbage. In the same way that we need a good system for spellcasters to record the spells they know but don't have prepared right now, we need a good system for all characters to record the equipment and treasure they own but aren't carrying. If such a system currently exists, it hasn't been widely adopted, and it's certainly far from de rigueur, even in resource-management-heavy games.

Encumbrance is probably the ultimate managed resource. You probably can't make resource management part of your game unless you limit how many items characters can carry. It's also already the perfect trade-off with itself - it already means you leave behind one thing to carry another. Whether encumbrance needs to do more than that - whether it needs to interact with movement rates, for example - is a different question. I think many OSR encumbrance rules are still too complicated, and thus end up never getting enforced, because they still attempt to interact with fine-grain movement rates, or because they trip over themselves trying to make exceptions for in-"significant" items. Non-OSR encumbrance rules are even worse, so much so that I can't imagine that anyone really uses them. If you're "supposed" to track pounds and tenths-of-pounds of equipment, rather than just tracking the number of items of equipment, then forget it, you'll never do it, it won't happen.

Exactly how much characters should be allowed to carry is also a question worth asking. Do we actually want the number to be different for every character and to vary as widely as 3-18? If not, we may have more thinking to do. The existence of special supplemental encumbrance systems - Stars without Numbers' items-at-hand, the "magic items slots" of D&D and Pathfinder, and the number of numenera each character can carry in Numenera are all backup encumbrance systems that set much tighter limits of how much characters can carry of certain important items. The fact that these supplemental systems are relatively common suggests they might have something to tell us.


Time and movement - Time is another fundamental resource. How long does it take your characters to do things? How much can they get done before events triggered by the passage of time force them to retreat to safety? In principle, movement rates are closely connected to time.

Timekeeping is probably D&D's closest nod to any kind of boardgame roots. Every significant character action takes one unit of time, whether that's one combat round, one exploration turn, one downtime week, or something else. Your movement rate tells you how far you can move for one action. Characters use up other resources over time. In the dungeon, bad things happen automatically as a result of time passing, so the longer you spend in there, the more bad things happen to you.

Time in D&D is measured in abstract units. Within the game, a turn, for example, corresponds to 10 fictional minutes passing. But for the players, time is directly related to actions. And frankly, thank goodness for that. AD&D used ideas like "weapon speed" and "combat segments" to subdivide the combat round into even shorter fictional units, and to allow characters to make attacks at rates like 3 attacks per 2 rounds. One action per round (or turn, or week, or whatever) is much simpler. It may be that "you cannot have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept", but no one's going to be keeping any time records whatsoever unless it's quick and easy enough to do while still playing the game, and the 1-for-1 equation is the easiest and quickest way.

Like encumbrance, time necessarily includes a resource management dilemma within itself. Each unit of time is a "payment" used to "purchase" one action. Each time you "buy" one thing, you've used up the currency you'd need to also buy another. You can't do two different things at the same time. Of course, not being able to do two things at once is only a dilemma if there's also some reason you can't do one thing after another. Being forced to go slowly is only a penalty if there are things you want that you can only get if you go fast.

Some other resources are automatically depleted by the passage of time. Torches and rations come to mind. In the original version of D&D and in the Torchbearer game, there's a certain logic to resource management, where you enter the dungeon with a backpack full of torches and rations, burn up and eat up your cargo as you go, then refill with gold right before leaving. Gygax was right about one thing: you can't have resource management in this very original sense without time records to show when your resources get depleted. Classic resource management also depends on wandering monster checks, which ALSO also depend on the passage of time. Resource depletion and wandering monsters are your twin penalties for going slowly, and they give you a reason to move quickly, find the treasure, and get out. The thing you want, that you can only get if you go fast? It's staying alive. The dungeon will kill you if you move too slowly. Maximizing treasure while minimizing the passage of time and its twin dangers is more or less the original resource-management game within D&D. If both those twin dangers are removed, then there's no reason your characters can't take all the time in the world searching for every trap, secret door, and hidden treasure in their path.

As I said, in principle, movement rates are supposed to be related to time. In principle, there's supposed to be a resource management trade-off between encumbrance and time, because carrying more weight reduces your movement rate, which causes you to spend more turns in the dungeon. Except that in practice, I don't think it works like that. Dungeon doors are close together. Even if you were heavily encumbered, you'd still probably only need a fraction of your move to get from one room to another. And travel between rooms is the only time your movement rate is supposed to affect how long it takes you to do something. Once you're in a room, the passage of time is determined by how many actions you take.

Now, if you only ever need to spend one turn at a time moving, no matter what your movement rate is, then in practice, your encumbrance will have no effect on how quickly you move, and more generally, no effect on the passage of time. There will be no trade-off between speed and preparedness, and no need to worry, for example, that if you carry some torches you'll move quickly and stay lit the whole time, but if you carry too many torches you'll be slowed down so much that you run out and go dark before the end. This whole much-vaunted mini-game of balancing the risk of traveling too light against the risk of traveling too slow comes to naught, inside the dungeon at least. (The wilderness may be a different story, because the nature of the distances involved is different. In the wilderness, the distance between two points is never shorter than the distance you move in one time unit, which means that reducing your movement rate really does slow you down out there.) But if your time in the dungeon is unrelated to your movement rate, then what is the point of linking encumbrance and movement? It seems like a lot of bookkeeping to dynamically adjust your character's movement rate as you pick up and shed items, if the actual number of turns it takes you to get from one place to another never changes. It also doesn't seem like there's any real penalty to "going slow" because you're carrying a lot of treasure if "going slow" turns out to be the same rate you were going to voluntarily move at anyway.

I have some more thoughts about movement that will need to go in a separate post, but for now, it's enough to notice that time, like encumbrance, can offer an interesting trade-off with itself, but only if bad things happen because of the passage of time. It's also worth noting that while movement rates have no effect on the aspect of the game they're supposedly written for, there are other situations - like chases! - where movement rates, as written, are of little or no help in adjudicating the outcome.


Torches - Light sources are used to allow exploration in the darkness. In principle, a party without light sources should be trapped in the dark. Torches are one of the classic resources, so famous the Torchbearer game is named for them.

Torches burn down at a predictable rate, typically 1/hour. If characters know in advance how long they're going to be in the dungeon, they can pack as many as they need, with a healthy margin for error. Torches are so cheap that they're essentially free, so aside from encumbrance, the only restriction on how many torches you can carry is the limit of your own imagination. You would only run out of torches, essentially, if you failed to plan properly, and stayed in the dungeon longer than you thought possible.

I have also literally never heard of a game session where the characters actually ended up trapped in the dark, truly unable to see anything for the rest of their delve. There's probably a reason for that.

In any position of authority, it's probably wise to make sure that no "punishment" you give out actually hurts you worse than it hurts the person you're punishing. It's probably also wise to never threaten a punishment you aren't really willing to administer. So the problem with torches is, I would rather rule by fiat that all the characters just die than be forced to play out a session where I have to describe the characters feeling their way along the wall and groping blindly through pitch blackness because no one has a light source. I would rather end the session right there, send my friends home, and never run a game of D&D again rather than risk having that happen more than once.

So truly running out of torches, with no possibility of obtaining more, mid-dungeon, is basically a non-starter for me. And I'm skeptical that there are many judges or player groups, even among those who really care about resource management, who would answer differently. Are there any interesting uses for temporary darkness? Maybe. It's a question I'll come back to another time.

Darkness, like death, is narratively interesting as a looming threat, as something the judge can get all poetic while describing, as something that players take pains to avoid. As a thing that actually happens, it's boring, and I'll say it, darkness is worse than death, because if you get trapped in darkness, you still have to keep playing a game that can no longer possibly be fun for anyone involved, whereas at least when you die you get to start over. If torches are supposed to be a resource where if you run out of them, the game's over, well we already have hit points for that. Do we really need a second terminal resource? Do we really want a second terminal resource, especially one where you can buy and carry an unlimited number, unless your asshole GM and their asshole encumbrance rules force you to carry too few just so they can laugh at you when you get stuck in the dark?

Lamps promise an interesting trade-off, because lamp-oil can either be used as a fuel source or a weapon. Do you risk losing the fight to preserve your light source? Or do you risk getting trapped in the darkness to throw a bomb at your enemies? Of course, this is only a dilemma if the threat of darkness is real. Otherwise, this is another false promise, there is no dilemma, and fire-bombing becomes the only real use for lamp oil.


Rations - Food and water, used to stave off the hazards of starvation and dehydration.

Like torches, rations are consumed at a predictable rate, typically 1/day. In principle, water is separate, hence the presence of water skins on various equipment lists, but I think most people treat "a ration" as including both food and water for the day. In almost every game where rations come up, the task of "managing" them as a resource is limited to buying an abundant supply at the start of the adventure and marking them off once per day forgetting about them. I'm not clear on the rules for how starvation and thirst are supposed to work in any edition of D&D, but I've also never heard of anyone's character starving. It's just not a situation that comes up very often, possibly ever.

Rations offer the promise of a few interesting trade-offs, though again, I suspect these promises are rarely fulfilled. The fact that rations are usually listed as coming in fresh and preserved (or "iron") varieties suggests there should be some kind of risk-vs-reward buying one type or the other. The fact that descriptions of the various wilderness skills always list "foraging" as a possible skill use suggests another possible trade-off or mini-game, that again, I've never seen played out in practice.

The greatest opportunity, I suspect, is the possibility of treating rations as an optional reward if you have them, rather than a mandatory penalty if you don't. The idea would be that you assume all the characters have enough to eat normally, but if they eat something special, then they receive some sort of reward. I've seen lots to talk of running culinary campaigns, where the characters are all gourmets out to find, prepare, and eat the rarest-possible ingredients cooked into the most extravagant-possible recipes. That deserves a post by itself, but for now, let me just point out that that kind of reward-seeking behavior, although consistent with the kind of treasure-hunting that usually goes on in D&D, is entirely different from the penalty-avoiding behavior that characterizes traditional resource management play.


Iron spikes - Basically just railroad spikes. Characters use them to hold doors open or closed.

There are really only two reasons you would spike a door. The first is if you are in the sort of dungeon that has malevolent doors that slam themselves shut behind you. You might spike the door to make sure it stays open and you don't have win a fistfight with a door a second time. The second reason is if you are sleeping in the sort of dungeon where monsters bust into your bedroom in the middle of the night and murder you in your sleep. Then you'd want to spike the door to keep it closed. These conditions were common in the original megadungeons in early-edition D&D, but they're virtually non-existent now.

Just like you need a tinderbox to light your torches, you need a hammer to pound in your spikes, but again, I've never heard of anyone being stuck with spikes and no way to hammer them. The existence of iron spikes in later-edition rulebooks is essentially just ritualism. They serve no real purpose divorced from a context where it makes sense for characters to walk around with a bag full of doorstops.


Arrows - Ammunition for ranged weapons. As long as you have arrows, you can engage in (safer) missile combat instead of (riskier) melee combat.

Unlike most of the other resources we're considering, running out of arrows doesn't mean you can't fight, it just means that you have to fight differently. As long as you have arrows, you have a choice between two combat options, when you run out, you're down to one. And since the options arrows give you is the option to fight at a distance, you're "spending" arrows in order to avoid losing hit points. At the start of each combat, you have a dilemma - is this a "harder" fight where it's smart to use up your arrows to avoid getting damaged, or is it an "easier" fight where you should engage in melee (and possibly absorb a few hits) in order to save your arrows for when you'll really need them?

This actually strikes me as a great resource management dilemma, and it could be driven home in two ways. The first is if quivers were smaller, the second is if arrows did more damage. First, if you have enough arrows that you'll never run out, then there's no decision to be made, of course you'll use them every time. (Too high a limit also trains you not to mark them off as you use them - why bother tracking them if you'll never run out?) A smaller quiver would either force you to weigh the consequences of choosing arrows over melee, or force you to truly weigh your commitment to missile fire against the encumbrance cost of carrying an extra quiver. Second, if arrows deal more damage, then it's more clearly advantageous to use them in a dangerous fight. If all your melee weapons are more deadly than arrows, then you'll only use them for easy fights, while hard fights will require that you get in there and take damage so you can actually kill the damn thing. That's also a tactical dilemma, but not one that makes it worth the effort of counting arrows. If arrows are something you can run out of, then they should be something you care if you run out of, which you won't, if they're your worst weapon.

The fact that you can recover arrows is also interesting. Most rules I've seen allow a 50% chance per arrow to recover it. I would apply the same odds to recovering a dagger if you threw it. (Should daggers do more damage if they're thrown? It might tempt you then - throw it now, go without it for the rest of the fight, and only maybe get it back? or hold onto it but deal less damage?) You can also conceivably recover enemy arrows the same way, which means even if you run out, you might be able to get more without leaving the dungeon.

Guns have an additional resource management issue when it comes to ammunition, because you could run out of bullets in your gun mid-fight, even if you haven't actually run out of bullets.

Single-shot weapons - whether crossbows or cannons - don't present much of a dilemma in terms of conservation. The fact that you can only use them once per fight means you're not going to run out of ammo, and thus that you have no reason to sometimes hold the weapon in reserve. (Unless your supply of these special missiles is much MUCH less than your supply of arrows.) The more typical question with a one-shot weapon is deciding which opponent to use it against. In a fight with multiple combatants, using your one-shot weapon against this opponent and not that one IS a dilemma. There could also be a second dilemma if single-shot weapons could be reloaded, both quickly enough to use more than once in the same fight, but also slowly enough that it's only worth reloading against an enemy where another missile shot is safer or more effective than dropping the weapon and hopping into melee.

Torches, rations, and iron spikes were starting to get me down regarding the viability of interesting and novel resource management play. But arrows actually offer me some hope for this thought experiment. Having them as a resource is beneficial, but using them up isn't deadly. And thinking about what trade-off arrows are supposed to represent (spend arrows to save hp? or spend SOME hp now to save arrows and hopefully save MORE hp later?) offers some very easy insights about how the rules could be altered to encourage that trade.

What's more, arrows still offer an interesting resource management dilemma even if you don't count them and don't let them get used up. In that case, you'd want arrows to deal LESS damage so that you get the following choice - use arrows and have a longer fight while staying distant? or use melee and have a shorter fight while getting up close? This is the same dilemma, incidentally, that you get when trying to decide whether or not to reload a high-damage single-shot weapon. However, I stand by my statement that if you count arrows, then arrows should deal more damage than melee weapons. The trade-off between stronger defense versus stronger attack is a good one, but not good enough to justify the extra work of tracking your supply. If you have missile weapons that deal more damage than melee weapons and unlimited ammo, then expect everyone to carry a gun and melee combat to be rare. (Which is fine, as long as you're aware of what you're doing and you're okay with it.)


Ropes - 50 feet of rope, typically used to travel from one dungeon level to the next (unless your GM is an asshole and makes them 100 or 200 feet apart just to spite you.)

Ropes let you access otherwise-unavailable areas of the dungeon. Sometimes these are "optional" areas - places that it might be nice to go, but aren't strictly necessary for "completing" one's exploration of the dungeon. Other times these are "mandatory" areas - places where going to them is the whole reason for going into the dungeon in the first place. When it comes to "optional" areas, not having a rope just means that you miss some cool stuff, but have the option to try again if you come back later. For "mandatory" areas, not having a rope means you need to leave the dungeon, go back to town, and buy one.

The resource management of ropes is purely a now-or-later dilemma. Do we spend the rope now to try to find something cool? Or do we save it for later in case we really NEED it to exit the dungeon? Actually implementing this dilemma in play probably requires thoughtful dungeon design. There would need to be more than one clearly "optional" place to use a rope, plus some way of communicating the risk that you might need a rope to access a "mandatory" area later.

It's not clear to me how often players are forced to manage their ropes though. In principle, if a rope is tied off safely enough that you can climb it, it's also tied too well to easily retrieve it, making each rope a single-use item. I can't really tell how often judges actually hold players to that standard though. Also in principle, unless you have a grappling hook, you should only be able to use your rope to go down, not up. But like matches for your lantern or a hammer for your spikes, I think this requirement might get handwaved most of the time, because no one wants to spend the game time navigating going to town and coming back just because your character sheet says "rope" and not "rope and grappling hook." (If return trips to town for other reasons were more common, then I suspect everyone would be more willing to allow for the possibility of running out of rope.)

Also if you have a grappling hook, then your rope becomes reusable. Even strict encumbrance rules wouldn't solve this, because at most, a grappling hook weighs as much as a rope (and it might actually be less bulky), which means that you'd be smarter to carry one rope and one grappling hook than two or three ropes. In fact, if you're going to assume that your player characters are competent at what they do, then maybe you should assume that they have a grappling hook tied to the end of every rope. You could reintroduce the dilemma though, by making climbing a hooked rope more dangerous than climbing a tied-off rope. Then the resource management question is more like - Do we SPEND this rope to make this current climb safe? Or do we accept a dangerous climb in order to KEEP the rope, and keep the possibility of using it again later?
 

Poles - The classic 10-foot pole. Used for finding traps. Like torches and iron spikes, poles are practically a calling card of original-style play.

If it's a little unclear whether using a rope uses it up, it's even more ambiguous when it comes to poles. The idea is, the thief is at the front of the marching order, the thief is tapping the floor out ahead of the party with the pole, and if there's a trap, the pole sets it off at a safe distance, and no one gets hurt. But does setting off the trap break the pole so you have to stop using it? Or do you just get to keep preemptively setting off every trap in your path, as long as the thief goes first? And if it's the latter, then what, exactly, is the point of having traps in the dungeon? Why have a piece of equipment that says "let's just ignore this part of the game we don't like"? If that's what you want, you don't need equipment to give you permission - just ignore the thing you don't like.

If finding the trap does break the pole, then it gets you out of one trap (unless maybe you get a saving throw to try to save it?) and hopefully buys you enough information about what traps in this dungeon are like to make up for the cost of replacing it. (Although like torches, they're practically free.) Why not carry a bundle of 10-foot poles through the dungeon to use on every trap? Aside from not wanting to look silly? One solution could be to fix encumbrance. Unlike torches, which aren't much bigger than arrows, so you can pretty much carry as many as you want, poles are big. In fact, poles aren't just big, they're so big that you can't carry more than one, or carrying them requires that you pay some other cost that's high enough that you're really committing to the decision if you do so.


Holy symbols, thieves tools, spellbooks - Tools that permit the character to use one of their class powers. Traditionally, having the tool alone isn't enough to let a character without the skill use the power - but even characters with the right skill can't use their power if their tool gets stolen or broken.  (So for example, a fighting-man can't cast spells, even if he HAS a spellbook, but a magic-user can ONLY cast her spells as long as she has her spellbook in her possession.) 

This sort of two-factor authentication for skill usage - you need both the skill AND the tool - lies at the heart of D&D's approach to character abilities. Clerics need holy symbols to cast spells, heal wounds, and turn undead. Thieves need thieves tools to do pretty much anything other than listen at doors. Bards need musical instruments to bard with. Everyone needs weapons to fight and armor to defend themselves, AND they need to know how to use them. D&D's answer to the question of why wizards don't carry battle axes and wear plate armor has traditionally been because wizards don't know how to use them. A wizard can carry a polearm, but only knows how to fight with a staff. They could haul around a suit of armor in a backpack to put on after they run out of spells for the day, but allegedly they don't know how to wear it correctly to get any benefit from it.

D&D's two-factor approach is so ingrained, in fact, that I suspect most of us forget about it most of the time. Intellectually, you maybe sometimes remember that you need certain items to use your powers, but most of the time, you simply expect to be able to use those powers whenever you want, whatever you happen to be carrying. This expectation is what makes threats like the Rust Monster so frightening - you expect to run out of arrows, you don't expect to run out of swords. The fact that we expect to use our powers at will can also make it feel unfair on those rare occasions when a DM actually enforces the rules and denies you the use of a power just because you don't have the right tool to use it. But that's the point of two-factor authentication - if you can only mobilize one of the factors, you don't get access to whatever it is you're trying to do. Whether that should be the purpose of any game mechanic, let alone the core determinant of character abilities, is another question.

There's real potential to alter the way resources work by breaking the two-factor approach in half, and requiring ONLY the skill OR the tool, but not both. Torchbearer still makes you buy armor, carry a sword, and is hyper-focused on counting rations and, well, torches, but when it comes to the equipment you need to use your other skills, it's blithely assumed that if you have the skill then you have the equipment too. "We assume that your character has the bare minimum supplies and tools needed to use his skills ... The inverse is also true. If you lack a skill, you do not possess the tools for it ... The inventory system is for carrying expendable supplies, extra items, weapons, and armor. We assume that you're carrying another 40 pounds of junk in addition to your adventuring gear." In fact, this assumption is part of the justification for why your encumbrance in Torchbearer is so limited.

Among other consequences, this means that you can't just set down your mapping supplies to make more room for treasure in your backpack. It also means that the skill list can grow unchecked by the encumbrance rules - you will never have so many skills that encumbrance prevents you from using them all. And, in turn, encumbrance limits can be very tight from the start of the very first game, with no need to allow characters to carry more treasure in the early game so that they'll be able to use more skills in the late game. D&D takes a similar approach to its spellcasters by not actually requiring them to carry material components for each of their spells - in a game that really tracked encumbrance and really required spell components, it would be impossible for a top-level wizard to cast anywhere near their full complement of 40 spells per day.

Games like Into the Odd and Knave break this "rule" in the opposite way - in those games there are no skills, only equipment. If you can find a tool, you can use it. Torchbearer kind of epitomizes what old-school, resource management play is like. I2TO, in turn, feels like an excellent example of a new style of play, one that cares about resources, but quite differently than in the past. Discussing those play-styles will be the next post or two in this series.
 

Holy water, scrolls, potions, grenades - Single use items of all types. Two features about them are especially notable. First, they typically have effects that are unavailable from any reusable item, or that are more powerful than the reusable version. (Grenades deal far more damage than swords, for example.) Second, in contrast to every resource we've looked at so far, people actually track them and erase them from their character sheets once they're used up. While my impression is that it's rather rare for anyone to really keep track of their rations or arrows, I think almost everyone marks off their potions and explosives as they use them up.

So here, then, we finally have a resource that players will actually manage, and we know that they do, because we've all seen it, even in games where resource management is otherwise fairly absent. Which means that a very simple strategy for making resources more important in your game is to make more resources into single-use items. Which is exactly the strategy that Numenera uses, by filling up its world with single-use cyphers, and then challenging players to decide "now versus later?" or "this monster versus that monster?" or even "this purpose versus that purpose?" over and over again.

Notably, these items aren't usually just single-use, they're also typically instantaneous-use. What I mean is, torches provide light over the course of 6 exploration turns, and lanterns last for 12. A grenade, however, is blown up and used up in a single combat round. You don't need to remember when you lit the fuse, or track how long it's burned. It doesn't make any ongoing demands on your attention. And because you probably only have 1 or 2 grenades, rather than a quiver of 20, it's reasonable to erase each one once you've used it. The moment you've used it, you've used it up. It will definitely matter later if you used it earlier or decided to save it, whereas, contra Dirty Harry, you're never going to care if you fired 6 arrows or only 5 this session. And because grenades are usually not completely trivial to replace, you're also not going to have to sit down after the session's over and un-cross-off all the arrows you fired and then re-bought for a penny apiece.

What this means (and I'll talk about this more later too) is that so-called non-resource management play might actually care quite a bit about resources, just not the "right" resources, the poles, torches, ropes, spikes, and rations that define so-called resource management gaming. While it's possible that the two play styles care more and less about resources, it's also possible (at least some of the time) that they care equal amounts, but about different resources.


Spells - Character abilities that are reusable, but only after some delay, typically a night's sleep. Usually magic, and usually restricted to spellcasting classes, in 4e, D&D offered every class "daily powers" that worked similarly. 5e also has a number of abilities spread across the classes that require "a short or long rest" before they can be used again. Also note that cantrips - spells that can be cast an unlimited number of times - are NOT a resource that needs to be managed.

Spells share some similarity with grenades. They're another resource that players really do keep track of, and the fact that they can only be used once a day means that each time they could be used is another opportunity to decide if they should be used. (The fact that they replenish automatically overnight makes spells a bit more forgiving than grenades though, and much more forgiving than unique single-use items.)

The original version of D&D spellcasting is the simplest, from a resource management perspective. Wizards and clerics memorize a certain number of spells each day, and then cast them one at a time, "forgetting" them as they go. Although this has literary origins in Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, it plays out exactly like the wizard's player having a hand of spell-cards and then discarding them one by one as they're cast. Making each spell single-use each day is a very simple way of tracking which spells a wizard can't cast anymore. Unfortunately, the distinction between the spells a wizard "knows" in the sense of currently having them memorized (that is, "known vs forgotten") and the spells a wizard "knows" in the sense of having them available to memorize (that is, "known vs unknown") is a little fuzzy right from the start. Technically, any spell written in their spellbook is "known" in the second sense, but not every character sheet provides a space to make this distinction.

The original D&D spells are kind of interesting in terms of just how much they show off their role in resource management play. You have a light spell to replace your torches, create food and water to replace rations, knock to replace a door-opening check. (The doors in early D&D are seriously a force of evil unto themselves.) Almost all the low-level spells from the original version of D&D replace one resource or another, of allow you to do something with certainty instead of having to roll the dice making an attempt. The prosaic nature of these spells probably disappointed a lot of people who wanted their magic to feel, you know, magical, but they did fit hand-in-glove with the style of play the original rules was promoting.

Beyond expanding the spell list to include all kinds of new things, later versions of the game and any number of houserules documents introduced more complicated rules for managing spells. The two that are probably most worth noting are spell points and spell slots. In the spell point system, the wizard has a "pool" of magical energy that refills once per day, and each spell costs 1 or more "spell points" (the units used to measure the amount of energy in the "pool") to cast. The 3rd edition D&D psionic rules used points like this. The two effects are that you can cast the same spell more than once per day, and that you can choose to cast a larger number of low-level spells or a smaller number of high-level spells. This is actually a pretty decent resource management dilemma. Pathfinder uses "pools" and "points" for a lot of its newer class abilities, like the "grit points" that limit a Gunslingers special shots or the "panache points" of the Swashbuckler. (Pathfinder also adds the extra complication of letting these classes regain some points midday by pulling off cool but risky tricks, another resource management wrinkle. Most moves that use grit or panache only use 1 or 2 points though, while in D&D's psionics, 2nd level spells cost 3 points, 3rd level cost 5 points, 4th level 7 points, etc.)

In the spell slot system, the wizard has a certain number of "slots" in each spell level, and can spend a "slot" of a certain level to cast any spell of that level or lower. So "slots" are kind of like spell points but they can only be spent in very specific ways. In particular, there's a hard limit on the number of spells you can cast per day. Suppose you have only a single 2nd level spell slot remaining - you can only cast one more spell, whereas with spell points, you could cast multiple 1st level spells for the same cost as one 2nd level. With both spell points and spell slots you can also engage in over-casting and (sometimes) under-casting. To over-cast a spell with spell points, simple spend more points than the minimum required, and the spell produces some additional effect. With spell slots, over-casting means spending a higher-level spell slot, and again, produces an additional effect. Since 3rd edition, Sorcerers in D&D have used spell slots instead of the "memorize and forget" casting wizards use, and almost every new spellcasting class in Pathfinder uses spell slots as well.

All this is more complicated than the simple form of magic that original D&D started with, but it also introduces a new type of resource management for spellcasting characters to engage with. Instead of being limited to deciding to cast a spell now or later, they now have to decide how to use each point or slot to its best advantage. Both spell points and spell slots also eliminate any ambiguity about what it means for the caster to "know" a spell. Either it's in your head, and remains there forever, or it's not.

At various times, D&D has also toyed with making spell-knowledge into a kind of alternative encumbrance system. There are a few "spells" like find familiar and sword magic that let you "spend" one of your spell-memorizations, essentially giving up a fraction of your ability to cast spells in exchange for some other resource, like a pokemon or a lightsabre. This seems like it could be part of a more general "psychic encumbrance" system, where spells known, skills, martial arts, fighting techniques, weapon proficiencies, and even languages all become interchangeable "mental items" that you can "slot in" to your "psychic encumbrance." However, outside of 4e (where, if I understand correctly, each class got exactly the same number of at-will, daily, and etc powers) D&D is NOT actually set up to accommodate such trades, and there currently is NO "mental encumbrance" system in D&D or any of its variants that I'm aware of. Certainly a challenge for creating one is the question of character growth - what do you do when your brain is "full" but you don't want to stop learning new things? Are you forced to just forget less valuable "ideas"? Your fighter can choose to take one of their many magic swords with them on a quest and leave the others back in their stronghold, but they can't exactly leave any of their swordfighting techniques behind too, can they?

The cleric's ability to turn undead works a little differently, because it can be used multiple times per day, but it can only be used again if you use it successfully. Try to use it and fail, and yeah, you're stuck doing without until tomorrow. In principle, I guess this could tempt you to avoid using it against more powerful undead monsters to avoid losing the ability for the day, but I sort of doubt any cleric player every said "but I CAN'T try to turn away Dracula! I might fail, and then what will we do if we run into a skeleton later?" Spellcasting and clerical healing in DCC both work similarly, where a successful spell can be cast again and again while a failed spell is probably lost for the day. (It's a little more complicated than that, but in a way that would require another post, and doesn't substantially deepen the underlying RM dilemma.) It is worth noting that when magical healing works like this, it actually does present more of a dilemma than when it's an offensive capability at stake. As a DCC player and judge, I can attest that you do find yourself questioning when an injury is serious enough to risk losing your healing ability by using it, and when there are multiple injured characters, you find yourself debating how best to prioritize.


Hit points - A measure of how much more damage your character can endure before they'll die. If ever there was a resource that people were willing to track dynamically as it went up and down throughout a single session, it would be hit points.

Hit points are, in some sense, the ultimate character resource, since nearly every other decision about how to spend time, materiel, and other equipment comes down to a decision to spend resources to save hit points, or spend hp to save resources. They're also the "ultimate" resource in the sense of being that last resource, the terminal resource, where, if your character runs out of them, you stop having that character anymore.

In fact, the necessity of keeping enough hit points to keep your character alive means that the decision to sacrifice virtually any other resource in order to retain that last, lone hp isn't really even a dilemma, per say. While some players might choose to trade their character's life to preserve the party's ownership of some particularly valuable treasure, what prevents that exchange most of the time is the fact that players are hardly ever given the opportunity to make that trade. Despite the popularity of Trollsmyth's "shields shall be splintered" and other related mechanics, when most characters meet their ignominious end, there simply is no opportunity, within the context of the rules, for the player to trade anything to save their character's life. The DCC adventure "The One Who Watches from Below" lets the characters find an endless treasure chasm, haul off as much of it as they can carry, and drop bags of cash as they run away to avoid hp loss - but in all those respects, it's the exception rather than the rule. The opportunity to give up something your character values in order to save your character is a great trade-off, but one that players only rarely have the chance to make. (Although I suppose that the proliferation of "death and dismemberment" tables COULD BE considered an example of this trade-off. If we accept the premise that our characters are something we value, then "death and dismemberment" rules give us the chance to trade away a bit of our characters "coolness" and long-term badass potential in return for keeping them alive in a somewhat reduced capacity. Taken to an extreme, "dismemberment" becomes a fate worse than death - within the game world ONLY, I hasten to add - because it transforms your character, while still "alive," into someone who is no longer any fun to portray.)

In addition to the more abstract trade-off between hit points and literally every other resource in the game, there are also direct trade-offs between hit points and things like healing potions, healing magic, and time spent resting / camping. There are a couple dilemmas here. First, for powerful effects, timing becomes an issue. Rather than use up your magic the first time you get a papercut or hangnail, you want to save it until you're injured badly enough to benefit from the spell's full potential - but not wait so long that you die from later injuries because you never bothered to heal the earlier ones. Second, since it's possible for pretty much every character in the party to get injured simultaneously, and most healing options besides rest affect only one character at a time, there's a trade-off in deciding to heal one character and not another. Resting or camping takes time, requires a defensible location, and might even require leaving the dungeon itself to do safely - at least in early editions of the game. Indeed, across the board, every form of healing has tended to get easier in later versions of D&D. Healing potions go from rare magic treasure to commercially-available herbal remedy. Healing magic goes from once-a-day spells to something as reusable as the cleric's ability to turn undead. And "resting" goes from an obligatory loss of a turn once per hour to a way to regain hit points mid-adventure without needing to set up camp.

While dying isn't interesting, all the things players do to keep their characters alive ARE interesting, and so it's ultimately, I think, the threat of death, the threat of losing your character, that motivates players to go to the trouble of performing other forms of resource management. If your character CAN'T die, then there's a lot of things it no longer makes any sense to do, because there's no longer any reason to trade any other thing to save hit points. If your hit points aren't ever going to run out, then you can spend them freely in exchange for any other thing you want to preserve. Just like with encumbrance, hit points only a meaningful inducement to put up with the pain-in-the ass hassle of erasing and re-writing numbers on your character sheet all session if there's enough danger of running out of them that (a) you want to keep a close eye on them to make sure they DON'T run out, and (b) you're willing to make otherwise undesirable decisions purely for the sake of preventing hit point loss. If your character is effectively immortal, then why not jump off a cliff, swim across a river of lava, and challenge Godzilla and King Kong to some tag-team wrestling? If you're never going to run out of hit points, the thing you're most motivated to count, then why bother worrying about running out of anything else, and why bother counting any other resource?

Hit point loss serves as a signal that it's time to leave the dungeon, but they're a weak signal at best. Because you "clear out" dangers as you go, the return trip out of the dungeon is always safer than the expedition going in, even if it's not exactly safe - which means that you don't need to leave as soon as you've taken half your hp in damage, and in fact, it feels a bit overly cautious and un-adventurous to do so. Really the only signal hp loss does give you is to let you know when you'll probably die if you get in one more fight. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds, since you're primarily moving through "clear" areas once you turn around, you only need to worry about possible but uncertain wandering monsters. Depending on the roll of the dice, you might not fight any - ooor you might run into two or three more fights... It would help if you could be certain how many wandering monster checks are between you and the exit, at least.

One of the most common rule changes people make regarding hit points is to create two categories - one group of easily recovered points that represent luck, or skill, or fighting prowess, and a second category, more difficult to recover, that represents real physical injury. Under those rules, it makes sense for players and characters alike to be pretty cavalier about using up their "easy" hit points, and much more cautious about losing their "hard" ones. It's a rules change that I almost invariably see described as being "more realistic" than D&D's standard way of treating hit points, although I want to point out that what it mostly does is offer a "more realistic" interpretation of the way that characters blow through and then gain back dozens of hit points across only a few hours of in-game time.

The "hard" hit points that represent real injury are often tied in some way to the character's Constitution score. In fact, sometimes the Constitution ability score itself is used as the "pool" of those points. (See for example the treatment of Strength in I2TO.) Ability scores are tempting to use as a kind of "super hit points" because while they're not only generally capped at 18 or 20, they also typically vary within a much smaller range. Thus, any effect that draws on ability scores as a resource has an egalitarian quality - it affects all party members fairly equally, and remains nearly as dangerous to high-level characters as it is to low-level ones. Ability score loss can be permanent or temporary, but I think players generally accept that it will take downtime, not just short rest, to recover their spent abilities. Whether for these reasons or maybe others, recent games like DCC and Numenera play with ability scores as a "pool" of points that characters can spend to accomplish certain effects - such as boosting failed d20 rolls.


Gold pieces - Cash money! The very thing we're looking for! Like hit points, this is another resource that EVERYONE counts (at least when they take it in, even if not when they spend it, and I'll have more to say about that discrepancy in a min.)

In the original editions of D&D, encumbrance was used to limit how much treasure characters could carry out of the dungeon at least as much as it was to limit how much gear they could carry in. Part of the min-maxing of early edition resource management play was figuring out how to transport out as much treasure as possible. Of course, even without tracking encumbrance, there's already a limit on how much treasure characters can carry - that limit is set by the fact that characters have find the treasure before they can carry it away. If the characters manage to find Smaug's horde or Ali Baba's cave, then yes, perhaps some system should exist to prevent them from strolling out with half the wealth of the world stuffed into their pockets like loose change. Outside that context, however, the limiting factor in how much treasure they're carrying is likely to be how much treasure they can find, not how much treasure they can fit in their inventory. (Also, I don't know, maybe don't even make treasure available in such quantities if you don't want the characters to actually have it? It seems like lots of  adventure-writers want the characters to find the hoard of the Gibbelins, but no one wants to let them take it home.)
 
For treasures caches like that, or heavy chests, or weighty statues, it might be worth asking if the encumbrance system is even the appropriate way to determine how the characters will transport it. Encumbrance is a rule designed to determine how characters carry multiple items adding up to some maximum weight. It doesn't necessarily provide us with any insight about the right way to manage individual items that weigh ten or a hundred times that maximum. Which means that the question of how you carry bulky treasures is independent of the question of how you limit character inventories the rest of the time. Forgoing ordinary encumbrance doesn't mean letting players fit all the gold in Los Angeles on the head of a pin, it means finding or making rulings about how to carry specific bulky items (which, as I noted, you have to do anyway, even if you are tracking encumbrance, since it doesn't help with this question at all.)

Beyond the resource management question of how much gold you can carry is the related question of what you can do with gold. What is it for? In OSR-style games, you get 1 experience point for 1 gold piece, but the point is not supposed to be that you want gold because it gives you experience. You're supposed to get experience because you want gold intrinsically. Except, you know, gold's money. No one wants money intrinsically except dragons and the handful of sociopathic hoarders who own half the planet. You want money because you want to spend it. You want money because of what you can do with it. So what can you do with it? In a lot of games, the answer is "nothing" - you start the game with the best equipment money can buy, and you get the stuff money can't buy by delving for it. If you're playing a game where gold doesn't earn you experience either, then gold becomes like "points" in most video games. You get bragging rights, I guess, if you have the high score, but collecting them does nothing for your character within the context of the game. But if the purpose of your game isn't to collect gold, then it might time to ask "then what IS the point?" and start thinking about how to shape play toward facilitating that goal instead.
 
Two more points about gold seem worth mentioning before we turn to experience. Some people like a gold-standard in their game, where equipment prices are denominated in gold pieces, as are most treasures. Some prefer a silver-standard, and these days some even prefer copper. In any system, the purchasing power of the "standard" coin seems to be pegged around the same as $1 American, probably because that's the standard most judges and players are most familiar with.

Whichever system you prefer though, I see very little point in even having coins of lesser value. Imagine finding a small trove of silver - if you've been playing on a copper-standard, then yes, finding a stack of Hamiltons is a decent prize. But if you've been playing on the gold-standard, then no, stealing someone's coin purse full of the dimes they use in parking meters isn't exactly going to excite you. Copper's even worse. On a copper-standard, 2000 cp in coins is like the treasure of the Sierra Madre, potentially worth killing all your teammates over so you get it all to yourself (and get to level up from the experience!) On the gold-standard, it's akin to finding a jar of loose change. There might, in fact, be $20 inside that old jam jar, but getting it in pennies can make it feel like more hassle than it's worth. If you're going to give your players treasure that's a pain in the ass to deal with, then at least give them some kind of White Elephant, and make it a hassle that IS worth dealing with.

The other thing about money in D&D games is that when it comes to receiving treasure, players really will count it down to the last penny. They might not be thrilled to get 37 cents as their share from the great goblin sock-drawer heist, but they'll be damned if they're not going to write it down on their character sheet. But there's a certain sleight-of-hand I think we've all come to expect when it comes to accounting for expenses, because while players will gladly count every coin they take in, most of us are less enthusiastic about explicitly marking down every penny our characters spend.

Part of that hesitancy might be attributable to the mismatch in currencies. If I'm sitting on thousands of dollars of currency, it feels almost beneath my dignity to break one of my large bills so I can buy a few burning tree branches and cans of baked beans. That's going to be especially true if I haven't really been keeping track of how many torches or rations I've used because, although they're written on my character sheet, I haven't actually been playing in such a way that tracking them is a meaningful activity. And so it bears asking again - if we think of these expenses as basically a rounding error in our characters' bank accounts, then why are we counting their wealth to the last centime rather that bundling it into larger units or treating it more abstractly? When we note every dime and decimal fraction of a coin we take in, but decline to subtract any costs that aren't directly related to supplies we actually use in the dungeon, our characters' GP totals truly do begin to seem like video game scores.

The other mismatch is between the units of time indicated by the items available on the typical D&D equipment list, and the actual units of time we use to count our characters' downtime. Most equipment lists include things like individual cups of beverage, specific cuts of meat, and itemized side-dishes. You can't get so much as a prix fixe meal, to say nothing of a single lump-sum price to pay for your entire downtime. It's a variation on the same problem we keep seeing - the units used to measure time, distance, weight in one section of the rules are incommensurable with the units used during play. Whether the standard downtime in your campaign is a week, a month, a season, a year - however long it is - the players should know in advance how much treasure they'll need to cover the cost. Staying alive, out of debt, and out of the gutter is motive enough for adventuring, and the cost-of-living puts a limit on how much equipment they can buy. But ONLY if the whole price can be expressed as a single number, rather than as an a la carte menu of every possible amenity.

Or just do what I think almost everyone usually does anyway - and what 5e pretty much makes an explicit practice - and just ignore any possible downtime expenses. If your character can break even every day without adventuring, then is there really anything wrong with only deducting gold from your treasure when you spend it useful supplies, rather than being forced to pay an arbitrary tax just for the privilege of being allowed to have an imaginary character who exists within the shared game world? Why not treat your gold total like a video game score? Why not enjoy competing with your fellow players to see who can get the most cash out of the dungeon while spending the least on adventuring supplies?

Or, if you're not keeping score, why not spend ALL your gold on new toys to bring into the dungeon with you? Debt is a very comprehensible motivator of character activity, but so is the opportunity to buy cool stuff at Ye Olde Renaissance Magic Item Shoppe. What makes one of those options better than the other? Arguably, only how well it fits within the genre and the style of game you want to play. If you want to portray a squalid, starving wretch who goes crawling through the sewers for the chance to steal a goblin's lunch money and then runs up his medical bill getting treated by leeches for the dysentery he caught down there, then sure, the Magic Shoppe would be out of place if it hung out its shingle on the corner of Grimdark Alley and Crapsack Lane. But there are other fantasy genres where playing a bit fast and loose with expenses is actually more appropriate that miserly counting out every last decimal place.


Experience points - A running total of how much your character has done and learned from their time adventuring. Fortunately, this is a resource you don't need any extra room to carry, and only count once a day, at the end of each session. That's good, since in D&D and its relatives, the total routinely goes into the thousands, and can run into the millions for really high-level characters.

In the original version of D&D, XP came almost exclusively from gold on a 1-for-1 basis, so avoiding time-wasting combat and figuring out how the carry out as much cash as possible in your backpack had a very direct and tangible relationship on how quickly your character advanced. (So did having the correct high ability scores, which could confer a 10 or 20% bonus to your XP earned.)

In more recent editions, combat has become the sole experience-granting activity, and it's my impression that there's been a combination of lowering the XP thresholds to a gain a level and increasing the rewards for defeating more powerful foes. So even at high levels, the way to get a leg up isn't to massacre an entire continent of orcs, it's to go find the sort of big game-animal that would make Ernest Hemingway feel manly feelings of manly pride and go shoot it with a rocket launcher out the side of a helicopter challenge it to a sporting duel on the Field of Valor.

In the original edition, the XP threshold to level up doubled every level, which meant you had to earn as much experience as you had so far to date again to reach the next level. Among other things, this meant that the time it took players to reach each next level roughly doubled every time as well, and that a new 1st level character who joined a high-level party at any point would be only one level behind by the time the others finally leveled up. I believe that this dynamic too has been altered in more recent editions of the game.

The only way to lose experience is from fighting certain asshole undead monsters that only asshole hardcore DMs ever use. Players hate losing experience, and everyone hates having to do the math to remove a level from a living character. And - because of the way that XP thresholds worked - if your character just DIED instead of getting level drained, it would take you the same amount of effort to bring the new character up to par as it would to return your old character to their former glory.

Since you almost never lose it, and can actually never spend it in D&D, experience is like a resource that doesn't really require any management. However, I think that in Numenera, Dungeon World, and maybe some others, the GM is encouraged to periodically threaten the players with some problem or complication, but offer them XP in return - and the players in turn have the option to accept the XP and the risk that comes with it, or to refuse the XP and avoid the complication. This is a bit meta, but certainly it is a resource management dilemma, and one that only appears in games that have a reputation for not including any resource management. If there's one thing this exercise is teaching me, it's that supposedly non-RM games don't necessarily deserve their reputation. There's quite a bit of resource management that goes in here at that supposedly "shallow end" of the RM pool, so much so, in fact, that perhaps it makes counting doorstops and flashlight batteries feel a bit superfluous.

 
Player time - The final, and perhaps most fundamental resource. Just how long do you have to play this game anyway? How much of that time are you willing to spend counting pennies and matchsticks? What exactly is your idea of "fun" - and how much of your game time are you willing to spend on "not fun" mental activities?

One thing worth noting about the old resource-management intensive style of play is that it takes a lot of time. Counting grid-squares to draw accurate player maps, tapping every floor-tile to check it for triggers, searching every inch of the place for treasure, traps, and secret doors - or worse, DEBATING whether or not to search ... there's a reason, I think, this style of play is referred to as a dungeon crawl. The dangers lurking around every corner, the low hit-points and fragility of the player characters, the skill system that made you far more likely to fail rather than succeed if you had the temerity to actually roll the dice to decide anything rather than relying on narrative description - all of it adds up to a situation that rewards caution and paranoia and punishes anything that even looks like it might be adventure, so that either the players, or their characters, or both, are inching through the dungeon as slowly as possible to avoid making any mistakes. In theory, the threat of wandering monsters pushes the characters to go faster despite the risks, though I sometimes wonder if this just leads to more table-talk about whether to spend a turn searching for something, and if this table-talk might be even slower for the players than actually searching would be. As Roles, Rules, & Rolls notes, this CAN lead to a situation where "player boredom substitutes for character boredom" and where you trade "an out-of-game resource (time and interest) for an in-game resource (safety)". Ideally, if you're playing that way, it's because you want to be and you enjoy it, although I think we have to admit that this is not everyone cup of tea.

But it goes further than that, I think. The more "realistic" a game is, the "harder" it is, the more I suspect it's going to draw on player time as a resource, and the more prepared I think the game itself is going to expect the players to be to spend their own time with a profligacy that stands in stark contrast to the way it expects them to hoard every possible in-game resource. Is your dungeon full of almost-impossible-to-describe room shapes? Do the halls contain imperceptible slopes to carry the characters down a level without realizing it, rotating walls, teleportation traps in identical-looking rooms, and other tricks designed to make it impossible for the players to draw an accurate map? When the characters find treasure, do you tell them how much it is, or are they required to haul it into town before they're allowed count it? If their treasure is something other than cash, will they need to hire a jeweler or appraiser in order to be allowed to find out what it's worth? When they find magic items, do you tell them what they do, or are they required to experiment, and possibly waste or break the item just to learn what it does? When they get enough XP, can they just level up, or do they have to perform some additional quest or hire a professional trainer in order to gain the level they've earned? All these things take time, real time, player time, and none of them particularly even substitute for an in-game resource (except perhaps for knowledge about the game world?) which means that they're not really avoidable even if you're willing to make the right trade - they're just there, common expected practices of Gygaxian-style play that just ... take ... so ... long.

Games that emphasize tactical combat have their own time-intensive activities, so this isn't just an "old school vs new school" distinction. When a crew of fantasy superheroes goes up against a gang of orcish ninjas, and everyone knows a dozen moves and has a hundred hit points, that fight is going to just ... take ... so ... long. So it's not like newer editions of the game are necessarily so respectful of player time.
 
Then again, regardless of the edition, you can explore all kinds of dungeon rooms if there's pretty much nothing in them, so "rooms per real-life hour" isn't some kind of unambiguous measure of player fun either. And look, I KNOW I've gone kind of hard after original-edition dungeoneering here. But really, it's not MY preferences that are most important, it's yours. And specifically, it's making sure that there's a good fit between what the game makes you spend time on and what you want to do while you're gaming. If you want to feel like a methodical, careful professional who scoffs at foolhardy "adventurer" types who get themselves sliced in half by the first swinging blade trap they come across - then that early edition style is perfect for that. If you want to play a swaggering, devil-may-care badass who revels in their combat prowess, their cool superpowers, and their ability to mow through a crowd of enemies like a combine through a hayfield - then latter-day, tactical-combat heavy games are going to give you a chance to shine. I really don't think either of those preferences is inherently better than the other, but it's going to be terribly frustrating if you want to play one game and end up in the other. (And frankly, both those styles might be unsatisfying if you've got, like 2 hours to play, rather than 8.) The point being that player time, your time, is worth something, and you should value your own time, make sure you're spending it on parts of the game that you enjoy, and that you're NOT wasting it on things that you'd rather handwave or ignore.


The next posts in this series will look at play-styles of original resource-management play, supposedly "non" RM play, and what might be a whole new style of RM that I see emerging in games like Into the Odd and on blogs like The Retired Adventurer. After that, I want to look at some of the solutions people have come up with to preserve resource management play without needing quite as much time or attention to detail as Gygax originally envisioned.