Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Quick Post on Prisoners

So, we’ve been catching up on the new version of Hawaii 5-0. First, I have to get past the whole idea that every single episode people pull out and shoot guns. But that is the point of this. The guys (including the criminals) in this show act more like adventurers than like cops, or even modern day soldiers. They shoot first and ask questions later, just like FRPG adventurers. So, is that bad?

Yep! Every once in a while I would like to see some guy give up before he’s got a couple of slugs in him. So getting past the morality of killing folks - Both the guys on this show and adventuring parties need to recognize that taking prisoners, you know the live talking kind, can be a great thing. Live prisoners can tell you what they were doing and why. They can point you to the next mission or clue or whatever. Dead guys? Well, they bleed. Is that useful? You know, you can loot living guys too.

A warning - Prisoners can add an extra level of complexity to game mastering. GMs need to be able to role-play what the NPC knows and how likely they might be to share that info.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

More on the matriarchs

In my orc post I mentioned that some of the orc tribes are matriarchal and that matriarchies don’t seem to work. At least they haven’t worked in Earth’s history. I don’t claim to be a feminist, but I don’t consider myself a sexist either (what is the antonym of feminist?). OK, so maybe I’m a bad judge of me, but what I am going to say here is a theory others have developed after doing some semi-decent research. I don’t know how true it is, but there seems to be something to it, so at the risk of offending just about everyone, here we go:

The theory is that matriarchal societies are doomed to failure because women have an instinctive trait to protect and try to better their children. Any time a woman gains power, she uses her power to advance her children, even if it is to the detriment of the “state”. So in other words, the queen wants her son to be king even if she knows he is unable to do the job.

Why do I think there is some truth to this? Well, we have some historic examples of this. In fact, the only powerful women in history that I could come up with that did not do this (put their children before the state) were those who did not have children. I’m not saying that it is true 100% of the time; but I’ve thought up about a dozen decent examples that seem to bare this theory out.

Want another stupid reason? I was watching this Chinese film recently with really bad dubbing into English. It was about some Mongolian chief, and the chief’s wife is begging her husband to kill his nephew, another chief’s son, because the nephew will eventually cause succession problems for her son. This isn’t proof, but it shows that even other cultures (in this case an Asian one) find a mother putting her children before the state as a standard trope.

This has caused me to rethink some of my cultures in Fletnern. I think I subconsciously built this in, at least in small doses. I’m not suggesting that this is a historic fact and everyone needs to establish it as the standard in their fantasy worlds, but that is what we’re building here: fantasy worlds. Believe it to be true or not, it would make for some really cool political adventures. Queen hires party to protect her son, but then explains that the only way to protect him is to kill his older cousin. Queen places son on throne, only to be the power behind the throne, to the point of rivals needing to have her removed from power, by any means necessary. You take it from here!

Matriarchal Orcs?

I mentioned previously that orcs in my world have some extensive breeding traditions. While I do think that I could probably fill a book on the subject, let me try to summarize it here. After all the title of the post did mention elves vs orcs, so I should probably comment on orcs.

When an orc kills enemies, loots treasure, or generally succeeds in military ventures, he brings honor on his tribe/family. The way that he brings honor on himself is to father strong sons. His legacy is unquestionably dependent on his offspring.

I base this on the idea that orcs fight in more of a “mob”. There is no armored knight on a horse surrounded by his retinue. There is no general giving all the orders. The tribe attacks as a tribe and wins or loses as a tribe. Maybe it would help you to think more along the lines of “a zerg rush” or a “horde”. In order to win this type of warfare, you need overwhelming numbers which can only be produced by efficient breeding.

To establish efficient breeding, the various tribes have various ways of determining mating partners. One of the more common styles is that male orcs are assigned a wife for the “season” based on their successes the prior year. Some tribes measure success with war games or sports, while others base it on booty taken or trophies. But in some way, they figure out who their “best” are, and these best are allowed to breed with the best women. Sure, there is politics and scheming involved, but the ideal is to get the strongest men and the best breeding women together to produce the best orc warriors for the next generation of army. Yeah, the losers get to breed too, but they wind up with the least successful breeders if any are left for them.

Tangent course - this leads to a bunch of cultural issues. Men are not “married” to women for more than a season, though sometimes they may get the same “wife” for maybe three years running. After that, the tribe wants to increase their best chances by mixing things up. So the boys are raised by the women (in the women’s quarters) for a few years and then turned over to the military trainers. They don’t really know their fathers, though they most likely know which one of them it was. This lack of family makes them put more faith in their trainers and their tribe. Their father figure becomes the war chief or drill sergeant, so their loyalties are different than people raised in families. In fact most drill sergeants (forgive me for using that term, but you all know what I mean) are sterile orcs - successful in battle, but unable to father, meaning they won’t play favorites, at least in theory. Oh, and if they don’t have enough males, it is the duty of the chief to take on more wives. Yeah! duty!

But in many situations, the tribe’s women decide which male gets which female every season. So in some tribes, the women are absolutely in charge. Yes, matriarchal orcs! It actually makes sense if you consider that if this is a raiding tribe, then the men are normally gone for long periods of time anyway. The females are the craftsmen, because the men are gone. The men are the hunters and gatherers, because the women are to be kept at home where it is safe. You don’t want to lose a stronger breeder because she was attacked by a boar while picking mushrooms; but the males are worth that risk.

This is a topic for another post, but I tried to research matriarchal societies. I wanted to see if there might be something I could steal from history and make my own. Guess what - There really aren’t any successful matriarchal societies. Don’t tell me that culturally men rule the world. We know enough history that there had to be matriarchal societies at one point or another. Why did they fail? I’ll link to the post when I write it.

So what other cultural points about orcs and their breeding programs? Well, the tribes are so entrenched in their breeding programs, that they cannot even have multiple tribes within the same military unit. Sure, multiple tribes can join together as a massive war band, but each tribe will fight mainly on its own. Rivalries between the tribes also justify them raiding each other, something that puts a constant strain on the Wembic Empire that is attempting to hold them all together. If random chance causes a tribe to have more girls than they believe they can afford to feed, they will sell the daughters of poor breeders, expecting them to be poor breeders themselves. So, yes, orcs will sell their own children as slaves, but it is not common. With the glory of the tribe being more important, there is a tendency by some poorer performing orcs to rely on avoiding the most dangerous aspects of combat and then rejoining their tribe at the end of the battle. Whatever you think of communal or socialist societies should come into play here, especially if you believe they lead to mediocre performance and a lack of risk taking.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The differences between elves and orcs - the details

So in my last post, I mentioned several different culture “starters” but not really why they were appropriate. The point was that different races should have different cultures, not that Earth cultures can work for different races, so here are the “whys” of the last post.

The dwarves rebelled against their nobles, why? Dwarves are by their nature builders - craftsmen. In their culture, great craftsmen were highly praised, but the nobles, who were administrators and not craftsmen, were more important. This didn’t work for their moral code, so when led by the right people, the dwarves were ready to rebel. Socialism appealed to them, because there, everyone would be working. But they did not foresee the issues of Socialism. The two most important are that art and religion don’t really work in a Socialistic society. While many of the “everyday” dwarves were willing to go along with the nation’s new social ideals, the true artists and the faithful left the country to live under the remaining noble dwarven clans. Of course, the Socialists tried to stop them, and there were (and still are today) some fantastic adventures in order to “rescue” dwarves from their own government.

The elven one was a bit better explained. But the peasant elves were raised under the assumption that the nobles were “high elves” and the commoners were “low elves” and they were of similar but different races - like goblins are different from orcs. Not only this, but the high elven lords promised that their magic could overcome anything. To have these two core beliefs shaken - magic could be learned by low elves and high elves could be beaten in a war - ended the nearly godlike status of the high elves. Not every elven fiefdom was as extreme in the beliefs as we’ve laid out here, but these were fundamental aspects of their culture. To have their fundamental beliefs proven to be $#!+ caused resentment, depression, and a level of fear and uncertainty not seen in the past few centuries.

At one point, the Goblin Empire controlled about a third of the continent, and probably controlled the best farming lands on the continent. The ogres ruled the Goblin Empire with orcs as their military and goblins as their workforce. Under this caste system, things worked. The Empire was properly fed and defended. But as with most empires, decadence at the top led to abuses, and the goblins and the orcs started a civil war. Now the ogres control a much smaller portion of land and they have never adapted to farming (at least very few of them have). They are not the world’s greatest raiders, and in sufficient numbers and formations, the humans and dwarves that live near the ogres have managed to repel raids or punish the tribal villages that executed them. Every time an ogre tribe is defeated, the humans and dwarves take a little more land; further shrinking “Ogre Country”. At this point, the ogre tribes would not be able to sustain themselves on their current land even if they were to switch to agriculture. On top of that, most of their lands are mountainous and forested, so turning these lands to fields or pastures will require an enormous amount of work. Don’t worry - there is a tribe of ogres who has a plan and is putting it into action. The ogres of Thumb Rock just may be able to turn things around for their whole nation.

Dragons are individualistic, so there isn’t intended to be a consistent culture for them. In fact, they all treat their slaves differently, some use them as workers (most often in mines or as shepherds) before they eat them. This often gives the dragons either a trade good they can trade for slaves or something to feed to the slaves (and sometimes the dragons too). Plus, many dragons are incredibly skilled slave masters. They know exactly how to fatten up their human livestock just as humans know how to over feed their steers with corn just before they go to auction. Remember foie gras? Just think about it.

Hope that helps!

The differences between elves and orcs

Too often fantasy writers are guilty of the same things that sci-fi writers are: You are exploring the vastness of space and you run into an entirely alien race, and they are exactly human, except they have blue skin, or they have antennae, or they have pointy ears, etc. You know the drill - identical to humans in every way, except for one really minor one. Oh, and the chicks are really hot!

Are orcs just green skinned humans? Are elves just pointy eared humans? Are halflings just short humans? Well, on that last one, I say yes, but the others shouldn’t be true. What about when you get into people like centaurs, or dragons, or even wizards? The cultures, the fundamental morals and beliefs of the culture, have to be different.

But how do you do that? Well, it’s tough, because all we really know about is what we experience or to a far lesser extent what we might learn. But making guesses about these things are what makes game mastering and world building fun!

One place I like to start is tier-ing the social structures. What? I mean lower classes, middle classes, upper classes. I mean are there nobles? slaves? Is there a middle class? Next comes religion. I think if you can develop these two concepts together, you can create different cultures. But the truth is, I see Earth’s cultures as quite different (let’s say different enough) and have utilized them in my world, but obviously with my twists on them. I think this is fair, because my elves, dwarves and humans all did develop on the same planet and they have the same basic biological forms. I do try to make the non-mammalian cultures quite different.

Examples - how did I try this: OK, well the dwarves rebelled against their nobles and formed a style of socialism. But like happens most commonly in Earth socialist societies, the people really don’t buy into it. Maybe for a few years, even a few generations, the people tried to be all for one and one for all, but now they balance the black market against the unfair quota system rewards that they receive.

The elves reserved magic only to the nobles; no commoners were allowed to learn magic. They took this to the point of telling the peasants that they would be unable to learn magic. But then they lost a war and had many of their noble spell casters killed. Hoping to rebuild as quickly as possible, they started training commoner officers in the use of magic. Both the loss and the confused narrative around commoners now learning magic caused the peasants to lose faith in the whole system. The ramifications of this are still being felt (determined), but corruption within the elven forests has grown at an enormous rate.

The ogres remain tribal, and with their higher need for food, they continue to hunt, rustle, raid and pillage. They may be tougher, but there is only so much of that any neighbor can put up with, so organized forces oppose them and have dramatically reduced their numbers. Could the ogres actually be raiding themselves into extinction?

Dragons have even bigger appetites than ogres do, and there’s no way they are shifting to vegetables. (Dragons eating tofu anyone?) So what do they do? Well the more animalistic breeds of dragons are fishermen and hunt the vast Dragon Lakes, as well as the mountains in the area that have ample wild horses and goats. But the more intelligent dragons have livestock. The “black dragons” of the south pole breed and maintain herds of elephants. The dragons closer to human (plus) populations are slavers.

These are just a couple of ideas, and way to short at that. I did not touch on orcs here, because that would take far too long - just the breeding customs of the orcish tribes could fill a book. I’m not trying to get you to rethink the digestive system of elves vs. humans (though I have actually done work on that), but I do want you to make a legitimate difference between elves, dwarves and dragons. Dragons don’t live in towns with a mayor and a sheriff, but halflings do. The differences should be noticeable to even the most hardened gold farmer playing in your game world.

I added a second post to give some more details here. Click here to read that one.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

When Realism Gets in the Way

GM: A portcullis falls in front of you.
Player: I attack it ... with my +2 sword
Other player: I don’t think that’s going to cause any damage
Player: Why not, it’s +2 to damage?

Yep, actually happened. And yes, we teased that guy about it for years. Probably tells you more about the cruelty my friends and I inflicted upon each other than anything else. By modern day standards we all would have been expelled for bullying and violating his “safe space”.

Anyways! Look, not every player knows every vocabulary word. Not every player knows your world so well that they will know that the Lats have black hair and the Bortens have red hair. The simple point is this - While we stress realism and storytelling through FRPG, please always remember that it’s a game. It’s a hobby and the players have different levels of interest in the various aspects. Yes, after a tease or two, I actually pulled out the rule book and showed the player where a portcullis was defined and priced so he would understand what we were talking about. Always remember that fun is more important than the facts, and I have yet to meet a person who played FRPGs because they wanted to learn vocabulary.

We’re not saying dumb everything down. Instead we’re saying that you need to make certain you are not demanding more of your players than they are willing to give. Explaining things in more than one way is not cheating; it’s good game mastering. You won’t need to do this every time, but you will sometimes.

The best way I’ve found to do this is to reveal more every time a question is asked. The more mature me as GM would have said: A portcullis falls in front of you. OK, this portcullis is an iron grate with iron bars, so even though your sword is magical steel, you will probably not be able to batter your way through. These bars are like three quarters of an inch thick, so ... Sort of saves the embarrassment, but still describes what’s going on for everybody, because chances are, there’s more than one player who didn’t read the price list of castle parts before the game.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Grain Into Gold versus Coins of the Road (or why fantasy trade goods are really tough to figure out)

I’ve touched on this before, but due to a recent review of Grain Into Gold I thought I might address in more detail why GIG doesn’t have a full blown trade goods system:

Grain Into Gold was always intended to be the “micro-economics” book. Those of us who had to take Econ in college probably took both micro- and macro-, and each of the books was probably 200-300 pages. I still don’t believe in economics. It’s like sociology to me. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it sure as hell isn’t a science. Two professions where you can be wrong all the time and still keep your job: weathermen and economists. Oh, and every government job, but that’s a rant for another day.

So Grain Into Gold specifically and intentionally does not discuss supply and demand. OK, but why no macro-economics? We’ve been working on Coins of the Road off and on since finishing GIG back in 2006. Coins of the Road was always intended to be the companion piece to GIG. Coins of the Road would discuss barrels of whale oil, instead of pints, and discuss getting it from one place to another. Sounds simple, huh? Yeah, try and do it.

First, you need to figure out what something costs at its source. Well, GIG did a lot of that, but there would be more needed. Ignoring that crucial and most important part, let’s think about the rest of it. A barrel of whale oil isn’t just the oil, it’s the barrel. You need to figure the cost of that. And you need to figure out the logistics of the barrel. How wide is it, both at the rim and in the middle? How tall is it? How much does it weigh? We said how much does it cost, right?

OK, so how many of those barrels can you fit on a wagon? Well that probably depends on the size of the wagon. And while you’re at it - are these 50gal barrels? 30 gallon? 25? 10? What sizes are those? What if you use a crate instead of a barrel? Don’t try to tell me that a fantasy era economy has an established barrel size that is consistent from culture to culture, because that would be BS! OK, so figure out all the barrels. (I actually have that done) Figure out all the wagons (I have a really good start on this). Now you’re ready to travel.

But how do you travel? A reviewer pointed out years ago that I neglected to discuss river transport and how river transport was vitally important throughout European and American history. He was right! But I originally built the economy for Fletnern, which only has a few trade rivers, since it never had an Ice Age. (Don’t argue with me on that right now, I’m too exhausted to start another fight.) But Coins of the Road would need river travel, land travel and sea travel. OK, land and sea - now you have to figure out the ships instead of the wagons.

But land travel is easy, right? Not so fast my young friend. There are wagons, there are pack animals, and there are porters. There are also push carts. Is the wagon pulled by an ox? a mule? a team of horses? How many horses? and what does that do to the speed of said wagon? And how do you write this so that it’s still generic even though a lot of games have established speeds of travel? Let’s assume that you figure out how much a wagon can hold, how many animals it will take to pull that weight, and how fast it will go. Done? Nope! How much does it cost to feed those animals? How fast can they really go if you expect them to pasture at the end of the day vs being fed feed?

That’s just the logistics of engines and containers. We haven’t even started on the political impacts of trade. Taxes and tolls? Bandits and how does the risk of bandits affect what the merchant wants as a profit (risk management)? How good are the roads? Should you consider camels going across the desert?

But I haven’t even touched on the real issue when trying to determine trade in a FRPG: It’s fantasy!! At what point does a golem horse make sense? What about pegasi pulled wagons, or maybe blimps? Does every merchant ship have a wizard who can summon up the winds to fill the sails or is it that just some of them? Do dragons act like bandits or like warlords?

But wait! There’s more! Everything from can you legally fly over a city’s walls to can you teleport into their cities should be considered. Is teleporting a legitimate form of transport? Can you use carnivorous beasts of burden? What is illegal and what is smuggling? and if you think that’s easy, we still have to discuss the additional trade goods that would come from a fantasy environment. Is the selling of dragons slavery? Are there races who trade in human flesh as they would beef jerky? Is it illegal to be undead? Slavery in general? What about zombie slaves? and to top it all off - What about brand names? Do you just talk about “wine” or do you start thinking through which wineries have the best wines? Is beer worth carting around the continent? What about the best beers?

OK - so this is huge! Hopefully you can see why Coins of the Road is only partially completed. It’s not dead! but we don’t have an expected release date either.