World-building, cities and necessities

•March 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One of the things that frequently causes me to stumble in fantasy worlds is too much reliance on “because magic”.

I can hand wave difficult to access locations, set aside a city that’s disproportionately full of magic weapon makers. But water and sewage cause me to wince and shudder.

Let’s start at the end. If you’re not fastidious and just let the waste run off down-hill, your city smells like a sewer. You have to deal with a bit less than 3/4 pound of solids per person (yes, really) and a bit less than half a gallon of urine per day. I promise that the urine is not enough to carry the solid, so you need some sort of movement system (whether flowing water in sewers, flowing water in canals, people who come and sweep it up – something).

Look, we all “know” that medieval Europe was filthy. People tossed the chamberpot into the open dirt street. ‘Better’ cities built platforms – sidewalks or boardwalks – in the better parts of town to keep feet out of the muck. Because these weren’t everywhere, women walked next to the building (pots were tossed, not dumped, so the effluvia didn’t hit the wall) and most men wore hats with brims. Lots of cultures developed the habit of ‘street shoes’ and slippers.

That’s really easy to do, actually. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Minoans had flush toilets in the 1500s BC. Yes, really. The Greeks had ewer and basin systems – the basin drains into the trough that runs under the toilet seat, and “who forgot to fill the ewer” wasn’t quite as plaintive as “who forgot to change the toilet paper”. The Roman sewer system, with public toilets and indoor plumbing, was something to envy hundreds of years later. Jerusalem in the time of Jesus had a sewage system, and all you have to do is read the Bible to know how important cleanliness was. And so on and so forth.

So that’s the end, what of the beginning?

You have to have water – a minimum of 3-5 gallons per person per day (average) for not just drinking but cooking and washing (plus a little for the animals). If you’ve got it the amount goes up to 30-50 gallons per day; it gets used for waste disposal and washing the house and a lot of other things. By the way, Rome at its height was doing this with water provided by aqueducts.

Well and streams and aqueducts are all possibilities to solve this beginning.

So I mention all this because far too many fantasy cities don’t have them. Oh, those on rivers are no problem. But dreamers have a habit of putting cities on mountainsides and in deserts, in far-away and exotic locales. If the story’s carrying me well enough I don’t care, but every so often I’ll get slapped out of the dream, and then that sort of thing makes it harder to get back in.

Weirdly enough, thinking about this sort of thing will help your city come alive even if nobody mentions going to the bathroom or washing their clothes. Because it’ll make it real in your mind, and you will carry that to your players.

Or such has been my experience.

Have fun.

World building

•February 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

(crossposted to my general discussion blog)

One of the peeves I keep as a pet is the frustration of world building. Over and over I see capitals and cities and such placed in locations that make no sense beyond “Isn’t this a neat spot.” Or worse, because it’s in the center. So I’m going to scratch the surface of world-building. Today: population centers.

Population centers developed because there was a reason to be there. The most common reason for this is trade. This is why just about every major city in the world in the 19th century or earlier was a port – either river or ocean.

I cannot tell you how often I see, and get annoyed by, rivers without cities and cities in the middle of nowhere with a river a couple days travel away.

Now there’s an interesting case on rivers that’s worth also noting, and that’s the ‘portage’ cities. Rivers have hazard zones – rapids and falls. If the water both above and below that hazard is navigable for any length by what’s considered ‘typical’ river transport then a village or perhaps a city will develop there. Provided, that is, the break is only a mile or two in length. Because distance matters.

We’re back to trade. Let’s go back to our ports. Now you’re going to draw a path from one to another that are not on the same coast or river. There are two rules.

1) The course is the easiest path.
2) Each segment should be one day’s travel. At that segment end make an evaluation as to what’s there.

One of the really annoying traits I see in fantasy maps (and to be honest think it’s a flaw in science fiction as well) is that roads are straight. They shouldn’t be, not between villages and towns and cities. They follow the easiest path – the one with the fewest and gentlest climbs, the one that has the best landmarks to avoid getting lost.

Will other, faster paths develop? Yes, but later. They’ll be put in for both trade and war, often because getting from point A to point E can be done in 3 days instead of 5 if a straight line is followed (and yes it means some of the older points whither). But as a rule they’re not going to get used by traders. Because traders don’t want to be caught outside.

So unless we’re on flat plains the road wiggles and curves such that the distance traveled is anywhere from half to 3/4 the straight-line crow’s-flight distance. And distance…

Distance is how far the traders can get in one day. Somewhere near that point an enterprising person will put a station – an inn, a feed store, a place for last minute “crap I forgot” items. Food suppliers will gradually gather round because there’s a market. Likewise suppliers of goods for those food suppliers.


Sometimes the land just won’t support all those people. Or they can’t be protected from the dangers – both natural and man-made. Sometimes it’s just too far from the major city.

But we’ve got enough now to start drawing our maps. So let’s play a little.

Draw a wobbly line down one side of a sheet of paper. I’m going to recommend using hex or graph paper unless you just like calipers or a ruler but for our first run any paper will do. This wobbly line is the coast.

Pick eight spots on the wobbly line and mark them. These are harbors – natural places for boats to come to shore and be a bit protected from the full force of the ocean.

Draw two ‘rivers’ from somewhere on the non-coast side of the paper to a harbor – each to a different non-adjacent. On one river put a mark about 1/3 of the way up. On another make one about 2/3 of the way up. These are riverports, and we’re going to give each a reason to exist.

At the city closest to the coast we’re going to give one river a second tributary. Run it to just short of the non-coast side, and for this exercise make sure it’s toward one of the other rivers but doesn’t close more than 2/3 the distance.

A second river is going to be a ‘portage’ port. To reflect this, make a mark about an inch long that is roughly perpendicular to the river and which runs through the city mark. This is an escarpment mark so make it plainly different (shading, color, pattern, whatever works for you.

If you later do other cities on rivers there are other reasons to exist did other cities give them a reason as well. In addition to escarpment and crossroad there’s crossing point. If you do this make a mark upriver (and down if you want) that’s at least an inch long that reminds you it is /hard/ to cross the river there. Why is it hard? You can play with it later, but it might be speed or width or rough terrain or a bit of a canyon or, well, that’s for you and your story later. But we’re not doing that for now.

Now we can build several roads here. There’s the coastal road, the one that’s a bit inland of the coast but roughly parallels it. There is a road that parallels each river from seaport to riverport. This exists because while barging downriver is easy, sailing upriver is difficult and often either skipped or uses a tow. And there’s a road that will connect riverports.

Let’s make that last. We’re going to assume for giggles that it takes a day for a trade train to move an inch overland – in a perfect world. We’re going to make that world imperfect.

Let’s start with the port that’s at a river junction. Estimate the point upstream that is closest to the other riverport and make a mark. This is the ideal stopping point, whether wide spot or village to be determined later. There might be terrain reasons not to use it, however.

Now here’s where we enter a little randomness. Take two dice, each different colors. One is ‘distance’ and the other is ‘accuracy’. You’re going to build your road alternating from each end.

For distance it’s high-low. One inch or 3/4 inch. This applies whether following the tributory or cutting across the land.

For accuracy it depends on whether we’re following the tributory or not. If following the river, you will stop once your segment crosses the ‘closest approach’ point (don’t turn there, go through it) OR if you roll doubles with the distance/accuracy dice. For cross country you go straight unless you roll a 1 or a 6. If you do that move your end-point for that segment 1/4 inch toward the coast or inland respectively.

If you’re using graph or hex paper add one more wiggle – your line must go from center to center. 45 degree diagonals are acceptable, ‘jumping’ from center here to center that’s one over and two up is not. Of course if you’re doing this you can ‘explain’ the short by wiggling the line a bit more so it’s always a full inch.

Now as I said you’re going to alternate from each side of this route. And as a result unless you’re terribly lucky you’re going to find the ends don’t meet. No problem, keep going. You’re going to end up with a ‘split’ route as the two routes join twice.

The merge points WILL develop small communities. There will be a reason for two routes – lake, dense forest, rougher hills, etc. And since they grew organically they’ll make sense.

Congratulations, you have a road. You have places for inns and communities. And most important it is NOT a straight line.

Now, there are a lot more roads and reasons and I’ll be covering those in a bit. I’m also going to help ‘organically’ grow nations – though they’re going to tend to be more fantasy than sf. But we’ve got a first road technique for world building and the primary reason cities and villages exist, and I’m getting tired of hearing the sound of my own typing.

So for now, have fun.

Rambling on E6

•February 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

So as I’ve said a time or two, I’m getting into an E6 (or more accurately P6 – pathfinder system) campaign.

One of the things that’s already triggered my analysis paralysis is that there’s a really close cap to skills and feats. You go to level 6, and that’s the top of your character.

Now not entirely. You can still add feats, and indeed it’s enough that one limit essentially goes away. You no more need to be careful which feats you pick first in P6 than you do in Pathfinder Society or even the full spectrum. Because you will eventually get most of the ones you want. You only have to decide the order.

Well, not most of the ones you want. If you want stuff that requires a double digit BAB you’re pretty much out of luck.

But that’s the feats. Where things get interesting is skills. Because unlike feats, when you reach level 6 you’re done earning skills. (You can buy a skill focus feat for each skill, but that’s pretty much it.) This… can require a little planning. Because our 6th level characters are going to be traipsing around trying to find and defeat ultimate villains for a while – and if we don’t swim (for example) we’re in a bit of trouble.

We don’t get the massive multiple attacks with great pluses that high levels bring. We don’t get double digit skills that make most of our attempts automatically successful.

It looks like fun.

Beginner stuff (pathfinder)

•February 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One of the good/bad things about a crunchy game like pathfinder is that you have to have an inventory. Now it’s fantasy so aaaallll the details aren’t handled, but there’s still lots of opportunity to go hungry.

The thing is, it’s impossible when you first start to buy everything you might need. My suggestion? Don’t. Buy the absolute, always gotta have stuff, and stop. Wait for the adventure to start, find out where you are and what’s going on, then buy what you need.

See, the thing is almost every first level adventure starts with an intro. Even if it’s “your all sitting in a bar and in walks…” it’s an initial setting.

No, let me be a bit clearer. You start in one of two situations. Either you are running in medias res or someone hires you – whether paying by money or fame or karma there’s someone telling you of a problem and asking you to fix it.

And the neat thing about someone hiring you is that sometimes – surprisingly often if someone remembered to be diplomatic – you can get part of your goods provided or a little more cash up front.

Because you’ve got money, if you suddenly need fancy clothes or a trip to the coastal city of Beachview or anything else you can afford it.

Now there’s the chance your GM will start with “you’re in a tavern, and in storms a troll. Roll for initiative.” In medias rens, in the action. So you can’t just stand there in your free set of clothes and say, “let’s go.” You have to have some minimums.

You want a knife – a dagger. You want a sling. And you want a club. If you’re a caster you want your caster component(s). In this case buy two – one you have easily available, one tucked inside your jacket for when you get a nasty GM who claims your pockets have been picked just before the game began. (doesn’t happen often, and those GMs are either a lot of fun or deserve what players do to them. Or both.)

Armor? Yes, because if you can’t be wearing it in that situation the GM will say so, while it’s impossible to wear it if you don’t have it. I recommend leather – studded leather if you must. It’s inexpensive enough that you can afford better if the situation permits, but tough enough to make a difference if you start with a bang.

If it makes you nervous only having a club and a dagger for melee, get a morning star. Relatively cheap, good damage that’s both B and P. If your character will live and die by the bow, wait anyway.

If you’re a melee type add a morningstar. It’s a simple weapon so can be wielded by almost everyone of that sort, yet it does a surprising amount of damage. Ranged? stick with the sling for now, but pick up a bundle of bullets. Trust me. Because if you’re in the thick you can’t do ranged anyway, and if it’s not in the thick you might negotiate for enough more to get a better bow.

Add some chalk and string to a pocket. Flint and steel in another. Put an empty pouch on your belt. Now put all but 5 gold into another pouch that you put inside your jacket, right next to the spell components if you have them. That 5 gold gets broken into miscellaneous change and split between your pockets and external pouch.

And that’s it. The minimum necessities, a couple of useful odds and ends, and your money. Then stop to hear what is really going on to decide what you need. That’s what the beginning player gets at first.

Have fun.

Sorta overpowered and broken. PF, E6

•January 29, 2014 • 2 Comments

[edited, way late, to say my math is wrong. See Tnelis’s comment below.]

I’ve run across a sorcerer ability that’s sorta broken for pathfinder, especially for E6.

Now there are a few out there who will sarcastically express their surprise. The thing is, I haven’t seen anyone else catch this one, so it appears to be a new sneakiness for people still playing.

Take the Wildblooded archetypes of either Rime-Blooded or Void-Touched. Now neither is a complete loss anyway. But the nastiness occurs when you bring in cantrips.

Take for example Ray of Frost. It’s only a d3 damage spell. It’s got an ok range of 25 + 5 per two caster levels. But…

But Rime says any spell with cold carries slow and Void says an evocation spell carries silence. Which means a 16th level sorcerer can cast a slow or silent spell at a range of 65 feet, DC 18 + charisma bonus, every single round for as long as the engagement takes – and still have a full stack of ready spells for the next engagement.

Oh, a couple of devilish details. The void’s effect requires you to fail a saving throw. Ray of frost doesn’t have one so technically it can’t trigger the silence. But Spark and Flare, also both evocation cantrips, do require a saving throw. And for a player wanting a little off-the-wall, this is one of the places where cross-blooded can work. The Rime adds the saving throw to trigger the silence, which means the ray does double duty. (Let’s face it, 1d3 damage isn’t going to bother anyone.)

Now I won’t be doing this. First, I think it unbalances the game. So does my current GM. And we’ve got some small counter-actions against those who unbalance the game. First is simply ask them not do it or to leave. If they insist on breaking the game when we’ve asked them not to do so, we don’t need them to play.

But for the few times we have to deal with people we can’t eject, we use the Karma rules. No, you won’t find them written. It’s fairly simple, though, and harkens back to the bad old days of RPGs where the GM’s job wasn’t to help everyone have fun, it was to kill the players. For that there are plenty of abuses, the easiest of which is to have the players start running into a large number of sorcerers who also happen to use the silence/slow cantrip. Payback sucks, and the house’s resources are always larger.

But if you’re in a game where being overpowered is necessary or normal, by all means consider this little touch. It can be devastating in some campaigns.

On E6 (pathfinder)

•January 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I think I’ve mentioned E6 before, though I’m too lazy to look it up. The thing is a large number of my posts from here on out on pathfinder will be at least somewhat influenced by the ruleset variation.

While I’ll summarize, here is a link to one of the enworld forums in which E6 was developed.

Summarized: stop leveling at 6th level. No increases in BAB, no increases in numbers of spells cast or levels of spells achieved, no additional hit points, etc. There is some continued growth in that every 5000 XP you get another feat. Depending on minor variation that may be a ‘feat or skill point’. On the other hand it’s something of a violation of concept as intended to wind up with double-digit skill ranks.

Now the big thing this does for crunch work is it forces a major revisit of ‘what is good or bad’ for various classes. If you are rating a wizard build based on the strength of things you’ll get as you reach levels 8+, your rating fails. And if you find a guide that says “great for lower levels worthless for mid to upper” it becomes “great.”

Much of my crunching is going to be from this point of view. As an example, I just did a crunch of weapons for best ‘base’ DPR. Something sort of important happens if you have static bonuses in the double digits – if you’re getting +11 to hit and damage due to BAB and such. Crits start being more important. But in E6 you’re pretty much never going to get those levels of static bonuses. So base weapon DPR matters more.

I’ll try to remind folk that this is my bias when I do more evals, but I’d like to get it out front for the regular readers or those who read the archives.

Two handed v dual wielding (pathfinder)

•January 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One perennial argument in every fantasy game system I’ve played (online and pen and paper) is in regard to dual wielding. Does it do more or less damage than the Big Honking Sword? As always It Depends. It depends on system and mods from feats and skills and so on and so forth.

(Bottom line up front: in pathfinder the big honking sword beats all the dual wield combinations, assuming only TWF for mods.) But it’s worse than that – see the post for why.

And again, your humble fool is going to try to answer despite ‘it depends’. I’ll do so again by staying in one system (Pathfinder), and answering just at the core with minimum mods.

Minimum. One, to be precise. TWF without which smashing things with your face is almost as effective.

I’m going to only show some weapons – basically ‘best’ (bastard, long, and short swords) plus a shield combo for the people who recommend TWF with sword and shield. I’m doing to show greatsword and singles of the weapons for comparison.

Let’s get the table out of the way first.

Weapon DPR at 14 DPR at 20
Greatsword 2.695 0.385
Bastard only 2.1175 0.3025
Bastd+Short 1.99375 0.380625
Long only 1.7325 0.2475
Long+Short 1.71875 0.328125
Long + Spiked Lt Shld 1.565625 0.301875
Twin Bstd 1.36125 0.433125
Short only 1.3475 0.1925
Twin Long 1.11375 0.354375

Yes, those numbers are right. They’re the DPRs at 14 and when you need a natural 20 to hit. Now to defend it.

First, keep in mind that using two weapons (with TWF) is -2 for both if the off-hand weapon is light, -4 if not.

Now here’s the math so you can double-check. We start with the original formula and make a couple of changes.
DPR = ((dmin + dmax)/2 * ((21 – tgtnum)/20 – ((21 – pot_crit)/20 * (21 – tgtnum)/20)) + ((dmin + dmax)/2 * X *(21 – pot_crit)/20 * (21 – tgtnum)/20))
DPR = ((dmin + dmax + dmod)/2 * ((21+ hitmod – tgtnum)/20 – ((21– hitmod – pot_crit)/20 * (21+ hitmod – tgtnum)/20)) + ((dmin + dmax + dmod)/2 * X *(21+ hitmod – pot_crit)/20 * (21+ hitmod – tgtnum)/20))
Changes are in italics, and there are really only two (done several times).
+ dmod. Add any damage modifiers to the average damage. This isn’t going to come into play in this post but will be happening soon when I look at some other feats.
+ hitmod. This lets us add the ‘to hit’ modification. It’s intentionally inverting the apparent effect because of where I’m applying it.

Also in the spreadsheet you need an IF statement. IF the mod makes 21-tgtnum+hitmod less than 1 then you need to ignore the hitmod. That’s because a 20 always hits. You also need to make the pot_crit a 20 as well – you can’t crit on 18 or 19 if you can’t hit on 18 or 19.

That’s it. I’m open to people saying the formula is wrong, and if so I’ll be happy to adjust (tell me in the comments). But as it is, the rule is that barring possible special modifications TWF is the worst option between two-handed, single weapon, and TWF. The exceptions are where everyone needs natural 20s to hit.