Categories
story worldbuilding

chapter two

Broken Logs and False Words

SOON AFTER I HAD turned seventeen, the wagons of ingots stopped coming to the village. We had been visited by a small-kingsman, who was not the same man as before but was received as though he were. I do not know what specifically came of the visit, but I do know that we stopped working on weapons shortly after. For a while it seemed that the whole affair had been some sort of dream, an interesting diversion that the whole village would be talking about in their cups. Remember those three seasons where old Craemon and son made nought but cartloads of weapons for the small-king? Bloody tough time, had to repair your tools with yer own hands back then! Everyone would laugh about it, share in the joy of collective reminiscence, then go back to their lives. Within ten years it’d be forgotten, and in twenty, exaggerated to the point that it might as well be a completely different story. The desperate king had beseeched Master Craemon to create him a weapon capable of slaying the Howl. He accepted, and three hard years were spent dragging crop and cutting tree with nout but our hands, as Craemon finished his work. He forged a blade so powerful, so unspeakably mighty, that it had hummed with the newfound fifth echo of Sträm.

The reality was far more mundane. The fact was, the country had no more need of blades; they just needed hands to hold them. That was what they came for next.


The land had just shaken off a most brutal winter, and Sael was about to throw Staehndag, the ‘Standing Day’ in old tongue, a celebration for the arrival of spring. The start was a rehearsed dance, where all the participants would wear dull grey colours, hunch over their shoulders and spiral aimlessly across the village square. The dance would continue until the arrival of the Sun; a dancer wearing bright colours, who would twirl into the middle of the square and, in archaic prose, announce that the winter was over. They would then dance through the square, gently touching the other dancers as they went, causing them to ‘transform’ into flowers. The trick was that the snow dancers wore two layers, an inner layer of bright and pleasing colours, covered by a drab grey outer layer, which was removed in the ‘transformation’. Traditionally the role of the Sun was played by the last snow dancer to be caught, but this tradition was quietly changed for reasons I will get onto.

In the new rules, the Sun dancer was the first snow to be ‘caught’. This avoided an uncomely pursuit, but did lead to an amusing affair where the snow dancers would clump around the Sun as soon as it stepped into the square, as though they were metals drawn to a lodestone. I confess that I was not exactly enthralled by the whole affair, but my friends enjoyed it, and so I enjoyed it with them. The most consistent amusement came from snow dancers which weren’t from Sael, who came from other villages which still observed the old tradition. When the Sun strode onto the square, you’d see them rush off in the opposite direction as fast as they could. I used to call them ‘shooting stars’, and much laughter was had at their expense.

The most entertaining dance, however, was when Saegfrid became the Sun. It was three years ago when she was pressed into being snow by her father, the village tanner, and had perfectly performed the act of wandering around aimlessly. When it came to the Sun’s arrival however, she disregarded all pretense of dance. The idea was to avoid being touched by the Sun, and she was fully committed to that notion. This turned what was normally a ceremony lasting a couple of minutes, into a ten minute ordeal, within which the pursuing dancer also broke character in favour of speed. Eventually he came crashing down in a heap after catching his leg on a raised flagstone. The dance ended there, with the Sun clutching a knee and wailing for his mother. Despite all of this, Saegfrid was made the Sun in the following year, heralding a ‘dance’ of such brevity and intensity that the rules were changed shortly after.

Once the twirling was finished, the remaining festivities would begin, mostly consisting of other smaller games and food. Wild boar seasoned with salt when available, winter herbs, then cooked over an open flame until succulent and spitting. Broth served straight from bubbling cast iron pots, many of which my father and I had forged. It was a taboo to ever ask what was in them, and to quote my mother, you “eat it like you only knew soft tack” – which is to say, you ate it and made exaggerated sounds of enjoyment. Food you didn’t have to hunt or hand over coin for always tasted great anyway. There was also something of a competition between the broth-makers, with recognition for the one who emptied their pot the quickest. Recipes were hoarded as though they were court secrets, and many of the best ones left the world with the folk that created them. There was something enthralling about that notion to me; that the goodness of it, didn’t mean it needed to be around forever, maybe even the opposite. If the recipe was spectacular, we’d keep making it, and then it’d become just another meal. When you had a cup of broth to your lips from the Standing, you knew it might be the last time it passed them. For some of the more ‘exotic’ recipes, however, this was strictly a positive thing.

After sunset, the festival was closed by the krschind, the splitting of a log from the first tree felled in the season. A split in one blow meant that the summer would be long and bountiful, and another boar should be placed on the spit. Two blows, a mediocre summer and a bitter winter: the village drum was to be played continuously until the sun rose. According to the eldest folk, the last time the krschind took three blows was the year that Ropelung nearly destroyed the village. They said that during those days, Death no longer hid in the shaded places; it walked freely among the folk, wearing the faces of their friends and lovers. It came for both of my father’s grandparents, and slew many others. So, the swinger of the axe, the krschindtraegr, was the best arm the village had to offer. For the past two years, this role was played by Aldin, who had performed it in a single blow both times. He was only fifteen for the first, but he had also been chopping logs since he could string a sentence, so his strength was not in question.

Everyone had gathered around the square, with Aldin stood in the middle. A ‘practice log’ was brought out to give him a chance to warm up, which he split adroitly. Then came the real thing, and the folk stood in silence. He whirled the splitting axe over his head in a circular motion, then brought it down with a mighty swing. Aldin’s form was perfect, but his tool was not. The head struck the log, broke from the body, and came clattering down on the flagstones with a sound that pierced the whole village. I cannot forget his face – a face that I still see in my most tenacious of nightmares. His mouth agape, eyes wide, it was as though he had buried the axe in his own mother. He staggered two full steps back and dropped the remains of the handle. Silence filled the square for several, painful breaths, until one of the folk had the wherewithal to yell “Get the boy another axe!“. A replacement was fetched, and the krschint began again.

He brought it back, and swung it down. His grip was too far back this time, and his form was sloppy. The head bit into log on the far side and the handle had struck it simultaneously, dissipating most of the force. I grit my teeth so hard they could have cracked, and muttered a prayer under my breath. Just let it split, Sträm, please. I saw Renee bring her hands to her mouth in shock; even Illia, normally a picture of calm, looked a mote distressed. Aldin put his foot against the wood and violently pulled the axe free. The last hit finally broke it in two, and there was a dull cheer from the crowd. A voice cried out, possibly the same man as before “Two hits! Fetch the drum and light a fire!” Folk began to move around with purpose, the embers beneath the bones of the boar were brought back to life to warm the drummer for a long evening. Aldin stood motionless in the middle of the square, axe still in hand as we ran up to him. His eyes were filled with tears, huge shoulders leaping with each tortured sob that erupted from him. I reflexively put a hand on his back and wore a face of compassion.

“Why do they keep saying it was two hits?” Aldin managed to choke out between heavy breaths. I searched my mind for a plausible explanation beyond folk being so desperate to ignore a bitter truth, that they clung to a blatant lie. “Oh, the first one didn’t count. The axe has to bite for it to count.” I turned my head to Illia and silently begged her to continue. “He’s right. S’not a hit unless it put a good cut in the wood, that’s what ma told me anyways.” Aldin shook his head slowly, as the village drum began to sound from behind us. “It was three hits, it was three“.


It was Aldin’s father who ended up inspecting the remains of the first axe the following morning. He had discovered woodworm right at its shoulder, where the head met the handle. It was only a matter of time before it had broken, and in some ways, Aldin was fortunate that it happened the way it did. If it had been left any longer, it might have come off on a backswing and brained dead some poor passerby. It could have also flown off, struck a flint that was resting in a thatch, and set the whole place to flames. That’s what Illia told him anyway, and the light curl of a smile tugged at his face as she did.

Three sennachs, one and twenty days since the krschint, and folk had just about stopped talking about it. Perhaps the splitting of a log might not dictate the survival of a village. Of course, if you asked anyone, it’d been performed in two hits, so it was nothing to get your hackles raised over. The village drum had been struck too, till the sun rose, as was good and proper! Strife, what idiocy. I was not particularly given to the superstitions of Sael and of the folk around, but I normally knew better than to mock them openly. I will, however, confess that I was a touch priggish during those days, satisfied that another sennach had passed without the sun turning black, or the livestock dropping dead. Even knowing what I know now, I’m not inclined to believe that Aldin’s broken axe brought our doom. It didn’t set a souther’s royal mind on the subject of land ownership. It didn’t write the declaration, marked by all hands of the Council, which set the gears of the nation turning to war. It wasn’t the rider, that carried the commandment to our small-king; a commandment that demanded a levy of two thousand honest folk by month’s end.


We had seen most of spring when the three small-kingsmen came. The sun was shining, but there was a fierce wind that kicked up clothes and dust. It was midday, the village square was busy with folk going about their business, children playing in the pathways as the wind buffeted them. I had stepped outside the forge for a breath of fresh air, and to stretch my legs after a morning spent stooped over a troublesome horseshoe. I had to finish it by the end of the day, so I was preparing to head back in when I heard the commotion. The three men rode in on horseback, bearing the four pointed star on a black piece of cloth, and headed into the middle of the village. They were all remarkably well kept, lacking the wear and tear that folk from here often presented. The middle rider was a man who stood a couple of fingers taller than me, with a thick brown beard and a deep brow. He reached into his saddlepack, produced a piece of parchment, and spoke with an accent utterly unfamiliar to my ears. The words tumbled out of his mouth ponderously, as though each one of the nasal sounds he made needed to be prepared beforehand.

“Stand to hear me, good people of-” he paused for just a moment too long, and then continued “-Sael. I stand before you all bearing an IMPERATIVE from your patron, Lord Elgelae, fifth to bear his name and Warden of the Eigth Staking.” I wasn’t so ignorant as to not know the ‘Eigth Staking’ referred to the tract of land where Sael sat, but I had never heard of this “Lord Ell-guh-lay”. All of this might come easy to you if you’re some bucklebooted city dweller with a town crier yelling it in your ear each morn, but to me, this was no different from a crowdshow. I half expected him to whip out a needled-man, and ask the children if they could help find his button eyes before supper. “Your Lord requires, in consideration of his many years of humble service to yourselves, each man or woman of working years, in possession of good mind and body to hear this summons, and prepare to be called upon-“, he paused again, “-three days hence, upon the ground where we currently stand”.

His eyes flicked back and forth through the crowd, as though he was taking their temperature for his next words. “Lord Elgelae appreciates and sympathises with the upset that such an undertaking will cause, and has committed to paying any man or woman levied at a rate of not more than two slivers per day. Your Lord would also note, that such compensation is not required by Council Law, and as such, is borne of his own generosity and solicitude with you all”. So much breath used to provide so little meaning – if I was suffering this much, Illia must have been chewing on that stone she carried. I hadn’t managed to see her in the crowd, but given the number of folk stood around listening to this drivel, she, Renee and Aldin were going to be here somewhere. I pushed through the encircling crowd as people began to yell questions at the crier man. “Three days?“, “It’s coming up to plantin season!”, “Two slivers per day can’t even feed me dogs!”

I managed to find Renee towards the back of the crowd. She looked a touch pale, and I was about to ask what the tartalker was going on about before another of the three horsemen spoke up. His voice was much harsher, and rattled like something had come loose in it – which I could believe on account of his bald head looking like he apprenticed as a punching bag for a pugilist. “Awright settle it now! The folks north of you don’t even ‘ave three days, due to us needing to travel up there to tell em, so stop your bellyachin!” He stepped off his horse to the sound of clinking metal and raised his voice. “Now, we’ve got to make an account of the village before last light, so start lining up there! Come on!” he pointed in front of him with a leather gloved finger. Folk looked among themselves, and slowly began to line up. The third man, who had yet to say a jot, dismounted his horse and pulled a piece of parchment and nub of charcoal from a satchel. His face was severe, and he looked like a man who’d seen many winter seasons.

The first person in the line stepped forwards, a woman who I recognised from the mill from when I occasionally visited Aldin. “Age?” the bald man grunted. “Four and thirty, but I-“.

He cut in. “Profession?”

“I’m a sawyer up at the sa-“

“Be here in three days”, he nodded to the parchment scribe and waved her off. She paused for a moment as though she was going to say something, but clearly thought better of it. The next person moved forwards. The bearded man started asking people to come forwards too, and the line began to shorten rapidly. Renee was stood in front of me but had not said a word since we started queuing. I tapped her on the shoulder and chuckled as she audibly startled. “Still experimenting with rippleweed, or are you just…” I trailed off as I saw the look in her eyes. “Did you listen to a single thing that they said, or did it not make it through the forge ash clogging your lobes?” Despite the joke, her tone was sharp and urgent. “This is serious Raemir. A small-kingsman coming here is bad enough, but three? With one that’s taking a tally?” she gestured subtly past the queue, to the dour man with the parchment. I leant out of line to look, then jerked back in when he looked up at me. “Alright, I see that…” I paused for a moment. “When the bald man was talking, he said the word “lev-ayed”. What’s it mean?”

“Lev-eed” a man walking down the line corrected me as he stopped. It was Illia’s father, his normally jovial half-smile and soft features were replaced with melancholy and a furrowed brow. “It means to be made a soldier” he said as he stared off down the rest of the line. “What? You saying they’re sending us off to stick some folk?” the initial amusement at the lordly speech was now gone from me, replaced with the sudden pang of fear. His eyes met mine and paused, reading my face with the attention of a sawbones. “Nah, nothin’ like that. They prolly just need something built for soldiers, and swift-like, so they’re dragging us out for it”. It was a plausible lie, and well delivered. After all, they’d only been marking down those who were handsfolk so far, leaving out the people who spent most of their time thinking. “I got to find Illia, see you later” he quickly said as he continued down the queue. I sighed a breath of relief; making something was fine, I’d done that all my life. Whatever they needed making, I’m sure the folk here could have it sorted and be home in time for supper. Despite his reassurance, Renee was still coiled like a spring. She was smarter than I.

We were a few paces from the start of the line when an argument broke out between a woman and the bald man – a woman I recognised as one of the more accomplished broth-makers from the Staehndag. A real fire-soul, she was pointing and yelling. “Curse yer eyes! Have you gone yampy! Look at him!” She gestured to a small boy stood at front of the queue. “He’s barely a hair over fifteen, and you want him to do muckers work?” The words washed over the man, as his eyes darted between her and the now sobbing child. In one swift motion, he went to his sheath and drew his sword. The nattering in the crowd went silent, and the other small-kingsman paused. He held the sword aloft for a moment, then flipped it around such that he held the edge, and offered it to the boy. “Take eet“, he hissed. The boy grasped the hilt in his hand, and the bald man released it. Everyone watched as this boy of no more than fifteen years stood, with tears in his eyes, and a sword in his shaking hand. The bald man turned to the woman with venom. “Looks plenty old enough for me”. He snatched the sword back and curtly waved them both off, as the other small-kingsman returned to questioning. Soon enough it was my turn to be questioned, and I was fortunate enough to get the tarspeaker.

“Age?”

“Seventeen, sir.”

“Profession?”

“I’m a blacksmith, sir.”

I added ‘sir’ and answered quick as I could, just as my mother told me to when speaking with small-kingsmen. Made them feel important, even when they weren’t really sirs. Despite my observation of etiquette, my answer didn’t seem to sit well with him. He was eyeing me up and down while frowning, but had yet to say anything.

“..Sir?”

He seemed to wake back up. “Just thinking you look a bit tender for a blacksmith, though you’ve certainly got the arms for it” He paused again, and looked like he was waiting for a response.

“Y-you could ask my father if you d-” he cut me off.

“He a smith too?”

“Yes sir, you could also ask my mo-“

“Same forge?”

I nodded, and gave up on trying to speak without being interrupted. He crossed his arms and smacked his lips, like he was finally satisfied with the answer. “Aye, fraid that makes you his apprentice” He stressed the word ‘apprentice’, bearing his rows of grotty teeth as he said it. “Got orders to take them too. Be here in three days lad”. I stepped to the side and waited for Renee to be done. The bald man had not believed that she was the daughter of the village doctor, and only accepted it after several folk yelled at him to that effect. She walked over to me, looking down at her feet as she did. “Turns out they don’t want doctors, or their daughters for that matter”. She kicked at a stone on the square. “They do want blacksmiths though” I said as I watched the pebble roll, “or at least their sons”. A flash of sadness drew across her face and crept onto mine. “Let’s…let’s wait for the others, see if they fared better” I muttered, as her sorrowful eyes met mine.


The line was cleared after an hour, and most folk had lingered on around the village square, waiting for something to happen. Renee, Aldin, Illia and I were stood to one corner. Our mood was black, and I had that fear you get when you knew you’d done something wrong, when you knew that your father would find out about it. The small-kingsmen were stood in the middle with their horses, and the dour man was looking over his sheet of parchment. From here I could see that it was scored with black charcoal marks, from top to bottom. “Thirty-one and one hundreds, give or take ten” he said, loud enough for folk to hear but not obviously directed at them. “Not much, but we should get two more on the way north” the bald man snorted as he scanned the square. “Look at these folk; I’ll be stinking of this village for the rest of the sennach. Sträm’s blessing that they don’t need to be clean to hold a…” he trailed off as he noticed the people listening. I hated the way he said “folk”. When the people here said it, it was a word for community, for common being and strife. Recognition that you were bonded with people by more than just your mere proximity to them. When they said it though, it was like they were uttering a curse, or spitting out a piece of gristle.

He raised his voice to the assembled crowd as he began to pace in a circle. “THIRTY-ONE AND ONE HUNDRED. ONE, THREE, ONE” he gestured with his fingers as he said it. “That’s how many we’ll be taking in three days. If you were called on, and you ain’t here, we’ll take someone else in your stead”. He walked back to the other small-kingsmen. They mounted back up onto their horses, stashed the parchment away in a saddlebag, and abruptly trotted out of the square. People were left dotted around like they were spare parts, like their will had been whisked out from them with the horses. I certainly wasn’t going back to the forge to finish that shoe; the whole thing now felt pitifully insignificant.

For the first seventeen years of my life, I can quite rightfully say that I didn’t really thought about what was coming ‘next’. Never needed to. Day flowed into day, sennach into sennach, month into month, season into season. But now I was consumed by thoughts of three days hence. Three days to prepare for whatever was coming next. Three days to say goodbye to Renee, to my mother, to my father. Three days to breathe the fair spring air and walk among the tall trees. Three days to listen to the talking of folk, living in their own little corner of the world. Three days to say goodbye to the village of Sael.

Three days to say goodbye to Raemir, the blacksmith’s boy, and bid greetings to something else.

Categories
story worldbuilding

chapter one

Souls and Dancing Lights

TO UNDERSTAND HOW I came to be in such a terrible place, I have to explain the places that came before; or more accurately, place. I, like many folk, grew up in the shadow of my parent’s respective calling. Our home was the only smithery in the village, and my parents were its only smiths. My father did most of the forging and metalworking, and my mother did most of the finishing – an arrangement that suited their hands, and gave me a good understanding of the whole craft. I lived and quite literally breathed their work, with what space in our house that was dedicated to the normal functions of home constantly stinking of charcoal, salt and bone. I’m sure that many a listener would chastise me for thinking I had it hard; true enough there was always food on the table, there was always coin for clothes and trinkets, and there was a roof over my head for first seventeen years of my life. Perhaps a grander story would have had me living hand to mouth in the awnings of manors in the Pelenine Hills, stealing loaves of bread and slices of pie from open windows, stealing the hearts of courtiers and making my way up the social ladder.

But that would not be my story. I was a blacksmith’s boy, born as Raemir, son of Riva and Craemon, on course to be a smith until the day I could no longer swing a hammer, whereupon I would pass it onto my children, and the children after them. As I am now, it feels like oblivion, for lack of a better word, to inherit a calling and life from your parents, and to simply bear that life until you pass it onto the next. At the time however, it simply felt like that was the way things were. You cannot understand that you are trapped in a prison if those walls and bars are all that you know of the world, and all I knew of the world was the village of Sael.


The name of the village was hotly disputed in many a tavern-held ‘discussion’. The prevailing theory was that it got its name from a friendly giant man called Saelmann, who would lift fallen trees off the road for passing caravans. The second most popular, was that it came from an explorer called Masarael the Rambler, who discovered the region and mapped it all out. The size of Saelman, the fairness of Masarael, both vary between retellings and quantity of drink. In some, more sober discussions, Masarael was given a tidy sum by a local small-king to find a source of wood grand enough for a carving. However, when the ale was flowing, she would became the most beautiful soul in the forest, who sung to the trees to grow them tall and hard with nothing but her clarion voice. The main detail that varied with Saelmann, was just his size. I recall a time in the Shaded Grove, the closest tavern to our home, and one that my father attended regularly.

“Listen Craemon, ‘e had to be that tall, because otherwise he couldn’t have thrown the cart!” My father and I were sat at a small table with a man who I had not spoken to before, but one he seemed familiar with. His voice was thin and rasping, as though his throat was a quarter of the size it actually was, and he had a tongue thick with drink. “Thrown the cart..?” In contrast, my father’s voice was deep and leathery; I came to the notion that one’s voice thins out with use, and he used his sparingly. “Aye, thrown. So the story goes.” The rasping man took in a deep breath, signalling the start of the performance. “Some slick, bucklebooted coinspinner tried to buy ole Saelmann’s arm. He came to him on the darkest day in Winter, with a whole chest of jewels and trinkets. Wanted Saelmann to smash any other trader following the road, such that only the his goods would pass”. He took a long gulp of his flagon, and slammed it back down on the table to add dramatic flair to his story. “But ole Saelmann was cunning and sound, he knew right from wrong! He took the coinspinner’s offer, but gave more in return. ‘For our new friendship, I can provide you a way to get to the nearest village faster than a sprinting buck, would you like to have it?’ asked ole Saelmann.”

It was obvious to me what was coming, but the rest of the tavern-dwellers had quieted in anticipation, like it was a well known song, coming to a head. The rasping man narrowed his eyes and straightened his back. “‘Cos ole Saelmann was a keen judge, he knew the spinner’s character was thin as the coin he craved; a faster pace meant more time to peddle, an offer he could not resist. The snake asked ole Saelmann to show him the way immediately. He came down with his arm, big as two score logs bound together, and scooped up the peddler with his cart. As though he were throwin’ a pebble, ole Saelmann hefted it all into the sky, and watched as it arced down a full four thousand paces yonder, just as he said, in the nearest village”. A small cheer erupted from the tavern, accompanied by the stamping of feet. The rasping man sat back in his chair, and folded his arms in satisfaction. “Course, ole Saelmann went over to that village, chest between his fingers, and shared the riches with them for the trouble of crashin’ a cart into their square. From there, word spread to them coinspinners – not all things in this world can be bought, and fate might kill them for tryin'”. He bookended the story with another large gulp of his flagon, to a background of laughing and jeering.

“So then where’s Saelmann now?” I blurted, shattering the post-story euphoria. The flagon came down to the table, more softly than before. I fully expected him to yell “Do you think you are smart? Do you think you have found a hole in my story, you stupid boy!“. But his features softened, and he chuckled a woeful, crackling laugh. “That’s a story for another time, little one, I fear your ‘pa doesn’t ‘ave the stomach for more”. While the story’s veracity was in question, that observation was not. My father was not an expressive man, but in this moment, he was looking at me in the corner of his eye much in the same way that one regarded a clawfly – disgust. The night wrapped up there; we said our goodbyes and made our back way home. It was six minutes into the walk, after we had cleared the main street of the village, when my dad dragged me off the path and beat me. It was not the first time, nor even the last, but one I will never forget.


I will need to explain something of magic. The first time I saw it, not the crowdshow sleight of hand that I witnessed countless times at market, but Sträm’s honest truth magic, was when I was ten years of age. It was not described as such at the time, for even the most crazed or brazen of folk would not do so publicly, but in retrospect it could not have been anything else. There was a woman who would come to our village once a season, always in the first three days of the first month. A group of us would wait by the main road at near to dusk, each of the three days, until she arrived to our jubilation. She dressed as plainly as one could, with the only identifying item being a silver buckled leather satchel that she had slung over one shoulder. Otherwise, you could mistake her for any of the folk by her clothing. Her hair was a stark auburn colour, which she tied into a ponytail at the back. It swung with the regularity of a pendulum, and many children would use it to keep time for a sort of procession.

We would all walk down to the nearest clearing, performing this strange ceremonial dance, following our beloved lady until she had cause to stop. When she did, she would always turn to us and ask the same question. “Does anyone have anything to share today?” We would immediately respond by pressing forwards, holding aloft various trinkets and pieces, waiting for her to select one. When she did, she would ask us to explain how we had come by it, sparing absolutely no detail or effort. One time, I was lucky enough to be chosen. It was a small figurine, no more than a finger in height, smithed of metal fragments I found from around our forge. It was undeniably amateur – the combination of materials and lack of time had led to an uneven melt, which had in turn, warped the figurine as it cooled. Nonetheless, she asked me to recount the process by which I made it.

I described how I crawled the floor for hours, looking for flakes of metal that were left behind, how I put them into a crucible and heated them until they formed what looked like a liquid. How I then took that heavy crucible and decanted it into a stone mold of the figure that I had chiseled out before, and so on. I declined to mention the burn I received on a finger through a hole in the gloves, but I cradled it unconsciously. “It’s meant to be Aldin” I mumbled, and gestured in his direction. She turned the figurine end over end, before looking at me with earnest brown eyes and asking: “It’s wonderful Raemir, are you sure you want me to have it?” I nodded at her, and stood a pace back for what came next. She cupped the figurine in her hands, brought it close, and then held them open in front of her. In place of the figurine, now stood a thrushling, made of pure orange light. It hopped from finger to finger, before taking to the air over our heads, circling and tumbling, until it ended as a dull ember that fell into the grass. The whole moment lasted a mote longer than the time between two breaths.

We erupted into cries of appreciation. Even I, who had toiled for hours on something that had been destroyed so immediately, found myself cheering like a dullard watching cups and balls. Perhaps the spectacle itself was not what drew such joy, but just that it could happen at all. That even in sod’s end Sael, whose most renowned quality was a risible origin tale, we would be bestowed with such a display of Passion. At the very least, it was enough to make you forget about the days work ahead. Enough to make you forget the welts and bruises. It continued until I was fourteen, a year where we waited, clutching at our homemade toys and trinkets for three dusks and one more, waiting for our lady. She never came, and that was the end of that.


I fully believe that, had fate not deemed otherwise, I could have told my life story with fourteen words on a gravestone. “Here lies Raemir, born in Sael, died in Sael, with some smithing work between”. There were however, two things that conspired to adjust the course of my life in altogether more interesting and terrible ways. Firstly, I was blessed with a trio of friends; we were of similar age and standing, each born with a unique disposition that meshed to form bonds strong as any iron. I knew them from when I learned to walk, and our friendship only grew from there. First was Aldin, whose gentleness of manner was contrasted by his sharp features and strength of arm. He worked with his father in the lumbermill – the wood of the forest around us was too tough to be cut by folk lacking brawn, and so it induced it. He stood a full two heads taller than the rest of us, and was lean with corded muscle. He was our knight. On several occasions where I should have had my teeth kicked in for my trouble, Aldin was there. This having been said, he would keep his hair razor-cut short, so we said that the mill used his head to sand down rough edges, in lieu of any other use for it. He took it in good spirits, as he took everything.

Then there was Illia. She was a farmhand, and would not be whole without straw in her dark hair, or a stone in her hand. She spent most of her days driving carts to market, or cattle to new grazing lands. For Illia, time was the most valuable commodity she had, and her mind was like a knife that cut out anything that wasted it. When selling their produce, if she told you that it was ten slivers for a bag of oats, it was ten slivers for a bag of oats; a lesson that customers learned swiftly. She hoarded her time because she needed it to dream. Numbered too few were the Summer evenings where we would sit on a fence and listen to Illia speak of things that weren’t real. Not the tavern-fodder from earlier, stories that were wrung out like a wet cloth by the time it reached your ear. She spoke of worlds utterly unlike our own.

Last of the three was Renee, who was bonded to me by virtue of our first letter. I told her that the silver tongue she possessed was our smith’s first creation, a joke that she pretended to be insulted by, but privately revelled in. She was the daughter of our village’s physician, who was a woman of such habit and consistency that people would tell the time by the opening of her clinic. I think Renee did everything in her power to be different; she refused to inherit the manner of her mother, even if she did get her intellect. On walks, she would excitedly gesture at plants, enumerating their medicinal uses or poisonous capabilities. When one of us fell ill, or suffered a scrape, she would concoct some poultice or mixture to solve it. When I would run from my home with bruises, it was her gentle care that tended to them.

What of me? What did I bring to this group of people, of matching value to their contributions? They knew me for my hands, trained as they were, and they helped where they could. I fixed Aldin’s saw when its teeth were blunted and bent, I forged new fastenings for Illia’s cart when the previous ones were rusted and loose. I smithed doctor’s tools of silver for Renee, as she said they faired better with people. I did not understand why, but I was simply happy to help her. While I did these things, I never felt used for my hands – it simply felt like something I could do, and I did it for free. This fact would get me into considerable trouble with my father, who punished me whenever he discovered that metal had gone missing from the forge. But the bruises mattered not, for I loved my friends as though we were of the same blood. There were no barriers between our hearts, no walls between our minds. If I could not share a thought with them, then it could not well live within my own head either.

My fondest memory of our time together was when I was fifteen, in the opening of autumn. We had been walking back from the river, surrounded by the oranges and yellows of fading nature, when Renee had become enraptured by something growing on the side of a tree branch about ten paces up. This, despite a fact that she repeated several times while running around the trunk, looking for handholds. “I’m telling you, Folded Redbur shouldn’t be growing anywhere outside of a damp cave, and not this far north either! It’s just not possible!” She stopped underneath it and stared directly upwards. Illia cut in. “So it isn’t. It’s something else and you’ve got it muddled. It doesn’t even look like a mushroom to me”. Renee spun round with wild eyes and blurted “it’s not any regular mushroom! It’s a special one, you can use it for dyeing or facepaint!” She began to pace around the roots again. “Fetches a pretty coin too, ‘cos it doesn’t leave you numbed like Bloodroot does”

“It could fetch a handful of bars, it wouldn’t make it any lower down,” I said, my arms folded. “maybe we can knock it down with something.” I searched around for a rock of suitable size and picked it up. “No!” she yelled, and quickly grabbed my wrist. “Raemir, son of Craemon and Riva, this is not a problem to be smashed flat like a kink in one of your metals.” She plucked the stone from my hand, and tossed it into a bush. “This is a problem to be solved with guile, now hoist me squirelings!” She immediately began to climb onto my shoulders, using Aldin’s head for balance. Despite our squirming and many complaints, she found purchase on the lowest branch and pulled herself up. We stood back as she analysed her next move. Illia pointed to a branch slightly higher up on her right, “you’ll want to jump to that one, there’s a path all the way to it from there”, and thumbed a stone over in her hand. Renee took an exaggerated actor’s bow, stood tall and leapt. She caught the branch at chest height, but immediately lost her grip and fell into a heap below.

Renee had dropped hardly any distance at all, but we sped over to her all the same. She was lying, face up, surrounded by leaves and detritus knocked loose by her acrobatics. The silence was broken by Illia: “I told you that you had to jump to it, not at it”, she said turning her stone. Renee remained still. “Yes, well I do remember a great deal about the jumping part! Sorry to say, but the grabbing part was shockingly under-detailed”. A moment passed and then we all burst into laughter, and we made our way back to the village with smiles on our faces. The next day, Aldin brought a ladder from the lumbermill, and clambered up to the ‘rare mushroom’. It turned out to be a red rag that had been caught by the wind, and we laughed even harder than before. We were utter fools, but fools are in good company.

Aldin and Illia would end on the same charred earth that I met my own, victims of their own strength of body and soul. Renee was fortunate enough to be spared the levy, spared the fire that the rest of us would suffer in, spared by the same knowledge that had eased our pains and miseries for years before. She was the second thing that would change the course of my life forever.


I was sixteen when I was first exposed to the way of the world outside Sael. It was a bitterly cold Middlewinter, with a wind so biting that it would take a finger if you let it. I was sat in the forge, forging a piece of iron that was to become a pulley handle for the village well: the old one had become thin and rusted, and ended up buckling in the cold. Despite these conditions outside, the forgehouse was always unpleasantly hot, and I worked bare chested with sweat and smoke sticking to my skin. There was a knock at the door. Not the rapid, cheerful knock of a friend visiting, but the slow, solemn knock of awful tidings. My father answered the door, and ushered in a man swaddled with furs and thick leathers. He stood a good head above my father, with short cut brown hair and a jaw like a shelf. At his hip was sheathed a large blade with a large engraved crossguard, topped with a decorated silver pommel, upon which his hand rested. I could have made a hundred of these iron handles and not gotten half the coin needed to pay for that sword, which meant that he had to be a small-king’s man.

My mother had warned me of such people. The folk around here might have a knife on their person, for a knife was useful. You could cut meat, whittle wood and defend yourself in a pinch if you were jumped by thieves at night. The common axe, held by the woodcutters, was a tool that our village was basically built upon. Their edges were sharp, yes, but they had to be to get through the hard bark of our trees. Even a spear, the weapon of choice for our village militia when needed, could be used for mundane purposes. On several occasions I can recall a wild boar running amok on the main road, requiring someone to corner and stick it. You would not use a sword to cut a tree, slice meat, or fell a boar. A sword was for killing folk.

After some quick conversation between them, I was ushered out with a glare from my father, and the door to the smithery was shut. I knew better than to eavesdrop; I had earned my fair share from doing so previously, so I went up the stairs to our home and sat there until the talking was done. I do not know what was discussed, and I don’t think my mother did either, but life was very different from that point on. We no longer spared metal or time on mundane work – five days hence we got a wagonload of steel ingots, enough to give everyone in the village a set of tools that would last them decades, but they never even saw a nail of it. Now we made weapons: spearheads, arrowheads, axeheads and swords. Each marked with a fire hardened stamp that had been given to us by the small-kingsman, one that left a four pointed star. I had seen it once or twice before on some of the oldest tools in the village, but I would learn this was the symbol of our country, a place that I had never really known.

For the next three seasons, we made nothing but weapons. The wagonloads of ingots would come in, and we would return them brimming with edged steel. Many times we had to turn away folk who came to us in dire need of replacement tools – once turning away a woodcutter who was willing to pay two strips for a new axe head. That’s twice what they’d normally pay, for which they could have gotten a fine pair of shoes from any city cobbler, or several nights in a warm feather bed. Swiftly the mood of the village turned against my family, culminating one night in the Shaded Grove when my father and I were ambushed. “For Sträm’s sound Craemon, have you lost your wits?” bellowed Morgen, who was Illia’s dad, a man of sun-kissed skin and firm features. I respected him greatly, much for the same reasons that he was currently challenging my father for: he was honestly spoken, same as Illia.

“We’re pulling briar out with gloves now, because my scythe got chipped and snapped two sennachts ago! Fourteen days without it now when it wouldn’t take you more than a day to sort, but you won’t do it for love nor coin!” My father did not even deign to look up from his cup. “Now you won’t even speak to me, let alone fix anything! Me. A man you’ve known for over four score seasons! I tried going up to the crossing and even the smith there didn’t give me the time of day” Morgen was flushed red with anger, but then took a long breath and settled. “Craemon, tell us what’s happening” Morgen begged, eyes now filled with concern. My father put down his cup, and shifted to look him in the eye. I thought he was a cruel man, but he had a heart, and in this instance he was wearing it on his sleeves. “Got a visit from a man who bore the mark of the small-king. Gave us an imperative, said we were to make royal orders and nothing else till the metal stopped coming. Pays me well for it too.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a shining golden coin, a sovereign. If Morgen toiled in his fields with his farmhands, living like a pious man on nothing but bread and water for four seasons, he still wouldn’t have seen one for his trouble.

The room had fallen silent. Someone unfamiliar with folk might have thought that my father was bragging, that he had meant to show off the immense wealth that he had come into, even among people living in increasingly dire circumstances. But from his face, and from the faces around the room, you could tell this was not so. That coin was a ball and chain, a brand that said you belonged to our small-king, and as long as you held it, you were in his shadow, and that of his men. It was serfdom condensed into physical form, delivered at distance. The last cruelty was that none of the folk here had the slivers, strips or bars to break a sovereign – so you couldn’t even buy anything with it. Not here. Not for ten thousand paces around.

Morgen rested a hand on my father’s shoulder, and the room remained quiet until it had emptied. A more worldwise person would have understood the consequences of these things. Royal imperatives compelling local folk to make weapons and tools of war makes for a clear portent now. But I was still a boy, and the village of Sael was all I knew.

Categories
story worldbuilding

prologue

THERE ARE FEW PLACES more grim, or more detestable than a battlefield in Summer. While the storytellers and musicians spin florid descriptions, telling eager audiences of how fates were made and glories won on their hallowed ground, the reality is filth, pain, and misery. This battlefield was no better, and in many respects, far worse. The once grassy, soft turf had been torn by footfall and catastrophe, no longer the home of many an insect and beast, it now played host to the bodies of some six thousand dead folk. Each of them dressed to their own design, wearing their own unique icons of faith or fealty, but brought into singular confederation by the manner of their end. Such is the irony of a battlefield, that two people who by fate or circumstance stood on opposing sides, would now find themselves connected and alike in the most important of ways. I had, however, found myself excluded from this arrangement, for the time being. My purview was to be dying, but not quite dead, body pierced and broken by shrapnel, flesh burned near to the bone, and suffering miseries so fierce that I could not even bring myself to announce them.

The central feature of this ground was a glassy, ashen circle – through which one could stride a hundred paces without reaching the other side. This region, in turn, found itself separated into three concentric rings. The outermost was where shrapnel and sheer force had ended most lives, mounds of corpses bent in unnatural configurations, and pockmarked with rubble and debris. The next ring was a smoking ruin; the heat had instantly torched most of the dry grass, and the folk who stood on it. Where there had previously been the greens and yellows of Summer, there was now the grey and black of ash and charcoal. It was between this ring and the last that I now lay, spared the immediate incineration that many of my compatriots experienced, but granted a slow and miserable end in its place. The innermost circle was a bowl of glass. Within this boundary, there was nothing that even approximated life, just shapes and materials whose being there was defined entirely by Geometry and Chemistry.

The folk that stood there were no longer represented by forms, but by their absence. Where they stood, there were now only shadows. They had been made into dust, and that dust had been scattered to the winds. In those moments, it was they who I envied the most: those whose lives had ended like an oil flask hitting the floor – a moment of great sound, and then silence. That was another feature of this battlefield, or lacking I suppose. Again, a detail missed by the bards, for whom a man being ended was a climax of a story, with the time after quietly offered as a chance for the audience to collect themselves. I knew this was not so. The deaths earned of a battle fought with iron and wood were loud, long and terrible. The sounds of a soldier who had been run through, formed of prayer or cries, growing quieter but never silent until the last breath. But this battlefield was silent, bar one man.


Perhaps my hearing had been taken from me, and I was instead in a chorus of dying folk. I could feel the blood dribbling from my ears, and was for a moment grateful that it was one fewer sense to have assaulted. If there were the sounds of death and dying, it seemed a small charity that I should be spared them. My right arm was capable of some degree of motion, but was excruciating to try, so I stopped. My left arm, which I thought I might be lying on, was completely numb beyond a burrowing pain at the shoulder. At best I had dislocated it, as I had done pulling a cart four years prior and at worst, it was no longer connected at all. The difference seemed purely academic, who cared whether a dying man’s arm was attached or not? The edges of my vision had begun to fade, but there was one sound that kept bringing me back to consciousness. It was the screaming of a man, a screaming of such intensity and sorrow that it had rowsed me from the brink of oblivion.

I would later be told the nature of that scream. It was the sound made by a man who had lost everything, everything he held so dear and close, but had drawn from it such fire, hatred and death, that the land would bear its mark for a thousand seasons hence.

Categories
review ttrpgs

Review: Pathfinder 2e (part two)

Now that we’ve got an understanding of why Pathfinder exists, it’s time for me to get into the system and talk about what I think works, and what I think doesn’t work. Let’s be positive and start with strengths.

Ten Up Ten Down

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the action economy didn’t you? It’s coming, but one of my favourite features of the system is how criticals work. Let’s start with an example of play.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator, a level 17 Fighter wielding a sword and shield is locked in deadly combat with three kobolds. It's Ko'Rosh's turn, and they elect to strike at the nearest kobold. They roll a natural 20, a critical hit. This automatically hits, and doubles the damage of Ko'Rosh's blow, sending the kobold into the afterlife with a brutal slash. They use their second action to perform another strike, and they roll a 18 on the d20. When combined with their formidable attack bonuses, the value exceeds the kobold's AC by 10 or more, which upgrades the strike to a critical hit; another kobold sent straight to kobold hell. For their last action, Ko'Rosh raises their shield, adding +2 to their AC.

The remaining kobold decides to thrust their spear at Ko'Rosh with all their strength, and also rolls a natural 20. However, Ko'Rosh is adorned with the mightiest plate armour in all of Heimeletar, wielding the biggest shield in all the land. This puts Ko'Rosh's AC at over 10 above the kobold's attack, even with the natural 20. While the kobold does get the hit, it is downgraded to a regular success as a result, doing meagre damage.

I’ve used the simplest example here of strikes in combat, but this system of +10 or -10 upgrading and downgrading dice results is an excellent addition for a few reasons.

  • Rules that interact with criticals are no longer mostly wasted space, as we can expect them to occur much more frequently than the normal 5% on a d20. (PF2e makes extensive use of this, more on that later)
  • Players now have a degree of control over criticals – using AC modifying effects, they can cause them to happen more or less frequently.
  • Results like 19 on the dice are no longer an “aw that was almost a natural 20, but now it’s just another result”. Extremely high rolls of the dice are rewarded (and the inverse is also true).
  • Large level differences are exemplified – if you’re a living god, then no matter how hard they try, a kobold cannot crit you (but can hit you, a rule normally played out by ‘confirming criticals’ in older systems).

This is a very low weight mechanic (in terms of explanation and literal text), that punches far above its weight in terms of impact and excellence. I enjoy it so much that I would even be tempted to homebrew it into systems that don’t have it, provided that their critical rules aren’t completely outrageous. Point 2 in the list above is something that I think is very important to stress. I have an ongoing memory from a game of Shadowrun Fifth Edition, wherein a player managed to sneak behind a security guard that was manning some camera screens. They drew their pistol, without being noticed, and shot them in the back of the head. However, because they didn’t roll critical damage, they only did about half the guard’s health; oof. However, in the Pathfinder 2e world, we’re increasing the chance of critical damage as well – so enemies that are flat footed (from being unaware, for instance) are also more likely to eat a fat crit. Neat!

Another element of this, which is a positive or negative depending on your viewpoint, is that Pathfinder 2e can also feel much more lethal than D&D 5e. Damage numbers have remained mostly comparable, with d6s/d8s plus bonuses remaining common, but the amount of crits flying around has increased considerably. This can make encounter design a bit more challenging, as an enemy that was intended to be a minor speedbump might turn into a critting machine. Of course, the inverse is true, with players occasionally mowing their way through enemies that you may have expected to last longer. I tend to be more of a “watch the world burn” sort of DM, so the fact that combat can occasionally be incredibly swift and brutal is perfectly fine with me. A common complaint of these systems is that encounters can feel gruelling and slow – for levels 1-5 at the very least, I can say I have not found this to be the case for Pathfinder 2e.

Action Economy

Alright, let’s talk about it. This is the most commonly lauded part of Pathfinder 2e, if you’re looking for a reason to try PF2e, this is probably it. There is a scourge that afflicts RPG systems, a scourge by the name of action types. If we look at Pathfinder 1st Edition, we have six kinds of action…

  • Standard
  • Move
  • Full-round
  • Swift
  • Immediate
  • Free

I tend to believe that if you have keywords that are so close that they’re nearly synonyms, you shouldn’t use them. Could you tell me the difference between an Immediate action and a Swift action, without knowing anything about PF1e? The PFSRD page for the action economy in first edition is an absolute atrocity. So what about D&D 5e?

  • Actions
  • Reactions
  • Bonus Actions
  • Free Actions
  • Movement

While these will be more familiar to most than the Pathfinder 1e terminology, we still have some ambiguity with what exactly a bonus action entails. I’m sure this won’t be a problem for someone who’s a career D&D 5e player, who doesn’t play anything else, but for someone who swaps systems frequently, this can become incredibly tedious; especially when those systems will often use the same terms for different mechanics, or the same mechanic with different terms. So what do we have in Pathfinder 2e?

  • Actions (Costing 1-3 Actions)
  • Free Actions
  • Reactions

Full disclosure, the rulebook specifies a fourth type called “Activity”, which is the term they use for things that cost more than one action to do; but I find that categorisation actually makes the rules more confusing. The reality: you have three actions, and one reaction by default. The vast majority of things are in the 1-2 action cost range. Let’s have an example of play.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator is locked in combat with four town guard, having successfully stolen three kegs of ale from a local tavern. Ko'Rosh moves to the nearest guard, clocks them in the face with a mighty punch, and then raises their shield expecting retaliation.

One of the guards moves in with cudgel in hand and attempts to sock Ko'Rosh in the head. They roll high enough to hit Ko'Rosh, but they block with their shield in response - mitigating the damage.

Moving was an action, striking the guard was an action, and raising their shield was an action for Ko’Rosh. Blocking the hit from the guard with their shield cost a reaction. So not only do we have a system that enables a character like a Fighter to indulge in activities that aren’t just moving forwards and swinging a sword, due to the flexibility of having three actions, but we have clear costs for performing those things. If Ko’Rosh had decided to draw their sword, that would have cost an action, which is fine because we have three to play around with. In D&D 5e, having an action cost for drawing a weapon would be extremely punishing, so you have a bizarre situation where doing so is free in the rules (for the first thing drawn). This means that D&D 5e has a bizarre edge case rule for this, (see stackexchange) which Pathfinder 2e does not need.

This follows onto a lot of other activities beyond just drawing a sword. As PF2e is able to divide your turn into thirds, we can have a much smaller delineation of actions, rather than having actions just be “a part of your move”, which is a very mechanically unsatisfying answer.

Image result for legolas running up falling rocks gif

Movement

I’m having this be a subcomponent of the action economy, but the decision to have movement cost an action is one of the best decisions they made with the system. To ask a philosophical question, what is the purpose of space and movement within an RPG system? There’s lots of simulation-y answers here, but in gameplay terms, we have them because they create interesting choices and situations. By having distance, and by requiring effort to cover distance, we enable characters and classes that aren’t fantastic up-close, but excel at longer range, to exist. Pathfinder 2e has an established cost for moving up to your movement speed – one action. That action is fungible, which is to say, it could have been drawing a sword, making an attack, recalling knowledge on an enemy, opening a door, etc. By doing this, movement and positioning becomes important – being stood in the right place means getting an extra attack next turn, it means being able to draw the two handed battleaxe on your back for the final blow.

If we have the movement cost be non-fungible, ala D&D 5e, we no longer need to make that choice. While there might be circumstances like terrain that change that, my character being here, and my character being 25ft away are identical situations in a world where I can move 25ft for free (broadly speaking). Naturally this consistutes a problem, because a game in which everyone can move for free every round, means that characters which want to fight at longer range can essentially guarantee that. This is where attacks of opportunity come in, to try and dissuade you from taking that free move, because it now has the cost of potentially eating a chunk of damage. So we’ve gone from movement being free, to movement having a variable cost mostly based on a dice roll – a cost that few are willing to pay, so they don’t. The irony of this situation being that a game where movement is free, frequently involves people standing still because they don’t want to trigger attacks of opportunity.

Pathfinder 2e has thrown that out. Attacks of opportunity are very rare among monsters and NPCs, and are the property of a specific set of classes. If you are a Wizard, you are not going to be stabbing someone with a dagger as they move away from you. The cost of movement is (usually) well defined, and the decision to move is one that is (usually) well informed. Example of play time.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator and his travelling companion, Maralanor of the Big Owl, have attempted to capture a renowned bandit with a hefty price on their head. After several rounds of brutal combat in a warehouse, a broken oil lantern has led to the area that Maralanor is stood on being ablaze, and their quarry making a hasty run for the door. With two actions remaining having drawn their spellbook, Maralanor has a choice: do they move out of the fire and avoid possibly fatal burns, or do they remain in it and attempt to cast Paralyze on their fleeing foe?

In a system where movement is free, the question of “do you move out of the fire” is a pretty simple one, outside of some extremely edge-case scenarios. However, in a world where movement means and costs something, we can create scenarios where that question is much harder to answer. In this instance above, there’s a good argument for Maralanor staying in the fire and casting the spell in a PF2e world. In a D&D5e world, there’s absolutely no reason (in the setup above) that Maralanor wouldn’t use their move action to extricate themselves from the fire, then cast Hold Person with their action. I want to believe that combat RPGs are more than just swinging a sword at a goblin – they’re about making decisions in high intensity scenarios. While there’s a limit on the number of choices that people can reasonably pick from, I think movement is something that people should need to consider carefully before doing it. This is something that Pathfinder 2e has managed to do, and I think it’s a much better system for it.

Shields

I am a shieldman. I love shields, I love the aesthetics of shields, I love the physicality of shields, I love it all. If a game gives me a chance to have a shield, I’ll normally take it. This is why my heart bleeds for the implementation of shields in D&D 5e. What an absolute waste! Here’s the roll20 version.

Yawnsville, Tennessee

Is that it? +2 AC? Look at what they did to my boy. Now to be fair, there’s a feat called Shield Master, which allows you to shove as a bonus action, add that +2 to your dexterity saving throws, and avoid all damage instead of half for effects that’s relevant for; but it’s still not enough. So what have we got for Pathfinder 2e? A lot more.

Different kinds of basic shield? Oh my!

I feel that shields are a great example of where the streamlining of D&D 5e took a little bit too much out. A shield is more than just the AC bonus it provides, and Paizo realised that. So there’s a whole slew of ways that shields have better mechanical depth and more rewarding gameplay – let’s go through some of them.

Shielding as an Active Thing

In Pathfinder 2e, you don’t simply strap a shield to your arm and call it a day – the act of shielding requires an action called Raise a Shield, which grants you the AC bonus until the start of your next turn. While this might seem like a painful requirement at first, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the early levels, you will frequently have actions to spare. As a result of strike actions scaling such that your second strike in a round is at -5, and your third at -10, it’s usually a waste to use actions on them. At later levels, there are feats that either mitigate, or outright remove the need for the action. But, right from the off, shielding is something that is done, not something that just happens – this is a step in the right direction.

Combine this with a level 1 general feat called Shield Block. Shield block is fantastic because it combines the theme of deflection (increasing AC) with the theme of mitigation (damage absorption) that shields have. Instead of the interaction with a shield being purely your opponent needing to get past it, you can now choose to let your shield take some of the pounding. It’s worth mentioning that on the deflection side – AC improvements are valuable in PF2e because not only do they reduce your chance of getting hit, but they reduce your chance of being crit; so characters with low to middling AC still find value in increasing it, even if most enemies will still hit them in a fight. Let’s go to an example of play.

Aremie Riddlesworth, the level 1 paladin is locked in combat with two street thugs, one wielding a pair of daggers, the other wielding a two handed club. She can hear the footsteps of the town guard on their way, so she only needs to hold out for a round despite her wounds. She's up first so she elects to trip one of the street thugs, move backwards 20ft, and raise her shield. By tripping the street thug, she forces it to spend an action standing up (an action that could have been spent attacking) - between standing up and moving after her, the street thug only has one action left for an attack, which misses.

However, the second thug moves after her, and has two attacks. The first attack hits, and threatens to knock Aremie unconscious with 7 damage, more than her remaining 5 health. She uses shield block to mitigate the damage. Her steel shield eats five of the damage with hardness, and the remaining damage bleeds through into her health and shield. The second attack from the thug misses due to the -5 (from multiple attacks) and the +2 AC from Aremie's steel shield. The round ends, and four town guard round the corner, making for a much more even fight...

In this instance, Aremie used the shield in two different ways at level 1 – increasing her AC and also mitigating damage. If we wanted a more trite example, she could have used it to Shield Bash (which is a supported weapon in the system, requiring no homebrew).

Shields as Something to be Specialized In

If Aremie was wielding a shield with Shield Spikes, then it would start to do more reasonable damage. If she had the level 6 feat Shield Warden, and there was an ally stood adjacent to her, she could use the shield to block damage to them. If she had the level 1 feat Reactive Shield, and the blow from the thug would have been prevented by the additional shield AC, then she could have raised her shield in reaction rather than as an action. This is a subset of the available feats that we could have, and the complexity increases with levels. This is also not including complexity added by magical shields! This one thing, largely a footnote in D&D5e has been given a new lease on life.

This is not least because the Champion class makes extensive use of shields, and has several class elements that interact directly with them. They’re now an item that is worth looking at in depth, and helps bring a shielding character concept to life.

Downtime

A not-inconsiderable amount of the Core Rulebook is dedicated to a pillar of the game that Paizo has called “Downtime“. Downtime is a tricky thing, because it’s something that a large group of players will simply never interact with. If you’re an adventuring party that goes from dungeon to dungeon, slaying and looting from dusk till dawn, you might never need to use them. However, if you’re running a campaign where the characters have something more akin to a life, then at some point you’re going to run into the question of “what does my character do when they’re not plunging a dagger into the back of a cultist”. I think that the downtime rules provided have given substance to that need, and made clear to the players what their options are. There are a set of downtime actions that are available to everybody (long term rest, retraining, buying and selling goods etc), and then there’s downtime actions that are given to us by the skill system (more on that later). Time for the example of play.

Aremie, having just avoided a unsightly end in the alleyway, retreats to her tavern room to recover for the night. The following morning, she resolves to earn some coin to repair her shield and sleep in a better bed, so she chooses the Earn Income activity for the day. Using her formidable knowledge of Religion, she elects to be an acolyte at the local temple. The DM sets the "task level" of this at level 1, with a DC of 15, as it's an entry level job with little risk of skill required, in a middling part of town. She rolls her religion, and beats the DC. Looking at the Earn Income chart, as she is Trained in religion with a task level of 1, she earns 2sp from the day.

If Aremie desired, she could continue to work the job for the rest of the week, keeping that amount of money - which in 4 more days, would leave her with 1gp to spend. Not a huge amount, but a start.
The Mighty Earn Income Table

As the Earn Income rules are so extensible, they act as a great catch-all for when the players just need a little bit of extra money to do something. Furthermore, because almost anything can be used as part of an Earn Income activity, it means there’s always something to do for a player with spare time on their hands. While some might see this as unnecessary mechanisation, and were happy for this to be decided on the fly by the DM, I am not one of those people. I’ve made good use of this ruleset already, and I consider downtime to be an important part of any adventure. You cannot have hot without cold, and I feel like you need to have some normalcy to make the dungeoneering feel more exciting and meaningful.

If I had a criticism of these rules, it’d be that the craft times for mundane items seem incredibly extreme, with a minimum of four days. They can also be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first, with some players being more happy for the DM to just decide this all for them with hand waving. I consider them a good opportunity for the DM to introduce “clocks“, which I think are a fantastic RPG system. If your players are looking to build something themselves over an amount of time, like a bridge or a house, then the earn income/craft rules give us a great shorthand to achieve that. Set the value of the bridge to some value (500gp for example), and then have them do an Earn Income (Craft) check to determine how long it takes them.

Travel

To be dramatic, I don’t think there’s anything that makes a DM scratch their head more than travel in a combat-y fantasy RPG. It is the white whale of this genre of RPG, a beast that will spawn infinite stack exchange posts with questions like “How do I run overland travel in [system]”. A beast that will birth infinite subsystems and homebrew concoctions, each with a thousand rollable tables, each requiring new forms of mathematics to determine how far the party can walk. A beast that threatens to grind any session to a halt, with the rulebooks hitting the table, and the “lord of the rings travel playlist xxBongRipZxx” running out of songs.

It represents the fly in the ointment. In combat-focused RPGs, encounter-mode is the quantum world, and overland travel is classical physics, with no system describing both of them to a satisfying degree. Until now. Ah, that’s not true, it’s still somewhat painful – however, PF2e gives us a toolset for handling play that primarily involves moving from A to B, which they’ve wrapped up into the pillar of the “Exploration Mode“. The same concepts of movement speed and actions are present here, but a glaze of vagueness has been applied to enable more narrative gameplay. Again, an example of play.

Clamwater Belchkins, Trudy Grobbsnobbler, Price Snaggleport and Roger Vergie are travelling from their local village to the magical city in the hills. With a minimum speed in their party of 25ft, they're capable of travelling 20 miles per day at 2.5 miles an hour (8 hours of travel). At this rate, they expect to arrive at the city in three days, as it is 60 miles away. They set forth, and the DM asks them how they're intending to travel.

Clamwater says that they're going to keep a sharp lookout in case they're ambushed. The DM translates this to the Scout activity, and adds the bonus to their initiative in the event of combat. Trudy says that she's intending to look for traps or items on the ground. The DM equates this to the Search activity, and will roll her Perception in secret if the party stumbles across something. Price says that he's going to be looking for magical auras using Detect Magic, and so the DM will let them know if they stumble across any auras. Roger intends to keep their shield up in case they're ambushed, so the DM goes to the Defend action.

With all of this settled, the travel speed is adjusted as these actions reduce their speed by half. The Magical City in the Hills is now six days away, but they'll be all the more prepared if anything comes up along the way. Which it does.

While this ruleset doesn’t tell us how characters travel over a map (you’ll have to look at the bad hexploration rules for that, more on that later), it does give us a really nice package for the more narrative-y travel sequences. If characters know where they’re going, and you know the route they’re taking, these rules provide an excellent framework to solve that problem. The trickiness arises when those things aren’t the case. The highest level (of abstraction) solution to this problem is for the players to succeed on a Sense Direction check, modified with bonuses from any information they’ve gleamed, with a DC determined by the sort of terrain. However, it doesn’t give you much for what happens when they fail, beyond “they don’t know what direction they’re going”, so there is still a fair bit of DM work to be done here. The “fail forwards” answer to this would be to have failure cost time, which is a potential solution.

It’s worth mentioning that these travel rules are embedded alongside everything else that PF2e considers ‘exploration‘. There is a lot to unpack here, and I do wonder if it would have been better for there to be a specific ‘Travel’ trait, but I also see the argument for keeping it bundled together. Exploration encompasses literally everything that isn’t combat, or specifically defined in the downtime section, so you’ll see rules for travelling over great distances knocking against rules for identifying magic. As I said, a lot to unpack, but I think that the travel rules are a boon for the system in the main.

Strengths Summary

I like to believe that I’m someone who straddles the crunch – fluff axis. I enjoyed playing Pathfinder 1e, and I enjoyed playing Monster of the Week. This is to say, I’m not someone wedded to the idea of having rules exist for every possible interaction or decision in a roleplaying game if the players and DM have a good framework to arrive at a sensible solution. In Monster of the Week, you don’t need to have specific rules to handle a character kicking someone, versus punching them. The game provides you with an abstraction (Kick Some Ass) which handles both those scenarios perfectly well for the type of game that MotW is, and the experience it wants to provide. Conversely, Pathfinder 1e and 2e are tactical combat games first. Encounters are a puzzle to be solved, and the players have everything on their character sheet available as a solution. As such, we want a certain level of definition and mechanisation, to allow the players to meaningfully work within those options, and solve a given problem. If I tried to summarise it in a one or two sentences, Monster of the Week gives you mechanics and rules to act as abstractions for what you (the player and the DM) want to happen narratively. Pathfinder (mainly) gives you mechanics and rules to act as tools to achieve what you want to happen narratively.

As an example, in Monster of the Week, you describe narratively how you’re going to punch the clown in the face, which we translate to the Kick Some Ass action and roll appropriately. In Pathfinder, you punching the clown in the face narratively is given by you using the mechanisms that the system provides (striding 15ft to the clown, using the strike action with fists to hit them). While these two scenarios could be altered to reflect the opposing view, I think the intention of the two systems is the key (rules as an enabler vs rules as a descriptor).

I don’t see crunch as an inherently negative thing. If the rules serve the sort of story and experience that the system wants to provide, then it’s grand. For some, having a well codified ruleset for governing many interactions makes the experience of DMing easier, because they don’t need to come up with options on the fly. Almost all of the strengths I have listed above are areas where I think having better codification has pushed Pathfinder 2e ahead of other fantasy RPGs. With more mechanical depth to shields, common questions like “can I hit them with the shield” now have a mechanical answer. With more mechanical depth to travel, questions like “how can I look out for traps while travelling through this forest” can now be answered within the language of the rules. These enable players to have expectations for how these decisions play out, which enables planning, and payoff. If a player gets an amazing result on an Earn Income roll, they don’t have to rely so heavily on the DM making a call in their favour: the rules provide that.

Similarly, with the ten up ten down system, we now have a mechanical framework to reward players for rolling close to but not quite criticals, rather than DMs having to fiat something for when players roll a 19 on a Performance check. For some, this is unnecessary legwork, and they’d be happier with dictating it as the DM. For me, I enjoy not having to think about those things in a fantasy combat RPG, because it gives me more time to think about what actually matters (encounter design, magic items, etc). This does however, make for a fat rulebook and an unappealing first impression. This is not a system I would DM as my first outing, or my second, but we’ll get onto that.

While this isn’t an all encompassing list of everything I like about the system, I think it covers a good portion of what I enjoy. If I wanted this post to be a million miles long, I’d also cover how I think the monster generation tables are excellent, and how the rune system for weapons is pretty good when you get your head around it. Next post will be about what I think the system is really weak at, and then considering it all in totality, so stay tuned.

Categories
review ttrpgs

Review: Pathfinder 2e (part one)

I am an eternal DM, so it’s worth bearing in mind that this whole thing is going to be coming from the perspective of someone who hasn’t played this as a player. I’ve run PF2e from levels one to five, with three campaigns in a mix of in person and online. I tend to go through campaigns like I go through milk so it’s more like 1.5 or 1.75 campaigns in terms of length. Another important caveat, I’m talking about my experience with the system from only the first five levels. If it completely falls apart when the players reach level six, I don’t know about that. I tend to enjoy systems at the low levels anyway, and there’s a few people that point out things like D&D5e aren’t really meant to be played at level 15+ anyway. Last caveat, I usually don’t play prewrittens, and I haven’t done so here – if the prewritten campaigns are bad (and I’ve not seen glowing reviews), I couldn’t tell you. I have looked over Age of Ashes a bit just to get a feel for what Paizo intended. With all of that out of the way, let’s begin.

As I’m not an engagement seeking parasite, I’ll give you a summary immediately. I’ll then talk about what the system is, strengths and weaknesses, and some closing thoughts.

Summary

Pathfinder 2e offers a more playable experience than the first edition, and more mechanically sound gameplay compared to Dungeons and Dragons 5e, but finds itself sat on the fence between two worlds of crunch and fluff. If you’re looking for a fantasy combat-focused RPG with a bit more to it than D&D5e, but were intimidated by older systems, then it’s worth giving PF2e a go. The core rulebook can be an absolute nightmare to use, due to its size and complexity. In addition, it’s an open question as to whether it’ll enjoy a long life, as later content from Paizo has been a bit questionable. As for the DM experience, no major headaches there, with the Gamemasters Guide (GMG) filling in a lot of the gaps left from the core rulebook. NPC generation is handled particularly well with a slew of tables for doing it quickly and easily. There’s some great additional rules included in the GMG, alongside some poor ones.

I’ll likely keep playing it, but it’s going to be a divisive system for most, just because of its positioning between PF1e and D&D5e.

What & Why

Pathfinder Second Edition is a d20 based, combat-focused, character-based roleplaying game with an interesting pedigree which I will get into later. The system primarily supports fighting monsters, acquiring treasure, and exploring dungeons, but not without a good portion of rules for doing other activities like earning gold from working, crafting items, and other actions that the system groups into “downtime”. The journey that the system wants to portray is a story of your characters becoming more powerful as they achieve great deeds and victories, with the scope of problems faced growing alongside them. Is this a system that to tell a tale of subterfuge, diplomacy and investigation? No. There is an extensive skill system (more on that later), but all of this is very much geared towards moving adventurers to dungeons – not having those skills be the bread and butter of the game.

Your average session of PF2e will look something like this (if you’re not playing a sandbox game). The player characters are exposed to/provided a hook which angles them towards some greater unknown or mystery. They might engage with people from settlements to learn more, or perform their downtime actions – but this is primarily done to improve the player’s ability to adventure, or learn where they might do so. After acquiring the requisite information or preparation, they then go to the location, and are challenged with a dungeon; it might not literally be a dungeon, but it will be somewhere with traps, monsters, NPCs and treasure. If they succeed, they are awarded with treasure, XP (if not using the milestone system) and perhaps further information that points them in the direction of another dungeon. Repeat.

While this might sound like a negative description, it really is the core gameplay loop that the system wants you to perform as the DM. I’m actually a big fan of simple loops like the above, so any negativity is coming from my nascent crassness. Worth mentioning that the loop above, is also the core gameplay loop of D&D 5e (despite how many homebrewed settlement management systems might try to tell you otherwise). This is a tried and tested gameplay loop, and I think it’s stood the test of time. Dungeon -> Downtime -> Improvement -> Dungeon.

So why does Pathfinder Second Edition exist? To answer that question, we really have to look at why the Pathfinder series exists at all. If you’re looking for the precise history, the wikipedia article will give you that in detail, but I can give you the abridged version. Paizo, the company that makes Pathfinder, started out as a publisher of D&D 3rd Edition magazines in 2002. This continued until 2007, when Wizards of the Coast (the new publishers of D&D at that time), decided to end that contract. Later that year, WoTC would announce D&D 4th Edition, published under a more restrictive game license (too much to talk about here, but check out the OGL and GSL pages). The latter would come to foreshadow the kind of company that WoTC would become, and the former made a lot of people very angry, and was widely regarded as a bad move.

To continue the “spirit” of the D&D Revised 3rd Edition (D&D 3.5 as people call it), Paizo decided to create their own backwards-compatible system under the OGL called Pathfinder, which kept large chunks of the D&D 3.5 ruleset, but also had a variety of changes. While this might seem utterly unbelievable to someone more new to the RPG scene, Pathfinder was the most popular system for a considerable amount of time, holding the top spot in terms of sales until the release of D&D 5th Edition. Now, that factoid might be a bit deceptive, as I wouldn’t be surprised if the RPG scene had grown ten-fold in the last three years, but I think we can quite comfortably say that Pathfinder has played a significant role in RPG history, and would have been a system that a lot of older RPG players engaged with. So what sort of system was Pathfinder 1st Edition then?

Pathfinder 1e’s Grapple Rules. Oh yes.

If we’re being generous, I’d use the term involved. It’s interesting that, the history of D&D looks something like a bell curve in terms of complexity, with the earliest editions and 5e being relatively simplistic, and the middle editions the most complex. Pathfinder 1e inherited that complexity. This is not a pick-up-and-play RPG, this is not an RPG that you suggest to your parents over Christmas. This is an RPG that required time, effort, and sometimes software intervention to run properly. Note, I’m not saying that the rules are good or bad; I have some extremely fond memories of PF1e campaigns – what I’m saying, is that there was a gigantic barrier to entry. In combination with all the additional content, sourcebooks, I’m quite confident in saying that I couldn’t make a PF1e character now without access to something like Hero Lab, and I played the system for a good couple of years.

So what’s my point here?

The biggest accomplishment of D&D 5e is accessibility. The system is filled with things that rely on DM fiat (which is easier than having hard-cast rules), simplifications, and greater homogeneity. The corners have been rounded off, and the system is far more approachable as a result. It is not a coincidence that D&D 5e is nearly a household name after this change, and while it’s impossible to concretely prove that it was accessibility that drove popularity, there’s a strong argument for it. Pathfinder 1st Edition on the other hand, sat on a throne of splatbooks, founded on a ruleset that was over a decade old. With a core fanbase that loved the system, if you weren’t already playing it, or you didn’t know someone who was playing it, you weren’t likely to start.

When looked at through the historical lens, Pathfinder Second Edition starts to make sense. A chance to blow out the cobwebs of an aging foundation, to sand off some of the sharp corners that were making the system hard to approach, and also a chance to sell some new rulebooks I suppose. However, Paizo sat in a very difficult and risky position. If they made too many changes to the system, they risked alienating a core fanbase that had stuck with their products for years, whom had (partially) moved over due to a dislike of D&D’s direction. However, if they threw a coat of paint over the first edition, they risked simply splitting their existing base between the two systems, with no influx of new blood to keep the machine going; a wasted endeavour. If you’ve ever googled or looked into PF2e, you probably already know the direction Paizo took.

PF2e is not backwards compatible, meaning that Paizo have left behind nearly two decades worth of material, which was an incredibly brave decision. If I was being extremely reductionist here, I’d say something along the lines of “Paizo thought that the direction WoTC took was the correct one” when it came to simplification and accessibility. I think there’s a lot of nuance that gets left behind with that take, not least that Pathfinder Second Edition is still a more complex game than D&D 5e. However, the sentiment of that sentence smells correct to me – the second edition exists to solve the problem that an aged, monolithic first edition could not; ease of play. I can only imagine that there were dozens of things that Paizo wanted to do with Pathfinder, but weren’t able to because they felt shackled to backwards compatibility. If there wasn’t, I doubt they would have made 2e at all.

While a lot of the above is my reading between the lines somewhat, a great picture of why Pathfinder Second Edition exists is an interview with the lead game designer at Paizo, Jason Bulmahn.

QueueTimes interview with Jason

At 8:55, Jason says the following:

It’s more art than science. First Edition was science, this [Second Edition] is more art.

Pathfinder 2E Interview – Jason Bulmahn – The Creator of Pathfinder

Now, full disclosure, they’re talking about monster design, but I feel like it represents a big motivation for the system, and for TTRPG system design direction in general. Systems are more willing to rely on the DM as a source of reality, in place of a fully codified ruleset. Sentences like “the DM may award a…” have become more and more commonplace. PF2e is very much a product of that environment.

This has, again, positioned Pathfinder Second Edition in a very strange place. It is much less rules heavy than the first edition, but is a fair bit heavier than D&D 5e, and there’s a real risk that this is a game that was made for…nobody. Veterans of the Pathfinder series stick with first edition for the mechanical depth and control, people more familiar with D&D 5e stick with it as they find the depth of Second Edition intimidating. Is this the case? I’ve got a bit of anecdotal evidence that this is happening on some level, but I think the ultimate arbiter will be sales figures and engagement moving forwards. As this is a review, I’ll give you my personal perspective: I think Second Edition offers an experience that First Edition and D&D5e do not, and consequently, I don’t necessarily see it as a replacement. I’ll talk about this later in part two, but there’s nuance to the system that is worth exploring, with elements that Paizo clearly thought they couldn’t do in the first outing of the system.

Something I find quite interesting is that another RPG released by Paizo called Starfinder, “Pathfinder in space”, is meant to be mechanically closer to 1st Edition than second. If I was being cynical, I’d see this as Paizo somewhat hedging their bets by offering Starfinder as an alternative to jaded 1e veterans. I don’t think this is the case, but it’s food for thought. It’s far more likely that some of the mechanical changes that were mid-development for PF2e, made their way into Starfinder, and were field-tested there.

Anyway, I hope this short post has gone somewhere towards answering the “why” of “why does Second Edition exist”. Next time, I’m going to be talking over what I like about the system, what I dislike, and what I’ll give it in terms of a grade.

Catch you next time.

Categories
ttrpgs

shutting the office

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 164 (1843)

On March 31st last year, as part of his ongoing actual play series Far Verona, Adam Koebel roleplayed the unconsented sexual assault of one of his players. Despite some initial, considerable outrage, he continued to release content for his channel until the 4th April, with an apology on twitter that he posted the day before. On the 8th of June, in a blog post to his personal website, he says that he is moving on. A few blog posts here and a couple of tweets there, have been all the online activity I’ve seen. An announcement from July of that year, about his removal as a writer from the Dune RPG, is the last RPG post that I can see. For now, it does seem like Adam is “gone” in the online sense of the world.

I will lay my cards on the table. I was a huge fan of Adam’s show Office Hours where he took questions from listeners on TTRPGs. I sent two questions in, which Adam answered and was extremely nice towards. I never watched any of the actual play pieces he did; I’ve tried repeatedly to watch podcasts like Adventure Zone and Critical Role, but I invariably bounce off them after a time. I’ve come to accept that I just don’t like the format, and I’m going to stop forcing myself to like it despite the great popularity it has. I thought that Office Hours was an important series because the DM principles that Adam outlined seemed so essential. His views on the role of the DM resonated so profoundly with me that I would not be surprised if my style shifted overnight having watched his series. He captured nuances and talked in details that I didn’t think any other Youtuber was covering, and I ate it up.

I will joke about things that make me uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve always done, and it’s definitely gotten me into trouble before, and will get me into trouble again. It’s a coping mechanism for sure. There’s another element of this which is a very poor reaction to stress that I have. Stress causes me immediate and obvious pain, I’d describe it like painful pins and needles or a light burn that sort of throbs across my body. It’s very bizarre, but this also causes me to spasm, usually involving my hands. Uncomfortable situations cause me a great deal of stress, stress causes me pain and spasms, pretty simple – so I joke with people, I joke to make those uncomfortable situations go away. I’ll joke with people, and then go and privately spasm on my own time (as is my right). Maybe everyone does this and it’s not just me, I’ve not really asked.

Why am I talking about this? Because I joked at Adam’s expense about the events above. While I didn’t go onto twitter to send bile at him, I was incredibly bitter about the series of events with friends. For a moment, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I really did hate him. This was a heady mix of him violating the DMing principles that he espoused, with a subject (sexual assault) that someone operating in his political sphere (TTRPGs being a pretty left space) should know better about. I wanted to tear him out of my life, and so I did. I unsubbed (gasp!), removed any mention of him from my RPG discord, disconnected a bot that fed videos from his channel to it. I left his community discord, and went about my life. Maybe there’s a sense that, by doing this, I was somehow unburdening myself, but judging by the fact that I’m writing about it now, that clearly wasn’t the case.

I felt like I had been betrayed. I felt like someone who I looked up to, who I agreed with the principles of, had exposed what their real character was. Everything else was for show, everything else was a fraud. This feeling wasn’t borne from some sense of moral revulsion, it’s far more basic than that. I had been lied to, I felt like a sucker – and nobody likes feeling like a sucker. Here I’d been, sending questions into, following, and recommending the videos of someone who clearly didn’t believe what they were saying! Now everything he said was tainted, how much else had he lied about? There’s a sense that, in sharing these videos and taking pleasure in featuring in a couple of them, I was now partially responsible for what had taken place.


In his blog post titled ‘Moving On’ on June 8th 2020, Adam talks about the community reaction to what happened:

I continue to be the recipient of hate, vitriol and targeted abuse both in public and in private spaces. I’m being emailed anonymous threats of harm if I ever return to broadcasting or attend a convention, messages telling me I shouldn’t exist at all let alone be allowed to “come back” — voices shouting that nothing I had previously said or done or made mattered in the face of my mistake. People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible.

https://www.adam-koebel.com/blog/2020/5/18/moving-on

Whenever there’s a public figure who has committed some awful act, it seems fairly common that they bemoan the effect it has had on them. My mind goes back to the apology letter from a certain Dota 2 commentator, accused of sexual harrassment, who stepped away from the scene while simultaneously saying they did nothing wrong, and that the toxicity in response was impacting their family. There’s a gut response here of like, fuck you. Don’t act sorry and wounded because people are rightfully disgusted by what you did. Don’t play the victim when you were the perpetrator. Don’t talk about yourself when you should be talking about who you wronged. I feel no sympathy in the Dota 2 case, possibly because I wasn’t terribly attached to that person, and largely because I feel what they did precludes them from working in that industry ever again.

If you look at some of Adam’s tweets, you’ll see the responses he’s describing in the post. You’ll also see a lot of supportive comments, and a lot of “head in sand” comments from people who don’t think Adam did anything wrong. The line from the blog that resonates with me most is the “People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible”. Does that not terrify everyone? I feel like this idea of people just being “damaged goods” that cannot be fixed leads to so many terrible things, with the least bad of them being “them getting harassed on twitter”. But simultaneously, would I want that Dota 2 commentator back in the spotlight? Would I not be utterly outraged if they were given air time? Is this a question of ‘degrees of bad’, where what Adam did was awful, but not so awful as to knock him into the “you’re never allowed to make content again” world?

I don’t know. If Adam came back today and started making Office Hours again, I wouldn’t watch them. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I thought Adam’s advice in it was incredible, my trust has been broken. But there’s a part of me which feels like people should be able to look back on the series, watch, it and learn. There’s a part of me which feels that if he did come back, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to watch them – it just wouldn’t be for me. I’m not equipped to say how long Adam should be shunned for; I don’t think anyone is. I think it’s a personal decision for everyone who watched his content, or would come to watch it. I do think that people who sent Adam messages, saying he’s an awful human, threatening harm, whatever – those people need to take a look in the mirror. There isn’t a space in the TTRPG community for what Adam did, but there’s also not a space for that either.

In my day job, I try and find systematic reasons for why people have made mistakes. These aren’t mistakes in the Adam Koebel way, but mistakes in terms of programming and other worky-type things. It’s important for me to do this because I don’t think we get anything from blaming individuals in the workplace. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help create an environment where those mistakes aren’t so common, with a recognition that it could have been anyone who made it. I don’t buy the “personal responsibility” angle that basically defines the right wing, and enables people to hold some truly horrific views of other human beings. I want to do more to blame and hate broken and unfair systems, rather than the people that live in them. The question is how I can reconcile this with a belief that Adam screwed up, and that I won’t watch his content again? How can I reconcile this with a belief that I never want to see that Dota 2 commentator’s face ever again? What’s the system that led to them doing what they did? I don’t know.


The simple, systematic answer for the response harassment is that Twitter, Facebook, and other bits of social media are so bad. I feel like the lesson of the last 15 years, possibly the lesson of the 21st century, will be that these platforms were a mistake. I want to believe that, at some point in the far future, people will look back on this period in tech and think “what the hell were they thinking”. If that doesn’t happen, maybe the future is far bleaker than I want to believe. We’ve gained nothing from their existence. They’ve not promoted greater commonality of man, they’ve created factions and ingroups. They’ve not given us a venue to express our compassion, they’ve promoted hatred, publicized bile, and given a platform for ideologies that should have been destroyed long ago. Why should anyone be surprised that these awful comments are rife, when absolutely nothing about the platform inspires people to interact with any sort of candour or understanding. All of that UI design, that A/B testing, making it as easy and friction-free as possible to tell someone to kill themselves in 280 characters or less. Whatever we got out of this, it wasn’t worth it.

So what’s the summary of this blog post? Have I come to some eureka moment, where everything’s clear and delightful? No, not really. I’m still bitter about what Adam did. To my own chagrin, I cannot bring myself to watch the whole scene from Far Verona. I have tried on numerous occasions, but I just can’t stomach it – I close the video every time. Maybe there’s an element here that I don’t want to see someone who I looked up to, doing something so awful. There’s also the tiny fact that I don’t want to watch someone roleplaying sexual assault. I guess, if there was a summary of this it would be “how bloody awful this all was”. However, I am feeling better about having written it all down, so there’s that.

I won’t be posting about this again: despite the shortness of this post, I don’t think there’s anything more I want to say on it. What I will say, is that there’s still a void in my needs where Office Hours used to sit. I’ve tried getting into Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, and I do watch them from time to time, but I disagree with Matt on so many things, and dislike the lack of focus. It feels like the diet version of the series I loved. It’s like your favourite TV series getting cancelled, so now you have to watch the Netflix produced equivalent and it’s fine, but that’s all it’ll ever be. C’est la vie.

Categories
new melyne ttrpgs worldbuilding

the town of New Melyne (part two)

jobs, trades and industry

Today, as advertised, we’re going to be talking about the jobs and industries that are present in New Melyne. It’s quite rare in RPGs that players will actually work at their established occupation; most of the time it’s background material that explains “why they’re the way they are”, not expecting them to spend a session working as an Architect or Blacksmith. I do, however, think that it’s important for NPCs in a town to have established reasons for being where they are. In a dangerous place like New Melyne, we want our townies to have good cause for not catching the next iron caravan out of the place, and into a safer place to live. A lot of the time this might be family, or lack of money, but it’s equally likely to be their profession necessarily ties them to the land. So let’s give some colour to New Melyne and chat about what we expect folks to be doing on the day to day.

We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Firstly, let’s use donjon’s Medieval Demographics generator as a solid foundation for us to start on:

You’ve got to have your Mercers. Society would truly fall without them.

This will be the canvas we work on. Thankfully, we’re not going to have to create twelve separate shoemakers as that’s not a typical RPG haunt, but it gives us a good expectation for what the general townie of New Melyne might look like. There are some trades that I would say are mandatory for a town if it is to be an effective setting for a traditional adventuring game:

This is not because the town could not function without them, because obviously there’s a lot of trades that the town wouldn’t function without. This is because these are trades that our players are likely to interact with at some point in their campaign. By setting this up now, we enable what I think is the “optimal play experience” for a player in a settlement; needing some form of trade, and knowing where to get it. It’s normally a pretty miserable experience for a DM when a player asks where they can buy something like a disguise kit, if you don’t already know where that might come from. It leads to something I’m going to call “pop up shopkeeping”, where no trade in the settlement feels permanent, they just manifest in reaction to the players needing them. While this is bound to happen at some point, by pre-planning what’s here, we can avoid having to do it quite so often.

Conversely, a player knowing where they’re able to get certain things means that they’re more likely to be immersed in that settlement. When you leave your house to pick up groceries, you probably don’t need to rediscover where you get them every time. Similarly, when a player knows details about a settlement (“Dontov’s Roasts is the place to go when our characters want to talk over food”), they’re more likely to form an emotional bond with it. If you ever want to do a campaign where a settlement is destroyed, make sure the players know the names of at least three places that are going up in smoke, otherwise it’s no different from when they torch a kobold nest or goblin encampment.

Out of the jobs we have here, players are most likely to interact with Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Inns, Taverns and Doctors. These fulfill the very basic adventuring needs1 of “Somewhere to buy things that kill, somewhere to rest after they have killed, and somewhere to feel better if they have been (nearly) killed”. For this reason, we’ll focus on flushing them out first. From the donjon list, we’ve got one blacksmith, five carpenters, one inn, three taverns and zero doctors. This is problematic; we already established that New Melyne is a town with fantastic access to iron, so having a single blacksmith feels like a missed opportunity. We don’t have a doctor, and we have five carpenters, which feels extremely excessive. So we’re going to adjust those values a bit: we’ll have three blacksmiths, two carpenters, one doctor. Let’s just say that two of those carpenters decided to pick up the hammer and tongs, and one of them decided that medicine was the life for them (maybe after some horrendous, saw based accident).

the blacksmiths

Let’s talk about these three blacksmiths. Three is a good number, because it allows us to inject some character into each one, distinguishing them from the rest, while not being too odeous a task to plan. I always like the idea of shops having specialisations, because they become an easy shorthand for the players to remember them by. Similar to real life, we understand that certain supermarkets are better at certain things (stocking that flavour of crisp you like) versus others, even though they’re all supermarkets. Blacksmithing has some fairly obvious “specialisations” to me – weapons, armour, household and industrial. Weapons and armour are self explanatory, household would be anything that you could imagine in a normal house, utensils, pots, pans, and locks for instance. Industrial would be things like picks, nails, cart braces, anvils2, horseshoes etc.

We don’t necessarily need to limit a blacksmith to doing only one of those specialisations, as they might be of differing size. For instance, one of the three might be the best for weapons and industrial blacksmithing because they’re larger and older than the other two. In fact, why don’t we make that the case?

Huxler’s Arms

Specialization: Weapons, Industry

Description

Huxler's Arms is the first and oldest blacksmith in New Melyne. Owned and operated by Wallace Huxler, one of the original setters of the town and close friend of the Founder, the smithery is home to some ten to fifteen employees, apprentices and smithery aids.

A small front building with a shop, primarily selling arms, backs onto a large courtyard where the sounds of blacksmithing and forging ring out. A medium-sized workshop building contains most of the smithing equipment, and a large water tank holds water used for the quenching of metals.

New Melyne Armour

Specialization: Armour

Description

While New Melyne Armour is the most recent blacksmith to appear in New Melyne, it has landed with some recognition and quickly established itself as the premiere smith for anyone looking for protection. The owner, Kios, became famous when she challenged one of the townfolk to stab her through new halfplate. The event ended with a broken blade, and an injured hand.

The building is too small to have a shop area, and Kios prefers to conduct business on the workshop floor. There are no display racks of armour here, everything is made to order and made to last. Though, there is a small outside area where the handful of employees may catch a breath of fresh air away from the soot and smoke of the forges.

The Blessed Machine

Specialization: Household, Industrial

Description

Situated just off the main road, the business has been a fundamental part of New Melyne for almost ten years, selling industrial materials and household items through to the various shops and merchants in the town and beyond. Jointly owned by sister and brother Rivia and Marcos Zhorest, their business has gone from strength to strength as components created in their smithery are nationally known for their machined precision. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that the building was never used due to its cleanliness and relative quiet, but the Zhorest siblings value tidiness and organisation over all else. Employees of The Blessed Machine can often be seen leaving the shop with soot-covered overalls and faces, but return pristine the next day. As a result, the building housing the smithery is deceptively small, with space utilised efficiently. A small office is where most business is done.

So now New Melyne has three blacksmiths, with plenty of opportunity for us to flush them out later, and lots of potential starts for quests. Perhaps the Zhorest twins have discovered a small fire elemental in one of their forges, and have requested the players to remove it? Perhaps Kios charges the players with looking into a potential conspiracy, where a trader has claimed that her armour fell to pieces and killed a client? It might also be the case that the players simply interact with them to sort out their weapons and armour, but with the little detail we’ve included above, those interactions become flavourful and meaningful.

the hospitality

Now, it’s time to do what might be the most important aspect of the town’s trade, the inn.

The Unturned Stone

Description

The Unturned Stone sits in the very centre of the town, and is one of the largest buildings in all of New Melyne. Primarily of wood and stone construction, a great deal of care and attention has been involved in its architecture. Its walls are thick, and while there are wooden slatted windows, they are small to avoid loss of heat. There are two entrances, a large set of thick, wooden doors that act as the main entryway, and a second, smaller entrance at the back of the building for intake of stock. Curiously, the main entranceway boasts a set of iron braces for a barricade, that can be dropped into place via a lever and chain. This was a specific request from the Founder.

The ground floor is a large, open plan tavern area with enough seating for fifty tavern-goers at a time. The first floor hosts a collection of sleeping quarters, with enough beds to support twenty people. These are a mix of dormitories, with basic floor space for bedrolls and beds, to private rooms with animal pelt rugs and hearthplaces. There is a public washroom where warm water is brought up and decanted into baths - a common haunt for miners when the grime and dirt becomes too hard to shift through rags and scrubbing.

The owner of The Unturned Stone is a woman by the name of Bogod Harrien. She is renowned for her fiery temperament, and willingness to throw ne'er-do-wells out of her establishment. Privately, she was a good friend of the Founder, who mostly paid for its construction at the very beginning of New Melyne's history. She is protective of her employees, and couldn't be forced to part with the inn at spearpoint. She has a deep and profound adoration of New Melyne, and if she thinks something is amiss, will not hesitate to act. 

We now have our very first inn! Innkeepers are normally important characters, especially in small towns/villages, so with Bogod, we have great opportunities to introduce potential quests and politics into a session. It could be the case that the players enter the inn, Bogod sees that they’re capable of handling themselves, and asks them if they’re interested in work. Given that this is the only inn in the town, if the players aren’t roughing it out at night on their bedrolls, they’re going to cross paths with this place.

We can always add more detail to these places, but I’m a firm-believer that more detail will come in play. Maybe Bogod’s history was being a Captain of the Guard, or a mercenary, and she has a selection of weapons mounted on the walls as fond memories of that time. (and to have them available in a pinch…) But with a firm foundation, we have enough to give to the players on that first glance. However, The Unturned Stone is not the only establishment in New Melyne; we need a selection of taverns as well. With taverns, I find it’s important to have a spectrum of places: one that is fancy enough to act as a ‘victory lap’ for the players after coming by a hefty chunk of gold, one that is shady enough for them to conduct or disrupt illegal business, and one that can act as a catch-all for anything else.

The King’s Riddle

Description

The King's Riddle (referred to as just "The Riddle") is a small, hole-in-the-wall tavern, constructed about fifteen years ago, it has served as the quiet drinking location of a select few. Its small size (only allowing for a maximum of twenty drinkers) has created something of a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody, and while the tavern is open to everyone on paper, the reality is that strangers are regarded with a degree of hostility. It's not impossible to become a member of this community, but it will be through invitation if at all. The low ceilings and generally low light makes it a perfect spot for one to conduct more unscrupulous business - but only with the consent or involvement of the owner.

The King's Riddle is owned by Mandos the Old, an old smuggler who hasn't quite managed to shift his desire for illicit activity despite his old age. He did not know the Founder, and largely kept out of his way, however with the Founder's disappearance, Mandos has somewhat expanded his reach. There are rumours that he is attempting to form some sort of syndicate, but rumours are just rumours...

Quentin’s Magnificent Chalice

Description

Strange aromas, wistful stringed instruments and the meaningless conversation of those who just like to talk. These are all things one would find on a nightly basis at Quentin's. Secluded down a pathway between two buildings in the center of New Melyne, one must knock and check their weapons at the door to gain entry. While Quentin's is available to anyone who wants to wet their whistle, the prices are the primary barrier to letting just anyone walk through the door. Ergo, Quentin's is the primary locale for traders, property owners and visiting nobility: who might be inclined to drop a hefty sum of money on something as ephemeral as a shot of liquid claiming origin from a thousand miles away.

The business is owned by the eponymous Quentin, who made their riches selling armaments and magical artifacts to the highest bidders. While they might describe their escapades in more fruity language, it is fairly clear that Quentin is a war profiteer with little to no regard for the consequences of their actions. To Quentin, life is temporary, and those who have lost at the game of life are just that: losers. While this latest business is in Quentin's own words, their retirement, it's a possibility that they will just up sticks and leave if the desire takes them.

The Silver Boar

Description

Located in the industrial district of the town, The Silver Boar is a miner-owned and miner-run establishment. A squat building with a single floor, rough furnishings, and a utilitarian look, The Silver Boar offers a perfectly acceptable drink at a more than reasonable price. What makes its location inconvenient or even unpleasant for a regular townie, makes it perfectly well suited to those working in the more industrial part of the town.

What started as a break area or resting room for miners finishing their shift has ended up as a fully functional tavern. With the disappearance of the Founder, and the emergence of the town council, the miners promptly unionized to avoid exploitation. The tavern is, legally speaking, owned, operated and subsidized by every miner in the union. It might not be the place for a quiet drink, but if you're looking for somewhere to forget the day's toil, it's the place to go. 

Well, we’ve added some flavour to the town from these, especially from The Silver Boar, where we’re beginning to talk about the actual forces and powers at play. With them in place, we shouldn’t be lacking a locale for our players to undertake most activites that one would in a tavern.

the carpenters

While carpenters aren’t likely to see as much activity as Blacksmiths, it’s worth having them planned out to enable those who might not use metal (druids) or prefer bows and such.

Melyne Carpentry

Specialization: Furniture, Construction

Description

Melyne Carpentry was one of the first businesses to appear in New Melyne, created by some of the workers that performed initial construction on the mine and camp. Situated on the north side of the town, close to the treeline, is a large warehouse for storing planks and lumber. Accompanying this is a sawmill for the processing of wood provided by the local lumberjacks.

While the carpenters was started by a collection of workers, the de-facto leaders are considered to be Mary Sawtooth and Gregory Radler, who were largely responsible for the carpentry needs of the town during its founding. They're a bit longer in the tooth than many of the new carpenters, but their knowledge is without match.

Three Tree Bowyers

Specialisation: Bows
Three Tree Bowyers is a relatively new business, started six years ago by Kheri Strangeblood. Despite the dangers involved, the Bowyery is set outside the boundaries of the town, in the forest. While not being so far away from the town as to be without protection, the building is more akin to a small fort than a normal carpenter's building. The walls are made of stone, the doors are thick and heavy-set. All work takes place inside, apart from the testing of bows, which happens on a small firing range outside.

Kheri Strangeblood firmly believes that the finest bows can only be made in the shadows of trees. She chases the platonic ideal of a bow, with her designs becoming more and more simple as time goes on. Despite their simplicity, their deadliness is without question - the only challenge that Kios of New Melyne Armour has refused is one where the weapon was a Strangeblood bow.

Phew, that’s quite a few locations. We haven’t done the Doctor yet, but I have a plan for them, which we may cover in the “Powers” post which I will be doing next! What does that leave New Melyne looking like?

Still a bit bare! We’ll need some houses and markets in there, but we can cover that later. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’ll catch you next time for “Power and Power Brokers” section of our journey here.

Footnotes

1 Unless you’re playing a very survival focused game, food and water are unlikely to be mechanised, and we normally expect players to receive them from inns and taverns; if I was to add another trade here, it’d be some sort of food market stall.

2 Somebody has to have made the first anvil. Right? …Right?

Categories
ttrpgs

rulebooks

Arguably, the rulebook is the most important part of a system. I’m not just talking about the rules (which define the system), but I’m talking about the actual artefact that is the rulebook. An incredible system that has a terrible rulebook is a game that people aren’t going to play, because they’ll never get at that incredible system. Conversely, a fairly average system that has a well laid out rulebook is something that will likely do very well.

In this post, we’re going to talk about things that rulebooks consistently get wrong, get right, and some other stuff.


pdf – “pretty damned frugal”

This is tangentially related, but I don’t think it’s right to talk about rulebooks without bringing this up. This is something Wizards of the Coast with 5e had previously been very bad for, but have somewhat improved of late. Stop charging nonsense prices for PDFs/virtual copies of your game material. If I want to get Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus on DnDBeyond, it costs me $29.99, which is roughly £22. If I want to get a physical copy of it from Blackwells, it’s £26.34 with free shipping. Now admittedly they’ve got it on sale, but most retailers have it floating around at £31. You’re telling me that the difference between the physical printed book, and the virtual version (locked to the DnDBeyond platform iirc) is between 4 to 9 pounds? That’s nonsense, unless those online transactions are being carved onto gold bullion.

Paizo (publisher of Pathfinder, Starfinder) has a far more reasonable pricing scheme. If you want a hardcover copy of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, you’re looking at about £36-40. If you want to get the PDF off Paizo (with no strings attached, just a normal, searchable PDF), it’s 14.99$, which is £11, a full £25 cheaper than the cheapest physical printed copy, and a full $45 cheaper than on Paizo’s own store.

(Note that the physical rulebook cost here is much pricier than from UK retailers)

If Paizo, a far smaller company, can sell a much larger product (the core rulebook for Pathfinder Second Edition has a lot more content compared to the Player’s Handbook for D&D5e which is also $30), then Wizards of the Coast can do the same. There’s no reason that physical copies should be even remotely competitive with PDF pricing, so something has gone very wrong here. What’s even more frustrating is that publishers have a far better revenue stream in all of the other game-adjacent shite they can sell you. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love game-adjacent shite.

fig 1. Game-Adjacent Shite. Please ignore the dust, I’ve not played 5e in quite some time.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will buy game-adjacent shite till the cows come home. The key thing is, I think G.A.S is a critical element in a fair and successful TTRPG business. Saps like me, with disposal income, will buy crap like spellbook cards for £25 a pop, despite the fact that they’re literally plastic with text written on, and probably cost less than half a micropenny to make (something that Wizards of the Coast has plenty of experience with). As they’re overcharging on these unnecessary pieces, this should mean that they’re able to offer fire-sale prices for the rulebook, even selling it at a loss if they need to. The videogames industry has been doing this for yonks with consoles, selling consoles at a loss to get people into the ecosystem, enabling them to buy overpriced games1.

So people who don’t have the disposable income can afford to buy the rulebooks, (hardcover and PDF), subsidized by the rich shmucks who’ll buy the crap like spellcards, battle maps, miniatures and coasters. Everyone gets access to the rules, the system creator makes plenty of money, the shmucks get to stare at their G.A.S. To go even further, you can make the lions share of the rules free online, without all of the lovely art and stories of the rulebook, and make buying the PDF/hardcover a luxury option as well. This is what Paizo have done with Pathfinder, so if we were being very snarky, I’d say that this is purely a problem for Wizards of the Coast2, with their incredibly meagre offerings in the 5e SRD. By making your rules free, and your PDFs cheap, you get people into the game and more likely to buy stuff like adventures. If you don’t do this, people just pirate the PDFs, and then you get nothing.

lore of the land

Rulebooks are for rules first, everything else second. It doesn’t matter if it’s not strictly called a rulebook: whether it’s a Player’s Handbook, Agent’s Handbook, Investigator’s Handbook, its purpose is to explain how the game is played above all else. If it contains incredible prose, fantastic artwork, phenomenal worldbuilding, but you don’t come out the other side with a good understanding of the game system, then it’s a bad rulebook. Do not get me wrong, I love a fat 600 page rulebook. I’m an absolute sucker for those double page spread full artworks. I delight in the short stories, or the world maps that I’ll never play on. But the rules have got to be there, crystal clear, first.

I might appreciate all that art when I’m sitting in bed, reading it on my free time – but will I appreciate it when I’m flipping through in the moment, trying to find a rule that a player has just inquired about? A great example of the “style over readability” problem is the Shadowrun Fifth Edition rulebook, which is full of instances where rules text has been squashed to accomodate pieces of lore or art. Where they’ve done a great job of making it look like it’s some sort of futuristic computer, but a less good job of making it nice to read.

Yes, the artwork of the troll is lovely, but the fact that it’s the largest element of the page, squashing everything else, is terrible.

I’m not sure if this is something that has been improved in the sixth edition – I hope so. For a rulebook that I think gets this just right, I’d look to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition core rules, which comes in at a lighter 350 pages, but is packed with lore (which almost entirely sits at the front of the book). The artwork is fantastic, but also used sparingly – I never feel like a part of the rules are far harder to read as a result of the formatting. The lines are nicely spaced, the font is appropriately fantasy-ish but legible.

An example career from WHFRP4e. There’s far fewer rules compared to the Shadowrun character, but what’s here is formatted in a lovely way.

I’m sure someone will be tempted to say “but Oli, it has far fewer rules compared to Shadowrun! They can afford to have space and nicer formatting”.

The fact that Shadowrun is a much denser, more rules-heavy game is exactly a reason that it should have better formatting. Games that are very rules-lite can afford to be wistful, with plenty of art and blank space. Games that you’re going to need to flick through quickly to reference certain sections need to be far more concise and diligent.

Dense and messy, versus well-spaced and clean.

No matter how you cut the cheese on this, it is a decision to have a dense book; nobody is forced to make it that way. If Shadowrun 5e’s rulebase was so large that it demanded this formatting, then the lore and world aspects should not be in the same book – they should be in a separate book or resource. D&D 5e has nailed this by having the Player’s Handbook be a short (~300 page) book with only what the players need, with the setting, worldbuilding and GM elements moved into the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). I’m much happier to swap books occasionally, than I am having to fight my way through a gigantic tome full of information that isn’t useful in the moment. Bad formatting like this is a choice, and one that shouldn’t be taken.

lead by example

Give me examples of play you bastards. Not just one at the start of the book that shows how much fun and excitement one can have while playing, but one for every single major rule or section in the game. Examples of play are so good for learning how a particular set of rules work, that I will frequently read the example first and then the rules after. Even the most complicated of rules, when expressed through a near-life example can become far more comprehendible and appreciable. The stand out example of this for me is in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition’s (CoC7e) Keeper Rulebook, where we are essentially following the adventures of a character called Harvey Walters.

In this snippet, we’re shown how Stealth can be used, how pushed rolls work, and the general flow of the game

CoC7e has some fairly complicated rules in it, and it would be easy to get lost in situations such as “lifting a heavy object as a group” or the general framework for Chases/Pursuits if there weren’t great examples of how those rules are used in these little snippets. Monster of the Week has only a couple, but those examples give us a great window into how the creator intended the game to be run. This is another big benefit of them – often, unless you run a prewritten adventure or scenario, examples of play give you the firmest picture of how the game creators intended the game to be…played. Not just demonstrating specific rules and their usage, but giving us the tempo and temperature. It really shocks me that more games don’t have them throughout their rulebooks, as there are definitely instances of rules in CoC7e that I would have just bounced off without them.

non-starter

Dark Pursuits, a prewritten adventure for the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition RPG, is one of the worst prewritten campaigns that I have ever run. It is extremely detail-light in parts, expecting the DM to do an extreme amount of work outside of the text to keep things going. It feels extremely rushed, where players and DM are whirled through a series of encounters at breakneck speed. It is also set in one of the densest, most complex entities in the Warhammer 40k universe: a ‘Hive City’. As a DM, cities are one of the hardest parts of any RPG; requiring you to manage a lot of (most likely sentient) characters, goods, government and services – all of which are contained within the same space3 with many potential interactions. Hive Cities are like this, but on space-meth. They are astronomically large, containing innumerable souls, and are socially complex, where all the various elements that make up the Imperium of Man interact with one another.

The Dark Heresy ruleset is a fairly dense one at that, boasting more complex rules than an entry level RPGer might come to expect. So we have a fairly complicated system with an adventure set in one of the most complicated settings that a campaign can reasonably be set in. I’ve missed one detail. This is the starter campaign for the game. Oh yes.

I’m not an expert, but perhaps you shouldn’t have a complex web of trade in the same campaign billed as ‘introductory’

I’m absolutely in the target audience for Dark Heresy. I have a decent knowledge of the 40k universe, having played the tabletop game as a kid, and having played most of the videogames that are set in it. I’m an absolute sucker for dark, investigatory style games with terrors from beyond. A diverse party of strange, biomechanical humans wielding a collection of arcane and futuristic weaponry to solve mysteries and banish evil in a morally grey universe? Sign me the warp up. However, I bounced so horribly off this starter campaign that I’m not sure I’ll ever touch the system again. Having read stories online from other people running it, while they might not describe it as negatively as I do, there is a lot of “we went completely off the rails”, or “oh just make that detail up”. I do not want to “make it up”, that’s the whole point of a prewritten campaign4.

The starter campaign for your system cannot be “budget”. This might be a player/DM’s first experience of your system, so it has to land. If it doesn’t, they might (like me), never play it again. When I say budget, I don’t mean that it can’t be short – in fact, starter campaigns should always be short because folks will often play them to get a sense of a system before delving into it more. I mean that it can’t be low effort, something stuffed at the back of your Core Rulebook with a few pages dedicated to it and a little bit of artwork. It has to be low friction, smooth learning curve, with a lot of material to ease players into it. Contrast this with the Starter Campaigns for D&D5e (Lost Mines of Phandelver) and WFRP4e (Wacky Slip on a Pie Time), which are both complete products with prewritten character sheets and plenty of G.A.S to make the experience as smooth as possible.

They also, critically, contain cut-down versions of the rules that give a beginner an easy window into the system for the purposes of the campaign.

On The Tabletop - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set | TechRaptor
The box lid even doubles as a GM screen. Image sourced from techraptor as I couldn’t be bothered to get my own copy out and photograph it. #higheffortblogging

Full disclosure, I have not finished running the WFRP4e starter campaign, due to a couple of Real Life Things getting in the way (along with a global pandemic), but it already feels like a more complete experience than what Dark Heresy offers. It’s clear that a lot of effort and thought went into it. “But Oli, those starter sets are paid for, whereas the Dark Heresy campaign came free with the rulebook”. Ignoring the “it’s free” argument5 for a moment, the Dark Heresy 2e rulebook would have been better if those pages were used for nearly anything else. A separate product (that they could have charged for) with the same care and intention that Cubicle7 and Wizards of the Coast gave theirs, would have been a vast improvement. There’s a parallel world in which they did that, and I’m still playing the system.

You get one shot with this. It doesn’t matter if the first published Dark Heresy campaign after the rulebook is an absolute corker, because the well has been poisoned for me. I would also say it’s quite rare for someone to go and buy a full campaign for a system that they’ve not played before. It’d be a hard sell for someone new to 5e to immediately buy Out of the Abyss (and also a poor intro to the system), and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect beginners to do that. So, don’t throw in a “gratis” starter campaign as an afterthought into your rulebook – either dedicate time and material to it, or don’t and look to creating a separate product. Full-arse it.

use your noggin

The Pathfinder Second Edition rulebook has a lovely little feature. On every other page, there’s a bar that tells you where in the book you’re currently reading.

The aforementioned bar.

A lot of rulebooks have this in the header, rather than on the side, telling you what section you’re in. Here’s it in the CoC7e rulebook.

Chapter 4: Skills, Chapter 5: working out how to run a game where nobody has Spot Hidden above 25%

Is this a big thing? No. Is the PF2e bar probably a whiff too large? Yep. Is this something that every book should have in it? Absolutely. My preference would be for a full bar, but some indication where you’re reading is great, especially given you might be in a section covering a large body of rules (like Combat). Here’s the LANCER one:

Like everything else in the rulebook, it’s absolutely beautiful. Do you want to see the 5e one? Of course you do, you cheeky little scamp, but you have to be careful or you’ll scare it off.

A whisper in the night, found only at the very bottom of the page. I love little stuff like this because it isn’t much, but it makes for a much more readable rulebook, and they’re all generally getting it right. I’d like for rulebooks to trend towards what PF2e has done, but with more restraint.

back against the wall

I have given you a selection of three rulebooks to peruse. Which one do you like the most? Alright, I’m cheating slightly because the one on the right is from the Collector’s Edition of 5e. They’re also being crunched slightly by my bad lighting and phone camera, but we work with what we’ve got. Let’s break this down in an analytical manner, that only the backs of rulebooks could deserve.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e

The Collector’s Edition cover is a feast for the eyes. No text, because if you’re buying the CE, you probably know what it is. The symmetry is awesome, the colours are fantastic (I heartily recommend looking at the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is my favourite of the CE versions), and it features the prominent iconography of the D20, and the ampersand which has become the logo of the Dungeons and Dragons series. Top shelf stuff. However, this is cheating, as the CE version is much more expensive and rare, so here’s the normal one.

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Archive
I have to say, looking at this is vaguely nostalgic even though it’s a relatively recent game. Nostalgia for in-person, outside activities, perhaps?

Arm Yourself For Adventure. A solid tagline, and especially fitting given this is the book where players will be creating, customising and quite literally arming their characters for adventure. The content in the body text below is, sure enough, an honest representation of the game. In fact, I would say that this blurb has a better idea of the strengths and focuses of the D&D5e system than most of the people playing it; but that’s a post for another time. The font is luxurious, as with all the fonts chosen in the book, and the colouring is solid as a rock. White text on a blackground is a personal favourite, and contrasted with the red of the angry fire pup on the right hand side, it practically jumps off the page at you. Lovely use of blank space, clear and concise, with a great summary of the book contents and game. Top marks.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e

No, the book isn’t dirty, it just looks like this I swear.

A Grim World of Perilous Adventure. Oh yes indeed, life in the Old World of Warhammer is cheap and bleak. Gone is the mystique and majesty of the firey pup, and instead we have a bleak, smoggy scene from what is most likely Ubersreik, one of the major cities in the universe. This back cover says to you “your foe will most likely not be some mythical, majestic beast of flame, instead, it’ll be typhus. Or dysentry, whatever gets you first”. The little blurb on the back promises not a clean adventure of heroism and righteousness, but instead, boldly states that you’re going to be a scumbag who probably kills for coin. And it’s right.

Stated entirely in character, it fits in well with the rest of the book where you get the feeling that you’re reading the musings of some unreliable narrator, rather than some lofty god giving you the objective truth of the world. All is shades of grey (like the cover), all is relative. I do like the fact they’ve listed a time of “1-4 hours” like it’s some sort of board game, feels oddly quaint. The fonts are good, while sacrificing a slice of legibility for that Warhammer feel, and the logos along the bottom are clean and nicely pushed out of the way. Watch out for that barcode, though – it’s so large that I dare say that Ubersreik is thoroughly imperiled.

Pathfinder Second Edition

GOBLIN

Admit it, you knew this was coming. When I showed you the gallery, you knew there was an ugly duckling in there, and it is a very ugly duckling. Advance Your Game. What game? The game of Pathfinder that I have yet to start, as I am an earnest rookie RPGer, holding the book in their hands for the first time? Perhaps, the game of life? Have I picked up the right book? Thank goodness they included the tiny “rulebook” indicator at the top, as they’ve made it as hard as possible to determine that from anything else. The centrepiece of the cover is the most bizarre part for me. The artwork is very good, apparently they knew this because the art is used again in the Alchemist class pages. But why the Goblin Alchemist? My suspicion is that they wanted to make a big deal out of the playable Goblin ancestry, and the core alchemist class, but would you care about either of these things if you weren’t already a Pathfinder player?

The summary of the game given by the text is justified in my experience of playing it, however the justification of the text is wack as all hell. They’re trying to form it around the Goblin art, but almost any other layout would have been better. It really does feel like somebody had five minutes to put some text on the back, and the clock was ticking. The strangest part is, the front cover art is actually extremely good.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook (P2): Amazon.co.uk: Bulmahn, Jason, Bonner, Logan,  Radney-MacFarland, Stephen, Seifter, Mark: 9781640781689: Books
This was originally a party of seven, pour one out for all the heroes stood behind them.

This just makes the contrast between the two even worse. On one face, an epic battle depicting beloved Pathfinder characters engaging in combat with a beast that many will recognise, looming over a delightful pile of gold! On the other, a…goblin…looking at us. Why? I’ll stick by my “they wanted to sell the goblin and alchemist stuff”, but what a baffling decision that is.

Something I will chuckle about for a while, is that the logo for the Pathfinder series is just the word “Pathfinder”. Which means, on the back of the book, in the logos…

This is the same logo used on the front cover. If you don’t know you’re playing Pathfinder, then forget about finding paths, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. For full equivalence, here’s a picture of the Special Edition.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook (Special Edition) (P2): Amazon.co.uk: Bulmahn,  Jason, Bonner, Logan, Radney-MacFarland, Stephen, Seifter, Mark:  9781640781696: Books

It’s…fine? I actually prefer the normal rulebook despite being a big fan of minimalism with these things. I’d take the back from that one though.

Anyway, that’s enough ranting about the backs of rulebooks. Maybe I’ll do another post about the fronts of them too, who knows. 2021 is a year of possibility.

Footnotes

1 I’ve been ranting about this with friends for a considerable amount of time, but the price rises in console and PC games are utterly ridiculous, and I’m stunned more people aren’t up in arms about it. £70 is not a reasonable price for a game, and if everything else inflated at the same rate that games have (despite making MORE money through additional revenue streams), we’d all be living in boxes.

2 Though Chaosium seems to think ~£21 is an acceptable price for a book that retails at around £32 in hardcover. Not quite as bad as Wizards, but still.

3 Hive Desoleum (the hive that the campaign is set in) is described as “taking several days of weeks to cross”. Do you have a map for this? No, or at least, not one that I’ve found.

4 I do not like prewritten campaigns, but I normally run them the first time that I’m playing a system if they’re easily available and not gigantic. Expect a blog post on this.

5 If I came up to your birthday cake with a grater and an onion, and began shaving the onion onto the cake, the fact that the onion was free doesn’t seem very relevant.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 4)

being honest

Nicht dass du mich belogst, sondern dass ich dir nicht mehr glaube, hat mich erschüttert.1

Friedrich Nietzsche, #183 Beyond Good and Evil

It occured to me that people might think I was finished with the fudging series after the last post, but I think there’s more to unpack. That was specifically an attack on the idea of fudging rolls to preserve a story, but we’ve got a few more left that we need to drag down and beat into submission. Once again, as clarification, these posts are about people who fudge without their players realising.

Transparency at the table is only a good thing, and if your players are happy with that, play on maestro.


sniffing the dice

When it comes to using dice as an object for generating tension, there’s a lot about the argument I do not disagree with. There’s certain “ceremonies” that occur when we play a lot of RPGs, the sound of dice rolling for an unknown cause, the players looking at the DM’s face to discern whether the value they rolled beat the threshold they needed, the pivotal moment where the rolling of a dice will dictate the campaign’s course for sessions to come. These are powerful moments, and it is not surprising that they’ve become memes, jokes and often referenced elements of the D&D culture. The rolling of dice taps into some primal part of the human brain, where the brakes are off and there’s nothing to it but what Lady Luck gives to you. This is, more depressingly, one of the reasons why gambling is so addictive, and such a problem.

There’s no greater evidence for the importance of dice in mainstream RPGs than the fact that even the most die-hard (hehe) of fudgers will struggle to remove the dice altogether. People argue whether or not DMs should fudge, but they’re very rarely for removing the dice altogether, even when they’re throwing gigantic cubic spanners in their much-beloved stories. They know the clacking sound of the dice is important, they know that the players feeling the element of fate in their interactions is valuable – so we keep the doors, we’ll keep the steps to the temple, even when the alter within has been desecrated2.

There’s a couple of pragmatic arguments that I can make here, which I’ll make first, and then there’s a more wistful, philosophical one. My first point, is that it only takes one realisation, and someone will realise. Whilst I think that people are normally bad at identifying instances where Things Aren’t Statistically How They Should Be, I believe that people have a sense that they develop over the course of regular play. If you’re fudging in favour of characters surviving encounters, it only takes a few strangely knife-edge combats before people start smelling that something’s off. As a player who has played in campaigns where people have secretly fudged dice, there is nothing worse than that moment of “was that really the roll?”. You begin to question every roll, not just the ones that are being fudged, because the players don’t have access to that information.

The moment that someone realises this is happening, the curtain is pulled up. The emperor has no clothes. The doubt has been seeded. Instead of a monster landing a critical hit being a tense moment where the hand of fate has tipped against the players, it’s a “uh-huh, sure” moment. Previously, you had the excuse of randomness to explain why certain rolls didn’t go the player’s way, but now, you’re the reason they didn’t. The terrible part of being the master of everything, is that you’re also on the hook for it. One of the greatest gifts of the dice roll is that it gives us distance: those moments of despair are directed at Lady Luck. Players curse their dice, claim they’re discharged and swear to not use them again in the session. Now that misfortune has a human face, and it’s yours.

the weapon of the enemy

It is of great importance to set a resolution, never not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s beleiving [sic] him. This falshood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all it’s good dispositions.

Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris Aug. 19. 1785.

It would be remiss here to quote Jefferson being good and honest without also pointing out his slave ownership and moral repugnancy. However, it’s a great quote, and I also agree with it.

I do not believe people who say that they only fudge “a little”. Let’s define some terms – if “a little” here refers only to the quantity of rolls, then it’s fairly meaningless. If you only fudged once in a session, but that fudge altered the direction of the campaign for the sessions to come, then you did not fudge a little, you fudged a whole lot of the game there. If “a little” means that the fudges were of little consequence…then why did you fudge at all? Things that are insignificant are excellent candidates for deciding through randomness, because then we don’t have to think about them, and can think about more important things.

In addition to the mostly semantic argument above, I see fudging as infectious. There’s a glib comparison to power I could make here – it’s hard to give up power and control; that applies to life, and dice rolls. What starts out as “fudging only to prevent TPKs or complete disasters” slowly takes hold in other areas. Now it’s fudging to push them towards content you think is cool, or fudging to stop them from killing a boss too quickly. That control starts to feel comfortable – the dice can no longer surprise you. Content you’ve planned will be reached, fights will continue until you’ve had your fill. You can tell how a session will go from start to finish, and it will go in the way you think is cool and good. Thank goodness, because you’ve got an awesome boat encounter planned for next session that you need them to get to.

How do I know this? I used to fudge. When I started DMing, I saw it in the same way that a lot of people do; a tool in a toolbox. I’d fudge to stop people from dying in a way I didn’t want, or to push them towards the stuff I spent a lot of time writing. It was only when I started to think about RPGs more abstractly, with prodding and influence from friends, did I realise what was happening. Fudging is the One Ring – I get that you want to use it to save Gondor, but soon you’ll be keeping it on your finger because it’s so damn comfy3. To disappear even further up my own arse, there’s a hope that these series of posts might do for others, what other videos and content about fudging did for me. If you do fudge, I’d suggest recording instances when you do, and looking at what sort of impact the ignored roll had. Seeing how far you’ve adjusted the game, even if you think you only fudge a little.

cogito

Let us assume you are the master manipulator. You have 100 Speech, you have natural 20’d your deception checks (you’re making the values up, but hey). You are the Werewolf of Wall Street. No matter how subtle your adjustments, there is one person at the table who will always know that you lied about the result of the dice.

You.

That time they managed to bring down the fiercest White Dragon, but only with a Hold Monster result that you fudged for them?

You know you did that.

That moment the party managed to perform a action-packed smash-and-grab, getting out of the building with their wits, intelligence, and because you fudged the sniper damage that would have killed one of them?

You know that it shouldn’t have happened that way.

That session which ended with one of the players exhaling and saying “I can’t believe that happened!” after they narrowly avoided a TPK, and you can’t either, because you lied about the dice roll that would have caused it.

You’re going to be thinking about that when they talk about how absurdly lucky they were.

I could go on, very dramatic. In all seriousness, one of the biggest problems with fudging for tension is that you know it isn’t real. You are robbing yourself of the experience that the players at the table are partaking in. Those moments above, which have players yelling and pounding the table? You can be there with them. You can celebrate when the white dragon falls because you didn’t guarantee it. Some of the greatest, most emotional moments I’ve had at the table have been when I’ve DMing, and things have come down to a final roll. In person, I come out from behind the screen, I throw the dice where all can see, and I get to react with the players. I revel in the glory of the roll going their way, I share in the despair of the worm turning. They know that, for that moment, we’re all a captive audience, we’re all sitting in the same stands.

That’s an experience I would never give up. No amount of control or power over the game is worth losing those moments of spectacle and bonding. In addition to this, fudging the rolls is a burden. For each roll, you’re thinking about whether you should, or shouldn’t let it pass. “Is that outcome fun enough?”, “Should I do something else?”. It’s fatiguing. There’s nothing I find more refreshing and liberating as a DM than just letting the dice do the talking. There’s enough to worry about in a game than needing to decide if an event needs your illicit intervention; sure that might lead to some sticky situations where the dice have driven the campaign in a particularly bizarre direction, but that’s when the players know that this shit is real. When they look in your eyes and see that what’s happening is not “all according to plan”, that we’re outside the city limits with our foot on the gas – that’s when they know they’ve found their game.

Don’t do yourself dirty like this. Bask in that tension, bask in the results. Let the game surprise you, like it surprises everyone else at the table. I don’t hate fudging out of some moral superiority – it’s a TTRPG question for goodness’ sake. I hate fudging because it makes the experience worse and robs the DM of the ability to enjoy it in the same way as their players. I hate it because it’s a crutch that you don’t need, one that’s giving you a limp.

I hate it because you can do better.


This might be the last post in the series, but I think it’ll be a living thing that I add to whenever I come across a disagreement, or a new argument for fudging. I’ve covered the arguments I put in part 2 with broad strokes, even if I didn’t call them out by name. I think the last thing for me to talk about is the DM as an agent of “fairness” against the unfair dice, and the DM as the arbiter of fun. That post might come a bit later as I’ve got other stuff that I want to write about first.

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Footnotes

1 “Not that you have lied to me, but that I no longer believe you, has shaken me”. I included the original German just in case I translated it poorly, or the other translations online didn’t properly capture it.

2 Somebody stop me.

3 Despite me talking about LOTR a fair amount in these posts, I’m not a mega-LOTR fan. I do really like it, but it’s not my be-all and end-all.

Categories
new melyne worldbuilding

the town of New Melyne (part one)

the basics

I wanted to do a category of blog posts where we do some normal DM planning activity, and I explain some of the decisions and ideas that go into it. This is the start of that series, and we’re starting with the creation of a town called New Melyne (pronounced malign). I love creating locations in RPGs more than anything else, possibly because I like creating maps, possibly because I’m terrible at creating characters. Who’s to say. The image I’ve used for the post is from Richard Benning, and I think it’s awesome.

I’m imagining this town as being the location of a fantasy one-shot, or a series of one-shots, so we’re going to put more detail into this than we would for every town that the players might visit. We need enough content for the players to feel like there’s more to explore, even after a couple of sessions into it. It also means we need a problem for the adventurers to solve. Something for them to uncover. With a name like “Melyne”, I’m thinking that this is a town with two faces – one side which presents itself as an average, respectable settlement with opportunities for those willing to seek them. The other side is the real face of New Melyne, a shadowy place where people are strange and inscrutable. Where everyone has an agenda, everyone has a play for power, and even the dullest scraps of it are jealously hoarded.

I’m getting ahead of myself. In this post, I’m going to talk about why New Melyne exists. When doing worldbuilding, I think it’s always worth asking “why is this here?”. In answering this question, we might discover that there’s no reason for it to exist, and that we need to give it one. Last thing here, the world at large:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe

Carl Sagan, The Lives of the Stars

In this instance, I actually disagree. We’re not trying to recreate The Silmarillion here, we’re trying to create a town. We might have a detail in the town that requires elaboration about the outside world, but it’s often easier to start from a single place and then build the world around that, instead of attempting the reverse. New Melyne can be a microcosm of the world around it.

why does New Melyne exist

If there’s a settlement somewhere, there’s normally a very good reason it’s there and not somewhere else. That reason could be a resource (the sea/a river for fishing and trade), it could be religious (set at the site of some religious event or tradition), it could be military (set in a location to allow for defence/mobilisation) – in New Melyne’s case, it’s going to be next to iron. There’s something inherently tone-setting about a town being next to a mine; if I was going to go full literary analysis on it, I’d give a few reasons.

  1. “Confrontational” relationship with nature. We take what we want with violent tools like picks and drills, as though we’re fighting against the land for control of those resources.
  2. Darkness and depth. The idea that the town might be a small piece compared to a vast network of shadowy tunnels that lie just below the surface.
  3. Hardiness and grit. Mining is traditionally very dangerous, attracting those who are either brave enough, or have no choice.
  4. Mine entrances as portals to the unknown. Normally we build walls and defences, but the mine entrance is a yawning gateway to whatever lurks beneath.

We’ve immediately said a few things about the world in general – that iron is a valuable resource worth extracting, that people are capable of creating settlements for purposes like iron (over reasons like basic needs, water, food), and that the iron is probably going somewhere (as you don’t need a big mine to support the iron needs of a single small town). Despite the iron needing to go somewhere, I want New Melyne to feel like a frontier town – I don’t want it to be some boring subsidiary of a big, cumbersome nation-state. I want it to be independent, with no greater authority than itself. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we’ll cover the authority/government piece in a post on its own.

There’s three more immediate requirements that come from New Melyne being next to iron. Firstly, that the terrain around New Melyne is quite rugged, with hills and valleys (because it’s far easier to mine into hills and valleys, rather than mining straight down). Secondly, that New Melyne is relatively far away from other settlements (otherwise it wouldn’t be a town, it’d just be a mine). Thirdly, that despite the rugged terrain, New Melyne must be reachable by road (otherwise it’d be horribly slow to transport any iron from it, and it wouldn’t be used).

This is all very useful information for our RPG! We have a route for our adventuring party to arrive in the town (the road and trade), and we have a reason why they wouldn’t immediately leave (the remoteness). Possibly most importantly for an adventuring RPG, we have a source of danger and mystery in the terrain and the mine1.

food for thought

People don’t eat rock. New Melyne might be where it is for the iron, but it must also have access to food and water. You never want to have that awkward moment where a player asks just how exactly your settlement survives, despite the fact they’ve yet to see a single source of nourishment. In line with the theming that the mine brings, I think New Melyne is going to primarily survive off hunting. It ticks all the boxes of hardiness and grit, it enforces the dangers of the nature around the town (as they don’t keep livestock), and it gives us a reason for weapons to be more commonplace (useful later…). I think access to water is going to be via a nearby stream, as that gives us a reason why more regular folk (not hunters) venture outside the town’s walls (meaning that they built the town closer to the iron source than they did the water, showing you the priorities of the town founders!).

The fact that the primary food source is going to be via hunting, also gives us an insight into the sort of clothes and armour people wear, and some jobs/industries that might exist other than pulling rocks out of the ground. It also suggests that the area around New Melyne must be somewhat plentiful with game animals – presumably if the hills were full of seventeen feet wide hyperpredators, they’d live off cave fungus or something equally miserable (or not have gone there at all). In terms of clothes and armour, it’s probably going to be a lot of leather, iron and pelts, with items made from resources sourced via agriculture being rarer (and mostly imported). I’m imagining a street of the town containing tanneries, blacksmiths and smokers – with all the foul smells that those industries bring.

origin story

Now that we have some semblance of a ‘why’, we can start thinking about a ‘how’ for New Melyne. We don’t need to detail this all now, but it’s good to quickly think about how it came to be. Keeping in step with the idea of New Melyne being an independent settlement, I like the idea of the town being some sort of venture by a semi-wealthy individual with limited/no existing ties to the greater world. I also like the idea of the town being around 22 years old, because we don’t have to write an extensive history, and it allows for a generation of working age people who were born in the first few years of the town. The benefit of it being a very young town, is that it makes sense for the surrounding area to remain somewhat of a mystery.

By having the town be a business venture started by an individual very recently, we’ve squashed down the possible hierarchy quite flat. Almost everyone in the town would have a personal connection to the founder, especially seeing as they’re likely to have some business connection. Right now, the town’s growth looks something like: (in order of arrival)

  • The Founder (as of yet unnamed)
  • Employees/associates of the founder (most likely miners/involved in mining)
  • Family of the employees/associates, immediate friends. Hunters, architects, etc. Jobs required for the town’s long term survival.
  • People seeking business opportunities from the newly growing town. Shopkeepers, traders, the wealthy.
  • Children of the first arrivals.

While this could be fine, having such a dense web of relationships will make things challenging. So for this reason, I think the founder of New Melyne disappeared five years ago. We’ll talk about the reasons why that happened in a later post, but it means we are going to need some small government structure when we come to that. In terms of the number of people living in the town, I’m hovering from anywhere between a five hundred to a thousand people. This definitely puts on the small scale for a town, but we can start to play with this number later if the number of jobs starts looking weird.

what we have so far

  • New Melyne is a very young mining town, built next to a source of iron to mine and trade with the wider world.
  • It’s set in an area of rugged landscape that has largely been unexplored.
  • It primarily survives on hunting as a source of food and clothing, but does trade for other goods outside of that.
  • It’s independent from the world around it – a law unto itself, for now!
  • It’s an industrial town, due to having dirty industries like tanneries, blacksmiths, and charcoal burners.
  • It started out as a commercial venture, but has evolved past that with the disappearance of the owner five years ago.
  • The current “government” must be quite young and inexperienced, as that disappearance was unlikely to have been expected.
  • There’s something very, very wrong with New Melyne.

Come back next time when we’re going to talk specifically about what sort of jobs and industries exist in New Melyne, and the beginnings of a map.

Footnotes

  1. I find it’s pretty common to forget to introduce an easy source of danger. If you don’t have this, then the source of danger becomes the settlement, and most of the foes the players will face will be humanoids. While this might be fine for the session you’re running, if you were looking to add more variety, it might not be what you want.