Saturday, November 13, 2021

People of the World, Spice up Your Life

 I have seen the Dune. It’s good, but, like all “content” now, too long.

The forms of many designs are quite nice (love the costumes of the imperial delegation at the beginning), but they forgot to color them in. I suppose I’m too infected by the lurid vision of Jodorowski’s Dune.

In fact, much about the new adaptation is beautiful yet muted - the cinematography, the storytelling, the performances. It makes good sense for a story about careful politics and intrigue, but I somehow still prefer the bad sense and wild life of Lynch’s movie. Call me contrarian. Of course, when it comes to depicting the idiosyncratic combat and warfare of the book, Villeneuve wins hands down.

Monday, June 14, 2021


Did you know Machiavelli looked like this goof?

Getting political has been the main way to keep higher-level play from becoming too easy or repetitive since basically forever in D&D. There isn’t much about it on the character sheet, though, so it’s not always clear how to do it. I’m going to try to break it down into straightforward steps that I’ve learned through trial and error.

Politics involve goals, power, and opportunity.


You can have politics in one hex, town, or even dungeon if there are individuals or groups with differing goals. However, completely incompatible goals like, “The ogre wants to eat livestock,” and, “the farmers want to keep their livestock,” won't usually result in politics, unless the PCs are interested in negotiating some sort of livestock-sharing agreement. Partially incompatible goals will allow for negotiations, diplomacy, and betrayal. If some actors actually have the same goals but for conflicting reasons, things will become even more complex.

What to do: When you write notes about the inhabitants of an area (including monsters), make sure you add, “and they want...” Make some goals incompatible, but others partially compatible, and still others the same but for different reasons.


Power is the ability to accomplish goals. It is rare for an individual to be able to accomplish all its goals alone. Politics, therefore, is, “the art of the possible:” that is, combining power until it is possible to accomplish a goal.

Power can come from different sources. They tend to boil down to belief, force, knowledge, and wealth (these mirror the four core classes of cleric, fighter, magic user, and thief nicely).

  • Belief can be religious, but it doesn’t have to be. Any ideal, ethic, or opinion is a belief, and the more widely they are shared, the more power they have. “The emperor rules by the Mandate of Heaven,” and, “a democratically elected government represents the will of the people,” are both beliefs that confer power.
  • Force can be overt, like armies, or covert, like assassinations. Fear of force can often be enough to accomplish goals.
  • Knowledge is the stretchiest category, but it often involves technical skill, secrets (i.e. blackmail), or (in D&D) magic or the occult.
  • Wealth means resources, either physical or monetary. In D&D, money isn’t different from any other resource. There is usually only one currency (gold pieces), and everyone values it, including monsters. In real life, money is a belief masquerading as a resource, but you don't need to get into that unless you have a very specific set of players.
Other axes of power are old vs. new and class vs. class. There are always established power centers struggling to stay at the top and upstarts threatening to dethrone them. There almost doesn’t need to be more of a reason for conflict than that. Furthermore, a high-status actor won’t usually betray their own class interest unless there’s a really good reason. Low-status actors will be more likely to betray class interests if they stand to gain from it.

What to do: Answer these questions for your setting: who holds power through belief? Who holds it through force? Who holds it through knowledge? Who holds it through wealth? Sometimes actors hold power through a combination of sources.

Then, ask the reverse question: who requires someone else's source of power to meet their goals? You will start to see who might attempt to ally with whom.


Actors will not always be able to wield their power to accomplish their goals right away. For example, the Bush administration inherited the power of force to invade Iraq, but they could not do so until they created public will through the belief in "weapons of mass destruction" and "ties to terrorism." Often, one actor making a move provides the opportunity for another to make a move.

What to do: As you play, look for conditions that give actors the opportunity to wield their power in their interest. I don't really have a system for doing this - I just ad hoc it. It helps to have all major goals written down in one place, so you can easily reference them.


Individuals will often pool power into organizations to pursue a shared goal. However, only the smallest organizations have truly uniform goals. There will always be differences of opinion, rivalries, and even those using the power of the organization for their own selfish ends. All organizations are essentially the same, be they clubs, churches, mafias, or kingdoms. The more powerful the organization, the more likely it is for individuals to join purely to advance themselves, with no regard for the organization’s stated project. 

What to do: In any organization you make, build in a few factions and rivalries. If it is powerful, include members who are purely selfish.

PCs First

An important thing to remember is that the PCs are the center of the campaign. If the players don't really seem interested in engaging in the politics of the setting, don't foist it on them. If it's fun for you, keep it humming in the background, changing the power environment that the PCs find themselves in. If and when politics becomes relevant to the PCs’ own goals (the most important goals in the game), they will engage with it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Tales of Brechewold

 A few stories:


One of my Brechewold groups has discovered a hoard of golden items in the dungeons: furniture, dish wares, decor, etc. They are the results of Ina the Alchemist’s experiments with the Fool’s Stone. However, they revert back to their original material when touched - a “reverse Midas” situation. They’ve already made good use of it. 

The Empty Knights (enchanted suits of armor) that guard the dungeons can be befriended if one places a literal heart of gold in their opened chest cavity. Upon hearing this, my players asked if there were any taxidermied animals in the gold collection. Of course there were (how could I say no?), so with a combination of an Unseen Servant, a little dissection, and some broom slap shots, they made some new friends.

This group also wants to use the magic forge in the dungeons to make magic weapons out of a troll’s iron heart, and it turns out that the troll most powerful in the forest in Autumn is Miser, who eats gold and silver. Well, they’ve swept some gold nicknacks into a bag, and are off to bait a troll trap.


Another group is more interested in forest economics than dungeon delving. They have secured a Series A round of funding from the lord of the nearby town Ygraine to start a guided tour company with noted local travelogue writer Steve Ricks. They have also convinced the bees of the Llewyn Family Meadery to unionize. They’re simultaneously bringing capitalism and socialism to Brechewold forest. The Merrye Bande of Merrye Outlawes, a group of anarcho-syndicalists, is therefore keen to make their acquaintance.


My third group has recently found out that Merlyn imprisoned a white dwarf star on Mars as a heat source to forge a replacement for Excalibur. The star is (understandably) disgruntled, and the group has convinced themselves that it poses them an existential threat. They are therefore considering their options to deal with it. Currently in the running are finding the gate to Hell in the dungeons and engaging in some demon negotiation, or recovering the elven relic the Jade Warning Bell, currently trapped in a dream dimension. It is said to be able to match the natural frequency of any matter, granting power over it.

Two thoughts: first, my friends and family rule at playing D&D. I’m consistently dumbfounded by the energy and creativity they bring to my simple play tests. Second, I’m really starting to think this book is shaping up nicely. You’ve been warned.

Friday, April 23, 2021

D&Dhammer Battle Report

Ok, let's see how this works. I put together two armies using stats from Old School Essentials:

Orcs and Goblins

  • Orc footmen (3 units): AC 13 HD 3 ATT +0 ML 8
  • Goblin archers (2 units): AC 13 HD 2 ATT +0 ML 7
  • Goblin spider-riders: AC 13 HD 3 ATT +3 ML 8 (I used the black widow stats. They have a poison attack, but I just decided to increase their attack bonus instead of dealing with that.)
  • Siege Stone Giant: AC 15 HD 9 ATT +7 ML 9

Using the number appearing from OSE as a guideline, this would represent about 180 orcs, 120 goblins, 10-20 spider riders? (the NA for black widows is 3, but that seems far too low), and 1-6 giants. However, there's no real reason this couldn't represent twice or three times those numbers. There's definitely room to use your best judgment and try to keep things proportional.

Vampire Lords

  • Skeleton horde (3 units): AC 12 HD 3 ATT +0 ML X
  • Brigand archers (2 units): AC 13 HD 2 ATT +0 ML 8
  • Giant bats: AC 13 HD 2 ATT +1 ML 8
  • Vampire knights: AC 17 HD 7 ATT +6 ML 11

The orcs and goblins had 17 HD of units and vampire lords had 14, but they also had the highest-stat unit and 3 that didn't need to check morale.

Round 1

Orcs win initiative. Goblin archers attempt to bring down the vampires' bats, since they're the only ones who can attack flyers, but miss. Bats go after the archers in retaliation, but miss too. Spider-riders hit the vampire knights, who hold morale. The vampires' archers hit the giant, who holds morale. The giant then throws a boulder at the knights, but it doesn't find purchase. Vampire knights charge the goblin archers, who manage to scramble and hide. Finally the orc footmen and skeleton hordes clash, and the orcs inflict two hits.

Round 2

Orcs win initiative again. Goblin archers hit the bats once, who hold morale. Vampire knights charge the goblin archers again, inflicting a hit, but the gobbos barely hang on. Giant goes for the knights, but misses. Bats miss the goblin archers, and spider-riders miss the brigand archers. Brigand archers rain their arrows down on their goblin counterparts, and the little greenskins finally break morale, wiped out since they've lost all HD (At this point, going by the rules I laid out in the previous post, the bats should be impervious to attack, but I'm going to argue with myself and say the giant is big enough to get them so I can keep going). Orcs wipe out the remaining skeletons.

Round 3

Vamps take the initiative this time. Brigands loose on the giant, missing with both attacks. The giant swats the bats out of the sky, wiping them out. Knights tilt at the giant, missing. Spider-riders scurry for the brigand archers, but can't inflict a hit. Orc footmen overrun the brigands, hitting, but the archers hold formation.

Round 4

Orcs regain the initiative. Giant misses the knights, knights miss the giant, spider-riders pull off a coup and hit the knights. Those pesky vamps hold morale. Brigand archers miss the giant. Orc footmen smash the rest of the archers.

Round 5

Vampires take the initiative, and with only the vampire knights remaining they manage to throw the orc footmen into disarray with a hit. Giant misses the knights, but spiders hit. High morale keeps the vampires hanging on.

Round 6

Vampires hold the initiative, and with a well-timed charge they force the giant into disarray. However, the spider-riders countercharge, sending the vamp knights into disarray. Orc footmen manage to reform their ranks.

Round 7

Vampires keep the initiative, manage to pull themselves together, and hit the spiders, who are thrown into disarray. The giant can't pull it back together. Orcs can't attack the mounted knights, since the knights are cavalry and too fast for the footmen.

Round 8

Vampires manage to keep the initiative yet again and rout the spiders, pushing them off the field. Since the remaining orc footmen cannot attack the knights, they just hurl insults at them. The giant can attack the knights...but misses.

Round 9

Vampires keep the initiative and I start to wonder if Google's dice roller is broken. The knights hit the giant, sending it into disarray. Since the orcs can't attack, they decide to quit the field. The vampires have won, but at a great material cost.

What I noticed:

  • Initiative is a harsh mistress. Winning 6 out of 9 times definitely gave the vamps the edge.
  • It has the same weaknesses as regular D&D combat - lots of misses and rounds where nothing really changes.
  • 1 HD footmen units are pretty squishy. I don't think this is necessarily a problem. They are basically shields, like linemen in football.
  • What would happen if the orcs had no units that could attack the bats? Battle over? I suppose the orcs could try to push their luck and take out as many units as they could before the bats became a big enough problem and they had to retreat. Fielding balanced forces that can deal with a number of threats will be important.
  • Similarly, when it came down to the vampire knights and the orc footmen, the orcs couldn't attack. This isn't necessarily a problem, but I might institute a rule that if cavalry attack footmen but miss, footmen can counterattack if they haven't attacked that round. However, I don't want to keep making situational rules like this that make the rules more fiddly.
  • It took about a half hour to do all the rolling and typing. It might be a little bit longer if I was narrating the battle at the table. That seems pretty good as an add-on to a campaign climax session. However, it could be a lot longer if players can't decide how to command their forces.
Overall, though, this does seem to hang together. I have a campaign now in its 6th year where things have moved pretty far into domain-level play, and the players barely use their character sheets anymore. I'll probably use this system with them before too long and try to refine it further. Some next steps: codifying magic some more, dealing with fortifications, and stuff like ambushes/surprise attacks.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021


Ah, the elusive mass combat system. I've overthought this for a long time. Just use regular monster stats, ya dummy!

Specifically AC, HD, THAC0/Attack Bonus, and Morale. Ignore everything else. Each unit is represented by the stats for one creature of the troop type. If there are several units of the same troop type, multiply the HD by how many units there are. If you're not sure how many individuals one "unit" should represent, use the maximum number appearing. Try to keep the HD numbers small but proportional.

No maneuvering unless you feel like it. The type of unit determines who it can attack (adapted from Matt Colville's Strongholds and Followers rules):

  • Footmen and big monsters: can only attack other footmen/biggies if any are on the field, followed by archers, and finally siege engines.
  • Archers and flyers: can attack anyone.
  • Cavalry, fast monsters, and siege engines: can attack anyone except flyers.
If you want to get a little more advanced, you could say that any unit that was attacked in melee (so like, attacked by footmen or non-ranged monsters) must pass a morale check (2d6) to attack a different unit (instead of the one that attacked it) that turn.

Roll initiative. Each side takes turns using units until none are left, and then roll initiative again. Ideally, this would happen alongside the PCs engaging in normal D&D combat against the enemy commander or executing a special mission.

Units make attack rolls as normal against each other. A successful "hit" reduces the defender HD by 1. 

Each time a unit is hit but has HD left, it must make a morale check, adding the total hits accumulated to the roll. If it succeeds, it may continue to act normally. If it fails, it is in disarray and may not act again until it passes a morale check. If a unit is hit while in disarray, it is routed and flees from battle.

I have two ideas for how to handle a unit reduced to 0 HD: 

  1. Wiped out immediately. Simple.
  2. It is only wiped out if it fails a morale check. I like that this would allow for units to hang on for heroic last stands. I worry that this would make low-HD, high-morale units punch too far above their weight. You would have to keep counting hits to add to morale checks.
Mindless units, like some undead, do not check morale at all but are automatically wiped out at 0 HD.

If a commander is on the field, all units add the commander's Charisma bonus to their Morale score. A 12 is still a failure.

In order for a spellcaster to use spells in battle, it must be at least 9th level and use up spell slots (of at least the spell level) equal to the HD of the unit it is casting the spell on. Adjudicate special creature abilities on a case-by-case basis. I haven't thought magic and special abilities through very well.

Even though this is simpler than a real wargame, it is still a lot to add on to a regular D&D combat, so you'd only want to run maybe one or two climactic battles per campaign like this. I'm taking a look at the War Machine rules from the Rules Cyclopedia to try to adapt it into something I'd use. It reduces a battle to one roll, but there's a lot that goes into determining the modifiers to the roll. I'll post my version of that eventually. Honestly, most of the time, you probably don't even need to roll for the results of a battle unless it seems like it would be close. Even then, if the PCs accomplish their part of the battle, their side should win unless it really doesn't make sense.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Only DM Advice in Brechewold, I Swear

A subject fraught with peril, to be sure, but I gotta admit I'm feeling good about this lil nug I wrote as part of the Brechewold intro:

This book does not present a plot. There is neither a predetermined conclusion nor a set path to follow. When DMing, I resist the temptation to think of myself as a storyteller. I am not telling a story. I am creating the conditions for and participating in a game of imagination structured by weighted chance. “Story” is what the players will tell when the game is over. I haven’t discovered a truly useful analogue to the role of a DM. Though it shares skills with storytellers, traditional game designers, teachers, theatrical directors, psychologists, and architects, it is a unique thing.

So, do not prepare a plot. Set the scenario. Provide enough information for players to make informed choices for their characters. Become familiar with the goals and personalities of the book’s NPCs, and then pay attention. Pay attention to possible conflict or convergence between players’ choices and NPCs’ goals. Pay attention when the players ignore certain undercurrents and allow NPCs to pursue their goals unhindered. Advance the scenario, updating the players with new information as their characters would learn it.

Above all, respect the players’ agency. They must be free to make any choice allowed within the confines of the setting and the comfort and fun at the table. Do not move things around in the imagined world to render their choices meaningless. The NPCs are allowed to be deceptive, but the DM is not. Err on the side of providing too much information if players are unsure what to do, but let them make the choice. Let them surprise you. Let them create chaos. Shed your preconceived notions and allow the imagined world to react naturally to players’ choices.