Monday, May 31, 2010

GridMapper v1.0

In the continuing list of things I was wishing for 20 years ago, and am getting a chance to check off now, here's GridMapper: an application for Windows that lets you create old-school dungeon complexes in the quickest possible fashion. Start with a filled-in underground map, and from the first mouse-click you're clearing spaces for dungeon rooms, corridors, etc. Additional options under "Tools" allow you to place doors, stairs, and walls. Save, open, print, resize, and copy your map to other image-manipulation software.

I've been using it for a few weeks now to make my own dungeon maps, and I'm finding that it greatly speeds up my ability to jot down ideas, experiment, erase, and play around with the layout. (Also thanks to Al-Krelaan's excellent HexMapper for some inspiration.)

Now, this is Version 1.0, and frankly it's doing everything I need it to at the moment to increase my productivity (and generally make the job more fun), but conceivably it could take some feature expansions in the future. Here's some initial ideas, and I'll let you tell me which ones sound most appealing:
  1. A free-floating toolbar in its own, separate window.
  2. Objects such as statues, trapdoors, water, etc.
  3. Loading custom icons for the various features.
  4. Automated random generation of corridors, rooms, etc.
  5. Possibly better error-handling code throughout.
A few things that I would not ever expect to add to this application are: (a) irregular, diagonal, circular, or cavernous rooms and corridors (the program is simply not set up to deal with anything other than single-square elements), nor (b) annotations like text, room key numbers, etc. I think any of those items are best produced by standard image-editing software, and when I want fine-grained details like those I just copy my base map into Photoshop and go at it from there.

Have at it and tell me what you think!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Moorcock and Music

One final thing in what's turned out to be "things related to Michael Moorcock" week". Did you know that he played blues and toured all over Europe as a solo act and with bands? That he corresponded with (and covered) Guthrie and Pete Seeger back in the 50's? That he wrote the novelization to the Sex Pistols' movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle? From an interview at the in 2002:
Q: Do you think there was a connection between the social revolution of the 1960s and science fiction and fantasy? Your fiction reflects knowledge of the drugs and party scene at the time - how involved did you get in all that?

Party scene? Sounds strange to me. Didn't do much of that. There were some clubs, but they were mainly full of record business wankers, so I left those for the uni-dropouts like Rosie Boycott who seemed more interested in meeting the stars than working for the revolution.

People of my generation were attracted to SF and rock 'n' roll because they had no standing with any kind of authority - they were well in the margins and so well out of sight. Which meant you could make them your own. Drugs, I suppose, were also a natural part of that from the 1950s onwards. They were simply part of the culture I grew up in. Drugs didn't just suddenly appear in 1965, as it sometimes seems from histories of the times... Ask Charlie Parker.

What happened to rock 'n' roll in Britain also happened to SF. We turned it into something that suited our own voices and concerns. Popular arts had never seemed so good.

Q: Music and SF seem to have changed in similar ways. Do we just look back at the 1960s and 1970s with rose-tinted spectacles, or were those really more exciting times?

We had no borders. We didn't know how far we could go with something until it snapped. We were willing to try new ideas and there was money around to back them. This was before the big companies started applying the lowest common denominator technique to everything, when they didn't know what sold, so they'd back a lot of different kinds of bands. These bands came up on a flood of rage, too - young men who were not being taken on their own terms, at the simplest level, but there was politics and stuff in there, too. Whatever band nowadays admires The Who, they can never capture what The Who had - and that's anger. Anger (frustration, disappointment) also drove the kind of SF that Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Pohl and Kornbluth wrote - anger at social injustice.

In the case of the blues this was exemplified in black musicians, in the case of folk music it was originally inspired by Fenian songs and the like and later what came to be called 'protest'. A few years ago a nice young man came up to me at a funeral. He said he enjoyed my books and it seemed to him the 1960s had been really glamorous. "But my dad says they weren't really like that, they were just the same as any other time."

"That means your dad wasn't there," I said.

Also: If you haven't read James Mal's epitaph for Ronnie James Dio, do so now. And if you're into it, perhaps consider the Facebook group "I Refuse to Admit Dio Died of Cancer, I Believe a Dragon Ate Him."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Once and Future King

The book that I've read more times than any other in my life is T.H. White's The Once and Future King. It's a modernist take on the King Arthur legend (dovetailing from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur), written 1939-1958. It's drop-dead brilliant.

I first read it, I think, when I was about 8 years old, as my mother had it for a college class she was taking. Later it just happened to be assigned reading in high school when I was around 18 or so. I continued the pattern after that, reading it at least once every 10 years or so. I'm on my 5th reading right now, maybe?

It's not part of the pulp-fantasy canon, and I can't remember it coming up with any of my other gaming buddies in conversation. It's not part of Gygax's Appendix N. Maybe it's not really applicable to D&D much at all (the tragic structure, and the sense of pre-ordained fate playing out, doesn't synch up very well with a tabletop game). Nonetheless, it's shaped a lot of my background expectations for fantasy and mythic imagery.

One of the great things about my relationship with The Once and Future King is that every time I read it, I discover new meaning -- details, references, allusions, themes -- and new depth. Each time I return, there's a new understanding that I simply wasn't ready for at a younger age.

This sort of matches the structure of the book itself, written over a period of about 20 years. The first part, "The Sword in the Stone", telling the story of King Arthur's childhood, is light and airy and frequently comical (to the extent that Disney was comfortable making an animated movie based on it); this part caught most of my attention when I was a child myself. The rest of the book, with Arthur in adulthood, was written after White had seen the effects of World War II on the U.K., and it's darker and more brooding and troubled. There's a lot to the portrayal of Lancelot in "The Ill-Made Knight" that my 18-year-old self was suddenly shocked to recognize very deeply, waiting for me like a secret map in a book that I'd already read.

Some of the wonder of White's work comes from his intimate familiarity with archaic pastimes such as falconry, hunting, and fishing. (Apparently he lived by those means in a cottage for a year or so in the mid-1930's.) Later on, he took up flying, and that experience clearly fertilized some lengthy and beautiful scenes of families of birds flying together across the North Sea. He also spent time translating a medieval bestiary (which I would recommend for some great ideas in spicing up otherwise mundane animals in a D&D game -- available online here), which itself makes an appearance in The Once and Future King, Book 2, as the Sons of Lot prepare to go unicorn-hunting.

The Once and Future King may possibly be the single best book I've ever read. Is it absolutely perfect? No, it's not.

Pre-World War II, White wrote and published "The Sword in the Stone", and I think most critics categorize the work as a comedy, even though there are some heartbreaking scenes contained within it; Arthur receives a magical education from Merlin as best he can manage. After World War II, White started writing and publishing the darker sequels, including a concluding work called "The Book of Merlin", set at the end of Arthur's reign, with one final lesson that had been, perhaps, tragically overlooked.

Now, when the whole work was put together into one book called The Once and Future King, guess what White was unable to resist doing? You guessed it: He went back and rewrote parts of the original book from 20 years earlier. He snipped out a section of a more comical adventure with Merlin's Owl, and dropped in the extended scene intended for "The Book of Merlin" in its place (leaving out the rest of that last book, but including the 4 others that came before it).

Without giving spoilers on it, this cut-and-paste scene is the single awkward blemish on an otherwise ideal piece of literature. When you're reading Part 1, this scene very abruptly interrupts other action, and it has a tone and sensibility clearly different from what's around it. White is even forced to create a Merlin-time-dilation-magic rationalization for this part, because it actually doesn't fit into the story-time allotted to it. Then when you're reading Part 4, it ends on a slightly weird note that feels something else should be coming, but it is indeed the end of the collection. And it's a little hard to see how this all-important, extra-long lesson was rather blithely forgotten by Arthur afterward, in the mid-part of the book. If you get a standalone copy of "The Sword in the Stone", apparently that still gets published in the original format.

You might see the connection with what I wrote on Monday: Things like "Artists' best stuff tends to be their early stuff" (White's most renowned and best-loved work is the lighthearted first part), and "You should read/watch stuff in order of publication" (what I'll call the long-lesson works best at the end of the overall story), and "Business corrupts art" (or whatever reason caused White to not include "The Book of Merlin" in the overall collection). Most importantly in this case: Artists going back and altering old works usually ends in tears. But at least he didn't write a prequel (well... unless you count "The Sword in the Stone" itself as being a prequel to Le Morte d'Arthur).

Oh, and one final thing: Michael Moorcock was deeply influenced by T.H. White and his most famous work, apparently having an ongoing correspondence with him for some time. According to Moorcock:
T.H. White's series had also been very enjoyable and equally tragic. White had given me some very good advice on how to write, as had Peake. White was very kind and, looking back, tolerant with me. [Interview with, 2002]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Elric and Art

I wanted to call this blog posting "Elric and Art: Writing, Publishing, Business, and the Evolution of the Artist". What you get is this.

When I read the AD&D Deities & Demigods book, lo these many years ago, I fell in love with the idea of Elric. I'll leave it at that.

So about 10 years ago or so, I finally picked up a big (500+ page) collection of stories called Elric: Song of the Black Sword by White Wolf Publishing. It contains the stories: (1) Elric of Melnibone, (2) The Fortress of the Pearl, (3) The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, (4) The Dreaming City, (5) While the Gods Laugh, and (6) The Singing Citadel. "Spectacular!" I thought to myself, "I'll get a nice big heaping stack of Elric to fill in my previous lack."

And I started reading it, and I found it to be abominable. I'm nearly obsessive-compulsive about finishing stuff, but I almost gave up on this book and just ditched it numerous times. I couldn't believe how bad I was finding the writing, the characters; the sense of pacing was mind-bogglingly awful.

If you're a fan of Elric, bear with me for a bit. Numerous spoilers follow the asterisks!


Here's some more of my experience in reading the Song of the Black Sword collection. The freaking story went nowhere for hundreds and hundreds of pages. The writing seemed to slog on saying nothing about the main character. It seemed like it avoided saying anything of substance about the artifact-sword Stormbringer? Combat description is surprisingly lacking. There's an epic save-the-multiverse adventure that pops out of nowhere, and then is forgotten-as-a-dream afterward. Freaking yucko. I'm thinking, "Where's Moonglum and Yyrkoon and Theleb K'aarna and Cymoril and the Dragons of Melnibone?" All these epic characters I hear about are appearing nowhere in the book.

Finally, after slogging through 425 pages of this stuff, Elric's arch-enemy Yyrkoon and life-love Cymoril finally appear. And ten pages later they're both dead! And ten pages after that, Melnibone is entirely destroyed. WTF!!?!, I say. Why did you waste all my time like that, to almost immediately throw away the star villain, etc.!?

Even more spoilers coming up!


So in the last few months I started to do a bit more literary research on the matter. This was partly due to James Mal's recent posts about Conan & Elric, about which a lot of people seemed genuinely excited. Then I also picked the recent graphic novel, Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, by Michael Moorcock, working with my all-time comic favorite Walt Simonson, and found it to be absolutely excellent. "How could this be?", I started asking myself.

So here's the deal in a nutshell: The stories in Song of the Black Sword are presented in a different order than they were originally published. Moorcock's first story was "The Dreaming City" (4th in this book), followed by other stuff; later on he started writing prequels. In Song you get these stories re-ordered to in-story chronological order, which was how I experienced them.

Let's unwind this and imagine that I'd instead encountered them in publishing order. The first Elric tale was a short story in Science Fantasy magazine (1961), and it's only 28 pages long. In it, Elric storms his ancient homeland, kills his cousins Yyrkoon and Cymoril (the latter by mistake), fights the ships and Dragons of Melnibone, and razes the whole thing to the ground. I'm sure Moorcock was very glad to get this publication. I think if you came to this fresh and without other preconceived notions, you'd find it to be intense, fast-paced, and overflowing with lots of exciting ideas.

This was sufficiently popular that other short stories were commissioned. In the second one ("While the Gods Laugh", 5th in this book, very near the end; 32 pages long) the sidekick Moonglum is introduced -- coming out of nowhere, but very much a nice complement to Elric's character. "The Singing Citadel" is another adventure like that, but published much later (29 pages long) -- it's last in my collection, and frustratingly ends with the biggest "tune-in-next-time" cliffhanger of any story in the book. (This final kick-in-the-nuts being the last straw for me putting up with any more Elric stories, I thought.)

So after that time (publication-wise), Moorcock wrote more stories, and the popularity allowed them to grow in size to novelettes and novellas. After nine such stories, the saga of Elric came to and end as he killed his patron god Arioch and himself (or so I hear).

But that wouldn't be the end of it! There was sufficient interest and audience demand that more Elric stories could still be sold. So now Moorcock started churning out prequels in the time before the first story, "The Dreaming City". And he was able to expand the scope to full novels. (The recent graphic novel is in fact a prequel-to-those-prequels.)

Big paragraph coming -- Here are some of the ramifications of that. (1) Moorcock's writing style had to "fatten up", with his former quick, fast-paced style needing to evolve to fill up entire novels. (2) Nothing of importance could really happen in the prequels, because the fates of Elric, Yyrkoon, Cymoril, etc., were all fixed in the "future". Thus you get stuff like the save-the-multiverse crossover adventure ("Sailor on the Seas of Fate") that Elric then magically forgets, so as to explain why he never thinks about those momentous events later in continuity. (3) The explanations and introductions for things are all in the wrong place; to Moorcock's readers at the time, they already knew everything about the sword Stormbringer by the time the prequel "Elric of Melnibone" (1st in my book) was written, so the author would have no need to repeat that information (but leaving me in the dark for most of the book). (4) Minor characters are cannibalized; what I saw as a character developed over hundreds of pages and then disposed of as an afterthought (the sea-captain Count Smiorgan) was really just a minor casualty in the 1st-written story, but brought back and developed as a great friend of Elric's in the prequels (so as to have some connection with those earlier stories). (5) Elric's personality arc makes no sense; fundamentally, Moorcock himself lightened in tone over time. In the first-published stories, Elric is a legitimate, total badass -- a cold killer and destroyer, never looking back. Later he had regrets and became a deeper, "torn" antihero; even a caring figure, but cursed to doom those around him. But this makes no sense in chronological order, as he starts out caring, suddenly turns into an ice-cold motherfucker after the middle of the book, and then inexplicably starts being surprised at having regrets near the end.

A side observation: If you read the work in chronological order, it's interesting to see that the whole "Stormbringer lends strength by sucking out souls" bit was not in the original stories; that evolved later. It's clear that to begin with, Elric expected to gain strength and power as soon as he drew the sword out of its scabbard (e.g., p. 468). It seems like there's one single sentence in the original story, which I read as a linguistic flourish, that later got transformed into literal fact (p. 433: "Elric hacked a blood-drenched path through those who attempted to halt him and men fell back, screaming horribly as the runesword drank their souls"; compare to p. 436: "Then Yyrkoon laughed one final cackling shriek and his black soul went howling down to hell.") Or maybe some of this got re-written at a later date; it feels pretty inconsistent.

Here are some lessons I think we can take from this.
  1. Prequels fucking suck. They can't have any real tension, because all the main characters are immune to death or destruction due to the already-established future. In some sense they have to be for "lower stakes" (or some kind of faux-dream-stakes; see above) so the characters aren't jaded and unimpressed by the time they get to the "real" adventure. They tend to cannibalize characters for the "Look! If you loved Captain Smiorgan, here he is again!" factor. Small stuff will get bloated in importance as every thread of relation gets sucked on in this way. Probably some other stuff I can't think of right now.
  2. Artists' best stuff tends to be their early stuff. Not strictly all the time, but frequently this is the case. When the artist is young and radical and unforgiving and with nothing to lose and the sharp edges not-yet-rounded-off, they'll probably be generating their most unique work. Or as I tell all my artist friends, "Your very best stuff will go almost entirely unnoticed."
  3. You should read/watch stuff in order of publication. The tone of the developing artist gives a much deeper "throughline" than any attempt at high-concept continuity. As a corollary: Once the author changes (either in personality or through actual replacement), quit the series in question; it's over.
  4. Business corrupts art. Again, not every single time -- but much of the time. It's an inescapable fact that lots of art will go rotten due to business concerns. For Moorcock, the novel-length publications were fundamentally antithetical to his best writing style. But, it's how the industry best sold books, so he had to do it.
Consider some other artwork series that suffer in similar ways. Think to when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, and then due to reader demand had to write more stories with him; so, "retcon"ing him back to life. Think about how the big comic-book companies have no real equity whatsoever (they don't own real estate, or printing presses, or retail stores, or long-term contracts with the creators) except for the copyright to some fictional characters; and so in the same way, anyone who dies is legally/economically required to be brought back to life, or the board members could be liable to shareholder action for not fully exploiting the value of the company's assets.

Think about how great Isaac Asimov's short stories are, and how absolutely shitty his full-length novels are -- he only ever had a single "event" in any of his stories, whether short or long, and in the latter case merely became bloated with do-nothing page-fillers. (He admitted once that he wrote all of his stories in one sitting start-to-end without any draft or structure planning.) But novels were a better sales-channel than short stories, which were his "real" art form.

Think about when I was young and fell in love with, and was deeply moved by, Walt Simonson's run on the Mighty Thor comic; and how stupid it was to stick with the series for the atrocious years after he left. Or how shit-tastic Lost got after the first season. Or how the thing that freaked me the most when I saw Marina Abramović at the MOMA today (as I write this) was her very first work.

Finally, think about what it's like to be a young kid watching Star Wars today. It must be the exact same experience that I had with Elric. It has prequels made out-of-chronology order. The prequels freaking suck; they're bloated and the tempo is awful and they emphasize all the wrong things that will be minor throwaway stuff in later films; characters get their memories wiped to explain outrageous ignorance in the later work. The new films are made (and old ones hacked up) by a similarly bloated, blasted, uncaring old George Lucas who kind of doesn't give a shit anymore. People will fob off the prequels on you first and none of the themes or tones will make any sense. But it made a shitload of money, so you can just suck it.

I don't think you can say that my reaction to the Star Wars prequels is just me wishing things were the same as when I was a kid. I got to experience the exact same out-of-order thing with the Elric story compilation, and I could tell that it reeked when I read it that way. But after the fact, if I strip away the prequel garbage and read the earliest story later on as an adult with fresh eyes for the first time, I can still find it to be intense, exciting, meaningful, and worthwhile on its own.

In "Appendix N" to the DMG by Gary Gygax, he lists Stealer of Souls (a collection of the first five Elric novelettes) and Stormbringer (collecting the next four novellas). I'll probably dig up some more of those stories at some point, to find out exactly what happened to Elric later in time.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Awesome Cover

Look at how really awesome this cover is by Ken Rahman for Dragon magazine #34 (February 1980):

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Money Results

A while back I initiated a discussion on money in D&D, and created a poll with a couple options for a preferred money system. You can see the results at the top here, which I'll be using in my own games starting today.

One of the things that was pointed out last time was that the by-the-book OD&D money structure of 1:10:50 (gold:silver:copper) was passingly similar to the real-world coin values in medieval England of about 1:20:80. Note again that this is separate from the often-confused issue of "moneys of account", i.e., pounds/shillings/pence at 1:20:240, which were used for bookkeeping purposes only, and not actually coins. We consider it a mistake to use those ratios in AD&D for several reasons. (And thanks to commenter Tsojcanth for pointing out that GURPS also uses the historical 1:20:80 coin conversion rate.) Our OD&D coins more-or-less match the English silver "Groat" (4 pence, 1/3 of a shilling) and gold "Half Noble" (40 pence, 1/6 of a pound value).

So here's what I'll be doing from now on:
  1. Convert the economy to a "silver standard". Read the OD&D Basic Equipment list as being priced in silver pieces, not gold (and start PCs with the same). Likewise, read the values for gems, jewelry, hiring henchmen, paying specialists, tolls and tithes, crafting magic items, etc., as being in silver pieces. Award experience at the rate of 1 XP = 1 sp.
  2. Reduce coin treasures appropriately. Fortunately, by choosing the OD&D conversion rate of 1 gp = 10 sp, it's simple to convert monetary treasures to an equivalent purchasing amount; just divide by 10. For example, monster treasure-types (Vol-2, p. 22) are now generated in 100's of coins, not 1000's. Do the same thing for other coin-specific tables, treasure troves in pre-published adventures, etc.
  3. Change the encumbrance rate of coins. Let's assume that our money weighs an average of 100 grains per coin. This is realistically large: 6.48 grams per coin, 70 coins per pound, and 980 coins per stone weight. For simplicity, we'll say: 1,000 coins per stone in our streamlined encumbrance system. That makes it exceedingly easy to adjudicate. (Another benefit to the 1:10 gp:sp choice is that it accurately reflects the medieval value of gold & silver by weight, i.e., it's correct to think that our coins do in fact weigh the same amount.)
  4. Use historical pricing data to fill in gaps. Now that we have a more real-world based economy structure, it's reasonable to use historical resources like the Medieval Sourcebook to answer more esoteric questions when they come up in play. You'll just have to convert moneys-of-account to coinage: Where it says pence (d) use the same number of copper coins; where it says shillings (s), multiply by 3 for our silver coins; and where it says pounds (L), multiply by 6 for our gold coins.
Examples of treasure generation: We'll use the (unguarded) treasure table on Vol-3 p. 7. On the 1st level, I roll up: 30 sp and 3 gp (a little under average). That may look very small to our jaded eyes, but notice that it's enough to buy a full suit of plate mail and a sword. If you want somewhat more exciting treasure, advance the game to 4th level: Here I get 500 sp and a +1 sword. Later at the 10th level: A treasure with 3,000 sp, 1,000 gp, and 7 gems worth base 50 sp each. Note that this entire treasure can be carried away by one character in a big, normal sack (4 stone weight), earning 13,350 XP (over 1/10th of a Lord's level), and enabling him or her to purchase a small galley. Now that's treasure worth fighting for!

Some of the lessons here, I think, are these: You don't want to "blow your wad" with enormous summer-action-movie-size treasures right at 1st level. A fat purse with a few dozen coins should be worth a thief's time to knife someone over. A wizard should be able to carry enough money in the folds of his robe to buy a night's stay at an inn, hire a lantern-bearer, or procure some interesting ephemera. If you want to jump into "heroic" adventure from the get-go, then it should match the rest of the D&D mechanics in that 3rd or 4th level is where you would start.

Pricing power, and therefore game-balance, is always exactly the same as in the regular game; a roll of N on whatever treasure table allows you to buy exactly the same number of helmets or horses (or whatever), and awards exactly the same XP, as in the base game. The one thing that's changed is carrying capacity -- characters can pack out almost ×100 greater value in treasure (×10 for the silver-standard switch, and ×7 for the weight-of-coins change). No longer do you have characters leaving the majority of a treasure in the dungeon at 1st level, and worsening geometrically from there.

Examples of historical conversions: Look to the Medieval Sourcebook. Leather armor in 1285 is listed as 5s (shillings): convert to coins by 5×3 = 15 silver pieces (historical groats), and notice that's identical to the OD&D equipment list. Helmets (Burgonet, 1590) were 4s: convert 4×3 = 12 silver pieces; compare to OD&D listing of 10. Draft horses (13th cen) are documented at 10s-20s: convert starting price 10×3 = 30 silver pieces; again, identical to the OD&D listing.

Lessons from this exercise: The OD&D price listings are actually somewhat realistic (at least on the right order-of-magnitude; usually within a factor of ×2 or ×3 or so) if you read them in units of silver pieces, like the historical "groat" coins. (But not gold pieces; nor shillings or any other non-coin money-of-account.) I think that's good news, because it allows us to leverage our wealth of resources from history to support and enrich our game in this particular context.

Now I'll point out a pair of outliers. One exception to realistic OD&D pricing in silver coins is the heavy armor types, chain and plate mail. While Vol-1 lists these at prices of 30 and 50 respectively, looking at the Medieval Sourcebook shows that they could realistically be valued at 10 times those figures in silver pieces. You could change them, but I'm conservative enough that I don't want to re-do the pricing list just for this. I'll be giving my players the price list unchanged from the OD&D books, merely referencing them in terms of silver instead of gold pieces, and running the game unchanged in that regard.

The other exception is the cost of men-at-arms. One thing that's apparent in OD&D as you look on facing pages in the DM's book (Vol-3, p. 22-23) is that the prices for Specialists & Men-at-Arms are in totally different magnitudes (the former in hundreds or thousands per month; the latter in ones or maybe tens per month). The costs for Specialists can be interpreted as silver/month and be compatible with the rest of our system, as usual (compare to Sourcebook: "armorers"). However, if we take the Sourcebook mercenary/army wages (usually in a few pence or shillings per day), add in a like factor for upkeep/support, multiply out to monthly payments, and then convert to our half-noble gold coins, then we get numbers very similar to the OD&D table. So this is the one case in our entire system where we should do the following for realism's sake: Read the OD&D Men-at-Arms monthly costs in actual gold pieces, not silver pieces (i.e., multiply by 10 for silver pieces).

One other note: If you'd prefer to use the 1:20:80 ratio in your own game, almost all of the foregoing would still apply, although you'd have to divide coin treasures by 20 (instead of 10). When converting historical prices you'd multiply both shillings & pounds by 3 to get your silver and gold coinage. And OD&D men-at-arms prices could possibly be cut in half (reading in gold pieces).

In summary, this fairly lightweight revision provides a lot of advantages: (1) We maintain by-the-book coin conversions for OD&D. (2) We can still use almost all of the OD&D tables and figures as written, simply dividing coin treasure amounts by 10 on the fly. (3) Game balance is maintained with identical overall purchasing power and XP awards. (4) We create a campaign where PCs can carry appreciably large amounts of value with them, whether in the dungeon, wilderness, or city (even when treasures are increasing hugely at the upper levels). And (5) We develop an economy and coinage reasonably in tune with medieval Europe, such that we can use historical sources to enrich and reinforce our game when desired.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Spells Through The Ages -- Duration

Here's another entry in the top-level Spells Through the Ages investigation, with one issue in particular for OD&D that I'll focus on:

Some initial observations: Where no specific duration is listed, the spell in question is either by concentration, instantaneous, indefinite, permanent, special in some complex way, or simply with duration not given (undefined). Most of the Chainmail spells seem to presume ending when the caster wills it or someone else dispels it. Of the 6 with specific durations, half of those were in some sense carried over to OD&D. Again we see the usual transition from 1E to 2E, in which almost everything was directly copy-and-pasted. But what you do see here, which is unusual, is an almost complete and total makeover (in both numbers and units) between OD&D and AD&D 1E. Why is that?

OD&D confuses its own time units. The Vol-1 spells are all entirely in units of "turns". (With one single exception: infravision has a duration of 1 day.) The spells from Chainmail mostly carry forward with similar durations, still in "turns". However, according to OD&D Vol-3, the meaning of the word "turn" has ostensibly changed. Whereas in Chainmail "turn" means a single combat sequence of 1 minute, in OD&D it supposedly indicates a 10 minute unit that many of us are familiar with. Instead, the 1 minute combat sequence is now supposed to be called a "round" (Vol-3, p. 8).

But that's Vol-3; Vol-1 (the one containing the spell list) doesn't display any knowledge of that definition anywhere. None of the spells are given durations in terms of "rounds" (nor "hours" or anything else). The first usage of more varied units comes in Supplement-I; there you have some new spells with durations in hours (web, wizard lock) or a week (suggestion).

And something even more intriguing: the various monster summoning spells in Sup-I are given durations in units of "melee turns", which is not even a defined term anywhere in OD&D. Somehow the writer in question clearly threw away, or forgot, or was not aware of, or was writing prior to, the distinction of "round" as it appears in Vol-3, p. 8.

So consider what happens with the switch to AD&D. The great majority (72%) of spells with duration given in "turns" in OD&D changed to "rounds" in AD&D 1st Edition. (There are 36 such spells: 26 change to "rounds", 10 remain as "turns".) This one switch -- really, a belated realization that the term "turn" has changed -- primarily constitutes the highlighting of the entire "AD&D1" column in the table above.

Case study: I'll use the haste spell about which I wrote previously. In Chainmail, it lasted for 3 turns (i.e., 3 minutes or combat-cycles). In OD&D, it also lasts for 3 turns (but now that means 30 minutes). In AD&D 1E, it's 3+level rounds (i.e., back to 3+ minutes/combat-cycles), and this unit is carried forward uniformly to 2E, 3E, and 3.5E. So OD&D is the only edition where haste -- and combat-oriented spells like it -- last for whole or numerous combats. (And in my last game, the spontaneous player opinion was that haste would be very powerful even if it did indeed last just 3 rounds.) However: Note that when the Holmes/BXCMI line branched off, it retained the OD&D duration measurements, such that haste was always 30 minutes throughout that series.

Question: Was OD&D's use of "turn" for spell durations fundamentally a mistake? I believe it was, as evidenced by the intent of the editions which came both before and after it. In fact, my main hypothesis is that Vol-1 (with its spell list) was written prior to the terminology change in Vol-3 (with its 1 turn = 10 minutes), resulting in big unanticipated consequences.

As one last piece of evidence, it's worth pointing out that several of the spells we normally consider to be instantaneous -- fireball, ice storm, and dispel magic -- were given a duration of "1 turn" in OD&D, which is totally nonsensical if that should mean 10 minutes, but somewhat more defensible if it was meant to indicate 1 individual combat cycle.

So here's a new poll -- If you had to interpret the OD&D Vol-1 spell durations one uniform way, do you think that "turn" should be understood to be 1 minute (as in Chainmail) or 10 minutes (as in AD&D)? Or something else? (See poll results here.)

Final notes: The troubling issue of what "turn" meant in Vol-1 spell durations is something I entirely sidestepped when writing Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells. I used more-or-less the same terminology throughout, and figured the reader could apply their same standard interpretation.

As far as duration numbers go, in OD&D durations were fixed, most commonly 3, 6, or 12 turns. In AD&D, durations became a function of caster level, usually 1, 2, or 5 times the level (in rounds). This is another place where I think OD&D has a leg up on AD&D, through both of the lenses that I usually consider: (1) As matter of verisimilitude, if a spell is a fixed "formula", it's hard to see how caster identity would alter their effect; and (2) as a matter of gameplay, I look dimly on having to do numerous multiplications every single time a spell is cast.

Also, I stopped the table above prior to the 3E of the game, partly for space considerations, and partly because 3E put all the spells in a radically different order, such that it's an enormous pain to search through for this purpose. Suffice to say that a lot of changes occurred, with the "turn" unit being disposed of, and many spells given in terms of rounds (now 6 seconds), minutes, tens of minutes, and many other units.

Friday, May 14, 2010

How Many Monsters?

When you're looking at by-the-book OD&D, one of the oddball glitchy-gap issues you'll run into is that, for a game predicated on dungeon exploration, it manages to avoid ever suggesting any specific numbers for how many monsters should be encountered in a typical dungeon.

Open up to the Vol-2 Monster Reference Table and you'll see a column for "Number Appearing*", with entries such as 30-300 men/orcs, 40-400 goblins/kobolds, 20-200 hobgoblins/gnolls, etc. Then there's a footnote that says:
*Referee's option: Increase or decrease according to party concerned (used primarily only for out-door encounters). [Vol-2, p. 4]
So, these numbers are primarily not for dungeon encounters. Where to find encounter numbers for that purpose? You might consider in the DM's booklet under "Distribution of Monsters and Treasure":
Roll the die for every room or space not already allocated. A roll of a 1 or 2 indicates that there is some monster there. The monster(s) can be selected by use of the Monster Determination & Level of Monster Matrix which is given later in this booklet. The number of monsters is best determined by the level being considered and the kind of monster inhabiting the room or space. The Monster Table from Volume II can be most helpful here. [Vol-3, p. 7]
Thus, we are to determine monster numbers "by the level being considered and the kind of monster", which is about as vague as you can get. If you follow that latter reference back to the table in Vol-2, of course, you wind up again looking at the "used primarily only for out-door encounters" dictum. So let's try pursuing the forward reference to the "Monster Determination" table, after which it says this:
Number of Wandering Monsters Appearing: If the level beneath the surface roughly corresponds with the level of the monster then the number of monsters will be based on a single creature, modified by type (that is Orcs and the like will be in groups) and the number of adventurers in the party. A party of from 1-3 would draw the basic number of monsters, 4-6 would bring about twice as many, and so on. The referee is advised to exercise his discretion in regard to exact determinations, for the number of variables is too great to make a hard and fast rule... [Vol-3, p. 11-12]
This paragraph goes off on a wild tangent after this point, saying, "There can be places where 300 Hobgoblins dwell," and then ruminating about how many can fit abreast in a corridor at once ("Allow perhaps 3 in a ten foot wide passage.") But do we get any specific recommendations? No, we don't. (This is actually the kind of writing that happened a lot more in 2E, and which I would complain bitterly about.) Let's say we've generated some Orcs, since they're mentioned above. We know they will not be a single creature, but rather in a "group". What is the group size? The world may never know. (Other than "greater than one", which provides a rather large amount of wiggle room.).

This is a place where the BXCMI line might have some advantage, because it explicitly includes separate figures for dungeon-versus-wilderness settings in its "Number Appearing" entries. Other lines tend to include specific numbers only as part of their dungeon encounter tables: see Holmes or the AD&D DMG. (The AD&D Monster Manual, as usual, just copies forward the numbers from the Vol-2 Monster Reference Table, with the equivalent warning note, "It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of dungeon levels." [MM p. 5])

Let's consider those encounter tables a little bit more. In the lines that do have specific numbers in their tables, non-Gygax products tend have very small base numbers. If we look at the 1st-level tables (for example) in places like Holmes, Mike Carr's module B1, or the Monster & Treasure Assortment, then you tend to see things like 1-4 Bandits, 2-5 Orcs, or 2-8 Goblins. But if you look at products like the AD&D DMG or Gygax's module B2, then you're looking at 5-15 Bandits, 7-12 Orcs, or a Goblin lair with a minimum of 6-10 fighters per room. (As a side issue, I'll also point out that the DMG tables are highly "naturalized" in that they're heavily weighted against interesting or exotic monsters -- chances are 10-15% each for men, rats, beetles, and shriekers; compare to just 5% for goblins, or 2% for skeletons or zombies. See DMG p. 175.)

That seems like a pretty big swing between different sources: Something like double, triple, or quadruple basic numbers when you switch from any non-Gygax source to the Old Man himself. No wonder it seems like such a hard road if you switch play action from module B1 to B2!

So, what do you do for stocking 1st-level dungeons (for example) if you're playing with just the OD&D booklets? Do you tend more towards 1d4 Orcs, or 1d6+6 Orcs per group?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Spells Through the Ages -- Names

An investigation of how the names of D&D's most idiomatic spells changed through the years:

This list is in the same order as the list of that I did earlier (and hereafter): Categorized by the most common level and name that each spell appeared under. (Which usually matches the 1E name, with one exception: darkness.)

Again, you can see that 3E represents the greatest break in the tradition of what came before (33 changes highlighted in the chart above). Original D&D and 1st Edition AD&D each have a fair number of changes, as the proto-D&D of Chainmail got ironed out (10 and 14 changes, respectively).

As is usually the case, there are almost no major changes in the even-numbered editions after 1st. 2nd Edition has only a single minimally changed name (the anti-magic shell had its hyphen removed). And the only spells in the list that had major overhauls in 3.5 were the polymorph spells (the standard 4th-level spells polymorph self and polymorph others were taken out -- replaced by the 4th-level polymorph [beneficial-to-self-and-others for a few minutes] and the 5th-level baleful polymorph [permanently changing body and mind into a harmless, 1-HD animal]).

The spells that take the record for most name changes over time? One spell had 4 different names over this cycle: Chainmail's detection became OD&D's detect invisible, 1E's detect invisibility, and then 3E's see invisibility. Meanwhile, the darkness spell is the only other one had as many as 3 changes over this time (due the inclusion of its evolving area in the name). Initially darkness, then darkness 5' radius, darkness 15' radius, and back to just darkness by the time of 3E (perhaps one of the only places I can praise 3E's naming decisions).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Giants in the Earth Index

From 1979 to 1982, Dragon magazine ran a regular series of articles titled "Giants in the Earth: Classic Heroes from Fiction and Literature", written by TSR staff writers. Of the dozen-plus articles, the first 9 were written by Lawrence Schick & Tom Moldvay; others pitched in near the end, such as Dave Cook, Katherine Kerr, Roger E. Moore, and Pat Rankin. The characters that appeared were written up in the early AD&D style of the time.

It's an artifact of the free-wheeling gaming environment of the time that they felt these articles could be published at all. In today's far more sociopathic copyright/IP regime, it certainly couldn't be done. (In issue #37 Schick & Moldvay wrote that the one thing they'll be scrupulously avoiding will be the Ring Trilogy characters, because "the Tolkien estate is known to be fanatically paranoid about the slightest possible infringement of rights (whether real or imagined)".)

Below you'll see a complete list of characters included over the run of the series, including original literary creator, name of the character, and any class levels identified for them, presented in the same order as the original articles. (There are a very small number of cases, maybe 1-2 apiece, where the AD&D subclasses of ranger, paladin, or assassin were used; for simplicity, I've lumped those in with the major class types.)

Interesting -- but I probably wouldn't do this if I didn't have a D&D game-design axe to grind. Consider this list of thirty-nine characters, statted up in D&D terms, to be a sample of the overall genre of pulp fantasy and mythology. Here's two major observations that I'd like to make:

(1) Multiclassing is essential. More than a quarter of these characters are multiclassed (11/39 = 28%). The authors frequently found that, in simulating these characters in game terms, they had to mix-and-match abilities from different D&D classes. In almost every case the level ratios are different, showing that it's reasonable in the genre to have a lot of one archetypal class, a little bit of another class, etc.

This is part of the reason why I'm a little dumbfounded at how many people are willing to accept the Holmes/BXCMI-style abandonment of multiclassing (and the even heavier restriction of race-as-class). Clearly even the AD&D regulations on the practice were unreasonable, as the authors found it necessary to freely break or bend those rules. A free mix-and-match multiclassing rule, as suggested by the Original D&D rules, turns out to be necessary for a wide array of classic pulp character types.

(2) Clerics are almost nonexistent. Cleric-like characters appear only 2 times on the list above (and in each case, as the smallest part of some multiclass combination). Thief-like abilities, however, are found four times more frequently (8 characters) -- almost as often as magic-using wizards are (10). In fact, the cleric class is so nigh-useless for this particular exercise, that they actually fail to outnumber even the DMG Sage type for the authors' purposes here (Sage abilities are noted in the class information for both Medea and Professor Challenger).

As I've said on numerous occasions, it is the cleric class which makes the least overall sense in the context of pulp fantasy, and is the most fundamentally troubling class to be included in Original D&D. Among other multifarious reasons, the armored, adventuring, miraculous man-of-Catholic-faith is simply not a type you see very much in the roots of the genre, if at all. The inclusion really sticks out like a sore thumb in OD&D.

Okay, so having made my major points, here's some miscellaneous footnotes:
  1. In issue #30, Gary Gygax writes a cautionary note that some of these levels may be too high, singling out in particular Kane (who indeed has the highest total levels of anyone in the list above): "I must point out that the Schick-Moldvay series 'Giants In The Earth' tends to rate the figures too high, making them more like gods than 'heroes.' Cugel is okay... but Kane is too powerful! A 30th-level Fighter/20-level Magic-User/14th-level assassin? Come on, fellows! Would you believe a 20th-level Fighter/16th-level Magic User/12th-level Assassin?"
  2. Issue #37 has a "Giants in the Earth" article with no characters included; it presents motivations, theory, and rationale behind the levels, powers, etc., used in the series. Issue #46 likewise has an article under the same header that is just a call for further articles, and a demonstration stat-block template.
  3. Much much later, in 1998, there was one additional article that used the "Giants in the Earth" banner; but this was part of a cross-promotional effort with Greg Keyes and his then-current "Black God/Waterborn" series (Keyes authored both the novels and the game writeup), using much different late-2E classes and statistics, and so is not included above.
  4. If you're interested in other writeups of classic literary figures from a time when such things were possible, you might also consider: OD&D Sup-IV Gods, Demigods & Heroes (including the worlds of Conan and Elric), the 1st-printing of AD&D Deities & Demigods (with the mythos for King Arthur, Cthulhu, Elric, and Fafhrd/Gray Mouser), and Gygax's lengthy Conan dossier in Dragon #36 (including his evolving abilities and fighter/thief levels from age 15 to 70, as well as a roster of special abilities which later formed the basis for the Barbarian class.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Spells Through the Ages -- Levels

Over at Grognardia, when James M. kindly gave a shout-out to our "Spells Through the Ages" series, a commentator named Telecanter made a suggestion that caught my fancy: "a poster that shows the history of spells through time-- when they are introduced, how they move level, or get renamed etc." I found that I really wanted to see something like that myself. What follows isn't a complete illustration of every detail of all D&D spells; it's just a starting point, focusing on spell levels alone. Hopefully this will serve as a road map, suggesting particular points of interest for future articles in this series.

To make the overall project manageable, I'm identifying a body of work that I'll call D&D's "core wizard spells", defined here as the level 1-6 magic-user spells, as found in OD&D Sup-I (Greyhawk). Some of the reasons for this restriction: (1) It's generally a convenient size to work with; (2) priority is given to things relevant in my own game, which uses the 6 spell levels as in the original LBBs; and (3) the whole thing fits elegantly on one sheet of paper (front & back). One might consider sticking to just the LBB lists themselves, but so many idiomatic D&D spells appear first in Sup-I (magic missile, shield, darkness, mirror image, web, etc.) that I couldn't bring myself to do so.

This picture (links to full PDF) tracks the levels of these spells along the progression of Chainmail, Original D&D, AD&D 1st Edition, AD&D 2nd Edition, D&D 3rd Edition, and the D&D 3.5 Revision. Highlights indicate changed spell levels. Name changes are not tracked (names presented here in the most common form, usually as per 1E.) Spells are overall categorized by the most common level they appeared in (usually as OD&D, sole exception: rope trick). Comments proceed afterwards:

Now, the first thing that stands out here is the enormous amount of continuity in the first four editions of the game. Only three of these spells ever changed levels in the entire 20-year progression from Chainmail, to OD&D, 1E, and 2E. (These being darkness, phantasmal force, and rope trick; one of these being my already-scheduled next posting in the series.) And that's emblematic of the fairly small changes that otherwise occurred for spells (and other rules) throughout this whole era of the game. Tradition was strong and easily communicable here.

With WOTC's 3E, we see the beginning of a break with this tradition. There are nineteen changes among these core spells, just for this edition alone. "We are fundamentally willing to change potentially anything about this game," they seem to be saying. Some spells are just outright eliminated (extension, massmorph). Several are redacted from the wizard's list, being reserved for other classes (detect evil, growth of plants, reincarnation). Many have their effects assimilated into other spells (conjure elemental & invisible stalker sucked into the summon monster series; lower water & part water combined into control water). Several others merely have their level tinkered with (including the classic 1st-level spells light, detect magic, and read magic being downgraded to 0-level "cantrips").

In the 3.5 revision, we see five level changes as compared to the 3.0 rules. These are all tweaks to spells in the higher-level categories of 4th-6th. (In particular, the polymorph spells took on radical alterations.) My impression here is that it's not quite representational of the overall number of changes in the 3.5 spell list, which is renowned for having made hundreds of small, fiddly, hard-to-remember changes throughout the whole spell catalog.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Granularity in Turns

Assumption: Player turns should cycle in a simple fashion. I frown greatly on written orders (as in Chainmail sequence B, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, or OD&D Aerial & Naval combat rules) or otherwise having declarations split up from action resolution (as in the Star Frontiers Advanced rules). I dislike having move cycles split up into separate, asymmetrical pieces (as in Chainmail sequence A, or Swords & Spells). I don't like extensive "interrupt" rules (as in Chainmail's "charge if charged" rules, 3E's attacks-of-opportunity, etc.). And I think the "Perrin Conventions" for D&D manage to violate all of these criteria simultaneously, and more (right?).

Now, a lot of these smelly rules complications seem to arise from a desire to iron out some irritating unrealism in one's game system (for example: how come those guys get to charge across the battlefield before we can move or fire?). However, this is not a sign that you should start introducing some interrupt-like rules. I think that's a bad, flawed game design instinct (and invites an infinite regress of interrupts-to-interrupts, interrupts-to-the-interrupt-interrupts, etc.)

What it is a sign of is this: You should shorten your turn granularity. (i.e.: Make it less coarse.) Just cut the time (movement) in half or something, and usually this solves the problem in an elegant way. Consider computer games: In the game engine itself (running on one CPU), only one character can be moved at a time, but you don't notice it as a problem, because the time-slices are cut so small. Same principle here; there will be some "small enough" turn scale that makes these problems effectively unnoticeable.

Chainmail (sequence A) and Swords & Spells are almost there; lightly-armored men don't really move 12" at once, their move is split into two 6" phases. However, they don't cycle symmetrically, waiting for two half-moves before running several rounds of combat at once. It would be so much simpler and better if the moves were just universally cut in half, with one round of combat after each, in a simple back-and-forth player cycle. In fact, this is just what I did in my Book of War miniatures game. New players pick up on it immediately, because it matches their intuition from any other boardgame.

Case study: It turned out that for the naval action in my Corsairs of Medero game, this turn sequence was still unsatisfying (what with OD&D ship movement being historically accurate with 25" or 35" moves and whatnot, zipping across my whole table in one move). So, my solution was to just cut the turns in half, with all movement, attacks, and spells happening at half-normal-rate. This solved the problem nicely and without any player complaints (in fact, no one even noticed it).

Fortunately, this principle can be applied to any game and scaled to any taste, without any really novel new rules being added to a system (i.e., avoiding complications like interrupts and such). In fact, I include this as an optional Book of War rule for those seeking greater fidelity in the simulation (allowing either half-turns or one-third-turns, etc.)

(For posts on similar themes, see also: Granularity in checks; Granularity in encumbrance [bullet #5].)

Monday, May 3, 2010

HelgaCon III - Top 5's

As a final executive-summary of lessons learned, I wanted to boil down a "Top 5" list for each of the things that went right and wrong (in the style of Game Developer magazine). HelgaCon went so enormously well that I had an overabundance of "things that went hugely right" and a tiny little trace of "things that went a little bit wrong", so I was really scraping for the latter -- I'm forced to steal something from last year's gaming to fill out the list, in fact. At any rate, if you read none of the other HelgaCon posts in detail, read this one.

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. Win conditions for convention games. Setting explicit "win" conditions tremendously ramped up the interest, focus, and excitement in all my games. This includes things like (a) an elimination-style brackets game, (b) tournament-style scoring, and (c) setting a major in-game goal. I'm convinced that something like this has to be used to replace campaign-style leveling up and "new toys to play with" awards.
  2. Showing wilderness encounter charts. In a very concise format, players get a concentrated, playable dose of campaign setting information. They can use this information to strategize about the exact advantages and disadvantages to different travel routes and adventuring locations, connecting gameplay to campaign knowledge in a deep way. It simulates well the lifelong experience and rumor-mongering that their PCs would have. Anticipation is raised to an intense degree when encounter checks are rolled.
  3. Using d6 dice as oracles. For miscellaneous DM adjudications, it's a great balance between looseness, simplicity, and DM intuition to have these decisions based on some chance-in-6. Even if I'm almost certain that something couldn't work, give it a 1-in-6 chance anyway; maybe we're all surprised. Granularity makes it a snap to get in the habit of measuring anything in terms of chances-in-6.
  4. Critical hits charts. I'd never used sophisticated critical hits tables before, but I really like the concrete detail that they occasionally spice into the game. (Mine are from Dragon #39.) It seems easier and fairer for me as DM to step in and override specific, occasional nonsensical results than to make them up out of whole cloth on the fly. Just one or two fumble/criticals in a game generate a great "anything can happen" fog-of-war texture.
  5. Book of Spells and Book of War. Not to toot my on horn gratuitously, but these tools I've developed seem to solve the exact problems at the table that I designed them for. Book of Spells (available at Lulu; see sidebar) gives every wizard player a concise, immediately accessible explanation of their spells; no passing-a-hardcover-around-the-table required. Book of War (future publication) is resolving mass battles efficiently, elegantly, and intuitively, in harmony with D&D mechanics, usually in under an hour.

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Haste. My whole G1 game was knocked rather askew by a version of haste cobbled together from 1E and 3E sources (starting with 3E's +4 AC bonus). I've definitely got to tune that down, a mediation for which I started with the "Spells Through the Ages" article, here.
  2. Give players the riddle in Tomb of Horrors. This "thing to fix" I had to dig up from the 2009 convention. Due to a particular accident of play, my players were without the riddle at the start, had part of it in the middle, and then were without it again at the end. The part in the middle was rather shockingly more satisfying and fast-paced. Players had some "in" to the series of puzzles, and were hard at work deducing and clue-finding, instead of mere random trial-and-error. It's an entirely different game when you've got the riddle.
  3. Remember OED saves. Already, I've run out of items which I expect to have widespread applicability, but here goes. Things like sleep and magic missile have a tradition of not allowing saves. Although that language is not in the LBB's, and I've committed to giving saves to all spells that directly and negatively affect the target, in practice I couldn't avoid the knee-jerk reflex to skip saves for that stuff. It's surprisingly hard to remember when the game is running live.
  4. Have others take photos. I regret not having better documentation for my latter games. Obviously my mental processing budget is totally unable to think of this while I'm DM'ing, so in the future I've got to ask a player to do a bit while we play.
  5. Make photo-realistic river tiles. Now I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Anyway: The hand-drawn river tiles I made clash quite a bit in the photos from my Book of War game. Shouldn't take long to fix. That's all!