July 2010

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3

"Hey, that deal was very clear: 'Til death do us part. Once I shuffle off the mortal coil, I'm free to play the field."
Roy's Father, Order of the Stick

July 9th, 2010


Last year I began a series of posts regarding my reactions to the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Recently a post on Delta's D&D Hotspot tweaked me to comment on one of the issues I didn't discuss in the original series: The timekeeping and movement rules.

Here's the most pertinent passage from Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures:


In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given in inches convert them to tens of feet.

Movement (distances given in Vol. 1) is in segments of approximately ten minutes. Thus it takes ten minutes to move about two moves -- 120 feet for a fully-armored character. Two moves constitute a turn, except in flight/pursuit situations where the moves/turn will be doubled (and no mapping allowed).


Melee is fast and furious. There are ten rounds of combat per turn.

I have now introduced close to two dozen people to the OD&D rules. This almost always involves walking them through the major cruxes of the rules, but even in cases where a more rapid acclimation is called for, I still make a point of reading this passage to them: That way they can fully appreciate the archaeological reconstruction of the rulebooks necessary to actually play this game.

What can we conclude from this passage?

2 moves = 4 flight/pursuit moves = 1 turn = 1 segment = 10 rounds = 10 minutes

The fact that "turn" and "segment" are used interchangeably is somewhat confusing, but what makes the passage really tricky is that they actually aren't used interchangeably. If you can move the "distance given in Vol. 1" in one segment of 10 minutes, what does it mean that you can also make two moves in a turn of 10 minutes?

Making this even more confusing is the phrase "120 feet for a fully-armored character". The phrase "fully-armored" means absolutely nothing in the context of the rules and the default speed for a character is 12" = 120 feet. So if you interpret that passage to mean that a character with a 12" movement moves 120 feet in two moves that take 1 turn, then it follows that a "move" (in the context of this passage, anyway) actually equals 1/2 the character's speed. Which would mean that:

1 move = 1 segment = 0.5 turns

But that's probably not what it means. What "fully-armored" probably means is the "speed of an Armored Footman (6"/turn) which is referenced as part of an example in Volume 1. (Which is not, actually, the speed of a character fully-armored character unless they're also carrying a bunch of other equipment. Unless, of course, you decide to interpret this example as a new rule that actually implies that armor alone -- separate from weight carried -- can affect the speed of a character.).

But that still doesn't clear up how:

1 segment = 1 move = 10 minutes


1 turn = 2 moves = 10 minutes

Can both be true. (They obviously can't.)



But we're not done yet.

Although the title of this section as it appears on page 8 of Volume 3 is THE MOVE/TURN IN THE UNDERWORLD, on the table of contents for this volume it appears as "The Move Turn in the Underworld".

This separate coining of the phrase "move turn" could probably be safely ignored, if it wasn't for Supplement 1: Greyhawk. In this supplement, Gygax casually introduces the term "melee turn". For example, on page 6 the duration of the Monster Summoning I spell is listed as: "Duration: 6 melee turns".

Furthrmore, on page 18 of Supplement 1, giant snakes are given damage of "2-8/turn of constriction". The use of the term "turn" here can't possibly mean 10 minutes, can it?



And then we come to Supplement 2: Blackmoor, which was written by Dave Arneson. On page 1, in describing the abilities of monks, he writes: "...has a 75% chance of stunning the opponent for from 3-12 turns". Much like the giant snake from Supplement 1, it seems unlikely that Arneson means that the monk can stun opponents for 30 to 120 minutes.

And this suspicion seems confirmed when, on the next page, he writes that 5th level monks can "perfectly simulate death" for a duration of time equal to "a six sided die x level for the number of full turns".

Should we interpret "full turn" to mean something different than "turn" from the previous page? Context certainly seems to suggest it.

It's therefore tempting, I think, to suggest that Arneson was using "turn vs. full turn" in the same sense that Gygax was using "round vs. turn" or "melee turn vs. move turn".

If this were actually the case, it would go a long way towards explaining why this terminology is so hopelessly confused in OD&D: You had at least two different authors using the term "turn" with at least two completely inverted meanings.

Perhaps the central crux can be found when we hit Arneson's description of the giant squid (page16): "Squids tire easily; there is a 50% chance that they will withdraw after three rounds of melee, with a 5% increase each turn thereafter."

Here Arneson displays knowledge of the term "round", but does his use of the term "turn" in immediate juxtaposition indicate that he's using the terms interchangeably? To my eyes it seems almost certain, but perhaps others would disagree.



But perhaps I'm simply trying to impose rationality onto something which is fundamentally irrational. There's certainly a fair degree of evidence that Arneson and Gygax simply used the term "turn" to mean whatever the hell they felt like it should mean. For example, on page 43 of Blackmoor:

There is a 1 in 6 chance that when entering passages marked with a dashed line or when crossing one of the bridges that 1-3 trolls will be encountered. Any fighting will bring an additional 1-3 trolls every turn the fight exists.

Arneson surely can't have meant that 1d3 new trolls should endlessly show up every single round, right? There's no way such a combat could ever end.

Similarly, on page 18 of Volume 3 we can read as part of the rules for large party movement:

Turn: Each move will constitute one day. Each day is considered a turn.

Which is, at the very least, suggestive that they considered "turn" to be a useful catch-all phrase and that its proper meaning is supposed to be intuited from context. (For another example of the same, consider dungeon levels, character levels, and spell levels.)

And all of this analysis ignores that neither Gygax nor Arneson were the sole authors contributing to the supplements.



Every so often I'll see someone praise the "elegance" or "simplicity" of OD&D. Whenever that happens, I think about passages like this and I laugh and laugh and laugh.

Here's how we've been playing these rules:

1 turn = 10 minutes = 10 rounds = 2 moves

1 segment = 5 minutes = 1 move

(This matches the definition of "segment" to mean 1 move, but obviously contradicts the definition of "segment" to mean 10 minutes. We picked this interpretation because having a second term synonymous with turn didn't seem useful, but there's potential utility in having a term that means basically "half a turn" or possibly "an interrupted turn".)

Speed is defined in inches according to the encumbrance table (which has its own interpretative issues, but let's ignore those for now):

1 move = speed x 10 feet

1 turn = 2 moves  = speed x 20 feet

Running = double speed

Now comes the tricky question of how far you can move in a single round. The logic here seems pretty clear: A round is 1/10th the length of a turn, ergo you can move 1/10th as far. Which mean that total movement in a round is:

1 round of combat = speed x 2 feet

In practice, we say that people get two moves per round (just as you get two moves per turn), so:

1 round = 2 combat moves = speed x 2 feet

1 combat move = speed in feet

Further, we concluded that you could either move twice or move and attack, because why else would the rules give you two smaller moves instead of just one big move? There must be some reason why you can split them up like that. As an alternative solution, we briefly played with the idea of giving each player two "actions" which they could either use to move or attack, but eventually decided against it.)

How have others interpreted these rules?

HOLMES: Holmes's revision/clean-up of the rules in 1977 used the same values for turn-based movmeent. But he radically revised combat. The 1977 Basic Set states, "Each turn is ten minutes except during combat where there are ten melee rounds per turn, each round lasting ten seconds." (Or is that not a revision after all? Assuming that there's a "combat turn" which lasts for one minute and is divided up into 10 rounds of 6 seconds each would be another way of resolving the inconsistent use of the term "turn" in the OD&D manuals and supplements.) This has a minimal impact on how far characters can move in a single round, but the exact values are no longer calculable from the base values: "Movement (if any) is usually at a sprint; an unarmored man can move 20 feet per melee round, a fully armored man only 10 feet."

SWORDS & WIZARDRY: This retro clone of OD&D oddly chooses to explicitly contradict the OD&D movement rules by stating that a walking character (traveling at speed x 20 feet) cannot map or observe their surroundings carefully. It instead creates a new half-speed category where mapping is permitted. It also fails to provide any clarification of whether or not one can move and attack in a single combat round. It defines walking speed in a round as being equal to 1/10th walking speed in a turn, but it also defines a "combat" movement rate equal to 1/20th the walking speed in a turn (which would be equivalent to 1 combat move in my interpretation above).

(Looking through both Swords & Wizardry and Swords & Wizardry: White Box, I'm actually really surprised at how many rules they just make up out of wholecloth. Even more surprising are the number of rules which are just flat-out wrong. I often talk about how open to interpretation the OD&D rules, but S&W routinely ignores the stuff that isn't open for interpretation. And even some of the stuff that is open to interpretation is instead rendered in some completely different way lying far outside the gray area of the original rules. I just always assumed that the retro clones would look more like clones and less like cousins.)

July 12th, 2010


It looked absolutely nothing like this.

I usually don't get heavy into personal biography around here, but I got married on Saturday. On the Wednesday before that, my brother and best man ran a session of OD&D for my small bachelor party. By means of celebrating my wedding, here are some highlights:

(1) John H. roled up a cleric with 4 Intelligence. In addition to taking everything hilariously literally, he was also convinced that he was actually a wizard. (Even going so far as to dress up in pointy hat with stars on it.) He carried two wands -- his small wand was a stick he'd found on the ground; his big wand was a mace ("a big stick with a big metal star"). Although he couldn't cast any spells (being a 1st-level cleric), Andrew H.'s charcter (who was a magic user) would cast spells for him, thus supporting his delusion.

(2) David P. played Enriquill. Enriquill was a dashing fellow who insisted that the true joy of adventuring could only be found in "savoring the finer things". For example, the exquisite delicacy which are the sightless eyeballs of giant bats. (He would also sample cave moss and lichen, leading us to discover the crude goblin carvings describing three pits as "Deep", "Deeper", and "Deepest".) When Enriquill died towards the end of the evening, with his dying breath he gasped, "Eat my eyeballs..."

And we did.

(3) I played Matharl, a dwarf with golden eyes, silver skin, and copper hair (which he would cut once every three months for the profit). Matharl had once been a member of the Doge City of the Imperial Emperor 362. (Yes, the 362nd Doge City of the Dwarven Empire. We have delved deep. And wide. And also invested heavily in surface real estate.) But after contracting the metallo curse, he was exiled.

(4) We also had a newbie at the table who had never played an RPG before. He rolled some truly amazing ability scores, but then balanced out his luck by rolling a 3 on 3d6 to garner only 30 gp in starting cash. Trying to buy decent starting equipment with such meager funds was an exercise the whole table contributed to. We eventually got him decent armor (leather) and a weapon, but ran out of money before we could get him rations.

(5) Our newbie had also shown up late, so the rest of us were already in the dungeon. Our DM decided to start the newbie back at town. When he was presented with, "You're in town. And out of food. What do you do?" His response was, literally, "Wait... This is how we do this?"

He was pretty consistently awesome throughout the entire evening. A little too eager to leap head-long down dungeon passages, but Matharl eventually resigned himself to that by simply keeping his ass as far back as he possibly could while the suicidal little runt went on his rampages.

(6) I say "runt" because in filling out his character sheet our newbie had created a 342 year old, 4' 3" , 184 pound human named Rico Suave. (Ricky II.) This was good, goofy fun. It was also great because the upper level of the DM's dungeon was composed of tight passages that we were forced to crawl through (with branching tunnels that we eventually found led to the Deep, Deeper, and Deepest shafts mentioned above). While he'd insisted that everyone except my dwarf would be forced to remove their armor while crawling through these cramped passags, Rico Suave had inadvertently ended up being shorter and weighing less than I did. Ergo, he, too, was able to keep his armor on. This allowed us to travel down the passages front-to-back 

(7) This prevented a repeat performance of an early disaster in which gremlins -- little green balls with red-veined legs -- had savaged Rico Suave from behind and stolen his food. Actually, that encounter probably would have ended okay if I hadn't set the tunnel on fire.

(8) The session started when we received a mission from the sultan to rescue his harem. (A perfect scenario for a bachelor party game.) He offered us a 1,000 gp and then gave us the intel he had received from a palace guard who had followed the "swarthy, humanoid kidnappers" to a cave 4 days from the city. We couldn't question the guard because the sultan had killed him to keep slanderous rumors from spreading about the loss of his harem...

... Matharl instantly realized that if the sultan was willing to kill his own guard for having even less information than we would once we returned the harem, that we probably wouldn't be seeing that reward. On the other hand, there were 8 beautiful harem girls in a cave.

Before leaving town, though, we made a point of spreading rumors all over town that the sultan had lost his harem. We even mentioned the reward and the location of the cave. We figured there was a pretty good shot that other adventurers might show up, clear out the upper levels, and leave us with a clear shot at the harem girls.

(9) That didn't happen, but it did set up the scenario by which Rico Suave joined the party. The DM staged a scene in which Rico Suave heard our 4 Int pseudo-wizard talking about the 1,000 gp reward. When he later showed up, though, we managed to convince both him and the 4 Int wizard that the reward was only 500 gp. (But  we would totally split it evenly with them.)



After several perilous delves, we descended the Deepest shaft and found a metal plate. We knocked loudly and waited. When it opened, a pair of glowing eyes peered out from the darkness below. I wanted to know what it was, so I dropped my torch. The DM ruled that it landed pointy-end first, rolled for max damage, and ended up having the torch skewer the furry goblinoid straight through the forehead. He plopped down dead.

Rico Suave, naturally, leapt down to the corpse. He yanked the torch free and then looked around... to find himself surrounded by a ring of more furry goblinoids and several ettins, all looking at him in complete shock. Rico Suave looked up, "Uh... guys. There are a lot of them down here. I think--"

And then he was torn limb from limb.

Thinking quickly, Matharl called out in goblin, "Quick! Over this way! The vile murderer has jumped down this shaft!"

I was able to convince the ettins and goblins that Rico Suave had killed my father. We had pursued him into these caves seeking vengeance, which we were grateful they had given to us. They offered me the honor of chopping off his head. Which I did.

It turned out that they were in a celebratory mood themselves, having recently "fulfilled the prophecy" by sending a band to the "surface of the daybringer's bright light" to capture "the veiled ones". We managed to get ourselves invited back to a celebratory feast of prime Rico Suave meat. (Enriquill: "Always enjoy the finer things.")

When we got to the feasting chamber, we found four of the harem girls huddled in a corner and quickly confirmed that the other four had already been eaten. (Apparently the dwarf girl was a good cook and had been forced to cook her friends.) Rico Suave wasn't quite enough meat for all of us, so the ettins were getting ready to sacrifice another harem girl to the pot.

Matharl, thinking quickly, offered to first perform a sacred ritual of his people to thank the humanoids for fulfilling his vengeance and to bless their feast. Although one of the ettins fell to arguing with itself over the matter and one of the goblins looking a little suspicious, Matharl convinced them to kneel in a circle around the cooking fire. He said that the ritual would bring the power of the daystar into their hearts and then doused them the holy oil.

And by "holy oil", I mean "highly flammable oil".

With the monsters doused, everybody lowered their torches and started a bonfire.

As we were leading the harem girls out, we discovered that some cryptic remarks the ettins had made earlier actually referred to sea serpents and green gelloid monsters. It was during the final battle against these creatures, holding the line while the harem girls escaped, that Enriquill fell.

But we emerged largely victorious. And since Enriquill was dead, we each had a harem girl for ourselves. Since the girls were pretty certain that the sultan was almost certainly going to kill us (even if we hadn't let four of the girls get eaten before we saved them), and they weren't particularly enthusiastic about going back to him anyway, we decided that we'd heard some wonderful things about the city of Waterdeep.

(The DM was surprised to learn that we had been in the Forgotten Realms this entire time.)

July 13th, 2010


I was never really able to take the ENnie Awards seriously after they nominated the truly god-awful Pit of Loch-Durnan as Best Adventure in 2001: This early D20 product featured truly gorgeous cover art, but everything else about it -- the interior art, the layout, the cartography, the NPCs, the "plot" -- was atrocious. Imagine the opinion you'd have of a new film award that nominated Gigli for Best Picture in its first year of existence and you'd have a pretty accurate gauge for my opinion of the ENnies.

Recently, however, I've found myself thinking that the ENnies have probably refurbished their reputation in my eyes. It took the better part of a decade, but the stink had definitely worn off.

(You can see where this is going, right?)

The 2010 ENnie Nominees were named a couple days ago. And I'm sorry but this:

Does not deserve to be shortlisted as Best Cartography of the Year. Not even as an honorable mention. To do so is to, once again, turn the ENnies into a joke.

Allow me to be crystal clear on the nature of my complaint: There's nothing inherently wrong with these maps. They're clean, clear, and functional. (Quibble: The fact that the direction of north switches between the first and second maps is unnecessarily confusing and will almost certainly result in GMs having the PCs enter through the wrong door.) They aren't bad maps. I mean, if I thought they were bad maps I'd have to look at my own maps from The Complex of Zombies and take myself out back for a good horse-whipping:

There's nothing wrong with functional, workman-like cartography. But there's a reason that "workman-like" and "award-winning" aren't synonymous.

On a more positive note, the adventure this cartography is taken from -- Death Frost Doom -- is very good. It's a little rough around the edges, but provides the raw material for an incredibly evocative and haunting experience. If it had been nominated as Best Adventure it wouldn't have even made my eyebrows waggle. It probably would have even gotten a nod of satisfied approval. I recommend that everybody reading this check it out.

I think the most charitable interpretation of what happened here is that the judges for the ENnies recognized Death Frost Doom's general quality as an adventure and ended up looking around for a category to stick it into so that it would be "properly" acknowledged. This is slightly better than being swayed by a pretty cover wrapped around dreck, but is still pretty questionable behavior for any awards program that wants to be taken seriously. It tarnishes the credibility of the awarding body's judgment, calling into question the value of the awards lists in judging quality, and thus obviating the entire point of an award in the first place.

Death Frost Doom
Buy this. It's good.
July 14th, 2010


I'm looking for an experienced web designer who would be interested in designing a subscription-based website with a roleplaying focus. For the moment I'm going to be deliberately vague regarding the details of the project, but to give some indication of the scope:

Content would be accessible through (1) chronological blog-style archiving / daily postings; and (2) an alternative archival format accessed through a heirarchical graphical interface (click on a specific location on one image to open a sub-navigation page with another image that will take you to more specific content).

Preferably this would be the same content, just accessed through different navigations systems.

Automated content drip and subscription feeds probably go without saying, right?

A forum-system integrated into the site's subscription log-in.

I also need to be able to deliver PDFs as bonus material to subscribers. I would prefer to do this directly through the website, but the twist is that -- unlike the rest of the content -- subscribers would only gain access to a PDF if it was released while they were an active subscriber.

It may also make sense to include a native store for selling and delivering e-books, but at this time I would consider that an optional feature.

I would like to launch this project some time this fall.

I have a small development budget for this project at this time, but the primary form of compensation would come through a revenue share from the subscription fees.

If you're interested, please e-mail me with some links to your existing design work and we can start chatting details.

July 14th, 2010 (2nd Update)


Over the past few days quite a few people have sent me e-mails asking about Legends & Labyrinths, and it looks like my post from earlier today about working on a different project has prompted a fresh series of questions. I talked about this a little bit in the comments a few days ago, but I've decided to front page it for people to know what's going on.

Here's the situation:

The bulk of the rulebook is finished and is essentially functional. What isn't done? Primarily the spell and monster lists. The monster creation system also needs to be tweaked some more. Also, final layout and (with layout) the SRS.

In other words, the game is in a completely playable state. (Since it's 100% compatible with 3rd Edition, you can just use the spells and monsters from the SRD or existing core rulebooks.)

So why hasn't the book been finished and published? Largely because the interior art portion of the project fell apart and I don't have the budget to redo it properly. And I'm enough of a perfectionist that if I'm going to do it, then I'm going to do it right. Particularly if I'm expecting people to pay money for it.

Does this mean the project is dead? I hope not. I've got a couple of ideas about how to raise the funds for the interior art, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to tell y'all something soon.

But the one resolution I've taken away from the clusterfuck that happened around L&L is that I'm not going to talk about a product until it is 100% done and ready to go. I do this work for love on a shoestring budget. And hearts and shoestrings both have a reputation for breaking.

So, once I have something concrete, you'll be the first to know. And if I ever believe that L&L is never going to happen (which would depress me terribly), I'll also let you know.

But beyond that, I hope you'll all bear with me while I do my best to avoid doing a Harlan Ellison impression.

July 16th, 2010


Photo by Mark Vancleave

Back in 2009 I posted a series of essays on my work translating The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. This essay was written, but apparently I forgot to actually post it to the website. Whoops.

In Act III of The Seagull, Trigorin threatens to leave Arkadina for Nina. Arkadina, driven to desperation, succeeds in seducing Trigorin and convinces him to stay with her. ("He's mine now," she says to herself. And she's right.) Trigorin then opens the small notebook that he keeps in his pocket and jots something down.

Аркадина. Как хочешь. Вместе, так вместе...

Тригорин записывает в книжку.

Что ты?
Тригорин. Утром слышал хорошее выражение: Девичий бор... Пригодится. (Потягивается.) Значит, ехать? Опять вагоны, станции, буфеты, отбивные котлеты, разговоры...

Which can be literally translated as:

Arkadina: As you wish. However, both together ...

Trigorin writes in the book.


: This morning heard the expression: "Virgin forest" ... Handy. (Stretches.) So, go? Again, cars, stations, buffets, chops, talking ...

The key phrase here is "Девичий бор" -- "virgin forest". It's pretty easy to look at the juxtaposition of "I heard an expression" and "virgin forest" and leap straight to the common English phrase: "virgin wood". And, indeed, a casual survey of translations of The Seagull reveals that virtually everyone goes for the easy solution.

But there is a problem here: Trigorin jots it down as something worth remembering; an oddity that must be recorded. Generations of English-speaking actors and their audiences have struggled with making sense out of Trigorin's seeming unfamiliarity with a common phrase.

A quick search of Russian sources, on the other hand, reveals what I suspected: Unlike "virgin wood", the phrase "Девичий бор" is virtually unknown outside of The Seagull. So one can immediately intuit that there is an important context for "Девичий бор" which is being lost when we translate it simply as "virgin wood".

My next step was to pull open a Russian-to-English dictionary.

Девичий -- maiden (girl's, maidenly, virgin, maidenish, maiden-like)

бор -- boron, chemical element; forest, thicket

I think we can safely discard the "boron" definition. But this may suggest that we should be wary of putting too much weight into the word "virgin" here. "Maiden" has a very different connotation to it.

Poking around the Russian Google for awhile, I dig into a few of the obscure non-Chekhovian uses of the phrase. One is a 1939 book called Montenegrin's Tales (Черногорские сказки), which appears to be a collection of folklore by P. Stiyensky (Стийенский Р.). One of the stories has this phrase as the title, but I've been unable to find out any details about it.

Another reads: "Их было четверо, девичий бор, кружок, тайное общество, можно сказать. Учились в одной школе." In English: "There were four in theдевичий бор; a circle, a secret society you might say. They studied together at school." And the phrase is used again in the same work, once again to describe this small group of girls.

This is intriguing to me because it suggests that the use of the word "forest" or "grove" or "thicket" might be the metaphor in this phrase (rather than "maiden" or "virgin"). In other words, it is not the wood which is being described as virginal, but rather the maidens who are being described as like a forest -- like a thicket of trees grouped together.

And, looking at the context of the scene, it begins to make sense why Trigorin would suddenly be struck by such a phrase: He has been beset in rapid succession by Nina and then Arkadina. He feels pulled this way and that by the women around him. They are a thicket penning him in.

I have now defined the parameters of the problem: I need a catchy turn of phrase which is (a) original rather than proverbial and (b) invokes the imagery of a covey of women.

What I eventually came up with was "girlish gaggle". I was unhappy to lose the sense of "forest" or "trees" from the phrase, but I think it nevertheless strikes closer to home than "virgin wood".

(EDIT: Intriguingly, a reference that has cropped up on Russian Google since I originally translated the script seems to suggest that Девичий бор might be a "paraphrasing" (typo?) of девичий вор -- which can be translated as "maiden's burr" or "girl thief". I wish I had a better understanding of Russian to fully appreciate the argument being made, but if I accept it at face value then it raises the interesting possibility that I had it backwards: Is Trigorin actually referring to himself as a burr which catches upon women? There is invocation of both injury and clinging which I find intriguing.)

JULY 2010:

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3