Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Keep Monsters Creepy!

Next to the weird dice, the Monster Manual has got to be one of the strangest accoutrements of the hobby.
Imagine if someone who didn't know what they were looking at found and perused one in a book store. Taken out of context, the MM has got to seem so utterly mad, that the reader might as well have stumbled on the Necronomicon. In both cases, it is not immediately clear whether the thing is a work of the imagination or of madness. And there would be a niggling feeling that there might be some truth in the work; something actually worth being afraid of.

But for us initiated ones, the MM is simply a game reference. And the Necronomicon is a just  plot device for invoking Lovecraftishness.
As with most game-books, the index is practically useless.

Monster Manuals and the analogous books from other systems are seemingly indispensable to playing RPGs. If I could have the players handbook and one other book, I would choose the MM over the Dungeon Master's guide. Yet for all its utility, there is some baggage that comes with making a compendium of monsters one of the three pillars of your core ruleset.

The practical effect this has is to standardize fantastic creatures. This goes back to my whole deal about how "standard" fantasy is an oxymoron and Imagination Should Be Free and I get out the torches and the crowbars and go to town and all that.
Without much exaggeration, the Monster Manual might as well be called "Get Genre-Savvy Fast!" 
I'm sure the Game Masters out there have experienced how this works: Breathlessly describing a terrifying monster only to have a player say, nonplussed "I know what it is."
As a DM, you hear this and you die a little on the inside.

Another odd bit worth mentioning is that some of the monsters are copyrighted! While a lot of the content is based on traditional mythological and folkloric material, Some monsters are just D&D monsters, copyrighted and considered part of WotC's "producr identity." This includes the Drow, beholders, carrion crawlers and a few others, so if you want to use them in your original work, you had better call them something else.

It's one of Lo Pan's "Guardians"

When you have a core book acting as one huge spoiler, the burden falls on the DM to use monsters in creative ways or "re-skin" them as something unfamiliar.

What might be cool is to have guidelines for developing monsters based on type or function. James Raggi IV sees the way to this in his Lamentations rules, but only mentions a handful of categories to work from (Ooze is a very broad category in LotFP.) And while this sort of vast deconstruction is the sort of thing that appeals to me, I will leave it alone for now, and focus on keeping monsters fresh.

Make the world less savvy than the players;
In this way, you turn genre-savviness on its head.

I had some players who were investigating a series of disappearances in the City-State of Markk
They were interviewing a local girl who had witnessed her sister being carried out a window by a "demon." they eventually got that the creature was like an ugly, emaciated little man with sharp teeth and bat-like wings. I explained that "demon" was the most precise word that a simple girl could muster up for such a thing.
So it could have been an imp or a mephit or maybe a homunculus. Most actual "Demons" in the Monster manual don't really fit the description. It was really a Berbalang, because I love the Fiend Folio. And the players were left in a respectable state of suspense as a result.
A "demon." Or perhaps a "vampire?"

My point is that just because the book makes a clear distinction, doesn't mean your world or the people therein will make the same distinction.
I say most non-adventurer characters in a gameworld will not make make clear or very perceptive distinctions. They might be limited to descriptions such as beast, angel (pretty wings), demon (bat wings), fairy (diminuitive-pleasant looking), goblin (diminuitive-ugly) , vampire (creeps on you in your room), ghosts (transparent dead person), wight/zombie (opaque dead person), oozes. serpents. And that would about cover the possibilities. These descriptions are based largely on the basic appearance of the monster, and leave a lot unsaid. The PCs will not be able to be sure what they are dealing with from simple hearsay.

Anyways, That's it. Just a trick for keeping monsters weird and creepy:
Basically, don't allow meta-knowledge from the MM or other books to spoil the suspense..

Monday, March 30, 2015

Wisdom, man.

So I haven't posted for a few days now.
Sorry everybody. I needed a break to actually play games instead of just writing about them. I'm running a Star Wars game in which  the players are all imperial stormtroopers stationed on a certain moon of Endor, whilst certain events transpire around them. I'm taking the opportunity to try the 2d10 thing and it seems pretty unnoffensive so far.

I just wanted to hash over Wisdom a little.

Wisdom has got to be the ability most often used as dump-stat. And no wonder because it is probably  the most numinous and vague of the ability scores. In practice however, characters and people with low wisdom are the worst.

Wisdom gets used for a variety of things; like for rolls where common sense I the key factor, or to represent a character's inner strength. It seems to affect how much deities like a character. And it also gets used for perception and sensory checks. The use for perception may be justified by saying wisdom is some measure of "in-the-moment-ness." But in practice, it comes to mean that Wisdom is rolled up with sensory acuity.
Wisdom is supposed to increase as a character ages. Sounds good for my cleric. Except it's pretty clear to me that some people actually become less wise with age. Did they suffer wisdom-damage at some point? What evil influences could have such a pernicious effect? How do you keep your loved ones safe from toxic influences? 

"Will-power" is a strange term. I tend to think of wisdom as  a capacity for self-discipline. It is vital to standing pin or discomfort. Part of this self-discipline is the ability to pay attention- to one's surroundings, to others, and to one's own thoughts and feelings. The Buddhist call this the virtue of "mindfulness."

People without much of this virtue tend to make themselves very annoying: Running ahead of the party, carelessly casting AoE spells, getting seduced by mythological sex-monsters, drinking too much at the inn, being noisy when everyone else is planning an ambush. Low wisdom makes you a liability.

I said that Wisdom should not be a hunter's dump stat. A hunter has to pay attention and exercise self control to remain hidden.
A Bene-Gesserit witch would have high wisdom. Dune is cool. Dune? Anybody?
Monks are supposed to use wisdom for punching things. This bothers me. A game should allow for a character to develop powers from a source of inner strength. It's a really cool idea. I'm just not sure that power should make you able to hit stuff harder.

The use of wisdom is a discipline in itself- just like developing one's strength or weapon skill or knowledge of a subject. Fortunately, most games already allow for all of these to be developed through play.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Deer Hunting

What follows is a hunting story. I am relating it not because I am a Great White Hunter, but because I am not. The following describes how I took my first deer. This was last December. I was already 27 years old. I thought of myself as a late-bloomer, making up for lost time. But I have come to learn that this is actually a very common predicament.

Here in America, we have a thoroughly industrialized culture. The average citizen has a very specialized field of expertise by which they make their living. And the consumer is usually very removed from their food source. But a good part of our national identity contains a certain notion of rugged independence; the cowboy, the homesteader, the long-hunter and the Native warrior are big parts of our cultural mythology. And while many of us (the real rednecks) are taught to hunt and take deer at age 12 or so, a good number of young Americans miss out on this experience and feel the want of it. I could go on about how this Wanting reflects some desire for a sense of agency, a search for authenticity, cultural alienation, spiritual longing, the ways of the fathers and so on. But it's not necessary to go into all that. The point is; I am writing this for the benefit of the other late-bloomers.

I am also taking the advice of Alexis Smolensk, who suggested that the best way to convey knowledge through D&D is to make a story of it. So practically speaking, when a player says they want to go hunting for game, you can go "Ah-ha! That may not be so easy as rolling for success!" Just don't sound so menacing about it when you address the prospective hunter or she might change her mind and just scratch a ration off her sheet.

Hunting is a Rigmarole
Going on a hunt in the State of Oklahoma is an ordeal. Going through all the legitimate channels, the training, the paperwork and taxes involved are an initial test of the hunter's resolve. I blame the Normans. They started it all with their infamous forestry laws.

Early Conservationists
In a perfect world with perfect people, a citizen would be able to saunter into a public wilderness and take game. But there is good reason for these laws: it's all about conservation and safety. Hunters in Oklahoma are required to take a hunter's safety course, and when applying for a license, they must show the card which proves they have received the education.  This is very important. Even with this moderating effort, hunting on public lands is inherently dangerous. You must wear safety orange in hopes of keeping drunk, stupid rednecks from mistaking you for a white-tail deer. For this reason, it is always preferable to hunt on private land.
Taxes and fees go to conservation and ecological monitoring. Natives and military veterans get off cheap. I'm not sure what exactly the dispensations for Natives really are. But the prevailing sentiment is that Natives are owed broad privilege in this matter.
Before hunting for deer, you must buy a tag for it, specifying whether you are targeting a buck or a doe. After your successful deer hunt, you are required to register your kill, using the tag number. To do this, you pretty much need an internet connection. you will be asked to enter such details as the sex of you deer, the number of points on its rack (antlers,) the time of the kill, and the location. This information is useful to conservation-scientists.
You will then be permitted to print your tag. If you lack the wherewithal to do the skinning and butchering yourself, you can take your deer to a processor who will charge a reasonable fee; such that even with taxes and fees, it still winds up as an economical way to get meat. The processor will need to see the tag to ensure that the game was taken legally.

Seasons are Enforced.
"If you aren't cold and/or wet, you're not hunting." so said my father. Some would call this an unnecessary purist attitude. But I have found it to be largely true. And this is Oklahoma , so the alternative is blazing heat.
Seasons are set as they are for conservation purposes. By the time it gets to deer season, the weather will likely have started to turn bitter. Dealing with the discomfort is part of respecting the animal and the process. Or so I tell myself. I have gotten to think that hunting is an exercise in self-discipline.

The Outing
A guy at work invited me to come hunting with him. I guess I impressed him with my D&D stories. No shit. I was eager for mentorship, being aware that this is not the short of thing you can learn from youtube videos. On Friday the 5th of December, we rode to a property near Chandler, OK. It was an 80 acre spread of mixed wood and field with a few cattle pens, owned by relatives of my guide.
We arrived perhaps an hour before dark and put on our gear. I was expecting cold so I had a surplus M60 jacket over layers of long sleeved shirt. I wore black track pants over long johns (thermal underwear). This may seem counterintuitive, but I had learned this style from a backpacking excursion back in college. The synthetic outer layer helps to repel moisture and wind, while the cotton-blend inner layer maintains heat and wicks moisture. (The medieval equivalent of this would be wearing wool over linen.) I brought my military surplus Swedish Mauser Carbine. The Swedish Mauser is a bolt-action rifle which takes a 6.5x55mm cartridge, popular in Europe for big game hunting, but a little unusual in America. It has no scope mounts, but features an iron-sight which is adjustable for elevation to about 600 yards.

Gevär m-1896 - Modellexemplar tillverkat 1896 - 6,5x55mm - Armemuseum.jpg
I left the bayonet at home.

I discovered that while my armament has notable historic value, it is not ideal for sporting. My guide had a Ruger bolt-action rifle chambered in .270 caliber. .270 is a popular sporting round in America, notable for its high velocity and relatively flat trajectory as compared to other full-sized rifle rounds. This weapon was notably lighter, was equipped with a fine Leupold scope, and had a much quieter safety-switch (important) My guide wore insulated overalls and a hunter-orange coat with a pattern of denuded branches to break up the silhouette.

He quickly smoked a cigarette, and when he was finished, he squeezed the ember out onto the ground, rather than simply dropping the cigarette and stepping on it, so as to track less of the distinctive smell into the woods with us.

It was about an hour to sundown. Deer tend to move at twilight; when they can still see, but have some measure of cover-of-darkness. It is also illegal to take deer after sundown or before sunup. We moved quietly perhaps a third of a mile to a blind which overlooked a swath of meadow which separated three stands of woods. Our blind consisted of  a hay bale to sit on, with two hay bales stacked in from to provide concealment and a stable platform to shoot from. This whole arrangement was tucked under the eaves of two moist, dripping juniper trees. I was surprised at how cushy the station was. The owner of the property had noted the advantage of this point, and constructed this relatively comfortable semi-permanent blind. He said that more deer have been taken that point than anywhere else on the property.
We sat very still, and kept very quiet. I immediately noticed that sitting very still was a discipline which I had never had to practice before in my life. My guide whispered that the deer would come from where they bedded down, come from our right, and cross the meadow on their way to their watering hole, somewhere in the woods to our left. We waited. When twilight deepened and no deer came, my guide suggested that the deer were taking their time because of the full moon.  With a full moon for light, deer do not restrict themselves to moving at twilight, but move more freely throughout the night. I felt myself growing cold, but tolerably so. It became too dark to aim reliably, and we left the blind. We went to the ranch-house, where I was introduced to our host; a well-to-do Fox-news devotee.

The White Tailed Deer and its Capabilities.
There are three species of deer in North America. The Mule Deer is the largest. Named for its large, mule-like ears, its range centers on the Rocky Mountain range. Mulies can be identified by the dark hair on the tops of their heads and stetching down the tail. Their antlers branch in a Y on Y pattern. Black-tailed deer are relatively small and have a rather narrow range in the Pacific Northwest. The most common and adaptable deer in America is the White Tail. Its range covers the temperate zones of practically the whole continent. The white-tail's antlers grow as single-pointed branches from a main beam which curves up-and-forward from the base

A deer has many abilities which make it a survival machine.
Despite their size, they are remarkably good at staying hidden in wooded environments. Their coloration and ability to stay very, very still makes them difficult to spot. One has to learn to look not for large, obvious deer silhouettes, but rather,  to recognize parts of the deer under various lighting and shadows. When walking, they do so with a sinuous motion which seems to conceal their outline and does not draw attention with jerky movements. They can run faster than any human and easily clear most obstacles. Once a deer takes off, it is not worth wasting a shot unless you are an uncannily good marksman, and even then I wouldn't suggest it.  
Deer are widely believed to be colorblind. But they can see with greater acuity, and better in dim light than a human. Their eyes are mounted on the sides of their heads, granting them a very wide field of vision. They are always paying attention.
Their hearing is especially keen. They can angle their ears like a dog or cat to better pick up on their surroundings. The ears can be rather expressive and their movement can give away a deer which is otherwise perfectly still otherwise. If deer hear something as subtle as rustling of clothing, rattling of arrows or the clicking of a rifle's safety, they are unlikely to stick around.

Last weekend though, I was noisily running up a flinty, wooded hillside, looking for my stupid dog when a white-tail erupted from the brush perhaps 25 yards in front of me and leapt away through the woods. When they are bounding about, they have abandoned stealth and their hooves make quite a loud thumping. It seems that if a deer hears something which is just stupid-noisy for a forest, they may stick around a moment out of sheer astonishment. It's the little stuff that spooks them right off.
I have also read and heard that while deer flee from humans, they are not nearly as alarmed by a man on a horse. They don't seem to recognize the outline as human, and are more likely to sit still.
A deer has an uncanny sense of smell. A white-tail has about 25% more olfactory receptors than a German Shepherd. So I read in Field and Stream. They of course know what a human smells like. Try to avoid perfume, gasoline, tobacco smoke, cooking meat, woodsmoke or body odour on your way into the hunting grounds. Even the perfumes in common detergents are enough to alert a deer. Washing your clothes in baking soda is a tried and trusted method of removing excess odours from your clothing. Remember the direction of the wind and try to stay downwind or at least crosswind of where you think the game is. There are several scent-based deer attractants on the market. Doe estrus urine is popular for attracting bucks, but has been known to work too well.
 A deer is most likely to flee from a human, but is still wild animal and entirely capable of killing you. And nature has not equipped it to kill in a clean or quick manner.

by the genius Brad Neely
The above image- of a bleached skeleton in a rack is unlikely to occur however. Deer shed and regrow their antlers on a yearly basis- not long enough for a skeleton to bare itself. Antlers are shed in late winter or early spring and begin to regrow shortly after. By midsummer, the regrowth is complete and they begin to mineralize. By late summer, the antlers are fully calcified into an amazingly hard, durable material. This is just in time for mating season, when antlers are used by buck for dueling over reproductive privileges. Only bucks grow antlers.
Deer are herd animals. Females and fawns tend to move in groups and bed down in secure parts of the woods. They seek cover in thick brush, thorn patches and dense, scrubby woods. When browsing, they tend to scatter and spread out. They are creatures of habit and tend to use established networks of deer trails. They know when hunting season is and when they need to be especially wary. During these times, they avoid open areas or at least stick to the margins of the woods. when it is not hunting season, deer are more likely to act like punks. Bucks are more independent and range farther from main groups.
Clumps of glossy, bead-like pellets

Take This All Together, and now you have to shoot it.
And keep in mind our hunting strategy on this trip; to spot and shoot a dear from a long distance. This is the easy way to do it. It is baby-level hunting. It is made possible by modern firearms and optics for aiming them. To hunt with most any pre-modern weapon, one needs to be within 40 yards of the target, if not closer. Most hunters using modern compound bows consider 20 to 30 yards to be a fair distance for a reasonably accurate, ethical shot. This also depends on the deer presenting a good angle and standing reasonably still. Bow hunting is considerably more challenging, and this is why the bow season is much longer than gun season.
When an opportunity to shoot presents itself, the hunter much determine if the shot is worth taking. Ideally, a hunter will only take a sure shot which will kill the animal quickly and cleanly. If this is not possible, it is best not to take the shot. A rifle tends to kill quickly; the shockwave of the passing bullet creates a voluminous wound-cavity which pulps tissue and organs. But when hunting with a bow and arrow, a precise shot to a vital area is even more critical. An arrow typically kills by blood-loss, and it may be necessary to track the animal a ways to where it finally drops. I understand that when a stricken animal begins to run, it is best to not chase after immediately. Chasing right away will give the animal more motivation to run farther, and a better idea of where to run to get away from you. By widening the gap between itself and you, it makes it possible that you will just lose the animal.

To get close enough for a shot like this, one must pick a position where deer are expected to pass by; such as a blind, a tree stand or some other form of serious concealment, and Wait. Being very still and very quiet. This is a skill which takes practice, discipline and self control.
In D&D terms, wisdom should not be a hunter's dump stat.
The other option is to stalk the game; to literally sneak up on it. People do it. But I can't say how.
Teamwork and tactics can be a huge aid to hunting. One person may serve as a distraction or serve to spook the game towards where the other lies in wait. Or two hunters, stalking in a coordinated manner may be slightly more assured that the deer are not dodging them entirely. Possibly. Deer are slippery.

"Hunting," not "Killing."
The next day, in the pre-dawn, we crept past the cattle gates and into the woods. We found a tree-stand and mounted up, pulling our guns up on a line after us. The stand was perhaps 10 feet up and overlooked a gravel path which stretched toward the stand, then away at a right-ish angle. scrubby oak woods- slow passage for a human- lined the path. For hours, we waited.
Over the rest of the day, we stalked to another treestand at a higher elevation, from which we could see broad expanses of meadow. We sat tight for hours, into the afternoon without sight of any deer.
We trekked over to where they bedded down. This was distinguished by the amount of nearby scat. We saw nothing. My knife wandered off though. It was a Mora, so I wasn't too heartbroken. Moras are great utilitarian knives and very economical. As twilight came on, I grew cold. My gloves and mask were thin and uninsulated. I also determined to acquire overalls like my guide had.  I have also since determined to have a scope mounted on the Mauser. We did not spot a deer all day.

How to See
Sunday morning was our last shot at this. We returned to the blind beneath the junipers. It was a rather misty morning and very gray and dim. My guide seemed to have given up some of his optimism and ventured to converse- whispering more loudly than we had been wont to do. His conversation turned to the advice which only someone who has been divorced and remarried will offer a young man. A pinkish twilight started to grow and it became light. I took this as a bad sign, and said I would not mind if we called it a day.
But we sat a little longer. And my guide spotted something and pointed.

It took me perhaps six seconds to actually see what he saw.
200 yards away, down a hill, blurred by the haze, I could see a quadruped coming slowly in our direction. It had come from around a line of trees and was moving along the edge of the meadow, rather close to the trees. Its shape was vague, and it walked with a subtle, undulating motion which I did not yet know as that of a deer. The quality of the motion was not the sort of thing which would catch the eye unless one were looking very closely.
A human can only focus with optimal clarity upon an area about the size of one's thumbnail, held at arms length. Anything outside of that area is not in best focus. and even focusing upon the animal from about 200 yard, it still appeared as a gray blur upon a gray field. I could make out a long body and what looked like short legs. My guide and I thought it might be a coyote. Coyotes are fair game and I was far from above taking a coyote as a consolation prize.
My guide offered to let me use his scoped Ruger, I quickly and quietly took it, knowing that there was no way I would be able to aim effectively using my Mauser's dingey iron-sights. Looking through the scope, I saw that it was no coyote. There was the tracery of antlers, and the rest of the length of the slender legs appeared.
Through the scope, in the dim light, it looked like a ghost or a silent figment. My point is that to spot wild game takes a different sort of looking and seeing from that used for more mundane things, and this seeing is a skill which takes practice to learn.
Deer are strange and powerful.

It had turned and was offering a broad-side target. I was settling and focusing my aim, when my guide warned that it was about to disappear behind a brush pile. With my left eye, I was able to see what he meant, and I only had a few seconds left to shoot. My guide had mentioned that his scope was set to hit right on the cross-hairs at 200 yards, so I did not need to adjust my aim, merely put the crosshairs a little behind the front shoulder and squeeze. There was an orange flash in the scope and I was gratified to see the buck drop instantly. I could not have asked for a cleaner, faster dispatch.
I think I got a high-five. I don't remember.
We restrained ourselves and walked down to where the buck lay, quite dead. It was only then that I started shaking; adrenaline, you know.

We began to field-dress the buck. This is the process of removing the organs from the animal's thoracic and abdominal cavity to prevent the internal flora from spoiling the meat. Field dressing is one of those things which can only be learned by doing. My guide left me to hack up through the ribcage with a rather dull knife, while he went to get the truck. I was challenged to wrangle 170-180 pounds of dead weight while cutting through bone and flesh. The animal was very warm to the touch, and my hands were cold, so I did not mind.
Now consider the difficulties here. We had the modern conveniences of a truck to carry the game, and convenience-store ice to stuff in the cavity to keep it chilled. Yet even between the two of us it was amazingly difficult to manhandle the buck into the truck-bed. Without these things, the only option is to drag or carry the carcass to a place where it can be safely processed. In a more savage environment, like a good D&D setting, a hunter would have to stay wary of scavengers and predators which might try to steal the game. These are challenges which a wily DM might consider.

Another interesting detail: the bullet's entrance was clear, perhaps a little above the heart. My guide and I noticed another wound on the buck's opposite side, on the abdomen, near the crease of the back thigh. It was about 3 inches across, crusted and calloused over in rough way; closed, but not neatly. My guide said this was the exit wound, and I didn't argue. He was the one with the experience.  Later on, when preparing the ribs to cook, I noticed a ragged hole torn through the opposite rib, which was clearly an exit wound (Exit wounds tend to be larger and more ragged than entry wounds.) That meant that the abdominal wound was old. The antlers also bore chips and signs of hard use. These served as reminders that this was a wild animal, and had lived a dangerous and occasionally violent life. Another thing for a DM to remember: even a randomly encountered animal can have a history.   

We managed to roll this buck out of the truck-bed and tuck it into the trunk of my mustang. When I backed up to our local butcher's and produced a big-game-animal from the boot, the effect was like a bizarre hat-trick. A few days later, I picked up the remains of my animal, and received 83 pounds of meat. That's both of my dogs in meat. It's probably more than a party of adventurers can eat in a
few days. Without refrigeration, they might want to can or jerk the meat, which is also a time-consuming process.

Hopefully, this story can add a little perspective for outdoorsy characters and wilderness adventures. I hope it can also offer some practical advice to other people with ambitions to hunt.
Of course, this is only scratching the surface of the topic

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Adventure Learning System"

Adventure Learning System

This is what DragonRaid, the infamous Evangelical RPG, called itself. Not a roleplaying game, or a story-telling system or anything like that. Its purpose is to teach.
Now, because of the subject matter of DragonRaid, a gamer can easily take it as manipulative, harshly didactic or even cringe-worthy. (Evangelical and moralistic Christianity did a lot to alienate the nerd and gaming community back in the day. By doing so, they ultimately stunted their own cause, because a society's nerds generally decide how that society will lean in the next decade or two. If you need convincing of this point, just take a look at the popular movies and TV shows of the last decade or so. It's all high-budget fantasy and Marvel stuff.) Anyways, because of its context, that whole "adventure-learning system" idea was marginalized and largely ignored.

I had an exchange with someone in my group.
To set the scene, we had all met for our weekly game, but play had been interrupted by one of our many inevitable tangents. I quietly said something to complain about this. My friend responded something like this;
"Oh well, we all got together and we're hanging out; getting social interaction. That's the important thing."
I believed I detected a hint of sarcasm or doubt in her voice, so I was emboldened to speak my mind:
"I'm here to have a deeply immersive fantasy experience."

Seriously. I'm trying to get some catharsis up in here. But that is a tough dragon to chase. It takes some serious magic to pull off catharsis in game. Light some candles, get the oils out...
Some people talk about whether a game is more "narrativist" or "simlationist." But these definitions are fairly worthless for any application. People say "it's only a game! It should be fun." but you look around the table and see some bored, unengaged sonsabitches.
What if those poor, bored sonsabitches came to the table with the expectation that they could actually get something out of it?

Like language or money or strike-on-box matches; Roleplaying is a technology. But what if we have completely misconstrued the usefulness of this technology? What if DragonRaid had it right? What if Roleplaying Games are at their best in an educational capacity? 

The simulation of peoples and worlds cannot be earnestly attempted without learning about people and the world.

Consider the history which led up to modern roleplaying.
War-Gaming was originally developed as a tool to teach tactics to military officers. However, in such Kriegspiel, entertainment value was not a remote consideration and the rules were miserably unwieldy.
When H.G. Wells invented his game Little Wars, an observer declared that he had invented a type of kriegspiel. Little Wars was a game meant to be played on miniature, hand-crafted battlefields with tin soldiers and a sort of spring-powered toy cannon which is no longer widely available, but easily improvisable.  Players were expected to get down and aim the cannon by sight when firing.  Little Wars is worth looking up if only for historical interest.

They appear to be playing in the "out-side." How quaint were the ways of the ancients!

In musing about the possibilities of his game, H.G.Wells envisions "sanatoriums" where the war-pigs of the world can live out their sadomasochistic tendencies without disturbing the rest of the casual gamers. When a sci-fi writer proposes something like this, it is a fair bet they are only half joking, and at least fractionally correct:
It came to pass that, the term "roleplaying" was originally invented by psychiatrists to suit their own purposes. They noted that role-play exercises could have therapeutic or psychosocial benefits. There are many people going around who testify that D&D helped them to overcome shyness or social awkwardness. I have personally witnessed people having their horizons expanded through roleplaying games (provided they can be kept away from splatbooks and self-indulgent expansions) The very act of roleplaying is an exercise empathy. It is also a method for analyzing and compartmentalizing one's own impulses. Ask me about my chaotic neutral barbarian-huntress. She's not technically an atheist, but she has only recently heard of such things as "gods" and imagines them only as powerful magic users.

I find myself imagining the use of roleplaying in applied political science. There was once a game called Diplomacy. Players in Diplomacy took on the roles of national leaders and played by sending written orders and negotiations to other players and to the referee. It was a game you could play by post. Imagine if you applied the principles of actual poli-sci and played it out as a serious simulation.

This is not to remotely suggest that games should drop fiction or escapism. Far from it. But even when produced for mere pleasure, people tend to not be pleased with their games unless there is some underlying verisimilitude to the creation. There needs to be some familiar realism for the fantastic to grow upon.

So how do you make a game more educational?
I think it would start with communication between players and Game-masters. There needs to be an agreement on the setting and subject matter. that way everyone can do their homework and bring their books so to speak. Adjusting the initial parameters of a game will do a lot to determine the themes and thoughts involved in the adventure. I'll be writing a list of such parameters soon. With very little adjustment, your average fantasy roleplaying system could be used to address grand philosophical and cosmological questions. The hard part is the little, practical stuff. How, for instance, could a ranger's knowledge of the habits of wild animals be transmitted to people sitting around a kitchen table? Or the thief's knowledge of traps and trickery? How could a fighter's familiarity with weaponry be transmitted, short of some very intense LARPing?
These are tantalizing problems.
Please leave your precious input in the comments.

By the way, whenever I talk about the history of D&D, it is largely a regurgitation of what I learned from Jon Peterson's book "Playing at the World." PatW is an excellent text on the history of rpgs, and it is doubly amazing for maintaining the citation standards of an academic work.  I gave it 5 stars on amazon.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

D&D bible history-Creation and Eden

My dear readers may detect in these writings a slight obsession with spiritual and religious subjects. I am prone to taking up obsessions every so often. It is something I do. I am not sure what started this recent religious streak. I suspect it may have started with reading Gene Wolfe. Mixing religion and science fiction can turn to quite a rabbit-hole. It is one of the wider pathways to Crystal-tower-wizardry. 

A handy chart for gauging how far a case of CTW has progressed. If anyone can tell me who actually produced this art, i'd be much obliged.

As mentioned before: Crystal Tower Wizardry is a pernicious habit, and magic is inherently evil. Allow me to relate the Biblical story of Creation and Eden from the CTW perspective, so that the reader may be warned of the severe mental damage which inevitably follows such impure thinking;

The First Account of Creation
Many people go pass through Sunday school without realising that there are in fact two separate Creation Stories in the canon Bible.
In the First, God does stuff for six days, then rests. The specifics of this cosmology can be a little difficult to visualize: It begins by describing that the earth as a formless wasteland. Two verses in and we already have a mystery; A wasteland is a form, so how can it be formless? There is also an abyss(of water) which is dark. But the spirit of God blows over it like a wind. My best guess at the meaning of this is that everything was all mixed together in a dark, useless muddy slop. It is the ultimate result of entropy- a homogenous, worthless muddle. But God was moving around in it.

Then god creates light. But there is still darkness for contrast and they are divided from eachother; creating day and night. This would be ample setup for some epic conflict. But God saw that it was good, and we had the necessary materials for the 1st day.

On the 2nd day, God made a dome to separate the waters; basically a bubble of atmosphere. This divided the waters above from those below.
This "day" idea is strange. Some people claim they were literally 24 hour days. Others cover by saying that "day" means something more like an era, or that a day for god is a really long time. These explanations smack somewhat of a desire to have one's cake and eat it too.

On the 3rd day, God gathers the waters below into seas so that dry land appears. Then vegetation and growing things come forth from the land.

On the 4th day, God places stars in the dome of the sky; as if they are stuck onto the membrane separating the atmosphere from the waters above. He creates the moon to be a light for night (the moon can be seen during the day, but whatever.) and the sun, which I guess is a consolidation of the light of day.
5th day gets us birds and sea creatures. Now this makes me wonder. It seems odd that the entity which engineers things like gravity or light would be the same one interested in running biology experiments on Earth. But that is just my modern perspective talking. We moderns are blessed with some inkling of the vastness of the universe and relative smallness of our own experience. If you have a geo-centric perspective, however, it makes perfect sense that the almighty would take a thorough personal interest in the one-and-only world.

On the 6th day, God created all the animals on the earth. He then creates humans in his image. Exacty what this means is a huge mystery. It seems to imply that humans have the image of their creator, but not the substance. He also grants humanity dominion over the rest of creation. The lions and tigers and viruses probably took issue with this, perhaps on the basis that they had been created first.
As for the sexes, it says "man and woman he created them." in a nice egalitarian sounding way. Perhaps we may insert Lilith; Adam's apocryphal first wife at this point.
Lilith is a compelling figure; she is never described or explained in the bible, but is occasionally mentioned in extra biblical sources and commentaries. She is said to have refused to be subservient to Adam, and became a mother of demons. She came to be the Hebrew equivalent of  a class of Sumerian baby-snatching demons, and also as a sort of succubus sexy-time demon. These days, she is mostly invoked for contrived post-modern vampire mythologies.
On the 7th day, God saw that it was good, and he rested. The idea that God requires rest is a perturbing, paganish notion.

The Second Account:
Picks up on the day when the dry land had been formed, but before plants had been caused to grow. God creates Adam out of clay, in a process which sounds eerily like the tale of the Golem. There you have it. Humans are Golems.
God then creates the Garden of Eden, the name of which is supposed to evoke pleasant feelings in most any language. In the middle of the Garden, God plants two special trees: The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only the latter he specifically forbids to Adam.

Then God notes that it is not good that the man be alone. What God witnessed that led him to this conclusion is not explicitly stated. So God created animals and had the man name them all. But none of them proved to be a suitable companion; not even the god-spelled-backwards, who was probably really keen on getting to be #1 companion.
God decides to anesthetize Adam and synthesize a complementary organism from a tissue sample. Which makes you wonder if God had misplaced the original designs in the last day or so.

So God had his creations naked. And they felt no shame, but the implication is that they should have, which indicates that something weird was going on. (Questionable Western notions of nudity and propriety aside, let's take them as a given for this story)

One day, the serpent asks Eve to recount exactly what she is and is not allowed to eat. In pseudepigraphical books like the Book of Adam or the Apocalypse of Moses  it explains that the serpent at the time was possessed by Lucifer himself. Lucifer wished to betray humanity out of jealousy, for God had ordered the angels to be subservient to man, and Lucifer thought this was just stupid.
So the serpent explained to Eve that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would work exactly as the name implied,  making her like (a) god. BTW, the fruit was not an apple. But is depicted as such because of a Latin pun where malus is the word for both "evil" and "apple"

Eve got some of the fruit and gave some to Adam, who was with her and apparently not paying attention to the previous conversation. Then they ate the fruit and had the world's first psychedelic experience.
Imagine their consternation.
Ernst Fuchs. Adam and Eve Under The Tree of Knowledge.

The couple suddenly realized that they were naked. In a Garden. With snakes and shit.  They may even have realized that their creator, who supposedly loved them, had made them that way and kept them ignorant of it.
A&E  make some clothes out of fig leaves (AC +0). Evening comes and they hear Jehovah coming along. They hide themselves; probably because they haven't come down yet and are still a little jittery. And they do a poor job of hiding themselves because they didn't know that there was such a thing as needing to hide from anything until a few hours ago. Jehovah spots them and there is a dialog.

"Who told you that you were naked?" Jehovah knows his game is up; "Who told you Acererak was weak to gemstones and attacks from the astral plane?!" Jehovah  then turns it around by blaming the victim, and this suffices to distract A&E.
Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Jehova curses them all to the chronic suffering. He then says that they have indeed become like gods in their knowledge. He decides to ban them from Eden so that they do not eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal. I suppose Jehova wouldn't have much to feel special about if his creations got too close to his level.

God is a terrible Dungeon Master here. We have a scenario where there are only a couple of clear, obvious objectives. Except the players are not supposed to win. When they achieve the obvious objectives, they are punished, for no other reason than for the DM to prove his control over the game ("You should have known better than to open that chest.") A good DM knows how to pose as a threat, but understands that the exercise is pointless if it does not ultimately benefit the players. Don't be a Jehova.
And don't be a Crystal-Tower Wizard.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Armor Basics

I am pretty sure the special children at Wizards of the Coast have never actually looked at or worn medieval armor. But never fear, purist! For my small voice shall be like unto a single candle in the darkness.
I'm going to restrict this post to pre-modern armors. That is a broad enough subject without considering modern materials or threats. I can see the topic extending to several posts without even stretching.

Though it may not show, D&D armor was originally based in reality. The scholarship was somewhat hobbled, but Gygax did his best to represent historical styles in his ruleset. Some might argue that armor is a game-piece, and that the important thing is the attached statistics. I say that realistic styles and designs should be kept in mind. Otherwise, how can we even know what we are talking about in game?

Original D&D and B/X had three armors: leather chain and plate. This is great if you are trying to keep it simple. Advanced D&D added many more options Here is a list organized by AC adjustment, not including helmets or shields.

Sweet Jesus. What a muddle! Gary tried, didn't he? Gary's main source was books like Charles Ashdown's histories of arms and armor; essentially a bunch of Victorian guesswork. That is why everything is called "Mail." Back in the day, the only thing called "mail" was chain mail. That was what the word meant. Note the inclusion of "Banded Mail." Even though Gary himself admitted that no-one knew what Banded Mail was, he still managed to assign an armor value to it. Banded Mail was just a term used to describe what was probably an artistic representation of chain.

Here's the armor listing from 3rd:

If weapons are difficult to type up for a rule set, Armor is utterly boggling. Books tend to make an attempt to describe the material or construction of armor, but they generally don't describe the amount of coverage. Are we talking just the torso? head to toe coverage? Is the necessary padding and under-layers included? Are bracers and greaves included? 3rd edition rules make a fair attempt at this, which is necessary since many of the armors listed are different styles of similar materials.
More often than not, Warriors would mix and match the material of their equipage, or dress in layers. Very few rulesets allow for wearing multiple layers of armor. (Anima does. But who has even heard of Anima?)
These are important questions. But before we can consider them we should probably just review the armors by their basic types.

Padded Armor
Meant to refer to quilted or textile armors. You will get farther with reenatctors and historians if you refer to them as gambeson. These don't get a lot of cred in most rulesets. 4th edition takes a page from World of Warcaft and defines armor types by material rather than style. There is some good sense to this because not all "padded" armors are created equal.
Some gambesons are rather thin and intended to do little more than protect the wearer from his own armor and prevent it from "biting."

Others provide a serious level of protection, especially from concussive blows, and are thick enough to absorb the bite of a slashing edge. At this level, they can be rather bulky, and while not "heavy," they are not the sort of thing for your acrobatic thief would wear.

Textile armors offer many advantages which would appeal to an adventurer: They offer warmth and are easier to store and transport than rigid plate-armors. They are also less prone to rust, and lower-maintenance. They can be humble in appearance, or richly embellished.

Textile armors are also less conductive of energy, which would make them superior for resisting magical attacks.

The Linothorax
Literally a "linen cuirass," this was an antique example of textile armor. There are no surviving examples of this armor type, but it is referenced in literature and depicted in art. The linothorax was made of many layers of linen. Nerds debate as to whether these layers were laminated together with a sort of glue (which would make a material similar to fiber-glass) or if they were merely quilted. Either way, the multiple layers of linen provide excellent protection, even from arrows and piercing attacks, in a manner similar to a modern kevlar vest.

Alexander the Great depicted wearing a Linothorax.
Cloth Armor: Not just for Plebs and Magic-users any more.

Leather Armor
As obvious as it seems to make armor out of leather, there is not a lot of historical record of it. It also doesn't help that cured animal skin does not stand the test of time well.
Leather was used in armor, but mostly as a connective material or a foundation for the main defensive element. When it was used as the main defensive element, it was never plain leather, but either rawhide or treated with lacquer or wax or cuir-boullied.
Cuir Boulli means "boiled leather." It refers to the range of techniques for hardening leather by "tempering" it in near-boiling water or impregnating it with wax or both.
While it is easy enough to form leather into large, rigid sheets and use it to imitate the style of plate armor, it seems like this is not how leather was usually applied. It was more typically configured into scales or lamellar. The reason for this is probably that the leather pieces overlap in a scale or lamellar configuration, making it much more effective at stopping piercing attacks or ablating concussive force. Leather in a "plate" configuration would not be as effective.

Reproduction of Egyptian leather scale. Rawhide-on linen backing. Made for a Nova special. It looks chintzy, but it has amazing protective power.

Muscle Cuirasses were real, but were largely decorative or meant for ostentation. Leather-plate cuirasses like this may have existed, but were almost certainly decorative.

More supple leather can also be uses as a padding-layer for heavier armor. a fair example of this would be the buff coat- which is basically a frock coat made of leather.

But since this is the realm of D&D and Hide Armor is a thing, we can guess that armor made of alligator or rhino hide would be very protective. But considering the sheer bulk of the material, metal armor would be much sleeker and less bulky. You can make articulated gauntlets from steel, but not from half-inch thick hide.

Studded Leather is another bizarre Gygaxian Anachronism. It's wasn't a real thing. Medieval men at arms didn't say to themselves "Hmm. Methinks I shall dispense with a few extra groats and purchase the studded cuir-boulli. It doth protect more verily by five per-centum!" Sure, you could stick a few decorative rivets on leather armor. But why would you distinguish it from other leather armors in your ruleset?
Studded leather is however useful if you are making a movie and you want to portray brigandine or a coat-of-plates on a budget.

Ring-Mail was a real thing though.
Defined as metal rings stitched onto a cloth or leather backing. It might not be your first choice of armors. But it has a sort of improvised, road-warrior sort of appeal.
Sudanese chest piece. dated to 1744, Metropolitan Museum of Art.             
Obviously, this metal-bits-on-a-backing sort of armor would be practical, if only for its ease of manufacture. But it does not lend itself well to articulation and would leave a lot of gaps. For rules purposes, I am tempted to include splint-armor in the same category.

Burchard von Steinberg (1376)

German, dated 1376. from effigiesandbrasses.com. This fellow's bracers and greaves are splint-armor. Sometimes the splints were on the inside of the leather foundation. When the splints are on the inside, they are indicated the rows of rivets. Note that this fellow's knee and elbow copps are made of plate in conjunction with the splint. He is depicted standing upon a dragon to indicate his personal, spiritual triumph over evil and the devil.

Here is some more primitive-styled splint armor by getdressedforbattle.com. It is supposedly a "Viking" style but it looks more road-warrior to me. 

Scale Armor
Scale armor was popular from ancient times, through the Roman period, into the Migrational period (aka the Dark Ages.) But by the Middle-Ages, it had lost currency and was almost entirely replaced by chain. It is easy to guess why scale armor had its day though. Scale is simple to produce and to repair. It can be made from a variety or materials; leather or bronze or steel. It does not require a high level of metallurgy to produce plates of sufficient size. The mere concept is naturally inspired and aesthetically pleasing.
A Pangolin: One of the world's most hunted animals. Its keratinous scales protect these endangered animals from most predators, but not so much from South-East Asians who will try to eat or make folk-medicine out of anything.

Scale would be almost completely replaced by chain for reasons I would have to guess at, except for sparse use in transitional armor rigs where it was used to cover areas like the hips or shoulders:

Kunz von Haberkorn (1421)
German, 1421.From effigiesandbrasses.com
Chain Mail
Invented around perhaps 400 or 500 BCE, Maille has been one of the most common and recognizable armor types for over two millennia, and still sees practical use to this day. The basic technology required to create maille is the capacity to draw large amounts of wire. Not all Maille is created equal The strength of the mail depends on the gauge of the wire used, the diameter of the individual links, the style of weave (European 4-in-1 is the most common,) and the method by which the links are close. They may be welded, riveted (very tiny rivets), butted together (the weakest) or perhaps a solid ring (but the solid rings still need to be connected to each other by some other method). Weaving chain by hand is a time-consuming process and is a huge factor of the cost of the armor. The "augmented" and "double" maille refer to alternate styles, heavier or more protective than standard chain.
European 4-in-1 pattern
Image result for european 4 in 1

 drawn by M.C. Escher, apparently. Thanks for this, WotC

The 3E rules distinguish between a chain shirt and chain mail. A Chain Shirt might refer to a t-shirt or "hauberk" which covers the upper arms and the tops of the thighs. The more protective "chain mail" probably signifies a full-body suit such as those worn by these crestfallen warriors:

Maille is often depicted as very form-fitting. Maille is very easy to tailor to the wearer; a baggy suit would only weigh extra! Maille also tends to weigh on itself and hug its wearer. This low profile makes it good for wearing hidden.
Maille is extremely flexible, making it good for armoring areas like the throat, groin or armpit. For this reason, it is often worn under more rigid armors or stitched directly onto a gambeson.
Maille effectively defeats edged weapons. But it is not exactly proof against strong or acute piercing attacks, and it does little to soak or spread concussive force. For this reason, Maille was often worn over a gambeson to offer a degree of padding. Or perhaps because Maille is a heat-sink and a gambeson keeps you warm.

Refers to styles of armor comprised of small, overlapping plates which are laced together in a repeating pattern. As with scale armor, the overlapping plates distribute the energy of a blow very effectively. But unlike scale, lamellar plates are not pinioned to a backing, but laced through eachother; top, bottom and side to side. This renders it less flexible, but effectively more protective.
Lamellar is relatively easy to produce from a variety of materials: from leather and bone to metals and modern materials. The lacing of lamellar is exposed though, and I expect it would require regular maintenance and repair when subjected to the rigours or combat with live weapons.

uh. um. What was I talking about?

Plate Mail
Is another one of those Victorian neologisms which was used to refer to the plate armor of the late Medieval and Renaissance period. In AD&D however, Gygax describes it as chain-mail armor with steel plates woven onto the links. This is actually a real thing. After all, if your chain is form-fitting, why not point plate-armor onto it?
plates of horn -Philippine origin. 1800s. I'd wear that.
File:Coat of mail with horn plates, Philippines (Moro people), 1800s - Higgins Armory Museum - DSC05569.JPG

Diagram showing small, overlapping plates. Because of this, I would class plate-mail as lamellar for rules purposes. Or else as splint-armor layered on chain.

Coat of Plates & Brigandine
It became apparent that against medieval weaponry, larger, wider plates provided greater protection than scales, lames or chain. A wider plate ablates the force of a blow over a wider area, and is lighter by virtue of not overlapping with other plates. As smithing techniques improved, it became possible to form larger sections of armor. Armor which covered the same area required fewer pieces, but more complex ones. This began what is called the "transitional" period in European armoring. It can be roughly placed over the 14th century. And as the name implies, this was the period in which fighting men transitioned from chain to plate armors. The distinctive armors of the transistiona period are Brigandine, and Coat-of-Plates. Gygax accurately describes brigandine as steel plates riveted on the inside of a cloth or leather front.
From the outside; looks like leather with studs. On the inside: the main defensive element is steel plates. This on the right is a rather busy example. The numerous rivets and the overlapping would make it heavier, but also more flexible than a simpler layout.

Here is a simpler layout: essentially splint armor for the torso called the Wisby CoP.

Note that it is only a coat of plates. To be fully armored, one would require an underlayer of mail or splint-armor to protect the limb. A helmet would be nice too.

Perhaps the most exotic and misunderstood form of body armor. in game terms, plate armor is generally considered to be heavy and bulky. It had potential to be so, but not necessarily. Like many other forms of armor, not all plate was created equal.

Indeed, some plate is intended to lock you onto the top of a charging horse, transforming you into something more like a tank than a man-to-man combatant. If you were to dismount and attempt to fight normally, it would be indubitably restrictive:

For the most part however, plate armor at its apex was fitted specifically to the wearer. It was thoroughly articulated and allowed for a great degree of flexibility and agility. If you cannot move, you cannot fight, and people are not in the habit of making armor that doesn't work. It may not have been the sort of thing you would want to spend all day in (which might be necessary in warfare,) but you would likely have preferred to fight with it than without.

So called "half-plate." Example shown here was used by Swiss mercenaries. So called "munitions" grade armor, without having to include arms or legs, half plate did not require such extensive personal tailoring and was easier to produce in quantity. Plate armor; not just for super-rich nobles anymore.
But what happened next? Firearms happened.
The development and proliferation of hand-held gunnery turned conventional armors into a liability. Distance, cover and concealment became the new best defenses.
For a while, late-period armors and firearms used in concert were an over-whelming force, and established a firm foothold for colonial and imperial interests, particularly in the Americas.

But where two modern armies met, armor proved ineffective. It was possible to make plating which was proof to bullets, but they were of such weight that it was impractical to wear more than a cuirass of the stuff. Even modern ballistic armors are rarely designed to cover more than the vital organs.
In the figurative arms race between defense and offense, gunpowder weapons gave offense such a lead that it seems the rest of the world is still caching up.

I hope you enjoyed this survey of armors. It is hardly exhaustive, but these arms and armor surveys are exhausting to put together.
And that's not even touching the rules yet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Zelda-Grid open world mapping

Bear with me. This post is really about designing open world environments. If you just want the meat, skip to the summary at the bottom of this post.

I love the Zelda franchise.
It is seriously one of my formative artistic influences. When I was little, I got a lot of fairy-stories and wooden swords and toy bow-and-arrows to play with. Power Rangers and the Game Gear ruined me and I forgot about these things for several years.
But playing Link's Awakening at the tender age of 11, reminded me: Swords! Archery! Living in the woods! Rugged, Independent Adventuring! These things are cool!

Shut up Werner Herzog! Not even I am that iconoclastic!

Since I love Zelda so much, I've had my doubts about the direction franchise. But I am genuinely looking forward to the next installment for one reason:

 Hyrule is going to be presented as an Open World.

Open World games, sometimes called “sandbox” games, are becoming more prevalent and popular as gaming systems become more powerful, and can now run large, complex environments and render large parts of it at any given time. Assassin’s Creed, Skyrim, GTA, all of these games feature large, open spaces for the player to interact with. Players enjoy the freedom and sense of magnitude which these games offer. As virtual worlds grow larger and deeper, designers have to invent new ways to simulate freedom and abilities for players to interact in the game world. In contemporary games, characters are commonly able to find work, make a residence, make moral choices, choose a lover, tinker with their possessions, or just walk around aimlessly pestering the local wildlife. It's almost like they're trying to imitate a table-top rpg.

The industry has embraced the open world model of gaming. But it seems that few realize how far back the open-world style goes. The 1986 Legend of Zelda for the NES/Famicom was among the first open-world games. There were earlier precedents to be sure, but none so memorable or influential. In the Original Zelda, the top-down perspective allowed for movement which was not limited by a linear level or “stage.” A player could walk practically anywhere in Hyrule, with only actual physical barriers such as rocks or trees to hinder. Even now, game designers rely on invisible walls, decorative doors and impassable knee-high walls to corral players into the realm of what-has-been-created-and-isn’t-totally-buggy. Zelda’s open Hyrule is easy to take for granted now, but at the time it would have been a big deal.

A Big Deal:

The original Zelda, Adventure of Link, Link to the Past and even Link’s Awakening all used the top-down perspective to offer a world as open as the hardware of the time would allow. Then something happened. Ocarina of Time is an unquestionably significant game. But in the transition from 2D to early 3D, the ability to render a truly open world was lost. Go and look again. The whole gameworld of Ocarina is a series of corridors and chambers. Hyrule Field is just a large room, with designated exits to adjacent chambers. Link cannot get from Kokiri Forest to Zora's Domain by walking directly Northward, even though these areas are next to each other on the map. Instead, he must walk through the corridor to Hyrule Field, then the corridor to Zora's River, then to Zora's domain. Hyrule is not vast. It is constricted and rather linear. Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward sword are all like this.
Compare this to Windwaker. One of Windwaker’s strongest points was that it somehow fanned the faint ember of an Open World in Zelda. The open-ness of the ocean did much to catch a glimmer of the tempting freedom that older titles offered. At the beginning of the game, you can see the spires of distant islands from the aptly names Outset Island. You may go to any of them, travelling in a more-or-less straight line, or coming around from any angle you like. It is a simple thing, but it offers a delicious sense of trepidation as you approach strange or threatening new areas. Just don’t try to swim it.

I really caught the importance of this open-world feeling. So when I started to design my own adventures, learning how to simulate them became a priority.

I suppose a note of caution is appropriate here. Your group may not be into a sandbox style game. In order for a sandbox to work out, the players must be able to create their own agendas to pursue in the world. Many players are accustomed to being given clear objectives to follow, with a linear, rail road sort of progression. These players may have hated Navi the Fairy. But in the free-form media of a tabletop, they will need her to tell them what there is to be done. it may behoove you to explain that your campaign is going to be sand-boxy, and will require some conscientious exploration.

It is said that Shigeru Miyamoto, when producing the original Zelda, wanted to create “a garden you could keep in your chest-of-drawers”. I cannot precisely cite that story because, like so much of what is said about Shigeru Miyamoto and the early development of certain franchises, the story is a practically legend itself. But let us assume it is true. Did Miyamoto succeed in creating a virtual garden? Old School Hyrule is not literally a garden. It’s an overgrown wilderness crawling with evil monsters. Desperate survivors hide in caves and grift off the only person brave/stupid enough to go outside. Hyrule is a messed-up place, or didn’t you catch that? But what else is a garden? A pleasure garden is an array of interesting or beautiful things, arranged in such a way as to create a sense of a space apart from the rest of the world. A garden can be large and mysterious, dangerously overgrown, or sublimely beautiful. A garden is also often enclosed, and for its potential it is still a cozy, cloistered affair. A garden is its own little world, just like Hyrule.

So how did they create the garden? Can a casual designer replicate the technique? Yes. The answer is Tiles. Tiles and grids. You could do it for your friends with the same graph paper you use for your dungeons.
Look at the Overworld map of the Original Zelda. The whole kingdom is plotted into rectangles fitting the dimensions of a TV screen! 16 screens East-to-West by 8 screens North-to South. All together it looks like easy poo poo, and very primitive. Then you get down into it and find yourself getting lost in the woods and chased by monsters, which is pretty much a recipe for fun. Koholint Island is also presented as a screen-by-screen grid. Even as late as Windwaker, the map of the Ocean is divided into a measly 64 squares, and each square has something in it: When you realize this, you marvel at how large the game seems while still being very simple behind-the-scenes.
This screen-grid setup was necessitated by the limitations of the 8-bit hardware. It allowed designers to present a larger game world, while using less data to do it. By rendering only one screen at a time, the hardware was saved from having to quickly render the in-between areas. This hardware limitation is actually very similar to the limitations which DMs face when creating their worlds. What the DM uses for his own reference will not be the same as how players perceive the world. This is a sort of man-behind-the-curtain effect where the players know that the DM is behind the curtain. And the DM can see all the machinery he is using to create the illusion of a world.Whether analog or digital, the game designer is trying to create the maximum usable gameworld and relate it in a quick and efficient way.

I was recently running a sandbox game, specifically attempting to see if the table-top format could convey a Zelda-esque feel. To this end, the campaign world was rather small and densely populated with adventure fodder. I used the opportunity to experiment with several styles of mapping the areas for my own reference, and presenting them to the players. I began by doing some research on geological formation, to start with a naturalistic basis. I then made detailed maps of areas with very dramatic geography, and made several drawings by hand to show Players what they might see from their perspective.
The players rewarded my effort by leaving this area as soon as possible after seeing perhaps an eighth of it. I determined that a more chickenwire-and-papier-mâché approach was required.

The Zelda-Grid Technique:

So in another area, I adopted a grid-map, a-la Zelda. I have strong preference for square grids as opposed to hexes. This area was a forest, where characters could only see so far for trees or changes of elevation. The area was divided into “screens” each screen representing roughly how far a party of adventurers can see from a given spot. Each tile of the forest was given an x/y coordinate and this was how it was referenced in my notes. I populated each grid using the random tables from a Dungeon Master’s Guide older than I am. This worked. On my side of the curtain, it was a wonderfully simple framework, easily managed in game. To the players, I might as well have mapped every square inch of that forest, and it was truly open.
This forest was not made of corridors and chambers. Rather, players would find that if they headed North then West, they would arrive at the same place they would if they had gone West then North, or simply North-West. This gives players a sense that the gameworld is consistently and actually there; that there really is a world to be explored (and possible exploited), not simply a series of cardboard standups placed by the Dungeon Master. The Zelda-Grid can be adapted to a variety of wilderness terrains and open environments. The designer need only adjust for scale by determining roughly how large a “tile” of the grid will be. This scale will largely be based on how far the party can see from a given point, hence beginning an encounter. For example, a square of open plains or badlands will be larger and take more time to cross than a densely wooded forest or swamp. After all, in the Zelda-grid system, the tiles are essentially “screens,” and a screen is how much of the gameworld the players can see at once.

So there it is. The Zelda-Grid mapping style. This technique works great for wilderness adventures. or any vast, open spaces. The drawback is that it fails to convey the sense of long, realistic distances. Rather, it is supposed to create Never-Land like spaces, where adventures are cozily packed together. I would suggest using the Zelda-Grid for mapping a forest, not for a continent.
Whether my little campaign seemed remotely Zelda-esque to my players, I doubt. However, the Zelda-grid was successfully adapted to table-top use. And if my source was not immediately obvious to my players, that perhaps demonstrates its effectiveness.

> The area is mapped on a square grid. Not hexes.
> Each square is generally as large as the distance the party can see from one location-hence about one encounter per square. A grid of open plains will be larger than a grid of dense jungle.
> Add natural features such as bodies of water or hills or whatever.
> Features which just have to be there- such as dungeon entrances or the dwellings of NPCs are placed.
> If it is still a little bare, I will run the random monster/treasure/trick/nothing roll for each square, remembering the "nothing" doesn't actually meant "empty". it just means something which is not a monster, treasure or trick.
> Also, gotta have a wandering monster table for when the party is just asking for it.

What this means for the players:
> Whatever players are looking for, they cannot expect to find it merely by walking into the spooky woods. They will have to explore. If they find what they are looking for too easily, it might be a good reason to be suspicious. The game becomes about the journey and not the destination.
> The Overworld becomes a dungeon without walls, with its own series of dangers and rewards.
> If players want to go off the path and just do something else, they have that option.
> There is a set geography which players can actually learn, map out and exploit.