Category: Tutorials

Complex Firearms for D20 Games

Public domain photo. Source: https://www.pikist.com/free-photo-sjtuq

There are several concepts that need to be understood for proper potential damage dice for a given firearm system. There are two kinds of cavities that are created when a projectile hits a body. The wound cavity is created by the track of the projectile damaging tissue as it travels through the body, creating a hole or tunnel as it goes, and in some cases creating multiple tunnels of damage if it fragments. The second is the Stretch cavity which is created when the shockwave of the projectile hits the body and moves tissues around like throwing a rock into a pool of water. For handguns, there are many impressive gel tests that show very dramatic stretch cavities using slow motion video. However the stretch cavity does not actually damage any tissue. Only the wound cavity damages tissue. Tissue damage causes bleeding, and when there is enough blood loss, the target is stopped. Larger projectiles make larger holes and thus more blood loss potential.

The shock of the stretch cavity can, in rare cases, cause enough shock to the nerves that it can render the target unconscious. Hydrostatic shock, where the stretch cavity actually causes tissue damage, does not occur with any tissue damaging results unless the projectile has enough foot-pounds of energy when it strikes the body, depending on the size of the body being hit. Energy is mass times velocity squared. Heavier projectiles have more mass, but require more pressure to give them velocity. The smaller the target, the larger the stretch cavity, the more potential for hydrostatic shock. This is not easy to translate into game terms. However, as a general rule, in Tiny targets, Firearms always product Hydrostatic shock. In size Small, 400 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (in hunting terms, this would be Class I game—Rabbits, Badgers, Coyotes, Antelope, etc.). In size Medium, 700 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class II game—Cougars, Deer, Antelope, Black Bear, Humans, etc.). In size Large, 1200 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class III game—Brown Bear, Mountain Sheep, Elk, Caribou, Moose, etc.). In size Huge, 1200 foot-pounds or more energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class IV game—Elephant, Hippo, Dragon, etc.)

The next issue is entropy; the projectile slows down, thus reducing its energy, as it travels. All Centerfire Rifles do Hydrostatic shock (unless they are chambered in a pistol cartridge) at under 100 yards. Some handguns under 30 feet can also do it. Beyond 100 yards, it depends on the cartridge being used (higher pressure has more velocity; heavier projectiles have less velocity but more mass) and the barrel length (the longer the barrel the more velocity). Things like barometric pressure, elevation, and so forth also play a role in the velocity of the projectile, and therefore the energy of the projectile when it impacts its target. The further out a target is, the less energy the projectile has to apply to the body. The furthest away, unless using specialty optics, that a good shooter can shoot effectively is 1200 yards. Game hunters and guides recommend you not take a shot with any standard cartridge rifles at anything further out than 400 yards. In order to have a humane kill, the magic number is 1200 foot-pounds of energy. If your platform and cartridge being used can’t produce that at the range you are considering taking the shot at, don’t take the shot.

There are literally thousands of developed loadings for a given cartridge. To simplify things, though, there are three basic bullet types: Standard loading for most cartridges is a full metal jacket bullet. Expanding, in most cases, is a jacketed hollow point or soft point round. Armor penetrating is typically an iron core round. The standard loading is assumed in the following pages. Expanding bullets will do an extra die of damage in exchange for a 25% penalty to the Accuracy Range increment. These are usually ‘defense’ rounds in Handguns. Armor Penetrating adds a bonus to hit to represent the negation of armor class and an identical penalty to damage to reflect the energy lost punching through the armor. In most cases, a flat +4 to hit and -4 to damage should be assessed. If the armor has a Damage Reduction rating (DR), you ignore it. Yes, they are nasty! But they are also dangerous, as they ignore Hardness of objects. Don’t use them inside a space ship!

Taking all these factors into consideration, we can lay some ground rules in determining weapon damage for Firearms in simple fashion. First, Rimfire Rifles, Black Powder, Pistols, Shotguns, and Centerfire Rifles have different pressure thresholds, and so they are separated. Rimfire uses a flash compound in the rim of the case that ignites the powder. Because of this, the weaker case does not allow for higher pressure. Centerfire uses a primer cup held in a primer pocket in the case. This allows for much higher pressure. Black Powder doesn’t use primer at all. Second we can simply utilize generic data on cartridges in “standard” platforms for that cartridge off Wikipedia.

What follows is a “simple” way to determine damage and range for a given “standard” platform for a given firearm cartridge using Pathfinder Second Edition rules. I took the “normal” top and bottom end cartridges to calculate the range increments and rounded the numbers off to make is simpler. There are more powerful, and less powerful, guns than what I used to determine the mean, but I kept it to what would be considered common firearms. For example a 500 S&W Magnum does 5000 J of energy out of pistol, and a 50 BMG rifle does 21,000 J of energy… and they cost between $5 and $20 per shot to fire… so they are not very common, and really mess with the numbers if you include such beasts.


All Firearms have a Damage Range increment, in addition to the normal Accuracy Range Increment other ranged weapons have. The Accuracy Range increment can be improved with the use of an Optic system.

Firearms Range Increments, Table 1

Weapon Type Accuracy Range Increment* Damage Range Increment
Centerfire Rifle 300 feet / 100 m 300 feet / 100 m
Rimfire Rifle 150 feet / 50 m 150 feet / 50 m
Handguns 75 feet / 25 m 30 feet / 10 m
Shotguns (scatter) 50 feet / 15 m 10 feet / 3 m
Smoothbore Black Powder guns 75 feet / 25 m 30 feet / 10 m
Rifled Black Powder guns 225 feet / 70 m 50 feet / 15 m
Black Powder Scatter guns 50 feet / 15 m 10 feet / 3 m

At the first Damage Range increment, damage is normal. But for each Damage Range increment out, the firearm does one damage die less. If it is down to its last die, the die type reduces by one die type for each Damage Range increment after that; with a minimum of 1 damage.

*Hollow point and soft point bullets give a 25% penalty to the Accuracy Range Increment

Optics

A Scope adds the Volley 30 trait to the weapon. In Pathfinder 2e terms, you have a -2 penalty to use the gun if your target is within 30 feet / 10 m of you. The Accuracy Range Increment is increased by 33%.

Red Dot systems do not impose the Volley penalty, but only increase the Accuracy Range Increment by 10%.

Optics may also grant features such as night vision or recording capabilities, depending on the system used.


The bigger the caliber of projectile, the larger the wound cavity, reflected in a larger damage die size:

Firearms Damage Dice, Table 2-1

Imperial Caliber Metric Caliber Damage Die
.17 – .236 4.318 – 5.994 d4
.237 – .302 6.02 – 7.671 d6
.303 – .368 7.697 – 9.347 d8
.369 – .434 9.373 – 11.024 d10
.435 – .50 11.05 – 12.7 d12

Most black powder pistols are .36 or .45 caliber (d8 or d12). Most black powder rifles are .45, .50, or .58 caliber (d12).

 The higher the energy, the more dice are rolled:

Rifle Damage Dice, Table 2-2a

Energy in Joules Dice**
< 2000 J 2d
2000 J / Black Powder 3d
3000 J 4d
4000 J 5d
5000+ J 6d

Pistol Damage Dice, Table 2-2b

Energy in Joules Dice**
< 300 J 1d
300 J 2d
500 J / Black Powder 3d
900 J 4d
1300 J 5d
1500+ J 6d

** Expanding bullets get an extra die of damage.


Shotguns shoot multiple projectiles and are treated differently as they are designed for short ranges, and therefore the size of the shot determines the number of dice:

Shotgun Damage Dice, Table 2-3

Shot Size Dice
#000 Buck 5d12
#00 Buck 5d10
#0 Buck 5d8
#2 Buck 5d6
#4 Buck / Black Powder Scatterguns 5d4
#5 Shot 4d4
#7½ Shot 2d6
#8 & #9 Shot 1d6

If only one die is being rolled, it may ‘explode,’ meaning that if the highest possible result is rolled, the die is rolled again, and the result is added to the original roll. This can continue until the highest possible result is not rolled.


To determine the damage and range of a specific gun, we simply look up a cartridge on the Wikipedia and compare its caliber, type (centerfire, Rimfire, or handgun) and energy. Use the highest rated energy loading on the page. For example, I’ll look up 7.7×58 Arisaka on Wikipedia. It has a diameter of 7.92mm. It’s highest rated energy listed is 3136 J. So looking at our lists above, it uses 4d8. Not too shabby. So instead of creating long laundry lists of damage, we’ve created a formula to convert any firearm to Pathfinder 2e damage.


Here are some more common cartridges converted:

A standard 5.56 NATO (AR15/M16) would use d4s, and at 1859 J it gets 2 of them (they can also fire .223 Remington at 1814 J, still only 2 dice).

A 9×19 Parabellum (9mm, 9mm Luger) +P Pistol uses d8s and at 617 J uses 3 of them. This covers the Beretta M9 (FS92), the standard NATO side arm from 1985 until 2017. Also the Sig Sauer P320 (RX17) from 2017 to Present. It is the most popular round next to .22 Long Rifle. The Glock Model 19 is the most popular handgun in this cartridge. Portland Police use Glock Model 17, as do all Federal Agencies except the Border Patrol and NCIS.

A .357 Magnum Pistol uses d8s and at 964 J uses 4 of them. Examples include the Smith & Wesson Model 27/28, Colt Python, and Ruger Security Six. A lot of State Police agencies and the Border Patrol switched from S&W 10s to S&W 28s in 1955 and used them until 1992.

A .357 SIG Pistol uses d8s and at 978 J uses 4 of them. The Glock Model 31 is the standard U.S. Border Patrol and NCIS sidearm.

7.62×39 (AK47/SKS) Rifles use d8s (0.310 caliber projectiles) and at 2108 J uses 3 of them.

The .38 Special +P Pistol (S&W Model 10 was the standard Cop gun from 1899 until 1990) uses d8s and at 476 J gets 2 dice.

The .40 S&W Pistol uses d10s and at 797 J uses 3 of them. Most cop guns are Glock Model 22.

.45 ACP (Colt 1911) uses d12s and at 796 J uses 3 of them. This was the U.S. Forces Pistol from 1911 until 1986 with 8+1 rounds. A smaller 6+1 round Officers’ version was carried by U.S. Forces Officers from 1955 until 1985. A 7+1 Round Commander version was available for Civilians.

A .270 Winchester rifle uses a d6 and at 4006 J uses 5 of them.

30-06 rifle uses d8 and at 4042 J uses 5 of them.

M1 Garand is a 30-06, but must be loaded to under 2800 J so they get 3 dice (use of regular 30-06 ammo will blow the op rod off the gun and damage it).

7.62×45 NATO rifles (M14) use d8s and at 3560 J uses 4 of them (they can also fire .308 Winchester at 3700 J, but still only 4 dice)

.22 Long Rifle in a Rifle gets d4s and at 277 J gets 2 of them, but only 1 in a Pistol.

Note: There are more powerful guns, but this keeps them capped for playability.


Additional Rules

Report Shock: When you fire a firearm without a suppressor, Report Shock takes place. The rules may vary depending on the game system, but by and large, if you are within 25 feet of the muzzle of an unsuppressed firearm, you must make a Fortitude, Constitution, or equivalent saving throw. In Pathfinder 2e, it would be a Simple DC for your level at Good Difficulty. If you succeed, nothing happens. If you fail, you take 1d8 points of non-lethal damage, and are both deaf and stunned for one round. If you are already deaf or have hearing protection in place, you are immune.

Overpenetration: If a target’s hit points are reduced to zero and there is still damage left over, the bullet “blows through” the target and may strike a creature or object behind the target. The original attack roll is used to see if the round hits, and if so, the remainder of the damage roll is applied to that target.

Recoil: Modern and Black Powder Firearms generate Recoil after each shot. A cumulative -1 penalty to hit is applied per shot fired to the next shot. This lasts until the shooter takes the Readjust action, Moves, or performs some other Action other than firing the weapon. However, Firearms are Agile weapons. In Pathfinder 2e, Recoil offsets the Agile trait when doing a multi-attack. If you do not do some other action prior to firing, the penalty continues to accumulate across combat rounds.

For instance, in Round 1, you fire three times. The first shot has no penalty. The second is at -5 (-4 for an Agile weapon and -1 for Recoil). The third shot is at -10 (-8 for Agile weapon, -2 for Recoil). In Round 2, you keep firing. The fourth shot is -3 for Recoil. The fifth at -8 due to -4 Recoil and -4 Agile weapon. The sixth is -13, and so forth. In Round 3, you take the Readjust action, which clears the Recoil penalty.

Reloading: Reloading is an Interact action and may require more than one action, depending on the weapon system being used. Most magazine-fed systems take two actions to reload: one to draw the magazine while ejecting the old one, and one to load the magazine and charge the weapon system.

Non-detachable magazine systems take a number of actions equal to 2 per cartridge being loaded, as do swing-out revolvers when not using a speed loader. Using a speed loader device takes only 3 actions to reload. Single Action Revolvers take an additional action per cartridge to eject spent cartridges through the load gate.

Modern single shot systems take three actions to reload: One to eject the spent cartridge, one to ready the new cartridge, and one to load the cartridge.

Black Powder weapons take 10 actions to reload. This time is cut in half if they have pre-measured powder wraps and a wad and ball block. Paper cartridge and cap & ball weapons take five actions to reload per chamber. Non-cap (primitive) Black Powder weapons such as wheel-locks take an additional two actions to ready the pan unless the user employs a single-action fire ability or spell to ignite the pan.

Running the Single Session Adventure

The fourth and final piece of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios.

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2 • Prep for the Session


Encourage Play that Saves Time

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote that I would avoid issues pertaining to social graces (or lack thereof), but the question of whether players should toy around with electronic devices at the table applies to single-session adventures more than to normal adventure and campaigns. Suffice to say that your group should be in agreement on how to handle this, for delays could result in failure to complete the adventure, which would ruin the entire session for everyone. If need be, have a quick discussion on this before the game starts.

The DM will find it more important than ever to handle THAT player—the one that makes all the bad jokes that have nothing to do with gaming—the same one that side-tracks everything by recounting his day at work in the middle of the game. You are adults so you need no advice on how to handle it, but be aware that not addressing it could possible ruin the game for everyone if you don’t finish. Read more

Prep for Single Session Adventures

Part 3 of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios. 

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2


Give out Characters Beforehand

If you decide to use pre-generated characters, send the character sheets to your players before game day. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with the character a bit. This is especially important for spell-casters, which are more complex to run than fighters. Distributing the sheets early also fosters excitement and anticipation for your game.

Bring Extra Stuff

Expect a few players to forget dice, pencils, and paper. These things take only a few minutes to gather, and the players in question will be grateful. Besides, you don’t want anything to delay you, as time is fleeting on game day.

Preroll For NPCs

This is a trick that I’ve used successfully for years now. The slow pace of the combat round has been a bugbear in most versions of D&D, and I imagine that other games have similar problems. Though I learned from experience that AD&D (or 1st Edition) can move combat along quicker than later versions, pre-rolling attacks and damage will speed things up, no matter what version you play. Of course, you can do this in your regular campaigns too, but the practice is doubly helpful with single-session adventures.

I usually roll between three and seven attacks for each monster, but use common sense. If you have twelve goblins, then perhaps thirty rolls are enough. Several goblins will likely die in the first few rounds, and if they are getting stomped, they will likely flee and end the combat. After rolling attacks, you can usually eyeball the numbers and figure out how many potential hits you have. If I rolled thirty times, I might see only ten rolls that are above a 14. Roll that many damage rolls and then add a few extra for good measure.
When you pre-roll damage or attacks, ensure that you include all known modifiers now. The more math that you do beforehand, the less you’ll need to do on game day, and combat will move that much quicker. Make sure that you are clear on what modifiers you already included (jot it down if necessary). Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 2

In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.

If you missed the previous article, find it here:

Designing the Adventure part 1


Consider Multiple Environments

George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king. Read more

Roll for Teaching 1: Hi class. Nice to meet you all!

Hi class! Nice to meet you all. I’m teacher Nikolaj, and today we’re talking about games!

But first, an introduction. I’m Nikolaj Bourguignon, a graphic designer turned child caretaker turned teacher. I teach Protestant religion in what I think in the United States would be Primary School—kids aged 6-12. I can do this because in Belgium (where I live and work) freedom of religion is written into our constitution in such a way that people can choose in what worldview they receive thought when they enroll in public schools. As far as I know we’re unique in this.

I also happen to like tabletop games of various kinds, from board and card games to roleplaying games. As a consequence I sometimes try to use or make some of those in order to teach. As such I have a lot of opinions, observations and ideas I can share about the restrictions and different perspectives needed to run games for kids, play games with them or even make them yourself.

This is a lot. Yes, I have a lot of opinions. I’m that kind of a person. I mean, I’m a teacher. It kind of comes with the job. This is why I’m thinking of making this into a series if it proves to be useful to people. This first article serves as a bit of an introduction, but I’m pretty sure you don’t just want to learn about me, so I’ll end this one with a list of games that I’ve found are suitable or inspirational for playing with kids, and possibly for teaching them if wanted. Playing for fun is also a good reason after all.

Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 1

Part one of a four-article series on designing and running a one-shot, single-session adventure. See the end of the article for links to the rest of the series.


Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, but for years I have been intrigued by the early tournament adventures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At Origins II in 1976, several DMs ran Gary Gygax’s new science-fiction/fantasy crossover, later called S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This stand-alone adventure was a simple one-round affair, in which various gaming groups competed. A uniform scoring system allowed DMs to give each group a score (and perhaps each player—I’m not sure).

Later, Gygax expanded the scope of his idea to a series of linked adventures. At Origins IV in 1978, over the course of two days, DMs ran dozens of groups through Gygax’s new, three-part adventure, later titled G1-3: Against the Giants. The groups that did best with the first adventure in the first round got to play the subsequent adventures in the second and third rounds, either later that day or on the following day. The sequel, D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, was not used in a tournament, but at GenCon XI that same year, DMs ran two follow-up adventures in the series, namely D2: Shrine of the Koa-Toa and D3: Vault of the Drow. Two years later, at GenCon XIII in 1980, DMs ran players through the entirety of Gygax’s new Slaver series, including A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Sometime after each convention, Gygax published the adventures. Generations of gamers have rated several of these series as their favorites of all time.

An experienced DM that tries their hand at writing a single-session adventure, whether for their personal gaming group or for strangers at a convention—whether as a scored tournament or not—will quickly find that it requires a very specific design. You simply cannot plan it in the same way that you would a long-term campaign or even a stand-alone adventure that will take many gaming sessions. What are the required differences? What tips can we use to produce successful single-session adventures? Let’s take a look. Read more

Environment Matters: Improving Your Gaming Area

A wonderful thing about fantasy role-playing games is that they unfold mainly in the minds of the players. They are games of wonder and imagination. Players that keep this concept firmly in mind realize that they can play almost anywhere. Over the years, I’ve played AD&D (my game of choice) in basements, in dining rooms, in living rooms, and in a bedroom (sixth-grade sleepover). We’ve sat on floors, folding chairs and bar stools. We reclined on couches and played poolside on lounge chairs. To a limited extent, we once played in a car and while walking through a park. Your environment can be minimal, if necessary. A few sheets of paper, a pen, and some dice are all that is really needed (and even the dice are questionable). Nevertheless, a nice gaming area can indeed make the game session much more comfortable, more efficient, and more intense.

I have been blessed in that I have been able to play RPGs for over 25 years now, and I’m currently blessed with a comfortable home in which to play. Over the last few years, I decided to make small, incremental improvements to our area. Why not, especially if gaming is a consistent hobby? I am quite pleased with the results so far, but I’m always looking for small ways to improve further. Inspired by an article by Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, I recently took stock of all my gaming area features, and I share my thoughts with you now. Perhaps an idea that I borrowed along the way might prove useful to your group. I would love any tips or suggestions that you might have. Read more

RPG-ology #18: Waterways

This is RPG-ology #18:  Waterways, for May 2019.


We mentioned rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water in connection with maps when we talked about Country Roads and again when we were talking about the placement of Cities, but we barely touched on them, more from the perspective of their influence on other aspects of our maps and our worlds.  Maps and worlds, though, are complicated things, in which everything influences everything, and understanding how waterways work will help us put together better maps.

This is difficult for me, because so much of it seems obvious to me so I expect it will be obvious to everyone else.  However, I have the advantage, as I think I mentioned in Shock, of over a thousand miles of long-haul canoeing, so I am perhaps intimately familiar with rivers and lakes and ponds and how they work.  I thus hope that I’m not telling you too many obvious points, and that some of this proves to be practical.  Let’s start with some terms.

A river is pretty much any waterway that flows downhill.  They can be big or small, swift or lazy, shallow or deep, straight or meandering, rocky or clear, in any combination.  Smaller rivers are often called brooks, streams, creeks, and similar diminutive titles, but the only significant difference is the attitude of the people toward the waterway and the probability of it going dry, which rivers rarely do.

Lakes and ponds are usually found as interruptions in rivers, and they are distinct from rivers in a significant way.  A lake or pond is formed in essence when water pours into a natural basin and has to rise to the level of an exit point.  Because of this, the surface of a lake or pond is level, while that of a river is always sloped–if you look at the accompanying photo, you can see that the downstream end is downhill.  In the vernacular, lakes and ponds are generally distinguished by their size, but technically they are distinguished by their depth:  a pond is shallow enough that water plants such as waterlilly pads can root on the bottom and grow on the surface, while a lake has at least some areas in which it is too deep for that.  Lakes and ponds are sometimes created intentionally by the use of dams, built by people or sometimes by animals, most typically beavers.

It is difficult to distinguish a sea from a lake in many cases.  Seas tend to be the terminus of rivers, at least one and often several, but most of them either drain into or are contiguous with the oceans, which are also sometimes called seas but which as a word tends to refer to the vast expanses of water separating the continents.  The two exceptions to the drainage rule are the Dead Sea, which is constantly evaporating and so is too salty to support marine life, and the Mediterranean, which also loses its water to evaporation but is large enough that its salinity, although elevated, is not inimical to such life, and fishing and the like are active there.  (It is easy looking at a map to suppose that the Mediterranean drains into the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibralter, but the water there is mostly flowing very rapidly in the opposite direction, salt water from the Atlantic constantly replenishing the losses in the Mediterranean through what some have called the world’s largest waterfall. There is an undercurrent flowing westward as a small amount of dense saltier water goes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but the bulk of the volume is inflow from the Atlantic.)  It is also the case that seas tend to be salty while lakes tend to be fresh, but this is not a hard and fast rule, there being a number of salt lakes in the world.  Part of this is because the distinctions between lakes and seas are not made in all Indo-European languages, and English has often translated words strictly that were used loosely.

A passageway that connects two bodies of water of the same or similar level is usually called a strait (or sometimes straits), usually unlike a river because water flows in and out both ends generally with the shifting tides.  If it is wider or longer, it is often called a channel, but this word also refers to the best path through a river—rivers tend to carve a deeper groove through which most of the water travels, and boats and ships navigate through these deeper sections either with or against the current. In modern times, these channels are marked by buoys, red buoys to the right when traveling upstream (“Red Right Returning”), black buoys marking the other edge.

A bay frequently appears as a brackish (that is, salty but less salty than the ocean) body of water connecting a river to a sea or ocean.  As the tide rises, water from the ocean pours into the bay, often forcing its way upstream reversing the “normal” flow of the river; the Delaware River is brackish as far upstream as Trenton, New Jersey, about eighty miles upstream, about fifty feet above sea level, and this reverse flow is often used by ships to navigate to inland ports upriver.  As the tide ebbs the bay drains into the ocean, and the river into the bay, and fresh water makes its way downstream to wash away the salt.  Because of the backwash, those upstream ports have rising and ebbing tides, but these are out of phase with the coastal tides that drive them, often by as much as six or eight hours, depending on how far upriver you go.  A very small bay-like inlet is usually called a cove; a lagoon generally is a type of coastal pool that fills from ocean spill when the tide rises over its banks, and then slowly evaporates, frequently not completely before being refilled.

A wadi is something like a river, but significantly different.  Common to inland tropics such as Africa, the wadi is a watercourse that floods and dries in a seasonal cycle.  During the “rainy season” water falls in the highlands and flows down very like rivers, working downstream and gradually covering thousands of acres of ground, pooling but flowing, spreading over wide expanses of open space.  Animals are aware of the seasonal cues, and migrate toward the anticipated flood; plants desiccated from drought spring to life and blossom.  For a few months it is a lush wet marshy world, water plentiful, wildlife active.  Then gradually it all evaporates, leaving the dry grassland to wither in the heat, as the animals scatter to places better able to support them during the drought.  The water from a wadi never reaches the seas, soaking into the earth and evaporating into the air long before joining any other watercourse.  Wadis do not support ship traffic or permanent settlements, because the water level is non-existent for a significant part of the year and rarely deep enough for more than the smallest craft.

Swamps, marshes, bayous, and deltas all tend to be areas where a river spreads out to a shallow wide area, usually with a channel passing through it somewhere but often a confusing labyrinth of waterways leading to dead ends and shallow muck.  Wadis do support marshes and swamps during their wet periods; bayous and deltas tend to be at points where the river meets the sea, and are brackish like bays.

Now, this might sound obvious, but water falls from the sky.  Really all of it does.  Water in wells and water coming from springs is water that fell from the sky and soaked into the ground, then collected atop or between layers of rock and either sat waiting to be collected or built up pressure from gravity until it spurted through an exit.  It gets into the sky by evaporation, the vast majority of this from the vast expanses of tropical oceans—if your world does not have vast tropical oceans, you will have a lot less rain, and a lot less fresh water.  Evaporated water, water vapor, is held in greater quantity in denser warmer air; if the air cools or becomes depressurized, it cannot hold as much water and so releases it.  This is why so much precipitation (rain and snow) falls on mountains:  warm moist dense air currents are shifted upward into cooler low pressure altitudes, and can no longer hold as much water.  From there it collects in streams or soaks into the ground.

There is an interesting atmospheric phenomenon at this point.  As water falls, it washes carbons out of the air, turning into mild carbolic acid.  It has always done this; this is not a modern result of air pollution, although air pollution does contribute to it.  Carbolic acid which lands on dirt and soaks into it decays and releases its carbons back into the atmosphere.  That which lands on rock and flows into streams dissolves the rock, creating calcium carbonate which washes downstream into the oceans, burying the carbon for millenia.  That’s not really useful to this discussion, though, so ignore it.

Technically, a well is a hole dug deep enough to hit what is called the water table, the level under the ground where bedrock prevents water from seeping deeper, and so has water refilling it constantly from the surrounding lands.  It is sometimes confused with a cistern, which is a dry hole usually lined with stone designed to catch rain when there is rainfall and keep it deep and cool in the ground during the dry seasons.  The famed Jacob’s Well is actually a cistern.

This is also obvious:  water flows downhill.  Because of this it is constantly “seeking” the lowest point, and that means it collects into fewer larger rivers.  If it pours into a low point—call it a basin—it collects there, rising as a pond or lake until it rises over the lowest edge.  A lake can have several rivers feeding it, or no rivers feeding it if it is fed by a spring or springs below its water line, but rarely does it have more than one draining it—odds are good that there will be one lowest point, and once the water starts pouring through it erosion will make that point lower.  If the lake is filling faster than it is emptying, it might rise high enough to begin spilling from another point.  However, most typically these are near enough each other that the streams soon join creating an island at the head of the river.  If the two streams are headed in different directions, it is most commonly the case that one of the outlets will erode until all the water passes through it, the other becoming dry unless it is fed by other water sources below.

Where the ground is steeper, the water moves faster and generally straighter.  It follows the lowest ground, but in doing so carves the path deeper, sometimes wider, removing the dirt and softest stone.  If it comes into a pocket of harder stone, it will be turned, but the turning will create swirls and eddies which often drill deep spots in the riverbed.  The northern reaches of the Delaware River are frequently shallow enough to wade through, but where it turns sharply at Narrowsburg, New York, there are whirlpools during flooding and the depth at the curve is over a hundred feet deep.  Rocky rapids form where the ground is too hard to erode easily and the slope is steeper, as the river becomes forced into a narrow space often between high banks and spreads over the area to become swift and shallow, the irregular bottom redirecting the current in directions difficult to predict without surveying in advance.

Where the ground is less sloped, the water spreads to cover a wide path and flows more slowly, but still tends to follow the lowest ground and carve a channel.  In older sections of the river these channels are often meandering, and as the water ultimately settles into them they form snake-like slow rivers with very little noticeable current, frequently surrounded by marshy ground, meadows, and flood plains.

As rivers join, they become wider and deeper, and usually become straighter as the land is less able to resist the flow of the water.  These wider deeper rivers which ultimately reach the sea are frequently navigable by ocean-going vessels, and as we noted are also subject to reverse flow when the tides rise, thus brackish but also easier to navigate upstream.  They will carve deep sections particularly at curves and bends in the river, as in Narrowsburg, creating good ports at such curves, considerably more so than along straight paths.  Upstream of a certain point ocean vessels, which have deep drafts to provide stability in rough seas, give way to shallow-draft river boats, able to navigate farther upstream.

The same currents that form harbors on rivers do so where rivers hit the seas, which makes such points doubly convenient for trade, as a port there accesses both the oceans and the river.  Such harbors are also created where the coastline recedes sharply, as ocean currents form eddies which create depths near the shoreline, although if the surrounding ground is low there will probably be a river outlet there, and if not the deep water is likely to be surrounded by cliffs, making for good anchorage but a bad place for a port.

So to summarize, most rivers begin from streams in mountains, flowing downhill and collecting into larger rivers, forming lakes in low spots, rapids over steep rocky ground, meandering courses over flatter softer ground, ultimately becoming large enough to support riverboat trade and then ocean vessels, subject at the downstream end to tidal backflow, emptying into seas and oceans sometimes through intervening bays.  Harbors form where currents have carved significant depths, usually at the mouths of the rivers and at river bends.

Now you have some idea of how to put the waterways on your maps.

I have omitted canals from this discussion.  Men build canals usually where there are two disconnected waterway systems near enough to each other that it would be commercially profitable to be able to run boats or ships between them.  Usually these involve mechanical locks which enable the control of the flow of water between the two systems, particularly if they are not at the same level, and typically because such canals often have to cross ground that is higher than either of the waterways (the reason the waterways haven’t flowed into each other).  Sometimes canals are built to get around sections of a river that are not navigable, if there are navigable sections upstream of falls or rapids.  They are a lot of work to build, operate, and maintain, and if neglected gradually deteriorate.


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Creating a Hobby Ministry — A How-To Guide

Where is the holy spirit moving in your life? In church? House groups? Your personal prayer time? I hope so, these are where you expect His presence. Bringing people together, giving them life and pointing them towards the truth of the Good News and Jesus. Now think about hobbies. They do two of the three. I firmly believe that God has brought us together through our hobbies and is just waiting for the right person to come along and make the links between scripture and the task you’re all enjoying. Is that person you?

It sounds like a big ask, like it’s something that you need a theology degree and years of training to achieve. But that’s the thing: It’s actually really simple. All you need to do is build friendships with people and wear your Christianity on your sleeve. This is called building relational ministry. The teaching can come later. It is important, but it’s not what’s needed to start with.

Going out into the world and meeting new people is called mission, which seems an odd word until you realise it’s what Jesus told us to do; it’s literally our mission.

He said to them, “Go into all the world. Preach the good news to everyone.” — Mark 16:15 NIRV

Many churches take that phrase of “preach the good news to everyone” and use that as the baseline to begin their mission from. How many events have you been to where the phrase ‘Can we just stop there for a second whilst we have our reading’ has been said? To some people if an event doesn’t have this then it’s not a church event. And to be fair, in the past when Christianity was more, for want of a better word, powerful in the West it did work. But it ignores how society has changed over the past years. We live in a world of fake news where people don’t trust experts or establishments any more. Instead they trust people they know, people whom they respect and are friends with. Those they have an existing relationship with.

I have found that mission works best when taken as a series of steps. Read more

RPG-ology #5: Country Roads

This is RPG-ology #5: Country Roads, for April 2018.


Of course, role playing game referees almost always have maps, and many of us make most of our own maps. The fact is that you don’t really necessarily need maps, and we’ll probably eventually talk about running games without them, but for most of the kinds of games most of us play, maps are an important part. I even belong to a Facebook group dedicated entirely to game referees making and sharing their maps. Honestly some of them look more like aerial photography, but that’s useful too. Questions often arise about how to make maps, and having been a Boy Scout and having taught Cub Scouts a few Scout skills over the years, I’m pretty good at maps. So we’ll probably return to them from time to time. One of the questions I often hear, though, is how do you design the roads on your maps. If you don’t understand how roads work, you can do some pretty silly things with them.

This article is going to talk about what we’re dubbing “country roads”, with apologies to John Denver, but we’re including wilderness roads, desert roads, pretty much any road that is outside the confines of a city—the long roads that take you from one major place to another in your adventure setting, the road on which your adventurers set out when they began that took them somewhere else. Some of what we’ll talk about applies to city streets as well, but they have their own complications and issues, so maybe we’ll come back to them in another article. Read more