Tag: worldbuilding

Sewers and Such

Someone once wrote that good Game Masters seem to know a little bit about everything. If it’s not obvious, this is because they need to know how the world works so they can make their own game settings seem real. I know this first-hand from years of running fantasy campaigns. At one point or another, I found myself digging into the details of agriculture, mining, free diving, sailing, carpentry, sheep breeding, the wool trade, and a dozen other subjects that I never imagined I would research. Of course, this is not limited to fantasy role-playing. When running Gamma World or some other apocalyptic game, a good GM probably needs to know a little about modern firearms, lasers, nuclear radiation, mutation, the ecology of a wasteland, etc. Running Traveller or another sci-fi game, the GM should probably know something about the vacuum of space, space travel, planets, stars, asteroids, comets, gravity, etc. You get the idea.

Not long ago, M.J. Young of the Christian Gamers Guild penned a few short articles on very generic topics, like waterways, country roads, and cities. Though at face value they seem too generic to be helpful, the articles can be surprisingly useful to GMs. Great GMs might know a little about everything, but they don’t start off like that. Everyone needs to pick up basics from someplace, and MJ’s articles were great for anyone not already knowledgeable about those topics. Even veterans can glean some points that they had never considered.

In this brief article, I‘ll touch on another topic that seems like it could be useful to many GMs—sewers. I cannot count the times that I’ve seen modules or homemade adventures with wererats skulking through labyrinthine sewers. Strangely, though I’ve been playing for over thirty-five years, I never played in or ran such an adventure. I recently decided to add a sewer setting to an ongoing campaign, but I realized that I had to find out something about sewers first. As with most things, one topic connects to many others. In this case, I found it tough to examine sewer systems without simultaneously looking at water supplies and plumbing. Read more

RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon

This is RPG-ology #24:  An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.


On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan.  The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title
Game Ideas Unlimited:  An Amusing Dungeon.

Photo by flickr user Waldo Jacquith under Creative Commons 2.0 license, no changes were made.

  Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players.  After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me.  I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting.  But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one.  One of those was that dungeons had to make sense:  there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built.  And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.

  The story I invented was fairly simple.  Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren.  It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction.  The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy.  The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.

  The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others.  The newcomers made changes, making this their homes.  Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.

  Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers.  They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts.  A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes.  One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age.  Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.

  And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries.  For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.

  It was an amusement park.

  It wasn’t difficult to design.  I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion.  There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs.  Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.

  Some of these were very straightforward.  There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display.  Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear.  A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one.  A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat.  And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked.  I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin.  But there was so much more.

  The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive.  The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi.  The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level.  The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters.  And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.

  My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl.  The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south.  The room had a thirty foot ceiling.  There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front.  The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall.  A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning.  As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall.  Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them.  This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall.  But then the truly terrifying happened:  the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below.  They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun.  Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop.  One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon.  Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth.  But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.

  But their favorite was probably the roller coaster.  This began as a bench at the end of a hall.  If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall.  I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them.  But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant.  Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them.  The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another.  I think one of the players may actually have screamed.  I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.

  I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember.  They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried.  Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had.  Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.

  I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work.  It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map.  Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war.  This was just part of the show.  What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.

  A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined.  This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon.  I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality.  I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions.  The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical.  By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.


Previous article:  Nonrandom Thought.
Next article:  Transmats.

RPG-ology #22: Snow Day

This is RPG-ology #22:  Snow Day, for September 2019.


As I write this, it’s snowing; snow is sticking to the ground, and we’re probably going to be snowed in.  At least, the boys are hoping there will be no school tomorrow.

That makes no sense to most of you as you read this.  By the time it reaches print (or the electronic equivalent) it will be summer.  I am writing this well in advance of the anticipated publication date.  Here we recently saw the tips of crocuses before the snow buried them, and were worried about some of the other early flowers blooming too soon.  Spring will have passed here when this is published, and all thoughts of snow and ice will be forgotten.

No, I talked about the past slipping away last month.  This month, something different.

I want you to remember the last time it snowed wherever you are.  For some of you this might be an impossible task.  For that I apologize.  Most of my readers are experiencing summer, and winter is just a memory; some are experiencing winter, and need imagine little.  If you’re one of those unfortunate enough to have always lived without snow, this experiment won’t be so much help for you.  Maybe you can use it for something else—focus on what it feels like to be an excluded minority, and write an article about injustice and discrimination.  (See, you can take anything and use it for ideas—you just have to keep turning it over until you find a side you hadn’t seen before.) Read more

RPG-ology #21: Living In the Past

This is RPG-ology #21:  Living In the Past, for August 2019.


All four of my grandparents have died.  I have also lost my father, and both of my wife’s parents are gone.  I had a long list of great uncles and great aunts at one time, but it has dwindled to nothing, and of my uncles and aunts I might still have one.

The five and dime at which I bought candy on my way home from school is gone, and I am one and a half hundred miles from where it once stood.  There’s a long list of good friends with whom I have lost touch—Jay Fedigan, Artie Robins, Jeff Zurheide, Jack Haberer, not to mention Peggy Lisbona, Nancy Codispoti, Ann Hughes, and the girl to whom my mind often returns, on whom I had an impossible crush for two or three years beginning in second grade, Christie Newcomb.  At least two of those people, all within a couple years of my age, are dead; and although I have spoken or corresponded with some within the past decade, I cannot say for certain that any one of them is still alive today.

No one will be surprised that the past is disappearing into—well, into the past.  That’s expected.  Young people will wonder why I even mention it.  You’re living in the past, old man.  Get over it.  Life goes forward, and will leave you behind if you don’t keep up.  I know this; I can sigh and let life leave me behind, or I can keep moving forward.

But I’ve got news for you.

You’re living in the past, too.

That talk you had with your girlfriend yesterday—that’s now in the past.  Get over it; the moment has come and gone.  Whatever you should have said, well, you didn’t, and you’re not going to be able to go back and fix that.

You got beat up last month.  It’s in the past.  It’s over, and fading faster and faster into oblivion.  Ten years and you might not remember his name.  Twenty years and you won’t remember that it happened.  Yes it hurt, and it hurts, and you’re angry and upset about it.  But it’s the past now.  You can’t hold on to it; you might as well let it go.

That A+ you got on your math test (or was it the “letter” you received in varsity football, or the badge you earned in boy scouts, or the award you won for your picture or article)—well, that’s also in the past.  Time is leaving it behind.  You will eventually forget it.  And everyone else will forget it long before you do.

Was breakfast good today?  It’s gone already.

You are living in the past.  Everything you know, everything you remember, everything you’ve ever said—even the thoughts you had when you started reading this article–everything is in the past.  You can’t have it back.

Don’t feel bad about it.  It’s the same for everyone else.  In fact, it’s the same for the world, quite apart from the people.  I’m one of those who are often quoting C. S. Lewis.  There are enough of us out here that there ought to be a DSM-IV classification for us.  So you’ll probably see his name in a lot of these articles if you stay with the series.  This time he comes to mind because of a very simple observation he mentioned more than once:  most people are already dead.

That is, of all the people ever born, only a very few are alive now.

This moment in time is interesting; if you could know everything that is happening at this instant, it would overwhelm you—even if your knowledge was limited to your own town, there would be more happening this instant than you could grasp, enough ideas for a lifetime of stories.  Yet when compared with the past, this instant is no time at all, a desert devoid of interest.  In trying to get readers to think and create, I often focus on now.  Last month’s article, entitled Pay Attention, might at first glance have seemed to have been about the past—but it was actually about capturing the present, living in the moment and learning from what is around you immediately.  Writing it down served to preserve it, certainly; but it also served to force you to notice it.  The present is always a source of ideas.  But the ideas you can get from the present are dwarfed by those you can get from the past.

Assuming you can find them.

My father was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluvan engineer.  He drove a reconditioned Model-T to school, poured fifty-weight oil into the crankcase to keep the worn bearings running smoothly, and had to crank-start it by hand on cold mornings.  He played fourth sax (tenor) in a dance band to help pay for college, and went to work in an electronics lab for Western Union.  When he was head of the lab, he proposed “Young’s Law.”  Accidents occasionally happened in the lab, usually because someone didn’t have the right piece of equipment and so tried to use the wrong piece of equipment on the theory that it really wasn’t different; the results of such experiments were always strange and confusing.  My father’s law reads, “Things that are not the same are different.”  He missed World War II, having been enlisted just as the war ended.  All this, and more, was before my birth.

He later took an interest in computers, and in the late 60’s spent a lot of time nagging the few computer tinkerers at the company to explain things to him.  This led to a few courses, more investigation, and ultimately to his position as head of engineering for Western Union Data Services Corporation, where he designed systems before there were PC’s.  He holds a couple of patents in focusing microwaves, but he says they really aren’t worth much because modern microwave applications rely on reflection rather than refraction.

He met my mother, a New York girl, after he started work in New York; he courted her for a while.  She tried to pair him off with a girl from Virginia, thinking that two slow-moving southerners would be a good match, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

As for her, she got her bachelor’s degree from City College in New York at nineteen.  She had skipped a lot of half-grades in the New York City schools, and excelled in math.  For quite a few years she worked as an efficiency expert for, I think, General Electric.  If you visited her at home, you would see the efficiency expert side of her still maintaining everything in order even now in her nineties as her grandchildren are all adults and she has a couple of great-grandchildren.  She left work to raise a family, and when the youngest was old enough she returned to teaching, mostly math, as a substitute primarily although she got roped into substituting full time for several years at one point.  She has always looked young; the day after her college graduation, an immigrant bought her a lollipop.

When they were courting, they would ride the train together from Freeport Long Island to The City; they sat with an older man who had known my mother for some time.  He did not think that the quiet, slow, polite Mississippi gentleman that was my father was at all right for my fast-paced New York mother.  But one day, as my mother was yacking a mile a minute about nothing of any importance and the other two sat in silence listening, she abruptly stopped, and said, “Oh dear, I forgot what I was going to say.”

Quietly my father replied, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll think of something else.”

Their companion roared with laughter, and accepted my father as the right man for my mother from then on.

So, what did your parents do?  Have you ever asked?  Did they tell you?  Their lives are fading from their memories even as you read this; and they were full of stories.  Life itself is an adventure.  I’d think you’d want to know about them merely because they’re your parents, and thus in some sense your story.  But if not, consider it a source of game, world, and character ideas.

This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited:  Living In the Past, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.


Previous article:  Pay Attention.
Next article:  Snow Day.

RPG-ology #20: Pay Attention

This is RPG-ology #20:  Pay Attention, for July 2019.


When Multiverser was first going to publication, artist Jim Denaxas suggested that from henceforth everything in my life had become tax deductible.

My job today is to create worlds, and to find ways to import worlds to games—my games and the games of referees around the world.  Whatever I do in pursuit of that job is a business expense.

If I go to see a movie, I’m researching plots, stories, and sometimes fantasy or science fiction settings.  If I read a book, it’s the same thing.  The newspaper is a source of world ideas; so, for that matter, is the television.  But those are the obvious things.

I could go on vacation, and justify it as a study of other parts of the world.  How much more realistic could my development of a Greco-Roman culture feel if I’ve walked the Appian Way, or stood before the Parthenon?  Could I write as convincing an Asian setting without visiting China and Japan?  If we’re setting this in the mountains in the summer, a trip to the Poconos is helpful, but wouldn’t it be so greatly enhanced by traveling to the Rockies, the Alps, and perhaps the Himalayas?  I can visit the beach and learn much; I can visit Historic Gloucester, legendary Malibu, and even the black beaches of Hawaii and learn so much more. 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.


Previous article:  With the Odds.
Next article:  Treasure Auction.

Treasure Division: A Case Study From Northumbria

This scene takes place between part 2 and part 3 of “Terror in the Tower.”


Background

The session began with the PCs back in the village of Lakesend, in between forays to the ruined temple of Pholtus. At some point, the PCs had an interesting discussion on treasure division, and I, as DM, played the various NPCs in the party. It was an interesting rebirth of an age-old dilemma, namely ‘How should treasure be divided?’ I submit that by letting players grab whatever they want without forcing them to think, you miss some good role-playing opportunities.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum

Narrative

Day 25, Eighth Moon

That evening after supper, the family casually discussed treasure division. Here are some bits of the conversation:

KIERAN BECKETT: “We are a family, and we have always worked as a team. Some of us perform very basic and very boring duties so that others are free to perform tasks for Lord Balin or to further the family’s interests. Owen has led a few of our kin on hunting expeditions almost every single day. Elwood and I have been gathering food, fishing, and caring for the shepherd’s sheep every single day—part of our agreement with Lord Balin. Since we share duties—exciting or otherwise—perhaps we should share spoils to some degree. Personally, I am less concerned with spending money than I am with restoring our family’s wealth by discovering the secret to those Cimbrian blades that we captured. Perhaps, each time we come into some wealth, we can put a very small percentage aside for those efforts? There is so much that I need to purchase or to acquire for proper research.”

SERGEANT BLAINE FORESTER (from his sick bed): “The Becketts will always have my loyalty and my halberd. I need no fancy trinkets, but some coin to buy a beer each day would be welcome. That is all. I used to serve for pay when you had your estate. Of course, when we were displaced, I did not expect you to pay me a wage. Now that we are coming into some coin though, perhaps a few coins each month would be possible. It is a small matter at the end of the day though.”

OWEN BECKETT: “Granny has kept us all on our feet more times than we can count. All those herbs and strange concoctions must cost something. Something tells me that we shall need her services many times in the future. It might be wise to take a small percentage of whatever we gain and put it towards restocking her stash of elixirs and such. Elwood and I could probably find all of her herbs for free, but feeding the family every day has consumed all of our time and energy. I am exhausted, by the way.”

RAYMOND BECKETT: “Along similar lines, it would not hurt to make small regular donations to both the Temple of St. Cuthbert, here in the village, and the shrine in the Keep. Sooner or later, we may need more than Granny’s healing, and the clerics will have to ask themselves why they should help us. Sure, Brother Lewie has connections with the curate and Brother Liam has ties to the vicar, but do not forget that we are newcomers here. They barely know us, and they are preparing for a major siege. Healing us with anything beyond minor salves and poultices may not be very high on their priority list.”

ACOLYTE DENSTON BECKETT: “From experience, I do not expect you heathens to worship the one true God (Pholtus), but it is only fitting that you allot me the same amount of coin that you dedicate to your temple or shrine. I must have something to donate on our behalf.”

DAGIS: “I require no coins. Sir Callum… and you all… have provided me with meals; a warm, dry place to sleep; and protection; as well as some armor and a weapon. I need little else.”

SIR RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing a handful of walnuts at Dagis): “That’s because you are a squire! We are supposed to provide for you, and you are supposed to be poor until you make something of yourself some day… maybe… if you live. The rest of us are not squires. I’m not greedy, but I like gold as much as the next man. I shall happily accompany or lead the next expedition. I need a break from hunting anyway. As a sport, it is good fun. As an occupation, it is drudgery.”

KENRICK THE KENNELMAN: “I have felt rather useless as a kennelman since we lost our pack of hounds back home. On your advice, I found employment with Lord Balin, assisting his kennelman and caring for his hounds. I need little else, but I agree with Blaine that a few silver moons to buy a drink would be nice. As much as my employer treats me well, I am still your man as long as you would have me. Say the word and I shall return to your active service.”

FINN THE FARRIER: “I too am working each day for Lord Balin, on your orders. Though I sought employment with the armorer, seeking to learn some of his trade, they had need of my skills with horses so I work each day in the baronial stables. There is no pay, but I have shelter, food, and drink. They even offered me permanent employment, but I told them that I remain in the service of the Becketts. A wage of some sort would be nice though. I leave the details to you.”

MARIN THE PILOT: “I will take whatever you give me. I am grateful that you tried to save my pa. For that, you have my service. As long as I have food, drink, a place to sleep, and some protection, I am yours. I never had no armor or more than a staff or sling, but I get by just fine. I can ferry your anywhere on the lake, run errands, and find out many things from the locals. I am a decent cook too.”

ELWOOD BECKETT: “I have been talking with some of the locals, and I heard of a few people that live together in the forest, sharing all of their food, clothing, and equipment. Each person contributes what he can, depending on his skills, and takes whatever he really needs. When they get donations or gifts from new members, they divide it equally among them all. When they need coin for something, they all decide what to do.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing walnuts at Elwood this time): “Like that would ever work. Be quiet.”

KIERAN BECKETT: “My good cousin is correct in that we cannot go leaderless. The idea of equality is silly, but we might learn something useful from even these strange forest denizens.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (picking up more walnuts): “Forest what?”

KIERAN BECKETT (his hands raised to shield his face): “People that live in the forest, cousin. We could learn even from them. We might take a small percentage of each windfall and divide that equally so that all have at least a few coppers to spend in the village. In this village, we may need to make it a few silvers, as everything is so overpriced. With a small percentage going to spending money and a small percentage going to research, Lord Roger could divide the rest as he sees fit, paying for training, buying supplies, or awarding more coin to those that deserve it most. ”

Sir Raynard put down his handful of walnuts, but discussion continued for some time…

GRANNY: “While we have just come into considerable coin it has been spent on debt and training. We are barely out of the red. Though once the family is once again profiting, the whole family will profit as well as those who have served us and become as family in our darkest hour. No one’s loyalty will go unrewarded. As for tithing to the churches, the gods are always generous, but their clergy still needs to eat. We will remember them as well once the income we are receiving exceeds the debts we are incurring. The family will prosper again, our reputation will shine once more, we will be restored.”

JADE (playing with her arrows): “As much as I like gold in my pocket, I agree to share the wealth. Our debt is still there, but we have paid off a large portion of it already. Training should be a focus. Plus, I am quite curious to see how the rest of you handle a battlefield.”

BJORN: “I share the coin, but never the glory! The glory and accolades belong to me! Okay, maybe me and Sven. Yeah, the glory all belong to me and Sven! Well… and some of the good weapons and armor. Okay… All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor! Oh… and some coin for new boat. Okay…  All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat. Oh… and the good booze! Okay…  All the glory belong to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat and the booze. Oh… never mind! Bjorn share some of the loot. Let us go smash something interesting!”

SVEN: “And pie! I like pie… And maybe some private time with the bear cub that we saved… once she gets older that is. I’m not some sort of a freak you know! We make strong kids!”

Sir Raynard threw a handful of walnuts at the grinning Varangian.

Compendium of the Land Surrounding Blackwater Lake — Table of Contents

 

An Introduction, and Of the Barony of Blackwater

Of Blackwater Keep, and the Inhabitants Therein

Of Lakesend Village, and its Commerce

The Blackwater, its Denizens, and the Lands Surrounding

Various Peoples of Northumbria, and the Cultures

Of Elves

Of Frangians

Of Zeelanders

Of Varangians

The States and Rulers in the Western Lands


In addition to the materials in the above Gazetteer, here are some further notes and systems useful for adventuring in Northumbria:

Languages of Northumbria

The Moons of Northumbria

Rules for an Exorcism Ritual

 


Dungeon Master Michael Garcia runs two games in Northumbria. These are a few adventures featuring the Winchester family:

Screams in Store

Battle on the Beach

Brigands Rock

 

Here are some tales of the Beckett family:

Ants in the Darkness

Treasure Identification

Terror in the Tower, Part 1

Treasure Division (Still to come!)

Terror in the Tower, Part 2

The Investigation Falters

Terror in the Tower, Part 3

Trial by Combat

The Battle of Heinrich’s Horn


The Editor would like to extend his warmest thanks to Michael for sharing his setting and these play reports. We hope that many more are forthcoming! If you’re enjoying the adventures, please let us know in the comments sections!

States and Rulers of the Western Lands

One final entry in the Compendium on Lands Around Blackwater Lake.


Northumbria, Frangian Province of

His Grace, Jonathan Prestwick, Duke of Northumbria

Capital: Yarrvik (pop 6,000)
Population: 70,200
Population Density: 12-13 people per square mile
Area (in square miles): 50,000 (only ~5,460 controlled)
Hexes: 7+ (population controlled)

Hex with Yarrvik (780 x 40 = 31200)
Hex with Albanton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex north of Yarrvik (780 x 8 = 6,240)
Hex with Kingstown (780 x 2 = 1,560)
Hex with East Hampton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex with Middleton (780 x 10 = 7800)
Hex southwest of Yarrvik (780 x 5 = 3900)
Hex south of Yarrvik (780 x 5 = 3900)

Other Notable Settlements:

Albanton (3000)
Kingstown (2250)
East Hampton (1680)
Middleton (1260)

Fortifications: Yarrvik’s citadel
Resources: Lumber, furs and skins, fish, horses, rye, oats, fruit, superior building stone (basalt), syrup, and manufactured goods (ships)

This vast province, only recently claimed by the Crown, has great potential for wealth and power, but it also holds great danger. King Richard personally appointed his long-time friend, Jonathan Prestwick, to rule this sprawling frontier province. In actuality, the Duke only controls the regions around the major settlements. Read more

RPG-ology #16: Creatures

This is RPG-ology #16:  Creatures, for March 2019.


In seeking a topic for this month, I kept coming back to one covered in Game Ideas Unlimited, August 3rd, 2001, which discussed envisioning and describing fantastic creatures.  I thought of rewriting the idea for this column, but as I reviewed it I was more and more persuaded that I couldn’t improve on the original.  Thus I offer here a republication of

Game Ideas Unlimited:

Empiricism

Empiricist philosopher David Hume espoused the opinion that we can’t imagine anything we’ve never experienced.

To support his position, he adduced evidence from the descriptions of mythical creatures.  The Gryphon, for instance, has the body and legs of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle.  Pegasus similarly is just a horse with bird wings attached.  This is a small that, that a large this.  Even the dragon proved to be nothing other than a giant lizard or snake with the wings of a bird or bat.

He did concede one point:  he thought it might be possible to imagine a color that was a shade between two other colors.

I don’t want to suggest that I’m smarter than David Hume; let’s say I had the advantage of a century of technological advances.  It seemed to me almost immediately that that exception was a crack in the wall which would ultimately admit the flood.  Read more