Croatoan Design Journal #3 (Mechanics for Theme, Steel)

Last time I wrote about mechanics in pursuit of theme for Croatoan, I discussed the colonizers’ firearms.  Recently Wizards of the Coast published their 5th edition “Dungeon Master’s Guide,” which includes (among many awesome things) optional rules for guns.  The rules for “muskets” resemble my rules for arquebuses on some points, so I feel validated.  Also, the book details rules for exploding powder kegs and gunpowder bombs, which I will be eager to incorporate into my game.  Hooray explosions!

This design journal is about what I call the “Steel” setting mechanic for Croatoan.  (Inspired largely by Dark Sun; thanks Jesse!)  In short, the colonizers have steel, and the colonized don’t.  The PCs come from cultures that are, at most, Bronze Age, where iron is rare and lower-quality materials such as bronze, copper, bone, and obsidian are the standard.

In the really real world, iron gradually overtook bronze as the material of choice for weapons, armor, and tools.  Bronze and iron overlapped in the sense that ancient societies that developed ironwork still had a transitional period where bronze and iron both saw use.  Early sources of iron included meteors, and iron sand from certain bogs.  The quality of iron artifacts tracked humans’ ability to create better and hotter forges, which permitted the alloying techniques that led to steel (an iron-carbon alloy).  Asian-European cultures developed forging techniques far in advance of the rest of the world, which in turn contributed to Western industrialization and military power.

Why make a custom rule for item materials, at all?  Colonization drives the core conflict in Croatoan, and material power allows for colonization.  For colonization to work as a credible threat, the colonizers need wealth and technology greater than that of the PCs and their cultures.  Since D&D is a fantasy game, this disparity could be represented through magic; maybe the colonizers simply have more magic items than everyone else in the world.  But, as with the rules for guns, part of the fun and color of Croatoan comes from the colonizers reflecting real world imperialists in relatable ways.  The material divide makes the colonizer culture feel distinct, and gives the PCs something to covet.  Steel, and how to make it, might even become a plot point as the PCs seek out ways to take colonizer technology and bring it to their people.  In short, Steel contributes to the themes I want to convey.

In game, item material quality can be turned into a mechanic by dividing weapon and armor materials into three groups: low-quality (bronze, obsidian, wood, bone, etc.), standard-quality (iron), and high-quality (steel).

Starting weapons are low-quality, and suffer a -1 to attack rolls.  Furthermore, on an attack roll resulting in a natural 1, the weapon has a chance of breaking: roll the weapon’s damage die, and on a minimum roll the weapon breaks.  This roll does not represent damage, but reflects that larger, higher-die weapons are less likely to break.  Nets, whips, and slings are exempt from the low-quality rule, because they incorporate no metal, normally.  Clubs, greatclubs, and quarterstaves are not exempt, because they should be metal-shod to be of standard quality.  Bows and crossbows are also not governed by the weapon quality rule, however their respective ammunitions are: low-quality arrows or bolts suffer -1 to attack rolls and have a chance to break as above.

Starting armor is likewise low-quality, suffering a -1 to AC.  Hide and Leather armor do not incorporate metal and so are exempt.  Shields are also exempt because they can be fashioned out of lower-quality materials and are just as effective, in D&D at least.

Standard-quality weapons and armor are made of wrought iron.  In my game, I made iron items double the standard cost given in the D&D rules, though it might make as much sense to triple or quadruple the price, or add a flat 50gp to the base cost.  These items have the typical statistics with no penalty or bonus, and do not suffer a chance to break.

The colonizers have high-quality steel weapons and armor.  Weapons made of steel have a +1 to attack rolls, and armor has a +1 to AC.  These inherent material bonuses do not stack with magical bonuses, similar to the “Masterwork” rules of previous editions of D&D.  The colonizers might part with steel items for barter, at very high costs, or the PCs might simply steal them.  On the open market they are worth hundreds of gold pieces, though might be considerably cheaper in the colonizers’ homeland across the sea.

What are the consequences of the Steel mechanics?  In D&D, some character classes rely more heavily on weapon attack rolls than others, and some classes rely on armor more than others.  All classes that use weapons and armor are disadvantaged at least a little bit, and the classes that rely on them more have a greater relative disadvantage.  To offset relative disadvantage, I allowed a house rule whereby any class with proficiency in Heavy Armor could exchange it for either the Monk or Barbarian version of the Unarmored Defense feature.  To offset the PCs’ material disadvantages generally, I gave every PC a bonus feat at first level.

In practice, my players really liked the customizability of having a free feat to play with.  Some of them strove for iron weapons as quickly as they could, so as not to suffer the low-quality weapon penalty.  One player built his fighter with a high Dexterity and Constitution, then took the Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense option instead of proficiency in heavy armor.  By using these character options along with a shield, he had a very high AC at the beginning of the game.  (His AC was not insurmountably high, however, as he was incapacitated by enemy crossbow bolts in his first combat.  The d20 is a fickle mistress!)

Ideally, the Steel rules enforce an economy of scarcity for good weapons and armor, and provide another advantage to the colonizers.  Granted, in the real world the difference was probably more stark: I vaguely recall a demonstration where a replica Aztec macuahuitl and a replica Spanish steel broadsword were clashed together, and the macuahuitl shattered.  Steel tools and weapons gives the PCs something to steal, or could form the basis of a quest to discover the “Riddle of Steel.”

Food And Tabletop Games

Last week I wrote that I would continue discussing setting element mechanics in Croatoan.  However, some of what I want to write would spoil secrets for my current players.  So… instead I will write about food.  Everyone loves food.

In-game, what the PCs eat does not often play much of a role.  Eating is presumed to happen off-screen or during downtime, like bathroom breaks.  This follows most fiction; television characters do not often eat on-screen.  Eating usually isn’t dramatically interesting.

Games that focus on survival and supply are exceptions, although often those games abstract food as units of time or life points.  These games use food as a mechanic, and while eating may not be dramatically interesting the prospects of shortage and acquisition can be.  If your characters are wandering the desert, how will they get water?  If they run low on water, would they be willing to kill for it?  Vampire games comprise a similar exception, where the need for blood can be a major source of conflict: by necessity a vampire must commit theft or violence to feed.

But for the most part, PC food is either rations, or some abstract meal that they eat “off-screen.”  This is sad, because food is delightful, and can be a part of a PC’s characterization.  What is your PC’s favorite food?  Least favorite?  If you are running a game you might consider giving the PCs some form of bonus for roleplaying desire for or delight at their characters’ favorite foods.  Discretionary bonuses exist in many games, such as Inspiration for the current edition of D&D, Hero Points for Mutants & Masterminds, Willpower points for World of Darkness games, Style for Houses of the Blooded, etc.  Give one to a PC when she goes through some trouble to get her favorite food, or suffers due to her least favorite food.

Out of game, food is much more important!  Tabletop gaming entails a bunch of people gathering at one place for hours at a time.  People need to eat.  Traditionally this hunger has been sated with Mountain Dew and Cheetos (or Doritos), escalating to pizza deliveries when “real food” is required.  If you do go for pizza, spring for extra cheese, as it is usually the most cost-efficient way to add mass to your pizza.

But there are other inexpensive options!  Some of them are healthier!

  • Zatarain’s Instant Jambalaya (or Gumbo).  Get some andouille sausage to go with it, or chicken/turkey/vegetarian sausage if members of your group have dietary restrictions.  Product page here.
  • This pasta sauce recipe from “The Godfather:” 
  • Chow mein or lo mein from Chinese restaurants.  Usually a single order will feed two players.
  • Chili.  Buy a few cans, or make your own.  Add Trader Joe’s Bacon Cheddar Cheese to make your chili awesome.  (Behold this ode to Bacon Cheddar Cheese.).

Snacks are important.  Hungry players are cranky players, and some people concentrate better if they have something to snack on.  The trouble with the traditional Doritos and Cheetoes is that they get a greasy orange powder on your hands, and from there to dice, pencils, character sheets, and gizmos (like tablets).  And they are bad for your health.  Carrots with hummus is a much more healthful option.  Edamame soybeans are also great, you can find bags of them in the frozen food section.  Tortilla chips with actual salsa, or queso dip, may not be much healthier than Doritos but are usually less messy.

One substantial snack food that my players love is buffalo chicken dip.  Take 2 (10oz.) cans of shredded chicken, heat in a slow-cooker or crockpot with a (5oz.) bottle of your favorite hot sauce.  Add two (8oz.) packages of cream cheese, and heat until they are melted.  Throw in a half-cup or so of ranch dressing, and a cup of shredded cheddar cheese.  Stir until all is consistent and melted.  This dip goes well on many things, such as: pita chips, carrot sticks, hamburgers, and tortillas.

Drinking alcoholic beverages at tabletop games is a time-honored tradition (for players of legal age, of course), and merits its own post.  Besides that, there should be water at the table, since snacks are usually salty and players (and especially gamemasters) dry themselves out by talking so much.  Mountain Dew and Coke are traditional.  You can make a healthier alternative by boiling sugar, lime juice, and water to make limeade, but that does not have the caffeine that players love.

A note on etiquette: if you are not hosting the game, and are visiting the house of another, bring a snack or drink to share.  If you are the gamemaster and you are not hosting, you may consider yourself exempt, due to the extra labor that a gamemaster endures.

Bon appétit!

Croatoan Design Journal #2 (Mechanics for Theme, Guns)

I mentioned in a previous entry that I wanted to explore using mechanics to encourage a particular style of play.  Attaching mechanics to a particular aspect of your game signals that aspect is intended to be important.  There are exceptions in both directions: some mechanics rarely come up and become unimportant, while on the other hand some important game elements are handled by roleplay and fiat (for example, the laws of Kindred society in Vampire: The Masquerade).  But on the assumption that I want my setting to have a distinct narrative AND mechanical feel, I wanted to institute some setting-unique rules.

The overarching theme of the Croatoan setting is colonialism.  I am by no means an expert on colonial history, postcolonialism, anthropology, sociology, economics, or any other discipline that has really grappled with colonialism.  But one need not be a true expert in a thing in order to study, appreciate, and write fiction about it.  I have read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and found it compelling; it is a materialist explanation of the underlying reasons how western Europeans managed to conquer most of the world within the span of a few centuries.  The title is itself a short answer to the question.  So I thought I would use the book as inspiration for some custom rules for the setting.

Guns.  The colonizers have guns, the PCs don’t (at first).  The idea here is to design the guns as a weapon that grants distinctive advantages to the colonizers, one that makes them very powerful in massed warfare; I am thinking muskets as a primary model.  At the same time these muskets should be less advantageous in guerrilla warfare or urban combat, preserving the sword and sorcery combat niche for PCs and colonizers alike.  Fortunately, D&D is already very kind to massed ranged combat, with high d20 rolls and crits nearly inevitable with a high volume of attackers.

So what can I do mechanically to make muskets advantageous, but not overwhelming, and also make them feel musket-like?  Presumably they have a high damage output, like 1d12 or 2d6.  I like the idea of musket balls having high variability, equally likely to graze you or blow through your heart, so 1d12 damage is preferable.  These guns should have a long range, though not terribly accurate for most of that range.  So I can give them a low normal range, and a high long range, say, 20/500.  Muskets should have a unique advantage, so I gave them a quality called “Armor Piercing” which allows the attack to ignore AC bonuses due to nonmagical armor or shields.  This is a fairly complicated and novel rule for D&D 5e, since it effectively requires a determination of what 3rd edition D&D called “touch AC.”  When the PCs first encounter guns, I would do well to ask the players to create an entry on their character sheets called “Gun AC” and have them calculate it for their characters.

These muskets should also carry significant disadvantages, tied with in-universe reasons why colonizers can’t rely on them all the time and why the colonized people can’t adapt the technology quickly.  One limiting factor is cost and materials; I could assert that guns require high-quality iron and/or steel, which the colonized people do not have or is prohibitively expensive for them.  (I will get to a further exploration of “Steel” as another mechanic, later on.)  Another limitation could be the availability of ammunition.  Muskets effectively require two types of ammunition in tandem, a ball shot and a sachet of gunpowder.  This gunpowder can be difficult to produce, perhaps requiring a secret 3rd level Wizard spell known only to the colonizers.  The gunpowder can be dangerous to carry, such that exposure to area-effect fire damage requires the user to make a Dexterity saving throw or her gunpowder detonates.  Gunpowder may not work at all, under wet conditions.  One other disadvantage could relate to how long it takes to reload a musket.  I conceived of this as a disadvantageous special weapon quality called “Slow Loading,” which has all the drawbacks of the “Loading” weapon property, plus the weapon takes an action to load.  This cuts the rate of the musketeer’s attacks in half, making the musket much less attractive as an option for an adventurer.  It also enforces its utility as a weapon for defensive emplacements and massed fire, with one team reloading as the other team fires.

One other consideration is how guns work with the existing weapon proficiency system.  I propose treating every gun like a toolset, rather than a weapon, and so proficiency can be attained by spending 250 days of training.  This is difficult and expensive, but allows anyone to pick up and learn to use a gun well with practice.  I might reduce the time required to gain proficiency, representing another advantage of firearm use.  Another possible way of incorporating gun proficiency is to create a custom feat, but feats are expensive.

What is the overall effect of this rule, mechanically?  Arguably not much; as designed, muskets are not that much better than heavy crossbows.  But in terms of setting, the musket distinguishes the colonizers as possessing a strange and terrifying technology.  Despite guns requiring a relatively complicated mechanic to represent it, the intended effect is narrative: the colonizers have an edge that the PC’s don’t.

Out of nostalgia for AD&D 2nd Edition, I call this gun “arquebus.”  For some historical context see here.  I might develop other rules for cannon, and shot, as I develop the setting further.

Next week I will write more in this vein and discuss “Germs” and “Steel.”

Croatoan Design Journal #1 (The Why)

For some years I have discussed with friends the Western, colonial narratives that underpin D&D.  A typical campaign features humanoid monsters the heroes can fight and steal from, and in many games as the heroes rise in power they conquer or reclaim territory.  Sometimes the idea of monster cultures is explored, but these are typically stereotyped as raider-cultures that resemble the late Roman conception of the Huns.

As a thought experiment, myself and some friends considered what a reversal of this narrative would look like.  (A lot of credit goes to Jesse Heinig, here; see his Livejournal in the links!)  Humans and elves and dwarves are the colonized, rather than the colonizers.  The monsters have an advanced civilization, and the PCs come from less-advanced tribal groups.

I want to take these ideas and crystallize them into a game setting.  Structurally this setting concept is not very different from settings where the heroes are pitted against a tyrannical, powerful, evil empire (for example, Star Wars or Dragonlance).  In terms of relative material poverty of the PCs it also resembles Dark Sun.  The differences lie in the details, and I hope to come up with something detailed and evocative that can be used for a novel take on D&D.

My motives are partly opportunistic; the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons has recently been published, and it has inspired me and other hobbyists to take a fresh look at the old man of RPG’s.  Now is an ideal time to reexamine how we play D&D, what parts we enjoy, what parts are meaningful to us… and recruit new players to the hobby!

The working title of this setting is “Croatoan,” after the word left as a marker of the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colony in 1590 America.  (For more details see here).  The name evokes the mutual destructiveness of colonialism, and is a cool word.

I am inexperienced in game design, but one idea of game design that I would like to explore is how mechanics and setting can influence the style of play.  Ideally the Croatoan setting will provide a venue for personal and communal triumphs, like most games of D&D, but also will provide a space to explore the nature of injustice and prejudice.

Several future posts will contain my notes on how I go about designing this setting.  Also, I am fortunate enough to have a D&D group willing to try out this idea, so I may share observations from actual play in other posts.  I hope they enjoy it.

Sbragia Merlot

My good friend Alex got me a bottle of wine!  (He may have been attempting to bribe me, because he plays in my D&D game).  This is Sbragia Family Vineyards 2008 Home Ranch Merlot (and some dice).

Sbragia Merlot 1

It comes from this vineyard.

Here are some amateur tasting comments: This merlot is a little sweet, and a little tart, with notes of cherry.  It is warm and mellow.  It has no legs and very little aroma.  It has a caramel tint.

Verdict: delicious.  I would drink it again.  Thanks Alex!


Hello, my name is Bob and this blog is dedicated to games that I play, as well as wines that I drink.  Primarily this is intended as a writing and site-management exercise, for my benefit.  However, if you and I share similar tastes, congratulations!  You may find my posts amusing or even useful.

A caveat: I am an amateur at blogging, gaming, and wine-ing.  I am not a game designer or even a playtester.  Neither am I a sommelier or wine collector.  I play games and I drink wine, and I am hopeful that in the course of writing this blog I will become better at both.

By games, I primarily mean tabletop roleplaying games and assorted video games.  Most of my experience is in those genres, and I enjoy them the most.  I am also fond of a few board games.  I try not to play head games, not with my friends and loved ones.  Currently I am running a game of Pathfinder, and also a game of Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition), so many of my initial posts will pertain to those games.  Some posts will contain my musings on games and gaming culture, in general.

By wine, I mean fermented grape juice, non-distilled.  Certainly I enjoy other drinks, and I might write about them, too.  I may also comment on interesting cheeses, should I have some.

I have yet to decide on many aspects of this page, such as visual theme, commenting policy, or the possibility of guest posts.  Like with many tabletop games, I am making this up as I go along.