Fantasy Settlements - part 2: Distribution

How often will you find settlements when travelling, either in civilised lands, or the wilderness?

Or, more to the point in fantasy gaming, if I randomly teleport the player characters to the middle of a country, how far are they from the nearest town?

Population density
How often you find settlements will depend on how densely populated the area is.

According to the 2007 Demographic Year Book of the United Nations, there were 49 persons per square km in the surface area of the world. Among the continents, Asia - with a density of 126 persons per square km - was the most densely populated continent, followed by Europe (32), Africa (32), Latin America (28), Northern America (16) and Oceania (4). [Source]

We can use these figures to give us some bench marks for the population density of the fantasy lands we're inventing.
Is our fantasy land crowded, like India? Or sparsely settled, like Australia?

Of course, these figures are from recent times - you might be planning a setting more like medieval Europe, or feudal Japan. We can use historical data to tweak our number fairly easily. For example, here's the Wikipedia entry for historical population - from which we see in the 14th Century, the global population of earth was about 300 million - about 5% of today's population - so for a simple formula, you could divide those figures above by 20...

Except that as we can see from these maps showing population through the ages, we've tended to cluster round some prime habitable area for most of known history. If we're going to assume that a populated area is going to be attractive to live in, then we shouldn't just arithmetically cut the density by 95%. Let's call it half instead, and add a "Wilderness" category, where practically no-one lives.

For a bench mark, I'll set the following density levels:
  • Very high density population: more than 200 per square mile
  • High density: 150 - 200 per square mile
  • Medium density: 75 - 149 per square mile
  • Low density: 30 - 74 per square mile
  • Sparse density: up to 30 per square mile
  • Wilderness: no random population
(I'm mixing my units in this entry, sorry, but population per square km is about one third of the population per square mile - and fantasy games prefer miles. So I've multiplied all those sq km figures by 3.)

Clumps of people

Where is that population, though? Populations are rarely distributed at random. People tend to settle in clumps - that's the technical term, honestly.
We're not just a blanket of people spread out over our respective countries, one per football pitch-sized bit of land. We gather together in settlements.

As I mentioned before, the d20 fantasy rules seem to steer us to a relatively urbanised population.

In modern times, about 50% of the world's population live in urban areas. In the early stages of industrialisation, 10% of the population lived in towns and cities.
Before industrialisation, however, between 1 and 2% of the population lived in town and cities - the slower transport links of this era meant that 50 to 90 farmers were needed to support just one city-dweller. [sources]

For a typical fantasy setting, a 1% level of urbanisation would be appropriate - travel is by foot or horse, so getting fresh food into urban centres requires a close network of rural population: plenty of villages, hamlets and farmland.

Of course, in some high fantasy settings, magic can take the place of industrialisation, so that the early industrial or even modern distribution might be appropriate. Consider the level of magic, and the ability to rapidly travel. Food production might even be magically achieved. It might even be possible to exceed our real-world modern level of urbanisation.

I'm going to stick with a typical, pre-industrial feel for the fantasy setting. I tweaked the settlement categories so they would shake out to give a more rural population:

  • Metropolis (25 000 +)
  • City (5 001 - 25 000)
  • Large town (2001 - 5000)
  • Small town (501 - 2000)
  • Large village (201 - 500)
  • Small village (61 - 200)
  • Hamlet (21 - 60)
  • Thorp (up to 20)

I've crunched through the maths to find the percentage of the population that lives in each type of settlement, for an arbitrarily large population (large enough to fill all the categories).

  • Metropolis 0.5%
  • City 1%
  • Large town 2.5%
  • Small town 4%
  • Large village 5%
  • Small village 12%
  • Hamlet 25%
  • Thorp 50%
(Notice that over 90% of the population live in rural settlements - most live in communities of just a couple of dozen people... but we still have scope for some huge cities and metropolises.)

Now, from those percentages, for the benchmark densities above in an arbitrarily large area, I worked out how many settlements of each category there would be - from which I worked out how many miles there would be between each settlement...

Settlement distribution by density category

  • Very high density
  • Metropolis - up to 200 miles
  • City - up to 100 miles
  • Large town - 30 miles 
  • Small town - 15 miles
  • Large village - 7 miles
  • Small village - 3 miles
  • Hamlet - 1 mile
  • Thorp - 1/2 mile
  • High density
  • Metropolis - 250 miles
  • City - 125 miles
  • Large town - 33 miles 
  • Small town - 15 miles
  • Large village - 7 miles
  • Small village - 3 miles
  • Hamlet - 1 mile
  • Thorp - 1/2 mile
  • Medium density
  • Metropolis - 300 miles
  • City - 150 miles
  • Large town - 50 miles 
  • Small town - 25 miles
  • Large village - 10 miles
  • Small village - 5 miles
  • Hamlet - 1 1/2 miles
  • Thorp - 1/2 mile
  • Low density
  • Metropolis - 450 miles
  • City - 250 miles
  • Large town - 75 miles 
  • Small town - 30 miles
  • Large village - 15 miles
  • Small village - 5 miles
  • Hamlet - 2 miles
  • Thorp - 1 mile
  • Sparse density
  • Metropolis - 750 miles
  • City - 350 miles
  • Large town - 100 miles 
  • Small town - 50 miles
  • Large village - 25 miles
  • Small village - 10 miles
  • Hamlet - 4 miles
  • Thorp - 2 miles

Random settlement finding

The thorp is the most frequent settlement type, so the distances between those are smallest. But this is also the minimum distance to any settlement. If you randomly appear anywhere in a sparsely populated region (let's ignore true wilderness for the moment), then you are no more than 2 miles from some kind of settlement.
What kind of settlement? Usually, that'd be a thorp - a clump of families, some little ranch and its cowpokes, a remote chapel with its attendant monks, or a country house and its family and staff. But it could be a metropolis, a city, town or village.

We've got a set of percentages of settlement types, and that turns quite neatly into a table. First we check how far away the nearest settlement is, then we roll to see what type of settlement it is.

Once we've got that nearest settlement figured out, the other types of settlement are randomly placed around about. The nearest city will be 350 miles away, the nearest large town, 100 miles, and so on.

Miles to next


very high density
high density
medium density
low density
sparse density
Small village
Large village
Small town
Large town
roll 1d4


very high density
high density
medium density
low density
sparse density

Caveats and tweaks

If you're rolling randomly for an utterly new region, this system will work nicely enough - but take a look at 2.5, next, where I discuss location selection by desirability: people tend to build settlements where there's some resource to make the settlement worthwhile.

But if you're designing a setting, you'll probably have some ideas about where the capital city is, and where some other key major places are. (These are almost certainly placed in the most desirable spots - be sure to check out 2.5 next time!)

Remove metropolises and cities from the table - they only count for 1.5% of the total, anyway. You'll be left with town, villages and smaller settlements - just the sort of size of place for you to quickly put together some notes and wing it.


Over the hills and far away

My brother has challenged me to join him in running the Sarn Helen Hill Race (a 16.5 miler) in May, and the Snowdonia Marathon in October.

These are both fairly long runs, mainly off road, in hilly country (thankfully, the Snowdonia marathon doesn't actually ascend Snowdon itself). They're both in Wales - so those hills are going to be properly steep.

16.5 miles is what I call a "kilometrathon" - it works out at just over 26km. It's one of my favourite distances: long enough to be tasking, but short enough to stay fun all the way.
The marathon is a distance I've never actually raced, except to carry on for longer afterwards. I've run it solo a couple of times. I find marathons to be very tiring by the end, but again, they're the sort of epic distance I enjoy.

Anyway - all this is just to say: I'm getting back out there on the hill training again. Welsh hills are likely to be harder than the Marlborough Downs, so I need to put in more regular effort.
I also know that I need to strengthen my knees for the long distances - so I'll be doing some balancing and light weight work, too.


Why We Run

Why do you run? What keeps you from stopping? What makes you want to stop, stay in or slack off?


I run because I have asthma - if I don't exercise regularly, my asthma symptoms get worse. (I can also use drugs to control my asthma, which I do, but the exercise staves off the symptoms so that I take less medicine.)

I run to keep generally fit. My immune system seems to be vastly improved compared to before I ran: I have only had one cold that kept me off work in the last three years. I've lost weight, and fit into my old clothes again.

I run to be prepared. The Scouting motto is "Be prepared" - which while I was enjoying all the other fun of being a Scout, I took to heart. I have a commemorative 50p coin with that motto on it, which I always keep: 50p won't buy much these days, but it'll get me a phone call. And if I know I can always get up and run a few dozen miles if I have to, then I'm prepared for most emergencies - along with all the other first aid training and wood craft I picked up when I was Scouting.

I run to clear my head. Running uses very little brain power, but it bombards you with sensations - the feeling of your breath, legs, feet; the sight and sound of the world moving past. It's rather like meditating: you put your brain in neutral. I find I think of all sots of unconnected things while I'm running - they just float up to the surface while I'm busy pushing the road past.

I run because running makes us human. I run to pay tribute to my ancestors (no, don't roll your eyes at that - it'll make sense in a minute), whose hunting kills from their running hunts allowed a respite from the drudgery of survival, so that they could think and innovate - and ultimately invent agriculture, which in turn allowed me to choose to vegetarian. Having that choice is a privilege - so I run to salute their efforts to allow me to make that choice, however roundabout it was.

It's hard to find the motivation to run for many people. I keep running because of all those reasons.

Sometimes I don't want to run. I miss a day now and then. Usually it's because other demands got in the way - I was dealing with a client at the time I'd usually go running, or I was travelling - but sometimes it's because I'd rather have a glass of wine and watch Big Bang Theory or QI, or write notes for more gaming material.

But my first reason always brings me back: I run because running makes me better.

I know that's a reason most people don't have, so, I'd like to throw it open to you lot who read these ramblings:

  • Why do you / did you want to run?
  • What makes you want to stop, stay in, or slack off?
Answers in the comments, please!


Fantasy Settlements 1.5 - Excessively Urban?

Since last Fantasy Settlements blog post, I've not been idle - I've been digging around in population data and settlement models, and making spreadsheets.
Despite how dull that seems, I think that some of what I found may be interesting!

D&D demographics are post-industrial
D&D and derived d20 fantasy games give us a bunch of settlement types / names to work with, as I mentioned last time:

  • Metropolis, large city, small city, large town, small town, village, hamlet, thorp
These settlements are assigned population sizes, purchasing limits, and so on.
Notice that we only have three types of rural settlement, and 5 types of urban.

When I studied urban development and settlement theories at school, one of the key theories was Christaller's central place theory. (I suspect I remember it so well through a combination of this topic being one that my father helped me understand by getting me to explain it to him, and the fact that it lays out settlements on a hex grid...)

I'll not bore you with all the details, but simply put, he proposed (and then to some extent proved in the real world) that settlements grow according to their place in a hierarchy - the settlements that provide the most important or unique services grow largest and influence a wider area, while those with common services are less influential and grow less. That is: there are many farms (small settlements), but only a few seats of government (probably in a metropolis).
You can look up more details, of course, but the practical issue I want to talk about here is that he said that each order of settlement would be served by on average six of the next lower order: a town would be surrounded by six villages, roughly equidistant, and those villages by six hamlets, each, and so on.

When I applied this idea to the categories from the d20 fantasy rules, I found that for 1 metropolis, I had:

  • 6 large cities, 
  • 36 small cities, 
  • 216 large towns, 
  • 1 296 small towns, 
  • 7 776 villages, 
  • 46 656 hamlets and ...
  • 279 936 thorps
The d20 settlement rules give the following guide to population sizes:

  • metropolis, 25000+ 
  • large cities, 10001 - 25000
  • small cities, 5001 - 10000
  • large towns, 2001 - 5000
  • small towns, 201 - 2000
  • villages, 61 - 200
  • hamlets, 21 - 60
  • thorps, 20 or fewer

When I put those population data into my numbers of settlements, I got the following average:

  • metropolis, 37500
  • large cities, 105 003
  • small cities, 270 018
  • large towns, 756 108
  • small towns, 1 426 248
  • villages, 1 014 768
  • hamlets, 1 889 568
  • thorps, 5 598 720 or fewer

That gave me a total urban population of 2,594,877, total rural population of 8,503,056 (rural being anything smaller than a town), in a total population of 11,097,933. In other words, a 23.4% urban population.
(This is of course based on a relatively small "metropolis" - bigger metropolises will tip the balance even further.)

Now, when I looked at real world data, I found that this level of urbanisation only started after the industrial revolution. Before that, there just weren't the transport links to make massive urban centres sustainable. We couldn't get fresh food to the city markets fast enough to support city dwellers on a large scale.
Prior to the industrial revolution, the split of urban to rural population was more like 1%, rising to 10% over the first hundred years of the agricultural revolution and early industrial era.
A 23% urban population is more like the level we saw in Europe around the mid to late Victorian era.

Urban sprawls need magic or technology
So it seems that the top heavy set of settlements that the standard rules give us means that the d20 fantasy setting is out of kilter with its usual pseudo-medieval idyll. It's a more modern balance, based on a time of technological advancement, railways and mechanised farming.

Of course, maybe a wizard did it.

In some high fantasy settings, magic can take the place of industrialisation, so that the early industrial or even modern distribution might be appropriate. Consider the level of magic, and the ability to rapidly travel. Food production might even be magically achieved. It might even be possible to exceed our real-world modern level of urbanisation.

But I think it's important that if you decide to have a wizard do it, you know what they have to do.

Next: Population density
Back to my intended schedule, in which I put some of this research into practice.


The Tube Map Solution: from railroad to network

I picked up some adventure modules to run as filler in my campaign / mine for ideas. A few were good, but I found that far too many were railroaded to death.

Railroading is what happens when the players' choices are forced or eliminated in the name of plot. The worst cases are ridiculous - I've played in a game where the GM actually told us that a hovering slab of concrete appeared overhead, ominously looming until we turned back and played the plot he had written.
It was kind of funny at the time, but not really in keeping with the tone of the game (this was in the supposedly serious and gritty World of Darkness game setting) - and it's certainly not the best way to deal with players moving away from your prepared scenario.

The Alexandrian made a great guide to railroading - a tongue-in-cheek list of points to embrace when deliberately writing a railroad plot.
He's also written some great blog posts on how to open up scenarios and to make the plot flow more freely, from the players decisions.

This is all great advice when you're writing from scratch. But I suspect that like me, many GMs have limited time, and want to draw on pre-published material to make life easier.
So what I thought would be useful would be to use a few examples from published adventures where heavy railroading happens, and see how we can expand the choices to allow the players to choose meaningfully.

There's more then one way to get from Paddington to Liverpool Street

Fatal deviation

The renowned Dragonlance adventures have a reputation for steering the party along a pre-planned path. That may or may not be deserved - plenty of pre-published scenarios presented a linear story path, from one dungeon to the next (not all of them, but plenty enough) - but when I picked one up recently, I found a few glaring instances of serious railing.

In one part of the scenario in question, the player party is asked to aid some elves escape the bad guys - if you don't know the story, suffice to say the bad guys are very, very bad, and numerous. If the party accept, all well and good: the story continues, and the game with it.
If the heroes refuse the elves (that being the title of the section dealing with that possibility), then the GM is instructed to first beset the player characters with nasty dreams showing their death, and if that isn't enough of a hint that they've done the wrong thing, then to attack them with a horde of bad guys.

What the text then says regarding these attacks is what stunned me when I read it - it's the most blatant piece of railroading I think I've ever read in a scenario. What it says is this:
"These skirmishes will continue, one every game hour, until all the PCs are dead."
That's right - if the players don't want to play the story as written, then their characters must all be killed. It's not very much different to the ominous floating concrete slab, is it?

In situations like this, I tend to think about what the consequences of the player characters' inaction or failure might be, and then allow those things to happen. Let the game-world be changed by the decisions of the players!

Let's consider a few examples:
Luke Skywalker misses his "one in a million" shot, and the Death Star destroys the Rebel Base.
Now the game is about a dark dystopia, with a furtive and desperate resistance, instead of the relatively strong Rebellion we see in the other two films. The Jedi don't reappear - who has any faith in Luke, even if he survives? He's just a failure, along with any other survivors.
Our story focus turns to underworld connections and lowlifes, and morality becomes far greyer than the Dark and Light Sides of the Force - who is interested in that mumbo jumbo now?
There are plenty of adventures to be had as rebels: smuggling guns, assassinating Imperials, and so on - but the game has shifted away from the heroic path that was expected.

Aragorn and Co try to follow Frodo instead of Merry and Pippin.
Merry and Pippin are brought straight to Isengard and - once Saruman figures out they don't have the Ring - used as bait for Gandalf (assuming they are PCs, we'll want to keep them involved and alive). Gollum is probably either killed or at least kept on a far more close watch - since there are now several of the Fellowship to watch him.
Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and Co make a much easier route to Mordor (he's a Ranger after all) - but vast tracts of Middle Earth are destroyed by the forces of Mordor (Aragorn and Gandalf do not save Rohan and bring the Rohirrim to the Battle of Pelennor).
Does the Ring corrupt the rest of the Fellowship? Can the larger Fellowship make it through Mordor unseen? What evil forces are left occupying the lands even if the Dark Lord is destroyed? The adventure continues, but not in the way that was planned.

Those of course are big scale examples, but I'm using them to make a point.
When you look at scenarios, you need to think about what the fallout will be if the player characters don't succeed, or if they don't follow what you think is the best path. Or if the players hit on a simple short cut...

Omniscient NPCs

Years ago, when I was running a Cyberpunk 2020 game, I attacked the player team after they thought they had escaped from the street gang pursuing them. One of the players asked "What? How did they know where we went?"
I probably had some stock answer at the time ("Who are you asking?" or "You don't know"), but it made me think, and it made me improve. NPCs have to act only on the information they have available. Just as players must separate their own knowledge from their character's (just because Pete knows the abilities and weaknesses of dragons in the game doesn't mean that his character knows them too) - the GM must separate his or her knowledge from that of the NPCs.

I picked up a Living Greyhawk scenario for D&D 3.5 at the Free RPG Day one year. I understand these scenarios are quite quickly written - there's literally thousands of scenarios for the setting, which was published for just 8 years - and that administration of the many regions of the setting across the world would have been a mammoth task, so I'm prepared to cut plenty of slack for copy editing, spelling mistakes and so on. What I'm far less impressed by are the frankly bizarre NPC encounters and their behaviour.

In one encounter, the PCs are confronted by a gang of thugs who have been sent to "sound them out" (and attack them).
What puzzles me about this encounter, and no doubt would puzzle players too, is that there's no explanation given for how the thugs know about the PCs or their mission.
The PCs have literally just met with a new patron (who himself is absolutely ridiculous - he's described as having a completely empty house, if the text is to be taken literally*, and he gives the player characters no reason to trust him, but every reason to distrust him...) who has sent them off to do some job - and they are accosted by these thugs, who know who they are, who they've just been talking to, and that they are in conflict with the boss thug. (At this point, due to the somewhat scrappy writing of the scenario, it isn't necessarily particularly clear to the players that they are in conflict with this thug boss.)

The scenario says "as soon as the PCs walk outside they are accosted" [my emphasis] and that the thugs have been sent by their boss "to feel out the PCs." This implies strongly that the thugs aren't just watching the patron's house, and decide to take on the PCs as they look like a bunch of adventurers and thus mean trouble - no, they've been sent there specifically to encounter the PCs for some reason.

As if this first band of prescient NPCs wasn't enough - another one arrives in 4 rounds flat! That's less than 30 seconds later, with no explanation of why they're all suddenly converging on the players' characters' party. These new arrivals are allies, too - for some reason. They aid in the fight against the omniscient thugs, despite having never met the player characters. Neither has their boss any experience of the PCs at this point - but he clearly sends his minions to help the PCs before they actually need that help.

How do the NPC bosses know about the PCs? What if the player characters take steps to avoid being seen? What if the PCs scout out the area before leaving?

As crazy as all this seems, these are simple enough questions for a GM to think up answers to  (of course, if the scenario was properly written, you wouldn't need to). Here's how I might answer the issues:

How do the bosses know? The NPC bosses have been spying on each other, and the patron. The bosses are rivals, and this patron is clearly trying to manipulate things. When word gets to them that the patron has visitors - adventurer visitors - both bosses send their fellows round to see what's up. The allied boss's minions aid the players because they are fighting their rival's thugs.

The PCs are cautious. Instead of the patron's house being empty, there are a few unobtrusive servants. One of the servants is passing information to a spy of one or other of the bosses - and the other boss's spy is observing this leaked information. Thus once the PCs are safe inside the patron's house, the information can be smuggled out - and the various NPC groups can converge on the patron's house while the PCs are getting briefed.
If the PCs scout the area before leaving, they see the thugs scaring off the locals, ready to set on the PCs as they emerge. The PCs have the chance to try to avoid them, intervene, or whatever they wish - but the allied NPC minions arrive as scheduled, and the thugs start a fight with them. Our PC party is supposed to be a band of heroes - no evil player characters are permitted in this scenario - so hopefully they might intervene...

*Sure, I know the writer meant that there was nothing worth stealing, knowing that players tend to have their characters loot anything valuable, but that's not what the scenario said.

Dead-end maze

"Team Bravo: the first assignment" is a supposedly "mini" adventure scenario provided by Wizards of the Coast for the d20 Modern game, which immediately turned into a multi-session marathon, deviating from the original plot enormously.
It's not a bad scenario, but it's full of points where the players can easily and very rationally pursue other angles, or overlook something the scenario writers think is obvious. This isn't so much a true railroad, but a maze, full of dead ends, with only one path through it.

The plot is supposed to be essentially three encounters: one with a petty criminal who has witnessed some dinosaur killing his mate, one with the mad scientist who has cloned the dinosaurs and one of his specimens, and one with the remaining escaped dinosaurs.
However, the progression of the story hinges on a few set pieces:
  • Discovery and correct interpretation of a name tag at the scene of a crime (not too difficult)
  • Pursuit and live capture of the mad scientist after he's set a killer dinosaur on them (very difficult)
  • Discovery and correct identification of some tracking devices to pursue the escaped dinosaurs (medium difficult)
  • Facing the dinosaurs (utterly deadly)
Name tag, chase scenes and a few alternatives
Adventures need more than one path through them, or they run the risk of getting stuck. The Three Clue Rule is well established now, so I won't go over it again here.
If the players ignore or overlook the name tag in the first scene of the adventure, then there is no path to progress the plot.
To be fair, for the scientist chase, there is an alternate method provided to get the party to move on to the next part of the adventure: a set of scanners is present in the lab.

Deadly dinosaurs
The final encounter is a bloodbath, in which any of the player characters will be lucky to escape - let alone defeat the dinosaurs. Three dinos lurk in ambush in the sewer. The scenario is supposed to be written for 2nd level characters - very new adventurers. just starting out in their careers. I ran through the numbers for those dinos' attack capabilities, bearing in mind the heroes defensive stats.

Not to overwhelm this post with maths, the short version is that the average damage deal by these 6 hits is enough to immediately drop any 2nd level character in this game system, and more than enough to utterly kill most characters - and there is a third dino also in this ambush...

Also, the sewer itself is a death trap. An earlier point in the sewer has a severe undertow current, which requires a swim check to avoid submerging. The difficulty of that swim check equates to something like a 5% chance of success for an average character, or about 50% for a strong swimmer - but that's assuming the PCs are unencumbered by armour or gear. Wearing armour hugely impedes swimming chances in this game.
So, effectively, the scenario has an encounter practically designed to strip the armour off the characters, immediately before the dinosaur ambush...

Now, it's not necessarily a problem to have an overwhelmingly deadly encounter in a game - that depends on the tone. Maybe your game is supposed to end with one single survivor barely making it out alive (a horror action story, like Alien, or the Predator movie) - or maybe you expect the player characters to recognise just how deadly dangerous one of the dinos is from the earlier fight, and tool up ready for the hunt.
The scenario writers didn't plan that, though. The writing implies that defeat of the dinos is a foregone conclusion - "After the heroes defeat the deinonychuses in the sewer, they can go back and investigate ..." it says. There's no acknowledgement of the deadly nature of that encounter - nothing like "Assuming the heroes defeat..." or "...the surviving heroes can ..."
Nor is there enough time to prepare for the hunt: they're expected to rush in before they even fully investigate the lab. Okay, one can easily give the players time to prepare, but the wealth system of this game means that there's not a lot of extra equipment they can gather to help them out.

Fixing things
In running this game, I had to make several changes.
  • I added more clues - we need at least three, remember, and the writers had only given us two each time. (Two is better than most scenarios, to be fair.)
  • I gave the party time to prepare for the hunt, and more gear, and I re-arranged the encounter to remove the flanking ambush.
    • (It didn't help much, though - I still had to use a deus ex machina of some rival secret organisation to extract the nearly dead unconscious heroes, in the end. Thankfully, I'd been foreshadowing the existence of this other organisation throughout the adventure, and it also allowed me to add extra plot to the ongoing story - my players' characters were now indebted to their rivals...)
They worked at the time, but since then I've thought about it more, and I think I can do better. It still smacks of a railroad adventure: the players are pulled through a plot, each event happening on cue when they show up. Of course we need the players to be engaged by the story, but if they wander off to do something else, are the NPCs really going to sit around doing nothing?When I write adventures of my own, I like to write plans, not plots. The NPCs all have their motivations and agendas, and will carry on with them despite the PCs' actions. In the dinosaur adventure above, I'd include the dinosaurs as NPCs, too.

As written, those dinosaurs are just waiting in the sewer. Surely, they'd be more likely to get out there and attack more prey? And with more attacks - not just people, but animals too - the party might be able to find more clues.
Those clues need not lead them to the same events that the written adventure planned - can the dinos be tracked to their lair? Can the players lay a trap for the dinos?

The scientist in the scenario as written waits until the PCs come calling before he goes hunting the missing dinos. Shouldn't he be more proactive? Maybe some witnesses say they've already been interviewed, and give a description of the scientist. Maybe the PCs are tasked with investigating a missing person, when he gets eaten by his escaped creations...

Lastly, who hired the scientist? In the scenario, it's written that some secret military organisation commissioned the dinosaur project - what are they doing about all this?
In my version of the adventure, I used this complication - and it allowed me to pull my player characters out of the fire at the end of the scenario when the dinos proved to be as deadly as I've suggested above.

Mapping the tube

Ultimately, all these solutions boil down to one thing: preparation.
Read the scenario (thoroughly - don't skim it!) and make notes where it seems to be lacking depth, or is forcing the players into one railroad path.
For every railroaded scene or encounter, you should consider (and note down) the possible fall out, what the NPCs are up to while the PCs are footling around somewhere else, why the NPCs are acting the way they are written, and so on.

Plans not plots
NPCs carry on with their plans regardless of the PCs.
Consider what those plans are, and how they progress while the PCs are busy. Don't just leave scenes primed and waiting for the PCs to find them.
(Of course, you can provide a set piece scene now and then - and it'll work better because it isn't the norm.)

Fallout and consequences
Rather than the story grinding to a halt, or all the PCs being killed when they stray from the prepared plot, it pays to have an idea of how the possible outcomes will feed into the NPCs' plans.
Who will lose out, and who will benefit? Think of a few ways in which the event can play out, and note down what the consequences are. This will make sure the players feel that their actions are really important in the game, rather than just steered toward your planned plot.

Realistic and limited NPCs
Knowing how your antagonists know what they know means that you can think about what they don't know, as well. You're not trying to defeat the players, just challenge them - and that needs to be a fair challenge.
Of course, in fantasy and some sci-fi settings, some NPCs might really be omniscient. But when you  decide to legitimately used omniscient antagonists, the players will be all the more worried and alarmed because this hasn't been the norm.
And even such omniscient NPCs should have some source to their knowledge - so you can consider whether it too can be thwarted.

When I first thought of writing this post, my first instinct was to bitch about how awful those scenarios were, but it's far more karmic and constructive to show how to turn those glitches on their heads.
Hopefully, then, I've provided a few ideas on how you might use an hour or so of thought and a few notes, to take a railroaded scenario and turn it into some thing more like a choice-filled tube map.


Running solo

Recently, I've been running in a small group - some friends wanted to come out training, so we teamed up to run together.
Running with relative novices, I found out some things I'd forgotten about my progress over the last few years, which was helpful. I also started to realise that I need to run on my own - at least some of the time.

In a group, the pace, distance and scheduling of the run are all dictated by the group. When runners have different abilities, some will be slowed down while other will - hopefully - improve with the encouragement of the group.
There are advantages to the group - increased motivation being the most obvious, and a regular schedule being another.

But I spent a couple of years running solo, practically every day, at my own pace. I never have to consider anyone else when I'm out on my own. I just run where I like, for as long as I like, as fast or slow as I like.

Today, the rest of the group decide to run at time that wasn't convenient for me. So off I went by myself - and it was great! I ran an old route I'd not used for months. It was really tiring, because I've been running shorter distances in general, and at a slower pace.

What am I taking away from today's run? I need to get back into big long runs again, and I need to regularly run on my own, at my own pace, with my own thoughts.
I'm not about to drop out of the group effort, but those weekend session need to include time for me to head for the hills and see the world.

That is why I run, after all.


Where I Go Wrong - short, one-off games

Here's my first post beginning a series of posts about mistakes I find myself making while GMing, and thoughts about how to fix those mistakes.

Last night, I ran a game for a couple of mates in which an incident while the heroes were out hunting was supposed to lead the story into another, more significant event that was happening nearby.
The hunting was coincidental to the real adventure, but it bogged down and dominated the game session, so much so that what I had planned to be a single three hour session of gaming has now ended with a cliff-hanger, with action to be concluded next session.

Here's how it went down:
A Duchess wants to butter up a Count so that he is amenable to negotiations, and claims that the best way to do this is to arrange for him to have a successful kill of a great beast - a sabre-toothed tiger - while hunting. The heroes are to steer the count to the beast, and aid in the kill - but not steal the kill, so that the Count feels awesome.
This hunting expedition is actually a set up so that the player characters are on hand to witness some other event that happens nearby. I'll not go into what that event is, because the players may be looking - and it doesn't really matter for this post, except as the true aim of the game session.

Beardy, a player of Sefu the warrior hero, was late arriving - he thought we were going to play at the local games club for some reason. (Mrs Alastair, player of Silwen the caster hero, was on hand, due to being Mrs Alastair.) The lateness isn't too significant, but I suspect it should have alerted me to the need to keep things short...

After a little preamble in which the patron Duchess explains her needs, Mrs Alastair gets stuck in with questions. These are all good, valid questions, but we further delay getting to the action as her concerns are addressed.
I go through some descriptions of the landscape and scenery, and arriving at the Chateau where the hunt is going to start - then make the time-consuming mistake of having the guard on the gate halt them. From my description of him - trying to inject a little humour by making him a sloppy Gallic reprobate, smoking a cheroot while supposedly on duty - Sefu the warrior hero wants to sort out the guard's uniform and tell him off (Sefu was a guard on an airship before graduating to heroism). Now we take a few more minutes to discuss whether it's possible for Sefu to straighten the guard's helmet without starting a fight. I say "No - he's got a pike: if you try to close with him while he's challenging you, he'll kick off." We agree that yes, the guard would be minced up pretty sharpish, but that wouldn't be a good way to start employment as beaters for the coming hunt.
Then I compound my mistake by role-playing discussions on the logistics of beating, gameskeeping and so on. Fun, but not what I'm trying to do with this session.

Of course, throughout this actual game play, we get distracted with the usual nattering off topic as well - so that by the time the hunting party has set off with our two heroes inserted as beaters, it's well past 9pm.
We engaged in somewhat curtailed role-playing within the hunting party, as I'm now increasing aware of the lagging time. I spring the tiger action on them after just a few minutes of banter.
The fight with the dire tiger was rather exciting, to be honest - mainly because of the extra requirement of having to make the Count believe he was the one who killed the beast, I think. Making the players think differently about the fight, seemed to add something.
The fight started with one of the NPC beaters being ambushed - and outright killed - by the tiger. The tiger then made off, dragging its prey over the heath. I played the tiger as instinctively as possible - she wasn't interested in the hunting party except as obstacles to avoid as she made off with her dinner... until they started to seriously injure her - then she fought back.
The players were pulling their blows a little to let the count make the significant hits - until Sefu was mauled by the tiger, and dropped. Then Mrs Vexed unleashed the big spells, and the Count really had to fight it unaided. A few more injuries, and the tiger fled for her life.

By this time - about 10:45 - the tiger was well cut and stabbed and burned - and the Count's arrow was the last hit before it bled out into unconsciousness.
With a little wrapping up of the session (healing Sefu, performing the coup de grace on the tiger, role-playing of the woe of losing a beater, calming down after the excitement), I produced a cliff-hanger for the next session: rising smoke in the distance, and the flash of swords in the sunlight.

What did I learn from this?
  • Move on quickly - we get sidetracked with funny scenes or colourful encounters, but the action needs to move on. 
    • Rather than debating whether the guard would attack Sefu, I could have just had him bluster comically, and then direct the heroes where they were meant to go.
    • Rather than dwelling on the set up of the hunt, I could have jump-cut to the heroes' hunting party travelling overland toward their goal.
  • Maybe start in media res - a logical extension of the jump-cut: we could have begun with the hunting party, and recapped the introduction. These players are quite happy with narrative leaps (I've used plenty of "Cut to the Death Star" type scenes to build tension, before), I could easily have used them.
  • Don't use challenging monsters as a warm up. The dire tiger was too tough, and took too long - especially as it was just a preliminary to the real point of the scenario.


Novice running

Just recently, I've run a few sessions with mates who are keen to start running for fitness - and despite their being keen, it seems I'd overestimated their abilities.

I'm trying to go easy with them, and remember what it was like when I started running, but it seems like the three years of nearly daily running I've done have made me into some sort of superhero in comparison with someone who doesn't run at all... and that's clearly not right.

So I thought I'd better think back harder to my first few runs, and what it was like for me then, and how long it took for me to get to the fitness I'm at now - and look at recommendations for novice runners.

What I quickly saw in writing this post was how far I've come, and how crap I was to start with. I hope I can also take away lesson about training novices constructively, too.

Starting out
It was the week of my 40th birthday when I went out running for the first time since school. My basic fitness was the residue left behind from having cycled to work each day about a dozen years prior to that (about 10 miles each week day), and that immediately prior to my running, I'd been walking daily, for half an hour, each lunch time at work.
I was trying to build up my ankle strength after spraining it badly at a party, and trying to build up my stamina - better stamina puts less stress on my lungs, and stress on my lungs is what triggers my asthma.

So I wasn't in good shape, but I had an underlying ability to run when I started out.

Nevertheless, my first attempt to run the same distances as my daily walk was dreadful. I managed it in 25 minutes - just a few minutes less than I would if I were walking briskly. I couldn't run the whole distance in one go. I didn't run it at all the following day, but I did go out and walked it again.

For the first few weeks, I didn't manage to run the whole 30 minutes. I was walking for sections each time - but those sections were gradually getting shorter, and my speed was increasing.

I was running 3 or 4 or 5 miles nearly every day, and getting quite confident and comfortable with it within about six months.

Longer distances
What I really wanted to do though, was run for a long distance. I started to increase my weekend runs with a friend who ran for very long distances (this is the guy whose fault it was I started running at all, really - his first ever marathon was day 1 of a multiday ultramarathon in the Sahara).

With some encouragement, and plenty of short daily runs by myself, I ran till I got happy with 10 km. I increased my weekend distances gradually. Then one day I found I'd done 10 miles (16 km), and I still felt relatively fresh - so I decided to try for a half marathon distances: 13.1 miles (21 km).

This was about a year after I'd started running, though. I've heard of people starting out with a basic level of fitness and training to run a marathon in six weeks - but I certainly didn't even try to do that.

Since then, I've trained to run longer and longer, and I've got a couple of marathons and one ultramarathon under my belt - but my idea of a fun distance is really the half marathon, or on a really good day, the 30 km.

Starting from scratch
For novices, Runners' World magazine recommend that you start with a 2 mile goal - aiming to be running for 30 minutes non-stop at a slow relaxed pace.

It also plans this goal to be the end of 8 weeks of training.

So, while I pulled my mate along straight out the gate of his house for three minutes of running, up a hill, at what I thought was a relaxed pace, Runners' World suggests we should have started out with 1 minute running, then 2 minutes walking, repeated for the whole session.
This probably accounts for why, after about 2 km - 10 minutes of a good long distance pace (for an established runner), he flaked out and had to slow to a walk.
He managed  a few more bouts of running - a minute or two for the rest of the 30 minutes - but we walked for most of the rest of the distance.
When I compare that with what the experts say is good for a novice - and how I was when I started - I'm impressed he managed as well as he did.

Essentially, the training plan for novices should be based on starting walking twice as much as you run, every other day - with a walk of the same length on the other days - and building up gradually to run / walk in even amounts, finally culminating in running continuously for a whole 30 minutes.

Which is rather like what I did, without knowing it was right - it was just what I found comfortable.

Better training
So good news for my novice running mates - I know what we should be doing now! Keep it up for a month, and we should be running most of the sessions, with just a couple of 1 minute walks.

Keep it up for 2 months, and I should find these youngsters outpacing me, and pulling me along. Everyone wins.


Fantasy Settlements - part 1: Resources

Players have a habit of treating settlements like vending machines for equipment, so let's indulge that tendency, and look at what you can get from a given size of settlement.

D&D 3rd edition gave us 8 categories of settlement: Thorp, Hamlet, Village, Small town, Large town, Small city, Large city and Metropolis. I'll use those terms, as they're as good as any.

Normal life experiences tell us that less goods and services available in a three family thorp than are available in a village of 100 families, and that even more choice will be available in the city of several thousand families.

How can we reflect this in game?

Simple cash limit
The simplest method is to apply a cash limit to each settlement category - and this is what D&D 3 did. It's a reasonable enough method, and easy to implement.
But in actual play, a straight use of these rules can lead to odd situations: a rural thorp might have several swords available to buy, but no horses - or a large port town might have magical armour for sale, but no sailing boats.

Categorised cash limits 
It seems obvious to me that we need to have differing cash limits for different goods and services.
The GM can of course make ad hoc rulings to deal with this - but I'd like to at least make some guidelines.

First, I'll establish some categories:
Trade goods
General gear
Adventuring gear
Special substances and items
General tools
Specialist tools
Mounts and related gear
Arms and armour
General services
Expert services
...and lastly - Magical
 These reflect the categories for equipment given in the D&D rules, with only a few tweaks. They're good categories, generally.
All I've done is add "Magical" and split a couple of the D&D categories: "adventuring gear" is split into "general" and "adventuring" - because despite their equal costs, I imagine that in a normal settlement grappling hooks would be less common than flint and steel, and a portable ram would be less common than a tent.
Similarly, I've split "tools" into "General" and "Specialist", because I think it'd be harder to find a disguise kit than a healer's kit, and "Services" into "General" and "Expert" for the same sort of reasons.

That's too big a list to manage all at once, though - so, I'll gather up those categories into the following groups:
Trade and Magical include Trade goods and Magical goods (obviously)
General includes General gear, General services and General tools (again, obviously),  as well as Clothing, Mounts, and Transport
Specialist includes Adventuring gear, Special substances and Specialist tools (continuing our obviousness motif), Arms and armour, and Expert services

So what to do with these groups? Assign weight to them!
Trade goods should by default, use the standard  (or base) cash limit
General goods should be at 125% of the base cash limit
Specialist goods should be at 75% of the base limit
Magical goods should be 50% of the base limit
(Round off to the nearest 5 coins)
So for a Thorp in the D&D 3rd edition rules, the cash limits would be:
Trade 50gp
General goods 65gp
Specialist goods 35gp
Magical goods 25gp
Which means that the thorp might be able to sell you 5 cows, some masterwork artisans' tools, a flask of holy water or a single 1st level spell scroll - but it doesn't have a disguise kit, a stock of potions, or anyone who can put weaponised spikes on your armour.

So this option seems to do the job I wanted.

But we should retain flexibility - rules shouldn't be a straighjacket - so these cash limits for a given settlement should also be freely be adjusted up and down as the GM sees fit.
Let's say that we can adjust the cash limit of any category in a given settlement by 1/4 of the base limit.
This lets the GM set the availability of specialist goods higher or lower, as appropriate for the setting.

Local goods for local people
Of course, that list doesn't give us a chance to deal with any local bias - our port town example would still hold if we don't split water transport out from land transport and the like.
I think the best way to deal with this is to add both a "local" and "other" descriptor to the following categories:
Services (General or Expert)
Trade goods 
The GM should also be entitled to add the local and other descriptors to any other category as appropriate.
Local goods should get a 25% boost to their cash limit - it's easier to find them in the local shops and markets.

All the work you want
Of course, the flat cash limit works fine if you're not thinking too hard about it.
If there's no need to fiddle with the cash limits for a given town or village, or if there's no time, then the base limit can apply to everything.