March 21, 2013

Valuing PC Discoveries

Beng Mealea temple, Cambodia

Hello again, gamerdom! This is the follow-up to my post on the value of knowledge as a treasure in FRPG campaigns. In my last post I tried to explore how knowledge could be made to feel valuable to a player. Now I’ll go into how that knowledge is earned, and how to recognize when it’s been earned.

Some possible criteria for gauging the XP value or money value of new knowledge could include:

Innovation: the knowledge must be of something new, at least to the people the PCs are reporting it back to. 

One idea you often don’t find in a published setting, written up in the usual encyclopedic style, is just how little the peoples of that world may know of each other. There should always be questions that a travelling adventurer can answer better than anyone else – for the right price. Questions such as:

  1. What lies beyond X?
  2. How do we get to X?
  3. What are the threats along the way?
  4. What are the threats in place X?
  5. Where do we eat/drink/sleep in place X?
  6. What can we bring home from place X?
  7. Who’s really in charge of X and how do we get on his/her/their good side?

If these questions sound like some of them were taken from a travel mag, you’re right, they are.

Hard-Earned: the PCs must have gone through enough trials and perils to make the knowledge feel hard-earned. Look at the lists of survivors from the great voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries: sometimes less than half the original crew came back.

Useful: the knowledge must be usable to the persons the PCs will report it to. Who would want to know about a new trade route? Who would want to know where to get a rare herb?

This brings us to the last criterion for deciding the value of knowledge: it must be used, either by reporting it to a specific person or group, or by the PCs directly taking another adventure into the same place. If the PCs decide to go again themselves, XPs and gold earned go to making them better-prepared for the next expedition.

If they reported it, then the value depends on how much the PCs were able to deliver, and to whom. The more powerful the people they pass their knowledge to, the better the rewards – specially if the report was made under exclusive terms.

If the PCs delivered good specifics – detailed maps, detailed journals, ship’s navigation logs (rutters), glossaries of a foreign language, samples of valuable goods, a willing and capable envoy from the newly-discovered lands, etc. etc. they should earn more gold/XP from it.

As you can see, these last suggest character actions that players can take, and maybe roll a few checks for as needed, to see how much they can bring back from their voyage of discovery.

Additional role-playing can come in during the reporting stage, as the PCs navigate the power structures of their home base and make sure they and only they benefit from their discoveries. (I highly recommend Allan Cole and Chris Bunch’s The Far Kingdoms to see how this could work).

To spice up a voyage-of-discovery type of adventure, you could even have the PCs be agents in secret for different factions, each with their own agenda. Or perhaps have someone join the voyage with an agenda very different from the PC’s, but his/her presence is vital for some reason. Hawkwood’s Voyage, by Paul Kearney, is a good example of this: a voyage to find and settle a half-forgotten continent across the ocean gets hijacked by a ruthlessly ambitious noble.

Next up on this series: Disasters and Discovery!

March 13, 2013

The Value of PC Knowledge

IMG_7966I love the idea of including epic journeys and voyages of discovery in my games, a la Sinbad or the great achievements of Age of Sail captains like Columbus or Zheng He, the same way I love travelling and making personal discoveries myself. 

I guess it’s part of growing up on the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies and the seaside life of Puerto Galera as a boy. But how to make a voyage-of-discovery adventure more than just a string of fights with sea monsters and pirates?

I’m thinking one way of enriching the game for the players is to put a proper value on the one thing a traveller is sure to come home with, whether he gets any gold or not – knowledge.

How to value knowledge? How to determine how much knowledge the PCs are bringing back? I’d say the very first and one of the most valuable is simply the knowledge of how to get somewhere and back again. Charting routes, specially marking points of peril, can bring in major rewards – particularly if the PCs belong to or serve a mercantile power. One very obvious way to do this is to make producing a map part of the PCs’ mission.

If your players like to fight, make some of those perils combat-oriented. Clearing a valuable new trade route of pirates or other hostiles should  bring the PCs both material rewards and good relations with factions who can use those new routes. More scholarly PCs can busy themselves with astronomical, geographical and cultural observations. Befriending locals to learn their customs and language is also very valuable.

But what if I run out of ideas for discoveries to make, you might ask. Pssst, this is the time to cheat – you’re totally surrounded by creative people when you’re at the game table. Let the players contribute! You could tell any player at any point in the journey, ‘Your character has made a discovery. What was it?’ Then throw in a complication related to the discovery if desired.

Some of my ideas on knowledge different character types can bring home include:

For Warriors
Observations on the weapons, tactics, organization and possible weaknesses of hostiles encountered on the route. Take this as encouragement to add diversity to your military cultures.

Frex, “The tribes of the G’bo people fight riding huge water buffaloes. Their charge is much slower than horse cavalry, but much harder to stop because of the buffalo’s strength and ferocity. On the other hand, the G’bo do make very loyal mercenaries if one is honorable to them, so I recommend making peace with the G’bo. Then we can have them guarding our caravans through the southern savanna instead of raiding them. Just don’t mention my name when you deal with them, though. There’s a chief out there whose daughter … ” (Wink wink to Charles Saunders – read the Dossouye stories!)

For Rangers
Observations on wildlife and flora of interest or danger en route, and means of dealing with them. Rangers and druids could both contribute to knowledge of medicinal plants.

Frex, “The Durga berry looks very much like our common wild blackberry, and grows in similar locations. However, it is very poisonous until it starts to rot, upon which it becomes safe to eat, with a flavor and kick like old wine and a dream-inducing effect like some of our mushrooms. Hungry travellers may be tempted to pick and eat these berries, thinking them the same as the ones back home. Beware!”

For Rogues
Rogues – or dedicated merchant-adventurer classes, if you use them in your game – can contribute discoveries on items of commercial value. This may be a new trade item or resource, or a local condition that can be exploited for gain.

Frex, “The Ersanese ruby mines sometimes yield a rare purplish-red ruby which they prize above all other gems. The lords and ladies back home will certainly go wild over jewelry set with these exotic stones found nowhere else in our known world.”

Or, “The King here is an indolent wastrel who would rather spend all his time in his seraglio. The next trade mission should instead seek private audience with the Queen, through the Chief Royal Eunuch – after paying their respects to His Majesty, of course. They should take care, though, not to cross the King’s younger brother the Prince Vulpeas …”

For Wizards
Wizards may discover not only new spells and schools of magic, but also alternative ways of casting a known spell. Perhaps in this distant land different components are used for casting, say, Fireball. Or, they may find out (the hard way) that certain schools and types of magic are seriously taboo.

Frex, “The chief god worshipped here is Devrath, the god of fire and the sun. So sacred is fire to these folk that any form of magically manipulating fire is deemed a sacrilege, punishable by being placed Under the Crystal.  The Crystal whereof I speak is a gigantic piece of quartz, or perhaps glass, mounted at the peak of Devrath’s ziggurat. At high noon, anything placed under the Crystal will be kindled ablaze by the sun’s rays concentrated and focused by it.”

For Clerics
Let your cleric be more than a walking first-aid kit by playing up to the religious aspect of the class. Clerics can contribute observations on local religions and religious practices, and since premodern cultures are so bound together with religion, your cleric cannot help but study culture as well. Once again, taboos to be avoided can make a good, useful discovery.

Frex, “The people here believe that the gods all depart to attend the Celestial Emperor during the entirety of the tenth month, thus leaving the world below unprotected. Every household and public building keeps candles and incense lighted all through the night for the whole month to keep demons and ghosts away, for these are said to rise out of the earth and make trouble while the gods are away. Blowing out a candle or incense, specially in another’s house, is regarded as extremely bad manners, as it signifies a hostile intent or wish for the people in the house – you are opening the way for the evil spirits to enter.”

March 9, 2013

Quick Rice Pilaf with Orange

It’s been a while since I  posted a Fire n’ Forget recipe, but tonight I made one of wifey’s favorites and she suggested I share it. I was planning to serve my beef kababs with pita bread, but to my bemusement I found pizza crusts, not pita bread, in my freezer. Yoicks! What’s a quick and easy Plan B that will go with the kababs? I decided on a rice pilaf. We also happened to have some oranges in the ref, so I decided to use them.

Here’s a recipe to feed 4-5 persons:


  • 3 cups uncooked rice
  • 1 cup fresh orange juice
  • 5 cups water
  • zest from oranges, about 1-2 tbsp
  • 3 beef bouillon cubes
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • pinch cumin powder
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1-2 tsp butter

My method for cooking pilaf quickly is to use a rice cooker and microwave.  First, dissolve the bouillon cubes in a cup or two of water by warming it gently in the microwave – I use the Medium setting. Don’t make the water boil, it will spill over.

Then wash the rice in the rice cooker’s pot, then drain. Add the bouillon stock, remaining water, orange juice and spices. Add butter.  Place in rice cooker and let it cook. Easy!

March 6, 2013

Reminiscing: Master of Hawks


Anyone else remember this? My sister gifted me a copy of this way back in the 70’s, and I read it to death. Other reviews of it I found online were mixed, but I still remember Linda Bushyager’s Master of Hawks with the same fascination I had as a kid. Perhaps because, like so many of my books, I had to abandon it some time ago due to mildew.

In brief, the book follows the adventures of Hawk, a bird telepath, as he undertakes various missions for his lord during a feudal war. Hawk is an orphan with a unique talent for making telepathic contact with, and commanding, birds of all kinds, but works most with raptors. This was one of the cool ideas I liked in the book: telepaths imprint on the first kind of creature they make contact with, so that ever after they’re pretty limited to telepathy with that creature.

Hawk is sent on a secret mission to contact and make allies of the Sylvan, a reclusive arboreal race that have the mental ability to shape trees and wood. The Sylvan tree-shapers have a decisive role in the climactic battle. As this book came out in the mid or late 70’s, I’m wondering if it predated the introduction of the druid class or had an a influence on it.

Another D&D-ish trope explored here was the coexistence of purely mental powers such as telepathy with magic.  They seem to blur into each other, though, and it seems ability in one can lead to aptitude for the other. At the end of the novel Hawk acquires a powerful spellstone from a rival sorcerer-bird telepath, learning of his true heritage and his hidden potential at the same time.

March 4, 2013

Across the Sea …

In boats held together by string.


Yesterday my wife and I had the pleasure of covering a regatta of the indigenously-designed bigiw on Samal Island. The bigiw is a small, kayak-like boat that is pointed and covered over at both ends, almost like a javelin, an original design by the Sama tribesmen who gave Samal Island their name – and it’s held together by string.


We got to watch the competitors, local fishermen all, arrive at the launch site at dawn with some of their boats still disassembled. I’d never appreciated before just how handy these fishermen are at being boatwrights, lashing their outriggers and rigging together at the very last minute, with the elders giving advice and instructions as needed. The ancient traditions of boatbuilding are definitely alive on Samal Island. However, they were using nylon string – I imagine in pre-industrial times they would’ve been using abaca or coconut coir.


I felt really lucky to be able to do some research and observations for Hari Ragat while doing my ‘day job.’  Main takeways for the RPG are validation for the idea of having the Orang Malaya caste role cover such a wide range of working skills: these racers are fishermen, using a wide range of techniques from netting and trapping to spearfishing underwater, while at the same time they’re small-scale cultivators on land and very capable of erecting their own houses and building their own boats.  And decorating them, too.


Not all the boats were painted with the traditional bold geometric designs, but the Sama taste for vibrant colors was very evident in all of them. 

The race itself brought home to me the physical toughness and sailing skill of these fishermen. Since the bigiw have no centerboards, the racers had to keep paddling to correct their courses as well as for extra speed.  They did this for the entire course. By the midpoint of the race, the wind had picked up and the skies were threatening rain. Conditions had changed so fast that the light simply went from beautifully sunny to flat gray between one shot and the next. The wind had gotten so strong that one entry had a spar broken, finishing the race with part of his sail flopping like a broken wing. Nevertheless, everyone finished safely.

Witnessing the race also raised a new question. The rigging of the bigiw roughly resembles the ‘crab-claw’ sail design of the Polynesians, with the sails held up in a Y-shape.

Was there a relation? Were  the Sama fishermen still using the same sail design from before the Polynesian and Malay peoples split ways? Now I want to research the Malay-Polynesian connection more.

March 1, 2013

Hari Ragat: Hunting Yields

Art (C) Ernie Chan

I need a gauge for how many people a hunter can feed with a given catch. has these estimates on the meat yield of a typical steer that provide a good answer.  Main takeaway from that page is that you get about 50-60% of a meat animal’s live weight in edible meat, and that’s including the organ meats.

Now, assuming that we’re talking about a survival hunting scenario, where the prey will provide 100% of the food the survivors will eat, and that a healthy adult living a vigorous lifestyle will need about 2-3 lb of cooked food per day:

A 180-lb wild boar, typical weight for wild boar in the tropics (max weight is about 300 lb), will yield 75 lb of edible flesh. Divided by 3lb per person, this will feed about 30 people for a day.

A deer (island sambar) weighing about 120 lb will yield enough meat for about 20 people for a day.

An adult water buffalo weighing about 1,800 lb will yield 900 lb of meat, enough meat for 300 people!

So, to feed the crew of a typical karakoa, about 100+ men, you’ll need to catch at least 3 typical-sized boar, or 5 deer, but if you can bag a water buffalo you’ll have enough food for three days. Guess which is the most dangerous …

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