Waterboarding the Party

Anyone who has spent any amount of time underground, perhaps in caverns or mines, one of the most common features is water. Over the years I have noted that very few GMs actually feature this or use it to make their adventures more challenging. Here are some ideas for using water in your underground games.

  1. Where did that come from?
    Two common sources of suddenly appearing water are tides and rainfall.
    Tides are very useful in coastal areas, especially sea caves, twice per day low-lying areas of a set of caverns or a dungeon could fill with water. These could trap the party in certain areas or even threaten them if the area they are in is below sea level.
    Note that this water may not just come through the passages that connect to the sea, but also bubble up through fissures in the ground.
    A tide may also give egress to sea creatures that might threaten the party, like sharks, eels, giant crabs and merpeople.
    Rainfall has long been the enemy of cavers and we often hear tales of daring rescues being carried out to rescue those trapped underground. In this case the water tends to flow down through fissures in the rock from above. For example, what may have been a rock-cut stair when the party entered, is now a waterfall.
    A third source is ground water and natural aquifers. In most mines pumps are deployed to prevent water seeping through very walls of the mine. If the pumps are not working then water shall once more find its own level, submerging entire mines.
  2. The nature of Water itself
    Water is dense and, once it reaches your knees, it will seriously hamper movement, halving walking speeds and preventing running altogether.
    Water is cold, especially underwater. It will sap the strength of even the hardiest character quite quickly, inducing fatigue and causing hypothermia.
    Water is dark. Even with magical light it is hard to see clearly. Floodwater may be full of soil and debris, limiting vision even further. That obvious pit trap just became deadlier than before, especially to characters carrying a lot of weight or in heavy armour.
    Water is slippery. The nature of stone and rock changes when wet, often becoming very slippery reducing characters ability to climb or even walk on it.
    Water flows. Water is always seeking a way to reach its natural level, and once it starts moving it can be very powerful. It can push along debris and even characters, making walking into or across the flow difficult. If you are not careful you can be swept away.
  3. Something touched my leg…
    A classic fear is being in waist deep dark water and something touches your leg. This could be any aquatic creature or monster, which is pretty awful, because the first thing they often do is try to drag you down under the water and into their domain. Tentacle are great fun, but my favourite is giant crabs.
    Another possibility, if you really don’t like your players is the undead. Zombies, wights etc., don’t need to breathe, so make great aquatic horrors. Remember that scene from the first Pirates of the Caribbean film? “Take a walk boys…”
    Imagine an underground lake with a pirate ship a ground in the centre, with open chests of treasure visible in the deck. Where are the crew?

I once had a Gelatinous Cube filling a corridor. The party attacked and despatched it with relative ease, not realising that it was acting as a plug and behind it were hundreds of thousands of litres of water. When it died it burst and collapsed… the word you are looking for is ‘flushed’.

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I’ve been thinking about the D&D Initiative system.
First consider that in 5e a round is supposed to be about six seconds long.
Each active PC and opponent may each have up to one second to complete their actions. The more actors the less time they will each have to act as each initiative point is sequential and they all have to fit into about six seconds.
Say your character has a full second, then in that time they can move twenty to thirty feet, and either make an attack, cast a spell, or use an item or skill. In the right circumstances they shall also be able to react on someone else’s initiative point as well, or carry out a bonus action.
Anyone else geting a Jackie Chan fight running through their head, but at double speed?
Then there is the restriction that your character must act at the same point of the round, every round, unless they hold an action and drop down the initiative order.
I reckon that by now you know where I am going with this. Even given that this is heroic fantasy this is both illogical and ridiculous.
Now, this nonsense is not new. It has been around in D&D since time immemorial and, although this abstraction has served us well enough, it really is no longer fit for purpose.

So how do we sequence an action turn?
I think the first thing we must do is recognise that the six second rule is an unnecessary restriction and abandon it forthwith.
Then we can look at other games which have developed alternate systems. Now I am not going to bring in dozens of examples, but just look at one. The idea being that you can go and find others yourself.
The one I’d like to present is Zombicide. Yeah, it’s a board game, but it is a cooperative skirmish combat board game, which is pretty much what D&D combat is supposed to be.
In Zombicide the heroes decide as team what each will do, then they do it. Once they are finished the monsters get to go. No initiative rolls or unrealistic time boundaries. I must admit that I’ve never been a fan of ‘I Go You Go’ wargames but, as I said before, this is Heroic Fantasy so, unless the monsters have the drop on the characters, why not? Once the sequence begins to roll, there are no rounds as such.
And before you say that spell durations is an issue, you can solve that by just counting the number of the Heroes’ action turns since it was cast.

A system I have been toying with for a while is to use a pack of playing cards.
Deal one card out to each player, and one for each opponent or small group of opponents. No-one is allowed to see anyone else’s cards.
The turn begins with the DM revealing his highest card. Then players with higher ranked cards can choose to act before that card, or hold onto their cards.
If more than one player chooses to act then they do so in card rank order
Any player whose character has acted then places their card in the discard pile, and we move to the DM’s next highest card and repeat the process.
If, after the last DM’s card is revealed, there are still players holding cards, then they should act now and in card rank order. A player may always choose not to act and simply discard their card.
Thus the DM and players will have used all their cards, the turn ends, the DM shuffles the discard pile into the deck, and it all starts again.
A possible complication to this card system is to give each player two cards, one for each of their usual Standard and/or Move Actions. Their opponents still only get one card and must perform both their actions on the same initiative point, because they are not the heroes.
This may seem complex but I am sure that after a couple of turns everyone will get it.
The advantage of such as system that although there is still a random element the players do have a measure of control of when they drop into the sequence.
Note: I prefer having Aces High, and if there are two cards of identical face value then the card with the higher ranked suit goes first. From highest rank to lowest this is: Spades, Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds.

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What I want from a roleplaying game

What I want from a roleplaying game is the following:

  1. A core system that is quick to learn, and easy to manage.
  2. A core system that does not get in the way of roleplaying.
  3. Enough character creation choices that make each character unique, but does not fall into the trap that is enabling min-maxing.
  4. An interesting and challenging setting.
  5. A tool set for GMs that makes it easy to turn ideas into engaging scenarios and campaigns.
  6. Not having to buy more than one book.

So, as an example let’s compare D&D 5e against my wish list?

  1. D&D has never been easy to learn and although 5e is technically simpler than 3.5, it can be a ball ache to get new players through their first few sessions. After twenty years of 3.5 and three of 5e, I still regularly stumble over rules.
  2. To a certain extent this depends on the DM’s style, but with a rule for nearly every situation, it does not help. Players end up ruleplaying through challenges rather than roleplaying.
  3. 5e is a min-maxers paradise, and is following the lead of 3.5 in the sheer number of supplementary volumes being produced. The speed of these releases means that the Wizards design team cannot have had the time to playtest each against existing material, and this shows.
  4. D&D has settings, lots of them, and the problem with this is without constant vigilance by the GM there will be rules and content bleed between them, and opportunistic players happy to exploit it.
  5. Yes, the GM has tools, but the temptation in as complex an offering as this is to rely on published settings and modules and let someone else do all the work. A major problem being that as fast as you write your own stuff, new releases can make it technically obsolete.
  6. Hmm… one book eh? I cannot see Hasbro or Wizards liking that idea. Their bottom lines depend on a customer base addicted to the shiny. They want you to buy book after book, subscribe for more content, and buy the figures ranges and the merch.

Unfortunately it is a game I have to play as most of my friends are into it. I also have a group that steadfastly continues with the wreck that is D&D 3.5. Oh woe is me, but at least I am playing twice a week.

Right then, let’s go to the other end of the spectrum and look at the oddball, boutique fantasy RPG Mork Borg.

  1. It took me five minutes to learn and a session not to have to use the reference sheet.
  2. With so many situations deliberately not covered by the rules you absolutely have to roleplay.
  3. Nope. Half a dozen initial choices, with some random tables added on for interest. The uniqueness of your character comes from how you choose to play them… oh the delicious horror.
  4. Again, nope. This world is going to end soon and you are fighting over the scraps. Literally earning enough from each adventure to get drunk, stoned and bedded, until you run out of cash and start again. Brilliant premise.
  5. Some random tables and few adventure hooks. It is up to you to bring some semblance of order to the chaos.
  6. There is one slender A5 paperback book, and a few extras online.

My friend Dave is running this at the moment and it is an absolute hoot.  The sort of game where a TPK is seen as a fine evening’s entertainment.

Now, I am the first to admit that I could be an outlier in the roleplaying community. A person who believes that less is more, which is why I have been writing my own rules for over thirty years in a quest to meet my own criteria. I’m still working on that, but I am getting closer.

I have also been DM’ing for the best part of forty ears with every system I could lay my hands upon, including every edition of D&D since its inception, except for 4th (I read the 4e PHB, then gave it away to someone I didn’t like).

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Dying by degrees

In pretty much every roleplaying game there is a mechanic for representing being physically damaged.
Many use the classic Hit Points system, where a character stays fully capable until that final hit puts them down and they begin to die. Even though I have played D&D since the seventies, that still irritates me.

A Healer by Carla Ortiz

In my Lamplight RPG I created a system that as the character is damaged their abilities degrade also. Some have questioned this, and the speed with which Lamplight characters can recover, so here is my rationale.

In this game we recognise that any significant wound could effectively incapacitate a person. Watching countless HEMA fights and modern medieval tournaments, the combatants often take multiple nasty hits yet keep on fighting. You can actually see when a hit has really hurt though, and some fighters yield immediately knowing that mercy is automatic in HEMA. However, a few muster the will to continue, though they are obviously no longer fully capable.

So, in Lamplight, when we say the character takes a ‘wound’ we mean a condition that reduces the character’s capability to continue effectively. This includes temporary effects like impact shock, winding, limb dislocation, sudden significant pain, and becoming dazed or disorientated. A few minutes of simple rest could allow the heroes to recover fully, but they don’t have the time as they are still in danger, so they soldier on, even if less capably.
In this game the first time that a hero is wounded, this inflicts a -1 penalty on all subsequent task rolls.
A second wound, while still suffering the effects of a first, is more serious and the effects more pronounced. This inflicts a -3 penalty on all subsequent task rolls.
A third wound is potentially deadly, and incapacitates the hero entirely. Leaving them vulnerable to being killed by any further damage they may suffer.

Considering this approach, we must address the matter of the rapid recovery offered by the Healing Touch of an Apothecary, or the various chemical remedies.
Apothecaries in Lamplight do not use magic to heal wounds. It is, after all, a low magic setting. Instead they are highly trained in muscular and skeletal manipulation and first aid. They counter the injuries by invoking production of the body’s own magic drug – adrenaline, relocating limbs, relieving pressure on muscles and organs, staunching blood loss, and hitting critical nerve clusters to stimulate recovery.
Although it is called a Healing ‘Touch’, it is not as gentle as one might suppose. Watching an Apothecary work is brutal, with loud cracks and pops as bones are relocated, hard grunts as their hands penetrate joints and muscles, and cries of pain from the patient because all of this bloody well hurts. An alternative term for an Apothecary could be a ‘Combat Chiropractor’. Patients of this ‘gentle’ art will carry the bruises and aches for days.
So, onto the chemicals…
Wound Salves sting like all hell. When they are applied the herbs and chemical components stop blood loss, acid cauterise the wound, numb the pain, and deliver an amphetamine-like punch. They often leave a nasty scar.
Of all the sources of healing, Aqua Vitae is the nearest to actual magic. A concoction of divine elements like orichalcum and the regenerative capability of Troll Bile surge through the body like fire. Pretty much every recipient emits an agonizing scream or significant bout of swearing loudly after they drink it.
Both of these remedies are deliberately expensive, and become a measure of last resort.

A note on Incapacitation. Lamplight is fairly cinematic in style, as I feel that leads to more heroic play.
So what is more cinematic than a cry from the back of the cave, as the goblin chieftain places a serrated dagger to the throat of one of your incapacitated comrades. “Put down your weapons!” it screams “or the dirty Halfling gets it!”.
Capture and escape form a part of so many heroic narratives. It also allows you to capture enemies, take out sentries without murdering them, knock out opponents in a bar fight, and so on.

The low magic nature of Lamplight means that death is a very real consequence. The practitioners of the only way back from death, the Ebon Ritual, are so rare that it makes it very unlikely indeed. Healing may be rapid, but once you cross that threshold it is game over.
I did this quite deliberately because without a clear sense of their character’s mortality, where does real heroism come from?

Having a relatively short track to failure and death, the significant degradation of capability as damage takes effect, yet the possibility of rapid healing, I have found changes the way players look at combat.
Most seem to see it as something to avoid if possible, or only to deliberately take on if the they have done all they can to move their odds in their favour.
Players become more tactical, and are aware that they must protect their Apothecary (if they have one) and anyone who becomes incapacitated.

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Other cuisines in Codai

Following on my last article, here are some examples of other regional or national cuisines that can be found on the city of Codai and a few other places across the province.


The elves of Vimalla have a particular cuisine that is very popular in Codai. It is a searingly hot and heavily spiced concoction which features leaves, fungi, nuts, insects and vegetables, and is served on fried delta rice. Meat or fish is never used in this cuisine.

Elves, and afficionados of this cuisine, use edible leaves to scoop up the food and eat it. Also when travelling, the food is carried in leaf wraps.

Elves drink nothing but water, but an astonishing variety of waters that are valued by their source, clarity, mineral content etc. An Elven Aquifer, the equivalent of a sommelier, should be able tell you the source, year and season of any water presented to them

Vimallan vegetable dish with red delta rice


From a tradition handed down through generations, the Halflinga are brewers and picklers.

Much of their food is transformed through these processes so it can be stored for lean times. They do eat fresh food, but not without adding some pickles, vinegary condiments and lots of salt.

They are also the only bakers in Codai, other than the Necorain, who add yeast to their bread dough. The yeast is a by-product of their brewing and fermenting processes. Many Codaini have come to like this risen bread and eat it on special occasions. It is much fluffier than Necorain bread, and more brioche in style.

Halflinga pickles

Halfinga brew a range of beers and ales to suit the needs of their customers, and make use of local materials. They use Ground Soral spice in their bitters.

They also, and often illegally, make Scheen. A clear and very strong spirit that will take the varnish off a door. They make this from waste fruit and vegetables so every batch is pretty much unique. It has been known to make drinkers blind, deaf, incontinent or unable to bear children. Also, the sweat of regular drinkers has been known to become inflammable. Oddly Halflinga never seem to suffer these unfortunate side-effects, possibly because they have three stomachs.


The Codaini Gnomes are voracious meat eaters, and the makers and purveyors of fine sausages. Recipes for sausages are handed down through generations, and competition is fierce to produce the best each year.

They are the primary growers of onions, leeks and garlic in the Province. Every gnomish windowsill and yard has containers with these plants in.  It would not be a Gnomish sausage without one of these as a primary ingredient, alongside the pork or goat meat and offal.

There is a dark joke that if you want to get rid of a body, sell it to a gnome, and it will become twice its weight in sausages within a week.

A range of Gnomish sausages

Gnomes like dark, heavy breads, which they slice thinly and use with sausage and cheeses.

To drink, the Gnomes have become expert in producing soft fruit cordials/extracts and berry wines. Their citrus cordials are much welcomed by sailors and caravanners, who take them on their long journeys to ward off scurvy.


Flame-cooked meat with heavy sauces or glazes are at the core of the Montani diet. They regard Vimallan and Necorain cuisine as efféte, but they do love Gnomish sausages and, more recently, Halfinga pickles.

Lamb and goat are their favourite meats, though they will eat pretty much anything that walks or flies.

Many Montani are goat herders, and are famed for their hard cheeses. These are popular across the province and provide a steady income for them.

Mhor Cheeses

Seasonal ocean Salmon is a delicacy to them. They eat it raw with a ‘secret’ combination of mountain herbs. When the Salmon return to the rivers, many Montani families leave their Mhors (villages) to camp along the riverbanks and fish.

Their drink of choice is cider, made from the small, hard and sour, upland apples.


In Necor it is all about the bread. The sheer variety of breads available in Necorain cuisine is mind-blowing. There are breads that are common across the Empire and then hundreds of regional, town and even village variations of these. All bread is leavened.

A Vimallan stuffed trencher

The standard bread is the hard crusted Trencher, which is sliced in half and used to serve the meat or fish on one side and vegetable, fruits and fungi on the other. By tradition, the meat and fish must not touch the vegetables.

Fish is served in salted, creamy sauces and meat in oily, often sweet, dressings.

Necorainis don’t like pepper or other ‘hot’ spices.

Everything is cut into bite-sized chunks before being placed on the trencher.

They use two-tine forks to pick the meat and vegetables from the bread. Once this is done they roll and eat the trencher which is soaked in the sauces or dressings applied to the food.

Necorain cuisine is also about the wine. Only the poorest drink water. Wine is drunk with all meals. Mostly it is quite weak, usually about 3%, with stronger wines reserved for evening meals and banquets. Children generally drink citrus fruit juices and milk until they reach puberty, then it is onto the wine.

The Necorain invented and have nurturedwine snobbery.


Fungus, crustacea and fish are the staples that have guided dwarven cuisine through the ages. If it cannot be found underground then the food is considered ‘nesh’, i.e. generally inedible. That said dwarves will eat local foods when above ground because they refuse to bring their native foods ‘under the sun’.

The variety of fungus, crustacea, and fish that can be found in the underground is a lot wider than many might think and the dwarves are experts in preparing it. Most food is boiled, often in geothermal pools or over volcanic vents, so it has a distinctly salty or sulphurous flavour.

There is a lot of ritual in dwarven cooking, much of it originally designed to rid the food of toxins, then handed down until it become almost religious in nature. Many dwarves no longer understand the original purpose but follow the traditional rituals because “It is custom”.

The only place you can get dwarven cuisine in Codai is in the feasting hall beneath the Temple of Urgu. Non-dwarves are only allowed in on Market days.

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Codai – The Importance of Soral

In my RPG campaign world of Kham-ra, specifically the province of Codai, there are many things that I have gone into some detail with. I consider this level of detail to be important, as it lays the foundations under the characters’ feet.

In a world of magic and fantasy there needs to be some consistency, customs and ways of doing things to create a certain level of immersion for the players. So here is an example: the staple crop of the Codaini people – the Soral bean.

Golden Soral

  • The Golden Soral bean is one of the two staple crops of Codai alongside Delta Red Rice.
  • It is believed that it was a gift from the god Trafan to the founder Coda.
  • Golden Soral beans are the size and general texture and flavour of butter beans.
  • The beans are cream coloured though their pods are bright yellow. This yellow can be extracted, fixed and turned into a lemon-coloured dye.
  • The stems can be used to make rope and fine cloth known as Weave.
  • Weave is very similar to linen and is a significant export item to the rest of the Empire.
  • The importance of the bean to the province led to the creation of the Bean Exchange, the premier trading floor in the city.

Ground Soral

  • There is a sub-type of Soral that is half the size of its cousin and its beans are very hard. They are dried and ground to produce a bitter spice. As a result the plant is called Ground Soral.
  • Many native Codaini use the powdered Ground Soral bean to produce an aromatic drink called Saf. Along the streets, courts and markets of Codai, traders called Safis sell Saf from barrels on their backs. They often sweeten the Saf with soral honey.
  • Ground Soral beans are also used to make beer bitter, and Codaini believe it makes better beer than Imperial Hops.
  • The stamens of the Ground Soral can be picked, dried and ground. They are used by apothecaries to produce a lotion that reduces inflammation and pain.


  • Bees that live on Golden Soral and Ground Soral blooms produce a honey that can prevent wound blight.
  • There are thousands of bee hives along the edges of the soral fields.
  • They also produce a fine, sweet mead from Golden Soral and a dry mead from the Ground Soral.


In a Codaini home the Soral pot is never taken from by the fire, and never cleaned (on the inside). A pot may well last generations and is always full of a bubbling Soral stew. Whatever meat and vegetables are seasonably available are added to the pot to make meals.

Workers leave the house with a two part clay pot containing their lunch. In the bottom is today’s Soral stew, and in the top is unleavened bread to eat it with.

The only differences between the Soral stew served in noble and commoner households is the quality of the ingredients and who tends the pot. In ordinary Codaini households the honour of keeping the pot ‘alive’ goes to a elder member of the family which might equally be a grandfather of grandmother. In noble households they have servants for that.

A common wedding gift is a brand new Soral pot, with a first stew already in it.

Travellers who have been without stew because of their travels are invited in the share their host’s stew. It is tradition that they clear their first bowl without speaking.


As you can see from just one plant we have seven different uses, all of which are vital for daily life in the province.

So, how can we use this in our games?

  1. Imagine that a vengeful druid and his circle decide to try and punish the Codaini for some ancient insult, by blighting their crops, and the Governor needs a party to stop them.
  2. Soral Linen is quite valuable once woven, and merchants always need people to escort the caravans.
  3. Speculators are trying to make a killing in the Bean Market by attacking the Bean stores of their rivals. The Head of the Bean market may need adventurers to deal with the arsonists and track down who is paying them.
  4. A necromancer is mixing gave dust with powdered Ground Soral and selling it at a discount to Saf sellers. Some people are getting sick and even dying. Their corpses will then rise from the grave and serve their master…
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My first published work

Back in the day, my friends and I were keen readers of the early White Dwarf magazine (issues 01-820). We even contributed adventures and creatures to it.
Well this morning I came across a forum where a fine chap known only as’Garnfellow’ had taken the time list all the D&D scenarios and creatures in those magazines.

If you look below you will see a number of contributions from my good friends Mark Byng (now a board game designer and Simon Miller (author of the To the Strongest! wargames series) and myself:

WD 24 (April/May 1981), “The Lair of Maldred the Mighty”: Morghiss (Mark Byng), Doombat (Mark Byng), Guardian Skeleton (Mark Byng).
WD 28 (Dec 1981/Jan 1982), “Fiend Factory: Out of the Woods”: Whispering Tongue (Simon Miller), Driver Ant (Albie Fiore), Birch Spirit (C. N. Cartmell), Chameliad (R. D. Bowes), Black Unicorn (Alan Howcroft/Anthony Howcroft).
WD 46 (Oct 1983), “Fiend Factory: Death in Green – Mini-Scenario for medium high level party of 4-8 adventurers”: Ivyix (Dale Hueber), Crimson Carpet (Mark Byng), Acrophid (John Gordon), Puffball Plant, The (Mark Byng), Vily (Dale Bartlett), Dame Verte (Ed Dovey).

You can see the full list here: https://www.enworld.org/threads/white-dwarf-magazine-monster-index.45210/

We were hopeful that some of them would be picked for the first UK D&D supplement The Fiend Folio, but we were not that lucky.

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Agriculture and Fantasy Roleplaying

There are many aspects of fantasy world building that I have explored over the last forty years.

One of the ones I see done badly time and again in books, films, and games, is Agriculture.

That does not sound very heroic you might think, but if you don’t get the foundations right, then it makes it harder for players to become immersed in your world.

I frequently see or read about magnificent cities, described down to the last detail, but when you look at the maps, as soon as you ride out of their gates there is nothing, just a road, until you reach the next town or village.

A city of ten, twenty or fifty thousand inhabitants needs a huge amount of food, timber, fuel, and other organic materials to thrive.

In the modern world, with intensive agricultural practices, it takes roughly half an acre to feed one adult for one year. In medieval times we are talking about one and a half to two acres. Allow for a little magic or good land, and we could reasonably say one acre will produce enough vegetables, fruit and meat like chickens, rabbits, or swine, to feed one adult for one year.

So, your city of ten thousand needs at least ten thousand acres of good arable land under a mixed farming system, which is roughly sixteen square miles. However, many fantasy cities are not built in places that are as productive and medieval England or France. You may have to double this for cities in colder or hotter climes.

You also need other meat animals such as lamb, beef and game which take a lot more land, so add another sixteen square miles.

Farm animals also produce leather, wool, bone, horn, eggs, and dairy products, all of which are very important to the medieval economy.

Something we have not yet looked at is the importance of wine and beer to a medieval city. These days we drink these for pleasure. Back then weak wine, mead and beer were often produced to create a source of clean liquids to drink. Well and river water was often not ‘fresh’ and could be full of parasites. Fermentation removed most of these.

Grain and vines take up a lot of land, so let’s say another ten square miles for a constant supply. Mead comes from honey, but every farmer will have hives.

So, we are up to about forty-two square miles under agriculture to supply a city of ten thousand, but we have forgotten somebody… Oh yes, the agricultural workers themselves.

Farming in medieval times was incredibly labour intensive, indeed over two thirds of the population worked the land. Thus, our city of ten thousand is going to need another twenty-thousand people supplying it. This has just trebled the land requirement to about one hundred and twenty square miles. All of which must be within one or two day’s travel to the city to deliver fresh produce.

If all the land around a city can be devoted to farming (i.e., pesky geography does not get in the way), we are talking a radius of about seven miles around our city of ten thousand souls must be worked.

Allowing for a little geography this city is probably surrounded by farms out to at least ten miles from its gates.


This is needed for building, tools, transport, crafts, and fuel, so let’s say five square miles per year. This includes cut timber and coppicing. On a thirty-year growth cycle, we are talking woods to the sum of one hundred and fifty square miles.

Timber though, does not go off, so it can be hauled in from further afield.

Everything I have described above is based on a small city just producing food and drink for itself. What if it wants to export products to other regions? We are talking about crafted items as well as converted materials such as leather, wool, and timber.

Ever wondered why medieval cities are often thirty to forty miles apart? This is your answer.

So how does this affect roleplaying games?

  1. The wealthier the city, the more likely there is going to be gold to hire adventurers.
  2. Threats to a city’s agricultural base are more important to its rulers than almost anything else. Famine is a constant worry and can lead to violent regime change. So, monsters that are preying on farmers is a real concern.
  3. It defines what the adventurers will see as they approach a city, and much of the activity they will witness within it.
  4. Wars are fought for access to such resources.
  5. Cities and towns are founded and survive in a landscape developed to support them. That fabled city of fifty thousand souls, high in the mountains, better have some pretty impressive magic to support it, or an incredibly well-developed trading system.
  6. Transport. In medieval times most roads were a seasonal thing. Hauling heavy wagons across muddy tracks in winter is a nightmare. Most successful medieval cities were founded on navigable rivers. This allowed for good local transport as well as an import/export route.
  7. Granaries. Without some system of mass food storage, no city will last the winter. So, these exist and are as well guarded as the Baron’s treasury


The main difference between dark ages and medieval cultures was commerce. Now, there had always been trade right back into prehistory. This was mostly in small amounts of materials and goods that you could load onto mules or boats. So, we are talking valuable or rare items.

During the early empires in the middle east, and around the Mediterranean, there was the development of commerce and an entire commercial class – the merchants. People who produced nothing of value themselves but who were able to buy, move and sell across a wide common area.

In the Middle Ages this really came of age. For example, in London you could buy Chinese silk, Indian spices and gems, Damascene steel, Venetian glass, furs from the high Arctic and Russia, French and Italian wine, African gems and hardwoods, Arabian spices, and amber from the Baltic. Venetian merchants travelled the Silk Road, Portuguese and English sailors were exploring the coasts of Africa and India.

Italian and Jewish bankers were funding all this activity and providing the credit that made the civilised world turn. The fate of Princes often depended not on silver coin, but the credit they could get from the likes of the Medici’s.

So, when you are building your fantasy world, consider where the trade routes and hubs are. Who is producing what and how far is it going? Even mundane products could be the lifeblood of a country’s economy. For example, in the 13th century, England’s wealth depended mostly on its wool exports. The money it raised paid for two hundred years of war between the English and French crowns, and a few crusades besides.


I have no problem with heroic fantasy that glosses over much of this, and in a game, it is just background. However, it doesn’t take much work to flesh this out and help you build your setting.

As hinted above it can also be used to build adventures around. For example:

  1. It is the deep mid-winter, and something is slaying the Granary guards and making off with sacks of grain. The Baron/Mercantile Council/Temple of Pelor hire the party to find out what is happening, who is responsible and deal with them before the population begins to panic.
  2. The Druids who usually come down from their grove in the spring to bless the planting are late. What has happened to them? Messengers sent to find out have not returned.
  3. A band of brigands/bugbears/whatever is preying on the caravans that take the Town’s main export to the coast.
  4. A magical blight is attacking the vineyards. Who is causing this and why?

These sorts of adventures improve the characters’ reputation in their campaigning area. They become heroes to the people and considered useful allies to the rich and powerful. Far more so than just dragging another dead troll into the marketplace, or tomb-robbing.

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As those of you who follow my Dead Simple Facebook page* are aware, I have been working on a 2d10 based RPG called ARES. This is a hard science fiction game in the the T-Gov Setting.
It is the 23rd century. Every corner of the Solar System is being terraformed and settled. Mars and the Asteroid Belt are independent of Earth. The Terran Government (T-Gov) rules Earth and its colonies around Jupiter and Saturn. It is the only authority that can match the power of the Corporations.
ARES squads are created and covertly funded by T-Gov to carry out exploration, reconnaissance, espionage, sabotage, subversion, extraction, and assassination missions.
They are plausibly deniable contractors who can be cast aside or eliminated if it becomes politically necessary to do so. Precarious work for people on the ragged bloody edge.
The setting is based on a mash-up of The Expanse, Blade Runner, Alien and many more darf SF shows.
I have begun playtesting the rules now with my local group and I shall report their progress here and on my FB page. To whet your appetite below in the intro to the first campaign.

Room 101

You are all sitting in the reception area of a small downtown Attorney’s office in the eastern arm of Greater Phoenix, not far from the President Trump III Spaceport. The office has a temporary sign on the door saying, ‘Burke & Hare – Attorneys-at-Law’.
The receptionist is an older model Android that looks about to short out and go on a murderous rampage and has an attitude to match. She greeted each of you with a tinny “You here for the job hun? Then sit and wait.”
Each of you had received a digimail inviting you for an interview for the same ‘job’ as an ‘off-world courier’ and were promised a 200¥ signing bonus. [¥ is the symbol I use for T-creds]
You each have your own reasons for being here, not least of which is the opportunity to get off Earth, but none of you seem ready to share them with a dangerous bunch of psychos in a prefab office.
After a couple of hours during which one applicant was sent away for being “…too damned late…” and another, a well-armed street ronin called ‘Derrick’, stomped out saying that “he had better shit to do”.
Eventually, a light flashes in front of the receptionist and she tells you to go through. One of you asks if you must check your weapons and she says “No, you may need them”.
The inner office is quite large with a couple of desks, a meeting table, retro-plastiwood panelling, antique LCD lighting, a worn carpet, a smell like burnt hair and no windows. Most of you notice that there is no electronic equipment in the office at all, not even a wall socket and one or two of you realise you just stepped into a jamming field.
At the head of the meeting table stands a slim, middle-aged man, in a suit that has seen better days, but well coiffured hair. He seems unarmed.
“Hi folks, I am Carter Burke, please take a seat” he says motioning to the table.
“Thanks for waiting, I was held up interviewing the second batch of applicants. None of them was suitable, but I have a much better feeling about you.” He smiles his best used grav-car salesman’s smile then sits down and waits for you to do the same.
He lifts a battered purple naugahyde briefcase onto the table, opens it, and takes out actual paper printouts held in a series of folders. He glances in each folder and then smiles at one of you as if checking he has the right people.
“Yes, I have a much better feeling about you” he says.
“OK, let’s drop the veil, I am not offering an off-world courier job, that was my little hook to reel you in. We’ve had our eyes on each of you for a while and feel we can offer you something more suited to your skills and nature. If this worries you, then you can leave now and collect your 200¥ from Freda in reception. Any takers? No? Good”.
He then passes each of you a folder with your name, handwritten, on the front. Inside are records of nearly every deed and misdeed you have been involved in since you left elementary school. Many of the details are redacted but the accuracy of what is there is pretty good.
Burke sits back in his chair and lets you read the folders, lighting and inhaling a nustick while you do so.
“Now, don’t be angry folks, this is just us doing our due diligence. We like to know who we are working with.
He takes a pen out of his jacket pocket and clicks the top. The folders immediately turn to dust, causing one or two of you to have coughing fits.
“As you might have worked out I am not an Attorney… I am Major Burke of T-Gov intelligence and we would like to offer you the chance to qualify as an ARES team”. As he says this the colour of his suit changes to T-Gov green and his rank insignia appear on his cuffs.
To you ARES is a myth, a name conjured by T-Gov propaganda to frighten Martian children and traitors. ARES is believed to stand for Armed Recovery, Espionage and Sabotage teams are shadows
“If any of you want to back out now, then I will require a short term mindwipe, and if you’re thinking of trying to bolt out past Frida, I feel it only fair to warn you that she is a Mark VI Kick-Murder Android. One of the Tyrrell corporation’s best. So… we cool?”.
He looks around and appears satisfied with your verbal or non-verbal responses.
“You are now thinking ‘what is in it for me?” he says. Some of you lean forward or nod.
“Well, we gave up on appealing to people’s patriotism decades ago. Life is just too complex and messy these days for such concepts. Instead, we have embraced the corporate model and now rely on enlightened self-interest.”
“Simply put, if do well in a couple of short ‘qualifying’ missions, we shall clear you records completely and give you your own ship, free and clear. After that we will ask you to take on a few missions a year for us – for which you shall be paid, but whatever else you do is your own business.”
One of you lifts your hand and asks what happens if you fail these ‘qualifying’ missions. Burke laughs, lights up a another nustick and replies.
“Well, you’ll probably be dead, so we shall send your remains to your next of kin”.
He then passes around a simple contract to each of you and asks that instead of signing you simply spit on an absorbent square at the bottom.
Frida comes in at that point, with a trolley of refreshments, collects in the forms, hands each of you a certified Credstick with 200¥ on it, and gives you all a chilling smile before leaving.
“She really needs to have that smile adjusted” says Burke shaking his head. He then puts a small cube on the table which brings up a holodisplay of a building….
“First mission, the bloody Russians…”

“Three months ago, a former ARES team split up, and sold their ship to an unknown criminal syndicate. Last week we managed to catch up with the ARES team pilot and, under a little persuasion, managed to find out to whom he sold the vessel, Little Vladimir, a low-level New York mobster.
“It seems Little Vladimir has ambitions to become a smuggler, but his men have been struggling to break our encryption on the navigation control systems. Their clumsy attempts have allowed us to track the vessel to an abandoned warehouse close to the Princess Ivanka Trump spaceport in New Jersey.
“Your first mission as a team is to recover your ship, deliver it to Tranquillity City on the Moon and, if possible, bring us Little Vladimir too.
“Frida shall issue you with the appropriate landing permits.”

*Dead Simple on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1411598512466256

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For all our Italian players!

Yes, you are reading that right. Our friend Luigi has completed a translation of the rules and supplements, and put them altogether into an 80 page, A5, PDF booklet!!

You can find it at the very bottom of the Rules Downloads page, so feel free to download it and pass it onto your friends.

If anyone would like to translate these free rules into any other languages contact me here or through the Dead Simple Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1411598512466256

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