Friday, December 2, 2022

Abstract Movement

Traveller is a very old roleplaying game, first appearing in the summer of 1977. As one might expect, the influence of Dungeons & Dragons – and the miniatures wargames out of which it grew – is evident. At the same time, Traveller is not merely "OD&D in space." Its design is not simply distinct from that of OD&D, but genuinely original and indeed innovative. I frequently marvel at how much better put together Traveller is than OD&D, despite only a three-year gap between their publication dates. Clearly, Marc Miller had learned a lot from his predecessors in the hobby.

One area of innovation that stands out in my mind is how Traveller handles combat movement. The game makes use of a lined grid of "bands," each one representing relative distance. Characters can walk between one band and another per combat round or run between two during the same time period. While the rules suggest that those interested in greater detail could make use of a square or hex map to track precise positions, the combat rules are presented with abstract range bands in mind. In play, I never had any trouble with range bands. In fact, I found they worked very well, especially in circumstances where we weren't making use of counters or miniatures on a map, which was most of the time. 

I started thinking about this as I continued work on the Secrets of sha-Arthan rules. At base, this will be a very D&D-like game and that's intentional. The setting is sufficiently strange that I don't want any potential players to get hung up on its rules. Plus, the rules of D&D work well and I see little point in reinventing the wheel. However – there's always a "however" – I have long found the movement rules of every edition unnecessarily fiddly. They're among the first rules that fall by the wayside when I am refereeing, especially if I'm playing online.

Consequently, I'm pondering the introduction of something akin to Traveller's range bands, albeit modified to take into account the peculiarities of dungeoncrawling, something with which Traveller rarely has to contend. Nevertheless, I hesitate. Such is the weight of hoary tradition, I suppose. Somehow, the idea of a D&D-like game that lacks detailed and specific movement rules feels wrong, as I know all too well that I'll almost certainly never use them as written.

I'd be very curious to hear others' thoughts on this, specifically those who have experience with using abstract movement systems in play. I feel increasingly strongly that the Secrets of sha-Arthan rules should better reflect the way I prefer to referee games, hence my consideration of a different approach to movement. Yet, I recognize that not everyone has the same playstyle I do and thus would prefer a system that is flexible enough to accommodate multiple styles. In any case, I'd like to hear your thoughts. If nothing else, they'll provide me with additional inputs as I ponder the matter for myself.

Thanks in advance.

REVIEW: Mörk Borg GM Screen

As I have mentioned before, I haven't made regular use of a referee's screen in many, many years. In my youth, it was more or less expected that the referee would have and use a screen, behind which he'd keep his maps – and dice rolls – hidden from the prying eyes of the players. Consequently, I used to own screens for RPGs I played regularly, assuming they had them, of course, as Gamma World did. Back then, I simply saw screens as part of the referee's "kit" and that was that.

At some point, my feelings on the matter changed. There was no single reason why they did, but an important one was the unwieldiness of most referee's screens. To use them effectively, one generally has to have a large, flat surface, usually a table, available for use. This wasn't always practical during my university and grad school days and so I largely abandoned my prior attachment to referee's screens. In recent years, I've been refereeing online a great deal; the idea of setting up a screen for these games seems positively laughable.

Despite all that, I not only own but think rather highly of the Mörk Borg GM Screen. Simply as a physical artifact, it's quite impressive. Consisting of five A5 panels, it's made of very sturdy material; there's no question in mind that it's far more durable than almost every other screen I've ever examined. Because of its size, it's also compact, meaning that, even unfolded, it takes up far less space on the table than the screens I was familiar with from my youth. That's important to me, given my eventual feelings about the practicality of using screens. 

The screen's player-facing side features moody illustrations in black, white, red, and gold by Johan Nohr, who also provided the artwork for the Mörk Borg rulebook. To be honest, I think many of these illustrations are even better than those in the rulebook, being somewhat more subdued in both content and presentation. I think they do a good job of demonstrating that a more restrained, even sober, version of Mörk Borg's doom metal fantasy is not only possible but completely in keeping with its spirit. Of course, the interior, GM-facing side of the screen is the usual riotous yellow, with black text and white highlights, that is Mörk Borg's visual calling card. Much as I appreciate the more muted artwork of the player side of the screen, I would have been slightly disappointed if my eyes weren't assaulted by garish color contrasts as well. 

Because Mörk Borg's rules are few, the interior of the screen is able to include most of them for reference. The game was already simple enough that the GM could more or less run a game session without the need to flip through the rulebook, but the screen makes it that much easier. Not only are there the usual charts for combat, equipment, and magic, there are also the statistics of common NPCs and multiple random tables covering everything from the weather to city events to traps. Some of these tables are printed on sheets of cardstock that can be swapped in or out of the screen, thanks to plastic holders at the corners of the first and last panels of the screen. The GM could use them to hold other appropriately sized sheets – like maps – further increasing the utility of the screen.

No referee screen is a must have and the Mörk Borg GM Screen is no different in this regard. At the same time, this one is durable, attractive, and practical, making it one of the best examples of its kind I've ever owned. If you're refereeing the game regularly, I think you'll quickly find there's genuine benefit to having it,

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Sir Pellinore's Advice to Referees

Here's what Sir Pellinore's Book has to say about how to referee, reproduced without any changes. I think it does a good job of showing the overall flavor of the book. 

To start the game you must at least make a town for the adventurers to start in. You can add the world outside the town, kingdoms, orc tribes, wandering monsters, elves, magic places, shrines, treasures, monsters, thieves and all kinds of other adventures for the other players to find. 

In your world don't make it impossible to survive. Since you must tell the other players what's happening and what effects their actions have you are their eyes and ears. Give them all the information you can.

Don't be too generous or it takes the fun of the struggle out of the game.

Don't be too stingy or no one will want to play.

Let the players do what they want unless it is impossible. After all, it's their neck.

Try to be realistic. Read up on the middle ages so you'll get a good idea of how things went then.

Don't make your world too civilized. If there's no monsters around to fight the players will take to robbery to make life interesting.

When you create your area, start by making a map of the area with graphpaper at a scale of 5–10 miles to a square. Then make maps of a larger scale of areas that should be more detailed, like castiles towns etc. Fill in all the smaller details with your imagination when a player comes to them.

Any rules for anything that is not here feel free to make them up. But, remember, because there are no winners or losers don't feel you have to destroy the other players. Everyone can be a winner! So be just and fair!

The Dangers of Libraries

One of the things I've always loved about Call of Cthulhu is that an Investigator's most potent weapon in the battle against the forces of the Mythos is often his Library Use skill. Of course, libraries aren't without their own dangers, as anyone who's ever stumbled across a copy of Das Buch von den unaussprechlichen Kulten while perusing the stacks of the Bibliotheca Albertina can tell you.

And then there's the ever-present danger of the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua, as this advertisement from White Dwarf #59 helpfully reminds us ....

Sir Pellinore's Book

A few weeks ago, a regular correspondent of mine, who often sends me pointers toward forgotten bits of RPG history, alerted me to the existence of Sir Pellinore's Book of Rules for a Game of Magical Mideval [sic] Adventures, a 1978 amateur publication by Michael Brines of Prescott, Arizona. 

As you can probably tell just by looking at the cover to the left, I'm not kidding when I call this an "amateur publication." Sir Pellinore's Book is the raw, unpolished work of a fan, replete with misspellings, grammatical errors, occasionally unclear text, and little illustrations (presumably by Brines). It's also a charming window on the early days of the hobby and, for that reason alone, of great interest to me and anyone else who has an interest in such matters.

Consisting of twenty typewritten pages, Sir Pellinore's Book is quite clearly a variant of Original Dungeons & Dragons, though even a cursory examination of it reveals that it is quite variant in places. For instance, there are ostensibly three classes of characters, just as in OD&D. These classes are wizards, fighting men, and "others," the latter consisting of "priests, merchants, etc." Likewise, Wisdom is replaced with Luck, which is used to calculate most of a character's saving throws (25 – Luck score + level = target on "two dice," presumably 2d6, though it's never specified). At the referee's discretion, other ability scores might be substituted for Luck, such as Dexterity for falls and Constitution for resisting poison. 

Nearly every rule in OD&D is given some alteration or tweak, from combat to experience points to spells. The result is something that feels at once familiar and strange. It's difficult to tell whether Brines was inspired by other early RPGs – his use of Luck reminds me of Tunnels & Trolls and his percentile-based combat reminds me of RuneQuest, to cite two examples – or whether his ideas simply ran parallel to those of other games at the time. The early days of the hobby were one of reckless enthusiasm and cross-pollination, so this may not be an either/or situation. In any case, the end result is something that feels genuinely distinctive and reflects the sensibilities and tastes of its creator, something of which I've always been quite supportive.

I had intended to write a post about Sir Pellinore's Book when I was first told about it, but it slipped my mind, as too many things seem to do these days. Fortunately, another correspondent informed me that Precis Intermedia has made it available in electronic form both through its own site and through DriveThruRPG. There are apparently plans to make it available in print as well, in case that's your preference. If you're at all interested in the roots of the hobby, it's well worth a look. Plus, it has a spell called "Banana Peel;" you can't go wrong with that. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Retrospective: Alien Module 4: Zhodani

A good villain is hard to find.

In the Third Imperium setting of GDW's Traveller, that vital role is played by the Zhodani, humans transplanted to another world by the mysterious Ancients some 300,000 years before the founding of the Imperium. On their new homeworld of Zhdant (or Zhodane, as the Imperium calls it), the Zhodani developed a unique culture and society, one characterized first and foremost by its open embrace of psionics, a practice the Imperium and its subjects consider morally, not to mention politically, abhorrent. Needless to say, this profound difference has fostered mutual suspicion and animosity between the two peoples and has led to five Frontier Wars

Alien Module 4: The Zhodani aims to lift the lid on Zhodani society, providing the reader with a clearer and indeed more sympathetic portrayal of "the Psionic Masters" than had previous Traveller materials. By the time of its publication in 1985, the Zhodani were already a well-established facet of the Third Imperium setting, having first been mentioned in The Spinward Marches in 1978 as practitioners of "the Psionic Heresy." Until the early 1980s, when an article about them appeared in the pages of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, the Zhodani were little more than mustache-twirling space opera villains of a somewhat Orientalist cast – the Sassanid Persians to the Imperium's late Romans. 

With the arrival of further information on the Zhodani came a more nuanced portrayal. Alien Module 4 is the culmination of that process and it's a generally excellent bit of science fictional speculation. Like previous Alien Modules, this one starts with information on the physical characteristics of the Zhodani homeworld and its solar system. Much more detail is given to the history of the Zhodani, including how they first discovered psionic abilities and the impact it had on their society. In short, the Zhodani learned that some humans are naturally gifted in these abilities and from them arose a noble caste. Those who are not naturally gifted in psionics but who, with training, could become so form the intendant caste. Those who lack psionic abilities form the prole caste. The interstellar state they eventually formed, the Zhodani Consulate, is a democracy with a franchise limited to psionically gifted nobles, making it an interesting mirror image to the feudal aristocracy of its rival, the Third Imperium.

Where Alien Module 4 really shines is in its treatment of Zhodani society and the impact that psionics has had on it. Compared to Imperial humans, the Zhodani is much more peaceable and conformist, in part due to the regular use of telepathy and other abilities to detect "deviant" thoughts and behavior before they become a problem. This is where the infamous – to Imperials anyway – Thought Police have a role. The Zhodani view the Tavrchedl' (or "Guardians of Our Morality") not as policemen but as firemen, whose job is to deal with depression, frustration, and disillusionment among the populace. That the Zhodani have developed advanced means, both medicinal and psionic, to deal with these conditions only makes the Thought Police even more effective.

All the Alien Modules strive to give their subjects their due, presenting them and their societies and cultures from their own perspective. This is very much in evidence in this one's treatment of the Zhodani. Though building on information presented in early '80s Traveller material, Alien Module 4 goes a very long way toward presenting the Zhodani not as stock villains but as solid antagonists with their own plausible point of view, given their starting premises. It does such a good job at this that, when I first read the module, I was somewhat taken aback. I'd spent several years seeing the Zhodani in one way – the Imperial perspective – that I never considered the possibility that there might be another legitimate portrayal of them.

Sympathetic though it may be, Alien Module 4 nevertheless paints a picture of a profoundly alien society, all the more so, I think, because it's peopled by human beings that are physiologically little different from us. The ubiquity of psionics and its effect on Zhodani society cannot be understated. The Zhodani, for example, have little concept of privacy and tend to view Imperial humans as inherently dishonest simply because they will not submit to routine telepathic scans. From their perspective, only someone with something to hide would be worried about such a thing. Likewise, their caste society, based on one's natural mental powers, runs counter to the reader's likely preference for some kind of social egalitarianism (even if the Imperium itself falls short of that ideal as well).

Alien Module 4: Zhodani is thus an excellent supplement for use with Traveller, one that not only provides insight into the Imperium's main enemies but also gives players and referees alike the ability to create and play Zhodani characters. I'm not sure how many people have ever attempted, let alone succeeded, at a Zhodani-focused Traveller campaign, but I doubt it would be very many. Still, the benefit of being able to understand better these antagonists is immense and the Third Imperium setting is richer and more believable because of it. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Navy War Bonds

Another fun example of White Dwarf's postal humor, this time with a Traveller theme.

The Light of Kulvu

Kulvu is a word in the ancient Onha language with many meanings: balance, harmony, law, nature, order, and reason. Some three centuries before the commencement of the First Cycle, the sage Urkuten used the word to describe the underlying principle of reality. Urkuten taught that happiness consists in understanding and conforming oneself to that reality, which is rationally organized and thus evidence of the Divine. Urkuten sometimes used “the gods” as a synonym for the Divine but he is otherwise silent on the matter of what, if any, deities exist. It is precisely for this reason that his doctrines, called in later ages the Light of Kulvu, achieved such wide acceptance, as they were metaphysically flexible and, therefore, compatible with many pre-existing religious practices.

The Light of Kulvu spread across sha-Arthan along with the empire that would bear its name. Over the course of the empire’s 1229 years of existence, schools dedicated to Urkuten’s teachings were founded on every continent but Alakun-Tenu (where the god, da-Ten, brooks no rivals, even non-dogmatic ones), establishing itself as one of the most widespread and enduring belief systems of the last ten cycles. Though rarely the dominant faith of any land at present, the Light of Kulvu nevertheless exercises great influence over the societies and cultures of many, including several in the Hashaya Peninsula, most importantly the Empire of Inba Iro.

The Mirror of Virtue

Sometime during the administration of the Archon Herekshumal (1:100–120), the text known today as Chunik Choredri ("The Mirror of Truth") first appeared. A product of the Ruketsa philosophical school of Kulvu, the book is a distillation of and commentary on Urkuten’s teachings. Chief among those teachings are eight axioms, collectively known as Unquestionable Precepts. The Precepts are:

  • Reality is ordered.
  • Order is evidence of reason.
  • Only the Divine possesses reason potent enough to order reality.
  • Being a product of the Divine, this order is inescapable.
  • Virtue consists in understanding order and conforming one’s actions to it.
  • Wisdom distinguishes between those actions that are in conformity with order, namely, courage, knowledge, restraint, and justice; and those that are opposed to it, namely, fear, ignorance, lawlessness, and license.
  • Therefore, avoid all that is irrational and disordered.
  • Accept that illness, pain, and death are no less ordered than health, pleasure, and life.  

Thanks to the fervent efforts of generations of sages, the Unquestionable Precepts have achieved wide dissemination, forming the basis of dozens of schools of the Light of Kulvu (the Bejandrai and Kamarjantil schools being notable exceptions), as well as at least one entirely distinct religion (Viruktiyel). Despite their differences, all share the belief that happiness can be achieved by acceptance of the Divine order and one’s place within it, including the duty to understand not only reality itself but one’s fellow creatures, so as to treat them fairly and justly. If there were a single creed one could call central to the diverse peoples of sha-Arthan, the Light of Kulvu probably comes closest to it. 

White Dwarf: Issue #59

Issue #59 of White Dwarf (November 1984), with its cover by Peter Andrew Jones, is another issue I remember well, since it was published during the run of years when I had a subscription to the magazine. In his editorial, Ian Livingstone notes that the "Fiend Factory" feature, which began all the way back in issue #6 and many of whose entries formed the basis for TSR's Fiend Folio, would now be presenting new monsters for more RPGs than just Dungeons & Dragons. Small though this change is, it is nevertheless an important turning point in the history of White Dwarf and reflects, I think, the rise to prominence of other games on the UK scene. 

The issue begins with "The Mad Gods' Omelette," a parodic fantasy short story by Dave Langford. It's actually quite funny in the way it skewers the increasing self-seriousness of the contemporary works in the genre, particularly those that took their cues from Moorcock. One of my favorite bits in the story is a comment by the protagonist Erryj, possessor of "the black, runecarved artificial leg Slugbane," upon hearing that "the Dark Gods walk the earth once more."

"The Dark Gods?" Erryj gave Dylan Worm a searching glance. "Aye, I have heard tell of such. Speak you of the Elder Gods? ... The Younger Gods? The Dead Gods? The Agnostic Gods?" With each utterance, a greater stillness filled the room.
As I said, it's quite funny and much more enjoyable than Langford's "Critical Mass" column this or any other month. Mind you, this month's installment of the book review column holds some interest in that Langford looks at William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, which he likes a great deal, though he criticizes its "frenetic" pace. I suppose it wouldn't be a proper "Critical Mass" column if Langford didn't find fault in nearly everything he reviews.

"Open Box" takes a look at three different adventures for Call of Cthulhu: The Curse of the Chthonians (9 out of 10) from Chaosium, Glozel est Authentique! (5 out of 10) from TOME, and The Horrible Secret of Moneghan Island (7 out of 10) from Grenadier. These reviews are all fair, based on my own experience. Also reviewed are the Gamemaster Pack and For Your Information for James Bond 007, which earn 4 out of 10 and 3 out of 10 respectively. This continues the trend of giving rather negative reviews to James Bond 007 RPG products, something I find inexplicable, given my own fondness for the game. On the other hand, neither of the reviewed products are exceptional in any way, so perhaps they are fairer than it might seem on first glance. Finally, there's a review of Chaosium's Ringworld, which receives a mediocre 6 out of 10, even though the reviewer praises both the background information and the rules set – odd!

"The Ninja" by Chris Elliott and Richard Matthews is yet another stab at a ninja character class for AD&D. Though there are a few new wrinkles – such as non-magical "spells" – the class is just another Japanese-flavored assassin variant with too many abilities. The class is intended to be used in conjunction with "Hour of the Tiger," an AD&D scenario also included in this issue. The adventure involves the infiltration of an imperial palace and demands stealth and cunning, not to mention reconnaissance, to succeed. It's well done and probably challenging, particularly to players for whom brute force is standard operating procedure.

Marcus Rowland's "A Matter of Faith" presents four religious cults for use with a variety of modern-day RPGs, such as Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes; Top Secret, James Bond 007, Superworld, Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Golden Heroes, and Villains & Vigilantes. The cults range from The Temple of Excellence, Inc., which teaches that transcendence is possible through the acquisition of skills, to Technodeology, which believes that God does not yet exist and must be created as a computer. Rowland fleshes out each cult briefly and provides notes for customizing it for the RPG in which it's used. Very good stuff!

"Two Decks are Better than One" is a Car Wars article by Steve Jackson about the inclusion of double-decker buses into the game. "Eye of Newt and Tongue of Bat" by Graeme Davis is the first part of a series of articles intended to provide a system for the manufacture of magic items in AD&D. This installment focuses on staves, wands, and scrolls. I've long liked the idea of a system like this in principle, because I think that the process of creating new magic items should be both involved and interesting. However, most such systems offer only tedium without much else and, sadly, this system isn't much different.

"On the Road" by Anna Price is an outline for a RuneQuest scenario in which the characters accompany a caravan across the Plains of Prax. Though skeletonic, it provides enough detail, including several random tables, to make the overall situation compelling. "A Brush with the Lore" by Gary Chalk and Joe Dever tackles the matter of choosing an appropriate brush and paints for miniatures. "Core" introduces the Consular Office of Reconnaissance and Exploration, a Zhodani organization intended to be used as antagonists in an ongoing Traveller campaign. Like many such things, it's fine for what it is, but not especially memorable. 

"Gladiators in RuneQuest" by Matthew Pook briefly discusses the matter of blood sports in the game, while "Pit Fighting" by James Waterfield contextualizes somewhat the practice within the setting of Glorantha. "The Great Hunt" by Simon Iff describes the Reavers, powerful minions of the demon prince Orcus who do his bidding on the Prime Material Plane. This article includes lots of background material about the Reavers and their origins, as well as their activities. Though very high-powered, I immediately saw uses for these creatures in certain campaigns. "Ars Arcana" by Kiel Stephens continues to look at unusual uses for D&D spells and does so quite engagingly. Any article that can teach me a few new tricks for a game I've been playing for decades earns a gold star.

This is a very good issue, filled with lots of variety, in addition to old favorites like "Thrud the Barbarian," "Gobbledigook," and "The Travellers." To my mind, this is peak White Dwarf and is what I think of when I think of the magazine in its heyday. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Lich

Here's an interesting piece of artwork from the 1985 book, The Art of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Game. Does anyone know the artist? It doesn't look like one of the usual TSR heavy hitters from that era.

Addendum: I am apparently blind, since the artist's name – John Totleben – is on the piece itself. Perhaps I should get new eyeglasses!