Wednesday, July 2, 2008

REVIEW: Eldritch Weirdness, Book One

Welcome to Eldritch Weirdness, the first booklet of Options and Resources for the Swords & Wizardry game, containing 30 optional spells to inspire your imagination. All these spells are described in the S&W format, so they’re less detailed and more open-ended than you’ll find in most fantasy role-playing games. One spell, “Infuse,” is so open-ended it’s got no discernable game purpose at all, unless you add something somewhere. Like everything else in Swords & Wizardry, you’ve got the basics: now go and imagine the hell out of it.
So begins Matt Finch's Eldritch Weirdness, Book One, the first supplement to his OD&D retro-clone Swords & Wizardry. That opening paragraph sets the tone, not just for the five pages of arcane spells that follow, but also for the whole of the S&W project. "Imagine the hell out of it" is a brilliant summation of this minimalist retro-clone that both respects the roots of the hobby and points the way toward the future.

How does S&W do this? For one, the entirety of its text is Open Game Content, meaning that anyone, including publishers, can use as little or as much of its text as they wish in their own products without the need for a special license or permissions. S&W also has its own "compatibility-statement license," which allows you to indicate that your games or products are compatible with S&W. Secondly, its text is a very close approximation of OD&D and some of its supplementary materials, including a fair degree of "elbow room" when it comes to adjudicating many game mechanics. There are differences, of course, some of which, such as the Hit Dice conventions -- I favor D6 for all classes and for monsters -- bring the game a fair bit closer to AD&D than I would like, but they are easily fixed. Indeed, the real genius of S&W is that its core rules are intended to be easily edited and then printed out, so each referee can make the game his own. Likewise, the rules are light enough that they can expanded in numerous directions without having to worry about the entire mechanical edifice crashing down on you.

But this post is a review of Eldritch Weirdness, not Swords & Wizardy. The 8-page PDF consists of a cover, five pages of text describing 30 arcane spells, and two pages devoted to the Open Game License. The entire package sells for $1.50. Let me state at the outset that I love the cover page. The very title itself recalls Supplement III to OD&D, Eldritch Wizardry, and font chosen for it (which it shares with the S&W logo) is a legible blackletter script that sets the perfect tone. The cover also features a black and white illustration by the author that depicts a robed and cueball-headed wizard conjuring with the aid of a crystal ball. It's a very nice image that recalls the best old school art, while not being imitative of any of it. The style and content is original yet evocative. I'd like to see more art done in this fashion.

The meat of the book itself is 30 optional arcane (i.e. magic-user) spells, from ball of ice to word of IOUN. As you would expect from magic spells of the old school, their effects are often quirky and sometimes even without immediately obvious use. The spell infuse mentioned in the quote above "infuses liquids (usually prepared ones) with magical propensities and potentials. It does not, in and of itself, create potions." What does that mean? I can think of several answers, but Eldritch Weirdness canonizes none of them, instead leaving it to the referee to decide for his own campaign. Another spell, called Omar's mistake, causes the caster to demonstrate numerous strange and unusual traits and qualities at once, some beneficial -- members of the opposite sex have a 1% chance to be affected as if by a charm spell -- and some not -- the caster may feel compelled to steal shiny objects. Why would anyone cast this spell? That's for each magic-user to decide should he learn it. And so on.

Eldritch Weirdness
was thus aptly named; it's filled with lots of odd, slightly off-kilter magic that makes you scratch your head a wonder, "Why?" It's the perfect antidote for the overly mechanized, honed to a fine sheen approach we've seen in more recent edition of D&D, where randomness, judgment calls, and whimsy are frowned upon. I simply could not help being inspired by this book, which is remarkable both because it's so short and because, after nearly 30 years of gaming, I thought I'd seen it all. It's rare when you come across a work of imagination that makes you sit up and take notice. Eldritch Weirdness does just that and I heartily recommend it for anyone who wants to see a new product that shows what old school is all about.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

22 comments:

  1. ""infuses liquids (usually prepared ones) with magical propensities and potentials. It does not, in and of itself, create potions."

    I'm sorry, but this is just dumb. I'm hardly unable to appreciate how spells were handled in early D&D, where they didn't go into tiresome detail about exactly how many cubic feet your fireball took up or whatever, but this is just taking that tendency and attempting to clumsily ape it with an added dose of fetishistic extremism.

    The fact is, D&D spell descriptions were never THAT vague.

    "Magic Missile: This spell involves a missile of some kind. Also, magic."

    "Sleep: This spell may or may not put some creatures to sleep, but does not, in and of itself, create slumber."

    Gimme a break.

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  2. All I have seen so far has been the ones you can read on the Flashpaper preview on at Lulu, so I don't know about the Infuse spell, but I absolutely adore others on the list. They have a wonderful swords & sorcery flavor instead of the normal D&D flash-bang flair.

    The one that really gets my juices flowing is Borrowed Time, raising a corpse from the dead for a brief period of time. Many wonderful stories could be brought to bear bringing back ancient kings, dead sages or fearsome warriors for a few days to complete some great task, or giving deceased PCs a chance to find a way to restore their life permanently. (It'd make a nice component for a ritual to create a revenant, as well.) This spell along Excruciating Cauterization are a very intriguing base for an alternative magical healing system that isn't dependent on clerical magic, if your aim is to make all magic more in the vein of sorcery.

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  3. You've got the eloquence to accuse me of aping an old trend with a bit of added fetishistic extremism, and as a fan of Jack Vance, I salute you for your decisiveness of opinion and your eloquence of expression. I assume you're also intellectually desolated at having to base your opinion upon such a small part of the actual booklet. So I offer you the chance to peruse it in its entirety. Email me and I'll send you a copy of the full thing. mythmere at yahoo dot com.
    Matt

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  4. Omar's Mistake is the STUPIDEST thing I've ever heard!

    OK, Matt, ready for my free .pdf! No? Drat my inelegant denigration!

    Japes aside, this sounds very interesting. As soon as I can save six quarters I'll be picking up a copy!

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  5. Restless and Max, you can each also have a copy. But that's it! No matter how profuse or baroque the criticisms that follow may be, only the three of you shall receive free copies. For as it is said in the Book of Armaments, "Three shall be the number."
    Matt
    (email me, you guys, and I'll send)

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  6. Tell your friends: only at Grognardia can you get free gaming products by engaging in pettifoggery with their authors in my comments.

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  7. That's a long tagline: "only at Grognardia can you get free gaming products by engaging in pettifoggery with their authors in my comments." You might want to go with something like, "Cleans dice brighter," or "Bigger, longer comments," or "Make money."

    Ahem. Sorry. On to further commentary about the booklet itself. The reading of which is guaranteed to improve eyesight and cure hangovers. :)

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  8. Matt,

    I wish I could make money at this. If you know the secret of how to do so, please share it with me.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. That was my deleted comment above. I figured out how to make money writing gaming materials, but then I accidentally hit delete. Darnit, I wish I remembered what I said.

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  11. Matt wrote, then deleted (courtesy gmail comments feed): "Dude, I've made like $11 just from selling this booklet - and I'll probably eventually make double that. Life is sweet when you've cracked the code."

    IT'S MAGIC!!!

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  12. Huh. I assumed I'd written "buy low, sell high." I write notes to my future selves in case I ever discover that I'm actually just the hero in a Philip K. Dick novel.

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  13. J Mal, if by mentioning "Pettifoggery" you were alluding to the rules for such in the Dying Earth roleplaying game, you win.

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  14. I got a copy of the Dying Earth Game, signed by Jack Vance, by winning a Vancian Spell Description competition Pelgrane Press hosted at ENworld some time ago. One of my most prized possessions. Also, actually, relevant to this thread. Wow.

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  15. Hmmm, infuse a liquid with magical properties while not making it a potion? I can think of lots of uses:

    -Make water glow. You've got an instant lantern that won't burn out.

    -Make water flamable. Those orcs fording the river towards you are now standing in a death trap waiting for your torch.

    -Make water thick and goopy. Cast it on the raging rapids your friend just fell into, toss him a rope and pull him out.

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  16. I picked up the PDF as soon as I saw this blog post; that is, sooner than I read more than the first two paragraphs of the review.

    First, the art and title font choice is reflective of Photocopied Old School without being unduely fetishistic, which is a Good Thing.

    Second, this is very good value for the money, since, reading the printed document, I found 15 spells which I will immediately incorporate into my game. In comparison, the number for White Wolf's Relics and Rituals, an otherwise interesting volume, was "nil". There will be changes in name (thus, for example, Beast of Chaos will become Ylam-Ylam's Viscous Transformation, and The Magpie The Gainful Eye) and content, but the concepts are of course the thing.

    On Infuse, here is my proposed version:
    This spell infuses liquids with a single random characteristic of a selected object (1d8):
    1) colour
    2) smell
    3) purpose
    4) density
    5) taste
    6) intellectual level
    7) perfect replication within (form only)
    8) alignment, including morality/ethics [usually not very useless, unless you REALLY want something like a goat-aligned bottle of drink]
    Only a singular characteristic may be incorporated into a given liquid. An unwilling, conscious subject may roll a saving throw to avoid the infusion process.

    To Twilight of Thieves, I'll also add "10% probability of 1d3+1 hostile shadows and 2% of hostile shadow demon lurking within."

    Melan

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  17. Hm, "usually not very useless" --> "usually not very useful", of course

    Melan

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  18. J Mal, if by mentioning "Pettifoggery" you were alluding to the rules for such in the Dying Earth roleplaying game, you win.

    Partially correct. I was alluding to Vance's Dying Earth stories, which is where I believe I first encountered the word. However, it's a nice, if obscure, English word to describe pedantic quibbling and I like to use it whenever it seems appropriate.

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  19. James
    D-Did you just call me a pettifogger?

    And since my comments so far have served mainly to worsen the signal-to-noise ratio, here's another possibility for infuse: infusing a specially prepared flask of wine allows the magic-user to cast (an) additional spell(s) when the liquid is drunk. However in so doing he or she risks not only drunkeness but a chance of wand of wonder style magical mishaps.

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  20. D-Did you just call me a pettifogger?

    Not at all, good sir. Why, perish the thought! Your perspicacity and erudition in matters of dweomercraft are well known and respected by all! Those few naysayers who call you a charlatan and a bounder whose opinions can be bought by venal and ignorant men are not to be trusted. Indeed, it pains me even to mention their baseless remarks in this forum, but I do so because I am devoted to the truth and the dispelling of error, a cause I know full well you share with me, however much some whisper otherwise.

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  21. I am placated. I hesitate to mention it, but there are those who hint that you are merely a slanderer and a blatherskite, and it reassures me to learn otherwise.

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  22. Pettiforgers, unite! ;->

    I'll have to dig the .pdf up over the long weekend, Matt :D

    Allan.

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