Thursday, February 12, 2009

My Favorite OD&D Supplement

By far and away, my favorite OD&D supplement is the third, Eldritch Wizardry. You might think, given my Gygaxian commitments, that Greyhawk would be my favorite. It's certainly true that I do use a lot of material from Supplement I and in fact consider its additional rules foundational for understanding what Dungeons & Dragons is and how it was meant to be played. When it comes to sheer inspiration, though, Eldritch Wizardry has no equal.

There are several reasons for this. Let's start with the most basic: its appearance. Has D&D ever had a cover for a product as provocative as this one? I know I'm widely regarded in these parts as a stolid stick-in-the-mud, so I hope I won't shock anyone by saying that I really like this cover and not just for obvious reason. What I like here is the simplicity, the starkness of the piece. It's a very suggestive illustration, one that gets me to thinking of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith and other writers from the Golden Age of the Pulps. There's also a subtlety to it that I appreciate. Yes, it's an illustration of a naked woman, her hands bound, and laying on a (possibly sacrificial) slab, but, aside from the nearby brazier, there's no real context or action to it. We have to fill in the rest for ourselves. Let me also say that, on some level, I also think the illustration speaks volumes about how the cultures of both the hobby and the industry have changed since 1976, when Supplement III was first published.

The interior of the book is still recognizably that of an OD&D book, but you can see the signs of the format I'll come to associate with AD&D. That's a good thing in my opinion, because, for all my love of OD&D, I'd never argue that its presentation couldn't have stood for some improvement. Eldritch Wizardry is also sees the re-appearance of David Sutherland, whose art strongly resonates with me, despite its flaws. Gone is Greg Bell, whose art filled the little brown books and Greyhawk. We also see the greater use of different type faces -- a small thing perhaps but another shift that shows TSR is becoming more "professional." They're still not quite there and Eldritch Wizardry is still clearly a product of hobbyists for hobbyists, though a much more polished one than previous supplements. For me, that's the sweet spot, so to speak: gaming products by "amateur professionals."

The content of Supplement III, like all OD&D supplements, is a mixed bag. There's a vague thematic element to the book -- "ancient and powerful magic," says its subtitle -- but to attribute anything like an organizing principle to an OD&D product is foolhardy. Still, if you squint your eyes and are charitable, you can see some connections between the various bits included in Eldritch Wizardry. And it's these bits that really get my juices flowing.
  • Druids: I have a love/hate relationship with this character class. I think an alternative to the quasi-Christian cleric is a good thing. I also like the somewhat "morally ambiguous" presentation of the druids, which were first presented as a "monster" in Greyhawk. It's noted that druids have a mean streak to them, meting out punishment on those who violate their ethos. Of course, the druid has been thoroughly de-fanged over the years, becoming an airy-fairy tree hugger and I can't stand that. Likewise, the druid is a heavily based around the wilderness, which makes it a much more "situational" class than many others. Still, I can't deny that I have a soft spot for the druid.
  • Psionics: Another thing for which I have a love/hate relationship. Gygax famously stated that the inclusion of psionics in D&D was a mistake. I'm not so sure myself. I agree that not every setting needs psionics. Furthermore, having psionics and traditional magic exist side by side can sometimes be too much. Nevertheless, I think there's a place for mental powers in D&D, if only to offer an alternative approach to "magic" that has a different metaphysical and mechanical basis. Indeed, if one's goal were to construct a setting in line with many pulp fantasies, something like psionics might work a great deal better than D&D's standard magic. I will grant that psionics, as presented, is a bit more complex than it needs to be, but, even so, I feel a frisson every time I re-read the psionics rules. Call me sick if you wish.
  • Demons: Eldritch Wizardry finally gives OD&D some demons and they're simply terrific. Much as I have always preferred devils for their grandly medieval hierarchies, demons really scratch my pulp fantasy itch. These guys are freaky aberrations for the most part, the stuff of nightmares rather than folklore (for the most part). Some of them are so freaky they even have 10-, 12-, and 20-sided Hit Dice. We're also treated to the Gygaxian penchant for systematization: demons are divided into "types," with the balrog finally finding a new identity under which to set up shop without fear of legal reprisal.
  • Mind Flayers and Intellect Devourers: 'Nuff said.
  • Artifacts and Relics: Truly the jewel in the crown of Supplement III, artifacts and relics are something I have long wished D&D had expanded upon and developed further. I simply love the idea of magic items whose powers and abilities vary from campaign to campaign. I also adore items that have histories and contexts beyond their purpose in play. And who doesn't get a thrill when they hear the names Vecna, Lum the Mad, Baba Yaga, and St. Cuthbert? I've long argued that magic items need to be more magical. Well, you can't get more magical than these artifacts and relics, which often possess powers and functions that are both quirky and potentially dangerous, just as magic items ought to be.
Eldritch Wizardry is just a lot of fun to read. I can turn to almost any page and find something interesting on it that sparks ideas in my head. In fact, just this morning I noticed a couple of things I'd never noticed before and they inspired me in my thoughts about an upcoming Dwimmermount session. That tends to happen a lot and I think it's a testament to how good a supplement Eldritch Wizardry is -- my favorite out of them all.

11 comments:

  1. I didn't think she was supposed to be a sacrifice, I always thought she was a stripper finishing her dance routine! :)

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  2. I likes the nekkid broad on tha cover too...

    >I always thought she was a stripper finishing her dance routine<

    Ha ha ha - awe yeah, dog!

    Thanks for the the intellectual side of this supplement James. In my blog all I could talk about was the nudity.

    Druids have always been run only once in a blue moon in my world, so we generally tweaked them a bit to suit exactly what the player is shooting for. The druids having to fight to go up in levels was something I didn't use much - until I read The Golden Bough. Then that suddenly made some sense.

    I never used psionics, because at 14 years old I couldn't figure them out. I never looked back...

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  3. Druids - I like as "monster" npcs from Greyhawk better, but largely because of the late 1e/2e treehuggers that druids became rather than anything from EW.

    Psionics - I love in concept, but not execution. I still think the 1e version is the best D&D psionics yet done. Which only means no one's really done a good version yet.

    Demons and the other nasty brain-sucking monsters - Hells yeah!!!

    Artifacts - The portion of the book I'm drawn back to over and over again. For some reason, I like the EW presentation better than the DMG version despite much of it being verbatim. Can't explain it other than when I'm looking at sprinkling a couple artifacts into a campaign world, I go to EW instead of the DMG.

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  4. Psionics - I love in concept, but not execution. I still think the 1e version is the best D&D psionics yet done. Which only means no one's really done a good version yet.

    Well said.

    I both hated and was morbidly fascinated with psionics back in the day. Actually much like that other 1st ed appended mess--Bards.

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  5. I also think the illustration speaks volumes about how the cultures of both the hobby and the industry have changed since 1976

    ...like marketing to children? Your guide to the covers, a few months back, showed a cheerful adherence to sacrificial women as a value through 1e, and an abrupt ed to that with 2e: I wonder exactly when that happened and why?

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  6. I never got the hate for psionics, myself. Most of the complaints I've seen boil down to them being either a) not "in genre", b) "too complicated", or c) "overpowered.

    I'm mainly familiar with the AD&D appendix version, but my take:

    Not in genre? I don't think I even need to explain why this is dubious in a blog so focused on D&D's literary origins.

    Too complex? You have psionic points. Psionic combat and power use saps them and rest restores them. This is no more complex than the hit point system. For psionic combat, just take a deep breath and follow the charts in the DMG. By the book, frying somebody's brain Scanners style is way easier to run than punching somebody. :)

    Overpowered? Just wait and see how long a psionic PC can last before encounters with the various nasty psionic monsters on the encounter tables make him realize that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Then again, I'm okay with bards, too. A lot of extra hit points and a handful of special powers is a more or less fair trade for having your fighting and thieving abilities capped relatively low in the kind of double-digit level campaign that bards crop up in.

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  7. Flipping through Eldritch Wizardry recently myself and I lingered a bit on the druid spells. They'd work fine to replace the magic-user lists, maybe keep a couple of traditional mu spells like read magic and knock but in the main ditch the rest. Sure MU's would be a little more like "natural magicians" and as such a bit more like Gandalf and Merlin.
    - J.D. Jarvis

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  8. I seem to recall that the AD&D Lankhmar book recommended splitting the Mu-U class into white and black varieties. The white magicians use the cleric and druid spell lists and the black ones use the regular M-U and illusionist ones.

    There are no D&D-type spellcasting clerics in that world, though, so this approach works better there than it would in most campaigns.

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  9. These guys are freaky aberrations for the most part, the stuff of nightmares rather than folklore

    Indeed, when I was 9 years old (in 1977) I had a nightmare about a frog demon identical to the type II demon in Eldritch Wizardry; it crawled up out of the ground from a grave I had created when I was playing earlier that day. I had placed a tiki idol (it's supposed to ward off bad dreams, according to the man who sold it to me) over the grave. Even then I had a macabre imagination. Interestingly enough, that was a full two years before I was introduced to AD&D, so I had never even seen a type II demon before.

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  10. Well said! It definitely has a lot of originality, and a pulp vibe about it, and that is why I also like it.

    "It's a very suggestive illustration, one that gets me to thinking of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith and other writers from the Golden Age of the Pulps."

    Too right! The cover is in the same style of classic pulp, namely Margaret Brundage - who by the request of Weird Tales editors - drew sensual imagery of women in peril. It was controversial and seen as perverted, but they moved issues, and even today they stand as memorable masterpieces of the glorious Golden Age of Pulps!!! Hell, the writers would compete to get their story illustrated, by being the most provocative! Check out this link of the interview with Margaret Brundage. What I like about such art is how tasteful it is, without showing to much details (like blood and nipples), and often relies on symbolism and context. Its a shame it a lost art.

    I never like like the dandy, tree-hugger Druids, or the animal-loving, tree-hugging Rangers - Hell, I hate D&D Paladins - who are soo holier-than-thou, they piss holy water! Solomon Kane was a Paladin, and his "smite evil" ability is a swift boot to the britches!! I always found the "morally ambiguous" of the Druids to be a reflection of nature itself - both ordered & chaotic, both life-giving & cruel.

    I also agree with you about the Psionics system being a good alternative to standard spellcasting (if is was done right), as I always preferred a system that would allow for more "sword & sorcery" approach to magic.

    I also liked how they left the names and number of the demons ambiguous. I kinda like making up their common "place holder" names, secret names, numbers, and their place in hell (the abyss, whatever).

    Both intelligent weapons, and artifacts really add to the game then just static "plus whatever" magic items! I hate how magic items are just tools for the adventurers use. I like flavor! I like an element of strangeness! Magic items should be strange and unique. Most people think a setting like Hyboria is low-magic (or even no-magic), and dont think their are any magic items in the setting - if you do find one, it would rape your soul or something! The truth is, their are no "magical tools", in the Hyboria Age, as it handles magic items more or less like Artifacts and Relics.

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  11. They'd work fine to replace the magic-user lists, maybe keep a couple of traditional mu spells like read magic and knock but in the main ditch the rest.

    Interestingly, there's some place in Eldritch Wizardry where druids are mistakenly referred to as a sub-class of magic-user.

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