Monday, March 2, 2009

My Least Favorite OD&D Supplement

This volume is something else, also: our last attempt to reach the "Monty Hall" DM's. Perhaps now some of the 'giveaway' campaigns will look as foolish as they truly are. This is our last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters. When Odin, the All-Father has only(?) 300 hit points, who can take a 44th level Lord seriously?
It is without a doubt ironic that in the same foreword in which TSR Publications editor Timothy J. Kask extols the virtues of "winging it" and notes that OD&D's rules are "not even true 'rules'," he also expresses the sentiment in text quoted above. I'm no fan of Monty Hall campaigns myself and having once met a guy who boasted of his character being a "42nd-level demigod," I have a longstanding, visceral dislike of that style of play. But, at the end of the day, if OD&D was "meant to be a free-wheeling game, only loosely bound by the parameters of the rules," as Kask states in the foreword to Eldritch Wizardry, why all this fretting about those guys who are playing it wrong?

The same foreword calls Gods, Demigods & Heroes "the last D&D supplement," which is technically true. Unless one counts Chainmail's "grandson," Swords & Spells, there were no other official OD&D supplements after the publication of Supplement IV. Of course, even as this foreword was being written, Gary Gygax was hard at work creating Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which owes its origin at least in part to the desire to ensure that everyone who played the game did it right. Even though, by today's standards, AD&D remains a free-wheeling game of the sort Kask rightly praises, there's no question that it set a not-entirely positive precedent for the way RPGs should be designed and presented. In hindsight, the lunacy of it all becomes apparent in a way that it probably wasn't in 1976.

There's the additional irony that Supplement IV tried to mock Monty Hallism by providing stats for the gods it describes. Speaking from personal experience with its successor volume, Deities & Demigods, providing stats for, say, Zeus is not going to shame power gamers into giving up their munchkiny ways -- quite the opposite. Once gods have hit points and armor classes, they just become big bags of experience points waiting to be looted by those 44th-level fighters Kask lambastes in his foreword. My own feeling is that, if one looks at OD&D as written, the gods are distant and mysterious, with spells like commune and contact other plane being vague and unreliable means to know their minds. This strikes me as being far more consonant with the humanistic thrust of pulp fantasy than giving statistics to Crom or Arioch or Odin. None of this is to say there's anything wrong with slaying gods and taking their stuff, if that's how one enjoys playing D&D (though I don't), but, given what the foreword to Supplement IV says about one of its goals, I can't help but feel it chose the wrong approach to meeting those goals.

In the final analysis, Gods, Demigods & Heroes is the one OD&D supplement I could have lived without. It's far weaker and less useful than the regularly-reviled Blackmoor (which, I agree, is less than it should have been) and, worse than that, it's the only OD&D book that exemplifies an attitude so at odds with the way the game was designed and played. I've stated before that I'm not a huge fan of Arduin, but I am glad Arduin exists. I am glad that referees like Dave Hargrave decided to put their dirty hands all over OD&D and reshape it into something they and their players enjoyed. That's what this hobby is all about.

24 comments:

  1. I never knew who or what Monty Hall was until the magic of Wikipedia answered all questions: AD&D was full of disparaging references to it too, and they always confused me.

    ...but I knew at 13 that Deities ad Demigods was trouble: a terrible misstep, and although all my D&D-playing mates had a copy, I don't recall us ever using anything out of it. On the upside, without it I probably would never have heard of Marduk, Tiamat or Dagda.

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  2. Deities and Demigots, the original one, wasn't bad. Awesome cover. Then they kept taking stuff out of it and taking stuff out of it, but you can still get the original one on e-bay for pennies on the dollar. I got all of the OD&D books there for less than $75.00.
    What struck me about the OD&D was their portrayal of demons, Type I to Type Whatever. I got the vibe right away that they were talking about demons as if they were WWII tanks or modern submarines...

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  3. To me, the deities books are all a part and parcel with the sloppy mess left by the cleric class throughout D&D. First they were Christian, then they fought pagan deities, then they worshipped pagan deities (allegedly, but still carried Christian arms and symbols). Eck.

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  4. surely though we can all respect the desire (completely silly in practice, as Sir Grognard so rightly observes) to catalogue our favourite invincible beast according to the rules? Viewed as nerdery for nerdery's sake, I think these books are simply an amusing read. Viewed as game supplements, of course (which is no doubt how James is reviewing them) they're poison.

    It's still fun to argue about whether Zeus has 1000 or 1200 hit points, though. If you're into that sort of thing...

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  5. >Viewed as nerdery for nerdery's sake<

    Yeah, I always liked to read about stuff I would probably never have appear in my games. Always good bathroom reading material, but never anything I had open next to my notebook as I worked on campaign stuff.

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  6. There is a flaw in the presentation of religion in D&D and it is perhaps ineradicable. No attempt is made to represent the religions we experience in our world directly or indirectly through culture and laws, whether believer or non-believer, even if the extent of contact is merely literary.

    Instead this mystery and remoteness (or empty nothingness) is dumped and miracles are ostentatiously granted daily to clerics by a gallery of gaudy primitive Gods human enough to be given stats and foibles. Good for gaming structure? I'm not sure it isn't an opportunity lost. We know religion is different to this whether we take or leave it in our own lives.

    It seems to me to be a clumsy attempt to bolster a weak character class. The source of a magic-user's power is left mysterious why should the cleric be different?

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  7. I never thought about Clerics or religion that way. I have two thoughts: Some critic once said that Tolkien's LOTR is not serious literature, because serious lit deals with God and Love (romance and mortality to put tactly, death and sex to be blunt), and LOTR never approached these two issues seriously. IMHO, having faced death and lost all of his childhood friends in the trenches of WWI Flanders, he didn't face death in the LOTR and all of the principals do not die but sail to the Lands Of The West (Sailed to New York to partake in the Jazz Age a la F. Scott Ftizerald?). So, why should D&D bein the same vein?

    On the other hand there is my campaign. I wanted to make it a mystical playing experience. Also, I never questioned cleric's presnce in AD&D schemata. They are extremely useful because they heal and they turn undead. I never considered lowering the divine to the level of playing characters, but to be fair, ancient Hinduism invented Avatars - projected images of Hindu Dieties that appear human, walk among us, and do what these deities want to do - frolick with young girls, mess with kings, play jokes on elders, whatever. Logically, these "can" be slain and they can do a fair amount of damage, but you don't actually kill a deity, you slay an avatar. The innovation of Christianity among world religions to that time was that God ACTUALLY died on the cross for humanity's sake.

    I worked to develop a spiritual dimension in my campaign, and I guess that Clerics need a theological infrastructure to function in, the way I described the setting fr my thieves, all the choces for a lousy thief character, I hope the bastard appreciates all that work he will most likely overlook. Ergo for religion. The bad guys in the Wasteland practice cults of personality of the high level NPCs they serve, who deluded themselves int thinking themselves God-like by virture of their high level, or undead status. When I was randomly generating the local Baron's Court, five of five advisors turned out to be Clerics, I deciced that Baroness had baptised herself into Eastern Orthodox Christianity and brought in a lot of Clergy to convert the natives. I was also curious about the AD&D Druid class, so I decided that the simple, unarmed, and twice conquered natives survive the neighboring horrors of the wasteland b virtuoe of their Old Faith. Selfsame Faith is the reason they haven't advanced technologically like their conquerors. The essence of it is that they worshi the spirits of the Mountain, the River, Time and Seasons, and the strength of their faith under the laws of this gameworld allows these spirits to manifest avatars to protect the native settlements and to keep the evil at bay. Village Elders intuitively channel this forcfe to direct it, there by practicing miracles that players can not duplicate. Natives have acceptd Christianity and kept their Old Faith, practicing the two side by side. An example of the power of a village Elder, that is beyond the scope of the AD&D rules would be: One of my chracaters thre a lit flask of oil into a goblin barracks layered with straw. In modern terms this guy is a passive aggressive nerd. He was pissed off that his character had to be the first through the door, so he threw a flask of in there first and shut the door without looking. Problem was, they were on a prisoner rescuing mission and there were two villagers, a middle aged man and a young woman, chained to the wall sitting ona bed of straw. They died horribly, tere was no goblins there, I decided to throw them a role-playing bone, when this idiot decided to act in D&D he way he never has the balls to act in real life, anyway. The party members were rushing about trying to save them, figuring out what to do next. The hero was standing (literally) and yelling - this is bullshit - he did this on purpose!This wouldn't happen in real life! I showed them the room description from my loose leaf binder and they ended up bringing the victims before the local village elders. The Elders brought them back to life with a touch and a whisper, but they left the two scarred, saying that they can bring back life, but they can not undo the consequences of the actions, and that from now on, the girl is the responsibility of the character, who burned her. I thought the player was going to walk away, but he didn't. What we have is a chaotic good warrior turning into a chaotic evil one and despsiing the natives in the process. He cae up with the theory (incorrect) that natives are somehow controlling the monsters and that Elders are somehow evil.

    So, there is still hope for clerics and for a serious take on religion in AD&D gaming.

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  8. I like Deities and Demigods for one reason only: It introduced me to a bunch of new mythologies (Including the Cthulhu mythos!)

    As for leveling, 20 is my limit in every edition except 4e (Yes, I play every edition I have access to.). Any higher than that is too ridiculous, even for me. (Fond though I am of being decidedly over-the-top.)

    Brooze: Sounds like a cool campaign.

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  9. No matter the crappiness of Deities and Demigods from a mechanical standpoint, it's absolutely completely worth it for the Erol Otus Cthulhu illos.

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  10. You guys do make a good point about the Cthulhu mythos and its Erol Otus artwork. That and some other stuff was enormously transformative on my younger self.

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  11. Plus the Melnibonean and Newhon stuff in the 1st ed which not on;ly had awesome art, but which introduced me to the dizzying world of Swords & Sorcery.

    But that Introduction in GD&H is hilarious in retrospect. I never saw a copy until well after the D&D came out and I remember having to read that Intro several times because surely it couldn't be suggesting that putting stats on gods would somehow discourage us from killing them. By that time, I already had a character who possessed Wind-Fire Wheels, Excalibur, Stormbringer, and the Holy Grail of Death: Ma Yuan's Stone (which rather made all the other weapons pointless, but what the hey; they were nice conversation pieces on the castle wall).

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  12. For a while I was following fantasy lit out of a little hardcover called: Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. It had none of the sword and sorcery that inspired AD&D, except Tolkien. I will make it aproject to go down and read the GYgax' reading list starting with Poul Anderson.

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  13. Gods, Demigods & Heroes is the beginning of a process that shifted D&D away from the free-wheeling RPG that James extolls to a highly limiting system that assumes a polytheistic world-view. Although newer versions of D&D appear to have given us all kinds of different options and abilities, they have severely limited the scope of our imagination. Gods, Demigods & Heroes is representative of this: in OD&D we were completely free to use whatever religious influence we wished and were able to house-rule those things necessary to express those religious expressions (or lack there-of). Modern versions of the game give us far more powerful versions of the Cleric class, but the rules system as written makes it extremely difficult to explain the class with anything other than a polytheistic world view. In order to explain my own desire to play with a monotheistic culture, I have to bend over backwards to justify it with the modern game. It is doable, but a lot of work. That is why I prefer the older versions of the game — I have the complete freedom to play the game the way I want to without all that work to get around the system.

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  14. Dissenting opinion: Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes is the only one of my original D&D books I still have. The reason is that particularly the Conan, Cthulhu, Elric, Finnish, and to some degree Chinese/Japanese mythoi contain some of the coolest monsters and magic items ever printed in a D&D product, with short, evocative descriptions and game-transformative mechanics (Thoth Amon's ring raises you 10 caster levels? Crazy...)

    In terms of my games the only other thing as useful as this stuff was the three pages at the end of Greyhawk detailing weird tricks and traps.

    Everyone's mileage varies, but I still have the copy of this book I used when I was a little kid, complete with big X's and the word DEAD written in pencil over the various gods and heroes we managed to slay. :-)

    - Calithena

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  15. I've been recently reading and re-reading the original little books - one thing I got with my wife was a full set of the originals, and after having been reading your blog I've been reading them in a new light.

    I've got to say that this book is pretty much the most disappointing one - although I was pretty surprised to see the Conan in there.

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  16. @FrDave, re: "Modern versions of the game give us far more powerful versions of the Cleric class, but the rules system as written makes it extremely difficult to explain the class with anything other than a polytheistic world view."

    Exactly one of my gripes. In OD&D and BECMI, the source of the cleric's power was kept deliberately vague, so that you didn't have to even detail it if you didn't want to get into theological issues. Everything from 2nd Edition on pretty much forces a polytheistic world. I've gotten around that by creating different "orders" of clerics, but that just doesn't satisfy.

    I'm currently working on my own retro-clone in which the cleric is replaced by the "mystic"--mostly the same kinds of abilities, with an option to drop the ability to use metal weapons and armor in return for better spell progression and a form of weaponless combat. However, the source of the mystic's power is a bit more vague (and in line with the Grognard's musings here) to allow it to fit into pretty much any theological/mythological structure the GM might wish.

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  17. Here I am ping-ponging back and forth on this, but here's another take: Maybe the most aggravating thing is not the contents of these books, but the packaging (motivation as described in the foreword).

    Look, Supplement III had its demons & devils for high-level opponents and most everybody loves that. Supplement IV is a pretty obvious extension of that, with more legendary gods, monsters, and magic. What's the difference?

    If it had been described as it was -- "here's even more stuff, the highest-level opponents we could think of, use them if you want" -- then maybe there would just be some camps that used it and some who didn't.

    But the Supplement IV claim that it proves that you sort of can't fight them makes no sense. The Gygax claim in DDG that it's then a requirement in AD&D that clerics use deities from the book belies what it was really used for (by those who actually used the statistics within).

    Somebody lost their nerve (or something0 at the last minute. Today I disbelieve the claim that AD&D was meant to "normalize" play (it's really just "here's even more stuff"), but the tortured attempt to make it appear so got all this pantheistic messed-up cleric stuff all over my D&D.

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  18. Delta: yes. I think if all these entities had been described just as powerful monsters, or even as avatars of the gods, it would have been much more easily accepted. The trouble with calling them gods is, you're invoking the Grand Mystery That Is Unknowable To Man - and then fireballing it. If it's any consolation, more recently Pokemon has been making exactly the same mistake: it introduces (literally) demiurgic, mystical, eternal Principles of Nature, and then lets the PC catch them in a cheap plastic ball. There's something engagingly bizarre about it, but so much for the spiritual tent-pole of your universe, after that.

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  19. spiritual tent-pole

    I should have said "sense of wonder," of course.

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  20. FrDave, I think you're wrong, it's very easy to fit clerics into a monotheistic system, at least in 3e and 2e AD&D. In fact, in my DMing I lift a lot of magical ideas from the Players Handbook and just change the names.

    The reason that polytheism took over in these systems is that it is a natural extension of the presence of magic - if God can be true, why not also the Druidic gods? - but it's not an exclusive rule by any means.

    All the ideas for deities in the PHB of any edition have just seemed like suggestions to me. I played a Middle Earth campaign in 3e AD&D and simply converted all the domains straight to the Middle Earth gods. It's not difficult unless you believe everything that is written in a rulebook has to be treated as gospel.

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  21. Faustusnotes:

    I don't disagree that playing 3ed is possible with a monotheistic world-view, but the concept of the domain is specifically a polytheistic one. From a Christian point of view, God created everything and is all-powerful — which makes it very difficult to shove him into the "domains box." The amount of work necessary to do this (I've tried) is not nearly as rewarding or satisfying as simply taking the OD&D rules as is and playing the game.

    Delta:
    There is a major, if subtle, difference between Supplement III and Supplement IV. Whereas devils and demons are monsters no matter your religious backdrop, once you stat up deities, you are forcing a polytheistic world-view onto the system. This has evolved and now the system forces the polytheistic world-view.

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  22. Whereas devils and demons are monsters no matter your religious backdrop, once you stat up deities, you are forcing a polytheistic world-view onto the system.

    That's certainly how things went, but I'm not 100% convinced it was a necessary thing. Supplement IV makes no mention of anyone worshipping these gods (IIRC); not until the DDG was that claimed to be a necessity.

    Consider the following alternate-reality foreword to Supplement IV (or DDG): "We present to you gods and monster from the world's mythologies. In an earlier age they ruled the heavens and earth; now cast down, they seek revenge or a return to their former station."

    Honestly, I think that's most in line with the milieu I get from the 3 original books. Supplement IV doesn't say anything about religious attachments. It was DDG where things really went wonky.

    Anyway, I fully agree that it's too bad that things ultimately went pantheistic (especially with how the cleric was set up prior to that).

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  23. I never found much use for GD&H, nor bought Gygax's claim that the equivalent was an essential part of AD&D.

    On the other hand, a lot of cosmology established then and since seems in some quarters part and parcel of what defines D&D. Changes to Planescape-derived "fluff" in 4E seem to exercise some folks more than what seem to me radical game-mechanical changes.

    Basically, I have little love for such "canon."

    The "playing wrong" aspect of the "Monty Haul" label has come home to roost in ways that perhaps Kask never intended. I think the key point was that the published rules were not designed for some things -- and he was fed up with people claiming that they were therefor "broken." If you find such a need, then go ahead and do what Hargrave did: make up a suitable game. Don't expect TSR to "do any more of your imagining for you."

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