Saturday, February 28, 2009

REVIEW: Daemonic & Arcane

"... what is the purpose of playing fantasy role-playing games if not, or eventually, to find and gently -- or sometimes joltingly -- continue pulling back its many-colored curtain to discover those areas moving behind it otherwise unplumbed and which temptingly beckon us to taste of their equally rich enchantments as we have done with their other flavorful parts?
So begins Daemonic & Arcane, another new product released by Rob Kuntz's Pied Piper Publishing this month and one that comes much closer to meeting my idiosyncratic expectations. Like The Stalk, it's not a bound book, but a collection of 15 loose pages, plus a cover sheet with some very evocative art by Eric Bergeron. Of those 15 pages, one is the Open Game License, one is an introduction by Kuntz, and two are reproductions of his original notes. That leaves 11 pages devoted to describing over two dozen magic items from what is termed throughout the text as "the Original Campaign," meaning the Greyhawk campaign of which Kuntz was co-DM with Gary Gygax. The product sells for $10.95, which, again, I think is a bit high when one considers that it's not even staple-bound. The price will almost certainly ensure that its buyers are primarily a small group of devoted gamers interested in the history of the hobby.

That's a shame, because its content is excellent. The magic items included in this product are interesting on numerous levels, first and foremost because they're artifacts of the years between 1973 and 1983, which correspond very closely to the Golden Age of D&D. These are items rich in history and long-time fans of the game will be fascinated by items like the Iron Bands of N'Closur, the Scepter of King Robert I, and the Steps of Zayene, among many others. Even better, Kuntz includes asides -- "Author's Historical Commentary" -- and endnotes for many of the items, so as to share bits of information and trivia that pertain to the how and why of an item's creation and, in some cases, which player's character first obtained it.

The items themselves are extremely clever and are evidence of a type of game design one doesn't see very often anymore. They're are quirky, mysterious, and often dangerous. That is, these aren't "assembly line" magic items; they possess a uniqueness to them that recalls the artifacts and relics of Eldritch Wizardry and the Dungeon Masters Guide, even if their potency is (generally) not on par with those famed works of magic (although a few possess a similar degree of customization). Many of the items function somewhat randomly or have hidden abilities whose functioning is not immediately apparent. Indeed, Kuntz notes that the aforementioned Iron Bands of N'Closur, for example, possessed abilities never discovered in the Original Campaign. I can't help but find this endearing, as I've often remarked in this blog how much I like magic that defies easy categorization and shows signs of having "a life of its own."

Daemonic & Arcane is a very good product. Its primary weakness is its presentation, which is very rough and not at all what I would have expected after the amazing presentation of The Original Bottle City last year. Nevertheless, it does provide a number of useful insights into the early days of the hobby and one of its earliest campaigns, for which I am grateful. Likewise, the magic items Kuntz presents here should serve as great examples for old school referees everywhere. They're novel, puzzling, and, above all, magical. They're more than mere loot; many have the potential to inspire adventures of their own and keep the characters -- and their players -- guessing for some time to come. To my mind, that's just what magic items should do in D&D and something they haven't in a long time. I only wish either the pricing or the presentation of this excellent product could be changed so as to make it more appealing to a wider audience. Goodness knows fantasy RPGs could do with more ideas like the ones contained in Daemonic & Arcane.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms

Friday, February 27, 2009

REVIEW: The Stalk

Of all the old school gaming companies around these days, Rob Kuntz's Pied Piper Publishing has probably come the closest to adopting the kind of approach that I would have liked to have seen with Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg. Kuntz clearly understands that gamers interested in his products don't want updated or "re-imagined" versions of the dungeons he ran during his time as the co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign; they want the real deal, preferably with lots of reminscences and commentary about "the good ol' days." Throwing in some nifty gaming "artifacts," like reproductions of the original maps certainly couldn't hurt. This is exactly the approach PPP adopted with last year's The Original Bottle City, which I reviewed favorably last April.

Naturally, when PPP announced the release of three new products, I was quick to order them. I am quite happy to say that they all arrived promptly and intact. Whatever problems PPP had with fulfilling orders in the past seem to have been resolved and I have no complaints on this score. I must, however, take issue with the physical quality and presentation of the product I'm reviewing today, The Stalk. Like its predecessor, The Living Room (which I also reviewed), The Stalk isn't really a book; it's a collection of what look to be laser-printed pages, without any binding whatsoever. There are nine pages of text, of which one is an introduction by Kuntz and the last page is a copy of the Open Game License. That leaves only 7 pages dedicated to the "dungeon" itself, including some background and tips for the referee -- a very meager offering. There are four additional loose pages in this product: a modern map, a reproduction of the original map, and a two-page reproduction of Kuntz's original handwritten notes. There is also a cover sheet, with some attractive art by Eric Bergeron. At $11.95, this is a rather pricey product, but then it is almost certainly geared toward collectors and oddballs like myself interested in the history of the hobby rather than a wider audience.

The Stalk is actually an outdoor encounter area: a gigantic plant stalk whose many tendrils reach high into the sky and are the lairs of a variety of similarly mammoth insects, arachnids, and other bugs. The map for the encounter reminds me of the map for the Demonweb, with lots of overlapping "passages" that connect the lairs of its inhabitants. In his introduction, Kuntz explains that the Stalk was an attempt to move the dungeon to the outdoors, so to speak, which makes a great deal of sense, given the inchoate nature of wilderness adventuring at the time. The Stalk was also an experiment in "three-dimensional dungeoneering," since the environment allowed movement vertically as well as horizontally, a fact Kuntz notes as something he used to his advantage, when giant bugs swooped or dropped down on the party.

Undoubtedly, the Stalk would have been a tough slog back in the day, even at levels 9-12, which is the recommended range for this module. The basic premise of the adventure is that the characters, having climbed up the Stalk will become trapped as a result of an old curse that prevents escape (the reasons for which are explained in a brief bit of background). The characters must therefore explore the Stalk to find a means to leave it, all the while contending with its monstrous denizens, many of which are quite tough. Players used to the standard "clean up crew" dungeon vermin might be in for a nasty surprise when they encounter the creatures that call the Stalk home.

The Stalk is basically a self-contained, one-shot encounter, probably playable in a single evening. That's not a bad thing by any means, both because it's a rejoinder to the notion that all adventures need to have a "meaning" beyond themselves and as a reminder that, even in the old days, there was more to do than just plumb the depths of the local megadungeon over and over again. The Stalk offers up a few new magic items, albeit of limited appeal outside the encounter area itself. But the real appeal of this product is Kuntz's commentary, of which I wish there were more, and the reproductions of the original maps and notes. It seems clear to me that Kuntz has a lot to say and it's a pity that he didn't avail himself of the opportunity to do so here. I think more reminiscences and commentary would have gone a long way toward overcoming my qualms about The Stalk, which is a good, if amateurish, product and one whose contents and presentation seem like a step backward after the near-perfection of The Original Bottle City. While I don't regret buying it, I am mildly disappointed that it didn't build on the success of that product and give us something of wider and more lasting interest.

Final Score: 3 out of 5 polearms

When the Care Bears were Satanic

I don't think I'll shock anyone by admitting that I'm not a regular reader of The Village Voice. Unsurprisingly, I wouldn't have seen an amusing blog entry posted to its website if reader Jen Sharp hadn't passed it along to me. The entry is a mocking retrospective on a book I don't think I ever heard of entitled Like Lambs to the Slaughter by Johanna Michaelsen. The book's sub-title is "Your Children and the Occult."

Given that the book's foreword is by none other than Hal Lindsey, one could safely predict -- far better than Lindsey ever could -- that it's going to be an embarrassing bit of alarmist doggerel of the sort that pops up with depressing regularity on bookstore shelves. And so it seems to be, based on the blog entry, which includes hilarious excerpts from the book itself. What's even more amusing is that Michaelsen seems to have it in for the Care Bears, which she ranks up there with D&D, He-Man, The Chronicles of Narnia, and My Little Pony as bearers of hidden Satanic messages. To me, it's all so patently ridiculous and yet there was a time when lots of people took stuff like this seriously, or at least pretended to do so.

I've said before that I never had any significant encounters with anyone who had a mindset at all like the author of this book. I played D&D all through my late elementary and high school years, sometimes at school, and only once ever met anyone who had a problem with it (and she was widely regarded as a Grade-A nutcase by one and all). My parents and relatives saw it as an imaginative pastime and my friends' families were similarly supportive of our shared hobby. In the case of many of my friends, D&D is what got them to read history and write creatively for the first time in their lives. It was certainly a positive influence on them, as it was one me, engendering a love of the Middle Ages that eventually took me to graduate school. And far from turning me into a Satanist, I'd say that D&D played a role in buttressing my moral philosophy.

So, it's always a bit strange when I read things like this blog post, because, though I know there really was a Satanism scare in the 80s, it doesn't reflect the world I inhabited at that time at all. There's an air of unreality to it for me, one that makes it much harder for me to accept its having happened than, say, World War II or the Battle of Thermopylae, events that occurred before I was born. Reading about it, I almost feel as if someone is just making stuff up and passing it off as something that really happened, but then, on a certain level, that's exactly what they are doing.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

REVIEW: Delving Deeper Character Classes

I think it's fair to say that new character classes (or new takes on existing ones) are one of the oldest "traditions" of the hobby. The introduction of the Thief and the Paladin in Supplement I opened the door to this practice and I don't think D&D players have ever tired of it. If you read The Strategic Review or early issues of The Dragon, you'll soon see that new character classes were a regular and much-loved feature of those periodicals. By the time I started reading Dragon, though, new character classes were often presented as "NPC classes," often with dire warnings against allowing the use of these classes for player characters. The implication was clear: the AD&D Players Handbook was the final word on this subject and until TSR saw fit to add new classes through its official publications, there would be no more.

Gygax partisan though I am, on this particular subject I never accepted Gary as the last word. I gleefully allowed these supposed NPC classes to be used as player characters. We had our fair share of ninjas (years before Oriental Adventures), samurai (ditto), archers, berserkers, beastmasters, and countless others. Very few of them ever lasted for long (Jeff Goelz's variant bard being the main one I recall), but I rarely prevented a player from giving these new classes a whirl. That was part of the fun of old school D&D: the willingness to experiment with potentially dangerous "ingredients." Worries about "balance" were still far in the future. So long as a class was fun to play and added something unique to the campaign, it was usually good enough for me.

That's why, to this day, I take a lot of pleasure in seeing new character classes and new takes on old ones. One of the many pleasures of old school games is their simplicity. Creating new classes for these games isn't a complex math problem; it's more about finding an archetype unserved by the other classes and creating game mechanics that allow that archetype to be used meaningfully in a campaign, with "meaningfully" being a very broad adverb indeed. So, it's with great happiness that I came across Brave Halfling Publishing's Delving Deeper series, which presents new character classes for use with Labyrinth Lord, although they could be used without much modification for other games, such as Swords & Wizardry.

I'd previously reviewed Brave Halfling's version of the monk. This time I'm going to talk about three others: the bard, the paladin, and the ranger.

Delving Deeper - Bard is, for me, the weakest of the three products. That's mostly because the whole concept behind the class has been muddled since Doug Schwegman's article in The Strategic Review in 1976. That article described the bard as a "jack of all trades," a description echoed in this 4-page PDF, which sells for 75 cents. Part fighter, magic-user, and sage, the bard is roughly comparable to the cleric in terms of combat effectiveness and toughness (though with weaker saving throws). In addition, the class possesses a legend lore ability, can charm persons and monsters (as per the appropriate spells), and can read languages (including the magical tongues used to inscribe arcane scrolls). The result is very well done, but it does little to bring much-needed coherence to the class. After reading this product, I am still unclear exactly what archetype the bard fills.

Delving Deeper - Paladin is, by contrast, a very coherent presentation of a much-loved -- and hated -- archetype: the fighter dedicated to upholding law and goodness. I'll admit to multiple levels of prejudice in liking this 6-page PDF a great deal. Firstly, I'm simply very fond of paladins and almost always play them on those rare occasions when I play rather than referee. Secondly, the class presented here is, by default, not a spellcasting one, just like its Supplement I inspiration. I very much approve of that, since spellcasting paladins further muddy the distinction between this class and clerics. The result is a class that's umabiguously a fighting man, albeit one imbued with divine power and grace. This 75-cent PDF also includes rules including holy swords in your Labyrinth Lord campaign.

Delving Deeper - Ranger is 5-page PDF retailing for 75 cents and, in my estimation, the best of the three reviewed here. That's because this product embraces the multiple ways that the ranger class has been interpreted over the years by offering two different versions of the class. The first is what might be called the "traditional" ranger, in that it includes a damage bonus when fighting evil humanoids and giants, in addition to such abilities as tracking, moving silently, direction sense, and wilderness survival. The second version could be called a "scout," since it swaps the damage bonus for the ability to hide and listen in a natural environment. I really appreciate the inclusion of two versions of the class, since it highlights what new character classes are really all about in the first place: options.

And options are what these inexpensive PDFs provide. At 75 cents apiece, each one is well worth picking up, if only to mine them for ideas when creating one's own character classes. I've been lately pondering ways to make a more coherent bard class and Delving Deeper - Bard gave me some food for thought, even though my own interpretation of the class will likely be quite different. All of these products include art by Andy "Atom" Taylor, whose exuberant style is a perfect esthetic representation of Brave Halfling's approach to publishing. They're definitely worth a look by anyone who hasn't forgotten the joyful enthusiasm this hobby engendered in all of us at the beginning.

Final Scores:
Delving Deeper - Bard:
3½ out of 5 polearms
Delving Deeper - Paladin: 4 out of 5 polearms
Delving Deeper - Ranger: 4½ out of 5 polearms

RIP: Philip José Farmer

As noted on his official home page, science fiction and fantasy author Philip José Farmer died yesterday at the age of 91. Farmer was an influence on the development of Dungeons & Dragons primarily through his "World of Tiers" series, which Gary Gygax cited in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeons Masters Guide. Of course, Farmer was incredibly prolific and wrote many, many short stories and novels -- a career stretching back to the 1940s -- making it next to impossible to limit his influence on and inspiration to the hobby to a single book or series of books.

For myself, it was Farmer's frequent use of pulp heroes and heroines that endeared his writings to me. His magnificent "Wold Newton family" is an amazing work of creativity, an attempt to connect -- and, on some level, rationalize -- the lives and adventures of numerous beloved characters ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Doc Savage to Solomon Kane. Farmer demonstrated that same level of inventiveness (and cheekiness) in most of his works and he will be sorely missed by his legions of fans.

May he rest in peace.

Retrospective: Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure

Let me state for the record that I absolutely hate the title of this module, which I think implicitly places far too much emphasis not just on the character of Mordenkainen but also on the adventure he and his companions had there in 1973. There are few people for whom the prehistory of Dungeons & Dragons is as important as it is for me. Had I the money and time to do so, I'd certainly be flying all over the country, interviewing people associated with the early days of the hobby in order to record their reminiscences for posterity. We've already lost far too many of our founding fathers as it is -- and their memories along with them. Their experiences at the start of it all are important and ought to be preserved.

Given that Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure contains no significant information about Gary Gygax's experiences in Rob Kuntz's Maure Castle dungeons -- for that you have to go to the May 1974 issue of Wargames Digest -- on which this module is based, I don't see a lot of point in drawing attention to his PC's exploration of it. Since it was published in 1984, I can't plausibly blame the Forgotten Realms or even Dragonlance as baleful influences over the marketing of module WG5. And given that the World of Greyhawk had (for the most part) been a setting largely free of treating NPCs as a focus of interest, there's something inappropriate -- and even unseemly -- about the title, at least for me. Consequently, I give points to the Paizo crew for giving it the much more straightforward title "Maure Castle" in their v.3.5 update in Dungeon #112.

With that grumble out of the way, let me now state for the record that I absolutely adore this module. I may not be fond of the proper name in the title, but WG5 is indeed a fantastic adventure. Consisting of three levels, Maure Castle is, in many ways, the Castle Greyhawk module we never got. Not literally, of course, since Maure Castle is a separate dungeon and originally was not even part of the Greyawk setting at all, but "spiritually" this module more clearly recalls the birth of the hobby and the early days of D&D than does, say, Gygax's own Castle Zagyg. Part of the reason I say that is WG5's presentation, which includes no boxed text, unlike many other contemporaneous modules (or Castle Zagyg). That may seem a small point, but it's not in my estimation. Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure is far less "canned" than most modules of the period (or since). Indeed, its room descriptions are quite terse, leaving a lot up to the referee to describe and adjudicate in play.

The content of the module is almost uniformly excellent, with a good mix of monster encounters, traps, and mysteries. It's exceptionally challenging, as one might expect of a module geared for 9th-12th level characters. Gygax himself, in his introduction, notes that "There is plenty of real thinking necessary, but the action is nearly non-stop," which I think is a good estimation of the adventure. It's definitely an old school adventure, one that felt like a bit of a throwback at the time of its publication. I know that it, along with several other late Gygax modules, seemed very much out of step with everything else TSR was publishing at the dawn of the Silver Age. In retrospect, I suspect that this was deliberate and I'm very grateful for its publication.

Its name aside, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure is an important piece of gaming history: a record of one of an early D&D adventure and a solid example of what guys like Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz thought dungeons should be like. A pity TSR didn't publish more modules like this.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Busy and Distracted

Posting will be light or perhaps non-existent today, meaning that my next Retrospective might be delayed until tomorrow. I'm going to do my best to prevent that, but I make no guarantees.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

They Dream for Us

There are certain authors that are primal, and are in some cases best suited to being discovered by young readers. They have a kind of magic that is impossible to define in literary terms. These writers, imagining on paper deep dreams of power and sex and survival, tap into those roots that are closer to the reptilian brain than the more developed part of our gray matter that deals with culture and society and maintaining good manners.

These writers not only dream, they dream for us.

--Joe R. Lansdale, "Otis Adelbert Kline: Swords and Planets and Adventure, Oh My"
That's from the introduction to latest Planet Stories release, The Outlaws of Mars, which is next up on my reading list. The entire line of books has kept me happily occupied over the last year and shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. It really is one of the most exciting things happening in fantasy publishing these days. Fans of pulp fantasy owe a big debt of gratitude to the Paizo crew for their work on Planet Stories. Thumbs up.

My Least Favorite Monsters

Mike Curtis of the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope is an old school blogger whom I admire a great deal. He's got an agile, creative mind and I'm not ashamed to admit that he frequently inspires me as I work on my Dwimmermount campaign. Consequently, when he took my post on My Favorite Monsters and turned it on its ear, I took notice of it. Impolitic though it is to say, we're often better defined by our dislikes than our likes, or at least our dislikes throw our likes into sharper relief, thus making them -- and us -- easier to understand.

(I had to delve into the Fiend Folio to find 10 monsters I actually disliked, since the Monster Manual is remarkably good by my lights. Yes, I know: finding sucky monsters in the Fiend Folio is like shooting fish in a barrel.)
  1. Adherer: Fear my sticky secretions!
  2. Ear Seekers: I should probably turn in my grognard membership card for saying this, but ear seekers are silly. They're silly because, unlike many other old school monsters dispensed with over the years, they smack of childish "escalation" in the battle of wits between referee and player. Ticked off that his players -- Gasp! -- actually listen at doors in order to gather information before entering a room, the referee decides to teach 'em a lesson with these little bugs. Successfully listening at doors is hard enough as it is without making players think twice about attempting it, so I say no to ear seekers.
  3. Enveloper: Oh no! It's the Pillsbury Doughboy's evil older brother!
  4. Eye of the Deep: I dislike this monster for one reason alone: it encouraged people to proliferate the number of beholder sub-species, which I think robbed the original creature of its uniqueness. Plus -- no offense to Jean Wells -- it just looks silly.
  5. Flumph: All joking aside, what purpose does this creature serve? I'm not bugged by the fact that it's Lawful Good, as I think good monsters are an important facet of Gygaxian naturalism. Problem is the description of the flumph gives no clue as to its role in the world, making it effectively useless. Or maybe I just lack creativity ...
  6. Morkoth: What the hell? Seriously, has anyone ever used one of these?
  7. Magnesium Spirit: I like creatures that have the power of possession a great deal, but what's up with these guys? Is there some mystical significance to magnesium I missed?
  8. Tirapheg: Um ... okay.
  9. Trilloch: I think someone watched the Star Trek episode "Day of the Dove" one too many times. Sorry, but it's just not the same without Michael Ansara
  10. Triton: Because, you know, mermen just aren't enough.


James Joyce's 1939 novel Finnegan's Wake is a dream-narrative one of whose protagonists is Humphrey (or Harold) Chimpden Earwicker, called "HCE" in the text. Joyce plays freely with the meaning of this abbreviation, at various points stating that it means "Here comes everybody." The interpretation of almost any of Joyce's books is a difficult business, particularly so for Finnegan's Wake, which defies convention on almost every level. In one controversial interpretation, the phrase "Here comes everybody" is seen as a metaphor for the Catholic Church in Ireland in Joyce's day -- a mishmash of sinners and saints, fools and philosophers, all united by a bond that keeps them together despite their near-constant squabbling, often to the brink of destruction.

Thinking about this, it struck me that "Here comes everybody" is a pretty good motto for the old school community. One of the myths that people like to perpetuate about old school gamers is how narrow-minded and crabby we all are and it's true that, as a group, we sometimes are both, myself above all others. But I think that, much of the time, what outsiders see as narrow-mindedness and crabbiness are rather a willingness to stake a position about our gaming preferences and to defend those preferences. Nowadays, having an opinion that runs counter to conventional wisdom is often treated as a social disease, something for which one should be embarrassed, particularly if doing carries with it the implication that other preferences are ill-considered, if not outright mistaken. Part of the problem too is that "preference" is treated as a synonym for "arbitrary" and so it's bad form to argue in favor of a preference or to treat it as if rationality were exercised in doing so. I like chocolate and you like vanilla; what is there to discuss?

Take a look at my "Links of Interest" on the right. What you will see is a very long list filled with gamers and game companies whose preferences are different than mine. Indeed, in some cases, I think those preferences are based on a number of fallacies and I've taken time to argue against some of them in this very blog. Yet, I haven't kicked them out of the clubhouse and don't intend to do so. Whatever our differences, there is in fact a bond that unites me with every one of the people behind those links. We argue and debate and occasionally get a little overheated in doing so, but, in my experience, that's the nature of human interaction, especially when dealing with friends -- and we are friends here.

The old school community is a contentious bunch; we like to argue. We argue about everything and it's always been this way. I can see how, to someone on the outside looking in, it might seem as if we're nitpicking and obsessing over things that don't really matter or that should have been allowed to rest decades ago, but why? Of course, none of what goes on in the old school community "matters" in the wider world. Debating whether or not the thief is appropriate for OD&D isn't going to cure cancer or bring about world peace, but since when was a hobby ever supposed to do such things?

What I find funny is how often the community's amicable disagreements are overlooked. That's understandable, as it's always easier to caricature a group when all one sees is its vices and not its virtues. As my list of links attests, though, our virtues far outweigh our vices. Scoff all you want but the sheer amount of gaming goodness -- including actual gaming -- that the old school community has generated over the last few years is enormous. And some of that goodness is the direct result of our narrow-mindedness and crabbiness, as the defender of one preference contended with the defender of another. I myself have changed my preferences on several issues in just the last few months and I will almost certainly change them on many others in the future. I see that as valuable.

The problem with HCE is that it makes it all too easy for outsiders to see only a riot of sinners and fools rather than ever comprehending the bond that unites them not just to one another but also to the saints and philosophers as well. I've spent nearly a year articulating the nature of that bond, so I'm not going to repeat myself (any more than I've already done). Suffice it to say that I think the old school community is more or less as it should be. We're not going to win any beauty contests and we certainly won't be invited to any formal dinners anytime soon, but that's OK. We don't have much interest in either anyway. Instead, we'd rather continue on our journey together, sharing thoughts, opinions, and ideas -- as well as elbows -- with one another as we do so.

Monday, February 23, 2009

REVIEW: 100 Calamitous Curses

There are lots of things one can focus on when trying to pinpoint specific game mechanics that separate old school games from their modern descendants -- save or die effects and level draining are two of the most popular ones. Strangely, I almost never hear anyone mention curses. Back in the day, cursed magic items were pretty commonplace -- about one out of every ten scrolls or swords, for example, was cursed -- which is why both magic-users and clerics got the remove curse spell in OD&D. Curses were a standard part of the referee's bag of tricks and players understood the need to be wary when picking up that cool new sword you looted from the troll lair or reading that scroll you found on the dead body floating in the subterranean lake.

If there was a problem with curses, it was that, after a while, it became increasingly hard to come up with new and interesting ones. Volume 2 of OD&D, for example, provides exactly five sample curses for use in the game. Now, five is better than none, but, if a campaign lasts long enough, odds are you're going to use up all those options and how many more times do your players want to see their characters transported to Barsoom as a result of a cursed scroll? That's where the relentless James Mishler's 100 Calamitous Curses comes in. For $2.50, Mishler gives you just what the title promises: 100 different curses for use with your favorite fantasy RPG. Though written for Castles & Crusades, like so many of Adventure Games Publishing's products, this 12-page PDF is effectively system-neutral. There's only a small amount of C&C-specific game mechanics in the text, so little that I don't hesitate to recommend it to any referee who's looking for new and unusual curses to add to his campaign.

And what curses! I've commented many times before that James Mishler has a real knack for creating game material with a decidedly swords-and-sorcery vibe. 100 Calamitous Curses is no different. Consider just two curses:
  • Curse of Unquenchable Thirst: The accursed one is always thirsty, and must drink a gallon of water every hour. If in hot dry weather or during exertion (such as extended combat), the accursed one must drink two gallons per hour. Every gallon missed the accursed one suffers one point of subdual damage, which cannot be healed naturally or by magic until she catches up on all the missed water.
  • Curse of the Ghoulish Gourmand: The accursed one develops a taste for the flesh of humans, demihumans, and humanoids, but especially those of his own race. This is first noticed when he is within 10 feet of a corpse, which to the accursed one smells like an irresistible well-seasoned and perfectly-grilled steak. The accursed one must make a Charisma check each time he encounters a new corpse (with a -2 penalty for the flesh of his own race), or he decides to succumb to temptation and tucks in without worry for cooking or seasoning (though he still seeks to do so surreptitiously, if others can see). After failing and consuming such flesh a number of times equal to his Constitution score, he is hooked, and can only subsist on such flesh; all other foods are regurgitated or simply provide no sustenance. Thereafter for every day he goes without the flesh such a being he suffers 1d6 points of subdual damage, which cannot heal naturally or be cured by magic until he once again consumed forbidden flesh.
And there are 98 more curses in this product, many of them even more inventive than these two examples. This really is a remarkably useful product for old school fantasy games. I know I'll get a lot of use out of it and I expect I'll not be alone. Once again, a superb piece of work from James Mishler and AGP.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

Pulp Fantasy Library: Jack of Shadows

There's been a lot of talk in the old school community, especially this blog, about the thief class introduced in Supplement I to OD&D. In discussing it, you'll see frequent references to the Gray Mouser, Cugel the Clever, and even Conan, but comparatively few to Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, who makes his appearance in the 1971 novel of the same name. I kick myself for not having remembered Jack, all the moreso because Gary Gygax was always quite upfront about taking inspiration from this character when imagining the thief class. Indeed, Appendix N lists Jack of Shadows (along with the "Amber" series, with which it bears some thematic similarities) as one of the books that inspired AD&D.

I suppose it's because I'm not actually a big fan of Zelazny's writing that I'd forgotten this vital clue to "The Thief Question." There's something a bit too "psychedelic" about Zelazny's style that doesn't appeal to me. My tastes are much more staid in comparison. Still, that's no excuse for having overlooked Jack of Shadows, which, despite its unevenness, full of fascinating ideas. The title character hails from a world that does not rotate. One side, dominated by magic, is perpetually in darkness, while the other side, dominated by science, is perpetually in light. Jack, as you might expect, exists in the shadows, his powers negated in either complete darkness or complete light. Though a magical being with more in common with the creatures of darkness, Jack nevertheless straddles the two worlds and the novel's story is about his attempts to gain mastery over both, culminating in a series of events that forever change the world -- and Jack himself.

Jack of Shadows is a good example of the kind of quirky world-building for which the fantasy genre was once known. The setting of the novel is neither a post-Tolkien epic fantasy nor a grim and gritty Robert E. Howard pastiche. Instead, it's a purely fantastical place, where the laws of reality vary from place to place and magic and science reign supreme within their confined realms. In short, it's an original exercise of the imagination and, while I have my issues with both its presentation and content, I can't help but approve of its uniqueness.

For me, though, the most important part of Jack of Shadows is the insight it offers into the thief class and its abilities. Jack is a magical being, a master of manipulating the realm between shadow and light to his advantage. He is the greatest thief that ever was, because he is at one with the shadows. The D&D thief wasn't intended to emulate Jack, so I don't think it's reasonable to assume that its class abilities are "magical" in nature. Nevertheless, that influence is there and I think it needs to be borne in mind when considering what the thief is supposed to be and how its abilities are supposed to work.

There's always a danger in focusing too heavily on a single influence over any aspect of D&D, of course, but I nevertheless think it's vital to understand all those influences. Without that knowledge, one might mistakenly change or remove something ignorant of the consequences. To some extent, I may be guilty of that with regard to the thief, as I recently admitted. That's why I'm glad I remembered Jack of Shadows. I'm still uneasy about the thief and its effects both on OD&D specifically and the development of Dungeons & Dragons generally, but now I have some additional influences to consider as I ponder these matters.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Monsters &Treasure of the Wilderlands Updated

Back in September, I wrote a review of Adventure Games Publishing's Monsters & Treasure of the Wilderlands I, giving it a perfect score of 5 out of 5 polearms. Well, the indefatigable James Mishler has been hard at work, expanding the product by adding eleven new monsters (27 as opposed to 16), artwork by Peter Bradley (including a full-color cover), and more information on how to integrate these creatures into the Wilderlands of High Adventure campaign setting. The PDF version of the expanded product sells for $8.00, twice the cost of the original version, presumably because of the cost of art and cartography. A print version will retail for $10.95 and should be available soon.

The new monsters are as good as those in the original release and it's nice to see illustrations of these beasties, even if Bradley's art isn't quite my cup of tea. If you didn't pick up a copy of the original release, I have no hesitation about recommending the expanded version, as it's well worth the price. Mishler's products are extremely good at providing a lot of useful flavor in addition to game mechanics. That is, there's no "fluff" here. Instead, what you get are nice little details that in themselves suggest adventures or that make an encounter more memorable. There's no gilding the lily here, just good old-fashioned creativity in the service of great gaming. And Mishler's magical treasures continue to be some of the best written in many a moon. They're weird and mysterious and, best of all, dangerous. They're perfect for swords-and-sorcery style games and I absolutely adore them.

This expanded version is another milestone along Adventure Games Publishing's journey to restore the Wilderlands to its former glory as one of the pre-eminent settings of fantasy gaming. Between the little touches in the monster and treasure descriptions and the maps that provide a wider context to it all, you can see just how much Mishler loves adding gameable details to this setting. That love is infectious and, while I still worry that AGP's Wilderlands offerings could result in too much detail, we're clearly not at that point just yet. Instead, we have another excellent bit of work that testifies to the lasting power of Judges Guild's products and ideas.

Alien (1979) as a Traveller Movie

Old man that I am, I've lately been re-watching movies from my youth, as well as doing some research into their production. While doing so, I stumbled across a review of 1979's Alien by Roger Ebert. Ebert likes the film a great deal, as do I. Indeed, I consider it far and away the best film in the whole franchise and, while there's also a lot to like in its immediate sequel, a big part of me wishes there'd never been any follow-up films. But then of course I'd say something like that, wouldn't I?

In any case, Ebert's review included an insight that really hit home with me and, upon reflection, reveals why I've long associated Alien with Traveller, even though there's not a great deal of connection between the two. Ebert says:
A peculiarity of the rest of the actors is that none of them were particularly young. Tom Skerritt, the captain, was 46, Hurt was 39 but looked older, Holm was 48, Harry Dean Stanton was 53, Yaphet Kotto was 42, and only Veronica Cartwright at 29 and Weaver at 30 were in the age range of the usual thriller cast. Many recent action pictures have improbably young actors cast as key roles or sidekicks, but by skewing older, "Alien" achieves a certain texture without even making a point of it: These are not adventurers but workers, hired by a company to return 20 million tons of ore to Earth ...
I suppose it doesn't get more clear than that.

The Cleric (Yet Again)

One of the funny things about being interested in the pulp fantasy roots of Dungeons & Dragons is that, OD&D to the contrary, I often feel as ambivalent about the cleric as I do about the thief. In part it's because the cleric archetype doesn't really have an equivalent in pulp fantasy. Certainly there were lots of priests in pulp fantasy, but I can't really recall any offhand that had much in common with the D&D cleric class. Those that wielded magic did so not because of a divine gift (though there are a few exceptions here and there) but because they were sorcerers in addition to being priests -- and usually evil sorcerers at that, since pulp fantasy generally takes a cynical view of religion. Still, the cleric has been there since the beginning and I'm loath to give it up, which is why I regularly look for new and interesting ways to tweak the Gygaxo-Arnesonian patrimony to produce a result that's at least a little bit closer to what you'd expect to find in pulp fantasy.

While looking for High Gygaxian quotes for my recent entry, I came across a passage in the Players Handbook I'd forgotten. In his introduction to the book, Gygax states that
Clerics and fighters have been strengthened in relation to magic-users, although not overly so. Clerics have more and improved spell capability.
On first reading, one might assume Gary is referring primarily to the fact that, in AD&D, clerics get a spell at first level, unlike in OD&D. He probably is, but there's more to it than that. The selection of clerical spells in AD&D is much larger than in OD&D and, more significantly, it includes a few spells that deal direct damage, such as flame strike and spiritual hammer. These spells don't predominate by any means, but their appearance is a deviation from the way cleric spells are presented in OD&D -- as defensive, restorative, and divinatory in character.

I wrote previously about my vision for how to explain clerical magic. I largely stand behind what I wrote earlier and think that the key to that approach is eliminating direct damage dealing spells from the cleric's repertoire, except as reversed spells. One of the many things I disliked about the 3e cleric (and, by extension, the 4e one) is the way that the class was given access to a wider variety of combat-oriented spells. If one is to envision clerics as "white magicians," as I do, then it doesn't make a lot of sense to include direct damage dealing spells, except as willful perversions of the "path" of magic they've undertaken by their vocation.

I realize that, in many people's eyes, I'm relegating the cleric to a "support" role, but I see that as a feature rather than a bug. Clerics shouldn't have spells that are as mighty or versatile as a magic-user; that's not the archetype they represent, at least as I see it. They're a defensive class, which is why they have such good saving throws, the second best attack progression, and the ability to put on plate mail armor. There is a certain logic to it all, even if it's a somewhat strained logic at times and I feel it's important to buttress it whenever I can. The end result might not be a true pulp fantasy-style priest, but it also won't be the heavily armored wizards that they eventually came to be over the years.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Favorite Monsters

Over at Monsters and Manuals, noisms posted a list of his 10 favorite D&D monsters last weekend. I'd meant to post my own list earlier in the week, but it somehow slipped my mind. So, without further ado, I present my favorite monsters (in no particular order):

  1. Giant Spider: I am quite arachnaphobic, so I tend to agree with Gygax's assessment of the alignment of these creatures (Chaotic Evil). There are few things I find more viscerally terrifying than the idea of a man-sized spider.
  2. Ghoul: I'm a big fan of the undead generally, but the ghoul stands out, because, at 2 Hit Dice, it's an appropriate low-level challenge. And, given its paralyzing touch, it is a challenge. Plus, that poor gnome in the Dungeon Masters Guide example of play was devoured by ghouls ("You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he's working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight.").
  3. Hell Hound: Not sure why but something about fire-breathing mastiffs really appeals to me.
  4. Hobgoblin: I've always consider hobgoblins "the thinking man's orcs." In my games at least, these guys are organized, disciplined, and clever. They're not a just a bunch of faceless minions and I love using them to show that even 1+1 Hit Dice monsters can hold their own against a band of seasoned adventurers.
  5. Lich: While I can count on one hand the number of times I've ever actually used a lich in my games, I still count these creatures among my favorites. Though they have their origin in Fox's "Kothar" stories, if I recall, I play them with a Clark Ashton Smith vibe -- spellcasters so fearful of death that they've willingly cursed themselves into fate far worse than it. My liches are not happy people.
  6. Mind Flayer: What's not to like about psionic Cthulhoid alien beings? I learned how to use the AD&D psionics rules primarily so I could use this monster "properly" and my players never forgave me for it. Heh-heh.
  7. Owlbear: There's something whimsically malevolent about this creature, as if it were some mad archmage's stab at black humor while experimenting with magical genetic engineering.
  8. Rakshasa: One of my favorite TV shows as a kid was The Night Stalker. I still have an autographed picture of Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak that my aunt got for me. Even though the rakshasa in the show was nothing like the one in the Monster Manual, I still have an incredible soft spot for them. When I learned from Gary that he first heard of the creature because of The Night Stalker, I loved it even more.
  9. Wererat: By far the most interetsing lycanthropes in my opinion. That they're inspired by Fritz Leiber doesn't hurt their appeal either.
  10. Wight: More undead? Yep. The wight really hits a sweet spot with me. Their level drain is scary enough that players treat the creature with respect, but not so scary that I'd ever hesitate to throw a wight at them, even as a wandering monster. Plus, I find the Barrow Downs section of The Fellowship of the Ring very well done.
And there they are.

Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines

Over at the always interesting -- except when they're arguing about politics, ugh -- Knights & Knaves Alehouse, there's a fun thread the offers up some excellent guidelines for designing dungeons à l'ancienne école. Most of them come from remarkable mind of the equally remarkable Trent Foster, with additions by many other fine individuals, including Matt Finch of Swords & Wizardry fame.

None of the elements mentioned below are part of a magic formula. You can include every single one of them and still fail to capture that elusive old school essence. Likewise, many adventures included none of these elements and yet their claim to the old school moniker is beyond dispute. As I say in the title of this entry, these are "guidelines," not requirements. Use them more as a tool for divining the nature of the old school mindset than as a checklist of things you must include in every adventure and you'll find them very useful indeed.

1. Environmental hazards -- slippery floors, rooms that flood, narrow ledges over steep drops, rooms that are excessively hot or cold, rooms or corridors filled with poison (or otherwise magical) gasses, etc.

2. Combat encounters should generally be with baseline (or near-baseline) monsters with difficulty enhanced by the circumstances of the encounter (i.e. monsters have set up ambushes, monsters forcing the PCs to fight in unfavorable surroundings, teams of similar (or dissimilar) monster-types working together, etc.) rather than through templates or class-leveling

3. At least one encounter that if played as a straight combat will totally overmatch the party, but which can be avoided or circumvented by some clever means

4. At least one puzzle, trick, or obstacle that requires the players to figure it out, rather than being solvable by a die-roll

5. At least one item, location, or creature that causes some kind of significant permanent effect (permanently raise/lower stats or hp, permanently change race, gender, or alignment, permanently grant or take away magic items, etc.) determined by a random roll on a table -- with possibilities for both good and bad effects, depending on the roll

6. At least one item of treasure that is cursed or has other detrimental side-effects on the owner/possessor

7. Some sort of "false climax" where inattentive players will think they've won the adventure and either let their guard down or go home, while clever players will realize this couldn't have really been the climax

8. At least one disorienting effect. teleporter, mirror trap, [swiveling] floor, or maze like monster. up is down too.

9. An area where resources are an issue. wet torches or wind blowing them out. oxygen low or having to hold your breath to swim [through] a tunnel.

10. An area that has items of value. but they are too large to transport. or cause someone to have his hands full at an ambush.

11. A creature that appears to be something it is not. Some examples: Lurker above, mimic, [cloaker], wolf in sheep's clothing, doppelganger, gas spore (perhaps my favorite), etc.

12. One encounter (no more, no less) that makes absolutely no logical sense, that the DM completely leaves up to the players' imagination to explain.

Dwimmermount (Session 6)

I have no photos to share this time, since the latest batch of painted miniatures (some skeletons and pig-faced orcs) weren't used in the last session. More to the point, I am terrible at taking close-ups of miniatures and the few I tried to take turned out horribly. Perhaps I'll entrust the photography at the next session to someone who knows what they're doing.

Session 6 saw our heroes and their growing horde of hirelings descend into the second level of Dwimmermount for the first time. In their explorations, they discovered evidence that someone had been there ahead of them, although it was unclear whether this was recently or further in the past. Several rooms had obviously been cleared of their former inhabitants and they found notes and symbols painted on doors and on the walls of several chambers. They did not, however, see anyone else on Level 2 who might have left behind these clues, so they assume (for now) that they were not recent additions to the dungeon.

Level 2 presented the characters with several new challenges. They encountered more kobolds but, being better prepared for them this time, they didn't instill them with the same degree of trepidation as those they encountered when they first entered the dungeon. They also encountered some strange "beast men" who seemed to be, for lack of a better word, "employed" in maintaining the traps of the dungeon. This was the first hint that someone or something might be "running" the dungeon from behind the scenes, although, again, the evidence was mostly circumstantial. A pack of ghouls -- how I wish Otherworld Miniatures would produce some of these! -- caught the party by surprise. Brother Candor was paralyzed on the first round of combat, which caused the characters momentary worry, since it meant he could not turn the undead and they would have to face the pack in its entirety, one man down, and without access to emergency healing.

The session was quite enjoyable overall. There were some moments of slapstick humor interspered with the seriousness, for which I was grateful. One of the things I most regret about the megadungeon focus of the campaign is the comparative paucity of opportunities for me to ham it up while playing NPCs. I've always been good at breathing life into even minor NPCs and I love having a large number of them to work with. So far, I've had to limit myself primarily to the hirelings, particularly Brakk the Goblin, whose reliable untrustworthiness is a source of much fun. There's also Erik and Ethil, twin brothers who were hired as muscle and have slowly morphed into medieval equivalents of Hans and Franz. So, I think I'm going to push harder to get the party out of the dungeon and set some other events in motion elsewhere. Whether the players bite or not is up to them.

I'm also a little unhappy with my dungeon maps. On Level 1, I mixed natural caverns with traditional dungeon rooms and, while the result was a good one that lent a nice feel to the place, it was hard to map at times. On level 2, I purposefully eschewed standardized rooms of a rectangular or square shape and went with more irregular ones. Likewise, the corridors are often winding and diagonal rather than straight and there are many, many branches so as to provide lots of potential avenues for exploration. In principle, this is a good idea and I stand behind the decision. However, I'm now more keenly aware that it's hard for my players to map this out at times. It's also hard for me to use our dungeon tiles to represent the rooms and corridors, because I frequently just don't have the pieces to do so properly. The result has been a decline in the use of the tiles, which, while not a terrible thing, still bleeds a bit of the spectacle out of the game and I think spectacle is important.

As ever, I continue to learn.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

High Gygaxian

Whatever other virtues later editions of Dungeons & Dragons may possess, none of them can compare to the baroque splendor of High Gygaxian speech. It is, hands down, the one thing I miss most about D&D. Reading Gygax at his florid best -- even when he's misusing words, which he sometimes did -- transports me in a way that no other gaming books ever have. Consider this classic description of the alignment restrictions on the assassin class:
Assassins are evil in alignment (perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal).
Perforce? Anthithesis of weal? Who writes like that anymore? In what game book can you find such prose nowadays?

Modern game books read like what they are: technical manuals. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I much prefer my roleplaying books to be quirky, idiosyncratic things that reveal the mind of their authors. I like to be reminded that there was an actual human being behind these volumes, whose word choices reflect his personality and preferences rather than the demands of mere utility.

High Gygaxian speech sounds to me like a local dialect of High Vancian. I once told Gary my opinion on this and he demurred. He didn't think his own peculiar voice was anywhere as erudite and witty as that of Jack Vance, saying that it was mostly the result of his having read a lot of rather "old fashioned" books when he was a kid, coupled with his lifelong love of dictionaries and thesauruses. Even so, there's something rapturous about the way Gary wrote and it's part of the lasting appeal 1e has for me. There are hints of it in OD&D, even in the three little brown books, but it's not until later that it reaches its fullest flower.

I know there are many for whom High Gygaxian is the thing they miss least about D&D. I can certainly understand not liking the particular way Gary wrote, as it's an acquired taste, but I have a hard time fathoming a preference for game books being treated primarily as instruction manuals rather than as occasions to inspire, exhort, and enchant one's imagination through words, like this bit from Vault of the Drow:
The true splendor of the Vault can be appreciated only by those with infravision, or by use of the roseate lenses or a gem of seeing. The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. When properly viewed, the radiation from certain unique minerals give the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite -- which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight.

The small "star" nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large "moon" of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers' attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.
Again, I say, you'll find few passages in contemporary adventures that are as evocative.

Like Gary himself, I've demurred when someone called my style of writing "Gygaxian." I lack Gary's flair and too many years in academia have infected my writing with adverbitis. Yet, I can't deny that High Gygaxian was a major influence on me as a kid. I know that my vocabulary grew considerably as a result of reading my AD&D books. His writing was challenging and often difficult to decipher, but it also showed me the importance of finding one's own unique voice and using it to make connections to other people. Goodness knows Gary connected to me through his writings and, as I've been recently reminded, in this respect I certainly am following in his footsteps.

Knockspell in Print

I forgot to mention this the other day, but Issue #1 of Knockspell magazine is now available in print. The first issue is terrific and I'm not just saying that because I made a couple of small contributions myself. Like retro-clones, I don't think there can be enough fanzines and it gladdens me to see another one appear on the old school scene -- and in hard copy no less!

And Now a Whine (and a Rant)

I absolutely love writing this blog. I should think that was pretty obvious. Not even a year into its existence and I've already penned almost 550 entries and I don't foresee a slowdown anytime soon. The blog format is really well suited to my particular style of writing: the rambling essay. And, as I've said numerous times over the past eleven months, I am intensely gratified by the fact that I've found readers who enjoy what I've written and give me plenty of food for thought every day. I didn't begin this blog at the end of last March with any grand intentions. I only wanted an outlet for my ideas and opinions that I could share with, if I were lucky, a handful of likeminded people. That so many read my words and helped Grognardia blossom into something bigger than my original, modest goals is, frankly, humbling.

At times, though, it's also intensely frustrating. One would think, given the vast quantity of verbiage I've produced over the last year, that it'd be pretty easy to understand me and my perspectives on things. I've been very upfront about my personal gaming history, my influences, my likes and dislikes, and even my psychological quirks. I've also tried very hard -- not always successfully, I'll admit -- to qualify all my opinions so as to make it clear that I like X or I prefer Y. As I said, I know my zeal for my preferences sometimes gets the better of me and I've made a few pontifical statements here and there, but I think, in general, I'm actually pretty fair-minded and even-handed on most subjects. And when I am not able to be so, I say as much.

I never set myself up to be the Pope of Old School nor do I think we have any need of such. Yet, I regularly find myself treated in this fashion, usually by latter day Martin Luthers looking to demonstrate my theological incorrectness. I don't get this. I purposefully avoid most gaming forums, with a few very specific exceptions, precisely because I know where my preferences lie and I would rather discuss those preferences with others whose mindsets are broadly similar to my own rather than argue with people with whom I have little in common. The same goes for other blogs. I certainly don't go to places where, for example, 4e enthusiasts hang out and start telling them what idiots they are for liking that edition. Such an activity would gain me nothing and I can't abide incivility, which is exactly what I'd be exhibiting if I went over to ENWorld and started tons of threads about how 4e sucks or, worse yet, dropped in on someone else's threads and did the same.

For whatever reason, I seem to be a lightning rod for gamers who just want to be angry or contrary, because I happen to prefer older editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Whatever criticisms I have of modern editions of the game, I make here on my own little slice of the Web rather than on someone else's. I'm always open to genuine discussion and even debate, but I can't abide people who either, out of ignorance or malice, seem intent on misrepresenting my views. I know it takes time to get to know someone and understand them, but the great advantage of a blog like this one is that all my thoughts over the last eleven months are here for you to read at your leisure. If someone is willing to take the time to read even some of them, they'll quickly see that I'm not some fire-breathing prophet of doom and gloom who hasn't actually gamed since 1984 and just likes to look down his nose at "those damned kids today."

Like everyone, my opinions evolve over time and are subject to persuasion. Take the thief class, to cite one recent example. I started this blog convinced of the class's unsuitability. Now, thanks to the rational arguments of many people over many months, people who took the time to understand my concerns and not simply dismiss them as "fetishism" or "dogmatism," I've softened on the subject. If I were really as narrow-minded as the caricature of me would have it, shouldn't I have just covered my ears and anathematized anyone who dared speak against my Papal dicta?

I hope I can be forgiven for venting/ranting at this time. Yesterday, I read some things said about me elsewhere that demonstrated how poorly a lot of people actually understand me (and indeed old schoolers in general). Add to this some of the comments on my post about level titles, where I specifically said "I like level titles" and asked for "constructive criticism" on my lists and yet got "Level stupids are stupid" in addition to some excellent suggestions -- and my nerves are a bit frazzled. I actually have a decently thick skin for such nonsense, but, after a while, it can wear you down. I felt I needed to get this off my chest in a public fashion, so that if, over the next little while, I seem snippier or less tolerant than usual, you know why. Not that that will matter to the usual suspects, of course, but there it is.

Regular service resumes shortly.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Level Titles

I've mentioned before that I absolutely love the level titles of old school D&D and regret that they were dropped from the game. One of the things you quickly notice when reading old products was how widespread there use was back in the day. There are frequent references to guys like So-and-So the Swordsman and Such-and-Such the Enchanter. The abbreviation EHP was so well understood that it was used as shorthand in many places (including module G3 to refer to Eclavdra) for powerful evil clerics.

None of the retro-clones include level titles, since the D20 SRD didn't include them (neither did Third Edition itself) and it's impossible to recreate them without running afoul of "artistic presentation" issues. So, for my Dwimmermount campaign, I'm working on totally new lists of level titles that retain the flavor of the originals while being original. I justify the existence of these titles by saying that they're remnants of the days of Thulian rule and have now passed into common usage throughout the main campaign area. There are some local variations here and there, but, like the use of Latin in the Middle Ages, these titles are a testament to the common heritage of all the realms and city-states of the present era.

In a divergence from OD&D, I adopted a standardized 9-level system for all classes (OD&D has 9 for Fighting-Men, 11 for Magic-Users, and 8 for Clerics). I'm very unhappy with my list for Fighters, so I'd appreciate some suggestions. I'm happier with the MU and Cleric lists, but I welcome constructive criticism for those lists as well.






































High Priest



Prelude to a Post

The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them. Yet, there are always certain exceptional and brave members of humanity, as well as similar individuals among its allies - dwarves, elves, and halflings - who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land. Bold adventurers from the Realm set off for the Borderlands to seek their fortune. It is these adventurers who, provided they survive the challenge, carry the battle to the enemy. Such adventurers meet the forces of Chaos in a testing ground where only the fittest will return to relate the tale. Here, these individuals will become skilled in their profession, be it fighter or magic-user, cleric or thief. They will be tried in the fire of combat, those who return, hardened and more fit. True, some few who do survive the process will turn from Law and good and serve the masters of Chaos, but most will remain faithful and ready to fight chaos wherever it threatens to infect the Realm.

You are indeed members of that exceptional class, adventurers who have journeyed to the KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS in search of fame and fortune. Of course you are inexperienced, but you have your skills and a heart that cries out for adventure. You have it in you to become great, but you must gain experience and knowledge and greater skill. There is much to learn, and you are willing and eager to be about it! Each of you has come with everything which could possibly be given you to help. Now you must fend for yourselves; your fate is in your hands, for better or worse
--Gary Gygax, The Keep on the Borderlands (1979)

Retrospective: The Isle of Dread

If the purpose of published modules is as much to provide a model for inexperienced referees as to provide a ready-made adventuring locale, then The Isle of Dread is certainly one of the most influential modules I've ever read. First published in 1981 as part of the Cook/Marsh Expert Set, module X1 is part of what I sometimes call the "Moldvay Pulp Fantasy Trilogy." Not a trilogy in the literal sense, these three modules -- B4, X1, and X2 -- all draw clear inspiration from a number of pulp fantasy authors and stories, X1 being an homage to Burroughs, Haggard, Doyle, and Merritt (not to mention King Kong). Being a huge fan of the "Lost World" genre of pulp fantasy even then, I absolutely adored The Isle of Dread and can't even begin to count how often I used it in my old campaign.

My love for X1 isn't based solely on its pulp fantasy roots. Indeed, one of the primary reasons I love it is because it's an archetypal location-based module, a format I prefer above all others. There's an exceedingly thin plot to The Isle of Dread: the PCs find a treasure map and, if they elect to pursue its instructions, find themselves on a far-off tropical island filled with all the Lost World staples -- primitive natives, monstrous wildlife (including dinosaurs!), inhospitable terrain, ancient evils, and wealth galore. It's a terrific set-up, both as a backdrop for adventure and as a tutorial on how to construct wilderness adventures. I remember absolutely adoring the players' map to the Isle, because it only showed the hexes immediately around the coast, with the interior being completely empty, awaiting the characters' own explorations. It reminded me of 19th century maps of Africa, which I suspect was no accident.

Like most modules of its time, The Isle of Dread is readily customizable. Even with all the encounters included in its pages, there are many, many areas that receive no attention whatsoever, allowing the referee plenty of room to incorporate his own ideas. I myself did this on numerous occasions, the most ambitious being my placement of the Forbidden City in the center of the Isle rather than the Kopru temple described in the module. To my young imagination, the Isle of Dread needed snake-men, so it only seemed natural to mash together modules X1 and I1. Given that David Cook was involved in both of them, it seemed to make even more sense. This is the origin of my still-percolating The Forbidden Isle project.

I wouldn't go so far as to call The Isle of Dread "perfect," because it's not, but it's nonetheless a very good module. Its greatest virtue is in being a mini-sandbox where some basic features have already been constructed as aids to the novice referee. Those features are sturdy enough to stand on their own merits but none is so impervious to modification as to prevent a referee from altering (or eliminating) them to his own satisfaction. That will always be the mark of a good module in my opinion and The Isle of Dread has it in spades. I'd love to see modules like this again.

Dragon Magazine Circulation

I seem to recall reading a breakdown of the circulation of Dragon magazine during its lifetime, but I can't recall where for the life of me. I've searched all the obvious places and cannot find it. That may be because I've somehow overlooked it, but it might also be because it's somewhere I don't regularly visit.

Does anyone else recall this breakdown or, better yet, remember where it might be found?


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thanks (Once Again)

I have already individually thanked all the people who've recently -- and generously -- made donations as a show of appreciation of their enjoyment of Grognardia. Still, I feel compelled to thank them here as well. Maintaining this blog costs me nothing but my time, so it's not as if I really have any significant expenses. Still, I do purchases of products to review and the donations go a long way toward deferring the costs of those, for which I am very grateful. Thank you!

Grognard's Grimoire: Thelidu

THELIDU (Brain Demons)

Armor Class:
Hit Dice: 4+3
Attacks: 2 Claws (1d6 each), Tentacles (1d4)
Saving Throw: 12
Special: Mental powers, Brain extraction
Move: 13
Challenge Level/XP: 8/800 XP

The Thelidu (the term is both singular and plural) are a hateful species of conquerors from Outside who use use weird devices to travel to other worlds in search of slaves and resources. Possessing scaly, rubbery, vaguely humanoid bodies, the Thelidu have octopus-like heads and faces that are masses of feelers. Gelatinous green in color, these monstrosities are worshipped as near-gods on countless worlds -- and feared on countless more. Obsessed with the purity of their own species, the Thelidu regularly engage in internecine wars to exterminate the "unfit" in their midst, an activity they enjoy even more than conquering and enslaving other species. This trait is one of the few things that have saved worlds from Thelidu conquest, as these alien beings are relentless in their campaigns of domination.

Thelidu are masters of the mind, which has earned them the sobriquet "brain demons," even though they are not in fact demons of any kind and indeed view demons are just another species to be conquered. All Thelidu are capable of using several abilities that mimic the effects of arcane spells: charm monster, charm person, clairaudience, clairvoyance, ESP, levitate, and suggestion. In addition, a successful melee hit on a single target with both claws and tentacles results in death in 1d6 rounds, as the Thelidu cracks open the victim's skull and extracts its brain, resulting in immediate death.

The extracted brain is then added to cerebral devices known as Brain Complexes, of which every Thelidu band possesses at least one. The precise purpose of the Brain Complexes is unknown but some sages surmise that they create and/or power many of the other queer devices the Thelidu carry with them as they scour the cosmos for worlds to conquer. Whatever the truth of the matter, the appearance of these beings on any world ought to be a cause for alarm and swift retaliation, lest they gain a foothold from which they can never be dislodged.

When in Rome

My father was drafted into the US Army in the late 60s and eventually posted to Fort Huachuca. So, when my parents married, their honeymoon consisted of making the trek from Baltimore, Maryland to southeastern Arizona. Along the way, they stopped in a wide variety of places they'd never visited and seen things they'd never seen before, like Maryland Fried Chicken restaurants, something that, ironically, didn't exist in Maryland.

My parents eventually returned to Baltimore several years later -- by way of the Netherlands, where my father was later posted and where I was born -- but my Dad had been bitten by the travel bug and so I spent most summers of my childhood traveling up and down the East Coast, seeing the sights. We weren't just sightseers, though: we usually stayed wherever we were visiting for three or four weeks, which gave us a chance to "live" there as well. My sister and I loved this, because we got the chance to find out what new shops and businesses existed in these far-off states. The two we'll never forget are the grocery store Piggly Wiggly, which we first encountered in North Carolina, and the Christmas Tree Shops, which we first saw in Massachusetts. Like our parents before us, we were struck by how diverse the country was. Sometimes this delighted us and sometimes it amused us, but it never failed to make our long trips fun, because it cemented the feeling of our having gone "away."

I bring this up because, back in the day, that's what gaming used to be like too. Every gaming group was its own little "region" with its own interpretations of the rules and its own little traditions and even rituals. I had a good friend in elementary school who had his own D&D campaign in his neighborhood (we lived some distance apart). Whenever I would sleep over at his house and "visit" his campaign -- something else that used by quite commonplace -- I knew that I was going to play the game according to their rules, not mine. They didn't use critical hit tables, for example, and, while I thought that was odd, I learned to accept it. Similarly, when I went to a game day at the local library -- another telltale sign of just how big gaming used to be -- I understood that I'd play according to the way the referee at my table ran the game, regardless of what I did back home with my friends.

I have to admit that I miss this bygone state of affairs. First, I miss "visiting" other campaigns. Nowadays, I'm lucky that I have a semi-stable group of players at all and I expect that's true of most gamers. I'm sure there are other gaming groups in the city, even ones playing games I like, but I have no interactions with them. Every group seems to be its own little island, cut off from everyone else. You don't get a lot of visitors dropping in for a session or two here and there. Instead, gamers nowadays seem to interact online by arguing with one another on forums rather than actually playing games with one another outside their existing group.

Second, I miss the days when simply playing under another referee was as exciting as the adventure itself. This guy is anal about tracking encumbrance, this guy doesn't allow monks in his game, and this guy has changed the way the magic system works. It really was like visiting another country every time you sat down at someone else's table and, while I'm the first to admit that not every such visit was a pleasant or enjoyable one, so what? As I've said before, there are no guarantees in gaming. Sometimes, even playing with my regular group isn't as fun as I'd like it to be, but that's the nature of the beast and I've come to accept, indeed embrace, it as one of the essential features of this hobby.

I'm not entirely sure how or why things changed, but they did. I suspect that the change maps pretty closely with the end of D&D's faddishness, as more and more people moved on from the hobby and never returned. There are still tons of gamers out there, but there's far less of a web of real life connections between them than there used to be. That makes it harder for them to take their character from one campaign and go and visit someone else's. Likewise, the "tournament mentality" seems more commonplace than it used to be. Again, that's not to deny that gamers make and use house rules -- house rules are in an inescapable part of gaming -- but I suspect individual campaigns don't vary as wildly in this respect as they used to do. Of course, how would I know for sure, since I haven't dropped in on anyone else's existing campaign in years?