Friday, July 30, 2010

Busy, busy

My apologies for a lack of an Open Friday post. As you can see, I'm actually even online today, when I'm usually not -- lots of stuff to do that required me to be at my computer. In all likelihood, posting will be limited over the weekend, but I'll see how things go.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dwimmermount, Session 46

The last Dwimmermount session reminded me once again why I shouldn't overplan things. After the events of Session 45, I'd assumed the PCs would undertake one of several actions they didn't ultimately take. You see, I imagined that they'd seek out the bandits they found to the south to hire them as mercenaries, so I gave some more thought to who these bandits were -- I originally had no idea -- and how they'd react to the characters. I also considered the possibility that the PCs would seek out one or more of the other locations their map told them were sitting on a ley line nexus, so I gave some consideration to just what these locations were and what they might be like. In the process, I also gave some thought to the world beyond the small area the PCs have seen thus far, as it made sense to do so.

In the end, though, the players decided that their characters would instead head right back into the dungeon and try to find the entrance to the House of Portals level that Cyrus had told them about. That action made perfect sense. After all, they knew that, to get passed the Termaxian cultists holed up on Level 5, they'd either have to fight them head-on or they'd have to find a way around them. Seeking out a level filled with magical portals, one of which just might circumvent both their enemies and the magic barrier blocking their descent, was thus perfectly reasonable. But it wasn't what I'd anticipated and thus I spent a lot more time between sessions thinking about contingencies that never came about. Now,those thoughts and ideas won't go to waste; they're still there waiting to be used when/if they're needed. However, I've been trying very hard to avoid overplanning the campaign and, in my excitement at the way the campaign seemed to be reaching a crossroads, I let my enthusiasm get the better of me.

That said, the session was nevertheless a fun one. The party, now beefed up with the additions of Murn the Dwarf and Brother Marius of Tyche, proceeded to explore an area of Level 3 they'd never before visited. According to Cyrus, to get where they wanted to go in one quadrant of the level, they'd need to visit another first -- a perfect example of why having a somewhat convoluted map ensures that levels remain fresh and interesting even after initial forays into them. In doing so, they encountered yet more necromantic apes, which proved much less dangerous this time around. They also activated a trap that unleashed demonic gargoyles and had to fight off an invisible stalker, which proved easier than expected thanks to Dordagdonar's wand of enemy detection.

Pressing onward, the characters eventually discovered another alchemical-necromantic laboratory, this one filled with cages that suggested there had recently been animals held here to serve as test subjects for experiments. From what the characters have seen thus far, it's pretty clear that Dwimmermount was the site of quite a few unpleasant activities in the latter days of Thulian rule and that at least some of those activities are again being begun anew. Needless to say, the PCs aren't happy to see this. Moving to adjacent rooms, they ran into opposition from some bugbears and an evil wizard who, so far as the characters could determine, was not a Termaxian. However, they haven't yet had a chance to find out who he is, as the session ended shortly after the bugbears were slain and the wizard had fallen victim to a hold person spell (I was rolling very badly this session).

As often happens after a momentous session, the next one is pretty sedate and "workmanlike." That's how I'd describe last week's session. The characters are now somewhat closer to finding the House of Portals level and they also have a new prisoner to interrogate, who might reveal more about the current goings-on within Dwimmermount. All in all, not bad for an evening's adventuring.

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XVII)

And so at last we come to Holmes's famed sample dungeon -- The Tower of Zenopus. More fully fleshed out than either the sample level in Volume 3 of OD&D or the Haunted Keep of Moldvay Basic, the Tower comes with several paragraphs of background that situate it within a larger world. Nearby is Portown, "a small but busy city linking the caravan routes from the south the merchant ships that dare the pirate-infested waters of the Northern Sea." Portown is also home to the Green Dragon Inn, which features in both Middle-earth's Bywater and Oerth's City of Greyhawk. I sometimes wonder if it's a requirement that there be an inn with this name in all fantasy worlds. There isn't yet one in my Dwimmermount campaign, but perhaps I need to rectify that.

Before providing a sample map -- or "floor plan," as Holmes calls it -- of one level of the Tower, Holmes briefly talks about the employment of "men-at-arms." Interestingly, he suggests they be employed primarily when only one character is attempting to explore the dungeon. This isn't evidence one way or the other regarding the decline of hirelings as an element of game play, but it is interesting. Remember that in Holmes's various articles elsewhere, including in his novel, The Maze of Peril, hirelings play important roles. Still, I thought it worth noting.

Holmes's map, as you can see, doesn't use numbers for its key but letters, which, while not unique to Holmes, is still unusual. Though his map is simple, it's not a linear design, with many viable paths of exploration. There's also an underground river and sea cave, two elements that I frequently use in my own dungeon designs. Until I looked again at this map I hadn't realized how much of an influence it had exerted over me all these years later.

The room descriptions in Holmes are lengthy, partially because he describes their contents in greater detail, but also because he often includes game rules in the descriptions. For example, Room B houses four skeletons and Holmes takes time to note that "A first level cleric must roll a 7 or more on two 6-sided dice to turn them away and then make a second roll to see how many are turned away." He clearly intended this section to serve as both a tutorial for dungeon design and a refresher course for the rules he'd already presented.

Rather than go through each room in detail, I'm instead going to offer a few impressions based on what sticks out most in reading through the map key:
  • Holmes is inconsistent as to whether he includes hit points in his monster descriptions, sometimes going so far as to suggest hit points should be rolled up on the spot.
  • He includes cursory morale rules in one entry, suggesting that goblins will run away or surrender if more than half their number is killed.
  • A 4th-level evil magic-user and his 2nd-level fighting man henchmen note that the MU has better saves than a 3rd-level one (by +1).
  • Holmes includes some basic rules for swimming, drowning, and wearing armor in water.
  • There's a clever little magic mask that will answer a single question put to it once a day. This is another element of this dungeon I've used again and again over the years.
  • There are rules for adjudicating knock-down.
  • There's even a "princess" to be rescued, Lemunda the Lovely, as well as an octopus, which is quite nasty, having 16 hit points and 6 attacks per round.
  • The sarcophagus room is a nice companion piece to Mike Carr's pool room from Module B1, with many sarcophagi, some of which contain treasure and others monsters.
  • The Tower of Zenopus seems to have several entrances in and out, including one in a nearby cemetery.
  • In the magician's tower, there's a cage ape that, if released, may turn on his evil master rather than attack the PCs.
  • Holmes also includes a new magic item, the wand of petrifaction, in the dungeon.
And with that, the Blue Book more or less ends. There's a brief section explaining how to use dice and read D&D's peculiar dice notation. There's also an even shorter biography of Dr. Holmes, followed by two pages of reference charts and tables. I used those tables for years after the fact, even when I was playing AD&D, because they were perforated and included everything I needed to play at levels 1-3.

Having now completed this examination of the Holmes-edited Basic Rules, I'll offer a few comments.

First, I think it's true beyond a shadow of any doubt that the Blue Book should be considered part of the OD&D family rather than a precursor to AD&D. Its AD&D connections are few and clumsy and there are enough rules differences between the two games that I don't think the Blue Book would serve as a particularly good introduction to AD&D. As an intro to OD&D, however, it's excellent, especially if one comes to it with a hobbyist mentality rather than expecting a "complete" game without the need to make the game one's own.

Second, I also think it's true that the Blue Book is probably one of the last major products published by TSR that strongly reflected a hobbyist philosophy and esthetic. That is, the Blue Book is not a "professional" product but rather the product of a talented and creative amateur sharing his love of the game with other talented and creative amateurs. It's an artifact from another time and it's little wonder to me that TSR would seek to replace it with something more "polished" in years to come.

Finally, on a personal level, it's been fascinating re-reading in depth a book that was my first introduction to the hobby. I'm amazed at how much is in Holmes that I've carried with me for three decades. I'm equally amazed at how many things I thought were in Holmes that aren't but were instead likely misinterpretations of passages in the Blue Book or house rules I adopted early and misremembered as stemming from it. I won't make the claim that the Blue Book is "the best" D&D Basic Rules ever written, because that's a very subjective claim. However, I will say that I am very glad it was my first rulebook and I wish there were one like it available today. Dr. Holmes was a great teacher and I consider myself fortunate to have learned from him.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dwarf Racial Class Question

Here's something I've never quite figured out: why is it that Moldvay included both increased XP costs per level for his dwarf racial class and level limits? I can see it in the case of the elf, because it's effectively a multiclass fighter-magic-user, but why should it cost more XP per level to be a dwarf, when he's basically just a fighting man who can only reach 12th level? The halfling, for example, requires exactly the same XP per level as a human fighter, but a dwarf, meanwhile, requires more. As I see it, if you're already penalizing demihumans by limiting their advancement, then why penalize them a second time by requiring more XP per level because they possess a handful of racial abilities of limited utility?

(There's also the issue that there's no precedent for this approach in the LBBs but that's another matter).

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XVI)

Holmes includes a section entitled "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art," in which he briefly discusses the (literally) artistic side of refereeing: making maps. He notes that
There should be several levels and each level should have access above and below and be made up of interlocking corridors, passages, stairs, closed rooms, secret doors, traps, and surprises for the unwary.
Though not a direct quote, this echoes much of the advice found in Volume 3 of OD&D. Beneath the section, there's this famous cross-section:
I can't calculate the way that this single illustration exerted an influence over my imagination. Even now, when I think of a dungeon, it's Stone Mountain that comes to mind. Also of interest is the fact that the text of the Blue Book notes that the Basic Set "includes the introductory module 'In Search of the Unknown'," even though later printings included The Keep on the Borderlands instead.

Next, Holmes provides us with a section entitled "Sample Floor Plan, Part of First Level." Before he actually gets around to showing us his sample dungeon, though, he digresses into a broad discussion of playing the game, including an example of play. Holmes reiterates OD&D by stating that "many rooms should be empty," two-thirds of them in fact. He also explains that
Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety but those which a character might avoid or overcome with some quick thinking and a little luck.
That single sentence alone says a great deal about the culture of play at the time, especially when combined with this one:
The possibility of "death" must be very real, but players must be able to win through luck and courage, or they will lose interest in the game and not come back.
Twice now Holmes has emphasized the importance of luck, something I too think is essential to the appeal of roleplaying games. His use of the term "courage" is intriguing. I suspect he meant "boldness" or "daring," suggesting that players ought not to be timid and paranoid and that be willing to take chances often yields positive results.

Holmes does suggest that the use of "appropriate speech" is an important part of the fun in the game, by which he clearly means "speaking in character." He also provides examples of swearing by deities, such as "Zeus, Crom, Cthulhu, or whatever," which says something about his own inspirations. Of course, he later on adds that
The imaginary universe of Dungeons & Dragons obviously lies not too far from the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's great Lord of the Rings trilogy. The D&D universe also impinges on the fantasy worlds of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Gardner F. Fox, classical mythology and any other source of inspiration the Dungeon Master wants to use.
In addition to the usual Mapper and Caller positions, Holmes suggests that one player "keep a 'Chronicle' of the monsters killed, treasure obtained, etc." This is the first time I've seen reference to such a role but it's possible it is mentioned elsewhere.

In his example of play, most of the dialog is between the D.M. and Caller, with an occasional interjection from another player. What's interesting is that, unlike in Moldvay, Holmes's example never refers to characters by their names, instead saying only "halfling" or "the fighter." My favorite bit from the example is the following exchange:
Caller: "Does he hear anything?"
D.M.: (Carefully rolling a secret die for end-of-turn wandering monster) "No. But the halfling guarding the door reports hearing slithering noises outside."
Player: "Hey, everybody, I hear slithering noises!"
That's pure gold right there.

As noted throughout this series, Holmes considers the role of the referee paramount, even going so far as to note that "the success of an expedition depends on the Dungeon Master and his creation, the dungeon." That's an unusual perspective but one that certainly makes sense in context -- without the DM's preparation beforehand, the game would be impossible. Holmes then ends his referee's section with the following reminder:
These rules are intended as guidelines. No two Dungeon Masters run their dungeons quite the same way, as anyone who has learned the game with one group and then transferred to another can easily attest. You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll -- roll the number and see what happens! The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!
It's almost certainly an exaggeration to call these this the best referee's advice ever given, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that it's excellent advice that I've carried with me ever since 1979 when I first read it. In particular, the notion that no one should expect any two campaigns to be the same is one I like and one that I wish had held the day within the hobby.

Retrospective: Griffin Mountain

Originally published in 1981, Griffin Mountain has been called -- not unreasonably -- one of the best RPG products ever produced for any game. Subtitled "A Complete Wilderness Campaign for RuneQuest," it was written by Rudy Kraft and Paul Jaquays, with additional material by Greg Stafford and details the Gloranthan region of Balazar, which is to the northwest of Prax, where so many early RuneQuest products were set.

And the subtitle is no joke: Griffin Mountain really is a complete campaign in a single 200-page book. Within its pages, you'll find information not just on the history and geography of Balazar, which are pretty standard for sourcebooks of this kind, but also information about the peoples, beliefs, and locations of the place. So, each settlement gets a write-up, along with its leaders and inhabitants, as do various citadels, caravans, and points of interest. There are weather tables and dozens of rumors, in addition to reaction and encounter tables, maps galore, and of course plenty of scenarios. In short, it's the perfect toolkit for a Gloranthan sandbox campaign.

If Griffin Mountain has a flaw, it's that it may be too comprehensive and getting a handle on all of its details is difficult, even for an experienced referee. After all, it describes a nearly 800-kilometer wide area of wilderness, inhabited by thousands of barbaric humans and as many non-humans. Besides Griffin Mountain itself, there's the River of the Damned, Dragonnewt Plinth, Firshala's Prison, and many more significant locales, each of which gets a full description, including maps in many cases. There's also the fact that, set as it is in Glorantha, there are additional details to consider, those quirky bits of lore and context that make Glorantha the remarkable fantasy setting that it is.

But it can be overwhelming and to take full advantage of Griffin Mountain, one would need to spend a great deal of time reading it, taking notes, and preparing in advance. This is not a product that can be picked up and used without preparation, even if the book does handle some of the tedious tasks of refereeing RuneQuest, such as providing stats for all the humans and monsters the characters are likely to encounter. Griffin Mountain is thus very much a product of its time, which is to say that, despite its wealth of information and prepared scenarios, it's still not fully usable "out of the box." It demands that the referee pore over its pages and make it his own, a process that takes time, effort, and no small amount of creativity to do right.

Of course, the result is well worth the effort, as Griffin Mountain is a true masterpiece of the early days of gaming. It's a great example of a sandbox, filled with people, places, and adventure hooks to keep a party of characters busy for innumerable nights of adventure. Best of all, none of it feels heavy-handed or pre-scripted. Instead, what you get is a large canvas on which to create stories of one's own against the backdrop of one region of the world of Glorantha. It's hard to do justice to it in a few words and, even if I described its entire contents exhaustively, it still wouldn't convey just what it is that makes Griffin Mountain so remarkable. It's a pity that it's long out of print and difficult to obtain nowadays, because I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what sandbox gaming is all about. For that matter, I think some publishers could do worse than to emulate it. Nearly 30 years later, it still has few competitors.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Quote to Tide You Over

It was a busy and distracting day today, so my apologies for a lack of posts and also my apologies for the emails I've yet to answer. In between my various errands and activities, I've been reading C.L. Moore's collected Northwest Smith stories and enjoying them greatly. I've read them many time before, but I recently had a strange desire to pick them up again and so I have.

The opening of Moore's first story in the series, "Shambleau," is a terrifically evocative one that nicely frames not just the tale it prefaces but also all those that follow.
Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which comes echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history's first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues -- heard Venus's people call their wet world "Sha-ardol" in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars's guttural "Lakkdiz" from the harsh tongues of Mars's dryland dwellers. You may be sure of that. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.
That's heady stuff in my opinion and I know it's already infiltrated my imagination, the fruits of which I'll discuss in the weeks to come.

Anyway, regular posting resume tomorrow, including the next installment of "Blue Book, Cover to Cover."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gringle's Pawnshop

While there's no question that the old school renaissance sprang out of the D&D community, it's not limited to it. That's why I'm happy to post a link to a new discussion board, Gringle's Pawnshop, which, in the words of its administrator, "exists principally to facilitate discussion of Chaosium's Runequest 2 set in Glorantha." It's modeled on Marv Breig's superb Original D&D Discussion forums; I certainly hope that it grows to become as lively and insightful as the OD&D boards have over the last couple of years.

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XV)

I should have mentioned this the other day, but Holmes includes no rules for intelligent swords in the Blue Book. Moldvay follows his lead on this, relegating such rules to the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook.

Holmes's ring of invisibility follows OD&D. However, he changes the LBBs' ring of mammal control to a ring of animal control. The ring controls the same number of animals as in OD&D but the scope of its power has been broadened. His ring of plant control is seemingly unique, having no counterpart in OD&D that I can find. The ring of weakness in the Blue Book is slightly different, being clearer in its mechanical function and possessing a 5% chance that it works in reverse. The ring of protection and ring of three wishes both function as in OD&D, right down to the injunction to the referee to use the latter as a means to punish greedy players who attempt abuse its magic. Likewise, the ring of regeneration, ring of water walking, and ring of fire resistance follow OD&D, though Holmes actually provides descriptions for the latter two rather than simply referring the reader to spell descriptions. The ring of contrariness follows Greyhawk.

Holmes follows OD&D when it comes to the general powers of wands (6d6 damage and 100 charges). He doesn't make reference to how many charges staves have, however, which is odd, particularly since Supplement I clarifies that even the staff of striking uses charges to function. He provides a duration for the fear engendered by a wand of fear, while his wand of magic detection and wand of secret door and trap detection follow OD&D except to convert inches to feet for range purposes. His other wands also follow OD&D, although the wand of fireballs gets a lengthier description that repeats some of the details of the fireball spell on which it's based, presumably because Holmes doesn't include such a description earlier in the book. Holmes's staves all conform to their OD&D antecedents. The rod of cancellation, meanwhile, is generally the same as in Supplement I, but Holmes adds that "the character employing the rod adds 2 to his die roll to score hits," a sentence not found in Greyhawk.

The crystal ball, medallion of ESP, and bag of holding follow OD&D. The elven cloak still only makes the wearer "next to invisible," but there are explicit rules for how the wearer can be seen. Elven boots are unchanged. The broom of flying is more specific about its speed with two riders but is otherwise unchanged. The helm of telepathy is roughly identical to OD&D, but the game mechanics are different, with the LBBs using the random monster action rules and Holmes employing a straight saving throw. The bag of devouring follows Greyhawk. The helm of chaos (law) is now called helm of evil/good and functions according to the fivefold alignment system. The helm also turns a Neutral character into someone "totally self-seeking" as opposed to OD&D's notion that the helm makes them become either Lawful or Chaotic, which suggests yet another shift in the meaning of alignment from the LBBs to Holmes. The rope of climbing from Supplement I is here and gets a lengthier and more detailed description of its powers. Gauntlets of ogre power more or less follow OD&D, though the range of damage dealt is slightly different (2-8 rather than 3-8) and Holmes riffs off the exceptional strength table (though does not follow it) by granting the wearer of the gauntlets the ability to carry more weight.

Holmes concludes his discussion of magic items by noting that the referee should penalize any character who "has a hireling or non-player character flunkie try out a newly found piece of equipment" out of fear for its possibly harmful effects. He suggests that such NPC guinea pigs "demand to keep [a magic item] if it proves to be beneficial" and will seek revenge if the opposite is the case.

Pulp Fantasy Library: Hammer Horror Films

I have occasionally used this series of posts to step outside the realm of books and discuss other media, such as movies. I generally avoid doing this for a number of reasons, chief among them being that it's long been my contention that old school D&D's primary inspirations were literary in nature and indeed literary within a specific sub-set of books and authors.

That said, it's also true that D&D wasn't written to emulate the works of any particular author or literary series. Furthermore, an important ingredient in the creative alchemy that brought forth the game was its ability to draw on ideas from a wide variety of sources and incorporate them into itself, in the process producing an entertainment that was greater than the sum of its parts.

A good example of this is the monk class introduced in Supplement II, Blackmoor, inspired by a variety of sources (ranging from Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir's The Destroyer series to the 1972-1975 TV series Kung Fu to Carl Douglas's hit single "Kung Fu Fighting.") but nevertheless transcending its roots in order to become a unique element of D&D. The same is, of course, true of the cleric, which by most accounts was inspired by Peter Cushing's portrayal of Dr. Van Helsing in numerous Hammer horror films watched by Dave Arneson in the late 60s and early 70s.

Hammer Film Productions was (and is -- the name has apparently been revived in recent years) one of the most prolific and influential creators of horror films during the late 1950s through early 1970s, producing dozens of films that firmly established a particular approach to horror as definitive. This approach combined tight scripts, clever direction, and superb casting to create moody, suspenseful films that punched far above their weight when it came to budget. It's also worth noting that Hammer's films were extremely daring when it came to gore and sexual content, which likely contributed to their success, although, by today's standards, the films are (mostly) quite tame. Indeed, having spent the last couple of weeks watching many of these films, I'd argue that the tension between the filmmaker's desire for greater explicitness and the censors' concerns created films that are more satisfying than both the more sanitized films made by Universal Studios a generation earlier and the no-holds-barred style of the 1970s and later.

Though called "horror" films and filled with many horrific and disturbing ideas and images, what's most notable about Hammer's best films is that they are, with few exceptions, adventure films, in which representatives of "the realm of Law" venture forth into a Chaotic stronghold and do battle against its minions. Watching The Brides of Dracula or The Devil Rides Out or Quatermass and the Pit, it's easy to see what exactly what so inspired Arneson and how these films had an impact on early gaming. Indeed, for all their breaking of societal taboos, the Hammer films (generally) have a very conventional morality at their hearts: good triumphs, evil is defeated, and life goes on -- until the next time Chaos again enters the world. They're great models for roleplaying adventures in terms of structure, characterization, and mood, not to mention the terrific characters.

Ravenloft takes a lot of licks on this blog and rightly so, I still feel. But, leaving aside its worst excesses, it's the very model of a Hammer horror movie turned into a D&D adventure. I've often thought that, stripped of its heavy-handed central melodrama, it could have served as an ideal bridge to the prehistory of the hobby, a reminder of some of the genuine cinematic antecedents of D&D. I still think this is a worthwhile endeavor, one I toy with from time to time in the midst of my other projects. Of course, lots of gamers fervently believe that "D&D can't do horror" and, I suppose, they're right if one's view of horror is overly psychologized and personal, but then I don't think this "defect" is unique to Dungeons & Dragons.

On the other hand, as the Hammer films show us, horror isn't just something one can feel on a personal level; it can be something broader, such as the revulsion Paul Krempe feels as his friend Victor von Frankenstein presses on with his mad researches, disregarding the laws of both God and man. Or the danger posed by Dracula, as his lust for blood creates yet more of his kind. Or even the dark reflection of human nature seen in the prehistory of Mars discovered by Professor Quatermass. It's all terrific stuff and great fodder for gaming. I heartily recommend tracking down a couple of Hammer films and setting aside some time to watch them. They're well worth the time and I daresay that viewers whose primary experience of horror movies stems from films made since the 1970s are in for a treat.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XIV)

Magic weapons in Holmes differ slightly from those in OD&D. As already noted, he retains the LBBs' insistence that a magic sword's bonus is to hit only, unless it has an additional bonus against particular opponents, like undead or dragons. Likewise, magical weapons other than swords grant their bonus to both hit and damage, as in OD&D. In Holmes, both magic bows and magic arrows grant bonuses only to hit, not damage, whereas in OD&D, magic arrows grant a bonus to both. I can see the logic in Holmes's position here, since Dexterity grants only a bonus to hit, not damage, but it's still odd that he deviated from the LBBs on this score.

Holmes notes that
Some method of detecting the effects of a potion must be found. If the characters lack a detect magic spell, they may dare a tiny sip to see what the result may be. This would leave enough potion to accomplish its complete effect.
This is an interesting passage. First, it suggests that detect magic could be used to identify the type of potion, although it's admittedly far from clear on that point. Second, it states that one might be able to take a sip to identify a potion, presumably with its effects, whatever they may be, lasting only briefly. It's funny because, back when I first used Holmes, we interpreted this latter point by giving each type of potion a distinctive taste, so that, with time and careful records, one could learn that, for example, a strawberry flavored liquid was a potion of healing, while a cherry flavored one was a potion of haste.

As in OD&D, a potion of growth can be drunk multiple times, with the amount of the whole drunk determining how tall a character grows. A potion of diminution, meanwhile, does not work similarly. Holmes's potion of giant strength is more potent than that in OD&D, granting 3d6 bonus damage rather than 2d6. Otherwise, the potions in the Blue Book are like those in the LBBs, except fewer in number.

Scrolls in Holmes are quite distinctive. As in OD&D, they are purely the province of the magic-user, except for protection scrolls. He does not provide any means of determining the spells inscribed on a scroll, suggesting only "some random method," but the LBBs are only slightly more helpful in this regard. Protection scrolls in Holmes are more powerful than in OD&D, affecting the same area (10' radius) but lasting 6 turns for all types and having no limit on how many enemies against whom it is effective, as in the LBBs.

More intriguing is that Holmes scrolls can replicate the effects of "any potion spell except delusion or poison," "any ring spell except wishes or regeneration," and "any wand spell," meaning that, in a campaign that uses these rules, there are scrolls of gaseous form, scrolls of contrariness, and scrolls of fear. There are also scrolls of healing, which would enable a magic-user to cast cure light wounds. Now, it's worth noting that, in Blue Book, there is no means to copy a scroll spell into a spellbook, so, even if a MU finds a scroll of healing, he can't use it to add magical healing to his repertoire. Still, it's an odd thing nonetheless and it does make one wonder both what Dr. Holmes was thinking here and how one explains the existence of such scrolls within the game world. I personally see Holmes's scrolls as an opportunity to "shake things up," reminding players that magic doesn't always play by the rules, but, even so, it's hard to deny that Holmes's approach is an aberration in the history of the game, both without precedent beforehand and never again employed in subsequent editions.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XIII)

Coins use the same values as in OD&D, while gems are slightly less valuable overall. The chart for determining the value of gems is skewed toward the low end and there is no chance for a gem being more valuable in 1000 gold pieces. Jewelry is similarly less valuable, ranging only from 300-1800 gp in value, as opposed to OD&D's 300-10,000 gp. Interestingly, both Holmes and OD&D discuss damaging jewelry through various means and how much such damage decreases its value, with Holmes lowering it by 50% and OD&D by only 25%.

The treasure type tables in Holmes are different than those in both OD&D and AD&D. In the case of OD&D, a major difference is that there are treasure types beyond Type I, although there are other differences as well, such as the inclusion of electrum and platinum coins. The percentages are also slightly different, with, for example, a 15% on one table becoming 20% on another or a range of 2-16 on one becoming 4-16 on another. Consequently, Holmes's tables are unique and it's hard for me to say whether they're closer to either OD&D or AD&D, as his tables clearly borrow from both.

Holmes retains OD&D's notion that 25% of all references to "any" in the magic items column of the treasure tables refer to maps, which is something I'm rather fond of. Except for adding together the categories of "armor" and "miscellaneous weapons," Holmes's magic items table is identical to that of OD&D, right down to the chances of an item of any given category's appearing. However, as you'd expect from an introductory game, the selection of items within each category is smaller -- just 10 in each -- and they're generated by a 1D10 roll rather than a percentile one.

Here are the items Holmes drops within each category:

Swords: Sword +1, +3 vs. Trolls (Clerics), Sword +1 Wishes Included (2-8 Wishes), Sword +2, Charm Person Ability, Sword, One Life Energy Draining Ability. Holmes also adds a second cursed sword not found in OD&D, namely the Sword -1 Cursed.

Armor and Weapons: Armor & Shield +1, Shield +2, Armor +2, Armor & Shield +2, Shield +3, Mace +2, Warhammer +2, Warhammer +3, 6" Throwing Range with Return, Spear +2, Spear +3. Holmes adds Cursed Armor -1.

Potions: Polymorph (Self), ESP, Longevity, Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, Animal Control, Undead Control, Plant Control, Human Control, Giant Control, Dragon Control, Invulnerability, Fire Resistance, Treasure Finding, Heroism.

Scrolls: Holmes's scrolls are unusual and I'll discuss at greater length in the next part of this series. For now, it's worth noting that Holmes does not include a scroll of protection from elementals (presumably because there are no elementals in his monster listing) nor does he give scrolls a chance to have more than 3 spells, while OD&D allows 7 as a possibility.

Rings: Human Control, Delusion, Protection 5' r., Djinn Summoning, Telekinesis, X-Ray Vision, Spell Turning, Spell Storing, Many Wishes (4-24). Holmes introduces the ring of plant control found in Supplement I.

Wands and Staves: Metal detection, enemy detection, illusion, lightning bolts, polymorph, negation, staff of commanding, staff of withering, staff of power, staff of wizardry. Holmes includes the rod of cancellation from Greyhawk.

Miscellaneous Magic Items: Holmes includes only 10 magic items in this category, as opposed to nearly 30 in OD&D. His selections are, as you might expect, generally geared toward the lower end of the power spectrum. I'll have more to say on this in a future post in this series.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Open Friday: No Save

Simple question this week: does the lack of a saving throw for many effects in D&D support or contradict the very idea of a saving throw?

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Interview: Paul Jaquays (Part II)

6. You produced material for SPI's DragonQuest, one of the lesser known fantasy RPGs of the 80s, such the adventure "The Enchanted Wood," which I understand you consider one of your best designs. What is it about this adventure that you regard so highly after all these years?

It's the last game adventure that I wrote as a freelance adventure designer (the first time around). It's a setting where I was totally in control of the world and its contents and not share-cropping in others' worlds (as with RuneQuest or later D&D and AD&D adventures I created). The entire adventure is "soft-keyed" meaning that in a sense, even the "fixed" locations in the map are more or less random encounters which can also be placed as needed by the GM to develop the players' story. It's chock full of memorable characters and situations (i.e.; Jhingleshod the Iron Axeman, The Knight of Horns, and the wizard Amelior Amanitas). Of course some of this could be nostalgia driven by the fact that very few people have seen this adventure (other than collectors) due to the relative lack of popularity of DragonQuest and the demise of SPI not long after its publication.

7. Speaking from personal experience, I know that your Central Casting books are among the most popular you've ever written. I know gamers who, to this day, religiously use Central Casting when creating new characters. What was the origin of this product and what do you think is the secret of its appeal?

Role play gamers are on the whole, a very creative sub-set of humanity. But everyone's imagination benefits from inspiration or random input. And the Central Casting books, being driven by a series of dice rolls are all about inspiring with randomness. It was about getting players to enrich their role playing experience by creating characters that moved beyond the twin limitations of stereo-typing and min-max power gaming.

Central Casting started while I was in college in the late 70s with some simple social status tables inspired by articles in early (as in single digit issue number early) copies of The Dragon magazine; which over the course of a few months developed into a series of tables that outlined a previous history that included social status, parental employment, and personal quirks (published in an early The Dungeoneer). I tested this on my gaming group, who liked it, but thought too many characters were orphaned when their villages were destroyed. Somehow this project became a part of classwork for my creative writing class and actually was taken into consideration for the humanities honor awards I received at graduation. This work eventually appeared in The Dungeoneer issue #9 as "The Fantasy Role-Playing Previous History System" (Catchy title!).

The project sat dormant for several years. While home sick from work for a few days in the early 80s, I started making notes about how to expand the previous history system, blocking out much of the structure of the final book, but taking it no further.

In the late 80s, while working freelance and looking for large projects, I'm fairly certain it was Rick Loomis who nudged me in the direction of Task Force Games as a publisher. I met with Alan Eldridge at GenCon in the summer of 1987 and they signed me to a deal for the first book. I produced the entire first book on a turn-key basis; doing all the writing, the art, the page setting and the final pre-press set up.

I think Central Casting continues to appeal for several reasons. The books are genre specific, but not game specific. A history made with Heroes of Legend can fit into nearly any fantasy campaign or rule system, from OD&D to 4th Edition D&D, from RuneQuest to Warhammer. The generated history events often have a weird synchronicity to them that makes players want to draw the cause and effect lines between them. They inspire players to get outside the typical characters they often create.

8. Like a number of other tabletop RPG writers, you eventually made the leap to the video game industry, first starting with Coleco. Did you find the transition between the two industries difficult?

When I "leaped" into the video game industry the first time, I wasn't looking for a full time position. Coleco was simply a client at first. I needed a client that paid well (something the RPG industry circa 1980 was definitely not doing) and Coleco needed someone to help them make a fantasy game for a piece of prototype electronic game hardware. Video games actually came a couple years later, after I had been working for the company a while. I think it helped quite a great deal that I was not just a writer, but also worked as an artist. Much of what I did at Coleco was actually balanced between art and writing tasks.

When the video game bubble finally burst at Coleco in 1985, I eventually "leaped" back into RPG design and illustration and worked as a freelancer designing adventures and computer games and doing art for a lot of clients, mostly in the RPG field. I did that freelance (and then eventually as a TSR staff artist) for over 10 years.

When I "leaped" back into video games again full time in 1997 as a level designer at id, it was a mix of my reputation as an adventure designer and my traditional art skills that secured the job. Without either set of skills, I would not have succeeded at that time in the industry's history. Which is probably why for the next few years, traditional adventure designers rarely transitioned into computer games. Until story content heavy MMO games brought about a need for designers who could write (as opposed to construct in 3D), there just wasn't a real need for a lot of full time writers in video games.

9. Were there any particular skills you possessed as an artist and writer that have helped you in the computer games field?

Two things come to mind. The ability to simply communicate ideas being perhaps the key skill for the would-be digital game maker. The best designers are those who can convey ideas with both words and images, regardless of whether they are designing systems, writing content, or building 3D game levels. Throughout my career, I was either the artist who could write (both adventures and technical docs), or the writer/designer who could draw and construct in virtual 3D. This made me versatile and allowed me to choose to work on projects that didn't always require the same skill sets.

Over a career that has spanned three decades and is working on a fourth, the need for some of my specific services or skill focuses has dried up (e.g.; paste-up artists, full time RPG adventure designers, staff and free lance illustrators just to name a few), or in some cases the tasks I was doing became repetitive and boring. In at least one case I made a decision to stop writing RPG adventures because I found that I was starting to imitate my own previous work rather than being original. Being able to move between job descriptions (artist, writer, editor, level designer, content designer, etc.) over my career has allowed me to reinvent myself as needed and stay long term and full time in a field that can burn out or use up creative talent in a matter of a few years.

10. Are there any lessons you've learned from working in the computer game field that you think ought to be applied to tabletop RPG design?

Provide more than one solution to encounters, if only to be willing to accept the other solutions that your players devise.

Take into consideration your players' (not their characters') skills and ability to understand 3D space when creating or choosing adventures. Don't throw new players into complex 3D settings. Mapping and understanding one's position inside 3D space can be challenging even for skilled players. Start "flat" and work them up to spaces with more complicated vertical relationships.

Create spaces that could work in the real world. Walls have thickness. Large open interior spaces have to be supported by columns to be believable. As a fantasy illustrator, I learned to engage the viewer's suspension of disbelief by creating realistic, believable environments which would in turn lend their reality and believability to the fantasy elements found within. Designers need to do the same thing ... engage the players' suspension of disbelief just long enough to convince them that game situations are grounded in things that could happen.

Give your players "save spots" in your gaming sessions, natural breaks in the adventure where they can pull back, regroup, return to base, etc.

Finally, don't overwork the game's backstory. Less can be more, so write as little as you can to convey it. I emphasize this to the content designers on my own project teams. Your players will appreciate that you are creating plot and character links, but could probably care less about detailed ancestries, hidden motivations, or involved descriptions of locations and events that they will never encounter. They just want to hit things and move on. Don't make success in your game depend on reading multiple paragraphs of stilted description or dialogue.

11. Do you still play tabletop roleplaying games? If so, which ones?

The short answer some where between "not really" and "no."

I pretty much moved on from the playing side of role play games in the late 80s. I've never been big on doing for fun what I do for my day job. My last active role play gaming group involvement was in the mid-80s while working at Coleco. Our group was mostly designers from Coleco and in some cases, their wives. Notable were Lawrence Schick (author of White Plume Mountain and our main AD&D DM), Kevin Hendryx (also formerly of TSR), and B. Dennis Sustare (who created the druid class for D&D and co-authored the Bunnies & Burrows RPG). After Coleco shut down, the game group eventually dispersed and between being a young parent and a full time freelancer, I was never able to find time for another regular game group.

After moving to Dallas in 1997, I occasionally played in some of Sandy Petersen's games, but even that sort of trickled to not playing fairly quickly.

In past year or so, I've only played at the North Texas Roleplay Game convention in a few retro gaming events. Last year was the first time I'd actually played AD&D in possibly 22 years.

Dwimmermount, Session 45

Session 45 was a long and momentous one, when multiple strands of the campaign all intersected and wove an interesting tapestry. I suspect, in the weeks to come, this session will be viewed as a major milestone.

The session picked up where the last left off, inside Dwimmermount, investigating a necromantic/alchemical laboratory filled with undead. Though low on spells and provisions and in need of re-supply, the party pressed on, hoping to complete their map of the immediate area before returning to Muntburg and then to Adamas. One of the last rooms in the area they explored housed two wraiths, who got the jump on them and drained Dordagdonar's Valkyrie-like henchman, Angrboda, of a level.

This was the first time that this had happened in the campaign and, judging by the reaction, the players were none too pleased. Too be fair, the source of the dissatisfaction was not my use of the wraiths or even of the level drain itself -- though, obviously, no one liked either. Rather, it was that there was no saving throw to avoid the level drain. Throughout the campaign, lots of bad stuff has happened, but in nearly every case there'd been a last ditch chance to escape the consequences by means of a saving throw. My players, to their credit, don't mind "save or die" rolls, because, well, you at least get a saving throw. But no save sat poorly with them and I understand the logic behind their complaint. I'm not sure how, if at all, I'll deal with this issue, but they did make me think about alternative approaches.

Angrboda's loss of a level was the signal that it was time to hightail it out of Dwimmermount and back to Muntburg. When they arrived at their apartments there, they discovered that the door was unlocked and slightly ajar and its interior was bathed in darkness. Gaztea could find no evidence of traps, so, with caution, they proceeded and discovered that Cyrus, the vampire they'd unleashed on the world months ago, had returned and availed himself of "some refreshments" -- the players seem to have overlooked what he meant by this -- while he awaited their return.

Cyrus explained that he'd been hoping to contact them again, but that their regular forays into Dwimmermount made this difficult, as he'd been on the surface, "making contact with some old friends" in preparation for dealing with the cult of Turms Termax, against whom he'd sworn revenge for his unholy state. He and the party exchanged information about the cult's activities in Dwimmermount and elsewhere, with Brother Candor explaining that they'd not been able to venture much deeper into the ancient Thulian fortress due to the large number of Termaxian forces on Level 5.

Cyrus noted that the cult had massed many of their members, making it well defended against outside attack, but added that, even if the cult wasn't there, the party wouldn't be able to proceed much further, because of "arcane reverberations" that had created a seemingly impenetrable barrier to further descent. As the PCs already knew, Dwimmermount lay at a nexus of ley lines, receiving power from other similarly magically potent locations, that power being in turn amplified by the azoth reservoirs found within the mountain. If the flow of arcane power to Dwimmermount could be altered, it likely would have deleterious effects on the operation of the fortress, including closing it off from the wider world. Cyrus said that, in his mortal life, the Thulians had come to fear that rebels against their rule had found a way to do just this and so they made great efforts to guard known ley line nexuses, including an observatory to the south -- one that the PCs had recently visited and which was filled with lycanthropic druids seemingly in league with the Termaxians.

Cyrus surmised that the cultists are probably doing everything they could to restore the proper flow of arcane power and put an end to the reverberations that are preventing their descent further into Dwimmermount. When asked why they were so desperate to descend, he replied, "Why, to free Him, of course." Without missing a beat, Brother Candor simply said, "Termax." Dordagdonar found it unbelievable that Turms Termax was not only alive -- he'd dismissed him as a myth -- but that he'd survived the fall of the Thulian Empire and was now trapped somewhere in the deepest levels of Dwimmermount. Cyrus corrected this supposition, explaining that Turms was probably not in Dwimmermount so much as existing in "some place parallel to it that's accessible through its deeper levels." After all, Dwimmermount contains many portals to other worlds, dimensions, and times; Turms Termax is likely located on one of them.

Cyrus told the party that there were likely means to circumvent the barrier blocking further descent but it would require further research and exploration to reach the right portals that would enable this. Likewise, odds were good that the Termaxians had increased their defenses considerably and no small band of adventurers would be able to deal with them effectively. Brother Candor then suggested the party ought to travel to Adamas in order to seek out a mercenary company whom they could hire to assist them. Dordagdonar liked the idea, but was quick to point out that hiring mercenaries in Adamas without first acquiring a legal charter to do so was asking for trouble, especially in light of their history in the city-state.

Unfortunately, the party lacked the funds needed to obtain a charter and instead opted to sign on two new henchmen, a dwarf crossbowman named Murn and a junior cleric of Tyche called Marius. They relieved Osric and Eryth of their dungeoneering duties and left them behind in Muntburg to guard their apartments while they were away. The prospect of re-entering Dwimmermount without a large number of soldiers to assist them weighed heavily on the party's minds. As the session ended, they were contemplating alternatives, including visiting the necromancers of Yethlyreom and seeking out the bandits they encountered earlier to see if they might be willing to serve as an illicit mercenary force.

All in all, a great session and one that's opened up a large number of new avenues of exploration for the future.

Spying on Gygax

Colin McComb, who worked at TSR in the 1990s, relates a fascinating -- and sad -- bit of gaming history over at Kobold Quarterly. He briefly tells of being sent by executives at TSR to spy on Gary Gygax at GenCon in 1992, when Gary was releasing Mythus, the first game in the unfinished Dangerous Journeys line.

I'm very grateful to Mr McComb for telling this story, as it reveals yet another example of the absurd vendetta that Lorraine Williams-era TSR pursued against its own founder and one of the founders of the very hobby that provided the company with its profits. It's of a piece with some of the slanders and rumors that were circulated about Gygax in various quarters in the wake of his departure, as others can attest.

What a shame.

S&W WhiteBox Sale

From now through August 15, the hardcover and perfect-bound versions of Swords & Wizardry: WhiteBox are on sale at Lulu.com for 30% off! (John Adams of Brave Halfling lowered the price 15% and Lulu is offering a special code for these items for an additional 15%).

Remember, too, that Lulu is offering free shipping on purchases totaling $19.95 or more, so this is a good time to order other old school gaming products sold through Lulu. (I should note that this offer unfortunately does not apply to addresses outside the US).

Add these coupons codes when checking out: BEACHREAD305 (WhiteBox) & FREESHIP (free shipping) to take full advantage of this great sale of a terrific old school product.

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XII)

Lycanthropes in Holmes follow the general outline established in the LBBs and Supplement I. Again, as with dragons and giants, all can be of Neutral alignment, as well as some other alignment. There's no discussion of the social structure of these creatures, as there is in OD&D. Manticores get a name change from manticoras. Medusas are as in OD&D, but it's noted in Holmes that "This monster is usually female," implying that there are male medusas. Minotaurs are identical to the LBBs, right down to the joke about rules lawyers being bull-headed. Mummies acquire their ability to frighten those who see them in Holmes (or, rather, in the Monster Manual, but Holmes follows suit). Ochre jellies and ogres are as in OD&D. Orcs are very similarly presented, but there's much less detail on the contents of an orc lair in Holmes than there is in the LBBs.

Owl bears and pegasi are mostly unchanged. Pixies drop any reference to Chainmail and are noted as being "friendly with elves and fairies," the latter of which corresponds to no creature in Holmes or OD&D. Purple worms aren't much changed, but they swallow opponents more easily than in OD&D, requiring only 2 more than the needed number of 1D20, whereas in OD&D they need 4 more to do so. Rust monsters follow Greyhawk. Shadows remain incorporeal creatures that are not counted among the undead. Shriekers appear here, an import from the Monster Manual. Skeletons and spectres are unchanged and Holmes explicitly connects spectres to the Nazg├╗l of Tolkien. Spiders get a full write-up, as in AD&D and notes that giant spiders are both intelligent and chaotic evil in alignment.

Stirges from Supplement I appear and troglodytes from the Monster Manual appear (though the latter first appeared, I believe, in The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth tournament module). The troll entry is nearly identical to that in OD&D, including the description of them as "thin and rubbery." The unicorn entry is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it makes reference to the dimension door spell, which is nowhere described in Holmes. Second, the OD&D entry specifies that "they resist magic as if they were an 11th level Magic-User," while Holmes states taht "they resist all magic on a roll of 8 or better on a 20-sided die." Now, it's true that an 11th level MU has a save of 8 against spells in OD&D, so it's almost certainly the case that Holmes meant the two rules to be identical. However, as a young man, I took this to mean something above and beyond a saving throw.

Vampires follow OD&D, with the additional clarifications presented in Supplement I. However, Holmes is stronger in noting that holy symbols other than a cross are effective against vampires, an option which Greyhawk leaves to the referee's discretion. Wights and wraiths are as per OD&D, though Holmes (again) makes a connection to Tolkien, this time in reference to wights. Yellow mold and zombies follow OD&D. Interestingly, the zombie entry notes that, in addition to sleep and charm spells like all other undead, zombies are also immune to ESP, which is peculiar.

And that wraps up the monsters of the Blue Book. I'll reiterate that I found it interesting how much Holmes lifts straight from the LBBs, right down to whole blocks of text. The stats are similarly nearly identical to those in OD&D, with only a few small changes here and there, many of which, I suspect, are reflective of changes in the Monster Manual, the only AD&D book released at the time of the Basic Set's completion and one that, as others have repeatedly shown, is itself a lot more reflective of OD&D than is commonly supposed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Interview: Paul Jaquays (Part I)

To long-time roleplayers, Paul Jaquays needs no introduction. One of the earliest and most prolific freelancers of the hobby, Mr Jaquays has written, edited, and illustrated many of its most well regarded products, including landmark adventures such as Caverns of Thracia, Griffin Mountain, and "Night of the Walking Wet." He kindly consented to an interview, the first part of which is presented below and covers his entry into the world of gaming, both as a player and as a writer/editor/illustrator. Part II, which will appear tomorrow includes additional insights into his RPG career, as well as his his professional activities in the years since.

1. How did you become involved in the roleplaying game hobby?

I found RPGs by way of my younger brother's subscription to The General magazine. In the fall of 1975, I was working an evening shift at my college's radio station. The station played a lot of pre-recorded content, so I had nothing much to do between program changes. So when my younger brother Bruce called and told me about a sample magazine copy he had received called The Space Gamer (issue #2) I had time to listen. He proceeded to read me two reviews of a new game called Dungeons & Dragons. In looking back at one's life, one can usually find significant events that change the direction your life will take thereafter. This was one of those moments.

Hearing the game described, I knew I had come across something that I had been looking for since childhood ... a way to play out adventure fantasies like those in Conan, The Lord of the Rings and the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. I immediately ordered the rule sets and as many expansions as they had available. (Greyhawk, and maybe Blackmoor). I also dashed off some quick illustrative sketches for the magazine, my first submissions to a game publication of any kind. Greyhawk (and, I think, Chainmail) arrived in time for us to pore over them at the Thanksgiving break, but the rules didn't arrive until January of 1976 when I was out of the country on a school trip (I arrived home to discover that my brother and my buddies had gotten started without me). Within six months we were not only playing OD&D regularly with several DMs, but had also begun publishing our own game fan magazine, The Dungeoneer.

2. You mention The Dungeoneer, which is notable for not only being one of the earliest fanzine for D&D but also for having published some of the earliest adventures for the game. Looking back on it now, what contributions to it make you the most proud?

It's the adventures that stand out, and not simply because no one else was doing mini-adventures in 1976. When I read comments about the magazine or talk to fans (old and new), no one talks about the monsters, or the art, or the magic items and rules variants. It's always the adventures. I'm both flattered and honored when I read that gamers are constructing full campaigns around settings like "Night of the Walking Wet."

Second, it's that we were able to publish as many issues as we did back in a time when we (my gaming group) were all going to school full time, working at least part time, and trying to actually fit in gaming time. I know it's "get off my lawn" type talk, but I had to assemble the pre-press for every one of those magazines with rubber cement from typewriter-created galleys, PMTs (photo-mechanical-transfers of art), and sometimes the original art pieces themselves, and of course, press-on type for headlines.

Finally, it was something that I could do with my friends. I was the only member of that group to go on to a full time creative career, but my friends like J. Mark Hendricks, Merle Davenport, and artist Aaron Arocho still have their names memorialized in the hearts of Old School Gamers.

3. When did you decide you were interested in working professionally in the RPG field?

Almost immediately, I recognized that the RPG industry needed artists desperately and that this was a way to get my art published. Even before I started playing RPGs, I submitted sketches to The Space Gamer for publication. By the time I graduated from college, I had illustrated two microgames for Metagaming, been published in the first issue of Dragon magazine and numerous The Space Gamer issues, and was publishing my own D&D fan magazine.

In the spring of 1978, a couple months before graduation, I flew from Michigan to Texas to interview with Metagaming Concepts. They were considering bringing me on staff as an artist. After I returned to school, they let me know that they were going to hire a secretary instead (or perhaps another secretary as I remember several pretty young blonde girls being associated with the Metagaming offices). There were also some apologetic comments about them being atheists and me attending a Christian college. Not something you can say regarding a job interview these days, that's for sure.

After graduation, I tried to a pursue a more traditional commercial art career, ending up as a full time layout and paste-up artist for a quick-printer that had been my part-time employer during school. That job was brief. The city had blocked off the street on which the printer was located, eliminating all but foot traffic ... and soon my job with it. I no longer remember the specifics, but Chuck Anshell, who had purchased The Dungeoneer from from me and then taken it Judges Guild, arranged for me to come down and interview. I drove from Jackson, Michigan to Decatur, Illinois. I accepted the offered job (and the minimum wage paycheck it entailed), but only if I could continue to work out of my apartment in Michigan.

4. You're probably most famous in D&D circles for your Judges Guild work, particularly Dark Tower and the Caverns of Thracia. Do you have any particular memories about creating those two adventures?

I remember beginning to plan out bits of the adventure for Dark Tower while on the day long drive back from that first trip to Decatur, Illinois. Later, when I was home, I scrounged through my own game dungeons to cull the best "special" encounters for Dark Tower (other encounters ended up going into Morkendaine Manor, which I wrote for The Dungeoneer that fall). The whole Set vs. Mitra theme was greatly inspired by Conan the Barbarian fiction. I think the Conan story, "Red Nails," may have had some influence on the theme also, with it's rival bands warring within an ancient, enclosed space. I've always been fascinated by archaeology and the idea of excavating ancient ruins and finding them nearly intact. So I extrapolated that to a pair of opposing towers dedicated to opposing gods and then buried by some catastrophe.

Later, adherents of both faiths would excavate the buried towers and renew the battle. While many of the bits in Dark Tower came from my imagination, at least one was inspired by an encounter that designer Kerry Lloyd (of Thieves Guild fame) described during a visit to my home. He talked about a ring-shaped hall filled by a giant moving ball (think of the rolling stone ball in Raiders of the Lost Ark - which this predated by two years). The tomb of Racox in the dungeon is a tribute to my college buddy and fellow gamer (and room mate at the time), Randy Cox. And no, he didn't die.

During the development of Dark Tower, I had a meeting with Gary Gygax at a Metro Detroit Gamers convention. Gary had reviewed my manuscript and noted where my use of potions (and I think scrolls) had deviated from AD&D canon. For my house rules, I allowed multi-use potions and then spiced up their descriptions using tables based on some found in the Alarums & Excursions APAzine. My potions had color, flavor, and consistency. Some were pills. Others powders. Those non-canonical details were excised from Dark Tower. I think I may have actually used random dice rolls to fill some of the spaces in the underground areas ... though I did my best to try and inter-relate encounters and spice them up beyond simple random monster and treasure sets.

The core inspirations for Caverns of Thracia were threefold. The first was to ally the various "beast" races of AD&D as a unified force. The second was to build encounters that took place in multiple levels of a cave, where the open upper areas were situated above open lower areas. The final inspiration (that I remember) was the rather primitive, but unique plate armor used by Mycenaean soldiers. These became the human guards of the upper reaches of the Caverns.

At some point, Caverns of Thracia was changed from an AD&D project to a D&D project. I remember the biggest problem from this was that at least one of my beast men (the Jackalwere) was an AD&D creature. Thus, I had to create the Dog Brothers to fill that same role.

5. You were also involved in the creation of Griffin Mountain for RuneQuest, which is generally considered one of the best products ever published for that game. Did you enjoy writing for RuneQuest? Did you find it a different experience from writing for Judges Guild or TSR? Or were there a lot of similarities in how you approached these various projects?

I had discovered RuneQuest the summer before joining Judges Guild at Origins in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It quickly became the favorite RPG of my brother, my room mate and me. We played in other games in our gaming group, but when we ran games, it was RuneQuest. At some point, a good share of the adventures I wrote for other game systems (AD&D, D&D and even DragonQuest) were converted to work with RQ rules for my personal campaigns.

RuneQuest was perhaps my favorite system for which to create adventures. I found the game's Bronze Age time-of-myths type setting more appealing that the pseudo medieval setting of D&D. The biggest challenge for writing RQ adventures was creating monsters and NPCs with appropriate and balanced skills and stats. Monsters had to be detailed out almost to the same degree as player characters, which was ultimately time-consuming and even tedious. Stats for high level NPCs were even more challenging ... because my campaigns never had high level characters. My co-author on Griffin Mountain, Rudy Kraft, was excellent at setting up stats, so we had complementary skills as a team.

Writing for Judges Guild and TSR came at different times in my career. For Judges Guild, I could pretty much write whatever I wanted, how I wanted, and as much as I wanted. I mostly just wrote adventures that I conceptualized. The first Book of Treasure Maps was one of two products that were purely Judges Guild assignments, not original concepts. Writing for TSR was a whole different animal and came about in the late 80s. The industry had changed in the intervening years and become a bit more professional. TSR had writing style guides, word limits, design formats, a need to adhere to game world canon (not just rules canon) and ... deadlines.

For TSR, I was always writing and or editing to fill a predetermined product niche ... whether it was short pieces for collections, or full blown adventures. For at least a couple, the design description was so loose that I could do almost anything I wanted so long as it loosely fit the catalog copy (Talons of Night and The Shattered Statue). I actually did more editing for TSR than I did original design or authoring.

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part XI)

Interestingly, Holmes offers up only four types of dragons in his rulebook -- white, black, red, and brass. I can't quite figure out why he choose these four, since they both differ from those in the LBBs and the red dragon is one of the most powerful of all dragon types, so the list isn't based on "level appropriateness." Holmes also extends Greyhawk's notion that many dragons can be either Lawful or Neutral to include evil dragons as well, which, with the exception of the red, can be either Neutral or Chaotic Evil. He also simplifies the roll to determine if a dragon uses its breath weapon from a 2D6 roll to a 1D6 roll. Likewise, the dimension of a cone-shaped breath attack is altered slightly (5-foot diameter at the dragon's mouth in the LBBs vs. 2-foot diameter in Blue Book).

Dragon age categories are expanded in Holmes to account for the fact that monsters now use D8 hit dice rather than D6, so the "very old" and "ancient" categories are new. He also changes the description of the age ranges within each category, so that, for example, an "old" Blue Book dragon is 101-150 years old, whereas he was only 76-100 years old in the LBBs. OD&D has no rules for determining the gender of a dragon, whereas Holmes does, explicitly linking small size with being female and large six with being male. Despite this, there is no mention of dragon family units, as there is in OD&D. Likewise, Holmes dragons, though intelligent, are not explicitly given the power of speech (though it's implied) and there's no reference to their being spellcasters.

Dragon breath weapon damage is tied to hit points, but, like OD&D, there's no clarification as to whether this number decreases as a dragon takes damage. As a younger man, I always assumed that the damage was tied to current hit points, but the text nowhere states this outright. Dragon subdual is significantly less mechanically complex in Holmes, dropping any reference to a percentage chance based on damage done. At the same time, Holmes notes that subdual lasts for "a maximum of one month," something not stated in the LBBs that I can see and that "thereafter it will seek to kill its captor(s) and/or escape." Furthermore, there's no system for determining how much a subdued dragon brings on the open market in the Blue Book, as there is in the LBBs.

In general, Holmes dragons are much simpler mechanically than those in OD&D.

Dwarves and elves include references to the maximum levels possible to them in full OD&D. Fire beetles from Supplement II are included, the first such creature from Blackmoor I've noticed. Gargoyles and gelatinous cubes follow OD&D. Elven immunity to ghouls is noted in its entry but there's no mention of the victims of ghouls rising as ghouls themselves. Giants in Holmes are, more or less, as presented in OD&D and Supplement I. The main difference is that, as with dragons, he makes them all of variable alignment, with even frost and fire giants occasionally Neutral in aspect. Holmes also includes derived from Chainmail to handle giants' rock throwing abilities, something not done in the LBBs, which simply refer the reader back to Chainmail.

Giant ants and giant centipedes get their own entries in Holmes rather than being relegated to "large insects or animals." The same goes for giant rats, which also get a disease transmitted through their bite. Giant ticks follow Supplement I. Gnolls become hyena-men in Holmes. Gnomes begin their sad descent into being also-ran dwarves as well. Goblins follow OD&D, as do gray ooze and green slime; the same goes for griffons. Harpies are roughly similar to their appearance in Greyhawk, but Holmes's phrasing -- "By their singing they lure men to them" -- made me think that female characters were immune to its effects, something not noted in the text.

Hell hounds are as in Supplement I, but there's no note of their being used as pets by fire giants. Hippogriffs follow the LBBs, as do hobgoblins, right down to the reference to their having +1 morale, even though there are no morale rules in the Blue Book. Different types of horses are distinguished, but Holmes leaves out how much weight each type can carry as a load. Hydras follow OD&D. Kobolds are much the same as before, but their description notes that they're "evil dwarf-like creatures [who] behave much like goblins," which is closer to their mythological inspirations than the dog-men they became later. Lizard men are here and follow Greyhawk.

A Strange Dream

I woke up this morning thinking about how to resolve a problem I'd had in an earlier OD&D-related post I'd made this week. As it turns out, I'd made no such blog post, which, if I'd not been so fuzzy headed when I woke up, I'd have realized immediately.

You see, I'd dreamed that I'd come up with, for lack of a better word, a "Muppet hack" for OD&D. Instead of the familiar quartet of Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, and Thief, I had created new character classes based on the various types of Muppets. There was a class for "Humanoid" Muppets like Guy Smiley or Bunsen Honeydew, a class for anthropomorphic animals like Kermit or Miss Piggy, and a "Monster" class for characters like Grover or Oscar.

The problem I woke up attempting to resolve was twofold. First, what would be the fourth class to complete the set? I was toying with the idea of including those giant "suit" Muppets like Big Bird or Sweetums, but I wasn't convinced it was a strong enough archetype to be a class. Second, I was trying to figure out which ability scores ought to be the prime requisite for each class and I was thinking that Charisma rather than Strength should be the prime requisite for the Monster class, since not every Monster was strong but all had strong personalities, even Grover.

Of course, if I hadn't been in a haze for a minute or so upon waking up, I would have realized immediately that this whole thing is absurd, but I was and so I actually tricked myself into believing that this was a worthwhile way to spend my time for a few more minutes. And then, as often happens, my head cleared, the dream faded, and I found myself wondering what could have possibly inspired this bit of nonsense.

I still have no idea.

Retrospective: Palace of the Vampire Queen

In the history of the hobby, there are a handful of early products that might rightly be called legendary. 1976's Palace of the Vampire Queen, written by Pete and Judy Kerestan, probably qualifies for such status. The first in a series of "Dungeon Masters Kits" published by a company called Wee Warriors, Palace of the Vampire Queen is the first stand-alone adventure module ever produced, which probably explains why its earliest printings were "distributed exclusively by TSR Hobbies, Inc.," as the credits page notes. There was a demand for prefabricated adventures and this adventure was written to meet it.

At the time, the only other adventure available was "The Temple of the Frog" in Supplement II to OD&D and, awesome as it is, it was probably too idiosyncratic to serve as a model for others to use in creating their own adventures. Palace of the Vampire Queen, on the other hand, is a much more "traditional" scenario, combining the classic elements of the post-Dracula vampire myth with D&D distinctives, like demihumans, giant vermin, and magic treasures. In a sense, one could call it an ancestor of the more well-known Ravenloft, except that Palace of the Vampire Queen contains only the thinnest plot, being more of a location-based adventure rather than an occasion for romance novel-level melodrama.

The Palace of the Vampire Queen is thus a very bare bones affair, but that probably makes it more immediately useful. Its basic assumptions are those of most D&D campaigns, namely that the characters are a party of "adventurers" looking to acquire fame and power by venturing into Chaos-tainted locales and battling the monsters that dwell therein. Introductory text explains that the daughter of the dwarf King Arman of Baylor has been kidnapped by the dreaded Vampire Queen, providing some context for the PCs' actions, but there's little else to frame the story nor are there additional rewards for rescuing the unnamed dwarven princess from the Palace.

Instead, what we get is a five-level dungeon intended as "only a basic outline -- you can make it a dramatic adventure." Each of the five levels has two maps each, one that is keyed and one that is not, the latter being available "to speed game play" if the referee prefers not to have the players map the Palace themselves. The maps are unusual in several respects. First, they're not presented on a grid, instead using a scale of one-quarter inches equaling six feet. [This is in error; please forgive my aging eyes --JDM] Second, they use non-standard symbols, eschewing those presented in the LBBs in favor of its own. Finally, the maps have rather attractive decorated borders as you can see below.

The same level of attractiveness applies to the map keys, which, despite their oddities, are clear and easy to use, far more so than the convoluted keys of "The Temple of the Frog." In this way, Palace of the Vampire Queen established a standard of presentation that, while not wholly adopted by others, would nevertheless exert an influence.

This was a product intended to be picked up and used by any referee, regardless of the campaign he was running or the characters being used in it. That alone makes it remarkable, even if by the standards of TSR and Judges Guild adventures from just a short time later, it feels very "flat." Palace of the Vampire Queen is a milestone in the history of the hobby and it certainly deserves to be more well-known than it is.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part X)

What's really remarkable about the monster listings in Holmes is how consistent they are with the information in the LBBs and Greyhawk, to the point of having the same armor class, hit dice, treasure types, etc. There are some exceptions here and there, of course, but, even so, there's a high degree of continuity between OD&D and Holmes when it comes to monster statistics. The main differences, overall, seem to be that Holmes states outright things that are merely implied in the LBBs, as befits a book intended as an introductory text for use by beginners.

As noted elsewhere, Holmes follows Supplement I in giving monsters D8 for hit dice. They also use Greyhawk-style attacks with variable damage, despite the text's implying in places that such a complexity would be reserved to AD&D.

Holmes addresses the issue of balancing the power of monsters against the experience of the characters facing them in this way:
In setting up his dungeon, the Dungeon Master should be guided by the table given under Wandering Monsters, so that adventurers have a reasonable chance of survival. There is endless opportunity for inventiveness in the game, however, and if a high hit dice monster is desired, ways can be invented to scale it down so that a low level party can have a chance of defeating it. If one wanted to use a chimera, for instance, in a campaign with low level characters, the creature could be scaled down. Maybe it ran into a high level magic-user and was partially shrunk by a magic spell, reducing its high points. Or there might be a special magic sword, effective only against this chimera, hidden in the dungeon, and the adventurers given a hint or a legend that might lead them to it. In the interest of maintaining the balance of the game, however, a small or weak monster must not have a treasure anything like the hoard of a normal monster.
Concerns about handing out too much and too little treasure, as well as the rate of experience gain have already been touched upon here.

Bandits get a lengthy entry, as in OD&D, breaking down the full composition of a force of these men, including armor, weapons, and magical accoutrements. Interestingly, Holmes continues to use OD&D's "supernormal characters" to refer to any character who has a class and levels. Basilisks are as in OD&D, as are berserkers, though I adore the fact that their entry ends with a two-word paragraph -- "No prisoners." (This seems to be a reference to the fact that many Men have captives/prisoners amongst them). Black puddings are as in OD&D, but there is no reference to gray puddings in Holmes. Blink dogs and bugbears follow Supplement I. Carrion crawlers and cockatrices are true to OD&D. Chimeras are slightly more potent in Holmes, as its goat horns do increased damage. The displacer beast follows Greyhawk and djinni get a much-lengthened entry, elucidating their magical powers in some detail. The doppelganger entry follows Supplement I, except that Holmes spells out exactly what the creature needs for certain saving throws, as opposed to simply saying that it saves as a 10th-level fighter.

Monsters continue tomorrow.