Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Familiars with a Special Use"

One of the dangers of introducing a logical scheme into anything is that it often takes on a life of its own. The original Law versus Chaos alignment system of OD&D, for example, was originally little more than a way to represent an "us versus them" mindset. Over time, though, the concept evolved, first to the five-point alignment system we see in the Holmes-edited Basic Set (which first appeared in The Strategic Review) and later to the nine-point system we see in AD&D. In each case, the expansion made some sense and came about to address a perceived issue, but, in doing so, the expansion opened up avenues for further expansion. In time, alignment wound up being something very different than it was at its inception, though I would argue that its final form in AD&D made perfect sense if you look at its evolution over the course of several years. Of course, I'd also argue that alignment's final form, while logical, was much less useful and interesting than OD&D's very vague scheme.

I mention this because, in issue #86 of Dragon (June 1984), the article "Familiars with a Special Use" appears. Written by Stephen Inniss, its basic premise is in "fixing" the find familiar spell, which the author says "suffers from a lack of completeness, resulting in an unbalanced (if not unfair) game." He makes his judgment based on the fact that
The alignment of a special familiar does not always match the alignment of its master. The creatures differ in origin and strength,and evil magic-users seem favored with the most powerful familiars. True, the evil M-U stands to lose more if his familiar is destroyed, but his animal's superior hit points and special powers (especially regeneration) give it a much stronger grip on life, compared to its good-aligned cousins.
Inniss brings up several issues here, but many are rooted, at least in part, on alignment. For instance, he takes issue with the fact that, as written, there are no specifically Chaotic Neutral or Neutral Evil familiars. Likewise, the good-aligned "special" familiars are weaker than the evil ones. From my perspective, these aren't problems in need of solution, but that's probably because I don't see them as lapses in the logic of AD&D. That evil special familiars are more powerful seems only right to me, since a big part of those familiar's job is in ensuring that their masters remain permanently under the sway of Evil Ć  la Doctor Faustus. The rewards of evil in mortal existence should be great; otherwise, why would anyone choose evil over good?

However, Stephen Inniss doesn't even consider the possibility that find familiar isn't broken. His solution is to introduce a large number of new familiar types, divided according to alignment and to make them all roughly comparable in terms in power. Thus, we get the Galadur (good-aligned cherub-like beings), the Lomendur (neutral-aligned animal spirits), and the Burzugdur (evil-aligned monsters of which imps and quasits are but two examples). Inniss also adds several new "natural" familiars to round out the alignment list. The result is a thorough overhaul of find familiar that follows reasonably from a certain set of premises, but it feels, to me, too schematized and lifeless. As I've said since the start of this blog, I like "rough edges" and no longer see their existence as an opportunity for me to "fix" the game. Instead, I accept them as they are and use them as springboards for my imaginations. To my mind, pounding smooth those rough edges is a process D&D has been undergoing since 1974 and it's almost always resulted in a less appealing -- less mythic -- kind of fantasy.

20 comments:

  1. I never viewed Find Familiar as 'broken', perse, but I found it to be an extremely boring spell. In all my years of playing mages (and that's what I played 90% of the time), I think I had one who ever cast this spell, and even then, it was only when he found it on a scroll, and was already about 10th level. I just never saw the utility of this spell at the time... now, I would likely investigate it much closer, as I am much more of a metagamer looking for a tweak or advantage (but still not a munchkin... although I haven't played as a player in.... shuddder..... 15 years?).

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  2. Symmetry. Games like Ogre or Chainmail didn't have them. An assumption of many games is that you played the underdog. My biggest beef with 3e when I read it was it's clinical balance. Having a familiar for each alignment doesn't, "seem true". It fails the verisimilitude test. It's the uncanny valley of game design.

    OCD mathemeticians now do most of the professional game designing. I don't think it's pure coincidence that G.R.R. Martin is a slovenly dressed Fat-Beard. To paraphrase william f. buckley, I would rather play a game designed by a slovenly dressed fat beard than by any harvard game theory mathematician

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    1. As in I don't think it's a coincidence that martin looks the way he looks and is as successful as he is. TSR's best in house writer and game designer and WotC is slovenly fat bearded Ed Greenwood. And arneson, gygax, mentzer et al are all slovenly fat beards.

      What am I saying? Skinny guys who shave are anal retentive game designers--let your fat beards out!

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    2. thinking like an improv/jazz artist instead of a rigid "math imagines everything perfectly" calculator has nothing to do with beards or fat (i should know, im neither).

      lets face it, math has its place in the game - but it shouldnt be the guiding infrastructure of D&D, fantasy as contingent storytelling, or RPG ludophilia in general.

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    3. Exactly, the maths is a framework that SUPPORTS the experience, it should not be the DICTATOR of it, for that is to reduce the players to mere input in an algorithm and only a simpleton would advocate that. No, the stories we want to tell are grandiose and eclectic, our players take the mantle of characters and if anybody should be fully constrained by the number system it should be the villians... that's why they flee with tails between their legs...

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  3. You've articulated a principle I believe to be true in just about every product or idea. Rough edges leave more for the imagination and give things 'humanity'. This is true in so many things, for example many successful video games, book series, and movies start out quite rough and their sequels are usually much more polished but somehow have less character. ie. Star Wars

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  4. I’d like to say beforehand how much I enjoy reading this blog, James. But, as before when you decried the use of Saints in D&D, I completely disagree. This article was one of the great standouts of Dragon magazine, part of its Golden Age for me. Personally, I’d never enforce alignment, and I think the whole concept is flawed beyond “repair”. I’d rather see players evolve their character’s personalities over time, with both “ups” and “downs” on the moral scale. That being said, having a little “moral enforcer” looking over your shoulder might be a small price to pay for some characters. In particular, the authors suggestion of these familiars as useful to CLERICS was something I found very appealing. Beyond that, their use as a sometimes disobedient type of magical henchman seems like a fine opportunity to inject some great role playing opportunities. These supernatural familiars offer a large measure of power to a low-level caster, and they SHOULD have agendas of their own. For me, even having the OPTION of so much variety available to characters seems like it could only enhance the game. Toss out alignments, and just enjoy the little guys for what they are…NPCs with a lot of flavor and a clear use, for those players that want them.

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  5. Morale and loyalty are as good Or better markers for henchman roleplaying and interaction than alignment. Familiars are just henchman summoned magically instead of subdued in a dungeon, but I wonder how many DM's secretly determine morale and loyalty as men and magic reccomends?

    Players expect alignment to work too much and then find it lacking in fleshing out NPC's. Alignment then collapses under the weight of it's expectations. I'd wager most people don't even use the loyalty rules from 0d&d even though they could be rightly considered the "7th stat"--they're even rolled up using 3d6.

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  6. This triumverate of alignment--morale--loyalty gives a great and brief outline of an NPC, most people only use alignment and then say that it does a shitty job of fleshing out characters.

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  7. To my mind, pounding smooth those rough edges is a process D&D has been undergoing since 1974 and it's almost always resulted in a less appealing -- less mythic -- kind of fantasy.

    And I think this will be the biggest challenge for D&D Next. Making the game modular with the ability to scale rule complexity up or down has been done before. Putting a knob on the rough edges, I think, won’t be so easy. And I say that as someone who has lived on both sides of that fence.

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  8. While I do think that there isn't really a necessity to "balance" the familiars of all alignments, I also think that the familiar table is one that would benefit from using Vornheim's tables rules. That is, whenever someone rolls a result in it, scratch that and write something new there.

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  9. This post hits particularly close to home. I have an overwhelming desire to fix things: categorize, quantify, devise rationale. It's taken me a very long time to discover that there are a great many things that work better when not "fixed".

    @UWS Guy: There are a great many "fat beards" who are also anal retentive game designers, theorists, and mathematicians (and vice versa). I think it just takes the proper mix to create a truly great game.

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  10. Two things here...

    Remember that Dragon magazine (and to a lesser extent, White Dwarf and Alarums and Excursions, which as far as I know is still being published...) was the gaming blogosphere of its day. When you say "I accept them ["rough edges"] as they are and use them as springboards for my imaginations", you're simply reserving the right to smooth them off yourself as you spring off those boards.

    All Mr. Iniss has done in this article is present his own version of how he smoothed off those edges. It wasn't presented as anything official, but a suggestion, much like any modern-day blog post (or self-published game supplement) might present a different way to smooth them off. I'm not sure why Mr. Iniss should be dinged for sharing the fruits of his own springboarding into his imagination. It's no different to my mind than what many folks in the OSR blogosphere (myself included) do every day.

    As for the utility of familiars to clerics, I would invite everyone to pick up their original 1E Monster Manual and carefully read the entry on quasits...

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    1. “The quasit is a larva changed into a minor demon form to serve as familiar to a chaotic evil magic-user or cleric.”- AD&D Monster Manual, pg. 80.

      Good catch, Joseph! This particular bit is copyrighted 1977, and never repeated in any other source that I have seen. Interesting that so few have followed what seems like a given to me. A supernatural minion of the Gods Above (or Fiendish Lords Below), would make a great “support” minion to a Priest of any faith.

      “If by chance a cleric receives a supernatural familiar, the comments above still apply. However, the cleric’s deity rarely grants such companionship; after all, the deity already has the cleric’s devotion, and he already spends a great deal of effort on the cleric’s behalf by sending spells.”-Dragon Magazine #86, pg. 12

      Here, Mr. Inniss seems to me to miss the point, as low-level spells are granted by faith alone in AD&D. Furthermore, direct contact with supernatural beings is an EVERYDAY occurrence for Clerics of 5th level and above. Consider the words of Gygax himself on the matter of obtaining clerical spells…

      Cleric spells of third, fourth, and fifth level are obtained through the aid of
      supernatural servants of the cleric's deity.

      And then….

      Cleric spellsof sixth and seventh level are granted by direct communication
      from the deity itself.

      Might it be plausible for a supernatural familiar to BE that supernatural servant solely responsible for granting potentially critically needed 3rd, 4th , and 5th level spells? I know this is a bit of a stretch, but consider the implications of such constant scrutiny. Woe to the priest “strays but a little”!

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  11. re "rough edges" -- I personally like the idea of an evil wizard mistakenly binding in servitude a lawful good familiar for almost eternity... or visa verse.

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  12. Clerics having familiars would make sense. A lot of saints, hermits, and mystical whatevers of legend have had animals who lived with them and were widely held to have communicated back and forth with them. St. Francis taming the wolf with a few words, for example, and the way the wolf hung around after that making itself useful. Or St. Corbinian's riding-bear, who is on the arms of the Bishop of Munich-Freising.

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    1. Absolutely, and clerics based on much older pagan traditions would almost certainly have animal familiars (e.g. Odin's ravens and wolves, Thor's goats, Freya's cats, Druids with anything that lives in the forest).

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    2. And then there's the horrible day when the GM goes fairy tale, and has your familiar tell you that what it wants as a reward is that you kill it....

      No one expects the familiar who's actually a bespelled prince!

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  13. I always did like the approach were you capture your familiar and bind it using the spell, rather than having it summon the familiar for you.

    I think Ars Magica's binding chords did it best, although kudos must go to Runequest with the Awaken Spirit spell (which allowed a Rune Rank to take an animal companion as their allied spirit and grant it intelligence). Although it did mean that the pacifistic Chalanna Arroy priestesses got butterflies as their familiars...

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    1. And then there was Dragonquest (1st ed) whose familars actually were imps that assumed animal forms.

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