Saturday, June 19, 2021

Play by Post

 I am contemplating refereeing a play-by-post campaign parallel to my real time online campaign of The Vaults of sha-Arthan. My primary reason for doing this is so that I can put the setting and its rules through their paces by exposure to as large a number of people as possible. However, to run a play-by-post campaign properly, I'll need a platform to host it and I have no experience with any of them. Do any readers have any recommendations in this regard? I don't need anything fancy, just a means for myself and players to make posts, both public and private. Some capacity for posting images, like maps, would likely be helpful too.

Thanks in advance!

Friday, June 18, 2021

Donjonlands

Stephen Wendell is the player of Aíthfo hiZnáyu, the adventuresome governor of the Tsolyáni colony of Linyaró, in my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. That campaign has been going for more than six years now – it began in March 2015 – making it one of the longest, continuous RPG campaigns I've ever refereed. During that time, I've not only had a great deal of fun, thanks to the participation of Stephen and his fellow players, but I've also forged friendships that mean a great deal to me. It's not exaggeration to say that those friendships played a significant role in giving me the courage to start blogging again after so long an absence.

Stephen is a man of many talents beyond roleplaying my favorite Tsolyáni on the make. Since the start of this year, he's been blogging over at Donjonlands. There, he's using the Holmes rulebook and Monster & Treasure Assortment – as well as his considerable creativity – to stock and explore a 179-room dungeon map produced by another dear friend and player in my House of Worms, campaign, Dyson Logos. It's a fun and inspiring project, especially if, like me, you take pleasure the simple joys of stocking a dungeon from random tables and then trying to make sense of the results.

As I prepare The Vaults of sha-Arthan for play later this summer, I've been thinking a lot more about how to stock and present a large dungeon for weekly play in an unusual setting. Stephen's posts have given me even more to think about and I expect they might do the same for you. Take a look if you have the time.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 28

Page 28 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide contains numerous short sections about the minutiae of combat. I'm not going to discuss them all in this post. Instead, I'm going to focus on those that I find noteworthy for one reason or another, starting with the section on helmets.

It is assumed that an appropriate type of head armoring will be added to the suit of armor in order to allow uniform protection of the wearer. Wearing of a "great helm" adds the appropriate weight and restricts vision to the front 60' only, but gives the head AC 1. If a helmet is not worn, 1 blow in 6 will strike at the AC 10 head, unless the opponent is intelligent, in which case 1 blow in 2 will be aimed at the AC 10 head (d6, 1–3 = head blow).

I've mentioned before that this is one of my favorite obscure rules in AD&D. It was certainly one I regularly sought out, because I knew it was in the DMG somewhere; I just couldn't always remember precisely where. For the most part, this rule makes sense and is probably an improvement over OD&D's silence on the subject, despite the fact that a helmet is included in the equipment list. 

Next up are magic armor and shields, which have interesting properties.

When magic armor is worn, assume that its properties allow movement at the next higher base rate and that weight is cut by 50%. There is no magical elfin chain mail.

Again, this is reasonable. I only note that Unearthed Arcana, penned by Gygax himself, includes magical elfin chain mail. 

Magic shields are no less weighty than their non-magical counterparts, but they are non-bulky with respect to encumbrance. 

I wonder why magical armor is less weighty but not magical shields. I don't object to the ruling, but I am curious as to Gygax's thinking. In any case, he continues to talk about shields and their use. Gygax begins by noting that

The shield can be used fully only to the left or front of the right handed individual. Attacks from the right flank or rear negate the benefits of a shield.

As a southpaw myself, I appreciate the acknowledgment of left handed combatants! More interesting, though, I think are his combats about large shields.

Therefore, large shields are treated as but +1 to armor class rating without a shield. Optionally, you may allow them to add +2 to this armor class with respect to small (non-war engine or giant hurled) missiles

The last point Gygax addresses is one that I've struggled with many times, namely the matter of weapon versus armor class adjustments. This is something I want to include, because it seems obvious to me that different weapons were created and wielded precisely because some were more effective in certain circumstances than in others. At the same time, the complexity likely required to address this worries me, which is why I've generally never found a system I fully embraced. AD&D includes such a system, but I've never found it very workable, for reasons Gygax discusses.

If you allow weapon type adjustments in your campaign please be certain to remember that these adjustments are for weapons versus specific types of armor, not necessarily against actual armor class.

This is something that's also stated in the Players Handbook, but I think it's important that Gygax reiterates it, lest the table there be misunderstood. That said, he also reiterates another point that I think militates against the system's ultimate utility.

In most cases, monsters not wearing armor will not have any weapon type adjustments allowed, as monster armor class in such cases pertains to the size, shape, agility, speed, and/or magical nature of the creature.

This is exactly why I was never able to adopt the weapon adjustments. If they generally don't apply to attacks against monsters, the most common opponents of characters in Dungeons & Dragons, what's the point of such a system? Worse still, I think Gygax's statement that monster armor class is reflective of size, shape, agility, speed, and so forth throws into question just what "armor class" in a broad sense means. This tension has always existed in D&D's combat system, to be sure, but I can't help but feel that, in trying to include and make sense of weapon adjustments, Gygax has opened up a can of worms that threatens to undermine the entire system. That's why, despite my keen interest in modeling differences between weapons, I nevertheless favor a simple and abstract combat system, which, while not "realistic," at least avoids being incoherent. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Original Conan Fiction on the Way

Conan Properties just announced that, starting in May 2022, Titan Books would begin "a program of original new publishing featuring Robert E. Howard's most famous character, Conan." The announcement goes on to say that "the new fiction will stand firmly within the Conan canon, beginning with a novel and two short stories to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the character."

Honestly, I never know how to feel about announcements like this. On the one hand, I'm always glad to see Conan and other foundational pulp fantasy characters celebrated, especially nowadays, when so much of popular fantasy is so thoroughly deracinated. On the other hand, precisely because of that deracination, I wonder just how well this new fiction will reflect the work and worldview of Howard. Given how well such an effort went down in the 1960s under the stewardship of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (i.e. not very), I am not sanguine. I suppose a great deal depends on who these "finest authors" Titan plans to employ are.

Only time will tell.

House of Worms, Sessions 228–229

The journey by riverboat from Avanthár to Béy Sü was short (just under two days) and peaceful, a welcome change from the chaos and upheaval of the last few weeks. Also traveling on the boat was an older clan mate of Nebússa, Qeqélmu hiSsáivra, the Dritlán of the first cohort of the First Legion of Ever-Present Glory. Since his younger days, Grujúng has been an admirer of Kettukál hiMraktiné, the Kérdu of the said legion. He used this as an opportunity to approach Qeqélmu as a fellow legionnaire and to trade war stories. To his surprise, Qeqélmu proved to be much more approachable than either his clan or exalted position would suggest. From him, Grujúng learned about more about the war in the northeast involving Yán Kór, Sa'á Allaqí, and Milumanayá, as well as Tsolyánu's wait-and-see attitude about the conflict. He added that he was returning to Béy Sü to deliver new orders to Kettukál from the Petal Throne.

At the end of the journey, the characters split up to seek places to stay in the city. Grujúng and Lady Srüna headed to the Golden Bough clan house in the northern part of the city. Since Keléno's first wife, Hmásu, is a member of the same clan and cousin to Nebússa, he joined them, as did Kirktá (who has, more or less, become Keléno's "apprentice"). Meanwhile, Aíthfo sought out the Black Stone clan house, along with Znayáshu, Chiyé, and the Ksárul sorcerers who had accompanied them. Black Stone is the clan of Aíthfo's new wife, Ta'ána, as well as that of Lára hiKhánuma, leader of the sorcerers. Grujúng had no interest in traveling with either group, preferring instead to seek out lodgings in the barracks of the temple guards of the Temple of Sárku. 

At the Golden Bough clan house, Nebússa intended, first and foremost, to speak with his fathers and mothers. When he left Béy Sü several years ago, he did so under the cover of being a sybaritic wastrel, an identity he'd adopted for his work with the Omnipotent Azure Legion. Most of his clan (aside from Múresh hiQolyélmu, an important figure within the Legion) had no idea that his public persona was a carefully constructed pose. Up to this point, Nebússa had been a disappointment to his clan; his family was therefore overjoyed to learn the truth. 

Nebússa followed up this new by introducting Srüna, his betrothed. As a relation of the Disposer of Méku, the hereditary governor of that city, Srüna greatly impressed Nebússa's class-conscious relations. They asked him how soon the pair planned to wed. Nebússa admitted that he and Srüna had not yet set a day. Another question followed: how long was Nebússa planning to stay in the capital? He replied that he had no fixed schedule, though his original intention was to leave in a few days. His family was disappointed; they explained that, since they could not publicly celebrate his activities as an agent of the OAL, they now hoped that they might be able to host his wedding to Srüna in high style. After all, what sort of celebration could he hope to have in far-off Linyaró? 

After a few minutes of discussion, Nebússa and Srüna agreed to the clan's plans, even though it would take time to arrange. For one, it would three weeks at the earliest before Srüna's clan in Méku could be contacted and arrive in Béy Sü for the nuptials. Furthermore, there would need to be many invitations sent to people of significance in the capital. As Nebússa would later learn, one of those invited was Tíkuru hiTlaktonái, clan master of the Tlakotáni holdings in the north of the Empire. Though not a member of the imperial line, Tíkuru was nevertheless an important man in Béy Sü. His attendance at the wedding would be a huge boon to the position of the Golden Bough. Likewise, through one of Nebússa's fathers, an invitation was sent to Kettukál hiMraktiné – another coup for the clan if the Kérdu should choose to attend.

Keléno found little of this of interest. He set off for the Palace of the Realm to meet with its prefect, Di'iqén hiSayúncha, to gain permission to look into Engsvanyáli records about the Southern Continent. Di'iqén received him and happily granted his request. Keléno, aided by Kirktá, then settled in to scour the records. Keléno he might gain greater insights into the current situation on the Achgé Peninsula. The other members of the House of Worms clan spent their time sightseeing in Béy Sü, visiting the Pyramid of Ssirandár III, the Great Square, and the elegant shops and prosperous businesses of the city. After a time, all three groups met up and exchanged information. Znayáshu was slightly vexed to learn about Nebússa's upcoming wedding. He did not wish to remain in the capital for three weeks, suggesting that they needed to return to Linyaró as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him, no one else saw the urgency and instead thought they should take advantage of their current situation. After all, when would they be in the capital of the Imperium again?

Keléno and Kirktá returned to examining records, while most of the others set out to buy themselves attire appropriate to the wedding celebrations. Aíthfo, on the other hand, thought this might be an opportunity to check in with the local Temple of Ksárul seeking an exchange of information. He assumed, as a devotee of Ksárul himself, as well as the governor of Linyaró, he'd be well received, Instead, the temple's administrative high priest, Menték hiSayúncha, met him with some suspicion. It took Aíthfo a long time to convince Menték that they had interests in common and, even then, the high priest remained aloof. Aíthfo explained that he simply hoped to learn more about what he had happened in Linyaró and that, if anyone would know, it was the Temple of Ksárul in the capital. Menték seemed flattered by this suggestion and opened up somewhat. As their conversation continued, Menték admitted that all was well in Linyaró and that "the right people" were keeping the colony safe, by which he strongly implied he meant the Temple of Ksárul. Aíthfo feigned pleasure upon hearing this and learned as much as he could – which was not much, given the distance between Linyaró and Tsolyánu – before leaving the temple and heading back to meet his companions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Tramp Does SF

I sometimes forget that the late, great Dave Trampier did illustration work for non-Dungeons & Dragons products. While looking into another Tramp-related matter, I came across this piece from the 1985 Star Frontiers module, The War Machine (by Ken Rolston). I owned the module at the time, but I don't know that I ever recognized that Trampier had provided artwork for it. 

It's a strong illustration that demonstrates considerable technical improvement over Trampier's earlier work on D&D and AD&D (which, I should add, I adore). I wonder how much more improvement he would have shown had he continued doing professional illustration work rather than abandoning it, as he did. Such a shame!

The Eternal Gods of Inba Iro

When it comes to creating a new campaign setting, my creative process is whimsical. I flit from idea to idea, writing down whatever comes into my head, no matter how incoherent, returning later to elaborate on some of them while casting aside others. Which ones will ultimately earn my attention is unpredictable and not necessarily indicative of anything but a current fancy. Yesterday, that fancy turned to the names and interests of the gods of Inba Iro, the starting point for my upcoming fantasy campaign. 

The list (and even names) of the main Ironian gods presented hereafter is still in some flux, but it's taken firm enough shape that I felt I could share it. In working on this, I also felt like I've gained a better sense of both Inba Iro, its peoples, society, and culture, bits of which might even come through here. 

  • Aku: Goddess of secrets and silence.
  • Daha: A previously minor god of destiny, fate, and fortune, elevated to the role of a psychopomp by the Chomachto invaders.
  • Jilho: "The Protector," "The Dutiful Son," god of family, home, and law; son of the goddess Keru.
  • Jurd: goddess of waters and peace.
  • Keru: goddess of death, hope, and war.
  • Kotaro: god earth, fertility, and vegetation.
  • Nemu: goddess of fire, light, and the stars.
  • Omo: god of disorder, storms, and violence.
  • Sha: god of art, crafts, truth, wisdom, and writing.
  • Tast: god of burial, darkness, mourning, and night.
  • Thomalon: god of kingship, the sky, and the sun; an imported Chomachto deity who assumed the characteristics of several important Ironian gods.
  • Ton: god of the moons, time, and travel.
  • Ukol: god of abundance, agriculture, and medicine.
  • Ulant: goddess of music, oil, and wine.
  • Vulas: goddess of commerce and wealth; an imported Chomachto deity without much support outside the invaders.
  • Wa: "Completer of the World," the deity who brought sha-Arthan out of the primordial void.
As you can see from this brief sketch, the gods of Inba Iro are a mix of mostly native Ironian deities and a handful of imported/amalgam deities whose cults were brought/established by the new Chomachto monarchy and aristocracy. I've always been a big fan of cosmopolitan religious syncretism, but it's rare in most fantasy settings (Glorantha being one of the few that exceptions that springs immediately to mind). I decided to lean heavily into it in sha-Arthan and the final version of this pantheon may reflect that more clearly.

Something else that isn't clear from this list is that many of these gods are strongly associated with certain cities or region of Inba Iro. For example, Thomalon, being a new, amalgam deity has his great temple – and greatest influence – in the new imperial capital of Tamas Tzora (the "New City") and is largely unknown in da-Imer (the "Old City'), where Keru and Ukol are much more significant deities. Likewise, the Ironian pantheon includes dozens of minor gods that act as genii locorum and personifications of culturally important concepts. And that's not counting all the foreign gods worshiped by travelers and merchants to the Empire (as well as outside its borders).

I'm aiming for a riotous and promiscuous religiosity that better reflects the ancient cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. I'll probably only achieve what I'm seeking after the campaign is fully under way, but I'm trying to put things on a good footing to start. We'll see how well I succeed in time.

Retrospective: Hero

Looking back on the early history of the hobby of roleplaying, I'm regularly struck by two things. First – I don't think this is controversial – it took quite a while for the categories of "roleplaying games" and "wargames" to become distinct. One could argue that these categories are still, nearly half a century later, insufficiently distinct. Second – and this is, I think, more remarkable – fantasy as a popular mass media genre, by which I mean "Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula," was still in its infancy during the 1970s and even into the '80s. 

I bring both these points up because they're so easily forgotten, especially from the vantage point of the present day, when the fantasy genre is now so well known and widespread that we regularly see multi-million fantasy films and television programs. But, in 1979, when I first entered the hobby, fantasy wasn't so mainstream. I'm not saying there were no fantasy movies or TV shows – obviously, there were – but they were often low budget, cheesy, and unlikely to be financial successes. (1977's Star Wars, I would argue, played a huge role in changing this dynamic, even though it's often considered science fiction rather than fantasy, even though it's not)

It's against this backdrop that Yaquinto Publications released the subject of today's post. Called Hero, with the subtitle "A Game of Adventure in the Catacombs," it was the first of the company's "album games." According to Hero's back cover, an album game

contains a colorful map mounted on the inside of the "record jacket," a sheet of "sturdy" colored, die-cut counters, two plastic "zip-lock" bags designed to assure flat storage of the counters, and easy-to-use rules and play aids. Pieces and rules are stored in the two pockets of the Album and the entire game package is less than half-inch thick. Convenient, durable, and entertaining!
As you can read from the description, the album in "album game" is a reference to record albums, those relics of a bygone era. That alone firmly places Hero within its historical context, since, as others have noted, album covers were often a vector by which fantasy imagery gained a greater foothold in the popular imagination. Come to think of it, the cover art by John Hagen could well have graced a prog rock album from the same time. 

The game bills itself as a "simulation," which it describes in an unusual way.

Simulations are done in many different types of media. A movie or a television program is a 'visual and audio' simulation. A scene described in a book is a 'written simulation'. The parts that make up this game represent a 'gaming' simulation. Absolute realism in any simulation is, of course, impossible but within the organization of the pieces and the rules of this game, the most critical problems faced by the Hero can be duplicated. In other forms of simulation you play a passive role. You watch T.V., listen to Beethoven, read books. In the context of this game, you take an active role. You are, in fact, a HERO.

What a time capsule this paragraph is! As I said at the start of this post, the definition of a roleplaying game and how it differed from a wargame (or "simulation") was still very much in flux. You can see some of that in what the designer of this game, Michael S. Matheny, says here. 

In any case, the game goes on to say that "HERO is a man-to-man (or beast) level simulation of combat in an underground catacomb , where three mighty Heroes try to demonstrate which is the most heroic." The purpose of this demonstration is to win the hand of Alysa, "daughter of the most powerful wizard in the land." Thus, it's not quite a RPG in the way we understand it today but the rules regularly mention that its players "assume the role" of a hero. Likewise, each available hero has unique game stats, with ratings in Strength, Intelligence, Luck, Physical Appearance, weapon proficiencies, etc.

Despite this, gameplay is very boardgame-like. Players move counters across the map, with each square representing 8 feet of distance. There are extensive rules for both movement and  sighting, as well as opening doors and, of course, combat. Play is competitive, with each player's Hero fighting through a separate catacomb (there are four included with the game). Inside the catacombs are monsters and traps to be faced or avoided. The winner is the Hero who both survives his catacomb and achieves the most points (as determined by several distinct factors) to win Alysa's love. 

Hero is a simple game to play and actually quite fun, if limited in its scope. It's definitely closer to a tactical-level board wargame than a roleplaying game, but it nevertheless includes enough nods in the direction of RPGs that, given the date of its publication, I'm not 100% certain of the original intention behind it. Regardless, it's another fascinating window into the first decade of the hobby. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

On the Edge of Time

What a gorgeous, evocative cover! Painted by an unknown artist, versions of this appeared on several printings of the late 1970s Pocket Books edition of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, including the one I first read all those decades ago. In looking for this image, I came across the cover images of many other editions over the years. What struck me is how poor so many of them are, but that's sadly a common problem with Vance's novels and short story collections – a pity.

Again: Ability Scores

I've been spending a lot of time working out the details of The Vaults of sha-Arthan setting I hope to start refereeing in July or August. While I'm using Old School Essentials as the base for its rules, I'm also making changes to many aspects of those rules, such as the character classes, magic, monsters, treasure – well, quite a lot, now that I think about it. Even so, it's my intention that sha-Arthan be recognizable as a descendent of Dungeons & Dragons, much in the way that Empire of the Petal Throne is.

At the moment, I'm devoting my time to writing the rules that players need to generate characters, including the matter of ability scores. As you may recall from my recent posts about ability scores, I have a number of questions and criticisms of the traditional D&D ability scores. At the same time, ability scores are such a foundational element of D&D – and indeed pretty much all traditional RPGs – that I wasn't all that keen to dispense with them entirely, though I did seriously consider it.

My broad thoughts are the following:

  1. In principle, I very much like the idea of randomly generated ability scores, preferably on the 3d6 in order model. 
  2. One of the reasons I like random generation is that it offers a good chance that each character has at least one below average score, which I think lends just as much uniqueness to character as the abilities where he is above average.
  3. That said, if ability scores provide significant mechanical benefits, my fondness for the idea diminishes somewhat.
  4. While I am very much in favor of limiting the presence of certain "special" character classes and races, I am quite convinced that doing so by recourse to ability score minimums only feeds the perceived need for characters to have higher scores and for the generation systems to support that need.
  5. Finally, I increasingly think there ought to be some system by which a character can improve his ability scores over time, whether it be through training as in RuneQuest or gaining levels as in Empire of the Petal Throne or post-TSR versions of D&D.
With all that in mind, I'm now weighing two options for generating ability scores in light of these thoughts. The first and most straightforward is also the most radical: dispense with random rolls. If I take this approach, there seem to be two options: point buy or a typical distribution. In the former, I'd settle on some number of points, say 70, and then allow each player to divide those points among his character's ability scores as he wishes (with 3 being the minimum and 18 the maximum, of course). In the latter, each player distributes the same collection of scores, say 6, 8, 10, 11, 11, 12, 14, and 16 amongst his character's abilities. The advantage of these two approaches is that, while they entirely eliminate the random aspect, they greatly increase – or ensure, in the case of the typical distribution – that a character will have below average scores.

The second approach preserves a bit more of the random element I like. I came across a version of it in the second edition of The Black Hack. In the system presented there, ability scores are rolled 3d6 in order. However, if the score for any ability is 14 or higher, the next ability score is not rolled but is rather simply assigned a 7. The Black Hack also permits the player, after he has rolled all six scores, to swap two of them in order to better suit his intentions for his character. I find this approach strangely attractive, since it preserves the random element while placing the proverbial finger on the scale in order to ensure any high score comes at a cost.

There are probably other alternative approaches to generating ability scores that address my concerns and, if so, I'd love to know about them. For now, I continue to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the approaches presented above, without having made a firm decision toward one or the other. Right now, what's most important (to me anyway) is that I have made my peace with the idea of not using 3d6 in order, something I still very much prefer in principle but that I realize I had been turning into something of an idol. I now have a much better sense of what I want out of ability scores in sha-Arthan; all that remains is deciding the best way to get what I want.