Monday, May 31, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Ubbo-Sathla

The July 1933 issue of Weird Tales was an impressive one, containing notable stories by several pulp luminaries. In a previous post, I already discussed H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House", which premiered in this issue. Also present were "The Horror in the Museum" by Hazel Heald (though ghost written by Lovecraft) and "The Hand of Glory," a Jules de Grandin yarn by Seabury Quinn, not to mention stories by Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton. 

Then there's the subject of today's post, "Ubbo-Sathla," a very unusual story by Clark Ashton Smith. It's usually classified as a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, but, aside from an epigraph from The Book of Eibon, which references "Yok-Zothoth" (Yog-Sothoth) and "Kthulhut" (Cthulhu), there's nothing particularly Lovecraftian about the tale. Instead, it's largely another exploration of a theme common in not just Smith's own writings but in many pulp stories of the time: metempsychosis and mental time travel. 

Paul Tregardis, an antiquarian living in London, stumbles upon a "milky crystal in a litter of oddments from many lands in eras" while visiting the establishment of a curio-dealer. Tregardis asks the dealer about the crystal, who replies:

"It is very old – palaeogean, one might say. I cannot tell you much, for little is known. A geologist found it in Greenland, beneath glacial ice, in the Miocene strata. Who knows? It may have belonged to some sorcerer of primeval Thule. Greenland was a warm, fertile region, beneath the sun of Miocene times. No doubt it is a magic crystal; and a man might behold strange visions in its heart, if he looked long enough."

Tregardis is startled to hear this, not least because it reminded him of things he had read in The Book of Eibon. The tome described, among other things, the life of the wizard Zon Mezzamalech, who was said to have possessed a crystal just like the one he'd stumbled upon. Even though he considered The Book of Eibon "sheer superstitious fantasy," there was nevertheless "something about the crystal that continued to tease and inveigle him." Consequently, he purchased it "without bargaining" and "hastened back to his lodgings instead of resuming his leisurely saunter."

There, he opened up his copy of the French translation of The Book of Eibon and re-read those sections that pertained to Zon Mezzamalech and the crystal. 

This wizard, who was mighty among sorcerers, had found a cloudy stone, orb-like and somewhat flattened at the ends, in which he could behold many visions of the terrene past, even to the Earth's beginnings, when Ubbo-Sathla, the unbegotten source, lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime … 

 Tregardis continued to be "tantalized and beguiled," which led him to stare ever more intently into the "cold, nebulous orb." 

Minute by minute he sat, and watched the alternate glimmering and fading of the mysterious light in the heart of the crystal. By imperceptible degrees, there stole upon him a sense of dream-like duality, both in respect to his person and his surroundings. He was still Paul Tregardis – and yet he was someone else; the room was his London apartment – a chamber in some foreign but well-known place. And in both milieus he peered steadfastly into the same crystal.

After an interim, without surprise on the part of Tregardis, the process of re-identification became complete. He knew that he was Zon Mezzamalech, a sorcerer of Mhu Thulan, and a student of all lore anterior to his own amateur epoch. Wise with dreadful secrets that were not known to Paul Tregardis, amateur of anthropology and the occult sciences in latter-day London, he sought by means of the milky crystal to attain an even older and more fearful knowledge.

 As astounding as this is, this is only the beginning of a process by which Tregardis recalled "unnumbered lives" and "myriad deaths" – as "a warrior in half-legendary battles," "a child playing in the ruins of some olden city," a woman "who wept for the bygone dead," and many, many more. Over the course of the short story, Tregardis finds his mind flung back untold eons, through a host of lives in a variety of times and places, until he reached "the grey beginning of Earth" itself, where "the formless mass that was Ubbo-Sathla reposed amid the slime and the vapors."

"Ubbo-Sathla" is almost entirely devoid of action in the usual sense of the term. The quest of Paul Tregardis is entirely mental – or perhaps psychic is a better word – as he observes and learns from the past he can now view through the agency of the milky crystal orb. Like so many Smith stories, the reader is treated to a verbal phantasmagoria of bizarre and unexplained sights and sensations, mirroring those of the story's protagonist as he plumbs the depths of time and space. Unlike efforts like the widely celebrated "The City of the Singing Flame,"  "Ubbo-Sathla" is not quite as effective. Yet, what it might lack in execution, it makes up for in its ambition. Smith endeavors to show the origin of all life on Earth, at once exhilarating and terrifying. It's thus another worthy example of Clark Ashton Smith's ability to evoke the sometimes contradictory feelings occasioned by the acquisition of knowledge.

Friday, May 28, 2021

House of Worms, Sessions 225

Aíthfo, Grujúng, and Nebússa advanced on the Ssú standing between them and the passageway toward which they were headed. The Enemies of Man proved more skilled and resilient than expected, with Grujúng in particular finding his attacks against them less effective than he had hoped. However, as the battle raged on, the Tsolyáni regained their footing, aiding in no small part by Znayáshu and Chiyé's spells. With the Ssú warriors defeated, the characters continue to make their way through the lair.

The passageway ahead was quite narrow, forcing the Tsolyáni to travel single file. Winding their way through it, the characters heard sounds up ahead. Aíthfo, in the lead, saw that there was a large chamber up ahead, with multiple passages heading off in different directions. Guarding the chamber were five Ssú; there was also evidence of the Ssú "mines" the characters had encountered earlier. These mines were placed near the entrances of several of the passageways. 

The Ssú reacted immediately, rushing toward the passageway through which the characters were moving. Aíthfo quickly moved ahead to meet them, but Znayáshu cautioned him from doing so. Earlier, Kirktá had discovered an eye on the body of a dead Ssú sorcerer. Not knowing its function, he wished to test it on the Ssú. The eye had a small dial on it, with three settings; Znayáshu chose on setting, aimed it at the Ssú, and pressed the stud on the back. A greenish gas emerged from the eye and expanded to fill the chamber. Znayáshu was briefly elated, thinking he had come into the possession of an eye of the creeping fog of doom – a very potent device! Unfortunately, the Ssú didn't seem to be adversely affected by the gas. They continued their advance and attacked Aíthfo.

While Nebússa and Grujúng joined him, Aíthfo bore the brunt of the initial attack. He was struck several times and required healing from Keléno to ensure he did not fall in battle. At the same time, sounds were heard from the rear of the passage where the other characters waited. The guards with the characters reported that more Ssú were approaching, preparing to attack them from behind. Znayáshu squeezed past his comrades, adjusted the setting of the eye and tried again. This time, a yellowish gas emerged from the eye and, unlike the previous gas, it had a clear effect: one by one, the Ssú dropped to the ground, seemingly dead.

The battle in front waged on, with the characters staying away from the slowly expanding cloud of green gas. After some time, they prevailed against the Ssú but soon discovered that the two clouds of gas were no dissipating. The characters were effectively trapped between the two clouds, worried that they might die if they dared enter either. Rather than take the risk, they waited to see if there was evidence of the clouds shrinking in size. This happened, albeit very slowly. In the end, it took a little more than a half an hour to do so, during which time the group strategized. They could hear the distinctive chiming voices of the Ssú in the distance, suggesting the Enemies of Man were still nearby. However, none attacked them while they waited.

The clouds dissipated, they advanced again. Znayáshu, Chiyé, and Lady Srüna made use of their telekinesis spells to pick up and fling the "gems" resting atop the Ssú mines. These gems exploded down the passageways into which they were flung, followed by the sounds of more Ssú voices. When no more of their opponents appeared, Nebússa scouted to see which (if any) of the passages led to the area with evidence of Ancient architecture. He eventually discovered it and all the characters moved ahead cautiously. Passing evidence of dead Ssú, they found a lift like the ones they'd seen in other tubeway car stations. They made use of it, descending down a long shaft into what they immediately recognized as a darkened tubeway station.

The station seemed to lack most power, but there were lights on in a small building near a large car that sat waiting near it. Keléno fiddled with some of the controls, based on what he had learned from the Keeper beneath Miktatáin, and there was soon evidence that the tubeway car was now active. The characters piled into the car, inserted the disc given to them by Toneshkéthu, and watched as the car's door close, an unintelligible voice spoke, and a screen lit up, displaying a strange series of lines and other shapes. They felt the car move forward, with luck taking them to their desired destination: the fortress of Evú Nithóru located to the north of the capital city of Béy Sü.

Random Roll: DMG, p. 74

Page 74 of the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide features four attack matrices to aid the DM in adjudicating combat. They're all quite interesting in their way, but Matrix I.B, which concerns fighters and related classes, is especially so.

Let's start at the top. This matrix covers attacks by fighters and its two sub-classes paladins and rangers. Bards also make use of this table, though only at the highest level of fighter they have attained. That's interesting, because, if I'm understanding the rule correctly, it means that bards never increase in their combat effectiveness. Also interesting is that non-player half-orcs use the monster attack matrix rather than this one, unlike NPCs of all other playable demihuman races (are half-orcs even considered demihumans?).

It's difficult to compare AD&D's matrices with those in OD&D, since there is a wider range of armor classes in AD&D available. Nevertheless, it's notable that a 1st-level fighter in AD&D needs 11 to land a hit on AC 9, while an OD&D fighter of the same level needs only 10. On the other hand, AD&D fighters advance in steps of two levels rather than in steps of three in OD&D. (AD&D clerics, meanwhile, are more effective than their OD&D counterparts, since they advance in steps of three rather than four.)  The "special note" below the matrix offers the suggestion that fighters could advance in steps of one level, with each level granting a +1 bonus rather than the +2 bonus provided by the standard approach. I've never known anyone who used this optional rule, though I recall an article in the pages of Dragon that advocated strongly in favor of it.

A final observation concerns the notorious repeating 20s on the matrix. For reasons I don't quite understand – readers can enlighten me in the comments below – the matrix includes a series of six 20s before the advancing again beyond 20. I've always played Dungeons & Dragons with the "rule" that a roll of 1 is always a failure and a roll of 20 is always a success. I don't know where I picked this up, but it's now so ingrained in my mind that I instinctively use it. Given that, I don't find the repeating 20s odd at all; what seems strange to me is that there are target numbers higher than 20. What does that represent? How are we supposed to interpret it? I welcome any insights people better versed in the intricacies of AD&D can offer.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

What's the Point of Ability Scores? (Final Random Thoughts)

I make no claims that, in the previous parts of this series, I've covered every aspect of ability scores throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons. However, I hope I have touched upon enough of them to draw attention to a major flash point, namely the necessity for high ability scores. This necessity is a strange thing, simultaneously the cause and result of a shift in how RPG players imagined the hobby in which they were engaging. 

Starting with Greyhawk, ability scores gained greater mechanical weight. Was this change initiated solely by Gygax, perhaps out of dissatisfaction with the way OD&D handled abilities, or was it a reaction to the desire of players that abilities be more significant? Regardless of its ultimate origin, from that point on, all versions of D&D, most especially AD&D, placed ever greater emphasis on abilities and having high scores in them. Minimum ability scores were established for certain specialized classes or even demihuman races, which fueled the perception that characters needed high ability scores, a perception that Gygax himself encouraged in various ways, as we've seen in previous entries in this series.

This raises many questions, a few of which include:

  1. How mechanically robust should ability scores be? 
  2. If they're not robust, what purpose do they serve?
  3. If they are robust, is it reasonable (or "fair") to generate these scores randomly?
  4. Mechanically robust or not, should they be used to limit entry into classes or races?
I don't think there's a "right" answer to any of these questions, but I do think some answers make more sense, depending on one's conception of RPGs. Prior to looking into these matters, I had an uncritical view of abilities and ability scores. Nearly every roleplaying game I'd ever played included them and, in many, if not most, cases did so simply because all previous RPGs had included them. This is a common pattern in the history of game design: because Dungeons & Dragons included X, then all subsequent games must also include X. Of course, the history of RPGs offers many examples where some feature of D&D was modified or even rejected. I can, for example, cite many RPGs – many quite early – that don't include hit points or armor class or alignment, but I have a much harder time thinking of RPGs that don't include ability scores. For the most part, ability scores are almost universal in roleplaying game rules.

I'm not necessarily advocating the abandonment of abilities. Even divorced of mechanics, abilities serve the potentially useful purpose of providing a player with insight into who his character is. Does he have a low Intelligence and a high Wisdom? Perhaps he lacks formal education but possesses considerable common sense or insight. High Intelligence and low Wisdom? He's a book learner with little experience of the wider world. As I said, this is genuinely useful – but only for a certain approach to roleplaying games. If, as Gary Gygax said, it's important that a player be able to "identify with" his character, does that run counter to, for example, random generation? What if I can only identify with a high Charisma character? Or elves or paladins? 

Random generation of ability scores are not universal nowadays, even within the sphere of avowedly "old school" games. AD&D, as we've seen, doesn't outright abandon random generation, but most of its approved methods of score generation stack the deck very much in favor of player preference. These methods assume the player already knows the kind of character he wishes to play rather than letting the dice decide. Couple this with multiple minimum ability scores for races and classes and we see a much narrowed scope for using abilities as a means of differentiating between characters. Look at any two AD&D rangers, a class with above average minimums in four of the six ability scores, and you won't see a great deal of mechanical difference. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest that perhaps ability scores aren't the best – or at least only – way to differentiate between characters.

The tying of ability scores to "survival" is another development that contributes to my questioning their role. If, as Gygax suggests, character survival depends, even in part, on multiple scores well above average (perhaps even beyond those simply needed to meet class/race minimums), then the scope for difference between characters narrows even further. This line of thought takes me to the brink of wondering: do we even need ability scores at all? Would it not be simpler – and more honest – to get rid of ability scores completely, folding their benefits into class abilities, so that, for instance, all fighters gain a damage bonus as they increase in level? 

Alternately, one might prefer to eliminate ability score minimums entirely. Under this scheme, if one wishes to play a paladin or range, one simply does, regardless of the character's randomly generated ability scores. This approach doesn't eliminate the powerful pull toward desiring high scores, given the genuine benefits they have in most versions of D&D, but it does lessen it somewhat. Replacing random generation with point-buy or the so-called "standard array" is another approach, since it ensures that, if a player wishes his character to have high scores in certain abilities, he will have to compensate by having lower ones in other abilities. This certainly addresses some of the questions arising out of this series, but at the cost of some of the variability random rolls provide. It's a trade-off and each referee will need to consider the matter carefully.

As I said earlier, there's no right answer to the questions raised by looking at the development of abilities and ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons. That said, what seems clear to me is that no version of the game has ever properly balanced variability with utility. I'm not even certain that that's possible. Nevertheless, I think these are questions worth pondering and we should be willing to consider unorthodox solutions, such as the complete abolition of ability scores. This all assumes one actually cares about these matters. Until recently, I certainly didn't and I can't blame anyone who is content with the way the matter is handled in their preferred edition of the game. However, I am no longer in that frame of mind. Exactly where my thinking will lead me, I don't yet know, but I will certainly share the fruits of my thoughts in future posts.

Part I | Interlude | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Retrospective: Bifrost

When it comes to the rules of roleplaying games, my long-held preference has been toward simplicity. In large part, this is because I'm lazy and cannot be bothered to remember complex rules (a situation that only becomes worse as I get older and my memory grows poorer). At the same time, I recognize the value of greater rules complexity. Almost a decade ago, I had the opportunity to play in a Rolemaster campaign refereed by someone very experienced with the system. In playing it, I came to see the genuine benefits in Rolemaster's higher degree of granularity. Combat, for example, offered a wider range of tactical choices than in Dungeons & Dragons, right down to what weapon my character chose to wield. I had a lot of fun and left the experience with an appreciation of why one might prefer complex rules.

In the years since, I've tried to look at complex RPGs with new, or at least more sympathetic, eyes. My preference for simpler games remains, of course, but I'm now better able to understand why some players and referees see a need for more detailed systems. It's with this perspective that I took a look at Bifrost, a very curious British roleplaying game released in four volumes between 1977 and 1982. The first volume, entitled "Faerie," primarily covers character creation, though it also treats such diverse topics as movement, morale, fatigue, religion, and experience. The subject matter of the second volume, "Combat," is self-explanatory, as is that of the third volume, "Magic." The fourth volume, which bears no title, functions more or less as a referee's volume, offering advice on playing and running the game; it also includes descriptions of many monsters and similar opponents.

The title page of the first volume indicates that the "rules [were] compiled … over the period June 1974 to February 1977" by members of the East London Wargames Group and students at the universities of Newcastle, Bath, and East Anglia. This is important information, since it clearly situates Bifrost within the early wargaming tradition of roleplaying. I think that provides some insight into the peculiarities of the rules, particularly the attention paid to distance, movement, and scale. That said, it's also clear that the game's writers – there are many, varying by volume – understood how fantasy roleplaying games differed from traditional miniatures wargames, despite their continued use of wargaming terminology (and indeed their calling Bifrost a wargame).

Characters in Bifrost are of three types: warriors, wizards, and warrior-wizards. There are a total of twenty abilities, divided into two groups, physical and mental. Initially, ability scores range from 1–20, with most being in the 1–10 range (generated by a 1d10 roll, with a roll of 10 granting a second additive 1d10 roll), but scores can theoretically go much higher through experience. These scores are then cross-referenced and "graded" by means of a chart, with the results of said chart determining bonuses and penalties to attack, defense, casting, and energy. Each ability has its own table, enumerating its benefits based on its score. The overall level of complexity is high, though, to its credit, the rules of Bifrost due seem to take them all into account. Other typical RPG topics, such as, for example, alignment, are similarly complex, with fine gradations between shades of Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil. I found it quite overwhelming.

Reading through Bifrost, it soon became clear that these rules were the result of much thought. The writers wanted the game's rules to be exhaustive and complete, covering as many common elements of fantasy roleplaying campaigns as possible and doing so thoroughly. Consequently, there are lots of cross-referenced tables and charts, derived statistics, and calculations. It's all quite impressive and, on some level admirable. I've noted before that, in many campaigns, rules additions and new interpretations multiply over time, making it increasingly complex and inaccessible to newcomers, even as those deeply involved have little trouble with it. Bifrost has that quality to it. Over the course of its four volumes, it presents rules that probably made a great deal of sense to those who used them but were difficult to fathom by anyone else. 

I can't dismiss Bifrost completely out of hand. I suspect that, in the hands of a capable referee, it could be fun and its detailed rules could be put to great use. Simply reading it, though, it's hard to see this. Bifrost looks like someone's obsessive house rules for their multi-year D&D campaign, which they typed up for distribution to other members of their gaming group. That's not a damning criticism as such, but it's not a recommendation either – especially when you consider that, in 1977 alone, games like Traveller and The Fantasy Trip were being published and both were readily accessible. Even so, I find something strangely fascinating about games like Bifrost and Fantasy Wargaming, products of another age, equal parts imaginative and baffling.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Different Worlds: Issue #16

Issue #16 of Different Worlds (November 1981) begins with an editorial by Tadashi Ehara regarding the identity of Gigi D'Arn. Ehara excerpts a few letters he received on this topic – "Gary Gygax in drag!," "John Sapienza on drugs." – before he assures readers that Gigi is, in fact, a "real person." He then offers snippets of information about her, such as the fact that she lives in southern California and writes articles for her local newspaper (e.g. "Save the Fruit Fly Movement!"). I'm honestly not sure how to take this, but it seems quite likely that the whole thing is a big joke. So far as I know Gigi's true identity has never been revealed, which is why I suspect she's not, despite Ehara's claims, a real person.

The issue proper begins with "Different Views," the letters column, which, in past issues, had been located toward the back. Immediately afterward is Robert Plamondon's "Hand-Held Thermonuclear Devices," a strange, short article about thermonuclear hand grenades. There are no game stats and it's quite clear that whole thing is not meant to be taken seriously. Ken Rolston follows up last issue's treatment of "Tournament Role-Playing" with a second part focused on the practicalities of refereeing scenarios at conventions – preparation, sequence of play, game aids, etc. It's a solid article filled with helpful advice, though its appeal is limited only to those who run (or plan to) tournament-style adventures.

"Mythological Monsters for The Fantasy Trip" by Ronald Mark Pehr provides write-ups for six monsters for use with TFT derived from Greek mythology. "The Cult of Indlas Somer" by Angus MacDonald is a 9-page long parody article, offering up a new cult for use with RuneQuest. As its name suggests, the cult is filled with references to beach bums and surfers. It's well done and amusing, though I have to wonder about the wisdom of publishing such a lengthy spoof article. "Illusion Magic" by David F. Nalle is a seemingly system-neutral article that delves into quantifying various aspects of illusions, like sensory impact, volume, and duration, though to what end I'm not entirely sure. 

"Training the Novice GM" by Howard Mahler is a short article offering advice to neophyte referees on handling NPCs during combat. John T. Sapienza reviews the "Dungeon Adventurers" and "Space Marines" miniatures produced by Asgard Miniatures, complete with photographs. I really like these articles, if only from the nostalgia point of view: seeing all these old figures really brings back memories. Several AD&D modules modules are also reviewed, including Secret of the Slavers Stockade, The Secret of Bone Hill, and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. They're all reviewed mostly positively, albeit with caveats in all cases. Gamescience's Star Patrol, on the other hand, does not get off so lightly, which is described as "flawed" and "incomplete." Gigi's column this month contains little of lasting interest, alas.

I continue to find reading Different Worlds frustrating. The quality and consistency from issue to issue is all over the map. Many are truly excellent, surpassing what I saw in the pages of Dragon or White Dwarf, while others are either mediocre or bafflingly opaque in their focus. Compared to other RPG magazines with which I have greater familiarity, DW seems much more "experimental," for good and for ill. Being a man of rather staid tastes, this doesn't always sit well with me. Still, I do feel like I'm acquiring greater insights into the history of the hobby outside the East Coast and Midwest, which is useful, even if I don't always like – or understand – the products of the West Coast.

Monday, May 24, 2021

What's the Point of Ability Scores? (Part V)

Before I post my final thoughts and musings on the matter of ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons, I wanted to bring our attention back to a few brief sections found in various rulebooks. OD&D (1974) does not, prior to the publication of Supplement I, place much emphasis on ability scores, mechanically or otherwise. Greyhawk greatly expands the scope of abilities, providing significant advantages to characters with high scores, to the point where players begin to feel that their characters need them. This perspective shift can be seen even in the Holmes Basic Rules (1977).

We touched on the notion of "hopeless characters" in an earlier post, but it's worth looking more carefully at what Holmes has written here. The rationale behind allowing a player to roll a different character is that those who are "below average in everything" might not fare well in "dangerous adventures." The emphasis is thus on survivability. Even so, Holmes go on to note that, chance being what it is, even "a character like this" might nevertheless survive and "advance to a position of power and importance." Moldvay's version of this section is more specific – a "hopeless" character is one with more than one ability score in the 3–6 range – and does not suggest that such a character might nevertheless succeed, despite his handicap.

I find these sections intriguing. Each in their own ways represents a subtle shift away from the idea that one ought to simply take what one gets when randomly generating ability scores. A similar shift is also evident in the first edition of Gamma World. Both Holmes and Moldvay leave final judgment of whether or not a character is "hopeless" up to the referee, as does James Ward in the case of Gamma World. The shift toward emphasizing the importance of ability scores is well under way, to be sure, but the role of the referee has not yet been downplayed or eliminated in the process of generating a player character. 

Toward the beginning of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, Gary Gygax writes of abilities:
The range of these abilities is between 3 and 18. The premise of the game is that each player character is above average [italics mine] – at least in some respects – and has superior potential. Furthermore, it is usually essential to the character's survival to be exceptional (with a rating 15 or above) in no fewer than two ability characteristics.

Please take note of the section I have italicized: the premise of the game is that each player character is above average. That's a very far cry from Xylarthen! What's more fascinating, though, is that Gygax has flipped the perspective of Holmes and Moldvay. All three tie ability scores to survivability – evidence of their increasing mechanical importance since 1974 – but, whereas Holmes and Moldvay, see being "below average" as evidence of a character's unsuitability, Gygax instead sees being "above average" as a sine qua non. 

In the Dungeon Masters Guide, just prior to the section describing the various methods for generating ability scores, Gygax offers some further insight into his perspective.

While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal characters tend to have short life expectancy – which tends to discourage players, as does having to make do with some character of a race and/or class which he or she really can't or won't identify with.

Talk about a shift in perspective! Once again, we see reference to survivability, but it's clear that's not Gygax's main concern. Instead, he's interested in ensuring that the player can generate a character that he can "identify with." I think that's a perfectly defensible position, even if I don't quite share it. Still, it's quite removed from OD&D in any of its forms. More significantly – and this will form the topic of my final post in this series – if one's intention is to ensure that all characters are "above average" and of a sort that each player can identify with them, what's the point of random generation at all? Indeed, what's the point of ability scores?

Part I | Interlude | Part II | Part III | Part IV


When it comes to words in fictional languages, how do you feel about stress markers? Do they make a word easier to pronounce or do they make it seem more intimidating, especially if your native tongue does not make much use of them, as is the case in English? 

The words of some fictional languages, like those of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoomian, include no stress markers. Others, like those of M.A.R. Barker's Tsolyáni, are riddled with them by comparison. Because I have become familiar with the pronunciation of Tsolyáni, I don't find its use of stress markers to be off-putting. However, I've heard from many people that, rather than aiding pronunciation, they contribute to the sense that Tsolyáni is difficult to pronounce, which in turn alienates people potentially interested in Tékumel.

I'm currently working on a project that includes names, words, and even occasionally whole phrases from a couple of fictional languages. I ask again: would you find the use of stress markers or other types of notations ("accent marks") helpful or simply discouraging? Do you prefer, for example, "sha-Artan" or "sha-Artán?" 

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Swordsman of Mars

I've never made a secret of my love of sword-and-planet stories, starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs's seminal, A Princess of Mars. Likewise, I've long droned on about the importance of this literature to understanding original Dungeons & Dragons. That's why I regularly use the Pulp Fantasy Library series to discuss and promote even the lesser known stories and authors of the genre, such as Martian stories of Otis Adalbert Kline.

Kline is a fascinating fellow. In addition to being a writer, he was also an assistant editor at Weird Tales since its inauguration in 1923. To the extent Kline's remembered today at all, it's either in his role as Robert E. Howard's literary agent or his supposed feud with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though Richard A. Lupoff thoroughly debunked the feud, it's understandable why it once seemed plausible, since both men wrote about similar characters and situations. 

The Swordsman of Mars was originally published as a six-part serial beginning in the January 7, 1933 issue of Argosy Weekly before being collected in novel form in 1960. The story concerns Harry Thorne, a wealthy young man whose life is thrown into turmoil when his fiancée, Sylvia Thompson, abandons him for another man. Thorne is so distraught that, as he confides to a visitor, Dr. Morgan, he doesn't "care to live any longer." Upon hearing this, Morgan asks him,

"Suppose you were offered a new interest in life. Excitement and adventures beyond your wildest dreams. A chance to view new scenes that no earthly being save one has ever glimpsed. To meet new and strange peoples."

"All that is old stuff to me," replied Thorne. "I've traveled until I'm sick of it. I've hunted big game in Asia, Africa and the Americas. I've been in every important country on the globe. The only adventure I have no tried is death, and just now it is the one adventure that intrigues me."

Thorne intends to kill himself, but Dr. Morgan has no intention of letting him. When he shakes Thorne's hand to bid him farewell, he surreptitiously drugs him with a narcotic and then takes him to a hidden locale, where he eventually awakens. Thorne wishes to know why Morgan has decided to interfere in his affairs.

"You are in a room in my mountain observatory, where I watch the movements of the planets, and where you were brought in my airplane after you fainted. Last night you were ready to take a bling plunge into that unknown region from which no man returns, the state of existence or non-existence called death. Had you succeeded, you would have thwarted forever the plans which I have been at considerable trouble and expense to perfect for you since I saw your picture. Needless to say, I am glad I arrived in time."

Morgan goes on to explain that he has been receiving telepathic messages from a "Martian scientist and psychologist" named Lal Vak. By means of this telepathy, he and the scientist have exchanged "visual and auditory impressions" as well as abstract and concrete ideas. 

"It was Lal Vak who suggested to me that if we could find a man on Mars and one on Earth whose bodies were identical, we could, by astral projection, cause the two individuals to exchange bodies. This Earth could be viewed through Martian eyes, while Mars could be seen at first hand by a man from Earth. Lal Vak projected to me many images of Martians willing to make this exchange, and at last I located a double of one of them … 

That double was not Harry Thorne but a ne'er-do-well named Frank Boyd who made the exchange and quickly proved himself to be a miscreant. On Mars, Boyd "allied himself with a small group of Martians who are working on an invention with which they hope to conquer all of Mars, and eventually the Earth and Venus as well." Therefore, Morgan sought out Thorne to be the second Earthman to switch places with a Martian, so that he might find Boyd and stop him – as well as correct Morgan's past mistake in sending a reprobate to Mars.

Needless to say, Thorne takes up Morgan's offer and thereby begins his adventures on Mars. What's immediately striking about The Swordsman of Mars is that, compared to the Barsoom stories, is how much more detail Kline provides. For example, the method by which Thorne travels to Mars – body exchange – is described at some length, as well as the consequences for its operations. This is in contrast to Burroughs, where John Carter's ability to travel between Earth and Mars is largely unexplained. Likewise, Kline seems to have worked out in his mind the whys and wherefores of Martian history, geography, and ecology and uses them to create a plausibly coherent pulp fantasy setting, again in contrast to Burroughs, which is much more "handwave-y" about such things. This isn't a criticism of Burroughs, whose stories I adore, but I think it's important to highlight the ways that Kline differs from his more well-known contemporary.

The Swordsman of Mars is the first of two novels written by Kline set on the Red Planet and, in my opinion, it's the better the of the two. Even so, they're both worth reading if you have an interest in sword-and-planet fiction. If nothing else, they're good examples of the tales of derring-do and fantastical world building that no doubt influenced Arneson and Gygax in their creation of Dungeons & Dragons. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 85

On page 85 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a section entitled "Experience Value of Treasure Taken." Though only four paragraphs long, the section contains a number of interesting details that I think are worthy of examination. To start, the section notes that all metal, gems, and jewelry should converted to  their total value in gold pieces in preparation for determining the amount of experience points gained. This is straightforward and uncontroversial. More intriguing is what follows next.

If the relative value of the monsters(s) or guardian device fought equals or exceeds that of the party which took the treasure, experience is awarded on a 1 for 1 basis. If the guardian(s) was relatively weaker, award experience on a 5 g.p. to 4 x.p., 3 to 2, 2 to 1, 3 to 1, or even 4 or more to 1 basis according to the relative strengths. For example, if a 10th level magic-user takes 1,000 g.p. from 10 kobolds, the relative strengths are about 20 to 1 in favor of the magic-user. (Such strength comparisons are subjective and must be based on the degree of challenge the Dungeon Master had the monster(s) pose the treasure taker.)

I honestly cannot recall ever reading this section of the DMG nor can I recall anyone using it. That said, it's not without precedent. Volume 1 of OD&D includes a very similar guideline and even Moldvay Basic suggests that the DM can lower the number of XP awarded if the encounter poses too little of a challenge. And, of course, the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons expanded on this idea to introduce "challenge ratings" to aid the DM in creating challenges appropriate to the level of the characters. To say that I was surprised to see this section in the Dungeon Masters Guide is an understatement – but then that's the point of this series: to shed some light on the obscure corners of AD&D.

Treasure must be physically taken out of the dungeon or lair and turned into a transportable medium or stored in the player's stronghold to be counted for experience points.

On the other hand, this guidelines is one I've always followed, though I'm not sure I'd ever seen it explicitly stated anywhere. More fascinating is the next paragraph.

All items (including magic) or creatures sold for gold pieces prior to the awarding of experience points for an adventure must be considered as treasure taken, and the gold pieces received for the sale add to the total treasure taken. (Those magic items not sold gain only a relatively small amount of experience points, for their value is in their usage.)

Again, I don't recall this rule and can't remember anyone ever using it back in the day. In retrospect, it makes the experience and sale value columns of the magic items in the DMG make more sense. A quick check of that section reveals that the gold piece value also doubles as the amount of XP gained for selling it. Very interesting! Even at my advanced age, I can still learn something new.

The final paragraph of the section takes the form of an extended note.

Players who balk at equating gold pieces to experience points should be gently but firmly reminded that in a game certain compromises must be made. While it is more "realistic" for clerics to study holy writings, pray, chant, practice self-discipline, etc. to gain experience, it would not make a playable game roll along. Similarly, fighters must be exercising, riding, smiting pelts, tilting at the lists, and engaging in weapons practice of various sorts to gain real expertise (experience); magic-users should be deciphering old scrolls, searching ancient tomes, experimenting alchemically, and so forth; while thieves should spend their off-hours honing their skills, "casing" various buildings, watching potential victims, and carefully planning their next "job". All very realistic but conducive to non-game boredom!

 Well said.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Adventures in Mathematics

I didn't own a personal computer until the early 1990s, so I never got to see games like 1983's Dungeon of the Algebra Dragons.

I hated algebra, so maybe I could have benefited from something like this. On the other hand, it looks just as silly as you'd expect.

What's the Point of Ability Scores? (Part IV)

Lest it appear that my investigation into ability scores lies only in AD&D's treatment of them, I wanted to devote a single post to some oddities in OD&D in all its forms. Let's start with the 1975 version, which includes two easily forgotten and misunderstood rules. The first concerns changing character class. According to Volume 1 of OD&D, a character can only change his class if

they … have a score of 16 or better in the prime requisite … of the class they wish to change to, and this score must be unmodified. A Cleric with a "strength" of 15, for example, could not become a Fighting-Man. 

There are echoes of this in AD&D's rules for dual-class characters, though they are much more stringent and restrictive in the latter game.

More interesting – and baffling – are the following lines from further down the same page as the above quote. Under the heading "explanation of abilities," we read:

Strength is the prime requisite for fighters. Clerics can use strength on a 3 for 1 basis in their prime requisite area (wisdom), for purposes of gaining experience only …

Intelligence is the prime requisite for magical types. Both fighters and Clerics can use it in their prime requisite areas (strength and wisdom respectively) on a 2 for 1 basis …

Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics. It may be used on a 3 for 1 basis by fighters, and on a 2 for 1 basis by Magic-Users, in their respective prime requisite area …

With the addition of thieves as a class in Supplement I (1975), we also get the following:

Thieves use dexterity in the pursuit of their chosen profession. They may use 2 points of intelligence and 1 point of wisdom to increase their raw dexterity score so long as they do not thereby bring intelligence and wisdom scores below average.

What to make of all this? It seems pretty clear that, at least in the case of Volume 1 of OD&D, the rules state that a player may, depending on their character's class, lower certain ability scores to increase said character's prime requisite. Suppose, for example, that Boro the fighting man has a Strength of 14 and an Intelligence of 10. According to the guidelines above, Boro's player can lower his Intelligence from 10 to 8 in order to raise his Strength to 15, thereby increasing Boro's experience bonus from 5% to 10%. 

Where things get complicated is the phrase "for purposes of gaining experience only." My sense of it is that the rules suggest that the ability score is not actually increased but is simply treated as if it were higher for the purposes of determining a character's experience bonus. Strength and Wisdom have no clearly enumerated mechanical benefits beyond providing an experience bonus. Intelligence, on the other hand, provides additional languages. On my reading of Volume 1, a magic-user who lowered his Wisdom to increase his Intelligence would not gain any further languages from the increase. 

Is this the correct reading of the rules? I'm not certain, especially since the discussion of thieves and dexterity in Greyhawk makes no mention of the experience bonus. Likewise, the formulation in Supplement I contains the stipulation that the player of a thief may not raise Dexterity by lowering another ability score "below average," which presumably means "below 9." Whatever its intended meaning, what is clear is that, even in OD&D, the rules provide players with a limited faculty to ameliorate the results of the 3d6-in-order rolls.

The Holmes edition (1977) has a similar system, though some of the details are different (e.g. there's seemingly no restriction on how low a thief's player can lower other scores to increase Dexterity). With Moldvay (1981), there are a number of changes to this system. Firstly, the ratio of lowered score to raised score is universalized to 2 for 1, as is the restriction that no score may be lowered below 9. Only prime requisites may be raised, as in OD&D and Holmes, but, because all ability scores now provide clear mechanical benefits, this has additional effects beyond increasing the rate of experience gain.

There are two more points worth mentioning. Holmes introduces, and Moldvay retains, the "hopeless characters" guideline, which suggests that a character whose ability scores are all below average is not fit for play and may be discarded. Holmes expands upon this by adding that "more than one very low (3–6) ability score" is sufficient cause for a character to be discarded. It should be noted, though, that both Holmes and Moldvay leave this decision to the Dungeon Master, not the player. 

The second point is Moldvay's innovation of what came to be known as "ability checks." Moldvay indicates that, because "there's always a chance," the DM may allow a player to roll 1d20 against his character's relevant ability score to determine if the character is successful in some difficult task (with modifiers to the roll as deemed appropriate). If the roll is lower than the relevant ability score, the character succeeds. While both OD&D and Holmes imply that abilities might be used by the referee to determine success in circumstances not otherwise covered by the rules, the 1981 edition of D&D is the first to explicitly mechanize it in this fashion. 

Part I | Interlude | Part II | Part III

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

What's the Point of Ability Scores? (Part III)

Of all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons, pre-Greyhawk OD&D (1974) made the least use of ability scores. They provide, in most cases, minimal mechanical benefit and they play no role in limiting entry into a particular class or race. Greyhawk not only introduces expanded utility for Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, and Constitution, it also ties level advancement for demihuman races to high scores. For example, dwarves with less than 17 Strength are limited to 6th level as fighting men, while those with 17 can achieve 7th level, and those with 18 8th level. Paladins are also introduced into the game by Supplement I and a fighting man must have a Charisma score of 17 or more to qualify for this new class. This innovation is followed in subsequent supplements, with new classes, like the monk and the assassin, likewise requiring above average ability scores.

Holmes (1977) hews relatively closely to pre-Greyhawk OD&D with regards to ability scores, as we've discussed earlier. However, in one respect, Holmes goes beyond what's even in Supplement, by introducing minimum scores to play a certain type of character. In Holmes, dwarves have a minimum Constitution of 9, while halflings have that same requirement, as well as a minimum Dexterity of 9. Do these minimum requirements appear anywhere else beforehand? My suspicion is that they're the result of meddling by TSR, which, at some point in the process of editing and producing the 1977 Basic Set decided that it should serve as an introduction to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. 

AD&D contains a plethora of ability score minimums, both for races and classes. Other than human, there is no race that does not have at least two ability score minimums and some, elves and halflings, have four. Similarly, all character classes have ability score minimums in at least one ability score, even the four "basic" classes of cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief (in the case of the fighter and the MU, there are, in fact, two minimum scores). The table below clearly illustrates the requirements by class.













































































I imagine that Gygax's intention in setting so many minimum scores, some of them quite high, was to make it more difficult for players to create characters belonging to certain non-human races and specialized sub-classes. His reasons for doing so likely included both purely game-related concerns ("balance") and more nebulous ones pertaining to flavor. If that is the case, he undermined his own aims through the most of the methods of generating ability scores introduced in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules (1981) introduces slightly more minimum requirements than OD&D or Holmes but not as many as AD&D. These minimums are restricted to the demihuman classes of dwarf, elf, and halfling and are limited to no more than two ability scores. In this respect, Frank Mentzer's revision (1983) makes no changes to Moldvay. 

First Impressions

I owe a huge debt to the public library not far from my childhood home, because it was very well stocked with fantasy and science fiction paperbacks. So much of my early education in the classics of these genres came from books I borrowed from the library. To this day, I can still see the covers of many of them, such as this one, with its illustration by Michael Whelan.

My feelings about Elric have always been complicated. I love the ideas of the Elric novels and think the Young Kingdoms are a wonderful imagined fantasy setting, but I've often been less than enthusiastic about the execution of the stories. Likewise, I have a potent love/hate relationship with the character of Elric of Melniboné, finding him equal parts compelling and insufferable. I've come to believe that my feelings are precisely what Moorcock intended and, if so, kudos to him. 

When I was in high school, I decided that I needed to own the Elric novels for myself. I trudged down to the Waldenbooks at the local mall and sought out the science fiction and fantasy section, hoping I'd find copies of the DAW editions I'd first read several years before. Alas, they were no longer in print. Instead, I found the silver Berkeley Books versions with artwork by Robert Gould.
There's no question Gould's artwork is distinctive, but I don't find it as evocative as Whelan's, but perhaps that's a function of my having seen Whelan's first. Regardless, this is the cover of the first Elric book I ever owned and, for that reason, it's burned into my memory, even though I like Whelan's cover of the same book more.

Does this happen to anyone else? Is there a piece of artwork you saw that made such an impression on you that it's colored your ability to appreciate later illustrations of the same subject?

Retrospective: The Shady Dragon Inn

I got a lot of use out of TSR's The Rogues Gallery back in the day, for reasons I explain here. Nevertheless, I still had a prodigious appetite for pre-generated characters I could use as henchmen, hirelings, or opponents. That's why I readily picked up a copy of 1983's The Shady Dragon Inn, despite its being for "kiddie D&D" – and I'm glad I did.

Unlike The Rogues Gallery, whose pre-generated characters were little more than a single line of game statistics, those in The Shady Dragon Inn were more fully described, with names, vital statistics, equipment, and even an illustration by the incomparable Jim Holloway. In my opinion, this made the characters presented herein much more memorable and, to this day, I can still recall the monikers of several of them, like Boris Bonesnapper, Umberto the Ugly, and Dorcas Deepdelver. The illustrations alone – complete with bearded female dwarves, as God and Tolkien intended – are almost worth the price of admission alone. As he so often did, Holloway presents us with characters who are distinctive and a little quirky, which is to say, real. Take a gander at this motley crew of magic-users for a sense of what I mean.

Less creditably – and part of why I caviled at buying this at first – The Shady Dragon Inn also included similar write-ups for the characters of the AD&D toy line, like Strongheart the Paladin (here a fighter, because this is a D&D product) and Warduke. This section only takes up four pages, so it's not a huge detraction from the rest of the book's content, but it bugs me nonetheless. Nearly forty years later, I still find the creation of D&D toys and even more bizarre products to be irksome. 

The Shady Dragon Inn also includes a collection of adventuring parties of various levels and compositions using the characters presented in the book. This is very useful and a feature of old school play that doesn't seem to be all that commonplace today. Rounding out the product is a large map of the eponymous Shady Dragon Inn (though the text, oddly, calls it the Shady Dragon Tavern), presumably intended for use with miniatures or counters. There's no description of the place, which is just as well, since it's rather generic in its layout. Unlike the characters, I don't think I ever made use of the map in my campaigns of old.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Cheese and Quackers

Owing to the prejudices of some of the older gamers I met when I first entered the hobby, I was initially very leery of Chaosium's RuneQuest and its setting of Glorantha. Chief among these prejudices was a disdain for ducks. According to the RQ rulebook available at the time, ducks are

a race cursed by the gods during the Great Darkness for not joining them versus the forces of Chaos. It is unknown whether they were originally human and became feathered and web-footed, or originally ducks cursed with flightlessness and intelligence.

As a younger person, I found this more than a little ridiculous. I've always tended toward self-seriousness – a huge surprise, I know – and that tendency has long influenced my evaluation of fantasy games and settings. Consequently, it didn't take much to convince me that RQ and, by extension, Glorantha was fundamentally unworthy of my time, because it included intelligent, playable duck-men as a feature. In earlier times, I found the very idea not merely unacceptable to me but downright silly. What kind of fantasy setting took inspiration from Donald or Howard?

A very good one, I would later find out. Part of what makes Glorantha such a terrific fantasy setting is its quirkiness. It's not a paint-by-numbers setting whose contents are entirely predictable. Instead, Glorantha is filled with the unexpected, from trollball to morokanths and their herd men to, yes, ducks, and they all exist side by side with the more staid Bronze Age socio-anthropological feel of the place to give it a unique depth and texture. 

But it took me a long time to accept this. I used to be so hung up on a very narrow understanding of seriousness that I was unable to recognize the need for a little weirdness and levity. Ironically, it was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, who summed it up quite well in a 1977 interview, in which he explained the origins of the character. According to Gerber, the whole point of the character and the comic in which he appeared is

that life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.

That's a useful corrective to people like myself, who generally don't want the peanut butter of silliness in the chocolate of our fantasy settings. Things like Glorantha's ducks fly in the face of my usual expectations (no pun intended) and that's a good thing. I wouldn't want an entire setting filled with ducks, but I think Glorantha and other fantasy settings are better for having oddities like ducks in them.

Mind you, when I played RuneQuest a couple of years ago, I had a traumatic experience with ducks. My character and his comrades were traveling through Sartar, on the way to New Pavis, when the party stumbled upon a group of ducks. Our interactions with them quickly head south and a fight ensued, one that resulted in the death of one of the player characters. My character and the others who fled the scene developed a suspicion  and hatred of ducks from that point on. Far from being a bad joke, they were, in fact, quite dangerous foes whom we dreaded encountering again. I will never again say that ducks aren't serious.

Different Worlds: Issue #15

Issue #15 of Different Worlds (October 1981) features a cover by Rick Becker, who had previously done the covers for issues #6 and #10, as well as The Gateway Bestiary. Paul Montgomery Crabaugh's "More Citizens" kicks things off by presenting six new professions for use with GDW's Traveller: cavalry, artillery, technician, engineer, reporter, and civilian, along with three new skills. In my youth, when I was playing Traveller regularly, I used to adore articles like this, so reading this one was a nice blast of nostalgia for me.

"Tournament Role-Playing" by Ken Rolston is a lengthy, 10-page piece that covers a great many topics relating to the refereeing a adventure scenarios at gaming conventions. The topics range from styles of play to the creation of characters to judging players. He provides a lengthy example of a RuneQuest scenario he has designed that nicely demonstrates the principles he puts forward. Of particular interest to me was his assertion that one's "best bet" is "basing your tournament scenarios in the campaign you are currently running." As someone who's long felt that too many game writers aren't even playing the games for which they are writing, I couldn't agree more.

"Calandra and Aurelion" by Charles Huber is a Gloranthan cult for use with RuneQuest. Even though I don't play RQ regularly, I nevertheless enjoy these cult write-ups. Religion is a topic that's near and dear to me; I find its treatment in most fiction (including RPGs) to be laughably simplistic. RuneQuest makes a much better effort to take religion seriously and many of these cult articles demonstrate that quite well. David F. Nalle's "Favorites of the Gods" is another article treating religion, specifically the ability of characters to gain the favor of deities through sacrifices and quests. Nalle's treatment is simple and mechanical in its approach, but I nevertheless appreciate his attempt to grapple with the topic of divine intervention.

"A Modest Proposal for The Fantasy Trip" by David R. Dunham is a short article suggesting the splitting of the game's attribute scores into related pairs to deal with both the over-importance of certain attributes and the "unrealistic" nature of combing, say, one's physical strength and endurance into one score. This is a long-standing complaint about not just TFT but also its descendant GURPS. "Man Bites Dog" is Ken St. Andre's rather peculiar article that's ostensibly about "role-playing in the future." Instead of a prognostication of how the then-new technology of computers might change the face of the hobby, St. Andre instead offers a half-serious, half-parodic account of what roleplaying might be like in a post-apocalyptic world when only the aged remember "the good old days back in the 1980s." 

Lewis Pulsipher's "Making Life Hard for Magic-Users" is another entry in the ancient genre of "cutting magic-users down to size," the belief that magic-users in Dungeons & Dragons are too powerful compared to other character classes. To correct this supposed imbalance, Pulsipher offers numerous possible fixes, such as spell points, spell failure, spell interruption, and more. I appreciate the range of options he suggests, even if I've never been of the opinion that magic-users needed fixing to make them less potent and flexible.

This issue's reviews are lengthy and mostly critical of the products reviewed, starting with SPI's Universe. Actually, the review of Universe is quite measured and fair. The review of Aftermath is similarly fair, but notes that the complexity of the rules militates against wading through its rules to get to the genuinely good material in the game. The poor Fiend Folio gets the most abuse, such as the following passage that mocks the monsters contained therein.

Harsh but not wholly incorrect.

Gigi D'Arn's column is shorter, owing to the fact that it's now monthly, a fact Gigi draws attention to at the start of her piece. Nevertheless, there are a few notable tidbits, such as further rumors about the insolvency of SPI and that Chaosium is working on a King Arthur RPG (though it's rumored that Ken St. Andre is working on it with Greg Stafford). Gigi also says the following, which I found amusing.
Ouch! Equally amusing, I think, is that not everyone who read Different Worlds liked Gigi's column, as this letter to the editor makes clear.
I guess there's no accounting for taste.

Monday, May 17, 2021

What's the Point of Ability Scores? (Part II)

Let's take a look at some of the enumerated mechanical benefits of ability scores in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974). 

What's notable to me is that Charisma is, by far and away, the most significant and mechanically robust ability in the game. Not only does it determine the maximum number of hirelings a character may employ, it also determines their loyalty base. Furthermore, there's higher degree of granularity than there is with most of the other ability scores, with Constitution being the exception, as demonstrated in the chart above. Even high (15+) prime requisites don't provide much benefit, though a very low one is a genuine penalty. 

Here's the equivalent chart from the Holmes-edited Basic Set (1977). As you can see, it's similar to the OD&D charts above but also shows a little influence from Supplement I: Greyhawk when it comes to Constitution. 

With the publication of the AD&D Players Handbook in 1977, we see a significant expansion in the mechanical benefits and drawbacks of ability scores – so many, in fact, that it would be impossible for me to easily post a listing of all of them in a single image. Instead, I'll post just a single chart from the PHB, this one for Dexterity, since that's an ability for which both OD&D and Holmes provided benefits and drawbacks.

Once again, the influence of Greyhawk can be seen quite clearly. In OD&D, penalties began at scores of 6 or less, as they also do here, but bonuses began at 13 or more, whereas AD&D opts for bonuses at 15 or higher. Also noteworthy are all the minimum scores necessary to qualify for various character classes. That's a topic I'll return to in a future post in this series.

Moldvay's Basic Rules have much more expansive ability score bonuses and penalties than OD&D, though not quite as many as AD&D. Frank Mentzer's Basic Rules more or less follows the model of Moldvay when it comes to ability score bonuses and penalties. 
As you can see, with each new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, ability scores have become more important and provide more mechanical benefits to characters whose scores are above average. Unsurprisingly, this development has had unintended consequences not only in the way the game came to be played but also in the way the game was imagined. This will form the topic of a future post in this series.

"This is Not My Game"

Back in March, I wrote a post about an interesting section of the original (1975) edition of Tunnels & Trolls that I found quite interesting, if only because it highlighted the similarities and differences between the approaches of Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre. While re-reading T&T recently, I came across a passage I'd meant to bring up previously but had forgotten. The passage in question occurs early, in a section entitled "Troll Talk," where St. Andre recounts his memories of the creation of T&T and his general feelings about it and its genesis. He writes:

Lastly I wish to make one thing perfectly clear. This is not my game in any sense of the word except that I'm taking the trouble to get it printed so anyone who wants to can have a copy of the rules. Please feel free (as a Dungeon Master, not as a player-character) to modify and improve these basic rules as your imagination dictates to be right for you. You will recognize your successes by the enthusiasm of your dungeon-delvers and likewise the opposite.

This reminds me somewhat of the "afterward" [sic] of Volume 3 of OD&D, which counsels the referee to "decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!" It also brings to mind Gary Gygax's reply to Ted Johnstone in Alarums & Excursions, where he agrees with the sentiment that "D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax." 

Just so.