Monday, July 21, 2014

Ready Reference: Mix-and-Match Humanoids

I've gone back and forth a lot about humanoids in D&D. The cursus honorum of kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls and bugbears is a tired set of clich├ęs. On the other hand, D&D has a lot of resources dedicated to them and they are an archetypal part of the game. Demihuman bonus languages are based on the whole list of humanoids, and default encounter charts pretty much assume them. AD&D makes it even more severe; not having the humanoids basically eliminates the ranger's biggest bonus.

But they are still entirely too predictable. In the interest of alleviating that, here's a table that can give them a bit of variety. Any time there is a need for a low hit dice human-shaped creature in your games, use the table below to create a quick, appropriate humanoid.

1d6 HD AC Move Morale Language Height Damage Special
1 1/2 7 60' 6 Kobold 3' Weapon-1 Small; hate gnomes
2 1-1 6 60' 7 Goblin 4' 6" Weapon -1 to hit in daylight
3 1 6 120' 8 Orc 6' Weapon -1 to hit in daylight
4 1+1 5 90' 8 Hobgoblin 6' 6" Weapon +1 to hit if chief present
5 2 5 90' 8 Gnoll 7' Weapon+1 Wield 2-handed weapons
6 3 5 90' 9 Bugbear 8' Weapon+1 Surprise on 1-3

The table above might produce odd results if you run too literally with it; you could easily have a 1/2 HD creature 8' tall. This would probably be a thin, wispy type of humanoid. Likewise, a 3' type with 3 HD could be stocky almost to the point of being barrel-shaped.

Of course, older D&D never had monster types without some kind of leaders. Only 3 HD humanoids should be considered truly independent. For the remainder, the following chart should be used.

1d4 Leader Bodyguards
1 9 HP / 2 hit dice 1-6: 6 HP / 1+1 hit dice
2 15 HP / 4 hit dice, +2 to damage 1/group: 8 HP, +1 to damage
3 22 HP / 5 hit dice, +2 to damage 1-4: 3d6 HP / 4 hit dice
4 16 HP / 3 hit dice N/A

If the above tables give "bodyguards" more powerful than the leader, this may call for a "Klingon promotion" for one of them.

Because I like you, here's another chart to determine how your new humanoids look.

1d6 Skin Pattern Coloration Head Shape
1 Smooth skin Solid (1 color) Red Human
2 Hairy skin Striped (2 colors) Orange Canine
3 Completely furred Mottled (2 colors) Yellow Feline
4 Scaled Different torso (2 colors) Green Porcine
5 Feathered Multi-hued (3 colors) Brown Serpentine
6 Exoskeleton Iridescent (2 colors) Grey Avian

So there you have it: quick replacements for humanoids that still fit in most OD&D, classic and advanced old-school games.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dark and Ancient Groves

The only temples in Germany were dark and ancient groves, consecrated by the reverence of succeeding generations. Their secret gloom, the imagined residence of an invisible power, by presenting no distinct object of fear or worship, impressed the mind with a still deeper sense of religious horror; and the priests, rude and illiterate as they were, had been taught by experience the use of every artifice that could preserve and fortify impressions so well suited to their own interest.
Anyone studying late Roman and Byzantine history has to come in contact with Edward Gibbon's epic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether or not you actually agree with its basic premises. Despite some faults in his analysis, Gibbon was generally a remarkable writer and created some vivid pictures.

Gibbon's picture of the Germanic religion draws mostly on Tacitus, who of course was writing not as a disinterested observer but as a partisan for Rome. But the description strikes me as excellent fodder for a type of hexcrawl location. This was doubly confirmed when the picture I found when poking around for a good illustration was one of St. Boniface – the "Apostle of the Germans" – hacking down a tree dedicated to Donar or Thor (actually recorded as "Jove" but theorized as one or the other according to the interpretatio romana).

I generally see pagan religions as sitting outside of the cosmic conflict of law and chaos. The powers worshipped are ancient but are deeply of this earth. This fits squarely into the picture that we see of these "invisible powers" that were the residents of the Germanic groves. Gods of this world, as opposed to the cosmic deities, are similar to the chthonic deities of ancient Greek paganism, earthly deities, frequently associated with snakes and the underworld.

D&D does have one type of forest spirit associated with it, in the dryad. This is quite possibly going to lead to a PC being Charmed and led off from the party, never to return from the forest. I have rarely or never seen referees using this sort of encounter, but to me it strikes a tone of mystery and danger that is something a bit more than just damage. And it is fitting that dryads sit solely in the Neutral column of OD&D's alignment chart.

None of this is to say that forest spirits can't possess the threat of physical violence, but I really love the theme of losing a PC not just physically but spiritually to the forest. It's a fascinating way to make PC loss much more than something easily remedied by a Raise Dead spell (though other spells such as Wish may suffice). Perhaps the central tree of a sacred grove has such powers, and can ensorcel unwitting PCs – unless a Lawful cleric comes along and plays the role of St. Boniface.

What I find most important in this location is the way that they instantly convey a sense of dread by virtue of lacking a central cultic focus. Nature religion was generally not a hippie celebration of the earth, but a fearful and tentative glimpse of the supernatural. We see elements of this in the strange vision scenes of the History series Vikings, where characters often have powerful, even terrifying glimpses of the future. This kind of atmosphere should be fair game if PCs spend time in the groves, including weird and possibly unreal encounters with animals laden with symbolism and the like.

The fear that Gibbon saw at the core of ancient paganism is something that so often feels lacking in D&D's take on religion. These locations are excellent ways to change that.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Signs and Symbols

Recently I've taken to using the eight-pointed star as an explicit symbol of Chaos in my games. It fits very well with the idea that Chaos is an explicit "side" that you can be explicitly for or against, in a broad cosmic war of which factions in the campaign world are just general reflections. Chaos, as I use it, is a powerful force led by many demonic and strange Chaos lords, who are as often as not at cross purposes with one another, as symbolized by the eight directions of the Chaos arrows. It's good and Moorcockian and flavorful. I've had NPCs use it for decoration, including unholy symbols and tattoos.

This Chaos symbol comes from the influence of Swords & Wizardry, even though ultimately it's Moorcock's. S&W also has a circle for Law, which is different from Moorcock who used a single straight arrow. I like the circle, though, because it's an easy graffito. A Law circle can be drawn around the Chaos arrows, like the three downward-pointing arrows of the Eiserne Front were designed to counter Nazi swastikas.

I don't have a symbol for Neutrality that I like. Two wide horizontal bars might work for people who are "actively neutral" (that is, opposed to both Law and Chaos). The thing is, Neutrality in many ways is sort of a catch-all of unaligned, selfish, people aligned to the Earth, people who want a balance, and animals that don't have the intelligence to have an alignment.

But using the circle and the eight-pointed star has had me thinking about other symbols with clear resonances. The Elder Sign, whether it is the pentagram of Derleth or Lovecraft's "tree branch" that has five tines pointing off of a central line, is a classic symbol to ward off things that are not from this world. The Yellow Sign is a classic sigil that is immediately ominous. And I think players might revolt if they saw the Duvan'ku Dead Sign from Death Frost Doom. Or at least, if they know what it means.

The World of Greyhawk has some good entrance runes, if a bit unique to its setting. But on a similar vein I think it would be really fun to start using the classic hobo signs around a megadungeon or wilderness sandbox type environment; obviously the railroad-related ones are no good but most of them would be an interesting way to make the PCs seem more like they're part of a larger world where they aren't the only adventurers about. Simple trail signs can also serve a similar purpose, though they're more likely in the wilderness.

Signs and symbols are also a great way to introduce a mystery into the campaign. Just throw an unknown sigil at the characters, and they will naturally investigate it – whether through a sage, or asking around, or what have you. These kinds of things are a good way to pique the curiosity of players.

I'd be curious about signs and symbols people have used in their own campaigns, and what the impact has been.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: The Silver Standard

Dungeons & Dragons, if you follow its basic logic, assumes lots and lots of gold is present in the world. No, more than that. Nope, higher. Gold coins are the basic economic unit, and weigh 1/10th of a pound (45.4 grams). Think of a silver dollar, which is 1 troy ounce (31.1 grams). Now, add 50% more weight and make it 3/4ths as thick, due to the relative density of gold and silver. That's the D&D gold piece.

Most clones don't fiddle much with the basic monetary system. Adventurer Conqueror King makes the gold piece 1/1000th of 1 stone. This is actually a bit light in "real" stone (14 lbs), but because ACKS assumes 1 stone is roughly equal to 10 lbs, this gives 4.54 grams per gold piece. That's equal to the Roman denarii pictured above, or the late Roman solidus that was the basis for gold coins for most of the Middle Ages. But it's still a gold-based economy, even if the gold requirements are significantly lower.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess switches to a silver standard, and gives 1 XP per silver piece. Silver pieces are 1/50th of a gold piece, which is probably a better approximation than 1/10th or 1/20th, although prices fluctuated drastically in history. It also eschews odd metals like platinum and electrum, to its credit. But it doesn't get weight very precise; the encumbrance system is kind of abstract, and 100 coins are an encumbrance unit. I would still

LotFP's silver standard has a lot of appeal for me, because it makes a chest of gold absolutely phenomenal. 40 GP? In a gold standard that's a rounding error, but in LotFP it's enough to get a fighter to second level. Even a few gold pieces are worth a lot more risk relative to the reward.

And at the same time I like to geek out a bit over ancient silver coins, which is heavily supported by a silver standard. They aren't just an encumbrance penalty to the PCs who have to haul them back, or loose change that get stuck between the couch cushions, but the basic unit of economic value that the PCs have to deal with. Even copper pieces aren't worthless: the infamous 2000 CP of Dwimmermount are worth 200 XP in LotFP.

By making gold extremely valuable and rare, the silver standard also lets you use different metals, like bronze or brass, and have some interesting variables in your coinage. Relative values can be fixed at various rates. Electrum (a gold/silver alloy) coinage was extremely rare, and platinum as a metal was unheard of until the 1500s. Billon was frequently used, famously in the gradual debasement of Roman silver coinage to bronze (the antoninianus or "double denarius" was the coin most associated with this).

Overall, I think that a hybrid of the ideas that find expression in LotFP and ACKS provide the best solution for coinage: the values from LotFP (1 GP = 50 SP = 500 CP) and the weights from ACKS (100 coins = 1 pound). It makes the denarius the model coin, as it should be.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: Interrupt the Spellcaster!

Most of the changes to the initiative system in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry and first edition Advanced D&D had basically one major goal: making it so that a spellcaster could be hit in combat and stopped from casting a spell. The rules for this got infamously complicated. The best way to start a fight at Dragonsfoot or Knights & Knaves Alehouse is to make some blanket statement about how 1st edition initiative really works. Unfortunately it's one of the more important things that OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay and the RC (I would presume also Mentzer) all lack in any way – by the book there is no way to interrupt someone who is casting a spell.

I think it's very important that this ability exist in the game. It takes spellcasters down a notch (often quite literally), but more importantly it can be the PCs' best line of defense against an enemy spellcaster. If you can't interrupt his Sleep spell, well, a low level party is screwed. Generally it's a good defense against casters being overpowering and gives parties a fighting chance, but I don't like AD&D's rather difficult way of achieving it.

Swords & Wizardry has a simple system. Spells being cast start at the beginning of the round, and go off on the caster's initiative. So if a spellcaster loses initiative and gets hit, this interrupts the spell. Easy peasy. There is a more complex method that involves taking a full round to prepare a spell, at which point the caster can be interrupted by damage, and once readied the spell can be cast when the magic-user is ready. Not quite as easy.

Adventurer Conqueror King expands this to damage or failed saving throws interrupting spellcasters. Lamentations of the Flame Princess puts more or less the same rule in different terms: if a character takes any damage in a round, they can't cast a spell after that. It's not a proper interrupt, but it serves basically the same purpose.

OSRIC has a cleaned-up interpretation of the AD&D rules, while BLUEHOLME, Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG just follow their Basic versions in neglecting this area.

The interesting choice here is how Swords & Wizardry and ACKS both assume that the spell is specifically interrupted and lost, while LotFP merely forbids spellcasting once damage is taken. The former approach is harsher on the magic-users, to be sure, and rooted in AD&D, where being hit can likewise cause spell loss. Neither proposes any kind of roll (such as a saving throw) to see if the spell can be kept; it is simply gone. I think this is a good compromise between the harsher S&W / ACKS approach and LotFP's method.

Another possibility I haven't seen explored much is that the attack causes a misfire of the spell. This is always a good excuse to pick your favorite "haywire spell effect" table and roll on it, to reflect the magical energies that have been let loose by the incomplete incantation. These should be used sparingly, and perhaps only have a certain percent chance (maybe 5%-10% per spell level) so that it doesn't devolve into complete unpredictability.

Whichever is your favorite, I think these are the most straightforward spell-interruption rules out there, and deserve consideration for any OD&D or classic D&D game.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Actual Play: Fun with Infravision and Alignment

Infravision in B/X is described explicitly as "heat-sensing sight." So I tend to play the sight of elves and dwarves as being very broad; only the ability to see vague shapes of heat, generally not making out anything of the details of a monster.

Which was fun with the first of two encounters my players had with velociraptors last night. The raptors showed up during the first watch of the evening, and had the players surrounded, but there were only three of the raptors. The party's elf and one of the clerics were on watch, so the raptors were considering them potential prey until the cleric shouted everyone awake. The raptors disappeared in a flash (I give them a very quick movement rate) and it seemed like a false alarm. At this point they still weren't really sure what the threat was, other than that it was three or four feet high but broad and very fast.

The PCs wound up going back to the ruined palace where they had previously slaughtered some toad-men. Some exploration got them to investigate the statue in the courtyard, which had certain stops in its direction where it pointed. Investigating one of them led to another encounter with the raptors, who were now defending their nests and not just being curious. I described their motion with some keys that echoed Jurassic Park. The players got out, with only the hobbit getting a scratch when he went to his backpack to try and get some meat to slow the raptors down.

Deciding to try their luck elsewhere in the ruins, the PCs checked out a small block of rooms. This time they found a corridor with some caltrops in it; had they gone in without being wary it would have been a bigger problem for them. Around the next corridor they did get hit by a crossbow trap, and while investigating it found that they had the interest of a big, menacing warrior type. The players' reaction to his weapon, a military pick that they later found out was aligned with Chaos.

Once they dispatched the warrior and his companions, they found more materials, including a letter written in Chaotic. This was translated for them by one of the Acolytes from the Caves of Chaos, who has been charmed by the elf and is being used as a makeshift henchman. It's been fun to sort of let the idea of "forces of Chaos" as a persistent, but not unified, threat; the way I interpret Chaos working in my world is that powerful Chaotic characters are in touch with patron deities, and each such leader is a sort of absolute tyrant who imposes their will on their underlings. So there is now someone in dungeons (not yet discovered by the PCs) under the ruin who has transgressed against the forces loyal to the Chaos god Arioch.

I was very happy to be able to play up the Chaos and dinosaur aspects of this ruin in one session. It's been interesting in terms of PC balance, too: although there are two fourth-level fighters, who can take a fair number of hits, the rest of the PCs were 1st or 2nd level this adventure. One of the clerics hit 3rd, as did the hobbit, which will make the rest of this particular adventure interesting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Pulp Magazines Project

The kind of fantasy fiction best loved by many of us in the old school originated in the magazines popular in the early 20th century known as "pulps" because of the low-grade paper that they were printed on. Aside from the most assiduous collectors, most of us only read the pulp stories out of context, reprinted in anthologies or web pages that frequently lose the original artwork and never have the context - the editorials, the letter columns, the advertisements, and the other stories that surrounded them.

Fortunately, the Pulp Magazines Project fixes this for us. It's a terrific resource, collecting pulp magazines that have gone into public domain for one reason or another. It's fun to read and flip through these in PDF form (the "flipbook" reader is a bit annoying for me), and soak in the classic magazines.

Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories is a major touchstone in science fiction history; it basically created the genre, even giving it its name in the early form of "scientifiction." The site only has a handful of issues from Amazing's run, but still manages to capture its very early days and crucial material. It started with reprints, but pretty soon had seminal authors.

For fantasy fans, unquestionably the most important magazine here is Weird Tales. This was the magazine that was home to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, and the literary circle around them – Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith. Howard committed suicide in June 1936, and Lovecraft passed of an illness in March of 1937; this happens to coincide with the period of Weird Tales that are on the Pulp Magazines Project archive. The loss of its two leading lights put Weird in hard times, and Farnsworth Wright left the magazine, which went under the stewardship of Dorothy McIlwraith. It had other worthy authors under McIlwraith, including Leiber, Kuttner's wife C.L. Moore, and Manly Wade Wellman.

It's worth reading Weird Tales closely, because it helps to put Howard and Lovecraft in context. Read in their context it's clear that they were the farthest-sighted of a like-minded group of authors. For instance, Seabury Quinn's occult detective stories featuring Jules de Grandin are quite clever and told in a gripping pulp fashion, but don't have the same level of transcendence as Lovecraft's work. Yet, side by side, we can see that Lovecraft was very much a part of this milieu.

Of course, you didn't think I'd let you get away without mentioning Planet Stories, did you? Of course not. This was very much not a pioneering magazine in the same sense as Amazing Stories or Weird Tales; the original sword & planet adventures had been published in The All-Story by Burroughs. But Planet Stories is where both Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury developed their tales of Mars, inspired of course by the Barsoom stories. Late in its run, Planet Stories also discovered a writer named Philip K. Dick, who published his first story there. Its pedigree did also include writers such as Asimov, Simak and another Appendix N writer, Frederic Brown. The emphasis on adventure didn't stop harder science fiction ideas.

I like these magazines for three reasons. First, they're full of great adventure stories. Modern genre fiction is too wrapped up in epics and has trouble just getting down to a good adventure where the protagonist is in trouble pretty much the whole time. You get it in the old, short novels that were often just several stories strung together by a thread of a plot, but it really is lacking in bigger and more complex novels.

Second, you wind up reading authors you wouldn't have otherwise. This is a great side effect of the anthology form, and it's more pronounced here. There are people in these magazines I've never heard of, but with a short story it's always worth giving them a try. Even anthologies are only preserving selected authors who appealed to the anthologist; reading the raw form of the pulps gets you some good obscure authors, and also some clunkers

Third, I am always fascinated by seeing these things in their original context. Advertisements of all sorts litter the pages; a sophisticated reader might filter them out, but it's worth pausing once in a while to drink in the environment where the stories we love originally appeared. Similarly all the letter columns, where curious readers inquire about stories and offer their opinions; it's a bit of a lost art nowadays. And of course those wonderfully pulp illustrations.

So there you have your weekend's reading, and perhaps for many weekends to come after that. Enjoy, and feel free to point out any great finds in the comments.