Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fading Gems in Classic D&D

I'll preface this by noting that I prefer to use OD&D volumes II and III to roll up treasure for my classic games, no matter what rules I am nominally following. This has led me to notice a small but extremely meaningful change in gems, specifically.

When you roll on the gems table in OD&D, you come up with a value between 10 and 1000 GP. Once you roll each gem, you roll a d6 to see whether it needs to be increased a step. Every 1 rolled moves it up by a step and calls for a further roll. Beyond 1000, this goes to 5000 GP and then, by increasingly large steps, all the way up to half a million. (This is less ridiculous than it seems; there is only a 10% chance of rolling a 1000 GP gem, and you'd need to roll six 1s in a row - almost one in half a million odds, in total.)

Without getting too much into the math, OD&D gems wind up averaging about 440 GP each. This is heavily inflated by outliers, but that is the reality of gems in the game: you get one 5000 GP gem and it also skews a PC's XP total rather nicely. Over one percent of gems will be so valuable, so they are rare but possible in-game events, too. (Whereas maybe two in a million will be worth 500K.)

The Holmes edition contains a reworked gem table that changes two factors. First, it lowers the chances of high value gems, skewing the whole situation toward lower values. Second, it caps the value of increases at 1000 GP. The net effect is that, in Holmes, the value of the average gem declines to under 250 GP. This is quite a letdown, even though the rationale for removing gem values over 1000 in Holmes is sound: they could take the PCs clear past level 3 and out of the basic set's purview.

Moldvay uses the same modified table as Holmes, but has no increase rolls. This further simplification shaves another 50 or so GP off the average gem, leaving it a few GP under 200. At this point we are less than half what we had in OD&D, and all through some evidently minor fiddling with the numbers of the chart.

In play, this makes gems in an OD&D dungeon a very desirable commodity, since their values tend to run higher (and since, in OD&D, you tend to find 1d6 gems rather than a single gem at a time). Gems are already the second best treasure in the game, after jewelry; after all, if one gem weighs the same as one gold piece but is worth five hundred, that makes a huge dent on encumbrance relative to value. In OD&D, it's worth taking a determined effort to specifically find gems in a dungeon. In Holmes and Moldvay, because their value is so much lower on average, it's not really worth seeking them out after level 1.

Also, I think that the removal of the 5000+ GP gem values takes out a bit of the excitement of finding a treasure hoard. By allowing for that possibility in a GP-for-XP game, OD&D makes it really possible that an individual treasure will get some low level characters up in level in a single adventure. It also allows for some really impressive physical specimens - after all, isn't a lot of the joy of treasure hunting not just finding some average jewels but a massive pearl or ruby? If you can't find a diamond like the one in the film Titanic (which I figure would be in the 100,000-500,000 GP range), I think it diminishes gems as a vital part of the hoard.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Carnivorous Plants and the Dungeon

Reading about exotic South American mountains and their unique flora got me thinking about pitcher plants, which are also known as pitfall traps. These tend to be small, exotic plants that trap insects and convert them into nutrients. The pitchers of plants like Nepenthes lowii, pictured to the left, tend only to run as long as 35 centimeters (just over a foot). But this is Dungeons & Dragons; if there is one thing the game is good at, it's taking things and making them bigger.

You probably already know where I'm going with this. Sticking a pitcher plant, particularly one with a snap-shut "lid" like Nepenthes lowii, in a D&D pit trap is a wonderfully nasty surprise. The hapless dungeon delver falls in, and all of a sudden they're trapped in a suffocating plant, trying to get some weapon free and cut their way out while they still have air left. Meanwhile the digestive liquid burns them as it starts to turn them into plant food. Their friends can to try and cut them out, but that's pretty dangerous.

The tentacle of the sundew Drosera capensis is another nasty trap. When the long hairs are sprung, the sticky tentacle curls up and rolls its prey into more of its digestive juices. This one might, depending on size, do crushing as well as acidic damage as it entraps a character. These liquids should, by the by, also be doing a number on armor even if the PC gets away; a coat of mail or plate that is scarred and pitted by acid is no longer useful for defense. These can be in pit traps as well, or used as room traps in a weird sort of "garden room."

It should be obvious why carnivorous plants are the kind that thrive in a dungeon, of course: lacking much in the way of sunlight, dungeon plants will consume flesh. And it lets you have plants in your underworld in a semi-logical way.

Of course, we can hardly discuss carnivorous plants without talking about the Venus flytrap. Once the trigger hairs on this plant are sprung, its powerful leaves snap shut and the unfortunate insect caught inside is done for. A huge flytrap can catch a single character, but a really massive one could even get a whole party. Again we're relying on the combination of crushing damage and acid to actually do in the character. The initial blow as the flytrap shuts might also do some damage. They're iconic and, like the pitcher plant, will pose the difficulty of freeing a trapped character without harming them. Dungeon variants might have hardened bristles that do damage while the flytrap closes.

Plants, of course, are typically something we see only above ground. This makes their appearance in the dungeon setting startling, and clearly the sign of weird Chaotic mutation and/or a mad wizard's experimentation. Of course, you could always go full-on Little Shop of Horrors or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as the end stage of dungeon carnivorous plants; but I think the initial horror of being consumed by a pitcher plant in a pit trap or caught by a giant sundew is a great way to incorporate some plant life into your dungeon crawls.

Sundew image by Noah Elhardt CC-BY-SA
Venus flytrap image by Noah Elhardt CC-BY-SA

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cutting It Short: A Case for Short Swords

OD&D had two classifications for swords: sword, and two-handed sword. AD&D expanded this, in a way that I may eventually write about; in short, the AD&D names for long sword and broad sword are both fairly contentious. But it added one sword type that was added into Moldvay and subsequent versions of Basic/Classic: the short sword.

AD&D defined the short sword as a sword with a blade of 2' (24") or shorter. I'm going to assume that this is generally a good rule of thumb.

There were several interesting swords with blades right around 24" that were made in the period of the "knightly" swords that are the D&D standby. One example, pictured in a 15th century Fechtbuch above, is the großes Messer.

If you know your German, großes Messer just means "big knife." This was something of a fiction, since the Messer was a sword, but it had a couple of interesting features. Instead of the pommel of a knightly sword, it had the full tang that you would often see on a knife, and the pommel would be curved to one side instead of the round, riveted type usually seen on a knightly sword. It was single-edged and often had a Nagel or nail sticking to one side, as a type of handguard. All of this was meant to establish that the Messer was just a knife, so people could go carrying them around but they weren't carrying a "sword." It was a prerogative of knights, generally, to carry swords about, so non-knightly individuals were simply carrying a big "knife." (This would be a great law for a city type campaign.)

But the Messer was an early trend-setter for short blades. The cutlass and the English "hanger" sword were both examples of blades that had the same features: a single-edged blade around 24" long, and a handguard that went beyond simple quillons (the two spurs of the crossguard). These developed out of the longer, heavy falchion (which had a blade around 31" long), and became standard sidearms for much of the age of muskets.

Why would you want a shorter sword? These blades coexisted with the long, heavy knightly swords, particularly the longsword (which AD&D would call a "bastard sword"). They were primarily sidearms, meant for fighting lightly armored opponents, often issued to crossbow or artillery soldiers. As the Messer proves, they were carried around in cities and were good weapons for fighting in closer quarters than the longsword allowed. In an era of plate armor, the sword was no longer an armor-penetrating weapon; you'd use something good and heavy like a warhammer if puncturing armor was your goal. So it makes sense to use a short blade that you can carry pretty well anywhere.

In tight dungeon corridors, the utility of such a blade should be obvious. Thieves in particular would seem to be a great thematic fit for the Messer or cutlass. It really underlines the fact that swords were primarily sidearms, and longer weapons, or ranged weapons, were the primary weapons carried by a soldier.

What, then, about magical swords? After all, this is D&D, not Chainmail; magic weapons are part and parcel of the way the game goes. But it turns out - magical short swords make plenty of sense. The ancient Greek xiphos, the ancient Roman gladius, the leaf-shaped Celtic sword and the Egyptian khopesh are all swords that top out around 24". If your magical swords are properly ancient, why not use one of those as a model instead of the latest trend in knightly blades?

The bronze sword in this blog post over at Tower of the Archmage is a great example of the kind of sword that makes a killer "ancient" looking magic sword. This site has a number of good replica photos, all of which are excellent inspiration for a magical sword that I think will be much more memorable than a typical "sword" with a crossguard and a +1. The khopesh, the Celtic sword, the Spartan sword are all neat looks that will help give magic items a very different feel from the "standard models."

With Moldvay and later classic D&D, magical short swords are also a good way to control "sword inflation" in the game. Since they do on average 1 point less damage than a normal sword, and 2 points less than a 2-handed sword, a short sword +3 is only doing 6.5 damage on an average hit.

Finally, let's not forget the halfling, for whom the short sword is a normal sword.

The moral of this post, of course, is that I really like swords, and I think D&D owes blades other than the classic knightly sword (Oakeshott types X through XIV) some love. As for knightly swords? Look for a post in the future, "R. Ewart Oakeshott vs. E. Gary Gygax." But I really think that there is more potential than most people think for excellent D&D weapons in the short sword, from antiquity right up to the Renaissance.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The First Dungeon Monster


In Greg Svenson's article The First Dungeon Adventure, a participant's account of the very first Blackmoor dungeon delve, the player of the legendary "Great Svenny" recounts the very first monster that the players encountered.
At this point Dave took us into the laundry area of the basement, telling us he wanted to see what we would do. He had us line up in our marching order. Then he turned off the lights saying a sudden wind had blown out our torches. Then we heard some screaming. We generally scattered as best we could. He turned on the lights looked at what we had done and then went back to the other room, telling us that a black blob (like the thing in the classic Japanese horror movie "The Blob" from the 1950’s) had killed one of the NPCs who ran into it. We soon found that our weapons dissolving when we struck it. Then we got some torches relit and found that we could fight it with fire. Eventually we killed it losing a couple more men in the process.
I have no idea why Greg remembered The Blob – an American movie starring Steve McQueen – as Japanese, but that was the first monster. It's funny to imagine a bunch of college students (wearing early '70s clothes) running around a dark basement, essentially doing the first LARP, to determine relative position, but these were literally people figuring out how to play these games for the first time.

The fact that the first monster was a blob warms my heart. It wasn't a humanoid or undead, there was no pedigree from mythology or pulp fantasy. Monster Number One was the creature from a bona fide Creature Feature. When look at the time that the guys playing Blackmoor grew up, this makes perfect sense. Science fiction film then didn't mean big budget productions, but B-films with whatever creatures could be cooked up on a shoestring budget. 2001: A Space Odyssey was less than three years old, and Star Wars wouldn't come out for another six years. These were kids who grew up on these movies, of course that's what they imagined.

One twist that I find interesting is that Arneson's blob is killed by fire. This is similar to the OD&D monster Black Pudding (itself something of a culinary joke) and the opposite of the Blob in the eponymous film, which is found to be vulnerable to cold via a CO2 fire extinguisher. Gygax would separate Blob-types into two, with the Black Pudding vulnerable only to fire, and the Gray Ooze harmed by weapons or lightning. The morale effect on a party is quite visible when they find they have used the wrong attack type on a blob, and a torch gutters out harmlessly in a Gray Ooze or the Black Pudding is struck by a lightning bolt and divides in two.

The premier generator for unique blobs every time is the "Goops, Glops and Gobs" section of Geoffrey McKinney's Dungeon of the Unknown. A creature whose vulnerability has not been discovered, but has a movement rate, can easily become the villain of a terrific chase sequence. After all, in The Blob the title creature does ooze under doors and over various surfaces, making getting away from it a difficult problem.

Aside from the importance of the blob itself, I think this shows us the importance of the B-movie as an "Appendix N" for early D&D. Much as Gygax would be influenced by Harryhausen as much as Howard and Vance, this kind of sensibility – the willingness to go in for weird aliens, giant creatures and things of indeterminate origin as "feature" monsters – provides another, deeply old school, alternative to monsters out of the fantasy "canon." And if anybody gives you grief for it, remember - the blob was first.

Monday, February 16, 2015

First Impressions: Iron Falcon

I've supported Chris Gonnerman's Basic Fantasy RPG for years because it's free, because it has a strong community ethos, and because it was a major trailblazer for the OSR. But I've never switched to it completely, because it was just that little bit different from how I wanted things. It was B/X but not as much as Labyrinth Lord, and not OD&D enough. Now, Chris has released the very early version of a new clone, Iron Falcon. It's an OD&D clone, but a clone of OD&D plus Greyhawk, for the most part.

From the draft thus far, it's really close to how OD&D ought to be, with Greyhawk included. A few anomalies – like percentile Strength and weapon versus AC – that I'm not fond of go away in this revision; I can't say that I mind. All the things that Gonnerman had done away with in BFRPG, like descending AC and alignment, are all there in the core section. The spells that are there work like in OD&D, such as Charm Person, which lacks Greyhawk's convoluted saving throw scheme (also familiar for AD&D players).

Where Delving Deeper is a clone which is obsessed with getting into the gritty details of the original OD&D booklets, and where Swords & Wizardry is a nice, light game that is more in the "ballpark" of OD&D, Iron Falcon is looking to be a tight, feature-complete clone of OD&D as it was played in the early days. As Chris says on the BFRPG forum thread:
Greyhawk is the first published book that shows the game in a recognizable form; it's how Gary's own game worked, as much as he was able to publish it. I recall having heard that the game was undergoing heavy development, changing all the time, so Greyhawk can be little more than a snapshot... but it's the only snapshot we have.
From what I've seen, and from what Chris has put forward thus far, it's an extremely worthy effort to put together rules that would have been recognizable in 1975 as the D&D rules. If it continues on these lines, I could seriously see switching to Iron Falcon as my go-to rule set for OD&D type games. It has everything I would want from a clone. (Well, everything except robots. But that can be fixed.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Appendices E and N

The 5e D&D Player's Handbook has an "Appendix E" that I think is worth at least mentioning. Looking over the list, I think there is some merit in talking about at least a few of the works listed in it.

Appendix E is a superset of Appendix N, but it also changes the latter by adding in recommended books for every author listed. Appendix N listed 9 authors "generally" with no specific works – essentially their whole writings. (Although in the case of H.P. Lovecraft, it literally recommends everything.) These thoughts focus on the additions.
  • Ahmed, Saladin. Throne of the Crescent Moon.
This is one of several entries in the list that feels like it was just thrown in because somebody at WotC was reading it, and it helped give the list some "modern" credibility. Nothing against it, but nothing about it suggests D&D.
  • Anthony, Piers. Split Infinity and the rest of the Apprentice Adept series.
This is one of the series Gary Gygax "added" to Appendix N when asked in 2007. I personally find Piers Anthony quite repugnant to my taste, but then de gustibus non est disputandum.
  • Augusta, Lady Gregory. Gods and Fighting Men.
I kind of have to give credit for the authors sneaking some Irish myth into Appendix E. The Irish myth cycles are difficult to piece together and not as popular as Greco-Roman or Norse myth, but have some excellent heroic stuff going on.
  • Brooks, Terry. The Sword of Shannara and the rest of the Shannara novels.
This novel is, literally, everything that is wrong with fantasy from 1977 onward. Its publication – Lester Del Rey literally chose it because it was the most like The Lord of the Rings – was the watershed moment when Extruded Fantasy Product began to overwhelm the burgeoning fantasy scene. It's not as bad as some EFP authors (Terry Goodkind is probably the worst) but it is directly responsible for their existence.
  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology.
A terrific way to familiarize oneself with Greco-Roman, Arthurian and Carolingian mythology, if a bit dated in language. I've spent more time with Edith Hamilton's Mythology but Bulfinch is really good for the material in Age of Chivalry.
  • Cook, Glen. The Black Company and the rest of the Black Company series.
Another, and in my opinion much more worthy, entry in Gygax's 2007 expansion. The only reason The Black Company wasn't on Gary's original list is that it hadn't been written yet.
  • Hickman, Tracy & Margaret Weis. Dragons of Autumn Twilight and the rest of the Chronicles trilogy.
I have mixed feelings on this; on the one hand, this book did help me get into D&D (though within a few years, I had developed much better taste in fantasy novels). On the other, it is crappy Extruded Fantasy Product and did a lot of damage by pushing D&D in that direction.
  • Jordan, Robert. The Eye of the World and the rest of the Wheel of Time series.
I read several of these books in college. I regret this fact. It manages to be derivative of both The Lord of the Rings and Dune while learning nothing positive from either series.
  • King, Stephen. The Eyes of the Dragon.
What a weird one-off to throw in. I read this book when I was a teenager because my aunt and uncle had every Stephen King book in their house, and one time when we were visiting, I picked up the one book that had "Dragon" in the title. The poison that caused smoke to come out of the king's eyes was the only thing that stuck with me.
  • LeGuin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea and the rest of the Earthsea series.
Earthsea is probably my favorite Young Adult fantasy series. I actually had to read the first book in my freshman English class, and wound up loving the original trilogy. Le Guin is kind of known for her political bent, but Earthsea is just good bedrock fantasy writing.
  • Lynch, Scott. The Lies of Lock Lamora and the rest of the Gentleman Bastard series.
See Ahmed, Saladin above.
  • Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones and the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series.
The only way to read these books is as a prolonged black-comedy parody on the epic fantasy genre. And they're too damn long to bother reading like that. I've come to hate the "grimdark" pseudo-realism of books like this.
  • Pratchett, Terry. The Colour of Magic and the rest of the Discworld series.
Another Gary Gygax 2007 addition. If you like comedic fantasy, then this is better than most. I read a few in high school and it's just not my cup of tea.
  • Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind and the rest of the Kingkiller series.
See Ahmed, Saladin above.
  • Salvatore, R.A. The Crystal Shard and the rest of the Legend of Drizzt.
I knew these books sucked when I was 14. They still suck now.
  • Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn and the rest of the Mistborn trilogy.
See Ahmed, Saladin above.
  • Smith, Clark Ashton. The Return of the Sorcerer.
Gary was wrong to keep CAS off his list in 1977, and wrong to not put him on his 2007 revision. Having a list that includes Lovecraft and Howard but not Smith is like listing great Musketeers and having Porthos and Athos, but not Aramis. Yes, de gustibus, but it's a snub against one of fantasy's all-time greats.
  • Wolfe, Gene. The Shadow of the Torturer and the rest of The Book of the New Sun.
This is one of the best additions that Appendix E makes. An excellent series, worthy inspiration, and a great pick as the last new entry.

There are a couple of entries in Appendix E that I'm not familiar with and have no particular comment on. But there's one omission that is really unforgivable. Catherine L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories are prime D&D material, written in the heyday of Weird Tales, and present one of the great heroines of sword & sorcery literature. She and her husband Henry Kuttner (who often wrote under each other's bylines) were titans of fantasy and science fiction back when there was no divide. Gygax can be forgiven if he was ignorant of Moore; Mearls and the WotC authors, in an age of the Internet and Google, can't. If you can dig up Stephen King's one mediocre fantasy novel, you can certainly spare an entry for one of the greats.

Appendix E, on the whole, probably has too many duds and too many books that are only on the list because they're popular to be a worthy successor of Appendix N. Really, the 11,000+ pages of Wheel of Time and 4,000+ pages and counting of A Song of Ice and Fire alone should disqualify it; The Lord of the Rings is the longest single work in Appendix N and it's less than a tenth as long as the Wheel of Time. Aside from Gygax's additions and a few others, I would be hesitant to put most of these books on the same level.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Getting Lucky, and a Framework for Ability Scores

My last post talked about ability scores as they have been preserved in records from Dave Arneson's old games. I want to talk a bit about a couple of other early games, and how between them, they suggest a framework for a variant that I like on the old warhorse of OD&D's six ability scores. My goal is to make them useful as in-game tools, while keeping in tact OD&D's reluctance to turn high stats into mega-bonuses.

I'll start with Luck, which as far as I know was introduced in Tunnels & Trolls. Luck's biggest feature was being used in saving rolls, effectively replacing Gary Gygax's arcane matrix of saving throw values with one neat roll. Later editions expanded the saving roll into a generic system. The exact mechanic (a target number of 20+ minus Luck on 2d6, but you re-roll and add when you roll doubles) is wonky, but as Ron Edwards of all people has pointed out, the mechanic actually encourages creative activity on the part of players, especially because by rule, a player may call for a saving roll, and the referee just tells him the difficulty. SRs also give experience, regardless of success, which is food for thought.

Luck has a fairly good pedigree otherwise, including in Dungeon Crawl Classics. One of the reasons I like the idea of Luck is as a resource of last resort. It makes it clear, from the character sheet, that the player can always just throw his or her fate at the feet of the dice gods and give just about anything a try. It might not work, but what the hell. (And when it doesn't work, spectacular failure is the order of the day.)

The others I've written about before. Agility, from the CalTech Warlock rules (another score used in DCC, mind), takes on the AC modification of Dexterity. This is a personal pet peeve; hand-eye coordination does not help you dodge. I think Dexterity and Agility being split also nicely prevents Dexterity from being a super-powerful score like it is in most versions of D&D.

Wisdom, I have no use for. It's not an accident that so many games that otherwise swipe the D&D ability scores tend to chuck Wisdom overboard first. Tunnels & Trolls replaces it with Luck, Runequest with Power, Empire of the Petal Throne with Psychic Ability. In OD&D and Holmes, it has no use other than being a prime requisite for Clerics. So feh. Make Charisma the prime stat for Clerics, and throw out Wisdom. The "divine favor" aspect of Charisma makes more sense for a Cleric anyway.

The stat that replaces Wisdom is Ego. The reason to have an Ego score is simple: it determines your interaction with magical swords. If you look in the First Fantasy Campaign, Arneson has them compare with both Ego and Brains (Intelligence). It also allows you to have "willpower" type rolls based on Ego. Cunning is a good alternative, but I can see more cases of Ego coming up in a game.

My preference for Strength has always been for modest damage bonuses. In a 1d6-based damage system, +1 for Strength of 15 or more is a pretty powerful thing. (18 Str should give +2, making the Strength spell actually meaningful in Holmes D&D.) So in canonical order: Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Dexterity, Charisma, Agility, Ego, Luck.

One reason I like this array so much better is it gives you a solid roll-under system. You can use either 3d6 (which advantages high scores) or 1d20 (advantage to lower scores) as a generic task resolution system, akin to T&T's saving rolls. I prefer 1d20, because adjusting with bonuses or penalties jacks up a 3d6 roll. This also begs for a system of improving ability scores; given a basis of 3d6 in order, even increasing 1 stat point per level only increases the average stat by 1 for every 8 levels.

Ability scores have always seemed to me like the D&D sacred cow most in need of a good barbecue. I think this alternate array fixes several issues I have with the game and makes an overall better array for adjudicating in-game actions with a quick die roll. Please address all thoughts to the comment box below.