Saturday, August 29, 2015

Moldvay Basic and Appendix N

The Moldvay Basic Set includes a list of inspirational reading material that is occasionally compared to Gygax's Appendix N. The list is credited to one Barbara Davis, so I'll refer to it as Davis's while generally holding the Basic set as Moldvay. I hold the latter in fairly high regard and have periodically written about it, so it bears some questioning whether Davis's list supercedes Gygax's.

First, a comparison is in order. Most of Appendix N makes the Davis list, but not quite all. Despite presenting a substantially longer list, Davis does not include Fredric Brown, August Derleth, Margaret St. Clair, or Stanley G. Weinbaum. Modern Lovecraftians will not mind the omission of Derleth, but he was important both in preserving and popularizing HPL, and in creating what we think of as a unified "Cthulhu Mythos." St. Clair's book Sign of the Labrys was important in creating the concept of the dungeon as an underground world. Both Brown and Weinbaum are important to the science fiction aspects of Gygax's list. So the losses are serious.

The "Young Adult Fantasy" is a curious list. I can't object to any of it; Bellairs and Burroughs were already on Appendix N, though Burroughs does not belong in "Young Adult." Prydain, Oz, Wonderland, Brisingamen, Earthsea, Narnia – all solid, all a bit young for most of the folks who will be reading this. I wonder how much they have in common with Appendix N, but I see them as fine for a set aimed at 10-year-olds.

The Adult Fantasy section adds far too much. It doesn't help that the first new author is Piers Anthony; he has some of Gygax's imprimatur, but Gygax recommended Lin Carter's original fiction. Robert Aspirin's books are the kind of "jokey" fantasy that has happily fallen out of fashion. E.R. Eddison is a solid addition, with his Worm Ouroboros. Tanith Lee's addition reminds me of D&D 5e's Appendix E: a fine author, worth reading, but not really "inspirational" material for anything I'd recognize as D&D. Heinlein and Niven both creep in for reasons that are beyond me. The happiest additions are Clark Ashton Smith and Karl Edward Wagner, both of whom strongly belong. It's also fun that Dracula shows up. I can't say that this is stronger than Appendix N, though.

The additional authors have some solid choices, but seems odd at first glance. A large chunk of the list only makes sense in the context of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, a selection of paperback fantasy novels edited by Lin Carter. Peter S. Beagle, Hannes Bok, James Branch Cabell, H. Rider Haggard, Katherine Kurtz, Mervyn Peake and Evangeline Walton all come straight from that line or its predecessor books. Many of these works were dated already in the 1970s and are moreso today.

When the Adult Fantasy line and Appendix N choices are pared out, we are left with C.J. Cherryh, Samuel R. Delany, Jane Gaskell, Roland Green, John Jakes, Anne McCaffery, Patricia A. McKillip, C.L. Moore, and John Myers Myers. Moore was a top-notch fantasist who always gets left out of things like this, so it's a delight that she is found here. Delany manages to make even less sense on Davis's list than Weinbaum did on Gygax's; at least "A Martian Odyssey" is a master class in how to write or play a totally alien creature. McKillip is in or close to the "Celtic fantasy" mold with Kurtz and Walton. John Myers Myers only wrote one fantasy book of note, Silverlock, although it was probably one that sat on Ms. Davis's library shelves. Jane Gaskell is incidentally responsible for the "brooding romantic vampire," while Anne McCaffery is well known for her idiosyncratic Pern novels. John Jakes and Roland J. Green were responsible for thud-and-blunder novels with heroes named Brak and Wandor, respectively. C.J. Cherryh went on to do sci-fi for decades but in 1981 was known for an excellent science fantasy series, the Morgaine books.

Much as I love the Davis list's inclusion of CAS and C.L. Moore, I feel like it both doesn't have an appropriate filter and doesn't direct readers to as good of a mix of work as Appendix N. There is too much middling fantasy here. I primarily would recommend its whole Young Adult section, plus the handful of additions to Appendix N that I really think are essential (Smith, Eddison, Moore, Wagner). There is a better balance as a list in Appendix N, and I think it's a bit further out from what we now think of as "fantasy" in the sense of a crystallized thing, more wild and undefined.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: I do think a serious fan of D&D should give everything in Appendix N a shot, if not a full read. Davis's list doesn't have that distinction.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

So You Like Monsters?

The second edition AD&D Monstrous Manual is now available as a PDF. This is part of the AD&D 2e books being made part of the D&amp:D Classics website. Unlike the PHB and DMG, the Monstrous Manual did not get hit with an ugly stick in the 1995 redesign, so it has exactly the same art and layout that it had originally featured two years earlier.

The original 2e books featured the Monstrous Compendium, with the idea being that the monster books should be loose-leaf sheets collected in an oversized binder, so new monsters could be added alphabetically instead of keeping them in a growing series of hardcovers. This failed for a simple reason: the monster entries didn't all take up a full page, front and back, meaning that one monster would be on the back of another. If it went from GA to GI, then where the heck do GE monsters fit? It also created a proliferation of loose-leaf monster sheets in boxed sets that would inevitably get lost in the shuffle. Happily, the Monstrous Manual and the Monstrous Compendium Appendix series pretty much fixed this, putting everything "core" into a big hardback and the "expansion" monsters into perfect-bound softbacks.

One of the things that you need to remember when looking back at TSR products is that they were laid out first and had content written to fit. This became extreme in the case of the Monstrous Compendium / Monstrous Manual series. Each monster had to take up at least a full page, whether it was needed or not. To facilitate this, sections on Combat, Habitat/Society and Ecology were added to pad out the entries. This is occasionally interesting but often reads like useless filler, which is a shame, as the format has a lot of potential that is occasionally reached. For instance, the Githyanki and Githzerai are extremely well-imagined and well-realized in this book, and the Tarrasque comes off well. But on the whole it doesn't stay at that level, and the format feels bloated.

A tremendous deal of the monsters in this book were illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi. This was his first major work for TSR, and led directly to his doing all of the art for the Planescape line. For instance, DiTerlizzi's hobgoblin is a fully realized concept of a monster:


The art, despite happening against a plain white background, manages to evoke creatures that have come from a high-fantasy world with a lot of detail and a touch of whimsy. His new art book Realms is worth the price and shows a great array of his imagination, including sketches that didn't make it all the way to the MM. Shannon Appelcline (who writes the "product history" sections for these books) fails as a historian for managing to not even mention Tony's name when he describes a book that very directly feels Tony's stamp and was critical in starting his career as an RPG illustrator.

One game issue in this book that I see primarily as a negative: 2e experienced a lot of "dragon inflation." Dragons were bigger and more powerful in this edition than in previous ones. If you like that, that's cool, but I prefer dragons that fit in dungeons: relatively small, mostly threatening because of their breath weapons, and otherwise very realistic enemies starting at a fairly low level. D&D has trended away from this view, which paradoxically makes it so that you see fewer dragons in adventures outside of the really high levels.

If you want to read a monster book cover to cover, this isn't a bad choice. (The appendix books are a better choice, because the focus in the MM is primarily on "standard AD&D" monsters, while the other collections by definition are of new creatures.) The real issue with the book is that it feels like it was written by a committee. This intensive monster format could have been a great way to present a tightly integrated fantasy world, but instead it comes off piecemeal, really not even justifying all of these critters existing in the same universe. Due to the bloated stat entries, it's not very good for at-the-table use, and I switched to the 1e books while I was running a hybrid 1e/2e game in high school.

This was my first book of monsters, and I do think it's part of why I like monsters so much. As you've probably figured out, I credit Tony DiTerlizzi with a lot of that. If you've never read the book before, I'd definitely pick up the PDF and give it a whirl.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hostis humani generis: Pirates and Naval Adventures

"Buccaneers are water-going Bandits in all but composition of their force...
"Pirates are the same as Buccaneers except they are aligned with Chaos."
– OD&D Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure

In 18th and 19th century admiralty law, the term hostis humani generis was used to describe pirates. It's a Latin phrase meaning "enemies of the human race," and is used to describe the way that piracy was considered a crime against all nations. In practice, it meant that any nation could capture and hang pirates as criminals, even if they had attacked a ship sailing under another nation's flag.

Pirates have lost a great deal of their ferocity in pop culture. A lot of my daughter's cartoons use pirates as lovable, if cranky, sailors who mostly hunt for treasure. Which is a shame, because they're great villains and poor heroes.

OD&D devotes very little space to melee combat between dungeon denizens, but it finds eight pages to cover naval combat. There are well thought out rules for exactly how to conduct warfare between medieval ships crewed by men, and combat with water monsters. These are clearly Dave Arneson's creation, and were neglected in later versions of the game – at best considered a minor set of conditional rules.

The natural setting for using these rules is an archipelago. Islands are great D&D settings, as recognized by the classic module X1 The Isle of Dread. There is a terrific sandbox resource for island campaigns in Judges Guild's Island Book 1, which contains tables for rolling up an island on the fly, and dozens of detailed hex maps of islands. The islands are also the most expressive part of the Wilderlands setting, as each island on the maps has a unique hook provided.

Piracy makes for an interesting cost to an island-hopping campaign. They can be used to make the passage between islands difficult, but if they have a "land base" they can convert readily into a kind of bandits. Pirates don't always need to be disaffected sailors from the main culture, either. "Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard features pirates from an African-style setting. The racial implications there are unfortunate, but the basic concept can be made to work with no racial animus. (Indeed, since Vikings are pretty obvious medieval pirates, they might actually be lighter skinned than the main culture.) It also doesn't necessarily follow that pirates have to be human. For instance, many of the tricks used in classic "Tucker's Kobolds" type scenarios would also be effective for taking a ship. And there is just something about a kobold pirate that amuses me deeply.

(A side note: if you want to do some island-hopping but the PCs don't already have a ship, sometimes the biggest treasure for a pirate encounter is ... wait for it ... a ship.)

Outside of pirates, there are heaps of monsters, particularly in Supplement II: Blackmoor, that basically beg you to go to the seas. Basically megadungeons solve this problem by putting the sea under the dungeon, but it is inherently limited and doesn't give you the same variety. The sea is an infinite world of fresh horrors, and if you're like me you've probably wondered why they are included. Sahuagin, ixitxachitl, locathah, morkoths, were-sharks, not to mention the plentiful variations on the sea-monster, both real and imagined, all given less love except in the occasional wet dungeon. The reason they are there is that Dave Arneson wanted you to be adventuring at sea.

Aside from chances to use the naval rules and the many waterborne monsters, island-hopping just gives you great variety. All kinds of different monsters, cultures and ruins can be found in islands, and it all makes a certain kind of sense. You want Vikings or cavemen? Sure. Want the last survivors of lost Atlantis, with corresponding treasure beneath the waves? They've been on that island the whole time. Primeval tribes, lost ruins, abandoned forts, strange creatures are all fair game. No reason that these islands can't have huge magic on them that has gone unexplored – refer to The Moon Pool or "The Call of Cthulhu" for a couple of Appendix N examples. One of my favorite archipelagos in fiction is in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea.

One other source of material for an island-hopping campaign might not seem immediately obvious, but you could certainly adapt the world-generation tables in classic Traveller to give you a few more details on top of the JG island book. After all, a spacefaring campaign with FTL is basically the same as an island-hopping campaign, the scale is bigger and the technology is higher, but the fundamentals are there.

Oh, and if you run a naval campaign, someone gets to be Captain. All sorts of fun there.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ready Reference: Standing Stones

I've been thinking that I'd like to do some more wilderness gaming, and toward that end I've decided I need more random tables for wilderness features. Rather than just write them up for myself, I figure they are good material for the blog.

Standing stones are compact, simple things of interest in a wilderness setting. They aren't all weird, but these are some ideas for when the players encounter, and possibly camp out near, a mysterious menhir.


What's Going On With These Standing Stones? (d12)
  1. The stone is a marker of a ley line. This amplifies the range / duration / effects of spells cast within 120' of the stone by 1.5x.
  2. The stone creates a wild magic zone with a 120' radius. Casting a spell in the area has a 1 in 6 chance of creating a wild surge.
  3. Several times a year, the stones awaken and walk to a new location. Roll 2d6; if both dice show "6", then today is such a day.
  4. It's a giant transformed into stone thousands of years ago. Weather has not been kind to its features but the face can still be made out.
  5. The stone covers up the cave-home of a tribe of pixies who come out at midnight. There is a small hole at the base that they come out of. Anyone camping nearby will be vulnerable to their tricks if the hole is not covered up before midnight.
  6. It's the meeting-place for a local human or monster faction.
  7. The stone was flung out from the fey realm and will give dreams that are both surreal and prophetic to anyone sleeping nearby.
  8. The stone is a finger / body part of a long deceased god. Depending on the god's alignment and that of the person touching it, the stone may give a boon (blessing, bonus/advantage on future roll) or bane (curse, penalty/disadvantage).
  9. The stone is inscribed with ancient symbols. If translated (requires Read Languages) and read aloud, the writing on the stone will summon the extraplanar entity that instructed it to be built. (Use your game's cosmology to fill in the type of entity.)
  10. It's a gravestone. The deceased may be attracted back to it either in spectral or skeletal form.
  11. It's just a rock. A very unstable rock, that falls on anyone unfortunate enough to get too close to it. 3d6 damage, save for half.
  12. It is the egg of an enormous creature. No, bigger than that, it's just a baby after all. And look, it's starting to hatch ....

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

RPGaDAY followup

Apparently Zak S. added more to the RPGaDAY questions, because you can do that. My answers wound up way more '90s than I expected.

1. Worst game you ever played
Furry Pirates. Quite possibly the trifecta: worst rules, worst setting, worst experience.

2. Interesting rule embedded within otherwise baleful game
The spell-creation system in the Dragonlance SAGA game (the one with cards) was clever, although we never did too much with it.

3. Game you never played but you knew it sucked just looking at it
Street Fighter: the Storytelling Game.

4. Game you most wish didn't suck
Rifts. It has heaps of concepts that I love, but both the setting execution and the system are pretty much botched.

5. Game about which you have the most mixed feelings
Changeling: the Dreaming. I don't like the White Wolf "feel" (although it appealed to me in college) or the system at all. There were ideas in Changeling I really liked, although the central core idea (resisting Banality) did not work at all. I ran a lot of sessions, and it did click for a couple of games, but wasn't sustainable. It was a half-baked modern fantasy RPG that only worked if you turned your head and squinted just so. But the parts that worked, did work.

6. Old game most in need of an upgrade
Over the Edge is old enough to drink, and definitely shows its '90s conspiracy roots. A version that looks more like the modern world would be welcome.

7. Game you can run with the least prep
OD&D (easier if it's '74 OD&D and I can just grab a map and run).

8. Game with awful art (and who you wish you could hire to fix that)
Original D&D. I'd hire James Raggi to produce a single-book edited version in a hardcover with art and layout roughly matching that of Isle of the Unknown.

9. Best houserule you've seen in action and now use in your own games.
I don't really have anything for this, because I don't go about grabbing house rules.

10. Game you've most changed your thoughts/feelings about
5e D&D. I was all primed for hating it but then I went and played it.

11. Game you'd use to run just about any setting if you had to
Basic Roleplaying. Either Call of Cthulhu or the big gold book.

12. Game that haunts you and you're not sure why
There are three concept-heavy RPGs from the late '90s that I always wish I'd gotten a campaign together for when I was in college: Blue Planet, Fading Suns and Tribe 8.

13. Game that would probably be most fun to play a bee in
Over the Edge. Since it doesn't differentiate who gets what dice, you could totally have your sting as a combat skill for 3 or 4 dice.

14. Best Star Wars game?
The only Star Wars game I've spent any time playing is the one from Wizards of the Coast in the early 2000s. The only one on my shelf is the West End Games one, which I've always sort of "meant" to play but never have time to. So ... (punt)

15. Game that's good in theory but you're kind of on the fence about it to be honest
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. Has a ton of stuff I'd like, and I particularly enjoy the zine output, but there are a lot of things that hold me back from running it. The crazy dice and different stats I'm fine with; I can even get along with the streamlined d20 system it uses. But the magic system seems like it just wants to take over the game, and make it "about" wizards as if they weren't already big enough in D&D. I also think its appeal is primarily to gamers about 5-15 years older than me; namely people who were 12 in the period of the Holmes, Moldvay or Mentzer Basic sets, who switched to first edition AD&D. There is an element of nostalgia that I don't have, and am not quite comfortable with.

Monday, August 17, 2015

RPGaDay in One Day.

RPGaDay is a series of 31 questions intended to be answered at the rate of one question a day for a full month. That's too inefficient, so here they are in one day. Enjoy!

1. Forthcoming game you're most looking forward to
I am looking forward to the new Delta Green RPG from Arc Dream Publishing. A huge update of the excellent take on modern Cthulhu is very welcome. And it's still using the BRP system, which is really refreshing. Runner-up: Mutant Crawl Classics.

2. Kickstarted game most pleased you've backed
Metamorphosis Alpha deluxe edition. The additional stuff from the Kickstarter created a bona fide game line that has deserved to exist for almost 40 years now. You can get in on Epsilon City, the follow-up, right now!

3. Favourite New Game of the last 12 months
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. At the moment it's probably my second favorite flavor of D&D (after OD&D, of course). It has just enough crunchy bits for my taste without really sinking the game.

4. Most Surprising Game
Castles & Crusades, but in a negative way. It read like it would run like I ran AD&D as a 1e/2e hybrid, but the SIEGE mechanic did not work like I wanted it to. Led to me picking up older editions.

5. Most recent RPG purchase
GURPS Russia. (I love the GURPS sourcebooks.)

7. Favourite Free RPG
Iron Falcon. (The better clone of my favorite flavor of D&D.)

8. Favourite appearance of RPGs in the Media
n/a

9. Favourite media you wish was an RPG
Lupin III. Either the "Green Jacket" or "Red Jacket" series from the 1970s would make a brilliant caper RPG. (Not so much the later TV specials and movies, where the plotting is all too elaborate.)

10. Favourite RPG Publisher
TSR, Inc. Sorry to OSR folks, but it's TSR with Judges Guild as the runner-up.

11. Favourite RPG Writer
E. Gary Gygax. Runner-up: Dave Arneson.

12. Favourite RPG Illustration
I'm going to go with Erol Otus's cover for Swords & Wizardry Complete. It makes me want to run S&W Complete again. There is a close runner-up that most folks probably haven't seen: the cover by Fred Fields of the Al-Qadim boxed set Ruined Kingdoms. I love that cover, it was one of the very few in the early '90s TSR products that would scream "ADVENTURE!" to me in a totally pulp way.

13. Favourite RPG Podcast
Save or Die! The current rotation are my favorites.

14. Favourite RPG Accessory
My Gamescience dice. I refuse to roll online even in Roll20.

15. Longest campaign played
The AD&D (1e/2e hybrid) Greyhawk campaign I ran in high school. It ended with an epic fight on the planes of Air and Concordant Opposition.

16. Longest game session played
Freshman year of college, AD&D 2e, Dark Sun. Started around 8 PM on Saturday, finished around 1 PM on Sunday. ("Don't drink the special Mountain Dew...")

17. Favourite Fantasy RPG
Dungeons & Dragons. (Original being my favorite flavor, with or without supplements.)

18. Favourite SF RPG
Metamorphosis Alpha 1e.

19. Favourite Supers RPG
FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes. We played a ton of this in high school.

20. Favourite Horror RPG
Call of Cthulhu.

21. Favourite RPG Setting
World of Greyhawk (pre-Wars). Close second, Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

22. Perfect gaming environment
My parents' dining room circa 1998. My parents have a beautiful wood table, that for reasons of not destroying we put a pad over. (I did have to yell at my friends if they leaned back in the chairs.) It could easily seat 8 players, had French doors at one end and opened into the living room on the other. There were always 3 bags of chips, 3 bottles of soda, a ton of books and dice. I've had plenty of gaming environments since, and I do hope to get to run games at the kitchen table in my house once my daughter's a bit older, but I loved running in that dining room.

23. Perfect game for you
Original D&D (including supplements).

24. Favourite House Rule
Critical hits. I've houseruled them lots of different ways and done the most with them. Charts, max damage, double damage dice, pretty much any excuse for me to switch from "okay, you do 3 damage" to "ok, the goblin is now pinned to the tree by your arrow" or "you take its head clean off."

25. Favourite Revolutionary Game Mechanic
Karma, FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes. The idea that you got points for being a good super-hero was actually really important given that we were playing FASERIP in the grimdark '90s.

26. Favourite inspiration for your game
Mostly pictures. I can't draw, so I really riff off of images I can expand in my head.

27. Favourite idea for merging two games into one
Metamorphosis Alpha and OD&D are very compatible.

28. Favourite game you no longer play
FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes.

29. Favourite RPG website / blog
G+.

30. Favourite RPG playing celebrity
Stephen Colbert.

31. Favourite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGing I'm not sure what the question means, but I like swords, and I blame RPGs for that. So let's go with swords.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Alchemy, Sages and the OD&D World

Alchemist: Given a formula, the Alchemist can duplicate it to make a similar potion at a cost of one-half the potion's value. Alchemists may conduct research, but the time and expense are twice that of a Magic-User, and they may only work on poisons.
– OD&D, Volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures
Specialists, which have been part of the game since 1974, are one of the more neglected ways to spend money in Dungeons & Dragons. Which is a shame, because they are both a good way to remove excess gold pieces, and a powerful tool for world-building.

OD&D's basic economics don't stand up to much scrutiny, but we can figure the back of the envelope numbers for how much a potion is worth. The listed cost for a healing potion is 250 GP, and it takes 1 week to make one. An alchemist costs 1000 GP per month, so a week is close to 250 GP, making the cost of having an alchemist copy a healing potion about 375 GP. If brought to market, 500 GP is a reasonable price. (This is ten times the amount that the 5e D&D rules list for potions, which are standard equipment in that edition.)

U&WA specifies that specialists are available "to those in positions of power, i.e. with their own strongholds." This suggests an atmosphere like the famous Italian patronage system, where the rich and powerful sponsor alchemical laboratories to their benefit. They are joined in this by the intriguing Sage type, who have the stipulation: "They are employable only by Fighting-Men." This is a curious requirement that fits in with Supplement II: Blackmoor's idea that Sages are regulated by a Guild, which is jealously guarding its knowledge from wizards and priests, who it logically sees as "the competition."

Alchemy was an interesting mix of chemistry, astrology and occultism, influences that play an unfortunately small part in a lot of D&D. I think there's a particular richness to working it into a background – although perhaps not so subtly so that it gets missed. The overlapping alchemical and astrological symbols are a rich visual vocabulary for a D&D game.

☉ ☼ ☽ ☾ ☿ ♀ ♁ ♂ ♃ ♄ ♅ ♆ ♇
♈ ♉ ♊ ♋ ♌ ♍ ♎ ♏ ♐ ♑ ♒ ♓

One of the advantages of this approach is that it solves the reference problem where the players don't have knowledge their characters should have. By using our world's alchemy and astrology for that of the fantasy world, you create an accessible basis for things like clues, puzzles and riddles in the dungeon that both the players and their characters can and should understand.

Of course you could create your own as well, but it seems intriguing enough to me to insert references to these patterns and ideas in the D&D world.