Thursday, October 1, 2015

Arneson Day

One of the great creative leaps of the 20th century came from a student at the University of Minnesota who worked part-time as a security guard. He drew together wargaming, Diplomacy-style gaming, and improvisation into a single game that people haven't stopped playing in the forty-plus years since.

Today would have been Dave Arneson's 68th birthday, which only brings home how young he was when we lost him. His work with Gary Gygax on Dungeons & Dragons is practically legend. You can read the important bits in Playing at the World, although like most histories it winds up focusing on Gygax's larger than life personality. Dave's spirit is subtler and harder to find, especially with how much time Gygax had to leave his mark.

The irony is that we have maps of what Dave's dungeon looked like when he was running it in the convention circuit around 1975-76. He published them in the First Fantasy Campaign. THis is what level 1 looked like:

The first time that players went down into Blackmoor's dungeons, it was in that massive, cavernous chamber in the middle, and they had to find their way through narrow, slanting tunnels in search of treasure and magic. We know they would find blobs, among other things; a recent post by Greg Svenson on the Comeback Inn (registration only) detailed the ghosts of Blackmoor:
Ghosts cannot be killed. 1 ghost per person or thing killed in expedition total. Have human sacrifices every 30 days. Are able to paralyze all mortals by presence. Magic armor and super heroes and wizards on affected.
(Presumably Greg meant "unaffected" instead of "on affected"; these are notes written in a 1972 copy of Chainmail when it was new.)

Haunted rooms have a whole page plus of description in The First Fantasy Campaign, and follow naturally from this. Consider the Black Pit:
An area of noxious fumes and bottomless pools caused by some natural phenomena where it is, of course, rumored that a gate to Hades is located. It is also rumored that some horror inhabits the area that has been cast out of Hades to attack the unwary or guard some treasure.
The difference between Arneson's dungeon maps and Gary Gygax's fascinates me. Arneson focuses on weird, lengthy corridors, occasionally huge rooms, but mostly small chambers and hallways. (Room 9 at the top has a total of 60 goblins - tight quarters!) It feels much less "crowded" and each room can be totally purposeful, while the dungeon as a whole is instinctively nonlinear and interesting to explore.

Arneson's work is perhaps less systematic than Gygax's, but it seems to me to more deeply evoke an imagined world. Of course, this is also a man who lists robots under "Magic Items," so how could his work not be close to my heart?

I've thought a lot about what an Arnesonian game is, and the ideal system for it. Arneson probably had some rules behind it, but as Mike Mornard has put it in his call to BE A FKR! (Free Kriegsspiel Renaissance), it strikes me that the actual system run by Arneson was a type of Free Kriegsspiel, a wargame where the referee created rulings on the fly, run within a rough framework outlined by Chainmail and the First Fantasy Campaign. PCs aren't classes; they're flunkies who start out as zeroes and grow through combat and survival, and become major players in the setting.

Given that, it's maybe fitting that the First Fantasy Campaign is not presented as instructions but an example of results and ideas. It's the only definitive statement of Arneson's gaming that we have, and does not rise to the level of a manifesto, but it's worth if nothing else Googling the name and checking out some of the top results. (If there is ever a legitimate PDF of it, please buy it.)

So the next time you run a game, give a thought to Dave. He ran some great games, and it's worth getting a bit of his spirit and boundless creativity into your own.

Monday, September 14, 2015

More Dragons in the Dungeons

So there's this game you may have heard of called Dungeons & Dragons. It seems to have more dungeons than dragons, which is a shame.

Ancient and medieval depictions of dragons aren't of multi-story lizards breathing out gigantic fireballs. They are generally small, more slender reptiles, comparable in size to large horses, that seek out treasure hoards and guard them. It's a classic underworld trope to have dragons atop a burial mound or ancient tomb, which makes them a natural fit for dungeons.

Dragon inflation has been a constant of D&D, and it has slowly pushed the dragon out of the game, except at high levels. Dragons went up in hit points significantly in the first edition PHB, and much further in second edition, firmly ensconcing them as upper-echelon enemies. They have stayed that way ever since; a party will pretty much have to be 5th level or higher before even thinking about slaying a dragon.

OD&D dragons aren't unbeatable super-beasts. White dragons only have 5-7 hit dice, and are 25% likely to speak, and 60% likely to be sleeping when encountered. A Very Young white dragon only has 5-7 hit points and a similar score on its breath weapon; in my opinion that's not out of the question for an encounter on the first dungeon level. It's a logistical challenge, since the party will want to avoid being hit by the breath weapon, but not one that the party can never overcome. Even at 3 square inches (30 feet), the cone of a white dragon's breath will not necessarily hit multiple party members if they arrange themselves properly, using terrain obstacles or shapes to their advantage. If nothing else, they won't just assume they can kick in every door and slay the monsters.

All OD&D dragons are treasure type H. This is a hoard with literally piles of coins; there is a 75% chance of 10,000-60,000 GP. On average (and not counting magic items), a hoard should be in excess of 80,000 GP, with most of that coming in jewelry and gold pieces. Slaying a dragon and taking this much treasure would be a fine haul, although the reward stops being quite so dramatic after 5th level, when a dragon's hoard is no longer an automatic level gain. But up to level 5 or so, dragons are an efficient way to gain a level.

If you want to picture a hoard, let's say that gold pieces are about the size of a Krugerrand. 60,000 gold pieces would be about 50 gallons of space, which would be larger than the volume of a typical bathtub. This would have about 25 pieces of jewelry and/or 50 precious gems mixed in. Armored PCs could only take out about 1800 coins each; you'd probably want a few wheelbarrows. Transporting gold out of the dungeon should be almost as much of a challenge as slaying the dragon. It's impressive, but not cavernous rooms full of coins. The largest possible hoard would have 184,000 coins, which is in the area of a refrigerator.

By design, dragons should be a low to mid level monster: a hard challenge at level 1 or 2, but able to be handled with much more ease at levels 4 to 6.. If the referee is running OD&D by the book (as it were), it's a poor decision to take on a blue or red dragon. They are more likely to talk, and thus to parley, and less likely to be sleeping. And their treasure will be the same as a white dragon, which could be as much as 6 hit dice lower than its red cousins.

There's another reason to put dragons in your dungeon, though: factions. Dragons will naturally relate to the other denizens, although obviously this relationship may be more of a predator/prey one. But it will always make the dungeon more interesting if there is a dragon sitting on a big treasure hoard. Whether or not the dragon talks is a big factor in this, as a brute white dragon that picks on the goblin tribe would be very different from a crafty green dragon that has a group of gnolls or bandits doing its bidding.

The moral is simple: don't be afraid to add dragons to your dungeon. They are designed in OD&D to be things that you can handle but still have some "badass factor."

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Appendix N in 2015

I went through my Barnes & Noble today, and this is everything that I could find related to Gary Gygax's Appendix N:

Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series
Barnes & Noble has two $10 volumes that between them print the first 5 Mars novels, which have gone into public domain. A pretty good deal overall, although there is no art.

Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series
A single volume from the Conan series sits on the shelves. The other Del Rey volumes have all disappeared.

Lovecraft, H. P.
Huge collections, including from Penguin and Barnes & Noble. There are also multiple anthologies of short stories similar to Lovecraft's.

Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the first three books)
Not Elric or Hawkmoon, but Corum is actually being reprinted.

Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy"
There are two shelves full of Tolkien. This has been pretty much a given for the last twenty years or more, as long as I've been reading fantasy. George R.R. Martin is the only comparable author in terms of shelf space.

Assiduous hunting in the anthologies revealed that one of Vance's stories is in a The Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction volume. The Dying Earth proper is gone from shelves.

Wellman, Manley Wade
Wellman's name is on the cover of Acolytes of Cthulhu, a volume of Lovecraft-inspired fiction. It's interesting to note that the flood of Lovecraftian stories has not meant any kind of resurrection of August Derleth; he lies dreaming with dead Cthulhu.

Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al
A single, stately volume of The Complete Amber has closed out the Science Fiction & Fantasy section in Barnes & Noble for as long as I can remember. It's a massive tome and it's always present. The omnibus has been reprinted at least once, because it has a different cover than my copy, but its presence is kind of a fitting bookend to the SFF section.

The book I actually wound up buying (I already own everything of interest from the above) is from one of the "collateral" Appendix N authors: DAW just reissued The Birthgrave, the debut novel of Tanith Lee. Lee's short story "In the Balance" is in Swords Against Darkness III, the one anthology that made Gygax's list. (The contents are listed on its Wikipedia page.)

It's sad to note of Appendix N, now a 36 year old list, that of its twenty-eight named authors only Michael Moorcock is still alive. Several of the Swords Against Darkness III authors, including Lee (edited to note: Tanith Lee passed away in 2015), are also with us. Even some of the greats have been moved on from: Andre Norton's books used to fill a respectable slot, but now it skips her entirely.

Given the ongoing fandom for Lovecraft, it is somewhat odd that nobody's been putting out any of Dunsany's longer work in good print volumes; The Gods of Pegana, The Sword of Welleran and the other early work is all in the public domain, but I guess it's still not as profitable as the Martian tales. Merritt's work, likewise: we could easily have print versions of The Moon Pool and The Metal Monster, but even his name seems to be lost to the years. Both were major influences on Lovecraft; perhaps someone should lobby S.T. Joshi.

Barring a movie or HBO miniseries (or maybe True Detective taking up Manly Wade Wellman's "Silver John" stories), I don't see any grounds for a serious revival of the rest of the Appendix N authors. Burroughs, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Moorcock, and Howard are the anchors keeping Appendix N literature accessible to new generations, and it's probably going to stay that way for a while to come.

In a way, that's a damn shame. The best of this stuff is rip-roaring adventure. Norton and Brackett are two of the bigger losses, I think, both being women with a great knack for a science fiction or maybe science fantasy yarn.

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 ....