Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Monsters, levels and experience

One of the more natural things to appear in the early issues of Alarums & Excursions is a certain degree of fluidity between the concepts of monsters and player characters. This is one of the things that Gygax initially encouraged in the text of OD&D, saying that a player can be pretty much any "type" described in the game, but that was played down quite vehemently in the DMG, with a prolonged essay on humanocentrism that has stuck with the Gygaxian mode of play for decades. I don't disagree with its main thrust, in that I feel that the majority of PCs should be human, but it did change the overall direction of the game, particularly in drawing a hard line between PCs and monsters.

Early A&E issues were very heavy on the actual play stories, and one of the characters with a lot of stories under her belt was Brilliant Jade, a fox spirit (a fox who turns herself human, taken from Chinese myth). This is interesting to me for a few reasons. One, the lycanthrope was actually pretty thoroughly covered in the early A&Es, frequently as a player type and not specifically a monster so much. Two, the concept was freely borrowed from myth and inserted without a lot of world-building or fantasy mythologizing around it. You had fox spirits in myth, therefore they were relevant in D&D. Three, the boundary between player and monster types was very deeply fluid.

A couple of other examples should suffice for what I mean. A number of writeups include the fact that monsters were given character levels, this long before 3e made it standard. Hobgoblins could be 6th level Fighters just as well as humans. As time went on and more statistics were printed in the zine, monster writeups often included a full experience chart with multiple levels detailed out. I really like the implications of this, because it lets you come up with monsters that are really varied and unique.

It's interesting that this method, which seems to have fallen by the wayside for AD&D in favor of simply adding to the variety of monsters, was embraced most in 3e, where it allowed for nigh-infinite fine tuning of opponents. With OD&D, it's radically different. Since the system is so much simpler, it's possible to do this much more easily. The example that brought me to realize that this was an early phenomenon was a reference to an "F6 Hobgoblin," who would have 6 levels as a Fighting-Man. 6 HD, possibly better AC from armor, hits as a 6 HD monster. This seems to me like a simple way to make a lot more out of a small inventory of traditional monsters, and just the sort of thing one would expect of the time before there were dozens of books full of monster statistics. Definitely something that will find its way into the lower works of my dungeon.

Friday, October 3, 2008

On Vancian Magic

With this post, I realize I'm going into territory that some OD&D fans would consider heresy, but it's something that I feel needs to be explored. I want to examine the whys and wherefores of Vancian magic, and how it appeared in OD&D and how it came to be used.

To be clear: the magic system was not necessarily "intuitively" Vancian in the 1974 rules. The Magic-User and Cleric classes had a number of spells per day determined by level, and that was about it. With subsequent clarifications, it was made clearly and determinedly based on the ideas in Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, where spells were "memorized" and stored for later use. Elements of other fantasy were also added, with verbal, somatic and material components making spells slightly different from a strict Vancian take. For purposes of paperwork and record keeping, it's a very workable solution with a sound basis in the source literature, and was used in every edition of AD&D and D&D up until the 4th edition, when it was done away with.

That is, in the published rules. Unofficially, the Vancian magic system was never all that popular. Early issues of Alarums & Excursions reveal that the magic system was considered seriously flawed and referees were reworking it from the very early days. Entire game systems developed around alterations, mainly, to the combat and magic rules from OD&D. But Gygax soldiered on with Vancian magic and it became a staple of the game from that point onward. I would think that an AD&D campaign without Vancian magic would be sort of like a Call of Cthulhu campaign without SAN — it's possible, but would be missing the point a bit.

However, one of the things I intend to emphasize in this blog is the idea that OD&D isn't AD&D, and that what is right for one is not necessarily right for the other. The magic rules in OD&D are simply a sketch of the fleshed-out system in AD&D, and I think they ought to prove vital and legitimate ground for tinkering. One of the things I will be looking at in coming posts is old-school approaches to magic, which actually are quite plentiful in print — there is a mana point system sketched in Arduin, discussion in A&E, and the systems of Chivalry & Sorcery and Tunnels & Trolls that I intend to look at for ideas, and adaptation into something of a cohesive alternate system.

The reason for this is not that I'm not happy with Vancian magic as such. As I said, I think it's a quintessential part of AD&D. The reason I'm interested in exploring alternative magic systems is tied into a particular vision of OD&D that I think is perfectly valid, one that looks outside of the AD&D / Gygaxian tradition for solutions to rules questions. I do believe, strongly, that OD&D is not AD&D lite, or with fewer of the specific rules and a trim; what attracts me is the idea that it's possible to build a D&D as one sees fit. The reality is that, when OD&D was at its newest, magic was not bound to any single interpretation but open to wild interpretation and creation. I think the old school renaissance needs to embrace this spirit if it is going to thrive.