Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reading Arduin, part 1

So, in the interest of doing more for this blog, I've decided I'm going to read and comment on aspects of the original Arduin trilogy. My editions are the three-book reprints done a few years ago by Emperor's Choice, which I will note had the unfortunate effect of mis-paginating the reprint text by a page (so that page 1 faces page 2, rather than page 2 facing page 3, and so on). The newer reprint, I understand, puts Hargrave's somewhat random tables and notes in a more coherent order, which may be contrary to the spirit of the whole exercise, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The book starts with a dedication to the player characters of Arduin, rife with names stolen from Moorcock and Tolkien; it is a tribute that Hargrave found his fantasy world through. He continues with a guarantee to answer any inquiries personally; his home address is printed in the book as a guarantee. It's nothing really that far afield, but it underscores the fact that it was a very personal work, for all its oddness and quirks (which we'll get into).

Actual rules text starts off with a page of notes on overland travel procedure. There is an implied re-write of the reaction chart, with the most aggressive result being a "screaming attack upon your party." This is not in the shape of a table, although there will be plenty to come; it's described narratively, with a separate listing for intelligent foes, who exercise more caution. We also find out that Hargrave was using Dexterity to determine who goes first in combat, describing that a fighter may hit an enemy just before it is struck by magic, which then does its work on the weapon. The procedures are straightforward enough, and there is an offhand reference to using "other roleplaying games" for random encounter charts (i.e., D&D), but an admonition to make your own.

Page two breaks with Gygaxian tradition and instructs the referee not to give experience points for gold or treasure. Instead, the experience rewards are given on a chart, scaling from 50 (figuring out a trap, casting a minor spell, any generally uncalled for or dangerous act) to 400 (dying and coming back). Rewards range from acquiring Satan's pitchfork or nuclear weapons (350) to going down to 1 HP (100), and focus mostly on magic items acquired and spells cast, with combat only coming when you beat a monster worth 4x your hit dice or more.

The next two pages (the book now flips to landscape format, which will happen often enough) run experience charts for Arduin. Unlike OD&D, which capped out with 11, these take characters up to 105th level and beyond. The actual math in the charts is interesting, because it takes quite a different tack than D&D. Where D&D keeps raising numbers by factors of 2 for a number of levels, Arduin prefers to add a new level whenever the total for 3rd is reached, up to a point around or after 10th level, when the number doubles. Somewhere around 20th level it gets doubled again (although the charts stop listing individual levels and go in increments of 5, then 10). It works out that a fighter in D&D with 240,000 XP is 9th level, but in Arduin they are 27th level.

Arduin's experience tables are interesting. Because points come much harder, (although it isn't clear whether standard monster XP is accrued) it makes a certain degree of sense that levels come more easily. Not having run that much at higher levels, I'd be curious to see their impact, although I certainly wouldn't use them with 1 GP=1 XP. There are also more classes listed than are presented in the book. They are: Thief, Slaver, Techno, Courtesan, Assassin, Alchemist, Rune Weaver, Saint, All Outlaws, Warrior, Cleric, Monk, Mage, Illusionist, Druid, Singer or Bard, Ranger, Normal, and Barbarian. The classes in the first Grimoire are Trader, Psychic, Barbarian, Rune Weaver, Techno, Medicine Man, and Witch Hunter. The Trader, Psychic and Witch Hunter all have XP tables with their descriptions. Given the classes that were in D&D use at the time, that leaves us with Slaver, Courtesan, Alchemist, Saint, miscellaneous Outlaws, and Normals without explicit description.

The "Singer or Bard" class is particularly noteworthy. The Bard class from the Strategic Review (reprinted in Best of Dragon #1) is implied, but the "Singer" part actually refers to a class published in the first two issues of Alarums & Excursions, which filled the gap prior to the TSR version.

Level limits follow this. For a game that gets up into 105th level, Arduin doesn't expand the more traditional demihuman level limits too much. The highest numbers are 15th level (Mermaid Mages, Titan Psychics, Gnorc (sic) Warriors and Insect Thieves). Almost every race is on the chart, some with unlimited levels in a few classes, others with almost no classes to be a part of. There is a riotous diversity here - from Hargrave's originals (Saurigs and Phraints, lizard and mantis men respectively), to his hybrid Kobbits and Gnorcs (though not Knoblins) and everything from Titans and Giants down to most types of animals, where Hargrave helpfully explains "Obviously, normal insects and animals are not smart enough to do much of anything, but there are were-creatures and other types that fit the bill, so these guidelines are meant for them." Were-creatures were extremely prolific in early Alarums & Excursions, with one were-fox mage, Brilliant Jade, being a prominent character in several campaign stories, so it's not surprising to see them here. Cave men and Amazons are their own races, with quite restrictive level limits; there are also Uruk-Hai, an indication of Hargrave's tendency to crib bits he liked quite shamelessly from other sources. Personally, I think it'd be interesting to have a cat mage with a human familiar, but that might just be me.

That's just the first five pages of Arduin. It's intriguing, and I do have to say I enjoy the idea of some of the different possibilities open here, but it'd take a bit of doing to get them into a D&D game without upsetting the whole apple cart. Next up will be more race info.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thoughts on Arduin

Geoffrey McKinney's recent post on the OD&D forum (read it here) talks about some of the strangest and most infamous of old-school games, the original Arduin trilogy. I've had the books for months and read them off and on, and I occasionally get the desire to just rip off big chunks and run with them in D&D. I still have the sort of eyes that read the reduced typeface of the original trilogy, although I may be tempted by the allure of a single hardcover volume (available here) in the future.

Arduin was marketed as its own game, to a certain extent, but fundamentally it was David Hargrave's house rules for the original D&D game. It's interesting to look through it, almost to the point where I think it should be required reading for people talking about OD&D in this day and age. Like most gamers at the time, Hargrave cheerfully embraced the OD&D supplements, hacking and modifying away at bits of them rather than taking the very modern stance of embracing "just the original 3 rulebooks." It's also rather accurate as a snapshot of the kind of thing that gamers, at least the sort who wrote in to Alarums & Excursions, were doing at the time: there are charts for character special abilities, critical hits, a mana point system, and concerns about all those areas where OD&D wasn't really clear.

But beyond that, Arduin reflects certain realities about the time that OD&D was out that weren't true about the subsequent period. Hargrave was very conscious that he wasn't writing eternal rules down to the ages. His tone is constantly that of one participant in the larger conversation about how to do things – albeit a participant who'd gotten himself a bully pulpit by publishing his rules as a supplement. And this was the reality of the gaming scene at the time: TSR was regarded as having a great product, but nobody was poring through the works of Gygax for hidden pearls of wisdom; his ideas were regarded as nothing more than one way to do things. What I think people miss is that this is the context of the publication of AD&D as we know it. Into this volatile stew of gamers taking D&D off in varied and colorful directions, in which Tunnels & Trolls was considered about as good as the "real thing", Gygax launched a set of hardbound rule books that really solidified a lot of the play culture to come afterward. But the AD&D books have every mark of being birthed in this ongoing milieu; the game was then wrenched out of it by sudden fad status, and the idea of a set in stone "D&D" replaced it.

Arduin, because it's back in print, serves as a living reminder that the game wasn't always that way. Even if you don't embrace a single thing from its rules (although how anyone can pass up air sharks is beyond me), the more important thing is to look at the original D&D game as it was seen in its early days. Sometimes I think that the best thing we can do in the old-school renaissance is to create a dozen or two Arduins, reinterpretations of D&D that expand on the wild possibilities in the game rather than constraining ourselves to trying to understand and appreciate what Gygax managed to put into the first three D&D books ever published.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Now this is what I'm talking about!

So Jim Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess put this post up today announcing "Green Devil Face," a new magazine for the old school renaissance. Rather than trying to be a generalist mag like the excellent Fight On! or dedicated to a specific retro-clone like Knockspell, Green Devil Face is going to focus on big obvious fun room traps.

To be honest, I think this is one of the coolest ideas to come out of the old school since Points of Light (which is just pure awesome). It's immediately useful, cuts out all the nonce about plot and setting and context that you often get out of dungeon modules, and asks for one thing: rooms that you can stick into an existing dungeon. And it's about traps, which is something I've specifically wanted to see more of in old school renaissance publications for a while now.

Naturally, I've already written up a contribution to this excellent effort, and I hope that a lot more people get behind it. Go! Write us your trap rooms!