Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dungeon Format, B1 Style

Apologies for the lapse in updates, I've been working on some stuff for Dungeon Crawl and I've been busy both at work and at home.

In the first issue of Dungeon Crawl, I used the "One Page Dungeon Template." I think it presented a pretty neat little dungeon level, but the format leaves me wanting in one respect: complexity. I tend to enjoy big dungeon maps, and I've actually worked out a level in the past on 17"x11" graph paper so it could be really sprawling. But I've been tinkering with another idea, and I've decided that I want to pursue a different approach for the next issue's main dungeon, and want to discuss it a bit here.

This thread on the OD&D forum about Geoffrey McKinney's Dungeon of the Unknown (for the recent LotFP kickstarter) got me thinking about a set of caverns I've been working on and hadn't really been satisfied with. The problem is, the dungeon was too static. I want it to be full of things that are already in motion, not waiting for PCs to come along and kill them (esp. because most of the encounters are intended to have options).

I agree with the theme of the blog post Geoffrey linked to in the OD&D forum thread - Why Word Walls Won't Work. The idea of workbook dungeons is appealing because it lets you vary things up; why does the giant weasel always have to be hanging out in its lair? And of course this has a very Holmesian imprimatur, since B1 In Search of the Unknown is the original workbook dungeon.

The format I've decided on is following B1 in a rough fashion. There are a few rooms where the encounters are programmed, because they are fixed; the statue and the altar (separate things) aren't moving around, they are placed there. The giant weasel lair, likewise, is a single place, and the giant bee hive, and the geological formations in the caves (and various growths) of course are built-in. But the rest of the content, both monsters and treasure, are going to be set aside in a separate table and potentially could be anywhere in the dungeon.

This allows for a "rival party," which is present in this dungeon in the form of a group of gnomes. It's my opinion that gnomes are an under-utilized element, and it adds a bit of time pressure since there's a limited amount of treasure and the gnomes are also looking for it. Also the gnomes are illusionists, which should have some interesting consequences.

From there, the key will also double as a wandering encounter list. Again I think this gives a real dynamism to a dungeon that is sometimes difficult to re-create. So there will be an absolute limit to the number of giant bees, and if you encounter all the bees from the key there won't be any more (except the ones permanently guarding the hive). Treasure won't move around, unless the gnomes manage to find it before the PCs can...

I'm hoping this kind of dungeon starts to catch on. It's something I'd find much more useful than the standard map-and-key format, which  I find often has trouble tying a dungeon together. I'm hoping, through the seemingly paradoxical method of taking all the moving parts out from the map keys and putting them into a table to make their interaction a much more fluid thing.

Anyone who wants to contribute to Dungeon Crawl should email me - wrossi81 at gmail.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Monsters of Myth

When we start talking about "Monsters of Myth" (also the name of the fine OSRIC monster supplement), Dave "Sham" Bowman broke down the category as follows:
Manticoras, Hydras, Chimeras, Wyverns, Dragons, Gargoyles, Lycanthropes, Purple Worms, Sea Monsters, Minotaurs
This is a good list, hitting many of the core mythological creatures that D&D has long featured. Greek and Roman myth and various diverse ancient and medieval ideas have been so thoroughly plundered that it feels downright derivative (or at best, a duplication of work) to go back to them for yet another round of inspiration. Gygax and Arneson thoroughly cemented the various monsters of heraldry and heroism into the "default" fantasy world, unfortunately almost to the level of cliché.

What I've found interesting, as anyone who's read Dungeon Crawl #1 will know, are the monsters of more recent vintage. That's a hodag in the picture, and damn if the thing - it's supposed to have lived in rural Wisconsin - doesn't look like a D&D creature. So I made it into one. (It felt particularly right since TSR, like the hodag, was from Wisconsin.) The myths of America are less well-trod and a bit weirder, since we're getting into the realms of cryptozoology and urban legends.

Living as I do in New Jersey, and having grown up in the regions that were changing from rural to suburban near Philadelphia, I went camping a lot as a kid. And when you're ten years old and sleeping out in the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devil is the damn scariest thing in the world. You can walk by the kind of creepy old half-abandoned cabins that just seem like they could have been the birthplace of the abomination offspring of a woman and the devil, that fled out of the house as soon as it was born. Every twig snapping, even if it's just another kid going to take a leak, pings your senses and makes you certain that there's something out there in the woods. A shadow moving, even if it's the most coincidental thing, as you're gathered around the campfire sends shivers down your spine.

This classic picture of the Jersey Devil doesn't inspire the kind of fear we had, and I am thinking for my D&D adaptation of it I'd like something a bit more ... threatening. Not like a monster on a metal album cover, but something that's just a bit less goofy. We didn't think it was a muscle-bound horror, it was frightening because we thought it was real. And lurking somewhere out there in the pine forests, flying above us, able to take any of us out at any time. Camping in the cool night air it's a hell of a thought, and of course fodder for the most gruesome tales.

Fear of these monsters is fear of the unknown. It's rooted in the fact that there's something out there and you don't know what it is, but it can strike you dead in an instant. Even someone in chain mail with a sword would not relish an encounter with the Jersey Devil, or the hodag for that matter. It's a kind of horror that I think takes a subtle touch, often times more like the creepiness that you get in the X-Files than splatter horror or Cthulhuesque entities.

Really I do think there should be some element of a horror game to Dungeons & Dragons. All this time thinking about monsters has really rammed it home for me that, hey, these are monsters, any single one of which could be the subject of a horror film itself. And really it's a game about characters becoming heroic in the face of these monsters, even if the horror is primarily in the fact that so many fights end in character death.

At the same time, I want to adapt cryptids in ways that aren't overly reliant on the "solo horror monster" model that I see as working well for creatures like the Jersey Devil. There are well-worn variants, many of which have fairly popular variants: the lake monster like the Loch Ness monster or Champ in Lake Champlain, the dog-like monsters like the Chupacabra, or the humanoids like Sasquatch. I'd like to dig a little further into more types of cryptids in future entries, including their implications in play, and after that talk about the other kind of American myths, the Native American mythologies.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

OD&D, soon to be back in print

You may already have heard that Original Dungeons & Dragons is being reprinted.

At $150 it's a bit high priced for a hobby purchase, and the cover art looks like Wizards of the Coast figured out how to make the OD&D booklets look worse than they originally did. Of course, the $10 original set would be $45.92 in today's dollars and you'd have a bit of trouble getting late printings of the original boxed set, much less the supplements, for $150. But it's still not going to make OD&D exactly a mainstream game, which is what a lot of people want.

I'm holding out hope for a hardcover under $75 that would collect all the books in a solid, game-worthy volume. The problem isn't that the edition is so expensive but that it's exclusively a collector's edition and not something for everyday play. I have a pristine set of OD&D books in a slightly worse for wear box that sits on my shelf, and a rougher set of books that I use for reference (two copies each of volumes 1 and 2, and a single extra copy of 3). The problem is getting the books into formats where I can hand them to players and not have to ask for a deposit on my collectible. Not to mention, being able to play on G+ without requiring everyone to use their own collectibles.

I may get it for the sheer reason that I want more like it and it's best to vote with your dollars, although it hurts a bit with a hundred and fifty of them at once. I didn't need the AD&D hardbacks but I bought them because I wanted more like them, and enough other people did the same that WotC is listening.

For me, the real idea mine of the old school renaissance was not sparked by the retroclones but by the rediscovery of OD&D in the PDFs that were briefly legally available. Finding the original three books and the freedom they offer - a very real sense of playing without a net and without the rather byzantine rules of AD&D - enabled people to rediscover the megadungeon, the hex crawl and the spirit of pre-1979 D&D. I'm still holding out hope that this will be available to large numbers of gamers once again.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Going to Hell

I realize I've hinted for a while at a post about Hell and I apologize for not having it up sooner, but life has gotten in the way as it so oft does; I needed the creative juice to be going into my game for last Friday and not the Hell post, so that took priority. On the plus side, it's time now, so here goes.

The grand works of western literature tell us relatively little about heaven, a prosaic realm filled with fluffy white clouds and angels with harps and beasts with six wings and eyes front and back ... Okay, the biblical heaven's a bit more interesting than the stereotypical presentation gives it. But it is fairly one-note since the weird beasts are constantly singing the Sanctus. Forever. But it's not heaven that gets the love, even in Chick tracts it's the opposite that really stokes the imagination.

My look so far has been at the higher planes – the ones above the earth – and reinterpreting them as planets. One of the critical mis-steps in the transition from OD&D to AD&D was the loss of the very concept that there were higher planes, and by consequence also lower ones. The Nine Hells in AD&D are just one of the set of planes on the Great Wheel, hardly fitting of one of literature's greatest underworlds. Going along with this, AD&D in its reliance on the nine-point alignment system created a division between demons and devils, and even tried to turn an etymological difference into a separate category of daemons. Since this entire series of posts has been centered on a total rejection of AD&D cosmology, it is only fitting that I remove this delineation as well.

So what do we know about Hell in OD&D? When it was first published, the Balrog was just a big monster in the first book of Lord of the Rings. It wasn't until 1977 and The Silmarillion that the actual description of Balrogs as corrupted Maiar (god-like angelic beings) in the service of the fallen Vala, Morgoth, was published. Eldritch Wizardry preceded it with turning the Balrog into the Balor, an "upgraded" version that was accompanied by five other "types" of demon. These later turned into the demons of the 666-layer Abyss. We also know that a character who lost his body while in astral form would be sent gibbering down into the lowest Hell. And that's about it.

The most popular version of Hell is obviously the first portion of La Commedia Divina by Dante Alighieri, "l'Inferno" (the Italian word for Hell). This has been adapted for AD&D not once but multiple times – once by Judges Guild, written by Geoffrey O. Dale, and the other time in Dragon Magazine, in a series of articles written by Ed Greenwood that became the basis for the AD&D Nine Hells, working within Gygax's strict cosmology and replicated in Manual of the Planes and Planescape, using the bowdlerized name "Baator" in the latter. The problem with Dante is that he was more concerned with the sinners and their eternal fate, a concept that is sidestepped in D&D when characters are not generally in an either/or situation between Heaven and Hell. It's a rather crap deal for the evil, whereas the good are just given a pass into a better realm. Where's the fun in that?

Dante's "Inferno" is much more about sinners and sin than about demons. And for our purposes (this series is still an attempt to come up with new and interesting monsters) that's not quite as much fun. Sin monsters are an interesting subcategory but that really only gets you seven good ideas, and ones that have probably been trod before. What I find much more interesting are the 72 demons of the Ars Goetia in the Lesser Key of Solomon, a classical work of demonology. Simply reading the list of demon lords and their "legions of demons" and their special abilities makes it seem less like a Wikipedia page and more like a list out of a supplement somewhere between an RPG and a wargame.

The goetic demons are interesting because they do not only slay; they command legions of demons which are presumably creatures somewhat Balrog-ish in mein. But they also are very seductive, having the ability to bestow specific boons. Returning to our concept from Contact Higher Plane, the demons of the Ars Goetia are often able to answer questions accurately. They also don't take quite the kind of elaborately grotesque forms that have proliferated in fantasy, some weird mix of Giger and Lovecraft that has come to dominate the scene as far as evil goes. To me, the more subtle seduction is a far more refined form of evil - "wrong" but more in a way that makes you feel wrong deep down inside.

For lower demons, one of the more promising is the list of demons described by Alphonse de Spina: Fates, Poltergeists or Goblins, Incubi and Succubi, Marching Hordes, Familiars, Nightmares, Demons formed from Human Semen, Disguised Demons, Demons who Assail the Saintly, and Demons who Instigate Witchcraft. The "marching hordes" are obvious candidates for a whole hierarchy of demonic enemies, while Succubi, Nightmares and Familiars are fairly well covered. Demons from human semen are cambions, who've been treated numerous times in D&D. The most intriguing to me is the goblin or poltergeist; after all, have not perhaps millions of goblins been sword fodder in D&D over the years with little to show for it? A demonic connection rather than the typical humanoid hierarchy would be one angle to change up the stock enemy; instead of just some smelly critters, they are weird semi-demonic things. And poltergeists in a dungeon are just too much fun to pass up; the mere potential for mischief is so great.

For now, that's Hell. The next monster post will be on Monsters of Myth.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Holmes D&D: a Testimonial

I've finally started a new campaign, set in a fantasy Europe after the Roman Empire's fall. And for the system I've found myself using Holmes basic D&D, augmented by the traditional "anything I like." Today being the anniversary of J. Eric Holmes's birth it seems only fitting to discuss the Holmes book and its legacy.

The Holmes booklet was written because the OD&D rules were impenetrable, poorly organized and difficult to learn outside of being taught the game. It condensed the D&D essentials into 48 pages, a feat that is pretty much unrepeated especially when you consider he more or less includes a dungeon module in that page count. (Even the recent simulacrum Blueholme is longer, although it's better organized.)

What's fascinating is the timing of Holmes's D&D. As I've noted before, it arrived in 1977 and described the transitional late OD&D - the game as it was played before AD&D became the dominant player on the scene. In this sense it is much more relevant to "golden age" play than the OD&D LBBs themselves, where the additions such as Greyhawk, Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry were eagerly integrated into most games.

The thing that's really made me fall for Holmes is its open-ended nature. Technically Holmes specifies a setup for races and classes similar to Moldvay's Basic rulebook, where Halflings, Dwarves and Elves are merged down into single classes; but it also implies that there are more possibilities. Aesthetically it's so much easier for me to hack and alter the Holmes game, since race/class are already separate, than to try and do the same with Moldvay and Cook/Marsh Expert.

In the Cook/Marsh Expert rulebook there is advice on integrating Holmes but unfortunately it's all backward. The Expert book should be used for adding the levels above 3 to Holmes, and additional spells, monsters, and magic items, and the wilderness rules that Holmes left out - but that's about the extent of what I think its utility is. Other material can be freely integrated; my current game has a ranger from the Strategic Review.

One of the most unique rules in Holmes basic is about initiative - it is assumed to be determined by Dexterity rather than rolling a d6 for each side. This actually provides a fairly unique order of battle, and allows it to proceed in a straightforward and smooth fashion, without either the uniformity of rolling for "sides" or the tedium of rolling initiative for every participant. It gives a tactical dimension with the potential for monsters to have a higher Dexterity than the PCs, and a bit of differentiation. I've come around to this and find it a refreshing change.

Holmes, for me, is the ideal basis for a "make your own" D&D, constructed from bits and pieces both new and old. As a monster aficionado, there is no limit to the number of sources I'll consult, but beyond that Holmes is such a simple framework that most sources fit into it without much effort. Clones of Holmes such as Blueholme beat it in terms of organization, but for me nothing has quite the same appeal as that simple 48-page booklet.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Submissions for Dungeon Crawl #2

If you're interested in submitting content for Dungeon Crawl #2, I will be taking submissions of the following up through March 8.

  • Articles on game content or processes
  • Adventures
  • Product reviews (max. 800 words)
  • Short fiction
  • Charts and Tables for random determination
  • New "crunch": magic items, spells, monsters, races, classes, rule variants, etc.
  • Art pieces
Longer submissions may involve profit-sharing, short submissions will get free PDFs; this is all subject to negotiation.

Email wrossi81 at gmail dot com if you are interested in submitting anything.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fighting On!

You've probably already read that Fight On! will be wrapping up with issue 14 or 15. It's disappointing because FO! was, to me, the best of the really community projects we had going in the OSR. The megadungeon designed by collaborative addition, the lists of spells and monsters that we'd throw stuff at, the always-excellent charts in the middle of the issue, it felt like something that truly belonged to the OSR as a whole.

Knockspell, which I suppose technically is still alive, has only released 6 issues since 2009; FO! released 13 from 2008-2011 and will wrap with either 1 or 2 in 2013. Loviatar went 14 issues and has finished its run. My own Dungeon Crawl zine only printed 1 issue, but that issue is free online. AFS is running and has gotten to #2. There's a DCC zine called Crawl which I haven't gotten, not being a follower of the DCC game.

I'd like to start exploring the concept of putting out an expanded Dungeon Crawl. After all, I have to put my trap charts somewhere, and FO! isn't going to be able to take it; at this point I want to do them all as one big article. With a baby and a game I'm starting (add Wayne Rossi on G+ if you want in) I don't have time for this to be anything more than a quarterly, and I'd want to do all fulfillment by Lulu (print and PDF). But I need content - I am not an artist and have no talent for it, and I don't write enough stuff to fill more than a few pages a month.

I do have some monsters ready and more concepts from my monster series here that I'll be expanding. I may also write up my lunar sandbox (hinted at here), but I'd need help with the map and the art. And of course the trap charts. I think expanded versions of the planar sketches I've been doing in general would be good article fodder.

My ideal follow-up to FO! would feature a mix of adventures, articles (instructional and expanding on game ideas), crunchy bits (classes, races, monsters, spells, magic items, random charts), comics/fiction, interviews and reviews. I think we'd need a good chunk of content to get this off the ground. I'm also considering whether the name should be different, since "Crawl" is getting out there as a zine.

So, the big question: who else is willing to be a part of this? Comment here or email me - wrossi81 at gmail.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Defining D&D - The Braunstein

I wrote a post back in 2010 called Defining D&D - The Hidden Map Game that expressed the way I understand the dungeon portion of the game. I purposefully wrote that entry up as a part 1 of 2, but life got in the way of actually finishing part 2, and I got permanently derailed because I didn't feel the historical research  on the second part was up to the level I wanted it at. Fortunately, Playing at the World collects an absolutely tremendous amount of the game's history and evolution from wargames to RPGs.

Before I begin, I want to recommend the recent Grognard Games interview with Rob Kuntz. It touches on a lot of the points I'm going to be talking about and Kuntz is really quite insightful about the game. His play and approach are also helpfully different from those of Mike Mornard, who's been a very good evangelist for Gygax-style D&D in the last few years.

The hidden map game alone is not what makes D&D an RPG. You could very easily have a game with a hidden map exploration that doesn't take on actual RPG tendencies, like Dungeon! or HeroQuest. It requires something extra, that creates the game as a wide-open imaginative exercise. This was present at the very start, and I think in a very real way explains the staying power of D&D as a game.

Dave Arneson had participated in David Wesely's Braunstein games, and indeed was an audacious participant. The original Blackmoor was a fantasy Braunstein, and there is an obvious connection even in the games' names. But what was the black magic that Arneson had hit upon?

Braunstein brought to the wargame the idea that, given certain victory conditions and the scenario's parameters, anything was possible. It was a blank canvas that the players took to with gusto, using all their cunning to find ways to achieve their given goals by thinking outside the standard set of options available in a wargame. It was a success, but it wasn't a given that it would propagate into something further, because after all the wargames were one-off affairs.

It was Blackmoor, the fantasy Braunstein, that took this a radical step forward by adding in the campaign to the mix. This created something wholly new, although not entirely instantly. The earliest games were adversarial, giving rise to such characters as the vampire Sir Fang (who was countered by the addition of the priest, later renamed the cleric). Over time the focus shifted to the dungeon, where the fantasy Braunstein campaign intersected with the hidden-map game.

The exploratory game was completed by Gygax, who added on the brilliant idea of giving experience for gold pieces earned. This fits in with the Braunstein concept of creating a game that is open within certain victory conditions - and in Greyhawk the players responded well. This goal was overridden by later editions, which changed it from an exploration game to a monster-slaying game, and further mutated with later editions when combat "moves" were tightly pre-defined and the game became fully "closed" in Rob Kuntz's terminology.

As players got tired of the dungeon, a wilderness game was also added, which continued the exploratory theme, and climaxed in the endgame when the player characters became lords of their own domains and attracted followers, had incomes and so on. This continued the fantasy Braunstein out of the confines of the dungeon into a wider world. For me, this is the essence of Dungeons & Dragons: a fantasy Braunstein that is played through a hidden-map game in the dungeon and a hex-exploration game in the wilderness, where advancement is driven through the acquisition of treasure, with the end goal of becoming Lord of your own cleared domain area. Getting back to that is a major step in the right direction, and it's one that the old school has slowly but surely been making.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Planes as Planets: The Higher You Go, the Weirder it Gets

As the planets get further removed from earth, they are less and less familiar. The moon, Mars and Venus (which I've yet to detail) are wholly alien worlds but seem to run (more or less) according to rules we understand. The further planets are more inherently alien, possessed of greater magics and undreamed-of wonders. The science fantasy of the near planets instead goes into the extreme high fantasy of the far planets; after all, these are worlds full of beings that have great knowledge but are prone to drive you mad by contact.

Jupiter is a gas giant in our reality, and I think it works as an analogue in the farthest planes. The Titans of Jupiter are massive beings relative to humans, and have advanced magic to the point where they live in floating cities among the clouds. Their faces are long, with perfectly oval eyes without pupils, and they have only slight noses; their preferred garments look superficially like robes but contain intricate patterns that go down to the very fabrics that they are made of. Despite the fact that this planet's shifting winds would seem to be a manifestation of Chaos, it is actually the opposite; the super-storms have settled into a single massive system of hierarchical bands, with the Great Red Spot as the ultimate ordered storm, effectively permanent. The floating cities are massive and permanent, and run in fixed schedules that interact with the bands of storm that they are fixed above. The Titans travel to and fro on sky-ships using massive, six-winged creatures that are to dragons as the Titans themselves are to humans.

By the time we reach the Titans, human alignment - good and evil - has been transcended. The inhabitants are not yet gods, but relative to humans in terms of power they are very nearly demigods. Scant few human affairs are important on the massive cosmic scale of the Titans, yet their intricate plans occasionally cross the earthly planet. When they do, it is often in unusual ways, through powerful artifacts or uncanny magic - the kind of things where the meaning is in long and arcane plots that the human mind can't even fathom. The Titans, like God-Emperor Leto II in Dune, think in the truly long-term, the infinite, and as such their perspective and goals are often subtle in ways that we can't really fathom.

Even beyond Jupiter, there is Yuggoth. The Mi-Go are the planet's most infamous denizens, but they are not meant to be its first. As such, it seems to me that the things found on Yuggoth in a medieval fantasy world might be the ones alluded to here:

Yuggoth... is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system... There are mighty cities on Yuggoth—great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone... The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples... The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges—things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids—ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen... - "The Whisperer in Darkness" by H.P. Lovecraft
The "elder race" is, perhaps, the one that in our time period for D&D was inhabiting the distant planet, before the later arrival of the better known fungi. It seems odd, after all, to assume that the Cthulhu Mythos are trapped in time forever as they were in the stories of the 1920s and 30s. As excellent as Realms of Crawling Chaos is, I think we need to be able to imagine some new Cthulhuoid entities that control the world.

What I'm thinking in this all-but-lightless world is of two main species. One is an entirely immobile but highly intelligent and powerful psionic crystalline entities, which enslaved a species of 2-story tall cyclopean beings with 6 tentacular arms, each ending in razor-sharp hooks or pincers of various types that are meant to be utilitarian in their construction works. There are also centipedal worker drones that haul massive blocks and dig the tunnels under the planet's surface. These are accompanied by various lesser-known members of the Great Old Ones, again not quite deities but nearly equivalent for human purposes.

Obviously, Yuggoth is a Chaotic planet - it is so far beyond human morality that our plans are irrelevant, but the ends of the Mythos deities are to reduce the universe to its ultimate chaotic state. The crystalline entities know that their slaves will eventually revolt and shatter them, and then their consciousnesses will lie dormant in thousands of pieces for millennia until the stars are right and they are re-formed to complete the rituals that they have been laying the ground for.

This is my vision for Law and Chaos; it is the truly LONG game, and the higher planets are fully engaged in that fight. They are not yet the god-realms, nor their opposite; we will be getting there next. When we go to Hell.

(As an aside, if anyone wants to draw a picture of 6-winged dragons or floating cities above the clouds of Jupiter, or of crystalline monoliths and 8-limbed servitors in Yuggoth, this entry certainly could use the artwork.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

On the Planes as Planets

In my last post I started a thread that I think interests me most in the higher planes: exploring their use as literal planets, and bringing out the idea of using the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 as a basis for lunar adventure - which, the more I think about it, the more I want to write as a module. But the lunar bat-men (referred to in the hoax as vespertiliones-homines, to use the Latin plural) are explicitly peaceful surface dwellers, which leads me to H.G. Wells's classic The First Men on the Moon, which helpfully has a race of more hostile insectoid men called "Selenites," who live in a complex underground civilization and tend giant mooncalves. So there is your conflict: there are peaceful bat-men and terrifying insect-men, and it even lets us have a dungeon under the lunar surface.

I imagine a module for this will be done before the bestiary, since I have less than a dozen monsters actually complete and need several hundred, while the module's requirements are much slighter. This also fits perfectly into my concept of the module as an adventure that can be fitted easily into an existing tentpole dungeon or sandbox, as Matthew Finch did in Demonspore.

The rest of the planes in my vision are similarly planetary, becoming more rarefied and "pure" in their approach to law and chaos as they go, eventually reaching the godly realms outside of the celestial spheres themselves. I see Yuggoth as being one of those planets, leaning heavily towards chaos, and Jupiter and its moons being the much more Lawful versions.

All this brings me to a subject that is near and dear to many gamers, and by happy coincidence several of the key works are in the public domain: Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom. The original D&D booklets made direct reference to creatures of ERB's Mars, and TSR briefly published a game (now noted for its rarity) called Warriors of Mars. To say it is ripe for gaming is practically a truism; Barsoom was reached from within Castle Greyhawk itself, giving it the key D&D imprimatur.

White apes, green martians, banths, calots, thoats - these seem like they should be as basic to D&D as the goblins, orcs and so on of Tolkien's world, and red Martians as familiar as elves. They give it a much more "alien" feel that I think many DMs are looking for, and are at the same time instantly recognizable for most gamers. I know there is a need to be careful around the IP waters, but I can't help think that the bestiary would be much richer if it included creatures from the public domain Mars novels.

Barsoom is also a great setting for the Law/Chaos dynamic; when John Carter encounters it, it has clearly gone toward Chaos, with great civilizations having decayed into war and barbarism without end. The efforts of Dejah Thoris and John Carter to restore that civilization is an effort to bring back the cosmic balance that has been upset in the world.

Next entry (either tomorrow or Sunday): Jupiter and Yuggoth. After that - Hell.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Higher and Lower Planes of Existence

The original D&D game had a spell called Contact Other Plane, which enabled a high-level Magic-User to contact a "higher plane" and ask a number of questions of a creature there. The planes were numbered 3 through 12, and as the plane number goes higher there are four variables: the higher number of questions, the greater chance of the contacted being knowing the answer, the lower the chance of its lying, and the higher chance of the Magic-User going insane for a number of weeks equal to the level of the plane that was contacted.

While this may seem like an utterly vanilla cosmology, in fact it suggests a view less like the "Great Wheel" and more like the medieval view of the system of celestial spheres. In religion before the modern epoch, other planes were supposed to be physically located on other planets. The astral plane, which first comes into D&D through the Astral Spell in Greyhawk, is literally the star-filled void between these spheres. If we begin numbering planes at 1 for earth, the pictured diagram of celestial spheres indeed brings us out to a 12th sphere - so that the ones Magic-Users do not contact are the Earth and the Moon. This view of the world ultimately stems from Aristotle in De Cælo, or On the Heavens.

The astral plane, then, is a place where the heavens and earth meet - open to be home to beings of pure energy, which manifest themselves in various forms when they visit the earthly realm. Weird and fluid creatures, some good, some ill; some being the remnants of humans unable to leave for another realm, others being inhabitants of the astral plane, incomprehensible and possibly Lovecraftian beings. I'm thinking for this, rather than a catalog, a system may be needed: something like Jim Raggi's Random Esoteric Creature Generator, but more focused. This is one of the things I'll also get into with alignment, since I think Chaos needs much better avatars than the Slaadi.

I'll have more to say about the numbered planes in the future, but what is memorable about them is their directionality. Since the highest plane contains the most truthful entities, but also the greatest chance of temporary insanity, it makes sense that each plane should be further removed from the mundane reality, stranger and more surreal. But as the astronomical chart above shows, there is a plane "2" that is missing from both our world and Contact Higher Plane: the Moon.

Which brings me to a gem that I found while researching this post, specifically the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. It's a story of a mythical telescope which revealed the kind of civilization that Victorian people expected to find on the Moon, and it didn't disappoint. The centerpiece were the "vespertillo-homo," lunar people, who were short, about 4' tall, furry, and possessed of bat-like wings. They had taller, whiter cousins and lived in relative harmony with the other species. This is a moon covered with crystals, flowers and volcanoes, where there is a great temple of sapphire made to look as if it is on fire; there are buffalo-like creatures, blue goats with one horn, and even tail-less beavers that walk on two legs and live in huts. Tell me that isn't a place that is just aching for weird encounters! A portal, a "moon pool"? Who cares, it's practically made for adventure.  So yes, you can anticipate a full complement of authentic lunar creatures in the bestiary. Maybe even an adventure.

Astral Spell has one further tantalizing possibility, which also ties in with our directionality. A character whose body dies while in astral form will find themselves in "the lowest hell." And yes, we will be going there.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Posting regularly

I've been posting just about every day since I announced that I was coming back to blogging. After today's post, which I had some extra time to compose, I am probably going to cut back to 3-4 posts per week at most. This is a lot faster than my rate of posting ever was in the past runs when I've updated semi-regularly - but slower than it has been the last few days. I need time to work on my dungeon and do other things in between posts, and I want to make sure things are up to a good standard of quality. My goal is that 3 posts / week is about the minimum.

Just to keep folks informed.

The Otherworldly and High Levels

When discussing the "Otherworldly" category of Sham's list from Monsters & Treasure, I noted that one of the monsters was missing from the list because of the printing he was using. Specifically, the balrog. Unlike the nazgul (spectres), ents (treants) and hobbits (halflings) the balrog was removed entirely from the game until it was brought back as the Type VI Demon in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry. On the OD&D '74 boards I brought up a discussion of the balrog as having been the obvious "big bad" in the original D&D set.

This reflected a simple truth about the early years of D&D: the players in those pioneering campaigns tended to top out around levels 10-12, levels at which a balrog was a perfectly fine adversary. Dragons are tough but not unbeatable, and characters are as likely to meet those huge numbers of humanoids listed in M&T (like 30-300 orcs) as they were to fight a big bad, and they probably were running domains instead of just adventuring into further and bigger dungeons. In part this is a question of the endgame that is talked about, but in part it's the style of play expected in the early D&D game.

It's clear that creating levels going up to 20 or so in Greyhawk influenced players to actually go up to those levels, and TSR responded by creating more and tougher enemies, particularly in Eldritch Wizardry. The balrog comes back with a transparently similar name, and a lot of buddies - the familiar Type I through V, plus the unique demon lords Orcus and Demogorgon.

The balrog was unique in several ways. It introduced magic resistance to the game, with the irony that their removal actually creates the false impression that OD&D wasn't supposed to have this mechanic. This is one of the mechanics, particularly through its implementation in Eldritch Wizardry and AD&D, that was supposed to work around the idea of what is today called "caster supremacy." Demons and otherworldly horrors should be fundamentally different, and not allow characters to simply use spells to do away with them. EW also made them have different hit die sizes, which works well for the extreme enemies.

Demons are a solid focus for the high levels, and they introduce a particular element to the game that had been neglected, namely beings from other planes. Contact Higher Plane existed in Men & Magic, and Greyhawk had Commune, Gate, and Astral Spell, but neither hide nor hair of anything that existed on any of the planes it referenced, except for a parenthetical statement that Gate could summon "Odin, Crom, Set, Cthulhu, the Shining One, a demi-god, or whatever."

I think the "higher planes" in OD&D are ripe with adventuring potential; the simple fact that you had to roll against insanity simply for contacting them made them special. The implementations of the planes in a literal-minded extension of alignment in the AD&D Player's Handbook was a waste of this tremendous potential. My next couple of posts are going to delve into planar potential a bit and discuss the possibilities for creating new monsters.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Expanding the Clean-Up Crew

(I'm still thinking through the standard monster format I want to pursue - I have to figure out some things.)

The monster categories I looked at in the last post (again, hat tip to Dave aka Sham), included the "clean-up crew": the things that exist in the dungeon and act as non-sentient hazards. These further split between the ochre jelly, black pudding and gray ooze - which are things reminiscent of the Blob from the movie of the same name - and the green slime and yellow mold, which are non-mobile but provoke immediate reactions from experienced dungeon delvers.

In the Monster Manual, as commenter Paride Papadia noted, a type of monster based on the dungeon environment comes up - the lurker above, mimic, trapper, piercer, roper and rot grub. All of these are added in the MM. Three others came earlier, in Supplement I: Greyhawk, the carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, and giant slug. I see the latter three as extending the "cleanup crew," particularly with the gelatinous cube being similar to the blob types. The carrion crawler explicitly competes with the others, while the gelatinous cube picks up much of the non-organic junk in a dungeon, making it a rich source of treasure.

It seems to me that there is a plethora of blob- and worm-type monsters, but relatively few extensions of the oddballs: the green slime and yellow mold types, which are more "pure hazards" than even unintelligent scavengers. One of the concepts I have for a monster expansion is to take this and align it against each of the "core" classes specifically; that is, dungeon hazards which make life difficult for separate classes.

The first of these is something I am calling dweomer moss. This is a moss which is normally quite harmless to humans and human-like creatures, but whose spores stick to the flesh and clothing of those who touch it or are in a 10' radius around it when it is touched. The spores, if not thoroughly cleansed, react violently when magic-user spells are cast, and cause damage and/or disrupt or change spells, sometimes quite spectacularly.

There will be similar things to make problems for other classes, including clerics, fighters and thieves. I'd love to hear how other folks are expanding the clean-up crew and other threats of life in the dungeon.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Of Monsters & Manuals

In my last post, I mentioned a new bestiary as a project that I think needs to be a part of what the OSR is doing. It easily cuts across any of the divisions between the various original editions and retro-clones, and removes some of the fatigue that exists with so many of the old monsters. You have to figure that literally millions of goblins and orcs and so forth have met their ends in dungeons and the wilderness around them - and taken the lives of would-be PCs almost without number down with them. So it gets a bit stale to consider populating yet another dungeon with the same monsters that we find in the Monsters & Treasure bestiary.

In 2008, Sham's Grog 'n Blog featured a series called "D&D Cover to Cover" that gave a thorough reading of the 1974 Dungeons & Dragons rules. In it, he covered the original Monsters & Treasure volume, beginning with this post. In it, he broke down the monsters into the following categories.
The Monster Categories:
Bad Guys: Men, Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, Ogres, Trolls, Giants.
Dead Guys: Skeletons, Zombies, Ghouls, Wights, Wraiths, Mummies, Spectres, Vampires.
Save or Stoned Guys: Cockatrices, Basilisks, Medusae, Gorgons.
Monsters of Myth: Manticoras, Hydras, Chimeras, Wyverns, Dragons, Gargoyles, Lycanthropes, Purple Worms, Sea Monsters, Minotaurs.
Fairy Tale Miscellany: Centaurs, Unicorns, Nixies, Pixies, Dryads, Gnomes, Dwarves, Elves, Treants, Pegasi, Hippogriffs, Rocs, Griffons.
The Otherworldly: Invisible Stalkers, Elementals, Djinn, Efreet.
Icky-Stuff: Ochre Jelly, Black Pudding, Green Slime, Gray Ooze, Yellow Mold.
Monsters Mundane: Horses, Mules, Small Insects and Animals, Large Insects and Animals.
I think this is a good look at the basic categories that a monster book should cover. "Bad Guys" is our classic list of meat and potatoes enemies, which looking at bestiaries published since is one of the harder ones to expand upon - consider that all we've seen added to that list of humanoids that has stood the test of time is the bugbear, and some oddball ones like the lizardman. It's a challenge to come up with something for this that isn't just a re-skinned version of what's already there. "Dead Guys" is a little bit more expansive, but these still represent the main mechanics of undead: the level drain, aging, mummy rot and so on.

As Sham pointed out way back in the day, "Save or Stoned" is really a part of Monsters of Myth. And the bestiary for OSRIC of that name does include more, but this category really switched to being a wide array of ugly things and not a focused monster grouping. It's also telling because Sham's copy of M&T was from the 6th printing and missed the balrog, whose blatant copy spiritual descendant the balor wound up more in the "otherworldly" category he creates. This catch-all "argh monster" category is perhaps the easiest to expand.

The fairy tale monsters are a class that is easy to overlook as monsters. One of my ideas for the dungeon level I've been working on lately includes a rather unique use of gnomes, since I think "non-evil" opponents are under-utilized. I would really like to see some scenarios out there that take advantage of fairy tale creatures which are "different" rather than evil per se.

I would say that "The Otherworldly" has been one of the most expansive historically; by Monster Manual II there was a significant catalog of demons, devils, angels, and other creatures from the various planes. It's a rich field and often interwoven with mythology. This sort of monster is evidently the focus, for instance, of the Teratic Tome that I've been made aware of recently by G+, and is a broadly popular opponent for later stages of the game. I like them but I'm not sure that it's ripe for new exploration.

The "Icky Stuff," which Sham later recognizes as being labeled the "Clean-Up Crew" (see this post), is another that gets little love. The gelatinous cube got added, but really very little since then; yet this is a rich area that can really make a dungeon dangerous beyond the plain old monsters, and create a very full array of "don't touch" sort of things. One inspired addition is the tunnel prawn, which was featured in Monsters of Myth, and provides a simple and fairly obvious source of nutrition for many of a dungeon's denizens.

Finally the mundane monsters are, on the whole, fairly well used - but they don't really need detailing in a new volume. I would be sorely disappointed if all I got in a book was new rules for giant rats and so forth, rather than the "real" monsters I was looking for. Although, as this RPGnet thread showed, the average housecat in D&D became a stealthy kitty ninja of death lurking for first-level PCs. (Or rather, that's what you get when you try statting out everything in existence.)

So for me, a solid new monster tome would try to add a few new entries to the "Bad Guys" without too much duplication. But the focus would be on the Monstrous, the Fairy Tale, the Otherworldly and the Cleanup Crew - possibly even featuring a division into those parts instead of the Monster Manual style of simple alphabetical listing. It always seems to me that just listing things alphabetically is a way to make sure that some inspired bits get missed because you're skimming past the letter "k" or some such.

Next post, I'll talk a bit about creating an "inclusive" format for a bestiary.

Friday, February 1, 2013

We've had the Renaissance - What Now?

It was already two and a half years ago that Jim Raggi proclaimed that the OSR is better than TSR. Now Joseph Bloch is announcing OSR Phase II, claiming again that the OSR has come into its own. I think the question deserves some discussion.

I think that Joseph is right that the first phase is past. We've already had the rebirth of old school gaming. I think that this came through the retro-clones and the virtual rediscovery of OD&D and the exploration of old school play beyond the standard AD&D tournament dungeons. This brought methods of gaming and ideas for how rules should be structured back from the realm of the die-hard grognards (which I joined for a while back in high school). So I don't see the "renaissance" term as being really appropriate at this point. We are at a point of old school gaming, and as always the play is the thing. Hence the subtitle change on this blog.

Of course the OSR will continue to be a logo and so forth, just like Tactical Studies Rules was not a tactical wargame company but TSR continued as a brand for decades. But we're at a period where these things are relevant beyond our little circles, where Gary Gygax's sons are lending their names to a print magazine and the best seller on RPGNow is the Moldvay Basic D&D rulebook, and the next version of D&D has to pay attention to old school mentality and try to win players of that style back. Old school gaming is a thing in the RPG scene. Hardly the only thing, but we've carved out something and that's valuable.

For me, that means that the epoch of the retro-clone is over. It's no longer enough to restate the rules of any version of D&D or any other older RPG, or really to put out derivative dungeons that are like the tournaments of old. We have those now - in PDF, cheap, not just for collectors like me who don't mind paying more for a 30 year old adventure than I would for a brand new one. (Not that PDF ever stopped a good collection before.) Clones are more ambitious, but like Adventurer Conqueror King they retain the bad habit of restating the whole rulebook to change a handful of things. I think that's something we need to overcome.

In terms of product support things have been up and down. Settings are relatively a weak point, although the truth has always been that most gamers make their own settings, so this is understandable. I think there's more space for cities and villages, and for "city kits" like Vornheim, than for settings proper. I don't think there is too much room for more settings unless they are aiming for uniqueness like the Red Tide setting. (Isle of the Unknown is an exception; I consider it more of a collection of encounters than a setting as such.) I've already gone over megadungeons which I think tells most of what I'm interested in at this point in terms of adventure modules.

What I think we're really missing is the monster books. There were two relatively early products that were successful monster books, Monsters of Myth and Malevolent & Benign. Since then where are the volumes of new creatures? The Swords & Wizardry monster book had a few good offerings but it's been pretty dry territory. I think this is a shame, as there is a pressing need for more quality monsters, especially unique creatures over generic humanoids - even though we could really use some novel ones of those. How many kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears, and gnolls have met their ends at the hands of adventurers?

That's a project I want to find people willing to collaborate on. I think if we do it right, there could be another really excellent book of monsters, and I want to elaborate a bit more on that in my next post. If a monster book gets off the ground, I would really like to follow up with a project like Petty Gods that would actually get off the ground. But one thing at a time. Next: monster book.