Thursday, May 30, 2013

Vancian Wizards and Creating Life

Preface part 1: Resquiescat in pacem Jack Vance. A grand master has passed.

Preface part 2: Sorry I haven't updated regularly this week. Life's been hectic, work's been busy, it's a short week, and my kid is sick. May has been a really successful month for this blog and I appreciate the people who've been reading and giving feedback on the articles here.

So this post is occasioned by the passing of Jack Vance, one of the true grand masters of science fiction and fantasy. Despite the title, it has nothing at all to do with the subject of wizards memorizing spells. It's about what those wizards actually aspire to, and in a few cases, succeed at.

The first time I read The Dying Earth it was in the paperback pictured to the right. I remember very vividly the story "Turjan of Miir" and Turjan's vain attempts to create intelligent living creatures in his vats. This kind of drive is alluded to in some of D&D's stranger moments, such as the idea that an owlbear was created by some long-ago wizard, but on the whole there isn't much present for magic-users actually creating monsters.

Of course, Turjan promptly turns to creating women, but he isn't as odd of a wizard as is Pandelume. (Pandelume's concept of equal exchange is a good basis for NPC magic users, as a side note.) I can't help but think that wizards who create odd creatures in nutrient vats are more interesting, perhaps ones resembling Turjan's earlier attempts:
It was a thing to arouse pity—a great head on a small spindly body, with weak rheumy eyes and a flabby button of a nose. The mouth hung slackly wet, the skin glistened waxy pink. In spite of its manifest imperfection, it was to date the most successful product of Turjan's vats.


He considered its many precursors: the thing all eyes, the boneless creature with the pulsing surface of its brain exposed, the beautiful female body whose intestines trailed out into the nutrient solution like seeking fibrils, the inverted inside-out creatures ...
In terms of how to interpret this, I tend to think that a set of rules for magic-users to learn life-crafting as a separate art would be in order. Creating creatures of given hit dice, size, and special abilities would take more time, more resources and a higher character level. This is analogous to the rules in OD&D about creating magic items, but obviously could use firmer description.

One factor that I hadn't thought of much until I went to the original story to check the pull quotes was that Turjan's specimens were basically human. The one at the start of the story is more human than I had thought of it; the details more of an imperfect man. I think that this could really be expanded - the specific designs dreamed up by the individual wizard, more monstrous, some perhaps doing the unlikely and combining something like say an owl and a bear, or a man, a bear and a pig.

But to get the feel right, I think this needs to have a set of rules for deformities and accidents due to imperfections in the design or in the solution that the creation grows from. My personal penchant is for a big chart, which would double as a set of monster variations in a pinch.

Indeed, the whole thing would be simultaneously a set of rules for designing your own creation in-play - if PCs want to play Dr. Frankenstein or Turjan of Miir - and for coming up with the kind of monster where "a wizard did it" is the only logical answer.

And with that I've figured out the monster feature for Dungeon Crawl #3.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Jury-rigging it

In adding science fantasy elements to a setting, we are leaving open the possibility that PCs will find high-tech items. I've mentioned previously that these in general should not be reproducible, so that the society doesn't wind up migrating from fantasy to science fiction entirely. But there are other possibilities, particularly because technological artifacts will by nature be prone to breaking, and weapons will run out of ammunition, and all of them will run out of power eventually.

So how do PCs find out if they can jury-rig a solution? I'm thinking that this is a good place for some Judges Guild style tables, akin to some of the things from City State / Ready Ref Sheets, giving a series of cascading chances to scrounge spare parts from other artifacts, rig up a solution, and of course what happens when it works or doesn't.

When the PCs run out of juice on the ray gun and the personal shield is malfunctioning - I'm thinking that the rules should allow them to sacrifice one artifact to salvage another with some reasonable chance. Or perhaps they go looking and find an inoperative beam rifle from a different period and manage to mix and match a few parts and get it to work - if nothing else, it's cool if it works at least once for a big boom before it is totally useless.

The chances of malfunction should always be present, barring a major success; if you have two identical pistols and replace one's firing mechanism with the other's, that will work reliably. But for the most part there needs to be some chance of backfiring, fizzling, or exploding, perferably in the most entertaining way possible.

Extending this idea, I'm thinking that a chart of different high tech weapons and defenses, combined with a set of rules for jury-rigging fixes, perhaps that can also double for what happens if they use malfunctioning equipment. Any special requests or ideas for this? It'll be for Dungeon Crawl #3.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Some further Dune concepts

I've been thinking more about the technology and ideas in Dune, and how they might apply to old school D&D and other games. I've already gone a bit on the Spice, but there are other concepts that I think could really play an interesting part in the game. Some of these draw on the later novels, which I think are much less widely known.

In the last three volumes of the original books (and that's all that counts), Herbert spends a lot of time dealing with the ramifications of the prescience that he has given Paul and Leto II. This is useful in fantasy games because similar problems occur with spells like ESP, Clairaudience/Clairvoyance and ultimately Teleport making secret hiding places less useful and ultimately impossible.

One of Herbert's key technologies here is the no-chamber, a room that is impervious to precognition. This is the only way that things can be hidden from people with limitless precognition, and their development is what ends the reign of God-Emperor Leto II. A no-chamber in a dungeon or in an enemy's lair would provide protection from the concept of just being able to magically find your enemies, teleport in, and kill them, particularly if it was immune to all magic acting at a distance. Of course not every villain can have a no-chamber but it makes for a good and interesting reason why PCs can't use that kind of tactics.

Then there are the Bene Tleilax - a very useful type of people. The axolotl tanks are revealed to be monstrous female Tleilaxu in the later books, and they produce gholas, perfect clones of a dead person who can recover their original memories at a certain point in their life. The Tleilaxu Face Dancers are also a great adversary to swap out for the AD&D Doppelgangers. A dungeon or megadungeon level where the Bene Tleilax have set up shop might be a fascinating and weird adversary's location.

And of course there are the Bene Gesserit, women with tremendous mental capabilities and female-line ancestral memories as well as hand-to-hand combat (the weirding way). Just the ability of a character to use the Voice would be a tremendous ability, perhaps allowing a save versus spells. I think a Bene Gesserit PC would have to start out pre-Spice Agony if someone went that way, perhaps at higher levels getting access to the really amazing powers.

Just some ideas for mashing up some classic science fiction into your fantasy games; Dune has a lot of great things for people who want a wheels-within-wheels plot.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Magic, Drugs and Breaking Commandments

In my last post I touched briefly upon the Spice, Melange, from Frank Herbert's Dune. Anyone who knows the Dune universe should know that the Spice is addictive, to the point where not using it means death. It has me thinking about the myopic late-era TSR Commandments, specifically this one:

Narcotic and alcohol abuse shall not be presented, except as dangerous habits. Such abuse should be dealt with by focusing on the harmful aspects.
This forecloses on the ability to make really awesome, but addictive, magical substances. And so, like many of these rules, I think it should be defenestrated.

Both Dune and Dungeons & Dragons came about in an era when people still thought of drugs as mind-expanding. Of course this crashed and burned in real life - but since when does fantasy have to follow reality? If drugs are really gateways into alternate worlds or ways of seeing reality, why not depict them in both positive and negative aspects?

One thought is that the fantasy world may have powerful hallucinogens that, rather than simply showing delusions to the viewer, actually reveal elements of the truth. Magic mushrooms or psychoactive substances like peyote may, in addition to rollicking hallucinations, impart upon the user the ability to detect magic or detect invisibility as per those spells. Deep in a trance, a character may be able to use spells such as ESP, clairvoyance, or clairaudience. Of course, side effects and addiction should both be likely.

Another drug might empower magic use further, allowing the user to cast spells as if they were a certain number of levels higher - for instance, a 5th level Magic-User casting an 8-dice fireball. Such impact might follow the typical "de-escalation" pattern of a mundane "high," where achieving the same result requires more of the drug. There could also be the danger of burnout, with the user needing it just to cast spells that have been over-optimized.

I might do some of these as magic items in the next Dungeon Crawl. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

OD&D Setting Mashup

Blog of Holding, home of the excellent D&D with Michael Mornard posts, just released a mashup of the OD&D setting I detailed in this blog with an idea from Jeff Grubb about a world overrun with evil where most humans have taken to flying ships. This has shades of Burroughs to it, so I most heartily approve. Check it out.

One setting I've been thinking a bit about is Dune. There's a documentary coming out this year about the attempt by surrealist cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky to make a Dune movie basically as a sci-fi acid trip with lots of symbolism, but he assembled massive amounts of talent to get it made. Of course that blew the entire budget and some of the people he'd brought together went on to make Alien, while David Lynch more or less failed at making a Dune movie. The world and its aesthetic always appealed to me, though only really Dark Sun among D&D settings ever scratched a vaguely similar itch. It would be an interesting exercise to stat out melange (the Spice), sandworms, and Fremen for D&D; from later volumes, no-rooms would be tremendously valuable, as would people immune to prescience.Not too hard if we assume a bigger desert in a D&D planet.

Science fantasy seems to be a natural fit for old school Dungeons & Dragons. We've had touches of it for a long time: Barsoom in OD&D, Temple of the Frog in Blackmoor, Tékumel, Jim Ward's Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Arduin, S3 The Expedition to Barrier Peaks - the list is not short. Holmes mentioned his Dreenoi PC and this is just a taste of the possibilities. I think that this was a phase as much in fantasy as anything else; as worldbuilding rather than imagination became the word of the day, flagrant discontinuities such as lasers or force shields in a fantasy game had to go away. (Though there's magic in some popular sci-fi, Star Wars being fantasy in most regards.)

This is something I've touched on before and will again. But really check out the mashup idea from Blog of Holding, I think it's onto something there.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Holmes on Options

On the OD&D community for BLUEHOLME (an excellent simulacrum available free here) I came across this article, a review by J. Eric Holmes of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons boxed set edited by Tom Moldvay. It's mostly positive, but Holmes says this:
Character classes: Player characters are restricted to being a Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic-User, Elf, Halfling or Dwarf. This probably covers the roles most beginning players want to try, but I am personally sorry to see the range of possibilities so restricted. The original rules (the three little brown books) specifically stated that a player could be a dragon if he wanted to be, and if he started at first level. ... I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime.
Holmes's own rulebook lived up to that in a minor way, where he talked about other AD&D classes such as witches, illusionists, paladins and assassins. I also like where he mentions "a lawful Werebear" - seeing as werecreatures were part of the early D&D scene.

But at the same time, the more proliferation you have of varied classes, the more you run the danger of getting bogged down in the details. I think the challenge with taking OD&D and Holmes Basic is to add variety to the game without crowding things with rules; even the supplement classes have a bit of bloat on them relative to the pure simplicity of the basic three of fighting-man, magic-user and cleric. The dragon and the Dreenoi give examples, as does the Werebear - these do not need new classes with convoluted mechanics to represent them. The key, I think, is in OD&D's exhortation to start small and work up.

The werebear, for instance, is immune to non-silver weapons, has HD 6 / AC 2 / Damage 3d6. Maybe a PC werebear is only able to transform once a day for limited time at low level, and the numbers start low and advance with level - until at 6th level, they're equal to what is listed. Further growth continues along similar lines.

Not that this is all hypothetical - I have issues of Alarums & Excursions with similar tables for various creatures. But I think it's a lost art, one of many that we have lost over the years, in favor of an approach of building out too many classes. I might write up rules for playing a werebear in the next issue of Dungeon Crawl as an example, and I'd be interested to know what folks have been doing in this regard if they're playing OD&D, Holmes or some other old-school game or clone.

As an aside - Holmes is either wrong or the essay is mildly revisionist. The original rules mention playing a balrog, not a dragon. This was excised in the sixth printing ("Original Collector's Edition") which is also the basis for the PDFs that were (however briefly) made available a few years back.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Once More Unto that Vast Stony Hell

I ran Stonehell again last night. It went well: the PCs hired two clerics in the keep to investigate the Quiet Halls, and they actually turned the Bone Thing which had some of the best treasure thus far. They both failed to turn skeletons, who killed one of the clerics (he was laid to rest properly on one of the biers) and a crypt thing was fought off successfully, though it involved a burning door and some smoke inhalation.

After that, there was some adventurous touching of teleport glyphs, which led them ultimately to the third level and the obelisks that bring fresh air into the dungeon. They were close enough to get up to the stairs, which led (through two hobgoblins) to a part of level one they hadn't seen before. There was a fight with kobold slavers, which killed the other cleric but won the freedom of the slaves, two of whom became new henchmen-types.

Some thoughts:
  1. There haven't been PC fatalities in a while. This is for two reasons: they keep making saving throws, and they haven't been outnumbered in a fight since the first session.
  2. Swords & Wizardry has an omission from the OD&D rules that I consider pretty serious: magic-users don't have the ability to make scrolls. I've found in running OD&D and Holmes that this really makes M-Us much more useful at low levels, where scrolls are basically bonus spells in return for time and money.
  3. I've found that giving +1 to damage for a natural 20 keeps the "critical" hit exciting without overdoing things and making the game too swingy. At higher levels I may increase it but for low levels I'm really liking this as a simple method.
  4. The treasure the PCs found was really quite excellent and re-affirmed my feelings on 1GP=1XP. It rewards exploration much more than fighting.
  5. I liked how the PCs shifted tack on Stonehell's kobolds once they found the slave market. The whole adventure really reinforced how well Stonehell is actually built as a dungeon, between wondrous things and great monster factionalism.
  6. I'm so used to thief skills at level 1 sucking that I was surprised when the party thief actually found a trap on a treasure chest.
  7. I've come to hate making up names on the fly. So I've resorted to naming NPCs with interesting names from the backers list in Swords & Wizardry Complete. RIP Kimmo and Diogo. Hopefully Thaldon and Bracton have better luck. Seriously, any good naming lists out there?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Integrity, the Living Dungeon and Module Design

Ha! How's that for a title? The kind that beats a mild case of writer's block.

So let's start with this post by Mike Mornard on RPGNet, and a follow-up here that clarifies what exactly he's talking about. This is what I'm calling integrity: the concept that the fictional world in the game exists independently of the characters who are going to adventure in it. This is important, because various types of fudging and "modernist" rules can violate this integrity. It's also crucial for game design, because once you embrace world integrity the idea that, frex, things should follow a CR system go out the window. There were trolls on level 1 of Castle Greyhawk. They were there whether you were 1st level or 12th level, because they were there in the fictional world. So there's that.

So that's a picture of Gary Gygax, with his dungeon binder open. It's a tremendously complicated series of rooms, but Gary just has a single page of handwritten notes, one line per room at the maximum. That's all he needed to run his games. I've talked about this before, but I'm bringing it up in the context of Mike's quote: what Gary had on his paper, that's what was written in stone about his world. The rest was a living thing that came about in play through memory and winging it. Which brings me back to the living dungeon.

This really hit me about modules when I sat down to write the Caverns of Temeluc (the Dungeon Crawl #2 adventure). Specifically, I had an environment where it didn't make sense to me that the inhabitants would sit in one particular cave/room and not be moving about. So I took it to the maximum and had the monsters and treasure be dynamic and based on the referee, with some of them doubling as wandering monsters. I liked that approach, but I'm thinking it went a step or two too far, and that there may be a middle way. (Which I'm planning to experiment with in my Dungeon Crawl #3 adventure.)

One of the things I would have preferred in Temeluc was to have the treasures in fixed locations. It just allows things to be much more interesting; a treasure hidden in a weird part of the room, a puzzle, a loose stone - whatever it is, there are great places to stick a treasure in a dungeon. I also want the next dungeon I put out to have more of a sub-region feel where different monster types tend to congregate, with a "monster roster" of total creatures that are encountered between four or five rooms, and in random encounters, etc. I've used the same subsystem before and it lets you have a neat mechanic specific to certain areas.

How I'm thinking this will work is as follows:
  1. The module will be keyed with treasure, immobile objects, and a few single-room monsters in the main key.
  2. The map will be divided into 3 areas, each consisting of 10-15 rooms. Each area will have a separate list of, let's say, 10 potential encounters.
  3. The referee will pre-populate 5 or 6 of these encounters per area. The remaining 4-5 encounters will go into the wandering monster list while in that area.
  4. The wandering monster chart will have 6 "global" wandering monsters and the rest will direct the referee to use local monsters.
So: does that sound useful? Would you be more or less likely to use it than a module set up like B1 or Temeluc where no room/treasure/monster combination is set in advance? Is it too complicated, am I barking up the wrong tree here? Does it get the "living" dungeon feel I am going for, or is it too "in the background" as a method?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Submissions and Timing for Dungeon Crawl #3

I haven't had the time to work as much as I'd like to on Dungeon Crawl #3, and I haven't gotten the volume of submissions I'd like to see. So I'm going to have to push the date back a bit. Specifically: submissions are open until June 30, 2013 for Issue 3 of Dungeon Crawl. The art deadline is 2 weeks later, July 14th, with the goal of putting issue #3 out by August.

Anything would be great - charts, spells, monsters, magic items, articles, reviews, short fiction. I'd really like to get a short adventure or two into this issue, preferably at least one not by me. Art pieces are also welcome, and I will be contacting interested artists within a couple of weeks with some preliminary art needs.

Submissions should have "Dungeon Crawl" in the subject and be addressed to:

wrossi81 at gmail dot com

Use stats for an old school edition of D&D (OD&D, Holmes, AD&D, B/X or BECMI/RC) or one of the closer retro-clones (OSRIC, LL, BFRPG, S&W).

Monday, May 13, 2013

do your imagining

Original Dungeons & Dragons ends with the following words:
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.
For me, the idea that OD&D had the essentials is important. The material included had been cut severely and Gygax and Arneson left only the framework of an exploration game in there. I think I showed just how much really neat stuff was lurking in their assumptions with the recent series of setting posts. There are other interesting bits in the books: for instance, the weapon list is in order by the length / weapon classes in Chainmail and this can be used for determining who strikes first, as per that game's rules.

The implied motto of "do your own imagining" is a mark to aim for. OD&D seems like a very sparse game at times, but it's built in a way that it's really simple to modify. For instance, a monster needs 3 statistics: Hit Dice, Armor Class, and Movement; even the other three (# Appearing, % in Lair and Treasure Type) are only for generating monster lairs. For instance, per Monsters & Treasure, a Tyrannosaurus Rex should have 20 HD, and I'd think it has 2 AC and a movement rate between 12" and 18" (depending on how aggressive you are with its land speed estimates). Give it an extra die or two of damage for sheer size, and you've got the whole monster. It's a fine framework to sit back and do your imagining.

The framework of OD&D is one with few rules for any specific thing. There is more on treasure than on melee combat, and plenty on exploring dungeons and wilderness. Certain areas of rules - aerial combat, naval combat - are covered because they weren't already in Chainmail and read as explicit expansions to it. Chainmail with its weapon reach and morale ratings is close by OD&D, but it is never invited to be the center with its man-to-man combat table. The sheer complication of later editions prevents them from being tinkered with so readily; OD&D was basically morphed into Runequest by successive changes.

TSR and the D&D community moved rapidly away from this paradigm. Modules were accepted, more complicated rules promulgated, and within 5 years TSR was pronouncing AD&D to be the final word. The OSR has never quite gotten there, since much of what we share is TSR-style modules. I'm running my own campaign based on someone else's dungeon and it's fun but it does feel like it's missing the element of my own creation, which is why I think I've been keen to reinvent bits of Stonehell. I like modules for the ideas but I'm convinced more now than before that they're better read, or played as one-offs.

So I want to spend another post or two talking about things in OD&D that I like and bits that I think can be changed or expanded.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Stonehell Again

Finally got to run another game in Stonehell last night. Assorted thoughts follow.
  1. The party druid has developed pyromaniac tendencies. This has proven useful so far, but may backfire at some point in the future. (Rimshot.)
  2. I used one of the glops (ultramarine) from Geoffrey McKinney's Dungeon of the Unknown in what I feel was an effectively weird encounter. The PCs were intelligently cautious about it and wound up killing it with fire (see point 1 above).
  3. Stonehell's layout sometimes makes it hard to find that there's a monster or NPC listed in a particular room. I almost missed some brigands who were hiding in one of the caves, even though I went through my print copy and highlighted every NPC, monster and treasure in the listings. Fortunately they were hiding so that was at least kind of appropriate.
  4. I really need a couple pages of quick-reference charts, including NPC names, motivations, pocket change and things to liven up otherwise empty rooms. Thing is, I'd like a fresh one for each game. Maybe I'll start making them and posting them up after each session.

Friday, May 10, 2013

OD&D Setting Posts in PDF

I've made a single PDF file out of all the posts from my Original D&D setting series. It's available as a publicly accessible Google document here:

OD&D Setting

Kudos to James Mishler for the excellent map that is on the first page.

I'd really like to hear stories from referees who use any of these ideas in their games, and how it goes - should be a fair sight different from "vanilla" Dungeons & Dragons! Thanks to all the people who've had kind words as this series went on, it was a lot of fun.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Some goings on in the OSR

I will probably not be posting anything major until after this weekend, although I should have some fresh thoughts on OD&D from after the setting post series and the PDF up in tomorrow's posting. Today I wanted to get a little bit into the OSR and things that I find interesting ... or not.

As an enthusiast of monster books, I want to point folks over to Joseph Bloch's Kickstarter for the Adventures Dark and Deep Bestiary. This KS is really important to me, looking at a 450 page book with over 900 monsters. Every $25 pays for a piece of black & white art that will go in the book. We're up over 200 illustrations, but I want this thing to be lavish with every monster depicted. Joseph is really top-notch in terms of handling his publications and got the Adventures Dark and Deep Players Manual out early, so please consider backing this one.

Second, I think folks should check out Geoffrey McKinney's Dungeon of the Unknown. This was one of the rewards for Jim Raggi's LotFP Free RPG Day Kickstarter, but it's now available in PDF for money. It's another dungeon inspired partly by B1 In Search of the Unknown, as was Caverns of Temeluc in Dungeon Crawl #2. It features goop monsters, chimeric creatures (monsters in the vein of Isle of the Unknown, treasures, weird locations, and human factions that the referee is then to stock in a 2-level Geomorph style dungeon. Everything in it scales pretty well up or down in level, except for the values of the treasure - which I think are a bit skimpy.

Geoffrey has also published a third module in his Psychedelic Fantasies line, The Fungus That Came to Blackeswell. I've been picking up each of these unique modules, and this one is an interesting underground village that has some really cool monsters lurking within. I'd recommend checking out at least one of these, if not all three adventures.

Finally - the OSR got mentioned on BoingBoing, in this article. Unfortunately it's crap, and tries to pawn off old school gaming as a simple obsession with "how things used to be" - when an objective glance at the community shows that it's actually a riotous diversity of people whose games have starting points from editions of D&D released sometime between 1974 (OD&D) and 1991 (Rules Cyclopedia).

I think at this point our community has more to do with exploring the roads that could have been traveled but weren't, from S&W Complete and LL/AEC making the "AD&:D Lite" that a lot of people would have preferred, to Joseph Bloch creating an extrapolation of "2e if Gary did it" to games like ACKS that explore the endgame. Even megadungeon publications focus on a style of module that never got done well rather than rehashing. There are some middle of the road modules, and there always will be, but I think the OSR has evolved into something far beyond nostalgia and it's a shame that it isn't really understood.

Of course all of these feeds back into why I think OD&D still matters, and why I still think its re-publication in PDF form was an important event in the OSR. But that's for tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Grasslands & Cities

Clear grasslands and cities are the least unique of the terrain types in OD&D. Most of the cities and towns sit in grassland hexes, and grasslands are the most numerous single type of hex. They provide the default background against which the other hex types stand out.

The list of "basic animal" encounters gives us a listing of animal types including spiders, scorpions, lions, boars, weasels, toads, apes, ants, centipedes, snakes and beetles. A note tells us that animals will "usually be of the giant variety," which means we have a world populated by giant scorpions and giant toads. Lions, boars and apes don't need to be giant as badly as the ants and spiders do in order to be threatening encounters.

It is somewhat strange to have the toads and centipedes and snakes and apes all in the clear grassland; of course they're all available in other types of terrain as well, but this table is the only one that makes up "clear" land encounters. Judging from the terrain, the animals may be better picked as wanderers from nearby areas: apes from the jungle, giant frogs from the swamps, giant scorpions out of the deserts and so on. Except in the northwest and southeast corners, almost every grassland hex is less than 3 hexes (1 day of travel) from a forest, swamp or mountain hex, so this is always workable. Perhaps giant ants (with suitable underground caverns) and some types of snake are "native" to the grasslands but little else.

The map gives us no indication of roads through the grasslands. If there are paths between the towns indicated, they must pass through forests or over mountains except for two towns in the center area. One of those towns is the only town on a river, which is a natural fit for the main commercial city of this region. Looking at the layout again, the five towns in the center of the map are relatively well protected by castles on different sides, and it is possible that the four closest ones form the only kingdom in the territory. Alternatively, the city in the woods could be an elven city and the others are the human cities that trade with it. Each town outside of the core five is somewhat peripheral to the map and may be more of an outpost or a frontier town.

These are towns that are separated by enough difficult miles that except for the four core towns, trade is probably difficult and extremely limited. This explains, FWIW, why trade goods in D&D are so damnably expensive: each town is basically running a frontier style economy, far from major centers of commerce, and even getting a shipment of goods through these lands requires an armed escort. As I said in the post that opened this series, these will of necessity be small towns, probably walled, with small out-populations supporting them.

Encounters in towns and cities are limited to two types: Men (fighters, clerics, wizards, brigands and bandits) and Undead (the whole classic list). They are literally half and half, so each town must have some fairly active necropolis attached to it, and the population must bar themselves indoors at night. Banditry and brigandage in the towns, and undead, are obviously combated to some extent by the humans who are also wandering with their retinues. These encounters are rarer than other locales, so it must be that these are simply the exceptional ones. But there has to be some role for the undead - as I discussed under wizard's castles and towers, it may be that high-level wizards routinely create non hostile undead to do their bidding. Brigands and bandits, meanwhile, easily become various toughs and hoodlums, lawless types in the city.

So this is the setting of original D&D: a frontier land, perhaps with a single state in its center, with wilderness populated by creatures of myth, legend and giant creature films. It is a world of Arthurian castles, knights templar, necromancers, dinosaurs and cavemen. It is wild, and it feels profoundly like the world someone who watched every cheesy science fiction movie about giant monsters and every classic horror film would make. This is bolted onto a world with openly Tolkienesque elements - elves, goblins, orcs, balrogs, ents, hobbits - and other entries that quickly became generic fantasy because they were in the D&D books. The result is far more gonzo and funhouse than people give D&D credit for, and I think it winds up being a good mix.

I've really been happy with the reception this series has gotten, and I hope it will make it into folks' games. I will be compiling it all into a pretty basic PDF file in the next few days, nothing fancy, that will be available for free download. Feel free in the comments or on G+ or FB to let me know what you'd like to see next.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Raging Rivers

The Outdoor Survival map is dominated by a river that forks at the north swamp and cuts down across the terrain. There is just a single city that actually sits on the west river; this should technically be the largest of the various towns, since it is the one that would logically have access to trading opportunities upriver. The east river is overlooked by a castle in the mountains, which form a neat valley around them, but has no towns. This valley is probably one of the richer areas under a castle's control, and pays corresponding good rents to its lord.

It is faster to travel by river than any other method in OD&D, and parties rarely get lost. However, getting out to the north requires spending a day going through the swampy terrain, even in a fast galley. Trade with the lands north requires most of a day to reach the swamp, a full day to clear it, and less than a day to get north of the map. From the castle to the southeast exit takes a bit more than a day in either boat or galley. It remains up to the referee if there are trading opportunities downstream to the southwest - the rivers appear to get narrower there.

River lands are almost entirely plains, except in the swamps and the west river which touches on forest hexes at a few points. Since the river is likely less than a half-mile across, most of the hex should follow the "normal" wilderness rules, only switching over to the "river" charts when actually at the river. This should follow Waterborne for actual on-river encounters with men, and the local area for animals.

The "Waterbourne" (sic) chart lists Buccaneers three times, Pirates (like Buccaneers but always Chaotic) twice and Mermen once. As I mentioned back under swamps, Mermen seem to be bipedal humans who live underwater. Buccaneers are Bandits but on boats, and are either footmen or crossbowmen. Pirates are Buccaneers but they're Chaotic. River pirates prowl these waters, probably hoping to harass merchant galleys travelling north. There may be a toll at the castle on the east river if it is clear of piracy.

All such piracy is likely to be of the grapple-and-board method, with small boats being used by the pirates or buccaneers to come up alongside and the crossbowmen giving fire support to the lightly armed and armored men fighting their way aboard the target ship. Large vessels may use catapults to attempt to smash through pirate boats, but largely we're talking about the need for armed guards on each ship.

Swimmers are a freakish lot, and most of the listed swimmer encounters (25% of river encounters) will be horrors you would expect in the oceans: giant squid, giant octopi, giant crabs, sea monsters and dragon turtles. The giant leeches are frightful swamp types, as are giant snakes and crocodiles, and all are well out of their normal habitats. One thing this tells us is that the river is deep to be able to accommodate these creatures; there may be points where it is 200-300 feet deep, and correspondingly quite wide at that point.

One curiosity is that giant squids are quite real in our world, and have a bit of a following on the Internet, but their flesh is high in ammonia content and totally inedible. However, the people in that one town along the west river may find that giant crab claws make a delicious hearty meal for a whole family. This also allows the referee to handle these as animals rather than pure monsters, and a giant squid is not necessarily out to re-enact every movie scene we've ever seen with a kraken.

River travel is the safest thing in OD&D simply because of its speed. A boat full of buccaneers or pirates is much easier than what you'll find on a swamp, and this world's ships must go with armed guards. But when you do hit a monster, it's likely to be a fierce one.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Desolate Deserts

In the Outdoor Survival map there are two deserts to speak of. One lies in the northwest corner, adjacent to some lines of mountains, and continues off the map to potentially more desert. The other lies in the area between two mountain ranges. Geographically, these are probably both relatively cold weather deserts, more similar to the Afghan desert pictured above than the dunes of Arabia or the sands of the Maghreb (North Africa) or the Sahara. The mountain patterns allow for the northwest desert to really be more of a steppe region, such as the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas). The southern desert is more likely caused by the rain shadow of the surrounding mountains, which absorb the wet air that blows toward it and makes the desert terribly dry.

OD&D makes its deserts particularly hard to navigate. Characters get lost in it on 1-3 in d6, and can easily find themselves wandering the desert, slowly seeking the way out as they run out of water supplies. It is not as slow going as the swamp and a party lost in a desert has a reasonable chance of finding themselves in the nearby mountains. There are no permanent settlements, either towns or castles, in either desert - indicating that they are not given to civilization at all.

The deserts are peopled, though, by nomads and dervishes. In the standard earthly desert, OD&D lists nomads as being half the encounters with humans, and the dervish type is similar enough. Random encounters will only run across a lord or a wizard, probably in transit. Nomads are the logical choice, and their mix of bowmen and mounted soldiers is generally accurate to classical and medieval dwellers who would have lived in the Caucasus or Central Asia. Dervishes are nomads who are amazing fighters, similar to berserkers, and religious fanatics. Not to mention that they've got terrific headgear. My feeling is that there are probably at most two or three groups of each, one to two for each desert.

Blue dragons are the native flyers here, and there is something particularly satisfying about having a lightning-based monster be at home in the sand and dirt of the desert. Either desert would make a fine hunting ground for red and white dragons (at home in nearby mountains) as well. A "giant" listing (including humanoids, giant-kin and demihumans) rounds things out, which leads to the very odd result that ents could well be encountered in the deserts.

At this point the referee needs to make some choices about the deserts. The "Arid Plains" listing contains a number of Barsoomian creatures - Apts, Banths, Calots, Darseen, Orluks, Sith, Tharks, Thoats, and White Apes. Likewise the "Desert" listing under men contains Red, Black, Yellow and White Martians, as well as Tharks, listed in parentheses for "Mars." So a referee may interpret that Martian creatures and/or the races of Barsoom are also found in the deserts. The alternative, using the basic Animals chart, simply seems sadly dry and inappropriate, resulting in things like giant toads and wild boars.

If we assume that only the "Optional Arid Plains" listing applies, it uses Barsoom for some instant desert dwellers. Some feel appropriate, such as the reptilian Darseen (which may vary greatly in size and HD) or the insectoid Sith; Banths would be the terror of the desert lands. Several are polar creatures on Mars, such as the Apts, Orluks and the White Apes, but could live in the northern of the two deserts. Given the general aridity of Barsoom, perhaps some long-lost portal allowed the wildlife - and the fierce green Tharks - to migrate out into one or both of the deserts. They make it instantly an alien-dominated environment. Tharks also have the ability to communicate telepathically, which would have to be worked into the game, and it would have to be answered whether other humans have the immunity to mind-reading that John Carter possesses.

There is also some potential for cross-over here; the nomads, for instance, could have started to herd the Thoats they encountered instead of cattle, or in addition to them. Depending upon your interpretation of Orluks, they might be hunted for their fur. I think in general it may be best to limit Barsoomian creatures to a single desert, probably the northwest one where it tracks off further west and there is land for them to expand upon.

All of this gives us a desert far different from what we might have expected, i.e. a sort of Arabian style land of hot sands, shifting dunes, djinns and efreets, Berber-type nomads, etc. But it's a very rich desert to explore, and get lost in, and possibly discover something even stranger than you expected.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

In the Savage Mountains

Mountains are one of the more plentiful terrain types in the Outdoor Survival map that is the presumed setting of original D&D. There is a nice big range in the north and center, and both the northwest and southeast quadrants of the map have what appears to be several ridges. In Snorri's map which I used in the start of this series, there are several high mountains in white. These are probably old mountains, more like the Appalachians than the Rockies. There are six castles in the mountains (one third of the castles), and these must be hard fortresses that use their natural defenses to good effect. Most of the castles with flying defenders will be in the mountains, for logistical reasons.

The mountains run with giant types (which includes humanoids, ogres, trolls, giants, and demihumans), and dragons, each being 25% of the encounters located here. Giants proper will, naturally, live in the mountain ranges, probably with various and sundry followings; there will be hill and stone giants in the caves as well as frost giants in the frozen mountains, and possibly a cloud giant castle. Other goblinoid types are probably making forays from caves deep within the mountains. Elves are the out of place encounters here.

Dragons living in the mountain range will be primarily red, although the colder northern mountains may have a few white dragons as well. The dragon chart also includes cockatrices, basilisks, wyverns, balrogs, chimerae and hydras - all of which could well be native to the mountains. This is in addition to the flyer list that includes dragons and balrogs already. Combined with the giants, we need a pretty good cavern system to support these creatures; the mountains must nearly have an underground wilderness beneath them.

Under the "Men" listing we find cavemen, the only place where they appear in the encounter lists. Cavemen in OD&D are 2nd level fighting-men, wielding clubs the equivalent of morning stars but fighting at -1 to morale. Their primitive state is indicated in Neutral alignment. Given the media of the time, it's probable that these are meant as fur-wearing Neanderthals, with primitive communication and limited technology. These are hardscrabble cavemen, who compete with various magical beasts, monsters and paleolithic predators for their living space. It's no surprise that they are bigger and stronger, but canny enough to run when cornered. If you're facing a balrog there's no reason to stay and get killed.

The animal listing for Mountains is well suited to cavemen: there are cave bears, dire wolves, sabre-toothed cats (called tigers in the OD&D books), mastodons, spotted lions, woolly rhinos, titanotheres and mammoths. What's funny is that despite it being a very common trope at the time (for instance One Million Years B.C.), these cavemen are mostly distant from the dinosaurs and don't interact with them. Mammoths and mastodons make fine prey species for humans as well as the many predators of the mountains.

As with swamps, mountains are slow going, but it's harder to become lost in the ranges, and if you look, other than the north-central range, a lost party will fairly shortly find themselves outside the mountainous area; it's not hard to get to lowland if you look. In the movement rates, we also see an interesting wrinkle: the dragons can cover 24 hexes per day flying, which would get them about 2/3 of the way across the map, so a dragon could hunt 12 hexes away from its nesting area and return in a day.

Mountains are savage terrain; human toeholds barely tame them. The hardy few who live in mountain castles are seen as the defenders of the lower realms. Of course, where there are dragons there is rich treasure, and many foolhardy adventurers go off into the mountains never to be seen again...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Time-Forgotten Swamps

The swamplands in OD&D are hardly as prolific as the forests that surround them; on the map there are only two swamps of any size. Both are large and fed by rivers, so we can say that they are freshwater wetlands; both are bordered by forests and should be considered as proper forested swamps and not reedy marshes, which likely exist in the river hexes. The southwest swamp is dominated by a castle, while the northeast swamp only has the fork of the major rivers in the area.

Every move there is a 50% chance of becoming lost and moving in a random direction, making travel particularly treacherous. Visibility is poor and there are few permanent landmarks; only the rivers can realistically be used to navigate them safely. As we'll see, I think this makes the deep swamps a particularly tricky environment.

Swamp encounters have a 25% chance of undead, and as such it's likely that the castle in the southwest swamp is that of a Necromancer or an Evil High Priest. It should go without saying that if you see a body in the swamp, it may not be at rest, and a zombie or ghoul that doesn't have to breathe could wait for weeks to find prey by hiding in the shallow waters of a swamp pool. Mummies and vampires are a bit more out of place, but a burial ground in the swamp might have some above-ground tombs reminiscent of the ones in New Orleans that could house these types.

The encounter tables also list the horrible "swimmer types," which include giant crabs, octopi, squid, snakes, leeches and fish, as well as crocodiles, mermen, nixies, sea monsters and dragon turtles. Logistically these would have to come at points where the rivers intersect with the swamps and make deeper than usual waters for habitat. Crocodiles and giant snakes being par for the course as you are going through the wetlands. Nixies are particularly nasty - rather than being physically violent, they try to charm opponents and enslave them.

It's worth talking briefly about OD&D mermen here: they are described as similar to berserkers but fighting at -1 on land. Clearly these are not mermaid-style creatures, and this is further verified in Supplement II: Blackmoor, where mermen are described as riding giant seahorses. This is a very far cry from the fish-tailed mermen that Gygax codified in the Monster Manual, more Namor than anything. They should be fearsome raiders into swamp and river territories, though - presumably eventually going to their far-off ocean homes.

But the big shift in the swamps proper is what lurks in the "optional swamps" table for animal encounters. There is an oddity in the charts - such that there is a sub-head for swamp animals, but no listing within the swamp encounter chart for "animals" that would trigger it. Obviously these are encountered somewhere, and I would suggest that it's best to substitute "Animals" out for "Swimmer" where there is no river in the swamp hex, meaning that dinosaurs are only found in the deepest reaches of the swamplands.

The inhabitants of these deep swamps include tyrannosaurs, pterodactyls, triceratops, brontosaurs (not yet changed to apatosaurs) and stegosaurs. OD&D has no entry whatsoever for any of these monsters, but given their location it's not entirely off-base to think that they represent the view of dinosaurs as lumbering, slow, lizard-like reptiles. This hints at a Lost World type of area, where swamp dwellers are at risk of tyrannosaurus attack. The potential interactions are fascinating: humans riding dinosaurs, an encounter interrupted by a tyrannosaur, hunting a wild brontosaurus. There's also the possibility for an Arzach type of character, riding on a giant pterosaur (assuming that the listing didn't limit us to smaller proper pterodactyls). Or of an animated tyrannosaurus skeleton.

Swamps are also the home of the black dragons, which take on their familiar aspect of acid-breathers who are less stupid than white dragons but not as wily as the other types. These are much more comfortable in the swamp, like the dinosaurs, and their lairs are likely to be the most fetid corners.

For humans, the swamps are difficult and treacherous lands. Travel through them is slow and difficult, and they contain possibly the most threatening types of encounters. It is a true land that time forgot, a treacherous place where you are as likely to meet a zombie as a tyrannosaur. Venturing into them is not for the faint of heart, and one should have a cleric as well as a strategy to face the dinosaurs and river monsters.