Monday, December 28, 2015

On Goblins and Gnomes

I was looking at some 19th century sources on goblins and fairies (basically the same thing) because Gus L's takedown of The Lost Mine of Phandelver at Dungeon of Signs is so harsh on goblins. I was trying to find some material for a different take on the goblin, when something hit me.

Open any classic D&D book, from Holmes on to the Rules Cyclopedia, or open the Monster Manual for 1e AD&D. Look at Goblins. Now look one entry back (in the MM, just skip the entry for "GOAT, Giant"). That entry will be Gnomes. Every single number for Gnomes and Goblins will be within 1 point of the other. Gnomes have AC 5, Goblins have AC 6. Gnomes have 1 HD, Goblins 1-1 HD. In Moldvay and later versions of classic D&D, Gnomes have 8 Morale and Goblins have 7 Morale. In AD&D, Gnomes speak the Goblin language. In each version, we find that they even have similar (though not identical) leaders, even with similar morale boosting effects in Moldvay. Not to mention, they are both chthonic humanoids somewhere between 3' and 4½' tall.

The implication should be clear: these are the same monster.

I mean, what real differences are there? Gnomes have beards? Goblins are a bit uglier? Alignment? A point of AC and a single hit point? A point of morale? Gnomes are fond of crossbows? All that is minor details. Goblins and gnomes are more like each other than they are like other monsters. More important, it gives things an interesting hook. It's simple to merge the two and differentiate them by alignment and disposition. Goblins are now like gnomes but Chaotic or Lawful Evil in alignment. You can even keep the terms "goblin" and "gnome" and the respective languages.

I picture the merged creatures as favoring classical gnomes. The evil "goblin" versions may be uglier because of association with Chaos, or because they live in the Dungeon-as-Mythic-Underworld, but they should look basically similar. Since goblins have an antipathy to dwarves, perhaps they don't keep beards, but I think visual cues should be subtle to make the merger meaningful.

Twentieth century fantasy literature drew extensively on the fairy tales collected in the 19th century. These were far from precise in terminology. "Goblin" is one of several catch-all terms that referred to pretty much any of the diminutive, chthonic creatures, whether we are referring to mine spirits such as the Welsh Coblynau or domestic brownies. "Gnome" isn't any different. The idea that gnomes are somehow separate is an invention of Gygax.

Once you recognize that goblins and gnomes are the same monster in D&D, a few things happen. First, the dynamic of encounters with short humanoids will be different. Just because a creature is about 3½' tall, doesn't mean that it is always good or evil. This creates an ambiguity that games with short humanoids otherwise lack: you can no longer tell at a glance whether a creature is a friend or foe.

Second, the idea that gnomes have an affinity for illusions is a natural fit for goblins. It's a downright nasty twist to add goblin spellcasters with access to Phantasmal Force. A goblin lair is a dangerous place, and adding illusions can give them some bite. It becomes a place where you cannot trust anything, which adds a distinct layer of classical fairy lore. If the idea doesn't appeal to you on its own, watch Jim Henson's film Labyrinth.

Third, it justifies the existence of gnomes. As written, there's no reason to ever use gnomes. You can always do the same thing with dwarves or halflings, and do it better. But once you make gnomes and goblins the same monster, there's a reason to put them in a dungeon. Neutral gnomes/goblins are a great faction to add to the dungeon mix, with just enough potential for nastiness to make them interesting.

Fourth, there is a great amount of 19th century folklore that works with this view of goblins/gnomes as chthonic fairies. For instance, British Goblins by Wirt Sikes is a good guide to Welsh fairy lore, and the merged creatures that we get from goblins and gnomes can fit a lot of the stories within. The Coblynau (Welsh mine-spirits) are one of several examples of creatures that can be used as inspiration for gnomes. The pranks and demands of British goblins are good ways to make goblins more than one-dimensional bags of HP to be killed.

I think this is a simple solution to a dilemma that I've seen in OSR circles for years now. There is a need for straightforward dungeon factions in the best tradition of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. But after 40 years of the goblin being abused as an entry-level monster, there is some understandable goblin fatigue. This brings them close to their folkloric roots and I think changes the way things work without losing an iconic monster to overuse.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Old School Renaissance in 2015 and Beyond

2015 is coming to an end, and that means it's time to think about what happened this year and what lies ahead for old school gaming in 2016.

Metamorphosis Alpha is the big revival of the year. Going from a couple of stray releases to a full-blown product line is impressive. The MA renaissance will continue next year when Epsilon City is released. Our stout Warden commander, Jim Ward, got through a rough bout in the hospital and had a successful Gofundme. Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls also hit this year, a significantly expanded and updated version of the T&T game.

The big intriguing question for next year is what will happen with Runequest 2. The republication of Chaosium's classic RQ rules is wrapping up a very successful Kickstarter campaign with promises of it becoming, once again, a full-blown campaign line. Tied directly to Glorantha, this effectively puts the kibosh on decades of attempts to make RQ generic, and also has promise to make a classic rule set a major part of today's RPG scene. Part of its interest is that RQ is deliberately not Gygaxo-Arnesonian fantasy.

Consider something. Between online print-on-demand releases and reprints, it's been possible over the last few years to get OD&D, AD&D, T&T, Metamorphosis Alpha, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, many Judges Guild products, and next year Runequest legally in their unadulterated original forms. Effectively the way people gamed in the 1970s is immediately accessible. That's not an unimpressive feat. I think the OSR has had a wide impact in this, and it's something to enjoy.

Goodman Games is in fine fettle. They released a Monster Alphabet that was almost a side question to their constant flow of Dungeon Crawl Classics products and their wave of reprints. DCC has brought the boxed set back with Chained Coffin and Peril on the Purple Planet, and is about to go to new levels of excess with the 4th printing. Joseph Goodman has found a niche, found its spending level, and is pushing its buttons like a maestro.

The up and comers are worth talking about. Autarch, whose saga with Dwimmermount threatened to delay its Adventurer Conqueror King, released an excellent sandbox module with The Sinister Stone of Sakkara and is putting forward a Lairs & Encounters book in Kickstarter that promises awesome stuff. These guys are hitting their stride.

White Box is also having a day in the sun as a highly adaptable platform, with White Star and White Lies released this year and more to come. It's far from perfect but has created a flurry of activity. S&W White Box is also back in active and solid support. My hope is that this is more the legacy that Swords & Wizardry has rather than as a kid sidekick to Pathfinder for Frog God's releases.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess rocked the world by winning ENnies and then failed to release anything new other than T-shirts. Which means that 2016 is primed to be an absolutely humongous year again. The number of products that Raggi owes everyone is high and the individual projects are promising. Also, Geoffrey McKinney is going to release four hexcrawl modules for his excellent Carcosa setting around Spring 2016. Geoffrey's new work will be AD&D compatible.

Several companies, including Goodman and Frog God, have tried to make old school 5e happen. Nobody's made any splash whatsoever. FGG's books (Quests of Doom, Book of Lost Spells, Fifth Edition Foes) are quality but haven't created a distinct space. Neither have Goodman's Fifth Edition Fantasy modules. They sell but are sort of absorbed in the generic 5e 3PP space, which is primed to be won by products from people like Sasquatch Studios and Kobold Press. The "O5R" is effectively on life support.

This year's big winners, though, are small presses doing their own thing via Lulu and OneBookShelf (DriveThruRPG/RPGNow). Yoon-Suin is hands down the best old school product of the year, and Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a full and worthy answer to the gauntlet that Zak S. threw down with A Red & Pleasant Land. Richard LeBlanc (Creature Compendium, Basic Psionics Handbook), Simon Forster (Book of Lairs), Kabuki Kaiser (Castle Gargantua) and the White Box crew, particularly James Spahn (White Box Companion, White Star), have been crushing it. I am really impressed by the work of all these people and a half-dozen more, and I'm extremely pleased that DIY self-published products managed to take the initiative in a year that easily could've been under the shadow of 5e and LotFP's mega-year in 2014.

The Zines keep coming too. This has been a fun year, including the innovation of the one-page zine. It's still mostly clustered around the same suspects as last year, but there have been a few additions. I keep a collection in Google+ called Zine Alert! that people should follow. I have a standing personal policy to both buy and promote any handmade old school zines offered, so if you plus me on the post or message me with it I'll spread the word.

The old school gaming scene rocked in 2015. Personally I got to play MA, OD&D, B/X D&D, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and DCC RPG. Hopefully I'll be able to add White Star to that soon as I'm rather jazzed by the recent Star Wars film. LotFP set the bar high in 2014, and I think small press and DIY rose to the challenge admirably. I hope to see more like it in 2016. Good gaming!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Appendix N and the Solar System

Much more of Appendix N occurs within the Solar System than people commonly think.

A significant chunk of the Appendix is what I would call antediluvian fiction. This is works that occur ostensibly on Earth, but in an age before known history. Presumably the future of these settings is some cataclysm that results in the modern positions of the landmasses. This may not be the flood of Genesis, but it may as well be; and "antediluvian" generally fits the world view of these works. These include significant influences on D&D such as R.E. Howard's Conan series and J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, all works that were meant to happen on our earth. Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana also fits in this category.

Following this is historical fantasy. There are elements of this in Anderson's work, Lest Darkness Fall, the earliest Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story ("Adept's Gambit" is set in Tyre, not Lankhmar), some of Norton's fantasy work and most of the Swords Against Darkness stories. There are also elements of historical fantasy in Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar. Howard wrote historical fantasy as well.

Then there is modern fantasy. Burroughs (Tarzan and Pellucidar), Merritt, and the Lovecraft stories not set in the Dreamlands are all contemporary. So are Wellman's Silver John stories, or some of Howard's writing such as the El-Borak series.

Following this are the two flavors of future fantasy set on our earth. Post-apocalyptic works cover entries such as Norton's Daybreak 2250 AD, Lanier's Hiero's Journey, and St. Clair's Sign of the Labrys. Were that not enough, dying-earth works such as, well, The Dying Earth and World's End are set far, far in the future. This motif recurs in the Hawkmoon series by Moorcock and the Book of Swords by Saberhagen.

The next ring is the planetary stories, which any reader will know are dear to my heart. Burroughs and Brackett and Weinbaum all wrote compellingly of Mars. By a weird coincidence, neither the planetary work of Lin Carter (Jandar of Callisto) nor of R.E. Howard (Almuric), both set outside the Solar System, are mentioned in the Appendix.

The last group are set in worlds explicitly connected to our Earth. The fantasy world of Three Hearts and Three Lions, that of The Compleat Enchanter, the Elfland of The King of Elfland's Daughter, Leiber's Nehwon, Moorcock's Eternal Champion multiverse, the world of Blue Star are all at one time or another either sending people or ideas to our world.

Almost none of Appendix N is set in a "proper" separate fantasy world like those often seen in D&D. Yet the default assumption of so many games is exactly that, of a world disconnected from ours but somehow similar in major ways. At best there are hints that it is either a far-future post-apocalypse of our world or an antediluvian version of it.

This is a thing that bugs me the most about great chunks of D&D and similar fantasy. I don't think it's an accident that so much of this work keeps ties to our earth, whether for reasons of myth, or details, or a touch of irony. It's deeply weird that a game where, for instance, The Moon Pool is meant to be a significant influence, we so rarely see PCs like those in The Moon Pool, who are closer to Call of Cthulhu investigators than D&D PCs.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Actual Play: Funnel and Science Fantasy

I ran my first Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG funnel today, and four out of eight PCs met their ends in the process. The Kraken picture above is actually representative of the first encounter, where the ship the characters had signed onto was attacked by a giant sea monster. The PCs only had to beat back the tentacles, which still took a couple of characters. Then they rowed the two ship's boats to a nearby island as the ship started sinking, only to be taken down by the squid.

On the island the players actually took with gusto to surviving the night, which was one place that the funnel format showed off a wrinkle I hadn't thought of: a weaver was making a lean-to, an indentured servant starting a fire, a potato farmer finding edible tubers: characters doing survivalist stuff with the funnel skills. If you wanted to do a Swiss Family Robinson or Lost multi-part scenario in a fantasy RPG, a DCC funnel is actually a pretty great way to start it. Especially when there are a lot of interesting factions on the island.

But my scenario focused on a ziggurat at the center of the island, where things led. After a lizardman attack in the night, the characters went to the step pyramid and explored. Eventually they found a giant lizard, which took a PC out. But they found a back way down and a series of chutes that, carefully explored (though still losing a PC to a spear trap), led to an uncanny room that turned out to be a buried spaceship. I've been wanting to use one for a long time, and this one took off once the PCs sat in the command chairs. As of the end of the scenario, they were level one PCs en route to Mars.

The overall campaign setup is one I've wanted to do for a while, basically a mashup of Poul Anderson's The High Crusade with the classics of planetary romance. Crusade is science fiction where a group of English peasants commandeer a starship and get on with conquering alien worlds. Anderson's book is pretty much a romp for the humans, but I just want to take the basic image of medieval pseudo-Europeans with a starship and run with it. As a classic concept I just don't think it's done enough.

(Of course, I used an ancient astronauts explanation for the spaceship rather than a failed first-contact invasion, but that's just because it's more fun IMO.)

Adventures beyond this one are going to be using the Warriors of the Red Planet RPG as a supplement for Barsoom material. It's a retro-clone type of game by Al Krombach that provides a thorough D&D-alike conversion for the Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom with the serial numbers filed off (or at least down to a near-rhyme; I mean, the sample character is Pars Parthas). But it will be using the DCC RPG, which I think is a good fit for sword & planet type adventure.

Beyond Mars / Barsoom, there are many worlds I'd like to explore in broad strokes. Venus, of course, with others in the solar system; and maybe even savage Almuric, the Purple Planet and its weirdling sun, Jorune, and frozen Yuggoth and dim Carcosa.

Really, the only problem is picking where to go first.