Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Map of the County of Leon

The Western part of the County of Leon, including Brest, the seat of Guimarch of Leon:

I did this using Gimp. Not great, but I think I'm getting a little better with practice. The most onerous task is without doubt the coastline, which I was far too lazy to do a proper job of.

A Hexmap and a Kernel of an Idea

I downloaded and installed a fun little freeware map-making program called Wilderness Mapper the other day, and decided for my first project that I would map out the old Duchy of Brittany, circa 1066 AD. At the time Brittany was a powerful independent polity which had defeated the Kings of France in several wars, and was strongly allied to the (also) independent Duke of Normandy - who would shortly take the English crown. It was still almost entirely Breton-speaking, and so should be more properly rendered the Dugelezh Vreizh. Its vassals included the Counts of Naoned (Nantes, in French), Gwengamp (Guingamp), Kernev (Cournouaille), Poher (Poucher), Roazhon (Rennes), Gwened (Vannes), Leon and Penteur (Penthievre).

The map isn't finished yet and it looks nothing like as good as the ones Alexis posted here. (Alexis is an ornery individual, but his world building entries are nothing short of inspirational.) Nevertheless it took me bloody ages last night to get even to the stage I'm at now. The basic framework is in place now, and the next task is to populate it with villages, hamlets, towns and adventuring locales. Each hex is 4.1 miles across; the dark green is deep forest, while the lighter green is just 'forest'. (In the early Middle Ages, Europe was still almost entirely forested.) You'll notice that the Eastern section is mostly untouched - that's because it's France, not Brittany.

Of course, the history of Brittany needs a bit of D&D-izing. My first impulse was to include elves in the mix somewhere (if elves are going to be based on a real-world culture, it's pretty much always going to be Celtic or Latin types). But elves bore me, and I think I've already written before about doing something different with demihuman races vis-a-vis real world cultures.

No, the people of the Dugelezh Vriezh and its environs are humans and dwarves, and I think it would be an interesting twist to have the dwarves be culturally 'French'. Indeed, the populations of modern day France, Northern Spain and Italy, Slovenia and Romania are all varieties of dwarf; they represent the gothic barbarian races who supplanted the celts in those areas and became latinised during the latter period of the Roman Empire.

Brittany, like Wales, and Galicia and the Basque country in Spain, is an area where humans remain dominant. The population is almost entirely monolingual in Breton, although there is some 'bleed' of dwarven French culture into the nobility, and some intermarriage resulting in a subculture of half-dwarves living on the outskirts of society.

Brittany is covered by thick forest and its population is almost entirely coastal. Inland, roving hunter-gatherer bands of gnolls can still sometimes be a threat, and monsters of various kinds inhabit the deepest and thickest glades. But the main dangers to the Bretons come from overseas - trollish viking raiders from Scandinavia and half-orc pirates who set sail from the southern coast of Wessex. (England is a melting pot mix of orcish Angles, Saxons and Jutes and human celts; interbreeding has resulted in a race which blurs from the fully human to the fully orc - with everything in between represented.) While relatively powerful, the Dugs of Vriezh find themselves threatened from on all sides - as the peace with the dwarven Kings of France is always uneasy.

I'll expand on some places of note in Brittany later.

Sunday, 28 September 2008


The world is a big place, you know. It's easy to forget that point, in this age of air travel and instant international communications, where a man who grew up in a suburb of Liverpool and now lives in Yokohama can write blog posts read by people from the US, France and Australia while simultaneously chatting on msn with a friend in South Africa.

But it is. It's bloody enormous. From my home town to the place I live now is approximately 5,916 miles; if I had to rely on my own legs for transportation, as human beings did for the vast majority of our history, it would take me around 296 days to travel that distance assuming a rate of 20 miles per day. That's ignoring mountains, impenetrable forests, uncrossable deserts, wide rivers, two seas, and other natural obstacles which would obviously make the whole thing take much longer. It's also ignoring the searching for food which I would have to do on the way. And by the time I arrived I would have seen comfortably less than 0.01% of the world's land surface area.

The world isn't just geographically big. It's culturally big too - another thing that it's easy to forget, in the modern world of nation-states. For most of human time our planet has been a patchwork of myriad different cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic groups, each with its own unique history. In New Guinea over 1,000 languages are spoken; in the Caucusus mountains there are three entirely unrelated language families of dozens of languages each; in North-East India there are a group of Tibeto-Burman people called the Bnei Menashe who believe they are one of the lost tribes of Israel; at the time of the Reconquista there was an emirate of Basque-speaking Muslims near modern day Pamplona in Spain; in 1984 a group of nine Australian aborigines who had never encountered Western civilisation were discovered in the Gibson Desert: the world is a huge place full of weird and wonderful things, almost beyond cataloging.

How do you go about making a homebrew campaign setting which goes even a tiny way towards representing all that variety? Moreover, how do you represent the wonder of demihuman variety which must surely exist in equal measure on top of all that?

The answer is that it's an impossible task which you shouldn't even try. Part of me - the masochistic part - wants to, though.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Chaos Patrons! (Blatant Plagiarism Alert)

[Disclaimer: First of all, I should say that I'm stealing this more or less entirely from the old roguelike computer game Zangband. Please view this as a D&D-isation of an aspect of an old favourite, not something I've come up with myself. (The relevant document, if you want to see the source material, is this text file.)]

Chaos Patrons

The layers of the Abyss are infinite, and so are its Powers. Endless multitudes of dark gods throng its depths, scheming of ways to attract more mortal followers and thus gather power. Every so often one of them finds a way to dominate some foolish individual on the prime material plane, usually through striking some kind of Faustian bargain. These chaos patrons are capricious and flighty, however, and they are just as likely to curse or bless their unfortunate worshipers.

A player can choose for his character to follow a chaos patron at character creation, or he might decide to follow one during the course of the game should the opportunity arise. (The DM should come up with a suitably painful and tortuous ritual for a PC who wishes to take up the worship of a chaos god.) The only requirement for a PC who wishes to worship a chaos god is that he be willing, and that he be Chaotic Evil or Chaotic Neutral in alignment (or willing to shift his existing alignment to either of those positions).

There are infinite chaos gods, and the DM and player are encouraged to be as creative as they like when coming up with their patron. Alternatively, they can roll 1d20 and consult the following table of example gods:

1. Slortar the Old
2. Mabelode the Faceless
3. Chardros the Reaper
4. Hionhurn the Executioner
5. Xiombarg the Sword Queen
6. Pyaray the Tentacled Whisperer of Impossible Secrets
7. Balaan the Grim
8. Arioch, Duke of Hell
9. Eequor, Blue Lady of Dismay
10. Narjhan, Lord of Beggars
11. Balo the Jester
12. Khorne the Blood God
13. Slaanesh, God of Pleasure
14. Nurgle, the Rotting God
15. Tzeentch, the Lord of Change
16. Djobidjoba, the King of Grubs
17. Azathoth, the Devil's Bannerman
18. Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies
19. Dusty Miller, the Mad Baker
20. Bindapaparabba, Mistress of Waterlilies

Effects of worshiping a chaos patron:

A character with a chaos patron who advances in level is given a boon or a curse at random. This either takes effect at the moment of advancement, or at the first combat after advancement, or at another time defined in the text. When the character levels up, roll 1d30 and consult the following table:
Boons and Curses

1. "Thou needst a new form, mortal!" - The character is Polymorphed into a randomly determined race without chance of saving throw (1-2: Human, 3-4: Gnome, 5-6: Dwarf, 7-8: Elf, 9-10: Halfling; roll again if the character is already of that race).
2. "Well done, mortal! Lead on!" - The character is awarded a 10% experience point bonus.
3. "Thou didst not deserve that, slave!" - The character loses 10% of his experience and is relegated to the previous level.
4. "Use my gift wisely!" - A randomly determined magical item is created on the floor beside the character.
5. "Thy deed hath earned thee a worthy blade!" - A randomly determined magical weapon is created on the floor beside the character.
6. "Thy deed hath earned thee a worthy reward!" - 1d3 randomly determined magical items are created on the floor beside the character.
7. "Behold, mortal, how generously I reward thy loyalty!" - The character is granted a limited wish.
8. "Thou art grown arrogant, mortal!" - The character loses 33% of his experience.
9. "My pets, destroy the arrogant mortal!" - 2-6 randomly determined tanar'ri (with HD equal to the character's level) are created next to the character at the beginning of his next combat.
10. "Thou needst worthier opponents!" - 1d100 dretches appear next to the character at the beginning of his next combat.
11. "Death and destruction, this pleases me!" - An earthquake occurs, centered on the character the next time he kills an opponent.
12. "Stay, mortal, and let me mold thee!" - +1 to prime requisite.
13. "I grow tired of thee, mortal!" - -1 to prime requisite.
14. "Thou needst a lesson in humility, mortal!" -1 to all stats.
15. "Receive this modest gift from me!" - +1 to all stats.
16. "Rise, my servant!" - The next time the character is reduced to 10% of his hit point total, all his hit points are immediately restored.
17. "Suffer, pathetic fool!" - A ball of chaos, 12' in radius, blast the character and anyone within its range for the character's level x4 in damage at the beginning of his next combat.
18. "Thou reliest too much on thy weapon!" - Has the same effect of a scroll of curse weapon.
19. "Thou reliest too much on thy equipment!" - Has the same effect of a scroll of curse armour.
20. "Now thou shalt pay for annoying me!" - All the effects of items 17, 14 and 10.
21. "Die, mortal!" - The character immediately takes level x4 in damage.
22. "Let me relieve thee of thine oppressors!" - Immediate Power Word: Kill on the character's opponents as soon as the next combat begins.
23. "Let me relieve thee of thine oppressors!" - Immediate banishment of the next group of undead or daemonic monsters which confront the character.
24. "Thou shalt not die yet, mortal!" - All monsters threatening the character are immediately hit for the character's level x4 in damage as soon as the next combat begins.
25. The patron ignores the character.
26. "Let me reward thee with an undead servant!" The character gains a randomly determined undead servant, of any kind with HD equal to or less than his level.
27. "Let me reward thee with a demonic servant!" The character gains a randomly determined tanar'ri servant, of any kind with HD equal to or less than his level.
28. "Let me reward thee with a servant!" The character gains a randomly determined monstrous servant, of any kind with HD equal to or less than his level.
29. "Let me reward thee with a henchman!" The character gains a henchman of his own level (1-2 Fighter, 3-4 Mage, 5-6 Cleric; all henchmen are Chaotic Evil in alignment).
30. "Mortal, bore me no longer!" The chaos patron abandons the character.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Rants Elsewhere

I'm cutting down on my own ranting and focusing on positivity: i.e. pumping out idiotic nonsense ideas for other old school players to use. But that doesn't mean I can't link to rants elsewhere, and there's pretty good one over at The Core Mechanic today. It also relates to a recent rant of my own.

The important bit is this one, I think:

[WotC], in my opinion, is addicted to publishing new shiny things that were already printed before. After all, PUBLISH OR PERISH is the mantra for people in my field and for publishing companies. They HAD to make another edition of D&D to stay profitable - otherwise they were just going to run out of expansion products and ideas.

What they really need to do is completely change their business model (DDI doesn't count - that's vaporware). More and more gamers are turning to the internet and not to published hardback books for their materials. The RPG bloggers network alone provides me with enough material for more campaigns than I could ever run in my lifetime!

And that last bit is the rub: the internet changes everything. I can read tonnes of good stuff on blogs and forums, and if I want to I can cheaply or freely partake in fan-produced materials like Fight on! or Labyrinth Lord or a million and one others. (3e and 4e equivalents are also out there, if that's what floats your boat.) Who needs to buy materials the traditional way when you can download a .pdf, print it out and bind it (because it would be better to pledge your soul to satan than try to read them on an electronic format) within minutes - and when moreover there won't be the built-in redundancy which trying to keep up with new editions of the game brings?

I really wonder where WotC will go from here. I'm nowhere near churlish enough to argue that they couldn't continue to make fun versions of D&D from here until kingdom come if they had the money to. But there are only so many times you can say "Here's a new better version than the one you've been enjoying for the last few years!" before your customers start to smell rats. Role playing games are not like computer games, where graphics and processor speeds are continually evolving: there is a point at which a set of rules are good enough and require no more refinement. (Which is why nobody has successfully produced a new version of the Monopoly rules, for example.) This is especially true of rules for role playing games, whose point is not rules at all, but the concept of a shared world, which is free.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Turning Undead and Sumo Clerics

I've been thinking about turning undead today.

Turning undead is one of the weirder D&D tropes, I think. The concept of a warrior-cleric striding forward with his crucifix holy symbol held aloft to banish the spirits of the evil dead is an image straight out of Hammer Horror; it has some precedent in the scenes in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam at various stages frighten off bad guys with items of Galadriel's bric-a-brac, but it seems like an oddly stark piece of Christian iconography in what is after all a resolutely heathen game.

I also find it odd that nobody I've ever played D&D with before has come up with a unique or interesting method of turning undead. Everybody, without exception, generally just says something about...well, striding forward with their holy symbol held aloft. It seems horribly mundane.

By coincidence, I've also been thinking about Sumo quite a lot, mainly because of the current broohaha which is dominating the sports news in this neck of the woods. Sumo is a sport first and foremost, but it also has some very vague quasi-religious relics from its milennia-old history - mainly purification rituals involving throwing salt and stamping. These days those rituals have the effect of building up suspense before a bout (they're really just like WWE wrestlers trash-talking their opponents on the mic before a fight) but in days past they were enacted to frighten away evil spirits from the ring.

And that's where turning undead comes in. So without further ado, I bring you:
Asaouryu (Morning's Yellow Dragon) Proxy of Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun and Weaver of the Gods' Robes

11th Level Specialist Cleric/8th Level FIghter (Dual Classed)
Alignment: Lawful Good

STR: 17
INT: 12
WIS: 18
CON: 16
DEX: 9
CHR: 17

Magic Items: Belt of Protection from the Elements +5, Gauntlets of Giant Strength, Robe of Animal Control

Spell Spheres (Major): All, Animal, Creation, Plant, Sun.
(Minor): Weather, Elemental, Protection, Healing, Combat

Granted Power: Sunray 3 times per day

Asaouryu is one the mightiest servants of Amaterasu, a great warrior and greater cleric, who has fought evil the length and breadth of Yamato and beyond, spreading the light of Amaterasu's sun wherever it is needed most.

Asaouryu turns undead by stamping his feet. He plants both feet firmly on the floor and slams them up and down while slapping his thighs in an elaborate ritualistic display. The force of his footsteps sends shockwaves of Amaterasu's power blasting through the spirits of the evil dead.

In a fight, he uses no weapons other than his fists and physical strength and size. He relishes a physical duel and will often issue challenges to single opponents so he can wrestle them one-on-one.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Pet Hate #486; Or, I Really Must Stop Visiting rpg.net

Of all the internet arguments that I hate with every fibre of my being, the one that takes the biscuit is the one that runs something like this:
You don't like [rule x]? Play a different game!
It's most often seen when somebody criticises some aspect of D&D and the knee-jerk brigade leaps to its defence. For example, from a recent thread about demihumans and optimisation:
You missed a solution: play a different game. In D&D the important character creation decisions are all about optimization. There are other fantasy games with Elves and Dwarves and similar races where race is not a character optimization. It's up to you as to which game you play.

I always picture the poster typing away with a smug smile on his face, as if he's come up with the most wonderful, brilliant destruction of any criticism to the game ever put forward.

The thing is, it's utterly ridiculous. It's like saying: "Don't like the 'influencing play' clause of the offside rule? Play another sport." Or: "Don't like the death penalty? Move to another country." Or: "Allergic to caffeine? Don't drink coffee." Patently stupid, and yet endlessly recycled in the lower reaches of places like rpg.net.

I should really stop spending time on that site, because all it does is make me want to Break Stuff. My wife once said "The only thing you change by posting on that site is your blood pressure." Pretty much. Although perhaps that's part of the addiction.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Two Towers of Fantasy

I think my post yesterday might have been misinterpreted, so I feel a clarification is in order: although it is true that half of me wants to have no playable races other than humans, the other half of me recoils at the thought. My position is entirely more ambiguous than the tone of the rant suggests.

I think the problem is that the fantasy genre is really two rather different genres which have somehow become entwined because of superficial similarities. (This is at least partly because the literati despise fantasy and know nothing about it other than "Isn't it all to do with swords and magic and goblins and other childish escapist stuff?") I like both of these genres equally, and want to represent them in my D&D gaming, and this is where the irreconcilable conflict between the banalifying systematiser noisms and the romantic mysterious dreamer noisms is fought out.

What are the two genres? You might call the first, loosely, the Scientifiction tradition and the second, just as loosely, the Romantic tradition; or, to summon up the spirit of Robert M. Pirsig, we could perhaps summarise it as Classicism vs. Romanticism. (In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig describes how his Romantic friend flatly refuses to study mechanics because he prefers to live with the mystery of how his strange BMW works, whereas Pirsig himself, the Classicist, likes to apply reason and rationality to his motorcycling hobby and spends much of his time studying mechanical engineering.) Let's expand on what I mean by these.

Classicist Fantasy, or the Scientifiction Tradition

Classicist Fantasy concerns itself with rationality, where made-up worlds work along logical and reasonable lines. It is the fantasy of people like George R. R. Martin, Dan Simmons, Phillip Pullman, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay and Steven Erikson - writers who concern themselves with creating worlds which make sense on a rational level and where everything is ultimately explainable and explained (even if of course they contain such nonexistent things as magic and monsters). It isn't about making fantasy scientifically accurate - that would be a nonsense - it is rather to do with internal consistency. People behave as they do in 'the real world' and interact with things around them - boats, swords, dragons, wizards - in a holistic way, the same way in which we in our world interact with boats, guns, cars and aeroplanes. The human beings in A Song of Ice and Fire behave like human beings in our world, technology is roughly contemporaneous to that of England at the time of the Wars of the Roses, and we can easily imagine a person transported from York circa 1485 to Westeros feeling completely at home there. The fantasy is based on a rational view of the universe, in which everything makes sense to the people within it.

I call it 'Scientifiction' because it comes from the same impulse which drives the Science Fiction of people like Isaac Asimov. Asimov created imaginative other realities, but they were firmly grounded in reason: robots do this, because this. There was no mystery to proceedings, despite the fact that it is entirely imaginary. And I suspect this sort of fantasy appeals to people in the same way that Star Trek does - there is wonder and escapism there, but you can catalogue it and analyse it in terms of internal consistency and logic. It is fantastical, but comprehensible.

Romantic Fantasy

The Romantic Tradition, on the other hand, doesn't try to present us with a holistic, rational world; as with Pirsig's friend in Zen..., the point is not to understand, but to revel in the unknown and unknowable. Once you begin to comprehend, you destroy the fragile magic and weirdness, and shatter the mystery. You make it mundane. It is the fantasy of writers like Lord Dunsany, M. John Harrison, John Crowley, Michael Moorcock, and Mervyn Peake; writers for whom strangeness and other-worldliness is as much the point as are the plot and characters, and in which there seemingly is no internal logic or rational world. In Viriconium, the city and characters change from story to story and yet stay the same; in Little, Big the fairies are one thing and then they're another; in Time and the Gods the universe is governed by capricious beings whose true motives can only be guessed at. You're not supposed to bother approaching such books expecting them to make sense; you're supposed to revel in the fact that they don't - except perhaps on some intuitive, emotional level. They are about incomprehensibility and that is why they are fun.

For whatever reason, it's the Classicist tradition which seems to have come to dominate "D&D fantasy" as we have come to know it. I believe this is at least partly to do with the nature of gaming itself: there needs to be rationality in order for there to be a game with agreed rules. But I also sometimes think it is to do with gamers, because it is undoubtedly true that there is something within the nerdish, the bookish, and the dorkish (and I include myself in this) which seeks comfort in statistics and charts and tables and lists. Such things speak to our insecurities and anal retentive tendencies. We like control, and order. Many of us are socially inept, and bad at functioning in a group without the sort of guidelines and regulations which rulebooks provide. Classicist fantasy is more comfortable than the Romantic kind for people like us.

I like both traditions, and think there's a place for both. My recent posts have mostly been about trying to redress the balance slightly in favour of Romanticism, but there is value and worth in the other and I'd hate to imply otherwise. I like George R. R. Martin and M. John Harrison equally and couldn't choose between them.

(As an afterword, I don't think it's an accident that the greatest fantasy author - Tolkien - had his foot firmly in both camps. His linguistic creations and his obsessive chronicling were unquestionably Scientifictionalist. But his myth-making and his delight in Tom Bombadilesque mysteries point towards a dyed-in-the-wool Romantic. Maybe that's part of the weird chemistry that makes his books so enjoyable.)

More on Archetypes and Demihumans

In many ways I do rather wish Gygax and Arneson hadn't put demihumans in D&D. Although my love for dwarves is well documented, I think I would be willing to see them removed as playable races as a sacrifice so that I never have to come across an elf or halfling character ever again in a game. (I do have my tongue half in my cheek here, but only half.)

The reason isn't just the one I mentioned yesterday (the tendency towards
"I want to be a good Xer, therefore I must play a member of race Y, because they are the best Xers" as Anonymous put it). I think it's also because Demihuman player characters ruin the sense of mystery that comes with the exploration of something truly weird and fantastical - which is one of the major cornerstones of D&D. They make everything mundane: Melville's banalifying systematisation, rearing its head again. I much prefer the theme of strangers in a strange land, and you can only really explore that fully with human characters at large in a world full of weird and incomprehensible things. Elves and dwarves and the like would be infinitely more interesting if they were unknown and unknowable - the alien "other", permanently present and yet never understood. Rather than, basically, humans who like trees or humans who like mining, respectively.

I've quoted this passage by M. John Harrison before, but the more I think about it the more I start to see his point:
The moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.

The part of me that finds great excitement, pleasure and comfort in creating finely realised fantasy world rebels against that statement with every fibre of its being, but the other half of me - which likes mystery and strangeness and romance - finds it compelling. How is it possible to reconcile the competing desires for systematisation and non-banality? For me, it's the key question not only of D&D or role-playing but of fantasy literature. Demihuman player character races are at the exact point where those two competing desires come together and are repelled; do you systematise elves to make them playable, but in doing so make them banal? Or do you preserve their sense of magic and mystery, but in so doing make them inaccessible? Not a question to keep you up at night, maybe, but one that I think the hobby itself could do more to consider.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that OD&D is the version of D&D which comes closest to reconciling both positions: although it strays into systematisation with its statting-out of the fantastic, it keeps this to a minimum while also providing a bare-bones framework on which to hang whatever strangeness your mind can come up with. There is no Forgotten Realms-esque bloat, no endless anal-retentive cataloguing of pointless minutiae. There is freedom for the unknowable to exist. Maybe there really is more to the old gal than meets the eye.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Mucking About With Classes

One of my little pet projects is a complete overhaul of the D&D class system to divorce it entirely from race. Basically, I want an alternative character creation process whereby race becomes a purely cosmetic 'role-playing' choice. You want to play an elf? Okay, be an elf, but don't expect the game to help you out with juicy free bonuses. You can be good at archery and sneaking about in forests if you want, but you're going to have to do it the same way everybody else does - by creating a character who is good at archery and sneaking about in forests. Why do I want to do this? Mainly because I've played a lot of D&D and I'm bored with things as they are. But also because I want character personality to play a bigger part in the game - I want to put a stop to "I'm playing an elven fighter/mage (zzzz....)" and encourage "I'm playing an angry elf who's really into wind chimes" (or whatever). More individualism is what the game needs!

What would characters be like in this brave new world of racial equality?

I'd like to base them on adventuring archetypes. Archetypes already exist in D&D, of course - each of the 2nd edition brown Complete series has lists of them for the relevant class, and some of the campaign sourcebooks have them too. (My favourite, needless to say, is Monte Cook's list of Planewalker Archetypes in The Planewalker's Handbook.) But they've never really meant anything before; I think they were supposed to be role-playing aids - ways to give a more concrete personality to a character - but I don't think I've ever seen them being used.

This is because they don't have any mechanical benefits. I'm going to change that. Let's take one example, cribbed from The Planewalker's Handbook:

A Spiv is a character who is always on the make. Maybe he's just lazy and doesn't want to work for his bread; maybe he thinks the world owes him a living; maybe he hates other people bossing him around and telling him what to do. Either way, he's a plain wide-boy, permanently on the look out for a way to make a quick and easy gold piece - and so long as it's quick and easy he never gives a second thought to how he gets it. One week he's selling his sword on a simple job guarding a caravan through settled lands to the next city, the next he's an enforcer beating up drunks for an inner-city money-lender, the one after that he's trying to hawk a hundred silk scarves a friend stole from a countess's chambermaid the week before last. if there's money to be had, he's there with a wink and a nudge and an "I'm the man for you" - provided of course he doesn't have to work too hard. That would never do.

Archetype Bonuses

Spivs gain a +2 to their Reaction Adjustment, from their skills in fast-talking. They are also expert judges of character from their constant wheeler-dealing. At Level 1 they can Detect Alignment with 50% probability, and have a 25% chance to Detect Lie. These probabilities rise by 3% per level.

Archetype Penalties

Spivs are fundamentally lazy. They are unwilling to work unless there is easy money to be made. If ever a Spiv does any sort of physical activity (including spellcasting) for which he isn't being directly paid or isn't guaranteed payment in the future, he has to make a saving throw vs. death magic. Failure means that he falls into a sulk for the rest of the day and does nothing.
More to come, if I'm not feeling Spivvish and lazy.

Monday, 15 September 2008

All the Little Spellbooks

Just Because:
Random Spellbook Appearance Chart

On discovery of a spellbook, roll a d10 and consult the following table:

1 - The spellbook is sentient, and mean with it. It is given to bouts of irrational viciousness. Whenever somebody tries to open it, there is a 10% chance that it will slam itself shut again - preferably catching their fingers and causing a -1 penalty to DEX for 24 hours.
2 - The spellbook is made from human skin and is beginning to decay. Within 6 months it is likely to have disintegrated completely.
3 - Jackal's teeth are randomly embedded into the cover. These contain traces of poison. On handling, there is a 10% chance that the opener will be scratched by the teeth; he or she should roll a saving throw vs. poison or suffer -1 CON damage recovered at a rate of 1 per day.
4 - The spellbook is tiny - only an inch high. There is a 1% chance that when a wizard memorises a spell from its contents that he has unknowingly misread something; on casting the spell fizzles.
5 - The spellbook is three feet in length and six inches thick, and requires two hands and a strength of at least 10 to be able to be carried.
6 - The spellbook is coated in a glittery purple substance that coats everything - especially human fingers - which come into contact with it. It is impossible to remove.
7 - On opening the spellbook, it emits a randomly determined animal call at the natural volume.
8 - The spellbook's contents are written in invisible ink and the pages have to be soaked in lemon juice in order to be readable.
9 - The spells are written top-to-bottom, rather than right-to-left. If a wizard is unaware of this, all the spells he memorizes from the book will be ineffective.
10 - The spellbook appears to be sprouting hair in patches from its covers, growing at the same rate as human hair. On contact with skin the hair causes severe irritation, reducing DEX by 1 for 24 hours.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Where's the Innovation? Or, Forget the Realms

A while ago I made a post lamenting the lack of innovation in the so-called old-school revival. Basically, I felt it weird and faintly obsessive of people to only use old-school products to create endless pastiches of musty adventure modules from the early 80s. I thought that the whole revival movement would live or die by the creation of genuinely new stuff, and to that end even started up my own campaign setting for labyrinth lord, "OzCthulu", to prove it could be done. (Work on this was temporarily postponed when I lost absolutely everything in a laptop hard drive catastrophe.)

I was thinking about this the other day when participating in this thread over at therpgsite. It was started by somebody complaining about the 4e iteration of the Forgotten Realms setting. (You can read an excellent negative review by Nitessine, of Worlds in a Handful of Dice fame, here. Suffice to say, they've made a whole raft of changes mainly for change's own sake - or in other words to justify selling a whole new range of books to gullible fans.) Now, I should say straight away that I'm no fan of the Forgotten Realms. I always felt that it was bog-standard high fantasy of the most bog-standard kind, and if I was going to buy into a campaign setting it would be one I'd never think up for myself - for example Dark Sun or Planescape. But I know that a lot of people love it, and fair play to them. It seems unfair to slaughter all of their sacred cows. (The argument here always comes back: nobody's putting a gun to their head and saying they have to accept the changes. But they will if they want to play any newly published FR adventures.) More to the point, though, I just don't understand why WotC are even bothering with a new FR edition at all. Here's what I wrote in the thread:
Just so long as they keep away from the one D&D setting I actually like.

Seriously though - talk about creative bankruptcy. I was never into FR, but I recognise the tradition means a lot to a lot of people. So why fuck it over when you could be, I dunno, creating a new setting?

I mean, does anyone else find it odd that TSR managed to come up with Forgotten Realms, Mystara, Dragonlance, Birthright, Planescape, Dark Sun, Al Qadim, Greyhawk, Spelljammer, etc. etc... and all WOTC have ever created is Eberron (and that was developed by somebody else through a competition)? Get a grip, Mearls et al!
In other words, what on earth are they doing fiddling about with Forgotten Realms and annoying its fans, when they could be flexing their creative muscles and coming up with new and interesting settings for the new edition they're so proud of? Even though it was a financial basket case by all accounts, TSR was a veritable hive of innovation in its heyday: settings like Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Planescape are amongst the most interesting ever created in the fantasy genre, full stop - way superior to the vast majority of what even most best-selling fantasy fiction authors come up with. (Don't agree? Pick up a novel by David Eddings or Terry Goodkind or heck, even George R. R. Martin - who I love, by the way - next time you're in a bookshop.) The people who worked on those settings were titans of world creation. So what's WotC's excuse for not following suit?

The mean part of me wants to say: they just want to milk Forgotten Realms and Eberron for all they're worth. But I don't credit Mike Mearls and the other designers with that level of cynicism. I may not like 4e a great deal, but Mike Mearls has never struck me as anything other than a thoroughly nice individual. And he's obviously a very thoughtful, creative and intelligent person. Is the problem that he and the other designers are directing too much of their creativity into the mechanics of the game, and not enough into what the games are actually about? Another possibility is the financial one - it's often argued that a superfluity of campaign settings somehow watered down the market for TSR and contributed to their demise. I've never bought into that: what's the difference between one FR book which a million people buy, and ten Dark Sun books, each of which are bought by 100,000 people? Cost of production? In any case, I'm not arguing for twenty brilliant innovative new settings. Even one would do.)

Anyway, in light of these thoughts, I feel much more charitably inclined to the old school revivalist movement, which at least makes no bones about rehashing old material. If people are going for creative bankruptcy, at least let's be honest about it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

BECMI Planescape

One thing I've often thought about is making a BECMI D&D version of Planescape. It wouldn't require a heck of a lot of work at first glance; alignment is easily expanded on from the Law/Neutrality/Chaos three-way matrix, and things like hit dice and armour classes don't really change. The only major task would be reworking the races and classes - but as soon as I start to think about that, I realise that it in fact the whole thing is a heck of a lot of work.

It's also a bit intellectually dubious, really. I like race-as-class in BECMI because it's part of the humanocentric viewpoint encouraged by the designers. There might be dwarf clerics and elf thieves and halfling druids, but they are otherworldly, remote, and fantastical. The only dwarves, elves and halflings who humans regularly encounter are the occasional, and highly unusual, adventurer - who is always of a certain archetype because the others of his or her race just don't go adventuring.

Planescape isn't humanocentric, though; and moreover it is infinite. The BECMI view that dwarf clerics (or whatever) do exist but never adventure doesn't work with Planescape because in infinity anything is more or less possible. There will be one adventuring dwarf cleric somewhere given that there are an infinite amount of dwarven clerics. (The true possibilities of infinity are, I fear, never properly realised in Planescape. I'm going off on a tangent here that I'll probably expand upon in another entry, but in the multiverse, it should be possible to encounter literally anything that is possible; it is the one place in, I believe, all of roleplaying where the Infinite Monkey Theorem could be put into practice. See this old entry for more thoughts on such matters.) This is even truer with level caps: you're telling me that in an infinite multiverse there isn't a single dwarf who ever reached level 20?

Nevertheless, it seems like a fun exercise. What would tiefling, aasimar, bariaur, modron, genasi, githzerai and planar half-elf classes be like? What would their spell lists and saving throws be like? What about their abilities? And what about factions?

All thoughts I which I ruminate over in idle moments.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

White Box Volume II: Monsters & Treasure - First Impressions

Another list of first impressions:
  • Monsters only need one line of text to set out all their stats and abilities. This was a tradition that was maintained through 1st and 2nd edition AD&D (all you really need to know, even with 2nd edition, is the number of hit dice, the armour class and the morale rating) and it's a shame it's fallen by the wayside.
  • There's no attempt at locating the monsters in a fully-realised gameworld. Dervishers are just "fanatically religious nomads"; Mermen are "similar to berzerkers in most respects but they fight at -1 on land"; kobolds should be "treated as if they are goblins". That phrase, why let us do your imagining for you, echoes through the pages. It has its advantages and disadvantages; the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual provided sheets and sheets of information on each monster, but it was chock full of good ideas to spur your imagination and creativity. There's none of that in OD&D. On the other hand, you have a blank slate on which to work, more or less.
  • It's a book written by wargamers: "Buccaneers are water-going Bandits in every respect except composition of their force: Light Foot = 60%; Light Crossbow = 30%; and Heavy Crossbow (Chainmail) = 10%." Giants "act as light catapults".
  • The gnoll is patently not a hyena-thing. It is a "cross between a gnome and a troll." (See picture below.)
  • No fantasy puritanism here: robots and androids are given a big stamp of approval. That's started me off thinking about a Viriconium game again...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

White Box Volume I: Men & Magic - First Impressions

The first impressions of an OD&D newcomer to the Game Wot Started Everything Else. I'm just going to note things down in a convenient point-blob style list, as and when they come to me. Don't expect much in the way of coherence; I'm literally just jotting down notes as I scroll down the pdf in Foxit Reader.

  • It's an utterly banal observation, really, but as Milan Kundera once remarked (in one of my favourite quotes), it's often the most banal observations which intrigue and surprise us the most: the cover and title page of Men & Magic make no mention of 'role playing', because at the time it didn't exist. Instead, the game is described in a rather cumbersome and innaccurate way as Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. (It's often complained that 4e D&D 'requires' minatures while older editions don't. Whether OD&D required miniatures is debatable, but you can certainly argue that their use was encouraged.)
  • Gary Gygax, in his dedication, thanks the people who helped expand on the Chainmail rules (what we would now call 'playtesters', I suppose) and then remarks: "Here is something better!" A great line. I wonder if early players realised just how much better this strange new world of gaming was.
  • The Gygaxian writing style is immediately noticeable: enthusiastic, verbose, and unselfconsciously flowery. The sly digs and put-downs that he would become infamous for are present even in the 'Forward' (sic): "Those wargamers who lack imagination", he announces sniffily, "will not be likely to find Dungeons & Dragons to their taste."
  • In its own very simple way the introduction provides one of the most inspiring manifestos for the roleplaying hobby that has ever been written:
    [These rules] provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.
  • Number of players: "At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be
    handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about
    1:20 or thereabouts." I believe that bears repeating, in bold type: The referee to player ration should be about 1:20 or thereabouts. (!)
  • I quite like how IMAGINATION is stressed on virtually every page of the set-up as the key ingredient to a successful game.
  • Another banal-yet-intriguing observation: this was a game about dungeons (hence the title). The referee's job is to map out levels of his 'underworld', people them with monsters 'of various horrid aspect', and create 'a huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane genuises'.
  • Fuck balance. Right from the off, it is explicitly stated that Magic Users are the strongest characters in the game at higher level, but the weakest at the beginning. I'm not altogether sure why, twenty-five years later, that idea suddenly became anathema to the people at WotC. It always seemed like a fair trade-off, to me.
  • I love how one of the key examples of a magic item is an X-ray vision ring: the one thing that geeky 12 year old males prize above all others. I think when I was 12 I would have sold my soul to Beelzebub for an X-ray vision ring.
  • These were medieval military history enthusiasts, alright: not 10 pages in and we're already discussing units of horsed crossbowmen of the 'turcopole type'. Look it up on wikipedia.
  • The iconic dwarf is armed with a sword, not an axe. As somebody who makes a point of always arming dwarf characters with swords just to be contrary, I appreciate that picture.
  • "There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything": you want to be a dragon? Go for it!
  • For some reason, one of the cleric ranks is a 'Lama' - maybe the only intrusion of non-European culture into the entire book.
  • THAC0 was a real Godsend: one look at the combat matrixes and my eyes are already glazing over and I'm beginning to experience brain-stem death.
  • In finest 'Players Handbook' tradition, the section on spell descriptions is about as long as the entire rest of the rules put together.
  • There are naked breasts and a self-confessed "beautiful witch" on page 27; meanwhile, on page 29, there is a goblin who looks...well...nothing like how later editions of the game have envisaged goblins to be. (There is an even more surprising picture of an elf on page 32; I'll Winshot it in to the bottom of the entry, for those who are interested.)
And that's the end. Short but sweet. I wouldn't describe the thing as rules lite in the same way that Risus is rules lite; it's more....what's the word? Rules skeptical? A skeleton is provided, and it's for you to flesh it out. "Why let us do your imagining for you?", as the man himself used to say.

Volume II tomorrow.

So I broke down and downloaded Original D&D...

It's the three original volumes from 1974, and it only cost me $5.99 (which is about 600 yen, or I guess about 3 quid in real money). I haven't had a chance to read through it yet, but I think once I have I'll do a little review here in the blog. (I don't normally do reviews, but for OD&D I'll make an exception.) I'm looking forward to finding out exactly what Sham, James Maliszewski, Philotomy, Scott and the rest see in it.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Runaway Slave Never Going Back (II)

Okay, there is something good about Steal Away Jordan. I was discussing it in this thread at the rpg site and discovered that one of the core conceits of the game is that the GM isn't aware of the players' plans - those are all set out in secret and kept "for their eyes only".

When I first heard that my immediate reaction was "Ugh, more fashionable forge-ite gimmickry without any practical worth". I pictured the players deciding "Okay, let's dig a tunnel to freedom" while the GM was out of the room, and then when he returned telling him, "We're going to dig a tunnel." Utterly pointless, in other words. But then I had it explained to me that in fact, the point is that the players (the slaves) write down lists of goals which they keep secret, so they get no help from the GM in achieving them - because they're slaves.

Now, I don't buy into the whole "let's examine the psychological implications of slavery" thing. I know what the psychological implications were: very very bad. That's why we don't keep slaves anymore. I need to discover how bad slavery was about as much as I need to find out how mean Stalin was or why we shouldn't like famine.

(And where does it stop, by the way? "Let's examine the psychological implications of torture and murder!" Er, no thanks. It reminds me of a play I went to see when I was a uni student, because a girl I had the hots for and who was taking a Drama degree wanted to watch it. My university was just about the top Drama school in the country at the time and a hive of "edgy", avant-garde types. The point of the play, kept secret until everybody had arrived and bought tickets, was - guess what? - to get the audience to simulate raping each other. And that isn't a joke. Apparently the idea was to gain a deeper understanding of the psychological implications of sexual abuse - although it may have been couched in different terms - and needless to say it wasn't a roaring success with the audience.)

But that idea (the GM leaving the room; not the simulated sex acts) actually strikes me as a good one to use in 'regular' rpgs too, particularly sandbox style games. Just imagine: everybody sits down to play OD&D. They all roll up characters, and then they write down lists of character goals and put them in an envelope so nobody could see. It could be anything from "get really really rich" to "become Baron of Blahblah" to "become a proxy of Anubis" to "marry a dragon". And the players have to work towards those goals over the course of the campaign, without the DM ever knowing what they are. When, in a year's time (or however long) the campaign is over, the envelope gets opened and we see who succeeded and who didn't. The winner then gets a prize - the "pot", maybe, which everyone stuck 10 quid into at the game's opening. Sound like a fun idea?

Friday, 5 September 2008

Runaway Slave Never Going Back

I think I've identified what my problem with self-consciously indie, Forge-y games is. And it can be encapsulated in the blurb to a popular (as much as those games ever are) indie rpg currently making a bit of splash in circles where they care about such things: Steal Away Jordan. See, I'm happy for games to exist in which
players explore the social and psychological implications of life in a society where people can be property.
And I'm happy for there to be games in which
players consider slavery’s long-term impact on a society and on the descendants of slaves and slave owners.
But it sounds, to me, like what my GCSE* History coursework was designed to achieve, and therefore not an enjoyable or worthwhile experience as I understand it. Other people's mileage, needless to say, may vary, but I don't really want to play GCSE History coursework; it isn't my idea of a fun evening.

I think if I was going to play Steal Away Jordan and enjoy it, I wouldn't want much, or indeed any, consideration of the social and psychological implications of slavery. Rather, what I would want would be pulpy, let's-have-a-revolution-and-start-up-a-quilombo, old fashioned, swashbuckling, runaway-slaves-fighting-crocodiles, voodoo-magic, Indian-burial-grounds style adventure. I'm not sure why that's frowned upon, but it apparently is, so my interest falls to pretty close to zero.

I suppose the problem could be summed up as: I don't mind taking games seriously to a point, but at the end of the day, all we are is a bunch of nerds sitting round a table rolling dice and pretending to be elves (or Wolofs). If I'm going to be a nerd, let's at least have fun and forget about all the bloody learning and consideration of implications.

*GCSE: General Certificate of Secondary Education. Examinations English and Welsh kids have to take at the age of 16.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Fighting Fantasy Cover Monster Bestiary (II)

An occasional series which stats-out and re-imagines the creatures found on Fighting Fantasy book covers.

Number 2: The Red Eyed Cat-Apes of Xarg-Jobba

On the barren peak of Spiderclaw there is a monastery to the God of Waiting, Uncle Kafalat. The monastery's name is Xarg-Jobba, and its monks have long experimented with the mystical arts of spirit-summoning, selective-breeding, and enforced mutation. One of their most successful (although in a certain way their least successful) projects has been the Red Eyed Cat-Ape, a creature bred originally for defense of the monastery but which is now spreading across the continent with astonishing rapidity after a number escaped some decades ago.

The Red Eyed Cat-Ape is a cross between a particularly ferocious breed of carnivorous ape (summoned up by a member of the order from Uncle-Kafalat-knows-where) and a jaguar; its glowing red eyes are an accidental bi-product of the enforced mutation process. (A bi-product with mysterious effects, however.) It is astonishingly aggressive and rapacious, will eat essentially anything, and breeds with rabbit-like rapidity. Worse, its unnatural ancestry has endowed it with strange and unintended powers.

Red Eyed Cat-Ape of Xarg-Jobba

No. Appearing: 1-6
AC: 5
THAC0: 16
HD: 4+1
No. of Attacks: 3
Damage per Attack: 1-6/3-6/3-6 (bite/scratch/scratch)
Morale: Elite (13-14)
Intelligence: Low (5-7)
Treasure: None
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Special Attacks: If a Red Eyed Cat-Ape's scratch attacks both hit, then it has succeeded in grabbing its target and its bit then automatically hits for double damage. Also see below.
Special Defenses: See below.
Magic Resistance: 25%

Three times per day a Red Eyed Cat-Ape can use its eyes to fire ball-like missiles of magical energy at opponents. There are three kinds of missile, determined randomly; the DM should roll a d3 to determine what type is fired. The first kind is equivalent to a weakness spell; the second is equivalent to fear; the third causes slowness. To be effective the missile has to hit its target (+3 bonus to the 'to hit' roll).

If a Red Eyed Cat-Ape loses 75% of its hit points it can immediately cast a blink spell to escape. This is a special use of its eyes, and it is unable to use them for a round afterwards (equivalent to blindness).

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Sannveig the Healer

Sannveig the Healer. To all appearances a friendly, somewhat bumbling old woman with a famously short temper when it comes to 'malingerers'. She travels from village to village in the Ingerman Valley, administering remedies, good luck charms, and advice (whether wanted or unwanted) wherever she goes - in return for hot meals and the occasional silver coin. An itinerant gypsy medicine woman, as exists in every community of villages in every part of the world.

Except Sannveig isn't a woman. She's a wolfwere, and in return for her services she doesn't just take hot meals and coin. She takes people too, for the sustenance she needs.

The people she takes are mostly the very old - those who are dying or very close to it. And it is, of course, done with the collusion of the villagers, who are well aware of her true nature. They reason that if she is kept well fed she is less likely to trouble 'younger folk', and that's true enough. Of course it's upsetting for the family, but better Sannveig take somebody who's already on the way out, than a young babe or farmer.

Of course, best of all for the villagers would be if Sannveig didn't have to eat any of their number. So they are very keen to find alternative ways to sate her appetite. Travellers on the road are considered fair game for this, and anybody stopping in the Ingerman Valley overnight might end up in Sannveig's belly after having their vittals (provided by a smiling, buxom peasant girl) stuffed full of sleeping herbs...