.. just to let people know: The oft-mentioned move is happening. This is why there haven’t been any updates for a while (well, that and GenCon) and probably won’t be until after I move, which will be late August. Assuming all goes well and I get an Internet connection (and where I’m moving, this is not guaranteed), regular postings will resume.
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part VIII
The Gems Of Arduin
Literally And Figuratively
OK! Last week I wrote a short article, and forgot to post it. It’s posted now. I’m claiming it as not breaking my weekly schedule. The fact no one but me read it last week hardly matters; my readership count for posted, unposted, and purely imaginary articles remains roughly equal.
But this week, I have no excuse for a shorter article; I’m home all day (probably). So let’s get going!
Old Oliphaunt Puke
Hey, I just had to work this in. There’s a small list of some goods and services, with notes, in the typical Arduin style, such things as shoeing a horse (1-5 pennies), mailing a letter, buying salt, and “a bottle of wine” which is “a penny and up”. That has the following footnote:
Please also note the rate at which silver coating wears off. Keep track of each hit, folks! (Or reserve your silver sword for fighting undead.) Frankly, this seems too simple and predictable for Real Old School… I’d make it “2d10% per hit, rolled secretly, so you never know unless you take time to inspect the blade after a fight and see if the coating is still intact”.
Rope A Dope
Here’s an example of one of my favorite things to make an example of: Variable Level of Detail, or VLD, an acronym I coined now and will forget by my next post. A common feature of Old School Games was highly abstract, simplified rules for somethings, and insanely specific and detailed rules for others, with the reasoning behind which concept got which treatment being wholly obscure to anyone but the rules writer. (“So, wait… this game has more pages of rules and modifiers for throwing things from one PC to another than it does for all of melee combat?” — this is not made-up snark. This is, in fact, a literal and accurate description of Space Opera. ) And so it is with ropes.
Because there’s nothing like hearing the players say “Well, we rope ourselves together so we don’t fall into the pit!” and then saying, “Well, let me just roll on the rope breakage chart!” (And I’ll bet at least one player found a way to invoke this chart when their character was the subject of a little mob justice…)
I can’t believe Pathfinder doesn’t have a chart like this. I ought to write one.
The People Responsible For The Multiversal Price List In Volume I Have Been Sacked
The next page is a price list that supplements the list in the Arduin Grimoire. I’m going to include a slice of it to show the breadth of stuff you could buy, but it’s mostly fairly mundane and sensible. It is important, to me, because it conveys the sense of a world that lurks beyond the bounds of the PCs, and it can inspire creativity in odd ways. What can one do with some bagpipes, a jar of paste, and a bilge pump?
I am not sure if what “Elf Tea” does for you. It might be covered later. I’m betting it’s one of those really weak, thin, teas that 20-somethings who only eat gluten-free organic locally sourced heirloom radishes picked by union labor drink. (And is the Pixie Wine made from real pixies? Well, actually, near the end of Book III, there’s something… but, no. Spoilers!)
And what kind of Old School supplement would Welcome to Skull Tower be, if it didn’t correct the prior supplement?
Let’s see who’s old enough to get the caption…
The next few pages are, to me, some of the most important in the trilogy. They’re not the goofiest, or the strangest, or the most mechanically complex. They’re simple lists of things, like the pages we’ve been covering for several posts now, but they ignited a spark in my imagination way back when, and that spark has never been extinguished.
What are they? Coins and gems.
Big whoop, you say. Treasure was how you kept score. Whatever. Get to the octorilla!
Don’t worry, the octorilla is en route. But these aren’t simple lists of conversion of 10 coppers to a silver piece. These are… well, here’s the coins.
So, at a time when all treasure was, effectively, blank disks in three (later five) colors, this presented the idea of a world sprawling out before me, a world where elves had a currency for themselves and one they used when dealing with dwarves; a world where even copper came in three sizes; a world where coins could be stars of platinum or cubes of ivory. A world where such places as “legendary Khra” and “the Dreaming Isles” existed… somewhere. Where “the lost city of Koraz” traded, not in gold and silver, but in brass and tin.
I mean, c’mon! “The iron coins of dread Marmochand.” That sentence alone invokes wonder and awe and mystery, infects you with a desire to know more. Well, it infected me at any rate. This table make me think — still makes me think — about all sorts of things when I create worlds. It shows, in one page, how a world can, and should, sprawl from the most mundane — a tiny copper coin to buy a loaf of bread — to the most fantastic — orichalcum serpent coins used in legend by the Kthoi, who or whatever the Kthoi are or were. And that very lack of explanation is part of the appeal. The Arduin books presented an almost random collection of bits and pieces of Dave Hargrave’s imaginations. They’re like finding a collection of torn and random pages from some lost series of great novels, trying to piece together the whole story from the fragments you have at hand.
When you design a fantasy, or science fiction, world… consider the money used. Not just its value, but its look and feel. Money is, after all, a fairly important part of life. It has real power and symbolic significance.
Orc Eyes And Dragon Tears
On the facing page, gems. Again, I’d tended to think of gems as being, effectively, a low-weight way to carry a lot of coins, and saving every gold piece of weight — why, yes, the “gold piece” was a unit of weight, why do you ask? — was often critical, as you’d never know when the DM was going to spontaneously remember the encumbrance rules everyone ignored most of the time. As with coins, though, the Arduin tables opened my mind to a range of new possibilities.
“Rainbow diamonds… associated with the dread Elder Gods and their foul rites”… how can one read this and not be inspired? “Elf stones… as the name implies”… erm… OK, you’ve kind of got me there. I’m not sure what the name implies, other than that “stones” is sometimes a euphemism for something I can’t imagine being used as a form of currency… probably. And “Dunestars, found in mirage oasis only”… are they illusionary gems? Or does the mirage somehow leave behind a real gem? Either way, it’s cool. What does a star tear look like? It’s never stated, but I’d envision something like an oval of perfectly transparent glass, which glows brightly with its own internal light. The “prized by” and “used by” notes are the sort of thing a canny player memorized to weasel out a bonus of some sort when forced, by dire circumstance, to negotiate instead of slaughter. Fortunately, that didn’t happen often.
Another page follows, including nine kinds of pearls, and many different kinds of coral and marble, and even more, all of which served to tell me how vast a world could be and how many kinds of things — even in the category of ‘colorful rocks’ — it could contain. Then we go on, further still, to “other valuables”…
I am afraid I must note that there are, of course, no actual rules for how to use nacre in alchemical experiments, or what smoking hemp does for you in terms of “magik rites”, unless you’re performing an “Invoke Munchies” spell. But who cares? It’s still cool. I also have to love that “black powder” is used in “esoteric rites and rituals”, such as “the ritual of blowing the crap out of someone from a good ways away” and “the ritual of the DM and the player arguing about if their character knows how to make a gun just because the player does”.
This concludes the price and equipment section. Next time — mage spells, and the octorilla! I promise!
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part VII
The Charts Go Ever, Ever, On
This week’s ‘short article’ excuse: I went to go see a movie with my wife. I have a life, you know! (Still stuck in a holding pattern on the move closer to work. If we get one of the houses we want, I’ll have a 2-minute commute, and since there’s absolutely nothing worth going to, seeing, or doing in the area, I’ll have a lot more time to write these articles.)
We continue our rampage through the price lists of the Multiversal Trading Company, and I continue to go “neener neener” to the Old School Revisionists who like to claim “magic item shops” and a mechanistic, X GP for Y Power approach to magic was somehow added due to “video game Diablo Warcraft kiddies” some time around the turn of the century. I will also continue being stunned and amazed by the sheer breadth of creativity, imagination, and mad genius that Dave Hargrave evinced in this tome, and likewise continue making cheap jokes at the expense of a much greater creator than I could ever hope to be when I stumble on some of the oddities, confusions, and contradictions that abound.
Wands, Rings, Amulets… First Floor. Cloaks, Clothing, Menswear, Third Floor.
“How much for one ring to rule them all?”
“That depends, Sir. Do you want it to be able to find them?”
Now, you may notice a few things, looking at the above:
- Helms cost a whole lot more than anything else. There’s a very good reason for this. Helms were among the very few magic items that fighting-men… erm… fighters… could generally use. And a helm of teleport would be an incredible boon to a fighter, enabling him to skedaddle as needed, and it was needed a lot.
- The other prices have less obvious rationales. It’s not clear why wands, which can you carry an infinite number of (given a sufficient number of bags of holding), are cheaper than rings, when you could only wear two. (Wands could be knocked from your hands more easily, I suppose).
- I suppose jewelry is anything not a ring or amulet? Earring, bracer, exotic piercing…
- An “offensive power” could be “magic missile” or “Power Word: Kill”, all for the same price? This looks like an obvious loophole and I can’t believe Dave’s players didn’t exploit it.
- It seems as if, in general, ‘detect’ abilities cost more. I can only infer that, like a lot of older games, a great deal of emphasis was placed on hiding treasure and/or setting up ambushes, making the ability to spy out hidden items or hidden enemies exceptionally useful.
Mr. Humphries, Are You Free?
Then Show This Gentleman Something In An Iron Golem.
OK, here we go… at the time, D&D had exactly four golems… iron, stone, flesh, and clay. This remained pretty standard for a while… unlike dragons, there wasn’t much of an ‘official’ impulse to expand the golem types. (In general, almost any type of monster with an adjective begs for expansion… if you’ve got hill giants and stone giants, why not forest giants and magma giant?)
But in Arduin, the golems went up to 11. Actually, I think there’s 15 there. But anyway… this little list is a perfect example of what Arduin means to me.. an outpouring of concepts without a lot of detailed explanation. OK, without any explanation. It inspired you to add meaning to names, to figure out exactly how a ‘shadow golem’ worked. And what the hell is ‘orichalcum’, anyway? I didn’t know then… I’m not sure I know now. But it was worth more than gold or adamantine!
The idea of a speaking, flying, hasted green slime golem really appeals to me.
Scrolls? Just Past The Elevators, To Your Left.
This is an interesting table, not least of which because it includes a concept still not common in modern incarnation of D&D or Pathfinder… resistances for scrolls! This may be because modern games rarely include targeting magic items on a one-by-one basis; there’s nothing in the current iteration of fireball that specifies your items need to save. In the old days, however, it was assumed that anything that damaged you might damage your items, and scrolls, in particular, were especially fragile. This often led to debates about scroll cases, and precisely where on your person a scroll was stored, and “OK, fine, your scroll is in a lead-lined ivory scroll tube inside a steel scroll carrying case… now explain how you got it out in the six seconds you had before the orc raced across the room to cleave your head in.” (Another reason Dave Hargrave deserves major praise for inventing the 6-second combat round 13 years early… the amount of bullshit a player could claim they could do in one minute was simply ridiculous. A six second round cut down the possibilities considerably.)
I am not sure what “self protecting” means. Does the scroll, sensing an incoming acid attack, tear itself from its owner’s hands and burrow into the backpack, huddling behind a backup suit of +2 chain mail?
We conclude this sub-section with two important things.
First, Dave Hargrave reminds us that he’s just sharing his world — and your world is your own, to do with as you please.
Second, as promised, the second to last bit of Erol Otus art to be found in the original trilogy:
Next week… with luck, more time and a longer piece. I’m hoping, maybe, to clear through the price lists. There’s two lists coming up that had a profound influence on my sense of what a fantasy world could be.
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part VI
Usury & Unicorns
Well, There’s No Actual Unicorns. But Not Many Words Start With ‘U’.
Usury & Ukeleles? Usury & Umbrellas? Usury & Unicycles?
I Give Up
Welcome to “Welcome To Skull Tower, Part VI”. In what is rapidly becoming a ritual, I note this will be a relatively short excursion, as I spent yesterday working on some actual paid gaming work, leaving me only a few hours before I need to leave to go play in my weekly Pathfinder game, and there’s no time during the week to write. So it goes.We continue our shopping spree, as we have many pages of price lists to go. By the way, you may have heard that in Ye Olde Schoole Dayse, magic items were as rare as merciful game masters, and there were no “magic item shops” or the like, and people weren’t decked out like Christmas trees covered in magic items, and if you played every week for three years, you might, just might, have found a rusty +1 dagger, and you cherished it like it was your own child, and blah blah blah.
Hope that clears that up.
There’s a lot of stuff to buy in Arduin, ranging from the mundane (a pound of salt for 1 silver penny) to the… not so mundane (Orichalcum golem, base price 100,000 gs, but you’ll want to add in extras like haste (15,000) and magik defense (also 15,000). But, you ask, “How can I afford these wonderful things when every orc I kill only has 1d4 copper pieces on it?” Well, that’s easy.
You take out a loan.
Now, it doesn’t specify what the loan term is or how often it’s compounded, but that 50% has got to be nasty at first level… and, by the way…
Yeah. Miss a payment, wake up dead.
It is noted that just because there’s a price list, doesn’t mean the item is actually for sale… the Multiversal Trading Company has to buy something before it can sell it, after all. This serves as a way for the GM to prevent some items from entering his campaign — after all, only they know what has been “bought” in the past. For example, it may be the case that no cheese is in stock at the moment, or what is in stock is extremely runny.
Of course, most players don’t want salt, or golems, or salt golems, they want weapons.
As you can see, you can pretty much cost out most any combination you wish. A few points:
- In Arduin, weapons can have different “plusses” for to-hit and damage. Do you buy them twice (so +1 to hit, +1 to damage is 2 plusses?) or does this chart assume the more traditional rule that a +1 weapon is +1 to both?
- The prices really don’t make a lot of sense, even by the standards of the day. Why, for example, is adding life draining to a two-handed hammer (750) so much cheaper than adding it to a scimitar? I even checked the weapon vs. AC and weapon damage vs. monster size tables in The Arduin Grimoire. The two-handed hammer is a better weapon on both counts. Yeah, you can’t use a shield, but do the math. For the cost of adding life draining to a scimitar (5000), you can it to a 2-handed hammer (750) and make it a +4 weapon! I have to assume there was some internal logic behind a chart this detailed, but damned if I can figure it out.
- Likewise, some of these prices should just be flat rates… is a dagger that speaks Dwarvish somehow less useful than a sling that speaks Dwarvish? (Hell, for 145 gold/language, a dagger could be a lot cheaper than a translator, and easier to carry, too. Broadswords are cheaper still, but harder to bring with you to a social gathering.)
Man (Dwarf, Kobbit, Phraint, Centaur…) Cannot
Live Kill By Magic Weapons Alone
Having a +5 Two Handed Hammer of Life Drain is nice, but as we’ve seen from earlier articles, Arduin is not a safe place. You need more if you want to make it to 100th level as an Outlaw and get a +1 with any missile weapon! Fortunately, Dave Hargrave has you covered.
So hear you go. This is, to be sure, hardly an exhaustive list of magic items (we’re also not done with this section), but it does have a lot of the most common.
- “Horns Of Nordic Magik”… I guess Dave worried “Horn of Valhalla” might bring down TSR’s lawyers? Ditto “Cards Of Many Magik Things” and “Gauntlets of Super Strength”.
- No “Added Cost Factors” for magic brooms? Sheesh, in the Harry Potter books, there’s an entire industry centered around them.
- “Variable depending on speed of flight” is nice, but… varies how? +x GP/10′ of base flight speed? What? Ah well. A lot of what’s cool about Arduin, as I said before, is that it consists much more of “nudges to get you thinking” than it does “absolute rules”. The books in general… and much of the area I’m exploring now, in particular… are more “stuff to think about you may not have thought to think about” (think about it — that does parse correctly) than truly definitive lists.
- I am not sure what “Magik String” does.
- It’s sort of amusing that “Boots of Walking On Anything” are “Super Rare”, but the “Deck of Many Magik Things”, which is well-known as a TPK engine, isn’t. Or, perhaps, that’s the point. “Hey, you guys want to spend 100 grand to screw yourselves over in a dozen horrific ways? Be my guest.” The boots, OTOH, are likely to be very useful in foiling the GMs most cunning plans. (I utterly pissed off my GM when, in my Pathfinder game, I pointed out that Water Walking, despite its name, also let us walk harmlessly on top of molten lava… said so right in the spell description… we were able to enter a major fight having taken far less damage than he’d expected. Heh heh heh. Some things never change.)
As I said, this has to be brief… next time… golems, rings, scrolls, one of the few remaining Erol Otus drawings, and “Old Oliphant Puke”.
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part V
No, That’s Not A Typo. My Spell Checker Doesn’t Recognize My Brilliant Puns
Now, as we voyage through the tangled maze of brilliant nuggets, creative genius, and sheer madness that is the Arduin trilogy, we come upon the fabled Realm of the Charts, which has been uncharted until now. Get it? Damn, I’m clever. Anyway, there’s several pages of tables, charts, lists, indexes, notes, codicils, enumerations, and so on which are connected to each other in ways tenuous, obscure, and wholly non-existent.
A Haggorym’s Got To Know His Limitations
Yes, I used that joke here. This isn’t being lazy or repetitive, this is a deliberate callback, thus amplifying the humor through repetition, much like the Coyote being constantly hit by falling rocks.
A few points:
- The “Mechanical Ability”, “Swimming Ability”, and “Stamina” columns from The Arduin Grimoire are gone here. Whether this is due to Dave Hargrave abandoning those mechanics, or this chart being vertical rather than horizontal, is a question for the ages.
- “Agility” remains referenced, though never quite explained, in Skull Tower, but “Stamina” less so. It may be that the split between manual “Dexterity” and full-body (I’m guessing) “Agility” was deemed more useful than whatever the division between Stamina and Constitution was supposed to model. I’ll keep an eye out for Stamina references going forward.
- While the first limitation chart was mostly the more traditional races, with a few things like kobbits tossed in, this one really ups the ante in terms of variety: Hawkmen, Ocotorillas, Wargs, and so on.
- The “1” note informs us that more details are in the monster section; the “2” tells us the horse body is 1-3 points stronger than the “human” body, the “3” and “4” notes tell us that agility as listed is for swimming/flying, and is halved otherwise.
- Good lord, phraints have redonkulous dexterity. I’m guessing you had to roll a natural 17 or 18 to play one, which would have kept them damn rare, as they were supposed to be. I suspect 99% of all phraints were rolled up when the DM wasn’t looking.
And For When You Fail Them, Resurrection and Reincarnation
Next, we somewhat logically have an expanded saving throw chart, which, it is noted, supplements and expands the one in the Grimoire. Nothing special to note here that wasn’t already covered. So, moving on…
The mere existence of this chart demonstrates, to my mind, the foolishness of believing that “video game style respawning” is somehow a product of the accursed modern era, and back in Ye Olden Days (which I lived and gamed through, and which an awful lot of people with strong opinions about them didn’t), men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were available as player characters, and there was no “revolving door afterlife”. The hell there wasn’t! That door spun so fast, Dave Hargrave needed a chart broken down into half percentages to figure out who could race back through it.
- Elvish females (per footnote, not shown) have a 2% lower chance of resurrection than Elvish males. Why? Who cares! It’s these sorts of random details that make exploring these books so much fun.
- As my caption snidely notes, virtually every species, except avians and piscoids (which doesn’t include merfolk or tritons), is “tougher than average”, “very tough”, “hard to kill”, and so on. Not that these “Other Factors” actually come into play in any way… the percentages tell the tale.
- Pixies are “magikally tough”, which sounds like you need to marinate them a long time before grilling.
- Brownies are “magikally very tough”, especially if they’re overcooked and dry. Top with vanilla ice cream to help counteract this.
- How often did one need to roll to resurrect a greater demon?
Where Are My Dragons?
Well, never mind “where”… how old are they?
I’m assuming that “Experience Points” is how many the dragon needed to earn, and the fact Dave had rules for dragons earning XP tells you a lot about how awesome his games had to have been.
We go from resurrections, to dragons, to reincarnation…
One of the genre-defining tropes of D&D (and I repeat, D&D is not a rules system, D&D is a genre) is that clerics raise you from the dead, but druids simply give you a new body, randomly determined. You had to hope your party healer was a cleric, not a druid, because otherwise…
Honestly, the chart kind of speaks for itself. There’s no weighting towards marginally-playable results; you’re as likely to be a maggoth as a turtle. And you can be reincarnated as “random undead”, which seems to me to be kind of missing the point of the whole thing. (There’s a helpful random undead chart which I’m not going to post. It offers morghouls and ghost crabs as options, along with ‘exotic’… because ‘undead phantasmal crab’ is just so mundane, you know?)
Having looked at charts for coming back from the dead, we go on to charts about how you get dead in the first place. There’s an attack matrix for claws and other natural attacks — I’m not sure why it’s needed in addition to the standard charts. It’s mostly 1 better than the standard attack chart… e.g., if you need a 13 to hit a given AC on the chart in the Grimoire, you need a 12 here. OK. Moving on..
Ah. Here we go…
That’s more like it! You’ve got your death in 1-3 rounds, your instant death, and your instant and irrevocable death! No reincarnation chart for you!
I have no idea why the chart include additional damage for “instant death” results. In some modern incarnations of D&D, exactly just how far you are below 0 Hit Points does matter — some abilities in Pathfinder, for instance, can heal the just-dead by a random amount, which may or may not be enough to get them up to “mostly dead”. But old-school D&D? Not so much, unless this is a glimpse into some lost mechanics of Dave’s.
I totally love the “roll for % of arm lost” kind of mechanics, and the potential arguments over what you could do with 43% of an arm vs. 81% of one.
For 33-34, I suspect the player is in as much shock as the character…
Paging Dr. Voorhees…
The next page is interesting. It’s a collection of rules, notes, and modifications for the effects of injury, and is credited to “Doctor William Voorhees, a specialist in internal medicine”, who “has a remarkable insight into rationalizing game magik and medical facts”.
I did some googling, and I found a Dr. William Voorhees, specialist in internal medicine, in Sea Ranch, California, who got his degree in 1975 — which would have made him perfectly suited, age-wise, to have been gaming with Dave & co. at the time. Not on FB, that I can tell, and no real contact info… and it makes me feel kind of creepy to be “stalking” him like this… but I am curious…
Save Vs. Heavy Artillery!
But first, here’s a picture of a dwarf and a wizard torturing what I suspect is a kobbit — a kobold/hobbit crossbreed. Or it might just be a particularly scruffy hobbit — who knows? Maybe it’s a hobbit slaver, and totally deserves it.
The next two pages have a surprising amount of white space for the Arduin books, and contain three tables of damage, ranges, and so forth for all kind and manner of small and large caliber weaponry, from 20mm to 16 inches. The system involves “ACP”, or “Armor Class Penetration”, and there’s various damage factors for different levels of armor penetrated, and so on. Or, IOW, it’s another micromechanic that uses different rules than, say, crossbow bolts or other ranged weapons. It’s perfectly understandable why it was done this way, and I’m guessing it had a lot to do with either Dave, or someone in Dave’s group, being familiar with either real-world artillery or wargaming mechanics for such things, or both, and bringing that knowledge into D&D. A lot of Burgess Shale Era fan/semi-pro gaming material was clearly someone taking their personal expertise in an area and translating it into D&D terms, preferring to create their own mechanics to model it rather than trying to use the limited toolbox of existing systems.
It is noted that concussion effects can include hearing loss, internal hemorrhaging, blindness, or being set afire, “the frequency of which is up to the DM”. Likewise, blast effects can travel long distances in “confined areas” such as dungeon corridors. Heh heh heh….
Then we get an XP chart, with bonuses for special abilities like breath weapon, stoning, etc., and to use it, we get…
So, yeah, there’s that. Let me note that the idea of giving “monsters” magic weapons and armor (and other gear) is yet another concept that didn’t become standard in D&D until 3.x (and was mostly dropped in 4 and 5, though it lives on quite nicely in Pathfinder). I will also point out that a fairly important rule, the 10%/level reduction, is buried in the example text. This was also somewhat typical of the era. You had to read carefully to find all the hidden bits; they weren’t always called out for you.
Then, we get a hirelings chart, with monthly costs, and chance of finding, everything from astrologers to assassins. (The fee for the assassin is a retainer; each “hit” must be paid for as well.)
Well, that’s 12 pages covered — probably the most any of these has ever done in one go! Next time, usurious loan rates, magic weapons by the plus, and more!
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part IV
Shopkeepers, Slavers, And Courtesans, Oh My!
(Did I Do The A, B, & C Thing In A Header Already? I Can’t Recall.)
(Well, Bugger It If I Have. You Ought To Know By Now I’ll Beat A Joke To Death, Reincarnate It, And Beat It Some More.)
(Yeah, But That’s Not A Joke, Even By Your Admittedly Overbroad Standards. At Best, It’s An Allusion.)
(So? My Favorite Character Was a Gnome Allusionist! See, That’s A Joke.)
(A Very Small One.)
(No, He Was Average Size For A Gnome)
(… I’m Outta Here.)
We (That’s the royal ‘we’, but I’m ‘murrican, and we don’t have no kings (‘ceptin’ Elvis and Kirby, so I guess it’s the Elected We) continue our walk through the classic Arduin trilogy of gaming supplements. More classes this time. Possibly something else, but it’s unlikely I’ll get that far. We’ll see. Hell, it’s possible I won’t even get through the classes.
But First, A Correction
I’d made a comment that there were no attribute-based bonuses to thief/martial artist skills, leaving the percentages exceptionally low. Well, I was wrong, for on the very next page, there’s a list of such modifiers. You get a +5% per each point OVER FOURTEEN (14) of the attributes in question, which is pretty straightforward for the era, and, also typical of the era, many use averages instead of a single attribute. For example, your bonus to Lie is Charisma and Intelligence… sorry, CHARISMA and INTELLIGENCE… “combined, then averaged”. Honestly, I sort of prefer this approach… or even a ‘variable attribute based on task’ approach… to the 3.x/Pathfinder system where attributes and skills are linked even for uses where there’s not always a perfect fit. On the other hand, I know people who really hate that kind of fussing over fine details of whether a particular task is more based on Intelligence or Dexterity. (The rules in Arduin continue to reference Agility, as well as Dexterity, so it seems it was a standard house rule in Dave’s games, one he assumed everyone played with.)
Also, Luck items add a flat +20% per plus, which, when you consider many of the odds start at 5% and go up by very small amounts per level, makes them extremely good to have.
One of the oldest debates in RPGs is the issue of whether normal people have levels. What, exactly, can a fifth level Candlemaker do that a fourth level one can’t? (Well, according to my homebrew rules, produce 0.45 more candles per hour, on average.) Dave included an XP chart for “Normals” in the Arduin Grimoire, but offered no guidelines on what that meant. He corrects that oversight in Welcome To Skull Tower. Sort of.
It’s good to know the real problem was the lack of an XP chart, and now that we’ve got that, everything else is easy.
Outlaws represent all manner of bandits, brigands, highwaymen, bikers, and so on. Like the martial artist, they’re intended to be used as a template to construct a particular type… also like the martial artist, the actual rules for differentiating types mechanically are pretty much non-existent, except for weapon choices. It’s interesting to note that it was understood, at the time, that a highly-customizable generic class was superior to a dozen or more specific classes that differed from each other only by a little, but no one had quite worked out how to do one, short of abandoning classes altogether, as Runequest (and others of the era) did.
- Outlaws use an 8 sided die (-1 point per die) for “experience points”. I sure hope they meant “hit points”.
- Outlaws wear light armor to facilitate fast getaways, and will not use halberds or other ‘encumbering’ weapons.
- Outlaws cannot have a Wisdom over 9, because it’s “not wise to flout the laws of the land”. It’s not wise to go crawling into forgotten tombs and abandoned castles, either, but no one puts that restriction on adventurers in general.
- Outlaws get XP for selling prisoners to Slavers, and loot to fences. They get 10 times as much XP for the prisoners as for the loot, but I guess gold and gems are more portable and less likely to escape and slit your throat (then again, this being the 1970s, the odds are good your gems and gold were actually monsters of some kind), so it all evens out.
As always, a few quick notes on the table:
- We start off with an all-too-common problem with the Arduin books… a bonus to a mechanic that doesn’t exist. There are no formal “escape and evasion” rules I know of from this time. I guess the DM can add 15% to whatever odds they decide on, or +3 if they’re using a D20, or tear their hair out if their “escape and evasion” rules are something like “escapes on 1-2 on a D6, unless pursued by elves, in which case, it’s a 1 on a D8, or if mounted, in which case, it’s a 5 or less on 2d6-2″, and, yes, we used to have a smeg-ton of mechanics like that…
- You get Weapon Focus (missile weapons only) as a bonus feat at second level. That’s cool.
- Thief abilities at “double the experience cost”? What does that mean? +1 effective Thief level for every 2 outlaw levels? Or was there a “spend XP to get abilities” rule that was lost forever? (Or to be found in future pages as I work through these, I guess…)
- +1 to any weapon for parry purposes only. There actually are parry rules on page 51 of the Grimoire. They’re confusing as all hell, but they’re there.
- Looking at the 50th and 100th(!) level abilities, it seems “useful with any weapon” was deemed far, far, better than “having a higher bonus with one weapon”. This must be that “bounded accuracy” thing D&D 5e is so big on.
- Tracking people through the woods is easier than putting on makeup. Who knew?
Special Politically Incorrect Class Section
Pearl-clutching Puritans, you’ve been warned.
Slavers (Not The Kind With Stasis Boxes)
(Though In Arduin, Anything Is Possible…)
Discussing This Class On RPG.Net Will Probably Get You Banned
Following the logic of the era, every profession (except ‘Normals’) gets their own class table. Let’s just take the usual disclaimers as to the immorality of the topic as given.
Slaver have a “cruelty factor” of “never less than 75%”, which means… erm… I dunno. The alignment chart in The Arduin Grimoire has “Cruelty Factor” along with Lie, Tolerance, and others, but it’s not remotely clear what to do with them. Does the DM roll them to determine if an NPC will or will not engage in some action? Do you roll both the “Kill Factor” and the “Cruelty Factor” to determine a)if the NPC will kill you, and b)if they’ll do it painfully?
Hobbits are only occasionally slavers, but, when they are, they’re among the cruelest. I do not find this surprising. Never trusted them furry footed little bastards.
Slavers fight “one column back” on the attack chart unless using nets or whips (well, duh) in which case, they get +2 and +4. When you consider that getting +1 with a single weapon type was considered a huge deal for outlaws, it’s clear there was little idea of ‘balance’ going on; Dave just wrote down whatever seemed cool, and the Arduin books are composed of rules and ideas from a span of several years, presented one after another without any evident editing of older items to bring them in-line with the newer stuff. It’s part of what makes them so awesome — they preserve the raw, original, thought processes of one of gaming most prolific and inventive creators, not the refined and “ready for press” results that have passed through several editors and co-authors. (A somewhat self-interested bit of praise, as these articles are dashed out in one pass without any real editing, either. I’m not lazy and sloppy… I’m sharing with you the raw purity of my creative instinct!)
Maybe if I win the lottery, I’ll buy the rights to Arduin and redo all of it in a massive tome under the OGL for 3.x/PF.
Of course, they gained abilities on a level-by-level basis…
- Does ‘as a thief’ mean ‘as a thief of the same level as the slaver’ or ‘as a thief of first level and then increment from here’?
- Man, compared to other classes, they really do pile on the net/whip bonuses, don’t they?
- Earlier rules cover the idea of trap levels (as noted when I covered them, a bit of prescient game design). I’ll assume lock levels are similar… but that means these guys really fall behind rapidly. At 100th level, when, one presumes, one is dragging Cthulhu in chains to the slave markets of the 666th level of the Abyss, one finally learns to make locks that might, just might, stymie your average street urchin?
- I think some of the rank titles should be used, tongue-in-cheek, by my friends in the BDSM community for their various contests and ceremonies.
Secretary : I’ve had enough of this. I am not a courtesan. (moves round to front of the desk, sits on it and crosses her legs provocatively)
Biggles : Oh, oh, ‘courtesan’, oh aren’t we grand. Harlot’s not good enough for us eh? Paramour, concubine, fille de joie. That’s what we are not. Well listen to me my fine fellow, you are a bit of tail, that’s what you are.
Secretary : I am not, you demented fictional character.
(Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ep. 33)
Wow, way too much spacing there. I’ve got to learn CSS so I can format these articles how I wish.
OK, I’m just gonna let Dave take it from here…
Having a ‘seductive/manipulative’ character class, even one with obvious sexual overtones, is hardly ridiculous in the context of fantasy or sci-fi… ask Inara Serra! What is now known in D&D circles as the ‘diplomancer’1 might have begun here…
However, the statement that they are most likely to be played when the group stops at a tavern for the night kind of undermines that. They also ‘attack two columns back’ on the combat table, meaning, they’re about as good in a fight as a magic-user… with no spells. (I must also wonder about the whole ‘played by being at roadside inns’ thing in actual play… what happens? The party gets to a tavern, and the guy playing Throngor The Bloodspiller goes, “Yay, I can play Thonga the Bodacious now!” while the other players, being sensitive, enlightened, open-minded 14 year olds in the 1970s,
skitter backwards slowly support his exploration of gender identity?
Naturally, Courtesans have level-based abilities, mostly centering around being able to make progressively stronger love potions. At 100th level, they get the powers of a first level psychic. To call that “unimpressive” is to praise with faint damns.
They also make truth potions which can kill you irrevocably if you are of a lower level than the potion. That’s pretty cool.
Here’s a chaeronyx, which is a medusa centaur, which will get to when we get to monsters. What it’s doing in the Courtesan section, I’ll never know.
In the interests of fairness, and because I know someone will call me on it if I don’t mention it, there is a bunch of stuff about how Courtesans are not common streetwalkers, they’ve got a guild, they’re spies and masters of secrets who earn XP selling knowledge (and, erm, and I quote “using the womanly arts”), etc., but it’s undermined by the assumption they won’t go adventuring and are to be played “part time” when the party stops for the night. (Hell, at least give them Lie and Con as per a thief of their level, or something.) A classic case (which continues straight up into modern times) of a class design that doesn’t “do what it says on the tin”, whose mechanical abilities do not match their flavor text.
Coming up next… a lot of charts. A whole lot of charts. How many I can cover in each installment, I dunno, but they’re one of my favorite parts of the book, because there’s so much implied by the existence of some of them… such as the fact octorillas exist on the “Condensed Character Limitations Chart” and that 88 mm shells appear on the “Large Weapons Gunnery Chart”.
1: For anyone reading this who’s not a regular D&D player… yeah, like anyone’s reading this… this isn’t a formal class in any way. The ‘diplomancer’ is someone, often a bard or cleric (classes which tend to have high Charisma), who has maxed out their social skills and taken feats and selected magic items which kick their bonuses even higher, allowing them to use skills like Diplomacy and Bluff so well they border on magical charm spells in their effectiveness.
I started working on this (as one of many skilled contributors) a long, long, time ago… it’s gone through a lot of changes (as is fitting, I suppose), and it’s finally here!
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part III
When The Saints Come Marching In
And Maybe Martial Artists And Slavers, We’ll See
OK, another short one this time (“That what’s she” nah, never mind, done that bit too many times, even for me), as I spent yesterday house-hunting, which is sort of the reverse of normal hunting, in that, if you find your prey, it devours you… or at least, all of your money. If a thousand ducks line up in a row, first, they can be lightning bolted, and second, I might end up cutting an hour commute to 10 minutes, which would let me post more than once a week. But finding a house that meets our specific needs is problematic… we have health and pet issues that complicate matters, and it’s not worth the amazing stress and expense of moving unless it really cuts down my commute, which means, finding a place within 10-15 minutes of where I now work, which is right at the corner of “The Ass End Of Nowhere” and “Outer Mongolia”.
(Until The Rest Of The Party Kills Them)
While technically a subclass of cleric, with full clerical abilities, it seems to me that saints are more properly considered true anti-paladins… in terms of Actual Play. In Actual Play, the paladin screams “Die, heretic!” at anything that moves (or doesn’t, in the case of ropers and mimics) and proceeds to massacre madly in the name of whatever deity of love, peace, and justice they profess to worship. Saints don’t do that. Saints are forbidden to engage in combat.
Or are they? It’s a tiny bit confusing. They “NEVER use arms or armor” and “will never fight, no matter the provocation”, but will “try their utmost to send all undead to their ‘proper rest'” and “banish all lesser and greater demons back to their respective hells”. So it’s unclear, to me, if this means they can attack undead and demons, or if they seek to accomplish their destruction by non-attacking means… which might mean using spells, not weapons, or it might mean buffing/healing the fighting-men and magic-users to have them do the job. The interpretation is up to the GM running the game. In a perfect world, this would be settled when someone decides to play a saint… in the real world, I suspect, it was settled in a long debate between the saint’s player and the GM the first time the party encountered a skeleton, while the other players sat around being bored, this being well before smartphones, laptops, and gameboys. Maybe they had those little hand-held “football” games where you had one red LED and you had to maneuver it past three other little red LEDs. Yes, kids, at one point, our handheld video games had 1-bit graphics. You and your fancy 8-bit games! Coddled wimps! You think you’re ‘old school’? You don’t know old school!
This Was Cutting-Edge Technology At The Time, Kiddies
Where was I? Oh yes. Saints.
Saints weren’t just “Clerics who hid far away from melee combat”, though. (Quick note for those of who mostly familiar with MMO tropes. In most MMOs, clerics wear light armor and have no melee skills. In D&D and related, clerics are the second-best melee combatants in the game, and are expected to be on the front lines. Interestingly, the saint class foreshadows the MMO cleric rather well…) They had a variety of special abilities.
You might note the “HD” column is a bit… odd. The X+Y notation was used only in the earliest edition of D&D, the original three little brown books. It was obsoleted by Greyhawk, which came out well prior to the publication of the first Arduin book. No other Arduin class, that I can recall, uses it. So it seems very likely that the Saint was one of the earliest classes that Dave Hargrave designed… and even though Skull Tower was the second book, published in 1978, it seems he copied the rules verbatim from his original notes without updating to the rapidly-evolving standards of the time.
“Reasoning” is the ability to convince monsters not to fight, and, if it succeeds, there will be “absolutely no fighting by either side”. At first level, you add 15% to this ability… but there’s no calculation for the base you’re adding to. Perhaps it’s 0%, so it starts at 15%? It’s also up in the air if a fight can be restarted, or not… if the PCs help themselves to the monster’s loot, does this break the “reasoning”? What happens when the players don’t want to stop fighting, but the Saint uses his ability anyway? Can they attack him? Or can he “reason” them out of it? Damn, so many great fights must have started over this class…
Because Rhialto, John Carter, and Conan Should Have Totally Hung Out With Bruce Lee
I often say “D&D is a genre, not a game system”, and few things prove this more than the introduction of monks to the game system. As a high schooler, I was painfully unaware of the martial arts genre… for whatever reason, it never entered my cultural awareness… and so I spent a good bit of time pondering why Friar Tuck was booting people in the head. Anyway, it’s obvious that the fannish communities that embraced D&D overlapped heavily with the fannish communities that loved chop-socky films (Wuxia? What’s that? Is that like Japanimation?), and so, it got added to the mix of Arthurian legend, Tolkien, Vance, and whatever else was trendy at the time. (If there had been more cross-Atlantic fan contact, early D&D would surely have been overrun with Daleks, but there wasn’t, so, it wasn’t.) Remember, folks: All culture is appropriation, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
According to Dave Hargrave, the problem is that martial artists have “too much power and not enough compensating factors”. (Lizard reads that, raising an eyebrow in a Spockish fashion. Lizard flips back to the stats for the ibathene. Lizard flips back to Welcome To Skull Tower, reads that again. Lizard shakes his head theatrically, and moves on…) Anyway, Dave presents his own version of the “Martial Artist”, which he notes is intended to represent a variety of different types, such as ninjas, shao-lin priests, and so forth. On the one hand, it’s very cool that it’s acknowledged there were many actual fighting traditions and fictionalized archetypes based on them. On the other hand, other than a note that the weapon fighting bonus applied to “the weapons that each specific type of Martial Artist would be prone to use”, there’s no mechanical distinctions present. (The player is tasked with doing the research to better define their preferred Martial Artist.)
Naturally, there’s footnotes, addendums, explanations, expansions, coruscations, perturbations, and immolations…
- One foot is equal to two hands, so, 1 hand or foot actually means “2 hands or one foot”. Feet do 50% more damage and have 50% more reach.
- Weaponed Attack, as noted above, refers to whatever weapons you can con the GM into believing are used by your character. “The Leaping Serpent Monks Of The Jade Tower used AK-47s! Of course I’m not bullshitting you. The Chinese invented gunpowder, right? Here, have some potstickers.”
- If you hit someone with AC greater than nine, there’s a 5% chance per point of difference that you’ll take 25% of the damage you inflict on the target, -2% per level. (That’s a reduction in the chance of taking damage, not on the damage taken.) Thus, a fourth level Martial Artist hitting someone who is armor class 5 and doing 7 points of damage has a 12% chance of taking 2 points of damage. Got all that? Good.
As Martial Artists gain levels, they also gain various special abilities:
Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, and follow a typical pattern: Each has its own mechanic for determining chance of success. The lack of any basic system for, say, detecting poisons or setting the difficulty of a surprise roll shows clearly here. A few notes:
- Pain control sounds nifty… if there were any pain mechanics in the game to speak of. I’m sure some things had fluff text about how the effects they inflicted were due to pain, but they were few and far between. “Pain” was just not a general consideration… by default, if you had 90 hit points and had been battered down to 1, you suffered no specific penalties.
- Deflecting: It seems odd to me that a fourth level martial artist got two attacks, but could deflect any number of hafted weapons by giving them up, while a higher level martial artist with six attacks would lose all of them deflecting a single arrow. I’d make it a simple “Sacrifice one attack from your next round per deflection”, so it would relatively easy to overwhelm a lower level martial artist , while a higher level one could defend himself and still give you a boot to the head.
- I hate, and by hate, I mean, love, to beat a dead horse, but measuring distances in feet instead of squares or hexes… when the Arduin Grimoire was full of hex-based rules… leads to a lot of annoying arguments over whether the invisible guy is 18 feet away or 19 feet away. Do you feel lucky, punk?
- Self hasting is “self explanatory”. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I’m guessing it means “can cast haste on themselves”. The 3 minutes rest/minute of haste is fine, but… how many minutes can you keep it up in the first place? (That’s what… never mind.) As if you were a magic-user of your level? Forever, as long as you rest for three forevers afterwards? In any event, since Dave used 6 second rounds, most battles would be over in a minute, anyway.
- Interestingly, while Thieves have a Hide skill, they lack a Move Silently skill, making Martial Artists somewhat unique in this regard.
So, we come to the end of a short segment. Next time… more classes!
Welcome To Skull Tower, Part II
Scars & Stars
“Scars & Stars” Sounds Like A Good Name For A Retro Sci-Fi RPG
Last week, as you recall, we discussed true strength, true charisma, and the sadly inevitable (for the era) Female Attribute Chart. Oh, and for those of you joining us1 here for the first time, this is part… I’ve lost count… of my long, ongoing walkthrough of the classic Arduin Trilogy. This week, we’re discussing, morale, scars, probably star-powered mages, and I’m not sure what else. Y’see, I start writing these things at the top, and finish when I think I’ve done enough, and given my tendency to go off on long, rambling, digressions about whatever strikes my fancy as I’m writing, I never really know at the beginning what it’s going to look like at the end.
Uncharacteristically logically, we move from charisma to morale.
Morale, Or, “Hey, Get Back Here!”
This is rolled every melee round, I mean, every melee round.2 Sh’yeah, right. That happened. Maybe, once. What really happened, in actual play, was the DM would roll once, maybe, at the start of the fight, and then remember to roll if something happened that caused him to think, “Wouldn’t it be fun if the hirelings broke and ran right about now?” (Or when a player said, “I order Knobby Foot to charge at the troll!”) The Charisma table, see prior post, did include a morale bonus, but the other suggested modifiers were up to the DM. Heh, heh, heh. (Well, I’m note sure… this being the Arduin Trilogy, I might stumble on them later on… or they might be referencing such modifiers as existed in the D&D of the time… or in some article in Alarums and Excursions that Dave used and that he just assumed everyone knew about. It was the way of things back then.)
The Mary Sue Character Appearance Generator
“And she’s got purple hair, and glowing eyes, and a heart-shaped birthmark, and…”
(For those confused over the headings, go look here.)
Since you probably went through characters in Dave’s games the way I go through a bag of Cheetohs in my games, you might have needed something to distinguish Fred The Fighter XI from Fred the Fighter X. Enter the appearance chart, another fairly common aspect of the time. This has two parts…
It is worth noting that having pale blue skin, or a pentagram-shaped birthmark, are occurrences on the non-special table. For the special table…
One has to wonder how many times someone, either player or DM, tried to weasel some game effects out of this… like imposing a penalty on the thief for trying to hide when his skil was “Gem Sparkled Purple”.
You couldn’t kick a fanzine without hitting a new class in those days. Dave’s new classes ranged from the mundane-ish, like Traders, to the batshit crazy awesome, like Star Powered Mages.
Star Powered Mages
I am 99.99% certain these were inspired by something, though I’m not sure what. Lensmen? Darkover? Something I’ve never heard of? Probably. IAE, they’re awesome.
A Star Powered Mage has a crystal embedded in their forehead at birth, which gives them access to “Cosmic Mana Power”. The crystals completely destroy themselves on their bearer’s death, and the means of manufacturing them is Lost Forever, so SPMs are correspondingly rare.
The color of your star reflects your alignment in the usual manner: Deepest black for eeeevil, glowing white for boring, I mean, good, etc.
The star holds the same amount of mana you normally get, so you have double mana points.
You have a -4 to resist psychic attacks, but you get ESP at 1st level and Telepathy at 12th, because, why not?
But there’s a catch, of course.
Well, I mean, a 90% chance -2% per level. And I mean 5% per 10 points -3% per level.
But you can regenerate instantly from death! With, erm, a catch…
So, you get instant and total regeneration, or, you go out in a blaze of glory. BTW, if you haven’t seen Forbidden Planet yet, why haven’t you? It’s awesome. Go rent it or stream it or whatever you kids do to movies these days.
Lastly, there’s this…
Once more, I need to emphasize that one of the things I love to death about the Arduin Trilogy, and about similar works from the same era/by the same crowd, is the casual dropping of references to people, places, things, events, that have never been mentioned before and are usually never mentioned again. Of course I’ll remember that the Star Powered Ones sided with the Titans against civilization! How could I forget? (Since the gem is this huge glowing beacon on your forehead, I’m not sure how you can ‘tread with care’, but anyway…)
And I also want to praise the bombastic, declarative, “Know ye, O Prince…” style of this final paragraph. It’s great.
Rune Singers, Or, The Electric Light Bard
They’re like illusionists. But with sound. And they take forever to do anything. But they can weave spells together. And… smeg it, here’s the gist of it:
- There are Rune Singers who are clerical, but they’re even rarer.
- Rune Singers almost never use weapons, preferring to rely on their spells. I’m sure the orcs will wait a minute while they Rune Singers cast Magic Missile.
- Rune Singers must have an Ego of 14 or more.
- Rune Singers are FUN! (That’s what it says…)
- At 2nd level, they can summon birds.
- They get +1 with their favorite instrument, “even on” with others they are proficient in, and -1 with those they are not proficient in.
- A Twelfth Level rune Singer is a “Glue Singer”. Since this is followed on the level title chart by “Red Singer” and “Silver Singer”, I’m guessing it was supposed to be “Blue Singer”. Generally, I try not to call out typos too much anymore (mostly because I’m tired of typing ‘sic’ and because we’ve established that, yes, these books were semi-pro), but that one was too funny to pass by, since it could almost make a kind of sense — perhaps at that level, you were so good you could ‘glue’ your audience in place with rapt attention.
Bards, Or, The Non-Electric, Non-Light, Bard
The Arduin Grimoire had the experience point chart for Bards. Welcome To Skull Tower has the actual, erm, rules for them. Welcome To Old School Gaming! (I noted a few times that the Grimoire looked like it was pasted together from whatever notes Dave grabbed at the time; that the charts for bards and the rules for bards were in different piles of notes does not surprise me. )
Arduin Bards apparently can start as bards.. if you’ve ever read the original bard rules from The Dragon/AD&D, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, as they were a nightmare of complexity and resulted in an overpowered class that could do damn-near anything. On the other hand, Arduin Bards are basically third-rate melee combatants with a tiny handful of special abilities. (They can perform Rune Singer magic (or magik) at their level-5, but with a base 65% chance of “Magik Fumble”). Their other abilities are…
- So a Charisma 16 Bard has a 15% chance of getting 1-10 coins if the audience “likes” him, but on a roll of 1-3? Do you roll first the 15% chance, then the reaction roll, then the 1-3 per audience member? On what die is 1-3 roll made? This looks like Dave had two different mechanics (level based %age, or, reaction roll+1-3 roll) for “bards earning money” and just slammed them together. Or does the 1-3 mean ‘1=copper, 2=silver, 3=gold’?
- Apparently, getting someone to have sex with you is only slightly harder than getting them to toss you copper pieces. I should have been a busker!
- You can “Sing Call” like a first-level Rune Singer… who can’t Sing Call. That starts at second level.
- The ability to cast Cure Light Wounds when you’re hundredth level is… erm… underwhelming.
It Takes A Thief…To Show Off The DM’s Fiendish Traps
Thieves were the first step, in D&D, towards mechanics for something beyond hitting someone. To some people in the Old School Revisionism movement, the introduction of thieves in Greyhawk marked the point where everything began to go wrong (and given how soon Greyhawk appeared after the “Brown Box” original rules, this should tell you how narrow their definition of “Old School” is… and if it doesn’t, don’t worry, there’s some dead horses I’ll never get tired of beating). With the introduction of mechanics for climbing walls, hiding, picking locks, and so on, it was no longer a matter of convincing the DM you could do it (mostly by doing 1-6 points of Rhetoric Damage against his Stubborness Points, +5 for each potsticker you gave him), you had to roll the dice and take your chances, and your chances, frankly, sucked. A major aspect of gameplay in very old school games involved not manipulating the rules, but escaping the rules. The odds of success in many things “by the books” were very low; “rules mastery” in those days involved finding ways to accomplish your goals that weren’t covered by the rules, because the DM would probably give you much better odds. A typical technique was “Roll under the relevant attribute on a D20″, which meant you usually had much better than 50/50 odds. The primary thief abilities of hiding, climbing, and detecting/disarming traps were very common actions in a dungeon environment, so tying them to a particular class and then imposing limiting rules on them did a lot to change the dynamic of how actions were to be resolved, even in those early years.
So what did Dave do?
What any good DM of the era would, and did, do: Add more rules, more details, more modifiers!
We start off with this:
Please also note that this is the Trap Activation chart, not the trap Deactivation chart! This is used as the chance the trap goes off if the thief fails to deactivate it.
There’s a more important thing going on here, though, than Yet Another Way To Get Killed With A Bad Die Roll. The idea of ‘leveled’ traps — of some being more difficult to disarm than others — was not a part of the core paradigm. Most mechanics had a flat component to them — the saving throw against a first level spell was the same as the saving throw against a ninth level spell, a 17 Strength 12th level fighter had the same chance to break down a door as a 17 Strength 1st level fighter. Arduin introduced a lot of level-based mechanisms into the game, from scaling hit dice in monsters to, the traps above. Once more, we’re seeing ideas put into place that would not become ‘official’ D&D until Third Edition in 2000.
The Reset Chance, BTW, was the chance that after a trap had gone off in the thief’s face, it would “reset” to do so again, until it was successfully disarmed. Delayed Activation, in turn, was the chance the trap would go off 1-20 seconds later, perhaps when the party had gathered back around the chest and were wondering if the thief had managed to disarm it…
Here’s a portion of the Arduin Thief Abilities chart…
Some key points:
- ‘Con’ is the chance to convince someone to give you their valuables via conversation. ‘Lie’ is the chance to escape unscathed if you’re caught stealing. Or, twenty or so years later, ‘Bluff’ and ‘Diplomacy’.
- You see what I mean about the low odds of success?
- Oddly, neither Arduin nor the original Greyhawk rules include a chance to determine if there even is a trap. Only in AD&D did it become “Find/Remove Traps”.
- No rules, that I can see, for the effect of high Dexterity or Agility on these rolls. There are Charisma modifiers, discussed in Part I, though, which might reasonably apply to Lie and Con.
We follow with a handful of racial modifiers. Given the vast number of races in Arduin, even if we limit ourselves to those most likely to take up the thieving profession, it’s clear this was a case of “We’ve got maybe a quarter of a page, tops”. Presumably, anyone of a different species who wanted to play a thief could petition the DM for “reasonable” modifiers of this sort.
We’ll end here for now, for the perfectly logical reason that I’ve only scanned up to here in my book and don’t feel like scanning more right now. Next week… new classes from Saint to Courtesan, with a stopover at Slaver and Monk. (Possibly, as usual, I might write more or less.)
1: By “us”, I mean, “me”, and the voices in my head.
2:(Y’see, in the Grimoire, we used underlines for emphasis, but in Skull Tower, mid-70s typography has advanced to italics, in a different font, and trust me, that’s about the most subtle the humor is likely to get around here.)
I wrote the first part of this, the prologue bit, something like two years ago… then wrote the bulk of the rest in two fits (plays have acts, symphonies have movements, writers have fits) a few months ago, then finally decided I was done tweaking words and I had to bite the bullet and post it. So, here it is.
My career as a writer of thrilling back-cover copy that lures the reader in isn’t going well, is it?
That Thing We Do On Weekends
There were a lot of them. Or very few, depending on how you wanted to look at it.
For example, there was the man who liked to call himself Professor Black. He had taken on the task of protecting mankind from technologies it was not ready for. Relics of Atlantis and Mu, before their atomic war. Castoffs from passing spaceships. Most of all, though, he fought the Breakers… paradigm breakers, people who skipped technology ahead a hundred years or more. One of the products of these Breakers, a perfectly human-seeming robot built from 1960s transistors and plastics, traveled with him, providing an always-useful amount of physical might and near-invulnerability.
This story isn’t about him.
Then there was the group which others simply referred to as the Trio. The daywalking half-vampire, the werewolf attack survivor, and the would-be prey of a demon who had turned the tables and bound the demon within her. They focused, mostly, on beings like those which had created them: The supernatural monsters of myth and legend, the night-dwellers who preyed on humanity.
This story isn’t about them, either.
Another team called themselves the Next. The five of them were aware that something was awakening in mankind, that seemingly random individuals could manifest superhuman powers of mind and body, often without control or conscience, and they sought such people out, to train them if they could, but, more often, to prevent them from harming others, no matter the cost.
Does it need to be mentioned that this story isn’t about them?
And there was the one who didn’t have much of a given name. The Stranger, the Wanderer, the Lost Soul… he let people use whatever name they wanted. He had no allies or guardians, or favored foes. He came when there was trouble and he left when it was over.
No, it’s not about him, either. Or any of the rest.
Sometimes they would meet. Their spheres of interest occasionally overlapped. They had a sort of intuition, something within them that recognized a kinship, a kinship not of kind or ability, but of spirit. While there was often conflict, there were also brief alliances.
This story is not about one of those meetings.
However, it does begin with a meeting…
The bar was dim, dank, depressing, and probably a few other words, not all of which began with ‘d’. It stank of stale beer, rancid grease, and souls abandoned by the roadside. Dale Hawthorn knew why he was there, but refused to dwell consciously on it.
He saw her, and he knew, somehow. It was nothing nameable. She sat at a corner table, watching the crowd. Late twenties, maybe. No attempt at makeup or clothing worth noting, though there was only one reason anyone attended this particular bar, and it wasn’t for the quality of the beverages or the personal charm of the bartender.
Still, she was female, and here, and that meant men veered towards her, only to see her eyes, and then veer away.
Dale didn’t veer away, though he was tempted when he got close and she kept her gaze locked on his for a long time. Instead, he silently gestured at the empty chair, smiling, and she sighed wearily, too tired to compose a lie about waiting for her boyfriend. She gestured randomly, a wave that could mean either ‘whatever, sit’, or ‘get lost, asshole’, or possibly both, concurrently.
Following ancient rites, he signaled for a waiter. One — bored, long-haired, and torn-shirted — eventually arrived.
“Scotch,” she said, without waiting to be asked.
“Guinness,” he said. The waiter wandered off, without so much as a grunt to acknowledge he’d actually heard their order.
There was silence for a while. She broke it.
“This is the part where you say ‘Hey, didn’t we go to school together?’ Or, maybe, you tell me about your portfolio.”
“Who did you lose?” he asked, non-sequitorially.
“What? How did.. why would…”
The waiter returned, giving him the scotch and her the Guinness, then ambled away before they could crudely impose on his time by asking for something else. She reached across the table, took her drink, swallowed half, and pushed his glass towards him. He took a small swallow, and frowned. Warm and flat.
“I know the look,” he finally said, in answer to her pre-waiter question.
She snorted. “Bullshit. Probably did something with your phone, found my picture in the paper or something. That’s got to be a new low for scummy pickup artists.” She gulped the remaining half of the scotch. “Sister,” she said, then paused an instant before adding “Cancer.”
Dale nodded, but didn’t reply. He waited until she’d dragged the waiter back, ordered another scotch, and finished it. Then he shook his head, just a bit. “Not cancer.”
She glowered at him, daring him to continue. He did.
“You keep looking over to the mirror,” he said, tilting his head towards it. It was in desperate need of cleaning, but did serve to present a brown-tinged and dim reflection of the place. Most of the patrons avoided looking at it, as if not seeing themselves here somehow meant they could pretend this wasn’t the kind of place their life choices had delivered them to.
She missed a beat, as he’d gone off-script, but recovered quickly. “I’m trying to look at something that’s not you, so that means my sister didn’t die of cancer?”
“Except… I think you are looking at me.”
She laughed derisively, but only after a moment’s twitch, a second’s hesitation to process what she’d heard. “And they say women are vain. But if I wanted to look at you, why wouldn’t I just look at you? Why the mirror?”
“To see if I cast a reflection, I’m guessing.” He took another drink of the beer. Unsurprisingly, it was warmer and flatter. “I do, as you’ve probably noticed.”
She left without replying.
He met her again, a week later. She was leaving work. She looked right past him at first, then recognized him.
“I’ve got a can of mace and a cop buddy on speed dial.”
He sighed. “Look, I just want to talk. I think it would be good. For both of us.”
“Girls only go for stalkers in crappy romance movies. In real life, pulling that shit leads to you screaming and clawing at your eyes while I punch 911. Then comes the restraining order, after you spend a weekend in holding with a 300 pound biker named ‘Bubba’.” She walked away.
He took a single broad stride to catch her, putting his hand on her shoulder. She spun, her hand already halfway into her purse. He blurted “I saw my best friend turned into a gelatinous blob by an alien ray-gun.”
She stopped, the canister firmly gripped in her hand, her thumb on the release button.
“Aliens are real, too?”
“If vampires are, why not?”
Silence, for a few seconds. Then she nodded, barely more than a twitch, and stated her terms in staccato phrases.
“Someplace public. Well lit. Clean. Busy. Starbucks at Fifth and Abraham?”
She smiled very thinly, seeing a suspicion confirmed. “Thought so.”
“Not that. Everything else is fine, just… I’ve heard some things about Starbucks. Uhm… there’s a McDonalds next door to it, though.”
“Tomorrow, noon. Katherine, by the way.”
Extending his hand, he said, “Dale.”
She shook it with the hand not holding the mace.
He was a little surprised to see her, but there she was. They ordered separately and he followed her to an unoccupied table, her need to be in plain view warring with her need to have a back to the wall.
Once more, she spoke first. “So. You want to talk.”
“Your sister. My friend. And us.”
“What about any of them? It’s over, done. She’s dead, buried, and… and won’t…” She stopped, stared downwards at the Rorschach patterns formed from two decades of ketchup stains in the Formica.
He finished her sentence. “Be coming back.” He paused a second, saw a flash of expression on her face, and added, “Again. Be coming back again.”
She looked up, her eyes glinting with a mixture of relief and revelation. “Yes… I… I couldn’t say that, to anyone, to my folks, my friends, no one… how could I.. where would I even start…”
“I understand. Really.”
She started in on her fries. “So, what do you tell people?”
“He died in a plane crash in Brazil. That’s why there’s no body, I claimed. I lied to his family, to his fiancée, to everyone.”
She nodded, slowly. “Now, you go around every day, pretending like you don’t know truth. Seeing shadows, jumping at everything, because you don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”
“Yes. Frankly, it sucks.”
“Like a drunk sorority girl.” She blushed, suddenly realizing what she’d said. “Sorry. Rude.” She laughed. “Wow. Haven’t laughed in forever.”
“It’s the fries, clearly. They’re like beer.”
“Clearly.” She downed a handful. “So, ray gun?” She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
She stood. “Kennedy Park’s nice this time of year. And the sun won’t go down for a while. Walk?”
Three days later, they were wandering an art festival, slowly making their way past booths full of Etsy also-rans and velvet Elvii and homemade pickled something-or-other.
“And then they just left. ‘Sorry about your sister, have a nice life, bye.'”
“I got more or less the same thing. They set up the plane crash story, put records into computers all around the planet in a minute, but I think that was more for their convenience than for my sake.”
“How do they do that? Not the computer thing. The leaving thing. How do you smash someone’s world, then walk away without giving them something, some sort of…”
“Psychological glue? Something to help put the pieces back together?”
“Yeah. That.” Her fist clenched. “Just walking off, leaving the mess behind, patting themselves on the back for saving the day.”
He shrugged. “They’re busy, I guess. Yours… yours acted like professionals?”
“They didn’t send me a bill. Yet. I know what you mean. They’d seen it all, done it all before. Constantly spitting out catchphrases and slang to each other. They might as well have been fixing the plumbing.” She picked up a set of Beatles dolls made from recycled USB drives, feigned interest in them, set them down. “It didn’t really click until now, but I think… that part was almost scarier than what happened. This wasn’t new. This wasn’t weird. I was just one more job for them. That says so much about the world, about what’s real. The grief, the loss, the pain… there’s a shit-ton of books and websites and stupid movies on Lifetime about how to deal with that part, with how to move on… but how do you move on from having the rug pulled out from you?”
“You find someone else lying on the floor.”
Three months later, they’d signed the lease on an apartment they found tolerable enough. Building a relationship solely on shared trauma doesn’t work, but they’d discovered enough about each other to find they could share things besides their pain. It wasn’t a love story for the ages; they acknowledged that. It was honest, though, and that was more than most.
Dale came back after a late work meeting, to find Katherine freeze-framing and rewinding the news. He glanced over at the few seconds she was reviewing. Yellow police tape around a plain-looking suburban home, a crawl about “two bodies recovered”. A few seconds, replayed over and over.
He studied the screen more closely as she watched it, again and again.
“It’s them, isn’t it? Your group?”
She inclined her head, slightly, then clicked the ‘off’ button to shatter the hypnotic spell. “Yeah. Had to be.”
“The Mustang? It was only in-frame for a second or two…”
“They’re good at avoiding cameras. But no one’s perfect.” She stood, heading to the kitchen to stare at the fridge, to see if something had magically appeared since last night. “Maybe not. Lots of people own red 1967 Mustangs.”
“And park them a half block from the site of gruesome murders?”
She sniffed at a bottle of milk, contorted her face into a sneer of disgust, and put it back on the shelf, perhaps in the hope it would become fresh again by tomorrow. “Yeah. Not likely.” She shut the fridge door. “I don’t know why I was watching that. It’s a hundred miles from here. Not our business, right?”
He took out two cans of chili, began to fill a pot.
“I… I don’t know. I want to say no. It’s… we know things, now. Do we ignore them?”
Katherine leaned against the counter, trying to not block the path to the stove. The kitchen was not large. “Did you ever think, what if Bruce Wayne were fat and slow?”
Dale stirred the semi-solid mass of congealed reddish glop, waiting for it transform into something that seemed edible. “Huh?”
“Batman. You’ve got to know the story. His parents got killed, so he decided to put on long underwear and fight crime.”
He whacked at the red blob with the edge of a wooden spoon. “I’m not following you.”
“He was lucky, right, that he was born to be really buff and smart. If he’d been a normal guy, it wouldn’t matter how much he worked out or how hard he studied. He could only go so far. That whole ‘work hard and you can do anything’ crap your parents and teachers tell you is bullshit. Not everyone’s going to win a gold medal or the Nobel prize, even if they work way harder than the people who do.”
Dale contemplated the slowly burbling chili. “I’m still not getting it. Sorry.”
She sighed. “We both lost someone to horror. We’ve been force-fed the red pill, we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain. So what do we do, now that we know? Just eat canned chili and watch the news?”
“I can go get KFC, if you’d like…”
“No! That’s not what I meant. I’m trying to say…” she grunted in frustration.
He abandoned the chili and stepped towards her. She leaned into his arms, and they were silent for a moment.
“It’s OK. I did know what you meant. You want to do more… but we’re not them. If we fought a werewolf, we’d be dog chow. We don’t have magic, or alien weapons, or kung fu. We’re basically useless. It hurts.”
He felt her nod a bit, then she lifted her head up suddenly. “Chili’s bubbling over!”
After dinner, they clicked on the TV, still freeze-framed where it had been.
“A hundred miles from here?”, Dale asked.
“We should go.”
“You need to work on your listening skills. I said, why? What for? What’s the point? Whatever’s there, they’ve probably staked it or burned it or covered it in gummi bears or whatever they have to do. And if they haven’t, well, you’re right. We’d be useless.”
“That’s why. Well, the first part of it is why. They’ve done whatever it is they have to do, then vanished. Just like they did to you. Just like mine did to me. Whatever brought them there is gone, but…”
Katherine saw his thought. “But there’s survivors left behind. Someone else, lying on the floor…” She grinned, slammed her fist on the couch in a moment of sudden glee. “We’re not useless. We can do something.” She bounded to the computer and started pulling up maps, then news reports from the area, seeing the shape of the negative space left by what was not said.
He began getting out clothes and folding them into a suitcase. “Every couple needs a thing they do on weekends. This can be ours.”
She laughed. “Sure beats antiquing!”
Many weekends. Many places. Large cities, little towns, dismal slums, wealthy suburbs.
They were sitting in a Nevada diner where the menus had been printed in the sixties, with the prices all covered over with new amounts written on white tape, layer after layer, a geological column of inflation. Across the street, the ruins of the sheriff’s office stood, surrounded by yellow tape and construction equipment. On the other side of their worn and pitted table sat a worn and pitted woman, who kept glancing nervously out the window at the work going on.
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Only one waitress was on shift, and she was nowhere to be seen. It was quiet and private.
“I don’t think they connected it to me, but I can’t be sure. Sheriff already has it in for me.”
Dale nodded, then took a sip of coffee, which had been lukewarm when it was delivered and which hadn’t defied entropy to heat up since then. “You think your ranch hand was involved, though?”
She looked around, then shook her head. “I dunno. I mean, it doesn’t make sense, but it kinda does. Everyone wants to pretend it didn’t happen, and maybe it didn’t.. maybe I didn’t see what I thought…”
Katherine decided no amount of ketchup could cover the elephant-grey meat of the hamburger well enough. “About seven feet tall. Purple. Nasty claws, shaggy black hair, one horn?”
The woman nodded. Katherine continued. “Tore the place apart, scared the piss out of some people, but didn’t really hurt anyone?”
The woman nodded again.
“You saw it. It was real. So’s a lot of other shit. We can help a little, maybe, if you want to tell us some more.”
“Well… for months, the Sheriff’s been trying to get me to sell. His brother’s some fancy developer, wants to put up a casino, but I’m not interested. Sheriff scared off almost everyone who worked for me, so I took a chance on this guy from out of town, looking for work, no questions asked. Seemed nice. Quiet. Called himself Daniel Flag. Hard worker. Not too hard on the eyes, either.” She glanced at her audience. “Hey, just because I’m too old to hike up the mountain doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the view.”
At the lack of any reaction, she continued.
“So, about a week after he starts, some of the Sheriff’s bully-boys come ’round, plannin’ to burn me out. I don’t know what happened next, exactly. I think…” she stopped, suddenly.
Dale spoke softly. “If it helps, there’s hardly anything you can say that we won’t believe. We can tell you our stories, if you want. You’re not alone. There’s a lot more of us than it seems.”
The rancher looked Dale in the eyes. “Hearin’ that… that helps. OK. He.. Daniel… I think he became that monster. He tossed their pickup truck a clean hundred yards. I heard a gunshot, a rifle crack, .357 Remington… know the sound well, been shootin’ since I was a girl… and when I looked around the place later on, I found just that kind, twisted into a pretzel. Some gas cans, too. A few smashed up trees. Daniel… I found him pretty much naked, near the barn. He made up some story ’bout how he’d tried to stop them but they knocked him out, claimed he didn’t know what finally scared ’em off, but even then, I knew.”
“The Sheriff was pissed,” she continued. “Decided if they could scare off Dan, I’d be really alone. So they hauled him in on vagrancy charges, and then, a few hours later…” She pointed out the window. “Dan left after that, said he figured they’d leave me alone now, but he had to go.” Her eyes narrowed. “You ain’t goin’ after him, are you?”
Dale and Katherine shook their heads, then Dale added, “Did it help? Are you OK now?”
The old woman laughed.
“Aw, hell no. If anything, it’s worse. Before, it was mostly just about money. Now, it’s personal. Sheriff blames me for what that creature did, makin’ him look the fool. People used to fear him, now they snicker, they figure he’s makin’ up stories ’bout a monster. As to what happened to the building… gas leak. That’s what they’re saying.”
Katherine tapped her index finger on the table, thinking. “You know what’s scarier than big purple monsters?”
The rancher shook her head.
Dale took out his phone. “Who are you thinking of? Goldberg?”
“Nah. Matsuka. Jenny Matsuka.”
Dale punched the keys.
“Ms. Matsuka? Hi. This is… you remember me, good. OK, Jenny it is. Anyway… you know how you said you were really grateful, how you’d do anything to help us? Well, as it turns out…”
After a few minutes, he hung up. “She’ll be out here in under a day, armed with enough orders, subpoenas, and requests for hearings to keep you safe through the winter, and probably forever.”
The woman stared. “Thank.. thank you. I don’t know what I would have… ”
Katherine shrugged. “It’s what we do.”
“Are you leaving now?”
Dale shrugged. “Do you want us to?”
“No… no. I’d like to talk some more… I can fix you something, back at the ranch, a nice dinner. ” They exited the diner and began piling into her pickup, squeezing a bit so they could all fit in the front seat. She kept talking. “And you… you know what’s going on, don’t you? With Daniel?” She sighed. “But lemme guess. You can’t tell me, it’s all some hush-hush secret, I’m better off not knowin’, right?”
As the truck sputtered off, Katherine answered. “Wrong. We don’t do that cryptic secret mysteries crap. That’s what they do.”
“Short version,” Dale began, “is that Daniel’s granddad, of the same name, worked on the first atomic bomb… and one of the people who survived the attack at Nagasaki called up a powerful demon, an oni-spirit, to take revenge. Then things got really confusing, a couple of decades passed, and the spirit attacked the grandchild instead of the real target. Now, he wanders around, hoping for a cure, trying to keep the spirit in check… but his control sometimes slips, and you saw what happens. We can give you the long version later, if you like.”
The woman was silent for a few minutes.
“And here I thought he was just some government experiment or something. Ancient Japanese curses? That’s real?”
Katherine laughed. “Curses. Crashed UFOs. Werewolves. Mind readers. Thinking machines. Witches. V..” she paused, took a breath. “Vampires. All real. Really real.”
“That… that lawyer you called…”
“Her boss could produce this kind of super mind-control drug in his sweat. He shook hands with you, you did what he said, no matter what.”
“You two went and stopped him?”
They both laughed, a little sadly, and Dale replied. “No. We don’t do that. We… show up afterwards. We see odd stories in the news, pick up some things, and drop by if we can. To see if we can help.”
“Why? I mean, don’t think I ain’t grateful, ’cause I am, but, why?”
Dale shrugged. “It’s just sort of… this thing we do on weekends.”
“Hang on. Lemme get you some beers.”
Katherine watched the middle-aged man amble into the kitchen. They were sitting in the living room of a nice enough suburban home in North Carolina. Only one man, Carlos Solis, lived here now. It was instantly obvious that, until recently, there had been several more. The pictures were still on the walls. The bedrooms were still furnished.
It was a setting they’d seen too many times, on too many weekends. The aftermath, when the monsters were dead but the wounds were still fresh. It was, they’d realized, hard to not let it become routine. That’s what they did.
“Does he seem a bit off?”
Dale ran his finger through the dust layer on the coffee table. Long married, suddenly widowed. Housekeeping wasn’t a priority. “Well, about a week ago, he took his family to their beachfront timeshare, and then he saw most of them eaten by fish-men. Eaten if they were lucky. That makes anyone off.” He looked at her for a moment. “We know that too well.”
“Yeah. My point. We’ve seen this too many times, not to mention every damn morning when we look in the mirror, and… I’m saying, something’s not right. More not right than usual. Whatever.”
“Everyone takes pain differently. Maybe he just…” his voice trailed off.
Katherine glanced at the door leading to the kitchen. Mr. Solis wasn’t coming through it. Dale’s silence had another cause. He was staring at the coffee table.
He spoke slowly and quietly. “The remote. Just as dust covered as everything else. A week home, and he never turned on the TV? Not even just to have the noise to try to blot out the screaming in his mind, even for a moment?”
Carlos returned, bearing beer.
“Only two?” Dale’s voice was as casual as he could make it, but there was still a slight crack. “Nothing for yourself?”
“Nah. Don’t drink.” He handed the bottles to each of them, and a bottle opener to Katherine.
Katherine took the opener and placed it at the rim of the cap. The metal was twisted, a little. She wouldn’t have noticed it under most circumstances, but she was on edge, and she’d opened more bottles than she really wanted to think about. This has been opened before, then resealed. A good job. Just not perfect.
She set the bottle on the table. “Sorry, not thirsty. Maybe later.”
Dale quickly imitated her.
Carlos seemed nonplussed. “You sure? I got some Coke, or I can mix you up some iced tea…”
Dale felt a deep fear begin to spread along his spine, a primal instinct raising hackles evolution had dispensed with eons past, the reptile brain’s awareness of a lurking predator in the high grass.
Katherine smiled, warmly and sweetly. “Got any 7-up? Or just some ice water?”
Mr. Solis shook his head. “Nah. Never liked that brand, and the water here’s lousy. Sulfur.”
“That’s alright, then. Now… we’re here because, well, we thought it might help if you had someone to talk to, about what happened.”
Carlos shook his head. “Already talked to the cops, to Father James, to the family… I’m really sick of talking. Are you sure you aren’t thirsty?”
Dale shook his head, then picked up where Katherine had left off. This was almost a formula by now, as hard as they fought not to let it become one. “You couldn’t tell them everything, though. What was the story you were given? Boating accident?”
Mr. Solis nodded. “Yeah. You think it wasn’t? That I’m lying?”
“We know, Mr. Solis. Fish-men. They have other names, but fish-men works. Humanoids from before the dawn of man. Ancient things, occasionally called back. We can guess a lot. Someone came to help you… a bit too late for your family. They didn’t really do much to help you after that, they just gave you a cover story and took off. Is that correct?”
“That’s right. So, why are you here?”
“Mostly,” Katherine said, “to let you know you’re not alone. To give you someone you can be honest with. It helps more than you’d think.”
“They send you? Professor Black, and them?”
Katherine laughed. “Oh, hell no. I doubt they even know we exist. I sure hope not.”
“Oh.” Mr. Solis looked disappointed.
“But,” Dale began, “if they left you in the lurch… like they tend to do… we might be able to help. We know people. People who can help.”
Carlos shook his head, then began to snicker. “Really? That’s it? That’s all you do? Go around, talking to people? The Professor didn’t send you? Or the Trio? Or any of them?”
“No… no. We’re on our own…” Dale was standing by then, as was Katherine. “I think maybe this isn’t our kind of thing…”
Carlos stood, sort of. His body was trembling, no, writhing. Something was moving under the skin. His voice changed, deepening. “Pity. We saw you following. Following them all. Following ones we never knew of. Thought they sent you. The clean-up crew. To find what they missed. To make sure the silence was not broken. Thought you’d be useful to us. A connection between them all. But you’re nothing. Useless.”
The thing that was not Carlos Solis laughed again. “Glad you didn’t drink. My children are precious. It would have been tragic to waste them on you.”
Neither Katherine nor Dale bothered to answer. They were sprinting for the door.
The shell of Carlos Solis tore itself apart. What was left was essentially a skeleton made not of bone, but of something with dozens of branching, twisting tentacles. A thick, segmented tube formed the spine, and from it sprouted rib-worms and arm-tendrils. It stood on flexible cylinders of cartilage and flesh which terminated in splayed, starfish-like feet. Placed at the top of the worm-spine was a human brain, riddled through with thousands of writhing and burrowing things as fine as hair. Two eyeballs, held in the mouths of squirming, serpentine stalks of tissue, kept the fleeing pair in view.
The not-arms shot out, extending three times their length, and the leechlike fingers grabbed at what they could, seeking exposed flesh, as a corrosive liquid vomited out of the ten tiny, tooth-ringed mouths. Dale screamed in pain as the fingers found his skin, even as he struggled to ignore it and twist the doorknob. Katherine’s own scream was of rage, as she spun back towards the thing and grabbed its hand and tried to keep it from reaching her.
The thing just kept laughing, its voice emerging out of the maws of the rib-worms, just a touch out of sync, creating a strange echo.
“What idiocy! Stumbling into the charred ashes left after an inferno, in case some child’s doll remained intact to return to them! How you survived long enough for us to notice you is…”
There was a shriek like someone had stepped on the tail of God’s cat, and the creature exploded in a hundred different ways, each and every tentacle torn apart from within, as if their collective gullets had been lined with dynamite. What remained of the hand dropped away, leaving Dale and Katherine leaning on the wall, panting in terror and relief, Dale’s hand still twitching futilely at the locked knob.
Two men emerged from the kitchen. One seemed to be in his mid-20s, handsome in a bland sort of way. The other was sixty-ish, wearing a dark grey suit and holding a mechanism best described as the unholy offspring of a Walkman and the last dregs of a Radio Shack going out of business sale.
He didn’t look up from the machine as he adjusted it, talking off handedly. “Well, that’s that, then. Sorry it took so long, needed to locate the proper frequency curves. Venusian brain-eating vermiforms. Nasty critters.”
The other spoke. “Professor, I’m hearing something. Low ultrasonic.”
“Yes, yes. It’s…”
“Probably the bottles. Damn thing kept trying to get us to drink.” Katherine walked back to the coffee table, grabbed one, then smashed it. A dark, fizzing liquid spilled out, and writhing in the puddle was a long, slender worm. The shattered neck of the bottle was still in her hand. She smashed it into the thing, grinding the sharp edges against it until it was a bloody, shredded mess.
“You guys can probably handle the other one.” She dropped the remains of the bottle and tugged on her shirt, where the clutching hands of the thing that was not Carlos Solis had tried to grab her. “Shit, this is ruined.”
Dale was just glaring at the newcomers, his breath still coming in ragged gasps, daring them to say something. Finally, the younger did. “Hello. I’m sure this is very shocking to you, but be assured, you are now safe.”
Dale stopped wheezing long enough to sneer. “Is that what you told Mr. Solis when you sent him home from the beach?”
“At the time, it was accurate. He was safe then.”
The older one finished his work with the machine. There was a brief hum and a sudden pop, and the remaining bottle of beer shook slightly as the thing within it exploded, decorating the interior of the glass with gobbets of pale white flesh that slowly peeled away to be concealed once more by the darkness within.
“You’ve got to forgive my friend. People skills aren’t his strong point. We’re sorry for your loss. Where you… friends of Mr. Solis? Relatives?”
Dale looked at him. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Of… of course I do… you’re, uhm….”
“Dale Hawthorn, age 28. Encountered approximately 18 months ago during the recovery of a Betelgeusian anti-baryon weapon.”
“Yes, see, we remember you… erm… what are you doing here?”
Katherine exploded. “What the hell do you think? Cleaning up your mess! Doing the job you’re too damn high-and-mighty to do!”
“Madame, please! We did just save you from a horrific fate!”
“Professor,” interrupted the other. “The circumstances and evident personality traits compel me to consider these might be those we’ve been hearing about. ‘The Angry One’ and ‘The Stiff One’.”
“The hell? Hearing about?”
“You are, kind of. You could loosen up a little bit, you know.” She shrugged. “But, it’s who you are, and it works for you.”
The older man coughed. “Uhm… excuse me… if you could explain to me what’s going on…”
Katherine grinned, not pleasantly. “Heh. Now you know what it’s like. Not that it’ll do any good, I’m betting.”
Sitting amidst the ruins of a man’s life, not to mention his body, they explained.
When they were finished, Professor Black shook his head. “Oh no, no. That just won’t do at all. Never mind the risk you’re putting yourselves in… it was just lucky we picked up the signals on the sub-etheric wave as we were passing by… but you could put countless others in danger. Think! If these creatures noticed you, who else might have? You’re crossing lines, blurring boundaries, giving people too many pieces of the larger puzzle! You must stop!”
Katherine’s voice was perfectly level. “Or what?”
“There is a high probability the harm you will create outweighs the good you purport to accomplish.”
Dale sighed. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Katherine took his hand. “Aww… our first date.” Dale smiled back at her, then turned to the other two. “No. We’re not stopping because you tell us to. Maybe if you have this kind of talk with everyone else, we wouldn’t be needed… but you don’t, so, we are. Case closed.”
Professor Black sighed. “I did what I could. I just hope you decide to stop before you do something that can’t be fixed. Alpha, come along.” He stopped and turned to the other two. “We’re going to call in a report that we saw a broken window. The police will be here to investigate eventually, so that someone finds Mr. Solis’ body and tell his family. What’s left of it. I’d recommend you both skedaddle. And please… stop. Mr. Hawthorn, I’ve saved your life twice now. Twice is very rare. Three times has never happened as long as I’ve been working, and I’ve been working a very long time.”
The drive back was mostly silent.
The key clicked in the apartment door, and it opened, releasing the odor of slightly-spoiled food, the salad purchased the week before in the hope of eating better, then discarded, untouched, Friday evening, as they’d worked out the connection between the ‘accidental drownings’ in North Carolina, the poor catch reported by local fishermen, and the fires on the offshore rig a week before that. Now the brown-green mass teetered precariously atop the trash can, daring either one to make the next move in the game of Garbage Jenga.
Katherine collapsed into the couch. Dale flipped listlessly through the accumulated bills, ignoring any not marked ‘final notice’, then peered into the fridge, in case elves had put anything in there while they were gone. If they had, he’d toss it, of course. He knew about fae food. Fortunately, or not, they hadn’t. Thursday’s pizza might still be good.
He started to put the slices, as stiff as the cardboard they’d been fetched from, onto two paper plates. “Microwaving kills germs, right?”
“When’s the last time we screwed?”
Non-sequiters are a part of any long-term relationship. Dale considered the question. “Uhm… wasn’t it… three weeks ago, at that motel with the giant moose head in the lobby, in that town where the High School principal was a were-moth?”
“No. We’d talked about it, but it never seemed to happen.”
“Yes… you’re right. So it was…”
“When doesn’t matter! The fact we’re even having this conversation is what matters!”
The microwave beeped. Dale ignored it. “We can eat later.” He tried to sound vaguely amorous. “No time like the present, right?”
“No, honey. Sorry. We just drove six hours and my favorite shirt got torn up by a.. a… whatever. Worm thing from Mars, or some stupid shit like that.”
Dale’s well-taught instincts overcame his exhaustion, and he didn’t say ‘Venus, actually’. As hard as it was to remember when they’d had sex in the past, he knew better than to eliminate any chance of it in the future.
Falling back on prior plans, he took the pizza, tongue-burning hot in some places, still partially congealed in others, out, and brought the plates over. Katherine reached for hers, then set it on her lap. She stared at it as if the patterns of yellowish cheese, fire-engine-red pepperoni, and gravel-grey sausage might reveal the future.
“Maybe those two were right. Maybe it’s time to quit.”
“Why? Because they gave us their boilerplate speech number seventeen, ‘You’re tampering with things man was not meant to know!’? Or because we almost had our brains devoured by the worms from V..Mars?” He paused. “The latter is a stronger argument, I admit.”
“Not either. We started this… why?”
“First, I do not sound like that. Second, no. Because we felt like we couldn’t just live, day to day, pretending the world was normal, when it’s not. Well, are we living any better not pretending?”
Dale looked around at the clutter, chaos, and confusion. Both worked full and part time jobs to make the money needed for weekends driving cross-country, and the rates of even the sleaziest motels added up over time. When not working, or traveling, they sought out targets, tried to winnow out the extraordinary tragedies from the ordinary ones, which meant they spent a lot of time seeing humanity at its worst, looking for things literally inhuman.
“We’re helping people.”
“We’ve helped how many, now? Fifty? More? And it’s not just us any more, is it? Remember, way back, that ranch lady in Nevada? Got a message from her, two weeks ago. She’s fostering two kids whose parents got possessed by wasp demons. And that rich jerk with the haunted paintings? He’s actually become slightly less of a jerk, funding relocation for some folks, get them away from all the reminders of what they’ve been through. We’ve kicked the rocks at the top of the mountain. The avalanche’ll keep happening without us.”
“So, is that it? Quit? Let the rocks fall without us?”
“Sure. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m tired. You’re tired. Skip a week. Maybe two. Eat food we cook.”
“We can try.”
“Try? How hard can it be? Not doing something is easy! It’s what everyone does! Just watch the news, make some sad noises, wonder why the world’s such a damn mess, then turn on ‘Who Wants To Dance With A Midget Millionaire Bachelor’ and forget about it all! Everyone else does that! So can we!”
“I’m sure we can.”
The artificially light tone of his voice jarred her. “You don’t care? Keep on, or don’t, all the same to you?”
Dale set his plate down on the arm of the couch. The grease soaking through it wouldn’t do much more than add another layer of intricate patterning to the Pollack painting of stains already there. He walked the very short distance to the living room window and looked out over the other buildings in the complex. Dawn, cruel-hearted harpy, was already beginning to shove back the night, offering little hope for rest before the week began anew.
“I care. I want to keep doing what we do. I think the rocks need a lot more help falling. I also care about you, about us. I’m the stiff one, remember? I can only imagine what I’d be like without you. Inside, I’m barely keeping from screaming. Always. I measure out my feelings in teaspoons so that I don’t explode. Without you… it would be eyedroppers. If that. So, between the world, and you, I choose you.”
“Oh, great. Now I get to feel guilty. Thanks.”
Dale thumped his fist on the glass. “Now I know how you feel talking to me. Misunderstandings all around. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.”
“Doing a good job despite not trying. If you were trying, I’d probably be slitting my wrists.”
“OK. We’re tired. We’re stressed. We nearly got eaten by some worm thing from outer space. Let’s just drop it for now. The world isn’t going to end if we don’t settle this tonight.”
Katherine took a listless bite of pizza. “Saving the world’s their job. I wish I knew what ours was.”
Dale sat back down on the couch, and reached for the remote, then put it aside. It was best not to take a chance, not to risk accidently catching a hint of a story that could get them making plans for next weekend. “So do I.”
Saturday came, and they were home, the first time that had happened in longer than either could remember. It had been an odd week, a week of ducking out of restaurants if CNN was on the big-screen, a week of trying not to read the sections of newspaper that coworkers left in the bathroom, a week of trying not to overhear someone talking about how their aunt was acting odd or if they’d heard about that wave of arson up north, two cities away. A week of trying to talk about planning dinners, or about seeing if that movie that looked sort-of-maybe-funny was at RedBox, or about finally meeting each other’s relatives. A week of walking on eggshells balanced on land mines.
Katherine looked at dinner, something with chicken breast and wine sauce and mushrooms. Dale made it from raw ingredients, not a box mix. Another first in too long.
“This is nice.”
“Oh, thanks. I was worried the chicken was overdone.”
“No, I mean… this. Everything. Being home. Being normal.”
He sat down across from her. “It is. I’m not sure what to do tomorrow. We’re not looking at a five hour drive back from wherever we’d have ended up.”
“Not having to hold someone’s hand while they shake, and sob, and finally open up about how their dachshund breathed fire and tried to eat their soul.”
Dale paused mid-bite. “You think that arson thing in Greenville was hellhounds?”
“First thing to burn was an old antique store. You know what they’re full of.”
“Cursed this, ancient that, blasphemous…” he slammed down the fork. “Damn it!”
Katherine tilted her head, bemused. “That’s usually my line. Me angry, you stiff, remember?”
“We were supposed to not be doing this!”
“OK, I take it back. You don’t need to loosen up. I like you stiff. No, that wasn’t a come-on line. Well, maybe a little. Anyway, I didn’t mean to research it. The hens were clucking about it in the office, and…”
“It’s alright. I’m sorry. Just sort of… no. I wonder if this is what it’s like when cops or firemen retire, and they read in the paper about something, and they think ‘I should have been there, I could have helped…'”
“Yeah. But if we want this…,” she said, gesturing at the table set with real plates, holding real food, “we have to give up… that. That thing we do on weekends.”
“I know. I do want this. I do want life, normalcy. That’s why I went to you, in the bar. I recognized something in you, the same kind of scar I had, and I thought, ‘I need someone who understands.'”
She smiled, warmly. “It’s at least more romantic than ‘Man, she’s got great tits.'” She laughed. “Former boyfriend gave me his ‘Why I hit on you’ story. Note: Former.”
He took her hand. “We can make this work. Being normal. Let the rocks fall on their own, right?”
The phone rang.
Dale sighed, and answered it. The voice at the other end was deep, rumbling, and had other qualities that defied easy description. “Mister… Hawthorne?”
“Yes?” Dale flipped to speaker. Something was very off, here, and he needed Katherine to hear it. She often noticed the oddities first.
“You don’t… know me. I am called Adam Shelley.”
“Don’t know you, but I know of you. I think I saw you once, leaving Hardinsburg last October. Didn’t look like I’d expected.”
“No… neckbolts.” There was an echoing laugh, and both Dale and Katherine felt a chill.
Katherine spoke. “Look, if you’re calling to deliver some cryptic warning and tell us to back off, you’re too late. We got that speech from Robbie and the Professor. We’re done.”
Robbie? Dale mouthed.
Explain later, she replied, shaking her head.
“Oh… that is disappointing. I had… hoped… no matter. Farewell. ”
“Wait!” Dale and Katherine said together, then stared at each other.
“Yes?” came the voice.
“What were you calling about?”
“I dispatched… a beast… in Greenville. There was… a woman there… her lover called it… sent it on one who had wronged her… it…”
“Yeah, we can kind of guess the rest from the papers.”
“She who survived… is fractured. She can be… reassembled… or she can fall to pieces. I… am good at breaking. Not at fixing.”
Katherine and Dale looked at each other.
“We’ll… think about it.”
The call disconnected.
They looked at the slowly cooling chicken.
“Greenville is, what, four hours away?”
“If we leave now, we could be there by midnight… track her down tomorrow morning, have most of the day to try to help her, be back here by not too late Sunday night… well, Monday morning.”
Katherine sighed. “We shouldn’t. We were supposed to be trying to…”
Dale nodded. “You’re right. We have to learn to say no.”
Katherine nodded. “Totally.”
“This is what we agreed to. We have to support each other.”
“If we put the chicken into some Tupperware, we can nuke it when we get back. Should still be tolerable.”
“You do that. I’ll get to packing. If you’re done before I am, Google up the cheapest motel near to town.”
They don’t have powers or abilities beyond those of mortal men. They have no ancient lore beyond that which can be found with a web search. They appear in a succession of low-cost, unfashionable rental cars, and lack any distinctive mode of dress or signature style. They do what’s needed, not out of guilt or heritage or divine mandate, and if pressed for a reason, they will shrug and say, “It’s what we do.”
This story, somewhat obviously, has been about them… and about all the others, the legions of the left behind, the forgotten, the abandoned, all those whose lives keep going on after the interesting part is over. Every story is a universe, and that universe begins long before the first word and continues long after the final period.