Category Archives: Reviews And Walkthroughs

Reviews of books which don’t involve creating characters, or which otherwise don’t fit in the character creation section.

Necromican, Level 10 And Up!

Necromican, Level 10 And Up

What Do You Mean? Nine’s As High As Spells Go

Nope, These Go To Eleven Twelve

Necromican

Necromican

OK, Boils and Ghouls! The last part of this series covers the seriously munchkin stuff, without the John Kovalic art. For earlier parts of this series, click one of the preceding words, each one takes you to a different part. For this part of this series, keep reading.

This booklet shows off one of the best parts of Old School Gaming — sheer over-the-topness, for when Power Word Kill and Wish just aren’t good enough. If you’re fighting galactic dragons, after all, they’re not! Forget all that Fantasy Fucking Vietnam and “let’s pour water on the floor and see how it pools” crap. In this kind of Old School play, if you wanted to find a pit trap… nah, you never wanted to find a pit trap. You were too busy casting Summoning Of The Black Hole. Not a euphemism.

As usual, this will be a selected subset of the wonderment that lies within, not an exhaustive repetition of the contents.

Tenth Level Spells

Duplication

This spell creates 1-4 duplicates of the caster, without his magic items. It’s not clear if this means that if he’s wearing a magic wizard robe, and nothing underneath it, his duplicates appear with a non-magic version of the same robe, or naked. I suppose it depends on the emotional maturity of the DM and his fellow players. Given the state of gaming culture at the time…

Player 1: Oh, I know! I’ll cast Duplication!
DM: OK, you get (roll) 2 duplicates. They’re naked.
Player 2: (Snorting laugh) Dude, we can see your thingie!
Player 1: Can not! Shut up!
Player 3: Oh, gross! Isn’t your magic user 30 or something? That’s ancient!
Player 2: Yeah, I bet it’s all warty!
Player 1: SHUT UP!

The spell also notes, wisely, that duplicates cannot duplicate themselves. Hey, it was the first thing I thought of, and I guarantee you that line was added after the first time the spell was used in play to create Infinite Magic Users, presumably with infinite warty thingies. (Would “Infinite Warty Thingies” be a good name for a band? Probably not.)

Cube Of Space

This spell create a 10′ by 10′ by 10′ cube around the caster. Each face of the cube is a “portal into deepest outer space”. So, someone shoots an arrow into the cube, it goes into space, and possibly hits a small space-worm, who just says “Oh no, not again.”  Anyone charges at the caster, they’re tossed into space. It’s a one-way trip; the cube can’t be re-entered from the space side. It’s not clear, from the description, if the caster can fire out of the cube or not, which is kind of key. If they can, they can sit there like an artillery unit and blast the crap out of things. If they can’t, this is mostly defensive.

Excellent Prismatic Spray

Roll To See What Drop Off

Roll To See What Drop Off

Why should Gary Gygax be the only one to rip off Jack Vance? This spell is actually closer to the one in the Dying Earth novels than the AD&D spell of nearly the same name. Perhaps that’s why this one is the Excellent Prismatic Spray. (Coming soon: Enterprise Edition Prismatic Spray, Prismatic Spray Lite, Prismatic Spray for Workgroups…) Anyway, you cast this spell at a single target, and it dices him into 1-10 pieces, and you roll on the accompanying chart to see which pieces they are. For non-humanoids, you are instructed to “simply draw charts similar to this one”.

It’s kind of worth noting that there’s no specific rules for the damage done by any part being lopped off, or any other effects. “OK, you’re dead.” “Why?” “You got both your legs chopped off! And your thingie!” “So, I didn’t take any damage.” “Yeah, but you’re totally bleeding everywhere!” “Since when? You never bleed from wounds in D&D. I just have to crawl!” “No, you’re dead!” “Are you still mad about that pizza thing? I told you, I thought you’d taken your slice. Give it a rest, man.” Also, does a roll of 8 mean you lose your fingers? What if you were holding your hands in a different position, because, like, I totally was. My hands were nowhere near that ray.

Maturation

When this spell is cast, the players stop seizing every opportunity to make lame double-entendres and try to reasonably evaluate rules conflicts without rancor or hostility. I seem to have constantly saved against it.

The Jaws Of Set

OK, so, this is awesome. Giant invisible snake jaws appear, biting your enemies for 1-100 points of damage. 100 hit points (remember, this was an era when the largest red dragons had only 88 hit points), moves at double speed, teleports without error, and has AC 2+2, which is AC 0, not AC 4. If you don’t understand why, you’re not Old School. N00b! The summoned jaws last until destroyed, which means, you’ve got invisible jaws that do 1-100 damage and can teleport to any point you wish and go chomp. I wouldn’t memorize any other 10th level spell. Seriously, can you imagine having… wait, how many 10th level spells do you get, anyway? There’s no rules for magic-users in this book, and none of the official D&D books gave you more than 9th level spells, no matter how high level your character was. Sigh. Yet another example of where the local house rules were so internalized the authors forgot to include them.

Eleventh Level Spells

Green Beam

I can only imagine this spell was created by DMs for use against players. It targets a magic item, and de-magics it. To restore the item, you need three simultaneous wishes, each cast by a magic-user, not from a scroll or item. This reeks of the got-you-last one-upmanship that most Monty Haul games reached in their final stages. It was very rare for monsters to have magic items in those days, so this is either DM vs. player or player vs. player magic. As is…

Magic Nullification

Simply nullifies all magic items, weapons, armor, power, and abilities for 1-6 rounds, save for half duration. Again, the main focus here seems to be to let the DM kill a player… I mean, a character… who is wrapped in so many magic items they can’t be easily thwarted.

Call Of The Comet

You call a comet. You designate a landing zone within 240′ of you when you cast it, then skedaddle. 1d6 days later, a comet appears. Based on the roll, it can be anything from pea-sized, doing 1d6, to 100′ feet in diameter, doing 100d6 and leaving a mile-wide crater. (Presumably, it does the damage to everyone within a half mile of the impact point.)

Probably really sucks if you wait six days then get a comet that’s about as impressive as a slingshot pellet.

For the mid-range effects, a standard issue fireball does about as much damage and doesn’t take days to show up. This spell is one of those “But.. but… it’s a comet!” things, where the sheer awesomeness of the concept distracted the designers from the utility of the spell itself.

Mass Insanity

This spell causes 10 x the caster’s level people within a one mile area to go insane, rolling on a chart to determine Paranoia, Schizophrenia, Sexual Perversion (what? No detailed subchart for that? Son, I am disappoint), etc. The description notes that it’s useful for livening up dull little hamlets. (And possibly dull little MacBeths, I suppose. Badum BUM!)

Twelfth Level Spells

The Sorcerer’s Spacecraft

A magical spaceship

Spelljammer, This Ain’t

So, how do you get into space to fight Galactic Dragons? With this, of course, which makes this an amazingly stupid spell to cast. Why give the DM any excuse to throw one of those TPK nightmares at you? Anyway, conjures spaceship, magically controlled flying saucer, top deck is good for cocktail parties which are things the typical D&D player of 1978 may have heard of but would never be invited to, speed is 10 million MPH, which pretty much means it’s limited to in-system travel (kind of surprising, really, you’d think there’d be an FTL drive. Maybe the designers thought that wouldn’t be realistic. You laugh, but I’ve seen far sillier debates).

Genocide

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Uhm… no we’re not. This spell kills 10 times the caster’s level in humans. (Only humans? What if I want to destroy the Elven Menace, before they destroy us?) Assuming that casting 12th level spells requires being 24th or 25th level, that’s still only about 250 people. That’s not “genocide”, that’s “a typical summer in Chicago”. There are many less powerful spells that will kill many more people. The spell also notes that “a save results in no effect”. Does this mean each target saves individually? Damn, that’s a lot of rolling.

The Black Forest

This spell conjures ham, pickles, assorted mustards, and… no, wait. This spell creates a square mile of Evil Forest, which is exactly what you need to surround your Evil Wizard Tower. It springs up overnight, and also gives you 1-100 giant spiders, 1-100 evil ents, and 1-100 orcs, all under your control. Nothing in the spell description says it can only be cast in specific locations, so I’d cast it in the heart of a major city. In one night, the entire city is destroyed by the magical trees, and the survivors are hunted down by my spiders, ents, and orcs. Bwahahah! I’ll bet I kill a lot more people than that “genocide” spell does. Oooh, what a misnomer! I’m still pissed at that. Nearly as pissed as I was that time I went into the “Virgin Megastore”. Talk about false advertising! Where was I?

Soul Drain Deflection

This spell lets you pick someone else to be the target of any soul-draining effect cast on you. There’s no indication they need to be willing, or get a saving throw. The possibilities for amusement should be self-evident.

Summoning Of The Black Hole

A black hole is summoned. All in the area are sucked into it, and deposited into deep space, requiring three simultaneously cast wishes to bring them back. Presumably, they also get killed in the process of going through the singularity, though that’s not spelled out. (Argument time!) Those who do make their save are merely compressed to a piece of matter about a millimeter in size. I’d guess you only need a single Wish, or even a bog-standard Resurrection spell, to restore them to life.

And So, It Ends

Thus, we come to the end of the Necromican walkthrough. I really wish Fantasy Art Enterprises had made more books. There are rumors some of them went on to real jobs, or might have met girls, or otherwise were distracted from producing works of singular awesometude. Sic transit gloria mundi.  (“Gloria is ill on the subway on Monday.”)

Oh, and this is for an earlier spell, and I think I may have included it anyway, but, just in case I haven’t, here it is:

Thoth Amon's Organ Request

Thoth Amon’s Organ Request

Hackmaster 5e, Part II

Hackmaster Part II: Khan Strikes The Chamber Of Secrets Back

When Last We Left Our Intrepid Hero Protagonist…

OK! Welcome to Part II of my Hackmaster 5e character creation walkthrough! Now with more exclamation points! For those of you who missed Part I, it’s here. So, click the underlined part back there. Unless you’ve got your browser set funky so you can’t see links, in which case, you’re on your own.

Anyway, I had just finished adjusting my stats, and I was going to spend those lovely BPs I’d been hoarding. I had 59 left.

Step 7: Priors And Particulars

Oh, this isn’t about spending BPs. It’s about how much you weigh, that sort of thing. There’s some excellent advice in this section about how to use your background and history to create a rich and full character for roleplaying. Nah, I’m just messin’ with ya. There’s some excellent advice in this section about how to use your background and history to pull some sort of life-saving bullshit out of your ass (hmmm… that’s a disturbing mental image) when you really have to.

Age: I’m a human mage, so, my starting age is 25+1d6p. I roll a 5, so, 30.

Height: 71 inches.

Weight: “Unlike inferior games that utilize an uncorrelated table to determine a character’s body weight…” I just had to copy that in. See, that’s attitude. That’s old school. (I just picked up Chivalry & Sorcery Sourcebook I, circa 1980, and it contained a long rant about “other game designers” (i.e., Gary Gygax) who abused mythology and lore when creating their substandard and inaccurate monsters, blahdy blahdy blah. That’s part of what the OSR is missing. There was none of this ‘if everyone’s having fun, it’s all good’ attitude back then. The gaming community was, if anything, even more fractious and self-righteous in the late 1970s/early 1980s than it is now. We didn’t need no Internet to be assholes back then. But I digress.) Anyway, first I roll for my BMI, which turns out to be 21. The I multiply this by my height in inches, so, 1491. Then I scold my cat for pawing all my dice off my desk and sticking his orange butt in front of my screen. He’s actually scooping dice out of the plastic container so he can roll them onto the floor, where I can step on them and do the Dance Of The Spastic Cat Owner. I love my children. I divide 1491 by 703.. no that, can’t be right. Oh, I multiply BMI by height squared. Stop it, Rocket. Daddy can’t see the screen when you do that. OK, there we go. I weigh 150 lbs.

Handedness: I assume two, but who knows? Yeah, that was pushing it. Right handed. Oddly, half-orcs have an 80 percent chance to be left handed, perhaps because they’re sinister.

Birth: I have a 1-in-10 chance of being illegitimate. I’m not. Both my parents are still alive. My father was indifferent to me (-2 BP) but my mother loved and nurtured me (+2 BP).

Siblings: I have 6 siblings, 4 sisters and 2 brothers, but three of them are dead. So, two surviving sisters and 1 surviving brother. None of them are twins of me. Of the four of us, I’m third-born. I’m also the second-born son, so, not an heir. I have, thus, an older sister and brother, and a younger sister. I now roll 2d12 (Why? Why not?) and add the Morale modifier (+1) from my Charisma, to see how much they like/dislike me.

  • Older Sister: Argumentative, can’t get along.
  • Older Brother: Very close.
  • Younger Sister: Ditto.

 I Can Spendz Bild Pointz Naow?

Yes! Can spendz!

Sorry. I was just reading the Fark Caturday thread. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Build pointz… er.. points. As I recall, I had 59 BP left. I now go to Chapter 8, Quirks And Flaws, or “How To Be An Annoying Prat At The Game Table And Then Justify It With ‘But I’m Just Playing My Character!'”.

Quirks are mental/personality issues, while Flaws are physical detriments. That’s a nice distinction, and more flavorful than “Mental Disads” and “Physical Disads”, for example.

If I cherry-pick what’s wrong with me, I earn fewer BPs, but I have a lot more control over my character. Screw that. I’m going whoring for BPs. I can spend a BP to re-roll, as often as I like, until I run out. With 59 BPs to blow through, I shouldn’t be saddled with anything so crippling my character is unplayable as a mage.

Random rolls on the chart are D1000. Yes, 1000. Hey, this allows a really high level of granularity, which I love. It means there are, in theory, quirks/flaws that will be in less than 1% of the player base (unless the chart has no ranges less than 10, of course). I need to write down which die is read as what… OK, the dark brown one is the “ones”, the light ten one is the “tens”, and the speckled one is the “hundreds”.

You get full BPs for the first quirk/flaw rolled, then -5 for each additional one, cumulative. This means that you could theoretically end up losing BPs while still being saddled with the drawbacks. Greed is punished in Hackmaster.

A roll of 156 gives me “Clean Freak”. Basically, I am the Felix Unger, or perhaps Adrian Monk, of mages. I go into panic attacks if I am forced to enter sewers. While this is a little problematic for an adventurer, it sounds like it would be a lot of fun to play. Also, the “metagaming” section notes I must begin each game session with a pristine character sheet. Heh.

So, do I want to go again, at a -5 penalty to the BPs? Sure, why not?

582 gives me Spendthrift. I spend my money as soon as I get it. This nets me 20 BP, -5 for the second quirk, so, 15. I think I’ll stop there. That’s an additional 23 BPs, on top of my 59, for 82, total.

Now, I purchase Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies, or STPs, not to be confused with STDs. I hope.

Weapon Proficiencies

As a mage, I can purchase any weapon proficiency, but at double cost, except for staff and dagger. While it might make sense to invest in melee for emergencies, each point in this area is a point I’m not spending on things that could help me avoid melee in the first place, so I will go for a minimal proficiency in dagger, which costs me 2 BP. 80 left. I will also pick up crossbow, at double cost, for 4 BP, so, 76 left.

Other

As a mage, I get the Magical Transcription proficiency for free. And… huh. You know, this character doesn’t have a name, yet. He needs a name. Coracinus Nelumbo, I think, or “Corac” for short. There we go. He also gets a free purchase of Arcane Lore and two purchases of literacy in my native language.

Maintenance/Upkeep, for 5 BP. As a neat freak constantly polishing my staff (heh heh), this makes sense. 71 left.

Style Sense (home region): 2 BP. I know how what’s in this year, and what’s not. I look classy. 69 left.

Combat Casting: This allows me full defense when casting in melee, something that’s quite vital. It’s 30 BP, but that’s part of why I’ve hoarded them. 39 left.

Diminish Spell Fatigue, which lets me recover from casting more quickly, also looks good, but it’s another 20 BP. Let’s see what skills cost, first, then get back here.

Appraisal (Books, Maps, Scrolls): 2 BP gets me my Intelligence score (15)+my mastery die roll (d12p, for 7, +2 for my intelligence), or 23. I’ll spend another 2BP for another roll of the mastery die, a 3, +2 again, so, 28.4 BP spent, down to 35 BP.

Arcane Lore: I get the first purchase for free, and my mastery die roll is an 8, +2 for Intelligence, so, 25. A second purchase would be 10 more BP. Let’s get back to this, too.

Let’s see…

  • Astrology (2 BP) (Score ends up being 23)
  • Escape Artist (4 BP) (Score 21)
  • Hiding (6 BP) (Score 26)
  • Literacy (2 levels free, plus a third for 4 BP) (Score 47 — I rolled a 12 on the mastery die, which got me another roll.)
  • Monster Lore (5 BP) (Score 27)
  • Riddling (4 BP) (Score 23)

That leaves me with 10 BP left. I can save it, or get that other rank in Arcane Lore. Let’s go for it. Mastery die is 6, +2 for my high Intelligence, so 8, added to my existing score of 25, gives me 33.

That’s it for STPs.

Hit Points

Hit points are based on my Constitution (8), my size bonus (10), and my class Hit Die roll (D4 roll, I roll a 1. Yeah, that seems familiar.), for a total of 19 HP.

Other Numbers

My Base Attack is based on my Intelligence and Dexterity, which gives me a +4 (Go back to the first part of this article to see why!). My Base Initiative is +2, which is bad (the higher the number, the slower you act), and my Base Defense is also +2, which is better than nothing (high numbers are good for defense).

I have 45 sp to spend on stuff.

And So…

We’re done!

With 19 hp to my name, I can take a small amount of damage — a goblin with a crossbow does 2d6p, for example.

While I’ve got some mildly useful spells, the only one with even a marginal combat application is Phantom Irritation, which is a “debuff” — it gives the target a -2 to his Attack rolls. Not useless, but hardly a Nuclear Winter Fireball.

It should be noted that the combat rules, which are straightforward but not simplistic or abstract, are demonstrated through a comic-strip sequence featuring the Knight Of The Dinner Table stupidly goading BA into unleashing more monsters on them. It’s probably one of the best examples of combat I’ve seen, because it goes through every step, roll, and calculation in action, and does so in a way that’s fun and amusing to read. If I’m not mistaken, it actually continues the story from Hackmaster Basic, which used the same method.

As I said in the first part, this Hackmaster, while not as over-the-top gonzo as the prior edition, still retains a lot of humor. It’s just less in-your-face. You have to read the spell text, quirk and flaw descriptions, and so on, to find all the jokes and asides. (You can also tell, by reading some of the full text, what kinds of lame-ass exploits players attempted to get away with, and how they were smacked down by their GM.)

In conclusion? Unlike a lot of the more dubious games I perform this process on, there’s not a lot of head scratching, “what were they thinking?” moments, at least not for this particular character. Characters begin with mediocre skills and abilities, but that’s by explicit, called-out, design. There’s no disconnect between the promised game and what the mechanics deliver, and that’s a really good thing. I do admit I miss a lot of the “gonzo” of HM 4e, even if some of it was forced in by mandate; the wider range of races available, the more outre class choices, and so on, were a lot of fun. Mechanically, there’s not much that can stop you from adding such things in. Casters, in general, are very toned down in HM 5e. You have incredibly potent spells at high level, true, but you don’t get a lot of spells to cast at any one time, and the road to high level is going to be a very long slog, indeed.

Also, there’s no Game Master’s Guide yet for Hackmaster, and given that it took several years from Hackmaster Basic for the PHB to come out, I’m not betting on the GMG being at GenCon 2013. There’s a lot of material in the PHB that refers to the GMG, too. This brings back something truly old-school — it took three years for the three core AD&D books to come out. Yes, kids, three years. We made do. We cobbled together rules from OD&D and Holmes Basic and Dragon articles and Arduin. We also walked twenty miles to the game store, barefoot, and uphill, both ways. Through blizzards in summer and winter. So get offa my lawn!

Hackmaster 5e

Hackmaster 5e

This ain’t your father’s Hackmaster.

The original Hackmaster was based on AD&D 1e and 2e, put through a psychedelic blender and cranked up to 11. The only mechanics from that version that really remain in this one were the ones they added to the older game — percentiles for all stats and a working skill system. Gone are gummy bear golems, leperchauns (note spelling), and most (though by no means all) of the other stuff mandated by contract so no one would notice that, under the jokes, was a pretty workable evolution of older D&D, one which might have easily been AD&D 3e in another universe.

This Hackmaster has core mechanics rather unlike those of any edition of D&D, save that there’s a D20 involved and you still have basically 3-18 stats. 1 second combat turns, active defense rolls, and a spell point system are clear departures from the classic game. Mechanically, there’s almost nothing old-school about it. (Unless one defines “old school” as “anything that isn’t exactly like D&D 3.5 or 4e”.) The designers of Hackmaster 5e are aware that the last 35-odd years of game design have happened.

What Hackmaster retains of Old School, gloriously and wondrously so, is the attitude. My lack of God, this book drips with attitude. It knows what Old School really means: Kicking ass and taking names, so you can go back and kick the asses of people you didn’t get a chance to before. It also recognizes the rightful and proper relationship of players and Gamesmasters: The former kneel, grovel, and crawl before the almighty and unforgiving gaze of the latter.

Page 9. Paragraph 2: “In Hackmaster, any rule ambiguity related to character creation and PC powers is construed against the player character.”

Yeah! Viking Hat FTW! VIKING HAT FOREVER!

It is made clear over and over in the rules: This game isn’t about mollycoddling your PC to godhood because he’s so special and wonderful. You begin as a worthless shlump and you might survive to be someone, someday, but you probably won’t. Instead of “Everyone’s a winner!”, the attitude of Hackmaster is, as the Demotivational poster says…

For Every Winner, There Are Dozens Of Losers

For Every PC Who Lives, There Are Dozens Who Don’t.

No gamer worth his dicebag can resist a challenge like that. Hackmaster dares you to confront it.

But does it work? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. At least, we’re here to roll up a character.

Continue reading

Necromican, Level 8 And 9

Necromican, Level 8 And 9

Featuring Benign Boots

Necromican

Necromican

Wow. I just checked and realized the last post in this series was written almost a year ago. Fortunately, that wasn’t the last time this site was updated, though it seems that way at times. I’ll try to do better after GenCon. My imaginary audience needs real articles, damn it!

Should I keep y’all in suspense, or should I just jump, right now, to the single best part of this section, and perhaps of the entire book, the illustration for the Benign Boots? Well, unfortunately, I apparently already posted the illustration long before I got here. Also the two articles I mentioned being in progress over a year ago are still in progress. Wow. My laziness astonishes even me.

Ah well, here it is again.

Benign Boots by Erol Otus

Lorraine Williams Still Would Not Have Approved

For those just wandering in from some random link, this article is part of a series looking at the wonderful (that should be read, by the way, without sarcasm or irony, because it is wonderful, in every way, full of wonders) classic old-school, and highly unofficial, supplement, “The Necromican” (note spelling, compare to Lovecraft), produced by Fantasy Art Enterprises in 1979. This was one of two such books they produced, which is a deep pity, as they could have gone on to all manner of greatness. The other was the even more astounding and wondrous Booty And The Beasts.

(You can see the first part of the Necromican review here , the second part here, the third part here, the fourth part here, and the fifth part here.)

Variable Shape Fireball

One of the classic problems with “Let’s pretend” games that don’t come with volumes of rules that resemble calculus textbooks crossed with Sports Illustrated’s Chainmail Swimsuit Issue is the constant arguing and fighting. (“Bang bang! I got you!” “Nuh uh, you couldn’t see me!” “Could too!” “Could not!”). In modern games, these kinds of childish disagreements are resolved objectively using cover and concealment rules. (“Hah! I shot the orc!” “No way, you couldn’t see him!” “Could to!” “Oh yeah? Look. The rules say to draw an imaginary line for any three of four corners which bisects the center of the figure…” “Nuh uh, those rules have been errata’d. You draw a line from the center of one square to the center of the other and if it passes through fewer squares than the average of your Wisdom and BAB you can roll 1d4 and count off counter-clockwise (clockwise in Australia) until you…”)

Yeah. Anyway, back in Ye Olden Dayse, one of the biggest sources of Creative and Imaginative Immersive Roleplaying Not Rollplaying was “Arguing over whether or not the stupid magic-user blasted you with his fireball.” This spell in the Necromican settles that, by allowing the M-U to specify any imaginable shape for his fireball… well, fireblob, really, I guess… so long as it remained contiguous, with the specific and explicitly noted purpose of excluding the MU’s friends, which , I feel obliged to note, did not necessarily mean “all members of his party”. (This particular distinction would one day be reborn with D&D 4e and discussions over who counted as an “ally”. Actually, come to think of it, it still shows up in Pathfinder, as I often need to decide if a particularly dubious NPC counts as an “ally” for purposes of buff spells.)

Monster Analyzer

This spell creates a 10 foot long spiked club and shoves it straight up the monster’s… wait… no, I’ve seen too many movies with ‘clever’ titles. This spell analyzes the monster, revealing hit points, AC, immunities, and so on. Again, it’s interesting that we see an example of the repeated pattern of spells substituting for missing non-spell mechanics, in this case, some means to measure character knowledge of monsters.  (We had two ways to do it. One, the player memorized the Monster Manual, and/or learned by having various characters die, then, through a sort of Akashic memory, having his next character know what killed his previous character, and, two, the DM ruthlessly snarling at you if you showed knowledge your character didn’t have. I don’t remember ever being told to “roll an intelligence check” to determine if my character knew something.) Anyway, this spell might make a lot of sense, but not as an eighth level spell. Even in munchkin games, you did not have high level memorizations to waste on a spell like this. First or second level, sure. It was probably eighth level because “Try to hit the players with a monster they don’t know everything about” was a big part of the meta-game, which was a lot more competitive back then.

Unrequested Ethereal Ejection

This sounds like something you tell your doctor about in strict confidence, and hope he gives you the pills himself rather than making you bring a prescription to your pharmacist. Casting the spell requires the somatic component “Honest, honey, that’s never happened to me before.” Sigh. Well, actually, it sends the target to the ethereal plane, which means it should be called Unrequested Ethereal Insertion, which I’m pretty sure is a Class-D felony that carries a minimum 5 year penalty. The spell gleefully notes that “none of the victim’s accouterments accompany him, so the target appears on the ethereal plane quite naked.”

Benign Boots

You’ve seen the picture, now read about the spell! This spell creates magic boots around your feet. When you die, the boots transport themselves and the corpse onto the astral plane and then run at triple speed to a predesignated place of safety. I’m not sure how much good this would do if you’ve been disintegrated or had your legs sliced off, but that’s what DMs are for, to make these kinds of judgments without needing mounds of tedious special-case rules, and then listen to the players whine about them. I suspect the main use for this spell was to get your body away from your fellow adventurers before they looted your corpse.

Level 9

Gaze Of Cthulhu

This spell gives you the face of Cthulhu, so, everyone around you passes out with fear and wakes up gibbering. (Save for stun.) It’s not 100% clear if the “wakes up gibbering” is permanent, but it’s strongly implied. Notable mostly for the fact that this book was published two years before Call of Cthulhu really brought Lovecraft’s work front-and-center in the RPG world, and a year before TSR’s Deities and Demigods, which is what introduced most of us ignorant young savages to the Elder Gods. In other words, the Lovecraft references in this and B&TB shows they were ahead of the curve.

Hope

Sadly, there is not a corresponding spell called “Change”. Anyway, this spell is “like the wishes granted by genies”, except, instead of saying “I wish…” you say “I hope…”, and there’s a 50% chance of the spell working. Which might be kind of cool, except that, by the time this book came out, the “Wish” spell, which was also 9th level, had been part of D&D lore for years, appearing in Greyhawk in 1976.  There’s no modifiers to the spell that make it superior to Wish, except that Wish will incapacitate you for 2-8 days and this will only do so for 1 day. (So, really, you could play the odds and cast the same Hope every day until you got it. On average, you’ll have less downtime.)

Desolation

This spell kills all non-magical plant life in a one-mile area. The description notes “…this spell would not kill ents, but would destroy the forest they were living in.” Yeah. Yeah. How’d that work out for Saruman? Why not just call this spell “Summon pissed-off trees”?

Perilous Parasite

This is basically a “drain stats” spell, with the nice special effect of creating a parasite inside the victim’s skull and the text notes that said parasite is only detectible by cutting open the victim’s head and looking inside. I’ll take the stat drain, thank you.

Superb Submersible

Ixitxachitl

Ixx-ticks-ack-ittil?

This spell creates a small, magically powered, submarine with a depth ceiling (depth floor?) of 360′ and a duration of four hours, which leads me to wonder how many DMs gleefully sat there while the players dithered and dilly-dallied and counted out their copper pieces before announcing “Spell’s over, you’re 360 feet underwater, and look, here come some Ixit… Ixitch… Ixchitz…. Evil Manta Ray People!”

These guys. Right here.  Or, better yet, any of the horrid undersea things from Booty And The Beasts.

Demon Summoning A

This spell summons one of four demons, statted out in the book. The spell lasts 24 hours, and the demon will vanish at the end of said time, whether it completes the task or not. The demon is obliged to try to complete the task, though, not just hang around and wait for the clock to run out. Anyway, what make this spell interesting is that the type of demon you get is random, and the tasks each can perform are not identical. In other words, you might want a demon to do some particular deed, then get one which can’t do it. So, basically, this spell is for people who want to summon a demon and then decide what to accomplish with it. I guess it might make sense to have a list of tasks, at least one of which is suited to each demon you might summon. Oh, one of the demons, the imaginatively named Dark Demon, requires you to sacrifice the soul of a close friend when it is summoned. So, never summon without your buddy! (Also, have a large supply of ‘close friends’. The problem is, as I see it, that the demon requires genuine sacrifice — you really have to like the guy. So this means finding a lot of people you genuinely care about, and somehow managing to keep genuinely caring about them while knowing they’re all potential demon fodder.)

And Onwards

Now, you might think that with ninth level spells done, we’re done, but oh no! This was the late 1970s, an era when everything went up to Eleven…or in the case of the Necromican, up to Twelve. (Twelth level spells, that is!)

Chi-Chian

Chi-Chian, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Roll Up A Communist Cockroach

Or Maybe Not, I Don’t Know Yet What I’m Going To Roll. Or Even If I Roll.

I don’t want to just do older games or D&D heartbreakers; I want to do any game I own and which might catch my eye. Chi-Chian is one of the games that originally inspired me to do this, way back when, because I knew I’d never play it; it’s only fitting I get around to it eventually, and eventually is now!

The campaign setting, according to the back of the book, is a New York City inhabited by six foot cockroaches, but it’s also set in 3049, so I assume there are some fictional elements added in to the mix, as well as the aforementioned gritty realism. Yes, I’ll be returning to this particular well a lot, folks. I never go for the hard jokes if I can go for the easy ones.

The setting is based on an animated web series and some comic books, neither of which I’ve heard of, by “Voltaire”, who is a modern gothy type and not an ancient philosopher. Knowing nothing but what’s in the book, I’m a good test subject for how well it works as a game in itself.

The first page features a summary of events, which involves skyscraper jumping as a hobby, sentient BioLogic clothing, giant worms that serve as subway trains (and the worm-wranglers that debrain them), lost blind sexbots, homicidal cousins (and the tentacle robots who serve them), and brain merges…. and it still makes more sense, and is better written, and more internally consistent, than Synnibarr.

It goes on for several more pages, in white text on black/grey photographic background. Why white text on black/grey photographic background? Because fuck you, that’s why, as they say on Fark. This book is the product of an artiste, and artistes do not care for your decadent capitalistic running dog bourgeoisie concepts like “legibility”. Actually, it’s pretty much readable, more so than a lot of White Wolf stuff, but there’s a range between “looks like it was Xeroxed in 1974″ and “looks like a MySpace page”, and it’s tilting a bit towards the latter.

Anyway… lessee… monks, dragon boats, wormtrains, caterpillar heads, giant samurai, Spirit World, Material World, neuronetic bra(?), waltzing with roaches, flip, flip, more stuff, flip, flip, a bit of fiction, flip, flip… we don’t get to the game until Page 19. I have a feeling I’m going to have to go back and read through the stuff I bleeped through eventually.

Writing for games is, or should be, the antithesis of writing fiction. Tell, don’t show. “Elves get +2 to Perception” is a lot better than three pages of a story about an elf listening for something. At the most, dress it up with “Elves are known for their keen senses, as they are master hunters. (+2 Perception)”.

Now, I get that Chi-Chian is a game set in a specific world, and, as such, introducing that world’s background and history is vital because, without it, you have no guidance as to how to apply the mechanics. Doing this is a delicate dance. You need to introduce the bare minimum of context on an as-needed basis, adding more when it becomes necessary, with dribbles and drabbles of flavor text and micro-fiction, ideally no more than 2-3 paragraphs in a sidebar, to set the mood. Page after page of background, especially background presented in a story fashion, instead of an encyclopedia fashion, is a huge barrier to anyone actually getting to the “play the game” part of things.

Sensei No More

The GM is called the Sensei. Sigh. Anyway, we still have PCs and NPCs, not “Heroic Protagonistic Archetypes” and “Secondary Metafictive Instruments” or some such twaddle. What is an RPG, blah blah, OK, some meat. We have Statistics, which mean what they do in every game, and Capabilities, which seem to incorporate powers, feats, skills, and so on. This isn’t bad; one word means “Shit everyone has some score in”, and one word means “Shit only some people have a score in/can do”. I can dig it.

Oh, cool! A white box, clearly set aside, that gives the framework for making a character. Pick a concept, spend Chi (character points), pick two Tragic Flaws, fill in all the roleplaying fluff (appearance, mannerisms). Good. We have a plan.

Concept. Uhm… uh… OK, this is the time where I go back and read the fluff again, isn’t it, so I can come up with a character who fits in the world… (Why don’t you just hum the Jeopardy theme to simulate the passage of time…)

You know what to do with little “More” type things now, don’t you? Good…

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The World Of Synnibarr

The World Of Synnibarr

World Of Synnibarr

First Edition Cover, Image From http://www.legrog.org/, because I’m too lazy to scan my own copy of the cover. Hope they don’t mind.

OK, first off, let me note I have a few weird psychological issues with the World of Synnibarr, because I bought my copy (the first edition of the game, with the lion man cover) at an SF con in the early 90s where I a)had a migraine, and b)had my girlfriend of the time decide to spend all her time traipsing around with other people. Yes, I still nurture my two-decade old psychological scars. I hold on to my trivial emotional traumas the way other people hold on to their grandmother’s good china. (If your china is made in New Jersey, why isn’t it new jersey? And how can you have eyeglasses made of plastic? Shouldn’t they be eyeplastics? And that airplane food…)

So. Synnibarr. I will attempt to put my personal issues behind me, and review this San-loss inducing book fairly. No, seriously. No matter what my weird cross-associations may be with things, this game is wonked. I’ve referred many times to things that teeter on the edge of awesome and awful… this doesn’t teeter. Hell, it didn’t even fall off. It never got out of the pit of Awful to begin with.

Or…. so it appears merely from flipping through it, then trying to reconcile what I’ve read with any notion of a sane and ordered universe, or at least, a universe which was not actively malign. I haven’t tried to make a character with it, yet. Let’s see how it goes. Who knows? It might be better than it seems. Odin knows, it couldn’t be worse.

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Cyborg Commando 2.0 MOAR CAPS

CYBORG COMMANDO

The Epic Saga Continues

CAPS STILL NOT OPTIONAL

Welcome back! I know, even for me, this was a long time between updates, but I’ve been:

Roll Activity
01-30 Ranting on the D&D Next boards
31-80 Ranting on the SWTOR boards
81-85 Actually playing SWTOR
86-90 Working on fiction for my writer’s club
91 Working on Stellar Warriors
92-95 Being distracted by funny cats on the Internet
96-00 Looking at porn Studying new coding techniques.

So, now that that’s been established… back to creating a CYBORG COMMANDO!

When we last left our intrepid CYBORG COMMANDO, he, or possibly she, was void and formless. I hoped to find some inspiration in the book for a character idea, but what I found was inspiration as to how not to write a core rulebook. The book is filled with endless details on how the cyborgs work, down to things like the precise angle of rotation of the neck and the alloy composition of various body parts and the fact your head is actually almost completely hollow and..

Oh, yeah. Your brain is in your chest. Your head… well…

The head of a CYBORG COMMANDO

You could smuggle drugs in there. Seriously.

Yeah. It’s kind of interesting that one of the leading forms of real-world nanotech now is “lab on a chip” technology, which puts all sorts of chemical analysis functionality onto a microchip, leading towards real-life tricorders. Back in the 1980s, of course, we thought you’d need to hollow out your head to do this sort of thing.

There’s a lot of really weird details in the rules, and it takes up a lot of the rules, except, it’s not really “rules”, is it? Most of this would be called “fluff”, and fluff can be good, but it’s not fluff that inspires you or gives you an idea what the world is like, it’s fluff that shows the writer probably got a degree in mechanical engineering and this is his first chance to use it. For example, we learn the Yield Strength of the frame of a CYBORG COMMANDO is 8,047 T/m2. I have no idea what that means. Is it useful in-game, in any way? No, because there’s no rules anywhere that turn “Yield Strength” into some kind of mechanic you can use to decide if your CYBORG COMMANDO is crushed by a truck or whatever. “Ten times stronger than steel!”, if technically imprecise, provides a reader with an idea, a mental image, a conception, of how tough a CYBORG COMMANDO is. “Yield strength”, for the bulk of readers, who presumably don’t know the “yield strength” of common items you find in your home and office, tells you nothing. Even in a freeform, GM-decides, make-shit-up kind of rules system (which CYBORG COMMANDO is and isn’t, and in all the worst ways), it’s a useless piece of information, because it doesn’t give the GM any assistance in making a ruling. The book is filled with stuff like this, page on page on page, and there aren’t many pages in total.

Sure, background is great, and having a little fluff to help define and ground the technology of the game is very useful — but you could cut the amount of text dedicated to this by, literally, 90%, and convey just as much useful, setting-defining, information. (Then there’s things that provide information not even used in the setting, like a page of math, detailed formulas, for hyperspace travel times, when there’s no space travel in the game. If there was a plan for future expansion with rules for space travel,  that’s where this should have gone.)

I still haven’t gone on to developing my character, have I? The above rant is a partial excuse for why it took so long to get to this point… trying to find something to hook into. Even games I’ve been unimpressed with, or which were mechanically very simple, gave me more ideas for “what kind of character can you be” than CYBORG COMMANDO does. I will be first in line to laugh at White Wolf’s purple prose, shallowly stereotyped splats, and labored emo first person narratives with light-gray text on slightly-less-light-gray backgrounds and moire pattern watermarks, but there’s no way that, by the time you’re ready to fill in the dots on your character sheet in a White Wolf game, you don’t have a lot of ideas for what kind of people exist in the game world, what you can be, what kind of k3wl p0w3rz… I mean, angst-filled personal dramas… you get based on what you pick, etc.  CYBORG COMMANDO gives you about as much inspiration as picking “Player A” or “Player B” in an 8-bit arcade game.

Even the skill list isn’t much of a help, as it’s written like a college course catalog… without any course descriptions.

Seriously.

The CYBORG COMMANDO skills list

"I'm going to major in Medieval English, and then join OWS."

However, this isn’t the worst thing. There are two worst things. Yes, two. Each is more worst than the other. That’s more worst than you’ll find at Octoberfest in Chicago. The two worst things about the skills are: First Worst, almost none of them are described. No, not even a single line of description — the rules helpfully explain there wasn’t room for such useless trivia as “What do the skills do”, we had to have space for the populations of dozens of cities (because it’s important to know that Caernarfon has 12,280 people, and that Cullera has 12,335), hyperspace travel formulas, and to tell you that the Xenoborgs lost 14 colonels in their invasion. You know, I gave Star Rovers a lot of good-natured ribbing over the fact there were no space travel rules, but even if I felt the rules they included instead were of secondary importance, they were at least rules. You could use them in a game. Should asteroid mining have been booted to make room for space travel? Sure, probably, but you wouldn’t stare at the asteroid mining rules in stark incomprehension and ask “Why is this even here at all? What purpose does it serve?” The other first-worst thing is that the skills are often referred to by number. How much information is gained by writing “attempts a skill check in the area of Physical Sciences (56o)”? The “560” doesn’t help you quickly find the non-existent skill description… it just wastes space.

(A few skills are described, mostly the “Psychogenic” and combat-related ones.)

Anyway, to acquire skills, I spend SP to purchase Fields, which are skills ending in multiples of 10, not Areas (which end in single digits) or Categories (ending in 00). This is the Basic game; you get more flexibility in the Advanced game, but I’m not going there unless someone pays me.

So, I have 30 Skill Points. That’s… uhm… not a lot. I mean, a whole lot of not a lot. How about 10 in 220, “Unarmed Combat”, which gives me 10 in “Occidental Combat” and “Oriental Combat”, the two Areas that are in that Field. (Somewhere, Steve Long is weeping.) That leaves me 20.

Well, 10 more in Personal Weapons. That makes me equally skilled with everything from 231 Ancient Bladed Melee Weapons (including agricultural tools) to 237 Artillery. (“Can you handle a howitzer?” “Why, sure, I used to cut down wheat with a sickle on my farm back home!”) (I should cut CYBORG COMMANDO some kind of break here, since this is “basic” character generation and many games have nothing but a “combat” stat, especially games of this era. But I’m just not in a forgiving mood right now.)

I’ll put 5 in Personal Arts 410, since that gives me access to 411 Error Avoidance, which covers “Karma & Fate” and “Serendipity”. And the last 5, I dump into 630 Criminal Activity, since almost everything under it seems vaguely useful… though with only 5 points, I’ll probably suck at it. Due to the lack of skill descriptions, it’s unclear if 634 Sex Related Crime covers “running a prostitution ring” or “committing sexual assault and getting away with it”. I guess that’s the sort of thing you need to argue with your GM about. OTOH, there’s no indication that CYBORG COMMANDOs are, ahem, “fully functional”, so it may be moot. A pity. Given the style of the the rest of the book, one might expect something like “The synthesteel duraplas pseudopenis of the CC unit is 19.8 cm in length and is covered with TextuWeave Quasiskin that transmits simulated neural responses at a rate of 10.94 megagigs per kilounit. It can be set to vibrate at 500 RPM.”

Yes, I went there. What, you expected class, decorum, or good taste? Did you read my Alma Mater review?

And so…. I’m done. My nameless CYBORG COMMANDO is ready to go kick some ass. Or get his ass kicked, since from what I can tell, I have a ten percent chance of hitting someone. No, wait…. after several minutes of studying the mind-numbingly confusing graphs, it seems I have a 27% chance of rolling 10 or less using the d10x system. Wow, that’s intuitive. (Also, raising my skill from 10 to 11 is meaningless, because you can’t roll an 11 on d10x. You have to raise it to 12 to see any gain.)

And in conclusion…  I’ve got to find something better for my next article. I have nearly 3000 game books in my collection. This can’t be hard. Synnibarr. Synnibarr should be fun. Unless someone wants to send me a copy of that game where you play flower penis vampires. That could also be fun.

Alma Mater, Sophomore Year

Alma Mater, Sophomore Year

The Return of Biff Muntz

As you may recall, far longer ago than I’d like, I posted Part I of this review and walkthrough,  in which I began generating a character for the RPG “Alma Mater”, published in 1982 by Oracle Games, and best known for its Erol Otus art and serious political incorrectness. Today, we continue with the process of character generation. I had just named my character Biff Muntz, and we were about to see if he had any skills with which he could pay the bills… or, being a bully, get the money to pay the bills from someone else.

As a “Tough”, Biff begins with Dirty Fighting, Driving, Drinking or Drug Use, Intimidation, and any one other skill. Well, first, we’ll go with “Drinking”. Skills in Alma Mater come in levels, and if you have a skill, you start at Level 1 (all other skills begin at level 0). For each level in Drinking, Biff can add (or, optionally, subtract) 1 from his Con when drinking. This also gives me a chance to spike someone’s drink without them knowing about it (a bonus of +1 against their Intelligence, so, 1d10+1 against my target’s Int. Hopefully, Cheerleaders have a low Int.) The more drunk I get, the more my skill in drinking increases; this is one reason to use the skill to lower your effective Con… it makes you get drunk faster and thus get more SP to drink.

There’s a lot of good options for other skills, many of which fit with Biff’s personality: Brewing (to make your own hooch), Illegal Economics (buying and selling illegal items), Coolness (to not show fear), Crudeness (as exemplified by the late, great, John Belushi in Animal House, this is the ability to be so disgusting people are actually revulsed… you know, a College version of AM would be pretty easy to create, especially one which focused on the classic “boobs and beers” films of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Revenge Of The Nerds: The RPG!. But I digress.), Lying, Weapons Knowledge, Forgery… this is a great skill list! But I get to pick one, and only one… hmm…

It’s interesting. Since most of your skills are pre-selected, this choice really matters; it’s one of the most defining elements of your character. To drift even more off-topic for a moment, I believe that whatever aspects of your character really matter ought to have mechanical representation. There’s some who say this is the antithesis of role playing; I disagree completely. If your character is shy, or flirtatious, or drinks heavily, or likes to ride motorcycles, or whatever, there ought to be a codified representation of it in the rules set. So, with that in mind, and looking at the skills, I think Biff is going to pick Coolness for his free skill. Why? Because the higher your Coolness, the better you are at picking up girls. At Level 2 Coolness, for example, you don’t need to roll to ask someone for a date. Biff is starting at level 1, of course, so he’ll need to roll his Courage (CR) to ask a chick out. His CR is 9 and he’ll get a +1 from this skill.

Learning new skills is hard. First, you can only have a maximum of 8 skills. Second, you can’t just gain skills through play, though you can improve them. You only get to check for new skills each September, and you need to roll against your LD (Learning Drive), of which Biff has virtually none. So, barring exceptional luck, Biff will just get better at what he already knows, which is pretty realistic. Biff is likely to end his life as a meth addict living in a trailer park, trying to avoid paying child support and watching the nerds he beat up become internet millionaires. Sucks to be you, Biff.

Rules For School

Now, if someone were to make a game on this theme today, it would be some weird Forgey thing with two-inch wide margins on half-size paper, and all the rules would be things like “Contrast your Angst to the opponent’s Pathos and then write a poem that doesn’t rhyme to describe your feelings and everyone involved reaches a consensus evaluation based on how many Trauma points you wagered in the Drama.” Let’s just say… Alma Mater isn’t like that. It’s a true old school game, and, contrary to what the revisionists would like to claim, that means rules. Oodles of rules. And charts. And tables. And, let me just say this… they are wonderful.

Here, for example, is the table of modifiers for dating:

The chart of dating modifiers for Alma Mater

If I'd hard this in High School, it would have been very useful.

You see all those numbers? You get to cross-index everything and work out all the details. The letters on the top, by the way, mean “Dance”, “Flirt”, “Date Request”, “Date Success”, “Seduction”, and “Love”.  Of course, you need to track things like successful or unsuccessful Flirt attempts, and your chances of going steady (which means you don’t need to roll to request a date, but you do need to roll for date success), are based on tracking a large assortment of modifiers, including your successful dates.

Seduction can’t even be attempted unless you roll against CR-1 (Coolness helps here, heh heh), and s the chance is your (INT+APP)/2, minus the target’s WP if they’re “passively resisting”.  Attempting to seduce a character who is “actively resisting”, the rules helpfully remind us, is also known as “rape”. (If both characters are willing, no seduction roll is needed, but both must roll against CR-1.)

There’s oodles of other rules, too. Rules for throwing a party, rules for drugs… hell, for those interested, here’s what drugs were going for in 1982. (Because I was a total nerd in High School, and still am, I can’t vouch for the quality of research of these rules.).

The Cost Of Illegal Drugs In 1982

If you somehow got here while googling for useful information on the cost of illegal drugs in 1982, I feel sorry for you.

It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip, in a way… no meth, no crack, and PCP was still being used by some people. (That was the terror drug of our era, and, like most such things, the problem was pretty much self-correcting; any drug horrible enough that it might actually be as scary as the usual suspects claim will quickly eliminate its users from the gene pool, which also eliminates the pushers. Much like a virus, if it’s too deadly, it eliminates itself. The biggest risk is all the stupid kids who, knowing adults lie about marijuana, assume they are also lying about the things that really can fuck you up for life, or just end your life.)

The rules, charts, and tables just go on and on, and it would be impossible for me to point out every cool thing there is, from an extensive weapons list that provides modifiers for everything from erasers to meathooks to blowtorches(!?), to the random items you could find on people you beat up (divided by class, so you could roll on the Brain Equipment Chart to see what you took from the local nerd, and so on), to the many fine illustrations, such as this one, for combat:

Chick fight!

This Is What Illustrates "Combat" in Alma Mater. Elmore, Eat Your Heart Out.

Now, that’s an illustration! I’d post the one that accompanies the “Dating” rules, but there are kids reading this blog! (Well, not really. There’s no one reading this blog, but, among my imaginary readers are imaginary kids.)

And In Conclusion…

Well, that’s sort of it, really. The bulk of the game is post char-gen, as it really should be. There’s only a handful of real decision points, again typical of the 1970s and early 1980s. For the most part, your character tended to evolve solely after play, with games like Traveller or Chivalry&Sorcery being notable exceptions. Many games, such as Metamorphosis Alpha, had only one or two decision points to make; everything else was either mandated or random. I think that’s it’s indicative of the time that we’d say “I’m going to roll up a dwarf fighter”, even though we mostly couldn’t control what we got; basically, without rules to let us decide what to play, we either cheated outright or we just kept rolling up one character after another until we got what we wanted.

Sadly, there are no rules for playing RPGs within Alma Mater; the possibility of infinite recursion would have been wonderful.

Alma Mater

Alma Mater

A Review And Walkthrough

Alma Mater is one of the better known obscure role playing games of the early 1980s, and once you’re done parsing that, we can move on. Ready? Good. Published in 1982 by Oracle Games Ltd,  it focused on playing characters in High School. Not mutants, ninjas, aliens, or elves, just boring mundane high school kids… so it was like real life for most of the target audience, except with rules that were explicitly spelled out and clear. Hey, it works for me!

In an era where even a hint of political incorrectness in an RPG will get someone writing an outraged editorial and spark a 500+ page thread on RPG.net (49.9% of the posters will be shrill, self-righteous, holier-than-thou liberals desperately trying to show off their broad-minded commitment to tolerance and diversity by racing to see who can put more people they disagree with on ignore lists (or just get them banned), and 49.9% will be right-wing trolls or apologists who will insist that America is completely free of racism, classism, sexism, and every other -ism, except for violent hate crimes against Christians such as saying “Happy Holidays”, which is just how the Holocaust started, and 0.2% will be people trying to rationally begin with a basic ethical framework and then use that to judge the issue in question, good luck to them),  it’s hard to imagine the kind of era that permitted Alma Mater to even be published. It is filled with offensive stereotypes, art that is basically demeaning to everyone, and an utter lack of apologetic or “kids, don’t try this at home” introductions to any section that deals with anything anyone might find disturbing. To be fair, the authors call this out up-front, and,  perhaps anticipating the growing death of the sense of humor in America, state outright that the game is satirical in nature. (As opposed to the modern invention, the after-the-fact “I was just kidding” excuse so beloved of pundits and politicians today.)

Really, you pretty much just need to look at the cover to know exactly what you’re getting into — in the game, and in this review. If you go beyond this point, you have only yourself, or perhaps Google, to blame.

Cover of Alma Mater RPG

The Cover. You Know What You're Getting Now.

By the way, in 1982, Michael Jackson did not look anything like the guy buying the drugs.

So, having shown you the cover, let’s move on to the article proper, shall we?

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Necromican, Level 7

The Necromican

Level 7

Featuring An Illustration Not Nearly As Awesome As The Benign Boots, Sorry

And Also No Boobies. Boy, This Is Gonna Suck

Necromican

Necromican

And so, I continue my review of the Necromican (note: Not Necronomicon), a classic late 1970s supplement for Dungeons & Dragons published by Fantasy Art Enterprises, and featuring some great gonzo art by Erol Otus, and great gonzo ideas by, I assume, both Erol Otus and Paul Reiche III. This is the fifth such article.

(You can see the first part here , the second part here, and the third part here, and the fourth part here.)

Seventh Level Spells

Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff, the high-powered stuff, they stuff you probably would never see unless you started at high level or your DM was really lenient about letting you sell magic items for gold and then getting the gold as XP. As usual, this is a sampling of spells from the given level, presented in the order I read them in — “alphabetizing” being a new-fangled concept the game designers of the 1970s were pretty sure would never catch on, just like “indexes”, which are still clearly mistrusted by most game publishers.

Oh, by the way…. if you think the fact I’m hitting seventh level spells means this interminable series is about to terminable… er… terminate… let me inform you that, in the 1970s, our unofficial spells went up to eleven. No, wait. They went up to twelve. Yes, folks, there are twelve levels of spells in this tome. We’re barely past the halfway point. Bwahahah!

Sense Drain

This potent dweomer allows the caster to perceive the location of any drain, outlet, gutter, funnel, or… no, wait. Sorry. It drains “1-6″ senses, randomly determined (save to drain 1-3 senses). So, it’s possible to lose more senses if you save (as written, you roll 1d6 if they save or 1d3 if they don’t, so you can roll a ‘1’ if they save and a ‘3’ if they don’t; it should be implemented as ‘roll 1d6; if they save, they lose half as many senses’), and, because of the randomness (after determining how many senses you drain, you then roll on a chart to see which senses they are), you can easily cost a creature only his sense of taste or smell, which might be useful in very rare circumstances, but, most of the time, not. When you realize that “Cause Blindness” is a mere third level spell, it’s hard to see anyone wasting a 7th level slot on this. Oh, the sixth sense? That would be “psychic”, which might mean “the creature loses all psionic abilities, on the off chance it has any”, or it might mean darn near anything else. (Granted, even a 1-in-6 chance to totally shut down a mind flayer might be worth it.)

The Legions Of Acheron

You know, when I was a wee lad, the only “Legion” I’d ever heard of was the Legion of Superheroes, which caused me to be very confused when people talked about Legionnaire’s Disease, because I read that issue and Supergirl cured it by destroying her evil red kryptonite double. This has nothing to do with this spell, which seems fairly useless for seventh level. It allows you to summon 1d6 3-hit die undead, +1d6 for each level over that needed to cast the spell… which means you’ll get maybe a handful of dice extra if you’re lucky and the campaign lasts that long. Except… the spell lasts until the undead are dispelled or destroyed, and there’s nothing which says you can’t keep casting it, so long as there are enough bodies. Further, the hit dice of the undead are not based on the hit dice of the bodies they are made from. So:

  1. Go to first level of dungeon.
  2. Slaughter every kobold there.
  3. Cast this spell multiple times, until every 1/2 hit die kobold is now a 3 hit die undead.
  4. Profit!

There are those who would sneer in disgust and point out the spell isn’t “meant” to be used that way and a player shouldn’t “wreck the story” by being, you know, clever and creative and actually thinking like someone who lives in the game world and is going to use every tool at his disposal. Such people can bite me.

Spell Of Forlorn Encystment

So, which is worse: E. Gary Gygax ripping this spell off from Jack Vance, but calling it “Imprisonment” on the off chance no one would notice he was ripping it off, or the fact the writers of the Necromican didn’t know this spell was already in the PHB under that name? Except that the AD&D spell was a 9th level spell with a touch range, and this is a 7th level spell with a 120 foot range, making it a lot better. It was not until the 2000s and the OGL that we’d see, again, the problem of unofficial supplements with spells either grossly underpowered compared to ‘official’ analogues, or grossly overpowered, leading to some amazing cherry-picking if your DM lets you use them. (Of course, during the 2e era, and to some extent 3e, different writers and editors of ‘official’ books often had similar of identical abilities at wildly varying levels of power, because never in the history of D&D has there been any kind of meta-system for powers, class abilities, spells, feats, monsters, etc. It just goes with the territory.)

Leprosy

“This ensorcellment causes the victim to immediately fall completely apart, save to one limb.” That is the full spell description. That is awesome. “Save to one limb.” If I had to summarize the design ethos of the time in four words, those would be it. If I had to summarize the design ethos of the time in one word, it would be “Dude!”.

An illustration from the Necromican

Just In Case You Didn't Know What 'Gyration' Meant

Phandaal’s Gyration

One more spell borrowed, literally, from The Dying Earth, but, oddly enough, this is not one EGG saw fit to include in D&D, though I’m not sure why, since it’s pretty darn nifty. When cast, it causes the victim to… well, look at the picture. If the victim fails his save, you can make him spin (in mid-air, to be clear) about five feet off the ground, and increase the speed of the gyration until his limbs and head go flying in every direction. If he succeeds, he spins for 1d6 rounds and then goes flying off in a random direction. The spell description says that if he fails his save, the victim can be spun for as long as the caster likes.  It suddenly occurs to me that you could have quite an industrial revolution by attaching some sort of cogs and gears and rods and things to a carefully aligned row of spinning victims, perhaps using them to power mills when there’s no convenient waterfall or wind. If the caster stuck around, he could speed up or slow down their rotation as needed for the task at hand. (“Dammit, Scotty! I need more power!” “Captain, if make ‘em spin any more, their heads are gonna go flyin’ off!” “No excuses, Scotty! This wheat must be ground!”) You could position them over vats of thin gruel, so, on each spin, they could gulp a little food down or something. It has possibilities…