Arduin Grimoire, Part V
Because If Playing A Centaur Psychic Wasn’t Good Enough, You Can Be a Centaur Psychic With Chronic Insomnia
Now, we get to another cool innovation, presented with minimal mechanical guidance and an utter disregard for the hobgoblin of ‘game balance’. Reading through the Arduin Grimoire with an eye for detail now, decades after I first used it in play, I notice something never made explicit: Exactly how to use the Special Ability charts. We just rolled once on them when a character was created, no muss, no fuss. I don’t see a logical alternative, really… this was an era when characters were heavily front-loaded, with most abilities gained at creation or from class levels. None of this “gain a feat every three levels” stuff. Still, it strikes my older self as odd that it was never stated outright. A lot of stuff from this era was like that: You were just supposed to know. It was accessed through the Akashic memory of the RPG collective hivemind, or something. And, yet… somehow… we did know. We made up rules and then forgot we made them up, convincing ourselves we’d read them in some book, somewhere.
There’s several pages of them, all in a 1-100 chart, all with very little explanation or detail. When I usually end up making anything but the simplest feat eat up 150-250 words, the brevity of these is quite impressive… as is the highly variable utility. I’ll post the full scan of one of them for a sample, then go through the rest and highlight some things.
The options range from generally negative, to mildly interesting, to character-killing (A fighter-type with a -8 save vs. fear and a 50% chance of fleeing?) to just asking for trouble (secret were-creature?).
- You can easily build an entire character around the “desire to form a secret society” one, not that a +5 Charisma mattered a lot, mechanically, in these days before social skills or the like. Charisma, more than anything else, was as useful or useless as the DM wanted it to be, which was in direct proportion to how much Chinese food he’d eaten lately.
- Having the natural ability of “true sight” — I’m assuming, as per the high-level magic-user spell, though of course this isn’t explained anywhere — could be a real advantage in this era when everything was shapeshifter disguised by an illusion and veiled by darkness. Including the innkeeper at whatever tavern you were going to start playing at.
- I wonder how many fights started by people who claimed “western weapons” did not mean “European weapons”, but “six-shooters and shotguns”?
- The “Bad Liar” is another one which would make more sense if there was, at the time, an established, shared, system of task resolution based on attributes. Maybe there was in Hargrave’s games… who knows?
- “25% chance of going berserker”… just don’t ask what that means. (I’d probably rule you have to keep fighting until your enemies are dead, or something.)
- +1 with “non-mechanical” bows, and -2 versus Djinn attacks. Those… go together perfectly… I guess… erm… what? It’s almost as if some of the items on this list came from rolling on other random lists, like there was a “bonus list” and a “penalty list” somewhere in Dave’s undoubtedly voluminous house rules, and he rolled once on each and made them a single item here.
- Evidently, half-efreets are a thing.
The next table is “Mages, Illusionist, Druids, Alchemists, Medicine Men, Psychics and Those Of Magical Natures”. Interesting, compared to later evolution of gaming cliches, that Druids are lumped with magic-users and not clerics.
- Chronic Insomnia, for your centaur psychic. +5 to save vs. sleep spells, -5 charisma.
- Movement competent, -2 vs. “stoning”. (Quotes in original.) I’m assuming that’s “-2 on saves vs. petrification”, but it could mean “-2 vs. people throwing rocks at you because said ‘Jehovah'”, or even “-2 on saves against Bigby’s Awesome Stash”. Oh, and what does “competent” mean? (“It’s not a surprise you don’t know that!” shouts my internal peanut gallery at me.) It’s actually explained in Arduin Grimoire Volume II, in a slightly petulant tone, as if Dave couldn’t believe people needed his private table rules explained to them. I see no good reason to both explaining it before then, either. If Dave thought you were smart enough to figure it out, I suppose I should give you the same credit.
- +50% Vision with night sight, +1 to detect secret doors. I have no idea what “+50% vision” means. You see about half as well at night as you do in they day? You get a 50% bonus on seeing things at night, which would be cool if any such rules existed? It’s whatever you can bully the DM into letting you get away with? Let’s go with that one.
- Magic Competent, can pick locks and disarm traps as a thief two levels below your own, and climb as an assassin one level below your own, but your major drawback is your +8 Charisma. Erm, I’m going to assume they meant -8, but I guarantee you, some player who rolled this at least tried to convince their DM that a +8 was a real drawback. (“‘Cause, like, chicks are always buggin’ me, and shit.”)
- Natural ability to memorize one spell per level more than normal. Now, that’s nice. Well worth the risk of rolling… well, actually, nothing on this particular list wholly sucks. There’s no totally negative options. Someone liked magic-users more than fighters, that’s for sure, and we see the beginning of the Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit school of game design.
Next, we have “Clerics of all types, bards, singers, witch hunters, pallidins(sic semper tyrannis), and all of a more religious than magical nature”. Another case where we see modern concepts in a state of flux — bards are “religious”, rather than arcane (well, given that the original bard needed to be a Druid first, this kind of makes sense… erm, but Druids are “magical” in this book… so, uhm, whatever. I’m not sure what the difference between a “Bard” and a “Singer” is, to be honest. I think there’s a “Rune Singer” class in one of the later books, though.
Anyway, let’s look at the chart:
- Mountain Man, +2 to Strength, Agility, and Dexterity. Climb as a thief. First: This is totally not what I’d expect for “religious types”, which makes it awesome. How did Jethro Clampett end up becoming a Cleric? There’s a backstory there! Second: Still not sure how Agility differs from Dexterity in this system. Third: I’m assuming attributes cap out based on the “Limitations” table I mentioned in Part III, but there’s plenty of precedent for bonuses to transcend such limits, so who knows?
- Sickly and anemic, -2 to all attributes (ouch) , cannot be hasted. Like you’d live long enough for anyone to be high enough level to cast “haste” on you.
- +3 save vs. cursed scrolls, -3 save versus all elementals. Most of the cursed scrolls I encountered were “no save”, which leads to the zen question of “How do you add 3 to that which does not exist?”
- Clerical magic incompetent. Which pretty much makes you wonder why you ever decided to go on an adventuring career in the first place.
- Healing competent, +2 to all point totals per dice healed. This seems to imply “Competent” means “+2”.
- +3 with quarterstaff and “cudgle”, -2 with everything else. Perfect for Friar Tuck.
- “Clerical pallidin (sic transit gloria mundi) status, start at second level, you get all they get”. I… have no idea what this means. What if you’re already a
pallid.. paladin? Who are “they”? Does this means you start as a second level cleric, but get all of the paladin’s special abilities? Or you’re dual-classed, a Cleric/Paladin? Or what?
- “You have been defrocked for murder, you are now an anti-cleric.” Does your alignment change? What if you were already evil?
- +3 to Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, “you are now a singing evangelist(!) with all the abilities of a singer (or bard)”. DUDE! That sounds like the most awesome… and most annoying, to your fellow players… character concept EVER. I am SO going to roll up a Bard/Cleric now! Sure, you disdain all weapons and armor except quarterstaffs and you give away all gold over 500 GS, but still! (Wait… it gets better. Remember, this table is for many classes, not just clerics… including witch hunters. A witch hunter who rolls this becomes a singing inquisitor!!! There just aren’t enough exclamation points in the world for that level of awesomeness.
Next up: Special Ability chart for (deep breath here) thieves, monks, ninja, highwaymen, corsairs, assassins, traders, slavers, rangers, and all those with a more or less “secret” nature. (Fred the candlemaker is looking around at Slyfingers the thief, Dragon Fist the monk, Black Bart the corsair, and Aradorn the ranger and wondering how he ended up here.)
- Natural Locksmith, work 2 levels above normal for those abilities… which sort of assumes you have “those abilities”, and it’s not clear, to me, if this includes disarming traps or just picking locks.
- Circus trained, +3 to agility, dexterity, +25% to climbing ability, and a 50% chance of being recruited by a creepy guy with a deep, gravely, voice.
- +2 ability to hide in shadows and darkness above normal. But these are normally %age abilities, so does that mean +10%? Or does it mean, as with “natural locksmith”, you have a +2 effective level? I’m sure at least one hard-ass DM said it meant “+2%”.
- Quick learner, add 20% to all points earned after each expedition. Whoa! 20% XP bonus? That’s sweet!
- Poor Liar (-4 charisma when so doing), but +3 with a sling. Huh? See above for my theory on how these weird-ass combos came to be.
- Master herbalist, “can always detect poison and make it 1 die per level”. I’m guessing, somewhere, poisons were rated in dice? Every game we played, poisons didn’t do damage, they were pure save-or-die.
- “Natural ability to use magic at two levels below own level.” As a… magic user? Cleric? Bard? I’m guessing, by default, MU. Pretty nice, you’re effectively multi-classed without giving up any hit points or weapon proficiencies.
- Someone actually rolled this in one of my games: Sired by a vampire father and a normal female, you can withstand undead life drains, your Charisma can’t be higher then 9, you have an aversion to clerical types and fire, can only go out at night, but regenerate 1 point per minute “with all the restrictions of trolls”.
“A techno, a sage, and a courtesan walk into a bar…”
Here we are at the last table, which covers Technos, Sages, Courtesans, Normals, and everyone else.
- Good Liar, +5 Charisma when doing so, +2 otherwise, -2 versus cold. Oddly, Good liar also appears on the “Rogues, etc.” table, but that entry has no “+2 otherwise”, and it’s -3 vs. cold. The exact relationship between “lying” and “cold resistance” remains a mystery. I am utterly certain that Mr. Hargrave had a perfectly logical reason, and I wish I could ask him what it was.
- Stunningly good looking — Charisma 23(!), and +8 to Ego (presumably, going over the normal maxima there, too). But you’re “super arrogant”. Hell, with that Charisma, no one will care! Unless your DM just ignores Charisma when deciding how NPCs react. See earlier rants, multiple, on the lack of mechanical support for various character traits in the games of the era.
- Naturalist, can always find edible plants (emphasis in original). Man, I can hear it now:
Player: So, I find some edible plants.
DM: The hell you do. You’re in the Barren Desert Of Barren Bleakness. There are no plants here.
Player: I always find edible plants!
DM: That means, if you’re somewhere where there’s, y’know, plants!
Player: It says always!
Modern games, with their ‘cohesive rules’ and ‘integrated systems’ and ‘internal consistency’ and ‘extensive DM advice’ have totally destroyed the true spirit of gaming.
- Latent warrior, can fight as a first level warrior if pressed. Which translates to, basically, a +1 or so, as first level warriors weren’t much better than 0 level nothings. And as soon as your techno, sage, or courtesan has gained even a few levels, they’re already better than a first level anyone. Not sure about “normals”, per se.
- Total unbeliever in magic, -5 saves against all magic. Y’know, wouldn’t a +5 bonus to saves be more, erm, believable for an unbeliever? It’s hard to keep not believing in something you’re particularly vulnerable to.
- Secret were-creature, roll for type. 95% chance of being chaotic. I wonder if that means “a secret from others” or “a secret from yourself”? Also, compare to the fighter-type equivalent entry: 3% less chance of being chaotic! And no mention of being evil!
- Sadistic, arrogant, athiest(sic erat scriptum), -4 vs. magic, +8 ego, +3 strength. Anyone the author knew?
- Very pius(sic I’m out of latin phrases), help all in need, +4 vs. Magic, +8 ego, +3 strength. Compare to above. Hmmmm. Hmmmmmmmm.
- Obese glutton “of unsanitary and foul habits”, -6 charisma, +6 vs. poison, with an annotation that “if you cannot obviously have this characteristic and still be the type of character you are supposed to be, roll again”. I think it’s obvious which “type of character” the note refers to. It’s interesting that cowardly fighters are fine, but Arduin clearly has a “No Fat Chicks” policy for courtesans. Spirit of the times, I’m afraid. Spirit of the times.
- “Roll once on any three tables of your choice, ignoring this number, but if you can’t use what you roll up, tough, you’re stuck with it.” This kind of “sucks to be you, deal with it” attitude is also part of the spirit of the times… a good part, this time, one we need more of in gaming… and in life.
After this table is a “Special Note” which, I presume, applies to the whole section: “These characteristics are only guidelines, but if you accept the responsibility and roll for them, then you must accept the results as a permanent part of your character thereafter.”
At long last, classes! (Or some portion thereof… we’ve got Traders, Psychics, Rune Weavers, Technos (Sorry, “Techno’s”), Barbarians (waaaaay before Unearthed Arcana!), Medicine Men, and Witch Hunters to cover, and I don’t have a whole lot of time to write each week. Hey, I’ve been regularly posting content at least weekly for three weeks now…