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Arduin Grimoire, Part XII

Arduin Grimoire, Part XII

Alignment, Combat, And Combat About Alignment

There was an “alignment chart” earlier in the book, but now we have an essay about it. It’s very clearly based on the original tripartite scheme, and how often do you get to use ‘tripartite’ in a sentence, anyway? Mr. Hargrave believes the predominance of ‘lawful’ types in games is due to the dunother game systemons treasure distribution rules, where most aligned magic items were lawful. (And he may well have a point, as gamers will exploit any rule that gives them even the smallest advantage, in deference to all other considerations… there was a prolonged Knights Of The Dinner Table strip where the characters concocted an extreme plot to become enslaved by an evil race, win their respect, and be anointed (not, as my spell checker suggests, annotated) members of that race, so they could then pick the race’s god as their patron deity… because they’d get 1d6 extra hit points for worshiping him. That this would take years of game time did not deter them from trying it. Satire, of course, but like all good satire, somewhat grounded in truth… I’ve seen people on MMO boards complaining that they “had” to complete some long, tedious, series of quests, because the reward was a +1% bonus to something-or-other, and they were “forced” to do them because otherwise, why, they wouldn’t have the 1% bonus! But I digress.)

However, I must suspect that a bigger reason for the predominance of “lawful” characters is revealed by Dave Hargrave’s paean to the joys of chaotics:

PVP Does Help Keep The Players Busy While The DM Checks Facebook...

PVP Does Help Keep The Players Busy While The DM Checks Facebook…

A party of fishmalks didn’t work even two decades before anyone even knew what a fishmalk was.

General Notes On Combat

We next learn the following about combat in Arduin, over several pages of teeny-tiny type, in no particular order… just Dave’s jotted notes, sometimes brilliant, sometimes mind-boggling, always entertaining, one after the other. Like I keep saying, reading this is like having Dave in your living room, guzzling your Mountain Dew and nomming your Cheetohs, while he tells you what he thinks and how to play his kind of game.

  • Magic weapons can hit anything, as can technological energy weapons, but pistols cannot hit “undead types” — I interpret this, in context, as meaning “bullets don’t stop it!”, but lasers do. Works for me.
  • Silver weapons and bullets can hit “all undead types”. Clearly, Mr. Hargrave had not seen Love At First Bite (actually, it probably wasn’t out yet).
  • Magical/mythological creatures can always hit all other creatures, even if they go gaseous, etc. However, normal creatures can never hit magical creatures. The example of a “normal” creature is a 20 hit dice giant spider(!). If 20 hit dice giant anthropoids are ‘normal’ in Mr. Hargrave’s world, it indicates he was born in Florida.
  • Undead (save for zombies and skeletons) can always see invisible, so if you try to hide from a vampire that way, “you may end up an involuntary blood donor”.
  • Golems are immune to normal weapons and to most magic, but if you hit one with a fireball and then an iceball, it will explode, which is good, and then send shrapnel through the room like an artillery shell, which is bad.
  • If you drink a potion of strength, since your bone structure, etc., is not transformed to handle the increased power, you will probably break bones and tear yourself apart “unless the user is damn careful”. No specific rules are provided, of course, just an open license for the DM to be a sadistic little bastich… as if we needed such license.
  • Ah, here’s the “final effort” thing from the turning undead chart…  you can channel all your strength into your wisdom (I don’t know if that literally means ‘add your Strength to your Wisdom to get a bonus’, or if it’s metaphorical), but you can’t fight for a number of melee turns equal to your strength (so, the stronger you are, the longer it takes you to recover?).
  • Undead are only repelled by holy symbols of their own religion, so, like that guy in “The Mummy”, you’d better cart around every one you know of, just in case.
  • Beasts that stone people can only be stoned by their own kind, except in Washington and Colorado, or if they have a note from their cleric.
  • Fireballs and other AOEs divide their damage among all targets in the area, which, sadly, doesn’t make a lick of sense… and since this comes from an era when “simulationism” and “verisimilitude” were not dirty words, blasphemy unto Ron Edwards, that matters. As written, and it’s a pretty clear rule, esp. for Arduin, if a fireball does 20 points of damage and there’s four people in the blast radius, each takes five… but if there’s one, he gets all 20. Huh?
  • There’s a nifty little block of rules on how to handle unintelligent monsters’ combat choices. It helps avoid charges the DM is out to “get” a player.

In general, all the rules in this section make it clear play was with “paper and pencil and miniature figures”. I got your “theater of the mind” right here, buddy. As the dead horse beatathon continues, it’s really fascinating to see this slice of history from smack-dab right in the middle of the transition from “D&D as a new wargame” to “D&D as the first of a new genre”. To keep up with my evolutionary analogies, let’s call it the Archeopteryx Moment of the culture… the point where something is mid-range between two things. This is where “RPG Culture” really began to distinguish itself from “Wargame Culture”, where you started getting more and more players who didn’t have a wargaming background at all, but came in from SF, fantasy, and comic fandom.

Now, we head into more specific, detailed, combat rules. I’m just going to include a few snippets that are typical of the level of detail. These help show that, at the time, the response from most of D&D’s audience to its simple, abstract, system (which was derived from wargame-style CRTs (Combat Result Tables, not Cathode Ray Tubes, ya idjit!) was not “This is a gem of pure perfection, needing no further details, that frees our imagination to soar on wings of fancy to realms of pure storytelling bliss”, but was, rather, “M0AR R00LZ NA0W!!!!”, except, better spelled, because back then, you couldn’t get away with  being an illiterate moron as easily as you can today.

Combat1

But What If Two Of Them Are Halflings And Is An Ogre?

Combat3

“So, There’s A 30% Chance Of You Not Getting A +1 To Your AC. Got It.”

Combat2

Too Simplistic. I Want Modifiers For Bucklers, Round Shields, Kite Shields, and Different Kinds Of Shield Material. OK, That’s Pathfinder. But I Digress.

Combat4

Hargrave Invented The Six-Second Round AND The Armor Check Penalty 23 Years Before D&D 3.0!

Oh, I Think The Turkey will Get The Message The First Time

Oh, I Think The Turkey will Get The Message The First Time

(You’ll note, BTW, there’s none of this namby-pamby molly-coddling of idiots who do idiotic things. They’re called out for being idiots. Back then, it was understood the only way to get someone to stop being stupid was to tell them that they were being stupid.)

And here’s a Stalking Vroat (from the later edition):

Stalking Vroat

Stalking Vroat

Damn, I love this guy’s art.

Anyway, there’s five more pages of combat tables, weapon vs. AC modifiers, hex facing rules, and so on. I think I’ve covered the style and tone well enough for now. They mostly replicate, with minor changes, “that other game system”.

Ah, but then… but then…
The critical charts!
And I just found out to get this damn editor to not insert huge white spaces between paragraphs. Cool.

While not as hilariously gory and sarcastic as the Rolemaster charts… no tripping over imaginary turtles… this did add an element of blood-soaked fun to the mundane massacres of monsters. In one game we played, a halfling rolled a “100” critical on a centaur. I ruled the halfling had actually stabbed the centaur in the foot, but the creature reared up and smashed his head on the ceiling. So it goes.

One Point Per Finger. Something About That Really Appeals To Me

One Point Per Finger. Something About That Really Appeals To Me

For a roll of 100, it says, “irrevocable death results”. This seems a bit odd in the context of the time, when everyone was walking around with wishing rings, and there was even a spell in this very book, “Gathering the Sheaves“, which would bring together all the parts of the body for a quick raise dead. It’s telling, though, that even at this early stage of the game’s evolution, the “revolving door afterlife” was starting to irk people.

There’s a matching critical fumble chart, of course.

Criticaling Yourself Was Rare, But You Never Forgot It When It Happened

I am not sure what’s meant by “rolls a double one on the dice” — does that mean, rolls a 1, then, rolls again, and if it’s a 1, it’s a critical fumble? There are no actual rules I can find in the Grimoire for when something’s a critical hit, either… we just assumed a roll of ’20’ meant a critical when we played.

Next, we have a “Brawl chart”, that looks like it would work better for unarmed combat than the AD&D DMG rules (not that much would work worse, come to think of it), where you have a cross-index of attacks like “Right Cross” and “Uppercut” against defenses like “Duck Right” and “Jump Back”, and each participant in the brawl wrote down, secretly, their attack and defense, and then various formulas involving strength and dexterity were applied to see who hit first and what the odds were, and so on. It’s basically a separate combat module. I’ve seen a few games, even relatively modern ones, decide that a one-size-fits-all combat system doesn’t work for all the different ways people can kill each other, and so, have a ‘gunfighting’ system and a ‘fencing’ system and so on, which is one of those “looks good until you try it in actual play” ideas — because someone’s going to try to punch the armed orc, or shoot the brawler, and then integrating the mechanics on the fly becomes a mad dash of hastily improvised rules based on whatever points are in common. (Hell, a very similar problem occurred with White Wolf’s OWOD games, where the various magic and special ability rules were relatively well-balanced and tested within each splatbook, but the interactions between them became insanely complex when you tried to mix-and-match.)

You almost never saw this level of detail for melee fighting, though. Combat systems for D&D (and its close evolutionary kin) where you picked a specific attack and a specific defense were not common. I won’t say there were none, because the mad surge of creativity that defined this era produced so much, so fast, that no one, not even an obsessive collector like myself, could hope to see it all, but they weren’t widespread and none seemed to rise to even local prominence.

(I wonder if it would ever be possible to trace back the origins of various aspects of early variant rules. I have a theory (it could be bunnies) that a lot of the “m0ar stuph!” — the new monsters, magic items, classes, spells, etc — came from the sci-fi fandom crowd, drawn into D&D from a non-wargame background, who saw RPGs as their way to have Mr. Spock fight the Balrog, and the “m0ar r00lz!” — the uber-detailed combat modifiers and detailed tactical positioning systems — came from SCAdians and history buffs who wanted a game that simulated their concept of medieval combat on a personal level. (Prior wargames, with their focus on units, abstracted away the “He’s got a round wooden shield and he’s using it left-handed, while he’s holding a war axe with a 2′ handle, and I’ve got a 4′ longsword but no shield, and it’s muddy, and I’m running downhill at him, and I had porridge for breakfast, but he hasn’t eaten yet…” details.)

Well, that’s it for now… next time… were-centipedes and dinosaurs.

A Not-So-Brief Digression: PrinceCon 3, Part III

PrinceCon III Handbook, Part III

Magic Items

So Rare And Special In Old School Games, They Literally Take Up Half The Book Here

Rather bizarrely, someone seems to actually be reading these bits of extemporanea, and following the sometimes strangely synchronous nature of the universe, discusses magic items in D&D… the very topic I’m about to discuss. Go figure.

We now move on to Sword Abilities. It’s not clear how you determine if a sword has abilities, nor how many… I suspect the intent is to use the existing rules in the LBBs. (Little Brown Books, if we’re discussing D&D. Little Black Books, if we’re discussing Traveller. Little Brown Birds, if we’re discussing ornithology. Which we’re not. That’s my wife’s thing, not mine.)

Most of them are pretty typical; again, I’m highlighting the ones I think deserve a highlight, based on completely subjective and arbitrary criteria, including the whims of my current mood. You want academic rigor, go find a dead academic, I always say. (Hmmm… “academic rigor mortis” sounds like a good phrase to describe the state of a field of study where the demands of documentation and completeness are so extreme that original thought or insight has become impossible… I’ll have to use that in something, someday.)

  • Ability Notes: This is right in the middle of the ability descriptions, after ‘Detect Undead’ and before ‘ESP’, like it was supposed to be a footnote and was mixed into the main text because this was probably laid out on a typewriter and then mimeographed.
  • Illusion Generation: Allows the generation of “non harmful” illusions, which is one of those terms of art that led to endless debate. Probably, the intent was that you couldn’t be burned by illusionary fire, for instance — and yeah, that was totally a topic of interminable warfare among D&D players at the time — but I can, sadly, see it being used by some DMs to effectively nullify any clever use of the power, such as disguising a pit with an illusion so the ogre falls down it. “That’s harming the ogre!” “That’s not what that rule means!” “I say it is, and I’m the DM!” “Want some more General Tso’s chicken?” “OK, the ogre falls and dies. Pass the soy sauce.”
  • Battle Fury: Gives you +1 to your effective level for each round, up to +10 levels (this is impressive, trust me), but comes with a 10% chance, per round, to “not stopping until killing everyone in front of him”. Taken literally, this would mean all surviving allies just run behind when the fight is over, and of course, no matter the state of berserker rage he might be in, he won’t keep his eyes on the enemy and, I dunno, turn around to follow them?
  • Tirelessness: “Wielder will never become tired or weary from physical exertion”. “What do you mean, you’re taking your sword with you into the king’s harem?”
  • Spell: Random spell, level 2-7, castable once per day. This is one of those things that could end up being nigh-useless or nearly game-breaking, depending on how you roll. (Limited Wish, for instance, was a 7th level spell…)

Armor

Some interesting items here:

  • Armor vs. Walls: Predating Magic:The Gathering debates by nearly 20 years (“How can you Terror a wall?”) this protected you from magical walls — fire, ice, iron, etc. You could walk through them with ease. Possibly you could con your DM into letting you get past blade barrier. There’s an odd note here, regarding magical walls from “War Of The Wizards” — I have no idea what that’s referring to. I dimly recall a game of the era called “WizWar”, I think.
  • Paladin’s Armor: The only “aligned” armor, says the text, being either Lawful or Chaotic, and doing damage to the wrong sort of wearer as per aligned swords. Again, a somewhat prescient concept… and it makes me wonder why it wasn’t more common, as it seems an obvious extension of existing rules.
  • Ranger’s Armor: Unaligned, but gives bonuses if worn by a ranger. As above, we really didn’t see a lot of class-specific armor despite there being a plethora of other items which were so limited.
  • Shield of Throwing: Can be thrown, with a 10% chance of decapitation if the target is AC 7 or less. No word on if shield is red, white, and blue.
  • Shield of the Prophet: Can be wielded by clerics while still allowing them to cast spells. “When used by a Prophet of the correct religion, it has other abilities.” No, the book doesn’t offer rules on what constitutes a prophet of a given religion, nor does it say what those “other abilities” are.

Medallions

  • Medallion Of Holding: Nifty because it’s not the sort of thing these items are usually used for. This lets you put one item up to 5000 GP (it’s not clear if that’s weight — the GP was a unit of weight as well as currency) or value, into the medallion, and swap it out once a week.
  • Size change: Grow or shrink up to 10 times your size, No evident limits on frequency. Also, no rules for what that means. Does your gear grow/shrink, too? How much extra damage does a 30 foot long sword do? If an inch-high magic user casts a fireball spell, is its damage and AOE scaled down? The canonical response from the “rules light” crowd is “just play with reasonable people, and you don’t have arguments”. Because, as we all know, interpretations of the effects of magical size change is the sort of thing where only one “reasonable” answer exists, and only “unreasonable” people would dispute it. It’s not like size changing has all sorts of often counter-intuitive effects and implications that might merit, oh, several hundred pages of detailed rules for some systems.
  • Galileo Medallion: Renders you immune to Clerical spells, since you don’t believe in gods. Presumably, this affects healing spells, as well.

Crosses

Basically, a (small) category of magic items for clerics (I’d rule they take the form of whatever holy symbol is appropriate). They grant a +1 to +3 bonus of dispelling/turning undead, and to protections spells. Worthy of mention because it’s such an obvious category of item that was never well developed during the time.

Balls

  • Balls Of Bravery. Yes, they went there.
  • Bowling: Knocks down opponents. Of course.

Censors

This refers to the incense burner, not the book burner, though it seems odd they didn’t include a “Censor Of Speech” which did 1d6 damage to any character who used foul language… especially when you consider that they did include this:

Have you ever looked at your hand? I mean, really looked at your hand?

Have you ever looked at your hand? I mean, really looked at your hand?

Bowls/Cups

  • Cup of Oberon: Pours out healing potion for elves, normal wine for humans, and vinegar for dwarves. I would immediately demand a Beer Stein of Gimli, with suitably opposite effects.
  • Cup Of The Assassin: Creates a ‘Mahler Style’ poison, and I’m out of Vienna jokes. Sorry.

Carpets

  • False Flying Carpet: Has a 25% chance of failing at random times. Insert tasteless joke about whichever airline just had a horrible crash at the time you read this here.

Chimes

Another interesting typographical oddity here: Item names went from Normal Case to ALL CAPS. I’d suspect this is where someone (perhaps Howard) took over the writing and decided to use his or her preferred stylistic guidelines. Just an interesting example of how personal this book was… it was put together by whoever felt like working on some part of it, anticipating open source development, where code modules would be written by whoever, so the same project will have wildly varying conventions for variable names and the like.

  • Jeweled Chimes; Worth 30,000 GP if you don’t try to ring them. They shatter if rung. Nasty trick.
  • CHIMES OF THE PHAROAHS(SIC): Summons 1-6 mummies to attack the chime-ringer and his allies. Getting a message here: Don’t sound the chimes!

Lyres

  • Lyre Of Truth: Of course.

 Brooms

You might notice a lack of alphabetical order, here. Hell, it was a lot harder to sort things when everything you wrote was basically in a fixed format, and the only way to re-order items was to literally re-type everything, or maybe do something with lead that didn’t involve sending your ork marauders to attack those space marines, I dunno.

Anyway, I’m feeling lazier than usual, so, first off, here’s a scan of some brooms, so I don’t have to write long descriptions by hand.

What, no "Nimbus 6000"? Only two decades off!

What, no “Nimbus 6000″? Only two decades off!

Second, some comments:

  • Pocket Armenians? What the frak? What the frakkin’ frak? I’m guessing “inside joke”, probably a reference to a fellow student who was a)Armenian, and b)Short. Today, the college would be sued for committing microaggressions or something. Get it? Microaggressions? (Hey, you want tasteful jokes… or, for that matter, funny jokes… go read Wil Wheaton or something.)
  • The “clean up crew” monsters is a reference us real old school gamers get, and you punk kids don’t. This was a term used, originally by Gygax, to refer to gelatinous cubes, carrion crawlers, and assorted slimes and puddings that scoured the dungeon eating everything, thus keeping it ‘clean’. As Lore Sjoberg later noted, the 10′ by 10′ gelatinous cube was “genetically adapted to graph paper”. Y’know, monster categorization is a ‘thing’ since D&D 3.0. In addition to Humanoid, Monstrous Humanoid, Magical Beast, Magically Bestial Monstrous Humanoid, and so on, I’d like “Clean Up Crew” as a monster type. Sure, there’s the “Ooze” type, but it’s just not the same.
  • The Witch’s Broom sounds great for witches… except there is no ‘witch’ class officially. There was a The Dragon article (no, that’s not a typo, the magazine was called ‘The Dragon’ then) about witches as a class, so maybe that’s what this refers to. Might even have been a Strategic Review article, that’s how long ago this was.

Figurines

  • Figurines Of Wealth Consumption: These tiny figures come in hundreds of different styles, and depict all manner of men and creatures, from all ages, from the distant past to the distant future. When any are touched, a compulsion comes upon the wielder, causing them to spend more and more money purchasing them, and hours of time painting them, only to throw them all away every three or four years when a “rules upgrade” is issued, beginning the process all over again. OK, I made all that up. It’s not in there. But, damn, it should have been.
  • Figurine of Truth/Untruth: It has the use of X-rays, ESP, “clairaud.” (sic), “clairvoy.” (sic) to “determine information”. It can be used once per day, and lies 1/3rd of the time. This basically seems really useless to me, unless you did something like asking the same question every day for a week and figuring out that the answer given most of the time was probably true, by the odds. Pity you couldn’t just shoot it in the foot. Oh, there’s also a Figurine Of Untruth/Truth, which lies 2/3rds of the time and tells the truth 1/3rd of the time. I guess you could empirically determine which one you had by asking it a question you knew the answer to, again over the course of several days, and evaluating the frequency of honest to dishonest answers. (And, yes, we did think like that, back in the day. I keep telling you people, it was all about battles of wits between the DM and the players.)

Necklaces

  • Necklace of Pearls: Get your mind out of the gutter, perverts. (That’s “perVECT!”) (Gods, will anyone get that reference? I’m old. I’m so old.) This is a necklace of “one of each of the pearls listed in Blackmoor”, and I originally read it wrong and had a really good… well, tolerable… passable… OK, space-filling joke that relied on my misreading, that I had to delete, so instead I filled the space with this explanation you’re reading now.

Misc. Misc. Magic

From the Department Of Redundancy Department.

  • Wings of Death: At the first chance, will kill the user. Presumably, by dropping him or her from a great height, but for all I know, they beat the wearer to death, or something.
  • And then there’s this…
Asperger's Syndrome? What? Huh?

Asperger’s Syndrome? What? Huh?

I have absolutely no idea what this means or refers to. I know an arquebus is a primitive gun, of course. What gamer doesn’t know that? None worthy of being called “gamer”! But the whole thing doesn’t make any sense to me. I could figure it out in about a minute of googling, of course, but being a celebration of things old-school, I’m going to enjoy something that one rarely can enjoy in this modern age: Not knowing something. (Seriously, when I have the full text of Wikipedia in my pocket, ignorance is pretty hard to justify.)

Gauntlets

  • Mickey Mouse Gloves: Today, these would be called “Gauntlets Of The Immense Rodent”, or something, to forestall lawsuits. But this comes from a more innocent time. They are, in fact, really nifty: When worn by an animal of roughly human size, they give the animal dexterity as if it were human. Great for animal companions (if they existed back then… can’t recall if rangers got them in 1e, and like I said earlier, I’m in a really lazy mood, which is like Donald Trump saying he’s feeling particularly greedy today), and smaller beasts of burden.
  • Gloves Of Silence: You’d think this would enable the wearer to slap someone while using the incantation “Ah, shuddupa you face!” to cause them to suffer the effects of a silence spell, but, no. These let you stick your fingers in your ears to resist sonic-based attacks like harpy songs and the like. But if you take your fingers out to cast a spell or use a sword, do you lose immunity? You’d look pretty dumb (and be pretty useless) going the whole fight with your fingers in your ears.
Stranglers Gloves

Do They Work If The Opponent Has No Neck?

  •  Strangler’s Gloves, see above clipping: Not a particularly unusual type of item for the era, I’m highlighting it as an example of one of the dead horses I’ve beaten throughout this series, and will continue to beat: The oddly random degree to which things were detailed in terms of specific rules and specific cases. (And immediately, I wonder: Can you strangle a dragon if you’re much smaller? How about undead, that don’t need to breathe? Or a gelatinous cube?)

Girdles

Surprisingly free of the obvious jokes. Seriously, did Gygax not understand that to most of the world, “girdle” was not merely a synonym for “belt”?

  • Girdle Of False Strength: One of the nastier (more subtle) cursed items I’ve seen: It acts like a typical Girdle of Giant Strength, but each time that power is used, the wearer’s actual Strength drops a point, and when it hits 0, he becomes a shadow… and not the kind that knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.
  • Girdle of False Polymorphism: Causes the user’s object code to appear as if it supports correctly casting objects to their ancestral types, but instead causes invalid pointer errors when executed by a customer. OK, not quite. It allows you to change shape, but there’s a 40% chance you’ll be permanently transformed into a random creature.
  • Reducing Girdle: Causes the wearer to lose weight until they’re at a healthy value for their size. OK, I was wrong. They did use the obvious jokes.

Mirrors

  • Mirror Of Holding: Something of an oddity, like the Medallion of Holding above. It will store one magic item, retrievable by the person who put it there. I’m guessing whoever DMed at Princeton was a real stickler for encumbrance rules.
  • Mirror of Recharging: As a mirror of holding, but when the item is removed, it has regained one charge. This ability is only usable once per month. Really? I mean, really? Oooooh, once a month I can get back one charge. I use 20 charges from my Rod Of Lordly Might every time I go into a dungeon… or the seedier part of town, if you etgay my iftdray. Oh, thank you, Mr. DM, for your generous magic item! Sheesh. One charge for one item once a month? Screw this, I’m gonna see if there’s a Traveller game going on, or something. One charge… bloody waste of…
  • Mirror of Movement: Stepping into the mirror allows you to step out of any other mirror of which you are “consciously aware”. The possibilities are endless, but you do leave the source mirror behind, so it’s a one-way trip.

Sigh. I’d really hoped to finish this today, as it’s been two weeks, but we still have 18 pages to go. Maybe next time.

 

A Brief Digression: PrinceCon 3, Part II

PrinceCon 3 Handbook, Part II

We Probably Still Don’t Care What Howard Says

No, I Have No Idea Why That Struck Me As So Funny. It Just Did, OK?

Sheesh, The Way You People In My Imagination Whine About These Things, You’d Think You Were Paying For Them, Or Something

Alright. Part I of this digression (y’know, I really hated Tristam Shandy in college, but evidently it had an influence on me), discussed the variant rules to be used at the PrinceCon 3 gaming convention in Princeton. Since most of the jokes in this one probably are going to be lame attempts at recurring humor, you’d probably better read that one first.

You’re done? And you came back? Wow, you must run up quite a tab at Madame Wu’s House Of Pain. Anyway, today, we’re discussing magic items, a rather long list of them, in fact… mostly based on the OD&D+Greyhawk lists, but with original concepts and variants mixed in.

We start, as always, with a random table. Most of the stuff on the table is what you’d expect, but there’s a few new things; Magical gems, “medallions” (I assume this means “amulets”) and “crosses”, with quotes in the original — basically, clerical items.

The “Swords” table is pretty standard… the usual mix of “+1, +3 vs left-handed lizard-men with leprosy” sort of thing. A few items stand out… a “Matrix/Mage” sword, for instance, and “Holy/Sacred” swords get their own subtable on the next base, to allow for a wide variety of them. Actually, it looks like “holy” and “sacred” are different types, each going from +2 to +5. At this point, not sure what the difference is.

There’s also a nice long table of “sword abilities”, followed by “extraordinary abilities”, but damned if I can figure out how to determine if a sword has such in the first place. It might be case of “Any place we don’t have a rule, use the D&D rule”, which makes sense under the circumstances. There’s a lot of “*” marks next to the entry, but you have to flip waaaaay ahead to find out what they mean… and they mean different things based on what kind of sword they’re next to.

The random tables go from 34 to 52, and the rest of the book is explaining them. It seems best to skip on to the explanation, as otherwise, this whole article will consist of alternating between “This looks pretty baseline” and “I have no idea what this means”.

Balrog

Shouldn’t Gandalf be doing this?

Oh, and because this was in the days before it was easy to set text in columns, and because the charts were pretty narrow, most of the section consists of a series of tables on the left and art on the right. Like you’re seeing now, if this displays on your browser the way it looks in my text editor.

On my way to the description section, I did notice a few things on the charts… like “Military Pick +1, +3 vs. Giant Beetles”, which is the sort of thing that’s so specialized I feel there has to be a story behind it. Also, a category under miscellaneous magic called “Tie Clips and Spices”, two great tastes that go great together, I suppose. Also, “Balls of Bravery”, and both a “Reducing Girdle” and a “Girdle of Reduction”.

Something vaguely Ditko-esque about this one...

Something vaguely Ditko-esque about this one…

 Then, a few pages of gems, including “Fighter Gems”, and finally, the descriptions.

“Resistance” gives +10% on saving throws and -1 per die of damage to the appropriate type of attack, with all the usual suspects represented, along with demons and scrying. (You can tell the pre-AD&D fan stuff from the AD&D-era fan stuff by the fact it’s only “demons”, never “demons and devils”. (If it’s “baatezu” or whatever, I don’t wanna hear about it.)

 A “*” for most items means “Roll on the appropriate table”. I rather like that for swords of the type “+1, +3 vs. dragons*”, you roll on a random table to see what kind of dragon you get a bonus against… said table to be set up based on the relative population of different species of dragons in the region where the sword was forged, which is simultaneously perfectly logical — people living in the Dismal Dripping Mire Of Sodden Sogginess are unlikely to forge a Sword +1, +3 vs. blue dragons, and if you don’t know why, how the hell did you even find this page?– and perfectly ridiculous, because some DM rolling up a random treasure for a random encounter isn’t going to know or care where a magic sword was made. I think someone coined the phrase “Gygaxian naturalism” for this sort of thinking, and I like it.

BTW, they spell “wielder” as “weilder” everywhere. I’ve been less whiny about spelling errors in this one than I usually am, because it’s not even pretending to be a commercial product, and because, as I noted in Part I, I greatly suspect the authors weren’t English majors, but seriously, didn’t they know the “i before e except after c” song from the Peanuts movie? (Actually, I don’t even know if that movie was out when this was published, and I’m too damn lazy to go look it up on IMDB, which is a particularly special kind of lazy.)

Let’s look at some of the cooler swords:

  • +1, Equalizing: This sword negates White Male Privilege… well, actually, it just drains a level from whoever is higher level and gives it to whoever is lower level… regardless of who weilds… er… wields it. This is interesting, as it means if you’ve got this sword, you only want to attack people higher level than you, or you’ll end up creating super-kobold. (Google ‘pun-pun kobold’ sometime…)
  • +1, Metal-Cleaving: If the sword misses an attack, it has a chance to destroy the targets armor or weapon. Nice.
  • +1, +2 vs. Flyers, +3 vs. Ents: Someone clearly hated birds, and the trees they nested in. Or something.

OK, time to digress once more. As I noted in my Arduin articles, this kind of “+1 vs. Hamsters, -2 vs. Gerbils” mechanic was really, really, common back in Ye Olden Dayse, and I have no frakking idea why. This is, or was, my era. I was 14 when I started playing in 1978. I ought to know the culture well enough to understand it, but in this case, I am fertummelt. I didn’t question it at the time, because it was all new enough that I just took it all at face value. I didn’t even really think much about it until, well, now, writing these articles where I’m doing a careful, close, reading of the text, not so much for scholarly understanding but in the hopes of finding something I can hang a feeble attempt at humor on. At best, I can say it seems like the first pass at what eventually became “Of Slaying”, where a sword had a nice little bonus for general purposes and a larger bonus against a given enemy, but without the understanding of that rule, so it was perceived as a kind of arbitrary thing and simply imitated. (A lot of Burgess shale era stuff showed elements of what’s called cargo cult programming when you see it in code, and the parallels between RPG design and program design become ever more apparent the more of these things I write. In essence, people copied D&D without understanding the ‘why’.)

I could retrofit an explanation… fanwanking it… though. Clearly, magic is random and chaotic. The endless lists of “Hand-axe +2, +3 vs. Frost Giants and Phase Spiders” items are the result of magic being more art than science, that weaving the enchantments was often plagued by strange effects and unforeseen circumstances. Only when the item was complete could the smith be sure what he’d actually made.

Ah, we see the difference between ‘Holy’ and ‘Sacred’ swords: Holy swords give paladins an aura of protection against magic-user spells, while sacred swords give rangers an aura of protection against cleric spells. Uhm… wait, what? Was there some early printing of Lord Of The Rings were Aragorn killed Aslan, or something?

Still a lot of ground to cover, and not much time to cover it in. I don’t care what Howard says, 1300 or so words is a good length for an article. So, tune in next week (probably) for Part III of who knows how many, at this point.

 

 

Yeah, I’m just gonna leave this right here…

Review for “The Book Of eight Restful Retreats”, my first product published through Christina Stiles Presents: http://www.rpgnow.com/product_reviews.php?products_id=131265

Inspiring Images

Just a note: I occasionally stick stuff to my Pinterest board that is of interest (if not Pinterest) to games and other geeky types. So, here it is:

Inspiring Images.

Quick Link: Cool Star Rovers minis!

Since a comment on an old article may be missed by both my fans, here’s a link to awesome Not Star Wars Really They’re Not Honest Mr. Lucas Don’t Sue Us minis for Star Rovers!

The Banality Of The Fantastic

Just a little something I wrote on rpg.net that I thought ought to be here, as well.


I’ve found, in my fiction, that I tend to keep returning to the concept of the banality of the fantastic — how anything, no matter how baroque or strange, ultimately just becomes part of the background noise of daily life, and try to create worlds that are interesting to the readers but which are simply *there* for the characters. If the canonical Big Dumb Object story is “the guy gawking at things, and the guy who explains to him what he’s gawking at”, my stories tend to be “the guy yawning at things because he just wants to get home and watch TV and this is, what, the fifth giant radioactive monster this week?” And this, in turn, feeds back into my gaming preferences… I enjoy worlds where the characters do not marvel or wonder at golems or vampires, but run down their checklist of “What kills them?”, because they’re as much a part of their world as lions, tigers, and bears. They’re dangerous, they’re fearsome, they require special knowledge and skills to hunt effectively, but they’re not alien, unknown, or mind-bending.

Gelatinous Cube, Glacial

Gelatinous Cube, Glacial

In honor of the Winter Is Coming Blog Carnival, I’ve decided to try to a)post more often (hah!), and, b)post winter/cold/ice related stuff, as my fancy is struck. No promises on either frequency or content; been there, done that. For all you guys know, this could be my last post ever. We’ll see. (Note: I wrote that first paragraph on 11/04/2012. What day was this posted?)

So, for starters, let’s take one of the classic monsters, the gelatinous cube, and try some frozen variants. This is going to be a bit of an exercise in extemporanea, wherein I will “think out loud” on the page, as I try to work out what to do with this concept. This allows you to peer into the mind of the artist. Gaze not into the abyss, yadda yadda.

So. Cold gelatinous cube. “Ice Cube”, but that’s too obvious, even for me. Hm. Here’s problem one: The thing about cold, the thing is, about cold, is that it’s cold. Frozen. Stiff. Pretty much the antithesis of “gelatinous”. Sure, you can postulate the freezing point of Cube is much lower than that of water, and we might go with that, but as I ponder it… can a non-gelatinous gelatinous cube be interesting? Hmm…

Cold. Solid cube. Ice cube. Can’t absorb things, except very slowly. Like licking a street sign. Except it’s a street sign that wants to eat you. It can absorb on contact, slowly. Warmth of bodies thaws its outer surface. You get stuck, then drawn in as your own body heat softens the cube so it can feed. Hm. What else does ice do? Shatter. Hitting it causes smaller fragments or shards to fly off. Form their own monster. Hmmm. Clear. Gelatinous cubes are already clear, but arctic thoughts. Sun. Light. Refractions. Snowblindness. Cube shimmer in the sun, blinding aura, dazzling, hard to look at.

OK, that’s enough traits to work with.

Let’s see. Let’s do an “across the ages” thing here. I’ve done it for spells. Why not for monsters?

 

AD&D First Edition

GELATINOUS CUBE, GLACIAL
FREQUENCY: Rare
NO. APPEARING: I
ARMOR CLASS: 5
MOVE: 4“
HIT DICE: 6
% IN LAIR: Nil
TREASURE TYPE: See below
NO. OF ATTACKS: 1
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 2-8+1-4 Cold
SPECIAL ATTACKS: Paralyzation, refraction, surprise on a 1-4
SPECIAL DEFENSES: See below
MAGIC RESISTANCE: See below
INTELLIGENCE: Non-
ALIGNMENT: Neutral
SIZE: L (10’ cube)
PSlONlC ABILITY: Nil

Attack/Defense Modes: Nil

Glacial Gelatinous Cubes are found only in the frozen regions of the planet, or in dungeons which are kept magically super-cold. They are much more solid than their oozier brethren. Due to this, when they hit an adventurer and paralyze him, damage begins on the first turn following the attack, as it takes time for the stricken victim to be drawn inwards.

Glacial cubes are even harder to spot than others of their kind, as they blend perfectly with the semi-transparent ice of their home regions. If encountered in daylight, the cube may instinctively make a refractive attack instead of its normal attack, causing all within 20 feet to make a saving throw against breath weapon or be blinded for 1d4 turns. It may do this only once per day.

Glacial cubes have the same treasure types as other gelatinous cubes.

Glacial gelatinous cubes can be hit by all forms of weapons, but bladed weapons do only half damage. Blunt weapons do normal damage, but on each hit, there is a 25% chance that a shard of the cube will be knocked free. This shard makes an immediate attack as a 3HD monster on a random character within 10 feet of the cube. If the attack hits, the target takes 1d6 damage and must make a saving throw vs. paralysis or be paralyzed for 1d4 turns, during which time the embedded shard will do a further 1d6 damage per turn unless it is somehow removed. Anyone killed in this fashion will become a glacial cube within 2d6 rounds after death, having but 1/4 the hit points of a standard glacial cube, but otherwise identical.

Glacial gelatinous cubes take normal damage from fire, and cold attacks heal them for half the damage they would otherwise do. Electricity, fear, holds, paralyzation,  polymorph, and sleep based attacks have no effect on glacial gelatinous cubes.

It is rumored that white dragons of the smarter sort will sometimes (10% chance) keep glacial cubes as guardians, scattering them around their lairs to ward off intruders.

Pathfinder

(For those who care, which is to say, no one, I am using PF instead of D&D 3.x because my monster spreadsheet has been rewritten for PF.)

Glacial Cube
Large Ooze (Cold)
Hit Dice: 6d10+48 (96 Hit Points)
Initiative: -5 Dex
Speed: 15 feet (3 squares)
Armor Class: 14(-1 Size -5 Dex+10 Natural) touch 4; flat-footed 14
Base Attack/Grapple: +4/+10
Attack: Slam +6 (1d6+1d6 cold)
Space/Reach: 10 ft./10 ft.
Special Attacks: Engulf, Paralysis, Refraction, Shards
Special Qualities: Transparent
Immunities: Electricity, Cold, Ooze Traits
Saves: Fort +10,Ref -3,Will -3
Abilities: Str 14, Dex 1, Con 26, Int 0, Wis 1 ,Cha 1
Environment: Any Cold
Organization: Solitary
Challenge Rating: 4
Treasure: Incidental
Alignment: Neutral

The glacial cube is a cousin of the more common underground gelatinous cube, one which has adapted itself to life under conditions of extreme cold. It is much more solid than the normal gelatinous cube, which provides it with some measure of increased defense, reflected in both its Armor Class and its Hit Points. It also has several other distinctive traits which can catch unwary adventurers by surprise. Unless noted, it is otherwise identical to the gelatinous cube.

Acid (Ex): The glacial cube’s acid does not harm metal, stone, or ice.

Engulf(Ex): The glacial cube has a solid surface, and cannot easily engulf moving prey. However, the body heat of paralyzed victims melts its outer surface, at which point, it can ingest them. As a full round action, it can engulf a single Medium or small creature which is adjacent to it and paralyzed. There is no save. Engulfed creatures are subject to the cube’s paralysis and acid, gain the pinned condition, are in danger of suffocating, and are trapped within its body until they are no longer pinned. This ability does not affect creatures with the cold subtype.

Paralysis (Ex): A glacial gelatinous cube secretes an anesthetizing slime. A target hit by a cube’s melee or engulf attack must succeed on a DC 21 Fortitude save or be paralyzed for 3d6 rounds. The cube can automatically engulf a paralyzed opponent. The save DC is Constitution-based.

Refraction (Ex): As a standard action, a glacial cube exposed to sunlight or bright light can instinctively form its internal substance into crystalline patterns that emit a blinding light. All those within a 30′ radius burst centered on the cube must make a Reflex save (DC 21) or be dazzled for 2d6 rounds. This save is Constitution based.

Shards (Ex): When the glacial cube is struck by a weapon which does crushing damage, it sends for small shards of its frozen substance. If it is critically hit by such a weapon, it produces 1d4+1 shard. Each shard makes an attack on a random creature within 10′ of the cube, at a +6 attack bonus. If it hits, it does 1d8 piercing damage, and it will do 1d6 cold and acid damage for the next 1d4+1 rounds (A DC 15 Heal check will remove the shard). Any creature killed while the shard is in place will reform in 2d6 rounds as a small glacial cube (apply the “young” template to the glacial cube)

Transparent (Ex): The glacial cube is even harder to spot than its dungeon-dwelling kin. A DC 20 Perception check is needed to notice one when in its natural habitat among ice cliffs and snowdrifts. Anyone more than 15 feet away has a 50% miss chance for aimed spells or attacks. Faerie fire, glitterdust, and similar spells render this effect moot, but invisibility purgeor the like do not, for the same reason they don’t make glass windows opaque.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

Ah, 4e. The easiest version to design monsters for, hitting a good balance between the “finger in the wind” 1e/2e rules and the “IRS Tax Auditors Give Up” 3.x/PF rules. Well, it would be nice if there were more formal support for non-combat abilities or integration with the rules for PCs, but, you can’t have everything.

Because 4e makes it so easy to run simple monsters on the fly, the shard effect for the 4e version produces minions, which makes it tactically more interesting, in my opinion.

Glacial Cube

Level 7 Elite Brute

Large natural beast (ooze, cold)

XP 600

HP 194; Bloodied 97

AC 21; Fortitude 20; Reflex 17; Will 18

Speed 3

Immune gaze, cold; Resist 10 acid

Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1

Initiative +5

Perception +5

Tremorsense 5

Traits
Translucent
A glacial cube is invisible until seen (Perception DC 25) or until it attacks. Creatures that fail to notice the glacial cube might walk into it. if this occurs, the cube attacks (+13 vs. Fortitude; Hit: Target is immobilized, save ends.)
Standard Actions
m Slam • At-Will
Attack: +12 vs. Fortitude
Hit: 2d6 + 3 damage, and the target is immobilized (save ends).
M Engulf (acid, cold) • At-Will
Effect: The gelatinous cube engulfs one or two Medium or smaller targets who are immobilized and adjacent to it.; The target is grabbed and pulled into the cube’s space; the target is dazed and takes ongoing 10 acid and cold damage until it escapes the grab. A creature that escapes the grab shifts to a square of its choosing adjacent to the cube. The cube can move normally while creatures are engulfed within it.
C Refractive Burst (radiant) • Encounter
Requirements: Must be in sunlight or in bright light.
Attack: Close Burst 5 (All sighted creatures in burst.); +8 vs. Reflex
Hit: 1d10 + 7 radiant damage, and target is blinded (save ends).
Triggered Actions
Shardspawn • Recharge 4 5 6
Trigger: The cube is struck by a blunt weapon, such as a mace, club, or hammer.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): The cube creates a cubeshard within any adjacent square. This does not grant extra XP. No more than two cubeshards can exist at any one time.
Skills Stealth +10
Str 15 (+5) Dex 15 (+5) Wis 14 (+5)
Con 17 (+6) Int 2 (–1) Cha 2 (–1)
Alignment unaligned     Languages
Glacial Shard

Level 6 Minion

Small natural beast (ooze, cold)

XP 63

HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion

AC 20; Fortitude 18; Reflex 19; Will 17

Speed 6

Initiative +6

Perception +3

Traits
Translucent
Glacial shards are small and easy to miss against ice and snow. If in such an environment, they have +2 to all defenses against ranged attacks originating more than 2 squares away, unless the attacker is not relying on normal vision.
Standard Actions
m Shard Slash (acid, cold) • At-Will
Attack: +11 vs. AC
Hit: 5 cold and acid damage.
M Embedding Shard (acid, cold) • Encounter
Attack: +11 vs. AC
Hit: 5 cold and acid damage, and the glacial shard is destroyed. The target takes 5 ongoing cold and acid damage (save ends). If this kills the target, it dissolves and becomes a glacial shard, which will attempt to flee the area.
Skills Stealth +11
Str 4 (+0) Dex 16 (+6) Wis 10 (+3)
Con 12 (+4) Int 1 (–2) Cha 10 (+3)
Alignment unaligned     Languages

I could add some more author’s notes here, but the fact is, I had this whole thing done EXCEPT for the shard minion, and that took me over two weeks to get around to doing (and only about an hour to do it, including fighting with Adventure Tools because it corrupted my saved monster file), and I don’t want to procrastinate any more.

Common Law vs. Statutory Law

Common Law vs. Statutory Law

(I thought I posted this ages ago, but no searches return it. Weird.)

One of the best things I’ve seen that helps spell out a lot of the rules style debates on RPGs was pointed out to me by someone whose name I forget on RPG.net, namely, the difference between Common Law and Statutory Law.

In Common Law, disputes are settled primarily by judges and magistrates, who look to prior cases and try to apply the same decision to the same facts. There is no body of formal law, just an accumulation of cases, and the practice is to look through prior cases and use them to reach a conclusion. In different regions or different nations, different sets of precedents evolve, and there’s no great need to reconcile them, as it’s believed they reflect the beliefs of the people who live under the law.

Statutory Law relies on well-documented laws that specify what rules apply to what actions and what penalties to apply. In the event that a specific law can’t be found, or the law is ambiguous, the judge is supposed to interpret the laws that are written to reach a conclusion that is consistent with prior law. This also forms a body of precedent, but the precedent is a record of how laws have been interpreted (and is often an impetus for the laws to be formally clarified), and is not the basis of the law itself. Consistency among different regions is very important; conflicting interpretations will be brought to higher and higher courts until a final decision is reached.

Those who want “rulings based” games like Common Law. They want a few broad guidelines, and they run their games based on their past rulings of situations. Two different DMs may rule very differently on the same action, but they are then reasonably consistent going forward in their games. They want game companies to provide guiding principles and a few examples, from which they’ll build their body of precedent. They often want to pick and choose which facts may be relevant to a given case, and ignore what seems unnecessary.

Those who want “rules based” games like Statutory Law. They want a well-defined set of rules that spell out as many situations as possible. They recognize no set of rules can be complete, but they see the role of the DM as finding the closest possible rule and extending it just enough to cover the situation, and this then creates a new rule. They want game companies (the “legislature”) to correct poor rules or provide final and absolute answers to contradictory rules. They want a clear listing of all factors to be considered when applying a rule.

Neither of these is likely to be absolute, and neither is “better” or “worse”, but they satisfy different needs and appeal to different people.

Beginning: Comments On 5E

Race, Class, Theme, Background

Well, since a lot of my writing time (i.e, time when code is compiling, tests are running, etc) is being taken up with occasional rants on the 5e boards, it seems to me that I could kill two birds with one stone (I took Weapons Focus (Sling), Weapon Specialization (Sling), Improved Critical (Sling), Manyshot, Avian Hunter, Improved Avian Hunter, and have a +2 Birdbane Sling and Bracers of Archery…er…Slingery…Slinging…whatever) and copy and paste some of them here, thus adding to illusion that this site has “updates” and “content”, which, in turn, helps create the illusion there are also “readers”. I feel a lot like Jeremy in Yellow Submarine, creating my own world for my own consumption. Solipsists of the world, unite!

OK, Background on Backgrounds

First, you need to read this post. (http://community.wizards.com/dndnext/blog/2012/04/06/beyond_class_and_race )Really. Nothing below is going to make sense without you doing so. “Who’s Pete?” you’ll ask. “Who’s Laura?”

So, having read that, here’s my initial reply to, as copied when I wrote it, meaning, even more typos than usual. (Hm… if over 50% of my posts are prefaced with “more typos than usual”, and it sometimes seems as if they are, doesn’t that de facto make them contain “the usual number of typos”, and my “edited” posts have “fewer typos than usual”?)

So… basically, all you’re doing is providing a set of pre-chosen selections of skills/feats/powers from a larger set, and calling them “themes” and “backgrounds”? The reason this couldn’t be done in 3e, 3.5, and 4e was… ? (Hell, it WAS done, in all of them, it just didn’t get beyond first level in most cases.)

I am not seeing a whole lot of advantage here. Someone who picks a “theme” still had to read through all the feat descriptions to learn what they do, comparing one theme to another theme and so on. As characters level up, they’re going to discover they don’t like the way some part of their background/theme works and want to change it, so, really, you’re basically saying, “Here, pick this pre-defined list of stuff that goes to 20th level, except that, by third level, you’ll be ignoring it completely.”

The only reason “Pick race, pick class, boom, done” worked in the pre-3e days was that there were no other options; people who wanted detailed characters who changed as they grew played Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero, etc. If you have a game that has enough feats and options to satisfy the “Lauras” of the world, “Pete” is going to realize he’s getting the shaft. He won’t be happy with the boredom of not having any choices to make as he levels up, because the designer made them for him. On the other hand, if themes/backgrounds are the only way to get certain options (“You can’t have Thieves’ Cant unless you take the Thief theme, period.”), then people will be rightfully pissed, because that basically makes it impossible to mix-and-match, so you’re left waiting for WOTC to release the “Sort of a fighter but he can speak Thieves’ Cant” theme.

Try to remember that the 1980s didn’t happen in a vacuum, that everything occurs in a context. Just because people paid 400.00 for a machine that only played “Pong” in 1975, and it was a lot of fun THEN, doesn’t mean you can market that same machine today and say “Hey! It was fun in 1975, right? So it’s still going to be fun now!”

3e finally caught D&D up to the rest of the gaming world. 4e had some genuine innovations and actually advanced the state of the art in many ways. Both had strengths and weaknesses that are well documented. Build on their strengths and correct their weaknesses. Prior to 3e, though, D&D hobbled through the 1980s and 1990s with a design philosophy stuck in 1975. 5e needs to be a game for 2012, 2013, and beyond, not a nostalgia trip.

In Which We Explain Further

So. Here’s a longer explanation. Basically, I think what WOTC wants is for D&D to be a beer& pretzels pick up game. They envision this:

Bob: Hey, gang! We’ve got about three hours. Do we want to play Settlers of Cataan or D&D?

Gang: D&D!

Bob: Great! Everyone, pick a race card, a class card, a theme card, and a background card, and fill in your character’s name. All done? Great! Here’s the adventure, “The Cryptic Crypt Of The Crypt King”. The box set comes with 10 adventures, and there’s lots more for sale for only 5.99! I’ll be the DM!

Gang: Whee! Let’s play!

And, I ought to be clear: This isn’t a bad concept for a game. Indeed, it’s a good concept. So good, it’s been done by lots of successful games: Heroquest, for example. Talisman. Heroscape, to some extent. Dungeon. Descent. Loads I probably haven’t heard of.

It’s probably a great idea to use iconic D&D characters, monsters, settings, and terms, too. There’s tremendous value tied up in the D&D IP. Games of this type have a large market and pursuing that market is something any smart company should do, if they think they have a niche and it won’t be seen as a “me too” product hastily rushed to market (cough Spellfire cough).

But it’s not D&D the RPG, and 5e is supposed to be the “unite the tribes” edition of D&D.

So, What’s Wrong With Themes, Etc?

Absolutely nothing. I love them in 4e; they should have been part of the core. I love Pathfinders “archetypes”, which serve a similar role, changing aspects of how the character acts, removing some abilities and granting others. Backgrounds, which help better shape a character’s origin, and give them greater ties to the world and/or minor skills from their upbringing which either enhance their primary role or give them useful tricks you might not expect, are also good. On the surface, making these things core in 5e is undeniably a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that WOTC seems to see think that the main problem with D&D is that it takes too long to make a character, that there’s too many choices, and that if you could just “start playing”, it would be great. What’s wrong with that?

First, you don’t have an awful lot of choices at first level, even in modern editions, unless a DM stupidly hands someone every supplement ever made and says “Pick a class”. For a first timer, the core classes and races ought to be enough.

Second, if one of the goals of “themes” is to collect useful choices that work together well into a bundle, this has been done since 3e; there’s always been “starting packages”.

Third, and this is really the issue here, D&D isn’t about making a character to start the game. It’s about advancing a character. It’s about playing his journey from “zero to hero”. It’s about taking him in unexpected directions as the game unfolds, both in terms of personality and game mechanics. Each level up is a chance to learn some new skills, choose new powers or spells, pick a feat, swap out old abilities, and so on, reflecting what’s happened to the character in the past couple of games.

Saying “Here’s your race, here’s your class, here’s your theme, boom, done!” works if you want a pickup game and just want to jump in. However, it’s contrary to the absolute heart of D&D, and that is the character’s ongoing story. D&D’s revolutionary idea, the concept that created the entire genre of role playing games, wasn’t “one figure equals one man”, or the integration of magic and monsters into tabletop wargaming, it was the idea of a continuing character who exists from one game to the next, growing in power and ability, trailing a story behind him. (And, importantly, not following a story laid out in front of him!)

Rules concepts like background (social skills, job skills, training, initial position in the world, cultural traits, minor bonuses and penalties from one’s upbringing and schooling and childhood and family), and themes (specializations, unique abilities, variant talents, unusual paths, esoteric powers) are great. They add tremendously to the class-based system, and help avoid the problem of drawing all character options from a single resource pool. However, and this is crucial, they must be bolt-ons to a core class system that is itself extremely flexible and capable of expressing a wide variety of character concepts and ideas within a single class. The game design, as a whole, needs to be centered around the campaign, around the ongoing adventures of the characters and their growth and progression — not on isolated adventures designed to be begun and finished in a single evening, with no continuity from one to the next, and no character growth.

But That’s Not What They’re Saying!

At this point, someone’s getting ready to point out that WOTC isn’t saying “No more campaigns” and that they’re talking about long term play, with themes offering pre-selected choices at each level, yadda yadda. Ah, but here’s the thing. The only time “too many choices” ever matter is at the moment of character creation, and then, only for very new players. If a player is intrigued enough to stay beyond a game or two, he’ll learn the rules, and want to make his own choices. The utility value of a theme, as a means of simplifying the game, diminishes rapidly with level. (This is not the same as the utility value of a theme as something which offers “out of the box” abilities or unique specializations or skills.) So, there’s a problem here. The “theme” player, if he just lets the theme run its course, is less involved in his character, and in the game, than the player who actively selects their abilities each level. He is disenfranchised, cut off from most of the game’s options, and each mechanic that allows him to ignore a theme pick and choose a non-theme pick undercuts the concept of the theme itself. Why bother with  20 level theme, if no one’s going to pay too much attention to it past fifth level? Of course, there’s nothing that says a theme has to make every choice; a theme could only come into play every four levels, or whatever, but, again, this goes against the idea of “simplifying” choices.

Of course, we’re at a very early design stage in 5e. It’s hard to say what the final form of “themes” or “backgrounds” will be. WOTC is doing 5e right, in the sense that we (the customers) are being shown the design in progress, along with the reasoning for it, instead of being told “Our professional funologists have determined that you’re not having fun. Our new game increases your fun by 78.6%. Play our new game. Have fun, Citizens. Serve the Computer. The Computer is your friend, unless you’re a commie mutant traitor.”, which was basically the 4e marketing pitch. The main test balloon WOTC is floating now, across several different columns/blogs, is “We’re thinking D&D ought to be a casual pickup game, not a long-term campaign game.” It’s time to start tossing some +5 flaming keen javelins at that balloon.