Wednesday, October 22, 2014

U1 Alliterative Secret of Saltmarsh

I haven't had much to say for a while which has me thinking that I may need to obsess about an old module again.  But, for the time being, I feel that I've plumbed as much as I can from the depths of Hommlet and Restenford, perhaps I'm ready to move on to some new old material.  Which is why, over the weekend, I dug outTSR Dungeon Module U1: El Siniestro Secreto de la Marisma, first of the modules to come out of Merry Ol' Inglaterra back in the 80s.  This oldie but goodie is famous for giving the PCs the opportunity to roll up to a haunted house in their own Mystery Machine and play the role of meddling kids who foil the plans of the nefarious bad guys.  Extra points if you split up the party. 

I don't remember much about my run through this module as a youth. I do recall that, once again, my old chum Byron the Chaotic was at the helm--he tended to run most of the modules for whatever reason.  Though, without a significant town component to the adventure--more on this later--the chaos factor barely cracked the Richter Scale.  Also of note: my halfling fell through the floor and died early-on in the affair.  Then, my replacement character, a feeble MU born with only 1 hit point, bought the farm on the Sea Ghost in what would end up being a TPK; a fairly typical outcome of this module I'm told.  

But on reading U1 now, 82 years later, the module exudes a sense of unfulfilled potential.  Whatever points this thing earns for Goth and Gloom and all that Britishy stuff it loses because of one crucial, glaring, egregious oversight that will forever keep Saltmarsh off the list of super-awesome mega-raddest modules of all time: despite all the action that's supposed to go down in the town of Saltmarsh, the authors didn't bother actually creating the town.  

Compare this to T1 where the moathouse and the nearby village need not have any interaction whatsoever: if you cut the module in half and handed the moathouse portion to one DM and the Hommlet portion to another DM, after a thorough reading neither would know that he was missing any material.  And yet, no one has ever once taken a run at the moathouse without first dallying at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. 

The opposite is true of Saltmarsh: the module pretty much demands that you interact with certain members of the town council, some idiotic poacher, and, later in the story, a couple of local guardsmen, meanwhile insisting that the townsfolk stonewall the party for a few days before they set out for the haunted house.  Indeed, the text of the module indicates that the PCs should be dealing intimately with parties in the village not just at the outset of the adventure but repeatedly throughout this and future adventures.  For all that interaction between town and dungeon locale you'd think they would have accommodated the DM by actually providing a friggin' village!  By not including so much as a map indicating where the town is in relation to the haunted house, the DM is discouraged from engaging the town at all.  

Now, a lot of optimists will tell you that the town of Saltmarsh is "well fleshed out" or "given glorious life" or other glowing terms of admiration.  They, obviously, are more imaginative than I, cuz in my opinion just saying that there's a "web of intrigue" in town doesn't make it so.  There's no map, no NPC descriptions of any merit, no names of establishments to visit... sigh. Which is really too bad because even some very basic info on the village would have given the DM's creativity some traction to get started.  Instead the authors hand you a clean slate and tell you to get to work.  Don't get me wrong, I do fine with clean slates; but I like modules for the opportunity to see other people's ideas on adventure, not to do homework. 

And given that at least 4 pages of the module were occupied by meaningless fluff that was clearly intended to do nothing but fill space--2 full page illustrations--unheard of in TSR modules at the time!--as well as the moronically pointless visual aids on page 31, not to mention the entirely blank page on the back of the pointless visual aids--there was easily enough room in the book for the authors to squeeze in at least a bare bones depiction of a town had they been inclined to provide such.  A one page map, a keyed list of significant locations, and a table providing summary info on a few significant NPCs: names, titles, maybe some useful stats, and a tidbit of info.  Something like "George Weasly, Human, MU2, shopkeeper at Zonko's Joke Shoppe, twin brother of the Ostler at the Three Broomsticks" could easily have fit into the space vapidly occupied by the aforementioned fluff. 

Instead, the DM is asked to prepare the town "quite thoroughly" and to "be guided by any small south-coast English fishing town of the 14th Century and with a population about 2,000."  A few factors our friendly modulists failed to realise:
  • In 14th c. England only 8 towns in the entire Realm had a population of more than 3,000, and that's including London.  A village of ~2,000 people would have cracked the list of top 20 largest metro areas in the land; this is not a small town.  By way of comparison, the 19th and 20th largest metro areas in England today are Stoke and Wolverhampton.  Which is to say, a town of 2k in 14th century England might very well have supported Medieval equivalent of a mid-table Premier League soccer team--excuse me--football club.  By the standard of the time, a town of the recommended size would have been a regional cosmopolitan center, not a sleepy backwater. 
  • Making this guideline even more ridiculous: we are informed that Saltmarsh is a significantly smaller town than the neighboring towns of Burle and Seaton.  Needless to say, there were no urban clusters of this nature along the shores of southern England in the 14th century on which to model your sleepy Saltmarsh.*
  • Far more important than either of the previous two points: at the time U1 came on the market the average population of municipal areas in D&D modules was not more than 300 (see: the Keep [B2, 1980], Hommlet [T1, 1979], and Restenford [L1, 1981]; the soon-to-be-published towns of Garrotten [L2, 1982] and Orlanes [N1, 1982] were also in this range).  Could you reasonably expect amateur DMs who just paid money for an adventure so that they wouldn't have to prepare one on their own to now go ahead and "quite thoroughly" design a friggin' town that is 6 times larger than any town the professionals had yet produced?  With all due respect to Messieurs Turnbull and Browne: if you didn't think creating the town was worth the effort then why should we?    
Which is why, without exception, every DM who ran this module back in the day skipped all the published hype-material and kicked this thing off by reciting the following:
"Your party is walking along a road when off in the distance you see a run-down house on a cliff overlooking the sea."
*  According to the Wikicensus of 1377 Plymouth (pop. 1700) and Exeter (pop. 1560) were the two largest towns on the southern coast of England though, admittedly, the Black Death of 1348-49 probably brought these numbers down a fair bit from the first half of the century.

 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Monty Python on the OSR

From a conversation overheard at a booth hawking Old School gaming accoutrements at a recent gaming convention:
REG [booth proprietor]: The only people we hate more than 4th Edition players are the fucking Old School Roleplayers.
OSR [crowd of gamers milling about the booth]: Yeah.  Splitters.
FRANCIS: And the Old School Retrobates.
OSR: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
LORETTA: And the Old School Renaissance.
OSR: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
REG: What?
LORETTA: The Old School Renaissance. Splitters.
REG: We're the Old School Renaissance!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Old School Revival.
REG: Revival! C-huh.
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Revival, Reg?
REG: He's over there. [points to a booth across the aisle occupied by a lone gamer]
OSR: Splitter!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Topics in Comparative Hobbitology: Hairy feet and fearfulness

So, in light of the recent events at Hobbitfest '14, I decided to obsess over the little dudes some more by digging into their RPG pedigree--as opposed to their literary pedigree which is limited to the works of and about Tolkien.  As such, I dug out all my old rule books and dusted off a big stack of PDFs to see how the various renditions of D&D have treated the little buggers over the years.

First off, I should point out that there are some glaring lapses in my collection; notably, in the D&D line there's a jump from 1981 (Moldvay) to 2001 (Hackmaster--the "Never Say Never Again" of Big D), and only one of the numbered editions are included: the recent Basic Rules associated with v. 5.  I'm not a complete Luddite, I do have several of the more prominent knockoffs--Tunnels & Trolls, DragonQuest, SwordBearer--and retroclones--Castles & Crusades, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry: White Box and Complete, DCC (perhaps more of a knockoff than a retroclone)--on hand.  Labia Lords was omitted from the study because, with such a silly name, I just can't take it seriously. Also missing: Mentzer; because I don't have that book.

There are, of course, some basic similarities throughout the majority of the versions.  For instance, we all know that haffies are short, ca. 3' tall, they tend to be dexterous, stealthy, and crack shots with various missilery.  It's also generally agreed that they tend to be hardily resistant to magic and perhaps also poison--usually manifested in a saving throw bonus--and most of the rules include factors such as these in their descriptions of the pesky little critters.

"Hey little dude: What's up with your feet?"
It may come as a surprise, however, that hairy-footedness is generally not mentioned in the early versions of the game.  In fact, prior to 2001's Hackmaster no version of which I am familiar actually mentions their feet at all.  Indeed, there are no illustrations of hairy-footed haffies in the vast majority of D&D rulebooks from the 70s and early 80s.*  And yet, my first ever character back when I was playing Holmes Basic was a shoeless halfling who was forever terrified of inadvertently dipping his naked toes into a pool of green slime, even though there is not a single whiff of text in the book--or a supporting illustration--to suggest that either shoelessness or hairy-footedness are characteristics of the species.  It's conceivable that, without the baggage of Tolkien's hobbits, one might have played halflings for quite some time without ever knowing that there was anything untoward about their feet.  That everyone understood that the hairy-footed dude fighting the owlbear in Roslof's drawing from K. on the B'lands was a haffie does a great job of highlighting the pervasiveness of Mr. T's work on our collective image of the game and, indeed, the genre.  

Also, over time haffie hardiness seems to have migrated quite a bit.  At first they were resistant to magic, then poison jumped on the bandwagon, in the form of heightened saving throws.  Some of this disappeared in some editions and versions, but then, inexplicably it resurfaced in Castles & Crusades and Fiver Basic as fearlessness.  This is in shocking contrast to, say, Moldvays haffers who were described as somewhat cowardly.  While I am deeply and unabashedly ignorant of post-Gygaxian mainline D&D rules, I have read enough to understand--perhaps errantly--that at some point halflings lost there spot as a default player race to the Kender of Dragonlance; the race that single-handedly ruined everything they touched back in the mid-80s.**  Anyway, my point is that I have a sinking suspicion that the fearlessness thing is a kender trait rather than a hobbit trait, which makes me more than a little queasy. On a possibly related note, nothing in particular is said of halfling feet in Fiver.

* The only illustration of a hairy footed haffer in the core AD&D rulebooks that is explicitly linked to halflings is the one in the AD&D Monster Manual.
** Delta Dan has statistically proven that the reason Walter Mondale failed so utterly in his 1984 presidential campaign--winning only 2 states, if I recall correctly--is that the Reagan camp leaked rumors that Mondale was "pro-Kender."  More recently, Mitt Romney saw his presidential hopes go up in flames when a photo of him relaxing on the beach beside a now-middle-aged and paunchy Tasslehoff Burrfoot hit the internet.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Halflings III: Boggies and Hobbits: closer than you think


Back on Day 1 of what is turning out to be Hobbitfest '14, Leicester provided a bit of text from the Lord of the Rings parody Bored of the Rings to help folks unfamiliar with boggies to understand what they were all about. Here is the quote from Leicester (who was quoting The Harvard Lampoon [who were satirizing JRRT]):
"While there was still a King at Ribroast, the boggies remained nominally his subjects, and to the last battle at Ribroast with the Slumlord of Borax, they sent some snipers, though who they sided with is unclear. There the North Kingdom ended, and the boggies returned to their well-ordered, simple lives, eating and drinking, singing and dancing, and passing bad checks."--Harvard Lampoon, Bored of the Rings

The quote provides a slender glimpse into the uncouth, gluttonous, and devious ways of the Boggie race, but what is beautiful about it is how easily Tolkien's original text lent itself to such an interpretation of his precious Hobbits.  Here's the original text from M. Tolkien:
"While there was still a king they were in name his subjects, but they were, in fact, ruled by their own chieftains and meddled not at all with events in the world outside. To the last battle at Fornost with the Witch-lord of Angmar they sent some bowmen to the aid of the king, or so they maintained, though no tales of Men record it.  But in that war the North Kingdom ended; and then the Hobbits took the land for their own." -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring  [emphasis mine]
Doesn't Tolkien's text already make the little buggers sound a bit shady?  In the penultimate war to save the Kingdom, the tales of men don't acknowledge any assistance from the Hobblers, and yet they took the land for their own in the ensuing collapse.  It's as if they made up the whole squad of archers bit to justify their land-grab even though they were really just a bunch of pint-sized opportunists plucking at the very-low hanging fruit left on the tree by the defunct kingdom.  Or, worse yet, they made a deal with the Witch-lord to either stay out of the fray or side with his forces in exchange for the lands.  This might explain why, after wiping out the Men of Fornost, the Witch-lord didn't swoop down on the Hobbits and snarf them up as a post-battle snack.  In this light the deviant bastards of BotR don't seem to fall all that far from their literary progenitors.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Halflings II: Other non-fat haffies

Yesterday's undercooked post failed to mention the influence of Jeff Dee's buff little warriors on my conception of haffers though, clearly, if you've read anything on this blog before you'll have guessed that the ripped fuzz-foot from the cover of V. of H. could not be far from my mind.  [Thankfully Leicester came along to correct the matter in the comments section.]  Anyway, I was going to follow up with a splat-post of Jeff Dee's hobbit beefcake, but a quick internet search proved that Scott Taylor over at Black Gate already did that.

Also, B/X Black Razor's Hobbit Love post is in the spirit of the thing as well.  Ages ago, when I started playing thiefless-S&W White Box, I made halfers default rangers, who were basically sneaky fighters.*  Like JB Black Razor--and despite any previous reference to the boggies of Bored of the Rings--I don't particularly care for AD&D's klepto-rific scions to the kender.

*"But S&W White Box was also ranger-less" you say?  Read on.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Race as Class: Half-lings--No longer portly

I generally think that race as class can suck it, but I've slowly been re-hashing the generic D&D races as more individuated--and pigeonholed--classes.  Today, I'm taking on halflings; my version being based somewhat more on the Harvard Lampoon's shrewd and devious boggies than on Prof. T's paeans to pastoral domesticity.

Some things you might not have known about halflings:

They hate being called "halflings." 
The preferred term amongst their own kind is unpronounceable gibberish to most non-halfling ears, though they'll accept the more politically correct Haffolk.  Terms such as haffies, smalluns, hobblets, knibbites, shire-fiends, li'lfucks, are also common.


They didn't survive as a species by being plump, complacent, homebodies.

To the contrary, they are stealthy by default, dead-eye shots with all forms of missilery, and are masters of the ambuscade.  Quick for their size, they also have developed a form of gang combat that allows them, when attacking larger creatures, to exceed the sum of their parts.  When challenged or in a dangerous setting they actually seem to grow taller--they walk on the balls of their feet when not in a "civilized" setting--and put on a shrewd and even vicious demeanor.

  • small'ns are +3 to hit with bows, crossbows, handguns, rifles, and slings
  • gain an extra attack with such if they gain surprise.  
  • when several Hobblets engage in melee with larger opponents they gain 1 additional attack for every 2 haffies swipin' at the same target.  Your ogre is surrounded by 8 hobblers?  They attack 8 + 4 = 12 times each round.  This rule could be a serious pain in the butt to administer.

Sneaky bastards, knibbites move silently and hide in shadows as a matter of course and are excellent wall climbers as well; perform all those feats as a thief of 3 levels higher than their own ability level.

They always travel in packs.  

There is an adage:
If you see a lone haffie, beware: you're outnumbered 3 to 1.  
It is a  common tactic of the small'ns to leave the bulk of their number lying in ambush and then send a small portion of their gang out to gauge the temperament of a party of travelers.  Anyone displaying distemper toward the knibbite delegates will be subjected to a fusillade of lethal missile fire.

Furthermore:
All PC halflings will be accompanied by 1-3 beta haffies.  Beta haffolk are 0-level and equipped with padded armor, sling and dagger.  The PC must provide all other provisions and such.  Betas roll 2d6 + 1 for Str, 1d6 + 12 for Dex, and 2d6 + 6 for Wis.  If the alpha haffie (aka, the PC) should die, the beta haffie with the highest Cha will immediately be promoted to Alpha, and the player may run that haffie as his new PC.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Flame Arrow Strikes Back

Everyone who's ever read a spell list has been puzzled by the presence of Flame Arrow on the 3rd level Magic User spells list.  How could a spell that ignites (1/level) arrows, when touched by the MU, thus allowing them, should they hit their target, to inflict one (1) extra point of damage--be allowed to occupy the same stage as Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Fly, Haste, etc.?  Any party with a torch can do the same thing without an MU, so why would any self-respecting Thaumaturge forgo one of the numerous useful 3rd level spells for this turkey?  The answer is simple: no one would and and no one ever has, ever.  So either Flame Arrow needs to be demoted to the zero-level spell list where it belongs or it needs a serious upgrade.

Hackmaster of course does it better, allowing an option that essentially lets the MU cast a firebolt that causes 4 or 5d6 damage; it's sort of a mini-fireball without all the risk to your dungeoneering cronies. But I'd like to take the idea behind the AD&D version of the spell and maybe make it worthy of being a spell that a 5th level MU would opt to have in his pocket.

Proposed upgrades:
  • Not just arrows and crossbow bolts, Flame Arrow will also cause sling bullets, spears, thrown daggers and heaved rocks to turn into incendiary grenades.  Heck, even a snowball will do the trick.
  • No touch necessary, rather all missiles launched from within, say, 1"/level of the MU will burst into flames en route to the target.
  • Enflamed missiles continue to burn for the duration of the spell (1 round/level) after striking their target, causing additional damage or at the least leaving small fires scattered throughout the combat zone, igniting wood floors, wallpaper, fields of dry grass, leaf piles, etc.
  • Piercing missiles--arrows, daggers and the like--will inflict 1d6 additional dmg immediately and will continue to do so until removed or the duration of the spell ends.  Removing a blazing arrow or quarrel in such conditions inflicts and additional 1-4 pts of dmg.
  • Non-piercing missiles such as stones, hammers, rotten tomatoes, would inflict 1 additional point of damage on contact but would not inflict additional damage through the duration of spell unless the target or it's clothing were ignited by the impact.
  • The fire is magical. it does not burn up the missile, nor does it need oxygen to burn, thus it can be used underwater, though it will not be able to ignite other objects in such conditions.