Monday, December 13, 2010

Assassination Culmination

All right, I'm going to skip over levels 10-14 until such time as I can find a reason to chat about the terms Expert, Senior, Chief, Prime or Guildmaster as they apply to Assassinry.   So hold on to your dice bags kiddies 'cuz we're going straight to the top: Grandfather of Assassins.

As was mentioned previously, the word assassins was first used to describe a fanatical cult in Persia from the middle ages.  The founder of this cult was Hassan-i-Sabbah, who, by shacking up in his mountain castle, earned the title Sheik al Jebal which translates to "Prince of the mountain" or, the preferred term in this case, "Old Man of the Mountain."*  This old man was the original Grandfather of Assassins; a single person who ruled over the entire order of death bringers.  But unlike the D&D usage, though eh is responsible for numerous murders, he was not a professional killer and very likely he never killed anyone with his own hand.  Rather, he was the dude with the charisma to charm you into devoting your life to the cause, and also the dude to tell you when the cause needed you to take action and whack some mo' fo' who'd talked trash about your cult.

* Alternatively, there are sources that say that it was the leader of the Syrian branch who was referred to as the Old Man of the Mountain.  

This dude is also, allegedly, the grandfather of the mystic cult phenomenon; the Crusaders, and particularly the Knights Templar, took what they learned about the Order of Assassins  back to Europe and thus was born the culty trappings we now associate with mystic groups still extant such as the Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, and the American Institute of Architects.   

For those interested in further reading, there's a novel titled Alamut written by the Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol that is based on the cult of Assassins and the treachery of Hassan-i-Sabbah.  Published in 1938, the book was translated into 18 languages and has achieved bestseller status in Spain and France, but it was not translated into English until 2004.  A few pages into it and I wish they had taken a few more years to work on that translation.  One gets the sense that the poor fellow approached the translation as if he were transcribing legal documents, not reconstructing linguistic subtleties to convey a narrative... or whatever.  The result is repetitive use of simplistic sentence structures which make for very tedious reading.  Despite its subject matter, it seems like it was written for children.  Brush up on your Spanish or French--or, better yet, your Slovenian--if you really wanna read this one.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Seasons Greetings from the Mad Archmage

As promised in my last post on the matter, I'm bringing you the latest holiday adventure news from  The Castle of the Mad Archmage by Joseph Bloch, aka. Greyhawk Grognard.  When we left off, our intrepid adventurers had, after slaughtering most of an orc outpost, formed an uneasy alliance with the surviving members in order to take on a hobgoblin posse on the 3rd level.  Since my memory of the exact events has eroded considerably, this will be a succinct report.

Bob and I decided that having a mission--in this case, killing off hobgoblins to foster an alliance with orcs--was not what where we wanted to take this game.  So we developed an exit strategy: the orcs drew up a rough map of the adjacent terrain, led the party down to the 3rd level, and... slunk away at the first sign of trouble. But not before they slipped a shiv into Quisling's ribs.  Quisling, an orc that we charmed during our assault, survived the attack and was very thankful to the party for nursing him back to health and saving him once again--or so he believes--from the treachery of his own clan.  He's such a sincere and trusting chap.

It was at this point that Godraviel, the elfmaid who had charmed Quisling in the first place, could handle the crushing guilt no longer and revealed to him the truth of the situation.  That is, he was under a charm spell and that we had killed his former colleagues and lied to him in order to secure his assistance in defeating the rest of his clan.  She told him that she was releasing him from the spell so that he could choose his own fate.  Since he was not actually released from her spell--I decided that it is not actually within her power to do so--and since she was so sincere in her speech, the end result was to further Quisling's infatuation with the elfmaid.  We rolled up his stats and made the orc a full fledged party member.  Now we have to figure out the characteristics of the Orc character race in S&W...

In the end, we did honor our deal with the orcs by killing the 12 requisite hobgoblins, but it cost us dearly, as Brodsky the cleric was left for dead and Glebberd the Halfregnome and Polvo the dwarf--who, through their quick wits and upbeat personalities have overcome their diminutive stature and become the very heart and soul of the party--were nearly done for as well.  On our way back to the surface, we ran into the Bandits again from our first encounter, and, pointing out that
  • we still didn't have anything worth stealing, and 
  • we would be back later, 
they agreed to let us pass, though they insisted, for inventory reasons, that Quisling must remain in the dungeon.  A quick sleep spell to even the forces and some tough talk from Polvo about where they can shove their dungeon rules, and the bandits agreed to let us pass, though, in order to allow them to save face, we paid 10 GPs for Quisling's liberation, and agreed to leave still-heavily-wounded Sigurd in their custody to assure our return to the dungeon.  Little do they know that everyone in our party hates Sigurd. 

From here on out, I'm running the bandits not as opportunistic ruffians preying on honest adventurers but as legitimate dungeon bureaucrats in the employ of the Mad Archmage.  Responsible for such things as dungeon inventory, revenue, and customer service, they can be counted on for dungeoneering assistance to adventurers--extra torches and the like, limited dungeon intell, or even a bunk to rest the wounded in--but who also require an accounting of monsters killed and traps sprung for re-stocking purposes; and exact a tariff for anything removed from the dungeon edifice.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Assassination Origination

So the inspiration of this here string of posts on the AD&D Assassin class level titles is finally at hand; we've reached the eponymous 9th level: Assassin.

The word assassin is derived from the word Hashshashin, a term used in Syria--not the Lendore Isles as some would have you believe--to describe a fanatical sect of Islam called the Ismailis who were a small but troublesome religious/political force in the 11th-13th centuries.   Lacking a powerful army and considered heretics by the Muslim establishment of the day, the Ismailis holed up in a few castles in an isolated valley in northern Persia and dissuaded their numerically superior enemies from invading by murdering key political figures.  Though the cult was centered in the mountains of Persia, the term assassin is believed to have come about in reference to the Syrian branch of the group that the Crusaders came in contact with.  Hashshashin means "outcast" or "rabble" but also was associated with users of the psychotropic herb hashish.  And although most Assassin scholars believe that it is its meaning as a pejorative term for outcasts that originally inspired the application of the word, the western world has latched onto that hashish connection and had a blast with it ever since.

Anyway, the cult was formed by a man named Hassan-i-Sabbah, among other spellings, who took control of an impregnable castle known as Alamut, and gathered around himself a throng of devoted followers who were willing to obey his every command.  They were trained  in the fine arts of duplicity and sent out into the world to gain the trust of various persons of interest to the Assassins, usually folks with titles like Sultan, Vizier, or Imam.  Once they'd inveigled their way into the homes of these dudes as household servants, body guards, or even trusted advisers, they lived a life of faithful service to them, never betraying their origins until such day that the signal came from Alamut, at which point they would cram a dagger through their erstwhile compadre's ribs.  They often kept up their ruse for years or even decades and, depending on how things worked out, the signal might never come.  Deep cover, my friends.  Indeed, there is very early usage of the word assassin that implies not a hired killer but a person of unsurpassed devotion.

Once the devotee had done the deed, the assassin did not generally slink away into the night; no, getting caught was, more often than not, part of the job.  By submitting to capture and execution, the assassins did more than just kill the leaders of their enemies; the combination of their skill at subterfuge and complete devotion wreaked havoc on their enemies psyches as well.  A culture of paranoia spread like wildfire, and speaking out--much less taking military action--against the Assassins soon fell into disfavor. 

Most of the useful information in this post is derived from the book The Assassins by Bernard Lewis, originally published in 1968 by Basic Books, Inc.  New York.  It's a somewhat scholarly tome describing the religious and political events of Islamic world during the time of the Assassins.  Also, the wikipedia entry for Hashshashin is pretty informative.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Assassination Irritation: Twofer

It's been more than 2 weeks now since my last entry on the assassin level titles, and--despite the fact that at least one person has confirmed interest in this topic, thank you--there's a good reason for the delay: cutthroat and executioner.  Everyone knows what they mean, there's nothing particularly interesting about the etymology of these terms and, most importantly, every time I look for an intriguing cultural reference, I fall asleep at my keyboard.

But rather than avoid them forever--especially since I've already written up level 9--I'll lump them both down in one dose and move on with life.

Cutthroat: a race of sharp throated people.  The men of this tribe were known to hone their throats to such fineness that they used them to shave.  Or whiddle implements from wood.  Also the name of an arts journal.

Executioner: one who wears a black hood but no shirt.

Actually, this one is mildly interesting because it really just meant someone who carries out some action, much like how "executor" is used today to describe the guy who carries out your will after you go off to Valhalla.  In time it came to be primarily associated with executing a sentence of death on whatever poor sap/evil cutthroat whose head was to be relegated to the wicker basket. 

On a related note, my first AD&D character was an elf named Elfrandel the Executor.  In my defense, I pronounced it "ex-uh-cuter" instead of the more traditional "egg-zek-you-ter." 

I only just now found out that Executor is also the name of one of those big space ships that those dudes who got choked by Darth Vader drove around in.  And George Lucas was probably not 11 when he named them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Assassination Constipation: Dynamite with a lazer beam

Despite the fact that no one gives a rat's ass, I continue to nibble away at the AD&D Assassin class level titles one by one, week by creeping, tiresome week.  Now here we are at level 6: Killer.  Up there with murderer in terms of originality, but it's got more juice to it.  While a murderer can be any amateur who kills someone for any reason, a killer is someone who's practiced at it and perhaps even enjoys it.  Indeed, "killer" has taken on the meaning of adroitness at some particular skill, a la "lady killer."

Also, it's the name of a live action role playing game by Steve Jackson.

Now, I could have have been really lazy and kept in the hockey theme and used Killer Carlson as my pop culture connection, but that seems kinda' trite.  Instead, here's Freddy Mercury for ya:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Red Box of Snooze

It was a cold, gloomy November day yesterday--perfect D&D weather--so I wandered over to my local nerd store to see what's brewing and what do I see but the red Basic D&D box staring at me.  I'm savvy enough to know that this is not the same game I knew in the 80's, but rather the Wizards of Renton have come up with a new marketing scheme in hopes of recapturing a crowd of aging, former players who maybe don't care for the new D&D look, what with its anime-inspired heroes wielding clumsy-looking weapons.  That sounds like me, right?  So, yeah, I picked it up and looked it over, and, at the righteous price of $20, I seriously considered it. 

But I didn't pull the trigger.  While there were prominent non-gaming reasons for this--I was saving my shekels for mundane books of professional interest at a nearby bookstore--a big factor was that I'm a Holmeser, and by the time Frank Mentzer's "Red Box" set came out--or, as we called it at the time, 3rd Edition Basic--I was deeply enmeshed in AD&D and frowned on that juvenile--though admittedly slick looking--offering.  As a result I only ever played the Mentzer version for short snippets at school with Johnny-come-lately friends who got the red box for Christmas.  I certainly never deigned to familiarize myself with its subtleties--and haven't bothered to this day. Indeed, I was already an edition snob.

Beginning in 8th grade and stumbling along until 10th, I played in a long series of lunch-time micro-sessions usually using Mentzer rules.  These games were attended largely by novices which only served to exacerbate our inability to get into a gaming flow before the 5th period bell signaled us back to reality.  Our characters never developed beyond dice-wielding stat-golems, our dungeons just so many lines of carbon scratched on the backside of old math homework.   We sought out other stat-golems of questionable malevolence to pulverize with our dice and did nothing with the treasure we gained as, again and again, we failed to bring a single adventure to any semblance of fruition.  These sessions would go on for a few weeks or so before we lost interest.  Then, weeks or months later, having forgotten how dismal the previous sessions had been, we'd start up again with a whole new set of characters and a thermos full of as-yet unvanquished hope to wash down our PBJs on Wonder bread. 

It is telling that I have no memory of any of the dungeons I ran, characters that I played, or even a single in-game event that occurred during these sessions, though I can still recall in great detail characters and events from my home game that occurred in years previous.  And it will likely come as no surprise that most of those friends who played during lunch didn't stick with the game for any length of time.  And as I found out yesterday, I still to this day associate the Red Box with tedious D&D played by disinterested kids; worried more about the upcoming French vocab quiz than  how to gain the treasure of the Many-headed-hydra.  I wonder about those friends wherever they are now; should they happen upon the same red box will it inspire poignant memories of lost youth? Or thoughts of adolescent boredom and gaming malaise?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Assassination Apparition: Thug

So we're up to Level 5: Thug.  To research today's post, rather than read up on the cult of Thuggee that plagued travelers in India for centuries by infiltrating caravans and then, when the time was right, murdering them to a man and making off with their goods, I spent the better part of the afternoon watching hockey fights on Youtube.  You just can't go wrong with Bob Probert, may his fists rest in peace. The consummate professional, he never looked back from a fight; once the last punch was thrown he just skated off and did his time.  You definitely got the impression that the fighting was never personal, and this is important to consider if you're entering the assassin trade.  It's a business; you take the job, you do the work, you move on.  A detached sense of morality is crucial.

Two of the heavy weights:

If you are interested in the Thuggee cult, check out Pierce Brosnan in The Deceivers, or, if you're one o' them literary types, read the book of the same name--written by John Masters--upon which the film was based.  I actually watched this movie a few years ago whilst on a Brosnan bender that included Matador--a great movie on the topic of assassins.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Assassination Amoritization: Murther most foul!

"Congratulations my son, your latest accomplishment has merited advancement to the 4th level of assassinry," says the Guildmaster, "you are now--wait for it--a Murderer!"
"Murderer?!  I paste the innards of the heir-apparent all over the Baron's private bed chamber and I get to be a character in an Agatha Christie novel?  This guild is for douchebags.  I'm outta' here!"

For further reading: Ray Bradbury's prescient--if non-assassin-based--short story of technology-induced sensory overload, "The Murderer."  Nah, don't bother.  I mean it's all right but nothing special.

I'll try again tomorrow with Thug; much more meat there.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Assassination Edification: What the eff is a "waghalter"?

Waghalter: one likely to be hanged (obs.)  As in they will wag (like a dogs tail) from a halter (noose).  Kinda' grisly, eh?

Actually, the term "Wag"--which is still occasionally used to describe a prankster--is derived from waghalter.  Extra grisly.

And on a cultural note: Ignatz Waghalter was a classical composer of the early-mid 20th century.  He did not, as far as Wikipedia indicates, meet his end at the gallows.  Though, being a Jew working in Berlin during the 1930s, he was forced to flee the country; he lived out his last years in NYC.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Assassination Fascination: Rutterkin?

Devoid of the context of D&D, I might have guessed that a rutterkin is either the object or the outcome of hillbilly love.  It seems highly unlikely, however, that Gygax was inspired to name 2nd level assassins after a viewing of  "Deliverance."  Still, I suspect that rutterkin is derived from literature; probably some murderous antagonist by some Appendix N author. 

However, one of the only sources Google could dredge up that was not some demon from Latter Day D&D was this bit from Wikipedia: Rutterkin was the name of the cat/familiar that the witches of Belvoir used to kill the Earl of So-and-So in Merry old England back in the 16th or 17th century.  While this is applicable in some regards--the cat was an agent of death--I'm still guessing EGG was not inspired by an ensorceled cat.

And while Webster was no help on this one--neither the online version nor my hefty New Universal Unabridged from 1979--The Free Dictionary came up with "an old crafty fox or beguiler."  And that, I fear, might be it.

Also, there was an episode of an old, British Robin Hood series from the 80s (not the current British Robin Hood series) titled Rutterkin. 

And another aside: the star of this series was a young man named Jason Connery, the son of James Freakin' Bond!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Assassination Obuscation: Johnny Bravo

Herein I shall, in serial fashion, scatter random thoughts on the level titles of the Lethalist class.

Assassin Level 1--Bravo.

As we all know, bravo is a somewhat pretentious synonym for "hooray!" and its ilk.  Webster also reminds us that it means "hired killer; assassin; desperado."  Perhaps because of the dual meaning of the word, bravo has connotations of showiness; a guy who goes out of his way to let his badassedness be known in order to enhance his image and, presumably, get more chicks.  Sort of the anti-ninja.

A trip over to Wikipedia reveals that bravi was a term for the hired goons of the Dons of northern Italy during the 16th & 17th centuries.  Said bravi are featured prominently in the 19th c. novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.  One more for the reading list.

Side note:  Thieves and assassins of 1st level are listed as "Apprentice (rogue)" and "Apprentice (bravo)." Probably this has to do with the guild system which both classes adhere to, but it stands in stark contrast to the paradoxical level title of 1st level fighters: "Veteran"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hot Links: Get'cher hauberks here!

Whilst researching construction materials for work the other day I came across this excellent website.  Who knew you could get anodized aluminum chain mail?  Light weight, good corrosion resistance; how could you go wrong?  The site includes the all too important chain mail user's guide.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Undead Strike Back: Turning Clerics

Did anyone ever use this rule: 
When a cleric meets an undead creature that is beyond his/her powers to turn/command, then the cleric must roll--on a d20--a number equal to or greater than the Hit Dice of the undead +1/level the cleric is deficient of being able to affect said undead species.

For example, a first level cleric encounters a vampire: HD 9 (I think) and unaffected by clerics less than 6th level,*  9 + (6-1) =  14.  Therefore Archie the Acolyte needs to roll a 14 or higher or be turned/commanded by Count D.  This Rule also applies to Ponce the Paladin.
Me neither.

* Crunchier AD&D folks might notice a discrepancy in these numbers from the AD&D standard--or they might not, I really can't say.  If there is a discrepancy it's 'cuz I'm referencing the HackmasterPlayer's Handbook "Table 12K: Turning Undead" for the undead turning probabilities shown here because, well, the Hackmaster books are closer at hand.  I mean c'mon--my friggin' AD&D PHB is all the way over there on that bookshelf.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Unified Field Theory of Wizdom

Yesterday I discussed a slight cosmetic change to the wisdom attribute by altering the name to Wizdom; a step which strips it of off-target real world associations--sagacity, sound judgment, etc.--as well as shameful definitions from the gaming milieu--can anyone out there say "connection to a deity" or "strength of spirit" without developing a nervous twitch in their eyelid?  Today I intend to take things a step further; I will refine the very structure of what has long been the sorriest attribute in order to shore it up and make it logically sound and significant to game play.  Yes, I'm feeling full of myself; what of it?  So, here are the parameters:
  • Wizdom must apply to the character, not the player;
  • Wizdom has to reasonably provide game mechanics that are useful to all character classes;
  • Wizdom must, using the same logic that makes the attribute useful to all classes, also  provide a reasonable explanation for why it should be the prime requisite for cleric's; and
  • Wizdom, if possible, should encompass the various game mechanics commonly associated with the Wisdom attribute throughout the Olde Schoole gaming community.
You still with me?  Good.  Without further ado, I present to you...

Wizdom, n: a measure of a character's capacity to focus or devote fully his or her mental energies toward a task, vocation, cause, code of conduct, belief system, or divine/malign force or being.

As such, Wizdom defines a character's capacity for sustained, intense focus of his inner forces.  In modern parlance, it would encompass one's internal motivation, passion, and drive; guts, mojo, and heart (in the wholehearted sense, not the magnanimous sense) would fall under the Wizdom umbrella.  It's that stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning and compels you to [CLICHE ALERT] be the best that you can be, give it 110%, keep your eyes on the prize, yada yada.  This is not to say that a highly wizdomed (wize) character will be an aggro-"Eye of the Tiger"-chanting d-bag; one could just as easily be a serene Buddhist monk on the road to enlightenment, a stoic warrior, or a sly burglar.   And while this focus makes Wizdom useful to the success of any character class, which class would most obviously benefit from exceptional capacity for devotion?  That's right, baby; a wize cleric will be much better equipped to impress his Deity that he is highly devoted to the cause and is willing and able to bring acclaim to Her name.

OK, how does this manifest itself in game terms, you ask?  Let us count the ways:

  1. Resist mind affecting magics: Intense devotion of the psyche gives wize characters a profound sense of self, making it harder for outside forces to corrupt said self.  Thus, they are awarded a bonus to saving throws against enchantment/charm spells and any effort to possess the character in mind or body or otherwise cause aberrations to this sense of self. 
  2. Endure physical/mental suffering:  Related to #1 above, the wize have advanced willpower and thus are better equipped to endure unpleasant physical forces such as torture, exhaustion, fear, etc.  One's constitution or strength will determine the actual threshold of suffering; wiz determines how well they keep their spirit intact in the face of extreme suffering.
  3. Perform under stress: Capacity of concentration and focus on achieving goals would also give Wize characters a bonus to perform tasks under duress.  For example, Bart the Thief is trying to open a locked door to escape from a voracious gelatinous cube that is hurdling toward him at top speed.  His Cool J determines that Bart will suffer a  penalty for performing under such extreme circumstances.  Were Bart gifted with a high wizdom score, the Cool J might allow him to apply his wizdom bonus to his dice roll.  The wize would therefore be much more likely to be clutch performers while unwize characters would tend to be choke-artists. 
  4. Efficient learning:  Those characters able to better focus on their work are driven to achieve success and will thus be more efficient and effective in their studies/practice of said skills than the dude with loads of natural talent but little personal drive.  Think of the athletes who lack the speed or size to compete in their sport but manage, through sheer force of will, to excel while more naturally gifted athletes sometimes fall prey to off-court/field/ice distractions (drugs, crime, acting/singing/modelling careers) that ultimately detract from their on-court performance.  This absolutely makes more sense than giving exceptionally strong fighters an experience advantage and you know it!   
  5. Extra spells for clerics: The Divine forces, in acknowledgment of your devotion, kick a few extra spells your way every morning. 
  6. Increased focus of the senses: I didn't really have this in mind when I started this essay, but for you late-edition types, it wouldn't take too much extrapolation to include perception in wizdom's horn o' plenty.
Implementing all six of these might, ultimately, be too much for one attribute to handle; Wizdom's stock value would skyrocket from dump-stat for non-clerics to everyone's 2nd favorite ability, possibly disrupting the established Attribute Hierarchy and causing a character generation crisis on par with the 6-sider shortage of 1981.   DM discretion will, of course, dictate the full effects of Wizdom, but I hope that I've shown adequately that with one reasonably concrete definition Wizdom, or mental focus, could measure success in the numerous spheres of Wisdom without stooping to vagaries and non sequiturs, and that is all that I hoped to do. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wisdom Revised Part 1: The Nose Job

As almost none of you might recall, some time ago I went on a tirade about the poorly conceived wisdom attribute in D&D et. al.  The definitions of wisdom in every version of D&D of which I am knowledgeable--which includes many of the recent "retro clones" but none of the post-Gygax era TSR/WoTC/Hasbro editions--do not, in my opinion, do an adequate job of defining an attribute that stands on solid ground compared with the other five abilities.  So in this two part post, I propose a significant remodel of the ol' "Prime requisite of clerics" that I hope will turn the dilapidated shanty of wisdom into a structurally and functionally sound work of art; one that is useful to non-clerics and actually relevant to the relationship between the religiously inclined and the divine powers that bolster their existence.

Since none of us are pretending that the Wisdom attribute should be a measurement of a character's philosophic or scientific learning--that, Mr. Player, is your job--my first act in the wisdom re-design is to give us a little room to maneuver.  Which is to say, I'd like to alter the terminology--just a bit, mind you; we old schoolers like some change, but it has to be bear enough semblance of the original to fit into our established structure.  Since "wisdom" has distracting real world significance that does not jibe with game mechanics, I propose to you the fresh, 21st century term: Wizdom.  Whaddaya' think?

To get to this newfangled yet familiar term, I took a cue from the food additives industry; just as "creme" and "chick'n" evoke an image of what we are eating but are removed in substance from the source material, wizdom provides pleasing familiarity with our gaming roots and acknowledgment of some sort of mental trait, but by merely swapping the "s" for a "z" we are freed from the baggage associated with the standard English word.  Yet unlike cream manque or poultry's soy-based doppelganger, wizdom, I believe, shall improve upon the original; providing a more satisfying, grounded gaming attribute--concrete in scope yet delightful to the palate.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Greyhawk Realty: Looking to buy in the Flannaes

I used to thrill at the sight of above-ground structures in D&D adventures, and only partly because of the claustrophobia I felt when we ventured under the earth to get our adventure on.  The great beauty of those supraterranean dungeon locales was that they offered the greatest treasure of all--real estate!  As soon as I was done clearing out the baddies, I was sending in teams of the most stylish architects, skilled contractors, and beguiling realtors in all of Oerth to transform these lairs of evil into pleasure palaces.

Bottomless was my desire for new real estate to develop, and though I turned many of my gaming colleagues home-brewed settings into garden estates and townhouses, I preferred the name-brand recognition provided by the official TSR-published adventures.  Indeed some of the most posh addresses in the Flannaes are laid out in those classic modules.  Here are just a few:

First off was the moathouse in T1 Village of Homlet.  When I was done with it, it had become a lovely 7 bedroom, 5 bath cottage with a spacious ballroom and extensive wine cellar.   I even drained the swamp--had to get rid of those murderous giant frogs somehow--and started a vineyard.  I've also put an offer on Rufus and Byrne's little hilltop chateau closer to town.  They've apparently grown bored with the rustic setting of Homlet and are thinking of moving to a more exciting and open-minded burg. 
U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh: It took some work to overcome it's "haunted" reputation, but I finally tidied up the mansion on the bluff and sold it for a nice profit.  The private beach access was a huge selling point.  The smuggler's ship is available separately.  Serious inquiries only.

UK3 The Gauntlet has the fabulous Keep of Alderweg, a rugged mountain getaway with stunning vistas and exquisite stonework.  Ease of access makes it a great spot for a B&B during ski season.

B2 Keep on the Borderlands:  A quaintly rustic tree house in a grove of stately oak trees close to both the eponymous Keep and the adventure-laden Caves of Chaos, the Mad Hermit's lair is perfectly located for a weekend retreat.

A3Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords  Buy in the Pomarj?!  Ridiculous, right?  Actually, no other neighborhood on Oerth offers such a great investment opportunity.  Centrally located, close to numerous shipping lanes, adjacent to the always-happening Wild Coast and speckled with bucolic hilltops, the Pomarj is a neighborhood on the brink of greatness.  Though gentrification is already underway, a townhouse in Suderheim can still be had for a song.  You won't have to wait long for this transitional neighborhood to give you a nice return.  The amount of house you can get for your copper will make this a very enticing place to start a family.

X2 Castle Amber: Located in a parallel dimension, this eccentric chateau is far, far off the beaten path.  Comprised of enormous, lavishly furnished chambers complete with an expansive indoor garden, it's definitely worth consideration if you're thinking about retirement or if you're needing a secluded getaway in which to lay low for a while.  At this price, it won't be available for long!

But not all castles are equal, and several promising locales have failed to make an impact in the real estate market.  A prime example: I could barely contain my excitement when I set out to exorcise the ghosts from C1 Ghost Tower of Inverness and convert the place to condos.  You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the tower itself was the ghost.  Completely worthless as a development property. 

L1-Secret of Bone Hill While Len Lakofka's quirky L-series modules are among my favorites, it's not for the fine architecture.  The structures of Restenford are particularly lacking in charm.  Have a look at the Baron's squat, cramped, little abode; the master bedroom suite is the same size as the servant's quarters--tiny!--and completely windowless.   Look to Pelltar's rental tower* or the castle atop Bone Hill--a definite fixer-upper but with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside--for a better investment.   

* Strangely, the lease terms of the tower are actually included in the module. 

L2 Assassin's Knot The Lord Mayor's castle down the coast in Garrotten, though a vast improvement over L1's dreary domiciles, was still too cramped and utilitarian to inspire the hominess most buyers look for.  Add to that the reputation of the aptly named town and this place was too tough of a sell to merit pursuing.

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile Gods: Another of my favorite modules, but alas, I couldn't drum up any interest for the temple.  If anyone wants it, you can buy it from the Town of Orlane for back taxes.  Might be a good spot for a night club one day.

If anyone out there has their hands on a promising property in Greyhawk (pre-war structures only, thank you; there's just no market for those over-stylized newer properties) let me know if you're looking for an agent with experience selling in the area.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Castle of the Mad Archmage Session 2 Part I: Thar be orcs!

Inspired by Carjacked Seraphim's (excellent blog name, by the way) recent foray into  Joseph Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage (CotMA), I've decided to kickstart my own narrative of said dungeon. 
It's hard to believe that I haven't gotten around to writing up the 2nd session but here it is mid-July, summer is almost here (in Seattle anyway), and I'm reporting on events that happened in January. Actually, knowing me, that isn't hard to believe at all.

For those who haven't read the earlier posts on this matter, my friend Bob and I are sort of tag-team DM-ing this thing, so, in many regards, we're playing D&D as a board game, and we often end up both simultaneously DM-ing and running the party.  One of the odd results of this clusterf**k approach to dungeoneering is that, as often as not, we are working together against our own characters trying to figure out how the dungeon would react to this invasion by an adventuring party.  But, since we haven't read ahead in the dungeon, we don't really know what's around the corner which makes such conspiring somewhat ineffectual.

Anyway, our 2nd session occurred about a week after the first session, which is to say, nearly 6 months ago.  This time I came prepared; in addition to the S&W core rules PDF, I’m packin' the S&W Monster Compendium, AD&D Monster Manual (piñata dragon version) and the C&C Monsters & Treasures tome, and I’ve also downloaded the OSRIC and Labyrinth Lords rules.  We’re still out of luck if we run into more olive slime or anything from the F[r]iend Folio, but we’ve definitely got a lot more ground covered this time out.

Unfortunately, you'll have to bear with my memory a bit as, sadly, my notes from this session are less than helpful; they read thusly:
“CotMA Session 2:  ”
One thing that I do recall is that this is the session when the now infamous slope discussion arose, but since that’s been covered at length elsewhere, I’ll move on.  Before embarking on session 2, we added two more humble adventurers to our number: Barkurp the Wise (a fighter with a 17 wisdom, though he’s only got a 6 intelligence),* and a magic user named Cleavebourne, who, thanks to his 13 strength, supplants Borrance, the other magic user, as the strongest member of the party. 

*We used the fatalist approach to character generation: the character's name, race, and class are determined before we roll 3d6, keeping the results in the order rolled, for the 6 abilities.  As a result, in addition to the aforementioned hellaciously wize fighting man, we have a dwarf with an 8 constitution but an 18 charisma, and 3 spell casters (an Elf and 2 MUs) whose intelligence range from as low as 10 all the way up to a high of 11. But, OD&D/S&W being what it is, these stats have almost no significant consequence on game play. 

This time out, the courageous party selected a different entrance from the 3 options available to intrepid CotMA delvers.  They stumbled down the stairs into a room occupied by a giant tick and... I have absolutely no recollection of this encounter.  I do remember that they opened another closet full of (2) skeletons, though these were much less impressed by our cleric’s pious stance than in the previous effort.  In fact, they showed some serious undead combat competence by hacking the crap out of our front line: Sigurd was once again knocked to 0 Hp--man, he's a lightweight--and Polvo the dwarf was gimping around with only 2 HP before the magic users finally stepped in and knocked the grins off those skeletal mugs.  After so many years of AD&D in my system, it’s hard to grasp the combat effectiveness of low level OD&D magic users.  At 1st level they use the same attack charts as fighters and get 1d6 HP—only slightly less well endowed than a fighter’s d6+1.  Add to that the lack of combat bonuses for strength in OD&D and the only real advantage 1st level fighters have in combat is 1 additional hit point and their unrestricted choice of armor.

Anyway, a little while later our brave party was listening at a door when they heard orcs--a bunch of ‘em.  We devised a plan wherein we would bust in and cast a sleep spell on these bozos before they could beat the crap out of us.  With a little luck of the dice, we achieved surprise and put all the snouty suckers to sleep before they could even let out a peep.  We dragged one of 'em out in the hall and cast Charm Person on him while the rest of the orcs were knifed in their sleep.  The Charm seemed to work because he was rather endeared to Cleaveborn, the new magic user, or was it Goldraviel the elf?*  Anyway, he informed us that the other door in the room lead to 2 more rooms inhabited by 6 more of his clan, a clan which also occupied several more rooms on a lower level of the dungeon.   We fed him some BS story about how we had saved him from his colleagues who were traitors and had been about to kill him and steal the clan’s treasure blah blah blah; he agreed to help us deal with the other guys.

*Another consequence of our peculiar gaming method is that the characters are not really achieving a great deal of individuation; they really function as a communal entity most of the time. 

Back in the orc room, we tipped over a large table and some cots near the wall opposite the unopened door to provide shelter for our archers Glebberd the halfthing, Polvo the dwarf, and Goeatyourveal the elf.  Sadly, our best archer, Sigurd the near-dead ranger, was resting in an empty room down the hall. The rest of the party hid in the alcove in which the entry door was set, while the charmed Orc lay down amidst the corpses on the floor and sprung the trap by calling for help.  A moment later the door flew open and 3 orcs burst into the room.  If they were shocked to see the decimated ranks of their colleagues, they had no time to show it; a flurry of arrows pelted into them—the dice were on our side!—and 1 orc lay dead and the other two were injured before they even knew what hit them.  The survivors turned to run and were cut down by another volley just as 3 more orcs entered the room, one of whom was unfortunate enough to catch an errant missile in the chest.   He survived but with the rest of the Adventurers now surging out from the vestibule, capitulation was the only answer.  He threw down his arms and fell to his knees even as his two unscathed colleagues turned and fled back to the room they had just left, slamming the door and locking it.  Thanks for nothin’, chumps!

What followed was a drawn out stalemate between our party and the 2 orcs behind the door; one of whom, it turns out, was the leader of the group.  Eventually, with the help of our charmed orc and some begrudging assistance from the captured dude, we brokered a peace.  We would agree to help them fight some posse of hobgoblins that they are constantly sparring with and they would provide us with some CotMA intell.  As a token of respect, we agreed to pay them a weregild of 12 hobber heads to offset the 8 orcs we killed; we argued them down from 4 for 1 to a mere 1-1/2 : 1.  Silly orcs.  Still, half of our party was opposed to dealing with the orcs at all and is awaiting the first opportunity to commit an act of treachery against them, a feeling that is no doubt shared by the orcs--except the charmed guy, whom we are now calling "Quisling."

As this is already overly long, and this seems as good a stopping place as any, I'll call it quits here for now.  Look for Part 2 of Session 2 which, at this rate, should be out in time for the Christmas shopping season! 

Seasons Greetings, everybody.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Random thoughts: Rollin' up characters

Does anyone else do this: you see three 6-siders sitting somewhere and, in an idle moment, pick them up and roll them.  If the result is high enough (for me, the threshold seems to be 16), you think "Hey, this could be the makings of a good character!" and roll the dice 5 more times, perhaps even writing down the results on the back of an envelope or an old receipt.  I confess that I do this all the time;* after all, a good dice roll should not go to waste.  That said, I can't imagine a circumstance wherein I would actually use these archived dice rolls for a character.  I mean, I'm not about to sit down at a gaming table and reach into a hat stuffed with these odd scraps of paper and use the selected set of dice rolls for my new character; I'm gonna' roll the dice all over again!

* I have a set of 3 dice sitting by my computer with which my wife and I sometimes play an impromptu yahtzee-like game.

One of the outcomes of this habit is that my preferred D&D ability rolling method has changed from the old AD&D standby Best-3-of-4 to this technique: I roll 3 dice, if one (or more) turns up a "1", I re-roll it/them one time. If I get another 1 on the re-roll, I'm stuck with it.  I like it because now 1s become a symbol of new hope, of a second chance.  In fact, I was inspired to write this post when, moments ago, I rolled a 5 and two 1s, re-rolled the ones and--Bingo!--scored a pair of 6s.  From a 7 to a 17 just like that!  Whereas with the best of 4 method, I could have hoped for a 12 at best.  Of course, with this method, you roll three 2s and you're stuck with a 6, whereas in the best of 4 method you have a 4 in 6 chance of upgrading at least a little bit. I don't know if a method like this has ever been endorsed by any version of The Game, but I find the added dice rolling to be very satisfying without introducing a munchkinriffic element.*

* For a really good munchkin system, Unearthed Arcana, I believe, introduced a method where you rolled your six abilities using an ascending number of dice for each roll starting at 3 dice and working up to 8 dice, taking the best 3 of each set. We called it the Steroid method back in the day.

The other thing I've started doing is adding up the total net bonuses of the "characters" I've made in this way.  First you need a universal bonus set up to use.  For a while I was switching between several universal bonus systems: the Old School +1 for abilities 15 or higher, and a standardized system based on AD&D.   But I've settled on what I call the "Post Modern" system; you're probably familiar with it: 9-12 = 0, 13-15 = +1, 16-17 = +2, 18 = +3 with symmetrical penalties at the lower end of the spectrum.  Castles & Crusades and, I think, Labyrinth Lord, use an identical arrangement.  I add up the total bonus/penalty to get a nice, neat assessment of how good the "character" is, attribute-wise.  What's been shocking to me is when I roll up a character that, in my AD&D trained eyes, looks like a total Fudd but ends up being a pretty decent dude in the final analysis.  For instance, I rolled up one character with a 15, four 13s and a 12.  Using the old AD&D bonuses, you'd immediately slap that 15 on your Dex or Con and take the AC bonus or an extra hit point, and then you'd have 5 meaningless scores to spread across the rest of your humdrum character.  Using the Post Modern bonus system, this seeming Fudd scores a +5 total bonus, which I can say with confidence, after assessing at least a hundred "characters" in this fashion, is pretty excellent.

As an aside, the dice in the illustration* above are ephed up: or at least the one in the middle is.  Everyone knows that the numbers on opposing faces of a 6-sider always add up to 7, and yet there you see the 3 and 4 sitting right next to each other.  Amateurs.

*Thanks, by the way, to the Folks at the National Parks Service for providing this image in an item about the historic game "Farkle"  which was apparently a popular dice game in the colonial era.  I'm more familiar with it as a drinking game played by snooty grad students.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brand X Roleplaying: Preferred Over the Leading Brand?

From Wikipedia on the origins of TSR: 
"worried that other companies would be able to publish similar projects first, [Gygax and Kaye] convinced acquaintance Brian Blume to join TSR in 1974 as an equal one-third partner" 
If it is indeed true--not just Wiki-true--that Gygax was worried about competitors beating him to the punch, does anyone know who these competitors might have been?  To the best of my admittedly lacking knowledge of this part of history, Tunnels and Trolls was the next game out of the blocks but not only did it come out a year later, but it was clearly a response to D&D.  I'd be very interested to know who these feared competitors were and how their Brand X game would have differed from the game we've all grown to love to argue about.  Anyone got anything?

Monday, June 21, 2010


Recently I came across some new schoolers at Penny Arcade comparing old school D&D to the version they play; they called it 4E or Double D or something.  Hey, I'm just an unfrozen caveman, I don't understand these ascending armor classes or... well, that's pretty much all that I know about ND&D,* so I'll stop there.  Seriously, it does not ruffle my feathers at all that there's a new version out there that's completely different from and incompatible with the game I played before the ice age claimed me back in the late 80s.  Heck, I wanted to change that game too, can't blame TSR et. al. for doing the same thing and making money off of it.  If the kids are havin' fun, then Game On!

*ND&D=New D&D, commonly denoted by a numerical "e rating," the higher the e-rating, the newer the D&D.

But there is one piece of information that I'd like to impart to the younger generations, and it's this: THAC0 and descending Armor Class are NOT synonymous.

Despite what this guy seems to think, if you mention THAC0 to stick-in-the-mud old schoolers like me who never graduated from the Gygax-authored tomes, there is no reason to expect them to know what you're talking about.  Though the term Thac0 might have existed back in the day, it was not at all relevant to the game as it was played on the streets.  The term came about, according to some research I poached from Philotomy (sadly, that blog is no longer with us), because of a curious column of data in the monster listings (Appendix E) of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide that was labeled "To Hit AC 0."  However, there is no explanation of the significance of this this item and one is left to wonder why it was included with the other, more pertinent stats listed.  Indeed, there's no reason I can see why they chose to spend 19 pages rehashing info that was already available in the Monster Manual when the only real value this table offers is looking up the XP value of that Shedu your players just blasted into a heap of fur and feathers (1,950 + 14/hp).  No, when we old schoolers wanted to crush our foes we didn't call out our thac0s like a battle cry and have at it with our 20-siders; we turned to the combat tables on page 74-75 or eyeballed the DM's Screens that grew like stands of alder trees on gaming tables throughout the land.  Then we walked 14 miles to school through a blizzard, uphill each way.

Seeing as Unearthed Arcana (1985) was the last new TSR-published D&D product I bought--though I played on for a couple more years in isolation from the machinations of Lake Geneva--I'm not entirely sure when thac0 grew to predominance.  In fact, I wasn't aware that it had gained any traction until I read the Penny Arcade post referenced above.  I'm guessing that it became prevalent in the 2nd Edition of The Game as a means to replace the combat tables as the go-to source for 20-sided slaughter in AD&D, a move in which I can definitely see some value.  And presumably some game mechanics were changed somehow (I'm looking at you, repeating 20s) to make it more usable as a system.  I'm not here to preach about the superiority of any one combat system over another--though, as much as I like the descending AC aesthetic, the ascending AC system sure makes life easier--but kids, get your facts straight.

So, yeah, I lived most of my life without giving Thac0 any thought whatsoever until these meddling kids started confusing descending AC values with this eldritch acronym.  But now that my dander is up, why did they make it Thac0 and not Thac10?  AC 10 is the Absolute of descending ACs; like 0 degrees Kelvin, you could only go up from there.  And since no one needed a 20 to hit AC 10, you didn't need to worry where you stood on the ledge of repeating 20s.  It does rhyme with the name of a major college sports conference of the western U.S., but that will likely be changing soon anyway.  [Let's just say that Wazzoo won't be sandwiched between 2 filler helmets down at the bottom for much longer.  Though the Cougs are certainly likely to stay at the bottom.]

Some have argued about the zero providing balance whereas using 10 as the base seems arbitrary and provides opportunity for unlimited growth and, therefore, AC inflation.  I can sort of see what they're getting at; but unless you're in a game where there is a likelihood of finding suits of +12 plate mail or +24 rings of protection, there are probably de facto limits to AC inflation already in place. 

Go Beavers!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Referees vs. Dungeon Masters: Wherein the Caveman gets bent out of shape over a trifle

As anyone who read my recent posts knows, I'm on a semantic binge lately.  Following in that vein, I've become curious as to why some folks in the OSR prefer the term "referee" over "Dungeon Master," "Game Master," or some other "master"-ful title.  The word referee is, in my mind, not adequate to describe the role of what the DM does.  A referee, as anyone who has ever spent their lunch period playing intramural flag football or competed in a spelling bee knows is the disinterested (hopefully) 3rd party who makes sure the rules are adhered to by all sides of the contest.

In roleplaying games, the term would be accurate in games where 2 teams of players work against each other, such as, I believe, was common practice in the wargames from which D&D sprang.  But the Dungeon Master in D&D et al. is so much more than just a referee, for the DM not only administers the rules of the game, but he/she also coaches the opposing team, designs the playing field, and decides when the rules need to be bent, broken, or entirely fabricated to meet the needs of the gaming session. I have yet to encounter a real world event where the referee enjoys this much responsibility.

So why are old schoolers eschewing the term DM (or similar) for the less holistic "referee"?  History usually offers an explanation to these sorts of things, and this case will be no exception.  A quick search of the original 1974 rulebooks (thank Blipdoolpoolp for searchable PDFs!) shows me that "referee" was indeed the preferred term for the person who runs the game.  In fact, the term "Dungeonmaster"--yes, it was originally all one word--makes its first official rules appearance in EGG's introduction to the Blackmoor supplement published in 1975; though "referee" is still used exclusively in the body of this book.  The Eldritch Wizardry supplement introduces the two word variant "Dungeon Master," as well as the acronym "DM," though the one word option and "referee" are still used interchangeably throughout the text.

I don't have a PDF of the Holmes book, but a cursory survey of the text reveals that  "Dungeon Master" and "D.M." are predominant.  And right there on the back cover of the Monster Manual, published in 1977, "[the Monster Manual] is an invaluable aid to players and dungeon masters alike!" (emphasis mine).  I don't believe that it was solely an attempt to jazz-up the terminology that drove the founding fathers to invent a new term for the role, though this probably weighed in the decision.  I believe that they came to realize that refereeing, ie. rules administration, was only one facet of the job and a grander term was needed to fully encompass everything expected of the DM nee referee.  And, outside of S&M clubs, I can think of few places where the term "master" is more apt than in gaming.

Back to the present: Swords & Wizardry, retracing, as it does, the footprints of the original D&D rules, uses the term "referee."  I will respect their attempts at historic reconstruction, even if I choose not to use the term when playing the game.  OSRIC uses the generic GameMaster or GM; bland, yes, but entirely acceptable.  Labyrinth Lords has crafted a new term: Labyrinth Lord!  It's a bit cumbersome and the acronym form would need immediately to be followed by "Cool J," which is actually pretty excellent.  Imagine this conversation:

Alex:  Game night's coming up, anyone got a dungeon to run?
Barb:  Not me, but Carl just bought FU2: Administration Building of Shame.
Alex:  Hey Carl, you wanna "Cool J" that new module you bought?

As a bonus, if the folks over at Labyrinth Lords get LL Cool J as their official spokesperson, it might encourage gamers to lay off the Doritos and maybe do a few hundred sit ups every now and then.

But I suspect that anyone playing any of these retro clones already has a preferred job title and will keep using it no matter which game they're playing.  I for one have always used the term "DM" whether I'm playing D&D, DragonQuest, or non-fantasy rpgs such as Gangbusters or Star Frontiers.  It's just the name for the job, in my mind, and there's no sense trying to change it at this juncture.  And for that reason, I obviously have to respect anyone who started playing the game with the original 1974 rules for sticking to their guns.  But all you Holmesian+ players who, after decades of playing D&D, started using "referee" only when 3.5 or 4e drove you into the comforting arms of OD&D, well, you sort of sound like that guy in high school who got really into the Sex Pistols or The Clash and affected a phony British accent.  Maybe for you it evokes some purity by returning to the roots of the game or maybe its generic-ness appeals to you.  To me it smacks of disingenuous erudition; but that, I suppose, is my problem.  Now I have to get off this difference engine and get some stuff done around the house.

PS.  If you take any one thing away from this here blog--and I realize that this is asking a lot--please let it be the "Cool J" thing.  Forget everything else I said.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Quit euhemerizing and get back to work.

euhemerism: the doctrine that polytheistic mythology arose from the deification of dead heroes; the system of mythological interpretation which regards myths as based on real people and events. 

euhemerize: to believe in or practice euhemerism

Just came across this word in the ol' dictionary; a huge plus of hard copy dictionaries over the online variety is the serendipitous vocab exercise one experiences by leafing through the pages.  Anyway, I wanted to write it down in hopes of retaining the meaning in me noggin.  Feel free to sprinkle it in your own conversation to spice things up a bit at the water cooler.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wisdom for the wise: defining the ambiguous attribute

"Wisdom: the faculty of making the best use of knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; sagacity."--Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition

In preparation for a future post on character generation systems from various vintage RPGs, I’ve been pondering ability/attribute scores a lot lately.  Virtually every game I’ve reviewed (~12 of ‘em, all published before 1985) have some sort of corollary to the abilities as first presented in D&D.  Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, although often under different names, are pretty much universal, and many others have a rating for a character’s smarts and personality, covering the same ground as Intelligence and Charisma.  But Wisdom is an outlier; a term used by very few—if any—other games of the era, or any era since, I suspect.  Even TSR’s own Gamma World—the game that most closely mimics the D&D ability format—keeps all five of the other abilities intact but wisdom is replaced with a new, more concrete sounding name: Mental Strength.

While other games often do include abilities such as intuition, perception, and willpower—much more specific and tangible terms to describe potential game mechanics—they leave good judgment and sagacity out of the picture; these must, I believe, remain the purview of the player, not the character.  So why Wisdom?  What's its significance not just to clerics, but to game mechanics in general?  Which is to say, even if you can justify its usefulness to clerics, why should it be anything but a dump stat for the non-clerically inclined?  I intend to look into the history of the wisdom ability and what it's become.   

Going back to the earliest source, here’s what Gygax had to say about Wisdom in D&D Volume I: Men & Magic:

Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics… Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.

There you have it; no attempt to define the word or justify its singular importance to clerics other than to state that it is so.  Admittedly, he made little effort to define the other abilities either, presumably relying on his audience to be smart enough to figure out what "strength" means.  But unlike the other abilities, one gets the impression that this is exactly what Wisdom meant to the founding fathers: each class needed its own prime ability and wisdom was chosen, for lack of a better term, as the name of that ability for clerics.

Back in 1980-81, Holmes's blue book was my intro to D&D and it is, I think, telling that Eric Holmes, tasked with making the original D&D rules more palatable—or at least edible—to a younger crowd, expanded somewhat on the definitions of the other five abilities but did not lay a finger on wisdom:

Wisdom is the prime requisite for clerics.

This is exactly what wisdom meant to me throughout my playing days.  I never made any attempt to apply any other significance to the term; certainly not from the real world definition.  Not even after reading Gygax’s expanded definition in the AD&D Player’s Handbook

Wisdom is a composite term for the character’s enlightenment, judgement, wile, will power, and (to a certain extent) intuitiveness.

This definition is, in my opinion, too broad and vague to provide any traction for in-game functionality, although it does add willpower into the mix, which provides some potential relevance.  But he's also thrown in a character’s "wile" which would seemingly make wisdom much more important to con men than to clerics.  

The definition of wisdom, no doubt, has been amended further in the post-Gygaxian editions of D&D, but I am not aware of those definitions, so please pardon me for not discussing them here.   But within the old school community, new game re-designers keep pumping out their own versions of TSR’s old properties—God bless them, everyone.  Below is a sampling of wisdom definitions from the OSR movement:


A character’s wisdom score (“Wis”) indicates how “in tune” the character is with his or her surroundings. This translates not only to general awareness, but also to mystical attunement and the ability to understand peoples’ motives. It is, in many ways, a measure of the “sixth sense.” Wisdom is the most important attribute for clerics and druids.

Labyrinth Lords has this to say:

Wisdom (WIS) describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. Wisdom is the most important ability for clerics.

And Swords & Wizardry:

Wisdom determines a character’s insight, perception, and good judgment. Wisdom is the Prime Attribute for Clerics.

Perception, be it mystical or mundane, seems to be the common thread here, and I definitely think there's room for a perception ability in Old School style game rules.  I don't think wisdom is the right name for that ability nor do I understand why it would be particularly pertinent to succeeding at clerical actions.  OSRIC's 6th sense definition, I think, comes closest to an answer to the cleric problem, but only if some sort of 6th sense rules are included for non-clerics.

There is another option I’ve just become aware of: James Raggi’s forthcoming Lamentations of the Flame Princess provides the following definition:

Wisdom is the measure of a character’s connection to the greater universe, and the strength of the character’s spirit. Wisdom does not affect the character’s ability to make good decisions or judge situations or characters; it is the player’s own judgment which must be used in these situations. 

He takes a similar tone regarding Intelligence and Charisma, laying down a strong separation of church and state between character supplied abilities and player supplied abilities.  I heartily endorse such an approach.  Still, I'd like to see how this definition applies to game action in a way that would make wisdom anything but a dump stat for non-clerics.

And from the not quite OSR movement, Castles and Crusades has this to say:

Wisdom reflects depth of personal experience, the ability to make well-considered decisions or judgments, [fair enough] and represents a spiritual connection to a deity. [huh?]

This non-sequitur brings to mind The Simpsons episode where the U.S. Senate is debating a bill to save Springfield from an impending meteor strike and someone at the last second adds a rider that will allow taxpayer funding of pornographic art.  Needless to say, Springfield gets no federal aid to avert the cataclysm and the folks at Troll Lord Games, with this total cop-out of a definition, get no credit for clarifying the murky matter that is Wisdom.   On top of that, the way the ability is used in C&C makes sense only if characters start out with fairly low wisdom, making gains as they acquire experience.  
So, what do I propose as a solution?  Well, the definition I've been mulling over in my head lately has wisdom leaning back toward willpower, or, As I think of it, Strength of will.  While I don’t think Oxford or Webster will support me on this distinction, to me willpower is that which makes you refuse the easy, more tempting option—finishing a marathon, say, requires a lot of willpower.  Strength of Will is more like committing yourself to a cause based not on mere stubbornness, ignorance of other options, or a “refuse to lose” mentality, but because you’ve considered the cause and the tenets upon which it is based very carefully and believe it to be worth the trouble to align yourself with it.  A cause, in game terms could be a religion or the beliefs of a specific deity, but also a code of honor, one’s alignment, or even belief in the actions/words of a particular individual.  Which isn’t to say that a high wisdomed character will blindly follow such a leader to the Kool Aid pitcher; should this leader-type betray the tenets upon which the faith was based, the highly wisdomed will most likely choose this time to opt out.

All told, this, too, is a pretty froofy definition and I’ve belabored it long enough.  So what is one to do?  Most likely, one would go on not giving a crap about such a silly semantic distinction and continue with the tried and true "Wisdom = the prime attribute of clerics," and I certainly have no beef with that approach.  But it has struck me as peculiar that, in a community prone to debating things like this, I have seen no debate on the matter of defining Wisdom.  Or maybe I'm just missing something.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Up to Eleven!

Eleven followers!  I never intended to surpass James Maliszewski--the egghead laureate of the OSR--and his excellent Grognardia blog in popularity but watch out Jimmy, here I come!  Thanks to all of my devotees for opening yourself to public disgrace for being affiliated--even in such a tenuous, non-binding manner as the Google "Follow" function--with my halfhearted rantings.

PS.  I asked Google if they would change the title from "Followers" to "Sycophants."  They have not as yet responded.  Probably Larry and Sergey are mulling it over as we speak.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Eldritch Role-Playing System: Where Defense Pools Matter

Until I wandered into my local gaming store the other day (Gary's Games in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle) I had never heard of Eldritch Role-Playing System (ERP) by Dan Cross and Randall Petras.  This surprises me somewhat because it was published by Goodman Games, a company I've been aware of for a while, at a time, 2008, when I was starting to pay attention to current RPGs.  But, alas, no one I'm aware of--admittedly, a very small crowd--has made any mention of it.  So what compelled me to buy it?  Mostly it was the price; at $19.99, it was cheaper than virtually every other gaming implement of similar size and quality.

What follows is more of an overview than a review; the difference being,  in my mind, that there won't be a lot of delving into game themes or a reflection on why the system supports one type of gaming or another; I'm just not smart enough to pull that stuff off very well.  Plus, I haven't played it.  This is just a summary of a few of the more predominant game devices and overall content.  Now let's have at it.

First Impressions:

It's a slender (96 pp.), softcover volume with cover art supplied by cut-rate rpg illustrator Peter Bradley.  In fact, combined with its mottled beige border, the artwork could easily give inattentive bookstore browsers the impression that they are holding a Castles & Crusades supplement.  I'm not a huge fan of Bradley's work, at least not in the context of the fantasy rpg genre.  His illustrations have a removed, contemplative quality better suited, I think, to a classic comics version of Wuthering Heights or some other brooding psycho-drama.  Even the wyverns tearing at the knight's armor on the C&C PHB give the impression that they have something else weighing heavily on their minds.  [Note: On the ERP cover, is that bard off to the side the Scottish James Hetfield?]

The interior art is provided by Eric Bergeron. My impression of his work is that he found a really awesome set of well-endowed action figures--BBW fans need to check out the bikini-clad ogress on page 63--photographed them against some cool backgrounds, and slapped a few Photoshop filters on 'em.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're looking for clean, bold, line drawings a la Trampier, you won't find 'em here. But this game makes no pretense at Olde Schoolatry, and Bergeron's art does an adequate job of brightening up the pages. 

To demonstrate ERP's New Schooledness, there's a character sheet in the back* that's 7 (seven!) freakin' pages long--I get the sense that despite the brevity of this tome, this is not going to be a "rules lite" game.  I see some terms that beg to be acronymized ("Active Defense Pool"), some acronyms that need some explaining ("MRV"), and 4 different kinds of experience points: Victory Pts, Role Playing Pts, Excess Pts, and Character points.  Other things gleaned from the character sheet: there are lots of skills listed--can you say skillz based system?--and there are no attributes in the Old School sense--no Str, Int, Wis, etc. [but then if you can find me a game besides D&D and its progeny that uses the Wisdom attribute/ability, I will buy you a steak dinner**].

* I also tend to read rulebooks (and magazines) from back to front. 
** Does not include travel or housing expenses. 

The index does not even fill 2 pages.  For an rpg, I think this is a bit too slight too get the job done; we'll see.

Thankfully, there is none of that tedious background/border art crap on every page that virtually every game book finds mandatory to include nowadays.  How much cheaper would these $40 rule books be if they weren't wasting so much ink on a halftone background print of a dragon's hoard plus a border etching of buxom mermaids on every g*ddamn friggin' page?  Probably only negligibly cheaper, I suppose; but in my cantankerous old guy opinion, they just add noise to the page and I refuse to spend money on such over-wrought texts.

The Basics:

You've got the standard menagerie of AD&D character races, nothing new about them.  There are 3 major "occupations"--Fighter, Rogue, and Arcanist--each occupation offering several sub-categories (11 fighter subclasses include your paladin et al. but also samurai, mystic warrior, and Calvary [sic]*) that represent a different bundle o' skills.  That's where you'll find clerics and druids, as 2 of the optional sub categories of arcanist.  Each occupation is discerned by its "basic abilities," "specializations," and "masteries" which are generally more and more refined skill sets.  For instance, Gladiators have Melee as a basic ability, Exotic Weapons as a specialization and Net as a mastery.  This linked set of abilities is, I believe, called an ability tree, and would allow the character the chance to roll 3 dice when using his net in melee.  I could be wrong about this though. 

* This is the third time in recent weeks that I've seen the word Calvary used instead of cavalry.  Just to see if they're at least consistent in their (mis)usage I checked the index: no mention of either one.  Or Golgotha.

There are no fixed attributes but, rather, all your attributes and skills are lumped into the same Universal Gaming Mechanism.   Basically, you start out with "average" abilities in everything from agility to animal husbandry with some adjustments depending on your race.  You use character points to buy-up a few abilities to better than average: "respectable," "good," "great,"  and "superb" are the superlatives of choice.  As you improve you get to roll bigger dice, starting with d4 at average  until you reach d12 at superb, which is the pinnacle of human mastery.  These dice are thrown against whatever dice the GM deems significant to determine whether you achieve success.  So if you have, say, "good" stealth ability and you're trying to be stealthy in an "easy" situation, you roll a d6 against the GM's d4.  A "moderate task" gets 2d4 and "difficult" gets 2d6 etc., until your d6 seems pretty puny.  

Character Generation As I mentioned earlier, it's a point-buy system where you pay for your race and some advanced abilities.  Unlike a lot of games, there is no price break for buying a human--they have advantages for which you must pay as well.  The process is broken into 5 steps:
  1. Choose race, advantages & disadvantages, 
  2. Choose abilities & occupational path;  
  3. Calculate defense pools; 
  4. Determine character concept, and 
  5. Pick equipment.  
Pretty straight forward stuff, except number 3 definitely caught me off guard.  Is it really that vital that your "defense pools"--whatever they may be--need to be calculated before you develop your character concept?  Especially considering that over at the Goodman Games website, the tag line for their ERP line of products reads "Character concept is king!"  According to this outline, a more apt rank of nobility might be "Viscount" or "Marquise."  Seriously, if you've waited until after you've already chosen your race, abilities, and occupational path to determine your character concept then what was guiding all those decisions?  Your Passive Defense Pools?  Sheesh.

It's also not immediately obvious how one is supposed to "buy" one's occupational path and requisite abilities, specialties and masteries--you won't learn how to do this until you read the next chapter.  Fortunately, there's a narrative of a sample character creation session provided in sidebar format that offers enough guidance to allow a crafty reader to hack his way through the wilderness.  This appears to be the major flaw of this book, however: again and again the  information needed to do what is being discussed has not been covered in the text, forcing the reader to flip ahead to find a useful example or table or flow chart (yes, they use flow charts) to provide edification.  And despite the prevalence of these tables and flow charts, I have yet to find a piece of text that references them.  [If Goodman Games is looking for a technical editor--and they should be if this book is at all indicative--I could definitely set them up--TR]

Combat is all about mitigating threat points with your defense pools.  What the eph does that mean, you ask?  Good question.  Basically, you roll a bunch of dice--the number and size of which are dependent on your level of mastery of whatever applicable combat abilities you possess--to determine your "Threat Points."  Don't call it "damage" or the authors will come to your house and inflict massive Potential Harm* on your ass--which the defending character then "mitigates" by throwing around his own action points and dice rolls: evading pts, parrying pts, armor pts, talking pts, needle pts, whatever.  I believe "hit points" are also mentioned in here somewhere, but they don't mean what you think.  Unmitigated threat points are deducted from the defender's "toughness" score.

* Yes, this is another term used by the authors.  Good luck discerning its significance.

I think I've aptly demonstrated that this is not a 0 to 60 in 30 minutes kind of game--even for seasoned gamers.  Again, I don't believe this to be an inherently unappealing aspect of the game, but it is definitely something to consider if you have impatient players to contend with.

Magic there are 4 sources of power: mystic (normal wizardry), supernatural (summoners; clerics also live here), primordial (druids and elementalists), and psychogenic (psionics).  You use spell points to cast spells, you're better at casting those within your specialty than others, they do stuff.  At this point I'm still suffering from fatigue from the combat section, give me a few minutes to rest my medulla oblongata...

The spell descriptions are provided in the appendix section titled "Sample Spells" which leads me to believe that players and/or GMs are largely expected/encouraged to devise their own magicalations.  Spell descriptions get a 6 item "stat" block that offers you such scintillating info as the source, school, effect, manifestation, range and aspect--all given in analog form; no numbers.  The text underneath is often even more terse; Heal spell reads thusly: "This spell mends wounds."  There are virtually no references to dice rolls or numbers of any sort for that matter; things like range and area of effect are covered by a universal formula involving your ability with the spell ("average," "respectable," what have you) and some multiplier, while the effect of your spells is gauged using the "Master Effects list," which is presumably located somewhere in the Magic section.  Back to the index: none of the following terms are anywhere to be found: master effects list, magic, effect, list.  I hate to say I told you so...  After some digging around in the magic chapter I find that there is, in fact, a list under the heading "Major Effects Descriptions" (pg. 44) that I believe is the intended target of this reference.  That comment I made about a technical editor becomes more and more pertinent, eh?

Misc.  Experience is based on earning Victory Points--by surviving dangerous situations--and Role-playing Points--doled out for playing to your character concept.  Accumulate enough of both types of points and you raise level, which grants you more character points to spend on improving your character.  Nothing outlandish here, right?

There's also a campaign setting in the appendices, though "campaign concept" is really a better term for it.  There's no map or descriptions of geo-political entities or other things one might expect in a campaign setting.  Rather, what they describe is a world where 2 types of lands exist: settled an unsettledSettled lands are those where normal laws of science are followed; grass is green, if you open your bathroom door you will find your bathroom, that sort of stuff.  Unsettled lands, however, are some sort of dreamy alterna-reality where the environs are defined by some concept or emotion and proximity is not based on physical distance but rather conceptual propinquity.  For instance, an unsettled land whose theme is love might be rosy, warm, and comforting--though love can also be tumultuous, I suppose.  Traveling from this land of love, one might pass through the lands of cute, friendly, cordial and various other shades of affection before reaching the land of hate.  Once you get to Hateland you'll likely find a bunker full of Nazis next to an Al Quaeda camp which is directly adjacent to Westboro Baptist Church. An interesting concept, but it belies the rather conservative character race selection.  I would think a game with such a trippy setting would allow for a more customizable character race development system, which only leads me to believe that the authors didn't really have such a setting in mind when they crafted the rules.

Closing remarks (wherein I might give my opinion on something):

Overall, I'm pretty intrigued by this game.  I like the rolling-my-bag-o'-dice-against-yours approach to conflict resolution, though I could see that it would take some practice to become fluent in the numerous branches of the "ability trees" and their influence on various actions.  And I like the notion of the 3 realms of adventuring abilities: combat, stealth & magic. I'm always hoping that some OSR retro-cloner will make a game that removes clerics as a class in favor of a system like this, even though this would immediately disqualify such an entry as an Aulde Skewle gameI'm also a fan of bringing a character to the table that you have invested some sort of concept into, and I think point buying systems generally facilitate this kind of character conceptualization in a way that random generation does not.  ERP also has the advantage that, unlike GURPS and similar point-buy systems, one is not forced to buy a bunch of quantified disadvantages in order to avoid complete mediocrity.  That said, the act of making up a new character without any element of randomness has been scientifically proven to be less fun (1); so there's that to consider.

From the author's afterword: "this game is not 'rules light.' [agreed--TR] Such is not the aim of our design.  Rather... ERP seeks to be Rules Transparent."  Despite this load of gobbledy-gookery, I commend the game-smiths for putting together a system that seems workable, original,* and intriguing.  They could definitely have used some help making the rules more reader-friendly but, overall, I think they're onto something.  That said, will I ever convince anyone to spend their precious few gaming hours on this?  Magic 8-ball says: "Outlook not so good."**

* More knowledgeable gamers will likely be able to trace ERP's antecedents better than I.  Bear in mind that I did spend ~20 years frozen in a glacier.
**Things I just found out: the magic 8 ball has a 20 sider in it. 20-siders are called icosahedrons.

(1) Unfrozen Caveman Dice-chucker, 2010. Building characters on a budget: Analysis of character generation processes of the "Olde" and "Nieuw" schools.  An as-yet un-posted blog dissertation