Monday, July 25, 2011

Bilbo: Proto-thief

Having recently re-read The Hobbit in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of my first traipse through Middle Earth I can't help but note the wealth of game-related goodies that this book has to offer novice role-players--such as I was back in '81.  One obvious and much- discussed notion is Bilbo as the proto-type for the thief class.  Sure, Cudgel, Gray Mouser, et al.'s fingerprints are all over the class, but I didn't read about their endeavors until much later; Bilbo was my first literary source for the thief.  

Much of the arguing about Bilbo as thief has to do with what he actually did (flubbed the pocket picking, relied on a nifty ring, pissed off the dragon), but bear in mind that this was his first gig, he got by only because of ample shares of luck, cleverness, and hobbitly stealth.  But what is more important to take away from the book is what the expectations of a thief, burglar, or expert treasure hunter were, not how well Bilbo lived up to them.  Following are a few pertinent items from Chapter I "An Unexpected Party" and II "Roast Mutton" that helped my 11 year old brain figure out why a thief was someone you wanted to hang out with:

p. 33--Gandalf justifying why he has selected Bilbo for the party:
"[Entering through the front gate of the Lonely Mountain] would be no good... not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce or simply not to be found... That is why I settled on burglary--especially when I remembered the existence of a Side-door." 

Here Gandalf differentiates the basic focus of thievery--obstacles are circumvented by stealth--from warriors and heroes who confront obstacles with force of arms to accomplish their goals.

Note: The titles "Warrior" and "Hero" refer to distinct grades of adventurer, a precursor to level titles.  Also note that the statement presumes that the dwarves themselves are neither warriors nor heroes, leaving us wondering yet again what is their value to the venture.

p. 38--Thorin to Bilbo, still uncertain of the hobbit's qualifications as the party breaks up for the evening:
"Aren't you the burglar? And isn't sitting on the door-step your job, not to speak of getting inside the door?  ...I like six eggs with my ham when starting on a journey; fried not poached, and mind you don't break 'em." 
Here Thorin suggests that a burglar should be a capable heist planner, lock picker, and short order cook.

p. 46--Bilbo, having snuck up on the trolls eating their mutton, ponders what he should do:
"A really first class and legendary burglar would at this point have picked the trolls' pockets... pinched the very mutton off the spits, purloined the beer, and walked off without their noticing him.  Others more practical but with less professional pride would perhaps have stuck a dagger into each of them before they observed it."
From this we can gather that a professional burglar--in Middle Earth at any rate--was expected to provide expertise in sneaking about, pilfering things, and, when necessary, doling out the expeditious knife in the back.  Really not too different from our D&D chums. 

It is also noteworthy that despite Bilbo's nefarious title he, in fact, was a pretty hono(u)rable little guy.  He didn't steal from his friends* and certainly didn't practice his burglary in civilized environs; it was a skillset which was put to use only in the adventure setting.  It was for this reason that I never felt any qualms about ignoring EGG's claim in the PHB that thieves must be either evil or neutral.  Honorable thieves, as exemplified by Bilbo, could exist; they just knew when to keep it in their pants.
* Yes, he swiped the Arkenstone--or at least he hid the fact that he had found it--and then furtively delivered it to the men of Esgaroth, but Thorin was being dangerously unreasonable at the time and severely needed a boot to the head.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Hobbit: Why all the dwarves?

We all know the set up; Thorin and Co. enlist Bilbo as the lucky 14th member of their party.  Plus, they wisely foresaw the value of a sneaky guy in procuring a treasure hoard.  But why exactly were there so many dwarves?

In order of appearance, here is the roster of Dwarves and their primary contribution to the adventure:  

Dwalin--The first dwarf to arrive at Bilbo's house, he is the first dwarf to arrive at Bilbo's house.
Balin--Dwalin's brother, he is the oldest and wisest of the dwarves.  He is also their go to look-out man.
Kili and Fili--Twins, they are the youthful ones. They are good for doing any dirty work that required strong arms and sharp eyes--except being the lookout, which was old man Balin's job. 
Dori--On his shoulders fell the responsibility of carrying Bilbo whenever the hobbit was unable to keep up with the pack or climb a tree or grab an eagle.
Nori--There is no evidence to support the existence of Nori.
Ori--Conspired to gain a double share of treasure by occasionally speaking in a funny voice whilst wearing a Nori mask.
Oin and Gloin--Cousins to Balin and Dwalin, they carried the tinderboxes. 
Bifur--Kept Bofur company
Bofur--See Bifur
Bombur--Fat and weak-willed; he sleeps a lot, needs to be hoisted on occasion, and is manipulated into assisting Bilbo's plot to betray Thorin.
Thorin--Ostensibly the leader of the venture, in reality he always defers to Gandalf or, in the wizard's absence, relies on Bilbo to solve any problems that arise.

So we see, here are the tasks performed by the 13 dwarves:
  • Arriving at Bilbo's house
  • Performing lookout duties
  • General labo(u)r
  • Hoisting slow hobbits
  • Pilfering extra shares of gold
  • Lighting fires
  • Providing stimulating company
  • Obstructing progress
  • Ordering Bilbo around
Did we really need 13 dwarves to do all this? Seems like instead of adding one hobbit to avoid unlucky thirteen, they could have dropped 5 or 6 dwarves and avoided the whole triskadekaphobia matter entirely.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mayhem & Moathouses: How to handle a bloodthirsty DM

...and mayhem ensued.
Thanks to a patch of peonies in my neighbor's yard and a blog post by James over at Underdark Gazette [sadly, James has packed in the old blog {Far more sadly, James has since passed away, my condolences to his family and friends}] I feel compelled to do a write up about good ol' Village of Hommlet.  James, as you probably already know, posted a couple of times last week about everyone's favorite old school village adventure. But why the peonies, you ask? Well, the first time I played T1 it was 4th of July weekend 1982--yes, I remember this kind of crap--and my mom had just picked a bunch of peonies from the garden and put them in a vase on the dining room table which, that weekend, doubled as our gaming venue.  To this day, when I catch a whiff of the distinctive, peppery scent of peonies, I am reminded of the Village of Hommlet. 

Smells like trouble!
Anyway, the DM at the helm--we'll call him Byron--though fresh out of 7th grade at the time, was the most murderous referee in our gang.  Definitely aligned with Chaos, he liked to force the players out of their comfort zone. This outing would quickly prove to be no exception; indeed it may have been his crowning achievement.

Our very first encounter as we wandered into town was with an exceptionally belligerent Elmo who--though outnumbered 8 to 1, wearing no armor, and packing only a dagger--picked a fight with our paladin. For those unfamiliar, Elmo, though posing as a moronic farmhand, was actually an enormous ~5th level ranger with some bitchin' magic armaments, including the aforementioned dagger.

Anyway, he killed our paladin with a single, massive blow from the dagger, so the rest of the party jumped him.  We had 3 fighters and the cleric facing him while the MU blasted him with magic missiles and the halfling thief snuck around for a backstab.  Even so it was touch-and-go for a few rounds, but thanks to some crappy rolls by Elmo, we took him down without any more casualties on our side.

However, by this time a bunch of villagers had taken up arms and were coming at us.  We ran for it, eventually finding our way to the Inn of the Buxom Wench* where we commandeered the 2nd floor, barricaded the stairs, and launched a fusillade of arrows at the militia, sending them scrambling for cover behind the wall surrounding the inn.  Leading the militia was a revived Elmo who was clearly not quite as dead as we'd hoped.

*T1 devotees will note that this is not the real name of the establishment. The actual wench was known more for her welcoming demeanor than her cleavage but it was the name we used at the time and it has stuck.

We were terrified that the entire town was as tough as Elmo, though this did not stop us from "errantly" lofting flaming arrows into neighboring houses.  But good-natured Ostler Gundigoot talked everyone down and, against all reason, managed to negotiate a cease fire.  After a hearing with Rufus and Byrne, we floated a canned apology for all the death and destruction we'd wrought and promised to pay reparations to include fees for raising all the dead townsfolk as well as rebuilding the razed houses.  Since we were cash-strapped 1st level n00bs, it was suggested that we go to the moathouse to secure the weregild.  Much to our dismay, R&B insisted that a fully healed Elmo accompany us; partly as punishment for his part in inciting the fracas but mostly to make sure that we didn't lose our way.

At the moathouse I only remember a few encounters: the murderous frogs who killed off two of our party including the halfling thief and another, less memorable character; the puncture-resistant zombies--they only took 1 point of damage from piercing weapons as I recall--and the final meetup with Lareth, who was kind enough to take out Elmo for us.  For that we were very thankful.  In fact, when I look back on T1, to this day I think of Lareth not as a malignant disciple of evil but as one of those respectable bad guys who, under the circumstances, turned out to be a valued ally.

Meanwhile, our hatred for Elmo was so intense that we cheered when Lareth bashed his head in with his staff of striking; though we were equally glad that Elmo had, by then, relieved Lareth of the vast majority of his hit points, allowing us to parley a peaceful settlement.  Not satisfied with Elmo's death, his corpse was dismembered by the surviving party members and tossed into the swamp as frog food.  To add further insult, instead of returning his possessions to his grieving parents, they were parsed out amongst the party along with the rest of the treasure haul.  But, true to our word, we paid off our debt to the town and were feted as heroes of the realm before shuffling off to our next adventure; this was 1982 remember, we still had a few years to wait for the continuation of the T-series.   

At the time I remember being furious with Byron the DM for coercing us into such a chaotic scenario in town, but also a little ashamed that I was taking such pleasure in terrorizing the villagers with flaming arrows.  Byron loved this sort of mayhem and if the players went along with it, he would be happy and our mayhem-seeking would bring us prosperity and happiness.  If, on the other hand, we had refused to fight Elmo and/or the villagers, instead relying on our faith in a just humanity, I'm certain that within 30 minutes we would have been rolling up new characters as the corpses of our PCs swung from the gallows.  Instead, for the far more sinister crimes of mass murder, grand arson, and public mayhem, we were given a hefty but not insurmountable fine and sent off on an adventure.  I don't think we were conscious of it at the time--though we would come to be aware of this tactic in later years--but we were totally playing in a manner to placate Byron and therefore protect our characters.  And we had an incredibly fun outing--if a somewhat sociopathic one.

On hindsight, the whole thing turned out to be a pretty clever set up to get us to the moathouse that we otherwise knew nothing about and had no reason to visit--other than the usual "thar's gold in them hills" excuse.  But more importantly, by "forcing" us into such a chaotic flurry of morally ambiguous action while simultaneously killing off the only lawful member of our party (the paladin), the behavior of that  party was ever-after skewed toward chaos in a way that we could not have done intentionally.  Or perhaps I'm giving the DM too much credit; he was, after all, only 13.