Monday, September 19, 2011

Abjure This: Spell categories revisited

So the new guy in my group--who's also new to D&D (we're playing a mishmash of AD&D, Castles & Crusades and a bunch of house rules mostly poached from folks like you)--has been asking a lot of questions and poking a bit of fun at many of the oddities of the game that have, over the years, become invisible to me.  One topic he's getting mileage out of is all those parenthetical spell categories that are listed next to spell names in the Players Handbook, 1978 ed. (PHB).

Having long ignored these spell categories, the pejoratives of my new player have actually inspired me to go through the entire spell list for each class--clerics, druids, magic-users and illusionists--and count each occurrence of the 10 or so spell types (cue soundtrack).   Bear in mind that no explanation of the significance of these terms was given in the text of the PHB that I've found and, clearly, none is needed to play the game.  But, for my own sanity, I had to create some sense out of this stuff, and what follows is a summary of my analysis.  Any definitions or suggested re-categorizations provided are based on my own halfhearted research and should not be assumed to be sanctioned by any person or body affiliated with AD&D in any official capacity. 
  1. Alteration: These spells cause a  change in something that already exists.  Probably every spell could fall under the domain of "alteration" if you think too much about it.  But there are couple of obvious types of alteration such as Polymorph spells and Transmute Rock to Mud, which alter a person or object's physical form.  Then there are those Alterations that alter one's capacity to perform some action--Haste, Infravision, Fly, etc.  But after that, alteration devolves into the kitchen sink category including spells that involve moving things--like Levitate and Teleport--altering by relocation?--and such oddballs as Rope Trick, Magic Mouth and many, many, many more.  As if this scene weren't crowded enough, a bunch of spells that seem quite clearly to be evocations or conjurations are also lumped into the alteration group: Dancing Lights--which creates a fire or something that looks like one, making it either a phantasm or an evocation--and Create Food and Water--it's not called Alter Food and Water, right?--are prime examples.  As one might guess by the inclusiveness of this domain, this is by far the largest, representing 34% of all spells.
  2.  Conjuration/Summoning: These spells bring forth a being, object or force of some sort to do the bidding of the spell caster.  I would take it a step further and differeatiate between Conjurations and Summonings.  In my interpretation, a Summoning brings forth a being that already exists somewhere else, has its own life, and may have its own ideas about what's going to happen next.  Indeed, these ideas may be exactly why the being is summoned.  Conjurations, on the other hand, are created beings or forces that don't exist elsewhere until they are conjured.  Though they are capable of performing certain basic actions, they tend not to have much in the way of free will, instead requiring  direction from the spellcaster in order to take action, they're automatons.  Unseen Servant is a great example.  Conjurations might also be programmable objects which then require some third party input in order to take effect; the various Glyphs and Magic Mouth could be categorized as conjurations of this sort.  Spells which I believe are mislabeled as conjurations include Flame Arrow--neither flame nor arrows are actually conjured, rather, arrows touched by the spellcaster actually burst into flames--and Bless which gives your friends a to-hit bonus.
  3. Evocation: Like conjurations, these spells call stuff into being.  They differ from conjurations in that whatever is called forth generally gets told where to do its job and then does it without any further instruction.  These are either of the point-and-shoot instantaneous effect spells, or things that, once evoked, are relatively inert, such as the various Wall of- spells. The vast bulk of evocations are magic user spells and many of the classics fall into this category: fireball, lightning bolt, magic missile, web...  Druids and Clerics have only 4 and 3 evocation spells  respectively while Illusionists have no evocation spells at all, though we'll dwell on this matter more a bit later.  
  4. Invocation: There is only one spell--Spiritual Hammer--in this category.  It might have been an editorial oversight--the author may have decided to change the term to evocation since their meaning is nearly identical.  But there is a small difference in that, according to Webster,  an invocation often involves Holy assistance and, in support of that notion, the spell write-up for Spiritual Hammer specifically states that "by calling on his or her deity" the cleric creates a hammer-shaped head-bashing force.  If you go with this, it could be argued that all clerical evocations could be classified as  invocations.  Likewise druidic evocations also invoke the assistance of whatever nature spirits those tree-huggers worship.  Most/all of these evocations could even be recast as invocations with little harm done, which would then leave evocations as the purview of MUs.
  5. Illusion/Phantasm: You make stuff that isn't really there seem like it is.  Basically, you're conjuring sensory experiences.  The bread and butter of the illusionist class, 48% of spells available to illusionists are illusion/phantasms.  Significantly, Illusionists have no evocation spells.  I'm guessing this was by design to differentiate them from Magic users.  I think, given the many spells that  seem much closer, mechanically speaking, to evocations but have been labeled alterations, that the effort was a bit disingenuous. Such spells as Light and Darkness, I think, would be much more comfortable in the evocation camp than crammed into that boisterous beer garden over at alterations. Most incriminatingly, Wall of Fog, a first level illusionist spell, is classified as an alteration even though all the other Wall of- spells which are castable by non-illusionists fall under the evocation banner.  We need to accept that some of the spells available to Illusionists are evocations and get on with life.
  6. Abjuration: The word is defined as a renunciation or recanting, and spells of this sort are generally those that provide protection from something or that exorcise or purge things.  Dispel Magic and Protection from evil/good/insipid, etc. are abjurations as are some cure spells: Cure Blindness and Cure Disease, for instance: "Disease, I renounce thee!"  I would be inclined to include spells which provide resistance to certain things as partial abjurations though they're generally considered alterations in the PHB.  
  7. Divination: These spells are all about divining knowledge which one's senses are otherwise not privy to.  All detection, location,  and augury spells fall in this category.
  8. Enchantment/Charm: These are spells that screw with people's heads.  Charm Person, Command, and Hold Person, but also Sleep, Feeblemind, and, inexplicably, Pass without Trace are of this sort. 
  9. Necromantic: Usually associated with speaking with or raising the dead and other ghoulish black magix, this category is broadened to include spells which cause any revivification or restoration of bodily health, such as cure light wounds and heal, but also spells such as slow poison and feign death.  I've got no beef with lumping these spell into the same category, though it seems a little creepy to have your beneficial cure spells hanging in the baleful realm  of necromancy.
  10. Possession: Again we have a one-spell category; Magic Jar is the sole occupant. It is an exceptional spell, you're not just taking control of someone else's being--which would perhaps fall under enchantement--but your also stashing your own soul in a jar somewhere, an act which seems vaguely necromantic.  I see no need for one-spell categories, so I'd prefer to put it in one or the other and move on. 

    So these are the 10 existing spell categories as classified in the PHB.  As you've probably guessed, I'm not entirely satisfied with it.  In particular, Alterations are needlessly bloated covering a wide variety of spells that are not at all related, including many spells which are clearly evocations but that have been classified as Alterations solely to satisfy the unstated rule that Illusionists cannot cast Evocations.  I propose 2 Alteration subcategories:
    • Transmogrification: For a very long time I thought Calvin and/or Hobbes made up this word, and it's the perfect word to describe the Polymorph and Transmute type spells that alter the physical state or properties of an object or being.  
    • Augmentation/Diminution: When I first started out on this line of inquiry, I was absolutely certain that this already was one of the spell category names.  I was shocked to find out otherwise; it should have been. Was it in Unearthed Arcana maybe?  Anyway, augmentations are performance enhancing/diminishing spells, either improving ones capacity or granting one an ability to perform an action that is normally outside their realm.    Haste, Fly, Write, and others would fall in this category.  As the dual-name implies, they can diminish performance as well, such as in the case of Slow and its ilk.
    We also need a couple of new categories to cover those spells that involve moving people around instantaneously, screwing with time, and those that allow the spellcaster to exert control over some object or non-sentient force; enchantments for the inanimate, if you will.  So here, I propose two new classifications:
    • Peregrinations:  Please, please, please find me a better name!  These are spells that allow the spellcaster to transport him/herself and/or others instantaneously from one place to another via means of some kind of discontinuity in the space-time continuum.  It also includes spells which allow the caster to move through things which normally preclude such ambulation; those weird plant-traveling druid spells.  In the PHB, spells of this nature are, of course, generally considered Alterations.
    • Agitations:  Again, not a great name, I am accepting nominations for another.  This spell group encompasses spells that garner control over forces or inanimate objects.  Heat Metal, Trip, and Dig are all examples.  I might be open to moving this whole group to Enchantments since they do seem, essentially, to be enchantments that influence inanimate objects and non-sentient forces.  Some of these already do fall in the enchantment category in the PHB.
    Which concludes  this exercise in spell nomenclature and categorization.  In summary, I've ditched 2 one-spell categories, divided Alterations into two sub-categories, determined that Conjurations are mechanically more similar to Evocations than they are to Summonings, uncovered some Evocation obfuscation regarding Illusionist spells, and added 2 brand new categories.  That's enough tinkering for one day, eh?

    Now I know you're thinking, "Wow, this entirely objective, practical, non-tedious post is going to radically alter not only the way I play, but also the way I live life for the rest of eternity!  Thanks Dice-chucker."  So let me just say, you're welcome.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Back to the Moathouse: Lareth was a Paladin!

    I just finished reading the extensive comments section of The Underdark Gazette post re: T1 Village of Hommlet--you know,  the one where Scottsz of Cold Text Files fame went to town on T1 and its younger sibling, T1-4 Union of the Snake.  Inspired as always by Scottsz's obssessively thorough scholarship, I dug out my ancient, rusty-stapled copy of T1 and gave it a gander.  The following is based solely on The Village of Hommlet published in 1979, not the 1985 Temple of Elemental Evil, which I am not familiar with.  Or at least I wasn't before I read Scottsz's diatribe.

    Anyway, there I was reading along when there, on the final page, we get our first glimpse of Lareth.  I gather that he went on to greater infamy in the expanded Temple module published in 1985, but in the original, he was basically the scout leader of an organized troop of thugs who live under the moathouse outside of town.  A 5th level cleric with mostly bitchin' stats, Lareth is described variously as "the New Master," "The Beautiful," "well endowed" [yes, it says that] and "the dark hope of chaotic evil."  Did I mention that his stats are pretty awesome?  Have a look for yourself:

    S: 18
    I: 9
    W: 18
    D: 17
    C: 16
    Ch: 18

    I got to thinking; Cleric shmeric, with such awesome stats this dude would make a great paladin.  Check it out:  He's got the royal flush at Str, Dex, and Con; any fighter's wet dream.  And he's loaded with charisma, great for clerics trying to impress upon the devoted, but absolutely essential to Paladins.  In fact an 18 just barely clears the bar; 17, as you'll recall was the minimum.  Wisdom, of course, is essential to both clerics and paladins.  The big outlier--Intelligence--is conspicuous not just for being so much lower than the rest of Lareth's inflated ability scores but for being exactly as low as it is: 9 just happens to be the minimum Intelligence for Paladins.  Was it Gygax's intent to model Lareth after the paladin class?  The evidence is scant at this point, but the seed was planted.

    Now consider what Lareth is up to in the Hommlet vicinity: according to the text, he's recruiting "men and humanoid fighters to gather loot and restore the Temple to its former glory."  So he's creating an army of mercenaries, not converting true believers.  This sounds like a great job for an accomplished, charismatic--if not particularly bright--fighter; especially one who is as devoted to the cause as a paladin would be.  A slightly dim cleric sent to live in a hole in the ground under a swamp alongside 20-odd unwashed bandits, however, does not sound like someone on the fast-track to the top of a temple hierarchy.

    But here's the clincher: a sentence from the "Notes for the Dungeon Master" on page 3 where EGG explains that the module was developed to integrate new players into his existing Greyhawk campaign: "Many of the NPCs in the module are the characters and henchmen developed through play."  Elmo, Otis, and who knows how many others are more than likely based on the characters created by players from EGG's home game.  Could Lareth also be a legacy of that campaign?

    Now let's go back and pick the scab that is Lareth's low-ish Intelligence again.  If you were a player and were handed Lareth's ability scores and had the freedom to arrange them as you saw fit--as was prevalent in AD&D--wouldn't you choose to put the 9 on Intelligence too?  Normally the 3 dump stats for fighter-types were intelligence, wisdom and charisma.  Paladins of course have high pre-requisites in the Wisdom (13) and Charisma (17) categories, so they're out.  The only places an AD&D paladin can stash such a low ability score is intelligence, dexterity or constitution. No one wants a slow-ish or feeble-ish paladin, but a dumb-ish one, big whoop. So you fore-go a few extra languages in favor of missile and AC adjustments and a decent hit point bonus; anyone would have done this in a heartbeat.

    Now you're saying, "You said it yourself Caveman, Intelligence is useless in AD&D, so what's the big deal if Lareth is a lightweight in the brain-pan?" The big deal is that Int is useless to PCsThey get to decide how smart to play their character regardless of the number on their character sheet.  As long as your PC isn't utterly feebleminded, no DM is ever going to say "Dude, your character isn't smart enough to come up with that plan."  But Lareth is an NPC in a module, so his Int becomes a guideline for how the DM is going to run this guy.  Also, NPCs are not limited by dice rolls; if the DM wants to give Lareth a 9 Intelligence, he can do it just as easily as he can give him a 15 or a 6 or a 12-5/8.  So a 9 Int that, on a PC, would be slightly less prominent than a freckle on a werewolf's ass,  stands out like a sore thumb on an NPC.  Especially one such as Lareth, who has been described as "cunning." 

    Still not convinced?  How about this: there are two light warhorses and a lance in the store room of Lareth's hideout. Whose lance is it?  One of Lareth's men-at-arms, possibly.  But these dudes are brigands not knights.  So why, considering that there's no way a lance and warhorse are going to see any action in the cramped confines of the dungeon, would Gygax add such a throw-away item to the dungeon stores?   Maybe because it's Lareth's lance from his paladin days, left here as a hint to his past and a sly nod to the players of his original game.  EGG was quite prone to less subtle shout outs to his cronies, so why not?

    Now look at Lareth in this light: he's a character statted-up like a PC paladin who's doing the job of a soldier to benefit a temple hierarchy and he has a warhorse and lance on hand.  Alignment aside, this sounds like the definition of a paladin.  Too bad this particular temple espouses evil-most-foul; no paladins allowed.  But, in concocting T1, Gygax wants Lareth to retain not just bad-assedness as a tough guy but also his divine aspect as a servant to a greater force.  So he turns Lareth into a cleric; clerics are 2nd only to fighters in combat competence and armaments and up the ante with spell power.  Decked out in magic plate mail and a bitchin' staff of striking--one of the most potent melee weapons available to a cleric--Lareth is a pretty devastating opponent for a bunch of 1st level characters to handle head on.  Even more so than a paladin might be.

    Or, more interestingly,  perhaps Lareth the True was corrupted to the dark side in that original campaign.  Hear me out: we are informed that "Whomever harms Lareth had better not brag of it in the presence of one who will inform the Demoness Lolth!" 'Cuz a 10th level assassin will be sent to kill your ass!  Isn't that a somewhat extreme reaction for a potent demon to the loss of a capricious mid-level cleric of tepid intellect?  Does it sound more like the reaction of a demon who just lost something of personal value?  Like maybe a buff, young, "well endowed" boy toy?  Gygax seemed to pride himself on his openness to prurient themes in the game; is it not entirely conceivable that during that original campaign, on meeting the Demoness, Lareth succumbed to her feminine wiles, casting aside his vows in favor of the indulgent life of the darkside?  And once there, he became a favorite plaything of the Demoness?   I'm just sayin'...

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    Cthulhu News: The Whisperer in Darkness

    Have all the recent historic and unprecedented Vermont floods been a publicity stunt for the recent Lovecraft flick?

    EDIT: Oh man, that was supposed to say precedented.  Grumble.
    And now

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    More News from Restenford

    Ongoing updates from my Lendore dissertation.