Friday, September 28, 2012

Etymology of the word "crit"

So I just got the DCC RPG rulebook--I know, last one on the bandwagon yet again.  As you're probably already aware, they use the term "crit" to describe exceptional wounds sustained in combat; a fairly common convention amongst gamers.  Many of you probably believe the term comes from the term "critical hit."  While you shouldn't be mocked for this misunderstanding, the truth is far more sinister.

In fact "crit", as anyone who attended art or architecture school will tell you, is actually short for "critique"; an event wherein students present their work for comments from their elders; sounds harmless enough.  But, for those fortunate enough to have avoided the experience, a crit is actually a most unholy ritual which involves sequestering a group of initiates in a single room called a "studio" for several days (d6+1) and purging their souls and bodies via total sleep deprivation and a diet limited to the output of the nearest vending machine.

After the mind and body are thoroughly purged of any wholesome, life-sustaining elements, the initiate--incapable of meaningful communication and exuding a most offensive reek--is subjected to a protracted self-immolation involving forced pubic speaking before a jury of fashionably dressed sadists wearing angular spectacles.  Through a most thorough and malevolent analysis of the initiate, each member of the jury proceeds to verbally humiliate the prostrate student until catatonia sets in.  The process is repeated 1-3 times per semester for 3-5 years.  

Survivors of a crit are occasionally rewarded with free snacks.

What, pray tell, has any of this to do with the gushing axe wounds delivered to the necks of kobolds?  I'll tell you. 

Throughout the agonizing crit ritual initiates are prone to fantasies involving any number of ghastly bodily injuries they might sustain which would, hopefully, excuse them from completing the process.  It is these febrile imaginings which became the source of the first "crit tables" when, back in December of 1976, an aspiring architect at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who, in the midst of the 'cleansing' portion of the final--and most intense--crit of the semester, compiled a comprehensive list of these masochistic fantasies on a scrap of vellum.  When tending to said student, a young EMT saw the list on an adjacent drafting table and, intrigued by the heading which read "Crit Injuries," pilfered it.  Being an avid D&D player who was always looking for lists to randomize, he knew he'd struck gold.  He immediately put it to use in his Friday night gaming group, word got out and, after 30+ years of proliferation throughout the gaming community, DCC published a book laden with "crit" tables in silent homage to the suffering of design students everywhere.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

12 Irritating Magic Swords

I broke into the Dungeon Dozen's house last night and stole his his schtick.  I figure I've got maybe a day or two before he tracks me down, so here are 12 quirks for magic swords:

  1. Sword increases its density making itself too heavy to lift
  2. When it's annoyed, Sword goes inert, functioning only as a normal weapon
  3. Sword refuses to allow you to pick it up, scooting a few feet out of reach each time you reach for it
  4. Sword charms you into being its servant
  5. First chance it gets, Sword will jump into the hands of a better fighter
  6. Sword gets jealous of your other weapons; cuts your bow string when you're not looking
  7. Appalled at your chickenly methods, Sword yells out to enemies when you try to use stealth to gain surprise or circumvent combat; insults opponents when attempting to parley.
  8. When facing overwhelming odds, Sword refuses to leave the safety of its scabbard
  9. After its first taste of blood, Sword starts eyeballing your colleagues like they might be its next meal.
  10. Sword is pining for its old flame, the Rapier of Stabbiness.  Whenever you enter a new town, Sword coerces you into visiting armories, swordsmiths, and mercenary halls in search of news from its one true love.
  11. Sword insists on getting the final say; will always take the last blow of every combat, whether it's necessary or not
  12. Sword has a horrific case of halitosis.  Elves and other fey folk within 12' of you must save vs. nausea or vomit into their hats whenever Sword is drawn. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Moathouse Monday: Structural matters

A while back I was doing some excavation over at the moathouse for my revised T1-2 Moathouse of Hommlet/Sample Dungeon of Evil Chaos.  As my crew dug out the rubble and cleared the stairway down to the dungeon level, I began to notice that things didn't line up quite right.  For instance, the stairs at 13 run smack into the curtain wall.  And the doorway to the stairs at 8 opens not to the hallway where both the number and the arrangement of the risers would seem to indicate an opening should be but, rather, it opens to the side into room 6 at the mid point of the stairway, by which point the steps are presumably several feet above the floor level.

ABOVE: Curtain walls outlined in magenta, bailey walls in blue
Now we all know that, back in the day, the cartographers of TSR were gleefully insouciant when it came to practical considerations of underground construction, so none of us gave them any grief over these sorts of quirky inconsistencies of structure.  Yet, oddly, the Dungeon directly beneath the moathouse seems to be excessively concerned with structural matters, as manifested in the forest of big, fat, presumably load-bearing columns arranged throughout the level.  There is nary a span of ceiling greater than 20' that is fearless enough to refuse the support of one of these pillars.  And yet, once you descend to the sub-dungeon level, accessible via the secret doors in area 7 and 5, the columns are no more; even though this portion of the dungeon supports a vast and sodden fen on its roof.   

Intrigued by these subtle clues, I decided to pry a bit further to see what other oddities I might find. So I had my CAD guy draw the outline of the curtain walls and the exterior wall of the moathouse (above) and transpose them to the dungeon level below. 

BELOW: Moathouse outlines transposed onto dungeon level
First off, notice that the stairs don't match up.  The stairs from area 13 Above that butted into the wall have now turned completely around in area 1 Below; a much more sensible arrangement to be sure.  And the stairs in the wall of the tower of area 7 Above seem to drop you into the room below from the ceiling of the strangely enlarged area 7 of the dungeon level.  And I'm not even going to get into the wide staircase from the bailey up to the Black Chamber (6 Above).

Although it seems pretty obvious that the dungeon level was intended to fit snugly into the footprint of the moathouse, for some reason the 5 zombie cells in area 4 and Lubash's quarters in 7 have expanded outward.  Why is that?  Could it be because Gygax wanted to make the secret door hidden in the south column of the torture chamber (5) that much harder to find?

Hear me out: If the columns in area 5 were the first columns encountered in the whole place, it wouldn't take an elf to smell something fishy; every old school gamer worth his beard would know something was up and spend the next several rounds/turns/days looking for traps, secret doors and lost lunch money around those pillars; resorting to mining operations if such were necessary.  So he made sure that PCs approaching from either access point to the dungeon level would already be inured to the presence of structural columns; pillars went up roughly every 20' through the level and what once stood out like a sore thumb became just one more finger in a pair of ordinary-looking gloves.

But pillars would look pretty suspicious in a 30' x 30' room (7) and downright tacky in a 10' wide corridor, so in order to accommodate these structural elements in an inconspicuous way, the dungeon engineer expanded  room 7 Below to a 40' x 40' square and widened the zombie corridor to a voluminous 20'  wide hallway at area 4.  The result: a much more pleasing pillar arrangement, but the curtain walls have been undercut and the zombie cells protrude out into the bailey. But, thankfully, fantasy adventure gamers are not too particular about these sorts of things, and no one ever noticed. 

Also of note: the east wing of the dungeon level does not extend all the way to the south curtain wall.  Too bad, because if it had gone that extra 10', there would have been exactly enough room for a sixth zombie cell to accommodate the last, homeless pair of zombies from area 4.  For those not in the know, the encounter at area 4 involves 12 zombies who are lurking in pairs in the chambers off the west side of the corridor.  Of course, anyone familiar with basic arithmetic will quickly notice that there are only enough cells for 10 zombies so arranged.  Some bloggers have taken this misstep and extrapolated vast and exaggerated conspiracy theories regarding the provenance of the V. of H. and other Gygax-penned dungeons, but we shan't deign to acknowledge those wingnuts here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Interview with a D&D Neophyte: Part I

I've finally gotten my hands on a copy of Moldvay's much vaunted Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons and I see that it was published in January 1981, just a few weeks after a friend of mine received the Holmes Blue Book for Christmas. I wonder, on hindsight, if the Moldvay book had come out a month earlier, would I have been deprived of my Holmesian roots?

Anyway, I decided to writeup yet another Holmes vs. Moldvay comparison, except this one will be different because I'm handing the Moldvay book to an 11 year old kid who's new to gaming: Me in 1981. To do this, I had to go 31 years into the past and 3,000 miles across the country.  Eleven year-old-Me agreed to meet up at the pizza place in town after school on a Wednesday in mid-February, six weeks into his/my gaming career.
Another Holmes-Moldvay comparison?  Gee thanks Caveman.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the old pizza joint--which is still in operation, I hear--was the complete lack of video games in the place.  This would change by the end of the summer, when Space Invaders showed up and ushered in the video game age to this backwater burg in the hinterlands.

The second thing I noticed: 2 slices and a can of soda for $1.25!  I order some slices and a Mountain Dew and sit down to wait for 1981-Me to show up.

He walks in the door wearing a bulky winter coat and blue jeans that reach almost all the way down to his tattered sneakers.  Jeez, was I really that goofy looking?  He spots me right away and the look on his face tells me that he's thinking something similar.  He comes over and sits down.

1981 Me: Glasses, eh?
2012 Me: You had to have seen that coming; you're already squinting your way through class in 6th grade.
1981: yeah, but I hoped they'd have cured bad eyesight by then.
2012: they sort of did; but there's surgery involved.
1981: What about contact lenses?
2012: Yeah, you'll use those for a while in your 20s, but mainly they're too much of a pain in the ass for... us.
1981: No Silver jumpsuit?  Rocket pack?
2012: I left them at home.  Seriously though, computers and telephones are the only thing that changed all that much.
1981: [has clearly lost interest and is eyeballing my pizza]
2012: Oh, would you care for some?

[junior me nods vaguely, though I know he's vigorously disguising any sense of enthusiasm; I recall being permanently hungry in the 1980s--and the bulk of the 90s as well--so I give him my slices]

2012: So can I ask you a few questions about D&D?

1981: Ok.

2012: What dungeons have you been through so far?

1981: Uh... we played the dungeon from the book [Tower of Zenopus] on the Sunday after Christmas.  Then we went through Dave's orc dungeon.  That was on Eddy's birthday (Eddy is our older brother, he's just turned 14 in 1981).   Then I took Jessie through the spaceship dungeon.  [Jessie is our little sister, and, like gaming sisters everywhere, she showed little interest in RPGs though occasionally she was good-natured enough to humor her brothers when they needed an extra player.  The spaceship dungeon was my first ever dungeon, penned just hours after meeting Holmes.]

2012: You haven't gone through the Keep on the Borderland yet?

1981: The what?

2012: You know, that purple dungeon Kevin has? [Kevin was the neighbor kid who got the Holmes set for Christmas that year]

1981: Naw, he's working on some Demon thing for our next dungeon. 

2012: [snickering] That'll be awesome when it's done.  [As long as I knew him, Kevin was always tinkering away on a cleverly crafted Demon-infested megadungeon--though we didn't use that term back then--that no one ever set foot in].  Anyway, I'm writing up a comparison of the Blue Book that you guys are using and the red book that just came out [i.e. the Moldvay book, published in January of 1981].  That's the one I sent you in the mail last week.  Have you had a chance to read it?

(nods as he pulls the copy I sent him out of his olive green canvas backpack)

2012: What did you think?

Long Pause as he looks at the book.  Jesus, when do kids learn to speak?  this is getting painful.

2012: What about the art on the cover, which do you like better?  I know it's fantasy art so it's a new genre for you after all the Star Wars stuff you've been into.

1981: Are you kidding?  Have you seen all those black light posters at Spencer's Gifts?  And the Molly Hatchet Album covers?  And van murals??  I'm living at the apex of bad-ass fantasy art.  If I saw a poster with either of these book covers on it, no way would I hang that crap on my wall.

2012: Touche.  But which do you prefer?

1981: Well, this red one has that hot babe with the boobs, but I don't really like the way it's drawn. [I felt a certain degree of disdain for Erol Otus's work back in the 80s]  I like the dragon on the other one, really makes you feel like you're facing that dude and he's going to roast you and your magic-user friend alive.  And look at all that fuckin' treasure!

2012: Did I really say "fuckin" when I was your age?

1981: No, I'm still working my nerve up to say "shit" at this point, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to try it out on you.  Since you're me.

2012: Fair enough.  [Opening the cover] What about the introduction?

1981: Why would I read that?

[I smile, cuz, yeah, I still can't be bothered to read that kind of stuff.  I don't tell him that we'll be diagnosed with ADD when we're 26.]

2012: What about the instructions for making a character?

1981: Well, this one [Moldvay] makes the abilities seem more useful.  With the blue book, I didn't really understand what they were there for except for us all to brag about who has a higher constitution, whatever that is.  And I never really understood the difference between hit points and hit dice, so that part was helpful.  But what happened to alignment?  Why can't I be chaotic good anymore?  I don't want to just be Chaotic, I don't even know what that means.

2012: I don't think anyone has a good answer to that one.  How about the Equipment list?

1981: You can't buy helmets anymore, that sucks.  Or a silver mirror, small boat, or a horse.  Do people not travel anymore in this game?  And now they make thieves buy thieves tools; wouldn't they just steal them?  That seems like it would be the first requirement to graduate from thief school.

2012: You're preaching to the choir, kid.

[At this point, my cell phone rang--my wife asking about dinner plans. 1981 Me was very impressed with my piece-o-crap Nokia un-smart phone, though I'm starting to wonder what sort of mayhem I've unleashed by introducing this technology to an 11-year-old kid in 1981.  I guess I'll see when I get back home tonight]

I need to break up this post anyway, so I think we'll take a moment here for station identification.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Crayfish and Abbots: More Fodder in the case of the Sample Dungeon vs. Hommlet

Back when I did my big DMG Sample Dungeon vs. T1 comparison last winter, I did not look very closely at the Giant Crayfish encounter in room 13 of the Dungeon level of the Moathouse.  Perhaps because I considered the crayfish encounter to be a monster encounter, I never made a connection between it and the water room in the Sample Dungeon, even though both feature... water.  But on closer inspection, there does seem to be something of note going on.  Not with monsters, obviously, as there is no evidence of a giant crustacean loitering around the abbot's old bones, [EDIT: Actually, there are crayfish hanging out near the abbot's bones, check this out from the description of the pool: "There are a score or so of small, white blind fish in it, and under the rocks are some cave crayfish, similarly blind and white.  Thanks to my fact checker over at Zenopus Archives for catching this one.] but check out the treasure description for each encounter:

"The limed-over skeleton of the abbot is in the pool of water... If the remains are disturbed in any way, a cylindrical object will be noticed, the thing being dislodged from where it lay by the skeleton, and the current of the stream carrying it south at 6" speed.  To retrieve it, a character must be in the stream and score "to hit" as if it were AC 4 in order to catch it. It is a watertight ivory tube with a bone map of the whole level inside."
"in the water on a ledge is a platinum pin set with a ruby (2,000 g.p. value) and a bone tube. The pin is under a skull (human) and the the tube under some bones.  Unless searchers use their hands, their is a 50% chance that either or both treasures will slip off the ledge and be lost below.  The tube is water-tight and contains a scroll of magic user spells (push, stinking cloud, fly)"

Sure, one's an MU scroll and one's  a map, but c'mon, two watertight scroll tubes hidden amidst bones with a chance of dislodging and losing said item to the PC's eternal dismay?!  It should be noted that in monastery, the moving scroll tube has only about 10-20' of stream to go before it flows through the outlet tunnel at the south end of the room and is lost forever.

Also of note: the ruby pin under the human skull, though much more valuable, is somewhat reminiscent of the garnet in the goblin skull in room 1 of the Sample Dungeon.  Red gemstones hidden in skulls; what would Freud say about that? 

To be sure, this is not jaw-dropping evidence that these two dungeons are derived from a similar progenitor.  But, given the vast amount of other forensic evidence, it certainly enhances the argument.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Hommlet Session 1 conclusion: The Grim Reaper loiters at the Moathouse

This post was scheduled to go live back in January.  For some reason it never did, and I never corrected the matter, though I must have noticed it at the time.  It's a bit dated now, but here it is nonetheless:

Readers may recall what went down when the gang took on the murderous frogs of Emridy a while back.  As a refresher for those who don't care to go there, the party consists of 3 PCs: Ahmad the Prestidigitator, Ponce the Paladin, and Jerry the Rogue(Apprentice), as well as several of the stock NPCs recruited from Hommlet: Elmo the Ranger, Kobort the Dimwit, Furnok the Thief, and Zert the Warrior.  Spugnoir the Second Level MU had already met his end against the frogs outside the gate earlier in the same session.  Before we go any further, I should make you aware of a few changes I've made to the moathouse:
  • the 3 crossbow-wielding brigands in room 7 have upgraded to short bows.
  • I've added an undercroft level between the main floor of the moathouse and the dungeon level.  The undercroft is accessible directly from the bailey of the moathouse via two large, vacant doorways which lead to a stable located to the right of the gate.  I innocently threw some skeletons in there for good measure. 
A crappy photo of my incomplete moathouse revisions
I did not at all foresee that these two seemingly innocuous changes would create a death trap that would leave half the party dead.

Once inside the gates of the moathouse, the players saw the opening to the stable and headed straight for it.  As soon as the entire party was in the open, the Brigand archers opened up on them from the arrow slits on the north side of the bailey, taking out Ponce the Paladin and causing the rest to run for cover in the stables... where 7 undead skeletons rose out of the rubble.  Jerry the Rogue (apprentice) soon met his end at the blade of a skeleton sword; two PC deaths in just 3 rounds.  But that was not the end of the Reaper's day; while the party was still engaged with the skeletons, a few of the brigands snuck down to the bailey and launched spears and javelins into the players' backs before bolting back to cover.  Their surprise attack inadvertently did the party the favor of taking out Zert, who is actually an evil agent of the Temple, but at that moment they really needed his sword against those skeletons.

No matter, they managed to eliminate the rest of the skeletons without any more fatalities; thanks almost entirely to the mighty axe of Elmo and sword of Kobort.  And Ahmad the Prestidigitator's uncanny hit point total (7) came in handy as well.

Including the death of Spugnoir at the end of the previous session, the party had been reduced to half of their original number in only a few minutes of game time.  And they were pinned down in the stables; the only door out--other than the open entrance from the bailey--was barricaded and Elmo and Kobort, despite all their 18 so-and-so strengths, blew their chance to open it.

But those two, at least, were still unscathed and, convinced that the brigands must not be too tough, they took it upon themselves to storm the entrance to the moathouse counting on nothing more than their insurmountable ACs, exorbitant Strengths, and excessive hit points to carry the day. Pretty brave, huh?

Under fire from the arrow loops and facing polearmed brigands blocking the doorways at the top of the stairs, our heroes fought there way into the "Black Chamber" where they were outnumbered 4 to 1.  Elmo was surprisingly inept with the dice on this day; he was stymied for several rounds by the halberd-wielding brigand at the door, all the while taking arrow fire from the adjacent arrow slits.  But he finally disarmed the halberdier and moved to the aid of the ailing Kobort who, thanks to his adroitness at dispatching the pole-armed bandit that stood in his way, had been taking on the rest of the bandits on his own--including the bandit leader with whom he'd been trading blows while two others marauded his flanks.

Once inside, Elmo succeeded in drawing the attention of a few of Kobort's assailants but soon found himself surrounded as reinforcements arrived from adjacent rooms.  Though any hit from Elmo's axe meant a death sentence for the brigands, he managed to take out only 3 of them over many rounds of fighting.

Furnok the thief--excuse me, the Ferd--arrived just in time to take on one of the archers who had just arrived from the arrow loops in the adjacent room and at last Kobort bested the Brigand leader in the war of attrition they'd been waging, and the rest of the brigands took to their heels and fled through their escape hole in the tower.  The boys were worn out and lacking in missile weapons, so they made no effort to pursue the fleeing brigands through the swamp. They gathered their dead and cleared out before dark with only a few coins purloined from the 4 brigand corpses to show for their losses.  It was with more than a little shame that the depleted party straggled back into town later that evening with barely enough cash to pay for funeral arrangements for the fallen.

Unbeknownst to the party, the surviving brigands returned to the moathouse later that night and dug up their treasure stash in the rubble before fleeing the scene for good.