King Arthur Pendragon

Friday, March 30, 2012

Impressions: B2 - Keep on the Borderlands

As I walk the old school path, I have to decide where to begin. I have made myself promise that I would only run modules I have access to. Since I visit Ebay often and I am a collector of sorts, I have a great deal of AD&D modules, even if I hadn't decided to play them at the time. After we wrapped up our last session, which I still have to write a report about, I decided to use an old classic: B2 - Keep on the Borderlands. I have read a lot of opinions and reviews about this module so I won't repeat them here. You can easily check them with a Google search. This article is merely my impressions about the module and how I intend to use it with nary a spoiler since my players may also lurk here.

The Keep on the Borderlands was written by Gary Gygax as an introductory adventure for the Holmes edition of D&D, I think. The setting is a keep on a distant frontier against the forces of chaos and the immediate area around it. The first thing that I immediately noticed was that there is no plot whatsoever. None. Gygax merely describes the adventure's eponymous keep in glorious detail. Every building and NPC is accounted for although he does not details names or physical and personality traits. People are merely described as the Castellan, the Captain of the Watch, the Innkeeper, etc. Buildings are provided with a little more detail, just enough so the DM knows where everything is and what the characters may expect to find inside. Then, Gygax describes the surrounding area and especially The Caves of Chaos.

The area around the keep is described in broad strokes, visually supported by the accompanying map, which highlights special encounter areas. This means the characters can wander as much as they like within the geographical boundaries of the module (i.e. until they reach the borders of the map). Gygax suggests rather conservative movement rates, but those can be altered, since I am using D&D movement rates. I don't want to spoil this part to my players so I won't tell how much it takes to reach the Caverns of Chaos. Each wilderness encounter is also detailed in the book with just enough detail so the DM can customize them.

The last section details the Caves of Chaos. Every room, nook and cranny, inhabitant and trap is account for. There are suggestions on why all these strange creatures are living together and how they react to incursions from outsiders. Again, these are all suggestions and no overall plot whatsoever is overlaid on the module. I can see why others may find this a weakness since it effectively forces the DM to be creative and come up with reasons for this and that. To me, this is a strong point. I can do whatever I want with this module: shape the story, have the players shape the story and create a plot during the game, not before to the game. Sometimes the best ideas are provided by the players and all too often I have discarded plots I have created when the players come up with something better during the game. I will sketch a few ideas but that's about it.

As a module, this is quite good, in my opinion anyway. It's not as "realistic" as T1 - The Village of Hommlet, another Gygax introductory module, where everything fits naturally into the surrounding area and the village has a logic organization. It's a mini-sandbox where the characters can wander at leisure, both outside and inside the Caves of Chaos. I can even create additional encounters in the area and additional quests for the group to further customize the plot. There is even a hint of another dungeon - Caves of the Unknown - although I won't use that. I'm already planning a tie-in with another great module: The Caverns of Thracia. I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

Since the module was first published in 1979, it is not tied to any specific setting. The descriptions tell only of the Realm of Man and the areas of chaos around it. There are no names. So I decided to set this module in Greyhawk, more specifically on the border between the Principality of Ulek and Pomarj, which is riddled with humanoid creatures that constantly raid the neighoring areas. I am already preparing to tie all my adventures to Greyhawk and make the final leap to AD&D. I can't stress enough how excited I am to tread a path so often tread by others and, hopefully, create memorable adventures for my players.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Literature: Designers and Dragons

It's not a literary work but it's not a gaming product either. Sometime ago, a friend of mine lent me a copy of this Designers and Dragons, by Shannon Appelcline, spanning the entire story of our hobby with occasional incursions into wargamming and boardgames. There is no other way to put it: it's a monumental work. The book is a 400-page thick volume, covering the most influent companies that helped shape roleplaying games from the early days to today. It begins, quite naturally, with TSR: how D&D evolved from Chainmail; how Gygax and friends managed their business in the 70s; the company's evolution throughout the 80s and 90s. It is a very complete account, and this is only one of the many companies this book covers.

The book is divided in time periods, even if a company's history extends throughout several time periods. For instance, the first wave, which begins in 1970, includes those companies that first appeared on the scene and set the foundations for later companies, such as TSR, Judges Guild, GDW, Games Workshop or Flying Buffalo. The second wave includes those companies that were most influential to the hobby in the 80s but among them is Avalon Hill, founded in 1958. This organization is very clear and helps relate which company did what in what period, and how it contributed to roleplaying games.

A recurrent pattern I noticed in most these accounts is the meteoric rise of a company, then a period of financial difficulties and, later, the fall. Either the company is sold (like TSR) or just dissolved (like Judges Guild). Others, like Steve Jackson, turn to more profitable products. Others still, linger in a sort of limbo, trying to recover from bad decisions and other missteps, such as Palladium.

My interest on this book was partly derived by my interest in knowing the history of those companies that contributed to my gaming career, and whose games I played the most - Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu), ICE (MERP), West End Games (Star Wars, Torg), Pinnacle (Savage Worlds, Deadlands) and a few others - but also because of my recent interest in old school companies, as pertains to this blog.

There aren't enough words of praise for this work. Whether you read it wholesale or pick and read only those companies that interest you most, there's something here that everyone will find interesting. As I said, this is a monumental work, and I can only imagine how many hours of research and lengthy interviews were involved in creating this book. Kudos to Shannon. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Politically Incorrect

Reading carefully the AD&D rulebook (1st edition), I could not fail to notice that Gygax imposes a maximum limit to Strength for female characters. It's a quirky little rule, politically incorrect nowadays (God forbid should we decide to limit attributes based in gender), but I think it speaks well of Gygax's influences in writing the game. Mind you, this is only my interpretation and, as such, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

The only attribute where this male/female distinction is applied is Strength as reproduced in the table below:

Taking this into consideration, this means that most males will have a higher probability of hitting and do more damage than their female counterparts. Even in the case of dwarfs and half-elves, where it is only a 1-point difference, it means that, even though females will have the same bonus to hit (+1), they will do, in average, one less point of damage (+1) than males of the same species (+2). In the case of gnomes and halflings, this difference is even more pronounced, with females not having any type of bonuses. Another consideration is that, females are precluded from ever reaching the mythical range of 18 in Strength which gives access to the higher ranks of strength (18/01-50 and so on).

So far as I know, this is the only edition that limits characters based on gender. And my interpretation is that it reveals much about the genre which influenced AD&D from the get-go: Swords & Sorcery. Women were always weaker than men, a thing of beauty and frailty to be protected and coveted, and also a source of temptation and villainy in the form of evil sorceresses. Only rarely do women assume a more warlike stance (BĂȘlit, from Queen of the Black Coast, being one) and stand shoulder to shoulder with the male protagonist. Another side effect is that it may push female characters into roles other than Fighter, since not many players like to being imposed limits and current sensibilities tend toward a more balanced approach from the gender point of view. Ironically, this limit only applies to demi-humans. Human females can be as strong as human males, which contradicts the swords & sorcery view, or may be not. Perhaps someone else can provide some insight.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Lure of the Dungeon

Steve Winter, who was involved with D&D since its early days, wrote an interesting article at the Howling Tower. I agree with this article. Dungeons are one of the most controllable environments from the DM point of view. The players can't wander off-map as there are physical boundaries and each room is quite clearly filled with challenges and monsters that won't change from session to session (well, they can but that's another story). If you take a look at the very first modules published by TSR (In Search of the Unknown, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Steading of the Hill Giant Rift and so forth), you notice that they were all originally designed as tournament modules for GenCon. Thus, they had to be manageable and limited in scope given the limited time of the event.

I am also a firm adherent of the notion that the word "dungeon", with a strong association with underground places, can also be applied to other locales like castles, forests, ruins, buildings, etc. In this case, the word itself goes beyond its pure semantics and becomes an umbrella term for every constricted place that allows the players to interact with the environment during their adventures. I will relay my thoughts on this subject on a future post. For now, enjoy the article.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Multiclassing in AD&D

One of the things that tends to happen as times goes by and new editions of the same game are published is that we forget quirky, older rules and how they actually worked. One of those rules is multiclassing. In D&D 3.0 and later editions, multiclassing was possible every time a character leveled up. At that point, he could choose whether to remain in his current class or change to a new class. Furthermore, there were no impositions on which classes he could change to, except the favored class rule which was as arbitrary as any other rule I have seen, forcing an experience point penalty if none of the characters were your favored. Not so in older editions and here I'm strictly speaking of AD&D 1st and 2nd editions.

In those games, multiclassing had to be a demi-human and choose to be multiclass during character creation. He could not start with just one class and choose to multiclass later. The list describing which classes could be combined was limited, too. For instance, an elf could only multiclass as Fighter/Mage; Fighter/Thief; Mage/Thief and Fighter/Mage/Thief. Humans, on the other hand, could be dual class but the limitations imposed were even higher, with certain minimum attribute values of the class he wanted to change to. An additional factor was that all experience gained was equally divided by the number of classes the character had, which meant his progress was slower than other characters.

As I continue my journey of discovery (or rediscovery in the case of AD&D 2nd edition), I constantly run into these quirky little rules that I had completely forgotten. And they work really well in the context of gaming. One of my players was always ecstactic when we played Dark Sun and he could be an elf mage/fighter/cleric/psionicist, which was a special combination only available in Athas. This would impose a greater burden on him since he had to effectively level four classes at the same time, spreading experience by four, but it was great fun as he began playing four different classes with four different sets of powers. And this, more than anything else, more than made up for any disadvantages that multiclassing could bring to the table. In the long run, an elf could reach level 12 as a mage and level 15 as a fighter (if multiclassing Mage/Fighter) whereas a D&D 3.0 could only reach level 10 in both classes.

On a more personal note, I love these tidbits. Though, according to current standards, a player may be forced "to work" harder to level his character. Then again, with each succeeding edition, there is a tendency to apply changes in the name of fun and playability. In AD&D 2nd edition, which was the one I played most, I can't think of a single moment when the rules got in the way of fun.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Literature: The Conan Chronicles – Volume 1

I only began reading swords & sorcery material a few years ago. Opinions diverge about what exactly constitutes this particular genre of literature but Fritz Lieber said it best:

"I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!" (Fritz Leiber, Amra, July 1961)

Until a few years back, my knowledge of Conan, the barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard, was limited to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1981) and the occasional pop culture allusion. Regardless of the opinion of some, I consider this movie one of the best adaptations of Howard's stories, though it does not adapt a specific tale. Strange as it may seem, I began readin the Conan tales when I came into contact with the Solomon Kane stories. To me, Howard's writing was primeval, energetic and full of spirit. It piqued my curiosity and encouraged me to find out about his most famous character. A friend of mine lent me the Conan Chronicles: Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle, a collection of stories, sorted by chronological order regarding Conan's timeline, not by publishing date. In the first story, Howard describes a 17-year old Conan thus:

"A touch on his tunic sleeve made him turn his head, scowling at the interruption. He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him. This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters. His cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist and heavy arms. His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering; a shock of tousled black hair crowned his broad forehead. From his girdle hung a sword in a worn leather scabbard."

These are excellent stories, told in a style that is very Howardian. They tells us of a primitive world so long ago, but so familiar to us that we cannot but believe it exists. This is powerful stuff. Howard conjures images like no other author and draws us into these tales of violence and sex from the very first page. Who can forget Arnold tied to the tree of woe, inspired by this passage in A Witch Shall be Born:

"By the side of the caravan road a heavy cross had been planted, and on this grim tree a man hung, nailed there by iron spikes through his hands and feet. Naked but for a loin-cloth, the man was almost a giant in stature, and his muscles stood out in thick corded ridges on limbs and body, which the sun had long ago burned brown. The perspiration of agony beaded his face and his mighty breast, but from under the tangled black mane that fell over his low, broad forehead, his blue eyes blazed with an unquenched fire. Blood oozed sluggishly from the lacerations in his hands and feet."

Earlier stories show very strong Mythos elements, not surprisingly, considering Howard corresponded regularly with H.P. Lovecraft. Another common misconception, much to do with the Arnold movie, is the depiction of Conan as the silent and brute type. This couldn't be farther from the truth. In Howard's stories, Conan is articulate and a philosopher, even. He frequently dons a chainmail and a shield. His "barbarian" typecasting is imposed by the more civilized nations where Cimmeria is a far away land, little known to these people and, therefore, the stuff of many a rumor and legend. In Queen of the Black Coast, Conan philosophizes a bit about his life:

"He shrugged his shoulders. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

These tales represent Howard at his best and most known. They set all the elements we associate with swords & sorcery: beautiful, alluring women; evil wizards; sword-wielding warriors; and strange, lost ruins with horrors lurking in the shadows. As much as I enjoy reading Fritz Lieber or Michael Moorcock, Howard is still my favorite swords & sorcery author. Highly recommended.

Are Kobolds... Dogs?

One odd thing I noticed, that was already discussed at length in several forums, is that kobolds are depicted as dog-like creatures of small stature in the B/X rules. This same description is carried to the Mentzer basic set. However, the Monster Manual published in 1977 is somewhat different. Here's the complete description:

"The hide of kobolds runs from very dark rusty brown to a rusty black. They have no hair. Their eyes are reddish and their small horns are tan to white."

This suggests a demonic imagery of sorts. I don't know if this was intentional or the result of some other editorial decision, but it further set apart the two game lines: D&D and AD&D, although, truth be told, the Monster Manual is completely compatible with the former rules.

Monday, March 19, 2012

To Retro-Clone or Not Retro-Clone

One of the major stumbling blocks to playing D&D online using the old books is that they are all out of print and, therefore, not everyone has access to them. I have because I am a collector at heart and don't mind scouring Ebay and other sites, looking for another piece of memorabilia to add to my collection. However, I cannot demand the same from my players in order to play the game. Playing face to face is easier in that we would only need one copy of the books to pass them along, but online it's another story. I also cannot encourage my players to seek out scans or pdf files of these books and download them. This would be tantamount to piracy. However, another solution presents itself: the retro-clones.

Retro-clones are rule systems that try to emulate the feeling and play style of the old school D&D and AD&D. They were made possible when WotC published their Open Gaming License (OGL), which allowed many third-party publishers to modify, copy and redistribute many of the original rules. This led to the creation of several retro-clone systems from 2000 to this day. I have checked a few and some are even available online for free from their respective publishers. This post is not about all the retro-clones that exist but only the ones that caught my eye.

Using a retro-clone system would effectively allow us to continue playing our game as before even if not everyone has access to out of print material. That's why the retro-clones exist: so that current gamers can experience old school play style, not being forced to pay sometimes exhorbitant prices for the old books. I have come to appreciate Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games. Already there are two books published for this line: the first emulates the B/X sets and the second allows to play AD&D 1st ed. style. I've checked them, they're quite good and 100% compatible with the old modules with no conversions required. Another option is OSRIC which is a considerably larger book, also available for free, that emulares AD&D 1st ed.

At this point, I think this is the way to go. As I said, I could not demand from my players the same willingness to go out and buy the old books when something free is available online that allows the same play experience. This is the next best thing. I'll continue to expand my collection which already includes the likes of Keep on the Borderlands and Temple of Elemental Evil so we have no shortage of adventures to play in the near future.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Creature Spotlight: The Mind Flayer

Their first appearance in issue 1 of Strategic Review (1975) is little more than a physical description with accompanying powers, but the imagery is powerfully influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos. This is what makes this creature so appealing to me. Gygax revealed in an interview that he was influenced by the cover of Brian Lumley's The Burrowers Beneath, which shows a Cthonian bursting from underground. I could never shake off the impression that Cthulhu played a big part in its creation, even if unconsciously. The mind flayer's head is suspiciously similar to that Lovecraftian creature.

Given my love for Lovecraft's stories, it's no small wonder, then, that this creature should resonate so powerfully with me. In the AD&D Monster Manual 1st ed., Gygax expands on the creatures and there's a hint of ecology but with lots of room for adaptation and improvement. I always envision mind flayers as a sort of pre-historic creature that dwells in impossibly ancient ruins and underground, whose empire existed long ago but is no more. They scheme and weave plots to corrupt the surface races much like Robert E. Howard's serpent people. It's almost as easy to make them an extra-dimensional race or people from the stars that were trapped in the fantasy world wherein the adventures live.

What is your favorite D&D / AD&D creature and why? It can be a description, its powers or even its name. How did you use them in your campaigns? Where they a major plot element or just another foe to be vanquished?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Ruins of Castle Gygar - Part 2

This is part two because we already played part one and I did not wrote an entry about it. Anywa, we had a great time last night. Argentea, the thief; Valerius, the fighter; Titus, the magic-user; and Edralas, the elf, braved the ruins of Castle Gygar a few miles north of a town (not yet named for the purposes of this adventure, but set in the Known World). I am running this campaign on Skype, using Map Tool, for all our mapping needs, and Viewing Dale Dice, which allows everyone to see everyone's roll online. Some minor problems aside, everything ran as smooth as possible.

The group decided who would be the mapper, the person responsible for mapping the dungeon according to the DM's descriptions, and the caller, the person who organizes all interactions between the players and the DM. I began the adventure using the small intro adventure from the Mentzer basic set, but it is not very good, in my opinion, so I just tossed it and picked the small dungeon from the Moldvay rulebook and ran with it.

The group entered the ruined tower and explored the first few rooms. Mapping and moving the "miniatures" really helped everyone visualize their positions. This is what the map looked like at the end of the adventure (session).

After exploring the first few rooms, one of which contained a strange statue of a beautiful woman submerged in a pool formed when the floor collapsed, they were attacked by a green slime. Fortunately, they had been very careful in exploring the room, so the creature did not surprise them. It also moved very slowly. When they realized normal weapons were useless, they tried flames, which worked. Alas, the thing managed to attack poor Titus and stick itself around his arm. Torches were needed to kill it, but the magic-user also suffered some damage. After washing his arm in the pool of water (mechanically irrelevant but a small bit of nice roleplaying, I think), they proceeded, until the Argentea heard some low, gutural voices, and much snoring, coming from a closed door. As the door was not locked, the group designed a plan: Valerius proposed that they charged into the room and attacked everything in sight. Everyone agreed.

Valerius kicked the door and charged inside, followed by his companions. They were confronted by 2 goblins that were standing on guard and 10 goblins that were sleeping, but promptly woke up and grabbed their weapons. This was one of those "ooops" moments that got everyone laughing. One of the advantages of using the system is that combat is very fast. A fight between 4 PCs and 12 NPCs took less than 10 minutes. Players described their attacks and reactions, leading to a very visually rich encounter. In the end, they were forced to retreat the room, which was a barracks of sorts. Outside, Edralas cast his Sleep spell, affecting 7 of the 11 goblins (one had been killed by Titus wielding a dagger). The rest of the creatures panicked and fled.

Ironically, the dice were not kind to the players. There were a lot of misses and when they struck home, the damage was very low. Only Titus, the puny magic-user, whose only spell is Read Magic, killed one goblin and was doing significant damage. Everyone joked that they should return to town and demand that the weapons master returned their money. As the last goblins fled, another dungeon door opened behind. As the group was low on hit points, they jumped inside the goblin room and barricaded themselves inside, thus ending our session with a cliff-hanger.

It was a very entertaining session. I keep reminding everyone that I'm still not using all the rules (wandering monsters, for instance) to ease those who never played D&D into the game. I also don't name the creatures. I just describe them and let the players draw their own conclusions. Minor Skype problems aside, everyone had a great time. I also had a great time and most of all, it's amazing how logistically easy is to run combat, since stat blocks are a line at most. Even though this is just a tutorial of sorts, with little of Karameikos thrown in, we'll turn into high gear after we end this adventure, which should be next session. After that, I plan on running a classic: B2 - Keep on the Borderlands.

Friday, March 16, 2012

X2 - Castle Amber Actual Play

This is old news but here's a recording of a group playing X2 - Castle Amber, an Expert module released in 1981. It's very entertaining. I advise my players to stay away as I intend to run this scenario in the future. For Mystara fans, some sites suggest that this module be placed in Glantri.

X2 - Castle Amber podcast

I Speak... Kobold

Sometimes you have to read between the lines, sometimes you don't. Many classic D&D detractors claim that game too often succumbs to the "kick down the door, kill 'em and take their stuff" routine. At first glance, the dungeon element seems to support this claim. However, it is often the case that, when focusing on the whole, the reader will often ignore the details. I believe this to be unintentional, in most cases anyway. But is classic D&D such a game? Let's take a look at the following from the Moldvay basic edition:

When a character has 9-12 in Intelligence, he knows how to speak Common and his alignment language. When a character has 13-15 in Intelligence, he knows how to speak the two aforementioned languages plus one of his choice. With Intelligence of 16-17, he knows two additional languages. And with Intelligence of 18, he knows three additional languages. Alright, it seems fair. A human with high intelligence would know how to speak common and, say, Lawful and elvish and dwarvish. But wait! The list of languages from which the player can choose includes such oddities as kobold, hobgoblin, dragon, harpy, ogre or pixie. Say what? Do I really need to know how to speak kobold when happily hacking away at the little buggers? Perhaps, I'm the kind of guy who enjoys insulting their mothers in koboldish while cutting of their heads. Then again, you never know when you need to know kobold to read a kobold magic book. But that's what Read Magic is for. At first glance, this rule would seem at odds with the whole hack & slash concept of the game. Or is it?

A few pages ahead, the rules state: "Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting or wits." I emphasized the last words. Yes, apparently you can earn experience not by just killing things and taking their stuff, but by actually pitting your wits against the monsters. This suggests a number of things which are implicit, rather than explicit: First, the word monsters is a misnomer which tends to devaluate the intelligence of the opposition. We consider monsters things with no rational thought, things to be killed. Second, the phrasing of the sentence implies that monsters can be, and often are, intelligent, or else overcoming a challenge of wits wouldn't be a challenge at all and, therefore, not worth experience points. Third, there are options other than fighting our way around a dungeon. Most creatures react purely on instinct (such as gelatinous cubes or giant spiders, or do they?) but others have a rather organized society even if only implied. Orcs know how to use armour and wield weapons; they can fight in an organized manner, as do kobolds, hobgoblins, etc.

Considering what I wrote in my last paragraph, a character benefits with high intelligence. Surely, when running into a dragon, the character who knows how to speak the creature's language is given the opportunity to shine. The encounter need not end with a total party kill. Dragons are vain and egotistic. They can cajoled and tricked with smooth words as Bilbo did in The Hobbit. It is up to the DM to provide the necessary challenges. The dungeon then becomes more of a puzzle with situations where roleplay is as important as combat skills.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937)

On March 15, 1937, H.P. Lovecraft died. Today he is considered the father of modern horror literature, although at the time, his stories were not widely popular. I have a great deal of passion for Lovecraft and his writing of cosmic horror, nihilism and an uncaring universe. Unlike some, I love his prose and archaic style. I believe it lends itself to a more moody and deliberate atmosphere of horror.

I first came into contact with his stories right after buying Call of Cthulhu, the roleplaying game in 1992. I didn't know who he was, but his stories' titles listed in the rulebook piqued my curiosity. I quickly devoured his first stories. Up until then, I had played mainly fantasy games. After that, I began focusing on horror and telling stories, with the investigative elements and mood coming to the fore. Not that fantasy games are devoid of these things, but the way we played them, it just wasn't our priority. So, in a way, Lovecraft was responsible for my distancing from fantasy games.

As it pertains to this blog and AD&D, Lovecraft was recognized by Gygax as a major influence on the game. The Mythos pantheon was detailed in the Deities and Demigods sourcebook, leading to a serious contention between TSR and Chaosium. The mindflayers bear a striking resemblance to Cthulhu. Lovecraft's circle of friends, with whom he corresponded frequently, included Robert E. Howard, whose Conan's stories are sprinkled with Mythos elements, Fritz Leiber and Clask Ashton Smith, whose works also heavily influenced the game as I told in an earlier post.

For this, and for having brought horror and madness to the world of literature and my own world, and because my favourite roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu, owes its existence to him, I will always have a fondness for Lovecraft and his stories of gothic and cosmic horror.

The Dragon Magazine - Turning Back the Clock

As part of my recent, unapologetic conversion to "old school", mostly classic D&D and AD&D 1st edition, I decided I should try and absorb as much literature of the era as possible. Consider this: one can only appreciate the greatest books or movies by putting them in their proper chronological context. Granted, this isn't strictly necessary, but I'm that kind of guy. Curiosity got the best of me. And part of the history of this game is, undoubtedly, the Dragon magazine, published in paper form since 1976 until a few years back when Wizards of the Coast decided it should turn the magazine to electronic format only.

I admit that reading the Dragon magazine is, in no way, necessary to understand AD&D or even enjoying the game, but both are inextricably associated even if in reputation. I also admit that it's part curiosity and a desire to tread a path I never took in my early days as a gamer. To this end, I managed to acquire the entire first 250 issues in electronic format. Ironic, considering that it was first in printed form and there was some consternation and divided opinions when WotC decided to go the electronic way. I'll post my impressions as I read the articles. I don't intend to read them all, because some are wargaming-related, but I believe I'll find some inspiration for my own campaign as many gamers did before me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Influence of Swords & Sorcery

It has been argued in several circles that D&D and AD&D, as far as the first editions are concerned, were more influenced by swords & sorcery than by the epic high fantasy of Tolkien. The presence of some elements of the former genre in the books seems to substantiate this claim: in the foreword to the AD&D Player Handbook 1st ed., Gary Gygax reveals the influence of swords & sorcery in the genesis of the game; the magic system copies Jack Vance's tales; the grey morality of greediness and lust for power that motivates most of the early expeditions into nearby dungeons (even if unintentional) colors the game and roots the game deep within the swords & sorcery genre, even the interior illustrations of some of the earlier books point to this as evidence. For instance, in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, there is a nice drawing of an adventuring group grabbing a thief by his ankles and shaking him to let loose all the treasure he most likely stole from the group. The thief's illustration in the 1st edition of the AD&D Player Handbook shows a man putting a knife to an unsuspecting victim's throat.

This is not to say Tolkien didn't play a big part in influencing the game. The semi-human races of Dwarves, Elves and, most especially Halflings, are quite obviously borrowed from The Lord of the Rings and other works. The many mythological creatures that populate the Monsters Manuals are, evidently, also borrowed from folk tales and mythology which also influenced Tolkien. But the focus on swords & sorcery is stronger I believe.

The first issue of the Dragon magazine, published in June 1976, includes a short story, penned by none other than Fritz Lieber, whose protagonists, Fafhrd and The Mouser, talk about their bafflement regarding wargamers and the new boardgame aptly called Lankhmar. And although the short story is about a wargame, its inclusion in the same magazine dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons strengthens this connection. It's undeniable that elements of Michael Moorcock, whose early Elric stories are swords & sorcery, have crept into the game.

Even if the heroes are trying to destroy the dark lord and save the free peoples, the system itself encourages seeking more power and riches. One levels up to become more powerful, to have better spells, to destroy bigger and more powerful monsters; one gains riches to buy better equipment or finds magic treasures to wield powerful artifacts or relics. I'm not knocking off the game itself. In fact, as of lately, I've come to embrace this mindset. I'm not a proponent of mindless romps through dungeons, but a dungeon, when done right, can be as rewarding as the most poweful tale of heroics and derring-do. It's just that I find the Conan stories mirror much better the tales of D&D / AD&D. One just needs to read The Tower of the Elephant and see that the entire story is about Conan trying to avoid the dangers of Yara's tower (a dungeon), with monsters (lions, guards and a deadly spider) in the company of another thief to finally destroy the big bad villain, with magic.

In later editions, the game adopted a more epic and fantastic nature, given form by the likes of Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley, whose extraordinary illustrations are more directly influenced by Tolkien and his ilk. But in the early days, heroes delved into deep dungeons, knee-deep in muck and blood, exploring long forgotten tombs and ruins, and unearthing horrors best left buries. And this is one of the things that most appeals to me in the earlier editions.

The Known World as Setting

Currently, my players are exploring the ruins of Castle Gygar which, as you may know, is the small introductory dungeon from the red box basic edition. I'm not planning on dwelling a long time in that dungeon as I used it mainly to (re)introduce my players to the rules. Frankly, it's not a very good dungeon but it serves its purpose. When the players eventually move on to bigger and better dungeons, I will eventually choose the Known World as the setting. For those who don't know, the Know World is Mystara though, for some reason, I don't like the name Mystara. I'll stick to the Known World. It hints of a more mysterious and primeval place, akin to my own swords & sorcery tastes as opposed to epic high fantasy.

The reason I use it as a setting, perhaps breaking my own rule of only using material from 1976-1985, is two-fold: first, it's a very well done setting, first hinted at in the Cook/Marsh Expert Set, with a great line of gazetteers, although not all are up to the great standards set by The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (1987); second, I like consistency. I'm a big proponent of the "make the world as you play" theory, however, I'm not very good at designing things from the ground up. I enjoy picking up stuff, no matter how generic, and adapting it to my tastes. And the Known World provides a loot of inspiration. Even if you don't like everything it has to offer, you'll find something you like.

The characters will eventually interact with NPCs and institutions that need to be more clearly defined as to provide flavour. Our party cleric needs to know which church he belongs to or his favoured deity. I may not use the Known World as is, but I will surely use it as a foundation upon which to build my own take of the setting.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Magic-Users in D&D Basic

As I finish reading the Moldvay edition of the D&D basic rules, some things were readily apparent as differing from the Mentzer edition but none so striking as the magic-users spell usage. You see, people complain a lot that in the latter magic-users (henceforth, known as M-U) can only cast a spell per day, on their 1st level, even though they start with two spells in their spellbooks. However, in the Moldvay basic rules, a M-U starts with only ONE spell and can only cast that spell per day. Before I would consider the impact of this in play, I wanted to know the rational behind this. I could, obviously, house rule the whole thing and make it more like the Mentzer edition, but I'm the kind of guy that needs to know why something works the way it works before fiddling with it. I asked about this in the fine Dragonsfoot forums, where people are always ready to lend a hand in all things D&D / AD&D. You can read the actual discussion here.

Even if I couldn't understand why the rule was meant to be that way (perhaps someone can comment on it here), there were a lot of useful answers. Nothing like a fresh perspective to get the creative juices flowing. Of all the answers there, the one I liked best was this (and I will try it during my next session):

"To all the people who keep saying Mentzer D&D is virtually the same as Moldvay D&D, you've just hit upon the biggest difference. Yup, one spell. Read magic is a useful spell because it means magic-users can make use of scrolls. Out of mercy, if a starting magic-user has read magic, I'd let him start with a handful of scrolls of other spells. In Moldvay, you can't transcribe scrolls into your spellbook; they are just one-shot magic items."

This is a great idea! The M-U knows Read Magic as his first spell and carries with him some scrolls provided by the DM, which are already known to the mage (one assumes he used Read Magic to decipher them prior to the game). Now he can go around with a Read Magic and some prepared spells which he can cast as normal spells. Sure, they're scrolls and can only be used once, but I can provide extra scrolls as part of the treasure found in the dungeon. This might be a great deal of fun to the player without causing undue frustration for lack of spells. It's a house rule, nonetheless, but it makes perfect sense in this context. Will it work? I'll have to try it on my next session.

A Set of Rules

When I started playing 20 odd years ago, the only commercially available set of rules in my country (Portugal) was the D&D red box set. The economy was different and the Internet was not available so the process of importing products was excruciatingly painful. I started playing D&D, gleefully unaware of the immense universe of games available out there. I did not get very far. My gaming options eventually drifted from D&D, though I always tried to keep in touch with anything D&D-related. None of adventures, all using the Gygar dungeon, got any far. I don't think any of my groups passed through the first level. That carrion crawler with 8 paralyzing attacks and having only 3 players didn’t help either. But that didn’t diminished the fun we had, even going so far as rolling 2-3 characters per session just to get into the castle.

When I returned to D&D on a whim last week, I re-read the whole thing again. So far, my contact with D&D had been the old AD&D 2nd edition with the Jeff Easley cover and a lot of modules, mostly Forgotten Realms. I'd never run any D&D adventures, except twenty years ago, and a few one-shots here and there. As I re-acquainted myself with the rules, something struck me. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but as we played, it suddenly struck me.
The red box rules were written to introduce new people to the game, holding your hand with a long introductory story and then a Be Your Own Her adventure, explaining all the concepts necessary to play the game, before explaining how to play in a group. This isn't necessarily bad, as I still believe it was one of the best intro games to the hobby. However, there was already a disconnect between my already extensive experience running games, and the way the red box explained things. Plus, there were times when we couldn't find were a certain rule was as quickly as we wanted. Make no mistake, we had a lot of fun. Fortunately, I got my hands on the Moldvay basic version.

This prior version of the rules, printed in 1981, is not necessarily better organized than the Mentzer version from an introductory point of view, but it is better organized for my tastes. It cuts the number of pages in about 2/3 (from approximately 98 to 68) as it isn't encumbered with a small tale designed to introduce gradually all the concepts necessary to play the game. In this regard, I consider the Moldvay edition superior because it aims at a more adult audience, whereas the Mentzer edition focus on younger readers. The Moldvay edition open with a small explanation on how to use the dice and what is a role-playing game, and skips directly to how to create a character. This appeals to me more as I don't need to be held by the hand any longer and need to be able to look up a rule quickly (if at all). Given that both sets are virtually identical, with some minor but important differences, it shouldn't be hard to adapt later modules (those written post-Mentzer) to the Moldvay edition.

And So It Begins...

Recently I was totally uninspired to run my usual Friday night's session to my players. Try as I might, I could not come up with anything to dazzle my players with. We were starting a new campaign of a shall-remain-unnamed system and I had writer's block. Not even the pre-written adventures sparked my imagination. Not wanting to leave my players frustrated once more (we already had too many nights spent creating characters and discussing potential campaigns), I turned to my old D&D red box (the Mentzer edition). When I announced, that Friday, that we would be rolling new characters and immediately start playing in a dungeon, there were amused giggles and gasps of shock. But I persevered and rolled we did.

In less than thirty minutes, my players were stomping their way through the ruins of King Gygar's castle which is the sample adventure in the Dungeon Masters Rulebook. And you know what? We had a lot of fun letting ourselves get sucked into this world of fantasy, just exploring a dungeon (even if we only made it to the front door) with no setting and using a lighter set of rules. My players showed lots of creativity dealing with that pesky carrion crawler and even managed to kill three kobolds and frighten two more before the opposition forced them to return to town for a much needed rest. And in that moment, something struck me like a lightning. This was the most fun session I had played for quite a few months (it didn't help that we spent the last months in a few abortive campaigns using other non-fantasy systems as everyone was tired of rolling characters and just wanted to play).

I always considered myself as a D&D geek if only in name, but here was my opportunity to turn my geekiness factor up to 11. And the players wanted more, too. And so it begins my journey into the worlds of D&D (and AD&D) of yore. This is a blog about this new - and hopefully exciting journey - of a long-time player who never played D&D and his mad group of followers. I hope you find it as interesting a reading as I have fun writing it.