Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fiction Review: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Poor Richard Matheson didn't make the cut for the inspirational reading section of AD&D 1st edition. That said, his short novel I Am Legend casts a wide shadow, creating the zombie apocalypse genre in a novel with nary a zombie in sight. George Romero of zombie fame and Stephen King have both acknowledged his influence.

I Am Legend has produced three film adaptations. The first adaptation was 1964's The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price, a film I've not seen. Reading its wikipedia entry it seems they stayed pretty close to the plotline of the novel. The second was the classic 1970s Charlton Heston film, The Omega Man. Finally there was the more recent I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Both The Omega Man and I Am Legend have their virtues but I don't think either of them really "got" the novel.

With that preliminary out of the way, let's talk about the novel itself. It takes place some twenty years in "the future", though it being a 1954 novel that puts it in the mid-1970s. It follows Roger Neville, a man who just might be the last survivor of a pandemic which seems to have wiped out humanity and replaced them with vampires. Neville has turned his house into a fortress, having barricaded the windows and doors, powered it with a generator, protected it with floodlights, mirrors, and garlic. Every night a mob of vampires tries to get into his house or get him out. They seem to possess only a rudimentary intelligence aside from their leader who used to be his next door neighbor.

The novel takes us both forward and backward in time. It gives us the background of the world and what happened to it. It suggests, as I seem to recall a lot of novels once did, that there had been a limited nuclear exchange and talks how Neville had served in the military. It shows us the dust storms and plagues of mosquitos that stuck his native Los Angeles (and, it is suggested, the rest of the world). We see the pandemic that slew his family and the rest of civilization, turning many into vampires. Only Neville seems to be immune.

Moving forward in time we follow Neville in his effort to find purpose in his life. He has a list of things he keeps meaning to do but rarely gets beyond maintaining his stronghold of a home. He finds solace in alcohol and is often tempted to go out at night and let the vampires have him. Slowly he pulls out of his downward spiral into self-destruction and dedicates himself to understanding the vampires. Unlike the film adaptations, while a reasonably bright guy he is no scientist. However he has time on his hands and uses it to understand vampirism and finds scientific reasons for their aversion to sunlight, garlic, mirrors, religious symbols, etc.

Even though he pulls out of his self-destructive behavior, he is desperate for companionship. He dedicates a considerable amount of time to win the friendship of an uninfected dog. The book reaches it climax when he meets another survivor and comes to realize he is not alone after all - though that might not be the best thing for him

I mentioned how despite featuring vampires, I Am Legend inspired the zombie apocalypse genre. Matheson's vampires are, with few exceptions, barely intelligent. They're a bit better than your typical zombie and a lot more mobile but they don't sparkle, they don't have angst, and they don't hunger for the love of a mortal woman. However, despite being like a zombie apocalypse, the daytime is safe from them. It is only at night when they come out. This means survivors like Neville are able to function during the day, a technique which was also used in Justin Cronin's The Passage, which also featured a "vampire apocalypse" which resembled your more traditional zombie apocalypse. (Hmm, I just wrote the phrase "traditional zombie apocalypse". Interesting....)

A subset of gamers is all about explanations. Some gamers are perfectly happy with the gargantuan dragon dwelling at the end of a dungeon of ten-foot corridors. Others go bonkers and must have or craft an explanation for how the dragon got there and functions. I'm definitely of the latter type which is probably one of the reasons why this book appeals to me.

Matheson has been a prolific writer. He wrote the story which was adapted into the 1970s movie Duel about the unseen trucker pursuing a mild-mannered salesman throughout desert highways. He wrote a number of Twilight Zone episodes including the classic "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet". He's an author who I feel is well worth your time.

Monday, May 28, 2012

RPG Review: Dwellers of the Forbidden City

Earlier I examined some of TSR's earlier adventures which features what were essentially miniature campaign settings. They all had home bases for the adventurers, a wilderness, a decently sized dungeon, etc.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City shares some commonality with those but is also its own beast.

A friend in my first D&D group lent me his copy of Dwellers of the Forbidden City. There was one thing that grabbed my attention immediately. The map. It was a gorgeous map, portraying the titular Forbidden City in all of its glory. Moreover, unlike previous D&D adventures, this map was a 3D drawing. The Forbidden City itself lay at the bottom of a rift. Even without reading a single line of text one's imagination could not help but be stirred. To the best of my knowledge this was the first isometric map to appear in a D&D adventure - it might be the first such map to appear at all.

As can be seen by the low-quality image to the right, the Forbidden City lay at the bottom of some sort of rift. The city consisted of ruined buildings and a lake in the middle of a swamp.You got the impression that these ruins represented a small subset of a larger ruin, though perhaps this section was the only part to survive - perhaps some disaster caused to sink into the earth.

Technically set in The World of Greyhawk setting, this adventure would take all of a second to convert to other setting. All you really need is an unexplored jungle to plop it into.

The background for the adventure involves reports of all sorts of interesting items found by merchants that hail from the Forbidden City. None of these ever make it to market for the caravans are waylaid on their return to civilization. The characters follow rumors of the city into to the jungle and eventually a friendly chief gives them directions and gives them basic information as to what sorts of dangers they might encounter.

There are a few possible ways the characters might get into the city, from attempting to climb down the rift walls to working their way through some tunnels into the city, though of course these are infested with monsters (and for some reason, a reverse gravity region - why is it there? Who knows... That's always been part of the charm of older adventures for me.)

There is no "meta-plot" per se within the Forbidden City. Whose city its once was is fairly unspecific, though there is a suggestion that the serpent-men known as the yuan-ti are degenerate descendants of the original masters and the "mongrelmen" (hybrids of a few gazillion humanoid, human, and demi-human races) are descendants of the original masters. The yuan-ti are a neat little Lovecraftian monster which has become a classic of D&D - I believe this was their first appearance and I believe they've appeared in every AD&D/D&D 3.x/4e version since. They are degenerate men who have somehow interbred with snakes, with various stages of degeneration. One interesting tidbit is they are only encountered as wandering monsters, venturing into the city and back out again, much like the adventurers.

The city itself is full of factions - an evil wizard, bullywugs, bugbears, mongrelmen, etc. My group got a kick out of encountering bullywugs given they were the main mooks of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon of the early 80s. The characters have an incentive to become one of the factions - wandering monsters are an extra-painful threat at night in the Forbidden City, though after the adventurers keep a camp for an extended period of time the chances of encounters decreases dramatically as their presence in the city becomes accepted, if not loved, by the other factions. This is important, as there is no "home base" for the characters within the city, though in an emergency they could presumably seek out the native village from whence they received directions.

The adventure ends with some additional suggested reasons the characters might visit the city along with possible adventures and expansions to the city. There is also a section of new monsters, for a lot of the creatures within were new at the time.

Like many early TSR adventures, this adventure can double as a campaign. In a brief booklet we've got material that could be used for a single adventure or easily stretched out for an entire campaign. As its tag of "I1" indicates it is for intermediate level characters. It could easily be adapted to many of the newer "Old School" games. Of the ones I've reviewed so far, the lost city element of it certainly seems appropriate to the "Appendix N" nature of Dungeon Crawl Classics. It has the Lovecraftian elements which make it a good fit for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy. And in a game of Adventurer Conqueror King characters could conceivably try to set up their own domain in the city or in its vicinity or use its riches to finance their own domain.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fantastic Real-World Terrain

White Mountains of New Hampshire
Having lived most of my life in Connecticut and Massachusetts, there's certain things that come to my mind when I think of "wilderness". First and foremost, there's trees. In most fantasy settings there are certain sections of the map labelled as "forest". Here in southern New England one gets the feeling were it not for urbanization, pretty much every "hex" would be forest terrain.

Moving further north to northern New England we find ourselves in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Green Mountains of Vermont. Before having kids, my wife and I would go hiking in the White Mountains several times each spring and summer. There the terrain was very forested and very mountainous - no surprises there. You'd have tree-covered mountains and more rocky mountains, such as what you'd find in Franconia Notch. The notches themselves are the valleys between ridges of mountains. For me it is one of the most beautiful and relaxing places to go to.

Given it is what I know it tends to be what I think of when I'm designing a fantasy setting. And I'm not alone. When one things of a fantasy realm like Middle Earth you've got forests such as Mirkwood, lots of mountain ranges, rivers running through them, etc. There's nothing particularly wrong with that - these are places that exist in the real world after all.

However, over the past few years I've been tinkering with making use of terrains that I'm not familiar with. The mountains I think of aren't the snow-capped peaks of the younger Rocky Mountains. I've tended not to make maps with vast plains on them like those that can be found in the United States nor have I made much use of badlands like one can find in Montana. Swamps have a tendency to be a wetland near the coast vs. a location for entire campaigns.

I'm not going to enumerate every type of interesting terrain in this posting. "Alien" terrains tend to vary in any case - someone from Nevada is going to have a very different idea of what looks unusual than someone from Maine. But what I will do is run through a few terrains that my google-searches and perusals of wikipedia have given me ideas to reflect upon.

Stella Lake, Great Basin (Public Domain)

Great Basin

One of the places that just looks incredibly odd to my New England eyes is the Great Basin which dominates much of Nevada. Made up of what is called the Basin and Range topography it has incredibly varied terrain. From a reading of wikipedia on the Great Basin we learn that the lowest point in North America, within Death Valley, is within 100 miles of the highest point in the 48 contiguous states, Mount Whitney. 

Black Rock Desert Field Utah
(Creative Commons, David Jolley)
Made up of varying low and high points (hence the term basin and range), the Great Basin has deserts such as the Mojave Desert and it also has woodlands. These are not the woodlands we usually picture elves inhabiting, but often more shrublike terrain such as Pinyon-Juniper Woodalnds.

Pinyon-Juniper Woodland Example
(Creative Commons, John Phelan)

This is the sort of terrain I often picture in the opening chapters of Stephen King's The Gunslinger as Roland begins his journey in the Mohaine Desert. I can visualize dwarves dwelling under mountains mining for their gold, valley-dwelling halflings, semi-nomadic humans, elves, and humanoids. Its a land where the terrain can prove deadly as characters keep a close eye on their provisions and on extremes of weather. It makes for a good place to have abandoned settlements. It also seems a good place for a borderland between civilization and the wilds or between two rival nations.

Okefenokee Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp
(Creative Commons)
As it turns out, rivers don't just get their start from mountains. The Okefenokee Swamp, straddling Florida and Georgia, is drained by the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers.

Let's talk a little bit about wetlands. That source of wisdom tells us there are four types of wetland - swamps, marshes, bogs, and fens. All of them represent land that is saturated with water.

  • Swamp - A forested wetland, usually found along rivers or lakes where periodic flooding helps provide nutrients for the trees.
  • Marsh - A wetland dominated herbaceous plant (plants with leaves and stems that have no woody stem above ground).
  • Bog - A wetland that accumulates peat (dead plant matter), typically found in cooler climates.
  • Fens - A wetland defined by its neutral or alkaline water chemistry, usually dominated by grasses.
Canoe Map (Creative Commons,
Scott Breshears)
So with that out out the way, lets talk about the Okefenokee Swamp. It is truly a swamp, with large forested areas over a watery terrain. It isn't all forested, with islands consisting of dry prairies and more wet prairie areas.

One thing that struck me about the Okefenokee Swamp is its inhabitants were so isolated that elements of Elizabethan English remained in their speech until well into the 20th century. From a gaming perspective, for some reason that gives me an image of elves who have lived there for millennia, largely unchanged as empires rise and fall around them.

The Okefenokee also has its own collection of wildlife, including your friendly American alligator. I'm betting black dragons would love it there.

Göreme, Cappadocia

Fairy Chimneys (Creative Commons,
Benh Lieu Song)
Göreme is a town within Cappacocia, located in modern Turkey. It is located among what is referred to as "fairy chimney" rock formations, or to use the proper term, hoodoos. These are thin spires of rock protruding from basins or badlands. They are rather abundant in Utah and in Road Runner cartoons.

Göreme (Creative Commons Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

The reason I chose the fairy chimneys of Göreme is that its inhabitants realized the chimneys could be carved to contain houses and other buildings. In the image to the right you can see a mix of traditional buildings and buildings carved right out of these chimneys. This is the sort of place that just screams adventures, lost tombs, etc.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Frank Herbert's Dune

I'd first heard of Dune when I was in middle school. There was some magazine distributed at our school which described the book and the upcoming movie - I believe this was in 1983 - I do remember it was a while until the movie finally came out. I also remember it was one of those movies I wanted to see in the theaters but never managed to. My parents got me a movie tie-in novelization (same text as the classic novel but with a cover from the film) but I never managed to get too deep into it.

Several years later, during my sophomore year of college at UConn, I was looking for a new book to read at the co-op. At the time my taste in fiction wasn't too spectacular, being dominated by Star Trek novels and the novels TSR put out. Still enjoyed Stephen King, though he was unfairly in the ghetto of "genre writers". Wanting something different, I decided to splurge on a new copy of Dune, my original copy some sixty miles away at my parents' house. This time it truly clicked for me. Not only that but it unleashed a fury of classic science fiction and fantasy reading. I devoured all six of the Dune novels in short order and then worked my way to Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, etc. During my fifth year (my time at UConn stretched out due to taking time off to co-op) I took a science fiction class which exposed me more writers. But it all started with Dune.

With that introduction, let's take a look at the novel itself. It is a coming-of-age story, about Paul Atreides, heir-apparent to his father Duke Leto Atreides' fief of Caladan. As the book begins Duke Leto Atreides has been granted a great prize, the fief of Arrakis, also known as Dune. Arrakis, a desert planet, is the only place in the galaxy where the spice melange, which grants prophetic visions and is required for there to be any hyperspace travel. The Atreides are to replace their enemies, the Harkonnen family.

Duke Leto correctly recognizes it is a trap, one designed to destroy him and his house but he takes his family there nonetheless, the alternative being becoming a rogue house. He is also determined to succeed. It is not giving much away to reveal that he fails in this effort. However, owing to his training and generations upon generations of selective breeding, his son Paul manages to survive and becomes one of the natives of the desert, the "fremen".

It's best not to discuss much more of the plot. Rather it is the setting we will discuss. This is an old, very old empire.It takes place at least ten thousand years in the future to judge by the dates being used. The setting is shaped by the "Butlerian Jihad" which, per the book's glossary, was:
[T]he crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. [Orange Catholic] Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."
Everything about the setting is informed by this Jihad. Most have translated this crusade as a war against machine overlords and as I understand it the novels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson took this approach. I don't know if this was Frank Herbert's intent but I myself always viewed this rebellion as more being an effort to reclaim humanity from its dependence on computers and machinery - something which might involve quite a bit of fighting if there were to be any disagreement on the matter.

Either way, the end result was a great evolution in humanity. It saw the creation of the Spacing Guild, a group who had a monopoly on space travel, relying on extensive physical and mental training and the prescience granted by the spice melange to navigate through hyperspace. It also saw the Bene Gesserit, a mystical sisterhood that was founded on physical and mental training that allowed them to become the "witches" of the setting. Without computers beings known as mentats came to replace them, humans trained in logic to become human computers. This is a very human book, with no alien civilizations orsuper-computers. As we'll see, this is not a technologically-impaired civilization but rather one which rejects technology that does what a thinking human can do.

The weaponry of the setting is both primitive and advanced. There are weapons such as atomic weaponry (its use forbidden by convention) along with lasers ("lasguns"). However the lasguns are near-useless as the main defense consists of shields which can block any fast attack - but a laser shot will create a nuclear explosion This has led to knife-fighting with specialized techniques -  a fast attack will be blocked by the shield, requiring attackers use slowness to penetrate the shield.

I've just touched the tip of the society. You've also got feudal houses, assassins, religious crusades, giant sandworms, elite savage warriors, stillsuits to reclaim all of a body's moisture in the desert, etc.

Though Frank Herbert is not one of D&D's "Appendix N" (inspirational reading) authors, he is still a fantastic inspiration for such games. Hopefully my description gives the impression that Dune and its sequels contain excellent material worth mining for ideas. And one need not use it for science fiction gaming - with its feudal elements and near-magic powers of the Bene Gesserit and Spacing Guild it would not be much of a stretch at all to borrow much of it for a fantasy game. And even without mining anything specific Dune gives an excellent example of what sort of fun could be had by members of a noble house. It doesn't appear in the recommended reading section for Adventurer Conqueror King System but I think it fits in with the other works there perfectly.

There's a lot of controversy about the quality of the later books in Frank Herbert's Dune series and especially for the novels written by his son Brian Herbert with Kevin J. Anderson. My own opinion is Dune is probably the best of the novels and that I personally found the next two novels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, to also be of excellent quality. I found the remaining three novels, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune, to still be enjoyable but not quite up to the level of the first three. I'm definitely on the side of the fence with those who did not enjoy the later works by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

Monday, May 21, 2012

RPG Review: D&D Basic Rules (8th-11th Printing)

D&D Basic Magenta Box
For me D&D began with the "magenta box" version of the D&D Basic rules. My next door neighbor received it for Christmas, it having become available at Toys R Us and similar stores. During one snow day I was flipped through it and was hooked - to be honest, I was also confused as heck, as were most people who were introduced to it via the rules and without other people teaching them. I'm not certain how typical my experience was - learning the game by figuring it out on my own.

Unfortunately Wizards of the Coast no longer has its old D&D PDFs available for sale - and even when they did they did not have this version for sale - they had the later "red box" Basic set and the previous "blue box" Basic set. To be honest, the red box is probably a better introduction to the rules but I prefer the atmosphere of the purple box.

D&D Basic Red Box

D&D Basic Blue Box


Though it isn't available via legal download it is not that difficult to find copies of the rulebook at a reasonable price, though a complete set with sample adventure, dice, etc. is much more expensive. For this review I'll actually be covering just the rules.


The Magenta Basic rules were printed in a 64 page book that was three-hole punched with the idea you could separate the pages and gather them in a three-ring binder, possibly combining them with the Expert rules and Companion rules (which were never actually released until the Basic rules switched to the Red box).

Part 1: Introduction

The Introduction gave the typical overview to what D&D was. Its worth noting that this was the set were this was important information for me, as I honestly didn't know. It does talk about the next sets of rules (Expert and Companion). It gave basic definitions such as parties, experience points, encounters, etc. It discusses one player who is the "caller" whose job it is to speak for the whole party under normal circumstances, something that went away in later versions of the game.

We also get a discussion on what the word "Level" is intended to mean - Experience Level, Monster Level, Spell Level, and Dungeon Level. I find it interesting that Experience, Monster, and Dungeon Level are roughly equivalent - the 1st level of a dungeon is intended to have Level 1 monsters (i.e. 1 hit die or 1d8 for hit points). However spell levels did not follow this trend - for example 3rd level magic-users being able to cast a maximum of 2nd level spells. It wasn't until decades later with the 4th edition did spell level become equivalent to experience level. 

We also get a much needed explanation as to what all the dice were and how to roll them. It did not warn you however that a d4 also doubled as a caltrop.

Part 2: Player Character Information

Here we get the rules for generating characters. We get a discussion of ability scores, classes. hit points, money, equipment, Armor Class, attack chances, and saving throws.

Abilities are intended to be rolled using 3d6 for each score and keeping each roll, assigning them in order to Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. There is no suggestion of rerolling hopeless characters. You were allowed under certain circumstances to increase your main (or prime requisite) ability score(s) by dropping from others on a 2 for 1 basis. 

As I discussed in my review of ACKS, bonuses and penalties are a little bit different than those found in 3.x/4e:

Rating Bonus/Penalty Rating Bonus/Penalty
3 -3 13-15 +1
4-5 -2 16-17 +2
6-8 -1 18 +3
9-12 0

As far as classes go, we have the "classic 7" or clerics, dwarves, elves, fighters, halflings, magic-users, and thieves. Unlike later versions of the game, clerics do not get spells until reaching 2nd level. As a point of criticism, the thief just does not have a lot going for him - they start with 1d4 hit points, just like the magic-user and their thief ability chances are extremely poor. Within the Old School Renaissance community there is some debate about whether the thief should be included, with the argument that the thief tends to add encounters to justify its own existence. My main criticism would be that the thief just isn't all that good at what he's supposed to do.

Magic-users are pretty vulnerable as well, with just a d4 for hit points at first level, the ability to only use daggers, no armor, and only one spell per day.

Alignment is discussed with three alignments - Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, with Lawful usually being considered "good" and Chaotic usually being "evil". There are alignment languages, secret languages of "passwords, hand signals, and other body motions".

Part 3 - Spells

This section describes cleric and magic-user/elf spells. The analogy used to describe the process of memorizing and casting spells is one of a blackboard - the spells memorized are on a blackboard and when cast they can be thought of as erased. To this day I still think of them in this manner.

One thing that is worth noting is that the rules explicitly state that a magic-user only has as many spells in his spellbook as he is able to cast on a given day. For example, a 1st level magic-user only has one 1st level spell in his book and cannot gain another spell until he reaches 2nd level, upon which he gets a 2nd 1st level spell.

The spell descriptions are fairly straightforward and has all the D&D classics - cure light wounds, magic missile, light, read magic, etc. I suppose that the magic-user who starts with read magic feels rather lame until he finds a scroll (the rules indicate the DM can either choose a magic-user's spells, roll randomly, or allow the player to choose - with everything else against the poor magic-user, let the poor guy pick...)

D&D Basic characters can only cast up to 1st level spells (for clerics) or 2nd (for magic-users and elves), though sample 2nd level cleric spells and 3rd level magic-user/elf spells are given for high level foes and spell scrolls. We get our peek at fire ball, letting the poor magic-user see why he's going through the humiliation of low levels...

Part 4 - The Adventure

This section discusses parties, time, dungeon exploration, etc. It advises the party have 6-8 characters. Time is divided into 10-minute turns during exploration. We've got rules for light, encumbrance, opening doors, retainers, traps, experience points, and wandering monsters.

I've been joking at the poor 1st-level magic-user. Looking back, it occurs to me that given a magic-user has little he can spend his money on the use of that money on retainers seems well-advised.

As in other early versions of D&D, every gold piece retrieved in an adventure also yields an experience point.

Part 5 - The Encounter

When an encounter begins, the game switches from 10-minute turns to 10-second rounds. When moving to AD&D I always had a tough time accepting the 1-minute round - the 10-second round always felt better to me.

The rules for combat are a bit different than they are in later versions of D&D. When an encounter begins, both sides check for surprise (if the DM considers surprise possible), allowing for a free round.

Initiative is rolled per round per side, with an option to roll for each character and the monsters he is fighting. DMs are given the option of choosing how monsters react to characters or to roll for their reaction. We've got rules for evasion, pursuit, movement, etc. 

There is no mention as to the possibility of magic spells getting interrupted in their casting - nor is their mention that any declaration is needed. To be honest, I prefer this option spellcasters, especially low level ones, have so much against them to begin with.

As in the original D&D, damage per weapon by default is 1d6, regardless of weapon type. There is an option for variable weapon damage, something that all the games I played in made use of.

One oddity of low level play is all characters have the same chance to hit, regardless of class. This changes in mid to high level play in the D&D Expert rules. There's still an advantage to being a fighter or dwarf, with the ability to wear any armor, use any weapon, and typically have higher hit points.

Finally there is an example combat. I like the use of examples, as they tend to clarify confusion in rules.One of the PCs gets killed in the sample combat, something I recall as typical from examples in old TSR products. Rereading the sample combat, I see a possible error - the monsters being fought lose initiative in the first round and never act - after the PCs attack we move to round 2. The other rounds do not have this problem. The sample combat does have the party speak the immortal words "It's okay; Gary sent us" in an attempt to bluff the hobgoblins...

Part 6 - Monsters

The chapter on monsters is, as one would expect, a listing of monsters, with statistics and descriptions. The Dungeon Master is encouraged to modify statistics and create his own monsters. It is expected that a monster will be found on a level of the dungeon equivalent to its hit dice (i.e. monster level), plus or minus two. One thing I'm curious about is what this means for high-level play - was it expected, for example, that 33rd level characters go through 33 levels of dungeon.(Though if using a megadungeon as the basis for a campaign that seems reasonable.)

For the most part, the monsters represent those appropriate for low-level characters. It does include dragons which would likely overwhelm a low-level party, though it is understandable that in a game called Dungeons and Dragons you'd best include dragons within the game.

Primarily consisting of monsters which are now classics, there are some interesting monsters which did not find their way to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons - at least as far as I can tell. For example, there are some neat monsters called living statues, with some variants bleeding lava when struck.One of the more unusual monsters is the Thoul, a magical combination of troll, ghoul, and hobgoblin. I've no idea where that came from but it does make for a good model for creating your own monsters. There's also the hairy tarantella spider, whose bite can force its victims to dance!

Like many other early D&D versions, among the monsters is a listing for Neanderthal man.. To be honest, I'm not entirely certain if there was some fantasy source for including them so often - perhaps Burroughs' Pellucidar? 

Part 7 - Treasure

At last, the reason for going on adventure! Every monster has a treasure type which is used as an index into tables determining the amount of treasure the monster has, including coin, gems, and magical items. The tables are designed to give treasure appropriate for low-level characters. There is a fair chance of getting a cursed item or a poison potion. In my experience, while players tended to dread testing potions and other magic items, they usually kept the poison potions for their little assassination plots.

One thing I noticed that for items like staves and wands there is no mention of command words, just that to know what an item does a character must experiment with it and use it - incurring any curses on the item.

While read magic seems a somewhat useless spell, it is the only way for a magic-user or elf to read a spell scroll. While per this variant of the rules scrolls cannot be copied into a spellbook, spell scrolls are still awfully handy. From my early games I recall I tended to use the AD&D rules of allowing the copying of scrolls and spellbooks and having more spells in the book than the caster can cast per day. As other blogs have noted, combining various versions of D&D was quite common back in the early days of the hobby.

Part 8 - Dungeon Master Information

This section gives information for DMs. As a novice both to the hobby and Dungeon Mastering, I found this section especially useful when I first started out.

There was guidance on the types of adventures one could make, stocking dungeons, creating NPC parties, etc. Part of a sample dungeon is given, a haunted keep. While not as iconic as the skull mountain in the previous version of the Basic D&D rules, it was still an interesting setting, with a floorplan of one of the keep's towers and a side view showing the dungeon below.

An excerpt from a sample game is given. It features the memorable death of the thief Black Dougal, which has inspired the blog Ode to Black Dougal. I always found something odd about the death - the DM declares "he looks dead" after poor Black Dougal is struck by a poison needle, having failed to detect the trap (did I ever mention how lousy thieves are at low levels?) Without confirming that he truly is dead the players dump out his pack to fill with coins that are in the room. Gee guys, don't shed too many tears on my death...

Inspirational Reading

While not as iconic as the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide Appendix N, there is a reading section here as well. It has most of what can be found in Appendix N along with some additions such as a young adut fantasy literature section (including the Narnia and Earthsea cycles) and some additions to the adult fantasy section such as Heinlein's Glory Road, Larry Niven, Bram Stoker, etc. The young adult section does seem to mark the first time that TSR acknowledged their game had been finding a younger audience than they had perhaps anticipated (and the artwork in D&D Basic is far tamer than what one found in Original D&D or AD&D).

Overall Impression

It is difficult for me to be fully balanced in reviewing this version of the game. It marked my entry into D&D and the whole gaming hobby, so I am definitely biased in its favor.

Attempting to look at it practically, I will say the next version of the game, the more famous "red box", was a far clearer entry into the game, taking extremely great pains to explain everything - and was more clearly aimed at the young adult/teen market. However, I personally preferred the sense of danger this version of the game brought, with the two detailed examples both featuring a PC fatality.

Rules-wise, the game does have many of the quarks that would define D&D up to and including AD&D 2nd edition. Low-level magic-users are incredibly weak, though with the promise of greater power. Thieves are, in my opinion, rather hobbled by their extremely poor success chances, something that plagued them since their introduction in the first D&D supplement, Greyhawk. Even at this early stage the demi-human characters are stated to be limited to 8th (halfling), 10th (elf) and 12th (dwarf) levels, something which doesn't seem all that practical in light of the possibility of 36th level human characters. Indeed when the D&D Companion did finally come out it resolved this by giving demi-human pseudo-level attack ranks. I understand the desire to limit demi-humans but I think it would have been better to have front-loaded the limits and advantages together.

The above sounds rather negative which isn't my intent. For me, this is the game where I started and I got tons of play from it. I still look at it fondly and believe it was a fantastic introduction to the hobby. While the red box variant made things even more basic, I have to confess at times I felt I was being talked down to in that version - though in truth I wasn't the audience for it. Moreover, this version of the rules screams out with inspiration, wanting to be played, encouraging the DM to create things as needed and modify as well. With this version of the rules you could get weeks and weeks of play and with the D&D Expert rules added on you've got plenty for an entire campaign.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Developing a New Campaign Setting - Broad Strokes

Previously I examined some of the early TSR D&D adventures which effectively doubled as settings. In this installment I'm going to begin constructing my own in broad strokes. The goal isn't to design everything about the world but rather to think about the world at a high level, enough to properly place the local setting.

As I'd mentioned, I'm a big fan of nautical elements to campaign settings. I'd given some thought to a water world like Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea or a Pacific setting inspired by the Aubrey/Maturin series and Polynesian history and legends. However, while a campaign setting should engage its creator, I do want to be careful not to overdo it with extreme detail - the Judge's hobbies should not interfere with the enjoyment of his players. ("Wait a minute, what time is it when it is seven bells?") There is something to be said for a certain amount of familiarity. I know there's some controversy on George R.R. Matrin's Song of Ice and Fire Series. I myself fall on the side who enjoy it. One of the strengths of his series is, in my opinion, how grounded it is "reality" - it has fantastic elements but it also feels like a real world. The use of magic, the appearance of a legendary creatures... all these things feel special when when they happen.

This brings me to the idea of starting the game in an equivalent of the Aegean Sea, a large bay within the Mediterranean, with gazillions and gazillions of islands. The Aegean is the setting for most Greek mythology, one of those things that I've found most gamers run into in their youth.

I'd mentioned previously how much I enjoyed The Secret of Bone Hill and will be using Lendore Isle as the inspiration for the starting point. We are looking at an island small enough to be mapped in its entirety at a fairly small scale and large enough to be a good starting point for adventure. If the mood of the game makes nautical adventures seem the way to go we have a location for which that works well but we also have a mainland available to us. In the World of Greyhawk, Lendore is the Suel god of time. While I'm not setting this game on our Earth, I am aiming for a pastiche liberally borrowing from sources such as our own history, the World of Greyhawk, the works of Lovecraft, C.A. Smith, Tolkien, and Leiber. With that in mind Chronos Island, named for the Greek god of time, seems a nice homage to The Secret of Bone Hill's Lendore Isle.

But while grounded in reality I want some elements of the fantastic. Dungeon Crawl Classics is designed to emulate Appendix N of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. My own favorites from that list are Leiber's Lankhmar tales and the Middle Earth stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Though he's not on the official Appendix N list, I've also been greatly enjoying the tales of Clark Ashton Smith and I feel his exclusion was an oversight.

I really like the tone of the Lankhmar stories. Fafhrd and Grey Mouser would fit in well within a D&D campaign. They like treasure and adventure. I also want to note that while it won't be where the game starts, a city like Lankhmar in the vicinity seems like it would be a good thing.

One element from Tolkien I'd like to emulate is the dangerous wildernesses and the emptied out feeling of Middle Earth. Consider Aragorn's lost Northern Kingdom - people still live there though there is no longer a king or even a nation and the ancient cities of Arnor and its successor states lay ruined and abandoned. Tolkien also gives us an interesting mix of fantasy races, one of the few works in Appendix N to do so.

From Clark Ashton Smith I really like the idea of borrowing his wizards. They feel to me a lot like the wizards of D&D. I also enjoy the "weirdness" he injects into his tales. He's got a lot of Lovecraft in him but his heroes seem a bit less intimidated by the horrors they face.

So let's try our first pass at combining all those elements. Islands. Creepy wizards. A lot of empty lands and ruins. Lots of races. Big city. So we've got our starting island, so where to go next?

I'm going to start with the ruins. What happened to civilization? Where is everyone? The answer lies with the fall of a local empire. If I'm basing the game on the Aegean and the rest of the Mediterranean we've got some powerful empires that have been there. Rather than the traditional Roman Empire I'm going to think more about the eastern Empire. They considered themselves the Roman Empire as well but they are more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire. They endured throughout the entirety of the medieval world that D&D invokes for much of its feel. But I'm not seeing this empire fall the same way the Byzantine Empire did - by the time the Ottoman Empire finished them off the Byzantine Empire was pretty much a city-state centered around Constantinople. Rather in our setting it was that evil wizard and his damn orcs.

One of the scenes added to the Lord of the Rings films was showing the orcs being bred by Saruman and his talk of how the first orcs were corrupted elves (YouTube clips of those two scenes below).

I think in this setting I like the idea of orcs and possibly goblins and other nasty humanoid creatures not being "natural". Dungeon Crawl Classics suggests as much and similarly Adventurer Conqueror King has rules for wizards making their own critters. The orcs are bred by wizards, using some source material as their starting point. We'll need to think about if they can reproduce naturally and how long they live barring accidents. I have this vision of orcs returning with prisoners to their creation pits to be used as the raw material for new orcs.

So we've got some evil wizard who bred himself an army of orcs in his effort to conquer the empire. He was partly successful - the empire did indeed fall, with entire cities and nations being destroyed by his orc hordes. But there was little to rule over after this and his orcs quickly fell into infighting, greatly reducing their numbers. I want orcs and similar creatures to be things to be feared, at least by the commoners of the setting, in a way that brigands and human or demi-human barbarians are not..

This devastation was probably a while back - a few hundred years ago at the least. Long enough for tales of the empire and its fall to be dominated by legends as opposed to facts. It does sound a little like D&D 4e's "Points of Light" concept but then again Middle Earth, Greyhawk, etc. all fit within such a model rather well.

Now what about a big city? It is possible that the capital of this big empire did technically survive these "orcwars" but was reduced to being little more than a city-state, much as Constaninople became in our own world. Indeed just like Constantinople, large portions of the city might be empty, making the city itself a possible location for dungeon crawls - but that will be in the future. Nearby will be a more settled city for urban adventures. My first pass of a name for this is Miklagaard, the name the Vikings used for Constantinople. Though I'm not even remotely a Glorantha scholar, I am aware that they did something similar, having a huge ruined city near the city of Pavis.

There's a lot of ideas here but these are more for background, ideas that I believe will work well with the smaller setting I will take on creating next. If this smaller setting demands some of these larger elements change then, assuming the game hasn't kicked off and made use of them, those elements will change. What I'm trying to do is a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up design. I'm not all that comfortable designing a setting that is just a small area in vacuum without having broad strokes of what the world is like. But I don't want to overdo the design to the point that it winds up restricting adventure opportunities rather than create them.

Being a bit of a map geek I've drawn up a map to help me in my creative process - it is of medium scale, 1000 x 800 mile. To the south of the map we can see Chronos Isle. I've added a Mordor-like region called "The Scar" - I'm thinking this is where bad ole wizard created his orcs. I used Campaign Cartographer 3 to create this map, representing my first real effort with the Herwin Wielink overland style, designed to evoke the feeling of a "dark fantasy". With an empire in ruins that seemed appropriate. You should be able to click on the image to see the map in greater detail.

Next up will probably be an examining Chronos Isle in more detail, as that is where we'll be starting the game.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Developing a New Campaign Setting - Exploring What Has Been Done Before

I'm in the process of getting a game ready for Dungeon Crawl Classics. I've been gratified that my recruitment effort on my young little blog has gotten some interested parties.

In today's post I'm going to begin the process of designing the setting. What I'm going to do is explore the nature of some early adventures which double as settings in their own right. This ties in nicely with the idea of "sandbox" play, an approach to game play that has been rediscovered over the past several years. In this model, the setting is developed and the characters are let loose upon it. There isn't a metaplot or a course of action that the players must take. However, they tend to have super-shiny dungeons which just scream "visit me, I have treasure". And what hero in the mold of Fafhrd, Grey Mouser, Conan, Tregarth, or Shea could resist such gems.

The classic novice adventure, Keep on the Borderlands features a neat little play area. You've got the titular keep as a home base. There is a small wilderness with some designated encounters and a dungeon complex known as the Caves of Chaos. The Caves are a group of semi-isolated cave complexes, each inhabited primarily by a certain type of foe, with caves perched higher in the ravine tending to have tougher monsters. Nothing prevents a party from trying to tackle the tougher monsters first but it is a bad, bad idea to do so.

Another classic adventure, designed to move players from the dungeon to the wilderness, and included with all versions of the D&D Expert Set, is The Isle of Dread. It involves the players finding a map of the Isle of Dread with rough directions how to get there, descriptions of friendly natives, and hints of great treasure in the interior. The characters are expected to buy or hire a ship and adventure to the island. There are suggestions as to how they might get financing if they need it ("please come back with a live T-Rex" being one of my favorites). As with other early adventures, there isn't an overarching plotline but there are hints of lots of them. There are pirates near the Isle. There are friendly tribes to give the characters a home base on the Isle. There's hints of forbidden cults within the friendly villages. A dangerous wilderness with lots of encounters. A big finale dungeon at the central plateau of the island, complete with another friendly, albeit isolated village. Rather than providing dungeon maps for every possible encounter the adventure includes a pair of sample maps that can be used as needed. This illustrates a useful technique that I know I'd lost - don't design more than you need. It is also worth noting the need for friendly home bases scattered throughout the setting. The adventure doesn't force the characters to take certain actions but it does recognize that after a long ocean voyage a trip back home is out of the question. And by the time the characters reach the center of the island the friendly villages on the outskirts of the island are too far to easily retreat to, hence a secondary base.

A third adventure that I'd like to investigate is one that is not, in my opinion, discussed as much, that being the AD&D adventure The Secret of Bone Hill. This is one of my favorite adventures. It occupies an odd space as it is intended for characters of low level, but not first level. However, its setting is perfect for kicking off a campaign. It takes place on Lendore Isle, a decent sized island - ballparking it I'd guess it is the around 6-7000 square miles, though more spread out. It's big enough to have its own terrain regions, rivers, etc. The Secret of Bone Hill details the town of Restenford, the surrounding wilderness, various evil critters in the wilds, and a ruined castle and dungeon atop Bone Hill. Again it makes use of a home base (the town of Restenford) and again there is a "main" dungeon. There's lots of encounters in the wilderness to occupy lots of play. One of my favorite encounters is a wilderness church to a god of luck, called the Church of Big Gamble. Press your luck against the priests. It was kind of a "home base" combined with a casino. One thing I liked about this adventure is it upped the weirdness, with strange forests, talking intelligent skeletons, etc. It did a lot of things not really explainable by "the rules", making for a strange setting.

Looking at this trio of adventures we can see a lot of things in common. They all have at least one "home base" for the characters and some of them have secondary bases that our heroes can use. They all have a "main" dungeon that the characters don't really have to visit, but no group of heroes dependent on treasure and killing monsters to advance in level will realistically be able to resist them. The wilderness areas themselves are filled with encounters, both static and random, for our heroes to encounter. And none of these adventures have any overarching plotline. The DM or players can certainly find one, but they themselves make no such assumptions.

With this in mind, let's consider what sort of setting I think would work well at taking these ideas while also keeping me, who will be the Judge (to use the DCC term), engaged. I'll be exploring this further in detail going forwards, but let's work in broad strokes. One thing that stands out to me right away is two of the samples I've chosen take place on islands. This isn't all that surprising - I'm a huge fan of all things nautical. I love Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels of the Napoleonic Wars. Every Independence Day we make a family outing to Boston Harbor for the U.S.S. Constitution turn-around cruise. I enjoy reading about ships, from Polynesian sailing canoes to ships-of-the-line to dreadnoughts. Going to the fantasy genre, Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series takes place on a world made up solely of islands with no real mainland. 

This isn't to say that starting off on an island necessitates a world such as that of Earthsea. The Mediterranean has islands that would be larger than Lendore Island or the Isle of Dread. And if isolation is what is desired the Pacific Ocean provides a real-world example of a setting with island chains separated by vast expanses of ocean. We'll explore the details of such a decision going forward, including determining just how much needs to be decided at the outset. But what I think we are seeing is there is something going for making use of a decent sized island. It is large enough that it provides us with a varied environment. We can have a wide variety of terrain with ancient ruins and unexplored areas. It is small enough that we can map it all at a moderate scale - if using hex-maps, using 5 or 6 miles per hex. It includes natural borders to limit where adventure will take place, but it is a soft barrier. With the acquisition of treasure and the call for further adventure characters can book passage off the island or buy their own ship and go off on adventures to the mainland (if there is one) or to other islands.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth

I made my first attempt at reading H.P. Lovecraft in the summer of 1989, between high school and college. I was taking a pre-calculus class that summer to allow me to start my engineering studies at the University of Connecticut with that prerequisite met. It was an awfully boring class as I'd taken non-AP pre-calculus and calculus in high school (though regretfully didn't do well enough to test out of it). Summer classes were rather long and had an intermission. I usually brought along a book to read during break in case I wanted to be alone. One of the authors I brought along was H.P. Lovecraft.

The first few stories I read didn't grab me too much. I wasn't much into Lovecraft's evocative descriptions at the time, wanting more to get to the point. Then one afternoon I came upon the novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. That was the story that got me hooked.

For those unfamiliar with the work (and as usual I will stay clear of  big spoilers as much as possible) it deals with the young narrator taking a tour of New England on the cheap. While in Newburyport (a real Massachusetts town) he learns of nearby town of Innsmouth (a fictional town) which the residents of Newburyport view with superstition and dread. Researching Innsmouth he learns how the town had once been wealthy but had fallen upon hard times and decides to visit it.

The visit to the town is where the story truly comes to its own. The town itself just isn't right. Boarded up houses, natives with a strange "Innsmouth look" - a fishy look to them. Touring the town he learns much of the town from an out-of-town boy who works in the local supermarket and from the town drunk. He learns how Innsmouth merchant Obed Marsh made bargains with undersea creatures and as time goes on the price they must pay for what they get from these creatures, known as the Deep Ones, increases.

The boy had planned on spending just the afternoon in Innsmouth but the only bus that can take him out has "broken down", forcing him to stay in a hotel in Innsmouth. Needless to say the townspeople are on to him and what follows that night is Lovecraft at the peak of his powers as he weaves a tale of horror with the townsfolk coming after the narrator and the narrator engaging in an effort to escape, sending him in a chase throughout the hotel and out into the town. Here is where Lovecraft's wordy, evocative style pays off. The narrator sits in his bed while the natives make their first attempts to get to him as the doorknob is attempted and then the narrator hears a scuffle in the hallways around him. Lovecraft builds up the tension slowly, allowing it to seep into his readers.

Every year or two I find myself rereading this story. During a vacation in New Hampshire I once found myself in a hotel that greatly resembled the hotel that Lovecraft portrayed in Innsmouth. Thankfully it was in a town north of the White Mountains and far from the coast, but it still brought back some chilling memories.

Now being a Massachusetts resident, a few years ago I had reason to visit Newburyport, a Massachusetts town along the North Shore. Lovecraft described Innsmouth as a "considerably twisted" version of Newburyport. While the residents were friendly and lacked any "Innsmouth look", the layout of the town was quite different from what I was used to in the western suburbs of Boston. Lots of narrow, twisty streets. The presence of the ocean felt inherent to the character of the town.

So for members of the gaming community, what does this story bring? Obviously if you are playing in or running a Call of Cthulhu game it is in your list of must-reads. But it is also an excellent work for those running any horror or fantasy game. It even is workable for science fiction, considering some of the strange alien planets visited in Star Trek or Doctor Who. The techniques Lovecraft uses for building the horror and, more importantly, dread, make for excellent study. Like in the films Alien or Jaws, Lovecraft takes his time building things up before revealing the full horror. In a role-playing game I believe this to be an especially important skill. In my experience genuine horror is a difficult feeling to evoke in a gaming session but dread is something that can be carefully cultivated and Lovecraft illustrates how to do so in a masterful fashion.

I believe that in fantasy games like D&D The Shadow Over Innsmouth provides special inspiration. There are a number of aquatic humanoid monsters that can be made a great deal creepier when viewed through the lens of the Deep Ones. Easily coming to mind are the lizard men, the Sahuagin, and the Kuo-toa. The Kuo-toa are clearly inspired by the Deep Ones and in later incarnations of the game the resemblance increases. Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG includes the Deep Ones themselves in their list of monsters.

The idea of a town like that of Innsmouth lends itself for a variety of fantasy adventures, from dealing with the cult infiltrating the town to an undersea adventure to the home of the Deep Ones.

If you've not read this story, read it. And if you're read it, it is in my opinion well worth a reread.

I believe The Shadow Over Innsmouth has entered the public domain and can be found at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive and is found in a variety of Lovecraft collections. I am also fond of the audiobook version as read by Phil Reynolds.

Monday, May 14, 2012

RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"

"In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."

One of my more enduring campaigns of late has been a Call of Cthulhu game. In a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game based on the works of the American horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Along with Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft can be considered the founders of American horror literature. It is difficult to imagine a Stephen King without an H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft described the premise behind his works rather well in a letter that accompanied his submission of his short story "Call of Cthulhu":

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form-and the local human passions and conditions and standards-are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unspairing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown-the shadow-haunted Outside-we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.
As one can tell, Lovecraft told tales of humanity facing an uncaring cosmos. There are vast forces in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. It would not do to call them evil, suffice to say that they are to humanity as we are to gnats.

In the Call of Cthulhu RPG our heroes take on the role of investigators dealing with these unknowable horrors. The game itself is something of a living fossil, for though it is in its 6th edition it has not changed very much since its inception - the latest version of the game is certainly thicker than the original 1st edition boxed set, but this is a result of new material being added. You could take a 1st edition Call of Cthulhu adventure and run it with 6th edition characters and rules without any need for conversion. 

The Call of Cthulhu game tends to assume that the investigators will be set in one of three eras - the "classic" era (the 1920s and early 30s, during which Lovecraft was active), modern times, and the "gaslight" era of the 1890s. Major expansions have been released to support the middle ages (Cthulhu Dark Ages) and Imperial Rome (Cthulhu Invictus). 

As is my tendency, I will give an opinion-laden overview of what one gets with the game followed by some closing thoughts.


The 6th edition version I have is a thick paperback book. It is pretty durable, having survived being tossed into numerous bags an being passed around the table.

The PDF version is less impressive. While certainly serviceable, it is very bare-bones. There is no outline or table of contents, making for a difficult task of navigation.

"The Call of Cthulhu" Short Story

The book opens with a reproduction of Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" short story, dealing with the operations of the Cthulhu cult and those who have faced it. This has been in all versions of the game since the 5.5. version of 1998. I think its inclusion is a good idea, it answers very well the common RPG question "what do I do". 

Game System

The next section of the book deals with the main rules of Call of Cthulhu including items such as character generation, skills, combat.

In a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu uses a version of what is called the Basic Roleplaying System, frequently abbreviated as BRP. BRP first appeared as part of the first version of RuneQuest, originally published by Chaosium. It has since been published by Avalon Hill and Mongoose Publishing and a new version is forthcoming by The Design Mechanism. Variants of BRP found their way into games like Elfquest, Ringworld, Stormbringer, Pendragon, and lots of other games.

Most versions of BRP use a set of attributes which typically range from 3-18. In Call of Cthulhu they are Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, and Education. Size and Intelligence are generated with 2d6+6, Education with 3d6+3, and all others with 3d6. There are several derived stats including:
  • Sanity - starts as Power x 5 but can go down as a character faces various horrors. It is something of a joke in the Call of Cthulhu community that even if you survive long-term your character will probably go insane.
  • Hit Points - an average of Size and Constitution. They never increase as you "level up". Most characters are a well-placed gunshot away from death at all times. This does intend to encourage caution.

Your character starts with a default value in a variety of skills. Skills are ranked from 0 to 99 and represents your chance to succeed at a task using those skills. There isn't much given in the way of contested actions and various difficulty levels, though the newest incarnation of the BRP rules (not required to play Call of Cthulhu) has some guidelines and most Cthulhu GMs (or "Keepers" as they are called) develop their own rules. The default values vary somewhat depending on the era of play being used.

After generating attributes one then selects an occupation. You get 10 x Intelligence to improve any skill and 20 x Education to improve a subset of skills dependent on your occupation. Clearly based on this not all characters are created equally. That said, min-maxing is a fairly pointless exercise in my experience of running Cthulhu games. More important than a well-skilled character is an intelligent player, or even better, group of players. The foes in Cthulhu are such that a character with 99% in handgun is still one bite doing 10d10 damage away from death. Unlike D&D there is no concept of "levels". Most of the game is built around your skills. You improve your skills primarily by using them. During an adventure you check off skills that you successfully used - with the Keeper's approval - they have to be important uses of the skill not. After the adventure ends you make a skill test for each skill but instead of wanting to succeed you want to fail. If you fail your skill goes up. In other words, as you improve in a skill it becomes harder to improve it.

There are rules for combat and skill use - they are pretty general. Cthulhu assumes a game that has a Keeper who is comfortable making rulings during play. I don't want to give the impression that its totally free-form, but it is far less detailed than games like D&D 3.x and 4e games. One weakness in the game, in my opinion, is some vagueness in rules such as dodging, parrying, etc.

There is a lengthy section of rules for using Sanity. Exposure to various horrors, eldritch and mundane, can wear away an investigator's Sanity. For the most part exposure to such sanity-blasting horrors causes the character to make a Sanity-check. Failure causes the Sanity to go down by an amount, success means no loss, or, in the event, of worse horrors, a smaller amount. Making use of magic in Cthulhu usually incurs a cost in Sanity that cannot be avoided. The more you increase your Cthulhu Mythos skill the lower your maximum Sanity becomes. 

Losing a certain amount of Sanity at once causes a character to go temporarily insane. Larger losses result in extended insanity. A Sanity of zero removes the character from play as he becomes a slave to the forces beings of the Cthulhu Mythos. Lower Sanity also makes later checks less likely to succeed as Sanity rolls are made based on your current score.

The Sanity rules, while not something out of a psychiatry textbook, avoid turning insanity into something laughable. I'm pleased that the rules for Sanity are treated maturely - as a person who has dealt with mental health issues in his family, it is not something I take as humorous.

Sanity can be regained, though it tends to be far easier to lose than regain.

The Game System section closes with a section on magic. It does not include sample spells (those come later) but rather it discusses how one learns magic. Magic is learned from studying tomes of the Cthulhu Mythos. These books are difficult to decipher, typically written by madmen, often  in dead languages. It can take months to complete the reading of such a tome. 

Casting magic requires the expenditure of Magic Points. Magic Points start equal to a characters Power and regenerate over the course of a day. They also usually require the expenditure of Sanity points. Some truly powerful spells require the permanent expenditure of Power. There are ways to gain Power but this is a difficult undertaking and one that is not guaranteed to succeed, usually by testing one's Power against other beings.


The next section in the book is its lengthy Reference section. It includes items such as:
  • A discussion of the Cthulhu Mythos
  • A discussion of the Necronomicon, one of the key books of the Mythos
  • A biography of H.P. Lovecraft
  • A list of mental disorders
  • Guidance for Keepers 
  • Creatures of the Mythos - something of a "monster manual" for Cthulhu
  • Deities of the Mythos - stats of Mythos deities. The stats aren't really needed - most could read "eats 1d4 investigators per round". However the description of the deities is useful as it gives guidelines for the followers of the deities.


Finally there are several scenarios. This is extremely useful - I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the sample scenarios included in the game. They tend to assume a game set in the 1920s, though they can be moved to other eras with some adjustment.

Overall Impression

Though I've had Call of Cthulhu for years and played off and on I've gotten a lot of play over the past two years or so. While the game has a reputation for a horrific body count my games have tended to involve some very cautious investigators who have managed to survive, albeit scarred and somewhat mentally damaged. For the most part my games have involved dealing with human cults and minor servitors of the Mythos - no battles with Cthulhu.

As I mentioned in my Overview, the rules themselves are pretty light. The engineer in me who loves to tinker keeps on thinking I shouldn't enjoy the rules as written but every time I play a game of Cthulhu I find the rules serve their purpose perfectly - they fade away when not needed and work well when they are required. One key, and I think this is true of many games, is knowing when not to use the rules. If a character is searching for a secret note right where the note is, of course they find it.

Pelgrane Press has released their own Cthulhu game, Trail of Cthulhu, using their Gumshoe system, a rules engine very focused on investigative games. It is designed to solve the problem of making sure the game is not derailed by a single failed roll. It's something I'm curious to try out. I've had hints of that problem in my own Call of Cthulhu games but never to the extent that it blocked progress. However one should be aware that many older Call of Cthulhu scenarios, available via Chaosium or RPGNow, while mostly excellent, sometimes have points in the adventure that are totally dependent on a single clue or a single decision. With that caveat, it is a very nice feature of the game that there are a lot of premade scenarios available, both from Chaosium and several licencees.

My own experiences have primarily been in the classic era. I'd be very curious to try running a more fantasy-oriented Cthulhu game, set in a setting like Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne cycle.  

All in all I've found Call of Cthulhu to be an enjoyable game. It's core book is a nicely complete game though there are a ton of supplements out there. If you're not playing Cthulhu it still has some value - if you're playing another BRP game and want to add some cosmic horrors, the beasties here slide in rather nicely. It also makes a nice inspiration work if you are running games in other systems, though I'd argue in such a case you might be better off just reading the works of Lovecraft and others of his circle.

It is refreshing to see a game whose editions represent minor iterative changes. In my experience BRP is a system that does what it needs to do and fades into the background when you don't need it. It is well-suited to gaming in the universe H.P. Lovecraft and his heirs created.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

On Bullying

Having written a political blog in the past I'd decided that this blog would be more focused on the more geeky side of life. This past week there was a Washington Post story on how current US Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney had bullied a fellow student. To quote the story:
Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors. 
The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another.

I'm not writing to say that every sin we commit in childhood must be held against us for all time and there are those who consider this to be a non-story. However, I found Mr. Romney's response to this story troubling. He issued a rather tepid response:

I don't recall the incident myself, but I've seen the reports and I'm not going to argue with that. There's no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.

What bothers me is Mr. Romney does not seem to indicate an awareness of just how hurtful bullying can be. Mr. Romney indicates he does not recall the incident though does acknowledge it as a possibility. If he is being truthful I find it somewhat frightening that he is able to forget something like that.

This is where I tie things into the rest of my blog. For me, the transition from elementary school (kindergarten through 5th grade) to middle school (6th through 8th grade) was very difficult. I remember being mocked for  my weight, for the jeans I wore, for the way I played the trumpet, the way I walked, my bookishness, the way I spoke. I remember the spitballs. I remember the close friend who betrayed me as a way to help himself socially. I'm a forty year old adult who has thus far had a reasonably good adulthood. Happily married, two wonderful kids, a good career. Not a perfect life, but one that I have to say I'm happy with. Yet I still look back at those days with pain. I'm forty years old and 6th grade was probably the worst year of my life, beating out a lot of adult problems which have come since. If I could pull off stretching out a cold I would. Not one morning did I wake up looking forward to going to school. The most common emotion would be one of dread.

Oddly enough, as I looked through social networking sites, I don't seem to be the only person among my peers of around the same age who dealt with such issues.

D&D was one of my escapes from this bullying. I had my D&D group on Saturday mornings. I could get lost reading books, preparing for games, etc. And the social aspect of the game was a lifesaver for me, as it gave me friends, it gave me some level of confidence in my own circle. There was no real "cool geek" subculture back then.

Today bullying is taken more seriously. I'm proud to say that when my wife as a teacher witnessed a student being bullied for his sexuality she pounced on it. I think that is necessary. One needn't look far to find a story of a student bullied into suicide.

It is overly simplistic to label all bullies as the stereotypical evil bruiser of a kid who is on a mission of destruction. I have witnessed scenarios with younger children where the bully really needed to be made aware of the hurt he or she was causing in their way of getting attention..

Mr. Romney missed an excellent opportunity. I didn't need him to get down on his knees and and engage in an act of self-flagellation. But I feel as a person in the public eye and a leader he missed an excellent opportunity to educate. I would have loved to have heard something along the lines of... "Looking back on those days with the eyes of an adult I can now see I engaged in behavior that would today be regarded as bullying. I can only offer my sincerest apologies for the any pain I  caused in my ignorance and would like to praise the teachers of our nation who take an active role in making every student feel safe and secure in school."

I'm feeling a bit glum for posting something so serious and real-world to what is intended to be a geekiness embracing blog. My life did get better. I still encountered bullying throughout the rest of middle school and high school, though never to the same extent. I also seemed to shed some of the big target I had on me as I grew in confidence in myself. And remember the advice of Foamy the Squirrel on bullies...

Friday, May 11, 2012

ProFantasy's Campaign Cartographer 3

As I mentioned last week I view maps as something to be both functional and artistic. Last week I reviewed the Hexographer program which leans more towards the functional side, emphasizing production of hex maps as seen in the old D&D Gazetteer series.

This week I'll be discussing ProFantasy's Campaign Cartographer 3, (CC3) an application that can produce some absolutely amazing maps. While it get easier to use with practice, at its core it is a specialized CAD program. You get a ton of functionality but at a cost in ease of use.

Let's start with showcasing what CC3 is capable of producing. Below is a map I designed using CC3 in the style of the old Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle Earth Roleplaying Game maps, as drawn by Pete Fenlon. (Click on this and other images here to see the maps at full size. Also note that none of them have labels or text on them yet.)

My skills with CC3 are probably middle of the road - I've been using it and its predecessor, CC2, for years, albeit not extensively. For me it's a tool with which I have a fair amount of proficiency - probably akin to someone who occasionally makes use of Excel vs. someone who is able to whip out all sorts of pivot tables, graphs, predictive models, etc. The map above took me a few hours to develop, designed to portray a land on the shores of a large freshwater lake.

Let's discuss a bit as to what CC3 is and what is available for it. At its core is the main CC3 program which is optimized for making overland wilderness maps.The map I produced above used a template that defined a set of tools to produce a map in the style of the Pete Fenlon Middle Earth maps.This came with a paid add-on. To give you an idea what you can produce with the default template see the example below. Note that the following map is one I developed in only about 15 minutes and so it is of course much lesser quality and detail than the map above - rather it is designed to give a broad idea what the default style looks like.

With the default program you have symbol sets and templates to produce a variety of overland maps and basic dungeons. You can also purchase add-ons. Some of the more notable ones include:
  • Dungeon Designer 3 - Symbol sets, templates, and tools to produce more detailed dungeons in a variety of styles.
  • City Design 3 - Symbol sets, templates, and tools to produce city and village maps.
  • Cosmographer - Symbol sets, templates, and tools to produce starship deck plans, Traveller sector maps, etc.
  • Symbol Sets - A variety of products with symbols for fantasy overland maps, modern floorplans, dungeon symbols, etc.
  • Annuals - A subscription to ProFantasy's monthly series. Each issue comes with a PDF giving a tutorial on producing maps of a certain style, along with add-ons to CC3 and sample maps.
I find the annuals to be of great use in that the issues both provide new tools and also have useful tutorials. The annuals have features themes like landform maps, maps in the style of Sarah Wroot's Dying Earth Maps, Forgotten Realms-style maps, Middle Earth Roleplaying-style maps, modern atlases, sailing ships, etc. The caveat to bear in mind is this can get to be quite an expensive undertaking, with the main product and its add-ons running around $40 each and the symbol sets in $20s. 

Is it worth it? That depends on what you want and how much time you want to dedicate to it. If you are making professional maps or just really like maps and you are willing to put the time into it then I absolutely believe it is worth it. On the other hand if you want something quick and dirty you are probably better using simpler, more inexpensive or free tools.

With all that in mind I've not discussed much about what the program itself is like to use. As I've mentioned, it is essentially a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) program. What you have to keep in mind when using it is that it important to understand how the program builds your maps (which is documented). Maps are made up of sheets and layers. It is probably best to quote CC3's online help (which is quite useful) to define these:

Layers are a way of associating related entities. CC3 has many pre-defined mapping layers including STRUCTURES and VEGETATION. CC3 pre-defines two other layers: Merge and Standard which can renamed, but not removed from a drawing. Each drawing has its own set of layers, each with its own layer status.

Sheets can be thought of as a stack of transparent pieces. Like layers, sheets can be hidden or shown. Unlike layers, all entities on each sheet are sorted into order by sheet name, back to front. Sheets have certain advantages:
  • You can always ensure that certain features are on top of others. If you have BACKGROUND sheet with the contours and map border on, it will always draw before the trees, mountains and symbols. You could have a HEX/SQUARE grid sheet that always draws last.
  • Sheets can be hidden. This speeds up drawing time immensely, as CC3 skips over an entire section of the drawing when a sheet it hidden.
  • Each sheet can have one or more effects to improve the appearance of your maps. You can make the grid overlay semi-transparent, add a glow to text, or add a shadow to a wall.

Just reading this gives an idea that you are dealing with something that isn't a simple drop a symbol into a hex. But it is important to emphasize you gain a lot with this. For example, suppose you want to have a swamp that extends all the way to a coastline. You typically draw a swamp by creating a filled polygon. As you define the points of the polygon you can use modifiers to have your next point be on the line used to draw the coast and you can instruct the program to trace the coastline from one point to another point. When drawing rivers you can make the final point of a tributary go precisely on a point on the main river. 

One thing I've often done is taken one map and moved it to another - either to incorporate a detailed map into a larger scale map or to make a more detailed map of a section of a larger scale map. Say for example I have an island in a large-scale map. What I've done is used a copy operation to grab all the elements of that island and copied it to the clipboard. I then create a new map of a smaller scale, one that can fit all of the island (if that is what I want). I then paste the island into the new map. Now typically what I then do is move all of the details of the island I just pasted to a temporary layer or sheet as the larger scale map will be more coarse and will sometimes even be of a different style (some styles work better for large scale maps and some for small scale maps). I'd then redraw the island, tracing if I wanted to at points, but often not under the assumption that the larger scale map is less detailed and is missing smaller bays, twists and turns of rivers, etc. 

Going in the opposite direction, where I want to create a more detailed map for a small section of a larger map, I'll often paste the entire larger map into the smaller - it will almost certainly be larger than the smaller map's boundaries. I'll make certain the section I want to detail is in the boundaries, move everything to a temporary sheet, and start trimming until nothing remains but the smaller area. At this point I'll use what remains as the basis for a new map, but again I will often avoid tracing as I want to introduce more detail.

As you can see, just from those examples there are a lot of tricks you can use. Again though, this comes at a cost. When making mountains you'll often find yourself making adjustments when one mountain is incorrectly in front of another. When making polygons you'll start dreading "leaking multipolies" (enjoy your ignorance for now). 

What I'm trying to do in this review is both scare and encourage potential buyers. This is product for people who love maps and think they are absolutely worth some work to produce them. I don't want to scare you too much. While the second map I show above is nothing all that special, I'm proud of the first map. There's people out there who can produce much better maps, but I think it's rather nice and evokes the feel I was aiming for. With a moderate amount of practice you can easily get to the level of proficiency to produce maps like that. 

One closing thought - if you do decide to take the plunge do be aware that ProFantasy has an excellent support community at their website. There are forums filled with people, affiliated with ProFantasy and fans, who are more than willing to help. It is a friendly community to - when people post maps for advice or critiques, criticisms are always given in an encouraging manner - i.e. here's what you did good, here's what needs some work, etc. I don't think I've ever seen someone get flamed or insulted based on a map or question - at worse I've seen people referred to various tutorials or manuals for guidance.

Technical details - CC3 is a Windows only application. It works on Windows XP and later OS-es. I've had luck using it on Macs running Parallels or VMware Fusion (disclaimer - I'm an employee of EMC which holds VMware as a partial subsidiary), though I tend to prefer working on a dedicated Windows PC.  It doesn't require an incredibly high-powered system, though as a CAD-program it certainly performs better with more memory and faster processor speeds, but I've seen it work reasonably well on netbooks (though the smaller display was a hindrance). I