Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reboots, Reality Shifts, and Retcons

In the 1980s DC Comics felt they had a problem. If you were new to comics you could pick up two comics with Superman in them and be unaware they took place in different universes. All the DC Heroes of the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s were from a universe called Earth-2. More modern heroes lived in a universe called Earth-1. Both Supermen had a secret identity Clark Kent, though the Superman of Earth-2 began his career in the 1930s while the Superman of Earth-1 began his career "a few years ago". Similarly the Flash of Earth-2 had as a secret identity Jay Garrick, also beginning his career in the 30s/40s while the Flash of Earth-1 was Barry Allen, beginning his career "a few years ago". Sometimes characters from these universes met each other.

Add to these universes ones where heroes and villains swapped, universes for characters from companies DC Comics had acquired, etc. and DC felt their continuity had become convoluted. Their solution was Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12-issue series was designed to simplify things, combining all these universes into one. Great battles took place, with entire universes being destroyed and a new universe was created, largely from Earth-1, but with elements from other universes. The heroes of the 1930s and 40s still existed unless that character's incarnation was still in use, in which case the hero was removed from the "Golden Age" era of the 30s and 40s. For example Superman was established to have begun his career a few years ago as did the Barry Allen Flash but the Jay Garrick Flash still existed from the 30s and 40s - and was still around, albeit semi-retired. Many of the Golden Age characters were explained to have had exposure to some magic anti-aging effect used to justify how despite their early adventures actually having a definitive date they were still in excellent physical shape, typically being portrayed as no older than late middle age.

Given all this tweaking, the editors decide this would be a fine time to revisit the origins of their classic characters. For example Superman's backstory was changed such that he was never Superboy and his parents were stil alive. This had some nasty side-effects - much of the history of the 30th century Legion of Superheroes involved time travel allowing them to have adventures with Superboy. A modification Hawkman's backstory made a number of comics actively being published an apparent contradiction. It became difficult to know if a given story from the past ever happened and if it did if it had any changes. DC dealt with this by having additional "crisis crossovers" which made additional changes to the universe, re-introduced in a limited way the concept of parallel Earths, and made additional changes to the backstories of heroes.

Finally DC had a crossover known as Flashpoint which, at the end, redid the universe yet again, leading to DC's New 52. All comics were reset to issue 1. This included, rather surprisingly, some comics whose numbering was beginning to close in on an issue 1,000, having been in continuous publication since the 1930s. Some heroes have had large changes to their backstory - for example, the marriage of Clark Kent and Lois Lane was eliminated - actually it now never happened. On the other hand, the main Green Lantern comic book continued pretty much where it left off, albeit with a new focus based on what happened previously.

DC Comics is probably the best known entity to have done such operations in retroactive continuity though they are by far from the only one. Marvel has tended to avoid radical retroactive redefinitions to their universe wholesale, though one notable exception was the "One More Day" storyline in Amazing Spider-Man, where Peter Parker, alter-ego of Spider-Man, and his wife, Mary-Jane, made a deal with the devil to undo their marriage in exchange for saving the life of Peter's elderly Aunt May. This was met with a great deal of unhappiness by the fans. I'll be talking about reactions to retcons below but I'll touch on this one specifically. The issue that Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada wanted to deal with is they felt Peter Parker's marriage inhibited storytelling potential. I don't necessarily agree with that assessment - I think not having story potential due to marriage is a bit of a cop-out but even assuming that to be the case, the solution was very inelegant. It was a retcon that Peter Parker chose for himself. Though he loved his aunt, it is difficult to believe it is what she would want for him - heck she was the one that pretty much shoved Peter into having a date with her. But moreover the "deal with the devil" aspect of this was particularly unsatisfying. It is true that some marriages do not work out and it would seem a divorce would be a more reasonable solution than a deal with the devil. As I understand it Marvel was hesitant to have Peter Parker get divorced, not liking the stigma of it, but a deal with the devil seems a lot less acceptable. It's a difficult balancing act - on one hand they wanted Peter to make a choice and his whole motivation for being a superhero was his failure to stop a criminal led nearly directly to his uncle's death - so it is easy to understand how much he would want to save his aunt. But the choice he made just... it left a very bad taste in my mouth as a reader and I imagine others felt similarly.

Moving outside of comics into films and television we find retcons to be less prevalent. There what seems to be the new trend is that of a "reboot". An example of this is the Batman films of the 80s and 90s followed by the modern Batman Begins/The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight rises series. On one hand a reboot can make some sense if a series left on a bad note or it has been a long time since the last installment. On the other hand it can be overdone - for example it seems rather odd for Spider-Man to be getting rebooted so quickly.

One technique that I was particularly fond of was the one Doctor Who took when it returned to television after not being a regular show for over 15 years (with a single made for TV movie in that gap). Doctor Who simply continued but did so in a way that did away with a number of continuity concerns. The original television series delved into a lot of backstory involving the Doctor and his people, the Time Lords. The new series added a new backstory where the Doctor's people were wiped out in a Time War with the Daleks. The Doctor was shown to be able to regenerate into a new incarnation (and new actor) in the previous series so this series started with a new actor as the Doctor - but it did not even mention regeneration until that actor departed. The new show was largely from the perspective of his companion Rose who was a stand-in for the audience who knew nothing about all the backstory of Doctor Who. And the show was careful to not expect detailed knowledge of previous continuity - if something from the original show was introduced it was introduced in such a way that it could be explained to someone who knew nothing about that thing. Doctor Who is an unusual case in that its premise as a time travel show allowed the removal of the Time Lords as something absolutely appropriate to the concept - indeed in the original show the Time Lords were shown attempting to wipe out the Daleks before they ever existed. This technique was very wise in my opinion - the made for TV movie involved lots of "info-dumps" to explain all sorts of things. It started from the perspective of the Doctor vs. making use of a human stand-in for the audience.

Role playing games have had to deal with such matters as well. The transition from 1st to 2nd edition Adcanced Dungeons & Dragons was, in the Forgotten Realms, explained via The Time of Troubles where certain gods ceased to exist, certain classed stopped being available, and certain changes to magic took place. It wasn't a retcon as the characters were expected to have actually experienced the transition. The transition from 2nd to 3rd edition was oddly ignored despite being a larger change in rules. Interestingly in the Eberron setting the transition from 3rd to 4th edition, involving another large change in rules was never touched upon whereas the Forgotten Realms introduced the changes during a large time gap.

Some games upon changing editions, even if those changes did not involve "reality shifts", make massive changes to the background. For example, in the Traveller RPG the default setting is the Imperium, an empire which rules much of known space. The next edition of Traveller, MegaTraveller did not introduce large changes in the rules but rather added lots of details and new rules while leaving much of the core intact. Despite that the default setting changed to that of the Rebellion - a massive civil war as various factions formed trying to claim the throne of the Imperium. A larger change to the rules in Traveller: The New Era advanced the timeline of the default setting even further, making it into something of a post-apocalyptic setting with a sentient computer virus wreaking havoc on civilization.

When dealing with non-interactive entertainment my reaction to retcons, reboots, and the like is variable. If I was actively following a series and was quite happy with it my reaction to the change is less likely to be positive. An example of this was what was done in Spider-Man. I was greatly enjoying the storylines that were taking place.  Not only was Peter Parker's marriage undone but major changes like his public revelation of his secret identity was undone as well. Moreover it was done in such a way that just didn't feel all that "heroic" to me.

On the other hand I had a more positive reaction to DC's New 52. I'm in a bit of minority in that I suspect so I'll explain what it was I liked vs. what I didn't like. First of all, the change in continuity, triggered by the Flash, was not something like what was done in Spider-Man - it was done to undo a dystopian timeline and the restored timeline was not as deliberate as what was done for Spider-Man. It was still most certainly an editorial decision. But I think it was one that made a certain amount of sense. In the years leading up to it I believe DC overdid it on there "crisis of the year" storylines. Moreover books like Superman and Batman had become so convoluted with their stories spread out over numerous monthly comics - it had reached the point I had long prior given up trying to read those characters. While I'm not too crazy about the undoing of the Clark Kent/Lois Lane marriage, it's worth noting that at this point I'm reading a lot more DC comics than Marvel ones at this point.

One comic I'd like to address directly is one just recently begun and at the time of this writing has only had two issues - Earth-2. This comic re-introduced the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths idea of Earth-2 characters. It had parallel versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, using their original identities. However, unlike the original Earth-2 the superhero boom that followed takes place later than it does in the original DC Earth-2 continuity. Instead of the Jay Garrick incarnation of the Flash who began his career around World War II this Jay Garrick incarnation becomes the Flash before our eyes. It was a bold move but I think it was necessary - I love the original pre-Crisis versions of the the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. but in my opinion those characters in the mainstream continuity just seemed out of place as permanent "elder statesmen". (A notable exception to this being the excellent James Robinson Starman series of the 90s). Earth-2 seems to make these characters relevant again in a way they hadn't been for several years.

I guess in my mind my view on retcons or reboots is if the end result is good I'll likely enjoy it. I'm less crazy about changes to RPG settings. Generally speaking I prefer those that set their setting at a specific point in time and give it to the GM to do with as he or she will.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fiction Review: C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

My gateway into fantasy literature was not, as seems standard for my generation, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but rather C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, of which The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first novel.

I'm not 100% certain but I believe I may have watched the 1979 animated version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe prior to reading it for the first time. I do remember the Narnia novels displayed prominently in the children's section of my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

So to start, lets talk a bit about The Chronicles of Narnia. They are a series of seven juvenile fantasy novels, originally published in the 1950s, telling tales of children from our world who visit the magical land or Narnia. Narnia is a land of talking beasts and fantasy creatures, where a Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve is meant to sit on the throne of Narnia. By that terminology one can quickly see the novels have a religious component and indeed Lewis intended them to be a sort of alternate Christianity, a Christian world where the Christ-figure is a mighty lion. To be honest, it took me some time as a child to catch onto the allegory - I originally read them for tales of a fantastic realm and to dream of the possibility of visiting my own Narnia.

The novels take place over a wide span of time in Narnia, ranging from its creation to its ending. Like many series, the order of the books take place in does not match the order in which they were published. The current publisher, Harper Collins, has been publishing them in chronological order, something I think is a mistake. In this order, The Magician's Nephew, detailing the creation of Narnia, is the first book in the series, despite being the sixth published. However, as a prequel, it refers to events that take place in the first published novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is typical of prequels and due to this I almost always prefer to read a series in the order it was originally published.

Narrowing our discussion down to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, let us take a brief look at the novel itself. It deals with four siblings, from oldest to youngest being Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are sent to live with an old professor within an enormous house to keep them safe from the London Blitz, currently taking place.

In exploring the house, Lucy finds an enchanted wardrobe which takes her to Narnia. It is a realm where it is always winter (and never Christmas) and ruled by an evil witch. Returning to the wardrobe, she is surprised to find no time has passed in our world, despite being in Narnia for several hours. She is disappointed that none of her siblings believe her tale. Interestingly, the professor is portrayed as a reasonable authority figure - when Lucy's siblings discuss Lucy's wild tale with him, he urges them to consider the possibility, even probability, that she is indeed telling the truth.

Of course the siblings all find their way into Narnia together and find themselves against the White Witch who has been on the watch for "sons of Adam" and "daughters of Eve". One of the siblings actually winds up in the witch's camp. Over the course of the novel we are told that Aslan is returning and the spell of winter begins to break up (though not before it is Christmas, a Christmas where the children receive some rather cool items to aid them in their quest, items which I've seen appear in the occasional D&D game).

With the help of Aslan the great lion (and lots of Christian allegory), our heroes fight the forces of the White Witch to put sons of Adam and daughters of Eve on the thrones of Narnia.

How is the actual book? And does it hold up to adult reading? It's a difficult question for me to read. As one of my favorite books of my childhood, it's hard for me to answer it analytically, but I'll make an attempt. The first thing I notice is it follows a trend of a lot of fantasy and science fiction of its day in having characters from our world visit other worlds. It's a useful narrative technique as it allows the introduction of a world from the perspective of characters who are not familiar with it. I found it especially effective in Narnia as it allows the reader to share in the wonder the characters feel.

As an adult one notices a bit of deus ex machina in the resolution of the story such that it seems our human protagonists have much (though certainly not all of) the challenges resolved for them. However as a Christian allegory that is perhaps not all that surprising and one could even argue for its appropriateness.

Does it work for a non-Christian? I suppose that depends on one's attitude toward Christianity. For adults the allegory is hard to miss and for someone who is hostile to Christianity I would imagine it would be a rather frustrating work to read, though I know atheists who have been able to enjoy it for the story. This shouldn't be in the least surprising - I've found enjoyment in reading tales that presuppose beliefs that are not my own. Also though a Christian allegory, there is a danger in viewing everything about it through that lens. Not everything is a one to one mapping to Christian tales and Alsan does not do everything for our heroes. They have to make their own decisions and one has to face up to making a grievous mistake. There are elements inspired not from Christian tales of our world but from those of other beliefs for example both in this work and in others in this series there is a heavy dose of Greek mythology to be found.

Moving away from our discussion of the written work I'd like to give a few thoughts to its interior art. In the first American version I read each chapter began with an illustration by Pauline Baynes, with the British version having more of her artwork. I found her artwork to be deceptively simple - at first glance it looked like a simple sketch but they are more than what they appear to be, imparting, at least for me, as strong feel and being rich in detail.

Monday, June 25, 2012

RPG Review: Caves and Caverns

Examining my history with D&D I find it interesting to notice some of the products that I missed. For whatever reason, my early gaming was entirely devoid of any Judges Guild products.

Judges Guild was one of the first (maybe the first) licensed 3rd party publisher for D&D. They produced lots of supplements, from settings to adventures to reference charts. For whatever reason, I never encountered any of their products.

A number of their products are available for download at RPGNow, though to be honest, the quality of their scans is pretty horrible. I've been occasionally sweeping up reasonably priced physical copies of their books that I find online.

Recently I acquired their Caves and Caverns product. It is described as "Forty-Eight Caves & Caverns with Nine Pages of Charts & Guidelines using the City State Campaign Hexagon System." With that description I was expecting something resembling TSR's Dungeon Geomorphs. Their mention of the Campaign Hexagon System was however an indication of what to expect.

Instead the product is dominated by maps using Judges Guilds' campaign hexagon system. Oddly, there is no scale given for these maps - unless I'm missing it this would seem to be a poor oversight. From the Judges Guild website I see:

The large overland maps of the Wilderlands setting are mapped in 5 mile hexes. Each five-mile hex can be broken down using these maps into smaller hexes of .2 miles (1056 feet). Using the same maps, those .2 mile hexes can be broken down into smaller hexes approximately 40 feet from side to side.
Looking at the maps here it would seem that the smaller hexes on these maps are designed to be of the forty feet variety. as some of them have buildings on them which just wouldn't make sense as 1000 feet hexes. All of the maps in this packet have small underground complexes mapped out in special dotted or hatched lines while showing the terrain above-ground.

In general I like the idea of these sorts of maps. They allow one to start off with low-detailed maps and zero in to the proper resolution for encounters. You could, for example, have a game where the characters are crossing a mountain pass. The large-scale maps would just show the mountains as symbols but as you get more detailed you could show a treacherous narrow trail that the characters must traverse.

Products like these are handy, either for generating an adventure in advance or to set up an encounter on the fly. 

This product is designed to be generic so it avoids precise D&D terminology, though it is also designed to be easily portable to D&D - and similar games like Tunnels & Trolls would have made for easy ports as well.

Also within this product are tables for generating your own caves and dungeons on the fly and random occupant tables for the maps included within this book.

How would I rate this product today? To be honest, I suspect it was a far more useful product in pre-internet days when a map for a cave complex wasn't a Google-search away. However, I can still see where these sorts of products can be useful for Judges who have careers, families, etc. and need to ration their gaming prep time accordingly. This isn't a product I'd suggest spending a ton of money to snag on eBay but it certainly is one for which one could get a lot of use.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Clerics, Blunt Weapons, and Christian Assumptions

One of the neat things about digging up many of pre-1970s works that inspired D&D is finding the origins of some of D&D's concepts and rules.

One items which received a lot of humor back in its day was the restriction of clerics only being able to use blunt weapons as they were forbidden from using weapons which shed blood. Anyone who has seen a medieval mace knows that a solid hit with one of those is going to shed a lot of blood, blunt weapon or not.

Recently I was reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. It included the following statement:
[The knight] also had available, either attached tio his saddle or carried by his squire, a longer sword for thrusting like a lance, a battle-ax fitted with a spike behind the curving blade, and a club-headed mace with sharpened, ridged edges, a weapon favored by martial bishops and abbots on the theory it did not come under the rule forbidding clerics "to smite with the edge of the sword."

This work is copyrighted 1978 so it was clearly not the actual source for the rule regarding clerics but it clearly does represent the reasoning used for a cleric's weapon restriction. I'm not certain if this is "true" or not - I've done some Googling and have seen people who do not feel there was any such restriction but either way there are clearly sources that support this restriction that Gygax and company must have encountered.

It is interesting to note how the early cleric class appears to have a high level of medieval Christian assumptions built into it. Beyond the restrictions on weapons, much of the early artwork, spells, and titles are indicative of a Christian holy order. For example the illustration show here from page 12 of the 1st edition Players Handbook is clearly indicative of a Christian holy order. Similarly artifacts such as the Mace of St. Cuthbert point in that direction as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inspirational Reading for Classical Rome and Late Antiquity

This isn't so much of a full review as it is some quick thoughts on some of the  inspirational pieces I've perused in preparation for my current campaign. Many RPGs are set in different historical eras and D&D tends to be in a setting that has some resemblance to the Middle Ages. This was probably more true in older incarnations of D&D - later generations of D&D tend to crank the fantasy dial up quite a bit.

While I'd indicated that D&D tends to be rooted in the Middle Ages I'm tweaking that assumption for my Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign. This campaign, while not set on Earth, is taking a page from Adventurer Conqueror King and is using the period of Late Antiquity as its primary inspiration. What is Late Antiquity? Its exact timing is a matter of debate, usually including some or all of the period between the 2nd and 8th centuries. It is the period where the western half of the Roman Empire fell and its eastern half found itself fighting for survival in the Byzantine-Arab Wars. It can be thought of as the transition from the straight Classical period to the Middle Ages. There is some debate amongst historians just how much of a transition this period was, some going so far as to view the end of the Roman Empire as not a calamity but rather a step in a transition to the birth of modern Europe. (I would imagine those living in Rome when it was sacked might disagree with that assessment.)

Currently I am reading Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe by William Rosen. It covers the reign of the Eastern Emperor Justinian. By his time the Western Empire had fallen. However during his reign the Eastern Empire retook much of its lost lands including Spain and Italy as well as conquering land which had never been under Roman dominion. His dreams were cut short by the plague which devastated his citizens and soldiers and provided Europe with a preview of the Black Death.

Moving back in time to the end of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Empire is there is Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. This book gives an overview of the political and military structure of the last years of the Roman Republic and the challenges it faced and how and why it collapsed. It then covers the power struggle that emerged that allowed Augustus Caesar to become Rome's first emperor (in all but name). Both these works offer awesome inspiration for gaming with players having the opportunity to become major movers and shakers in a period of great change. 

Though a dramatized account which makes some sacrifices in accuracy for the purpose of drama, the joint BBC/HBO Rome series is something well worth seeing - in it Rome becomes a real place with people with real ambitions, ranging from wine and women to rulership over all of Rome. 

Closer to the period I am using for for my game is the History Channel's Dark Ages, covering the centuries just after the fall of Rome. It is not very detailed but provides a good overview of the period making it a good starting point.

Monday, June 18, 2012

RPG Review: The Rogues Gallery

The D&D Basic Set had a spell known as "Floating Disk". It created a magical platform that would follow you around. Obviously its purpose was to provide a way to carry loot out of the dungeon - though you have to pity the poor magic-user who had that as his only spell. Congratulations, you studied magic for all those years to become a pack horse for a barbarian warrior!

When I purchased the AD&D Players Handbook thinks changed. The Floating Disk spell was changed. Now it was "Tenser's Floating Disk". And this wasn't the only named spell - you got all sorts of spells from the wizard Bigby to allow the creation of grasping hands, crushing hands, clenched fists, etc. There were spell immunity spells from Serten. It gave a glimpse of a game that was played by real people. Reading articles from The Best of Dragon Vol. 1 (which I encountered at a Brooklyn bookstore where I also purchased The Fellowship of the Ring) I got more glimpses of Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign. Though I was never able to find the Greyhawk folio which was advertised in the catalog that came with my copy of the D&D Basic Set - I finally acquired a copy a few weeks ago, though I did eventually get the expanded boxed set.

Before I managed to find the World Of Greyhawk boxed set I managed to get a copy of The Rogues Gallery. Looking back at the old TSR products it seems a lot of the earliest products were aids for Dungeon Masters - you had your Dungeon Geomorphs, Monster & Treasure Assortments, various types of record sheets, and products like The Rogues Gallery. Looking back I remember living in a world without easy access to photocopiers, printers, etc. There were no character sheets to download and print. With a supply of nickels you could make photocopies at the local library.

The Rogues Gallery was broken into sections. The first section was a list of characters (something like 50-100 per class, in table form) from all the classes in the Players Handbook, allowing a DM to quickly generate NPCs. In the middle were tools for generating sages, zero-level NPCs, NPC parties, merchant caravans, and more unusual monsters such as liches and ki-rin.

The final section is the section that is probably most memorable - it was a section of sample characters from various TSR campaigns. It had well-known characters such as Tenser, Bigby, and Robilar. They were presented in somewhat moderate incarnations - some of them were too low in level to cast some of the spells named for them or had ability scores too low to qualify to cast some of their iconic spells. It also had some less well-known characters such as the sinister Erac's Cousin and some characters who had been reincarnated as non-humans - a lizard man and centaur. Even more useful were the descriptions that accompanied the characters. You saw a fighter who used to be a ranger but couldn't handle the strict rules of the class. Characters who changed alignments, had odd motivations, etc. And their magic items were often customized - nothing approaching the power of an artifact, but rather non-standard versions of standard magic items with little variations from the standard rules.

How useful is this for gamers today? It depends on what you're looking for. If you are playing a retroclone that is extremely close to AD&D 1st edition (or 1st edition itself) then it does provide a utility which you might find useful. However I think its main use is its section of sample characters at the end of the book. The sample characters could be used as allies or villains for the PCs, they could serve as models or inspirations for NPCs, and offers some ideas for new magic items and possible adventure ideas. It's probably not something worth spending a lot of money for but

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Developing a New Campaign Setting - Welcome to Kraken Isle

I've spent a bit of free time working out the details for my campaign setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics. It actually took a bit of debate going back and forth between that and Adventurer Conqueror King System. In the end I decided on DCC, largely due to its somewhat lighter workload for the Judge, though I definitely want to run or play a game of ACKS at some point. I've posted some previous musings on this setting and this may contradict some of them - as the game gets closer to its first session the setting is becoming more concrete as some ideas are modified or discarded.

As I mentioned previously I'm inspired by what I consider to be TSR's old "mini-sandbox" adventures. I don't foresee running a "true" sandbox game with everything wide open but I do want to incorporate a large element of player control. This is what I observed TSR doing in several of their early adventures. While the Lendore Isle series of adventures remains a big inspiration, I am going with a time period of Late Antiquity instead of the Middle Ages as the inspiration for the feel of the cultures. To me that seems more true to the "Appendix N"-ishness of DCC. It seems a setting that has barbarian tribes, decadent cities, slave markets, battles between city-states, and ancient ruins.

I've been bouncing back and forth between starting the game on an island chain off the coast of a main continent or one in a sea resembling the Aegean branch of the Mediterranean. Regardless, I've mapped out the islands themselves:
You can click on it for a bigger version of the map. I'd originally named it Chronos Isle, named after the Greek god of time (and an homage to Lendore Isle from the World of Greyhawk, named after the Suel god of time). However, one of my players got a look at the island and immediately called it "Cthulhu Island". I wasn't about to rename it that but it did get me thinking about its squid-like look which led me to renaming it "Kraken Isle". The main port is on the bay at the northwest quadrant of the island - Rel Kelenan. The naming style is inspired by the World of Greyhawk's Great Kingdom, which often prefixed Aerdy city names with "Rel". This is definitely a city, albeit a smaller sized one, possibly akin to early medieval London in size. I decided I wanted it to have a little bit of character so it is built over a lagoon and therefore resembles Venice in character, with traffic going along its canals and providing protection from ay marauders and invading armies. There are several villages and towns in its vicinity to support the city with crops and there is a another grouping of settlements on the island around Turin's Pasture, on the other side of the Central Highlands. There isn't as much trade as there might be between the two groupings given the marauding tribes that dwell in the woods and mountains of Kraken Isle.

Lets talk about the marauding tribes. If you're like me, when you read that you probably pictured orcs and goblins. (Or you came here to learn about illegal drugs of the 1970s, one of the oddest search terms to ever reach this blog...) James Raggi's The Random Esoteric Creature Generator makes a most excellent suggestion regarding humanoids (and demi-himans):

Eliminate them from the game. If it has two legs and two hands, remove it and replace it with humans. The important thing is – don’t change the cultures or characterizations involved! The ones that were “dwarves” are now mining clans, short and stocky, the “elves” are forest-dwelling hunters, “orcs” are remorseless and savage barbarians, etc. Perhaps they should even keep their special racial abilities (now labeled “cultural abilities”), although it might be difficult to justify seeing in the dark. But really, is there any reason to use an ogre when a human warrior with a few levels on him will do? Is that adding to the danger, the suspense, or the mystery of the game? Details don’t even have to be changed in doing away with non-humans. Normal unclassed humans have roughly the same stats as goblins in most of the individual systems, so there would be no real balance issues in doing this. Don’t make the converted humanoids any more cultured, either.

Raggi indicates going this far out may not be for everyone:

Such issues may not be of interest to every referee or player group. And perhaps the classic fellowship of characters as presented by Tolkien, his peers, and followers is the basic lure for fantasy gaming in the first place. Fine. Use the races, but go back to the source if you do so – Tolkien brought his races together only in the direst of circumstances. 
Assuming a humanocentric focus to the game, every other demihuman and humanoid should be very rare. This does not mean limiting your players’ character choices! Let them be as they wish, but a referee should always be sure that the players are aware that their non-human characters are unusual and never trusted by more superstitious members of the population.. The average human never came into contact with elves or dwarves.

Raggi also goes on to discuss how humanoids such as orcs and goblins appeared only rarely in Tolkien and in special areas. This is a model I want to use. I want to include the classic races (species really, but the term race is perhaps unavoidable in gaming) but I want them to be special. Where are they on my island? I don't know. If there are no PCs of the given race they might not even be there. As far as orcs and goblins go, I'm going to hold off using them at the start. That doesn't mean I won't be using the stats for such races as he suggests if I need quick stats for brigands or barbarians. But I want to save orcs and goblins to be the servant of some wicked sorcerer who may have been responsible for their creation in the first place.

So back to the island. It is nominally part of the empire on the mainland but the empire isn't likely in the best of shape and is far-off. It isn't going to be sending troops to help with marauding humanoids in all likelihood. The ruler of Rel Kelenan is in charge of the archipelago but his control is limited to the settlements - the regions between are wild. And his control of the settlements isn't incredibly powerful either, given his lack of ability to clear the island of threats. But it is a good place for adventurers, with a volcano-destroyed city in the center of the island and ruins to the north reclaimed by wetlands.

But this scope is still a little on the large size. Which brings us the island known as "Little Brother" to the south of the island. I sized it so I would be able to map it in its entirety at a small scale. The map shown here is at a scale of one mile per hex.

The hex grid is a little tough to make out unless you click on the image to see it at actual size. Little Brother is an island that is lightly settled along its southern side with a main town and several villages close to it. To the north I created contours to show a hilly forested region that surrounds a swamp. Some ruins in both the swamp and the hilly region with bad reputations. To me this felt like a starting point for low level adventurers.

However, I'm a constant tinkerer and to be honest I was less than thrilled with the way the map came out. I liked how Kraken Island came out (using Campaign Cartographer) but the map I generated for Little Brother didn't quite feel right. So I went ahead and traced an image of it into Hexographer and tried making a pure hex map, making use of contour lines to show different degrees of hilly and mountainous terrain. I liked this result a bit better:

Again it needs to be expanded to see it in detail. Interestingly, when I tried to generate the map in Hexographer initially I had little luck - my creativity wasn't sparked. However when I started with a Campaign Cartographer 3 drawing as my starting point I found I was better equipped to make the map I wanted to of Little Brother.

My plan is for the characters to begin on Little Brother and those who survive will make it to 1st level. They will in short order go adventuring on the larger Kraken Isle, allowing me to exchange a tiny sandbox for a medium sized one.

One final note. My DCC campaign is currently scheduled to start on Monday June 25 at 7 PM Eastern Time using Google Hangouts. We probably have room for another player if anyone is interested - give me a holler.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Film Analysis: Prometheus

(Warning - there be spoilers for the movie Prometheus as this is more a discussion than a proper review.)

As I mentioned previously, I saw Ridley Scott's Prometheus over the weekend. I've long been a fan of the Alien series of movies (though for some reason my parents didn't take me when I was seven years old to see the original when it first came out. Going through high school and college I was a fan of the Dark Horse Comics various spinoff series (which manage to get more and more invalidated with every new release, though they are still well worth reading in their own right).

The nasty chest-bursting xenomorphs from the series inspired tons of creations in my science fiction gaming - I added my own xenomporph's to my FASA Star Trek game, coming up with the idea of the critters being biological weapons.

So, what of Prometheus? Despite clearly taking place in the same Alien universe, it is not truly an Alien movie. A variation of the familiar Alien xenomorph appears at the end but they are not the point of this movie. I've seen some blogs and reviewers refer to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness as a likely inspiration and I believe that to be spot-on. Both stories deal with the idea that human life was made by some ancient race and tell tales of scientists reaching an ancient and isolated site of these ancients.

In Prometheus, these progenitors are referred to as "Engineers". They are of the same race as the "space jockey" as seen in Alien.  I aways thought they looked somewhat like bipedal elephants but Prometheus goes with the idea that they themselves are genetically human, albeit super-sized and wearing a funky helmet. A series of ancient artwork showing the same star pattern leads the scientists of this film to the moon LV-223 (a different terrestrial body than the one in the original Alien film). They hope to encounter these Engineers and they do find a complex of the Engineers - one filled with lots of dead Engineers.

Prometheus follows several horror tropes - some of the characters are isolated and an android in the expedition experiments on one of the scientists, secretly implanting him with an alien substance.

We learn that this base was a bioweapons facility and the Engineers were preparing to destroy all life on Earth. The film asks but does not answer some big questions - why were we created, why would they wish to destroy us? What is the point of faith in God next to science, especially with evidence of our deliberate creation? Noomi Rapace's Dr. Elizabeth Shaw answers that last question with a statement of faith, echoing her father - "it's what I choose to believe". I have friends who are atheists who get very frustrated  when they here religious people give that answer. From my perspective, as a somewhat shaky Catholic, it is the only answer possible. In my opinion, at the end of the day, religious faith of any kind is a choice.

Michael Fassbender was a delight to watch as the android David whose character took deliberate care to model himself after Peter O'Toole's portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. He makes for a counterpoint to the humans of the expedition - he has no illusions as to who created him. While I did not mind so much the unanswered questions I mention in the previous paragraph, I was less than satisfied with the motivations for David experimenting on his fellow crew members. Was he programmed to do so? Did he do so out of dislike for the species that created him? Though as I write this I suspect that ambiguity was an intentional counterpoint to the questions the humans asked.

Prometheus clearly isn't a perfect movie. Beyond the points above, its music at times seemed to be bizarrely inappropriate for the scene in question. Sometimes the characters acted frustratingly foolishly - ignoring signs of an alien infection being one of the biggest. If you are on an alien planet and you notice little worms in your eyes, tell someone! The biggest frustration is the one I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, that of understanding David's motivations. I have heard the original cut was about thirty minutes longer and I have a hunch that while most movies are too long, this is a film which would have benefited from the extra time.

Despite these flaws it is a movie I admire. It is a movie that asks some difficult questions and doesn't tie them down with neat little answers. It's something that the Star Trek films tried to do twice (in the first and fifth filmst) and both times i felt they were done unsuccessfully. I feel Prometheus found the right balance of revelation vs. unanswered questions.

Monday, June 11, 2012

RPG Review: Expedition to Barrier Peaks

Having just seen Prometheus this weekend science-fiction is a bit on my mind right now. This has me thinking about one of the odder 1st edition AD&D adventures, Expedition to Barrier Peaks.

Expedition to Barrier Peaks was, according to its preface, written for the Origins II convention as a way to introduce players to Metamorphosis Alpha, the 1970s TSR RPG about the inhabitants of a lost generation ship (who are no longer aware they are on a ship). In this adventure a space colonization expedition was struck by a plague. Attempting to stop the spread of the plague the components of the ship separated and went their separate ways. The one the adventure takes place on found its way through a black hole to the World of Greyhawk (obviously one could move it to another fantasy setting). Per the story worker robots cleared the cargo hatch and released various alien fauna, some of which prospered (providing an interesting explanation for some of the odder D&D monsters).

Of late local lords have been plagued by strange monsters - monsters discharged from this large alien ship at periodic intervals. Their source has been identified and the PCs dispatched to investigate.

The point of this adventure, if there is one, is to have a romp through a spaceship. There isn't much an overriding threat, though the local lords would surely appreciate it if the PCs could stop the monsters from  harrying them. The adventure consists of lots of memorable locations - for example there are crew quarters, control sections, 'tween decks, recreation areas, a huge park area, cargo areas, etc. There's all sorts of critters and gadgets. Some of the memorable encounters include a tribe of vegepygmies (plant-matter barbarians) and a mind flayer with a blaster.

As you can see, this adventure was also memorable for its illustrations, including an entire booklet of illustrations. It also had a "treasure" that every group I ran this through loved - high-tech gadgets! Blasters, lasers, needlers, powered armor. Tragically the PCs have no way to recharge these gadgets, so they get to play with them for a little while and then its back to "boring" magic weapons - though I can recall at least one player who used a wish to be able to recharge one of his gadgets.

How does this all work? In my experiences this was usually a neat adventure as a diversion. It is a huge "dungeon" so there is some risk of overdoing it, especially without a bigger purpose in the adventure and the inability to keep much of the treasure. There is one encounter where the ship's robots may give the PCs the boot and one time I ran this the players decided that that was enough for their expedition - they didn't try to batter their way back in (not that they didn't enjoy it). 

This does remind me a bit of the situation in Andre Norton's novel Witch World, where there were technological aspects that had found their way into a fantasy setting (indeed, Ms. Norton wrote the novel Quag Keep which featured role-players from our world finding themselves in a D&D world). Were I to use this today I think I would add a rival from the PCs world seeking to secure (or gain more of) the technology in the ship. This is an adventure whose concepts are easy to adapt and would fit in especially well in a Dungeon Crawl Classics game.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Speed Factors and Weapons vs. Armor

Back in the 80s my gaming group quickly "graduated" from D&D to AD&D. Though it sure would have been nice if TSR could have gotten out The Temple of Elemental Evil a bit faster.

In 1st edition AD&D I recall there were two rules we pretty much totally ignored (well there were probably more than two...) These were rules for weapon speed factor and for weapons getting different bonuses and penalties vs. different types of armor.

These were decent ideas in theory but in practice we really could not makes heads or tails of the rules. That's not entirely true - we couldn't make heads or tails of the speed factor rules.

With that in mind let's start with Weapons vs. Armor. This one is simply enough to understand. Any given weapon is more effective against some armors than others. This makes sense. Consider the medieval knight. He did not go around with a single weapon. At the very least he had his lance, mace, and sword. (As an aside, raise your hand if you ever saw a cleric accidentally carry a lucerne hammer, unaware of it being a pole arm...)  In the weapons vs. armor table a mace actually gets a bonus against an opponent wearing plate mail armor.

In theory this was a good idea. In practice it was a problematic rule. First of all the table was indexed by Armor Class. This assumed the AC was unmodified by magic, dexterity, etc., something that was rarely true. Secondly it required referring to the table every time a weapon was used, slowing down game-play. Thirdly it broke down when using monsters. Is a mace or sword more effective vs. a dragon's scales? And do natural attacks get modifiers? Shouldn't they?

This is something that I liked the idea of but I don't think AD&D got right (as I recall this is something that was also in the original edition rules, starting with Greyhawk I believe.) AD&D 2nd edition handled this better in my opinion. As I recall, every type of armor received bonuses and penalties vs. three types of attacks - blunt, piercing, and slashing. Each weapon listed what types of attacks it could make. Not quite as realistic but in my experience this was far more playable.

The best handling of this, in my opinion, is the way the Rolemaster RPG handles this. A large portion of the game is dedicated to tables of weapons vs. armor but cleverly it is the only table you need to refer to. You roll percentile dice, add your offensive bonus, subtract your foe's defensive bonus (which does not include armor), and refer to your weapon's specific table, indexing by your modified roll vs. his armor type to see the effect. This is largely building the game around the concept (much as the Chainmail miniature rules which predated D&D did). Rolemaster also gave each monster an equivalent armor type and included tables for various natural weapons. Back in the 80s I recall a lot of D&D groups used the Rolemaster Arms Law/Claw Law books for their D&D games - and the Rolemaster books encouraged such usage.

As far as speed factor goes... To this day I don't fully understand precisely how it was intended to be used in AD&D 1st edition. From some Googling it seems that its intent was in cases where initiative was a tie (which was reasonably likely given the use of 1d6 for initiative in 1st edition) speed factor would both determine who acted first and it allowed multiple attacks in a round (which was a minute long in AD&D 1st and 2nd editions). This is another area where I think AD&D 2nd edition improved things. There, as in 1st edition, you rolled initiative every round. However in 2nd edition you used a d10 and the speed factor was added to your initiative (making low rolls better). It added some complexity but was an optional rule that I usually ended up using.

Overall, I prefer AD&D 1st edition to its 2nd but looking back on it I can definitely see some areas where 2nd edition made much-needed improvements to the rules. Of course they also took away demons, devils, daemons from its monster list and removed assassins and half-orcs from the Players Handbook... (Boo...)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Assembling Resources for a DCC Campaign

With a nice sized group of players I'm in the process of gathering my resources for a Dungeon Crawl Classics game. With a family and job the days of creating everything from scratch are in the past but I still generally like to have my own setting and adventures, though borrowing where possible.

One of the neatest resources I've found is the set of tools developed by Purple Sorcerer Games. They've developed a set of character generators which will randomly roll up a group of four zero-level PCs, including starting background, equipment, all stats, etc. Perfect for an opening adventure. The tools also have a dice roller which has dice-rollers for all the types of dice DCC uses. Adding to its usefulness it also roll for fumbles, critical hits, corruption, spell effects, etc. It includes summaries of various rules such as aspects of combat, special abilities, etc.  Purple Sorcerer has a Kickstarter campaign to make this available as an Android and iOS app - I'd encourage all who play DCC to contribute - at the time of this writing they are about a quarter of their way to their modest goal.

Since the group is geographically dispersed we need some sort of tool for online gaming. For past campaigns I've used Fantasy Grounds but that program has no DCC rules. Therefore for this game I will be using Google+'s hangout feature with the Tabletop Forge add-on, providing tools for maps (including battlemaps if we need them), dice rolling, etc.

While not free, there are some very cheap resources available. 0One Games has a series of low-priced high-quality maps perfect for a dungeon crawl - especially if players go off the beaten path and I need a map in a a hurry.  (I've accidentally discovered that there are certain advantages to starting your name with a a number - I suspect they knew there were advantages). I also suspect I'll be raiding Lamentations of the Flame Princess for adventure ideas, settings, and other resources.

I'm sure I'm missing some but it's worth mentioning that Wikipedia, while not reliable enough for academic use, makes an excellent resource when developing a background, learning some history, getting a quick geography lesson, etc.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fiction Review: Tom De Haven's "It's Superman"

I love superheroes, New York City, and the 1930s. To be honest, I really only have a legitimate connection to New York City, being originally a Brooklyn boy. But the art deco cityscape of the 1930s always held a high fascination for me and my grandfather, a New Yorker his entire life save for a tour in Italy in World War II, often shared with me his love and knowledge of New York City.

Tom De Haven's novel It's Superman takes one of, if not the most, iconic superheroes - the original, Superman. In the wrong hands Superman is a boring character. He's a boyscout and is never conflicted. He's too powerful, forcing many writers to think of ways to de-power him. Though in the right hands he is an amazing character.

But what I've been describing above is the character of Superman as he evolved over history. When he first appeared he was not the familiar character of today. His costume, while fancy, wasn't all that exotic, recognizable as a union suit or workout clothes of its time, albiet it with bright primary colors, boots, and a cape.

His powers were in their earliest form. Superman as he first appeared in Action Comics #1 could not fly but he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. He was tough to hurt, but if you fired an exploding shell at him it would penetrate his skin. There was not a sign of Kryptonite of any color.

His ethics were still in their formative stages. He was not the boyscout who always obeyed authority. He was the creation of a pair of young teenagers living in Cleveland, both from Jewish immigrant families, one of whose father was killed in a store robbery. Their creation was rough, with a strong blue collar ethic. He thought nothing of kidnapping a mine owner and forcing him to work in the mine to illustrate the unsafe work conditions. He got involved in crimes such as illegal gambling on sporting events and influenced the outcomes of civil wars.

It is to this Superman that Tom De Haven writes about. At this point I should point out that while the character he writes about is Superman this is not a comic book or graphic novel but rather it is a standard prose novel. And despite it being classified by Audible as part of "Audible Kids" it is not really juvenile literature, dealing with adult themes - though it isn't so naughty that it wouldn't be inappropriate for a mature young reader.

While the novel is entitled It's Superman it is really the story of Clark Kent and how he grows into Superman. It begins in Smallville, Kansas with high school student Clark Kent being questioned by police as a witness - he was shot at by a mobster at a movie theatre he had taken a date to. As it turns out he wasn't just shot at, one bullet bounced off him, killing the monster and he caught the other. He doesn't understand why he is the way he is but he does know he is different.

De Haven over time introduces us to Clark's life in Smallville. As in the original comics his parents are elderly. His mother is a pious church-going woman suffering from a cancer which is slowly killing her. His father is changed from most of the portrayals I've seen of him. He isn't all that welcome in the church. This stems from a number of things. There is his attitude towards religion - not a particularly educated man he nonetheless has read the works of a number of religions and thinks they all have something useful to say. Additionally, he is a very progressive man for his day. The final straw which pulls him out of his churchgoing life is when the Chippewa handyman who maintained the church was told he and his family were not not welcome to worship there. He is a very tolerant man, treating people of all races and ethnicities equally.

The plot begins to alternate, giving us different viewpoint characters. We are introduced to Lois Lane, recent college graduate and budding journalist in New York City. She is quite the troublemaker, smoking, drinking, having sexual relationships. We are introduced to her on-again off-again lover, photographer Willi Berg. And we meet city alderman Lex Luthor.

Willi witnesses a crime committed by Luthor and gains photographic evidence. Evidence which Luthor's men destroy and shoot Berg for. He is left for dead but survives and is accused of the murders that were performed at the command of upstanding citizen Lex Luthor. He manages to escape the hospital and with Lois' help goes on the run.

Willi, now by going by the alias of Willi Boring (an homage to long-time Superman artist Wayne Boring) meets Clark in Smallville where Clark is now working as a reporter for the weekly newspaper. There Clark uses his powers against kidnappers and Willi sees Clark using his powers. The two become friends, albeit awkward ones, the reserved farm-boy and the streetwise accused murderer. Willi convinces Clark to travel America with him, leading to the two tramping across the United States. During this time Clark begins to develop his powers and Willi tries to convince him he has these powers for a reason.

They eventually settle for a while in Hollywood, Clark becoming a stuntman - and falling in love. He also becomes fond of a costume for a movie which was never made, that of "the Saucer-man from Saturn". Unsurprisingly it is blue and red with an "S" and cape.

Events send them back to New York City for a climax as Lex Luthor's evil plans are unleashed where only Superman can stop him.

I've deliberately stayed vague on the plot so as not to take away from the enjoyment of those reading it for the first time. I will however strongly endorse it. De Haven's goal seems to be to bring Clark Kent (and Superman) to the point they were at in Action Comics #1. His portrayal of the era of the 1930s is masterful and he gets us into the heads of countless characters, major and supporting. All of them seem real with real goals. Yes it features a man who can leap tall buildings in a single bound but this is an awkward man who can't seem to do anything right at times.

If you ever have the urge to run a Golden Age superhero RPG game, this is definitely a useful book to read - but it is excellent read for the sheer pleasure of it as we watch Clark embark on his journey to becoming a hero.

I'd love to see this book turned into a movie and I'm frankly surprised how rarely writers explore superheroes by returning them to the era from which they came.

Monday, June 4, 2012

RPG Review: Slave Pits of the Undercity

Dungeon Module A1, Slave Pits of the Undercity, is one of the classics of the 1st edition of AD&D. It was later collected into the "supermodule" Scourge of the Slave Lords. A sequel appeared very late in the 2nd edition of AD&D with the Wizards of the Coast-published adventure Slavers.

I got a lot of mileage out of this series. I know I DM-ed Slave Pits of the Undercity at least three times, possibly more. One of the more memorable times was in its collected version. Just my brother and I gamed our way through it, making liberal use of the pregenerated PCs in the adventure, with Karraway the cleric and Blodgett the halfling thief playing major roles in later adventures (and the poor ranger Freda turned to stone for a basilisk and stuffed into a portable hole for later restoration but hence forgotten and rediscovered years later during an inventory - "this fascinating statue I refer to as 'terrified ranger'"...

I recently made the discovery that several of the old TSR adventures were small campaign settings unto themselves - adventures like The Secret of Bone Hill, Keep on the Borderlands, and Isle of Dread all have a main dungeon, one or more "bases" for the PCs, and lots of side encounters. Flipping through my newly acquired copy from Noble Knight Games (my original is practically in tatters) I see that Slave Pits of the Undecity lacks that characteristic. That is not surprising as the adventure was originally intended for tournament play and was adapted into a full-fledged adventure.

Let's talk a bit about the background behind the adventure before we dive much deeper. Defaulting to the World of Greyhawk setting but easily portable it concerns the adventurers being dispatched by lords of coastal towns who have repeatedly been ravaged by pirates and slavers. The lords have determined that the slavers are operating out of the city of Highport, once a human town that fell to humanoids. The adventure starts off with the PCs having determined the base of operations is a ruined temple compound within Highport.

Interestingly Scourge of the Slave Lords (which I will likely give its own review) has the characters establish their own base of operations in Highport and has them actually seek out the location of the slavers. Though the supermodule has some railroading in its setup phase, this is one change that I think was very well done.

The adventures in this series have the characters determining the slavers in Highport are part of a larger network, with the 2nd adventure dealing with a major "processing station" for slaves and the 3rd and 4th adventures dealing with the headquarters of the Slave Lords. Unfortunately the 3rd adventure also ends with one of the most blatant instances of railroading ever, though the DM is not required to use it, though failing to do so will may make the 3rd adventure the climax of the series.

In any case, Slave Pits of the Undercity is therefore almost solely a dungeon-crawl, with two levels, a temple complex on the ground floor and an underground complex. It is a dungeon I was rather fond of however - the temple level has lots of ruined rooms, treacherous floors, undead critters, basilisks (which like petrifying rangers apparently...), orc guards who man a funky flamethrower.

The underground complex was always a rather memorable experience in the times I have played it. It is made up of multiple "terrains" and ant-like humaoids known as aspis, one of two monsters introduced in this adventure. The dungeon consists of a dirt-dug complex inhabited by giant ants and the aspis, a sewer complex, and finally the main slaver complex. The titular "slavepits" appear near the end of the adventure, with an encounter forcing the characters to cross over narrow ledges over cages, battling their way past aspis guards - with an aspis in a nearby control booth who will seal the characters in the cages should they fall into them.

The final encounter, against a minor slave lord, is a little anticlimactic in my experience, after battling past the slavepits. It includes a record of the slavers' activities and a map for a slave caravan, leading to the next adventure, Secret of the Slavers' Stockade.

Despite my quibbles about the adventure lacking some of the setting information that other early D&D adventures had, it does make for a fun and challenging dungeon. Unlike a lot of other early adventures however it does not really make the assumption that the characters are pursuing their own agenda and are after treasure, rather it assumes that the adventurers are motivated to infiltrate the slavers' base of operations in Highport. This isn't an insurmountable obstacle, though were I to wish to run this adventure in a more "sandbox"-type environment, I'd probably pepper the encounters leading up to it with some reason for the adventurers to want to go to this lost temple and make the discovery it is also being used by the Slavers. It is even possible they would want to contact the local lords in hopes of getting aid from them in return for infiltrating the base. I wonder if this is an adventure that could be snuck into Dwellers of the Forbidden City - it seems like with some modification it could be done.

Overall this is an adventure worth hunting down or reusing if you are confident that your players would go for the plot as written or if you are comfortable modifying. It is also a useful adventure for inspiration and as a historical artifact. For those playing 3.x/Pathfinder or 4e versions of the rules it is probably one of the more useful adventures to mine - it has a strong emphasis on memorable encounter areas that would make for interesting encounter areas, though the encounters would need to be carefully balanced for those rules. (Grumpy Old Man voice activation... "Back in my day we didn't have balanced encounters. If we were first level and a wandering frost giant came along we got stomped on and peeled off its boot. And we liked it. We loved it...")

Friday, June 1, 2012

Player vs. Character Abilities

On a recent Google+ conversation I found myself discussing what makes an "old school" D&D game. Part of the conversation involved whether throttling back character abilities is what makes something old school. For example, in AD&D your magic-user can cast a single 1st level spell once per day at first level. He might have as few as 1 hit point and can wear no armor nor master the weapons of a fighter. In the 3rd edition of D&D your 1st level wizard may have multiple spells per day with high intelligence, is guaranteed to start off with at least 4 hit points (barring low constitution), can wear armor if he wants to risk spell failure, can learn how to use fighter weapons, etc. Moving on to 4th edition this wizard at 1st level now has an unlimited amount of magic missiles available to him.

Clearly character abilities, especially at low levels, is something that has increased with newer editions of the game. I'd argue that is certainly part of what one finds in an old school game.

Another part of the equation I would venture is the difference between games that test players vs. those that test characters. In newer incarnations of D&D your character's abilities are far more spelled out. Any character can search for traps or sneak around, it is a simple matter of rolling his or her skill vs. a difficulty. In original "white box" D&D there are no general skills. With AD&D 1st edition we see the introduction of secondary skills. This was very basic - the Dungeon Masters Guide had a table of possible former professions for player characters to give an idea as to the types of things a character might be able to do outside the bounds of his class. The 1st edition Oriental Adventures book expanded on the AD&D concept of weapon proficiencies to double as a rough skill system with non-weapon proficiencies, an idea which was made a bit more formal with the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides and made a part of the core rules with the 2nd edition of AD&D. Personally I found the non-weapon proficiency system to be rather mediocre - you received only a small number of them and improving them was something you could only do every few levels. With its 3rd edition D&D moved to a full skill system where many character abilities became linked to skills. In my opinion the skill system developed in 3rd edition is far superior to the non-weapon proficiency system introduced in later 1st edition books.

However, I'm uncertain if D&D always needs a skill system. This isn't to say skills are some newfangled idea that we must huff at with disdain. After all Chaosium's RuneQuest, introduced in 1978, and Game Designers' Workshop's Traveller, from 1977, both had skill systems. So skills are far from a new innovation, even if it did take D&D until the year 2000 to really fully integrate them.

What I've observed in my own experience is what a difference a tightly integrated skill system makes in the way D&D is played. In older versions of D&D it often seemed to me the goal was to challenge the players. There were devices, traps, dungeons, etc. whose challenges were primarily directed at players. In newer versions of D&D a large part of that challenge has been siphoned off to the characters run by the players. I don't want to give the impression that I'm saying all games of 3rd edition or later are simply exercises in dice rolling with no player creativity to be found. I've played and/or DM-ed all versions of D&D except for the original white box and I've found ample opportunity for player creativity. But what I'd see in later editions is a lot more looking at character sheets to see who will perform a given action. Bob thinks of an awesome bluff to get past the guards but Mary's character has a higher fast-talk skill so Mary's character goes to talk to the guard. Mary thinks of a way to solve a puzzle but Bob's character has a better disable device skill. I know a lot of people reading this will say "that's not a bug, that's a good thing". And I can see that point. I'm not a believer in such a thing as badwrongfun or "one true way".

However without such a strong skill system I've found players often do a lot more out of the box thinking. And to be honest, this requires game masters to also do a lot more out of the box thinking as well, which I tend to view as a good thing, despite usually being GM - the way I figure it, it's only fair if I too have to react to a changing set of circumstances. There's such a thing as taking this too far. A common argument is that a character will often have knowledge that a player won't and I tend to agree with this. If my character has lived in a medieval village all my life chances are my character has better wilderness survival skills than I do, even if he's not a ranger or druid. I think the key to handling this in an older school game is having the players leverage their character's knowledge. This often involves a give and take between the player and GM as they discuss what is reasonable for a character to know or be capable of.

There are issues that can make this model work less well for some groups - it requires the GM to adjudicate rulings on the fly very frequently, something which can be tricky to do, especially consistently. But it can make for a very different style of gaming experience and one that I feel is worth trying out.

One of the things I've enjoyed about many of the newer "old school" games is how they deal with the issue of character skill. Dungeon Crawl Classics takes a hybrid of 1st edition's secondary skill system with the 3.x skill resolutions. Adventurer Conqueror King System gives access to a very basic proficiency system which gives characters access to abilities that are somewhere between feats and skills. Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy formalizes the "x in 6" task resolution implied in the D&D Basic/Expert rules into a skill system, making its specialist character the only type who can readily improve such skills. None of these skill systems are so extensive as to preventing the give and take that I described above but they provide a basic foundation which avoids everything falling into "GM fiat".