Sunday, April 25, 2010

Arduin Grimoire: Runes Of Doom

shardra castrator amazon arduin grimoire runes doom dungeons dragons I suppose if you are going to be castrated, it may as well be by Shardra the Castrator, an Amazon bandit from the pages of The Runes of Doom, the third in the Arduin Grimoire series of fantasy RPG supplements.

Shardra, while topless for the first printing of The Runes of Doom, was covered up for subsequent printings. Whether you saw that as a necessary response, or an overreaction, to the self-appointed morality police, the self-censorship did ultimately result (in my opinion) in a diminishment of creativity by the professional publishers of the day.

The 100-page Runes of Doom was published in 1978, and was billed as the third, and final chapter, in the Arduin Grimoires. Dave Hargrave would go on to publish 5 more Grimoires, after this, his supposed swan-song. A sixth would be published, after his death in 1988, bringing the total to nine grimoires, comprising easily 1,000 pages. Quite an achievement, for what was largely an amateur effort. And I don't mean that in a deprecating way: Hargrave was certainly an amateur publisher, but that doesn't mean that his material can be dismissed as entirely amateurish. On the contrary, it, like the AD&D DMG, has all sorts of blindingly mind-bending (and ocassionally inscrutible) insights and suggestions.

Yes, sometimes Hargrave's material was childish and prurient -- look no further than Shardra the Castrator, who in addition to her modus operandi also had a related dining ritual (nuf said) -- but I find much of his work to be a useful tool: he delves into all sorts of forgotten, ignored, and dusty corners of campaign and world-building. Sometimes his explorations will lead you into dead-ends. Other times, he opens up a tunnel to some unexplored cavern, filled with sparkling gems.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

DMG As Referees Toolkit

DMG Dungeon Masters Guide Advanced Dungeons Dragons Gary Gygax The 1979 Advanced Dungeon Masters Guide, authored by Gary Gygax, is the original, and still best, Referee's Toolkit. It is almost entirely setting-neutral, and contains nearly every topic that a Dungeon Master could possibly need to deal with, during the course of a regular campaign.

Certainly, that version of the DMG is not exhaustive, but it gives referees the essential tools to create and develop their own campaign, and provides a myriad of other tools to add color and depth to their world. I recommend every referee own a copy of the original DMG, even if you never play that version of the game, nor ever intend to. It is an excellent resource for any version of D&D, or any fantasy RPG for that matter. And the original DMGs are easy to come by, and relatively cheap.

Several months ago, I purchased and reviewed the Ultimate Toolbox, which is billed as another referee toolkit. That is also a great resource, and I recommend it as well (although the price is somewhat steeper than the DMG).

In addition to those two resources, does anyone have any recommendations for other referee toolkits? I also have the first three Arduin Grimoires, Philotomy's Musings, and the Dungeon Alphabet, which are all handy resources, but I am looking for another comprehensive referee toolkit, to augment my current resources.

Edit: I can't believe I forgot to mention the Ready Ref Sheets by Judges Guild. For $3, as a pdf download, this is the same price as it was back in the late 1970's. Also, see the comments section for some additional referee resources. Kellri's CCD4, in particular, is quite general and covers a lot of ground.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Old School Monsters: Manticore

arduin grimoire manticore welcome skill tower
Here is another illustration from the Arduin Grimoire, this one by Bradley W. Schenck, otherwise know as Morno back in the day. This illustration, of the dreaded Manticore surprising an adventuring party in the depths of Skull Tower, appears on the back cover of Welcome To Skull Tower, the second Arduin rulebook. It is one of 14 black & white illustrations that appear in this book. I love the look on the face of the thief, wielding his dagger and a set of keys, as the Manticore leaps over him, knocking down the axe-armed Dwarf.

The 1977 AD&D Monster Manual describes the Manticore as possessing a tail of iron spikes, which are volleyed at its opponents prior to combat. The above, alternate Arduin Manticore, has a scorpion's tail, which I find far more interesting (and deadly). I also prefer this illustration to the one by Sutherland in the Monster Manual: both are black & white, yet the in medi res nature of this combat scene adds far more tension and excitement to the monster illustration.

Which brings me to another thing I love about the old approach to role-playing fantasy art: the use of multiple artists, and art styles, allowed for a heterogeneous depiction of adventurers, scenes, and monsters. That encouraged a flowering of imagination. My scorpion-tailed Manticore was just as permissible as your iron-spike-tailed version.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Arduin Grimoire As ODnD Supplement



Reading and reviewing Dragons at Dawn led me to reminisce about another rule set, that also held itself out as a complete game system, but was really best used as a supplement to original Dungeons and Dragons. That other rule set, is, of course, The Arduin Grimoire.

Much (but not enough) has been said about The Arduin Grimoire. Authored by Dave Hargrave, who sadly passed away in 1988 (at the age of 42), the first three Arduin Grimoires were published in 1977 and 1978, some three years after the release of original Dungeons and Dragons. Like Dragons at Dawn, the Arduin Grimoire provided a myriad of alternate and supplementary rules and campaign suggestions, but Arduin was infinitely more extensive and table-laden. The first three Grimoires -- The Arduin Grimoire, Welcome to Skull Tower, and The Runes of Doom -- were nearly 100 pages each: the later six Arduin volumes were even longer.

But unlike Dragons at Dawn, the Arduin Grimoire (at least the books I have had access to) was, to put it politely, of uneven quality. For every blinding insight or brilliant suggestion, you would encounter some text equally execrable. But Hargrave never gave up on even his ugliest creations, often pleading with his readers to give his ideas a try, as it was only in the crucible of a role-playing campaign that the true value of his creations would be revealed.

Although this set of books was, and still is, passed off as a complete game system, it was born from Dave Hargrave's experience running original Dungeons and Dragons. It could be said, then, that The Arduin Grimoire is an example of OD&D house-ruling run-amok. A train-wreck perhaps, but a glorious one! While much of his material was largely derivative, there were some unique inventions sprinkled throughout his works, enough that many gamers considered his Arduin Grimoire to be part of the OD&D canon. TSR was not impressed with how close Hargrave hewed to their intellectual property, including explicit mentions to OD&D in his rulebooks, and famously slapped a cease & desist order on him. That resulted in the removal of any mentions of D&D in The Arduin Grimoire, although it probably did little to dampen its' sales. In some cases he simply whited out references to Dungeons and Dragons in his books, replacing those references with phrases such as "most often used ruleset".

The 12 black & white illustrations for the first Arduin Grimoire volume were created by Greg Espinoza and Michio Okimura. The above Greg Espinoza illustration appears on the back cover of the original Arduin Grimoire. I love Greg Espinoza's illustrations: there is a darkness, energy, and tension to them, absent from much of the modern art being produced for more recent versions of ye aulde game. It is rumored that the female in the above illustration first appeared top-less: even the intransigent Dave Hargrave was cowed into covering her nakedness in this, his second, censored edition. As for the fighter in the background, opening the chest of treasure, he was reportedly modelled after Clint Eastwood.

And in case you doubt my objectivity with regards Arduin, I am happy to quote from someone else that you may, given the circumstances, feel has little to gain from extolling Arduin's virtues and vices. Jonathan Tweet had this to say about Arduin:

"Arduin's appeal isn't in its elegance, its comprehensiveness, its game balance, or its presentation. It's the author's enthusiasm that counts. Hargrave loved running his Arduin campaign, and the books read like the campaign notes of a manic DM. He often refers to his own campaign and how he makes rulings, runs combat, handles treasure, etc. Hargrave's enthusiasm is contagious.

The good folks of Emperor's Choice have reprinted the Arduin trilogy, so this piece of RPG history is available again. They've reprinted a later edition from 1981 or so. It has references to Dungeons & Dragons edited out, and it has better art than the original. (The bare-breasted woman on the back cover, however, got a leather bra for the second edition.)"

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dragons At Dawn RPG Review

While I was hoping to read a few more reviews of the new Dragons at Dawn RPG before I made the plunge and purchased it myself, my curiosity finally overcame my legendary steely resolve. I downloaded the $8 pdf version of Dragons at Dawn yesterday, and spent a couple of hours today immersed in 60-pages of Arnesian game design.

How does one review a role playing game like Dragons At Dawn? That was the question plaguing me as I prepared to write this blog entry. Several approaches seemed equally appropriate. I could review this game as a exercise in historical archaeology. In doing so, I would want to determine whether the author of Dragons at Dawn (D.H. Boggs) accurately captured the essence of Dave Arneson's gameplay. Alternately, my review could compare and contrast Dragons at Dawn to original Dungeons and Dragons. In applying that approach, I could alternately reveal where "Gary Gygax played it wrong" and where "Gygax provided a much needed tune-up". Or, I could evaluate Dragons at Dawn as a set of rules that must succeed or fail on its own merits. That would require me to consider this rule-set, in comparison to other recently and professionally produced role-playing games. Or I could acknowledge Dragons at Dawn as a labour of love by a die-hard D&D fan, and review it as a DIY effort. That would result in a different set of expectations, regarding completeness and usability. As a further alternative, I could review this as a supplement to an existing game, namely original Dungeons and Dragons. That approach would require that I consider how this adds to the already existing body of rules. I could also apply some or all of those five approaches. The later would result an extremely long post, and likely more research on the part of yours truly (particularly as regards number one).

Before I go any further, I need to say the following. What D. H. Boggs has done, in recreating the original Dave Arneson fantasy rules, is to be applauded. Dragons at Dawn is a superior effort. The author has recovered an important part of the history of Dungeons and Dragons. This offering informs our understanding of the original rules, as well as Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, thus enriching our enjoyment of the game. This is well-worth the $8 investment.

In the end, I decided to review Dragons at Dawn as a supplement to the original Dungeons and Dragons game. In choosing to review it as such, I acknowledge that I am ignoring the stated intention of the author of Dragons at Dawn, to produce a complete system that represents the Arnesian approach to game play. While that intention is laudable, readers demanding that his effort be wholly successful, in a slim volume of 60 pages, seem unreasonable, when you consider that Gygax was afforded more than 250 pages to produce the original Dungeons and Dragons and the first three supplements.

As a supplement to original Dungeons and Dragons, Dragons at Dawn is a resounding success. It covers (in greater and lesser detail) such topics as cooperative versus competitive play between players, alternative classes such as the Merchant and Sage, variant multi-classing rules, an attribute-based task resolution system, rules for gaining further education and skills, fixed hit points by level, monsters as characters (including increasing their levels), adventure and setting design, random chance and fortune cards, a complicated morale-check system, a flowchart and matrix-based combat system, a spell creation system, non-adventuring experience acquisition suggestions, broadly applied alignment-based magic item rules, recommendations on tracking game time, and equipment lists that have ranges for the cost of various items.

Considered as a variant or augmentation to original Dungeons and Dragons, Dragons at Dawn offers a lot. Peppered throughout the booklet, you are further provided with nuggets of wisdom, being quotes from Arneson himself, culled from various interviews and forums. Those are a welcome addition, illuminating Arneson's gameplay approach and accumulated wisdom.

I am not qualified to comment on whether Boggs has fulfilled his stated goal, of faithfully recreating the game as played by Arneson, others, closer to Arneson can provide that assurance. I will also not wade in on whether or not Gygax got it right in original Dungeons and Dragons. As a collaborative exercise, original Dungeons and Dragons will necessarily contain a synthesis of their two game approaches. As for completeness and usability, the slimness of this volume almost necessitates its' use in conjunction with other gaming materials. But as a supplement or variant for OD&D, and as an illuminating look into the original fantasy campaign, you would be well-served by including this volume in your gaming collection.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Player Skill In Combat I: Resource Management

Last month I was musing about player-skill, and how I would love to employ a set of combat rules that utilized a player-skill system in some fashion.

When I use the term player-skill system, I mean a method of encounter or event-resolution, that (while not always independent of the rolling of dice) considers such things as the players’ use of strategic resource management, tactical thinking, deduction, information gathering, problem-solving based on common sense, rhetoric, and other types of appropriate in-game persuasion. I intend to cover all of those elements (and any others that come to mind) over the next several weeks, to investigate their application to combat.

The difficulty with applying player-skill to combat is that combat is one of the few systems of any role-playing game where the players demand certainty. Hand-waving, die-roll adjustments for good role-playing, and dialogue-based problem resolution are all well and good, when the only thing at stake is the delay of one 10 minute turn. But when you are talking the life or death of a character, players want to know that the applied combat-resolution system is transparent, even-handed and contains a reasonable measure of statistical predictability.

Are player-skill and combat systems mutually exclusive? Some might argue that the question is moot, since many combat systems seemingly include a player-skill component. After all, if you look at the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, there is a multiplicity of options for players to choose from, when it comes to choosing combat tactics. Surely the ability to pre-select from a host of feats, and then apply the appropriate feat in the right circumstance, is evidence of the application of player-skill.

I would argue that most games that use those combat feat systems cannot be characterized as player-skill based. Certainly, the player has selected the skills they intend to employ. But that approach to game-play is, in fact, based on system-mastery, not player skill. Players utilizing system-mastery rely on an understanding of how the game system works, using that meta-knowledge to maximize in-game success. The feats in those combat systems are by and large wholly artificial: a fresh player would not be able to use deduction or common sense, based on their understanding of real world physics, common sense or historical tactics, to intuit the most appropriate feat to apply in a combat situation. They would need to understand the relationships between their artificially constructed feats and those of other players in order to take advantage of the designed synergies … system-mastery.

Earlier, I opined that a good player-skill combat system might look a lot like a game of poker. I said this because, in my opinion, poker is a game where, over time, it is not the player who is dealt the best cards that wins, but the one who uses her observational, rhetorical, tactical and strategic skills to outlast and out-bluff her opponents. As the song goes, “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Resource management (poker chips) is a critical component in the success of a poker player. In the same way, resource management is a critical component of success for D&D players, particularly when it comes to combat. Whether the resource be spells, hit points, arrows, light sources, or what have you, player-skill can be demonstrated in the conservation and judicious and novel use of resources in combat.

Most of you may not be familiar with the combat system utilized in the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (LOTR:SBG), released by Games Workshop. For some it is because you are not interested in Lord of the Rings milieu itself. Others prefer role-playing and have little interest in table-top battlegames. Others may have heard that the system is simplistic and so never investigated it.

While the system is simpler than, say Games Workshop’s Warhammer, LOTR:SBG has some interesting and elegant design features (and more importantly, character resource management features) that provide interesting talking points regarding resource management.

While my rulebook for LOTR:SBG is 240 pages, the basic rules themselves represent only about 50 of those pages. The rest of the book is filled with painting guides, advanced rules (such as sieges, banners and optional rules), combat scenarios, and photos of various combatants and monsters in miniature (and their related game statistics).

I offer you the following primer on the combat system for LOTR:SBG. Each combatant has a set of combat attributes:

Fighting Skill – think of this as similar to levels in D&D, divorced from extra hit points and other benefits of increased levels. The better your fighting skill, the better your chance of winning a combat. LOTR:SBG uses an opposed-rolls combat system, based on six-sided dice, with the combatants rolling simultaneously, and the higher of the two opposed-rolls winning the contest. In the event of a tie (which happens roughly 17% of the time), the character with the higher fighting skill wins the combat. Therefore, all other things being equal, (see number of attacks, below, for situations where the combat is not equal) a warrior with a higher fighting skill has a 57% chance of winning a combat, while his opponent has a 43% chance. Put another way, in any fight between two otherwise-equal combatants, the warrior with the higher fighting skill will prevail in 3 out of every 5 contests.

Strength and Defence – roughly analogous to the Strength attribute and Armor Class of Dungeons and Dragons. Strength represents how forceful your attack is, with more massive and stronger opponents having higher strength scores than smaller and weaker ones. LOTR:SBG’s defence score represents both the fleetness-of-foot and protective armor of a warrior. In LOTR:SBG, the higher your strength, the more likely you are to inflict wounds if you win a combat (based on the above-mentioned opposed-roll combat system). A high defence improves your likelihood of avoiding that wound, in the event you lose a combat The strength of the winner and defence of the loser are compared to a wound probability matrix, from which the related wound probability is determined. The winner rolls to see if she can meet or exceed that probability, and if so, she inflicts a wound on the loser.

Number of Attacks: in LOTR:SBG, number of attacks works in conjunction with fighting skill. Experienced warriors will often have a higher fighting skill as well as a higher number of attacks, improving both their chance of winning a battle, and subsequently inflicting multiple wounds on the loser. A higher number of attacks translates into a larger dice-pool of six-sided dice (utilized in the previously-described opposed-rolls combat system). A warrior with three attacks would roll three dice using that combat system, while a warrior with one attack would roll one die. When rolling multiple dice based on the number of attacks, only the highest digit that player rolls is used to determine whether they win the combat. So the combatant with the higher number of attacks has a better probability of rolling high.

For example, a warrior with one attack has a 17% chance of scoring a 6, while a warrior with three attacks has a 42% chance of scoring a 6 (on any one of those three dice). Conversely, a warrior with one attack has a 17% chance of scoring a one, while the warrior with three dice has only a 1% chance of scoring a one (on all three dice).

The combat victor also rolls the same number of dice to determine wounds. Therefore, a successful combatant with three attacks could score as many as three wounds on the loser.

Wounds: this represents the number of hits a warrior can take before being eliminated from the battle. Each combatant in LOTR:SBG has a certain number of wounds. Most rank-and-file warriors and rabble can take only one wound, while heroes and monsters will have several wounds.

Courage: this attribute represents bravery and determination. In LOTR:SBG it is used to determine whether a character will stay in the battle, the same way Morale checks are used in old-school D&D. The difference is that in LOTR:SBG, courage (Morale) checks are applied to one’s heroes, not only to ones’ hirelings and henchmen, and the opposing monsters. In LOTR:SBG, having an improved courage score is important, as not only does it keep you in the battle, but it also allows you to rally your followers.

Taken by themselves, the above LOTR:SBG attributes result in a largely character-skill based combat system. The above attributes only affect dice rolls.

The way the strategic resource management portion of LOTR:SBG is revealed is in the following three additional heroic attributes: Might, Will and Fate.

Might: this attribute is a measure of the heroes’ ability to perform unusual and encounter-altering actions. Similar to “bennies” in Savage Worlds, or luck points in other game systems, in LOTR:SBG, Might allows you to attempt special heroic actions (such as pre-empting others in the already-established initiative order, altering an archery die-roll, adjusting a combat or wounds roll, engaging in pre-emptive archery attacks, making additional moves, adjusting “saving throws” and courage checks, or hewing through your current opponents so as to join a second combat). Every hero in LOTR:SBG has a limited number of might points that can be spent during a game.

The player’s decision about when and how to use her might points, is the player-skill portion of the LOTR:SBG system. Do you use the might points early, to score an extra wound or two, or do you save the might points, to be used later in the encounter, when it will decisively swing the tide of battle? The use of the might points becomes a resource management, as well as strategic decision, which reveals the player’s skill in applying those precious might points at the right time, to favourably affect the course of the adventure.

Will: this represents the ability of the possessor to persevere in the face of challenges and setbacks, and use and resist the effects of spells. In LOTR:SBG, Will is used to alter courage checks, in addition to casting and resisting spells. In comparison, in Dungeons and Dragons, spell resistance is applied via a saving throw. I like the idea of will, as used in LOTR:SBG, as it has some interesting sword & sorcery rpg implications: characters with low will-points will eventually succumb to the domination of an evil sorcerer, once their will-points are exhausted from resisting his spells. In addition, will is used by Wizards to cast spells, and for opposing characters to resist the effects of those spells.

In terms of resource management, similar comments apply to will as apply to might: do you use a point of will to cast a spell, or to ensure you pass your courage test, or resist the spell of another wizard, or do you save those will points until your need is dire?

Fate: this is the last LOTR:SBG heroic ability, and represents the ability of the individual to cheat death, or otherwise avoid some unpleasant fate. I like this particular feature of LOTR:SBG and would relish its application to a role-playing game. Instead of taking a wound, a hero can exhaust one of his fate points, and therefore avoid taking actual damage.

I have frequently expressed my dislike for the single mechanic of hit-points, as I disagree with the notion that the ‘luck’ or ‘skill’ portion of hit-points should be recovered at the same rate as actual wounds. I much prefer the idea that hit-points be separated out into wounds and fate, with wounds taking time to heal, while fate can be restored after, say, a good night’s sleep.

Fate is the attribute least affected by resource management issues. A player is probably wise to use those fate points immediately, rather than taking the wound, regardless of your current situation.

Even though LOTR:SBG has a very unambiguous character-skill based combat system, the introduction of Might, Will and (to a lesser degree) Fate provides an opportunity for the players to make strategic resource management decisions, to alter the outcome of a combat. Even though the MWF rules are tightly structured, player-skill is still evident in the timing of the use of those heroic attributes.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

War Of The Angels: Todd Lockwood


In addition to his Orcus illustration, of which I earlier professed my fondness, Todd Lockwood produced several other pieces of black and white art, appearing in Dragon Magazine in late 1980.

Sixteen years later, Todd Lockwood would become better known for his color illustrations, having been instrumental in defining the look of 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons art.

In the process of discovering his later body of work, I came across another black & white Tom Lockwood illustration, which I believe is entitled War of the Angels. His mastery of light and dark, evident in the Orcus illustration, is re-affirmed in this piece.

Sadly, my ambivalence towards the "modern" D&D rulesets interfered with my appreciation for the artwork being produced by the Todd Lockwoods, Fred Fields and the other, later, D&D artists. While the early illustrators, like Dave Sutherland, Erol Otus and David Trampier will always strongly define the visual representation of D&D for me, its great to see that other artists like Todd Lockwood had a connection to the early days of the hobby, and, even then, made a strong impact on what I thought D&D was meant to "look like".

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Old School Illustrators: Todd Lockwood

Yesterday, I posted one of my favorite Orcus illustrations, which appeared in the October 1980 issue of Dragon Magazine. It was the product of a little-known D&D player -- and budding artist -- named Todd Lockwood. A few subsequent issues of Dragon Magazine also contained his artwork, but then inclusion of his artwork in Dragon Magazine ceased.

Who knew, at the time, that this same Todd Lockwood -- who starting out playing D&D with his buddies in the early years of the hobby, and played while attending art college -- would join TSR sixteen years later, and become famous (along with Sam Wood) for defining the visuals of 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

I am embarrassed to report that I had no idea that Todd Lockwood, of Dragon Magazine #42 fame, is the same Todd Lockwood who would later create the concept art framework for 3E and 3.5E, and provide memorable covers for D&D products, such as The Forge of Fury (I bought the adventure and the related Black Dragon miniature, based on that cover alone) and City of the Spider Queen. A list of Todd Lockwood's impressive artistic rpg art credits can be found here, at Pen and Paper.

You can find Todd Lockwood's website here, and his blog, Behind The Water Heater, here.

Orcus: Ladies Man

Orcus was often depicted, accompanied by Succubi and Type V demons. Here's one illustration, created by Paul Jaquays, that depicts a whole host of demons surrounding him, including the lady-demons.

I guess Orcus just had a way with the ladies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fat And Manky Orcus


Tim Brannan of The Other Side blog wrote a recent post on the history of Orcus, along with a conversion to Unisystem. His post is well worth a read.

He also posted the above illustration, which first appears in The Dragon Magazine, Issue 42, October 1980. He was not sure who the artist was, nor when it was published. The illustration is by an artist by the name of Todd Lockwood. This is perhaps my favorite Orcus illustration, showing Orcus sitting lazily on his throne: I can't be sure whether he is snoring or drooling.

Old School Monsters: Orcus, Prince of the Undead


I posted, many months ago, about my then-favorite Orcus miniature figure, produced by Reaper Miniatures. Reaper makes a very nice Orcus miniature (much better than the underwhelming old version of Orcus from the retired D&D minis game). I own a copy of the Reaper version, which is in mid-paint job.

Here's my new favorite Orcus figure. This is being produced by Wizards of the Coast, in limited quantities, and is being distributed some time around June 16, 2010. I found news of the pending release of this Orcus figure here at the maxminis forum, and pre-release ordering details from things from another world (i've never ordered from that site, so I have no idea whether they are reliable or not).

The figure is $75. That's a lot of money, although the figure is supposed to be one of the larger ones they have ever produced.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Local Tavern In Dungeons and Dragons


We seldom made trouble in the local tavern in our D&D games. The tavern was our source of rumors and hirelings, and the last thing we wanted to do was provoke the DM into banning us from the local watering hole.

On the other hand, I have heard lots of stories of other Dungeons and Dragons groups engaging in conflict and combat at the local tavern. This Will McLean cartoon from the DMG speaks to that tendency: some players used D&D as an excuse to safely blow off a little steam or aggression by starting an in-game virtual bar-fight.

Strange Symbol Found In The Dungeon


The adventure party comes across this symbol as they are exploring the dungeon.

It has been applied to the walls of the dungeon, in what appears to be some sort of phosphorescent white paint.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Old School Monsters: Rust Monster



Here's another Will McLean cartoon from the Dungeon Masters Guide. This time, we have a couple of adventurers encountering a Rust Monster, one of Gary Gygax's unique monster creations. Here's what Gary had to say about the origins of the Rust Monster, from Dragon Magazine, Issue #88 (1984):

"When I picked up a bag of plastic monsters made in Hong Kong at the local dime store to add to the sand table array ... there was the figurine that looked rather like a lobster with a propeller on its tail ... nothing very fearsome came to mind ... Then inspiration struck me. It was a Rust Monster."

Both the Wizard and the Rust Monster have rather bemused looks on their faces. Of course, if I was a Fighter, fully decked in heavy metal armor, I would be fearful of the touch of the Rust Monster too. While the Rust Monster is not a terribly ferocious beast, one touch of its antennae and my armor crumbles to rust. Along with the Carrion Crawler and the Otyugh, the Rust Monster acts as garbage detail in the dungeon, cleaning up all the metallic discards while the other two monsters deal with the dead creatures and other organic waste.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Papers And Paychecks RPG

Papers and Paycheques is a great new fantasy role-playing game. You pretend to be workers and students in an industrialized and technological society. Or so goes the related promotional material.

In point of fact, this supposed preview is another knowing-wink, tongue-in-cheek cartoon by Will McLean, poking fun at the idea of role-playing games. The cartoon appears in the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons DM's Guide. But instead of workers and students pretending to be adventurers, in this cartoon you have just the opposite.

This approach to D&D humor is typical for Will McLean's cartoons: he draws the reader in, by referencing some modern cultural reference, whether it be airplanes, poker, boardgames, mickey-mouse hats, television game-shows, backscratchers, or (in this case) role-players gathering for a friendly game.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Player Versus Player In Old School D&D


Considering that Dungeons and Dragons was a product of wargamers, it should come as little surprise that there was a great deal of player versus player conflict in the early days of the game. Reading through the campaign accounts (certainly the ones being recounted by Gygax and his players) you will find numerous stories of players betraying each other.

The above cartoon from the pages of Dragon Magazine (yet another Will McLean original) shows a couple of adventurers playing poker, with one of the adventurers exclaiming of the winning adventurer, "Don't look now, Wiz, but isn't that a medallion of ESP he's wearing?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hunting Ogres With Will McLean

Here's another classic Will McLean Dungeons and Dragons cartoon: this time, he's spoofing on Metagaming's OGRE micro-game.

Two adventurers are standing in front of a sign, "Beware of the Ogre" and one is telling the other: "Boy, after that pair of giants and the nest of gargoyles, this should be a real pushover..."

Of course, the tread tracks from the Ogre (a cybernetic nuke-firing supertank) portend a grim fate for the two adventurers.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Will McLean Humor From The Dragon Magazine


Most of you are familiar with the cartoons of Will McLean, as they appear on the pages of the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, authored by Gary Gygax.

Several of Will McLean's cartoon panels also appeared in The Dragon Magazine. The above cartoon appeared in Issue 24, April 1979, on page 18. The caption reads:

"Y'know, Wiz, when you said the treasure was guarded by two Fighters, I sort of figured you meant Lords or Myrmidons or something in that line."

In the early days of the hobby, it was not unusual to mix historical periods, with tanks existing along-side magic, and science fiction elements cropping up in medieval fantasy. Just look to Expedition To The Barrier Peaks, or Temple Of The Frog, for evidence of this cross-genre gaming.

This cartoon panel by Will McLean ably lampoons that early propensity for cross-genre gaming.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Monty Haul Campaigns And Will McLean


One of the thorniest problems facing the designers of early versions of Dungeons and Dragons was that of the Monty Haul campaign. Monty Hall (for those few of you unaware of the cultural reference) was the host of a game-show called "Let's Make A Deal", in which undeserving, ridiculously-costumed contestants would be asked to choose between three doors, behind one of which was hid a fabulous prize, with the other two, booby prizes.

Similarly, Monty Haul D&D campaigns were those campaigns where players were handed arbitrarily large experience points awards and fabulous treasures by the DM, and rarely faced any risks. Letters detailing the horrors of those campaigns literally filled the pages of early Dragon Magazines.

The above cartoon appeared in The Dragon, Issue 24, April 1979. Even at this early stage of D&D's history, the Monty Haul campaign had acquired such infamy that Will McLean was spoofing it.

More Old-School D&D Cartoons By Will McLean


Jim, of Carjacked Seraphim, reminded me of another classic Will McLean cartoon, this time from page 123 of Gary's DMG.

The adventuring party is trying to decide whether their newly found magic wand allows them to cast the various Bigby spells, or if they have found the fabled +2 Backscratcher.

Humor In Dungeons And Dragons


Perhaps i'm looking in the wrong places, but was seems to be missing from later versions of Dungeons and Dragons is a sense of humor.

In the early days, Will McLean was a cartoonist for the "Dragon Mirth" section of The Dragon magazine. His cartoons also appeared in other TSR publications, such as the Dungeon Masters Guide. The above cartoon is fondly remembered by many: it appeared on page 34 of Gary Gygax's DMG.

I loved Will McLean's cartoons. They captured a gonzo, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek attitude that was a welcome tonic to players and DMs taking themselves, and the game, too seriously.

Sure, Will McLean's cartoons were the throw-away lines, or the drum-roll-punctuated jokes, of the Dungeons and Dragons illustration universe. But that was part of the fun of D&D: getting together with friends, and sharing some fall-out-of your-chair laugh-fests. Early versions of D&D were that much the better, for having included humor in the game.

In Which Jean Wells Loses It: Or, "You're Playing It Wrong!"

I notice no small measure of condescension being heaped upon those who waste their time investigating, and writing about, the history of "the hobby."

This is unfortunate, as looking back allows us to see how we got to where we are today, and helps inform our understanding of the development of the game.

As I look through old issues of The Dragon, I can't help but be reminded of the challenges that the designers faced, in trying to communicate their expectations of how Dungeons and Dragons was to be played.

Here's a fine example of that challenge, from the Sage Advice column, authored by Jean Wells. This is from The Dragon, Issue #37, May 1980.

The question is posed: "How does my 9th level Druid / 10th Level MU, with 18.83 Int, 18.90 Wis and 18.84 Cha, combine his two artifacts, the Apparatus of Kwalish and the Mighty Servant of Leuk-O, to create the ultimate weapon, and can I triple-class, adding Cleric levels to the mix?"

Jean Wells' response: "My first reaction [after reading this letter] was IIIIIEEEE!"

You can read the entire question, and response, by clicking on the excerpt.

My point in posting this is that, in order to understand why the game evolved the way it did, you need to understand what feedback was being provided to the game designers. As you read through the editorials, letters to the editor, and articles in The Dragon, themes begin to emerge, revealing why the game developed (and continues to develop) the way it does.

Some final words from Jean Wells, in the same Sage Advice column: "Readers are once again reminded that Sage Advice is designed to settle specific questions concerning rule definitions or interpretations. General questions about procedure in an adventure or campaign should be handled by the DM of that campaign...."

I don't believe some of the more outrageous questions or situations were the norm. But those were the sorts of things that the game designers were reacting to. Any wonder that the rules became increasingly complicated and detailed, and the actions of the DMs and players increasingly proscribed.