Sunday, October 31, 2010

Looking For Miniature Figures For The Dying Earth RPG

I have several packs of miniatures from the Foundry. They have quite a few miniatures that would fit into a swash buckling milieu such as Dying Earth RPG.

Anyone know of some other lines of miniatures the combines foppish outfits and hats with swashbuckling weapons?

Gary Gygax On Jack Vance And The Dying Earth

"The Dying Earth is a marvelous, dark far-future world setting. The earth is no longer our world, just as the sun is no longer the Old Sol we see. It is a planet so ancient that its earlier history has been lost and forgotten. Of the later ages, a staggeringly long series of epics, information is revealed only in tantalizing snippets. All of its places are striking in that they are strange yet somehow familiar, and there is no question that something startling and new will be revealed at each turn. To my thinking, this milieu is creative far beyond the bounds of what has been offered in any material previously written....

In considering the Dying Earth milieu, one must be prepared to accept some differences between it and the standard world of fantasy derring-do. While much has been forgotten, the whole of the race of mankind has matured and grown ancient and cynical. Naivete there is aplenty, but behind it there is cynicism, duplicity, and treachery ... So the milieu is one where Machiavelli would be considered the norm in civilized places, while in the hinterlands the oddest of things are to be expected....

Does this mean that the Dying Earth can not expect some altruism, bravery, even a sense of wonder in its leading characters? Hardly! While such are rare enough here and now to be remarkable, these traits are definitely human, will persist as long as Homo sapiens in whatever evolved form remain extant. The trick to survival for such individuals on the Dying Earth must be cunning....

The Dying Earth is the perfect place for a sophisticated, whimisical, and enthralling fantasy campaign. It can be on virtually any scale, and feature whatever the participant group enjoys most. Combat and magic? Of course. The same is true of story and intrigue. To be forthright, the milieu is so broad as to invite any and all aspects of the RPG into play, and those in whatever mix and degree of emphasis is desired. Simply put, the Dying Earth milieu is just about a perfect one to transfer from fiction to game. The caveat is, don't think along 'conventional' fantasy lines. It is a place where long ages have altered things, even magic and the human archetype to some degree."

-- Gary Gygax, "Jack Vance and the D&D Game", from The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Volume 1, Issue 2

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Diablo: Claustrophobia And Fear

I was on hiatus from Dungeons and Dragons during the 1990's, so I was only vaguely aware of the TSR death-spiral, ascent of Magic: the Gathering, and eventual sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast.

Most of my game-time was filled with computer games, my favorite being the original Diablo, released sometime around 1997.

This game scared the crap out of me. I seem to recall that the backstory was revealed intermittently throughout the game, and so for me it was a game of discovery, albeit a rather bloody, monster-laden one. I loved that there were dark shadows around the edges of the screen, and that the music instilled a sense of dread, horror and foreboding. The game-play was very claustrophobia-inducing.

I never got into Diablo II. Some of the mystery of the original Diablo was lost. It may have been the different music, or the fact that you knew what to expect, having played the original Diablo, but Diablo II didn't give me the pulse-pounding experience of fear that I got from the original game.

How does Diablo relate to old-school gaming? Like Diablo, part of the fun of role-playing games is not knowing what is going on, having incomplete information, not knowing if the monster is killable or not, and not knowing whether or not you will survive.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cunning, Comedy, Casual Cruelty?

If your answer to this question was The Dying Earth RPG, you'd be right.

The Dying Earth RPG is a role-playing game intended to emulate the world -- and words -- contained in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series of novels and short stories. You'll note that I did not include "Combat" in my alliterative title. I did this for a very simple reason: The Dying Earth RPG actively discourages you from engaging in mortal combat, and the game system reinforces that by making combat very deadly. You only need to take a couple of blows before your character is out-of-commission, or more likely, dead.

What then is The Dying Earth RPG about? It's about clever repartee, social combat, cunning subterfuge, laughter, and casual cruelty.

Clever Repartee

The principle game mechanic of nearly any role-playing game is the system governing the accumulation of experience points. Experience point award mechanics are important in role-playing games, as they are the mechanism permitting character upgrades. The experience point mechanic of an RPG is thus a powerful communicator of what is expected of a Player. In The Dying Earth RPG, experience points are ONLY awarded for clever repartee. No experience for combat. No experience for treasure. Just witty dialogue, elegantly framed in the Vancian style, and delivered with impeccable timing. Therefore, The Dying Earth RPG is a game like no other: it is a role-playing game to its very core.

Social Combat

I'm not a big fan of social combat systems. My reasoning is that those combat systems either encourage conflict between players (PvP conflict typically happens as a matter of course, but i'm not interested in encouraging it) or govern the interactions between player and DM (in which case, as a "fair" DM, you should be able to judge when you have been verbally bested and concede defeat, without having to resort to a die-roll). The Social Combat system in The Dying Earth RPG is based on dice pools. Each player (and any encountered NPCs) has a dice-pool made up of d6's, and can continue spending dice from their pool until they or their opponent has exhausted theirs. Scoring a 1-3 means failure, while a 4-6 means success, with the 1 and 6 being catastrophic failure and incredible success, respectively. Depending on your roll, your opponent may have to expend more, or fewer dice, to respond to your success or failure. This mechanic feels artificial to me, as I would rather engage in the actual role-playing, of two combatants trying to convince the other of the superiority of their position, but the dice-pool is a reasonable substitute, for those who are uncomfortable "talking with funny voices".

Cunning Subterfuge

Like the characters in Vance's Dying Earth books and short stories, each of the Player's characters are lazy, self-absorbed, covetous, avaricious, and arrogant. So are most of the NPC's they encounter. Therefore, the game resolves around the planning and execution of cunning strategems to gain wealth, comfort, power, prestige, fineries, and delicious food, with as little effort and risk as possible.


As was mentioned earlier, experience points are awarded for clever repartee. This is accomplished through a mechanism whereby the DM provides several Vancian phrases to each player, prior to the start of the game session. They must weave those phrases into the game at some point during the session. For those who deliver their line, at an innapropriate time, no experience points are awarded. For those lines delivered when appropriate, but eliciting no positive response from the other game participants, one experience point is awarded. But when the line is delivered, and elicits positive responses, propels the adventure in a humorous or unexpected direction, or garners laughter from the other players and DM, two or even three experience points are awarded by the DM. Therefore, Players are encouraged to ham it up, directing the in-game conversations in such a way as to allow for the delivery of their appointed lines.

Casual Cruelty

Casual Cruelty, or "man's inhumanity to man", is a common theme in the tales of the Dying Earth. You see this in the Liane the Wayfarer stories, or in Cugel's treatment by, and of those he encounters in "The Eyes of the Overworld". The author of The Dying Earth exhorts the DM to insert scenes of casual cruelty (sparingly), establishing the nature of the cruelty, and allowing the imaginations of the players to fill in the horrifying details. He opines that a successful scene of casual cruelty will nag at the players after the game, as they think more fully of the implications.

The Dying Earth RPG allows you to run the full gamet of emotions during a role-playing session, from hilarity to horror. The Dying Earth RPG is clearly not for your typical hack-n-slasher, and is more appropriate for your more cerebral gamer. What I love about this game is its respect for the Vancian source material, and its overt discouragement of mortal combat, which is a refreshing change from the direction Dungeons and Dragons has recently been drawn to.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Red Box Calgary - Inspirational Art

Pat, another Calgarian, and the blogger behind Ode To Black Dougal, also has a little site called Red Box Calgary. The purpose of that site is to promote B/X Dungeons & Dragons games in Calgary, an objective I heartily endorse. He has proposed that we start up a new B/X campaign this Fall.

One suggested setting for that upcoming B/X campaign are the dank and horror-filled catacombs, crypts and tunnels beneath an ancient, sprawling and corrupt city. This setting possesses a certain appeal to me, as I am currently reading several of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth novels, and that setting reminds me of Kaiin, a crumbling city, whose abandoned outskirts and underground tunnels hold mysteries and danger. The idea behind the campaign is that the DM duties will rotate amongst the participants. If the other participants were up for it, that would allow each of them to develop their own portions of a shared world, and link them all together in a more-or-less coherent framework.

Another option is to create a Caves Of Chaos styled campaign, where each DM takes one of the cave entrances in a box canyon or valley, and develops it, allowing for later linkages between the complexes. The above art is inspiration for the later suggestion. The art is by Michael Komark, and is from the D&D 3.5 Players Handbook II.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another Snow Day In Calgary

Brrrrr! It was yet another pre-Halloween snowfall yesterday. The temperature was sufficiently cool that my neighbour decided to leave his car running to warm up. Tsk tsk, that's an environmental no-no!
While the rest of Calgary shed its' snow by mid-day yesterday, we're at a high enough elevation that the snow in our neighbourhood failed to melt.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Microgames Collection

With only a week left before Halloween, it's time to dig out my Microgames collection, dust off my copy of Transylvania, and give it a spin. Published by Mayfair games, Transylvania is one of several horror-themed microgames published in the early 1980's.

I have a extensive, but incomplete collection of Microgames. While I own the vast majority of the Metagaming titles, I don't own a single Dwarfstar title. The Dwarfstar microgames are the creme-de-la-creme of microgames. While they may or may not have the replay value of some of the earliest Microgame titles, the production values of the Dwarfstar games are top-notch.

I have wanted to get my hands on original copies of Dwarfstar's Star Viking and Star Smuggler games for some time. Star Viking appears to be a game based loosely on H. Beam Piper's Space Viking, while Star Smuggler seems to be a Han Solo-esque game of smuggling and trade. Both are expensive on the resale market, and I have not yet justified paying the prices demanded. Reaper Miniatures apparently owns the rights to the Dwarfstar games, and have kindly allowed these games to be distributed digitally, but there's something about a professionally produced copy, no?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sayonara To Synnibarr

My copy of The World Of Synnibarr is off to Andreas Davour of The Omnipotent Eye.

I have mixed emotions about Synnibarr's departure. At 475 pages, it is far too long to qualify as a game of imagination, since that many pages of rules and setting sucks the imagination out of any game.

Instead, it is better thought of as a historical document, representing the imagined universe of Raven c.s. McCracken, flawed though that universe may be.

Still, letting go is hard to do, as Synnibarr is a signpost in the history of role-playing games.

Admittedly, that signpost is buried deep in a dark and boggy valley. Raven's own personal history is also rather storied, which is why i'm hesitant to throw any large rocks at him, or his game.

But both the World Of Synnibarr role-playing game, and most of the accompanying art, is pretty mediocre.

There seems to be little that is novel, either in the game design or in alternate visions represented by the artwork.

But before letting Synnibarr go, I thought I would capture the best of the artwork to share with my readers. Others have highlighted the worst of the worst when it comes to Synnibarr artwork, so there's no need to cover that ground again.

Below is my favorite illustration from Synnibarr, and it is so incongruous, next to the rest of the artwork, to merit special consideration.

The illustration shows to combatants, locked in battle, in what appears to be a very conan-esque scene. The illustration is out-of-place for two reasons: one, this is a highly visceral, raw, action-packed illustration, with a great deal of motion and emotion. You can almost hear the scream of the axe-wielding warrior, the sing of the other warriors blade, the crash of sword against shield. This illustration is out of place, as the rest of the artwork in Synnibarr is overwhelmingly static or science-fiction-y.

Two, I have seen little in Synnibarr to suggest that it is a swords & sorcery role-playing game. I'd love to know which of the stable of credited Synnibarr artists produced this: it is one of the few pieces of Synnibarr art that I truly love.

Here's another piece of art from Synnibarr that also warrants recognition.

I call this illustration two moons (in reference to the two moons in the sky, and not for some other less tasteful reason). It shows two Amazons, being surprised by a black panther. This illustration is notable for the same reason as the other illustration, in that it has a very ancient greek vibe to it, which is not in fitting with the assumed setting of Synnibarr, which is a planet/spaceship, includes modern weapons and science fantasy and super powers. This illustration also possesses some interesting energy, as if the two Amazons have been caught quite unawares by this large cat.

There you have it. The above are, in my opinion, the only notable illustrations in the World of Synnibarr game book.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ever Have One Of THOSE Days?

And you may ask yourself,


Is that my favorite Paladin singing?

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack;

And you may find yourself in another part of the world;

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile;

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house...

With a beautiful wife...

And you may ask yourself,



Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sword And Sorcery Movies

While I don't believe it's exhaustive, a relatively comprehensive list of Sword and Sorcery movies can be found at Jesse Acosta's Sword and Sorcery Guide website. In addition to his listing, he also provides an overall rating (out of four stars) as well as sub-ratings for how much "sword" and how much "sorcery" are in each of those movies. Here is a list of what Jesse Acosta considers to be the three and four-star Sword and Sorcery movies, along with his ratings.

**** 13th Warrior

**** Army Of Darkness

**** Beastmaster

**** Conan The Barbarian

**** Dragonslayer

**** Jason And The Argonauts (Harryhausen)

**** Lord Of The Rings (Peter Jackson version)

**** The Hobbit (Rankin+Bass version)

*** Black Cauldron

*** Clash Of The Titans (Harryhausen)

*** Conan The Destroyer

*** Dark Crystal

*** Excalibur

*** Highlander

*** Labyrinth

*** Ladyhawke

*** Princess Bride

*** Red Sonya (Schwarzenegger version)

*** Sword and the Sorcerer

*** Willow

I could quibble about his ratings, or the fact that Highlander is included while Sword In The Stone, Heavy Metal, Fire And Ice and Sleeping Beauty are excluded, but it is a good start if you are looking for Sword and Sorcery movies nevertheless. Of the 20 movies listed, I have not seen four of them, a deficiency I intend to correct.

I would have a difficult time chosing my favorite from among these movies, but if pressed, might pick 13th Warrior. Lord Of The Rings is a close second.

How many have you seen? How many do you own? And what's your favorite?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Traveller's Appendix N: Ensign Flandry

Though it may exist, i'm unaware of a Traveller version of "Appendix N" -- a recommended reading list, providing a list of authors whose works inspired the development of our favorite science fiction role playing game.

I've mentioned in the past that I was fortunate to come across a large collection of old paperback fiction. Not all of it was of the swords and sorcery variety. I also obtained some old science fiction novels from the 60's and 70's. One of those novels was Ensign Flandry, by Poul Anderson, which was published in 1966. This is not the first published Flandry novel, but comes earliest in the chronology of the series.

If a Traveller Appendix N does exist, I imagine Poul Anderson's Flandry series ranks as one of the more significant inspirations. Here are a selection of quotes from Ensign Flandry, which may have been inspirational to the Traveller designers.

"Everyone knows the Empire was won and is maintained by naked power, the central government is corrupt and the frontier is brutal and the last organization with high morale, the Navy, lives for war and oppression..."

"The sky illumination had now formed a gigantic banner overhead, the sunburst alive in a field of royal blue..."

"They crowded into the flier. It was a simple passenger vehicle which could hold a score or so if they filled the seats and aisle and rear end. Flandry settled himself at the board and started the grav generators."

"People say 'hyperdrive' and 'light-year' so casually. They don't understand. A series of quantum jumps, which do not cross the intervening spaces, therefore do not amount to true velocity and are not bound by the light-speed limitation..."

"'Lord Hauksberg is continuing to Merseia in another couple of days,' said Commander Max Abrams, of the Imperial Naval Intelligence Corps. 'I'm going along in an advisory capacity, so my orders claim. I rate an Aide. Want the job, Ensign?' Flandry goggled. 'You've shown yourself pretty tough and resourceful. A bit of practical experience in Intel will give you a leg up, if I can convince you to transfer to the Intelligence Branch.'"

"The starship Dronning Margrete was not of a size to land safely on a planet. Her auxiliaries were small spaceships in their own right. Officially belonging to Ny Kalmar, in practice, a yacht for whoever was the current viscount. She did sometimes travel in the Imperial service: a vast improvement with respect to comfort over any Naval vessel. Now she departed orbit and accelerated outward on gravitics. Before long she was clear enough into space that she could switch over to hyperdrive."

"The ship whispered. Powerplant, ventilators, a rare hail when crewmen passed each other in the corridor."

"'Come, come,' Hauksberg said. 'A galactic government is impossible. It'd collapse under its own weight. We've everything we can do to control what we have, and we don't control tightly. Local self-government is so strong, most places, that I see actual feudalism evolving within the Imperial structure.'"

Well I could go on, but I think you see the picture. The Ensign Flandry series is not the only science fiction source from which GDW may have drawn, but it certainly captures the flavour of many of the Traveller game elements, such as character generation, assumed setting, equipment, organization, starship design, and government and nobility.

Edit: You can find a recommended reading list from Space Frontiers on Dennis' What a horrible night to have a curse blog.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Harn Weapons And Armour

In the 1990's, I was briefly in love with Harn. For those who have been smitten, you'll know what I mean. Gorgeous maps. Intricate world-building. Complex character generation. Detailed combat. Harn seemingly promised those two holy grails of game design, granularity and verisimilitude.

My Harn materials are mostly gone now: lost in a garage fire. But a couple of items remain. The amazing maps, from Cities of Harn and Son of Cities, survived, as they were placed in a binder that followed me on several moves. I also have one or two Encyclopedia Harnica folios.

Some Harn-related notes and characters also survived, in the same binder as the Cities of Harn materials. Among the notes are lists of melee weapons and armor.

Melee weapons in Harn had three potential damage aspects. Every weapon is rated on how much damage it inflicts, if used to do blunt, edge or point damage. This system is not unlike the three weapon types in 2nd Edition AD&D: bludgeoning, slashing and piercing.

But while the AD&D 2E system gave each weapon only one (or at most, two) damage options, many weapons in Harn allow you to do damage with any of the three weapon aspects.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

The Handaxe is rated as Blunt 4, Edge 6, and Point 3. The Shortsword: Blunt 2, Edge 4, Point 4. The Glaive: Blunt 6, Edge 7, Point 7. The Falchion: Blunt 4, Edge 6, Point 1.

However, some weapons only do damage in one or two aspects. The Mace is only rated as Blunt 5. The Warhammer: Blunt 6, Point 4. The Throwing Dagger: Point 4.

Obviously, the benefit of having a weapon that can do damage in any of the three aspects is that the weapon is more versatile. All of the swords fit in that category, as do the Handaxe and Battleaxe. The flails and clubs do significant damage as well, but are limited to blunt damage only.

Armour, at least in the version of Harnmaster that I possessed, was needlessly complicated. Every type of armor was broken down into the types of armor pieces available for each of the 16 locations of the body. I might buy a short chain hauberk, combine it with some plate greaves, a ringmail half-helm, hardened leather vambraces, and quilt gambeson, and then need to figure out my coverage, for each of the 16 hit locations. What you gained in realism you lost in endless record-keeping.

I did like the Harn shield rules though. Different shields were more effective against different classes of weapons. Light shields were better against light weapons, while heavy shields provided more protection against heavy weapons.

Coming back to my favorite out-of-print boardgame, Avalon Hill's Magic Realm, the three weapon aspects of Harn combat (Blunt, Edge and Point) nicely line up with Magic Realm's three attack directions (Smash, Swing and Thrust). Like most of my half-formed ideas, i've long wanted to find a way to combine the Harn weapon aspects and Magic Realm matrix into a diceless or near-diceless combat system. My quixotic quest continues.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Old School Chainmail Combat, LOTR-Style

I have the "good fortune" to ride the train several times a week. That gives me the opportunity to do some reading, whether it be a book from my "appendix n" collection, catching up on the day's news, or perusing something from my gaming collection.

Today's pick was my gaming collection, specifically, Chainmail: rules for medieval miniatures, by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, first published in 1971. Now, you'd think i've pretty much exhausted whatever nuggets of wisdom could be mined from that old wargame ruleset. But my earlier post on Battle of Wits Combat Systems got me thinking about old-school combat, and what could be more old-school than Chainmail?

Lord Of The Rings Strategy Battle Game, apparently. Like Chainmail, LOTRSBG is a tabletop miniatures wargame that allows you to field fantastic monsters, orcs, goblins, trolls, wraiths, wizards and heroes, and conduct battles between them.

The above "Wound Chart" is from LOTRSBG. In the game, you compare your attacker's strength to your opponent's defence, and must roll the indicated number, or higher, on a d6, to score a kill. For example, my Warrior has an Stength of 3. Your Orc has a Defence of 5. I need to roll a 5+ on a d6 in order to kill your Orc.

In many ways, the LOTRSBG Wound Chart is very similar to the mass combat rules in Chainmail, except that Chainmail uses light foot, heavy foot, armoured foot, etc., rather than numerical attack and defence categories. Both Chainmail and LOTRSBG also give Heroes multiple dice when attacking opponents. In short, it has just about everything that Chainmail has.

LOTRSBG has rules for Initiative, Armor, Weapons, Movement, Shooting, Combat, Cavalry, Charging, Courage, Morale, Magic Weapons and Spells, Equipment, Seiges, Catapults, Fortresses, Heroes and Heroic actions, Climbing, Leadership, Rallying Troops, Monsters, High Ground, and Effects of Terrain on Movement.

If I was going to play a D&D game using the Chainmail mass combat rules, I might instead be tempted to adopt the LOTRSBG rules, because they are clearly written, readily available, and i'm guessing you could get an old version of the LOTRSBG rules for free, or nearly free, since the rules have been updated several times since 2001.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving

We've already done two Canadian Thanks giving dinners. One, at our place on Saturday night, with about 15 of our family members. Roast turkey and cranberries, sausage and apple stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and the usual accompaniments. The second was at a friend's house on Sunday night, again about 15 of us, but this time the menu included Ham, shwartzies potatoes, carrot soup, brussel sprouts and brocolli, and ice cream and pecan and apple pies.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

World Of Synnibarr Redux

Many moons ago it was mentioned that I had a copy of The World Of Synnibarr in my collection.

Now it seems it is potentially off to a good home.

The World Of Synnibarr is liberally derided by many. Having read, but never played the game, I admit my perspective is somewhat shallow.

I've heard vague reports that Raven McCracken's campaign was not unlike that of Dave Hargrave's.

But while Hargrave is hailed as a hero of self-publishing and gonzo D&D house-ruling, McCracken is mocked for his World Of Synnibarr setting.

Interestingly, one of the criticisms of World Of Synnibarr is this: "McCracken is, incidentally, addicted to the percentile dice roll, and not in the good Unknown Armies / Call of Cthulhu way; he'll use them for everything. You'll see more of this later."

Is McCracken's material that bad, or does he get unfair rap?

Player Skill: Battle of Wits Combat Systems

Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead.

Vizzini: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You've made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

Vizzini: Wait 'til I get going! Now, where was I?

Man in Black: Australia.

Vizzini: Yes, Australia. And you must have suspected I would have known the powder's origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You're just stalling now.

Vizzini: You'd like to think that, wouldn't you! You've beaten my giant, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could've put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you've also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You're trying to trick me into giving away something. It won't work.


How I would love to have a Dungeons and Dragons combat system that emulated the battle of wits scene in The Princess Bride.

One of the touted features of original D&D is its' encouragement of player skill. But many people find the old-school combat system lacking in that area. The main criticism of old-school combat is that deteriorates into an endless exchange of blows. While the criticism is somewhat misplaced, (after all, players should be using their player skills to either avoid combat or ensure that the battlefield is of their choosing) once combat is joined, players are at the mercy of the dice, and the vagaries of the DM, who may be permissive or not when it comes to the players' improvised combat tactics.

Some 'modern gamers' point to the 4E combat system as a solution, as it provides myriad tactical combat choices, providing some measure of player control in finding synergistic combinations of combat abilities to defeat the monsters arrayed against them. But the 4E solution feels completely artificial to me: the combat abilities rarely reflect real combat tactics, and so their selection and employment, in my mind, are examples of system mastery, not player skill. After all, if you look at the example of the battle of wits between Vezzini and the Man In Black, Vezzini is using real-life knowledge (basic psychology, geography, recent events) to try to deduce the mind of his opponent.

One of the great strengths of Avalon Hill's Magic Realm combat system is its' focus on player skill. The system itself is rather straight-forward, and uses the following 'real-life' combat principles:
  • Weapon length: longer weapons hit before shorter weapons.
  • Weapon speed: faster weapons hit before slower weapons.
  • Character speed: faster characters act before slower characters.
  • Armor: armor absorbs blows, but can be damaged as a result.
  • Weapon harm: heavier weapons do more damage than light weapons.
  • Attack Direction: there are three attack directions that correspond to the three dimensions: smash down, swing to the side, and thrust ahead.
  • Manuever Direction: there are three manuever directions that correspond to the three attack directions: duck down, dodge to the side, and charge ahead.
  • Fatigue: characters are able to perform certain exceptional actions, but doing so causes fatigue, which constrains future activities.
Using the above principles, Magic Realm employs a deterministic (diceless) combat system. Therefore, the results of a combat round are not subject to chance: each player's skill (in making the best selections of weapons, armor, attacks and manuevers, based upon what they know about the capabilities and strategies of their opponents) is the principal factor in determining his or her success or failure.

For example, in Magic Realm, the Dwarf is very slow. His only fast movement, that does not cause him to become fatigued, is his ability to duck down (which makes intuitive sense, since he is short). Another player, knowing this about the Dwarf, would select a smash down attack against the Dwarf, knowing that the Dwarf is most likely to use the duck manuever. Of course, in true Vezzini fashion, the Dwarf knows that other players are aware of his reliance on ducking, and so may employ one of his other manuevers, thus avoiding the smash down attack of his opponent (even if it meant accumulating some fatigue as a result).

I would be interested to learn if others have devised a way to insert player skill into their old-school combat systems, so as to transform them into a battle of wits between the players and the DM.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Old School Resources: Dragon Tree Spell Book

Dave Hargrave wasn't the only one publishing gonzo, D&D-esque gaming materials in the late 70's and early 80's. In addition to the Arduin materials, Ben and Mary Ezzell of Dragon Tree Press were (and still are) publishing materials for their own fantasy setting, dubbed Delos (any similarity to the Greek island of Delos, and the Delian League is purely coincidental).

In addition to The Delian Book Of The Dead (which I previously reviewed), Dragon Tree Press published The Dragon Tree Spell Book ("the Spell Book"), which is a compendium of magic spells compatible with Dungeons and Dragons. First published in 1981, The Spell Book is 135 pages, contains 224 unique spells, and can still be purchased from Dragon Tree Press, for $12.

Some of the more interesting spells within The Spell Book include:
  • "Weed-killer", this spell withers weeds -- handy for clearing out an overgrown area;

  • "Andrea's Rambling Clew" -- the material component is a ball of yarn, which unrolls as it provides a trail towards your intended destination;

  • "Gordian Knot" -- a spell for ensuring theives cannot untie a knot to raid your backpack or sack;

  • "Snap, Crackle, Pop" -- a spell which creates tiny globules across a flat surface, which make loud popping sounds if walked upon;

  • "Foghorn" -- allows a player to amplify her voice, so she can address large crowds;

  • "Percival's Phosphorescence" -- enchanted items collect sunlight, and can thus be used as no-fire torches underground; and

  • "Brother Bertram's Body Bag" -- a corpse placed within the body bag will cease to decay, useful when you want to resurrect someone but it will be several days before you can do so.

There are some interesting and useful spells in The Spell Book. But the real value to be derived from The Spell Book is within the first 27 pages.

Those first 27 pages provide a summary of Newton's Principia Arcana, an ancient tome that reveals the four types of magical mana, from which are derived five magic systems. The derived magic systems are:

  • Memorization System -- similar to the Vancian system of spell-casting employed in Dungeons and Dragons;

  • Local Mana System -- similar to the system used in D&D's Dark Sun setting, or Niven's "The Magic Goes Away", there is a certain amount of magic power within a given area, and spell-casters who use up the magic power in that area, must then move to another area in order to continue casting;

  • Personal Mana System -- each spell caster has a certain amount of magical mana within himself, and can cast any spell until his personal mana is exhausted. Then he must eat and rest for a certain amount of time to restore his personal mana;

  • Percentage and Fumble System -- magical essense is abundant, but hard to control. Spell casters can cast spells, but there is always a chance that a spell will backfire or result in some catastrophe; and

  • Impromptu Magic System -- spell casters can make up any spell, but their chances are dependent on certain laws of spell casting. Those laws are identified in the Impromptu Magic System, and adherance to those laws affects the chance of spell success. This system is similar to DeCamp and Pratt's magic system, as described in The Compleat Enchanter.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Phumble Phailure: Improper Use Of A d100

The introduction of platonic solids into gaming pre-dates Dungeons & Dragons. Romans were gambling using d20's long before Gygax et al conceived their use as random number generators for fantasy role-playing games.

I like the platonic solids: d4, d6, d8, d12, d20. My favorite? The d12, partly because it gets so little play at the game-table --and is thus the red-headed step-child of the number-generator family -- but also because I made a d12 out of paper, long before I knew anything about D&D, in some elementary-school craft project, to which I pasted pictures of 12 influential people -- what their achievements were, I can no longer recall.

I'm not a big fan of either the d10 or d100. Oh, they are useful, if uninspiring, dice. But the d100, in particular, seems over-used to me. The d100 often gets used, when a d20 would suffice.

Take, for example, Dave Hargrave's Magical Phumble Chart, from Page 18 of The Lost Arduin Grimoire IV. The table has 13 magical phumble entries. Except for two (4% and 1%), each magic phumble entry has a 5, 10, or 15% chance of occuring. A little pet peeve of mine, but if each entry has a probability that can be expressed as a multiple of 5%, then a d20 will work equally well.

I know some people have a fetish for the d100. But i'm a big fan of economy, whether it be in my written communications, or the dice employed in my role-playing game.

The 13 (Hargravian) Commandments

I post this for no particular reason, other than to share Dave Hargrave's wisdom. These 13 Commandments, which are to be followed when a new player joins an existing campaign, are outlined in Hargrave's The Last Arduin Grimoire IV.

1. THOU SHALT BE RULES-PREPARED: Always be sure that you have ample time to read the different rules and understand just what major discrepancies in the new rules will have the most impact upon the character you will be playing.

2. THOU SHALT BE PROACTIVE WITH THE GM: Be sure to take at least a few minutes time to spend with the Game Master before the game so that you can have all of your questions concerning rules differences answered at the source.

3. THOU SHALT BE FLEXIBLE: Be sure to give the GM ample time to read over your character sheet so he can tell you what changes, if any, must be made to your character in order to be compatible with the GMs style of game play.

4. THOU SHALT BE TRANSPARENT: Let the GM also peruse your magical items, spells and other special abilities/powers so that he will not be surprised in the middle of a melee with an unfamiliar device or such. Most GMs react to such surprises quite simply, by nullifying whatever it was you pulled out of your bag of special tricks.

5. THOU SHALT INTERVIEW THE EXISTING PLAYERS: Try to find time to converse with the other people who have played/are playing in the GMs game so you can get a feel for them and just what the GM's game, world and style of play is like. If it appears to you, after such discussions, that this is the kind 0f game you might have a problem with, then for heaven's sake reconsider your participation.

6. THOU SHALT KNOW THY CHARACTER'S ABILITIES: Be sure that you are totally familiar with everything about your character before the game begins. In the middle of a raging battle is not the time to dig out a rule book to determine just what your character's spell effect is.

7. THOU SHALT BRING THY GAMING STUFF: Bring all the equipment that is necessary for play in the game. Different games occasionally require differently numbered dice and so on. If the GM wants all characters to be represented by a suitable miniature figure, have what is needed and do not borrow from the other players or GM.

8. THOU SHALT NOT BE DISRUPTIVE: Ask questions during the game but choose the appropriate time so as not to disrupt the play, if at all possible. Better yet, ask a player first, and only if he cannot help you, the GM.

9. THOU SHALT RESPECT THE FLOW OF THE GAME: If the game is touted as "many" hours in probable duration, come prepared with a snack that can be eaten where you sit. Don't expect to be allowed to saunter away to eat your dinner when-ever you feel like it.

10. THOU SHALT SHARE WITH THY COMRADES: It never hurts to bring a snack to share with your new-found friends. Friendliness and a willingness to share is an utter necessity if you are to enjoy the new experience to the fullest.

11. THOU SHALT BE RESPECTFUL: Do not be critical of rules or GM decisions in the new game. That's one way to cut your character's survival chances to nearly zero. Be open and receptive to new ideas, even if you think they stink. Just keep those thoughts to yourself, during the game. Afterwards, you must decide whether the new game is one in which you want to continue playing. If it is, then politely discover, after the game, why a certain situation was adjudicated the way it was. Who knows, your polite inquiry might get the GM to reconsider the ruling in question. It does happen ... if you are polite and reasoned about it.

12. THOU SHALT BE A TEAM PLAYER: Don't denigrate the situations or monsters you may encounter by comparing them to tougher or better or more unique situations in your games. No GM likes to hear people denigrating him. Besides, the other players will probably lynch you on the spot because they know that such remarks will cause most GMs to redouble the lethality of their play from that point forward.

13. THOU SHALT BE HUMBLE: Don't try to be a know-it-all or act like there is no situation or monster than you haven't seen, can't handle and so on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Jack Vance: The Dying Earth

Jack Vance's The Dying Earth was published in 1950, some 60 years ago. A slim book of 156 pages, The Dying Earth is a brisk and enjoyable read, and is far cheerier than its brother, The Eyes of the Overworld.

The Dying Earth is composed of six short stories, some of which are cleverly interconnected. Those short stories are: Turjan of Miir; Mazirian the Magician; T'sais; Liane the Wayfarer; Ulan Dhor; and, Guyal of Sfere. The accompanying picture is Joe Bergeron's depiction of a confrontation between T'sain (the twin sister of T'sais) and Mazirian the Magician, beneath the waters of Sanra, the Lake of Dreams.

While Mazirian the Magican and Liane the Wayfarer both ultimately receive their comeuppances, many of the other characters in The Dying Earth enjoy a better fate.

Jack Vance's Dying Earth series is well-known as the basis for the D&D magic system. In The Dying Earth series, most Magic Users can employ only 4 or 5 spells, much fewer than the number permitted for middle-to-high level spellcasters in earlier versions of D&D.

In Vance's Dying Earth series, only some 100 spells remain, from the thousand or more that existed in earlier times. Among the spells still know are the Charm of Untiring Nourishment, Call to the Violent Cloud, the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, Phandaal's Gyrator, the Spell of the Slow Hour, the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere, the Spell of Immobilization, and Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell. Looking at the spell lists in early versions of D&D, and those in some of the Arduin and Delos rulebooks, one is struck by how often the Vancian naming conventions were employed. A credit to Gygax, Hargrave and others, who treated the source material with respect.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Playing Dead Characters: Delian Book Of The Dead

All this talk of Arduin over at Jeff's Gameblog has me thinking about another set of old-school, gonzo, D&D-compatible rulebooks : The World Of Delos.

Ben & Mary Ezzell wrote The World Of Delos game supplements in the 1980's, and dedicated their "Planes of the Afterlife" section of The Delian Book of the Dead to Arduin's author, Dave Hargrave.

The cover art of The Delian Book Of The Dead ("the Dead") is by Roland Brown, who also provided the cover and interior art for Arduin's The Lost Grimoire IV. The cover of the Dead shows a deceased Amazon, heavily armored, lying upon a funeral bier, attended to by the Grim Reaper, as her spirit slowly rises from her body.

The 145 pages of the Dead cover a lot of novel role-playing territory, as does the entire World Of Delos book series. The Dead provides rules for a new class, the Archaeologist (intended to emulate Indiana Jones, Rick O'Connell and other egyptologist-type characters from film and literature), a long section of helpful tips and adventure locations for prospective tomb-robbers, six pages of magical doors, windows and mirrors to delight, confuse and confound your players, 10 pages of gems, including a description of the possible magical uses for each, several pages on unique magic arms and armour whose benefits and drawbacks go beyond mere combat adjustments, potions and poisons of uncommon use and effect, a long chapter on the variety and ecology of Delian spiders, a section on the acquisition, care and feeding of strange pets, and an adventure that takes you through several "Planes of the Afterlife" in search of an artifact that may lead the adventurers to a most singular conclusion.

In addition, the Dead provides a new character class: Phantoms. Phantoms are former player characters, whose deaths came violently, suddenly, or prior to the completion of some important quest, and are thus unable to leave the prime material plane until their unfinished business is concluded.

I must admit, the idea of player characters as Phantoms has a certain allure. I am reminded of the old 1978 film, Heaven Can Wait, if in title only. In that film, the incomparable Warren Beatty plays a narcissistic and reckless football quarterback, whose guardian angel transports him to heaven before his time. Due to the mix-up, Beatty's spirit is sent back to Earth. Unlike the Phantom class, where he would exist as spirit, he is placed in the body of a wealthy, recently-murdered industrialist, until St. Peter can find a suitable replacement body for Beatty, with hilarious and sexy results.

The allure of the Phantom class is that it allows players to continue playing a favorite character, but at the same time honoring the old-school tradition that, once you're dead, you're dead.

The mechanics are relatively straight-forward. If a character dies, the player may choose to roll to see if there is sufficient purpose keeping her from ascending into the afterlife. She combines her Int, Wis, Level and prime Attribute, which is her base percentage chance to remain on the material plane. That score is modified by other variables, for example, whether the character was on an important quest before her passing, whether her belief system included an afterlife, whether her death was violent or sudden, and so on. If the player rolls percentile dice and the result is lower than the final number, her character can come back as a Phantom.

Phantoms lose all of their prior class abilities, and start as 1st level Phantoms, with their own experience table, and additional hit-points and special abilities gained at each subsequent level. Phantoms are invulnerable to normal attacks, although they are susceptible to magical weapon and spell attacks, and are doubly vulnerable to attacks from the undead. At first level, they are unable to impinge upon the prime material plane, other than being visible in darkness, and can only communicate telepathically. They recover hit points normally, but if the Phantom should ever be reduced to 0 hit points, the character immediately and unavoidably ascends to the afterlife. Some of the special abilities that are gained by higher level Phantoms include the power to become material, cause fright, telekenesis, teleaudience, detect poison, project cold, and control flames.

Part of the limitations of the class is that the Phantom must never stray from the purpose for which she remains on the material plane. For example, if the party was on an important quest when she died, the Phantom must continue towards that goal. If the party abandons the quest, the Phantom must continue on. As another example, perhaps the purpose of the Phantom is to protect her friends, Then if the friends die, she would ascend to the afterlife. Another purpose of the Phantom might be to avenge her own death. In that case, once her killer died, her purpose would be fulfilled and she would leave this world.

The chapter on Phantoms concludes with some suggested reading for playing and refereeing with this class: Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward; Hamlet and MacBeth, by Shakespeare; Immortality Inc., by Robert Sheckly; Brief Candles and Happy Returns by Manning Coles; and Topper by Thorne Smith.

Friday, October 1, 2010

My Precious, My Birthday Present

I received no rings of invisibility for my birthday this year.

But I was gifted with something at least as entrancing: 41 more paperbacks for my Appendix N collection.

Included in my birthday haul:

Zothique and Poseidonis, both by Clark Ashton Smith;

10 Books by E. R. Burroughs, including 4 from the Mars series;

10 Books by Jack Vance, including the complete Dying Earth cycle;

10 H.P. Lovecraft/August Derleth titles; and

9 other books, from William Morris, Joy Chant, Hannes Bok, Ludovico Ariosto, Lord Dunsany, David Lindsay and Lin Carter.