Thursday, September 14, 2017

[D&D] The Teeth of Barkash Nour

Going into some deeply obscure Gygaxiana: back in 2006 The Believer magazine published a long profile on Gary Gygax. The whole thing is worth reading. The most interesting part to me was always this section, near the end:


Wayne and I took Gygax to lunch at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Lake Geneva: an expensive place, Gygax warned us. Our sandwiches cost six or seven dollars each. After lunch, we returned to his house to play some Dungeons & Dragons. Wayne and I felt curiously listless; it had already been a long day of talking; Wayne wasn’t sure he remembered how to play; I would have been happy to go back to our motel room and sleep. This happens to me often: I decide that I want something; I work and work at it; and just as the object of my quest comes into view, it suddenly comes to seem less valuable, not valuable at all. I can find no compelling reason to seize it and often I don’t. (This has never been the case, curiously, in role-playing games, where my excitement increases in a normal way as the end of the adventure approaches. Which is probably another reason why I like the games more than the life that goes on around them, and between them.) I wonder if we would have turned back, if Gygax hadn’t already gone into the house and come back with his purple velvet dice bag and a black binder, a module he wrote for a tournament in 1975. This was before the Tolkien estate threatened to sue TSR, and halflings were still called hobbits. So I got to play a hobbit thief and a magic-user and Wayne played a cleric and a fighter, and for four and a half hours we struggled through a wilderness adventure in a looking-glass world of carnivorous plants, invisible terrain, breathable water, and so on. All of which Gygax presented with a minimum of fuss. The author of Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t much care for role-playing: “If I want to do that,” he said, “I’ll join an amateur theater group.” In fact, D&D, as DM’ed by E. Gary Gygax, is not unlike a miniatures combat game. We spent a lot of time just moving around, looking for the fabled Teeth of Barkash-Nour, which were supposed to lie in a direction indicated by the “tail of the Great Bear’s pointing.” Our confusion at first was pitiable, almost Beckettian.
GYGAX: You run down northeast along the ridge, and you can see the river to your north and to your northeast. So which way do you want to go?
PAUL: The river is flowing south.
WAYNE: Which is the direction we ultimately want to go, right?
PAUL: We have to wend in the direction of the tail of the…
PAUL, WAYNE: “Great Bear’s pointing.”
PAUL: But we have no idea which way that is.
WAYNE: Tail of the Great Bear’s pointing. Maybe we should go north.
The sky clouds over; raindrops fall; the clouds part and the light turns rich yellow. The screen porch smells of cigar smoke. I want to go outside, to walk by Lake Geneva in early May, to follow the beautiful woman Wayne and I saw walking by the shore, to meet a stranger, to live. But I can’t get up. I roll the dice. I’m not tired anymore; I’m not worried about making a fool of myself in front of Gygax, who obviously couldn’t care less. And something strange is happening: Wayne and I are starting to play well. We climb a cliff by means of a magic carpet; we bargain with invisible creatures in an invisible lake. We steal eggs from a hippogriff’s nest; we chase away giant crabs by threatening them with the illusion of a giant, angry lobster.[41] The scenario was designed for a group of six or eight characters, but by dint of cooperation and sound tactics (basically, we avoid fighting any monster that isn’t directly in our path) we make it through, from one page of Gygax’s black binder to the next. So we come to the final foe, the Slimy Horror, which turns our two spellcasters into vegetables; my hobbit thief and Wayne’s fighter don’t stand a chance against it. “That was pretty good,” Gygax says. He lets us read through the scenario, noting all the monsters we didn’t kill, all the treasure that was never ours. The Teeth of Barkash-Nour are very powerful: one of them increases your character’s strength permanently; another transports you to a different plane of existence. We were so close! So close, Wayne and I tell each other. We did better than we ever expected to; in fact, we almost won.

What we're seeing here is, in fact, a fairly detailed description of a long-lost, unpublished D&D adventure by Gary Gygax, The Teeth of Barkash Nour. Those who've read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide will undoubtedly be aware of the Teeth of Dahlver-Nahr in the artifacts section. Presumably they're the same thing (not sure why the name was changed). I've always been intrigued by this description, because the adventure sounds really cool and weird, and not really like any of the D&D adventures TSR published, and like something that would've made a great addition to the canon.

A sad twist to what would otherwise just been an intriguing bit of trivia is that this adventure actually was supposed to be published. Around the same time the Believer profile was published, D&D superfan The Dungeon Delver was actually contracted by Gary to expand Gary's notes from the 70s into a full adventure, which was to have been published as part of the "Castle Zagyg" series - it got cover art and everything. Alas, it was never released, and after Gary's passing his widow canceled the entire Castle Zagyg series and the whole thing has been in limbo ever since, which doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon, if ever.

Dungeon Delver is an online buddy of mine, and I've occasionally pestered him for details about this adventure over the years, and he's obligingly provided a few. Yes, the Teeth of Barkash Nour in this adventure are the same thing as the Teeth of Dahlver-Nahr in the AD&D DMG. The adventure is set on a strange demiplane, accessed through a Gate of Horn deep within Greyhawk Castle (very similar to both The Isle of the Ape and Dungeonland). The encounters are as mentioned in the article, plus a few more equally-weird and colorful ones that I'm not at liberty to describe. And the manuscript was complete and handed over to Troll Lord Games (Gary's publisher at the time) for final production and release well before the line was canceled. Alas, that never happened, because, as 'Delver tells it (in a story I'd heard privately a while ago, but which he has only just made public) he was submarined by Frank Mentzer, who convinced Gary to halt publication on specious legal grounds in order, apparently, to set himself up as the savior and take credit for "fixing" a product he had nothing to do with the creation of. Sleazy underhanded stuff, and doubly unfortunate since the delay caused by Frank's interference, coming as it did shortly prior to Gary's passing, ended up dooming publication altogether.

There are a lot of intriguing and agonizing could-have-beens in Gary Gygax's career. Heck, I compiled a whole book out of my takes on some of them. But the Teeth of Barkash Nour are a particularly tantalizing and frustrating example, because this isn't just something Gary talked about maybe writing someday, or some set of minimal, barely-legible notes, or something rumored that may or may not have ever existed in the first place, this is an actual honest-to-goodness complete D&D module that was all-but-ready to go to press, and which is presumably still sitting around somewhere as a complete manuscript. Just like the guys in the article, we came so close to having this thing in our hands.

Maybe it's unrealistic of me, but I still hope that someday maybe Gail Gygax will change her mind and we might still be allowed to see it. But I'm not holding my breath...

Monday, September 4, 2017

[D&D] The Crook of Rao

This magical artifact was described by Gary Gygax in Isle of the Ape:
Amidst the gems and magicks we bore out from the depths of Castle Greyhawk's dungeon, was a small mace, a mere toy it seemed, albeit one fashioned of iron and silver and encrusted with carven gemstones. No geegaw, that. It is a most charmed implement of clerical power, the Crook of Rao. If that One is most peaceful and serene, nonetheless his word is not to be lightly passed off. Long and long Rao has refrained from any meddling here, but he left with us a token of his power. Devils and demons of the Lower Planes shudder at the mere mention of the object. Daemonkind flee in terror at sight of it, and we need it now!
While the adventure centers around a fetch-quest to recover this artifact for the forces of Good, the item itself is not actually detailed within the module, which feels like a major failing. Not only should it be usable in the final confrontation at the end of the adventure, but a party of 18th level characters should be considered capable of retaining it and using it themselves against the forces of Evil, rather than being expected to dutifully hand it over to their NPC bosses.

So, in an attempt to rectify that failing, here's my take on a full description of the item, so that it may actually be used and not just serve as a flagrant plot-device. [Note: I realize this item was "officially" detailed by TSR in the post-Gary era; I am intentionally completely ignoring that version.]

Crook of Rao
GP Value: 75,000

This artifact was created and left behind on the Prime Material Plane many ages ago by Rao, Flannish god of peace, reason, and serenity, who otherwise concerns himself not with the affairs of mortals. It appears to be a miniature ceremonial mace (1' long - too small for effective combat use) with a silver haft and iron head shaped as a stylized shepherd's crook. There are two star sapphires embedded in the head, and six carnelians surrounding a large topaz on the pommel. The value of the crook as jewelry alone is 25,000 g.p. As with other artifacts, it does not radiate any sort of magic. 

The crook can be used to cast a remove fear spell or cure insanity by touch. Anyone wielding the crook is immune to mental and psionic attacks and may cast a withdraw spell at 18th level effect once per day.

Any undead or Lower Planar creature (including those not normally affected by clerical Turning) struck by the crook is affected as if hit by an 18th level mace of disruption. Undead and lesser Lower Planar creatures are permanently destroyed; greater Lower Planar creatures are affected as if their material form was slain.  Once a month the wielder of crook may call upon it to summon 1-6 astral devas. 

In the hands of a lawful good cleric the disruption effect of the crook covers a cone-shaped area 6" long and 2" diameter at its base, and is usable once per round. 

Any evil cleric or creature from the Lower Planes who touches the crook suffers 5-50 points of damage. Any non-lawful good character who uses any of the crook's powers must make a saving throw vs spells on each use or become lawful good. 

Activating the summoning power of the crook subjects the user to a quest to perform some task that furthers the cause of lawful good. 

Anyone who retains possession of the crook for one month or longer loses all interest in sex, and the longer the item is possessed the more serene and imperturbable its owner becomes - after three months he or she loses interest in money, after six months loses interest in family and friends, and if the crook is possessed for a year or more the owner will have no interest in anything external and desire only to to be left alone to spend the rest of his or her life peacefully contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

AD&D Companion update

Many folks reading this are probably already aware, but a few may not be, of the "AD&D Companion" document that I compiled last year and have updated a few times since. There's a link to it near the bottom of the list over on the side, and I've made occasional other references to it, but haven't drawn a lot of attention to it.

For those who don't already know, this document combines three things, in about equal measure:

First is a compilation of all of the AD&D material I know of written or explicitly approved by Gary Gygax that wasn't compiled into an official AD&D rulebook during his tenure at TSR - including new monsters that post-dated (or were left out of) the Monster Manual II, material from Dragon magazine that post-dated (or was left out of) Unearthed Arcana, assorted acknowledged-but-uncorrected errata for the rulebooks, and even an unofficial new AD&D class (the Hunter) that Gary published in New Infinities' short-lived "Realms of Adventure" newsletter in 1988.

Second is material that I adapted to AD&D from Gary's two post-TSR systems - Dangerous Journeys: Mythus (published by GDW in 1992) and Lejendary Adventure (published by Hekaforge Productions in 1999) - including joss, knacks and quirks, "spellsongs" for bards, new weapons, and several abilities for the jester and acrobat classes. There's a lot of interesting material in both of these games that showed that Gary was still actively creating and expanding his concept of fantasy role-playing in different (and, IMO, more interesting) directions than TSR was taking the official game, that when adapted to the AD&D paradigm can help bring new freshness and possibilities and remind us of the period in the 80s when AD&D was all about expansions and new material, and not the later eras when (due to lack of high-quality new material) it became increasingly hidebound and ossified.

Last are my own house rules and expansions compiled from several decades of play - including my preferred "fixes" to various problem-areas in the rules (like psionics, weapon specialization, and various under- or overpowered spells), my versions of some of Gary's proposed-but-never-detailed new AD&D classes (mystics and mountebanks), and various "cheat-sheet" documents I made for myself over the years covering topics like how to go about hiring mercenaries, what you can find at each type of shop in a typical town, all the rules for wilderness adventuring that are otherwise spread across tons of rulebooks and modules, a quick-reference for the relevant details on all of the World of Greyhawk deities, and so on.

This document is extremely unofficial. I don't have permission from the copyright owners for any of the reprinted or adapted material, and it doesn't comply with the terms of the Open Gaming License (because I wanted to directly refer to the AD&D rulebooks and World of Greyhawk and not have to speak in code or pretend I'm talking about some other game). That's why I've kept it low-key. My position is that this is an amateur fan-production, intended solely for the private and personal use of me and my friends, and the last thing I want is to receive a cease and desist letter from Wizards of the Coast of the Gygax Estate.

That said, despite this document's humble ambitions (and even more humble production values), for anybody who reads this blog and enjoys the same flavor of AD&D as I do - who doesn't think the game ended with the publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979 and everything that came out after that was a mistake - I think there's value in it. If nothing more, having the compiled articles from Dragon and the monsters and magic items from the late-era modules all in one place should be convenient. It doesn't cost anything to download the document and take a look!

Anyway, that long preamble out of the way, the reason I'm mentioning this now is because I've just uploaded a new "version 1.3" of the document - the third revision since I originally posted it last year. The changes between this version and the previous one are the notes on barbarians and cavaliers that I've already posted here, and some additional compiled material - a bunch of changes and additions to the creatures in the Monster Manual from TSR's Monster Cards that I'd previously overlooked, a previously-overlooked note on halfling stats from Dragon #95, and a few more monsters and magic items from modules that I hadn't previously included. I'd like to think this is the "final, final" version of this document (I say that every time I upload a new version), but I don't actually believe that to be true anymore. As proof, already since uploading this version I've realized there are several typos that a reader pointed out that I forgot to correct...

The link over on the side now goes to the updated version (EDIT: now with corrected typos!). Or you can click here:

I hope if you haven't seen it before that you get some useful material or inspiration out of it. And please don't do anything with it that will get me in trouble with Wizards of the Coast or the Gygax Estate!

EDIT (12/8/17): New version uploaded:

I added one small but significant paragraph on page 7, regarding barbarians:
Barbarians able to harm creatures only normally affected by magic weapons (as described in UA) gain an actual bonus to hit and damage on melee attacks (i.e. +1 at 4th level, +2 at 6th, etc.). Furthermore, any melee hit by a barbarian that totals 21 or better after adjustments scores double damage. Both of these advantages are, of course, lost should the barbarian ever deign to wield an actual magical weapon.
Both of these additions come from Gary's write-up of Conan in The Dragon #36 (which obviously formed the conceptual baseline for the barbarian class), but were dropped from the class write-up itself in Dragon #63. Presumably that was done because they were felt to be too powerful, but doing so ironically made the class too weak at higher levels (as noted by Gary in Dragon #67) which UA "solved" by gradually lifting their restriction on magic item use, which is lame (since it undermines one of the core conceptual hooks of the class and contradicts Gary's claim (also in Dragon 67) that barbarians don't change and become more sophisticated as they increase in level, they just get tougher). By reverting to the original Conan write-up and extending these two abilities to all barbarians, balance is restored - high-level barbarians remain comparable in combat ability to other fighter-types without having to debase themselves by relying on witchcraft and magic like a coward or weakling ;)

EDIT (1/1/18): Another new link to the latest new revision (version 1.4) - Various changes from the last version are on pp. 32 and 73-77

EDIT (7/15/18): Another new revision (1.5): Various minor changes and corrections plus one significant modification to weapon specialization (which now includes an extra XP cost and additional training requirements to increase levels, which I think finally accomplishes what I've been trying to get to for years - make choosing whether or not to specialize feel like a meaningful choice with pros and cons rather than a no-brainer choice and de facto straight power-boost)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

[D&D] Eudaimones


FREQUENCY: Very rare
MOVE: 9”/15” (MC: B)
% IN LAIR: 5%
ALIGNMENT: Chaotic good
SIZE: S (2-3’)
Attack/Defense Modes:
V/290 + 4/hp

Eudaimones (also known as agathodaemons or genii) are free-willed, benevolent spirit-beings that are native to the Upper Outer Planes of chaotic good but are also known to wander the Prime Material Plane. They are friendly with, and may occasionally be found dwelling among, fairy-folk and nature spirits (brownies, nymphs, pixies, sprites, sylphs, etc.) or gray elves, but are especially drawn to the company of humans.

A eudaimon who has an enthusiastically friendly reaction to a human or halfling (per the Reaction Table) may (base 25%) choose to attach itself and grant its blessing to that individual. Such blessings are minor benefits, generally of about the same power-level as a Knack (q.v.), that function when the eudaimon is within 24” of its mortal partner. Each eudaimon can only grant a single type of blessing, and each one’s blessing is unique. Examples of typical blessings include: +2 on one particular type of saving throw, +5% on reaction rolls, +10% with a particular skill, natural healing at double normal rate, increased endurance, infravision, ability to speak with animals, and so forth. Eudaimones will never choose to partner with or bestow their blessings upon any character who already has a bound familiar.

While bonded, the eudaimon and its partner have a mental link and can communicate with each other telepathically. Eudaimones tend towards chattiness and will often offer advice to their partners, however despite their high intelligence they are very rash and impulsive, with a wisdom rating of low-average, so their advice will often not be practical or useful.

Eudaimones are flighty and capricious and without notice may decide to leave their current mortal partner to seek the company of a new one. Each game week a check is made on 2d6, with a cumulative +1 adjustment per week after the first which the eudaimon and character have been bonded, and on a result of 7 or higher the eudaimon will depart and the benefits of the blessing will be lost. They are, however, vain and subject to flattery, so every 50 g.p. of value sacrificed on behalf of the eudaimon (by, for instance, buying and burning incense) grants a -1 modifier to that week’s check. Nevertheless, the eudaimon will always depart on a roll of natural 12. Should a eudaimon ever be slain while partnered with a character, that individual is cursed – not only will no other eudaimon ever partner with the character, but he or she will also suffer a permanent (barring a wish) penalty – generally the reverse of the slain eudaimon’s blessing. 

Eudaimones are occasionally also sent by chaotic good deities to serve favored mortal followers as a reward for special faith and service. In such cases, the eudaimon will serve until slain or recalled by their divine master or mistress and no loyalty checks or sacrifices are required (to the eudaimon itself – however, it is advisable for the character to make sacrifices and tributes to the deity who sent the eudaimon in order to demonstrate his or her continued faithfulness and service).  

Eudaimones are peaceable and non-violent by nature and will generally only attack if threatened. However, they bear special enmity against imps, quasits, and grimlings and will attack any such beings they encounter on sight.

Eudaimones carry small bows (9” range) with a variety of different magical arrows: sleep arrows (as per a pixie or sprite, but with -4 on the victim’s saving throw), arrows that create the effects of the emotion spell (Fear, Hate, Hopelessness, or Rage) for 2-8 rounds, and arrows that dispel evil. Eudaimones can use the following spell-like abilities at will, at 5th level of ability: become invisible, becoming ethereal or astral, charm person, detect evil, and polymorph self into the form of a small animal such as a cat, crow, frog, mouse, owl, or rabbit. Eudaimones have the following psionic disciplines at 5th level of mastery: animal telepathy, empathy, and precognition. Eudaimones are immune to cold, poison, and energy draining and do not require food or water. Once per day, a eudaimon may attempt to gate in aid, with a 50% chance of the call being answered by 1-4 foo dogs (50%), 1-2 foo lions (40%), or a titan (10%).

Description: In their natural form, eudaimones appear as healthy human infants or children with small, feathered wings. They are typically rosy-cheeked and curly-haired and their eyes sparkle with preternatural intelligence and wit.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

[D&D] Under the influence of art

As I've mentioned before, I was part of the second (or even third) generation of D&D kids, and didn't have much notion of fantasy before starting to play D&D (outside of Disney movies and fairy tales and He-Man) and I didn't really get into reading fantasy fiction (outside of The Hobbit, a book of King Arthur stories from my school library, and TSR's own Endless Quest series) until a bit later, so for the first two years or so my idea of fantasy and sense of "what fantasy looks like" was very heavily influenced by D&D and, especially, D&D art.

Alongside the canonical TSR artists (who, thanks to TSR's practice at the time of keeping old material in-print, I got the experience several generations of simultaneously - from David Sutherland, David Trampier, Tom Wham, Darlene, Erol Otus, Russ Nicholson, Jeff Dee, Bill Willingham, Timothy Truman, Jim Holloway, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Keith Parkinson, and Clyde Caldwell all side by side by side) there was also some ancillary licensed stuff that was influential on me.

Back in the 80s, when D&D was a fad and everybody was anxious for a piece of that money, there was a lot of licensed, non-game D&D branded stuff (jigsaw puzzles, posters, beach towels, etc.). By 1983-84 that material generally featured either the characters from the AD&D toy line or reproductions of the same handful of book covers by Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. But if you go back a couple years further, things get more interesting and there were some unique, now mostly-forgotten D&D-branded items floating about.

One that I never actually owned but that had a subconscious impact from seeing (and coveting) older kids' copies was a line of D&D-branded folders and notebooks released in 1981-82 by St. Regis Consumer Products. There were a dozen or so different designs, all by an artist named Alex Nuckols (who is, apparently, mostly known for paintings of Jesus guiding 18-wheelers that were sold in truck-stops in the 70s). Unfortunately I can't find any good sample images to post (thanks to Photobucket changing their terms of service), but you can Google image search on "d&d st regis" and come up with a few. The art is very much in the same style stuff like the Brothers Hildebrand and Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, or perhaps Rankin & Bass' The Last Unicorn, and doesn't really have anything specific to do with D&D (no identifiable monsters or anything) so it was probably pre-existing fantasy art that got the D&D logo stuck on it as a quick cash-grab, but it's still pretty cool (and I wouldn't mind having a couple of those folders today).

[Actually, here's one of the pieces - hope this link still works!]

Another item that I did have was the sets of AD&D-branded "rub down" transfers (a la PrestoMagix - one of those genres of kids' toys that has since completely disappeared). These were apparently released in 1981, but I found them sometime around the spring of 1985 in the gift shop at the King's Island amusement park in Cincinnati (where I guess they'd been gathering dust for awhile?). There were several sets, each of which had about a dozen images that were drawn mostly from the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, or Players Handbook, but rendered in full color. These were very cool to me - the combined familiarity of the images with the novelty of them being in color (and transformed from book illustrations to stand-alone figures) seemed "right" to me and really struck my imagination. I don't remember what I actually did with these - I know I didn't keep them unused, but I didn't put them into my actual D&D books, either. I think I must have drawn landscape scenes on blank paper which I inserted them into. Here's one of the sets I had:

Here's another one that I didn't have (there were 8 different sets in total; I think I had 2 or 3) but that is still a pretty cool selection of some of the most iconic AD&D monsters:

And last but not least is another item that was even older (released in 1979), but that my best gaming buddy at the time picked up "new" at a flea-market I think sometime around the summer or fall of 1985, and that we spent a lot of quality time with and was very influential on my mind's eye picture of D&D: the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, with illustrations by Greg Irons and text by Gary Gygax.

This item has already been "rediscovered" by bloggers and gotten a fair amount of attention in recent years, including a blog post from 2011 that included the entire book (both text and pictures), but I still want to talk about it a bit, both because it was so cool and because thinking back it's likely that having spent so much time at this impressionable age with my friend and this book, reading Gary's text and carefully coloring the images to match it, as well as playing with those rub-down transfers of Trampier and Sutherland art, at the time when the look and feel of the official game was rapidly moving in a very different direction, is a big part of why my D&D tastes and aesthetic preferences were out of step with what TSR was offering up in the post-Gary era and why I gravitated towards the "old school" Gary-era aesthetic, even as it was disappearing from (and in some sense being actively repudiated by) TSR's official product lines.

Greg Irons was an underground comix and tattoo artist out of San Francisco, and his work didn't look like anything from the TSR art department, but - especially in combination with Gary's text - it still fit the mood of the game perfectly. The purpose of a coloring book is, of course, to present tableau images that will be fun to color in, so Gary's "story" is really just an excuse to set of a series of these tableaux, but he included enough detail and evocative flavor in those paragraphs to make it interesting, and to make sure that the subject matter wasn't just repurposed generic fantasy art, but was extremely specific to the AD&D universe. All of the characters and monsters come straight out of the game, and even though the style of the art is different than the rulebooks, the imaginary world being portrayed is unquestionably the same:

(Alas, one downside of the amount of fun my friend and I had with this coloring book is that once we had filled it up we went on to start coloring in the illustrations of the actual D&D modules - especially those illustrated by Jim Holloway, Jeff Dee, and Bill Willingham, including my otherwise-highly-collectible copy of R1: To the Aid of Falx...)

So all of that D&D art - the canonical TSR art, plus the AD&D toys, plus the D&D cartoon (especially those monsters that came out of the game - the orcs and bullywugs, shadow demon, Tiamat, etc.), plus these licensed oddities - are and always will be "what D&D looks like" in my imagination. And that association, as much or more as all of the changes made to the rules (which, as the books always told us, were really just a set of guidelines, suggestions, and examples anyway) is the reason why I've never been able to embrace the Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D. No matter what they call it, or how hard they try to play the nostalgia card, nothing they do ever looks or feels "like D&D" to me :(

Thursday, July 13, 2017

[D&D] Being cavalier about it

Seemingly everybody but me hates the AD&D cavalier class, introduced by Gary Gygax in Dragon #72 (April 1983) and later canonized in Unearthed Arcana. Some of it might be subconscious revulsion at Eric, the smug-but-cowardly cavalier character from the D&D cartoon, or resentment at a class that's basically built around the idea of getting all kinds of extra, unfair advantages by virtue of being born rich. There are also some valid complaints that the class as-described with its strict behavioral code doesn't fit in within "traditional" D&D paradigm where a bunch of rootless "murder hobo" adventurers crawl through dungeons and the wilderness employing stealth, ambushes, trickery, and bribery in order to garner loot (and do a lot of running away from danger to save their skins).

That's true, but it was also deliberate. Gary was intending with the cavalier (and similarly with the acrobat, and the other classes he mentioned in Dragon magazine but was never able to detail, like the mountebank and jester) to expand the scope of the game beyond the dungeon- and wilderness-crawling of OD&D, to include more in-town activities and interaction with the civilized world. Most D&D characters exist apart from, or at best on the fringes of, "normal" society, but cavaliers are required to be a part of it. They're not independent free agents the way other character are.

Some people don't like that, and want their characters to be free agents, so it's natural that this class, with its explicit social status and obligations, won't be appealing to them. That means that adding cavaliers (and the other "town-oriented" classes) makes it more incumbent that everyone be on the same page up-front regarding what the campaign is going to be about so that there aren't incompatible characters or resentful players who expected one thing and got something else. But that's part of the larger trend in how the game was growing and changing in the 80s (and the unfortunate coincidence that the growth was piecemeal and not explained (and ultimately incomplete) so that a lot of people didn't understand that it was happening and spent a lot of time trying to shove square pegs into round holes) of which the cavalier and acrobat are a symptom, not the cause.

I mostly do like the cavalier class and think that it fills an archetypal niche that is distinct from the soldierly "fighting man" just like the barbarian does, and - when the role is understood - that it works fine in the AD&D game, especially in a campaign where the players have a stable of several characters that they rotate between depending on the nature of the adventure.

The various advantages given to the class, including things that seem like they should (or at least could) also have been given to other classes like special parrying and ability score training and multiple weapon specializations and the ability to keep functioning with negative hit points, make sense, given the core conceit that unlike common men-at-arms (i.e. fighter characters), cavaliers have undergone intense, specialized, high-quality (and very expensive!) training and conditioning since birth. This is perhaps made more clear in the Dragon version, which includes some text that was rephrased or edited out of UA:
[T]he cavalier character must be of the correct social class, i.e. gentle or noble birth, or of the accepted aristocracy for candidacy to knighthood. This requirement usually means that the character must be of a knightly, noble, or royal family which has suitable financial means to support the training necessary for entrance to the class of cavalier.
Landless aristocrats (knights or nobles) are typically precluded from having a child immediately enter the cavalier class at 1st level, since they are unable to afford the training and equipment needed. Such families (as well as lesser families being particularly honored) might, however, be allowed to have a child candidate enter the cavalier class as a 0 level horseman retainer of a knight. 
Cavaliers in AD&D are, by definition, either rich kids or kids who've been adopted and sponsored by rich patrons. They are explicitly the privileged "1%" of AD&D characters, and that gives them advantages that other characters of humbler means simply didn't have access to. "It's not fair that cavalier characters get to improve their ability scores through training and other characters don't." Exactly - it's not fair at all. That's the point. The whole concept of the cavalier class is completely unfair and non-egalitarian, by deliberate design.

And, at least in a properly-managed campaign, those benefits don't come without a steep price. As noted above, cavaliers - at least at low to mid levels - are not free-agent adventurers in the way other characters are. They have strict social obligations that must be obeyed and maintained. Again, this is made clearer in Dragon #72 than in UA:
As stated above, service is the paramount requirement for assumption of cavalier status. This service can be to a deity, state, order, or any master, particularly one of high station. After attaining knighthood [ed. note: at 4th level - this isn't explicitly stated in the text of either Dragon #72 or UA, but it's strongly implied by the level titles and supported in context], the cavalier can renounce former service, of course. At such point, the cavalier then champions a creed or cause, or is simply a rogue. In all cases, social status is likewise of paramount importance, and this must be maintained.
Note also/especially that "if the order or liege lord of the cavalier demands it" the character can be forced out of the class, becoming a fighter and losing all cavalier benefits (except weapon of choice). That's something that I suspect gets overlooked and ignored a lot, but it seems very important to me as it's unique among all character classes - paladins, rangers, and monks lose class abilities if they violate their alignment, and clerics are subject to judgment by their deities, but the cavalier alone has their class abilities subject to the whims of an earthly patron (typically an NPC, but at least theoretically another PC) - if you don't do what your boss says to their satisfaction, at their discretion, you lose your class abilities.

The cavalier's required body of retainers also worth paying attention to. Starting at 4th level the cavalier must acquire at least one lower-level cavalier retainer, and must increase the size of their retinue as they increase in level, to a total of 6 (3 lower-level trainee cavaliers and 3 0-level servants) by 8th level. The cavalier "is responsible for the actions of his or her followers and retainers, and is required to insure that others of the cavalier class live up to the standards of the class," and is also required to always travel with this substantial retinue until they achieve 9th level, unless their master orders them to travel solo. At first glance this may look like a benefit, but it's actually a substantial burden that characters of other classes don't face. Cavalier characters not only always have to answer to a boss above, they also are responsible for the well-being and behavior of a group of dependents, with no choice in the matter.

Many players will look at all the benefits and special abilities of the cavalier class and be envious of them, but it's a good bet that many of those same players (especially those accustomed to playing "traditional" free-agent adventurer characters) are also very turned off by all of the obligations and would be unwilling to abide by them. And that, of course, is exactly the point. You don't get one without the other. A cavalier without all those burdensome obligations, who doesn't have to answer to an NPC boss and doesn't have to shepherd around a group of dependents and is free to go out adventuring and behave in whatever manner he or she chooses is called, you guessed it, a fighter.

All of that said, while I mostly like the class, I acknowledge that there are some issues with it, just like there are with the barbarian, including some details from the Dragon version (which I think is worth reading - the UA version reorganizes and streamlines the text in a way that is more efficient but loses some of the flavor; plus I like Keith Parkinson's illustrations better than Jim Roslof's) that were left out or changed in UA - presumably by Jeff Grubb and/or Frank Mentzer - that I think shouldn't have been. Therefore, I recommend the following changes to the UA text:
  • Elf and half-elf cavaliers have the same level limits as fighters of the same race [per Dragon #96, seemingly overlooked in UA - and really it only makes sense]
  • The activity of the cavalier is such that it precludes any other profession - there can be no multi-classed cavalier or dual-classed cavalier. [per Dragon #72]
  • Add battle axe, bec de corbin, pole axe, falchion sword, and two-handed sword to the list of allowed/preferred weapons [all of these were on the list in Dragon #72 and were used by knights historically, so their deletion in UA seems to have a case of overzealous game-balancing overtaking source-fidelity - I smell the meddling hands of Grubb or Mentzer!] 
  • Add falchion sword as one of the options for the second weapon of choice [also per Dragon #72]
  • Add composite short bow as an option for the second or third weapon of choice for elf and half-elf cavaliers. Such characters have an increased rate of fire (3/1 at levels 6-10, 4/1 at levels 11+ (should they manage to attain such)) and are able to employ their full rate of fire even while mounted [per Dragon #72]
  • Weapon of choice "to hit" bonus is capped at 17th level (i.e. +3 for the third weapon) [implicit per Dragon #72]
  • The Protection from Fear aura of good-aligned cavaliers becomes a +2 bonus to saving throws against Fear-based effects, not a blanket immunity [per me - this effect is just too good as blanket immunity]
  • Delete the 90% resistance to mind-affecting magic and +2 saving throw vs. illusions [per me - legendary knights (from Arthuriana, Orlando furioso, Don Quixote, etc.) regularly succumbed to such effects and were constantly being charmed, beguiled, and fooled by illusions. If anything, it feels more appropriate and truer to the source material that cavaliers should have a penalty against such effects than a bonus!].
With these modifications, and with a firm understanding by both the player and especially the DM - if the DM doesn't enforce the restrictions and obligations and just allows the cavalier character to be "a fighter, only better" of course the other players will resent it - of how such a character fits into the game and setting (i.e. that they're only suitable for a game where what the characters do in-town actually matters and can't just be plugged interchangeably into a traditional group of vagabond murder-hobo adventurers) I think the cavalier can be a solid addition to and expansion of the scope of the AD&D game and bring in more of a romantic fantasy element alongside the grubby swords & sorcery flavor of the original/baseline game.

It almost goes without saying that cavaliers are especially suited to small, one or two-person, player groups and/or to younger players who might be more willing to accept being sent on missions by an NPC boss instead of being self-directed free agent treasure-seekers. Another interesting possibility in a large and long-running campaign would be to have cavaliers as "second generation" characters whose bosses are the earlier (now high-level, retired) adventurer PCs who carved the kingdom out of the wilderness and settled it. The first generation of PCs builds civilization out of the wilderness, then the second generation is charged with defending it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Future

So, umm, this blog was born out of a really slow patch at work; being bored and having a lot of extra free time sitting in front of a computer. Alas, that situation changed about a month ago and I'm no longer idle and bored.

This is unquestionably a good thing for me personally (continuing to have a job is nice!) but not so great for the future of this blog. I'd managed to build of a pretty long queue of posts during those couple months of involuntary downtime, which is what you've been seeing for the past few weeks, but we've finally made it to the end of that line and I still haven't had time to write any new entries (except for this one).

I still have several topics I wanted to write about but hadn't gotten to yet (both game-related stuff and general pop-culture stuff - I never got to do a post about Jim Henson!), so it's not that I've lost interest or run out of ideas, I'm just no longer able to devote time to writing posts, and (fingers crossed, knocking on wood) don't anticipate being able to do so anytime soon.

I'll continue monitoring the comments (like I've been doing for the past month) and might still make an occasional new post if there's a fortunate convergence of free time and inspiration, but the "new post every three days" pattern of the past is definitely not going to continue after today.

It was a good run - I hope you all had as much fun reading the posts as I did writing them. I hope you were reminded of some cool stuff from the 80s and/or got some new inspiration for your D&D game - or, best of all, were inspired to start a new D&D game. Please feel free to go back and comment on the older posts if you'd like (especially the Temple of Elemental Evil one where I've added more stuff in the comments as I've continued to think about and work on it), and be sure to keep me in your RSS feeds in case something new comes up :)

Live long and prosper,


Monday, July 3, 2017

[D&D] Down the rabbit hole

The post on The Abduction of Good King Despot got me thinking about Gary Gygax's other venture into "wackiness," the divisive EX1: Dungeonland and EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. For anyone out there who doesn't already know, both of these modules were released by TSR in 1983, both of them are adapted from "special" levels within Gary's legendary, unpublished Greyhawk Castle dungeons (the World of Greyhawk boxed set refers to them by the module codes GC1 and GC2, while an article in Dragon #71 refers to EX2 even more intriguingly as "module GC S8/X2"), both of them were used frequently by Gary in convention one-off and demonstration games (he mentions that Dr. Joyce Brothers played through them), and, where the controversial element comes in, both of them are direct adaptations of Lewis Carroll's stories, EX1 corresponding to Alice in Wonderland and EX2 to Through the Looking Glass.

We know now that these sorts of whimsical areas and adaptations of third-party content were common in Greyhawk Castle. In addition to the Wonderland level(s), there were also gates to King Kong's island (later published by TSR as module WG6), Jack Vance's "World of Adventure" and Dying Earth, Michael Moorcock's Melnibone, the Land of Oz, Asgard, Olympus, the strange land of "carnivorous plants, invisible terrain, breathable water, and so on" described in the Believer magazine article about Gary Gygax (for which an expanded version was prepared and nearly published near the end of Gary's life, before - as with so many other things - getting caught up in legal wrangling), and surely many others I don't know about. And even discounting the gates to other realms, the dungeon itself included such whimsical elements as a bowling alley for giants, a "Living Room" filled with animated furniture (a "reimagined" version of which was later published by Gary's Greyhawk Castle co-DM Rob Kuntz), and the infamous "Machine Level" (the gist of which was later adapted into AD&D module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks).

Gary had a large and very active group of players c. 1973-75, so he was under constant pressure both to provide new challenges and to provide enough variety to keep them from growing bored. The rulebooks describe "standard" dungeons consisting of a many-leveled complex of mazelike hallways and caverns filled with doors (some obvious, some secret) and stairwells, pit traps and shifting walls, mysterious fountains, statues, and archways with assorted strange and magical effects, and of course an enormous variety of horrid monsters guarding an equally extensive array of fabulous treasures. Greyhawk Castle had all of those things, in great abundance (in both its original 13-level conception and the later, expanded version that eventually had 40+ different levels), but in order to keep things from becoming predictable and stale for a group of several dozen players, some of whom were playing multiple times a week, it also eventually had all of those other things as well. Gary (later Gary and Rob) were struggling to stay a step or two ahead of their ravenous pack of players, throwing out whatever they thought would make for a fun and challenging game. "Setting verisimilitude" and thematic or tonal consistency were surely very low on their list of concerns (if they were concerned about such things at all), and were only applied retroactively, when Gary began looking back at this material for purposes of commercial publication.

We know all of this now, but I didn't know any of it in the spring or early summer of 1985 when I naively bought module EX1. In those days modules came shrinkwrapped, so unless we had a friend who already owned a copy (and was willing to share - at least in my circle there was a lot of territoriality over modules, and it was understood to be "bad form" to buy a module that someone else already owned and had expressed their intent to run) we generally only had a few things to go on when purchasing new adventures - the title, the cover illustration, the cover blurb, and (pretty much only in the case of modules written by Gary Gygax) the author's name. Given all of that, Dungeonland seemed like a safe purchase. Here's the cover-blurb:
As adventurers you may think you have seen everything: certainly your skills have brought you through unimaginable dangers. But now you suddenly find yourself in a place unlike any through which you have traveled: astounding, dangerous, and even amusing things confront you as you journey, both indoors and outdoors, through the unique and wondrous realm of Dungeonland.
This module was first conceived by E. Gary Gygax as part of the Greyhawk Castle dungeon complex and has been the source of challenge and fun for many skilled players of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. It is finally available to all players and can be added to your existing campaign with ease.
Dungeonland is also designed so that it may be used with its soon-to-be-released companion scenario, Dungeon Module EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. Still, Dungeonland may easily be played on its own, and should offer hours of excitement in its strange landscape.  
Understandably, I was very excited to dig into this module. Greyhawk Castle! This was before Temple of Elemental Evil came out, so I was very curious what a "big dungeon" from Gary Gygax would look like, and thought that's what this was going to be, at least in part. While there are hints that an astute reader might pick up on, there's no direct reference to Lewis Carroll's works here (intentionally - in his introduction to the adventure Gary stresses keeping its gimmick a secret from the players for as long as possible, on the belief that it will make it more enjoyable for them if they figure it out during play rather than knowing it up-front), and at age 10 I certainly wasn't sharp enough to pick up on it until I'd already put down my cash, rushed home, and torn off the shrinkwrap.

To say I was disappointed by the result would be a massive understatement. It not only didn't match my expectations, it didn't seem like anything I could (or would have any desire to) run. I hadn't read Alice in Wonderland at the time, but I'd seen movies and knew the story more-or-less through cultural osmosis, and considered it something for kids. The idea of an Alice-themed D&D adventure seemed very lame and cheesy to me and I knew it would feel exactly the same way to my players - that they would hate it and resent it and blame me for subjecting them to it. I didn't "get" the adventure, and felt like I'd been misled and cheated.

Part of it was definitely a disconnect between how the game was conceived and played in the early 70s vs. how it was perceived by its audience in the mid 80s, which is to say that in the former period there was an implicit understanding that the whole thing was fundamentally kind of a joke and not to be taken too seriously, which was almost totally obscured in the 80s-era material. Even with these modules it's hidden pretty deeply - the tone is still serious, and Gary urges the DM to run the adventure "strictly" in order to keep players off-guard. He also emphasizes that the original level from Greyhawk Castle was a "change of pace" from the usual activity of the campaign, which I'm not sure was actually all that true, but suggests that had Gary gotten around to publishing the rest of Greyhawk Castle as he had intended to its tone likely would have been more serious than these levels.

The end result is that this module offered pretty much exactly the opposite of what I wanted - it was a "change of pace" exception to the usual mode of adventures, when that usual mode of adventures is precisely what I was craving (and didn't realize until, really, decades later that I was already getting indirectly - that much of Greyhawk Castle was just a generic monster-filled maze no different than what you could get using the random charts in the books (or something like TSR's Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster & Treasure Assortments) and that a lot of the interesting and unique areas had already been secretly recycled into Gary's other products - S3, S4, WG5, and likely even more that we don't yet know about since we haven't seen Gary's unpublished Castle Greyhawk manuscripts - it's certainly possible (likely even) that there are sections of S1, B2, the G series, and the D series that were lifted more-or-less whole out of Greyhawk Castle.

So I filed this one away as a bad/mistaken purchase - alongside a lot of other stuff, mostly from the B and X series - and didn't look at it again until many years later. By then my perspective had changed - I was in my twenties, had read the Lewis Carroll books, had played D&D with Gary Gygax, and through reading and running The Abduction of Good King Despot had more of an understanding of the tone and pace Gary was going for with these adventures (since that is the other adventure that's probably most similar to this one in style and tone). I understood better how these adventures could be fun in play, why they were popular with the players and Gary liked to run them, and felt it was a good idea to publish them. It also helped that I had EX2 at this time, which I didn't as a kid - it seems more straightforward and action-oriented than EX1, with fewer vaguely-detailed (if you haven't read the books) roleplaying scenes such as "[The Mad Hatter's] conversation will be strange indeed—asking riddles that have no answer, making inappropriate statements, asserting perverse logic, twisting questions, and so on—all interspersed with inquiries about tea, demands to move down the table to a fresh place, and interruptions to speak with the March Hare or to devil the Dormouse." No wonder that at age 10 I had no idea what to make of that!

I have a much higher opinion of these adventures now than I did as a kid, and place both of them squarely within  the canon. They remind me of playing with Gary - his emphasis on fast-paced action and really difficult challenges (and, make no mistake, a lot of the encounters in these two modules are very difficult!) leavened with banter and humor and an understanding that it's still just a game and shouldn't really be taken too seriously. I also value that they are (along with WG6) the most direct glimpses we ever got of Greyhawk Castle - that although the material was surely expanded and polished and modified for publication, its bones are presumably still pretty similar to what players in Gary's basement experienced c. 1974. And, being familiar with the source material, I have much more appreciation for how cleverly Gary adapted it to the AD&D paradigm in a way that both supports and subverts pre-existing expectations and highlights the ways in which AD&D is both close to and different than traditional pre-swords & sorcery fantasy and fairy tales. I understand why Gary liked to run this adventure for adults new to D&D. As a kid I didn't, because it seemed strange and dumb to me that he would use an adventure that's so unlike the standard game, but I see now that that's actually one of the strengths of the thing (assuming the audience is familiar with Carroll's books): they come in with some familiarity with the setting, subject matter, and plot, and by experiencing the differences between the story they know and the game they're playing, they come away with an understanding of "what D&D is all about" in a way that sending them into the Caves of Chaos probably wouldn't get across.

Which isn't to say the adventures are perfect. I like the way that both of them start out as open-ended "sandboxy" explorations where the players can move about the area having encounters at their own pace in their own order, but find it mildly frustrating the way that both of them eventually narrow into a linear, scripted finale that too-closely tries to track the action of the books. While it's easy to second-guess things after the fact - without the pressures of production deadlines and a firmly-mandated 32 page maximum - I feel that both modules would have been stronger if they'd stayed more open-ended and allowed more possibility for the players to employ different approaches and maybe establish more of a long-term presence in the area.

The thing I still hate the most is the scripted chase at the end of EX1 with the "Potemkin dungeon map" that shows hallways and doors but says nothing of what lies behind them. This was the first module where I recall seeing something like this and I immediately hated it. Alas, it became much more common in later years - by the time I stopped buying rpg adventures in the early 90s actual complete maps had disappeared almost completely, and the genesis of the trend can be laid right here at Gary Gygax's feet. I don't know if it was Gary who came up with this, or if it was suggested by Frank Mentzer (whose adventures - mostly created as RPGA tournaments - were always much more linear in this manner), or someone else at TSR, but whoever is to blame, I find it annoying to this day. A map of the entire dungeon level needn't have taken up any more space (since the partial map gets a mostly-blank page to itself) and even if it was entirely unkeyed except for the chase-route that still would have made it seem less forced and railroady, and (at least for me) would have been inspirational - like the mostly-unkeyed underworld map in D1-3, this would have been a ready-made place for expansion and customization. I still like these modules, but this is without a doubt an error and a missed opportunity.

A few more random notes and observations about these modules:

1) Their covers are reversed: the cover of EX1 depicts an encounter from EX2 (the roc in Area E), while the cover of EX2 depicts an encounter from EX1 (the hangman tree in Part 3, Area I). Oops!

2) In addition to several monsters from Fiend Folio (clubnek, bullywug, kuo toa, lamia noble), the "new" monster types introduced in the modules (hangman tree, executioner's hood, giant bee, giant dragonfly, eblis, lightning quasi-elemental, oliphant), and several unique "nonesuch" monsters (the jub-jub bird, jabberwocky, bandersnatch, etc.) two monsters from module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth also appear: a behir and a marid. The latter includes a note referring the reader back to module S4 for further info, but the former does not. In the few months between publication of these modules and the Monster Manual II I wonder if that confused or annoyed anybody.

3) A full write-up for Murlynd was published in Dragon magazine #71 (later reprinted in the World of Greyhawk boxed set) which doesn't match the details given for him in EX2: in the latter he's an 18th level magic-user with 77 hit points, in the former he's a level 12/12/12 magic-user/illusionist/paladin with 135 hit points and psionic powers, as well as different stats and equipment (though both versions are armed with techno-magical pistols). While I believe the Dragon version was published first, its text suggests the EX2 version was written first, and the Dragon version represents a revision/expansion of the concept.

4) The outdoor maps in the two modules have different printed scales (50 feet per hex in EX1, 100 feet per hex in EX2) and as far as I'm able to determine, both of them are wrong. The scale of the EX1 map is definitely supposed to be 50 yards per hex (comparing to the scale of the other maps - the palace, manse, and woods of trees and giant fungi - makes this clear). I don't see any reason why the EX2 map should have a different scale (though there's no textual proof that it's incorrect the way there is for EX1).

5) The modules include some tidbits from Unearthed Arcana, a reminder that the material in that book was mostly written several years before the book was published: (a) the numbered soldiers in EX1 are all stated to be "broadsword specialists" and have corresponding increased # of attacks and "to hit" and damage bonuses; (b) two NPC thieves (the Jack of Hearts in EX1 and the King's Messenger in EX2) are both stated to be wearing elfin chain mail (though it doesn't reduce any of their thieving abilities the way it does in UA - suggesting perhaps that nuance was something added by the developers of the book (Jeff Grubb and Frank Mentzer) rather than Gary?).

Friday, June 30, 2017

Gaming at conventions

As a kid I attended several gaming conventions - my home-town sponsored two (Glathricon, an all-gaming con, in the summer, and ConTact, a more traditional SF con with a large gaming component, in the fall) that I went to starting in the fall of '86 until the sort of withered away in the early 90s, and starting in 1988 I also attended GenCon every year through 1997 (the summer after I graduated college; right before I moved permanently to the other side of the country). At those conventions I played a lot of games, both rpgs and more traditional boardgames, minis games, etc. By and large, and certainly with some notable exceptions, most of the rpg games weren't very good.

Part of it is that a big element of the appeal in rpgs is the open-ended campaign structure - maintaining the same character through a series of adventures, watching him or her become more powerful and develop more of an individual personality, learning more about the world, developing friends and enemies (players and NPCs alike), becoming involved in long-term plots that might play out slowly over months or years, and so on. Another big element of the appeal of rpgs is that they're a social game played with a group of friends, and in many play-sessions as much or more of the fun comes from the social interaction between the players than the ostensible action of the game. As a kid I thought you were supposed to resist that - to keep the action focused in-game and avoid distractions and digressions - but playing with Gary Gygax taught me it's closer to the opposite.

At a convention, where you've got a single 4-hour block of time and are likely playing with a group of mostly strangers, both of those are eliminated, so a convention game is necessarily going to be a different sort of beast than a game at home with your buddies. The earliest convention games of D&D seem to have been, effectively, demonstrations - you'd sit down for a couple of hours and do some exploring inside Greyhawk Castle or the Sunken City of Kalibruhn or wherever, and hopefully would have a good enough time that you'd be inspired to pick of a copy of the rules and take them home and start your own campaign. Gary Gygax came up with a different idea for the first Origins convention - a tournament where various teams went into Gary's almost-cartoonishly-deadly "Tomb of Horrors" (originally devised as Gary's way of testing the skill and mettle of overly-confident players) and the group that made it the furthest before dying was the winner. This formula was refined over the next few years and eventually became what we see in published AD&D modules derived from tournaments like C1, C2, and the A-series: teams of players go through the same adventure, facing the same encounters, and a score is kept with a basic formula of how many encounters were completed graphed to how many characters survived plus bonus points or penalties for particular smart (or dumb) actions. As the tournaments got bigger, they began to have multiple rounds, where the teams that scored best in the first round advanced to the second round (usually a more difficult set of encounters), those who scored best in the second round advanced to the finals (usually something completely off-the-wall), and the team that scored best in the final round was the winner.

That's a mutated form of D&D that doesn't have a lot in common with the default campaign style of play (strategies that are successful in one will lead to failure in the other, and vice versa), but it's still fun in its own way: knowing that the clock is ticking, and that your group's performance is being judged against other groups, puts a lot of pressure on and leads to some really intense and exhilarating play. I played in a couple of tournaments that were run this way (the AD&D Open at GenCon continued to function in this manner even after other tournaments didn't) and although I never did very well, because I was always teamed with strangers, and these adventures placed a very high premium on effective teamwork, I always had fun.

Sadly (from my perspective), when Frank Mentzer founded the RPGA (RolePlaying Game Association, an organization run by TSR with the mandate "to promote quality roleplaying and bring fans of roleplaying games together") in 1981, the way D&D tournaments were organized and scored changed dramatically. Instead of team vs. team, advancement (and, in the final round, winners) were determined individually, based on a vote by the other players (and possibly the DM - I can no longer remember whether the DM got a full vote or was only a tiebreaker) at the end of the session. Along with this, the RPGA introduced an "XP" system for its members where the more tournaments you played in and the better you placed the more points you earned, and as you increased in "level" you got to play in Master-only (and, eventually Grand Master-only) tournaments. This had an obvious and profound (and possibly unintentional?) effect on how tournament play worked. For one thing, teamwork no longer mattered, and neither did process through the adventure. The only thing that mattered was how much you impressed the other players. Maybe they'd be impressed by your tactical acumen and rules-knowledge and effective leadership (and that's what the early RPGA tournaments seem to have expected, because structurally they're still very similar to the pre-RPGA tournaments - linear gauntlets of puzzles and combat), but way more often the vote went to the "best roleplayer" - the hammy actors and scene-stealers. This created a spiral of perverse incentives where players would attempt to out-ham each other, and the adventure itself became mostly irrelevant, until the writers caught on and changed the nature of the adventures to become, basically, just a series of role-playing cues.

I was shy and socially-awkward as a kid, especially around strangers and older people (which meant pretty much everybody at cons). Therefore, I tended to do really badly in these games and rarely advanced beyond the first round. I suppose the idea was that shy kids would be drawn out and feel comfortable enough to participate, but for me it was more the opposite - the more emotive and hammy the other players got, the more I was likely to clam up. This was frustrating in a number of ways: one is that it wasn't much fun for me, another is that it suggested I wasn't actually very good at my favorite game that I'd been totally obsessed with for several years, and called into question whether I'd even really understood the game, because the way it was played in RPGA events was very different than what I'd imagined from reading the books or how we always played at home. This is about the time I probably should have decided the game wasn't really for me after all and declare that I'd "outgrown" it, which is what most other kids did (and, non-coincidentally this was right at the time, in the late 80s, when the fad years were over and the popularity of the game was in steep decline), but for whatever reason I didn't - I kept going to the cons and playing in tournament events that I didn't really enjoy and wasn't very good at. I suppose I was still hoping if I played in enough I might finally find a good one.

And that is, of course, exactly what happened when I lucked into those games with Gary at Glathricon '88. This, finally, was exactly what I'd always wanted D&D to be (and more). It was both a revelation (that my approach to D&D was much closer to how the inventor of the game did it than how everyone else did) and a huge confidence-booster (I was now assured that my approach was "right" after all). I hadn't seen it at the time, but years later I stumbled across a Dragon editorial by Gary (in issue #102, October 1985 - coincidentally one of his last editorials before his ouster) where he expressed the same sentiments - decrying "the current vogue of placing seemingly undue importance" on the "theatrical side of gaming," which he felt "tend[ed] to make playing out an adventure more of a children’s 'let’s pretend' activity than an action-packed game which involves all sorts of fun, including the playing of a role but other fun aspects as well." My approach to gaming was out of fashion in the late 80s, but at least I had the inventor of the game in my corner :)

I still played in a few more RPGA tournaments (in retrospect I'm not sure why - inertia?) but came to realize that those were the least fun games, and that it was much more fun (and instructional) to play in games that went all the way back to the original model - creators of the game giving, basically, demonstrations. That's effectively what the Gygax games had been, and I had similarly fun experiences playing games like Cyberpunk, MegaTraveller, RuneQuest, and Amber at GenCon with "insiders" - not usually the creator of the game, but friends of the creator who'd played with them and been involved in the development and had a "feel" for the game that only comes from that sort of close, long-term association. I almost always came away from those games excited and enthused, eager to share the experience with all of my friends at home (and it's no coincidence that those are the games we played most through the late 80s & 90s). I think there's really something to playing a game with the creator, or someone closely associated with and who learned from the creator, that helps you understand and appreciate it in a way that reading the books alone can never do.

Eventually, for whatever reason - because I wasn't as interested in the new games being released, or felt I'd learned enough, or just realized that playing games with strangers that weren't as good as what I could play at home with my friends wasn't an effective use of my time, I stopped playing even in those demo-games, and the last 3-4 years I attended GenCon, and the last year or two I attended Glathricon, I didn't play in any rpg events, RPGA-sponsored or otherwise. Instead, I realized that the most fun was to be had in large-scale, multiplayer board and minis games. At Glathricon for several years running, a guy named Greg Poehlein (who was one of Evansville's local rpg-industry celebrities, having co-written the Star Trek and Doctor Who rpgs for FASA) ran an event called the "Glathricon 500," which was his house-ruled adaptation of Avalon Hill's Speed Circuit for Matchbox cars on a huge oval-shaped track. This was an all-day event that usually drew around 20 players. Likewise, there was a group who every year at GenCon staged huge 25mm-scale British colonial minis games, with full terrain and hundreds of figures per side (the two I remember were vs. Zulus and vs. Afghans) - again, an all-day event with a dozen or more players involved. These were things I'd never have had the resources or the number of players (or the space!) to attempt at home, and they were always tremendous fun and I looked forward to them year after year (and was crushed when I attended Glathricon '95 and found that "the 500" had been canceled).

Is there a point in all of this? Not really; it's just a reminiscence. But there are, perhaps, a few takeaways that might be useful to people attending, or thinking of attending, a gaming con: (1) the games aren't going to be much like, and probably won't be as good as, your games with your friends at home; (2) tournament-games are especially wack, unless it's a team-tournament and you're there with enough of your home-group to make up a whole team; but (3) if you get a chance to play a game with its creator it's probably worth doing because you'll likely pick up some insight into the expected play-style and get a better feel for the game than you can get from reading a rulebook; and (4) if they're running any large-scale, multiplayer board or minis events, jump all over that, because that's something you can't do at home, and they tend to be really fun!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

[D&D] World of Greyhawk cultural approximations

The World of Greyhawk includes a large number of nation-states. While the gazetteer does a good job of providing population figures and natural resources and details of the size and composition of the nations' armies and traditional alliances and enmities, it doesn't have much to say about their culture. Some hints can be picked up (mostly in connection with the "exotic" realms near the edges of the map), but there's tendency to just portray most of them as having the same "generic fantasy" monoculture. Gary's Greyhawk novels didn't really help with this.

Therefore, in order to add more flavor and make things a bit more interesting for myself, I've found it helps me to visualize and differentiate in my mind the various states of the Flanaess to figure out which earth-nation they seem to most closely approximate and use that as a guide towards personifying their cultural attitudes and incidental color (i.e. stuff like accents, naming conventions, way of dressing, typical cuisine, and so on). A few of these (like Ket, Perrenland, and the Rhennee) are obvious from the published material, others I made up myself (so they're more tenuous and strained and not necessarily compatible with the "canon" of the published products and novels).

This is intended as a very rough and superficial approximation, so it's important not to overdo it and take the approximation too literally - everything is, of course, filtered through a layer of fiction and fantasy. I'm not saying these Greyhawk locales are or should be exactly like earth locales (that undermines the point of creating a fantasy world in the first place), just that I've found this to a convenient short-hand improvisational aid, a way to quickly add some flavor and detail.

Bakluni areas: Persia (further differentiation likely at some future point)
Ket: Turkey
Perrenland: Switzerland
Wolf & Tiger Nomads: Central Asia
Iuz & Horned Society: Russia
Furyondy: Germany
Veluna: Austria
Keoland: England
Yeomanry: Wales
Geoff & Sterich: Scotland
Bissel: Ireland
Sea Princes: Barbary Coast
Ulek States & Celene: Fairyland from British folklore
Central Flanaess (Verbobonc/Kron Hills/Gnarley Forest/Greyhawk/Cairn Hills/Nyr Dyv/Upper Wild Coast): American midwest
Lower Wild Coast & Pomarj: Pirates of the Caribbean
Rhennee: Romani
Bandit Kingdoms: American Old West (Shield Lands = Texas)
Rovers of the Barons: Sioux Nation
Duchy of Tenh: Iroquois Confederacy
Theocracy of the Pale: Puritan New England
Blackmoor: Minnesota
County & Duchy of Urnst: Belgium & Netherlands
Nyrond: France (Almor = Avignon)
Barbarian States: Scandinavia (further differentiation (say Frost Barbarians = Sweden, Snow Barbarians = Denmark, etc.) left as an exercise for the reader)
Ratik: Poland
North Province & Bone March: Balkans/Romania
Great Kingdom: Italy (Medegia = Papal States, Rel Astra = Venice)
South Province: Spain (Onnwal = Galicia, Irongate City = Barcelona, Idee = Portugal, Sunndi = Basque country, Lordship of the Isles = Balearics)
Spindrift Isles: Greece
Scarlet Brotherhood: medieval Syria ruled by a secret cabal of Nazis

Saturday, June 24, 2017

[music] Up the Irons!

My favorite rock band in the 80s (at least the second half of the decade, when I had an opinion on such things) was unquestionably Iron Maiden. They were a heavy metal band, with all of the associated imagery and attitude, but they were also, secretly, sort of a prog-rock band, if that style of music hadn't declined precipitously in popularity in the mid-late 70s.

They had Bruce Dickinson with his Conan the Barbarian haircut bellowing like a Viking out of a Wagner opera, twin lead guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith trading off face-melting solos, leather and spikes like Judas Priest, an elaborately theatrical stage set with pyrotechnics and a giant papier-mache monster head, violent and gory imagery featuring Eddie the zombie on their album covers, and their song "The Number of the Beast" got them accused of being Satanists. They were very loud and very aggressive and seemed very dangerous and very cool to my pre-teen self.

All of the "hoods" in my middle-school, the mostly-poor kids who had long hair and smoked, loved Iron Maiden, right alongside KISS and AC/DC and Def Leppard and Ozzy Osbourne (Metallica hadn't really caught on in our area yet). They were always surprised that I liked that stuff too, and it was how I bonded with that group, even though the teachers didn't like it and thought I was being led down the wrong path (about which I loved proving them wrong and shaming their close-mindedness).

Because what those teachers didn't understand (and, to be honest, I'm not sure many of the kids understood either) was that although they looked and sounded like other metal bands, Iron Maiden were smarter and more sophisticated - they had lyrics about history and literature (and even did a 13-minute-long version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner") and they were seemingly just as influenced by 70s prog-rock bands like Genesis and Jethro Tull as they were by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Thin Lizzy. This was, effectively, music for nerds that happened to also appeal to the cool and tough kids. As a nerd-by-inclination who also wanted to hang out with the cool kids, it was right up my alley, almost like it had been tailor-made for me.

The 80s were Iron Maiden's decade. The first, self-titled, album was released in 1980, and they put out just about an album a year through the rest of the decade, including The Number of the Beast in 1982 (the first album with Bruce Dickinson; their first hit and the one that got them pegged as Satanists), Piece of Mind in 1983 (where the full "classic era" lineup was finally in place), Live After Death in 1985 (their first live album, recorded in Long Beach, CA (I now know some folks a few years older than me who were in attendance), and the first of their albums I owned), and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in 1988 (a full-on prog-rock-style concept album; I was totally obsessed by this album, wore out two different cassette tapes by listening to them so much, and - naturally - tried to adapt its story into a D&D campaign).

In the 90s they released some sub-par albums and had some lineup changes and I lost interest and moved on to other types of music - like punk and grunge and "alternative" stuff that the older high-school kids were into. From what I understand around the turn of the century Iron Maiden got the classic lineup back together and are still regularly releasing new albums and touring the world and playing to ridiculously large crowds and are probably bigger and more popular now than they were in the 80s, but I never got back into it. I did upgrade a few of my cassettes to CDs and still pull them out for a nostalgic listen now and then, though, and it instantly takes me back to being in seventh grade, listening to those albums on endless-repeat. I like it better that way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

[D&D] Rescuing Good King Despot

I got a request from a reader to write a bit about The Abduction of Good King Despot, by Will & Schar Niebling and Russ Stambaugh, published in 1988 by New Infinities Productions as part of their "Gary Gygax's Fantasy Master" line, but written several years earlier.

Will Niebling was the head of the Metro Detroit Gamers, and an early champion of D&D tournament play at the MDG's annual Michicon and Wintercon conventions. They commissioned Gary to write The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth as the D&D tournament for Wintercon '76 and published it in a limited edition (before Gary revised and expanded it into AD&D module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, published by TSR in 1982). Another of their tournaments, Quest for the Fazzlewood, was also republished by TSR, as D&D module O1: The Gem and the Staff. Sometime around 1978 or 79 Will Niebling went to work for TSR as Executive VP of Sales and Marketing, a position he held through 1982. According to Michael Witwer's Empire of the Imagination Niebling departed due to dissatisfaction with how the Blume brothers were (mis)managing the company, which was a sore blow to Gary, who considered him a friend and ally and without him felt increasingly isolated. Post-TSR, in the 90s, Niebling became CEO of Mayfair Games, the company that obtained a license to print money as the American distributor for the Settlers of Catan series of boardgames. Schar Niebling, as far as I know, is Will's wife. Russ Stambaugh was a student at the University of Michigan (and presumably a member of the MDG) at the time this adventure was written, and later went on to a distinguished career outside of gaming as a psychologist and sex therapist. I'm fairly certain this module is the only published D&D/rpg writing credit for any of the three.

Per his introduction (and backed up by later statements in online Q&As), this was Gary Gygax's favorite D&D adventure that he didn't write himself. From what I gather, it was originally written sometime in the late 70s and was probably used as a tournament module. Gary picked up a copy and carried it around with him to run for impromptu games. After parting ways with TSR in 1986 and founding New Infinities Productions as a successor company, Gary was looking for things to publish. They started with a bunch of novels (of which Gary's Gord the Rogue series are the best-known) and the woefully ill-conceived Cyborg Commando rpg (about which the less said the better), before launching the Fantasy Master line of (ostensibly) "generic" rpg supplements and adventures. One of them was The Town of Baldemar, a decent but kind of bland effort from Bob Blake (who organized the D&D (later AD&D) Open tournament at GenCon for many years). Another was The Convert, a tournament module Frank Mentzer had written for the RPGA (and over which TSR sued New Infinities to stop publication). A few more titles had been announced but not published by the time New Infinities folded in late 1988, including Gary's own Necropolis, which I was lucky enough to participate in a couple playtest sessions of, and which later resurfaced first as part of the Dangerous Journeys rpg (in 1992) and then in a conversion for the "d20" system by Necromancer Games (in 2003). But by far the most noteworthy and memorable of those Fantasy Master products that actually got published was The Abduction of Good King Despot.

The adventure is a (perhaps the) quintessential example of a "puzzle dungeon" (another example of which is TSR's module C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness - which, probably not coincidentally, was also originally run as a tournament by the MDG at Wintercon '79). This is related to but different than the "funhouse" dungeon (exemplified by the likes of module S2: White Plume Mountain and Judges Guild's Tegel Manor) because where those tend to be a more random or arbitrary hodgepodge of elements, puzzle-dungeons have a linear structure (they're based around "solving" a central puzzle) and a tight thematic structure and organization (that just happens to eschew "realism" and "sensible dungeon ecology"). I don't like to give too many spoilers about this adventure's structure, because figuring out its logic is a big part of the challenge and fun of the adventure, but I'll do so anyway (skip the next, indented, paragraph if you don't want to know):

The premise of the adventure is that Good King Despot has been kidnapped by the insane wizard Ignax, who has set up the dungeon as a test for would-be rescuers. The dungeon is a linear gauntlet of 13 encounters thematically tied to the signs of the Zodiac, in order (Aries room followed by Taurus room followed by Gemini room, etc.) along with dead-end red-herring encounters (some dangerous traps, some pointless time-wasters, a couple potentially beneficial) that can be avoided if the players figure out a pattern: the floor tiles of the dungeon are colored in a repeating pattern of red (fire), green (earth), white (air), blue (water); each "correct" encounter matches the element for its astrological sign (so the floor outside the Aries room is red, the floor outside the Taurus room is green, etc.) while the red-herring rooms are the other colors (so the red-herring rooms matched to the Aries room have green, white, and blue floors outside their doors). Each of the main Zodiac encounters has as its treasure a large gemstone corresponding to that sign (diamond for Aries, emerald for Taurus, etc.). In the final (13th) encounter area, the key to freeing the imprisoned King Despot from suspended animation is to use six of the gems (the diamond, emerald, sapphire, pearl, opal, and topaz) to spell out the name D-E-S-P-O-T; the other six gems (along with anything they've picked up from the red-herring rooms) become the party's treasure/reward. The encounters start out as straightforward melee slugfests (Aries is a group of berserkers with ram-horned helmets, Taurus is a pair of gorgons, Gemini is twin frost giants), but as they proceed they become trickier and require less combat and more puzzle-solving (the Libra encounter is a room with a shifting floor, the Aquarius encounter is a room that gradually fills with water, etc.). I've run the adventure several times, and can attest that the further the players get into the dungeon the more the tension ratchets up and the more engaged they become, and as they overcome each challenge (and especially if they make it to and overcome the final challenge) there's an escalating series of cheers and high-fives. Successfully completing this adventure feels like a true accomplishment. 
It's no wonder Gary was so fond of this adventure. It's got seemingly everything he liked best in the game - it's fast-moving, action-heavy, has a lot of clever puzzles to challenge the players' problem-solving abilities, and doesn't take itself too seriously. It includes numerous pun-type jokes and "anachronistic" cultural references (to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, etc.), and the central thematic premise only really makes sense at the player-level, something that's never addressed in the adventure itself. The tone and feel reminds me a lot of Gary's own Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and I suspect is a fair representation of the mode of play in his Greyhawk Castle dungeons, before things became so serious.

It seem significant (and telling) that while Gary and New Infinities president Don Turnbull (formerly of TSR-UK) were both big fans of this adventure, Frank Mentzer was not and claims (note: Frank = ExTSR) that Turnbull "forced" them to publish it because he was friends with the author. In fairness to Frank, he's not the only one who feels that way. Particularly for 1988 (the era of Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms), this adventure was way out of step with the prevailing zeitgeist of what D&D adventures should be like. In recognition of that, New Infinities framed the adventure as an intentionally "retro" experience (as far as I'm aware the first rpg product to be marketed that way), which in retrospect is sort of a mixed blessing. On the one hand it allowed the adventure to be published in its full "funhouse" glory instead of attempting to water it down to conform to then-contemporary tastes, but on the other it caused them to exaggerate the old-fashionedness and "wackiness" in a way that feels like they were making excuses, that they were trying to create an ironic distance from the material as a defense against criticism. So we get a booklet of illustrations because that's a visual signifier of retro-ness (because old modules like S1, C1, and S3 had them) even though most of the illustrations are pointless and unnecessary (many of them are just portraits of the room's monster that don't convey any additional info beyond what's in the boxed-text), and we get a lot of apologetic "this is how things used to be" and "Ignax is a crazy wizard - don't think about it too hard" asides in the text, and we probably get more "jokey" encounters (like the Gnax Family portrait gallery and the talking goldfish) than we otherwise would have. In fitting with the times, there's also a full page of read-aloud backstory introduction about how the party was gathered together and sent on the rescue mission by Ignax's rival wizard Candelabra (who's busy schtupping the queen and doesn't seem all that eager to see the king return - which is presumably why he's sending a bunch of adventurers on the mission instead of doing it himself) which is both not as funny as it seems to think it is and entirely dispensable.

In addition to that "datedness" (ironically, dating the adventure to when it was published and adventures of its type were out of fashion, since more recently the taste-pendulum has swung sufficiently back in the other direction that there's more appreciation for the funhouse/less-serious approach) it's also worth pointing out that this adventure emphatically does not follow the "Jaquays ideal" of old-school dungeon-design - it's completely linear, the map isn't three-dimensional, there are no monster factions or any sense that there's anything going on in the dungeon when the PCs aren't there (the module doesn't address it, but presumably each encounter area is in some sort of temporal stasis until the PCs open the door to it), it's not expandable or replayable in any meaningful way, etc. If your criteria for how good a D&D adventure is are, in effect, "how similar is it to Caverns of Thracia?" then this adventure will fall very short. This is not an adventure for theorists - it's an adventure that comes alive at the table, that lives in the moment.

As is probably obvious by now, I really like this adventure and consider it one of my very favorites. I've run it three times (once all the way through, twice partially) and it's always been a huge hit with the players. Because of its structure, I've never tried to insert it in an ongoing campaign and don't think it's really suited to that type of use (which is why I put it in the second tier of the canon even though it's one of my favorites), but I consider it one of the very best "one-off" adventures, ideal as both a palate-cleanser - to remind players who've become too jaded and serious that the game is supposed to be about having fun - and as a compatibility litmus-test for players - if you don't have fun in this you're probably not going to like playing in my games, but if you do, hopefully you will. The only drawback there is that as-published I've found it to be too long to play through in a single session. I've found it takes 2-3 sessions to get through. Gary used to run it in a single session (and was still running it as late as 2005), but he used the original version, which was likely shorter than the published version - possibly including only the core encounters and not any of the red-herrings, which would definitely make it quicker, but would also lose some of the charm (a lot of the red-herring rooms are really fun!).

I highly recommend this adventure to anyone who thinks the above sounds fun or intriguing. Unfortunately it's not currently available for purchase (back around 2004 I asked Gary in an online Q&A if he knew who currently owned the rights to it, and he didn't) and not very many copies were printed in the first place so it's not all that easy to find second-hand copies. That said, it's obscure enough that not many people are seeking it out, and from what I understand copies show up on ebay fairly often and the prices they go for are pretty reasonable. Good hunting!