Friday, 28 November 2008

Of All the Girls I've Loved Before...

Sourcebooks. Some are bad, some are good, most are indifferent. Here are my favourites.

1. Pacific Rim Sourcebook for Cyberpunk 2020. There are lots of flaws in this book, not least that the section on Japan is far too long and those on the really interesting countries (Korea, the Phillippines, Indonesia, Myanmar) are far too short. But it does a brilliant job of setting out a detailed, cohesive, believable futuristic Pacific Rim - not at all far-fetched, and with just a touch of imaginative flair. The post-apocalyptic Australia in particular is a great Mad Max rip-off and a perfect place for a down and dirty Cyberpunk 2020 campaign. The book also contains an expansion for the detailed martial arts rules for which the game is rightly famed, together with glossaries of major East Asian languages (although I'm not sure how accurate they are if the Japanese one is anything to go by) and lots of new guns.

2. The Planewalker's Handbook for 2e AD&D. This is definitely my favourite TSR-produced sourcebook, mainly because I love its scrapbook, ad hoc approach, where on one page you'll find rules for Genasi player characters, on the next baatezu green steel, then a kit for wizards who fly around in hot air balloons after that... It's like a treasure trove. Not only that, it contains the rules for Belief Points, which were one of the major innovations in late-era TSR D&D and just about perfect for the Planescape setting.

3. Changeling: The Dreaming, The Player's Guide. Changeling: The Dreaming was always the most interesting of the World of Darkness settings (in fact the only one I ever really liked), and the player's guide was like the icing on the cake - more detail about the major races, plus a whole shedload of material on Native American fae. Best of all was the final section on the Autumn People; the idea of individuals who can kill fae through their sheer banality was way more scary in its own way than anything in Vampire or Werewolf.

4. The Orcs of Thar, for BECMI D&D. Evil humanoid races as player characters for classic D&D. Need one say more? Well, throw in rules for humanoid shamans, a ridiculous board game that nobody ever played, background info on all the races, and sheafs of maps. What more could a person want?

5. The Northwestern Middle Earth Map Set, for MERP. One of the cornerstones of being a Tolkien fan is the love of the geography, and one of the main pleasures of that occupation is poring over maps and imagining what might be found in the places illustrated. This book fulfils that need to connect with Middle Earth cartography in style.

Dice Man

These were posted earlier today at Grognardia, but just in case there are any readers of my blog who don't also visit that esteemed online resource (unlikely), here is a two part film about dice.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

What the Public Wants is the Image of Passion, not Passion Itself

One more thing: don’t spend too much time merely reading. The best part of this work is the play, so play and enjoy! - Gary Gygax

In another life, I took what literary theorists said seriously - seriously enough at least to disagree with many of them and consider them a blight on humanity; very well educated but fundamentally not-very-intelligent people are responsible for a lot of what's bad in the world. George Steiner in particular always struck me as a very eloquent and very widely read fool, but I reserved a special place in hell for Roland Barthes, a man I considered not far removed from Satan. I was a very angry and far-too-intellectual-for-my-own-good 20 year old. (One of my favourite quotes is by the writer Jonathan Franzen, who said that he spends around ten minutes a day fretting about the fact that, when he was in his 20s, he used to spend ten minutes a day fretting about things like the fact that Americans have substituted medical products for genuine psychological healing. I understand what he means in a very deep and meaningful sense - why was I so serious about things like that?)

Anyway, these days I'm a lot mellower and I think I can see a little bit of what Barthes was getting at, especially regarding Death of the Author. This was a famous essay by him in which he basically argued that in interpreting a text, it is the text and the reader's understanding of it alone which matters - not the author's intent. As soon as the author has produced a piece of writing he no longer owns it and no longer should be seen as having any relation to it - it is not his or her history or views which inform analysis of it, but the reader's. And each new reading by each new reader, or even each re-reading, is a new interpretation of a new text with a new meaning.

We can see this process in Dungeons & Dragons, you see. When Gygax and Arneson and their circle created the game, they had an idea of what they wanted to do, and a whole history of reading and playing and thinking behind that idea - a witch's brew of Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, Leiber, Avalon Hill and a thousand other cultural artefacts from their own experiences. But if we interpret that in light of Barthes, where the author has 'died' the minute he has produced the text (and I should say straight away at this point that I refer to this in a purely metaphorical sense which has nothing to do with Gary Gygax's actual regrettable and very sad death), we should really throw all of that out of the window and ignore it. The text of Original D&D and 1e are for us to take meaning from for ourselves, irrespective of the intentions of the authors; if we want to use it to play games utterly different to what they envisaged, then we can do so. In fact, it could be argued that we ought to do so.

This is one of the reasons, really, why I'm not a great fan of stick-in-the-mud-ism when it comes to 'old schoolers', although I've never previously thought to articulate it in reference to Roland Barthes! The vast majority of old schoolers are, of course, creative individuals who just like to play. But there is a certain section who seem unduly wedded to what the orginators intended and to their vision of the game. Indeed I wrote a long rant about the very topic back in June, which I still mostly agree with, even if the painful stridency of the piece irks me. (I think I tend towards the painfully strident a little too much.) Gary Gygax and his generation created a great game, but it's not theirs anymore; they were the 'scriptors', to use Barthes' term, but we are the readers, the interpreters, and the ones who give the game meaning for ourselves. If we want to use the OD&D rules to play a campaign about mutant monkeys invading the star ship Enterprise at the edge of the universe, or about heroic halflings saving the world from the Dark Lord, then we should just go for it and devil take the hindmost.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Beware the Were Stuff

Here's what we're lacking: a random generator for lycanthropes. (Okay, okay, for the pedants out there: therianthropes). Let me be the one to provide it.

Therianthrope Generator

Step 1: Determine human form.

Roll a d10 and d6+2 to determine class and level.

1-3 - Fighter
4-5 - Thief
6-7 - Wizard
8-9 - Cleric
10 - Bard

Then roll a d12 to determine alignment.

1-8 - Chaotic Evil
9-10 - Neutral Evil
11 - Chaotic Neutral
12 - Chaotic Good

Step 2: Determine Animal/Hybrid Form.

In animal form, the therianthrope will have an AC d3 points better than the standard for its type, and damage per attack is that of the standard animal +2. HD are that of the character class level of the human form (for example, 6 HD for a level 6 human), and movement is the same as the standard animal type.

In hybrid form HD and AC are boosted by 1 point above that of the human form, and the therianthrope can use either weapons or the natural attacks of the animal form (but not both).

Spellcasters may not use magic in their animal form.

Roll a d20 and consult the tables for the base animal type. Damage, AC and movement are of the standard animal.

1 - Gorilla (DMG 1-4/1-4/1-8, AC 6, MOVE 12)
2 - Yak (DMG 1-3/1-3 or 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 24)
3 - Hyena (DMG 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 15)
4 - Crocodile (DMG 2-8/1-12, AC 5, MOVE 6/12 SWIM)
5 - Hippopotamus (DMG 2-12, AC 4, MOVE 6/12 SWIM)
6 - Jaguar (DMG 1-3/1-3/1-6, AC 6, MOVE 15/6 CLIMB)
7 - Orang-Utan (DMG 1-4/1-4/1-6, AC 5, MOVE 6/12 CLIMB)
8 - Secretary Bird (DMG 1-3/1-3/1-4, AC 6, MOVE 12/FLY 24B)
9 - Cassowary (DMG 1-3/1-10, AC 6, MOVE 18)
10 - Dingo (DMG 2-6, AC 7, MOVE 18)
11 - Tasmanian Wolf (DMG 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 18)
12 - Gila Monster (DMG 1-4, AC 6, MOVE 6 - Special attack: Poison, which causes d6 STR loss, d12 hit points damage, and paralysis for d3 hours on a failed saving throw)
13 - Komodo Dragon (DMG 1-8, AC 5, MOVE 12 - Special attack: Potentially fatal disease which causes death after d6 days on a failed save, or d6 STR loss on success)
14 - Hunting Dog (DMG 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 18)
15 - Baboon (DMG 1-3/1-3/1-6, AC 7, MOVE 15/CLIMB 12)
16 - Condor (DMG 1-4, AC 6, MOVE 3/FLY 36D)
17 - Warthog (DMG 2-12, AC 6, MOVE 15)
18 - Cheetah (DMG 1-2/1-2/1-8, AC 5, MOVE 15/SPRINT 24)
19 - Lion (DMG 1-4/1-4/1-10, AC 5, MOVE 15)
20 - Snapping Turtle (DMG 1-6, AC 4, MOVE 6/SWIM 15 - Special Attack: On a successful bite, can cling on to cause 6hp damage per turn; 50% hit point loss causes removal)

Roll a d10 to determine special therianthrope ability:

1 - Charm person by gaze, once per day
2 - Cause Fear, once per day
3 - Psionicist abilities, level 1-6
4 - Sleep, once per day
5 - Darkness, 15' Radius, once per day
6 - Blur, once per day
7 - Blink, once per day
8 - Pass without trace, once per day
9 - Can vampirically drain d3 hit points with each successful hit from a natural attack
10 - Has a d3 bonus to AC when in hybrid form from exceptionally tough skin

Three therianthropes created with this method:

Munvaya Bhalangraloo, Level 5 Chaotic Evil Thief and were-komodo dragon. Can cast blur once per day. Works as an assassin in the city of Blacksand, and is known to eat his victims alive.

Ghaji Vimsak, Level 6 Chaotic Evil Wizardress and were-orang-utan. Can cast charm person once per day. Lives in a tree-house complex in the jungle, served by captured children.

Domu-domu Jilibree, Level 3 Chaotic Evil Cleric and were-baboon. Can cast charm person once per day. Lives with the rest of his troop in a rocky area on the outskirts of town, ambushing travelers.

Were-secretary bird in animal form

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Death and Difficulty

I think part of the reason why I'm attracted to the rpg's I really love and have played the most (BECMI and 2e AD&D, Cyberpunk 2020, MERP, RuneQuest, early Shadowrun) is Death. That is to say, in those games, it's tough for characters to live through even one adventure or mission - they are fragile entities whose capacity for survival is limited. High level PCs are treasured rarities who you come to have great affection for merely by dint of their luck or toughness.

Thinking about it, I rather like the few computer games I do for the same reasons. ToME, Oolite and Dwarf Fortress have incredibly steep learning curves which result in restart after restart; my list of beginning characters who never got beyond the first dungeon crawl in ToME runs into the hundreds, and even docking a spacecraft in Oolite is a difficult process to master.

Is it a kind of vicarious masochism? Possibly. But I'm more inclined to put it down to respect. BECMI and ToME are proper games who are difficult to master, and rewarding only through effort and luck; they don't mollycoddle and success in them must be earned. You have to appreciate a game like that - it's the difference, I suppose, between Monopoly and The Game of Life. One is an amusing diversion for kids. The other is a fun and interesting activity for all ages.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Inspirational Pictures (III)

I was never a big fan of the goody-goody AD&D Lammasu. This picture is something fierce, noble and terrifying; why does 'Good' so rarely encompass those things?

The surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Rivers of blood? Fire?

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare. I've always felt that there's something sinister about horses that has never properly been explored. And what a great goblin-link incubus that is; a candidate for my series of goblin entries perhaps.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Armour, Combat Descriptions and the One Minute Round

I've just finished reading Azincourt, the latest from Bernard Cornwell. It's an account of Henry V's Agincourt campaign from the perspective of one of the archers who took part, and a riproaring read which begins with murder in a small English village and climaxes in the famous battle, where around 6,000 English and Welsh archers and men-at-arms destroyed a French army of 20-30,000. I read it in a single day; by no means is it great art, but there's no writer quite like Bernard Cornwell for sheer barnstorming excitement and great fight scenes. (Without a doubt, when it comes to describing a battle from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, he's the best there is.) It's heartily recommended.

Naturally enough, since (at a conservative estimate) 70% of the book involves people killing each other, it got me thinking about combat. In particular, it got me thinking about medieval combat and the one-minute-combat round, as well as conceptions of combat in pre-3e D&D generally; probably this is because there has been a bit of discussion about the matter here and here in recent weeks so it's been lurking around in the back of my mind. To cut a long story short, I've always known in a theoretical sense that combat rounds in AD&D last a minute, and even paid attention to the passages in the 2nd edition PHB which say things like:

During a one-minute combat round, each character is assumed to block many attempted attacks and see many of his own attacks blocked. In normal combat, characters parry all the time--there's no need to single out each parry.


When making an attack, a character is likely to close with his opponent, circle for an opening, feint here, jab there, block a thrust, leap back, and perhaps finally make a telling blow. A spellcaster may fumble for his components, dodge an attacker, mentally review the steps of the spell, intone the spell, and then move to safety when it is all done. It has already been shown what drinking a potion might entail. All of these things might happen in a bit less than a minute or a bit more, but the standard is one minute and one action to the round.

But in practice, I've found that what tends to happen in older D&D games goes something like this:

Hector: I attack the troll. [Rolls dice]
DM: You cut the troll with your falchion, roll for damage.
Hector: Yay. [Rolls dice]
DM: [Rolls dice] The troll whacks you with his fist for 8 points of damage.
Hector: I attack him again. [Rolls dice]
DM: Your swing misses by an inch. [Rolls dice] The troll sinks his teeth into your face for 6 points of damage.

Admittedly a boring example, but you get the point: The idea of combat being a one-minute round of thrills and spills during the course of which people may or may not be injured and spells may or may not be cast goes out of the window, and is replaced by a hyper-detailed blow-by-blow account which might as well be second-by-second rather than minute-by-minute.

The thing is, an abstract combat round of one minute is difficult to envisage if all it involves is lots of dodging, parrying, feinting and fencing. That might simulate swordfighting duels from old films like those between Erroll Flynn and Basil Rathbone, or Tony Curtis and Ross Martin, but it doesn't seem to sit very well with the reality of messy, brutal melee. How do we conceptualise or envisage one minute of balls-to-the-wall violence in which participants might very well end up suffering trivial or no injury?

It's all about the armour. As one of the commenters in the Grognardia entry notes, "It's important to keep in mind that people wore the stuff because it worked." And work it did. In Azincourt, Cornwell describes how 5,000 or so French armoured men-at-arms were able to slog their way across 300 yards of open ground through knee-deep mud while enduring a hail of literally tens of thousands of arrows; even at close range a shot from a longbow could not penetrate the thick steel of a breast plate or greave. Nor was a sword or spear likely to - only a lucky or particularly well-aimed blow could cause injury, otherwise the worst that might happen would be the victim being knocked off his feet. Indeed, according to Cromwell (and Keegan) the vast majority of casualties in battles like Agincourt were execution-style killings of prone opponents: A man-at-arms would be knocked over in the melee, flounder in the mud, and then be disposed of either by a knife through the eyeslits in his visor, or by having his head bashed in with a poleaxe. The poleaxe was one of the few weapons which had a decent chance of cracking half-way serious armour.

An AD&D combat round, then, is actually like to involve lots of 'hits' that just don't cause injury. Even the lighter 'adventurer' armours such as chain mail or boiled leather were capable of turning a sword or spear blade, and in the cramped conditions in which most AD&D fights take place it's much more credible to imagine blows being landed but not causing injury than endless dodging, feinting and parrying.

The problem, as I've often thought, is that the 'to hit' roll is a misnomer which leads to unnecessary confusion. The rules would have been better served by called it the 'potential to cause damage' roll instead; a successful roll does not mean that you have hit so much as it means that you have been lucky or skilled enough to hit well, and a failed roll does not mean that you haven't hit - only that you haven't caused injury. 'Potential to cause damage' is an unwieldy term, but a much more accurate one than currently exists.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Irrational Hatred and Edition Wars

Due to another of Zach's recent entries, I came across this old rpgsite thread, which was the result of a Best/Worst RPG ever survey carried out on those forums. There are various ranking permutations worked out in the first post, but the most persuasive interpretation of the votes (number of 'best' votes - number of 'worst' votes) resulted in the following "bottom ten" table, number 1 being the worst game of all time:

1. AD&D 2e
2. Star Wars d20
3. Rifts (Palladium)
4. FATAL/Powers and Perils
6. Aftermath
7. Immortal: The Invisible War
8. AD&D 2e Player's Option/Living Steel
10. Fuzion

Do you notice anything odd about that? I do. Namely, AD&D 2e patently isn't the worst RPG ever. It really isn't. You might not agree that it is the best (and although it is my favourite, even I don't think of it as the best), or even that it is very good, but come on... the worst? How do we account for this abnormality?

Mostly, it is to do with the fact that 2e was the most played version of the game, and it thus draws the most ire from the people who dislike D&D generally; it is likely to be the version they are most familiar with. That's unfair, but understandable. However, some of the negativity must also be put it down to the the tendency among a sizeable portion of old schoolers, bemoaned in a recent thread at dragonsfoot, to what essentially boils down to Intellectual Perversity (as opposed to the sexual kind). That is, irrational hatred on the part of 1e AD&D fans for a game which is 99% similar to their favourite. Intellectual Perversity of grognards, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

1. 2e AD&D went hand in hand with ill treatment of Gary Gygax, therefore it is bad. Intellectually perverse because it isn't the set of rules' fault, nor Zeb Cook's, that Gary Gygax was forced out of TSR, and lingering distaste over that episode is no rational reason for disliking the game.
2. 2e AD&D threw out some treasured eccentricities of 1e, therefore it is bad. Intellectually perverse because those treasured eccentricities added nothing to the game. Disorganised and incoherent rules are not a good thing. The assassin class never made any sense.
3. 2e AD&D is written in a simplistic style of English which anybody can understand, therefore it is condescending and infantile. Intellectually perverse because game rules are instructions and instructions should always be clear.
4. 2e AD&D got rid of the words 'devil' and 'demon' and replaced them with 'baatezu' and 'tanar'ri', therefore it was cowtowing to the moral majority and demonstrating cowardice. Intellectually perverse because it's a purely cosmetic change.
5. 2e AD&D was moralistic and high-handed, which is never good. Intellectually perverse because nothing within the ruleset prevents graverobbing, murder, genocide, or playing a chaotic evil character as the player desires.

These in and of themselves are perfectly acceptable reasons (however irrational) for disliking 2e or preferring 1e. But they hardly qualify as reasons to believe it the worst game ever, given that the two editions are so similar.

The root cause of this grognard hatred is, I believe, snootiness. 1e came first, and moreover was written more or less for adults. 2e was a jonny-come-lately with aspirations to appeal equally to both adults and older children. That sort of thing bothers people of a certain disposition, who fancy themselves mature and intelligent and above childish pursuits, and thus the edition war was born. Personally I prefer certain aspects of 2e to 1e, but I like the older edition and would never vote it the worst rpg ever, or even call it a bad one.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Govgim Dahl, The Reluctant Demigod

[For the Blog Carnival on religion.]

On a heap of boulders at the base of a cliff in the forest lives Govgim Dahl, a silent, mournful, solitary being whose one true wish is that he would just be left alone. Unfortunately, the world has never shown the intention of doing any such thing, and he has been dogged for all the eons of his existence by unwanted attention from the forest's other inhabitants.

Govgim is a Galeb Duhr among Galeb Duhr; none of his people are as solitary, stubborn, shy or phlegmatic as he. Like them he loathes company and especially cannot bear humans, with their shrill voices and endless chatter. The only sounds he can tolerate are his own deep sonorous humming, and the occasional cracking of rocks weathered by wind or ice.

However, Govgim is a singular Galeb Duhr in one crucial respect: He is unable to travel through stone. This has been the case for as long as he can remember, and he suspects he was born that way - an unfortunate defect that he has come to view as his own particular curse. This one failing means that he has to endure the attentions of the local humans without means of escape; he is too slow to run away, and some basic bedrock of decency within him prevents their casual slaying.

The humans visit him almost every day. The worst occasions are the feast days, when they bother him from morning to night with bonfires and singing, but most mornings and evenings he has to endure a visit from their idiotic priests. He can no longer remember how or why the foolish creatures came to worship him; the very fact that he has forgotten indicates that they have been doing it for thousands of years. He suffers through their ministrations as best he can, by remaining as utterly still and silent as the rocks around him until they become bored and leave him be. Though over time their faithful worship has given him great power, he would much prefer to set it aside in return for a silent life. But release has never been granted to him.

Govgim Dahl

Govgim is a demigod, and so has certain powers described in Legends & Lore. These include 70% magical resistance, base saving throws of '4' in all categories, omniscience within a mile radius, and granted abilities. However, he cannot teleport and has no avatars. He retains the ability to speak, though he never uses it.

He has the standard Galeb Duhr abilities, with the following exceptions:

Armour Class: -4
Hit Dice: 14
Damage/Attack: 6-36/6-36

He cannot cast the passwall spell, but he has all the other magical powers of one of his kind.

Govgim rarely, if ever, displays aggression, but nor does he enjoy communicating. He can sometimes be induced to converse through the gift of a jewel not less than 500gp in value, and he knows the location of lodes of gold in nearby hills.

Govgim's worshipers are ignorant folk who believe that their god protects them from earthquakes and landslides. He does no such thing, and in fact in his darker moments rather wishes that such events would occur. If ever they do - which happens from time to time - the worshipers offer human sacrifices to appease him; generally these are captive travelers passing through the forest, who they capture with lassos or nets. Otherwise they are unremittingly hostile and seek to protect their god through violence. They are deeply inbred, and many of them bear minor mutations such as additional fingers, crossed eyes, or webbed feet.

Cultists of Govgim

Treasure: J, N, Q
No. Appearing: 20-200
Armour Class: 10 to 6 (roll a d4 and armour accordingly)
Hit Dice: 1-6 hp
THAC0: 20
Damage/Attack: 1d6 (Spear, club or handaxe); or Lasso or Net
Morale: Steady (11-12)
XP: 15

For every twenty cultists encountered there will be a cleric with 3HD who casts spells as a 3rd level cleric and has the best armour. If there are fifty cultists or more, there will be an additional cleric with 5HD who casts spells as a 5th level cleric.

If adventurers come across the Cult of Govgim, roll a d6. On a roll of 1-2 there has recently been a landslide, and the cult are searching for human sacrifices. On a roll of 3-6 there have been no natural disasters in recent memory and the cultists are after simple murder.

Friday, 14 November 2008

300 Text Files and Other Strangeness

It's all Zach's fault. Putting up a link to 300 RPG related text files culled from BBSs during the 80s and 90s. Almost all of these are 'relevant to my interests', coming as they did during the era at which TSR was at its zenith, and I just can't stop browsing. Some of the files are brilliant, some of them are weird, some of them ridiculous; all but a tiny minority are wonderful.

A few favourites:

1 - The curiously entitled Complete Guide to AD&D Alchohol for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (is that a tautology? It's definitely something) by some forgotten genius by the name of Reid Bluebaugh. Alchohol is the great love of my life after food, sex and D&D (okay, and the missus), so I'm especially interested in supplements which contain chapters on Popular and Strange Alchohols Amongst The Worlds, When the Still Explodes, and Getting to Know Your Booze, as well as monsters such as the Giant Alchohol Ant and magic items like the Ring of Wine Changing. Whatever Mr. Bluebaugh is doing now, I wish it had been him who'd designed 4e.

2 - A short file describing a magic item called the Bag o' Wondrous Items, which produces everything from 10' poles to star trek phasers to baskets of radishes to randomly generated golems.

3 - A probably-broken but undoubtedly cool new class of Dwarf mages called the Dwarnoi, who can turn stone creatures like a cleric can the undead.

4 - 'How to Join the Center for Monster Control'; rules on becoming a member of a secret society controllers. A mere 500sp entrance fee is required - along with a go-ahead from the 'board of magocratics'.

5 - A kind of manifesto for Cyberpunk games called Cyberpunk: The Rules. I'm particularly intrigued by rule number 9: "Crossbreeding produces mutation". Not so much a rule as a... motto?

6 - Rules on the Grenade weapon proficiency for 2e AD&D.

7 - An especially necessary supplement, given the proclivities of certain members of the hobby: The (more or less) Complete Guide to Hygeine for Fantasy Role Playing Games. First chapter: When Do Adventurers Go To The Bathroom? This one has Mr. Reid Bluebaugh's fingerprints all over it, but the author isn't credited.

8 - Literally dozens, if not hundreds, of new spells.

9 - First in a series of Netbooks of Plots, containing such gems as Help the local good, but dying, wizard to attain lichdom and You are assigned to protect a person, but don't let them know you're protecting them.

10 - A miscellany of stuff for a certain gonzo AD&D setting, called (of course), The Rhyme of the Ancient Spelljammer. New items include The Pangalactic Gargleblaster (there's that Reid Bluebaugh again) and the Dispel Magic Grenade; new monsters include the Holomath (which appears "as a very large balloon or ball, with a mouth-like opening in front", floating around in wildspace, and can blow out a cloud of gas for awful effects).

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Unforgettable, that's what you are...

For no real reason other than a desire to wallow in self-regard: My Top Five Characters Ever. Of all the characters I've played, they are the ones I remember with the greatest fondness.

Zone, the Shark Totem Shaman, from a Shadowrun campaign circa 1996-7. Zone was a native Hawaiian who had been savagely beaten pre-game and left permanently hobbled. (I used the bonus points from this flaw to buy heinous mechanical advantages, needless to say.) He had a tattoo of a hammerhead shark emblazoned across his back (cheesy as hell, but hey, I was only 15) and a great penchant for blasting people with lightning bolts. During his illustrious career he managed to, among other things, kill a vampire by severing its head with a power-axe, learn how to pilot a miniature submarine, blast two other player characters into oblivion in separate incidents, carry on an affair with a crimelord's wife, and eventually open his very own shark sanctuary with his ill-gotten gains.

'Twas Brillig, the Half-Elf Bard, from an AD&D campaign in the mid 90's, when I was in a deliberately quirky phase of my life. (I really did find that name amusing: what an irritating teenager I must have been.) 'Twas Brillig, who started off as a kind of comic relief character, ended up as one of the longest-lived and higest-ranking D&D characters I've ever come up with; I think he eventually reached level 14 or thereabouts. Most of his life was spent in Athas (the Darksun world) where he eventually became a kind of Gith overlord, with his own tribe of bodyguards to protect him from his Thri-kreen enemies.

Biscuit, the Minotaur Street Samurai, from another Shadowrun game. Biscuit was a Basque Separatist and demolitions expert who is now chiefly remembered for the sheer number of occasions on which he blew up either himself or another runner. He also, if I recall, had a dwarf sidekick named Yosemite Sam. (I believe this character also came from my mid-90s smart-alec quirky phase.)

Gorky, the Dwarf Fighter, from one of my forays into D&D 3e in the early 2000s. Gorky was an almost psychotically xenophobic creature, whose innate suspicion of any non-dwarf was only outdone by a monumental sense of his own greatness. He was probably the most fun to play character that I can remember - his unshakeable self-belief led him into all kinds of impossible situations, like trying with his battleaxe to chop down an oak tree full of crossbow-wielding kobold snipers, or leaping over pits full of poisoned spikes and falling in. But he always survived.

Maria Correia, the Solo, from a more serious Cyberpunk 2020 game. She was an ex-revolutionary who had been fighting with the Shining Path in Peru before abandoning Marxist ideals and becoming a mercenary. Over the course of the campaign she gradually gave up the pursuit of money and went back to being a Maoist again. I believe she is one of only two female characters I've ever played - and no, I didn't do a female voice.

What are yours?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Languages; or, why we shouldn't be able to speak Dwarven

[I was going to begin a series about demigods, but after reading posts at Jeff's gameblog and Sword & Shield, I felt inspired to scrawl something about linguistics and role playing settings.]

I'm a professional translator, so I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about languages (obviously Japanese and English in the main, as they are the languages I work with, but I have a general interest in linguistics). One thing I've noticed is just how different languages can be, especially those from unrelated language families - and I don't mean different in the naive sense that English doesn't sound much like Chinese. What I'm talking about is how languages that have evolved in completely different cultural surroundings to each other have also evolved highly different modes of expression.

An example: Japanese, like most aspects of Japanese culture, is highly minimalist, especially in its most casual forms. Consider the English expression: "How have you been?". The equivalent Japanese expression is simply "Saikin do?", literally translated as "Lately how?". (Sometimes this is abbreviated to simply, "Do?", or "How?".) Similarly, when two Japanese friends meet, they'll typically ask each other, simply, "Genki?" ("Healthy?") rather than the comparatively flowery English "How are you?" (three words to accomplish what the Japanese manage with one).

Another example: one of the most common utterances in Japanese is the phrase yoroshiku onegaishimasu (or variations thereof). Non-Japanese speakers visiting the country come to recognise those words because you can hear them everywhere. It is often translated in phrasebooks and the like as "Nice to meet you" or "How do you do?", but in fact it means no such thing - literally translated it goes something like "Please behave well". It is rendered "Nice to meet you" in phrasebooks because it is often uttered when two people first meet, but it is also used in a whole variety of other situations - at the end of letters, when making a request, when complaining, when asking for something, when signing something, essentially whenever a polite turn of phrase is considered necessary.
That English simply has no equivalent phrase hints at a huge cultural difference; English speakers presumably do not and never have felt it necessary to exhort each other to "Behave well", whereas for the Japanese it is so common that it has evolved to ubiquity. Why this should be is a question for the armchair anthropologist, and beyond my capability to answer, but that a big difference in our cultural foundations exists is indisputable.

Another example: Japanese colours are different to English ones; aoi, which describes the colour we know of as blue, is also used by the Japanese to refer to the colour of fresh grass, green apples, and the green on traffic lights. Do Japanese and English speakers see colours in different ways? Who can say?

All this is a roundabout way of saying, languages which have been separated by many thousands of years of evolution are not just different in terms of the way the words sound; they are also based around fundamentally different cultural interpretations of the world.

Now, take that thought, and try transferring it to two cultures that don't just belong to two very slightly different types of human being; try transferring it to two cultures that belong to different species. Imagine the difficulty in understanding a dwarven worldview for a human - the huge matrix of assumptions, expressions and ideas which just aren't shared. It's difficult enough for an English speaker to learn Japanese and vice versa; how much more amplified would that be for a human being trying to speak a language of dwarfs? (Let alone orcs, giants, dragons...) It would not involve merely learning a new grammar and vocabulary. It would also require huge mental effort to come to grips with such an exotic way of viewing the world. Wittgenstein famously remarked that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him - the same must surely also be true of a goblin, Klingon or troll.

Would it spoil players' fun to tell them that, no, they can't communicate with other races/species except perhaps through sign language and monosyllables? I'm not sure, but I'd like to try it.

Saturday, 8 November 2008


One of my favourite D&D tropes is the idea that if an individual being gains a group of worshipers, it can attain divinity. This makes religion a very chaotic, ad hoc, and above all tangible thing; unlike in the monotheistic religions of our world where Gods stand aloof, D&D powers' fate is inextricably bound up in the fortunes and vagaries of their followers. It also means the interplay between believer and deity is balanced, with neither having the ultimate power; okay, so High Blierophlat the God of Death can squish any follower he so chooses, but if he does that too often he'll eventually find his disciples running off to some more amiable deity like Jethro the Gardener. Unless of course he's willing to offer some serious compensating benefits.

This approach allows for a much more localised, cultish and fertile religious climate, something akin to how I imagine a trawl through pagan Europe would have been: each group of villages has its own local deity, each cave its shrine to the mountain spirit, each river its sprite, and each boulder its guardian - the major difference being that in a D&D world, those things are real, which is infinitely better. The local village deity really will provide summer rains - if the populace are willing to sacrifice a first born. The mountain spirit will kill travellers with an avalanche unless he is properly placated. The river sprite needs just a few more believers before she can attain demi-goddess hood. The boulder is really a galeb duhr who has had divinity thrust upon him by unwanted worship; all he wishes is that his devoted disciples would just leave him be.

A long while ago I wrote a little entry about a crayfish demigod living in a lake, which I think encompasses what I mean quite nicely. I'll be doing a little series of similar articles this week, in celebration of this month's blogger carnival.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Shadow From The Past

Something horrible has happened to me. Something strange and terrifying. A powerful, atavistic urge that I can feel throbbing through the marrow of my bones and pulsating in the root of my brain-stem has taken control of my psyche; it is a deep primal need that knows only one way to be quenched. Yes, I want to re-read the Dragonlance books.

I put it down to being a sucker for a good quest. Part of being a fantasy literature snob is that I am no longer supposed to have any time for anything so prosaic, but at the core of all fantasy literature snobs is an adolescent dreamer trying to get out - and occasionally I have to let mine out to revel in some good old fashioned questing. This time, I'm going to let him feast on the 'goodness' (ahem) that is Tanis and co's jaunt across Krynn.

One shouldn't underestimate the weird power that Dragonlance exerted over fantasy roleplaying games in general and D&D in particular, especially when I first started playing. Everybody in the gaming groups I was involved in had read both 'canon' trilogies, and were intimately familiar with their characters and plots. We created poor carbon copies of Tanis, Cameron, Raistlin and Tas for our games. We fantasised about everliving and everyouthful elven maidens with delicate features and plunging cleavages. We envisaged huge armies of dragonriders clashing in the sky. And we desperately wanted to emulate such things in our games.

More than that, we wanted to emulate the sweeping, world-changing plot arc. For us, killing things and taking their stuff just didn't cut it; nor did tomb-plundering and exploration. No - what we wanted was meaning. We wanted to trek across continents on a grand mission to resurrect forgotten gods. We wanted to smite evil and restore balance to the universe. We wanted to bring back magic to the world. Of course this desire sprung from deeper wells than just Dragonlance, but Weiss and Hickman have to take the lion's share of the blame.

The thing was, in the final analysis what we were never able to introduce into our games was a sensible plot. Although grand questing was what we wanted, our gaming pretty much always devolved into murder, looting and mayhem of the bleakest kind - purposeless death and killing, and the hoarding of vast wealth for no reason other than pure avarice. It was all deeply unsatisfactory when compared to the wonderful purity of vision which the Dragonlance Chronicles afforded; the series was like the Platonic ideal form of what a D&D adventuring party and a D&D campaign should be, impossible to attain but always just within reach - tempting us.

I've grown up now of course, and think I prefer the down and dirty misery of proper D&D. But the adolescent dreamer still has to get his time out in the exercise yard every now and again. There's no conclusion to this rather rambling entry other than that.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Jet Lag

So that break was longer than it was supposed to be. As my friend recently put it, after a long haul flight you get really bad 'bone ache' (I'm not sure if that's a technical term) that makes your whole body feel as if it's been hit several times with a padded mallet. It's drained my will to blog.

But it got me thinking: jet lag is something that human beings simply weren't built to cope with. Sudden changes of time zone are beyond our ken in biological terms - at no point in our evolutionary history did we ever encounter them or anything like them. So now that we do come across them, they throw our bodies out of joint. (This is similar, of course, to the tendency that evolutionary psychologists often remark upon for human beings to behave in ways that make no sense in our current environment, but on reflection are well suited to small bands of hunter gatherer simian beasts.)

This has me thinking about the kind of tropes that we find in fantasy rpgs. Teleportation is the obvious line of comparison. But what about the other magical phenomena we come across: healing, resurrection, flight and telekinesis? Would these have psycho-physiological effects above and beyond their actual ones?