Reading the Dragon part 1

There’s an old RPG.net thread
which read Strategic Review/Dragon from the beginning, which has the interesting time-warp effect of showing how the game developed from a very minimal little thing to giant tangled mess, and incidentally revealed that the old players (hey, look, posts by JimLotFP!) prefer the minimal thing which is mostly stealth, puzzles, treachery, and action & adventure was dangerous shit; whereas new players (only played 3.x and later) prefer a giant bloated 1200-page set of encyclopedias with a “story” and superheroes swinging Buster Swords. I tell you, no bullshit, these animals like Ed Greenwood’s fucking Elminster “DM’s favorite NPC” stories. They probably play Forgettable Realms. If they held their honor dear, they’d draw steel and charge at that mortal insult, but they think it’s OK.

So I’ll do a short version of this time-warp covering what I think is interesting. The most gameable or relevant articles I’ve boldfaced. I’m sure you can convince a search engine to cough up copies of the old magazines to follow along.

  • The Strategic Review V1N1 (Spring 1975): 50¢, 6-page newsletter format.
    • News that “These acquisitions are: CHAINMAIL, DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP, and TRACTICS.” — Chainmail is of course the 20:1 figure scale Napoleonics miniatures wargame D&D evolved out of, Don’t Give Up the Ship is a Napoleonic naval wargame which was quickly absorbed into D&D’s naval warfare rules, and Tractics was WWII tank miniatures in a sandbox, with a referee. I’ve played a couple dozen sessions of Tractics and modern replacements, and it was a very serious game until TSR dumped it around 1980.

      But the thing to note here is that D&D grew out of Napoleonics, and that was a major interest of the authors of D&D and many wargamers of the time. I haven’t seen a new game about Napoleon’s wars in decades.
    • Creature Feature: The Mind Flayer: Here’s the first attempt at psychic combat, with an AOE Mind Blast ignoring Level, only Intelligence, class, and the Helm of Telepathy, giving results from death to stun to permanent insanity; a mediocre mind is actually the best defense.
    • Tractics errata sheet.
    • CASTLE & CRUSADE by Gary Gygax, explanation of why the spear is weak in Chainmail Man-to-Man combat, and by extension in D&D using Chainmail combat; which was, I gather, common before Holmes enshrined the “Alternative Combat System” as the only choice. This is one of the subtleties lost by not using the weapon vs armor/AC tables.
    • SOLO DUNGEON ADVENTURES by Gary Gygax, with special thanks to George A. Lord: More or less the system reprinted in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. “You may wish to have ‘rough-hewn’ and natural tunnels in lower levels, and where chambers and rooms are indicated substitute Caves and Caverns.” — rather implying the world-spanning Underdark of later editions.
    • Ad for Warriors of Mars: The Warfare of Barsoom in Miniature, published by TSR, written by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume. Which again, search engine. This is a tactical miniatures game, with a lot of RPG-like elements, not too much like Chainmail or D&D. E.R. Burroughs was major influence on early D&D, name-checked in the introduction and Book 2 monsters. And then the Burroughs estate sued based on Disney-revived copyrights, and many copies of this game were pulped.

      The other ad is for Star Probe, published by TSR, which I have never seen; from minimal research it seems to be a Star Trek-inspired wargame?
  • The Strategic Review V1N2 (Summer 1975): 50¢, 8-page newsletter format.
    • In Memorium, Donald R. Kaye, cofounder of TSR, age 37.
    • TSR –WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO Editorial Comment by Brian J. Blume “While we must make a profit in order to remain in business, TSR is not around solely to make money.”

      Irony: They probably meant that, in 1975. But once they got a taste, and once Lorraine Williams was running the game and company into the ground, money was all they considered.

      “The members of TSR are long-time gamers who have found that there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating and/or publishing a good set of game rules or an enjoyable game, and please note the emphasis on the term gamers. Some attempt to down-grade the game aspect of our hobby and pretend to simulute[sic] reality.”

      Road to Hell, Good Intentions Paving Company: TSR did indeed publish Gamist games, not Simulations or Narrativist/”Story” games. Until the same 2nd Ed/Lorraine era, when all adventures became story-driven plot railroads, and that’s remained true for almost everything under WotC and Hasbro. If you want an actual game where you make decisions, you can’t use much official D&D material.
    • THE STRATEGISTS CLUB: Survey for content preferences, with a discount coupon of 25¢-75¢ per product for people who send TSR $1. Uh huh.
    • CAVALIERS and ROUNDHEADS RULES ADDITIONS: English Civil War miniatures wargame by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Another game that vanished, and a period nobody wargames anymore.
    • WARGAMING WORLD: News of conventions and magazines, including one from Flying Buffalo.
    • QUESTIONS MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED ABOUT DUNGEONS & DRAGONS RULES: The first actual explanation of how D&D is supposed to work, which you cannot get from the white box. Initiative is 2d6 + Dexterity modifier, morale system is “up to the referee, although there is one in CHAINMAIL”, experience for items, treasure, and monsters scaled by Level, and how D&D magic works. Notable to me in this are:
      1. The ever-changing initiative systems. I now count 1d6 unmodified, 2d6 modified, Holmes’ Dexterity rank, and Eldritch Wizardry second-by-second, in just original edition games.
      2. The many attacks given to high-level Fighting Men against even 1 HD monsters, like Orcs and Dwarfs; later rules would make that sub-1 HD only, like Normal Men, Gnomes, Goblins, and Kobolds.
      3. Grappling rules are implied to be some fistful of dice method, but never explained in this example. Grappling is a worse rules clusterfuck than initiative.
      4. In Vance’s books, it’s not possible to have multiple of the same spell, but Gygax explicitly allows it. “If he had no books with him” implies that a Magic-User can indeed carry spell books into a dungeon.
    • CREATURE FEATURES: The Roper. Gross, annoying, and at 10-12 d8 Hit Dice, offensively strong. I dunno if I’ve ever used one, but now I’m more interested.
    • RANGERS I, AN EXCITING NEW DUNGEONS & DRAGONS CLASS By Joe Fischer: Preposterously strong (2 hit dice at Level 1!), stacked with special abilities, casts from both Magic-User and Cleric lists at higher Levels, track, are hard to surprise, and get a bonus to kill giant-class giants and kobolds (I just read the thing, I can’t interpret this madness). The XP table is 25% higher than a Fighter’s, but instead of needing a prime requisite, they all get a 4/3 XP multiplier until 8th Level, so they level faster. The only drawbacks being they have to stay Lawful (which makes little sense, as Rangers would seem to me to be Druidic Neutrals or Elf-like Chaotics), can’t bank their loot (oh no what will they do, oh, yeah, murderhoboes), and no more than 2 Rangers per party. Well, thanks for small mercies, a whole party of Aragorns (1: “They call me Strider!” 2: “No, they call ME Strider!” 3: “They call me… Strider?” 4: “Some call me… Maurice.”) sitting with their backs to the walls of a tavern would be too much, but 2 is OK! This munchkin Lord of the Rings bullshit has been a pernicious blight on gaming since the beginning.
    • MEDIEVAL POLE ARMS By Gary Gygax: You know how sometimes people have really weird sexual kinks they can’t come out and discuss, but it shows up in everything they do? Polearms were that for Gary. Why do we need to know, in a game of “rules for gamers”, about every slight variation in German and Swiss polearms between 1300 and 1700 CE?
    • TSR NEWS: Announcements of Boot Hill (a game I’d love to have a new retro-clone of!), Panzer Warfare (never seen it), Classic Warfare with setting books (never seen it), and Greyhawk! “Anyway, if you decide to send ticking packages, be sure that the printer gets one also…”
    • SPECIAL! SPECIAL! SPECIAL! SPECIAL! SPECIAL!: Playtest War of Wizards for $5, when the production copy will be $7. Never heard of it, but apparently written by M.A.R. Barker of Tekumel fame. “it can be adapted for integration with such similar games as DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, CHAINMAIL, and the upcoming fantasy game PETAL THRONE.” But check out this spell list and page 2 and page 3! Silver Halo of Soul Stealing! Doomkill! I want a spell called “Doomkill”!
  • The Strategic Review V1N3 (Autumn 1975): 50¢, 8-page newsletter format.
    • Editorial: Very petty, catty calling out of hostile reviews, and stirring up a mob to harass the reviewer’s new company’s wargames. It’s like a Twitter cesspool but 40 years earlier.
    • TSR NEWS: Printing Fight in the Skies (aka Dawn Patrol), which was and is a really fantastic tactical WWI aircraft duelling system with experience and skills for pilots. Empire of the Petal Throne nearing print, and assorted others in production.
    • CREATURE FEATURES: The Yeti, The Shambling Mound, The Leprechaun, The Shrieker, The Ghost, Naga, The Wind Walker, The Piercer, The Lurker Above: Huh, why did the Wind Walker vanish into mist, while the others became more or less iconic?
    • MONSTER REFERENCE TABLE ADDITION, HOSTILE & BENIGN CREATURES by Wesley D. Ives: April Fool’s article 6 months late, statting up Drolls, Buydras, Wererommels (Armor Class see Tractics), Weregandalfs, and so on. Entirely accurate depictions of several new-endangered species of wargamers.
    • THE BATTLE OF THE EBRO RIVER IN 5mm NAPOLEONICS: Actual play report, and again a bygone wargaming genre.
    • WARGAMING WORLD: Miniatures news, magazines, a few Play-by-Mail campaigns, almost all forgotten now.
    • GALLERY OF GUNFIGHTERS, Part 1 The Art of Gunfighting: Boot Hill hype, excellent background on how to live, fight, and die as a gunslinger. “He who lived by the gun frequently died by the gun; or on the short end of a long rope.”
    • FROM THE RIVENSTAR SONGBOOK: THE UNICORN SONG by Moonwulf of Rivenstar (aka Michael Longcor): Poetry/joke, the kind of thing you should copy out and sing for the players when they go to a tavern, so as to provoke a bar brawl.
    • MAPPING THE DUNGEONS: Addresses for D&D referees and clubs, and first action report of Dave (The Fiend) Arneson’s Nazis vs Necromancers wargame.
    • Deserted Cities of Mars, by Jim Ward: Description and generation tables for Barsoom, especially in Warriors of Mars. More of the early E.R. Burroughs influence, before litigation and the inferior tastes of mere Tolkien hippies excised most of this from D&D.
  • The Strategic Review V1N4 (Winter 1975): 75¢, 12-page newsletter format.
    • Editorial: Hiring of Tim Kask (“expect to see some improvements and changes in SR next issue”), Terry Kuntz (“will be the one responsible for all the rules interpretations requested, so get mad at him from now on.”), and Dave Arneson (“produce material like a grist mill (Crack! Snap! Work faster there, Dave!).” — Ha ha, no, Dave ended up writing half of Supplement II and then flaking out).
    • MAPPING THE DUNGEONS: Equivalents of MiniFigs “Swords & Sorcery” miniatures to Hyborean nationalities, which suggests quite a lot of early fantasy RPG/minis gaming was using Robert E. Howard’s Conan books as their semi-official setting.

      Fanzines announced: Alarums & Excursions, Greg Costikyan, several others already running “Dippy” Diplomacy fanzines.
    • CASTLE & CRUSADE, A FEW MORE WORDS ON MEDIEVAL POLEARMS by Gary Gygax: JESUS JUMPED UP CHRIST ON A SPINNING POGO STICK, GARY! ENOUGH.
    • CHAINMAIL WEAPONS ADDITIONS: Jo Stick, Bo Stick, and Quarterstaff stats, possibly munchkiny.
    • PANZER WARFARE: ADDITIONAL UNIT ORGANIZATIONS by Brian Blume: Division numbers for Russia, Italy, USA. There’s a fixed number of Battalions per year, but no costs listed, so I’m perplexed by what kind of game Panzer Warfare was, it seems high-detail and yet not concerned with your strategic investments?
    • THE STRATEGISTS CLUB: TSR fan club banquet seated 58 people, had a $20 gift cert (worth $88.89 in 2017’s debased currency). TSR won its own awards, but unlike most years, it earned those.
      • Best New Game Of 1974: Dungeons & Dragons
      • Outstanding Designer: Gygax & Arneson
      • Outstanding Writer: John Lundstrom – naval historian
      • Outstanding Wargame Magazine: Wargamer’s Digest
      • Best Miniature Figure Release: Custom-Cast “Fantastiques”
      • No award was made for the S&S novel due to the proliferation of novels named, and the catagory will probably be dropped.
    • THE EXCITING GAME OF FANTASTIC ADVENTURE: Dungeon!: Great introductory game, some version of it is still in print from Wizards of the Hasbro.
    • THE ARMORY TRACTICS WEAPON/VEHICLE GUN CHANGES: Errata sheet
    • WARGAMING WORLD: Gen Con, Origins, and a lot of diplomacy. More magazines, including The Space Gamer!
    • ILLUSIONISTS! GENERALLY APPEARING AS A NEW CLASS FOR DUNGEONS & DRAGONS By Peter Aronson: Much more of a balanced “advanced” class, Int & Dex 15 requirements were quite hard on 3d6, slightly limited in direct damage, but ideal for the crowd control activities Magic-Users were mostly doing anyway. Very limited set of magic items they could use. Generally a great spell list, only up to 13th experience Level and 5th spell Level, but that’s far above where any “legitimate” D&D ever reached (Gary will have many words on that subject in a future issue).
    • TSOLYANI NAMES WITHOUT TEARS by M. A. R. Barker: Illustrated with a fat priest about to sacrifice a terrified half-naked woman; why is it never a priestess about to sacrifice a terrified half-naked fat man? Cultural notes about naming EPT characters, and then 2 pages of tables and calligraphy which you would never be able to write at the gaming table; and this was when the only copy-cut-paste was with a mimeograph or Xerox, scissors, and glue.
    • Repeated boxes of THE DRAGON IS COMING!. He’s not even breathing hard.
    • Ad for Empire of the Petal Throne, $25 ($111.11 in 2017’s debased currency).
    • Creature Features: Clay Golem
    • Mighty Magic Miscelleny: “Ioun” Stones: Adapted with permission from Jack Vance’s “Morreion”, but then nerfed down from godlike artifacts taken from a dying star into trinkets that add a little stat bonus and can be easily caught.
    • Ad for En Garde!, GDW’s Three Musketeers RPG. $4 ($17.78 in…): Quite a good game, a mix of strategic career advancement and up-close duelling, keeps going in and out of print, so it’s not hard to find a copy somewhere, more or less unchanged since 1975.
    • GALLERY OF GUNFIGHTERS: Part II: John “DOC” Holliday (a/k/a Tom McKey): The guy everyone playing Boot Hill wants to be.
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Schizophrenic Serial Killers vs. the Insects from Shaggai

Poking around in my drafts folder, I have found some remarkably weird shit I barely remember writing. BLACKOUT evil genius.

You remember White Wolf’s “Hunter”? I made Schizophrenic Serial Killers which is exactly that but more honest. Did I publish this in Julie’s zine I was contributing to? I don’t recall. I don’t want you to pay for this. Just take it.

Review: Blueholme Journeymanne Rules

“These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when first we explored the dungeon of John Eric Holmes.”

—Chris Holmes, 2017

History: 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons (White Box) was incoherent, poorly illustrated, and almost unusable by itself. With some Strategic Review & Dragon articles, and then Greyhawk, it slouched towards a playable game.

In 1976-8, Dr. Eric J. Holmes wrote/edited a cleaned-up Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (Blue Box), and provided a readable, directly usable set of rules, some unique mechanics, new spells, and the art was a great mix of cartoony (Tom Wham), technical (Dave Trampier), and heroic (Dave Sutherland). The sole real defect was that it was limited to Level 3, and had references to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS which turned out to be completely incompatible.

In 1978, I learned to play D&D with Holmes, the just-released Monster Manual (which uses Holmes/White Box/Greyhawk rules, despite saying it’s for AD&D), photocopies of White Box, and Supplement I: Greyhawk. And to this day, that’s what I think of as “Dungeons & Dragons that doesn’t suck”. Holmes has been out of print since the ’80s, and there was a mediocre scan on Paizo’s PDF store for a while (which I have).

Michael Thomas has gone above and beyond with Eric Holmes fandom, used Holmes’ fiction, collaborated with the son Chris Holmes, and brought in these influences, to make a real retro-clone of Holmes’ blue box as it may have been played at his table.

First, the art is excellent. The cover art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu evokes the original Sutherland dragon scene, the interior is black and white, clean line art in most cases. But there’s not much humor to it, it’s very serious business.

Blueholme Holmes
Beaulieu
Sutherland
Russ
Sutherland
Castellani
Trampier
BKM
Wham

Rules

These are low-powered, mechanically simple rules. You get bonuses for very few things, the power curve is very flat, and the tables are as weird/buggy as the original. Multi-classing is handled in a way vaguely suggested by how Elves worked in Holmes, adding all XP costs to level up evenly in all multi-classes, and is allowed to all character races. As in Holmes, there are only 5 alignments: Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil. All monsters and unknown things are allowed as races, subject to Dungeon Master Referee approval.

There are places where Blueholme extrapolates rules out differently than other editions, for instance Fighters receive damage bonuses at Level 4+; Magic-Users can create scrolls at low levels (Holmes’ intentional change or misreading of White Box, which only allowed Level 11 Wizards to make scrolls); Thieves immediately receive Read Language, Read Scroll, and Use Wand abilities, instead of waiting for high levels.

Magic-Users in this version are implied to have a library of tomes containing all standard spells, they’re just not all known yet, and can’t be carried along on adventures. I wouldn’t run it like that, because it’s less fun to return to base or have to spend all money on scrolls; just give the M-U a portable spellbook. The spell list is quite complete. Magic Missile is of the White Box/Holmes interpretation that a magic arrow requires an attack roll. Sleep has a range of 240′ (or yards outdoors!) and no save, so hooray, I get to TPK any Level 1-4 party with my Goblin wizards! All the spells are the old interpretations, and balance isn’t really a thing. You’ll be house-ruling things if you want slightly less chaos.

Cleric lists include all the reversed spells with their own names and clearly defined, which may be a first for any D&D game (I just avoid them in Stone Halls & Serpent Men).

“There are generally three distinct types of locale wherein adventure may be found: the Realm, the Wilderness, and the Underworld.”

And these are handled in rather different ways, which is an interesting way of encouraging Basic-style gameplay: Downtime in the mostly peaceful Realm, quick, dangerous runs through Wilderness, and long delves into the Underworld.

Combat uses Holmes’ initiative system, counting down Dex from highest to lowest in each of 5 combat phases. It plays out very differently than other D&D editions and OSR games, you really need waves of spell-casters, archers, and melee fighters. There’s not exactly unique weapon damage like Greyhawk, but a rule to distinguish small and large weapons.

The combat tables are generally just like White Box, with AC 9 (unarmored) down to AC 2 (plate & shield), and improvements in large steps every 3, 4, or 5 Levels. Saving throws are Breath Weapon, Wand/Touch, Gaze, Ray/Poison, Spell/Staff, similar to Holmes but differently ordered (since traditionally, but not specified in these rules, you choose the left-most applicable save, this can be a little different).

One place where this is anachronistic is that Thieves in Greyhawk fought and saved as Magic-Users; Holmes’ tables didn’t go all the way up, but implied they saved as Fighters; in Blueholme Thieves fight and save as Clerics. This is a slight power creep, and while it helps single-class Thieves, I’m leery of Magic-User/Thieves getting a cheap upgrade.

The Monsters are mostly the Holmes list, which had a lot of lower-level creatures with a few higher-level (implausibly so for Level 3 chars!) threats. There’s a fair amount of Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry monsters, often renamed a bit. And new monsters, such as Angel, Carnosaur, Cyclopian, Dagonite, Deep One, Demon (Normal, Large, or Huge, with a random roll table for powers rather than “Types”), Dreenoi (a SF insectoid race), Golem, Great Race, Green Grabber, Mayhar, Mi-Go, Old One, “Sagroth” aka White Apes, Sauropod, and Thipdon. Holmes’ fiction implied an H.P. Lovecraft/Clark Ashton Smith cosmology, and the game actually supports that. However, there’s no stats or mechanics for the greater entities of the Mythos, or insanity, which is disappointing.

There’s no experience for monsters table. And good luck finding even the experience rules, they’re under Adventures instead of next to Characters. You might search for the Grewyhawk experience table, or look at Delta’s XP: The Big Switch posts, or even just go back to White Box’s rule of 100 XP per HD, which makes low levels go very fast but is later the same as Greyhawk’s table.

The encounter tables often refer to monsters by their stock D&D names, not the Blueholme names, so you’ll be converting and page-flipping if you want to use them.

There’s an entirely new treasure table, which has slightly less coinage at first glance, but greatly increased numbers and values of gems & jewelry (far more likely to be 1000 GP or more). Armour, weapon, and misc magic item tables are longer, giving high-level loot, but there are no intelligent weapons, which were a mainstay of White Box, or artifacts as in Eldritch Wizardry. I don’t hate these tables, but they’re not suitable for stocking a dungeon without careful picking and choosing.

  • Vampire in Holmes: 10%: 2-20 x 1000 SP, 20%: 1-8 x 1000 EP, 45%: 1-12 x 1000 GP, 30%: 1-6 x 1000 PP, 20%: 2-24 Gems, 10%: 1-12 Jewelry, 30%: 3 non-weapon magic + 1 potion + 1 scroll
  • Vampire in Blueholme: 50%: 1d4 Gems/Jewelry, plus 10%: 3d6 x 500 SP, 20%: 2d8 x 500 EP, 45%: 4d6 x 500 GP, 30%: 2d6 x 500 PP, 15%: 6d6 Gems/Jewelry, 30%: 1 any item + 1 potion + 1d6 scrolls.

Campaigns explains how to design and stock maps, and some of the advice seems usable, but there is no equivalent to Holmes’ Great Stone Skull Mountain or sample dungeon (certainly the first good dungeon design I ever read), and the only examples of play in Blueholme are combat; Holmes spent pages on narration of exploration & mapping.

At the end is an optional rule for making ability rolls, 3d6 vs. ability score, with a short example. This is perhaps the only real nod to modernity, the kind of thing we did ad hoc back in the day but never had a consistent rule about.

Rating

  • Presentation: ★★★★☆ A lovely book, painstakingly correctly laid out. There are few errors I’ve found.
  • Organization: ★★★☆☆ Straightforward D&D organization, except perhaps that the optional character rules should not be on the last page. But there’s no index, and that’s a problem. With the PDF at least I can search for keywords, but in print this is hard to use.
  • Rules: ★★★★☆ For a traditional D&D-type game, this is the one you should play. If you can find an XP table.
  • Setting: ★★☆☆☆ Aside from the monsters, there’s just no setting, no adventure, no anything to suggest this isn’t in a white void combat arena. Holmes’ few pages of backstory, town, and sample dungeon at least gave it context. Super disappointing.
  • Utility: ★★★★☆ Sit down and run an old adventure. You don’t need to house rule much (at least at first), and it’s immediately playable.
  • Average: ★★★½☆ I love this book, but the flaws are also significant. I still think it’s the best straight-up retroclone; not a “new game sort of like D&D”, but “what D&D was like when I liked it”.

dice.camp

There’s a new Mastodon instance for RPGs, dice.camp, which seems to be the new social hub for now, and I’m @markrollsdice

And unrelated, a thought for the day:

Some purists do not like to introduce any character types or monsters into their game world unless they have a medieval or “Tolkienian” flavor or base. This really limits their play possibilities as far as I am concerned, for what better world to accept aliens than ones that already have a myriad of other strange and weird creatures as residents? Sure, it would be hard for a town like Peoria or Indianapolis to accept strange alien creatures, but would it be so hard for people that probably have elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the like living down the street from them? I think not, for what is stranger, the alien with the blaster or the multi-tonned dragon that breathes fire? Think about it, and I think you’ll find that logic supports the use of aliens in fantasy games, and that playability supports their inclusion as well. They are fun, challenging, and very novel as characters and as monsters. I can still visualize the pair of Vegan space travelers trying to figure out how a wand of fireballs worked after they had traded their stunner for it. They ran every test imaginable, and their computer kept telling them: “This item does not compute!” Still, it worked when that funny looking guy with the purple robes sold it to them …

You get the point, I think, but let me just say one final thing on the subject and we’ll go on to other things: The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content, and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever. So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say, “NO!”, whittle on them a bit until they do fit.

—David Hargrave, Welcome to Skull Tower (1978)

Harry Potter and the Natural 20

The best fanfic I’ve ever read (a short list, but generally not good), more rational than HP and the Methods of Rationality. Take a munchkiny D20 3.5 Magic-User Wizard, drop him into the story, watch how a little adventurer-logic fixes everything. Except where it goes far off the rails, because Milo’s tenacious but doesn’t quite understand NPC human behavior.

I binge-read book 1 of HP:N20 in a couple days, I’m trying to pace out the last bit; doesn’t look like it finishes book 2.

I know I’ve seen a few magical school modules, but I can’t find them. Not a lot ever tried, because Rowling/Scholastic are aggressive litigators and she doesn’t seem to like/understand RPGs.

  • Principalities of Glantri from 1987 had a School of Magic section, including a campaign setup for playing children at this boarding school, magical duelling, and the kind of constantly-hazardous “education” Hogwarts would be infamous for 10 years later.
  • College of Wizardry is one of those books I almost bought, but “eh, it’ll be boring, uncontroversial pablum, like all 2E stuff”.
  • Magic & Mischief is a Lasers & Feelings type game about Hogwartsy games, which might work as the system for non-D20 wand wizards.
  • Scholomance, by R. Lee Smith is on my reading list, and certainly looks like good material for a different magical school.
  • Witch Girls Adventures made a lot of noise when it came out, but I’m the wrong demographic for it.

Also, the fanfic is full of useful information:

D&D Tip: You know how Elmer Fudd feels when he’s chasing Bugs off a cliff and keeps running for awhile until Bugs hands him a book explaining gravity and he falls? Turns out that’s how D&D works, too. Check this out:
Monks are not actually proficient with unarmed strike.
Now that you know, you can’t unlearn it.
Happy gaming!

Review: Entartete Kunst

The RPG we all deserve.

There is a spectre haunting gaming. It is the polemic. This is one. Maybe two. Madness, impertinence, incompetence, and degeneracy.

Veering drunkenly (on absinthe and heroin, no doubt) between perceptive discourses on the premises of our very boring, consistent style of RPGs, to outright parody like the alignment chart, to random quotes and paintings from postmodernists, existentialists, and the Nazis who burned their works. It’s a shame the author didn’t include swing music or jazz noises. see Wiki

Character creation, system, sample of play, and sample adventure are cut-ups of random unrelated games, and… it doesn’t exactly work, but it’s like hearing conversations in a crowd, and for a moment something interesting surfaces, and then is drowned out again.

The monster list is perhaps the only authoritative list ever, I can see no fault in it. Appendix N: Reading List includes such essentials as Junky by William S. Burroughs, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, which by themselves make it 50% more practically useful to gaming than most such lists.

Appendix P: Creating a Party on the Spur of the Moment is great advice, which makes me question how it got in here.

If I have any complaint, I do feel that Appendix Q: Glossary suffers from not being included in Appendix A: General Attributes Enumeration.

I cannot give this a star rating, because that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

T&T Adventures App: The Ascendant

There are some new adventures in the Tunnels & Trolls Adventures app, so I played thru the free one.

The Ascendant is a better tutorial than Naked Doom (Really? Dying endlessly isn’t a great tutorial? Shock!), and a much kinder early experience. There’s well-described rooms and monsters (based on a Mike Stackpole solo I don’t recall ever seeing), art’s a mix of artists, some Liz Danforth, some not so great. Even a newbie char should survive (but my first try I rolled badly and just barely lost to the final boss), and might come out with armor and a weapon; one weapon is quite good. Sadly, there are no real choices, just linear rooms with saving rolls to decide what happens.

I haven’t gone into Misty Wood or First Command yet, but the old MW solo’s great.

Still not a fan of the old-style rules or the biz model, but it is what it is.

Anyway, Kamimark levelled up as seen above, but would only barely be level 2 by Deluxe rules.

The Word for World is Dungeon

I’ve been reading The Mansion of E pretty much every day since 2003 (Robert Cook publishes every day, I just sometimes had months of slacking off and catching up). If you like weird fantasy/science fiction about worldbuilding, go start at the first comic and just read forward about 5000 comics until you’re caught up.

The current week’s Mortimer plot and the Saturday in the Basement plot make clear something I’ve long theorized: These beings (I wouldn’t call most of them “monsters”) have never been out of the dungeon or the forest directly above it. The Pales have worldwide distribution, but the ones in the Mansion area are different.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying listening to The Iron Realm podcast, which narrates a solo D&D dungeon crawl in a world with no surface, just endless dungeons. Rather than being a smash & grab mission in & out, the Iron Realm’s a horrible afterlife for souls from destroyed worlds. Survival gaming in a barren stone maze.

I haven’t finished my Veins of the Earth review yet, I want to actually test some of it first, but it fits in the Doomed category, and gives more tools for dealing with this idea.

Philip José Farmer’s The Dungeon was an anthology of Farmer-like stories in an endless multiversal dungeon, though many of the “levels” are nearly entire worlds. I read these when they came out, and they’re awesome and gameable (in the past I’ve used the old Pacesetter Sandman rules for it), ★★★★★.

And very far afield, the Minecraft 404 Challenge.

Of course, this is the premise of Rogue, and several of my iPhone/computer games, Brigand and Reaper’s Crypt currently, but a CRPG is hard to get a mood of slow desperation and claustrophobic doom in.

So, the premise:

The surface world was destroyed by:

  1. Atomic fire.
  2. Plague.
  3. Ice giants.
  4. Kaiju infestation (99% of Humanity is destroyed in Godzilla: Final Wars).
  5. Martian ants
  6. Gods appeared/awoke and the world you knew vanished like a bad dream.

Life moved into the dungeons, and sealed off the entrances, the surface can never be returned to. Generations later, you have never known sunlight or open air, nothing but an endless subterranean maze.

The party is out on their own:

  1. The tribe is starving.
  2. The tribe is destroyed by raiders.
  3. The tribe is destroyed by cave collapse.
  4. You offended the gods (the tribal shaman doesn’t like you).
  5. Prophecy demands one party per generation leave and seek The McGuffin.
  6. Stupidly thought adventuring was a good idea.

Issues:

  • System:
    • Easy option: Stick with Tunnels & Trolls and Monsters! Monsters!, pillaging a lot from Veins of the Earth and/or Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. While there’s no crunchy survival mechanics, T&T doesn’t scale up too fast until around level 10, lets you make any monster as a character, and saving rolls are a great universal mechanic for the weird situations this is going to produce.
    • RuneQuest 2E. Stafford’s Glorantha evangelism has wrecked modern RQ and killed BRP, but the old one’s still playable in random non-Glorantha settings, and had a ton of monster races. 2E starting skills rely on student loans and time studied, which would need to be fixed. “Experience levels” are needed to match the dungeon floor, but ((highest skill – 30) ÷ 10) is probably about right without the student loan system.
    • Rolemaster would fit the survival tone better, but A) The company doing business as the corpse of “Iron Crown” can’t get their shit together to publish any current edition (3 years and counting!), and B) that would be a lot of bookkeeping to do it right, and C) there are very few survival skills in it, unless you add in a bunch of RMSS skills and then make a custom professional skill DP table.
    • D&D 5E is too super-heroic, and D&D 0E/OSR scales up too fast and for the wrong reasons. Pathfinder is crunchy and can kill characters, but still scales up too fast.
  • Air: Let’s presume there’s a connection to the elemental plane of Air, or moss that cleans air & produces oxygen, or some other BS explanation because death is too certain without magic breathing amulets or SCUBA gear otherwise. Moss is interesting because if you desperately eat the moss or burn it away with say a fireball, you’ve made that area airless until it regrows.
    • Mansion of E posits a tree that grows thru all the tunnels and gives air, light, and fruit, but that’s far, FAR too generous.
  • Water: Underground rivers, drippings, steam shafts, wells down to ever-lower aquifers, etc. are all pretty reasonable. The spelunking term for dry caves is “dead” (water carving out caves is “living”), and that’s what you are if you stay there.

  • Food: Moss & lichen, mushrooms, bugs, rats, & other scavengers as bottom-tier meat, maybe plants that use some other radiation. Anthropophagism as your primary diet is a losing strategy, you can’t afford the injuries you’re going to take hunting “the most dangerous game”. Eating whatever you killed for other reasons is fine, if they’re edible.

  • Light: Don’t give any races or monsters true Darkvision, only Nightvision maybe doubling distance seen with light, or different enhanced senses. There’s some great discussion on light in Veins of the Earth; the economics are nonsensical, but otherwise this is the core book on darkness.

  • Disease: Half of the Iron Realm episodes have been them sleeping off “The MALADY“, which is a coughing sickness with exponential damage for resistance failure. Actually kinda boring except as a prod, I’d go back to Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor disease tables and only when characters don’t set up proper latrines, fail to clean at least weekly, squat too long in closed rooms, traipse through sewers, etc.

  • Monsters/Races: Here it comes back to food. This is a “Gygaxian Naturalism” environment if ever there was one. The challenge is in finding resources, so if monsters just spawn or regenerate endlessly, there’s no real challenge after setting up a troll slaughterhouse or whatever; any Minecraft player who’s set up an automated farm knows how boring it gets after that.

    • The Mansion of E has four or more large caverns where each of the major races live and tunnel out, for SPOILER reasons, and then the rest of the tunnels are a DMZ and occupied by the minor races.
    • That’s per-floor. So Goblins, Kobolds, Humans, and Gnomes are the floor 1 races, plus a bunch of “wilderness” areas for animals. Orcs, Gnolls, Dwarfs, and Elves are the floor 2 races, etc. There might be some out-of-level characters, but the big tribal spaces determine if characters ever get any safety and support.
    • Probably very political; adventurers will have to “grind faction”, kill enemies of a tribe and carry out quests to earn brownie points to get any support. Another mouth to feed or a reckless “ally” could push an entire tribe to extinction.
  • Maps: Here’s the great part. Take every dungeon map on your shelf. Mash them together with some new tunnels. Figure out how inhabitants of dungeon A interact with neighboring dungeon B. Connect the home tribal caverns on the edges of several maps. Stonehell connects to Quasqueton (B1), the lower floors of Ravenloft (the castle having been razed & sealed, the tombs now silently waiting for fools to rush in), the sewers of Waterdeep, and Dyson Logos’ Private Jakalla. When adventurers have angered one tribe too much with their predatory ways, they flee down dark tunnels to another dungeon.
    • You could actually keep some castles/surface areas in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider, but that much potential freedom is ruinous to a game of unending stone corridors, so there must be ever worse terrors to drive adventurers back down.
  • Objective: What’s at the bottom of the dungeon that you’re trying to get to? There has to be some reason you don’t just level up and then sit on floor 1 eating Kobold leg BBQ with a chaser of Goblin blood every day. What’s the pressure making dangerous things head downwards? Needs a carrot and a stick.
    • Carrot: On each floor, there are vaults which can only be opened by the possessors of specific artifacts, and puzzle-solving and arms & magic of certain power. Inside are more artifacts which will save a tribe. The artifacts wouldn’t be simple magic weapons and such, but innate spells that aid the group.
    • Religion: Maybe the contents of the vaults are the gods, driven from the surface. There would be no true clerics until adventurers open the first vault, then only of that one random god, and another on the next floor, and so on.
    • Stick: The Black Sun Deathcrawl radiations and monsters only affect those of power above their depth. As long as you stay on the dungeon floor equal to your level, you adventure normally. When you ding another level, you have X turns to reach the next dungeon floor or you’ll be hunted by Black Thoughts, Terrible Thoughts, and Teeth, or transformed into something horrible.

This post title’s a bit flippant, since The Word for World is Forest is an interesting book wrecked by being one of Le Guin’s top 3 preachiest, most didactic screeds, and a preposterous premise (shipping wood across interstellar distances, because you can’t grow it on Earth; even aside from the moronic premise, post-DNA, that Humans didn’t evolve on Earth). I’m not suggesting you fuck little green hobbits or do Avatar-in-the-Dungeon.

Rarr Tunnels & Trolls Bundle of Stuff

“Rarr! I’m A Monster Publishing” Tunnels & Trolls Bundle

  • Caustic Trollworld: Post-apocalypse Gamma World-like rules for Trollworld. Touched and Tainted mutants, like Wild Cards’ Aces & Jokers. While the mutations are mostly playable, the 3d6 tables are badly organized, with weaker powers at the unlikely ends, and powerful abilities common; and sometimes modifies stats, other times gives a bonus to save rolls. Pick a common mechanic! I don’t like the division of Touched and Tainted mutants, so I’d probably reorganize them all on a d36 table or some such.

    Sometimes writes “Caustic Earth”, and clearly this started life as a different kind of apocalypse. The monster section is dull but adequate for classic wasteland crawls. No adventures or characters, just a rule hack.

    ★★☆☆☆

  • Cyber.net.ica: Cyberpunk setting material converted to T&T rules. Character types are Vanilla (skilled), Tweak (cyborg), Techmaturge (magic cyberspace shaman), Tekxorcist (cyber-cleric), Data Rogue (magic cyberspace thief, what, not Tekroughe or some such?). Weaponry skips over the 20th C. and just has rocket launchers, lasers, and Spetsdods (??? needleguns).

    Tweak mods are just neural processor programs, wired reflexes, etc., there’s no chrome body mods or giant stompy robot shells. The Cybermancy spells are weird… I can’t tell if they’re suposed to be used in the “real world” or only in Cyberspace. Some only make sense as software hacking, some parts say this is “magic or psionics”. The cyber-bestiary has a variety of program/life forms, but not well defined as to what they can do. “Web spiders – MR 24 – Malicious daemons used to collect data from unsuspecting nodes.”: Fine, but HOW?

    There are 15 “adventure seeds”, ranging from “2. Is the new MMORPG really recruiting for a cult?”: Yes, to “14. Cyberdrugs?”: Are you on them, writer? And then “Appendix M: Monkeys on Juice”, where cyber-monkeys rebel and run loose. With 15 more adventure seeds, for whatever that’s worth.

    ★★★½☆, could be a good SF setting with a little sanity editing.

  • Hobb Sized Adventures: 5 short and 1 reasonably long solo adventures, great cover art. Haven’t played all of them yet, but:

    • Tomb of the Toad: Atmospheric little swamp tunnel, chased in by “a rampaging Slorr” (who you gonna call?). Has the illusion of choice but actually all paths lead to the same 3 rooms and an interesting boss fight. ★★★☆☆
  • Monster Menagerie: 8 weird races for Monsters! Monsters! or just any T&T game, short writeups with a custom spell list for the Eeeks (Ewoks/Little Fuzzies). The Shroomkin art is cute and deranged, little mushrooms armed with tiny weapons. Immediately useful, creative, and fun. Could use some adventure hooks or backstory on each, but does what it sets out to do. ★★★★½

  • Pocket Delve 1, Deuce, 3: Maps from donjon.bin.sh, no descriptions. But there’s tables for wandering monsters, treasure, room monsters/events, and 3 detailed bosses. Not really even solos, but tools to make solos with? ★★☆☆☆

  • The Big Book of Alternate Settings For Tunnels & Trolls: Five settings adapted from other indie games into T&T rules, often awkwardly, with no connecting material. Three of these could’ve been combined into one setting and become far more interesting, but as it is this is weak sauce.

    • The Robot Invasion From Planet 01000101: Robots want our women. Weapons. Robot stats. Cat-Women who are superior to all Human chars. No scenario or point. ★★☆☆☆
    • Undertakers: Horror setting in a small town, kind of like Phantasm, but with hellhounds instead of flying balls? Very minor psychics, and fear rules. While weak, it is a scenario and could be played as written. ★★★½☆
    • Xenomorph 1, 2: A set of tables, like Chainsaw Warrior (using dice instead of cards) with Aliens. No real backstory, barely even a game, and Xenomorphs only have basic MR, no cool abilities. ★☆☆☆☆
    • Beauty Queens vs. The Undead: Zombies want our women. Weapons (4 inch heels!). Zombie stats. No scenario or point. Sweet zombie Jesus, make a map and stat up Bob Barker, at least. ★★☆☆☆
    • The Librarians of Doom: Evil librarians vs. ancient knight order vs. anti-librarian militia. Buncha weapons & spy gear. Monster stats for librarians and zombies, demons, shoggoths. Is this a joke about Ken St. Andre being a librarian? No scenario or point, but hey, a little bonus for being completely bugshit crazy. ★★★☆☆
  • The Goblin Gambit: A short (6-page) GM adventure. Spooky woods tables are fine, then a linear adventure to a single staged fight. Could’ve been a solo, certainly not even an evening’s game session for beginner players. ★★½☆☆

  • The Island of the Conatiki-aru, or the Lost Island of the Sea Rogue!: A very nice hex-crawl island map, descriptions written in pirate-speak (which wears thin after 1 paragraph), “Th’ beaches in this area are rough as thar are bones ground into th’ sand. ’tis where th’ great White Apes dispose o’ th’ remains o’ thar meals.”

    However, the stats are given in the back in T&T (MR only, no character stats), QADD, OSR, and USR (“Unbelievably Simple RP”) systems, but not next to descriptions of anything. Flip flip. The map scale is maybe 2 miles/hex, not clearly specified? There’s no hex-crawling rules in this, which is fine in D&D but other games rarely have such technical details.

    ★★★☆☆, could easily have been higher with less pirate-speak and a little more detail.

  • Sanctuary of the Sorcerer -T&T Edition: One-page dungeon with a few tricks & traps. The lightest but one of the least dull of the things I’ve read so far. ★★★☆☆

  • Snollygoster 1-7: T&T fanzine, typically quite short, occasional useful idea or magic item. Neither appalling or awesome. ★★★☆☆

Overall: Mediocrity, relieved only by Monster Menagerie and Hobb Sized Adventures. Price was reduced from $22.50 to $12.00, which it is barely worth.

Dragon+ Magazine

Dragon+ magazine has some interesting content, mostly in the maps and some paintings (Hasbro can certainly afford good artists).

But the reader is a cruel joke. What is Hasbro doing? There’s an iOS app, Android app, and web version, but no PDF. It’s free-as-in-kittens content, why do I have to page thru this abysmal UI they’ve cobbled together? Or why can’t it just be a series of static, usable web pages, which might even be searchable?