Non-Human PCs

Ken St. Andre (@Trollgodfather) was musing on Twitter:

Gamers, did you know that Monsters! Monsters!, a direct spinoff from Tunnels & Trolls published by Metagaming in 1976 was the first frpg to allow–nay, it required you–to play monsters as your protagonist player character. Not just humanoids, but any monster. Dragon anyone?

Monsters! Monsters! is pretty straightforward, Tunnels & Trolls with a giant list of monster stats instead of a few puny humanoids, how to fight humanoids, a sample village full of enemies (that STR 20 Miller is a beast!). It’s very much a sandbox, where your monsters go out and do whatever malevolence they want before returning to a nice safe dungeon.

It’d be a great game to run Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic (sort of NSFW), where half the characters are monsters from Black Mountain, half are humanoids from stupid fantasy kingdoms. Or mix it up with the old Dwarfstar boardgames as maps & scenarios.

(Speaking of which, I need to write a serious review of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls; I meant to do some tabletop or online play first, but that’s not happening, and I do play solos with it.)


White box D&D (Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (“Should any player wish to be one”, as crappy max level 4 Fighting Men), and the following rules-less advice:

Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (ed. by Eric Holmes, 1977) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (without the snark or level cap, alas), and again no rules, just advice:

ADDITIONAL CHARACTER CLASSES

There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves). There are half elves. Special characteristics for dwarven, elven, and halfling thieves are given. In addition, rules for characters who possess the rare talent of psionic ability are detailed. However, for a beginning campaign these additions are not necessary, and players should accustom themselves to regular play before adding further complexities.

At the Dungeon Master’s discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man.

By 1979, all such permissiveness is gone, and I’m certain this comes from Gary having burned out on convention tournament games being griefed by weird characters, and just locking it down. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide has a 2-column essay on how unacceptable monster PCs are, followed by 3 columns on handling PCs infected with lycanthropy, so that nobody would want to keep it.

THE MONSTER AS A PLAYER CHARACTER

On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the un-alterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind.

[4¶ on how great humankind is elided…]

As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign. The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign -and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them Off.

So you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters. You have advice as to why they are not featured, why no details of monster character classes are given herein. The rest is up to you, for when all is said and done, it is your world, and your players must live in it with their characters. Be good to yourself as well as them, and everyone concerned will benefit from a well-conceived, well-ordered, fairly-judged campaign built upon the best of imaginative and creative thinking.

I love the trite sign-off of his Rule Zero caveat. When Gary was being nice like that, he was flipping you off.


In Stone Halls & Serpent Men, I allow anything with the “Monster” race, because it really doesn’t hurt the game if they’re levelled up just like anyone else. The limits on gaining abilities are a little tough, but they keep monsters from completely overwhelming the humanoids.

A monster PC will have social problems, but rarely kill-on-sight: A Gargoyle stomping through the streets of Glorien would scare the citizens, and the guards will keep a distance and get more competent help to find out what the monster wants, but a relatively peaceful monster’s gold spends the same as a Human’s.

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Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Curses and Shrines

A small update for missing details.

  • Updated encounter tables to split low-level 1-12, high-level 13-20, merged in psionic encounters.
  • Curses. Following d20 SRD’s model of very simple curses, because I can’t figure out how to table-ize more complex curses.
  • Radiation area of effect
  • Finished mutations. Egg-Laying clones should be played like Gremlins from the movies, or Miji’s clones in Dark Legacy comics.
  • Shrines. There’s always a balance with religions between putting wealth & power in the hands of possible allies, and tempting murderhobo players to sack the temple.

Doomed

You may be feeling a little down right now. It can always be worse.

  • Black Sun Deathcrawl

    Nameless husks fleeing downwards in dungeons forever, watch everyone you ever meet die. Is this any worse than normal D&D? No more pretense of heroism or money-grubbing, the only excuse for levelling is escaping death a little longer.

    you are the Cursed, remnants
    of life in a universe of decay
    cannibalistic parasites you
    suck a meager existence from
    the corpse of a long dead reality
    once you had nations, races, goals
    now you are one, united at last
    in the unending struggle for
    survival in a reality that abhors you
    once you had love and happiness and light
    now there is only the crawl
    
  • Qelong

    Scavenging a lost weapon from the sidelines of a massive war you cannot understand or affect, doing nothing but spreading more misery among people you’ve decided are less important than your own profit.

  • Deep Carbon Observatory

    After natural disaster, and unnatural pollution and predation, you travel through an increasingly horrifying world and fail to prevent worse disasters, before plunging into darkness and horror forever.

  • Death Frost Doom

    A forbiddingly large graveyard, a creepy cabin on a mountain, a book of dead names. And a dungeon, there’s always a dungeon. Anything you disturb may be hard to put back down. What is it about these things that’s so hard to resist?

  • S1 Tomb of Horrors

    A tomb of an ancient wizard, full of death and just enough rewards to be worth going in, right? At one time, you could be that delusional. But you know now what it is, everyone in gaming’s heard enough about old Acererak’s lair. It’s in Ready Player One, it can’t be that scary. And still you’ll lose if you go in, and you have to go in.

I don’t usually run these kind of adventures, except at the end of a campaign when it seems like attention is flagging. But they’re among my favorite to read, and contemplate running, and steal bits of. The Crow siblings from Deep Carbon Observatory are of course to be found somewhere.

Life in Stone Halls & Serpent Men

A rather long time since the last post, which wasn’t even on-topic. I was working, made some web-based CRPGs as well as updating my iPhone games. But I’ve also done some gaming, and wrote a ton in SH&SM.

The what’s new for this update is very long. Some of it’s tested. The psionics & mutations have been used very lightly, so I’m sure they’re unbalanced, but do accomplish their goal, giving high-level abilities at high risk. The random dungeon/community tools are well-tested, but by their nature can produce surprising results.

I’ve decided that my older fantasy RPG projects should be mostly scavenged for material for SH&SM, so a bunch of that went into this update, and more will be added later. I still don’t love the d20 mechanics, but I love how Professions have made character creation fast and flexible, and my style of swords & sorcery fits.

What’s New:

  • How to Play the Game
  • Characters:
    • Beastmaster
    • Psionic
    • Hero brought in line with Prestige Professions
  • Social Status
  • Equipment:
    • Material & Repair
    • Lifestyle & Maintenance
    • Dwarf tech
  • Combat:
    • Slight increase to Untrained combat table at mid levels
    • Swimming & Underwater
    • Throwing flasks & grenades
  • Psionics
  • Radiation & Mutation
  • Bestiary:
    • Changed Incorporeal to Ethereal, for consistent mechanics
    • Added Faerie trait
    • Ape-Man
    • Crab, Giant
    • Dolphin
    • Eel, Giant
    • Elemental
    • Elf, Sea
    • Golem (Theurgist ability)
    • Homonculous (Alchemist ability)
    • Imp
    • Intellect Devourer
    • Medusa
    • Merfolk
    • Nymph
    • Octopus, Giant
    • Phase Spider
    • Psychic Parasite
    • Sea Devil
    • Sea Monster
    • Shark
    • Sprite
    • Squid, Giant
    • Star-Hound
    • Star-Spawn
    • Whale
    • Wolf reduced to Normal (but tougher than average)
    • Wolf, Dire
  • Treasure:
    • Trade Goods
    • Treasure Maps
  • Referee’s Tools:
    • Escaping the Underworld
    • Fortune Cards: TODO: find inspiration article
    • Wilderness Features
      • Chamber
      • Trap
      • Trash
      • Campsite
      • Tomb
      • Castle
        • Very simple siege mechanics
      • Community

Tolkien & The Old Gods

An entertaining theory:

The Hobbit is a great book; a quick adventure through a sketched-out world with a lot of monsters and clever puzzles, a battle that doesn’t drag on forever, and a satisfying end. The Lord of the Rings is the evil opposite, the result of an academic allowed to write without an editor, with obsessive world-building supporting a feeble thread of a story, vaporous non-characters, and little action for endless thousands of pages before collapsing in an anticlimax. The Silmarillion is literally the Bible of Middle Earth: It is a fiction anthology fabricated long afterwards to support someone’s religion, and bears almost no resemblance to actual facts on the ground.

However, the one Hobbit-like part of LotR was Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs. For one moment, there’s an adventure in a spooky world, monsters, and inexplicable magic. Naturally the kind of humorless wankers who like the endless tedium of Lord of the Rings hate it, and that jackass Jackson cut Bombadil in the movies, which means you get an hour more walking scenes instead of a dungeon adventure.

Real primitive societies develop religions, make up dozens or hundreds of gods, and spend serious effort on ritual and sacrifices even without a trace of evidence. But Tolkien’s Catholic lunacy meant he couldn’t acknowledge other gods, even in fiction, and so there’s this bizarre hybrid of a singing god and angelic and demonic beings, and then things he wanted to borrow from mythology which only make sense with pantheons of gods, and since he couldn’t commit blasphemy nobody bothers to worship any of them.

My take has always been that Bombadil is one of the Old Gods, one of three known to exist in Middle Earth (himself, Ungoliant, and maybe Morgoth?), even though nobody worships them, and the hobbits who live a day’s travel away mostly don’t know Bombadil. Seen as one of the Old Gods, a meddler like Loki but with less range, Bombadil’s behavior is perfectly typical: He lets you get in trouble, saves you so you owe him, and sends you off with more power to do his dirty work of killing Morgoth’s pet Sauron.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Mountebanks & White Mages

What’s new:

A few more setting notes, and level guides for each region.

After another playtest run, thieves needed help. So now Assassins are more effective, Hunters can use Stealth without being Assassins, and I added the Mountebank profession as an endgame crime lord equivalent to Knight, Alchemist, and Theurgist.

White Mages were also desperately sad, so boosting healing items and adding more spells fixed that. The spells are a mix of Cleric and Druid spells from the D20 SRD, though several got moved up or down level or totally redesigned for old-school balance.

While I was at it, a few more Black Magic spells were needed, so now both lists go to 9.

Upgraded the equipment list, so it’s not just dungeon-crawling gear.

Added Celestials, the Lawful opposite of Demons. I take my “Angels” from comics like Hellblazer and movies like The Prophecy; they’re as bad as Demons, just on the other side.

D&D 5E SRD OGL Acronym Soup

Hasbro of the Coast finally released the D&D 5E SRD!

(SRD = Systems Reference Document, the genericized version of the rules you can use to publish adventures or supplements; OGL = Open Gaming License, which makes all this not-quite-D&D stuff legally possible)

I plan to give this a good going thru, and see if I’d want to update Stone Halls & Serpent Men to be based on this instead of the D20 3.x SRD. I never did get around to a full review of D&D 5E Basic when it was coming out, and frankly it just bored me to death; it’s not liveliest awfulness like 4E, and not a hot mess of incoherent rules like 3.x or Pathfinder, so… snooze. They can’t have my money for 5E until they put out PDFs, which I guess now I don’t need. Cash being left on the table, Hasbros.

The one big change I see is that instead of 1d20 + stat (bonus) + Level rolls, D&D 5E uses 1d20 + bonus + Proficiency Bonus, and P.B. ranges from +2 at Level 1, to +6 at Level 20; this makes higher levels more playable, but everyone kinda sucks equally. Fighters don’t hit any better than Wizards, and nobody can hit an AC 30 monster. I’d rather have the game be a race to competence at Level 9 and near-godhood at Level 20.

P.S. Testing out the 2016 WP theme. I like seeing date & comment links up by the top of a post.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men Setting & Maps

A good start to the setting in this update, all the major areas of Western Hyperborea, some basics of Eastern Hyperborea, just stubs for the other 4 lands. During play, I’d drill down into each area as players go there. I’m nearly done!

The maps came out even better than I’d thought, what I’ve got now is a nice microformat that generates tilemaps from an HTML element. So others can play with this, I’ve included an HTML version of the book, and put tilemap.js under the open MIT license.

World of Stone Halls & Serpent Men

I did very little game writing over the holidays. One thing I have done is start writing up the setting I use, a sandbox world I can drop adventures into. This is a pastiche of a bunch of my previous GMing notes, but focusing more on the swords & sorcery and open-ended ideas, instead of the claustrophobic medieval horror I often go for.

Mapping is always a difficulty. I’ve previously used map editing software, and written my own, and never liked the results. So instead I’m doing it the software over-engineering way: Writing a little Javascript library that scans a page and turns preformatted ASCII-art maps into tile maps, mostly from David Gervais’ set which I used in Perilar. I thought about doing hex maps or an isometric view, but that takes more math and art resources, and I grew up with Ultimas and JRPGs, so I think of the world as a brightly-colored tile grid. I can hear the chiptune music now.

iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii
pi~~~~~~~iippppppppi
~~~~~~~~~~ptttttttpp
~~~~~~~~~~t~tttt~tt~
++~~~~~~~~~~~1~~~~~~
5~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~333
++~~~~~~~~~~222~~~~3
~~+~~~~~~~~2~~~2~~33
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~3
~~~~~~~~~~~44444444~

CtCCLCCCAC
tSttMttDCC
ttttM,,,ht
ttHhZ,,R^h
hhhMh.Th^~
bhhM..hh^~
bW.MG++vv~
~~~M+~~~V~
~~~~++~~~~
tilemap

The Hyperborea map details that one door/skull tile on the world map, and I’ll make wilderness maps at 10km scale for each grid players enter. I still need to put labels and grid coords on these, likely to do that today.