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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Raise Dead

The first try at this blog sputtered out because I was focusing on work, and already had my old KUOI blog. Or I’m just lazy. Anyway, this is back on. New style, new content.

I’ve got all these little RPGs I’ve made for one-shots, or none-shots in cases where I never got to run them. I’m still full of piss and vinegar about games, may as well rant here. Shooting for once a week, maybe even once a day. Will see.

Addenda: Theming is hard. “Lovecraft” theme which I tried first is +1: an awesome name, +2: looks great, but -1: has a menu you can’t remove from the title.

“Colinear”, which I’m trying now, +1: lets me put up a single banner image without a menu, +2: sidebar looks better, but -1: has a dumb name for a single-column blog, -2: doesn’t box each post

I may have to pay actual money so I can add a goddamned ruler line between posts, and maybe use real Futura titles instead of a shitty clone font.

(Yes, obviously as a former web developer I could give a damn and write my own again, but I hate everything about the web so it’s easier to be a consumer.)

Classes in D&D

D&D 5th Edition’s (#dndnext) classes seem to be varying between 4 and 50. I think there only need to be 3, just like in Original D&D, or Swords & Wizardry White Box.

Fighting Men: The Fighter fills every non-magical combatant role from heavy knight, to barbarian, to hunter, to thief. Which weapons and armor the Fighter uses determine what else they can do. A knight in full plate and a half-dozen heavy weapons needs a heavy mount to get around, and the expense of this implies either a feudal system with dozens or hundreds of peasants supporting the knight, or massive treasure hoards protected by dragons, that only a knight can extract. A barbarian’s few heavy weapons and medium armor make movement important, and probably sailing or riding to strike with surprise at undefended enemies. A thief uses light weapons and light or no armor to get maximum speed and stealth.

Magic-User: The essential traits of a wizard, from Merlin to Thoth Amon to Elric to Gandalf, are direct attack spells, and information gathering: Detects, identify items, ESP, clairvoyance, and languages and lore skills. I’m no fan of Vancian magic, but for D&D it’s traditional and mandatory. To make up for the very limited low-level spells per day, I use the cheap scroll-making system from original D&D (100 GP/level, 1 week/level), and gift starting Magic-Users with a few 1st level and maybe one 2nd level scrolls. An alternative solution is to have cantrips which can be performed for free; this makes Magic-Users more true to genre, and a weak attack cantrip (1d4 damage at most) or Harry Potter-ish Stupefy and Disarm charms keep them in the game. Magic-Users in myth and literature wear no armor, but often have weapons, especially swords.

Cleric: Clerics cover the range from pure spell-using priests to combatant paladins, Brother Cadfael to Roland. Holy men healing people is a common fantasy trope, all the way back to that weird “Bible” anthology some people take so seriously. Turning the undead makes Clerics useful even when their spells run out. Scrolls can fill out low-level healing abilities, as with Magic-Users. Clerics wearing heavy armor is unusual, but some paladins like Roland and Turpin did; the old “blunt weapons” restriction only makes sense for one segment of priests of one religion at one point in history, and should be discarded.

Not Included: Thieves are just very weak Fighting Men, they do nothing special, if you have even the simplest skill system or stat checks. Rangers are just Fighting Men with bows. Paladins are just Clerics who fight more than cast. Cavaliers are Fighting Men with horses. Assassins are just Fighting Men; killing people is what Fighting Men do. Druids are just neutral Clerics.

My thoughts on races may be seen even more radical, but that’s because they are based on history and mythology, not the incestuous Tolkien-D&D-novelization-pseudofantasy cycle that ends in Salvatore’s “Good Drow” bullshit books.

Dwarfs: In Norse mythology, Dwarfs were maggots in the body of Yggdrasil, and only mentioned being powerful Fighting Men or having dark magical power. Wagner’s Ring Cycle reinforces these roles. Tolkien’s adaptation is peculiar for having no practical magic, but their role as heavy fighters was set. I’d prefer if they could only be Fighting Men, but wizened Dwarf Magic-Users like Alberich are appropriate. Is it too late to dump the anti-magic nonsense?

Elves: In Norse mythology, the Alfar are either of light or darkness, and do healing or cursing magic depending. In Celtic mythology, the Elves do mostly illusions and sometimes healing magic. In Tolkien, Elves do healing magic, there are no Elven battle mages, that’s what they use bows for. So I’d prefer if they could be Fighting Men or Clerics, and not Magic-Users. Certainly I see no precedent for the multi-classing element.

Other Non-Humans: Genocide. Hobbits, er, “Halflings”, are vermin, an abomination to be wiped from gaming. Gnomes are annoying, best used as nuisances by the DM. Half-breeds aren’t as good or interesting as their full-blood parents. Orcs, Ogres, Goblins, Lizard-Men, etc. don’t fit well in a Human-centric campaign, which most fantasy literature reflects. These could well be statted up in the Monster Manual so the DM can allow them in unusual campaigns, but in the main book, only Humans, Dwarfs, and Elves have any legitimacy.

Hasbro Announces Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

The breaking news of the day is that Hasbro’s D&D 4E [1] is dead, D&D 5E is on the way, in a NY Times article by Ethan Gilsdorf.
Over at Forbes, David M. Ewalt talks about playtesting the new edition.

First, the message of the medium: The Rise and Fall of D&D is in the NY Times and Forbes? It’s not a big-money business. It’s not even a medium-money business. There’s a few tens of millions of fans, who play a huge variety of RPGs, some of which are labelled “D&D” and some of which are not. Are NY Times and Forbes editors or readers big D&D nerds?

The things that drove D&D down are pretty simple, but they don’t really address them, just a facile “videogames did it”, which misses the forest full of ravenous trolls for a pixie stabbing them in the ankles. And if they don’t understand them, they can’t fix them.

First, Wizards and then Hasbro made each new edition more complicated, annoying, and less RPG-like than the last; 4E isn’t even really an RPG, just RPG stats attached to a boardgame. The “Ravenloft” boardgame is just 4E cleared of unnecessary mechanics like role-playing and a GM. Hasbro seemed almost determined to discard settings with any character, like Greyhawk, and switch entirely to generic brand “Forgotten Realms”, or just a “points of light” non-setting between dungeon crawls.

Casual D&D players haven’t had a simple, usable, complete game from Wizards since 1983. The 2010 “Red Box” was just a demo, with only level 2 advancement. The new edition desperately needs a starter set that is not crippled. Pathfinder’s Beginner’s Box is an excellent game, which I’ll be reviewing here soon, and it has a full, simple game up to level 5. If Hasbro can’t make a better starting experience, they will continue to fail and be dead on arrival.

Second, they wasted time and money on new technology that didn’t matter, instead of the only one that does: ebooks. Which makes this line hilariously ironic:

“Even if players increasingly bring their iPads, loaded with Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, to the gaming table.” —Ethan Gilsdorf

There was a brief time when Hasbro allowed PDFs of older editions of D&D to be sold, and I have a large set of the modules and a few books. But Hasbro has never sold current editions in PDF, and seem dedicated to never doing so. Not everyone is so blind to the “future”, Paizo sells all of their Pathfinder books in PDF, print, or PDF+Print bundles. So do most other publishers now.

Third, they have to compete with everyone else who makes RPGs, either cheaper or for free, almost always with better, faster, simpler mechanics, and more interesting settings. Would you rather hack through a series of setting-less dungeon crawls with hours of counter-twiddling per battle, or role-play in A Song of Ice and Fire or Dragon Age, and complete an adventure in a night or two? The latter two combined will cost you less and be infinitely more fun. Even if you unreasonably played a new game every 6 months, it would cost less than keeping up with modules and supplements for D&D 4E.

Fourth, they have to compete with older editions and retro-clones of those editions. My preference is for Swords & Wizardry, where it is 1978 and always will be. Others prefer AD&D and OSRIC. If you have a rules set you like and a GM with a modicum of imagination, you never need to buy another book. That spells doom for any game company that tries to make it “big time” like Hasbro.

Fifth, MMOs. The people who “leave” for MMOs don’t generally stay gone. They often play both, or come back to tabletop. Having a branded D&D MMO that wasn’t terrible would help retention, but that didn’t work out (I have no real opinion of DDO, as it doesn’t run on Mac OS X, while World of Warcraft does; but that’s failure enough). But if you left D&D 3E for a few years, there’d be no compelling reason to buy into 4E and start over, when you could pick up your old books, or Pathfinder, or Dragon Age RPG or anything else, and carry on.

So What Now?

Mike Mearls is the guy who drove 4E into the ground, but he’s still in charge. Monte Cook has returned to Hasbro, and is an excellent game designer (though D20 didn’t always show good design, it sold very well indeed), but if he’s not able to call the shots, I don’t see how this situation will improve.

Hasbro’s “D&D Next” is trying to crowd-source ideas and get wider playtesting for the new edition, which apparently is playable but still so malleable they could take it in entirely new directions?

And finally, Jeff Rients has an excellent suggestion: Release old editions as PDF so they can be studied and learned from. Hasbro not selling PDFs hasn’t stopped people from playing retro-clones and other RPGs. They might as well make a little money off those players, and try to make the next edition enough better that a few come back.

I Had In Mind Something a Little More Radical

I have another solution, though. Repackage the Moldvay/Mentzer D&D Basic Set and the D&D Cyclopedia as “Fifth Edition”, add some new art, and sell those. They’re better games, and the work’s already done.


[1] Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, which owns TSR, which has the same initials as Gary Gygax’s former company Tactical Studies Rules, and Gary Gygax created D&D with some assistance from Dave Arneson. Calling whatever Hasbro sells “D&D” is kind of weird.