Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Monday, May 31, 2010


Phooka, which occupy the role in my Faeridor campaign that is normally filled by orcs, are creatures from Celtic mythology able to assume a variety of beast-like forms.  I strongly suspect that the Trollocs of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga were inspired by Phooka.  When designing my campaign setting I wanted a scary-looking cannon-fodder monster similar to orcs but more consonant with a Celtic mythology themed setting.

While according to myth, the phooka can shape change into a variety of forms, the goat-headed phooka shown above, illustrated by Alan Lee, captured my imagination and thus became the intransigent form for all the phooka in my campaign.

Phooka is the Welsh name for the creature, but is known as Puca in Old English and is synonymous with the mischievous trickster, Puck, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In Faeridor the bestial, carnivorous Phooka, who have inspired the legends of satyrs on Earth, serve the Unseelie Court and run with the Wild Hunt; they haunt dark forests and wild, long-forgotten places of the world  In ages past, the Fomori king, Balor, who is often depicted as a bestial, goat-headed giant (not dissimilar to Orcus), employed Phooka as his servants, but their true allegiance is to their unholy mother-goddess, Shub-Niggurath, Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.

Shane Mangus's brilliant one-page adventure, Raid on Black Goat Wood, which won the 'best Cthulhu' entry in the 2010 One Page Dungeon Contest dovetails perfectly into my campaign setting.  The adventure pits characters against a cavern filled with 'Dark Satyrs' and features a birthing cave occupied by an aspect of Shub-Niggurath that is spawning the foul beasts.  Now, I'm not shy about ripping off great ideas from where ever I can find them, but I seldom use premade adventures as anything but inspiration.  Raid on Black Goat Wood, however, is so perfectly customized to my campaign I couldn't have written a more perfectly suited adventure myself - it's as if Shane insinuated his grasping tendrils into my cranium and sucked out my brain.  The 'Dark Satyrs' are a perfect fit for the Phooka, right down to their worship of Shub-Niggurath.

I've used Phooka in my games for years now, but have had a problem finding just the right miniatures to represent them.  I've usually ended up using Gnoll and werewolf miniatures to represent my 'beastmen' but I've never found any that reflect what I want the Phooka to look like.  Until recently.  A few months back, Games Workshop released a new line of Beastmen miniatures that look almost exactly the way I envisioned the Phooka:

I had originally thought to paint them with a grey flesh tone to match the Alan Lee illustration that first attracted me to the Phooka, but I went with warmer earth tones for the flesh.  I may  yet buy another box of these and give them the grey skin tone to represent a different breed.

No. Encountered: 10-100
Armour Class: 15 (5)
Move: 40 ft. (150 ft.)
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: Bite 1d6 and Gore 1d4 or by weapon
Special: Low Light Vision
Saves: (P)
Intelligence: Low-average
Alignment: Chaotic (evil)
Treasure Type: 1

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Results Are In

After a long afternoon of nail-biting I was very pleased to have my Kaptin Badrukk model win gold in the Warhammer 40k small category.  This is kind of ironic since I was undecided about whether to bother entering it at all - there are so many great local 40K players and painters, I didn't think I stood a chance.

It was a good day all around for my Sunday night gaming group: Jordan Nykolaishen won gold in the 40K large category with his awesomely painted Ork Deff Dread, and Garth Bowman took Silver in the Lord of the Rings category with his Erkenbrand miniature.  It's another strong argument in favour of using miniatures in your game, when most of your players are award-winning painters who contribute to a visually stunning game table.

I was also really impressed with the models entered in the Youngbloods Division for painters 14 years old and younger.  These guys had some very impressive paint-jobs for their age - head and shoulders above my skill level when I was that age.  Its great to see so many young kids interested in the hobby, too.

With over sixty entries, many of which were absolutely breath-taking, all of the finalists should be very proud of their achievements.  While I heave a sigh of relief now that the pressure is off and I can get back to painting for pleasure, I'm also already thinking about what to enter for next year's competition.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Die is Cast

Thus spake Caesar as he stood with his army at the bank of the Rubicon, the point of no return in his bid for Rome.

I've just returned from dropping off my entries in Games Workshop Winnipeg's annual Golden Gaunt painting competition.  After months of painting and repainting; blending here, layering there, shading, highlighting and endless fussing, I've finally put the brushes down and said 'enough.'  The entries technically didn't have to be in until tomorrow evening, and I was tempted to use every last hour available to add 'just a few more finishing touches,' but sometimes you just have to know when to quit and let the chips fall where they may.

The awards will be presented on Saturday afternoon and I'm looking forward to seeing the work of some of Manitoba's best painters, and how my own efforts compare.  I must say that I'm relieved to finally be done with my competition entries.  I've been spending almost all my painting time over the last couple of months working on them and I'm really looking forward to just painting for pleasure, without the pressure of competition hanging over me.

I've submitted four models in the following categories:

Warhammer Fantasy Single
Crom the Conqueror (non-metallic metal technique)

Warhammer 40K Single
Ork Kaptin Badrukk

Lord of the Rings
Cave Troll

Open Category
Now its just down to waiting, but as Tom Cochrane said, "the waiting is the hardest part."

Pewter, and Plastic, and Lead - Oh My!

I've suffered most of my life from OCD - obsessive collecting disorder.  When I was a kid I collected just about everything: rocks, stamps, coins, trading cards, you name it.  Most of those minor dalliances fell by the wayside at the age of fourteen when I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and found a new focus for my compulsion: those fascinating little metal miniatures.

I still remember my very first miniatures: a package of large-nosed floppy-eared goblins with spears guarding a naked woman in shackles.  I can't, for the life of me, remember the company that made them, but I do remember taking the bus downtown early Saturday morning to buy miniatures for my very first D&D game; I was running my friends through Keep on the Borderlands later that afternoon and needed some goblins for the Caves of Chaos.  The naked chick was an added bonus.  I rushed home and quickly painted my new miniatures with a thick coat of glossy Testors enamel paint and a new obsession was born.

From that day on, whenever I manage to scrape up a couple of dollars, a new Ral Partha would be added to my ever-growing collection, and by the time I graduated from high school I had a fairly impressive selection of the miniatures of the early '80's.  Sadly, few of them survived my mother's rather ruthless purge of my childhood treasures after I left home, but I do still have some of those early miniatures to look back on - usually in horror, given the awful paint-jobs.

My miniature collecting was curtailed sharply during my 'living-out-of-a-dufflebag' years while I was in the navy, followed by my 'scrambling-to-find-money-for-food-and-rent' years while I was in university, but middle age and disposable income has allowed me to grow my miniature collections to heretofore unseen numbers.  I've finally been able to indulge in Warhammer - something I've been longing to do ever since the game was first released, and I've recently added War of the Ring and Warhammer 40K to my repertoire of miniatures games.

One of Britain's earliest palaeontologists, a physician named Gideon Mantell, who found the first Iguanodon fossils, had such a mania for fossil collecting that, according to legend, he moved his family to a hotel to make more room in the house for his growing collection.  My wife, perhaps fearing a similar fate, has often asked "don't you have enough miniatures?"  My usual response is to stare at her as though she had just grown a second head.  She recently asked me what was to be done with them all when I die.  I hope she wasn't posing that as an immediately relevant question.

I must admit that storage is becoming a bit of an issue.  I have shelves laden with miniatures and several Chessex boxes filled to capacity, not to mention several boxes of miniatures that I still haven't unpacked from my last move (seven years ago).  This makes things difficult at the game table, since I often have to pause after describing a scene to run around the house trying to remember where each of the miniatures I need is.  What I really want is a bank of custom storage drawers lined with foam tray inserts near the game table, where my entire collection can be stored and labeled for quick access.  I have a set of  2" deep drawers of exactly this type at my painting workstation:

Given my thirty-year long love affair with miniatures, discovering, via internet forums and blogs, that many old-school gamers don't use miniatures in their games hit me like a Power Word, Stun spell.  Indeed, some people consider miniatures to be antithetical to old-school play.  Now this is an extreme position that I consider to be overweening backlash against 4E' requirement to use miniatures, probably designed to create a market for WotC's line of ugly, cheap plastic D&D miniatures.  The most common objection to the use of miniatures is that they impair the player's ability to visualize the scene in their mind's eye.  This is an objection that I can certainly sympathize with; I feel much the same way about Hollywood adaptations of books that I love.

Using miniatures in the game also tends to force players into a more tactical, gamist, mode of play, rather than a fast-paced, seat-of-the-pants, free form play style.  This, however, is more a function of the game rules in use rather than miniatures themselves.  Counting squares of movement, and worrying about the exact placement of the miniature is important for a miniature wargame, but does tend to detract from a role playing encounter.  Thus, I'm coming to realize that AD&D's one-minute combat round is ideal for eliminating such hindrances.  When your character is able to move 120' in a round, you really don't need to fuss with counting squares in the 30' x 40' room you're fighting in - you just move your miniature wherever you want it.  That's how we played back in high school and I'm coming to realize that its a much more elegant and simple way of playing than systems that break combat down into shorter rounds and require you to move your figures like chess pieces.  Its funny how I've been increasingly introducing house-rules to my C&C game to bring it more in line with AD&D as I come to really appreciate how that system worked.

With respect to miniatures impeding the mind's-eye visualization of the encounter, I believe that this is true.  But my experience playing without miniatures during my impoverished university years taught me that what one player visualizes in his mind's eye is seldom the same as what the other player's are visualizing, and that none of them are visualizing quite what the GM is describing.  This inevitably leads to confusion and bogging down play as everyone is arguing about what is really going on, and in some cases even leads to character death due to misunderstanding.  In my experience, using miniatures sets the scene unambiguously, allowing everyone to understand at a glance what the situation is.

Over and above their use in the game though, to me, collecting and painting miniatures is the hobby within the hobby.  Even if I were forced to give up gaming tomorrow I would continue to collect and paint and probably will the rest of my life.  As for what is going to become of my collection when I die, my hope is that my daughter, Elena, will take them.  Although she is only four-years-old, she loves to sit and watch me paint and has already told me many times that when she is older she wants to have her own paints and brushes so she can paint monsters just like me.  Hopefully I have a future game-geek in the making.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: velvet worms

Velvet worms are the common name of a group of animals belonging to the phylum Onychophora.  They have features similar to both annelid worms and arthropods and look very much like slugs with legs.

The anterior region of the body bears two large antennae, a ventral mouth that is flanked by a pair of claw-like mandibles, and a pair of short, conical oral papillae.  They have between 14 and 43 pairs of legs, each of which is a large, conical, unjointed protuberance bearing a pair of terminal claws.  The entire surface of the body is covered by tubercles, which are arranged in rings or bands encircling the legs and trunk.  The tubercles are covered in minute scales.  Onychophorans are blue, green, orange, or black, and the scales give the body a velvety and iridescent appearance.

There are about seventy living species of onychophorans, most of which live in humid habitats, such as in tropical rainforests, beneath logs, stones, and leaves, or along stream banks.

Most species are predaceous and are able to secrete an adhesive material from glands opening at the ends of the oral papillae.  This secretion is discharged as two projectile streams and it hardens almost immediately, trapping the prey in a net of adhesive threads.  The mouth is flanked by lateral, clawlike mandibles, which are used for grasping and cutting prey.  Salivary secretions are injected into the body of the prey, and they partially-digested tissues are sucked into the mouth.

The fossil record of onychophorans extends back to the Cambrian period, and the group is represented by two marine genera in the Burgess Shale: Aysheia, and Hallucigenia


Hallucigenia is a truly unusual creature, named for its 'bizarre and dream-like quality.  It has seven pairs of spines on its dorsal surface and seven pairs of clawed tentacles on the ventral surface.  It was first reconstructed as walking on the spines, like stilts, with its tentacles waving in the water.  However, exceptionally preserved fossils from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang Fauna of China revealed that the tentacles were actually long, clawed walking appendages and that the spines served to protect the dorsal side of the animal.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From "Neverwhere" - the first Den collection

The Queen has been sacrificing humans to Uluhtc every new moon, drawing it ever closer to the almost completed gate her slaves have been constructing, and the land grows steadily more sinister with its approach.  She holds the misguided belief that she will be able to control Uluhtc and make it serve her purposes.  Why do megalomaniacs always think they can control the Great Old Ones?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cthulhu in Neverwhere

One of my favourite movies from the 1980's is Heavy Metal.  I was 15 years old when it came out - just the right age to really appreciate animated nudity, and at the height of my D&D years, it proved to be a big influence on my gaming as well.  I once created a campaign whose main villain was a priest of Set who carried a scepter with a glowing green orb that had the power to corrupt the souls of others: a not-too-subtle reference to the Loc-nar from Heavy Metal.  I also often had the soundtrack from the movie playing while I planned adventures; in fact, I bought the Heavy Metal soundtrack on CD about a year ago and now often play it when I'm painting miniatures.

This evening I decided to spend the rainy night on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and watch Heavy Metal and was struck by a revelation that was probably obvious to everyone else who has ever seen the movie.

In the sequence entitled 'Den' by Richard Corben, shortly after Den arrives in Neverwhere he witnesses a priestess about to sacrifice a naked woman in a ritual to summon the god that sounds phonetically like Oo-la-tec.  For some reason, it never occurred to me before, that this sounds an awful lot like Cthulhu backwards.  A quick consultation with Wikipedia confirmed that Oo-la-tec is actually spelled 'Uhluhtc.'

I've never read much of Corben's Neverwhere comics and have only just discovered that they are heavily inspired by Howard's Hyborian Age, Burroughs's Barsoom, and Lovecraft's mythos.  Now that I know, I'm going to have to try and track down the Neverwhere collections.

My wife has sometimes called me "the most unobservant person in the world" and if a Cthulhu-phile who has watched Heavy Metal as many times over nearly thirty years as I have can have missed the obvious reference to Cthulhu for so long, she may be right.

Session 5: Gwyddno's Tomb

Having recovered from the harrowing adventure in the ruins of Gogledd Keep, the party felt they were finally ready to pursue the quest laid upon them by the sinister mage-priest, Frasck, to obtain an opalescent sphere from the renegade sorcerer, Sothiss.

Millenia past, a star fell from the sky, destroying the de Danann city of Murias, leaving only a massive crater in the Mac Morne Highlands.  Some time later a dwarven expedition from Khelekdor began to excavate the crater for the star metal, known as Murian steel, which could be used to craft fantastic weapons and armour.  After many years of excavation, shipments of Murian ore stopped arriving in Khelekdor, and the expedition was never heard from again.  It was just at this time that treacherous dwarven Thanes rebelled against the Overking, resulting in the fall of Khelekdor and its seizure by the Horned Prince, Drufarodd and thus, the expedition to Murias was entirely forgotten in the wake of greater events.

It is within the dwarven mines of Murias, that Sothiss has made his lair and the party must seek out the renegade mage and slay him to absolve Jin's debt to Frasck.

The party followed the Ildanach River north for many days, into the highlands, on their way to the town of Glen Morag, the nearest settlement to the Crater of Murias.  One night, the party's rest was disturbed by the unearthly howls of some type of beast in the distance.  As the minutes passed the braying became louder and greater in number.  Some manner of beasts were closing on the encampment.  The party spent long minutes debating whether to flee or prepare to fight whatever was approaching.  As the braying became louder and clearer, Caitlin blanched, recognizing the howls from Caemric folklore: darkhounds, the vanguard of the Wild Hunt.  The party opted to run for some standing stones atop a distant tor, hoping that the sacred ground might ward them against the evil fey that now clearly had their scent.

The race was on.  During their desperate run to the standing stones, the party chanced a look behind as they crested a hill, and saw, a mere half-mile behind them and closing quickly, a large pack of darkhounds, bestial phuka, and redcaps led by a pale rider on a black horse with flaming hooves.  This frightening sight gave the party the desperate energy for the final push to the standing stones.  Having reached the top of the tor, Theon and Bvar searched around the rocky outcrops for wood with which to build a bonfire, while Jin cast light spells on boulders to fully illuminate the tor for the fight to come.  Suddenly, Bvar cried out and vanished.  Rushing to where he was last seen, Theon found a hole that had crumbled beneath Bvar's feet, tumbling him unceremoniously down a steep slope into a dark cavern beneath the tor.  The rest party squeezed through the hole, joining Bvar in the cavern below, and pulled a rock over the hole to hide it.

The cavern was, in fact an entry chamber to catacombs below the tor - possibly a funereal  tomb for someone of importance.  Ancient script of an unknown language was written on the chamber walls, and a narrow passage led from the chamber deeper into the catacombs.  Following the passage, the party soon found that it branched in many directions.  They opted to follow the southernmost branch and eventually found a door that was jammed shut.  Throwing his weight heavily against the door, Bvar burst it open and stumbled into the room beyond and only his sharp reflexes saved him from falling to his death as a trap door concealing a deep, spike filled pit, opened beneath him.  The room contained no less than sixty burial niches containing the mouldering remains of ancient warriors.  The party thoroughly looted each of the niches and were enriched by the gold coins left for the dead to pay for their passage to the underworld as well as jewelry, an ancient greatsword, and a tattered banner that was later discovered to be the battle standard of The Thrice-Damned Legion that fought in the great de Danann War.

The party continued meandering their way through the catacombs, eventually proceeding down a long passageway ending in a stone-arch.  Suspicious of further traps, Jin summoned an unseen servant to precede them down the passageway.  Their suspicions were validated when, halfway down the passage, the unseen servant triggered a pressure plate in the floor.  The party's precautions availed them little, however, as the pressure plate triggered a barrage of poisoned darts fired from the wall along the entire length of the passage.  While Theon got his shield up to protect him from the darts, Bvar was struck in the neck, and Jin was punctured by three darts; the effects of the poison were felt immediately, weakening Bvar and Jin.

The stone arch at the end of the passage was inscribed with more of the unknown script, including a rune inscribe on stones on either side of the doorway.  The chamber beyond the doorway contained a large stone sarcophagus with a lid carved in the likeness of a warrior.  Arrayed around the sarcophagus were ten stone slabs, and upon each of which lay the ancient remains of warriors clad in mail hauberks and tattered red cloaks, clutching spears in their bony grasp.  A fresco painted on the chamber walls depicted a king with a golden crown bearing sword and scepter standing atop a mound of enemies on a battlefield.  The king was ringed by soldiers in red cloaks warding him with their spears against and advancing horde of phuka and redcaps.  This scene was much like that described in the lay, The Last Ride of Gwyddno.

Again suspecting a trap, the unseen servant was sent ahead into the chamber, and once again the party's suspicions were justified.  Just inside the door the servant triggered another pressure plate causing iron bars to drop from the archway, sealing the room.  Bvar, despite his great strength, was unable to lift or bend the bars.  Theon began pressing on stones in the doorway's arch, particularly the two runes inscribed on the sides.  When one of the runes was pressed, the bars raised back into the archway.  Careful to avoid the pressure plate the party entered the chamber, and Theon approached the pallet to inspect the remains of the warriors.

Suddenly warriors sat up, their empty eye sockets glowing with red light, then stood as one and advanced upon the intruders, spears at the ready.  The party panicked at the sight of ten skeletal warriors bearing down upon them and Jin fled to the archway, triggering the reset trap, which dropped the bars once again, locking them in the tomb with the warriors.  Theon called upon the grace of Lir and half of the undead warriors fled before him and cowered in the far corner of the tomb.  The remaining five were quickly dispatched and the last five were also sent to their final rest.

Careful to avoid damaging the lid of the sarcophagus, a party member stood at each corner and they slowly lifted it off.  As they did so, large blades scythed out from each side of the sarcophagus and thrust out at each end - all missing the characters who were standing just beyond the reach of the blades.  Within the sarcophagus lay the remains of a king who bore a gold crown upon his head and an ancient bronze-hilted broadsword upon his chest.  The scepter was no where within.  Since the tomb appeared to have lain inviolate, and since the Lay of Gyddno described him buried with scepter and crown, they party reasoned that the scepter must be concealed within a secret compartment in the sarcophagus.  Searching it carefully, they did find such a compartment containing the scepter of Gwyddno.

After completely looting everything of value from the tomb of the Llanvirnesse's first High King, the party left the catacombs in the safety of daylight and continued on their way to Glen Morag.  Upon their arrival they took rooms at the local inn, and noted the odd looks that many of the town's residents gave them, pointing to many of the looted items openly displayed.  Concerned that the locals would take them for tomb-robbers, the characters quickly retired to a single room and elected to stand watches through the night.  Soon after they retired soldiers knocked on their door, telling the party that their chieftain, the king of Morag required their company at his manor.

Hastening to the chieftain's manor, the party met with King Cormac, who offered them refreshment and demanded to see the Caemric artifacts that they had found.  The party showed him everything they found and Cormac immediately recognized the sword, crown and scepter of Gwyddno.  He confiscated these items, offering the party gold, land and titles in recompense and additionally promised to outfit the party for their foray into the crater of Murias.  An accord having been reached, the party spent the remainder of the night as guests in Cormac's manor and the next day an investment ceremony was held at which they swore to uphold Cormac as their liege in exchange for land and title in his realm.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: Opabinia

This week's 'weird wonder' is one of the strangest creatures ever to inhabit the earth, and one of my favourites: Opabinia.

Fossils of Opabinia regalis were first discovered from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada and were described by Charles D. Walcott in 1912.

Opabinia is distinguished by its five eyes at the front of its head and a long, flexible proboscis that bears an array of grasping spines at the end.

                          Fossilized specimen of Opabinia regalis

Opabinia is believed to have lived in soft sediment on the sea floor.  It was an active predator that swam by using its lateral lobes for propulsion.  The long proboscis is assumed to have been used to capture prey and transport it to the mouth located beneath the head.  The proboscis might also have been plunged into the sediment to pull worms from their burrows.

The relationship of Opabinia to the rest of the animal kingdom is still unknown.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dancing in the Dark: Adaptations to a Lightless Environment

 Since my current campaign is largely a dungeon delve, I've been giving a lot of thought lately to creatures that live in the darkness.

The very first adventure module I ever bought (but to this day, have never played) was D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, in which Gary Gygax introduced Drow to D&D.  Right from the start there was something about evil, subterranean, demon-worshiping elves that appealed to me.  But one thing about them has nagged me to this very day: why the heck do they have black skin?

Dark skin pigments are an adaptation to protect against ultraviolet radiation, which occurs naturally only in sunlight, and is in pretty short supply in the depths of the earth.  Explaining it as an adaptation to provide camouflage doesn't hold much water, either; camouflage isn't of much use in a light-less environment.

The Drachmari, evil subterranean elves of the Unseelie Court, in my campaign look more like Elric of Melnibone or the mutants from The Omega Man than drow - pale skin, white hair and light-sensitive eyes.  But old-schoolers are nothing, if not die-hard traditionalists, and I suspect that many would recoil in horror at the suggestion of non-black drow.  So, how to explain black skin in a light-less realm?  I suppose that one could say that the black skin is a manifestation of the drow's black hearts, or a sign of the favour of Lolth, or something like that.  But I find that kind of rationalization unsatisfying and prefer a more naturalistic explanation.  How about this: drow once dwelt on the surface, and evolved in a tropical, equatorial region of the world and subsequently adopted a subterranean lifestyle.  Assuming that they consume a diet high in vitamin D, such as fish, it is possible that they could retain their dark skin pigment indefinitely despite the lack of ultraviolet radiation.

One of the reasons I like this explanation better than "they're black because they're evil," is that it reveals some interesting clues about the ecology of the drow: they originated in the tropics (and perhaps enclaves of them still dwell on the surface of their land of origin), and that they subsist largely on blind cavefish caught in subterranean lakes.  I often find that knowing stuff like this fuels my imagination and helps with new adventure ideas.

Something else that I've been thinking about lately is the racial ability of "darkvision", or "deepvision" as it is called in Castles & Crusades.  For some reason that is absolutely unfathomable to me infravision, which has long been an ability of subterranean races, such as dwarves, was replaced with "darkvision" in 3E, and it is utter nonsense.  Darkvision is described as "black and white only, but it is otherwise like normal sight, and dwarves can function just fine with no light at all."  Apparently Jonathan Tweet was sick the day they taught science at his school.  Sight is the process by which photoreceptors (eyes) detect reflected light and transmit signals to the brain to decipher the appearance of illuminated objects.  Without light, sight is not possible.

Now the concept of infravision makes a certain amount of sense - there are many animals that can see in the infrared spectrum and the idea of underground monsters in D&D with infravision is not all that far-fetched. Infrared radiation is simply light with a longer wavelength than that of radiation in the visible spectrum.  Even so, while it might be useful for predators hunting prey in the dark, it would be of no use for navigating in the total darkness of the subterranean realm.  So, really, infravision while possible is not the best adaptation for life in the dark.

Echolocation, such as possessed by bats is a far better adaptation for life in the dark.   This type of active sonar involves the emission of high-frequency sounds, and ranging to objects is done by measuring the time delay between emitting the sound and any echoes reflected off of objects.  Multiple receivers allow the animal to perceive its environment with great accuracy, and bats can snatch insects out of the air in total darkness.  It seems to me that echolocation is a much better form of sensory perception for creatures that have evolved in a lightless environment.  It is of more practical use than infravision, and more plausible than the absurd notion of "darkvision."

Consequently, I am removing Darkvision and its ilk from my games, entirely.   As for dwarves, I'll be downgrading their eyesight to low-light vision, just like elves.  It never made much sense to me that dwarves would be able to see in the dark, anyway.  They are always depicted carrying torches and lanterns, and their halls are brightly lit.  They are clearly not a species that evolved in total darkness and therefore should not be entitled to such adaptations merely because they choose to live underground.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Half-breed Races: A Biological Perspective

Half-breeds have been a part of D&D since the addition of half-elves in the 1976 Greyhawk supplement, which were probably inspired by the half-elven offspring of Luthien and Beren from Lord of the Rings.  Half-breeds, however, raise some interesting and potentially awkward questions about the nature of a species.  Even Tolkien tread carefully around this issue, and considered that elves needed to give up their immortality and live a mortal life if they were to marry a mortal.  This was considered such a rare occurrence that there were only three such unions in all the ages.  Tolkien further constrained the few half-elves resulting from the union of Luthien and Beren by forcing them to irrevocably choose which kindred to belong to.  Elrond chose to be of Elvenkind, while his brother, Elros, chose to be of Mankind.  Elros went on to found the kingdom of Numenor and give rise to the lineage from which Aragorn descended (so, yes, Aragorn married his cousin).

The problem with the half-breed is that the Biological Species Concept defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed, or potentially interbreed, and produce fertile offspring.  Thus, from 1976 on, the implication has been that in D&D humans and elves are the same species.  The situation became even more confused with the introduction of half-orcs, thus extending the concept of Homo sapiens to include not only humans and elves, but now orcs as well.  The assumption made in D&D is that half breeds are the result of human and elven or human and orcish parentage, but since the species lines have been erased, it is just as likely to have half-breed offspring of orcish and elvish parentage.

While Tolkien handled the matter deftly, making interbreeding between the two species a divine gift of the Valar and a rare occurrence, 3E threw logic out the window with the proliferation of templates allowing one to create dire-fiendish-undead-half-mindflayers if you wanted (assuming you had the patience to work out the five-page-long stat block to accompany it).

So what?  After all, Gary Gygax often reminded us that D&D was a game and we shouldn't get too hung up on realism.  The thing is though, Gary also always kept one foot firmly planted in reality and was careful to balance good game mechanics with enough realism to create that all-important aspect of role-playing: suspension of disbelief.

For me suspension of disbelief is impossible without verisimilitude, which is achieved by imposing internally consistent natural laws that govern my campaign world.  Those laws don't necessarily have to be those of the real world, but there ought to be some structure for how things work.  It is perfectly acceptable to have races like half-elves and half-orcs, but I find it far more satisfying to consider the implications of such races and come up with a logical rationale for them.

Say we like both the half-elf and half-orc races and want to keep them.  There are a few logical options to ponder:
A) Accept that all three races are, indeed the same species, and develop the world's history based on that assumption - what is their evolutionary  history; how and when did they begin to develop such divergent racial traits?  Furthermore, what geographical or morphological barriers are in place to restrict the proliferation of half-breeds and the otherwise inevitable convergence back into one homogenous race.
B) Imagine that humans, elves, and orcs are separate, but closely related species who can interbreed to produce infertile offspring, much like domestic horses, Equus ferus can interbreed with donkeys, Equus africanus, to produce infertile mules.
C) Humans, elves, and orcs are not closely related species and mating cannot produce offspring.

This is not to say that it is necessary to rationalize everything, but I find that at least considering the rationale behind elements of the milieu can open up some new perspectives that can help to shake of old cliches and result in a more original and dynamic campaign.

I created my own world of Faeridor about twenty years ago, long before I started thinking of such things and consequently I have had to retro-actively rationalize decisions that I sometimes regret.  Half-elves are long-established in the campaign; the Mac Morne bloodline of Llanvirnesse is mingled with that of Sylvani royalty and the fertility of half-elves is unquestionable.  Here, the rationale becomes sticky, because while the Sylvani are indigenous to Faeridor, humanity originated on Earth, with various tribes later transplanted to Faeridor by way of a dimensional rift.  Thus, it would seem unlikely that two races from different dimensions would be genetically similar enough to produce viable offspring.  The answer lies with the gods of man, the Tuatha de Danann who dwelt on Faeridor but dallied also on Earth.  If humans and elves are both the by-product of the de Danann, then cross-breeding between the two races becomes better justified as they would share common ancestry.

Orcs, on the other hand, fulfill only a minor role in my world.  They, too, are aliens brought to Faeridor by means of a dimensional rift, though in nowhere near the numbers that humans were.  They serve as mercenary troops for any warlord who will give them coin and the chance to fight and are present in too few numbers to be a major menace.  Consequently, the question of half-orcs has never arisen so it is easy enough to say that elves and humans cannot interbreed with orcs.

This is an inelegant explanation - the result of coming up with it after the fact, but I still find it more satisfying to know how the races came to be and how they relate to each other than simply to shoe-horn them in without considering the implications.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: The Black Libram of Nartarus

When I came home this afternoon and found a parcel behind the screen door I clutched it gleefully to my chest and began to do a happy-dance, much like Gollum on the edge of Mount Doom when he finally got his 'precious.'
My precious, today, was a shipment from Paizo containing AEG's Ultimate Toolbox, and Troll Lord Games' The Black Libram of Nartarus.  I'll have to put off reviewing Ultimate Toolbox until I've had more time to absorb the contents of that massive tome, but I've already given the Black Libram a read-through despite the risk to sanity and soul.

The Black Libram of Nartarus is a supplement for Castles & Crusades that introduces sword & sorcery-style dark magic and necromancy to the game.

Seventy-three black magic and necromantic spells are described from three profane tomes: The Black Libram of Nartarus, The Grimoire of the Witch Queen, and The Draconium of Kyuleshedrac.  Not only does the inclusion of the tomes from which these spells originate recall the books of forbidden lore so familiar to fans of H.P. Lovecraft and R.E. Howard, but many of the spells, themselves, have names that drip with sword & sorcery flavour: Blades of Shambere, Cursed Rot of Medjedu, Ebon Bands of Binding, Guh-shun's Thorns of Anguish, Lassiter's Curse of the Serpent and they cry out to be used.

Guidelines are given to allow any spell casting class (including druids and illusionists) to tread the perilous path of necromancy.  I find this particularly useful as druids in my campaign are not tree-hugging guardians of all creatures great and small, but wardens against the capricious and often terrifying forces of nature, and who routinely make blood sacrifice to appease Shub-Niggurath or Ithaqua.  It would take little to push such grim adepts onto the path of darkness, raising an army of undead animals to do their bidding.  In order to gain access to necromantic spells, a spell caster must state his intent to begin studying the dark arts at the beginning of the level preceding the one in which they would be able to cast spells of that level (i.e a caster wishing to gain access to 3rd level necromancy spells must begin studying at the beginning of 2nd level), an XP cost is added to the normal amount of experience needed to gain that level to reflect the extra study required.  In a similar fashion, necromantic powers, such as the ability to Command Undead like a cleric, can be learned by a necromancer by stating his intent at the beginning of a level and paying an extra XP cost.  He would then gain that ability at the start of his next level.

One of the best things about this book, in my opinion, is the chapter offering guidelines for sacrificial magic.  I've always felt that the traditional magic system of D&D is not as sinister as I would like it to be, and I've long sought a way to incorporate blood sacrifice into the game.  If you play in my campaigns you've probably lost track of the number of times you've rescued a naked woman bound to an altar, about to be sacrificed to a dark god.  To quote Lovecraft: "It needed the nourishment of sacrifice, for it was a god, and the blood is the life.  Even the Great Old Ones that are older than this world will answer a sorcerer's call when the blood of men or beasts is offered under the right conditions."  Black Libram now offers a reason, beyond sword & sorcery genre convention, for putting all those women on altars to begin with.  The guidelines for sacrificial magic increase the casting level of spells by a certain number of levels and for a certain number of hours depending on the hit dice of the victim.  The blood can be taken from willing or unwilling recipients or even from animals, but animals provide the least benefit, while the greatest power is derived from the blood of the pure and the innocent.  I'm pleased that I finally have the tools to tweak the magic system to what I thought it should always have been.

There is two pages of new magic items and artifacts, including the sacrificial dagger, that ubiquitous cultist accessory, that further increases the effectiveness of a blood sacrifice.  Finally there is a chapter devoted to new monsters.  My favourite of these are three new types of wolves: Ghoul Wolves, Shadow Wolves, and Vampiric Wolves.  I found all three wolves disturbing and creepy, and the description of the Ghoul Wolf reminds me a great deal of the zombie hounds in the movie, Resident Evil.

I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the art.  Both the cover and interior illustrations were made by Peter Bradley, and they set just the right tone for the book.  The pages are scattered with numerous scantily clad women in perilous situations, dark tomes, and evil creatures.  His illustration of the Vampiric Wolf depicts a sentient malice that I find unsettling in the best possible way.

I don't buy a lot of game products these days.  I've been stung far too often by books and supplements that have disappointed me.  All too often I flip through them and, uninspired, put them on the shelf where they languish ever after.  I took a chance with Black Libram, and I didn't really expect much of it, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  This is, quite simply, the best game supplement I've bought in years.  Its twenty-eight pages are filled with lots of useful aids to help me inject more of the dark sword & sorcery flavour that I want into my game.  Although it was written for Castles & Crusade it is, of course, completely compatible with any older version of D&D or its retro-clones.  The book isn't perfect; anyone familiar with Castles & Crusades will be all too familiar with typographical errors and editing omissions, and Black Libram is no different.  But this is a small complaint that in no way diminishes what is, in my opinion, an excellent game aid.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesdays: Anomalocaris

As a certain tormented Danish prince once said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

The longer I study the more I realize that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.  These are bold words considering the weird and fantastic fiction that I enjoy, but true nonetheless.  Last week I posted an essay entitled In the Oceans of Insanity on my natural history blog, Lore Deposits, exploring the influence that my exposure to the works of H.P. Lovecraft during my formative years had on the eventual course of my career path.  I think that, perhaps, my discovery of Lovecraft in my teens imparted a life-long love of squama, tentacles, and multi-jointed appendages possessed by creatures that dwell within the ocean realm.  In short, creatures so alien to our land-dwelling experience as to become the stuff of nightmares.

That being so, I thought it would be fun to begin a weekly series to share some of my favourite 'weird wonders' of the natural world.  It is my  hope that they might serve as inspiration for strange new creatures to introduce to your games.  I don't intend to make any attempt to provide any game stats as I don't want to imprint my interpretations on anyone's imagination.  If anyone does make anything of this, or any, of the creatures I describe in forthcoming articles, I'd love to hear about and see what you've come up with.

For the first few posts in the series we're going to travel back more than half a billion years into the past, when multicellular animals were undergoing widespread diversification in what has come to be known as the "Cambrian Explosion."

Often referred to as the 'King of the Cambrian,' Anomalocaris was an active predator and the largest animal to inhabit the Cambrian world, growing up to 0.5 metres long (approx 20 inches).

It swam above the seafloor hunting its prey, propelled by a series of lobes on either side of its body.  It had two large appendages at the front of its head that were used to capture prey and transport food to its mouth.

The mouth consisted of a circular jaw that resembles a pineapple ring lined with teeth along the inside edge.  The jaw functioned much like a nutcracker, breaking open the exoskeletons of its prey.  It is thought to have eaten arthropods, and bite wounds in trilobite fossils have been interpreted as the work of Anomalocaris.

The first fossilized body parts of Anomalocaris were assumed to two different types of creature.  The anterior appendages were thought to be shrimp, while the segmented discoid fossils that we now know to be the mouth was originally thought to be a jellyfish.  It was, of course, reasonable to assign fossils to recognizable animal groups, but when Anomalocaris was finally reconstructed correctly, based on more complete specimens, it was truly a more bizarre creature than could possibly have been imagined.

  Anomalocarid appendage

 The author, viciously assaulted by a life-size replica of Anomalocaris, at the Walcott Quarry in the Burgess Shale of Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada

Anomalocaris, King of the Cambrian

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


I just discovered a new fanzine, Encounter, devoted to Mentzer D&D/Labyrinth Lord.  It's a nice, professionally done 'zine, and it's free.

The first issue weighs in at 27 pages full of gaming goodness, including an adventure for 1st to 3rd level characters.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In Memorium: Frank Frazetta

The news is spreading quickly throughout the old-school community that Frank Frazetta has passed away today at the age of 82.

Frank Frazetta is my favourite fantasy artist of all time.  His paintings, often more stylized than realistic, are packed with dramatic tension and emotion that I find lacking in many works of fantasy art.  Frazetta's style was an enormous influence on me in high school, when I hoped to become an artist, and many of my early paintings in my teens were blatant attempts to emulate that style.

One of his pieces that I have always found incredibly powerful is the painting, Spiderman, which I painstakingly copied in acrylics at the age of 15 and was very proud to have captured some of the emotion that Frazetta conveyed.

Another of Frazetta's paintings that was a great early influence on my artistic style was Death Dealer, made famous by the Molly Hatchet album cover:

The first time I ever saw Death Dealer I was awed by the feeling of menace projected by the painting.  This is, perhaps, one of Frazetta's best known paintings and it has been reproduced in a variety of media, including this miniature by Ral Partha (please forgive the crudity of the paint job - I was fourteen at the time):

So powerful and characterful is the image of the Death Dealer that Image Comics created a Death Dealer series based on the character:

I've never seen paintings that can evoke such raw, visceral responses in me as Frazetta's always have, and I doubt I ever will.  Today marks the passing of what I believe was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and I doubt I'll ever see another book cover that moves me as powerfully as the Frazetta covered ERB novels that I've managed to collect over the years.

I hope that I can get through the rest of the week without having to write yet another memorial to someone whose work I admire greatly and was influential in my development.

Session 4: Malash Thwarted

Last session ended with Bvar and Theon in the clutches of Malash the Magnificent, cleric of Balor, while Jin and his henchwoman, Caitlin, successfully escaped their pursuers and fled the dungeon.

Malash interrogated his prisoners to determine what they had seen of his operation and, more importantly, what they had reported to the outside world.  Bvar and Theon denied telling anyone anything, but Malash could not trust their assurances and sent for his torturer to determine the truth for certain.  Eager to avoid torture, Theon told him that what they might or might not have told anyone was irrelevant, since Jin was heading back to the Flaming Faggot, where he would tell everyone what he saw and organize a rescue party.

Thus forewarned, Malash organized a suitable reception, by way of an ambush, for any rescue party that might enter the keep.  Meanwhile he incarcerated Theon and Bvar in the dungeons prison cells to await their transport to the Temple of Balor where their fates would be decided by Malash's unnamed Master.

Meanwhile, back at the Faggot, Jin appealed to the sinister mage-priest, Frasck, for aid in the rescue of his comrades.  Frasck reminded Jin that it was he, Jin, who was beholden to Frasck and not the other way around, and if he couldn't prove himself to be a resourceful and useful servant, then Frasck would use the vial of Jin's blood to turn him into an amusing, albeit disturbingly unnatural, one.  Possessed of uncommon intelligence, Jin grasped the threat almost immediately and decided to look elsewhere for aid.

Fortunately, the Flaming Faggot is one of the best places anywhere in Faedun to meet dangerous men in need of coin and unafraid of getting their blades wet.  The trouble was that Jin, wisely, wanted to be certain of from whom they would wet their blades and take their coin.  He approached the lovely half-elven bar-maid Rhiannon and explained his plight, asking her opinion about trustworthy patrons he might hire.  The Flaming Faggot's resident minstrel, Euan Carvel overheard and immediately volunteered to accompany Jin, in hopes of chronicling an epic tale and making his reputation.  It was clear that he was also trying to impress the lovely Rhiannon with his bravery.  Next, he approached a lone Caemric ranger sipping ale and sitting quietly by the fire.  The ranger, named Daffyd, was uninterested until Jin showed him the cloak embroidered with the eye of Balor, and then agreed to go to Gogledd Keep and investigate the situation.  Last, a taciturn and sullen dwarf in threadbare garments but carrying a sharp-edged great axe was offered a share of great treasure in exchange for his services.  The dwarf, Garyn, agreed provided that Jin give him ten gold coins with which Garyn could get his armour out of hock at McTavish's Trading Post.

Early the next morning Jin and Caitlin met the three hired men in the common room and set out immediately for Gogledd Keep.  Upon entering the courtyard they were caught in a crossfire of crossbow bolts from firing points within the keep.  They made quickly for the stairs into the keep's great hall only to be confronted by a rank of crossbowmen with weapons at the ready.  Miraculously, the volley of bolts all missed their targets, and the rescuers charged their ambushers.  The fight was long and bloody, and both Caitlin and Daffyd fell, injured, before the guards were overcome.

Meanwhile, back in their cells Theon and Bvar were yelling and kicking at the door and creating as much ruckus as possibly until, after repeated warnings to "shut it," the guard opened Theon's cell to deliver a much-deserved beating.  Theon immediately attempted to command the guard but was unable to dominate the strong-willed guard, and received a spear butt in the stomach for his troubles.  The guard continued to chastise the prisoner, raining blows upon him but, finally, Theon was able to come to grips with the guard and wrest the spear away from him.  The acolyte of Lir was finally able to slay the guard and free Bvar from his cell, just as Jin and the hired men from the Faggot arrived.

Taking the body of the slain guard below to the crypts, Theon gave it as a peace offering to the ghouls that dwealt within and negotiated with them for their aid in destroying Malash and driving him from the keep.  The four ghouls agreed to the proposal, having no love of the humans that had invaded their demesne.

The now large band assaulted the chambers held by Malash and his few remaining men.  Though weak in numbers, having killed so many guards, this was no easy fight as Malash's black armoured lieutenant proved to be a skilled and implacable warrior, while Malash called upon the dark majesty of Balor of divine aid.  After a lengthy fight the last of Malash's guards and, finally, his dread lieutenant fell and Malash, sensing the futility of continuing against overwhelming odds with his magic nearly depleted, called upon his dark god one last time to cloak the area in eldritch darkness and fled the dungeon after vowing revenge for thwarting the Master's plans.

The party lost no time in ransacking Malash's private chamber, which was opulently furnished and found a diamond-studded platinum necklace set with a large, rare fire opal that is certain to fetch a small fortune.  Even with having to give equal shares to Daffyd, Euan, and Garyn, every one is certain to be financially well-set for the near future.

On the return to the Faggot, Euan regaled the party with some of the history of the ancient Gogledd Keep, which figured prominently in the last stand of Gwyddno, High King of Llanvirnesse during the De Danann Wars and recited the lay known as The Last Ride of Gwyddno:

With honour they rode forth to battle,
following the course of Ildanach
to the ford of Gogledd Keep.

In the hills of Cyveni the foemen are spied;
the war cry is raised,
into battle they ride.

Gwyddno is stricken, pierced is his shield;
speared is the warlord
to fall on the field.

His guard rallied 'round to defend their liege-lord,
but valour means naught
to a blood-maddened horde.

At last all was silent on a field stained red
save the cawing of ravens
come to feast on the dead.

A cairn of boulders was raised on his mound;
the king laid to rest with his scepter and crown.

With honour they rode forth to battle,
following the course of Ildanach
to sleep forever more.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

In Memorium: Dr. J. Eric Holmes

I was saddened to learn today, from this post on Grognardia that Dr. J. Eric Holmes passed away in March.  As most D&D enthusiasts know, he was the author of the original Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.  This set, published in 1977, was based on the original D&D rules, but organized and clarified to better introduce new players to the hobby.  The basic rulebook was a springboard, taking characters up to 3rd level after which it was assumed that players would adopt either the Dungeons & Dragons rules or the new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Game.
 As for many, this version of the Basic Set was my introduction, in 1980, to a hobby I've enjoyed ever since.  Included with the rulebook was a set of card-board chit numbers that could be punched out and put in a cup to use as a random-number generator for those of us who lacked those strange, yet fascinating, polyhedral dice, and the adventure module B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

Prior to buying this set my previous gaming experience consisted of various Parker Brother boardgames, such as Monopoly.  Needless to say D&D represented a serious departure from the sort of game I was used to playing, and I must confess that I had a hard time figuring out how to play it.  Unlike those who are introduced to the hobby by friends or siblings, all I had was my Holmes edition rulebook full of limitless possibilities.  I gathered a group of friends, equally ignorant, but interested in giving D&D a try and I ran them through Keep on the Borderlands.  It was a disaster.  I had no idea what I was doing and botched everything up badly.

Some of the people in that original session never played again but most, much to my complete astonishment, were bitten by the bug and eager to play again despite my abysmal performance as Dungeon Master.  The guys that stuck around formed the core group of friends that I played with, pretty much every weekend and almost daily on holidays all through high school; one of them I still play with whenever I get the chance.  Although we quickly moved on to AD&D, the Basic Set still has a fond place in my heart and seeing the magic-user and fighter confronting a red dragon sitting atop his treasure horde evokes happy memories of the many hours I spent flipping through that rulebook dreaming of adventures to come.

It's been rough, these last few years, as we have lost many of the pioneers of our hobby: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Robert Bledsaw of Judges Guild, and now Eric Holmes.  These were guys that made my adolescence a very special time and I'm very sad that they are gone.

I'm incredibly gratified, though, that there is a small cadre of enthusiasts who, like the survivors of my first game, were bitten by the bug and now form the core of the Old School Renaissance, keeping alive the spirit of the game as it was taught to us by those who have now passed.  Hopefully some of us will pass our passion and style of play on to the next generation, and preserve the efforts and teaching of the pioneers of role playing from being relegated to the scrap-heap of history in an age when gaming is more about corporate branding than imagination and free-form play.

Game on!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Class Level Titles Revisited

One of the things about AD&D that I thought was really neat, and miss in subsequent versions of the game, are the old class level titles.  They added a bit of flavour to your character - you weren't just a 7th level ranger, you were a Pathfinder.

I was looking through my old AD&D player's handbook the other day, looking at all the old titles and thinking about introducing them to Castles and Crusades, and I decided that there were just too many titles for each class - a new one every level until at least 9th level.  This is an objection I recall, too, from my youth.  Having your title change each level seemed to rob them of some of their lustre and having to come up with so many different titles resulted in some that weren't necessarily appropriate for every character - every magic-user suddenly became a necromancer at 10th level, and ceased to be one at 11th?  That's a pretty narrow window of opportunity to be the creepy guy raising an unholy army of the night.

My goal in creating level titles for my campaign was to come up with just enough to recognize a character's rise in power and stature in the campaign and to make them generic enough to apply to any character, but also customized to my specific world.  I tried to avoid titles like Swordsman, or Swashbuckler.  Not every fighter wields a sword nor swashes a buckle.  So far, I've only come up with level titles for clerics, magic-users and fighters, which is fine because these are the only classes currently being played in my campaign.

Level           Title
1                   Veteran
3                   Warrior
5                   Armsman
8                   Weapon Master
11                 Warlord

The fighter was the most difficult class to assign titles to, because a fighter can represent such a broad range of character types.  The titles described here represent the ranks recognized by Callovia's mercenary's guild and fighting men invested in their ranks are entitled to pay rates commensurate with their rank.  The rank of Weapon Master is bestowed only upon the most skilled practitioners of the fighting arts and are feared and respected throughout the land.  The rank of Warlord replaces the traditional title of Lord, since the latter is better reserved to denote social station than fighting skill.  After all, many who hold the title of 'lord' couldn't fight off a drunken kobold.  A fighter may only assume the title of Warlord after having established a stronghold and command of a company of men-at-arms.

Level          Title
1                  Acolyte
3                  Priest
5                  Prefect
7                  Templar
9                  High Priest

The cleric titles were fairly straightforward - I retained many of the traditional titles from the Player's Handbook.  I added Templar to the title list to reflect the cleric's position as a militant defender of the faith as opposed to a cloistered temple clergyman.

Level            Title
1                    Journeyman
5                    Arcanist
7                    Warlock
9                    Sorcerer
11                  Wizard
13                  Initiate of the Inner Circle
15                  Adept of the Inner Circle
17                  Master of the Inner Circle
20                  Archmage

The magic-user titles, which are the only ones to go as high as 20th level, reflect the recent history of Faedun.  After the devastation wrought by the Drachmari shadow-mages during the Unseelie War a century ago, the Aquitanian church knights of Mithras declared that magic was the sole province of the gods and their servants and thus began a purge of mages within the kingdom.  This spread to a Faedun-wide crusade against arcane spell-casters.  Mages were hunted down one by one, and their libraries burned.  The wizard, Azerak gathered together the survivors of the purges and took refuge on an island off the coast of Callovia, there to build an unassailable fortress and haven for arcane study.  Azerak was appointed to the position of Archmage, and ruler of the Isle of Wizardry.  The spark of magic, nearly extinguished in man, is now slowly being rekindled.  Newly-graduated mages are granted the title of Journeyman and assigned the task of gathering lost arcane lore.  A Journeyman can only graduate to the title of Arcanist by making a significant contribution to arcane knowledge whether by researching new avenues of magic or recovering lost knowledge.  Arcanists are the working rank of mages, and slowly ascend the hierarchy as their knowledge and power grows, finally attaining the rank of Wizard.  Only those Wizards whose knowledge extends to the deepest mysteries of magic and who begin to comprehend the true nature of the cosmos are inducted into the Inner Circle.  There can be only one Archmage, who must be a minimum of 20th level.

I've tried to give the titles some significance in the game world and are accompanied by a commensurate level of respect and recognition.  As other classes come into play I'll develop level titles for them as well to reflect their stature within the campaign setting.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hit Points and Healing - My Own Dim Perspective

I find myself appreciating the wisdom of many of D&D's rules a lot more now than I did when I was young.  Among the many concepts that I didn't quite 'get' in my youth was the rationale behind combat and hit points in D&D.  Sure, I'd read several of Gary Gygax's articles in The Dragon, such as "Realism vs. Game Logic" from issue #16, and "Much About Melee" from issue #24, so I knew that the game's combat system was deliberately designed to be abstract, but I never really understood how well it reflected both practical game mechanics and reality until much later.  Let's face it: at fourteen I didn't have the perspective of life experience with which to judge such things.

It was not until much later, when I began competing in traditional karate, that I truly understood the wisdom behind the melee combat and hit point mechanics in D&D and how well they balance pragmatic simulation with realism.  When facing an opponent of roughly equal skill there is much maneuvering, feinting and adjusting as you try to put your foe off balance both physically and psychologically, and long periods of time can elapse between true attacks.  Condensing all of the action in a one-minute combat round into a single die roll keeps the combat moving quickly, while providing a reasonably accurate simulation of the fight.  Compare this to a system, like GURPS (which I also enjoy), where the combat round is one second long and every swing, feint, parry, and dodge is accounted for.  This makes for a highly tactical combat system, but fights take a very long time to resolve.  This is great for some types of campaigns, but for high-octane sword and sorcery action I prefer D&D's abstract combat mechanics.

You will notice that I mentioned that the lengthy period of give and take in melee applies to combatants of roughly equal skill.  A superior fighter will quickly outclass his opponent, and this is reflected in the D&D rules by allowing fighters extra attacks against opponents with less that one full hit die.  This represents the relative difficulty such opponents will have in avoiding the attacks of a more skillful foe.

I really like the rationale behind hit points, too.  I didn't used to, though, and I remember chuckling at a cartoon, probably in Murphy's Rules, depicting a D&D fighter yawning in boredom as someone stabbed him repeatedly in the chest with a dagger.  It's comforting to know that I'm not the only one who didn't understand hit points.  Considering them to represent not the amount of physical damage one can withstand, but a measure of skill, endurance, and luck reflects real combat reasonably well.  The only times I've ever been injured in fight were when I was too exhausted to adequately protect myself.  There have been occasions when I was too tired to even lift my arms any more.  This is a condition that I call 'sword-dragging tired' after the final fight scene between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth in the movie, Rob Roy.  Neeson's character staggers across the arena floor dragging his sword behind him, too exhausted to lift it.  He's only suffered minor cuts up until this point, and isn't really hurt, but he is physically and mentally worn out and is down to his last few hit points.  He can't defend himself anymore and it is clear to all that the next blow will kill him.  This is a great cinematic example of how hit points in D&D work.

So my question, which I'm sure has been the subject of innumerable internet forum debates, is this: if hit points don't represent real damage, why does it take so long to recover them?  There  have been plenty of competitions that have left me 'sword-dragging tired' and down to my last few hit points, but after a good night's sleep, aside from a little minor stiffness, I felt perfectly refreshed.

I've been using a house rule for healing for some time now, that seems to work quite nicely and evokes the sword & sorcery genre - after all, how often do you see Conan lying bed-ridden for two weeks, recovering from his latest adventure?  I consider a character's starting  hit points at 1st level to represent his capacity to withstand physical damage - thus any damage dealt to a 1st level character is a wound, and these hit points heal at the normal rate.  Hit points gained at subsequent levels are a reflection of increased skill and endurance, and any hit point loss that does not reduce a character's hit point total below his 1st level starting value represents only fatigue, and these hit points are recovered relatively quickly.  In dangerous and uncomfortable settings, like camping out in the dungeon, a character recovers 1 hit point per hour of rest.  If resting in a safe comfortable environment, a character will recover 2 hit points per hour of rest.  If resting at an inn with cold ale, a comfortable bed, and a willing wench to warm it, the character will recover all non-wound hit points in the course of a night.  I reckon that no matter how badly off Conan, Fafhrd, or the Gray Mouser are, a night of drinking and wenching always puts them to rights.  This rule also helps encourage sword & sorcery genre conventions.

I am well aware of the irony of recently admitting my past ignorance of the rationale behind certain D&D rules while at the same time invoking a house rule to "fix" one of the tried and true rules of the game.  To quote Gary Gygax:

"I do admit to becoming a trifle irritated at times to read an article in some obscure fan magazine or a letter to the editor of some small publication which attacks the game - or claims to be sure to improve it if only their new and 'improved' rules are followed.  My irritation is, I hope, only impatience with those who only dimly perceive the actual concepts of the game, and not my wounded vanity."
I have no doubt that my problem with the rate of natural healing in D&D reflects my dim perception of the concepts of the game.  Most of  my other problems with the rules have been - why not this, too?  After thirty years I'm still not getting it, so until I have an epiphany and come to truly understand the rationale behind the game's natural healing rate, I'm going to stick with my house rule for the time being.  It works well for me, reinforces the sword & sorcery genre and, I think, sticks to D&D's spirit of realism and pragmatic abstraction.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Confessions of a Born-Again Old-Schooler

What the heck is 'old-school,' anyway?  There are lots of different opinions, and definitions vary widely throughout the old-school community.  As far as I am aware there is no consensus on what exactly the term means with respect to gaming.  There is discussion of 'old-school games,' again with little consensus of what makes a game 'old-school,' and there is 'old-school gaming,' which, to my mind, is something else altogether.  It is upon the latter expression that I wish to expound.

To me, old-school gaming isn't about a particular rule-system or game mechanic, it's a philosophy; a style of play that emphasizes the active involvement of players in the game, and the freedom of the game master to adjudicate situations without being hindered by a restrictive set of rules that dictates what is or is not possible.  This is a style of play that those of us of a certain age will remember from our youth and that has, sadly, fallen by the wayside in contemporary gaming.

Remember when we were kids, venturing into our first dungeon?  It wasn't a series of "encounters" calculated to provide an optimum "challenge rating," it was a dynamic environment filled unknown dangers and fabulous treasure for those bold, daring, and clever enough to win it.  Remember proceeding slowly through the claustrophobic corridors, far beneath the surface, lit only by flickering smokey torchlight, carefully mapping the path so as to find your way out?  I remember the palpable tension.  I remember the thrill of the unknown, and I remember facing threats far beyond the ability of our low-level characters to defeat in combat.  In order to not only survive, but to thrive and win those fabulous treasures we had to think.  Fair fights were for suckers and thinking outside the box was the modus operandi in the adventures of our youth.  Our characters didn't live or die, win or lose, solely on lucky or unlucky die rolls in a carefully balanced and scripted encounter, but rather because of the skill, or lack thereof, of we, the players.

A more contemporary style of play, exemplified by Wizards of the Coast's 3E and 4E rpgs, resolves nearly everything by a die roll to determine if the character succeeds.  Player skill has been all but eliminated, which by extension reduces active player involvement in the game.  Similarly, since these games attempt to codify and regulate every possible situation, the game master's role as adjudicator has been greatly reduced.  Thus players have been reduced to dice-rolling observers of their character's fates, and game masters are no more than Dorito-eating automatons.  This is in diametric opposition to the way that D&D was supposed to be played.  Gary Gygax intended for D&D to be a thinking person's game that provided intellectual and creative challenges for the players, not their characters, to overcome.  Likewise, gaining levels in D&D was a reflection of the player's skill, a hard-earned reward for having overcome many dangers and obstacles over long periods of play.  3E replaced this type of play with a series of carefully structured and balanced 'encounters' each designed, not to provide a serious challenge, but to deplete 'x' % of the party resources, and that each character would gain a level after every 'y' encounters.  What a bland and formulaic way to play what should be one of the most exciting games ever made.

I'm as guilty as anyone of having wandered off down this path, adopting the newly published 3E after a nearly 15 year hiatus from D&D.  I jumped headlong into the d20 system, playing it for many years and even writing articles about it.  Somehow I didn't even notice how 3E had changed the way I played - probably because I was too busy trying to keep track of NPCs with two-page long stat-blocks filled with feats and abilities from half a dozen different classes and whatever templates had been applied.  With all of that to juggle it is easy to lose sight of the fact that players are now making 'search checks' instead of actually searching for traps, treasure, or secret doors; or the nebulous 'knowledge dungeoneering' check instead of relying upon their own knowledge and experience.  Perhaps the worst offenders of old-school tradition were the social interaction skills, such as bluff and diplomacy.  With these you could dispense with a lengthy and amusing role playing interaction by rolling a couple of d20s to determine how it all turned out.  It used to be that if a player was trying to persuade an NPC he'd make a persuasive argument and leave it to the GM to determine how successful it was - no dice needed to be rolled.  If you wanted to distract your opponent, you'd think up a clever distraction instead of relying upon a successful 'bluff check,' to resolve the attempt.

Another consequence of the ever-growing feats, classes and abilities associated with 3E was the amount of time that the GM required to prepare for each session.  I remember spending all of my spare time between sessions statting out NPCs and thus the game was very difficult to run 'on the fly,' which was my preferred style of play.  Prior to adopting 3E, I had been running GURPS for many years, which is a very GM-friendly system, and I'd often sit down at the gaming table with no adventure prepared for the evening, trusting in my ability to wing-it and make up whatever characters or creatures I needed on the spur of the moment in order to follow the player's lead.  That all fell by the wayside with 3E; everything was plotted out from beginning to end and, ultimately, resulted in a lot less freedom for the players to do what they wanted.  Deviating from the plan meant a huge headache and an anxiety attack for me, whereas it was par for the course with earlier game systems.

My disenchantment with 3E and its style of play began to grow after the arrival of a new baby and my subsequent reduction of free time (most of which was used for sleep).  I began to resent the amount of time I had to spend to prepare for each session, and resented it even more when much of the prep work went to waste, as it often did.  I recall spending most of an entire weekend creating an awe-inspiring multi-classed and templated vampire lord for a set-piece encounter.  When the player's characters encountered this NPC they all won initiative and killed him before he got a single action - I didn't even get a chance to make the cool expository soliloquy I had prepared.  Personally, I am of the opinion that it shouldn't take longer to create an NPC than it does to kill him.

My disenchantment with 3E, its cumbersome play style, and 'tyranny of the d20' continued to grow until I just couldn't play it anymore and went looking for a new game system.  I'd followed the development of the upcoming 4E for a while, but quickly decided that it wasn't for me.  When I finally discovered Castles & Crusades it was like coming home; it felt like the D&D I remembered from my youth and had a simple, elegant, unified system mechanic that I found intuitive and easy to apply.  I'd found my system and re-discovered my roots as an old-school gamer.

Unfortunately, C&C can be a bit of a tough sell to players who grew up playing MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) and whose only rpg experience is one of the WotC games.  For some, gaming is all about super-powers and the endorphin rush of fast leveling.  When you consider that a World of Warcraft player can gain seventy levels in just a few months of dedicated play, it must seem intolerably slow to have to play for several years to attain a mere twenty levels.  Likewise, MMOG play requires very little active engagement or creativity.  I've actually read books while fighting MMOG combats, cycling through the attack sequences without needing to pay attention to the screen.  MMOG quests are usually straightforward and you can always consult Thottbot to find out exactly how to complete them without any thought whatsoever.  Little wonder that an old-school game that requires you to think, has no 'kewl powerz,' and a comparatively glacial leveling rate has a tough time competing with WotC's MMOG-inspired games.

Here, I bear my share of guilt, having introduced new players to role playing by way of 3E and indoctrinating them into a lazy style of play that is very difficult to break out of.  I've tried running my C&C games as a sort of methadone clinic for 3E addicts, incorporating some of the rules from the d20 system, but slowing weaning the players off the junk, bringing the game more in line with AD&D over time.  In retrospect, I think this was a mistake - looking back I see that I tend to make a lot of these.  I should probably have started off running C&C with its rules as written instead of introducing them gradually, which is undoubtedly confusing.

Old habits are hard to break and I often fear that I've not adequately communicated what 'old school play' is all about.  There has been progress, but if my players knew how much treasure they've passed up for lack of looking, they would cry.  All too often they leave a room, after slaying its inhabitants, without taking the time to search it.  This, too, is a habit deeply ingrained from playing 3E: if there isn't a treasure chest with a flashing neon sign saying, "loot me!," one expects to be asked to make a search check.  I still hear "I search the room," from players from time to time.  That's nice, but it would be nicer still, and far more successful, to elaborate.

Fortunately, I've come across the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming written by Matthew Finch, author of Swords & Wizardry.  This explains the 'zen moments' of old school gaming far better than I ever could.  If you are new to old school play I highly recommend reading this excellent introduction to what it is all about.  Even if you are, like me, an expatriate old-schooler returning to the fold, the primer is full of inspiration and well worth the read.

Happy searching!