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?"

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movie Review: Sinbad and the Minotaur

This past weekend I was checking out the new releases on Video on Demand and was delighted to discover a new Sinbad movie, Sinbad and the Minotaur, which was released this past June.  I checked out the trailer, and though the movie didn't look fantastic, I thought it might be fun and since I had an evening to myself I thought I'd give it a go.

Oh the humanity.  What I hoped would be a fun B-movie Sinbad adventure was just two hours of my life that I'm never getting back.  The scenes in the trailer represent the best this movie has to offer, and I must confess that leading with a dancing girl shaking her booty definitely helped to sway my regrettable decision to rent this.    The story was boring, the costumes were cheesy, the fight scenes badly choreographed, and the acting... it was Gina Davis bad.

The casting was also disappointing.  You'd think that in this day and age it would be possible to find middle eastern actors to star in an Arabian fantasy.  Instead, Sinbad was portrayed by Manu Bennett, a crew-cut-sporting white guy whose heavy Australian accent killed the mood almost as much as the perpetual kissy-face he made throughout the movie.

Nobody kills my crew!  Let's suck face!

Them's kissin' words!

The slave-girl, Tara, played by Holly Brisely (shown above next to Sinbad) lacked any sense of exotic sensuality, and instead reminded me of nothing so much as a ditsy soccer-mom wearing a weird halter top.

Now, you'd think that in a movie entitled Sinbad and the Minotaur, there'd be an actual minotaur. Instead we are treated to a really goofy looking bull with glowing eyes and spiky skin.  By the time the 'minotaur' appeared the movie had already circled the drain a few times and was heading down the pipes, so the utter failure of the set-piece monster to evoke any awe only added insult to the already substantial injury.

I kept waiting for Tom Servo and Crow to climb into their front row seats and salvage this cinematic crap-fest, but sadly, any mocking commentary will have to come from the viewers themselves.

The only contribution that this movie makes to the legacy of the Sinbad movies is to demonstrate unequivocally that Harryhausen is still The Man, and that Caroline Munro reigns undefeated as the hottest slave-girl in movie history.

Sinbad and the Minotaur ranks alongside such treasures as Highlander II, Dungeons & Dragons, Cutthroat Island, and Castaway - movies that steal your life and give nothing in return.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Scions of Thoth

A lot of old schoolers dislike the monk class, most often citing its inappropriateness in non-Asian settings.  This is a sentiment that I disagree with and have argued against previously, because, hey, if you can have a monk kicking tail in America's old west, you can have them anywhere.  Where I do have a problem with the monk, however, is why such a character would be hanging out in a party of ne'er-do-wells, looting tombs, and delving dungeons.

So, really, my objection is not with their appropriateness in a fantasy setting, but as a player character class.  I also have the same misgivings regarding the paladin.

But, dammit, I love the monk class and I've always wanted to be able to play a character like Kwai Chang Caine, or one of my favourite childhood comic book characters, Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu.  So, I keep picking away at the class trying to find just the right fit.

The key, I think, is to forget about the whole 'monastic ascetic' business and put a spin on the class that would rationalize hunting for treasure in dusty old tombs.  So here is my latest incarnation of the monk class, that would be right at home alongside thieves and sorcerers in a sword & sorcery campaign.

The Monk

Monks are adepts of a cabal known as The Scions of Thoth, who are devoted to the acquisition of knowledge; indeed, they hunger for it like a sorcerer lusts for magic.  Using their finely-honed mental and physical talents, they plumb the depths of ancient ruins and dungeons in search of lost lore and artifacts of from ages past.

The libraries of the Scions of Thoth are vast repositories containing moldering tomes and crumbling scrolls recovered by the adepts of the order, often at great personal peril.

Monk Advancement Table


































Keeper of Chronicles
250,000 per
+1 hp per level

Monk Class Abilities

Weapons and Armour Restrictions: Monks may not wear armour or use shields.  They are proficient in the use of staff and sling.

Primary Attribute: Monks with above average Wisdom gain a +5% experience point bonus.

Open Hand Attacks: Monks are masters of unarmed combat and suffer no penalty when so fighting against armed opponents.  Open hand attacks deal 1d6 points of damage at 1st level.  Beginning at 5th level the monk may roll 2d6 and pick the highest roll; at 10th level the monk may roll 3d6 and pick the highest roll.  Furthermore, when making an open hand attack, a roll to hit of ‘20’ will stun the opponent for 1d6 rounds unless a successful Constitution saving throw is made.

Fast Reflexes: At 2nd level, the monk gains a +1 bonus to AC, and an additional +1 bonus every two levels thereafter (i.e. AC 8 at 2nd level, AC 7 at 4th level, AC 6 at 6th level, and so on).

Decipher Script: Beginning at 1st level, a monk is able to read non-magical writing with a successful Intelligence check.

Eidetic Memory: Beginning at 2nd level the monk is able to recall, with perfect clarity, anything he has ever seen, heard, or read.

Ancestral Memory: Beginning at 4th level, the monk is able to access his ancestral memory to gain knowledge of any past event.  This requires a successful Wisdom check modified by the obscurity of the information sought.

Read Body Language: The monk may add his bonus for above average Wisdom to his armour class.

Read Magical Script: Beginning at 7th level, the monk is able to read all magical inscriptions and may also use magical scrolls.

Establish Library: At 10th level, if the monk has acquired a sizeable collection of rare tomes he may establish a library that will become a centre of scholarship, attracting Seekers to serve the character.

Saving Throw Bonus: The monk receives an attribute bonus of +2 when making a save against fear effects.

I took inspiration for this class from several different sources, primarily Mentats and the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert's Dune series, but also with a touch of Indiana Jones.  The idea is to have monks serve the role of adventuring sages, whose extraordinary mnemonic skills give them a unique role in an adventuring party rather than just consigning them to little more than second-rate fighters, which is the case with most previous versions of the class.  To further define the niches, I've removed Read Languages and Read Magic from the Thief class.

The most extraordinary and potentially powerful of the monk's abilities is Ancestral Memory, which potentially grants them access to countless generations worth of knowledge.  The most obvious use of this ability is as a form of Legend Lore, allowing them to identify magic items, and recall ancient histories.  But it also allows them to essentially know how to do anything, in theory at least, much like the characters from The Matrix are able to download skills as needed.

As living repositories of knowledge, monks are highly sought after as advisers to monarchs and nobles, and many warlords have been defeated by the advice of a monk who was able to recall the tactics of every battle ever fought.  This power can tempt even the most resolute monk, and there are many who have forsworn their duties to mankind to profit from their training, selling their skills to the highest bidder, or even establishing themselves as rulers in their own right.  Such self-serving monks make excellent villains in a campaign and are worthy adversaries for any adventuring group that may find themselves in competition with one.

For those who choose to provide wisdom and guidance to the rulers of the world, pay heed to this cautionary tale of a monk who overstepped his bounds and took a few too many liberties with the queen, as told by the troubadour troop, Boney M.

And if you want to turn up the volume and shake your booty, go ahead.  You know you want to.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Grappling with Overbearing Rules

Back in 1974, while the world was being introduced to D&D, we were also grooving to Carl Douglas's disco hit, Kung Fu Fighting!  Kung Fu was becoming all the rage in North America, thanks to the popularity of the 1973 movie, Enter the Dragon, and the television series, Kung Fu (1972-1975), and it's pretty fair to say that I've been a martial arts enthusiast ever since I watched David Carradine snatch the pebble from his master's hand back in 1972.

David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine

I didn't end up discovering D&D until 1980, right around the same time that I was watching Chuck Norris kick ninja ass in The Octagon, while getting my own tossed around the tatami mats at the YMCA judo club.

Once I got my hands on the Dungeon Master's Guide, though, I was eager to see the rules for weaponless combat, sure that I would soon be dishing out some smack-down in an orgy of bar-room-brawling mayhem.  My eyes quickly glazed over as I read the two pages of rules for pummeling, grappling, and overbearing, which I'm sure are the most bewildering and complicated in rpg history.  The much-anticipated tavern mayhem never came to pass, and I have to wonder if anyone has ever used those rules.

The situation has never really improved much.  Even after running a 3rd Edition campaign for eight years I still needed to look up the rules every time a player wanted to grapple.  Does unarmed combat really have to be this complicated?

Here are some simple rules for pummeling and grappling that I've come up with for my S&W game that I think are pretty straightforward.  I use a 1 minute combat round and group initiative in my game, but the rules should be equally valid no matter what system you use.

1. When attacking an armed opponent all unarmed attacks are at -4 to hit, and the armed opponent attacks first regardless of initiative since the unarmed attacker must get inside the weapon's range.

2. A successful pummeling hit deals 1d6 points of damage minus the armour rating of the target because punching a guy in full plate armour is pretty pointless (this assumes the opponent is wearing a helmet).  So, for example punching an opponent in leather armour deals 1d6-2 points of damage.

1. Before the grapple can occur the intended target must be taken down to the ground.  Unless the target is already on the ground a take-down attack (throw or leg-sweep) must be made.  If the take-down attack is made against an armed opponent the attack roll is at -4 to hit, and the opponent attacks first regardless of initiative.  An opponent's armour does not protect him against a take-down; only Dexterity bonus, Shield bonus, or magical items such as Bracers of Defense can protect against this attack.

2. If the take-down was successful the attacker follows his opponent to the ground and immediately applies a hold.

3. On the defender's turn he has one chance to break free.  Each participant in the grapple makes either a Strength or Dexterity check (whichever is higher) by rolling under their attribute score on 1d20.  Because fighters are universally trained in grappling arts they may add their level to their attribute score when making this check, and if monks are used in your game they, too, should add their level.  Whoever makes a successful attribute check by the greatest amount wins the grapple.  If the defender wins he is able to break the hold and either stand up or catch his attacker in a hold of his own.  If the attacker wins, his opponent is pinned and helpless.  Escape attempts on subsequent rounds are not allowed because the longer an attacker has to consolidate his hold the more difficult it becomes to break; even if you're using a 10 second combat round, by the time a defender makes a second attempt it is too late.

Now, let's get out there and dish out some smack-down with Carl Douglas!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Here Be Monsters

Polar bears are the world's largest terrestrial predator, with an average adult male weighing in at 450 kg (~1,000 lb) of claws and teeth.  And, unlike other bear species, Ursus maritimus considers people to be an acceptable alternative to their usual diet of seal. (The picture of the bear below was not taken by me, but was taken from Google Images)

Churchill, Manitoba, is home to the world's largest breeding population of polar bears and their close proximity to people leads to many potentially dangerous encounters.  Consequently local residents, and visitors who wish to remain un-mauled, adapt to the omnipresent threat.

The protocol at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the research facility where I stayed was to ensure that doors were kept closed at all times, and to look outside first before opening any doors to leave - since polar bears typically ambush seals at their breathing holes in the ice, they've also learned that doorways are good places to lurk in search of an easy meal.  And whenever you are outside, particularly when outside of town, it is important to grow eyes in the back of your head and be on the constant lookout for potentially dangerous situations.  This is especially true when working on the coastline, where the rocky shore and boulder fields often make it difficult to see an approaching bear until it is too late.

Working in conditions like this forces you to be constantly aware of your surroundings and always assessing potentially dangerous situations.  At one time this is how all people lived, but civilization has more or less culled our survival instincts, lulling us into a false sense of security despite the fact that the two-legged urban predators are the biggest threat that most of us face on a daily basis.  Over the past sixteen years I've had several close encounters with bears in the field and they've all ended well; by contrast I've had several violent confrontations with thugs in the city in just the past few years.

Another interesting facet of life in Churchill is that you never leave town unarmed.  Twelve-gauge shot-guns are as ubiquitous an accessory there as cell-phones are in the city, and it was amusing to see a person bicycling down the street with a shot-gun slung across his back.  This is a perfectly ordinary sight, which in the big city would illicit panic and end with the cyclist face-down on the ground, hand-cuffed and surrounded by police with weapons drawn.

Palaeontologist, Dave Rudkin, keeping an eye out for bears while working

These observations have gotten me thinking, as always, about gaming, particularly about the prevalence of personal weapons in a fantasy city.  I've rarely ever seen any sort of weapons restrictions in a fantasy campaign, yet it seems to me that such restrictions would increase in direct proportion to the size of the city and consequent power of civil authority.  Small towns along the frontier are likely to be completely unrestricted, whereas urban settings might require permits, peace-bonds, or even an outright ban on carrying personal weapons.  I suspect that such a ban would be particularly common in cities with tyrannical or extremely authoritarian rulers, where civil disobedience and revolt are likely.

Such complications add an interesting dynamic to urban adventures since the players will still need to deal with  the ubiquitous urban predators while either placing themselves at a disadvantage against such foes or dealing with the legal repercussions of not doing so.

It was just such authoritarian regulation that led to the widespread proliferation of karate and kobudo throughout Okinawa, whose citizens were forbidden the use of weapons, but who still had to deal with constant threats to their lives and property.  So, in this case, the prohibition of weapons had a profound influence on Okinawan culture and it stands to reason that similar analogues might exist in a fantasy setting.

This post is the last of my recollections of Churchill and is also an introduction to my next couple of posts on unarmed combat in fantasy gaming.  So as the sun sets on Churchill, I give you the polar bear, Swords & Wizardry style.

Bear, polar
Armour Class: 3                 Special:
Hit Dice: 8                          Move: 15/6 (when swimming)
Attacks: Claws or bite        HDE/XP: 8/800

Polar bears are the largest of all bear species and have particularly robust skeletons and thick fur, which protects them from harm.  They are very fast, both on land and in the sea, and they are well-insulated and able to withstand extreme cold.

Sunset from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fortress on the Borderlands

I don't think that I'd be speaking only for myself if I were to say that there is an enduring appeal to campaigns that are set outside the bounds of civilization on the border of the great unknown.  The perils of exploration, the thrill of discovery, and the promise of untold riches have provided the starting hook for many a campaign over the years, most especially for those of us whose first introduction to D&D was with Gary Gygax's adventure module, Keep on the Borderlands.

The focal point of Keep on the Borderlands is the keep, itself.  The sole bastion of civilization on the edge of the great frontier, the keep provided a home base for adventurers to rest, resupply, and sell off their loot.

During my recent trip to Churchill, I had an opportunity to visit a real Keep on the Borderlands at Cape Merry, where the Churchill River empties into Hudson Bay.

The strategic importance of Hudson Bay cannot be understated, as it was the gateway to the interior of North America, providing access to a wealth of natural resources.  The mouth of the Churchill River is guarded by Fort Prince of Wales, which was built in the early 18th century as a Hudson Bay Company outpost.  The HBC, one of the world's oldest corporations, was established in 1670 to engage in North American fur trade and is still operates as a Canadian department store chain with its main branch in Winnipeg.

In 1770, a rival corporation, The Northwest Company, was formed to break the HBC's stranglehold on the fur trade, and so intense was the rivalry that armed conflict often arose in what has become known as 'The Fur Trade Wars.'  (Indeed, my home in Winnipeg is just a few blocks from the site of the 1815 Battle of Seven Oaks in which Governor Robert Semple, with a force of HBC men, unwisely left the safety of Fort Douglas to engage a band of NWC men and were massacred in the ensuing battle.)

Fort Prince of Wales across the river from the gun battery

Fort Prince of Wales, shown above, served a similar function to the Keep on the Borderlands by providing a haven for fur traders to resupply and sell their wares.  On the Cape Merry side of the river, the mouth was guarded by a gun battery to prevent enemies gaining access to the interior water ways.

The battery, built more than 250 years ago, still serves its purpose, manned today by an armed Parks Canada sentry on polar bear lookout.

The battery still has a rusted cannon pointing out across the river.

The picture shown above is the partially constructed remains of the original battery.  The project was abandoned when it was realized that the battery was pointing directly at Fort Prince of Wales, and should the battery fall into enemy hands they would be able to bombard the Fort with its own guns.  The existing battery was built so that no gun would have line of site to the fort.

The fort also served as a whale fishery, and looking out at the bay at any given moment one will see several beluga whales broaching the surface (in the picture below, the white dot in the water is a beluga).

I always get a lot of gaming inspiration from my summer field work, and many of my campaign settings are heavily influenced by my own real-life adventures.  Taking a couple hours off work to visit Cape Merry gave my imagination a good stir, and as I leaned against the gun ports of the battery looking out across the water I gained a very visceral appreciation for resource-based wilderness campaigns.

Ze Bulette recently posted an article on Alternatives to Capitalism in role playing games, which proposed replacing the gold standard monetary system with a real-world barter system.  This has been done in a few games, such as Fantasy Flight's Midnight campaign setting, but in truth we don't tend to see it as often as we might.

Most often, treasure in our campaigns consists of chests of gold coins and sacks of gems and jewelry, but there is a whole lot of wealth to be obtained from exploiting the resources of the unexplored reaches of the campaign world.  Considering how many people became filthy rich off the fur trade, imagine dealing in such exotic products as wyvern skins, couatl feathers, or the oh-so-sleek owlbear pelt.  I suspect that trade in hard-to-get spell components would be very lucrative and it never hurts to know powerful wizards who owe you a favour, and venom sacs would fetch a good price from the local assassin's guild.  Providing there is a convenient outpost where adventurers can sell their goods, this could make for a very interesting type of campaign that encourages players to look for new avenues of profit and take the lead in planning their adventures.  So maybe it's time to dust off the Keep on the Borderlands and press it into service once again by dropping it into your favourite wilderness setting and using it as a base of operations for a game of exploration, because as my favourite cartoonist, Bill Waterson, once said in a Calvin and Hobbes strip: 'There's treasure everywhere!'