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Thursday, January 4, 2024

2023 retrospective & 2024 plans

On the last day of 2022 I got married. In February 2023 I was invested as Baron of Delftwood, an SCA thing. Over the course of 2023 I ran D&D (OSE) fairly frequently until the summer SCA season hit, then it dropped off to pretty much nothing, and never really restarted for the rest of the year. Home renovations, illnesses (I ended up getting Covid twice), minor injuries that seem to take forever to heal now that I am middle aged, then holiday plans. I put my campaign on official hiatus I think in October, with two separate plans for the future. An AD&D OA game I am calling the "Swords of the Daimyo" campaign (because I am using the "Against the Black Temple" set up and hexcrawl to get us started) and my "OD&D 1974" game, where I intend to run a "pure" White Box OD&D game (initially), adding house rules and bits from supplements and/or fanzines as they reach 50 years of age. Neither of those two games has started yet, due to the previously mentioned list of delays and woes. I am really hoping to start both before the end of January though.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Swords & Wizardry Revised Kickstarter


Alternate Erol Otus cover art

New Swords & Wizardry Kickstarter today - here. I heartily recommend it. Matt Finch is a stand up guy, and S&W pretty much kicked off the OSR for me.

Friday, June 10, 2022

More play, less blogging

 I am about to move to Syracuse, NY, and have been packing up stuff this week, so there's been a break in play. However, prior to me needing to move (my landlord died, his brother inherited and is selling the house), we've played a bunch of games I haven't blogged about at all. Sometimes twice per week. I divided it into seasons, with a Pendragon style winter phase, and we're fast approaching the second one of those. Season two has had seven or eight "episodes" so far, the Black City Vikings campaign is going strong, I hope it survives my move. 

Here is some art from a Great Khan Games upcoming project - 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Black City Session 3


After a couple of weeks off due to unavoidable issues, we played again last night. One of the regulars was missing, and none of the irregulars made it either, so we had just two players, so they each took two back up characters with them as henchmen.

We started late, mainly because we were chatty after a couple of weeks off, but also because we were all trying to remember exactly what had happened three weeks ago when we'd last played, parsing it all together from our collective notes and memories.

Joe's character Sigurd the daring has taken over the leadership role, since Jason's character, whose name I can't recall now, who had been their chief, died in session one. They decided trying to enter the towers was too deadly, and going underground seemed like a death sentence, so they were just going to explore the ruins and scavenge, while avoiding any other Northmen. A decent plan, but they ran afoul of some moaning shamblers (kind of Zombies, almost like on “The Walking Dead”, except not as a virus), they mistook at a distance for other Vikings.

The combat went well for most of the party, although Joe's Berserker Angmar got pretty mangled. He survived, but only because we used the Death & Dismemberment chart for fighting at 0 HP. He ended up with a couple of broken bones and was stunned and prone at one point, saved by the rest of the party. A couple of party members had nasty bites, and were pretty grossed out that the undead were actually eating their flesh.

The party trekked back to their ship and dropped off Angmar, grabbed Knud Frisk the beefy (Joe's Magic-User) as a replacement and heaaded back to the city, with the same game plan. They searched their way through a couple of hexes before finding an intact building that turned out to be a home base for some bandits. They went in assuming it to be abandoned and searchable, tripped a trap near the entryway (gas, poisonous, but merely incapacitating and vision obscuring), Sigurd failed his save. Everyone else made theirs, and most of them surged into the main room, and into a fight. A pair of archers shot at the party as they emerged from the cloud of gas.

The next round a spearman in a strange helmet moved to attack, more arrows came at them from the archers. The party's counterstrike killed the spearman.

I won initiative the next round again, and another group moved into range, a guy carrying a “strange trumpet looking thing” (Atlantean Lightning Gun), and two men with swords & shields moving clearly in front of him as a shield wall to protect him. The lightning gun fired, killing Knud and wounding Sigurd, whom Knud had dragged from the gas cloud. I did make the ruling then and there that magic/tech that drops you to 0HP or lower is a kill. The D&D table makes no sense against those types of attacks.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Atlantean Lightning Gun exploded on use, killing the user, and his two guards instantly, and depriving the party of the coolest treasure there. The party took down one of the Archers, and the other surrendered, offering to show the party where the hidden loot was. Magnanimous in victory, the party offered to take the Archer on as a henchman, and the adventure would have continued, but it was late in the evening, so they returned to their ship and we called it quits for the night.

All in all, it was a good evening of gaming, despite the poor player turnout. I had fun, and I am pretty sure Joe and Jason did too.

I do need to go through and populate the hexes ahead of time, as it is cumbersome to do at the table during play, which was also noted in the original Black City campaign. I may also prep some wandering monster encounters ahead of time.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Black City Vikings & Customization


I don't recall where I found this image, but it seemed to fit the theme.

We've had to cancel two weeks in a row due to circumstances outside our control. I have however, had time to customize the setting some. In my version of the Black City, we're basically working under the assumption that everything is true. Conspiracy theories about ancient aliens, aliens (really core to the setting anyway), Atlantis, reptilians from the center of the earth, alternate dimensions and parallel worlds, Stargate type stuff, Lovecraft, mythology, everything.

The campaign takes place in a fairly realistic Viking age setting, until you get to the Thule islands and the black city. The players are, to the best of their abilities, playing their characters as Norsemen of the time period, with appropriate weapons and armor (I made a table to roll on for equipment at character generation, it saves a lot of time). I have made some concessions to magic, for what the Norsemen believed in, and added some flavor to the rules set we're using (LotFP, as suggested in the original Black City campaign). I added a couple of flavorful house rules too that seemed appropriate for the Viking Age, notable “Shields Shall Be Splintered” and “Death and Dismemberment” from the OSR blogosphere, and Berserker and Gothi classes, and some Skald skills.

In my head canon the Alien Greys that built the city died off, but their creations didn't. I have them as the creators of the Hyperboreans, who outlived their masters, and then tried to enslave the rest of the human race way back in prehistory. My Hyperboreans are essentially a human sub-species designed to act as overseers for the rest of the human and proto-human slaves the Greys kept. Tall, pale, cold resistant, magically adept, and psionic. Hyperboreans are familiar with the use of most Grey technology, but cannot make it, being (genetically manipulated) humans though, they are creative enough to effect some repairs, and jury rig some new devices, as well as use them in unintended ways.

Next come the Atlanteans. Also human, not genetically manipulated, descended from human slaves that escaped the Hyperboreans and settled Atlantis, they are tech users, which made them far more advanced than their Neolithic and Bronze age contemporaries. They have a whole gonzo Steam-Punk Tesla meets Magic with an ancient Greek aesthetic going on. Their tech is their own, as is their magic; different than that of the Hyperboreans, who are basically just scavenging from the Greys.

I mention both the Hyperboreans and the Atlanteans because, long after the Greys died out, they fought a long genocidal war against each other in my head canon, and one important front was the Black City. So their artifacts also litter the ruins, and they are responsible for some of the destruction of the environment there, and some of the deadly hazards of it too.

The Reptilians from the Earth's center, I am less sure about yet. I might want Silurians from Doctor Who, or maybe Sleestaks from Land of the Lost. Maybe both? Possibly neither.

I may or may not consider Robert E. Howard's Hyborean Age canon to the campaign, I haven't decided yet, but I'll have to slot in some other ancient stuff if I do. I am trying to slot in an old school Battlestar Galactica reference (The 13th Tribe of Man, “Life here began out there”), but need to reconcile it with the rest. My current thought is to use the Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha as the colony ship from Kobol, possibly some time travel shenanigans shoe-horned in to make it work logically in my mind. It would give us yet another ancient spaceship wreck somewhere on earth. Anyway, I want Colonial Warriors and Cylons to make an appearance, if only as an “ancient aliens” style background.

The dimensional gates make things like side trips to other campaign worlds a la Q1 a possibility, actually looking forward to throwing Carcosa in the mix. Thinking about adding some bits from ASE. I know I want dinosaurs at some point. Maybe some other time travel shenanigans so I can bring in Nazi occultists, possibly with a diesel-punk moon base.

The setting already has competing mad AIs and Alien ghosts and so much more.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Session Two - Black City

 This one was a marathon eight hour session with a lot of exploration and some combat. Not all of the players were present for the entire session, two of them weren't at the game at the same time even, missing each other completely. I continued a policy of having everyone have three characters to play, one primary, one alternate/henchman, and one "on deck". Since I started all the PCs at 1st level, and didn't bother adjusting any of the random encounter lists or scaling any of the placed encounters, it seemed like a reasonable precaution. There were a few fatalities, and a couple of long-term injuries (broken bones from the "Death & Dismemberment" table. Cagey players are starting to abuse the "Shields Shall Be Splintered" rule, but I'll let it slide for now, as it is keeping fatalities low. 

The players found some good loot this time, which was enough to push one of the Fighters up to level two. He had already become the de facto leader of the group, by virtue of having been a part of every expedition this crew has made into the city, and having lived to tell of it without suffering some debilitating injury.

They didn't run into any poison monsters this time, but they did run afoul of a pair of Watchers (limited Stone Golems), and one fatality occurred there. They managed to beat a Polar Bear, held a party on the beach for the other Norsemen, and recruited a witch/seeress away from another crew. 

The hardest encounter of the night was a Wind Demon, and they did win that fight through shear luck and misplaced confidence. The "Death and Dismemberment" table was on their side in that fight, and my dice apparently wanted them to win, as I rolled a record number of 3s and 5s.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Session One of The Black City

 I ran a session last Thursday, six men entered the Black City. They fought some Berserkers and were forced to retreat back to their ship for reinforcements. They headed back and found an intact building with a recently malfunctioning door (or so they assume), which they explored and found some loot and an Alien Grey corpse (although they are unaware of it's true nature) which they desecrated. On their way back to their ship they encountered several white furred snakes, and only two men survived. The Black City is a dangerous place.

We will play again tomorrow evening.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Vikings and the Black City

 So I decided to run a new campaign. A Viking campaign. A Viking campaign using John Arendt's "Black City" campaign setting, based off of the stuff on his blog. I've been re-reading through it for a week to refresh, written up and copy/pasted some stuff for it. We start tonight. I don't usually use other people's stuff, except for stealing ideas here and there, and some filler material I'll adapt into my own campaign, so I hope it goes well. 

Anyway, thanks for the setting John.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Archery in old school D&D

Archery sucks in early editions of D&D and here's why; it's either under powered or over powered, depending on rules and interpretations of rules. This actually includes all ranged weapons, bows just seem to suffer the worst because of their commonness of use. 

I don't know Chainmail well enough to comment on the relative effectiveness of archery in that game, but I am quite familiar with most iterations of TSR era D&D/AD&D. 

The game seems to be originally designed to emulate the early medieval period, up to, just barely, the high medieval period. The bow didn't dominate the battlefields of medieval Europe then. Cavalry was only beginning to really dominate. Heavily armored and well armed, they took a small fortune and years of time to train properly, and even then, often fought on foot, because of siege warfare being more common than pitched battles on open ground.

Similarly, most of D&D, especially at lower levels, is traditionally spent in dungeons. Bows are mostly useless in dungeons, because encounter ranges are so short. AD&D giving bows a better rate of fire actually makes this worse, because people are loathe to give up their multiple attacks per round weapon, and the missile attack adjustments for Dexterity are better, making them seem like a more viable weapon to higher Dexterity characters.

Don't fall for this. You'll get stuck in a cycle of retreating from enemies (to try and avoid melee), and firing into melee. In the first case you end up basically disengaged from the combat, in the second you become an active hazard to your own party.

So, to avoid this, remember (or learn about) the period D&D was based on, and that trained melee fighters are the kings of battle. This is the post-Roman western European world, with the Viking age, and a host of other hordes invading, endemic internecine warfare and small kingdoms built by previous barbarian tribes on Roman ruins. Largely the bow is a tool used for hunting, they mostly weren't strong enough to have their arrows penetrate armor, and the kind of regular training as groups like the English used at Agincourt were centuries away yet, and the technology of the longbow itself was still a new thing; it's armor piercing arrows were also a long way from being invented.

D&D was designed with the vision of people playing characters like Beowulf or Conan, or maybe King Arthur and his knights. The vision wasn't to have snipers dominating the battlefield. You can play that, but you are fighting the system, instead maybe, if you absolutely do not want to play a heroic front line fighter type, but still want to be a fighter, there are a couple of small fixes. Crossbows. Loaded and ready, they go before initiative in some D&D. Rate of fire is terrible, and variable weapon damage makes them worse, but you're only taking the one shot at the beginning of combat. Drop it and switch to a melee weapon (perhaps handed to you by your trusted henchman or hireling), but one with reach; a spear or a polearm, and fight from the second rank. No penalties, still in the fight. Remember the bow's rate of fire was a trap to lure you in.

The caveat here is that D&D grew to include stuff from out of it's original vision, stuff from the later medieval period, the renaissance and reformation periods, and even the early modern world; and from diverse cultures from around the world and a hefty dose of the purely fantastic, so it became possible to make a viable archer type character for D&D (much more easily than you could a swashbuckler type) and when you do, depending on the rules set an interpretations, they will then completely dominate the field.

Once weapon specialization becomes an option, and specialized arrow types, the archer gets deadly. Most dungeon combats take place at close range, but to a bow specialist they are usually at point blank range within 30' they are +2 to hit and +2 to damage, and roll double damage, making a specialized archer get two attacks/round at 1st level, with each attack doing 6-16 points of damage, assuming normal arrows[(1d6+2) x 2]. Given that an archer is more likely to be a higher Dexterity character, and that players tend to play advantages and forget disadvantages, he's likely to be hitting at something like +6/+6, and rolling d8s instead of d6s for damage, possibly with a Strength bonus added (bows built for Strength cost more, but are still possible at lower levels). Wait until this guy is a few levels higher, and has a bow built for Strength to match his Gauntlets of Ogre Power or Girdle of Giant Strength, and he's getting 3 attacks per round at that +6 to hit, now with a +8 to damage on each of those attacks while using Sheaf arrows, maybe magic Sheaf arrows. 

Let's say this Archer is 7th level, equipped with normal sheaf arrows, Gauntlets of Ogre Power, and a Bow built for up to 18/00 Strength. When within 30' of his target he's doing up to 3x (2d8 +8 ), at 18-32 points per hit, that comes to a maximum of 96 points of damage per round. That's enough damage to potentially take down a huge, ancient red dragon by himself in a single round, at 7th level. I say potentially, because even with his probable attack bonuses of +6, he still only hits 55% of the time (-1 AC for a Red Dragon), and his average damage per hit is only 25 points, so the odds are he only does 50 points of damage in the first round, leaving a little bit for the rest of the party to do.

This will be exacerbated if we don't use the weapons vs. AC chart, the rules for firing into melee (which most groups forget in practice), or the rules for cover and/or concealment. These are all AD&D things (although similar rules may have cropped up later in the D&D line with BECMI or Cyclopedia and I just don't recall), but so is weapon specialization. 

How do we fix this? Don't use Unearthed Arcana? Don't play 2nd edition AD&D? Tough to say really. I am not sure it can be fixed in AD&D, without changing the rules to disallow specialization, bows built for Strength or non-standard arrows.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

How I Started

I skipped a “Year in Review” type post this year, in no small part because 2020 pretty much sucked. I live in NY state, so we were among the first that really got slammed by the pandemic, although not near where I live. Here it's only just starting to get really bad. 

It has put my home game on an indefinite hiatus again, we skipped from March to August of 2020, and now we have not played since early December. We started this campaign because I wanted to run Stonehell and I had a group of people large enough to start, if we played old school with retainers and were smart. So far we've gotten in 24 sessions, which is pretty good considering the pandemic.

I started dating a woman, got engaged. It was pretty fast, but I think we're good for the long haul. Planning a wedding for after the pandemic. We already shared some hobbies, but I got her into D&D, she's played in my campaign since August, as I recall. Her name is Sarah, I imagine she'll be mentioned her more often, as I blog more, which seems likely, since I am not playing D&D, so my D&D thoughts pretty much come here to be shared.

Now to the topic of the post -

How I started I've mentioned in several previous posts, mostly at the start of my blog as a thing, and I assume anyone reading this has gone back and read all the previous posts (lol), but I'll go over it again, since it's the thing to do today.

1. The year you began, and with which role-playing game?

I started, I am reasonably certain in 1981, with Holmes Basic D&D. I can link it to me seeing Excalibur in the theater with my friend Chris Gorton. He saw I had really liked the movie and suggested we play D&D together. I was surprised he had a copy of the game, I had been looking for it locally for a year or more by then, having seen it in ads in “Boy's Life”, the scouting magazine.

2. Did you figure it out alone, or were you introduced by a lone but experienced GM, or by joining a preexisting group?

Kind of both. I was introduced, a week or so after seeing that film together, by Chris, but he wasn't great at explaining the rules, and it was a super short introduction. I managed to find and buy a copy of Holmes Basic within a month or so, as I had already been saving my allowance up for it when I found it. I don't recall the price exactly, but it had to have been around ten dollars or a little more to make me have to save up. I spent a bit of time failing to grasp what was going on, and eventually, between me questioning my friend Chris, reading the rules myself, and asking my dad what he thought, I figured it out, with significant missteps along the way.

3. What was your first group like? Was it private among friends, in a game store, or in a club? Were they older, younger than you? Did their style of play shape the way you played later?

My first group lasted one session, Chris was DM, we played at my parent's house. I was the youngest player, the rest were two to three years older than me. It went alright, I guess. Chris was an interesting DM, compelling, but he ricocheted between Monty Haulism and Killer DM syndrome. Survive a session and you were a demigod, but the odds were not in your favor. I really learned the game playing with my dad, one on one, me DMing him as he controlled a party of PCs running through the “Keep on the Borderlands”, tons of mistakes along the way, but we learned from them and kept moving on. My dad never really got the game, and fantasy wasn't his thing, so he didn't really play much after those first games, but it was nice of him to try bonding with me over my interests. Ultimately my friend Tim MacDougal was DMing a game within walking/biking distance of my house and I started playing with him and his group, and ran a side campaign mainly with my next door neighbor Scott Whitmore, following a similar formula as I had with my dad. Scott ran a single PC as a leader of a party of NPCs and I ran a lot of half baked dungeons that I made up as I went along most of the time. For what it's worth Tim was doing the same thing for the group I was playing in. He really influenced my DMing style. Eventually I took over DMing duties from Tim, so he could get some playing time before he left for the army.

4. Your favorite role-playing game. (Was it the game you started with?)

First edition AD&D would be my best answer I guess, although none of us ever really ran it by the book, rules as written, probably because we couldn't understand it completely. It is technically a different game than Holmes Basic D&D.

5. Anything else you want to share reflecting the impact of how you started on how you play(ed).

None of us were wargamers going into this, especially not miniatures wargamers, so we missed the unwritten memo about using tons of Henchmen and Hirelings and thought our characters were supposed to be heroes from the get go. The end game was not spelled out for us either, so we just kept on playing as we had been, going against bigger, badder monsters in search of better and better loot. The answer to the question “Why do you adventure?” was “For riches and glory”. We didn't have a lot off angsty backstory (or any really at all for a starting character, really just more of a basic “my guy is a viking” or “I'm a Dwarf”). Lack of wargaming experience made our play different I think than was intended, but ultimately, D&D at least, kind of went in the direction my generation had been taking it. Too far maybe, but that's just my opinion. I have spent a long time trying to come back to the older style of RPG gaming, we use retainers pretty extensively now, we only used them to fill player gaps in the past. I am working on a domain game for my players. The world is original and, because I've DMed in it for forty years now, pretty easy to get immersed in. I can run my game in a style tailored to the players and how they want to play, everything from the character immersion thespian heavy style to the wargamer-ey third person role-playing. I rarely do voices though. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Other Viking D&D stuff

Trying to work on the house rules document for my proposed Vikings game, a good set of house rules sets the tone for the game, here I am going for something serious, kind of grim, but also heroic. 

The shield needs to get more love, because there's not much in the way of other armor. I was leaning towards making a shield give 50% cover from missile attacks, provided you aren't surprised or engaged in melee; along with some kind of level scaling fighter class bonus to AC, and a shield wall bonus. Shields Shall Be Splintered is an obvious choice here too, although I did recently see something about usage dice for the shield that could be good too.; a usage die makes for a good compromise between tracking shield damage and having essentially indestructible shields. A shield needs to be both more useful and more destructible for this game.

The helmet should get something better than the standard nothing too I guess, I am thinking a +1 to AC there. Seriously in standard D&D there's no good reason to wear a helmet. I have always like that in Talisman the helmet basically gives you a saving throw versus losing your hit points, but that seems to over powered and fiddly for D&D.

The equipment list could stand to be shortened, simplified, tightened up. I am thinking one armor – chainmail, you are either armored or unarmored, that's it. Lighter armor is not attested to in the sagas, nor has any evidence been found by archaeologists. A few lamellar plates have been found at a single site in Sweden, so I think it's safe to skip. Make chainmail a base AC of 5 [15], unarmored a base AC of 9 [11]. 

The weapons list can reasonably get edited down to Knife, Sword, Axe, Spear and Bow. Technically there is some variation there, 2 main styles of knife, one of which can overlap into sword, axes should probably get split into one and two handed varieties, and there are some small variations on spear type, but I don't think they are large enough to bother making them extra weapons based on that. The sagas speak of a type of polearm similar to a glaive, but none have ever been found, and given the funerary practices of the Norsemen, that makes their existence seem less likely.

Weapons need to have properties that make them mechanically different, other than just the damage range, in part because I am considering a class based damage system. The axe seems simple, give them an advantage of some sort against shields, which plays into the shield rule ideas I have. Spears can have reach. Swords though? Other than their obvious prestige item status, what should they get? Bows are a ranged weapon, and I kind of want to encourage melee combat, because it seems more Viking in spirit, and actual historical practice too. Knives might be used in an off hand, and could be thrown, maybe they also can be used while grappling/being grappled?

Berserkers need to be in the game, although I have had mixed results having berserkers in adventuring parties in the past, it just wouldn't feel like a Viking game without them.

The concept of Fame or Glory is one I like from the Saga minigame from TSR and have always wanted to steal for an RPG. Basically it rewards you for the things you are already getting rewarded for in D&D, but kind of the inverse of the way that D&D does it for leveling. In OSR D&D at least, you get more rewards for treasure than combat, Fame is the opposite. In practice it tracks whether or not you are going to enter Valhalla, attract the notice of the Gods (for good or ill), and, as a zero sum game, decides the “winner”, that is to say who is the greatest hero of his age. I have been thinking about adapting it to D&D since Saga was new.

On to Wyrd, or Fate. On the one hand I like the idea of having a secret stash of “get out of jail free” cards for the players, maybe a hidden number, perhaps rolled randomly at character generation, that will keep a character from dying at a given time. They are simply not fated to be dead yet, “the length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago” and all. I admittedly have stolen the idea from TSR's Top Secret RPG. I also have considered the idea that Wyrd might be a “mana” pool, for spell casting or whatever. I am still hazy on this, but magic, in an old Norse context, is about manipulating Wyrd. 

So classes then... A straight up Warrior, a Berserker, a Skald and what else? Some kind of Thief/Scout type? Say “to hell with the initial concept” and hand wave in some magical classes? The zero level NPC crew members will be like the Torchbearers and Men-at-Arms in my current game, they work pretty well and have possible advancement built in to them.

I have a seed of an idea for some background/social class stuff too, I figure anything that helps define the character for role-playing purposes has to be good, right? That might be some kind of old school heresy there, but I liked the family, birth right and ancestry from AD&D's Oriental Adventures book, despite it actually making character generation take twice as long. Some kind of pared down version of that might be nice, and the extra time is made up in not having nearly as large an equipment list for players to obsess over. Maybe something quick and dirty like the “Gifts” table in the Viking Campaign Sourcebook? Although I kind of want to avoid some of them, based on my desire to take absolutely normal humans and place them in a fantasy setting, which is a campaign set up I apparently keep coming back to; I did it with the Mongol invasion of Japan, I did it with Vikings once before, I did it with ancient Gauls and Romans. That's just off the top of my head, I've probably done it with others too.

Also, on a completely unrelated note, did I just dream up the idea of Elves being turned as though they were Undead of equivalent Hit Dice? Because they are soulless creatures of Chaos? So, I was sure I had read that somewhere, I have even used it in a campaign before, but I thought I had seen it elsewhere, like on a blog somewhere, back when blogs were where the OSR was happening, before G+ and all that. To be honest, I was sure it was a Lamentations of the Flame Princess rule, but I looked it up and their Clerics get Turn Undead as a spell, rather than an innate ability, and there's no mention of Elves in the spell. I am happy to claim credit for the idea if it was mine, but I was sure I saw it elsewhere. I have been looking, on and off, for weeks though and found no evidence of it. In my mind's eye I can see a black & white illustration of an Elf recoiling from a Cross even, so this is some Mandela Effect territory here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

D&D, Vikings & “Land of the Lost”

How D&D does your game have to be to still be D&D? D&D is the lingua franca of RPGs, and I use the D&D chassis to run games in any genre or setting. I am currently running a pretty standard D&D campaign based around Stonehell Dungeon, although set in my own long running Garnia campaign setting. I was going to start a second group in the same world, in a different area and stick in the Isle of Dread, WotC decided it travels around anyway, so why couldn't it come to my campaign world? Anyway, I have also been fairly obsessed with the idea of running a Norse/Viking campaign lately, my girlfriend likes Vikings and said she'd be interested in trying it, so that's a plus there.  I have been adding in a few house rules, and “Shields Shall Be Splintered”, along with “Death and Dismemberment” have crossed my path again, and they are both pretty Viking-ish rules, which got me thinking some. Then I saw on Facebook that it was the anniversary of “Land of the Lost”, and started thinking of Vikings and the Isle of Dread combining into a Vikings enter the Land of the Lost combo of the two, which seems pretty cool to me. Obviously the Isle of Dread and the Land of the Lost aren't the same, but they do have a bunch of similarities. The video game “Lost Vikings” comes to mind too. 

So now I am mentally altering the Isle of Dread to more closely resemble the Land of the Lost, conceptually, and I got to thinking that these Vikings aren't going to be a “regular” D&D party. For a more “realistic” campaign, they should all be Fighters or Thieves, or maybe port the Specialist from LotFP into my OSE based game? No magic though, for sure, right? Or maybe? If I look at how the Norse saw magic as existing in their own world, maybe I could somehow adapt it. Rune magic was done in “The Northern Reaches” gazetteer for BECMI I think, although I have not read it. It is also present in the “Viking Campaign Sourcebook” for 2nd edition AD&D, although I don't remember liking it there. Norse magic is about subtly altering wyrd, not blowing your enemies up with fireballs, it can include divination or communing with the dead, but mostly it's about altering luck, either yours or an enemy's. Runes, seið, Galdr, none of those are flashy D&D magics, even magic healing isn't instant; so I guess magic could be an issue. My thought is maybe make a “Cleric” class that can do these things? Or add them as a skill set of some sort to any PC? Or just go the “no magic” route? I was thinking of a Skald class too, that had some skills that could help the party? Maybe non-magic oriented? 

Something else entirely? How much D&D can I strip out of D&D and have it still be D&D? Does D&D require magic? I am thinking that the Isle of Dread is going to have some weird magic stuff going on, and probably some high tech too, in keeping with the spirit of the “Land of the Lost” series. Can we have D&D without Magic-Users and Clerics? Will people want to play such a game? Who knows. Maybe let PCs take on these classes after getting to this world? Is that cheating the system?

I am also considering starting the PCs at roughly 4th level (the recommended starting level for X1) and having them already have as many retainers as they are allowed by their charisma scores, to represent their personal households, warbands, what have you; my thought is that they are all members of a single ship crew to start. I may have them shipwreck on the isle of dread, I have had some good success with that as a start to the module in the past; although taking away the party's greatest asset at the beginning might be a bad idea too.

My memories of “Land of the Lost” are pretty distant, I may need to track down and watch the series again before I launch this thing, assuming my players want to play a “Lost Vikings” type of game. I might suggest some movies for my players to watch leading up to the game too. “The 13th Warrior” comes immediately to mind, maybe the TV series “Vikings” too. Need to get people into the spirit, portray Norse characters as well as they can, without me recommending a slew of Sagas and history books.

Monday, July 20, 2020

It's been a while now...

Picture unrelated to text, purely to grab your attention

A number of things have been running through my mind lately about D&D, well really RPGs in general and D&D, my favorite RPG, in particular. D&D is the 600 pound gorilla of the RPG world, and some of it's modern controversies occasionally cross my field of view. Racism has been a big one lately, between the “Orcs are inherently evil, and therefore a racist stand in for non-whites” and the “Oriental Adventures is racist and should be taken down from Drivethru”.

I think both of these arguments are wrong, but I can understand why they were made, and I also understand that my feelings on this should not be the focus here, when people say that something is bothering them, we should listen, and try to help where we can. I think WotC made a good call putting a disclaimer on the old TSR stuff, not so much with the wording as with the intent behind it, even if it was maybe just to cover their own behinds while continuing to sell “offensive” materials.

I am the Admin for the AD&D Oriental Adventures group on Facebook. I created the group years ago when I saw there wasn't a group for OA fans already. I have never really had to actively moderate this group until the past couple of weeks. I had to add rules to the group, to keep things civil, and I have still had to delete a couple of dozen posts recently. It's frustrating for me, and I am sure for the people that have had their posts deleted for violating rules. I get it, you are upset that there has been a call to remove OA from distribution. I don't think OA is racist myself, and it was pretty enlightened as a treatment for east Asian themed AD&D when it was written. The name was a bit tone deaf in 1985, but not especially so (no real defense for the 3e version having the same name in 2001). 

Having watched over 10 hours of the “Asians Read Oriental Adventures” videos, I found them frustrating, as they didn't seem to understand AD&D, and complained pretty ceaselessly about how AD&D wasn't the kind of story game they liked, and assumed that some AD&D rules were simply racist ways to play Asians in D&D. They also took serious issue with the fact the OA is a mash up of all east Asian cultures, which I found annoying, as it is exactly the same thing AD&D does with European cultures (along with elements from the rest of the world, but especially western Asia and north Africa), while they also complained that it was too Japan oriented. The Japan-centric focus of OA makes sense for the time it was produced as we had recently gotten the extremely popular Shogun novel and miniseries, the Karate Kid, and the ninja craze was in it's bloom.

Were there racist things in OA? Yes. Certainly there were. The implication that east Asians all have Ki powers, making them all more mystically attuned is certainly pretty racist, for example. Ki powers are also a pretty important part of a lot of the media we were getting from Asia at the time though, so it might have been odd to leave them out. In any case, I think Oriental Adventures was a product of it's time, and that at that time it was an American made love letter to the Asian fantasy were were getting from Asia. OA also stoked my love for Asian culture. I have studied a lot of Asian history and OA was probably at least partially responsible for that.

Now, on inherently Evil species, and Alignment in general. D&D has always had this Alignment based cosmology, and I think it's important here to note that it is literally a declaration of what team you are supporting in a cosmic struggle. In my opinion that's the more important part than the code of behavior that your Alignment dictates. I think that adding the Good/Evil axis to Alignment may have broken it a bit, mainly because Lawful was generally considered to be the “Good guys” and Chaotic was already seen as Evil; creating a Lawful that was Evil, or a Chaotic that was Good messed with the dynamic. 

Now all Orcs being inherently evil smacks of biological essentialism, and that's the sort of thing that justifies things like colonization, slavery, or eugenics; all of which are bad (and I really wish I still lived in a world where I didn't need to state that). I get where these people are coming from when they say it's racist to have all Orcs be Evil. I also have seen Tolkien's statement about Orcs being like ugly Mongols, and he really is the father of that species in modern fantasy. The issue I have with this is that I never saw them that way. At worst I saw them as a generic savage “other”, my earliest DM used Orcs basically as Viking analogues raiding and plundering against our civilization, so I really have always cast them in the light of an implacable barbarian foe, the tribes of Germans that brought down Rome, or the Huns, or the Vikings, or the Mongols, or at least a caricature of those peoples. They were savages from elsewhere, seeking to destroy civilization and plunder it's wealth, usually thoughtlessly destructive, almost a force of nature. Looking at this I can see how it could be seen as racist, but most of the named savages are white folks. 

Now we need to factor in one more thing though, the Gods are real, and there really is a grand cosmic struggle between Good and Evil (or Law and Chaos if you prefer). In my Garnia campaign this is a constant, real factor, although the struggle is referred to as one between Light and Darkness, which, apparently, has it's own racist connotations when Light equals Good and Darkness Evil. Anyway, Orcs, in standard D&D cosmology, are created beings, the minions of Gruumsh, of course they are inherently Evil followers of an Evil god. The same is true in Lord of the Rings, they are essentially slaves of Sauron, as I recall they were originally Elves that were corrupted. In my campaign Orcs are created beings used as shock troops by the real forces of Evil for use in their interplanar war. There's a lot of backstory there, but Orcs are a newer species in my game and haven't explored their full potential. 

But, Humans are inherently Neutral. They have free will to choose which side to support, but most of them will happily enjoy the benefits of civilization without ever committing to it via a Lawful Alignment, both in my world, and in OD&D. Cosmologically speaking, Humans are free agents, their Gods come in all Alignments, and they have many, many gods, some petty, some mighty. There's a bit more to it, the plane that my campaign world is on is a good aligned one, albeit only in a minor way, so it slightly shifts the Humans to favor Good Alignments more than usual, but the choice is still there.

Also, there are examples of creatures breaking free of their pre-ordained Alignments. Dark Elves are an example of this (at least it's my campaign's explanation for Evil Elves), but I also have a single culture of Goblins that have broken free of their Evil Alignment, although they are not generally speaking Good Aligned, and some choose Evil, they broke free and got a choice.

And I assume that the stated Alignment for any given species is the general Alignment for them, not the only Alignment found there. Maybe 1% or fewer members of the species shake the stated Alignment, but it could happen. I assume that's what's going on when players choose a non-species standard Alignment for their characters. Dwarves are Lawful Good, per the book, but most PC Dwarves vary from that, in my experience. Elves, on the other hand, are Chaotic Good in AD&D, and you see that pretty regularly, occasionally dropping to Chaotic Neutral for the Edgy ones, or Neutral Good for the nicer ones. D&D literature already gave us Drizzt, decades ago.

I guess what I am saying is that a certain degree of bio-essentialism seems to make sense in a fantasy world, where there are real forces of Good and Evil out there creating sentient beings to do their bidding, and if all Orcs aren't inherently evil, where do we stop on the Evil food chain? There are a lot of Evil monsters out there. Ogres? Giants? Dragons? Outer planar creatures like Demons? How about the sentient and free-willed Undead, like Vampires or Liches? 

Now, having said this, I heard about, but have not seen or read, a 5th edition D&D supplement that separates culture from ancestry (species). I don't hate this idea, although it does lean hard into some new ideas that are popular in RPGs, namely what I call the “no humans” trend, where it seems like every player wants their character to be somehow absolutely unique. I am guessing this comes from story games, and I was a little surprised when I watched the Asians Represent videos how strongly they seemed to feel that the DM should not be able to dictate anything to the players about what type of characters they might play. As a DM I found the concept intriguing, but also annoying enough that I would have smote them for their attitude if they'd brought it to me like that.

Anyway, I am guessing ancestry (species, race) is the genetic component of your character, and culture is how you were raised. In my campaign world I have Dwarves called “Broken Dwarves” because they no longer live within their culture, they live amongst the Humans that have come to dominate the world they live in, and have relatively little tying them to their ancestral ways. Where there are communities of Broken Dwarves they tend to dominate certain trades, based on their ancestral ties to those trades, but then again they might just become sailors too.

Now that I think about it, most of the PC races available in the 1st edition AD&D PH tend to live in Human communities in my world, which isn't to say they all do. There is still an extant Dwarven kingdom (really a bunch of smaller sub-kingdoms tied together by a shared past, but with large swathes of lost territory between them). There are entirely Halfling villages, although mainly under the protection of the nearby local Human communities. Elf PCs mainly come from a background in Human communities, their empire having long ago fallen, although some “wild” Elves exist in wilderness areas beyond Human reach.

Now all of these being different species, I am not sure how the cultural part works, but the genetic part seems pretty straightforward, Dwarves are heartier, so they get the +1 to CON. Elves are quicker than Humans, so a +1 to DEX, etc. Humans are the base line, so no +/- anywhere, my guess is the -1 to CHA for Dwarves is based on their comparison to Humans, but it seems like a CHA bonus or penalty maybe should have been a cultural thing, which implies then that either Dwarves are genetically predisposed towards gruffness, or maybe that penalty should go elsewhere. Half-Orcs even more so.

Speaking of Half-Orcs, they are somewhat problematic. Orcs being inherently Evil, and apparently super fertile, they clearly go around raping everything they can, which would imply a lot about the setting of D&D that I'd really rather not have to deal with. I like to keep the level of my D&D games roughly PG-13, although pretty much every D&D game would get a R for violence. I am not squeamish, but the rape backstory of the entire Half-Orc species is pretty bad, and kind of racist. I wasn't really comfortable with that once I gave it due consideration, and it was particularly awkward when I played with my wife and kids. I included them when I created this campaign setting back in the day, because they were in the PH as a PC race, but I would give them a pass these days. 

I might consider them as a separate type of Human in a species plus culture context, essentially as Humans raised in Orc culture. I did that in another campaign with Half-Elves, I made them Elf-Karls, who were Humans raised by Elves in my Ostschild setting a couple years back. They weren't playable then though, but it makes for an interesting take on Half-Orcs, and it removes the rape background, as well as, quite likely, the racist connotations of miscegenation. Problem solved? Maybe. Maybe I'll revisit the idea of Elf-Karls for Garnia too, so it removes the “Star Trek” issue of every species being able to interbreed with every other species. 

Maybe not though. I had previously explained the genetic compatibility to the species being related, Elves essentially being an uplifted variant of human, infused by the forces of light into a new species, nigh immortal, with a greater natural affinity to both nature and magic; Orcs, on the other hand, deliberately created from humans infused with wild boar via magic (Pig-faced Orcs in my world). The benefit of Half-Orcs was that they could act as 5th columnists in Human society. The ability to interbreed with Elves just a random accident of being related. Elves and Orcs not being able to interbreed being a function of the opposite natures of their creation.

If we're pulling apart culture and species though, I think we should also consider social class. Cultural values are important and all, but I think a lot more of what makes you comes from the social class you are born into. Even today in the USA the zip code you grew up in is a better indicator of how well you are likely to do in life than any other single factor. A rural peasant's background is going to give you an entirely different outlook on life, and a different skill set, than someone born to the nobility, or even a tradesman's child.