Sunday 31 October 2010

Bad Monsters: The Urge to Improve

Close behind the temptation to laugh at bad monsters (ha, ha and ha) is the temptation to improve them. It's the same urge that led Neil Gaiman to write a "Prez: The Teen President" story in heroic rather than camp mode in Sandman, or Alan Moore to use Mr. Mxtyplxzwhatever as a very serious villain in one of his DC series. This upgrading from silly to serious is known in TV Tropes land as Cerebus Syndrome, after the Dave Sim comic series that evolved from a funny-animal spoof of Marvel's Conan series to something altogether more profound.

Soon to be released, if not already out, is a fine example in the D&D canon: Paizo's Misfit Monsters Redeemed. How successful have Messrs. McComb, McCreary, and Sutter been? Hard to judge from just the blurb. Some of their "misfits," like the dire corby and flail snail, I never thought were that bad to begin with. With others, like the disenchanter, I'm highly skeptical about their chances for redemption at all. And others show real inventiveness and promise, like the adherer rethought as a horrible spider-silk mutant, and the flumph as a Derlethian herald of the fight against the Great Old Ones.

For some monsters, as for film star Frances Ethel Gumm or pop star Stefani Germanotta, a change of name is going to be a necessary part of any serious rebranding. There's no room for a "flumph" in the Cthulhu Mythos, and I'm guessing most people hate the flail snail because of its silly rhyming name. This point was grasped by Max, of the currently inactive blog Malevolent and Benign, in his great series of Tirapheg Week posts. Five differently named variants on the classic half-baked, purposeless weirdo monster from the Fiend Folio - living statue, alien wizard, mutant mishap, limb-collecting pirate, and three-headed lounge singer - for five different game systems, all brilliantly executed.

What drives people to upgrade the classic old stinkers of monsterland? The urge is greatest, it seems, for the "failure to converge" monsters. These collections of haphazard bits, pieces and abilities form a kind of Rorschach test, an irresistible challenge to create meaning out of meaninglessness. I'm sure there are other improvements out there that I haven't come across, and it would be interesting to know of them.

Next: my own tirapheg variation.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Bad Monsters: Failure to Converge

The most spectacular failed monsters are those that bring together elements never yet joined before - the head of a rabbit! the body of a lemur! tentacles that smear you with liquid cement! - but without apparent thought as to how all these elements make a viable whole. In problem-solving terms, the bad monster represents a lot of playing around with the puzzle pieces, but not hitting on a solution that works.

This raises the question, "what works for a monster?" The answers are many, explaining why bad monsters are so hotly debated, as you can see if you even get two flumph haters and two flumph lovers (or at least flumph toleraters) in a chatroom together.

Because of this, I am forced to conclude that no monster is bad in and of itself. Even the Fiend Folio's umpleby - yes, the umpleby, my friends, that hairy master of static electricity discharge - would make a great goofy character in a children's book. Or a cool Pokemon. It's just completely out of place in a dungeon.

(Well, all right, there is one exception that wins the crown of the intrinsically worst monster in all of AD&D. It doesn't have a cult of awfulness, it doesn't inspire mockery or jokes. It is not imaginative or interesting enough to even be magnificently bad. I will reveal and explain in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, guesses are welcome.)

Now, some of the things that go into a working monster are ...

Problem-solving challenge. A monster's habits or abilities can make it a particularly memorable or versatile adversary. Trying to find its vulnerability (it's hideously ugly, was once human and has smashed every mirror in the mansion ... hmmm ...); being surprised by the classic "gotcha" monsters (whoever would have thought that ten foot pole was a giant stick insect?), or just marveling at its strange tactics (it's using the vines on the ceiling to get away!), are all things that make a monster interesting.

The surprise factor, of course, drops dramatically once the monster is published and becomes generally known. And a DM who relies too heavily on "gotchas" like the mimic ... goldbug ... um, cloaker anyone? ... will end up with a paranoid, slow-moving, and generally disillusioned party, and a silly dungeon. Which, indeed, might be the point.

Resonance with setting. The number one cause of disagreement on bad monsters is their fit to the setting. One DM may play the game as a gritty, boils-and-billhooks medieval affair. Another might prefer a backdrop of vaguely Renaissance, vaguely Orientalist weird fantasy. Still another might run a gonzo campaign where just about anything goes. They will all have different ideas about what monsters are appropriate. Some examples:
  • Dark Ages or Ancient World epic: Pretty much only the monsters of that epoch's folklore, or plausible variants on the same, fit in. Satyrs and aegipans, not orcs.
  • Medieval romance: This is the middle and dark ages as glimpsed and fantasized through the rear-view mirror, for 500 years of European history - from the Renaissance chivalry novelists (Ariosto, Spenser, Tasso) to Tolkien. Mythical, legendary, and wholly allegorical figures abound. Orcs rub elbows with hippogriffs and dragons. Stick with combinations of people, heraldic animals, and the occasional plant and you are on safe ground here.
  • Weird fantasy and horror: Looking to far-past and far-future decadence and barbarism, this genre is much more forgiving of tentacles, blobs, giant insects, psionics, human-animal hybrids, and other quasi-science-fictional elements as long as they are eerie and frightening - just being weird is not enough, Mr. Umpleby. Prehistoric creatures are also fair game.
  • Sword and planet: Alien worlds from the first half of the 20th century abounded in life forms bearing suspicious resemblance to earth creatures with dye jobs, extra limbs, horns, etc. Humanoids "evolved" from terran-analogue creatures are also common among writers less rigorous in their xenoanthropology than Burroughs. Weird fantasy critters can also be worked in; the main difference between the two genres is more in the equipment of the heroes than the nature of what they're fighting.
  • Science fiction: And in this genre, the weirder the more believable. If it looks too much like an Earth-whatever, it's suspect.
Natural or symbolic coherence: The really great monsters have parts that go together, and abilities that go with those parts; symbolically, if not literally. The griffin, for example, combines the nobility of the mammal and bird monarchs, for an ultimate symbol of ultimate nobility. The necrophidius, praised previously, combines two classic symbols of fear, and adds abilities in keeping with those of a snake - poison and swaying charm. It doesn't hurt that it would also be at home in either a medieval or weird fantasy setting, and many people's conception of "proper D&D" combines the two of those elements to various degrees.

The opposite of this is ability-platform syndrome. You come up with a great ability ... let's say, draining magic items. You then ruin that ability by taking about 2 seconds to decide it should go on a glowing blue camel with a prehensile trunk. Or jumble syndrome, where you jumble two or three critters together, add and subtract parts, and voila! The dread one-eyed gorilla shark of Planet Mongo. Again, great for gonzo or heavily sci-fi campaigns, but not so great for the fantasy genre most people are used to.

Next time: The fine art of redeeming monsters; or, Captain Save-A-Flumph.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Bad Monsters: Failure to Diverge

Allow me to resurrect this article on creativity that came to my attention via Trollsmyth several months ago.

I'm passingly familiar with the psych literature on creativity, but the short review in the article reminded me that creativity is not just about making up crazy stuff (divergent skills), but also vetting the crazy ideas to make sure they serve your purpose (convergent skills). The convergent skills in particular are what makes the difference between "Yeah, she's very 'creative' (eyeroll)" and "Wow, she's really creative!"

Now that we're ready to move from the good side of the Fiend Folio to the bad, this theory can help explain bad monsters - in AD&D or anywhere else. Monsters can either fail to diverge, or converge. Converging is the more spectacular kind of failure, so let's cover failure to diverge first, AKA basic lack of creativity.

The prime example of this is where you take an existing monster, jack it up by a hit die or two, and pretty much call it a day. I'm not saying the Fiend Folio didn't have its flinds and what not, and even the Monster Manual needlessly promoted the otyugh to the, er, neo-otyugh. But the real champion of the phoned-in monster upgrade was Monster Manual II - greater basilisk, greater lammasu, annis, xaren, margoyle, storoper, thessalhydra, different colored slimes, jellies, puddings and oozes for Pete's sake ...

Mmm. White pudding.
Then you have the even more wrongheaded monster downgrade - the moral equivalent of letting your players feel important in the Star Wars universe by having them meet Dark Helmet. Thus, you have FF's mini-red dragon, the firedrake. And then MM2 goes hog-wild with a mini-beholder, mini-stone golem, and hey, if you want to say you bagged an elephant too, we'll give you one the size of a Jack Russell terrier.

Let's not forget the gratuitous monster breeding program, the kind that dares to envision the offspring of two critters already in the same niche - kind of like those towns where a Norwegian dating a German is considered "interracial." Thus, the FF's ogrillon, giant troll, two-headed troll (oh, they forgot the ogg-roll, which is what you get when you cross an ogre and a troll, right) ... yeah, and the gorilla bear.

Look, either you need a gorilla, or you need a bear. You are never going to need a gorilla bear.

What's sad about all these monsters is that they show so little faith in you, the DM, and your ability to add, subtract, or average basic numbers. If you want a super-tough ... let's call it a russet ... hulk, you should really be able to gin it up on the fly, adding some hit dice here, subtracting some AC there. AD&D is simple enough that you don't have to worry about his Spot skill or Charisma.

Next: The convergently challenged ... source of the truly legendary WTF's.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Grimlocks vs. ... Every Other 2HD Soldier

Okay - one more damn good Fiend before we start fixing up the bad ones.

Grimlocks are, of course, the Fiend Folio's version of H. G. Wells' Morlocks from The Time Machine. They fill that "2 hit die troops" niche that your party starts bumping into once they have a level or two under their belts. Grimlocks are in direct competition with gnolls, troglodytes, lizard men, crabmen and so on.

And they win. Hands down the best 2nd level dungeon soldier.

The great advantage of grimlocks is they are not ani-men, human-imals, beast-oids, zoo-morphs or what have you. They are human ... and not human. Most plausibly descended and degenerated from us, they belong to a great old pulpy tradition of inbred cave-dwellers. Consider, for example, how much creepier Clark Ashton Smith's The Dweller in the Gulf would have been if it had been set on Earth not Mars, and with Earthlings and not Martians populating the strange society the explorers find.

Unlike gnolls and their kindred, unlike the weaker humanoids the party has been battling on the shallow levels, grimlocks are utterly of the underground, natives of its deep places. They may raid on the surface ... but they don't have to. Grimlocks are fundamentally different from the Tolkienoid grunts; imports from the world of science fiction, they nonetheless fit perfectly in a world of weird fantasy.

Completing the greatness of grimlocks is their blindness and Daredevil-sense. Different things work against them. No illusions; no casting light on the face; then again, if they surprise you, it's not because you've been holding lanterns and torches to light your way. Visual dangers of the dungeon - medusa's gaze, bedazzling mosaics, enchanting purple flames - hold no peril for them. But clouds of pepper, or the din of beaten shields? That just might work. One more way their traits and attributes hold together and create a memorable picture of underground horror.

So, one last time - sometimes the Fiend Folio is better.

Monday 25 October 2010

Fiend Folio and the Horror Esthetic

As Halloween approaches, paging through the AD&D Fiend Folio in search of gems among the rubble for a series of posts rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns, I find that some of the strongest entries distinguish themselves by evoking, not weird fiction or science fiction, but the horror genre.

The following Fiends in particular are noteworthy for being written up as little mini-dramas reminiscent of EC comics or Clive Barker stories:

"Don't worry.
 Russ can draw us scarier."
Meenlocks: You haven't felt the same since the party unsealed that foul-smelling tunnel. Now your companions snicker and tap their heads when you complain of whispering, shuffling in the shadows, and dreams that they are coming to get you. You wish that you were crazy ... but you're not ... they are coming ...

Penanggalan: Although at first you were suspicious of that druid you found in the woods, she soon proved her worth, helping you past the swamp and calming down the crocodiles in the river. Now she has gone back to her home for the night, and shameful, sinful dreams of her persecute you ... and when you wake, you feel weaker ... but vinegar ... why the smell of vinegar on your blanket?

Revenant: The purse the Thieves' Guild offered you to smuggle their wanted man out of the city was heavy enough for you to jump at the prospect. The law may have lost the scent ... but that stooped, awful-smelling hooded figure that dogs avoid is right behind you ... and you don't really want to know why the thief fainted to see the sword that it carries ...

Each of these "horror story monsters" (literally, in the case of meenlocks which seem to be adapted from this 1973 film) figures in a well-defined haunting that plays out over several days, quite unlike anything the original Monster Manual had to offer.

Ed Greenwood's famous criticism of the FF, offered in the pages of Dragon magazine, was that many of the monsters were incompletely developed. These three write-ups quite conspicuously avoid that flaw. If anything, they fall into the opposite one: the monsters are so scripted-out that they end up dominating and creating an adventure, rather than being worked into it. Compare this to the vampire: we are given a set of abilities and some hints at motives, but the exact strategy and behavior of the creature are left up to the DM. This leaves room for the vampire to be anything from a brooding Strahd to a feral Nosferatu to a cunning super-villain.

The scripted approach may be friendly to the inexperienced adventure runner, and was eventually the way D&D would go under the influence of Greenwood and others, with monster ecologies and tactical notes. But it also leaves little room for creativity, or for surprise if the players have read the monster book. To innovate, the DM has to write over already-written-in space, rather than project into blank space.

I will go further and say that Greenwood's criticism misses the mark. The bad monsters in AD&D are bad not because they are under-described, but because they are misconceived in the first place. If you need any proof, behold the abundance of uninspiring and ridiculous monsters even in the 2nd and 3rd edition epochs, where the norm got close to two full pages of stats, description and ecology. And in the Fiend Folio, no matter how much detail you give the flumph, how much we know about its gizzard and egg sacs, it's basically a little flying saucer alien out of place in a medieval fantasy world it never made.

Well, I guess the point of diminishing returns is here. There were some other worthy creatures in the Fiend Folio - the kuo-toa and drow (though here, also over-written; most of their surprising abilities and details should have been kept in the original modules, for the above stated reasons) - the iron cobra - the githyanki and githzerai - and a decent roster of b-list humanoids and critters for weird worlds without orcs and minotaurs.

And a whole sackful of clunkers. Can they be rehabilitated? We'll see, in the weeks to come.

Saturday 23 October 2010

The Necrophidius Takes On MM1 and MM2 ... No Contest!

How do you improve on skeletons? Those evergreen, Harryhausenish, all-weather, no-feeding-required, make-players-circle-every-pile-of-jumbled-bones-cautiously staples of the scary dungeon?

The Fiend Folio knows. You stick a human skull on a snake skeleton ... you give it a couple of snake-related magic powers (snake dance, paralytic bite) so the monster makes sense.

And oh yeah, you make it NOT UNDEAD. You're a bitter, wise and experienced monster designer who's had one too many bone-pile ambushes rebuffed by some low-level crucifix jockey.

"Unfair!" you might cry in defense of the Monster Manual. "The skeleton is merely the basic monster, of course it is going to be improved on as the game develops!"

So by that token the skeletal monster from the Monster Manual 2 should be all kinds of awesomeness rungs above the Necrophidius, right? Like - a skeletal unicorn-pegasus whose horn blasts Mandelbrot fractals that do 10d12, or something, right?

"I call it the Necropiggyus."
Here. Have a skeletal dog. Or perhaps a skeletal sheep, or chinchilla, or something. It's MM2's answer to the Necrophidius: the animal skeleton. Par for the course, from the book that statted up goats, squirrels, and the herd animals of the lower planes.

Sometimes the Fiend Folio is better ... both forwards and backwards.

Thursday 21 October 2010

15 Bad Games I Learned Something From

No, no, no. I can't be like everyone else. I got to be negative. I got to be me!

1. Monopoly, Munchkin, etc., etc. Sometimes even a "bad" game in terms of board game developments in the 90's can be the "right" game because everyone knows it. Hence my decision to stick with a core D&D system rather than more novel rules-lite systems.

2. Source of the Nile. Commits so many board game sins by modern lights. Is not faaaaiiiir. But the very unfairness and tedious stretches make the good parts fun as all hell!  Previously.

3. My own crappy 11th grade AD&D campaign. Someday I'll do an expiatory post on this rules-bound monstrosity.

4. My high school friend's home-brewed "urban combat" role-playing game, Gay Slayer. I was so repulsed by the prospect of being invited to this that I started running my own transgressive alternative for the group, City Crime, in which you rolled up your race, social class, sexual orientation, and criminal compulsion at random. And GMing that game taught me the joys of fast and loose improv rules.

5. F. A. T. A. L. At the end of the slippery slope of any attempt to include sexuality in your role-playing game rules lurks this anal-circumference abomination. The more rules, the less meaning.

6. Hyborian Gates, Redemption, etc., etc. Elements of a customizable game with different power levels should be costed differently. Amazing how many first-wave CCGs missed this particular lightbulb.

7. HumAliens CCG. Not every kiddie franchise out there is Harry Potter gold.

8. Diskwars, Clout, etc., etc. Most fantasy gamers would rather roll INT than DEX when competing in real life. (These were games where part of your success depended on accurately throwing Pog-like cardboard discs or poker chips.)

9. The Hundred Years War (Strategy & Tactics magazine game). When you are putting a new wargame out every 2 months, simple little playtesting details can fall by the wayside, like whether you have the right counter mix for the set up instructions. Quality over quantity.

10. Power Kill, Train, etc., etc. "While you thought you were playing an innocuous pastime, LOOK, you were actually causing the deaths of innocent people!" Manipulative, morally didactic games don't work.

11. Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. Cool components do not excuse, in fact may encourage, over-complicated mechanics and multiplication of mini-games. I'm looking at the Tetris puzzle in this one, in particular.

12. Champions CCG. Not even the most cynical planned obsolescence gimmick in all of gaming can overcome crap design and humor insulting even the intelligence of 8-year-olds. (This was a British CCG I saw a few packs of, where your monster cards actually permanently lost hit points as you scratched off their damage dots, so you woudl continually have to buy new ones after each game.)

13. Every goddamn eurogame where you use one thing to buy another thing and then another thing which in turn buys another thing which you use to win the game; overcomplicate with auctions, worker placement, and special effect card decks to taste. If you have a good mechanic, bring it front and center rather than covering it up with all the usual dreck. Particular offenders: Princes of Florence; Hamburgium.

14. Dwarf Fortress. Space bar does this on the one screen but this other thing on the other screen and yet a third thing over here? Sometimes, a user interface that is actually hostile to human input - the equivalent of switching road signs to confuse the German paratroopers - can come to feel like an initiatory ordeal into an exceptionally cool and all-consuming cult. See also the rules of De Bellis Antiquitatis.

15. Spore. If you want to release a creature generation toy, release a creature generation toy, but don't hype it to be the most cosmic and profound thing since 2001: A Space Odyssey when it's actually boring and baffling to play. Lesson: Don't believe the hype.

End of spell series and Trossley update

So ... the spell series is finally over. Diced and sliced into a zillion posts, it has probably seemed kind of overwhelming from the outside. It's just as overwhelming from the inside. But slowly, bit by bit, I will assemble the book of spell lists and descriptions (starting with levels 1-3, Basic style), then the book of spellcasting classes, then the higher level book. Maybe offer this one as donationware ... or actually dabble with the dark forces of Lulu. More will emerge in quite a few months.

In any event, the spells will also benefit from the running they're getting in the Trossley campaign. The intrepid trio met again tonight and tasted first blood.

It all started with an offhand remark that the stew at the inn was missing its usual mushrooms. Why? Because Erle the Carter hadn't been by that day with his mushrooms and kindling sticks gathered from the Tulgey Wood. There were some rebuffed attempts to socialize with the hooded, armed figure in the corner of the inn. Then Lesseig the elf hireling and Cordoon the henchman walked in from their side journey to a different tavern, accompanied by a very drunk Erle. Setting out early morning to his favorite mushroom patch, Erle had found the usual plank bridge over the stream by the old abandoned millhouse flooded out, a huge pool collecting behind the sluice-dam of the mill, which had formerly stood open. As he stood there, a thing with a head the size of a pumpkin poked out of the woods, saw him ... and that's when he ran, abandoning his hand-cart.

A dark history of the millhouse quickly spilled from Erle. The owner, Ric the son of Nic, had been losing business to more convenient windmills, set up closer to the grain farmers to the south. He had been seen consorting with a nameless stranger, a fellow with curious lenses set in wires before his eyes. Pretty soon Ric was buying old animal bones from the town and farmers and grinding them into meal. He convinced one farmer to plow his field with it, and the richness of that field's crops that year soon had all the other farmers paying well for sacks of bone meal. After a few years strange things started happening ... with a whispered word you could buy the "special meal" for ten times the price that led to truly unnaturally lush crops. About the same time, graveyards started being found disturbed. The last straw came when children started disappearing. What they found in the millhouse made the posse from the village drag Ric back and burn him alive in a fire.

That was over a year ago. The party resolved to go out to the old millhouse in the morning, retrieve Earl's cart, see about opening the gate and investigate the millhouse. But the figure in the corner intervened. He was a Warden of the Wood, one Burnsteen by name. What he knew about the millhouse, and the possibility of black magic being practiced there, gave him a bad feeling. He wanted to investigate the doings that very night, but thought it ill-advised without assistance. The party agreed to help, and all set out by torchlight.

Almost like the set-up, here; imagine the Weir is another sluice.
On reaching the mill's dam, the dwarf Grumpka decided to go out on top of the slippery dam to raise the gate that did not turn the wheel, instead of the gate that did. Her 4 dexterity did not help in this effort, and eventually she decided to give up the effort and scout along the top, secured by a rope. As she reached the far bank the "snap" underfoot of a bugbear rolling 6 for surprise reached her ears. Winning the ensuing initiative, she beat a hasty retreat back. Instead of rushing to attack, though, the bugbear bent to lift the sluice gate that turned the wheel. Something inside the millhouse started grinding ... louder, it seemed, than it really had a right to. Retreating back, the foul creature was felled by a Sleep spell (I relented on my nerfing of that spell, and let it affect 4HD of creatures with no upper limit as traditional), slain and looted, and the party managed to close the gate and stop the wheel and the grinding, and cross over to the millhouse.

Peeking through a crack in a shuttered window with infravision, Grumpka came face to face with something warm and peeking back! The party went around the house to find a door in. The room beyond was cluttered with piles of bones ... mostly animal ... and sacks of bone meal. The door in to the presumed millstone room was blocked firmly, but another door yielded. As it did, a clacking sound was heard all around, as true to form, the piles of bones arose, forming four animal-skulled skeletons wielding femurs as clubs! The party rolled really badly to hit at first, and even with Boniface the Militant managing to turn three of the skeletons, it was a very hard slog to smash them, leaving one henchman seriously wounded, Burnsteen hurting, and Grumpka unconscious at 0 hp. Something to put in the cart on the way back ...

So, a retreat was sounded. But the mystery and evil of the millhouse remain. I guess the moral is ... Never overestimate 3 1st level grunts, no matter how many henchmen, hirelings, and "DM special" characters are with them. Total treasure haul: 10cp (on the silver standard) from the dead bugbear's pouch. Stay hungry...

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Retriever ... vs. Demons Type I-VI

I see the adventurers have stolen the ostrich-egg-sized navel ruby from that demon statue on the 9th level. They're trucking toward the stairs, whistling and skipping, chatting about building a little pied-a-terre in the Merchants' Quarter with the proceeds. When they look back, what have you got coming at them, to make them well and truly befoul their breeches?
  • A Type I-IV demon, all looking like some Thundercats villain action figure?
  • A Type V? Okay, she's badass, but she has a human head. You can talk to her. Maybe throw her back the gem, and a couple of henchmen to sweeten the deal, and hope she backs off easy.
  • A Type VI? Too overexposed. The man from Oxford called and he wants his fallen angel demon back.
Here boy! Fetch!
No, you want something really out of the ordinary ... mindless, uncaring, mutated, terrifying, Lovecraftian. Arachnid. Four scything arms of death.  Four eye rays. Dragon-breath-level damage from three of them. The fourth can turn you into stone, or lead, or a nice golden consolation prize, or mud, from which you can only rise if a mud to stone and stone to flesh spell happen to be handy within 10 minutes.

So good luck with that.

Or if you like any of those other demons? You can have them too. "Demons sometimes mount howdahs on the back of a retriever and ride on the creature to the hunt."  

Need I say more ... sometimes the Fiend Folio is better.

Church World: Priest Spell Lists

Standard Priests and Militants of the Church

All White and Gold spells at each level

Additional spells available, from the magic lists:
Level 1: Blinding Light,  Temptation/Fortitude, Translate/Obfuscate, Detect Magic
Level 2: Augury, Find Dangers, Multiply Matter, Tonguetie/Tongueloose
Level 3: Dispel Magic, Hold Persons, Magic Circle, Create Material
Level 4: Anti-Magic, Divination, Confusion, Mastery of Weather
Level 5: Hold Monsters, Greater Summoning, Mastery of Earth, Mastery of Water
Level 6: Legend Lore, Planar Travel, Power Word, Earthquake

Special Orders of the Church

Order of St. Hieracon (Inquisitors): All White, Orange and Green spells
Order of St. Silvain (Hermits): All Brown, Gold and Orange spells
Order of St. Sequina (Mystics): All White, Silver and Orange spells

Druids of the Old Way

All Brown spells at each level; all Gold spells to level 4

Additional spells available, from the magic lists:
Level 1: Animate Small Object, Charm Person, Translate/Obfuscate, Detect Magic
Level 2: Augury, Find Dangers, Fear, Levitate/Root
Level 3: Dispel Magic, Speak with Object, Breathe/Choke, Damage Ward
Level 4: Anti-Magic, Change Form, Divination, Confusion
Level 5: Hold Monsters, Greater Summoning, Polymorph Other, Wall of Stone
Level 6: Legend Lore, Planar Travel, Power Word, Earthquake

Diabolic and Demonic Cults

Typically: All Black spells, and all spells of two schools from this list: Red, Yellow, Green, Purple, Orange, Silver

Saturday 16 October 2010

Church World

The Universe
Between Heaven and Hell lies this Middle World, suspended in the Formless Void. The Lord of Heaven made the World, but suffered the Devil to rebel and keep the fires of Hell for all who make the Devil's choice. While the Devil and his infernal court form part of the Lord's plan, the free will of men is no less dangerous for spawning Demons, who lurk in the Void, awaiting the chanting of their names in ritual. There are other worlds and powers - Faerie, the Halls of Heroes, the ancient gods of the fallen Empire - their influence fading as the Revelation of the Church spreads.

The World
In the centuries since the Revelation and the fall of the Empire, the Church of the Lord has become the religion of nearly all civilized kingdoms and most of their inhabitants. Vast and sprawling, the Church has a complex hierarchy and a system of devotional Orders. Within the Church all tendencies can be found: the tolerant, the fanatical, the merciful, the severe, and sometimes the decadent and corrupt. At its best, the Church acts as the arm of the Lord on earth to fight the Devil and other dark forces. Among those forces, some would include those dwellers of remote and inhospitable regions who still follow the pagan Old Way, or who worship the old hero-gods.

Beings can be either Good, Evil or unaligned. Beings from Hell, the Void and undead beings are unholy, and Evil if intelligent; beings from Heaven are holy, and Good if intelligent. The Church promotes Good but contains many who have fallen from that standard.

To maintain a Good alignment, a being must uphold five principles by avoiding certain actions:

Life: Don't kill or torture a helpless sentient being.
Kindness: Don't harm, disrespect, or steal from a peaceful sentient being.
Courage: Don't back away from a fight against Evil that you can win.
Justice: Don't let crimes against Life and Kindness go unpunished.
Generosity: Don't hoard wealth; do what you can for your own security, then give to others.

A being is allowed a "flaw" - ignoring one of these five precepts at will - without losing Good alignment; such is the mercy of the Lord. If the being then breaks an additional precept, his Good alignment is in doubt.

To be unaligned rather than Evil, a being must refrain from two less restrictive actions:

Life: Only kill or torture a sentient being who would have killed or tortured you if it could.
Kindness: Don't harm, disrespect, or steal from someone you have a social tie to (adventuring party, village, guild, however defined)

Breaking these precepts puts unaligned status in doubt.

The rules about being in doubt about one's alignment are the same as in Pantheon World. For members of the Church, Atonement can come only through a high ranking priest of the Church, who may additionally impose a penance of wealth, pilgrimage or service.

Spellcaster Classes
To certain of His servants the Lord gives miraculous powers. These are priests; robed spellcasters, not trained to fight in armor. They observe the ancient sacerdotal taboo of never using a blade to cut or pierce. Evil priests serve the Devil and demonic forces, but some may have also infiltrated the Church. The Devil in particular sometimes gives his servants powers in imitation of the Lord's miracles. These can be told apart only by the uses to which the wicked priest puts them.

Priests of the Old Gods and Druids of the Old Way also gain powers from the spirits of the earth, and are less restricted by weapon taboos.

Militants are demi-priests of the Church trained to arms. Thus they are better at fighting, and train using armor and edged weapons (though their code of valor requires they not use missile weapons). They cast spells as a priest one less than their own level, but still get a bonus 1st level spell at level 1 if they have high Wisdom.

Priests and militants follow the spell rules from Pantheon World priests, but with different lists of spells. These spells and restrictions on the various Orders of priests and militants of the Church, as well as the followers of evil and the Old Ways, are detailed in the following table (next post).All priests of the Church must maintain a Good alignment, or be denied their spells and powers until they atone (or turn to the Devil for replacements).

Friday 15 October 2010

Intellect Devourers AND Carrion Crawlers team up vs. Grell ... and Lose!

The poor intellect devourer. It never really had a chance, not when its whole effectiveness was tied up with those D&D psionic rules that almost nobody used. And without its Psychic Crush, followed up by an Ego Whip and a devastating Oedipus Complex Cathexis Suplex, it was just a big sponge with cougar legs.

What about the carrion crawler? Right, that's a more beloved monster. Very nice to spring on first level parties, because it doesn't actually hurt you. It doesn't bite, or rend, or maim. It just paralyzes you with a ridiculous number of tentacle attacks, and then one of your friends grabs you and pulls you away and you run from the slow-moving beastie and camp for a while. Or the ogre, who's waiting five paces behind it, grabs you and dismantles you like a Cornish hen. So basically, it's like the shrieker - a force multiplier for scarier things.

And then, the two half-a-monsters got together in the Fiend Folio and had one badass little baby. The grell.

See, if you're not going to use your brain, you might as well fill it up the ol' ventricles with buoyant gases, so you can float around - because a brain on the ceiling is a lot more scary than one on the floor. Oh yeah, also, tentacles that paralyze - long ones, too, that can grab you - and take you up to the beak to close the deal.

I think, therefore I maim.
 The result is one of the most iconic bad-acid-trip D&D monsters of all time - the one who would give the owlbear and mind flayer serious competition for space on the side of a van, dude, and would make a much more wicked bong. Plus: the grell, unlike the 'crawler, is Open Game Content. And oh yeah ... if you fast forward to 2nd and later editions you have Grell Philosophers. How sick is that?

Once again - sometimes the Fiend Folio is better.

Thursday 14 October 2010

The Village of Trossley

Good news. We've found a very local couple two minutes' walk away who are willing to play in a campaign using my "Old School Players" rules. He's a gaming veteran we've known for some time here, and she's never RP'd before but is Very Enthusiastic. My wife, of course, brings her old school savvy to the campaign as well.

In my one-off games I dispensed with the town, preferring to start off all equipped, henched up and at the dungeon entrance. For the campaign I sketched out a place that can serve as the base for a number of adventures.

Profiteer Street, a prestigious address behind the Keep

Trossley is a village on the edge of the Tulgey Wood and the Durrn Hills, somewhere in Church World. It was formerly an adventurers' stronghold. The locals still speak with reverence of the "Most Magnificent Adventuring Party of All Time" or words to that effect. These legendary figures built the Sealed House and the glorious Temple to St. Hermas, folk-saint patron of adventurers. Their largesse enriched the local economy as much as their departure impoverished it. One of their former henchmen is now the Mayor, thirty years later. Would-be parties still make pilgrimage to Trossley and swear binding oaths of solidarity on the altar in the Temple.

Old School Players once again proved its worth in the short session; the party was generated in an hour between bites of pizza (my wife's a bookish wizard, Mademoiselle's a clumsy and indignant dwarf maiden and Messieur's a zealous Militant of the Church) . This left the remaining hour to roleplay through interviews with the necessary hirelings and henchmen for this low-numbering but charismatic party, get set up in Trossley at the old Duck and Whistle, and ruminate about any number of interesting hints and rumors picked up along the way.

This is going to be fun!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Pantheon World: Table of Priesthoods

This Pantheon is based on the conceit of a pagan Middle Ages that still honors the Olympians of Greek myth, who should be familiar or at least easier to research. Some of these Olympians, in particular Athena and Apollo, also show signs of pseudo-Christianity, for those who cannot live without churches and holy knights. Various chthonic deities are also presented to round out the bunch.

Bonus for Apollo priests: that hat.

APHRODITE - Goddess of love, desire, beauty
Chaotic Good - Weapons: Staff - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All White, All Gold, 1 Green

APOLLO - God of the sun, light, healing, music
Lawful Good - Weapons: Bow and arrows, dagger - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Gold, All Orange, 1 White

ARES - God of war, the din of battle, turmoil
Chaotic Evil - Weapons: Sword - Armor: Chain or plate
Spells known/level: All Black, 1 Red

ARTEMIS - Goddess of the moon, hunting, maidens
Chaotic Good - Weapons: Bow and arrows, dagger - Armor: Leather
Spells known/level: All Brown, All Gold, 1 Purple

ATHENA - Goddess of reason, civilization, strategy
Lawful Good - Weapons: Spear, shield - Armor: Chain or plate
Spells known/level: All White, All Orange

DIONYSUS - God of wine, festivities
Chaotic - Weapons: mace (thyrsus), staff - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Brown, All Yellow

HADES - God of the dead, underworld, riches
Lawful Evil - Weapons: battle axe - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Black, 1 Purple, 1 Green

HECATE - Goddess of witches and crossroads
Evil - Weapons: staff, dagger - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Black, All Green

HERA- Goddess of marriage and women
Lawful (female) - Weapons: staff - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Gold, All Orange, 1 Yellow

HERMES - God of Trickery, Trade, Thieves
Chaotic - Weapons: Dagger, short sword - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Orange, 1 Purple, 1 Silver

PAN - God of wilderness, beasts
Chaotic - Weapons: Staff, sling - Armor: Leather
Spells known/level: All Brown, 1 Green, 1 Yellow

POSEIDON - God of the sea, horses
Unaligned - Weapons: Trident - Armor: Leather
Spells known/level: All Brown, 1 Yellow, 1 Blue

ZEUS - God of thunder, heaven, father of gods
Lawful (male) - Weapons: Mace (rod) - Armor: None
Spells known/level: All Orange, 1 White (Lawful Evil beings are not counted as unholy), 1 Red (energy is lightning)

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Pantheon World

The Universe
Pantheon World lies suspended in a ring of planes and demi-planes representing the various combinations of alignments. It is there that the gods and demons dwell, and conduct their ceaseless, shifting struggles, with the nations and heroes of the World as pawns. Scholars can also muster evidence for a near infinity of other planes and gods, but the anchor points of the cosmos for all are the eternal truths of Alignment: Good and Evil, Law and Chaos.

The World
Kingdoms and empires, cities, races and fiefdoms, each take their side in the great struggle. The main war is between Good and Evil, but if the other side presents no seeming threat, the Lawful and Chaotic tendencies tend to fight within each alignment. Forbidden to enter this plane, the Gods work through magical powers they grant to their human servants, and through lesser planar beings that can pass the gates of the world.

Unaligned people live by the morality of natural law. The first duty is to help, treat fairly, and not harm those you have personal bonds with – as a member of a village, warband, family, or adventuring party. The second duty is to respect the inherent authority of the leaders and traditions you are bonded with.

The two dimensions of alignment – Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaotic – reflect moral thought beyond natural law. A being might have one alignment (for example, Lawful, or Evil), or two compatible alignments (for example, Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil). Mortals and supernatural creatures can have alignment, but only the latter (including undead) can be holy or unholy.

Good: This alignment extends the duties of care and justice from one’s personal associates to all living beings. It is forbidden to harm or steal from peaceful beings; to kill or torture a surrendered foe, except in certain justice for an individual crime; and to fail to fight Evil when you can win.

Evil: This alignment disdains the first duty of natural law, believing that each individual should look out for themselves. Any mutual aid is at best a temporary arrangement, oaths are to be broken, and bonds of passion and ambition are rightly stronger than the family or friendship. As an adventurer, Evil is not a recommended alignment to have in an adventuring party; you can play that way, but sooner or later, you will end up dead or on your own after one betrayal too many.

Lawful: This alignment requires its character to obey and respect, in this order: his or her own religion; his or her own political leader, if not opposite in Good or Evil; then any Lawful religion, and any Lawful political leader, if not opposite in Good or Evil. Lawful Good beings also have a duty to care for weaker beings who are Lawful and not Evil.

Chaotic: This alignment believes that individuals are to be judged by their acts, not their position in some social hierarchy. The king is only respected if he is competent; the elder only if she is wise; and by the same token, the poor and outcast are not to be despised. A Chaotic person only follows orders if they conform with his or her moral code, or with self-interest if Chaotic Evil. 

A player whose character is about to act against alignment, including the natural law of the unaligned, should be warned first by the DM. If the action is carried through, the character is in a state of doubt, and cannot advance in levels until he or she either carries out an act of atonement, or changes alignment. Atonement can be had with a donation of gold pieces equal to at least 10% of one's current experience points, a service done to reverse the original action, or an arduous pilgrimage or quest as required by the religion or leader offended. Any alignment change after the first carries an unrestorable loss of 10% of current experience points.

Spellcaster Classes
Magic-users, including specialist mages, function as in Sorcery World, but work from a spell list from which Black, White, Gold and Brown spells are excluded, and cannot learn those spells. Some non-player character magic-users, however, study Black sorceries, or otherwise bend the rules.
The priest class uses magic differently. Restricted by the same table of spells per day per level as the magic-user, those spells are not memorized ahead of time, but cast at will from a list of allowed spells according to one's religion, requiring a holy symbol. Each spell by name may still only be cast once a day. A good night's sleep preceded and followed by an hour of prayers is enough to restore full spell capacity to a priest. Exceptional Wisdom gives bonus spells to the priest in the same manner as exceptional Intelligence to the magic-user.

A priest must take on and maintain the alignment of his or her religion. A priest in a state of alignment doubt cannot use magic until he or she has atoned, or set out in good faith on a quest of atonement.

The colors of magic available to a priesthood range between one and three, balanced by differences in allowed weapons and armor. Priests may not learn the major first-level spells from the magic-user table.

Each DM will no doubt enjoy creating or adapting a particular pantheon for their campaign world, and each deity within that pantheon can have a priesthood - or multiple orders of priesthood. The following table gives a small sample pantheon based on some of the Greek gods. Note also that classes such as "paladins" and "druids" can be simulated in this system by variations on the priesthoods.

Next: The priests and pantheon of Pantheon World.

Monday 11 October 2010

Rot Grubs vs. Sons of Kyuss

Part 2 of an ongoing series ... Sometimes the Fiend Folio is better.

How would you rather be insta-killed?

By a white maggot that hops on you as you search a centuries-old mound of poop for treasure, burrows through you, and eats your heart?

Or by a bright green worm that hops on you from a worm farm that is in the skull of a shambling living corpse with which you are locked in deadly melee ... a corpse, spawned by a horrific demigod, that regenerates, causes fear, and as if all that plus the worms were not enough, infects you with leprosy at its very touch ... but back to the worm ... the worm that hops on you, burrows through you, and eats your brain, turning you instantly into another Son of Kyuss?

Oh, and here's the clincher: as you shamble around the dungeon, your skull squirming with worms, you feel like a million bucks, because the second most influential hard rock band of the 90's was named after you.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Sorcery World: Tables

See previous post for explanation.

(The spell lists are going to be all the spells, magical and sacred, bashed together into a big random chart for each level. Something tells me this is probably best kept for the final product ... yes, the five-volume Compendium with a pamphlet for each World and two Spell Books of level 1-3 and 4-6+ ... Something also tells me that the Cleric spell table will look an awful lot like this one, once we get Clerics in Pantheon World. So, not too many tables, and some more Fiend vs. Monster matchups on deck to leaven the heavy mass of rules.)

Magic-User Spell Allowance Table

Note: Level 7 and 8 spells do not exist in the listing, but represent spells of lower level that have been improved by adding levels to them using a Gray magic technique.

Magic-User              Spell Level
Level                    1    2    3    4    5    6    (7)  (8)
1                          1    -     -     -     -    -
2                          2    -     -     -     -    -
3                          2    1    -     -     -    -
4                          2    2    -     -     -    -
5                          2    2    1    -     -     -
6                          3    2    2    -     -     -
7                          3    2    2    1    -     -
8                          3    3    2    2    -     -
9                          4    3    2    2    1    -
10                        4    4    3    2    2    -
11                        4    4    3    2    2    1   
12                        4    4    3    3    2    2
13                        4    4    3    3    3    2    1*
14                        4    4    4    3    3    2    2*
15                        4    4    4    3    3    2    2*    1*

Specialist Schools of Magic Table

Red (Energy): Cannot know Green, Purple, Gold, or Brown spells.
Bonus: Any ones rolled for damage with a Red spell are threes instead.

Blue (Matter): Cannot know Orange, Purple, Gold, or Brown spells.
Bonus: Blue spells have double range and duration for you.

Yellow (Change): Cannot know Black, White, Purple, or Silver spells.
Bonus: Your Yellow spells are saved against at -2, or have double duration if no save is needed.

Orange (Knowledge): Cannot know Blue, Yellow, Gold or Black spells.
Bonus: Your Orange spells have double range and duration.

Green (Emotion): Cannot know Blue, Red, Gold, or White spells.
Bonus: Your Green spells are saved against at -2.

Purple (Illusion): Cannot know Blue, Yellow, Gold, or White spells.
Bonus: Your Purple spells have double duration and are saved against at -2.

Silver (Gates): Cannot know Purple, Red, Blue or Brown spells.
Bonus: Creatures summoned with your Silver spells have 1 extra hit point per hit die; travel with your Silver spells can go twice as long or far.

Black (Death): Cannot know White, Brown, Gold or Blue spells.Must be Chaotic aligned.
Bonus: Your Black spells are saved against at -2.

White (Guardian): Cannot know Black, Brown, Yellow or Purple spells. Must be Lawful aligned.
Bonus: Protection and damage from your White spells is at +1 point per die.

Gold (Restoration): Cannot know Black, Red, Purple or Yellow spells. Must not be Chaotic aligned.
Bonus: Any ones you roll for healing with a Gold spell are threes instead.

Brown (Nature): Cannot know Black, White, Silver or Purple spells.
Bonus: All your spells are known in your head; you do not need to keep them on paper. You memorize them as normal. Your Brown spells have double duration.

There is no Gray specialty least outside of the great academies of magic.

Sorcery World

This is the first of three worlds, three sets of minimal setting assumptions that support three different uses of my spell lists. The rules are compatible with most old-school clones and systems, and are capable of "mix and match" to some extent between worlds. I'll present them with minimal explanation and have a word about them afterwards.

Oparian Flaming God Human Sacrifice Ritual -- © 1918, ERB Inc.

The Universe
You dwell on a mote of order, floating in a sea of Primal Nothingness and dancing in a web of a million planes of existence. The Lords of Law hold their palaces in idealized, peaceful outer planes, and seek to defend the world against the Lords of Chaos. Those dread entities swarm from a myriad of hells, and seek at all times to relax the laws of nature and logic, making the world less predictable.

The World
Humanity is a cruel infant, crawling on the ruined pavements of the world's former masters. The Lords of Law and Chaos are known; some ignore them, some worship them, some strike bargains with them in the delusion they are equals. Those races, empires and kingdoms that follow Law or Chaos differ in style, but Law is not a guarantee of kindness or justice. Indeed, the extreme of Law is as harmful to human progress as the extreme of Chaos is to human well-being.

The alignments of Law and Chaos exist, as well as unaligned status; unholy and holy status is also important for certain spell effects. Demonic creatures from the hells of Chaos, as well as intelligent undead, are always Chaotic and unholy, while the unintelligent undead are merely unholy. The servants of the Lords of Law are Lawful and holy.

Mortal beings can take on Lawful or Chaotic alignment, but these represent strong oaths and commitments to one side of the cosmic struggle, with no restrictions on behavior except this: Lawful and Chaotic beings do not associate with or aid beings known to have the opposite alignment, unless forced to. Breaking this restriction makes you unaligned. A being can change alignment twice in a lifetime, after which any further changes are to unaligned status, as he or she is proven forever inconstant and faithless.

The Lords of Law and Chaos are worshipped, as are numerous other godlings, demons, and unaligned Powers. Should one of these deities deign to speak to humanity - if indeed the deity exists, for many of these cults are frauds - it will send an avatar, who can only exist on this world for a short amount of time. These summonings are responsible for much of the strange sorceries that fall outside the list of spells commonly available to players.

Being a priest is not a character class but a social occupation, like being a mercenary or merchant. Priests in a religion, or those pretending to be priests, wear distinctive garb and often study sorceries related to their deity's interests. They are often bound to a particular temple or subject to a hierarchy.

Spellcaster Classes
There is one main spellcasting class, the magic-user. Elves (using Basic-derived rules) are a class with moderate fighting abilities and the spellcasting abilities of a magic-user one level lower. Magic-users can be of any alignment, reflecting the debate as to whether sorcery is inherently Lawful or Chaotic.

The standard magic-user can know all spells from the complete, twelve-color list; by "known" it is meant that a known spell is written down in the caster's possession. Spells known start with a randomly determined power spell (roll d10) and two standard spells, plus one standard spell per bonus point from Intelligence. On gaining a character level, the magic-user gains an additional random spell of a level he or she can memorize, assuming time spent in a suitable training location. Spells may also be gained by exchange with other magic-users.

How many spells per day can be memorized is found in the Magic-User Spell Allowances table. Memorizing a full complement of spells for the day takes two hours, regardless of level, and requires study from one's spellbooks or scrolls where known spells are kept . Each spell memorized at any one time must have a different title; there is no duplication of spells allowed. Once cast, a memorized spell is expended and that "slot" may not be refilled with another spell until the magic-user has had a good night's sleep.

A magic-user with exceptional Intelligence can memorize additional spells - at +1 bonus point an additional 1st level spell, at +2 the 1st level spell plus a 2nd level spell when of high enough level to memorize such spells, and at +3 a 1st, 2nd and 3rd level spell.

Specialist magic-users have attended a school or studied in a priesthood dedicated to one particular color of magic. The cost of this is they are unable to know, memorize or use spells from some of the other color. The benefit is that they automatically learn all spells of their colorwhen they reach a level at which they can use them. Some specialisms have alignment restrictions.

Starting specialists also begin with a random 1st level standard spell from one of the other allowable colors (roll until one comes up). They gain another random usable spell of the highest level they can cast when they reach a character level that does not give them a new spell level.

Finally, there are benefits to specializing that apply to the effects of certain spells. These benefits, and the colors not learned for each specialism, are shown in the Specialist Schools table.

Next post: tables and spell listing for Sorcery World.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Gas Spores vs. Gorbels

1. A trick monster that depends on players being both hip and naive - knowing about beholders, being dumb enough to run up to melee range with one and take a swing on it, but not having cracked the Monster Manual to know that if it's not firing eye rays at you, you had better stand at 100' and deal with it via arrows...


Sorry folks. Sometimes the Fiend Folio is better.

I apologize for this short fun break, and soon enough will return to the grind of theory and design.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Player Alignment

Here's part of one of the great comments from poster limpey, that had me rethinking my last post:

> If it were ME (not my fantasy character), I would tend to want to show mercy, but maybe that's just my 'real world' morality intruding into fantasy world ethics.

See, limpey had earlier described a system where players get bonus xp for fulfilling their character's alignment particularly well, and lose xp for breaking alignment. I had an initial allergic reaction - hadn't I posted not long ago that I don't like xp rewards for role-playing?

But then I remembered my own take on moral psychology. According to one book that's been very influential on my own thinking, emotions like guilt, sympathy or shame are hard to control for a reason. These feelings are morality enforcers. They provide an incentive to act in a way that helps other people and most times will only pay off in the long term. After all, why doesn't the first level magic-user cast sleep on all his colleagues in camp after their first big haul, slit their throats, and make off with the loot? Fear of punishment can't be the only reason. The real reason most people don't try stuff like that, sleep spell or no, is that they like these people and they would feel bad even contemplating doing it.

It then occurred to me that in a character-driven game there is no system, other than alignment or something similar, to take the role of these emotions. After all, there is nothing in the game to reward real-life pleasures like getting drunk or getting laid, which is why house-rules for carousing are ever-popular. Without these rules, a perfectly rational player of D&D, seeking to maximize his or her character's gain, should never drink enough to lose control. So wouldn't the same rational player need the punishment-reward structure of alignment rules in order to behave morally through their character?

This reflects a long-standing cultural anxiety about games, drama, fiction: that by entering an imaginary space, people will learn to let go their moral hang-ups about sex, gore, violence, witchcraft ... and then take their new-learned immorality back to the real world. An early illustration expressing this concern is, in fact, the header of this blog.

Gamers who are religious believers, secular ethicists, or just trying to run a group including kids they're trying to raise right, have obviously gotten over moral anxieties about the act of gaming. But they might very well wonder - "how do I make my game a positive moral force?" How can the game be a sounding chamber for morality, and not its opposite?

Now, I'm not sure that alignment rules for all are the answer to this. When alignment rules are vague, antisocial players will bend them to their own will, playing a paladin in a holier-than-thou way that is as surefire a way to annoy other players as if they were playing a party-robbing thief. And when alignment rules are specific, loopholes will be found, and morality becomes just another set of rules to exploit.

But with all the Old School recovery of "player skills" why not take a look at "player morality"? Unlike boozing or debauchery, the player can feel what the character does in the game, when it has moral consequences. This is most likely to happen when players are immersed in the game, rather than taking a cynical, manipulative approach. What's more, veteran gamers keenly appreciate the need to avoid players who run their characters completely amorally. This suggests that players in a good game will have some kind of moral sense that carries through to the running of their characters - will flinch from playing out torture just as they would flinch from actually doing it.

I'm not super happy with the system I outlined last time, where neutral players still have to live by a couple of scraps of the Good and Lawful codes. It seems clunky and at odds with the idea that neutral players should be free and unaligned. I thought at the time that only Evil players could be completely free - without reckoning with player morality. Now, I offer this view of Neutrality:
A Neutral character is not constrained by codes of alignment. His or her moral judgments and feelings are supplied by the player. The Neutral's intuition and personality can range from kind and honest to sneaky and self-promoting. But the Neutral has enough concern for others to stay in a group without being kicked out - something that Evil characters lack, and therefore something that makes them unsuitable as player characters.
Those who are familiar with Christian theology might recognize something of the virtuous pagan in this Neutral - a person who follows his or her view of natural law (read "player morality"), which might turn out well or poorly. The Christian in this scheme, however, is saved through knowledge of God's laws (read "the principles of Law and especially Good"). Now eternal salvation doesn't really figure in to the D&D game. But more pragmatically, remaining true to a Lawful and/or Good alignment should be especially important to those receiving benefits directly from heaven - clerics and paladins, if they exist in your game.

All right. Next up: alignment, spellcasting classes, and spell list seeds for Sorcery World ... where Good, and Christianity, have not come to pass.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Limits of AD&D Alignment 3: Solutions

Well, you could just not have alignment for player characters. Sure, you can have an affiliation that boils down to a cultural background and reminder - raised in the Church; follows Odin; reveres Chaos. And you can have morality. Your characters' actions have consequences in the eyes of others, after all. Even when nobody is watching there might be a certain karma for really heinous actions. The moral workings of our world are contested and uncertain. Why should the world of adventure be any different?

But okay, in some settings you really need the behavior of holy people to be exemplary in some way in order for them to deserve their magic powers. As I suggested before, a more specific set of principles seems in order.  Most importantly, these principles need to be ranked in some order, to give a guideline for resolving the kind of conflicts I outlined last time.

Should the principles be about what you should do, or what you should not do? I lean toward "shalt nots," although really some commandments can be phrased either way. They're more likely to keep characters out of trouble - no spending your last copper for food on alms, or suicidal cavalier charges. Being forbidden from doing something also feels less restrictive than being commanded to do something. Yes, religions often require actions like prayers, religious attendance and so on, but these actions are probably best assumed to go on in the background whenever the opportunity occurs.

Finally, I am assuming that the main fight between alignments in this setting is between Good and Evil, with Law being an additional social source of behavioral restrictions on good and evil alike.

COMMANDMENTS OF GOOD - most to least important

Life: Don't kill or torture a helpless sentient being.
Benevolence: Don't harm, disrespect, or steal from a peaceful sentient being.
Crusade: Don't back away from a fight against Evil that you can win.
Justice: Don't let crimes against Life and Benevolence go unpunished.
Generosity: Don't hoard wealth; spend what you need for your own security, then give to others.

COMMANDMENTS OF LAW - most to least important

Honor: Don't break your given word.
Chivalry: Don't use trickery when you fight.
Restraint: Don't indulge pleasures wantonly. Food is for surviving; drink is for tasting; sex is for commitment; wealth is not for wasting.
Legalism: Don't break the law or let lawbreakers go unpunished. 
Obedience: Don't disobey or disrespect your superiors in society.

With these ten commandments in hand, we can see that it's ridiculous to require Evil and Chaotic characters to do everything exactly the opposite, like the Bizarro planet or Opposite Day. Evil, quite obviously, gives freedom to ignore the moral emotions - sympathy, remorse and the anticipation of remorse - that drive ordinary people to do Good things. Chaotic alignment, where separate from Evil, gives freedom to ignore the sense of honor and shame that drives Lawful behavior.

It might be interesting to have particularly Evil or Chaotic characters or beings pick one commandment they feel compelled to violate; the sadist revels in Anti-Life, the Anti-Crusader picks a special fight with the forces of Good, the Unrestrained Chaotic is a compulsive libertine. But that's about as far as it reasonably goes.

So what about Neutrals? They have some moral feelings, but not enough to compel them to do the right thing always. The most reasonable way to show this, I think, is by having Good/Evil Neutrals personally pick one or two of the Good commandments as Scruples that keep them from being completely Evil, and likewise for Law/Chaos Neutrals and the Law commandments.

Finally, people who hold to the difficult paths of Law and Good might just be required to follow all five of their alignment's commandments, or all ten if they are Lawful Good, choosing one set to hold supreme. However, at a small cost to complication but a huge benefit to characterization, players might also be able to choose one commandment that they can ignore as a Foible while still maintaining their alignment, for each set of five.

We're just about ready to step into my three template worlds, each with a different system of magic, alignment, and religion. So hang on - all this theory is soon about to burst into practice. In the meantime, you can let me know if there are any moral principles I left out of the Commandments, and in general what you think of this way to handle alignment.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Limits of AD&D Alignment 2: Behavior

The other problem with alignment in AD&D is not so much about the structure of Good/Evil and Law/Chaos, as it is about the use of alignment. As I outlined previously, a number of AD&D classes (some adapted from the OD&D supplements) traded game benefits for alignment-based restrictions upon the behavior of characters of that class.

Some of these restrictions make sense when two assumptions about the spiritual universe both come into play in a campaign:

1) Certain kinds of magic, like a cleric's spells or a paladin's powers, are derived directly from God, gods or other divine powers;

2) Those divine powers themselves have a value-based alignment, and consciously uphold and represent it through the magic granted to mortals.

Break either one of those assumptions and alignment in a campaign can exist blind to behavior. But if a cleric by her behavior breaks her god's core values, it's only right that her god, if aware and in charge, should refuse to let sacred power be used by such a person.

Cartoon by David Sipress, Boston Phoenix
Now alignment, as we have seen, is great for describing a character's values and motivations. But the real devil in the details comes when DMs try to translate those values and motivations into concrete actions. When do your actions uphold your alignment, and when do they violate it? Veterans of the game are familiar, by experience or hearsay, with these advanced difficulties and dilemmas:

  • Team alignment vs. alignment principles. Having defeated the orc lair, you are the custodian of three kneeling, disarmed cowards, their wretched females and puling young. Do you show mercy as a Good person should? Or slay them all, ruthlessly pursuing the agenda of Team Good against Team Evil? Perhaps you trot out a rationalization - "It is mercy to end their miserable existence!" How seriously should you take your principles in time of holy war? Is the survival of a great champion of Good (yourself) worth a little ethical slippage?
  • Conflicting alignment principles. Looking back at the Schwartz value diagram, the three "self-transcendence" values that correspond to Good - benevolence, justice, and equality - often clash. Does a Good person spread benevolence equally, target it where it will do the most good, or give it to the most deserving? How much should justice, in a Good society, be merciful or harsh, when benevolence to a murderer is cruelty to the victim's family? And should a Lawful knight follow the traditions of his people, or the command of his reformist monarch?
  • What does it mean to be Evil or Chaotic? Is an Evil character merely free to pursue her own selfish interests liberated from any concern for others? Or must she actively refuse to cooperate, actively commit acts of cruelty, even at the expense of the ambition and power she craves? Likewise, must a Chaotic character act crazy and stick it to the Man at every turn, or is that alignment merely about seeking personal freedom from obedience, conformity, and tradition? 
  • Do I follow my alignment at the expense of an enjoyable game? If the extreme answers to the above question are true, then what place does an Evil or Chaotic character have in a game that is best played in a cooperative spirit? For that matter, if a Good character is in a group with Neutrals who slay  and pillage when expedient, doesn't ethics dictate that their ways part - or at least that the Good character should endlessly harangue and undermine the efforts of the party?
  • What does it mean to be Neutral? Do you simply not care about alignment concerns, acting on a variety of motivations as it suits you? Do you have some minimal amount of compassion, setting you apart from Evil, but not enough to make you truly Good? Are you an opportunistic neutral, siding with the winning team? Or do you take an active part in ensuring alignment balance, siding with the losing team, and making sure to commit a carefully balanced schedule of Good, Evil, Lawful and Chaotic acts? Doesn't that last one make you kind of like the person who felt she had to sleep with men on even-numbered days and women on odd-numbered days in order to count as a bisexual?
The answers to these questions are not supposed to be easy. They are hard moral questions even in real life. Discussing them might be interesting and enlightening in a more free-wheeling situation. But when a DM has to answer them fairly in order to decide whether to to strip a player's character of his major powers, or a player has to guess how to behave in order to avoid such a fate, the exercise becomes less fun and more arbitrary.

I'll let the problems stand for a while, and next post, consider a number of ways they might be solved without completely throwing out the idea of divinely directed sacred magic.