Thursday 30 January 2014

Fantasy Science

For the past six or so sessions I have been DM'ing the Band of Iron in an adventure set in an ancient compound on a remote, mountainous island, built by the lost race of Golden Men. It's fair to say that the adventure, while light on treasure, has opened up unknown vistas, revelations about cosmic and human history,and encounters with wonders unknown to our heroes so far.

Now, a classic conceit of Science Fantasy is to have the "wonders of the ancients" be the products of a technological civilization, even ours ...

Not so, the World of Mittellus. It's inevitable that a game of exploration eventually reveals deep secrets of the far past, but in doing so I consciously tried to avoid that particular cliche. My reasoning (Band of Iron players may read on, as you have already figured out what I'm going to say about the Golden Race):

The kind of adventure scenarios that D&D-type games support best involve medieval-level technology people journeying to a lost, mysterious labyrinth, there to confront monsters and perils, and haul back wondrous artifacts and treasures. As some have noted, this encourages a background assumption of a fallen world, consistent with many of the source inspirations for D&D. In particular, Jack Vance's Dying Earth gives a well-reasoned background for magic, in which the "basic science" that allowed generation of new spells has been lost, leaving only an "applied science" of spells learned by rote - literally crammed into the brain!

Specifically, let's think of any technique or technology as having four elements:

Research:  theoretical knowledge of the underlying phenomena generates new ideas;
Development: experimentation and testing creates new applications;
Engineering: specialist knowledge keeps the techniques running in a stable state; and
User Interface: the techniques are adapted for use by non-specialists.

In D&D, as in Vance, the Research stage has been lost - otherwise, the magic would look more like Ars Magica's theoretically coherent system. Wizardry in Vance is essentially Engineering, learning set spells at a great cost in training, and only rare and costly magic items present an easy User Interface. And D&D allows for spell research, but only by trial and error, typical of the Development layer cut off from Research.

Golden Race: so old they used Myspace.
The era of the Golden Race, I thought, would be one in which the Research and UI aspects of the color magic system had been fully developed, unlike the present Vancian age of the world Mittellus. Magical forces had been harnessed beyond the single spell; forget "Continual Light streetlights" when power, heat and illumination were provided by raw Red magic, force fields and matter creation by Blue, alteration by Yellow and so on. Additionally, the reversed colors of magic were understood; anti-Red gave stasis, anti-Blue gave utter destruction (great for garbage disposal), anti-Yellow preservation and so on.

On the user level, the most simple magical powers were coded into site-specific patches of color, as well as items, most of which are now lost or destroyed. More complicated procedures like medical regeneration required some degree of specialist knowledge and mental training.

For other people's games, the above analysis of technology provides an easy rebuttal to those who wonder why magic doesn't automatically lead to sorcerous streetcars and demonic dishwashers. If magic is confined to a guild where specialized knowledge is needed to wield it, then individual wizards may conjure up invisible butlers for themselves or for the masters they serve, but the lack of an large Engineering class means that magic never becomes an institution. Without the engineers of magic, its phenomena are confined to the lab and testing grounds.

Think of the analogy in technological fiction; it's no coincidence that the typical pulp techno-villain is someone who has hatched an advanced technique of mass control or destruction in isolation. The only thing distinguishing the D&D wizard from the Bond villain is the flavor of handwavium needed to explain their wondrous deeds.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Look At The Size of That Sarcophagus

I know I was going to write about fantasy-science today but Athanasius Kircher (previously) stole my heart away:


By Thoth and Amon, click to enlarge and you'll see a method of depicting a subterranean labyrinth at once outlandish and practical; emulated, perhaps unconsciously, in Jason Thompson's fine visualizations here.

The best part? This illustration comes from Kircher's attempt to perform Egyptology without having actually visited Egypt. Yep, those are supposed to be the Great Pyramids ... but they belong to all of us now.

Sunday 26 January 2014

D&D's Appendix N Roots Are Science Fantasy

Happy 40th birthday, D&D! The world's oldest fantasy adventure role-playing game?  Yes, but ... most of the world doesn't know about the role of science fantasy in the first eight or so years of your existence. The genre purges of the 80's - serious fantasy only, please! - saw science-fantasy shaken out of successive D&D rule sets. But psionics, giant insects and blobs, and the crashed spaceships in both Arneson's and Gygax's games, are important sci-fi intrusions in the early game.

Science fantasy confronts modern and ancient ways of understanding the world, often giving credence to both. Its trademark solution is to identify witchcraft with the quasi-scientific ideas of ESP and dimensional travel. Most significantly, this happens all throughout Lovecraft. The "technology of the ancients" is another frequent theme, whether we or some other civilization takes the part of the "ancients."

But beyond fiction, science fantasy casts a sympathetic light onto the gamer's own activities. You, a modern, rational person, are using actuarial tables and polyhedral number crunching to enact a Dark Ages drama. Hell - the very activity of role-playing is science fantasy!

If any more proof is needed, below are the inspirational works and authors from Gygax's famed Appendix N. I've highlighted them as non-science fantasy (yellow), science fantasy by one of the three definitions below (green), or straight science fiction, albeit sometimes with a medieval or ancient setting (blue).

1. Scientific explanations or sci-fi settings of apparently fantastic phenomena. Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where knowledge of chemistry and physics explains the dragon's breath or the giant's curse. De Camp & Pratt's Compleat Enchanter, where voyages to fantastic worlds stem from modern-day adventurers' mastery of higher mathematics. McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern and John Carter of Mars - sword-and-planet, dragon-and-planet.

2. The return of the fantastic to a far future or post-apocalyptic world. Vance's Dying Earth, Lanier's previously mentioned Hiero's Journey, and others.

3. The fantastic intruding into a world ruled by science: Lovecraft, Zelazny's Amber series, or the explorer's romances of A. Merritt.

Bellairs, John: THE FACE IN THE FROST 
Brackett, Leigh 
Brown, Frederic 
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series 
Carter, Lin: "World's End" series
de Camp & Pratt: "Harold Shea" series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE 
Derleth, August 
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: "The World of the Tiers" series; et al
Fox, Gardner: "Kothar" series; "Kyrik" series; et al 
Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series 
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO'S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" series; et al 
Lovecraft, H. P. 
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the  first three books) 
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III 
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al 
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy" 
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade 
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al‏.

Science fantasy is the largest of these three categories, and if you put the sci-fi authors in with it, it easily overwhelms the pure fantasy sources. I've also boldfaced what in my opinion are the most important influences on the actual game, the works that contributed most to the concept of the races, classes, magic and monsters in the game. These are evenly split between science and classic fantasy.

As I look over these influences I also realize that in my own Band of Iron campaign I've been taking a different approach to confront the mythic with the modern. Let's call it "fantasy-science." If all goes well the section of the campaign dealing with that will come to a climax in a session tomorrow, so in my next post I'll be at greater liberty to write about its secrets.

Friday 24 January 2014

Far East World

Given my Five Rings background this one was surprisingly challenging - coming up with encounters that don't depend on clan rivalry, court intrigue or MURDER AT THE TEA TASTING.

For those new to the series, the idea is to roll d20 and read straight across for a standard encounter, d20 separately for columns 1 and 2-3 for a strange one,and d20 three times for a really random one.

Monday 20 January 2014

13 Fun Facts about the Current Mad Archmage Campaign

1. Dwarf named Joy who started with a muleteer background, a mule represented by a warthog miniature who may or may not be a conventional mule, and a mule handler hireling called Little Pig Man.
Represented thusly.
2. Sociopathic gnome Titus Widowmaker who also got himself a mule, then a trained monkey, who died under a falling rock from a botched Find Familiar spell that Titus will continue to cast until he gets it right (0-3 so far). Quirk: Making Vietnam-style jewelry out of  body parts of fallen foes.
3. Wizard Richard Nixington, an expert at law, who fumbled his own Find Familiar spell and now has a hawk familiar made of stone;  useful for one-way communication during split-the-party situations.
4. Second level night elf with no name, sent by the Thieves' Guild to replace Jacob, dilettante son of the Guildmaster. Voice raspy and face marked up from fumble dodging stirge who plunged its beak down his throat, repeated fumbles from self trying to stab and pull stirge off (3 1's in a row). Should be dead were it not for his good luck (low damage rolls from all this misfortune.)
5. Grimnir, prophet of Ygg. Motivated by a thirst for hidden knowledge. Not the healing kind.
6. Rathgar, fighter. Tough and ugly customer with a facial scar. Means business.
7. Death toll: 3 hirelings, 1 PC. Remaining hireling, Richard's bodyguard Grubb, has a nervous look.
8. Little Pig Man is unperturbed, apparently a force of nature. MVP in the adventure of the Three Sad Wizards, he singlehandedly roused the party from the aranea's magical sleep, and bumped into her later with the lantern while she was invisibly hiding.
9. Forming murderous intentions against rival group the Five Fingers of Fazio, also involved in exploring the dungeons of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Third rival group of angry peasants, the Jacquerie, has disappeared without trace. Tavern hangers-on and onlookers have already dubbed the PC group "The Muleteers" after PCs themselves tried out a variety of more flattering titles without any great enthusiasm.
10. Recently concluded the first-level Kobold Wars fighting on the side of the Am'rash tribe who defeated and enslaved the rival Yurog. Kobolds seem happy to overpay for reliable water supplies from the party after the huge reservoir under their well became tainted by a falling corpse while battling their furious escaped descented troglodyte. Kobolds don't know that the party secretly aided the troglodyte and that Jacob cut the corpse in two before it fell down the well.
11. Most recently, descended a mysterious spiral stair to the second level, where they encountered a variety of traps and strange phenomena proceeding variously from Mr.Bloch's imagination, Dungeon Dozen tables and frenzied improvisation. They won through to a secret empty treasure room but found the false bottom on one of the treasure chests,and retrieved some strength-giving gloves and sweet-smelling incense.
12. Going up the spiral stair, they find a ceiling of water through which daylight shines. Nixington took the plunge and emerged in a castle garden pool, where a court wizard and noble lady were conversing. He politely declined their invitation to a feast at midnight.
13. On getting back to the tavern, find wizard law enforcement officer and carnivorous ape bailiff charging the party with stealing potions from the insect wizard's house they had been hired to clear of rebellious arthropods. Charges that are entirely and demonstrably true. It's Nixington's toughest case!

In conclusion: Respect the mule.

Saturday 18 January 2014

52 Baroque Character Backgrounds

This time, the random finger of fate has decreed that the Character Background and Languages page get the Baroque treatment. I suppose if you play that "Dungeon Crawl Classics" game, these might also be useful as backgrounds for your little pit-fodder avatars. As always roll d100, in half, rounded up, and use 51 or 52 to replace a dull or inappropriate outcome.

Friday 17 January 2014

Generic Fantasy As the Mundane

In Playing At the World, Jon Peterson classifies  many of the novels that inspired D&D as transportation narratives, where a guy (always a guy) from the present, real world is somehow taken to a fantastic land, where they have adventures and find our their true potential.  Three Hearts and Three Lions (which I recently re-read) the John Carter of Mars series, the Complete Enchanter series, all fit this bill.

The Lord of the Rings also kind of fits this bill indirectly. The hobbit heroes start from a place where folkways and technology are similar to 18th century rural England (showing how Tolkien represented "home"), and journey to a world inspired by Dark Ages sagas and medieval Crusader romances.

Eventually the brew of all the sources mentioned above and more gave rise to the "standard D&D fantasy" genre, which took on a life of its own. Somewhere, there is a tavern, with a bard singing, a tough barkeep (level 5 fighter at least), a dour dwarf, a haughty elf, an old one-armed guy with a map to sell, an uptight paladin and a thief worrying where his next Guild dues payment is coming from. By now this allegedly wondrous setting is so familiar that it's the venue of choice for new players, who already come pre-loaded with its assumptions from a diet since childhood of computer RPGs and generic fantasy fiction.

What's striking - or at least, true in my case - is that long-term campaigns themselves try to shake free at some point, with a transportation from this world of generic fantasy to a different one. This can be literal, in the case of Gary Gygax's dimensional portals beneath Castle Greyhawk, or figurative, as in the many high-level classic modules that involve ruins in the jungle or desert with a faux Egyptian or Mesoamerican flavor. Sending your dwarves and knights into a science fantasy adventure, too, is a classic move

Also remarkably, very few campaigns follow the opposite trajectory, starting out in an "exotic" setting and using the perspective of those characters to see Generic Fantasyland in a new light. The only fictional example I can think of is the book and film The Thirteenth Warrior, which proposes to demystify the Beowulf myth and Norsemen in general by having a character from civilized Arabia play the fish-out-of-water. The equivalent, maybe, is to have Empire of the Petal Throne characters wind up in Greyhawk.

Perhaps the weirdest move, and one rarely tried, is to send your fantasyland characters into the actual, historical Middle Ages - where your nonhumans are circus freaks, your wizardry and religion gets you burnt at the stake, you can be hanged as vagrants on manorial lands (that is, in 95% of civilization), and jolly taverns with busty wenches are few and far between. As masters or players of the game, there's a grand irony in being more comfortable with the endlessly repeated, Tolkien-meets Renfaire fiction than the gritty, rats-and-fleas reality.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

d12-Squared Critter Matrix

Among the many gems from the British Library's public domain scans is this graphic matrix of critters that I just realized, similar to the matrix of stones, makes a perfect 12 x 12 encounter table.

Roll a third d12:
1: natural size (0.5-9 HD)
2: small (1HD)
3: medium (2HD)
4: large (3HD)
5: huge (5HD)
6: humongous (9 HD)
7: talking
8: +humanoid
9: group
10: herd/horde
11: magical (casts 1 random spell at will)
12: roll twice more

Sunday 12 January 2014

52 Baroque Monster Abilities

In the aftermath of my cooled-down, ISOTYPE-inspired 52 Pages modular rules project, the inevitable backswing is for numerous,complicated, weird ideas to squat in its vacant form. Text, tiny. Graphics, irrelevant and obfuscatory. Ideas, idiosyncratic, not synthetic.

I generated a random number and got 41. I got to work on the topic of the 52 Pages page number 41 - monster basics - and eventually produced this table for anything but basic monsters. Roll d%, halve and round up, if you don't like an idea use the surefire 51 or 52. Click to enlarge, natch.

The form of the monster is secondary. Let your obsessions and phobias determine it.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Demons or Dragons?

D&D "for grownups" has demons on the cover.

D&D "for kids" has dragons on the cover.

So - unconsciously, perhaps - did TSR decide, within the space of five formative years. Well, the trend did not continue, but any two points make a line and it's fun to riff on what follows from making the Demon your iconic adversary as opposed to the Dragon.

The Demon - is Weird Fantasy, Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Cugel.
The Dragon - is High Fantasy, Beowulf, Siegfried, your garden-variety knight.

Dragonlance. (Ugh, and Dragonstrike.)

The Demon - is human-like (so it forces you to kill a human-like thing). It's almost symbiotic on humans, no self-respecting demon is found without a cult, statue, altar, and weird robed guys.
The Dragon - is bestial (so can be slain without compunction). It's a loner, a wilderness hazard, a devastator of civilization.

The Demon - is carnal. Is often clutching a Leia bikini lass or receiving a nude sacrifice aglow with Brundageous pallor. Oh, and succubi.
The Dragon- is PG - its main sin is greed, maybe pride. It captures maidens but that's about it.

The Demon - is from Lord of the Rings.
The Dragon - is from the Hobbit.

Both of them - start having playable offspring with humans in 3rd edition. Blurring the line between monster and PC in the same way those damn statblocks do.

I wrote before about how a lot of DMs fall prey to "Precious Dragon Syndrome" and hold off a long time inflicting "WOW! DRAGONS!" on their players. The Demon, in my experience, more often gets drafted in as a climax monster.

Anyway, if you can't decide, you can have them both - in Sweden, anyway.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Wunderkammer Drinking Games

Another neat thing we saw in the new Rijksmuseum: a room of cups used in 17th century drinking games.

Dice cup
DICE CUP: Like many drinking cups, this has no base, so that it can not be set down while full. Instead, at the bottom of the cup is a round cage with a die in it. The point of the game is simple: shake the empty cup, then drain it a number of times equal to the number on the die.

SPINNER CUP: This cup has a spinner built into the stem. Whosoever the spinner points to must drink from the cup. A game that is not entirely forgotten.

Measure glass
MEASURE GLASS: The "pasglas" or measure glass is a clear cylinder with three to five marks along its side. The object is to fill the glass and drain one of the compartments exactly, no more, no less. Failure means you must drink from the next compartment, and so on.

How would I rule a drinking game in an old school system? Each basic "drink" is 1 pint of beer or cider = 1 large glass of wine = double shot of distilled spirits.

Drinking skill doesn't match well with adventuring levels, so I would just use the ad hoc "tiny competence" system and have everyone roll a d6 (+2 if a dwarf, automatic 6 if an appropriate background such as "tavern keeper"). on a 1 you are a lightweight and must make two d20+CON >= 20 rolls after each drink, on a 2 you are a heavyweight and make one such roll after every two drinks, everyone else makes one roll per drink. Failure moves you one step down the track:

0: Not Drunk: You are fine.
1: Tipsy: -1  penalty to all rolls involving skill
2: Drunk: -2 penalty and -3 move
3: Legless: -5 penalty and -6 move. If you failed on a natural 10 or less, vomit, losing 1 drink from your system.
4: Unconscious. Recover in 2d4 hours.

Sleight of hand may be used to try to manipulate the die or the spinner, and the measure glass can be set as a d20 + WIS >= 20 task.