Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Lantern in Combat

Domenico Angelo's The School of Fencing (1787) includes a section on how to confront an opponent who employs a “dark lanthorn” – a lantern with a panel that slides to block the light.  Evidently, footpads would equip themselves with a sword and lantern in order to commit their depredations.  According to Angelo, “there are severe punishments inflicted upon on those who are found sword in hand with a dark lanthorn...”  Reportedly, such a criminal would keep the lantern's panel closed, thereby maintaining darkness.  When the robber approached close enough to shine a beam of light into the victim's eyes, he would open the panel.  This would temporarily blind the victim, thereby facilitating the footpad's goal.

If such tactics were viable in the real world, why not apply them to dungeon delving?  Subterranean entities with sensitive eyesight might be particularly susceptible.  How would the mechanics work?  Perhaps, first of all, a successful 'attack' should be made on the part of the lantern wielder.

Starting with Moldvay's D&D and continuing with subsequent editions of 'basic', a 'Light' spell cast at a target's eyes would cause blindness for the duration of the spell (assuming the target fails a saving roll vs. Spells).  “In D&D BASIC rules,” the spell description states, “a blinded creature may not attack.”  This effect may be more severe than what a non-magical light would be expected to accomplish; yet it provides a precedent.  Edition 3.5 indicates that a “dazzled” character has an attack roll modifier (both melee and ranged) of -1.  Additionally, the Armor Class of a “blinded” character is detrimentally modified by 2 (and no Dexterity bonus is applied).  In fifth edition, attacks by a blind character “have disadvantage” while attacks against a blind character “have advantage.”  The fifth edition “condition” of blindness seems appropriate for our purpose.  But what about a saving throw?  For 'basic', like the 'Light' spell, a saving roll vs. Spells may be apt.  The 3.5E 'Sunburst' spell allows a Reflex save to avoid blindness whereas the same spell in 5E indicates a “Constitution saving throw.”  A blinded character is entitled to “another Constitution saving throw at the end of each of its turns” (to a maximum duration of 1 minute I suppose) in order to recover.  I am inclined to favor a Wisdom saving throw rather than Constitution, since Wisdom governs perception.

Depicted below is a lantern shield, a 'real world' weapon that incorporates a lantern for the purpose for blinding or dazzling an opponent.  It seems rather abundantly accessorized to be of much practical value, still they would not have been made if there was no demand for such things.  Seemingly, lantern shields were not intended for combat but rather intimidation.  Of course, in an elfgame, there is nothing to prevent a lantern shield from being a common piece of adventuring equipment.

Monday, January 2, 2017

First Fantasy

Tom Moldvay, in the introduction to his edition of Dungeons & Dragons, claims that “the game is most enjoyable when played by a group of four to eight people.”  Yet, with regard to number of players, the first little brown book states:  “At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts.”  This significant difference highlights an important distinction between new school and old school.  I have commented previously on this distinction.

Today, our concept of a role-playing game tends to correspond with the Moldvay paradigm – a gamemaster and five players (give or take a couple).  Each player controls a character and those characters comprise a more-or-less cohesive 'party'.  A campaign is focused on the party and is essentially is the 'story' of the party's adventures.

In 1977, Judges Guild published The First Fantasy Campaign, providing details about Dave Arneson's Blackmoor – the campaign from which Dungeons & Dragons developed.  At its height, Blackmoor accommodated dozens of players simultaneously; however, Arneson stated in a 1981 interview (published in the premier issue of Pegasus), “I usually prefer to run adventures with about four or five people.”  An old school campaign encompassed more than a single adventuring party; it was a shared environment.  Occasionally, some player characters would cooperate to loot a dungeon but at any given time, different player characters would be involved in various activities, sometimes at cross purposes.  Other early games, such as En Garde, exemplified this sort of 'shared environment' concept.

Today, we would call it a “sourcebook,” but in those bygone days The First Fantasy Campaign (hereinafter FFC) was considered a “playing aid.”  (The map shown above comes from this publication.)  The book enlightens us about what player characters did in the proto-D&D setting.  Blackmoor was a frontier region, uncivilized and essentially unexplored.  Aside from dungeon expeditions, player characters could explore wilderness areas, construct strongholds, and raise armies.  Dungeons & Dragons provides rules for these activities, but as the editions have progressed, less emphasis has been placed on such things.  Yet Blackmoor characters had even more concerns, not the least of which was spending the voluminous wealth taken from the dungeons.

In the introduction to FFC, Arneson writes, “Character motivation was solved by stating that you did not get Experience Points until the money had been spent on your area of interest.”  FFC details seven “interests.”  Motivation consists of the various scores a character has among these interests; the higher the score, the better the 'exchange rate' of gold-to-experience the character has.  For instance, a character with a SONG score of 70 gets experience equivalent to 70% of the amount of gold pieces spent on that interest.  A character's interest scores are determined based on class and/or dice results.  The seven interests are:

WINE – The character purchases a quantity of “Spirits with a relatively high Alcoholic content.”  The character imbibes “to the limits of his capacity.”  Upon recovery, the character continues to drink.  This process continues until the purchased amount beverages is consumed (or, I suppose, until cirrhosis fatally affects the character).  “Experience gained while drunk does not count but treasure does.”

WOMEN – “The player will immediately proceed to the local establishment and expend all funds desired on Room plus Extras at that place.  Slaves of the appropriate type (left to player) may also be purchased with the funds and utilized to fulfil this classification. These slaves may then be sold at reduced value...”  This is one of the dark spots of Blackmoor.  On page 5 of FFC, we learn that the annual upkeep of a “Red” female slave is 25 to 130 gold pieces; for a “White” female slave, upkeep is 35 to 250 gold pieces.

SONG – At “the local tavern,” the character pays for the exploits of other player characters.  “Damages assessed by the tavern owner count...”

WEALTH – “Merely the stockpiling of Gold, Silver and similar items of value by the player. If these items are stolen, the player loses full value immediately upon discovery and may lose levels as a result.”

FAME – “This is gained by straight combat with creatures and players in the game.”  I suppose the character doesn't actually need to be victorious; however, there must be one or more witnesses to the event.  Experience is not awarded until a celebration takes place at a tavern.  (The cost of the celebration may be paid by someone else.)

RELIGION – “Funds are given to the local Religious denomination...”

HOBBY – “This is a catch-all category left to the Judge to award details on to the players.”  A Magic-User, for example, could have Spell Research as a hobby.  Other possible hobbies include “the devising of better Torture machines, making Gold, the Building of Flying Machines, all up to the Judge to outline and define within the limits of his campaign.”  Other examples are studies of animals, learning written and spoken languages, and “Researching old books to find leads to ancient treasure or magical libraries.”  Arneson notes that a hobby could lead “to additional adventures as players would order special cargos [sic] from off the board and then have to go and guard them so that the cargo would reach their lodging and then the player would get the Experience Points.” (original emphasis)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Of Dragons and Dungeons

Art by David C. Sutherland III (from Dragon #12)

In 1976, Gary Gygax exposed noted authoress Andre Norton to D&D when she participated in one of his games.  Inspired by this experience, she wrote Quag Keep.  As an acknowledgement, Norton expressed “appreciation for the invaluable aid of E. Gary Gygax of TSR, expert player and creator of the war game, DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, on which the background of QUAG KEEP is based.”  Norton therefore had an early insight into role-playing games, a phenomenon that – as an 'Appendix N' writer – she helped inspire.  However, note that the term “role-playing game” was not yet in use and D&D was still considered a “war game.”

Quag Keep was published in 1978 and a preview of chapters 2 and 3 appeared in the February issue of The Dragon.  (The image above represents a portion of that issue's cover.)  Although that issue refers to Quag Keep as a “D&D novel,” there doesn't seem to be any official licensing; at least it isn't suggested in my copy of the book – a 1979 DAW paperback.  The first page – even before the title page – of this paperback displays two paragraphs of 'teaser text' with the heading “Of Dragons and Dungeons.”  This phrase appears nowhere else in the book and is doubtless intended to bring to mind Dungeons & Dragons without impinging upon TSR's intellectual property.  (The only specific reference to Dungeons & Dragons is in Norton's acknowledgement, shown above.)

Even without an official license, Norton's book certainly had Gary's approval.  In fact, most of the story takes place in the World of Greyhawk.  Not surprisingly, several people have analyzed Quag Keep in order to glean information about Gary's campaign.  Then there's this total dork.  (Ha ha!  Just kidding Mr. Mona, sir!)  As interesting as these analyses may be, your humble host would like to look at Quag Keep from a different perspective.  Quag Keep does not always conform to the D&D oeuvre.  Ultimately, Norton's book reflects her impression of Dungeons & Dragons, modified as necessary for purposes of fiction.

Quag Keep represents the completion of a full circle.  It is fantasy literature based on a role-playing game which itself is based on fantasy literature.  What if we go one iteration further and conceive of a role-playing game based on Quag Keep ?  This game would capitalize on the differences between D&D and the novel.  Perhaps the game could be called Keepers of the QUAG (Quest Under A Geas).

In the book, seven “real world” players find themselves in a fantasy setting.  The  consciousness of each player occupies a form based on a miniature that the player had selected.  So, people become part of the game they were playing.  (I suppose this plot was not yet trite in the seventies.)  Actually, the players' personalities are eclipsed by the characters' personalities.  In any event, our hypothetical game would require that each (player) character be represented by a figure.

The Quag Keep protagonists each have...
...a wide bracelet of a metal as richly bright as newly polished copper.  It was made of two bands between which, swung on hardly visible gimbals, were a series of dice – three-sided, four-sided, eight-sided, six-sided.
In the story, sometimes these dice spin of their own accord and produce some sort of effect.  I suppose there could be other dice as part of the bracelet, but the book only identifies these four and does not hint at any others.  Our game would be restricted to these dice.  Rolls in both the Hero System and GURPS commonly employ 3d6, providing a range covering 3 to 18 with an average roll of 10.5.  Now, 1d4+1d6+1d8 provides the same range and average.  However, 3d6 is not the same thing as 1d4+1d6+1d8; 3d6 can generate 216 combinations (6 × 6 × 6) while 1d4+1d6+1d8 can only offer 192 combinations (4 × 6 × 8).  Still, 1d4+1d6+1d8 should suit our purposes.  Incidentally, my copy of Quag Keep has 192 pages.

The protagonists/player characters represent a variety of classes types.  Let's examine each.

Swordsman:  In the illustration, the swordsman character, Milo Jagon, is shown wearing a helmet.  Wouldn't he just be a fighter?  Perhaps not.  Page 11 tells us that, “As a swordsman Milo was vowed to Law.”  It is absurd that “followers of Chaos” and “neutrals” couldn't effectively wield a sword.  Maybe there is a guild or order of swordsmen that take a “vow” and the proper title of a member of such is 'swordsman'.  Page 76 informs us that a swordsman (or perhaps any person pledged to Law) “cannot kill without cause.”  Also, a swordsman cannot “be twisted and bent into the service of evil.”

We also learn that a swordsman can have “perhaps one or two simple spells,” something that cannot be said of D&D fighters.  At one point, the bracelet-dice spin, causing pouches of coins to appear at the feet of the protagonists.  “And how about spells?” Milo then thinks, “Surely they had a right to throw also for those?”

Berserker:  The berserker character, Niale Fangtooth, is depicted on the right of the illustration, accompanied by his pseudo-dragon, Afreeta.  Rather than symbolic adoption of animal traits like real-world berserkers, Niale actually shapeshifts into a boar and is often referred to as a “were.”  It may be that all 'Nortonian' berserkers are weres, but are all were-folk necessarily berserkers?  For berserkers (and perhaps all weres), “the tongues of beasts were as open as the communication of humankind.”  However, animals do not always react well to the presence of a were.

Lizardman:  Gulth, the only lizardman in the illustration, is perhaps the most heroic of the protagonists.  His kind require heat and moisture in order to thrive.  This becomes problematic during the course of the story.

[ Some people (who give a pass to magic spells and berserkers able to change into horse-sized boars) experience major butthurt because Gulth uses a blanket to keep warm.  “He's an ectotherm,” they complain, “a blanket won't allow him to retain heat.”  To these oppressive mammals, I have two things to say:  (1) A pre-warmed blanket would help Gulth's body temperature.  (2) What part of “fantasy” don't you understand? ]

Cleric:  Daev Dyne, the cleric, resembles to some extent a D&D magic-user.  He is adorned with a “robe of gray, faced with white.”  With regard to weapons, he is “permitted no more than the knife of [his] calling.”  Further to the meaning of  'cleric', Norton indicates that Daev Dyne has “training as a clerk.”  With regard to magic, Daev Dyne performs a ritual to ascertain information about two rings worn by Milo.  He can also cast spells for scrying, light, and healing.  Additionally, he employs holy water to protect a camp site.

Bard:  The character Wymarc can play songs on his harp to accomplish various effects. 'The Song of Herckon' can discombobulate shadow creatures.  'The Song of Far Wings' can summon giant eagles.  He can also use music to bring “a release from tension, a gentle dreaminess from which all that might harm or threaten was barred.”

Battlemaid:  The character Yevele wears mail and wields a sword expertly.  She also casts a spell that temporarily paralyzes two riders and their mounts.  However, having cast that spell, she “cannot use that one again.”  With regard to spells, she has “perhaps one or two others [she] can summon.”

Elf:  The character of Ingrge is introduced as “one of the Woods Rangers.”  That he is an elf is not mentioned until the second paragraph of his description.  This may mean that all Woods Rangers are elves.  Yet perhaps not all elves are Woods Rangers.  Elves possess “mastery over communication with animals and birds.”  Actually, elves can use “mind-talk” to communicate “not only among themselves but with all the sons and daughters of nature who wore feathers, scales, or fur – or even leaves – for it is rumored that to the elves trees were also comrades, teachers, and kin-friends.”  Elves also possess a portion of magical “Power Lore” that can be used to “scent” magic.

Among the antagonists, there are other classes types.  Unfortunately, for most of these, Norton supplies little information.

Druid:  Druids are a “close-knit and secret fraternity.”  While some have “the brand of Chaos and the powers of the Outer Dark at their call,” the Druid enemy in Norton's story, Carlvols, is not so powerful and not beholden to Chaos.  Carlvols can “vanish in a puff of smoke” (along with his unnatural steed) as well as summon urghaunts.  On one occasion, he summons a bevy of shadow imps. 

Hitherblood:  When the protagonists encounter Helagret, they notice “an odd cast to his features, something that hinted of mixed blood, perhaps of the elven kind.”  We are later told that Helagret does “not have elf favor” and Ingrge claims that he is a “half-blood from the Hither Hills.”

Illusionist:  The character of Ewire twice lures a protagonist away from camp by assuming the semblance of a person known to the protagonist.  She can also cause her allies to appear in different guises.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Inspiration: The Star Rebellions, 5764 AD

Yes, technically it should be “AD 5764,” assuming we're talking about anno domini ; however, there is no definitive connection between this setting and Earth.  'This setting,' by the way, comes from Freedom in the Galaxy, originally published in 1979 by SPI, then published as an Avalon Hill bookcase game in 1981.  In the game, “a small but valiant band of Rebels struggle to withstand the oppression of an empire bent on total domination.”  In other words, it's a blatant Star Wars knock-off.  Even the title of the game (hereinafter FitG ) is one thin preposition away from the last four words in the introductory scroll of the original film.  Why use a knock-off for inspiration instead of the genuine article?  It is in the differences of the knock-off in which we shall find points of interest.

FitG has three levels of complexity:  'single star system' has a rating of 4  – on Avalon Hill's scale of 1 (easy) to 10 (hard), 'province' (4 - 6 systems) has a rating of 7, and 'galactic' (all 25 systems – 51 planets) has a rating of 10 – “the ultimate in S-F realism.”  The 32-page rule book informs us, “The full Galactic Campaign Game...takes about 20 hours to play.”

Aside from the rule book, the game includes a 12 page 'Galactic Guide' including a backstory for the setting and details that are mostly 'color', but some are ancillary to the rules.  In the age of the Interstellar Concordance, the Interspecies Genetics Project combined Rhone (i.e., human) genetics with genes from other intelligent species.  The resulting hybrids “traveled to the worlds of their respective parent races” where they “tended to breed prodigiously.”  Eventually the hybrids battled against the elder races in the Galactic Extermination Wars.  Civilization collapsed and the survivors, “mostly hybrids and Rhones,” lost the secret of faster-than-light drive.  Eventually, a Rhone population developed faster-than-light transportation again and used this advantage to establish an interstellar empire.  Over several centuries, corruption festered in the Empire.  To thwart the depredations of the Empire, the Galactic Rebellion came into being.  Some of the various races in FitG include:  Yesters (bird people), Kayns (dog people), Piorads (“Space Vikings”), Segundens (“a dark-skin humanoid race”), and Saurians (lizard people).

FitG is a two-player game; one player controls the Empire and the other controls the Rebellion.  The game involves planetary loyalty scores and space combat; however, “Central to the play of Freedom in the Galaxy are the characters.”  Sabotage, Diplomacy, and Free Prisoners are examples of missions that players can assign to characters (or groups of characters).  Missions are resolved by drawing action cards.  Each action card lists events that occur depending upon the 'Environ' that the characters occupy.  Once the event is resolved, a letter code on the card indicates if the mission is successful.

Each character has six attributes:  Combat, Endurance, Intelligence, Leadership, Diplomacy, and Navigation.  Each attribute is rated from zero to six.  Some characters have a special ability.  For instance, Zina Adora (“Princess of Adare”), “Receives one bonus draw on Gather Information mission.”

Some interesting characters:

Sidir Ganang (psuedo-anagram of SPI employee Sid Ingang):  “'Sidir Ganang' and the Ganang Gang was one of the most popular stereovision shows shows on Bajukai, and Sidir Ganang posters, dolls, books, movies and grebble-gum cards made him a millionaire.  But his fortune tugged at the greed of some minor Imperial functionary, and Sidir Ganang was blacklisted from the entertainment business, and his fortune was confiscated.  Formerly, Ganang had merely portrayed galactic warriors on stereovision; now he actually became one, fighting against the Empire.”

Ly Mantok:  “An Imperial Sub-Commander is not supposed to have outside business concerns, but this is a rarely enforced policy.  Ly Mantok would no doubt have gotten away with his corrupt dealings, had not ten thousand Mantok Laser Rifles refused to function in the middle of the Battle of Banjukai.  When Mantok was...dismissed, he swore that he would go to someone who would appreciate his abilities.  The Rebels, at the time, were desperate enough to do just that.”

He starts the game with an Explorer spaceship.

Barca (because he's a dog person – get it?):  “Like all Kayns, Barca has a fierce loyalty for his friends and little mercy toward his enemies.  For 40 years, Barca has been the Grand Marshal of the Imperial Army, both on planet and in space.  His remarkable military prowess and ability to handle tactical and strategic combat situations is at the disposal of the Empire, as Barca's loyalties remain fixed to the Imperial throne and whoever sits upon it.”

Thysa Kymbo (more wordplay from the impish wits at SPI):  “Daughter of the current Emperor Coreguya, the princess has spent most of her adult life waiting for her father to die, so that she may ascend to the throne.  Because she has spent most of her life pampered in the Imperial Court, she is unaware that Redjac may have other plans for the throne that do not involve succession.  The princess became the bitter enemy of Zina Adora when she learned that Rayner Derban was more attracted to Zina than herself.”

Her voice was “as alluring as it was Imperial...”

Characters can also have companions.  One such companion is Norrocks (“The Thieves Guild constructed this bodyguard robot to protect its most important members.  Sometimes, through proper bargaining, the Guild can be persuaded to part with one of its defensive robot bodyguards.”).  Another companion is Charsot (“Resembling a little dog, the Charsot, an animal from the planet Midest, can sense thought waves and transmit its own waves of pacification and reason.  It can also sense the future to a limited extent.”).

FitG offers a plethora of creatures with which characters might interact during the course of their missions.  A sampling follows.
Derigion:  “Giant flying lizard with quick movements aided by instinctive precognition.”
Gach:  “Two-headed feline creature with two conflicting personalities.”
Hysnatons:  “Sewer snakes with hypnotic powers.”
Leonus:  “An unheard-of cross-breed a lion-like creature and a reptile, incredibly ferocious and stealthy.”  (Although unheard-of, it has a name.)
Lomrels:  “Large canines used as mounts be the local populace, who alone know the secret to their control.”
Prox:  “Large, crawling carnivorous insect that has huge, rending teeth, but is slow.”
Sandiabs:  “Feisty desert rats get off on watching travelers fall into carefully covered sand pits.  Mean no real harm, though...”
Vorozion:  “Highly evolved, hostile thought being; very impatient.”
Zop:  “Friendly, furry creature that does not attack...However, it senses good vibrations from Rebel characters, and so it gives them ancient family heirloom kept safe in cave for eons...”