Sunday, March 30, 2014

Here There Be Monsters

Art by Liz Danforth

The Dungeon Masters Guide devoted seven paragraphs to the idea of “The Monster as a Player Character.”  Basically, Gygax advised that players should not be allowed to play monster characters.  At one point, he relented enough to state, “The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play...a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity.”  At the end of an essay of discouragement, Gygax finally said Dungeon Masters can do what they want with their own worlds but still admonished, “you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters.”  This dissuasive attitude was something of a departure from Holmes' remarks two years earlier:  “At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be.  Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak...”  While permissive, Holmes supplied no other guidance.

Not only did Tunnels & Trolls allow player characters to be monsters, but Ken St. Andre designed a T&T compatible game where player characters could only be monsters.  This game – Monsters! Monsters! – was published three years before Gygax advised against the concept and one year before Holmes' minimal concession.

The original Tunnels & Trolls did not have descriptions for monsters.  Dungeon Masters – yes, the original rules referred to Dungeon Masters – were expected to design their own.  However, monsters in T&T were defined by a number called 'monster rating'.  “Very puny monsters...have ratings below 30,” St. Andre wrote, “Very powerful monsters might have individual ratings up in the hundreds.”  The number of dice rolled for a monster in combat was based on its rating (eventually simplified to monster rating divided by ten).  On the first 'conflict turn', half of the monster rating was added to the dice total.  On subsequent conflict turns, only one-quarter was added.  Damage was subtracted from monster rating; as monsters suffered damage, the damage they were able to inflict was reduced.

Monsters! Monsters! was “produced and edited” by Steve Jackson and was published by Metagaming.  Monster ratings weren't a part of M!M! ; each monster was a character and was defined by attributes just like “normal” player characters.  A player could choose a type of monster to play or draw a random playing card; each of the 52 monsters on the monster table was associated with a specific card.  A character might be a balrog (king of diamonds) or a slime-mutant (two of hearts) or even human scum (two of clubs).  As the mention of 'balrog' suggests, various literary monsters were provided:  From Tolkien, along with balrogs, there were hobbits (technically 'black hobbits' due to their categorization as monsters) as well as orcs (and half-orcs); Tsathoguas from C. A. Smith; shoggoths and night-gaunts from Lovecraft; Snarks (misspelled 'Shark' in the Monster Glossary) from Lewis Carroll; shadowjacks from Zelazny; and M!M! demons were inspired by L. Sprague de Camp's works.  The table provides attribute multipliers for the various monsters.  (For instance, a yeti multiplies its strength by four while a gremlin multiplies its constitution by one-half.)  These attribute multipliers allowed detailed monster creation in T&T and also provided means to create non-human (but non-monstrous) player characters types like elves and dwarves.

Experience points were awarded in M!M! for expected behavior like acquiring treasure and killing or conquering enemies, but also for obtaining attractive captives of the opposite sex (“No points for ugly people”), destructiveness (including “wanton cruelty” and “general rottenness”), and sating one's appetite.

Just as 'normal' characters went dungeon delving in T&T, characters in M!M! were expected to raid settlements.  To this end, a sample farming village was mapped and described, the inn of the village was mapped and described in greater detail.  Attributes were supplied for various residents (with names like Desmond Mudminder, Bolinger Zangala, and Gort Glibtongue).  While these residents are targets in M!M!, they could easily serve as typical non-player characters in a traditional game.  St. Andre encouraged Game Masters (thus called in Monsters! Monsters! ) to create their own settings for monsters to invade.  St. Andre mentioned he designed Khosht, a city with a population of  20,000, for use in his games.

From St. Andre's Monsters! Monsters! Introduction:
So it was only natural that the monsters should come out of their tunnels and dungeons to strike back at the smug world of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, etc., who had been so greedily despoiling their homes and treasures...A monster lives by a completely different code of ethics, affording a splendid opportunity to get rid of the impure and perverted impulses which affect most of us – impulses it's hard to express while playing a hero.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A True Tragedy

by Alex Haglund for the Daily Egyptian

Dave Trampier is dead.  In a sense he died in 1988, when he severed all contact with the gaming community and dropped off the radar.  I mean, when an artist stops creating art, there is death of a sort; a death of creativity, a death of expression.  Wanting to disassociate from TSR is one thing, but to stop creating is something else entirely.  Sure, it was his choice and I am not going to speculate upon the circumstances, but I do bemoan the result.  Whatever caused him to withdraw did not affect just him but deprived his fans – deprived the world – of twenty-five years of his art.  I hope he is in a better place.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Second Pandora

Art by Liz Danforth

Contemporaneous with the publication of Empire of the Petal ThroneTunnels & Trolls was “...perpetrated on an unsuspecting world.”  Which game is the “second” role-playing game is a matter of debate.  Regardless, both games are important in the history of the hobby and each has a distinct reason for being.  It is my belief that EotPT is more of an adaptation of D&D while T&T is more of a response to D&D.

Professor Barker saw D&D as a way he could express his invention, Tékumel.  The most important part of EotPT is, of course, the setting.  However, Barker did not use Tékumel as a backdrop for D&D ; he crafted his own rules.  Admittedly, they were “inspired” by D&D, yet he chose to implement certain changes not as a consequence of the setting, but because he felt the changes resulted in a better game.  I mean changes such as (to name a few) percentile characteristics, the workings of magic, and the introduction of skills.  Just as Tékumel was an artistic endeavor, so was the game.  Barker had a career; he didn't expect to make a living off of Empire of the Petal Throne.  The changes he implemented represented an intellectual exercise equivalent to artistry.  Esthetics applied to game design?  Gygax thought so.  He wrote in the foreword for EotPT, “I simply state that it is the most beautifully done fantasy game ever created.”  Sure, Gygax had an interest in promoting the game; his company published it.  Still, there are many things Gygax could have written, yet he chose to describe the game as he did – as a thing that (in terms of beauty) surpassed his own creation.

One of the earliest versions of Tunnels & Trolls is currently available as a PDF.  In the introduction (technically it's a section called “Troll Talk”) Ken St. Andre states:
The people who created the game that T&T reacts against did the whole gaming world a tremendous favor in their pioneering of certain original concepts that all of role-playing gaming is based on.
It has been my impression that many gamers disdain Tunnels & Trolls.  I think they consider T&T to be a “rip-off” of D&D ; that T&T is an affront to the original role-playing game.  This is an unfair notion.  Quality and innovation are the products of diversity and competition.  Besides, in terms of actual “rip-off,” TSR did not have clean hands given their improper use of the intellectual properties of Tolkien and Burroughs.

As St. Andre indicates, Tunnels & Trolls is a reaction to D&D.  He recognized the wonderful potential of RPGs and tried to make a game that was more accessible than D&D.  While Barker focused on artistry, St. Andre focused on practicality.  To this end, he created a game (1) with a lower price, (2) that required only 'normal' six-sided dice as opposed to exotic polyhedrons, and (3) eschewed the complexities with which D&D was fraught.  While less complex, the rules were not altogether intuitive, even for people with D&D or wargaming experience.  Yet T&T continued to be developed and refined and, even now, “Deluxe” Tunnels & Trolls is in the works.  Regardless of it's longevity, Tunnels & Trolls let the genie out of the bottle or – perhaps more accurately – opened Pandora's box a second time.  D&D no longer had the field to itself; yes, Gygax and Arneson were the 'pioneers', but now the frontier was open to other creative efforts.  Among those efforts was RuneQuest, a game that diverged further still from the D&D paradigm.

RuneQuest dedication

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Some Notes on Experience

A Priest of Karakán and a Pé Chói speaking with officers of the Palace Guard
in the great outer hall of the Court of Emperors at Avanthár

Similar to the rules stated in Men & Magic, characters in Empire of the Petal Throne gain experience points by “acquiring treasure” or “slaying hostile beings.”  The rules go on to specify, “No points are gained for casting spells or other types of activity.”  I find it interesting that Barker found it necessary to include such an admonition.  The notion of getting experience points for anything other than killing and looting must have existed even in those early days of the hobby.

'Normal' games, of course, have winners and losers, but normal games have a definite endpoint.  Role-playing games lack such an endpoint.  Have you cleared out the dungeon?  There's always another dungeon.  Did your character die?  Roll up a new character.  Victory and loss are subjective because the game can continue indefinitely.  Also, the concepts of 'winning' and 'losing' imply competition; role-playing games are co-operative.  A Game Master challenges players but does not oppose them.  The goal is enjoyment, not the determination of a win/lose binary condition.

Part of a player's enjoyment of a role-playing game lies with the continuation of his or her character.  If the character accomplishes something, so does the player – albeit vicariously.  Accomplishment (even when vicarious) is a satisfying sensation.  Experience points offer a record of accomplishment and when accumulated sufficiently, they lead to the in-game benefit of character improvement.  To borrow a marketing term, experience points are, in essence, a continuity program.  By continually investing in the product (i.e., playing the game), the player reaps a reward in the form of an improved character.

Given its wargame origins, it's hardly surprising that 'accomplishment' in Dungeons & Dragons equates to killing things and taking their stuff.  This works out well for murderhoboes and Visigoths, but role-playing is not limited to such characters.  Much of the attraction of role-playing games is due to the freedom of action that characters have.  This very freedom complicates the establishment of a standardized system for measuring 'accomplishment' among player characters.  This is the difficulty that Dave Wesely encountered when he tried to determine 'victory point' awards in the first Braunstein game; different roles had different objectives, so quantifying 'accomplishment' was a difficult task.

In the real world, people improve themselves through training.  Gygax acknowledges this in the Dungeon Masters Guide but rightly states that role-playing a character's training would not be entertaining.  Nonetheless, Gygax established that characters must undergo training before gaining the benefits offered by a given level.  Prior to reaching 'name level', a character must train for one to four weeks at a certain monetary cost per week.  The exact length of time – and hence the exact cost – is based on the Dungeon Master's subjective interpretation of how well the character adhered to the precepts of his or her class and alignment.

Character progression is desirable, especially if the progression is based upon the participation of the player.  Admittedly, quantification of such participation is problematic.

Although not a role-playing game, James Ernest's Escape from Elba has a system where characters gain fighting ability by losing fights.  The logic is that people learn from their mistakes; if a person performs a task successfully, he or she hasn't really 'learned' anything.  Along this line of thinking, if a character quickly dispatches a powerful monster by virtue of a few lucky rolls, does he or she deserve the same amount of experience as an equivalent character who struggled to overcome an equivalent threat?  What about a character that suffers several critical hits from a kobold?  If the character manages to defeat the kobold, should it be worth the same amount of experience points as a kobold that was killed before it had a chance to attack?

Although Encounter Critical has 'traditional' experience points, a character cannot “go up a level” unless and until the character performs a task appropriate to his or her class.  For instance, “A warlock cannot go up a level until he writes a new spell for himself and expands his grimoire.”  Also, “A warrior cannot go up a level until he defeats an equal or more powerful foe using a new kind of weapon.”  There is a 'pioneer' class:
A pioneer cannot go up a level until he discovers a new locale or secret of the wild.  The player should provide a description of any such discoveries, to enrich the scope of the scenario world.  Selling a new travel route may qualify if it can be described with interest.
In D&D, characters earn fewer experience points based upon the challenge they face.  As described, “an 8th level Magic-User operating on the 5th dungeon level would be awarded 5/8 experience.”  'Overqualified' experience is handled differently in Empire of the Petal Throne.  Each of the three professions has the same experience requirements up to level VII; thereafter, the experience point requirements for Magic-Users is somewhat less than for the other professions.  For all professions beyond level VIII, a flat 10,000 experience points are required to advance in level.  However, as characters rise in level, they earn less experience, “since it is proportionately more difficult for powerful characters to deserve experience points than for more vulnerable lower level characters.”  Characters earn only 50% experience at levels IV and V; 25% experience at levels VI and VII; 10% experience at levels VIII and IX; and only 5% experience thereafter.  Oddly, even though “it is proportionately more difficult for powerful characters to deserve experience points...,” characters with high prime requisite scores earn 5% or 10% more experience (just like D&D).  Also, “Any character with a constitution of 96-100 adds 5 percent to acquired experience points.”  The rich get richer and the poor struggle along.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Encounters on the Sábke Roads

JSTOR Early Journal Content

The Sábke Roads are a Tékumel combination of Roman roads and the Great Wall of China.  Barker himself makes the comparison to the Great Wall.  “They are raised, fortified highways” and they...
...well maintained, studded with watch towers, resthouses, and way-stations, and they are garrisoned by special units drawn from the surrounding population.
The Sábke Roads have three tiers.  The bottommost tier “is for caravans of goods, traders, and ordinary folk.”  The second tier is for military use while the highest tier is reserved “for Imperial officials, nobles, and messengers.”

Horses and similar animals are not available on Tékumel, so the usual mode of transport on the Sábke Roads is pedestrian.  Sometimes Chlén (beasts of burden) are used to pull freight carts; however, Chlén can travel only about nine miles in a day while “a healthy porter” can travel 25 - 35 miles on a Sábke Road transporting about 80 - 100 pounds.  “Litters and palanquins,” we are told, “are extensively employed for passenger transport.”

The network of Sábke Roads covers the Tsolyáni Empire as well as nearby nations such as Livyánu, Yán Kór, Salarvyá, and Mu'ugalavyá.  Barker states, “The Sábke Roads make it difficult for an invader to force his way into the Empire without being surrounded in an easily attacked cul-de-sac.”  I suspect that a skillful invader could use the Sábke Roads to his advantage via strategic deployment of troops and sabotage.
According to the rules, there is a 1-in-3 chance of an encounter (per day, I assume).  Percentile dice are rolled to determine the 'type' of encounter and another roll is made on the reaction table.  Even so, because the roads are “well patrolled,” most encounters “are likely to be harmless.”

There is a 5% of encountering 1 - 20 non-humans.  Referees are instructed to “roll 1-8 for race.”  In the 'Hiring of Nonplayer Characters' section of the rules, there is percentage table for non-humans; a total of eight races are listed therein.  While some races appear more frequently than others in the table, they all seem equally common (or uncommon) on the Sábke Roads.  A breakdown of the eight races would be as follows:
1:  Pé Chói
2:  Pygmy Folk
3:  Tinalíya
4:  Swamp Folk
5:  Páchi Léi
6:  Shén
7:  Ahoggyá
8:  Hláka
There is a 5% of encountering a “Caffle of slaves.”  (I suppose 'caffle' is an alternate spelling of 'coffle'.)  There are 1 - 100 slaves and 10 - 60 guards.  Maybe there should be 10 - 100 slaves with a number of guards based upon the number of slaves.  What if a referee rolled one slave and fifty guards?

There is a 10% chance of encountering 1 - 12 priests; 1d20 is rolled to determine God/Cohort.  The description states, “Roll other characteristics if needed,” but there is no reference to experience levels.  The table also lists a 5% chance of encountering a group of 1 - 20 adventurers and a 3% chance of encountering one magician (with 1 - 6 colleagues); however, with the adventurers and magician, referees are instructed to “roll for levels:  III - X.”  (Barker typically uses Roman numerals for experience levels.)  A range of '3 - 10' suggests 1d8 + 2, but it is reasonable to presume that 3rd level characters are more common than 10th level characters.  Perhaps 2d6 should be used to generate a flat distribution of 1 - 36.
01 - 08:  3rd level
09 - 15:  4th level
16 - 21:  5th level
22 - 26:  6th level
27 - 30:  7th level
31 - 33:  8th level
34 - 35:  9th level
        36:  10th level
There is a 3% chance of encountering a “Troop of 1-6 courtesans.”  The troop (troupe?) has an “entourage” of 1 - 12 musicians and 2 - 24 guards.

The most common type of encounter (20% chance) is a “Workgang of peasants, artisans, etc.”  Other than priests, the next most common type of encounter (10% chance) is with 10 - 1,000 Imperial soldiers.  The least likely encounters are with an Imperial messenger or a member of the Omnipotent Azure Legion (2% chance each).  Other possible encounters include “Tax collector,” “Caravan of merchants” and “Lord/lady.”

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Aaron Allston, R. I. P.

The difference between tragedy and comedy: Tragedy is something awful happening to somebody else, while comedy is something awful happening to somebody else.

-- Aaron Allston                           

Rules Cyclopedia

Hollow World

Champions (5th Ed.)

Justice, Inc.

Strike Force

GURPS Fantasy (2nd Ed.)

Mythic Greece: The Age of Heroes

Cugel's Compendium of Indispensable Advantages

This above list is a brief sample of role-playing game material that Aaron Allston authored either solely or in conjunction with others.  On Thursday, he passed away.

For this blog, I post material that is interesting to me; I am gratified that anyone else finds it interesting.  Tedankhamen has an 'Obscure Game Blogging Challenge' of 31 questions to be answered during the month of March.  I am not participating because my responses to these questions would fail to meet even the rather low standards of what I consider interesting.  However, question #4 is appropriate for this post:

“What other roleplaying author besides Gygax impressed you with their writing?

The question presupposes that it is impossible not to be “impressed” by Gygax' writing.  Certainly, Gygax was fundamental to the proliferation of role-playing games but I can't say that I was ever “impressed” by his writing.  Allston, on the other hand, helped shape my experiences in RPGs to a significant degree.  He is associated with many of the RPG products I used when growing up.  Allston's writing certainly impressed me; his death saddens me.

I could drone on about his contributions to various gaming works (Car Wars, Known World, and Paranoia among them) or discuss his writing credits outside of gaming, but – given the news of Allston's demise – I don't feel up to writing today.  I feel old.  However, I will provide an observation to conclude this post.  You know the Dungeon Crawl Classics gimmick of starting at level 0 and getting a class only after the first adventure?  Allston did that a quarter of a century earlier with Treasure Hunt.

Good-bye, Mr. Allston...and thanks.