Sunday, September 28, 2014

Man, Myth & Magic versus Timeship

Art by Clyde Caldwell

The contents of Dragon #80 (December 1983) offer a glimpse into the state of gaming as it was three decades ago.  The “Dungeon Master's Familiar” article provides the entire code for a program intended to facilitate AD&D combat.
This program was written to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80, but it can be used easily in any computer that uses a variation of Microsoft BASIC.  To use the automated combat segment, you need a disk drive...
In his introduction to the issue, Kim Mohan presents submission guidelines for computer programs.  He explains that programs should not be extensive...
...even if they're good, because most people couldn't cram them into their 16K or 32K systems.  We'll look at programs for 48K or 64K systems, but they'll only be accepted if they need to be that long.
What a difference 31 years makes.

The “How many coins in a coffer?” article goes into profound detail about numismatic dimensions, metallic impurities, specific gravities, and – for some reason – the speed of light.  Regardless, the author concedes that – for the sake of playability – “all coins are the same size (diameter and thickness) and weigh a tenth of a pound each.”  This is acceptable because AD&D™represents fantasy, not reality.  Good to know:  “...the figure for a loose coin is 110% of the effective volume of a stacked coin...”

One article, “Five keys to DMing success,” has the sub-title, “Reducing the work, increasing the fun.”  Huh?  Less work?  More fun?  How baffling!  Must be old school.

In any event, the purpose of this post is not to analyze old issues of gaming magazines; your humble host surrenders that task to bloggers greater than himself.  This post compares and contrasts the games Timeship and Man, Myth & Magic.  It just so happens that Dragon #80 contains reviews for both games.  It just so happens that both reviews were written by the same person – Ken Rolston.  (The same issue has another review by Rolston as well as an article he wrote on how to write game reviews.)  Here is an opportunity to see how a (professional) reviewer perceived both games at a time when those games were still in print.  In short, Rolston's verdict was:  MM&M, thumbs down; Timeship, thumbs up.  These are similar games from the same creator, yet the assessments were contradictory.  Why?

Rolston did not consider Timeship to be without flaws.  He recommended the game “[d]espite its weaknesses in game design” and notwithstanding his contentions that “the organization of the rules is confusing and the style is occasionally unpalatable.”  Rolston expressed similar misgivings for MM&M but was unable to overlook them when establishing his opinion of that game.

With regard to rules, Rolston wrote:
The term used locally to describe the level of sophistication of the mechanics of Timeship is “goofyworld,” a generally positive term suggesting wild and crazy action, with fast-and-loose judgements left pretty much in the hands of the referee, under the assumption that there is little competitive pressure and that the referee is basically out to show the players a good time.
Herbie Brennan expressed similar sentiments in the advice section of Man, Myth & Magic.  While Rolston commented that Brennan's advice was “practical and intelligent,” he did not believe it was “successfully translated” for MM&M.  Still, Rolston stated with regard to MM&M, “In fairness, I suspect a skilled gamesmaster could make the rule system and scenarios work...”

Rolston felt that the time-travel premise of Timeship reflected “the stuff of thousands of daydreams and fantasy adventure stories.”  Man, Myth & Magic, on the other hand, did not conform to any “literary adventure genre models” nor was it an “historical simulation game [although] it makes no claim to be.”

Was premise the deciding factor in Rolston's opinion?  He wrote:
Whatever reservations I might have had originally about Timeship were dispelled when I playtested the game with our local weekly gaming circle.  I don't believe I've seen FRP gamers have so much fun in years.  Everyone was quite enthusiastic about the concept of the game, and the players were quite willing to overlook any faults in the rules...As a gamesmaster, I was surprised at how smoothly the session ran, despite my original impression...
Regarding Man, Myth & Magic, however, Rolston “never felt tempted to playtest the game...”

Ultimately, Rolston praised Timeship for simple mechanics, accessibility to non-gamers, and the “marvelously fertile” genre of time travel.  He faults MM&M for poor execution (“not up to industry standards”) and a lack of innovation.  Perhaps if Rolston had the experience of playing MM&M – especially with a skilled gamesmaster – he might have been more inclined to forgive its flaws as he did with Timeship.  Perhaps not.  If a game lacks sufficient appeal even to want to play it, then it has failed on a fundamental level of engagement.  Evidently, a game with “historically implausible party composition” did not appeal to Rolston, nor did it particularly appeal to RPG consumers of the time.  As Rolston queried, “[W]hat would a Hebrew priest, a British apothecary, and an Egyptian warrior be doing together in the first place?”

Well, they could try walking into a bar.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Man, Myth & Magic Grimoire

“Sorcery is not a bowl of cherries,” remarks the Man, Myth & Magic rules.  The successful casting of a spell is dependent upon overcoming the Fundamental Failure Rate.  For “every activity,” (Advanced) MM&M characters have a Fundamental Failure Rate.  By default, this rate is 50%; meaning “you will have to throw 50 or better on the percentile dice to score a hit [or otherwise succeed].”  (I know, that's a 49% chance for failure.  What difference does a single percentage point make?  A great deal actually; read on.)  Circumstances can modify the Fundamental Failure Rate.  For example, a warrior's SKILL characteristic affects his or her Fundamental Failure Rate for striking a foe in combat.  According to page 12 of Book II:
For every 10 SKILL points above 50, subtract 1 from your basic 50 needed to hit.  For every 10 SKILL points below 50, add 1 to the score you need to hit.
So, a warrior with a SKILL value of 40 would succeed in a combat strike by throwing 51 or better.  The rules would have been better served by having a Fundamental Success Rate instead of a Fundamental Failure Rate.  High SKILL values increasing success rate with low values decreasing success rate is a more intuitive concept.

The rules explaining the Fundamental Failure Rate and how it is affected by SKILL are provided in the (Advanced) Combat section.  Evidently, these rules are meant to be extrapolated to 'Prime Abilities' other than combat.  Each class has a Primary Ability; for warrior-type classes, it is combat.  The African Witch-Doctor, Egyptian Sorcerer, Hebrew Sorcerer, Oriental Shaman, and Hibernian Leprechaun all have 'magic' as their Primary Ability.  As such, they are capable of casting all of the spells in the Grimoire.  Each of these classes also has a set of spells exclusive to that class.  Other classes (e.g., Sibyl, Priest) have “spells,” but these are considered to be psychic or divine powers and such classes do not have access to the Grimoire spells.  There are 37 distinct character class/nationality combinations in the standard (AD 41) MM&M setting, so only about one character in six will have Grimoire spells.  The ratio is even less in the ancient (1375 BC) setting, with 43 distinct character combinations and only three of which have a 'magic' Primary Ability.  (The Shaman and Leprechaun classes are not available.)

For (Grimoire) spells users, the Fundamental Failure Rate can be altered by both SKILL and INTELLIGENCE.  Assuming ±1 per ten points above/below a value of fifty, there is – at most – a mere 19% difference in the Fundamental Failure Rate between the smartest, most competent spell caster and the dumbest, least competent spell caster.  Thus, a single percentage point becomes significant.

Each spell has a 'casting cost' in POWER points; the points are spent whether or not the casting roll is successful.  Of course characters (not just spell casters) can increase their chances of success (for one roll) by 1% per ten POWER points spent.  Additionally, for 250 (permanent) POWER points, a character may increase a characteristic value by one point.  Given that reincarnation costs 200 POWER and that characteristic values will be redetermined as part of reincarnation, this may not be a wise investment.

According to the rules, “if you are using a spell which takes effect at a distance, there is no immediate way of discovering whether or not it was effective.”  This suggests that the Lore Master makes all spell casting rolls.  However, for all but two of the Grimoire spells, the maximum distance at which a spell can take effect is fifty feet.

Any gold pieces within fifty yards of the caster will mumble “Here I am” upon the successful casting of Gold Sniffer (10 POWER).  The same thing happens with Treasure Finder (15 POWER) except gems speak, not gold pieces.  With Lie Detector (10 POWER), the caster may “detect falsehood in any one given statement.”  Does “statement” mean one item of information?  One sentence?  How does one target a “statement”?  Is it retro-active?

Any “mortal human or beast” must succeed with a COURAGE roll in order to travel through a Circle of Fear (10 POWER per 20' radius).  Web (25 POWER) causes “a 10 ft. diameter vertical web” to come into being.  Assuming the the web is placed over an opening of less that ten feet in diameter, “mortal humans and animals” will not be able to pass (until the next segment).  Pathfinder (15 POWER) allows the caster “to retrace steps in any terrain.”  With Freeze (30 POWER), the caster paralyzes a target for the remainder of the segment.

Poltergeist (30 POWER) causes “an invisible imp” to come into being.  It “can throw small objects and set fire to easily burned materials.”  On any given turn, there is a 50% chance that the imp “will obey the caster's wishes.”  I suppose that means “obey the caster's wishes” to the extent the imp is able.  I also suppose that the caster must vocally command the imp, but I could be wrong.  Speaking of invisibility, the caster may cause “any object he may hold in his hands” to become invisible with a successful casting of Invisible Object (40 POWER).  A caster “may make himself invisible” with Invisibility (85 POWER), the most expensive of the Grimoire spells in terms of base POWER cost.  Note that the caster's clothing and accoutrements are not rendered invisible with this spell.

A Zone of Purity (40 POWER) is a 20' diameter circle in which “no spells may be cast until the end of the segment.”  Of course, spells already in effect remain unabated.  To stop an existing spell, the caster must successfully cast Terminate within twenty-five feet of where the effects of the target spell manifest.  The POWER cost is equal to the target spell's POWER cost, but in no instance may it be less than 10 POWER.

A successful Curse spell “causes magical weapons and artifacts to lose their magical properties” permanently.  The POWER cost of the Curse spell is equal to the POWER cost of the target object's enchantment (which, of course, the caster may not necessarily know).  If the caster does not have enough POWER to cover the cost, “the balance is taken from him in Life Points at a ratio of 3 Life Points for each POWER Point.”  For reference purposes, a harp that plays by itself costs an Egyptian Apothecary 25 POWER Points to create while a 'Blessed Bow' (-10 THN) costs an Oriental Shaman 100 POWER Points to create.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Adventures and Random Encounters in Man, Myth & Magic (Spoilers)

Book III of the Man, Myth & Magic set is The Adventures Book, containing a 'basic' adventure, an 'advanced' adventure, advice on being a Lore Master, and some random encounter tables.

The basic adventure is a simple 'infiltrate and destroy' mission.  The advanced adventure does not have a title per se, but consists of four 'linked' episodes.  Each episode is divided into game-time periods called segments.  Surviving a segment allows a character a POWER roll and at least some damage recovery. 

To be blunt, the advanced adventure is a railroad; in fact, the Lore Master's advice (four pages under the modest heading 'How to Become the All-Time Greatest Lore Master of the Known Universe') includes a section titled 'Getting Players Back on the Rails'.  In fairness, Brennan states that players – not the Lore Master – should “control the action” and that Lore Masters should not “break their necks to try and make sure players follow a particular pre-determined sequence.”  In other words, players should be allowed to leave the “rails” but the Lore Master should “get his players back on the real track of the adventure without their suspecting anything is amiss; and without their getting restless or bored.”  To assist the Lore Master with accommodating the players' impromptu peregrinations, the book provides a few “standard” maps.  (At the end of this post I provide scans of the “standard cave complex” map and the “standard underground complex” map.)

The first episode (less than two-and-a-half pages of text) is called The Dragon Loose in Rome.  Essentially, players must develop a strategy to defeat a “dragon” that is practically invulnerable to weapons.  In the second episode, Apollo's Temple, Emperor Caligula summons the player characters to his presence.  Because of their success defeating the “dragon,” he assigns the characters a “special task.”  Caligula wants the characters to learn the secret of Apollo's Temple (i.e., Stonehenge).  The reward is great; however, if they fail, the Legions of Rome will seek them out and bring them back to Rome for an “extremely painful” fate.

The party goes to Britain and, en route to Stonehenge, there are three 'Road Encounters'.  Two of these encounters can provide clues regarding the episode's climax.  At Stonehenge, the party confronts a group of evil druids about to engage in human sacrifice.  Once the druids are defeated and the clues deciphered, the party can perform a ceremony that 'activates' some of the stones.  Different stones – distinguishable by color – generate distinct effects when touched.  Some effects are beneficial, such as healing or “granting the single item each [party] member desires most at that present moment.”  Some effects are bad, such as being disintegrated or sent to hell.  One stone summons a “Ban Sheed.”  What is a Ban Sheed?
This fearsome creature appears in the form of a very tall, white robed and dark haired woman, but is, in fact, the sexless representative of an alien race of beings who once inhabited the Celtic Islands during an era of almost unimaginable antiquity.
It is revealed that the Ban Sheed is the basis of the banshee legend.  Anyway, the party can only progress to the next episode by being sent to hell.  The adventure was designed for six characters; since there are five stones, it is reasonable to expect that someone will touch the 'hell' stone.  However, there are psychic abilities that can provide characters with information about possible future events.  Also, the Ban Sheed can tell the party the effects of a given stone.  Alternately, the Ban Sheed can also destroy Caligula, thereby dispensing with the party's motivation.

Assuming the party goes to hell, they are given a scroll by some old guy in robes and informed that “the fate of your planet now rests squarely in your hands!”  The party returns to Stonehenge after being subject to a poem of fifty-six lines.  The old guy's scroll indicates that the party should go to Hibernia and the next episode, The Witches of Lolag Shlige, assumes that they do so.  It just so happens that, in Hibernia, there is a “prediction” that “a party of strangers” will find and rescue the infant nephew of the king.  The party is supposed to discover that the infant was kidnapped by the titular witches and then go to the House of Lolag Shlige to effect a rescue.  The 'house' is presented in the style of a dungeon; there are two levels and a description of the various rooms.  One of the denizens is a “Pollyrotten” which is “a peculiar breed of paranoid parrot...indigenous to Hibernia in prehistoric times.”  The episode ends in a confrontation with the aforementioned witches.  If the party loses, I guess they die.  If the party wins, the witches cast a spell that transports the party to “an eerie, moonlit shore.”  The only way to leave the location is via a boat piloted by a “robed and hooded boatman.”

In the boat, the characters lose consciousness; when they wake, they find themselves in Egypt and thus begins the fourth episode, The Great Pyramid Revealed.  The party finds a scroll that leads them to a fishmonger who informs them that Caligula “has issued a Death Warrant for members of the party.”  (Given that the characters can reincarnate, this doesn't seem like much of a threat.)  The fishmonger also lets the party know that they must go to the Great Pyramid of Giza because of a dream he had.  The interior of the pyramid (for purposes of the adventure) is displayed in the graphic at the beginning of the post.  Compared to the real thing, it is only slightly embellished.  In Location 10, there is “a rare subterranean plant...that feeds directly on energy.”  The plant will cause a character to become “a shattered, unconscious husk of 6 Life Points.”  The plant can be avoided by edging along the sides of the chamber; however, contact with the side walls “leads to a total sex change by the current segment.”  At the end of the episode, the characters find themselves in Hibernia, but ten years have passed since the second episode.  There are actually five more episodes to this adventure, but they were sold separately.

Random encounter tables are provided only for the regions where the adventures take place:  Roman Britain, Roman Italy, Egypt, and Hibernia.  It would have been nice to have tables for other regions, like Greece or Gaul, but I suppose one can't have everything.  For each region, there is a table for the following terrains:  Open Road, Wilderness, Forest, Village, Town/City, and Underground.  (There is no Forest table for Egypt.)  Using a table requires a percentile roll. The Lore Master has a choice of using the indicated encounter or any of the preceding encounters on the table.  For the sake of example, here is the 'Open Road' table for Italy:

With a roll of '44', a party may encounter a foreign traveller, a merchant, a peasant farmer, or a formation of Legion soldiers.  Note that the first encounter requires a minimum roll of '20'; anything less than that means “the Fates have decided your party encounters nothing at that time.”  The table above is rather tame compared to many of the other tables.  Most tables have a '100' listing with a suitably rare encounter.  For instance, the 'Wilderness' table for Italy allows for a 1% chance of encountering “the god Jupiter.”  Brennan uses this result in an example of how to 'present' encounters to players.
You might present him sitting on a rock throne hurling thunderbolts to wipe out the party, but this, surely, lacks a certain subtlety.  He might equally well be presented as a naked youth with amazing powers, who may even aid the party if they are nice to him...
Other '100' results include a talking bulldog, a giant weasel, Caligula in fancy dress, and “Pharaoh's cousin (so he claims).”  Other, more common, encounters include a funeral procession, up to one-hundred village idiots, a bear, a brass golem, bugs, and a sandstorm.  However, Brennan saves the most colorful encounters for his native Hibernia.  Eight Hibernian encounters are explicitly described as “drunk” and only one encounter is listed as “sober.”  Some examples of Hibernian encounters include:  beautiful colleen (with mother hidden in trees), intelligent shamrock, fake Leprechaun, vampire pig farmer*, two-headed calf, and “Drunk Hibernian Lore Master who fell into his own scenario and couldn't find his way out.”

We are left to ponder which is vampiric – the farmer or the pigs?  Or both?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Character Classes in Man, Myth & Magic (part IV)

Art by Angus McBride

Some of the character Classes in Man, Myth & Magic have 'negative abilities' in an attempt to balance (I suppose) the powers and talents that the Classes supply.  We have seen a few examples in prior posts; a Hebrew Warrior may “feel compelled to offer food to an opponent” and Leprechauns can disappear from play for a segment at a time.  Here are a few other examples:
  • Visigoth Barbarian:  Once per segment, if given any order by friend or foe, there is an 11% chance the character will obey it “without question.”
  • Philistine Warrior:  “Will attack immediately if his family or heritage is insulted.”
  • Oriental Shaman:  There is a 6% chance per segment that the Shaman will be “unable to fight or use magic or any special ability for two segments” as a result of “mushroom poisoning.”
  • Egyptian Physician:  May never start combat and “will always be hit in the first round of a Combat.”
  • Egyptian Priest:  Once per week, must engage in self-laceration (at least 25 Life Points worth of damage) and fasting.
  • Egyptian Sorcerer:  Upon entering a tomb, there is a 2% chance that the character will refuse to leave voluntarily.

For the Alchemist classes, the prime ability is “Science.”  Alchemists don't believe in magic, so they can't use magic; I suppose, however, they can be affected by magic.  An Egyptian Alchemist can do the same things as an Egyptian Apothecary, except at three times the POWER cost.  This is interesting because the Egyptian Apothecary can craft amulets, charms, talismans, and artifacts – all of which have magical effects.  The description of the Egyptian Alchemist class acknowledges that the character's creations may be magical, but the character may not use them.  Items that an Egyptian Apothecary (and Alchemist) may create include:
  • Seal of Solomon:  The user can command any one demon for the remainder of the segment.  (Yes, Egyptians create the Seal of Solomon.)
  • Rope:  “Is uncuttable and unbreakable.”
  • Hammer:  “Will drive in or pull out nails without an operator.”
  • Box:  A six inch cube that can nonetheless contain a volume of six cubic feet.
  • Negative Sand:  Damage from “magical injury” is reduced by ten points per use.

Egyptian Alchemists can also analyze potions and can attempt to “transmute” one pound of metal to one ounce of another metal (because that's science).  By contrast, Babylonian Alchemists have a 50% chance of identifying compounds and can spend two months to add one point to either SKILL or INTELLIGENCE.  Regardless of nationality, Alchemist characters can do the following things.
  • Identify Non-Magical Machines/Artifacts:  An Alchemist can also “determine how to operate” such devices.
  • Make Corrosive Acid:  Each “dose” costs five points of POWER and consists of water, mercury, and ten Life Points of the Alchemist's blood.
  • Make Fire Bombs:  These bombs consist of “oil, sulphur and salt.”  They “burn with three times the intensity and effect of burning oil” but must be used within six hours of being made.
  • Intensify Poison:  Distilling a batch of poison doubles its effectiveness and increases the duration of its potency by three times.
  • Repair Metal:  An Alchemist can attempt to repair a metal item “using a combination of iron, sulphur, and 10 Life Points of his own blood.”

In the 1375 BC Man, Myth & Magic setting, Charioteer is a 'Special Class' that may be selected in conjunction with a character's 'normal' class.  If the Prime Ability of the 'normal' class is Combat, then it may be assumed that the character is already trained.  For non-combat classes, there is a training cost of 500 - 5,000 Gold Pieces (the 1375 BC setting uses pieces/ounces instead of libra).  However, trained non-combat characters have less ability than combat class Charioteers.

Man, Myth & Magic offers two “special categories,” which are Class “aspects” associated more with the player than the character.  The Sage category is for “know it all” players – the MM&M equivalent of “rules lawyers.”  The Orator is for players who are comfortable making extemporaneous speeches.

With regard to Sages, we are told by Book II:
[T]he Sage is obliged to sell information to to fellow players.  Note that this is an obligation.  Information may no longer be volunteered by a Sage, but only offered for sale...
The cost of information is 25 gold libra per item; however, if the Sage provides the wrong answer, he or she must pay 50 gold libra to the player(s) who asked.
Good Sages are very valuable to a party.  Know-all Sages are a pain.  Either way, the MM&M Sage system keeps them under control.
Lore Masters do not determine who is a Sage; a player must decide if and when to become a Sage.  So, “under control” may not be entirely accurate.  The description of the Sage category implies that they provide answers to rule-based questions.  As a player, I would not be inclined to pay gold for information the Lore Master should provide.  I would be more amenable to the notion of the Sage supplying in-game knowledge to which the players had been exposed previously.  Even then, I think that non-gold POWER would be a more appropriate currency.

By delivering “a spoken two-minute (real time) speech on the prevailing situation,” an Orator “...will so fascinate any number of opponents that the Orator's colleagues may always attack first, irrespective of First Strike Capabilities.”  The result of 1d100 determines the “number of opponents affected.”  (I would have imposed a cost of one POWER per incapacitated opponent.)  The Lore Master must be given “advance notice” of any of such an oration.  To become an Orator, a player must pass an examination in which he or she must “speak fluently, amusingly and without a break for three minutes (real time)” on a topic of the Lore Master's choice.