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...”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Role Playing Adventure in Ancient Egypt

Two-and-a-half years ago, your humble host briefly addressed Palladium Books' The Valley of the Pharaohs.  Now it is time for a more detailed analysis.  Published in 1983, the rulebook – accompanying several maps and a template character sheet in a boxed set – consists of 48 pages (numbered 3 - 50).

Player Characters in The Valley of the Pharaohs (hereinafter TVotP) have five attributes.  Although the glossary mentions “Will, Intelligence, and Dexterity,” the actual attributes are Strength (“physical power and endurance”), Speed (“fleetness...coordination and nimbleness”), Intellect (“intelligence and mental capacity”), Power (“will and mental strength”), and Persona (“personality, appearance, and charisma”).  Values are determined, in the old school tradition, by rolling 3d6 per attribute.  I never understood why game designers would use a 'normal distribution' paradigm for determining player character attributes.  Just as there are no stories about Conan the Mediocre, I do not indulge in escapism to assume the role of an average person.  I think I would have players add together the attribute values of a character and subtract the total from 100.  This would result in a number of points (perhaps called ka points) which could be allocated for various purposes; for instance, increasing attributes (perhaps 3 points for +1 value, up to a value of 10, and 6 points for +1 thereafter, up to a value of 18).

Each character has a number of hit points equal to Strength × 2.  Should the hit points of character be reduced to zero, “that character collapses and goes into shock; if he/she does not receive care within ten minutes he/she dies.”  When “a character is reduced to negative hit points...he/she dies.”

Anyway, before dice are rolled for attributes, a character's caste is determined by rolling percentile dice.  The are four castes, each of which provides a +1 bonus to a particular attribute:  Nobility (Persona), Clergy (Power), Bureaucracy (Intellect), and Commons (Strength).  In my alternate character generation method, Commons would be a character's default caste, a different caste could be purchased with ka points.  Rather than providing an attribute bonus, a caste's attribute could be purchased up to a value of 19.

TVotP is a skill based system. Each character receives a number of 'caste' skills from a list of ten:  Agriculture, Archery, Combat, Cooking, Gaming, Hunting, Reading, Swimming, Throwing, and Writing.  'Reading' is a mandatory skill for every caste except Commons.  Nobility receive 4 - 6 skills with Archery mandatory, Clergy receive 3 - 6 skills with Writing mandatory, characters of the Bureaucracy caste also receive 3 - 6 skills, and Commons receive 2 - 6 skills with Agriculture mandatory.

There are five possible classes (called occupations in TVotP ).  Choice of occupation is limited by caste.  Nobility can be either Soldiers or Priests, Clergy can be either Priests or Scholars, the Bureaucracy caste is limited to Merchants, Scholars, and Thieves, and characters of the Commons caste have a choice among Soldiers, Merchants, and Thieves.  The only difference among occupations is that each has a list of ten skills distinct from the 'caste' skills. However, some 'occupation' skills apply to more than one occupation.  For instance, Merchants and Thieves both have access to Barter and Evaluation; Priests and Scholars both have access to History, Magick, Music, and Oration.  Each character receives four 'occupation' skills.

The initial score for any skill is based on attribute values.  For example, the initial score for Scouting is Intellect + ½ Speed; the initial score for Chariot Use is Strength + ([Intellect + Speed] / 3).  Perhaps ka points could be used to purchase additional skills and/or increase initial scores.

Character improvement comes in the form of increasing skill scores and acquiring new skills.  If, during a scenario, a character uses a skill (successfully or not), the character can attempt to improve that skill after the scenario concludes.  Percentile dice are rolled and if the skill's current score is exceeded, then the score is increased by 1d6.  Characters can also be trained “by a teacher who has at least a 60 in the skill taught.”  After two game weeks, “one...increase check is allowed.”

In combat, a d20 is rolled to see if an attack is successful.  If the result exceeds the Resistance Factor of the target, then damage is applied.  Armor provides a Resistance Factor.  Scale armor has a Resistance Factor of 14; an unarmored character has a Resistance Factor of 5.  A roll of less than 5 misses the target.  A roll equal to or less than a target's Resistance Factor (but still at least 5) damage is applied to the target's armor.  Combat rolls may be modified depending upon the Speed attribute as well as the scores of “Martial Skills.”  For example, with a Combat skill score of 21, a character has two attacks per round; at 31, +1 to hit; at 41, +1 to parry, etc.  Characters can use 'attacks' to dodge or parry.

Twenty Magick Spells are described and each is assigned a level.  The least powerful spell is Illumination (level 10) and the most powerful is Speak with Gods (level 90).  A character can only learn a spell if his (or her) Magick skill score equals or exceeds the spell's level.  A spell may be learned from a teacher, a tablet, or a scroll.  Regardless, “it takes 1 - 4 weeks of study to commit a spell to memory.”  To successfully cast  a spell, a character must roll (on percentile dice) less than or equal to his (or her) Magick score or the spell's Difficulty, whichever is less.  A spell's Difficulty is roughly inverse to its level; the Difficulty for Illumination is 85 (easy to cast) and for Speak with Gods is 25 (hard to cast).  Spell-casting characters have a number of Magick Points equal to the initial score for the Magick skill (i.e., Power + Intellect).  Each spell has a cost between 1 (e.g., Speak with Animals) and 6 (e.g., Ressurection [sic] ).  An unsuccessful casting still costs 1 Magick Point.

The rulebook spends about a page describing magical amulets.  We are told, “Gamemasters should limit the total number of charms and amulets which may be worn or divided (sic) each each individual charm's power by the total number worn...”  Here are a selection of amulets detailed in TVotP :
Menat:  “If worn or held it will restore 1d6 of hit points lost due to disease or poison and will eliminate all pain.”
Scarab:  “If this amulet is worn, the character receives +5% on any skill proficiency as well as an additional 1d6 of hit points.”
Shen:  “This amulet represents the sun's orbit and eternity...If worn it will give the character an additional five years of life.”  (I assume this refers to natural lifespan, it's not as though a character can be disemboweled and expect to live another five years.)
Tet:  “The wearer of this amulet will receive a 10% bonus against all magic cast on or within a three meter radius of him.”
Utchat:  “This amulet, which was by far the most numerous, represents the eye of Horus...If worn, this amulet has a 20% chance of neutralizing any poison and can restore 1d6 of hit points once per day.”