Friday, October 28, 2016

The Evolution of Magic

Men & Magic
Vol. I of the Little Brown Books takes the idea of the Wizard, or Magic User class of character and expands upon it for the new White Box. The original five named "levels" of  Chainmail Wizard, the Seer, the Sorcerer, the Warlock, the Magician and finally Wizard become more defined as a formal system of levels tied to experience is imposed on the class "Wizard" or Magic User as it is now called. The old names will reappear on the new list along with Medium, Conjurer, Theurgist, Thaumaturgist, Enchanter, and Necromancer to give a total of eleven titled levels. Presumably all additional levels of magic user continue to be known as Wizard.
I have always like the idea of the titled or named levels used in White Box. It has a quaintness which seems appropriate when introducing a character, PC or NPC as So-and-So the Conjurer, etc. Everyone instantly has recognition of the sort of character So-and-So is and how powerful they likely are. It also hints secret societies and membership rites and all the associated assumptions that might go with titles.
In addition to a system for characters to progress in levels, the LBBs also expands the list of spells and organizes them into levels. Chainmail is first and foremost a battle game and the spell list for its Fantasy Supplement consists of spells usable on the battlefield.  Men & Magic introduces a number of additional spells geared specifically for dungeon (and perhaps wilderness) adventuring. Additional spells not listed can be researched and theoretically at least any spell effect imaginable is possible.
The Fantasy Supplement in Chainmail lists spell complexity levels and the optional casting roll score needed varies by "level" of Wizard and complexity of spell. Men & Magic lists six levels of magic user spells (later expanded to 9 levels in Greyhawk), with the higher level spells usable by higher level magic users. Spells are cast without a dice roll for success, but are one-shot affairs which must be memorized and held in memory until cast. The 1st level Seer famously has a single 1st level spell they can memorize and cast each day.
Men & Magic therefore introduces the so-called "Vancian" magic system to fantasy gaming. The term "Vancian" is a reference to certain Jack Vance stories set in his Dying Earth cycle in which magic users commit a number of spells to memory prior to heading out on an adventure. Having memorized the particular spell, in the Jack Vance stories, the magic user can then cast it quickly, but in the process the spell memory is forgotten. Or as Men & Magic states:
Spells & Levels: The number above each column is the spell level (complexity, a
somewhat subjective determination on the part of your authors). The number in each
column opposite each applicable character indicates the number of spells of each
level that can be used (remembered during any single adventure) by that character.
Spells are listed and explained later. A spell used once may not be reused in the
same day.
White Box Magic Users may additionally create (or acquire) magic scrolls and potions containing any spell that they know (and which is recorded in a personal spell book). Scrolls and potions allow magic users to effectively cast additional spells above and beyond those available to them through memory. Spell books, potion ingredients, scroll materials and spell research all requires expenditure of in-game wealth by the Magic User and therefore helps support an in-game economic system and a reason for the Magic User to adventure.
Men & Magic lists Saving Throws by class and level for resistance to spells and other potential hazards. Spells which adversely affect an individual usually allow for that individual to attempt a Saving Throw (of the die) in order to avoid the worst. Some spells have variable effects such as fireball causing a variable amount of damage as thrown on the dice. Many spells in White Box magic require no dice involvement and just take effect when cast.
From these beginnings fantasy game magic continues to expand and evolve. Being a staple of the genre, magic appears in almost every FRPG. Being "magical", its effects vary widely and games have portrayed it in many ways. Game mechanics found outside White Box have been developed to govern at-the-table effects of magic using "magic points" which are spent by casting, there-by limiting spell use. The addition of rules for spell components and detailed casting time have added complexity to some Editions of the Game. World creators often "house-rule" certain aspects of magic for their setting. Keeping the "magic" feel in game magic is a discussion often had among many veteran gamers. What role magic plays in shaping a particular milieu is often one of the defining decisions a referee makes in defining his/her game. As is often the case, the more experience I have with the hobby, the more I appreciate the way things work in that original White Box game.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Chainmail Magic

Magic Before White Box
Chainmail preceded White Box and served as an inspiration for the first fantasy campaigns. The Fantasy Supplement in Chainmail gives us the earliest rules for casting magic. One of the figure types in the Fantasy Supplement is the Wizard, including lessor Sorcerers, Warlocks, Magicians and Seers. Among their magic abilities, the Wizard can become invisible at will "and remain so until they attack". The Wizard can see in darkness, causes morale checks among enemies and inspires courage in friendlies. They are impervious to normal missiles and get a "saving throw" of 7 or better on two die to survive a missile thrown by another Wizard.
The Wizard may throw missiles of two destructive varieties, either an area effect fire ball or a linear lightning bolt. Targets hit are normally killed outright, but certain more powerful types including Heroes/SuperHeroes, Dragons, Balrogs, Giants and Wraiths may be saved by a dice roll.
Besides "missiles", the Wizard can cast a number of other magic spells, including counter-spells. There are 16 spells listed, but it is mentioned that other spells exist and this is but a sampling of the more commonly used spells. Each spell is given a complexity score which is optionally used with a dice roll to determine if the spell goes off immediately (i.e. that turn), is delayed one turn or is ineffective. An opposing Wizard can attempt a dice roll to counter any spell. This counter-spell takes the Wizard's action for that turn. Otherwise it seems a Wizard may cast a spell on each turn, there being no "daily limit" or spell points spent.
The Wizard magic in Chainmail is geared toward battlefield use and the list of spells reflects this. There is no floating disc to carry treasure or "knock" spell to open locked doors. Hints of things to come do appear in the Fantasy Supplement. Wizards are defined in relative levels of power and corresponding cost to employ, starting with the least powerful "Seer" who has the most likelihood of casting an ineffective spell when using the optional complexity rules and topping-out with the most powerful "Wizard".
I have never seen a Chainmail Wizard used in a dungeon crawl, but the prospect seems interesting. The destructive power of Chainmail characters is immense compared to lower level White Box PCs, with even non-magic using Heroes and SuperHeroes able to kill many "normals" a turn. What is missing is the idea of gaining in experience and of "leveling-up". It has been pointed out that at its core, White Box is a game of PC improvement. It supposes a world view of experience making one better, better in combat or magic. With better abilities, PCs tackle bigger challenges/monsters and win more wealth and more experience.
On some level this process of getting better, richer and more powerful seems intuitively correct. Yet many have labeled the game "escapism", partially because in reality many of us do not get better at what we do, richer or more powerful. In fact as we age, the reverse may be true. The heroic and fantastic literature which inspired the Fantasy Supplement and White Box is frequently referred to as escapism as well. As a college student just starting out in this hobby I recall hearing about a realistic game called "Paychecks & Term Papers". It didn't catch on.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Arthurian Romance

Medieval Inspiration
Reading "Erec and Enide" by Chretien de Troyes, it isn't hard to imagine the adventures Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had in mind when they suggest in vol. III The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures that off-hand adventures in the wilderness can be made on Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival playing board. The authors give rules for converting the board into a map for wilderness adventure, including various castles. Jousting matches, played out via the rules in Chainmail, are a central feature of wilderness encounters with fighting men. The author's suggest this is just for adventuring about and that journeys to and from destinations should be made on a map prepared by the referee.
So you want to ride out and have some adventures, make a reputation testing yourself against a world of fantastic wonder, this is an old thought. Chretien de Troyes describes just such an event in the romance "Erec and Enide" written late in the twelfth century. Set in the time of King Arthur, Erec is a prince of Wales and a very talented knight who undertakes a journey of adventure as a result of words he hears his wife speak. It is a romance story of love and misunderstanding and trust. It is also a story of high adventure involving many jousts and much swordplay. The fantastic makes it's appearance in the form of two giants and an enchanted garden.
The more recent writers of sword & sorcery fiction and high fantasy are often cited as influences for our hobby, but many older tales may also provide inspiration. White Box is a combination of a lot of influences, many of which were later described in Appendix N of the GM Guide. Thomas Mallory and Chretien de Troyes may not appear by name on this list, but the adventures they describe certainly fit within the milieu and are an inspiration for me as referee. It's been too long since my players jousted with a knight they met in the wilderness.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Bronze Age vs. Medieval Setting

Reality or Fantasy
Gary Gygax authored a fantasy supplement for his Medieval Wargames Rules, Chainmail. Dave Arneson used Chainmail and other rules he invented to play in his Blackmoor quasi medieval setting. Mr. Gygax continued the medieval trend with his world of Greyhawk. There have been many more systems and play aids published using a setting loosely resembling the middle ages. Knights in chainmail or plate armor, kings, queens and other feudal social structures remind us that our middle ages provides a reference for our game setting.
There have been exceptions, however. When one examines closely the world settings of our RPGs, we can quickly see inconsistencies with history. Most FRPG settings which use plate armor and feudal titles allow social mobility way beyond historic realities and most offer a polytheistic pantheon of gods and goddesses more closely resembling the classical age than the middle age where the church in Rome was a uniting force across kingdoms.
So what does a Bronze Age game look like? How would it differ from standard White Box? In many ways White Box and other editions have more in common with a Bronze Age than with the plate steel period. The Bronze Age was one of warrior or priestly kings, strong men who gathered other strong warriors about them. The king acted as patron and his warriors would compete for favors. Social rank was flexible and the son of a shepherd could rise to be king. It would be a superstitious society in which spirits of nature and ancestors were encountered daily and "magic" was practiced by most as a way to interact favorably with said spirits. It is an elemental age where even the earth is a force with "personality". The mountain, the river and the forest are sentient entities themselves. It is an heroic age where heroes can become legendary, where gods and goddesses interact with humans, sometimes taking human form. Monsters are real and lurk just outside civilization, which is pretty much centralized in the few cities and towns. Trade and seafaring are advanced and travel to exotic lands is quite possible. Other than bronze weapons and antique armor, a bronze age game could look very much like the way we often play White Box. This is probably due to the authors being heavily influenced by heroic literature and the fact that despite castles and the plate armored cleric class, White Box doesn't really model a middle ages milieu very well.
The middle ages were all about religious conformity to a single god, staying in your place socially and paying your debt to your lord. Game designers quickly saw the discrepancies between the dress of White Box characters and the mechanics which gave them so much social freedom and many took it upon themselves to try and correct that. FRPGs like Chivalry & Sorcery and Harnmaster attempt a more realistic portrayal of the middle ages through a fantasy lens.
Being a person always interested in history, the distinction between epochs probably mattered more to me than most. I recall attempting to "force" a more medieval mindset onto my players with disastrous effects. Fortunately my need for realism passed before I lost all my gaming friends. Today I take the games as they are and try to do my part to make them fun for all. I do find it amusing to think about the various aspects of play resembling a bronze age setting or a medieval setting or post apocalypse, etc. The roots of a good fantasy game can come from any place. The historic ages of man being but one of many possible influences.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

13th Age Glorantha

Dreaming of Prax
A couple of years ago Pelgrane Press announced a project adapting their 13th Age FRPG to the Glorantha setting created by Greg Stafford and seen through the years as the default setting of  various game systems including RuneQuest and HeroQuest. Apparently the project is still underway as indicated by this recent release, although Moon Design Publications is listed as the final publisher now. The above shown play-aid for 13th Age pictures an iconic Bison Rider nomad from the Prax area of Glorantha.
This cover illustration stirs my blood. Glorantha is a game world, and there is a region in that world called Prax where-in the locals ride all sorts of animals across the arid plains and desert. I resist the urge to compare the tribes to Earthly peoples, because I think it does Glorantha an injustice to do so. Think Bronze Age technology with Myth being a huge part of everyone's daily life and a heroic warrior society built around the herding and riding of various animals, bison as pictured above, rhinos, impala, lama, and several others. Each tribe is identified with a single animal, all war against each other and especially against Chaos. The tribes share a similar faith and pantheon, and a common hatred of horses and horse riders. Most lead a nomadic life, following the herd.
The above illustration depicting a mounted bison rider female warrior says much about Glorantha. From the early RuneQuest editions featuring a female warrior in armor to RuneQuest 6, also featuring a female warrior on the cover, I have assumed Glorantha is a world supporting strong female characters. The warrior's equipment indicates a pre-medieval technology. Armor and helmet are a brown color, and therefore made of bronze or more likely leather. The exposed skin areas sport several tattoos probably all linked to cult membership, a feature of Glorantha which pushes play beyond combat toward a more role-playing orientation in a social environment where membership is a key feature. The bison carrying a warrior swiftly across the plain is a classic Gloranthan image suggesting at once the familiar and the exotic.
13th Age is a d20 style game written by Jonathon Tweet and Rob Heinsoo published by Pelgrane Press. It is billed as "a love-letter to D&D" and contains elements of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition using the OGL as well as concepts borrowed from indy press story games and original ideas of their own. The authors were lead designers on 3rd Edition and 4th Edition as well as being experienced with Glorantha. 13th Age is a high-powered FRPG with its own default setting (Dragon Empire) which makes use of 13 icons struggling for world domination. Each PC has relationships with one or more of the icons and can expect this relationship to play out during the game. It will be interesting to see how the authors, who profess a long-standing love for Glorantha, combine that world with their own unique approach to the game. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Mythras Core Rules

A d100 Favorite
At GenCon 2015 and Chaosium together with Moon Design announced they were bringing the name Runequest back to Chaosium along with a Moon Design partnership. Moon Design has been doing the Glorantha (the default world of Runequest) work for a number of years. The prospect of a Chaosium Gloranthan RuneQuest was received by many (myself included) with great enthusiasm. RuneQuest was then in it's 6th Edition published by The Design Mechanism, which was a very good book, but devoid of actual Glorantha material because of IP holdings.
A few months passed and it became apparent that Chaosium was not sticking with RuneQuest 6. The RQ Classic Kickstarter went way better than they expected and established there is still a big following for RuneQuest 2. As a result two things happened at Chaosium. They now have virtually all the old RuneQuest/Glorantha product available for sale again and they are working on their own update of RuneQuest based on the 2nd Edition so that new RuneQuest will be compatible with the older material.
In the early 80's RuneQuest was perhaps the second most popular fantasy RPG. In all it's editions, it's a percentile based, classless skill system. Percentiles have the advantage of being transparent and a skill system together with percentiles can give a "realistic" feel to a game. A lot of gamers were looking for "realism" in their RPGs at that time and our group was no different. We played a lot of RuneQuest during the early '80s. It was also one of the first games to come with a default world setting, Glorantha.
Decades later game design tastes have moved forward. RuneQuest 6 was well received as a system which combined newer game sensibilities with the traditional percentile, skill based RQ rules system. I was saddened to learn that Chaosium was not going to be working with The Design Mechanism folks to make a RuneQuest 6 that was fully integrated with Glorantha. My hope then was that The Design Mechanism could continue with their system, under a new name, and continue to produce the excellent play-aids like Mythic Britain. Well, my wish is here. I have in my hands a very nice hardcover book called Mythras which is very similar to RuneQuest 6, even down to the same cover illustration. If you are unfamiliar with RuneQuest, one of the biggest differences between RQ and D&D is magic. There are no fireballs, or Harry Potter-style flashy spell casters. Anyone can do a little magic, even warriors. The cover illustration shows a big lizardman called a "Slarg" and a hoplite style warrior who has cast "bladesharp" on her spear, hence the magical glow. (It will probably be needed to defeat the much bigger, stronger lizardman.)
I mentioned The Design Mechanism improved on the older 2nd Edition RQ. One of the bigger improvements is in the area of combat. Older edition RQ combat was often a series of blows and parries and could go on for quite a while until someone missed a parry or scored a critical hit bypassing armor. The Design Mechanism folks use a Differential Roll matrix and Special Effects which allow for combat to end much quicker, often with a surrender/skeedaddle rather than out-right killing.
The implied setting for Mythras remains one of a proto-Greek or bronze age type civilization, although the rules work fine outside this. In many ways I think this has advantages over the traditional quasi-medieval setting of FRPGs. Drawing on myth and the heroic age for inspiration can provide one with a fresh game after years of fairy tale inspired medieval knights and Merlin-esque wizards. Mythras encourages us to take a break from Tolkien and adventure in the manner of Perseus and Herakles.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Campaign Sourcebook

...and Catacomb Guide
TSR produced a number of monochrome/leatherette cover "Rules Supplements" for the 2nd Edition game. My personal favorite of these is the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide written by Jennell Paul Jaquays and William Connors (Ravenloft). Jennell Paul Jaquays is one of the most talented people to do design work in our hobby. As a college student, Jaquays put out the Dungeoneer fanzine which was picked up by Judges Guild and joined their list of publications. The first six issues are still considered a valuable resource for White Box gaming. Her dungeon design credits include Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia wherein we learned what good dungeon design consisted of. Today many in the hobby refer to "Jaquaying" a dungeon to mean "doing it up the right way". The Enchanted Wood, done for SPI's DragonQuest game, remains a fan favorite (and reportedly, Jennell's favorite) and parts of it were used in this book and later rewritten into the Forgotten Realms world.
The Campaign Sourcebook... covers setting up the fantasy RPG campaign and running it from the referee's perspective. It is an advice book and although many such supplements exist today, some system specific, some generic, Campaign Sourcebook remains one of the best of it's type.
The Campaign Sourcebook covers just about everything involved in setting up and running a 2nd Edition campaign, although most of it is not directly tied to an edition and can be used with most any FRPG. The basics are covered as well as some in depth examination of using referee judgement. It is advice such as this which makes this tome so valuable to me. World creation, adventure design, map making, they are all covered as well as the basics of forming a group, running a campaign and using all the available tools.
The White Box booklets and reference sheets are full of tools and advice actually aimed at the referee. An RPG tome directed at the players would not really emerge until the Players Handbook of the Advanced Game. The Advanced Game would see an actual GM Guide, perhaps the best document of its type ever written, as one of its three core books. There are a couple of other referee game books in addition to the above aimed at giving advice that I find very useful and I will mention them here briefly.
The Referee booklet included in the Deluxe Edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is, like the rest of the LotFP material, a very personal, opinionated (in a good way) approach to the hobby. The author's advice includes encouragement to make your monsters and each magic treasure unique. Each monster should be an unknown for it is in the fearful wondering that comes from dealing with the unknown that tension builds. Like monsters, familiar treasure can become humdrum "just another +1 sword" or rather each magic item can be unique, with a history and a name. Mr. Raggi discusses role-play in a setting dominated by humans where the other humanoid races are not just short, bearded and greedy, or slender, long lived and have pointy ears, but are otherwise played as humans. He advises letting the dice rolls stand, allowing PC death and avoiding any hint of railroading. Put simply, the author tells us how to run the type of campaign he prefers, which just happens to appeal to me as well.
Iron Crown Enterprises Gamemaster Law is another referee source book I really like. This volume is part of the Rolemaster game system and brings the usual high level of detail one finds in those products. Like the previously discussed material, this book is an enjoyable read as well as containing a lot of valuable information. Particularly strong world building material with an emphasis on realism can be found in this tome. It is of course a matter of preference, but geography in my world needs to follow natural laws and make sense to me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

World Creation My Way

The Evolution of a Fantasy World
In the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Deluxe Edition booklet titled "Recommended Reading", James Edward Raggi IV talks about the work of several authors of inspiration for gamers including J.R.R. Tolkien and the tendency for role-playing world-builders to front-load an immense amount of detailed information into their world in an effort to create something as rich and amazing as Tolkien's Middle Earth. Mr. Raggi clearly states, "A richly detailed world with an extensive history is the result of a long campaign, not its beginning."
My own game world is a mash-up of ideas taken from several literary sources, a number of my favorite play-aids and nearly 40 years of game-play. It has evolved and taken shape slowly over decades and I can not imagine trying to create it from whole cloth at one setting before any play begins. Part of this is my preferred referee style which relies heavily upon improvisation. I like to referee from a few pages of notes and a map, most of the detail emerges as a part of play and is the outcome of player actions and all the preconceived ideas I have about the setting. The notes are often just enough to remind me of thoughts I was having about the location, setting, etc. when I was doing my preparation work. The note is frequently a reference to the source from which I got my original inspiration, a scene in a novel, or a description from a pay-aid, or a location I have visited and a bit of imagination applied, turned into a place of mystery.
Allowing for world creation at the table requires good referee notes be taken during the game or immediately after in order to record what is collectively discovered about the world. Memory is imperfect and too many times I have forgotten the name of a village, or an important NPC (or deity) because I didn't write it down at the time. Consistency is encouraged and certainly helps with verisimilitude.
As I recall in my beginning there wasn't even a map, just an idea about the type of stories I wanted to referee. Heavily influenced by the implied setting of White Box, R.E. Howard's Hyborian Age and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, I sought to referee my games in a mature, slightly dark setting with an ancient feel. I borrow details that evoke some shared image in my players imagination so as to have some control over how my world is perceived. I make comparisons to things from our shared environment, movies we have all seen, comics we have all read, etc. As play continued, the stories of our adventures would become part of the legend. Places acquired names and eventually maps became larger and more detailed. The World was developing character. My favorite play-aids were adopted pretty much as written and also helped shape the world. 
The first maps were hand drawn during a play session to illustrate relative positioning of known landmarks. As adventures occurred they found their way onto the map, which expanded as needed for play. Many years passed with the known world being a relatively small area. The advantage to this is the far reaches can contain almost anything. Rumors of what lies beyond often leads the adventurers to explore new areas which then are mapped and become permanent features. Other areas have remained mere rumors. Eventually I happened upon an area of planet Earth which closely resembles my fictional play map and I now have a "real" geographic reference for what lies beyond. Whether players ever figure out where this is is a story yet to be told.
Early on I started calling the world Dreadmoor, because I like the way it suggests a sinister and dangerous place. Other place names often have a somewhat "familiar" sound because I like to leverage existing ideas in the player's mind to convey a somewhat common, shared understanding of the world. Names that are an exotic string of vowels and consonants are rarely used and imply something truly alien. During nearly four decades of play, I have avoided defining any "official" list of deities. PCs may worship any deity/demon or devil they wish. As referee, I go to some pains to avoid explaining how magic, divine or mundane, works. It just does...players are therefore free to extrapolate and imagine. I find it highly entertaining to listen to them explain to each other how they think it all works, what gods are "real" and "false". It quickly becomes part of the role-play.
In the White Box the author's suggest a copy of the boardgame Outdoor Survival be used for a wilderness map allowing players to roam about having adventures. Taking the idea as a start, adding a city for urban adventure and a sea for nautical adventure and developing a sense of "character" for the place is world building. The rest can be done through the natural evolution of play.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lamentations Of The Flame Princess Deluxe Edition

"Horror and Mystery and Dread"
With the Deluxe Edition (2010), the first printing, of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, author James Edward Raggi IV introduced the hobby to his weird fantasy RPG. LotFP is a traditional RPG in the sense that it draws on older editions of The Game for inspiration and makes use of the OGL. It also takes the game way beyond the "normal" into an imaginary space dark and sinister. LotFP is a very personal work, Mr. Raggi's personal take on the hobby which has inspired a number of other very talented people who have subsequently written material for his game system.
If the Box art doesn't grab you in a new and exciting way, this may not be the brand of "old School" game you are looking for. Mr. Raggi makes excellent use of art throughout his publications and this, his first under his own imprint, is no exception. This is a mature game for a mature audience. (I think the same could be said for White Box.) LotFP is not a simulacrum of any previous Edition, but seems closest to B/X if I am forced to compare it. The Elf and Dwarf races are their own class. A sort-of thief exists in the Specialist class, but the Specialist can specialize in most any aspect of skills, not just thievery.
The Deluxe Edition is a complete game in a complete includes everything needed to play, dice, character sheets, graph paper and a small pencil. LotFP Deluxe Edition takes "pencil & paper" role-playing seriously. That "attention to detail", "complete" approach is evident through-out the product. Mr. Raggi has gone to great pains here to provide a complete system, from the physical components needed for play, to the organization of written materials. Included is a Tutorial Book explaining the basics of role-playing, rules and magic books and a referee book, all chocked full of Mr. Raggi's personal view of the hobby. How well LotFP is received may depend largely on how one responds to this writing style.
Among the soft-cover booklets inside the small box is a starter adventure designed like the teaching modules of old Basic boxed sets. Another of the booklets is a sandbox style campaign world which could support years of play. All the booklets are nicely illustrated in b&w with color covers all in a style suggestive of the "weird" the author is aiming for.
In the box, Mr. Raggi also includes a "Warning" and a "welcome!" message. The warning is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the media hype and subsequent hysteria that marked the early days of our hobby. The welcome is more serious. It states:
This is a traditional tabletop (also sometimes called "pen-and-paper") role-playing game of horror and mystery and dread, wrapped in a facade of exploration and adventure and magic and treasure.
I would argue that is what White Box was to me in the beginning days of my hobby experience. Reading Appendix N (Game Masters Guide), that is what White Box was meant to be. Many of the later products were aimed at a younger audience, then they were the deliberate product of an effort to take the scary,  mature themes away. There is no doubt that one of the reasons this version of The Game appeals to me is it's return to the "horror and mystery and dread" that was so much a part of the White Box.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Middle Earth Resources

The Arnor Play Aid
The folks at Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.) produced some of my favorite play aids ever for their Middle Earth Role Playing system (M.E.R.P.s.). The line seems a near perfect blend of Tolkien and adventure gaming in many ways. The glaring exception being "magic". Fortunately active magic plays little part in most of the play aid material which lends itself to easy adaptation to most any other RPG system. Having rights to The Lord of the Rings, but not to the other Tolkien material, many if not most, of the stories and background material in the play aids is the invention of I.C.E., therefore it is fresh and useful inside a Middle Earth setting or imported into another Middle Earth-like campaign setting...and there have been many of those over the history of the hobby.
Prof. Tolkien's influence can be found in early White Box and many other fantasy games and in lots of published and home-brewed settings. Like many referees (and players) my game is a combination of a number of  influences including my reading of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and some original thought. This is true whether I am playing something labeled "Middle Earth" or not. Over the nearly four decades in which I have played at this hobby, many sessions and a few campaigns have been Middle Earth in spirit if not out-right name. For several of them in which I refereed, I have drawn heavily not only on the canon as found in the official works, but on I.C.E.'s "interpretation" of Middle Earth as found in their various play aids.
Arnor, the product pictured, is a later I.C.E. publication (1994) containing material from several previous publications dating back ten years as well as some new material. It is one of their bigger books at over 400 pages and includes a number of color and b&w maps. The excellent maps, mostly the work of Pete Fenlon, are really works of art themselves. This play aid is nicely illustrated as is mostly true throughout the line. The cover illustration is by noted artist Angus McBride whose work often depicted historic soldiers appearing in the popular Osprey series of military reference books. According to gamer legend, Mr. McBride enjoyed painting fantasy subjects and gave I.C.E. a good deal when painting for them. Many of the titles in the Middle Earth series include b&w art by Liz Danforth, who is noted for her elegant style. Being a revised compilation of five previous publications the interior art in this book is the work of several artists.
Arnor describes the realm which lies about the shire and was home to elves and Dunedain men in earlier times, but is largely underpopulated by the Third Age as depicted in The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings novels. Early in the Third Age, Arnor has been split into three competing kingdoms, Arthedain, Cardolan and Rhudaur, which will work against each other until they are all gone and only the Rangers remain, scattered and hunted. Arnor takes us back to the early Third Age before the fall of the Dunedain kingdoms in the north and describes several locations including the fortress capitol of Fornost and the city of Tharbad. The setting is a time when the shadow forces are infiltrating and causing strife which will lead eventually to the downfall of the Dunedain kingdoms.
Arnor is rich in details providing much information either gleaned from Lord of the rings or invented by I.C.E. to consistently flow with the novel. There is enough here to easily stretch for years of play. A referee could simply use it as the sole basis for such a campaign. It is also a resource for mining ideas for inclusion in other campaigns. A growing evil presence, working through secret agents to undermine government and religion in an effort to weaken nations and set brother against brother in an ultimate bid for power could be used as the basis for almost any campaign. It is one of the more interesting themes in the history of Middle Earth and I have used Arnor as inspiration and resource for my own game play set during this fictional era.
The I.C.E. Middle Earth products are mostly like Arnor in that they focus on an area and time which were not part of the novel, thereby avoiding the problem of playing "second fiddle" to Frodo and the Fellowship. Having a limited agreement to use Middle Earth, I.C.E. made up most of the content of their play aids rather than take it directly from canon. To me this adds to, rather than detracts from its usefulness for gaming. The feel or flavor of Middle Earth is there without feeling like you have to have a degree in Middle Earth studies in order to referee the thing. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Romance of the Perilous Land

An Arthurian Romance
If you like the stories of King Arthur as told by Thomas Mallory, Howard Pyle and John Steinbeck as much as I do, this publication is of some interest. Romance of the Perilous Land (RotPL) is an RPG by Scott Malthouse inspired by the OSR and set in his interpretation of traditional British myth and legend, including King Arthur, Merlin, Robyn Hood and Ivanhoe. It's a mix-mash of influences, cultures- both historic and fantastic and rules styles.
Mr. Malthouse abandons the implied milieu of White Box and although he sticks to a rules-lite approach, has created a game which has much of the flavor and style of the classic tales and uses mechanics both old and new. (This is Boorman's Excalibur, T.H. White's Arthur, not the more recent "historic" Cornwell Arthur, for that version see the excellent Mythic Britain by The Design Mechanism.) His rule mechanics depart from White Box, but the play-style seems similar. Perhaps too similar for my taste - the default party is a homeless mix of adventurers traveling about righting wrongs and defeating evil.
PC classes are Knight, Ranger, Thief, Cunning Folk (magic users), Barbarian and Bard. The Ranger, Cunning Folk and Bard can heal, each by a different means. There is no Wisdom attribute, but the other attributes resemble the remaining five from White Box although the names of some are changed. RotPL uses a basic mechanic which is a d20 roll under an attribute score (modified?). Magic is subtle and seems within the tolerable limits of the tradition. Spells are cast using a roll against Mind (Int) and burn spell points. Armor reduces damage rather than making one harder to hit. Saves are rolled against an attribute score using the "universal mechanic" (my term, not Malthouse). RotPL makes extensive use of the 5E advantage/disadvantage mechanic and it seems to fit well with the system.
Several nice illustrations help RotPL feel like King Arthur. Mr. Malthouse includes a brief description of an area of his Perilous Lands (someplace up north around York) which provides a stage for beginning adventures. Several critters, most drawn from myth and legends are described in game terms in a bestiary. The 50 page digital document is a complete game.
One of the advantages I see with most OSR inspired rules is the ease with which rules can be customized. If I were to run this game I would like PCs that are more attached to their society. Part of the charm of the Arthurian legend for me is the courtly society depicted. Immersion in such a fictional culture, achieving fame and rank, serving a passion, religious, romantic or other, and feeling a part of the setting would be the major appeal, I think. To just joy-ride through the setting as a wandering knight errant seems somehow less appealing. Maybe not, however and I should probably give the game a chance as written, before deciding it needs my "tinkering".