Tuesday, May 30, 2017

B/X Companion

The Missing Supplement
The B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker is his answer to the never published follow-on to Basic (edited by Tom Moldvay) and Expert (edited by David Cook with Steve Marsh). Expert contains discussion of a follow on product which will take characters from level 15 to 36, adding new spell levels for casters, new abilities for thieves and additional attacks per turn for fighters. This product was never published by TSR. Instead what the hobby got from TSRwas a reboot of the whole Basic system under editor Frank Mentzer.
For his B/X Companion, Mr. Becker draws upon material subsequently published for other versions of the game and adds quite a few of his own original ideas. The resulting product looks very much like a continuation of the B/X line with similar layout and art (there is even a "3" on the cover). It does a pretty good job of fulfilling the expectations set in Expert, taking characters to level 36, magic user spells to level 9 and cleric spells to level 7.  Fighters do indeed receive multiple attacks, two at level 15, three at level 23 and four attacks at level 31. There are a host of more powerful monsters (some based on those found in other publications) some original to Mr. Becker (such as the ancient goblin lord). Thieves however seem to get shorted here as there are no rules for "climbing overhangs, upside down , ventriloquism, powers of distraction or the ability to mimic voices" as is mentioned in Expert. In fairness, Expert lists these abilities as suggestions and implies the actual supplement may differ.
B/X Companion builds on the rules as presented in Basic and Expert thereby continuing and extending one of the most popular versions of the game. B/X Companion is not a retro-clone, but is its own unique product which aims at being useful to those playing the original Basic and Expert rules or those playing one of the several simulacrums which, using the Open Gaming License (OGL), have sought to reproduce or improve on the B/X version of the game (and there are several).
B/X presents race-as-class and limits demihuman races to "maxing out" at relative low levels so there is not a lot here for those classes. Mr. Becker follows Frank Mentzer's lead regarding demihumans, retaining the level caps and giving them advancement in "to hit" numbers and saving throws once they top-out, but nothing else.
Mr. Becker does go beyond merely extending the game to include higher levels and takes the opportunity presented by publishing this volume to include several pieces of advice and "house rules" which demonstrate his take on the game and offer some interesting new ways to do things. His advice on hirelings and retainers, designing adventures and campaigns and general refereeing (DM: Dragon Master) skills I found refreshing. He offers additional rules for combat including grappling and mass land combat which I look forward to giving a try. There is a new bard class offered, several new magic items (along with a few borrowed from later versions of the game) and some useful information on how to involve higher level characters in ruling dominions.
Recent acquisition of the B/X Companion has prompted me to revisit Basic and Expert and upon reflection I think I understand some of the appeal this version of the game has for the many in our hobby who prefer it above other versions. As I recollect, my group and I skipped over Moldvay and Cook as we journeyed along our hobby path from White Box on. We were influenced by Holmes Basic (a friend had a copy from which we learned a bit more about how the game was played) and we used Red Box (Mentzer). My copies of Basic and Expert were purchased second hand and I have never actually played using them at the table. I may have to soon remedy that.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Rules Cyclopedia

The One Book to Rule Them All?
The Rules Cyclopedia is a compilation of the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master (BECMI) boxed sets. BECMI was written by Frank Mentzer and became the standard "Basic" game through the 1980s. The first set, simply called "Basic" is often referred to as The Red Box. Released in 1991, the Rules Cyclopedia by Aaron Allston gave the hobby a complete, comprehensive rules book considered by some even today as the best single volume rule book ever.
BECMI was the third version of the basic game to be published by TSR. In 1977 J. Eric Holmes authored the first "Basic" set using White box and its supplements as the basis for the rules. This was around the time Gary Gygax was working on the Advanced game, hence the Basic title for the introductory box set. The Basic book only included rules for characters through third level and it was assumed that by then players would move on to either the White Box or the Advanced game books.
A second edition of the Basic boxed set was written by Tom Moldvay and published in 1980. This was a major revision to the Holmes rules, but was still limited in scope to character levels 1-3. In 1981 the Basic set was followed by an Expert boxed set written by Dave Cook with Steve Marsh and included rules for levels 4-14. Together these sets are often referred to as the B/X Edition.
Basic was revised again in 1983 by Frank Mentzer and it is this edition, together with others in the series, which were compiled and edited to make the Rules Cyclopedia with rules for character levels 1-36. Material from the Immortals boxed set was not included in the Rules Cyclopedia, but was reprinted in a separate product. Release of the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia coincided with a new boxed introductory game titled The New Easy-to-Master Game, but often referred to as the Black Box edition. It included a conventional rule book and a Dungeon Card Learning Pack based on the Science Research Associates (SRA) reading program which had been popular in elementary schools as an independent learning tool. The Black Box came with a two sided color dungeon map and card stand-up characters and monsters and it is the version I used to introduce my then young nephews to the game.
Other than lacking some of the "how to learn the game" material of the boxed sets, the Rules Cyclopedia is a complete game product including referee advice, a detailed setting and monster bestiary. Rules Cyclopedia supports seven character classes, Cleric, Fighter, Magic User, Thief, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling and two optional classes, Druid and Mystic. Fighters can become Paladins, Knights or Avengers and have access to combat maneuvers and weapon mastery giving them more options than in some previous editions of the game.
By 1991 when the Rules Cyclopedia is published TSR has changed hands and with that the focus of the company changed as well. The new target customer age was somewhat younger and the 2nd Edition of the Advanced game had transitioned into a series of supporting rule books and a myriad of official published settings. The Basic game remains as a separate product line, but the reason for this seems obscure. Basic has it's own product line and included in Rules Cyclopedia is material for the planet Mystara, a hollow planet with the surface or Known World setting and the smaller interior or Hollow World setting where adventurers from the Known World may eventually travel.
The first edition of the Advanced game was in print for a decade or more before the second edition arrived. It is interesting to compare the publication timeline of what was variously termed D&D or Basic, etc. with Advanced. Starting with the Holmes Bluebook edition in 1977 Basic was followed just three years later with Tom Moldvay's revision and then three years after that, Frank Mentzer's Red Box. In some ways, the Basic line seems to follow White Box more directly than the Advanced books do. Maybe it is just the continuation of the name, but I also think Basic offers more options for do-it-yourself than Advanced does. In general it presents more as "your game" and less as "the official rules", although the Rules Cyclopedia takes a more authoritative tone than previous editions of "Basic".
I have not run a game using the Rules Cyclopedia, but should I do so, I would referee this game in the same manner I have used while refereeing every RPG since White Box - that is I freely add whatever rules I enjoy (and think my players would enjoy), ignoring the parts of the "official" rules I either don't like, don't want to bother with, or don't recall at the time. I firmly believe part of the enjoyment of RPGs is the freedom to make it up as you go. I am firmly aware this requires fairness on the part of the referee and a trust between players and referee. It works best when I game with friends and is one of the reasons I prefer face-to-face gaming.
The "Basic" and "Advanced" labels disappear with Wizards of the Coast whose own versions of the game differ considerably from either previous line. In the history of the hobby there have been many single volume RPGs, everything one needs in one book, but Rules Cyclopedia is the only one to be an official Dungeons & Dragons product. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Dark Ages King Arthur

Gaming and a Movie
King Arthur comes in two varieties, the traditional Thomas Mallory Le Morte d' Arthur and the more modern "historical" Arthur, a Dark Ages warlord. Both Kings provide a nice backdrop for role-play. The sources for the traditional King Arthur are mostly literary and include some well known classics. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, an epic cycle of verse on the subject of Arthur and his court. T.H. White's Once and Future King is an entertaining read which holds closely to the traditional version of the legend. Howard Pyle wrote a number of volumes for younger readers which includes some inspirational illustrations. Hal Foster's comic strip Prince Valiant chronicles the adventures of a Danish prince associated with King Arthur's court and uses the traditional legend as inspiration. The well known movies Camelot (Joshua Logan) and Excalibur (John Boorman) are filmed using the high medieval trappings and story line found in Mallory and Tennyson. 
The role-playing game King Arthur Pendragon written by Greg Stafford follows the traditional legend penned by Sir Thomas Mallory in the late 15th Century. Mallory's Arthur seems contemporary with the late 15th Century when it was written, even though the legendary Arthur is King of the Britons, not merry England and thereby hearkens back to an older time. The game in its current 5th Edition compacts the middle ages into the life-span of the fabled king. Players start in a Dark Ages Britain where the boy Arthur becomes king and unites the isle. As the games time-line progresses, society and technology changes to reflect the growth of feudalism and the progression of the middle ages to the point where Arthur as an old man is king of an early renaissance style kingdom.
More recent authors have tended to make use of the historical and archeological studies available on the legendary Arthur and depict him as a post-Roman warlord holding back the Saxon invasion of Britain. Authors including Mary Stewart (Merlin Series) and Bernard Cornwell (The Warlord Chronicles) have popularized a vision of Arthur as a Romanized Celt, an image more in keeping with the historic studies. This interpretation of Arthur and his court gives great latitude for inserting products of our own imagination as it is almost all speculation. (Really the whole King Arthur legend including Mallory is more literary than factual and therefore open to imaginative speculation.) The current movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Guy Ritchie), draws on this recent trend and casts Arthur as 5th Century warlord. It presents the legendary king in a dark, mystical setting that combines stunning CGI Roman architecture with imaginary elements purely of the film maker's fancy. The resulting movie is inspiring and entertaining.
Mythic Britain, a setting game aid for RuneQuest 6th Edition and now Mythras by Lawrence Whitaker and the folks at The Design Mechanism, takes it's lead from the Romano-Celtic Warlord Arthur and presents a detailed and magical Britain for RPG adventure. Mythic Britain not only shows what a versatile system Mythras (and d100 in general) is, but strikes me as one of the best game aids ever. It is now joined by Logres (Paul Mitchener) which details the Saxon lands which are in conflict with Arthur. Together these volumes present a rich, varied and detailed setting full of almost endless possibilities for game adventure and allow players to explore either side of the conflict that shaped a nation. The Arthurian connection makes the setting seem somewhat familiar as does the "historical" elements and geography of Britain. The descriptions of the cultures and kingdoms on the isle are at once both historic (based on research) and creative fantasy from the authors' fertile imagination. 
The legends of King Arthur have inspired literary authors, artists and movie makers in great numbers and for many generations. The ideas central to the legend, those of might for right and just rulership generally come through regardless of the presentation. The setting, in all its interpretations, is ripe for gaming adventure and the sources for inspiration seem almost limitless. King Arthur does not appear in Gary Gygax's Appendix N list of inspirations for the game, but I have to think he was familiar with the legendary deeds attributed to Arthur and his knights. How could they not be an inspiration to such a game.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Role Playing the Dark Ages

Freedom and Inspiration
Whether the setting is historic or fictional, a Dark Ages theme lends itself readily to creative imagining and highly atmospheric role playing.  The very nature of a "dark age" is that much is not known. Facts are few and even historians struggle to fill in the missing information with archeology and speculation. And that's history. If we are creating a fantasy "dark age" then basically anything goes. Characteristic of dark ages is that most people know very little about their world. Few people travel or have access to written accounts or maps. The world and it's inhabitants remain largely a mystery. Fear and superstition pervade, violence is generally a way of life. Institutions are often oppressive, but seldom have a long reach.
It is just such a setting that is used in Chaosium's Cthulhu Dark Ages. Set on Earth in Europe around the year 950 A.D. the story begins with a translation of one of the darkest volumes ever compiled, The Necronomicon (a fictional prop used in Cthulhu mythos and games). As the story goes several copies of this dangerous book are made and for a time circulate among the secret enclaves of forbidden knowledge and threaten the existence of man and even the planet. The game Call of Cthulhu has long used alternative explanations of historic events as fodder for the role playing mill and here among the dimly recorded dark ages there is ample opportunity to invent away.
One of the potential pitfalls of refereeing a setting based on history or a published setting is contradicting historic factor canon through either ignorance or playing fast with facts. It certainly breaks the mood and immersion of the players to have someone interrupt play with "It didn't really happen that way", or "That's not true". The lack of factual knowledge of a dark ages period minimizes this problem. First, there isn't as much history to grasp and second, what is published is often speculative and open to interpretation.
Authors of historical fiction, and to some extent fantasy and science fiction, have log recognized the freedom of a dark age setting or alternative history scenario. Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light Of The Sun is set in a dark age world closely resembling 9th century Europe, with the names all changed. In this way Mr. Kay is able to use history as inspiration, but is free to invent additional events, creatures, even include a role for magic in his story and because it is very close in places to what we know as "reality" it is all more believable. In this novel there is a familiarity which helps establish verisimilitude, but it doesn't run the danger of contradicting history or canon. Mr. Kay does an excellent job in The Last Light of the Sun of portraying the dark age feeling and atmosphere and is an inspiration for running a dark age setting in an RPG.
One of the delights of our hobby is the ability to take almost any setting from any source, literature, history, TV or other media, and turn that setting into a game milieu. The more adaptable rules, those including White Box and d100, lend themselves readily to such adaptation. A central theme in Mr. Kay's The Last Light of the Sun is the tension between superstition and piety. A mechanic such can be designed for gaming in this setting where the two beliefs are opposite and as one increases due to in-game activity the other decreases. Consequences can be linked to this change both for the individual PC and for the campaign. For example, as the PC has more encounters with the "half world" of faerie, superstition increases, making piety more difficult for the PC and distancing the PC from their god. Also, the more superstitious the PC becomes, the greater strength magic and the "half world" has in the game. Eventually the campaign can end up with a shift in the world toward either superstition or piety as a result of PC actions.  

Friday, May 19, 2017

Warriors of the Red Planet

Sword & Planet Adventure
Warriors of the Red Planet (WotRP) is a 124 page digest sized booklet authored by Al Krombach and Thomas Denmark and described as an "old school" science fantasy RPG.  The author's state it is based on and compatible with "the original fantasy roleplaying game". As such, many of the concepts presented herein are familiar. WotRP uses the basic six attributes with character classes and experience levels. The Appendix includes information on the races of Mars as seen in Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels. Included character classes are Fighting Men, Scoundrels, Mentalists, and Scientists, but the authors state that bringing in other classes and game elements from other iterations of old school games is encouraged. Combining science fiction elements with fantasy was often done both in the literature of the day and in the game products they inspired.
Fighting Men require little explanation to anyone familiar with White Box. They are the basic warriors found on Mars and in many other heroic settings. Scoundrels are very similar to the Thief class in Greyhawk. Mentalists are the magic users of WotRP. Mentalists can use a number of powers each day and that number increases as the Mentalist levels up.  First level powers include Control Person and Mind Bullets and it's fairly easy to see their parallels to White Box magic spells. Scientists are described as masters of forgotten lore.  They have access to a number of "gadgets" they can use each day. Gadgets include ancient devices, lost technologies and new arcane devices of their own making. s the Scientist levels up they acquire more and stronger "gadgets". I find the Scientist class the most original and interesting of the WotRP classes.
WotRP wouldn't be Sword & Planet without rules for flying ships so the rules include a section on ship-to-ship combat listing several typical flying ships and how to use them in the game. The game can certainly be used for any setting or milieu with certain modifications, but as the title suggests, much of the material is aimed directly at adventures on Mars in the spirit of John Carter. Diagrams and maps show the Red Planet and its underworld and there is excellent advice on running a game in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I find WotRP to be a nice variant of White Box and totally in the spirit of the early inspirations for the game. In his forward to the original edition, Gary Gygax mentions "Burroughs' Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits". When he later listed the books that influenced the design of the game in Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide, Burroughs' Martian novels are there. In Empire of Imagination author Michael Witwer mentions the first adventure books Mr. Gygax suggested to protege and co-referee Rob Kuntz were the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. One of the earliest publications of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), the company formed to sell White Box, was a set of miniatures rules titled Warriors of Mars: The Warfare of Barsoom in Miniature. I think it safe to assume Mr. Gygax was inspired by reading John Carter's adventures on Mars and that the stories (along with many others) influenced his desire for a game such as White Box.
In many ways WotRP compliments White Box. There are ruins to explore, fights for survival, mysteries to unravel, undergrounds and wildernesses to explore, monsters to defeat and ancient treasures to recover. If all this sounds familiar, I think it should given Mr. Gygax's fondness for the source material.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Law & Chaos, Good & Evil

Alignment Thoughts
In The Strategic Review Vol. II, No. 1, Gary Gygax explains the meaning of Law and Chaos and their relationship to Good and Evil. He states that at the time (Feb. 1976) some confusion exists regarding the nature of Alignment. Mr. Gygax admits that when he authored the game, Law and Good were closely connected in his own mind. Similarly, Chaos and Evil could be thought of as essentially the same. Not synonymous he points out, but they meant "just about the same thing" he writes. As his playing the game continued, substantial differences arose in his campaign and are somewhat reflected in the wording used in Greyhawk.
Chaotic Alignment by a player generally betokens chaotic action on the player’s part without any rule to stress this aspect, i.e. a chaotic player is usually more prone to stab even his lawless buddy in the back for some desired gain. However, chaos is just that — chaotic. Evil monsters are as likely to turn on their supposed confederates in order to have all the loot as they are to attack a lawful party in the first place. 
 In the Strategic Review article, Mr. Gygax clearly states Law and Chaos are opposites, but "are neither good nor evil in their definitions". This clarified definition holds closer to the way Law and Chaos are used by Michael Moorcock in the Elric stories. Chaos is both random and creative, Law is stability and stagnation in the Elric saga where each has a positive and a negative aspect. It is interesting to note in the article Mr. Gygax describes Law, Chaos, Good and Evil in terms of a list of word descriptors pertaining to the four alignments giving us examples of what he considers in each.
Mr. Gygax states that at this point (time of the article) there are five alignments, not three (as in White Box).  He lists them as Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil and Neutral. He also re-orders the list of creatures and their respective alignments according to the five categories. Paladins of course are the epitome of Lawful Good. Evil High Priests may be Lawful Evil or Chaotic Evil. Druids, elementals and thieves occupy the Neutral position.
Mr. Gygax suggests that the referee keep a record of each character's actions with regard to alignment. In this way Alignment may shift as play progresses and a character may eventually undergo an Alignment change based on his/her deeds. The Paladin may fall or the thief redeem himself. The list of provided descriptors may be used referenced with respect to character behavior as a guide.
The idea of opposing forces, both those aligned with Law and Chaos and those aligned with Good and Evil, continues to divide the milieu and provides competing factions in the campaign. It is assumed that forces of Law, perhaps both good and evil, will oppose the forces of Chaos setting the stage for the tension which roleplay thrives on. It is up to the referee and players to determine how this conflict will shape the campaign. The gods and mythos of the setting should reflect the Alignments as well.
I find it interesting to note that Mr. Gygax proposes a rather strict interpretation of Alignment and behavior. The Paladin, he writes, has very little latitude in terms of adherence to a strict code of Lawful Good behavior.  Likewise, the Evil High Priest must continue to act in a consistently evil manner or lose status. Druids serve only themselves and nature in their Neutrality, but according to Mr. Gygax, "occasionally make human sacrifice" and are therefore "slightly predisposed towards evil actions". He goes on to make a generalized statement that:
Most of humanity falls into the lawful category, and most of lawful humanity lies near the line between good and evil. With proper leadership the majority will be prone towards lawful/good. Few humans are chaotic, and very few are chaotic and evil.
I suppose he is talking about the game milieu, but maybe he is giving us an insight into his personal belief regarding fellow human beings. Regardless of the discussion on human nature, this article gives us insight into the intended role of Alignment in the White Box and subsequent editions of the game. Alignment continues to evolve as the game evolves, but it has remained a central theme across the editions and helps set The World's Most Popular RPG apart from competing products. I personally see Alignment as a part of Mr. Gygax that continues with us to the present.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Magic World

Filling the d100 Niche
Magic World (MW) has a long pedigree including Basic Role Playing (BRP), Stormbringer and RuneQuest. It is a d100 game with a default sandbox setting including a map, brief description and bestiary. The setting is one where the fey once ruled and are in decline, replaced by factions of humans, which suggests a lot of role playing possibilities. Percentile dice are rolled for the three basic resolution systems, skills, attribute characteristics and the BRP resistance table. MW is a roll under intuitive system that easily blends into the background of play allowing the players to focus on the imaginary world of their characters. The BRP system is straight-forward and easy to modify. It is robust and handles the importation of additional mechanics well.
Physically Magic World is an 8 1/2" x 11" paperback with a colorful cover illustration.  The interior is two column b&w with some very basic illustrations.  The layout is nice, however, and I enjoy the choice of fonts. The content of the book is what shines. Even with a few annoying typos and misplaced words the rules come across clearly and show careful crafting. This is a mature product of many years of game design experience and it shows.
Magic World seems to be closer to Stormbringer than to any other of Chaosium's many BRP products. Stormbringer is of course Chaosium's RPG product based on the characters and world created by Michael Moorcock in his Elric novels. A central theme for those stories is the conflict between Chaos and Law which influences White Box and other editions of the world's most famous RPG. MW uses a parallel system of allegiance to Light, Darkness or Balance in a similar way and each character has a score in each which will change through play and may bring certain advantages to the character at higher levels. There is a section on seafaring, which plays an extensive role in the Elric stories and can of course play a role in most any campaign setting. Magic in Stormbringer is centered around summoning and binding demons and elementals. Magic in MW is capable of reproducing that style and more. Stormbringer, the RPG, has seen several editions itself and has been one of my favorite games for many years.
The most unique aspect of Magic World compared to other BRP products is in its magic system called "sorcery". Sorcery is a magic point system with a "Vancian" element of spell memorization required.  Spell casters must have a grimoire of written spells that they study and commit to memory, then they can spend magic points to cast the memorized spells. A roll on the resistance table is necessary if the spell must overcome resistance by the target. The Advanced Sorcery supplement adds more high level magic as well as more material on demon summoning and binding, necromancy and some additional rules for skills. MW along with Advanced Sorcery allows one to closely adhere to the old demon magic system of Stormbringer.
Combat in MW also differs from other BRP products. Combat uses the system skill mechanic and is roll under your skill with a chance for criticals and fumbles. Attacks can be parried or dodged. Armor deducts from damage, but is variable and rolled for. Reach matters, shields are useful and weapons can break. There are no hit locations as in RuneQuest, but there is a major wound table used for hits which inflict large amounts of damage. The wound may cause scarring or permanent loss of abilities. Therefore, like many of the BRP systems, combat in MW can be serious business.
MW is a natural outgrowth of previous BRP products, but is also its own game. While RuneQuest and Stormbringer are tied closely to licensed properties, MW is Chaosium's own in-house property. That gives the designers a freedom to design the game without restraint and MW is perhaps the best fantasy iteration of the BRP system because of this. Each of the BRP games has its own unique feel produced by a combination of the specific rules and the setting.  MW is not a generic game without feel, rather a combination of the magic system, combat mechanic and skill system lends a great deal of unique personality to MW. For me, MW fills a needed niche for a for a fantasy game not tied directly to a published setting such as Glorantha or the Young Kingdoms, but uses the excellent d100 mechanic and a magic system that is both more powerful and easily modified than that found in the other BRP products.
In a way, I see MW as the successor to Stormbringer and it is certainly possible to play in Mr. Moorcock's Young Kingdoms using this system, but I think MW offers a bit more.  Being detached from the Young Kingdoms allows the Chronicler (referee) to take MW out on its own and explore the game in other settings. Having recently renewed my interest in d100, MW seems to be the vehicle I am looking for to scratch that itch. In the spirit of White Box, I will be taking MW and tweaking it to make it my own. I am studying the nice "Southern Reaches" map that is included and finding it much like Judges Guild Wilderlands products in that it seems to have just enough detail to inspire my imagination.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Runes of Doom

The Arduin Grimoire vol. III
David Hargrave's Arduin books are chocked full of creative game aids and each one has an enormous amount of material, often haphazardly organized, but always full of enthusiasm and originality. Known for the over-the-top nature of his style of play, Mr. Hargraves includes over 100 new spells, over 100 new monsters, demons, elementals, magic items, and new tables galore in this volume alone. In The Runes of Doom he redefines the ranger, druid, assassin and paladin character classes and adds the alchemist, and sage classes. He gives us rules for playing some of his unique races, the phraint, saurig and deodanth as player characters and introduces a hit point system designed to allow low level characters, even 1st level, to adventure alongside higher levels without being impossibly "squishy".
Tired of rolling 3d6 x 10 for starting gold and spending the next umpteen minutes purchasing starting gear?  Mr. Hargrave provides tables for determining starting coin and gear based on social and economic status. Prefer a system that puts less emphasis on armor for defense so that the John Carters and Conans in your campaign may run around bare-chested without being killed in their first fight? Mr. Hargrave has a table listing "natural" armor classes by race which could easily be modified to include "by class" as well. That is what David Hargrave is so good at - by sharing his wonderful ideas for the game, he inspires us to take it one step further ourselves. He shows us the path to modifying the game to suit our own campaign.
Mixed among the tables and new rules, monsters and items, Mr. Hargrave sprinkles some good gaming advice. On page 7 he points out the importance of keeping a good account of in-game time, something Gary Gygax also emphasized.  Here Mr. Hargrave indicates that such accounting for the passage of time is essential for a campaign world in which several people run different countries/areas for a common group of player characters. Wow, that takes the campaign game to a whole new level with multiple referees sharing the overall world, rules and pool of player characters. Again he is stretching the parameters of the game.
On more than one occasion, Gary Gygax was on record regarding how he meant for the game he and Dave Arneson authored to be played and frequently commented on how others could change the game so as to make it not the same game he wrote. He was referring generally to referees running a high powered campaign with lots of magic items, very high level PCs who had progressed rapidly up the experience levels and powerful magic users that tended to dominate play. Yes, Mr. Hargrave played in this high-powered style, but he also claimed his game was different from White Box.
Included in every volume of the Arduin Grimoire are various descriptions of Mr. Hargrave's world, Arduin. Usually these elements come in the form of lists or tables, but they make the reader wonder and improvise, filling in what the author leaves unexplained with imaginings of our own making. What a wonderful gift to jump-start the imagination. Obviously, we as readers are free to borrow ideas from the Grimoire and import them into our own play resulting in David Hargrave's Arduin influencing many other campaigns. The idea rather fits into Mr. Hargrave's concept of the Multiverse where all worlds can be connected on some level.
So back to that ranger class. In this volume of the Grimoire, he redefines the ranger in true Hargravian fashion as the Forester, placing a greater emphasis on woodcraft the Forester is almost never lost, but seldom enters the dungeon. He describes the Forester as a solitary and nomadic scout/military spy, respected by elves and half-elves, held in awe by hobbits, but detested by dwarves who see them as untrustworthy woodrunners. They have improved hearing and can travel further and faster afoot for longer periods than normal types. They have improved skill with non mechanical bows and as they level up acquire the ability to "sense" enemies and weather changes and the ability to "speak" with plants and animals. At fiftieth level the Foresters gain some healing ability equivalent to a first level druid.
The druid, paladin and assassin classes all receive similar customization in The Runes Of Doom. Designing or re-designing various character classes, spell lists, monsters and magic items is one way to emphasize the character of one's campaign "world" or milieu. Mr. Hargrave tends to include nearly everything which appeals to him in his milieu, therefore Arduin is a setting of vast inclusiveness. That is part of the campaign's character. It is however quite possible to pick and choose among the ideas presented in the Grimoires, using only that which appeals to each referee individually. Showing us the path to doing it our own way seems to be a principle goal of David Hargrave and his Arduin Multiverse. I hope it would make him smile to see a little of his Arduin in my campaign.

Friday, May 12, 2017


D100 RPG
Legend is the name of Mongoose Publishing's d100 game originally written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash as RuneQuest II and edited to remove all the RuneQuest specific parts. The result is a very clean, generic d100 system that is user-friendly and adaptable to almost any fantasy or historic setting. The cover is quite plain, but the interior of the 236 page digest sized book is illustrated with black and white art suggesting a fantasy theme. Before they formed their own company, The Design Mechanism, and published RuneQuest 6 (now re-titled Mythras), Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Nash re-worked Mongoose RuneQuest into a much improved game they called RuneQuest II.
RuneQuest combat is based on making an attack roll and a corresponding parry roll on a d100. It is a roll under for success system with criticals and fumbles and it is possible for both rolls to miss and nothing happens, both rolls to succeed and the attack is parried or one roll to fail and one to succeed. Often a series of rolls may occur before a successful attack gets past an unsuccessful parry. What Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Nash came up with in these rules is the Combat Manoeuvres table. Level of success (or failure) on the attack is compared to level of success on the parry and the table indicates  a number of Combat Manoeuvres that may accompany the outcome of the attack. It is possible that a failed attack roll paired with a successful parry to grant the parry-er one or more defensive Combat Manoeuvres.  The Combat Manoeuvres can end combat in a single round, or give the character an advantage in upcoming rounds. The result is that the player gets to make more decisions picking and choosing their Combat Manoeuvres and combat generally resolves more quickly and often results in sub-dual or surrender rather than death.
Magic is divided into three types, common magic, divine magic and sorcery. Common magic is low powered and often subtle magical effects that represent the kind of magic common folks might employ on a daily basis in a magic rich environment.  Divine magic is drawn from the gods and can be more powerful than common magic. Presumably, divine magic is worked in the service of the god who grants it. Sorcery is akin to the more flashy and dangerous magic wielded by those who devote their lives to the pursuit of such power.
Legend, as RuneQuest before it, is a skill based system, therefore there are no character classes, rather each character can learn the skills a player desires. Skill success, as with combat, is determined by a d100 roll under mechanic with critical success and fumbles possible. The d100 is one of the most straight-forward and intuitive systems ever developed and makes for a good introductory RPG.
Lacking a specific setting, Legend also lacks a bestiary, at least in the core rulebook.  Mongoose does offer two "monster" books for those seeking such. It is expected the referee will design their own world or import one of the many existing around the hobby and pick and choose monsters as appropriate to the chosen setting. Mongoose offers three "historic" setting books as examples, one for Vikings, one for Pirates and one for Samurai. Adaptability is one of the strengths of the d100 system.
I find Legend one of the best written and easy to understand game books available. At this time there are several iterations of the d100 mechanic available and to be successful and stand out a game needs something special, be that setting or presentation, ease of use or innovation. The several d100 systems are quite distinct from the d20 systems and each have their adherents. I consider both good systems that have stood the test of time, have many supporting products available and feature mechanics that can fade into the background once players and referee are familiar with them so as to allow concentration on the imagined world in play rather than on game mechanics. What more could I ask of an RPG system.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Burning Wheel

A Different Game
The Burning Wheel is an indie RPG that is a cut-above. The Gold Edition is its third and combines material that had previously been in two volumes, the Burning Wheel rules and the Character Burner. The Burning Wheel is a narrative game with a great deal of crunch and elements of a simulation style game. The mechanics are scale-able so that the referee can use quick simple resolutions or more detailed and lengthy systems to place emphasis on the conflict and outcome. The characters are very detailed with motivations and ethics that guide the player in role-playing them. The story is intended to be that which develops at the table, not one the referee has scripted ahead of time. It is an adventure game built to emphasize relationship and conflict and includes many new concepts. This game took me several reads in order to fully grasp it - it's that different from most other RPGs.
The Character Burner, or chargen system, is one of the more detailed chargen systems I have encountered.  Players can choose to play a human, an elf, a dwarf or an orc in the Gold Edition. The Character Burner uses a life path system that generates the character's backstory and characteristics (skills & traits) from birth to the point where they start adventuring. Each race has a unique life paths to choose from. Instincts and Beliefs give the character motivation and something to fight for.
Conflict is at the center of The Burning Wheel and the referee is tasked with challenging each character's Beliefs in an effort to develop story and see the character grow and change as the game progresses. Characters frequently undergo significant changes in their goals and attitudes as a result of their conflicts. The Burning Wheel uses a dice pool system of six sided dice for testing various abilities, skills, and traits. Success leads to improvement, but so does challenging oneself with more difficult tests even though the attempt fails. Conflicts may involve combat, which can be handled one of three ways depending on the desired complexity level of the mechanics used, social conflict, chases, negotiation and spell casting.
The Burning Wheel introduces several new concepts and this can make the learning curve a bit steep.  Rather than using money, the game makes use of a resource mechanic.  If a character desires to by something, they may test their Resources to see if they are able to fund the purchase. Leveraging one's Resources can also lead to debt. Circles is another novel concept. Circles refers to the groups of people the player character has access to. One can test their Circles to discover information or acquire assistance in some endeavor.  Circles and Resources are abilities which are developed through Life Paths and through adventuring.
The Burning Wheel does not include a specific default setting and their are a number of setting books that have been published for it ranging from a post apocalyptic setting to one based on ancient Japan. Because there is no default setting, there is no bestiary. The Burning Wheel PC races and life paths do imply a rather Tolkienesque setting, however. This works quite well in my experience as Middle Earth is the setting I have used The Burning Wheel for. The human Life Paths seem historical for the most part and I could easily see The Burning Wheel being used for a game set in a medieval European setting as well. The setting books will generally introduce their own unique Life Paths that reflect life in that setting.
This is not a dungeon delving sort of game. The Burning Wheel is about creating a story together as we play characters who test themselves and have their goals and attitudes changed by their experiences during the game. If dungeon Delving is desired, The Burning Wheel folks have a game, Torchbearer, specifically designed for that type of play. I consider it an excellent game and should probably give it its own post someday. This hobby offers so many great games it is hard to find the time for all of them!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

White Box Magic

Magical Intent
In The Strategic Review, Vol.2, No. 2, Gary Gygax explains the Magic System and a little more regarding the design of the game in an article titled "The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System". In the opening paragraph he notes that the game was designed with the underworld adventure, the dungeon as the major factor in game play. He states wilderness adventure took a secondary role and tabletop battles, in which player characters took part, assumed a very minor role. This decision, to emphasize the dungeon experience, helped dictate how magic would work in the game.
Mr. Gygax describes the four basic types of magic as ritual, short spoken spells, ultra-powerful magic, and weak magic. He gives literary reference for each type of magic. The ritual type, involving lengthy conjuration and much paraphernalia, he ascribes to the works of R.E. Howard and Wm. Shakespear (Macbeth). The short spoken spell he credits to Finnish folklore tradition (Kalevala) and author Jack Vance (Vancian magic). The ultra-powerful magic he describes as typical of the Harold Shea stories of deCamp & Pratt. The weak and generally ineffective magic he associates with works by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Mr. Gygax indicates that his desire was for magic to be an integral part of the game and therefore the magic user should not be overshadowed by the fighting men. Magic could not be time consuming nor ineffective, so the ritual and weak and ineffective types were deemed unsuitable for the game. It was therefore decided to make magic effective and fairly powerful, when used effectively, and rather quick so that it was effective in combat. The so-called Vancian system seemed to balance potential power with a spoken spell that could be cast (thrown) quickly, yet remained scale-able.
Magic in the game is designed around four distinct components, the verbal or uttered, the somatic, or physical movement required, the mental aspect (mnemonics)  and the material adjuncts. Much of this "theory" of magic can be related to the Harold Shea stories where the main characters discuss the nature of magic among themselves. Mr. Gygax expounds on this "theory" of magic as including the effects of altering substances, creating new material, changing certain aspects of mind or body, the addition of new functions to mind or body, the summoning and commanding of existing entities, and finally the creation of new entities. The "spells" were then created using this system of organization with both strong and weak examples of each so that spell levels might be used to balance the magic using classes with the non-magic users. Mr. Gygax notes that many spells were developed with dungeon delving and wilderness adventure in mind.  A few, mostly those carried over from Chainmail, were included with tabletop battle in mind. According to Mr. Gygax all spells were designed so as to be spoken, most with a small somatic component, and many had a material component as well. These component descriptions would not appear until the Advanced game, but were assumed in White Box. All spells were mnemonic in that they had to be memorized and once cast were lost to memory requiring the consultation of spell books in order to be re-memorized.
The idea, according to Mr. Gygax, was for magic users to be balanced with all other character classes, but due to various factors including magic items usable by magic users only and various misunderstandings on the part of many players, perhaps due to the game itself not fully explaining the rules for magic, that often was not the case according to the author. He states the principle problem was one of not understanding the limits of single usage for memorized spells and scrolls. Once cast, those spells are unavailable until further preparation (consulting the spell books and re-memorizing the spell or inscribing a new scroll respectively) is undergone.
Mr. Gygax takes the opportunity afforded in the article to remind readers, especially referees, that magic should be balanced with regard to other character classes and the game should not be allowed to "degenerate' into a magic user show. He talks about progressing at a slow pace with regards to PC leveling and of limiting spells to 10th level. He mentions it was always the intent for players to take the game beyond the rules with regard to inventing new spells and magic, new character classes and new worlds, but cautions that at some point the game may cease to resemble to original intent of the author(s) - that being a game for relatively low-level dungeon and wilderness exploration and maybe some tabletop battle gaming.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sword of Truth

Wizard's First Rule
Yesterday I finished the first volume of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series and am excited to report I really enjoyed it. Wizard's First Rule  is not a new release, it's been around since 1994 according to the copyright, but I picked it up on recommendation and am glad I did. The story is high fantasy in that the fate of the world hangs in the balance as the main characters try to defeat the great evil and save everyone from slavery or worse. The characters are well developed and believable and so is the plot, well for fantasy. The book is long at over 800 pages and the first in a multi-volume series that I believe is still ongoing. I have seen the book various times and probably passed it by because of the size.  I generally prefer my pleasure reading to be full of action and to move along swiftly and I have sometimes found that thick books move slowly. Wizard's First Rule is full of suspense and action and things move along as fast as I could wish for.
I won't give spoilers by talking about plot, but I will say I easy got involved with the characters and there are several tense scenes in the book that were quite emotional. Mr. Goodkind knows well how to tap into the reader's emotions as well as our sense of morality. Some of the evil deeds are a bit shocking, at least to me, but there is no doubt who is evil and bad here. I often gravitate to less morally distinct stories, ones where the boundaries between good and evil may be blurred and the heroes seem a bit rascally, but this book really made me think a bit about the nature of good and evil. I enjoyed that.
The reason I like to write about books on this blog is that I really believe reading is such a good way to stretch our imagination, adding images to our mental storehouse that we can then draw upon while refereeing or playing the game. Wizard's First Rule is 800+ pages of good ideas that can inspire us as gamers as well as entertain us as readers.