Digging through the Appendix N of the original D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide uncovers a lot of lost treasures, books now forgotten save for those in the blogosphere with fringe interests such as reading—reading old science fiction and fantasy novels in specific. Most fantasy fans have probably read The Lords of the Rings and have at least heard of Conan, but I doubt they’ve ever read Appendix N line items like Bellair’s The Face in the Frost or Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows or the works of A. Merritt.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is a bit more popular, in part because its author Poul Anderson is a well-known and respected writer in the field; he’s not one of my top favorites, but his works are always enjoyable and entertaining, and so this has been one of those Appendix N novels I’ve wanted to read. To be honest, I found it highly enjoyable; its protagonist is Danish engineer turned resistance fighter Holger, transported from a pitched beach battle with Nazis to the realm of faerie, a world where the legends depicted in the Matters of England and France are established historical fact—meanwhile, Napoleon is a mythical figure—and where Christiandom is waging a war against the Elves and their pagan magic. So, not exactly the typical Tolkienian depiction of elves and magic.
Three elements in particular appear in the novel and were highly influential on Gygax when he was designing D&D:
Anderson’s world is a pitched war between Chaos and Law, something that writers in the ’70s would revisit—Moorcock with his eternal champion, and Zelazny with his Amberite royalty. Here, it’s a very specific balance. Law is the established, dogmatic order of religion—Holger speculates that Christendom, Judaism, and Islam are fighting against the forces of Chaos. Chaos itself is the lack of ordered rigidity offered by the old-ways of paganism and animism, backed by the royalty of the courts of Faerie.
D&D’s alignment system is kind of a mess to explain, and tends to lead to the most arguments and confusion with new players. Picture an X-Y axis. The Y axis represents a sliding scale between Good and Evil—at their extremes, good is the desire to sacrifice yourself for the good of others, while evil is the instinct to use others for personal gain. The X axis is that of Law and Chaos—extreme Law is a rigid hierarchy of absolute rules, and chaos is unhindered freedom that comes from anarchy. Someone who’s Lawful Good acts with honor and dignity towards all others, while the Lawful Evil character is one who lives for themselves but has a code of honor or works within normal society to achieve their own goals. A Chaotic Good character acts outside of laws and rules but does so for positive ends—say, stealing from the rich to give to the poor—while the Chaotic Evil character is a raving psychopathic murderer. In the end, it forms a box of nine alignments.
Originally the system was just an X axis between Law and Chaos, as interpreted through Poul Anderson’s novel, and Gygax meant it as more of a simple black-and-white choice between good and evil—or, rather, the difference between social democrats and libertarians, between those who put others’ needs before their own and those who live only for themselves. It’s developed a bit since its OD&D introduction, when it was even closer to the book’s “organized churches versus paganism” theme, but the core is still there.
Thanks to moral relativism, we have the conundrum where one side isn’t necessarily a better choice than the other, and the fact that such linear and binary choices don’t account for extremes—our postmodern viewpoint is far less simplistic black-and-white morality, and it can lead to some awkward situations and much discussion. (At least, my mind wanders into that area; most people rely on fantasy gaming as escapism, and so would rather not think about the heavy questions of morality.) What about an authoritarian state who does horrible things in the name of the greater good—thinking of most literary dystopias there. How about the Lawful Good character slaying innocent women and children of a monstrous race who doesn’t share the same ethics or values that we (and our player character races) do; are they evil by association, or is it justified for any future evils they may cause, or are they monsters simply by being the “other,” having more fur and sharper fangs than the races “acceptable” to humanity like elves and dwarves?
Anyways, the core kernel of it all came from Three Hearts and Three Lions, and reading it gives you a slightly better idea of where Gygax was going with it.
Anderson’s protagonist Holger is the archetype of the D&D paladin class, designed around the Crusader knights, holy warriors powered by faith. Several of the paladin class’s abilities came from the novel. At one point, Holger is asked to “lay hands” on various peasantry to heal afflictions and bless them; it doesn’t actually do very much, but the peasants believe it does. He has a powerful horse with higher-than-animal intelligence, hence why paladins always have rules for special mounts—they’re essentially Arthurian knights. He’s a strong, robust fighter who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with man or monster, wielding sword and shield.
Holger is also very spiritual, on the quest for a holy sword—a relic only he can wield—and has fine ties to purity of faith. At one point he succumbs to his baser instincts, which immediately negates the wards and charms he and his friends have set up to protect themselves from Chaos. That religious iconography becomes meaningless, and therefore fails to protect against a wandering monster set forth by the Faerie kings. I see that as the basis for the paladin’s “fallen” status—essentially, sinning or acting in ways that don’t display the noblest chivalric intent cause the paladin to lose their various powers granted by faith until they atone.
Truth be told, beyond that inspiration it’s a bit of a stretch to see Holger and end up with the paladin. The class itself has always had issues distinguishing itself—if the cleric is a holy warrior and protector of the innocence, why do we need another one? And its implementation has never been a real standout, usually just roleplay restrictions in return for a slew of magical powers, ending up a class without enough staying power or sense of progression to be more than a subpar fighter. But in terms of Appendix N literature, it’s the clear inspiration for what the paladin became.
As far as I’ve seen, traditional mythology puts trolls as rather ornery giants, kind of a racial slur against the Jotun in Norse myth. At one point, Anderson’s characters must make a dash through a labyrinthine troll barrow to cut across enemy-infested mountain wilderland—the same kind of reasoning behind the run through the mines of Moria in LOTR—and bump into the deadly troll in its den. Anderson’s troll is a lanky humanoid with rubbery skin; after a pitched battle, the heroes vanquish the troll, only for its dismembered arm and slain body to regenerate and resume the offensive. The only way to kill it for good turns out to be burning it with fire. Sound familiar?
Holger’s companion and love interest is a Swanmay, or swan maiden, a woman who shapeshifts to and from swan form. You can see that as part of the druid class’s ability, but in the book her power comes from her cloak/dress made of feathers, which seems like it had more of an impact on D&D’s magical items. Of which there are several: Holger is on the quest for the magic sword Cortana, which only a powerful warrior of strong faith can wield—a cross between D&D’s artifacts/relics and its +5 Holy Avenger Longsword only usable by paladins—and early on, Holger makes off with a faerie lord’s magnesium dagger, a nice touch for two reasons. First off, apparently sunlight harm the fey in this world. Second, it reminds me of most of those +1 flaming weapons you find.
The elves and faerie themselves aren’t really the same Tolkien-style elves found in D&D, but the sole dwarf is very much the same stereotype, a short, rotund humanoid with a beard that speaks in a brogue and consumes alcohol. There’s also encounters with a dragon, a werewolf, and a nixie that read straight out of both D&D and the mythology it ripped off, a “hell horse” that’s much like the game’s “nightmare,” and an animated suit of armor which felt pretty D&D-esque.
One other odd note. Several of the Appendix N novels—this one, most of Burroughs’ works, André Norton and her Witch World, to some extent Anderson’s High Crusade—involve modern people transported to another world. Oddly enough, having everyday people catapulted into fantasy realms has never been a notable theme in D&D campaigns themselves, though it was the basis for the ’80s cartoon. I guess part of it is the limiting factor, e.g. you couldn’t play elves or dwarves that way, and you’d lose knowing the established history of the setting. But I find it fascinating that the trope was so loved by Gygax but never really included as an established option.
For a long time now I’ve been interested in running an old-school points-of-light style fantasy game, for no particular reason. I’ve never played or run one, so it’s not for nostalgia’s sake; rather, it’s probably for the opposite reason—because I’ve never really experienced with that style of game.
“Points of Light” was the one thing I really liked about 4th Edition D&D, rolling things back to a more AD&D-style world setting where civilization existed in the form of small towns and isolated waystations, surrounded by oceans of dark forests filled with monsters and brigands and primal savagery. Heroes come from small-town beginnings, or from the few well-fortified city states; they venture forth into the unknown to beat back the darkness and plunder strange relics of lost civilizations—faded empires, shattered races. Help may be days or even weeks away, so life can be brutal and harsh, even for the prepared: it’s the rugged individualism of a new frontier.
In sum, the generic OSR setting without archaic OSR game mechanics. The Hyperborean Tales, Lankhmar, Averoigne; old Weird Tales pulp fantasy meets the Dark Ages.
You can see a lot of the original D&D game in it, too: when a half-dozen men-at-arms is a “sizable” patrol in an underpopulated world, compared to forty or more hobgoblins, it becomes a bit of small-unit skirmish. (As in, wargame.) Hex grid wilderlands notwithstanding. They had this gee-whiz sensawunda, too; stumble into this hex and you might find some dude’s magic arrows hidden in a hollow treestump, stumble into this one and you get attacked by the plesiousaur in the lake.
Actually, I can chart this interest back to when I first played Baldur’s Gate, because its setting fits my ideal bill pretty well. A lot of open wilderness filled with hostile creatures and the occasional dungeon (or humanoid stronghold), with a few scattered hamlets along the way. Candlekeep, seaside resort for rich nobles, old wizards, and dusty tomes; Nashkel, occupied by a neighboring city-state, its iron mines besieged; Beregost, sizable trade city, and Baldur’s Gate, sprawling metropolis of the region. The Friendly Arms Inn in particular jumps out at me; a badass adventurer couple overthrew an evil overlord and turned his fortress into a waystation. Baldur’s Gate is nasty and harsh, a tough slog filled with memorable locales and unique NPCs… it’s how I imagine a great AD&D game would be like. (Not having to calculate THAC0, weapon speeds, or Armor Class modifiers—yep, that would be a great AD&D game.)
I’ve always enjoyed playing the Icewind Dale games the most—they have a rich if subtle flavor (case in point, items) and they’re easiest to progress in—while Planescape: Torment had the best story, and Baldur’s Gate II was the most accessible (while retaining a similar top-notch story). I’ve never really given the original Baldur’s Gate that much interest, despite how much it’s influenced my gaming perspective. Maybe the Enhanced Edition will change that. Maybe if it had been developed enough to not give me fucking bluescreens.
Part of my problem is that I realize it’s not an ideal genre to play in, and besides, everyone else who may be interested in this probably played it thirty years ago—it’s still a major source of nostalgia, and I’d wager most gamers into more trad fantasy have already played this. Plus, OSR just doesn’t interest me—I’d rather run a stripped-down version of FATE, or perhaps (glorious day!) take The One Ring for a test drive, considering Mirkwood matches my ideal points-of-light setting pretty damn well. (Plus its rules are kinda hot.) For the most part it’ll remain on my back-burner until I find the time and interest for it.
I’ve been reading a lot more older D&D books for some reason; most of the findings aren’t unexpected: adversarial GMing, emphasis of the dungeon as the primary campaigning grounds, random charts, and other joys of the Old School Revival. There’s been a few gems. Mostly it’s interesting to see how the game developed—I’m probably behind the curve here, since everyone else was doing that back in 2008, when 4e launched and Gygax/Arneson died, but the Next playtest triggered D&D nostalgia in me. Anyways.
Skimming through my 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual, I find I can lump its contents into three rough groups:
- Mundane creautres: boring crap like mules and giant beavers, dinosaurs, megafauna (e.g., non-dinosaur extinct creatures, like saber-tooth tigers and giant sloths), etc. Regardless of their impressive cultures and tendency to stockpile trade valuables, Dire Lynxes and Giant Beavers are still mundane.
- Traditional fantasy staples: demons, genies, faeries, creatures from ancient myth (medusa, hydra), dragons, etc. Things that were taken directly from mythology,
- FUCKING WEIRD SHIT.
By the latter, I mean the nonsensical creations made especially for D&D. I’ve always liked these more than the others because they’re so out there, and even though you can tell they were made either a.) because it sounded cool or b.) to do something related to the “game” aspect of roleplaying games, that weirder stuff feels the more D&D than the dragons and demons and other basic critters. At the least, they’ve been such a big part of the game’s history because they were made for the game.
Some examples of what I’m thinking of when I say FUCKING WEIRD after the break:
Skill challenges are important because they’re the first mechanic D&D’s offered for long, non-combat challenges for the entire party. More of a framework and less a “mechanic” in the way “base attack bonus” or “saving throws” are a mechanic, but a mechanic nonetheless. They’re an integral part of 4e D&D, a major revolution in D&D games theory and mechanical interaction, they’ve always fascinated me with their potential and concept, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by attempts to blur the line between mechanics and “narrative” (in general, the non-mechanical happenings in the game—fluff, roleplaying, world-building, wandering around, setting, adventure goals, motivations, plot, etc.).
For a skill challenge example, I’ll use the first one in the Dark Sun campaign guide; it’s simple, streamlined, and well-described. The party want to find a secret alliance—a group that protects Preserver magicians, who are the guys who use magic that doesn’t corrupt the world—wherein they must undergo a skill challenge to join up. The challenge is divided into two parts: first, finding the alliance (Arcane/Streetwise with a secondary of Insight), and after two successes, they have to prove that they’re worth keeping around (Arcane, Diplomacy, Bluff to lie, or spend a Power to show you’re serious, with Insight as a secondary). In a nutshell, the “skill challenge” mechanic is using the provided skills (or ones the GM considers acceptable replacements) to succeed at checks; the party needs to make 8 successful checks before getting 3 failures, at which point they’re now in the secret club. Straightforward, right?
Now, that I’ve pointed out that I like the concept, and provided an example of how they work, here’s why I hate them. [Long-ass, double-size Super Special post; more after the break.]
I must have missed it, but back in December, in the days leading up to Next’s announcement, there were a string of articles on The Escapist about D&D’s present and future. While it had a clear bias—the author worked on his own retroclone—it did have some interesting things to say about the game’s focus, the important part (for this post at least) is below:
“I have a theory about RPGs,” Mearls said. “When 2nd edition really got focused on story [in 1989], we had what I call the first era of RPG decadence and it was based on story. The idea that the DM is going to tell you a story, and you go from point A to point B to point C. The narrative is linear and [the DM is a] storyteller going to tell you a static story, and you would just get to roll dice occasionally. 3rd edition came out and said ‘To Hell with that,’ it’s all about players, we’re going to give you some really cool options, it’s all flexibility in the DM and for the players, there’s this meaningful choice.
“I think we’ve hit the second era of RPG decadence, and it’s gone the opposite way,” he continued. “It’s all about player power now – the DM is just the rules guy – and the DM can’t contradict what the players say. [The game] is taking away from the DM, and that’s where I worry because other types of games can do that better. I might as well play a board game, ’cause I’m just here enforcing the rules. Without the DM as the creative guy, what’s the point?”
Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game. “We’ve lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG,” he said, admitting that in trying to please gamers with a limited imagination, 4th edition might have punished those with an active one. “There’s this fear of the bad gaming group, where the game is so good that even playing with a bad gaming group, you’ll still have fun.”
That reflects what I’ve been thinking for a while now; I’ve mentioned it in several posts. The evolution of D&D is a fascinating thing to track, with its ebbs and flows. But in a general sense, it’s moving the game away from DMs and more towards players, in a very strange and roundabout way.
The switch from DM to player was less about how the old games functioned, but more about how they functioned compared to the new ones. (Sure, it took a while to get away from the “The DM is running his story, and you’re all along for the ride” nonsense, but it wasn’t always there to begin with.) 3rd Edition shook up the way people played D&D by giving a wealth of character options: yes, the plot and setting and DM-based stuff is still relevant, but in 3.x and 4th, the character options take precedence in player planning. Back when I played 2e, the character was considered pretty static: your THAC0 would go down, your HP would go up, casters would get more spells, and that was the end of it.
In post-AD&D, the character is in a constant state of flux: leveling opens up options and new routes to take, more feats or powers or abilities. 3.x supplements were often billed by how many feats, prestige classes, and spells they contained—look at the Forgotten Realms back covers; it’s like they had some internal metric to gauge the minimum accepted number of player options. Instead of minor stat accretion, levels changed your character more dramatically, opening new possibilities. You started to look forward to level 4 when you got another feat, or level X when you got that class ability.
This deluge of options means that planning your character’s mechanical route ahead of time is encouraged, to get the specific build you want as you progress down the dungeon corridors. And when some choices are clearly superior to others, it began to defeat the point of offering a huge variety: why take feats designed as new player traps (Toughness, the +2 to two skills feats) when you could take Greenbound Summoning or Vow of Poverty?
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really; D&D has always been more of a tactical combat simulator with parts attached than a true “roleplaying” game, and giving players more opportunities to build something cool is just a logical extension. (Are D&D games more than combat? Yes, much more, but its wargame roots are clear when you compare it to other styles of RPGs.) As a player, that’s a big draw of recent D&D editions—when you want that style of tactical/mechanical construction, D&D scratches that itch. RPGs have always had a “build-a-character” angle, and 3.x opened that up in a big new way for D&D.
On the other hand, it does have its flaws. Naysayers have been claiming since 1999 that the new editions stifle creativity and reward manipulating the mechanics over imagination. Where older edition were vague about how things worked in-game, newer editions have spelled out precisely what characters can do with their abilities; part of why OSR gaming takes umbrage at new D&D design is that it sees this as a restriction of freedom. Not entirely true, I’d argue—it’s assuming that a different approach and mindset will dumb players down and kill imagination, because it’s new and it has more mechanics to emphasize.
But as a GM, it irks me to get players expecting a game that’s boiled down to nothing but its mechanical/combat core, existing in a void of grids, miniatures, and the fluctuating modifiers of character optimization. There’s a mentality where the GM is only necessary to move the enemies around, since the game has clearly structured rules that everyone can learn its rules, and it gets to the point where the GM contradicting the rules (for balance, story, logic reasons) is the bad guy for impeding players’ progress.
And as much as I like character-building, it’s also a turn-off for me; my eternal love-hate relationship with the game. I like options, but I also like wide open creativity and freedom that allows the abstract. When you think about awesome moments in RPGs, usually what comes up are story- or character-based; you don’t remember that one time you rolled a die or used a game mechanic, you remember the situation that caused that one die roll or mechanic to be significant. Games need mechanics, but I don’t think they should be the end-all, be-all.
It helps explain my knee-jerk reaction about 4th Edition: 4e emphasizes things that were never my favorite part of D&D, the things that I never liked about 3.x, namely emphasizing tactical over strategic/cinematic, and the push for player-centric metrics. (Ironic, since my current ideal game is FATE, which gives players more freedom to manipulate the game—which consists near-entirely of mechanics—than in all editions of D&D combined, albeit in a circular, abstract way.)
I’ve always been a bit tired of the “traditional” western fantasy world. Maybe it was done 7th Sea style, like Pathfinder’s Golarion, where different eras of our history become fantasized elements that exist simultaneously. Maybe big, top-heavy, setting-based designs, like the Forgotten Realms’ Faerun, or Middle Earth: places with long-established and detailed histories. The thing defining “fantasy” today are the tropes that defy time, tide, edition, and system: you know, elves, dwarves, orcs, an entire world of Medieval Europe, the whole euro-centric knights and dragons schtick.
My problem is less with the individual pieces and more with games continually using this hodge-podge as a crutch, like it’s the only option for “fantasy” settings, be it film, book, or roleplaying game. (Well, I guess there are other options, but they fall into “Grimdark Fantasy”—Warhammer—or “Urban Supernatural Fantasy”—Vampire, Dresden Files—that also feel a bit overused and done to death.) I don’t mind western fantasy as a whole; I’ve always wanted to run/play an old-school Points of Light campaign, ala AD&D/Judges Guild, probably because I missed out on that and started with Dark Sun and Eberron. But that’s already been done to death; if I wanted to run that, I’d make something out of my assumptions of the setting and the dozens of books made back in the day. We don’t need yet another Faerun, Middle Earth, Greyhawk, or Hyperborea when we already have five each of those.
Anyways. Let me use Legends of Anglerre as an example, because while I like the game, I think someone should pick on it from time to time given some of its minor flaws. It’s FATE-based, so very open and flexible, and made by Cubicle 7, so it’s a giant, glorified toolkit. Unlike their space opera game, Starblazer, Anglerre has a pair of settings contained in the rules. And they’re both painfully traditional. Anglerre is a cross between the sword and sorcery of ’80s barbarian movies with a lot of Moorcock-style elements (Elric, Hawkmoon), and a dab of traditional Tolkien/Forgotten Realms high fantasy. The other, The Hither Kingdoms, is very traditional high fantasy, straight out of Tolkien and Lewis. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both very well done, very interesting settings. But I’m bored with all the elves and goblins; I want something that doesn’t immediately jump to mind when you say fantasy—I want something fantastic.
My problem is that given FATE’s incredible flexibility, I’m not sure seeing them build two very staple settings does much to showcase the versatility of the system. I’d rather have seen a third setting, or—and nothing against the writers—a replacement for The Hither Kingdoms. (On the scale of “FANTASY,” Hither Kingdoms are not that far away from Anglerre. It isn’t run by psionic hairless cat people with crystalline mecha or whatev.) Something totally out there. Maybe it doesn’t have to be weird, bust just has to be unique. I consider Dark Sun and Eberron to be brilliant settings, some of the best for D&D, for new and innovative spins on the post-apocalyptic fantasy genre and high-magitech pulp dungeonpunk respectively.
I’m thinking, something like:
- For Anglerre in specific, I could see going balls-crazy just to try and utilize FATE all the more. Imagine piloting your John Carter-style dragonfly flier across crystal forests infested with arachnid monsters, to help the god-kings of old fight back the Titan legions of the Adversary, on the banks of the sentient river Scamander? Go weirder. That’s only scratching the surface. Limitless potential in the fantasy genre, and for a system that can handle the far-end extremes, I’m a bit sad it steered so close to what’s gone before.
- How about… a world of insect-themed humanoids. Give each a power (stunt/aspect) related to their insect progenitors: beetle-kinden are sturdy and work well with mechanical objects, the ant-kinden are great fighters who work with a hive-mind, the mantis-kinden are deadly in single combat, the wasp-kinden can produce a deadly magical “sting,” etc. Also, divide them up between the “apt” (those who can make/use technological devices—beetles, ants) and the “in-apt” (those with a stronger tie to traditional mysticism/magic—everyone else), where the wasp-kinden straddle the line. Add a very lush pseudo-steampunk, pseudo-pulp setting, with the tyrannical wasp-kinden conquering the rest of the world. (This would be the Shadows of the Apt, Empire in Black and Gold setting, which I loved… much more than the prose of the novel, which drove me up a wall.)
- Why doesn’t anyone use early Frontier Americana as a setting? Like, pre-revolutionary North America, maybe Seven Years’ War era. It’d make a fantastic Points of Light setting: small, simple communities nestled amongst the pines, beating back savage warriors and unspeakable monstrous horrors. What few urban centers are few and far between, and are themselves reliant on other cities to survive—and their parent country is fighting a war with the people who are colonizing far to your north and south. That doesn’t even include dealing with ankhegs burrowing up through your amber fields of grain. I guess part of the problem would be making the “savage” natives in a respectful manner. But just thinking about it makes me want to run it. And elements have drifted in to other games—the Croatan Song sourcebook for old Werewolf; Andoran in Pathfinder… just not a full setting.
- Speaking of dropping existing history into a fantasy game—or visa versa—what about 1806? Dude makes a compelling case, I have to say; I’m not that into Napoleonic stuff, but I’d learn lots about it just to run it as a fantasy setting.
Or go with non-traditional settings that have already, also, been done several times, but which haven’t been trampled into the ground.
- Everyone loves a Hollow Earth, right? All it has to have is dinosaurs and morlocks and bam, however else you alter it, it will be a Hollow Earth setting.
- A planet that’s all one thing, for a metaplot reason. A planet that’s all desert; that’s all snow; that’s all water.
- Do something else weird with the planet. Maybe it’s tidally locked, so it has a light side and dark side, and a single belt where life can thrive—the incredibly slow rotation leaves dozens of cities abandoned by the ages, just a few miles on either side of the life-belt, so risking the chilling cold—or burning heat—could be the cost of diving these centuries-old ruins.
- Make the planet’s temperatures spike, forcing everyone to migrate underground. Global Warming meets Ultima Underworld.
- Make its rotation so slow that a single year takes centuries, wherein the change of seasons sees new life-forms develop (cough Heliconia cough).
- Make the entire planet one big city—not so much Coruscant as much as Ravnica.
- Blow the planet up, then make it better; make it occupied by aliens or Mythos monsters from beyond the realms of sleep and sanity.
But please, whatever you do, take me away from the knights and hobbits.
Traditionally, RPGs follow a very binary success/failure ratio. When you roll high—or low, in a few crazy games like GURPS and Alternity—you succeed; perform the opposite, and you fail. In D&D, success means killing the dragon, while failure means it killed you. While you can find a third route out—flee the dragon, barter with the dragon, subvert the binary pass/fail by co-opting a league of dragons to fight against the specific dragon you’re trying to kill—most often, the game pushes the pass/fail goals as the primary route.
Granted, you might have to take many recurring steps to get there, but in the end, enough successes equal a pass. Meanwhile, all it takes is one failure more often than not, and bam, you’re gone: one failed Climb check, one failed Save Against Death Magic, one failed Reflex save against a ray of disintegration. That’s the entire reason for the rebellion against save-or-suck spells that dominated 3rd Ed D&D (and ICONS for some strange reason), but I think the results (4e and its anti-save-or-suck balancing, for example) are just patching the problem instead of finding a solution.
An example from my recent dead Pathfinder game. When the group was “ambushed” by pterodactyls while crossing a rope bridge looming hundreds of feet over crocagator-infested rapids, one of the players tried to go all cinematic and grapple one of the dinosaurs into submission. He jumped up and grabbed a pterodactyl with a decent success (27 is, for most things in d20, a damn decent success). When he tried to get a better grip, to control this thing to go after the other ‘dactyls, he rolled a nat one. And when that happens, there’s no real way to prevent extreme, gripping failure, even with the “That’s Fucking Cool” bonuses I’d factored for him: he fell off and went plummeting into the rapids, barely surviving the crocagator attack.
Yeah, I could have swung something to keep the character on the dinosaur. Given a few seconds I probably would have come up with something. But before I even knew what he rolled, he’d decided his character had plummeted into the rapids—the pass/fail mentality is hard-coded into D&D and its mindset, since it’s a big part of the Rules As Written. It’s something I’ve seen come up time and time again.
In, say, Exalted, the player would have received bonuses to make the attempt, and wouldn’t have gone for the binary pass/fail but a degree of success—rolling a pool of dice, where 7s and up count as successes, compared to the basic D&D difficulty class, which you must beat in order to survive. And, granted, he still could have botched and fell off in Exalted—which would require him to roll zero successes and at least one 1 on the dice, which is harder than you’d think in the recent White Wolf systems.
More modern games have introduced degrees of success, such as the Exalted example above—there’s a “bare minimum” success threshold, and everything over that increases the attempt’s effects (e.g., hitting with a melee weapon and passing the required threshold = more damage). Rather than pass/fail, it’s more of a question of “how well did you succeed?” Making failure all the more interesting.
In a cinematic game like Exalted or 7th Sea, it’s also easy for the GM to justify lowballing a pass to keep a favorite character alive—you can still succeed when you rolled under the target number, but the success might not be pretty, or go horribly awry. In the above attempt, maybe the character got their foot caught in a rope tied to the pterodactyl, so while he’s not falling into the rapids, he’s being dragged through the air twenty feet behind an angry ‘dactyl. (Okay, damn, that would make a fantastic cinematic sequence, crawling up the rope to regain control of this impromptu mount.)
Lately, there’s been a rash of games which rethinks the traditional pass/fail mentality. FATE, for example. One of the big elements that turns up in different FATE games is altering the scenery or situation. A success doesn’t always have to be killing the orc; it might involve spending some player currency to alter the situation—set the room on fire, find a lockpick hidden in your boot when you need to get out of a burning room. Even moreso: instead of “succeeding” to find a hidden door, you can spend character currency, and bam, you’ve just found a hidden door. Was it there earlier? Who knows. As long as the GM allows it—and unless they’re bad at thinking on their feet, or the players are dicking with them—there’s no big reason to deny it.
Similarly, player-derived failure. In FATE, players have the option to “fail”—rather, be compelled to take immediate minor setbacks (or major complications) related to their character in return for ingame currency, and the hope/option to succeed, or succeed better, at a later point. In a sense, it’s picking and choosing your battles—losing something now for the options to excel later, when you want/need to.
It’s another form of thinking that I’ve noticed takes some getting used to. Heck, coming from the D&D mentality, I’ve noticed the majority of new Exalted players don’t want to “stunt”—perform cinematic high-risk, high-reward actions for free bonuses—for fear of failure. Or, when they do, they don’t know what makes things cinematic. Altering the game via narrative control in FATE is even more extreme, an entire new way of thinking about handling situations: you don’t have to just find the secret door, you can create one on a metagame level. And the failure thing is another leap of logic—nobody wants a complicated situation or ongoing failures, yet those are what make sessions, games, campaigns memorable: the successes that come after overcoming obstacles, the humorous Rube-Goldberg-Meets-Benny-Hill situations you find yourself in.
That narrative control was one of the turn-offs for me at first, but after playing for a while, I realized it fit my ad-hoc style of generalized planning better, since the players would feed me plots, routes, and situations to put them in, free of charge. It’s not so much a good thing or a bad thing as much it is a different way of approaching problems. And looking at how different game systems approach problems, complexities, conflict, and the like gives the GM more ideas and tools to use in their own game of choice.
Why, the best number of randomly encountered monsters there is… is 101-500. As in, one-hundred-and-one through five-hundred gibberlings. I’m not even sure what the GM is supposed to roll for that many monsters… 1d100 + (1d4 x 100)? It’s the sheer ludicrous nature of the numbers that get to me, humor found in the seriousness of such an illogical idea.
Let’s roll back a step. This….
…is a gibberling. Technically plural, gibberlings, since there’s like thirty of them; so sue me. As you can sort-of tell from the picture, it’s one of many species of bipedal humanoid thugs that exist in D&D worlds for adventurers to hit until gold falls out. Kind of like giant, evil, people-shaped pinatas. Gibberlings are one of several niche bipedal humanoid thugs, like Xvarts and Crabmen, in that they’re both low-level and seldom used.
See, they’re evil bipedal subterranean monkeys, so you’re not going to run into them that often, by virtue that they’re only a threat to starting level adventurers who decide to head into the most dangerous place on earth. (A realm populated by Grimlocks, which are Morlocks, and the more-popular Subterranean Evil Humanoids who are mirror-images of their surface cousins: evil dwarves who can turn really, really big; evil mafia elves.) Also, because there are much more interesting evil subterranean humanoid thugs to run into than subversive monkeys, like the aforementioned evil mafia elves, or the various giant bugs with jagged hook-hands or shiny tough carapaces.
What we have here is a case of Gygaxian Naturalism; the attempt to create a viable ecological niche for fantasy world monsters—in essence, to paint a picture of a realistic, living world, where things exist for more than just game reasons—regardless of the fallacy of it all. Which brings us to the magic number, 101-500: yes, when diving into a cave to look for scrolls and magic gems, you and your tomb-looting compatriots face the possibility of running into hundreds upon hundreds of evil, subterranean monkeys.
What the game is saying is that these things can live in warren-like communities, deep underground, which are quite sizable; the 101-500 falls under the term “wave” (which is bigger than the more reasonable 20-100 horde—what the hell do you roll for that, 20d5?), making me think that “waves” represent militarized gibberlings used as fodder by the evil expanding dwarves and evil mafia elves. But let’s look at this from a realistic point of view:
- First off, they’re a Challenge Rating 1/3; three of them will be an average threat to a party of four fresh-off-the-boat dungeon delvers, while six would be oppressive odds the plucky heroes might not overcome. In other words, around 75% of the time they’ll be a pushover challenge, save for the occasional good roll, or use of tactics a creature with Intelligence 5/Wisdom 7 shouldn’t know.
- Next, after slaying the first sixty of these, the players will inevitably gain some more character levels and see their abilities increase; thanks to D&D’s odd balancing structure, 2nd-level characters will slice through these things like butter, unless they’re threatened by dozens at a time and whittled down by lucky gibberling critical hits.
- As a related note to the above, there’s no way to increase the potency of a gibberling. These things are dumber than cavemen, so they can’t do what Orcs, Lizardfolk, even Goblins can do: the GM can give those races class levels, both to represent deadlier threats, and to keep them on-par with the characters. Gibberlings are stupid bestial monsters, with no way of advancement, so they’ll always be the same weak, 6-hp, starting-level monster depicted in the book… barring GM fiat (giving them class levels anyways, even though it doesn’t make sense, or giving them Templates to buff up their stats).
- But wait! The GM has rolled 500 of these damn things, and you can’t walk away from this hive of villainy—at least, until the treasure’s been found—so you’re stuck grinding out creatures which are almost a passable threat at first, then a pushover the further you progress into their ranks. They’re not a threat except in droves, or if they attack you while recuperating or whatnot. There are plenty of options, I’ll grant, but… they’re low-intelligence sub-humans.
- Lastly: who the hell wants to sit around and fight up to five-hundred of the same, basic, starter-level monkey thugs? Aren’t there more interesting things for your characters to do? Loot long-lost temples Indiana Jones-style; start a political intrigue and instigate civil war; join the army and fight waves of Karnathi undead; corner the markets on sheep farming and take down the corrupt fleece merchants tyrannizing honest and hard-working shepherds o’er the countryside…
My point being the sheer logistical headaches and infeasibility makes me wonder why they bother to include these kinds of values in the books. With many humanoids, I can understand the horde/wave theory; Red Hand of Doom was a fantastic one-book campaign, with mid-level players struggling to rally the land and use guerrilla tactics to whittle down an army of thousands of leveled Orcs ready to steamroll the planet. But with static monsters like gibberlings, there’s no point—or incentive, for either players or GMs, unless they love pointlessly one-sided combats—since they have a dwindling degree of challenge, offer marginal rewards (both tactically and in treasure), and killing hundreds of these things would take forever. Like, months, unless the GM rolled low, or you play really long and really often.
Roughly the same amount of time you could use to run… I don’t know, Red Hand of Doom?
Again with the new 5th Edition of D&D, D&D Next. (I’m pretty sure it’s more like 8th Edition, if you count all the forms of Original/Basic, and 3.5, but whatev.) Monte Cook’s been doing an interesting series on the countdown to 5th Edition in his Legends & Lore column; a pair of early design docs so far, reinforcing D&D Next’s stated goal of being the perfect edition for every D&D gamer. As always, they’re interesting, if just the tip of the iceberg—these are big topics that need more than the short blog columns on Wizards.
Needless to say, I like the ideas set forth in them—a modular approach would overcome most, if not all, the issues I brought up previously. Which would make the real challenge attracting all the former D&D gamers, OSR gamers, and Pathfinder gamers back to the original brand line before they get too entrenched in other systems. Also, with a modular approach, I can see some people joining games expecting to use Rules X-Z when the GM’s using Rules 1, 2, and 5. Making D&D everybody’s game might not kill off the edition wars entirely; they’d just turn into a Balkanized core product rather than hostile sub-groups.
Oddly, this reminds me of the ’90s—a lot of players hated the 2e AD&D changes, more in tone than of rules, and wandered off to buy Palladium, White Wolf, Deadlands, Star Wars d6, and others, and a large part of the 3.x build-up was scanning competitor products to make D&D the dominant brand again. I remember the statistics showing the 1999/2000 breakdown in gaming popularity; I just wish I could find them.
Of course, as much as I love those fantastic claims of Monte’s, I’ll believe them when they’ve had cold, hard, tangible implementations. Again, it reminds me of the glorious claims of 4th Edition’s electronic connectivity: e-books, e-tools, virtual tabletops, constant stream of real-time errata and updates and services. The e-books died pretty soon in the 4e run, and while the other e-tool packages are still around—D&D Insider, the monster builder, GM helpers—the much-vaunted virtual tabletop was horrid, obsolete compared to the VTs from a decade before, and the “constant stream of updates” turned into the Essentials line, itself a micro-edition war inside the macro-level one. With the switch to Kindles and Nooks, iTunes and Netfix, we’re seeing the growing trend of technical literacy and electronic connectivity come to the forefront; Wizards can’t afford to half-ass that branch again.
Anyways, at the very least, I’m intrigued by the concepts and am looking forward to seeing some direct implementation of them in the open-beta-like-thing. Also intriguing is the high vote percentage for story in games over simplicity (Savage Worlds) and simulation (Gygaxian Naturalism); it sounds like we’re leaning towards a 2nd Edition level of story and world-building with the tactical and character customization complexity of 3.5 and 4th. Which would certainly be interesting.
Time to get back to some long-overdue projects, starting with this one.
The big advantage of these crappy old miniatures is that they’re common and cheap. Mage Knight and Dreamblade in particular aren’t played often anymore, and the people who play them have by now consolidated the armies/builds they want. Plus, there’s a lot of chaff out there that isn’t necessarily good for the game, but which fit real well as RPG figures.
For acquisition, the methods are roughly the same if you’re looking for Mage Knight or Dreamblade. (These are probably the best two suited for RPG figures, though if you find a good deal on, say, Warcraft minis, or want to sift through the HeroClix box for the handful of non-capes which you could use—Hand Ninjas are a nice fit—well, it’s pretty similar as well.) Odds are, one of the gaming stores in your area might still have some booster boxes lying in the wholesale/bargain bin. If not, there’s always eBay; dropping $40-60 on a nice-sized lot of figures should get you a good cross-section.
Sculpt Anatomy: WizKids’ figures… tend to suck, really. A lot of them are cool, some are badass, and a chosen few are simply amazing. The Dungeons line, as I recall, had a lot of figures made from old Ral Partha molds, and the later lines had some choice figs for characters. But there’s a catch: those weren’t produced in the same number as the less-cool figures, and most of the good stuff has been bought, sold, and traded several times over. There’s a lot of gems out there, but be careful when buying: Mage Knight had a lot of production bloat for its first few sets, because it was expected to become the new Magic. And for about ten minutes, it almost did.
On the plus side, the good figures are great, and even the bad ones are interesting filler. There’s a lot of traditional fantasy characters in heavy plate with swords, riding horses, elves with bows, and all that. There’s also a lot of people with steampunk/magitech gear, blackpowder firearms, golems, strange macguffin devices, etc. If you’re anal about fantasy figures having fantasy gear that’s post-1300s… yeah, buy singles.
Also, most of the WizKids sculpts are for Mage Knight purposes only, and don’t match established game lines’ deceptions of things: its orcs, for example, are mondo-scale, and many will require large (40mm) bases. Humans and elves are often a bit tall, others are too short, and there’s a lack of gnomes/halflings in the sets.
There’s also some 3,000 figures in the line, but since WizKids populated its sets with REVs—rookie, elite, and veteran versions, the same sculpt but with different click-dial stats and a single different color—that could be highly inflated. Also, to get all 3,000, you’d end up with more crap common duplicates than you’ll know what to do with. I know I certainly don’t need fifty-plus troll archers, since they look like wooden demons and require expensive 40mm bases, but I have them just the same. (Though, having duplicates is nice when they’re broken, break, or whatnot.)
Construction/Debasing: WizKids’ figures are hard plastic glued to a hard-plastic clicky base. Which can be problematic: DDM figures bend, WizKids figures break. (I realize now I forgot to mention superglue on the list of tools from the last post; ah well.)
On the bright side, this makes it very, very easy to separate them… once you know what you’re doing. Aim for more prying and less cutting—if you’re cutting, more than likely you’re damaging the figure’s foot. Instead, try to work your blade under any overhanging bits and chisel inward, pivoting the blade up and down gently as you go. The goal is to separate the plastic bits from each other, and in most cases, the glue erodes enough to assist you here.
If you’re doing it right, you’ll see mostly black plastic on the click base; best result, you’ll see the original guide marks on the figure’s feet. If you’re seeing white or green, you might be cutting too much, and if it’s jagged, you’ve cut the figure and not the glue. It’s better to cut down into the base and trim off the excess than it is to give your figures unlevel feet.
Be very careful with dainty-footed figures; you’ll probably lose several limbs, feet, and toes before you’re done. Don’t put too much pressure on the figure, or it’ll snap; do the legs one at a time, and be as gentle as possible, and things will work out on most of them. And expect some figures to be a pain in the ass: for several, it’d take me about three seconds to pop one foot off the base, and half an hour to get the other leg free. (This would be after a string of figures that fell off in my hands, even before I brought the knife to bear.) At this point, I can pop a figure off its base in under thirty seconds, unless it’s held on with remnants of the ur-glue used to hold shut the gates of oblivion: it’s more about gently prying the plastic apart than it is cutting.
Also, I’ve seen people talk about putting them in the freezer for a few hours before debasing them; I’ve tried it, and it works very well, particularly with large minis that have large bases held on with gallons of glue. I’d recommend starting off with the whole “freezing” thing, since it makes the glue even more brittle.
Sculpt Anatomy: Dreamblade was the follow-up to Hecatomb, the awesome card game that used pentagon-shaped plastic cards, and was vaguely Magic-influence. It takes place in a mental mindscape where two players summon forth a variety of end-time monsters, nightmares, and mutations. Needless to say, there’s a lot—A LOT—that won’t work. There’s a giant shark fin, and a humanoid mass of arms holding various weapons, and a lot of strange technological… things, and a ton of bad puns: a bipedal flame “fireman” in helmet and bunker gear, a literal interpretation of American Gothic (the pitchfork-wielding man has horns and a tail).
Also: most of them are huge. As in, large. Granted, a number will fit fine on standard 25mm bases, but even then they’re too tall, too bulky, too husky, or reach out far past the base’s edge. And much like with the Mage Knight minis, figures that fit perfectly on their proprietary game’s bases don’t transfer to 25mm medium bases, instead requiring 40mm large ones.
So, there’s plenty that won’t work; I think I got a dozen boosters and have maybe a dozen figures I can use. The ones I can, though, are prefect for many kinds of extra-dimensional, extra-planar, and Lovecraftian horrors… plus steampunk monstrosities, and a few “that looks cool and could have a monster built around it” figures. The ones that work are evocative and unique; a lot of it is unusable crap, though there were a good number of figures, and some stunning high-end ones: the dragons/drakes and angels go for a pretty penny, but they’re worth it.
Construction/Debasing: Wizards’ built these as soft plastic figures molded with a soft plastic base, which was then inserted into a hard plastic base. Don’t bother trying to separate the two bases; I pulled one that was already half off its base, and it took me a half hour working with knife and screwdriver to pop it out… whereupon I found they’re held in with glue, attaching four L-shaped lines into similar-shaped grooves, and a circular peg into an octagonal hole. Don’t try it; it’s not worth the time.
I’ve found it’s easiest to just take a normal exacto-knife blade, run it flat along the bases, and just slice right through the bottom of the figure’s feet. That plastic is very soft, and the knife goes through them like butter… hence the cutting myself. Don’t bother freezing or anything, and don’t expect the hard plastic to cut with anything short of power-tools. The plastic is so soft, you’re biggest problem should be keeping the blade flat and parallel with the bases so you don’t pull up and remove some guy’s feet.
Also, big figures. On some of these, you just have to sigh and give up, understanding there’s no way on this earth that the figure will be removed from the base safely. At that point, get a Sharpie and color out anything on the hard plastic base. Bam, you’re done there; mission accomplished.
To be honest, the more I look at the figures, the more I’m starting to come up with interesting ideas… not just new monsters/races to fit the figures, but something I’ve been working with on the back-burner for a while now. If I only had the time for that—then again, I have nothing but time… something I’ll start working on soon enough.