Friday, 30 December 2011

The Meaningful Megadungeon

The original megadungeon, Greyhawk Castle, was devised for a rolling playgroup that met over many long evenings and weekends. Addicted to the thrill of a new style of gaming, that group could cover pages and pages of graph paper, forge characters in the heat of unforgiving death, and over years reach the highest levels and the lowest.

Today's gamers rarely have time for such foolishness. Jobs, kids, life in general keep us to one session a week if we're lucky, though more often expect twice a month.

Will your party explore the whole of whatever megadungeon you've created? Almost certainly not. But more important is the knowledge that they could go off in many different directions; that the whole living breathing potential sprawl of the place is there around them.



To achieve this feeling, and the feeling of meaningful exploration, the dungeon must be more than an infinitely repeating wallpaper of passages, rooms and random filler. Three desirable things:

1. The sub-areas of the dungeon must show differences in design (wide passages, narrow passages, orthogonal, diagonal, curved, irregular, etc.) and decoration.

2. The areas of the dungeon should relate a meaningful history for the players to discover. This can happen on a micro level - "this was once the kitchen of the Minotaur Lord but now it is the lab of a crazed alchemist" - and a macro level - evidence related to what the Minotaur Lord was doing, how he got on with the other power groups, what his place was in the rationale of the dungeon.

3. The areas of the dungeon should refer to each other, both in terms of architecture (a multiplicity of stairs, chutes, teleporters giving the sense of freedom of movement between safer and more dangerous places) and features ("this lever opens the portcullis on level 3"..."in this room is an ambassador from the troglodytes on level 4").

Now, life is short not just for players but GMs as well. The temptation is to make it up as one goes along, but this risks missing out on the epic sweep and overarching plan implied in criteria 2 and 3. Recently, JDJarvis over at Aeons and Auguries has suggested a modular, crowdsourced approach, in which people contribute individual sections but the exact geographical connection between them is up to the individual GM. I like this, because it takes a lot of the burden of effort from the individual GM while still allowing creative input and personalization. But question number 2 and 3 remain - how to convey an overarching theme and plot?

Next post I'll address this issue, explain why I can't stand geomorphs, and offer a better solution.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The 52 Pages (Well, 22 and Counting)

I don't know why people complain about there being no monsters in Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

They're all there. In the Open Game License, attributed to the Tome of Horrors. Probably thanks to this clause:

You must update the COPYRIGHT NOTICE portion of this License to include the exact text of the COPYRIGHT NOTICE of any Open Game Content You are copying, modifying or distributing...

Or maybe just excessive caution? Who knows.

But I'm not here to have any more arguments about this. No more unmannerly comments, please. And now please welcome the first installment of the "One Page" fantasy gaming system.

The quality of this product is such that it embodies every design decision that is objectively correct. You may think you preferred descending AC or the standard spell lists, but once you see this work shine forth with piercing beams of correctness, your worldview will certainly be dislodged, and you will acknowledge the One True Way.

After lo, these many years, and countless futile and abortive attempts, That Darn Roleplaying Game is finally fixed! Put down your house rules, ball up your supplements. The capstone has been lowered on an era.

(plus it's not a roleplaying game)

Ah, who am I fooling? I'll be happy if you steal a few ideas from here for your own game. That's why every rule is on its own page, and this will be clearer once the somewhat interlinked stuff surrounding character creation gives way to the systems of play. Just before the Open Game License (AIEEE!) there is a brief and functionally formatted guide to what is to come.

Download to the right.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

More on the OGL

Damn Blogger for not being a forum. Rather than bury my replies to yesterday's comments, I'll make them into a post.

Stuart:

If you were legal under copyright law, but they send you a C&D anyways then they could do the same under the OGL. You're just operating under contract law now instead of copyright law.

I'll take my chances with a tightly worded contract that they've provided an FAQ for, rather than the poorly understood murk of copyright law, especially across national boundaries (I'm a US citizen living in the UK), especially in the realm of games where very little precedent has been worked out.

Telecanter:

What words or concepts did you use that you feel put you at risk?

It's not any one or two or three, it's a complete game product that pretty much uses all of them, and that's all I was going to put under OGL. I'm not talking about trademark law here, of course, I'm talking about what would count as a "derivative work" (standard copyright law) rather than a "novel extension" (the Super Add-Ons precedent).

Cygnus:
 
This is a not-for-profit, non-commercial fan work that mentions some terms and concepts from D&D in ways that are believed to reside within the bounds of “fair use.”
 
Indeed, you do sign away your right to nominative use with the OGL. I can live with that; people are familiar with the coy work-arounds by now. But I'm not sure any statement can make a retro-clone or complete houseruled game into "fair use" (see here). At issue is whether the use of all the game terms from D&D together constitutes a particular expression of an idea even if the exact words to describe them are different.
 
ADDGrognard:
 
...either you create something completely original without a trace of SRD to it or you will be in violation of the OGL.
 
So you are saying that using the OGL for one work binds you to use it for all? Seems to me that if you don't accept the contract you take your chances with copyright law and the fair use doctrine. Based on precedent my impression is that an "add-on" that uses the terms from the game would fall under fair use but a derivative work that attempts to do exactly what the SRD is doing would not. Of course, if you do include the license then you have to make sure your use of the SRD is kosher.
 
This is the crucial issue for us all I think - to what extent the terms in the SRD are covered by copyright, as opposed to their precise expression as game system. If you rework the stats to give different effects, be generated differently (or at all - the SRD does not cover character creation, a gap that was put in there to cripple it as a complete RPG), but you use five out of the six names, would that be fair use or a derivative work? The Wizards FAQ refers to a stat block as one of the elements of the SRD: is it the concept of a stat block (I doubt it, too much prior art), a stat block with some of the terms but working completely differently, or a stat block with all the exact terms as laid out in the SRD?
 
Example: Game mechanics can't be copyrighted, but under the OGL you control it's fate. You have opted out of the standard copyright and secured the material inside a contract.
 
If you put those mechanics under Product Identity. And you have only secured them to the extent that other people use that contract.

Under the OGL you can lock it down under Product Identity and if someone uses the material then they can be sued due to license violation.

Even if they never signed up to the OGL? I don't think that solves the problem.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Considering the OGL

The flurry of questions about my decision to put the One Page system under the Open Game License spurred me to do even more reading and research on this topic. One of the most useful resources I ran into, among a lot of ill-informed posturing, was this post and its predecessors, from someone who knows what he is talking about and has a good discrimination among sources.

Hasbro's OGL headache?
There's a big difference between what actually is covered under copyright law and what can plausibly be taken to court by companies with deep pockets. The practice of copyright is more restrictive than the law allows, due to the intimidation factor. This is how "T$R" menaced companies like Judges' Guild and Mayfair, and smaller fry posting D&D-compatible materials on the Internet, back in the 80's and 90's. It's easy for lawyers to scare someone into taking down their adventure that uses "alignment" and "armor class" or their supplement that mentions "compatibility with D&D (tm)." Today it would be harder to actually defend those concepts as infringement in court, given that:

  • Short terms or phrases don't fall under copyright unless they are emblematic of the work in question (like "Play it again, Sam" for Casablanca).
  • Precedent supports the making of original "add-ons" and supplements for games without license.
  • References to trademarks are allowed under the doctrine of nominative use, provided there is no other commonly recognized way to refer to the trademarked thing, and there is no confusion as to the origin of the product.
  • Game mechanics may be subject to patent (as in Wizards' soon-to-expire patent on the concept of a collectible card game) but this is a separate issue.
Nonetheless, a legal injunction can really test the mettle of the small company or individual it's leveled at. Which makes the Open Gaming License so amazing. Ryan Dancey and Wizards gave any creator of works derivative of the D&D game an invulnerability potion versus legal menaces. The promise is that, as long as the strictures of the document are followed, even the most blatant retro-clones are freely licensed product. There is even a way to combine open and proprietary material with the "Product Identity" clauses. Not great from the viewpoints of open source crusaders, but good from a commercial viewpoint.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but every general is fighting the last war. The OGL was a silver bullet for two problems that had helped drag down TSR in the 1990's: commitment to producing a glut of official products, and bad publicity from infringement policing. In that light it was a brilliant single stroke combining PR and outsourcing.

But over ten years later, as the sales of the OGL product Pathfinder have outstripped those of the official D&D game, there must be bitter regrets indeed in Providence. Certainly, strong signals are being sent that the next Hasbro edition of D&D is going to go back to basics. If that's the case, it's likely that material being sold or given away that is currently not compatible with D&D 4th, but that sticks to the basic elements of D&D that have been very carefully maintained over otherwise seismic changes in the gameplay, will constitute more of a threat to their operations. In particular this would be true of complete games - "heartbreakers" - that let the players dispense with the core product that forms the mainstay of sales. It's also instructive that without exception, every commercial role-playing game that has been released as a clone or derivative of D&D, using that common language of stats and mechanics, has put itself under the OGL. This has decidedly not been the case with supplements.

Now, some people in the OSR (chiefly flagship captain Maliszewski) are extremely careful with their online content, to the point of putting every monster and spell idea under the OGL. My gamble is that this won't be strictly necessary. But something tells me that putting the core derivative work on this site - the One Page Rules modular D&D variant I have been using in games - under OGL rather than Creative Commons is a very good idea. There is enough of D&D's DNA in there that it seems both the prudent and correct thing to do.

That is my position anyway - certainly not legal advice of any qualified kind. If you think differently, won't you speak up in the comments?

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas World

Definitely not part of the normal encounter table series. But hey ... Merry Christmas!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Santicore is Coming ...

... and you're on his list.



(Or Sergeant D's, whatever.)

All punk rock nostalgia aside, there is a preview of the Secret Santicore project up and it is amazing - my request has been answered in spades by one of the best creators out there and will probably be a feature of my campaigns in 2012. Jez even included my castle map in the preview, though I wish I'd made the descriptions a little more fancy, but still, the presentation is outstanding. Also, full table of contents.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Abomination World

If Bosch, Cronenberg, Burroughs and Lovecraft collaborated on a theme park, it might look something like this.

One third of the way through!

Five and Dime Stores: Coin-Based Houses

Going on an even deeper level than the previous two installments, once you know the general character of a street area, you can use coins to create a scene for encounters or exploration. The random facing of the coins thrown down create a twisty little street that may branch and fork, as the characters enter from the larger thoroughfare.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Apple of Eve

Now how great a relic would that be? A pity these historical spoilsport Scooby Doo mask-rippers have revealed it was just a lumpy lemon stolen from a synagogue in the times of King Henry III. But we can do better.

The Branches of Modesty, lost forever, alas.
The Apple of Eve

This fruit is not actually an apple, nor fig, pomegranate, citron or any other known fruit. It is a green sphere with golden streaks about the size of a large grapefruit, perfectly preserved since time immemorial. The two bites in it, one on each side, reveal a pearlescent white flesh that shimmers with the promise of the knowledge of good and evil.

Any who take a blasphemous third bite of the apple will surpass their ancestral parents' moral insight. Beyond knowledge of their own good and evil nature, they now are granted the ability to see good and evil in others. They can concentrate to get an idea of the good or evil motives of another person within 10' of them.

Of course, for such a campaign-breaking power there must be a disadvantage, right? Some possibilities ...

1. Roll the character's Wisdom each time. If failed, the character sees only potential for good and evil, not actual good or evil motives, without knowing it. This can lead to false accusations or unfounded trust.

2. Each time the power is used, a stalking angel with a flaming sword gets 500 feet closer to the character. When the angel makes contact, he banishes the character from this world, into a world of even lower promise.

3. The power also heightens the character's sense of his or her own sinfulness. Each blameworthy act he or she commits will force a save vs. spell (Will) or be driven to suicide.

4. After a certain number of uses, the character becomes "beyond good and evil" - losing the supernatural sensitivity and indeed all sensitivity to moral distinctions, amoral and possibly sociopathic. (All right, this is not recommended for players who would actually revel in this development, and by that I mean almost all of them.)

5. Save or die each time the power is used.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Penny Lane: Coin-Based Streets

The next step down from the district, in our coin-based city system, is the "street" - well, really, a 200 foot wide area that may contain one notable street and a number of side passages and alleys. The world of narrow streets is traversed by wider thoroughfares that connect the districts. One Page Streets lets you generate all of this with a handful of change (and you don't have to have 21 coins ... just recycle the ones that turn tails up).


This system also works for creating a full-sized town of 2000, or of fewer people with fewer hexes, as long as you use the district system to give it an overall character and main industry.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

We Built This City On Nickels and Dimes

The Babbling Bane took Talysman's system of city "quarters" literally and used a handful of random coins to improvise a village layout.

I think there is huge potential in this idea and have expanded it to this One Page supplement. Taking a different tack, I have gone on the highest "zoom-out" level to 1/5 mile hexes holding 2000 people each, based on my sources regarding population density. It's likely that a future supplement will cover what exactly can be found in each of those hexes using a similar method. What's more, I also see a need for a more fine-grained table covering exactly what each industry and trade might be. So keep an eye on this space...

Bearing in mind the international audience, I've made the coin specification as generic as possible. If you are in the euro-zone (touch wood) with 8 different denominations of coins, for example, you could put 1 cent and 5 cent in the lowest class, 10 and 20 in the next lowest, then 50 cent, then 1/2EUR.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Silhouette Mania Spreads

I thought I'd give back to the community in the spirit of the commendable Telecanter with these two silhouettes - a two-handed axe man I ginned up for my One Page rules, and a female fighter-type I thought filled a gap in the available selection. These are from public domain art and free for use under a Creative Commons license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/). Incidentally, the reason it's taking me so long to get the One Page starter pdf up is that I'm taking some good advice and switching it to OGL - it uses way too many terms from the SRD to risk any other way. And of course, that means retroactively re-licensing everything SRD-derivative I put up on this blog, but I think I have a form of words that will allow me to do that. 

Anyway ...



And presto ... he's a frost giant!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Horror World

Awoooo! Ow-ow-awooooooo!

Okay kiddies, tonight the Count has got something really scaaaary for you. Boo! Ahahahahah.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Green Slime Theme Song

Ladies and gentlemen ... Green slime has a theme song.


In this technicolor B-movie from 1968, there's apparent inspiration for not one, not two, but three old-school gaming classics.

Of course, the green slime.

But then, the slime creatures ... with their one eye and tentacles ... kind of resemble Ropers.

Otherworld Minis roper.

And finally, the plot of the film ... one-eyed green aliens grow from larval form in a station, are blasted with energy weapons which only make them grow and multiply, and eventually overrun the whole place ... is a very likely inspiration for the classic Tom Wham game from TSR (and later Steve Jackson), The Awful Green Things From Outer Space.


And the director? The underappreciated Kinji Fukusaku, better known for Battles Without Honor or Humanity, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Battle Royale.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Like A (Stumbling) Thief in the Dark

So this weekend I kicked off a new campaign using Matt Finch's Tomb of the Iron God as the starting adventure. Last year it was recommended to me and it definitely delivered on the old school funhouse-plus-meaningful exploration front. My players are fellow psychology students and researchers, seasoned online gamers all.

No wall sconces down here...
Because of the tactical mindset, one issue came up during play that I'd like some feedback on. My wife played a rogue character, as she'd been wanting to do ever since the RPG bug hit our household. But in practice, a rogue/thief/whatever under the Basic D&D or OD&D dispensation is very limited as a dungeon scout explorer. With race-as-class, a human thief can have no infravision, and sneaking around a dungeon with a shiny light is not very practical.

Of course, in race-plus-class systems like AD&D this is one big reason to take a nonhuman thief (plus all the racial skill bonuses) and in thiefless systems like true OD&D it's a non-issue.

So, have any players or DMs come up with creative solutions to let the thief-type take point in a dark, dark dungeon?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame: Survivals

Not only did the hex-and-counter game suffer a sharp decline in the 1980's, but the medium was not that well suited to depicting a fantasy epic. There's a limit to how much information a counter or map hex can hold, and most of these games creaked under the weight of a mass of special rules that had to be constantly looked up.

There is also a kind of first-kiss syndrome that paints a halo around these old games. I think a lot of the positive feelings old-schoolers associate with them are residue from anticipating how cool it might be to try them, as well as a much less critical outlook when actually played. Not by coincidence, gaming companies in the 70's and 80's also seemingly chose to produce games largely on how cool they sounded. They had a naive (by today's standards) outlook on usability, play balance, elegance, replay value, and other factors that have come to gamers' awareness in the Internet decades. Again and again in comments on BGG - and in some comments on previous posts here - we hear that the rules are incomplete and baffling, the gameplay either simplistic and obvious or swingy and random.


Friday, 9 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame Catalogue:1980-1991

As obscure as the counter-based epic fantasy games from the 70's are today, the ones I presented previously are actually the better-known of the lot. The list below from 1980 on is largely a product of Boardgamegeek (BGG) research; I only have definite memories of seeing Barbarian Kings, Valley of the Four Winds, and of course the late arrival Greyhawk Wars.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame Catalogue:1975-1979

All right folks. After a lot of jogging of the memory and a little trawling through Boardgamegeek, here is the first part of what I believe to be a complete catalogue of the epic fantasy counter-based board wargame genre, as defined in my previous post.

Photo by Ray on boardgamegeek

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame: Introduction

In the 1970's and early 1980's, the established hobby of board wargaming cross-fertilized with a wave of interest in fantasy literature and adventure. The result? A genre of game largely neglected in the ongoing old-school revival: the epic fantasy wargame.

Below I'll catalogue the central elements of this genre; the ones in bold I think are essential, the other just typical.

Photo by j.mccracken at boardgamegeek
Epic-scale map board. The map takes in kingdoms and even continents, on a grand-strategic scale. It depicts either an invented fantasy world; a fantasy world taken from fiction; or potentially, a real-world area given a fantasy treatment.

Hexagonal map grid. Although this was typical of games in that era, there were some games (like the Elric one, or Greyhawk Wars) that dispensed with this, using movement by areas instead. Arguably, you don't really need the kind of precise rendering of maneuvers and battlelines that hexagons give when gaming large-scale pre-conscription warfare, in which small armies cruised across a huge landscape without much operational subtlety, and clashed at designated battlefields.

Photo by Richard Maurer at boardgamegeek
Die-cut cardboard counters. Another standard feature defining the era's wargames. The success of Axis and Allies in the early 90's would create another related genre of game using plastic figures, but that belongs to a later time.

The counters represent armies as well as individuals ... Without the armies, it's not a wargame, but an adventure or quest game (as in Greg Stafford's King Arthur's Knights). Without the individuals, it's not epic - typically, one of these games would have rules for heroes leading armies, as well as going on quests, conducting diplomacy, and other things that armies can't accomplish.

.. and there is a lot of flavor and color through other means. Counters for monsters, artifacts, special locations; cards, tables, or numbered paragraphs representing events, nations to be won though diplomacy, relics ... all of these are very typical of the genre and helped give each game the special flavor of its world.

With all these elements, the play and objectives of one of these games were fairly similar to the historical equivalents. Armies fought by comparing strengths and a die roll on a chart, and the object of the game was to capture territory; or at least doing so won victory points. Less typical, though, was the "epic" layer in which heroes moved around the board attempting various things, gaining magic items and allies, which in turn could serve as an alternate victory condition or contribute to victory points.

In the next post I'll attempt a catalogue of these games, and ask for your help in identifying any I may have missed.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Filth World

Every city ... every hell ... every universe ... needs a sewer. Let the fastidious beware!

Part 10 in a series.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Dungeons and ... Darwin?

Evolutionary psychology meets the Monster Manual in a new book by Paul A. Trout, "Deadly Powers." According to the author's summary in an article for Salon, we can explain the most awesome and nearly universally imagined monster around, the dragon, as a confluence of biologically prepared fears of the three main hunters of our tree-dwelling primate ancestors: snakes, raptor birds, and feline predators. These have armed the dragon and kindred monsters - griffons, couatls, and kamadans (OK, not really kamadans) - with their wings, scales, and fangs.

Zak S's Kamadan could scare the pants off a loris.
I haven't read the book, but the author's comments led me to think some more about the evolutionary approach to psychology. I'm no stranger to this topic and I've found it useful in my own writings to think about how emotions serve useful functions for individuals and social groups.But there's a difference between my functional perspective, and the claim that a phenomenon is biologically prepared and inherited from a distant past. I make no claims about this genetic route of behavioral transmission because I don't study genes.

There are two problems with making inferences about the genes from animal behavior (some monkeys have distinct calls for all three predators) and present-day human behavior. Advocates of evolutionary psychology claim that their method is scientific; considering conditions in the ancestral environment of humanity, they  deduce what behaviors were adaptive then, and then test the hypothesis that those behaviors have survived in the modern day. But ...

1. Which ancestral environment are we talking about? The bird-snake-cat theory traces us back to small tree-dwelling creatures. Others refer to our time on the ancestral savannah. There may have been an aquatic period in there.

2. There is always an escape clause if we don't find that a behavior has survived from those times: it must have disappeared because it was no longer adaptive. In actual fact, what happens is psychologists find a phenomenon that exists in modern humans, and then try to explain it in terms of what might have been adaptive in one of those environments, or a similar behavior in an animal species. With this kind of hindsight bias, there are all kind of ways to stumble across a phenomenon that has a closer, better explanation in terms of cultural adaptation.

So take the prevalence of mythological monsters, with their snake-bird-cat aspect. The more straightforward answer is that lions, tigers and ocelots roamed over most of the planet's surface two thousand years ago, and they were scary. Birds and snakes possess magic and strange means of movement, so they naturally tend to have cultic significance even if they're not imagined as huge, and there are enough crocodiles in our African past to explain dragons more prosaically. Why propose special genetic baggage held over from tree-shrews, when cultural concerns are more flexible, also adapt to survival concerns, and explain differences as well as similarities in the world's myths?

A better candidate for a genetic adaptation is the way a few very specific small animals attract phobias - irrational mixtures of fear and disgust that serve as a footnote to the generally useful rule, "if it's bigger than you, run away." The most common targets of animal phobias are snakes and spiders, a tendency that occurs universally, and has obvious survival value in avoiding poison bites.

The fear-disgust mix also translates to "weird" or "horrifying" and explains why snakes and spiders, rather than birds or cats, are the mainstays (together with dead things and tentacles) of the weird fantasy genre. While the griffon can get a makeover as the most noble beast, there's always going to be something sinister about the giant flying snake.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A Quickstart Idea, and Troll in the Hole

Another Mad Archmage Saturday at the gaming society, augmented by three potential players for a new campaign, including my wife (why does she always roll up magic-users?) I wanted them to get used to the system and my GMing ways before committing to something lengthier.

With the mixture of new and returning players the pressure to streamline character generation was greater than before. Say what you will about pre-THACO systems where the GM controls the attack and saving matrices, running that way means that character generation is lightning fast, with only abilities, classes, spells and equipment to determine. I skipped the saving throw step in character generation, and indeed, none of the new characters needed to make a save. I think in future, I'll skip the determination of most of the secondary bonuses and stats until they're actually called for, bring character generation closer to 15 than 30 minutes.


Saturday, 3 December 2011

What Is This Thing That Is Not A Role-Playing Game?

And with the first page of the One Page series I bring the first book, covering character creation, to a close.

This is my simplest and most honest answer to the question in the page's title. People who already know what an RPG is - I mean really, is there anyone under 35 who hasn't grown up playing computer games? - will recognize the idea, but be enlightened by the face-to-face manner of execution. You will note that "role-playing," "story-telling," "personas" and the like are left behind with the excess baggage. And heretically, I address the question of winning. For this game eventually will come with training wheels, a model starter Generick Fantasye dungeon, village and town which the uncreative GM will learn from, and the creative GM will need no instruction to supersede.

The list of options in the lower right owes some debt to a number of posts over the past half year or so, in the Hack and Slash blog.


So ... any interest in a pdf of the intro and the whole character creation set so far?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Prophets, Not Clerics?

FrDave on Blood of Prokopius had an idea a while back that perfectly fits my search for an alternate term for an adventuring "cleric" or "priest." He suggests that a campaign might include miracle-working "prophets" in the Biblical sense of the word. I think this is a great idea not just for a specific campaign, but a general set of rules.

I think my dissatisfaction with "cleric" and "priest" is a widely shared sentiment. "Cleric" is one of those journalistic synonyms that has picked up unwanted associations. Some of those are with accountancy and others are with the standard, mace-packing, D&D class that has taken on a strange life of its own on the basis of game rules and historical misperceptions. Along with "priest," "cleric" doesn't convey enough of a sense of the strange and wondrous and miraculous. It implies that every village vicar comes equipped with healing miracles, and conversely, it implies that your adventuring holy person is akin to one of those cozy old souls, beholden to the church hierarchy, relaxing in the study with some port, available to do weddings and bar mitzvahs.

But none of the alternatives really work. "Saint" implies a very restrictive code of behavior, and anyway, players shouldn't be walking around canonized already. "Holy man" also implies you're sanctified, needs to be gender-switched for women, and comes across as bland and generic, like "magic-user."

Prophets, though, are not saints in the colloquial sense of the word. They're capable of summoning bears to maul some bullies, or marrying a prostitute to name the children as part of an extended metaphor. They are wanderers; without honor in their home town. I think they make a great model for adventurers.

So for me the question is how this model fits into my One Page rules for priests. Well, apart from "prophet" being longer on the page than "priest" (causing some grumbling), they should really have some way to prophesy shouldn't they? In One Page rules, priests get one "miracle" per day, plus an extra one if they make a Mind save. These miracles tend to be of a healing bent, but I'm finding the Priest class really strong in play because of their miraculous ability to bring someone back from a 0 HP or less major wound (that is, real physical damage rather than just hit points, in my system). So I'm considering replacing the Priest's progression of

Level 1: Heal major wound to 1 HP
Level 2: Make a second save against poison

(and maybe those two should be flipped around anyway?)

with

Level 1: Get indirect answer to yes/no question
Level 2: Heal major wound to 1 HP

and possibly other abilities at higher levels, to match the wide variety of miracles attributed to prophets in many religions.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Went to Dragonmeet

In which I:

* Played in an AD&D game in the morning, run by a fellow who had clearly put some 20 years of work into the background of his campaign, with great maps and handouts. The adventure was a kobold hunt. The final challenge was certainly among the weirdest, toughest, and old-schooliest way to get a handsome kobold skull. There was a bit of fudging and nudging to get there, but we had a great time. AD&D was not at all cumbersome in this DM's hands, with plenty of stat checks in lieu of complicated procedures.

* Had a few words with James Raggi at his booth, picked up Vornheim and the Purple Worm Graveyard. He's more laid-back in real life than he is on his blog ... but then again, aren't we all?

* Also picked up a book of adventures for the Dying Earth system, which I've always wanted to run a one-shot in.

* Met up with my friend from the L5R CCG scene, who is now a 4th edition D&D player, and we played in a Castles & Crusades session. The adventure was a fun expedition to investigate a malfunctioning lighthouse, if a little on the easy side. My friend and I found the C&C system to play really well, a mix of AD&D with 3rd edition logic. I don't personally use it because its character generation doesn't fit my tastes, but with pre-generated characters that flaw went unnoticed. Old school made another convert that day...

Dragonmeet is a nice one-day con with no possibility of the fatigue that haunts longer events. One thing I did notice was a definite lack of miniatures, on sale or in games. This is too bad, as I do like using figures, and wanted to pick up some, or at least get some paints from another supplier than the Evil Empire of Nottingham. But I had to admit that the games I played in ran fine without figures.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Going to Dragonmeet

I'll be at the Dragonmeet convention in London tomorrow. See here. I know James Raggi will be on hand and I'll be meeting a friend there who is curious about the old school.

If you'll be there as well this is what I look like:

A little squashed horizontally, not sure why

I haven't registered anything but I might be persuaded to do a pickup Mad Archmage run. I've figured I can bring some pre-made characters, a few tokens and figures, and we're set. Who knows, if Raggi loans me some character sheets I might even do it LotFP style.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Bag of Tricks On Abulafia

So, while other things have been taking up my attention this week, like the small matter of correcting proofs for my psychology book, I have managed to code up my Bag of Tricks table pdf (see link on right) in a much more useable, wiki-randomizer form using the redoubtable Abulafia site. Click here to use it.


It's nice to be able to design a table free of the constraints of dice and to use some of the other great tables for food, substances, colors, etc. on there. A sample of the results, which still may need some interpretation:

Tomb with hair which if turned gives a cursed magic item

If opened, the tomb is seen to contain a skeleton wearing a wig. The wig will fly up and attempt to attach itself to the head of the closest person (reflex/breath weapon save to avoid). It can be turned as a wraith, and if thise is successful the wig falls inert. In any case, if the wig is put on, it cannot be taken off without remove curse, and the wearer gains an 18 intelligence and wisdom but must save (will/spell) every hour or become possessed by the spirit of the dead person.

Painted designs with face which if gazed at heals one person (one time only)

These are murals of the goddess Egeria and her nymphs. The first person with 5 or more hit points damage to inspect Egeria closely will become entraced by her eyes and stand there for a full hour, no save. On awaking from the reverie the person will be healed for 1d6 damage for each level he or she has.


Altar with water which if a specific substance is mixed with it opens a passage


This is a baptismal font of the rite of Egeria, filled with pure water that drips into it from above. If it is defiled by any kind of rotten substance or bodily fluid, a yard-wide drain will open up in the font for one minute. It leads to the Chamber of Defilement below.

Painting with creature which if worn opens a passage

Uh, this one has got me stumped. That's OK, the generator spits out 20 ideas at a time.

Obviously there is some room for improvement, although complicated, it might be worthwhile to give each feature a chance to have multiple subfeatures, and each subfeature a chance to have multiple relevant actions. I also want to, with proper attribution, work in some of Kellri's special trick effects from the Encounter Reference document, and otherwise make some of the entries more specific.

Have fun using this!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Equipment and Weapon Cards - System-Free

I realized yesterday that it might be more useful if I left off all the One Page prices, weights, and rules assumptions from these cards, so that you can put on them whatever's appropriate in your rules system and campaign.

The weapon kits, of course, can't be system neutral entirely. For example, the "civilian" kit for wizards has a crossbow, the "rogue" kit for thieves has a bow and arrows, choices not supported by AD&D. I also included the mace in the "cleric" kit but some DMs may allow religion-specific weapons. You may want to substitute appropriate weapons (darts, sling) or just say that the weapon is for hirelings or other party members to use.

Hope these are useful!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Starting Equipment Kit Cards

In my last few runs of the One Page system, I could feel time dragging as players (some completely inexperienced, some very savvy) waded through the equipment list to select stuff. I want to get it down to 15 minutes or so. Sure, I could use pre-gens, but part of the reason to have super-simple character options is to give the experience of rolling up a character.

This is just the six standard packages of adventuring gear I let characters start with for free, in card format.  I see this as making set-up much quicker. The cards make it obvious that the job is to distribute all the standard adventuring gear and backups among the party.

Weapons, etc. coming up next.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Why Does A Dungeon Look Like A Dungeon?

Everywhere from the Zork logo to Hirst Arts adventure scenery, the standard architecture of a "dungeon" - meaning, underground medieval fantasy adventure setting - is:

  • walls of regular or irregular gray stone blocks, anywhere from shoebox size to two or three times that
  • wooden doors fitted with iron hinges and reinforcing bars
  • floors of gray flagstone
  • torches in wall sconces

More on CRPG dungeons
It's shorthand for our conception of what a fiendish antique maze stretching many, many levels underground would look like. But what does it really represent?

Certainly, high medieval castle architecture used those big stone blocks for aboveground walls, as we see from Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and similar fortresses. When delving into earth, it might also be a good idea to reinforce the walls with stone, right? Except if the idea is just to reinforce and insulate and make it look neat and nice, then your typical medieval cellar made do with much smaller, brick-like stonework, as seen in this undercroft in Norwich.


Or the stonework might be plastered over, or it might be made of bricks, or packed earth might suffice.

Another problem for the "dungeon look" comes when, digging down, you hit bedrock. Granted, in agricultural plains this might not happen for a hundred feet or so, but castles, wizards' towers, and other such dungeon-toppers tend to be built on hills with rock not far below. In that case the dungeon tunnels are best dug directly into the rock, faced and decorated by planing the rock itself. There's no need to emulate the look of Garden State Brickface by carving fake mortar crannies into the stone.

Could it just be that the big-block idea comes from artists who wanted to draw fewer lines in their medieval settings? Maybe, but there's another reason an architect might want to divert those hard-to-move, yard-long stone blocks from building the important castle walls to facing the underground cellars.

If you are keeping prisoners down there - you know, in your dungeon - then it's important to make the blocks big, so it's hard to get past them to the diggable clay beyond.

So the answer to "Why does a dungeon look like a dungeon?" may very well be: "Because it's a dungeon..."

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Prison World

Shades of Penitentiary parts I-III and every other prison movie I could think of short of Jailhouse Rock, all leavened with Ye Olde Generick Dongeon Fantasye. Just think of it as StoneWhatTheHell.

Some entries are part bold italic and part not; the bold italic is the part that survives if the prison is merely a historic ruin being occupied by something else.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Do Split the Party

Another Adventure Gaming Society club Saturday and a group of four players - no repeat visitors - rolled up characters to enter the freewheeling Mad Archmage's castle using One Page rules. In which it was revealed that sometimes splitting the party is a good idea. How? Read on ...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Followers: Your PCs are Adventurers

Followers - henchmen and hirelings - represent the sort of people who would follow a rootless adventurer into danger, and the limits on them in the One Page system reflect this.

One principle I'm following is that player characters have the class of "adventurer" modifying their role as a fighter, wizard, priest or whatever. NPCs are not playing by the same rules as PCs; they don't get experience the same way, shouldn't develop a raft of hit points on the basis of 30 years of scholarly research, may have skills and talents that adventurers never have the time to develop. So, I ended up limiting PC background skills so that adventurers don't become the craft mavens, alchemy brewers, and whatnot of other systems. You are adventurers, you pay other people to do that. If you were brought up as a beekeeper you might be able to get a discount on beeswax, but you're a failed beekeeper so your time is not best spent running a hive.

Likewise, when it comes to leading small armies around at 2nd character level, you won't really get a horde of hundreds following you unless you're backed up by some larger assurances. Maybe you're a captain in a governmental army, or the son of a duke. Maybe you're a bandit leader who started out as a rootless adventurer, with only a few henchmen and hirelings, but your successes, and your ability to offer a steady and relatively risk-free living, attracted more and more men.

The nuts and bolts of recruiting will be covered in the One Page village and town supplements. I see those as a way to codify some of the generic assumptions of what you can get in small and large campaign settlements.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Liches: Superbia

Closing out the season of sinful undead, we awake from Samhain revels to find the biggest undead, liches, and the biggest sin of all - the original sin of Adam, Eve and Satan - pride. "Ye shall be as gods."

"Lich" is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "corpse," and the transition to a gaming creature seems to have been through the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and other pulp scriveners who resurrected the hoary term to describe the sorcerous, shriveled walking dead.

coolminiornot.com
As Von noted way back when I started this series, liches fit the bill of the free-willed undead best, because they are the only ones to explicitly and always choose their condition. Their aspiration to immortality and godlike power itself have earned them the sin of superbia, pride. One might imagine that because they have reached their undead state through arcane sorceries, they have found a way to transfer their consciousness beyond the theological soul. They are therefore an unparalleled threat to divine justice; when destroyed, they merely cease to exist, and their sins will go unpunished.

How does the lich get that way?  Following the idea of the lich as magical cyborg, it endures a seven-step ritual of replacing the parts of its spirit and soul with sorcery. It's possible to meet with a wizard at one stage or another of this transformation, a true fractional lich (as opposed to the curiously named demilich, actually more powerful than a full lich). These horrible rituals include self-mutilation, trepanation, and worse...

1. The wizard gives up the eyes, the windows of the soul, replacing them with icy burning sockets having full-spectrum vision to 120'.
2. The wizard gives up the breath, the door of the soul, replacing it with a magical voice that causes fear as a full-blown lich does.
3. The wizard gives up the brain lobe of Memory, the treasury of the soul, replacing it with a gem containing an intangible and infinitesimally compact library of lore. This ensures that the lich will retain super-genius intelligence and spell knowledge without the need to consult books.
4. The wizard gives up the brain lobe of Reason, the throne of the soul, replacing it with another gem containing a distillation of the wizard's own methods and rationality. This gives absolute self-control and resistance to enfeeblement, polymorph, and insanity.
5. The wizard gives up the brain lobe of Instinct, the foundation of the soul, sacrificing it utterly. This gives resistance to charm and sleep, and indeed freedom from all desires save those for knowledge, power, and the suffering of others.
6.The wizard gives up his or her soul, replacing positive energy with chill negative, and gaining the paralyzing touch ability, death magic immunity, or possibly even more dreadful powers of the Negative Planes.
7. Finally, the wizard surrenders his or her life, and the body begins to decay, replacing magic-user levels, hit points, and other stats with monster hit dice and stats, and acquiring the remaining resistances.

A contradiction in the lich-as-written may also contain the key to turning it. How does the lich's pride and vanity square with its appearance as a moldy old skeleton clad in rags? Surely if it is motivated by pride, the lich will find some way to keep up appearances. For example:

1. The lich casts a continual illusion, appearing as an attractive ideal of the being it was (or never was) in life.
2. The lich wears an iron mask, armor of fearsome construction, and mailed gauntlets to hide its skeletal state.
3. The lich has embalmed its bones in a waxen compound, creating an eerily lifeless similitude of dead-eyed face and cold hands.
4. The lich has opted for skeletal glory, studding its bones with rich metals, enamels and gems.
5. The lich appears as a skeletal horror, but has cast an illusion on itself, so that it sees itself as fair and youthful, its dank surroundings as a pleasure garden.
6. The lich has simply subjected itself to permanent invisibility.

Turning the lich consists, first of piercing or dispelling the illusion, then presenting the sacred symbol while subjecting it to mockery, to dethrone its sin of pride. Difficult, yes, but you didn't think you'd get away with just a d20 roll to fend off the king of the undead?

Monday, 31 October 2011

Vampires: Luxuria

Vampires embody the sin of lust. Do I need to say more? All right, then.

Besides having the most attractive appearance of all the undead crew ... besides the neck-bite as kinky substitute sexuality ... besides the tapping in to archaic beliefs about vital force and sexuality, "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame" ...

Vampires are users, and that is the difference between the joy of sex and the sin of lust. Their embrace is pleasurable, perhaps, but actively bad for the one embraced. And yet, there are those who seek out vampires, wishing to be one, wishing to be used abjectly and in turn using. Intimacy becomes hierarchy.

Turning vampires? It's the classic operation, with the cross or the Magen David... I can't really improve on that ritual. But the sin of the vampire means that a failed attempt to turn brings the would-be Van Helsing under the vampire's charm, no saving throw. If you look into those eyes and blink, the eyes look into you.

And after Stoker, Murnau, Rice, White Wolf, Hamilton, and Meyer, and a hundred more, if you can't think of something creepy and sexy to do with your vampires, I'm certainly not going to give you a table.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Mansion World

A heady blend of Dickens, Gormenghast, Chas. Addams, Castle Amber, and Tegel Manor is on the menu tonight.

The maid has a phoenix feather duster. The feathers spit flame.

Six down ... thirty to go!

Ghosts and Poltergeists: Ira

Wrath (ira) is a hard sin to attribute to any undead. I originally thought "hey, the wraiths of wrath" but beyond a stupid not-even-pun there is not much going for that. Wraiths and spectres, on reflection, are life-stealers, so they belong with the envious shadows. Redundant ones at that; I always thought that spectres in the original D&D were Gary's realization, "hey, these wraiths are not quite badass enough to be Ringwraiths."

As an emotion, anger is complicated and hard to study. In my analysis, this is because anger can be brought on by many individual things; it's a feeling state that over biological and cultural evolution has been recruited to respond to many situations. We feel angry when we are personally threatened, so that we can put up a threatening front; when our goals are personally blocked, so that we can persevere in working on them; when an injustice is perpetrated, so that we can apply social pressure to right it. The problem with anger is that each of these three things uses the same emotion, meaning that the three causes bleed over to each other. So, even if we have a goal blocked - bad traffic, say, or somebody publishing a game on the Internet that uses ascending armor class - anger pushes us to treat it like a personal threat, and even an injustice. And anger is a very visible state, which motivates us to communicate it and to come up with reasons for it. It's no wonder the medieval church fathers classed this ubiquitous emotion as a sin.

So what undead is defined by its rage? If you look to ghost tradition, the answer is obvious: the poltergeist. A literal spirit of rage, the poltergeist manifests in a house by throwing and disturbing objects. The problem is that in D&D, poltergeists are low-level joke monsters from the Fiend Folio. So we need to make them bigger and badder, and perhaps merge them somewhat with their bigger cousins, the ghost.

If the D&D ghost seems under-used, it's because, like the mummy, it merges high hit dice with weird attack modes: aging, which you can see as a kind of fear effect from its angry expression, and magic jar attack, which in effect is a kind of possession. It's not too much of a stretch to see the ghost as possessing its victims in order to express its rage, turning them immediately to attack their companions. Henceforth, the reworking:

Ghosts are another kind of undead where their sin in life translates well to their state after death. They died possessed by anger, frustrated in the accomplishment of some goal which may even be evident in the environment: an unfinished statue, an unescaped deathtrap. They are very hard to deal with because they can turn invisible and ethereal at will, and may only be hit by magic weapons, holy items or spells. Trying to turn them directly only makes them more angry, and they attack the one doing the turning; the way to deal with them is to face the other way while holding the holy symbol and intoning the sacred words, which will affect them in the normal way. The one weakness a ghost has is for the attainment of the goal that caused its anger; for example, a ghost created when a wrathful person died trying to escape a trap will be dispelled when the original bones are moved to a place of freedom.

A ghost will have 3 (poltergeist), 6 (ghost) or 9 (greater ghost) hit dice, with all other stats as written. It has one special attack for every 3 hit dice, from this list:

1. Save (Mind/Spell) or age 1d20 years when ghost first shows itself.
2. Telekinesis, throwing dangerous objects about as through the spell (and the ghost will seek out places with such objects).
3. Possession as by magic jar.
4. Supernatural chill in a 60' radius, extinguishing small fires, and doing 1 hp of damage/round if warm clothing is not worn (this will not reduce a character to zero hp however).
5. Death wail (as banshee); once per night, all who hear must save (Body/Death magic) or fall unconscious for 1 hour (3HD), 24 hours (6HD), or die (9HD).
6. Fear effect: roll two saves (mind/Spell) when ghost first shows itself, if both are failed then stand rooted to the spot for 3 rounds, if one is failed then flee at top speed for 3 rounds.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Mummies and Wights: Avaricia

The sin of avarice would seem to be a natural one for the undead guardians of grave treasures. If this sin is a desire to possess more than one needs, then its ultimate expression would be a defiance of the truism "you can't take it with you." The animated mummies of horror films and stories, and the pale, hoard-guarding Barrow-Wights of Tolkien's invention, would then seem to refer to the same evil, the same origin.

But there's a paradox in this story that goes back to the Norse legends of the draugr: if the avaricious wight is so intent on hoarding its gold, why does it "recruit" the victim and increase the number of wights who share in the treasure? In D&D, the mummy's touch doesn't act this way, but I think this is more due to the obvious problem that the mummy needs to bandage up the bodies of those it kills in order to create others like it.

In fact, there's a lot that's weird about the wight. Tolkien has them as bony things, but they appear in D&D as these snarly bodybuilder types with Land of Oz hair. They're not that strong in hit dice but have the feared and hated ability of level drain, whereas mummies are tougher in combat but have a grab-bag of abilities that are not that nasty, and have a weakness to the common torch. Personally, I'll take the mummies; they come in all kinds of cultural flavors (Aztec ... Peruvian), there were cat and crocodile mummies, and it's not such a long step from those to the horrid animal-human hybrid mummies envisioned by Lovecraft in his ghost-written  Harry Houdini story, Entombed With the Pharaohs.

Anyway, I want to take a different approach than the "living undead" of the last three Deadly Sins, and suggest that wights, mummies, and whatever skeletal guardians may exist are just variations on a single type of creature, united by their motivation to remain undead. These tomb guardian creatures may exist in a lesser form (stats as a wight) or a greater form (stats as a mummy) but each one's appearance is largely a product of the culture that buried it, and whether it awakened soon or late after burial.

There is a special restriction on turning tomb guardians, as with the other sinful undead. Although they may be turned normally, the turning ends if any associate of the cleric picks up any of the creature's treasure. Turning will not succeed while any such associate is carrying loot, either. By ransacking the tomb, the adventurer shows his or her self to be a fellow-sinner in avarice with the undead guardian, and the power of holiness will no longer work as protection.

In addition to only being harmed by magic weapons, tomb guardians have two of the following special attacks, which vary from case to case (d6):

1. Level drain as a wight (but without "recruitment")
2. Rotting disease as a mummy
3. Fear effect as a mummy
4. Unerring tracking of those who stole its treasure (as in the old mummy movies)
5. Enchants a victim within 30'; save (Spell.Mind) or become mentally confused, transported back to the times of the guardian and unwilling to act (as in Lord of the Rings)
6. Shapeshifting at will, into smoke, an unnaturally heavy animal, or seaweed (as in legends of the Norse draugr)

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Shadows: Invidia

The animated shadow is by definition a being of lesser standing, an envious follower, dependent on light and an intervening body, aspiring to an independent state it can never have. Like the ghouls, its status as undead wavered in early D&D, and is still uncertain in (for example) Swords & Wizardry. There is a certain eerie power in the idea of a shadow that one day refuses to serve, and that really doesn't need the additional tag of undead to chill the blood. Lord Dunsany memorably explored the idea of a detachable and tradeable penumbra in his novel The Charwoman's Shadow.



The sin of envy, or the medieval invidia, is studied by psychologists and philosophers as an emotion. It seems to be a pretty common theme in such studies to split the emotion into a "good" side and a "bad" side, which reflects the idea that emotions are basically functional but often go wrong. In this research, benign envy is explained as a desire to emulate the superior, while malicious envy involves achieving parity through reducing the superior instead. It is the destructive side of envy that the evil shadow embodies.

Shadows make a fine undead creature. Think of them as a void of life-force, lacking entirely in Strength. When they see a being with superior Strength, they enviously approach, implying that they will attack the strongest by preference. Their touch destroys the strength, but does not steal it. Eventually, their victim ends up dragged down to their level, a shadow among shadows.

What of the person who voluntarily chooses existence as a shadow? This is a rare wish, supported by an equally rare necromantic rite, and marks the ultimate triumph of envy. To give up one's own worthless existence for the chance to tag at the heels of a far superior person is similar to the motivation to become a zombie, perhaps. Thus, the living shadow creeps at its master's feet in imposture of the natural shadow. But the creature saps, rather than serving, its superior - making one attack per day on the victim's abilities, and adding any stolen points to its own score, until it merges in hateful life with the victim, creating a being of walking dusk without a shadow of its own, and adding the victim's hit dice and hit points to its own. Thereafter the envious soul has no reason to remain, its victory complete, and the completed shadow-being tends to become possessed by a darker genius.

At both stages, the living shadow can only be turned by two or more clerics, each bearing a holy symbol on which a clerical light spell has been cast, and arranged so as to surround the shadow.

For this as well as the more common undead variety of shadow, there exist several varieties which each possess their own special attack upon the abilities, and their own consequence once draining is sufficiently advanced (1d3 points on a successful hit, regained at 1 point/day). The consequence of zero points in any ability is death and conversion to a shadow.

1. Attacks strength; at 1-2 points victim becomes flaccid and unable to move.
2. Attacks dexterity; at 1-2 points victim becomes hyperactive, moving and acting about uncontrollably.
3. Attacks constitution; at 1-2 points victim becomes moribund and takes 1 hit point damage each round of moving.
4. Attacks intelligence; at 1-2 points victim becomes amnesic and unable to remember declarative facts such as his or her own name.
5. Attacks wisdom; at 1-2 points victim becomes catatonic, unresponsive to outside senses and lost in a world of his or her own mind.
6. Attacks charisma; at 1-2 point victim becomes repulsive even to him or herself, and will attempt suicide if not restrained.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ghouls: Gula

Beyond the titular Latin-to-Arabic pun, ghouls embody gula (the cardinal sin of gluttony) in an obvious manner: they feed on the bodies of the dead. On top of that, ghouls are my favorite undead creature because, at least in their source material, they're not obviously undead. In Lovecraft's story Pickman's Model, it's implied that ghouls, like the inbred Martense clan in his less accomplished The Lurking Fear, are a degenerate strain of humanity, whose necrophagy forms part and parcel of their condition. Pickman even becomes a ghoul in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, where he and his meeping buddies come off as strangely sympathetic Addams Family types.

The paralysis that is the ghoul's special weapon, and especially deadly with multiple attacks, doesn't appear in Lovecraft, and may be original to the D&D game. I used to think it was a reference to the ghouls that accost Elric in Moorcock's The Vanishing Tower, paralyzing him with their cold touch, but the novel's 1977 date is later than the Chainmail and OD&D originals. It's unlikely that Moorcock cribbed the idea from D&D, but one never knows.

Although Gary Gygax made the conscious choice to make ghouls undead in going from Chainmail to D&D (more ghoul-trivia here), they seem like an obvious choice to explore as "voluntary undead" in this series. I've never quite understood how ghouls fit into the D&D undead mold of "if they kill you, they recruit you" because they seem so indiscriminately ravenous. A vampire might have the self-control to grant the "dark gift" of undeath or withhhold it, merely killing its victim ... but a ghoul holding back from a tasty, board-stiff human morsel? Hardly likely.

Living ghouls are gourmands and degenerates who develop a taste for human flesh and determine that the best way to get it is to feed upon the already dead. The diet awakens regressive tendencies in their genetic makeup and they become prognathous, robust and somewhat dog-like in their gait and demeanor. Haunting graveyards, they logically become followers of strong undead creatures, who feast on the souls of the unfortunate and leave ghouls the mere body.

Not being undead, living ghouls require a special reminder of their damned state in order to be effectively turned. In this case, it is sacred food, such as the consecrated bread or wine of Christianity, or barring that, foodstuffs created by a holy clerical spell. If the turning destroys the living ghoul, it lapses into a coma and can be returned to human state by forced feeding of consecrated food for three days.

The appearance of a ghoul - living or not - sets off ancestral memories in humans and related beings (dwarves, halflings, gnomes) but not elves, which can lead to one of the following fear effects - varying either by the individual, the ghoul pack, or on a racial level:

1. Save (Paralysis/Body) or paralysis by touch, as the original.
2. Howling causes a morale check among NPCs, and PCs must save (Spell/Mind) or become distracted, incurring -2 to hit and +2 to be hit.
3. Charnel smell within 30' forces a save (Poison/Body) or retch as with a Troglodyte's stench, unable to attack.
4. Paralyzing stare within 30'; victim gets two saves, one against the gaze (Spell/Mind) and one against the paralysis (Paralysis/Body).
5. Gibbering and meeping  in close combat is maddening; requires a save (Spell/Mind) or become confused and attack a random adjacent being.
6. A hit from a ghoul's claws requires a save (Spell/Mind) or the victim cowers for a round, either fleeing or fighting defensively.

And no - I am not going to stat up the bizarre, half-medusa Roy Thomas comic-book version of Pickman's Model....

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Zombies: Accidia

The medieval sin of accidia (acedia), or sloth, refers to a condition that today we treat as a mental illness: depression. But more generally, the sin refers to inability to act or decide, retreat from the world rather than engagement with the world, and in its ultimate expression, suicide.

Psychological writers, such as Erich Fromm or Roy Baumeister, have identified the human motive to "escape from freedom" or "escape from the self" by submitting to authoritarian regimes or cults. When people willingly become zombies, they symbolize this abdication of will to another. This living zombie is perhaps closer to the drug-induced state of living death implicated in the questionable anthropology of Wade Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow) than the walking dead of George Romero. It also brings to mind the philosophical zombie, which forms part of the solipsist argument (referenced in Heinlein's story "-- All You Zombies --") that we can never know for sure if anyone apart from ourselves is free-willed and conscious.

Zombies, sluggish and slavish, embody the sin of sloth when a living person willingly submits his or her body to the ritual of a necromancer. Otherwise they are mere animated corpses, a desecration but nothing more than that. Necromancers greatly prize the former kind of zombie, for their greater power, and because to recruit them gives much prestige. Therefore, necromancers and their agents often haunt popular locations for suicide - bridges, precipices - in hopes of persuading the unfortunate to surrender their lives in one sense rather than the other.

A living zombie has all stats as a regular zombie, with 4 additional HP.  It is unholy but not evil ( having given up its free will) and not undead. So, it can only be turned by reminding it of its own identity -  its personal name must be spoken, or a mirror held up to its face in place of a holy symbol. If the turning destroys the zombie, the spell is broken and the person returns to life.

As a bonus, here is a d6 table of attributes and powers that can make all kinds of zombies more scary.

1. Fingernails and teeth that break off in the wound, preventing 1 hit point of healing per wound until Cure Disease is cast.
2. If wounded down to 3 or fewer hit points, guts spill out of the zombie's abdomen and come alive. They make an extra attack ignoring armor, and if successful ensnare the arms (on an odd "to hit" roll; cannot attack until victim rolls d20+STR > 25) or legs (on an even "to hit" roll, cannot move and 2AC worse until victim rolls d20+STR > 25).
3. Zombies are immune to piercing weapons (although being stuck on a spear can hold one at bay), and take half damage (rounded down) from blunt weapons unless the wielder aims at the head with -4 to hit.
4. Zombies can only be killed by physical damage if it does 5 or more points at once.
5. Can throw its own arm, which attacks on its behalf for 1d4 damage, while the remaining arm on the zombie also attacks for 1d4.
6. Is a bloater zombie.