Monday, August 30, 2010

Of Scrolls and Flaming Oil

I've got to say, I am one of those DM's who never thinks to include scrolls in treasure hordes. It was an act of conscious will that I remembered to include them in Castle of the Mad Archmage, but they're really an incredible treasure item for a number of reasons.

First, of course, is their utility in deterring adventurers from using flaming oil. After the first time or two the party finds the charred remains of a scroll case in the debris from the giant spider webs they just torched with such abandon, perhaps they'll be a bit more circumspect.

Second, they give the DM a controlled way to introduce higher-level spells into the game, as well as giving the players a chance to add spells to their spell books. A 3rd level magic-user can still be a formidable force when he has a scroll with lighting bolt, and it gives players a chance to add to their own spell books without having to find an enemy wizard to loot.

Don't forget the scrolls!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

R.I.P. Charles S. Roberts

Charles S. Roberts, founder of The Avalon Hill Game Company and designer of games such as Tactics II and Gettysburg, died last week at the age of 80. If that name sounds familiar, it should, as there is a Charles S. Roberts Award given out each year at Origins. In many ways, he was the inventor of the board wargaming hobby, inventing many of the core concepts that are still used today. He certainly introduced me to the hobby through his work (Tactics II was the first wargame I ever played, before miniatures and RPGs), and for that I can only thank him for a lifetime of pleasurable diversion.

His obituary ran in the Baltimore Sun yesterday.

(Hat tip to Purple Pawn)

Sunday Matinee: Westworld (1973)

Michael Crichton never met a technology he ever liked.

His books and films are filled with alarmist bashing of the potential of robotics (Westworld), cloning (Jurassic Park), brain implants (The Terminal Man), time travel (Timeline), genetic splicing (Next), and biological warfare (The Andromeda Strain). Okay, maybe I'll give him that last one, but as a Transhumanist myself I've got to say that he's not been the most technophilic of writers.

That being said, he makes a pretty good movie most of the time, and Westworld is one of them. This one is still shown on late-night television, and it's well worth the watching. With the obvious exception of Jurassic Park, this is probably the best Crichton film out there (although I'm a big fan of 1981's "Looker" as well).

The film revolves around the futuristic resort of Delos, where robotic fantasies come to life in one of three immersive environments; Medieval World, Roman World, and Western World. Each is a marvel of technology and ingenuity, as the environment is rendered down to the smallest detail, and populated with completely lifelike robots. These are the protagonists in the game, being the foes in sword fights in Medieval World, gun fights in Western World, and so forth, that the guests (paying a then-princely $1,000 a day) can overcome and thus draw the fullest experience from the whole. You can shoot the robots, run them through with swords, and it's all safe and foolproof. The guns, for instance, won't fire at anything with a high body temperature such as a person (although they never do seem to explain how the swords in Medieval and Roman World have similar safeguards).

Enter Peter and John (played by Richard Benjamin of "Quark" fame and James Brolin, respectively), two friends who come to the resort purely as a vacation, John being a repeat customer showing Peter the ropes. They have chosen Western World as their destination, although the film does go into some of the experiences of one of the guests of Medieval World, while the Roman World is left relatively unexplored. (Which is a pity, as of the three, I would personally have chosen Medieval World, and then Roman World, and only lastly Western World.)

The two explore the western town, authentic in every detail, and Peter ends up gunning down a Gunslinger (played by Yul Brynner in a role that was soon to become iconic). They share in the debaucheries of the place, kill the same Gunslinger again, Peter gets arrested and John ends up busting him out of the jail, and everything seems perfect. It's like playing a live action version of Boot Hill without the duct tape of a regular LARP.

However, we are also treated to what goes on behind the scenes at Delos. The robots are serviced every night in an underground control facility, and we are told that some sort of epidemic of "central malfunctions" has been plaguing the entire resort, cause unknown. You can see what's coming next.

The next time the pair meet up with the Gunslinger, things don't go quite according to the game. John is shot down in the street, and the Gunslinger ends up going after Peter. The entire resort goes haywire (for no reason that's really adequately given, other than Crichton's standard message that "the technology is too complex and anything that complex must, eventually, go berserk and kill innocent people by virtue of its complexity and the fact that it makes me uncomfortable"). The guest we've been following in Medieval World gets a sword thrust through him by the Black Knight. The music changes, and the entire tone of the film takes a 90 degree turn. (It's honestly a very effective setup; the delineation between "Delos is fine" and "Delos is a deathtrap" is jarring, as it should be, marked very effectively by discordant piano music, and things that were passed off as minor are suddenly revealed to be Very Bad Things.)

Peter, pursued by the Gunslinger, tries to escape Western World, where he meets a technician who lets him know that the entire resort has broken down and gives him some fleeting bits of advice on how to foil the Gunslinger before the technician is, himself, gunned down. Peter flees through Roman World and eventually makes his way to the underground control center where he finds all of the technicians dead-- asphyxiated in the control room, as the door was locked shut when they tried to cut the power to the resort to stop the rampaging robots, who are going on battery power.

Via the underground, he makes his way to Medieval World, finds a young damsel in distress who turns out to be a robot, and finally puts the Gunslinger to rest, but not after a couple of nice "oh, he's not quite dead yet" moments that seem to be the basis for the much later films Halloween and The Terminator. Peter survives, but he's one of the few lucky ones who do.

I don't pretend that this film has any of the social commentary (other than the blatant anti-technological commentary already noted) of some of the other films in this series, but I've got to say this is one of the most flat-out *fun* ones. To this day I would love to go to a (properly) functioning Delos-type resort, and I think eventually we will see this type of resort actually up and running. Compare to the Lary Niven novel "Dream Park", where the same sort of effect was achieved with a combination of robotics, holograms, and other technology. It's also the first film where I actually *noticed* the music; the change over to the piano/violin chords as the Gunslinger pursues Peter into Roman World was the first thing that made me aware of just how important the music was to a film.

There was a pretty bad sequel, Futureworld, which had the Delos folks trying to take over the world by replacing world leaders with robots, but it had none of the charm of the original. Apparently, there was also a short-lived television series "Beyond Westworld", but I know nothing of it beyond its mention on Wikipedia, and I cannot help but suspect it was pretty damn dreadful.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Greyhawk Session #4

For some reason, this session was marked by a decided increase in the number of asides, jokes, puns, and other non-game-related chatter. Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing! On the contrary-- I think it's a sign that the "core players" (who were all that were there at the game) really jell with one another and get along together on a personal level. I think we've really lucked out in that respect, although I should also point out that the newcomers we've had have fit in fine. Aside from the problem of no-shows (which is a definite problem when we have a waiting list to get in the game), has proven to be a highly effective way of putting together a game. For all those who lament that there "aren't any players who want to play an old-school game near me", I challenge you to go to, search for the nearest gaming group, and put up an "idea for a meetup". I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

This session began right on the heels of the last, with the party having completed a fair rout of the bandits in the surface ruins of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Present were Ehrandar Dawngreeter, the elf mountebank, Theric the paladin of Pholtus, Nalania the cleric of Rudd, Abo Thistlestrike the human magic-user, Jh the dwarf fighter (who, we are told, will finally have a full name, having survived this long to earn one), and Mongo the half-orc fighter.

Alas, their previous adventures were not rewarded with a full night's sleep, as three of them were visited in the middle of the night by three black-cloaked visitors bearing poisoned daggers. Nalania, Jh, and Mongo each had such a visitor.

As the player characters were caught unawares and without armor or weapons, this seemed a spiffy time to break out the Adventures Dark and Deep™ weaponless combat rules to take them for a test-spin. And I am pleased to report they performed admirably! Combat went just as quickly unarmed as it would have with swords vs. swords, and there was a lot of opportunity for color in the melee as well. As an alpha playtest with actual players trying batcrap-crazy maneuvers, I think they worked very well.

Nalania, who actually woke up as he entered, knocked down her opponent, who dropped his dagger, which gave her time to pick up her own weapon. Having taken a hit or two, he jumped about eight feet straight backwards, through the door back into the hallway of the Cock and Bottle. Jh didn't fare as luckily, but managed to force his own visitor into the hallway (who retreated with a similarly impossible jump). Storming out of the room with nothing but the beard the gods gave him to cover his modesty (having been woken from a sound sleep au naturale), Jh careened into his visitor as he attempted to bound down the stairs, knocking him down the stairs and into unconsciousness out in the process: "naked dwarf bowling!". Mongo attempted to grab the dagger arm of his own opponent, and with his prodigious strength dislocated his shoulder and knocked him out. Abo took out the one remaining visitor (the one Nalania had already wounded) with a magic missile spell, the only one actually killed in the encounter.

Naturally, this woke the rest of the inn, and soon the city watch was called in. There was Captain Vordalon once more, skeptically eying the party, one corpse, and two prisoners. One thing about those prisoners and the corpse; they all had a strange look about them; nose too flat, mouth too wide and lips too small, eyes too far apart (what one player called "the Innsmouth Look"). Vordalon took statements, evidence (the poisoned daggers the intruders were using), and the prisoners and corpse. It was obvious that his suspicions about the party were not alleviated.

Once a few days were spent uneventfully recuperating, the party set out for answers. Half went to the warehouse where into which they had once seen Jondo disappear prior to his handing over of the golden frog (which the players seem to think was connected to the attack). Ehrandar, using his knowledge of Thieves' Cant, found a beggar nearby who was willing to provide information (since the Beggar's Union and "you thieves" were so closely allied). It turns out that the warehouse was known to the locals, and avoided (even so far as to put a thieves' mark on the door, rendering it hands-off), as it was known to be a haunt of the devotees of Wastri the Hopping Prophet, and not only was the place suspiciously inactive during the day, those who inquired too closely tended to disappear. Ehrandar and his companions left.

The remainder of the party paid a visit to captain Vordalon at the local city watch post. They attempted to get some information about the state of the investigation, but aside from Vordalon's confirming their assumption that the death of Jondo and the jeweler might be connected with the attempt on their lives, and that the whole scheme might pose a threat to the very city itself, he didn't provide them with much concrete information. Abo, on the other hand, volunteered that the party might have knowledge of where Jondo might have gotten the ill-starred golden frog, and led the city watch captain to the warehouse, narrowly missing their companions.

Regrouping at the Cock and Bottle, the party decided that no matter what was going on with the followers of Wastri and the murder (or more) investigation, another expedition to the ruins of the Castle of the Mad Archmage was in order. As they set out the next morning, however, the whole of the city seemed to be beset by an unusually chilly and damp fog, which had drawn a multitude of frogs from the river into the streets, to no little upset of the locals. Unnerved but undeterred, the party went on to the Castle ruins.

There, however, they met with little excitement. The bandits had seemingly abandoned the place, and further investigations discovered two more staircases leading down, but little more than eerie horse skeletons and cryptic messages written in cobwebs (above the skeleton of a pig in one of the stables; the message read "LOWED DOORWAY WAS ONCE THE HOME ... TREASU"). The day was fast losing its light, and so the party made their way back to the city, where the fog (and frogs) had retreated, but the populace was jittery over the whole affair.

On the whole, a lot less action-packed than the last, but lots of good role-playing, scene laying, plot following, clue unfolding, and as I mentioned above this session ended up being much more fun and laid-back with jokes and humorous asides. I had a blast, and I hope the players did as well. Much more to come, and threads that the players have been pulling on (in a variety of different places) are starting to become more concrete. Can't wait for next time!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

One for the Angels

I've posted a timeline over at the Adventures Dark and Deep™ forums with a planned schedule of the development process. Look in the announcements section of the forums for details, but the big news is that I expect playtesting to start in January 2011, and the official release date is targeted for August 2012. Six months for layout, editing, and art. I'm taking my time with this one, to make it "one for the angels". I know that'll make Raggi's heart dance with glee.

Well, it's either that or turn out a piece of bargain basement junk with clipart on for a cheap buck. ;-)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Giant (Sumatran?) Rats Invade England

And The Sun is there:

Horrified neighbours told yesterday how their homes are being invaded by giant rats - including a 30-INCH LONG monster that was shot dead.

The rodents, twice the size of common types, are plaguing an estate in Bradford, West Yorks, often appearing in kitchens and lounges.

It is feared some could be "super rats" from South America.

Pictured above is a monster 2½ ft rat killed on the estate.

But the shaken man who shot it in the head - 31-year-old Brandon Goddard - yesterday revealed FOUR others of the same size scuttled away to safety.

And he said: "They were more like Ratzillas than rats.

"I got out of there as fast as I could. Who knows how many there will be if they've been breeding?"

The shot rat, feared to be from a species native to South America, is TWICE as big as common British types and the largest seen here.

Read the whole story here. Crikey!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Simple mass combat?

Zack over at RPG Blog II posted some thoughts on mass combat systems and RPGs. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I'm a huge fan of mass combat, and figuring out ways to integrate it into "regular" RPG play. I'm putting together a couple of 15mm Greyhawk armies for use with the Field of Glory miniatures rules, and am planning on putting out a supplement to my forthcoming Adventures Dark and Deep rules specifically for mass combat, which I am, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, referring to as "Platemail".

Zack lists the following criteria for an RPG mass combat system, and I think it's a pretty on-target assessment:
-Quick to learn, easy to remember.
-Related to the same base mechanics, at least nominally, as the rest of the game.
-Scale for company-size to full army-size combat with little issue.
-Allowing for a moderate level of complexity without either too little or too much abstraction.
-Allow the players to influence the outcome of a battle through their actions.
That second bullet set off a firestorm in my mind, and I came up with what, at least initially, seems like an ideal solution to the problem of mass combat in RPGs.

What if large formations of troops were treated just like really big individual monsters?

That is, what if there was a separate entry in the Bestiary for "Skeleton, Infantry Company", with its own hit dice, hit points, damage, size, movement, morale, etc.? And another for "Dwarf, Crossbowmen Company". And "Men, Knight, Company", "Men, Peasant Mob", and so forth.

The only change to the combat rules that I think would be necessary would be to change the scale. When that class of unit is involved, combat moves at the turn level, rather than the round level. So that's even already built into the system.

Combat between such large units of troops would be simplicity itself. Roll to hit, take damage, roll morale if needed. Again, everything that's already built into the system. You'd need a couple of special-case rules to deal with such units in combat against individual heroes; problems of frontage mean 100 orcs can't all hit the same 10th-level fighter. But that's easy enough to take care of with probably no more than a couple of lines of text. Maybe include a "minimum damage per turn" based on the "you always hit at least 5% of the time" rule.

I think this fulfills each of Zack's criteria. Quick to learn? Hell, it's just another monster. Related to the base mechanics? Ditto. Scalable? If you need an army at a size that companies make too awkward, just make up stats for "Skeleton, Infantry Regiment". Voila! Complexity? You won't need more than a handful of special rules to handle unit vs. individual cases. Just make sure the GM enforces the morale rules that are already in the game. Player influence? Heck, because it scales to the "regular" combat system, your 10th level fighter can take on those 100 orcs and see how he fares. Just multiply everything a single character does by 10, because it's turns rather than rounds. Damage, movement, etc.

Am I just missing something, or is this a really elegant solution to the problem of RPG mass combat?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

GenCon 2011

I used to attend the big gaming conventions with great regularity. GenCon, Origins, Atlanticon, GenCon East... in high school and college, I was all over the con scene. Nowadays, though, I generally only get to go to the ones that are in my immediate vicinity. I'm fortunate to have three fairly largish conventions in easy driving distance (DexCon, Dreamation, and UberCon) but I confess sometimes I miss the huge international cons. Money is one of the biggest problems; with a family, and a house, other things seem to take priority in the summer, besides dropping $1,000 on a trip to a gaming convention.

So my plan is thus. Perhaps with enough advanced planning, and the ability to save up the money in advance, I will be able to make it next year. So my plan and pledge is to save $100 per month for the intended purpose of attending GenCon in 2011. Perhaps with enough advanced notice and planning, more of my fellow OSR partners in crime can also make plans to attend, and we can turn GenCon 2011 into a big to-do for the old school community. Who's with me?

Sunday Matinee: Knightriders (1981)

Much like Rollerball, George Romero's Knightriders is one of those movies that is deceptive. It looks like a mindless action film, because there are guys jousting on motorcycles. But the violence is just a device; the film is actually packed with philosophy. And when it hit HBO and Cinemax back when I was 15, it was an enormous influence on me. To this date I count it among my favorite films of all time, primarily because it makes you think.

The plot centers on a traveling show called "Fight or Yield", which features knights who joust against one another in the hinterlands of Ohio and western Pennsylvania. It is run by Billy, "Sir William the King" (played by Ed Harris), who has set up this Arthurian fantasy, and who has placed himself in danger repeatedly by challenging Morgan, the Black Knight (played by Tom Savini), who is the best jouster in the troupe, but who lacks the real moral authority to lead them. "I was never into all this king Arthur crap," he says at one point. "I'm just in it for the bikes." Merlin is his conscience, played by the late Brother Blue (a particularly wonderful performer, not only in this role but also on the streets of Cambridge as a story-teller).

And that, in my estimation, is the whole point of the film. The world that Billy has created is a bubble in reality, where the ideals of Tennyson's vision of Arthur's Round Table is fully realized. Reality is continually impinging on that dream, and eroding it, both from within (Morgan's attitude towards the ideals that underlie the whole group) and from without (when Sir Allen, the second-best jouster in the group, brings in a townie, Julie, played by Babylon 5 actress Patricia Tallman; also when Tuck, a faux monk, brings in a photographer as his girlfriend).

The conflict comes when Morgan agrees to go off with a number of the other jousters to establish another group, called "Knightriders", at the urging of a sleazy entertainment promoter played by future Jurassic Park actor Martin Ferrero. The group flies apart as its inner stresses are released, and Morgan and his people go off to experience the decadence of Washington D.C., while Billy's group sits and stews, and Allen and a few others go off on their own to sort things out.

Eventually, both Allen and Morgan realize what Fight or Yield was really all about. Not the jousting, not selling trinkets or corn, but the ideals of the Round Table. They agree to fight for control of the original group, as long as Billy agrees to abide by the outcome and will "sit on his ass" so he won't get hurt again. Morgan wins, and Billy leaves, ultimately to take his own humiliating vengeance on a corrupt cop who had abused his authority at the expense of Billy and one of his men, and give a child a very special gift. Billy ends up dying in the throws of a hallucination where he seems himself riding on a white charger, mowed down by a truck as he is actually riding his motorcycle.

If this movie can be summed up in a single phrase, it is "the struggle between the world and our personal ideals". As Billy says, "I'm not trying to be a hero! I'm fighting the Dragon!", with the Dragon being the world. Eventually, those who do not recognize the struggle are eventually brought around, and those who cannot accept the struggle are rejected.

It's a powerful statement about the potential for one individual to impress his own vision of reality upon the world, and what happens when that vision and the world collide. As with many of these films in my Sunday Matinee collection, it was a heady collection of ideas in my formative years, and one whose influence I can positively identify in some projects I've undertaken in later years. If you are unfamiliar with this film, I heartily recommend it. Make no mistake; there's action, but it goes hand in hand with the message.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

1:192 Scale

Sign of a gamer getting back into the hobby. I managed to paint three figures. So I'm buying 576 more.

(Actually, maybe more. I just figured out that, with the price breaks where they are at Old Glory 15s with the sale that's going on, if I spend another $25, I can buy another $95 army. After all... it's just $25, right? What a deal!)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Introductory, Quick Start, and Basic Rules Sets

This month's RPG Blog Carnival is on the subject of how to teach new gamers to play. I thought I'd focus on the utility of so-called "quick start" rules.

When you have a large and complex game such as D&D, it cannot help but be overwhelming to a new player. Even the best designed rules are going to intimidate by sheer length, and RPGs are famed for not maximizing their organizational potential, shall we say?

One route that some companies go for is to produce a sub-set of the total rules set, offering that as a basic version of the full game. TSR naturally started this practice way back with the introduction of the "red dragon box", which for many was the gateway drug to AD&D. More recently, HackMaster has introduced its fifth edition with HackMaster Basic, and many other companies have taken to the idea, including of course WotC with their upcoming D&D Essentials boxed set.

The question becomes, what gets cut out to create a basic rules set?

Usually rules relating to higher-level characters are gone (in those games that are class and level based, of course). I personally don't have a problem with that, as long as it's not a ridiculously truncated limit. I should be able to get a feel for the game as a whole, and usually that can't be done by just puttering around as a 2nd level nebbish.

Monsters and other creatures usually get trimmed severely. Again, no problem, as long as some of the "core" creatures are not excised; I can't imagine a D&D without orcs, for instance. Norkers, sure.

Class options. Especially in the case of a game like AD&D, which has not only classes but sub-classes, it's possible to trim some of the clutter. A basic game can get along with only clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves. Save druids, rangers, and assassins for the advanced, full-blown game.

When it comes to rules, it's a tricky proposition. How much can you trim from the combat system, for instance, before it turns into something new, rather than a stripped-down version of the full system? On the other hand, a basic rules set demands a certain brevity that, by extension, creates ambiguity. Do your basic rules contain as full a discussion of invisibility and its consequences as your complete rules? Probably not, which means that a GM running the basic game might come up with an on-the-fly ruling at variance with how the same situation would be treated in the full game. Such is the nature of the beast.

On the whole, I think these basic sets are a good way to introduce new players to a particular game, without overwhelming them with detail that isn't necessary for them to get a feel for how the full game plays, and ahve fun while doing so. It's certainly not a requirement, as there are plenty of "full games" that aren't nearly so complex as to require such a basic rules set. But for the big'uns, I think it's a very good strategy.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Armies of Greyhawk Have Begun

Please forgive the craptacular photo taken by my phone; the wife is off vacationing with our daughter while I'm stuck at work (ah, the carefree leisure-filled life of a public school teacher!) and took the good camera with her. And just how does a gamer take advantage of having a house all to himself for a week? Paint figures!

What you're seeing through the blur and poor lighting is the first base of Sunndi halberdiers, in 15mm. That's not the final base, but just a temporary one the figures are blue-tacked onto for painting. (It's hard to see, but they're sporting white leggings and shirts, with blue surcoats bearing the sun symbol of Sunndi.) The final bases were ordered this evening, along with a humongous number of figures to take advantage of Old Glory 15s absolutely spectacular sale; up to 40% off, and free shipping off orders $150 or more. If you have any interest in taking up Field of Glory as an adjunct to your other gaming, there has never been a better time to do it.

I dropped the cash on Feudal German and Feudal French Field of Glory starter armies, along with a bunch of peasant levies, a couple of supply camps, and the necessary steel bases. Those will form the core of my South Province, Medegia, Sunndi, and Idee armies. I've got some dwarves, undead, and orcs to round things out.

One thing I've noticed; having not painted a figure for the last 20+ years, it is not nearly as easy as I remember it being! For instance, those Sunndi "suns" on their chests are little more than yellow dots. I'm sure the fact that these are 15mm figures, rather than 25mm, isn't helping. Hopefully it will get easier, and my own efforts better, as I get back in practice.

Want to see the inspiration for this "little" project? Check out Grendelwulf's outstanding translation of those early-1980's Dragon magazine articles into FoG stats.

Oh, and that absolutely spiffy copy of the County of Sunndi coat of arms comes from Bryan Blumklotz's World of Greyhawk Heraldry site that has not, unfortunately, been updated lately. Here's hoping he takes back up his efforts; those things are gorgeous!

RPG Novels

I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority on this one, but I happen to really like novels set in RPG worlds, as a general concept.

That's not to say that I think all RPG novels are inherently good. Just look no further than the hated Rose Estes Greyhawk books from the mid-1980's, with all their explicit furry-sex, magic daggers killing demigods, and other inanities. But some novels are quite good, both as novels, sourcebooks for the settings in which they are set, and as guides for how some aspects of those settings can be used.

It should come as no surprise that I'm a huge fan of the Gary Gygax "Gord the Rogue" novels, although their utility as sources of information regarding the World of Greyhawk drops as you reach the last couple of books (mainly because Gygax had left TSR by that time, and the books depict the destruction of that setting). But I was also a fan of the Forgotten Realms books, at least the early ones, and, at the risk of really blowing my OSR cred, I liked the Icewind Dale trilogy when it first came out. The Dragonlance novels were excellent introductions to the setting as well, which should come as no surprise, as the whole setting was built around the fulfillment of novel-like story-arcs.

Where RPG novels don't work is as tools to "advance the setting", which is a practice with which I'm not happy no matter how it's done. But to flesh out a setting, I like 'em, as long as they're halfway well done.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Magician's Ring

Note: The following originally appeared in the June 1975 issue of Wargamer's Digest, and is Copyright (c) 1975 McCoy Publishing Enterprises, Inc. It is presented here without permission of the copyright holder, in the interest of preserving a piece of the early history of Dungeons & Dragons. I have tried to transcribe the original as closely as possible, including misspellings and incorrect punctuation. Lessnard is, of course, the character of Michael Mornard, one of the players in Gary Gygax's original Greyhawk campaign. -Joseph Bloch, your humble scribe.

Dungeons & Dragons - The Magician's Ring

by Gary Gygax

Since doing the account of "The Giant's Bag" which was published in the Great Plains Game Players Newsletter, I have had a number of requests for similar articles from readers who found a small amount of humor in the tale. Here then is another brief story of the wonderful adventures had by the brave and fearless types who inhabit the realm of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Those who have explored the countyside between the bustling city of Greyhawk and the castle ruins of the same name which lie on the hill not a league to the east of the city will testify to the fact that there are a number of strange tunnels and wells about. Wise folks avoid them, for the know that these are but entrances to the fiendish maze of dungeons, pits, labyrinths, crypts, catacombs, and caverns which honeycomb the hill and the rock far beneath it. There are those, however, who eagerly seek these ways, for it is likewise well-known that incalculable treasure also rests within these twisting mazes. Dauntless adventurers sally through these entrances to a hideous underworld, determined to gain great fortunes or die. It is of such an adventurer that this take is built around-- a rare tale indeed.

Lessnard the Magician was displeased with his acquisition of wizardly skills -- or rather his lack of the same -- so he decided that he must immediately seek a remedy to this dearth. A carefully planned expedition to a not too-deep level of Greyhawk Dungeons was in order, for there he could gain the priceless magic items and magical experience necessary to become more skilled at his calling. Besides, he had recently hired a veteran fighter, a clerical acolyte, and a magical medium, and these retainers would greatly benefit from such experience (providing they survived, and under such leadership as his, how could they fail simple survival?!). So properly accoutered, the four set forth one chilly dawn to wrest some of the choice loot from the dungeons.

Lessnard chose one of the outside entrances to the lower levels of the dungeons, knowing it would save both time and the risk of unwished for encounters with wandering monsters. In a trice the party was wandering about in a maze of passages and rooms, bt it was soon discovered that this particular section had been oft visited, for doors hung akimbo, only monsters' bones littered the most secluded lairs, and treasure was nil. Not despairing, the Magician led still further into the labyrinth, and eventually a set of out-of-the-way stairs was discovered. Despite the fact that these led to a higher level, the Magician felt it wise to ascend, for surely such unfrequented stairs would bring his party to a similarly neglected section of an upper level. It was just so! Not long thereafter Lessnard forced open a door and confronted a trio of skeletal wights, loathsome undead creatures which would -- if allowed -- paralyze both him and his retainers and turn thenm all into like creatures. But that was not to be, for he quickly acted! With a hastily muttered incantation Lessnard hurled a glowing ball at the wights, a sphere which grew brighter and expanded as it sped from his fingers, to burst in a blaze and turn the undead things to mere ashes. When all cooled down, and the stench and smoke dissipated a bit, the Magician led his party into the place and it took only a bit of careful searching to find a dozen pieces of funerial jewelry which had been reposing with the now-destroyed creatures.

Instead of retracing their steps, the group trudged northwards from a four-way intersection near the former lair of the wights, and in less than a hundred paces they came upon a large chamber. Their cautious approach allowed them to completely take by surprise a giant scorpion who dwelled therein. "Good grief!" shrieked the retainers. "Crum and St. Cuthbert! At him!" ordered Lessnard. Although not expecting anything so terrible as this huge arachnid in the upper dungeons, the Magician was nonetheless determined to carry through an immediate attack. An arrow flew into the monster as the magic-user cast a spell to slow its movements. Thereafter ensued a fierce battle. The Magician leaped upon the scorpion and struck repeatedly at it with his poinard. His faithful retainers rained blows at the monster. The tail of the beast arched, and the hapless cleric was transfixed. With a groan he expired on the spot. But this was the last attack for the giant scorpion, and it too was done for by a flurry of blows. Although its pincers had dealt a few wounds to the brave Magician, he was exultant, for surely this was a glorious victory! Had the monster guarded anything? At first nothing could be found, but Lessnard turned just i time to see that his Medium apprentice had fumbled a ring from the tail of the scorpion, taking the item from the creature's sting, and slipping it onto his pinkie. He vanished before Lessnard's gaze!

"Floppspel!" he cried, "reappear again this moment, and hand over that ring which is the rightful property of your master!" No response. Fortunately there was but one exit from the place, and Lessnard was closest to the passage. He flailed the air like an overfed turkey buzzard attempting to take flight, and one of his thrashing arms contacted the Medium's crouched form, knocking the latter sprawling. "I've got him!" Lessnard shouted, and the fighter rushed to help. Strange indeed to see two grown men seemingly wrestling with empty air, but then the object of the struggle appeared, for the Magician had managed to wrest the ring from his finger causing Floppspel to immediately become visible. "Dolt!" said Lessnard, soundly trouncing the captive apprentice. "I was only trying it out," whined Floppspel. Cautioning the Medium never to try such a stupid trick again, Lessnard now led the two on the homeward journey, with the fighter bearing the body of the slain cleric.

Alas! the way out was not as simple as the Magician had thought, for despite being able to retrace his way to the steps by which they had entered the level, it was impossible to utilize them, for the passage was unbroken by any portal. They had passed through a one-way door without noticing, and now he must find another means of egress. An hour of wandering brought them back to a spot near where they had fought the wights and scorpion, and in one corridor Lessnard recognized a familiar place. Yes, he had been here once before. A narrow crack in the wall gave into a hexagonal chamber, but Lessnard shuddered at the thought, for it was a dangerous way to pass.

A deep circular well nearly filled the room, and only a narrow and slippery ledge curled around its lip. The well was filled with dark water, and the dark water was filled with hungry crocodiles! On the far side of the chamber was a door which led to the passage out, but the only way to gain it was to risk passage along the ledge. Bravely Lessnard ordered the party forward. "Fortunately for you," he explained to his two surviving retainers, "I have these Boots of Levitation, and with them I can hover nearby and guide your steps so as to avoid a plunge into certain death." The two listeners looked less than convinced, but they set forth anyway, having small choice. But a few steps and the Veteran cried out as his foot slipped from the ledge; the corpse of the cleric tumbled from his shoulders into the hungry jaws below. Another step and the hapless fellow followed the body. "Halt," commanded the Magician to the only survivor, Floppspel the Medium. "Loose that coil of rope from your waist and toss me an end. Tie the other securely about yourself, and then if you slip I shall be able to save you from the fate of that stupid fighter." Floppspel complied with alacrity, but as he watched his mater fastening the cord about his middle a sudden thought struck the Medium.

"Master," said the apprentice tugging at the rope -- rather like a small child does with a helium balloon on the end of a strong. "May I have that wondrous Ring of Invisibility when we gain the pure air of the world above?"

"Don't be a churl!" snarled Lessnard. "Such treasures are not for the likes of mere Mediums. I'll keep it for myself!"

"Please, master, please!" Floppspel continued to beg, all the while yanking upon the rope in eagerness, and causing his master to bounce about as if he were actually the already alluded to balloon.

"Curse you!" shouted the enraged Magician, "I said no! Now stop that ad proceed along the ledge." The Medium ignored the command and continued to tug and plead. Now, thought Lessnard, I'll teach that stupid fellow a lesson in obedience. I'll suspend him over the pit and threaten to dip his posterior therein for a snack for the scaley denizens of the well unless he jumps at my merest suggestion henceforward. As Floppspel began to repeat his abjurations, Lessnard struck! With a violent jerk he pulled the surprised fellow from the ledge so that he hung suspended above the middle of the horrid pool. But, sad to relate, all was not as quite as Lessnard had expected. The weight of the Medium was causing him to sink slowly towards the hungry crocodiles. "Note this lesson," quoth Lessnard. "See how I could feed you to yon beasts would I will!" The terrified Medium began to clamber up the rope as he slowly sunk closer to the snapping jaws of the crocs', not overly impressed with his master's wrath, but well impressed with what lay below. "Stop! I shall not do it," the Magician assured the climber, for they were sinking yet nearer the surface of the water. "Now quickly, you knave, swing over to the ledge, and you'll be safe."

"Yunnngh, uff!" replied Floppspel, going upwards as fast as his shaking hands would pull him. "No! NO!" shouted Lessnard, but the apprentice was like a drowning man, intent only upon climbing atop the straw of imagined safety. "I'll cut the rope," threatened Lessnard as they sunk still lower. Floppspel hauled himself to a position where he could grasp his master's ankles, and once he had a handhold he shinnied up the Magician in a trice. "Yorph, bluchh!" cried Lessnard as the fellow's foot wedged firmly into his mouth. Floppspel stood triumphantly upon his master's crown; then, and with a frantic leap managed to regain the safety of the ledge as his former haven was descended below its level. Freed of the oppressive weight of the Medium, Lessnard's magical footwear once again asserted their influence -- just in time to save him from the ravening maws but a scant span below. Upwards he bounded like a startled grouse. But while the latter controls its flight, the Magician was too surprised to rule his levitational device, and his head smote the ceiling of the chamber resoundingly.

There remains but little more to tell. Upon reaching the surface the Magician drove his erstwhile apprentice from him with kicks, threats, and curses. The fellow has never been seen again, but the whole adventure still haunts his former master. Is it his imagination? or do his friend's warm waves of greeting somewhat resemble the motion of an arm tugging on a rope...


The shenanigans of Floppspel were, of course, nothing more than what the game referee decided would take place. They were, however, based on several definite factors. the apprentice was a new hireling, and as such his loyalty was uncertain (as indicated by a dice roll). His master furthermore did not offer him any substantial portion of treasure gained, so he was quite naturally looking out for himself. The battles with the wights and the giant scorpion lowered Floppspel's morale, first because he was not immediately promised a portion of the jewelry, second due to the death of the Acolyte cleric, and third because he took a great fancy to the ring of invisibility (a score of 12 with two six-sided dice) and saw no chance to gain the desired object. It was not unnatural that he attempt to gain the latter when an opportunity arose.

It is the duty of a referee to make any situation like that described as difficult as possible for the participants. Beside adding a few light moments afterwards it encourages careful consideration of any action contemplated and clear instructions regarding all actions taken during an adventure. this improves the play of the game on the participants' part and makes it far easier for the referee

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Step Forward for Adventures Dark and Deep

I am pleased to announce that there is now a forum set up to discuss the development of my attempt at putting together a "Gygaxian Second Edition". I give you...

This will be the place where I will discuss the design process, where playtesting will be coordinated, and perhaps a few other surprises as well.

So if you're interested in how this game is being put together, or if you would like to be a playtester once that phase of the process begins, or if you're just curious, feel free to stop by the forums!

(I'm still fiddling with the forum controls, so if you notice anything odd with permissions and such, just let me know.)

Sunday Matinee: Soylent Green (1973)

Okay, let's get it out of the way; "soylent green is people." Yes, we know.

I was (and am) a huge Charleton Heston fan, and Soylent Green was one big reason (The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes, Ben Hur, and The Omega Man being among the others...). The film is one of the social commentary science fiction sub-genre that the early 1970's seemed to pump out in profusion, and arguably the most famous.

It begins as a police procedural set in an interesting dystopian future in the year 2022; overpopulation is at epic proportions, what we would call normal economics has completely broken down, ecological disaster is looming if not already upon us, and society is on the verge of collapse. The teeming masses are unemployed and homeless, living in hallways or abandoned cars, while the few live in luxury, surrounded by guards and surveilance systems. Food riots are common and suicide is legal and encouraged. In this world is detective Thorn (Heston), a dedicated but hardly idealistic cop trying to solve the many murders to which he is assigned, if for no other reason than to keep his job in the face of the 20 million unemployed in New York who would jump at the chance to get it.

Thorn is assigned to the murder of one William Simonson, a former member of the board of directors of the Soylent corporation, which supplies food for billions of people. In the course of looting Simonson's home (during the course of the investigation, naturally) he not only finds real beef (!) and other food, but a pair of classified reports which he brings home to his "police book" Saul (played exquisitely by Edward G. Robinson in his final role). He quickly discovers that this is no ordinary murder, and his superiors are being pressured to drop the investigation from powers at the highest levels of the government. Thorn resists, and attempts are made on his life, which only serves to strengthen his resolve to get to the bottom of the case.

The aging Saul, meanwhile, has decided that the time has come for him to "go home"; that is, visit one of the assisted suicide facilities. Thorn attempts to stop him, but is too late. He hears Saul's dying confession about the contents of the classified reports; the oceans are dead, and the new "Soylent green" is not made from plankton as is commonly believed, but from human corpses. Thorn infiltrates a Soylent factory where he finds proof, and as he is killed by the conspiracy that has aimed to keep the secret, he famously declares the truth to all those in the church in which he meets his end. Soylent green is people.

This is another film with an abiguous ending, allowing the viewer to superimpose his own desires upon it. Will Thorn's revelation be heeded, causing the Soylent corporation and the government to be toppled from their places of power? Or is the world already too far gone, and will the cynicism of the teeming masses generate naught but a collective shrug, as they line up for their daily quota of Soylent green wafers?

The characters are very well-defined in the film, which makes it more than a mere platform for displaying how awful modern society can become if allowed to move along its present (1973, anyway) trajectory. We really care what happens to Thorn (and most especially to Roth; there's a subtext of homoeroticism there that isn't explored, but left to ambiguity), and his passion that Roth not have died in vain is very well portrayed.

Of course, at the time, I was more interested in the intricacies of the world itself. I was captivated by the presentation of New York, with its border on Philadelphia, population of 40 million, and omnipresent crowds. The scene where the food riot is broken up by police "scoops" (massive earth-movers which literally scoop up the rioters and dump them in the back of the truck, presumably to be taken into custody) is one of those iconic scenes that really sticks with you. All in all, it's a message-heavy film with good characterization, and that's the element that brings is above the average.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Greyhawk session #3

Another session brought us some returning players and one new player. Once again, Mighty Titans Hobbies and Games in Randolph, NJ provided us with exemplary space, and filled the bill when it came to getting the players coordinated as to who was showing up when.

This session, we had Ehrandar Dawngreeter, the elf mountebank (YES! he's playtesting the mountebank character class for me for Adventures Dark and Deep™, doing a bit of a hand-wave to transmogrify from thief to mountebank), Theric the paladin of Pholtus, Nalania the cleric of Rudd, Abo Thistlestrike the human magic-user, Jh (sporting a jaunty second letter in his name, finally) the dwarf fighter, Sorfindel the something/something (who, for reasons known only to himself, has chosen to make himself known only as a "scout"), and Mongo the half-orc fighter. And let us not forget their hireling Salvomar, the fighter obtained through the good offices of the Temple of Pholtus.

Off the intrepid adventurers went from the Cock and Bottle, but not before they were met by the stalwart captain Vordalon of the city watch. Turns out he is investigating a murder, and wants to know what business the party had with a certain jeweler in the Tradesmen's Quarter. They inform him of their sale of the gold frog, and a truncated version of how they obtained it, and in return the good captain of the watch made sure they weren't going to skip town. They assured him their only venture outside of the city walls would be to the ruins of the castle but a league distant, and he took them at their word (the presence of the paladin was a definite plus in that regard).

The next day, the party left to expand on their exploration of the ruins which they had merely begun in the last session, and who was there to witness their departure through the city gates than captain Vordalon. Without further adieu, they made their way to the ruins.

The party had a rough map of the upper ruins (and for those of you following at home, this is completely new material that has never been published), and pressed on to the outer bailey, investigating the stables where the mysterious knocking was heard the day before. They determined the source of the knocking, but not the cause, and, satisfied that it was innocuous, turned their attentions to the great cylinder of the central keep.

The walls of the keep had been breached in several places over the years, and entrance proved easy enough. The walls soared some 80' into the air, but the whole was open to the sky, and the floor was littered with the rubble of the upper floors and roof. Investigating the great central cylinder, they found that the door opened with enough brute force, and found a large spiral staircase descending into the depths. The party decided to check out the rest of the surface before descending into the dungeons, however.

The inner courtyard proved to be immaculately tended, with the grass trimmed and green; a far cry from the outer sward. They noticed a marble block that had, presumably, at one point held a bronze statue, but it proved to be nothing more than it appeared. A quick investigation of one of the outbuildings of the outer bailey uncovered a pack of wild dogs, but the combination of a lack of aggressiveness and the tossing forth of rations proved efficacious.

The main hall of the castle was investigated, via a door that led through the kitchens (and another staircase to the dungeons below was discovered-- presumably to the store rooms). The place was hundreds of feet long, open to the sky, and there were the ruins of tables made of wooden beams that were seemingly unbroken, spanning the length of the hall. The paladin, hireling, and dwarf made their way to the raised gallery, and the paladin ended up being enchanted by the siren song of a pair of harpies. He was fully charmed, and a brief scuffle ensued between him and the dwarf, but once one harpy was slain, the mountebank attempted to befuddle the paladin into inaction (he was attacking the rest of the party at the behest of the harpy), and succeeded well enough to earn the paladin another saving throw, which ended up being successful! The remaining harpy retreated into the sky, and the party recovered a chest full of silver, which the half-orc easily carted to a place of safety.

The party found a postern gate that led to a trail leading into the dry moat, but most interestingly found themselves beset by a group of bandits when they attempted to enter one of the larger outbuildings. Each group attempted to out-maneuver the other, flanking, re-flanking, and out-flanking, but eventually the party got some bandit prisoners, and the remaining bandits holed up in the northeast tower of the castle. Alas, in their haste, the party neglected to bind their prisoners, and they were seen scampering off across the inner bailey to freedom. The party, having found not a small bit of treasure, decided to call it a day, and returned to the city of Greyhawk.

There, they found that it was common knowledge (among the city guard, anyway), that the bandits, under the leadership of one Malvern, would take to falling upon adventurers as they left the ruins, figuring that they would be much the worse for wear as they were leaving. The city guard pretty much left them alone, as they confined their activities to the ruins, which are something of a no-man's land, law-wise. The party sold the gems they found, converted the silver into easier-to-handle gold, and retired to the Cock and Bottle. They also confirmed that the jeweler to whom they sold the golden frog was, indeed, dead.

This was more of an exploration/combat session, as opposed to last time, which was more role-playing. I like mixing up the types of sessions like that; it makes for a campaign that players who favor all types of games can appreciate. It is a sandbox, but there's stuff going on around the players with which they can choose to interact, and there are consequences for doing so and not doing so, and that, I think, is the point of a proper sandbox.

A Bit of Rhennee Magic: Drabui

The Rhennee are famed for their charms and amulets, known as "drabui" (sing. "draba"). While many non-Rhennee dismiss these trinkets as pure fraud, they are often sold or traded to the credulous as powerful magical devices. Once again, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

A draba can take many forms, but is most often either a necklace or bracelet, formed of string or wire strung with beads, animal teeth, feathers, and other similar baubles. The exact secret of their construction is a closely guarded secret of the Rhennee, but it is one which is shared almost universally among them.

If magic is detected for, a draba will indeed register as enchanted, albeit a somewhat weak one. Each given draba will function but one time, in the appropriate circumstances, as dictated by its type. Whether or not it actually fulfills its intended function is determined randomly:

Die Roll
01-05Draba exhibits major boon
06-35Draba exhibits minor boon
36-45Draba exhibits curse
46-99Draba does nothing, but still radiates magic
00Draba exhibits major boon, minor boon, or curse unrelated to its intended use (roll randomly)

Naturally, it is impossible to determine the true effect of a draba until its power is activated (or not, in the case of half of them). Detect curse will not be effective until the draba is activated, and then of course it is too late. The curse will be in effect even if the draba is physically removed; only a remove curse spell will prove effective. Only one draba can be in effect at any given time; if more than one is worn, the one that was put on first will take precedence.

Most drabui will sell for 50 g.p., but only after much haggling and extolling of their mystical powers takes place.

There are twelve types of drabui commonly available. There are rumors of a thirteenth type of draba, but if such exists, its exact powers remain a mystery.

“This draba will…” Major BoonMinor BoonCurse
“…help attract your dream lover.”+3 charisma (or comeliness/ beauty, if used) to the first person of the opposite sex that sees the wearer, for 1 day.+3 charisma (or comeliness/ beauty, if used) to the first person of the opposite sex that sees the wearer, for 1 hour.The first person of the opposite sex that sees the wearer is intensely repulsed by the wearer for 1 day.
“…bring you wealth.”When random treasure is rolled, g.p. become p.p., s.p. become g.p., etc.When random treasure is rolled, increase the total value by 10%.When random treasure is rolled, p.p. become g.p., s.p. become c.p., etc.
“…help you tell truth from falsehood.”Functions as if the wearer was under the effect of a detect lie spell for 1 hour. (Starts the first time the wearer is lied to.)Functions as if the wearer was under the effect of a detect lie spell for 1d4 rounds.Functions as if the wearer was under the effect of an undetectable lie spell for 1 hour.
“…bring harm to your enemies.”The wearer gets a +1 bonus “to hit” and to damage rolls for the next 1d6 hours. (Starts the first time the wearer attacks an enemy.)The wearer gets a +1 bonus “to hit” and to damage rolls for the next hour.The wearer gets a -1 penalty “to hit” and to damage rolls for the next 1d6 hours.
“…attract new customers to your business.”If the wearer owns some business, there will be 50% more customers over the course of the next month.If the wearer owns some business, there will be 50% more customers over the course of the next week.If the wearer owns some business, there will be 50% fewer customers over the course of the next 1d4 weeks.
“…give you power over others.”Functions as if the wearer had cast a suggestion spell the next time he or she tries to convince someone of something.Functions as if the wearer had cast a suggestion spell the next time he or she tries to convince someone of something, but only at half power (50% duration, listener gets +3 bonus to saving throw).The next time the wearer tries to convince someone of something, they will never agree, no matter how reasonable.
“…bring you the blessings of the Gods.”Wearer gets a +1 bonus to all saving throws, and all enemies get a -1 penalty “to hit” against him or her, for the next 24 hours. (Starts the first time the wearer rolls a saving throw or has an enemy try to hit.)Wearer gets a +1 bonus to all saving throws, and all enemies get a -1 penalty “to hit” against him or her, for the next 1d4 hours.Wearer gets a -1 penalty to all saving throws, and all enemies get a +1 bonus “to hit” against him or her, for the next 24 hours.
“…make you a lover without peer.”The next 1d6 times the character has intercourse, his or her partner will act as if under the effects of a charm person spell for 1d4 hours.The next time the character has intercourse, his or her partner will act as if under the effects of a charm person spell for 1d4 hours.The next 1d6 times the character has intercourse, both partners will be unable to achieve orgasm.
“…help you have children.”The next 1d6 times the character has intercourse, there is a 50% chance of causing a pregnancy.The next time the character has intercourse, there is a 50% chance of causing a pregnancy.There will be no pregnancy resulting from the next 1d6 times he or she has intercourse.
“…keep you from having children.”There will be no pregnancy resulting from the next 1d6 times he or she has intercourse.There will be no pregnancy resulting from the next time he or she has intercourse.The next 1d6 times the character has intercourse, there is a 50% chance of causing a pregnancy.
“…protect you from evil.”Any evil or extra-planar creature gets a -1 penalty “to hit” against the wearer for the next 24 hours (counting from the time the first one attempts to hit).Any evil or extra-planar creature gets a -1 penalty “to hit” against the wearer for the next 1d4 hours.Any evil or extra-planar creature gets a +1 bonus “to hit” against the wearer for the next 24 hours.
“…heal any illness.”Functions as if a cure disease spell had been cast on the wearer. Functions as if a cure disease spell had been cast on the wearer, but is only effective against diseases with mild severity (if no severity is indicated, 50% chance of working against whatever the wearer has).Functions as if a cause disease spell had been cast on the wearer.Wearer is entitled to a saving throw vs. spells; if effective, he or she is struck with a mild disease of some sort.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Some Secrets of the Bargefolk

Like the Suel, the Baklunish, or the Flan, the Rhennee are a race of humans that inhabits the Flanaess, specifically being found the lands touching on that great central body of water known as the Nyr Dyv. The Rhennee are perpetual wanderers, traveling the waters of the Lake of Unknown Depths and the waterways that connect to it in large barges, hence their nickname, the Bargefolk or Lakefolk. Among themselves, they call themselves the True Folk.


Male Rhennee are compact, swarthy and usually sport dark curly hair and long mustachios. The women are often lithe, similarly olive skinned, and have shimmering raven-hued hair. The eyes of the Bargefolk are invariably dark brown, and they tend to dress in gaudy stripes and bold primary colors.


According to their own folklore, the Rhennee originally hailed from an entirely different world than Oerth, traveling here through some magical means not fully understood. They thus think of themselves as the ultimate outsiders, forming a community-within-a-community wherever they happen to have come ashore at a given moment.

The Rhennee are formed into clans, with each led by a powerful Lord, consisting of an extended family. Some clans are large enough to require a small fleet of barges, while others get by on just a single boat. Clans engage in feuds, alliances, weddings, feasts, and the like at a dizzying pace. Within the space of a single season, two clans may be engaged in a blood feud, celebrate the wedding of two of their young members, and then form alliances with sworn enemies of each other. Few can fathom the full swirl of the relationships between the many Rhennee clans, and most find it simpler to simply take things as they come at the moment. Only Lords are allowed to have more than one woman at a time.

The Rhennee are a folk fond of dance and drink, and will find excuses for celebrations in events small and large. The meeting of two clans in the same cove, for example, can be an occasion to slaughter a pig and dance (and drink) the night away.

Outsiders are sometimes welcomed into a clan as an honorary member. This is sometimes done with those who have fought side-by-side with the Rhennee in a life or death situation, saving a boat, etc. Once this happens, that individual is held to the same code as the rest of the Rhennee, and ignorance is no excuse for transgression.

The Rhennee have their own faith which they do not share with outsiders. There are no Rhennee clerics, save for those very rare few who convert to the faith of some non-Rhennee God. Since doing so involves the total renunciation of the Rhennee life, it is almost never done.

Due to the closed nature of Rhennee society, they almost never leave their clan to take on the career of an adventurer (indeed, most would say they already lead such lives, without having to go looking for monsters to slay). For this reason, having Rhennee player characters is not encouraged.

Honor, Duels, etc.

Honor is highly prized among the Bargefolk, and slights, real or imagined, are one of two ways; either through the payment of wergild, or thorough duels known as the “test of the blades”.

The payment of wergild to resolve slights is an old tradition not limited to the Rhennee. The prices involved can range from as little as 25 silver coins for cuckolding a man (although he could choose a duel instead; see below), 50 silver coins for the slaying of a woman (paid to her kin), 500 for the killing of a man (again, paid to his kin), up to 10,000 for the slaying of the lord of a clan. If such wergild is not offered in recompense for offenses, a feud between the clans will erupt until the matter is settled.

For other affairs of honor (flirting with the woman of another man), the offended party might challenge the other to “the test of the blades”, in which the two combatants are bound together at the wrist and fight close-in with whatever blades they happen to have on them at the time the challenge is made (most Lakefolk carry daggers on them at all times). Such duels, while technically to the death, are rarely fatal, however; if one or the other combatant cuts the thong connecting them, he is automatically the loser and must pay 12 silver coins or be outcast, in addition to the established wergild. Either way, the loser will usually simmer with resentment for years afterwards. The winner of the test gets the woman in question, naturally; to refuse her is to commit the worst sort of offense against the Rhennee code, and the offender will be outcast and his clan shunned as honorless curs.

A similar tradition exists for the Rhennee women. If one is caught flirting with the man of another, they will engage in a similar duel, minus the blades; fighting is limited to punching, kicking, and wrestling.

Both sorts of duels are seen as an opportunity for the observers and bystanders to engage in spirited wagering on the outcome, often far in excess of the value of money that could conceivably change hands in the duel itself.

Born Thieves

The Rhennee have a weal-earned reputation as petty thieves, and villages will often lock up their livestock when a Rhennee clan barge comes calling. All Rhennee over the age of 10 have a chance to pick pockets equal to a 1st level thief, and those who are thieves or sub-classes of thieves gain a 5% bonus to their earned experience points.

The Bargefolk have their own secret language of hand signals and verbal cues, similar to Thieves’ Cant, by which they can identify friends, warn one another of the presence of the city watch, prime marks, etc. It is not generally taught to outsiders, but some in the underclasses of the lands frequented by the lakefolk have been known to learn it.


The boats, or barges, by which the Rhennee ply the waters in and around the Nyr Dyv are distinctive. Their draught is extremely shallow; less than a fathom (six feet or so), meaning the Rhennee barges can travel up rivers and tributaries completely impassable to other, larger, vessels.

The barges themselves vary in size, with more powerful clans having more impressive boats. An average sized barge might be 15’ x 40’, with small examples being 10’ x 30’, and the largest perhaps 30’ x 90’ in length. They have no cabins save that on the aft deck reserved for the Lord of the clan, but their hulls are planked over, affording a closed space for cargo. They have both sails and oars (the latter for use when the winds are either not favorable or non-existent), and they are equipped with clever arrangements of buckets and pulleys for emptying the bilge when heavy seas demand it. They also keep a small boat in trail for quick journeys.

The ships are heavily armed as a rule, not only to deter pirates (river pirates are thick in some areas frequented by the Bargefolk) but also to fight off the fearsome sea monsters that are found in the Nyr Dyv. Crossbows, scorpions (very large bolt-throwers mounted on swivels), and oil are primary weapons against such creatures, as well as javelins and regular bows.

The Rhennee themselves are, as might be expected, expert fresh-water sailors, having been born and raised on the water. They will always return to the Nyr Dyv to winter over, and the Bargefolk have a number of secret coves and other places along the shores where they congregate to wait out the stormy season.

Rhennee magic

Many Rhennee, especially the women, are thought to possess innate magical powers. The truth, as is so often the case with the Rhennee, is somewhat ambiguous. Rhennee women do, indeed, have certain powers that could be called magical. More, however, use powers of sleight of hand and obfuscation to create the illusion that they are much more powerful in such regards than they actually are.

All Rhennee women are able to use crystal balls, regardless of class. (Whether or not the crystal balls many of them seem to have are genuine or not is another story.)

Among the elder women of the clans is the vetha (pl. “vethoi”), or “wise woman”. These vethoi are well respected within the Rhennee society, and a clan with a vetha aboard their barge gains greatly in prestige. Vethoi are not exactly a class unto themselves, but they are gifted herbalists and do possess the following spell powers (including their reverse, if applicable):
  • Augury (once per day)
  • Predict Weather (once per day)
  • Divination (once per week)
  • Remove Curse (once per month)
They are also able to detect lycanthropes by sight.

The Attloi

The Attloi are cousins of the Rhennee who make their way entirely on land, in caravans of brightly-painted wagons. Where their lake-dwelling cousins are noted for their prowess with seamanship, the Attloi are noted as excellent dealers of horse-flesh, and make their way as tinkers, traders, and entertainers. Kidnapping is an art not unknown amongst the Attloi, nor is thievery, but rarely practiced on their more well-traveled routes. They are otherwise the same.

The Bargefolk look down upon the Attloi, barely acknowledging them as being of the True Folk. In times of crisis, however (such as the intermittent pogroms against them enacted by the two Urnst states), they will join together in common cause.

To OGL or not to OGL, that is the question...

The current discussion regarding Die Cast Games' module "Insidious" has got me thinking once more on whether or not I want to use the Open Game Licence for my own upcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™ game. There are pros and cons to doing so; the question is, do the pros outweigh the cons?

As I pointed out in my last post, the use of the OGL to publish a game, even a game based on prior editions of D&D, is not required. Such a game could, like Gods & Monsters, be published on the basis that game rules can't be copyrighted.

The Pros

Legal cover. It's a smarmy reason, but I can't help but feel that publishing under the auspices of the OGL will make WotC more hesitant to take legal action against a company that is publishing material based on their intellectual property. While such a suit might ultimately lose in court, I confess that Hasbro's pockets are just a teensy bit deeper than my own. While I love how Adventures Dark and Deep™ is shaping up, and I think a lot of other people are going to be pleased with it as well, it's not worth my house.

Third Party Support. 3rd party publishers are more likely to publish modules, settings, etc. for Adventures Dark and Deep™ if they have that aforementioned legal cover. While this is, at best, a tertiary reason in my own mind, it's still something to consider.

Ummm... anything I'm forgetting?

The Cons

Identification of compatibility. By using the OGL, I would forever ban myself from being able to say "compatible with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons", and that I think would be a shame, given that Adventures Dark and Deep™ is going to be extremely compatible with AD&D, and I might sell a few more copies if that is made obvious (frankly I would be happy if the only copy I ever sold was to myself, but it's something I do need to think about). I could, in theory, make such compatibility known in promotional materials, as long as those materials themselves aren't OGL documents, but I would still prefer to have the statement right on the products themselves, if possible.

Use of forbidden creatures. By publishing under the doctrine of "game rules can't be copyrighted", I become free to use creatures such as the mind flayer, carrion crawler, displacer beast, etc. And I like those creatures.

Again... I feel like I'm forgetting something, but I can't seem to think of what it might be.

UPDATE: I am reminded that OSRIC does indeed use the OGL.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Layman's Thoughts on the OGL, IP Law, and the OSR

For those who have had their Internet access cut off for the last 48 hours or so, there seems to be an important test case on the horizon regarding the role of IP law, the OGL, and how it is applied by publishers and hobbiests. It's been discussed on Grognardia, Bat in the Attic, Underdark Gazette, Joethelawyer's Wonderous Imaginings, and a bunch of other places besides (the comments in all of those posts I just linked to are all well worth reading). I am not a lawyer, but I've done some research on these issues over the years, and I have a few thoughts on the subject. Naturally this isn't legal advice, ask your own lawyer before doing anything, etc.

First and foremost, folks seem to have a problem separating some of the issues. It's a natural tendency to try to conflate things, but from a legal standpoint, some of these issues are distinct from one another.

There is the question of the ability to copyright rules of games. This has actually been tested in the US courts, and the answer is that rules cannot be copyrighted. The way the rules are written can be, but the underlying rules cannot. TSR (and now WotC) owns the copyright on the actual text of the rulebooks, so you can't just copy and paste blocks of text into your own retroclone. They don't own the *idea* that warrior-types have hit points that are generated randomly with a 10-sided die and get more of them as they increase in power. This is the route that Gods & Monsters chose to take, which is why it was published without using the OGL.

In addition, there is the question of copyright vs. trademark. Copyright refers to text. This post I'm writing now is copyrighted by me. Even if I didn't say so, and didn't include a copyright notice, US law holds that an author owns the copyright of the words he writes, unless he has a contract that states what he writes belongs to someone else (or some company). Trademark refers to an identifiable title, logo, brand name, etc. The description of the spell "magic missile" in the Player's Handbook is protected by copyright. The name "Dungeons & Dragons" is a protected trademark.

By the way, using someone else's copyright or trademark has nothing to do with making money from it. If you copy the Dungeon Masters Guide verbatim, and then give it away for free, it is just as illegal as if you were charging $5 a pop. Non-profit status is irrelevant when it comes to copyright and trademark infringement.

You are allowed to use someone else's trademark to indicate compatibility. It is settled law in the US that you are allowed to say things like "compatible with Monopoly", as long as you indicate someplace that Monopoly is a trademark of Parker Brothers. Similarly, you're allowed to say "For use with Dungeons and Dragons", as long as you say that Dungeons and Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast. Mayfair Games proved that specifically in court, when TSR sued them and lost. However...

The OGL comes with certain restrictions. If you choose to use the OGL to publish a given piece of work, you cannot use terms like "Dungeons & Dragons", "Dungeon Master", "Mind Flayer", "Carrion Crawler", etc. It's written right in the license. By publishing under the OGL, you give up the right to use those phrases, and you explicitly give up the right to say "Compatible with Dungeons and Dragons". It says so right in the license you copied and pasted into your product.

Trade dress is a really tricky subject, because it's so subjective. Trade dress refers to the way a given product looks; if all of your products have a distinctive look, that's your trade dress and nobody else can use it, because consumers would be confused as to whose product it is. If your module looks just like a WotC module, but in teeny tiny print it says "Made by Fred's Game Company", you're violating their trade dress. And, by the way, that's something else that is explicitly not allowed in the OGL.

The question becomes, how long do you have to *not* use a particular trade dress before someone else is allowed to use it? A lot of companies (and I myself) have used trade dress that is *really* close to that used by TSR in the 1970's and 1980's. I'm willing to bet that ship has sailed, and WotC would be unable to sue based solely on that issue because that particular trade dress has been used so widely by others, but remember trade dress is not the same as trademark. Just because I use 30 year old trade dress doesn't suddenly mean that I can plunder someone else's trademark (like the name "Dungeons & Dragons") and use it indiscriminently. Saying "compatible with..." is one thing, and allowed. Plastering it in 144 point type across the top of a module is something else again.

Now, another question (albeit not one that pertains to the current issue with Die Cast Games, but what the heck-- I'm on a roll) is whether or not the OGL allows you to publish retro-clones. Obviously, this isn't a case that's ever been settled, and as far as I know WotC hasn't ever tried to say that the OGL *doesn't* allow such things, but be aware that the OGL allows you to create works based on what's in the SRD. If it's not in the SRD, it's supposed to be your own original work. What most of the simulacra have done, as far as I can tell, is try to skirt the issue by hybridizing what's allowed under the OGL (core mechanics such as hit points, levels, spells, classes, etc.) with the principle that game rules are algorithms and cannot be copyrighted. So they take what they want from the SRD, and fill in the rest with non-copyrightable material from earlier games. Personally, I think that's a perfectly valid approach, but a judge might see things differently if it ever came to that.

And, equally personally, I am on the fence as to whether I want to use the OGL for my own Adventures Dark and Deep™ game. On the one hand, it does give legal "cover", so to speak, and also allows me to use material that other authors have written under its auspices. On the other hand, it does prevent me from indicating compatibility with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which might be a very useful thing, as well as having to lose things like mind flayers and displacer beasts. Thus, I'm on the fence at this time.

Anyway, I hope I didn't muddle things too much with this, but that's my own understanding of what's at work here, for what it's worth.

UPDATE: I am reminded that OSRIC does indeed use the OGL.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Matinee: Becket (1964)

My childhood wasn't all filled with science fiction. One of my favorite films growing up was 1964's Becket, starring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O'Toole as king Henry II. It showed on Cinemax, and I had a VHS copy of it that I watched so many times I had memorized the film by the time I went to college.

Based on a 1959 play by Jean Anouilh, the film chronicles first the close friendship, and eventual hateful ending, between Thomas Becket and the English king Henry II. Becket is seen as sharing in many of the king's lusty adventures, ever the watchful friend and accomplice, the film very effectively sets up the two as being inseparable, with Becket being the only close friend Henry actually has. Becket is made Chancellor of England, to the consternation of the Norman nobility (Becket being a Saxon, and no love being lost between the two English races). The close friendship is also resented by the Queen (who unfortunately is given a completely forgettable part in this film, considering she is Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most notable figures in all of Medieval history). Becket is not only envied for his friendship with the king, but also for his fierce intellect and political acumen. The king calls him "the only intelligent man in England" at one point, and Becket's talents are used to blunt the aspirations of the Church to exercise independence from the king's laws.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry hits on the notion of appointing Becket as his successor, thus making "Canterbury for the king." Becket protests, but the king insists, and the stage is set for their break. For, as he ascends to the Archbishopric, Becket decides that his honor requires that he actually fulfill the office to the best of his abilities. Where he once took the side of the crown in the struggle between king and Church, he now finds himself on the other side of the fight. And it is a betrayal that Henry can never forgive.

The struggles between Becket and Henry become more and more tense until Becket is forced to flee to France, eventually traveling to Rome to seek the Pope's support. There is a nice scene between Becket and Louis, king of France (played by John Gielgud), following a complete snubbing of Henry's ambassadors by the French king. Eventually, Becket is placed into exile at a monastery, and then returns to England after a compromise is reached between the two former friends. But it is the anguish on Henry's face, when he realizes things will never be as they were, and where the trajectory of events will inevitably lead, that makes the politicking great cinema. It's not just empty posturing about the enforcement of obscure laws. It's about the final destruction of a friendship, and eventually, the friend himself.

The film ends with, of course, the death of Becket following the most famously ambiguous royal command in history; "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

What really makes this film is the acting. Richard Burton is, well, Richard Burton, and you can never get a bad performance out of him. But Peter O'Toole is beyond his usual brilliant self as Henry, at home bellowing orders at the top of his lungs, and equally so selling the king as a lovable rascal and rogue. O'Toole reprised the role for 1968's The Lion in Winter, which is in and of itself a terrific film, where it is great to see Henry back to bellowing and shouting at his family and everyone else around him. (And, I should point out, the magnificent Katherine Hepburn does a virtuoso performance as the aforementioned Eleanore of Aquitaine.)