Friday, January 23, 2015

A Small Change, a Very Different Cleric

I've been thinking a good bit about the cleric lately. On the one hand, I feel like the cleric as a class remains an awkward fit even after 41 years of Dungeons & Dragons. If you really wanted a more sword & sorcery vibe, cutting the priest would seem to be the first order of business. But there are models for the cleric that I find unobjectionable: the Knights Templar, Stoker's Abraham Van Helsing, and Howard's Solomon Kane. Each or all of those would make a magnificent template for what the cleric ought to be, but unfortunately it's not what the Dungeons & Dragons cleric winds up being in play. Once the dice hit the table, and in original and classic once he hits second level, the cleric becomes a healer, and the rest goes away.

The healer role has become entrenched in D&D play over the years, and contributed to a combat-heavy game. By the time of the AD&D 1e Player's Handbook, the first level cleric with a Wisdom of 14 or better can cast Cure Light Wounds three times per day. Armed with this heavy rotation of healing spells, is it any surprise that D&D went from being exploration-first to combat-first? And the cleric's supply of healing spells forms a big part of the basis for the "15 minute workday" problem.

All of that could be adjusted by removing two spells from the cleric's spell list: Cure Light Wounds and Cure Serious Wounds. Without them, the cleric is a much more interesting spellcaster. Rather than running about curing others, he is a front-line combatant who has the ability to augment other characters or cast an occasional in-combat spell. Turning undead and fighting are his biggest attributes.

Once you've done this, healing can go a couple of ways. An "ironman" option is to simply cut the healing down dramatically. This will certainly discourage the combat-first mentality of more recent versions of D&D, as PCs go into a dungeon with pretty much exactly as many HP as they will emerge with. Variants of D&D more or less like this have generally worked.

If that's too extreme, one option might be to take a page from 5e D&D and make healing potions something that can be bought normally for a GP cost. While I generally object strongly to the idea of buying and selling magic items, it's possible that such potions in your setting are not "magic" but simply alchemy or herbalism. It also gives the referee the option of including, say, a chart indicating the efficacy of such potions; a few might be more potent or less so, and a rare few may go bad and turn to poison. (I generally like this approach, of making some of D&D's "common" magic items actually nonmagical; the same logic works for making +1 swords masterwork or mithril or adamantine instead of enchanted.)

A third possibility is to give magic-users the ability to research the healing spells, but at 1 level up. I'm not fond of this, because it just restores the "healer" and moves it over to the M-U, and imperils cool 2nd level spells like Invisibility, but if the players absolutely insisted, I'd certainly allow them to use the magic research rules on analogs to the Cure spells.

There is a second, parallel shift I'd consider for the cleric. Basically, narrowing the scope of the weapon restriction to magical swords. It never made sense to me that clerics can't use swords; the templar certainly wasn't restricted to the mace, which was a specialized spiked weapon mostly used for punching through armor, and after all the image in this post has a knight drawing his sword. Also, if we want more Solomon Kane in our clerics, he certainly was a sword man.

I've thought a lot recently about whether clerics have a place in my D&D going forward. I'm thinking that they might, but with this small change that makes that a very different place.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Getting Hyperborean: the Voormis

They stood only half erect, and their shaggy heads were about his thighs and hips, snarling and snapping like dogs; and they clawed him with hook-shaped nails that caught and held in the links of his armor.
- Clark Ashton Smith, "The Seven Geases"
I've been under the influence for a while now of Clark Ashton Smith's writing, and have grown particularly fond of his material on Hyperborea. I want to mine some of his work for D&D purposes, and there hardly seems any candidate more suitable than the Voormis, featured in "The Seven Geases." (Indeed, the story features a plethora of weird creatures, some of which make their way into the venerable Cthulhu Mythos.)

Voormis are slavering, shaggy-furred humanoids, who the arrogant Ralibar Vooz hunts for pelts. Smith describes them as "possessed of quasi-human cunning," using stones as missile weapons, but heavily implies that their "vile feeding-habits" include anthropophagy. Once Ralibar Vooz closes on them and starts pummeling them to death with his fists, they attack with tooth and claw rather than having weapons of their own. Perhaps most important to their use in D&D, the Voormis are frequently a subterranean race.

Smith has Ralibar Vooz take on a skeptical cast to the heritage of the Voormis, who are supposed to have been descended from the toad-like god Tsathoggua (who we see as a recurring theme in Smith's Hyperborean work). It is the kind of irony that CAS used heavily that this skeptic will soon be under the compulsion of several magic Geases and encounter all variety of gods and monsters in the underworld of Voormithadreth.

The most terrible Voormis in CAS's stories is Knygathin Zhaum, the antagonist of "The Testament of Athammaus," who causes the abandonment of Commoriom (and may well be the anthropophagic creature encountered in "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros"). In "Athammaus," the Voormis are described closer to degenerate humans than pure beasts, and Knygathin Zhaum is an almost invulnerable creature descended from Tsathoggua with the uncanny ability to reform after his head is repeatedly chopped off.

"Athammaus" also tells us that the Voormis did speak, using the "Eiglophian dialect" for which translators are needed in Commoriom. It also gives us a pattern of raiding, and the knowledge that it was relatively uncommon for them to be too aggressive with it. They are further anthropomorphized by Lin Carter in a short story called "The Scroll of Morloc," a tale assembled posthumously from CAS's notes and found in an old DAW paperback called Lost Worlds or in Chaosium's The Book of Eibon. (The current Wikipedia entry for Voormis focuses heavily on this story.)

The Voormis are an excellent "weird" answer to D&D's standard humanoids, both in role and flavor. I think their savagery but slightly more human edge gives them a weight where fighting them feels significantly different from the classic human / orc antagonism. I also think the ambiguity can be very useful to a referee; they can be as human-like as in "Athammaus" and "Morloc" or as bestial as the specimens in "Geases."

As far as stats, I would say they could safely vary from those usually given for orcs to gnolls; i.e., from 1 to 2 hit dice, and with an armor class between 5 and 7. Damage will differ based on specific system, but I would think either one attack of 1d6 or two of 1d3 each is appropriate. Morale would get a bonus when defending their homes.

So that is the Voormis; I think they're excellent adversaries, and can fill a classic D&D niche while helping to set a weird fantasy tone. I'm going to spend a few more posts on the creatures of "The Seven Geases," which is richest in terrors and wonders.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mud and Gas: Taking Inspiration from World War I

Far more treacherous than the visible surface defences with which we were familiar, such as barbed wire; deep devouring mud spread deadly traps in all directions. We splashed and slithered, and dragged our feet from the pull of an invisible enemy determined to suck us into its depths. Every few steps someone would slide and stumble and, weighed down by rifle and equipment, rapidly sink into the squelching mess. Those nearest grabbed his arms, struggled against being themselves engulfed and, if humanly possible, dragged him out. When helpers floundered in as well and doubled the task, it became hopeless. All the straining efforts failed and the swamp swallowed its screaming victims, and we had to be ordered to plod on dejectedly and fight this relentless enemy as stubbornly as we did those we could see.

Private Norman Cliff, 1st Grenadier Guards, To Hell and Back with the Guards, quoted in Peter Hart, The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War.
Dan Carlin furnished this reference in his fine podcast, Hardcore History, talking about World War I. And it strikes me to the bone; in the last six months or so I've developed a strong interest in the first World War and its attendant horrors, in no small part because it was so bloody and total a war, but unlike World War II, most of the atrocity was on the battlefields and not being perpetrated upon civilians.

The Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele, stood out for one reason: the mud. Norman Cliff's description above does it far more justice than I can, but it was just pervasive and awful, and it was total. Soldiers had to live with it for months. It was a carrier of filth and disease and unlimited horror. People shat in it, people died in it, shells exploded in it, and you had to live with it. Wooden planks made easy targets for artillery and machine guns.

Mud is a hazard that is totally natural for RPGs. Outdoor locations are extremely liable to be mud-spattered in rainy seasons, while underground locations with an earthen floor could, under sufficient flooding, turn into a quagmire not unlike those in Passchendaele. Particularly nasty is when the characters are caught in a torrential downpour and the area around them changes from fields into a swamp. The mud in Ypres was compared to the consistency of cheesecake, and soldiers would slowly sink in like quicksand.

Armor is absolutely a disadvantage in these situations. A World War I soldier's kit is fairly comparable in weight to a fully loaded fighter wearing plate armor; if a character in plate falls into sufficiently deep mud, they need to be pulled out or they will drown. Chain is less heavy and probably gives a better chance to get out, although the armor might be ruined by caked-on mud holding water close to spots that will then be rusted out.

It also feels appropriate for various horrors to be lurking within the mud. Even relatively shallow mud, where characters aren't at risk of drowning, can be made hazardous this way. Permanent mud might be home to nasty dire versions of worms or crayfish or other things that creep through the muck. And I'm always a sucker for scenes like the one in Star Wars where the mynock drags Luke down in the trash compactor.

And mud is a great place to hide pretty much anything. It could be treasure that was once buried, or a door half-hidden by muck where opening it is a logistical challenge, or a floor now covered that holds a secret message.

The first world war was also the first time that chemical warfare was widely used. The horror was brilliantly captured by Wilfred Owen in his well-known poem "Dulce et Decorum Est":
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Mustard gas was another "gift" of the third Ypres, an irritant that first developed only red patches but would soon turn into excruciatingly painful blisters, often blinding the victim temporarily and then leaving him scarred for life, and often permanently blinded. In a certain sense, choking to death on phosgene or chlorine gas was fairly merciful.

Gas traps are a D&D commonality, but are often all-or-nothing affairs. The gas kills you, or puts you to sleep; there is none of the sheer horror that mustard gas put into British troops on the Ypres salient. Choking tear gas is often used on civilians in the modern world, but if your fantasy setting has sufficiently advanced alchemy, it could very well be a part of everyday life in the dungeon. Particularly striking would be opponents that have some sort of gas masks; the picture above of a German cavalry man wearing the Stahlhelm and gas mask as he carries a lance astride his horse is the kind of outlandish anachronism that the first world war created.

Of course, turnabout is fair play, and it is entirely possible for the PCs to use gas against the enemy. The Cloudkill spell is literally a gas attack, after all, but captured or invented chemical gas is also a potent weapon. At this point, of course, the biggest danger of chemical warfare must be remembered: one does not normally control the wind direction. In a dungeon this can be particularly nasty, as a lack of moving air could simply turn a gas bomb into a barrier that lingers for hours.

The first World War devastated a whole generation of men, some of whom (like Tolkien) turned out to be Appendix N authors. It dashed the dreams that science and modernity had only good things to offer, and created yearning for an idyllic past. At the same time, it formed landscapes on earth that would have previously only been thought of as godforsaken blasted planets, and blew away the pomp and glory of the 19th century in a storm of steel. When you need to create an atmosphere where humans are stretched to their breaking point, World War I is the logical place to turn.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Nuking the Monster Manual

In 1977, TSR released the Monster Manual. This was the first hardcover AD&D manual, and established a number of things. First, TSR became dominant in the market; the Monster Manual quickly outsold its more ecumenical competitor, Chaosium's All the World's Monsters, which had a great number of weird and "gag" monsters. The Monster Manual contains copious statistics for each creature featured, many of them totally useless, such as the dozens of entries reading "SPECIAL ATTACKS: Nil; SPECIAL DEFENSES: Nil; MAGIC RESISTANCE: Standard." Other entries contain lines of questionable utility like "SPECIAL ATTACKS: See below." It is fine to have a template that informs the referee of special attacks, but it's almost never put to use, and even when it is the detail is repeated in the monster's text block below.

The Monster Manual contains many of the classic creatures that are iconic to D&D. James Maliszewski talked at length about the curious sense of naturalism in the book. It seems unfair to beat up on this book, but I think some of the choices made by Gygax had a limiting effect on the evolution of D&D and fantasy gaming in general.

By sticking with hierarchical lists of various types of creatures (demons, devils, dragons, and humanoids), Gygax wound up creating not examples of how to implement a concept, but canonical creatures. D&D's various monster types became a huge part of its current intellectual property, and many have leaked into fantasy more generally. If I could insert my own Monster Manual into history in place of Gygax's, I would have replaced particularly demons, dragons and the humanoid types with baseline examples and tables to create variations from there. For instance, orcs would be just one implementation of humanoids, but many others could be generated. Dragons would no longer be color-coded, and demons would be many and varied.

At the same time, I think the human types are somewhat limited. I like the concept that OD&D's "Evil High Priest" has Finger of Death and other reverse-cleric powers; rather than relying on the spell list I would have preferred a monster book that has human types like Evil Priest, Witch and so on that have more unique powers. Even the leveled NPCs could have made really interesting human encounters.

In OD&D, Balrogs were "boss" monsters. Despite the named demon and devil lords, I don't think AD&D managed to reproduce the feat. They are too remote, too distant, to take that role. You'd never put Orcus on a random encounter list, but the OD&D list had balrogs on it. Re-creating this would have been another goal in changing the Monster Manual.

But the real shame was that the Monster Manual unceremoniously dumped all the science fantasy elements that had been in OD&D. The various Martian creatures are more understandable given the Burroughs estate's tendency to sue over various slights, but the lack of the androids and robots described in Monsters & Treasure is not. By leaving them out, I think the Monster Manual ultimately situated AD&D in "high fantasy" whereas OD&D had been a bit more ambiguous; this not only hurt D&D as a game, but stopped it from becoming a force against that genre of fantasy's rise in the late '70s and through the '80s.

I do wonder if there may be something to an alternate bestiary that is an alternative Monster Manual, as outlined above. I would have to think it would start with the OD&D monsters but rethink the humanoids, and add several categories of creatures that are based on adding elements to a template – dragons, demons, robots, and so on. I think this might be a good compromise between "standard" and "unique" monsters that has been a tension in the OSR.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Actual Play: Original D&D

Since I've had so many days off work over the holidays, I decided to run a pick-up game on G+ Hangouts of original D&D. This used a dungeon that I've been tinkering with ideas on for a while now, using some of the science fantasy elements I've discussed on this blog as well as some other mythological stuff I have picked up along the way. As dungeons are wont to do, a player choice early on wound up driving much of the game.

The PCs started exploring a dungeon complex I am calling the Orichalcum Age Dungeon, which was built during the years before Atlantis sunk beneath the waves. Things went quickly from town to dungeon and (after distracting some giant rodents with rations) the PCs wound up talking to an NPC magic-user, who they eventually convinced to come with them on their trip. It was really interesting to play this out using the reaction tables, as the MU went from skeptical to accepting their offer. But when a PC accidentally walked through a teleportation trap, he wanted to leave him for lost, while the other PCs stayed loyal. They voluntarily went into the trap while the NPC left them behind. Following the dice always leads to an interesting dynamic. It's practically the first law of old school roleplaying.

On the other side of the teleport trap, the PCs eventually found and slept a group of bandits, only leaving the leader. They had him as a captive, but he turned the table; having a good HP total will do that for you. At one point in the ensuing fight, he managed to take one of the PCs hostage, which was an on the fly ruling I made when he had rolled a 20 to hit and would've instantly killed him. I like the interpretation that a 20 allows you to do max damage or any other maneuver you like, and in the future I think I'll leave it open for PCs. The hostage character wound up getting the sharp end of the dagger when the PCs threatened a slept bandit in return; the bandit leader didn't value his followers that much, after all.

There was a fun encounter that happened because of an idea I ran across in the 5e DMG's tables: a false door with a trap behind it. I stuck a gray ooze behind a door and had it come out when it was opened.

Then there were Selenites. I used them in place of kobolds, figuring that as diminutive creatures and fairly weak they would have a similar role. The fun part was that the PCs chased them to a portal leading to a gray, featureless wasteland – the Moon, of course. This went to two principles I am working on with this dungeon. First, the idea that PCs shouldn't have to go deep in the dungeon to get to really interesting parts; second, the idea of replacing a lot of the generic monster crew with more interesting counterparts.

It being OD&D contributed greatly to the latter. I've gone back and forth over the issue of monster design, because OD&D has very few variables and correspondingly not a lot of design space to make monsters unique. But the flip side of this is that creating a new monster is just a question of changing one or two numbers from an existing monster. The referee can literally think up new monsters while stocking the dungeon. (Personally, my notes list armor class, movement rate and hit dice, so I can actually write up everything I need for a monster in my room notes.)

When comparing this to later iterations of D&D, the ease of inventing monsters on-the-fly for OD&D is an advantage that it's hard to overstate. The only things you have to spend any time thinking about are special abilities beyond basic d6 damage. Even in Metamorphosis Alpha I find design to be much more involved, while in B/X D&D it's a bit of a chore and in 5e it's such a maze I'm not sure I really want to think about it.

It's also interesting to notice patterns that people develop. Holmes and B/X make people throw tons of flaming oil; I ran with this strategy doing damage, although not as powerfully as in Holmes. Technically in a strict reading of OD&D, oil should just deter pursuit rather than doing damage, but I rolled with it for a session. Swords & Wizardry Whitebox also has players develop habits that are just wrong for by the book OD&D, for instance the whole idea of bonuses for a 13 stat other than Dexterity. And nobody turned over a character write-up for the game with the stats in OD&D order (Str Int Wis Con Dex Cha).

In my mind, this has always been an OD&D blog. Even though I think clones that go afield from what OD&D is are putting out really excellent material today and pushing the envelope in what D&D can do, the original game still has a very special place for me. Most of the time today was spent on the exploration game of OD&D, and I've always thought that is the game's real strength. None of that is to knock other editions, or the clones, but playing the original game always brings this home for me.