Monday, May 10, 2010

Giants in the Earth Index

From 1979 to 1982, Dragon magazine ran a regular series of articles titled "Giants in the Earth: Classic Heroes from Fiction and Literature", written by TSR staff writers. Of the dozen-plus articles, the first 9 were written by Lawrence Schick & Tom Moldvay; others pitched in near the end, such as Dave Cook, Katherine Kerr, Roger E. Moore, and Pat Rankin. The characters that appeared were written up in the early AD&D style of the time.

It's an artifact of the free-wheeling gaming environment of the time that they felt these articles could be published at all. In today's far more sociopathic copyright/IP regime, it certainly couldn't be done. (In issue #37 Schick & Moldvay wrote that the one thing they'll be scrupulously avoiding will be the Ring Trilogy characters, because "the Tolkien estate is known to be fanatically paranoid about the slightest possible infringement of rights (whether real or imagined)".)

Below you'll see a complete list of characters included over the run of the series, including original literary creator, name of the character, and any class levels identified for them, presented in the same order as the original articles. (There are a very small number of cases, maybe 1-2 apiece, where the AD&D subclasses of ranger, paladin, or assassin were used; for simplicity, I've lumped those in with the major class types.)


Interesting -- but I probably wouldn't do this if I didn't have a D&D game-design axe to grind. Consider this list of thirty-nine characters, statted up in D&D terms, to be a sample of the overall genre of pulp fantasy and mythology. Here's two major observations that I'd like to make:

(1) Multiclassing is essential. More than a quarter of these characters are multiclassed (11/39 = 28%). The authors frequently found that, in simulating these characters in game terms, they had to mix-and-match abilities from different D&D classes. In almost every case the level ratios are different, showing that it's reasonable in the genre to have a lot of one archetypal class, a little bit of another class, etc.

This is part of the reason why I'm a little dumbfounded at how many people are willing to accept the Holmes/BXCMI-style abandonment of multiclassing (and the even heavier restriction of race-as-class). Clearly even the AD&D regulations on the practice were unreasonable, as the authors found it necessary to freely break or bend those rules. A free mix-and-match multiclassing rule, as suggested by the Original D&D rules, turns out to be necessary for a wide array of classic pulp character types.

(2) Clerics are almost nonexistent. Cleric-like characters appear only 2 times on the list above (and in each case, as the smallest part of some multiclass combination). Thief-like abilities, however, are found four times more frequently (8 characters) -- almost as often as magic-using wizards are (10). In fact, the cleric class is so nigh-useless for this particular exercise, that they actually fail to outnumber even the DMG Sage type for the authors' purposes here (Sage abilities are noted in the class information for both Medea and Professor Challenger).

As I've said on numerous occasions, it is the cleric class which makes the least overall sense in the context of pulp fantasy, and is the most fundamentally troubling class to be included in Original D&D. Among other multifarious reasons, the armored, adventuring, miraculous man-of-Catholic-faith is simply not a type you see very much in the roots of the genre, if at all. The inclusion really sticks out like a sore thumb in OD&D.

Okay, so having made my major points, here's some miscellaneous footnotes:
  1. In issue #30, Gary Gygax writes a cautionary note that some of these levels may be too high, singling out in particular Kane (who indeed has the highest total levels of anyone in the list above): "I must point out that the Schick-Moldvay series 'Giants In The Earth' tends to rate the figures too high, making them more like gods than 'heroes.' Cugel is okay... but Kane is too powerful! A 30th-level Fighter/20-level Magic-User/14th-level assassin? Come on, fellows! Would you believe a 20th-level Fighter/16th-level Magic User/12th-level Assassin?"
  2. Issue #37 has a "Giants in the Earth" article with no characters included; it presents motivations, theory, and rationale behind the levels, powers, etc., used in the series. Issue #46 likewise has an article under the same header that is just a call for further articles, and a demonstration stat-block template.
  3. Much much later, in 1998, there was one additional article that used the "Giants in the Earth" banner; but this was part of a cross-promotional effort with Greg Keyes and his then-current "Black God/Waterborn" series (Keyes authored both the novels and the game writeup), using much different late-2E classes and statistics, and so is not included above.
  4. If you're interested in other writeups of classic literary figures from a time when such things were possible, you might also consider: OD&D Sup-IV Gods, Demigods & Heroes (including the worlds of Conan and Elric), the 1st-printing of AD&D Deities & Demigods (with the mythos for King Arthur, Cthulhu, Elric, and Fafhrd/Gray Mouser), and Gygax's lengthy Conan dossier in Dragon #36 (including his evolving abilities and fighter/thief levels from age 15 to 70, as well as a roster of special abilities which later formed the basis for the Barbarian class.)

21 comments:

  1. Good analysis, great memories. A few things:

    Clerics come from the miniatures wargaming side of the family. But yeah, I don't like them either. Priests should be more like wizards but with holy spells. Militant priests should be multiclass or their own thing.

    The prevalence of fighter/thief also argues for a "fighter + skills" solution rather than the thief class. "There was this story where he climbed a wall! He must have levels in thief!"

    Most of the restrictions in the D&D system, especially on weapons and armor, are there for game balance among PCs rather than simulating legendary figures. I would argue that multiclassed "giants" are in the realm of the GM and do not need to follow the rules imposed on the PCs.

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  2. There's some serious level bloat going on there. My favourite "WTF?" moment is Captain Blood: F17, T10, CL8.

    Nice to know that even the originators of the game could be raging fanboys. :)

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  3. Wasn't there a priest in the epic of Spain (El Sid or something?) that when around bludgeoning people that wouldn't repent and convert?

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  4. Awesome post! :D

    Delta, you mentioned, "A free mix-and-match multiclassing rule, as suggested by the Original D&D rules..."

    What passage are you thinking of here?

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  5. Claytonian: "Wasn't there a priest in the epic of Spain (El Sid or something?) that when around bludgeoning people that wouldn't repent and convert?"

    I don't think so. Wikipedia article on real-world El Cid says nothing about being a priest or converting people. "nobleman, a military leader and diplomat... with a combined Christian and Moorish army... El Cid's sword, Tizona, used to be displayed in the Army Museum (Museo del Ejército) in Toledo..."

    But regardless: The whole point of this exercise is that you need a wider and random sampling, say 30+ characters, to more scientifically determine how common or uncommon the character type really is.

    I'm sure lots of people can think of one anecdotal cleric-like character when pressed, but general conclusions fail to follow from that. See anecdotal evidence.

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  6. I would even argue that Captain Blood having cleric levels is an odd choice. Sure, he could heal, but that was because he was a trained doctor. Come to think of it, the novel was much more historical fiction than fantasy, and I wonder at the inclusion of that character at all.



    I can't speak to the other character with cleric levels, having never read that book.

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  7. Interesting points but the author's are statting interpretatios of literary characters. Point 1 is addressed that these characters in many cases are flying solo or part of very small groups (3 or less), multi-classing, level "juicing" (even abiity score inflation) reflects this. D&D being a game has a different function to fll. Characters in a "normal" sized group has built in party role protection in this sense, since the entire party needs the thief when they need the thief, need the fighters when the butchering, etc. No one PC can 'do it all', consequently they wouldn't need to join a party if they were a one-man show...and why these literary characters are.

    As to clerics, the reasoning is pretty much the same. PC's get beat up, need healing, need game mechanic to effect this (though there are other methods and you have written of some of them). An author's character or party gets beat up? he writes out the passage of time for healig or some deus-ex-machina to effect it.

    Again, both points you bring up are interesting in and of themselves (or I wouldn't waste time writing this out to reply) but I get the sense of false corollaries here that don't really apply when looking at the literary needs an author has for characters vs. what the game authors regarded as necessary for a party's character needs and roles.

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  8. Geoffrey: "What passage are you thinking of here?"

    Yeah, I'm thinking mostly of the line, "Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game." [Vol-1, p. 8]

    This being in contrast to the multiclassing rules introduced in the Greyhawk supplement, "Thus, experience is always distributed proportionately in the three categories even when the elf can no longer gain additional levels in a given category.", [Sup-I, p. 5], and so forth.

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  9. Re: Elven multi-classing. That's an interesting interpretation of that passage and one I've never heard before. I'm fairly certain that it can't possibly be correct, however. You seem to be interpreting "adventure-to-adventure" to mean "level-to-level", but I'm not clear on how you're justifying that interpretation.

    As far as statting up fictional characters in D&D goes, I find these exercises almost always fall into three pitfalls:

    (1) "This is guy is pretty smart, so he must have a maxed out Intelligence score."

    This error in judgment also takes the form of, "This guy is described as being the best fighter in the world, so he must be 20th level." (This assumes that (a) the description isn't hyperbole and (b) that the character even exists in a world where characters like 20th level D&D fighters exist.)

    (2) "The character was able to do X once, therefore they should be powerful enough that they can do X any time they want with complete assurance and a 100% success rate."

    (3) Assuming that if a character has some ability that only a 16th-level ranger can have, then they must be a 16th-level ranger (even if they don't have any other ranger-like abilities).

    In short, fictional characters are not designed to D&D specs. And artificially bloating the power and ability of a character is silly. If you absolutely, positively must dot every "t" and dot every "i" by making sure that every single paragraph in every single story featuring the character can be mechanically accounted for, then it makes a lot more sense to simply build an appropriately balanced, custom-designed class for them (rather than shoehorning in a bunch of extra stuff).

    Re: Clerics. The influence of the Lord Darcy stories on the division between divine and arcane magic is generally under-acknowledged.

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  10. Oh, and re: mix-and-match multiclassing in the LBBs I momentarily forgot this: "For every 50 Elves encountered there will be one of above-normal capabilities. Roll a four-sided die for level of fighting and a six-sided die for level of magical ability..." [Vol-2, p. 16]

    My presumption for the Vol-1 language is that for any adventure where you're "switched" to fighter, any XP must go to the fighter XP pool; and likewise when "switched" to magic-using wizard. Not level-to-level. The exact abilities available I would leave as a separate issue.

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  11. Never did care much for that series. While it did get me to read some cool stuff, they never really had a good grasp on what "level" meant.

    Level bloat was almost standard. if most people are 0 level with a few outliers (say Nobles in the DMG) running 5-7, a 12th level guy is a killing machine.

    Frankly a good many of those could have been done as Thief X or Fighter X with secondary skills and decently high attributes especially if they were written up in Basic D&D.

    Conan: Thief x Secondary Skills (Forester and Sailor) High Strength and Con -- boom done.

    And yes of course a few guys did need to multi classed, Grey Mouser (from the DDG) was certainly Thief/MU and maybe Elric but not the majority by any means ...

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  12. I can't help but feel that Fafhrd might have been a Ranger Lv 7 / Thief Lv 8 and the Grey Mouser a Thief Lv 9 / M-U Lv 3.

    Is that such a problem? Why does anyone need to be 20th level? So long as you assume that the average dumb town guard is only Level 0 like he should be, and a military Veteran is a Fighter Lv 1.

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  13. 5stonegames: "Conan: Thief x Secondary Skills (Forester and Sailor) High Strength and Con -- boom done."

    Beyond any personal prejudices, I have to take as definitive what the whole roster of TSR writers, including Gygax, said on the matter.

    For the example of Conan, you can't get away from the fact that he's the exemplary case study used to illustrate what it means to be a high-level fighter from the earliest kernel of the game ("superheroes of the 'Conan' type", Chainmail p. 28) to Gygax's major treatise on the character (Dragon #36).

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  14. The absence of "cleric" and "paladin" classes is not, I think, a reflection of their nonexistence, but rather of the desire to avoid the controversy that would be created by their inclusion.

    A list of literary figures who fall into these classes would be historical or semi-historical. They would largely include figures from Jewish and Christian literature and legends. Pretty much any of the following would need at least one level of cleric or paladin:
    Moses
    Elijah
    Jesus Christ
    Saint George
    Martin of Tours
    Sir Lancelot
    Roland
    Joan of Arc

    In principle, virtually any miracle-working prophet or medieval saint could have been written up as a D&D character with a few cleric levels. But it's easy to see why TSR wouldn't have wanted to open that particular can of worms, and so stuck to the "safer" option of using only religiously neutral figures from Homer and Shakespeare.

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  15. As has been said, I don’t find the need of multi-classing when stating fictional characters to demonstrate a need for it in the hobby. Of course, for me, I think there’s still too many interesting characters to be explored within the classes to worry too much about the limits of the mechanic.

    That said, I have a changing-class rule in hand because I want to have an answer for that if events lead to a character wanting to make such a change.

    The observation about un-symmetric multi-classing I find more interesting. That suggests that a mechanic that encouraged such might go a long way towards satisfying those who want it.

    I think a lot of people (including myself—and perhaps the GitE authors) over-estimated the scope of thief skills, which might mean more thief levels here than—IMH(current)O—necessary.

    In any case, great post & research, as always! Thanks.

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  16. Edward: I'd have to say that's a bit of an empty argument. If historical Christian figures don't appear in the game... then they don't appear in the game, and the Cleric class is unnecessary. It's precisely this bipolar situation of Clerics why I think they're a mistake for OD&D (clearly Christian, but can't use Christian references).

    Of those you name, Sir Lancelot is in the AD&D Deities & Demigods book, and of course is indeed a Paladin (level 20). But the others, being real historical or current-religion figures, would not be used in classic D&D.

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  17. I don't have a particular dog in this fight, but I'll point out that most of these protagonists are single protagonists or, at most, have a single partner. That is, from a D&D perspective, they have to serve as an entire party of adventurers.

    That's why they're multiclassed... And why people aren't as upset about multiclassing being difficult or missing in a lot of editions of D&D. Shadowjack has to do everything in the story; in a D&D group, the "story" has multiple stars, and need to rely on each other in order to make the game work.

    It's a feature, not a bug. If your character can do everything himself, why drag four other people along with him?

    Mapping literature onto RPGs is always fraught with problems, but at the very least you need to be looking at fiction with a more ensemble cast for your comparisons.

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  18. Kirt: Disagree. One, you set an unsatisfiable requirement -- these are all the characters with official D&D translations (plus Conan & Elric) to show designer intent. Two, the inspiration for the original game is always demonstrated to be fundamentally based on literature; see DMG Appendix N; see Zak Smith's recent short blog "The Essential Literariness of Dungeons". Link.

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  19. Is there an expanded index of these articles, maybe up through the first 200 Dragon issues? I remember Aahz and Skeeve and the Deryni characters for a psionic centered issue in particular that got the 'Giants' treatment. Thanks for the great article!

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  20. ^ That's all there is (with me looking at the Dragon CD archive of issues 1-250). For example, the psionic issue you speak of is in issue #78 (Oct. 1983) with "The Deryni: An adaptation by Arthur Collins", and "Heroes & villains of the Deryni", but they don't fall under the "Giants in the Earth" series. Probably there's more like that, too.

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