Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: Maze of Peril

I just got done reading Maze of Peril by John Eric Holmes, editor of the first D&D Basic Set, and a D&D aficionado who based the book on games played with his sons. The book is still available by mail from the publisher, New York-based Space & Time (here). I was impressed.

First, there's something very satisfying about the book having monochrome blue artwork for the cover -- the same as Holmes' classic "blue book" D&D rules. According to the author's biography, he also published short stories in a magazine called Bluebook, so I guess there's some sympathetic magic tied into all of his works in this way.

I would call this a very well-written book: Like the pulp short stories which I have come to prefer -- Conan, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, early Elric, etc. -- stuff happens rapidly, the plot barrels forward with intensity, and internal monologues and motivations are almost always left off-screen (perhaps they are deeper for being left unsaid, in a Hitchcockian sense). It's not like the bloated fantasy novels that are common today, and quite unlike, say, the Thomas Covenant novels that I more-or-less grew up on. (An aside: Shouldn't the short story format be ideal for this age of size-is-irrelevant digital readers, Twitter, and micro-messaging? Does a successful venture for that exist and I don't know about it?)

To whatever degree Holmes based this on his home game, I'd have to say that it's flat-out the best conversion from game to written story that I've ever read. Somewhat surprisingly, given the title, perhaps 1/2 or more of the story takes place outside the dungeon (with various scenes in a town, tavern, and nearby cemetery). The story follows the point-of-view of a halfling adventurer, which is much more satisfying and works better that I would have expected; the character here feels very much in the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser mold -- amusingly self-interested, jaded in a casual fashion, and like a lot of old-school D&D characters (although the name "Boinger" is really the one thing in the book I wish could be changed). Despite the back cover copy, the characters are at no point working to "... perhaps... save the world", which is actually quite preferable in my mind.


D&D Adjudications

Now I'll spend some time thinking about the rules of the D&D world as fleshed out here by Dr. Holmes (again: editor of what might possibly be the single best-selling version of D&D ever). First, the milieu is extremely well-textured, and in its way, believable (the D&D rules are interpreted with great verisimilitude). Perhaps the only thing that struck me as wrong was the "wahoo" population of the town tavern scenes, including all the usual PC races, plus centaurs, fauns, etc., apparently as standard patrons. Almost everything beside that I could at least consider using in my own games at some point. Warning: Some spoilers below.

There is an elf character (the boon companion of the protagonist after the initial chapter). Normally he is a stealthy fighter; there is just one point where he casts a spell, in the privacy of his quarters, and to do so he must strip off all of his armor and equipment. "'Can't have iron touching the body anywhere,' he explained, 'no iron, even nails in the boot heels. It drains the flow of force from the other world.'" [p. 34] Now, that's actually a really attractive (and mythologically compatible) explanation for the troublesome OD&D language on how elves "switch" between fighters and magic-users. However, on second thought, that's contradicted by the standard D&D appearance of elves in chain mail, even when casting spells (as early as OD&D Vol-2); and also by magic-users in general being customarily armed with daggers (and usually carrying spikes, lanterns, etc.) At one point, the elf succumbs to a sleep spell, so pretty clearly the AD&D-line's elven resistance to the spell is not being used here.

Other details: A lot of play is given to the sense & stealth capabilities of the halfling and elf. There are no thieves explicitly called out in the book (and the halfling is wearing chain mail), yet at one point this pair stage an infiltration and theft in town -- climbing up a tower quietly by rope-and-grapple, sneaking in a sealed window -- and at another point the halfling goes checking for pit traps with a regular pole (so obviously, this can bolster the argument of those who think that the thief class is extraneous in D&D). Significant attention is paid to the one knight character in "full armor" (the only person who appears in plate mail). Locked doors are broken open by force; serious planning takes place before a swim (all armor off and given a flotation device); and much care is given to keeping the elf's bowstring dry and unslung during travel. There are some great scenes with a group of Amazon warriors.

There are possibly some liberties taken regarding the power-level of the characters in question. Early in the book, a hard-won fight takes places with a handful of orcs; the wizard is described at one point as being second level; all of the party except one is felled by the aforementioned sleep spell; and the characters seem to have at most one or two signature magic items among them (which is actually well-focused, for storytelling purposes). Yet at the same time the group winds up engaging huge lycanthropes, a golem, a purple worm, etc.; they survive being directly blasted by a fireball spell (just barely); and the wizard casts a spell that certainly appears to be cone of cold or something very similar.

Spells end when the casting magic-user gets killed. Now, this is a pretty common feature in fantasy stories (for example, I just read the same thing last night in the Conan story by de Camp & Carter, "Red Moon of Zembabwei"), and in fact, I find that this is frequently a standard expectation of those new to the D&D fantasy game. But of course it's not a feature of any officially published version of the D&D rules, and I could imagine some problematic side-effects if this were a standard ruling (like: how it exponentially makes the PC wizard a preferred target of foes, and moreso with every spell they cast).

Something happens to a golem which is so extraordinary, I would never have thought to allow it under standard D&D rules. But it's rather brilliant in execution, and my instinct is to accept it with great amusement and salute the DM for it (from the perspective of a player-in-the-game, say). This particular bit I'll leave off for you to find elsewhere.


On Clerics

Now, here's a meditation devoted to the status clerics within Maze of Peril (knowing that D&D clerics are a super sore spot from me; deleting them is at the top of my major house rules in the right sidebar here).

First and foremost, the cleric and the knight in the story are explicitly and prominently Christian. The cleric's spells are in Latin and named as such [p. 46-47]; he says, "I must do morning mass" [p. 51] and "Lord of Hosts, aid me!" [p. 119]; his healing spell is triggered by the words, "In nomine Patrie, in spiritus sanctu, de reart invisium..." [p. 115] (a minor modification to the trinitarian formula), etc. The knight calls himself "Sir Geoffrey Haymort of the Cross" [p. 69]; he is described by the cleric as, "the flower of Christian knighthood" [p. 100]; he argues for "the finer Christian spirit of fair play" [p. 116], etc.

Now, as much as I have a problem with the D&D cleric, I find this to be totally acceptable. Obviously the original D&D cleric description is shot through entirely with Christian details (crosses, Catholic level titles, Biblical-origin spells, etc.), and this coloring-in from those details is actually a very great relief. Among my biggest problems with the D&D cleric is its sublimated "quasi-Christian or crypto-Christian" status as James Maliszewski attributes to Gygax (in his excellent post on The Implicit Christianity of Early Gaming) -- which specifically allowed it to evolve later in a direction of supposed-pantheism, and for me, compounded the problems and frustrations and nonsense, over and over again. (For example: "Cleric blunt weapon restrictions make no sense for non-Christians!" it was argued 30 years ago, and still today on Grognardia.) For me, it's a much better option to fully embrace what appears in OD&D (Christian clerics) and make those details consistent and strong (either that, or ditch the whole class -- for which there are yet more reasons -- but not to transform it into a mangled, unhinged fantasy pantheism). Holmes' success here actually made me re-think for a day or two whether I should bring clerics back to my games (Christian ones, exploring and facing off against the horrors of a more ancient world).

Now, other pagan gods are mentioned in the book, always by non-humans, at least in passing as oaths or curses. The elf utters "Crom's devils!" [p. 35] (from Conan); the halfling says, "Mithra save us!" [p. 85] (which is pretty similar to the Conan deity Mitra); an Amazon refers to "the Goddess" [p. 82]. Furthermore, the elf asserts that he can tell time underground by sensing the position of the moon above: "'I can feel the pull of the goddess once her silver orb clears the horizon line"... The cleric cleared his throat, embarrassed at the mention of his companion's pagan goddess." [p. 112] A cult of frog-men worship a huge demonic idol straight out of Lovecraft and/or Howard: "Dagon fatahgan! Ia Ia Dagon", they chant [p. 120].

And yet, none of these non-humans or their gods are described as having clerics at any point. The frog-men are described as having "priests" with magical powers -- but I keenly noted what one of these powers was: a "priest" of Dagon casts the aforementioned sleep spell, indicating that he's actually a magic-user. All of this I am also perfectly fine with. I expect to use demonic "priests" who are actually wizard/sorcerer/magic-users, myself. And I think that you could run a campaign very nicely, as Holmes suggests here, with the only functioning clerics from a human, Christian society -- other gods being ambiguous, or false, or cast down, or Crom-like in their uncaring. That's how the cleric class worked in original D&D (and the B/X line), although it was overturned as of Supplement-I (Greyhawk permitting NPC clerics to dwarves and elves).

Picture this -- The game's play takes place almost exclusively in a "Borderlands" area, in an explicitly medieval time period. Off-screen there is a civilized human empire of some size, Christian, but we don't expect to ever spend time there (after all: it's staid, settled, and boring). In this borderlands area, Christian adventurers rub shoulders with older races who maintain memories of otherwise forgotten pagan gods (and thus having no standard clerical magic). Consider the reason Holmes gives us for the adventuring cleric here: "the man started to tell a long story about his abbot, who was it seems, most unreasonable, and sent members of his order off on long quests as punishment for the most insignificant of offenses" [p. 36].

Some other details which are intriguing, if nonstandard by the D&D rules: Trapped underground, the cleric's spell-powers return after a day, without any preparation on his part, and apparently without even certain knowledge of whether or not he has them back yet (the elf says, "Brother Ambrose, a day has passed, see if you can heal the magic user" [p. 130]). Near the end, a scroll described as "resurrection" is used by the wizard (!) -- at which point the cleric removes himself, because "traffic with the dark powers offends my clerical composure" [p. 145] . And perhaps the single most sharp break with any PC cleric I've seen: the clerical party member is apparently totally unarmored at all times (e.g., he "trudged along in his leather sandals" [p. 45]) -- which is certainly a standard expectation of the non-D&D holy man that I've pointed out before (here, cleric items #10, 11, 14), and one which even the creator of "blue book" D&D could not resist in his own story-telling.

7 comments:

  1. Great post. Elfin chain isn't made of metal--that's why it is immune to the heat metal spell as we are informed by the DMG.

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  2. UWS Guy -- Thanks!

    Just riffing on the "abbot, who was it seems, most unreasonable"... imagine if that abbot secretly knew exactly what he was doing, sending clerics out to the wilderness in a Grail-like quest, in the hopes that those survive came back with miraculous powers, and had some reason or conspiracy to mask that exact fact (see also: Once and Future King, Book III).

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  3. It's great to read such an enthusiastic review! Have you read the three stories from Dragon? Chronologically they must take place later since B & Z meet on the first pages of MoP. Holmes referred to MoP by title in an interview way back in the summer 1979, which was before any of the Dragon stories were published. So MoP may have even been written first.

    The strange humanoids in town fit with Holmes' descriptions of his own games. In Dragon he described his most successful PC as a Dreenoi, which is a humanoid insect alien from Starguard. He also mentioned a centaur PC in a few places (who may be the same one who shows up in MoP). And there's a lizardman guard in the town in one of the B & Z stories. This expansiveness is in line with the Blue Book note that "an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man" (and which its origins in the Balrog PC mentioned in the OD&D books). Though obviously in his stories he toned it down to keeping these characters in the background.

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  4. Hey Zenopus -- Thanks for the reminder; I haven't yet read the Dragon short stories, but I just pulled out my CD archive and they're all there, so I'll plan to do that shortly!

    I can see that the "big tent" racial philosophy is consistent with what's suggested in his Basic D&D. Still, for me, even if I allowed a centaur PC or such, if it went into town I'd have people find that unusual and marvel at it.

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  5. I like the discussion about clerics. I agree with your observations, though I'm more inclined to find ways to make it work better in D&D, rather than eliminate the class.

    I'd probably leave the cleric class more or less as is - it is a Christian warrior priest class. Perhaps I'd tweak it to allow the option to be a more humble priest that eschews most arms and armor and fighting ability in exchange for more spells.

    What I would do for other priest types that are non-Christian is give them various powers that correspond to their pantheon. I might expect a priest of Odin to be versed in rune magic. A demon/devil worshiper might have various witch like powers (not to mention the ability to summon up demonic/diabolic help...). Whatever combination of M-U, Cleric, Druid, etc. spells that make sense.

    More work, but it might make this sort of class a bit more interesting.

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  6. Here is a link of interest for countering the "blunt only rule is christen" argument.

    http://freywild.ch/i33/i33en.html

    This is, to my knowledge, one of, if not the oldest preserved European manuscripts on sword fighting. It features a Christen monk as one of three fencers.

    I have often heard that Gaelic druids were banned from carrying edged weapons, but I don't actually have a reference for that. So please treat it as possibly intriguing hear say.

    As usual, great post. I always enjoy reading your posts.

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  7. Thanks for those comments, guys!

    Angantyr -- I agree, I think an arguable position is to make non-Christian "priests" (to me really a whole new class) with some serious overhaul work. To me, the magic-user class is so close to want I want anyway that I'm happy to use that.

    noirsol -- Also agree; the Christians-with-blunt-weapons thing is not truly historical, it's a Victorian-era myth. But it just so happens that it's kind of a flavorful myth that provides rationale for the balancing mechanism of clerics' limited combat abilities. If not for that, then I'd say something like: Take away heavy armor proficiency (at least).

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