Thursday, January 30, 2014

Greyhawk Magic Tidbits

Tonight I was leafing through the Greyhawk (OD&D Sup-I) spell lists, and a few little things caught my eye among the new higher-level spells:

(1) Permanent Spell (p. 27): "Dispell Magic which are are least twice the level of the caster of the Permanent Spell will negate it, so three Warlocks could negate the spell of a 12th level Wizard...". Notice that the three Warlocks (level 8) are taking the sum of their levels for this consideration (3×8 = 24). Have you ever allowed multiple spell-casters to cooperate in this way to meet level requirements?

(2) Meteor Swarm (p. 28): "A blast of four Fire Balls (Jim!). thrown in whatever pattern the caster desires, each of 10-60 points of damage -- or eight Fire Balls (Jim!) of one-half normal diameter...". So what's the (Jim!) reference here? Is that a Star Trek gag in my original D&D book, or something else?

(3) Gate (p. 28): "Employment of this spell opens a cosmic portal and allows an ultra-powerful being (such as Odin, Crom, Set, Cthulhu, the Shining One, a demi-god, or whatever) to come to this plane." Okay, I know who Odin, Crom, Set, and Cthulhu are; but does anyone know who the "Shining One" is in this context?


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Road of Kings

Let me take you back to 1982 for just a minute. I'm 12, and I've spent my meager money on, I think, the second issue of Dragon magazine which I would personally own (Dragon #68, December 1982), partly attracted by the weather-themed issue and the "Weather in the World of Greyhawk" feature (which has always been an addictive system interest of mine). Well, there's this article included by Glenn Rahman (designer of Divine Right) which features expansions to a certain boardgame. Rahman starts his article with the line, "The best solo game in this writer’s experience is Dwarfstar’s Barbarian Prince." Even though I never had this game or saw the actual rules, the author's excitement is so palpable that it made me really wish I had it to try it out. It's a very tough solo quest for a young Conan-type figure to claim his father's throne by fighting, stealing, and looting. I never got the game but I never forgot the image that Glenn painted of it.

Fast-forward about 30 years. My very good friend Paul of Paul's Blog (who I've worked with, played games with, discuss game philosophy with, and am hosted by every year for an intimate game convention) did in fact get a copy of this very old-school game and started playing it rather heavily on his own. Paul's younger than me by a bit, and I flatter myself by thinking that some of the things I've said have pulled him in a more old-school direction. (But frankly it's really more due to him having a refined level of taste.) I played it at his house at least once or twice, and really got beaten up both times.

One issue with the game, like a lot of older stuff, is that lots of mechanics were added in kind of willy-nilly so that in combination, they made it fairly burdensome for the player to keep track of everything that was supposed to be happening (in terms of the strategic quest, supplies, combat, arbitrarily large numbers of companions, etc.). So like a lot of us will do, Paul started writing a small computer program to at least adjudicate the combat part of the game. And then added some more and changed some stuff. And then more. And then decided to make his own game from that inspiration, and put together a small team of experienced and passionate developers to make it happen.


So I think after about 2 years of serious development in their spare time and weekends, Paul, Michael, James, and Max have just released their own, old-school inspired game for mobile devices: Road of Kings. Yes: a tough, one-player, Conan-like quest for gold and/or glory. The game is all theirs, with an expansive new world and mechanics, which you can try your hand out while navigating your way through modern public transit and the like. It has loads of different individually-crafted encounters, and I know they're still waiting for some players to discover as-yet unearthed clues and treasures.

I've been beta-testing it in the last few months, and I can tell that it's really a blast, and a great way to scratch an itch for some carousing D&D-like adventure on a lunch break or some down time during the day. Currently available on the iTunes App Store, as well as Google Play. The one thing I'm shocked at is that it's only $3, so you should try it out before I convince Paul to raise the price, granted how much work I know he and the guys put into it. Check it out at their website below!


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Happy 40th Birthday, D&D


Did you know that this weekend, Sunday January 26th counts as the 40th birthday of D&D being on sale to the general public? (If the date is good enough for Jon Peterson, then it's good enough for me.) Oh, D&D, you're like a goofy younger brother to me.

So make some time this weekend to hoist a tankard of ale, or prestidigitation up a cake, or bend some iron bars or whatever seems most appropriate. Fight on!


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium

Recently I read another blog commenting on the number of spells in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This made me think of the AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium published in the 90's. I went searching for the number of spells contained in these volumes and discovered -- apparently no one had ever counted them. Not on the covers of the books themselves, not anywhere inside, not anywhere on the Internet that I could find. So I'll be doing that, at the end of this post.

I think it's a very nice collection in 4 volumes, and it easily passes my usual threshold of "did anyone give a shit?". Credits run like this (with lots and lots of acknowledgements and thanks to prior creators and such):
Compilation: Mark Middleton. Development and Editing: Jon Pickens. Additional Development: Richard Baker. Creative Director/Project Coordination: Steve Winter, Thomas Reid. Interior Black and White Art: Glen Michael Angus, Arnie Swekel, Ken Frank, Toren Atkinson, John Snyder.

Notice that while 2nd Edition AD&D came out in the prior decade, these volumes are not listed as 2nd Edition -- just "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons". The project here was to compile all the spells from the entire publication history of AD&D up to that point: as the introduction establishes, "This book is the first in a series that will cover the spells of the AD&D game system from 1975 to 1995" (Vol-1, p. 4), that is: 20 years of publications. The creators here attempted to trawl through every book, module, supplement, Dragon, Dungeon, Polyhedron, and Imagine magazine for wizard spells, updating and polishing as necessary, and put them all in this one reference work. Older spells were formatted in the 2nd Ed. style of the time (somewhat stripped-down headers, range in yards not scale inches, etc.). Forward-and-back references to alternate spell names, reversible spell names, etc., are included throughout. Sidebar notes on historical information and optional usage are given. At the end, an over 100-page set of Appendices is included with lists of different spell categories, specialty lists, errata, and so forth.

This is the kind of work which is not tremendously sexy or "wahoo" but obviously took lots and lots of time and attention -- it took over 3 years from start to finish for the four volumes to be published. I feel like it's the kind of work that I'm attracted to in my own blog writings and elsewhere. Even the 17-page Introduction is a delight to read: well-written and clear-headed about what the project is and what the history of the work has been and why. It gives specific references to works by Jack Vance that one should read to understand the flavor of the AD&D spell system -- scoring extra points for being one of the few places that think to observe that the Vancian creation was a "mathematically-based magic system" (p. 3; emphasis mine). The work clearly follows in the footsteps of the earlier Encyclopedia Magica by Dale "slade" Henson, which compiled the entire history of AD&D magic items in a similar 4-volume set (1994-1995), and established the tradition of various "Compendiums" late in the publishing cycle of editions that came afterward.

Copious new artwork was produced here (about one piece every 3rd page or so) -- while many artists are credited throughout the volumes, it's mostly by Glen Michael Angus and Arnie Swekel (the others above are pretty much just credited in Vol-2). The art has an edgy, lively, active style with a lot of clever situations, reactions, and perspectives -- very old-school, and almost always directly related to one of the unique spells on that page (not just generic "wizard stuff"). The 1st volume cover has a different design than the rest, similar to the prior Encyclopedia Magica (no highlighted logo, no ad copy on the back; top left in the image above) -- in fact, I just this second realized that the white "crease markings" on Vol-1 are part of the art design; for years I thought they were real creases on my copy, until the image googled above showed the exact same markings! The cover is so well done it might be too well done, and it evolved back to a more marketable standard in later volumes.

As noted above, the work tries to incorporate pretty much everything from every source in the first 20 years of the game. Spells from all of the different world settings are included (and annotated symbolically, and indexed at the end), even though some or many of those would be of limited usage in a standard D&D campaign. Original D&D spells were technically left out, although to the extent that they migrated to AD&D, they have versions included. Variant magic systems were not included, such as Forgotten Realms spellfire, Birthright realm-spells, Viking rune-magic etc. Some spells were considered unworkable or obsolete, but even these get short descriptions and references as to "lost magic".

Do I use this compilation in my own games? Well, no, I don't. Partly this is due to my use of the earlier and simpler Original D&D system, and liking a limited number of very short spells that I can have more-or-less memorized and not need to look up during play (see also: my open-gaming product Book of Spells). The other issue is that I've only had the chance to run convention-style one-off games for a number years. But if I had a wide-open campaign I'd like to think that this product would give a fairly deep encyclopedia of spell resources for specialist wizard cabals, NPC magic-users, lost treasure troves, and the like. It's a very nice set.

Okay, so here's where I went through and tried to count up all the spells as best I could. I counted only full spell descriptions in the main body of the books (not the references, reversed spell names, lost magic, or anything like that). Each of the volumes has a note as to its "First Printing" date on the inside cover, and the page numbering runs sequentially through all the volumes (kind of like an academic journal) for a full 1,152 pages.
  • Volume 1: A to D, October 1996 -- 576 spells.
  • Volume 2: E to Mn, September 1997 -- 597 spells.
  • Volume 3: Mo to Sp, February 1998 -- 607 spells.
  • Volume 4: Sq to Z, September 1998 -- 393 spells.
The last volume has a smaller number of general spells, because it ends halfway through to make room for the 100+ pages of Appendices. This includes things like the 1st Edition Cantrips (83 cantrip spells), "Dragon King" 10th-level psionic enchantments (28 of those spells), notes on Chronomancy, achieving Lichdom, Paths of Power, and spell lists by frequency, schools of philosophy, effect, thaumaturgy, world setting, specialty, and race. (Cantrips and Dragon King spells are not included in the total count below.) The last page includes errata notes of minor glitches in Vol 1-3 (generally world-specific icons that could be added), and one spell that was accidentally left out of Vol-2 ("Emirikol's Question"). The Wizard's Spell Compendium is not currently available on the dndclassics.com reprint site, but the forerunner Encyclopedia Magica is, so perhaps the wizard's spell collection will be added there soon.

Grand Total: 2,174 Wizard Spells.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Arrow of Time

Last week I had a post that had a new item, the "Arrow of Time". Based on comments to that post, some other people had interpretations that seemed better than my initial one. Here's a new version:


New Magic Item: Arrow of Time (Revised)

This very rare arrow acts as +1 to hit and damage. If the archer scores a hit with it, then all action in the prior round is retracted, and that round is played out over again from the start. (The archer's shot with the arrow of time is not changed, and he or she only gets one loopback.) Afterward, probabilities for critical hits or fumbles are increased by one pip (i.e., if normally 1 or 20, then become 1-2 or 19-20) for all parties in the rest of the encounter.

This arrow is usually kept to reverse some calamity to the archer's friends (such as a sudden death; although the person rescued never has any perception of the fact or that the arrow does anything at all). Rumors exist of more powerful arrows of time +2 or +3, which can loopback a number of rounds equal to the bonus, and increase criticals by a like amount.


I think that's a little "weirder", as befitting the name of the item, and it also better matches the perception of "less random in the past, more random in the future" which the phenomenon originally describes. Thanks to Confanity & Thiles Targon for challenging me on that!


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

D&D Module X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield

D&D Module X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield, is, in my opinion, a true masterpiece. It was published in 1985, a seminal year for the game -- possibly the end of the "golden age" at TSR (among other things, the year when Gygax left the company). Written by Michael S. Dobson, module X10 combines high-level RPG heroics with a world-spanning military campaign, miniature wargaming, and copious connections to the prior history of published adventures.

The module package comes with a 48-page booklet detailing the adventure, a poster-sized hexmap of the entire D&D "Known World" area, 200 cardboard counters for various divisions and legions contesting for that geography, a plastic baggy for carrying the counters, and a 3-panel cover (the inside of which has statistics for all the military forces).

Basically, the situation is this: The "Master", archvillain of the X4-X5 module series, is back -- and he's leading an almost endless horde of nomads and monsters out of the desert to conquer as much of the Known World as he can. The PCs (likely having faced him before) are drafted as Ambassador Plenipotentiaries to travel to the various countries and try to hammer out an alliance that can fend off the Master's armies. Generally in each capital the PCs will be face some quest, challenge, honorable combat, or roleplaying negotiation to sway the nation's leaders -- frequently with desert emissaries present, fighting for the opposite outcome. National alliances are run on a points-based system, and as the PCs travel about, other countries may ally or declare war against them (in accordance with their prior interests and rivalries). While war boils over on a strategic scale, with luck the PCs can put together an elite fighting force to take as a vanguard against the Master -- possibly culminating in an epic man-to-man showdown against the Master and his various allies at the edge of the Known World. The whole thing pretty much rocks.

When I ran module X10, my friends and I were in high school. We'd played D&D pretty heavily on lunch breaks in late grammar school and junior high, but our interests were veering in different directions, and it had gotten pretty rare for us to get together and play D&D anymore. I scheduled a weekend together to play "one more time", planning to use X10 as a grand finale for the D&D characters they'd developed over the prior 7+ years or so. The setup was kind of perfect -- their PCs had adventured against the Master in X4, but not seen his actual defeat in X5 (my roguish players had obtained & read that module in advance, so I aborted running it). Unfortunately, it was simply too big of an adventure to play overnight or on a weekend -- we got about halfway through it, with some good successes on their parts, before our time ran out. It was indeed the last time we ever got together for D&D, and the ultimate outcome for our world was left unresolved. An itch and a curiosity that I've unfortunately never been able to scratch.

Funny aside: When I go Googling for answers to D&D-related questions it's gotten a bit silly on how often this blog by your truly pops up in the results. For example, when I went looking for an image of the X10 map, some odd inclusions were: (a) the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks boxed set contents, (b) various scans of old Thor comics, (c) a photo of an ancient scroll, and (d) Joel Rosenberg's novel The Sleeping Dragon. As it turns out, these were all images from blog-posts here where I incidentally mentioned Module X10 in the past. (In particular, this reminded me that in my first SFKH post from one year ago, Random Wizard mentioned how much that game reminded him of X10 from the same time period. How apt!)

Anyway, Module X10 spans at least 3 scales of action (feeding into my interest in such games): man-to-man roleplaying (regular D&D), tactical wargaming with miniatures (using Battlesystem by Knight Hawks' Doug Niles), and strategic campaign conquest (using War Machine by Frank Mentzer). At the time, I ran the tactical combats (where PCs were present) using Gygax's Swords & Spells system -- now, obviously, I would use my Book of War rules which fix a lot of problems in those older rules. While I'm generally very critical of Mentzer's War Machine rules (for not giving results the same as the D&D game itself), I would agree that in a worldwide campaign of this scale something more abstract must be done to handle the many (many, many) battles where the PCs are someplace else, and so I was using that at the time.

X10 serves as a "bridge" product, intending to be an appropriate denouement to PCs who played through the Expert set (level 4-14) adventures, and introducing them to action at the level of the Companion (level 15+) set and Battlesystem rules; that is, at the scale of kingdoms and empires. X10 contains several high-level monsters from the Companion rules (at least one mega-dragon), a 6-page summary of the War Machine rules from that set, and a list of Companion-level spells usable by the 30th-level Master in personal combat. It also predates the Gazetteer series of 1987-1991, so at the time X10 sketched out the most detailed information on the various D&D Known World nations in publication. 

One of the delightful and loving things about the adventure is the multitude of connections it makes to other adventures before and after -- it might hold a record for adventure with the most references or links to other adventures. When the PCs visit the Grand Duchy of Karameikos (likely their earliest stomping ground), it is pointed out that the Duke likely knows them from their activities in any of the B-level modules: especially B1, B2, B3, B6, and BSOLO. Elsewhere connections are made to almost all of the X-modules: X3 (saving the King of Vestland), X4 and X5 (prior fights against the Master of the Desert Nomads), X6 and X9 (destinations available from the starting city of this adventure), X7 and X8 (actually sub-adventures recommended here as quests for when PCs travel as ambassadors to the Minrothad Guilds!). Even XL1 Quest for the Heartstone gets a nod (the tie-in module to action figures like Strongheart, Warduke, etc., remember them? Now the good members are the comically senile retired lords of the Kingdom of Ierendi). Finally, when the PCs attend the court of the Emperor of Thyatis, his offer is direct, simple, and rather brutal: pledge to move to Norworld -- the region of the first Companion-set module CM1 Test of the Warlords -- establish kingdoms under his sovereignty, and give him everlasting fealty. Then mighty legions of Thyatis are the PCs' to use in war against the Master; what better way to segue into the adventures of the CM-series thereafter?

Now, a few things are a bit wonky with X10. One thing is that it tries to abstract out city action into a singular flowchart with 25 circles and various connecting arrows (i.e., no city maps), and I don't think that it works as well as desired. The other strange thing is how it portrays the Master in the inside illustrations -- they make him look just like Ayatollah Khomeini, the USA's main international bogeyman of the 1980's. In fact, the image behind his henchman Alrethus is pretty much a knockoff of when he was Time Magazine's Man of the Year for 1980. I think when I was a teenager I considered this representation clever, but now the topical political connection seems dated and kind of embarrassing.

So, Module X10: I give it an "A" for ambition, setting, writing, packaging, game-balance, design of the epic war game, design of the unique political alliance negotiation system, respect and connections for prior work, and more. Even though I never played it to completion myself. You could consider structuring X10 as an entire high-level campaign unto itself, including many of the other X-modules as side quests along the way (esp.: X2, X3, X7, and X8). You'd have to make decisions about how to deal with tactical battles (I recommend Book of War), strategic battles (the included War Machine Redux is as good as anything, I suppose), and generally keeping the campaign map set up with all the divisional counters for weeks or months on end (perhaps taped to a wall with sticky material placed under the army counters).

While the dndclassics.com reprint site includes modules X1-7 (along with XL1, CM1, and all the B-numbered adventures), module X10 is not among them. It may be infeasible for it to appear as a digital reprint, given the large poster-sized map and cardboard counters which were intrinsic to the product. For now, your best bet for a copy is to find one in fairly good shape on EBay or the like.


Question: If you ever played module X10 through to the conclusion, what was the result in your game?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Super Sunday – On Disneyfication

In 2009, Marvel Comics was bought by the Disney corporation. Generally speaking, this is just one more step in Disney's inevitable conquest of all things beloved in my childhood: Marvel Comics, Star Wars, the Muppets, what-have-you. A Borgification, if you will.

Let's talk about the Marvel cartoons produced in the last 15 years or so. My opinion is that series such as X-Men: Evolution (2000-2003), Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes (2006-2007), Wolverine and the X-Men (2009), and Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (2010-2013) are very fine works of art, and I've watched them multiple times with my (non-superhero loving) girlfriend to great mutual enjoyment. However, from what I can tell more recent series have "jumped the shark" and have become barely watchable. It's not completely definitive that Disney is the one to blame, but it does match up pretty closely with series that are entirely developed and produced post-buyout.

The change seems pretty clear to me, and I can see it in both the one-season cutoff to the Wolverine show, and the distinct tonal change to the Avengers show in its second season. Wolverine and the X-Men was perhaps the zenith of Marvel TV production, having evolved a very mature sensibility and style, presenting an unrelentingly tense, and frequently terrifying look at a nigh-dystopian present and future. Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, while having a more cartoonish art style, had very  textured characterizations, and an ingenious season-long plot hook, which I found to be extremely satisfying (and I wrote about here).

More recent cartoons (Ultimate Spider-Man, Avengers Assemble, Hulk and the Agents of SMASH) suffer from a number of self-evident problems. One is that some directive has gone out to explicitly skew them towards a younger audience; gone are the tense themes from the earlier X-Men series, for example. Second, and related, is that some requirement has been put forward to make them "funny" in the most juvenile fashion possible: it seems like every episode requires one or two slapstick moments or really stupid, forced jokes. (Examples: mini-Spider-Man asides to the audience in the fashion of Family Guy, Hulk mugging for the camera in a reality-show "private cam" recording device, Iron Man announcing that he's erased Dr. Doom's video streaming queue, etc.). Third, the shows seem to have become nearly wall-to-wall mindless violent action sequences for the entirety of the episodes (some of the best scenes from the old Avengers show were the complicated evolving relationship between Clint and Natasha, or Steve trying to give Tony boxing tips; no more of that). Generally the characters seem a lot dumber, either because that's supposed to be funny or because the writers are lazier about caring for forced or holey plot points.



If you watch both of those videos above that I found at random in the last day or so, for about 2 minutes or so each, you'll notice that both of them feature giant green booger jokes. Maybe that was actually a requirement from the executive offices, I don't know.


Another problem, most evident in the Avengers Assemble show, is that the old show was terminated and the new show produced in order to align the property with the current Marvel movies being produced. Specifically: the character designs were redrawn to make the characters look exactly like they do in the movies (the cartoon Captain America now looks exactly like Chris Evans, Hawkeye like Jeremy Renner, etc.). But this is a fool's errand, because the the cartoons will constantly be playing catch-up to the movies in this regard. Consider: A cartoon series produces around 20 episodes or so per year, while a movie franchise puts out one production every two years or so; therefore the cartoon needs to present about 40 times as many heroes and villains over its run. Granted that movie producers are given free reign (and encouragement?) to totally re-design any character from the ground up, they will without exception be different from the cartoon, and thus leave the cartoon once again out-of-synch with the movie property. A great example of this is the Avengers Assemble inclusion of the Falcon as a primary team member; while all the other members look identical to their recent movie appearances, the Captain America movie coming out next year has used the Falcon character, and of course totally redesigned him, leaving the cartoon distractingly out-of-synch in this regard. But that would go for any hero or villain covered by the cartoon that a movie later opts to use. Really better to let the properties evolve naturally in their own universes, as these kind of misalignments are inevitable, and only highlighted when the other roles are freakishly duplicated.




So it seems like to me, the "golden age" of the animated Marvel TV show has come to a close, in light of Disney looking like it's forcing an attempt at a much younger audience, and requiring that the shows be an appendage to the enormous movie franchise that they currently have going. (Which is a loss in the sense that I think that the recent cartoon shows had much more satisfying writing and character development; not being allowed to truly take advantage of the longer-form medium is a real shame.)

A final, corollary point is how this development again proves the lie to late-era D&D and Star Wars apologists (etc.) over whether our vision is clouded by mere age and nostalgia. Once again we can easily perceive a compelling and exciting piece of storytelling (like Wolverine and the X-Men or Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes), even when we are well into our adult years, and note the disaster that occurs when the property is taken over by marketing interests who want to change its pitch to an audience of the youngest children at all costs.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Quantum Roleplaying

In quantum mechanics there's this idea of wave function collapse, in that interaction with a measuring device supposedly causes a wave function to reduce from a plurality of eigenstates to just one. My interpretation is that it's simply saying this: before you roll a die, there is a probability that it lands on any face (for d20: 5% 1, 5% 2, 5% 3, etc.), but the instant you actually roll it the possibilities collapse to just one (100% certainty about the particular result that you rolled). *

It seems to me that this is quite similar to the moment in RPG's when a designed scenario full of  possibilities switches to a narrative story, at the point in time when you actually play it. That is, "scenario becomes story" when the dice hit the table and we find out what actually happened. Prior to that moment there are endless possible outcomes -- a statistical space, really -- whereas afterward there is one known outcome which we then seek to explain as a "story". Story generally exists only after the fact, not before play, in RPG's. *

We might more broadly say that this occurs in any live performance: theatre or music, for example. Technically many possible exciting things can occur which we only know about for sure after the fact. However, this phenomenon is several orders of magnitude easier to see in RPGs, which has such an overabundance of possible outcomes (in conjunction with both player choices and random die-rolls), as opposed to theatre or music, where the script and rehearsal set a relatively narrow expectation for what should happen in the performance.

* Note: This is a heretical interpretation on my part.

New Magic Item: Arrow of Time

This very rare arrow acts as +3 to hit and damage. On the round when it is fired, probabilities for critical hits or fumbles are tripled (i.e., if normally 1 or 20, become 1-3 or 18-20) for all parties in an encounter. If hit, then the target must save vs. spells or else only achieve average results for the rest of the encounter (i.e., automatically roll a natural "10" for any to-hit roll or save, exactly average damage or spell duration, etc.). It is occasionally produced by chronomancers and best used by parties who are overwhelmed by stronger forces and expect to lose the fight without extraordinary help.