Thursday, July 27, 2017

Happy Gygax Day!


July 27th was Gary Gygax's birthday, and now it's Gary Gygax Day. I think that's a worthy thing for the RPG community; Gary didn't create RPGs but he was for all intents and purposes the first designer to put a rule set together. And as the face of early TSR he certainly put a personal mark on the young days of the RPG industry.

I don't idolize Gary Gygax like I did when I was 18 and thought the 1e Dungeon Masters Guide was the greatest RPG text ever written. But I have to acknowledge that through that book and his other work he helped shape me, particularly my taste in fantasy books. And I still think of Gary's game as a gold standard for what RPGs can be. I've gotten a lot of nuance - Gary the original DM was also Gary the dictator who put out those infamous editorials in Dragon. He took Dave Arneson's name off of AD&D and the hobby's history overlooks Arneson too readily - when it was Dave who created the roleplaying game. (I recommend his own account of the hobby's dawn.)

But Gary did a great thing: he took that original diamond in the rough of a game and made it something that survived and blossomed into a staple of not just gaming but pop culture as a whole. Hit points, classes, levels, armor class - these ideas are ubiquitous throughout games that have only the faintest resemblance to anything that was even envisioned in 1974. People know what "chaotic evil" means who have never rolled a polyhedron in their lives. He made his stamp in a most unique way and is rightfully remembered for it.

We should remember that Gary Gygax was a character, including the weird FBI dossier description from the 1990s or just the reminisces of his family and friends. He was very much "one of us" - and in his later years he embraced that. Gary got to be an elder statesman of sorts and handled that very well.

And Gary had a unique sense of what made a good module. Keep on the Borderlands, Village of Hommlet, and Tomb of Horrors will always be the classics, even if not everyone loves them.

Millions of people have enjoyed Gary's legacy, and it only grows. So roll a d20 for the old man, soon if not tonight.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dalluhn: Wizards' Guilds and Fellowships


If you don't know the history of the document called, alternately, Beyond This Point Be Dragons and the Dalluhn Manuscript, the best thing to do is read Jon Peterson's analysis of it. This is ridiculously thorough, although it doesn't include the latest findings, a fairly complete playtest document that reflects pre-publication D&D.

So: I'm going to comment on this document, although I don't have the rights to share it. Despite the fact that I like the title "Beyond This Point Be Dragons," I'm going to call it Dalluhn after Keith Dalluhn, who uncovered the photocopied text in M.A.R. Barker's papers. In some cases, analyzing Dalluhn means I'm basically going to be talking about changes of unknown provenance. That's fine, because I'm interested in early D&D play and this is a document that preserves it in some sense, even if it's not directly from Dave or Gary's tables. And as always I'm mainly interested in making it relevant to games people are playing today, in 2017.

In Dalluhn, magic-users are said to:
dress in boots, tunics, and cloaks, usually in a special color of the individual (such as Brysbane the Blue) or the Guild or Fellowship they belong to (such as Fellowship of the White Hand)
Furthermore, their goals are described as follows:
The prime object of Magic-Users, depending on individual preference, is to either form or head their own Guild or Fellowship, or to go off somewhere to brood and study in a tower.
The implication is that there are both solitary and organized magic-users in the world, and that there are multiple groups of the latter. This idea strikes me as remniscent of The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf speaks of "my order" - which I don't think is a coincidence, since the Dalluhn sample character is not Xylarthen but Mythrandir - a misspelling of Mithrandir, the elvish name of Gandalf. It does have other Appendix N bona fides, though, such as the guild of evil enchanters in The Mathematics of Magic.

In a game, there is one obvious - perhaps even overwhelming - reason why a PC magic-user would want to be part of a guild structure: the ability to learn new spells from other members of the guild. It's a benefit for the player but also a relief for the referee, who no longer has to shoehorn scrolls and spellbooks into their adventures. That's not to say these can't be part of the treasure, but it stops being obligatory when there's a good external source of spells.

But the referee shouldn't allow a whole guild of wizards to be a modern, business-like arrangement, when it is a rich and varied opportunity for worldbuilding. In many respects the medieval guilds were more like modern secret societies, to the extent that many such societies, like the Freemasons, derived from guilds. It seems almost like a moral imperative that such guilds must have arcane initiations, rituals, and obligations for their members. It could even be a metaphysical requirement for them to take on all kinds of esoteric symbols and rites in order to pass on their knowledge.

And of course those obligations are a rich vein of adventure seeds. Before your wizard can learn the Invisibility spell, he needs to advance to the 9th degree, and that requires you to get a fresh cockatrice egg for the guild's stores. They're needed in the production of certain potions, you'll learn about them when you reach the 17th degree. You'll need to provide the guild with a new spell before you can reach the 27th degree and be allowed to learn the secrets of making magical items. The list is only as limited as the magic-user's level.

The guild can do a lot of things outside of simply bossing a PC around. They can be hotbeds of rivalry, or places where the characters make deep connections. There can be onerous requirements - this is a good reason to forbid magic-users from using certain weapons or armor. There may be other restrictions on diet, or requirements of always using a certain talisman. It may also be forbidden to use magic toward certain ends, with the penalty for transgression becoming quite severe in some cases. And of course, the guild's knowledge must always be secret.
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If you want to add a more Appendix N twist to magic, a guild suggests a couple of avenues to pursue. For instance, the guild's lore may contain the true name of a particular demon who can be commanded, although the magic-user must try not to alienate the fiend - allowing an avenue to play with some tropes from de Camp's The Fallible Fiend. Or if you take ideas from DCC or 5e, they may have a relationship with a particular patron, and initiation in a certain degree may require the DCC spell Patron Bond or its equivalent.

When a PC magic-user establishes their own guild or fellowship, it's natural that other PCs will be a part of it. This is a particularly useful concept if the players are in an open table type of setting, and one player might share a spell with another - although as before, there should always be costs. If the guild is too generous, NPC magic-users might come in and cause issues - or act as rivals to shut it down. Any time a PC leads an organization, rival groups should be a part of the calculus.

Above all, I think the magic-user guild should be a clarion call to "keep magic weird." It offers the referee an opportunity to play up the esoteric nature of spellcasting, and provides a viable "endgame" for magic-user PCs in an open table.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Basic D&D at 40


The 1977 Origins Game Fair was in Staten Island, New York, on July 22-24 of that year. It was the event where TSR debuted the D&D Basic Set, edited by J. Eric Holmes. It's at the nexus of D&D history, where OD&D, AD&D, and Classic D&D all touch on one document.

Holmes's Basic Set was closely based on OD&D, with only very selected material imported from Greyhawk. The book captures the brevity of OD&D while hinting at the broader expanses that would be found in AD&D. And it would be the template for expansion in Moldvay's 1981 Basic set that forms half of B/X D&D.

If you really want to grasp Dr. Holmes's D&D, you need to read the 55 (!) part series on the Zenopus Archives blog: Holmes Manuscript. It's particularly important to read the parts on melee combat if you want to understand how the blow-by-blow combat mechanics work. The short version is that Holmes's D&D was never supposed to make daggers into the ultimate weapon, or two-handed weapons useless. It was based on Chainmail and characters had two attacks in a round.

The internal history of the boxed set is fascinating. If you read the long list of changes that happened across three editions of the Basic book with three printings each, you'll see the book tightening and standardizing things closer to the AD&D Monster Manual, and getting rid of a lot of the marks that OD&D had left on the rules.

As time went on TSR would not only change the Basic booklet but would alter the included module. The initial print runs had the Monster & Treasure Assortment and Dungeon Geomorphs - only 8 pages each - that Ernie Gygax had cranked out at the Dungeon Hobby Shop. In late 1978, it changed to a copy of B1 In Search of the Unknown. A year later, at the end of 1979, the module changed again - to B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

The original approach was very much intended for OD&D referees and provided only the tools to put together a fully stocked dungeon. The dungeons featured the mazy, twisty labyrinths with "paper-thin walls" that we see in Gary Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk, and the monsters and treasures are the main ingredients. (I would love to see an analogue that included traps and weirdness.) The next step was B1 In Search of the Unknown, a unique module that leaves the monsters and treasure separate from the map key, as an exercise for the referee. Finally in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, Gygax decided to simply break down and show the referee how to run the game.

This process of revision reflected a growing attitude of professional presentation that came to predominate in TSR. The first printing of Holmes D&D is very much a child of the TSR that put out the Little Brown Books, a growing cottage publisher that was lucky to have had help from this nice doctor in California to put the rules in more or less coherent order. The last printing is thoroughly professionalized and has all the wooliness tamed from it, and leads logically to the 1981 Moldvay boxed set. (So logically, in fact, that late copies of Holmes remained in circulation until after the Mentzer boxed sets were already out.)

Holmes is a set that anyone can take out and recognize classic D&D from. OD&D is more raw and DIY, AD&D more detailed, and B/X more polished. But you can always take out Holmes, and the map I prefer for B1 In Search of the Unknown, ReQuasqueton, and play some solid D&D with all the core ingredients.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Paying for Safe Passage; or, Banditry and Barons.


A recent AskHistorians question about bandits got an answer that is simply overflowing with game-worthy material. The whole thread is fascinating reading, as is an older thread on the same subject.

First: there is a positive correlation between bandits and wolves. There are all kinds of rich ways to integrate this into a fantasy world. Bandits could have some lupine qualities (keen eyesight, sense of smell) or they could be marked visually as wolflike in their appearance. Some bandits might make a totem of wolves or the bandit deity might have some connotations. There is also the possibility of wolves kept as "pets" - or the ultimate twist, that the bandit king is actually himself a werewolf. It's a rich mythic resonance that you can take advantage of when you want to make this gang stand out from the last bunch.

Second: there's a very fine line between noble lords, soldiers, and bandits. In a lot of fantasy there's an assumption that the law is going to protect everyone, but here we find quite the opposite. We saw back in the OD&D setting series that Lords sometimes challenge PCs to combat, so it shouldn't be surprising that sometimes the feudal lord is going to kidnap you for ransom. Tolls and stand-ups for "safe passage" are, of course, a convenient way to relieve PCs of excess loot.

Of course, this doesn't always have to be the Lord himself. Primogeniture means that there are going to be sons who don't necessarily have anything good to do, and they could always get up to trouble. You could even have a robber baron (in the classic sense) hiring a less scrupulous group of PCs as "toll takers" to waylay a caravan - sort of the polar opposite of the stereotypical "You're guarding a caravan" opener for scenarios. It'd also be a hoot for a group of Lawful PCs to capture a group of bandits and deliver them to the local Lord only to find that they are his men working under his protection.

If the PCs are in a stereotypical "borderland" environment, doing some kind of hexcrawl, it's not out of the question to put soldiers on the wandering monster table. These could be essentially bandits, or simply a camp of soldiers who want to turn a buck and charge the PCs for safe passage.

Third: there is the idea of pilgrimage. This is interesting for a whole host of reasons. Pilgrims were the stereotypical travellers of the medieval world. They were typically travelling to some site in Europe associated with a saint or a miracle, or in the extreme case (most common when the Crusades were going well) travelling all the way to the Holy Land.

Shrines and churches with particular holy sites have a ton of potential. A shrine can fall under siege by monsters, or be despoiled by a powerful evil cleric, or just be a location where you have to guard pilgrims. If the PCs happen upon a clerical stronghold, the high priest might send them on a pilgrimage in return for some spell cast or favor done. It's a flavorful way to get people to go from point A to point B. And the motley crew that might be found on such a pilgrimage is the kind of thing Chaucer might tell you about.

Fourth: this is the kind of thing that goes great on rumor tables and guides. "Avoid the bridge over the Sterling River south of the Red Hills, the local lord will rob you blind." Of course, turnabout is fair play, and the same Lord might spread rumors that the northern bridge is inhabited by trolls, driving the PCs south into his territory.

Fifth: the last thing that is fun here is that, this being the Middle Ages, robberies were not always in hard cash. In a lean year bandits or predatory Lords may be more interested in food and wine than in taking hard currency that can't buy chicken scratch. Magic items, of course, are prime targets for a nobleman to demand of a passing hero. And kidnapped characters, of course, can always be press-ganged into doing some adventurous task.

In terms of tone, the idea of bandit Lords and soldiers is an undercurrent beneath a lot of the great medieval literature. It was prettified under the guise of chivalric combat for Arthurian tales but the basic idea is not much different. But if you're ever hexcrawling in the OD&D setting, give robber barons a thought.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Thief in the Dying Earth

The description of Matthew Hughes's latest short story collection, 9 Tales of Raffalon, is simply: "A Thief in the Dying Earth." Hughes is a fantasy writer who has been working in the space of the "Dying Earth" subgenre, typified by authors such as Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. While Hughes's prose will not stand up to the stiff test of those authors, Raffalon is a creation that should bring a smile to the face of any Vance fan. He is a thief in the vein of Cugel the Clever, continually finding himself (usually with good cause) in the crosshairs of strange wizards and mortal enemies while being rakish and clever about it.

I first found Raffalon by browsing for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I pick up periodically because I enjoy short stories and enjoy the fact that there's still a magazine publishing fantasy stories. I found "The Prisoner of Pandarius" and immediately felt at home with Hughes's world.

The worldbuilding in Hughes is solid. He has created a very peculiar universe, full of interesting and arcane guilds with various restrictions and symbols, and characters who've learned to live right at their edges. The period Raffalon spends in "The Vindicator" working the offices of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors is, particularly, a fun way to set up that story. If you want to have thieves' guilds or similar institutions in your game, this is a must-read.

Another area where Hughes shines through is in his description of magic effects. Magic is strange, and visceral, and really quite wondrous. The effect in "Wearaway and Flambeau" is a particularly fun one, as is the experience when Raffalon actually casts a bit of a spell in "Stones and Glass." It's described in a way that really takes the reader through the process and helps you realize why all the spellcasters in Hughes's stories tend to be arrogant and bizarre sorts.

This collection is an assortment of picaresque tales, and while there are recurring figures they don't form much by way of a grand narrative. Raffalon started at the end, in "The Inn of the Seven Blessings" written for the anthology Rogues, and he is pretty much an iconic thief from the earliest of his tales. (Hughes's new character, Baldemar, has more of an arc to his stories.) Raffalon is a bit more likable than Cugel the Clever, who is openly his inspiration, which is to his credit, though he's not as sharp-witted.

Among "Vancian" authors, Hughes does not mimic the decadent prose of The Dying Earth. His writing works fairly well for the stories but isn't just enjoyable on its pure merits. A short sample from "Wearaway and Flambeau":
A thief's credo is to avoid capture and punishment by any means necessary. But Raffalon had added a corollary to that code: when all is lost, at least go out with a bold face. He now set his features into as intrepid an arrangement as he could manage, and turned his gaze upward. He found himself staring, as expected yet hoped against, into the uncompromising visage of Hurdevant the Stringent.
That's about the level of writing you'll get; I find it fine, and it reads quickly, but I wouldn't want to disappoint someone looking for a Vance or, say, a Michael Shea in this anthology.

I enjoy these stories because they are what is advertised on the tin: short stories about a thief in the Dying Earth. It's just nice that after all these years of plumbing brick-length fantasy novels and finding them shallow, somebody is out there still embracing good old picaresque fantasy in the short story form.

9 Tales of Raffalon is available from Amazon or directly from Matt Hughes. It's recommended to anyone interested in dying earth fantasy, thieves and thieves' guilds, or just having some fresh short stories to pick your way through.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On the Living Dungeon / Vision and Re-Vision

I said in my last post that there was more to be said about the living dungeon concept. I want to dig a bit further into that.

Periodically you should re-draw your maps. They should differ subtly over time; a hallway will move or a room change in dimensions. The effect surreal: the rooms are no longer quite trustworthy, and the underworld is a fundamentally stranger place. This is an effect that should be used more often as the players explore the lower levels of the dungeon.

Less subtly, the denizens of your underworld may be remodeling. The infamous "Greyhawk Construction Company" signs blocked routes in Castle Greyhawk where Gary Gygax was still working on the level in question. Depending on the tone of your dungeon, that may not work, but having clues of dungeon denizens doing heavy digging can give players future points for reference and later delving.

All of this is another good argument for creating your own megadungeon. If you start with Stonehell, for instance, and you keep this to heart - after a while your Stonehell shouldn't look like the original. This is somewhat easier when you've drawn the original maps as well as the revisions.

The most important rule of restocking is: don't punish players for making progress. A dungeon level shouldn't get harder with each successive raid into it. There are two points for this: first, don't increase the effective dungeon level when restocking, and second, don't restock all of the rooms. A megadungeon populated according to OD&D or Moldvay should already have a bit of breathing room, and getting to already-explored boundaries should generally become quicker than the initial foray. That's a reward for good play.

At least some restocking should be simple and logical. If the PCs leave a stack of dead goblin bodies, there is something in the dungeon that will want to eat them. You can pick from the "clean-up crew" or add something an animal (giant or otherwise) that makes a nest out of goblin bones. A room might be converted for use by a previously wandering monster. Or, if you want to make the PCs much more careful about disposal of enemy corpses, they might now wander into a room full of zombie goblins.

Then there are the dynamic parts of restocking. What other factions are interested in the territory that the goblins used to hold? This could be a guardpost or the site of a new trap, as the other dungeon dwellers seek to find out who has been killing the goblins. Factions can come from other areas of the dungeon, or you could have a wilderness group start to move into the newly vacated area.

Dungeon restocking, as a general question, is a question of time. This is a big part of why Gary Gygax made his infamous statement in the 1e DMG about "strict time records." (The other part was related to the open table game concept.) The longer the PCs spend away from the dungeon, the more time that the denizens have to move into and reinforce areas that the PCs had previously emptied.

If a faction is damaged, but not wiped out, it can of course dig in and lay traps for these new threats. Whatever was killed may also have had a predator/prey relationship, such as when the PCs kill the giant lizard that ate the giant rats, there might be a sudden overpopulation problem. Or, when they killed off the nest of giant rats, the lizard is now wandering around eating goblins (or of course adventurers when they're handy).

The central idea with the living dungeon is that the PCs' actions have meaningful consequences. Sure, a character who stops in once doesn't see that, but for the dungeon to stay fresh and keep being interesting instead of just a slog, characters should be able to see it change around them. This is particularly important when making sure that PC actions leave a stamp on the world. I like how Stonehell encourages players to leave their names; it's a great tradition. But a great dungeon delver should have some personal impact.

The last type of restocking I want to cover here is the idea that the dungeon has some mystical underworld connection to what is inside of it. Maybe the dungeon seeks a kind of equilibrium in the creatures that inhabit it, and the PCs have disturbed that. There will be ripples. This can become more dramatic once they are removing large numbers of magic items or if they kill a dragon or similarly magical inhabitant of the dungeon. Maybe the dungeon grows or attracts more monsters; maybe it changes organically to attract new inhabitants. Above all it should get weirder: portals should stay open too long, or magical energies find their way in, or the water elemental you summoned six months ago had babies.

So, don't forget to restock your dungeon. In putting this together I realized I also had some points on the wandering monster that I want to talk about, which will be the next post.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Megadungeons, Bosses, and Goals

In my last post, I mentioned that I dislike how Rappan Athuk used an "end boss" in the deep levels of the dungeon. The late levels (which I think were generated for publication) feature a delve that leads to the lair of Orcus. I think this is unfortunate, because it runs counter to not just the earlier levels of RA, but also generally to the philosophy that I think needs to guide the creation of a megadungeon.

Backing up several steps: megadungeons are best used for exploration-style play. This is why they work well with open table campaigns and, somewhat paradoxically, in convention play. Both scenarios were used early and often in D&D's development, much more often than the continuous party format that arose after D&D became popular among adolescent players with relatively stable peer groups.

With a continuous party of 3 to 6 player characters used consistently throughout the life of a campaign, going into small "module-sized" dungeons that take 1-4 sessions to clear, having boss monsters is fine. When they're in the Upper Lowlands Dungeon of Death™ they are doing it to fight the King Zombie, not because the ULDoD™ is interesting in itself.

Megadungeons are different. On a given delve, a megadungeon needs to be able to accommodate players who have spent 50 sessions going into the ruins, and players who are only going in this once. Maybe they're going together down to level 5A. If that's the case, level 5A needs to be interesting as an exploration goal in itself, without regard to whether the PCs ever go down to level 6A.

That doesn't mean either that every room in your dungeon needs to have a full array of what's interesting about it, or that dungeon levels shouldn't tie together in any way; neither of those is interesting. But what it does mean is that every level and sub-level needs to be a goal in itself, that it's worth going into it, and to be interesting if the PCs go there. All of this breaks down if the sub-level is just leading up to a boss monster. If level 8 is just a lead-up to the boss at level 9, the players who are only there for level 8 are cheated. And that becomes increasingly true as you get into the low levels of Rappan Athuk.

More than that, the boss monster is antithetical to the "living dungeon" concept of a megadungeon. By definition, once you beat Orcus or the Elder Elemental God or whatever, the dungeon is done. Subsequent expeditions are never going to have the same gravity as the one that killed Orcus. That kills the multi-campaign potential of the megadungeon dead. After all, you're putting this much effort into designing a huge dungeon, it should be good for more than one set of adventurers. (And having the next group kill Mecha-Orcus is worse because it just opens up an arms race of increasing absurd power levels that the OSR is pretty good at avoiding.)

There's more to get into with the living dungeon idea. At its core it means you restock and redraw maps, but it should always reflect the influence the PCs have had in some way. This is why there is a "vision and re-vision" component to megadungeon design. Done properly, the megadungeon becomes archaeological itself, with cues and remnants from past campaigns in future ones, and a richer experience overall.

None of this means that there can't be intermediate goals within the megadungeon. You can create a faction boss so that everybody remembers the time they fought and killed the Red Witch on level 6 – but that's one among many parts to the megadungeon's lore. You can have puzzles and ideas that span four or five levels at a time so the PCs unlock the Vault of Artasius on level 8C and find the Warhammer of Magnificent Smiting. But the campaign could go on after that, and there can be more intermediate goals. The megadungeon will never be fully cleared and there will still be mysteries for future groups to explore.

If you're committed to an exploration-oriented game, it should always be possible that the PCs never kill the Red Witch or open the Vault of Artasius. And it should still be a place worth exploring, and the players should still come away with memorable stories. It should even be possible for the players to find half the puzzles for the Vault of Artasius, and solve them, and then go over to a totally different path in the dungeon and never finish it. The megadungeon from this angle is really a commitment to sandbox-style exploration, with the dungeon as the "walls" of the sandbox.

This standard, where each part of the dungeon is interesting enough for a drop-in player but the parts work together in a way that is rewarding for the long haul, is the central design goal of the megadungeon. It's a difficult note to strike, and one that I don't think can be managed while designing with a final boss fight in mind. Which is why I'd encourage a megadungeon to not have an end goal, even though there are many smaller goals within its structure.