Friday, April 21, 2017

A Frequently Missed Point on Saving Throws


For most of my gaming career I've never really cared about the saving throw categories in old school D&D and AD&D. They're not really great for abstracting or expanding the concepts they cover. Well, okay, I've always loved that there is a save against 'Death Ray" in OD&D. But mostly the categories left me cold,

But what I noticed when I was looking at OD&D's saving throw table recently was the general trend of the numbers. Take a look.


Without getting fancy about it, the OD&D chart has a clear tendency to have lower numbers on the left side of the chart. Sure, it's a little backward with high level magic-users, but for the most part the easier saves are further to the left. And at the same time, these are the saves that are more likely to take a PC out of the game. A fighter with decent hit points can take a Fireball or the breath of a smaller dragon on the chin, but poison and Finger of Death are save or die. And polymorph / paralyzation is a remove-from-game save.

The charts in AD&D are surprisingly similar. The categories run: Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic; Petrification or Polymorph; Rods, Staves, and Wands; Breath Weapon; Spell. Basically Gygax re-shuffled the things that are on the right and left, keeping all of the ideas that take PCs straight out of the game on the left, and ones that mitigate damage to the right, with lower target numbers on the left side of the chart. B/X D&D follows OD&D in the placement of poison and Death Ray saves, but moves paralysis over to the middle with Stone. Still, we see the general pattern at work.

No attempt that I've seen to rationalize saving throws has followed Gygax in this. Saving throws organized by the result of failure seems counter-intuitive and overly fiddly, even though it has the effect that fighters have a 45% chance to save versus poison, as opposed to only a 25% chance to save versus a Charm Person spell thrown by an enemy magic-user. Using, say, the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw, a fighter has a 35% chance of either, even though the fighter's player may well prefer the extra 10% against poison.

This isn't intended to be a deep observation, but I find that it salvages the saving throw categories from the earlier editions. It's certainly changed my opinion, which (before I looked at the chart and noticed the trend) had been in favor of the single saving throw.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Initial Thoughts: Veins of the Earth

Veins of the Earth
Print + PDF Bundle (LotFP)
PDF Only (DriveThruRPG).

Buy this product. In print if you can afford it, in PDF if you can't.

"Dungeons are puddles of darkness. This is the sea."

I have a standing policy that I will buy any Lamentations of the Flame Princess book immediately upon release. This policy has not generally let me down; the products are top notch. But I can't say that it has ever been vindicated as strongly as with Veins of the Earth.

I've admired Patrick Stuart's work for a while now; his previous collaborations with Scrap Princess, Deep Carbon Observatory and Fire on the Velvet Horizon, have been automatic Lulu recommendations for some time. And just last year he released Maze of the Blue Medusa, a collaboration with Zak S. So I was hopeful that Veins, his first Lamentations project, would be up to the same level of quality.

It isn't. It's better.

As much as I like the content and ideas of Maze, it seems like you're cheating by cribbing a better referee's dungeon, fully imagined and laid out for you. His other work is impossible to fit into some other vision or campaign without dominating it completely. Veins of the Earth is raw vision, but presented as a toolkit to create your own underworld and use it as a basis for games that are still ultimately yours.

Cave systems are uniquely generated, as are larger systems of caverns and routes through the underworld. It is a vast darkness that is inhabited by strange and incredible things. Light is the resource; hunger and cold and strange death threaten at all times. There are civilizations, cities, art, things of beauty and wonder and horror. There are different types of darkness. Madness lurks.

None of that is why you should buy this book. I mean, they're all good reasons. There are over a hundred pages of new monsters. Each is described, including sound and smell. Each is illustrated. But beyond that, each of them is written. And I don't mean the kind of dry technical writing that you see in RPGs. Patrick evidently never got the memo that this was meant to be a sort of exercise in presenting stripped-down utilitarian monsters. He puts ideas, and feelings, in his monster entries - things that haunt you, that amuse, that make you wonder how you never thought of them before. They are beautiful and horrible.

The writing in this book is good writing. Like, that wouldn't be ashamed to be in a book that wasn't an RPG book. Writing that kicked my ass several times reading it. Patrick is able to impress his ideas on you when you're reading a monster section. And when you're reading about darkness, or cultures, or items. And the art by Scrap Princess is deeply evocative.

I haven't even read a third of the thing, skipping around to find impressions of it and meeting amazing content at every turn. It's a monstrosity of a book, 375 pages of PDF. The book is the longest that LotFP has released. And from what I've read so far it may be the best.

My initial thoughts? Jesus. It's love at first sight.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mythic Underworld: Chthonic Deities

The Greek word χθόνιος (chthonios) referred to the ground, but in a specific way, meaning "underground" or what we would call the underworld. Today we refer to Hades, Persephone and other underworld gods as the chthonic deities. Despite any superficial resemblance, the word is unrelated to the work of H.P. Lovecraft; it's pronounced "thonic" or "k-thonic".

Even in antiquity, Hades was referred to as Zeus Chthonios, giving him a role as an underground ruler. This is reinforced by his staff, a symbol of authority, which typically had two tines, as opposed to the three of Poseidon's better-known trident. The Romans particularly conflated him with multiple other chthonic gods, creating the distinct god Pluto.

Generally we treat the Roman gods as simply renamed versions of their Greek counterparts, but even the name "Pluto" came from a separate Greek god, Πλοῦτος (Ploutos). The conflated deity symbolized both the underworld (which took on the name "Hades") and wealth, which of course originated from mines deep under the earth. Pluto was also combined with the Roman chthonic god Orcus; while the name is familiar to D&D fans, the image of the god itself is even weirder:


(This is taken from a 16th century monument, the Gardens of Bomarzo, but I didn't feel like I could do chthonic gods justice without it. And it's a great dungeon entrance.)

Aside from his obvious D&D namesake, the name "Orcus" is probably the inspiration for such diverse creatures as ogres, orcs, and the killer whales called orcas. Not surprisingly, he was less of a stoic underworld-ruler and more of a black, hairy death god, surviving from the ancient Etruscan myths. As a bonus, Orcus was the son of Eris (Roman name Discordia), thrower of the infamous Golden Apple that initiates the Trojan War. Pluto more generally was not a death god, however; that function went to Thanatos, a relatively minor god.

The combined Pluto has a symbol of a key, which he also shared with Persephone, and a cornucopia - a horn of plenty. The key was also a symbol used in the Eleusinian Mysteries; the initiate was sealed with a golden key, variously described as on the tongue or the lips, indicating the secrecy of the mysteries they had been taught. Keys could also indicate the riches that would come from the earth, both in crops and in underground mines.

In some myths, Hades is the father of the Erinyes, or Furies, also known as the Eumenides (the Kindly Ones). This literal euphemism is an ancient way of not referring to deities by name. The Erinyes were vengeance deities; of course, they also have AD&D analogues. Persephone is said to have had a daughter Melinoë, also identified with the goddess Hecate, who is described in the Orphic hymns as "Now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness," and is said to give men nightmares and drive them mad.

There is obvious gaming material here, even aside from Orcus and the Erinyes showing up. I really love the symbolism of a golden key related to underworld secrets. The key can unlock secrets of the underworld, hidden treasures, or truths of life, death, and immortality. It can also be a common bond among characters who have truly been to the underworld and survived - its secrets may not be passed on lightly to every foolhardy newcomer, but to someone who has the key it is revealed. And of course the form may be either physical - a key or key-shaped artifact, or a symbol, drawing, poem, book or other entity that serves as "the golden key."

I also find the idea of Melinoë tempting. As a granter of nightmares, such a character explains why the PCs can't constantly hole up and camp in "cleared" dungeon rooms. Haunting dreams and potential insanity wait for those unsound enough to sleep in the underworld. Her shifting, elusive character also seems like it would be ideal for monsters, and she is tied in with witches and necromancers, which fits perfectly. If you wanted to use a "Petty Gods" approach where low-level deities were actually present in the game world, Melinoë would be a good fit. The Erinyes are an interesting fix for murderhobo type activity that goes beyond normal cruelty.

Lastly, in spirit the triad of judgmental Hades, generous Pluto, and savage Orcus are a brilliant match for how a dungeon should be designed. It should be serious and otherworldly, but with great riches hidden in secret places, and sudden terrible violence should be a norm. These are very much the gods who direct the underworld of a D&D dungeon.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Appendix N Madness: We Have A Winner!


Of course it's Robert E. Howard. The single strongest contestant in all of Appendix N was the author of "Conan," "Solomon Kane," and dozens of other adventure stories. Jack Vance put up a fight but still trailed Howard by 50 votes at noon on April 1.

I think that running the tournament specifically related to "Appendix N" was what gave Howard the edge. The famous Appendix, of course, is the inspirational material for AD&D - and there is no purer source of the game than those original Conan stories. Conan can be a fighter or a thief, but he is what so many PCs aim to be. Howard's Hyborian Age is the kind of gritty, reference-but-don't-copy kind of place that many D&D adventures are set, and let's be honest: most Neutral PCs pretty much act with Conan style morality.

The Texan was the father of sword & sorcery, and a successful author in several other genres. He was compelling in crafting an adventure tale and had a knack for the kind of vivid prose that pulp fiction thrived on. It was a deep shame that he died when he did; had he lived several more decades he might have created wonders we can only dream of.

I'd like to thank everyone who voted and discussed all the authors in this project. A month is a long time to stick with something, but it was tremendous fun to discuss authors that are very dear to me (and clearly to some other fans). I learned a tremendous amount, and did a lot of reading to catch up; I hope if nothing else this inspires D&D fans to discover some of the tremendous authors out there.

And I'll leave you with the following, from "The Phoenix on the Sword":
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Appendix N Madness Final: Howard vs Vance

Appendix N Madness Final: Robert E. Howard vs Jack Vance

Ernie Gygax recently listed his father's absolute favorite authors on the "Sanctum Secorum" podcast. One was Robert E. Howard, whose Conan stories were the pinnacle of fantastic literature. The other was the author of his favorite series of sci-fi adventures, Planet of Adventure: Jack Vance. So it seems altogether fitting that this challenge should end with Vance versus Howard.

Robert E. Howard was the most influential fantasy writer of his time. He created a world so compelling that writers have tried to recapture it for decades; sadly, like lightning in a bottle, it cannot be found again. But in the interim many wondrous vistas have been revealed. Howard's were still absolute, still elemental, in a way that none of his epigones can ever claim to have reached.

Jack Vance was the finest wordsmith of all of Appendix N. Very few fantasists have had the same talent at creating images through their diction and vocabulary; some have tried to imitate this, only to fall on their faces. Vance's unique talent extended to the creation of a world that impresses itself strongly on the brain long after you've forgotten the incidentals.

If Howard wins, it is the triumph of a Conan - the strongest fighter in the mix, winning by pure talent and overwhelming strength. He defeated David C. Smith, John Bellairs, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft to get here.

If Vance wins, it is the victory of the pen mightier than the sword. A Cugel, getting through by skill and cleverness. He defeated Lin Carter, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson to reach the final.

That's my peace. Here are the authors' arguments.
“What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvellous creatures are lost past the remotest memory … Nevermore will there be the like; now in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery.”
- Jack Vance, "Mazirian the Magician," The Dying Earth
“I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’ ‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.”
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
“On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.”
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
“It occurs to me that the man and his religion are one and the same thing. The unknown exists. Each man projects on the blankness the shape of his own particular world-view. He endows his creation with his personal volitions and attitudes. The religious man stating his case is in essence explaining himself. When a fanatic is contradicted he feels a threat to his own existence; he reacts violently.”
- Jack Vance, Servants of the Wankh
"Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a superpullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a chrystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute; the 'creature,' as you called it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice, you devoured it."
- Jack Vance, Eyes of the Overworld
Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Phoenix on the Sword"
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
- Robert E. Howard, "The Tower of the Elephant"
The sun sank like a dull-glowing copper ball into a lake of fire. The blue of the sea merged with the blue of the sky, and both turned to soft dark velvet, clustered with stars and the mirrors of stars. Olivia reclined in the bows of the gently rocking boat, in a state dreamy and unreal. She experienced an illusion that she was floating in midair, stars beneath her as well as above. Her silent companion was etched vaguely against the softer darkness. There was no break or falter in the rhythm of his oars; he might have been a fantasmal oarsman, rowing her across the dark lake of Death. But the edge of her fear was dulled, and, lulled by the monotony of motion, she passed into a quiet slumber.
- Robert E. Howard, "Shadows in the Moonlight"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
- Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"
You can vote in the poll here. If there is not a decisive winner (at least 10 votes or 15%) by noon on April 1, I won't call the final vote until midnight.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 30: Anderson vs Vance

Mighty Conan has slain even Great Cthulhu to advance to the final round of Appendix N Madness.

Appendix N Madness Semifinal B: Poul Anderson vs Jack Vance

Poul Anderson defeated Fred Saberhagen, Fredric Brown and Leigh Brackett to climb to the semifinals. Jack Vance had a much harder row to hoe, besting Lin Carter, Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock to top the SAGA / Amra bracket.

Jack Vance was made a Grand Master by the SFWA in 1997. The very next year, 1998, Poul Anderson was the recipient of the same award. Vance's first short story appeared in 1945, "The World-Thinker" in Thrilling Wonder-Stories. Anderson's first, "Tomorrow's Children," in 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction. Anderson died younger than Vance, but both men lived and wrote in similar times and compare well to one another. Both wrote works that were more science fiction and works that were more fantastical.

The similarities are, of course, far from complete. Vance's fantastic writing, particularly, was infinitely more romantic in its tendencies, while Anderson never abandoned rationality. Even Three Hearts and Three Lions is immersed in scientific ideas. The Dying Earth is much more willing to handwave the fact that its magic is, to use Arthur C. Clarke's term, "sufficiently advanced technology."

In the 1963 L. Sprague de Camp anthology Swords and Sorcery, Anderson was one of the eight featured authors. His story "The Valor of Cappen Varra" tells the story of a minstrel who defeats a troll through, well, his own valor. Cappen would later be worked into the Thieves' World shared-world  In the next de Camp anthology, The Spell of Seven, Jack Vance's "Mazirian the Magician" appears. It would later be featured in The Dying Earth.

Anderson was a science fiction writer who was fascinated with mythology. None of the fantasy that I've read fails to have a real-world mythological referent, whether the Matter of France in Three Hearts and Three Lions (Holger Carlsen / Ogier the Dane) or his more frequent stops in Norse myth (The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, "The Valor of Cappen Varra," etc).

Vance, on the other hand, wrote science fiction that blended seamlessly into fantasy. This is clearest in the Planet of Adventure series, which could have been a weird fantasy work had it not started in a spaceship. His Dying Earth series, undoubtedly his masterwork, took this further: it was a world where science had gone pear-shaped and everything was basically magical. He did write the Lyonesse trilogy that was thoroughly fantastical, and possibly linked to the Dying Earth over millennia.

Of our two authors, Vance was by far the superior wordsmith. It is difficult to over-emphasize the way he uses decadent language and razor-sharp wits to create the Dying Earth - it is simply a central component of the series. Both beauty and horror are evoked in a way that would make most of the other authors in this tournament flushed with jealousy.

The other thing to distinguish Vance is that he has had a few genuine followers among literary authors. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun takes its cue from Vance's The Dying Earth. Michael Shea had written an authorized Cugel novel, The Quest for Simbilis, before Vance wrote Cugel's Saga. Shea's Nifft the Lean and its sequel The Mines of Behemoth are also in the same vein. And recently Matthew Hughes has been writing high Vancian stories in his Archonate universe; in May his Raffalon anthology will be published and I'll write about it here.

You can vote in the poll here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 29: Lovecraft vs Howard

Jack Vance defeated Michael Moorcock and will advance to the semi-final.

In the Weird vs Fantasy semi-final, the man from Providence faces off against the two-fisted Texan in a battle of the immortals.

Appendix N Madness Semifinal A: H.P. Lovecraft vs. Robert E. Howard


This could have been the final round, if they didn't meet in the semifinals. Lovecraft has overcome Margaret St. Clair, Manly Wade Wellman, and Edgar Rice Burroughs to justify his spot atop the Weird bracket. Robert E. Howard was barely troubled by David C. Smith and John Bellairs, and defeated J.R.R. Tolkien decisively.

Both are titans in Appendix N and their influence and reputation barely have to be justified. They appear of course on the "short list" of Gary Gygax's particular influences, and both of their works have been adapted to D&D as well as inspiring multiple independent RPGs.


Biography links these two authors tightly, even though they never met in person. Lovecraft kept an extensive circle of correspondents, and Howard was a member of this group. They both had major successes in Weird Tales, which Howard was increasingly part of toward the end of his life. And Lovecraft would pass on less than a year after young Howard took his own life, cutting the golden period of the magazine woefully short.

With each of them I'd be hard pressed to pick only one favorite story. I dearly love "The Colour Out of Space" by Lovecraft, and probably would pick "Tower of the Elephant" as a favorite Howard yarn. But any of their works is dripping with inspiration both as fantastic literature and for roleplaying gamers.

Howard's written output, at least in terms of short stories, is several times longer than Lovecraft's. And it is actually worth climbing into; Del Rey did a series of trade paperbacks in recent years that includes not just Conan, but also volumes of Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, El-Borak, and general collections of Howard's historical and horror stories. (Long-time readers of the Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan will recognize some of these stories, although the comics added Conan to them.)

Lovecraft's fiction fits in three modest volumes from Penguin, which I prefer because of the footnotes by S.T. Joshi. They show how closely Lovecraft grounded some of his work in the real world, particularly with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This is a stark contrast between Lovecraft and Howard: where Lovecraft's work was deeply set in the contemporary world, Howard used his settings as a backdrop to add color to the adventure.

The difference in philosophy strikes me as similar to this comic:


Lovecraft prefers to dwell on the nihilistic elements of scientific materialism. He uses alien horrors to show the irrelevance of human life and endeavor when viewed against a bleak and unknown cosmos. Howard looks at similar horrors, shrugs, and creates Conan, who is going to carve his own meaning into this empty shell of life.

By far the best examples are two famous quotes. Lovecraft's from "The Call of Cthulhu":
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
And Howard's from "Queen of the Black Coast:
He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
(It is a great shame that the real Conan's philosophy, which is quite sophisticated, is forgotten in favor of the quote from the John Milius Conan the Barbarian.)

A piece of the greatness of both Howard and Lovecraft is how accessible they are. You can sit down in an hour or two and read "The Call of Cthulhu" or "Red Nails" and you will have an immediate connection to these authors and their work. Yet they are infinitely rewarding for re-reading; I've sat down and read every single word of "Shadows in the Moonlight" closely, just to get a feel for how Howard built that story, and every three or four sentences throbs with life and creation. And every time I re-read Lovecraft's work (at least the ones from 1926 onward) I find new connections and threads that I hadn't seen before.

This is a battle of the titans.

You can vote in the poll here.