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.