Wednesday, 30 April 2014

From Dungeon Kitsch to Dungeon Camp

I was going to do some writing -- about some people's resistance to my identification of gaming aesthetics as kitsch, about how it might be more productive to think of it in terms of the warmer category of "camp." With a huge warning sign that here, we are not talking about an aesthetic mode meant to bridge the gap between masculine and feminine, but rather, between the wonder of the child and the consciousness of the adult.

Susan Sontag by Juan BastosThen I went to re-read Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp" and discovered that most of the things I wanted to say, she had said, and all I had to do was change "Camp" to "Gaming" and a few other words (in blue). These aphorisms out of her list of 58 are perfect. The others are too tied to specific examples, to a view of camp based in gender and sexuality, or to camp as aesthetics rather than gaming as experience, to make them work.

1. To start very generally: Gaming is a certain mode of simulation. It is one way of imagining adventure within the world. That way, the way of Gaming, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of adversity, of stylization of "awesomeness".

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Gaming sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized -- or at least apolitical.

3. Not only is there a Gaming vision, a Gaming way of looking at things. Gaming is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are "gamerly" movies, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. . . . This distinction is important. True, the Gaming eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Gaming. It's not all in the eye of the beholder.

4. Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Gaming:

Aurora monster models

The Transformers
Conan the Barbarian (stories, comics, film)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Kurosawa's films

6. There is a sense in which it is correct to say: "It's too good to be Gaming." Or "too important," not marginal enough. (More on this later.) Thus, the personality and many of the works of Iain M. Banks are Gamerly, but not those of Margaret Atwood. Many examples of Gaming are things which, from a "serious" point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all, though. Not only is Gaming not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be approached as Gaming (example: the major films of Guillermo Del Toro) merits the most serious admiration and study.

8. Gaming is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not. The best example is in dungeons, the most typical and fully developed Gaming style. Dungeons, typically, convert one thing into something else: the lighting fixtures in the form of skulls, the living room which is really a habitation of disguised monsters.

10. Gaming sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp" (worth 500 gp); not a woman, but a "woman" (2nd Level, Thief). To perceive Gaming in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

16. Thus, the Gaming sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.

18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Gaming. Pure Gaming is always naive. Gaming which knows itself to be Gaming is usually less satisfying.

19. The pure examples of Gaming are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Dungeon designer who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! Genuine gaming -- for instance, the encounters devised for the TSR modules of the late seventies -- does not mean to be funny. Gaming "humor"-- say, the Order of the Stick -- does.

23. In naïve, or pure, Gaming, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Gaming. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

24. When something is just bad (rather than Awesome), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ("It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Gaming enthusiasm.)

29. The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Gaming in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy - and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.

31. This is why so many of the objects prized by Gaming taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It's not a love of the old as such. It's simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment -- or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Gaming sensibility. . . . Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.

41. The whole point of Gaming is to dethrone the serious. Gaming is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Gaming involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

44. Gaming proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

49. It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Gamer taste cannot be overestimated. Gamer taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.

53. Nevertheless, even though adolescents have been its vanguard, Gamer taste is much more than adolescent taste. Obviously, its metaphor of life as theater is peculiarly suited as a justification and projection of a certain aspect of the situation of adolescents. (The Gamer insistence on not being "serious," on playing, also connects with the adolescent's desire to remain youthful.) Yet one feels that if adolescents hadn't more or less invented Gaming, someone else would. (To be precise, middle-aged men did.)

55. Gaming taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Gaming is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it's not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Gaming taste doesn't propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn't sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Gaming taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of "player character." . . . Gaming taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as "a game," they're enjoying it. Gaming is a tender feeling.

57. Gaming taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Dark Dungeons (the tract) and The Big Bang Theory aren't Gaming.

58. The ultimate Gaming statement: it's good because it's awesome. . . Of course, one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I've tried to sketch in these notes.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Next 52 Introduction

I have been letting out a few of the new pages from the "Next 52"-a rules expansion for my 52 Pages system covering new classes and options. As may be apparent, the structure of the two documents mirrors the Basic and Expert sets of TSR D&D. Just as the first 52 gave a simple structure and goal for adventuring, so do the next 52 structure the next set of challenges - from a town to a realm.

Essentially, each adventure completed from player levels 4-6 should usually be set up to have consequences for the party's reputation in the eyes of one or more leaders (from 3-7 individuals who influence a realm). Have more of the leaders on your side than against you, and you can be named agents of the realm, setting you up for the level 7-9 adventures that will end with your own rulership. It's a slightly different twist on the ACKS middle and end game - you're not sent on missions per se, but you are aware - usually - of what your activities mean for those in power.

In a fit of disclosure, I'll say that neither of my ongoing campaigns are based on this template. The more story-intense one has the players bouncing long distances across the world with the vague structure of a couple of mysterious prophecies and conspiratorial organizations, while the looser one is based around the tentpole of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. So certainly 52 Pages "as written" would be a viable idea for the next campaign ...

Meanwhile, I've set myself the fun challenge of coming up with mechanics for politics, trade and domains that are as modular and simple as the 52 Pages aim to be.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Awesomeness Overload

Danger is part of the kitsch and mystique of the adventure game, as I explained previously. So is antiquity. But one thing that's medieval and dangerous but doesn't make people think "WHOA ADVENTURE" is ...dying of disease from a rat bite or plate of bad beans in a pest-hive medieval city.

Not the DMG's finest moment.
That's because disease is low, squalid, and lacks awesomeness. It's not a soul-drinking sword, a city full of dark elves, a beholder or a Tyrannosaurus or a laser gun or a rocket ship. All these awesome elements make the final piece of dungeon kitsch, of fantastic adventure overload.

It's important here to trace the slang term "awesome" back to its literal roots in the feeling of awe. There has been a lot of hand-waving and grasping at straws in psychology to explain this feeling, but its meaning and function are fairly clear. You look up, gape, eyes wide open, taking in all possible information about something that is more vast, more powerful, than you can comprehend. It is the ancient attitude of the mouse beneath the tread of the elephant: rooted to the spot, look up very carefully for the descending, unthinking foot.

Seeking out the awesome - the gigantic, the overpowered - leads in pyramidal fashion to the apex of every design hierarchy. The most powerful monsters? Beholders, dragons, liches, archdevils. The most powerful melee weapons? Vampiric, vorpal. Missile weapon? Death rays. Character class? Paladins, I guess, but they're not dangerous enough. Make them anti-paladins. Race? The drow: mysterious Monster Manual secret turned penultimate boss of the most epic dungeon adventure ever printed, with more special abilities and lost-race tech than they can really use. Animal? Dinosaur. Terrain? Mountain, or abyss, either way. Spell? Prismatic sphere - not wish; to be awesome, power has to show itself off.

Awesomeness can get mined out, though. Look what happened to that poor non-SRD apex creature, the beholder. Already given a bargain-basement undersea knockoff in the Monster Manual, things got worse over the editions as the stock got diluted so mid-level characters could have their own brush with awesomeness. Eventually things got really tragic ... yes, posting this image is hard. I'm not sure why giving the Drow a city makes them more awesome, yet giving beholders a society with all kinds of variants makes them less awesome, but the effect to me is undeniable.

Pac-Man never had this kind of identity crisis.
To avoid this dead end, there's another maneuver. The equivalent of the kitsch corner that maximizes sentimentality by combining sad clowns, big-eyed puppies, noble Natives and velvet Jesuses: the gonzo adventure.

Gonzo mines each of many different genres for its most awesome content and throws it all together. It's sometimes defined plainly as genre clash. But you won't see "gonzo" applied to something that combines Old West land rights issues, Japanese tea ceremony, prehistoric giant ferns, and science fiction moral dilemmas. You will see it applied to something that has ninjas rappelling down the Grand Canyon to fight laser-packing dinosaurs.

All this gives the adventure designer a recipe for awesomeness. Or should I say preposterawesome?

In a ...
1. gigantic mountain 2. plunging chasm 3. lava hellscape 4. humongous iceberg 5. petrified giant creature's body 6. crashed spaceship

With architecture inspired by ...
1. skulls 2. swords 3.serpents 4. spiders 5. demons 6. dragons

You fight a bunch of thematic vermin and goons, and then you come face-to-face with ...
1. a dark elf 2. a storm giant 3. a cyborg 4. a millennia-old undead 5. a dinosaur-riding 6. a death ray shooting

1. anti-paladin 2. super-sorcerer 3. arch-psionicist 4. half-demon 5. immortal leaping kung fu master 6. shadow magic ninja

Whose treasure is ...
1. a cache of ray guns 2. a life-drinking sword 3. a prosthetic hand of doom 4. a world-annihilating spell 5. a skull caked with platinum and gems 6. a cyclops idol with a single ruby eye the size of your head

Whew. To conclude the series I'll answer the questions posed by some readers, about whether the term "kitsch" does justice to this kind of game experience as lived from the inside.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Next 52: Psionicist

OK, short break from heavy aesthetic slogging. I made a psionicist class for Next 52 Pages and the rules can with little effort be ported to any other system. The spell schools are Enchantment, Divination, Alteration and Destruction (fire, force).

While making it a balanced option I have also tried to preserve the rarity and elitism of the class ("Wow, Skip! You tested psionic!") and the possibility that they open the party up to a whole new kind of attention and danger from big-brained mutations. It's not quite the long-range sensing and communication of the Hiero novels but maybe some more Divination spells in that vein could be added.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Adversity Overload

Put together unicorns, rainbow colors, pixies, moonlight and mountains and sparkles and mystery.

Art by PristineDream on
Does this fit the description of dungeon adventure kitsch? Not really. This picture may be fantasy overload but it's not dungeon overload because it lacks the element of adversity - or mortal menace and danger. Adversity is what you overload to stress the element of fantasy adventure.

There's a paradox in the ways adversity can be overloaded: either by leaning on obvious signifiers of danger, or by creating an environment where danger is concealed everywhere so that the lack of danger also signifies danger. Let's consider the obvious first.

Skulls on mountains (more the merrier...)

From the D&D cartoon
Snakes and daggers on skulls (tattoo flash by Hamera@deviantart):

Swords on seats ...

Spikes, spiders, sharks, crags, blades, fangs, claws, boulders, chasms, chains, bones, wolves, dragons, fire, lava, ice, lightning, lasers ... Adversity!

Now, the other way to overload adversity has something to do with this meme going around (first spotted in the hands of Jack Holt):

Why is Westeros not somewhere you'd want to go? Because unlike the other two worlds, there is no safe and cozy space there. Adversity is part of adventure, of course, but things become overloaded when it starts to appear everywhere, when players start to take it in and see it everywhere.

Adversity kitsch fuels the killer DM legends, the elaborate traps, the "Gotcha" monsters built to subvert and punish rational player behavior. Most of all it overloads deception to create omnipresent threat in adventure design, endlessly repeated in the kind of adventure-hook cheap heat where the inn is really run by werewolves, the farmhouse is really the head of a demon, the friendly talking badger is the charmed sock puppet of the arch-lich conspiracy, and the treasure, folks, is cursed.

So adversity overload taken to the extreme would present you with this ...

Which is just an illusion, luring you in to this:

And the change in character art after 2000 or so? From facing adversity, character designs now project adversity. Today they bristle with spikes and flanged armor-blades and energy auras, whereas before they were just poor working stiff adventurers plunged into Lava Skull Mountain. But this is all by way of getting at the next and final building block of dungeon kitsch: Awesomeness ...

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Archaic Overload

Last time, I introduced the concepts of kitsch and overload. Although kitsch-criticism was developed by members and satellites of the Frankfurt School in the mid-20th century, it's been opposed since then, for its aesthetic and economic elitism, its stand against mass production and mass preferences. I tried to separate from the loaded term "kitsch" the concept that a work of art or imagination can have effect by overloading its impact - saturating its content in the direction of commonly accepted forms, rather than perpendicular to or away from them.

I don't think there's any argument that by whatever name, kitsch or overload is the dominant form in the aesthetics of both commercial and DIY adventure gaming. In fact, it can be broken down into three elements of style that begin with an "A". The first one is the overload of Archaism.

Archaism kitsch can be seen in the way artists choose to depict that quintessential adventure setting, the dungeon. Number one earmark is the set-dressing habit of "dungeon architecture." The classic fieldstone walls and ensconced torches have a tendency to adorn even chambers deep in the earth that should be hewn out of the living rock, and where torches would quickly consume all available oxygen, even if there were minions to replace them on the hour ...

The reason for the overload: if you just have economical 5' passages hewn through stone, they could be anything - a Cold War bunker entrance, a Minoan adit, a university steam tunnel. The stone blocks and iron-reinforced doors yell "Castle!" as loudly as they can. But this is not an inevitable choice. Here's an illustration by John Bingham, from Mouth of the Shadowvein, that manages to avoid the medieval style of Archaic dungeon overload (although doubling down on Adversity with its centipede floor):

The bas-reliefs, however, remind us that another way to convey Archaism is to raid the archaeological toybox: statues, reliefs, mosaics, skull doors and demon thrones. In fact, the default overload response to "What part of antiquity?" is "All of it." So we derive the typical adventure setting with its anachronistic cohabitation of Roman, Dark Age, High Medieval, cod-Renaissance, and Nation X imitations.

Fanciful depictions of never-were civilizations and lost races also go in the mix, the costumes and scenery derived from a mix of medieval and faux-barbaric sources, with sex appeal turned way up. Compare the standard loincloths-and-bangles "Conanesque" setting with ones such as Tekumel, drawing on similar source material, but with more originality.

Focus on any one period of history, and you lose the freedom of archaic overload. If the setting is medieval, the question becomes how medieval - fairy-tale medieval, or boils-and-rats medieval? The more representational you get when it comes to history, the more you have to worry about things that make history boring - for example, a party of freebooting adventurers would almost certainly be outlawed in every jurisdiction of a feudal society. So paradoxically, even as dungeon kitsch evokes the medieval, it also avoids its hard questions.

To illustrate -- early gaming illustrations, a stone's throw away from medieval wargaming, felt  free to present fairly realistic armaments:

David C Sutherland III
But later developments in art, as producers judged audience reactions, created a glossy, "generic antiquity" overload feel (note the introduction of fanciful elements like the feathers and armor molding in the Larry Elmore Dragonlance piece):

And still later, illustrations cranked up the depiction of the next overload element: Adversity. Yes, even on a costume. More next time.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Dungeon Kitsch

I am going to argue that much of the aesthetic of adventure gaming has evolved toward a form of kitsch.

That sounds pretty harsh. I don't mean it to be, exactly. So to start digging out of this rhetorical hole, what is kitsch? And is there a nicer term for it?

Religious kitsch
Well, first, I have picked out the first three meaningful photographs of "kitsch" that Google Images sees fit to provide, as anchor for the discussion.

Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl
Wikipedia opines: "a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons." Oxford Dictionaries have it, "Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way." But those are not quite adequate definitions, for me. They judge, but don't illuminate.

1950's-style kitsch wunderkammer
As it turns out, 20th century visual art critics had a lot to say about kitsch. Writing for the University of Chicago, Whitney Rugg sums up: "Kitsch tends to mimic the effects produced by real sensory experiences ... presenting highly charged imagery, language, or music that triggers an automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction." 

And further... "Milan Kundera calls this key quality of kitsch the 'second tear:' 'Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch.'"

That's more like it. It's about the kitsch aesthetic, not about the kitsch object itself, which can be described as a mass-produced object that simulates opulence or sentiment through the easiest means. In the kitsch aesthetic, there are no defining features, because it necessarily piggybacks on an already achieved mode of culture, as Clement Greenberg remarked in 1939. There is not just kitsch, but cuteness kitsch, nostalgia kitsch, classical-music kitsch, military heroism kitsch, and so on. 

Religious kitsch uses excessive realism to depict what should be more stylized (see the Mary plaques, above), but modernity kitsch uses excessive stylization to wink and elbow-nudge its way into the future (see the 50's Populuxe furniture, above.) The Chinese Girl makes most sense as kitsch of the avant-garde; a magazine-art depiction given a banal exoticized subject and an unusual color choice that passes for sophistication.  

So, building on Kundera's definition, let's call a kitsch approach this: one that seeks to arouse the feelings most normal for its subject matter, by multiple straightforward and obvious means. 

It's this overloading that gives the echo effect, the second tear, the feeling that you are not only seeing something awesome or magnificent or sad, but you are sure that anyone else like you who sees this would also feel that way, pushing you outward into the comfort of conformity rather than inward into the doubts of introspection. It's also this overloading that gives rise to the ironic enjoyment -- climbing down from sophistication to a simpler palate, understanding why it's manipulative and in the same moment refusing to reject it entirely because it is so raw and vivid.

Now, here's that less judgmental name for kitsch -- overload -- although I may not always want to abandon the judgment entirely. And to my eye, Dungeon Overload, if you will, can be defined by its reaching for three A's: Antiquity, Awesomeness and Adversity. But that is a topic to continue next time.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Demihumans In Hardcore Mode

The basic superiority of demihuman player characters bedeviled the first and second editions of AD&D and haunted later versions of the game. In AD&D you got a raftload of benefits for being an elf or a dwarf - languages, dark vision, special defenses. Also, there were stat bonuses and penalties you could optimize to your class so the bonuses really helped and the penalties didn't hurt, especially with the generous "4d6 drop lowest" method of generating scores.

Simply put, there were few reasons to take a human over an elf magic-user, a human over a dwarf or half-orc fighter, a human over a demi-human thief. Most campaigns wouldn't live long enough to push up against level limits, and multiclassing could soften their sting by packing as many levels as allowed into a more slowly-advancing, super-skilled character. Then there was that other curious drawback of elves, again only really relevant at high levels: the raise dead spell wouldn't work on them because they didn't have souls.

Usually (certainly, in D&D from 2000 on) the solution is to give humans extra skills, feats, ability scores to compensate. But the raise dead peculiarity suggests another solution. Most house rules I know have some way to mitigate death at zero HP, whether it be AD&D's "bleeding out" or the kind of "death and dismemberment" rules I use in my game. Why not have these options available only to humans, or at least give humans a greater chance of surviving at 0 hit points and below?

In effect, the benefits of being a demi-human would be balanced by making them like computer games' hardcore mode, where there are no saves and death is permanent. At the very least, for example, they would bleed out at -5 instead of -10 HP, or suffer a -2 penalty to a 2d6 dismemberment table. Most harshly, they would die at -1 HP, with just the tiniest saving grace at 0.

The setting rationale could go as follows:
  • Elves: Have no souls, their spirits once loosed from flesh are quick to return to the great beyond.
  • Half-orcs: Likewise a bit light in the soul department. If a DM really is serious about making their social stigma count in the campaign, then they can compensate by giving only 50% of the penalty, and likewise for half-elves.
  • Dwarves: Are tough, but when seriously injured, have a tendency to return to the native stone; dead dwarves turn to stone statues and can be stone-fleshed back to a point where healing can work for a little while.
  • Gnomes and halflings: Have really sweet afterlives full of rollercoasters and second breakfast, and don't bother sticking around in this vale of tears.
  • Humans: Are uncertain about their final destination, so cling tenaciously to life against the odds.
Really, if you play by-the-book AD&D, PCs have to be handed huge amounts of loot in order to level up, so buying raise dead spells eventually fulfils a safety-net niche similar to death and dismemberment - a risk you take with the system shock roll, but by no means the automatic end of the character. In that case, the elf drawback starts kicking in around third level or so when it becomes economically feasible to buy clerical services. But my new idea is more in line with how a lot of new-old-school DMs run games, and extends to all the demihuman races.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Broken Sword, Broken Elves

As a teen I read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions but never got around to its slightly later-written companion volume, The Broken Sword, until recently. Both can rightly be said to be foundational works in fantasy literature and gaming, influencing both Moorcock and Gygax with their supernatural struggles between Law and Chaos. But what's also informative is what Gygax didn't pick up from this "Appendix N" novel and put into Dungeons and Dragons.

The trippy UK paperback cover.
The Broken Sword uses many of the concepts and adversaries from Three Hearts; elves, trolls, Christendom, witches, a magic sword, and the Law-Chaos divide. The mythic terrain changes, from a fantasy world based on Carolingian legend to a semi-historical Norse England. So does the point of view; instead of a transported modern hero we have an omniscient, archaism-dotted narrative of a Norse jarl's son fostered in Faerie and the changeling who replaced him.

The Law-Chaos war in Three Hearts is straightforward, but the main matter in this novel is a war between two powers of Chaos, the elves and the trolls. The conflict is tragic rather than heroic, because its Pyrrhic outcome heralds the weakening and fading of the hosts of Chaos. Our lawful world, as in Tolkien's and Moorcock's fantasies, must somehow be arrived at from these narratives set in a dim and unknown past.

Although cruel and evil, the fey races and their mortal allies cannot help but be read as the antiheroes of the story. Law is also more complicated; although Christian belief and oath protect against Chaos, the "White Christ" is far offstage, compared to the Lawful Norse gods - in particular, Odin - who are shown taking a more active hand to set Chaos against Chaos. This situation has parallels to the further complications of alignment in AD&D. Strife can happen within the camp of Evil (Chaos) as well as Good (Law).

Now, about those elves. Anderson's elves, trolls, dwarfs and other fey creatures inhabit a parallel world. They are normally invisible except to those humans who have been granted "witch-sight" through sorcery. However, their deeds sometimes manifest as omens, portents and misfortune for humans.

(As an aside, this would be a great campaign rationale. Ever wonder why the king with his retinue of knights can't go after those goblins threatening the village? They need the adventurers, witch-sighted all, to actually see the goblins.)

Fey creatures also cannot handle iron and are harmed by it. This means that a fostered human or changeling, as well as the dwarfs who are not iron-shy, become valuable tools in the elf-troll war. We catch a glimpse of this in the OD&D and Holmes D&D logic of elves choosing to be fighters or magic-users each day. Holmes apparently elaborated on the reason for this in a novel. Simply enough, the choice to wear iron armor and weapons would nullify the elf's magic. But although games like Runequest took the idea and ran even further with it,  AD&D dropped it cold.

If people complain that elves are overpowered in AD&D and later editions, perhaps one reason is that Gygax chose to go with the Tolkien view of elves as benevolent, superhuman beings. What would have happened instead if he'd taken up the Anderson view of elves as powerful and innately magical, but limited by weakness to the inexorable forces of Law and metallurgy? We'd have perhaps a darker D&D, one with the kind of fey elves that other new-old-school settings have embraced (here, here and here as notable instances.)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Next 52: Demihuman Options

"Elves in AD&D are unbalanced!"

"Well, that just goes to show ..." Something about the literary influences Gygax denied, which I'll explain next time. 

In the meantime, here are some expansion rules for my balanced elves, dwarves, and gnomes who obey the 52 Pages' Race-As-Class logic. Much easier to balance C options than (C x R) options. 

As usual, sober Isotype game design involves but a few meaningful points of pizzazz. Color magic makes all the elves special; the night elf can be a drow, a word or a purple long-eared galoot. Most of the fighter's powers in 52PP are extra attack granting (chop till you drop, extra attack on low roll) and the standard dwarf doesn't have them, which makes this little berserker guy fun but dangerous.

Oh, and have the silhouettes that aren't from Telecanter. Candle redacted because gnomes have dark vision. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Slake My Ennui With Monsters

Is it OK to come out? Have the joke posts stopped?

I am dissatisfied with the dungeon monster encounter tables I have created for my general use (see Old School Dungeon Encounters on the right) because when I port them into javalinks I come to the realization that "2d10, lowest" = 20% of encounters being giant rats, etc.

This is fine when I stock dungeons. For example, if something seems boring or trite to me I give it a twist, using the stats but changing the presentation. In an ancient complex with synthetic-men bodyguards I had ghasts become spoiled examples of synthetic men exiled to their own chamber and with acid touch instead of paralysis. A rust monster becomes a rust lizard - they'll never see it coming! And so on.

But I can't program that into javalinks. In short, those tables are based on a very Monster Manual-centric world with occasional weird peek-ins from the other AD&D books. I want more variation, while still keeping some things more common than others.

Assume I've dug deeper and brought in most of the non-awful monsters from Fiend Folio and MM2. I also own Realms of Crawling Chaos, and the Cthonic Codex monster book. Tome of Horrors mostly overlaps with the classic books, and really would only be useful if I needed specific stats toned down from AD&D to Basic/Original level. Apart from that, what D&D-based monster books or sources do you think are good, again avoiding 3rd or 4th edition statlines as incompatible with the older editions?