Friday, July 31, 2009

A Great Day for a D&D Pick Up Game

Your friends are over and there's time for a pick up game, but you haven't had a chance to prep something? Don't worry.

Step 1
: Grab the random, comprehensive B/X character generator from A Rust Monster Ate My Sword.
Step 3: Go play!

Personalities of the Rainy City -- Part V

Rogues, villains, and miscreants from last week's game.
  • Vengus Ult: An alchemist who of late seems unusually well informed about the boat and ship market. What use could an alchemist have with a boat?
  • Garmoud, the Bloody Handed: Yes, his right hand is wrapped with tattered, bloody cloth. This does not mean he is not a man of character!
  • The Sprites of Sump Tree House: Harmless. They would not think of stealing your trinkets or oddments. Kindly cast your aspersions elsewhere!
  • Jaelin the Charmer: He does not understand this human obsession with coins and jewelries. He is able to live quite comfortably within his means, without these trifling human obsessions.
  • A Shattered Gargoyle beside a Jaunty Hat and Frayed Ropes: Found on the cobblestones of an Upper Mids Street last morning. Victim of a fall?
  • Elenia the Smuggler: Expert in the secure transport of heirlooms and collectibles. She has a business proposition -- a simple switch job -- just for you. You take this fake deck of magic cards, switch it with the real deck in the tower, and the senile old wizard need be none the wiser. Everyone gets to draw from the real deck, which produces many wonderful things! Then everyone gets a cut of the sale, which she will gladly broker. You know where to find her if you want the job.
  • Iambic Pentacular: A wizard of the Tower Cliffs, upstanding member of the parliament. Such a personage as he will inevitably be surrounded by the basest of gossip and rumors. Who would believe that he wears ghosts as cloaks against the weather and steal the life from babies with a touch of his hand. Still more fantastic, that a watery entity with his very form walks the streets and carries his messages to friend and foe. Have you seen it? And it is surely not true that a great hand miraculously held at bay an assassin who would have taken his life. Who would attempt to assassinate an upstanding member of parliament? Exactly. As for rumors that he has in his vaults a magical deck of wondrous and miscellaneous things? Surely, this is little more than speculation.
  • Lucius Sol: He is a businessman. Adventure is for the young. Yes, he sells potions in his shops. Is that a crime? The guild does not seem to mind, or they would have asked him politely to desist. He is quite happy with his little chain of shops. He mostly keeps to himself in the apartments above his spacious warehouse on the border of the wharves and the guild district.
  • The Dealer at the Sign of the Sol: Oh, yes, we carry the usual potions, the healers and the water breathers. No, the guild doesn't mind. Perhaps you'd be interested in this fine mirror? I'll shine it right up for you. Perhaps a good sturdy pole for deep delving, of the sort Lord Sol used to carry? It has been well tested, and highly recommended! We at the Sign of the Sol will do the thinking for you -- properly equipped, ingenuity is no longer a requirement for the budding adventurer!
  • Schwiller's Boy, Nik: You're looking well, in his humble estimation, Mr. Ult. Much less overburdened than the last time. And your friend has more color in his cheeks.
  • The Cap Killer of the Mids: There is a killer loose in the Mids. A man was murdered in a dark alley, a jaunty hat still sitting upon his head. Who will be the next victim? Why was the victim torn up as if by the claws of some great beast?
  • The Sorcerer's Apprentice, who, by the way, has no idea what you are talking about: He has no recollection of finding some fabulous sword and going on a killing spree in the Tower Cl ifs before disappearing. The last few weeks are a bit fuzzy, sure. But if he found a magic sword, wouldn't you think he'd still have it?
  • The Whirling Blade of Smallside Lane: Did you just hear it passing after you closed the manse door?
  • The Lady Belladonna: Yes, it is a lonely life in the old Capella family cryptoboratories. Even a medusa needs friends. Your offer of a nice manse, a new name, and a fashionable bonnet and eyegoggles is accepted, Marco Durban! The Lady Belladonna is in your debt.
  • Marco Durban: The Lady Belladonna's only friend. His associates, however, were somewhat inept in losing the Lady's belongings. She has no more use for them!
  • Two Gargoyles of the Cryptoboratories with Bad Intentions: Well, yes, they could make a deal with you. Or they could simply kill you and take your treasures afterwards. Where are you going? And how have you sealed this trapdoor so tight? Clever mortals.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Orcs as Soldiers

But the victory of the Elves was dear-bought. For those of Ossiriand were light-armed, and no match for the Orcs, who were shod with iron and iron-shielded and bore great spears with broad blades...
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Orcs, shod with iron and iron-shielded.

And the Eagles of the Mountains went far and wide, and they saw many things: the gathering of wolves and the mustering of Orcs; and the Nine Riders going hither and thither in the lands; and they heard news of the escape of Gollum.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Orcs muster.

And as they rode rumour came of war in the North. Lone men, riding wild, brought word of foes assailing their east-borders, of orc-hosts marching in the Wold of Rohan.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

And they march.

In Tolkien's corpus, orcs are soldiers, unnatural weapons of war, twisted by Melkor from Elves. Their nature is reflected in the language Tolkien chooses to describe their actions. Orcs muster and march. They invade and assault. They appear shod with iron and iron-shielded, bearing great spears with broad blades. And they gather not in tribes or clans but in companies, in bands, and in hosts. They are not savages, primitives, barbarians. They are soldiers.

There are "savages" in The Lord of the Rings -- "the wild men" -- but they are very unlike the orcs.

So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. But the Orcs laughed with loud voices; and a hail of darts and arrows whistled over the wall, as Aragorn leaped down.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Even in speech orcs are presented differently from "wild men." When Ghân-buri-Ghân, headman of the wild men speaks in The Return of the King, he does so haltingly, using nouns without determiners and verbs without inflection, and his speech often ellipses words that would normally be included in actual speech. His language is patterned to suggest barbarism. Orcs, in contrast, speak with the usual complement of determiners and verbal morphemes. The speech of orcs is different from the speech of hobbits and "civilized" men in the tales, certainly -- but it is represented with dialect forms, not with a caricature of "broken English."

Given Tolkien's academic specialty, it's hard to imagine any of this is accidental. Orcs are associated with war and industry -- mining, black smoke, and iron. They are not native savages living in tribes in the wilderness of Middle Earth.

Orcs in Dungeons and Dragons
In Dungeons and Dragons, the barbarian or savage orc predominates. So much so that it is often simply taken for granted. Do evil wizards use orcs as soldiers and guards? Sure. But orcs live in tribes in D&D (a fact established as early as OD&D's Monsters and Treasure and repeated throughout the AD&D line). That isn't to say that there are no traces of Tolkien's orcs in the early D&D books -- orc mercenaries remain on hireling lists, and even into 2nd edition, orcs remain Lawful Evil. But orcs live in tribes, and are natural beings, not unnatural creations of evil. And by 3rd edition (at the latest), the barbarian orc is firmly entrenched, a fact reflected in their shift to Chaotic Evil alignment and association with the Barbarian class. Orcs (and other humanoids) in D&D in general are presented as natural savages, not the unnatural footsoldiers of a dark god.

...and other roleplaying games
What about other fantasy RPGs? Off the top of my head, I know that orcs follow the savage/barbarian/primitive model in The Fantasy Trip (where the default assumption is that they're descendants of neanderthal-like peoples!). Dragon Warriors, in contrast, clearly positions orcs as the archetypal "henchthings of evil." In The Burning Wheel, orcs also hew somewhat closer to Tolkien, an unsurprising fact given that similar things can be said of the game's elves and dwarves. Warhammer puts a characteristic twist on them, giving us armies of supernaturally tough hooligans. Other games (such as, I believe, Runequest) do away with orcs completely, replacing them with another race of humanoid enemies.

I'm fond of the orc that marches, the orc that is a soldier, the orc that counts himself a member of a company, not a tribe. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with departing from Tolkien's take on orcs, of course, but I think it provides an interesting alternative to the dominance of the barbarian orc. I like to see proactive orcs invading and capturing territory as soldiers, raiding dungeons for weapons to use in their master's war against mankind, planning raids rather than berserking, and stealing silently under cover of darkness into position to strike at the forces of good.

Now the Orcs that multiplied in the darkness of the earth grew strong and fell, and their dark lord filled them with a lust of rain and death; and they issued from Angband's gates under the clouds that Morgoth sent forth, and passed silently into the highlands of the north.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

How about you?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I am Jack's Cobra Commander (Fight Club / GI Joe Mashup)

Cobra Commander is Tyler Durden.

Car company employee falls into nihilism and psychosis, founds a secretive cult with members embedded throughout society, starts terrorist campaign to throw society into chaos and/or bring it to its knees.

Sound familiar?

It used to kind of bother me that Cobra Commander was a used car salesman. Not any more.

When I get around to running a GI Joe campaign (probably using Heavy Gear), this is the angle I'll take on Cobra Commander.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Desert Island RPGs

This is from Bryan. I'm picking it up via Claw/Claw/Bite and Vaults of Nagoh.

Ten desert island RPGs. Ten is already very generous, so I'll stick to core books only.

  • D&D Rules Cyclopedia: For playing D&D, which is very hard to do with another system.
  • Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game: Man, I can't tell you how much I love this game. Seven years worth of frequent play hasn't dulled my enthusiasm for it. It's the system for gonzo modern martial arts / adventure gaming. Only Ninjas and Superspies could even begin to lay a claim to being able to cover the same ground.
  • The Fantasy Trip: For tactical fantasy RPG combat with a sword and sorcery vibe, look no further.
  • Heavy Gear: The system gives you wargaming, roleplaying, and vehicle construction in an elegant package, plus a great setting. I'd also use this book (without modification) if I wanted to run a GI Joe game.
  • Call of Cthulhu: Good for CoC style games, of course. Also for the system, which would work for a variety of things.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: For the old world, for the career system, for critical hits, and for darkly humourous gaming.
  • Castle Falkenstein: Every time I've played it, it's been a full success. And I'm not even a steampunk afficianado.
  • TMNT: For the mutants, for the ninjas.
  • Poison'd: I'm on a desert island RPG, so the appeal of pirates is obvious.
  • Traveller: This has a lot of range.
Nightmare mode? It'd be Street Fighter, Heavy Gear, or D&D. But I'd hate to have to make that choice.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Personalities of the Rainy City -- Part IV

Being a miscellany of curious and improbable persons at large in the Rainy City. Everything below is incredible hearsay and basest rumor.
  • The Sprites of Sump Tree House: In the cupboards, under tables, behind the oven, and over the eaves, but never, ever, in bottles, the sprites of Sump Tree House are a minor nuisance and source of mischief in the neighborhood.
  • Jaelin the Charmer: Hero Magician of the Sump, friend to many, enemy to none, his quest for a spell of the Second Order is now fulfilled!
  • Novellus the Noble: Confused, credulous, and credible, with long, thin moustaches, he gingerly makes his way across the channels in the Sump. A refugee nobleman from another world who has lost everything but his keen knowledge of all things equestrian and his sharp eye with a bow. He is considering taking up a new profession as a leech fisherman, on the good advice of Jaelin.
  • Vengus Ult: No longer a mere Pedant, he has promoted himself to the position of Savant. The guild has no say in this matter! And he has seen no sign of the knave Regulus, or he would have reported it. Nor has he heard of this "Silver Distillembic" of which you speak. Why do you ask?
  • Regulas: No friend of Vengus Ult's, and a good thing, for poor Regulas has not been seen for a fortnight.
  • Maleficas: Head Monitor of the Membership Committee for the Guild of Alchemists. He very much needs to find good Regulus. The guild takes care of its own.
  • Vasilli, a Wizard of No Small Renown: Vanished! His house on Smallside Lane lies open, the entryway gate banging in the wind, rain spilling through smashed windows. All his doors are ajar. All his vaults lie open. But who would dare enter the house of a wizard, abandoned or not?
  • The Whirling Blade of Smallside Lane: None who has seen it has survived. It stalks the streets of the Upper Mids, a wild elemental thing. You will hear it before you see it. Too late!
  • Behatted Gargoyles: Jaunty hats have been found all around the city, on lampposts, on signs, and keeping the rain off gargoyles' heads.
  • The Wizard's Apprentice with the Enchanted Sword: The families of those he slew that night clamor for vengeance, but the Parliament of Magicians has not made a ruling, and the youth has not been apprehended.
  • Ianus Tut: A refugee, once a princely god-king. Indeed. But hailing from a land of dust and sand? Ludicrous! His manse, the lowest house on Embassy Row. His beard, the most finely groomed on Embassy Row. A painter of suns and writer of strange sigils, he is a renowned wit of the Embassy Row Salons, even though everyone knows he is a common burglar. His neighbors report that he walk through walls to steal precious books and good silverware. But no one is perfect.
  • Nik Schwiller: One of Schwiller's boys, a day shift raftsman. A lover of fine tobacco and pipe, he can afford a smoke once in a fortnight. And tonight is that night.
  • A Boy of the Mids, with an Overlarge Jaunty Hat: He will be a great wizard one day, living on the Tower Cliffs! Everyone knows that is where the grand wizards build their towers. He has not even passing interest in Ambassador Ianus Tut or Embassy Row.
  • The Watch Box Wardens of Embassy Row: Paid from the communal chest, they watch silently from their boxes, always alert and comfortably dry.
  • The Grue Family Gatekeeper: Yes, he's heard about Ambassador Tut's nightly depredations. In fact, he's quite sure the rumors are true. He's lost a good pair of shoes himself, recently. Coincidence? He finds it doubtful.
  • Petticroft Grue: The old patriarch of the Embassorial Family Grue, with a wispy beard and fine silk smoking pajamas. This new neighbor, Ianus Tut, has stolen from him a most valuable tome on the ghosts of another world, Van Richten's Guide to the Spirits. He would pay a fair price for its return.
  • Nezur Killroy: Mr. Killroy is an expert in the recovery of lost and stolen goods. His pointed ears suggest fey and arcane talents. His employers cannot, of course, be named, for reasons of confidentiality. But he might see fit to offer his services in the recovery of a lost tome, if the fee is proper.
  • Marco Durban: Mr. Killroy's associate. His goggles imply a past life as a staid guild man; his horseshoe moustaches imply a current life as a rebel outlaw.
  • The Apprentice Alchemists of Guildhouse Square: They have double-checked their papers, and there seems to be no prohibition against selling common drugs even to non-guild "chemists" such as Vengus Ult. For the right price, of course.
  • The Tut Gatekeeper: A dull job, but not so bad when old Tut goes out to the salon. Then there's time even for a gatekeeper to warm himself up with a drink and good company. A fine coincidence that his good friend Jaelin the Charmer should stop by with a keg just when the master's away!
  • The Tut Cooks and Staff: They come in for the day, head home for the night, and never, ever go upstairs. Ambassador Tut has forbidden it. And besides, it is well known that the upstairs is haunted.
  • The Shadow in the Crypt: Master bedroom, or tomb? The floorplan and fireplace suggest the former. The grave goods, gold sarcophagus, curse of doom on the door, and shadow guardian suggest the latter. Do not disturb Ianus Tut's resting place! Certain doom awaits tomb robbers and disturbers of Ambassador Tut's canopic jars.
  • Schwiller: A night boatman who plies the Tower Straits. He asks no questions. What interest is it to him what is in the fat sack weighing you down so heavily, Vengus, or why your friend Jaelin looks a bit more transparent than usual. Frankly, Schwiller has much more to say about the weather.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Illustrations of the Displacer Beast from 1939

Illustrations from 1939 of the Coeurl, the original inspiration for the Displacer Beast (2e MM pic here, 3.x MM pic here), at Monster Brains today.

The Coeurl is from A.E. Van Vogt's story, "Black Destroyer."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Quotes from Appendix N: Elves as Warriors and Sorcerers

"Faerie seemed a wilderness, hills and woods and uncultivated valleys. Holger asked a much subdued Hugi what its inhabitants lived on. The dwarf explained that they magicked up some of their food and drink, and got some from other realms in the Middle World tributary to them, and hunted some among the weird beasts which prowled their domain. All of them seemed to be warriors and sorcerers, their mental work done by slaves taken from the goblins, kobolds, and other backward tribes. Further questions revealed that the Pharisees knew not old age or illness but were said to lack souls. They would not be the most pleasant of company imaginable, Holger thought."

Three Hearts and Three Lions, Poul Anderson, 1953

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Rainy City at D&D Doodle

Thanks to the very talented Crazyred and his blog D&D Doodle, the Rainy City is now illustrated. It's fantastic piece that really captures the atmosphere of the place. I first found Crazyred's blog thanks to Noisms at Monsters and Manuals, and it's become one of my favorite places in the blogosphere. If you aren't already following it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Punch Evil in the Face

If your Robot Daredevil is drawing the enemy's fire while my Atomic Detective nabs the final clue to the case, we may be playing Danger Patrol.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vassili's Cocky Cap

Magic User Spell, Level 1

Vassili's Cocky Cap
Range: Touch
Duration: 1d6 + 1 hour per level (until activated)
Effect: One living creature (the wearer of the cap)

When cast upon an appropriately stylish hat, cap, or bonnet, this spell imbues the hat with diverse protective wards and charms. If the wearer of Vassili's Cocky Cap fails a saving throw versus a magical attack, they are immediately granted a second saving throw to ward off the contemptible offense. Furthermore, for the duration of the spell, the cap does not slip or fall off, it cannot be lost, and it cannot be snatched from the wizard's head or otherwise disturbed. It can only be removed by the wearer, whether it be doffed in a show of politeness or it be removed to be freely granted to another.

If the spell is cast on a hat that lacks style and panache, however, the spell becomes capricious. The hat tends to slip forward over the wearer's eyes, fall off at inoportune times, and leave the hair badly mussed. Furthermore, when the wearer fails a saving throw, there is a 2 in 6 chance that the hat falls off at that very moment and fails to grant its wearer any protection at all.

The first time the spell is cast upon a new hat, cap, or bonnet, the DM will make a ruling on the stylishness of the hat. The player is encouraged to sketch, paint, or tailor the hat so that the DM may make a just ruling. A poem about the hat may also prove acceptible.

Once a given hat has been ruled sufficiently stylish, the spell will always accept that particular hat on future castings of the spell.

Vassili's Book of Conjurations

Rumors are spreading that the cliffside manse of Vassili (a wizard of no small renown) was burgled last night. His windows broken. His ledgers disturbed. His hat collection plundered.

And his grimoire of conjurations purloined.

What secrets lie within this mysterious tome?

Vassili's Book of Conjurations
A heavy, leather bound book of considerable age. Most of its pages are missing, some torn, some rotted away. The remaining pages are waterlogged, the ink barely legible at best. Its warped cover is adorned with the arcane sigil of House Capello. With much time and patience, the following lore can be won from the book.
  • A genealogy of the Capello family going back to its founding days in the halls of the Great School of Magic, in the days before that unfortunate business with the end of the world.
  • A treatise on the drawing of magical circles that bind both men and beasts in timeless stasis. If the drawing of the circle is not aligned exactly with the seasons and the moon, dire consequences are foreordained!
  • A magico-philosophical thesis on the 321 elementals, demons, spirits, and sandestins of earth, and the conditions of their habitations and progenitures.
The following spells can also still be deciphered:

Level 1: Normal Aura, Read Magic, Vassili's Cocky Cap
Level 2: Vassili's Whirling Blade
Level 3: Alacrity

Vassili will surely seek vengeance on those who stole his book of lore. And the vengeance of a wizard without his spellbook can be a weird and petty thing. Burglars beware...