Monday, March 30, 2009


I don't know why, but it really seems like nobody can get the owlbear right. It's a simple concept, really, but practically all of the official artwork makes it look more like an eaglebear. Look at this guy to the right, for example.

I mean, what's the first thing you think of when you think of an owl? I don't know about you, but I think of big yellow eyes. Am I weird?

I've seen miniatures and fan drawings that get the idea, but TSR, and later Wizards of the Coast, didn't seem to be able to hire artists that did.

This is the kind of stuff I think about all day. Maybe I need help...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Children Of The d100

Like a lot of kids in the early 90s, I was obsessed with Marvel Comics. Since I was already playing RPGs (Robotech and AD&D at the time), picking up TSR's Marvel Super Heroes game was a no-brainer. These days I prefer the SAGA system-based version of the game that came out in the late 90s, but the original had many charms, and we played the hell out of it. In fact, it's probably my second most-played RPG, just behind that other mighty monolith of adolescent power-fantasy games, RIFTS.

One of the wackier things about MSH was its character creation system. You rolled stats randomly, which was normal for the time, but you also rolled your "hero type" (alien, mutant, robot, etc.) and even your powers randomly. If I remember correctly, the rulebook did say that you could pick them out with the Judge's permission, but all the example characters were random-rolled. It was kind of fun, but also kind of stupid. I mean, one of the sample pregens was LEOPARD, a guy in an Iron Man-style battlesuit that turned into a cat. (The battlesuit/animal transformation combo seemed disturbingly easy to roll up - I once randomly generated a power armor guy who could transform into a bear and control fire. Obviously, I named him "Smokey".)

Some of the characters my friends and I created and ran for a mutant-focused campaign included:

Flamestrike, a flying guy made of fire. With claws.
Flux, a telekinetic who could control time.
Unleash, a guy who could steal or nullify powers. He could also shoot force bolts. Oh, and he was slightly resistant to electricity.
Chrome, a guy who could transform into a liquid metal jaguar that shot razor-sharp chunks of itself at people.

Okay, so Flux wasn't too bad.

One of the supplements for MSH, the Ultimate Powers Book, featured even more vast and bizarre random character generation tables. My group lusted after that thing. I have a PDF of it now, but in those pre-internet days, we were never able to track it down. Based on the ridiculous stuff we made with just the old boxed set, I think that may have been a good thing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Impending Doom

Larry MacDougall (a.k.a. "Doog") was one of my favorite fantasy RPG artists back in the 90s. These days his art is a bit more fairy-tale than the grimy sword & sorcery stuff he did for Earthdawn and Palladium, but he still does some great work. (Incidentally, I think his current style would be a great fit for Dragon Warriors.)

I especially like "No Quarter", seen here. It's rather whimsical, but there's still a sense of tension and menace. After well over a year of playing big, cinematic action games, this painting - along with that AD&D Coloring Album - has got me longing for something with a higher risk factor for the characters. I think I miss really worrying about my character getting killed.

(I also love the guy in the middle with the axe, well behind the shieldbearers and spearmen.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Prismacolor D&D

I recently re-acquired a copy of The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, something one of my older siblings owned when I was but a wee tyke. I bought it mostly for nostalgia purposes (well, that and the fact that the artwork is pretty great), but it's actually ended up being a worthwhile purchase for other reasons.

The Coloring Album (I guess "coloring book" sounded too kiddy) contains more than well-rendered images to fill in. There's a prose story written by Gary Gygax, linking all the pictures together, and while it's not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, it does grant some insight into Gygax's vision of the AD&D game, circa 1979.

Some of the elements of the book that I found interesting:
  • The party of adventurers that heads into "the ruined castle keep" is big. At least a dozen people, probably more like twenty, including a magic-user, a cleric, a ton of dwarves, and more than one halfling thief. This is way beyond even the hireling-heavy, exploration-based adventures I've played in my (very limited) "old school" D&D experience.
  • The motivation for their sortie into the keep is greed, plain and simple. There is no mention of stopping an evil overlord, rescuing a princess, or anything noble like that. They're just looking to get real paid. (In the end, it turns out that they've been manipulated by a ki-rin into removing a big nasty from the world, but that's beside the point.)
  • The adventurers get their asses kicked a lot. Before they even get to the dungeon, a couple of people get killed by a bulette, and that's just for starters. There's a lot of screaming and dying in this coloring book, and it seems like the poor dwarves - like Ergwhi, pictured above - get the worst of it. Gary might have never used miniatures, but he sure hated miniature people.
  • The party runs away a lot, or uses spells and magic items to avoid combat entirely. In fact, they don't really win a single encounter, if by "win" you mean "kill all the bad guys and take their stuff."
  • Practically everybody has an awesome beard and/or mustache, elves and halflings excluded. Also, halflings don't look like hobbits here - they're skinny little guys with pointy noses, pointy ears, and pointy shoes.
  • A female ranger is apparently called a "rangeress".

Oddly enough, I think the Coloring Album might be the best encapsulation of an "old school" D&D adventure ever made. It certainly gives a more accurate glimpse of the game than any of TSR's novels ever did.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Want My Monkey-Man

The cover of D&D 4th edition's latest hardcover, Player's Handbook 2, says it introduces "primal heroes", and yet there is no sasquatch player race detailed within.

There is also no writeup for the yeti. The yeren does not get the player race treatment. Entries for almas, yowie, and orang-pendek are likewise absent.

This was Wizards of the Coast's big chance to introduce bigfoot adventurers into the game, and they blew it. "Primal heroes" my ass - we got rules for wolfmen, catmen, rockmen, angelmen, orcmen, and freakin' gnomes, but no gigantopithecines?! Preposterous!

Obviously, it's now up to me to provide D&D players and DMs with the character race for which they've been clamoring... eventually. Or, y'know, not.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Judge, Book, Cover

You know, for a game called "Dungeons & Dragons", it's strange to see what illustrations have ended up on the covers of the main rulebook. We've got people riding horses, people climbing on statues, people breaking down doors... it seems like only the various versions of the Basic Set really went for the obvious choice: characters facing off against a dragon in a dungeon.

When the 4th edition of the game was announced, it looked like Wizards of the Coast had finally figured things out. This is one of the first promotional images they released:

Pretty great, right? For the first time, it looks like we have a cover image depicting a full-blown, four-man party of adventurers in a dungeon, locking horns with a dragon. We've lost the piles of treasure, but hey, you can't have it all. I immediately assumed this would be the cover for the new Player's Handbook, or at least a new starter set.

I assumed wrong. The 4th edition PHB ended up showing a pair of characters standing around and striking 1990s-style comic book poses, a motif that has been continued on the new PHB2. No action, no story, just posing.

And the dungeon-dragon picture? What became of it? Well, it ended up being used as the cover of a pack of character sheets. Yeah, those things nobody buys anymore.

Kind of sad, really.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Core Names

Red Falcon. Elkhorn. Hawk the Slayer. Deathstalker. Names like this crop up in old modules and yellowed character sheets, on the covers of dog-eared gamebooks and musty VHS tapes. My friend Kent Bonifield once referred to such names as "core". For me, there's something primally, fundamentally old-school about them. I thought it would be fun to throw together a random table that could produce such names:

01 black
02 red
03 green
04 blue
05 gold(en)
06 silver
07 death
08 bane
09 doom
10 spell
11 dark
12 bright
13 light
14 dusk
15 dawn
16 shadow
17 steel
18 star
19 sun
20 moon
21 night
22 storm
23 fire
24 sea
25 wind
26 stone
27 leaf
28 river
29 war
30 blade
31 sword
32 horn
33 axe
34 claw
35 staff
36 spear
37 hammer
38 lone
39 falcon
40 eagle
41 hawk
42 dragon
43 wyvern
44 sphinx
45 griffon
46 lion
47 bull
48 panther
49 elk
50 bear
51 wolf
52 boar
53 rat
54 ox
55 fox
56 raven
57 serpent
58 soul
59 heart
60 strong
61 hunter
62 walker
63 stalker
64 killer
65 slayer
66 master/mistress
67 lord/lady
68 duke/duchess
69 king/queen
70 iron
71 grey
72 brother/sister
73 curse(d)
74 eye
75 tooth
76 shield
77 helm
78 fist
79 god
80 devil
81 demon
82 spirit
83 ghost
84 dread
85 blood
86 scar
87 hand
88 deep
89 rock
90 gloom
91 razor
92 bringer
93 ring
94 rune
95 weaver
96 caller
97 great
98 high
99 mega
00 ultra

(Core name generation is not an exact science. Players are encouraged to use their imagination when generating a name. One could roll two, three, or more times, and then combine, discard, and modify them as desired.)

(To put it another way, this table is kind of busted, but I just rolled up a guy named Megagloom and so I have to think that I did something right.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Battle-Matic Update

Okay, so the goofy setting idea I vomited forth a week or two ago has taken root in my brain, and refuses to go away. So, I tracked down a copy of AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn on Ebay the other day and bought it.

That's the D&D supplement that has the game stats for the action figure characters in it. It's written for the Mentzer version of the basic game, the one with the nice colorful boxes and the Larry Elmore cover artwork. (RPG geekdom calls it "BECMI D&D", after the titles of the boxes: Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal.) I do have a lot of affection for those rules, but I think I might use the 4th edition framework for it.

Yeah, I think I'm really doing this.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Magic Items Are Dumb

The biggest thing that bothers me about D&D - any edition - is the prevalence of magic items. They're bland, they're too common, they don't feel magical... anybody who's been playing the game for a while has heard these criticisms. In fact, they've probably voiced them at one point or another.

Magic items served as a way to mechanically differentiate your character in early editions of the game, when one 5th level fighter was much the same as another. Dragon magazine would publish multiple articles decrying "Monty Haul" DMs that handed out magic items like candy corn on Halloween. Yet every NPC in the published modules and campaign settings was bristling with the things.

The "game balance"-focused design 3rd edition made things even worse by hardwiring magic items into its expectations for characters of a certain level, so that if for some reason you didn't have the "expected" items by the time you hit a certain level, you were going to get creamed by the encounters that had been designed for you.

I like 4th edition plenty, but where it really dropped the ball was on magic items. Early previews and hype coming out of Wizards of the Coast promised that the days of carrying around six different magic swords were over, but really, all the game did was make it more obvious how many points of bonuses you were supposed to have by the time you hit a certain level. Also, the game made it even easier for characters to create their own magic items. This is sort of good, because it means that you're no longer just hoping the DM gives you the "right" items - you can just make them yourself. This is also sort of dumb, because the real solution would have been to just make the characters competent enough that they wouldn't need piles of magic items.

I currently play a wizard in a weekly 4th edition game, and I guess it's neat that our characters can pretty much get whatever they need when we need it, but it seems really flavorless and boring to just say "my wizard spends 3000 gp and makes a sword +2" or whatever. I understand that the 4th edition designers were just trying to make it easier for players and DMs to do what they had already been doing for years, but really, I think the "D&D adventurers are magic item Christmas trees" trope is one that should have ended up in the junk heap along with "fire and forget" spellcasting. I can get behind the idea of a character with a magic sword, or magic boots, or a magic shield. I'm less interested in a character that has all three.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cover Trouble II

If my fairly open-minded and not particularly religious parents were freaked out by the cover of Freedom, I can't imagine how this one would have gone over with people more uptight than they:

I mean, that's exactly what Jack Chick's audience thinks a book that teaches you how to sacrifice goats to Belphegor of the Sulfur Pits would look like.

Oddly enough, it sorta looks like a 3rd edition D&D book. Hmm...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What A Thoul Believes

As promised/threatened, the D&D 4th edition stats for your basic thoul:


Thouls resemble bloated hobgoblins, though there is a distinct trollish character to their stooped posture and scowling faces. Their lumpy skin is a deathly pale green, and their fingers are tipped with dirty claws similar to a ghoul's.

Thouls are often found alongside their more disciplined hobgoblin brethren. The mixture of harsh training and torture at the hands of the hobgoblins, combined with the influence of their own trollish and ghoulish heritage, leaves thouls bestial and merciless.

Thoul Level 5 Soldier
Medium natural humanoid XP 200
Initiative +6 Senses Perception +6; darkvision
HP 68; Bloodied 34
Regeneration 5 (if the thoul takes acid or fire damage, regeneration does not function until the end of its next turn)
AC 21; Fortitude 20, Reflex 17, Will 16
Speed 8

Battleaxe (standard; at-will) * Weapon
+12 vs AC; 1d10 + 4 damage

Ghoulish Claws (standard; at-will)
+12 vs AC; 1d6 + 4 damage
and the target is immobilized (save ends).

Staggering Blow (standard; encounter)
+12 vs AC; 3d8 + 4 damage
Target must be immobilized, stunned, or unconscious. If successful, target is stunned.

Alignment Evil Languages Common, goblin
Skills Athletics +11, endurance +11
Str 18 (+6) Dex 15 (+4) Wis 15 (+4)
Con 20 (+7) Int 8 (+1) Cha 12 (+3)
Equipment Scale armor, battleaxe

A thoul takes advantage of its speed to paralyze vulnerable targets with its ghoulish claws. Once a victim is immobilized, the thoul tries to finish it off with a staggering blow.

A character knows the following information with a successful Nature check.
DC 15: Thouls are magical crossbreeds of ghouls, hobgoblins, and trolls that possess the ability to regenerate and cause paralysis.
DC 20: Thouls are not undead, and reproduce naturally. They are often found alongside (and mistreated by) their hobgoblin kin.
DC 25: Thouls were created by twisted arcane experiments centuries ago by parties unknown.

I used the DDI Monster Builder for figuring out the basic math, and it's really little more than a modified ghoul, but I think it came out okay for my first try at 4th edition monster design. The Rules Cyclopedia mentions that "there can be thoul spellcasters", so perhaps I'll try one of those next.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

World Of Thoul

Another thing D&D 4th edition needs: thouls.

Thouls: half-troll, half-hobgoblin, half-ghoul. Yes, that is three halves. Thouls don't care about fractions. You wouldn't either, if you looked like a hobgoblin, regenerated like a troll, and paralyzed people like a ghoul.

The story goes that the thoul got its start with a typographical error in "Temple of the Frog", a mini-module contained in the original D&D supplement, Blackmoor. Apparently it was supposed to say "ghoul", but the T is right there next to the G, and just like that, the thoul was born.

The thoul got an official entry in the Moldvay-penned Basic Rules in 1981, and popped up again in Mentzer's 1983 "red box" set and 1991's Rules Cyclopedia hardcover. Thouls graduated to AD&D 2nd edition in the Monstrous Compendium: Mystara Appendix, and most recently showed up in the third-party D&D 3.5 accessory Dave Arneson's Blackmoor.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, the poor thoul has never gotten much love in terms of detail. Gygax never wrote about them, to my knowledge, so we'll never know if their hide is deep russet or burnt umber, or if they prefer tunics of dirty brown or mustard, or how many thouls in a given settlement will be leaders with an extra hit die, or whatever. All we know is that they're a "magical crossbreed" (so I guess they weren't born from a typical troll-hobgoblin-ghoul menage a trois), they're not undead, they "reproduce normally", and that they usually hang out with hobgoblins. (Incidentally, another old favorite of mine, the carnivorous ape, also was usually found with hobgoblins, and also has mysteriously disappeared. Clearly, hanging out with hobgoblins is hazardous.)

Anyway, that's the thoul: 150% monster, 150% awesome. So look out, skanky Clyde Caldwell princess lady. Thouls can paralyze people, they reproduce normally, and they're a-comin' for you.

Now I just need to get to work on statting these guys up.

(Apologies to Scott over at World of Thool for the pun.)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gloom Of Legend

I've gushed about Dragon Warriors before, but I don't believe I sufficiently emphasized the quality and power of Dave Morris' prose. Here's an excerpt from the rulebook's description of the land of Molasaria:

"Frightened peasants quake under the rule of a hundred local despots. Terror soars aloft on membraneous wings by night and sifts the carrion in lonely churchyards... Black-clad priests trek from valley to valley, but the peasants are always torn between faith and fear. Spend a few days in any of the mountain villages and you will see a funeral procession wending a path down through the narrow streets - old men whose lined faces show the scars of many losses, grim youths with jaws set in sullen defiance, veiled women sending up a shrieking lament, and wailing children who have yet to learn the injustice into which they have been born."

This is the sort of thing I'm talking about.

I love Dragon Warriors.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Brom Got Me In Trouble

Even though I had a well-worn Palladium Fantasy RPG rulebook sitting right there on the bookshelf, complete with graphic descriptions of wizards' cauldrons filled to the brim with the blood of human sacrifices, giant undead centipedes made from dozens of human corpses sewn together, and voluptuous necrophiliac lesbian demon assassins with asphyxiation fetishes (not to mention honest-to-god drawings of devil-summoning circles and the magic words needed to activate them)... it was this module that finally got my parents to sit down and have "the talk" with me about RPGs:

Yep, that's a psychic dominatrix cage fighter any way you slice it.

It just goes to show you - you can write about whatever messed-up stuff you want in the interior of your book, as long as you slap a goofy cover illustration of a knight riding a pegasus on it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

To The Master

It's been a year since Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, passed away.

Thanks for everything, Gary.


I have an off-the-wall idea for a D&D campaign. It's pretty half-baked, so I'll just start rambling:

I want to make a campaign based around the AD&D action figure line manufactured by LJN in the 80s. (You know, the one with Strongheart, Warduke, Zarak and the rest - you can read up on it here.)

In the setting, those action figure characters (hereafter abbreviated AFCs) would have turned against each other long ago. The power players of the world would be the relatives and descendants of the AFCs, split into squabbling factions - let's call them Houses - each of them jealously guarding the relics (remains, weapons, armor, etc.) of the old heroes and villains. None of the Houses would have complete sets of any one AFC's relics - centuries of squabbling, betrayal, and theft would have scattered them across the factions. In fact, the years have led to much confusion as to which AFC used which relic. (There could be bizarre religious schisms over whether a particular relic-shield was carried by Drex or Deeth in the olden days.) Furthermore, each House would maintain massive dungeons where the relics were housed and guarded.

If I wanted to get really weird, I could say that dungeons (and maybe even the monsters guarding them) are actually spontaneously generated by the AFC's relics. I like the idea of a dead adventurer's tomb slowly burrowing tunnels into the earth, sprouting monsters and traps like a seed sprouting roots...

Anyway, the player characters could be the official dungeon-delvers of a particular House, or be free agents hired by the different Houses to raid other Houses' AFC reliquaries. There could even be a secret "House" comprised of the descendants of the AFC's disgruntled followers and henchmen, seeking to claim the relics for themselves, or destroy them to spite the Houses. There would be many other "official" delving companies as well as free agents, and these could comprise the primary antagonists of the setting.

So, there you have it. It's sort of metagamey, I guess, but the idea has a certain wacky appeal to me. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What D&D Does

As much as I often feel like D&D isn't suitable for modelling any kind of fantasy other than itself, I'm starting to move beyond complaining about it. In fact, I'm starting to think that trying to drag D&D too far from its roots in "dungeon-crawling/treasure-grabbing" gaming is probably a mistake.

(Yes, I am aware that there are a lot of people who play entire sessions of high-intrigue, character-driven D&D with nary a single instance of monster-killing or stuff-taking. I think that's admirable, but I don't really think that's what the system was designed for.)

AD&D 2nd edition's greatest strength was in its deeply detailed and unique settings. Unfortunately, the system operating all these settings was a slightly tweaked version of Gygax's convention-focused 1st edition of AD&D. The system was built for "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam"-style gaming, which is fine until you try to use it for psychic dominatrix cage fighters struggling against corrupt life-sucking sorcerers on a desert planet. The ideas were awesome, but the system just couldn't take the strain of trying to be all types of fantasy to all people.

The endless options available for 3rd edition, especially when taking third-party material into account, made it technically possible to tinker with the system pretty heavily to match the feel you wanted. Still, doing so was often kludgy. 3rd edition gave you the transparency and the tools to twist D&D into nearly any shape, but doing it felt like banging a square peg into a round hole.

4th edition, as I've discussed before, really focused its design on kicking ass and taking... well, stuff. The honesty of this iteration of the game has really opened my eyes to the potential strengths of D&D's own idiosyncratic take on fantasy. After all, if I want something grittier, more folkloric, or more story-oriented, there are a number of other RPGs I can pick up and play (well, providing I can find players or game masters, but that's another story).

I wonder if this is part of the reason that some people have gotten miffed about D&D's newly narrowed focus. I think that for a lot of people, D&D is the only RPG they'll consider playing, so when they see that it's difficult to make 4th edition do things other than magic-rich, combat-heavy delving, they feel like the designers have placed constraints on the game. I see it as the game going back to being honest about what it's meant to do.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from wanting to bolt new stuff onto 4th edition...