Friday, April 22, 2016

Review - Throne of Evil

Throne of Evil, a 32 page adventure by Role Aids was published in 1984 and claimed to be "fraught with political intrigue, suspense, and magic in the violent world of 12th century." Fortunately, the 12th century aspect is superficial at best or else this would have been unusable for most ongoing campaigns.

Instead of being set in anything resembling 12th century England, this takes place in a generic setting with a few real world historical events awkwardly serving as the catalyst to this dungeon delving adventure.  Any pretense of this being 12th century England disappears as soon as you get to the six pre-generated characters on page seven. Only one the characters is human and he is a cleric of Balder!

Old School Credentials: Because it is an AD&D (1e) compatible product published in 1984, it's automatically "old school" to me. It has a very typical old school feel.

The Good: First and foremost, it's a solid dungeon craw with a few good illustrations that evoke the first edition zeitgeist. There are some standard monsters (Lizard Men, Piercers, Giant Spiders, etc.) as well as some odd new creatures (Hawk Men and Giant Kobolds) to spice things up. The plot and political intrigue, despite being based on real world events, is easily adaptable to almost any setting.  It's well organized and and an interesting read.

The Bad:There's not much really bad here. The dungeon might be a bit too generic and have too illogical of monster placement for some, but these aren't really that bad. That the module really isn't what it claims to be could by considered "bad" but it's hard to be upset when it turns out to more useful than it would have been.

The Odd: This product has some rather strange quirks that are more interesting than good or bad. Although it states "for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (R)" on the cover, it uses different terms/abbreviations for many stats [IN (intuition) for wisdom, SM (stamina?) for constitution, HTK (hits to kill) for hit points, etc.]. It has an early use of THAC0, but features a simple formula to roll it using percentile dice. And as mentioned above, it is set in 12th century England, but is filled magic, monsters, and non-human heroes that apparently have had had absolutely no influence on the political and cultural history of the area.

Likely Use: Despite the setting, its a very standard adventure that could easily be played as part of a campaign in most fantasy settings. It was likely intended as a one-shot, non-campaign module and could easily be used that way as well.

Value: Another long out of print product, the price varies radically from $6 to $65 at current Amazon prices for good to very good condition with the very good being cheaper. Personally I would say it's a good value at $10 or less, including shipping, but at over $20 total, it's not worth it.

Overall: A good example of a typical third party effort in the 1980s. It's a decent adventure and worth a look.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Criticizing the Brushstrokes #3 - White Adventurers Can't Jump

Important Disclaimer - 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a masterpiece. It is still one of my favorite RPGs and is one of the most important games ever published. Because of my love for the game, it would be too easy for me to come up with 101 things I like about it so I am challenging myself by trying to come up with that many complaints about it. This does not reflect any animosity toward the system or the artist, rather the opposite.

I'm a thief-acrobat! What makes this especially odd is that I don't steal, I'm in the 1e age category for middle age, and am not in particularly great shape. Yet according to Unearthed Arcana , I must be a thief-acrobat because I can easily make a standing broad jump of 6' and UA page 24 states that non-thief-acrobats can high jump 3', running broad jump 8', and standing broad jump 4'! Now to be fair, I wasn't wearing to much in the way of bulky armor or weapons at the time, but UA clearly states that "no extra weight or bulky armor may be worn when high jumping or broad jumping."

Unless you envision the average AD&D adventurer as resembling Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons, there is a huge problem with these numbers. I gave my standing broad number, not to brag (the three jumps I made are nothing to brag about) but to demonstrate that an out of shape, middle-aged, non-adventurer can easily match what are supposed to be extraordinary abilities. These abilities doomed the class, but gave a lot of laughter to gamers who were jr. high or better athletes. In order to accept the class, you were pretty much obligated to accept the humorously bad non-thief-acrobat abilities. Even if one were to try to rationalize these abilities by assuming all AD&D worlds were higher gravity than Earth, you'd end up with more problems with crossbow ranges. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Parrot, Giant (Macaw) - New Monster

A new monster in multiple edition compatible statistics. The picture is of the Shleich (R) miniature.

Parrot, Giant (Macaw)
Frequency:              Rare   
No. Appearing:        1 or 11-20
Armor Class:            7
Move:                       3"/48"
Hit Dice:                   4
% In Lair:                 25%
Treasure Type:         Q (x4), 1d6 Jewelry 25%
No. of Attacks:          3
Damage/Attack:       1-4/1-4/2-12
Special Attacks:       Nil
Special Defenses      Nil
Magic Resistance:    Standard
Intelligence:             Low
Alignment:               Neutral
Size:                         L
Psionic Ability:         Nil
   Attack/Defense Modes: Nil
Morale:                     8
Ep:                            150 + 4/hp

Giant Macaw are found only in tropical regions near cliffs or especially large trees. They are diurnal herbivores that subsist primarily on seeds, nuts, fruits, and flowers. They are especially fond of coconuts, bananas, and when offered, baked bread and other goods. They can carry up to 250 pounds.

They are not very aggressive and will only attack in self-defense, or if frightened or offended. They speak (poorly) whatever human or demi-human language is most common in their region. Especially shallow and vain creatures, their conversation is typically limited to discussions of food and their own prettiness. They are easily bribed (for information or transportation) with food if they are also flattered. They tend to take the names of whichever human gender in their region wears the most colorful clothes and jewelry (Polly, Ruby, etc.) or of flowers (Lily, Daisy, etc.). While useful, they are often shunned because they talk incessantly.

In their lair, there is a 15% chance that there will be 1-4 eggs. Giant Macaw eggs sell for 250 gold pieces each. However, taking a Giant Macaw egg is the only way, other than insulting their appearance, to offend these birds.

Large Magical Beast
Hit Dice:   4d10+4
Initiative: +3
Speed: 10 ft., 70 ft. (average)
Armor Class: 15 (-1 size, +3 Dex, + 3 natural), touch 12, flat-footed 12
Base Attack/Grapple: +4/+12
Attack: Claw +7 melee (1d6+4)
Full Attack: 2 Claws +7 melee (1d6+4) and bite +2 melee (1d8+2)
Space/Reach: 10 ft./ 5 ft.
Special Attacks: Evasion
Saves: Fort + 5, Ref +7, Will +3
Abilities: Str 18, Dex 17, Con 12, Int 6, Wis 10, Cha 10
Skills: Knowledge (nature) +2, Spot + 12
Feats: Flyby Attack, Wingover
Environment: Warm forests
Organization: Solitary or company (11-20)
Challenge Rating: 3
Treasure: Standard (gems only)
Alignment: Neutral
Advancement: 5-8 HD (Large); 9-12 HD (Huge)
Level Adjustment: +2 (cohort)
Large beast, neutral
Armor Class: 12
Hit Points: 26 (4d10 + 4)
Speed: 10 ft., Fly 60

Str 16 (+3), Dex 17 (+3), Con 12 (+1), Int 6 (-2), Wis 10 (+0), Cha 10 (+0)

Skills: Perception +5
Language: Most Giant Parrots speak common poorly.
Challenge: 1 (200 XP)

Keen Sight. Parrots have advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.

Multiattack. A Parrot make two attacks; one with its beak and one with its talons.

Beak: Melee Weapon Attack: + 5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.
Hit: 5 (1d6 + 3) peircing damage.

Talons: Melee Weapon Attack: + 5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.
Hit: 10 (2d6 + 3) slashing damage.

All monster statistics and descriptions in this post are Open Game Content. The picture is not Open Game Content.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

KotDT #227 Review

Knights of the Dinner Table #227.

Since I read KotDT every month, I might as well "review" it here. Since I read it every month, and make at least one special trip to comicbook store 15 miles away to buy it, I'm clearly biased in its favor.

The spoof covers are always a highlight and this issue's cover is no exception. This time it it's a sendup of the old 1980's, quarter-eating game Q*bert. Q*bert was a dumb, annoying, but somehow fun game that was extremely popular for a time.

The comics, with the ongoing misadventures of the most dysfunctional adult gamers imaginable. I'd be surprised if anyone reading this hasn't run across the KotDT somewhere, but if you haven't then reading the online strips is a good way to meet the characters.

This issue continues the fallout from the ill-advised act of mailing Bob to Hackmaster headquarters and has the Knights and Patty involved involved in a playtest of an adventure for B.A.'s Dawg. Later Brian proposes an investment idea that, given his track record, is likely to fail.  No much more can be said without introducing possible spoilers. The stories were amusing, though it should be noted that they are much better the more you read in a row.

The second half of Knights of the Dinner Table is a game magazine, with mostly short Hackmaster and generic fantasy articles.There is an interview with Alex Kammer of Gamehole ® Con followed by an interesting generic fantasy "trap" that could easily be adapted to other genres. "Monkey Warfare in RPGs" by Blaine Lee Pardoe is a rather interesting article about non-lethal ways of challenging the PCs. Although it's framed as way to mess with players, there are some perfectly legitimate ways of making adventures more challenging and inducing paranoia, which makes playing more exciting.

Regular colums like "Bait & Taackle" (Generic Adventure Hooks), "All Things Magic," and "Denizens of Tellene" (Hackmaster NPCs) were all worth reading and potentially useful. There is a four page Q&A with the fiction Gary Jackson clarifying Hackmaster Rules and a Hackmaster monster. Most of the rest of the issue is filled with reviews. I was especially interested in the Gammarauders review in "Lost Game Safari" having just recently gotten a copy for a buck from a local thrift shop.

The issue ends with more great comics in Larry Elmore's awesome SnarfQuest, One-Two Punches (panels cut from earlier KotDT issues), and Parting Shots (Reader submitted comics, much like the old "Dragon Mirth section" of The Dragon)

Overall it was a good issue of a very good 'zine.

OD&D PDFs Available.

Cool news from virtually everywhere in the OSR blogsphere.

The PDF version of Original Dungeons & Dragons is finally available (although with the covers from the 2013 reprint, not quite the covers shown above.)  Hopefully other companies will follow this lead and release older, out of print games as reasonably priced PDFs.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Harry Potter and the Braindead Fundamentalist

A surly look at Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace behind the Magick (2001) by Richard Abanes. This is not an attack on Christianity or even fundamentalism. It instead a brief look at some of a particularly annoying and disingenuous book. It does eventually relate to D&D.

Although a more apt title for this book might have been Harry Potter and the Disingenuous Opportunist: A Book for Gullible and Narrow-minded Zealots, it was too long for the header. Unless the author is completely "batshit crazy" this book is quite intentionally misleading and targets an audience that will not have read the books and seen the movies and will not bother to check on the half-truths and lies through omission that are rather prevalent.

The first chapter is a mostly honest summary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, although beginning with a quote from a "witchcraft & wicca web site" is almost certainly an attempt to prejudice the audience against the stories (Page 13). Abanes overreaches on page 16 when he claims that "Muggles are consistently portrayed by Rowling as a narrow-minded and callous group of persons unable to grasp the glory of magic." A problem with this is that there are only three muggles in the first book who are aware of the magic world (Vernon, Petunia, and eventually Dudley Dursley). It is beyond absurd to believe that Rowling would have to balance out the Dursleys with good, wise muggles because every single reader of these books is a muggle and knows other muggles. Also problematic is the phrase "glory of magic" which does not appear in any of Rowling's books. Fundamentalist Christians tend to reserve the word glory for God and by using this phrase, Abnes is subtly, and falsely, implying that the book presents magic as being worthy of veneration and not merely as a cool tool.

Chapter two "Sorcery in a Stone"is the author's attempt to link Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to the occult, a word which seems to mean to the author, Wicca, paganism, evil, mythology, or satanism, superstition, or any combination of them.

He takes out of context quotes such as "I don't believe in magic in the way I describe it in my books." and then proceeds to ask several Dana Carvey church lady type questions "Is there another 'sense' in which Rowling does believe in witchcraft?" (page 22-23) Apparently he misses the fact that Rowling answers these very question through Dumbledore "Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!" (HPatSS chapter 7).

Abanes then argues that the first novel is intrinsically connected to alchemy because of the sorcerer's (philosopher's) stone and Nicholas Flamel. He then describes the ancients myth about the stone and Flamel, citing The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology and other esoteric occult sources. Using unnecessary obscure sources (much of the same information would have been available in any standard encyclopedia) is clever trick designed to fool the mostly uninformed audience, and possibly himself, into believing that the sorcerer's (philosopher's) stone is a bit of obscure, esoteric knowledge known only to few fanatical occult practitioners rather than being a likely $100 dollar question on Jeopardy. Fans of DC Comics might remember that one of The Flash's major enemies was Dr. Alchemy who used the philosopher's stone as a weapon.

Later in the chapter, Abanes attempts to connect Rowling to Theosophy, an obscure philosophy that was a source of inspiration for "New Age" beliefs. Part of his "evidence" is the undeniable fact that anagrams play a small part in Harry Potter (The backward writing around the Mirror of Erised and the anagram involving Tom Riddle's name in The Chamber of Secrets). This logic that Theosophy uses anagrams + J.K. Rowling has anagrams in Harry Potter = J.K. Rowling is into Theosophy is roughly equivalent to I like Sudoku + Sudoku is from Japan as were samurai = I am a samurai. Neither are likely true.

Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace behind the Magick continues this way throughout the rest of the book. I would continue but I'm afraid that a full refutation of this garbage would end up being nearly as long as the book itself. 

There are a few points that especially bother the author and don't directly relate to his "intended to lead to worshiping the occult" silliness and should be mentioned. First he is upset that the characters often lie and break rules, often without any negative consequences. This is mentioned first in the section "Potterethics." Abanes never seems to grasp that the good characters in this book do lie and break rules but only for what they, and virtually all readers, consider to be good reasons or to avoid being unfairly punished. Nobody's perfect and it is hard to imagine a good story in which all the heroes were perfect saints, especially as children. Later in the book, Abanes lists the Lord of the Rings as an example of good morals, apparently forgetting that Frodo Baggins begins his adventures by spreading the lie that Bilbo's money had run out and that he was going to settle down in Crickhollow and lies, with good reason, a few more times in the trilogy.

Abanes's second complaint against "Potterethics" is that the characters don't often enough confide in, and ask for help from, adults. True, but in what universe are children and teenagers the epitome of wisdom? And of course, any book that featured a hero of any age who always went to the authorities and waited patiently while they fixed the problem would only work as satire or farce, not heroic adventure.

The last major ethical complaint that Abanes has is that there is profanity in the book. Yes there is and in a perfect world nobody would swear, but that it isn't reality. It is much easier to have a willing suspension of disbelief of such  things as magic and monsters than it is to believe that all good people are perfect all the time.

Abanes fundamental misunderstanding of the Harry Potter series reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the legitimate purpose of escapist literature. He is clearly an absolute believer of that idea that all fiction, especially children's fiction, must be didactic in nature. In his case it is the belief that it must impart Christian values. Nothing can be just harmless fun. In a textbook example of an either or fallacy, either the work of literature perfectly conforms to his appalling narrow standards or it is evil. Even that fact that "several prominent Christians" speak highly of the stories, a fact that he acknowledges on page 5, cannot  put a dent in his intolerance. It is sad that a professed Christian like Abanes wrote an entire book that bears false witness and repeats others who did so earlier.

Not surprisingly, Abanes managed to pull in the completely discredited horror story that D&D led Sean Sellers to Satanism and murder.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Criticizing the Brushstrokes #2: Pig-Headed Orcs

Important Disclaimer - 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a masterpiece. It is still one of my favorite RPGs and is one of the most important games ever published. Because of my love for the game, it would be too easy for me to come up with 101 things I like about it so I am challenging myself by trying to come up with that many complaints about it. This does not reflect any animosity toward the system or the artist, rather the opposite.

Put simply, real vampires don't sparkle and real orcs don't have pig heads. Over the years, there have been many attempts to defend the rather unfortunate decision to inflict this ignominy on one of gaming's great antagonist races but none, at least to my mind, have been convincing. 

The argument that orcs are a pre-Tolkien monster is both wrong and irrelevant. Some confusion about their pre-Tolkien existance exists because of line 112 in Beowulf which reads "eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas." However, orcneas is translated as "evil phantoms" (Seamus Heaney), "evil spirits" (George Jack and John R. Clark"haunting shapes" (J.R.R. Tolkien - line 90), and "spirits" (Burton Raffel).  Others go off half-cocked and site Ariosto's Orlando Furioso as a sixteenth century source for orcs, ignoring the fact that it refers to "a gigantic sea monster called the orc," a singular creature that in no way resembles orcs. Only the name is the same in much the same same way that the clubs used in baseball and cricket share a name with a flying mammal. However, regardless of their origin, it is certain that there were no pig-headed monsters bearing the name "orc" prior to D&D.

The second argument is better but still not especially convincing. This is the argument that fantasy and mythological creatures should constantly be reinterpreted and reimagined for each generation. This is a subjective opinion and therefore neither right nor wrong. However, most people who subscribe to this viewpoint would agree that the should be more interesting, cooler, or more relevant.  Pig-headed orcs are none of these. They are allegedly, depending on which story you believe, either inspired by the fact that orc sounds like pork or by an overly literal interpretation of the term "pig-headed."  Of course it is just as likely that it was an attempt to make them slightly less obviously Tolkien's orcs in response to possible legal action from their excessive use of Tolkien's creations in OD&D (Hobbits, Ents, Balrogs, etc.).

In the end though, it come down to rather or not it makes the game better. In my opinion it does not.