Thursday, February 27, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Six: Thieves! Thieves And Liars!

Today is the money shot, people. Of all the classes and rules tweaks that The Complete Warlock offers, nothing deviates further from OD&D nor is more innovative than the Warlock Thief. Before we dive in whole-hog, let us consider Thieves in OD&D for a moment. First, they weren't around during the early days; our modern conception of a "core four" of classes did not exist when the LBBs were published. Instead, it wouldn't be until Supplement One: Greyhawk for the thief to be in print in an official capacity, but a previous version by Gygax was published in the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter in May of '74 and then again published as "The Thief Addition" for GenCon VII of the same year. Bearing in mind the '75 date of the original Warlock article in The Spartan, the same year that Greyhawk hit, it seems most likely to me that the Warlock Thief (if he was present in a state similar to that of TCW) is most likely based on this original Gygax thief, if not some other California-based iteration of the thief that caused Uncle Gary to write his own (which is entirely possible). 

Thiefly Basics

The more time I spend with the Warlock rules, the more sense most of them make to me. Not in an intuitive "I see it all so clearly" sort of way, but more of a "but what about? Ooooh, that's why" way. The Thief really brings this idea home for me, especially in light of the last post. The HD progression of the Thief, for example, follows the standard HD flow of 1, 1+something, 2+something else, etc. Something I had left out of the previous post because I didn't understand it yet is that the difference in levels between an attacker and a defender is calculated based on HD, not level, which curves the attack progression by HD progression. A sort of elegant way to do it, really. For terms of that calculation, the pip bonus to HD (the "+2" in "1+2") increases the HD by one if its "+2" or greater, meaning that a 2nd-level Thief fights like a 2nd-level character, but that both a 4th- and a 5th-level Thief fight like 4th-level characters. There are some epicycles to the Thief's attack progression... very interesting. 
Thieves in Warlock don't meet with the same generous XP tables that they do in Greyhawk; instead, their XP required per level most closely resembles that of the Cleric. Any class can multiclass with Thief (sorry, combination class), and, once we get into the Thief skill system below, it starts to feel like the Thief is less a unique class and more a class membership in which allows one access to a skill system. That really wouldn't be terribly shocking; after all, that's the whole reason the OSR blew up a few years ago in debate as to whether thieves should be a class at all, right? Well, the Warlock Thief is going to blow the lid off what you used to think about thief skills and amazingly presages some things we won't see in mainstream D&D for decades.

The Departure Point

See that table up there? The "Theivish Advancement" table? Notice how, to the right of the "EXPERIENCE" column, it lists "ABILITIES" and then shows what looks an awful lot like a spells-per-day matrix? That funky thing is the key to thief skills in TCW, because here, unlike in OD&D each Thief is different because each Thief picks his own Thief Abilities (rather than just following a standard progression by level according to a level-based table). In TCW, Thieves pick a number of Thief Abilities per level according to the chart above, but here's the thing: in order to pick a higher-order (say, 2nd-level) ability, the Thief must also have taken a lower-level prerequisite (say, 1st-level). Once that 2nd-level ability has been chosen, the Thief's lower-level slot that had been taken up with the prereq then opens up and the Thief may cram a new ability in there. 

Let's look a little more closely at some of these abilities, shall we? Some confer a combat advantage (Sure Strike, Dagger x3) that can later be upgraded (Sure Strike, Dagger x4) and others (Hear Noise +1/6) boost an existing ability possessed by all characters. Still others grant the Thief access to one of the classic "thief skills" of D&D like "Pick Most Locks 2/3" (meaning "4-in-6 chance") or "Hide In Shadows 50%." One of the things I immediately notice is that each of these abilities makes the Warlock Thief drastically more capableb than his D&D counterpart but, true to TCW form, means that he is specializing in that particular schtick and likely missing out on some other facet of "thievishness" that the D&D version allows. You don't necessarily get both the Thief's improved ability to Hear Noise as well as the ability to Pick Locks at level 1 in Warlock; you have to make a choice.

It's in this choice structure - choices between discrete, granular abilities and their improvement - rather than the old "sliding scale of ability" that sets the TCW Thief apart not only from the Greyhawk Thief (and, indeed, OD&D as a whole), but also apart from the skill systems that would see widespread use through the FRPGs of the '70s and even '80s. The "skill tree" nature of picking lower-level abilities to "unlock" higher-level ones is a common feature of games (both tabletop and video games) these days, and the discrete benefits conferred by TCW's Thief Abilities are reminiscent of the "talent trees" many games put in place (often completely separate from a skill system) and even, dare I say it, 3e's feats. 

Don't blame Warlock for opening up those floodgates, though. It apparently took 25 years for D&D to even notice. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Five-And-A-Half: Even More Rules For Combat In Warlock

I had to cut my last post short due to ... imminent sleep. I really could have kept going if I'd had the energy, but it just wasn't in the cards. Here's the stuff I had to leave out.

Multiple Attacks

We'll start this off with a hot-button issue: multiple attacks per round. Obviously oblivious to the snickering it would likely cause in the infantile minds of their readers, TCW chooses to describe this topic as "Blows Per Phase" (likely differentiating "blows" as melee strikes rather than ranged attacks; see the discussion of missile fire below). Every iteration of D&D I can think of (other than OD&D itself) and most retroclones each have a way of handling multiple attacks per round. 1e uses a level-based determination method, as does BX & BECMI/RC, and 3e trades off accuracy in successive attacks. ACKS and other systems use a "cleave" rule, while Delving Deeper allows Fighters (and only Fighters) to attack a number per round against weak opponents equal to their levels. Near as I can tell, OD&D contains no such rules, and it's not until Greyhawk that a single line (the statement that Men get 1-2 attacks per round on a chart discussing number of attacks per round and damage by various polyhedral dice rather than just d6s).

And so, it's no surprise that Warlock takes a stab at a multiple attacks rule. Instead of tying number of attacks to the ability of the individual, however, TCW ties it to weapon type. If you look closely at the Attack Matrix (hey, here it is again!), you'll notice there's a "BLOWS" column, which lists the number of times an unencumbered person could attack with that type of weapon per combat phase. Rather than using the term "unencumbered" though, TCW describes the exact amount of movement (12") an unencumbered person should have. Using that logic, TCW goes onc to gaining a number of attacks based on the weapons "BLOWS" reduced by the same proportion that the character's movement has been reduced. This "BLOWS" stat doubles as a sort of encumbrance mechanism, preventing remarkably encumbered folks from using weapons that have few attacks per phase. Which makes an awful lot of sense when you notice that large, unwieldy weapons have a low number of attacks per phase, whereas light weapons (such as ye olde dagger) allow up to four attacks per phase.

I'll save the reduction of attacks per phase for the actual Warlock text (I'm just here to discuss the text, not reproduce it, really), but there's another neat connection to draw here: the heavier weapons that get fewer attacks per phase also do more damage, making the trade-off in speed meaningful. Normally, there's a degree of parity between number of attacks and damage dice, such that number of potential attacks times the number of damage dice usually equals 4. The "holy grail" of Warlock "combat optimization" is finding the weapons that manage a "6" rather than a "4;" nearly categorically, these weapons are  the ones that we tend to think of as the workhorse-type weapons PCs get the most use out of: swords, axes and warhammers. You know, the good stuff.

There's an unseen part of this trade-off: the complexity of dividing out attacks per phase for every weapon your character uses and altering that calculation every time your character's encumbrance changes. Ugh.

Missile Fire

The Complete Warlock doesn't use the then-conventional term "missile fire," but rather the not-quite-as-accurate term "Archery" to discuss all manner of ranged combat. Let's start with the big difference between melee and missile combat: "Archery" uses a d20 instead of a d100 and a "roll high" rather than a "roll low" target. But it doesn't end there, oh no. In fact, Archery is so dissimilar from TCW melee that the only similarity that the two seem to have is the fact that dead bodies will probably be left behind afterward.

Here's how it works: range is king. Closer targets are easier to hit, and that's the primary determination of how tough it is to hit folks, with armor and weapon type having only a modest effect. First, you determine range to target on the Archery Attack Matrix (look to the left here); that's your base "to-hit" number. After that, compare it the weapon you're using against the type of armor being worn (note here that AC doesn't work quite the same way in TCW, but it is a simplified ascending AC system not unlike ACKS, so I won't go into all that) and add the resultant number to the "to-hit" number. There's an adjustment for Dexterity, then roll that number or better (but don't roll a "20" because there is no "20" on a TCW d20; they describe this die as a "die number 0-19," so they interpret what we'd call a "20" as a "0") and you've hit.

Critical Hits & Fumbles

Remember how Uncle Gary used to say that if you were playing D&D with critical hits you weren't actually playing D&D? Remember how no one paid attention to him when he said it? Yup. The Warlock team didn't pay attention, either. If you roll a natural 19 on your d20 Archery roll, you've scored a critical hit, whereas if you roll a 0, you fumble. Melee is much more complicated and requires a huge table (which you need to consult every time you swing a weapon since varying ACs and weapon types not to mention levels will produce different melee hit probabilities).

Fumbles, thankfully, are fairly easy to work out (far easier than Critical Hits). After determining the fumble, roll 2d6 and consult the Fumble Table. The effects of the fumble can range from losing attacks to doing damage to one's self (or even others), knocking one's self prone or disarming one's self, and so on. Not as extensive as DCC's laudable tables, but they're simple and they do the job. Here, there's some variation between natural melee weapons, normal melee weapons and missile weapons, which is pretty smart. I'd actually have liked it if DCC had gone this route (and there might be something in an upcoming issue of MGOUH going this route).

Crits, though, get a bit stranger. After rolling (and then confirming) a critical hit, you roll to see where you hit your opponent (using 2d6 so there's some central tendency here, which is nice), with separate charts for each body type of enemy that you can reasonably expect to go up against. Sure, unreasonable and non-standard body shapes like your Gelatinous Cube might not be represented, but that really doesn't make as much sense as you might have thought before you got to the end of this sentence. That having been said, some strange foes like Beholders just aren't represented here, but they're the exception, not the rule.

After rolling for location hit, you roll for the actual effect of the crit, which doesn't necessarily mean extra damage. Two different tables are given, one for "Impact" (read: Bludgeoning) and Slashing weapons and another for Piercing weapons and Archery; these distinctions make some degree of sense, and at least we're not overloaded with a ton of varying crit tables. Ah, who am I kidding? I love crit tables. So yeah, I'd take one for each damage type and be happy, but that's not what TCW gives us. Each crit usually gives an effect beyond additional damage, so things like "weapon lost" or "shield broken" or "10% KO" are pretty common here. It's smart stuff and similar to what you'd find in DCC, which is really my gold standard for crit tables. Are the tables good? Sure. Are the tables great? Maybe not so much from my stand point.

Final Word On Killing Stuff In Warlock

Combat in Warlock is... significantly different from OD&D. It's not the strangest nor most unduly complicated system that I've read (I'm looking at you, Rolemaster!), but neither do I see it as the answer to what I'd like to see in an OD&D environment. The big point of departure for me from OD&D combat is the sheer amount of damage that can be dished out using these rules. Basically, combat in Warlock seems to be all about a balance of three separate axes: accuracy, speed and damage; movement along one or more of these axes is balanced by movement along the other(s), which sounds great until you realize that the balance point seems to favor very large amounts of damage (up to 4d6 for a great axe). Sure, I could crunch some serious numbers here to figure out how this all shapes up, but the amount of attacks that are capable along with the dice of damage that the weapons do seems to favor a nearly Palladium-esque amount of combat insanity. And sure, that stuff can be fun, but it's not what I'm looking for. Sorry, Warlock, but your combat rules just don't work for me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Five: The Odd Details of Warlock Combat

In general, The Complete Warlock and its predecessor Warlock rules were both written to clarify and expand on OD&D. Up until now, we've been dealing with rules expansions like the spell point mechanism for Magic Users and the 0th-level spells that Clerics get. Today, I'll be looking at the key place where Warlock is written to clarify OD&D rules -- namely, combat. Whether Warlock accomplishes the mission it sets out to do, however, I'll believe is a matter of some debate.

Dice

Not actually a d12, but hey, why not?
One of the things that draws me back to LBB OD&D (Whitebox OD&D, whatever you want to call it) is the simplicity of the dice. One of my favorite details of TCW is that it keeps the same d6 & d20 scheme that Whitebox has. Folks out there will know that I'm a big fan of the wide variety of standard polyhedrals and even the funky dice out there, but when I play an OD&D game, I want things to be as simple as I can get them, which means that d20/d6 is the way to go for me (if I could get away with just d6s, I would). I'm not sure why, but when I look at advancement tables and I see hit dice listed as "1," "1+1" and such without any attempt made to explain what sort of dice are being rolled, I get this reassured, calm feeling that we're gaming in a universe where the rules work toward greater and greater parity between the character classes. When your average dagger (because it's d6 for damage just like everything else) can kill pretty much anyone in the party (or at least stands a solid chance of killing anyone in the party), everyone needs to be extra cautious.

Melee Combat

I'm going to out myself as an OD&D newb right now and say I still have no idea what it means when someone attacks as a "Man," as "2 Men," or as a "Hero," or even "Superhero." I just can't figure it out. Yeah, I know I'm supposed to able to read CHAINMAIL and sort it all out, but I just don't get it. Thankfully, Uncle Gary also included an extra chart that uses a d20 to sort out combat so we're not completely lost. Well, looking at the advancement tables included in the LBBs, I'm not surprised that the CalTech team needed something else to base their combat system off of.

OD&D - and the CHAINMAIL that it's based on - only varied weapons by their likelihood to hit opponents in different sorts of armor (although if you were using the d20-based "alternative" system presented in the LBBS, you'd have to wait for Greyhawk for that effect). The earliest versions of Warlock probably didn't wait for Greyhawk for that bit of logic and probably modeled their system off of CHAINMAIL instead of the d20 system. TCW strips out the CHAINMAIL d6-based system and moves the probability distribution to a percentage (remember that percentile dice logic was not common when OD&D was first written and not all the immediately-post-D&D systems like RQ, Chivalry & Sorcery and so on all use percentile dice).

I understand how, back in 1975, percentile dice seem like an exciting new dice mechanism, how the ease of comparing likelihoods is facilitated by switching to a straight percentile system made doing so remarkably attractive. How, compared with the belled distribution of multiple d6s where target numbers lie somewhere along a curve with varying degrees of likelihood, or even the 5%-per-face distribution of the d20, the "what you see is what you get" simplicity of the percentile dice seems like a good idea. And so, I can't blame TCW for using percentile dice. The Attack Matrix table also includes a "Dice DMG" column, with listings from "1/2" to "4," rather than using a Greyhawk-style variation in damage die type.

The one thing the Attack Matrix doesn't do is account for a difference in levels. Here, TCW uses a fairly strange formula: it is assumed that two combatants engaged in melee are of the same level. Whatever difference in level, multiply it by 3 and add it to the higher-level character's probability to hit. Okay, maybe it's not that complex, but it's definitely weird. Percentiles that change only when there's a difference and only by the amount of the difference. Hmm. It's okay, but not anything I'd choose to play.

The Combat Turn

One of the common gripes about OD&D is that it uses several terms such as "turn" and "round" interchangeably, often in mutually exclusive ways. TCW tries to fix this with a single, unified time measurement, wherein a "turn" is exactly one minute, but is comprised of six "phases," each ten seconds long. Does this sound like any other round structure you might have encountered? Well, unlike the Greyhawk/1e system, TCW's combat phases are more like rounds, each consisting of three separate parts: Movement, Magic & Archery and Melee. Within each part of a phase, actions are taken in descending Dexterity order which follows the Men & Magic description of what Dexterity does and the later Holmes revision. 

One of the weird things here is the concepts of the Dexterity Count, wherein each "tick"down from the highest Dex score to the lowest in each part of a phase, and that many things happen over time across Dexterity Counts such as spell casting and missile fire. Thus, if an arrow is fired on a particular Dex Count, it won't hit its target until several Dex Counts later, and keeps travelling until it hits its mark or ... well, or it hits nothing. If the target isn't there anymore, it can't quite hit him, right? 

So, that's the beginning of the Day Five investigation of combat in TCW. Next time, we'll look at missile fire (or "Archery" as TCW calls all forms of ranged combat) and a bit of analysis & commentary on how this all breaks down. See you then!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Four: The Surprisingly Modern TCW Cleric

Extra exclamation points for extra faithiness!
Also, I love the inclusion of the Star of David.
Welcome back to Warlock Week, my seven-day investigation into The Complete Warlock and its inner workings. For those just joining us, TCW was an early OD&D "variant" first published in the pages of the Spartan, a wargaming fanzine, in 1975. Warlock, as this early variant was called, was more or less the version of D&D being played on the campus of Caltech, prompting many (including Uncle Gary himself) to call the system "Dungeons & Beavers" after Caltech's team mascot. In 1978, Balboa Game Company published The Complete Warlock, which took information from the original Warlock and updated it, expanding the system to cover new rulings the Caltech folks had come up with in the intervening three years. It's important to note that throughout the process of publishing the Warlock rules and then updating them into TCW, the gamers behind the system made sure that it was explicitly stated that Warlock was not a game in and of itself, but rather variant rules for D&D; that, rather than pretending to create its own rule set ex nihilo, Warlock recognized its roots in D&D and knew that it couldn't just walk away from them and call itself something new.

Now that you're caught up, today we're talking Clerics.


Magic Users, Illusionists and Elves got that cool Spell Point mechanism from "yesterday," so doesn't it make sense that Clerics should get something cool, too? Of course it does. In a move that predates Unearthed Arcana by 7 years, TCW introduces zero-level spells, but only for Clerics. At first level, a Clerics would still not get a first-level spell, but instead would get to cast 2 0th-level spells, which is an interesting move. These 0th-level spells aren't nearly as powerful as 1st-level ones, and lend the Cleric a degree of "niche protection" even at first level that they normally don't get until higher levels (like level two) when they get access to signature spells like Cure light wounds. Yes, you should have read a degree of sarcasm into that. I don't think that a class feature (the ability to cast spells) that you get at level two necessarily requires any sort of niche protection, but hey, let's keep on moving here.

 Taking a look at the 0th-level spells for Clerics, there are actually some pretty interesting things here. The Heal spell is here, but heals 1 hp, which is in many interpretations of the rules just enough to keep someone from dying. Your go-to detection spells, Detect evil, Detect good and Detect magic are all here and, like many spells in TCW, vary in range with level. So sure, you can cast Detect magic as a first-level TCW Cleric, but it only has a 1" range, so you're not doing too much detecting. The Purify water and Sanctify water spells are solid dungeon utility spells, allowing you to go from dungeon dregs to holy water in a mere two castings. The neat thing about this holy water, though, is that it will only affect undead of lower level than the Cleric, so undead will always be a challenge of one degree or another. Speaking of undead, TCW lists Turn undead among the 0th-level spells, leaving the Cleric's player with some tough choices. "Cast Heal to keep the Fighter from dying or Turn undead to get those pesky zombies all up out of our collective grills?"

Sure, that's an oversimplification, but let's think about it from the other side. Say you're in a dungeon that's somehow not filled with skeletons and zombies and ghouls and your Cleric doesn't have the opportunity to cast Turn undead. In systems where there's no limit to turning attempts, you're not really losing anything, just an opportunity. Here, precisely because your Cleric is limited in turning attempts (read: 0th-level spell slots), giving you something else to do with them becomes more important. Later editions of D&D will introduce similar concepts like 3e's "channel divinty" options. Or maybe that was the 4e term. I can't remember. Anyway, it seems like later editions go back to the well and look to answer things the same way TCW already did.

Speaking of spell slots (which we kind of were), here's a neat detail: TCW Clerics don't prepare or memorize spells. They can, at any time, cast any spell that's on their class spell list and they have an available spell slot of the appropriate level. ACKS players & DMs will recognize this scheme right away. It's easy, it's flexible and it lets the Cleric shine in a multitude of high-utility ways. Then again, the LBBs aren't exactly clear on Clerics and spells, and under certain readings, this could be a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the text.

Of everything that I've read so far, it's the TCW Cleric that makes me want to run something using at least parts of the Warlock rules. Knowing me, those parts would probably get chopped up and blended with parts of other stuff until it came out the other end looking nothing like it did on the way in. But hey, that's life. Or just gaming with me. Which, when you think about it, is kind of what the Warlock crew did in the first place. Rock on, Beavers!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Three: On the Use of Magic


One of the things that folks point to as a major point of departure from OD&D in The Complete Warlock is the nature of Magic Users & Illusionists in the system. When you first glance at the Magic User advancement table, you'll notice that most of it is pretty similar to the sort of thing you've seen before. Level, Hit Dice (which is sexily similar to OD&D's HD progression because, much like LBB OD&D, TCW uses only d20's & d6's), XP per level and Spells per Level. Sure, that's the normal stuff, but there's a major change to the OD&D spellcasting system that's not on display here: TCW uses a spell point system on top of a spell memorization system.

Here's the way it boils down: Magic Users (and Illusionists and Elves) memorize spells to create a daily repertoire of spells which are then paid for when cast with spell points. The spell points represent not merely another resource to manage (like hit points), but there's an entire in-game spell point economy for them. Not only can you use spell points to cast spells, but each spell has a spell point cost to learn which must be paid both in gold and in spell points. How fast can you learn that spell? Only as fast as you can contribute spell points toward learning it. Why stop there? TCW also applies this spell point system to magic item creation, requiring that a certain amount of spell energy be imbued in an item being created. 

Simple, clean, elegant. 

So far at least. 
Dig those classy graphics!

Looking at the advancement table, you'll see that there is no indication of how many spell points MUs and Illusionists get per level or anything. The thing is, your spell points are actually on there, just not in a terribly obvious manner because you get a number of spell points equal to your hit points plus your level. Thus, a 4th-level MU would get 2d6+2 (HD for a 4th-level MU) plus 4 (level; 2d6+6 [average of 13]). That 4th-level MU would have access to 3 1st-level and 2 4th-level memorized spells, which have a spell point cost from 1-4 and 1-6 respectively, and it's not terribly likely that the spell point values of those memorized spells divide up nicely into 13 spell points (or even any combination of them), which means that an MU isn't likely able to get full use out of all the spells they have prepared (unless they roll well for hit points). 

This degree of swinginess isn't unusual in old school games nor in OSR ones, so I doubt there are going to be many people interested in TCW that would cry foul here. Still, it feels like there might be some room for Prime Requisites to have some influence here, but that's not in the RAW. 

Before AD&D introduced the concept of Schools of Magic, Warlock added a "Magic Class" to each spell that categorized the spells based on broad associations with the elements, personal Will or Outside forces. The Magic Classes are (and their opposites): 
  1. Earth, Body & "Inanimate" magic. Opposed by class 6.
  2. Fire & Destructive magic. Opposed by class 5.
  3. Magic of the Personal Will, the general "Magical" effects. Opposed by class 4. 
  4. Magic of the Outside Forces, Spirits and Detection. Opposed by class 3. 
  5. Water, Life, Dark and Cold magic. Opposed by Class 2.
  6. Air, Electricity, Light & Heat magic. Opposed by Class 1.
Looking at these classifications, there are some things that confuse me (why aren't cold and heat magics opposed? Wtf is "Inanimate" magic?), but they're simple and straightforward, just like a lot of the stuff that TCW adds to the OD&D framework and form a really solid building block of Warlock's magic system. On top of this Magic Class framework, Warlock adds a system of spell descriptors as prefixes that mean very specific things (and feel like a spiritual predecessor to 3e's metamagic). Here's the short version:
  • VARI-: The caster can choose the radius or length of the spell effect.
  • MICRO-: The spell affects only one target, but may be cast very quickly, up to six times in a turn.
  • MINI-: The spell has half the normal radius for a spell of its type (see below). 
  • MAXI-: The spell has a larger radius than normal.
  • MEGA-: The spell has an even larger radius than MAXI.
  • MACRO-: The spell has an even larger radius than MEGA.
TCW also describes a few basic shapes of spells and the prefix-descriptors modify the details of these shapes:
  • CONE: Yep, it's a cone. 6" long, 3" wide at the far end. Note that this is "tabletop inches" like OD&D which usually means either 10' per 1" or 5' per 1".
  • BOLT: These days, we'd call it a "line" but "lightning line" doesn't sound that evocative, does it? 6" long and "no more than" 3/4" wide. May be as narrow as 1/4".
  • BALL: As in "fireball," a sphere with a 2" radius. 
  • WALL: May mean two different shapes.
    • Simple plane, 6" wide x 2" high
    • Cylinder, 3" diameter x 2" high 
So, basically, you can alter any spell in Warlock by changing its shape or adding a descriptor. This sort of LEGO magic system ("just put the right blocks together the way you want them") feels like the sort of thing that I came up with when I was a kid and decided to invent with my own RPG (for no reason other than to create my own because, you know, that's what you do at some point, right?), which is to say that it seems like a good idea, but I'm not terribly sure it is because it might just be a generification of existing stuff that already has plenty of flavor to go with the crunch. MAXI-fire-BOLT just doesn't get my motor going the way that "fireball" or "lightning bolt" (or even the remarkably poorly-named "delayed-blast fireball") does. 

Before I go, I would like to touch briefly on Illusionists as distinct from Magic Users. While Illusion magic is described in TCW as being crazy powerful, it will always be trumped by the age-old "I roll to disbelieve!" and in TCW, the saving throw to do so isn't that difficult. A character's "Disbelief Score" is 21 - Intelligence. Thus, an average guy (Int 11) will disbelieve on a 10+, which equates to 55% of the time. While that chance never improves with level unlike other saves, it still seems pretty high. What's the point in being an Illusionist if 55% of the time an average Joe sees through your illusions? Might as well take up stage magic, you'd have a wider margin of success.

So, there you have it. That's what -- in broad strokes -- Magic User-style magic is like in The Complete Warlock. Next time, I'll be screwing around with Clerics and the unique bits they get to play with. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Warlock Week, Day Two: Race, Class, Racy Classes, Classy Races and Race-as-Class

Ladies and gents, it's time for us to rock the Warlock once again! (There's a really good story about "rockin' the warlock," but this is neither the time nor the place since it wasn't a gaming-related story. Ask me for the details some time if you meet me at a con or wherever.) Today, we'll be taking a look at The Complete Warlock and one of the chief areas of its legacy: its approach to character classes. Remembering that TCW was being written for a pre-1e world (remember that the original version appeared in 1975 but the first edition printed was in '78), there are two distinct problems that TCW tries to solve as regards classes.

What's The Deal With Elves, Anyway?

If you're familiar with OD&D in general, you're familiar with the problem of how to handle elves and class that the LBBs present. If you're not familiar, it works like this: OD&D's Men & Magic states that
"[e]lves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game."
Different kind of elf problem
The imprecision of that sentence seems obvious to us gamers of today, but probably less so the two guys who were writing this stuff back in '73 or so. How do elves switch class? What changes? How do you track experience points for that? What does "during the course of a single game" mean? A game session? A whole adventure? What's the deal, Uncle Gary?

TCW takes a stab at solving this problem by looking at the stuff that seems to be a relative constant for all elves. While not all elves choose to spend a chunk of their time as both Fighting-Man and Magic-User, any elf is capable of functioning as either at more or less any time. And so, TCW unites both classes, Fighter and Magic User into one class, a racial class and, near as I can figure, the first one. In TCW, if you're saying "elf," you're describing both a class and race. Sound familiar?

In '77, Dr. Holmes's Basic D&D (obviously written to clarify OD&D) uses the same logic as that applied by TCW (that elves get to be both Fighers and Magic Users at the same time) and clarifies slightly what this means for experience points. Nevertheless, elf characters are always "elf Fighter/Magic Users" when they really could just be elves. In '78, Uncle Gary's brand-spankin' new Players' Handbook famously keeps the distinction between race & class, adding to this distinction by allowing elves to be of classes other than Fighters and Magic Users (and adding in the possibility of being merely one class, not necessarily two!).

In 1981, however, Tom Moldvay's new Basic takes a page from TCW and goes ahead and makes elf a class.

Fancy that.

While we're at it, says Mr. Moldvay, why not make dwarves into a class? What about halflings? Sure, it makes sense, and that's why TCW did it years before. TCW even allows for the possibility (per Greyhawk) of dwarven and elven Thieves (though not, for some reason, halfling Thieves), but here, they're treated as mutliclass characters (or "combination characters") although they're not given any sort of XP penalty for multiclassing in this way (see below).

All in all, TCW solves the "wtf is up with elves?" problem in an elegant way that worked so well that TSR itself ended up copying it a few years later.

Which Issue Has That Class In It Again?

One of the reasons, I firmly believe, that Warlock was written was to put all the necessary rules in one place. Before even Dragon magazine (sorry, "The Dragon") or White Dwarf, new classes, rules and monsters would show up in the pages of The Strategic Review, TSR's in-house newsletter. This is where the ranger first debuted, as did the illusionist. Until Greyhawk, one had to have a particular issue of yet another fanzine (the name of which escapes me) to have rules to play a Thief (or at least a Gygax-written Thief). And Paladins? They barely even get a write-up even when they finally show up in the pages of Greyhawk. Bards? Again, hidden away in The Strategic Review (and actually, the Bard that appears there is, I think, much cooler and more logical than the one in the 1e PHB).

And so, TCW endeavored to put all that stuff in one place and make it make sense. Experience tables for everyone! Ones that make more sense than those in the LBBs! It's fairly easy to see the appeal in this stuff for OD&D players. "How many XP does it take for my Fighting-Man to become a Swashbuckler from Hero? And how many Men and/or Heroes does he fight as? There was no class level nomenclature in the LBBs, and that could be confusing.

Other than elves and the other iterations of multiclassing demi-humans (let me just go on record for saying how much I dislike the term "demi-human"), it was pretty hard in OD&D to play any sort of character that combined the aspects of any two character classes. TCW presented options for players who thought of their human characters more as Fighter-Thieves or even Clerical-Magic Users. Or Clerical-Fighter-Thieves or even Quadruple-classed. It is notable that, much like in later forms of D&D (assuming these multiclass distinctions occurred in the original '75 version of the Warlock rules), multiclassing in TCW is reserved for the "core four" classes (Fighter, Cleric, Thief and Magic User) but not the subclasses like Assassin, Druid, Ranger or Paladin. Mainstream D&D/AD&D would steer clear of this concept for a long time; it wouldn't be until 3e that your human could be multiclass (and even then, it was the watered-down 3e version of multiclass).

It is interesting to note that in TCW, there is little to no penalty for multiclassing. You don't have to pay XP for each of your levels in each separate class, divvying it up between however-many totals you'd have, but rather accrue on one total amount. Rather than apply an XP tax, TCW instead rewards good rolling and places an Ability Score requirement: if you've got a 17 or better in the Prime Requisite for any class, you can multiclass into it. Thus, to multiclass at all, you'd have to have 17+ in two different scores. Not very likely. (And by the same token, if you're using TCW, you'd almost be taking a penalty if you had two 17+'s and you didn't multiclass.)

In many ways, the multiclass system in TCW feels like a "build your own class out of these building blocks ... if you're good enough" approach, which is fine. Not how I'd do it, but it's serviceable. The endeavor to put everything in one place and create a common intelligible common language and format for class information is really quite admirable, especially since TCW does so within the framework of OD&D, rather than try to turn it into something new, which makes much of the chapter feel a lot like Swords & Wizardry. Well, more like Swords & Wizardry's cool uncle that would buy him beer and smokes.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Warlock Week, Day One: How Complete Is The Complete Warlock Anyway?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of what's actually between the covers of Balboa's The Complete Warlock, let's set the stage so we can understand a bit about the climate that this game (or "D&D variant," as it claims to be) grew up and was published in. Set the wayback machine to 1974, folks.

Wrong sort of warlock
This year, what with D&D's 40th anniversary, there's a bunch of talk about 1974 and for good reason. But what we see as "the beginning of D&D" and understand as "the beginning of the RPG hobby proper" (no, I'm not discounting Braunstein, I'm just pretty sure it was never published), was, as an outcropping of the wargames hobby, immediately beset upon by players and DMs (or Judges or Referees or whatever they wanted to be called) who liked the idea of the rules, if not the rules themselves in the entirety. These hobbyists had probably previously been wargamers (since that's the niche that TSR was built to cater to), and wargamers were, at least at the time, perfectly at home modifying rule sets to suit their needs for more content and "improved realism."

I'd like to point out that at this time, there were even major differences in the ways that the game's two creators played D&D, which is a function of the fact that it was difficult for Uncle Gary and Uncle Dave to sit down at the same table and work on the rules together. Dave's version of D&D ("the Blackmoor game") was substantially different from D&D proper and, if anything, D&D proper can be said to be a variant of Blackmoor.

Right, so, once everybody got their grubby little mitts on D&D, everyone started chopping it to pieces to make it into the game they wanted it to be. Okay, maybe not everyone. I'm sure there were people playing it RAW as best they could (just as I'm sure there were people playing CHAINMAIL or Diplomacy or any number of other wargames RAW), but plenty of folks decided to make it their own. One such group was the Caltech Gamers, who decided to edit the rules for clarity and, in some cases, to make some substantial changes, some of which would have lasting consequences and reverberations that would echo down in later editions of D&D itself. In many ways, The Complete Warlock became a bellwether for clarity and concision in D&D that often goes unappreciated by modern D&D scholars because it didn't come from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

A "D&D Variant"

Nope, still not right
The Warlock rules were originally published in 1975 in a wargaming magazine called The Spartan. I'm not a wargames history buff, so I can't say I've ever read the original article. Since it was an article and not an entire book, however, I'm sure that it's safe to say that this version wasn't nearly as complete as The Complete Warlock and the differences between the two are what earned the book the title of Complete. Anyway, Warlock (we'll call the '75 version "Warlock" as opposed to The Complete Warlock) was published as a "D&D variant," as would the later Complete Warlock. On the first page of TCW, it states that, despite all of the changes that TCW makes to the D&D system, it should still be considered a D&D variant and you'll need a copy of D&D to play TCW.

By today's OGL and d20 system standards, this concept isn't that surprising. However, please consider the other "D&D variants" that were making the scene back then.

Chivalry & Sorcery (published 1977) started its existence as Chevalier, a D&D variant focusing on medieval realism. RuneQuest (published 1978) started a lot closer to D&D than it ended up and it took Jeff Perrin (author of the remarkably important Perrin Conventions for D&D play) to remove the more D&Dish elements from RQ (class, level, xp, etc.). Here's the thing, though: each of these games started their existence as a D&D variant but somewhere in their development changed to become a fully separate game. Hell, even Arduin eventually became its own system (though I'm pretty sure that was the result of Cease & Desist orders that TSR used to hand out like candy).
Are you even trying?

But throughout all that, The Complete Warlock always remained a D&D variant.

Just like the OSR-fueled D&D variants of today.

This is one reason why TCW is important and still relevant. There's a reason why I might want to play Weird Fantasy rather than straight up BX or BFRPG or S&W (Whitebox, Core or Complete, take your pick; and this is just an example) and that folks keep publishing their own D&D variants and retroclones. Not even 4e was immune. When we look at TCW, we're looking at how the folks at Caltech played D&D in the 70's and, despite its differences from D&D RAW, still called the game they were playing D&D. Just like we're still playing D&D when we play Weird Fantasy or Crypts & Things or Heroes Against Darkness. It's not better because it didn't become its own game, it's inspiring because it stayed true to its roots despite moving away from them.

Next time, we'll start looking at just how far The Complete Warlock strays from those roots.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Warlock "Week?"

Last month, I ran a series of posts about henchman I erroneously titled "Henchman Week." It was actually a very fun period and the amount that I had forced myself to write was really very useful, particularly going in to the very prolific writing period I find myself in. Yes, you're not seeing as much of it here, so I was hoping on forcing myself to do another "week" of posts on a particular topic.

This time around, I was thinking about doing a series of posts on the Complete Warlock. Not so much of a series of reviews, but a series of incisive looks at specific topics in Warlock and, from my perspective as someone who runs in and plays a lot of OD&D stuff and is enamoured of the Golden Age of wild and diverse house rules collections that comprised the OD&D era, I thought it might be fun to take a look at a book that many folks regard as an "often overlooked classic" and see why it's a classic.

All of this concept follows on the heels of my recently finally tracking down a (non-physical) copy of the Complete Warlock. I've been pouring through this pdf (along with a few other neat old school books of the same era and niche) and have been amazed what I've found. I see why it's a classic and even how much it helped shape later D&D. I sort of can't keep my hands off the thing right now, which feels slightly blasphemous in a very cool way.

And so, probably starting this next week (you know, the one beginning tomorrow), expect another "week's" worth of posts on the Complete Warlock and it's use. And by week, I mean "seven posts on the same topic that won't necessarily fall during the same calendar week."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Shout Out To ConTessa

I'm not an rpg news blogger, so I know that I'm not breaking any news if I talk about ConTessa. Nor if I mention that there's been some controversy and LOUD TYPING about the fact that its a lady-centric convention designed to encourage more ladies in gaming and game design and that that fact has nothing to do with men at all.

I'm not an rpg news blogger, so I won't bore you with those details or try to sway you to my line of thinking with more LOUD TYPING.

Instead, let me just say that I applaud +Stacy Dellorfano and the other ladies involved in making ConTessa happen and be a success. I agree that there need to be more women in gaming. I hope your con is a total success and I'd like to do something to help, so I've thought long and hard about what I can do.

Unlike the other gents who have concluded that they can do nothing to help, I decided I can, if only indirectly. I've decided that I want to see if I can encourage a lady gamer I know (or who reads my blog) to run something during ConTessa.

And so, +Wendy Murch+Jen Brinkman+Kathryn Muszkiewicz and every other lady gamer I know, I want to see you run something at ConTessa.

Maybe not this ConTessa, you might need more prep than that. Maybe next ConTessa. But some ConTessa.

Volunteer on their website: http://contessaonline.com.


Please note, this is not being posted as troll bait. I don't want to have an argument. Let's all be civil ladies and gentlemen in support of our fellow gamers regardless of gender.

Rock over London. Rock on Chicago. Wheaties, the breakfast of champions.

Quasquetherion No More. Arise Hyperbarbaria!

I've been dreading this post for a few reasons. (A) It might make me have to change some of the tags that I've been using here on the blog. (B) I might come terribly close to something that resembles making fun of some sacred cows that I actually really love (and, if anything, this is my own bizarre twist on them). And (C), I might wax a little pretentious here, but not in the "I'm such a snob, here are some snobby things I like to talk and think about" way, more in the "I don't really have other ways to describe this particular thing, so please forgive me for using them to discuss an aesthetic, in fact, while you're at it, please forgive me for discussing an aesthetic" way. I hope you got all that.

Here's the thing: It's not just Quasquetherion anymore.

Sure, Quasquetherion was a great place to start and in many ways its still the focus of the campaign, at least this far, but I've had to answer enough of my questions about what surrounds the area, why this thing is occurring, why that thing, that it's naturally evolved past just the one dungeon, you know, like it does. The players deserved some understanding of the wilderness that they were trudging through on their way to and from the dungeon, if only to explain the occasional random encounter or why Quasquetherion hadn't been found despite it only being a five-hour hike from the nearby fort (or keep; you know, of the sort you find on the borderlands).

Plus, what about those barbarians that Zonn the Mind-Breaker and Harrowvar the Ironic went off to fight? What about them? Are they still a thing or what?

So, yes, it's moved from being a one-dungeon setting to a setting that has a wilderness (of sorts) to explore and characters who aren't just in the dungeon when they're on-screen.

(Side note: Amazing, isn't it, how when you let a game evolve naturally from "lets roll some dice and kill some monsters in a dungeon," it naturally ends up as "what's over that next hill and can we kill it and take its stuff?" That whole Basic to Expert transition isn't as artificial as Advanced editions like to make us think.)

Influences And Aesthetic

Since I wanted to give the kids (sorry, the "new to old school" gamers, but seriously, I get to call anyone younger than my wife a kid, I figure) a very authentic look into the origins of the hobby, the climate of give and take, sharing ideas and concepts from one gaming group to another, it's only natural that I draw a bunch of inspiration from the traditionally non-traditional early D&D campaigns. Blackmoor, Arduin, the worlds of the Complete Warlock and the Necronomican/Booty and the Beasts. These would be my guides. Weird. Wild. Fun.

Ah, who am I kidding. I'm not going to list every possible influence because then I'd be rambling on for page after page of tiny influence after tiny influence. Here are the broad strokes: comics, Moorcock, doom metal, CA Smith, Twin Peaks, Lovecraft, RE Howard, Italian splatterpunk, Sumerian mythology, Zontar of Venus (check that shit out if you don't know about it), Sword & Sorcery in general, Heavy Metal (the music & the mag), Jack Kirby and existentialist philosophy.

That last one caught you up, didn't it? Well, here's the thing: I've been spending a lot of time trying to nail down exactly how I would describe my own aesthetic because... because it can be damned hard to explain a thing unless you've got a name for it. Sometimes, it can be easier to explain how a thing works if you've bothered to figure out what it should be called, if only because you've had to sort out how the facts about the thing contribute to its name. And thus, I've given my particular aesthetic the name "phenomenological cosmicism," in that it's focused on the experience of the bizarre and unhinging elements (that's the phenomenology part) that communicate man's overall insignificance on a cosmic scale (that's the cosmicism part). If things are just plain strange enough, my mind seems to tell me, players will feel a connection to it in an attempt to wrap their heads around it, which is especially excellent if it leads them to an understanding of their own cosmic import: not much. Bundle that with a focus on some identity theory and theory of mind and self-determination and you've got my philosophy on gaming: make it weird, make the weird count, and make things sufficiently strange and just at the point where the disconnection between logic and game events occur, the good stuff rises to the top.

Sometimes, this aesthetic doesn't jibe well with some players. Most players, though, seem to enjoy it, at least enough to keep coming back for more. Sure, I've had a player tell me that my games gave him nightmares, but he said it with a smile on his face. He was seriously excited that he had had a game experience so intense that it followed him to bed. Not every session is that big, and most aren't, but that's the sort of damage I go for.

Why Hyperbarbaria?

Yes, the play on words is obvious. I don't feel I'm terribly clever for it. Remember that part earlier where I said if I can name it, it helps me figure out what's important enough to influence the naming? Yup.

So yeah, Hyperborea meets Korgoth of Barbaria. That's where we'll start.

We'll take some oddities that I've always enjoyed from Blackmoor (the mountain that fell from the sky, but this one didn't drop magic everywhere like Uncle Dave's did, it did other stuff, that sort of thing) and add some of the West Coast weird (Hargrave, Otus, etc.). Stay Swords & Sorcery rather than go the pseudo-medievalist or genre-D&D route. We'll throw in some Old Ones as... well, themselves. Arise, Tsathoggua! Reskin some tweaky freak out Twin Peaks strangeness in the form of Cthulhu Mythos creatures dressed up in different clothes (yep, that's a re-clothing of reskinned stuff). A dash of Silent Hill? Don't mind if I do.

Still not enough? Wait! There's more!

Hyperbarbaria, the "land beyond the land of barbarians," lies in relative close proximity to the Dreaming Dimension and passing from one to the other is easier here than elsewhere (thus allowing all sorts of weirdness to foment on both sides of the wall of sleep). The journey from dream to waking world and back again is dangerous, though, as the cancerous nightmare of Carcosa attempts to assert itself by clinging desperately to reality, swelling tumorously with the poison of every mortal's bad dreams.

It is on a stark borderland here that a small keep stands as bulwark against the mad wild men infected with Chaos and black magic who dwell at the end of the world. Here, where intrepid adventurers seek the plunder of forgotten ages that were scoured from the world by the corrupt scourge that is the wild men.

Man, this is really sounding bleak, isn't it?

Let's lighten the mood a bit with zombie animals, rat things (completely different and distinct from vermen), mad cannibal haflings dressed in costumes for human children, srange mutli-hued NPCs that are remarkably similar to characters from my favorite films (I do a mean Sydney Greenstreet) and my reliance on the theme song and imagery from the 1968 classic, The Green Slime. Why yes, my green slimes do have a single giant red eye and sparklers at the end of their tentacles. So yes, I do have my own sort of whimsy that I'll gladly add to the mix; it can't all be David-Bowie-in-Fire-Walk-With-Me-grade freak out all the time.

Put some Sleep or Electric Wizard on the record player, pour a glass of whiskey and let's get into the dungeon!