Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ability Scores

Look at just about any RPG and you'll see little variations of what are essentially the same stats defined by Gygax and Arneson in the original Men & Magic book. This set of abilities has not been improved upon by any other roleplaying game. DC Heroes came close with its 3×3 grid of physical, mental and mystical/social character stats that expressed precision, force, and resilience in each area. Which was clever and novel, but really so specific to the DC universe it wasn't widely adapted to other genres, though the idea of each number being twice the power of the previous number so as to accommodate a game with characters as diverse in strength as Robin and Superman is an admirable design feature.

Taking a look at the wording on pages 10 & 11 of Men & Magic it is really quirky and awkward. First of all the order of the stats is random: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, & Charisma. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this order. It's not alphabetical. Not grouped in any meaningful way like physical/mental, or in order of importance.

Greyhawk mixes it up even more randomly: Str, Int, Dex, Wis, Chr, Con. Blackmoor doesn't really discuss abilities, and Eldritch Wizardry only touches on Dexterity with a lengthy addition to its effects in the game.

It is funny that this order remained like this and carried all the way through to 1st edition with one weird difference: Constitution and Dexterity are swapped. Why? Oh, just because. This little change seems to have first appeared in the Blue Holmes basic edition.

At least in 2nd edition an attempt was made to organize them by physical and mental stats: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Chr, but strangely still not alphabetical. You can still see the original order lurking in there. All recent editions keep this odd order. Shouldn't it be: Con, Dex, Str and Chr, Int, Wis? Or even better with mental first and then physical (M before P). This is mostly cosmetic and doesn't affect the game however it is just another example of the chaotic roots of the rules and as much as things have been polished and organized these little artifacts still linger.

Here's a little chart to make it easier to see:

OriginalGreyhawkBasic2nd +Suggested

What is perhaps most interesting about reading the ability descriptions in M&M (Men & Magic) is how little useful game information is really given. Their primary purpose seems to be to provide bonuses to XP for class prime requisites. Beyond that only cursory and vague game information is provided.

Strength. Does any RPG not use the term strength? Grab any random rulebook, I happen to have Symbaroum at my desk. Alright it uses "Strong" not "Strength", but basically the same word. Runequest uses it. Even GURPS with all its effort in making everything advantages, disadvantages, and skills uses Strength.

Intelligence. Alright, GURPS uses IQ which I always thought sounded a little lame, but nearly every RPG has a version of this stat. In Men & Magic a lot of leeway is given to the DM to adjudicate the player's use of this stat. If a player wants to do something clever the DM can just say his character is too dumb to think of doing that, sorry tough luck!

Wisdom. This is expressed in a lot of different terms in various RPGs, but really what word is better than Wisdom to describe this ability? In M&M Wisdom doesn't seem to do much of anything though, the book basically says its the same as Intelligence.

Constitution. Of all the terms this one is probably the least used in other RPGs. Usually something like Stamina or Endurance or Health. I have to say this is my least favorite of the ability names and I was very confused when I first encountered the game. I thought the player had to write up a constitution for the character that represented his fundamental principles! Hah, how silly I felt upon learning it meant the character's health stat and was just another number. In M&M this stat is given some meaty useful game purposes: bonus hit points and resistance to paralyzation and petrification.

Dexterity. A good enough term. I might prefer Agility, but no qualms here. This is certainly one of the most basic stats that all games use. This provides a lot of oomph to a character and especially with Eldritch Wizardry is expanded into the most useful ability. Perhaps overpowered even. Hard to not make this overly useful and balanced with the other stats.

Charisma. Ah, the classic "dump" stat. I suspect in the early days this might have actually been one of the most useful ones as you could use it to recruit lots of hirelings and henchmen in the exceedingly high casualty games of the day. This one is also the most controversial. Does it represent physical beauty as well as force of personality? M&M certainly indicates that, but it becomes problematic because those are two very different things with sometimes related but mostly disparate effects. The addition of Comeliness (what an awful term!) in Unearthed Arcana tried to fix it, but was a disaster in terms of usefulness in an actual game that only served to show how well constructed the original list of six abilities actually was. Physical appearance is better expressed as an advantage/disadvantage not an ability stat all of its own.

In conclusion, not my most useful post here, but I've had these thoughts bouncing around in my head for a while and I needed to get them written down. I think the original six stats from the original rulebook are one of the best and most enduring elements of the game and I can't think of any RPG that does it better. While I've played a lot of RPGs my experience isn't comprehensive as I'm sure few people have played every RPG ever made, would that even be possible? Let me know what you think in the comments below or in discussions on G+.

ps. I did mean to mention the Size stat in Runequest which I always felt was clever and a much better solution to the Size relationship problem in combat. Early editions of D&D tended to complicate this with different damage values depending on small or large targets. Later editions have cleaned it up significantly, but still isn't the most elegant game mechanic. You could argue this is one improvement over the original six stats.

pps. The most obvious order for stats is just straight up alphabetical, because there isn't really any game mechanics associated with organizing them by mental and physical stats. So: Chr, Con, Dex, Int, Str, Wis.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Beastie of the Week: Torchiere Corpse

Torchiere Corpse
HD 4
AC 18
Atk ML 1d6, RNG 1d4
Save 13
Move 12
CL/XP 6/400
Special: infernal radiance, rage, life drain, random multiple attacks

The torchiere corpse is an ultra rare and unusual undead creature that can only be created under bizarre circumstances.

When the freshly deposed bodies of giants are partially cremated and when the currents of magic are strong, deep, and dark, a torchiere corpse might be formed. If the soil is cursed, the night sky is moonless, and rotting flesh of an once animated carcass is sprinkled on a potential torchiere corpse, a torchiere corpse might be formed on a roll of 1 on d100.

In this case evil bodiless souls in search of flesh to inhabit can form the ashes into a monstrous giant beast. The souls will vie for their piece of the undead creature and a flaming hot conglomeration of giant body parts will arise hungry and full of rage.

Infernal radiance: a torchiere corpse continually radiates an unbearable heat in a 30' radius. The closer one gets the more unbearable the heat is. Save each turn or take 1hp damage within 20' and 2hp per turn within 10'.

Rage: once a torchiere corpse is attacked it may become enraged and have +1 to hit on all attacks.

Life Drain: on a successful hit the victim must Save or take an additional 1hp damage, this confers 1hp of healing to the torchiere corpse.

Random Multiple Attacks: each turn the torchiere corpse gets an additional 1d4 melee attacks as various souls vie for control of the conglomeration of body parts to attack with.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Old-School Character Sheet

I've been looking at a lot of character sheets lately, and had this idea for a layout based more on rows rather than columns like most character sheets are. It's not amazing or particularly innovative, but I like the legibility of reading ability scores across the rows rather than down columns. This also allowed for grouping all the essential combat stats across right below them.

Please feel free to download it and test it out. If I get some useful feedback I can make some modifications if called for.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Raiders of the Lost Artifacts Review

A typo and misspelled words filled review, but some very good points are made and it is overall positive. The point is, if you love (or just like) the pulp genre then Raiders is an excellent addition to your game library. For game masters who don't mind making occasional rules calls (it is OSR after all!) you should enjoy it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Barsoom: Beyond Imagination

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. has a Vimeo channel. Who knew?

I've often wondered what the ERB, Inc. company was up to. They never seemed to be doing much with the fantastic library of imaginative works that Edgar Rice Burroughs created throughout his career. It seemed like such a wasted opportunity while everyone else kept mining Burrough's ideas for gold and turning it into Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Avatar, and uncountable other movies, novels, and comic books.

Many of ERB's books are in the Public Domain, it would be interesting to see more done with those books. We see countless takes on Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, as well as Dracula, Frankenstein, and so on every year.

This video that ERB, Inc. just posted gives a bit of an overview of the first three Mars books which form the John Carter trilogy. Lots of great art and some history of Barsoom.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sigil: The City of Doors

Planescape came out at the time I was taking a hiatus from D&D because second edition had turned me off, and I'd migrated to playing GURPS and other RPGs. During this period David "Zeb" Cook took the concepts of Outer Planes from the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide and did what the Manual of the Planes should have: turned it into one of the greatest settings of all time.

I didn't discover this until years later when I picked up the Planescape boxed set at a garage sale around the time that Planescape Torment, a computer roleplaying game, came out. So it must have been around 2000. Torment was one of the best CRPGs in its day.

I haven't played the Planescape setting at the gaming table as much as I'd like. A few short sessions, but I never really got a gaming group that wanted to play a campaign. However I have enjoyed reading those books, and will always have fond memories of playing Torment. Also, a lot of the art and design is really interesting and different.

Legend goes that the symbol for Planescape: a female face surrounded by blades called "the Lady of Pain" is a representation of Lorraine Williams. Because everyone loved working with her so much?

One of the most compelling concepts in Planescape is the city of Sigil. This city was set in the middle of the Concordant Opposition and was a meeting place for all kinds of extra-planar beings. What made this so compelling was that the city was full of doors that lead to other planes. You can see from a gaming perspective what an awesome idea that is, as well as a logical feature that fits in nicely with the entire idea of the setting. Too bad Planescape hadn't come into being much sooner, well if Manual of the Plans had been this we'd have a lot more fond memories of that book and the setting may have become as large as Forgotten Realms. But, by the time it came out there were a lot of distractions for the gaming market with everything from dozens of popular role-playing games, computer games were on the rise, as well as the release of Magic: the Gathering which changed everything.

On the Russian blog Nether-Whisper there is an interactive map of Sigil that is very well done. You can explore the city in detail. If you're playing a Planescape campaign I could see this as a valuable tool to enhance the game.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Resurgence of D&D

Not only are us old fans experiencing a reignited love for the game we played in the 70's and 80's, but new generations are discovering just how great this game is. And it is resonating in very interesting ways, perhaps people tired of staring at screens are wanting to socialize in person. It seems everywhere you look these days D&D is being mentioned as part of the fabric of popular culture.

Dungeons and Dragons featured in an article in the New Yorker? And not in a snarky ironic way, but a sincerely complimentary piece.

"Dungeons & Dragons nights have spread into classrooms and game stores across the country. Forty dollars in Portland, Oregon, gets you into Orcs! Orcs! Orcs!, a “Tavern-inspired” pop-up restaurant with D. & D. games and artisanal delicacies."
You can see the full article here, its not a bad read: