Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.

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Sandboxes?

I came across a bizarre article by DM David yesterday on Sandboxes with the click-baity title “Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think.” His article uses an idea of a sandbox in a way that no DMs I’ve ever played with or who have written on the subject have used the term.

David seems to be using it to describe some sort of absolute free-for-all, nothing planned, no direction to go, the DM just runs with whatever the players decide to do at that moment. It’s nuts, so of course that notion of a sandbox doesn’t work and is not what players really want.

“Sandbox” in every case I’ve seen it used has meant a gaming environment populated with multiple locations to interact with and explore, as opposed to “Here is a dungeon; you are going to explore this dungeon; here is a town; when you’re not in the dungeon, you’re at the town.” The sandbox is typically full of toys; you can play in it and you play with the toys that are there. Sometimes you get more toys, which is always cool, or maybe you find a toy that was hidden under some sand.

Just because players enjoy exploring dungeons doesn’t mean that they’re not in a sandbox game or that they don’t enjoy sandboxing!

Yet David oddly seems to imply that there is some kind of ‘pure’ Sandbox that is devoid of adventure hooks for players to choose from.

sandbox

“Herpty, derp, you put a castle to be explored in your sandbox? Looks like you’re going back towards the rails, friend!”

While there is some sound advice for open-world gaming in David’s post, it’s all derived from attacking a strawman notion of Sandbox gaming that doesn’t exist.

“I think seeding your sandbox with locations for PCs to explore may be pushing your story too hard!” said no ‘railroad-phobic’ player ever.

A sandbox may not have rails, but it has boundaries and things to do; David’s notion of a sandbox sounds more like a desert.

Anyway, ChicagoWiz has also written an interesting rebuttal to David’s piece.

Stardock and the Challenge of Running a Mountain Climbing Adventure

Stardock1I’ve been reading Fritz Leiber’s Stardock, a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story that mostly involves climbing up a big-ass mountain, and it’s got me thinking…

A lot of adventure fiction involves far more to it than easily modeled practical puzzles and combat; getting from point A to point B and traversing the obstacles in between makes up a good chunk of it. Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest to model in game.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser don’t have near the trouble fighting bandits, thieves, and evil priests, pilfering ruined castles and temples, or escaping from the clutches of evil wizards as they do spending several days climbing up an almost sheer granite cliff-face, carving out foot and hand-holds with an ax, using grapnels, pikes, and pitons to climb around lips and overhanging boulders, and trying not to starve or die of exposure. Even without the ethereal fire princesses haunting them, mountain goats stampeding at them, invisible manta-ray riders hounding them, furry dragons harrying them, rival adventurers taking the occasional pot-shot at them, the duo have their work cut out for them just getting to the top.

The problem is, if you’re wanting to model an adventure after any of those “man against the elements” type stories, you’ll have your work cut out for you too. Overland travel is often one of the most hand-waved elements of Dungeons & Dragons; it’s hard to make it gameable. Rules exist for getting lost, determining weather and possibly even contracting disease, but getting lost screws up mapping (something DMs are loathe to do to their players, as mapping is challenging enough as it is sometimes), weather is window-dressing, and saving throws to not get sick aren’t much fun (and they’re a passive mechanic).

Outdoor Survival offers some excellent mechanics to mini-game overland travel, and it’s obvious why it would be used as core component of the original D&D system, but it offers little for the sort of adventure that involves a lot of climbing.

Thieves in D&D have some pretty impressive cooked in mechanics for scaling sheer surfaces that may be as much from Fafhrd & Mouser as they are from Jack of Shadows; if a thief can only use their thief skills with thief tools, could those thief tools include climbing instruments? Fafhrd & Mouser have some impressive gadgets they use which, while they don’t make the climb ‘easier’, make the climb at least possible.

So, you want to have an adventure with treasure on top of a mountain that players will have to climb, you want the challenge of climbing the mountain to be a significant part of the adventure, and you don’t want the climb to be just a series of rolls and skill checks.

This will probably take a lot of planning, because to make the climb gameable, you’ll have create unique challenges for the climb, and some of them probably WILL inevitably involve skill or stat checks.

You’ll want to do some research on equipment and specify what the players will have available to them, and possibly give them instruction on how to use it; if they know what it’s for, they’ll have a better shot at solving puzzles with them.

For instances where you DO need to rely on skill checks, have the result lead to a new situation that can be dealt with via problem solving; a gust of wind or a slipped hold might not result in the whole party falling off the mountain right away, but someone might come loose and need to be pulled up by others, or if someone ends up suspended free, they’ll have to figure out how to swing back to the cliff face and get hold.

Because it’s D&D, you’re probably going to want to break up the climbing with encounters; or even throw in some encounters during the climb. Having to fight off some bird or while clinging to a rock-face could create some unique challenges for players. But it’s likely to be lethal. This is the sort of adventure that has TPK written all over it; wrong moves mean death, characters can only carry with them the absolute essentials, and there’s no reward for making it part-way, so be sure that whatever you put on top of that mountain is damn well worth it.

Suggestions:

  • Do some equipment research; come up with some reasonable tools for the players to use plus some stuff that they can come up with their own tricks with.
  • Create several specific challenges and mechanics to adjudicate them, including set-pieces challenges, encounters, and general progress challenges.
  • Create general and specific weather effects: what will gusts of wind do to the climbers? How will snow affect climbing? How will you handle things like fatigue and exposure?
  • Plot out your mountain; the ascent will be a chain of the challenges you create. To make things more interesting, offer multiple paths that branch between tiers, allowing players more agency over their ascent. Perhaps one ascent will appear more straight-forward but passes by the lair of a monster, while another ascent avoids it entirely but requires climbing up an overhanging lip.
  • Be sure to give your players a few things to do and look at on the way up; a monster lair to explore or just a spot to set-up camp and recover (perfect for a spooky night encounter). And remember how I said there was no reward for making it part-way? If the players end up not wanting to throw their characters away, there might be some value at least in hunting beasts living in crevasses in the mountain; it is D&D, after all. Still, the real goal should be the summit.

obelisk Polaris.jpg

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).

DH61OydXkAAqWrC

*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.

Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!

Alignment Part 3: Some Examples!

Part 1

Part 2

From the comments the other day:

I’m baffled.
Baffled by living in a world where people can’t figure out what words like ‘good’ and ‘chaotic’ mean and act like it is some obscure mystery.

You know, this is interesting, because in the first part of my explanation, I pretty much state that a major reason that Alignment doesn’t work is because people don’t understand what “good” and “chaotic” mean. The relativist approach means that someone can be playing as a demon whose very existence is a blasphemy upon creation and the laws of nature, but because the player wants the demon to be a “nice guy” or within the confines of his demonic culture he is an upstanding citizen, the player is able to declare for Lawful or Neutral Good, and then the rest of the group wonders why Alignment doesn’t matter at their table.

People DON’T understand the Law/Chaos spectrum any more than they understand the Good/Evil spectrum. For instance, many people think of Chaotic Good as the either the guy who does some good but is inherently selfish or someone who tries to do good but breaks laws while doing so. A lot of people would give Robin Hood as an example of Chaotic Good, but they’d be wrong, and here’s why:

While Robin Hood lived in the wilds and opposed King John and the Sheriff, he was not doing so from an angle meant to upset Nature’s law and/or the will of the heavens. On the contrary, he understood the natural and divinely bestowed rights of Man and fought against a power that was usurping them. Additionally, the power he opposed (John and the Sheriff) are portrayed as being in opposition to the rightful rule of King Richard – in this sense, Robin has positioned himself as an agent of the legitimate and rightful law that is respectful of the rights of man, acting on behalf of Richard, the true authority. Though certain trickster elements are incorporated, the classic portrayal of Robin Hood throughout many iterations in the 19th and 20th century* would be Lawful Good.

So, what would be Chaotic Good? One of the most remarkable literary examples in fantasy would be Tom Bombadil. He is good and beneficent, but he is outside the realm of Nature and Nature’s law. He is unaffected by the magic of the Maiar; in fact, he is so far outside of the scope of the strugle that Middle Earth is going through, it’s acknowledged by the characters in the book that it would be irresponsible to rely on him – though he’s unaffected by the Ring’s power and evil, he’d probably forget about it!

Melkor would be Chaotic Evil, because his modus operandi was the corruption of creation; everything related to him is described in terms of perversion and marring the true and good intentions of benevolent creators. As an agent of perversion, the more he took on a fixed, absolute, corporeal form with which to rule over his Earthly domain, the weaker he became.

Sauron, as a created being within nature (one of the fallen Maiar) adheres to the laws of creation set forth by the Gods (it’s one of the reasons why he is so vulnerable), and though he wields great power and is able to use that power to corrupt the minds of his foes and cast a shadow over the land, he is still within the sphere of Law. Yes, the struggle in Middle Earth during the 3rd Age is between Lawful Good and Lawful Evil, with Lawful Neutral free people and Neutral Good elder races throwing in with LG against Lawful Evil.

Okay, let’s break away from Lord of the Rings for a minute.

I think that one of the best examples of a True Neutral character might be Garrett from the Thief games.

“But he steals things!” you say; “He’s a law-breaker!” you say; “He may save the world, but he’s probably a bad guy! He’s Chaotic Neutral at best!” you say.

All right, those things are all true, but you need to look at the bigger picture.

While Garrett is a Thief who steals things and breaks the law, he is not a wholly evil person. Assuming that Expert is the canonical way in which Garrett completes the missions, it’s clear that he has a code, part of which is to avoid killing at all costs. There is, if my memory serves, only one mission in which Garrett is allowed to kill his fellow man, and that’s because of an oversight in updating the goals for a mission that did not originally feature human opponents (the magi in the Gold version of The Lost City).

In Thief’s cosmology, there is a conflict between Law, as embodied by the Hammers, and Chaos, as embodied by the Pagans and Fae.** The Hammers aren’t the nicest dudes, in part because from a thief’s perspective, they crack down and crack down hard on criminality; while the current crop of Hammers may seem unnecessarily cruel, their order and the God they serve ultimately fall into the schema of Lawful Good. The Fae who are worshiped by the Pagans are inimical to human life (as it is currently being lived), and the Woodsy Lord is intent on pushing man back into a primeval state. His domain is the Maw of Chaos, so it’s right there in the name.

Someone pointed out in the comments on the previous post that Planes can shift in the relationship to alignment as their leaders change, and we see something of that in Thief 2 with Victoria. Constantine is the sworn foe of the Builder and stands against everything they represent; he is Chaotic Evil in Thief’s cosmology. Victoria, on the other hand, is more pragmatic; I’d place her as Chaotic Neutral – while acting as Constantine’s second, she will have his back, but on her own, her primary concern is not a victory of Evil over Good but preserving Chaos against an encroaching order of Law. Even Garrett notices that the nature of the Maw has changed subtly under her. Neutral Good characters like Lt. Mosley are aiming to find some sort of middle ground between the “Chaos” of the pagans and fae and the Law of the Mechanists.

So Garrett’s place in the “prophecies” is as a balancing agent; when the pendulum swings towards Chaos in Thief: the Dark Project, he ends up finding himself allied with Law via the Hammerites who aid him in sealing the Maw of Chaos. In Thief 2: The Metal Age, the pendulum has swung back the other way, too far in the favor of Law, so he becomes an ally of Chaos to fight against the Mechanist takeover of the city. He is not in those positions because he is a nice guy or a bad guy, but because it is his destiny to act as an agent of balance in the greater cosmic struggle around him.

 

*:Earliest incarnations of Robin Hood which do not incorporate much of the now established lore would be closer to Neutral Good or Lawful Neutral, depending on the telling; before the notion that Robin Hood was stealing money from nobles and returning it to the unjustly taxed, most folks were happy with a Robin who was stealing from nobles because fuck the nobility; with nobles as pieces of a framework of divinely ordained Law, such a Robin would be slightly more chaotic, since he was acting against the natural order of things (divinely righted stripped of their rightful treasures) – when the definition of the order which Robin was opposing changed, along with his reasons for opposing it, the character became Lawful Good.

**:Note that Nature in Thief’s cosmology is depicted as chaos/chaotic as opposed to the mechanical order believed to be set upon the universe by the Master Builder.